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Donald Mangum

A Bad Outfit

We had just bought a satellite dish, and I wanted to stay home and watch television. Plus I had a little case of nervous stomach. The main reason I didn't want to have dinner at Wayne and Margaret's was that I had never met either one of them, and I didn't feel like eating strange food.

"It would mean a lot to Margaret," Katie said. "To me." She'd had a brief friendship with Margaret in high school and recently recognized her in a supermarket in Baton Rouge. Now Katie wanted her friend back.

"One little thing about Wayne," Katie said on the drive over. "I met him briefly, and I guess the word simian comes to mind."

"His looks?"

"Not really."

Their house was a small wooden cottage with a Cyclone fence around the back yard, where a couple of bird dogs ran barking to the gate when we pulled into the driveway. There was a boat in the garage.

"Margaret, this is Tom," Katie said when Margaret answered the door. She was thin. Her hair was stringy, blonde, the color of her eyebrows. She looked tired.

"He's gone to the store," she said.

Before following Margaret to the kitchen, Katie directed me to a couch behind a coffee table stacked with outdoor magazines. The only other furnishings in the living room were a TV and a brown vinyl recliner, plus an oil painting of some dogs vaguely resembling the ones in the back yard.

I was staring at a magazine article about bullets when Wayne walked in. "Could you move your car?" he said. "I need to back my truck up to the boat." He had a moustache that looked a lot like one of Margaret's eyebrows.

I moved the car, then walked around to where Wayne had already hooked up the trailer and was loading fishing gear into the boat. "Wayne," I said, "I'm Tom." We shook hands, and he resumed loading.

"So you teach over at the college?"

"Economics," I said.

"That's great. Now I need to feed the dogs, and then maybe we can eat."

Dinner was broiled chicken, mashed potatoes, and crowder peas, which we ate in the living room from trays on our laps. I pushed a chicken wing around on my plate, knifing off little shreds of meat. "Wayne," I said, "I understand you're in pest control." Margaret had told me he sprayed houses. He nodded, his mouth full. "Well, this is a nice house," I said to Margaret. "You renting or what?"

She shook her head. "He thought we should buy."

I ate four crowder peas.

Katie said, "Tom, Margaret and I thought we'd drive to New Orleans and do some shopping tomorrow. Margaret's got the day off, and Wayne is going to be fishing all day."

"Fine," I said. "Margaret, you work at Burger King. Isn't that what Katie said?"

She shook her head. "Sears."

Katie's eyes closed.

"You want to go fishing?" Wayne said.

I put a glob of mashed potatoes in my mouth, glancing at Katie for help, finally letting the silence go too long. "Why not?" I said.

"I'll pick you up at four-thirty. There's a bait shop at the launch where you can get a license. Finish your supper and I'll show you some pictures of the place." I took another couple of bites and carried my tray into the kitchen. Wayne was standing when I got back. "Come on back in my room. We can let the girls talk in here."

The walls in Wayne's room were full of guns and mounted game. There were ducks, fish, rabbits, squirrels, and a whole side of the room devoted to deer antlers and one huge head. Wayne sat next to me on a couch and showed me pictures of a bunch of stumps in water.

"It's called Lost Lake," he said. "We put in on the river, motor up about three miles, then hide the boat, and walk. I got a friend of mine, keeps a boat on the lake. We'll use that to fish."

I spent an hour looking at pictures and listening to stories about hunting and fishing. Finally Katie knocked. She was ready to go.

"That creep," she said after we had gotten in the car. "I can't believe you're actually going fishing with him tomorrow. Why didn't you just say you don't like fishing?"

"I didn't think of it. Anyway, I don't know if I like it or not."

"Margaret's so sweet," she said. "She deserves better."

_____


The first thing Wayne said when I got in the truck the next morning was, "You want a beer?" I shook my head. "How about reaching me another one," he said. "They're in the ice chest behind you."

