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Terry White
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lastmatch.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2010

Last Match in New Orleans

 

Terry White

 

When he asked at the desk for change for ten dollars, the young black woman said cheerily, “Don’t spend it all in one place.”  The man next to her at the computer smirked.   This was his first stay at the Drake Hotel, although he had played matches in San Francisco before.  He remembered the last one at a condo in Pacific Heights, and the memory was pleasant.

 

He took a leisurely stroll down to Fisherman’s Wharf.  The sun was cheering despite its being early spring.  Back home there had been nothing but icy drizzle for weeks on end.  He realized he had been mildly depressed all this time.

 

He ignored the surge of shoppers crisscrossing his path.  He decided to watch the harbor seals cavort around the pilings or sunning themselves oblivious to the human beings tossing scraps of food.  He remembered a restaurant down there with a lot of glass and sunshine streaming through.  His appetite sharpened because the langostinos in their piquant sauce returned as a welcome olfactory memory.

 

A little way off from a crowd of Chinese-American children, he watched the seals twist their tapered bodies near the pier.  He was slightly repulsed by a dozen of them all packed together sunning on a pile of rocks supporting a buoy.  Their thick bodies were wedged together in a gelatinous mass where the eye could barely discern a snout here or a fin there. He forgot what families of seals were called. 

 

A young child’s crying nearby disturbed his reverie about the last match he had played.  It was the way she cried, not as bratty children cry for attention but mournful, too old a sound for such tiny lungs.  He turned away from the harbor breeze with its reek, and saw a young woman reaching down to grab the child by her hand.  The mother’s short chestnut hair was feathered off her head and fell across her face.  The light breeze was enough to lift it.

 

David was struck by the spectacle despite his desire to return to the chess game in his head.  He noticed two other children, an older boy, maybe six or seven, and another girl, who must be hers as well, clustered around the young woman’s legs.  She looked in her early twenties and she was obviously well along in her pregnancy. The older children looked on with blank stares while their youngest sibling cried.  The mother caught the child by the wrist and gently pulled her away from the curb.  Another breeze lifted her hair and David was struck by the sheer prettiness of her distressed face in profile.

 

She did not look poor.  The children were dressed well, a little unkempt, but not unusually so.  The mother’s clothes were neither fashionable nor worn for comfort, but he was never able to distinguish between expensive dishabille and a slovenly chic that aimed for that effect. 

 

The child’s crying revved to higher tones and he felt his space invaded as moan became screech, then climbed the scale toward dog whistle.  It made him feel a squirmy distress—he wasn’t sure why—so he left the jetty and headed for the shining restaurant. 

 

Waiting for the waiter, he wondered where the father of this family might be.  A good meal and a glass of pinoir would fix this darkening mood.    

 

He had never challenged Tommy V. on the sixty-percent share of the winnings.  After all, Tommy fronted the money and had the contacts.  They were supposed to split travel expenses, although it wasn’t the even-steven he promised.  David was no good at negotiating whereas Vacca had a natural bent for it.  You could drop this paunchy, florid-faced white man into the Lost Quarter of the Arabian Desert, and he would be bargaining with the toughest blue tribesman for a camel inside of fifteen minutes.  David easily imagined Vacca’s thick hairy fingers wiggling numbers into the palm of some nutbrown Toureg.

 

He called Tommy at the Renaissance Center downtown and said he would be staying at the Drake for a few days.  Tommy shrugged off his disappointment.  “It happens,” he said.   Excepting one seventy-five thousand dollar loss two years ago, he had made just short of a million in almost nine years, invested most of his forty percent in T-bills and money-market certificates.  The stock market was recovering from this past brutal year, but he was worried because his desire to play chess at this demanding level was waning.   He told Vacca never to book him unless very big money was at stake. 

 

When he reached the Drake, he saw the woman again with her brood trailing slightly behind at the same instant a maroon Escalade at a high rate of speed was approaching from the opposite direction.  David’s heart lurched, and his brain took a crazy snapshot, freezing it just as the mother reverse-clutched and snapped her two children’s arms back before the big car mowed them all down in the middle of the street. 

 

When time resumed, the car had passed with a contemptuous toot of its horn; they all stood on the median, mother and ducklings temporarily safe.   David thought, “The woman will get them all killed.” The Beefeater grimaced politely and nodded to David as he stepped past.  His lunch had been satisfying and he felt that a nap after his brisk walk and trolley ride would be a good thing.  He liked the décor of his room—the burnished old furniture, a handsome mahogany armoire, and the striped sheets and patterns of his curtains.  

 

He called Tommy V. and learned the match in New York was canceled because his opponent had a relapse of his thyroid cancer.  He told David to spend an extra day in town, take the Alcatraz tour, and come home.  He was lining up something promising in New Orleans.  David said he’d catch a later flight back to Dearborn, maybe Wednesday. 

 

The neighborhood where his foster parents had raised him was now an Arab enclave with ethnic restaurants, newspapers, and mosques.  David didn’t know anyone left from the time he had lived there.  The brownstones were still there and the maple trees lining the street looked the same in the fall, but the surrounding neighborhoods had flipped long ago and were now all black, showing the ravages of poverty and neglect like open sores; many abandoned or boarded up houses dotted both sides off the street.  Tommy mocked these “sentimental journeys” of his and David would flush with embarrassment.    

 

Freed of the anxiety he always felt before a match, he found himself restless and unable to stay put inside his room.  Coming down in the elevator, he was undecided between a long taxi ride about the city or a stroll down to Market Street where the sex clubs advertised their wares in a glitzy miasma of neon.  The light was turning a golden color beyond the taller buildings.

 

He was waiting for the traffic signal to change when he became aware of her in the small crowd standing with him at the corner.  Then she was suddenly standing beside him with her children clutching at her hands and legs, all in preparation to cross the intersection.  David’s pulse rarely rose even in the heat of intense combat when he knew he was about to vanquish his opponent.  He flushed.  It was like watching a ballroom couple burst out of stately sarabande into a frenetic tango.  He face burned when she accidentally brushed his side.  He shivered and felt heat rising to his face.  When they crossed en masse, he lingered back to watch her move ahead with her children. 

 

The children were listless, standing around unlike before, but their willingness to be herded by their mother was offset by a stupefied calm that made them reluctant to budge and made her task all the harder.  David would soon be past her, and his heart began thumping ever louder as he approached.  She ducked quickly toward one well-dressed man in a suit with a hand out, palm up, and David realized with a shock she was begging. The man made a brusque gesture with his own hand and picked up his pace to move past her. 

 

David knew in the instant before she did it that she would turn to the next stranger, him, and make the same appeal. 

 

But he was wrong.  She flicked her eyes to his and cut them to a group of three women chattering amiably just behind him walking closer to the curb.  She was about to dash for them when David reached out his hand and caught her firmly by the upper arm.

 

“Wait,” he said.  “Please.”

 

He began fumbling in his wallet.  His tongue was thick. She stood there a foot from him, eyes downcast, shrunken in herself, cocooned in her own public humiliation.  Her unabashed sensuality caressed David with the warmth of her body scent.  Her breath was minty.

 

He struggled to open his wallet and when he did, he realized he had no money in it.  After his shower, he had forgotten to extract some of the bills he carried in his money pouch for taxi rides, meals, and tips. The money belt was sitting back in his room safe. 

