Jane Stubbs is from New Orleans. She says of The Imp of The Perverse:
The novel is a convergent narrative, told from the perspective and following the stories of four main characters: Ellen, Lou, Zenny and Sonny. The characters live within blocks of each other in the often-ignored New Orleans neighborhood of Mid City. Through chance interactions, the characters become linked and their existences effect each other, culminating in a cataclysmic event.
The Imp of the Perverse (first two chapters)
“We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain. By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnamable feeling.”
—Edgar Allen Poe
Sunday, November 10, 2000 -- The Times-Picayune -- Deaths
David “Sonny” James Burnham
David “Sonny” James Burnham, a former sales clerk at K&B Drugstore, passed away Wednesday November 11, 2000 at Charity Hospital. He was 45. Mr. Burnham was a lifelong resident of New Orleans. He is preceded in death by his mother, Hilda McDonald Burnham, and his father, James Burnham. Survivors include a brother, Leroy Burnham; an aunt, Zenny Marie Mcdonald; and two nephews. Funeral services will be held Monday at St. Anthony Of Padua Catholic Church, 4640 Canal St., at 9:30 am.
The bedsprings were lurching to the point that they sounded as if they would pop any minute. Why push the poor bed to such limits? Had they no sympathy for the decrepit creature? Perhaps a sharp metal coil would burst through the polyester padding and stab a soft rump.
This time, it wasn’t Ellen getting plowed.
On the other side of the wall, Ms. Carol was fucking that lumberjack-looking guy. Ellen had at first thought he was retarded, though she later learned he wasn’t. He was definitely slow, though. Just not quite right either. Ms. Carol, the dumpy, middle-aged Ms. Carol, Ms. Carol with the salt-and pepper hair, broken front tooth and waistless torso, Ms. Carol with the soft spot for strays, Ms. Carol the adopted mother of two rescued, formerly-abused black labs, Zoe and Blackie who hated Ellen. The dogs did, not Ms. Carol. Ellen had lived in that house for a year and those dogs still hadn’t warmed up to her. They shared a wall, Ellen and Ms. Carol; Ellen’s smell must have permeated the house by now. It must have soaked through the dividing wall of the double shotgun, crept through the floor, rose and spread across the cracked plaster of the ceiling. The dogs heard her voice every day—talking on the phone, talking to herself, yelling at the television, gasping back tears, grunting as she came. But it seemed that never, never would those dogs let her pet them. Ms. Carol said not to take it personally, that their former owners had ruined their opinions of most humans. But Ellen did take it personally. She was a dog person.
Ms. Carol sure sounded like she was having a time over there on the other side of the wall. Ellen squeezed her eyes shut and tried not to picture the lumberjack’s hairy ass pulsing as he blew his wad between Ms. Carol’s hairy cottage-cheese thighs. Mashing a pillow over her face, she tried to think of something else. Work tomorrow. Grocery store. Call Dad. Puppies and kittens and rainbows and Citizen Kane on the TV last night. Rosebud. Rosebud. Rosebud. A masterpiece. A lumberjack. Ms. Carol.
Ellen turned on the clock radio to drown out the sounds next door.
Ellen woke when it was still dark.
There was someone crying in the corner. Blinking through sleep’s thick ether, Ellen at first though it was Ms. Carol on the other side of the wall.
This wasn’t the first time she’d realized she wasn’t alone in the house. Of course, she was never completely alone, what with Ms. Carol and her dogs on the other side of the wall, or with her own dog at the foot of the bed. But she’d noticed little things over the past couple of years in this house, just a few times, and always at night. Sometimes movements, sometimes noises, sometimes voices too clear to be reasoned away—they came with this feeling, a weird, in-between feeling of something having been left out of place, or that panicky feeling Ellen would get when she would realize she’d forgotten to do something very, very important.
Little by little, as Ellen managed to focus her sleep-shrouded mind, her curiosity turned to unease, and her unease turned to panic.
“Ike,” Ellen tried to breathe out, but it came out half-formed, a scratchy murmur. She didn’t dare open her eyes. Ike was the dog, a stupid and loveable mutt who usually slept at the foot of her bed. But tonight, maybe because it was cooler in the back of the house, he had chosen to sleep on the kitchen floor.
The weight of fear seemed to be pushing her down into the bed, which was fine, as she had no desire to move closer to whatever was in the corner, though it didn’t seem particularly malevolent.
Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed, and the crying continued. At this point she could no longer convince herself that it was Ms. Carol, or the remnants of a dream. Ellen took a deep breath. In the kitchen, Ike snorted.
“Hello?” Ellen’s vocal cords worked to penetrate the night’s phlegm. But the sound wasn’t a “hello.” It was more of garbled moan.
The crying continued. As real as the pillow beneath her head, as real as the sweaty sheets tangled between her legs, there was a girl crying in the corner.
Ellen decided to take a different approach. What’s wrong with you? She thought the words as hard as she could.
With a shuddering breath, the girl moaned. It sounded a bit melodramatic, but it was a good sign. Maybe she understood.
If you tell me what happened, maybe I can help you. Ellen pushed the words across the darkness toward the corner.
The girl let out a sob, and then she was gone.
It was simple and complicated, the way Ellen knew she was gone. But it was a very clear difference. She was there, and then she was not. That was it.
It was a few minutes before Ellen mustered the guts to rise. The mattress squeaked. She swung her legs over the side of the bed onto the hardwood floor.
Silently, slowly, she crept to the corner where the girl had been. Right beside the armoire, next to a pile of dirty laundry. Nothing.
She slid a palm across the floor. Still warm.
Oh. And wet. Ellen recoiled, withdrawing her hand.
There was a puddle there where the girl had been.
Ellen hopped to her feet, wringing her hand.
In the bathroom, she washed and scrubbed and scraped at the palm with Ivory soap and water as hot as she could stand.
Back in the bedroom, on her hands and knees, she sniffed the puddle. Piss.
She climbed back in bed, covered her face in the blankets, and slammed her eyelids shut. What she wouldn’t give to have someone in her bed right now, someone to witness this. Ms. Carol lived alone with her dogs, and Ellen never once saw the inside of her house. Occasionally, the lumberjack would come and knock on her door, sometimes for half an hour. Ms. Carol had a husband somewhere, in a hospital, an ex-husband. He had had a coronary or some other common and serious-sounding affliction, and she felt obligated to him still, or at least that’s how she told it. She routinely visited him, maybe every day, bringing him food, socks, underwear, and, presumably, companionship.
Ellen didn’t bring food and underpants and whatever to anyone. And no one was here to witness a ghost girl crying and peeing in the corner beside her pile of dirty laundry. She didn’t have a husband, or an ex husband. She had had a boyfriend for a while. But he was gone now.
Don’t go to sleep, Daddy.
I’m not sleeping. I’m just resting my eyes.
Lou’s eyes snapped open. The television was still on, but the volume was low. LeeAnn wasn’t there, of course, though he half expected her to be. He must have drifted off. On the screen, the glowing box centered in the blackness, a man demonstrating a set of knives. Chop, chop, chop on the cutting board. Saw, saw, saw on a pipe. Then he pulled the knife gracefully through the soft flesh of a ripe tomato and separated several silky-wet slices. Beautiful.
