Frankie Hart’s moral sense had been on life support since he was twelve years old, when he stabbed another fifth-grader in the eye with a pencil for making fun of his shoes. Sixteen months in juvenile hall hadn’t done anything to improve his attitude, and things had gone south from there faster than an Olympic skier on a downhill slalom course. Now Frankie was an old thief, a very tired one, but still not a very good one.
He had started out as a door shaker, learning the trade from his mother’s boyfriend instead of wasting his time going back to school. They made the rounds of hotels, condos and apartment complexes, dodging housekeepers, desk clerks, and curious maintenance men. When they found an unlocked door, they stayed just long enough to pick up whatever they could put in their pockets, but the third time when they got caught and Frankie had to spend the night in jail with men who told him he was cute, it occurred to him that he needed another plan. By then he also had the beginning of a serious heroin habit, so he dumped his partner, who was robbing him blind anyway, and began to take more care in selecting the places he burglarized. Twenty years down a long and ugly road, his rap sheet ran to five pages, but he was still the nickel-and-dimer he was when he started. That’s why the deserted lower Ninth Ward looked like Wal-Mart to him: all those empty houses and plenty of time to shop.
Even after the hurricane, there was the occasional cop, and Governor Blanco had sent in a few National Guard troops to patrol the whiter sections, but down here where Katrina had done the most damage, no one gave a damn. And with a third of the New Orleans police gone missing, Frankie wasn’t concerned about any of the weekend warriors being interested in wading through the black, stinking muck that covered just about everything to chase a small-time thief like him. The ones fresh back from Iraq might shoot him, but he tried not to think about that. Still, he was watchful. Only a day out of the Orleans Parish jail, again courtesy of Katrina, he wasn’t eager for a return trip, one that might qualify him for the new three-strikes law and pack him off to Angola for twenty years.
He stood at the rear of the red brick duplex on the corner and looked at the windows. Both floors appeared to be deserted, and he had yet to see anyone else on the street. Even the dogs and cats had disappeared. The combined stench of raw sewage, dead fish, and saltwater would be enough to keep most people away, never mind having to slog through it to get anywhere. But Frankie wasn’t most people.
He set his tote bag down carefully on a tuft of damp ground and shrugged out of the backpack he had stolen three houses down the street. He hung the pack on the twisted wire at the top of the chain link fence that was barely chest high on him. Then he pulled up the cuff of his blue jumpsuit and swung his left leg upward. It missed the top of the fence by ten inches and landed with a wet plop in the mire.
“Shit,” Frankie said. He pulled his foot free, but one of his Felony Flyers, the ugly deck shoes the jail issued, stayed in the mud. He pulled it out, feeling a twinge in his back as he did, and wriggled it back on his foot, ignoring the cold muck that seeped through his sock. He generated a little more momentum and swung the leg up again. He was closer but still not high enough, but at least he kept his foot from hitting the mud again. He stared at the top of the fence and then at the rear of the duplex, feeling like he was on one side of the Lake Ponchartrain and looking across at Slidell on the other. He wiped a hand across his face, pausing briefly at the scab on the bridge of his nose, a present from his arresting officer.
He was almost six-three and built like a willow: thin and supple and able to bend with the wind and not break. Both arms were sleeved with jailhouse ink, and he had paid three hundred dollars to a tattoo artist in Biloxi to put a detailed picture of the sinking Titanic, complete with tiny people jumping into the Atlantic, on his back after he had seen the movie for the fifth time. A buzz cut accentuated a receding hairline, and he still had half his teeth. At thirty-six, he looked ten years older and felt ready for Social Security, only he didn’t have any to collect. And if he didn’t score some dope in another six hours or so, he was going to be one sick cracker.
Frankie took another look at the rear of the building. “Fuck this,” he said and kicked the fence. The loose diamond pattern sang in response. He lifted the backpack off the fence, hoisted it over one emaciated shoulder, and picked up the tote bag. He didn’t like going in through the front door, even when he was ninety-nine percent sure that no one was around to see him, but he was too weak to climb the fence.
