Catchy Grover Styles sat at the flimsy metal table and whip-cracked the Times Picayune to the personal ads because it was there that his work came to him. The jobs came in code, and here’s how it worked: the lost and found ad was placed by a thief in Grover’s network. The thief had to detail the job in five parts. First, who placed the ad. In Atlanta, for instance, the junkie thief used the code ‘henry44’. In Palm Beach Gardens, the masterful but lazy Nam vet used ‘ghostgook’.
Second, the thief had to appraise the worth of his loot on a scale from one to five, with the word ‘suns’ used instead of dollars. For example, one sun was over ten thousand dollars; two suns for 10 to 30 thousand and so on; 5 suns was a score over 100 thousand dollars.
Third, the number of items; simple enough. Fourth was the address of the meet, if needed. But the street and number must have one subtracted. So, 3489 would read 2378; and similarly, the letters of the street name would be less one in the alphabet; thus Elm St. would read Dkl Rs. Zip code was to be given in like fashion. The last piece of the code was the day when the meet would take place at the address in relation to the day the ad was placed.
Grover scanned the damp page with his thin black finger and saw his colleagues in Pensacola and Gulf Shores both had ads, as did an increasingly unreliable little brat down in Naples. But it was the last one that made his heart and crotch tingle as one. The ad read: obrotherwhereartthou?5suns.1.06bgdqqx27000tonite. Grover studied it hard twice, wrote it down for surety and then slapped the paper on his thigh. Lungsee baby, god damn!
Grover folded the paper, checked his watch and flecked the powdered sugar from his snappy seersucker pants. He sipped the last of his latte, grabbed his battered leather briefcase and dropped a dollar bill on the table. He hustled through the heat, nabbed a cab at Jackson Square and took Royal to St. Charles, stopped at the bank at Iberville for cash, and then on to Julia where he paid the stringy-haired vampire cabbie and ran from the taxi to platform B for The City of New Orleans; the noon train to Memphis. Seven minutes to spare. He bought a hot dog, squeezed a thin line of bright mustard on it and dashed past the heaving rear diesels. A pretty girl noticed him. Grover knew he was catchy.
He stepped into the last coach, checked the platform over his shoulder and was sure he hadn’t been followed. A simple task, a painless tax. He walked through the car and into the next one. Dining. He took the last table and dropped his briefcase in the chair by the window and sat in the aisle chair and pulled out his notebook. A moleskin. He opened it. On the first page was handwritten, Life of a Salesman: A Memoir.
Grover looked down at the notebook and sighed. He did not open it. He stared at the title for a long moment as the salty smelling train, three minutes late, lurched, scraped its first spin of the wheels.
He took his wallet from his back pocket and set it on the bolted-down table next to the notebook. It was fat like a sandwich. It looked like he rented out its space to dozens of other men who had no wallets. But he didn’t. All the property was his. Bills. Cards. Notes. He smiled at the wallet. Grover loved life.
He pulled up the paper and reread Lungsee’s personal ad: obrotherwhereartthou?5suns.1.06bgdqqx27000tonite, and with zero hesitation, he emptied the contents of his wallet and gave the now flimsy worn out worthless cow skin to a passing young porter. Hey, my young brother, can you dispose of this for me, please sir?
Dispose? For real? Can I have it? said the porter.
It’s all you, my man.
The porter smiled big, shook hands with Grover and walked away happy. Grover watched him go and then picked up his cash, his driver’s license and American Express and Diner’s Club cards. He wrapped the bills around the cards, marveled at the thinness and easily slid this into his front pocket. He didn’t even have to stand. He dragged his forearm across the table, scraping the wallet’s detritus into his briefcase. Smarter.
Years it takes to learn the simple things, he thought. But then he wondered, why now? Why now shed his wallet? Maybe the fat wallet he’d been lugging around and perched on all these years reminded him that Lungsee’s baggage was always there and couldn’t be discarded so flippantly. Maybe. It sounded good, but he knew the reason was far crueler than that.
