After her shift, Maybeth headed to the table by the window where she sat a moment looking at the people walking along the street, sometimes looking back at her, curious about what she and Betsy were doing. Betsy had the stuff out—cellphone, laptop, notepad, two sets of headsets—and a white business envelope under her pudgy fingertips.
"Look, I told you," Maybeth said.
"No, I can't take mine if you don't take yours."
"It's all yours."
"But I do. It's only $300."
"I don't want it."
"Take it, and give it to the people in Petit Pont."
"They wouldn't want it."
"Why not? It's not dirty money or something."
"Maybe not to you."
Which always caused problems—money—if the hand that gave it to you became the hand that grabbed you and wouldn't let go. She didn't want to be caught that way. Like not wanting money the day she got back to the house on Noble Street and found Mr. Parmitier firing the Mexicans for setting a ladder on his sempervivum. Those plants were called sempervivum for a reason, he was saying. Sempervivum meant live forever in Latin, and now they were mashed, the two clusters he was pointing at, getting even more upset because the Mexicans kept smiling at him, not realizing Mexicans might smile when someone was coming down on them.
"Am I amusing you? I should hope not because the consequence of your carelessness is that I don't want you here anymore. Tell your service to send me my final bill. Look at what you've done!"
The Mexicans didn't look at what they'd done. They kept smiling, but their eyes had turned to wood.
"You didn't need that ladder! You could have pushed the trellis up onto its nail with your hands," Mr. Parmitier said. "Now be on your way, gentlemen. You're done here."
Mr. Parmitier jabbed his cane toward their pickup parked in the crescent driveway behind the Parmitiers' sooty gray Volvo, which seldom moved. The older Mexican wearing the grimy Saints cap bent over to gather up his tools. The younger Mexican swung the offending ladder toward the driveway just short of hitting Mr. Parmitier with it. Maybeth tiptoed onto the flowerbed to push the trellis up so that it caught on the nail from which it had sprung loose.
"There, do you see what I mean?" Mr. Parmitier called after the Mexicans. "Even a girl could do it!"
She kneeled and began settling the pieces of the sempervivum that looked like they might take root and recover. Right away Mr. Parmitier instructed her to use more soil, and Mrs. Parmitier came out of the house to see what the fuss was about, clearing her throat and pulling her shoulders back.
"She's merely trying to help, Henry."
Mr. Parmitier pushed his flop hat back on his doughy bald head as he looked up at his taller wife, her white hair adding a few inches to the difference. "Help isn't help unless it's done the right way, Elizabeth."
That irritated Mrs. Parmitier. "What makes you think your way is always the right way?" she snapped at him.
"This has nothing to do with what I think. It has to do with natural realities. We won't save a bit of that sempervivum if we don't use enough soil."
Rather than dispute Mr. Parmitier's assertion, Mrs. Parmitier switched grounds to get control of things another way. "Have you absolutely fired those men so that yet again we have no one to do the gardening?"
"Yes, I've absolutely fired them. Firing someone generally is absolute."
"Oh, wonderful, wonderful. It will take weeks to find someone else. What are we going to do in the meantime?" Mrs. Parmitier looked at Maybeth pushing more soil around the sempervivum. "Thank you, Maybeth. Thank you so much."
"No problem, ma'am."
"You've got an instinct for that."
Mrs. Parmitier blinked and cleared her throat again. Something had occurred to her, causing her to smile. Her smile was beautiful, and she knew it. "Don't I remember that you said you would be willing to do some yard work when you and Tommy moved into the potting shed?"
Mrs. Parmitier gestured at the potting shed slumped on its weedy foundations beyond the rear patio. Like the house, its flaking white siding was rotting in places, and its double doors sagged on their hinges, one of them inset by a smaller door, the only door that had been used in a long time. A stables or carriage house might have stood on the site originally, which then was replaced by a garage, which then was converted into a potting shed and then made into a large one-room rental unit, watertight under the roof's thick, tarry shingles but poorly ventilated and smelly.
"I guess I did say that."
"I wonder, could we ask you to do some things out here, just as stopgap until we find another gardening service?"
"Of course, we'd pay you."
"You don't have to pay me, Mrs. Parmitier. I have my job at Mirrors now. We were basically broke then."
Mr. Parmitier's insistence on a month in advance, a month security deposit, and a month against damages wiped them out.
"We would have to give you something."
"No, you wouldn't."
"We could reduce your rent. How would that be?"
"Elizabeth, I could perfectly well do the gardening myself," Mr. Parmitier said.
"No, you couldn't, Henry. You haven't been able to do the gardening in years."
Mrs. Parmitier's tone was so sharp, all Mr. Parmitier could do was smile at Mrs. Parmitier exactly like a Mexican.
Mrs. Parmitier kept pushing, determined to establish the compensation Maybeth worried might be a lead-in to an ongoing arrangement. Maybeth resisted, and they were like two people struggling over a glass of water, each person insisting the other take the first drink. Finally, Mrs. Parmitier realized Maybeth would rather all the water slosh out of the glass than give in.
"All right, then, we shall be the object of your generosity, but you can depend on me finding a way to return the favor of tolerating Mr. Parmitier's hectoring until we can enlist a new gardening service." Mrs. Parmitier glared at Mr. Parmitier. "That is if anyone can be found who hasn't heard of the challenges he presents."
Maybeth nodded toward the iPhone, signaling to Betsy that a call had come in.
"Let them wait," Betsy said. "I mean, how many calls are we going to do today? Five? Ten? Doesn't that tell you something good is happening? You said it wouldn't, but it is."
"Just put your headset on, will you? I'm taking the call."
Maybeth put on her own headset. A woman who had been in shelters in Philadelphia said she had decided to move to Queens in New York where she had cousins.
Barb: All I needed was somewhere to stay until I pulled things together, but pretty soon I knew if I stayed another day, they'd pay me to leave, so I decide it's back to Philly. Then halfway to the subway, I run into this guy I know from Philly. What's he doing in Queens? He says he followed me. Used to work for a debt collector, and that's what he did, follow people. I said I didn't owe him anything. He said he just did it to see where I went when I left Philly. Gave me the willies. You know what it's like when someone hits you so hard you can't think?
Maybeth: He hit you?
Barb: I mean just shocked that way, clobbered right into your bones? Know what I mean?
Maybeth: Yeah, I know.
Barb: When did you get hit like that?
Maybeth: Never mind me. Did you have a relationship in Philly, you and this guy?
Barb: No, that's why I need your take on something.
Barb said the guy planned to go to Boston where he thought he could find a person Barb knew. She asked what Maybeth would say about her going with him to Boston.
Maybeth: What else would that involve?
Barb: Well, he knew I liked the guy he'd be looking for.
Maybeth: What if you didn't find him?
Barb: Then I don't know. Do I risk it?
Maybeth: You must have been listening before or you wouldn't have called, right?
Barb: Yeah, sure.
Maybeth: Then you know I think what you think. It's your life.
Barb: Okay, what am I thinking?
Maybeth: You're going to Boston.
Another call had gone on the queue while Maybeth was talking to Barb. Maybeth went right to it.
Gracie: So, okay, here's what I've been wondering. You ever had a pet?
Maybeth: On the street?
Gracie: When you were a runaway in LA.
Maybeth: We're talking about you, not me. Do you have a pet?
Gracie: Tergy. He's a dog.
Maybeth: What kind of a name is Tergy?
Gracie: Some word has something to do with your back. That's what I see of him most of the time, his back, always out ahead of me.
Maybeth: Is he long?
Gracie: Long but short legs.
Maybeth: Where are you and Tergy?
Gracie: A vegetable stand north of Tulsa that's kind of nobody's anymore.
Maybeth: You living there?
Gracie: Seems like it.
Maybeth: How do you get by?
Gracie: Farmers drop stuff off for us to sell, and I, you know, give them a little bit of something for it. That gets me some extra money, plus I have a tin roof overhead and our little room built out of crates for privacy. Is anyone listening to us, you and me?
Maybeth: Just Betsy taping us. Nothing goes on the podcast until after she's done editing. All I do are the calls.
Gracie: She there?
Maybeth: She's here.
Gracie: You sitting by the window at Mirrors like the picture on the website?
Maybeth: That's us.
Gracie: I'm in a coffee house, too. Every afternoon me and Tergy head down here to the Open Eye. They've got biscuits for him. You have dog biscuits at Mirrors?
Maybeth: No, but we should. That's a good idea.
Gracie: Yeah, you should, the dogs deserve it, but I like all those mirrors on the walls. Very New Orleans, hunh?
Maybeth: Sort of what they sell for New Orleans. Isn't it cold in winter in that stand?
Gracie: I build a fire and hug Tergy from my belly straight up between my breasts. He's perfect for that.
Maybeth: So, you've got the cold beat.
Gracie: Most of the time, but have you heard about the dust?
Maybeth: What dust?
Gracie: Same dust that drove everyone to California a hundred years ago. It's back.
Maybeth: Why, climate change?
Gracie: Don't mention climate change in Tulsa. This is oil and gas country.
Maybeth: I didn't know that.
Gracie: They couldn't care less about climate change. Some mornings I wake up half-buried in it.
Maybeth: How old are you, Gracie? Betsy wants me to ask.
Gracie: Why's that?
Maybeth: It's part of her project.
Maybeth: How long have you been on the street? She wants to know that, too.
Gracie: Lost my house I was thirty-eight.
Maybeth: Anything else you want to say?
Gracie: Just I want you to let me know if you play this so I can listen. Will you do that?
Maybeth: Betsy lets people know beforehand. That's one of her jobs. Like I said, mine is just doing the calls.
Gracie: That's all?
Maybeth: Yeah, Betsy does the real work, not me.