He walked to the corner of the fence and turned right where the sidewalk would have been, but he had to thread his way through a maze of tree limbs, wait-a-minute vines, and garbage instead. A water moccasin as thick as his leg hissed at him and then slithered out of sight. Halfway to the side of the house, he found a gate secured with a rusty chain and a tiny padlock. He smiled and reached into the tote bag for a twelve-inch screwdriver. In seconds he was through the gate and into the yard. Ten more steps took him to the rear door, but before going inside, he took one more look around at the other houses, checking for a nosy face or maybe curtains moving when there was no breeze. Nobody.
The door turned out to be easier than the gate; it was unlocked. That didn’t surprise Frankie. Most of the people had left with everything that was valuable, so why bother to lock the door? He hadn’t found much more than junk since he had started making his rounds earlier that morning. Now it was nearly four, and about the only thing he had that would bring him any money was a thirty-eight caliber pistol he had discovered tucked away among some pots and pans in an apartment over a deserted bar. He pushed open the door and stepped into a short, dark hallway.
Frankie had lived in New Orleans all his life, and the few trips he had made outside the state were limited to overnight dope runs along the Gulf coast from Galveston to Pensacola. He never lost the smell of the city, and now it permeated everything, inside and outside the house. And it smelled like home to him.
He moved quickly from room to room, looking for anything he could carry and that might bring a dollar. He checked the small bedrooms first, but either the residents had been in a big hurry or else someone had been there ahead of him. All the drawers were pulled out and tossed on the floor, and the single closet door yawned into an empty space. Even the thin mattress had been flipped off the bed. He kicked an overturned chair on the way out before giving the room a brief look. The kitchen was his last stop, and he thought about taking a rusty electric can opener that still had something brown on the blade but rejected it. “Jesus,” he muttered. “They’re doin’ worse than I am.” He finally walked back outside, hitched up the backpack, and went up the wooden stairs to the second floor, again taking a long look around. Seeing nothing, he tried the knob, which turned easily. His pessimism returned. If the door was open, there probably wasn’t anything inside. He started to go back down but stopped halfway through the turn. Why not? He was already there.
The upstairs apartment was a copy of the one below: same narrow hallway, same layout of rooms, only this time, everything was clean and neat. The water hadn’t gotten up to that level, and someone had taken a lot of care to keep things in order. Except for the smell, of course.
Frankie walked into the first bedroom and stopped. It was obviously a couple’s room, with a flowery robe hanging on a hook by the closet door and a pair of man’s trousers neatly folded on a wicker chair. The bed was tightly made with a worn comforter partially turned down. Frankie walked to the five-drawer bureau and started looking. Nothing but underwear, a few scraps of paper, and an assortment of socks. A tiny vanity was next with a small jewelry box exactly in the middle. The lid was open, and it was as empty as everything else he had seen that day. Disheartened, he felt under the mattress and checked out the top shelf in the closet. He found an old Walkman with dead batteries and no headphones, but he took it anyway, not even bothering to go through the pockets of the few clothes left hanging in there.
Finally, he checked the slacks folded on the table, khaki Dockers that nearly fit him but with nothing in the pockets but lint. He found a dirty shirt wadded up and tossed on the closet floor. It had a yellow stain on the front, but it was only a size too large. He pulled the belt loose from the robe and used it to hold up the pants. The cuffs rode up just above his ankles, but he didn’t care. Anything beat that goddamn jump suit that he kicked under the bed. Feeling a little better, he walked down the hall to the other bedroom.
This one was exclusively feminine. It was even more orderly than the first one, with lace doodads everywhere and a bed with three stuffed animals on it. Directly above the headboard was a framed picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., juxtaposed with one of a blue-eyed Jesus who looked more Scandinavian than Semitic. Frankie stared at both for a few seconds before moving on to the rest of the room. This one had the same type bureau but with a coat of paint on it. The drawers were all full of women’s clothing but nothing he could use. It was the same with the closet. He checked under the mattress and pillows. Again, he came up empty. Sighing, he walked out and turned right. He was three steps into the living room when he saw her and stopped cold, resisting the fight-or-flight response, or in Frankie’s case, strictly flight.
