Blanche DuBois was wrong: you can’t depend on the kindness
Not that I want to sound pessimistic, and let’s face it,
by the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is more than a
little nuts, anyway. But if you really want to be disillusioned
about the human condition, try being a travel agent for a
I looked at the group of people gathered in the airport
concourse and did my dead-level best not to shout, “Will all
of y’all just shut up?”
Because that wouldn’t have been professional, you see.
So instead I turned to Dr. Will Burke and said,
“They’re your colleagues. Can’t you do something
He sighed. “I’ll try. But remember, they’re
literature and theater professors. Drama comes naturally to
I’ll say it did. At the rate they were going, I’d be
a little surprised if we made it from Atlanta to New Orleans
without some of them killing some of the others.
Unfortunately, given my track record with these literary themed
tours, that possibility wasn’t as far-fetched as it
You may have read about me in the newspapers. Delilah Dickinson.
Red-headed, with a temper to match (just don’t remind me of
it, if you know what’s good for you). Divorced, approaching
middle age too doggoned fast, owner of a semi- successful small
business, a travel agency specializing in literary tours. I’d
come up with the idea a couple of years earlier, after leaving a
big agency to go out on my own, and, for the most part, it had
worked out just fine.
I say for the most part because on a couple of tours, some
pretty bad trouble had cropped up, and by bad trouble, I mean
murder. Those cases had been solved and the killers caught --- with
some help from me, if I do say so myself --- but naturally, the
violence and scandal involved made folks remember them a lot better
than they did the dozens of other tours I’d conducted that
had gone off without a hitch.
You can’t blame anybody for being interested in other
people’s troubles. It’s part of the human condition, if
you want to get all high-flown and philosophical about it. But the
reputation those tragedies gave my agency made it an uphill
struggle to keep things running in the black. I’d managed to
do that, with a lot of help from my only two employees --- my
daughter, Melissa, and her husband, Luke --- but it hadn’t
Now I had a tour headed for another easy, the Big Easy,
N’Awlins its own self…if we ever got off the
Will held up his hands to get the attention of the approximately
forty people who stood there with their carry-on bags around their
feet. He was about my age, although his tousled blond hair gave him
a bit of a boyish look. The glasses counteracted that by making him
appear slightly professor-ish. We had dated off and on for a couple
of years, ever since he’d found himself in the middle of my
first tour --- and first murder case --- and I suspected it was
because of his influence at the university that I was able to get
the job of arranging to take this group of professors, spouses,
and/or significant others to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee
Williams Literary Festival.
You see, that’s why I had Blanche DuBois on my mind.
The loud conversations that bordered on arguments were still
going on. The members of the group didn’t pay any attention
to Will as he stood there waving his hands a little. He said,
“Uh, excuse me, everyone?”
“You’re gonna have to speak up,” I told him.
“Just pretend they’re a bunch of unruly students in a
He glanced at me. “None of my students ever get that
unruly. They pay attention to me. I give good lectures.”
“Then pretend they’re a bunch of third graders
who’re actin’ up.”
Will frowned. “I don’t know how to do
I sighed and shook my head. I’d never been a teacher
myself, but I had driven carpool plenty of times when Melissa was a
“Hey! Y’all settle down, or I’ll tell the
pilot to go on to New Orleans without us!”
That shut ’em up. Of course, it might have offended them,
too, but right then, I didn’t care all that much.
An austere-looking man with white hair, glasses, and a wrinkled
face stared at me and said, “I beg your pardon, Ms.
I was about to apologize and explain why I’d yelled at
them when it struck me how much he looked like Orville Redenbacher,
the guy from the old popcorn commercials on TV. That made it hard
to think of anything to say.
Will, bless his heart, jumped right in. “I think what Ms.
Dickinson is trying to say, Dr. Jeffords, is that we all need to
show a little more decorum. You know how it is with airports now.
The extra security and all that.”
“Oh.” Dr. Jeffords blinked, then slowly nodded.
“Oh, yes, of course.”
That was pretty slick of Will, I thought. You can ask folks to
do almost anything in an airport now, and as long as you look
properly solemn when you mention “the extra security and all
that,” they’ll go along with it.
I put a smile on my face and said, “I just think you
should save all these spirited discussions for the panels when you
get to New Orleans, so the other people attending the festival can
get the benefit of them, too.”
Another man said, “But Dr. Paige claims that the hurdles
on which Brick breaks his leg have no ethnological
A slender, attractive woman in her mid-thirties, with short dark
hair, gave what my mama would have called an unladylike snort.
