“I’ve always wanted to go to Mardi Gras. You know, in New Orleans.”
Jim looked hopeful, but I kept quiet. I was going to Mardi Gras, for the sixth time in the last twenty years, but I belonged. Plus, I’d earned it because of my bargain with Pat. After all, I’d lived in New Orleans for over ten years, first college, and then working at a bank downtown. Come winter up here, shut up in that small house with Pat, I really earn a trip to any place that makes me happy. After all, I have to live up here now.
“Here” is Bangor, Maine, where I now work in another bank. A small, insignificant bank located in the small town where I was born. I came back because my wife, the great bitch Patricia, couldn’t take New Orleans anymore. I was having too much fun, and she knew it. So, she gave me the old ultimatum, “Come home with me now, or we get a divorce.” I made the coward’s choice, and we’ve been back in Bangor for thirteen years.
At the bank, I run the brokerage operation, and Jim Fairfield is my boss. He’s the retail head, in charge of my department and the twenty-three branches of Bangor Bank & Trust. Jim and I have known each other for about seven years. He’s okay as a boss because he leaves me alone to run my area. Jim, too, was born in Bangor, but he never left. He chose to go to college over in Orono and had joined the bank as a trainee twenty-three years ago.
I’d traveled with Jim a few times to banker’s conferences in Boston and New York, always on business and with truly little pleasure, if you know what I mean. Jim was difficult to relax around; he always tried too hard. He wanted to be everyone’s buddy but affected a superior attitude at the same time.
Every day, Jim would be attired in a three-piece suit. I guess he didn’t feel like a banker unless he had on that vest and watch chain, a throwback to the bankers of a hundred years ago. Once Jim was outside of his old Maine farmhouse, he was in that three-piece suit. To many in town, James Fairfield had no personality to speak of; he was just the stuffing in those three-piece suits.
Jim’s hair was always neat, cut once a week by Ernie at the Downtown Club, short sides and back with some longer hair dragged across top to cover the thinning spots. Yep, no doubt about it, he’d be a huge hit at Mardi Gras.
“They say you should do Mardi Gras at least once in your life,” he continued. Jim was always trying to say that one thing to make you like him or want him around. I respected the position, but I had a hard time liking the man.
I was surprised in this interest of Jim’s in attending Mardi Gras. As far as I knew, besides regular trips to Boston to visit his married daughter, and once to New York City to see some theatre, he and his proper wife, Amy, never left the State of Maine. State of Maine, that is how they refer to it up here. Jim and Amy pretty much think the sun rises and sets on the State of Maine; it is the perfect place to live, work, and die.
Discourses on the wonderfulness of Maine were one of the few personal opinions that Jim shared at work. Otherwise, it was all business; “share of wallet,” “customer households,” deposit share,” that was Jim’s world. And now he wanted to take his act on the road at the age of forty-six, leave the plain and plumping Amy, and travel to that den of iniquity that the press castigates every year in early March.
I don’t think Jim and Amy were wealthy. Jim probably made one hundred thousand at the bank, which goes a long way in Bangor, but after paying for upkeep on the old farmhouse, a maid three times a week, the gardener, haircuts from Ernie, weekly beauty salon trips visits for Amy, and his mother’s nursing home, there probably wasn’t much left over. Amy didn’t work, nor could I see her ever doing so. It was part of the bargain she had made with Jim those many years ago.
It pleased me to think of the shock old Amy would get from the aftermath of Jim’s trip to New Orleans.
“Say, Jim, why don’t you come down with me?”
Jim and I arrived in New Orleans on the Friday before Mardi Gras. We were planning to return on Wednesday after the big blow-out. On Saturday afternoon, I had plans to drive the rental car across the lake to see my racquetball buddies in Mandeville. I offered Jim a ride on the world’s longest bridge, but his face turned slightly pale, and he declined.
“I’ll just stay here at the hotel. Maybe I’ll wander around the Quarter after lunch. When will you be back?” he added anxiously, though I could tell he was trying to cover it up.
“I should be back by seven. Remember, tonight is Saturday night. I’m going to show you a couple of pussy palaces on Iberville that’ll blow your mind. Warm memories for those cold nights in Maine.”
We arranged to meet at The Bombay Club in the Quarter at eight tonight. “See you there,” I said, rising. “You know how to find it?” I was concerned, even though I had clearly marked the place on Jim’s tourist map.
He nodded. What more could I do? He was a grown man.