Yawning, he reached between the cracks of the recliner for the remote. It was buried deep in the grime and metal mechanisms, among the crumbs and change and forgotten tiny objects that slip from pockets and are lost forever. His fingers finally brushed the smooth plastic and closed on the remote. He thought of the foolish monkey with a fistful of peanuts. If worse came to worst, he would be smart enough to leave the remote and change the channel. But for now, the possible payoff was worth the struggle.
With a final yank, Lou’s hand emerged victoriously, clutching the remote. He pointed it at the set and changed the channel. Evangelists. Used car dealership commercials. News. Cartoons. The irregular flashing of cathode ray images glinted on the pint bottle resting between his legs. How convenient, he thought, unscrewing the cap. He took a swig of Heaven Hill and changed the channel again.
“Do you want to make an extra one hundred dollars a week? How ‘bout a thousand? Learn what thousands of other Americans just like you are doing to make their financial dreams come true! You too can earn thousands of dollars on top of what you already make at your regular job! Don’t be a slave to your boss! Discover the priceless information your boss doesn’t want you to know! I’m Tim Bosley, and I can show you how to make money with Specialty Merchandise Corporation today!”
Lou put the remote down.
“I made five hundred dollars last night—in my sleep!” A chunky man barked from the screen. He stood in front of a wall of shelves of trinkets and knickknacks. An equally rotund woman stood beside him, nodding with approval. The camera panned out to reveal two smiling children, a husky boy and a rather awkward, homely-looking young girl who must have been on the edge of puberty. They peered up at their father with expressions of absolute adulation. This family had hit it big. Lou resented them.
Lou stretched his legs, wrenching off the shoes and socks from his cramped feet. He stretched his ankles and spread his toes. Then he cranked the recliner forward, heaving himself upright. The carpet was gritty; bits and pieces of street-debris collected between his toes. In the far corner of the room stood his dresser. He fumbled in the dark, his eyes gradually adjusting, sucking in what little light radiated from the television. He only stubbed his toe once, and not that hard. He opened the top dresser drawer, rifled through the dwindling supply of clean socks and underwear, and retrieved the bundle of LeeAnn’s letters.
He opened the plastic bag and removed the bundle, ran his fingers across the topmost envelope, feeling along its frayed edges, and brushing away a piece of lint from the corner. He gingerly untied the string holding the stack together and opened the most recent missive. The message was inconsequential—it always was—and so the lack of reading light wasn’t a problem. What he liked was the writing. The indentations that the ballpoint script had left on the paper, the feel of the depths of engraving created by variations of pressure Leeann’s hand had inflicted on the pen, the feeling that his hand could mimic hers. That’s what he liked the most. That and the purposefulness with which she wrote his name. When he had had his fill of the letter and the whiskey, Lou switched the television off and lay back in the recliner. The sun was not coming up yet, and that was good. He had to go in to work early tomorrow. He wondered if he would have time to go shopping, beforehand.
Finally, it was completed. Three days of work, six hours of sleep. Sonny’s fingers were sore and his eyes burned. But it was done and ready. He rubbed his eyes, squinted and read the title at the top of the essay, the large, bold-type words blurring in the screen as he struggled to focus.
“The Manifestation of the Body’s Capabilities upon Utilization of Optimum Fuel: How Nutrition and Brainwaves Ignite When Used in Conjunction; or, The Absolute Power of a Combination of the Consumption of Proper Edibles and Specific Mental Techniques.”
He wondered if it was overlong, or possibly too pretentious for the audience. Those university professors would understand and appreciate his work, of course, but they weren’t the problem. The problem was those damn bitter, greasy-haired, drunken, unkempt graduate students. No doubt his work would land in their hands first and, their education being incomplete, there was the chance some of them—likely all of them—would lack the prerequisites required to comprehend the implications of the title. Perhaps they would toss it aside before Dr. Hebert had even had an opportunity to glance at it.
Sonny envisaged pimply-faced post-baccalaureates smoking their funny cigarettes in a dusty basement at UNO, sweating out whiskey from the night before. No, he couldn’t trust them, but compromising his own work, dumbing it down…that wasn’t the answer. There must be a way around this. Perhaps he could find Dr. Hebert’s home address and mail it to him directly. Certified mail would be best.
He crossed to the bookshelf and dug through the old magazines, manuscripts, and paperbacks until he found the tattered course catalog. Louisiana State University at New Orleans. This one was old. No one even called it that anymore. Now it was plain old University of New Orleans. Sonny thought it lacked the prestige the former name carried. Too bad.
He paged through the course catalog until he found the informational section for the Department of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. Dr. Hebert was the Chair of the department, and his phone number and office address were listed, but as Sonny knew (he had checked countless times in the past) his home address was kept private. He wasn’t in the phone book, either. Perhaps he could call the secretary? Sonny shrugged off the idea and began to hand-copy the contact information for every professor in the department. Doubtless most of them were gone by now, but it was worth a try.
Sonny got to work printing eleven copies of the essay. It was twenty-five pages, so that made two hundred and seventy five pages total. As the printer spat out each copy, Sonny removed it from the printer, stacked the pages neatly, stapled it once in the upper left-hand corner, folded it lengthwise, scribbled “Please deliver to the desk of Dr. Jack P. Hebert” on the outside, and slipped it into a small manila envelope. On each envelope, he printed the name and office number of each faculty member. He did not include a return address.
After five essays were neatly packaged and addressed, Sonny realized that the rhythmic scraping and buzzing of the printer had ceased. The first seven pages of the sixth copy of the essay lay in the tray on top, but the feed tray was empty. He looked under the desk in the cabinet. It was empty. He checked the closet, the kitchen cabinets, the bookshelf, the bathroom. Nothing.
This could only mean one thing. That motherfucker knew what he was up to. Or he had someone working for him. Whatever the case, someone was trying to silence him, to prevent his discoveries from reaching the media, the public, the American living room.
Sonny dropped the manila envelopes into the battered briefcase that had once belonged to his father, checked his wallet, and set out for Winn Dixie. Did they think they could shut him up that easily?
He would not be stopped.
Zenny woke early that morning to a loud roar. Startled, her body stiffened, and she tried with all her might to remain still, imagining and coaxing every cell in her body to halt its metabolic processes, every molecule within every cell to slow its rapid vibrations, every electron within every atom within every molecule within every cell to stop in its tracks, to refrain from orbiting its nucleus. People said these were uncontrollable things, things you could do nothing about. Maybe they were right. Maybe they were wrong. Zenny was inclined to believe the latter. She’d learned how to be completely still, down to the tiniest level. Sonny had told her once about monks who could slow their heart rates to near silence. Zenny could give them a run for their money. It was a survival skill, one they didn’t want you to know about. The predators had poorly developed eyesight—they couldn’t see you unless you moved. And their odor (repulsive as it was) was a godsend: it overpowered the scent of humans, so the beasts couldn’t rely on it to aid in capturing prey. A complete lack of motion was Zenny’s only defense. If she could just remain as still as possible they wouldn’t notice her. only see movement, even movement that was completely invisible to the human eye. But they couldn’t get her if she didn’t move.