“They’re hurdles on a high school track,” she
said. “They have no ethnicity, so how can they have any
ethnological significance? You might as well argue that
“Well, they could be,” another man said. “If
you consider Brick’s obvious homosexuality and his later
reaction to Maggie, the hurdles could be seen as a barrier over
which Brick has to leap. When he fails to make that leap, when he
fails to clear the threat of Maggie’s sexuality, so to speak,
or all female sexuality, as it were, then he’s left a
physical cripple ---”
“He’s disabled,” yet another of the professors
interrupted. “You can’t say ‘crippled.’
He’s physically disabled, which serves as a counterpoint to
the emotional disability which he’s already displayed by his
incipient alcoholism, as well as his failure to reconcile his
feelings toward Skipper ---”
The man who had first brought up the hurdles said, “Yes,
well, that line of argument merely reinforces my theory, which is
never refuted in the text of the play, that Skipper was actually
black, which again raises the issue of ethnological significance.
The hurdle that Brick fails to clear is not his sexuality, but
rather his racism!”
“Oh, surely you can’t believe that!” the first
prof said. “The historical aberration alone is enough to
discredit the entire idea. Brick and Skipper were roommates in
college. A black man wouldn’t have been attending the same
college as Brick during that time period.”
The first professor sniffed and sneered. “It’s what
the playwright meant, whether it’s historically accurate or
Everybody started talking at once then. I looked at Will and
asked, “Did you understand all that?”
He nodded and said, “Unfortunately, yes. And they’re
back at it again, aren’t they?”
“Let ’em fuss,” I said. “I don’t
guess it’s doing any real harm, and at least I can count
heads while they’re busy arguin’.”
When I had done that, I realized that there weren’t forty
of them after all. I only had thirty-eight members of the tour
Two were missing.
“You know everybody who’s supposed to be here,
right?” I asked Will.
“I think so.”
I held out the clipboard with the passenger list on it.
“Then go through this and tell me who’s not here
yet.” I glanced at the giant electronic bulletin board that
showed all the arrivals and departures of the flights. Our flight
to New Orleans was still supposed to be on time, which meant we had
about ten minutes before the boarding call. Having a couple of
missing tourists now was cutting it closer than I liked.
Will took the clipboard and started glancing back and forth
between the list and the group of people gathered in front of us. I
could tell he was checking them off in his mind.
After a minute or so, he handed the clipboard back to me and
said, “The only ones who haven’t shown up are Michael
Frasier and whoever he’s bringing with him.”
I glanced down at the list, saw the lines that read “Dr.
Michael Frasier” and “Guest of Dr. Michael
Frasier.” I’d been able to leave that second spot
unspecified when I was booking the trip, although of course
I’d need the name of whoever was accompanying Dr. Frasier,
and the person would have to have ID before they would be allowed
to board the plane. The airlines don’t allow anybody on
anymore without knowing who they are.
“You know this fella Frasier?”
“Of course,” Will said. “Not well, mind you.
He’s only been at the university for a year or so. But
I’ve met everyone in the English Department.”
“Well, he and his wife had better show up soon, or
they’re gonna get left behind.”
“I don’t think it’ll be his wife coming with
“His girlfriend, then, if he’s not married. Or his
mistress, if he is.”
Will shook his head. “Not that, either.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s all right. Nobody
cares about things like that these days.”
“No, no, I don’t know that he’s gay,”
Will said. “I don’t know that he’s not. But
I’m pretty sure he’s not married, and I never heard
anything about a girlfriend or a boyfriend. I’m not sure he
has a social life. He’s pretty consumed by his work. Publish
or perish, you know.”
I’d heard the phrase and vaguely understood it, but
I’d never had any direct experience with it, being a travel
agent instead of a professor.
Before I could say anything, Will went on with relief in his
voice, “Here comes Dr. Frasier now.”
That stopped everybody in their tracks. I didn’t really
blame them. I wasn’t even a professor, and I was surprised by
the old man’s statement. Here they were, going off to a
five-day literary festival honoring one of America’s most
distinguished playwrights, and Howard Burleson wanted them to
believe that he had been intimate with that very playwright.
At the same time, I wanted to shoo the group back into motion.
The loudspeakers had already announced that our flight was
boarding, and we didn’t have the luxury of standing around
gawking at Burleson, no matter how outrageous the claim he had just
And maybe it wasn’t really all that outrageous. Even
though most of my knowledge about Tennessee Williams and his life
came from the movies based on his plays, I knew that he had been
gay and had been involved with a lot of different men in his life.
