The Man Below

New Orleans is home to SHIRLEY ANN GRAU; her two grandmothers were of mixed French and Spanish blood; and to this colorful background she naturally returns for the source material for her novels and short stories. Alfred A. Knopf published her first book, THE BLACK PRINCE, in 1955 when she was just twentyjive years old, and since then editors and readers hare regarded her as a writer to watch. The best of her work has been reprinted in the O. Henry and Martha Foley collections. She has just fin ished a new novel.

BY SHIRLEY ANN GRAU

IT BEGAN to rain. Holding her purse over her head, Carrie ran the last few steps to the Lafayette Bar. Steve was waiting at the same table, the corner table next to the line of open doors at the sidewalk. He saw her, smiled, and half stood up.

She wondered how many times she’d come here in the two years she had known him. It had been almost every evening, when he’d finished with his work at the hospital. Every evening they hadn’t had a regular date. Except for the past three, she thought, with a sudden twitch of pain.

She shook the water off her purse and went to meet him. He leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek. Without having to be told, the waiter brought her a beer. He knew too, she thought.

The rain was falling in thick gray sheets, straight down, the color of fog. All along Bourbon Street, drain pipes began to rattle and sing as they dumped thick arcs of water out on the broken uneven sidewalks.

“And it never rains at night,” Carrie said.

“Feel it turn to steam,” Steve said.

Rain splashed through the line of open doors, ricocheting like bullets from the sidewalk. She could feel it on her legs, cool for a second, then a warm snaky line down to her ankles. She moved her foot from under the table and looked at it.

“You getting wet?”

“Just looking.”

“We can move back if you want.”

On the sidewalk, not three feet away from them, a raincoated policeman walked by, sloshing through the puddles without looking. She leaned over and watched him. At the corner the shiny black coat merged into the shiny black street.

Out on the river a ship began blowing, urgent and mournful.

In the corner of the bar, there was a record player. The bartender changed the record, moving with slow deliberation. He turned up the volume.

“God,” Steve said.

“What?”

Vesti la Giubba.”

“Oh,” she said, “I wasn’t listening.”

“You’ve got the darnedest habit these days.”

“Like what?”

“Not listening. You just kind of disappear.”

“I don’t mean to.”

“Oh. hell,” he said, “everybody’s got a right to be peculiar.”

“I don’t—” She stopped. Don’t whine, she told herself firmly.

On the river the tug hooted again, insistently.

He cocked his head, listening. “Maybe some barges got loose.”

“Ridi, Paghaccio. . . .” There was a scratch in the record.

She asked quietly, “Your parents get off?” Her voice was more firm than she had intended.

“Sure. Why shouldn’t they?”

She shook her head, smiling again. They had come down for a quick visit, his parents. And she hadn’t seen him for the three days they’d been in town.

She wondered why she hadn’t been asked at all. It bothered her. Sometimes.

They sat quietly, finishing one beer and beginning a second.

The same policeman sloshed wearily back along the walk. And on the other side a stray dog trotted along, hugging the wall, moving briskly.

“Where do you suppose he’s going?”

“Who?”

“The dog.”

Steve looked first at her and then out into the rain. “I don’t know,” he said. “Looks like he’s heading for the docks.”

“I can hear the ferries,” she said suddenly. “I can hear their signals just before they pull off.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” he said. “It’s not more than two blocks away.”

“Let’s go take the ferry over to Algiers.”

“What for?”

“Might be fun.”

“In the rain?”

She thought about that for a moment, and it was on the tip of her tongue to say yes. Hut finally, under the steady prompting of his eyes, she said softly, “No, I guess not.”

“For a minute you had me worried.”

“If we had a tree house we could go and sit in it,” she said softly.

“What?”

His new bottle of beer had come, and she watched him pour it carefully.

“I’ve been looking for another place,”she said. “I don’t think I want to live in the Quarter any more.”

“How come?”

“I don’t know — seems kid stuff, in a way.”

“You’re not that old.”

The record ended. The bartender walked over lazily and changed it. “Oh, God,” Steve said, recognizing the first bars. It was the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rnsticana.

“I thought you liked that.”

He made a face and did not answer.

The rain stopped, with the same suddenness with which it had begun. They listened to the small sucking sounds of bricks absorbing water.

