The heat came to the lowlands early that year. It hung over the Gulf of Mexico like a malevolent vapor that blurred the edges of things and smothered the wind. It invaded people's lives like an uninvited guest and became the starting point of every conversation. For Paul, it was just another obstacle to deal with. Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi was mainly a training facility. It was like a half-way house for eighteen-year old kids, trying to recover from the trauma of basic training. They didn't scream in your face twenty hours a day and tell you what species of vermin you were, but there was still way too much spit and polish and too many stiff-assed NCOs. It had become Paul's permanent duty station so they cut him some slack, but he spent as much time as he could away from the place. Just off the base, following the rim of the Gulf, was route 90. It was an eighty-mile run to New Orleans. Not a great distance measured in miles, but so far removed from the drab reality of his life that it was like the opposite pole of a magnet, tugging at him every waking hour, and often invading his dreams.
He had duty that Saturday morning until noon and then he changed into his civilian clothes and headed out to the highway. After a few minutes, a rusted old Ford pick-up pulled over and he climbed in next to the driver. He was an older man with hair that was mostly gray and a face that had seen too much sun. He smiled at Paul and extended his hand.
"Charlie Wilkes, how y'all doing today?" The gears growled as he jammed the floor shift into second and the old truck bucked when he let up the clutch. "Watch that door. It don't always latch on the first try."
Paul opened the door again and then slammed it closed. "I'm fine. You?"
"Good as I'm gonna be. Where you headed, son?"
"I'm going down to New Orleans. You going that far?"
"I'll be runnin' by north of it, if that helps you any."
"Sure, I usually get out around there anyway and take the bus the rest of the way."
"You stationed there at Keesler?"
"Yeah. For the last six months."
"You a pilot?"
"No. I tried out for it but my eyes aren't good enough."
"Just as well.They'd probably be sendin' you over to that damned jungle and they'd be tryin' to shoot some holes in ya. I can't figure out what the hell they're tryin' to do over there anyway. It don't make no sense to me."
"It doesn't make any sense to a lot of people," Paul said.
"Ya know I was in the big war. Now that one made some sense. Those bastards attacked us and we give 'em hell for it. Seems to me this country's tryin' to get too big for its britches.I had a friend once told me when the only tool you got is a hammer, every damn problem starts lookin' like a nail. You go around this world hammerin' on everybody and pretty soon people gonna get pissed off."
Paul laughed. He sat back in his seat and relaxed, looking out over the water. Sometimes it was awkward trying to make conversation with the strangers that picked him up along the road, but Charlie had the gift and Paul just let him ramble on. The time went by quickly and after a while he felt like he had known Charlie all his life. It was likely they would never meet again, but that was what he liked about hitch-hiking. It was like reading a little bit of a story about someone without finding out what happens in the end. It was great entertainment making up your own ending. When they were getting close to the city, he asked Charlie to pull over at a bus stop, and thanked him for the ride.
"You watch your back down there in the Quarter, son. Some of them people's just rats with britches on."
The bus-stop sign had long since rusted beyond recognition, but the place was marked by an ancient bench of concrete and rotting wood that was in the process of returning to the earth. The look of it did not inspire confidence, but he had waited at this place before and eventually a bus had come along. Paul was not someone who could sit patiently on a bench. Instead he leaned against the side of it to indicate his intentions, without committing himself to the wait. Shielding his eyes, he peered down the highway to where the bus had materialized before, as if directing his impatience in its direction would help hurry it along. He wiped his brow with his hand and then ran it back through his short brown hair.
After a few minutes he heard someone come up behind him and he turned. He was startled to see a beautiful young woman looking back at him. She immediately looked away. Her skin was light brown but there was a paleness about her, like someone who did not like the sun. Her hair was auburn and long, with a slight wave to it. She had it gathered in the back with a carved wooden clasp. Her eyes were dark, almost black, and features were fine, except for her lips, which were full and wide. She wore no makeup that he could see. The fine wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and eyes spoke of someone who liked to laugh but her expression was serious, maybe even a little angry. The plain white dress she was wearing clung to her thighs in the humid air. She clutched her tattered canvas bag against her chest like a shield. He held his glance a little too long and finally she glared back at him with a look of contempt that startled him for a moment.