Zenny counted the seconds: One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi, Four Mississippi, until she reached sixty. Then she started over, keeping a mental tally of the passing minutes. She could no longer hear their growls, but she continued to twelve. Twelve was a magic number, twelve was safe.
This must be Tuesday, Zenny thought, lifting her head and cautiously peeking out of the window beside her bed. They always hunt on Tuesday. Zenny They could had had a hard time keeping track of the days lately, what with the calendars being unreliable. They changed the calendars, so you could no longer look to them for answers. Sometimes Sunday came after Wednesday, and sometimes Wednesday came twice before Friday. But the Beasts always came on Tuesday. Zenny had had many close calls with the big green Beasts. Luckily for her, they always seemed to hunt alone. They were slow animals, but the growls, howls, and moans, and the chomping of their massive jaws as they gnashed at their prey—the image was enough to make her heart fight to escape her ribcage. Zenny considered herself one of the fortunate ones; she had seen many of her dearest friends gobbled up by the monsters. There were humans who followed the Beasts, who rode on their backs and fed them their prey, dumping the unfortunates into the waiting, drooling mouths, where they were crushed and swallowed and never seen or heard from again. These were their helpers. They were covered in the saliva and bile of the Beasts. They were just as vicious, if not more so. After all, the Beasts hunted because it was their nature. Their helpers had no excuse.
“Up and at ‘em, you two!” Miss Joyce poked her head through the door. “Breakfast in five.”
Zenny sighed and turned in bed. “People tryin’ to sleep in here. Where’s your manners?”
“It’s seven-thirty. You know it’s time to get up. Get dressed and come to breakfast.” Miss Joyce shut the door silently.
“No one gives a shit about us,” Zenny spat, half to herself and half to her roommate Gladys, who was a good listener. Gladys never interrupted Zenny when she talked, which was good—Zenny hated that. Gladys, sleepy-eyed, nodded and got up to dress. Zenny’s stomach was growling.
The breakfast table was set. Cereal, apple, bacon, eggs, toast.
“No grits today?” Zenny asked Miss Joyce.
“No grits today.”
“Hmph.” Zenny sat down next to Rose and started in on her plate. The table went clockwise like this: Zenny, Rose, Alice, Gladys, Miss Joyce, Catherine, Sandy. Or: Sandy, Zenny, Rose, Alice, Gladys, Miss Joyce, Catherine. Or: Gladys, Miss Joyce, Catherine, Sandy, Zenny, Rose, Alice. It all depended on where you started.
Miss Joyce had her book out. The book was big and black and it had the word “Chores” written across the front in swirly writing. Zenny hated that book.
“OK…Alice, it’s your day to vacuum,” Miss Joyce started. “Gladys, you’re on laundry duty; Rose, you’re raking the front yard, Zenny, you’re clearing dishes—“
“Am not,” Zenny said calmly, sopping up the last of the egg yolk with her toast. “I cleared the dishes yesterday. It’s Catherine’s turn.”
“No, you cleared the table on Friday, Zenny. That was four days ago.” She turned the book so that Zenny could see the calendar.
“Well it all depends on which Tuesday it is then, doesn’t it? I mean, there’s four of them on the calendar, and I got a different chore on each one.”
Miss Joyce leaned across the table to point to a square in the middle. It’s the nineteenth, Zenny. Tuesday, September nineteenth, see? And what does it say right there in that box next to your name?”
“It says…Zenny squinted. “It says ‘clear dishes’.”
“Right. That’s fair then, isn’t it?”
“Hmph.” Zenny got up from the table and began collecting the cleared plates.
“I ain’t done,” Rose protested.
“Your plate’s clean.”
“So? I like to look at it while I digest.”
Zenny was antsy. “Come on, Rose. I gotta go up the street.”
“Sonny will be fine,” Miss Joyce said. “Let Rose finish her breakfast. You can clear the rest of the dishes and she’ll be done by then.” Sonny, Zenny’s nephew, lived up the street, and she helped him every day. Someone needed to, now that his mother was gone.
“Well I gotta make his breakfast—“ Zenny started.
“You know that boy’s old enough to make his own damned breakfast,” Catherine said. “You spoil him.”
“His momma died!”
“Done!” Rose announced brightly.
Zenny took Rose’s dish to the counter.
“Can I go now?” Zenny asked.
“You’re free to go, Zenny.”
In her room, Zenny searched for her favorite hat. It was a knitted cap, striped with green and gold and a bright, happy pink. It was warm and festive at once. She wanted to wear it today, but it was missing from the shelf under her nightstand.
“Gladys!” She called out. She opened the bedroom door and leaned out into the hall. “Gladys?”
She heard Gladys’s slippered steps dragging down the hall and turned. “Gladys! Have you seen my hat? The striped one?”
Gladys shook her head and pushed past Zenny into the bedroom.
Zenny gathered her things, slammed the bedroom door, and stomped into the living room. “Miss Joyce, Gladys stole my hat.”
Miss Joyce sighed. “How do you know you didn’t misplace it.”
“Because I didn’t.”
“Did you check your laundry?”
That was a stupid question. “Why the hell would my hat be in the laundry?”
“Curse words! Curse words! That’s money in the jar!”
“I ain’t putting shit in that jar,” Zenny shot back at rose.
“That’s two curse words now, Zenny. That’s two quarters. You know the rules.” Miss Joyce’s voice was stern.
Zenny shifted from left to right, right to left. This was unfair. Fuck these bitches. Fuck them. Two fucking quarters. Right to left, left to right, right to left. Left to right. Right to left. She dug into the deep front pocket of her dress, pulled out two quarters, and slammed them down on the mantle, next to the jar.
“That was my bus money, damn it!”
“That’s three quarters now!” Rose was ecstatic.
“You know you don’t need to ride the bus to get to Sonny’s house. It’s just up the street.”
“Shut up, Rose,” Gladys commanded.
For a moment, everyone was silent. Gladys rarely spoke—Zenny shared a room with her, and she’d heard her speak only a handful of times. Most of the time it was random gibberish, as if Gladys had briefly lost the ability to distinguish between her own inner and outer monologue. She would never repeat or explain, so there was no way of knowing. But this time it made sense.
“That’s right. Listen to Gladys. You know,” Zenny thought a bit, trying to recall the old saying. “Still waters run deep. Gladys is a wise woman indeed.”
But, on her way out the door, Zenny did stop to drop a third quarter into the jar on the mantle.
Zenny made her way up Canal Street, past the cemeteries, past the law office, pas the gas station, past the elementary school. Just as she was about to turn left on Hennessey, a bus stopped at the corner. Zenny read the light-up words on the front, just above the windshield. “Canal Cemeteries.” Bus number 42. Zenny never took that bus—she didn’t trust it. She preferred to walk.
Iberville, then Bienville, then left on Bienville. Exactly five houses from the corner was Millie’s house. But Millie—Carmilla was Zenny’s sister’s real name, but she was Millie to everyone who knew her—was gone now, so it was Sonny’s house now. Zenny would have to remember that. She waved to the old lady on the porch next door. The old lady didn’t wave back. Her eyes must be bad, Zenny thought. She never waves back.
