For months, Hiram and Carole existed in a tenuous truce that barely masked Carole’s anger and Hiram’s indifference to her discontent. Hiram stayed to himself and made no attempt to conciliate. Carole avoided him whenever possible and never threatened divorce again when she had the rare opportunity to confront him. She has too much to lose; as long as she knows that, it will give me peace, Hiram believed.
On the weekend of Carole’s birthday, Hiram had a two-day meeting with the program committee for the college to check out the New Orleans Convention Center as a meeting place for the International College in ‘08. On the Friday night before returning to Denver, he heard of a jazz club on Napoleon that didn’t discourage semi-professionals from sitting in. Fat Frank and his Revelation Blues band was on and Hiram played along. The singer was Maria Petulant (née Porosky in Bedford-Stuyvesant). Glorious she was at thirty-eight, a full figure of midlife that seemed to want to burst out of the white country-print shift with flowers and insects that was tied at the waist with a rope belt. Her black hair hung eight inches below shoulder length and was held back with a wooden clothespin for a country effect. She had dark brown eyes the color of rosewood on the trim of a hand-made guitar, eyes that didn’t look away, and smiled with pleasure when looking at Hiram. He knew she would be a great lay and he arranged to sit in with the band the next night, a Saturday, so on Sunday when the band didn’t play, he could take Maria to Mangrove Plantation upriver for the day. He’d leave early Monday morning for Denver and be back before noon with the time change. He’d miss Carole’s birthday, but that didn’t seem important.
He took Maria to dine at an upriver plantation convention center. She’d bought a new red dress, probably from One Canal, designer-off-the-rack, with a scoop neckline that showed cleavage—it was revealing but a far cry from elegant, if not a little deep-south tacky. After dinner, they went to the suite he’d rented with a river view and a bottle of white wine she liked placed by management on the nightstand. After a little chitchat, they screwed on and off until after midnight. The draperies on the large picture window were drawn back so they could see from the bed the traffic on the river a few hundred yards away just beyond the levee. The ship lights were mostly dim except for a few glaring spots on the bridge. The freighter’s nooks and crannies were dark with shadows formed by the pewter glow of a half moon well above the horizon.
Maria poured herself another glass of wine from the almost empty bottle on the nightstand and propped herself up on a pillow. Hiram turned to her, draping his arm over her chest and cupping her breast in his relaxed hand.
“You played well tonight,” she said.
“You sang like a mockingbird perched on a honeysuckle vine in summer,” Hiram said, smiling and trying to mask his innate sarcasm.
“I want to believe it,” she said.
“You aren’t from around here.”
“I told you.”
“I forgot,” Hiram said.
“Born in New York. Lived in Louisiana going on twenty-five years now.”
“You work mostly here?”
“Yeah. Sometimes Mobile. Rarely Atlanta.”
“How’d you start out?”
“Folk. Protest stuff mainly. Then blues. Sang with Professor Blackbeard. Tennessee Red on guitar. Pat Mallory on drums. Tommy Hernandez on bass most of the time. We opened for a year for Volcanic Eruption when they did their coast-to-coast tour.”
Hiram vaguely remembered the tour. Early rock and roll wasn’t strong for him, except as a root for blues riffs.
They stayed silent for a while. Hiram pleasantly relaxed. When she finished her wine, she rolled over and put her arm around him and her head on his shoulder. She smelled of sex and dissipating perfume. The wine on her breath leaked out whiffs of flowers and citrus fruits.
“You got family?” she asked.
“Jesus. Don’t mention it. My wife’s birthday was last night.”
“Like being here with you.” Hiram smiled.
“No. It’s a lousy marriage.”
“Why’s that, baby? You been married too long?”
“Number three. Only a few years. But I don’t like her.”
“The second month of wedded bliss.”
“And you stick with her?”
“She takes care of the kids.”
“Where you from?”
“Louisville originally. I’m in Denver now. That’s where she lives...”
“You deserve better, honey.”
“I never please her. Never know what she wants.”
Maria took her time sipping the last of the wine from the bottle, her empty glass on the floor beside the bed. “She wants love, baby. You ain’t got much of that for her.”
“Not the sex, baby. Woman wants to be coveted like water to a drowning man.”
Hiram’s jaw clenched as he rolled over. I get no sex. And nothing else. “I give her everything,” he said. “I support her two loser kids.”
“She just wants you to want her.”
“How do you know what she wants?”
“A woman knows,” she said, staring at him.
“She couldn’t find a better husband,” Hiram said.
Maria laughed. “Than you?”
“Fuck off,” he said without humor.
“What’d I say?”
“I’m not to blame for her foul moods.” He was getting annoyed.
“Every man says that,” she said.
“I’m not every man and I’m not to blame.”
“And that drives your wife to depression. That I-ain’t-got- no-responsibility-for-how-you-feel attitude. Believe me. I know what it means.”
“You don’t know shit,” Hiram said. Her assertions were out of line.
“You’re blind as a bat,” she retorted. “A woman’s nightmare.”
Hiram stayed silent as blood pulsed to his head. What did this marble-brain idiot know? She’s a loser and she criticizes me about Carole? Carole was a bitch. He didn’t make her that way. And he didn’t like being judged.
“Look. I’m sorry. What pissed you off?” Maria asked, a touch of fear in her voice.
“She’s got a drum stick up her ass,” he said with finality but with a whiff of conciliation. “Not my fault.”
“Why do you feel guilty?”
“Goddamn it,” he said. He wasn’t guilty. He had nothing to feel guilty about. “She’s menopausal,” he added.
“That doesn’t make a difference.”
“I ain’t seen a period in a couple years. I ain’t pregnant. And I haven’t changed.”
“And you’re not that great a lay,” Hiram said.
“If you care for her at all, help her get through it.”
“Not worth the time.”
“You’re sick,” Maria said.
He wanted to spit on her. What a turd. But he held back.
“Don’t take it out on me!” She got out of the bed, her eyes fearful as if he actually struck her.
“I’m not wrong here,” Hiram said.
“Hey. I don’t give a damn one way or another,” she said, her voice weak.
“You’ve got a big mouth.”
She began to get dressed.
“I thought this night might mean something to you,” she said loudly, regaining some self-confidence. “You’re a nutcase.”
“Shut your goddamn mouth.”
“Zipped tight, man,” she said. “Never again speak to a psycho.”
“I’m not crazy.”
“You’re weird, man. You scare me.”
“Get out,” he said.
Hiram didn’t move even when she was almost dressed.
“Hey, asshole,” she said. “Get me back to town.”
She picked up the phone, told the night man to call her a car.
She waited in an armchair looking at the river. Hiram rolled over occasionally in bed ignoring her. Maria answered the phone. The car was here. She took enough money for fare from Hiram’s wallet that was on the dresser... put it in her purse. He’d expected she’d want money and made no move to stop her.
“You’re one sick sonofabitch,” she said as she closed the door.
Well, he didn’t give a damn what she thought. It took him more than an hour to drift into an unsettled sleep but by morning he’d almost forgotten everything Maria said.