If Burleson was eighty now, he would have been in his twenties
during Williams’s heyday as a playwright. He could have been
young and good-looking and just the sort that Williams went for. I
But I knew it would be a big hassle if we missed our flight, so
I forced those thoughts out of my head and raised my voice to say,
“We’d better move along, folks. We don’t want
that airplane leavin’ without us.”
Dr. Tamara Paige turned her head toward me and said, “You
can’t expect us to just…just…”
Frasier clamped a hand on the old man’s arm and tugged him
toward the gate. “Not another word, Howard,” he warned.
“Do you understand me?”
I didn’t like the browbeating tone that Frasier took with
Burleson, but the old man just nodded and said, “All right,
“What are you up to, Frasier?” Dr. Paige
“Be there when I present my paper,” Frasier said.
“You’ll see.” He steered Burleson toward the
gate, and the others followed along behind them, chattering again
The routine of getting on the plane quieted them down. I spend a
lot of time in airports, and even when you’re an experienced
traveler like I am, all the rigamarole can’t help but remind
you of why the extra precautions are in place. A lot of people
still turn solemn when they get on or off a plane.
I took advantage of the opportunity to lean close to Will Burke
as we were waiting to board and ask, “Do you believe
“You mean do I believe what Mr. Burleson said about being
Tennessee Williams’s lover? Or that Frasier would drag him to
“Actually, I was speakin’ more in general, like you
might say, ‘Well, what do you know about that?’ But
I’d take an answer to either of the questions you
“I have no idea whether Mr. Burleson is telling the
truth,” Will said. “It’s not like we have a list
of everybody Williams was involved with. We know the most
significant ones, like Frank Merlo, but there were plenty of
I looked at the pink flush spreading across Will’s face.
“Why, Will Burke, you’re blushin’,” I said
“I was raised in a pretty strict environment in a little
Georgia town,” he said. “There were more things going
on in the world than I really knew about until I got to
Once I stopped to think about it, I knew what he meant. We get
bombarded by so much all the time these days, we forget that there
are still plenty of folks walking around who didn’t have the
Internet and cable TV when they were growing up. I should know,
I’m one of them. Especially in rural areas, there were some
things you just didn’t see very often, so you didn’t
think about them all that much. Like Will said, you had to get out
into the world before you started forming opinions, and even then,
it was hard to escape your upbringings.
“Anyway,” Will went on, “I’m not
surprised that Frasier dug him out of the woodwork somewhere, or
that he’s taking Burleson to the festival. Like I said,
he’s all wrapped up in his work, and if what he says is true,
it might be the basis for a good paper.”
“And that’s important to his career?”
He nodded. “Really important.”
“Are you going to, what do you call it, give a paper at
the festival?” I hadn’t really had a chance to talk to
Will about his schedule over the next few days.
“Present a paper. And no, not this year, although I have
presented papers at the Williams Festival before. I’m just on
some panels this year.”
“I’ll try to attend some of them,” I
promised…although if the panelists started in on that
ethnological, gynocentric, English professor gobbledygook, I
wasn’t sure I’d know what they were talking about.
Will and I were the last ones in our group to board the plane.
We found our seats --- I’d made sure they were together, of
course --- and settled back for the ride, which would only take a
little more than an hour. As soon as the plane was in the air and
it was all right to get up and move around, I unfastened my seat
belt and started up the aisle to check on my clients and see that
they were all settled in okay.
When I came to Dr. Frasier and Howard Burleson, I stopped and
asked, “How’re you folks doin’? That take-off
bother you any, Mr. Burleson?”
“Not a blessed bit. I have been on an airplane before, you
know. I was quite the world traveler in my time.” He had
taken off his hat and held it precisely squared in his lap,
revealing a mostly bald, liver-spotted scalp that had just a few
strands of white hair draped over it. “Matter of fact, it was
in Italy where I first met Tom. Venice is such a romantic city, you
Frasier put a hand on his arm. “I told you, Howard, save
it for the conference.”
“Very well,” Burleson said. “The memories are
quite clear, though, of the sun on the canals and the warm breeze
blowin’ through my hair.”
“Yes, fine,” Frasier said, obviously trying to
suppress the impatience he felt. “You can tell everyone about
it when we get to New Orleans.”
I heard a snort from one of the seats ahead of them, and when I
looked in that direction, I saw the close-cropped hair of Dr.
