Margo swallowed her tea. Her notes were a mess, but she would be able to make sense of them when needed.
– That’s a lovely hat. Stetson?
There was that grunt again.
– Ain’t no Stetson. Ain’t no Stetson round ere.
– It’s lovely though.
– It’s a hat.
And then that familiar pause. Margo saw the opportunity, and she seized on it, eager to make more of her mess.
– So shall we get to it?
– I ain’t the first negro to be got. You wanna get to it, then get.
– Ok, well it will all be pretty straightforward. As discussed it will just be a few questions.
– You ask what you like. You come all th’way out ere might as well go back with somethin to show.
Margo smiled. He was easier than the others.
– Well let’s get started then. So, tell me Joe, how long have you been living here?
– I bin ere long enough. Not longer than I bin anywhere, bu longa than most places.
– How do you find it?
– T’way I found it. Way I’ll leave it.
– Would you mind expanding on that for me, please?
– Expandin? Expansion’s tricky down ere, what with the lakes in one direction an Lawrence out t’other. Can’t go up, neither. Not unless you taller than a Cadillac. Child, expandin’s what made this ere town what it is. Ain’t no use in it. No sir.
– I appreciate that, Joe, I’m just trying to get a sense of what it’s like to live here.
– Ain’t you gettin it?
– It would be nice to hear your thoughts.
– I can speak up if it suits.
– A different approach was needed, that much was clear. Margo shuffled in her chair, took another sup of the strong black tea, and turned the page. She ran her hand along the smooth clean surface, determined to make this one count.
– No, it’s fine. It’s fine. Did you ever try to move somewhere else?
– Sum’ere else? Spose you think it’s bout gettin out. Gettin out. Lemme te’you about gettin out – it’s fo quittas.
– Quittas. Damn quittas.
– How so?
– How so. How so. Joe sat forward in his chair. I’ll tell ya why it’s fo quitters, cos quittin is easy. Damn kids, y’all think its tough, comin from nothin and endin with somethin, but it ain’t, that ain’t tough at all. No sir. Tough is stayin put; tough is doin what ya can wi wha ya got.
– But what about those people who just aren’t happy with their lot?
– They oughta be pissed, and be done with it. Hell, you got all these here gangstas spinnin their stories fo a dime, each one more epic than th’last. What the hell struggle is it when it ends with a fortune too big fo any man? Th’ain’t no struggle child. Struggle is somethin you don’t sing abou, cos you too busy strugglin to put down some foolish yarn.
– And you, Joe, would you say that are you struggling?
You could almost hear the relief from his creaking bones as he slumped back.
– Strugglin? I sittin ere ain’t I? What I just tell you? Ain’t no body strugglin that sits around tralkin bout it. Ain’t no body.
– But do you face any challenges on a daily basis, economically and, say, socially?
– Challenges. Economically and socially. You walk ere?
– No, I took a cab from the hotel.
– Then it was a wasted trip I’m afraid. What you saw from behind that movin glass you just saw; ya didn’t feel, ya didn’t get yourself a sense of it. If you’d walked, well now, then you’d have got a sense.
– A sense of what exactly?
– Hell child, do I look like a poet to you? Can’t explain it. You gotsta see it wi yo own eyes. Gotta chew on it, get it under yo tongue and pressed up again your lower teeth. Ain’t doin that from the backseat of no taxi-cab.
– Well, now that I’m here, could you possibly show me?
– Show you? Darlin, I find it hard to sit in this ere chair, you think I like tryin it the oth’way round? No sir. But you can see it fo yourself. When we’re done ere, you head on out the way you came, an take a right. Or left. Left or right, makes no odds. Head on down the sidewalk, and within a half dozen houses or so, you gona see it. Go on another half dozen or so, and you’ll see it again. Left or right.
– I’m sorry, see what exactly?
– Stone. Rubble. You can go in, just be sure to mind your step. Lotsa things lurkin in the dark that do bite some.
– You’re talking about houses?
– I’m talkin bout homes. Or what was homes. What they is now, I couldn’t say. Whateva it is that makes stone more than just that has upped and moved on.
– And how do you think that the effects of such urban decline have been felt by the community?
– Urban decline? I ain’t too worried about no urban decline. It’s the dust that gets me.
– The dust?
– That’s what I said. The dust.
– What about the dust?
And there it was again, that sharp intake of breath while he pulled himself forward, his face refusing to betray even the faintest expression.
– Don’t just walk right in. First, let the silence take you. She’s the best lover you’ll ever have. Don’t ever be afraid of her. Step over the plastic bags and discarded bicycle parts, and watch your footing on the porch. They’re safe, just not all that sound, so don’t be afraid o that. The door’ll most like be gone, and them hinges too. You’ll be lucky to find a single pane intact, so seeing as it’s bright out, you’ll think it eerily beautiful. It is, it is. Sorta like … damn I told you I ain’t no poet, but there’s something there will move ya, and ain’t that just what art is? And it’s the same all over. Keep on goin, you’ll see it on a grand scale – like the bastard child of man and nature, discarded in some drain pipe, clinging to its existence without having the faintest notion why. Well, maybe it’s not beautiful. But it’s something. And it sure is art.
This time, when he slumped back, his eyes didn’t return to Margo, but followed some distant strand that he had decided not to share with her.
– And the dust?
– You said the dust is what worries you.
He exhaled deeply, like a long haul truck that was finally being parked up after its journey.
– Did I now? Well I’ll tell you what, when the sun sticks itself out fo a moment, you look where the light streams in through them empty frames. Follow it on down to the floor. Run your hand along the mantle. And you tell me what you see.
Margo knew that she would get nothing more from him.
– You tell me what you see.