IT WAS THE END OF AN ERA, one that I suspect historians may look upon as the last decade of American innocence. It was a time we remember in terms of images and sounds rather than historical events—pink Cadillacs, drive-in movies, stylized street hoods, rock ’n’ roll, Hank and Lefty on the jukebox, the dirty bop, daylight baseball, chopped-down ’32 Fords with Merc engines drag-racing in a roar of thunder past drive-in restaurants, all of it backdropped by palm trees, a curling surf, and a purple sky that had obviously been created as a cinematic tribute to our youth.
The season seemed eternal, not subject to the laws of mutability. At best, it was improbable that the spring of our graduation year would ever be stained by the tannic smell of winter. If we experienced visions of mortality, we needed only to look into one another’s faces to reassure ourselves that none of us would ever die, that rumors of distant wars had nothing to do with our own lives.
My half brother was Jimmie Robicheaux. He was a hothead, an idealist, and a ferocious fist-fighter in a beer-glass brawl, but often vulnerable and badly used by those who knew how to take advantage of his basic goodness. In 1958, he and I worked ten days on and five days off for what was called a doodlebug outfit, or seismograph crew, laying out rubber cable and seismic jugs in bays and swamps all along the Louisiana-Texas coastline. During the off-hitch, when we were back on land, we hung out at Galveston Island, fishing at night on the jetties, swimming in the morning, eating fried shrimp in a café on the amusement pier where the seagulls fluttered and squeaked just outside the open windows.
The Fourth of July that year was a peculiar day. The barometer dropped and the sky turned a chemical green, and the breakers were full of sand and dead baitfish when they smacked on the beach. The swells were smooth-surfaced and rain-dented between the waves, but down below, the undertow was terrific, almost like steel cable around the thighs, the sand rushing out from under our feet as the waves sucked back upon themselves.
Most swimmers got out of the water. Perhaps because of our youth or the fact Jimmie and I had drunk too much beer, we swam far out from the beach, to the third sandbar, the last one that provided a barrier between the island itself and the precipitous descent off the edge of the continental shelf. But the sandbar was hard-packed, the crest only two feet below the surface, which allowed the swimmer to sit safely above the tidal current and enjoy a panoramic view of both the southern horizon and the lights that were going on all over the island.
The sun broke through the thunderheads in the west, just above the earth’s rim, like liquid fire pooled up inside the clouds. For the first time that day we could see our shadows on the water’s surface. Then we realized we were not alone.
Thirty yards out a shark fin, steel-gray, triangular in shape, cut across the swell, then disappeared under a wave. Jimmie and I stood up on the sandbar, our hearts beating, and waited for the fin to resurface. Behind us we could hear the crackle of lightning in the clouds.
“It’s probably a sand shark,” Jimmie said.
But we both knew that most sand sharks were small, yellowish in hue, and didn’t cruise at sunset on the outer shelf. We stared at the water for a long time, then saw a school of baitfish scatter in panic across the surface. The baitfish seemed to sink like silver coins into the depths, then the swell became smooth-surfaced and dark green again, wrinkling slightly when the wind gusted. I could hear Jimmie breathing as though he had labored up a hill.
“You want to swim for it?” I asked.
“They think people are sea turtles. They look up and see a silhouette and see our arms and legs splashing around and think we’re turtles,” he said.
It wasn’t cold, but his skin looked hard and prickled in the wind.
“Let’s wait him out,” I said.
I saw Jimmie take a deep breath and his mouth form a cone, as though a sliver of dry ice were evaporating on his tongue. Then his face turned gray and his eyes looked into mine.
“What?” I said.
Jimmie pointed southward, at two o’clock from where we stood. A fin, larger than the first one, sliced diagonally across a swell and cut through a cresting wave. Then we saw the shark’s back break the surface, a skein of water sliding off skin that was the color of scorched pewter.
There was nothing for it. The sun was setting, like a molten planet descending into its own smoke. In a half hour the tide would be coming in, lifting us off the sandbar, giving us no option except to swim for the beach, our bodies in stark silhouette against the evening sky.
We could hear music and the popping of fireworks on the amusement pier and see rockets and star shells exploding above the line of old U.S. Army officers’ quarters along the beachfront. A wave slid across my chest, and inside it I saw the pinkish blue air sac and long tendril-like stingers of a Portuguese man-of-war. It drifted away, then another one, and another fell out of a wave and twisted in an eddy like half-inflated balloons.
