Chapter 2: The Exile at the Mayfair Lounge

Paul pressed the buzzing doorbell and licked the inside of his mouth. The bartender inside hit his own switch inside and the door unlocked. Paul loosened his tie and took the last available stool at the cramped bar.

While most of the neighborhood locals that occupied the Mayfair Lounge were affable and the bartenders just as sweet with an unfamiliar face as they were a longtime customer, the small bar itself was oppressive in its festive intensity. Groups rotated like ungraceful dancers around different vertices on the two pool tables, providing a gauntlet of limbs and cues to anyone struggling towards the bathroom. The cigarette machine popped and clanked frequently but not enough to outrival a jukebox the size of a Volkswagen Beetle that vibrated with hi-hat and cowbell-timed pop. Rusty bed frames were hung from the already low ceiling and wound through with garland, purple, green, and gold rope lights, and shredded feather boas that seemed to have caught decades worth of Christmas ornaments and Mardi Gras toys in their sticky glam like flies. The view out the front windows was blocked by a redoubt of professional grade, casino-sized poker machines To compensate and make room for the gangly, swing-prone arms of the customers, the glassware and ice cubes were small. The place was friendly but reckless; loud but not chatty. A hard-cash-only enterprise operating with its own brand of pinball free-play mercy.

Paul ordered and received a dirty Beefeater martini, which he started to swallow dutifully when he heard someone yelling in a fierce current of oaths and curses. He turned on his stool and saw a white-haired, tan man pounding his fist against the side of one of the poker machines. The sleeves of his oversized printed silk shirt flapping like wings with the angry motion.

“Hey-ay!” Paul called out, raising his glass. “Mr. Rabalais!”

The man turned halfway around and his mouth burst open in a wide, sweat-lipped smile. “Well, well, if it isn’t the Kid! Come over here!”

Paul squeezed past a few other patrons and no sooner had he taken the old man’s hand than it had clamped down on him like a cinch and yanked him abruptly down onto the bench next to him. Rabalais clinked his glass to Paul’s and embraced him around the shoulder. “I never see you around anymore.”

“Well, to tell the truth, Mr. Rabalais, I haven’t been in here in quite some time. Not since I started working out near the river bend. I’m still in the tax preparation field, you see.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And there’s a new office.”

“Uh-huh.”

“When did you get back?”

Rabalais kept one arm around Paul and with the one finger that wasn’t clinging to the rim of his glass, touched the bright screen to deal himself a new hand. His hand moved fast and efficiently, pure muscle memory choosing cards, casting away one or two, then betting or folding.

“You bet big, or you fold big. Just don’t lose big. What says the Kid?”

“When did you get back, Mr. Rabalais? I mean, I heard from—I think it was—Richard Dexter that you were held up in Houston, right?”

Rabalais kept his eyes on the screen. The cards reflected in miniature in his reading glasses. “Tricky thing, house arrest.”

“Is that right?”

“Like what happens when you don’t have a house.”

“I knew I’d heard. Yeah.”

“There were other victims of Katrina besides those nutters in the Ninth Ward, you know. A whole helluva lot of white people on my block got rained out too. Of course, me and the girlfriend—did you meet Sheila?—were halfway through a renovation and insured to the gills, so no real loss there. Looky there. Three queens. The Kid brings me some luck. Anyway, Katrina, if you will, got me liquid again. And I thought I could make a play. Forced change of jurisdiction, something like that. I took off the monitor once we crossed the border into Texas. But the paperwork held over in Houston, too. Somehow. I’m sure as hell I got railroaded. Two high pair, I’ll take it. And amidst the whole brouhaha, my ex-wife somehow swooped in and now the plot up in Lakeview is hers. So I’m stuck in my sister’s house in steer’n’queer territory driving her up the wall. Eighteen months left on the sentence. Can’t make any forays into the real estate world til then. Truth to tell, I’m here tonight purely on reconnaissance. Low profile and all that. I’m supposed to be in Houston for a phone call by noon tomorrow, but until then, the way I see it, I’m free to do as I please. So there it is, straight from the horse’s mouth. Tell Richard Dexter next time you see him I hope his slippery silver tongue falls off and rots in hell and that God don’t have the mercy to grant him a new one. Bull shit! Busted broken straights. I have a weakness for crooked broads and straight flushes. No worries. The Kid is here. Take this and slide it in there.”

