You talk about thrills. Name one that could beat walking out of jail and seeing your girl there. Mary. Tall, slim and twenty-two. The prettiest smile. But the smile wasn’t fully lit. Something had gone sour.
Naturally the first thing you suspect is that she hadn’t spent the last three weeks alone. But I quickly reminded myself not to bring the paranoidal mindset outside with me. The Orleans Parish Prison needed to be left there where it was, on Perdido Street. Leave Hell in Hell.
We went home. The awkward feeling passed. How could I worry about Mary? She bailed me out. Worked her ass off to do it.
She started getting dinner together. And I hit the couch. How great to have a couch, instead of a bunk. Even if the couch was in a little rented shack behind another house.
Then around five o’clock I see this guy park a red VW bus in the driveway and head for our door. Tall and easy-moving. Trouble. Walking up to the door like he’s just going to make himself at home.
Mary saw him through the screen door. “Hi Muke!” she sang. “Guess who’s baaaaack!
The guy stepped in the door. Big but skinny. Had that squared-up look of a college boy. But he was dirty, his long hair stuck into a faded bandana.
“Remember Will?” Mary hopped across the room and slid onto the couch next to me, laughing. “My old man?”
“Whoa,” he smiled. White, even teeth. He pointed at me. “Be right back.”
And he was right back. Holding up a six-pack of Jax. “I just got these. Had ‘em in my cooler on a new block of ice.”
I remembered this Muke from right before I left. He came to New Orleans from California or someplace and made friends with Eddie, who lived in the front house, who must have told him he could park his van in the driveway. That’s where he slept.
The guy set the carton of beers on the coffee table in front of me. “Welcome home.”
“Thanks, brotha.” I shook his hand. When you been where I’d been, you appreciate appreciation. And you know the proper order of things, and the importance of a show of respect. But what was he headed for when he first walked in the door? He didn’t expect to see me.
We sat there in the front room in the breeze from the window fan. Mary took the third beer after I and the guy had popped ours. “I’ve been letting Muke take a shower here, cuz he fixed the sink for me.”
“Just needed a washer.”
“It wouldn’t stop turning on. Or couldn’t turn off!” Mary giggled. “You know what I mean.”
Muke grinned. “Jes’ helpin’ out.”
Mary went into the kitchen. So he was just after a shower, not Mary? She never mentioned this big dog sniffin’ around when we were talking through a grate the last three weeks.
I looked out the window. Fear and indecision had me feeling unsteady. Outside, the late sunlight slanted against the wall of the big house. I could see Phil sitting in the kitchen, just across the tiny lawn that separated our little shack from the big house.
The big house looked out on Magazine Street, where other houses and a drugstore and a movie theatre looked back. The upstairs of the house had been blown out by a hurricane, maybe five years ago. No one bothered to repair it. So the house just sat there, the yellow walls peeling. Phil’s parents owned the property and Phil lived in a little kitchenette at the back of the first floor. His job was to watch over it, which he did about as well as a psycho could who had to pop Thorazine to keep from seeing Russian bombers flying over. Eddie the unemployed oil rig diver lived in two rooms in the front. And Mary and me in the back cottage.
And now Muke in the driveway. He had a job with a crew of spades remodeling a house near here. I asked him what he made.
“Two dollars an hour,” he shrugged. “Easy work, but dirty. Low-key. Things move along kind of stately.” About what you’d expect from a pack of New Orleans nigras. Muke took the other three beers out of the carton and placed one in front of me and one in front of Mary before he opened the last one for himself. “You want me to ask my boss?”
“No,” I said. “I got something better going. I heard this story in the place. Some cat got busted walking out of a dope deal in the Quarter. He climbed a trellis over a fence and managed to bury a plastic bag full of twenties in a garden before they caught up with him. I know where that garden is.”
They both stared at me, their beer cans sweating.
“At first I thought it was just jailhouse talk. But the day before I got out, the guy who told the story? He got shivved. The story is real. The money is there.”
Mary lost her smile. “Please don’t tell me.”
I’d told it just because it was a good story. A jailhouse horror story. That’s what people expect when you get out. But suddenly I saw it different. It came to me in a second-beer flash, even as I told it. I can be accidentally brilliant like that. I looked at the guy. “What do you think?”
He gulped his beer loudly. “I don’t know.”
Oh, yeah, brilliant. If I could get this Muke alone, I could figure out if he screwed my woman. Later on, Mary’s reaction would reveal first, did she screw him—in case I was still in doubt. Second, if she did it, was she sorry? Third, if she did it, was she still loyal to me? That’s three things, but really only one. Like God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The guy left. Mary and I sat on the couch in the dark while the sounds of night came in the window. She cried a long, deep cry. She wouldn’t say why. I couldn’t hate her. No matter what.