She sat primly, hands resting casually in her lap, in a rocker a few feet back from a window that gave her a view of the street as it disappeared into the distance. Her head rested lightly against a small cushion, and her eyes were closed, as if she were asleep or maybe thinking about sunny days and the smell of fresh shrimp frying. Pewter hair was pulled back tightly into a bun, and her face was as wrinkled as a walnut and as dark as weathered mahogany. She wore a blue gingham dress with a startlingly white apron over it and sensible black shoes. She could have been anywhere from sixty to six hundred, and she reminded Frankie of one of those Incan mummies he had seen on TV in the jail. They had been buried fully dressed and sitting up as well. He guessed she might have weighed ninety pounds tops.
He knew that he had made enough noise for her to hear him, although she hadn’t given any indication that she had, and mentally he kicked himself for being too stupid to check the place out before he started to prowl. Since he was at her nine o’clock position, all she had to do was open her eyes to see him. He tip-toed backward, intending to leave a lot quieter than he had come in. He kept looking at the woman, willing her eyes to remain shut, as he backed up, but he stopped cold when she spoke to him.
“Don’t need to be quiet now. I heard you when you opened the door.” She opened her eyes and looked at him calmly, as if she had invited him over for coffee and wasn’t at all surprised to see him. Frankie knew she wasn’t scared. He had seen and experienced enough fear to know it when he saw it. Besides, he thought she was much too old to be scared of anything. Black women her age weren’t shy about confronting anything from a canebreak rattler in the cellar to a thief in the living room. He carefully walked toward her and stopped when he was five feet away.
“Hey, Gran,” he said softly. “You heard me, huh? You hear pretty good for someone so old. I’m not gonna hurt you or nothin’. Just here to look around a little, and then I’ll be gone.”
The old woman still didn’t move, just kept that same steady gaze on him. “Wastin’ your time, boy. Ever’body’s done gone but me, and there ain’t nothin’ here worth takin’. Was I you, I’d walk on over to Magazine Street maybe where the water didn’t get in. You’d fit in better over there. You so lily white, the cops see you down here they gonna know you up to somethin’.”
Frankie moved closer and looked at her face. She was too still, and he couldn’t even see her breathing. He took two more steps, and the brown eyes followed him. “See you got on Marion’s pants and shirt.” She looked him up and down critically. “Don’t do you a whole lot of good, but I guess it’s better than what you had on.”
“Look, Gran, I don’t mean no harm. I just—”
“You a thief, boy, and thievin’ always means harm, so don’t go lyin’ to me like that. I’m too damn old, and I’ve heard all the stories from people a lot better at it than you.” She finally moved in the chair, adjusting herself slightly. “So why don’t you go ahead and take what you want and get out of here and let me be. I got things to do.” She looked at the table beside the rocker.
That’s when he saw the pill bottle on the side table and the envelope propped against it. He picked up the bottle and looked at the label. It felt full, and according to the small type, it held twenty Seconals at seven hundred fifty milligrams each. The name on the prescription was Etta Marquis, and it had been filled a week ago. Frankie looked at the woman. “Goddamn, Gran. I don’t know what you got, but it must be a monster if they give you straight reds for it.”
The old woman sat up slightly and pointed a bony finger at his face. “This is my house and I won’t hear the Lord’s name taken in vain. You hear me, boy. You do what you want to me, but you watch your tongue. You probably goin’ to hell anyway, but I don’t wanna hear that kind of talk.” She straightened the apron. “And don’t you go worryin’ about what’s wrong with me.” She waited for a few seconds before sitting back with a curt nod.
Frankie held up both hands. “Okay, Gran. I’m sorry. I just got outta jail, and I’m not used to being around people yet.” He looked at the bottle again and then back at her. “I haven’t seen any of these in a long while.” He put the bottle back on the table and picked up the envelope. Etta made a feeble grab for it, but he quickly snatched it out of reach.
