by Anthony ILacqua
The lazy jazz, the somber call of a trumpet, wafted through Claude's open window. The recording was old, old music on an old medium complete with cracks and snaps and hisses. But, on a cool, late summer's day, outside Claude's tiny shack of a house, the music made the scene feel more like a movie, the boring kind of movie, the old kind of movie, the kind without car chases or aliens or special affects.
The music came from the opened windows, yes, the old fashioned windows that swing out, the kind that have little knobs that turn to open. The blinds, dirty and discolored from tobacco and sunlight were closed mostly and rattling a slow cadence in the slight breeze adding to the jazz music inside.
Then she spoke.
It had to have been a she, for her voice was lighter than Claude's, less French accent than Claude's too. At first her voice sounded as if she could be a part of the old recording.
Then she laughed.
Claude's small chuckle followed. It was the same chuckle he used when he spoke with the neighborhood dogs or when one of them did something Claude thought was funny.
The sound of conversation drifted in currents in and out of the jazz. Rickey stood under the open window and under the awning of Claude's front door and waited for intervention: should he knock or not knock on Claude's door?
Sometime in the spring on an especially special day, Rickey escaped from school. There was no real reason for it, no holiday, no school closure. Rather, it was a day, like any other. He'd gone to school, and during recess, he just slipped away from the schoolyard. He wandered out of the back field, a place that was foreign to him anyway, and through a gap in the fence.
He walked through the strange streets on the northern end of town. These were the streets equally as foreign as the back field at the school.
This neighborhood, unlike his, was completely still, it was silent, abandoned, without life. To Rickey, new to this part of town, this neighborhood had always been without life and it always would be. Only later, as he approached county road 72 with its traffic, did the notion of the time of day occur to him. Should he come back in the evening this neighborhood would be populated with kids playing in the streets, and the backyards filled with laundry lines and barbeques. Of course, he could come back in the early mornings also to discover the people in uniforms on their way to work.
As he walked the dirt shoulder of county road 72, he made the decision not to ever go back to that neighborhood. The people there would know him as a fraud, someone who didn't belong, would never belong, and someone who really should be in school.
He walked west along county road 72. He knew the direction as west, he'd checked the direction once using a compass, but experience and familiarity were the real reasons why knew it was west. Furthermore, the westernly direction would take him to the familiar neighborhoods around his own.
Moments later, he ducked off the road and slid down the side of a culvert.
The small irrigation ditch at the bottom of the small hill rolled by in a lazy way filled with water from the spring runoff. Following the ditch downstream for awhile led him home, but he knew he couldn't go home, not directly anyway. He could go unnoticed at school, but it was too early in the afternoon to explain the homecoming to his mother. She would ask too many questions and eventually she wouldn't believe anything he said.
Rickey had befriended Claude, but not in any formal way. Claude was just an old guy who lived at the edge of the neighborhood by the irrigation ditch. Rickey didn't think that Claude would be the sort of friend that his parents would approve of as a playmate. Rickey knew none of his other friends, those of his own age that is, would find Claude as interesting either. Claude, for Rickey, was at once friend, playmate, adult, and in some situations, a role model.
Claude brewed incredibly strong coffee with rose water, something he told Rickey he'd learned in Morocco. Claude tied the stalks of his homegrown tobacco along the chain link fence at the ditch's edge. Claude told stories from times long before Rickey was born. Claude talked about far away places like Paris and New York, about parties in Mexico City and schools in Tokyo. One such anecdote, Claude talked about an Arabian Princess, a real one of the modern day. The story was about the wealthiest of parties and how Claude's only real involvement in it was the serving of the soup at the dinner. The story prompted only one question. Rickey asked, "what are you doing here?"
"Ici?" Claude asked.
"Yeah, this ain't nowhere," Rickey said.
"Ricard," Claude began. "I am here, because I am here." At the end of it, Claude rubbed his old weathered looking hands over his weathered looking head and sighed. "Where else do I go?" he asked. "Anywhere," Rickey said. Even at his young age, he knew that this town, this small desert town was dead, gone, nothing. "There's got to be better stuff out there."
"Like what?" Claude asked. "What do you think is out there?"
"I don't know," Rickey said. "Freedom?"
"You don't have enough years for such thoughts."
"What about Paris or Tunis?"
"They got cars and roads and things there too. They got their own problems. They got electricity too," Claude said. The word electricity and Claude's pronunciation of it made Rickey laugh. "What is so funny?" "Everything," Rickey said, by which he meant anything with such a funny accent.
On that day of Rickey's first escape from school, he followed the ditch for several minutes until he scrambled up the banks to Claude's backyard.
"Bonjour petit frere," Claude said.
"No school today?"
"I—yes, I was at school, but I left," Rickey said.
"Left early, this is truant, no?"
"I don't know," Rickey said. He leaned against a sumac tree which was dropping leaves despite the time of year.
Claude rested some way off in a garden chair that he had made from a wooden shipping pallet. Claude had made all sorts of things from old shipping pallets: shelves and tables and chairs. "Was there problems?" Claude asked the boy.
"Not problems exactly," Rickey said.
"Is a sickness?"
"Er, it is like boredom," Claude explained. His focus left the boy for a moment. He fussed with a tobacco tin. The tin once held fancy shag cut tobacco from England, but now it held the ragged, dried and torn leaves from Claude's backyard. He slowly broke up the leaves and spread them in the paper. "Yes," Rickey said at length. "En—what?"
"Is that French?"
"Uh—oui, I think so. Anyone gets it though."
"Yeah, I have ennui. Claude, I have ennui."
"Is it dangerous?" Rickey asked.