Which was what Maybeth agreed to when she said she would help Betsy with her master's project, although she rejected it the first time Betsy brought it up... and the second time, too.
"What kind of a podcast?"
"A podcast for homeless people," Betsy said. "You take the calls, and I produce them into segments and put them online. That's quintessential applied social communication, and how I'll finally get my master's."
"Homeless people here in New Orleans?"
"They call up, and I talk to them?"
"That's it, and I produce and promote it."
"Was it boring when you talked with that guy this morning?"
"What guy this morning?"
"The guy in the checked shirt. What did he say?"
"He told me it already was too late for coffee, but he'd drink it because he never has any money for coffee when he really wants it."
"Is that all you talked about?'
"Said he doesn't like New Orleans. Wants to live on the beach in Florida."
"Why doesn't he go to Florida then?"
"Because he's getting treatment for Hep B at a free clinic here and maybe there wouldn't be any free clinic in Florida."
"Is he optimistic he'll be okay long-term?"
"How optimistic can you be when you drink coffee when you don't want it and wish you were somewhere else?"
"So, to me, anyway, it sounds like maybe he really wasn't after free coffee. Maybe he figured you might come out and talk with him because you'll do that do if you're not busy. What he really wanted was to have someone listen to him. A podcast could do that for homeless people everywhere. They'd be heard."
She told Betsy it probably would be better if they weren't heard, and she sure wouldn't call into a podcast and tell her story to the entire world.
Betsy's face settled into the heavy, stubborn Anglo-Samoan expression she inherited from her mother—the Samoan—along with her mother's dusky skin and stout body. "I'm serious about this, Maybeth. I need that degree so I can get on with my life."
"Yeah, but people on the street don't need a degree to get on with their life. They wake up and there it is."
"Exactly—there what is? Their stories, right? Which they bring to you because you listen to them empathetically; you've been where they are, and they know it. Which would mean that to them they wouldn't be talking to the entire world. They'd be talking to you: Maybeth on the podcast for the homeless."
"I don't want to be Maybeth on a podcast."
"It doesn't appeal to you at all?"
"No, sorry, it just sounds incredibly boring."
After their shift the following day, Betsy said she'd walk Maybeth home.
"I mean, we really don't know each other outside this place."
Maybeth looked at Mirrors' mismatched assortment of marble-topped tables, the equally mismatched tarnished mirrors on the walls, the slow-turning fans with their dragonfly wings, and the people buzzing at each other or absorbed in working on their laptops or cells. She'd never sat down at one of those tables herself, only cleared and wiped them.
"It's not a bad place to know each other." Surprising herself, she added, "I like it here."
She dialed down her endorsement. "Sort of, I guess."
Betsy returned to her proposal: "What about me coming along with you?"
"Kind of out of your way."
"I've got time. No master's project, right?"
"Maybe to Petit Pont, but I've got something I have to do when I get back to Noble Street."
"Trim some bushes for my landlords."
"You're working in their yard for them?"
"Just until they get a new service."
"How much do they pay you?"
"Nothing. If I took pay, they'd think they owned me. But I still have to go to dinner with them."
"Since when have you been eating at their house?"
"Not since anytime. We're going the first time Friday night. I hope it's the last time."
Food was Mrs. Parmitier's solution to Maybeth not accepting money. She had come outside the day after the Mexicans were fired, carrying a glass of lemonade and a plate of chocolate chip cookies, and inserted herself between Maybeth and Mr. Parmitier, who was emphasizing the importance of super-sharp pruning shears so as not to damage the plant's flesh. Mrs. Parmitier told him to hush, the shears Maybeth had brought out were quite sharp enough. Rather than pester her, she said, they should be thanking her, which she would like to do by inviting her and Tommy to supper on Friday evening.
"What if I went along and helped you with the bushes?" Betsy asked.
"If you came, Mrs. Parmitier would get us up on one of the side porches for a tea party. The old man would have a fit we weren't working."
The broad avenue they followed sloped gradually until it narrowed and bottomed out in Petit Pont, several blocks of sagging houses, moldering apartment buildings, and cinderblock storefronts bisected by a creek that repeatedly backed-up, casting mud shadows on the closest edifices' foundations. A woman named Rae was on a bench with a teenager named Jermaine. A man named Lock had his right foot on the sidewalk and the sole of his left foot pressed back against the Western Union façade. As another man named Terrance glanced at Maybeth, Betsy could see that he invisibly was saying hello and Maybeth invisibly was saying hello back.
"You really know these people," Betsy said.
They were approaching the short, rattling bridge for which Petit Pont was named.
"Sort of like I know you, maybe."
"I see them every day, coming and going."
"You see me all day long. It feels like here is where you come from."
"Nowhere near here."
They reached the bridge. Betsy stopped. Maybeth sensed something was coming.
"Want to go out Saturday night?" Betsy asked.
"We don't go out, really."
"What do you do?"
"Hang out, the two of us. Maybe have pizza."
"What if I came over and brought some wine?"
Maybeth objected, suspicious that Betsy remained determined to push her podcast project. "Look, we don't really have visitors. Our place is just an old potting shed converted from a garage so it's like a one room cottage. We don't even have a separate bathroom. The toilet just sits there."
"I don't care."
"Would you bring someone?"
"No, all my grad school classmates have moved on, which is one big reason Saturday nights suck."
Maybeth felt she had to say okay, but she pointed out there might not be much of her and Tommy left after dinner with their landlords Friday night.
"What are they like?"
"Old people who were lawyers. He starts fights, and she finishes them."
"Sound like lawyers."
"Tommy wants to be a lawyer."
"Is he that way?"
"No, like the opposite, which means it's like the worst idea he's ever had."
Maybeth and Tommy thought dinner would be in the four seasons room across the back patio where the Parmitiers normally ate in front of the television. But they knocked on the four seasons room's patio door, and a tall black woman, whom they'd never seen before, came out and told them to go around front, where the same black woman opened the door and said, "That's right." She ushered them inside with a little smile that seemed to indicate they were the last people in New Orleans you would expect to be so favored.
The Parmitiers' house had high ceilings, threadbare Oriental rugs, and heavy furniture in the front rooms and a three-tiered chandelier in the dining room. For the first course, they had gazpacho. For the second course, they had salmon, rice, and green beans. For dessert, they had crème brûlée. The tall woman, whose name was Julie, brought everything in from the kitchen and cleared the table as the courses progressed. She also freshened the heavy crystal water glasses and swept crumbs off the tablecloth with a little silver-handled whisk broom into a little silver dustpan with a lid that snapped shut like a bullfrog's mouth.
Mr. Parmitier sat at one end of the table in a wheat-colored linen suit, white shirt, and monarch butterfly bowtie. Mrs. Parmitier sat at the other end wearing a lavender silk dress, a pearl necklace, and pearl earrings. Tommy and Maybeth, sitting across from one another at the middle of the table, didn't have any way to be dressed right, provoking Mr. Parmitier to observe they were wearing exactly what people their age in New Orleans favored as haute couture: running shoes, sandals, jeans, and a rainbow's worth of colorful blouses and shirts. Mrs. Parmitier didn't like him saying that; she suggested he let her preside as hostess since she had extended the evening's invitation in large measure to compensate for his difficult temperament, leading to the dispatch of the Mexican gardeners, to which Mr. Parmitier responded that temperaments were innate, not a damn thing anyone could change.
"I've been the way I am since I arrived in this house, stark naked and squalling."
"You were born here?" Tommy asked.
"My mother went into labor so quickly, my father couldn't get her upstairs into bed, and there I emerged." Mr. Parmitier twisted in his chair to indicate he was delivered on a rug in the front parlor. "We Parmitiers are now in this house for 92 years. My brother died in Vietnam, given which my parents were spared sending me to a similar fate, so here I have remained, initially the second Parmitier of Parmitier & Parmitier before my father died, and then the first after Mrs. Parmitier joined me. Parmitier is a French-Norman name, if you're curious," he added.
Maybeth could see that Tommy liked Mr. Parmitier croaking on this way. Unlike her, he wasn't embarrassed to be dressed the wrong way. He thought this dinner could be fun.
"Were you born in New Orleans, too?" he asked Mrs. Parmitier.
"I was born in Maine," Mrs. Parmitier said, "but I came here for law school, where I met Mr. Parmitier teaching his famous course in corporate law, although I wasn't interested in corporate law or Mr. Parmitier at first, either." She smiled, displaying her long beautiful teeth. "I was interested in criminal law." She glanced at Mr. Parmitier as if to remind him of that fact. "And even after Mr. Parmitier drowned me in white collar defense cases, I did a great deal of pro bono work on behalf of people lacking the resources for anything but the least qualified public defenders." Mrs. Parmitier paused while Julie retrieved the dinner plates and distributed little bowls of créme brûlèe. When Julie disappeared through the swinging door into the kitchen, she said, "For example, I did my best to defend Julie's father, Lock, against the impossible charge that he participated in a melee in New Orleans—impossible because at the time of the melee he was visiting his grandmother in St. Bernard's Parish."
"So you won his case?" Tommy asked.
"No, she didn't," Mr. Parmitier said.
Mrs. Parmitier stoned Mr. Parmitier with her faded blue eyes.
"Because there was some part of the law down here—it's different, isn't it?—that worked against him?" Tommy asked.
"No, because there is a tendency in Louisiana to convict suspects in whom the authorities have already invested quite a bit of money by housing them in overcrowded cells prior to their trials," Mrs. Parmitier said.
"They are parsimonious that way," Mr. Parmitier said, "which is a very good reason not to represent indigents in the first place."
When Tommy mentioned his plans to become a lawyer—in fact, he likely would get into public defender work himself—after he finished his degree at the University of New Orleans, Mrs. Parmitier asked why he hadn't chosen Tulane.
