We were best friends for a long time and then we weren't.
Just like that.
He said, "I know about you and Missy," and there wasn't anything to say after that. It caught me by surprise.
That was when we were getting off the streetcar, coming home. We both got off at Riverbend by the Camellia Grill.
All I could think was he knew this all day and didn't say anything until now.
"Tony," I went, but he had already walked away. I walked behind him half a block, going slow to let him get ahead. We both lived on Burthe, me closer to Carrollton. What I wanted was for him to get past my apartment first. I had an idea Missy was there like she had been lately, and this was the wrong time for him to see her there.
I stopped and had a drink at Madigan's to allow him plenty of time. I had two beers and played Pac-Man and talked to a girl and then I walked home. Missy was there, waiting inside. She had her own key. Her idea.
"He knows," I said, before anything else. She had a drink in her hand. It looked like straight Jack, yellow and mean, so I knew I wasn't telling her anything she wasn't already in on.
"There was a note in my mailbox," she said. "He's got a gun, Frank."
I fixed myself a drink and went into the living room and sat on the sofa. She came and sat down on the other end. I saw there was more Jack in her glass.
"I bought it for him for his birthday. The gun. That's how I know he has one."
"He wouldn't use it," I said. "You're not even married to him any more. Why would he use it? He's just hurt. His feelings are just hurt."
She left after awhile. We hadn't made love. I said something about calling her up the next day, but that was just what you say to someone in that situation.
We still rode the streetcar together the next few weeks, Tony and I. Of course, we didn't sit together any longer. At work, we were polite when we had to be, but that was it. I kept believing he'd snap out of it, come around, and maybe he would have, but one day about a week later, I came home after stopping at Madigan's and she was sitting on the stoop. She'd already gotten into the Jack.
"I saw Tony," she said. "Right here. Not twenty minutes ago. I said hi to him but he just walked by."
"He was getting over it," I go, and I'm not happy with this. "Another day, we would have sat down and talked it out. Who the fuck asked you to come over? I told you I'd call you." She looked at me for a minute and then threw her drink at me, not like in the movies, but the whole drink, glass and all, and then she left. I didn't call her up any more. That was over.
Tony was worse after that. I think Missy had called him, laid some story on him. He was even more polite. And he would stare at me. I'd look up from the phone, talking to a client; something would make me look up, and there he'd be, just sitting at his desk, staring, no expression on his face at all. Spooky. I'd say good-bye to the client, cut him off, and go to the bathroom and wash my hands or have a cigarette. My hands would shake.
There was a bum, a street person. We always laughed at him, Tony and I, before our falling-out. The street person had layer after layer of clothing on, no matter what the season or how hot it was. We'd lay odds how many layers there were. Five or six, I'd say. No way, goes Tony. Ten, at least.
He had a shopping cart. The street person. He went around to all the trash receptacles in the Central Business District, the CBD, and fished out the newspapers. This, too, was a joke for us. He's keeping up with world affairs, Tony would go, case his country calls for him to serve; be President. No; he's got a mansion on St. Charles and he's collecting insulation, I'd say, and we'd laugh. This was before he found out about me and Missy.
Ninety shimmering degrees of New Orleans heat, and the street person would put on more clothes. You couldn't see any sweat on his forehead, ever. That would be the only exposed flesh. He'd have on a woolen stocking hat and a navy blue muffler as well. In September. In New Orleans.
Once, coming home on the streetcar, we saw him peeing. Right on the street. Hung it out there and let 'er rip. People, women, were walking around him, shaking their heads, as if, can you imagine? It must have taken him half an hour to unzip all his trousers. Good kidneys, we said; be able to hold it that long. We couldn't fucking believe it, Tony and I. We looked to see if there was a policeman around. Not that it mattered. This was New Orleans. Once, during Mardi Gras I saw a couple performing fellatio not twenty feet from a policeman and he didn't even bother to watch. Two guys. Maybe if it was a hetero couple, the cop would've been interested enough to at least watch.
There wasn't a policeman anyway. The coast was clear for a daring daylight pee on Canal Street. One woman picked up her little girl and ran down the street, her eyes big, and you could see her jabbering to her kid. We laughed, Tony and I, holding onto each other we were laughing so hard. He was standing there, peeing, big as life, on Canal, during the after work rush hour, his one foot up on his shopping cart like he was worried someone might grab it and run off. There was a huge puddle running down to the curb that people were hopping over. A kid rode his bike through it and a lady was slapping at her skirt like some had sprayed her, and she was gagging. It was pretty funny stuff. This was a couple of months before Tony found out about Missy and me.
