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Guy Gallo

Dutchy

HEY BOY "Hey, boy. Hey!"

Clair followed Jay's eyes to a pock-marked face. The man's long gray hair and dull blue eyes made him seem made of metal, a tin man.

"Dutchy, hey," Jay responded, rising, reaching an open palm in greeting.

Dutchy wore a stiffly starched white cotton dress shirt, its French cuffs rolled twice, flaring rakishly in mid-forearm.

"Who's the lovely little one?" Dutchy asked without regarding Clair.

"Well you should ask," Jay said, reaching for Clair's shoulder and grasping a handful of hair. "I told you about Clair."

Clair thought for a moment the man would kiss the hand he now reached to shake. He seemed almost, he almost did seem to bow.

"Of course, of course. This is Clair."

"Hi," Clair managed, still unsure of what she was expected to think. And thinking that perhaps she preferred his rude entrance to his now solicitous handshake.

"And what's a lovely like you doing with this bum of a fella?"

"Dutchy?" Clair asked.

"Dutchy, Dutch, Pops. For that matter, you can call me Frank. I answer to anything."

"Sit. What'll you have?" Jay asked, but Dutchy was already seated, angling in his chair and sitting back to get a clear look at Clair.

"Same old same old. Whatever you're buying," he said.

Jay squeezed Clair's neck, a gesture of confidence and encouragement, and walked toward the bar.

"He's a good kid," Dutchy said to Jay's back. "Good kid."

"I think so," Clair said.

Dutchy smiled, tapping a Picayune against his thumbnail.

"Don't they all," he said.

"Do they?" Clair ripped a Marlboro from the flip-top and lit it quickly, cupping her hands about the match like a sailor at sea, flapping it to smoke before Dutchy finished his tamping. He pulled a brass Zippo from his shirt pocket.

"Sure. Don't they?" He thumbed the lighter open and into flame noisily. "So what's your business besides Jay?" He snapped the Zippo shut.

"He keeps me busy. My full time job. I dance in the off hours."

"Ah. That's a talent. I'm not a dancer anymore. Not since the Boogie-Woogie went West with the music. Used to dance at the Blue Room. Saturday nights."

Dutchy shifted his chair ever so slightly toward Clair. She wanted Jay to return.

"He tell you much about me?" Dutchy asked.

"What about you?"

"I don't know. Anything."

"Jay talks a lot," Clair said.

"Yeah. And most likely not about me. Well, what can you say? I mean. Well. You're okay, Clair. I hope you stay for a while. Boy could use the good influences. But then who couldn't, right? Don't tell him I said so, though. He wouldn't like that."

"You friends long?"

"Well. Damn. Yep. Say so. Way back."

"This man bothering you, miss?"

Jay stood above them, three shots of mash wedged among his fingers. Clair reached for the forward most. Jay placed the second before the smiling, puffing Dutchy.

"Not much."

"Ah," Dutchy said.

Jay sat, leaning toward Clair, smiling what Clair thought was an idiot grin. He either likes this man or can't abide him and I can't decide which, she said to herself.

"To the remainder of our days," Dutchy said, raising his shot in the hand holding the smoke. They drank, sat in silence for a moment. Dutchy picked a fleck of tobacco from his lower lip.

"It's been a while," said Dutchy, to no one in particular.

"Yeah. It has."

"Well."

"You still seeing Virgie?" Jay asked.

"No, no, that didn't pan out, you might say, way of all spilt milk and such."

Clair tried to catch Jay's eye, to ask him who the fuck this old fuck might be. What are we doing here, she wanted to ask. But Jay was looking down at his drink, thinking of what to say next to the old man, Dutchy.

"So you been okay anyway?"

"Sure. Sure. Been seeing Rosemary. Remember Rosemary? She's a good woman and she likes me. Virgie never did like me, really, I don't think. You think? I don't really think she did."

"I like Rosemary."

"Dumb as a brick but twice as solid, you know. Good blood there. Lots of heart, lots of good heart there."

Dutchy sucked a last drag on his stubby, filterless Picayune. Clair wondered how he held the butt without getting burned. Dutchy slowly ground out the flaring ember. Clair noticed his thick fingers, the nicotine stains and smooth callused patches that might well have been burn scars.

"Well," Dutchy said, rising, "Time to hit it."

Dutchy drained his glass and rose and turned his gaze full upon Clair.