 

“I left my money in my room,” he said.  “I’m sorry, I—”

 

She was gone like smoke.  She regrouped her children and moved off farther down the street.  David stood rooted to the sidewalk and watched her recede into the swarm of late-afternoon shoppers entering and leaving stores.  He felt as if he had been struck across the cheek with a whip.

 

He ran back to his hotel oblivious to everything but the anguish descending over him.  An older couple in the elevator slowly inched to the rear as if he were contaminated; he realized he was talking to himself. 

 

Back in his room, he stooped over the tiny safe in the closet and cursed as he overshot the last number.  Twirling again, he missed the three-number sequence and the tumbler refused to drop the bolt.  He tried again and a fourth time and still failed to open the safe.  He staggered backwards and kicked his foot against it, which shot molten pain up his leg. A litany of filthy words he never used poured from his mouth.  These were the same words hissed by an exasperated opponent he had defeated easily in mere minutes and stripped of fifty thousand dollars.  David’s demeanor never changed, and his calm never betrayed him; he didn’t flinch at the man’s unexpected vituperation because he wasn’t a coward and on his battlefield, he could afford to be generous to his enemy. 

 

He slept until four in the morning.   He awoke with a headache and his mouth was parched.  His clothes were still on and his shoes pinched his feet.  He felt nauseated and ashamed.  He was baffled by the abrupt descent into a state of mind he felt was uncanny and unnatural to him like peering into a dark, unfamiliar room. 

 

He got off the bed like an old man waking up in the middle of the night.  He bent over the safe and twirled the three numbers effortlessly and the door popped open.  He took out his money belt and felt its familiar heft.  He had sensitive hands.  He could tell the difference between a face card and a numbered one based on the extra weight of the paint.

 

He dressed and went downstairs past the main lobby desk where the same woman who made change for his ten was looking at her computer screen.  Still logy, he almost stumbled into the Beefeater.  Traffic was mostly taxis and limousines.  The streets were almost empty except for a woman jogging past in a yellow-and-black spandex outfit.  He watched her thigh muscles bunch beneath the shiny material and the bouncing stride of her run; her white running shoes made a slapping wish-wish against the pavement.  Her firm rump barely jiggled with the motion.  David remembered an ancient biology teacher back in Dearborn who said that anything in nature that’s yellow and black will sting you, or bite you, or try to eat you.

 

A breeze of pungent smells met him in the open air and made his skin prickle with gooseflesh.  Bile churned in his stomach, threatening to scorch its way up his esophagus.  He began walking left almost by instinct.  He ached to stand on the spot where she had stood before him, her children in a loose orbit around them both.  

 

He felt himself being tipping over a precipice like that scruffy, mentally ill man on the trolley yesterday, jibbering nonsense, wetting himself.  He returned to his room and ordered a sandwich named for a comedian with a name he didn’t recognize.  David’s ignorance of celebrities and popular culture was profound.  He devoted ten hours a day to his chess.  He once stunned Vacca by not knowing who Angelina Jolie was. He ate half the sourdough sandwich with Hollandaise dressing before he regurgitated.

 

He placed the Do Not Disturb sign on the latch.  He stayed up watching television nonstop until the bill that management sent up between three and four in the morning was slid under his door.  He waited for it, an albino insect making its nocturnal entrance each night on cue.  Until he saw it, he couldn’t get to sleep.  He ignored the phone.  Tommy V. must be worried about his errant money-maker by now. He became afraid.

 

It must have been a Sunday, for he heard church bells in the distance.  He stopped pacing and went to the window and drew back the curtains.  He blinked at the intrusion of the light.  He saw tourists and traffic—then something familiar coming from the opposite side of the street toward the Drake.  His heart bumped.  He felt her before he recognized her.  She controlled the serotonin levels in his brain just by walking down the street with her pack of children trooping behind her. 

 

He rummaged through the pile of clothing. He threw on pants and a shirt, found his loafers in different corners of the room. 

 

He fled through the lobby and dashed past the white-bearded Beefeater and took in his open-mouthed reaction.  She was gone . . .   He hollered at the man, “Where did that woman with the kids go?”  The man stuttered but nothing coherent came out and then he pointed around the corner.

 

David ran in the direction pointed, and as he made the corner, he saw the older girl, trailing the rest, turn into an alley.  A sob or a laugh burst out of his chest and he dog-trotted happily toward them.  He had never sung since elementary school, never even in the shower, but he almost did then.  He wondered what strange notes would have come out of his mouth. 

 

When he approached them, he saw the panic in the young woman’s face.  A mother sensing danger for her young, no doubt. He saw the two bigger children slip behind her legs for protection, while the youngest crouched, half-hid, behind a big slab of cardboard covering someone had propped against the side of the Drake’s back wall. 

 

He could have wept with frustration and joy at the thought of her hiding inside this flimsy protection in a filthy alley while, all these last torpid days, he was a stone’s throw in his comfortable room.  He did something he had never done before in his life with any child:  he cooed reassuringly at them from a distance. He approached carefully and let soothing words tumble out of his mouth.

 

“W-what do you want?” she asked him.  Her voice was girlishly high.

 

“I want to give you something,” he said. “That’s all.”

 

“Why?”  Her face was slightly smeared with grit and her clothes didn’t look fresh.  The children started to whimper a single word:  “Mommy.”

 

He held out his money pack.  “For you,” he said.  “For the children.  To get—to get something to eat.”

 

Her eyes were red-rimmed. She wobbled on her feet.   David rushed to her and caught her in his arms and they both went down to the ground in a heap.  Before he knew what he was doing, he was stroking her face and smoothing the hair over her brow.  

 

When she came to, he lifted her to her feet and half-carried her back to the hotel with his arm wrapped around her waist.  The children, amiable ducklings who sensed the strange man was not going to hurt them, followed in their wake. 

 

The Beefeater’s expression urged David toward hysterical laughter.  People standing in front of the elevator stood back as David commandeered it for his new family.

 

Inside his room, he helped her over to a padded armchair.  He asked the children if they would like to sit on the bed and he gave the bigger girl the remote.  She was a tiny clone of her mother with blue veins showing through her translucent skin.  She took it without hesitation and immediately scanned to a show which caused the boy to erupt in a yell of glee and then look sheepishly at David.  David smiled at him. 

 

The phone rang.  Someone identifying herself with a triple-word title was enquiring about unregistered “guests” in a voice that between friendly and rude.

 

“Mind your own business,” David fumed, careful not to let the children sense his anger.  “I’ll pay for them.  Don’t call this room again.”

 

David returned to the young mother, whose eyes were closed.  He knew she was awake and listening to his every word.  He asked her name and told her his.  During the next hour Emma told him how she and the children had come to be abandoned.   Children’s Services were on her trail, she said wearily, so she was forced to keep moving.  Her husband was long gone, she said.  He had abandoned her the day he learned he was being laid off and she was pregnant again .

 

“I’m here,” he said, slightly aware how false this must sound.  “I’ll do whatever I can.”

 

When she asked to use the shower for herself and the children, David nodded, barely able to contain his ebullience.  “I’ll be outside,” he told her.  “I’ll go for a walk.”  He checked his watch. 

 

She smiled at him.  David felt a surge of love wrap itself around him that was almost narcotic. When he returned from a walk that seemed more like hours than minutes, they were all well fed by then and the children lay asleep in different places on the bed.  Silver trays were stacked outside the door, many still laden with untouched food.  David laughed when he saw what the waiters had rolled into the room on trolley carts.

 

David went down to the lobby and paid for two rooms’ worth, although he didn’t want them to leave his room.  He bought what he needed at a drug store on Van Ness and tipped the driver twenty dollars.  He was giddy with happiness. 

