The morning sun bleeds through the threadbare curtain. It takes on some of the red dye in the fabric, so that instead of being the cold purple of an early dawn the sunlight is faded burgundy in color. If the sole occupant inside of that bedroom had been a decade older, then the color would have been reminiscent of the sick, clammy, reddish skin a drunk has when suffering from an especially awful hangover. If the sole occupant had been six or seven decades older, then the same color would have been reminiscent of the sick, clammy, reddish pee a person leaks when they have inoperable cancer. But that sole occupant is much too young to make such mental connections. For her, the color suggests a grape flavored lollipop that has been sucked about midway to the core.
The eight-year-old girl sits up in her bed. Actually, it is not her bed. It is the bed in which Grace Temple had dreamt, until her husband had escorted her out from her mother’s finishing school and into his social ambitions. To be sure, she knows nothing of finishing schools and social ambitions, though if she had a bit more wisdom with which to interpret what she has seen with her discerning eye over the last few years, she would have realized that her father’s fall from grace may be attributed to both. But, again, as with that sick burgundy color in the sunlight, she cannot make that mental connection. She just knows that this is not her bed and that there is something particularly sad about this bedroom, a despair that has been lingering there a long time, a memory that cannot take on the color and the shape of an actual vision from the past, but that manages, nevertheless, to drape over everything, like a waterlogged and pungent shroud.
The girl slips out of bed, and walks to the dresser. There are two framed photographs on the dresser. She can identify one of the two photographs, even though that old, delicate lady wrapped in a mink scarf and smoking a cigarette holder died long before she had been born. It is Grandma Alice; and for as long as she can remember, father has told her stories about her. All of those stories take place in the dark sitting room downstairs. None of them are happy stories. They are more like sad ghost stories; but she is drawn to them whenever father is in the mood, like she imagines other children her age are drawn out from the shadows to the crackle of a campfire to hear a grownup tell them all about the walking dead. In stories, the dead seem more alive than when they are alive. It is a mystery that she is young enough to take at face value; and so, for her, the old, delicate, redheaded woman with the frowning eyes is as close to her as all those other imaginary friends with whom she sings soft lullabies at night.
She cannot identify the girl in the other framed photograph. In fact, it is Grace Temple on the eve of her wedding day. Grace is not beautiful so much as strikingly pretty; in many ways, a nineteen-year-old going on nine; an innocent except for the mischief barely concealed in her eyes. This is the final time that Grace will be a girl under her mother’s thumb. It is not surprising, then, that in all the years to follow that is the photograph that Alice Hart would keep within her daughter’s old bedroom. In Alice Hart’s mind, most everything that follows is best forgotten, or remembered differently than it had been in reality, and so not to be preserved like all those other museum pieces within that tired house.
For the eight-year-old girl staring forlornly into the eyes of the strikingly pretty redhead, there is a deep sense that she knows that person, even though she could not say the person’s name if her sad life depended on it. There is the name; the life story; the relationships with other people, some still alive, most long gone; but then, there is that unspeakable knowledge that can only suggest the meeting of souls. No, meeting is not the right word, though it is close. It is better to speak of the sharing of souls as in the images in two reflecting mirrors jumping out from their respective mirrors to inhabit the space of the other. For a grownup (especially one with lots of grownup wisdom in his or her noggin), all such talk of sharing souls, of images crossing back and forth between reflecting mirrors, smacks of the kind of surreal fantasy that could land someone into the psycho ward for seventy-two hours; but in the mind of the little girl here, there is not enough wisdom to get in the way of truth. She is unschooled in the Bible; but if she had had even a cursory knowledge, then she would have agreed with Luke 18:17 (‘Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein’).
There is a hairbrush beside the framed photographs. The girl combs back her long, wavy, red strands with as much care as she would her doll back at the trailer. She misses her Princess Ariel. She and her father had rushed out of that trailer so fast the last time she did not have any chance to retrieve her favorite from inside her basket.
She did not have any chance to grab her knapsack, either. She therefore wears the same nightshirt she wore then. It is a faded pink piece with the word princess written in cursive across her flat chest.
It takes a while, but eventually she tires of combing her hair. That sickly burgundy sunlight has transitioned into a softer, pinkish blue. In a few minutes, she will be able to pull the curtain aside and to observe the sun poking up from behind the eastern horizon.
Everything will heat up very quickly after that. It will seem like a degree for each passing minute of time.
Then, about when she starts to sweat stains into her nightshirt, that bad smell will return with a vengeance. The night covers over that stench, or so she tells herself, though in fact the stench is there even then gnawing at the edges of her restless dreams. But when the sun rises, and the temperature ascends to the triple digits, there is no way to deny the obscene blend of foul meat, dried feces (grainy and organic in texture), and spent blood (coppery taste within the mouth that, when indulged too long, induces a nauseous gag reflex). It is so big and thick in the air as to be akin to a syrupy blob crawling up the staircase and slurping through the narrow space beneath her shut door. It is a disservice truly to call it a smell. Better to think of it as a sticky mask pasted over her face and contorting her features into the semblance of a ghoul.
