ENVELOPED IN A COMPOUNDING haze of glaring colored lights, New Orleans, fabulous city of the south, spread out before Gaylord from his twelve story hotel window. He gazed down on the rolling reverberations of cabs, street cars and people.
"I'm yours for tonight," the squeaking cab horns screamed and rambled over the uneven streets. "We won't hurt you," the tops of the queer-shaped buildings groaned, their voices old and toothless. "Come down and dance with us," yelled the jazz bands from the dimly lighted cracks. "I'm really the old man of the river," hooted a steamer from the mighty river. "We'll show you the way," blazed the dazzling array of different colored streams of lights. "I'm old," wailed the high steeple, "but I'm strong. I was built of cypress and pine. I won't fall on you." They all joined in with one exploding shout, "Come on … join us … enjoy us … we're here for you … each and every one of us are here for your pleasure tonight."
Gaylord heard all this and loved it. He was excited and anxious to be among them all. The drive had been long, hot and dusty but after a quick shower and fresh linens, plus a delicious dinner with his parents, he felt refreshed and eager.
His parents had gone to their room, after giving Gaylord permission to go out sightseeing …
"Don't stay out too late, Gay. And be careful," Clayton Le Claire had warned him.
"I won't, dad," Gaylord had answered.
Gaylord took one last look and walked away from the window. He stopped at the dresser; took another look at himself, then left the room.
When he reached the hotel lobby, it was crowded. Bellboys and waiters were screaming names, carrying luggage and large trays of food. For him, this wild confusion was an earthly paradise. He loved to be among crowds he did not know. He loved New Orleans. From the first time he could first be trusted to wander off by himself, he had loved any city, exploring its large buildings and its mysteries. He had never been afraid, in fact, on their streets he had always felt more at home than he did on the streets of his home town, Cotton. Always a day dreamer, and solitary, he could walk down a strange street without feeling someone was watching him or going to call him a sissy. No one paid any attention to you in the city.
He glanced at the clock, twenty minutes to ten. He'd better hurry, he thought. I won't have too much time.
A man seated in back of a desk marked "Sightseeing Tours" smiled at him. He was extremely youthful-looking with dark hair, sallow skin, and sharp sensitive features. His eyes were bluish-green, deep-set, large and penetrating. There was something of the fanatic in his look. He was quite handsome. He spoke. "How are you this evening, sir?"
"Fine, thank you," grinned Gaylord.
"Going out for a big time?"
"I hope so."
"We have a tour leaving in about ten minutes."
"Yes, would you like to go on it? It covers the city and takes you out to the beach and back. It's about an hour trip."
"Not tonight … Think I'll just walk."
"Tomorrow? We have several during the day."
"Maybe … maybe tomorrow."
"Have a good time … I'll see you tomorrow."
"Thank you … Bye."
Standing outside the hotel he watched the congested cabs unloading men and women dressed for an evening of excitement. He looked at the busy restaurant across the narrow street. There was a man watching him, or so he thought there was … But it didn't bother him. Everyone was alive … glad they were in this wonderful old city. He had a fleeting impulse to yell at the man, but instead he only grinned and walked down the steps. Gosh, everyone was so friendly.
He wished Glenn Rogers could have come with him. He certainly would have gotten a big kick out of all this. Poor Glenn; he had wanted to come so bad. His father had been so mean when he had asked. What difference would a couple of days make? Couldn't he vaccinate his old cattle when they got back? Oh, no. It had to be today … Not three days from now but today. Glenn's father had been firm in his reply. He would not give in to Gaylord's pleading.
Glenn had been right. He did have a selfish old bastard for a father. Never even said he wished Rogers could go. Never even thanked Gaylord for asking. In fact, he had looked as if he was mad. Right then and there, Gaylord decided he didn't give a damn if he ever saw Mr. Rogers again. How different his father was. How good and thoughtful his dad was.
He felt of the wallet in his hip pocket, making sure it was still there. Inside it were four ten dollar bills; his dad had given him two of the bills right after dinner, saying, "Here's a little change … go out and spend it all tonight if you want to. If that's not enough … there's some more where those came from. But be careful son … There's a lot of cheap people here in New Orleans … men and women who will do almost anything for money, so don't flash it around too much. People have been killed over a few dollars … and this town is full of highjackers and pickpockets … so just be careful … but have a good time. Don't take up with anyone unless you think they're o.k., and I think you can judge people … Just be careful …"
He left the front of the hotel and walked down Rue Royal toward the brilliant lights of Canal Street. It felt funny to be walking on the uneven sidewalk again. He remembered the time he and his parents had walked down it years ago. Remembered how he felt. He stopped and looked about. For a moment he longed for Blake or Rogers … Either one … but his courage came back as he started down the street again.