"I'd bet cash money, Clair. God took the rest of the week off after he made you. Sat around thumbing his nose at Lucifer. A definite and delicious pleasure it has been. Don't let him snow you too bad."

His eyes, more gray than blue now, seemed clouded, by the drink, by the smoke, or by Virgie, Clair could not tell. He tipped an imaginary cocked hat and grabbed a pinch of Jay's cheek between thumb and crooked forefinger.

"Treat her better," he said and was off down Rue Chartres.

Jay's smile faded as Dutchy strutted out of view.

"Who the hell was that?" Clair asked.

"My father," Jay answered. Clair's eyes narrowed with anger. "My dad. Dutchy. The one and only."

"I hope you enjoyed that then."

"What?"

Clair crushed her smoke into the ash-tray, setting Dutchy's butt to smoldering, trying to remember his eyes and hands now. Were they Jay's hands?

"Watching me. Not telling me. Watching me not know."

"I figured you figured. I mean, I didn't think. I thought you could see it."

"I'm not psychic."

"But the way he, I don't know, the way we are."

"You're full of shit. You know damn well I couldn't. I mean. Shit. That was your father, your father and you let me sit here with my fist up my ass treating him like he was fucking my head and fucking yours."

"You didn't like him?"

"How the hell should I know?"

"I think he liked you. He got that look about him."

"I thought he was a Quarter bum."

"He is. Sort of. In addition to being my father he's a track hound. Plays the horses, follows the ponies, throws good money after bad. That sort of thing. Nice guy, actually, long as you don't have to eat with him too often. Good to drink with. Good for a laugh. Good heart, bad karma."

"Shit, Jay, sometimes you make me just want to spit green."

"Go ahead, doll. Won't scare me off."

Jay drained his shot and stood, turning toward the bar for another round.

"Sorry. I was surprised. You'll get another chance for a closer look. He turns up this time of year. You'll get another chance."

JAY DROVE

Jay drove in silence down Esplanade Avenue. Clair watched the passing mansions. The oak-shaded boulevard, its wide azalea-lined median peppered with beer cans and soda bottles, seemed exhausted. Clair wondered why the oil money hadn't come this far from the river. She wondered why Jay wasn't pointing and telling stories.

They turned off Esplanade and entered a sleepy neighborhood of Craftsman cottages, un-curbed streets and clam shell driveways. To the north Clair could just barely spy, at the top of the side streets, the marble cornices and angels of St. Louis Cemetery. Jay turned again and parked the Beetle across from the racetrack. A tractor raked the moist soil smooth.

"Dutchy'll be back here somewhere," Jay said. "Hob-nobbing with the jockeys. Looking for a tip."

Jay hadn't been to the track since high school. That was in the last years of his parents' marriage. His father was always gone, always with the horses. Every Saturday he would invite Jay to come along. Jay knew his motive was to pain his wife, not enjoy his son. But occasionally Jay went, hoping to learn how to help, how to listen, how to tell his father how sorry he was their marriage was falling apart. Now on this crisp fall mid-day he was once again headed for the Fairgrounds to humor and attend his father.

The smell of manure and the sound of fidgeting thoroughbreds came from the row of low, deep green buildings. Jay scanned each entry, every gathering for Dutchy's solid, familiar frame.

"There he is," Clair said.

Jay turned and followed her eyes toward the main entrance of the race track. Dutchy stood restlessly, hands in his wind-breaker, feet shuffling.

"Hey, y'all," he called when he caught sight of Jay.

"Hey, Dutch," Jay said, accepting his half embrace with a half hearty pat on the back.

"Happy Turkey Day, boy. Hello, Clair." He leaned in and almost kissed Clair, letting their cheeks brush.

Clair tried to see what precisely had changed in Dutchy. Or was it only her own vision of him that had changed now that she knew he was Jay's dad? He seemed frailer, older. There remained a crooked charm in his gray eyes.

"You ever been to the races, Clair?" he asked.

"Not at a for real racetrack. Down by Dulac they run wherever they can find a field dry enough."

"Well, I guess that's so," Dutchy said, pleased. He ushered them through the gate for all the world like a Duke guiding guests into a chateau.

This was opening day for the Fairgrounds. The lower level was rank with old age and rotting wood and anxious track hounds. Clair had never seen so many hopeful people. Everyone expected to win. She wondered what these same faces would look like at the day's end.

