No Hands On the Clock
Maybeth walked to the café past the people in the bayou neighborhood who were settling in to ride the daylight. Hurrying helped her push by their drowsy stares and looks and nods, the silent morning intimacies of people who slept communally, almost family-style, scattered about in bushes, alleys, and doorways. Not easy for her in the morning, worse in the afternoon. She’d finish her shift and walk back past them and feel the magnetism of wanting to ride the daylight, too. Living on the street wasn’t where you parked yourself; it was more how you were parked inside yourself. That was the threat she had to deal with walking home. She and Tommy had just crawled out of their private parking place. Their plan wasn’t to be pulled back in.
The place they rented had been a potter’s shed and still smelled like one, earthy and damp. It was the size of a double garage with a galley kitchen along the right wall and a bathroom cubby next to it with unused tools hanging on the front and left walls. The old man and his wife didn’t garden anymore. A service took care of the flowers bordering the patio, where moss wormed into the mortar between the flagstones. These led to the French doors of the study where the old man read and snoozed and the wife did crossword puzzles and knitted and served them dinner while they watched the evening TV news.
They weren’t going to rent to them because they seemed to be exactly what they were, street kids looking for a roof, but the wife invited them inside and they spent a little time playing a game where the old man said to the wife that he didn’t think they’d really made the decision to rent and the wife said well, no, they actually had. But the previous tenants were so noisy, the old man complained.
That was when Tommy said he didn’t know how much time he’d be around because he had a scholarship at the University of New Orleans and a job working in the library, and Maybeth said that she had to go to work at Mirrors Café so early that she’d probably come home and sleep until he got back and they had dinner.
“You won’t have any dinner until you come late in the evening?” the wife asked Tommy, concerned for him.
Tommy said no, eating out somewhere before he came home would be too expensive.
“If your finances are so tight, I regret to inform you that this would require a month’s rent in advance and another month’s security deposit against damages,” the old man said.
“We could give you that much in cash right now,” Tommy said.
To cover up her amusement, the wife touched her breastbone as if she had indigestion.
“And we could help you take care of the property,” Maybeth added. “I mean, if you’d want us to.”
No, thank you, the old man said, they used a service now. “But our tools have to remain in the shed. We have no other place to put them and may go back to gardening ourselves. This was a point of contention with the noisy couple before you. They took things off the walls and put them outside. I had to insist they put them back.”
Maybeth knew when he said “before you” that the old man had accepted his defeat. So, they were two for two in New Orleans. First, Tommy wangled his way into the university, now they had a place to live. Next, they scrounged a mattress and a lamp and a bookcase for Tommy’s books, which she would read after she pulled herself through the bayou neighborhood—the ones he hadn’t taken with him that day. She read his U.S. history book, his survey of U.S. literature from the colonial period to the Civil War, and his coastal ecology book. But eventually she’d get bored and lie on the mattress, staring at the gardening tools on the walls, thinking that they’d be in this shed for years because the rent was ridiculous, $400 a month. You couldn’t get anything cheaper anywhere. Definitely not on Noble Street. They laughed when they first saw all its mansions and its live oaks and Spanish moss and bougainvillea and deep lawns and hulking apartment buildings with fountains and broad front porches. Like, they were going to live here?
The day at the café rolled down its hillside, bouncing and stopping and bouncing again. The last thing she did was settle with an old woman who had a fat black dog too big for her. When she stooped to pat its head, the woman asked if she would she would consider walking him. His name was Horace. He needed more exercise than she could give him.
“I’ll pay you, of course.”
“You don’t have to pay me.”
“But I’d want to.”
She agreed and went to get her bag from behind the counter.
Her co-worker Annie asked, “Why’d you offer to do it for free?”
“Because she’ll give me more that way.”
“Is that something else you learned on the street?”
“I don’t know anything I didn’t learn on the street.”
Out of habit, she started to walking Horace to the right, toward the bayou neighborhood. Horace didn’t want to go that way. He wanted to go left, toward downtown. She’d never been downtown and didn’t get there this time, either, but she and Horace made it pretty far because every block gave her something, helped her pick her way into not being wide asleep in the daylight, doing nothing and pretending it was something, tumbling past three o’clock and four o’clock, any o’clock, no hands on the clock.