"My name is Paul," he said, by way of apology.
She swatted at an imaginary fly with a Bible she was holding in her hand, but said nothing. They stood at opposite ends of the bench in silence, intruding on each other's thoughts.
After a few minutes, a tired-looking bus pulled up in front of the bench and let out an exhausted hiss of air. The door folded open, and a heavy-set black man in a gray uniform shirt and hat looked down at them impassively. The girl hung back so that Paul would have to board first and declare his seat. He dropped some coins in the box, then moved toward the back so that she would sit somewhere in front of him. He had no plan to talk to her further. Over the years he had learned not to force it. It would happen at its own pace, if at all. It was better to let it find its own drift, like the slowly turning tumbler of a lock. He had a strong feeling about this one though, and no urgency of time. She took a seat near the middle. The bus moved off, making its way into the city a few miles at a time, stopping now and then like a runner trying to catch his breath. It was late afternoon and the air pouring through the open windows felt too thick to breathe.
He thought about how he might spend his evening. New Orleans was a house with many locked doors. Most of those doors opened readily with money. He needed other means. He had spent many weekends wandering around the French Quarter, watching. He learned early on that Bourbon Street was not the French Quarter. It was like a boardwalk where people could dip their toes into sin without being swept away by the tide. It was the other places he wanted. The labyrinth of hidden courtyards leading to unexpected rooms, the sound of a woman's laugh behind a closed gate in a wall topped with broken bottles cemented into the stone, a casual glance through a closing door and the sound of jazz, and ice in glasses, couples in dark alleys, making love against a wall. It was a place that existed only in the night.
The bus came to a stop and two men boarded. The first one was big and slow in his movements. He dropped his change on the floor and had difficulty picking it up with his thick, blunt fingers. The driver waited patiently. The other one was wiry and mean-looking. He cursed at the big one and gave him a shove. All the while his gaze darted about like a snake, tasting the air for an opportunity. He saw the girl and his face distorted into a malicious grin. The big one lumbered down the aisle, looking down at the floor and then he turned back, not knowing where he was supposed to sit. The other one stopped next to the girl, as the bus moved off. He said something to her that Paul could not hear. She snapped back at him and then turned away. He said something else but she ignored him. Finally he grabbed her by the hair and pulled her up so that she was forced to look into his face.
"Don't you turn away from me, nigger. I know what you are. You ain't foolin' me. You damn sure ain't no white girl. Move your black ass to the back of the bus."
It was not that Paul had made some carefully considered decision to intervene. Some other part of him had taken control and he became a detached observer of his own movements. His body surged forward, while somewhere lost in the back of his consciousness, a voice was going on about consequences. The big one looked confident. Now that his friend had started doing something familiar, he knew what he was supposed to do. He was there to keep anyone from spoiling the fun. Paul came up behind him. He turned and glowered at Paul with that smug confidence that comes from never being challenged. Paul stepped forward, knees bent and thrust his fist into the center of the man's chest. The big man slumped forward, unable to breathe, a look of shock and fear washed over on his face. There was no need to hit him again. Paul pushed him into a seat.
Paul now had the other one's full attention. He dropped the girl like a used napkin and his eyes widened with fear. Slowly, a look of hatred came over his face. He reached into his back pocket and flicked open a knife, slashing the air in front of him like the tail of a lizard. Paul moved toward him. He watched like Andre had taught him all those years ago. In a fight a man might do any number of unexpected things, but a man with a knife will tell you exactly what he is going to do. How he holds it. How he stands. What his eyes say. It was not the first time Paul had faced a knife. This one just wanted to scare him off. Paul kept moving toward him and he saw panic growing in the man's eyes. The knife-wielding man lunged forward wildly. Paul shifted his weight, avoiding the blade and, at the same time, grasping the man's wrist, pulling forward and twisting until the knife fell onto the floor. He released his grip and pushed the man backward.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the girl open her Bible and he laughed to himself thinking that she was about to pray for him. Something fell out onto the girl's lap. Then, in a flash of white fury she was on her attacker's back, a straight razor pushed against his throat. A small drop of blood appeared on the man's neck and he went still, his eyes wide with panic. The driver had stopped the bus and he came up behind the girl. Paul watched fascinated, as the line of blood under the blade grew wider.