It has been five nights since father hugged her the last time. He had had a haunted look in his eyes. She could tell that he had wanted to cry, but simply could not do so any more. All the tears had been spent along with that stash of money he had kept in his suitcase and that booze he had cradled in his arms. In the end, there had been nothing left, but his weak hug and his blank stare into that nothingness waiting for him one step beyond the last door.
He had told her to go into Grandma Alice’s kitchen and to take out from her old fashioned, humming refrigerator as much food as she could handle. Just grab, and go upstairs to your room, he had instructed in that distant voice that had become his new normal in the last few months.
She did what she was told; but before she left the sitting room, she took one more look at the man who had been everything to her. He was an old man; white haired; pudgy in the midsection; shoulders stooped; glassy eyed, like the punch-drunk prizefighter leaning against the bottom rope, and staring up at the referee who is counting up to ten. He was a defeated man, rendered dumb and distant by his losses, no more fights left within him than would be on display in a rabbit ripped open and left to die a slow and agonizing death beneath the hot sun. He could do no more then than to slump onto that tall chair that had been Alice Hart’s way back when, and to twirl his pistol about his right, index finger.
Later that same night, while she had been munching on handfuls of Fruit Loops, the single gunshot had erupted from everywhere at once. It had seemed to be as much inside her head as downstairs. There had been a creepy, slurping sound, like mouthwash gurgled and then allowed to slither out of the corners of a dead mouth; the sound of a dull object striking the carpet; and then nothing, but absolute, breathing, deafening silence.
She did not do anything then, but get out of bed and make sure that her bedroom door was locked. She did not need to pull the curtain closed, as it had been closed long before she had stepped foot into this dark and brooding room.
It turns out she had had several days worth of food; but by yesterday, as the gross smell had turned instantly from vague and discomforting to nauseous, she had run out of supplies. She needed to go back down to the refrigerator but of course could not stomach the smell. She decided instead to starve last night.
Now, her stomach is growling as an untamed monster. She is lightheaded and sweaty. No matter her discomfort, she will need to venture downstairs.
She braces herself for the effort. She wishes Princess Ariel could be here to remind her just what she can do with all that ‘girl power’ deep inside of her.
But Princess Ariel is back at that trailer, and so she must do this herself.
She walks to the bedroom door, hesitates a moment longer, and opens it on its creaky hinge. That awful smell from downstairs snaps her so hard at once that her head lashes back, and she staggers backward. She clenches her mouth and nose, until a wave of nausea slowly, but finally, passes out from her bowels and head. She holds herself up on the dresser, panting like a dog that had been kicked in its stomach, and tasting that blend of shit and blood on her dried lips.
Her instinct is to slam the door shut, but she fights it off. She is starving, delirious in fear and in exhaustion, and sensing vaguely that if she were to shut her bedroom door she would be gripped by a bout of claustrophobia even worse than the fleshy odor. The bedroom walls literally will fall in on her, if she does not do what she knows she must. This is not a new feeling for her. Indeed, in so many circumstances over the years of running with her father, of sneaking from a motel room in the dead of night, of grabbing whatever they needed to live as the owner of the goods happened to look elsewhere a split second, she has had to learn well a lesson many grownups only start to grasp; and that is that every life is lived in the jungle, notwithstanding the suggestions of civilization here or there. The jungle lives. It swallows everyone whole, so that even if a desperate man and his daughter were to burrow into a bush somewhere, and to try to tell themselves that the predators have been kept at bay for a while, that jungle is able still to creep in at any time. Their hiding place can turn into their tomb as assuredly as the lining of a stomach can wrap about a few morsels of swallowed food and squeeze out whatever nutrients may be found, leaving behind nothing but dead matter ripe to be excreted, absorbing into itself the final hints of life.
And so as soon as she feels strong enough to do so, she digs her chin into her neck, shuts her eyes to avoid the sight of that terrible smell, and scampers down the staircase. She is running scared and blind in an unfamiliar place; and, even more so, into a beast reeking of death and despair; and so, caught up in a spasm of fear, she misjudges her next downward step, even though of course it is no different than the others. She stumbles forward, reaches forward to break her fall, and tumbles onto the unforgiving floor of the foyer.
She desires to cry out in agonizing pain, but she holds back that impulse.