Neither of us spoke again until we got across the Mississippi River and out of town. Then, "It's a good thing we met you guys," Wayne said. "Margaret likes Katie a lot. I was glad to hear you wanted to go fishing too. You like to get out. I mean I got to tell you, when Margaret said economics, I was ready for Irving R. Levine."

"Well."

"Except you need to eat more."

He pulled a card out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me. "Not that we'll need this," he said, "but just in case one of us gets lucky, there's a tournament today, and I got us registered."

When we arrived at the launch, the sky was just turning gray in the east. We rode upriver for about twenty minutes, covered the boat with brush, and then set out on foot through the woods.

The lake itself was larger than I had expected--over two hundred acres, Wayne said. The surface, broken by thousands of dead trees and stumps, was glassy and gave off a vapor that rose about three feet. There was the strong sulfurous smell of decaying algae.

Wayne caught the first fish, a choupique, which he said only coonasses could eat, and which would take your hand off given half a chance. Next Wayne caught a bass weighing about two pounds, followed by one about five pounds. Then something almost pulled the rod out of my hands. When the thing rolled over on the surface, showing about four feet of itself, Wayne said, "Play with him awhile and cut the line." The line snapped a few seconds later.

He handed me a beer. "Gar," he said.

"Why did you want me to cut the line?" My voice shook.

"They got mouths like alligators'," he said. "I got a cousin with only seven fingers who could explain it better."

For the rest of the morning, Wayne caught most of the fish and drank most of the beer, then stretched out in the back of the boat for a nap. I kept paddling and fishing, soon realizing that I had no idea where we had entered the lake.

"Wayne, wake up," I said. A snake lay coiled on a stump not ten feet from the boat.

"What?"

I pointed. The snake had seen us and had its mouth wide open. It could have easily swallowed a tennis ball. There was an explosion behind me, and the snake's head disappeared. The carcass fell off the stump and twisted in the water, turning it pink.

"Grab it!" Wayne shouted. I swung around to see him still pointing the pistol at the spot where the snake had been. Smoke curled up out of the barrel.

"What for?" I said, barely hearing myself over the ringing in my ears.

"To eat, man. Quick!"

I looked back at the spot in the water in time to see the form sink from sight.

"You ready to go?" Wayne said. "I want to enter that biggest bass in the tournament before it loses any more weight."

When we got back to Wayne's boat and hauled it into the river, he started the motor and told me to drive, as he was going to sit up front with the ice chest. When we got underway, he pulled out his largest fish and yelled for me to open his tackle box. "See those sinkers?" he shouted. I nodded. "Toss me the biggest one." As soon as I tossed it to him, he stuffed it down the fishes' throat. "Now toss me another one."

I shook my head. "Goddammit, no," I hollered.

"What?" The motor had drowned me out.

"You're not going to do that," I screamed. I found in the box a long pair of needle nosed pliers and tossed them to him. "Take that other one out."

He studied me for a few seconds. "Okay," he yelled.

After trailering the boat, we drove half a mile to a pavilion, where scales had been set up for the tournament. Wayne's biggest bass was barely an ounce lighter than the one already in third place, and he almost got into a fight with another entrant by suggesting that the officials check all the fish's stomachs for sinkers. Then we bought plates of crawfish and watched part of a Miss Boudin contest in which the winner of the talent portion ran onto the stage waving a blood sausage in each hand, dancing to a recording of "Shake Your Booty," and shouting "Shake your boudin."

Then Wayne wanted to go to a bar and play pool.

"I guess I ought to be getting home," I said.

"What you got to do?"

The question plus the obvious disappointment in his voice caught me off guard. In fact, I didn't need to get home, and for some reason--maybe the sinkers--I didn't want to lie to him. "You're right," I said. "But I haven't played in a while."

"Great," he said.

