When you’re no longer a professor, it’s time to explore your options.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Sound Design & Mixing by
You would think a Black man with two advanced degrees, who had once lectured at the Sorbonne, who shook hands with Noam Chomsky and Shirin Ebadi, who prefers Enya to Kanye West, and who will never willingly watch a Tyler Perry film, would not spend his evenings mugging tourists in the French Quarter. And you would be wrong.
For instance, take this couple ahead of me. It’s early evening, and they’re strolling toward that awful tourist trap, Café Du Monde. I peg them for Midwesterners, probably Minnesotans, with their button-down shirts and matching mom jeans. They’re distracted by an argument, easy prey for me. On earlier nights like this one, back before the budget cuts that led to my termination from the university, I would have politely greeted this couple, even cheerfully so.
“I don’t want no trouble,” I say, tugging my sweatshirt hood forward. With my black medical-grade mask, I imagine I look suitably intimidating. But I’m using the mask for an off-label use. It’s a holdover from many months ago when the pandemic began.
“Please don’t shoot us,” the woman says instantly.
“Nobody has got to get shot,” I say. “You know what to do.” I throw in a “whitey” for effect, even though I know that lukewarm racial epithet hasn’t been popular since the 1970s, but how exactly does one insult white people? Hey, Casper? Fork it over, paleface? There simply isn’t a word equivalent to the N-bomb when you’re trying to make Caucasians feel uncomfortable, unless you count the most terrifying noun, my skin.
My take from the encounter is modest but satisfying. A couple hundred dollars and passes to a reenactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising. I keep the cash and toss the passes. I’m in the middle of my own uprising. I don’t need to observe one.
“Nobody has got to get shot,” I say. “You know what to do.” I throw in a “whitey” for effect, even though I know that lukewarm racial epithet hasn’t been popular since the 1970s.
Back home, my wife, Dell, preps her face at the dresser mirror. She’s a chemist for one of the oil companies and often takes the graveyard shift, monitoring that certain necrotizing chemicals don’t leap from their containers and dive into the water table. Her recent attention to cosmetics is odd to say the least, since for most of our marriage she cared little about fashion, but who can account for the mercurial whims of women? I do hope she’s not cheating on me.
Yes, I’ve been in a snippy mood, and, sure, I’ve put on a few pounds over the years, but my recent nocturnal activities combined with a reduction in my consumption of HoHos has led to promising gains, or, rather, losses.
“How did you do today, darling?” she asks. I show her my booty—the money, that is. “That’s it?”
She pinches her nose, that unhappy, nervous tic of hers. “For the whole day? Seriously, James. If things weren’t going so well at the lab, we’d already be out on the street, homeless and shaking a cup. When are you going to find real work?”
Dell doesn’t know what I’ve been doing. I spent the first week of my disenfranchisement inquiring at other local institutions of higher learning, even the vocational schools. Yet, as you can imagine, a city with a 30 percent illiteracy rate isn’t exactly aching to employ a professor of English who specializes in the verse of Alexander Pushkin.
Since my leads dried up, I’ve been tutoring trust-fund babies on how to ace their college admission essays. Or so Dell thinks. I actually tried the tutoring madness once. It was mostly discouraging. My pupil was the daughter of a wealthy uptowner, the owner of a plantation turned resort west of the city. I couldn’t disabuse that girl of the notion that the reading of literature was not, like, a total waste of time and why can’t I just, like, draw them a picture?
“Everybody likes pictures, right, instructor?” she asked, not wearing a mask because her father told her the pandemic was a political hoax.
“Professor,” I said, straightening my posture.
“Like, whatever. All I’m saying is people get more out of art and music than some words on a page.”
Dell brushes her eyebrows. She’s always brushing her eyebrows these days. No one’s eyebrows in the history of the world have been subjected to more rigorous brushing than hers. “I know you think online teaching is beneath you—”
“I’m not doing that,” I say. “It’s hard enough to help students learn while they’re sexting each other in the classroom. How much more difficult will it be when they have Big Bootied Bitches open in the web browser next to mine?” My whole body quivers. Dell is right, of course. We have no savings, evictions are allowed again, and the rent is weeks overdue. The landlord crammed a crude letter through the mail slot earlier today. The missive couldn’t have been less eloquent if it were scribbled in crayon. How he managed to spell “eviction” properly I’ll never know. He wants this month’s and next month’s rent by tomorrow morning.