"Now you put that thing away, Lucinda," the driver said. "I'm sure this gentleman will be happy to take himself and his friend off my bus."
The injured man was shaking now and when he spoke his voice was a high-pitched wail. "Get her off me. Oh, my God, please. Get her off me."
"I think I'll just cut your ugly head off and take it to town in my bag," she said.
The driver gently reached around, grasped the girl's hand and pulled it carefully away from the man's throat.
The man immediately reached up and clutched at his bloodied neck. "She cut me. The bitch cut me. I'm gonna kill you, you fuckin' whore."
"You ain't gonna do nothing, mister," the driver said, "except get you and your friend off my bus and be happy you still got your damn head on your shoulders. Maybe you ain't heard, Jim Crow is dead around here."
The man looked at the girl still holding the razor and then at Paul. "I'll find you," he said to Paul. You gonna see me again."
The girl raised the razor in the air and he had no more to say. He turned and hurried toward the door.
"You, too," the driver said, looking at the big man still slumped over in his seat.
The big man got up slowly, clutching his chest, and walked toward the front, sliding sideways past Paul like he was afraid of being burned. He did not make eye contact. The two men jumped off the bus and the driver turned toward Paul, as if considering whether he should go too. He apparently thought better of it.
"I don't allow no trouble on my bus," was all he said. He got back into his seat and released the brake.
The girl turned to Paul, still angry. "I don't need no help from you," she said, and sat back down.
Her voice sounded hollow and distant, like she had shouted it from the other side of a wall. He stood there in the aisle for a moment trying to gather himself, a little surprised by the girl's reaction. His body felt heavy, like it was being pulled toward the center of the earth. In a few seconds, he started to shake as the adrenaline left his system. His eyelids began to twitch and pretty soon his whole body was throbbing. He closed his eyes and clasped his arms across his chest. There was nothing to do but to let it run its course. After all the scrapes he had been in, it surprised him that it never went away. His thoughts drifted back to the years he had spent in the neighborhood. It was like his mind was rerunning the lessons he was supposed to have learned to keep him out of things like this.
The memories always started at the door of his grandmother's house in Pittsburgh. His father had died in an accident at the mill when Paul was six. His mother died of a stroke a few years later. He was watching television with her one night and she turned to him slowly and looked at him like she didn't know who he was. There was confusion on her face for a moment, and then she slumped over and slid onto the floor. He didn't remember much of what happened next. At the cemetery he watched the dirt fall from the blade of the shovel and he screamed for them to stop. But they didn't stop, and he began to feel like he was falling, too. A part of him had been falling ever since, utterly alone in some formless void. It was like his connection to the world had come undone.
He went to live with his grandmother. His two sisters moved in with an aunt who lived in Johnstown. She had a daughter of her own and thought the girls would be company for her. She said she didn't know how to raise no boys. His grandmother's neighborhood was almost all black by then, except for a few blocks where some old white people were going to hang on until somebody carried them out on a stretcher. He was thirteen years old and the new kid at school with no friends. The older kids beat on him until he learned to fight back. The beatings he took made him tough, but his grandmother kept him from becoming hard. She was the kindest person he had ever known and it made him feel protective of her. He knew it was hard on her raising a kid at her age and he didn't want to do anything to cause her any hurt. Still, he was spending more and more time on the streets, trying to find a place for himself. Mostly he was just alone. Andre changed all of that.