When she brought him home, the old woman asked if she’d like to walk him regularly after her shift at the café. “I could arrange to be there at three if you would.”
Maybeth said no, she had some other things to do. The woman was lonely and tried to draw her into telling her what those things might be. Maybeth said this and that. The woman gave her ten dollars, and when she passed through the bayou neighborhood, she gave the ten dollars to the guy with the red bandana around his head and his guitar case with no guitar. His name, she knew, was Elmore. She knew many of the names in the neighborhood and where people sat and where she’d sit, too, if she held onto the ten dollars and used it to buy the things for sale around there.
The next day after her shift, she turned left into a gradual thickening of storefronts that weren’t boarded over and outlets that sold mattresses and furniture and playgrounds not yielding to weeds poking through baked sheets of mud. After a while she came to the wide mouth of a cinderblock garage with ten lifts and a corral of desks piled with service manuals and boxes of parts and invoices and a line of a half dozen people waiting their turn to talk to a guy who was bald on top but still blond around the edges. He had a thoughtful, beautiful way of telling them what the mechanics had found and fixed or wasn’t worth fixing, but he wasn’t quick at running the credit card machine or making change or finding keys on the pegboard or getting off phone calls that constantly interrupted what he was saying to the person in front of him.
She walked in and stood to his left long enough for him to realize she wasn’t a customer and asked if she could help.
He said, “You sure can,” as if she’d helped many times before and knew exactly what he needed done: worksheets stapled to invoices and phone messages taken and drop-offs for tomorrow listed on the white board and busted parts brought to him so that he could show how they’d failed and why they had to be replaced.
Toward seven the hubbub died down and the mechanics began dry washing their hands with rags, and he—his name was Peter—reached into the cash drawer and gave her two twenties.
“I could use you at this time any day if you’re interested,” he said. “My assistant’s out with a baby.”
“Thanks, maybe if I have time.”
“By the way, what’s your name?”
She told him.
“No last name. Just Maybeth.”
She’d never return, though, never go back, just keep going elsewhere and elsewhere after that. As she passed through the bayou neighborhood, she gave one of the twenties to a woman with a bad eye named Louisa and kept the other twenty for herself.
The next day when she left the café, she turned left again and came to a hotel on the border of the tourist zone, not quite in, not quite out. She walked around back to the kitchen and saw stacks of dishes piled up at the mouth of the washing conveyer. She walked through the screen door and began placing plates and glasses and utensils on the steel rollers that took them through. Then she walked around to the other end and began drying what she’d washed and placing it on a trolley.
A woman fixing salads nearby said, “You new?”
“Get yourself a smock off the hooks then.”
She pointed Maybeth to a fresh set of white smocks hanging beside the screen door. They were starchy and hard to button. When she turned around, all buttoned up, another woman was standing next to her, the kitchen manager. She had drought-stricken orange hair and furrows on her forehead.
“Did someone up front send you to cover me shorthanded?”
“Nobody sent me.”
“Who’s paying you then?”
“Nobody’s paying me.”
“Dear, it don’t work that way. You go up front in the morning and see Miz Liz Loughlin if you want a job.”
“I don’t want a job. I’ve got a job in the morning.”
“Do you want food? I’ve never seen one that was willing to come through that screen door and work for it.”
“That’s not how I do it. I just start working where it’s needed.”
The kitchen manager took a moment to examine her more closely, cocking her head back and forth like a parrot. Then she stepped back and looked at the clean dinnerware piled on the trolley and the gray tubs of dirty dinnerware being brought in by the busboys through the swinging doors to the dining room. “Seafood or steak?”
“Give us until things slow down and we’ll put a plate before you. We’re down two tonight, and I’m the one that bears the burden.”
Maybeth resumed feeding the washing conveyor and drying and stacking things on the other end. When things quieted, the kitchen manager directed her to a table where she had placed a plate of shrimp étouffée, a crescent roll, and a glass of water.
From where she sat, Maybeth looked through the swinging doors into a large dining room white with linens and overhung by chandeliers. Some of the diners were tourists in sport shirts and tight blouses; others were locals better dressed and less smiley. Taken all together, they looked like an audience that had joined the actors on stage. Which was which she couldn’t say. After the étouffée, she was given a dish of flan, which she spooned a bit, didn’t finish. When no one was looking, she slipped through the screen door into the alley behind the hotel.
