tagNovels and NovellasPulaski Square

Pulaski Square

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Chapter One: Jaivon Johnson

As I crossed the square from the Casimir Inn, on the south side of Pulaski Square, to the General's Café on the north side, I shuddered as the big brute of a landscaper, Caleb, rose up from a flowerbed and glowered at me. He too? Would he too make me bend to his will as if by right?—not that I deserved better. But then I saw that he was looking beyond me, at Miz. Muriel standin' at the service door of the hotel. Lookin' at her like he'd like to eat her up. Still not a healthy thing to do in Savannah, a black man lusting after a married white woman.

That might be unfair, though, I thought. Caleb's thing for Miz. Muriel seemed from affection for the goodness of her—a wish to protect—thing. Miz. Muriel was good to everybody—even to the likes of Caleb and me. But the look caused me to shiver. He had the body of a god, workin' on the beds in Savannah's Pulaski Square day in and day out. If I had a choice of the man I was to lay under . . .

Everything in the square was just so—a world unto itself. And it all fittin' in with the Polish general the square was named after. General Casimir Pulaski, the Revolutionary War hero who fell in the battle to snatch Savannah back from the British in 1779. The inn's name came from the man's first name; the café's name from his rank. Flankin' both on the north and south sides of the square were row houses, some now turned into apartment blocks, mostly owned or rented by people havin' somethin' to do with the Savannah College of Art and Design, the main part bein' only two blocks away to the east. This helped make the people of the square both arty and eclectic. They's all—well, most of 'em—more free with themselves and open with pleasurin' themselves than most people are.

Maybe all this art and expressing themselves stuff made them a bit more, shall we say passionate, to make it seem less randy, than most folks were. They certainly was game for bein' open and not a bit shy and doin' what some other folks wouldn't have the guts to do. Mas. Terrence, his term for the lot of them was that they was fools. Well, if they was, so was he in this pleasurin' hisself bizness. Nobody knowed that better'n me.

The east and west sides of the square were dominated by the mansions of agin' white folk from moldering Savannah families that, rumors had it, went back to before General Pulaski was born. Now the two mansions glowered at each other, each possessed by a sole stiff-backed resident. They also glowered at each other from the two sides of the square, not havin' spoken a word to each other except through clinched teeth since they had divorced a good thirty years ago.

That said, both still had their teeth. They'd both aged well—probably from stubbornness, both of them.

Although Miz. Emily, livin' in the heap to the east, scared the bijezus out of me, it was Mas. Terrence, from the pile on the west, who possessed me and reminded me daily of the low worth of a young black man of little education in Savannah even in the twenty-first century. Mr. Martin, who owned and managed the Casimir Inn and who employed me as a porter and doeverything, wasn't like that, nor was his sister, Miz. Muriel, head housekeeper. 'Course, as far as Mas. Terrance and Miz. Emily stood, they both was too tainted themselves—on account of Leo—to have the true Savannah attitude on that.

It was Leo I was goin' to now, going straight across the square from south to north, tryin' to stay out of Caleb's reach, just in case, as I moved—the people loiterin' in the square today not even noticin' me go by; not even lookin' at me; treatin' me like I wasn't even there. But then it was my place in life to not be there until someone wanted to use me.

Leo, Leo Tinley—I think I was the only one from the square who knew him by another name, another life as well—was standing at the host's desk at the café—in the open-air section, where folks now were congregatin', the Savannah weather having fooled us all again that summer had come in early April. Leo was the one I'd come to see—for the breakfast rolls and such for the inn the next day—but when I saddled up to him, it wasn't me he was lookin' at. Mr. Martin was passing by the café from downtown on his way back to the inn. As always, though—the two fools—Leo made like he was going to say somethin' to Mr. Martin, even coming a step away from the host's podium, but he hesitated too long, and after a glance his way, Mr. Martin turned his head and marched faster past the entrance into the café, crossing the street, his expression set and focused on the inn across the square.

If only the two wasn't so pigheaded—especially Mr. Martin, who was so reasonable in all other ways. Sometimes I'd hear Miz. Muriel workin' on him about Leo, but he'd have nothin' to do with it. It was the twenty-first century. Those folks should be able to get past that, to my thinkin'. None of the three of them had caused the hurt between them to begin with. They all three was innocent of that hanky-panky.