The first time he met Andre was down at the rail yard. It was one of those late fall evenings at the end of a warm day. The heat rising from the ground created a layer of mist about knee high, like walking through smoke. Smoke that smelled of soot and tasted like steel. It was a place alive with possibilities. He imagined the tracks reaching out into every corner of the world. Sometimes he put his ear down on the cold steel rail and listened to the distant trains, singing their secret songs, like whales in some far off ocean. He was looking for a slow moving freight to hop a ride downtown when he came across a bunch of black kids stealing radios from a boxcar. He stopped for a while and watched them, amazed by their audacity. Suddenly, there were cops everywhere. He ran in front of a commuter train and nearly got clipped, but it gave him enough time to slide under a boxcar and climb up onto the truck. The flashlight beams stabbed under the cars like bolts of lightning but they passed him by. He crawled under the train, flattening himself to slide under the axels until they were far enough away, and then he ran. There were two squad cars on the access road but no cops. As he passed them, he noticed a black kid sitting in the back of one. Without even thinking he opened the door and let the kid out. They bolted up the access road together. The kid was cuffed behind his back but he was fast and, before long, he had turned the corner and vanished. Paul figured that was the end of it. It was just the beginning.
A few weeks later he was coming home from the store with some groceries when he ran into a gang of black kids. The kid from the rail yard was with them. They had Paul up against a wall and were going through his pockets when the kid recognized him. Everything changed. They gave him his money back and then turned their backs and walked away. All of them except the kid, who picked up the bag of groceries and gave it back to him.
"Name's Andre," he said, holding out his hand.
"Paul. I guess that makes us even."
"Hell, no, we ain't even. We ain't close to even. You think those bulls back at the yard were goin' to take me in? Hell, no. They were goin' to beat the shit out of me. Maybe break my legs. Maybe worse. That's what happens round here if you ain't white."
Paul didn't say anything. It was the first time he had considered that the world might be different for a black kid. He wondered what they would have done to him.
"It's cool. I'm gonna tell my boys to let you slide around here. But just the same you don't need to be around here at night unless you with me. You dig?"
"Yeah, I get it."
"Hey, what you doin' later?"
"I just figured on takin' this stuff home and stayin' in."
"All right, that's cool. But if you feel like it, meet me down at the school in about an hour. I got something goin' on."
That was the beginning of Paul's abbreviated life of crime. Andre wasn't into violence and he didn't do stickups, but he was good with locks and could climb anything. He started out tagging walls in places where the competition was too afraid to climb. He learned that people weren't too careful about locking windows high up. At first Paul mostly stood lookout, but he learned fast and soon he was almost as good as Andre at getting into buildings. It was all penny-ante stuff. They got beer from the VFW regularly, until a couple of guys surprised them one night and they had to jump off a two-story roof into a dumpster full of garbage to get away. They got a lot of petty cash and some typewriters and adding machines. It wasn't a lot of money but that wasn't the point anyway. It was the rush. Doing things they shouldn't be doing, taking risks and getting away with it. Andre taught him other things besides picking locks and walking high ledges. He taught him how to handle himself in a street fight. How to hit a guy so that he wouldn't get up, but he wouldn't die on you either. How to go up against a guy with a knife. How to walk down the street when the cops were looking for somebody. "It ain't never about how tough you are," Andre always said. "It's about doin' what you gotta do to save your ass and get away. Guys who fight for the fun of it are just assholes and sooner or later they end up dead, or worse."
They ran together for a few years. Eventually, their luck ran out in a record company warehouse. They were caught climbing in through a ventilating duct, but since they hadn't taken anything yet, the cops just made his grandmother come down to the precinct to get him. He couldn't stand the look on her face. He didn't see Andre for a while after that. Not until the night he told Paul he needed him just one more time. Paul didn't want to do it. It was an office on the fourth floor of a building on the Pitt campus.
He had almost drifted off to sleep when he felt someone sit down next to him. He opened one eye, just in case it was someone he needed to pay attention to, and saw the girl looking back at him with a quizzical expression. The shaking had stopped but he still felt a little nauseous.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said, managing a weak smile.
"Thanks for helpin' me. Sometimes I don't know how to act, you know. I was pretty mad."
"I could tell. I thought you were going to cut that guy's head off."
"Nah, you just can't get the attention of a cracker like him without drawin' a little blood." She smiled at him and her eyes became transparent, like smoked glass.
"My grandmother had a bible like that except I don't remember it having a straight razor in the binding."
"Yeah, well I guess your grandmother never worked in New Orleans. My name is Lucinda by the way, but my friends call me Lucky. You can call me Lucky."
