This is the third of a series of fictional character sketches from the openDemocracy writer’s latest novel, Unimportant People…
Anyone on the street can tell you about his hyper-sensitivity, his clairvoyance. “It’s freaky scary, like he’s a crystal ball, a circus act,” is a common remark. L Mutt Jeansonne is constantly explaining the present to passersby, and then telling them what is just around the corner. He doesn’t mean to be a performer, he doesn’t even really want to interact. The process just happens. Loose human electrons stick to his cuffs as he passes through the weed-ridden, abandoned lot of his daily life. He can feel them, zeroes right in on any sort of communication. The source doesn’t matter.
Mutt is in touch with so much of his everyday environment that even minute quantities of unfamiliar input often confuse him. They get to be too much for him. He weaves through his day, dodging this and that stray bit, but continually picking up transmissions most people don’t know exist. He reads lengthy messages in places that normal people wouldn’t even think to look.
His pants, for instance. Tuxedo pants. Twenty years old, by his own estimates. Bought on sale for four bits at the French Quarter Volunteers of America Thrift Store. An ex-State Treasurer was working behind the counter, fulfilling the community service portion of his fourteen-count felony embezzlement sentence. Nice gent. He found the pants for Mutt. They fit perfectly. The moth holes are hardly even noticeable when Mutt darkens the thigh skin underneath. He uses a wide-point makeup pencil he found near a Mardi Gras parade site a few years back. This, his long-time-favorite writing device, once had “Krewe of Karnival” printed in gold on one purple-and-green-striped side. He systematically freshens the black waxy pools twice a day to disguise his pant cavities. This regular use of the soft darkener, and the resultant required sharpening of the instrument, has already left only the “Kre” of the original Mardi Gras title. Mutt knows he will miss that pencil when it’s gone. He has become reconciled to loss. The pants require pencil use. But if Mutt had suspected the hidden price carried by those trousers, he would never have laid down his hard-earned money.
They cost him his nights.
The pants wouldn’t let him sleep for months after he got them. He was always waking up thirsty. Or having to pee. He immediately sensed that the former long-time owner of his pants had a drinking problem. Mutt nightly relived the hundreds of drunken fly-openings the pants had been subjected to. The head spinning. The numbed fingers trying to deal with five buttons and thick prickly cloth. The anxiety of trying to not look the fool.
A broad sweep of pant history came to Mutt the first time he put them on. They were worn amidst a privileged life, pleasure and societal confidence, but with a distinct gin feel to them. The details came as he slept, the director’s cut of a vividly dramatic clothing biopic running in Technicolor and Panavision in his drowsing head screening room.
THE LIFE & TIMES OF PANTS
These pants were a genteel piece of clothing from the start. The source would be acknowledged as they were first unpacked from a shipping box, mounted on a polished wooden hanger, and then carried with no small amount of ceremony to a seamstress. Who carefully sewed a gilded Rockfield’s insignia inside the left front pocket, thus certifying their pedigree and value.
Rockfield’s, the ultra-expensive five-floor clothing salon on Canal street, has been at its current location for one hundred and eighty-five years. Even while they pillaged the rest of the city during the War Between the States, the Yankees had not dared to harm the Rockfield establishment. To this day the aging night custodian will tell the story with only the slightest prompting. He proudly prefaces his tale by noting that up until the onset of hostilities, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had Rockfield’s clothing artisans tailor Louisiana cotton shirts for him on a regular basis. His orderly cut ever-expanding paper size-patterns each month, folding them precisely into small envelopes for their trip south through the US Mail. Rockfield’s shirts traveled the same route in reverse, heading north from New Orleans to find their new owner and drop comfortably onto his shoulders.
Then came the War.
Four years later, the general sent a letter by personal courier to the Rockfield family, explaining his sad but necessary part in the defeat of the Confederacy. For his courtesy Mr Sherman was allowed to anonymously continue as a customer during his later term as president of Louisiana State University, eighty-four miles upriver. It was rumored that the Rockfield family secretly admired the man who had had the good taste to burn Atlanta. An act for which he is no less revered in contemporary New Orleans.
