Mouse had changed.
Before he announced his engagement to EttaMae he was a happy man, full of himself. It's true that he was especially pleased when misfortune happened to someone else, but at least he kept us smiling. Life was hard back then and a good laugh was worth a month of Sundays.
But just when he had a reason to be glad, Mouse turned sour and moody. He let his appearance go to seed (he was usually a natty dresser) and nobody wanted to be around him because when a small, rodent-faced man like Mouse got ugly, he was no company even for the harshest man.
He stopped going to parties altogether. If you happened to run into him on some corner, or back alley, and asked how he was doing, he'd say, "What the hell you think? Here I am gonna get married in two months an' 'tween me an' EttaMae we ain't got enough money for dip an' crackers."
Mouse didn't go out looking for work. All he did was get mad whenever he had to let go of a few coins.
So it was no surprise that his crowd started to shun him.
I mean, even if you wanted to see Mouse it was hard work because he changed apartments almost every month -- one step ahead of the landlord, as we used to say.
I didn't want to see him. Mostly because I was jealous. You see, EttaMae was the kind of woman you had on your mind when you woke up in the morning. She was big and friendly, and always knew the right thing to say. But she never lied; Etta spoke her mind, and when she laughed it came from her heart. Everybody loved EttaMae, and she loved the only man I ever knew who didn't have a heart at all.
So between me being jealous and Mouse being so taciturn, I was surprised late one Tuesday night when a racket broke out at my apartment door. It sounded more like a fight than a knock. I dragged myself out of a deep sleep trying to think of who might be after me. I knew that it couldn't be the police, they just broke the door down in that neighborhood, and I hadn't seen any seriously married women in more than six months.
"Hold on!" I yelled, thinking about the back window. I was reaching for the butcher's knife on the nightstand when he called, "Easy! Easy! Open this do', man, I gotta talk!"
"Yeah, man! Lemme in!"
I snatched the door open with a curse on my lips but when I saw him I knew he'd changed again. He had on a plaid zoot suit with Broadway suspenders and spats on his black bluchers. He wore a silk hat and when he smiled you could see the new gold rim and blue jewel on his front tooth. For someone who never worked, Mouse knew how to keep himself in style.
"Man, what you doin' here this time'a night? I gotta work in the mo'nin'!"
He pushed by me saying, "That's all right, Easy, I'ma buy some'a yo' time this week." A tan rucksack hung from his shoulder. I could hear the chink of bottles as it swung against his side.
"We gotta talk, man," he said.
He led the way back into my apartment. All it was was a big room with a Murphy bed. He sat down on the good chair and I sat on the bed, facing him.
"Mouse, what do you..."
He held up his hand, half smiling like one of those saints in the illustrated Bibles.
"Easy, I have got it."
He pulled Johnnie Walker from the sack.
"I have got it," he said. "Now do you got some glasses? 'Cause this here's Black Label and it won't do to swig it from the neck."
"Man, what do you want?"
"I want some glasses, Easy, so we can celebrate my good fortune. You the first one gonna know."
"Know what? All I know is I gotta get me some sleep."
"Then get me sumpin' t'drink wit' and I will deliver you the potion of dreams."
There was no use in trying to argue when Mouse was in a preaching mood. There were glasses in the closet at the back of the room. I rinsed them in a tub I kept back there.
"Jelly glasses?" Mouse turned up his nose while he poured.
"Just...just...what do you want?"
He lay 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..."
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 on 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 into 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 fiancé 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."
"You better git..." was all Junior could say before Mouse had his stiletto buried, maybe just half an inch, in the field hand's gut. I was lying between them, looking up. I could see Mouse smiling and I could see Junior's face grow pale. Mouse quick-grabbed Junior's neck with his free hand and said, "You better drop that stick or I'ma stir the soup, boy."
I think I would rather have the beating than to see that, and smell it too.
So I was listening to Mouse with great respect.
"...but you know, Easy, all that is past. I ain't the type'a man to bear no grudge. Po' men cain't afford no grudge. Shit! It's hard enough for a po' man t'get through the day."
He slapped my knee and leaned back in the chair. When he threw his leg over the armrest I knew I was safe.
"S-so, what 'bout yo' stepdaddy?" I asked.
"Yeah." Mouse stared at the ceiling with a smile. "You got that cigarette yet?"
I started rolling again.
"Yeah, my stepdaddy got a big pile'a money out on that farm somewhere. Big pile."
"He wanna give you some'a that?"
"Well, we ain't on the best terms -- me an' Daddy Reese. You know he's a farm boy down t'his nuts an' he see everything like a farmer see his world. So when I come along he figgers I was the runt'a the litter and I should be put in a burlap sack and dumped in the river."
Mouse was smiling but he wasn't happy.
"Shoo, man! Even a farmer love his chirren."
"I ain't none'a his. My momma had me when she was still footloose an' feelin' good. Daddy Reese come nosin' around later."