Grover loved Lungsee, and tried not to pity him. But he did. Couldn’t help it. He knew damn well that the baggage the big fellow suffered was diseased, rotted, terminal. Grover’s was a mildly cumbersome wallet. Pity can bring relief. And that’s a damn shame. Somewhere near Bogue Chitto, Mississippi, Grover realized he had been staring out the window since New Orleans. Memphis. It’d been years since he’d been there. It was time to go. But it hurt. Memphis was his hometown, where he was raised and where he learned to buy and sell and live.
His father, the legendary south-side fence Roland “Roll ’em” Styles, told him how to be a man, and then got murdered. Grover was just a boy but the words carried over, one life to the next: Time saving tools makes money grubbing fools, the elder Styles said. Take the time, boy. But he died. Got shot by a guy who was gunning for another fence. There was a strong uncle who knew what to do with the fatherless boy, and did it, and for this man, Grover thanked the good lord every blessed day.
Grover had read Myra Breckenridge a couple years ago and its wholesale defectiveness inspired him to write something himself that possessed worth. So he began his memoir last month.
Grover liked the way he was, the way he lived. He was alone, but that came with the profession. Being a fence required a special woman, and they’re hard to find, so he quit looking. Maybe she’ll find me, he always thought when alone with his drink. Every night.
He liked that he used phones very little. TV never. He never flew when he could take the train. Last year, he flew to London to sell a Dutchman a door from an old brothel over on Governor Nicholls. The buyer was a natural racist, called him ‘little nigger’ to his face, so Grover doubled the price and the man snickered and paid. Grover wanted to get all this down. All the stories, and what they all add up to. A better perspective on life?
The train again began its slow chug, now leaving Yazoo City. The shitty houses just east of the tracks gave way to nicer houses and then a few grand homes and then a baseball field and then it got shitty all over again until the lush green southern pines came roaring back with their tree frogs and cicadas that couldn’t tell between night and day. The world made no sense sometimes, but that’s its charm. Its logic. Get my stories down. Mine…
He looked down and his moleskin was open. He’d written something during the trip, but he didn’t remember. His black scrawl on the white paper looked foreign, like chicken scratch. But he could read it, and he did. It recorded when he first met Lungsee. That eerie south Memphis day down on East Alston Ave…
I was hustling hard the Washington heights area. This was where my father finessed and fine-tuned his trade. It’s where he started, as I mentioned earlier. One day, I get a call from a well-known in-and-out con named Albert Bobby-Lee Coyle. He claimed to be in possession of a Civil war coin collection he’d bought off some writer named Foot. He set up the meet and I went. It was his girlfriend’s house down on East Allston and we sat at the kitchen table. I was nervous because his nickname was the ABC Killer (and I know how to spell!). He was big and bald and white and he had this big scab on his head right between his eyebrows. It looked like a spider. I knew he hated blacks, but I figured it was ok because it was daytime. And plus, I spoke highly of D-Block over at the city jail, and he liked that. D-Block is like a foster home away from home for guys like Albert. He liked me talking about it. It worked. But his coins didn’t have any provenance (history of ownership) and I had to tell him real nice like that I needed it. Occupational requirement. He said ok, and I was surprised because that’s when guys like that usually threaten you, but he said something about karma, and I said, Karma is pedestrian philosophy, and so, just as I was about to stand up and leave Albert’s girlfriend’s house, I felt a pair of eyes upon me and looking at me from behind the crack in the hall door…
Grover felt funny and foggy and watched the Mississippi fir forest pass by in a blur of brown, but for the life of him could not remember what had happened next at that psycho’s kitchen table. Something wasn’t right, and then he could see those scared eyes looking at him from the trees…
We were moving this big baby grand into a big ole farmhouse out in Moscow, out highway 57, and the old lady was batty as hell. Had earwax dripping out her right ear, right onto her dress. She had flowers everywhere. Mainly yellow ones. We put the piano in her parlor and I had to go, go to the bathroom, so I asked if I could use the crapper, see, and she screamed, Okay! and so I had to go through her other parlor to get to the bathroom and there they were on a black glove so I just didn’t think and snatched ’em. They looked real pretty, like Christmas tree balls, and I thought they had to be worth something and my aunt’s boyfriend and this smooth-assed black dude come by the house one day to look at some coins and I didn’t want Bobby-Lee to know I had the pearls so I followed this black guy down the street to his car and showed him the pearls and he gave me four hundred dollars on the spot. That’s how I meet Grover. And that’s Grover, Lungsee said, pointing to Emile’s front door. He’s cool. He’s one of us.
