She had a way with a unicycle. From our vantage point, a balcony overlooking Decatur, we watched her lean back and forth above the wheel while juggling five or six wooden pins. She looked about sixteen. We were knocking back beers and telling our fortunes with a thin plastic fish as the mighty Mrs. Sip rolled from right to left beyond the levee. Does she live here, I asked the fish, or is she some runaway hustling tourists on her way to Memphis? That won’t work, Jack said. The miracle fish wants to tell you if you’re passionate or jealous. It lay lifeless in my palm. I dribbled a little beer on it, hoping it would do something unusual.
Hey, the girl shouted, I’m working down here! How about a tip? Jack scooped the change off the table and flung it toward her. No sooner did it hit the pavement than a little kid flashed out from under the balcony to gather each coin. He dropped them in a coffee can. She made as if to bow, the moving wreath of pins framing her head like a cameo, her unicycle moving back and forth, back and forth. I was getting dizzy. Fish, I said, maybe you should do some work. Am I in love? That’s dumb, Jack said. That’s the kind of thing you should be able to figure out on your own. If you’re not in love right now, drinking beer, watching a pretty girl on a unicycle, you’ll never be in love. But I wanted the fish to talk to me, not Jack.
The fish was stuck to my palm. It looked sick, as though it had been in the Gulf, and I felt sorry for it. What kind of a life was this, being forced to answer stupid questions from a couple of unemployed roughnecks who had nothing better to do on a Tuesday at two in the afternoon but drink beer and throw money away? The next balcony was full of tourists whooping it up, floating ones and fives down to the girl, the kid grabbing them, stuffing them in the can. But she kept looking up at us. Maybe she lived on that funky houseboat tethered near Café du Monde. It had a big banner reading http://www.floatingneutrinos.com. I didn’t know what a neutrino was. Maybe a kind of water rat? True or false, fish? The fish didn’t answer. It was completely worthless. All I had left was a twenty. I looked at the fish, and it looked back. I tossed it over the rail.
A breeze caught it, sent it toward the square. I watched it flip and dive, then lift again and catch the wan sun. The girl shook her head slowly — Losers, her look said — and Jack said, I hope you’re happy now, you dumb-ass.
I ordered another round.
I watched him throw it, couldn’t tell what it was, something like a pie wrapper, maybe. Not money. I gave up on those two, let Bodeen go after their change while I wheeled down the street toward a fresh knot of tourists. He’d catch up soon enough.
Decatur was a good place to work, way better once I hooked up with Bodeen. He just showed up one day with a coffee can and started collecting what I couldn’t. Wouldn’t tell me where he lived or how old he was, and I bet Bodeen wasn’t even his real name, but we quickly became partners. People thought he was my son though he was black, and while a young girl with a talent for balancing can go far in a tourist town, a young mother pulling heartstrings can go further. My little miracle man, Bodeen. We split everything fifty-fifty. People felt sorry for me if they weren’t dead drunk.
I could have made beds, could have clerked, could have waitressed or worked the casinos, but there wasn’t any real money in any of it, and don’t even mention Bourbon Street. This is a hard town, no matter what you hear, full of bottom feeders.
Mornings were the best time. Tourists still slept, and I could wait on the levee for Bodeen, just sit there watching the ships move up and down the river as the city got itself into gear behind me. I liked hearing the snort of horses lining up around the square in front of their flower-decked carts, the shouts of men unloading trucks farther down the street, the low, low horns on those big boats gliding by.
Lady, he called me, like I was just another white woman, but I didn’t take offense. I could tell there was something behind it. No matter how many times I asked him to call me Shelly, it was lady this, lady that. Aren’t you supposed to be in school? I asked him once, but he said he wasn’t old enough yet. He was cleaned up, that was the thing. Someone took care of him at night. Lady, let’s go, he’d say in my ear. Let’s work. I liked to play it out a little just to tease him. Bodeen, it’s so nice to just sit here in the sun. Or I’d try to talk him into some coffee. He’d just roll his eyes and grab my arm.
I was only in town for the winter. After JazzFest I’d be gone, I wasn’t sure where. California maybe. Not so muggy, and I had an aunt in Sacramento who wanted me to come live with her, finish school, get a regular job. But I also had a dream about Cape Cod. It just sounded nice. I pictured little fishing boats, sand dunes, and people who’d tip a girl on her way up in the world.
She tell me she need me. Bodeen, she say, you work hard as a man. I need your help to get out of this place.
Me and my can, we catch a lot. I’m good at asking, too, and I don’t have to use no words. Lady get her pins in the air and a crowd around her, and I just wait for her to make her little bow — how she do it is lean forward, then I walk around with my can, look at faces. I can tell who got the big money. Old ladies are the best. Why, look at you, they say, you so cute, you poor thing. They make their little pity noises and reach into their pocketbooks.
Up top it be men give the most. They sit there, drink, throw down change, notes, you name it. Like the roughnecks trying to impress Lady until she give up on them. I see the green come out, but they don’t sail it down, no, they throw some bit of trash over like it chum. Like Lady should take an interest.
Coin add up. Hit the street and out I go while it still rolling. Get cheers sometime. Sometime I hold the can out so that be all they see leaning over the rail, like it daring them. Bam-bam! Lady laugh, do her bow for the big spenders.
We work till she see I’m tired, need to eat. We go get something from the grocery, walk down the levee, split the money, talk. Mostly she talk. Bodeen, she say, how you live in this town? It pretty and all, but how you live? I can tell she really want to know.
I don’t say nothing about home, my brother raising me up. We fine. Lady don’t say nothing much about her family neither, so we even. I make her money, she make me money. Fifty-fifty. We work all day, then she go back up around Tulane, I guess. Some house where they all chip in.
Lady smart, someday be rich. She handle herself good, too, don’t listen to the men. You so pretty, they say, won’t you come have a drink? She just point to me, and I point to the can. When she leave, have to find me someone new to help. She my third juggler.
I like walking home with full pockets. Sometime I stop at the grocery on Royal, buy me an ice cream. My bro say we doing all right.
~ ~ ~
The fish dipped in the air above Decatur and lifted again when a bus whooshed past. It twirled several times, then settled into an orderly zig-zag — slow, slow — all the way down to the pavement. It lay there for several weeks amid the pigeons fat on the crumbs of beignets. It was noticed, finally, by a man in a stained suit who lost his balance and came to rest briefly beside it. Miracle fish, he coughed, that’s a good one, nevertheless slipping it into his pocket before picking himself back up and stumbling down the steps of the levee.
~ fin ~