"Tulane didn't want me."
"And the University of New Orleans did?"
"UNO gave me a full scholarship and a campus job."
Mr. Parmitier seemed very surprised. "Why did they give you a scholarship?"
Maybeth had to say something she knew Tommy wouldn't. "Because they gave him an entrance exam and he got everything right."
"All the questions?" Mr. Parmitier asked.
"All of them. He's really smart."
Mrs. Parmitier asked, "Where did you get your high school education, Tommy?"
Tommy said he got his GED online because he didn't graduate from high school.
"And how did you do that?" Mr. Parmitier asked.
"He reads everything he can get his hands on. He reads directions on paint cans, he reads online, he reads books. We got through last winter in Minnesota in the public library. All he did was read."
"And what did you do, Maybeth?" Mr. Parmitier asked.
Maybeth said she read, too. There wasn't anything else to do. "But it was warm inside, so it wasn't so bad."
She knew she was being difficult, keeping her expression neutral, showing no interest in the food. The Parmitiers began to ignore her, focusing on Tommy. Why would he choose public defender work?
"People need legal assistance, don't they? It's like you say, not a very nice country for a lot of people."
"The United States, you mean?" Mr. Parmitier asked.
"And you would strive to correct that?"
"Henry, why wouldn't he strive to correct that if it's what he believes?"
"Because he'll never make a living chasing windmills."
"Or go broke 'making money'?" Mrs. Parmitier asked.
"Elizabeth," Mr. Parmitier said. Just her name. "Really?"
Mrs. Parmitier smiled at him and then spoke to Tommy. "I don't want to give you a misimpression. We closed Parmitier & Parmitier a long time ago. It wasn't a big firm, although some of our clients were."
"Because we were good," Mr. Parmitier said. "Because we knew the biases and precedents in this city."
"Oh, yes," Mrs. Parmitier said. "And we learned quite a bit more along the way."
Maybeth asked if she could excuse herself for a moment. Mrs. Parmitier told her how to find the bathroom while Mr. Parmitier returned to deprecating pro bono defense work. She walked through the room where Mr. Parmitier was born and down a hallway past a study that had been converted to a bedroom. Its associated bathroom had a raised toilet seat, sort of a foam horse collar, and dozens of prescription bottles on the sink, shelves, and windowsills. Some looked like they had been there for years. When she was finished, she walked farther down the hallway to a back entrance to the kitchen where Julie was brewing coffee that smelled like Minnesota: birches and leather, an unexpected smell that startled her.
"The dining room is the other way," Julie said. She pointed to the hallway behind Maybeth. "Not through here."
"I just wanted to say I think I know your father."
Julie was tall like her father and had the same large brown eyes, reassuring Maybeth she was right, but unlike her father, she was well-dressed. She wore a blue dress, not a maid's uniform. "How would that be?"
"I see him in front of the Western Union in Petit Pont."
"Do you live down there, too?"
That little smile, secretive and perhaps annoyed, crossed Julie's face like a slowly drifting cloud. "Are you suggesting he actually lives somewhere down there?"
"I mean that he has a regular place to go to sleep, wake up, and store his things?"
"I don't know where he sleeps, ma'am."
Julie's skin was the same color as the coffee trickling into the glass carafe. Her father's was darker. "I wish he would come live with me, but he won't. So, you see him or actually know him?"
When Maybeth passed Lock standing in front of the Western Union, she sometimes gave him money she'd made doing odd job, pick-up work after finishing her shift at Mirrors. Money that came from people she'd probably never see again, that she didn't need like people in Petit Pont needed it. She could see he was angry and didn't want him being angry at her. Even so, he didn't say much except thank you, sometimes not even that. Sometimes he just took a five dollar bill and stuffed it into his pocket without looking at it, none of the things other people would say, blessing her or telling her she was an angel, so she didn't know he was named Lock because he told her. She knew it from others. People said you could look at Lock's face like you'd look at a thermometer and tell how hot it was, the shinier, the hotter. But she didn't want to say she sometimes gave him money and embarrass Julie.
"I walk through Petit Pont going back and forth to my job at Mirrors, so I see everything going on down there."
"Does that imply there is a lot going on in Petit Pont?"
"Well, no, not much, I guess."
"Yes, I guess you are right." Julie wasn't smiling anymore. She was studying Maybeth, maybe wondering if she was a good or a nasty girl, taking the time to bring up the subject of her homeless father. "I hear everything you all say in there, did you know that?" she said, gesturing toward the swinging door that led to the dining room.
"No, I didn't."
"Why does my father even need to be discussed?"
"I don't know."
"Oh, yes, Mrs. Parmitier tried to get him off, but they said his grandmother would be prejudiced enough to lie that he was with her when he wasn't. What grandmother wouldn't? That was the prosecutor's point. And the woman was old and feeble. How would she even know if he was in her house or not? So that discredited his alibi. He was convicted while the actual man who did it got off scot free."
"Ma'am, I don't even know what he was supposed to be guilty of."
"Accessory to manslaughter."
"If he was accessory, he had to be accessory to someone, didn't he? That's not fair."
"No, it is not."
"But you work for Mrs. Parmitier sometimes?"
Julie chuckled bitterly and ended their conversation. "Do I? Honey, that's a long story, and old Mr. P will bang his cane on the table leg if I don't get this coffee served."
After Maybeth returned to her seat at the table, Julie came in and served demitasse cups of coffee without looking at her directly. They might never have spoken. Mrs. Parmitier was telling Tommy he might want to consider Tulane law school when the time came. If he could get in, Tommy said. It was their alma mater, Mrs. Parmitier said, hers and Mr. Parmitier's, too. They certainly would be glad to help when the time came.
"If we maintained an ounce of influence these several decades into our senescence," Mr. Parmitier said.
"You might not retain any influence, but I wonder why their judgment of me would be equally unfavorable," Mrs. Parmitier said.
"Oh, I'm sure they think you're wonderful, as do I," Mr. Parmitier said.
While Mrs. Parmitier and Tommy kept on about law school, Mr. Parmitier began telling Maybeth he been considering a mix of pansies and petunias for the sunny patch by the front door that had been left unplanted for too long. He said they were ignoble flowers in the true sense of the word, but pretty nonetheless, didn't she agree? She did agree they were pretty, but she asked how a flower could be ignoble. Mr. Parmitier said perhaps he only meant common, not ignoble, and seemed by his fixed gaze also to be referring to her.
They moved to the front parlor, where Julie served them small glasses of brandy. For his part, Mr. Parmitier was tapping a spot on the rug with the rubber tip of his cane, the very spot, he was saying. For her part, Mrs. Parmitier was telling Tommy they lived exclusively on the first floor, given Mr. Parmitier's limitations, and as a consequence the three bedrooms on the second floor hadn't been occupied in years despite being so much more suitable for tenants than the potting shed, which had been Mr. Parmitier's idea to plumb and rent, not hers. She would rather have a nice couple upstairs.
"Mr. Parmitier can't go up there anymore, and why would I? Our only connection is that the second floor creaks when there's a wind. That's his mother, he'll say, when he hears one particularly sharp creak, and when there's another creak—perhaps the windows humming—he'll say oh, it's his brother arguing with his father because he refused to follow him into law. They argued about that until the day he went to Vietnam." Mrs. Parmitier was speaking as though she wanted to make what she was saying funny, but it wasn't funny, and her eyes with their sagging red rims confessed she knew it. She didn't have the energy to be funny. She was tired and edged more directly into the point she wanted to make: "If someone truly alive lived up there, at least I could say, 'Henry, it's not your father and mother and brother.' I wonder if you would like to go up and have a look."
Maybeth had no interest in the big house's second floor. "No thanks, ma'am. We like the potting shed."
"But you don't even have a proper bathroom for personal privacy."
"That's all right. We're good there."
Mr. Parmitier was glaring at his wife. "Elizabeth, pardon me, but this is not a rooming house. This is my home."
Mrs. Parmitier smiled without showing her teeth. "I hardly see that someone upstairs would make this less your home, Henry. 901 Noble Street is ineradicably your home."
Tommy tried to mediate, his natural instinct. He didn't like arguing. If he did, he might never have run away from home. "I guess the rent would be very high, wouldn't it?"
"Very high. Exorbitant," Mr. Parmitier said.
"Not necessarily," Mrs. Parmitier said. "There could be arrangements." Mrs. Parmitier reached for the brandy decanter Julie had left on the table beside her. After fortifying herself with a sip, she said, "My point is that we're quite alone in this house, and we're quite old." Her voice was cold, inflectionless. "Mr. Parmitier is 88. I am 77. We have no children. My sister and brother live in Maine. Of course, Julie is so nice to help us when we entertain, but she has her own full-time job as a surgical scheduler at St. Mary's, and it's the same inside the house as outside. Whomever we engage to clean runs afoul of Mr. Parmitier's high standards and opinions."
"What is the point of standards and opinions if they're not exigent?" Mr. Parmitier protested.
"To the point where they are impossible to meet?" Mrs. Parmitier countered.
They stared at one another until Mrs. Parmitier won—she almost seemed to frighten him.
"All I want to say," she said to Tommy, "is that Maybeth has been so helpful in the garden. We are very grateful for it."
Tommy said Maybeth should be thanked, not him. Maybeth didn't say anything because she wondered if Mrs. Parmitier was leading up to asking her to clean the house as an "arrangement" that would keep the rent for the second floor less than exorbitant. All she wanted was to get out of the Parmitier's house.
But the next morning, early, there was a knock on the potting shed door. Tommy pulled on his jeans and shirt and sandals to step outside. Mrs. Parmitier wanted to know if they would like to join her for coffee and beignets and perhaps go up to the second floor and have a look.
