The redheaded negro

The previous day, November 12, 1954, had been his 26th birthday and now he was staring at the ceiling in the Marbol Hotel. His name was Billy Lancing.

An old man’s body had been hauled from that same room three days before, but Billy didn’t know that. The graying sheets had been flipped, and air freshener had been sprayed.

Billy was a half-breed, but that term’s misleading because he wasn’t a 50-50 split. He was mostly white, but black genes showed in his full mouth and nose, the twist of his hair — like Malcolm X  who found fame a few years later.

Two redheaded negroes, Billy and Malcolm.

Billy’s mama was an octoroon hooker in San Sebastian, but he didn’t mess with her anymore. He had, as he liked to think of it, gone straight, earned his own way.  He was whale of a pool shark.

A couple years back he had such a fat wad from playing pool that he enrolled in college, but college was not for Billy.  After a semester, he lost interest, plus he married a coed and spawned a child.

A classroom at 8 a.m. couldn’t compete with a pool hall at midnight, so he dropped out and found a job managing a 24-hour bowling alley that included pool tables. That’s where the trouble started.

A slicker shark, a fat man from Los Angeles, appeared one night with two young dim-eyed hoods with broken noses, and put Billy in the poorhouse.

Blame it on ego. Blame it on stupidity. Billy should have known better than to go so far, but he had a reputation to protect.

He played until he was broke, not even one buck in the secret lining of his suit. You wouldn’t believe how that fat man played pool, how the balls adored and followed him. Those slave balls couldn’t say no to the fat man.

As with college before, Billy was fed up with family life, so he used being broke as an excuse to run, and now he was alone in the Marbol Hotel with a fresh wad of money from a fake check he’d cashed at a package store the previous day.

Billy Lancing had never committed a bona fide crime before, and it scared him, that check scam. He had never been in jail, but this initial sin eventually led to his stabbing in San Quentin, killed by a black-headed homosexual negro with a colossal attitude and a throbbing lust.

If only Billy had stuck with the coed and his kid.

Lying on his bed in the Marbol Hotel, of course, he did not know that his life would be short and useless. But right now he wanted a woman.

He’d been dry too long.  He was hungry for skin.

* * * *

He found her in the hotel lobby. She looked so young, but she said she was 18, and Billy wanted to buy that. She was inexpensive, and she loved to talk.

Her name was Kristanabel.

She related a crazy story about killing her parents, that the cops had nabbed her but lacked the hard evidence to nail her, so she was released the previous week in Mintablisko.

Kristanabel told this story as they sprawled on the bed with Chesterfields and marginal gin, and it made Billy nervous. He glanced toward her small sequined purse on the bureau and wondered if it hid something that would scare a pool shark who had just turned 26.

* * * *

There was a pounding. Police! Open the door!  Billy jumped up and pulled on his pants. Kristanabel dove beneath the sheets. Two hard men with plainclothes and steel badges entered.

Billy never learned how they found him at the Marbol Hotel. He was tried and convicted of passing a bad check and soiling the morals of a child.

Billy went to San Quentin and his death while Kristanabel landed in the foster home of Mr. and Mrs. Myron Blade and their two normal children.

Kristanabel saw how Myron looked at her, and she knew it would work to her advantage. She remained on the shy side of 16.

(Note: This is an imaginary chapter, something that might have been but wasn’t, in the wonderful novel by the late Don Carpenter titled  Hard Rain Falling. We will encounter Billy no more. But Kristanabel? Perhaps.)

* * * *

(One of a series titled The Marbol Hotel.) 

You are my splendor

The distance between my town and the state capital is eight Emmylou Harris songs.

And that’s without police or army checkpoints, which always add a few more tunes to your travel time.

The best of a recent trip was My Antonía, part of which goes like this:

— Oh my love. Oh my Antonía. You with the dark eyes and palest of skin. Tonight I’m going from Santa Maria. Wait for me till I’m in your arms once again.

This is country music so, of course, there’s grief and pain down the highway. Antonía waited a spell but died “of a fever.”

— I’ll never see her in this world againYou are my sorrow. You are my splendor. You are my shelter through storm and through strife.

— You are the one I will always remember.  All of the days of my life.

A friend once noted that if you’re in the midst of romantic grief or divorce, all country songs are speaking directly to you.

This effect is magnified if you’re gripping a steering wheel.

* * * *

My Antonía.

The pink rose

She was a tiny bottle blonde from Brooklyn. But that was not where I met her. I met her in San Juan where she was a secretary on a newspaper.

She was a romance. One advantage of multiple marriages is that it frees up time between wives to have romances that you don’t get crucified for. You’re not “cheating” on anyone.

While I lived in a rented room nearby in the beachfront home of a sports writer and his Dominican girlfriend, the Brooklyn blonde lived with her cat in a second-floor apartment where the pounding waves were beyond earshot.

But there was a balcony and Puerto Rican street life. It faced a small restaurant where we often ate chicken and rice (arroz con pollo) and listened to Johnny Nash sing I Can See Clearly Now on the Rockola.

While she was a tiny New Yorker, I was a 225-pound, 6-foot-3-inch, tattooed, black-bearded hulk of a Southern Cracker boy, so we looked a tad goofy holding hands on the sidewalk.

But we didn’t care.

Like many Caribbean romances, it came to an end, but not just then.

A few months later, my job fell through, and I moved back where I came from — New Orleans — and she followed me uninvited with her cat and her mother, which did not bode well, as you might imagine.

Cats and mothers did not fit my lifestyle and, following a few months under the same roof (sans mama) near Bayou St. John, we disintegrated and I was free again, which is how I wanted it at that time.

But whenever I hear Johnny Nash sing I Can See Clearly Now, it catapults me back to San Juan, swaying palms, sidewalk avocados, and the tiny bottle blonde from Brooklyn who favored pink lipstick. Her name was Mary.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary. But she wasn’t. I was the contrary one.

* * * *

Johnny Nash sings that good song.

Water music

It sounded like a small motor, perhaps the sort that powers toy airplanes for pretend pilots. It woke me up at 4 a.m.

Propping myself up on a pillow, fingering the sleep from my ears and focusing my attention sharply, the source of the motor revealed itself.

It was rainwater from the roof, passing through a steel drainpipe installed just last dry December, falling onto a banana leaf.

It was water music, so I went back to sleep.