“Okay,”Steve said, “let’s go.”

They walked the few blocks down Bourbon Street to the high iron gate that led to her apartment. She fumbled for her key, then dropped it. He found it and wiped it on his handkerchief.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I was born clumsy.”

She opened the gate, noticing for the first time that the rust came off in great smears on her hand. “I won’t ask you up,” she said. “I’m sort of beat today.”

He hesitated, and she wondered if he were about to object. But he only said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

It was very dark in the courtyard. The small lantern over the gate didn’t penetrate the thick heavy leaves and the vines. She stopped once and peered down, then shrugged. The walk must have been under water. She could feel the water slosh through the open toes of her shoes. Here under the wide leaves of the banana trees it was still raining, a light continuing sprinkle. She looked up and caught a quick glimpse of the sky through a tiny opening. There was a star stuck in it, like a piece of ice.

She climbed the stairs slowly. On one, halfway to the first landing, the sharp point of her heel jabbed through the wood, and she had to slip her foot free, bend down, and jerk the shoe loose. In the damp under the trees and between the thick moldy brick walls, boards lasted barely a year.

Her apartment was stuffy. She started the air conditioner, then methodically began to undress. Without thinking she hung her clothes away, brushed her hair, and gave her nails a quick buffing. The noise of the air conditioner bothered her, so she turned it off and opened the window. She took off the bedspread, folded it neatly, and put it away. Then she lay down, stretching herself carefully all over. She wanted to cry, but she told herself firmly that it was a silly thing to do, that it would only make her eyes achy and puffy and swollen in the morning. She said this quite a few times, and finally, just before she slept, she came to believe it.

SHE had been asleep for some time. And for a while she thought that the sounds were part of a dream. A rustling. And a scratching. For just a second behind the closed lids of her eves she saw her father, sitting on the back porch on a Sunday morning, reading, the newspapers rustling under his hands. She could see the colors of the funny papers. She could even hear the flat-toned ringing of the Lutheran Mission Hell down the block. And she could hear her mother complaining: “And he goes out in the yard in his pajamas. A big Tocko he is!”

Even at this distance Carrie smiled and whispered to herself, “And not for nothing is his name Francevich.”

She didn’t think of her parents very often, and when she did it was in terms of pyramids of fat, with a tiny head balanced on top like a rock. . . .

They had gone back, when she was still in high school, right after the war. The strange country had got to be too much for them, after nearly forty years. They had left her — to finish school — with a cousin, and they went back to Ragusa.

At first, in the unfamiliar smells of her cousin’s house, she missed them. But when the year was done, and her cousin brought out the little savings book with her passage money marked in it in violet ink, she just shook her head. And she never went. Her parents wrote, once or twice, but then the letters stopped too.

She hardly saw her cousin any more, ever since the day years ago when she had got her first job and moved into her own apartment. She’d done well since then. She had a fine job, and a fine future. She was sharp and efficient, too, the sort of secretary nobody made passes at, though she was nice-looking, with a lush, full figure. It just didn’t seem to occur to them.

Until Steve came. They had gone to bed on their second date. Cold sober, too. That was a couple of years ago, when he’d been a tall skinny medical student. He’d put on weight since then. You could begin to see the outline of a very heavy man in the making. Like his father, he said. His hair was thinning too, rapidly, though lie was just her age, twenty-five. Sometimes when she stood above him, she could see the skull all pinkish under the thin blond hair. She always looked away quickly. As if she’d seen into a bedroom.

OUTSIDE her window the rustling continued. That would have to be in the garden next door. Somebody must be walking about down there in the bamboo and banana bushes, a tangle so thick that even the cats circled around it.

She opened one eye and looked at the small green luminous hands of the clock: ten past one.

The rustling stopped. Far off, and muffled by the thick high brick walls of the houses, a siren wailed. It seemed to stop on the other side of the block.

She paid no particular attention. Sirens were so frequent, anyhow, you’d be up all night if you followed each one.

The voices came closer, and lights flickered on the ceiling.

Oh, hell, she told herself. And got up slowly and went to look out of the window. She propped both elbows on the sill and leaned her chin in them.