Dell places a hand on my cheek and frowns. “Oh, darling,” she says, “you look tired. There’s mac and cheese in the oven. Get some sleep. Bye.” Then she’s gone. I can’t remember the last time I saw her smile.
Since my leads dried up, I’ve been tutoring trust-fund babies on how to ace their college admission essays. Or so Dell thinks.
After consuming copious chunks of Dell’s ambrosia, I return to the streets. This is a good time of year for mugging. The convention trade is only half as good as it used to be, but the discount rates have drawn out bargain-hunting organizations. Last Wednesday, the World Commission on Peace stopped by. Next week, the NRA. Tonight? The International Association of Lepidopterists, even though there are virtually no interesting butterflies in New Orleans. I wear a butterfly brooch on my hoodie to blend in. The brooch is somewhat in the shape of a blue morpho. The silhouette is correct, but the spots are all wrong.
Tourists commit all the right sins for my purposes: gluttony, sloth, and pride. They spend their days devouring clichés: salty gumbo, po’boy sandwiches with crusty exteriors and soft, chewy interiors, and sweet, powdery beignets. By evening, they’re stuffed to their medullas. Lounging on a bench in Jackson Square, their bellies distended, they say Wouldn’t it be nice if we went to see the plaque where the slave auction block used to be? It’ll be a blast. Jack and Lydia were here, and they didn’t get to see it. We could post pictures on social media and rub their noses in our good fortune. And then the tourists wander off without a map.
New Orleans is like a brick. You pour water on it and there’s no telling where the rivulets will run. When tourists trickle through our neighborhoods, they puddle in places they would have done well to avoid.
Like this courtyard, where, spiderlike, I’m hanging out behind a stand of poplar trees. A French family has fallen onto my web, four of them this time, a disgruntled man, a cigarette-sucking woman, a teen girl on a cellphone, and a boy in a fleur-de-lis baseball cap, rakishly tugged sideways. I know what you’re thinking. He’s not going to mug a family with kids.
But you see, it’s already done. A simple shuffle into their path with the grace of Muhammad Ali in his prime.
“Papa,” the boy says, misinterpreting our tableau. “Le rappeur! Le rappeur! C’est MC Solaar!”
I quickly clear up the confusion. Next thing, I’ve acquired two new cellphones, a wad of euros, which I’ll convert shortly, and the most delightful Nicholas of Myra pendant, the jolly old saint of pawnbrokers and thieves. Quelle chance!
Guilt? I feel none for three reasons. First, although my prey thinks otherwise, I’m unarmed. No gun. No knife. No club. If anything, I have only a face and body that are, in a sense, weaponized. And there’s nothing illegal about people giving me currency, portable electronics, or heirloom jewelry of their own free will. I’ve never once asked my patrons for a dime. I’m just a very aggressive beggar, if one really considers it.
New Orleans is like a brick. You pour water on it and there’s no telling where the rivulets will run. When tourists trickle through our neighborhoods, they puddle in places they would have done well to avoid.
I discovered the generosity of people years before I had need of this knowledge. In my teaching career, I favored cashmere vests and tweed coats. Yes, I know. It’s stereotypical, but much of the reason I became a professor in the first place was so that I could look like a professor. Wear the sophistication of one. I may have even worn a bow tie on occasion.
Once, I spilled a cup of heavily creamed Darjeeling, ruining my favorite ensemble, klutz that I am. I stripped in my office and would have had to go home to change if not for the oversized T-shirt some long-forgotten freshman had left behind during advising hours. I wore the T-shirt to the restroom. There was a janitor, I don’t recall his name, to which I often gave the briefest wave on my way to lecture. I caught him glaring at me.
“Who are you?” he said.
“Clean yourself somewhere else,” he said. “We don’t allow no homeless people to hang up in this building.”