It was going to be a long haul to the beach.
“There’s sharks in the water! Didn’t you fellers see the lifeguard’s flag?” a voice called.
I didn’t know where the girl had come from. She sat astride an inner tube that was roped to two others, a short wood paddle in her hands. She wore a one-piece black swimsuit and had sandy reddish hair, and her shoulders glowed with sunburn. Behind her, in the distance, I could see the tip of a rock jetty that jutted far out into the breakers.
She paddled her makeshift raft until it had floated directly above the sandbar and we could wade to it.
“Where did you come from?” Jimmie said.
“Who cares? Better jump on. Those jellyfish can sting the daylights out of you,” she said.
She was tall and slight of build and not much older than we were, her accent hard-core East Texas. A wave broke against my back, pushing me off balance. “Are you fellers deaf? Y’all sure don’t act like you care somebody is trying to hep you out of the big mess you got yourself into,” she said.
“We’re coming!” Jimmie said, and climbed onto one of the inner tubes.
Waves knocked us over twice and it took us almost a half hour to cross the trough between the third and second sandbars. I thought I saw a fin break the surface and slide across the sun’s afterglow, and, once, a hard-bodied object bumped against my leg, like a dull-witted bully pushing past you on a crowded bus. But after we floated past the second sandbar, we entered another environment, one connected to predictability where we could touch bottom with the ends of our toes and smell smoke from meat fires and hear children playing tag in the darkness.
We told ourselves a seascape that could contain predators and the visitation of arbitrary violence upon the unsuspecting no longer held any sway in our lives. As we emerged from the surf the wind was as sweet as a woman’s kiss against the skin.
The girl said her name was Ida Durbin and she had seen us through binoculars from the jetty and paddled after us because a shark had already attacked a child farther up the beach. “You’d do that for anybody?” Jimmie said.
“There’s always some folks who need looking after, at least those who haven’t figured out sharks live in deep water,” she said.
Jimmie and I owned a 1946 canary-yellow Ford convertible, with whitewall tires and twin Hollywood mufflers. We drove Ida back to the jetty, where she retrieved her beach bag and used a cabana to change into a sundress and sandals. Then we went to a beer garden that also sold watermelon and fried shrimp. The palm trees in the garden were strung with tiny white lights, and we sat under the palms and ate shrimp and watched the fireworks explode over the water.
“Are y’all twins?” she asked.
“I’m eighteen months older,” I said.
She looked at both of us. “Y’all sure favor for brothers who aren’t twins. Maybe your mama just liked the way y’all looked and decided she’d use just one face,” she said. She smiled at her own joke, then looked away and studied the tops of her hands when Jimmie’s eyes tried to hold hers.
“Where you live, Ida?” he asked.
“Over yonder,” she said, nodding vaguely up the main drag.
“You work here in Galveston?” he said.
“For a little while, I am. I got to go now,” she replied.
“We’ll drive you,” he said.
“I’ll take a cab. I do it all the time. It’s only fifty cents,” she said.
Jimmie started to protest. But she got up and brushed crumbs of fried shrimp off her dress. “You boys don’t get in no more trouble,” she said.
“Boys?” Jimmie said, after she was gone.
GALVESTON ISLAND was a strange place back in those days. The town was blue-collar, the beaches segregated, the Jax brewery its most prominent industry, the old Victorian homes salt-bitten and peeling. It was a vacation spot for the poor and the marginal and a cultural enclave where the hard-shell Baptist traditions of Texas had little application. Every beer joint on the beach featured slot and racehorse machines. For more serious gamblers, usually oil people from Houston, there were supper clubs that offered blackjack, craps, and roulette. One Sicilian family ran it all. Several of their minions moved out to Vegas in ’47 with Benjamin Siegel. One of them, in fact, built the Sands.
But nonetheless there was an air of both trust and innocence about the island. The roller coaster in the amusement park had been officially condemned by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the notice of condemnation nailed on a post hard by the ticket booth. But every night during the summer, vacationers packed the open cars that plummeted down warped tracks and around wooden turns whose spars and rusted bolts vibrated like a junkyard.