As I headed up to my room, I looked over my shoulder at Jim sitting ramrod-straight at our lunch table at the Riverwalk Hilton. He rose resolutely, straightened his shoulders again, and headed to his room. At least he had lost the three-piece suit. He wore pressed beige chinos and a blue blazer with a light blue button-down shirt. No tie, no socks with his Topsiders. “The perfect Yankee preppy,” I thought as he passed from my view.
I had a good time with my racquetball buddies at the private club in Mandeville. It had just three courts, and was attached to the oldest player, Mickey’s, house. We drank beer from his keg, munched on Mickey’s coonass cooking, told stories, and drank more beer.
When I left at six, I was a little worse for wear. Good thing the Causeway is dead straight with barriers on both sides. I sobered up considerably by opening the windows and turning up the radio. The warm, aromatic breeze off the lake brought me back. Back at the hotel, I showered, changed into jeans and a polo shirt, and headed out for The Bombay Club.
When I entered the bar, I looked around for Jim. I finally made out his distinctive haircut among the room of crowded heads. Instead of sitting up straight with a banker’s best posture, he was slumped down, drooping over his glass. There was another on the table, which told me Jim had been drinking hard and had ordered two. The Bombay Club has excellent waitresses who keep them coming and quickly clear the dead soldiers away.
I stood opposite him for a minute, until he glanced up and noticed me standing there.
“Dave,” he said in a voice that both quavered and slurred at the same time, “how was your afternoon?”
“Good, Jim. Yours?”
“I don’t belong here; I need to go home. I’ll leave tomorrow.” After a pause, he added, “I never should have come.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Jim. What happened?”
“The truth is that I’ve had a rather bad episode this afternoon.” He did not elaborate, but the pain and disgust in his voice convinced me that his disgust was with himself and the pain was self-inflicted.
I eyed Jim carefully, but said nothing. If he wanted to tell me, he would.
After an interminable silence, he added, “It was bad, awfully bad. I will tell you after another drink.” He signaled the waitress, who brought another seven-and-seven. I could tell by the color that this was a double, and at least his third. Bankers don’t drink like this unless they are out of town, well out of town.
I acquiesced to his schedule by my silence. He said nothing, but the hand that raised the glass to his lips was shaking. Insensitively, my first thought was “My God, what have I done to my career by bringing him here?”
True to his word, Jim started to talk as he drained the last drops from the glass. “I went into the Quarter around two-thirty. I walked up Decatur all the way to the Mint, back down Royal to Canal, then back up Bourbon Street. About halfway up Bourbon, which was littered with trash and smelled like piss, I took a left on Ursuline, and had only gone about two blocks.”
Jim’s face was positively haggard as he recalled his route in his mind. I sipped my cosmopolitan which had just arrived, cold and clear in the frosted martini glass.
“I followed your advice, Dave,” he continued. “I took most of my money and all my credit cards out of my wallet and left them in the hotel room safe. I had no more than forty bucks in my wallet, but I put a hundred-dollar bill in my shoe.”
Jim stared at me hard, wishing me to think of him as practical, yet adventurous. I couldn’t get past the fact that he appeared to be nothing more than a shell, held up by an armature of thin wire.
“As I passed a darkened alleyway that opened onto Ursuline, a man stepped out. A black man.” The last part was said with a viciousness that I had never heard in his voice before.
I could tell he wanted to say the “N-word,” but his New England upbringing wouldn’t let him.
“You know the type,” he continued. “Lots of gold chains, cargo pants hanging well below his waist, a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He had a bandana on his arm and lots of tattoos.”
After a brief pause, he added, “He was big guy,” and for the first time I thought that Jim was no longer telling me the truth. I let it go. It was his story. “You know the type,” he added again for emphasis.
“I started as he popped out of the alleyway. My first thought was that he was equally startled to see me, but maybe not. ‘Got any change?’ he asked me. As I reached into the pocket of my pants, I felt a pressure, a touch, against my stomach.”
Jim pointed to the midpoint of his chest, below which the small roll of fat was beginning to grow.
“I glanced down. It was a gun, a revolver with a short barrel.”
“You were mugged,” I exclaimed, my first comment to interrupt Jim’s story. “You were mugged on Ursuline at five in the afternoon in broad daylight!” I fought back a chuckle. What a story Jim would have to tell back in Bangor!
Trying to lighten Jim’s mood, I added, “Welcome to the Big Easy. At least you didn’t have much money on you. Plus, you obviously didn’t get hurt. I can see you’re in one piece.”
“Dave, I could hear the music from Bourbon Street the whole time it was happening. I’m thinking, I’m in the middle of a major tourist destination, but there was no one around but me and him. This guy, his eyes gleamed in the afternoon shade, and his teeth, they were bright white, with a diamond set in a front tooth.”
