ne day I decided to find out why they called him Mustard Piece. Nobody seemed to know why. Not even his mother. People have called him Mustard Piece since local memory began.
A man in his forties, named Mustard Piece, and the neighborhood just accepted it, the way our neighborhood has accepted things for years. It wasn’t like I was trying to change his name, just learn the whys about it. I was bored, mostly: mostly bored. A bored man ends up working on something, so I defensively chose something small. As a starting place I chose somewhere fat.
Cal Simmons was the grocer’s son and he was fat. Lots of people, describing him, would put in all sorts of comparisons. Cal Simmons was as fat as this; Cal Simmons was as fat as that. I’m not gonna do that, there’s nothing to add. Believe me, Cal Simmons was fat. Since Mustard Piece was a food-related name it seemed like Cal was a good place to start around asking. This makes sense only when bored.
Sitting on the grocery steps, Cal’s obesity was either an advertisement or a warning, depending on how you in particular view the world. He sat near the door because the air conditioning limped out each time it opened. Of course, at the same time, the swinging door cooked up air currents that spread Cal’s perfumed scent across the ten-car parking lot. Sweat was a constant sheen on Cal, and he lathered the puddles with perfume: not cologne but perfume. Combined, the perfume and the sweat were worse. They tangled.
Coming up on Cal, my foot stopped right on the heart I’d carved into the sidewalk twenty years ago: high school days. There was my name and a girl’s name; for the life of me I couldn’t remember her in any way other than that heart. She’d meant something to me once, but those days were gone. Cal Simmons rested his soda bottle on his stomach, watching me, and not fearing the bottle would fall from where it rested.
“Mustard Piece,” I said.
“Ain’t seen him,” Cal said, relieved. Sometimes he was afraid he’d have to move, that people would compel him into effort.
“Don’t care about where he is,” I explained. “All I want to know is why people call him Mustard Piece.”
“Cuz it’s his name.” His stomach bobbed with the efforts of speech, but he was a man comprised of shock absorbers: the bottle barely moved.
“It ain’t his real name,” I said. “How’d he get the nickname?” Cal shrugged. Behind him the door opened and a woman emerged holding a small bag of groceries with a bottle of wine and some celery stalks peeping from the top of the sack.
“Hold it,” Cal told her. She did, but her eyes were wanting to know why. Cal didn’t say another word and eventually she wandered off, slowly at first, wondering if she was still supposed to be holding it. All Cal wanted was the air conditioner to spray coolness on him a little longer.
Cal suggested, “Ask Mustard, he ought to know about his own name.”
“But he doesn’t. I asked him, but he just smiled and shrugged. It didn’t seem to concern him.”
“His mom would know.”
“Marjorie then. Ask her. I’d come with you, but I’m fat.” Cal would do that sometimes, would call himself fat. You weren’t supposed to agree with him, but nothing bad would happen if you did.
* * *
Marjorie was not the oldest woman on the block, but she was the oldest woman who still had her memory. Her apartment had been rent-controlled since she’d moved in; her husband had died in the living room, victim of a burglar who’d taken nothing else. Since then, over twenty years, she always spoke about moving out. If you wanted to spend an hour’s time you could ask her about the pros and cons of moving. The main con was losing the frozen rent, which was still leveled as it had been when she moved in over 40 years ago. The pro of living elsewhere was that she wouldn’t, maybe, see her husband’s blood everywhere. Marjorie did that now; she saw blood on the carpet where it had been… but she also saw blood on walls and the ceiling, where it hadn’t.
Her footsteps, after I knocked on her door, hit three times on the wood floor as she left her customary window perch. Then five times on the rug, where I could picture her looking down at the stain. Three more steps, hollow sounding, on the wood.
“Who’s out there?” she asked. Her voice was trying to be angry and demanding, but it wasn’t. She’d seen me coming of course, had even waved down to me from her second story window as I walked up the apartment steps. She just felt, Marjorie did, that she had a role to play.
