Willie LeGoullon was a man's man. No truer words ever had been or ever would be said of him. Whose man was debatable and would have been hotly if any of the men and the handful of women in the fleet of shrimpers berthed at Galveston's Pier 19 were the type to discuss such matters aloud and Willie the type to tell the many secrets of his manhood. Instead, when talk turned to Willie, and usually only in lulls between gales of laughter and the final bottles of beer before closing time at the Broken Net, all that was said nowadays was that he was the saddest sonofabitch they'd ever known and 'tweren't fair since he was a helluva shrimper, a good son, and, to the nodding of any head in earshot, a man's man.
The old-timers conjectured his current spate of sullen gruffness came from pining (still) over his daddy; Willie was as much the loyal son as the faithful dog lying beside the front door, waiting for the never-to-be-heard-again footfalls of his beloved master. Forty-some-odd years ago Hurricane Carla and Pappy LeGoullon, the Agin' Cajun, had come ashore to remake Galveston in their own image and likeness. Two years ago, Pap's soul had set sail while his body flopped on the deck of his favorite ship, choking like the proverbial fish out of water, as his heart drowned in its own blood. Willie took it hard. All the shrimpers had. Like the rest of them, he'd worked his way up to captain of his own ship by being first a header, tearing the shrimp in two, and then a rigger, tending and mending the nets, on various boats in Pappy's fleet. He was beholden to the man who'd raised him up into manhood and then into captaincy.
The young and ambitious, however, would laugh at the old fools and counter that Willie's tighter- and tighter-lipped fury was no more supernatural than a lotus blossoming in a swamp of souring pride whose dark source was the overpowering shadow of his older brother, a man who went by the understatement of a nickname Lucky. Lucky LeGoullon was King Crawdaddy now and ran Pappy's company like it was a Fortune 500.
And finally the love-burned, unheard but uncaring of the slight, would snicker into the lip of their bottles the timeless one-word cause for any man's woe: woman.
All three schools of thought were right, but the latter, despite the myopia of their bitterness, was the most insightful -- and the most mistaken.
The last few months a bit of gossip had been slopped on every deck of every boat along with the nets of shrimp: Willie LeGoullon had finally found himself a woman. Maybe, at long last, Lucky had stopped siphoning from Willie the famed LeGoullon family good fortune like gas from a busted-up truck. Maybe Willie's spirits would lift as he settled down to the modest life the Good Lord had dealt him: all his limbs, a good ship, a small house, and now a woman.
No one had met her yet. Still there'd even been talk of a wedding -- a May bride -- at Lucky's mansion in Houston after the season's end, which had come and gone today as each weighed their last catch. Last Friday, Willie had finally relented and shown first Willard, a boy with the build and the personality of an old-time Frigidaire and his rigger, and then the rest of the Broken Net bar a photo. By this Friday, all the pier swore they'd seen pictures of his bride-to-be. Her name was TJ. A pissant of a girl with blonde bangs and downcast doe eyes -- as best anyone could tell from the blurred photo or the wide and varied recountings of it. What they hadn't been able to see in the ill-assorted color dots on a weathered piece of paper or hear in the well-soused verbal air-brushings it received was that TJ was that very man Willie did belong to.
What few curves TJ had in that photo were the last bits of baby fat still suckling at his titties or gripping his hips as they rode along on his ass. And tucked away from prying eyes was a dick that when he wasn't huffing fumes and could spare the blood for a hard-on grew long and thin like the fingers of the spinster who played the piano in any town's Sunday School. And cropped out of sight were Willie's pride and joy: TJ's two big toes. As fat and smooth as two upside-down and unripe pears.
"Hey, Willie. Where's your boyfriend?"
"What's that, Earl?" Willie replied to the old man passing the table whose red face was nearly scarlet in contrast to the white trim of his beard and receding hair. Another captain trained in the school of Pappy LeGoullon.
"Where's Willard? Off to beauty school yet?"
"It's art school, you useless asshole," Willie said, each syllable sharpening the edge in his voice.
"Taking the breakup bad, huh, son?" chimed in Bob Scuggins, an even older, frailer man who'd been retired back in Pappy's day and now looked like no more than a pair of overalls hung from a coat rack. "Where's that future wife of yours?"
