SHORT STORY | ZINC & TALULLAH
You'd think people who live as far back in a southeastern Louisiana cypress swamp as Zinc and his little sister Tallulah do would get a hurricane, or at least maybe a mushroom, named after them. But there aren't many meteorologists or horticulturists that have ever even heard of Zinc and Tellulah, or, for that matter, Big Constance Lake, and even if they had heard of it, they'd know that nothing can survive anywhere near that mosquito-infested Atchafalaya waste dump but cottonmouths, diamondbacks, and copperheads. And that's just exactly what Zinc wants them to think.
Zinc's little sister Tallulah, is a twelve year old beauty with golden Palomino blond curls and skin so white that if she'd walk across the road in front of you in a snow storm, you'd most likely run her over. In spite of Zinc's pathologically overprotective nature, he does have his own brand of charm hidden beneath his smoke-choked shoulder length black hair, but his eyes are like wildfires that could burn a stump down to its roots if he'd stare at it long enough. He could make a mint if he'd ever learn how to harness that look. Even alligators are afraid of the entertaining little bastard, and nobody comes anywhere near his lake side shack without a damned good reason, because he's got a semi-trained, pigmy rattlesnake in a Nabisco Soda Cracker can that he keeps in the back of the shack. He's got that pissed off rattler to more or less stand up in a greased basket like a spastic cobra trying to climb a wet well wall, and on weekends he takes it with him up to Lake Charles to scare the crap out of seer-suckered tourists for five bucks a pop.
A Louisiana Child Welfare Services rookie eventually shows up at the fish camp next door, looking for a Mulatto runaway from New Iberia and, when she accidentally runs into Zinc and Tallulah living by themselves on crabs, frogs, crawdads, and rain water that they'd collected off the roof, she gets so excited you'd think she'd found the missing frigging link. But once she sets her eyes on Zinc's pint sized rattler peeking at her over the lip of that cracker can, she about has a coronary, jumps right out of her high heels, and flies out of there so fast she couldn't have looked back if she'd wanted to. Tallulah carried the purse she left behind around with her until it nearly fell apart.
As rough as he is around the edges, Tallulah worships her big brother, and Zinc does whatever he can to keep her happy and safe. He even teaches her to read and write which is better than the over educated peckerhead teachers up at that preppie factory of a junior high school in Lake Charles ever did.
None of the local, low life muggers, thieves, thugs, and assorted other deviant trash who live part time in the fish camp next door know that Zinc's real name is Bo Gunne, so they've saddled him with the nickname, Zinc because he'd made a ceiling out of zinc panels that he'd found trolling for trash in a burned out Baptist church up in Lafayette. Tallulah's nailed so many paper saints and plastic angels to that ceiling that it looks like the Sistine Chapel by now.
It's hard to tell how long Zinc and Tallulah have been living in that shack but by the shape of Zinc's Howard Hughes finger nails, his jagged, piano key colored teeth, and the snarled mice nest of sand burs in Tallulah's blond mop, it looks like a long, long time. It only takes the Child Welfare Services lady three weeks to recover from her near death experience with Zinc's pet rattler, but it takes her nearly three months to find out what kind of parents would leave those two kids alone like that to live down there in that slimy pig sty all by their sorry selves.
Zinc's dad Mickey D. was no prize either, but he made good money running numbers for Sammy the Rat, a bush league, Bourbon Street mob wantabe with some serious connections. Mickey D. was never sure what the hell kind of connections Sammy the Rat had exactly, but after he saw him slice off the index finger of a bottom dealing, black jack, card shark and feed it to a rat (hence his name), he figured he really didn't need to know. But before the Child Welfare folks can cuff and stuff the dead beat felon, after finding him pounding down hurricanes at Bayona's on Dauphine, a couple of undercover Feds cut in line and nab the twisted reprobate for running a minor league loan-sharking operation across state lines; and that's all she wrote for Mickey D. It was a only a misdemeanor but thanks to the Third Strike law he got himself sent up to Angola for life. But Zinc never really missed him all that much. He hardly even knew the man.
