The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You

The Iowa Review - - FRONT PAGE - Mau­rice car­los ruf­fin

You on the side­walk out front of the con­ve­nience store. The sun beat down like it do ev­ery morn­ing. The street cleaner pass by spray­ing le­mon­ade-smelling wa­ter. It get your ten­nis shoes, shoes that’s com­ing loose at the heel, so your socks get wet, too. Soapy wa­ter drip down the curb. Not like this street stay clean long. Mr. Jell­nik round the cor­ner like he be­ing dogged. He ain’t much to look at. They never is. He like the other men who come down for foot­fix­ing con­ven­tions and brain-fix­ing con­ven­tions. He got a fat neck and skin like old peaches. His wal­let fat too; that all you care about. Jell­nik eye you from crotch to mouth. He pull out a pack. He smoke. You pull one from the pack and light yours with his. “Why are you the only one out here this morn­ing?” He cover his eyes half­way. The sun glare off the Mis­sis­sippi River Bridge like I SEE YOU BOY. “I’m the on­li­est one you need,” you say. “True enough.” The other tap­pers al­ready off to work, prob­a­bly al­most done with the men they left with. They left you with the tip box. The box is for your pro­tec­tion. You wear bot­tle caps on your soles and dance so peo­ple think you and the oth­ers are cym­bal mon­keys. A po­lice car roll up the street. The lights flash blue white blue, but the car don’t slow down even though the cop lean over to get a eye­ful of your faces. Jell­nik’s butt cheeks tense up. You could tell him don’t sweat it, but you like see­ing him squirm. If you didn’t like see­ing him squirm, you would tell him cops never ar­rest johns, es­pe­cially not johns from Ida-fuck­ing-ho. What you do prob­a­bly make the cops puke. It’s easy to lock up dudes for shoot­ing dudes. That’s good busi­ness. Putting a ju­nior high slut in jail is bad busi­ness. If they hear all about what you do, peo­ple stop com­ing to town. You all starve then. The stoplight turn green. The po­lice car pull off. Jell­nik’s ass re­lax. You don’t re­ally need to tap-dance to stay out of jail. But if you don’t fake it, what else you got?

•••

Jell­nik the only one who buy you food af­ter he do his busi­ness. Now, you sore in­side and out, but you starv­ing, too. The quee­nie cook be­hind the

counter flip­ping pan­cakes. Maybe the pan­cake take your mind off how rough Jell­nik han­dle you. Jell­nik’s toast and runny eggs come out first. He squirt ketchup all over. He gulp cof­fee, get a re­fill, gulp that, too. He don’t give you none. Your stom­ach growl. When you bring food to the cor­ner, the other tap­pers take most of it, leave you the scrap. Most days you don’t eat till you go home. But to­day you hun­gry. What the shit is the holdup? The quee­nie cook went in back and your pan­cake sit­ting on the cold side of the grill like a Fris­bee that just stop spin­ning. Jell­nik been here all week. The first day he show up, he take Pink and Quincy first, one in the morn­ing and the other round lunch. He come back for you af­ter noon time rock­ing up the street with hair stuck to his fore­head. Af­ter he take a piece of you, he never buy what Pink and Quincy sell­ing again. That’s a plus on top of the money. It’s the only time you won out when they around. You too dark and your hair ain’t wavy and good like Pink hair. But now you can laugh in­side when you see them, but don’t laugh out loud. They punch you if you smile. Jell­nik break out a roll of cash. He put down two twenty-dol­lar bills. One for the food and one for you. Twenty won’t cover the food, so that’ll come out of what you earn. “When I leave tonight,” Jell­nik say. “I want you to come with me.” He pour sugar in his cof­fee. His fin­ger got ketchup on it that he don’t see. He stir his cof­fee with that fin­ger. “I’ll get you a plane ticket, and I have a stor­age unit you can stay in un­til we find you some­thing more ap­pro­pri­ate.” “Man,” you say, “I ain’t go­ing to no­body Idaho.” “Lis­ten to me,” he say, “you can do bet­ter than this place. It’s not safe for you.” “No­body mess with me round here,” you say. He put a hand on your face where you bruised from when Pink hit you the other day. You like to flinch away, but you don’t ’cause his hand feel warm. “You don’t know any­thing,” Jell­nik say. “I’ve been vis­it­ing New Or­leans for over twenty years. You think you’re one of the first boys to stand on that cor­ner? What do you think hap­pened to the boys who were there be­fore you?” You could tell Jell­nik about Pink’s brother, Simmy, who went puff like match smoke last month. Simmy was the first one you met when you came out here. He looked out for you, but now he gone. You know he ain’t go to Idaho. “Why you care about what hap­pen to me?” you ask.

