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City Park, New Orleans

Recovery with a Vengeance

City Park’s joyful return

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I walk in City Park with two women my age, friends I made during our evacuation to Houston after New Orleans filled with water. We lived in the same complex with our sons for their fall semester of high school, while our husbands stayed back to work.

Evelyn and Joyce have dogs they walk: Trudy and Walter. I don’t because our chocolate lab died last year from a bad heart, although the pain in his hips is why we put him down. He’d started stumbling, but he’d be so quick to pop up—like he didn’t want me to notice—that I played along.

City Park’s managing nicely, considering it sat in standing, filthy water for three weeks. After Katrina, church groups in neon T-shirts came from all parts to pick up limbs, skim the beer cans and plastic Sav-A-Center bags and Popeyes chicken bones out of the lagoons. This year, the camellias and pink oleander and magnolias are blooming with a vengeance.

“There are more waterfowl than ever,” I say. “I checked City Park’s website. Two hundred and eighty kinds of birds.”

“Who keeps track?” Joyce asks. She’s tall with zero body fat, a bridge player with shaggy blonde hair, and her brain moves quick.

“Birders,” I say. “They count every little thing.”

On an island in one of the bayous, two perfectly matched white swans have been constructing a giant nest out of branches and giant fronds and . . . lumber?

“Looks heavy to carry by beak,” I say.

“I wonder if there’s copper pipe in there,” Joyce says. The criminal courts are clogged with people caught stealing building materials. Copper’s the new gold. I’m a volunteer courtwatcher down on Broad and Tulane, so I see the cases and plea bargains, hear the lies.

“That nest has gotten huge,” Evelyn says, dragging the adjective through three syllables. She’s from the Delta, so her accent is super-sized. In Houston, she’d slow-cook yard-long racks of smoky ribs for our boys, throw together delicious, cheesy casseroles. Ro-Tel is her secret weapon.

“How big are swan eggs?” I ask. The mother used to sit on the nest, but now it’s over three feet high and unwieldy. She’s standing close by, unless that’s the dad guarding. You can’t tell sex in waterfowl. Maybe if you tip them upside down, but these birds are territorial. Last week, a goose had charged us until Joyce ran toward it and called his or her bluff.

But on our next walk, the swans aren’t by the nest, which isn’t as big. It’s been deconstructed.

“They couldn’t have hatched that fast,” I say.

“Fucking nutria,” Joyce says.

Last week, we’d seen one stealthing through the bayou, the top of his sleek, oily head breaking the water’s surface.

Our sons are in college now and we talk about them. Their classes, their grades, their drinking. All of our sons drink, and none of us knows how to turn back that tide, so we ask them a hundred questions and snoop and pray. They played soccer, so we talk about soccer. And about their girlfriends and the sex we know they’re having and pretend not to condone, because how well we remember. Sometimes we talk about hot flashes and eye creams and diets.

“Calories in, calories out,” Evelyn says. “That’s all you need to know.”

“This walk right here erases the chocolate pudding last night,” I say. I don’t eat breakfast before we go so that I can start my day with a deficit. There’s a strong breeze from the South and petals are flying off flowering trees. We can smell the briny Gulf of Mexico. Dozens of new seedlings have been planted and braced so they can set roots. There are orange and lemon trees, dogwoods, weeping willows, and unrecognizable, fragile stick trees you might give up on until they bud. Audubon Park used to get the attention, but City Park’s spruced up and all promise. Covering thirteen hundred acres in Mid City, this has become everyone’s park.

“Are you courtwatching?” Evelyn asks me. Recently, I’d monitored a murder trial that lasted two days before the jury found the defendant guilty. Alvin Williams had gunned down a man at eleven A.M. over a drug debt.  He’d chased the victim and then executed him in a busy intersection. The two witnesses who put him away had known Alvin since he was a baby. On the way home from court, I’d driven by and picked out landmarks from the crime-scene photos. Alvin’s neighbors sat on their stoops, watching kids play on narrow strips of lawn.

A commotion is going on near the Peristyle. Squaking and the sound of beating feathers. A duck is holding down the neck of another duck while a third duck tries to mount her from the back.

Joyce and Walter stop. “We should break it up,” she says. But the three of us are too stunned. A male duck can’t procreate without getting his gang-banger friend to help?

“I’m going to have trouble forgetting that, “ I say.

Evelyn had seen a similar thing in her backyard with a goose she’d been feeding named Bess, but only two birds were involved. “I clapped my hands to make them stop,” she said.

Joyce works with victims of sexual abuse, incest, domestic violence. “That’s wrong,” she says, scratching her head with both hands. “That can’t be nature.”

Evelyn’s goose had laid a light pink egg, but her dog, Trudy, ate it and left pieces of shell near the back door.

“Not good,” I say.

“She’s a retriever,” Evelyn says, quick to soothe over bad behavior, although she’d mow down anyone who tried to hurt her family.

A woman in headphones passes by with four squeaking schnauzers on pastel leashes. Trudy lunges and Evelyn reins her in with both hands. Trudy’s the alpha dog until thunder or the noise of heavy equipment, and then she freezes. Walter’s a border collie and all he wants is to keep us in front. My dog used to walk on my left, stopping at other dogs to greet and sniff. My hands without him feel empty.

I tell them my son’s broken up with his high-school girlfriend because they go to other colleges. “‘You’ll always be my first love,’ he told her.”

Joyce says, “Notice the past tense.”

There’s so much to watch. Along the lagoon, purple iris bursts out of elegant green blades. Blue heron high-step through shallow water. Clunky brown pelicans dive for surprised fish without breaking their necks. The tops of live oaks that survived the Civil War, Hurricane Betsy, and Katrina’s broken levees are loaded down with pollen and fresh leaves. They absorbed the water they needed and waited for the city to drain. A magnificent red-tailed hawk that used to swoop in and land on a dead branch hasn’t returned because the limb’s been pruned. The park’s a metaphor mall for recovery and resilience and relocation and every other re-word.

We wait while Walter sniffs out a spot and pees. Trudy leans against Evelyn’s leg.

Mallard and green-winged teals float by in sync. We stay on the lookout for baby ducks. Last spring, we followed a mother and her six until the chicks got too big to distinguish from the grown-up.

Read more from our Summer 2010 issue.

Pia Z. Ehrhardt

Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, VQR, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in New Orleans.