“You got a little cash in here, Gran? That it? That why you got so grabby all of a sudden?”
She stared lightning at him. “Ain’t no money here, boy. I done told you that. What you got there is private between me and family, that’s all.”
Frankie turned the envelope over in his hand. It wasn’t sealed, so he opened the flap. “Let’s just see what’s inside. Old as you are, you might have stuck a few dollars in here and forgot all about it.”
But there wasn’t any money, just a single sheet of paper. Folded in perfect thirds, it was a letter written on a piece of notebook paper, the three holes down the left margin. The script was neat and slightly childlike, as if the author had taken a lot of time in setting each letter down on the paper. It was addressed to the woman’s son and daughter-in-law, and there was not doubt who the author was; Etta had signed her name clearly at the bottom and even underlined it. Frankie sat down in a ladder-back chair directly across from the old woman and read, struggling with only a few of the words.
Frankie slowly read through the letter and finally reached the last lines. “I’m tired and alone and I feel like a stranger on this earth.” He nodded his head and then got to the end of the letter. “This is the last time I’ll cry.” He held the letter up to see if there were any wet spots on the paper.
Etta’s accusing voice came out of the long shadows. “Satisfied?”
For the first time in a long time, Frankie was embarrassed, and he avoided the old woman’s eyes. He sat there in the darkened apartment, the day’s light dying outside, holding the letter in his hand and thinking about Etta Marquis. He finally found his voice again.
“They just left you here all alone? Your own son just packed everybody up and hauled ass and left you here, with no money, no food, no nothin’?”
Etta nodded, pleased to have someone to hear the story. “Day after the storm hit. Asked me once if I wanted to go, but I said this was my home and I wasn’t leavin’. Marion, that’s my son, he threatened to carry me down the stairs, but Jeanette, that’s his wife, she told him to just leave me alone. Said I was old and tough enough to do what I wanted. Took the children and drove off on Monday.”
“And they left, just like that?” He looked at the letter again. “And drove up to Baton Rouge?”
Etta’s narrow shoulders moved almost imperceptibly. “Guess so. Phone ain’t been on since.”
Frankie touched the letter. “But they promised to come back for you.”
Now it was Etta’s turn to dodge the pain. She sat back and folded her hands in her lap again. “That’s what they said, but I could see somethin’ else in they eyes. They ain’t gonna come back.” She took a shallow breath. “Don’t matter now anyhow. Appreciate it if you’d just put that back where you got it and go on with your stealin’ and leave me alone.” She closed her eyes again.
With her head back against the cushion, she looked at peace, like she sure as hell would never cry again. Frankie looked at her hands, hands that he imagined had rarely felt anything soft except maybe a baby’s skin, and even that turned out to be a lie in the end. He saw the thin, gold wedding band on her left hand. “Goddamn, Gran,” he said softly, and got up and dropped the letter on the floor. When he reached her, he lifted her hand and opened it.
The old woman opened her eyes. “The ring’s all I got left,” she said. “I’ve had it for goin’ on forty-three years.”
He stroked the rough palm and gnarled fingers. She didn’t resist when he slid the ring off easily. He looked inside to check the karat and maybe an inscription, but everything had been worn smooth. He stood in front of her, tossing the ring up and down and looking at the calm face. Her lower jaw had begun to sag a little, and he could see a trace of yellow dentures. He slipped the ring onto his small finger and looked around the apartment again while she watched him. She must have spent the last hours of her life straightening the place up. Frankie smiled. She knew she was about to kill herself, but she wanted the house to look good when people found her so they wouldn’t talk about what a sorry housekeeper she was. He knew a lot of older Creole and black women who thought the same way. You could walk into their houses at three in the morning, and they would all look like they had just been vacuumed and dusted, with everything in its place. He knew because had been in those houses.