But what was I thinkin', lettin' the nineteenth century rule me as well? That's what Miz. Muriel would say to me sometimes when I said I had to leave work for a while because either Mas. Terrence or Leo wanted me. Somethin' in my face, I guess, gave away what they wanted me for. She'd say I didn't give myself enough credit. I was being a fool, she said, but the sad smile she made when she said it kept the "fool" from stingin' so much. She said I didn't need to sell myself to other men like that if I didn't want to.

It weren't exactly sellin', though. The two of them just took what they wanted. They didn't pay me or nothin'.

How could I tell her that, on some level, I wanted to—even that I went all aflutter when I saw the big, black bruiser Caleb Freeman workin' on the landscaping out in the square, all shirtless and muscles. I wanted Caleb too, but he don't bend that way.

I couldn't really help myself. But then maybe the fool part she was talkin' about was in just goin' with who called me to their need—not pickin' and choosin' for myself. Truth be known, though, I'd probably choose someone cruel like Caleb. Not that he'd call, I didn't think, as much as he was takin' from the women hereabouts—all being pleased as punch to give to him, as far as I could see. Even some that would surprise the hell out of some folks. Not Miz. Muriel, there, and there's the rub that made Caleb a fool. With all that he could readily get, still he pined after a married white women, still married even if her husband ain't been seen around here in a pack of months.

And as far as Miz. Muriel was concerned, she had her hand in on the fool bizness her own self, if you asked me. I knew it, because I had to pick up medicines and such for her—and I did much of the cleanin' around the staff areas of the inn. I don't know why she just didn't tell folks—especially her brother, Mr. Martin, why she was gittin' so draggy—and why her husband, Buddy Roberts, was off in Memphis playin' his saxophone every hour of the day he could get gigs. I don't know why she let folks in the square gossip that he'd walked out on her for good—although maybe he has. What do I, an unlearned black porter in a small hotel, know about such things among the white folks?

But here I was, entering the café, already being guided by Leo's wavin' hand toward the shadows of the café, away from the patrons—all of who I knew by name, livin' on the square just like they did—to wait for what I came for. The folks sittin' in the middle, the younger people, most who worked at the art college—SCAD—briefly nodded to me in passing. It was the old-family royalty of the square who gave me no mind—putting me in my place.

Just like the houses they moldered in in the square, Miz. Emily Goodwin sat at one end of the café, with a gaggle of the elderly widows living in the row houses or apartment blocks made out of row houses—the little world of Savannah matrons Miz. Emily lorded it over. Meanwhile, sittin' at the other end, looking out toward the square and so self-important that he looked at no one else—other than Caleb, as, shirtless, the muscular black hunk worked the soil of General Pulaski's square—Mas. Terrence Rowland was lost in a world of his own.

It was the middle ground that gave me some hope—although I knew, or could see, the problems and foolishness that trapped these folks too. The two young blonde SCAD students who always seemed to be here at the café rather than in class, were there. Of course, the older one, Miz. Tracy, was doin' all she could to look like the younger, fizzy one, Miz. Donna, and mooning over Miz. Donna so obviously—without Miz. Donna, havin' much goin' on in her brain that I could see—not seeming to have any idea that Miz. Tracy wanted to be more than just friends. I had never seen one without the other, and, with each passing day, Miz. Tracy was lookin' so much like Miz. Donna, that I expected to see her disappear into the younger woman at any moment. I sort of thought that was what Miz. Tracy was hopin' for, though.

Then there were the newest residents of the square. Two lovers, or so some—not necessarily me—would think. Mr. Mark and Miz. Kathy. As I heard it, both came down from Richmond way together to teach at SCAD—Miz. Kathy right away in the fine arts department and Mr. Mark by the summer in textiles. They had moved into the row house, made into apartments, right next door to the café to the west. They lived on the second floor, and the two SCAD blonde students on the third. The other woman sitting with them—and doin' a good job of disappearing into the landscape without the others noticin' her much, Miz. Olive, lived on the first floor. She was a librarian at the SCAD art library. She had her eyes boring into the back of Mas. Rowland's head in unmistakable worship. That had fool's errand writ all over it, as I well could have told her. Not that I would.

Talk about a woman pining after somethin' she'd never had and only dreamed about, which was kinda funny on a square like this where the sexy business was just below the crusty surface. No telling who was doin' who this week.

