By Angela Johnson
When Alma Leblanc looked out the window of the office building at the shadows beginning to fall across the downtown street, she knew that she was late. She had been so busy organizing and hanging the paintings that the bank had commissioned that she didn’t realize it was after 7 o’clock. She looked around at the interior of the high-rise lobby and smiled. This art display was the largest commission she’d had since she had started taking art classes.
Alma was 28 and happier than she had been in a long time. After getting out of an unhappy teenage marriage, she had gone to take care of her nephew, Cameron who was living with his guardian, Gerard Wright. She could hardly believe she had been there for almost eight years. Helping provide a stable home for Cameron had been the priority when he was six, but as he had grown up and began to recover from the abuse he had suffered, she had been able to focus more of her time on her own pursuits.
Artistic interests must run in their family, she thought as she packed up her brown leather messenger bag. Her nephew was a child prodigy at the piano, her sister had had a hauntingly beautiful singing voice, and she loved to paint. Before she had taken her first class, one of Gerard’s colleagues at the orchestra had asked to buy one of her sketches.
Gerard was the music director of the New Orleans Symphony. Alma had not known much about classical music before meeting Gerard, but she discovered that she liked it as much as jazz or R&B. The music director had promised Cameron’s mother, her sister, that he would look after Cameron when she’d been taken into custody for killing her husband. They had all expected her to be home soon, but things had not worked out.
Eight years ago, Alma had moved into Gerard’s mansion off St. Charles at the same time Cameron had. She had figured things out pretty quickly. Gerard was a nice man who had gotten in a little over his head. He didn’t even have any kids of his own or interact with children on a regular basis. He told her he was glad to have her move in as well and be something of a companion to her little nephew.
When Alma was satisfied with the position and lighting of the four paintings the bank was showing, she gathered up her things washed her hands and rushed towards the front exit. The security staff was waiting casually at the front. The day crew had already left for the day.
“All done for the day?” A young woman with a warm smile asked as she walked towards the door. Her name tag on her guard uniform read “LeClair”.
“Yes, I think I have everything looking just right. I didn’t realize it had gotten so late though. I think I’ve missed my streetcar.”
“I just saw the 6:50 go by. You could wait for the 7:15.” Ms. LeClair said.
“I’ll just walk over to Carondolet Street and catch it there.” Alma glanced up at the giant white clock on the wall of the skyscraper. “I think I can make it.”
“Okay, have a good evening. If you miss it and want to wait inside, just come back. I’ll wait around up here for a while and let you in. The business district takes on another personality after dark.”
“Thanks.” Alma smiled and went out to the sidewalk. A breeze blew through her long curly hair that she had pulled up into a high ponytail to keep it out of the way while she worked. There were two other people working with her that afternoon who worked exclusively on decorating the buildings in the business district. The commercial decorators had offered suggestions and inside tips on the lighting for the wall space where her landscapes and still life paintings would be displayed. They had wanted to meet at 10 that morning, but she had been at the recording studio with Cameron. Even though he was 13 now, he was never left unattended in professional settings. She smiled to herself when she realized that he was never left alone in personal settings either. The child had been through enough and she would always be around to keep him safe. She felt a pain in her chest when she thought about Cameron’s past even as she walked quickly to the corner where the streetcar.
Gerard had arrived at the recording studio to take Cameron home after completing a round of interviews for the album he had produced. The Recording Academy had nominated the record for a Grammy. Since the news had been announced, Gerard had been busy with the media and even fielding requests from other classical artists who wanted to work with him. The nomination seemed to have validated for the rest of the music world what the people in his house had known for years, that he was a truly gifted music conductor.
Alma had seen him take a personal interest in all the musicians in his orchestra and be supportive. He knew what the musicians were capable of and never let them give less than their absolute best. He had developed a reputation for being a hard man to work with because he was quite blunt and did not “sugar coat” his criticism. Alma had learned that he was a fierce perfectionist when it came to the orchestra and would not settle for ill prepared musicians trying to keep up during rehearsals. She learned something else too. For as hard as he could be with the musicians to bring out their best, he could be as equally gentle and understanding. When one of the violinists was going through health struggles, he had arranged for all her hospital bills to be paid and for her to get physical therapy until she could play again.
Alma had never experienced anything but Gerard’s kind and gentle side and neither had Cameron. Gerard and Cameron had dropped her off here at the building and offered to come back for her. She had refused and told him she would meet him and Cameron back at the house. It was getting close to Cameron’s dinner time. She liked for him to have his meals at consistent times because it seemed to help him manage his diabetes. She took out her iPhone and tapped a text message to the family group which consisted of Gerard and Cameron: “Leaving now. Be home soon.”
She looked at her watch and then glanced at the clock on the bank building. The streetcar should be coming by in about two minutes. Her phone vibrated and she looked down at it. “Okay. Jambalaya for dinner.” Cameron had replied with a smiling face.