To those allowed to shop there, nothing can take the place of Rockfield’s. As a setting for purchasing clothing, few establishments can call themselves its equal. The walls of the spacious private dressing rooms are draped in multiple layers of deeply-colored velvet, ceiling to floor. Persian carpets cover the polished hardwood floors, the fiber so ornate and thick with design that few customers ever dare set foot upon it. Most normally choose to tip-toe around the room’s edges on a narrow six inches of polished hardwood not covered by a subtly-woven reproduction of Hannibal Crossing the Alps. Hannibal’s bearded grimace remains to this day a bit unsettling for those unfamiliar with the gentleman’s legendary personal charms when off-elephant. Even incidental pieces of furniture are vintage British antiques. Chandeliers hang in the ladies’ and gentlemen’s lounges, illuminating hundred-year-old ebony rollers fitted with polished brass. The rollers cradle tissue for unmentionable but occasionally undelayable biological functions. Rockfield’s prides itself in being as tastefully well-decorated as any of its patrons’ homes.
Uptown New Orleans society has clothed its denizens within these sumptuous confines for over a century. Credit accounts are preferred by management to the extent that cash is considered not only gauche, but unsanitary. The sales staff do not want to touch it. “My dear madam, that soiled paper could have been almost anywhere.” Besides, there is rumored to be a wooden chest filled with century-old Confederate currency still sitting in the Company vault, continually reminding the owners of a lesson on the shortcomings of a cash trade. As modern American economics begin to encroach on the rest of the City, Rockfield’s has maintained its stance that nothing so democratic as plastic cards is needed or wanted.
It is difficult for a stranger to buy things at Rockfield’s, no matter the expanse of wealth or the depth of lineage. Things can become even more complicated if the intruder is suspected of Not Being a Southerner. The uninformed tourist walking in the doors of the marble-girded temple can wait hours to be acknowledged. Much less be served.
But, oh, family.
Most regulars never sign for their purchases. A word is, of course, enough. Mrs Cleona Louise Bagatelle has been assisting her ladies for forty-one years. She has refused promotion to management on six separate occasions, preferring to remain on her own third floor. “I have a responsibility to my clientele, sir. They would be lost without me,” she firmly asserted to the Assistant Manager in 1987, all the while inspecting his administrative suite. “Besides, I wouldn’t be happy up here. These offices are so dismally uninspiring. You could really use some plants in this room, something to distract from this dreadful carpeting. We’ve the most lovely mauve drapes just come in to Home Furnishings. I could help you with your selection if you like.”
This was the last occasion on which Mrs Bagatelle was invited upstairs to the Executive Offices. She was not put out in the least. Mrs Bagatelle is getting a bit short-winded for the climb to five, and as a lady of character she hasn’t much use for elevators. She would devote her remaining life energy to her ladies.
The same held true for the Chief Associate of Men’s Formal Wear, Mrs Bagatelle’s counterpart in that department, Nevis Richmond III. Nevis III had refused for over a decade to take on any new customers. “The new sons inherit my attention, and then those sons take it solely when the father passes. I have all I can do to simply keep up with their rather intense procreation,” he told management.
Mr Richmond had facilitated the former owner’s acquisition of the pants, and had sent a note of condolence when that same gentleman died soon after the next season’s Winter Cotillion Ball of extensive liver damage. The family seemed to shed itself of all vestige of the deceased rather quickly, as every scrap of his clothing had been donated to the Quarter thrift shop within a week of his death.
At that venue, however, there was little demand for tuxedo pants, and the pair in question had gradually dropped further and further, year after year, deeper into the disorderly, moth-plagued stacks of clothing.
Until the pants found L Mutt Jeansonne.
Screen fades to black. Up house lights. Touching bit of cinema verité. Mutt has the britches’ story now.
The pants had carried pocketfuls of life’s loose change to their current downtown owner. The emotional jingling kept him awake all night every night.
But Mutt didn’t like taking off his Rockfield’s pants to sleep. Not any more. He’d had a good pair stolen just last year, from right beside him. And then a second pair a month later. He never woke up either time. He considered this as not particularly unexpected, seeing as he was living on a bed of cardboard boxes beneath the freeway at the time.
But in the process of recovery from the losses, Mutt discovered a new street rule: It’s hard getting a pair of pants when you don’t have a first pair to wear. No, he didn’t want his pants stolen again. That was Reason Number One for sleeping in his pants.
Reason Number Two was that he liked to always be ready, just in case. Ready. But the lack of proper sleep distressed him. Made him feel goofy all day. That, and all this Gulf humidity. Disorients a fellow. Mutt pondered his predicament for weeks, finally solving the tuxedo pants karma problem by taking them off at night and tying the legs around his waist.
That way he can ignore the pants’ riotous history. Not as much contact. His privates have more freedom. He can scratch his balls. And the pants still remain secure from thievery. He has slept soundly ever since.
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