Usually Leo sleeps like a lion in dry season, so I was a little surprised to get his call that early in the morning.
"I need your help," he croaked. "You can either work for cash or a percentage, though I'll be disappointed if you take cash. You want Carmela to make you breakfast? It's as nourishing as a heaping plate of steam."
Leo and Carmela have a funny marriage; they are legally separated, but they live together with their teenage son "till we get some things ironed out."
I weaved through their first two rooms. Their house was bulging with things. Everywhere you could put things, there were things to put.
In the second room was Dommy's bed. He's the teenage son with the five posters of Britney Spears on his wall, each one framed by white Christmas lights. "How does he get any sleep?" wondered Leo. "With the girl's belly button in bright blinky lights all in his face all night. I think it's why he's flunking geography."
After another room or two of floor-to- ceiling packrat piles, we come on Carmela. She is often called "Cherrybomb" because she gets red in the face and explodes. But when her blood pressure is low, she suffers from the broken-wing syndrome. "Hey, Cherrybomb, what's happening."
She came closer to show me an inflamed eye that gave her the look of a new-boated croaker. "I got hit in the eye by a doubloon at Mid-City," she said woefully. "Leo thinks I should wear an eyepatch, like Captain Kidd."
"Because when I look at it, it makes my eyes water," Leo protested. "Whattya call it, sympathy pains?"
Over a couple of Ovaltines, we talked business. Leo said his ain't so good. In 1993, Leo hung out a "Trampoline Repair" shingle in front of his house and sat back and awaited oblivion. It came right on schedule.
"I gotta get outta this slump," Leo reasoned. "Make some cash, so one of us could afford to move out." Cherrybomb seemed to take no notice. With the help of the pharmaceutical industry, she was plodding through life, never pausing to hear whispers, dirty or divine.
Leo's ticket for full divorce is built around combing through all the junk his father and Grandpa Segretti accumulated for decades. Leo had been looking at all those Antiques Roadshow-style shows and was convinced his house was brimming with treasures. "Some guy got $15,000 for an umbrella stand made outta an elephant's foot, for Gawdsake!" he yelped.
"Easy, boy, easy!" I cautioned. "All you see on TV are the big numbers. Think it's good for ratings to show the appraiser offering you four bucks for your granny's engagement ring? Besides, those guys ain't offering you $15,000. They're just saying someone ought to offer $15,000."
But Leo heard none of it. As soon as the Ovaltine was done, he dragged me up in an attic as dark as a cow's third stomach. Under the milky glare of a tackle-box flashlight, Leo played Antiques Roadshow in his attic.
"How's about these Carnival cups?" he asked. "Complete sets of Proteus and Momus?"
"They can't be worth much," I said. "Half the kitchens in New Orleans have more Carnival cups than you."
He got much excited by a chamberpot with a soldier's portrait on the bottom. "This is from a Basin Street cathouse and the working girls painted the face of the Yankee general ruling the city on the bottom. This oughta be worth at least $10,000."
"I dunno," I said. "The guy at the bottom looks plenty like Ollie North."
Leo fished out a banner of some kind. "This is a Haitian voodoo flag, made by a mailman named Roger. But if we marinated it for a few days, it'd look faded and I could claim it's from Marie Laveau."
So on it went. An ashtray from Club My-Oh-My. Personalized golf tees from a well-known archbishop. A chess set -- minus three pieces -- featuring native Louisiana products, such as a knight on the half-shell and a drag queen.
"I make it all to be on the shady side of $700," I estimated.
Leo desperately held up some kind of a bird statue. "This is a relic," he insisted. "This is the Paraclete of Cremona and its wings are made of Mother Cabrini's eyelashes. My Aunt Verleigh was in the altar society."
Just then Carmela plodded back in the room. She fixed that inflamed eye on me and asked, "I got a divorce lawyer named Turnstall who is on standby in case Leo's financial situation changes. Should I call off this divorce?"
My reasonable reply was this: "Don't do anything rash, Cherrybomb. Keep all your options open."