She looked directly down into five adjoining back yards, separated each from the other by the same thick brick wall that formed the houses. From her unusually high second floor, she looked over them, saw easily and clearly into the little squares. The two larger ones ran just under her window, met back to back with a wall edged by broken glass, just a little bit to the right. Across the length of these and running at right angles to them, she could see the three other yards, each of them behind an almost identical cottage.

On the roof of the farthest house several lights were flashing, the little jerky swings of flashlights. And even as she looked, two more figures stepped from the dormer window to the gentle slope. The lights joined in a confused circle, she could hear some low voices, then the circle broke up and moved in single file across the roof. As they climbed the low wall that separated one roof from the other, she recognized the light-gray uniforms of the police.

She got a cigarette, lit it, and pulled a chair over to the window to watch.

The rustling in the growth almost directly beneath her had stopped. The lights were on the second roof now. The police had gathered again, three of them, and were waiting while two others clambered up the pitch of the roof and shone their lights down the other side. A woman’s voice called from inside, “I saw him go that way there, for sure.” And the police drifted slowly across the roof, looking like kids playing hide-and-seek in the dark.

Carrie thought: They’re going over to the right, toward Royal Street, and they guess he’s up on the roofs. But he isn’t. He’s in the yard directly below.

She bent forward until her head rested on the screen, and she stared down into the darkness. The top of the leaves reflected the flashlights dimly. Under them it was still and dark.

He must see me, she thought. He must see the cigarette.

The police walked slowly back and forth across the three roofs, searching.

“What about down in the patio?” somebody asked.

“Hell, man, don’t jump.”

“Hell of a drop.”

“Go down around the doorway, man.”

“He wouldn’t jump down,” the woman inside said, complainingly.

“Lady, I seen ‘em go straight up brick walls from a running start, like a fly, and get hold of a second-floor porch.”

He can hear them, Carrie thought, but maybe not too well down below the walls and smothered under the canes. But he can see me. He’s got to have looked up and seen me.

She let her eyes move slowly around the five little squares of patios, let her eyes feel their outlines like tangible things.

And she saw something else. In the fifth yard, which backed into the cluttered, overgrown one, a screen door scraped open. No lights went on. But her eyes, accustomed to the dark, made out the shape of a policeman’s cap. He stood leaning by the door, and the gray of his uniform blurred into the old wall. He seemed to be turning his head about slowly, but he did not appear to hear anything, though the rustle in the canes had begun again.

She pressed her forehead to the screen. The man down there seemed to be dragging something.

In the other yards doors slammed open and shut and heels scuffed the brick. A big police searchlight flashed on. She blinked and shook her head, dazzled. The roofs were outlined now, sharp, black and white; the uneven slates made big black shadows in the glare.

Then she saw the man below for the first time. She saw the back of his head and one hand. And all of a sudden she knew what it was he was trying to do.

He had dragged something over to the back wall; in that garden it wouldn’t be hard to find a rusted chair and a couple of wooden crates — things you could stand on. And he was now climbing on them to get across the back wall.

On the other side the policeman still hadn’t heard anything above the shouting. But he could not miss someone who crawled over the wall and tried to cut across that yard.

The hand was reaching higher and higher. She noticed it wasn’t too steady or certain as it groped around for a hold on the bricks.

She thought, They’ll catch him, and that’ll be all. . . .

It wasn’t anything to her. She pressed her forehead even harder against the screen, so that the dust fell tingling in her nose. And she lifted one finger and tapped on the screen so that a little rattling sound dropped out into the night.

The scratching stopped. The hand jerked back down into the dark shelter of the bamboo.

She said, in a whisper, not quite believing it was herself speaking: “Back of you, goddam it, back of you.” There was no movement. “The gate. You didn’t see it. And out the alley to Bourbon Street.”

After a pause, a steady rustling. And a small rattle of the locked gate. “Goddam it,” she whispered again, “get out!”

The banana trees grew almost right up to the gate, which was about six feet high, wrought iron with great squiggles of feathers and corn tassels. She saw a figure go over it like a cat, a large black cat, up one side and down the other, headlong. There was a single grunt when he hit the other side.

Like a fly, the policeman had said.

The cigarette burned her fingers. She dropped it on the sill and poked at it with her nail until it went out. Police now stood on the walls and turned their lights down into the overgrowth.