“Sonny?” Zenny knocked at the door. The dogs inside barked and growled. “Oh, shut up,” Zenny said. “Sonny!” She called his name again. “SONNY!” She banged on the door with the side of her fist.
Zenny heard a door open to her right. She looked over to see the next-door-neighbor peeking out the screen door. “Can I help you?” Zenny asked, slightly irritated by the girl’s nosiness.
The girl’s pale face contorted into a startled expression. “Oh! No—no. I was just—just checking for the mail.”
“Mailman ain’t come yet,” Zenny informed her. “Too early. He comes around two. Sonny!” She returned to the door and proceeded to hammer on the wood with her knuckles.
Her efforts were finally met with the sound footsteps bounding down the stairs inside the house. “Coming!” Sonny called. Within seconds he was at the door, having wedged himself between the door and frame, preventing the horde of dogs from escaping. “Good morning!” He greeted Zenny.
“Damn near noon by now, young man,” she replied. “And you look like shit. You still typin’ away on that book or whatever? Hey, you gonna let me in or what?” The dogs were attempting to push between and around Sonny’s legs, using all of their weight and might. Here and there Zenny could see a snout or a paw reaching beyond the threshold to the outside world. Sonny bent down to grab the collar of a terrier whose getaway was nearly successful.
“Of course! Sorry,” Sonny said. “Come on in. I was just about to make breakfast. And it ain’t nowhere near noon.” Sonny nudged the dogs back into the house, pulled Zenny through the doorway, and slammed it behind her.
“Well I don’t know. I’m having a long day.” Zenny followed suit and pushed through the clump of mutts in the hall. The dogs abandoned their previous plans of flight and instead set about the task of welcoming Zenny into the house. “Get down,” she barked at them. “Anyway, I already ate. I can fry you up some eggs or something, though,” she said to Sonny.
“Put on a pot of coffee, though, will you, Heart?”
She followed Sonny into the kitchen, brushing the dog hair off her dress. “You won’t believe the morning I had. You’d better be nice to me today, extra nice. I been taking shit from people all day. I need me some peace and quiet and relaxation.”
Sonny eyed the dogs. “We’ll try,” he said, “but I can’t promise anything.”
The sun shone through the one window in Lou’s lower apartment. Still in the recliner, he stretched and shielded his eyes. He looked at his watch. Eight-thirty in the morning. He had to be at work at ten. He had time.
Lou found a crumpled to-go menu for Italian Pie and the nub of a pencil amid the detritus on the floor. Finding a clear space, he began writing his shopping list. Toilet paper, he scratched next to the list of available toppings. Yes, that was important. Pencils. He brushed a thin, wispy strand of hair behind his ear and scratched at his bald crown. Comb. What else was it that he needed? Socks. He folded the menu so that the list faced the outside and shoved it into the pocket of his jeans.
The garbage trucks were growling metallically as they clunked down his street. Lou watched as the black men—some sprinkled, some drenched in the soup of the neighborhood’s litter boxes, spoiled food, dirty diapers (adult and child), and other discarded waste—jumped from the back of the truck and heaved an old tattered mattress into the compactor. The machine bit down, smashing the mattress, and then it was gone into the bowels of the truck. Lou thanked God he worked at the pizza joint.
Lou wasn’t going straight to work, though. He walked to the right down Galvez, to the left on Cleveland, to the right on South St. Patrick. In the middle of the block was a large house with a towering staircase out front. Two apartments above, two below. He rubbed his hand down the outside of his right thigh. The folded to-go menu with his shopping list was safely in his pocket; a balled-up plastic Winn Dixie bag occupied the other. He was ready.
The street was empty of pedestrians—it was early, but it seemed he’d beaten the rush of South St. Patrick street residents leaving for work, school, and daily errands. He proceeded to the back of the house. Two back doors to choose from: one for apartment A, one for apartment B. Door Number One and Door Number Two. Lou considered each—Door Number One had a large four-paned window, which would perhaps prove easy to punch through, but Lou had lacked the foresight to wear a jacket or to bring a towel or some other cloth with which to cover his knuckles. Besides, there were deep claw marks gashed into the lower right corner of the door. They looked fresh—the wood was still splintered and rough. That was enough evidence of a dog waiting inside to make Door Number One seem the less attractive choice.
Door Number Two, while lacking windows through which to shove an arm and unlock the door from inside, was only loosely secured with a lock that appeared to have been intended for an interior door, and termites had gotten to the doorframe and threshold. Bingo. The slumlords of New Orleans were, at the very least, reliable.
After his brief inspection of the alleyways on either side of the house for nosy neighbors, meter-readers, repairmen, visitors, tenants, landlords, dogs, cats, or criminals, Lou was sufficiently confident that it was safe to advance. With one quick motion, he thrust his bulky frame, shoulder-first, against the door. It swung open with little protest. He stood silent for a moment to listen for any evidence of inhabitants, and entered the kitchen.
“Meow?” A fat black cat stretched, hopped from the top of the refrigerator onto the counter and down to the floor, knocking over an empty beer can in the process. It clanked onto the counter, rolled a couple of inches, and stopped. The cat rubbed her back against the cuff of Lou’s jeans.
“Shhhhh,” Lou said, and fished in his pocket for the list. First, toilet paper. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were laid out the same way: shotgun-style, with the living room at the front, then the bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen trailing behind in a straight line to the back door. Not that people always used the rooms for their intended purposes. Lou had seen beds next to stoves in this neighborhood, young people were so intent on cramming as many bodies as possible into each house. He crossed the kitchen and found himself in a smallish bedroom, most of which was occupied by a hulking queen-size bed covered in a mound of what appeared to be a jumble of dirty laundry, books, beer cans and old take-out boxes (some, he noticed, bore the familiar logo of the Italian Pie), stuffed animals, half-full ash trays, bedding, and assorted art supplies. Posters covered the walls so that barely a square foot of the chartreuse-green paint was visible. Lou stopped for a moment to page through a tattered sketch book on the dresser. "Line drawings in various stages of completion dominated the pages. The beginnings of sketches of goblins, fairies, mermaids, and willowy, long-haired nude women oftenendedabruptly,abandoned by the artist in favor of a new creature that would, in turn, be abandoned for another. He stopped on a quick but gracefully-drawn portrait of a young woman with short, dark hair, a wide nose, and otherwise unremarkable features. The woman wasn’t smiling. Bland. But somehow, the drawing captured a certain honesty, an unadorned reality. Perhaps it was a self-portrait.
Walking across the room proved more difficult than he’d expected. Lou reached the door on the far side of the room and stepped into a short hallway with a single door on the right. Lou guessed that this was the bathroom. Once inside, he withdrew the crumpled Winn-Dixie bag from his pocket and began his search. After examining the contents of each cabinet, he procured an unopened package of Charmin under the sink amid bottles of shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, deodorant, and cleaning supplies that had, as evidenced by the state of the house, never been put to their proper use. Perhaps they kept them around for other reasons—Lou had seen a “special report” on television about how people nowadays were using regular household chemicals to cook up drugs. Imagine that: getting high off of Ajax. He placed the toilet paper into his shopping bag, pulled his list out again and scratched off “Toilet Paper.” “Pencils” was next but, as “Comb” was probably in the bathroom as well, he opened the medicine cabinet again and found one, covered in curled hair and scum behind a box of tampons. He slipped it into his bag, made a mental note to douse it in rubbing alcohol at home, and scratched “Comb” off his list.