“Let me in, you cranky old woman,” I said. That was my role, and she liked me more when I played it. Creaking like a drunken banshee, the solid wood door swung open to reveal her. She wasn’t much different than that door. Years before she’d made the apartment manager replace the original door with something it would take a bigger man to break. Inside, Marjorie kept her apartment spotless, but she wouldn’t oil that door. The creak, that groan, had the atmosphere she wanted.
Marjorie creaked and Marjorie groaned and it would have taken a damn big man to break her too. Her wig was always to one side, seemingly permanently affixed and needing a damn dusting.
“Why you bothering an old racehorse like me?” Marjorie winked. In one hand she held an empty beer bottle. She’d never been a drinker, but her husband had, and when he’d died it had been sat next to his chair: that very bottle. Whenever she answered her door it was always in her hand in case she needed to whap a burglar’s skull.
“You ain’t no racehorse,” I answered. “You never made it to the track, since you were always in the nearest stall with the nearest stud.”
“I was a looker,” Marjorie said. It was true. She had pictures of herself around. She didn’t key too much on them, didn’t make posters or sit them in front of chairs where you’d have to look them eye-to-eye. But they were there and she was pretty in them. A curious thing—she used to have lopsided hair back then too, even when it was real.
“You know much about Mustard Piece?” I asked. She straightened up. Breathed funny.
“Not that I know of. I’m just curious about his name. Got it in my head to loaf off the day, pretend to be a detective, figure out what nobody seems to know.”
“How he got his name. I talked to Fat Cal, but he says you’d be the person to ask. I think he’s sweet on you.” Being in Marjorie’s place you’re supposed to sit in the plush chair, the one her husband had loved. That chair was old, not as old as Marjorie, not holding up as well. She wanted to drive his ghost out from the chair—that’s what she told me once—so the more people who sat in the chair the better. The impact of all those asses would shake her husband free. She was all the way joking the first time she told me that, and not as much joking the few times since.
“You need a damn job, that’s what you need.” Her finger was shaking at me, skin wobbling below her arm, the kind of thing it’s rude to notice. Instead I looked to see if there really was a bloodstain on the rug. I’d never found one, but I’d made them up good enough to believe in. Cleaners had worked the stains from the rug, and from everywhere else, except from within Marjorie, where they existed and germinated.
“You need a lemonade or something?” Marjorie asked. It sounded good so I nodded and sat still while she was in the kitchen doing the fixings. Her lemonade---I don’t know how she made it—was always pretty good.
“Still seeing that calendar girl?” she asked, watching me drink. Two years ago I’d dated a girl who did one photo shoot for a tool store. She’d been November, dressed in a bikini and a parka, holding a power drill.
“No,” I told Marjorie. “She left me because I piss all my days away, doing crap like finding out about Mustard Piece’s name.”
“Damn,” Marjorie said. Her throat had a waddle, like a chicken. Her eyes moved around the room, occasionally widening.
“I’m still crazy,” she told me. “I wish I wasn’t, but I am; those stains are here and there, and they move around when I’m not looking. Even when I am.”
Why do people get so small when they get old? Why’s that happen? Back when I was a kid—not just a kid to Marjorie, but a real kid—she was taller than me. That’s all I can remember about her in those day. Marjorie was taller than me. She isn’t anymore, and it’s more because of her than any growing I did. I’m not short, but I did my growing early. Marjorie was doing her shrinking late; why’s that happen?
“Blood?” I asked, looking around, trying to see things in the areas that made her eyes wider.
“You don’t see it, do you?” she asked. I shook my head that I didn’t.
Marjorie said, “I trust your eyes and your mind more’n my own. Ain’t that something?”
“You make fine lemonade,” I answered. It was all I had to say. From her bedroom I could hear the air conditioner, churning and burning the heat away. Most old people like their rooms to be hotter; I was starting to be that way myself. Marjorie liked things cold. Her early years, before she was a pretty woman and was then only a pretty girl, had been spent near the Canadian border. It was colder there, and her body yearned for that. That word, yearn, means wanting something really bad. She’s the one taught me the word; she said she yearned.