Through the screen door, Maybeth heard Tommy tell Mrs. Parmitier that she was still sleeping. Mrs. Parmitier asked Tommy if he wouldn't like to come in by himself. He wasn't back for an hour.
"She had the black woman back again—"
"—fixing those whatever-you-call-them pastries."
"All of a sudden she's around. I never saw her here before."
"Me, neither. So, we had those things and coffee, and Mr. Parmitier kept reading his newspaper while Mrs. Parmitier did all the talking. She was back on defending poor people. I guess I like her."
"I don't know which one I don't like more."
Then Mrs. Parmitier took him upstairs to show him the second floor while Mr. Parmitier kept calling up to them about what was taking so long. Mrs. Parmitier told Tommy not to worry, Mr. Parmitier couldn't get up the stairs if he were shot out of a cannon.
"She said that?"
"Yep. The bedrooms up there were nice, and there's like a sort of open sitting room at the front of the house."
"Obviously, she wants us to live there, but she wants us to ask first."
"Are you kidding? I like it when it's just the two of us here, and they didn't pay any attention."
"And no one gets in between."
Tommy said he kept telling Mrs. Parmitier they were fine where they were. What would they do with all this space? He didn't spend that much time in the potting shed anyway. Mrs. Parmitier said she gathered Maybeth didn't either.
"Like after your shift sometimes you don't get back almost until I do."
"Where's she get that?"
"I guess she watches. I thought you got back sooner."
"I do get back sooner. I'm doing this garden stuff unless I go for a walk or something."
"Until then like what, eight, nine?"
"How do I know when you'll be here?"
"Where do you go?"
"Where am I supposed to go?"
"Ever meet anyone?"
"On the street?"
"In Petit Pont I know Julie's father and some others because they see me all the time going back and forth. That's what I told Julie in the kitchen. Other places it's the way it always is. No one I know, but things happen sometimes. I walked a dog. The lady gave me $10. I changed another woman's tire. She gave me $20."
"Yeah, I remember you said."
"Just stuff like what we did in LA. I helped wash some windows. I pushed an old guy's grocery cart home from the store."
"I liked doing things like that."
"Just stand there after you help out and they pay you something, or if they don't, so what? We don't even need it—I've got a job—so I give it away coming back through Petit Pont. You can't really get here from anywhere if you don't go through Petit Pont."
"Nothing you go back to?"
"Well, yeah. One."
"What's her name?"
"Tammy. The first time she wanted to know if I was butting in. I said no, thanks, and she offered me $20 a hit if I'd keep an eye on things in her bedroom from out on her little balcony in case things went south."
"You never said about that."
"Who's going to say that?"
"You could say anything."
"I'm not going to say anything."
"I know." Tommy paused to reflect on that fact. There were many things Maybeth didn't say and always had been. "Do you watch?"
"Sometimes, but a lot of them are just regulars. They fuck her or whatever and leave. I think she just wants someone to talk to afterwards. She comes out to the balcony and gives me her theory."
"What's her theory?"
Tammy's theory was that people on top owned New Orleans in a rich, fat way and people on the bottom owned it, too, in a poor, miserable way. That left people in the middle who didn't own New Orleans. They weren't just tourists. Some of them came to stay like Tammy, her toes never touching bottom, her head never reaching the top. She called that her New Orleans drowning scenario, somewhere between the mud and the sky where you couldn't breathe but you didn't die, just kept drowning because New Orleans wasn't a place, it was an illusion the people in the middle kept paying for but couldn't own.
"Which means, according to her theory, we're people in the middle," Maybeth said.
"No, we aren't. I'm in college."
"Yeah, we are. Lots of days I feel like I'm drowning, too. I'll walk, and I'll look down, and it's like I can't see my feet. Then I look up and I can't see the sky. I'm asphyxiating in between."
"Like, you hate it here?"
"I wouldn't stay and end up like Tammy."
"Why haven't you said?"
"Because you. It's your dream. College for free."
"You'd never end up like Tammy."
"I'm already half like that."
"No, you're not."
"I've been like that."
"No, you haven't."
"The way I think is. If I got a boob job, I'd look like Tammy, too."
"If you wanted to, you could do college."
"Not maybe, you could."
"If I could, I could, but what I'm really good at is taking off."
"If you ever took off, then fuck college, I'd go with you."
"I'm not taking off. What's going to be better somewhere else? It's sure not going to be better in that big house of hers."
"She can't make us move in there."
"She can get us out of here if she wants to."
"If she does and we have to go, we're going together. I love you."
"That doesn't mean you have to give up your life for me."
"And you love me, too."
"Look, I'm not going anywhere. I can run away staying right here."
Tommy clasped his hands on the back of his head and looked up at the ceiling. "I don't even know if we can do that. She said the kind of person who ought to live in a potting shed would be someone like Julie's father. What she wants is him here and us up there."
"You definitely wouldn't want to live up there?"
"I guess we could pay more if you kept some of the money you're picking up."
"I couldn't walk through Petit Pont knowing I had nice rooms in a big house, and they didn't have anything. I can't even do it knowing we have this crappy potting shed."
"But you like the shed."
"I didn't say I didn't like it. I said it's crappy, and it is."
Tommy had to study for the rest of the day before Betsy came over, so Maybeth decided to work behind the potting shed on a piece of the property overgrown with weeds and vines that were choking some blueberry bushes, fig trees, and what Mr. Parmitier told her were Japanese plum trees. He heard her back there and wobbled to a spot where he could "inform" her about these things, his high-pitched voice rising and falling, cicada-like. This portion of the property once had been a fruit tree grove, he said. When he and his brother were boys, one of their duties was to harvest berries, figs, and plums. They then would deposit some of their harvest in the kitchen and march up and down Noble Street selling the excess to their neighbors. His father advised them to keep their earnings in two cigar boxes he gave them. He liked to say that in contrast to agricultural goods, pure wealth grows best when it is never harvested. Time is wealth's rain. Time makes wealth grow. Wealth unplucked grows forever.
Maybeth didn't mind listening, but eventually, she had torn and cut so much off the trees and bushes that she had to interrupt him.
"What should I do with all this? Burn it?"
"Good Lord, no. Take it to the curb in front of the house where it will be picked up."
She grabbed up an armful of clippings. Mr. Parmitier wobbled after her and said what he really come to say.
"Maybeth, you are working too hard not to be paid for your labor."
"I told you I don't want to be paid."
"But if you're not paid, Mrs. Parmitier seems determined to bring you into our house, and I don't want that. Please don't try to make more of what you are doing than is warranted."
"I'm not trying to do anything, Mr. Parmitier. Just helping."
"Not currying favor with my wife with ulterior motives?"
"I don't have any ulterior motives. Anyway, I'm done doing things today."
What about the remainder of the fruit grove that wasn't yet dealt with? Mr. Parmitier asked. Maybeth said she might get to that some other time. When? Mr. Parmitier asked. Not now, she said.
Betsy sat cross-legged on the floor and opened the bottles of wine she'd brought along, one white and one red, as she looked around at the potting shed's unpanelled walls, old tools hanging on nails, bruised concrete floor, short kitchen counter, small red refrigerator, shower stall created by a single plastic curtain surrounding the shower head above and the drain hole below, toilet exposed along the back wall, and queen-sized bed mounted on plywood and cinderblocks. She said she loved the place. It was so real, one big, raw room. Yeah, raw, Tommy said, and began telling her how they had ended up there, relating things Maybeth had never told her about them before they came to New Orleans. Betsy interrupted him several times to make sure she was getting it all straight.
"So you were in LA, and they sent you back to St. Paul and St. Louis, where you came from?"
"Me to St. Louis, Maybeth to St. Paul."
"And you ran away from St. Louis again and met up with her there?"
Tommy said it probably was the biggest thing he'd ever done, bigger than running away from St. Louis to LA in the first place."
"How did you meet in LA?"
Maybeth wondered what Betsy was getting from all these questions. "What's it matter?"
"Under a bridge, we met under a bridge," Tommy said.
"Yeah, I was coming up the river channel, and there's Maybeth, and she tells me she's what, nineteen?" He looked at Maybeth. "When she wasn't. She was seventeen, same as me."
"Why'd you lie about that?" Betsy asked.
"She was trying to impress me," Tommy said.
"What were you doing under the bridge when Tommy came along?"
"I was being hungry and listening to the traffic overhead."
"And I had money, and she wanted a hamburger," Tommy said.
Maybeth had had enough of this, Betsy smiling nonstop at Tommy, goofing on how crazy it was, two kids loose on the streets. "So I offered to give him a blow job if he'd buy me one."
"You did not," Betsy said, unwilling to believe her.
"Yes, I did. But he wouldn't let me. He said he'd buy me a hamburger without it."
This wasn't the sort of thing Betsy would say, much less do. "Why didn't you just ask him to give you some money?"
"Because I didn't want him coming after me to get it back."
"That's what, a street code or something?"
"Basically. Whatever I take, you're on my case until you take something back."
Tommy tried to make it funny. "I did get the blow job eventually." He drank some wine and rolled his eyes, embarrassed, and said judging by the way Maybeth was looking at him, he was talking too much and asked Betsy about herself.
"It feels like all I've ever done except go to school is work at Mirrors," she said. "Now I need to do some project to get my master's, or I'll work at Mirrors for the rest of my life."
"No, I meant where are you from," Tommy said.
"I'm a fugitive from Indiana."
"Going back there after you do get your degree?"
"Would a snowman buy a house in hell?"
Tommy and Maybeth laughed. That eased the way for Betsy to spin out her podcast for the homeless idea, saying it was the latest thing she'd thought of.