“I got laid off at the store. So I had to get the job at that dive. Two months rent due now.” An engine growled in the street. Someone banged a lid on a garbage can. “Phil’s father came around.”
My arms folded her in. Soft and lavender. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get the car back.”
“Forget the car.” I smoothed her hair. “That rollin’ wreck. You did enough just getting me bailed. Forget the car.”
That was when I got popped. This cop hung around Louisiana Avenue, and I’d run into him before. I had been dealing a small amount of weed and speed to an El Salvadorian there who sold it in the neighborhood. This cop rousted me a few months ago, but he couldn’t get anything on me and it pissed him off.
So I was driving the old Continental down Magazine Street at Louisiana, and he pulled me over. I mean right there. I was just going to the store to buy some toothpaste and some smokes. He dives behind the seat of the car and comes up with a brown glass vitamin bottle. Inside, forty-some white crosses. It floored me for a second, but then I realized those pills ain’t mine. The mother had planted them on me.
After all the shit I done, to get busted by a cheating cop. Smart, but a greasy-nose cheater. So into jail I went. And to the impoundment the Continental went, never to return.
I kissed Mary. “I know it’s been rough. You did the time with me. I can never forget.”
She laid her hands on my chest. “You can’t go breaking into houses.”
“I’m not. It’s in a garden. The people don’t even know the money’s there, and it doesn’t belong to them. And the guy who told me is dead.”
“How will you ever find it?”
“It’s at 515 Dumaine. In the soft ground, by the hose. I know this. I can almost picture it.” The squirrel who told me the story of the money tin had put me through a long guessing game about the location. I understood he was just toying with me out of boredom and ego. And I only played the game out of my own boredom and ego. But he had just enough detail that I thought maybe the story wasn’t complete bullshit.
But was the money really there? I had not planned to look for it, until suddenly I had a need to toy with someone.
We had dinner, and then Mary led me to bed. I thought it important for her to say when on that. Of course I’d been dyin’ for it. She ended up crying again, trying to smile through tears, her cheeks boiling pink. All the tears confused me. Sweetness mixed with sorrow.
About ten I left her asleep and dressed in the front room.
I walked over to the driveway. The van was quiet, but the side doors were open. When he popped his head out I said, “You want to do this?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m willing to check it out. That couldn’t hurt.”
He drove us to the Vieux Carré and parked by the tracks. Lower Dumaine Street was quiet, no tourists around. 515 was two-storied with an iron balcony, like I’d pictured it. But 515 did not have a front garden. 523 looked right. Something about the depilorated pink stucco. I tried the latch on the gate. Not locked. We went to a bar for a beer and some planning.
“I think that’s the place. It’s got a flower bed along the walk. How I pictured it.”
He sipped. “We got no shovel.”
“You don’t have anything in the car? Tools?”
“Wrenches and stuff.”
“But there’s no one home. Now is the time. We’ll find something. Shit, I’ll dig it with my hands.”
We drank the beers. Had another. Pool balls clacked in the back of the room.
“Thanks for helping Mary,” I said.
“No problemo. Did she tell you that she let me stay at your house one day? I had this god horrible toothache. I couldn’t work, or even move. She let me stay on the couch. It was a hot day. I woulda been a broasted chicken in the van.”
“S’okay. I’m glad she helped you.” Yeah, friendly indeed they’d been getting.
Muke had given me no reason so far to suspect that he’d poked Mary. And on his placid sunburned face I saw no fear of me being a dangerous guy who just got out of jail. I needed to raise the bet. “Did you notice some guy coming around?”
He shrugged. “Around your house? Nobody. Not that I ever saw. But I wasn’t there a lot.”
“There’s this one guy from her home town, Morgan City. Named Stebo. Ex-boyfriend I say, though Mary won’t admit it.”
Muke shook his head.
“Good. Guy gets on my nerves. Like he’s got something on her. She lets him hang around, just to be polite, I guess. Next time he shows up he might go home with a crowbar in his skull.”
Muke rasped a chuckle. He told me about this old girlfriend who ran out on him in California and then did it again in Colorado. He was getting tuned up as we drank. Talkety. Even a little hilarious. And still not scared of me.
”It’s tough to be in jail,” I said. “With a pretty girl like Mary at home, and I left her pretty flat.”
“It’s got to be tough.”
I leaned toward him as if I didn’t want the bartender to hear. “I was afraid she might go back to turning tricks.”
His eyes darted away from mine. “Tricks?”
“For money. That’s what she was doing when I met her.”
