Jessie was the first and best friend Luther had made in Greenwood, and this would soon become the problem. His given name was Clarence, but his middle name was Jessup, so everyone called him Jessie when they weren't calling him Jessie Tell, and he had a way about him that drew men to him as much as women. He was a bellhop and fill- in elevator operator at the Hotel Tulsa, and he had a gift for keeping everyone's spirits up on his own high level and that could sure make a day fly. Much as Jessie'd been given a couple nicknames himself, it was only fair, since he'd done the same to everyone he met (it was Jessie who, at the Gold Goose, had first called Luther "Country"), and those names left his tongue with so much speed and certainty that usually a man started going by Jessie's nickname no matter how long he'd been called by any other on this earth. Jessie would move through the lobby of the Hotel Tulsa pushing a brass cart or lugging some bags and calling out, "Happening, Slim?" and "You know it's the truth, Typhoon," and following that with a soft "heh heh right," and before suppertime people were calling Bobby Slim and Gerald Typhoon and most felt better for the trade- off.
Luther and Jessie Tell had them some elevator races when times were slow and they bet on bag totals every day they worked the bell stand, hustled like mad with smile and shine for the white folk who called 'em both George even though they wore brass name tags clear as day, and after they'd crossed back over the Frisco tracks into Greenwood and retired to the saloons or the galleries down around Admiral, they kept their raps up, because they were both fast in the mouth and fast on their feet and Luther felt that between the two of them lay the kinship he'd been missing, the one he'd left behind in Columbus with Sticky Joe Beam and Aeneus James and some of the other men he'd played ball with and drank with and, in pre-Lila days, chased women with. Life--life--was lived here, in the Greenwood that sprung up at night with its snap of pool balls and its three- string guitars and saxophones and liquor and men unwinding after so many hours of being called George, called son, called boy, called whatever white folk felt a mind to call them. And a man could not only be forgiven, he could be expected to unwind with other men after days like they had, saying their "Yes, suhs" and their "How dos" and their "Sho 'nuffs."
Fast as Jessie Tell was--and he and Luther both ran the same numbers territory and ran it fast--he was big too. Not near as big as Deacon Broscious but a man of girth, nonetheless, and he loved him his heroin. Loved him his chicken and his rye and his fat-bottomed women and his talk and his Choctaw and his song, but, man, his heroin he loved above all else.
"Shit," he said, "nigger like me got to have something slow him down, else whitey'd shoot him 'fore he could take over the world. Say I'm right, Country. Say it. 'Cause it's so and y' know it."
Problem was, a habit like Jessie had--and his habit was like the rest of him, large--got expensive, and even though he cleared more tips than any man at the Hotel Tulsa, it didn't mean much because tips were pooled and then dealt out evenly to each man at the end of a shift. And even though he was running numbers for the Deacon and that was most definitely a paying proposition, the runners getting two cents on every dollar the customers lost and Greenwood customers lost about as much as they played and they played at a fearsome rate, Jessie still couldn't keep up by playing straight.
So he skimmed.
The way running numbers worked in Deacon Broscious's town was straight simple: ain't no such thing as credit. You wanted to put a dime on the number, you paid the runner eleven cents before he left your house, the extra penny to cover the vig. You played for four bits, you paid fi fty-five. And so on.
Deacon Broscious didn't believe in chasing down country niggers for their money after they'd lost, just couldn't see the sense in that. He had real collectors for real debt, he couldn't bother fucking up niggers' limbs for pennies. Those pennies, though, you added it up and you could fill some mail bags with it, boy, could fill a barn come those special days when folks thought luck was in the air.
Since the runners carried that cash around with them, it stood to reason that Deacon Broscious had to pick boys he trusted, but the Deacon didn't get to be the Deacon by trusting anybody, so Luther had always assumed he was being watched. Not every run, mind you, just every third or so. He'd never actually seen someone doing the watching, but it sure couldn't hurt matters none to work from that assumption.
Jessie said, "You give Deacon too much credit, boy. Man can't have eyes everywhere. 'Sides, even if he did, those eyes are human, too. They can't tell if you went into the house and just Daddy played or if Mama and Grandpa and Uncle Jim all played, too. And you sure don't pocket all four of them dollars. But if you pocket one? Who's the wiser? God? Maybe if He's looking. But the Deacon ain't God."
He surely wasn't that. He was some other thing.
Jessie took a shot at the six ball and missed it clean. He gave Luther a lazy shrug. His buttery eyes told Luther he'd been hitting the spike again, probably in the alley while Luther'd used the bathroom a while back.
Luther sank the twelve.
Jessie gripped his stick to keep him up, then felt behind him for his chair. When he was sure he'd found it and centered it under his ass, he lowered himself into it and smacked his lips, tried to get some wet into that big tongue of his.
Luther couldn't help himself. "Shit going to kill you, boy."
Jessie smiled and wagged a finger at him. "Ain't going to do nothing right now but make me feel right, so shush your mouth and shoot your pool."
That was the problem with Jessie--much as the boy could talk at you, weren't no one could talk to him. There was some part of him--the core, most likely--that got plumb irritated by reason. Common sense insulted Jessie.
"Just 'cause folks be doing a thing," he said to Luther once, "don't make that thing a good fucking idea all to itself, do it?"
"Don't make it bad."
Jessie smiled that smile of his got him women and a free drink more often than not. "Sure it do, Country. Sure it do."
Oh, the women loved him. Dogs rolled over at the sight of him and peed all over their bellies, and children followed him when he walked Greenwood Avenue, as if gold-plated jumping jacks would spring from his trouser cuffs.
Because there was something unbroken in the man. And people followed him, maybe, just to see it break.
Luther sank the six and then the five, and when he looked up again, Jessie had gone into a nod, a bit of drool hanging from the corner of his mouth, his arms and legs wrapped around that pool stick like he'd decided it would make him a right fi ne wife.