At the other end of the hall was a second bedroom. This one was much more orderly than the last. In fact, it was almost too-orderly—it had a certain hotel-like quality to it that made Lou uneasy. The single bed was more or less made (with what appeared to be clean sheets), and most of the clothing was neatly hung in the free-standing wardrobe. What wasn’t hung in the wardrobe sat waiting to be washed, crumpled, as neatly as “crumpled” could be, in a basket at the far corner of the room. Lou looked down at his list. “Socks.” He approached the open wardrobe and pulled out one of the three small drawers near the bottom. Underwear. No, he didn’t need that; he’d just found a few pairs of barely-used Fruit-of-the-Looms last Wednesday. He opened the second drawer to find it chock-full of gleaming-white athletic socks. Perfect. He helped himself to four pairs, pushed them down to the bottom of his shopping bag, and marked “Socks” off his list. “Pencils” were all that was left, and then he would be off to work. Lou took a final look at the room. Despite the danger his method of shopping presented, Lou intended to savor these final moments of freedom before handing over his next eight hours to Jerry.
Where did people keep their pencils? Whoever lived in this room had very few belongings, and most seemed to be necessities. He checked the nightstand and the dresser. No pencils; no writing utensils of any kind. This person surely had no use for such disposable trivialities as pencils. He thought for a moment of the magnificent selection the artist who inhabited the previous bedroom might own, but ultimately decided that it wasn’t worth the hassle of picking through the mess. He headed to the next room, what he could only assume was the living room, the room where people sometimes sat on Saturday mornings penciling in the crossword puzzle in the Times-Picayune.
But when he turned the knob and pushed through the door, he was not met with the typical couch-and-television setup, but what appeared to be a small parlor of some sort. He had misjudged the size of the house. At the other end of the room was another door, through which he could see the flickering of a television screen. Lou crept forward, keeping close to the wall. He could just make out two voices: one male, one female.
“…don’t think she is…”
“But look! Just look at her!” The female voice quivered. “Look at her eyes. They’re huge!”
Lou leaned forward. The woman on the television screen seemed slightly familiar, and she did have large eyes, but huge was a bit of an overstatement.
“Oh god. Oh god, oh god, oh god!”
“You’re just tripping out. Calm down.”
“It’s because we’ve been petting her. It’s coming out of our hands. It’s coming out of our hands when we pet her, and she’s absorbing it into her skin.”
“It doesn’t work that way, babe.”
“We’re horrible people.”
Lou stood very still and tried to breathe as quietly as possible. He leaned to peek through the crack in the door. The room was dim but for the light from the television illuminating two thin silhouettes and the lump of a fat old dog on the floor between them.
The girl continued. “God, she looks horrible. She’s confused. She doesn’t know what’s happening—she could have a heart attack and—“
Lou immediately straightened up, pressing his weight against the wall and sucking in his gut.
“Did you hear something?”
“What?” The girl whispered.
“I heard something. Did you hear it?”
“Now who’s tripping out?”
The boy paused. “I swear, I hear breathing,”
“Ugh,” the girl shuddered. “You’re probably just hearing yourself. You’re tripping out, it fucks with your hearing—“
“Go check, please?” The boy was whining now.
Lou almost laughed, but caught himself. The couple rose from the floor, and Lou turned and ran toward the back of the house and through the back door. Once on the sidewalk, he slowed his pace and nodded at the passing mailman.
“Allrigh’,” the mailman said, glancing at him and continuing on his way.
Lou checked his watch. Seven till ten. Pick up the pace, pick up the pace. Lou always walked to work, but he was unaccustomed to showing up late. His strides lengthened and he mindlessly swung his shopping bag back and forth, trying to construct a rhythm of the plastic bag thump-crackle-thumping against his thigh.
When he reached the pizza joint, he had two minutes to spare. Jerry was out front with a bucket and mop.
“Mornin’,” Lou mumbled as he passed.
“Put that down and help me, will you Lou?”
“Yes, Boss.” Lou stashed his shopping bag behind the dumpster. Jerry was splashing and expending quite a bit of effort soaking the mop out in the bucket. Lou hurried over. “I caught ‘im,” Jerry said. “We finally got that rat bastard.”
Lou looked down in to the sloshing bucket, and then he understood. Jerry wasn’t mopping. Halfway down in the greasy mop water splashed a surprisingly strong squirrel. Or a kitten. It took Lou a moment to realize that the thrashing thing in the bucket was the monstrous rat that had been chewing away at the dry goods, rising pizza dough, and random objects in the restaurant, for weeks, maybe months now. Jerry was repeatedly plunging the mop head down, down, down into the bucket in an effort to drown the rat, but it still writhed beneath the slick gray suds.
“Help me out,” Jerry said.
“Hold this for a minute—I’m gonna go get the lid.” Jerry pushed the mop handle towards Lou. “Well, come on!”
Lou did as instructed.
“And don’t let go. That fucker’s strong. Push down hard.”
The rat fought violently, clawing at the mop, stretching its face to the surface of the water. Lou imitated the jabbing motion Jerry had employed moments earlier, and found it an efficient means of keeping the rat at bay.
“Still fightin’?” Jerry returned with the plastic bucket lid in hand.
“Might be tiring out,” Lou mused.
“Okay. Here’s what we’re gonna do. Shit—“ the rat splashed and Jerry had to stop to wipe a glop of mop water from his eyes before continuing. “On the count of three, you pull the mop outta there and I’m gonna put the lid on. Got it?”
“Okay.” Jerry drew in his breath and grasped the bucket lid with both hands. “One.”
The men exchanged glances.
Lou rooted his feet to the asphalt in preparation. Jerry noticed, and did the same, gripping the bucket lid so tightly his knuckles whitened.
But when Lou ripped the mop from the bucket he was horrified to see that the rat had become entangled in the brown strings of the mop head. He hesitated for half a second, and plunged it back into the bucket.
Jerry relaxed his grip on the bucket lid and let his arms fall to his sides. He brushed the mop-funk and sweat from his face with the back of his sleeve. “Look,” he said. “I think he’s calming down now.” The rat protested violently in the bucket. Jerry stepped back. “Think you can hold him under till he’s finished? I gotta go fill some orders.”
Lou nodded. “Yes, Boss.”
“Just, uh, just throw the mop in the dumpster when you’re done. And then go inside, grease the pans, make sure all the trash cans got bags in ‘em, and fold some boxes.”
“Yes, Boss,” Lou mumbled, and held the mop firmly in the bucket.
He was lucky to have this job.
The phone was ringing. Ellen turned over in bed. The clock radio read 11:45. Class at one. She marveled at her own ability to sleep through the alarm clock, but to wake the second her phone began to ring.
“What are you up to?” Veronica asked. It had been a while since she’d called.
“Oh, I can call back.”
“No, what is it?” Ellen adjusted the pillows and stretched. “What do you need?”
There was a pause. “I just wanted to talk.” This could only mean one thing.