A good girl does not cry, her father had told her, while shedding his own sad tears, and wiping his flush cheeks with his red wine bottle. She sizes up the situation, that’s what she does. Looks for an opportunity. Keeps her mouth shut until the poor sap gets too close to her. Then, she pounces like a tiger, and she rolls him all around, and does not even leave enough of him behind for the ants to scavenge. Mark my words. A good girl knows she’s stronger than any man out there, ‘cause she is not held back by decency. And even when she cries out like a girl, it is all for show, ‘cause every last one of her tears is cold and heartless. Cold and heartless, do you mind me? No soul in her tears. Nothing decent inside them, believe me. So don’t cry. Or if you do cry, then make sure it is to gain an advantage over an old hairy butt out there. Make sure those damn tears count…
For her father, everything had to count. All his life he had imagined that there is a ledger sheet inside Grandma Alice’s sitting room; a yellowed piece of paper that that miserly, old woman with the cigarette cough studied, while she hunched forward on her favorite tall chair and puffed ravenously upon her long cigarette holder; an infinity symbol drawn on the ‘liability’ side. He had to add whatever he could to the ‘asset’ side. He had to make sure that, whatever may have been his tall tale or his scheme at the moment, the end result counted, so that Grandma Alice may see fit to pick up that quill pen of hers, to dip its point into the ink that she keeps on her armrest beside her ashtray, and to add a tiny vertical line next to the others on the ‘asset’ side.
Of course, nothing that he did ever would count enough. He is a man. He is decent, civilized, a moral soul in an amoral jungle world. He is not truly cold and heartless, at least not all that much, nothing like what he had observed all those years inside of Grandma Alice’s vicious stare, not even what he had seen, more times than he wants to admit, when he had looked longingly into the eyes of a common whore and had hoped that, maybe this one time, she would ravish him because she truly wanted to do so and not because he had paid her madam up front. No, the score does not matter, ‘cause in the end he will be behind all of them, and his asset will be no closer to surpassing his liability, than if he had just remained with his Grandma Alice, and had taken care of her in her dotage.
Well, that ledger sheet in his imagination had been his cross to bear. He had had to endure it, like a heavy beam tied to the back of his neck that stoops his shoulders forward and casts his eyes to the floor. His daughter knew nothing of assets and liabilities; but she had seen his labored walk, had heard his bones crackling when he stood up, and had curled into his side when he had been too far gone in his wine to stand up and to walk any further for the rest of the day.
And when he had turned to her, and had said that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, and then had poured gasoline all over the living room and the kitchen of the house into which she had been born, she had done what just had to be done, when he could go no further. He had finished with the gasoline and had retired to his old Thunderbird. He kept a bottle handy beneath the driver’s seat. He checked the glove compartment and saw that there was a pistol and a matchbook. He opened the bottle, and took a swig that dribbled onto his black, collared shirt and black trousers. He turned to his daughter, who sat beside him and tried to avoid this whole sad situation by fixating her sad eyes upon the red headed Princess Ariel doll in her lap. He forgot who the hell she was; and then, in a moment of lucidness that scared the living fire out of him, he recalled who she was and, more importantly, why she was here with him in this dark vehicle.
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, he said, while wiping the warm wine from his thick chin. It’s how a man pays his debts. It’s how a man provides for his little girl, so she can talk nonsense to her doll, while he’s out busting his ass for a living. Do you mind me, girl? A man’s gotta do it. He’s just gotta do it.
He removed the matchbook from the glove compartment, struck a match against the dashboard, and held the flame up high, like it was a sacred torch in the hand of a priest in a chasuble.
Take it, girl, he said slowly and carefully. Just do it. A man’s gotta do it.
She looked at the fiery match, and shed a solitary tear that ran long and thin down her left cheek. She had loved that house. She had held her mama for the last time inside of its walls.
A good girl does not cry, he blubbered.
No, she does not, and so she wiped away her tear, and took that match.
She opened the passenger door. She cradled Princess Ariel in one arm, as she took that match with her opposite hand. She stepped into the starless night that stretched out from her broken heart in every direction.
She had observed from a distance as her father had poured out a trail of gasoline from the front door (now creaking open and shut in the summer winds) and had finished off the last of it in a puddle about ten feet or so in front of his headlights. She had celebrated her sixth birthday only a few weeks prior, but it would not have mattered if she was only four or two. She would have known all the same what to do. She had been born with that much wisdom at least about the ways of this cold and heartless world.
She sang the only song she knew, while walking heavily to that puddle of gasoline on the unpaved driveway. Princess Ariel sang with her; and thank God, though she did not really think that there was a God, because she did not have a good enough voice to do the song justice on her own, or so she believed then.
On the Good Ship Lollipop
It’s a sweet trip to the candy shop
Where bon-bon’s play
On the summer beach of peppermint bay
She squatted beside the puddle, finished what she knew of the song, and then tossed in the match. A sparkling, blue flame erupted, like a geyser from a dark corner of hell bursting through a crack in the earth. It mesmerized her one moment, and then pushed her back onto her small butt the next. It snaked fast and furious atop the gasoline trail. It entered the house through the front door.
