My chair leans just a little bit. Gail’s on the couch across from me and Earl is showing her those pictures. She flips through the stack, even though she saw them yesterday. Earl’s got his little pistol, too, the one he bought after his woman cut out. It’s about the size of an old lighter and looks like a kid’s toy. Gail’s charmed by that gun, says isn’t it cute and she’d buy it from him, too. But he says he wants to hold on to it a little while.
“Come see these pictures,” Gail says.
Earl reaches one over. “You’d like this one,” he says.
But I can’t do it anymore. The man’s over here every day, showing them. I tell him to leave the damn pictures alone for once, and it’s like I popped him in the face. He jams his little gun in his pocket, scoops up the pictures, and cuts out. Slams the door, too.
“You shouldn’t have done that.” Gail touches her wig, a big orange thing, one of her sassy wigs. Gail’s got hair. She touches it again. Now it’s crooked the other way. I wash the bones we got laid out on the table. She takes seven and I take seven and we move the rest out the way. “It’s better with three,” she says.
“He’ll be back.”
She plays the double five. “Gimme ten. Lord, you gonna be broke-ass, too.” I play the five-four, and she slaps down the five-six, ten more points. She says it again: “It’s better with three, you know.”
I decide to say nothing. It’s just us in the room. Everybody is somewhere else. It’s not often the house is quiet like this. We play a few, clicking them down. After a while you forget what quiet is.
Gail’s whole house leans. If you dropped a marble at the front door, it would roll into the kitchen and on through the laundry room into Gail’s room, and on past the bed where old Claude is sleeping and into the back where all the kids stay. Each year the house leans a little more. And is Claude doing anything thing about it? No. All he do is sleep.
Claude is Gail’s husband. Way back, Gail was my girl, and Claude was just some bowlegged shingle-splitter who used to stay around here. Boy could dance, though. I guess it’s the same old story. They went and had a life together. I’ve hung around through it all, kids, grandkids. I’m always over at Claude and Gail’s. Now that Claude’s checked out, I might finally have something going with the old girl.
I mean it about Claude, too—all he do is sleep. Day and night. Apparently, the man hypnotized himself into a coma. Gail said he bought all these self-hypnotizing tapes and then just wouldn’t wake up. But how long can he sleep, really? He’s as good as dead. Sooner or later they’ll truck him out of here. In the meantime, I fetch Gail’s coffee, get what she needs from the store. She’ll come around.
Not that my tending to has been paying off lately. Gail’s still pissed about that girl who took off, Jazz, Earl’s old lady. Gail says it’s a shame how much you do for people when they go and step all over you anyway and that bitch better not come back, now. But I know she misses her.
Earl and Jazz. Man, they used to fight like pissed off cats. They’d be over there humming plates out the front door and screaming like lunatics until one of them cut out. Earl, usually. He’d run over the mailbox and split. Jazz would chase after him, throwing plates. They had some plates over there. I used to watch from the front of Gail’s, along with everyone else. It was like a goddam show. Jazz running out the house with an armload of plates to throw, Earl zooming down the driveway, knocking the mailbox over. Soon as he was gone, Jazz would take whatever plates she hadn’t thrown back inside for next time, and then come over here and get her fix from Gail. That mailbox would stay down until Earl came back in a couple days and fixed it. Then they’d come over together and talk to Gail.
“Just a couple of lovebirds,” she’d say, cackling, rubbing my leg. “When’s the wedding?”
“Never.” They’d say it together.
“Gimme ten,” she says now. “Whatcha got?” I show my bones and she gets another fifteen. “You sure are bad at this. I mean, you do play it all the time.” She says it smiling like a schoolgirl, flirting, one hand holding the wig steady. Then she leans back, peeks through the blinds. “Karo walking up,” she says, in case I want to step out. Karo’s Gail’s youngest, and she knows I can’t stand that boy. He’s the spitting image of Claude, with those muddy eyes. Dumber than a bucket of dead shrimp. Always grinning, too.
Soon as he walks in, he says, “I need some money, Mama.” He’s picking at his teeth, a new gold grill he got up in Amite. Dumbass boy. He’s wrapped up this too. She gives him a bill out the front of her shirt and he waits until she digs out another, then he cuts out.
“What,” she says.
“Might as well play again,” I say, washing the bones. “Already down in the hole.”
“You ain’t in the hole yet.” She leads with the six-four. “But you sure headed that way. Gimme ten.”
At least the house is quiet.