“Jeez,” one said, “he could be down there.”

“That house don’t have a door on Dumaine,” someone else said. “That’s on Bourbon.”

“You go around.”

She turned away from the window. She went into the living room, still in the dark, and felt on the coffee table until she found the cigarettes.

SHE smoked quietly, watching the tiny coal in the dark, lighting one cigarette from the other. The phone rang. She let it ring for a while before she even thought about answering.

Steve said, “Where have you been?”

“Here.”

“You sound funny.”

“I don’t mean to.” She yawned slowly.

“Look,” he said, “I’m coming over.”

“I’m sort of sleepy.”

“I’ve got to talk to you.”

“Okay,” she said listlessly.

She sat, half dozing, thinking of nothing at all, until he came. It took him only a very few minutes; he must have run all the way.

“What’s going on out there?” he asked quickly. “There are four police cars over on Dumaine Street.”

“Yes,” she said, “I know.”

“They’re checking the alley that runs right under your window.”

But he’d be gone, she thought, that dark figure who’d scrambled over the gate with such a hurt grunt. “He wasn’t a very good burglar.” “What?”

“They were chasing him and he got away.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, listen to me.”

“I helped him, but he wasn’t very good, really.”

“What in God’s name are you talking about?”

She felt floating and pleasant. As if she had been drinking absinthe. “He made much too much noise.”

Steve went over to the little bar and mixed two drinks.

Words drifted across the front of her mind. As they passed she read them aloud. “The way you do that, seems almost like you live here.”

He brought back the two glasses.

She took hers, ducked her nose down into the tickling of the rising soda bubbles, played with the pieces of ice with her tongue.

“Quit,” he said. “That’s too damn suggestive when I’m talking to you.”

She put the glass down on the coffee table and folded her hands and waited.

“I don’t know how you guessed it,” he said. “Me?”

“You acted so strange. I should have caught on.”

She said nothing, went on studying the small patch of yellow light over the spindly pink lamp in the corner. She did not remember turning it on. Steve must have done it when he came in.

“Look,” he said, “there was something else all right.”

“What else?”

“There was somebody else with my parents.”

“Oh.”

“A girl.”

That was it, she thought. It was so simple. And still, she hadn’t thought of it. She hadn’t thought of it at all.

“I’ve known her ever since high school.”

The way he said it made her think of football games in crisp clear Northern weather, and proms with all the dresses fluffy and pastel, like so many flowers. And everything cool and crisp like an airconditioned office. . . . The only high school prom she had ever been to had been hot and crowded and steamy with perspiration. The dresses were streaked and wilted. The net of her dress sagged in the heat and drooped down and she caught her heel in it and tore it. And her skin stung and reddened in splotches from the perfume she had dabbed on it.

“My parents have been friends of her mother for years. Before she was born, even.”

And do I have continuity like that? Carrie thought. Of friendships carried from generation to generation? Did my parents give me a single thing but my blood? . . .

“I guess they kind of decided that it would be a good thing if we made a couple. They had it all figured out. You know, the way parents do.”

A crisp clear world where boy and girl infants held hands between their carriages. . . . She hadn’t had a carriage at all. She had lain on a blanket on the floor of the front porch, fenced in by chairs turned on their sides.

“I didn’t tell you before,” he said, “because I didn’t know if you’d understand.”

“No,” she said, “I probabiy wouldn’t have.”

“She’d been looking forward to coming down. It. was a kind of holiday for her.”

“Is she pretty?”

“I guess so.”

“Like what?”

“Dark hair, dark eyes, sort of short.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I’d have told you before, only I thought it would just hurt your feelings.”

“Oh,” she said.

“I felt like a heel for not warning you before.”

“But you feel better now.”

“Well,” he said, “yes.”

“Are you going to marry her?”

“Now you are mad with me.”

“I was asking.”

“No,” he said, “I’m not going to marry her.”

“That’s a shame, when she was counting on it.”

She stared at the pink azalea on the table, thinking: If I had a wall I could climb over it, but I don’t even have a wall. I don’t have anything at all.

She reached out and patted his head, gently, absent-mindedly, like a child. “Go home, little boy.”

She did not hear the door. After a while she looked up and saw that he was gone. And the silence was no emptier than it had been with him there.