"But I don't think Maybeth is up for it," she said, as if she was all right with that.
"Not really," Maybeth said.
"How come?" Tommy asked Maybeth.
Maybeth was drinking the red wine out of a Mirrors coffee cup, slouching in one of the plastic beach chairs. "Who would call up and talk to me?"
"I told her people on the street talk to her all the time," Betsy said to Tommy. "It happens every day. Like they know her, they've known her for years."
"She's always been that way," Tommy said. "People look at her, and they know."
"What do they know?" Betsy asked.
"They know she knows them, like you said."
"I'm not a stranger when I'm looking right at them," Maybeth said.
Betsy had already thought of this. "I'd put your picture on the website so you wouldn't be a stranger."
"I don't want my picture on any website."
"How would you pay for it?" Tommy asked.
Betsy said she could get a research grant from her department and maybe raise money with donations and crowd funding.
"It's not like no one is out there. They estimate that 50 percent of homeless people have smart phones. That's a quarter of a million potential listeners. It's a huge issue."
"It's not huge issue when you're on the street. All it is is your issue," Maybeth said.
Betsy had a knack, maybe it was how graduate students got by, of agreeing with things she'd never thought of. She said she liked the way Maybeth put that: all it is, is your issue. It captured how alone you must feel when you were homeless, and everything that happened to you depended on you.
"But okay, if we fail, I'll analyze the failure for my thesis paper. Make sense?"
"Not really. People on the street already know all about failure."
"Told you she wasn't interested," Betsy said to Tommy.
Betsy smiled in that pressed-lip way of hers, stalled but not defeated. She said she had to pee and looked at them as if waiting for them to step out of the potting shed so she wouldn't have to sit on the toilet in front of them. They didn't move. "Come on, guys, I haven't used a toilet with anyone watching me since I was potty trained. Am I supposed to use the bushes?"
"If you'd been on the street, you'd have done worse," Maybeth said. "I have to go next."
"Then me," Tommy said.
Betsy got up without using her hands, pushed straight off the floor with the strength of her thick legs and went over to the toilet and sat down on it and peed in a loud, fast rush. When she finished and stood up, she hesitated a moment before yanking at her panties, letting them see her crotch. So there, I could handle the street, too, she was saying. Maybeth went over to the toilet, and after she peed didn't make any effort to hide herself, either. Tommy stood with his back turned, talking to them over his shoulder, stuffing his prick back into his pants with a little backward cock of his hips that told Maybeth he was hard. That didn't surprise her. He got hard easy, especially when he drank wine, but it did surprise her that he went back to the podcast idea.
"It could work. People might want to have their say like everyone else. Why not let Betsy put it out there and see?"
Maybeth asked how could she when she wasn't even on the street anymore?
"But you're still in touch with the street," Betsy said. "Think about all the people you know in Petit Pont. The thing is you care."
Maybeth said if she cared about people on the street, the last thing she'd do would be to let them make idiots of themselves on the Internet.
"Maybe it's time I go," Betsy said, getting back up in that way of hers, her crossed legs scissoring upwards.
"No, stay if you want. I'll take a walk," Maybeth said.
"Come on," Tommy said. "We're just talking."
"Just talking is a waste of time."
Betsy left before things got worse. Maybeth and Tommy kept at it.
"She likes you," he said. "Don't you see that? People always do."
"Getting her degree is what she likes, but that doesn't make me like her idea."
"You've still got to work with her whether you help her or not, so be nice, hunh?"
"Oh, be nice, be nice," Maybeth said. "Be nice to the Parmitiers, be nice to their maid, be nice to Betsy."
"And to me," Tommy said.
"Yeah, you," Maybeth said.
She curled a finger at him, insisting he come to her, not the other way around.
The next day at Mirrors, Maybeth apologized for being rough without saying she'd give the podcast idea a try. She blamed her bad mood on the Parmitiers: Mrs. Parmitier wanting them to move into the house, Mr. Parmitier wanting them to vanish. Betsy said no apology was necessary. After that they avoided the subject, although Betsy began looking at the street people on the other side of the window as if she wished she could be the one to take them a free cup of coffee and talk to them, but she knew Maybeth was the person they wanted to talk to, not her. And it went like that, Betsy thinking but not saying anything, Maybeth the same, making and serving coffee, cleaning things up, dealing with customers hurrying in on the way work, some hanging around or showing up through lunchtime, and then lots of them returning from two on, needing caffeine. The same routine, day after day.
Then one afternoon Maybeth came straight back to Noble Street, thinking she would do something in the garden, and found Lock pushing a reel mower across the grass. He gave her a slight nod before turning his large sad brown eyes back to the grass he was cutting, the hand-pushed mower's blades sounding surf-like, lapping up onto the sand and receding, lapping up and receding.
Mrs. Parmitier came out of the four seasons room when she saw Maybeth crossing the back patio. She'd been waiting for her and spoke as if they were friends in cahoots.
"Mr. Parmitier isn't feeling well today, so I seized the opportunity while he's laid up in bed to take the garden in hand and hire Julie's father for it."
"Yes, ma'am. I see Lock in Petit Pont."
Mrs. Parmitier raised her eyebrows, surprised that Maybeth was somehow ahead of her and determined to catch up. "Oh, you do?"
"Do you know why he is called Lock?"
"It's because I told him that winning the case that sent him to prison was a lock. His proper name is Gregorius." Mrs. Parmitier studied Maybeth's face with her faded blue eyes to monitor her reaction. When Maybeth resisted reacting, Mrs. Parmitier went on: "We'll see how long this lasts, but at least while Mr. Parmitier lies in his bed. Julie has been desperate, and Gregorius will work for me."
"Even though you lost his case?"
Mrs. Parmitier didn't like Maybeth asking her that. "The things I have done for him and his family since then put me in my rights to keep trying to help, don't you see?"
Maybeth didn't see. Why did Mrs. Parmitier make it sound as if her gifts were debts? "Do you want me to give Gregorius a hand?"
Mrs. Parmitier said she thought not. Gregorius had to stand up tall to the task. That was important. So Maybeth wouldn't have to work in the garden anymore. Not at all. Mrs. Parmitier said this with the air of someone who had won a game she was playing with herself.
The day after that Maybeth told Betsy she'd give the podcast idea a try on one condition: no getting into anything about her.
Betsy objected. They needed to be able to promote the podcast and establish their credentials.
Maybeth didn't see that she had any. "What credentials?"
"At least we've got to tell people you were homeless once," Betsy said.
"By the sound of your voice?"
"What's so different about the sound of your voice?"
"I probably wouldn't sound as if I hated or pitied them."
"Is that the secret?"
"It's not a secret. Just nothing about me."
Betsy stuck to her position. "What if we just opened with, 'Hi, I'm Maybeth. I was homeless, too, but this podcast is about you. Call and tell me your stories.' We don't even have to use your last name. All you'd be is Maybeth."
The simplicity of this proposal surprised Maybeth. "Maybe."
"But if we're going to be partners, what about telling me about yourself beyond what Tommy said the other night?"
"Like why did you run away from home when you were thirteen?"
"What difference does that make? I said nothing about me."
Betsy said there would be a thousand decisions she'd have to make. "And I could step on a landmine working with you if even I don't know why you ran away."
In LA she had been asked about running away a hundred times. At first, she wouldn't know what to say, like what happened was trash that got put out on the curb and she didn't know where the trash man took it. Then, when Tommy showed up, he understood not to ask her, and as time passed, she began to remember better what she didn't want to say, like the trash man brought the trash back, but that was okay because there could be trash inside her but not between her and Tommy where it would fuck them up.
"Do you think my parents were as nice as the house we lived in?" Maybeth asked.
"Was your house nice?"
"We had three of them. They kept getting nicer. My mother always wanted a better kitchen and my father always wanted a better workshop. They kept selling and buying places until they got what they wanted."
"What did you want?"
"I kept losing friends, so what was the point? All I wanted was to be left alone."
"By your parents?"
"Yes, who else?"
Maybeth didn't answer.
Betsy called to her. "Yoo-hoo, hey, where are you?"
"Talk to me, will you? Anything. Whatever you want to say."
Did she want to say anything? No. Did she want to sort through why not? No. Did she think Betsy believed she had a better understanding of things than she did and would get what she told her? No.
"I don't say homeless. I say on the street. 'Hi, I'm Maybeth. I lived on the street, too, but this podcast is about you. Call and tell me your stories.' That's what I'd say."
"All right, but I just hope maybe you'll change your mind about sharing with me as this goes forward. And you can ask me for whatever I can do to help you. We've got to be that way with each other."
Maybeth let that pass. What could Betsy give her? The last thing she would have expected was money. The people on the street who were supposed to call in never had any money, and if they got hold of some, they drank and snorted it; they bought stupid things; they made loans that would never be repaid; they got themselves mugged. Somehow money always made things worse. It was better to have an empty stomach kind of life, a nothing life you couldn't lose or get ripped off.
"You don't want to be that close?" Betsy prodded.
"Close isn't something you can get by wanting it."
"Would you reject it if it came to you?"
She never really thought closeness would come to her. She didn't even know she had an opinion about it. There was Tommy. So far, that was it. "No."
"I'm glad. So here's where we stand: Nothing about you. Any other conditions?"
"Just when this doesn't work, it's up to you to figure out how to turn failure into success, like you said."
"That's how you would go into this, thinking that?"
"If you want to open up people who don't have anything to give, that's what you get."
"I think we can get more than that. I'll prove it to you."