He sat down on a small ottoman off the side of Etta’s rocker. “You said somethin’ about grandkids in the letter. Bet they used to sit right here while you rocked and listened to your stories, Gran.” He smiled again and gave the rocker a small push to get it going. “And I’ll bet you had some stories to tell. Bet you couldn’t tell all of them either,” he said and laughed, imagining Etta Marquis down in the Quarter, maybe singing jazz or blues in one of the clubs, wearing fancy clothes and diamond rings, maybe with rich white guys to take her to Memphis to party.
“Yeah,” Frankie told her. “I bet you were really something in your day, Gran.” He made up more stories for her. She was a princess, kidnapped from some foreign land and forced to be some Southern planter’s concubine. She was a gangster who shot it out with the cops in St. Louis and got away and came to New Orleans to hide and start over. She was the president’s real grandmother, only he wouldn’t admit it and she wouldn’t give away their secret, even if she had to live dirt poor.
And then Frankie ran out of stories and sat listening to the soft squeak of the wood as the chair moved back and forth on the throw rug under it. He put out a hand to stop the rocker. “But look at us now, Gran.” He cocked his head, surprised by the “us” when he spoke. He blew out a long, slow breath, got up and went back to his chair.
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, Gran, what’s the use? I mean, you bust your ass all those years, raisin’ kids and takin’ care of everythin’. You ain’t got much of a house here, but at least it’s yours, and you made it nice, and then off they go, leavin’ you like you were dirty laundry and promisin’ to come back when they knew it was a lie. It’s like nobody really cares what you think about nothin’.”
He leaned forward a little. “When I was in school . . . ” He stopped and laughed again. “Well, I didn’t last too long, but I remember this one teacher I had name of Nagel. Well, all the other teachers I had used to tell me how dumb I was, always gettin’ in trouble and not doin’ my homework, stupid shit that I knew I’d never do again. So Mrs. Nagel, she pulled me up and didn’t tell me nothin’. She asked me what I thought about some things and what I wanted to do. You believe that, Gran? A teacher who actually asked and gave a fuck what a kid thought?” He held up a hand. “’Scuse me, Gran. Didn’t mean to cuss. All the jail time, you know. Plus, I ain’t used to bein’ around ladies.” He was quiet again. The rocker had stopped, so he got up and gave it another push, this time sitting back down on the ottoman.
“So that’s what you are for me, Gran, believe it or not. Right now. Sure, you’re nearly dead and all, but you showed me somethin’, and in your way, you asked me somethin’, too.”
“Didn’t ask you nothin’, boy,” she said, rubbing her ring finger. “Already know all I need about white trash like you.”
Frankie ignored the slur and looked at her carefully. “Don’t know, do you? Well, I’ll tell you. You sorta asked me the same question you asked that no-good sorry excuse of a son: why bother to keep on goin’ if your life ain’t nothin’ but a big, black sinkhole that’s sucking you under all the time like some undertow out there in the Gulf, and it’s all you can do to grab onto the edges with your goddamn fingernails to keep from fallin’ in? That’s what you asked me. And you know what, Gran? You gonna show the bastards, by God. I mean, you got them pictures of King and Jesus up in your bedroom, but when you get right down to it, just like we are now, ain’t neither of them gonna help either you or me. Ain’t no damn body gonna help us, and that’s why we gotta do things for ourself.” He picked up the pill bottle again. “Yeah, you gonna show ’em, all right. You show ’em people like us, we don’t need nobody, and when we get ready to check out, cain’t nobody stop us.” He tapped the bottle. “This’ll give ’em somethin’ to think about.”
The old woman was silent, sitting and watching and rocking and waiting.
Frankie turned away and went to the letter on the floor, picked it up, refolded it, and put it back inside the envelope. He put everything back just the way Etta had arranged it and went to the kitchen. He looked through all the cabinets until he found a half-pint of peach brandy next to an open box of baking soda. He got two glasses and brought them back into the living room. One went on the side table next to Etta, where he poured a dollop into it before sitting back down in the ladder-back chair across from her. He poured two fingers of brandy and balanced the glass on the arm of the chair. Then he picked up the backpack from the floor beside him, unzipped a side compartment, and pulled out the thirty-eight. He held the gun in his right hand the brandy in his left.