Tamara Paige. She hadn’t looked around, but I knew she could
hear what Frasier and Burleson were saying and figured there was a
good chance the snort had come from her.
“Where is it we’re goin’ again?”
“New Orleans,” Frasier said. “I’ve told
you several times now, Howard.”
“Oh, yes. New Orleans.” Burleson sighed. “The
Quarter. Such wonderful memories. I can see it all like it was
just yesterday I was there.”
I wondered if Burleson might have a touch of Alzheimer’s.
He seemed a little fuzzy about what was going on in the present,
but evidently his memories of the distant past were crystal
Of course, my memory wasn’t what it once was, either. Age
and trying to juggle too many things will do that to a person.
I moved on along the aisle and stopped next to two more seats
that contained a man and a woman. She was a blonde in her thirties,
pretty except for the fact that her jaw was maybe a little too wide
for her face. The fella with her was older, maybe fifty, with
thinning dark hair and broad shoulders that strained the sports
jacket he wore. He didn’t look like a professor to me. I know
that’s stereotyping, but he just didn’t.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Delilah Dickinson
“We know,” the woman said, smiling brightly up at
me. That broad jaw accommodated a lot of white teeth.
“I’m Dr. Callie Madison, and this is my husband,
“Hello,” he said, not exactly surly but not all that
“Thank you so much for setting up this tour,” Dr.
Madison went on. “I’ve been to the festival before, of
course, but never with a group like this. I understand that
we’re going to be seeing some of the other sights in New
Orleans while we’re there.”
“Well, sure,” I said. “Didn’t you do
that when you went to the festival before?”
“No, I always had to get back as soon as possible.”
She turned her smile on her husband. “Somebody has to take
care of this big lug here.”
I tried to think how long it had been since I’d heard
anybody call somebody else a “big lug,” but gave up
after a second, when I couldn’t remember. Instead I asked,
“Are you interested in Tennessee Williams, too, Mr.
He grunted. “Not really. I’m not much on plays and
things like that. But Callie convinced me that this would be a good
vacation for us.”
He didn’t sound to me like she had completely convinced
“And I’ve always wanted to try some of that food
they have there,” he went on, getting a little more animated
now. “I want to go to that fat guy’s
“Paul Prudhomme,” Callie said.
“Yeah, him. That fat guy. I like that Cajun
“Well, you’re goin’ to the right place,
then,” I told him. “New Orleans has some of the best
Cajun cooking in the world.”
Jake Madison nodded. “We’ll see about
His wife rested her hand on his. “Surely you want to do
more in New Orleans than just eat, Jake.”
“I might take in some of that Dixieland jazz, too.
‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and all
“And you’ll come see me present my paper on
Williams’s use of imagery in Suddenly, Last
“What? Oh, yeah, sure. Last summer. Can’t
I felt the growing strain in the air and thought that I might be
contributing to it, so I figured I’d better move on. I said,
“If there’s anything I can do for you folks to make
y’all’s trip better, you just let me know.”
Callie turned that hundred-watt smile on me again. “Oh, we
I wondered how much cajoling it had taken for her to get her
husband to come along with her on this trip. Quite a bit, I
suspected. Without the Cajun food and the saints marching in, I
wasn’t sure if Jake Madison would have ever agreed.
Dr. Paige was sitting next to Dr. Jeffords in the next pair of
seats. She was in the aisle and he was next to the window. She
looked up and gave me a curt nod, but Dr. Jeffords, the one who
looked like Orville Redenbacher to me, was friendlier.
“I’d say we’re off to a good start,
wouldn’t you, Ms. Dickinson?”
“We’re all here, we left on time, and the plane
didn’t crash on take-off. Three for three.”
He laughed. “That’s a rather fatalistic way to look
at it, but I suppose you’re right.”
“Are the two of you looking forward to the
Dr. Paige said, “I was…until I realized that
it’s liable to turn into a sideshow, rather than a serious
Dr. Jeffords frowned and leaned toward her. “Now, Tamara
“You’re the head of the English Department,
Andrew,” she said. “You must have known about this
ridiculous stunt that Frasier’s trying to pull.”
“As a matter of fact, I didn’t.” A crisp note
edged into his voice. “Dr. Frasier didn’t have to clear
his presentation with me. You could take it up with the festival
organizers, though. I’m sure he had to submit an abstract of
his paper to them for approval before it was placed on the
Dr. Paige gave a little shake of her head. “It’s not
worth the trouble. Let him go ahead and make a fool of himself.