The next night she turned left and left again and left again and at a certain point a woman asked what she was doing on her street corner. Maybeth said she was waiting for the light to change.
“You’re not working?”
“Where are you from?”
“Up river, I guess you could say.”
“Well, I am.”
The woman pointed to a small balcony jungled with plants on the second floor of a skinny yellow apartment building. “I’ve got a room up there we could share if you do want to work.”
“What about watching me?”
“What do you mean, watching you?”
The woman said she meant she’d pay her to watch from out on the balcony and step in if things became what they shouldn’t be. She’d had that happen the night before. “I’m on my own right now. This guy checks into my no-go zone. Couldn’t get him out.” Her name was Tammy, she said. She had large blue eyes, minty breath, breast implants, a tiny behind, purple fingernails and purple toenails. Maybeth said all right. Tammy gave her a key to go upstairs and position herself. She said she’d give twenty if she did any business over the next hour, ten if she didn’t.
“And there’s a bottle of vodka out there and some vermouth, onions, olives and stuff. Help yourself.”
Tammy took care of two men while Maybeth sat on the balcony. The first man had a large but not flabby belly. He wanted Tammy to ride him up top. She said she’d be glad to but her tits cost extra. The man laughed and said no thanks. The second man wanted her to get behind him sitting on a chair and reach around and masturbate him. He sat there almost as though he were by himself, a man with a rash on his eyelids, which he kept closed. When he began bucking, Tammy reached around with her left hand to keep his jism from squirting onto the floor.
After those two, Tammy stepped out on the balcony and gave Maybeth the twenty and asked her to sit with her a while.
“Don’t you want any of that vodka?”
Maybeth said no, but she’d sit with Tammy. She watched her drink vodka vermouth martinis, no ice, which she flavored with olives from a bottle she had tucked in a geranium pot. Three in fifteen minutes.
“If I do another tonight, I won’t care. I don’t care anyway. Would you?”
Maybeth said, “Do you really want to talk about this?”
“It’s just that you’re so young. Whenever I talk to anyone so young, it’s like I go back in time when I never dreamed this would be how it would be. Ever have that feeling?”
“Don’t want to be even younger?”
“Someone treat you bad?”
Maybeth didn’t answer.
Tammy said, “Okay, you a runaway?”
Tammy pulled off her blond wig to give herself some air. Her natural hair was black and short and combed tight on her skull. “I’m done for tonight. I just want to sit here and wait for the breeze to come up and the traffic to die down before I head home, or…I don’t know, my back aches. Give you another twenty if you rub it.”
They went inside and Maybeth rubbed baby oil onto Tammy’s shoulders and down to the small of her back. Tammy’s skin was pure white. She never went out into the sun.
“God, that feels good. Keep going,” she said.
Maybeth spread her hands over Tammy’s tiny butt and dug in with her thumbs, working circles into the muscles. She passed on to Tammy’s legs.
Tammy said, “I fuck all these guys and don’t ever get fucked myself. My man’s in jail. What’s your sex life like? Getting any?” Maybeth said yes. Tammy began weeping. “Goddammit, what’s wrong with me? That last guy had it right, using me to fuck himself. We all fuck ourselves in our fucked-up heads.” She pushed her face into her pillow. Maybeth looked at her close-cropped head, the tendons on the back of her neck, the muscles on her shoulders. Tammy kept burrowing into her pillow, holding it tight, trembling as she came.
They settled, and Maybeth found her way back to the café. From the café she went right, through the slough where the people she knew weren’t riding the daylight anymore, they were riding the streetlights, the headlights, the lights from the storefronts and shacks and bungalows. She gave a woman named Maude one twenty, and a girl she hadn’t seen before the other twenty, a girl whose name she didn’t know.
She crossed the bayou bridge and followed the slope up to Noble Street and its mansions and the potting shed. Crossing the patio, she saw the old man and his wife in their study, their faces being painted TV screen blue. Then she dropped onto the bed in the potting shed and pushed her face into her pillow and pretended to be asleep when Tommy came home. She wanted him to wake her up.