Ray died; Juan lived on, nostalgic.
The night they met, Ray said to him,
You’re a liberal, aren’t you?
Betty talked as much as Juan listened
to Ray telling how he got started
on his mother’s loan if he would stay
in New Orleans and take care of her.
Betty remarked that sounded so much
like Juan’s uncle in Arkansas,
not even free after his mother died,
when his sister and her husband moved in.
You build her a house, take care of her
all her life, and family wants
all there is left. There was no money.
Eunice’s husband breathes through a mask.
Their daughter’s married, lives on a pig farm
in Maine. Clyde walks Juan out to his garden,
asks if Juan knows he’s breaking the Mann Act,
laughs roundly, Juan too . . . Clyde breaks down
near tears: He has a son in Van Buren
by Ruby Campbell, a cousin Juan
never knew existed until now.
Teaching journalism at Yeshiva
University in New York City.
Clyde said, Mama wanted to run my life,
widowed forty years when she died
unaware she was una abuela otra vez . . .
His son took the name Campbell . . .
I’ll look him up when I get there,
Juan tells Clyde, I’m starting Columbia
in the fall, then you’ll know dos hombres alla . . .
Clyde smiles, they walk up the highway
to the Esso station. There’s Bud
Williamson, his only arm’s hand
plucking out a bottle of Grapette
for old times, when Juan–Johnny–
tipped up the bottle and drained it . . .
Bud used his own coins to buy the pop
from the machine they stood around.
Juan took Betty back to Fort Smith.
They swam in a pool and made love
until they slept. Next day they asked a man
with two teeth and red rings around both eyes,
Is this the road to Wilburton?
and the guy kept grinning, moonshine oozing
from his breath, leaning in to point the way,
one finger making a map in the dust
on the inside of the windshield.
Juan listened to Betty saying again
how they would live in Manhattan
writing, painting, drinking, fucking,
combing out the tangles in her red hair,
twisting it in a knot on her head,
wearing it that way the rest of the way
through Oklahoma. He’d come here to see
his uncles and the oldest one’s widow
in Tulsa. In Wilburton Uncle Bus
offered him the Mason jar and he took
one swallow, handed it back, knew
his aunt Carmen would be widowed soon,
and next he heard she was, less than a year
gone by. All that was before New Orleans,
Betty and Juan strolling into The Saloon
and ending the night in a plush place
breakfasting before hiring a cab
to send Ray home, riding along
to see the dawn, and the story
of Betty in New Orleans Ray knew
at least as well as the now equally
deceased John Biggs. Juan could not stop
writing that mystery tale
with the plot too strange for a denouement.
That was enough for one day. Juan walked out
of HO HOTEL, the desk clerk spoke to him
like the paid-up tenant he was by now.
Down by Pontchartrain tourists were waiting
in line to ride the ferry to Algiers.
Juan smoked a cigarette, his first in years,
and thought again about that safety pin
she used to keep her bra strap from showing.
He had to do it up every evening
in the St. Charles before leaving
the hotel for yet another walk through
what one day was all the flood did not take
from the New Orleans he first knew . . .
and now she lived in Sausalito,
across the Golden Gate from Cathleen.
(2 April 2011)
copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander