“You know that’s no way to be,” Minnie says.
A.J. closes his eyes.
“Why can’t you just get a job?” Minnie continues. “We aren’t made of money.”
A.J.’s eyes stay closed. For a moment, he feels he is a saint, but only for a moment.
“Now come on, baby,” he starts, but Minnie is already in full tirade mode.
A.J. stays at the kitchen table for another few minutes, half listening, half thinking about some tropical paradise, then he gets up and walks toward the front door.
Minnie follows him. “And now you’re just gonna sit out there and talk to those good for nothings you call friends, and I’m supposed to be cooking your food that I get with our last two quarters in only a piece of tin foil.”
A.J. closes the door behind him and arches his back. He doesn’t blame Minnie. She’s a good woman just trying to get a little more out of him then what he’s prepared to give.
“Nothing wrong with wanting,” he says to the empty street. He sits down in his fold-up chair on the front porch. “Nothing wrong with it at all.”
A.J. knows about wanting. There was a time A.J. would have done anything for Minnie. He remembers how it was, and how hard he had worked on the waterfront. It was back breaking labor, men pushing men just to see how hard a man could be pushed.
A.J. spits to the left of the porch rail. One day, he had decided it didn’t suit him: the work, the powerful men, not even the money. So he’d quit.
He hears the whir of the vacuum cleaner. Minnie is trying a new tactic to get him to come in. A.J. looks around. His friends aren’t out yet because it’s still too early. He imagines they are sleeping off the booze, or the women, or the memories, or whatever men, their age, sleep off.
Sometimes A.J. wishes he could sleep it off, but he can’t. There are too many images swimming in his head. Even a punch bowl full of whiskey wouldn’t drown all those swimming pictures.
“Damn,” he says out loud. Usually his outdoor chair is a place of comfort, like his own personal Balm in Gilead. But today, out here by himself, he feels an ache inside. It’s something painful, like a fist holding his heart too tight.
He decides he is having a heart attack. “Now it comes,” he says to the birds.
He gets up from the lawn chair to go inside and tell Minnie that she has won the battle today. She’d know what to do about this fist in his chest, but Smokey comes out his front door guffawing about how bright it is this time of day, and the pain eases.
A.J. sits back down.
“Hell, Smokey. I thought I was having a heart attack. I guess it was just panic,” A.J. says good-naturedly. “I thought you might be dead in that house of yours.”
Smokey grabs a lawn chair from his porch and walks down his front steps. He opens the gate between the houses and walks the four or five steps to A.J.’s front porch. “Nah, just stretching out the day. Stretching it on out,” Smokey sets his chair down next to A.J., sinks into the chair slowly and sighs. He stretches his arms in front of him, then reaches in his front shirt pocket for a cigar and lights it.
“Hell Smokey, you’re gonna burn yourself up with those cigars,” A.J. says. He waves his right hand in front of his nose and makes a sour face.
Smokey nods his head. “You know that’s right,” he says. “We all die of something, A.J. Now that’s truth.”
“Hearing you,” A.J. whispers and nods.
A.J. and Smokey sit in silence and watch the morning traffic of cars and people pass by. Eventually, Smokey clears his throat and points to the house across the street. “I wonder if Sloppy Joe is going to make it out this morning.”
Uncomfortable, A.J. sits up straighter in his chair. “Well, we’ll see; nothing to do but just wait and see.”
“We could have an intervention,” Smokey says.
“We could,” A.J. says. Sloppy Joe had been drinking a bit more each day. A.J. knows the signs of an alcoholic. His own father had pickled himself from the inside out with the liquor. Although Sloppy Joe is a friend, A.J. doesn’t know how to tell him to cut back. He decides to change the subject. “What about that domino championship?” he asks. He listens as Smokey gives him the details.
The domino conversation eventually dies down to guffaws and snorts. A.J. notices that the sun is really up and moving across the sky. A.J. cracks the front door and calls to Minnie. “Do you have some lunch? My stomach is doing a rumble dance. Smokey’s out here, so maybe some lunch for him too? Can we do that, honey girl?”