Churchgoing families filled the bingo parlors and ate boiled crabs that sometimes had black oil inside the shells. At daybreak, huge garbage scows sailed southward for the horizon, gulls creaking overhead, to dump tons of untreated waste that somehow, in the mind’s eye, were refined into inert molecules of harmless matter.
But inland from the carnival rides, the fishing jetties, and the beachfront beer joints and seafood restaurants, there was another Galveston, and another industry, that made no pretense to innocence.
During the next two days we didn’t see Ida Durbin on the main drag or on the amusement pier or on any of the jetties, and we had no idea where she lived, either. Then, on Saturday morning, while we were in a barbershop a block from the beach, we saw her walk past the window, wearing a floppy straw hat and a print dress, with a lavender Mexican frill around the hem, a drawstring bag slung from her shoulder.
Jimmie was out the door like a shot.
She told him she had to buy a money order for her grandmother in Northeast Texas, that she had to pick up her mail at the post office, that she had to buy sunburn lotion for her back, that she was tied up all day and evening.
“Tomorrow is Sunday. Everything is closed. What are you doing then?” he said, grinning.
She looked quizzically at nothing, her mouth squeezed into a button. “I reckon I could fix some sandwiches and meet y’all at the amusement pier,” she said.
“We’ll pick you up,” he said.
“No, you won’t,” she replied.
The next day we discovered that a picnic with Ida Durbin meant Vienna sausage sandwiches, sliced carrots, a jar of sun tea, and three Milky Way bars.
“Some folks don’t like Viennas,” she said, and she pronounced the word “Vy-ennas.” “But with lettuce and mayonnaise, I think they’re real good.”
“Yeah, these are a treat. Aren’t they, Dave?” Jimmie said.
“You bet,” I said, trying to wash down a piece of simulated sausage that was like a chunk of rubber.
We were on the amusement pier, sitting on a wood bench in the shade of a huge outdoor movie screen. In the background I could hear pinball machines and popping sounds from a shooting gallery. Ida wore a pink skirt and a white blouse with lace on the collar; her arms and the top of her chest were powdered with strawberry freckles.
“Dave and I go back on the quarter boat in the morning,” Jimmie said.
She chewed on the end of a carrot stick, her eyes staring blankly at the beach and the surf sliding up on the sand.
“We’ll be back on land in ten days,” Jimmie said.
“That’s good. Maybe I’ll see y’all again,” she said.
But if there was any conviction in her voice, I did not hear it. Down below, a huge wave crashed against the pilings, shuddering the planks under our feet.
AFTER THE NEXT HITCH we went back to the motel where our cousin, the manager, who was confined to a wheelchair, let us stay free in return for running a few errands. For the next five days Jimmie had nothing on his mind except seeing Ida. We cruised the main drag in our convertible, night-fished on the jetties, went to a street dance in a Mexican neighborhood, and played shuffleboard in a couple of beer joints on the beach, but nobody we talked to had ever heard of Ida Durbin.
“It’s my fault. I should have given her the motel number,” he said.
“She’s older than us, Jimmie.”
“So what?” he said.
“That’s the way girls are when they’re older. They don’t want to hurt our feelings, but they got their own lives to live, like they want to be around older men, know what I mean? It’s a put-down for them to be seen with young guys,” I said.
“I don’t believe that at all. She wouldn’t have made sandwiches for us. You calling her a hypocrite or something?” he said.
We went back on the quarter boat and worked a job south of Beaumont, stringing rubber cable and seismic jugs through a swamp, stepping over cottonmouths and swatting at mosquitoes that hung as thick as black gauze inside the shade. When we came off the hitch we were sick with sunburn and insect bites and spoiled food the cooks had served after the refrigeration system had failed. But as soon as we got to our motel, Jimmie showered and changed into fresh clothes and started looking for Ida again.
“I found her,” he said our second day back. “She’s at a music store. She was piddling around with a mandolin, plink, plink, plink, then she started singing, with just me and the owner there. She sounds like Kitty Wells. She promised she’d wait. Come on, Dave.”
“Why’d you come back to the motel?”
“To get my wallet. I’m gonna buy us all a meal.”
