Authors: Walter Mosley
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Mystery & Detective
Copyright © 1997
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
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
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 on 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 neighbourhood, 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!’
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
what you doin’ here this time’ a night? I gotta work in
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.
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.
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.’
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
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
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’
‘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
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
‘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
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
‘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
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 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
‘… 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.
what ‘bout yo’ stepdaddy?’ I asked.
Mouse stared at the ceiling with a smile. ‘You got that
my stepdaddy got a big pile’a money out on that farm somewhere.
wanna give you some’a that?’
‘Well, we ain’t on the
best terms me an’ daddyReese. 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.’
ain’t none’a his. My momma had me when she was still
footloose an’ feelin’ good. DaddyReese come nosin’
how’s that gonna help you and Etta?’
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
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.’
Mouse to a word. Children loved him and their mothers did too.
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 hangjn’ 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.’
up straight and clapped his hands like a gunshot.
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.’
back, showing his teeth.
him the cigarette and he lit it up. He laid back and took a deep
like he was through talking, so I asked, ‘So what, man? What
you gonna do ‘bout the money?’
go up to Pariah an’ get it, that’s what.’