"Yeah, lil' Pap, when's the wedding?" It was Joe, the owner of the Broken Net, weighing in from the peanut gallery at the bar. "I 'spected to get a invite on fancy paper when you weighed in."
"We's running off to New Orleans, Joe."
"TJ and Mrs. Lucky don't get along, huh?" said Earl.
"Yeah, Willie, how's that sainted brother of yours?" added the old coat rack.
"Farting through silk, I 'magine." Willie could hear the sound over the laughter and clanking of bottles, like a backfire heard underwater, muffled by the leather in the warm seat of Lucky's Porsche Boxster S as it sped home along the Gulf Freeway.
"Good to hear."
"Yeah, if you like a man in panties, Earl," Willie spat out through a lopsided smile.
There was more laughter and bottle-clanking.
"Willie, you and that lil' bitty gal of yours fighting that bad already? You could bust her over your knee. What, she got your dick at home in a drawer?"
A double-headed one, he thought. He could see his baby girly boy scratching at the sheets and crawling like a crab toward the headboard as Willie pushed it in deeper. He winced at the memory from a happier time. But unless he was planning to have CAUTION FLAMMABLE CONTENTS tattooed on his dick on the way home, he knew tonight would be as most every night had been when he was in port these last two months: he would either find TJ gone, not to return till Willie's money had run out, or TJ at home with a swollen paper bag and an empty can that hadn't been in the house when he left, all littered across the couch or floor and TJ deep in his dark metallic dreams. He couldn't afford this anymore. Not just the heartbreak. Not just the unlanced boil of lust. He literally could not afford to feed and clothe and house TJ. Or himself. His business had gone belly up.
He winced again. It looked like a grimace to hold back tears.
Joe, the long-lived barman, noticed immediately. "Boys, I think Willie's had enough today. It's been a long season. Give it a rest." Nothing clears a space in a room full of men like the presence of one of their own on the verge of crying. Willie and his bottle-strewn table were now the center of a very large circle.
So this really is the worst year of my life.
His mama had recently passed and taken her radiant love for him back to Jesus and whatever money she'd left behind for him was on ice, cooling in Lucky's bank while Lucky's lawyers went over her estate; he'd had to trawl overfished waters, steering clear of the Vietnamese -- who had everybody but their grandmothers out working on the water! -- and the sea turtles and their righteously wrathful human activists; he'd had to wait out three hurricanes only to learn that Willard was going off to college -- to be a painter of all things (then again he'd never seen nimbler fingers, fat sausages sprouted from two honey-glazed hams, unsnare a rope or unhinge a head from a shrimp); his boat needed a new bilge pump and refrigeration unit; and finally, his sweet love had gone back to the worst habits he'd picked up to make do while working the streets of Houston. Worse still, before the next season, before too many more days, he was going to have to go to Lucky, who'd be grinning more than usual at the sight of his brother broke and broken and spitting out for the onlookers -- Lucky was never alone -- a slew of Cajun French fried up with a Texas twang, an odd, excretory sound that left Willie squeamish, like the impact of chewed tobacco hitting the bottom of a Styrofoam cup. He'd have to crawl to Lucky, tail between his leg, and beg for the privilege of working for his own brother.
Tail, that's what I need, he thought. Let's see what I get. He headed home.
As he saw the signs for the turnoff to the Gulf Freeway hurtle to the side and into the red gloom behind his truck, he remembered the night over a year before when he'd taken it and the drive into Houston. He was back from three weeks out on the Gulf and too tired to cruise the dunes. Instead, he sat himself down in a dingy strip bar way out on Westheimer, far from the queens of the Montrose and the nearby castle of his brother in Avondale Place, and let the hustlers cruise him. On the stage, an ex-Marine, down to the crew cut and the Semper Fi tattoo, let his dick bob up and down in the heavy waters of the audience's need, the stale tension belied by the camp choice of song, "It's Raining Men." In time, a face Willie would want between his legs blocked his view of the entertainment. A short but lithe bleach blond, a gymnast crossbred with a surfer, his teeth as white as the tiny shells he wore thick around his neck.