 

When he was shaved, he walked down the hallway to their room.  He was suddenly panicked at the thought she might have(had?) second thoughts and left.  When she opened the door to his room and stood there refreshed from her own shower, her dark blonde hair hung in caramel strings along the side of her oval face. 

 

Something clicked in David’s brain as soon as he hung up from his call to Vacca:  the name of the residence in New Orleans where the next match was proposed:  Belle-Garde or Belle-Grande—something Tommy had let slip in their conversation before he left town.  Vacca was always careful to keep every detail of the contests between David and his opponents until the last minute as a way of justifying his big percentage.  David’s announcement of his new intention rattled him.

 

He formulated a plan as he lay in bed.  Emma and the children would fly with him to New Orleans.  David would set up the match, his last.  He had enough money to start a new life with her.  If she were found by authorities, her children would be placed in foster homes.   He had close to a quarter-million dollars invested.  Persuading her to leave with him was going to be the most important thing he had ever done in his life.  The alternative, to lose her now, was unthinkable, a black vortex opening at his feet.

 

He bought them all clothes and gifts.  He sang songs with the children and laughed along with them while they sat around the television set in the evenings.  Once, he turned and caught Emma glancing at him, and he saw real fondness in her eyes.

 

The next day Vacca called David’s cell from a bar, but he slammed the phone down as soon as Tommy launched into a threats and pleas to think about this “sudden insanity” of his.  David made immediate plans to leave the city.  Tomorrow he would ask Emma to go with him.   

 

The hotel staff was glad to see them leave.  He left a pair of fifty-dollar bills on the polished dressers beside the bed of each room. 

 

* * *  

 

In contrast to the brisk sunshine of San Francisco, New Orleans was humid and rank.  Clothes stuck to them in the taxi cab ride down Interstate 10 into the city.  For the first time since he had left Dearborn at nineteen, he felt a dread of motels.  He told Emma they would rent a house as soon as he had his bearings.  The taxi took them to a Ramada at the edge of the Vieux Carré, where the smells were, if anything, ranker and the humidity close to unbearable. The girls, Sarah and Ally, quarreled and slapped each other until they both started to wail.  

 

Emma was silent all the way to the motel, but once inside their rooms, she quickly bathed and washed the children.  David left her to shower and called her from his adjacent room.  After a few minutes’ desultory conversation, they hung up.  She didn’t invite him over.  He barely slept that night.  In the morning over breakfast, things improved and moods were restored.  It had been an exhausting flight, Emma said, and David understood in her way she was apologizing for spurning his company last night.   She was almost as beautiful as his first impression of her but something was still not quite right with her beyond the exhaustion and the maternal claims.  David saw a hollowed sadness behind her eyes.  He knew it would take time for her to adjust to him.

 

He scoured the Times Picayune for houses and found a tumbledown colonial on a street called Bos Darc in one of the oldest bayou parishes.  Desperate to get them into a house and seeing nothing better on offer, he called the Sun Chance Real Estate agency and agreed to meet a woman named Chima Benson that same afternoon.   

 

It turned out to be a roomy, lopsided house where nothing was plumb or square, but it was more than large enough for their needs.  They moved in two days later with all their possessions packed into a Mazda Protégé David had picked up cheap from the police impound lot sale.  Sans furniture but with electricity and gas and water turned on, they wandered about their new home.  David contacted his bank for a wire transfer that morning to close the sale.  He was determined to give Emma and the children their own a house.   

 

In three weeks they were settled in and Emma had begun enquiries about schooling for the two older ones.  She and David had found an OB/GYN recommended to them by the neighbors, the Johnsons.  Curtis was a shrimper who owned a boat he moored to a jetty in the bayou.  David had felt all the tension of San Francisco far behind. He considered his life with Emma a miracle.  She didn’t love him yet, he knew, but he would remedy that with time.

 

While they were strolling the French Quarter and the children munched croissants, David saw a strange figure in nineteenth-century dress turning a corner just ahead of them.  The man strolled and smiled vacantly to himself.  David stood rooted to the spot until Emma tugged at his arm and asked him what the matter was.  David wondered whether he had actually seen him.  One saw so many oddities in this city and heard so many strange tongues that it hardly seemed like America at all. 

 

Emma’s doctor required money up front for her prenatal care despite the fact that she was six months “enceinte,” a word he had never heard before.  David never talked money with Emma, but he knew that he needed to restore his shrinking income soon.  The San Francisco money was long gone and coupled with the penalties on early withdrawal to liquidate for the purchase of the big house, David began to worry.  Curtis slyly prodded out of him what he had paid and whistled.  He said something in Creole or Cajun David didn’t understand, but it was obvious Curtis thought he had been swindled on the price.  Haggling over pennies and nickels was odious, an inherited racial memory; he had grown up in Michigan hearing expressions like “happy as a Jew in a junkyard.”

 

The sadness in her face wouldn’t cease, and he caught her at times looking off into the distance.  They had become gentle lovers weeks ago.  David desired her more but she seemed less eager as the days and weeks passed.

 

Six weeks into their new life in Louisiana, she came home from shopping and David smelled beer on her breath.  Her eyes were unnaturally bright and the pupils dilated.  She told him she wanted to have sex right then. He followed her into the bedroom while she stripped as she walked—David anxious lest the children awaken from their naps.  When she turned and held out her arms to him, her breasts were full and tipped dark with blood and her mons beneath her big stomach was a dark chestnut flame.  Before he entered her, she thrust herself up from the bed and said, “Wait.”

 

She reached under the bed and rustled among her discarded clothing. 

 

She came up with a folded envelope and tapped out a white powdery crystal into her palm and snorted it into her nostrils.  “Now you,” she said and held out her palm.  David,  hesitating a second, leaned his face into it, smelled the lavender scent of her wrist, and inhaled the powder.  A volcano went off behind his brain.  Then a hot, downward-rushing feeling flushed his entire body with a sensation he couldn’t describe—at least not while it was happening.  She took another snort.  David awoke four hours later and did not remember whether they had made love. 

 

A month passed, the unbearable spring heat had turned to a furnace-like temperature and the ancient air conditioner rattled and died.  They baked in the heat, too hot for television or eating much of anything.  Emma had horrible bouts of morning sickness.  David insisted they both stop taking drugs.  He worried about the kids going hungry while she slept in all morning.  He was sick with worry that she might still be using, poisoning the unborn infant’s blood with the toxic residue of her own bloodstream. 

 

The money was evaporating like sugar in water.  When she was feeling ill, her pupils and her mood turned black and she hollered at David and the children for anything that went wrong—the cracks in the ceiling, the heat and humidity outside, the stench from the distant bayou—it was all a personal affront to her.  Yet he never felt his love slip or his desire for her diminish by a fraction. 

 

He asked Curtis one morning in a roundabout way what he thought an addiction to meth could do if worse came to worse. 

 

“Your wife, she, like, fixen to be a dope fiend or what?” Curtis responded in his thick patois.

 

David, horrified he had given him that impression, protested mightily.

 

“Crystal meth, oh man, it’s bad shit.  She, like, scratching her face and all?” 

 

David recalled a few blisters on her chin that had scabbed over and which she covered with makeup.  She was brushing her teeth five and six times a day but David saw her looking in the mirror that morning checking for caries.

 

“Shee-yit, them crank bugs is a bad sign. Ya’ll got to do something.  She can’t be takin’ no drugs ‘n expectin’ a baby and all, man.”