Rabalais pulled a hundred dollar bill out of his chest pocket and handed it to Paul.

“I’ll let you play the first hand while I yell at Charlotte.”

Paul smoothed out the bill. The machine only needed a tiny taste before it swallowed it whole.

“Charlotte! Refills over here! No, I’m not getting up, just hand ‘em down, folks, hand ‘em down. We’re putting out fires over here. Keep those buckets moving.” He put the empties on the window sill and resumed his command of the screen.

“So they made it stick, huh?” Paul asked.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s not enough to just lure a scapegoat out of the pen. They got to smear it with glue, too.”

“You know, I can remember whenever my father would take me with him to the bank, before we got into your office, he’d always tell me, ‘Rabalais is going to try and keep us here until his throat runs dry. Let’s have us a signal.’ You remember? And I’d sit still and listen to you guys talk and wait for Pop to wiggle his fingers or something, then I’d just bounce down and throw a tantrum.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. I do remember being confused by that. You were always the Kid, well-behaved and walking right behind your Pop, like you were a junior partner or aide even at ten. Those tantrums, I always thought they were a little queer. God damn that James Hinckley. He’s particular smart. You tell him I said so.”

Paul watched the old man’s fat fingers fold a wimpy hand.

“Ah, well, jeez, Mr. Rabalais. That’s part of why I’m here, I guess. Pop died this morning, and I’m on a rare bender.”

“Well, well,” Rabalais’ voice turned guttural and whispery. “I survive another one. I’m sorry to hear that, Paul. What happened?”

“The general consensus is that it was his heart. Stopped beating on the seventh hole at Audubon.”

“That’s a bad omen. For you and this town. He was a good man, your dad. He didn’t just know everyone’s name. He could probably tell you all the names on the business cards you’d accumulated in your pocket that week just by looking at you. He had that way, really, now that I focus on it—maybe that’s the only time we can focus on those men: when they’ve slowed down and died—he had a sixth sense about this city and all the people in it. He could smell the sherry on you the next day if you’d sat down for lunch with Artie Goodfry at Galatoire’s. He could pick a piece of lint off your jacket and determine whether you’d been inside Judge Miceli’s chambers or Judge Halpern’s. He could tell it in your handshake if you’d been playing golf with Roy Lillette cause you’d have blisters from playing 27 holes in one afternoon. He kept all that in his little Rolodex mind and gently pushed everyone around according to his deductions. What a great attorney, your Pop. What a great dealmaker. He’d bust your balls in the course of duty, but two days later your wife would get a giftbasket from his office and you couldn’t stay mad. Goddamn your Pop. Died happy on a golf course and I’m sitting here killing guilty time, hiding out in joints like this where they don’t remember me, behind court-imposed enemy lines in New Orleans. I don’t want to go back to Houston, Kid. I just plain don’t.”

“So why don’t you fight, Mr. Rabalais? Let me take you to the firm tomorrow, and we can get some swinging dicks on your case. Who’s handling your appeal now?”

“Appeal?” Rabalais laughed, pineapple juice spittle hit the touch screen. “Kid, if I appeal, I go right into a trap that’s been planned out ten moves ahead. They’ll accuse me of shit I never even dreamed of doing, retrofit any more loose ends out there to me, keep my head spinning with depositions witnesses I never met until even I can’t keep the record straight of which cow piles I stepped in and which ones I didn’t. Maybe I made some mistakes. Maybe I bet too big. I can barely remember it all now, Kid, and that’s saying something for the best long-term interest whiz in the parish. I should’ve been like your dad. He always knew when to wash his hands. Too many of us in this town, we got used to the dirt like it was our skin, then never noticed until our hands were so heavy all we could do was sling mud. Look at this. I haven’t seen a face card in ten minutes. This game is rigged.” Rabalais hit a button to cash out and the machine reluctantly printed out a receipt.