“Are yall fighting again?”
“No, not really.” Another pause.
“Jesus, Ronnie, come on. What’s wrong?”
“Me and David did acid last night—“
“—And I just…” She sighed. “I just need to talk.”
Ellen dutifully sat up in bed and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She was familiar enough with acid trips and the unfortunate accompanying comedowns: neurons frenetically firing, paths crossing and uncrossing, paranoia, the grimy feeling of funk underneath the skin, the uncontrollable grinding of teeth in an acrid mouth. There was nothing worse than having to sit through it alone. “How was it?” She yawned.
“It was Okay, I guess. Pretty dirty. I’ve been shitting my brains out all morning.”
“Oh, he’s fine. He’s dead asleep right now. I just feel so gross. I just keep thinking about things and—“
“Do you need me to bring you a Vicodin?”
“No, it’ll just make me puke.”
“Drink a beer.”
“I don’t think I can hold anything down. I really feel like shit.” Veronica had stomach ulcers already, and she got sick every time she overdid it.
Ellen tried to think of something else. “How’s Clementine?”
“Oh God. Listen to this shit. She was tripping with us last night.”
“You dosed the dog?”
“No! But I swear she was tripping. You should have seen her eyes.”
“You were hallucinating.”
Veronica sobbed. “Maybe David gave her some? I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe he thought it was funny? I was convinced it was coming from us, from our hands. Jesus, this just shows how fucking irresponsible I am. I can’t believe I did this to her. Can you imagine how she must have felt?”
“Calm down,” Ellen said. “You need to calm down. It’s just the paranoia. It’s gonna pass. If David’s already sleeping you can’t be far behind. You took it at the same time, right?”
“Yeah, around one last night.”
“What time is it now? Almost noon. You should pass out pretty soon.”
“I feel like I’ll never sleep again.”
“I wish you would let me bring you a Vicodin. My dad gave me ten last time I saw him.” Ellen’s father was addicted to his pain meds, but generous nonetheless.
“I don’t know. You think maybe if I snort it, it won’t fuck up my stomach?”
“Don’t do that, I don’t think it works that way. Just eat a piece of bread or something with it.”
“We’ve still got pizza. I don’t even want to look at it, though. I keep seeing bugs everywhere.”
“Turn the lights down low and eat it as fast as you can without thinking. I’ll be over in five minutes, but I can’t stay. I have class.”
“So do I. I’m not going.”
“That’s probably a good idea. Hey.”
“Do you have any more?”
“We’ve got five left.”
“Think I could buy a couple off you?”
Veronica was silent for a moment. “I’ll have to ask David,” she said. “He’ll kill me if I don’t ask first.”
“Whatever,” Ellen yawned. “I’ll be there in a few minutes. Leave the door open if you’re gonna be in the back.”
Ellen got dressed and went to the bathroom to wash up. She looked like shit. Lately she always looked like shit. She had been a funny-looking kid, and now she was a funny-looking adult. And this was supposed to be her prime. She splashed hot water onto her face and reached for the slippery bar of Ivory soap. Her grandmother had always used Ivory soap. Ellen remembered a time when she was very small and visited a cousin or an aunt or some other obscure relation; a shadowy figure she no longer knew. That someone had commented that Ellen was “such a pretty little girl.” Ellen’s grandmother had corrected the woman, pointedly replying, “She ain’t pretty. She’s gorgeous.” Squinting her eyes, Ellen fumbled from a towel to blot the water from her face. She could still hear her grandmother’s voice, almost twenty years after the fact. “She’s gaw-jus,” she’d said, just like that. “Just like her Maw-Maw.”
Ellen wondered what Veronica’s mother looked like, what her grandmother looked like. Veronica was beautiful.
She took a Vicodin from the bottle, and wrapped it in a sheet of lined paper. Her shoes were exactly where she had left them, intact despite the fact she had accidentally left them out where the dog could get to them. She slipped them on, stepped out onto the porch, and locked the door behind her. “Gross,” she said under her breath, and prepared herself to step out from under the awning into the morning sun. It was like stepping out into a giant hot, wet towel.
“Hot enough for you yet?” Her neighbor, a man of about forty five who still somehow retained the goofy features of a teenage boy, was sitting on his own porch, a heavy volume open in his lap. Ellen forced a laugh and smiled.
It wasn’t until she was in the car on the way to Veronica’s house, the pill safely in her pocket, that Ellen remembered the girl crying in the corner the night before.
Zenny took her place at Sonny’s kitchen table, knocking a cat out of her chair in the process. She found a stained deck of cards held together by a dried-up rubber band, unwrapped it, and shuffled, then shuffled again, and again, cut the deck, and shuffled again. Satisfied, she began dealing herself a game of Solitaire.
“You hungry?” Sonny asked. “I got some bacon.”
“Nah, I just ate.” Zenny lit herself a cigarette.
“Mind if I eat, then?”
“Not if you don’t mind if I smoke.”
Sonny wrinkled his nose. “You know what that does to your lungs?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Zenny moved an ace to the clear space on the table above the row of cards, and flipped over the card below it. A three.
Sonny opened the refrigerator and removed a jar of mayonnaise, a tomato, and some lettuce. With a loud pop, the toaster sent two slices of scorched white bread into the air, and he caught them on a paper plate.
“I seen this guy the other day--” Zenny began.
“You sure you don’t want a sandwich?”
“Oh, maybe just a small one. Make me a half-one, honey.”
Sonny put one slice of bread into the toaster and proceeded to smear a thick layer of mayonnaise onto either slice of his bread.
“Anyway,” Zenny continued, “I seen this man walking down the street the other day. Been seeing him for a long time. Bald on top, gotta big gut. White guy. You know who I’m talking about?”
“What?” Sonny asked.
“Big guy, you know? Kinda dirty lookin’. Anyway, made me think somethin’. I been seein’ that guy around for a few years now, since before your momma died at least.”
“Shhhh,” Sonny said. His shoulders sagged momentarily, then he shook his head and continued assembling his sandwich. The toaster popped, and Zenny’s slice sailed into the air and onto the stovetop. Sonny retrieved it and placed it on a paper plate.
“Sorry,” Zenny said, and went back to her card game.
Sonny was silent for a moment. “You think I should bring one next door?”
“To that little girl? Nah.”
“Hm.” Sonny said.
They sat and ate in silence, Zenny moving her cards until the majority were in four suited stacks on the table, Sonny silently contemplating. Zenny finished her sandwich and wiped the crumbs from the corner of her mouth. “You fed them dogs yet?”
“Not yet,” Sonny answered.
“You stripped your bed?”
“All right. I’m gonna feed the dogs and start a wash. What you doin’ today?”
“Oh, I got lotsa stuff to do.”
“Ok, then. I’m gonna get started.”
Ellen knocked on Veronica’s door and checked her watch. Three minutes went by before Veronica arrived at the door wrapped in a towel, her hair dripping. She was beautiful even when she looked like shit.
“Hey,” Veronica said. “We gotta be quiet, David's asleep.”
“So? Your parents pay the fucking rent.” Ellen pushed her way into the house and stomped her feet loudly on the mat. Clementine gave a low woof in response and charged into the hallway to greet her.