He’ll never be allowed to present again.”
“But what if he has something worthwhile to say?
Shouldn’t we give him the benefit of the doubt?”
“You think that old man was really some cabana boy that
Williams picked up?”
“I don’t have any proof that he’s not,”
That made Dr. Paige frown. She couldn’t disprove
Burleson’s claim, at least not at this point, because she
didn’t even know the details of it. She’d have to
attend Frasier’s presentation for that.
Me, I didn’t give a hoot ’n’ holler one way or
the other. I just wanted to shepherd this bunch to New Orleans and
then get ’em all back home safely to Georgia. If I did that,
it would be a good trip.
“I’ll see y’all later,” I told them.
“If you need anything, you let me know. That’s what
I’m here for.”
Two of the professors who’d been arguing in the airport
terminal were sitting in front of Drs. Paige and Jeffords. I paused
beside them, but they didn’t look up at me. They were still
going at it, each one trying to talk over the other. I heard the
“epistemological,” and “phallophobia” and
decided it was better just to move on.
The next pair of seats held only one passenger, but he was a big
one. I recalled that somebody in the group had paid for two seats,
and this fella had to be the one. He had a round face, graying
brown hair, balding at that, and a grayish-brown goatee. His shirt
gapped a little between buttons because of the pressure that the
massive belly put on it. Whoever said fat men were jolly got it
wrong, at least in this case. He wore a pained scowl.
I leaned over him. “You need something, sir?”
“You’re not a stewardess, are you?”
I didn’t bother correcting him on his choice of
terminology. I just said, “No, I’m Delilah Dickinson.
I’m the tour director.”
“Well, there’s nothin’ wrong with me that a
good stiff drink won’t fix. Why don’t you go see if you
can get me one of those little bottles of booze?”
I tried not to bristle, but like I said, I’ve got a
temper, so it wasn’t easy. I managed to smile and said,
“I’ll speak to the flight attendant.”
A woman sitting in front of the man turned around in her seat
and said, “No, you won’t. He’s not allowed to
“Now, damn it, Junebug ---” the big man began.
“Don’t you Junebug me, Papa Larry. Edgar and I are
just trying to see to it that you take care of yourself, and you
know the doctor said you can’t drink anymore.”
A rumble came from the big man. I swear, it sounded almost like
a big dog growling. “How’m I supposed to feel better if
I can’t drink? Do you know what this is gonna do to my
“I know what whiskey will do to your belly,” the
woman he’d called Junebug said. She didn’t look like a
june bug to me. She had a narrow face with short, wispy brown hair
around it. “It’ll burn out what little of the stomach
lining you have left, and then you’ll die,” she went
“You don’t know that,” he said in a sullen
“I know what the doctor said. I was there.” She
elbowed the man sitting beside her, who had an open laptop computer
balanced on his thighs. “Tell him, Edgar.”
The man didn’t seem to want to tear his attention away
from whatever he was doing on the screen, but he turned his head
long enough to say, “June’s right, Dad. No booze for
The big man settled back against the two seats and glared.
“What the hell kind of a trip is this?” he
“It’ll be a good one,” I said, trying to sound
He just gave a disgusted snort and looked out the window.
“Don’t mind that old grump,” Junebug said to
me when I stepped up alongside the seats where she and her husband
sat. “He ought to be happy. He’s going to direct a
performance of three of Williams’s one-act plays. It’s
very prestigious to be asked to do something like that at this
“I expect it is,” I agreed. “I’m Delilah
She held out a hand to me. “Dr. June Powers.” She
nodded toward the man beside her. “This is my husband, Dr.
He didn’t look up at me. His attention was fixed on his
computer screen again. But he lifted a hand and said,
“Glad to meet you, Doctor,” I said.
“And you met my father-in-law, Dr. Lawrence Powers.
He’s one of the most esteemed theater directors and teachers
of drama in the country.”
I’d never heard of him, but I was willing to take her word
for it. “All of you teach together at the
“That’s right. Well, we’re in different
departments. I teach American Literature, and Edgar’s
I caught the little hesitation, as if she were slightly ashamed
to admit that her husband was in the sciences rather than the arts.
Every family has its dirty little secrets, I suppose.
“Well, if y’all need anything, you let me know,
I was about to move on when Dr. Lawrence Powers, a.k.a. Papa
Larry, said, “Get me a drink and there’s twenty bucks
in it for you, Red.”