“Excuse me.”

Paul stood and helped the man emerge from the booth. Rabalais’ face seemed to age ten years outside of the glare of the screen, and Paul felt a confident pity for the old banker. “C’mon, don’t beat yourself up, Mr. Rabalais. They’ve got you confused with a dishonest man. That’s not who I grew up knowing.”

“The Kid. The Hinckley Kid. You got the white hat now. Excuse me.”

Rabalais leaned into the bar and handed over his white slip to the bartender who exchanged it for a few ten-dollar bills. Paul patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll get word through to someone. One of the boys at the firm can take a look at this jurisdiction thing.”

“Paul, there’s a black car around the corner with a Bangladeshi driver in it. The guy speaks perfect Amarillo North Texas. That’s what’s happening today. I know you don’t want to believe it, but there’s a big chunk of America out there that ain’t New Orleans, and he’s gotta take me back to it. That chunk may not have our rules or our food or our ways of life, but, Kid, there’s sure a hell of a lot more places to hide.”

“I guess this is goodbye, Mr. Rabalais.”

“My respects.”

Paul sat down again at the bar and stared at the wrinkled edges of the cocktail napkin under his glass. The bartender came over, a woman with a large bust supported by a larger gut. Charlotte.

“You two were talking up a storm there, darling.”

Paul looked up. “Haven’t we got a right to?”

“Sure, sure. But you should know that guy’s an asshole.”

“What?”

“He’s in here one night every week, playing that game and causing a scene. And if he does manage to come out on top, he won’t tip out when he turns in his slip.”

Paul took a deep breath. “Look, lady, that man made more money for the New Orleans Bank than anyone else for decades. Because of him, thousands of people have been able to get an honest loan for their cars and houses and the bank had enough left over to sprinkle around dozens of charities. So don’t tell me he’s a jerk.”

“Look, he’s your buddy, not mine. I’ll stay out of it. All I know is he could buy this place with all the hundreds he’s stuck in that machine. And maybe sprinkle a little charity into the tip jar.”

“I don’t want to fight with you. Give me another martini and we’ll call it even.”

“You’re barely keeping your eyes open as it is. I’ll give you another if you take it out of here and into a cab.”

Paul looked at his watch. “Jeesum Crickets. Deal, Charlotte.”

Charlotte retreated to the phone hanging on the wall and dialed.

“Hey, they want a name, darling.”

“Paul Hinckley!”

“Gotcha.”

A young man, tall with pink cheeks and a ruffled part in his hair sitting a few stools down spilled his drink over the bar. He leaned forward and called down, “Paul Hinckley?”

“Ye-es?”

“Paul Peter Hinckley?”

“Do I know your parents?”

The boy backed off of his stool and walked over bearing a business card between his first two fingers. “You don’t have to read it. Just hang on to it. I’ve been in here for eight hours drinking OJ, and I’m tired as hell of watching baseball. Mr. Hinckley, I represent Remo MacQuincy and—”

Remo?!

“He’s been looking for you, sir. He’s got a dozen of us staked out at places you might frequent with instructions to commandeer your attention. He’d given us each this picture, but, apparently, well—” The kid handed Paul a photocopy of a picture of himself taken at least twenty years ago, the same kind face only without the weight of the extra flab around the neck, a few more inches of hair on his forehead, and just a hint of how far the crow’s feet would track outward from the corners of his eyes.

“This picture’s older than you. How long has he been looking for me? Why didn’t he call?”

“Mr. MacQuincy—as well as us, his staff—has been under a lot of stress lately. He wants to avoid the phone.”

“Okay, well. I’m kind of tied up for the next week, unfortunately.”

“Mr. MacQuincy just wants to have a ten-minute chat.”