Which began to happen. At three Maybeth would finish her shift and go over to the table in the corner by the window, where Betsy, having quit Mirrors to focus full time on the podcast, would have arrived and set things up. People inside the café and sometimes people standing outside would look at them—word had spread—intrigued by the thought that Maybeth was talking with a person on the street somewhere else, maybe a person who was a little crazy, maybe someone who was sick or addicted, maybe a normal but lonely person who heard about a podcast that was like a store that didn't sell things, it gave them away. So, they showed up on the phone and filled their arms with whatever they could get.
Maybeth: Were you born in Oregon, Seth?
Seth: No, I followed my brother from Colorado.
Maybeth: What were you doing in Colorado?
Seth: Generally driving. Didn't drive to Oregon, though. Didn't have wheels.
Maybeth: Make any stops?
Seth: Camped, crashed some houses, kept going, one weekend after I get there, I'm up in an apartment my brother has over the garage, looking down at him grilling hamburgers for his wife and kids by the pool, and the kids take their hamburgers inside, and the wife isn't eating hers, and my brother's got three extra burgers on the back of the grill, so I go down to have one myself. Mistake. Right away, I know I shouldn't be there. Something's going on. So, I say actually I'm not hungry, have some other things to do, and my brother says, like what? Screwing someone?
Maybeth: Meaning your brother's wife?
Maybeth: What did you say?
Seth: What could I say?
Maybeth: Who started it?
Seth: She came up the steps one afternoon. Said I'm so much easier to get along with than my brother.
Maybeth: Is that true?
Seth: Not always. I go in and out.
Maybeth: What does that mean?
Seth: It's like I've got one eye that stays put, the other swivels in.
Maybeth: Swivels in where?
Seth: In my head. I'm me, and I'm looking inside me. I get confused.
Maybeth: Do you know when this is coming?
Seth: Generally. Down there by the pool I could feel it coming on, and my brother, he knew it, seen it all his life, how I am.
Maybeth: Did the wife know about how you are?
Seth: Sure, that's probably why she thought great, I can do whatever I want with this loser. He won't even know I fucked him.
Maybeth: How did she react by the pool that day?
Seth: She tried defending herself by attacking my brother. He throws her in the pool. I get her out. I'm a lot bigger than him, so that's that, but what am I going to do? I grab my stuff and hike out to the coast road, hoping what I'm feeling won't notice me slipping away.
Maybeth: But what you're feeling is noticing you? This split-up way you are?
Seth: Yeah, but then there's a sign for four-wheeler thrill rides in the dunes a few miles on, and I start thinking maybe there's work for a driver there. It's getting late, though, so I go back into the scrub and pitch my tent and build a little fire, and come daybreak I say to myself, Look, you're clear of him, go over to the beach; don't get up on the road where he might see you, just head south, find these dunes, show these people what you can do.
Maybeth: How big are these dunes?
Seth: Hundred feet plus.
Maybeth: That's big.
Seth: Big enough, but anyway, I make it to the beach, and I'm beginning to think things might go all right when I look over at a high-end place with a deck and who's standing there? If it's really him, it's him.
Maybeth: Your brother?
Maybeth: But it might not really be him—you could be imagining him?
Seth: Yeah, but the house and deck can't not be there, even if my brother isn't. That's how it works when I'm off. People are iffier than things.
Seth: So I hustle, and after a while I look back to see if he's following. Nope, I'm totally alone, which isn't really good news because if my brother never was there, I'm fucked up, and if I get to this dune ride place, I could fuck that up, too. Can't risk it. Go back to camp to ride myself out, and when I get there, it's trashed.
Maybeth: So, it was your brother on the deck. He doubled back to the camp to prove it.
Maybeth: Where are you now?
Seth: In my tent across the road from the dune rides.
Maybeth: You got the job?
Seth: Yep, I can be inside out, and it don't matter. Drive sideways. Stall and drift back. Rev over ridges straight into the sky, and people love it. Thinking they're going to die scares them blue.
Soon there were more calls than could be put on the podcast. One day they had a call from the encampment in Pioneer Square in Seattle that involved six callers, the phone being passed from person to person. Betsy complained she couldn't edit it to make sense because Maybeth asked no questions. Why didn't she butt in? She said because listening was the deal, wasn't it? They were telling their stories, just as she'd asked them to. She liked the calls that came in from shelters and condemned row houses and along canals that, again, Betsy complained she couldn't turn into something useable: too garbled, too emotional. Maybeth said don't worry, if other street people heard it, they'd get it. Betsy said it wasn't only people on the street listening; they needed other people to understand as well. What she began calling her business model depended on that, people pushing the yellow donate button on the website. Maybeth said if there were any people who'd do that, they better figure out how to understand what they were hearing because that was what the street sounded like. Finally, Betsy devised a format of multiple voice bursts—ten or twenty seconds of jabber from the streetworld—that she ran between single-caller exchanges. These were her versions of transitional music. And she began taking more license to write and voice intros and outros as she pleased, edit a call down so she could put more calls on the podcast, sometimes take a call and turn it into a piece that she narrated, giving the podcast what she called grain and texture.
Betsy: The other day a man called Maybeth from Alaska. The boat he fished on was in bankruptcy. He and his 14-year-old daughter were driving to Seattle to beat the winter and sleeping in their truck to save money and didn't have any place to stay in Seattle when they got there, so he'd sit there driving hour after hour asking himself questions to which he had no answer. Seattle wasn't their home base. Cape Cod used to be their home base, but that was gone. He didn't say why it was gone. He said they had no money almost as though he liked saying it: No fucking money. Forty-three, broke and his fingers smelled like fish. Then he put his daughter on the phone. She said they'd make Seattle in three days and she'd go to school somewhere. "No worries, I'm good," she said, making me wonder if the father had put the daughter on the phone just so he could hear her say that and maybe believe she was telling the truth.
Betsy pushed Maybeth's hand away from the cellphone so she wouldn't take the next call. She said she wanted to get it straight about the money and not make it a big deal. Maybeth said she wasn't doing this for money. Then why was she doing it? Betsy asked.
"Because you asked me to." She grabbed the cellphone.
Maggie: So, I have a spot behind a theater in downtown Albuquerque. Big names come through, and when they get food backstage—well, not when, they always get food—I go in for it or the roadies bring me things, which explains how I've got no money but I'm getting fat.
Maybeth: How'd you end up in Albuquerque?
Maggie: I'm working in a Walmart in Illinois and fall off ladder, and I get out of the hospital and who wants to work in Walmart in the first place? Always wanted to do Outward Bound, so I signed up for a trip in the mountains north of Santa Fe.
Maggie: The first few days it rained to where our underwear was giving us diaper rash. Then one day we climbed up out of the woods into this sunny meadow covered with outcrops, and a guy tore his clothes off and spread them on one of the outcrops and they began steaming and he stretched himself out and his crotch started steaming, too, which made us all laugh and do the same, everyone naked across the boulders. Then we got up and started dancing. After that, it was fun.
Maybeth: What happened when the trip was over?
Maggie: I went into Santa Fe with another guy on the trip. He wanted to do metalwork art, and the Outward Bound trip was supposed to be getting him ready to make the leap. We got ourselves a tiny adobe house, but then he burned his hands so badly, he went home to Kansas for his folks to take care of him and he didn't want me to come along. Just didn't. So, I lost the house, and I came down here looking for something else and didn't find anything but this. I've had offers to get on the bus with a couple of bands, but where's that going to get me? At least here I'm under a loading dock, so it's waterproof, and I can draw juice from the theater. Any place that does concerts has plenty of juice.
Maybeth: Is it cold there in winter?
Maggie: That's what I'm going to find out.
Maybeth: The theater wouldn't pay you for helping out?
Maggie: We're in discussions. Let's put it that way.
Betsy reached into her backpack and pulled out a spread sheet: How she had spent her university grant on the computer, mike, earphones, software, cellphone bills and website. How she had gotten her grant renewed because her department chair loved all their website hits. How they had gotten three ads from social service organizations for the website, which Maybeth would see if she would look at it, Betsy said, swiveling the laptop around, showing her the website's cool design, its colors, its fonts, its photos of Maybeth taking a call at the table they were sitting at right now and of Betsy sitting across from Maybeth as she was sitting across from Maybeth right now.
"Yeah, that's good, I guess, but I've told you," Maybeth said. "All that's yours. I do the calls."
"All these numbers I'm showing you are what the calls end up meaning. Don't you see that?"
"To me that spread sheet is a piece of paper like money is a piece of paper. It doesn't mean a thing."
"Because you're not thinking about it the right way. Money isn't just money. Money is metrics. Money measures your progress. Money tells you where you are and where you can go and what we can do with this podcast."
"Maybeth, come on."
"Look, I know where I am. I've got other things on my mind."
"Like Mr. Parmitier died."
"The landlord I told you about."
"Couple of days ago."
"Didn't you say you didn't like him?"
"Not to the point where I wanted to see him dead."
Mrs. Parmitier knocked on the potting shed door at three o'clock Sunday morning. Mr. Parmitier was having trouble breathing. They followed her inside to the study the Parmitiers used as a bedroom where Mr. Parmitier was twisted into the sheets and covers of a high wooden bed, one foot hanging over the side. Mrs. Parmitier crawled up onto the bed with him.
"Henry, Henry!" she cried. "Henry, no, no!" She pushed at him. He made a kind of sound. She raised her hand and let it hover a moment like a bird that wasn't sure it wanted to land in the spot it had chosen, but then it did land. She slapped Mr. Parmitier and told him to breathe deep, take in air, make some effort. Mr. Parmitier made a choking sound. His eyes stayed closed. Mrs. Parmitier slapped him again, harder. And a third time, harder and angrier. "Call the ambulance!" she said to Tommy. "Tell them he's in here. They know this house. Let them right in." Then she said to Maybeth, "Is he breathing? Do you think he's breathing? Are you, Henry? Are you?" When she got ready to slap him again, Maybeth grabbed her thin arms and guided her down off the bed.