"Hey," he said, his smile the exclamation point to his greeting. "Whaddya like?"
"To watch," Willie said without blinking.
"This tired ol' shit," he gestured over his shoulder at the next dancer, a frat boy who was cradling his beloved not so little man, wrapped in sequined-swaddling clothes, while the sound system blared Cher's "Believe."
The boy's smile froze somewhere between beaming and baring his fangs.
"I've gotta friend if you've gotta room."
"I will. Follow me."
"Pull in back a here," said the hustler, whose name Willie'd forgotten even then and now remembered only as Trade.
He pulled his pickup into the parking lot behind Lil' Beau's Peep Show, a more traditional strip joint that seamlessly blended, despite its garish neon sign of a randy sheep looking up the fairy tale shepherdess' skirt, with the rest of the shops crammed into the mini-mall.
Great, Willie groaned in his head, pussy on a pole. He turned the ignition off. "Your friend work here?" Willie asked aloud as he shifted in his seat to get a better look at the boy beside him.
"Well, I've seen enough pussy to know I don't care much for the sight. No offense, a course, to you and your girlfriend."
Trade laughed and looked Willie directly in the eye.
"I think you'll like John Thomas."
"That's an odd name for a girl," he said slowly as he pushed the bill of his cap off his forehead.
"He's an odd girl."
The door stenciled EMERGENCY EXIT swung open and a little girl walked out. She was taller than Trade but with none of his lean musculature. Just long lines with an occasional curve, except for her round face made all the more soft and circular by the long naturally blonde bangs that curtained it. She wore a pink halter top held aloft by two spaghetti straps. Bursting out on the front of it, almost like the depictions of the Sacred Heart his mama had loved so, were three flying girls with bugging eyes, just slightly smaller than hers. Her nose was almost as small on her face as the carat drawn to represent theirs. Her lips, however, were full, those of a mature woman. As his eyes descended to the tattered pair of Daisy Dukes she wore, he noted her hips were the same. She was stranded halfway between girl and woman. He continued to look her over as she began her walk to the truck, having turned and seen Trade waving broadly from its window. She was trying to saunter over but her large red high tops, fitting for a basketball center in the '50s, kept tripping her up and she had to nearly stomp to maintain her balance. Odd indeed.
"See what I mean," Trade said with a proprietary snicker.
"For fuck's sake, boy, she's fourteen."
"He wishes. He's been seventeen for two years."
"He," Willie said slowly to catch his breath. "And you?"
"Don't worry. We ain't chicken but we're still finger-licking good, if you know what I mean, Colonel." He leered, his face a mask of a man twice his age.
And that'd still be younger than me, Willie lamented to himself.
"Ain't you gonna get naked, Mister?" TJ asked. (His laughter had filled the cab of the truck when he'd been introduced as "John Thomas." "Name's TJ, Mr. Willie. Short for Travis Jones. I don't give a almighty goddamn if you know my real name." His voice was deeper and fuller than the breathy quiver Willie imagined.)
"No, I'm good, son. I like to watch. Just give me something I won't forget when I'm by my lonesome."
"Suit yourself," said Trade as he shucked off his shoes and jumped on top of the double bed nearest the window. "Y'mind if we smoke before we get started." Each word had been punctuated by a bounce.
"Nope. Smoke if you got 'em, I say. Want one of mine?" He delicately retrieved a near pristine pack of Marlboros from his T-shirt pocket.
"No thanks, Mr. Willie," TJ said as he joined Trade mid-bounce. "He means dope." Trade pushed him and they fell onto the bed laughing crazily like the young boys they were, drunk on hormones and the chance to fuck each other again. Trade scooted against the headboard and pulled a joint out of TJ's back pocket. He lit it and inhaled slowly. With his exhale and a gasping, almost soundless "Wow," he pointed it to TJ. TJ nodded his head to Willie, encouraging Trade to offer it first to their "host."
"Want some?" Trade coughed out.
"Naw, thanks though. Stuff puts me to sleep and I ain't ready for bed yet. Not till you show me something nice to dream about."