“That’s fine, but I can’t really say as to when I’m going to be available. Tell him to drop by the house on Friday.”

“Mr. Hinckley…” The young man searched for the language. “Mr. MacQuincy is only willing to respond to a written invitation.”

“What?”

“A paper trail has become very important.”

“Look, I know Remo has his days, but—”

“It’s really not a burden. We already have one written up.”

The kid reached into an alligator-print messenger bag and pulled out a sheet of paper. Paul read, with some difficulty:

I, Paul Peter Hinckley, do hereby invite Remo Alvin MacQuincy, Esq. to my residence at 801 Harmony Street on the agreed-upon date of July 31st, 2008, A.D., for the purposes of ascertaining the relevance and necessity of a proposal to be made by Mr. MacQuincy with regard, but not limited to, future inhabitant status and concordant arrangements, as well as a declaration and oath of allegiance to the perseverance and continuity of the traditions, ways, and means of MacQuincy Law Firm, American Freedom, and the Proud City of New Orleans against all besmirchers, traitors, counterinsurgents, and self-appointed, money-grubbing “watchdogs.” With full trust and benevolence, I sign this day.

“Sir, you’d be doing me a favor. First one to get you to sign gets a $500 bonus and fast-track status once we’re back in good standing.”

“I’ll sign, sure, if that’s what it takes. But this is all clear as mud, and I’m a lawyer’s kid.”

“It’s a formality, really. Right now the firm of MacQuincy, et al, is in a severe lockdown. As I said, a paper trail is of utmost importance.”

“I’ll give you an A for lingo, kid. But I can’t promise the 31st. Day after tomorrow, I can do that.”

The young man put a fountain pen into his mouth, kept the cap in his teeth, and made an edit on the paper. “Just initial the change and sign, then, Mr. Hinckley.”

Paul signed. The kid ripped out a yellow carbon copy from the sheaf. “For your records.”

A horn honked outside. “That’s my cab,” Paul said. “Meeting adjourned.”

“Thank you, sir,” the young man held out a pink hand. “I’ll remember this.”

“Where’d you go to school?”

“We’re all Tulane Law. Graduated last year.”

“You can ride that diploma like a sled, kid. I went myself.”

“Oh. What firm are you with.”

“H&R Block. Excuse me. My cab.”

“Yes, sir.”

* * *

The cab stopped as instructed at the intersection of Constance and Harmony streets. Paul pushed himself forward out of the cab and tossed the remainder of the martini into the shrubs outside of his shotgun house. He could feel the blood vessels in his head starting a light warm-up beat that would turn into a full timpani crescendo by dawn. He grabbed the iron railing and started to pull himself up onto the porch.

“Hey,” came a light voice from next door. “You’re up late.”

Paul looked up at the small balcony of the second floor of the house next door. A young woman in a white cotton tank top and tiny plaid shorts had her arms buckled straight on the railing and her legs twisted around each other. A joint spun out a thin, wavy thread of smoke from between the knuckles of her right hand. Paul began to notice, for the first time tonight, how long the humidity had persevered.

“Which one are you?” Paul asked.

“You don’t recognize me?” the girl asked.

“Cindy?”

“Sandy. I’m the one whose name is on the lease.”

“Welcome back.” He knew her now: the stance, the Georgia lilt in her voice. Sandy, the stripper. Sandy worked Bourbon Street and beyond. She’d started up on the circuit, advance warning and costume changes. Those Boom-Boom Broads of the Big Easy are Coming to Your Town, Nebraska. If it was worth the effort, Paul couldn’t figure. He just knew that whenever she left, three more cycled in, sometimes for a week, others for an entire season. Girls with the eagerness of small-town pre-pubescence, girls with accents miles deep. Brunettes, blondes, and redheads. Light limbs and hoarse voices. Girls who walked with the jangle of someone else’s keys into a borrowed room and turned on the stereo until just before dawn. The weekend brought muscular cohorts in Jeeps and F-150s in guy-girl ratios that Paul found embarrassing. They were part of the reason he was up and ready to hit the first tee by six on Saturdays.