A car passed quite close to him, almost touching him.
It was good to be among people, to have perfect strangers pass close to him. He did not shy from them as they passed, as he did in Cotton. He looked and watched them with fearless eyes. From every type person, to variations in color, these people stormed past in a disorderly array down Royal. They clamored and pushed, determined at any cost to get to their destination. Some were youngsters on their way to a party or a show; some were old, selling papers, gum, pencils, souvenirs; some were rough looking truck drivers, sales clerks, ushers, hostesses, pimps, whores; all making a meager living in the city. Some had taken steps to equip themselves for their jobs and there were many, many others who had just taken a job, any job, to earn money. Money, what a necessary evil it seemed to most.
Gaylord looked up at the stars, bright, close, and profuse in number, some blue, some white. They all twinkled as though at him personally, sharing the secret sweetness of his freedom.
He was so entranced with the night and the sights around him that he didn't hear a girl speak to him. In fact he would have walked right past her if she had not grabbed his arm.
"Hi … goodlooking," she said.
Gaylord turned and looked at her. She had straw colored hair and her jaws were busy chewing gum. A sweet aroma of jasmine surrounded her. He smiled, said, "Hello."
"Wanta have some fun, handsome?" the girl invited, looking down below his waist and then up again into his eyes.
"Not tonight," Gaylord offered tentatively.
"Why not, goodlooking?" the girl put in. "I'll bet you won't be sorry. I just live down the street."
Gaylord didn't mind. He wasn't dashed at all. It was kind of fun. He grinned … "I can't tonight … I'm meeting some friends." He knew what she was. Sort of felt sorry for her. She couldn't be very much older than himself and she had come to this.
Gaylord started to go, but she caught him by the arm again. "You could buy me one little drink, couldn't you? Won't take long and then you can meet your friends."
Gaylord blushed like a schoolboy. He didn't like having her force herself onto him. Still, he didn't want to be rude. "I've got to …" he started.
"Just one little drink? You won't be sorry, honey."
Gaylord frowned, cocking his head slightly to one side. The first faint signals of alarm came to him. Yet, nothing could happen to him on the street.
She now stepped along with him, matching his stride. He didn't know just how to get rid of her. Perhaps one little drink … He stopped and said … "I really shouldn't … It's quite late and I should meet these friends … I'm sure they're waiting for me … Maybe some other night."
A cop, a pudgy man whose head and shoulders hardly came up above Gaylord's shoulders, asked, "What's going on Flo?"
"Nothing," she murmured, "this young man just asked to buy Flo a drink, didn't you, honey?"
"No … I really have to go," stammered Gaylord.
She came back. "Now honey … you know you asked me."
"I don't think he did, Flo. If you don't stop going for quail gal I'm going to have to run ya in, yes. I told ya not to hustle on my beat … Now this is the last time I'm going to tell ya …"
"He said he'd buy me a drink … I'm not hustling … honest, Pat."
"Don't give me that crap …" he said without any manners. "You're all alike … Go on Flo … Move on …"
"Pat," she whined.
"Go on … ya want me to run ya in? Just stay around here a second longer."
"Well," she said as she was on the point of departure. "You can't blame a girl for trying, can you, copper?" Then she turned and glided down the street, swaying her hips in perfect rhythm to the swinging of the large purse in her hand.
"Thank you officer," said Gaylord. "I didn't offer to buy her a drink."
The officer looked at him speculatively again and broached, "I know you didn't … but some of these women don't have to be asked."
"Live here?" the officer asked.
"No, sir. I live in Cotton, Texas."
"What are ya doing here?" asked the officer, eyeing him carefully.
"I'm here with my mother and dad for a few days."
"Where you stayin'?"
"Down the street at the hotel."
"Where ya goin' now?"
"Yes, sir." Gaylord wondered just exactly what the officer was getting at.
The officer stared for an instant at Gaylord, and then announced, "You're not going to one of those queer joints, are ya?"
"Yeah, queer joints."
"No, sir … I'm not going to a whore house, if that's what you mean. I'm just walking to Canal Street and then I'm coming back to the hotel."
"Okay, Sonny. Don't stay out too late … This town is full of women like that one who just left … Be careful and if you need help just call a cop."
"Thank you … thank you very much."
Well, breathed Gaylord with a sigh of relief after the cop had gone and he was again on his way. The evening has certainly started out with a bang, he thought. Queer places … wonder if he did mean whore houses … guess he did. Yeah … that's what he meant.
He turned to the right when he reached the broad street. God, how beautiful, he mused, fascinated by the large moving signs, the heavy traffic, the clanging of the street cars down the wide center of the street. He stood there, just looking, his eyes wide and round, his lips in a broad grin. He wished for Blake or Rogers again. He stopped at the show windows and looked at their displays.