"What did you do? Win the Irish Sweepstakes?"
"The what? No. They call me Lucky because I'm lucky to be alive with everything I've been through." She laughed again, like a child, full of joy and mischief.
"Like never-you-mind what. What are you doin' around here anyway? You sure as hell don't come from Louisiana."
"How do you know?"
"Because none of these Louisiana boys move that fast. You a football player or somethin'?"
"I played in college. I wasn't big enough for the pros. I'm in the Air Force, stationed over in Biloxi."
"Biloxi? Then what were you doin' back there at the bus stop?"
"I hitchhike into the city almost every weekend, but it's easier to get downtown if I take the bus from there."
"Oh, I get it. Goin' into the Big Easy to get yourself a girl and have a good time."
"Yeah, something like that, except I really haven't found my way in yet, if you know what I mean. I walk up and down Bourbon Street like everybody else and the locals put on a show for you. But I know that's not all there is to the French Quarter."
"You got that right. But you better watch out, it can be a dangerous place for somebody don't know their way around."
"Yeah, I can see that. But you know everything that's really worth doing has a little bit of danger in it. Don't you think?"
"Well my Aunt Jess used to say 'be careful what you wish for, cause you might get it and it's the worst thing you ever got.'" She studied his face for a moment. "What color are your eyes anyway? They look like a different color every time I look at you."
"Well, they're sort of blue-green-brown."
She chuckled and a knowing smile crossed her face.
"What?" he said after a while.
"Oh, nothin'. I was just thinkin' you ain't the type to stay out of it."
It was his turn to laugh. "I guess that's true. I've survived so far though."
"Yeah, well the night is just gettin' started and you already made two enemies."
"Yeah, but I made one friend. You see, that's what I mean."
She smiled. "Yeah, for what it's worth."
"It's worth plenty."
They were silent for a while. The bus was now on the outskirts of the city and starting to get crowded. The passengers stared straight ahead, avoiding conversation, preferring instead to look inside themselves, at the random images of their solitary lives. When Paul spoke, it was as much to himself as to the girl.
"You know what I'd really like to find is a good place to eat dinner that doesn't cost me a week's pay."
"There are plenty of places like that. You just have to know where to look."
"How about you take me to one. I'll buy."
She smiled at him. It was a softer smile that quickly faded. She turned away and didn't say anything for a moment. Finally she looked back at him and seemed to study his face for a moment. "Okay. I know a place we can go, but we gotta go as soon as we get into town. I got things to do."
"Great. What things?"
"Private things, and anyway I'm buyin'."
"I can't let you do that."
"You ain't lettin' me do nothin'. You don't have no other choice."
It was a small place on Rampart Street just off Canal. A half dozen tables and a row of booths along one wall. The light reflecting through the plate glass windows from the sidewalk was swallowed by the brown, hammered metal ceiling and dark paneled walls before it could penetrate the room. It was as if the visual distractions were being held to a minimum so as not to compete with the seductive aromas emanating from the kitchen. A votive candle in a transparent green glass holder marked each table, like a lonely island in a dim sea. The menu was loaded with exotic-sounding dishes that he knew nothing about.
Paul glanced at her over the top of his menu and watched her come to a decision. "How about you order for me," he said.
"Okay, how about some prawns?"
"That's like shrimp, right?"
"It ain't like shrimp, it is shrimp. Anyway it ain't what they are, it's about what Baby does with them."
"That's who owns this place. His real name is Beauregard St. Michael, but everybody calls him Baby. He's the best chef in New Orleans, I swear. He was the chef over at Dauphine's until he chased the owner three blocks with a meat cleaver for puttin' salt in the Gumbo." She giggled at the thought of it and her face lit up again, like a little girl opening a Christmas present. "Anyway he likes ownin' his own place. He lives upstairs."
Paul smiled. He noticed there were no salt and pepper shakers on the table. "So, how did you meet Baby?"
"Oh, hell, I don't know. I've known him forever."
"Is this where you usually eat?"
"I eat here a lot but I haven't been in for a few weeks. It just didn't work out, you know?"
A waitress brought over some silverware and water. She nodded to Lucky but didn't say anything.