We'd get off the streetcar and I'd toss my newspaper in the trash. A morning ritual. Sports was all I read. See how the Saints were doing, what players had injuries. The street person was always there, waiting. I'd look back and he'd be digging it out, putting it in his cart. This was before Tony got mad at me, and after, too. Our problems had nothing to do with the street person's routine. He could care less. Even if he would have known.
It was about a month after Tony found out about Missy and me and it was on a Monday morning. I hardly thought about him any more, just ignored the situation and looked through him at work.
Going out of the bus to catch the streetcar, I noticed the Sunday Times-Picayune on the floor beside the couch where I'd left it the night before. Why not? I thought, and picked it up. I got the Monday paper out of the machine in front of the Camellia Grill. When I got on the streetcar, I must have been carrying four pounds of newspaper, about two ounces of which I actually read.
Tony got on, a block up the line, something he'd been doing since our little falling out, so we wouldn't have to stand and wait for the car together, and this day, instead of sitting in front like he'd been doing, he walked all the way back to where I was and sat down in the seat opposite. Then, he did something I didn't like too much. He grinned at me and opened his jacket with an exaggerated gesture. There was his gun, stuck in the waist-band of his trousers. The grin abruptly left his face, he closed his coat, picked up his own paper and began reading. I thought: Jesus.
When the streetcar stopped just off Canal, I got off. I didn't look his way, but I was acutely aware of him. He was letting me get off first. I started toward the office, not running exactly, but moving at a good clip. There was the trash receptacle, just ahead, and the bum was already going through it. I went up and placed both my papers in his shopping cart.
"There you go, old-timer," I said. "I brought you Sunday's, too." I shined him a big smile.
It was the morning for surprises.
He came unglued.
He ran the two or three steps to his cart and began screaming at the top of his voice, "I don't want your goddamn papers. Don't put your goddamn papers in my cart!" I could smell him, old piss and the sweetish-sour smell of wine and another smell I couldn't identify right off. Musty, like the underside of a board in a vacant lot. Dirty clothes, I realized. Dirty clothes that had been rained on and slept in. Many times.
"I don't want your goddamn papers!" he was screeching. He shook them in my face.
"Here! Take 'em! I don't need your fucking charity!" He pushed them at me.
It all happened so quickly, I didn't see any option but to take them. I stood there, holding two days' worth of Times-Picayune, and he went back to his cart, muttering and arranging his other papers into neat piles. Shrugging, I went to the receptacle and tossed them in.
Then, from somewhere, Tony was there and he had his gun out. I'd forgotten all about him. But it wasn't me he pointed the gun at. It was at the bum. Right at his head. Right on his head, matter of fact. He laid the barrel right up to the side of the bum's head and then he said, "Take my friend's papers. Go on, take them." In this calm, conversational, insane voice, like he was ordering a BLT on white bread from a waitress.
"Fuck you and him." This was the bum speaking, not even looking up or acknowledging the gun, still digging through his papers.
"If you don't take my friend's papers, I'm going to have to shoot you," Tony said.
"Tony," I said, finding my voice and hearing it come out of me from very far away.
"Stay out of this," Tony said, his eyes on the bum, on whom he still has the pistol trained, in a two-handed grip, both arms extended, like detectives in movies do. "This isn't your business. Or do you like bums? You don't like women. We know that for a fact, don't we, Frank? You don't like your friends and you don't like women, not even your friend's woman. All you like to do is fuck them. Your friends and your friend's woman. Only it's not like real fucking. It's more like you masturbate with them. So stay out of this. I'm in charge here. I'm the one with the gun this time. I'm going to show you how to fuck someone in a less painful way."
"Kiss my white ass," said the bum again, still digging and ignoring the gun. He thought Tony was talking to him.
"Okay then, sir," said Tony. "You have left me no choice but to blow you away," and he giggled and pulled the trigger. Only instead of a blast and a bum's head blown to hamburger, there's this little click. And then, there's a cop that gets involved, must have been watching from somewhere, comes running and takes Tony down with a tackle shoulda been on the NFL highlight film, and before you know it, there's a whole bunch of cops and tourists looking over their shoulders, and I'm in a squad car and Tony's been led to another one, giggling and telling the four cops who've got him that it isn't loaded, which they've already figured out for themselves, and he's explaining this and other things to them while they drive him away, and the two that have me are asking me hard-eyed questions about what happened for the hundredth time, and then there's more cops, different cops, and I have to repeat everything to them all over again. I see they've got the bum over against a car, talking to him, and I guess I'd talk to him outside my car, I was the cop, too, with the aroma this bum is putting out, and then it seems I have to take a ride downtown and explain what has happened to some other cops, higher-ups.
