More Than Half
Xero's bent elbow jabs forward once, smooth and sharp, and the eight ball slides fluidly into the corner pocket for at least the sixth time tonight. The shot is so sweet the ball doesn't even roll, just glides like it's skimming the air a breath above the felt, like a bug skating across a pond. I didn't even need to watch him move; his body gliding through motion like he's not made of boneand muscle but full of water that redistributes perfectly under his skin, flowing perfectly with every shift. My balls are still all over the table and now he's sinking them one after the other with almost no noise, moving around the table like his steps and shots and the stick and the balls themselves are all part of one dreamlike trance motion. Xero's not a sexy pool player, not someone who embodies the hardness of the cue and balls, who shoots with jabs. People like that, every shot makes a sharp sound like a quick heartbeat. They shoot in single tight throbs, making something in you jump like a moment of fear and
adrenaline, excitement, every shot like a thrust into your body. Xero moves in softness, like a ballet, like underwater. Some people shoot succinctly, with no wasted motion, tight and tidy. With him it's all one motion that the table is complicit in, the balls moving almost before he touches them.
Smoke and blue chalk dust are floating in the light. My eyes are sore from a night of it, my cheap mascara sticky and smudged, my contact lenses burning. I leave a little more lipstick on the neck of my beer bottle, which is slick and warm in my hand, a Heineken. Xero smokes Kools and drinks Heineken without exception; before he started using it was Bud and Marlboro Reds. He tells me this like he's sure I'll understand why. Xero is fifty-five days clean and counting, but he's kept the Heineken and the Marlboros. He's also kept coke and K and weed ad the low-grade acid we did together last weekend on the ferry out to Algiers Point. Being on the drug with Xero was like entering his strangely muffled, fluid world. We walked in the July heat around old Algiers with the sun a deep yellow and slick on us like warm jelly, muted and calm. Xero bought a pint bottle of sweet, thick wine and we sat in the long grass by the Mississippi drinking it. Warmed by his pockets it tasted like the sunlight going down. We
found a cracked car mirror in the grass and took turns looking at ourselves in the swimming-pool colored glass on the ferry on the way back, pink faces and dilated pupils and the wind on the water, and Algiers disappearing behind us, the French Quarter looming ahead.
Anyway, he says, it's smack he kicked, not the rest. Xero is dating a tragic and lovely drag queen named Goddess, a fragile and beautiful boy of twenty underneath the false lashes and platform shoes. Goddess is going for the Judy Garland Self-Defilement Award and Xero is her backup team, her cheering section and tag-team partner. Goddess shoots pool without pleasure or error, grimly, with herbee-stung lips pursed and her joints tense. Her arms are thin and ropy with muscles you can see working as she manipulates the cue. When Goddess is with us, or rather when I am with Goddess and Xero, we shoot in the gay-bar across the street where drag performers go after their show in varying states of costume, makeup smeared but glitter and spangles still sparkling, their dilated pupils wet and smooth as a bird's eye view into a martini glass, their laughter high and nervous and raspy with smoke and the stories I've only heard pieces of. Stories that have no glitter about them. When we're there, Xero gives Goddess
kisses behind the ear and quarters for the jukebox and she plays the sad and lovely divas of the fifties, Peggy Lee and Judy Garland and the late Billie Holiday where you can hear the heroin and hard times harsh under her angelic voice. Tonight we're in a tiny dive block and a world away, my favorite place to shoot pool after work, where old men in the Saints hats come to drink long-neck Bud and Miller and the juke box plays zydeco and Dr. John and Elvis. I fish in my bra for my tips from the night and for my sweaty dollar I punch in some gritty, whiskey-drenched Tom Waits tunes about strip-joints and hangovers and hard luck and the no-good dames of LA. Xero likes punk, but he won't find iton this box or in the one a block away, and he sold his records a long time ago for something he needed more. Then.