As for Zinc and Tallulah's mom, Charlotte, she was a pampered, wild assed, rich girl who loved bad boys, and Mickey D. Gunne was as bad as boys got in the Quarter. Charlotte's daddy, Clovis Dodge, was a slick, rich, born again Bible thumper from Lake Charles who'd grown up cutting cane around Thibodaux and ended up owning half the sugar plantations in St. James Parish. And that's where he met and married an even richer Bible Belt belle from Slidell, Claudine Boudreau.
Fifteen years later, when Clovis and Claudine found out that their youngest daughter Charlotte, had not only run off with the penny ante, Bourbon Street hustler Mickey D., but had also had the unmitigated mendacity to spawn a bastard baby boy Bo, out of wedlock no less, they immediately disowned her. Getting cut off like that was bad enough, but by the time Charlotte got around to finding out that she was pregnant with Tallulah, Mickey D. had already run off with an underage welfare mother on food stamps and started up running confidence games for Dickie the Deuce in Belle Chasse up in Plaquemines Parish
Charlotte was flat out devastated, and after that, her brain must have blown a fuse because she seemed to forget she even had a son. She'd keep leaving Bo in bars in the Quarter and then go stomping up and down Bourbon in a dazed stupor all night, trying to remember what she'd done with the poor boy. Not that Zinc gave a shit. He'd climb up on a stool, take a couple drags off a butt some drunk would leave burning in their ashtray, drain the remains of a warm, left over Dixie beer or two, and then flirt with the strippers. What did he care? Not a bad life for a five year old. Sure beat the hell out of kindergarten.
Sometimes it would be one in the morning when Charlotte would finally remember where she'd left Bo and sail into the bar in a manic frenzy and start bawling when she'd see him sitting there half plastered, wobbling back and forth on a stool. Then she'd scoop him up, jump the St. Charles streetcar, and head for home like it was the most normal thing in the world to do. Saved a fortune on day care. Some nights when Charlotte couldn't for the life of her recall where the hell she'd left Zinc, the local bar flies would take turns dropping him off at her house, which was just off Veterans Avenue in Metairie, on their way home. Nobody really thought much more about it. "After all," they'd all chuckle straight faced without a touch of irony, "it takes a village."
That next year, after Tallulah was born, Charlotte was diagnosed with bi-polar, disease, border line schizophrenia, and the early signs of dementia. Her family had no choice but to have her committed to Mandeville for observation. It was almost ten years later, after both of her parents had croaked, that her spinster sister Fanny, finally got Charlotte released and then spirited her away to live with her in an ancient Victorian, mansion over on Ryan Street in Lake Charles
For years after that, Zinc would lie in bed at night and try to conjure up his mother's face, but it seemed the harder he tried to focus in on her, the further and further away she'd get. After awhile, no matter how hard he squinched up his eyes, he couldn't remember what the hell she looked like anymore. She just seemed to drift around like a floater in the back of his eyes, sailing off just out of sight until one day she just up and disappeared into the sad, mysterious, amber ether forever.
For twelve long years after Mickey D. had been sent up the river and Charlotte had been safely tucked away in the nut hatch in Mandeville, Zinc and Tallulah ran through a dead end string of foster homes as if they'd been condemned, flea infested motels that they wanted no damned part of, and, because Tallulah had threatened to slice both her wrists to the bone if anybody so much as even thought about trying to separate her from Zinc, not to mention what Zinc would have done to them had they tried, the Social Services and Child Welfare bureaucrats just about gave up on the both of them. That is, until their distant cousin, Orville Gunne, showed up out of nowhere one day and agreed to take them in.
It came as no surprise to anyone that all Orville really wanted was the under-the-table social services check he got from the state for taking Zinc and Tallulah off their hands, but Zinc and Tallulah didn't mind. That is until Zinc woke up in a wet floppy sweat one suffocating, summer night after nearly baking half to death in Orville's non air-conditioned, toxic waste dump of a piss yellow trailer in Lake Charles and found his devious perv uncle inching his way down the hall towards Tallulah's room, wearing nothing but a pair of worn out, dirty white socks. Zinc tapped the startled retard on the shoulder and got right up in his boiled red lobster face, hissing at him: "If you ever even think about going anywhere near Tallulah again, I swear to God I'll cut your dick off and feed it to my rattler. You got that?"