So, you want to sell the toilet? said Emile.
That black guy is here to buy the toilet? Is that what I’m hearing? Emile had just gotten out of the shower and was standing there dripping into a towel and peering around a corner and trying to make sense of the skinny handsome black guy with an expensive battered briefcase looking in his front window. Because, correct me if I’m wrong, Lungsee, but if we sell the toilet, we have no leverage on Lou. And if we have no leverage on Lou, we will probably go to prison. Or die. For a long time.
Emile slowly became agape as Lungsee outlined his theory on resonance, with some incest and referential dementia thrown in. Emile was familiar with resonance and incest but referential dementia he knew nothing of. And hell, the dude at the door probably had a gun and was going to kill them both and take the toilet anyway, so what the fuck. But does Lou even know? We didn’t send the note yet, he said.
Oh, I dropped that off yesterday. Believe me, he knows.
Well, okay… Emile was unsure, but Lungsee cocked his head to the right and this somehow made the situation better. That resonance stuff actually makes some sense.
Doesn’t it? The spooky illusion, the airy commode, Lungsee said with a two-hand whirling flourish over his head.
Yeah, and having the damn thing just sitting there… Emile looked at it. Having it sit there like that is making me nervous, now that I think about it, because if Lou freaks and sends the cops, then we are buttfucked, man.
Tell me about, said Lungsee, dropping his hands like floppy puppy paws.
I don’t know, man. This shit is getting pretty. And it’s getting pretty close to home.
This is your home.
Oh. Right. Okay, I guess it’s…
Great! I’ll get the door.
The three men stared in silence at the black toilet for a long time. Thoughts profound and stupid swirled in the local noiseless noosphere. They all agreed, finally, that none of them had ever seen a toilet sitting on a coffee table before. They then spoke at length about the night of the heist, the circumstances and the details of the job – how the Alberto VO 5 loosened the bolts; the girls and their kitchen cocaine party; anal sex fixations; casino chip; the thrown stick diversion; the dropping of the unit; the Mystery train rendition from the street, and the stolen-car cab ride with a bit of Johnny Hallyday.
With the more specialty objects that Grover dealt in, he needed to be able to discuss at length with the thieves these specifics and figure out the best way to conjure a story to adorn the object’s provenance in order to convince a buyer to pay and pay big. After two hours of probing questions, subtle cross-examinations and deep analysis of the tricky streams of thought that framed the story of the tale of the object, Grover beamed widely and said with full confidence: I can move that toilet.
It was all too good to be true. Jackie’s press conference alone was confirmation, broadcast for the world to see. And the phone call Grover had made earlier to his contact inside the MPD confirming there was a police report and that it was indeed for a heisted toilet was icing on the cake’s icing. Cake. And the collector in Osaka who Grover had in mind would slurp up these stories like greasy Udon noodles, the behind-the-scenes little filaments that his father taught him that customers need. Take the time, boy…
At least ten minutes passed with no words spoken. Birds came and went from window sills. Cars hummed slowly by. A few planes overhead. Lungsee’s wheezing soothed Emile and Grover with its steady, rhythmic essence amid the absurd.
Then Grover said, Ten thousand. Ten thousand dollars for your crap pot there.
Got it on you?
Emile, I do, Grover said patting his case. Grover was a stickler for mentally recording personal details in his business meets, and he had noticed Emile’s khakis at first, but then, as he was now patting his case and looking again, he seemed to recognize something about the pants.
Ten thousand sounds like some pretty sweet fucking resonance to me, Emile blurted to Lungsee.
And we still have the toilet, said Lungsee.