"So how's that gonna help you and Etta?"
Mouse pulled up his pant leg, leaned forward, and slapped my knee again. He said, "That's just what I been thinkin', Easy. How one rich ole hick gonna help me when he cain't stand my face? I been thinkin' 'bout that fo' days. I go t'sleep thinkin' 'bout it an' then I wake up in the same frame'a mind.
"You know I went down to Galveston 'cause Etta wanted me t'see if I could get sumpin' down on the docks. Could you see me in that filthy water? Shit! But I went down there because you gotta respect yo' woman."
That was Mouse to a word. Children loved him and their mothers did too.
"I was down on the docks eatin' a sandwich and watchin' the boys down there. They had this game they played. You see, in the hot day them ship rats crawl up on the top'a the pilin's to git some sun. They just lay out in the sun an' bake with they long nekked tails hangin' down an' wavin' 'round the logs. Uh! It's disgustin'. But anyway, them boys sneak up to where the rats is an' they wait real quiet right next to the tail."
Mouse sat up straight and clapped his hands like a gunshot.
"Then they grab the tail an' swing that rat through the air till it smash on the pier! Oh, man, that was sumpin'! I watched 'em do that fo' a long time. Shoot, they musta killed twenty'a them things....Then I caught a ride on a vegetable truck comin' back t'Houston. I was still thinkin' 'bout them boys, when it hit me. You know I kept thinkin' that those boys couldn't hesitate a minute 'cause that rat is ready t'bite the first thing you touch'im, an' you know the on'y thing worse than a rat bite is a man bite."
Mouse sat back, showing his teeth.
I handed him the cigarette and he lit it up. He lay back and took a deep draw.
It looked like he was through talking, so I asked, "So what, man? What you gonna do 'bout the money?"
"I'ma go up to Pariah an' get it, that's what."
"How you gonna do that?"
"I don't know, Easy. All I can tell ya is that I ain't gonna hesitate one minute."
Mouse wanted something from me, and he wanted me to ask him what that something was. But I was too stubborn to give in to that.
So he puffed on his cigarette and I fumbled around with my glass. When he'd look at me I'd just look back. Mouse had light gray eyes.
Finally he said, "So, Easy, what you workin' at now?"
"Gardenin' for the Lewis fam'ly. They man is sick."ar
"You know how t'drive a car, right?"
"I tell you what. I give ya fifteen dollars t'drive me to Pariah fo'a couple' a days."
"Yeah, man, I ain't lyin'."
"Let's see it."
Mouse got that wary dog look again and said in a quiet voice, "I ain't never asked you t'prove nuthin', Easy."
I knew right then that he wanted to trade; that he'd forget about me and Etta if I'd drive him to Pariah for a fifteen-dollar IOU. That's how Mouse was, he didn't care about me and his woman; the only thing that ever got Mouse mad was if you played with his money or caught him in a lie. This was just business, plain and simple.
"What kinda car you got?"
" 'Thirty-six Ford. Drive so smooth you think you was in a boat."
"Now where you gonna get a car like that an' you don't even drive?"
"Otum Chenier want me t'take care of it while he gone down Lake Charles." Mouse grinned and rubbed his chin. "Seem like one'a his folks is sick."
"And when you wanna go?" I asked.
"Maybe half hour 'fore dawn."
"Com'on, Ease. It's late. I got business down south an' I'ma pay you fo'it too. I ain't got no time t'waste."
"I got a job, man."
"Easy, you work fo'them three weeks an' you be lucky t'get fifteen dollars. Soon as they man is back you know they gonna put yo' butt out. An' I got food, an' whiskey, an' gas money. I know ev'ry pretty girl in Pariah. An', man, Etta deserve a good weddin', 'cause you know she sumpin' else." He winked at that.
I wanted to go. I knew it from the minute he yelled in my door. I was a young man then, barely nineteen years old, and alone in the world. Mouse was my only real friend, and even though he was crazy and wild I knew he cared for me -- in his way. He made me mad sometimes but that's what good friends and family do.
I wasn't mad because Mouse had won Etta. I was mad because when they got married I was going to lose my friend to his wife and family. This was going to be the last time we would go running in the streets together. I'd've gone with him without the threats and the IOU.
"I want my fifteen dollars, man," I said. "You know I ain't doin' this fo'my health."
"Don't you worry 'bout a thing, Easy. We both git sumpin' outta this."
Mouse was curled up in my secondhand upholstered chair like a little boy. The room was all kinds of gray from light that leaked in through the torn shades and the cracks in the door. He fell asleep as soon as the light went out, but I woke up then. I lay there in the dark thinking about the time Mouse had saved my life.
I remembered Junior holding his bloody shirt and running from the bar. Then I thought of what Mouse had said when I tried to thank him.
"Shit, man, I din't save you. I just wanted to cut that boy 'cause he think he so bad....See what he think now...." And we never talked about it again.
Copyright © 1997 by Walter Mosley