 

“I don’t know what to do,” David said.

 

“Ya’ll better have the Bank of New Orleans to pay for her habit then.” 

 

Curtis spat a gob of tobacco.  He swept a hand over his head and removed the greasy ballcap with the other in a move David had seen many times.  His dark curls beneath the cap were sleek as a ferret’s.

 

Vacca had deceived him about the estate and the man he was to play in New Orleans.  There was no Belle-Garde or Belle-Grande in the city directory and an online search at the public library came up zilch.  He called every estate owner he’d found and came down to his last four choices. One across the river, one in Metaire, one near Algiers, and one out near Lake Pontchartrain. 

 

The estate owned by a man named Ouellette was called Beaubien and existed well beyond the Mississippi due south of Live Oak Manor and Waggaman Pond.

 

“Beaubien ain’t on any map,” drawled Ouellette, “because the snobs on the board of the Historical Preservation Society deemed it bad juju. You see, it’s an old slave plantation where hundreds of men, women, and children died violently.  Hanged most ‘em, whipped some of to death, tortured a few dozen to boot.  The master, whom I’m not ashamed to acknowledge, was my own great-great-grandaddy.  He was apparently afflicted with some form of madness. He was dying of syphilis, or so I believe.  He found himself a crew of Irish overseers, all hired on the basis of their malevolence or sexual degeneracy toward slaves.” 

 

David had reached him by with his last two quarters in pocket change when a slender young woman named Meghan at the research desk told him of Beaubien’s dismal history among plantations.

 

“They’s still a whole buncha them runnin’ around New Orleans, living in the swamps and bayous on the coast,” she said.  “All related by blood through their overseers.  People in New Orleans started calling them high–yallers because even their eyes were the color of tea.  None of ‘em like to admit they carryin’ Irish blood, naturally.  Cain’t say as I blame ’em.”

 

Ouellette was intoning more details, cultivating a banality he seemed to enjoy while he kept David on the phone. 

 

“This family genealogy is very interesting, Mister Ouellette, but what about our match?”

 

“That uncouth fellow in the Bronx or Detroit, was it?  He said you was havin’ personal problems—words to that effect, and I was to inform him if you got in touch with me.”
         

“Does it matter to you whose money I play with?”

 

Ouellette laughed.  “I don’t care whose money I take.”

 

“Then let’s set up a time,” David said.

 

“Tomorrow night.  I serve dinner at eight.  You ever had ortolans, Mister—”

 

“David.  David is fine.  I’ll be there at eight o’clock.”

 

                                                   * * *

 

Ouellette’s manservant draped them both in bone-white white sheets.  David felt idiotic but submitted without demur.  Ouellette’s conversation and diction ranged from backwoods illiterate to cosmopolitan and segued from subject to subject in a lazy circular fashion, but he always seemed to return to the starting point. He spoke three languages, he said, and was teaching himself langue d’oïl, the dialect of French spoken in northern France in the Middle Ages. 

 

“I have a smattering acquaintanceship, you might say, with langue d’oc,” he added as he smoothed the sheets in his lap and looked at David through what appeared to be a monk’s tapered cowl.  “That was spoken in the South and would evolve into Provençal.” His eyes were that smeary blue that women’s magazines called sexy.  His skin was fair and his white-blonde hair made him look Scandinavian.

 

The ortolans were served in butter with feet intact.  Lightly braised in a pan, they looked like skinned sparrows which could have been pecking for worms hours earlier.

 

“The sheets, of course, keep the gore and blood from spattering about,” said Ouellette.  “Now the trick, David, is to eat them whole, guts and all, and pluck the feet out of your mouth. See, watch me, and I’ll show you how to do it.”

 

David watched Ouellette insert the solid object delicately through the hole in his covering until it disappeared into his mouth.  Seconds later he heard the feet hit the plate.  Ouellette’s face was obscured but he suspected he was immensely pleased enjoying himself.  David noticed that his own sheets had been spattered with blood and innards from the bird.

 

“Now I’ve done this many times,” he said blithely, “and I assure you it is very difficult to do without making something of a mess.  Bon appétit, mon ami.”

 

David managed to eat most of one ortolan, but it was impossible to eat it the way Ouellette himself did and he made a disgusting mess of the bird.  He watched four sets of bird feet join the first pair on Ouellete’s plate, each hitting with a tinny rattle.  When another male servant came around to pour, David firmly refused with his hand over the glass.  By then, David counted four full glasses of wine Ouellette had downed. 

 

David declined cigars and port.  He wanted to get on with the match.  A proposed first match of one hundred thousand.  Rematches at seventy-five apiece until the winner called it.  David had emptied his entire account.  There was nothing left.

 

They adjourned to the den where the expensive chess board was set up.   It looked old and valuable like everything in the house including the four sets of medieval armor.  The massive earthstone rubble fireplace was alight with hissing chunks of coal.  One-half the room remained chilled to a morgue-like temperature.

 

“White goes first,” Ouellette said.  “And I’m always white.  House rules.”

 

Ouellette drank more wine and talked throughout the match.  David played his usual aggressive opening game but avoided obvious gambits until he knew his opponent.  Ouellette lost piece after piece but never became provoked into long reflection.  He talked merrily of weather, culture, books, and history.  He moved his pieces with a reckless bravado that made David relax.

 

Then he saw it—that is, he saw it five moves ahead.  In his prime at grandmaster level, he could see ten moves clearly, eleven decently, and twelve when he was at the top of his game.  This was clever, Ouellette’s trap, but by the time Ouellette was set to spring it, David would move his knight out of harm’s way and with his next move with his rook, he would place Ouellette’s queen in mortal danger.  It would be catastrophic. 

 

Ouellette hesitated a fraction of a second when his turn came, and David took that for an obvious tell, a sign he had recognized David’s elusiveness.  Still he proceeded on course, chattering about the artifacts and relics the house possessed, and David, measurably relaxed, followed him to inevitable doom.

 

But it was not Ouellette’s doom.  When he realized it, David winced a fraction.  This was caught by his opponent and evoked a smile on Ouellette’s face though he continued nonplussed with his inane lecture about medieval chivalry.  David was going to lose his second match in more than four hundred games.  Rather than prolong his antagonist’s pleasure, he tipped over his king.

 

“Next game,” said David.  He felt his face whiten. One hundred thousand dollars gone, gone, gone.

 

“Not even a restroom break, David?”  Ouellette toyed with him, and said that he would need one himself, “to wash his hands.” 

 

“Your hands look clean enough,” David said, betraying his anxiety.

 

“Well, David, the expression ‘to wash one’s hands’ is often a euphemism for doing other things.”  Ouellette left the room whistling a song.

 

When he returned an agonizing twenty minutes later, David was in a state of distress and trying hard not to show how ruffled he was. His fingers felt like claws.

 

“My, my.  Champing at the bit, are we?” Ouellette said but never explained what took him so long.  He took his high-backed leather seat opposite David and kicked a leg casually over the armrest.  David had exchanged his own comfortable chair for a simple one without the plush stuffing.

 

“Ah, I see you are an admirer of the Louis quatorze.  Very good taste, David.

 

“Get on with it.  White moves.”

 

Ouellette put his finger to his lips and moved a pawn.  “A soft word turneth away wrath.”  He would occasionally dab at his crotch as if to shift his genitalia to a more comfortable position. 

 

David countered with his own pawn.  He was trying to drown out the buzzing sound in his ears. 