_____


The bar was a cinder block cabin called The Half-Way House, named for its location on the highway half-way between the university and a lake that was popular with students. A beer and oyster bar took up one end, two pool tables, some video games, and a juke box the other, and the middle had about a dozen small round tables surrounded by stools. There were lots of swimsuits, and the place smelled like coconuts.

Wayne started downing beers pretty fast, and by the fourth game of eight ball, his shooting was sloppy enough and I had improved enough that we were better matched. Then the bar noise died for a second and Wayne interrupted a shot to look towards the entrance behind me, where a girl stood at the door, glaring wide-eyed about the room, trying to adjust to the light. Her jeans were dirty and too big. She wore men's work shoes and a T--shirt with a decal faded beyond resemblance to anything.

She walked over and laid a quarter on the edge of the table. Her face was boyish and pretty, though smudged with what looked like axle grease. Pulling back her hair, she extracted from her earlobe a long feathery ornament that looked like one of Wayne's fishing lures and laid it on the table next to the quarter. "Feathers guaranteed bird of paradise," she said. "The pearls are Atchafalaya harvest, and the tooth is from a pit bull terrier that damn near killed a man I personally knew from Pensacola, Florida."

Wayne stepped back, opening his mouth wide. "Whoa, now," he said. "You raising the stakes considerable here." He lifted the earring to the light, rolling the lumpy pearls between his fingers. "So what do my friend and I, who were just going to have a few more games and leave, stand to lose?"

"Ride into town. Dinner for four. I got a mama, a daddy, and a little jewel of a sister, make you want to sing a hymn just to lay eyes on her. I'm thinking Taco Bell."

Not knowing what else to do, I bent to the table and missed an easy shot, remembering it wasn't my turn. Wayne looked back and forth at the girl and me. With his arm, he swept the remaining balls to a corner pocket, where they dropped from sight. "Tom," he said, winking, "our pride's in your hands." He stumbled off to the bar while I racked the balls and the girl picked a cue stick.

Then, "Lala," she said, extending her right hand.

"Beg pardon?" I said.

"Name's Lala."

"Tom," I said.

She pumped my arm once, then broke, sinking a stripe. When she sank two more, I asked where in town we'd be taking her.

"Truck's in a lot by the docks," she said. "We run a fruit stand." She bounced around the table, jerking her torso as the balls rolled around, ducking her head a little when one dropped out of sight.

"You all four live in a truck?"

"For now. Madre mia!" she screamed, scratching on a double. She spun around and slapped her forehead.

I rubbed chalk on my stick. "So how long you been in the fruit business?" I said.

"Years," she said, pointing out the shot I should make. "We were pickers. Then my dad caught the empatheema. We're trying this for a while."

There was a commotion at the other side of the room. A girl was pointing at Wayne and shouting at the bartender about not coming there to be hit on by the creature from Black Lagoon.

"Okay, Mack," the bartender said. He was looking at me. "You going to do something about this, or you going to leave it to the establishment?"

Lala and I got Wayne to the truck. He obviously couldn't drive, Lala didn't have a license, and I had never driven a stick shift on the column like Wayne's. Wayne said he wanted to sit in the back and clean fish on the way home, so we loaded the ice chest into the bed with him. Lala showed me the gears, and after jackknifing the trailer several times, I got us out of the parking lot and headed for town, Wayne throwing fish guts into the air behind us, scales flying around and sticking all over him.

When we pulled into the Taco Bell drive-through, Wayne was singing about the hole in the bottom of the sea, and I screamed at him to shut up while I placed the order. Then he yelled into the microphone, "I'd like something with a lot of stuff in it--make it two--and plenty of something to pour on them." The girl at the pick-up window actually gave a little squeal when she saw Wayne in the back, covered with gurry. "Have a nice day," he said when we drove off.

I followed Lala's directions to a parking lot containing tables of citrus products overhung by strings of bare light bulbs and plastic triangular flags. A sign in front read 24 HOUR FRUITS. The camper truck was parked in a far corner shaded by an oak tree, both doors wide open, the family asleep in the cab. The little girl's head was on her mother's breast, and the father was slumped over the steering wheel.