“Not now, El,” Veronica groaned.
“Clementine seems fine,” Ellen observed, ruffling the dog's fur.
“Yeah, I don't think she was tripping really. Sure seemed like she was, though. She was acting so weird.”
They sat on Veronica's couch with the television turned low. Nothing was on but soap operas and infomercials. Veronica stared blankly at the screen.
“You hungry?” Ellen asked.
“I got some water right here.”
“Mind if I make tea?”
“Fine with me.
Ellen went to the kitchen and searched the cabinets for tea bags. She finally found a package of chamomile and settled on that. She'd wanted something with caffeine, but this would probably be best for Veronica right now. She found the remains of a loaf of wheat bread in the fridge and placed a slice in the toaster. She washed a dish, then two coffee cups over the full sink, waving the flies away from her face. That's how Veronica and David lived: they bought groceries, ate them until the dishes piled up, and then ordered out until one of them finally convinced the other to clean. As evidenced by the sink of flies and the stack of pizza boxes, they were nearing the end of the cycle.
When Ellen finally made her way back to the living room with the toast and tea, Veronica was sprawled on the couch, crying softly. She looked up at Ellen, her face red. “I feel like shit,” she sobbed.
“I know. I'm sorry it sucks. Have some tea and a Vicodin. Eat the toast with it.”
“I can't eat.”
“It's just dry toast. It'll make your stomach feel better.”
Veronica reluctantly took the toast, downed the Vicodin, and lay back down. Ellen let a few minutes of infomercial go by.
“So...” she started.
“So did you ask David?”
“Oh. Yeah. It's in an envelope on my dresser.”
Ellen went to the bedroom, the cleaner of the two, where David was sleeping, and retrieved the envelope. David gave a loud snort and rolled over. “Hey El,” he said.
“How's it going?”
“Was it good?”
“It was all right. You gonna do it today?”
“I dunno. Maybe tonight. I got shit to do today.”
“Well, you're welcome. Tell me how it goes.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Ellen rolled her eyes and left the room. It pissed her off that Veronica had to ask his permission, considering the fact that she'd probably paid for the shit. David was “between jobs,” and was currently surviving off of Veronica's income.
“Okay, kiddo. I gotta get outta here.” Veronica tucked the envelope in her purse. “What are you up to later?”
“Dunno.” Veronica yawned.
“Drink a beer. Sleep. Don't forget to take the dog out. Nothing worse than waking up to a hot pile of shit.”
“Alright,” Veronica mumbled, and her eyelids drooped. Maybe David would take Clementine out.
Ellen pulled the car up to the old oak and took a few final drags from her cigarette before setting it flying in a graceful arc from the open window to the neutral ground. She turned the car off, grabbed her cigarettes, lighter, and a bag of trash she’d been meaning to throw away for days now, locked the car door, and hesitated a moment before turning and running to the strip of withered grass to stamp the still-lit butt out. When she turned around her neighbor, was standing on his porch, watching her. She waved and gave him what she hoped was a friendly smile before crossing the patch of grass to her porch. Her keys jingled in her hand as she climbed the cement steps. She could hear Ike inside whimpering. She’d forgotten to let him out before she left.
“Beautiful day, ain’t it?” Her neighbor, still on his porch, had turned to watch her.
“Yes,” she said hurriedly. She wasn’t in the mood to shoot the shit. She fumbled through the multitude of keys, trying to untangle the pink-rimmed house key from the mess.
“You got a minute?”
“Um…sure. What’s up?”
“I—I was just wondering. Lemme ask you, are you hungry?”
Ellen thought for a moment. She was hungry. All the more reason to go inside. “Yeah, pretty hungry. I was in a rush this morning. Didn’t get a chance to eat, and I gotta go to class pretty soon.”
“I know.” He stopped, and for a split second looked uneasy, but recovered. “Do you like sandwiches?”
Ellen laughed. “Sure, I guess. I mean, it depends on what kind.”
He smiled brightly. “I made you this. I mean, I made it for you. I hope you like bacon.” He held out a plate covered with a paper towel. Ellen thought about the pack of mangy dogs living in the house, and wondered if the sandwich would be covered in dog hair.
“Oh. Thanks. Gimmie just a minute.” She managed to disengage the key from the tangle and slip it into the lock. She pushed the door against Ike’s might, shoved her things through the opening, and shut it again. Ike barked in frustration. With as much enthusiasm as she could muster, she hurried down the porch steps, across the patch of grass, and over to the neighbor’s porch, where he was still standing.
He held the plate out to her. “People think bacon isn’t good for you, but they’re wrong. Bacon is a cured meat. Cured with salt. Salt is sodium. Your body needs sodium. And the sodium cures the meat. It cures it. They wouldn’t call it cured if it was unhealthy, would they?” He said all of this incredibly quickly. Ellen laughed. He didn’t.
“No, I guess they wouldn’t,” she said, attempting to match the tone of her voice to the seriousness with which he evidently treated the subject of…bacon. She took the plate from him and lifted the paper towel. The ends of three scraggly bacon strips peeked out from between two slices of toasted white bread. Great globs of shiny mayonnaise seeped out onto the plate. She immediately began to devise an excuse to “eat” the sandwich in private. “Thank you,” she said, and replaced the paper towel.
“Go ahead, eat it. You can eat it right here.” He sat down and let his legs hang off the side of the porch. “Right here,” he repeated, and patted the space next to him.
“If it’s okay,” Ellen said, “I’d rather eat inside. I’ve got some phone calls to make, and I’m kind of in a rush to do some things before I have to go to class.”
“Oh.” He looked disappointed. “Hey! Do you have any ink?”
“Yes, ink. For a printer. Someone stole the ink from mine.”
“Someone stole your ink?”
“Yes, and I know who it was.” His eyes narrowed.
“Well, I think that different printers have different kinds of ink. We’d have to have the same printer, I think.”
“I don’t know. What kind do you have?” Ellen wanted to tell him to just go to the Winn Dixie and buy an ink cartridge, but she wondered if maybe he couldn’t afford to go to the store. She didn’t want to make him uncomfortable.
“You wanna see it?”
“No, no you shouldn’t come in. All the dogs. See, that’s what I don’t understand. How did he get in here? The dogs would have torn him to shreds. Fanny would have ripped his throat out. He’s a sneaky guy, though. He’s sneaky. He’s smart, too. A professor, you know.”
“A professor came into your house and stole your ink cartridges?”
“He knows what I’m doing.” He gave her a meaningful look. “He’s trying to halt my progress. Jealousy is a green-eyed monster.”
“It is,” Ellen agreed. “Well, I’m gonna go in. Thanks for the sandwich.” She turned and started down the steps.
“Sometimes people get jealous and they do things to hurt other people. It’s not right. Envy. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins, you know. It’s also in the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s property, I think it is. In this case, it would be my intellectual property, and God never said that part, but I think it’s implied, don’t you?”
Ellen was uneasy. She was suddenly very, very relieved that he hadn’t insisted she eat the sandwich in front of him. “Yes, I do. Envy is a pretty bad sin.”
“That’s why I hate him,” he continued. “This isn’t the first time he’s envied something I’ve had, you know.”