I swung around toward him. I don’t like being called Red
any more than I like somebody commenting on my temper because I
have red hair. But before I could say anything, I realized that
Will was there. He must have come up behind me in time to hear what
Powers said. He knew me well enough that he got between me and
Powers with a slick little move that kept me from saying
“Larry, it’s good to see you again,” he said.
“June, Edgar, a pleasure as always.”
Junebug simpered a little. That’s the only way to put it.
I wondered if she might have a little crush on Will. I didn’t
figure I had any reason to be jealous, though. Edgar just
And I moved on to talk to the other members of the tour group,
thinking that if anybody else called me Red or used the word
“phallophobic,” they might wind up having to call the
sky marshal on me.
For about a quarter of a century, the Tennessee Williams
Literary Festival has been held every year in New Orleans, and
while the scope of it has expanded somewhat to include other New
Orleans–based literature and Southern literature in general,
the focus is still on Thomas Lanier Williams and his plays, short
stories, poetry, and novels, as well as how various aspects of his
life influenced his work.
I’d done some research on him before starting the tour, as
I always do. I consider myself a reasonably well-read person, but I
suspect most folks know Willliams not from actually reading his
plays but from seeing them performed, either on stage or on the
screen. Women remember Paul Newman’s blue eyes and brooding
intensity as Brick; men remember Elizabeth Taylor walking around in
that slip as Maggie the Cat. And I suspect that a lot of guys of a
certain age, at some point in their life, have bellowed,
These things and a lot of others from Williams’s plays,
like that “kindness of strangers” line, have worked
their way into the collective consciousness, to use a phrase that
proves I’d been spending too much time around professors,
especially a certain professor. Will always listened when I talked
about the tour business, though, so I figured I ought to pay
attention when he talked about academic matters.
Anyway, to get back to the festival, after an opening night
reception and ceremony, it was four days of panel discussions,
paper presentations, theater performances, readings, and some
things that were more just for fun, like dinners and musical
performances. Professors like to cut loose and let their hair down,
too, I suppose, although I’d never been around a bunch of
them actually doing that. I figured that might prove to be
interesting, although I didn’t really expect anybody to get
out of line.
I had a charter bus waiting to take us from the airport to the
St. Emilion Hotel --- in the French Quarter, right around the
corner from Bourbon Street --- which was serving as the
headquarters hotel for the festival. As the bus pulled up in front
of the lovely old three-story building with its wrought-iron
railings along the balconies, I felt the elegance and charm
practically oozing from it. The French Quarter, more than any other
part of New Orleans, had fully rebounded from the devastating
tragedy of Hurricane Katrina several years earlier. That
wasn’t surprising, of course, since the French Quarter
represented more tourist dollars than any other part of the city. I
don’t mean that to sound cynical. It’s just a fact of
As the bus came to a stop, I stood up from my seat just behind
the driver, turned to face the passengers, and raised my voice.
“All right, folks, this is the St. Emilion Hotel. This is
where we’ll be staying for the next five nights. I think
you’ll be very pleased with your accommodations. The St.
Emilion is one of the nicest hotels in New Orleans, which means
it’s one of the nicest hotels anywhere in the
It was expensive, too, but the group rates made it at least
somewhat affordable. The university was probably picking up some of
the tab for the professors, too, but that wasn’t really my
concern. Will and I got off the bus and I asked him to let the
concierge know that we were here while I supervised the
That proved to be an unnecessary request. Before Will could even
get through the big fancy wooden doors, they swung open and a whole
squad of uniformed porters marched out to take over the bags and
see that everybody got inside. A short, dapper black man in an
expensive suit came out, too, spotted me, and crossed the narrow
sidewalk toward me.
“I’m Dale Gillette, the assistant manager of the
hotel. I want to welcome you and your group to the St. Emilion and
let you know that everyone on the hotel staff is dedicated to
making your stay as pleasant and memorable as possible.”
“That’s mighty nice of you,” I said. “It
looks like you’ve sure got everything under control.”
Escorted by the uniformed porters, my clients were going inside to
Of course, not everything could go smoothly. Sometimes I think
it’s a law of the universe. I heard a raised voice say,
“No!” and turned to see Dr. Michael Frasier clutching
one of the carry-on bags to his chest like it contained some sort
“I said I’ll take it,” he told the porter who
obviously had reached for the bag. “Just leave it
The porter looked confused, and so did Howard Burleson, who
stood next to Frasier. The porter said, “Of course, sir. I
was just trying to help. I meant no offense. If you’d like to
carry that bag, it’s fine.”