 

“You are Jewish, are you not?  I reckon New Orleans must be something of a culture shock to you.”

 

“You reckoned wrongly.”

“That so?  Ya’ll have family?”

 

“A wife, three children. We’re expecting our fourth.”

 

“A family man,” Ouellette said and winked so salaciously with his hand resting over his bulge that David wanted to reach across the board and choke him.

 

He lost the second game in less time.  The third game was destined to be a long drawn-out pitched battle.  Around one in the morning, Ouellette suggested they draw cards to decide the winner.  David shrugged, all his resources depleted by the steady nattering of the man and the loss of his entire reserve of cash. 

 

“You’re my guest, you may cut,” Ouellette said.

 

“Jack of hearts,” Ouellette said as David flipped over his card. “Oh thou knavish boy—”

Ouellette slurred and chittered nonsense as he shuffled and reshuffled the deck.  “Cut for me,” he told David. 

 

David flipped over the next card in the deck. 

 

“A queen of spades to me.  So sorry, David. I know you don’t carry that kind of cash on you.  Please leave your check with my man on your way out.”

 

David wrote and signed the check.  An elderly white man appeared from a vestibule bordered in stained glass.  He was holding a brindled Pressa canaris on a short leash.  David handed it to him while the dog’s massive snout slavered onto his shoe.  He noticed his hand was shaking.

 

Ouellette appeared suddenly at the door, still talking. 

 

“Ya’ll take care of your family,” he said.  “Hurricane’s coming.  I can smell it.”

 

David brushed past him. “Smell your own shit.”

 

On the ride back to Bos Darc, David saw a serpentine glitter of lights spoking out from the city and stretching in all directions from as far south as Tchoupitoulas Street by the river.  It looked as if all Jefferson Parish was on the move.

 

The house was dark.  She had not left a light on for him.  He checked on the two girls in their room and the boy Michael in his.  Emma lay asleep, a light beading of sweat stippled her white forehead.  He knew if he were to brush the damp hair out of her eyes he would see her black pupils.  She was high all the time now. She lied to him and to the doctor but the last amniocentesis test said the baby was addicted and would have to be born Caesarean. 

 

David’s depression over the loss of all his money exhausted the last store of his energy.  He fell into bed beside her and slept until late afternoon.  When he awoke, she was gone.  The kids were not in their beds.  He walked outside into the miasma of heat and noticed Curtis packing up his black Chevy pickup. 

 

“Ain’t you leavin’?”  Curtis shouted to him.

 

“Why would I leave?”  David saw that the entire Johnson family, like carpenter ants, carrying goods from their house in a row and dumping the items at Curtis’ feet.  He had elastic straps he was securing to the underside of the truck bed and had to climb the mound of bric-a-brac and furniture piled high above the bed.

 

“Boy, they’s a hurricane coming.  It’s bearing down on us from the open sea.”

 

“A what?” 

 

David’s sleep fog had not yet lifted.  That explained the caravansary of automobiles fleeing in one direction he had seen last night.

 

“You must be the only person in No’rleans that ain’t runnin’ for high ground.”

 

“Have you seen Emma, Curtis?”
         

“I seen her this mawnin’.  She had the kids with her.  Some guy in a car swung by and picked up ‘em up ‘bout seven o’clock.”

 

David didn’t know what that meant.

 

Curtis jumped off the pile of furniture and walked over to him shaking his head. 

 

“Look, David, I tole you when ya’ll moved to Bos Darc that the levee holding back the water isn’t worth piss on cotton if we was to get a direct hit.  Got-damn city’s eight feet below sea level as it is.  Never mind it’s a category four hurricane looking to be a five by the time it hits land. Fact is, a tidal surge might could bring ‘bout twenty-five, thirty feet a water straight through here—”

 

David looked up at the sky and saw a mountain of inky clouds over the sea stretching from one end of the horizon to the other.  The air was damp, saturated with moisture, and the light over the gulf was fast changing to pewter.

 

“—winds off a five can produce tornadoes and shit, man. You got to get out or you and them kids and that woman gonna drown like fuckin’ sewer rats.”

 

“Curtis, did you see who was driving the car?” 

 

Curtis stared at him, shook his head sadly, and walked back to his truck; he began tying off a rope to the underside of the chassis. 

 

David ran into the house for his car keys and raced to the Mazda.  He ran through the gears until the little car made a wheezing sound.  He tore into corners and nearly fishtailed into cars with U-Hauls.  He bolted through stop signs.  He didn’t dare think she had gone, met someone, or maybe she had called her pusher and talked him into picking up. 

 

Tears and sweat made his vision blur.  The city was almost empty.  He raced from one end of the Quarter to the other.  He looked for cops but didn’t see any.  He stopped people scurrying past him:  “Have you seen a woman and three little kids—”

 

He sat on a curb in despair.  He heard four lissome trumpet notes from a nearby jazz bar.  He wandered up and down the streets where he and Emma had walked on Sundays.  He knew people were staring at him, agog and wide-eyed.  This was the city of Paul Morphy, that utterly deranged chess prodigy, wandering the streets of the French Quarter, smiling at his own conceits. 

 

Then a last flicker of hope stirred in him:  maybe she was out looking for him.  He ran back to the car soaked in perspiration.  The wind had picked up and fluttered garbage and papers; cigarette packs and condom boxes bounced down the gutters.  The light shifted to a milky gray.  He floored the engine home. 

 

Curtis and his family were gone.  He noticed that all the houses on Bos Darc were empty.  Very few had bothered to board up planking over the windows. There was no one left on the street.  He felt like the last man alive on earth. 

 

When he stumbled into the big house, shaking all over, he heard a noise from the kitchen.  They were all there:  Emma was cooking a gumbo at the stove and singing some popular ballad about hope and sorrow.  Michael and Ally were playing chess in at the table in the nook and arguing over who had won the last game. Baby Sarah was coloring stick figures on the floor near her mother.  Her tiny legs were crossed behind her and she was humming her own song—four bird notes, out of key. 

 

David stumbled in brushing away tears of relief.  He looked over the baby’s shoulder to see her drawing and asked her, “Who are these, honey?”

 

She turned and flashed him a big toothy grin with the gap between the incisors.  She would have Emma’s stunning beauty one day.  David could see the little moustache of sticky chocolate ice cream still on her mouth.  She pointed at the largest figure, a woman in a triangle dress and loop earrings. “That’s Mommy,” she said.  She pointed at two smaller figures and named them as brother and sister. 

 

“Who’s that one?” he asked her.  There was a third small figure standing in the corner looking away from the others; he was slightly taller than Michael.  He looked like an outsider, shunned. 

 

“That’s you, David,” she said.

 

“Why is he sad?” David pointed to the purple wavy line of his mouth.

 

“He’s not sad,” she giggled.  “He’s happy.  That’s a smile, you silly.”

 

“Okay,” David said. 

 

He felt tears reform at the corners of his eyes.  Emma stared at him with a look somewhere between a laugh and a sob from the doorway.  Her pupils were dilated; she had worked in a dope fix with the ice cream treat.

 

An image flitted through his mind and disappeared—no, he would never wind up like Bobby Fischer ranting about Jewish “snakes” from the Reykjavik airport or Paul Morphy tapping along with his cane in the French Quarter. 