“There wasn’t any trouble, I hope?”

“Trouble?”

“With my last few girlfriends.”

“Oh, well. I don’t worry about me. I worry about them.”

“The road,” she said, “breeds tough bitches.”

Paul laughed hesitantly. “Late, late, late,” he said.

“Sure. Just so you know.”

“Yeah?”

“Your girlfriend let herself in a couple hours ago.”

Paul waved. “Okay, goodnight now, Cin—Sandy.”

Ta. Ta.

He locked the deadbolt and withdrew past the parlor into the living room. In the indecent glare of post-Letterman infomercials Liza was sprawled on the couch. A half-eaten slice of Gambino’s layer cake squatted on a plate on the coffee table. Paul watched her as he pulled off his blazer, unknotted his tie, and slid it loose of his button-down collar. His body felt heavy, weighed down with booze and memory. His shoes were too tight. He’d known that all along, but it seemed especially troubling at this moment. Liza could wake up there in the morning. Maybe even slip out and cross the street to her place without bothering him. It would be easy to risk that, but it wouldn’t help his inevitable hangover in the morning if she did hold him to task. The burdened gentleman within him tipped his hand forward towards her cheek.

“Liza.”

She instantly responded and anxiously purred, though half-asleep. “Paul.”

“Let’s go to bed, hey?”

“Are we in my place or yours?” She opened her eyes. “Ahh. Yours.”

“What do you say? Climb in with me and we can have an even earlier breakfast.”

Liza pushed herself up on the couch and searched the floor for her shoes with her bare feet. “I feel like I should punish you,” she said. “Leaving me like that. Once you were gone, Robert and Joe followed suit and it was me and the Favrots for an unending piece of pie and a bottomless cup of coffee. I think we made it all the way to their grand-nieces in Arizona.”

“Look, I was upset earlier. Something came over me. But I went out of the frying pan into the fire. Remo reached out to me.”

She sat composed yet still had her eyes closed with mascara clumped from sweat and congress with the throw pillow. “God in hell, what for?”

“I don’t know. I only dealt with one of his proxies.”

“You’re tired.”

“More than you can imagine.”

“It’s not every day your father dies.”

Paul shrugged. “What’s gonna happen?”

Liza smiled, adjusted her blouse. “We’re going to wake up, go to Commander’s for brunch, then see your mother. It’s appropriate and it’s necessary. Look, your brothers have everything handled. Why can’t we just coast?”

“Come on. I bought that huge queen bed a year ago. I’m tired of sleeping in the middle of it.”

Liza shook her head. “I haven’t seen after the cats. See me to the door, Paul.”

She gave up a brief kiss at the top of the stairs then walked down one at a time, looked both ways at the edge of the pavement into silent, streetlamp vagueness. Her heels clicked on the thick pavement, expanding as Paul watched it, swelling under the humid air with no relief from the short-lived coolness of deep, dark night. He waited until she made her way up onto the porch of her house across the street, wiped her feet on the mat, unlocked the door, and slipped inside. Finally alone, his heart started a free-fall, no longer slowed by the friction of human contact or familial responsibilities. He wanted to stagger backwards, dramatically, into his front door, fall backwards, and wake up with his cheek pressed clammily on the wood floor. He wanted to watch a John Wayne movie and cheer a thrown lasso or an evaded bullet. He wanted to mentally pull Liza out of her house and back into his, changed now, in a robe or pajamas, something soft rather than shiny, earrings deposited in the jewelry box, heels stacked in the closet. Just barefoot, airborne Liza the way he remembered.

“Dude,” a voice called down from the balcony next door. “Your girl lives across the street? What’s up with that?”

Paul chuckled. “There’s an old joke we have,” he said. “Liza lives over there and I live over here. And in between…lies Harmony.”

Continue reading!  Chapter 3: A Minor and a Matriarch


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