by Emily Davis Watson
|Two blocks away the bells of the St. Louis Cathedral are chiming eight o’clock; soon Claude will be back from mass and I’m wishing I’d told him to stop for beignets. He doesn’t like being sent on errands but he might’ve done it if I promised to share. I’d go get them myself but someone’s got to stay in case of customers. Aren’t many places where a bar can expect thirsty people at eight in the morning on a Tuesday, but in New Orleans you can count on it. Besides, the owner sometimes likes to pay a surprise visit to mess around in the till and count the empties and generally get in the way. If I left my post and he showed up, I might as well not come back. Too bad for me because mornings are the best time to walk around in the Quarter. The air outside is still cool and the pearly light hangs just right off the listing buildings and rusty wrought-iron, making the slow decay look elegant, like an old lady dressed just right for her age. The soap trucks roll through the streets spraying the puke and urine smells out of the gutters, disinfecting them for the tourists, wiping the slate clean for another night. I like watching that; I bet no other city in the world does such a thing. I keep telling myself I should switch to nights but I know I’d just sleep in and miss it all anyway. So I content myself with little the piece of morning cut out by the doorframe.From the shelf behind me I take two mostly-clean coffee mugs and wipe the faint traces of lipstick from their rims: it’s almost time for communion. I fill one mug with wine, and one with the Hawaiian Punch the bar uses in its hurricanes, which are the worst in the Quarter. Hurricanes, brass bands, Mardi Gras beads—this isn’t that kind of place.
The wine is for me and the Punch is for Claude, who doesn’t drink. This is our morning ritual, our pact: Claude doesn’t tell the boss I drink on the job, and I keep it a secret that he goes to mass every morning while he’s supposed to be working. When he returns, we’ll drink together and watch the morning talk shows on T.V.
I spread out the newspaper on the bar in front of me, searching for my horoscope. A shadow blocks the silvery light from the doorway.
“What say you run and get us some beignets,” I say. “I’ll spring.” I look up, expecting to see Claude, but it’s a long-haired guy with a stained duffel bag in one hand. He doesn’t say hello or answer me about the beignets, just comes inside and sits on one of the barstools. There’s a long, pink scar that starts beneath his left eye and disappears into his beard, which is matted like old carpet. He sort-of looks like Jesus if Jesus had lived longer, or had been excommunicated.
“Whiskey,” he says. “Straight.” Then he asks for a dollar’s worth of quarters and hands me a crumpled five. I set a glass out on the counter and fill it, then ring up his drink. When I turn back around to hand him the quarters, the whiskey is gone and he’s on his feet, staring absently out the door. I put the quarters on the bar next to his empty glass, stacked like little pancakes. He takes the top two. “Keep the change,” he says, and shuffles toward the payphone in the back. I leave his glass in case he comes back for more.
I find my horoscope in the paper and read it; it’s a five-star day. An excellent day for business deals, it says. But watch your back, it cautions. Someone at work has mixed feelings about you. I read Claude’s next so I can tell him when he gets back, even though he thinks horoscopes are some kind of devilment and will cross himself when he thinks I’m not looking. Then I read the ones for my ex and my mom and my sister, just for the hell of it. Claude shambles in and wordlessly takes his seat at the bar, but I shake my head.
“Customer,” I say and nod at the quarters and the Jesus-guy’s empty glass. Claude stands and takes the dustmop leaning against the wall beside the bar and begins languidly pushing it around the floor. The Jesus-looking guy comes back after only a few minutes and sits in front of his glass, face drawn and eyes empty. There’s a piece of paper in his hand.
“You got a pen?” he asks.
I take the pencil stub I use to do the crossword from behind my ear, and when I hand it to him I notice that the piece of paper is a page from a phone book with several names crossed out. He obliterates another name with the pencil’s dull lead and tucks the page into his pocket.
“Say, pal, what’s your sign?” I ask.
He doesn’t look up, just keeps on staring at his empty glass, turning it with his thumbs. “Leo,” he says.
I look. There are no stars next to Leo. Maybe it’s just a misprint, but it seems like real bad luck. I’ve seen plenty of folks that looked like they hadn’t had a star in about a million years, but the paper always gives everyone at least one.
I go over and refill his glass, not just to be nice, but because real bad luck can be contagious; it can be like a black hole sucking in everyone nearby. He lifts his head and looks me right in the eyes but doesn’t say thanks. His are bloodshot, with irises so dark it’s like looking into twin cups of black coffee. But there’s no heat there; the coffee’s cold, and unsweetened. He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bar and runs a hand over his face, apparently dismayed by what he sees.
“Jesus,” he says. “Jesus.”
“That’s what I was thinking.” He doesn’t get the joke.
He lifts the glass to his mouth and drinks half. When he swallows, he closes his eyes and raises his brows, a pained, savouring kind of expression. The faint lines on his forehead furrow deeply for an instant, then relax and almost disappear again.
“Where you from, pal?” I ask.
He nods his head backward as if to indicate a direction and says, “Up north of here.”
“You heard of Shongaloo?” I shake my head. “’Course you ain’t. Ain’t nobody heard of it. It’s a place you leave, not go to.” He glares at his half-empty glass of whiskey for a few seconds before suddenly tossing the rest of it back with the same head movement he used to indicate the direction of Shongaloo. I refill his glass again and he looks at me hard.