Orville seemed to take exception to the threat and told Zinc that he and his testy little tart, cock tease of a twisted sister could both go straight to hell. That next morning Orville woke up in traction at the emergency room in Lake Charles Memorial with four broken bones, twenty two stitches, three missing front teeth, multiple lacerations, and a bruised and battered piss stick.
By morning, Zinc and Tallulah were long gone. They'd stashed everything they owned into two Gretna Grocery sacks, hitched a ride right straight down to a Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf that Zinc had read about in a National Geographic Magazine he'd swiped from the library for Tallulah, and parked their weary butts for the night in an abandoned fish camp on the shores of Big Constance Lake. The next day they went to work building their shack out of crap scrap lumber that Zinc had scavenged from a construction site up in Abbeville in Vermillion Parish. And life was good again. For about a week that is.
"Uncle" Orville survived his unfortunate "fall-down-the-stairs", as he put it, but he'd been so blind drunk that night that he'd blacked out and couldn't remember squat. He didn't even realize Zinc and Tallulah were even gone until a wet-behind-the-ears young Child Welfare Services lady stumbled up to the trailer door in a gin soaked coma a week later and inquired about them. Orville convinced her in ten seconds flat that the dear, sweet angels were both tucked away safe and sound in their feather beds and that all was right with the world. "Let's not wake the little darlings," he told her, as he slid his smarmy arm around the poor besotted fool's waist, fully intending to keep collecting his welfare checks. What they don't know won't hurt em, he told himself.
Now that they've got a roof over their heads again, Tallulah cooks and cleans and does the laundry and Zinc chops the wood, and on week days, he hitchhikes up to Lake Charles to do what he loosely calls the "shopping," which means he snatches half a dozen books from the Calcasieu Parish Library, ransacks a still moving Goodwill truck for clothes for Tallulah, pilfers a few bucks from the Our Lady of the Good Shepherd collection plate, picks up a couple bottles of milk that he takes off a front porch he passes along the way, and heads south, dragging his loot along behind him, stomping through the cool, damp, lavender splattered dawn like a pint-sized Santa Claus. He makes one last stop in Grand Chenier to pick up a block of ice, which is a royal pain in the butt, but there's no electricity in the shack, so what choice does he have? Cooking on a wood stove and taking a dump in an outhouse is no picnic either but who's complaining? It's the price you pay for going where you want and doing what you please.
Cash is tight so Zinc starts poaching ducks and geese on Marsh Island that he sells to a mob-owned restaurant up in Sweet Lake. But his hunting-for-a-living dreams go up in smoke when he nearly gets busted for shooting a pelican that he thinks is a wild turkey with a bow and arrow that he stole from his rum soaked nutcase of a neighbor, Cherokee Joe Cheeks. Cherokee Joe isn't a real Indian at all but he dresses like one because he's embarrassed to be a half-breed... half Cajun and half sociopath. Zinc doesn't care what kind of freak show reject Cherokee Joe is, but he knows enough to stay away from him, and Cherokee Joe had damned well better stay away from him and Tallulah if he knows what's good for him. Zinc's small but he's meaner than a hog-nosed pit viper when he's mad and, although Cherokee Joe is as dumb as dust, he's at least smart enough to keep his distance. Unfortunately, whenever Cherokee Joe knocks back a couple shots of rubbing alcohol that he's filtered through a loaf of Wonder Bread, he goes looking for little girls to fiddle with. And, now that Tallulah's turned a pouty-lipped, curvy thirteen going on thirty, Zinc notices that the pseudo Indian shit head has suddenly begun to skulk around in the pine trees behind the shack with his tongue hanging out, gawking at her like he just sat down to dinner at Rue Bourbon in the Quarter and ordered up Tallulah as a lip-smacking appetizer.
Three days after the depraved fruitcake makes his unsuccessful midnight move on Tallulah, one of his creepy, parole-jumping fishing buddies knocks on the door of his garbage strewn trailer, and when nobody answers, he ducks inside to see what's up. Before he gets a foot inside the door, he notices a God-awful stench in the place. When he goes into the bedroom looking for his drinking buddy Cherokee Joe, he finds the sick son-of-a-bitch and a two foot long, pigmy rattlesnake lying in bed dead, locked in an eternal lovers' embrace.