Whatever, Emile spurted with a crazed grin. He stood and smiled and drained his scotch. Lungsee stood and clapped like a seal. And that was that. Grover had three five-thousand cash bundles in his case. He pulled two out and handed them to Emile.
Damn... Emile checked its weight, hefted it, thumbed it and smelled it. He looked to Lungsee. Lungsee smiled and made no gesture for his share.
Grover’s taxi had waited and after the cabbie snuggled the quilt-wrapped toilet next to the greasy spare and jack, Grover put one wet-sand colored buck into the back seat and turned and said, Say, I don’t aim to be weird or anything, but your pants, man… you wear ’em exactly like… I mean, they remind me of…
My pants? You like ’em? Want ’em? You just gave us ten grand for a toilet. You can have ’em, Emile said and stared to take off his pants.
No, no, no. I’m okay. It’s just… you got the exact same… but different, you know, britches, as this guy… Ty. You don’t happen to know a guy named Ty, do you? Ty Fournier?
With zero hesitation, Emile said, Wait right here, and then walked back inside, got Ty’s picture and showed it to Grover and Grover said, So, you do know him! I’ll be damned!
They stood in the drive for an hour, Emile asking questions and Grover answering them. Grover detailed his beastly love affair with Ty’s ravishing, raven-haired mother. Her bar, Lil’ Queenie’s, out on Ursulines Ave, Grover frequented when he had a cottage down the way on Villere. They got friendly, and next thing he knew, he was her man for six months.
I expressed an interest in her boy, Ty, and once she knew I was serious and would spend time with him, she wouldn’t shut up about the man from Memphis. He was the boy’s father and the love of that poor woman’s life. That’s how I know the khakis. You guys wear the exact same khakis in the exact same way. Amazing about the nature of peoples’ similarities. It’s the little things, you know…
The front drive conversation ended, and as validating and exciting as these stories were regarding the possibilities of where Ty might presently be, Grover was zero help. And he apologized for this. He apologized for bringing it up at all. Emile reassured him and a strong friendship had been formed. They eagerly agreed to do business again in the future. They said their farewells.
But after another moment of standing one foot in the cab and one on the ground, Grover said, There was this one night… I was feeling good because a little deal down in Tallahassee went well and I wanted to take the boy out for a little celebration, a man-to-man, you know. I pitied the boy, felt sorry for him but I also felt some loyalty to him, too. I knew by then that it was over with me and ole Queenie, and I also knew the types of guys that were likely to replace me, and that did not bode well for young Ty. He didn’t have things easy, and neither did she. He needed a man in his life, and I was leaving. So like I said, I felt sorry for the boy, so I took him to my spot out in Algiers, the Pony Stop, and we sat out on the rickety old porch and he just started talking. Rambling and most of it, just, you know, confused, angry kid stuff. I was the same way at his age and my father just let me burn it off, let me hit him if I needed, and so I was there to do the same with young Ty. And all went well. He was mad as a rattlesnake at his daddy for leaving, was mad at his momma for letting his daddy go, and being all alone and no one to understand him. He felt terrible and I felt good. It was working. He was growing up. I was doing my job. He was doing his. We drank a cold Dixie. Then another. And then he started telling me this story. It was the best story I ever heard. Funny, sad, exciting, couldn’t tell you now what it was to save my life, but he had me hooked in good, man. And then he stops. Just like that. I say, Hey man, finish the story. Can’t leave me hanging like that. He says, Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you the end. So I buy him a beer and he finishes the story. Great story. Great ending. Taught me something, I don’t know, can’t remember, but it was philosophic as hell. You know, one of those stories that tells you about life and living and experience and.. folly. And then he starts another one. Gets all the way through and stops again, right at the damn cliff, man, and I say, Shit, man! and he says, Buy me a beer and I’ll finish it, and so I do and he does. He did this all night long. And standing here, right now with you, looking back on that night and remembering it all… That’s life, man. That’s life. Best game in town. Grover Styles eased into the taxi, shut the door and rode away.
Emile and Lungsee watched Grover go. And from across the street, Lou and Delly secretly watched the two imbeciles wave.