“I didn’t ask for this or that last one and I can’t pay for ’em neither.”
“It’s on me.” Behind him, Claude shakes his head. The man’s eyes narrow like maybe I can’t be trusted but he gulps the drink anyway and wipes his mouth on his wrist.
“I’m lookin’ for my wife,” he says. “You seen her?” He reaches into his back pocket and places a creased photograph on the bar. “Name’s Bernice.” The picture is a close-up of a young woman with blond hair and freckles. Her bangs are cut in an uneven fringe across her forehead and she’s squinting into the sun, not smiling.
“Sorry,” I say. He tucks the picture back into his pocket without looking at it.
“She took off six months ago.”
“What makes you think she’s here?”
“Ain’t nowhere else she’d be. I already been in Shreveport and Baton Rouge. She had a thing about cities. Always wanted to live in one.”
I consider pouring him another drink but his eyes are getting glassy. It’s not even eight-thirty.
“You got seven B. Simses in the New Orleans metro phone book. I called six.”
He says metro like it’s two words: Met. Ro.
“You called six numbers with two quarters?”
He shakes his head. “I only call one a day.”
“You can use this phone if the number’s local. Get it over with.” I don’t tell him that no one who runs away publishes their new number in the phone book. Maybe she’s that stupid. Or he is.
He shakes his head again. “I can’t hear someone say ‘wrong number’ more’n once a day. ’Bout near kills me.” He’s quiet for a minute and he turns his empty shot glass upside-down over the two quarters he left me, like a miniature bell jar.
“She took the scenery with her.”
“She wanted a change of scenery but she took everything with her. All the colors, everything. Even my hair’s turning grey.”
“What are you gonna do if you find her?”
He looks up, startled.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Hadn’t given it much thought.”
Claude clears his throat. The man glances over his shoulder at Claude and seems suddenly uncomfortable.
“Christ,” he says. “Where’d he come from?”
“He’s the porter. He works here.”
“Friggin’ spooky,” the man says. Or at least that’s what I think he says. He stands. “Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow and use your phone.”
I say, “I’m here at seven.” I’m already hoping he doesn’t show up.
He walks out the door without another word. Claude comes over and leans his mop against the bar. I slide the two quarters toward him. Last thing I want to do is put that bad luck in my pocket.
“Go play us some music on the juke box,” I say. “Something peppy.” Claude can’t read, but he’s got the songs memorized by number. I set the communion mugs on the bar. There are four fruit flies drowning in my wine. I extract them with a cocktail straw while Claude chooses songs, jingling the quarters in his hand.
That afternoon the streetcar is packed: standing room only. I’m hanging from the overhead bars, swaying with the movement of the streetcar and enjoying the few gusts of air that reach me from the windows. I don’t mind standing up on the streetcar, even though my feet hurt and the sweat rolling down my sides feels like little bugs crawling under my shirt. I like to feel the glide and rumble of wheels on tracks moving up through my legs; after sseveral mugs of wine, riding the streetcar standing up always feels a little bit like flying.
Two stops from where I get off, someone pulls the cord and stands to exit. I move to take the empty seat because, after all, I’ve been on my feet since seven. And that’s when I see her. Or at least I think I do. The blond-haired, freckle-faced girl whose seat I’m about to claim looks just like the photograph of the man’s missing wife. Instead of sitting I follow her off the streetcar. The afternoon sun nearly blinds me.
“Hey, miss!” I call. She keeps walking, so I jog up behind her. The streetcar closes its door and rumbles away. “Hey,” I say again. She turns. The bangs have grown out but it’s her, I’m sure of it. “Your name Bernice?”
She squints and puckers her mouth into a hard, mean little knot.
“I tend bar,” I say. “Downtown. This morning a guy came in said he was from Shongaloo, lookin’ for his wife. Had a picture of a girl that looks like you.”
“Yeah. Looked just like you. You her?”
She’s wearing cut-offs and a purple tank top without a bra. She could be sixteen or thirty. Her mouth is the thin-lipped, sneering mouth of a poor white girl from the country but her arms are soft-looking, freckled. Arms that someone just might miss enough to go crazy looking for. She folds them across her chest.
“Had a scar on his face?” she asks. I nod. “Drunk before noon?”
“Well, that might have been my fault.”
She snorts. “Yeah, it’s always somebody’s.”
“Listen. It’s none of my business—”
“You got the wrong girl,” she says. “My name’s Mona Lisa. I ain’t never heard of Shongaloo or been married neither.”
I hold up my hands in a gesture of surrender.
“Like I said, it’s none of my business,”
“Fine,” she says.
She slings her blonde hair over her shoulder and turns away. I watch her go, marching straight down the middle of the streetcar tracks that gleam like quicksilver in the afternoon sun. There are freckles on the backs of her thighs.
“Good luck,” I call after her, but she doesn’t respond. A streetcar coming the opposite direction rings its bell at her and she moves out of the way and crosses the street. Once on the sidewalk she moves quickly, and seems to flicker like a ghost in the pieces of sunlight falling through the oak trees. The streetcar rattles by, blocking my view. When it moves past, she is gone.
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.
“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.