In one of the two living room windows was an old air unit. Her husband had put that one in himself, and the weight of it had nearly dragged him out the window. I’d been out on the street; back in those days the Simmons’ grocery was across the street and I’d been hauling crates, just part time work. When I heard him, Marjorie’s husband, hollering, I looked up across the street and there he was, his legs braced wide and holding on to a machine that was dragging him out the window. Marjorie was behind him, flushing herself back and forth, not doing anything and not completing any of the noises she started to make. All that crate-hauling primed my muscles for the race across the street, the dash up the stairs, the bringing of him and the machine back in the window.
Now they were both dead, man and machine. A new air conditioner was in a new window in a new room, but nobody had ever replaced the man, or taken the old machine away.
“About Mustard Piece—” I said, “—you know anything about his name?”
“Why’s this so important? You working for somebody?” She made it sound funny; she knew I wasn’t fond of working. Other people can do the real work, I just like to know things. On a real job you just keep learning the same thing until you don’t know it anymore.
“Just curious,” I answered. My shrug made the chair creak, but it held.
“He’s about twice the age as my husband, back when I met him. Isn’t that something?”
“You married a young punk,” I agreed.
“I always did fall for the punks,” she laughed. Right then I decided to settle back in my chair. All my life I’ve liked to gab, to hear myself, to keep my jaw moving…but nobody ever learned nothing from Marjorie by talking to her. It was always about listening.
“He was a fisherman, did you know that?” She was talking about her dead husband, not about Mustard Piece. All Mustard Piece had ever been was a high school dropout. Since then he’d tried to be other things, but it was all transitional. He’d been transitioning through crap jobs for going on thirty years. Bank teller. Burger flipper. Dish washer. Laundry delivery. Bar fly.
Marjorie said, “He came out of the services and they paid him some sort of allowance after that. I never asked; it was all his business. I just wanted to be a good wife. In life you only ever get one chance to be a good wife. After that, everything’s tainted.” That may have been true, but I didn’t think so, though I kept my mouth shut. You only ever, in conversation, get one chance at being a good listener.
“Oh my god,” Marjorie smiled, “and how his fishing progressed. He was something. He could bait anything. In time he was doing an act for those Creole shows, the ones where a man wrestles alligators. Everyone wanted to know what it was like to sleep next to a man who could wrestle an alligator. Course now, no fooling, nobody was talking about sleeping.” Risqué as I could make it, I gave her a smile, but my eyes dashed over to the nearest photo of her in her younger days. Mental images of a naked man wrestling a naked girl were seeping into my head, and I wanted the naked girl to be the younger girl, not Marjorie as she was right then. Betraying me though, my mind considered how the current Marjorie had that alligator’s skin.
“You hold on,” Marjorie said, “I’m going for the picture book.” She made it sound like both a treat and a challenge. Her feet, dressed up in nice shoes even at home, clomped once against the wood floor, then four times against the rug. A pause came in the middle where she stopped to look at where the stain had been. Nearly into her bedroom she stopped again and touched the wall, then looked back to me.
“There a stain here?” she asked, her finger circling a fist-sized area, over and over. By shaking my head, not speaking, I said that there wasn’t.
“Goddamn a fragile mind,” Marjorie said, and moved into her bedroom, out of my sight.
Alone, I wandered. I didn’t want to be in that chair anymore. Sometimes, over the years, for pocket change and because she needed it done, I’d get foodstuffs for Marjorie from Simmons’ Groceries. All in all I wasn’t a stranger to being in Marjorie’s house and sitting in Marjorie’s dead husband’s chair. If she left the room, coming back, sometimes, she would see a man in the chair and for just a moment she would think it was him. For me, it was always an uncomfortable moment. I was dodging it by rising from the chair.
Above the whine of the air conditioner I could hear Marjorie opening a dresser door, some rustling, some words to herself, then the drawer closed. Then there was a lot of nothing that kept going until I began to feel like I was alone. Peeking into bedrooms is something I’ll do if given the chance, but with Marjorie it wasn’t something I wanted. Peeking’s only good when there’s something you want to see.