"Here's the menu," said Dutchy, handing Clair a Racing Form.

"My daddy used to say reading about a horse doesn't help."

"Boogalee logic. Leave it to luck," Jay said.

"We don't believe in luck. We believe in miracles."

Paint peeled from the green and white columns supporting the grandstand. Snack bars sold franks and burgers and syrupy soda. Clair reached for Jay's hand. She wished he would smile. The tote board flickered numbers Clair didn't understand. She followed Jay, following Dutchy up a ramp to the clubhouse. A guard nodded to Dutchy.

The clubhouse crowd was better dressed, less openly anxious. There was a wall of tables, though no one was sitting. Clair preferred the noise and enthusiasm of the lower level. At least there, she thought, there was no veneer covering the avarice and fear. These people, dressed in pinks and greens, pretended they were somewhere else, pretended they weren't gamblers throwing money upon chance. She could not understand caring so little, or so much, about money as the well dressed crowd surrounding her.

Clair had never had money. Her family had survived week to week, never impoverished, never without need. Her father understood investments and commodities about as well as an Aborigine understands refrigeration. As a child Clair imagined Wall Street as a magical kingdom, like Battle Creek Michigan, where a closed coterie of elves manufactured money.

"You want a beer?" Jay asked.

"Not yet. Thanks."

She wandered over to the wall of windows overlooking the track, overlooking the grandstand. She watched as the field for the first race paraded past, some calm, some prancing, some wide-eyed with nerves and terror.

"I'm going to get us down for the first," Dutchy said. "Who do you like, Clair?"

"The brown one."

"Not a chance," Dutchy said, running a finger down the brown one's stats.

"Okay. Two dollars on Not A Chance."

"No, that's not . . ." Dutchy started to explain. He stopped when he looked up and saw Clair grinning.

"Gotcha."

"You behave."

"How come?"

Jay almost smiled at their banter. She was holding her own. He'd never felt this particular pride in Clair. It was just like his father to seem an old and trusted friend, partner in good time, family, to a stranger. And it was just like himself to not give an inch, not forget for an instant the years of anger and bitterness and contempt, not forget this was his younger self's father. It might be, Jay thought, that I'm the one who refuses to change.

"Pops. You place the bets. I'll buy the beer." He held a wad of bills toward Dutchy.

"Your money's no good here, boy."

"It isn't betting if it isn't my money."

Dutchy couldn't argue with that. He took the bills.

"I like eight," Jay said.

"Good. Good choice."

"And put two on your pick."

"I still want Not A Chance," Clair said. "The brown one."

DUTCHY HAD WINNERS

Dutchy had small winners in each race. Jay wondered how he managed. Clair stood at the buffet, piling a plate high with turkey and French bread. Jay watched her.

"She's a lovely girl, Jay," Dutchy said, his voice very fatherly.

"Yeah," Jay said, "she's a caution. A beautiful caution to me."

"How y'all fixed for money?"

"Fine. Fine."

"You make enough on the pictures?"

"Enough to eat and drink and that's enough isn't it?"

"I suppose so. I wonder sometimes how you manage is all."

"Pretty much the same as you, Pops. I'm a gambler just like you."

Dutchy flinched. He knew what Jay said was true. He had tried overly hard to steer Jay toward a plain and solid career that would point a smooth path through life. Perhaps then his son could avoid the disappointments. And in the end Jay had framed his own form of hustle. And he hadn't done a very good job of it.

"Not like me, boy. I like better odds than your game."

"Yes, well," was all Jay said.

"And Clair. She dances, right?"

"Yeah, she dances. She told you that? She dances."

"I know it's none of my god-damned business but I don't know how you take that. I couldn't take that."

"You don't have to take it."

"Seems sort of odd to me. True. I don't. She doesn't look like a stripper. I guess that's what throws me a bit. Nice girl. Really. I wish you lots of happiness, Jay. I really do. Now, come on, son. Don't get all tight about the mouth like that. I didn't mean to piss you off. Just wanted to say it. That's all. Just asking how you were doing, that's all."

"I'm doing great. Better than great."

"Well, I'm glad to hear it. I am."

"Oh my god," Clair said, her free arm akimbo on a thrust hip. "Can't leave you two alone for a minute. Now look at the oyster mouth. Both of you. Go bet money, Dutchy."