Jimmie had said she was waiting in a music store. It was actually a pawnshop, a dirt-smudged orange building sandwiched between a pool hall and a bar on the edge of the black district. She was sitting on a bench, under the canvas awning, twisting a peg on a Gibson mandolin that rested in her lap. Most of the finish below the sound hole had been worn away by years of plectrum strokes across the wood.
The street was hot, full of noise and dust and smoke from junker cars. “Oh, hi, fellers,” she said, looking up from under her straw hat. “I thought you weren’t coming back. I was just fixing to leave.”
“Did you buy the mandolin?” Jimmie asked.
“It’s already mine. I pay the interest on it so Mr. Pearl doesn’t have to sell it. He lets me come in and play it whenever I want.”
She returned the mandolin to the pawnshop owner, then came outside again. “Well, I’d better get going,” she said.
“I’m taking us to lunch,” Jimmie said.
“That’s nice, Jimmie, but I got to get ready for work,” she said.
“Where you work?” he asked.
She smiled, her eyes green and empty in the sunlight, her attention drifting to a car backfiring in the street.
“This time we’ll drive you,” I said.
“My bus stops right on the corner. See, there it comes now, right on time,” she said, and started walking toward the intersection. A throwaway shopper’s magazine was tucked under her arm. She looked back over her shoulder. “I’ve got your phone number now. I’ll call you. I promise.”
Jimmie stared after her. “You should have heard her sing,” he said.
When the bus pulled away from the curb, Ida was sitting up front, in the whites-only section, totally absorbed with her magazine.
Just as we got into our convertible, the owner of the pawnshop came out on the sidewalk. He was a tall, white-haired man with a sloping girth and big hands and cigars stuffed in his shirt pocket. “Hey, you two,” he said.
“Sir?” I said.
“That girl has enough trouble in her life. Don’t you be adding to it,” the owner said.
Jimmie’s hands were on top of the steering wheel, his head bent forward. “What the hell are you talking about?” he said.
“Sass me again and I’ll explain it to you,” the owner said.
“Screw that. What do you mean she’s got trouble?” Jimmie said.
But the pawnshop owner only turned and went back inside his building.
THE NEXT NIGHT Jimmie came in drunk and fell down in the tin shower stall. He pushed me away when I tried to help him up, his muscular body beaded with water, a rivulet of blood running from his hairline.
“What happened?” I said.
“Nothing,” he replied.
“Is this about Ida Durbin?”
“That’s not what they call her,” he said.
“Shut up about Ida,” he said.
The next morning he was gone before I woke up, but our car was still in the carport. I crossed Seawall Boulevard to the beach and saw him sitting on the sand, shirtless and barefoot, surrounded by the collapsed air sacs of jellyfish.
“They call her Connie where she works. They don’t have last names there,” he said.
The previous afternoon Ida had called him at the motel and told him that he was a nice fellow, that she knew he would do well in college, and maybe years from now they’d see one another again when he was a rich and successful man. But in the meantime this was good-bye and he mustn’t get her confused in his mind with the girl who was right for him.
After she rang off, Jimmie went straight to the pawnshop and told the owner he wanted to buy Ida’s mandolin.
“It’s not for sale,” the owner said.
“I’m going to give it to Ida as a present. Now, how much is it?” Jimmie said.
“What do you think you’re gonna get out of this, son?” he said.
“Get out of what?”
The owner clicked his fingers on the glass display case. “It’s thirty-five dollars on the loan, two dollars for the closing charge.”
Jimmie counted out the money from his billfold. The owner placed the mandolin in a double paper sack and set it on the display case.
“Can you tell me where she works or lives?” Jimmie asked.
The owner looked at him as though a lunatic had walked into his shop.
“Thought you were a put-on, boy, but I guess you’re for real. She lives and works in the same place. On Post Office Street. You figured it out by now?”
THE PAINT ON the two-story houses was blistered, the dirt yards weedless and hard-packed, the bedsheets on the clotheslines flapping in a hot wind. Jimmie parked the convertible and looked uncertainly at the houses, the neck of the mandolin clutched in one hand. A city police car passed by, with two uniformed officers in the front seat. They were talking to one another and neither paid attention to his presence on the street. “I’m looking for Ida Durbin,” Jimmie said to a black girl who was hanging wash in a side yard.
