‘Just... just... what do you want?’

He laid back in my stuffed chair and put his feet on my sheets. He flashed his new gold tooth at me and drank whiskey like it was water.

‘You know I’m from down Pariah, Easy. Yes, sir! Just a country boy.’ He poured another glassful. ‘Down home, that’s me.’

I poured three fingers and waited. Mouse needed room to tell his story. He was afraid that the idea would get confused unless you had all the facts. If he was to tell you about a nail in a horse’s foot he’d start off explaining coal and iron and how they make steel.

‘... an’ you know us country boys is slow to get a idee, but once we got the picture we ain’t never gonna let go... You got a cigarette?’

‘Got some papers an’ shag.’

‘Uh-uh, no thanks. You know I cain’t stand them leaves in my mouf.’ He twisted his lips and slugged back his second glass of scotch. ‘I guess you know I been kinda worried with the weddin’ an’ how me an’ Etta ain’t wit’ much dough.’

‘Yeah, I know.’

‘Well, I got it all figgered out now.’ Mouse smiled so satisfied that I felt good.

But I said, ‘Com’on, man, it’s midnight...’

‘My stepdaddy.’


He looked at me real close then, like a dog does when a new smell comes by. Like he was wondering if I was food or foe or some love interest.

He said, ‘You like Etta, don’t ya, Easy?’

‘Yeah, sure I like her.’ I didn’t like that question, though. ‘Etta been hangin’ out wit’ us fo’ years.’

‘Yeah, that’s true,’ Mouse said, staring down into his jelly glass. Then he looked up at me. ‘But you like’er more’n just some friend. I mean she’s a good-lookin’ woman, right?’

‘She look fine. Now what’s this about yo’ stepdaddy?’

But he wouldn’t let it go.

‘She look good, but that’s not what make her so fine. Etta ain’t no bow-down woman, she stand up fo’ what she want. An’ no one better be foolin’ wit’ her ‘less she like ya, ‘cause Etta got a strong arm.’

I laughed and said yeah but I was watching Mouse then. For all my size that small man scared me.

Mouse was laughing too, but his eyes were in mine.

‘That’s the truth,’ he said. ‘An’ they ain’t a real man who don’t wonder what a powerful woman like that can do. ‘Cause you know the first time I seen Etta sit down to a plate’ a food I knew she was a hungry woman.’ He ran the length of his hand down his crotch. ‘Yeah, that Etta will eat you up!’

I poured out a little scotch and wondered if that was going to be my last drink.

He held my eye while he poured whiskey, while he drank. I could hear the house settling, it was so quiet.

‘Why’ont you roll me one, Ease? You got the touch.’

The pouch was on the end table, next to the knife. I reached for it slowly so he could see what I was doing.

I had to suck my tongue to get enough spit to wet the paper.

‘Yeah. You know Etta wring me out and in the mo’nin’ she tell me that if I wanna keep that good stuff fo’me I better do right.’ He laughed. ‘And she knew I had plenty’a women t’buy my clothes. An’ I knew she weren’t no virgin neither... But I can understand a man, Easy.’ Mouse leaned back quickly and put his hand in his pocket.

I flinched and the tobacco and paper fell to the floor.

‘... a man,’ he continued as he came out with a red handkerchief to wipe his nose, ‘who run after a woman-like that wit’ his nose open an’ his tongue hangin’ down.’ I had been down in Galveston once when EttaMae lived there. I spent the night with her even though I knew she was Mouse’s girl. He must’ve found out, but he couldn’t know how bad I felt about it.

The next morning all Etta could talk about was how sweet a man Mouse was and how lucky I was to have him for a friend.

There I was facing a jealous fiance when Etta had glazed over me like so much meat.

Mouse was smiling and I believe that he knew what I was thinking. I gave up trying to roll the cigarette; all I could do was stare at him and try not to look concerned.

Somebody might wonder why a big man like me would be scared of a small man, half his size. But size doesn’t count for much in this world. I once saw Mouse put a knife in a big man’s gut. I was drunk and that man, Junior Fornay was his name, was after me because he thought the girl I was with was his. He ripped off his shirt and came after me bare-fisted and bare-chested. They cleared the barroom and we went at it. But I was drunk and Junior was one of those field hands that you would swear was born from stone. He pounded me until I hit the floor and then he started kicking. I balled up to try and save myself but you know I could hear my dead mother that night: She was calling my name.

That’s when Mouse strolled up.

Junior waved a piece of furniture at him but Mouse just put his hand in the air. I swear he couldn’t reach as high as Junior’s forehead but he said, ‘He got his lesson, man, you gotta let him live so he can learn.’

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