When we're pulling away, I hear one of the cops with the bum say, "Fuck this shit. I ain't puttin' him in my car. I got six more hours on this shift to ride in this fucker and they ain't gonna want him downtown no way. Cut 'im loose."
Half a block up the street, I see they've let the bum go, and he's over pawing in the trash receptacle and just as we turn the corner I see him pick up my papers and start for his cart with them.
Well, there was a lot of talking and confusion down at the parish station and I find out they took Tony first to the lockup and then later, over to Charity Hospital for psychiatric, and after a time they drive me back to the office, telling me they might need me to come downtown again and tell my story to the one or two policemen in the parish who haven't yet heard it.
I asked for the rest of the day off and the next day I called in and said I was taking my vacation.
That's three months back and I haven't returned, so I guess I quit. I stayed around the apartment a couple of days, just drinking Jack and watching the tube. Once, a day or so after Tony tried to shoot the bum with his unloaded gun, Missy came by and rang the doorbell, but I just stayed inside until she finally went away. She didn't try and use her key, which I'd forgot she had. If she'd come in, I don't know what I would have said to her. Just hit her, I guess is what I'da done. Tony was right. I didn't much like women, at least not this one. I wanted to tell him I liked myself even less, see if that made any difference. Probably not.
The telephone rang a few times, too, and after awhile I unplugged it.
I woke up sober one day, or out of booze which is the same thing, and called an old friend of mine, Randy Duplechette, and asked if he needed any help and he guessed he did, so I went out with him, out through Ponchartrain and into the Gulf. Randy does some part-time shrimping, takes time off from his regular job which is drinking. He has this small, homemade trawler and net, and then I made a deal to sub-contract his boat from him, and that's what I'm doing now, shrimping and selling what I get to Deannie's. That's about over, what with the weather, Randy's boat won't make it down to the Mexican coast where the shrimp are heading.
I don't know what I'll do next.
Tony's back on the job. I know, 'cause I went down to get some things and clean out my desk, and there he was. I said hi, in a quick way as I walked by, but he didn't even look up and that was fine with me. At least, he wasn't pulling that polite act any more. Miz Shelly, the boss's secretary, tried to get some information out of me as she took me back to the closet where they'd stored my stuff, but I didn't tell her squat, at which she sniffed, and then, of course, she had to tell me what she knew, which was that Tony had suffered some sort of nervous breakdown and had just come back on limited duty. He was supposed to have some kind of trial in a couple of months, but it wouldn't amount to anything, she said, the way they had it figured. It was just a bum, wasn't it, she said. I just kept nodding my head and clucking my tongue, which made her press her lips together hard, and then I left. I went out the side door so I wouldn't have to pass his desk again.
I haven't seen him come by my apartment after work in weeks, the times I'm home, so I guess he's either moved, or else takes a different route from the streetcar, maybe catches it over on St. Charles now. I saw Lucille Hardy, she used to work in the office with us, down at Madigan's once, a day or so ago, and she says she heard Tony and Missy had gotten back together again, were thinking about getting remarried, not that I asked her for this gossip. It's just something some people want to do, tell you things maybe you'd prefer not to know.
We were good pals, Tony and me, at one time. We were the very best of friends, brothers practically, worked and played together, did everything. Went to ballgames, drank beers and shot pool out in Fat City, ate po-boys at lunch together, things like that.
I may walk down to his place one of these days and see if I can catch him outside if it happens he still lives there, maybe pruning back his oleanders. Maybe just start shooting the breeze and see how it goes. Particularly since it looks like he's got what he wants. By that, I mean Missy.
I'll probably tell him I'm sorry. I am, you know. Maybe we can all get together and talk it out, him, me and Missy. Go back to the way it was, before.
I'm just whistling Dixie here, aren't I?
Copyright © 2015 Les Edgerton. Previously published in the Fall 1994/96 issue of High Plains Literary Review and included in the story collection Monday's Meal.
Les Edgerton is an ex-con, matriculating at Pendleton Reformatory in the sixties for burglary (plea-bargained down from multiple counts of burglary, armed robbery, strong-armed robbery and possession with intent). He was an outlaw for many years and was involved in shootouts, knifings, robberies, high-speed car chases, dealt and used drugs, was a pimp, worked for an escort service, starred in porn movies, was a gambler, served four years in the Navy, and had other misadventures. He's since taken a vow of poverty (became a writer) with 18 books in print. Three of his novels have been sold to German publisher, Pulpmaster for the German language rights. His memoir, Adrenaline Junkie is currently being marketed along with a new nonfiction craft book.