She smiled and then looked at the clock again. It still read 7:03 even though she knew a couple of minutes had passed. Alma waited. The street that had been bustling only an hour before was now virtually deserted. There was a man walking away from her on the opposite side of the street. Further down the street she could barely make out what looked to be the silhouette of a woman pushing a baby carriage across the street lit by the warm light of sunset.
After another three minutes she knew she had missed the streetcar. The area was quiet, but she could hear the faint hum of traffic on the bridge. She dismissed the feeling of uneasiness that crept across her body and decided to wait for the next streetcar. She took out her phone and checked a news app to pass the time.
“Hey lady, can you spare some change?”
Alma looked up from her phone startled. She had not even seen the young man approaching. He was dressed in baggy jeans and a black and white striped t-shirt. She quickly responded “no”. The youth accepted her answer and continued walking past her. She could not help but notice the expensive athletic shoes he was wearing and shook her head. She decided to wait the rest of the time inside the building and went back to the entrance where the security guard would be waiting.
When she got to the door, the entrance was empty and a sign that read; “Ring Bell for Service after 6 PM” was now displayed prominently across the door she had just exited minutes before. Alma shrugged and wondered why the guard had left so quickly. She decided to just wait near the door of the building rather than wait at the curb. The streetcars made enough noise that you could hear them moving along the rail line. She would walk out when she heard it coming.
There was no one nearby now and it made the downtown street seem even more deserted. There were a few shops and cafes a couple of streets over. She knew that after dark there would be more people around. But she did not want to be alone downtown after dark. A shiver went through her even though it was still warm. She saw a bus cruise down an adjacent street. A taxi drove past her. At 7:16 Alma began to worry. She hadn’t heard any sounds of approaching street cars. She abandoned her post near the building entrance and walked back to the Carondolet Street side of the tower. It was dark now but she was thankful for the street lights and the activity of the occasional car going by. She could feel her heart begin to beat a little faster. She frowned. Had she missed the streetcar somehow?
She immediately took out her phone and called home. The phone rang once before her nephew was on the line. “Hi Alma. Are you on the streetcar?”
“Uh…not yet. Could you put Gerard on the phone?” She asked as she looked down the street in hopes of seeing the car arriving late.
“Is something wrong?” Gerard asked a moment later.
“Does something have to be wrong?” She tried to lighten her mood and smiled.
“Well, your text said you were on your way home. I thought you would be halfway here by now.”
“I don’t know what’s going on with the streetcar. I…”
“I’ll come pick you up.”
“That would be…wait. Never mind, I see the streetcar coming now.” Alma said as her pulse sped up just a little at the sight of the bright red car with yellow doors smoothly floating along the tracks in her direction. “I’m going to get on now. I will see you in a little while.” She said briskly and barely waited to hear Gerard say goodbye before disconnecting and dropping her phone back into her purse.
The car stopped in the center of the divided street. Streetcars picked up in the middle of the street, not at the curb like buses. She walked quickly towards the vehicle and then froze in her tracks. The streetcar for the St. Charles route was green, not red. These were reserved for the Canal Street and Cemeteries route. The door opened and a man who appeared to be about 50 with brown hair that was gray at the temples smiled at her. His name tag read “Albert Morgan”.
“Getting on Miss?”
Alma’s heart skipped a beat when he spoke to her. She tried to ignore the apprehensive feeling growing in her. “I…isn’t this the St. Charles route?”
“Trouble on the tracks.” He said as he looked straight ahead. “I can take you where you want to go.”
“My stop is a few miles down St. Charles.”
The man nodded. Alma glanced back over her shoulder and thought about just waiting for Gerard or even calling a taxi. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the kid in the jeans and expensive sneakers walking back in her direction. She did not relish the idea of another go around about whether or not she had any change, so she discarded her uneasiness about the streetcar, stepped on board and showed her transit pass.
She had gotten the impression that the streetcar was empty when it had pulled up, but as she selected an empty seat near the front, she noticed three other ladies were riding. An older lady with silver hair pulled back into a loose bun sat a few rows behind her and two young women sat on the seats across the aisle from her. Alma thought the two must be sisters. They had similar features and style. Alma briefly wondered who had styled their hair in those remarkable finger waves, but sensed a coolness about the pair that prevented her from asking. She nodded in their general direction and smiled. No one on the streetcar acknowledged her. They kept their eyes straight ahead looking out at the dark road like they were expecting something to happen.
Alma plugged her earbuds into her phone and turned on the music. She could hear the music but she was still distracted by the three passengers. They rode on in silence for a minute or two and Alma was glad that she only had a short way to go. Mild panic set in when the car began to turn off of St. Charles. She approached the driver.
“Stay behind the line Miss.” He said never taking his eyes off the windshield.
“Sorry.” Alma stepped back. “I told you I only lived a little way down St. Charles. I thought I would have been your first stop.”
“Streetcar lines intersect now. Making a big square. You will be my last stop. I need to get them back home. They were on first.”