"Sure, sure," Trade said as he pulled the joint out of TJ's mouth. The glowing tip almost extended to the skin on Trade's fingers as he sucked on it. He closed his eyes, passed what was left of the joint back to TJ, and kept his eyes shut, lost in thought. Or just plain lost, Willie editorialized, suspicion about what was or was not going to go down next finally besting lust.
TJ leaned over Trade to stub out the joint in the ashtray on the bedside stand built into the single massive headboard of the two beds. As he pulled back, Trade grabbed his head. TJ froze, startled and afraid, as if he knew what might come and was trying to hold the predator at bay by playing as dead as he could. Trade lowered his face to TJ's and whispered. TJ nodded and smiled with relief.
"Okay," Trade said as he released TJ's head and threw open his eyes. "It's show time, Mr. Willie." He stood up beside the bed, inches from Willie, who was hunched on the edge of the other double bed. "Pardon us, monsewer," and here he pulled Willie's cap from his head and gave a little flourish with it before bowing, "while we get into our costumes." As he straightened himself, the blood slowly returned to his head and he staggered and began to laugh.
Willie's eyes met TJ's and he smiled. They all laughed now.
Willie turned his head to the large mirror along the wall opposite the foot of the beds to check out which of the hairs he had left atop it might be standing on end. He patted at the few strays and frowned. He looked at the rest of his face. It, he, was weathered. There was no better word for how he looked. The color and texture of his skin fell somewhere between tanned leather and smoked meat. Crisped and creased from almost all of his forty-five years spent shrimping under the Gulf sun, burning down from above and up from below as it glanced off the sometimes mirror-smooth and sometimes choppy and shardlike water. His eyes were clear blue green shallows in the recesses of his craggy face, broken up by the large beak of a nose and bushy eyebrows and thick moustache, frayed and yellowed from nicotine. Like the ends of his fingers -- pale yellow at the topmost points, thick and gnarled, permanently stained under the nails with grease -- that he ran beneath his nose to comb down the overgrowth of three weeks offshore. Behind his brown head, glistening with sweat despite the air-conditioned coolness of the room, glistening like the skin of a well-basted suckling pig, he watched the appearance of more and more white skin.
"Okay, you can look now," Trade snickered, whatever innocence there'd been in his laugh having finally died out.
Willie turned and TJ laid spread before him: blond, white, and pink. Blond hair thick on his head and thinning till it regathered around his white dick, thin and hard as steeple, save for the pink head, a fleshy blossom like his two nipples and, Willie's eyes traced the length of TJ's body, his...
That was the first time Willie saw TJ's toes. His heart, his skin, his dick, all flailed like they were caught in the tightest mesh net. And then Trade took the coral pink outcropping of skin and fat and bone and nail and hid it away in his mouth. Trade crawled closer to TJ, keeping the boy's toe in his mouth, till his dick was not far from TJ's hole, a flash of a darker coral appearing and disappearing out of the black hair with each of Trade's jostlings of the bed. Trade sat and spread his legs, lifting his own toes to TJ's mouth. TJ ran his tongue over each before swallowing both big toes at once and bobbing on them like they were a dick about to burst. Trade let this go on for only a little bit longer before he took them back and scooted as far away from TJ as he could without rolling off the end of the bed. With that, TJ's toe fell back onto the bed and Willie almost gasped in awe. Trade, ever the showman, paid Willie no mind. Instead, he stretched and rested on his elbows, his big toe tapping at TJ's hole. With only a breathy grunt from TJ to mark the moment wherein Willie's life forever changed, Trade plunged his toe into TJ like he was just a kid fooling around in his Saturday-night bath and jamming his toe into the wide mouth of the faucet.
"Mercy sakes!" Willie shouted, all of them bouncing with a start on their respective beds. "What the fuck's that?!"
"Get a hold of yourself, Granddad!" Trade volleyed back. "You said you're a shrimper. This here's shrimpboating!!"
Willie paused to take in the newness of the world. "Okay then...I wanna see his toe up your ass."
"That'll cost you." Trade waited for Willie to blow up or blurt out, "How much?!"
He didn't. Instead, Willie fished in his back pocket for his wallet. He pulled out a few twenties and put them on the nightstand. "How's a hundred?"
"Good enough to get me to roll over," said Trade.
TJ looked out from under his long blond bangs and heavy-lidded eyes and smiled. Willie was hooked.