"Ma'am, you're going to hurt him. Look, he is breathing. See?"
Mrs. Parmitier tried to get loose and back onto the bed, but she wasn't strong enough. Maybeth pulled her over to a chair in front of a vanity table and kept her there. She said Mr. Parmitier would be fine. Mrs. Parmitier asked how could Maybeth know? Maybeth didn't know, but she kept saying she did.
When the EMTs came, Mrs. Parmitier told them to defibrillate him. They said there was no need. His heart was beating. They put him on a board and carried him to the ambulance. Mrs. Parmitier followed them in her bare feet. Maybeth chased after her with some slippers. Outside, some neighbors were gathered around Mrs. Parmitier, trying to calm her. Maybeth kneeled down and helped Mrs. Parmitier put on the slippers. Then an EMT guided Mrs. Parmitier to a second vehicle, and another EMT said to a neighbor that they would bring her back in a while and the neighbor, another woman, asked Maybeth if she was the girl in the potting shed and would she stay in the house and come tell her when Mrs. Parmitier was back. Maybeth glanced toward Tommy. He pointed to his chest, asking, "Us?" Maybeth told the neighbor yes.
They went back into the house. Tommy said they could use a bed on the second floor.
"Come on, it's nice up there."
"Nothing's nice in here. Did you see how hard she hit him?"
"I saw it."
"I mean really hit him."
"She was like panicked."
The first bedroom had a high ceiling and a big soft bed covered in green fabric that was pleated around the base. Tommy reached over to pull the cover back.
Maybeth stopped him. "Let's just lie on top."
She kept seeing Mrs. Parmitier raising her hand and hearing the slaps. Tommy kept saying she was panicked.
"That wasn't panic. That was like my father used to hit me. He wasn't panicked. He was mad."
They were pulled close together.
"What was he mad about?"
"Whenever I cried, he'd hit me until I stopped."
"That made you stop?"
"Yeah, wouldn't you?"
"I'd fight him."
"I did sometimes."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I don't know why I said it."
"It's like it's going to make me cry."
"I don't want to."
"It's okay. I won't hit you to make you stop."
"I wouldn't care if you did."
"Are you crazy?"
"Go ahead. Hit me."
"I want you to. Hit me."
Maybeth wrestled loose and Tommy wrestled her back to him. He wouldn't let her go. Finally, she shivered and finished crying and they fell asleep and didn't hear Mrs. Parmitier come back, accompanied by Julie, who knocked on their door and woke them.
"Mrs. Parmitier called me from the hospital," Julie said. "This time he died over there."
"That's happened before?" Tommy asked.
"Oh, yes." Julie gave them a long, hard look as if the two of them thrown together on top of the bed needed laundering and she didn't want to do it. "Mrs. Parmitier sent me up to ask if you would you like some eggs. She would appreciate the company."
"Why don't you give her company?" Maybeth asked.
"She doesn't ask for my company. She asked for yours."
Mrs. Parmitier had gotten herself dressed and brushed her hair and put on makeup. The neighbor who had spoken to Maybeth in the middle of the night was in the dining room with her, plus another neighbor. Mrs. Parmitier introduced Tommy and Maybeth to them, Mrs. Bade and Mrs. Ventnor. She told Mrs. Bade and Mrs. Ventnor that Tommy was enrolled at the University of New Orleans and planned to become a lawyer. She said Maybeth worked at Mirrors and had been the most wonderful tenant, helping Henry with his garden.
"Then you are a very special girl," Mrs. Ventnor said to Maybeth. "Henry hated having anyone working in his garden. He wanted to do it all himself."
"And now Julie's father Gregorius is managing the garden, and he won't have Henry pestering him," Mrs. Parmitier said, looking up at Julie, who was pouring everyone more coffee, as if Julie would be relieved about that, too. Then Mrs. Parmitier began to cry because she'd tried to mention Mr. Parmitier as if he'd died a long time ago and that was all settled, but no, it wasn't settled. When Mrs. Parmitier had composed herself, she said to Julie, standing by the swinging door into the kitchen, "What I would like is for Gregorius to come live in the potting shed. Do you think he would do that? And what I would like for you," she said to Tommy and Maybeth, "is to live upstairs, so I won't be alone here in this big house." She began crying again.
Mrs. Bade leaned over to console and comfort Mrs. Parmitier. Mrs. Ventnor looked at Tommy and Maybeth as if she expected them to say something consoling. Neither of them wanted to say anything. Julie was the one who spoke.
"Today isn't the day for getting into all that, Mrs. P. Other things come first." She meant planning the funeral.
"No, that's all done," Mrs. Parmitier said. "Do you think Henry hasn't had his eyes on the family mausoleum all his life?"
"Well, I guess so," Mrs. Bade said, "although I do wonder why he wouldn't insist on being buried in the parlor where he was born."
Mrs. Parmitier, Mrs. Bade, and Mrs. Ventnor looked at one another and broke into witchy, crazy laughter. They doubled over and twisted in their chairs. When their laughter permitted, they returned to sitting normally at the table and looked at one another and began laughing again. Mrs. Bade cried, "Stop! Stop!" but they couldn't. Their laughter was hollow but loud; it became wheezing and coughing. Mrs. Parmitier pressed the palms of both hands over her collarbone. Mrs. Ventor sneezed. Mrs. Bade smacked the table and made her coffee cup rattle on its saucer.
Later that day, when Tommy was at the university library and Maybeth was by herself, Julie knocked on the potting shed door. She said she would like to come in, and after she did, she paused a long moment, looking around the potting shed as if measuring it.
"May I sit down?"
"All we have is these beach chairs."
She was wearing a light green dress, as tight on her as the blue one, which made sitting anywhere difficult, but she managed to lower herself onto a beach chair. Again, she looked around the potting shed, eyes stopping on the toilet.
"There wasn't any toilet when I lived in here."
"When did you live here?"
"Long time ago. My daddy was in the state prison in Angola, and Mrs. Parmitier said my brother and I could be here a while, but Mr. Parmitier said no, not in a garage, not with no toilet. Mrs. Parmitier said then let's put one in. Mr. Parmitier said putting in a toilet would cost too much, so Mrs. Parmitier gave us a key and we used the toilet off the kitchen."
"That was nice of her."
"You could say that."
"No, I was embarrassed doing my business in that house. I knew he didn't want me there no matter what she said. My brother was the same."
"But you did it?"
"What else was I going to do? And we worked hard for her, me and my brother, to live in this place. I cleaned inside, and he handled the garden with Daddy down there doing his time."
"That was like a good thing, wasn't it?"
Julie said sometimes good things were bad things. She wanted to know if Maybeth had anything to drink. Some wine remained from Betsy's visit. Julie drank two glasses fairly quickly as she talked and then sipped a third, her manner growing amused, her voice becoming musical, her eyes wandering around the potting shed as if she could see the things she was describing in the shadows and bare wood and side windows that looked as dirty as they were when she and her brother moved in. In fact, that definitely could be the same dirt, she commented. The last thing they would worry about was cleaning the windows. They had no mother, a daddy in jail, their duties and the matter of schooling, which was complicated because the nearest school wouldn't recognize their residence in the potting shed because the potting shed wasn't a habitable domicile, and of course, they were black and black people didn't go to the school in the Noble Street district.
"Made me feel like chuck meat. Only thing you can do with it is grind it up into hamburgers. That was how it was for us, my brother and me, chuck meat this city ground up. I barely got through the school I had to travel to. My brother, he stayed on here two years and then he just ran. Thirteen years old and gone for good. I never heard about him again until the people at the hospital told me the young man in the morgue downstairs could be mine. All that time he was in New Orleans. Where in New Orleans? How could you be in a city for a dozen years and no one knows it, no one sees you, no one knows it's you until you're dead?"
Maybeth thought of all the things she could say about her life, but Julie wanted to talk about her own life, which had to this day the Parmitiers' stamp on it. Her first and second and third jobs at St. Mary's came from Mrs. Parmitier being on the board: orderly, front desk, operating room scheduler. And now here came this shack, and the idea her father would live where she and her brother had lived 25 years ago. Was that a good thing?
"Lock, she wouldn't ever call him that, but she's proud of that name for him. Things that displease her give her all kinds of sunshine. She likes seeing what's good and went wrong, Mr. Parmitier included. Wants to put Daddy in here like his new Angola and put you and Tommy upstairs where you can be the new ghosts."
"We may not live here, but we're not living there."
"At least you're white enough, you could."
"I didn't say that."
"You don't have to. I'm the one that's saying things."
It was like a podcast call with the caller seeping out of the phone and transforming herself from electronic vibrations into a woman who would not hang up. Julie was tired, and she was a little high, and she kept talking as she got up from the beach chair and walked to the toilet and pulled up her dress and took her time.
"I mean if we had had our own pot to piss in," she said. "I didn't have that for five years until I'm out of high school and working and have a room in Chalmette with a toilet down the hall. And that made me happy, can you imagine? I was up in the world not living in this sorry place. A toilet I shared but nobody bothered about me using it. No looks. No comments. Then my daddy got out, and where were we going to live? Not in that room. So, I came here, and Mr. P didn't want to give us a dime—him looking at me told me that—but the missus did whether for our sake or to bust his ass, I don't know. And the help was forthcoming. But wasn't long they shut down their office, and there wasn't so much money Mrs. P. could throw away, and we had to give up the little place we'd gotten together, so Mr. P he won that round. Said Julie, you've got a job, now make your daddy get a job, he's got to work. Work where? I asked him. He is limping and aching and an ex-con who couldn't possibly be guilty but went to prison anyway. And before long I'm in a place on my own again with my own personal private toilet, but Daddy, no, Daddy scuffling out of reach, like near my fingertips but not touching, which makes it all outright twisted after these years he shows up and spends all day here before he goes back to Petit Pont and takes up being Lock again and getting himself beat up for the money she gives him until I push her for more: let him live where me and my brother lived when we were parentless children. And with a toilet! Isn't that wonderful, it has a toilet now, it has a sink, it has a tiny little 'frigerator!" Julie was back in the beach chair again, its webbing bulging from her weight, her mood, having relieved herself, less agitated. "I just wanted to let you know some things maybe you didn't—why I am here asking you to let her pull down the temple of her generosity on my head again."
