Ms. Ann’s Garden
Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Something bleats in the back yard. I part the blind just so. A man, an African American man with a trumpet, in our yard. He plays a scale of blue notes, tarot cards flopped onto a table one at a time. This sort of thing never happened back in Brooklyn.

Our kitchen door is open. Only the screen separates me from him. In socks, I pad across the tiles to close the door, but the trumpeter is already there, Cheshire grinning, the bell of his instrument a perfect, shining circle. Our Felix the Cat clock flip-flaps its tail across the wall. I wish I had something to drink.

I should slam the door shut. Who could blame me? A woman alone. Dylan won’t be home from the co-op grocery for hours. And too, our new neighborhood here in New Orleans is no laughing matter, what with all the stabbings, muggings, and unregulated fuckery. We almost joined the Peace Corps, would have been stationed in Sierra Leone, but statistically this place is more dangerous. It’s why we came.

There’s a short run of steps to the door. The trumpeter is at the bottom, but he climbs, taking his time about it—one two three four—and stops, his wide nose mashed against our screen. He says good morning and asks my name. I tell him.

“Ms. Ann,” he says, “it was awful bad manners of me to up and wander back this way like that, but you see, I was just round the corner, and I grew up here and there weren’t no fences around everything back in the day, and I s‘pose I wasn’t thinking straight. Nice plants, baby.”

“What plants?” I ask. The trumpeter points into the yard. Oh, the kale and heirloom tomatoes? Not mine, not really, I say. I never go back there. Dylan’s job has organic veggies, but why haul them ten blocks home when we can grow our own? Hyperlocality, Dylan calls it. A sustainable, low-impact way to prove that we’re good people to other people trying to prove the same.

The trumpeter disappears into the yard. I follow him, feeling dew seep into my socks. I wonder if this is how I’m meant to die, whacked over the skull by a homeless heroin addict with a very shiny trumpet. Mom will be so pissed that I’m not wearing clean underwear, so at least I have that going for me.

He tugs his baggy surplus army pants up, but he’s not wearing a belt, so they fall down again. Says his name is Louis. Dylan has a similar pair of camos that he dyed all black to protest the killing of some activist in the Balkans, Belize, or Beaumont, whatever.

“I’m not much of a gardener,” I say, “I have kind of a black thumb.” I cover my mouth. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

He smirks, his eyebrows a tilde, and strokes the bell of his instrument, reassuring it. I’ve never seen anything so polished.

“I ain’t much of a plant person neither,” he says.

“Are you hungry?”

Louis’ mouth twitches. “Is that a question?”

I tell Louis to hold on. There’s a box of two-day-old Popeye’s chicken in the fridge. It’s bad for my complexion, but I bet Louis would just die for some, so just hold on right there. He nods.

That afternoon, Dylan comes home from work. We eat takeout from the vegan soul food restaurant up the avenue. The chef is from San Francisco. His food is extremely next.

Dylan is washing kale at the sink when he freezes.

“Hey, there’s a black dude snoozing on my quinoa.”

“You mean African American,” I say. “That’s just Louis.”

Dylan wipes his hands on his work apron, leaving tea-colored streaks.

“He can’t sleep there,” Dylan says. I ask why not. Dylan doesn’t have an answer, but says he’s going to call the cops. I know it’s puffery. Dylan hates the authorities because they’re pawns of the capitalist machinery and a runaway-train Fourth Estate, the rampant Justin Bieberization of America.

That night, we have non-friends over. You know non-friends. People who don’t know your favorite color or give an actual shit about you or even know your real name. They keep calling me Charlotte. Mostly, they’re boys from Austin. One plays the bouzouki in Jackson Square for McMuffins. Another is a master origamist. We’re drinking bootleg absinthe and snorting things from piles when a melody skunks in from the back yard. I want to go outside and ask Louis the name of it because I’m really starting to like him and the deep sense of meaning he’s brought to my life over the course of the past ten hours, but Dylan and the non-friends wander outside first. We’re wasted. I think maybe one of the piles came from an urn. Does it matter?

Dylan asks Louis to play a song, but every time Louis brings the mouthpiece up someone else makes a request. Bouzouki asks if Louis knows any Neutral Milk Hotel.

“Let me play it,” Dylan says, but Louis clutches the trumpet to his stomach. I suddenly notice the stars reflecting all along the complicated brass, a puzzle of lights.

“Dude, don’t be a prick,” the origamist says, cutting and twisting a paper bag scrap into a gardenia or a merkin. It’s too early to tell.

“Guys, just leave him and the trumpet alone,” I say. Dylan and the non-friends just blink at me.

Dylan tells Louis that this is his fucking yard, and if Louis is going to squat in it he had better damn well hand over that fucking trumpet. Shoving and loud words. I stumble inside, snorting urn powder from my hair.

Enjoying a tingle at the base of my skull, I call the police.

Next morning, Dylan is writing a manifesto in calligraphy on antique parchment. Louis is gone, but the trumpet dangles from our evergreen. I go and yank the trumpet down. The bell is warped, not a perfect circle anymore. I wipe the mouthpiece with my wool poet’s sleeve, but it smells God awful. Ugh. Blood. We have so many receptacles. A compost bin. A cistern for rain water. A hemp oil barrel. Dylan wants to convert his hearse to run on the stuff, once he learns how to use a screwdriver.

We also have an oversized garbage can for things we can’t recycle. I thought Louis would be fun to have, but he was such a drag, apparently. I bring the trumpet to my lips to play something nice—this one time I played “Greensleeves” on Nana’s piano. I blow. But nothing comes out except air.

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance and the Melanated Writers Collective. His work has appeared in Redivider, Apalachee Review, and Unfathomable City: a New Orleans Atlas edited by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedecker. He is the winner of the 2014 Iowa Review Fiction Award, the 2014 So to Speak Short Story Award and the 2014 William Faulkner–William Wisdom Competition for Novel in Progress. He loves peanut butter and jelly; loud, but pretty music; and everything that Oscar Wilde ever said. Recent publications: Callaloo, The Massachusetts Review, Cicada, and forthcoming in The Kenyon Review and The Pinch.