Trade took TJ's toe three separate times and pocketed the 300 dollars and left TJ to score some more before he would return in the a.m. to take him away as well. After Trade had left his perch in the window for the waiting cab below and closed the heavy door behind him with the echoing metallic clack of a vacuum being sealed, Willie sat on his bed and sipped at his Coors Light and watched TJ come unwrapped from his sheet as he reached over to the far side of his bed to retrieve a forgotten bag of Grandpa John's Hot & Spicy Kettle-Cooked Pork Cracklins. His ass was small, an unblemished white, and as perfectly round as the sigh a child makes when no one is listening. TJ rolled back and tore open the bag. He looked at Willie and stopped to appraise the older man's slightly drunken, unblinking stare.
When TJ had tallied up all that he could see and intuit, he spoke: "C'mon. Take off your clothes. I like you. For real."
"None of your business."
"Not about business. I want you to fuck me. On the house." He grinned slyly and seductively like the girls who'd always tried to get Willie's brother's attention after mass, after school, after his wedding. "C'mon."
"You don't want to."
"Sure I do but I ain't got much of a dick."
"Sure you do."
"No, son, I don't. I got what the doctors like to call a medical condition. I got a dick that when I get a boner ain't no bigger than your thumb."
"God's truth. Doctors' name for it is micropenis. Horrible-sounding word, I think."
TJ sat up and pushed his bangs away from his face. "I know something about hurt, Mr. Willie. You seen my toes. You seen all of me. Barely got to this night alive, being a fairy in Texas and all, so I sure as shit ain't one to judge you on the size of your dick."
Willie blushed, moved by the old wisdom of a child.
"Can it get hard?"
"Well, can it?"
"Then you can fuck me. Well, c'mon now."
"Can I live with you?" TJ asked Willie's left nipple hours later, his head resting in the crook of Willie's arm, his body curled beside his like a white shadow to draw heat in the artificial cold of the room.
Willie took a breath, held it to keep his heart and his tears at bay. He coughed out a barely audible yes. But there was only silence. From the lengths of TJ's breaths, he could tell he'd fallen asleep before hearing the answer. He already knew what it would be.
Willie could hear the music through the cab of his truck once its engine had gone silent in the driveway. He gave the same strained look he would have if he'd been out on the Gulf with a mountain of thunderheads materializing out of thin, but very humid, air.
He opened the front door to the smell of bitter lemons and wood soap. Tammy Wynette was wailing out the refrain from "I Don't Wanna Play House" -- the stereo cranked high enough for the whole neighborhood to hear her plaint, high enough to rattle the floorboards and shake the windows. Willie didn't even notice them violently jerking when he slammed the door.
"For chrissakes, TJ," he hollered to the stereo as he switched it off. He turned and saw him and all he could do was moan and shake his head. He checked TJ's breath and left him to sleep it off. He'd tried to rouse him before and nearly had his jaw busted in and his eyes gouged out. As he reheated his gumbo on the stove, he returned to pick up the bag and the can of Pledge he'd bought to dust the few pieces of furniture of his recently passed mama that Lucky hadn't wanted. He came back another time to just stand and stare at the little broken boy, as innocent in his sleep as he was damned.
"What am I gonna do with you, son?" he sighed.
The bag of skin shifted its guts and bones. An eye peered through the veil of sweaty hair. "Mikey, that you, man?"
Mikey, that was Trade's name.
"Mikey?" Willie grunted. "That who you wanna see? Mikey?!" His voice was picking up like a squall. "That who you want, you huffing-piece-of-shit? Fine. Fuck you, TJ! Fuck us! Soon as you come to I'll take you back to Lil' Beau's and you can start looking for your sweet Mikey. How 'bout that, TJ?! You want that? Hell, I'll throw in can a spray paint as a wedding present and you two faggots can live happily fuckin' ever after till you both drop dead from snorting shit."
Willie knew he was on the verge of bawling, knew he was on the verge of picking up TJ and smacking him from one end of the couch to the other. But he held it in and raised his voice instead. The uncomprehending eye continued to stare at him.