"Where's Baby tonight?" Lucky asked.
"He's in the back," the waitress said. "Y'all want to talk with him?"
"No, just tell him I'm here when you pass him by. I want him to meet somebody."
The waitress gave Paul a curious look and raised what used to be her eyebrows before she decided to shave them off and draw them higher up on her forehead. She turned and went back into the kitchen. A few minutes later a large black man came waddling through the kitchen doors. He had on a stained white apron that looked like a lobster bib on him. He was about as wide as he was tall, and his features were tucked in between rolls of fat wrinkles that cascaded down his face and neck and presumably kept on going.
"Well, hey, Miss Lucky," he boomed with a voice as large as his body, showing a big gap-toothed smile.
She got to her feet and gave him a big hug, almost disappearing behind his huge arms. "I want you to meet my hero. His name is Paul."
Baby offered a huge ham of a hand and Paul shook it, just managing to get his own hand around the fingers.
"Hero, huh? Well, it ain't every day a body gets to meet no hero."
"Well he is one, Baby. He saved me from a couple of crackers on the bus today." Lucky reseated herself, beaming at him.
Paul smiled."I'm not sure who saved who."
Baby laughed. "Lord, lord don't you know I believe that. Nobody wants to go messin' around with Miss Lucky. She ain't as helpless as she looks."
"I found that out."
Baby turned back to the girl. "Where you been, honey? I ain't seen you in a month, it seems."
"I know, Baby. I just been runnin', you know."
He leaned over and whispered something in her ear that Paul couldn't hear.
"No, no that's okay, I got that fixed up, Baby."
"You remember what I told you, honey. That's some bad news there. You need to be lookin' around, if you know what I mean."
"I know, Baby. I will."
"So what did you kids order today?"
"We're havin' some of those prawns, Baby. You still doin' them up the same?"
"Well, you know I never mess with something that works so good. You tell me, Mr. Paul, if these ain't the best damn prawns you ever tasted."
"Lucky says they are and I don't want to argue with her. I've seen her Bible."
Baby laughed and his whole body shook. "He learns fast, else he's known you for a bit."
"Oh, I think he ain't too stupid," she said, smiling.
"Okay." He laughed again. "Let me get back to my kitchen. You be well, Miss Lucky, and its fine to meet you, Mr. Paul."
After he left, they didn't talk for a while. She was looking down at the table but her eyes were focused far away, like there was something troubling unfolding in her memory. She quickly smiled when Paul looked at her. Suddenly unable to hold her glance, he looked around the room, taking in the place. It felt comfortable, like somewhere he had known about all of his life. Finally, he looked back at her and caught her studying him. He held her eyes this time and he saw something change in her. There was no shyness there, but she had a wall around her that he guessed would be difficult to get over.
"So, are you going to tell me what you do down here in the city? I would have guessed you were down here preaching and saving souls until I saw what you use for a bookmark."
She chuckled and looked away for a moment. When she looked back she was serious again. "Look, I like you, Paul, and I really am thankful for what you did today, but I don't want to talk about what I do. I don't want to talk about my life or anything like that. I just live for the moment, you know what I mean? I try to be happy with what I'm doing and who I'm with. I think the past is the past and it don't matter anymore. Let's just have a nice dinner okay? Don't spoil it by askin' a lot of questions about things I don't want to talk about."
"Okay, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you uneasy."
There was an uncomfortable silence. She took a compact out of her bag and studied her face in the small mirror, turning it to get the light.
"Well, maybe you can tell me about some places I can go in the French Quarter."
"That all depends on what you're lookin' for. You can find anything you want down here if you know where to look. So the question is…" she snapped her compact closed and looked at him. "The question is what are you lookin' for, Mr. Paul? Hey, what's your last name anyway?"
"It's Greene. Paul Greene."
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Greene."
"I don't have one anymore. I gave it up. So tell me what you're lookin' for, Mr. Greene."
"I guess I'm not sure."
"Well, you see, that's your problem. You need to know what you want before you have any chance of getting it."
"I know that's true."
"Are you lookin' for a woman? You don't seem the type that's looking the other way."