It doesn't take long for the Vermilion Parish Sheriff to figure out who'd slipped that rattler into Cherokee Joe's bed, but, judging by the tight-lipped, incestuous band of psychotic, mental ward castoffs that have illegally squatted all over the Refuge, he'll never prove it; and he knows better than to waste any time trying. And when the sheriff gets done asking all the wrong people the wrong questions, Zinc realizes that his and Tallulah's life are about to change forever and decides that it's time to get the hell out of Dodge before somebody higher up the official government food chain shows up and starts asking the wrong people the right questions.
At first light, Zinc and Tallulah squeeze everything they own into a Girl Scout backpack and an Albertson's Grocery sack, and hitchhike up to Lake Charles, which is the only town they've ever lived in long enough to know their way around. They find themselves a jumbo, freshly emptied dumpster behind Wal-Mart, and set up house. It's cozy, but not exactly Little House on the Prairie. Zinc knows that Tallulah can't manage living there for more than one night, and he also knows that he'd better damned well plan his next move fast before the first hurricane of the season comes roaring up from the Gulf.
First thing in the morning, he stands up to his ankles in a half frozen bed of yellow chrysanthemums, mesmerized, peering through the frosted glass window of an old Victorian mansion in dumbstruck awe at a pretty, middle aged, woman who's playing Mozart on an heirloom harpsichord by the light of an apple wood fire that roars in the stove in the corner of her book littered den. Zinc's thinking that she looks like one of those Hallmark Mother's Day cards at Woolworth's. He almost feels like crying as he watches her, knowing what it is he's got to do. But Tallulah needs food and new clothes,
after all, it's what he does. And he couldn't stop now even if he wanted to.
He checks his pocket to make sure he'd remembered his blade, pops off the window screen, and quietly slips into the poorly lit hallway. The woman doesn't scream or fight back or anything, which is a bit odd considering the fact she's getting robbed. She just sort of drifts with the flow and starts showing Zinc around like a perfectly polite, Southern hostess conducting a tour of the old Ramsay-Curtis Mansion.
"Mustn't pass up the silver," she says, in the voice of a mother singing a lullaby to a colicky child. "It belonged to my grandmother, bless her soul. You can get an honest rate down at Peck's Pawn on Broad Street and that should keep you in staples for at least a month or so." She goes on, blissfully chattering away as she helps stuff a Civil War era, sterling silver serving platter into Zinc's Albertson's sack. Rattling on she drawls, "And Neubaum's Antiques up on North 171 will take any of the china you take in. He's quite taken with my Flow Blue." Taking a concerned peak at the hole developing in the bottom of Zinc's sack she adds, "Haven't you got a box or something that's a bit more sturdy to carry things in?"
Zinc's jaw drops and his eyes bulge out like Satchmo's do when he's going for one of those high notes on his horn. Is she serious? He'd never run into this kind of disturbing shit before. It's like she thinks she's in on the deal and, at this point, it wouldn't surprise him any if she asks for a cut of the action. Like that's going to happen. Most of the women he'd fleeced would be falling apart all over the place by now, pulling out their hair, bawling hysterically, and then stammering and sniffling into their perfumed handkerchiefs, pleading with him, "No, God, no. Not Momma's priceless fake pearls!" But this nut job broad is acting like it's Christmas and he'd just stopped by to sing a few carols, slam back a couple glasses of rum spiked eggnog, and swap spit under the mistletoe.
"Lady," he snaps, growing more exasperated by the minute, "I got no beef with you being cute with me and not peeing your pants over your predicament and all, but at least you could act a little perturbed about your getting robbed blind. I'm beginning to think I've lost my edge?"
"Oh, come now," the woman poo poos, "you're not all that frightening really. You're just hungry and tired, and what kind of Daughter of the American Revolution would I be if I didn't help out such a pleasant and handsome young man who's obviously in an obvious financial pickle."
Jesus, Zinc's thinking, he'd never run into anything like this before. But he needs cash and he needs it fast, and hoping to preserve what ever dignity he can muster, he stammers, "Ok, lady, I don't have a box and this stupid grocery sack ain't gonna hold out much longer, and I'd appreciate it if you'd let me borrow a pillow case, if it isn't too much trouble. I'll drop it off later when I'm done."