With her door open there wasn’t much peeking to be done; it was only looking. She’d gotten onto her bed, on her stomach, with her legs kicked up in back like the young girls do. Spread out on the bed was the photo album. In back of her the air unit was kicking to steam, trying its best to overcome the open window in the living room. Marjorie liked to keep things cool, but she liked to have that window open so she could look out and see what was going on. It was a damn shame for her when the Simmons’ grocery moved. Now it was just an office place, and that didn’t give her much to see or gossip.
“Here he is with a cap on,” Marjorie told me, seeing me there in her doorway. She made it sound like wearing a cap was something. Something really special. I’d only ever been in her bedroom once before, just once when pretending I was enough of a handyman to fix an air unit when it smoked one summer.
Over by the bed I looked down at the book and there was a full-page photo of him. He was standing with a big fish, a bass, and he looked damn proud of what he’d done. Marjorie, pretty and frozen in time, was there beside him. Her joyous mouth was gaping so wide a man could have dropped that fish in. So damn young, so damn pretty, and now she was so damn shrunken. Why’s age got to do that? It ain’t right.
“That’s a big fish,” I told Marjorie and she gave me that look she has when I’ve said an obvious thing. When I’ve said something about the sun rising or time passing.
“He caught them big, that’s what he did.” Her words were misty. Her words were. Don’t think I don’t know what I’m talking about.
“I tried fishing once,” I said. “Whole summer. It seemed like a way I could make my eats and not have to pay anybody. Skinned a pole from an old tree and borrowed the fishing line from you. Remember?” She nodded. It had been a chore to get the line from her; she had a whole room full of fishing gear and none of it was supposed to leave. It was the only room where she didn’t see the spots.
“Haw!” Marjorie said. “Do I remember? Course I remember. You didn’t catch anything as I recall. Not one damn fish.”
“I caught some things,” I answered. I was closer to the way it had really been, but she was closer to the truth anyway. Things I caught weren’t usually good for a skillet, mostly they was just good for cutting up as bait.
“He could catch them,” Marjorie said. It was only a second, but there she was, the woman from the photos. Her fierce little voice peeled some years back. I liked her then, more than I ever had. My mouth was opening to say something, god knows what, but I kept it shut long enough that it came out of her.
“Mustard pieces, that’s how he caught them. They were his secret.”
“How’s that?” I was perked up.
“He’d take his bait and spread mustard on them. Cut bits of crappies, take a jar of mustard and dip them inside. Always in the fridge there was one jar of mustard for me to use, and one jar of mustard that would make a bear spit up.” Beneath her chin, her waddle wriggled as she laughed, either remembering something from the past or thinking of a bear spitting up.
“Marjorie,” I said. That was all I had. Anything else would have stopped her.
“Fish’ll bite on a mustard piece. The scent attracts them, I think. Can fish smell? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. It has to get awfully lonely down there. Water is pressure, you know that? How do you think they live underneath all that pressure?”
“Maybe they don’t even like the mustard. Maybe it’s just something to hold onto.” She whapped the damn photo book closed so hard it made me jump. Smack! I’d been sitting on the side of the bed. When I shot up it made the old springs bounce, and on top of them the old woman bobbed like she was in water.
“Damn!” I said. “You sure got some muscles left in those arms.” I meant it as a joke, wanting a lighter mood. Marjorie was past hearing me.
“It was so hard,” Marjorie said. “He was laying, beaten dead, on the rug. Everybody had questions and nobody wanted to let me cry. I just wanted to cry. I wanted to cry so hard. It’s still in me, all that pressure from the tears.” She was putting the photo book away. Sometimes her words were easy to catch, but sometimes they were so slight they nearly got washed away by the noise of the air unit. Maybe I could have turned it off, listened better, but it was getting awfully warm. I was sweating like Cal Simmons, sitting in front of his father’s store and praying for the door to open.