The girl was frail and wore a dusty yellow blouse with loops of sweat in the armpits. Her forearms were wrapped with a mottled pink and white discoloration, as though her natural color had been leached out of the skin. She shook her head.
“She has freckles and sandy red hair. Her name is Ida,” Jimmie said.
“This is a colored house. White mens don’t come in the daytime,” she said. The wind flapped a sheet that was gray from washing across her face, but she seemed not to notice.
Jimmie stepped closer to her. “Listen, if this girl works in a place for white people, where would I—” he began.
Then Jimmie felt rather than saw a presence at the window behind him. The black girl picked up her basket of wash and walked quickly away. “You don’t look like the gas man,” the man in the window said.
He was white, with small ears, sunken cheeks, and hair that was as black and shiny as patent leather, oiled and combed into a slight curl on the neck.
“I’m looking for Ida Durbin,” Jimmie said.
The man leaned on the sill and thought about it. He wore a creamy cowboy shirt with stitched pockets and chains of roses sewn on the shoulders. “Four doors down. Ask for Connie. Tell you what, I’ll walk you there,” he said.
“That’s all right,” Jimmie said.
“I’m here to serve,” the man said.
On the way down the street, the man extended his hand. It was small and hard, the knuckles pronounced. “I’m Lou Kale. Connie’s your heartthrob?” he said.
“The girl I’m looking for is named Ida.”
“On this street, nobody uses their own name. That is, except me,” Lou Kale said, and winked. “I was gonna call her Ida Red, after the girl in the song. Except she didn’t think that was respectful, so she made up her own name. What’s your name?”
Jimmie hesitated, touching his bottom lip with his tongue.
“See what I mean?” Lou Kale said. “Soon as people set foot on Post Office Street, their names fly away.”
Lou Kale escorted Jimmie through the front door of a two-story Victorian house with hollow wood pillars on the gallery and a veranda on the second floor. The shades were drawn in the living room to keep out the dust, and the air inside the heated walls was stifling. The couches and straight-back chairs were empty; the only color in the room came from the plastic casing of a Wurlitzer jukebox plugged into the far wall. Lou Kale told a heavyset white woman in the kitchen that Connie had a caller.
The woman labored up a stairs that groaned with her weight and shouted down a hallway.
“Look at me, kid,” Lou Kale said. He seemed to lose his train of thought. He touched at his nostril with one knuckle, then huffed air out his nose, perhaps reorganizing his words. He was shorter than Jimmie, firmly built, flat-stomached, with thick veins in his arms, his dark jeans belted high on his hips. His face seemed full of play now. “You’re not here to get your ashes hauled, are you?”
“Who cares why I’m here. It’s a free country, ain’t it?” Jimmie replied. Then wondered why he had just used bad grammar.
Lou Kale made a sucking sound with his teeth, his eyelids fluttering as he watched a fly buzzing on the wall. Then he jiggled his fingers in the air, as though surrendering to a situation beyond his control. “You give your present to Connie, then you beat feet. This place is off limits for you and so is Connie. That means you find your own girlfriend and you don’t try to get a punch on somebody else’s tab. We connecting here?”
“That’s what I thought,” Lou Kale said. “Connie, get down here!”
When Ida Durbin came down the stairs she was wearing a pair of tight blue-jean shorts and a blouse that looked made of cheesecloth that outlined the black bra she wore underneath. She had been asleep, and her face was flushed from the stored-up heat in the upper levels of the building and marked with lines from the pillow she had been sleeping upon. Even in the gloom Jimmie could see the injury in her eyes when she realized who her visitor was.
“Let’s have a quick exchange of pleasantries, then your friend is gonna be on his way,” Lou Kale said to her.
Jimmie stepped toward her, his arm brushing Lou Kale’s shoulder. “I paid off your loan on the mandolin,” he said.
“Jimmie, you shouldn’t be here,” she said.
“I just thought I’d drop the mandolin by, that’s all,” he said. He handed it to her, his movements stiff, his voice tangled in his throat. Lou Kale clicked a fingernail on the glass cover of his wristwatch.
“Thank you. You better go now,” she said.
Then Jimmie couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Who is this guy?” he asked, pointing sideways at Lou Kale. “What are you doing here?”