Anyhow, although Mr. Mark and Miz. Kathy had come here together and were livin' together, I could see there was some foolishness in that as well—and, for the life of me, I couldn't see why others couldn't see it, although maybe it was just because I was a nobody fly on the pillar that I could see what was what when other, more important—or more self-important—folks couldn't. Miz. Kathy was almost as attentive to the scatterbrained Miz. Donna as Miz. Donna's shadow, Miz. Tracy was—but I saw the looks she gave Miz. Tracy too. And Mr. Mark's mind was off somewhere else entirely, as if the man was struggling hard with something. The furtive looks I saw him give Leo, though, a fine figure of a half black and half white man, having gotten the best attributes of each race, screamed at me, if at no one else.

'Course I had more reason than the next person to know all about those looks.

The folks in the middle were talkin' about Miz. Muriel, who they had seen at the door of the inn across the square. The newcomers, Mr. Mark and Miz. Kathy, seems as how they hadn't seen her before, and Miz. Tracy, with Miz. Donna's head wagging in agreement, had said what she did in the square—it was a close-knit community in Pulaski Square—and everyone soon learned who everyone else was and what they did.

And everybody got into everybody else's bizness. No surprise there. This was the South. This was Savannah.

"That's Martin Lewis' sister, Muriel Roberts," Miz. Tracy said. "He's the owner of the inn across the square—you saw him pass by just now, I'm sure."

"He's a dreamboat," Miz. Donna said, her own voice showing dreamy.

"She used to take coffee with us here regularly, Muriel did," Miz. Tracy said. "Don't know why she stopped, though. She hasn't been around in a while. Maybe it's her husband. He plays the sax. Used to work in the clubs downtown—some of those drag queen clubs, I think. He's been gone for a while, though. I heard he went to Memphis or something."

"She's looking ill," Miz. Olive said, and the other heads at the clutch of café tables in the middle swung toward her table as if they only now knew that the quiet, mousey SCAD librarian, Olive Odom, was sitting among them. "Maybe she's pining away for her philandering husband," Miz. Olive continued. "Romantic and sad at the same time. She's always been the one to help others deal with their ills. Now it looks like she's the one with the problems."

"Or maybe if you people took the time to really look, you'd see that the illness goes beyond a husband problem and that we should be doing something about it." The rough, baritone voice cut through the softer conversation that had been transpiring. We all, including Mas. Terrence, looked about to see who had intruded so cuttingly into the café atmosphere. Caleb Freeman stood at the entrance into the outdoor café, shirt on now, obviously intending on entering the café, when he'd overheard the conversation about Miz. Muriel.

"We?" Miz. Emily snorted, obviously excluding the black gardener from the world of the square that he worked in the center of day after day. She dismissively turned back to her group of matrons—but not as quickly as the square's patriarch, Mas. Terrence, had done with a snort that had matched hers.

"What do you mean?" Miz. Tracy said, as she turned to Caleb. All the others were lookin' at him too now, but with somewhat different expressions. All of the center group, other than Miz. Tracy, were looking with an eye of assessment and appreciation that I well knew, though. To my knowledge Caleb hadn't plowed through the set of women sittin' in the middle tables here yet, but I wouldn't put it past him to do so sometime soon—and to be welcomed by most, if not all. Probably not by that Miz. Tracy, at least. I couldn't see her wantin' any man to put his hands on her.

"Open your eyes and you would see," Caleb said, his voice belligerent, as he entered the café.

Miz. Emily turned and gave Leo a sharp look. Catching the signal, Leo came forward, laid a hind on Caleb's forearm, and guided him through the outdoor section into the interior of the café, usually only in use in the short winter months. As they passed me, I heard Leo ask Caleb to explain what he meant about Miz. Muriel.

Was I the only one who knew what he meant about Miz. Muriel? Were all the others so self-possessed and steeped in their own foolishnesses that they didn't know? Apparently so, as the conversations at the outdoor café had already turned to other subjects.

My attention went to Mas. Terrence, who was giving me the eye—that eye. He stood and strode out of the café, not looking left or right, marching directly toward his forbidding mansion on the west end of the square. The pastries I'd come for arrived, with Leo reminding me I was to come to him at Club Copa, down near the Savannah riverfront, late that evening. I had to hotfoot it back to the inn to deliver the pastries and then back over to the west end of the square to avoid a scolding.