"I get it, but do you think that's what Lock would want?"
"Doesn't matter what Lock would want. She's got it that it's me and her against him now, and I can't buck her and neither can he. Been so miserable good to us, how are we going to say no, rather sleep in an alley, rather sleep on a bench? He'd never live with me, but maybe yes, this shack here is right for a man like him. So, I'm asking you not to come here to New Orleans and get in the way of how things need to be."
She told Betsy, "But I'm not living in that house."
"Because I don't want to go back there every day and have my life be her life like Julie's life has been her life. I don't want her waiting for me. I don't want to eat with her. Listening to this shit is enough." She meant the podcast. "A rich person laying everything on you is worse than a poor one."
"Maybe you could earn money for sort of being her companion," Betsy said.
"Will you shut up about money?"
"Okay, then let Julie and her father move upstairs. Turn everything around, and you stay in the potting shed."
"That's not going to happen. Haven't you been listening?"
"Why not? The old man is dead."
"Right, but do they get a say? And it isn't even 'they.' It's him. We're talking about him, not her. He'd die up there. He'd hate it."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Come on, let's take a call."
"No, I want to talk about where we're going."
"Where do you think we're going?"
"My advisor thinks we could get a foundation grant, like $50,000. That's what the metrics on this spread sheet could mean. Money for you and money for me. We could have a life doing this."
Maybeth shook her head and took the next call on the queue.
Melanie: I thought about calling you so much that it's like I don't know if it's really you or I'm still imagining what it would be like.
Maybeth: It's me.
Melanie: How are you?
Maybeth: Fine. How are you?
Melanie: Remembering you, that's all.
Maybeth: Remembering me?
Melanie: On the TV show. I'm that Melanie.
Maybeth: In LA with Dr. Paul?
Melanie: I said I wanted to live on the beach.
Maybeth: Did you make it to the beach?
Melanie: Most of the time I do boats in the marina. Did you go straight from LA to New Orleans?
Maybeth: Not really.
Melanie: Where did you go in between?
Maybeth: Different places. What's up?
Melanie: I called because you said none of the boys on the show would ever admit they raped someone. Remember?
Maybeth: Why, something happen?
Melanie: Why is it that rape always equates to 'something happened'?
Maybeth: It is something that happened, isn't it? That's all I meant.
Melanie: Yes, but it's like code. Like no one is going to come out with it. Oh, something happened, big deal, lots of things happen, get over it.
Maybeth: This guy is saying that wasn't what it was?
Melanie: Like I don't know what it was? It wasn't something that just happened. It was rape.
Maybeth: I'm sorry.
Melanie: So, I heard about this podcast and I thought, oh, yeah, Maybeth, she was the one who didn't give a fuck. You let all the guys off the hook. Why should they admit what they did?
Maybeth: I didn't say that. I just said they wouldn't admit it on TV.
Melanie: I mean, if you had to rape someone, what kind of loser are you?
Maybeth: Where are you now? Are you safe?
Melanie: I don't know, are you?
Melanie: The whole time you looked like you were going to beat us all up.
Maybeth: I wasn't going to beat anyone up.
Melanie: So, you won't admit it, either.
Maybeth: I don't have to admit it. I never did it.
Melanie: I remember you were with a guy who liked being made up before the show and you wouldn't let them touch you.
Melanie: What was his name?
Maybeth: Doesn't matter.
Melanie: Yes, it does.
Maybeth: He's got nothing to do with this.
Melanie: Come on, what was his name?
Maybeth: His name is Tommy.
Melanie: Is Tommy? You're still with him?
Maybeth: I'm still with him.
Melanie: Something doesn't happen when he wants it to and you don't?
Maybeth: No. Let's get off this, okay? Why'd you really call?
Melanie: I just wondered if this podcast is supposed to be for the street, how you'd compare with Dr. Paul.
Maybeth: How am I?
Melanie: You didn't think much of him.
Maybeth: Not really.
Melanie: But now you're doing the same thing.
Maybeth: Not really.
Melanie: At least he had the balls to give his little speeches about changing the world. You don't.
Maybeth: Because this isn't about me.
Melanie: You just get people to blabber.
Maybeth: If that's what they want to do.
Melanie: And you don't have to because something never happened to you. Not that you'd admit.
Maybeth: Is that what you think?
Melanie: What am I supposed to think?
Maybeth: Why do you have to think anything about me? Whose business is it?
Melanie: I guess not mine. You're different.
Maybeth: Look, you don't have to go on the street to get raped.
Melanie: What do you have to do?
Maybeth: You don't have to do anything. You can be a girl. That's enough.
Melanie: A girl? Just standing there?
Maybeth: What's with you?
Melanie: Are we live online?
Maybeth: No, we're taping.
Melanie: Stop taping. I don't want anyone else in on this.
Maybeth: I get it.
Melanie: Who'd you tell?
Maybeth: Tell what?
Melanie: When you didn't have to go on the street to get raped, or was it abuse?
Maybeth: What's the difference?
Melanie: You're saying there isn't any?
Maybeth: I'm asking a question. What's the difference between sticking yourself in some little girl's mouth and rape? Why's it abuse?
Melanie: Okay, I get it, my brothers took turns.
Maybeth: So, you took off?
Melanie: Pretty good reason, right? The same when you took off?
Maybeth: I didn't have any brothers.
Melanie: Who'd you have, an uncle, a father, some cousin?
Maybeth: What does it matter? That's what I'm saying. What does it matter?
Melanie: A father, your father. That's my guess. If it wasn't him, you wouldn't be so tough. Did you hear what I said?
Maybeth: I heard you.
Melanie: Good, I'm not going to say it again, because what the fuck, you're right, what's the difference except the words? (Long pause.) Ever coming back to LA?
Maybeth: I don't know.
Melanie: Think about it?
Melanie: Why? Good memories?
Maybeth: Not really.
Maybeth: Only when I used to look straight up into the sky.
Melanie: Like you were getting away from LA, looking up there?
Maybeth: I guess.
Melanie: Well, if you ever do come back, I'll probably be around Venice. Maybe I'll see you there.
Betsy said, "You said no one would call with something like that."
Maybeth pretended she wasn't upset. "I was dumb, saying that. You can get yourself mugged anytime on the street."
"Or before you're ever on the street?"
"Did you stop taping?"
"It happened so fast."
"Are you sure? That was important."
"You can't use it. She asked you not to. Delete it."
"But don't people need to hear things like that?"
"I said nothing about me."
"Well, I told you there could be landmines, didn't I?" Betsy highlighted the file and deleted it so Maybeth could see it go. She unfastened her backpack and started gathering up her stuff. "Anyway, obviously no more calls today. Today sucked. But... could you picture her?"
"She was pretty like a model. Guys hate that. They think they can't have her, or they want to fuck her up before they lose her."
"I never had that problem."
"But what she said is true. Something happened, the way it minimizes."
"I wasn't blowing her off."
"I know. You were saying it in a way that would make it hurt less."
"Except you can't make it hurt less."
"You don't think she got something out of calling?"
"Call her back and ask her."
Betsy shifted in her chair as if preparing to get up and hug Maybeth. Maybeth held fast against that. They didn't talk for a while. Betsy sat with her backpack in her lap, looking across Mirrors. Maybeth sat with her hands on the tabletop, looking out at the street. She kept having thoughts she didn't want to have, but at the same time, she didn't want to stop those thoughts. She had to keep thinking them.
At last she said, "I guess Tommy and I will split again."
"From each other?"
"From New Orleans."
"No! There's plenty of places in New Orleans where you can live except that potting shed. Look, here's my suggestion: why don't we think about suspending the podcast? I could use the time to write my paper, get that out of the way. Then we could regroup. People need to hear what we're doing."
"They don't have to hear it from me."
"What about Tommy's college?"
"He can do college elsewhere."
"I don't know."
"Then, take the money to help you go."
"Maybeth. Take it!"
Maybeth took the envelope, got up from her chair, stepped around people at their tables, and pushed out the door onto the street. As she passed through Petit Pont, the twilight thickening, people were resettling themselves, done with the day—Rae on her bench, Jermaine heading toward her, carrying a bag of something, Thomas nodding out on a stoop, Lock returned from Noble Street, yard work done, the sole of his left foot pressed against the Western Union façade, right foot planted firmly on the sidewalk. She approached him, their eyes met, then they both looked down at the envelope she was offering him.
"What's that?" he asked.
Lock considered the thickness of the envelope. "How much?"
They were looking directly at one another again, his eyes quizzical, hers apologetic.
"I don't need it," she said.
"Really?" He smiled unhappily at her without parting his lips. "Me, neither. I got a job now. Soon have a place to stay, right?"
"What more I want? You in the big house, me out back."
"We're not living in the big house."
"Where you living?"
"Not in New Orleans."
Lock shook his head, bemused, actually smiling. "Well, no, then," he said. "No, no, no."
The others nearby were watching them. Money, and Lock wasn't taking it. Maybeth pushed the envelope into her back pocket. As she left Petit Pont, she tried to walk as if she knew where she was heading. Fooling no one who watched her go.