“Connie, two Panamanian tankers docked this morning. Go finish your nap,” Lou Kale said. “Everything is solid. Believe me, I like this guy. He’s a cute boy, that’s what he is.”
She went up the stairs, glancing back once at Jimmie. Lou Kale moved into Jimmie’s line of sight. “You’ve done your good deed. That’s reward enough, right?” he said. “Right?”
“Yeah,” Jimmie said. But he didn’t move from his position.
“We don’t want insincerity here,” Lou Kale said, resting his hand on Jimmie’s shoulder, his breath touching Jimmie’s skin.
Then Lou Kale walked him to the door, as though Jimmie had no volition of his own, and before Jimmie knew it, he was back outside, the door shutting loudly behind him.
The sun was white and hot in the sky, and the humidity felt like damp wool on his skin. For a moment he could hear no sound, as though he were trapped inside a glass bell. Upstairs, someone turned on a radio, and from the window he heard the adenoidal voice of Kitty Wells singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
AFTER JIMMIE TOLD ME of his visit to Post Office Street, I took him to breakfast and thought our misadventure with Ida Durbin was over. But I was wrong. She called him that afternoon and asked to meet him on the amusement pier.
“Leave her alone,” I told him.
“She paddled through sharks to get us off a sandbar,” he said.
“She’s a prostitute. You can’t change that. Act like you have a brain,” I said.
Once again, I had spoken without thinking. Our father, known as Big Aldous Robicheaux in the oil patch, had been a good-hearted, illiterate Cajun and notorious barroom brawler whose infidelities had included a prostitute in Abbeville. The prostitute died of Hansen’s disease in a federal facility at Carville, Louisiana. She was also Jimmie’s mother.
I went to the pier with Jimmie and listened to Ida Durbin’s story about her background, a story that neither Jimmie nor I had the experience to deal with or even evaluate in terms of veracity. She told us she had been raised by her grandmother in a sawmill town just south of the Arkansas line, and that she had borrowed twenty-seven hundred dollars from the mortgage holder of their house to pay for the grandmother’s cancer treatment in Houston. When Ida couldn’t pay back the loan, she was offered a choice of either eviction or going to work in a hot pillow joint.
“Stuff like that doesn’t happen, Ida. At least, not anymore,” Jimmie said. His eyes clicked sideways at her. “Does it?”
She turned one cheek into the light. It was layered with makeup, but we could see the swelling along the jawline, like a chain of tiny dried grapes. “I talked to Lou Kale about getting out. He said if I worked what they call special trade, that’s girls who do everything, I can be even in a month,” she said.
“He put those bruises on your face?” Jimmie said.
“A cop did. He was drunk. It’s nothing,” she said.
We were on the end of the pier, and we could see gulls dipping sand shrimp out of the waves. The sun was hot on the boards, the wind blowing, and blood had dried on the railing where someone had chopped up fish bait.
“A cop?” Jimmie said.
“They get free ones sometimes,” she said.
I didn’t want to listen to it anymore. I went back to the motel by myself. Later, I heard Jimmie outside with Ida, then the two of them driving away in our convertible.
JIMMIE DIDN’T GO BACK on the job with me the next day and instead hung out with Ida in Galveston. He bought her clothes and paid four dollars apiece for four recordings of her songs in a recording booth on the amusement pier. This was in an era when we were paid one dollar and ten cents an hour for work that, outside of building board roads in swamps, was considered the lowest and dirtiest in the oil field. He also withdrew his one hundred and twelve dollars in savings from the bank, money put away for his college tuition, and gave it to Ida. When I came back off the hitch, I wanted to punch him out.
“What’d she do with it?” I said. He was doing pushups on the floor in his underwear, his feet propped up on the windowsill. His hair was black and shiny, his wide shoulders as smooth as tallow.
“Gave it to this guy Lou Kale to pay off her debt,” he replied. He dropped his feet from the sill and sat up. From outside I could hear the surf crashing on the beach. “Quit looking at me like that.”
“Nobody is that stupid,” I said.
“We sent one of her recordings to Sun Records in Memphis. That’s where Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley got started. Jerry Lee Lewis, too,” he said.
“Yeah, I heard the Grand Ole Opry has a lot of openings for singing prostitutes.”
“Why don’t you show a little respect for other people once in a while?” he said.