"Jesus, TJ, why?! Why you doin' this shit to me? All I ever did was take you home like you asked me to. Fed you. Fucked you." He paused to press a hand to his forehead and through his hair. "Whaddya 'spect, LeGoullon, fuckin' a goddamn child?! Jesus H. Child-Fuckin' Christ! Why the fuck am I so goddamned stupid to fall in love with a goddamned paint-sniffin' child...?!" he yelled as he ran back into the kitchen to turn off the pot of burning shrimp stew.
I'd rather my tongue was racin' round in circles 'round your sweet little ass, Willie thought as he watched Jeff Gordon take the lead in a NASCAR race whose name had been blotted from his memory with his seventh can of Coors Light. As he popped the top on his eighth, he spied movement -- beyond the rim of his second bowl of half-eaten gumbo -- crawling and swaggering and stumbling and crawling once more in from the bedroom.
"Mr. Willie," the sluggish insect cried out in a series of squeaks and croaks.
Willie chugged almost half his beer to drown out the eerie sound. He listened to the fervent pulse of his blood washing up and around his head.
"Mr. Willie," said the voice slowly evolving toward humanity. "Mr. Willie don't be mad. Please don't. Look I painted my toes just for you."
TJ crawled in front of Willie's La-Z-Boy and rolled onto his back, lifting his legs toward him, blocking Jeff's and the rest of the roaring cars. TJ was only wearing shorts, his tightest Daisy Dukes with not much more than a large blossom of denim to cover his ass, his hole blowing him kiss after kiss as TJ tried to angle his toes closer to Willie's own, reclining midair.
"You jackass, TJ. Damn if you weren't so cute I'da thrown you out with the trash long ago." Willie slurred his way through the sentence all the while punching at his remote till he hit MUTE. "Well, son, let's see them toes of yours." He lowered his legs and slapped at the armrest and then his thigh. "Well, put 'em on the glass, boy."
TJ scooted on his back toward Willie like a palsied crab. When his ass bumped against Willie's bare feet, he lifted his legs onto Willie's lap. Willie carefully raised his pride and joys out of his swelling crotch. He turned them toward the light falling from his reading lamp and TJ turned with them, flopping onto his side like a retarded seal and barking out a laugh. Willie squinted to focus and appraised the two largest gems. He frowned, like a jeweler who has discovered a single flaw in an otherwise perfect stone. The nail polish was askew. Slopped on. Thick to one side. Like TJ had done them in the dark on rough seas.
"Not good enough," Willie said.
"Apology not accepted."
"What...? But...I...please, Mr. Willie. I love you." TJ's nostrils flared and his eyes grew inhumanly wide as they took on water.
"TJ...son...I love you, too. But you did these while you was high as a kite. Ain't good enough."
"I'm sorry...I'm sorry. I swear. Sorry, sorry, sorry -- "
"Yes, y'are. But you can make it right."
"Well, that too. Someday you'll have to keep that promise or die -- "
"I don't wanna die," TJ said as he started sob.
"Boy," Willie said as he shook TJ's feet, "y'aint gonna die tonight. Listen." He rattled him like the end of snake's tail, warning him to heed. "Lord, you're a weepy girl tonight. Listen -- you fuck me with both of these tonight and I'll 'ccept your apology. You hear me, son?"
TJ nodded his head in time with Willie's shakings.
Willie slowly accepted that he was no longer dreaming, his head really did hurt that much, and that he was lying in their bed, alone. He dimly remembered, as if it were a nothing detail for someone else's life: TJ wiping himself off and then Willie with his ratty-ass shorts, then TJ holding his hand and walking him to the room, tugging him onto the bed, and nudging him under the covers. He called for TJ. No answer, save for the distant barking of a dog chained and forgotten. He plodded to the bathroom to piss. He hollered for TJ and then flushed. He walked from end to end of the too-quiet house. He looked out the front window. The pickup was gone. A first. Probably his wallet along with his keys. He stood in the window and waited, till every bone and muscle in his feet throbbed, till each toe was as swollen and as sad a shade of blue as a drowned body. When he could no longer stare into the watery glare of twilight, he hobbled to his bed to listen for the sound of gravel churning, heavy feet hitting the stairs, tumblers in the lock falling: the return of his man.