“Of course it’s fine,” Frasier snapped.
“It’s my bag.”
Burleson raised a gnarled finger. “Actually, Doctor, I
believe it’s mine.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m carrying
I didn’t have any idea what the old man could have in his
bag that would get Frasier so worked up. Some of the other members
of the group were starting to look around at him, though, and I
didn’t want the scene he was making to get any bigger than it
already was. I was about to try to smooth things over when Dale
Gillette beat me to the punch.
The hotel’s assistant manager stepped forward and motioned
the porter back. He said, “Allow me to expedite the check-in
process for you, sir. If you’ll just come with me to my
office, you won’t have to stop at the desk. We’ll see
to it that you get right up to your room without any
The offer of special treatment seemed to mollify Frasier. He
nodded and said, “All right. Mr. Burleson has to come with
“Of course,” Gillette murmured.
“I can’t let him out of my sight,” Frasier
“I understand,” Gillette said without hesitation,
even though he almost certainly didn’t. He just wanted to get
Frasier to shut up and get into the hotel. Since I wanted the same
thing, I was more than happy to let Gillette coddle him.
The three of them went into the hotel through a side door that
Gillette opened. Burleson couldn’t muster more than a
shuffle, so it took a few moments.
“That doesn’t seem fair,” somebody said in
disapproving tones. I turned and saw Dr. Tamara Paige glaring at
Frasier and Burleson as they disappeared into the hotel with Dale
Gillette. She went on: “Frasier acts like a total jerk and
then gets special treatment because of it.”
“I agree with you,” I told her. “It’s
not fair. But the assistant manager of the hotel wanted to do
something to help, and I didn’t want to make things
“Then you should have left that blowhard and the old fraud
back in Atlanta.”
I pointed out the same thing Dr. Jeffords had earlier. “We
don’t know that Mr. Burleson’s a fraud. He seems like a
sweet old man to me.”
Dr. Paige frowned. “It doesn’t matter how sweet he
is. He’s still lying. And everyone at the festival will
realize that when Frasier trots him out and tries to pass him off
as something he’s not.”
I didn’t see how she could be so sure about that. I was
beginning to get the impression that if Dr. Michael Frasier said
“up,” Dr. Tamara Paige was going to say
“down.” I had seen situations like that before, where
anything one person said or did was wrong, according to one
particular other person. I knew what the reason for that attitude
usually was, too.
So I didn’t say anything else to Dr. Paige. I went over to
Will instead and asked quietly, “Dr. Frasier and Dr. Paige .
. . they used to be an item, didn’t they?”
He frowned and said, equally quietly, “I don’t like
to gossip --- ”
“Sure you do,” I broke in. “Everybody likes to
gossip, even professors.”
His frown went away and a faint smile replaced it. “Maybe
especially professors. Academia is fraught with passion, intrigue,
“Uh-huh. Sort of like a Tennessee Williams play. What
about Frasier and Paige?”
Will shrugged. “There were rumors, not long after he came
to the university....If they were involved, though, it didn’t
last for long. And, I suspect, from the hostility that’s
existed between the two of them ever since, that it didn’t
“You know which one of ’em broke up with the
Will shook his head. “Not a clue.”
“When it comes to men and women, it’s always a
little like junior high, isn’t it, even at a
“Maybe even more so.”
“Yeah. The place is fraught.”
He grinned and said, “Everybody else is inside. Maybe
we’d better get checked in, too.”
That sounded like a good idea to me. All the luggage had been
toted in, and we were the last ones on the sidewalk. I thanked the
bus driver and tipped him. We were supposed to have a bus to take
us back to the airport the day after the festival ended, but it
might not have the same driver.
As Will and I stepped into the hotel lobby a moment later, its
opulence almost overwhelmed me. To begin with, the floors were
polished marble in some places and polished wood in others, and the
shine would almost blind you. What kept it from casting a glare
over the whole place were the thick, gorgeous rugs that were placed
here and there where heavy, overstuffed armchairs and sofas were
arranged in conversation pits.
Then there were the vaulted ceilings, the crystal chandeliers,
the potted palms, the beautiful paintings on the walls, and the
slowly revolving ceiling fans with teak blades. The long
registration desk was topped with the same marble that could be
found in the floor. Music played softly from hidden speakers, and
the air was crisp and cool and dry, as if the humidity from the
street outside wouldn’t dare try to come in here.