Mas. Terrence didn't like to be kept waiting.

I let myself into the dark house with my own key and went up the wide black oak staircase to the second floor, knowing where he would be waitin' for me. I lay with the small of my back on the end of his massive mahogany bed and opened my legs to him, as he came out of his bathroom, opened his robe, and let it flutter to the carpeted floor. I might as well have been any other hole around. He took his pleasure with me quickly and left me layin' there to finish myself all by myself.

* * * *

As was often the case, Leo's dresser at the Club Copa had the night off, so I was there to help him to prepare to go on stage as April Fools, the delight of the drag show that went on at the club. That's where Leo ruled nightly—as the drag queen April Fools, with the sultry walk and voice, just as he ruled the General Café on Pulaski Square during the day, where, known to only a few of us, he didn't just hold down the café's host's desk, but he also owned the café, through his black mother, willed to her by his white father, who had willed the Casimir Inn across Pulaski Square to his white son and daughter, Martin Lewis and Muriel Roberts.

As I dressed April in her tight evening dress and helped her with her makeup and gettin' her wig on straight, she asked me about Miz. Muriel.

"What do you know of Muriel Roberts being ill? You work there with her."

"She wouldn't want me to tell you," I said.

"Nonetheless you will tell me," April said, clasping my forearm in a strong claw. "You know she's my half sister. If she has a problem, I need to know it. You know Martin would never tell me."

In this case, Mr. Martin doesn't know either, I thought. But I held my tongue on that.

"Caleb said she's ill," April continued. "He couldn't tell me the specific problem."

"I wonder how Caleb knows anything," I said evasively, playing for time.

"Caleb and Muriel's husband are—or were—close. Buddy Roberts must have told Caleb something about it and Caleb has been worrying about it. He pines for Muriel, I know. Although why he does, with all of the other women he could have, is beyond me. So, tell me. You come and go over at the inn without anyone noticing you are there. What have you overheard?"

Of course, I thought, it was because of the invisible me that April assumed I would know somethin'. "Miz. Muriel couldn't possibly regard me enough to confide in me," I said. "I'm just that little black hotel porter you only see when you want somethin' I can give you."

"Don't try to tell me you don't want to give me what you do," Leo's voice was sharp.

"Yas, sir," I conceded. "Don't mean I know ever'thing that goes on in that inn."

I looked up in the mirror over the dressing table to see if my nose had grown. Truth was, I was about the only one Miz. Muriel would confide in. There was no reason for Leo to know—much less his other self, April. But then he's her half brother, I thought, and something should happen to bring this screwed up family—and they are family no matter what Mr. Martin thinks—together. They share a father.

"Miz. Roberts needs a new kidney," I blurted out. There, I'd said it. I'm sorry, Miz. Roberts, but you are a fool yourself for not sharing this with family—not even telling Mr. Martin. You are putting your faith in your husband earnin' enough money down in Memphis to pay for what you need, but you need it sooner than he's appearing and you need lots more than he ever could earn. And he may never come back.

"Miz. Roberts' husband is off in Memphis, where he says they pay more for musicians and have more work, and she thinks he's workin' his butt off to earn enough money to get her a new kidney on the sly. But she looks more and more ill every day. She be a fine lady. Somethin' needs to be—"

"Thanks for telling me, Jaivon," April said, taking her claws out of my arm and patting it. "I appreciate it. Now, I hear Juliet's song half through; help me get this wig straight. It's time for me to go on. And don't you leave, now. I'll need help getting undressed."

And not only that, I thought. But I stayed. April never left me to finish myself.

As always, she came off the stage all keyed up and euphoric over her time in another world, as April Fools, what she called a chanteuse, whatever that is. I just think of it as horny, because when she comes back this way, with the applause following her from the stage, I know there's one thing she wants.

She doesn't even undress. She always wants me this way—her dressed to the nines as a handsome woman and me naked as a jail bird. When she came back, she just bent me belly over her dressing table, lifted the front of her skirts, freed that big, hard old dick of hers, slid it inside my ass, and gave me the pounding of a lifetime—bigger, thicker, pumping harder than Mas. Terrence could manage.

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