Was I my brother’s keeper? I decided I was not. I also decided I did not want to be held hostage by what I considered the self-imposed victimhood of others. I let Jimmie take the convertible and I went back to Louisiana until it was time to rejoin the doodlebug crew on the quarter boat. I hoped by the end of the next hitch, Jimmie would be free of his entanglement with Ida Durbin.
It was a hot, windblown day when Jimmie picked me up at the dock. A storm was building, and in the south the sky was the blue-black of gunmetal, the inland waters yellow with churned sand, the waves capping as far as the eye could see. Jimmie had the top down on the convertible, and he grinned from behind his shades when he saw me walking toward him with my duffel bag over my shoulder. A bucket of iced-down Pearl and Jax sat on the backseat, the long-neck bottles sweating in the sunlight.
“You look like a happy man,” I said.
“Ida’s getting out of the life. I’m moving her out of that house tonight. We’re going to Mexico,” he said. He reached in back and slid a beer out of the ice. He cracked off the cap with a bottle opener that hung from a cord around his neck and handed the bottle to me. “You don’t have anything to say?”
“It’s a little more than I can think my way through right now. How do you get somebody out of the life?” I said.
“I went to the cops. This is a free country. People can’t make other people work in whorehouses,” he said.
I didn’t speak until after he started the engine and began backing out of the parking area, the sun hot on the leather seats, the palm trees clattering in the wind. “The cops who get free ones are on the side of the good guys now?” I said.
“There was one little bump in the road,” he said. “Remember the hundred and twelve bucks Ida and I gave this guy Lou Kale? He says the guys he works for consider that the interest, so Ida still owes the principal. I don’t quite know what to do about that.”
He lifted a beer out of a wire holder on the dashboard and drank it while he steered with one hand, his sunglasses patterned with the reflected images of trees, sky, and asphalt, all of it rushing at him, like a film strip out of control, as he pushed the accelerator to the floor.
THAT EVENING Jimmie went off with Ida in the car, supposedly to confront Lou Kale about the one hundred twelve dollars Kale had obviously stolen. I walked down on the amusement pier and ate a burrito for supper. The thunderheads in the south rippled with electricity and I could see the lights of freighters on the horizon and I wondered if Jimmie was actually serious about going to Mexico with Ida Durbin. In three weeks the fall term would be starting at Southwestern Louisiana Institute, in Lafayette, where we were both enrolled. We were three weeks away from normalcy and football games on crisp Saturday afternoons, the booming sounds of marching bands, the innocence of the freshman sock hop in the school gym, the smell of leaves burning and barbecues in the city park across the street from the campus. In my mind’s eye I saw my self-deluded half brother sinking in quicksand, while Ida Durbin sat astride his shoulders.
My own mother had long ago disappeared into a world of low-rent bars and lower-rent men. Big Aldous, our father, had died in an oil well blowout when I was eighteen. Jimmie’d had little or no parental authority in his life, and I had obviously proved a poor substitute for one. I threw my burrito into a trash can, went to a beer joint down the beach, and drank until 2:00 a.m. while hailstones the size of mothballs pelted the surf.
I WOKE BEFORE DAWN, trembling all over, the distorted voices and faces of the people from the bar more real than the room around me. I couldn’t remember how I had gotten back to the motel. Water was leaking through the ceiling, and a garbage can was tumbling end over end past the empty carport. I sat on the edge of my bed, my hands shaking, my throat so dry I couldn’t swallow. The window curtains were open, and a network of lightning bloomed over the Gulf, all the way to the top of the sky. Inside the momentary white brilliance that lit the clouds and waves I thought I saw a green-black lake where the naked bodies of the damned were submerged to their chests, their mouths crying out to any who would hear.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just booked my first passage on the SS Delirium Tremens.
I buried my head under a pillow and fell into a sweaty dream. Thunder shook the walls and sheets of rain whipped against the windows. I thought I heard the door open and wind and a sudden infusion of dampness blow into the room. Maybe Jimmie had returned, safe and sound, and all my fears about him had been unjustified, I told myself in my sleep. But when I looked up, the room was quiet, his bed made, the carport empty. I felt myself descending into a vortex of nausea and fear, accompanied by a dilation of blood vessels in the brain that was like a strand of piano wire being slowly tightened around my head with a stick.