Zinc isn't convinced if he's being sarcastic or not. He almost half believes that he just might bring the damned sack back. The woman sure looks like she believes he will. She smiles agreeably and snaps back, "No trouble, I'll run and get you one," adding apologetically, "but do you mind if it's cotton? I'm afraid I dropped off all my good linen at Mr. Chang's this morning."
"Lady, I don't know if your screwing with me or not, but cotton will be just fine. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to finish up and be on my way. I've got a couple other stops to make, if you catch my drift."
"Oh, of course, I understand," she says, looking bee stung, reeling from an imagined, casual rebuke regarding the quality of her china and her failure to provide a proper linen pillow case, but still, desperately trying to please, she charges on, "I suppose my kitchen ware does need a bit of updating and my antique silver might not be the best. You might want to try Miss Abraham down on Tenth and Pine. She's got a divine set of Limoge china with a scalloped, edge, green leaves, and orchids outlined in gold. You can get a good price for it I'm sure. Do you want me to give her a call to let her know you'll be along presently?"
Good God, now what? Zinc asks himself. He's got no idea how to respond to this harebrained head case. "Lady, just go get the damned pillow case and then I'll be going. I really am grateful for your help but I'm burning daylight here, ok?"
"Oh, dear. Of course, you're right. I'll be back in a jiffy." She runs off and comes back in two minutes flat with the biggest pillow white case he'd ever seen. She casts a somewhat disapproving eye on two tarnished silver candlesticks before she crams them in and says, "Are you sure you don't want me to ring Miss Abraham for you? She really does have some lovely antique silverware. It's really no bother."
It's getting harder and harder for Zinc to tell if this space case is pulling his chain or not, but either way he's thinking she's got some serious mental issues somebody ought to look into. "Thanks, lady, but I'll choose my own victims if you don't mind."
Having moved well past flabbergasted, Zinc drops the damned cookies in the pillow case on top of the china, along with the silverware, dresses, candlesticks, and crystal fruit bowls, and heads for the door, bowing as he turns to go. He has no idea why he did that, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. After all, the lady seems awfully sorry to see him go and, for such a cheerful person, even in the dimly flickering candlelight, he can tell she has the saddest eyes he's ever seen.
After getting back home, Zinc takes Tallulah on a walk to the edge of town and shows her the falling down, brown barn he'd found earlier. He'd suddenly realizes that he and Tallulah can't stay in it long, and even though the infamous Cherokee Joe incident has apparently blown over, he can't take Tallulah back to the shack on the shores of Big Constance Lake just yet either. Times are changing fast down there in the Atchafalaya Basin. The grass beds, bayous, swamps, and mudbug holes are going bone dry, the fish harvests are declining. the egrets are disappearing, and before long the whole Basin itself will be a nothing but a Godforsaken, oxygen-depleted dead zone. Maybe it's time to just pack it up and settle down in some cleaner, safer place where Tallulah doesn't have to tip toe past the gators and timber rattlers to hang their drawers on the line to dry in the sewage scented breeze that drifts in from the storm water runoff and illegal fishing camps out on the wetlands. Not to mention the fact that their shack has been sinking about an inch a year into the black bottom sediment mud. For Tallulah's sake, he knows in his heart that it's time to go straight, and that he has to find his little sister a real home soon. But first, they need a stake. A big one. And Zinc knows exactly where to get it.
Flashing a Mississippi Gulf wide smile, the clearly delighted woman throws open her back screen door and gazes adoringly at Zinc. He's standing there speechless on the wrought iron porch in the dying twilight, holding on to the freshly washed, line dried, cotton pillow case he'd borrowed from her last week, trying to figure out why in God's name she keeps flopping her fluffy, black eye lashes up and down at him, and why in the hell she keeps looking so damned happy considering the fact that this is the second time he's robbed her in a week.
"Well, well, if it isn't my handsome gentleman caller," she coos, tittering into a yellow silk handkerchief, obviously overjoyed to see him in spite of the fact she has no clue in hell where she's seen him before. "Scarlet O'Hara at your service, sir. And what can I do for you on this fine afternoon?"