A.J. knows Minnie has lunch. She always has more than enough for a fine and tasty lunch, shoestring budget and all. Sure enough, Minnie throws the window open and passes a plate to A.J. through it. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to. A.J. knows what she’s said a thousand times for a thousand days. He also knows she’ll say it a thousand more times before it’s all over.
“Now that’s nice of you, Minnie,” Smokey says in appreciation and sniffs the two nice po-boys on the plate. “Smells like ambrosia. Both overstuffed, just the way they should be.”
Minnie hands A.J. two glasses of water and shuts the window. A.J. calls out, “Earning your wings here, honey,” then focuses on the plate.
After the first few bites, he looks over at Sloppy Joe’s place. A.J. is beginning to worry. For twenty-some odd years, he, Smokey and Sloppy Joe had shared lunch on his porch. There was no set time, but definitely by now, and usually earlier. “Should be up and out by now,” he says to Smokey.
“Reckon so,” Smokey says with his mouth full of shrimp and bread.
They chew in silence for several seconds. Both men are watching Sloppy Joe’s house across the street.
“She didn’t give us napkins this time,” Smokey says.
“We don’t have any,” A.J. says and decides that Sloppy Joe’s house doesn’t look so bad. It’s worn like the rest of the homes in A.J.’s neighborhood, but you can see the fineness in the lines of the home. The yard is overrun with grass and discarded appliances, and the car has one wheel off, but the house that overlooks it all has a regal air.
“I can’t remember the last time Sloppy took that car out,” Smokey says.
A.J. nods and chews his bite of po-boy. “That wheel has been off for a few years now.”
“Well, I guess we could cross the street,” Smokey says.
A.J. puts his po-boy down. “Now you know I don’t cross streets, Smokey.” A.J. hadn’t crossed a street since the Big Happening. “I’m not going to start now, no way, no how.”
“Just saying we could do that. Sloppy should be here, and he’s not,” Smokey says softly. “I’m thinking we could go on and cross the street and just see if he’s OK.”
A.J. stares at Smokey’s profile and feels his whole body stiffen up while Smokey calmly finishes his po-boy. “What you’re talking is nonsense to me,” A.J. finally says. Since the Big Happening, A.J. had only left his home twice. Once he had walked down to the street corner to see which house was on fire across the way, and the other time he had walked two blocks to the store. He hadn’t wanted to walk the two blocks, but Minnie had been sick and in need of medicine.
“It’s not nonsense. That all happened, what—twenty, thirty years ago?” Smokey relights his cigar and sits further back in his lawn chair.
A.J. doesn’t answer. He knows Smokey is aware that it’s exactly twenty-six years ago since the Big Happening. The night he had come home from the waterfront late and found his son, dead, in his front yard with Minnie sitting on the curb crying.
A.J. works over what must have happened in his mind, like he is watching a show: Minnie waves to Bubba T. from the sidewalk. Their little boy is right beside her waiting to cross the street. Bubba T. loses control for an instant when his tire blows. A.J.’s little boy is hit by the side-view mirror. His small body falls in slow motion like the cartoon characters they watch Saturday mornings, but without the funny sounds. Minnie screams and falls to her knees beside their little boy, but he lays still, already gone from her, legs and arms spread as if to hold on to the Earth for one more second.
The medical professionals told him his little boy had been killed on impact. Minnie had cried and cried—right there in the street until A.J. had made her go into the house.
Sometimes, late at night, he hears Minnie whispering to herself, “Bubba T. ran my boy over…ran him down,” like she is still trying to convince herself that it happened.
Sirens still bother A.J. So does Bubba T. Bubba T. has tried for years to talk to him with no success. A.J. knows that Minnie has forgiven him long ago for killing their child, but A.J. had not, would not, could not speak to him—let alone forgive him.
“It’s too fresh—even now. I’m not crossing the street,” A.J. mumbles. He reaches around and knocks on the window. “Po-boys were great, Minnie, honey. Can you pick up the plates so the flies don’t get on them?”
Minnie surprises A.J. by coming out the front door. She stands in front of him on the porch. A.J. hands her his plate, and Smokey starts to say something but she holds up her free hand and points to Sloppy Joe’s.
“Where’s he at? I see two po-boys gone, and the normal number I make, well that’s three. So I’m asking,” she says.
“He forgot to come out,” A.J. says right over Smokey saying, “We were just talking about how maybe we should go on and cross the street and be neighborly. Check in on him.”
Minnie looks at A.J., then at Smokey. “Thinking about it?”
“We are considering it,” Smokey says politely.
“Well, if you can’t be men about it, then I guess a woman is going to have to go on over there and see if that fool has gone and killed himself with that liquor or not,” Minnie says in her mean voice.
A.J. shakes his head at Minnie, and Smokey nods.
“Everyone knows it takes a woman to go over and do the right thing. I mean you two are sitting here being fed like house cats and your friend may not even be breathing, that’s what.” Minnie picks up Smokey’s plate. “I may as well just buy myself a kennel and breed you two old cats out. I’m going to have to clean these plates then go check on that other damn fool of a man who can’t take care of himself. I mean I can’t even have—”
A. J. loses her voice after Minnie walks through the front door with the plates and slams the door behind her with her foot. A.J. knows it’s her foot. He has often wondered how she manages to balance everything and still kick the door shut with such force. “Pay her no mind. She’s on a tear today,” A.J. reaches for his glass of water.
Smokey grabs A.J.’s hand. “I’m thinking we should pay her mind. She just gave us a beat down right here on our own porch. Well, your porch, but close enough to mine to be mine. Now she just called into question my manhood. I’m thinking she did the same to yours too.”
A.J. snatches his hand from Smokey. “Are you holding my hand on my front porch, Smokey?”
“Seems like I’ll have to hold it for you to cross the street,” Smokey retorts and takes a long pull on his cigar.
A.J. fans the air around his head angrily. “Damn cigar. Why do you have to smoke that on my porch?” It’s suddenly thick and clammy and he feels just like that smoked cigar, all spent out and smelly.
“You never said not to,” Smokey says. They sit in an uneasy silence for
several minutes. Smokey puts his cigar out and looks at A.J. “Am I gonna have to hold both your hands, or what?”
A.J. doesn’t say anything because he is thinking about Sloppy Joe. He does about twenty years of thinking, and then he says, “I’m not going to cross—”
The door flies open and Minnie yells, “CROSS THE DAMN STREET, A.J., OR GET THE HELL OUT OF THIS HOUSE!” Minnie stomps her foot down hard. She slams the door shut behind her and locks it.
A.J. is stunned. He looks at the door and then he looks at Smokey.
Turning, he tries the doorknob, but it’s locked. “Minnie, what’s this door locked for? This is my home, I paid for it, and I want the door unlocked.”
Minnie doesn’t answer him.
A.J. feels sweat begin to drip between his shoulder blades. “Now Minnie, honey, I know I walked out on your talking this morning, but honey, a person needs a way into his own house. Now open the door.”
Minnie doesn’t answer.
Smokey clears his throat. “Can’t fault her for locking that door. We need to see about Smokey.”
A.J. swivels to face Smokey. “I’m not a violent man, but I’m thinking you need to be leaving or I’m going to do some violence right here on my porch. There’s no reason to disrespect a man on his own porch.”
The window opens and Minnie reaches out and slaps A.J. hard on the right side of his face. “Now you’ve been disrespected on your porch. So go see about Sloppy Joe and don’t come back here until you do.”
Before A.J. can turn around, Minnie has closed the window and locked that too. He looks at Smokey, and Smokey looks at the tips of his old shrimp boots.
“Well now,” Smokey starts, but A.J. cuts him off and says, “Nothing needs to be said here.”
“All right,” Smokey replies, then clears his throat. “It’s about napping time, so we best get this thing done if it’s going to get done.”
A.J. imagines his boy’s face. It’s shaped like Minnie’s, but it has A.J.’s eyes. He can’t move. “My boy...” he starts, but then stops. His throat closes up and he feels empty and alone, like he has for years, only more now.
“—has been dead a long time now, A.J.,” Smokey says, and looks across the street. “We’ve got someone else to care about now. Time to cross this street.” Smokey puts his feet side by side and hoists himself up from the lawn chair. “We’re his friends, A.J.”