When I woke a second time, I could hear no sound except the rain hitting on the roof. The thunder had stopped, the power in the motel was out, and the room was absolutely black. Then a tree of lightning crackled over the Gulf and I saw a man seated in a chair, no more than two feet from me. He wore sideburns and a striped western shirt, with pearl-colored snap buttons. His cheeks were sunken, pooled with shadow, his mouth small, filled with tiny teeth. A nickel-plated automatic with white grips rested on his thigh.
He leaned forward, his eyes examining me, his breath moving across my face. “What’s your name?” he said.
“Dave,” I said. “Dave Robicheaux.”
“If you ain’t Jimmie, you’re his twin. Which is it?” he said.
“Tell me who you are,” I said.
He touched the pistol barrel to the center of my forehead. “I ask the questions, hoss. Lay back down,” he said.
I saw a swelling above his left eye, a cut in his lip, a clot of blood in one nostril. He pulled back the receiver on the pistol and snicked a round into the chamber. “Put your hands on top of the covers,” he said.
With one hand he felt my knuckles and the tops of my fingers, his eyes fastened on my face. Then he stood up, dropped the magazine from the butt of the automatic, and ejected the round in the chamber. He reached over, picked up the cartridge from the rug, and snugged it in his watch pocket. “You got a lot of luck, kid. When you get a break, real slack, like you’re getting now, don’t waste it. You heard it from the butter and egg man,” he said.
Then he was gone. When I looked out the window I saw no sign of him, no automobile, not even footprints in the muddy area around the room’s entrance. I lay in bed, a bilious fluid rising from my stomach, my skin crawling with a sense of violation and the stale odor of copulation from the bedcovers.
Unbelievably, I closed my eyes and fell asleep again, almost like entering an alcoholic blackout. When I woke it was midmorning, the sun shining, and I could hear children playing outside. Jimmie was packing an open suitcase on top of his bed. “Thought you were going to sleep all day,” he said.
“A guy was looking for you. I think it was that pimp from Post Office Street,” I said.
“Lou Kale? I don’t think so,” Jimmie replied.
“He had a gun,” I said. “What do you mean you don’t think so?”
“He didn’t want to pay back the hundred and twelve bucks he stole. He pulled a shiv on me. So I cleaned his clock. I took the money off him, too,” he said. He dropped his folded underwear in the suitcase and flattened it down, his eyes concentrated on his work. I couldn’t believe what he had just said.
“Where’s Ida?” I asked.
“Waiting for me at the bus depot. Get dressed, you got to drive me down there. We’ll be eating Mexican food in ole Monterrey tonight. Hard to believe, isn’t it?” he said. He touched at the tops of his swollen hands, then grinned at me and shrugged his shoulders. “Quit worrying. Guys like Kale are all bluff.”
BUT IDA WAS NOT at the bus depot, nor, when the cops checked, was she at the brothel on Post Office Street. In fact, she had disappeared as though she had been vacuumed off the face of the earth. We didn’t know the name of the town she came from, nor could we even be sure her real name was Ida Durbin. The cops treated our visits to the police station as a nuisance and said Lou Kale had no criminal record, that he denied having a confrontation with Jimmie and denied ever knowing a woman by the name of Ida Durbin. The prostitutes in the house where she had worked said a cleaning girl named Connie had been around there for a while, but that she had gone back home to either Arkansas or Northeast Texas.
The years passed and I tried not to think about Ida Durbin and her fate. As I began my long odyssey through low-bottom bars and drunk tanks and skin joints of every stripe—in the Deep South, the Philippines, and Vietnam—I would sometimes hear a voice on the jukebox that reminded me of Kitty Wells. I wanted to believe the voice was Ida’s, that somehow the four-dollar discs she and Jimmie had sent to Sun Records had worked a special magic in her life and opened a career for her in Nashville and that she was out there now, under another name, singing in roadhouses where a sunburst guitar and a sequined western costume were proof enough of one’s celebrity.
But I knew better, and when my booze-induced fantasy faded, I saw Ida in the backseat of a car, a man on either side of her, speeding down a dirt road at night, toward a destination where no human being ever wishes to go.
A Dave Robicheaux Novel
A Dave Robicheaux Novel
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