Fiction © Copyright 2017 by Sara Jacobelli
The Rooms didn’t have a name, just a hand-lettered sign, “Rooms.” Other weekly rooms on the street had names: “Uncle Mike’s Place” “Sunset Inn” “OK Corral.” The Rooms on Rampart had rules. Guy who ran the place, Pete, wouldn’t rent to women, insisted one man to a room. He made signs on cardboard and posted them in the lobby and hallways. No cooking in the room. No booze. No drugs. No fighting. No guns. No knives. No sneaking broads up to your room. I done enough time, I know how to follow the rules and mind my business.
Rooms were eighteen bucks a week, head down the hall. Soon as they got there, Shorty and Dave broke the rules: Dave rented the room and snuck Shorty in. They’d only have to pay nine bucks a week, long as they dodged Old Pete. Pete had this way about him, reminded me of an old giant snapping turtle I saw at a roadside stand out in Kraemer. When he talked, he bobbed his head, sniveled, cleared his throat. Had this window in his door so he could stick his turtle head out, see what was going on.
Pete had the best spot in the building: one-bedroom, kitchenette, and a TV. He got all that for collecting the rents, kicking out deadbeats, breaking up fights, enforcing the rules. Shorty and Dave were jealous of Pete’s sweetheart deal. I met these two sitting on the front stoop smoking.
Shorty said he was from Chicago, spent his life riding the rails. Dave said he was from Bakersfield. Shorty was short of course, and skinny, clothes too big, shifty dark eyes, pock-marked face. About forty but looked sixty. Dave was younger, taller, bright green eyes, reddish-brown hair, freckles. Shorty looked like a hobo. Dave at first glance could pass for a regular working guy. You looked twice, you could tell by his raggedy teeth and sallow skin and the desperate look in his eyes that he was a man on the edge. Type that would follow around the Manson Family. Shorty drank MD-2020 but Dave scored speed whenever he could. Both claimed to have done hard time. Both were full of shit. I been in the joint and I can pick up right away, by the way a man walks and moves, the way his eyes take in his surroundings, I can tell whose done hard time and who’s talking outta his ass.
“Where you taking the bus to fella?”
“The fuck you care?”
“Don’t gotta get surly with me, Mac. Just making conversation. They call me Shorty. You know what churches give out free food?”
“Right down the block by St. Jude. I don’t bother with it. Pete don’t like cooking in the rooms.”
Shorty smoked his hand-rolled Bugler. “This here’s Dave, my running partner.”
Dave ignored me and picked up an almost-new cigarette he found on the sidewalk. “Bus stop’s the best place for these here.” He held up the cigarette like it was a diamond ring. “People drop em when their bus comes.” He giggled. “Hey, you notice you never see no baby pigeons? You see growed ones all over the place, you see dead ones, but you never see no God-Damned baby pigeons?”
My bus came. We get a lot of strange ones in the Rooms but these two gave me the creeps.
Shorty and Dave brought a girl upstairs, a big-eyed teen-aged speed freak with scraggly black hair and Olive Oyl eyes.
“Old Pete ain’t gonna want her up here.”
“Fuck Pete.” Shorty was the boss. Dave grinned his evil grin.
Olive Oyl leaned against Shorty. “You said you had some shit.”
“She OD’s, the cops come. Nobody wants cops here.”
“Whyn’t you mind your own business, Mac?”
I shut the door to my room. I could hear Shorty talking and Dave and the girl giggling. Then they shut up. I figured Dave and Olive Oyl were shooting speed, Shorty was drinking Mad Dog. A radio blared Mama got a squeeze box she wears on her chest, and when Daddy gets home he never gets no rest. Sounded like Dave was screwing Olive Oyl; the mattress squeaked and they banged against the headboard. There was a framed picture on the wall of a sailboat on a blue-green sea. I looked at the painting before I fell asleep, dreaming I was on that boat on that sea. My room was much better than sleeping in abandoned buildings or the Ozaman Inn. I was hoping for a steady gig in the Quarter mopping floors or washing dishes. Life was doing me pretty good and I didn’t want them bastards to ruin it. There’s guys in this town desperate enough they’ll kill somebody for a hundred bucks.
Old Pete said he had nothing but his Routine and he loved his Routine like a man loves his woman. Coffee, cigarettes, newspaper. Lunch at the Clover Grill or the Tally-Ho. The track. Back home to the TV. We had some drunks in the Rooms. Whiners. Deadbeats. Not much trouble. Once in a while a lonely old guy would die in his room and Pete always said the same thing. “Well, you never know. You never know.”
We didn’t have much trouble til those two showed up. Shorty and Dave.
Shorty and Dave wouldn’t shut up about Pete’s apartment. Kept hatching up ways to get rid of him, take over his job. I kinda liked Pete. Had this fridge in the hallway, stocked it with popsicles in the summer, then gripe that everyone stole them. But he kept stocking the fridge with more popsicles. Me and the other roomers, Lucky Dog Daigle and flower-vendor Moonbeam, we raided that fridge. A popsicle tasted just right on sweltering summer nights, specially when you couldn’t scrape up enough quarters and nickels for a sno-ball or a Dixie beer.
“Could put poison in his coffee cup. Just move into his crib, collect the rents. Have us a good ole time.” Shorty picked his nose, inspected the booger, wiped it on his dirty jeans.
Dave pointed a bony finger at me. “That one there’s listening.”
I brushed past them and opened the heavy front door.
I turned around. “Did I tell you the story bout the time they sent me to the loony bin up in De-troit, on accounta I kilt a man?” Dave took his knife out of his pocket and flicked the blade open and shut, open and shut, glared at me with his Charly Manson eyes.
“Pete’s all right. Let’s you pay rent a day or two late. These rooms are two bucks cheaper than Mike’s next door. I don’t got no problems with Pete.”
Shorty rolled his Bugler, leaned against the stair rail. “Don’t seem fair he’s got that place with the windows and the TV. You come in on our plan.” He nodded in the direction of Pete’s door. “We’d collect the dough, split it three ways. No telling what he’s got, we could pawn.”
Old Pete died in his sleep three days after winning twelve hundred bucks in the Trifecta. I moved into Pete’s apartment. I collect the rents, send the California landlord a money order every month. Never told him I raised it from eighteen smackers to twenty-two.
I got rid of Shorty and Dave, with a grand left over. Wash dishes two days a week, spend the rest of the week at the track during the season. When the track’s closed I play bourre’ and knock rummy over by Johnny White’s. Waitresses at the Clover Grill and the Tally-Ho pour my coffee soon’s I walk in the door. Might treat myself to dinner at the Steak Pit on Bourbon Street and drinks at the Bastille on Toulouse. I’m gonna ask out that cute waitress with the nice ass that waits for the bus in front of the Rooms. Take her to the movies over by Canal Street.
Old Pete. Good Luck and Bad Luck in the same week. That’s life for you.
I put the sailboat painting on the wall in my new bedroom. You need a room to rent, you come see me. I kept Pete’s signs up. Just make sure you follow the rules.
Song Lyrics: “Squeeze Box.” The Who. 1975, https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/who/squeezebox.html
Rooms sign: “Greek Islands Rooms.” Dreamstime Stock Photos: https://tinyurl.com/y9rr8yvx
“Sailboat Painting” by Jennifer Branch: https://jenniferbranch.com/PaintingWatercolor/Art-Tutorials/Sailboat-Painting-Tutorial.html