Zinc still has no idea if this Looney bird dingbat is out of her freaking mind or not, and he's more than a bit offended if she thinks for one minute that he's stupid enough to believe that her real name is Scarlet O'Hara. Just because he's not in school on what is obviously a school day doesn't mean he can't read. He'd bet if ole Margaret Mitchell was still around she'd give the tottering whacko a good tongue lashing for using Starlet's name in vain like that. But Zinc has to admit, the lady does have class. He's never seen such beautiful gold and glass chandeliers or plush blue velvet curtains or diamond cut crystal before. The whole place looks like one of those plantation houses he'd seen in the Southern Living Magazine that he'd just swiped for Tallulah from the library on his way over here.
Scarlet invites him into the darkly lit house and digs a fan out from one of the folds of her swirling, antique hoop skirt, and then begins furiously to fan her brilliantly beaming face. Zinc ignores her and takes a quick look around as he roams from room to room through the shadowy depths of what looks to him like a mausoleum, looking for valuables. He also checks for signs of a husband but doesn't see any. No Cuban cigar boxes or silver spittoons or red satin smoking jackets or any of that other Southern rich guy crap. She must live alone he's thinking, but when he takes a peek through the bathroom door he notices two night gowns on a two hooks on the far door and two toothbrushes in a white porcelain, toothbrush holder on the sink. Whatever that proves. But you had to look at the bright side of things. If she does live with a lezbo lover there'll be twice as much jewelry to heist after they replenish their gold and silver supply after the insurance payment kicks in. He reminds himself to make a mental note to stop back and pay them another visit in a couple weeks. There seems to be no end to the cash cow potential in this creepy wax museum.
Starlet's hands are fluttering all over the place and coyly, she "accidentally" drops her fan on the parlor floor. Zinc picks it up and hands it to her, avoiding her eyes, hoping to get down to business before things get any more strange. If that's even possible.
"Well, aren’t you the proper little son of the South," she drawls musically, giving him a good, solid peck on the cheek. Then, when she lightly brushes his lips with hers right before he whirls around to beat a strategic retreat, he turns crimson and nearly drops his already bulging pillow case. Very much aware of the sweet glow that has rosied up Zinc's already flushed face, Scarlet teases, flirting with him, "Well my, my, I think perhaps muh charmin' little gentleman calluh may never have been kissed by a lady befo uh."
As far as Zinc is concerned that comment is nothing but a blatant, high inside fast ball; a little chin music to dust him back off the plate. Keep him off balance. Maybe distract him while she whips up a plan to get him to change his mind about filching her jewels. The near miss kiss still burns on his skin and his resolve is melting fast, but he's not falling for the ruse. "Lady, I've been kissed before and believe me, I'm no gentleman. So if you don't mind, I’ll be on my way."
"But, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?" Zinc can't for the life of him figure if she's just whacking him off or if she really does think she's Scarlet O'Hara.
"Frankly, my dear," he says... "you need to get a life." And with as much aplomb as he can muster, he stumbles out the door, dragging his huge pillow case full of silverware, crystal, and dresses down the street behind him, looking like a cock sure Halloweener, lugging a bag full of candy into the leafy, dank Louisiana night.
That next morning, Zinc wakes up and finds Tallulah lying on the makeshift couch, which is really nothing more that four gunny sacks stuffed full of Southern Brown Rice, crying her eyes out. She's got both of her tiny arms wrapped around her shoulders like a Librium junkie in a straightjacket, clinging fiercely to a gold locket that Zinc had left for her as a gift on her nightstand after returning from his so called "shopping" trip to Lake Charles yesterday. She hands it to him, trying in vain to hold back her tears. Inside the locket is a photograph of the somewhat younger, elegantly coiffed, and stylishly dressed woman that looks remarkably like the one he'd just robbed earlier in the day, Scarlet O'Hara. Standing in front of her are two wild eyed, visibly restless young children, a boy about five, and a girl about one and a half. Trying his best to calm down his clearly distraught little sister, he brushes off the rather odd coincidence and asks, "What's so sad about that, little honey? I thought you'd like it."
Tallulah reaches over and takes the locket from him, turns over the photograph, and hands it back to him. "Read the back," she sobs, swiping at the river of tears pouring down her pretty face with her sleeve. In the ghostly gold glare of the kerosene lamp Zinc reads the note that's folded up and pasted to the back of the locket. When he finishes, he let's it clang to the floor. His eyes go cold dead blank and all the color drains from his tortured face. Tallulah starts up crying again. The note reads "Charlotte Gunne and her dear, sweet, darling children, Bo and Tallulah."