“No way. She’s such a girl-next-door.”
“Yeah. But she knows how to use what she has. I made her stop. But it was too late. She had herpes.”
“It’s a fungus. You’ve heard of it.” I could tell by the way he straightened up that this was news to him. Left jab, right hook. “She gets these sores all over her pud. If you get it, it won’t make your pecker fall off, but it’ll make you wish it would.”
He laughed, but not because it was funny. “But does that mean? That you and her don’t…”
“There’s times we don’t do it. Other times the rash goes away, but the fungus is always there. But I don’t have to worry. I’m immune. A few people are. Maybe you are.”
His pink ears turned pinker. “Well, I don’t know.”
“You’re born with the immunity. You either have it or you don’t.”
Muke ducked his head. “I haven’t been around that much. Round, round, get around, I don’t get around. Just the one girlfriend, really. Banged her bowlegged though.”
And there you had it, sports fans. After what I told Muke, it bothered him having to confess he was practically a virgin, not that his crotch might start itching like the mange. So I found him innocent. It made me happy. Because if he passed, there was no reason for me to not trust Mary.
“Well?” I swirled the last inch of my beer.
“I’m getting brave. We better do it before I shoot past brave right to stupid.”
I laughed. Pretty funny guy. I guess I could see how he got to park his van in the driveway.
We went back to 523 Dumaine, opened the gate, and slipped inside. The house was dark, and some shrubbery along the front fence protected us from passing eyes. A couple of bent steel patio chairs clustered in one corner. Moss in the cracks of the bricks softened our steps.
I found a small garden spade on the porch, and poked around with it a little in the soft dirt between two bushes. Then Muke took the tool and dug a little more energetically.
“Wait! Djew hear that?” He handed me the shovel and bent down to feel around in the dark hole.
Right there, holding the shovel, him with his back to me, was when I would have brained him and left him to his fate if I thought he’d screwed Mary. But I was glad I didn’t have to do it. Mary never turned tricks. She’d give it away, and probably had at some point to that coon-ass dishwasher Stebo. But apparently not to Muke.
So this had become a hoot. Maybe we would find a box of money. When he thought he found something, my heart raced for a moment.
Just then the light went on in the curtained window to our right. I pressed my hand on Muke’s back and hissed.
He looked up. “Shi-i-i-it,” he breathed.
Muke raised himself quickly and silently, while I lay the shovel on the ground. I pushed some dirt back in the hole with my foot. We tip-toed out and ran away laughing like seventh-graders.
I had to stop to breathe. “What did you find?”
“In the hole,” I gasped.
He shook his head. “Dunno. Piece of tile.”
I had to laugh. “I think we better call it a night.” Since I had no treasure, and damn little besides, Muke bought a bottle of cheap, sweet wine and we drank it. Then he bought another.
In a pukey-smelling dive on St. Ann he said, “I want you to know, I never touched Mary.”
That’s when I knew that he had done just that. He had sensed my suspicion before, and then sensed that I’d been convinced of his innocence. The beach boy had fooled me. But then he’d fooled himself. And me without a shovel in my hand. Now I had to keep him with me a while longer. I smiled my least wolfy smile. “I know you didn’t, or you’d be itching by now.”
Muke chuckled jovially. Then I knew that he not only knew about herpes, he thought he knew more about it than I did. And he thought he knew that Mary didn’t have the fungus.
“Hey,” I said. “You’ve been buying all the drinks. Let me do something for you.”
“Here.” I held out a yellow tablet. “This will mellow you nicely.”
“It’s not a downer, is it? I can’t handle those at all.”
Oh please, step into my left hook. “Nah, it’s synthetic THC. Like trippy grass.”
Muke took it out of my palm. “What about you?”
I held up another tablet, popped it in my mouth and took a big swallow of beer. Palmed the pill, of course.
Muke laughed merrily at my derring-do, and took the pill. Down the hatch with Phil’s Thorazine. One of these takes Phil from ready to jump off a building to, can’t get out of his chair. I’d hate to see what it’s going to do to the Sundance Kid, here, especially aided by beer and wine.
When we finished our beers, I steered Muke outside. “Look here. I’ve got something else. A special treat.” We staggered down to the far end of Bourbon Street, to a particular kind of bar, where a trio of trannys, all chiffon and pink lipstick and hormone shots, took my boy into the restroom. He was looking at me laughing as they led him away. I heard some whooping from in there.
I had to leave. I’d hate to see what happened when the Thorazine kicked in. Waking up face down on the floor of a French Quarter gay bar at nine in the morning might be the best he could hope for.
Sometimes I’m deliberately brilliant.