So, a few months back, Earl cut out and seemed to be staying gone. It got to be where Jazz was over here every day, getting pills from Gail. Most nights she’d stay through till morning, then go home and sleep it off. Soon as the sun went down, and the house filled up, she’d be back. A bad situation, no matter how you figure it. But what really messed things up was that boy Karo. He had his sights set on Jazz, and he’d try to play her when she ran through to talk to Gail. “When’s old boy coming back?” he’d yell, or, “I can stay with you, now?” Jazz would play him, too, flipping her hair or whatever, putting a hand on his shoulder on her way out. It wasn’t long before he followed her over there.
About Karo: he’s been running powder since he was just a kid. Used to ride his bike all over town with a backpack full of little bags done up. Then he’s driving a new 4runner with blackout windows and staying gone all night. Fool’s been busted twice, spent more than a year up in Amite. Still he’s running it. And he got Jazz hooked, clear off. Now it was worse, with those two shacking up. That boy putting his hands on her like she was his. Popping open a bag and sharing it, right here on the couch. It started showing on her quick. Yellow eyes and her skin all waxy, like she’d been drinking paint. She was doing housework for Gail, and it was still sort of nice to see her in the kitchen, just having a ball cooking spaghetti. But every hour or so she’d be asking for another pill or cutting out with Karo.
Gail’s not stupid. She knew Jazz was bad off. Pain medicine. Like that girl needed medicine. Still, Gail kept shelling them out. For free, too. Guess she was waiting for Earl to come back and pay up. She’s got a bigger part in all this than she’d like to admit. But with Gail, it’s always someone else’s fault.
Well, eventually, Karo cut out, too. It was like a repeat of the Earl and Jazz show: Karo zooming out the driveway in his 4runner and running over the mailbox, Jazz cussing and throwing plates. Then she comes over here all pissed, and it was showing on her worse. Her hair greasy and knotted on top her head, smelling like a dog. Claude started snoring soon as she came in, too, I think because she smelled so damn bad. Still, Gail shelled them out. Jazz picked up the broom and moved around the bed, sweeping, then swept back to Gail, sat down, and asked for another. She hadn’t even done a good job sweeping. And so Gail finally cut the cord.
“I’m all out, honey,” she said. Jazz asked again, practically begging. But Gail insisted: there was no more for her.
Well, Jazz didn’t like that. She flew around the room, cussing. She cussed Gail for holding out and she cussed Karo for taking off without leaving her anything, and then she cussed Gail again for giving birth to Karo in the first place, and Claude, too, for that matter. She even cussed me out, even though I was just sitting there. Then she left, for good this time. Gone.
I’d like to say she went back to her folks’, or whatever. Got clean. But I doubt it. She probably got bad on the needle and died in some dump. No one wants to say it, but, well. Shit happens all the time.
Earl showed up a few days after she split. I sure as hell didn’t tell him what all had gone down when he was away, but he found out anyway. You always find out around here. Old boy had a bad way of taking it. He tore up that house, top to bottom. Like Jazz was hiding in a closet or something. Practically gutted the place, and he still hasn’t put it back together. Well, somewhere in all that, he found those pictures. They’re just pictures of his house and places around here, way back in the day. Whoever used to live there before must have left them. That’s it. But he’s hooked on them, and he’s always coming around, showing them to me and Gail.
Karo came back about the same time. Boy was just staying with one of his deadbeat friends across town until the smoke cleared. And when he showed up again, Earl bought that little gun. Little bullets go right through you, he told me. Isn’t that something? I wish he would sell the damn thing to Gail, so I can quit worrying about him.
Now it’s like a game with those two. Karo and Earl. They play switcharoo with Gail’s house. Karo comes in, Earl cuts out. Karo takes off in the evening, and Earl comes over, showing those pictures. But Gail’s patient. She looks them over every time. Because, hell. She feels sorry for him. We all do. Jazz was something else.
“That’s game,” I say, and play my last bone. The house is filling up now, kids running in the door and more of them out on the stoop, laughing.
“Shitfire.” Gail’s still got a few, and she flips them up. I get another ten.
“What’s that make us?” I say, loving the way her face gets while she’s scribbling in that pad. Gail damn near never loses.
“Come on.” She flips over the bones. “Let’s play again.” One of her grandkids runs in from the kitchen, and Gail hefts him up on her lap. Another comes in the door, slamming it, and jumps on the couch. Gail’s still trying to wash the bones, with those kids hanging on her.
“I think I’ll go check on old boy,” I say.