“I know the type.” I wanted to beat him to the punch line this time.
“I thought he would kill me. He seemed ferocious and feral. How could I fight with him? How could I yell? He had a gun.”
At that moment, I could read in his face the real issue with the robbery. It wasn’t the money. It was the impotence and fear. Cocky, confident banker Jim was gone. Weak, naked, afraid, human Jim was standing on Ursuline, facing an angry black man-child with a snub-nosed thirty-eight caliber revolver. Gone were the manners and civility that Jim counted on day-to-day, gone was the respect for a banker in a small city.
Jim shuddered and raised his hand for the waitress. For the first time I looked at her, blonde shoulder length hair framed a pale classic face. She was wearing a black leotard and short black suede miniskirt, the uniform here at The Bombay Club. I wished I were drinking with her, or anyone but Jim. I wondered if Jim’s life was so fragile that it could be permanently upset by this event.
Jim had stopped talking and stared at his empty glass.
“What did you do?’ I prompted.
“Nothing. I told him that I would comply with his orders. In a civilized voice, he asked me for my wallet. I handed it to him, but he didn’t take it. ‘Just take out the cash and the credit cards,’ he said. I handed them to him, and he took them with his left hand, the gun never varying from pointing at my chest.
He looked down at the amount of money I handed him and snorted in disgust. ‘I don’t have any credit cards’ I explained. He then asked for my watch, again with a polite tone of voice. That voice really unnerved me. I can still hear it.
I’d left my pocket watch at home. I was wearing my old Timex. I handed it over and he put it in his pocket with another snort of disgust.
‘Your ring,’ he added. I tried to pull my wedding band off my finger. It’s been on that finger for twenty-four years. It wouldn’t come off. I pulled on it; all the while he is watching me, pointing the gun at me. I gave up and closed my eyes. I was certain that he would shoot me over the meager haul he had gotten off me. After twenty seconds or so, I opened my eyes, and he was gone.”
Jim continued his tale. “I quickly went back down Ursuline to Bourbon. I wanted to be as close to people as I could get. I rounded the corner, crossed the street, and went directly into Pat O’Brien’s bar. I walked through the arch and into a courtyard of people. I found an empty table and sat down. I guess I had stopped breathing a while ago, because all of a sudden, I was aware that I was taking deep breaths.
I looked around. The courtyard was full, every other table taken by Mardi Gras revelers. Waiters in white jackets ran around, mostly carrying hurricanes in those big glasses. Slowly it dawned on me. All the waiters were black, the busboys too. I was a little nervous, but I signaled a waiter and ordered a double seven-and-seven. ‘Very good, sir,’ he responded. I started to breathe a little easier.
I had two more drinks, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I felt I had cheated death and survived, but all those black men ... You know, Dave, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black man in Bangor, except from the University. I looked at the waiters and busboys, trying to see if any of these men could have been my robber.
Just as I received my third drink, I saw him. Well at least, I’m fairly sure it was him. The same dark skin, but now attired in the white server’s jacket. I wasn’t sure at first, then I was positive, and then unsure again. I watched him clear the tables, and once he came close, and I thought I saw the tattoo on the back of his hands. The same tattoo. It was ‘BK’; do you know what that means, Dave?”
I did, but I was reluctant to say so. The “BK's" or “Blood Killers” were one of the most violent gangs around. They had started in Chicago, but they had been around New Orleans for several years now. I shook my head to indicate that I had no idea of the significance of the tattoo. Jim was in bad enough shape already.
“I lowered my head and tried to hide behind my little table. I signaled to my waiter who brought me the bill. I realized my money was gone, then remembered the hundred in my shoe. I surreptitiously reached down, extracted it, and placed the note inside the folder with the bill. Just the corner of the bill showed from the folder. Before my waiter could pick it up, a voice came from behind me. ‘So, you did have money on you after all, motherfucker. I’m gonna kill yo ass.’ I was scared to turn around. The waiter collected the folder and returned with my change. I came straight here and waited for you.”
As Jim finished his tale, he fell back in his seat, trembling and shaking. There was perspiration in his hairline, something that I had never seen before, even when we first exited the airport into the steamy heat of New Orleans.
After a short pause, he added, “I’ll get a cab to the airport first thing tomorrow morning. I am a marked man; he’ll find me again.”
“What about the fact that one should go to Mardi Gras at least once in their life?” I inquired. But I already knew the answer. Jim had died that afternoon on Ursuline; no one had told his physiology yet, but he was done.
By the time I returned on Wednesday, Jim had already resigned from the bank.