Alma shook her head in disbelief. She had never heard of any streetcar operating by who was on first. It only mattered whose stop was first. She took two steps and was back at her seat. She reached up and pulled the stop request cord. Nothing happened. She stared at the back of the driver’s shoulder sure that he must feel her eyes on him. He did not turn around. She had wanted him to stop in front of the hospital. It was well lit, and she could just get off and call home. He kept going.
One of the features of streetcars that made them so convenient was how slowly they traveled. It was truly better than walking, but the pace was such that a person could step on or off as long as they took relative care. Alma gathered her bag closer to her and decided to just get off now. There was no point in riding around on this streetcar all evening just to get to the 2500 block of St. Charles where their house was. She took a few steps toward the steps and the driver turned towards her.
“I’ll just hop off, thanks.” She placed her foot on the step watching the slowly moving ground beneath her.
He shook his head. “You don’t want to be doing that.”
“Why not?” She looked back at him just as she was about to step down. Suddenly the streetcar jerked forward. Alma lost her balance and almost fell off. She grabbed the rail and tried to pull herself back into the vehicle that was gaining a momentum she had never seen before. The wind began to whip against her face because of the high speed they were traveling, and she crawled back onto the streetcar.
“Get back in your seat.”
“What is this?” Alma yelled over a loud growl of wind. She held onto her seat back and tried to see outside. The world was as black as pitch. Her heart was racing as she looked around the streetcar. Had they been in an accident? She looked at her fellow passengers to see if they shared her horror or if someone had been hurt. Her blood went cold when she looked in the women’s faces. They bore no expression. They merely sat riding like nothing was out of the ordinary.
The streetcar had signs inside to display what stops were coming up next so people would be aware of when to get off. The digital display whirled by in a blur as Alma looked at it. Then it slowly came to a stop just as the streetcar seemed to slow down. The display read : “Oak and Laurel Cemetery”. She sat frozen in her seat as she watched the older woman stand up and slowly walk off the streetcar at the rear entrance. The two young women stood up when the streetcar coasted a few yards further. Alma forced herself to watch them as they descended the steps elegant in what she could now see were beautiful “flapper” dresses. The night was in full bloom now and it was only a second before they disappeared into the blackness.
Alma felt a scream well up in her throat, but no sound would come out. She had to get off this trolley she thought, but not here. Before she could think of a plan of action, the car took off again. When she looked out the window, she could not see the ground she could only tell that she was moving fast. The sound of wind picked up again and Alma was so scared she squeezed her eyes shut for a minute. She tried to tell herself this was a dream. When she felt the streetcar slow, she opened her eyes.
She gasped when she saw that she was in front of her house. The stone steps seemed to welcome her towards the warmly lit wrap around porch. She grabbed her bag and stood up. The driver turned towards her and smiled. “Last stop.”
She leapt off the streetcar and ran up the steps to the front door. Before she could reach into her bag for her keys, she heard the oak door opening. Her nephew stood in front of her. She embraced the child like she had not seen him in ages.
“Are you all right?” He asked stunned.
“I…I don’t know.” Alma’s voice shook.
“Well, how did you get home so fast?” Gerard smiled as he walked into the foyer and took her bag off her shoulder and sat it down. Cameron led her by the hand towards the dining table where she related the details of her ride home with the silent passengers and Albert Morgan. Cameron’s eyes grew wide with fright, but Gerard reached out gently and put the back of his hand against her forehead. “It has been a busy day and lots of pressure with your first big commission. It’s no wonder you fell asleep and had a bad dream on the way home. You better be careful of doing that.” He glanced at her purse. “Everyone can’t be trusted you know.”
“But I…” Alma began. She stopped herself when she looked at the terror in her nephew’s face. Maybe just now was not the time to assure Gerard that she had not been sleeping at all. “I am really tired. I think I’m going to go on up and lie down.”
“I’ll have Mrs. Henderson make you a tray before she leaves.” Gerard said as Alma headed towards the stairs.
The next morning Alma woke up early and went downstairs for breakfast. Nightmares on trains must make her hungry because she went straight for the buffet and began to prepare her plate with eggs, fruit, and croissants. She greeted Gerard who was reading the paper. “Good morning.”
“Good morning. Feeling better?” He asked as he turned the page.
“Yes, much. I guess I was just tired and…”
“Alma what did you say that streetcar driver’s name was?”
Gerard shook his head. “Well this is weird.” He walked over to her and showed her a brief newspaper article about a new display that would be set up in the museum of modern art at City Park. The article described the tribute to Albert Morgan, one of the first streetcar operators in New Orleans in the 1920s. He had worked for the rail line for several years before losing his life in a streetcar accident. He had died trying to save an elderly woman and two teenage sisters who were the last passengers on his streetcar.
Alma looked at the small photograph of the driver that accompanied the article and suddenly she felt like she couldn’t breathe. “That’s the man who drove me home last night.”
Angela Johnson is an author, Ph.D. candidate, and educator. She has worked as a professional journalist and been published in several metropolitan newspapers.