“I think sometimes, sometimes, that if they would have let me cry then I wouldn’t be such a crazy woman now. It ain’t something I ever got over. I’ve been frozen since then. You know I see the stains, you know that, as sure as I know they ain’t even there. When he came in he was carrying a casserole his mother made him bring. He was scared and still in high school and nobody had to know.”
“What we talking ‘bout now?” I asked. Somewhere she’d skipped up a subject, skipped on to a new one. Marjorie looked up at me, but only near me; her eyes were moving back and forth, her head shaking, trying to focus on me but not real sure of where I was. I think I’d become like a bloodstain to her. Maybe there. Maybe not.
“Just a young punk, just like my husband. Nobody would let me cry and there wasn’t anything to make the pain go away. No release, just pressure and more pressure. Building up. I wanted to throw myself against the walls, beat myself until I was dead. He didn’t know what was happening, had just come up to give me the casserole and tell me his mother sent her condolences. Condolences.” That last word, she spat that.
“He was only fifteen, but he seemed to know what to do, once I got him started.”
I was sitting on the bed again, not having much legs. She was shrinking again; I could watch it happen. Her legs were drawing in, her back was doubling. Like a crawfish getting ready to kick, getting ready to speed away.
“I was prettier then,” Marjorie said, whispering it from a head tucked into her chest. Sometimes—this is where I was looking—sometimes if you leave an air unit on long enough then it’ll start dripping. Hers was doing it then, dripping into a cup she’d sat on the floor. It was a beer cup, from a bar down the street. I knew she didn’t drink, but that cup had come from somewhere. Her husband had been dead before the bar opened, so it wasn’t a leftover, just another small mystery.
“Only happened four times. One day it was twice,” Marjorie said.
“Did it make you feel better?”
“No. No, it didn’t. But it kept me alive.”
I said, “Mustard Piece.”
“He was something to grab onto, when everyone else was scared of being close. His mother dropped him near me like bait. Nobody would let me cry, but he would let me scream. I needed screaming.”
Thinking of Mustard Piece, now, it wasn’t hard to picture him as the greedy fifteen-year-old kid he’d been. Today there was a shaggy beard, but his eyes were unchanged. Looking for a chance, wide and confused, but still thinking everything could be his if only somebody would just reach out and give it to him.
“I started calling him Mustard Piece,” Marjorie said. “Giving him a real name would have made him something else, and he wasn’t anything else. He was just what he was. Mustard Piece.”
Not having anything to say, and not having anything else to do, I wandered to the cup beneath the air unit. It was half full. I picked it up, half a mind to empty it, but no real mind for further action.
“You need lemonade?” Marjorie asked.
“No ma’am,” I answered. My kid voice.
“Nonsense, I’ll get us some lemonade.” Limbs flashing, child quick, she sprang up from the bed. Not even all the way to the door, the weight and the pressure hit her again and she was only old Marjorie. She kept going though; she had the strength to keep pressing. She didn’t look over her shoulder when she spoke.
“I don’t think he knew what the name meant. He started calling himself by the name. It caught on, even outside this place. He thought it was something sexual.” She shook her head at the idiocy of children.
“There wasn’t anything sexual at all,” I both replied, and believed. Her head nodded.
In her living room I sat in the old plush chair and drank lemonade. It was perfect, not too tart and not too sugary. The taste of lemons was there, but subtle. It could be ignored if I put my mind to it. Neither of us spoke, not even about nothing. We were both waiting for the other one to change the subject, maybe, and too afraid of being baited back into it once words were in the air. So we kept silent. It took nearly an hour of effort, but finally I had the guts to tell her I should be going. She nodded, accepting.
Her hand was on the door, readying the strength to swing that big wooden mass, when her eyes widened. Her finger circled an area, there on the door, about as big around as a dinner plate.
“You see that?” she asked.
I just stood there, for a long time, not knowing what she wanted to hear, not knowing which way was better. I’d solved a mystery, but didn’t feel any smarter.