 

The first fat drops of rain smacked the house.  They all stopped and stared at one another.  David’s family listened to the wind’s a capella soughing as it rose by decibels and curved with flats or sharps to a banshee moan, coming from far out in the bayou, way out in the gulf where the black sea was churning the waves to froth and the bruised clouds were rising miles high into the air, big dirty glaciers of swirling water vapor waiting to ravage the earth, eager to sluice their walls of ocean water to carve new scars on the land and the people below.

 

 

roundym1111.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2012

Let Me Get This Round

 

Terry White

 

 

I’ve spent one-third of my life behind bars.  If it weren’t for all the baby gangbangers coming in and speeding up the furloughs, I’d still be inside.  Shit, I’m tired of the Graybar Hotel.  I’m weary of baloney sandwiches, snitches, prick guards who crack your cell, punks, getting cuffed up, getting up and going to bed at the same time every day and every day as gray and hollow as the one before it.  Prison is hell with a lid on.

 

When my cousin picked me up at the Greyhound station in Kittsborough, I knew he had another get-rich-quick scheme rattling around in his head.  Before I had the match struck to light my first cigarette, he came out with it.        

 

So I asked him, “How many years of my life is this going to cost me when you fuck it up behind me?”

 

This last bid broke something in me. The Tennessee parole board said I could walk around free unless I mess up the conditions of my release.  I said to them that I did not, by God, intend to mess up the conditions of my release.

 

Andy’s buddies all drink the same cheap brew, drive the same beat-to-shit Silverados, and screw the same sleazy women.  “There’s no way I’m getting involved in any brainstorm your tweaker pals dreamed up,” I said.  The second he mentioned the Pugh twins, I knew it for a cast-iron certainty because Donny and Danny are the two dumbest boys in creation.

 

Check out Andy’s comeback, this turd on two legs who got me a five-year stretch over that payroll mess in Dollyville:  “Even a blind squirrel finds him a nut.” 

 

As it was, I had five years to memorize Section 2120 of chapter one-oh-three of title eighteen of the Armored Car Crew Protection Act of 2003, subsection a, which if you want to hear it, goes like this:  ‘Whoever, by force or violence, or by intimidation, takes, or attempts to take, from the person or presence of another, or obtains or attempts to obtain by extortion, any property or money or any other thing of value belonging to, or in the care, CUS-tody, CON-trol, MAN-agement, or PO-ssession of, any ARM-ored car shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years.’   I don’t mean to be a drama queen about it, the past is the past, but Andy can do the backstroke in the toilet bowl and never once figure out he’s swimming in shit. 

 

“Donny and Danny work at the Super Walmart over to Murfreesboro.”    

 

“So what?”  The beer was unbelievably good after so long I wanted to cry.

 

“Here’s what, Mister Impatience.  We done a math count and they’s one hundred thousand dollars, more probably, on the weekends.” 

 

“Oh, you done the math.  Did you do the part where the cops figure it’s an insider job in three-point-five seconds and come over to arrest your dumb ass?”

 

“Whoo, jail time has made you one ornery S.O.B.”  He shook his head at the sadness of it. 

 

Some bar pickup told Andy he looked like Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon, so he refused to cut that stupid-looking mullet.  The Pughs, now, are fashion plates; they wear high-and-tight buzzcuts, and with their jailhouse tats, they look like a Nazi wet dream.  The local paper has a phrase for them when they get into trouble:  “Daniel and Donald Pugh are no strangers to the police.” That’s why they work shitty jobs delivering pizzas and unloading trucks.  Both of them have been kicked out of every bar between Kitt and Nashville, so ain’t nobody going to hire them as bouncers, which is what they think God made them to do when they aren’t doing crime.

 

My second day of freedom he started up on me again.  He thought a couple beers might soften me up. 

 

“Andy, I’m just too tired for this shit, man.  I been looking for work all day and come up with zilch.  I ain’t even supposed to be in this bar, but since everybody else is a outright criminal, I figure I’m OK.”

 

“OK, cuz, I hear you.  Take a few more days.  Unwind, man!  Get them prison kinks out of your system.  We’ll talk about this again when you can be reasonable.”

 

“No, we won’t,” I said, “because I ain’t doin’ no more time.  Look at me.  I realized something about myself when they kicked me loose last time.”

 

“Oh do say, cousin.  What all is it you realized?”

 

“I ain’t gonna die young.”

 

I got up from my stool and took a last look around.  It was a scene I had dreamed about in prison every day of my stretch:  me sitting in a dark bar, downing a shot of JW black, chasing it with a cool one—a real beer with a foamy head, taste so good it was like an angel pissing on your tongue, not the pruno in the joint to take the pressure off.  Sometimes I’d put a woman in my fantasy—a good-looking gal with curves and long, dirty-blonde hair.  Not a skank with a lot of miles on her.  Somebody who doesn’t see this loser who can’t hold down a job or keep a woman satisfied so she’d want to stay with him—somebody to set things right with.

 

I felt a hundred years had passed since I was in this place and all I wanted was to get out and go home, stick a pillow over my head and sleep twenty hours straight.  That’s how I made time pass.   They tried to give me pills for my depression, which they called it, but shit, I said to the shrink, “This is the best thing that’s happened to me.  Wake me when these five years are up.”  They didn’t bother me none after that.  When I got chalked up, I’d sleep the whole day away.  In Ad Seg, you can’t see outside anyhow.  There’s a milky light that don’t always mean dawn.  Sometimes I had night and day mixed up. They mess with your head in the joint and call it rehabilitation.

 

I heard knocking.  When I got up to answer the door, I saw Andy and the Pugh brothers staring at me from the porch.

 

“Hey,” Andy said.  “We thought you was dead and rotten in here.” 

 

He walked past me.  I was too groggy to throw him out.  Next thing I know, Donny and Danny are bumping past me like they got the same invite.

 

“You don’t answer your phone.  We was ready to bust down the fuckin’ door.”

 

“Yeah, man,” Donny said.  “I was fixin’ to call nine-one-one.”

 

“What’s up?”

 

“Shee-yit, you know what time it is?”

 

“I’m not sure what day it is.”

 

Danny laughed from the kitchen.  He was looking in my fridge for a beer.

 

Donny might have had a half-point more IQ than his brother because his one-legged bar whore of a mother shit him out first, but he was still a moron.  His head shook like one of those bobblehead dolls.  It was scary to think Andy was the brains of this trio.

 

Danny moved over to my TV set.  “Vols are playing,” he said and gave it a slap on the side when it fuzzed up.

 

“It’s busted,” I said.

 

“Fucking piece of shit,” he said.  He burped and kicked it so hard it slid off the coffee table and smashed on the floor.  That made Donny laugh. 

 

Donny’s had more fights in bars because of that goofy-assed laugh; it starts out real shrill like a girl’s and then it jumps around like a bunch of notes got tossed up in the air and then it ends with a sound that goes like yaw-yaw-yaw.  My head hurt from too much sleep. I prit-near mocked him and then cleared my throat to cover my mistake.  Donny did three years at the Castle for stomping the shit out of a guy in a parking lot just for doing that.  The boy’s lower jaw flapped around like a duck’s bill.  Danny thought that was hilarious and drew pictures of it with a Bic on the bar napkins.

 

“What the fuck,” Donny said, his suspicion aroused.

 

“No big,” Danny said.

 

“What do you want?”

 

“Walmart,” Andy said with a big, shit-eating grin on his homely face.

 

“Fuckin’-A, Jack,” said Donny. 

 

“It’s going down this week,” Danny said. “Hundred thousand bones.  Three-way split.  You’re comin’ in with us, boy.”