"Jesus, they want someone to steal us blind?" Lala said. She honked the horn and got out.

The girl scrambled out of the cab, climbing all over Lala, who carried her over to where Wayne and I stood by the tables. "What did I tell you?" Lala said. "Hold this one for a second and say I lied." She handed me the girl.

"You're precious," I said.

"My daddy can see the wind," she said. "Know what else? For my birthday, I got a star."

"What kind of star?"

"A star, silly," she said. "Up in the sky."

The father stood by the truck, stuffing in his shirt tail, while his wife brushed her hair in the cab.

"Come on, sugar," Lala said. "How about helping your sister with some lunch."

When the parents walked over, Wayne asked if there was somewhere to wash up. He looked groggy but more sober.

"Faucet behind the truck," the man said. "Help yourself."

I got a taco and a coke and went over to sit in the boat and watch the mother hand out food from the bags, like going through a picnic basket. The father came over to the boat, set his meal in the seat next to me, and began to look over the gear. His breathing was labored, and he smelled like burnt rubber. He lifted a rod and reel, then looked sideways at me.

"You hear about that outfit they hung out there the other day?" he said.

I was still chewing my first bite of taco, which seemed suddenly to be growing in my mouth. "Outfit?" I said.

He nodded and took another bite.

"Bad outfit."

Wayne came back and took some food to his place in the truck's bed. He had cleaned his face and arms and combed his hair and looked almost presentable except for the grime on his clothes.

"They hung a bad outfit," I said, looking at Wayne and then at the man. "So what happened?"

He took a bite of burrito, worked it around in his mouth. "Fought it awhile," he said. "Long while."

The little girl started crying when her tostada fell apart and spilled all over the ground. The mother told her she should have held it over the paper, and Lala offered one of her own tacos, which the little girl refused because it had cheese on it, so Lala raked off the cheese and the girl was happy.

"So, what?" I said. "The line broke? Did they ever see the thing?"

"Sucker come out of the water." He poured sauce, and I could hear the air in his lungs. "Climbed a tree."

Wayne bent over smiling and shaking his head between his knees.

"So what did the people do?" I said.

"Went and got some more folks."

The light was beginning to fade in the east. The rest of the family had finished their food and were clearing off the table. Then the mother walked over to Wayne's truck. "Either of you gentlemen be interested in some fruit?" she said.

Wayne gulped the last of a burrito and jumped to the ground. "Hell yes," he said. "I would be damned interested in some fruit."

The little girl whispered something to Lala, eyeing Wayne and me, and Lala raised her hand to swat her sister, but she ran off laughing, Lala giving chase.

"Here we have Florida citrus," the mother said. "Grapefruits, peaches, oranges--navel and Valencia--nectarines, tangerines, tangelos, which I personally recommend them."

I leaned on the boat, smelling the docks and the surrounding industries, while Wayne filled several sacks with fruit.

"What happened to the bad outfit?" I said, watching Wayne's smile grow at the question.

The man took his last bite and looked at the sky. "Flew off," he said. He walked back to the truck, leaving his paper and cup in the boat.

Back at Wayne's, he said we'd do it again sometime, and was in the house before I could get in my car. I drove two blocks, remembered my sunglasses were still in Wayne's truck, and went back to find the cab locked. At the front door, which was slightly ajar, I heard the crashing about inside, along with Wayne's and Judy's wordless cries. I bolted for the car and drove home.

_____


Katie was stirring a pot of soup when I came through the kitchen door. I walked over and puckered for a kiss.

"Shower," she said.

I showered for a long time, scrubbing away the sweat, the fish grime, the industrial grit from the docks. I took a brush to my nails--fingers and toes--shaved, and flossed.