"Sit down, Clair," Dutchy said, "and tell me a story."

"What story you want to hear?"

"Any story you like, darling. Any at all."

CLAIR WOKE

Clair woke feeling nauseous. She held herself very still and tried to breath evenly, trying to calm herself. Jay lay next to her, very asleep, his face scrunched into the pillow, sleep creases across his forehead, his left arm entwined in the sheet, his right fist tight above his head. He slept so hard, Clair thought. He lives lightly, then dreams all his worries. Clair envied Jay his heavy, cathartic sleep. Especially now, her stomach knotted and throbbing.

She could barely stand. How odd, she thought, trying to place the dull pain. She couldn't recall feeling this kind of cramp before. It was like the bad first minutes of a body stone: head heavy and swollen, unable to focus. She leaned against the white tile of the bathroom, slid down to the floor. She was so dizzy, as if she'd been clobbered on both temples. What is this, Clair asked her pale and shaking hands.

She sat there. She caught her breath. Her head cleared slightly, but the nausea got no better. A spasm of dry heaves relieved some of the pressure but none of the dull thud.

I'm pregnant, Clair said to herself. Christ. I am.

It was as if saying so made some difference. She stood, hands on the porcelain basin, and stared into the mirror.

"Yep," she said out loud, no doubt about it.

She ran the water slowly, hoping it would not wake Jay, holding her hand under the lukewarm flow to break the harsh splatter. She turned off the fluorescent light and slid into the tub before it was a quarter full.

I can't be, Clair told herself. And oddly, for the instant she believed it, she felt suddenly disappointed. As if a great new light, in which she'd just begun to see the world anew, had been shut off.

Jay was still wound tightly amongst the sheets, deeply asleep, dreaming furiously. His brow was furrowed with concentration. He shook his head. He clenched a fist into the pillow. Daylight's first glow filtered into the room from the floor-to-ceiling high windows.

She curled back down into bed, snuggled up to Jay's back and pressed her cheek against his shoulder blade, against his neck. She entered his dreams. He thrashed for an instant.

"There was no story. I told you. Story," he said in his sleep and then fell silent and still.

LUNCH

Jay hadn't invited Dutchy to lunch in years. He must be suspicious, Jay thought. Waiting for bad news.

Jay got to Mandina's early. He ordered coffee and waited. It was a good choice: a neighborhood restaurant, a family restaurant. There were no tables for two. It occurred to him now, looking at the long bar and the old black waiters carrying steaming bowls of red beans and rice, that the last time he'd been here with Dutchy was before the divorce.

Gazing out at oak-lined Canal Street, Jay rehearsed the purpose of this meal. What did he want Dutchy to know? What did he want from Dutchy? There was a punctuation here, some kind of ending. And he knew the most likely result would be disappointment.

He recognized the rumble of Dutchy's Cadillac convertible before he saw it swerve to the curb and stop. Dutchy was proud of The Chariot: a large and luxurious, pre-catalytic converter, boisterous and automated, winged, solid, certain car. Dutchy bought it used the year Jay's mother left. The horses were good that year. "Lucky at cards," Dutchy would say. "Unlucky at love," would hang in the air, unvoiced.

Dutchy barreled into the room, nodding familiarly at the bartender and a waiter, and headed for Jay.

"So what the hell's the mystery, boy?"

"Hey."

With an affectionate grip on Jay's neck Dutchy coaxed him back into his chair in mid-rise, pumping Jay's offered right hand in greeting, and seating himself with a solid, settling sprawl.

"So come on. Give. What's the bad news?"

"I'm glad to see you too."

The waiter re-filled Jay's cup and placed a Dixie in front of Dutchy.

"What's today?" the waiter wondered. "Oh. Friday. Special's fried catfish. You know what you want?"

"Give us a sec."

"You wave at me, Mr. Dutchy."

Dutchy looked tired. He looked old to Jay, older than Jay remembered. He was an old man now. His gray eyes seemed unfocused, loose, covered in a film of anger and regret. He took a long sip of Jay's coffee, tapped out a Picayune and flipped open the menu.

"Clair's having a baby," Jay said.

Dutchy looked up, startled. Whatever news he had expected, it hadn't been this.

"For true?"

"For true."

Dutchy blinked, it seemed to Jay, oddly, almost the eye's idea of a stammer.