"Well it is, what do you call it, yes, terminal. But don't worry you cannot give it to others, not ennui, no."
"How did I get it?"
"Don't know," Claude said.
"How did you get it?"
"Ennui? I was born with this."
"Oh," Rickey said.
"Oui, too bad, no?"
"Listen Claude," Rickey began. "You ever been on the north end of town? You know that quiet neighborhood over 72?"
"Oui," Claude said. He finished rolling his cigarette and finally lit it.
"It's weird there."
"No," Claude said.
"It's like no one lives there."
"No. No, there is people. They are all old, old people, quiet people."
"Oh," Rickey said. "Do you think my mom would believe me if I told her I have en—what?"
"You think she'll buy it?"
"Non," Claude said. "But you knows her more than me."
"Can I stay here for awhile then?"
"Of course mon petit ami, you like some coffee?"
Ennui followed Rickey around for days. It followed him through the end of school. It followed him all summer long, even during his vacation to see his grandparents down in Albuquerque, a place where he had never felt bored before. Even as the summer ended, the feeling of ennui was getting greater and greater, and he thought that the terminal portion of the disease was close at hand.
It came in waves of illness, each wave coming and going but the seventh wave hit him like a gloveless prizefighter dying of boredom too. It wasn't good.
At school the lessons were boring, mostly dead Indians and dead Spaniards and dead white guys and who could possibly care about it? There were lessons about rain cycles and weather patterns and types of clouds. Clouds. Clouds in the classroom. How can these lessons mean anything? Clouds. And then the next seventh wave hit Rickey, the ennui washed over him in the worst way and he could not stand it anymore.
Rickey raised his hand.
"Rickey?" Mr. Garth said.
"Mr. G. may I be excused?"
"For what Rickey?" Mr. Garth asked. The whole class, without having said the words themselves were asking too.
"I'm not feeling very good. I think I should go home."
"You must see the school nurse first."
Procedure, Rickey thought. Even the word as a mental exclamation lifted the ennui a little. But it was, in fact, only the word that did it. He knew it next as the steps. Mr. Garth would issue a piece of paper for a hall pass, then the school nurse would ask a bunch of questions, and she would fill out another form. Then he would sit there on the paper wrapped Naugahyde bed and wait for the nurse to call his mother.
As Rickey thought about the procedure, the most painful part was the very thought of listening to the nurse tell his mother of her findings. And if he was allowed to go home, he'd have to tell his mother the same thing over and over again. It was just a stupid hassle that was becoming more and more of a hassle just thinking about it. No one would even understand what the malaise really was, and no one could cure it.
"I don't need the nurse," Rickey said. "I just need a little fresh air."
"Fresh air?" Mr. Garth said.
"Yes sir, it's a little stuffy in here."
"Yes," Mr. Garth said. "Maybe a little break outside and a little fresh air will do us all a little good."
The escape from recess took place just as quickly this time. Rickey saw the gate and walked toward it slowly. He slowly walked out of it, and he slowly walked away.
The route away from school, this time, was the same route he used everyday. Only once he reach the safety of the distance, the distance where the laughter and screams of the schoolyard vanished and got tucked under the muffled tires of the county road, did he relaxed. He looked back over his shoulder and then he looked around. All the houses seemed just as shuttered up and quiet as the northern neighborhood and Rickey suspected these people as being old too.
He cut up one street then down the next. A crow called. Rickey stayed in the shade of the trees. He walked quickly up the walkway to Claude's door. The lazy jazz music hissed and popped under the turntable's needle. Rickey had only been inside Claude's house once and even that was a brief trip to use the toilet. Perhaps it was because Claude was almost always outside. Now, as Rickey stood at the door and listened to the music and the voices inside, he felt somewhat unsure if he wanted to disturb his friend. He became uncertain of how he had gotten to this place, on the stoop outside Claude's shack. Yes, it was the ennui, the boredom, he was bored to death, nearly dead and Claude was the only one to genuinely understand it. The laughter inside suggested otherwise. But it was not Claude who did the laughing. Not much of it, anyway.
Rickey reached to the screen door and raised his hand. Then it happened. It happened quickly, very quickly.
The music faded out like it was the end of the song.
He heard the footfalls, but there weren't many of them.
The door swung open.
Rickey's knuckles were still ready to tap on the screen door. Soon, the screen door was all that separated him from her, the woman inside the house, the laughing woman, Claude's woman.
"Hello?" she said. She raised the shoulder of the shirt so that it covered her breast. The shirt hung open otherwise and Rickey just stared.
"Hi," he said. The music started again inside. It started with a trumpet twill, a rising scale and then a growl. Rickey lowered his hand and watched the disappearance of the second breast as the woman pulled the second shoulder up. "Is Claude here?"
"Oh," Rickey said.
"Who shall I say came calling?"
"Rickey," Rickey said.
"Well Rickey, enjoy the day, okay?" she said. She began to close the door.
Rickey hesitated on the stoop for a moment under the open window. He heard the jazz. He heard the woman. "Rickey," she said.
"Oh—oui. C'est mon bon ami, mon petit frere," Claude said.
"Oh Claude, I love when you talk that French."
Rickey moved away from the stoop. He smiled. He thought about a direction to walk. He came to nothing. Nothing.
In the distance, a dog barked.
Anthony ILacqua believes in the independent press, small or large, as the best representation of modern literature in America and the ideal place to connect well-developed readers to the best writing available. Anthony's fiction has appeared in Bananafish Magazine, Curbside Splendor and Sherbert Magazine. His serial novel Sand and Asbestos appeared in Sophia Ballou. His screenplays have been made into widely praised animated films at Rockethouse Studios. He currently works as fiction editor for Umbrella Factory Magazine.