“Now, wait a second—” But the poor guy dropped his mop and left. In the hall, I watched him retreat in search of the campus police. A simple change of clothes had thrown me all the way down the ladder of my achievements.
Second, I’m doing my benefactors a valuable service. How so? Ever had a health scare? A near-fatal car accident? Knowledge that a plane crashed and you survived only because you missed your flight? Invariably, I imagine, my supporters are much happier for having been graced by my presence. That arguing Norwegian American couple can return to Minnesota with a fresh appreciation for their general good fortune. And that francophone family now understands the primacy of their kinship. Having not died together, perhaps they will live together. All thanks to moi.
Last? I deserve my take. Consider my profits reparations for each time some Becky or Karen crossed the street to avoid my path just as I greeted them. I regift that horror to you, my lovely brunette friends.
It’s a red-letter evening. I’ve encountered no less than five separate groups since leaving home. I’ve been so effective that I notice an increased police presence in the Quarter. Blue shirts. Mounted patrolman. Ridiculously obvious undercover cops in heavily starched muscle shirts. Honestly, who starches a muscle shirt?
As I stroll past a honky-tonk, I see a police sketch on the television. An approximation of my face. My heart skips a beat, but then I remember that anonymity is part of my power. How do my marks describe me? Well, he was tall. He wore a mask. And, um, he was really dark. No. Darker. Good luck finding me.
As I stroll past a honky-tonk, I see a police sketch on the television. An approximation of my face. My heart skips a beat, but then I remember that anonymity is part of my power.
On Barracks Street, the air smells of raspberry daiquiris and cigar smoke. Low, puffy clouds crawl southward. This is the quiet end of the Quarter, where magnolia blooms droop over the edges of flower boxes like partygoers who’ve had too much to drink. It’s getting pretty late when I spot a lone man ambling along. An overstuffed camera bag rhythmically bounces against the man’s side. His wallet winks at me from a back pocket. The man, in a flimsy surgeon’s mask, makes my mouth water. In this moment, I know how the king of the jungle feels when, on the grasslands of the Serengeti, he spots a hapless zebra foal, separated from his harem. This will be an easy one.
Yet, the man advances at a remarkably brisk pace. His legs hardly seem to move at all, but he’s outdistancing me. Have I been spotted? Is he running for help? I have to jog to catch up with him, and I do. I need only make him aware of my presence to end this transaction, but just as I come within striking distance moonlight illuminates the high-cheeked plane of his face. Oh, my goodness, he’s Black.
This situation has never presented itself before. On the one hand, he’s clearly a tourist like all the others. On the other hand, it seems patently unfair to subject one of my own kind to such rough handling. When I say my own kind, I don’t speak necessarily of his skin color, although to be perfectly honest that is a factor. But note the thick glasses, the stiffness of his gait, the comically tight high waters. In other words, this man is part of my tribe. He’s a bona fide nerd.
Will my powers even work on someone so like myself, my blameless twin? Or will we cancel each other out in a burst of vapor, matter and antimatter dissolved to nothing? What kind of idiot wanders through the Quarter at such a late hour with such nonchalance, no self-awareness at all? Doesn’t he realize that bad things happen to people who don’t exercise common sense? He must learn to take better care of himself before something truly terrible happens. Despite my current employment status, I know that I’m an excellent teacher. I draw my hood forward and ready myself for the lesson.
“Hold it right there.”
Someone taps my shoulder from behind. My solicitor is a policeman wearing an N95 respirator. He pulls a horse by the reins. I back away.
“I said, ‘Stop.’ ” The policeman places a hand on his hip, near his revolver. “I need to ask you a few questions.” The horse bobs his head and snorts.
I hear the Mountie grunt onto his horse and, next, the sound of horseshoes against cobblestone. I sprint toward the still underpopulated, but not empty, heart of the Quarter. Neon signs glow in the distance. They’re too far away to read, but I know what they advertise: sex, booze, violence. And if I make it that far, I may lose my assailant in the morass of pleasure-seeking tourists, securing my freedom. Feet don’t fail me now.