“Just be back at the cor­ner around six p.m. with your per­sonal be­long­ings. I’ll be in a gray sport util­ity ve­hi­cle.” When Jell­nik get up, the stool squeal like it be­ing stabbed. Your pan­cake black and crusty, still dy­ing on that grill. The quee­nie cook wear­ing mas­cara and hoop ear­rings, so you know he a full-on Mary. He flip the pan­cake to your plate. He smack the plate down. Sound like it crack, but it don’t. He shake his head at you like he bet­ter than you. You want to jump over the counter and stomp his face on the grill. Or make him suck your junk. You want to make him say your name like he mean it. But he grown. He break you in five pieces, if you try. You be on the wrong end like al­ways. The pan­cake darker than you. You don’t touch it. You snatch all the money and run. The cook yell af­ter you, but those just words.

•••

Lor­raine don’t have no legs. When you go into the house with a box of chicken and bis­cuits, she back early from the casino down­town. She in her spot in front of the TV. You bought toi­let pa­per and choco­late milk, too. She don’t look up. She eating a bag of or­ange puffs. Her lips or­ange. She keep them on her lap so the lit­tle kids won’t get none. None of you like to get close to her. She grab too hard. You go to the kitchen and put the chicken down. You yell out the back door for the lit­tle boys rolling in the grass by the flat-tire pickup truck. The boys are fos­ter boys like you. Lor­raine get a check ev­ery two weeks for keep­ing y’all. You don’t get any be­cause she call it rent. She take rent to the casino. If she win, she don’t tell you. “You bet­ter find your own,” she al­ways say. But she eat what you bring home. Her cut she call it. You go back to the kitchen. You open the box and a roach in it. The lit­tle boys come in the back door, scream­ing and smack­ing each other. You can’t let them see that roach be­cause then they won’t eat. You don’t have money to buy more, and the lit­tle bit of chicken you brought ain’t enough for them any­way. You pop the bug in your mouth. Jell­nik’s stor­age shed must be pretty big. A big man wouldn’t have a small shed. A big man would have a shed big enough to do cartwheels in. His condo in the French Quar­ter is small. But ev­ery­thing in the French Quar­ter small. If ev­ery­thing was big, it would be the French Dol­lar. When he put you in po­si­tion, you stare out the win­dow. There’s a tree out­side with heart-shaped leaves. You count those leaves. You

never get past fif­teen. In all the times you done busi­ness with Jell­nik, he never say he love you. That’s the only rea­son you lis­ten to him at all. The other ones al­ways love you.

•••

You don’t want to see Pink and Quincy at the cor­ner, but they tap­danc­ing ex­tra fast. They try­ing to ring the last lit­tle bit of pocket change out of the tourists be­fore it get dark. The cops won’t take you in for hus­tling johns, but they don’t stand for cur­few-break­ers. It don’t look right for tap­pers to be on the street af­ter dark. What don’t look right is bad for busi­ness. Bot­tle caps scrap­ing con­crete make you sick like you ate a crate full of bot­tle caps. You won­der where Jell­nik at. It’s af­ter time. You won­der if you feel bet­ter when he come around. “Where you been at?” Quincy say. “Not mak­ing any, I bet,” Pink say. “Ain’t never got his shit to­gether, this baby here.” You tell them to suck a horse and they howl. “You a salty lit­tle bitch to­day,” Pink say. “You slow?” You tell them you ain’t slow. You tell them you about to get paid. You tell them you leav­ing with Jell­nik as soon as he get here. “Humpty Dumpty?” Quincy frown. “That man ain’t bring­ing you nowheres, boy,” Pink say. A gray SUV down the block. It look like it go­ing to turn be­fore it make it to you. You stop look­ing. Quincy pinch your shoul­der. “You’re se­ri­ous, ain’t you, baby?” “He com­ing for me,” you say. “I bet you twenty he ain’t,” Pink say. Pink wres­tle you and snatch your last from your pocket. It’s only a five. Pink say that’ll do un­til you get more. You tell him you ain’t lost yet. Pink say he good for the night and leave with your five. You only have one bot­tle cap for your shoe, but you go­ing to pass some time tap­ping. Make some change to buy a cold drink be­cause your mouth taste like funk. You dance un­til that cap break loose and roll into the gut­ter. Some­thing flash. A po­lice car creep your way. The lights beep slow, but the car speed up. You can’t see the cop driv­ing, but hands in cuffs press on the back­seat glass. Jell­nik face be­hind those hands. You step in the street like you go­ing to fol­low. But you don’t.

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