 

You know that feeling in your stomach before you come down with a bad flu?  I could feel the acid sloshing around.  I hadn’t eaten in a day by my reckoning.  I hadn’t shaved in three.  I looked like a shit casserole.  I had to get to my parole officer’s office.  It was not going to be a good day.  But it hadn’t been a good week when you’re doing the short and shitty, as they call it in prison, and as far as that went, it hadn’t been a good life.

 

Color me fucking stupid.  I agreed just to get them out of my hair before my parole was revoked for missing the first meeting. 

 

On the way downtown I thought about Andy’s plan.  These halfwits intended to do a takedown-style robbery by gunpointing people. Subtle, it wasn’t.  All elbows and assholes, guns flashing, people hollering.  Stupid, stupid. 

 

Donny showed me his arsenal in the parking lot.  Naturally, the braindead idiot kept his guns in his trunk.  The twins liked big guns. I saw a Freedom Arms 454 Casull and a Dan Wesson 744 6-shot revolver, a Taurus with a bobbed hammer, and a Charter Arms Bulldog.  Boxes of Blue Hill shells, silver jackets, Black Talons and Glaser slugs that could either punch two feet up a gelatin block or blow it up easier than farting in a bathtub.  More ammo than we have in Afghanistan.

 

“Not a big fan of automatics, huh, Donny?”

 

“Hell no, Jack. Those mothers jam on you and then what?  You’re fucked is what.   These babies deliver on time, every time.”  He posed for me, crossing his arms with a gun in each hand like a Mexican bandido.

 

“Jesus Lord, Donny, put that shit away!” Andy came running up to him.  “What ever is the matter with you?”

 

“Be cool.  I’m showin’ your cousin here my firepower.”

 

What I thought was He’s showing me LWOP, if I’m lucky, which I’m not, so it’s death row I’m looking at in the trunk of this car.

 

My mother tried to teach me right from wrong but somewhere I found other advice to follow.  Maybe it’s a family curse. We’re a secret race of Americans in the heart of Appalachia called Melungeons. We’re born with an extra knob on the spinal column and blueblack hair and blue eyes—“like Elvis Presley,” Andy liked to brag to the girls at the Red Dog:  part-Cherokee, part-European, and part white trash American hillbilly. 

 

The car bucked as he foot-tapped the brakes and slammed the horn to move traffic. Andy’s knuckles whitened to diamond points like a boxer’s fists.  “We’re so close,” he pleaded, his bluster replaced by a whine.

 

“I won’t risk it,” I said.

 

“The twins will kill you.”

 

“I have you to thank for that, don’t I, motherfucker.”

 

“Tommy, I can’t—I can’t pass this chance up!”  He palm-slapped the steering wheel for emphasis.  “I got nothin’.  Cinda-Lin’s up stick again.”

 

“Yours?”

 

“What’s that shit s’posed to mean?”

 

“Nothing,” I said.  

 

“I just look crosseyed at the girl and her belly swells up.” 

 

Andy had shacked up with her when I went off to prison five years ago.  She said she was pregnant then, and maybe she was, but lots of guys between Shelbyville and Nashville could have been the daddy.  It was like eating a bowl of popcorn and trying to figure out which one made you fart.  Not one of his three kids looked like him; all towheads with white-blonde hair just like their momma      

 

“I thought Cinda-Lin’s old man was going to get you a job at the distillery,” I said.

 

He wrote me three letters while I was gone.  His on-off relationship with Cinda-Lin and the job at the Jack Daniels Distillery near Tullahoma, where she came from, was the big news in all three. 

 

He shrugged off my question.  It was too long ago for him to remember.

 

He dropped me off at the corner where my parole officer’s building was situated. 

 

“Sorry I can’t bring you back, man.”

 

“No problem,” I said.

 

“I really need this score,” he said. 

 

My caseworker was decent.   He’d been doing this a long time—which is to say looking at lying-ass dogs like me sitting where I was sitting and telling him all kinds of crap about being reformed, finding religion, getting an honest-to-God job, and settling down.  No more meth, booze, cooze, brawling, and knockin’ the old lady around—No, sirree, Bob.  He had heard it a thousand times, so I went light on the bullshit.  He set me up for our next appointment and I thanked him.

 

I wanted to get a drink, but I didn’t like taking a chance in my parole officer’s backyard.  I noticed a couple Fat Boys on their kickstands at a curb down at the end of the street and decided to take a chance.  I walked past the bus stop where I had a two-hour wait. 

 

It was dark and smelled funky like most bars.  Jagger wailed on the jukebox while Keith Richards’ guitar slithered all around his voice.

 

The bartender was bald and wore a black vest like some blowboy leather bar; his arms were massive and wrapped in blue glyphs.  A couple bearded guys sat near the end talking close; they were tatted up with the AB sixes and shamrocks.  Not my kind of shitkicker bar, but what the hey.

 

Before I had done two years, my mother died of pancreatic cancer.  She set me up with the house and a few bucks in the bank to live off while I got straightened out—that was her hope anyway. 

 

When I thought the time was right, I flashed my wad. The bartender looked at it for a long time, which was a good sign.  I got the address I needed.  I pushed over a couple Benjamins and he slipped them into his jeans faster than a rat can fuck.

 

I took a taxi to a row house in the ghetto and made the connection.  I stuffed my purchases into a small folded-up sack I carried in my jacket.  I forked over two thousand for the lot. We bumped shoulders at parting.

 

I didn’t hear from Andy until Wednesday.  He came over about eight.  He was full of grain fibers and his eyes were swollen red from the dust.

 

“Get me a beer before I die,” he said.  “Jesus Christ, I hate this goddam work.” 

 

Whether Cinda-Lin was pregnant or not, she was using the courts to make him fork over for the milk and pampers.

 

“What time they coming?” I asked him.

 

“Tole them fuckasses to be here by eight, but, you know . . .”

 

About eight-fifty, they rolled up stinking like cat piss.  Maybe their lab would blow up and kill them before Friday night and my problem would be solved.

 

“Oh Lordie me, are you two high again?” Andy moaned.

 

He had to talk them out of robbing the in-store Third Fifth as well.  Danny was all primed for a twofer:  “We can do this, man.  Bam-Bam!  Take the safe in the back and the bank vault at the same time!”

 

“Fuckin’-A,” Donny chimed in, “we’ll be richer than King Farook.”

 

They high-fived each other.  I could see the red mist coming down over Andy’s eyes.  Now, I hoped, he’ll see how crazy this was. 

 

But Andy was past any kind of sense.  He unfolded a hand-drawn map with a layout of Walmart done with his kids’ crayons.  Different colors for different aisles, stick figures with rectangles in front of them.

 

“What the fuckin’ blue hell’s that?” Donny demanded.  He stabbed a dirty fingernail at the drawing.  His cuticles were black from too much Red Devil lye in his lab work.

 

“That’s a shopping cart,” Andy said.

 

“What you need to draw them in for?”  Danny asked. 

 

“Jesus wheezus, can’t you two just concentrate on the plan?”

 

“Shopping carts,” Donny said. 

 

“Never mind that,” Andy growled, “just look at this here pincers move.”

 

“Uh-oh,” Danny said.  “Somebody’s been watchin’ too much History channel.”

 

It nearly came to a punch up.  In a way, I was hoping for it.  The brothers were half-stoned and unarmed.  The odds would never be this good.  In two days we went.  It didn’t help to think past Friday.

 

The twins had to leave for the night shift, and Andy walked them out to the car.  When he came back inside, he avoided looking at me.