“Get him over here,” she says, washing the bones. “Tell him to come play a game. And then you sit your ass back down, too. It’s better with three.”
Earl doesn’t answer when I knock, so I go on in. Those pictures are spread out on the floor and he’s got a flashlight, looking at them. All the lights are out.
“How you doing, man?”
He pats the space beside him. “I want to show you something.”
“You got a beer for me?”
“Sure do. Right here.” Those beers are there on the floor with him.
I sit on down. “Sitting on this floor is going to fuck up my back,” I tell him.
“Look here, you see these pictures?”
“I see them.” He moves the flashlight back and forth. His eyes are all wet and shiny. That flashlight is making him look even worse than he is. I think about Jazz with her hair balled up on top her head. “You know I’ve seen them before, right?”
“You don’t ever really look. Look.” He goes through them again. They’re black and white, and they’re smaller than normal pictures, too, with rounded corners. There’s pictures of rice fields, brick buildings on Main Street, grain elevators along the tracks, pictures of the woods and the canal, even one of this room we’re sitting in. He stops on his favorite, the one of the man and the woman, standing out in front of this house. The woman’s got on an apron and has her hands on her hips, like she doesn’t appreciate being dragged outside just for this picture, and the man’s got a big grin on his face, his arm linked with hers. It is a pretty good picture, I guess. “He over there?” he says. He’s tapping his finger on the picture.
“You know who I mean.” He takes out that little gun. “You know how much I bought this for? Fifteen bucks.”
“That thing’ll probably blow up in your hand, you know.”
“It shoots,” he says. “I took some shots in the woods. But you’re right.” He shakes it, and there’s a noise like something’s loose inside. “Probably on its last legs. You say he’s over there now?”
“Why don’t you show me these pictures again?” He does. The fields, the town, this room, the couple. After a few times through the stack, I say, “Earl. Hey, Earl.” He points the flashlight at me. “I don’t think I can get up off this floor.” He laughs. He looks like a goddam scarecrow, holding that flashlight. Then he helps me up. “Look,” I say, “don’t try anything with that boy, all right? It ain’t worth it.”
“I’m not an idiot.”
“I know.” I drain the beer. “Thanks for this.”
“Do bears shit in the woods?”
That gets him laughing again, and he hands me a warm can.
I walk the road, drinking my beer. I go my usual way to the center of town, through the intersection with its blinking light, across the south side.
If you’d asked me, before all this, I would have said it’d been Jazz to stick around, and Earl the one to cut out finally. That’s the thing with neighbors, you never know who’s gonna stick. Almost no one sticks, really. There’s a woman lives up the street, says she’s been here longer than anyone else. Might be so. Most everyone else comes and goes. You know what, Earl should show her those old pictures, see if she recognizes them. Hell. Not that it matters.
Halfway across town, the skies open up, and I walk back to Gail’s street in the rain. There’s a little covered area in front of her house, and Earl’s standing there with Karo. They’re sharing a cigarette. The rain’s really coming down, making a screen around them. Karo hits the cigarette, then tosses it, and Earl takes out that little gun. “Hey, Earl,” I say, cutting across the yard. “Earl, hold on. Let’s go back next door.”
“You taking a bath out there?” Karo says.
“Shut up. Earl, come on.”
“It’s all right,” he says, taking the tiny clip out the gun and popping it back in. I take his arm but he shrugs me off. He won’t look at me.
“Why you don’t listen to the man?” Karo says. “He say it’s all right.” He holds out his hand, and Earl gives him the gun. Karo looks it over. “It shoots?”
“It shoots real good. Try it yourself.”
Karo shakes the gun, pockets it, then gives Earl a little bag of powder.
“I was hoping maybe I’d get two for it,” Earl says. “It’s worth it.”
Karo grins. “You hustling now?”
“It’s a little gun,” Earl says, not looking at me, “but it shoots real good. Little bullets, they go right through you.”
“You something else, old boy. Here.” He gives him another bag. Earl ducks into the rain without another word and cuts across the yard to his house. “You got to chill out, man,” Karo says, picking at his new gold teeth. “You always in other people’s business.” Then he goes inside. Gail calls for another game. I can see her damn cockeyed wig through the blinds.
Well. Guess I’ll walk again. I am already wet.
Earl’s mailbox is still all busted up on the end of his driveway. Tomorrow I’ll fix it back for him. I can’t stand to see it sitting there broken with no one doing a thing about it.
MARLEY STUART is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Xavier Review and About Place. He lives in New Orleans with his wife.