A.J. nods and his mind goes into a time warp. He sees Sloppy coming
across the street to tell them his wife, Beth, had left him; he sees Sloppy helping him clean up after the last hurricane, drunk as he was; he sees Sloppy bringing Minnie some old weeds he called flowers to thank her for lunch. A.J. tries to picture his boy, but all he can see is Bubba T.’s blown tire.
A.J. licks his lips and stands up. “I guess it’s time to go across the street.”
The first three steps are just off the porch. A.J. feels fine. When they come to the street edge, he looks back and he sees the curtains move in the front window. He knows Minnie is watching and waiting.
Sometimes it isn’t easy, A.J. thinks. He remembers how cool the water was when he dove off the big rock, one summer long, long ago, and into Sister Lake. One minute he was airborne and free but after hitting the water he was scared as hell. The cold water stung and pressed down on him. He thought his lungs would burst, but he was back up to the surface and covered in sunshine in no time.
As his foot hits the street pavement A.J. feels Minnie’s eyes propelling him on. Smokey is beside him, hanging back a little, maybe in case he starts to fall, starts to run, or starts to cry.
“I don’t need a nursemaid, Smokey, I’m not a little baby,” A.J. says gruffly and crosses the centerline. Two, three, four more steps and he steps over the curb and stops in front of Sloppy Joe’s house. The world is a loud buzz. His mind keeps telling him that he has crossed the street, in broad daylight, on a Monday afternoon. The strangeness of it is hard to understand.
Smokey is saying something as he opens Sloppy’s gate but the world is buzzing too loud. He can’t hear him. Smokey points to the house and walks toward the front door. A.J. follows though he isn’t hearing, isn’t listening, isn’t breathing. They are up to the front door, and Smokey knocks. The door swings open, unlocked. A.J. hears Smokey says something like, “Only a damn fool would sleep with his door unlocked in this neighborhood.”
Smokey steps into the front room. A.J. takes a deep breath and follows.
The bottles are knee high, but the stench is worse. “Jesus,” Smokey says and starts wading toward the back room.
A.J. doesn’t follow him. He remembers being in Sloppy Joe’s house when another family lived there. Another family with a little boy the same age as A.J. Jr.
A.J. sinks to his knees in the bottles and something breaks inside his chest. There’s a hardness, then a lightness, and he feels the world spin a
little, turn dark then white, maybe gray, until he finally opens his eyes.
Something is under his right knee.
“Sloppy?” A.J. croaks.
Standing up, A.J. looks down and sees that he has uncovered Sloppy’s left shoe. There’s a foot in it. Smokey reappears, and kneels down. He shoves aside the bottles and trash, digging for Sloppy’s head. The tinkling of glass on glass is like the church bells down the street.
Smokey swears. “He’s face down. Help me.”
A.J. leans over and the two of them hoist Sloppy’s whole body over so he is face up.
“Hell, what could make a man bury himself in bottles, vomit, and piss?” Smokey puts his hand over Sloppy Joe’s nose.
“Some things,” A.J. replies and touches Smokey’s wrist.
Smokey puts a hand on A.J.’s shoulder. “He’s breathing, but I think we need an ambulance out here.”
A.J. nods. “Go,” he says shakily.
Smokey turns to the door, then pauses. “You’re staying with Sloppy?”
A.J. sinks to his knees and puts a plastic bottle under Sloppy’s head.
“Damn fool’s lucky he didn’t drown in his own vomit,” Smokey says and walks through the front door.
A.J. turns so he can see out of the window. Smokey runs across the street. Minnie is standing in the front yard. She is crying. He knows she is crying. He doesn’t have to be close enough to see the tears. Smokey puts his hand on Minnie’s shoulder and turns her. A.J. watches as they go into the house.
“Sloppy man, you’ve gotta make it. We’re going to be fine now,” A.J. whispers. “I crossed that street out there today, and that’s something. But if you quit breathing it won’t be worth anything. And I won’t pay for your funeral either. So I’d breathe if I were you. Pauper’s graves aren’t nice.”
Sloppy doesn’t answer.
A.J. doesn’t need him to.
Katarina Boudreaux is a writer, musician, composer, tango dancer, and teacher—a shaper of word, sound, and mind. She returned to New Orleans after circuitous journeying. New work is forthcoming in Broken Tooth Press and the Mandala Journal katarinaboudreaux.com.