Quarters: Page 3

Morning again. It’s after mass and Claude is already working on his second serving of Hawaiian Punch. No sign of the guy from yesterday.

“Wonder if Jesus is coming back today?” I ask.

“Lawd, I hope so,” Claude says, and crosses himself. Then he picks up his mug and clinks it against my wine.

“Cheers,” I say.

Claude says, “Amen.”

We drink and then Claude says “Ain’t it about time fo’ Regis?” Before I can find the remote and change the channel, the Jesus guy is in the doorway, swaying a little, already drunk without my help this time. He squints into the shadows.

“You the same bartender from yesterday?” he asks. “Said I could use the phone?”

“That’s me,” I say. He shuffles over to the bar. I set up a glass for him but when he gets close I have to blink hard because I can’t believe how much worse he looks in just twenty-four hours. His beard is noticeably grayer, and he looks like he slept in the street. Smells like it too.

He pushes his way between two barstools and glances suspiciously at Claude. Claude ignores him, takes another sip of Punch.

“Have a seat,” I say, but he declines with a shake of his head, little side-to-side movements like a palsy that go on too long. His eyes are red and he looks kind-of crazy, standing there with his head bobbling on his shoulders like that. Still, I told him he could use the phone. I set the receiver on the bar, wanting to get this over with quick.

“Antenna’s shot so you got to stay right here if you wanna use it.”

He takes the phone book page from his shirt pocket and smoothes it out. The stickiness on the bar holds the page flat. He marks his pace on the page with his index finger. The other hand punches in the numbers—an operation that requires all his concentration. I move a couple feet down to where Claude is sitting to give the man some privacy, but no one says anything so it’s not very private. The man holds the phone to his head. The silence in the room is so heavy it’s like the barometer dropped. I can feel it in my ears, and I swallow to open them. The man clears his throat.

“Bernice, if this is you, it’s me, Floyd,” he says. His voice cracks. “I’m here, in New Orleans. I ain’t been home in six months, tryna find you. Listen, sugar, you got to call me. You at least got to tell me why,” he says. I look away, and begin rummaging behind the cash register for the television remote because his voice is quavering and the whole thing is uncomfortable. Claude shifts on his stool.  “Just call me back, okay? You can leave a message for me at…” He smacks his hand on the bar to get my attention and covers the mouthpiece with his hand. “What’s the number here?” he asks.

I’m about to tell him that this isn’t his answering service, I never said I’d take messages. But there are big, oily-looking tears wobbling on the lower rims of his eyelids. I been around long enough to know a crying drunk will turn on you faster than any other kind. Something about the sudden shame. This is my fault, anyway. I said he could use the phone.

“Five-two-nine,” I say, “Six-oh—”

Before I finish telling him the number, he calmly presses a button on the receiver and ends the call.

“Answering machine,” he explains. “Cut me off.”

I bite my lip and debate whether to tell him to call her back. But before I can decide, he raises the receiver high above his head and slams it down hard against the wood and then slings it down the bar. It flies off the end and crashes to the floor near the door. Plastic pieces skitter across the tile.

“Hey! You crazy sonofabitch! You coulda called her back! Whyn’t you just get on outta here.”

He sits down instead, head in his hands.

“It wasn’t her, anyway.”

“Who you lookin’ for, anyway?” Claude asks.

“Nunna your business, boy.”

“Listen here, pal,” I say. “I told you to get outta here. First you broke the phone, now you bein’ rude. I can use the payphone to call the cops.”

“Sorry,” he says, into his empty glass.

“Don’t just tell me,” you say.

“Sorry,” he says, jerking his head toward Claude, who nods once. The man reaches into his back pocket and reluctantly slides the picture of Bernice towards Claude. “Understand I’m lookin’ for my wife. You seen her?”

Claude delicately picks up the battered picture at the edges so as not to leave prints, and squints at it.

“Yes,” he says after a moment. “I believe I have.”

Floyd spins so hard on his barstool he almost falls off.

“You lie.”

“No suh,” he says. You frown. You never heard Claude call anybody Suh. “They foun’ this girl dead, couple months ago. In the bayou. It was all in the paper—said she was a strip-tease dancer, doing some moonlighting. On the side, you know. Said her boyfriend did it. Black guy. They was a trial an everything. He in jail now.” Claude slides the picture towards me. “Remember?” he asks.

Floyd’s face goes white. His scar looks almost purple. I shake my head.

“Missed that one,” I say, mystified.

“I ain’t missed a single story in the newspaper in forty years,” Claude says. He looks at Floyd. “Bet you could find it at the library. Pictures kinda graphic, though. Poor thing. My wife still say the rosary for her, every night. ”

Floyd looks like he might vomit.

“Hey,” I say. “Hey. You need a cup of coffee, pal?”

He shakes his head and stands. He looks like a zombie.

“I ain’t like to bear no bad news,” Claude says. “But she your wife, seems like you ought to know. You wanta go look at them papers I loan you my library card, you can pretend you’re me. Ain’t got my picture on it.”

Floyd staggers toward the door without saying anything, braces himself briefly against the doorjamb and then pushes himself out onto the sidewalk.

“Hey,” I call after him. “Wait a minute!” But he doesn’t. I come out from behind the bar and jog to the door, accidentally kicking part of the phone. Outside, the sky is blue and sunshine is sparkling off puddles in the gutter. I walk up and down the block a couple times, peeking into the other bars. There is no sign of Floyd.

When I come back, Claude is finishing off his Hawaiian Punch like nothing has happened. I feel angry at him, even though fifteen minutes ago I was ready to have Floyd arrested for busting the phone and calling Claude “boy”.

“That girl’s not dead, Claude.”

“Probably not,” he says.

“No probably about it. I saw her yesterday on the streetcar.” He stands, and takes up his dustmop. “Why’d you tell him that?”

“Everyone got to have some peace,” he says.

“You mean her? Or him. Or you? That your way of getting even? What if he throws himself into the river?”

“Everyone got to have some peace,” he says. He turns his back and starts sweeping. He moves off towards the back of the bar, pushing the pushmop, picking it up, shaking it out. As he goes, he whistles a song like an old hymn, sweet and low.

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