Skinny him and his oil smudge moustache. Tee shirt torn in the back. He keeps me laughing all the time. Big ha-ha laughs when he imitates Mrs. Jones, pregnant again, and he sticks a cantaloupe under his shirt.
Always a story I can tell the other neighbors when Louie goes out all night and leaves me alone. Ha ha, they say, but where’s your man?
“He’s out there being funny. So funny we don’t even need a TV.” Which is good cause Louie sold it last month. That part I don’t tell.
Louie has a friend named Ray, who brings his fat, old snout self over anytime he wants. Comes over when Louie’s not there and stares where the TV used to be. Asks me would I give him love, cause his woman’s out of town. When I tell Louie, he says Ray’s just joking, and I wonder if that’s the kind of joke Louie’s telling those nights away from me.
I ask Louie about the TV. “Relax,” he says, “It’s temporary, like the flu.” I tell him I’m missing my soaps. “What do you gotta watch them for?” is what he wants to know. “Gives you too many ideas.”
Next night, Louie doesn’t come home. Not the next night or the night after that. The neighbors start to pile in like laundry. They cluck their tongues and say they knew this would happen. Mrs. Jones offers me her TV. “I’m too pregnant to watch” she says.
Gloria, from two doors down and always smells like lilac soap, says she wouldn’t be surprised if Louie was in jail.
“Or dead” her husband says.
After a week, I call up Ray. He hasn’t come around, which is good cause who knows what my lonely self would do. When he answers the phone, he tells his woman “shush, go back to sleep.” He tells me he ain’t seen Louie, and really, it’s 3 a.m. and don’t I know even that?
I hang up and try to think of everything, anything Louie ever said to make me laugh. Then I turn on Mrs. Jones’ TV, and I look for the static channel so it can blur Louie’s voice from my head. Tomorrow, I will try to empty out my heart.
One week later, Ray and his woman show up, dark bloody roses in his hand. “Louie’s dead” is all he says, and I slump down to nothing. His woman’s eyes fill up with a scream. “No,” she says, punching Ray on the shoulder. “I told you this was no good.”
She brings me a glass of water, and then I see him, Louie, standing there at the door. “You both terrible” Ray’s woman says and shakes her head.
“Come on,” Louie says. “We were joking.”
Louie’s moustache is gone, and he is wearing dark slacks and a neat, striped shirt. He doesn’t look torn anywhere. Me, I’m different. I sit there, cut into a million shreds.
“You see?” he says. “I thought you would be happy.” He sits on the sofa next to me. “But nothing makes you happy.” That’s when I hear the other woman in his voice.
I ask him quick, do something funny, tell a joke and a real one where I don’t think you’re dead.”
He smiles at me, softer now, and takes my hand.
That night, Louie gone forever, the neighbors bring big pots of soup. Gloria says, it is better he was in jail.” Mrs. Jones tells me to keep her TV. Ray’s woman come over by herself. “The two of them – bums” she says. “One day, my Ray will be gone, too.”
I look at her, sad for all the times Ray came over asking me for love. I think about the night I called Ray looking for Louie and who knows what else. I think about her wondering who I really was and how she’ll never know that. I think of her staring at Ray for hours that night in the dark.