The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story
would be a formal lawn; the second, alongside the “porch,” would be a mad tropical “hidden garden” around a central fountain modeled after one Ben and John and I happened to love in the south of Spain. Beyond that, on the site of the infested fountain and a too-small terrace, there would be a spacious stone terrace and a dining pergola; at the back door there would be a kitchen garden, with herbs and fig trees and a pineapple guava, along with a smaller stone terrace where John could put his beloved grill.
    The asphalt jungle on the other side would be blasted up and the bricks from the existing terrace would be used to make a semi-circular drive. The space in front of the garage would be green again with flowering trees and bulbs and climbing roses; the garage door would be replaced by two real windows with a garden bench between them. We needed new limestone front steps, new brick back steps, and limestone steps and landings outside both sunroom doors. It was major, major stuff, but we both immediately loved it. What can I keep? I asked Ben, meaning which plant materials still in the ground were worth working with. He didn’t miss a beat: the live oak and the magnolia. Right, the two ancient and enormous trees framing the house in the front that were sort of the whole point of living in New Orleans, in the Garden District, and that was it. A week or so after our meeting, the lunch-table scrap was replaced by a gorgeous hand-colored plan that arrived in the mail in a giant tube. It was accompanied by an a multi-paged, itemized document titled “Opinion of Probable Cost.” Before I got past page two, I had to stop and pour myself a vast tumbler of straight Scotch.
    After I recovered, I called John Benton, owner of Bayou Tree Service whom I’d interviewed years earlier for a piece I did on New Orleans’s ongoing infestation of Formosan termites. The termites were eating all the city’s magnificent live oaks from the inside out and they were snapping in two like twigs. He’d been quoted in the newspaper so I’d gone to see him in his office, where he kept what looked like thousands of the nasty little Formosans in an aquarium. To demonstrate their chewing power, he dropped his business card inside and within minutes it had vanished. The termite show was memorable and he was funny, so I quoted him, a lot.
    When I called him I could tell he didn’t remember our meeting but his interest was piqued by the size of our job (when you take out whole truckloads of trees and shrubs you eventually have to replace them), and by my mentioning that the piece he was quoted in had ended up in my first book, a collection of essays about the South. When he arrived the next morning, the book was on the dashboard of his truck and he’d already read the whole thing. Right off the bat, he told me he was obsessive compulsive, and given his recent speed-reading, I believed him. As we walked through the yard, he also told me he wanted to be a writer, he’d been reading books about words, was thinking about taking a course or two. I knew, for better or worse, I’d just met my new best friend. Within the week, a team of guys in Bayou Tree hardhats arrived with a fleet of equipment, and just as fast as Eddie’s crew had gutted our bathrooms, our semi-green yard was made into desert.
    In the meantime, progress inside had slowed down considerably. We were still living at Betty’s, but I had—hilariously—promised the couple taking our place there that we would be out by the end of October. The plan had been to move into the third floor of the house, which we had refigured into a bedroom, sitting room, and bath, and which the guys would finish first, but we were well into October and it was nowhere close to being ready. Instead Eddie was busy refinishing all the floors and forcing me to choose downstairs paint colors. I did not yet know better, I figured this was some kind of secret contractor logic—maybe it was normal to get the

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