"Well, sure, I mean I'm always looking for a woman."
"So are you lookin' to get a ride or are you looking for something real."
He smiled. "Well, both I guess. I mean I'm not looking to do it with someone that I don't care anything about."
"You mean like a whore."
"Well, yeah. I mean I've never done that."
"Why? You scared?"
"No, I mean it's just that it seems so cold to do that with someone you don't even know. Somebody doing it just for the money."
"How many women have you been with?"
"I don't know, a few."
She leaned forward and looked him in the eye. "Bullshit. I never met a man yet who didn't know how many he had and what he liked about this one or that one."
He was speechless for a minute. She sat back against the booth and smiled at him, watching him squirm.
"Okay, so how many?"
He laughed. "Exactly eighteen."
She grinned at him. "Okay, and which one was the best?"
"Well, that depends. They all had their good points, you know?"
"Oh, yeah, I know. But the thing is you didn't stay with any of them, right?"
"Well, I don't know. For all different reasons."
"Were you in love? Did you get your heart broken?"
"Only once, that was enough."
"No, it wasn't. You got to get your heart broken lots of times before you understand."
She leaned forward again and took him by the hand. "Look, honey, I don't want you to think I don't believe in love, because I do. I've seen it myself. Felt it myself. But most of what is going on out there don't have nothin' to do with love. Most men need to get laid just to feel like a man once in a while. Most men are getting beat up all of the time. Beat up by their boss, beat up by the bill collector, beat up by the tax man. Some men just turn mean and they go home and beat up on their wives and scream at their kids. Most men get beat up by their wives, too. I don't mean punched and bloody. I mean beat up in their souls. When the excitement goes away, and it grinds down to livin' every day, there just ain't that much love out there, honey. The good ones stick around anyway. Sometimes they go lookin' for a whore and everyone thinks how horrible they are, but those are the good ones. That's when you know it's love. When she's too miserable to make it through another day and too tired to put on her makeup and he can't keep his belly from fallin' out of his belt but they kiss each other good night and make love anyway. The bad ones just take off. Young ones like you think they're lookin' for love but they're just lookin' to get laid. In the beginning you bring flowers and take her out to nice places, buy her jewelry. Anything to keep her happy so she'll do what you want in bed. After a while, when you start getting it regular, you forget about the flowers. Pretty soon she stops lookin' so good to you anymore and you start lookin' around. Sooner or later, you find one who looks back and you start doin' it on the sly. After a while you don't want to look at the old one anymore and all you want is out. Mostly, the only marriages I know about that work are the ones put together on purpose, for money or power and stuff like that. People like that screw around like crazy. Usually they don't even try to hide it. They keep the marriage together because it's a society thing and ..."
The waitress brought their food and Lucky began eating in mid-sentence. Paul took a mouthful and discovered immediately what she meant about the prawns.
"Wow, this is the best shrimp I have ever tasted." He was happy to change the subject.
"Told you so."
The conversation ceased completely while they ate. Lucky cleaned her plate and then stood up abruptly. "I'm sorry, Paul. I really have to go. Baby will just put this on my tab. If you want, you can go over to the kitchen and tell him what a good cook he is. He likes that. Oh, and leave a couple of bucks for Loretta."
"Wait. I mean, let me walk with you a little."
"Not tonight, honey. I've really got to run."
"Well, will I see you again?"
"You might. I'll be around. Listen, if you're lookin' for a place to hang out there's a bar called the Seven Seas back on Ursulines Ave. There's a bartender there named Louis. He kinda looks like that Beatle, John Lennon. He knows me. Go over and introduce yourself to him. Louis can find you almost anything you need."
She reached down and kissed him on the cheek, touching him tenderly on his neck. A shiver ran up his spine. She stood back from him and smiled for a second and then she was out the door. He looked around and suddenly felt like he didn't belong there. All he wanted to do was leave. He put a few dollars on the table and went over to the kitchen door. He peeked his head in.
"That was the best meal I ever had, Baby." He felt awkward saying the name.
"Didn't I tell you? You come on back any time, Mr. Paul. I got lots of good things cookin' back here."