Katie brought bowls of soup on trays into the living room so we could watch television while we ate. She held the remote control, flicking through a montage of music videos, special offers, a designer's home, an Australian soccer match, Shiite Moslems, children dying of hunger and bombs and abuse, sea lions giving birth, market analyses. She turned off the set.

"The shopping trip wasn't so hot," she said, poking her spoon at the soup. "I don't think Margaret and I are going to be great friends." I ate from my bowl, then noticed on the book shelf a vase I had never seen before. Katie must have bought it in New Orleans. "I tried really hard to get past a lot of things," she said. "Things that shouldn't matter."

"What kind of things?"

"Things," she said. "You know. Grammar, money, some personal tastes, like in clothes." She sniffed. "I had to order for her at lunch, and I thought she was going to cry."

I stood and walked to the book shelf. I lifted the vase, rubbed my fingers across its surface, imagined throwing it at the wall. "That's a shame," I said. "She seemed nice."

"She's an angel, but we're miserable around each other, like we're looking for some kind of reconnection, and all we can manage is to be more and more polite. She hardly talks, and when she does, it's Wayne thinks this or Wayne says that. The guy's a jerk, but he's everything to her. The man is a professional bug killer, for godsake. Damn, I don't mean what that sounded like."

"Whatever."

"Tom, hold me," Katie said. I went to the couch and put my arm around her. "I've got today circled on the calender," she said. "I've been checking, and my temperature's right."

Without wanting to, trying not to, I thought of the sounds I'd heard earlier at Wayne and Margaret's house. I gave Katie a light squeeze around the shoulders.

_____


That night I dreamed Lala had taken me to some arctic wilderness. We stood in a huge open space, and the snow was bluish white under the moon. "Look, there it is," Lala said, pointing upwards.

Flying around overhead was the thing from her father's story, shaped like a bat, only with a long tail and scales. It was laughing and repeating the bartender's question: "You going to do something about this? You going to do something about this?" The voice was Wayne's.

"What is it?" I said.

"Silly," Lala said, "it's you."

I awoke, my heart pounding audibly until I was downstairs, dressed, and out the door. I walked to the end of our cul-de-sac, through a vacant lot, and into a field, where I lay staring at the sky until my life as husband, economist, citizen seemed like someone else's, and I was this other man, alone, lying in a field somewhere in the middle of the night. I wondered what difference it would make if I didn't go back, and thought of Margaret's complete devotion to Wayne, and how awful it must be, and how wonderful. I thought of Lala's father and wondered what it takes to get the trust to bestow a star, even to your own child.

Silly, it's you.

I began to walk. The neighborhood was only a couple of years old, one of those New Old New England style subdivisions that are going up everywhere with all the houses painted pastels and all the lawns manicured according to strict covenants. I was nearly back to my own street, when a car pulled into the driveway of the house I was passing. I stood by the curb until a man and woman got out, and I lifted my arm to wave, but ended in kind of a sweeping gesture toward the sky, indicating simply how lovely the night was.

The man glanced quickly, saying, "Get back in the car, Denise."

"No, no, no," I said, stepping onto the driveway. They both scrambled to do what the man had said, the woman bumping her head on the door in the process. I walked over to the driver's window, which the man rolled down a couple of inches. He looked late middle aged and had one of those hair styles where everything comes up from the sides to cover the top.

"What do you want?" he said, his voice high-pitched, his hand on the ignition key.

There was a sign in the yard, a wooden plaque, which read The Frank and Denise Winsteads. "Frank," I said. "I'm Tom. I live in the neighborhood." The two of them looked at each other, then at my face, my clothes, which were wet from the field. "I was taking a walk," I said, "and I wanted to say hello."

"Well, hello," Denise said, leaning over. "Now please go away."

I stood there for a moment looking at the couple, in complete sympathy with their fear, thinking how pitiful the three of us were, but how at least I was the one standing there while they huddled inside. There was at least that. "Yes," I said, "I will." I turned and began to walk home.

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