As I sprint past a produce cart, I yank the bedsheet from it, a sheet the proprietor apparently hoped would protect his stock from prying eyes. But my plan is foiled because the cart is empty. I hoped the cart was full of apples. I hoped that apples would spill across the street like in one of those ludicrous action movies. I hoped the applelanche would cause my overseer to lose his balance and tumble to the ground. But I hoped wrong.
The horseman gains on me. I jump onto the sidewalk and bump past a pair of men peeing on the steps of the shabby old cathedral. The horseman follows me onto the sidewalk. My chest pounds. My temples thump. I won’t be able to go much farther before I collapse from total exhaustion. Out of options, I fling the white sheet into the air.
Buoyed on a breeze, the sheet snags my horseman’s body, robing him in spotless cotton. The horseman’s momentum carries him past me, as he grapples with his ghost. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Note the thick glasses, the stiffness of his gait, the comically tight high waters. In other words, this man is part of my tribe. He’s a bona fide nerd.
Depleted, but triumphant, I turn onto a side street and promptly trip on a hole in the sidewalk, twisting my ankle. Broken pavement: my tax dollars hard at work. In no time, I hear my hooded pursuer approaching from around the bend. Soon, I’ll be a prisoner.
“Darling?” I’m pulled to my feet and into a narrow, fenced alley. I lean against a rugged brick wall. It takes me forever to catch my breath.
My savior is a sex worker, one of the countless women who unselfconsciously peddle their cupcakes and cookies at fire- sale prices. My heart aches for the desperate person who would look for street love at a time like this. The woman wears an ill- fitting blond wig and enough eye shadow to win RuPaul’s Drag Race, but this woman is achingly familiar. She pulls off the shield that had been covering her face.
“Dell?” I ask. “What are you doing here dressed like that?”
“Me?” She pushes my hoodie back and wipes sweat from my forehead with a soft towel she takes from her pocket. “You’re the one wearing a hoodie and jeans in the French Quarter. You hate hoodies. You hate jeans. You hate the French Quarter. James, you have a lot of explaining to do.”
We tell each other the truth. Her end of it is that the oil company lost a government subsidy. In retaliation, they laid off the youngest, blackest, and, in this case, most female of their employees.
“So, you’ve been selling yourself?” I ask.
“Not in the traditional sense. No.” She explains that she never has sex with the men or even undresses. To the contrary, she merely escorts them to a room, quickly dons a gas mask with a portable ventilator— like the face shield, borrowed equipment from her old job— and knocks her quarry out with a puff of neurogenic general anesthetic. You know, sleeping gas.
“I know what neurogenic means,” I say.
“Actually”— she removes her wig— “it’s more of a tri-halomethane solution of my own synthesis. Perfectly safe and very effective— ” I place a finger over her lip.
“You did all of this,” I ask, “to keep us from getting kicked out?”
Dell pulls a stack of crisp bills from her very large patent pleather purse. I unfurl my crumpled catch.
Dell counts the gathered money. We’re close to our goal. She smiles.
“How did you know it was me you were saving?” I ask.
“What a preposterous question, darling,” she says. “I’d know you anywhere.”
Horse hooves tromp near the alley entrance.
I motion for Dell to get behind me and wait in the shadows. If the horseman is back, I’ll give myself up rather than let us both be arrested. I wouldn’t want her to wind up in confinement with people like us.
I peek through the wooden fence slats, but don’t find my pursuer. A horse-drawn carriage rolls past, but no sightseers warm its benches. My bedsheet drags behind, a carcass black with the grime of my city.
Dell and I squeeze out of the alley, her hand in mine. Sirens wail from the direction of the river, and blueberry lights flash across nearby rooftops. No doubt the horseman called reinforcements. Best to skedaddle while we can.
We altered our appearances as best we could. I trashed my hoodie in favor of the cream-colored polo shirt beneath. She stowed the wig and covered her mostly see-through costume with a wrinkled three-quarter-sleeve dress that had been wedged inside her bag. We look more or less like ourselves—a well-educated couple closing out an uneventful night on the town—or at least a harried approximation thereof.