“I like your style, Gran, but there’s a problem. Wouldn’t work your way, the way you got it planned right now. Goin’ out like that wouldn’t make your kin hurt the way they need to hurt for leavin’ you like this. They figure you’re old, and killin’ yourself was the natural thing to do, sort of the way they expected when they pulled out.” He thought about that for a second. “That’s what old people do, you know? Like they don’t want to be a burden. Leaves the family with a clear conscience, like they really didn’t have nothin’ to do with it.” He smiled. “But there’s another way, see, that means they gotta live with lettin’ you down and leavin’ you here all by yourself. That’s the difference, Gran. You got the right idea about makin’ ’em hurt, but you just didn’t go far enough.”
Frankie leaned forward in the chair. “But what happens if you didn’t do it yourself, somebody else did it for you? You see what I mean? That’ll give ’em somethin’ they gotta live with for the rest of their lives, because the papers and the TV and everybody who knows ’em won’t ever let ’em forget, ’specially when they catch me and I tell ’em all about how I found you by yourself and helpless and all after your family done run off on you.”
Etta raised one hand slightly and pointed to the thirty-eight. “What about you and what you got to live with?”
Frankie sat there in the gloom until the rocker stopped moving. His voice, when it came, was a whisper. “It’s so bad now, so bad. I could tell you ’bout that time over in Mobile, the time I really needed some money and what I had to do to get it, but it . . . it don’t matter now what I did. Not anymore.”
“It always matters, boy,” Etta told him softly. “You sayin’ it don’t don’t change it.”
Frankie waved a hand in front of him dismissively and sat up straighter. “You know, Gran, me and you got a lot in common. Bet you never stole nothin’ in your whole life or shot dope, but we’re still kin in a way. See, I got nobody who gives a good goddamn about me neither, and sure enough want to make some people hurt in this world.”
“Ain’t about somebody else’s pain, boy,” Etta told him quietly. “It’s about your own. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. It’s about bein’ alone with everythin’ behind you and nothin’ in front. You the one got it wrong.”
He shrugged and looked at the gun in his lap. “Maybe. Seems to me like you and me both pretty much fucked. I got nothin’ or nobody except his gun and nothin’ to look forward to ’cept getting’ dope sick and lookin’ for somethin’ to steal or sell.” He looked up at Etta, still watching him and waiting.
Finally, he took a deep breath and raised his glass to Etta, who ignored her own and kept looking at him expectantly. “Here’s to you, Gran. I owe you one. I’ll remember that part about havin’ nothin’ in front or behind. You and Mrs. Nagel the best teachers I ever had.”
He tossed off the brandy and shot Etta Marquis in the center of her chest. Her eyes flew open in surprise, and she gasped slightly. Then her head sagged until her chin touched her chest, and her body relaxed.
Frankie looked at her for a moment, ears ringing from the gunshot, and then slipped the gun into the waistband of his trousers while the muzzle was still warm against his skin. After collecting everything from the side table, Frankie walked into the bathroom, shredded the letter, and tried to flush it. The water was off, so he brought the torn letter and pills back into the living room. He dropped the pill bottle into his tote bag, along with the bottle of peach brandy. Then he poured Etta’s drink down the drain in the kitchen and wiped both glasses. The last thing he did was burn the letter and use some Clorox bleach to wash the ashes down the drain.
When he came back into the living room, he gave the rocker another push. Standing in front of the old woman, he watched the back and forth motion until the chair stopped. He rubbed the wedding band on his finger and bent and kissed her cheek. “We’re married now, Gran, so it’s all right if I keep the ring.”
The rain had started again by the time Frankie walked out of Etta Marquis’s apartment the same way he had come in. He checked the street in both directions, and then looked overhead for a chopper. Satisfied, he shouldered the backpack and headed toward Magazine Street. It was getting late.