 

“Beer?” I asked him.

 

“God, no, my kidneys are on fire.  What you buyin’ Heinekens for, man?  It’s totally wasted on them shitheads.”

 

“I might not get another chance at good beer,” I said.

 

“I thought blood was gonna shoot out of my eyes ‘cause of them knuckleheads.”

 

“Andy, this isn’t going to end the way you think,” I said.

 

“Man, don’t tell me that.  Ain’t no stopping this train now.  I got to know you’re with me on this, Tom.”

 

Family . . . Jumping jackhammering Jesus . . .

 

Thursday night the twins showed up sober.  They had their guns with them and one or the other was constantly cleaning a weapon while Andy took us through the steps again.

 

Donny stumbled through his part and got mad a few times but when he started to lash out, Andy calmed him down.  It was like a man breaking a wild pony.  I had never seen this side of my cousin.

 

About midnight, Danny stood up and stretched.  His brother had been pacing for the last hour.  “We ain’t no A-rab terrorists, man.” Danny said.  “Why we got to learn all this shit?”

 

“We’re all tired,” I said.  “Let’s get some sleep.”

 

“Kiss my ass, Boy Scout,” Donny said.  “I’m heading to the Red Dog.”

 

The brothers lived out of a junk trailer.  The city health department sent a man around to condemn it, according to Andy, but the sight of the twins in the front wearing their nasty wifebeaters and Doc Martens caused an abrupt change of mind so the boys got the OK to stay one more year.  

 

I woke up at three in the afternoon Friday.  I picked out two pairs of socks and two sets of jockeys, which is an old jailbird’s trick of keeping one set on and have the other one washed and drying out in your cell. I hadn’t seen anything yet that told me this Walmart job was going to be anything but a four-star revolving fuckup.  I felt like a guy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

 

The twins, bless their little jellybean hearts, were on time.  They sat on either end of my mother’s old red velour sofa waiting for our crime czar and drinking.  Andy had overtime at the granary because he didn’t want his boss getting suspicious.     

 

I heard the rattle of his muffler and then he was inside the house, assessing his ragtag crew.  His eyes were big and his forehead was shiny with perspiration. Maybe the Pugh brothers’ product at work. 

 

He shagged past me into the bathroom and I heard him vomit.  He came out a minute later, ashen-faced, wearing this scraggly-assed moustache and goatee from a Halloween kit.  Even the stonecold Pughs cracked a smile.

 

“Let’s go get rich,” he said.  

 

We had a thirteen-minute window, tops.  That was how long it would take the manager to collect the day receipts from his senior staff, put the bills in the money counter in the back office, band them by denomination, and lock it all up in the safe.  Once it was in the safe, there was no getting to it.  Nobody came close to safecracking skills, although Donny might argue that throwing a chain around an ATM in Cookeville and hauling it off might count.

 

My spot was the Garden Center.  The twins were to go the lunchroom, and start the distraction before the night-shift crew arrived.  Once security reached the lunchroom, the clock started.  Andy’s position was to come behind after me when the smiley man went off duty.  The surveillance cameras were going to get a look no matter what, but as long as you don’t stare into one with your mouth open, there’s a fifty-fifty chance you won’t be recognized when the cops review the tapes.  I wore as much clothing as I could without drawing attention to myself and put a gimp in my step. I jammed the ball cap down to my ears.

 

At ten-oh-five, I tossed the $5 Jet Li DVD I was pretending to read back in the bin and made my way to the back offices.  Danny was supposed to meet me there.  He had the Taurus.  Donny’s assignment was to get the commotion going just as the manager and his security man were turning the corner at Automotive where the last collection was made.  Danny had to take the guard from behind.  We’d frogmarch him and the manager straight into the office on the right. 

 

One fat woman with blue hair should have been on her break.  My job was to tie them up with the pre-cut rope I tucked inside my pants.  Unless someone was coming out of an office, we had a clear shot at hustling the two men out of sight in a few seconds. 

 

They cleared Electronics and paused in the middle of the Automotive aisle.  Danny caught my look:  What the fuck.

 

I came up to him, just a couple guys chatting, and said, “Be cool.” 

 

I heard the clatter of shoe soles on the parquet floor of the corridor of the L-shaped warren of offices.  Two security guards hustled past us. 

 

Danny’s eyes grew big.  Where the fuck they at?

 

“Get a grip,” I said and dug my hand into his shoulder.

 

The fat old lady clerk entered her carrel, break over.

 

“Fuck this,” Danny said.

 

She clucked her tongue.  “Potty mouth,” she said.

 

Big mistake:  Fan, meet shit.  

 

Danny bolted toward Automotive.

 

By the time he corrected his slide and was drawing his gun, I was right behind him at the end of the aisle.  He screamed some gibberish at the manager, who was so surprised to see a man racing toward him with a gun that he slipped backwards to the floor.  The security guard had nylon cuffs, a can of Mace, a retractable steel baton—but no gun.  His hands shot straight up in the air. 

 

Danny scooped the canvas money bags the manager dropped with one hand like a chicken diving for a June bag.   If sparks could come from rubber sneakers, Danny would have set world records for speed.  He was gone like smoke. 

 

I turned and did a fast scissor-walk in the opposite direction before either of them got a good look at me. 

 

The next few minutes were pandemonium, as our Baptist preacher in the joint liked to say.  I kept my head low and shambled out the doors into the parking lot.

 

I counted six shots. Not the pops of a varmint gun but booms from a very big gun. 

 

Sirens were already screaming, and I saw the turquoise and cherry flashers at the top of the entranceway. 

 

Andy, breath reeking of vomit, sat behind the wheel and gasped, “Ho-oly shit!”

 

“Go, go, go!” I hollered.

 

It was a clusterfuck.  SWAT killed both Pughs.  Four Walmart customers are now shopping at the Great Super Store in the Sky for their bargains.  The twins took hostages.  Danny died in a snowstorm of bullets.  The paper said three hundred rounds were fired into the breakfast room.  The picnic tables they used as a shield were shot to matchsticks.  They picked twenty slugs out of Danny.  Donny had eight bullet wounds when he died, but his fatal shot came from a self-inflicted head wound. The Black Talon he used on himself was a fragmentation round that disintegrated his head above the lower mandible. 

 

The paper also said the police are looking for two more suspects.

 

Andy doesn’t call or come over now.  Every day he goes to work in the granary and leaves the house like he’s on the Bataan death march.  Cinda-Lin used that expression on the phone yesterday.  She got it from her grandad who fought in the Philippines.  Andy’ll find himself a lawyer and turn himself in, get the best deal he can.  I can’t hardly blame him.

 

Why am I sitting here in the Red Dog telling a perfect stranger all this?  I already done told you up front.  I ain’t going back.  When they come for me, I’ll have the doors and windows barricaded and my guns all laid out on the floor and enough water to last me one day.  I’ll spend my last hours thinking my own thoughts.  I told you something broke in me.  I ain’t sorry.  I’m a Melungeon, that secret race, part-Cherokee, part white-trash, so it’s in my blood. 

 

Here, let me get this round, brother.

 

 

 

Terry White writes crime, noir, and hardboiled fiction.  Besides a story in Yellow Mama, he has stories online at A Twist of Noir, Thrillers, Killers, ‘n Chillers, and Plots with Guns. Most of his stories are set between Cleveland and Youngstown. He is an anarchist in politics, an atheist in religion, and a good middle-class citizen in his daily life, as that hypocrite Flaubert counseled.

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