Ellen relaxed a bit. She wasn’t being accused. He was merely ranting, and the rant was actually kind of intriguing. She wished she hadn’t thrown her cigarettes inside the front door. “Really?” She tried to disguise her interest, as she really didn’t have time to get completely sucked in.
“No.” He stared at her hard, as if trying to convey something without words. “No, it’s not. But he won that one. Or maybe he hasn’t. Well, I don’t know. But he won’t win this one.”
“I hope not,” Ellen said, and smiled. She fiddled with the edge of the paper towel. “Well,” she said brightly, “I’d better go eat this. Thanks again.”
Thursday. Laundry day. Lou gathered his quarters and set out for the washateria on Bienville. The washateria was owned by a family of some Asian variety, he knew, but he wasn’t sure from where. The lady was usually behind the counter. She was not helpful. She rarely made change for him. How was he supposed to do laundry without quarters? Sometimes he had dollars, many dollars, and she couldn’t be bothered to trade them in for quarters. He could hear change jingling behind that counter, perhaps bags upon bags of change, but she always said she was out and would advise that he go to the Shell station on Canal to get change. Well that was three blocks away, and plus they couldn’t make change there without ringing a purchase. Lou had tried to explain this to the Asian lady multiple times, but she’d just stare blankly and repeat, “I’m out of quarters. I can not give you change.”
The quarters clinked against each other in the pocket of his jeans as he walked. He tried to walk so that there was a nice rhythm to the clinking. Slow step, slow step, fast, fast, fast. That was a nice rhythm.
Lou had two dollars in quarters—four quarters for a wash, four quarters for a dry. But the garbage bag of laundry was especially heavy today. Would four quarters dry all of that? One quarter was ten minutes of dryer time. Lou stopped, and the quarters jingled arrhythmically.
It was hot. He sighed, wiped his forehead with his last clean t-shirt, and counted the quarters in his pocket again. Still only eight. He’d have to take a detour to the Shell station.
All the ladies at Shell station at the corner of Canal and N. Murat knew Lou. Today, the tall lady, the one who Lou was sure was really a man, laid his cigarettes—USA brand Menthol Full-Flavors—on the counter before he even asked. Lou pulled a ten out of the depths of his pocket and asked for change in quarters.
“All quarters?” The man-woman asked in that deep voice. Lou’s eyes dropped to her meager breasts.
“Yes. Laundry day.”
“I need to do that too,” he/she said. Lou wondered if she would be washing boxers or big satin panties. He shook the thought from his head and took the quarters, dumping them into his jeans pocket. They jingled.
It wasn’t until Lou was at the Laundromat that he realized he didn’t have soap. How could he have forgotten something so important? He laid the quarters out on the top of the washing machine and counted. He had the eight quarters from before, and now he had twenty-four more, along with some nickels and pennies. Altogether, forty quarters. Forty quarters and no soap.
“Soap,” Lou said to the Asian lady at the counter. “I forgot soap.”
“No soap,” she answered.
Lou held his jeans pocket open and slid the quarters off the top of the washing machine, two by two, three by three, and hefted his bag full of dirty laundry over his shoulder again.
You look like Santa Claus, Dad, she would have said.
But he didn’t have his beard anymore, and he hadn’t heard from her in a long while.
Lou thought for a moment. Winn-Dixie was a long walk. He’d have to carry that big box of laundry soap all the way back. No, that was no good. There was a house on Bienville with a shed in the back with a washer and dryer. Surely there was soap to be found.
The backyard was overgrown with weeds and covered in dog shit. By the time he made it to the shed, he’d crushed several dried turds into dust and his jeans were covered in cockleburs. He pulled the flimsy shed door and, to his surprise, the top rusted hinge, rusted and screwed to rotted, termite-eaten wood, broke off. He hadn’t meant to do that.
Lou dropped his laundry bag onto what appeared to be a relatively clear spot in the grass, outside the shed door, and entered. Just as he’d suspected, a large box of Tide was waiting for him on the shelf. He pulled a crumpled plastic Winn Dixie bag from his left jeans pocket and began to scoop soap from the box into his bag.
“Watcha doin’?” a woman’s voice interrupted.
Lou jumped. A small figure leaned on the doorway of the shed. Still holding the box of Tide and the plastic grocery bag, Lou stepped into the light. The little woman peered at him through large, thick glasses. She didn’t seem angry, only curious—sincerely curious as to what he was doing. As if it weren’t obvious. He was stealing her soap.
“I—I just,” Lou paused. The woman smiled. The lines around her mouth deepened when she did that, and new ones formed above the bridge of her nose, right under the fringe of her wispy, sawdust-colored hair. “Excuse me,” he said. “I must be mistaken. I thought—“
“I know what you’re doing,” she interrupted. “You stealin’ our soap.”
“No, not stealing,” Lou began. “I was gonna bring it back.”
“How you gonna bring back used soap?” Again, she seemed more curious than accusatory. She picked at the end of the drawstring that cinched the waist of her faded floral housedress.
“I dunno,” Lou mumbled.
The little woman slapped at her forearm. “Damned mosquitoes eat me alive,” she said. “They bothering you?”
“Not too bad,” Lou answered, but he already felt several angry, itchy spots above the waistband of his jeans. He lifted his t-shirt to scratch them, but remembered that he was in the company of a lady, and so let his t-shirt drop.
“I’m Zenny,” the woman said. Zenny scratched furiously at her wrists. “Let’s go inside and talk.”
Lou followed obediently.
“Watch out,” Zenny said, leading the way to the back door of the house. “Sonny lets them dogs shit all over the place. God damnit!” She stopped and lifted a feces-smeared houseshoe in the air for Lou to see. “You see?”
“Hm.” Lou said.
Zenny hopped on one foot until she got to the cement steps that led to the back door. There she sat down, removed her shoe, and began scraping it against the cement. “Makes a nice scraping sound, don’t it?” She asked, smiling, and continued to scrape, scrape, scrape the sole of the floppy shoe against the concrete, leaving a wet brown skidmark on the concrete.
“Suppose it does,” Lou agreed.
She smiled, as if pleased that he’d validated her observation.
“What’s your name?” Zenny smiled brightly.
“I seen you around, Lou,” She informed him.
“Hmph,” Lou commented.
With one last swipe, she removed the last of the dog shit from the sole of her shoe, put it back on her foot, and stood. She wrenched the door open a crack, and was met by the snorting gray muzzle of an eager mutt. “Back,” Zenny growled. The dog sniffed and, detecting a foreigner, growled back.
Lou stepped back. “I have to go.”
“But your laundry—“
Lou had already hoisted the bag onto his back and was hurrying up the alley toward the street. Zenny called after him, but her words were lost among the barking of the dogs inside the house. Lou was rarely caught, but when he was, it disturbed him. Perhaps years of getting away with it had given him a false sense of security. Perhaps living in a situation that necessitated petty, petty theft had given him a sense of entitlement that wasn’t marred by any real threat of consequence. Perhaps it was just that solitude seemed to come naturally, and any deviation from that constant seemed paranormal. Lou shook it off. No, it was just that he preferred to move in the shadows, to go unnoticed, and most of the time he did.
© Jane Stubbs