Xero and Goddess have more names between them than I can remember. Xero picked up Xero when he turned twenty and got that zero in exchnage for the comfortable and constant suffix of "teen." The X, he says, is just because. The X and the 0. His gievn name is Nicholas Wisdom: the Nick on the bartender's nametag where we work and The Whiz out of Wisdom to his needle cronies, but that name's in retirement along with the set of works he still keeps around collecting dust in the fifty-dollar a week room he rents on Decatur. The building's called Little Mex after the mostly Latino clientele who play scratchy Spanish dance music on cheap and staticky radios late into the night. Xero calls the music one of the saddest sounds he's ever heard; reminds him of the Puerto Rican dealers in Alphabet City the one time he went up to New York, who always kept ghetto blasters tuned to the Latin station with them on the stoop on the sweaty, grimy August nights he remembers. New York City's my hometown and I asked him what
he'd seen one time on his trip, more than half my life ago. Taxis, mostly, and the subway when cash was tight, the straight line only junkies see between Avenue C and one-tow-five. More than half my life ago; at eighteen I'm only a little more than half Xero's age, and more than half of what he's seen in that time, I know, I don't know enough to imagine more than half of. Goddess is Goddess on the streets and Miss Wonder Lash on-stage under pancake makeup on top of six-inch heels. And one more name nobody knows anymore that died with the hail young boy on his way to the edge of the country and the mouth of the Mississippi, who pushed his way out the birth canal of the Greyhound station and once he'd been slapped and baptized by the liquid that flows in the Quarter turned into Goddess, Miss Wonder Lash on Saturday nights. Words are too important to men with nothing but names. I've got a stage name too but it comes off with the makeup and wigs and G-strings I wear at work, and I mind what people say to me under the name even when I'm wearing it like that last piece of flimsy clothing I tease off under the lights. I'm young enough to have more than my names but old enough to know the names Xero wears are more than half of what he has. What he is. And I take care to know who I'm talking to, when I talk.
And tonight I'm talking to Xero with the bar mostly empty of anything but the sound of pool balls gliding across the worn felt, a soft smooth sound like the muted crackle of smack cooking in a burnt, bent spoon. The spoon and needle are called works, Xero says one day when he's talking about it, half-joking, because shooting that magic white bullet, shooting that galloping pale horse into the vein is like injecting fireworks, a thousand tiny, white explosions in the sky, bangs of stardust. I'm rubbing my drunken eye hard with the finger I've taken the fake pink nail off, not caring that I'm smudging blue and black makeup into the semblance of a glittery shiner on my left eye. This bar is so twenty-four-hour it doesn't have a door and I can see warm drops from a pre-dawn shower collecting on the plastic flaps that hang over the entryway. Fatigue is stealing into me, warm and numbing as I realize how late, or rather early it is. Now Xero's sitting behind me on the warm wooden bench by the pool table, oiled and smooth a golden by years of transient bodies like us. Xero's hands are always warm and he presses gently from behind on the front of my shoulder, pulling me to lean back where our bodies fit like spoons, where it seems his warm liquid-filled flesh moves to cradle me and I relax. He curls one arm around me, malleablecatlike muscles that seem to hum and shimmer in the low barroom light. Xero uses his other hand to throw his long, snaky dark blonde ponytail over his shoulder and idly begins to twirl and pet my hair spray-clumped curls where they stick out from my head in short, crazy corkscrews. It's easier to put on the wigs with short hair.
Xero's skin is warm and pliable, almost unnaturallyl stretchy and shiny and thick, like the skin of ripe fruit or honeyed satin. Though he's almost twice my age nothing on his face belies it except almost imperceptibly thin crow's feet on his catlike, almond-shaped eyes that always make his smile look a little sad. Xero has edge, angular features modified by his full, almost womanly mouth and eyes that always shine, that always seem damp and bright. Now he's stroking my face where the paint is more than half sweated off with his warm long fingers, and his soft red mouth is so close to my ear I feel the moisture of his breath, which is beery and smoky and a little bit sweet. The rain is coming down hard in the soft summer blackness outside that threatens to turn blue and then pale any moment. I live uptown, which seems far, far away right now, and I mention I ought to start the chilly, wet walk to Canal Street for the streetcar. "My place is closer," Xero says in my ear. "You could wait it out there
instead of getting soaked." And I know what the offer really is, to take that short, short walk to somewhere I've never been; a short walk around the corner, a short walk up the creaky flights of stairs in the cheap rooming house that nobody knows the real name of, a short walk across the small room to the stained and faded mattress on the floor. And more than half of me wants to go. But I say no, I'll head home instead, and Xero insists on calling me a cab, which we wait for without a word at a table near the plastic curtains over the doorway.
The taxi's sharp honk penetrates the rain too soon, and I hop in the back without a word, waving good night, good morning to Xero, who's lighting a Kool. The cool dampness of the morning air and the rain washing St. Philip clean of last night make me feel instantly more alert. I finger the crumpled ten Xero gave me as I give the taxi driver my address, a whiskered, middle aged man with the coffee and aftershave smell of somebody starting early, not working late. I crane my neck to see Xero as we pull away towards Decatur and then uptown; his shape in vague outline to me through the rain-sheeted taxi window, half obliterated by the smoke around his head and the rain on the plastic in the bar's doorway, blurred by the French Quarter neon's slick rainbow patterns on the window and the plastic and the smoke and darkness and the wall between us.