Tuesday, May 13, 2008


CHESTER AND ELVIRA squeezed past the impatient crowd and exited through the glass doors of the welfare office. They turned south down the old State highway and began walking along the worn rut in the grass between the levee and the road where a sidewalk should have been. The baleful sun beat down forcefully and a lone katydid chirped in the weeds. Dump trucks and industrial vehicles rumbled past kicking up dust and belching exhaust fumes. The humidity overwhelmed the pair and soon they were sticky and drenched. Chester's threadbare shirt clung to his bones like a second skin and the perspiration picked up the brown dust. They knew enough to let the work trucks pass unmolested but whenever an old car creaked past they stuck out their thumbs in hopes of a ride. Nobody stopped but Cherry Gypsum, whom they knew from the trailer court on Dead Man Lane. She told them that she needed a few bucks for gas and had to make a stop halfway down the Parish at the old clapboard house of worship. She wanted to speak to Minster Thurgood. It was he who told her about the universal food stamp reimbursement in the first place. That's what he called it, 'a universal food stamp reimbursement.' The minister had an excellent vernacular grasp and enunciated his words clearly when he spoke. As pastor of the First New Risers Baptist Missionary Church, he was held in high esteem by almost everyone in the lower Parish. And as a result of his benevolent candor, Cherry didn't have to wait in line all day and might even catch the tail end of her stories. She wanted to thank him, keep in his good graces. Chester and Elvira passed on the ride. They wouldn't have jutted their thumbs out in the first place had they recognized her beat sedan. Chester held a grudge against her because Cherry often made a stink about the late night ruckus they kicked up at the court, mainly when her husband Albert joined them. Hell, they'd find a ride eventually. Why waste money on gasoline? What they needed was a good stiff drink anyhow; a nip of something to slake the thirst. Cherry drove off muttering under her breath, engine sputtering, struts and shocks ready to cough up the ghost, exhaust fumes blackening the air. Chester and Elvira walked a bit further to the dilapidated Ajax Bar, which stood like a sentinel and the gateway to the lower Parish proper.

Chester's pockets were empty except for the packet of food stamps that Mister LeFluer had given them but he padded himself reflexively to be sure. Elvira had some dough, he knew. She always saved a bit for just this purpose. It was a big trip up and down the only highway in the Parish when you didn't own a vehicle. There was no bus service, or public transit of any kind.

“Let's get a nip and rest our dogs,” Chester postured with bravado.

They limped past the faded, handwritten Ajax Bar Sign and down the oyster shell drive toward the sagging and rotted porch. It was almost as hot inside as out but the lights were dimmed and that made a difference. An old ceiling fan slowly sliced through the thick air and squeaked with each rotation. There wasn't a soul in the place save for Jim, the old barkeep who was a permanent fixture. The warped wooden floorboards creaked under their feet as they sidled up the the bar. Chester ordered two shots of bar brand whiskey and a couple of Dixie drafts. The barman nodded and poured the drinks without saying a word. He was a part of the place like the jukebox and barstools.

No comments: