They were like the weather in that ward, drifting like dark clouds, day and night.
On the first of the month, the checks came, and there was a gathering at Boudreaux’s parking lot. It was said fifty cases of plum wine were sold on that day alone.
They didn’t have names. Once there was a western movie called The Man With No Name. We are given names, even titles, to identify us, but if everyone has a name, then no one is truly distinguished except the nameless one. But in this neighborhood, none had names.
Two of them associated, as they would. They didn’t agree, they didn’t even discuss it, they just moved off across the lot in the gathering dark and over to the levy. One was a man and the other a woman but that didn’t matter either. There was really no gender in this region, other than for basic identification, like “short” and “dark” and “bald.”
The man used a walking staff. He was the one with the staff, alias, The Stickman.
The houses were slipshod, falling down, like the citizens, and not all of them had power. There was a lot of plywood where windows should be, but there was no graffiti. There were no kids in this ward; those were everywhere else in the city but none came here, and none were born here. There were televisions here and there, some of them left on, but nobody sat and watched them. There was therefore no sense of another world piped in, therefore no aspiration for a better life or resentment it wasn’t available. There was nothing in the ward with no name out of which to build a grievance group.
The two came through the brush and the scrub oak and the weeping willow over the levy and they moved upriver. The direction was not a decision, or if it were it was as mysterious as the flight of birds.
They encountered another. Something was said, by that one, or by the other one, and feathers were ruffled. The immediate denouement was a swing of the staff and the stranger falling heavily and rolling down the embankment towards the river.
The other two continued the march, unhurried. In fifteen steps, they could not have told you what happened back there. It was just a matter of pride too close to the surface, like the roots of hearty plants in granite.
They moved about and others commingled and then separated and drifted in other assortments. It did not stop, this random association, day or night. Sometimes some one or two would disappear into one of the dilapidated frame houses in the neighborhood, and you could watch them, if there was clear glass in the windows, standing and looking, at nothing.
Someone with a name, and also a title, in another part of the city, this one with no broken windows, was observing the police blotter one morning soon after. Ah, he thought, here is something I might be able to use.
In days to follow, you saw this one’s picture in the paper, and his image on local news. He was fulminating about a possible hate crime over in the other ward in his parish. Then there were agencies with names, or at least initials, represented in the press by officials who were standing at microphones and looking grim in other photos.
The one who had rolled off the levy was black. This had nothing to do with anything that had happened; it was just another description. Nothing which mattered in the parish without plywood in windows had any application where the ones with no names lived.
Police were in the parking lot of Boudreaux’s now, every day and some nights, asking questions. There were splinters found in a blunt trauma bruise on the head of the victim, they said, and the residents of the parish blinked, stared. Anyone you know carries a club? was asked, and someone thought of The Stickman.
They found him in the church, or what had been a church but was now a soup kitchen. On this particular night, four nightingales were singing to the lost souls, hoping to save them. Nearer, my god, to thee. Shall we gather at the river? The stew was in an open vat and open to all.
They surrounded The Stickman there. They recognized him because he carried his trademark with him. One of them grabbed it, as if he were Little John or somebody. The Stickman, when he understood what was happening, placed his wrists together and stuck them straight out before him theatrically. His expression, or lack of expression, never changed.
They took the stick to the precinct, which forwarded it to the FBI lab, together with lab slides from the corpse. It became a point of pride in the neighborhood. None of this sort of expert technical attention had ever been performed in the ward before. It was, after all, not unusual for bodies to turn up along the levy.
The Stickman sat in a jail cell. The detectives were unable to commit him to a motive. He did not even remember the event. He scratched his head. What was that again? They became very exasperated with him.
There was word passed around about a woman. What was her name? the police asked. No one knew her name, but she had been there on the first with The Stickman, shore ‘nuff. The detectives went looking for her.
Most in the mob which congregated at Boudreaux’s on the first of every month were solemn, soggy men. It should not have been difficult to find a woman.
But she learned they were looking for her. Boudreaux himself asked, weren’t you the one with The Stickman when the black man was rolled? She blinked, confounded. She had no idea. Well, the police are looking for you, said Boudreaux.
She hid out now in her squalid quarters behind plywood, only going out for single packages of soup mix and plum wine. They were circling her position, like buzzards. Why did she not run away? Why did she still only stay there?
There was knocking, then silence, then a door being forced in the next house. She pulled her ragged shawl around her. They would find her soon. Tonight, or tomorrow, they would come through her own front door.
A reporter interviewed The Stickman in jail. He thought perhaps they might sell papers with a human angle, maybe the abused accused number.
“Do you have any complaints? Have the police been fair?”
The Stickman did not understand the question. The reporter did not understand the answer. It was played more profoundly in the press than it merited, sort of like Pilate’s musing on Truth, but to The Stickman, it was like asking a fish if it was too wet.“What’s `fair’?” The Stickman wondered.