A stout woman carrying two suitcases passed him. She was uttering cuss words to herself. She paid no attention to his gaze. Passed on as if she hadn't seen him. Gaylord was just as glad to have her past. He walked on slowly.
He noticed two young men walking toward him. One was masculine looking. His hairy chest showed behind the unbuttoned shirt opened almost down to his waist. He was very dark and his eyes seemed to dance as they met Gaylord's. The other boy was frail, a femininity covered his every movement. His thin eyebrows made a high counterfeit arch over the blue tinted eyelids and his hips swayed unnaturally as he walked. When he noticed his companion smiling at Gaylord, he glared back at Gaylord as if he hated him.
"Get a load of the cute new faggot in town," the masculine one said, punching the other's side. "You ought to like him. Look at his basket." He looked at Gaylord again, said, "Hello, Babe … Where ya going?"
The feminine boy grabbed the other's arm and demanded, "Stop flirting, Jim … You know I'm not interested in anyone but you … but I've got my doubts about you." He looked at Gaylord, who had said nothing, and said in a high falsetto voice: "Run along, Mary … Get yourself another husband … This one is mine. And I'm going to keep him too." He put an arm through the other's and with a little push, said, "Come on, Jim …"
"Don't push me … God damn it …" He pulled away from the dainty boy's arm. "I guess I can talk to anyone I want to … Ya new here … huh, Babe?" he grinned at Gaylord.
For Gaylord, it would have relieved his feelings if he could vanish from die spot. He tried to by walking away. "Hey …" the masculine boy yelled at him … "Where ya going?"
"I've got a date," Gaylord said and walked on … but he heard the feminine one say … "I just don't know what I'm going to do with you, Jim Page. You're after every belle in town or they're after you. You're just after …"
Gaylord heard this much before the voice trailed off into space. He looked around to see if they were still there, but they had vanished in the throng of people. The incident had not caused him to become frightened. In fact, he had rather enjoyed it. He wished he had enough nerve to wear eyeshadow. It sure did make one's eyes dreamy. Still, he didn't want to look like the boy who had just passed. Then he decided that eyeshadow was for girls and he would be lots better off without it.
"Faggot," he thought, perplexed. "That boy called me a cute faggot. I wonder what he meant? I wish Bob was here; he'd know. I don't think Glenn would … He's dumb like me."
From Canal he turned down Rue Bourbon. It rang loud with the noises of Dixieland jazz bands and barkers, and smelled of urine and beer. He looked into the crowded Absinthe House … noting the millions of cards that cluttered its walls. He gazed in admiration at the old doors, the patched plastered walls. He stretched out his hand and felt of the old wood; wood that others, long past dead, had put there.
In his imagination he saw Jean Lafitte counting out gold to his fellow pirates, squatting around an old metal chest, filled with precious jewels, drinking rum out of old broken bottles. Jean Lafitte; just think, Jean Lafitte used to come here. Maybe he used to stand on this very spot. He looked down at the stones he stood on.
What a man. What a brave, carefree, reckless pirate Jean Lafitte must have been. What a life he must have had, he thought. I'm glad he was pardoned … I wish I could be just like him.
A cab pulled up beside him and stopped.
"Looking for a girl, buddy?" the driver asked. "Get in. I know a real young one. Ain't been in the business long, no." He stretched his neck and winked at Gaylord.
"No, thanks … Not tonight. I'm waiting for a date," he smiled back.
"Some other night, yes?"
"Here's a good address. They've got any type ya. want, buddy, and any way you want it." He handed Gaylord a card. "Just give them this card. Tell them Pete sent ya …"
Gaylord took the card and grinned back at the driver. He watched the cab plow down the busy street. Then he put the card in his pocket without even reading it.
Suddenly the cab horn blasted at two drunks who had stepped from the curb and almost in front of it. The car swung around, barely missing them.
"Ya son-of-a-bitch. Ya almost hit me, pal," yelled one of the men, waving a clutched fist at the moving vehicle. "Come on back and I'll beat the God damned shit outaya." He turned to the other, throwing his arms around the weaving shoulders. "Ya all right, pal?" He looked into the face that was rolling around on a thick neck. He patted the shoulder and said, "We need a drink … Come on pal."
They staggered back into the bar they had just come out of, their arms around each other.
Gaylord laughed as he watched them. Giggled out loud to himself. "That's the kind of a buddy to have." He put his hand in his pocket and felt the card the cab driver had given him. He started to pull it out when a voice behind him spoke.
"What kind of a buddy is that?" It was a deep soft voice.
He turned around quickly, to a face hidden in shadows, but the voice was familiar. Somewhere he had heard that voice. He saw the outline of a tall man and in the moving shadows it looked golden bronze.