"Well. Damn. I suppose I'm old enough by now to be a granddaddy."

Dutchy stared at Jay, trying to read his son's confusion of joy and terror, trying to read the questions there and alter his own attitude and posture to the appropriate.

Jay fidgeted. He looked across the table at Dutchy and saw a shift happening. He was no longer only son. Dutchy was no longer The Father. The only father. The years' difference between them diminished.

"How do you feel about this?" Dutchy asked.

"Great. Just great."

"Scared shitless."

"You bet. How the hell'd you do it?"

"Beat's me. Haven't a clue."

"Well, I thought you should know."

That's it? Dutchy thought. Go ahead, boy, ask me all those questions I see floating around inside that muddled head of yours. Ask me about love. Ask me about money. Ask me how I did it. Ask me again and again until I tell you the truth.

"I never would have thought it. I like Clair. She's a tough lady, good head. You all'll do fine. Just fine. I thought you'd die in that rat trap by yourself. My hat goes off to that girl. She got you good and solid."

Memory clouded Dutchy's eyes.

Tell me, Jay thought. Go on, old man. Tell me those secrets, tell me how it felt to fear my coming, how you loved her, how you wanted it, how you want it, how you feel, how you fear. Tell me.

Dutchy crushed out his smoke and shook himself into a big smile.

"Well. Damn. I'll be damned. What you gonna do now?"

"You mean money wise?

"Yeah. Money wise. All wise."

"I haven't figured it all out. I'm still a bit, you know, a bit cross-eyed by the whole deal."

Dutchy chuckled and leaned back, wanting to howl with pleasure and amusement.

"Kid won't be a bastard, will it? You're going to marry the girl."

"Yeah. Sure. Soon," Jay said.

"By law the kid's hers and hers alone until a paper says otherwise. You want to be a father, be a husband first. Do her folks know?"

"Not yet. No. They don't speak. She left home and, well, they don't speak."

"Take her home. Take her home and marry her on the front porch. Say, Seymour. Come over here."

"Yeah, Mr. Dutchy. What you want today?"

"My son's getting married."

"Ain't that a good thing."

"Sure as hell is," Dutchy said, his eyes sharp and posture more powerful than when he arrived.

DUTCHY'S TREAT

"Dutchy's treat," Dutchy said when Seymour propped the limp bill against the salt cellar. "Save your shekels," he said, waving Jay's money away.

Dutchy stood and stretched and straightened his French cuffs, checked his pockets and pleats and seemed to be waking a sleeping foot with a slight jiggle. He plucked a tooth pick from a jigger on the bar as they sidled out onto the street and headed toward Jay's Beetle.

"Still kicking, unh?"

"Yeah. It gets me from here to there."

They stood, chilled, underdressed for the always surprising bite of New Orleans' brief, humid winter. Dutchy stamped at a divot in the grass near the curb. Jay watched his father's unease. Neither knew how to end this meeting.

"Well," Dutchy finally said, looking up and holding out a roll of bills bound with a red rubber band. "Here."

"What? What's this?" Jay said, looking at the tight tube but not taking it.

"Some bucks. It's not a lot. I've got more. I want you to have it. You'll need it soon enough won't you? I don't have a lot, but I have some. And it's yours if you need it. Here."

"Is that what you think? You think I asked you here for a loan?"

"It's not a loan," Dutchy said.

"You think I want your money?"

"Don't get all god-damned holier than thou."

"I don't want your money."

"It's only money."

"Precisely," Jay said.

"What?" Dutchy was still holding out the wad. He looked down at his hand. It was shaking slightly, from the cold or anger or sadness Jay could not tell. Dutchy pocketed the money. He held out his empty palm in surrender and farewell.

Jay felt bad. Felt he should have taken the gift. Wondered how much he had refused.

"Sorry for snapping. I don't need it now. If I do I'll ask."

"Suit yourself. That's fine. It'll be here. Forget it. I'm proud of you. I'm pleased for you. And if you find yourself strapped, we'll talk. We'll see what we can see. You know?"

"Right," Jay said, crouching into the Beetle. It sputtered and started and idled like a cartoon car. Jay looked up again at Dutchy. "Say," he said, "Tell Rosemary hey."

"Hey back she says I'm sure," Dutchy said, waving and refusing to budge until Jay had pulled away from the curb.

Jay wondered how much he had refused.

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