The registration desk was to the right of the lobby, a
restaurant and bar to the left. Straight ahead lay a short, broad,
floored corridor where the elevators were located, and when I
looked along it, I saw an indoor garden at the far end, surrounded
by an atrium. I knew from studying the hotel’s web-
site that each room on the second and third floors had a private
balcony overlooking that garden. The rooms were accessed from
hallways that ran around the outside of the hotel, rather than from
the atrium. A massive stained-glass skylight cast shifting patterns
of color over the lush plants in the garden.
Will let out a low whistle. “Fancy,” he said.
“I’m glad the university is paying part of the cost for
this, or else I’d never be able to afford it.”
I didn’t tell him that he was echoing the same thought
I’d had a few minutes earlier. I just linked arms with him as
we went over to the registration desk. Several of the professors
were still checking in, but as Will and I walked up, one of them
finished and the clerk looked past him at us, and asked, “May
I help you?”
The professor was still standing at the marble-topped counter.
As he turned away, he nodded to Will and said, “Dr.
Will returned the nod. “Dr. Keller.”
The professor was a bulky, sort of sloppy man with a fringe of
dark hair around a mostly bald head. He reminded me of Jake Madison
in that if I’d seen him on the street, I never would have
taken him for a professor. That would have been right in
Madison’s case but obviously not in Keller’s.
I looked after him as he crossed the lobby toward the bank of
elevators, and said quietly to Will, “Are you sure he’s
not like a Teamster boss or something?”
Will laughed. “Ian Keller is one of the foremost
authorities in the world on American literature, with an emphasis
on Southern authors of the twentieth century. He’s written
books on Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and
Tennessee Williams himself.”
“Okay. He looks more like a gangster to me.”
“I’ve never heard anyone who has a bad word to say
about him. He’s brilliant.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.
“His books would probably be over my head.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Delilah,” Will
said. “You’re one of the smartest people I know. Some
of these people couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag
without a syllabus to guide them. You’ve got more sense than
they ever will. Plus, you can solve murders.”
I shook my head. “Bite your tongue. My murder
solvin’ days are over.”
We stepped up to the desk. I told the clerk my name and
Will’s name, and within a couple of minutes we had the keys
to our rooms, which were both on the third floor. A porter was
standing by with a rolling cart that had our bags on it. He
followed us to the elevators.
It had been a pretty easy trip so far, a little friction here
and there, but nothing serious. You get some of that on any tour.
You can’t put several dozen people together for four or five
days and have all of them get along all the time. And with a group
like this, where everybody knew everybody else, it was even more
likely that there would be a spat here and there, like the sharp
comments that Drs. Frasier and Paige had tossed back and forth
about each other like darts. Strangers would at least try to be on
their best behavior around each other.
“You’re going to the opening reception this evening,
right?” Will asked me as we walked along the third floor
corridor toward our rooms. Our feet sunk so deep into the plush
carpet on the floor that I wasn’t sure how the porter was
able to wheel the luggage cart through it.
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” I told him. I had an
all-access pass that would get me into any of the festival events,
since I didn’t know where I might be called upon to take care
of the needs of my clients, but I planned to attend the panels Will
was on if I could. Beyond that, I hadn’t figured out which of
the events I would attend. I hadn’t even had a chance to
study the schedule all that much. I wasn’t a scholar, though,
so I figured I would avoid the day-long roundtable discussion of
Williams and his work, whether Will was part of it or not.
But a fancy cocktail reception followed by informal readings by
the several well-known stage actors who were part of the festival .
. . I figured I was up for that.
“Good,” Will said. “We can have dinner first,
or a late supper, if you’d prefer.”
“Why don’t we make it supper?” I suggested.
“I know a little café not far from here that’s
“All right. You know the French Quarter fairly well,
“I’ve brought tour groups to New Orleans
before,” I said, “just not to this literary
“And I’ve been to the festival but never really
explored the French Quarter all that much. We can combine our
“Yeah, that’s sort of what I had in mind.”
“What’s this café like?”
“Oh, you know, good food, dim lighting, soft
Will smiled. “Sounds romantic.”
“Well, you heard what Howard Burleson said about what a
romantic city New Orleans is.”
“Are we going to find out if he’s right?”
“We just might,” I said.
Excerpted from KILLER ON A HOT TIN ROOF: A Delilah Dickinson
Literary Tour Mystery, Book 3 © Copyright 2011 by Livia J.
Washburn. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights