I didn’t put much stock in the possibility that a Dominican spiritualist working out of a basement in Union City, New Jersey, would have much to say about a lampshade that might have been made from human skin in a Nazi concentration camp. But there I was, sitting across from Doña Argentina, a large woman wearing a ceremonial headdress and smoking a pair of cigars, one on either side of her mouth.
I’d spent many months attempting to track down the true nature of the lampshade, its origin and meaning, a search that had taken me halfway around the world. So I was willing, if not overly excited, to drive the ten miles from my Brooklyn home to Union City, where most everyone speaks Spanish, to hear what the mystic had to say. After all, Doña Argentina had her devotees. If the lampshade had truly once been part of a person, “the spirit” would still be present within it, people said. If so, Doña Argentina would bring its secrets to light.
The session began auspiciously. Doña Argentina took the lampshade from its box, took one look at it, and said, “Oh, they kill him.” This was possibly accurate, since the Nazis murdered upward of 11 million people, 6 million Jews among them, during their twelve-year reign of terror. On the other hand, spiritualists have their tricks. They like to impress their needy supplicants. I did not know what Doña Argentina had been told about the lampshade before I’d arrived.
A few moments later, the medium placed a candle beside the lampshade. The flame grew higher.
“¡Mira! The spirit is strong,” Doña Argentina said, taking a chug of rum. There was a pause now, as she stiffened in her velveteen chair. Her eyelids were fluttering. “He says … He says they are all bad to him. They cut him. Stab him with knives. They throw him in the closet. But you are kind to him.”
The flame shot higher. Doña Argentina swigged more rum. “He says he feels safe with you. He wants to stay with you.”
“He says he wants to stay with you. He never wants to leave you.”
“He can’t stay with me. That’s crazy.” Ever since the lampshade had arrived at my door, I’d been trying to get rid of it. It was, I thought, like the Black Spot in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a dark circle inscribed on a page ripped from a purloined Bible, a floating accusation of ultimate guilt a grizzled pirate might find shoved into the pocket of his breeches some bad night. The idea was to pass the Spot to the next unsuspecting fool before the inevitable calamity occurred.
Doña Argentina addressed me in a low voice, as if to keep her thoughts from the spirit.
“But this is what he wants. You want me to tell him that he cannot stay with you? That you don’t want him?”
“It isn’t that I don’t want him. But I can’t keep him.”
“I will tell him,” Doña Argentina said, in the manner of a neutral messenger. The candle flame shot higher again. Doña Argentina stared into the fire. She let out a barking sound. If it was a performance, it was a good one. It was a while before she spoke again.
“He says there is nothing he can do. He leaves his fate to you. But it is good.”
“Good?” I replied meekly.
“It is good because he trusts you. You’re the only one he has now.”
The drum. That’s all Skip Henderson was looking for on the day he bought the lampshade: a drum to beat on for Mardi Gras, the first carnival since Katrina destroyed New Orleans.
For Skip, as for so many other New Orleans residents, what had happened during Katrina didn’t fully sink in until he returned to the city nearly two months after the storm. Nothing was where it should be. Houses were in the water and boats were on dry land, sometimes on top of houses. On Napoleon Avenue, an ultrasound machine sat in the middle of the street for weeks. With the streetlights out and the stop signs blown away, these objects created a new traffic pattern. Life, as it had been lived, was gone. The drum mattered because it was important to make a lot of noise on Mardi Gras, especially this Mardi Gras, if only to show that the city was still there.
Skip had been looking for a drum for weeks, but it wasn’t until right then that he realized he was looking for this particular drum.
It was a fairly new-looking Yamaha model, with a three-inch-wide horizontal smudge bisecting the drumhead. Skip recognized the brown-green stain immediately; he’d been looking at variations of it for months. It was the waterline, the gauge by which the height of the toxic flood pools could be measured, a malevolent, citywide bathtub ring. Streaked across building walls, visible on the doors of the thousands of cars stockpiled underneath the I-10, in some places the ring was over your head, at least ten feet high. It was Katrina’s mark, like the familiar X’s spray-painted on the walls of almost every building in town by the National Guard, denoting the number, if any, of bodies that had been found in the house. This made the stained drum perfect, Skip thought. What better instrument to beat on in these days after the Flood?