We make the northern edge of the Quarter in no time, especially impressive as Dell wears platform heels, which she commands without incident. I’ve only known her to wear low heels. Who is this woman? I’m hardly one to buy into patriarchal notions of feminine scrumptiousness, but the heels create quite a spectacle of her long legs. I do think I’ll lobby for her to keep the heels once we put this strange business behind us.
We cross Basin Street, a tranquil lane where defunct railroad lines are still visible, northbound tracks breaching the pavement like metallic tree roots. A police helicopter, its searchlight a probing finger, slides into the area we just left. Dell clutches my hand. We trot even faster.
“Let’s stop here,” Dell says. “My feet are dead.” We remove our face coverings. She sits on a bench next to a parking lot.
“Fine,” I say. “Where is the car anyway?”
“The car?” She reaches into her bag, swapping the heels for flats.
“Yes. Our car.” We own a jalopy. Both of us are terrified of debt, so we kept the car her parents gifted us when we married. It’s antique, an egg-shaped electric-gas hybrid with leaky door seals, but it’s ours.
“Why didn’t you tell me that you’d resorted to psychological mugging?”
“Me?” I say. “Why didn’t you tell me you were performing a Black Widow routine?”
“James Young, don’t you dare change the subject. Caginess doesn’t suit you.”
I was going to object, but instead I grab her hands and hold them.
“I wanted to tell you everything but— it’s just that you’re such a good woman. You’re so brilliant and beautiful and hardworking and beautiful. Sometimes I feel like I don’t measure up. I wanted to get this one thing right for you.”
Dell reaches over and grabs my chin. I lean into her and kiss her delicate lips. We pull apart. My mouth is hot, as if Cupid whacked me across my face with his bow.
“About the car,” she says. “I sold it.”
“You what?” I pull away.
“Earlier this evening. You see, I only stole from the one man I mentioned.”
“But I’ve noticed you doing your face up for weeks.”
“That was just preparation. You know I’m a planner, darling. I wanted to perfect my look. But frankly the idea of doing that more than once is terrifying.”
A young, maskless couple saunters our way. It’s clear that they’ve had too much to drink as they stumble like nectar-drunk honeybees. Sometimes life throws you an undeserved bone. Yes, I’m ready to put my unsavory enterprise in the rearview, but our rent remains due in just a few hours, and we’re still short of our goal.
“How much more did you say we still need?” I ask. She tells me and does a double take from me to the couple who are getting quite close. They’re a good-looking twosome in scarves, tall and towheaded like models in a Swedish travel brochure.
“Oh no, darling,” Dell says. “No more. We’re not doing that.” The couple walks by. I don’t want them to get away.
I grab Dell’s upper arm. “We don’t have a choice.”
“Who does?” the woman of the couple asks.
Nestled in the folds of the man’s cozy peacoat, the dark nub of a gun muzzle aims at my stomach. We’re about to get mugged.
“ ‘O dreams, my dreams, where is your sweetness?’ ” I say, under my breath.
“This is no time for Pushkin,” Dell says.
“We don’t want no trouble, O. J.,” the blond woman says.
Downrange, helicopter blades echo through the alleys and courtyards of the Quarter. Above, clouds collide and intermix, inkblots for my analysis, a purling moth, waltzing lovers, a beast with no name. Dell and I raise our hands in surrender.
About the Author
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, a New York Times Editor’s Choice that was also longlisted for the Story Prize. His first book, We Cast a Shadow, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the PEN America Open Book Prize. Ruffin is the winner of several literary prizes, including the Iowa Review Award in fiction. A New Orleans native, Ruffin is a professor of Creative Writing at Louisiana State University, and the 2020-2021 John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.
Published in the THE ONES WHO DON’T SAY THEY LOVE YOU, in 2021 by One World, an imprint of Random House.
Written by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Performed by Allan Thomas
Directed by Adetola Abdulkadir
Sound design by Alicia Qian
Illustration by Anthony Santagati
Executive Producers: Dawnie Walton and Mark Armstrong
Distributed by Lit Hub Radio