The explosion that followed a few seconds later had been so intense that it had knocked her unconscious even before the back of her small head had hit the hood of the Thunderbird. Her guardian angel (no doubt, in the guise of that unflappable Princess Ariel) must have been on the scene that night, as she had experienced no more injury to the back of her small head than an awful bruise.
Her father had made out like a bandit with the insurance company, even though some persnickety, four-eyed, kike (as father referred to him, whenever he had had too much to drink, which was pretty much all the time) working for the insurance investigation department had pointed out what looked like a trail of fire from the driveway to the front door in the police photographs. All father had had to do was to promise the district attorney half of his insurance payout; and, lo and behold, the county had determined there was no evidence of arson.
From then until shortly before he put a bullet in his mouth, father kept a suitcase with cash. He never paid off his debts (even though, supposedly, that’s what a man’s gotta do). Instead, he used much of the windfall ‘to let it ride’ at the racetrack, and ‘to go the distance’ at the backroom poker tables, until that suitcase with cash had been replaced by a bounty on his head.
And through it all, his daughter never shed a tear, but for the one before tossing the flame to the house that she had called home.
She pushes herself up from the floor. The sitting room door to her left is shut. It is draped by a shadow and reminds her of the time her father had taken her to a cemetery and pointed out the door to a crypt.
She takes a few feeble steps toward the sitting room door, but the smell there is so intense it blinds her momentarily. She gasps, shuffles back, and runs into the kitchen.
The old refrigerator is not humming, like the last time she had opened it to grab food. It is dark and lukewarm.
And when she opens it, the smell inside is almost as bad as what is inside the sitting room. Her eyes sting, and she clenches them shut; but the tears roll down her cheeks, anyway. Yes, good girls do not cry; but this little girl is a few steps beyond starving, and now confronted with the hopelessness of her ordeal.
She sits at the kitchen table, covers her face, and cries without restraint this time. Her father would whoop her, if he knew; but he does not know. He is never going to know, because he is dead. She cries for her own ordeal, but she cries even more so for the sheer finality of his death; not just that he is forever gone; but that he is gone is a way that cannot be undone by ‘letting it ride’ at a racetrack somewhere, or ‘going the distance’ in a backroom poker game. This death is not the kind that her father can turn around by perpetrating some sort of fraud or scam. And even if the man who is looking for her father; the man he had referred to as the Boss Man, because the Boss Man is the machine that they hire to correct those person who run off from the plantation and leave their old and unpaid debts behind them; the man he had feared in his inebriated dreams as much as in his waking hours, because the Boss Man reminds every lame piece of shit in reach of his baton that they may be running free just now, but that in fact they’re just ‘uppity niggers’ in the eyes of their creditors; even if this man were to kidnap her, and to do unspeakable grownup things to her in retribution for her father getting away, her father would be dead still. The debt would not be satisfied even then. The cosmic scales (not up in the sky, in her imagination, but dangling by a chain from the Boss Man’s belt beside his thick, blood soaked baton) would remain tilted against her father. In this scenario, her father is the gruesome and pungent corpse still, and she has been hurt in a way that she will not even begin to understand, and yet even after all that sorrow and pain spent they would have every right to order the Boss Man to press the heel of his shiny jackboot upon whatever remains of her dead father’s mangled flesh and bones.
She keeps her eyes closed in her arms, but she sees in full color the heel of the shiny jackboot squishing blood out of dead flesh. She imagines that there is enough blood in there to fill a lake, because the blood flow seems endless, as the dark heel presses deeper and deeper into the rotten pumpkin flesh beneath it. This is a grownup thought; and if Princess Ariel were here, then the two girls together would be able to toss it aside in favor of something nicer, and more so safer. But Princess Ariel is not here. Princess Ariel is gone, probably as gone for good as her father is; probably stinking up their trailer as much as her father is stinking up Grandma Alice’s house; and so she is left with no recourse from the dark and shiny jackboot inside her head.
The kitchen telephone rings. It is loud. It startles her up from her morbid daydream. She lifts her face from her arms, and looks blankly at the telephone.
It is an old rotary telephone mounted on the wall near the kitchen door.
She has never seen an old rotary telephone, let alone one mounted on a wall, and creating a sound that calls to mind a Salvation Army Santa Claus, who is ringing a hand held bell in front of a supermarket. She is not really sure what it is. She is not really sure what she should do, if anything. If it is a strange, old telephone, then she should not answer it, because her father had told her more than once never to answer the telephone.
But her father had told her that good girls do not cry, and she has been a bawl baby for several minutes now. And did he whoop her? Did he even lift that big butt of his from his death chair to tell her to knock it off, or else he is going to grab his belt and to give her a real reason to cry? No, he did nothing, except continue to stink up the house, maybe even slink a bit further down the back of his death chair as the rotting flesh stuck to the chair fabric falls away. So what is he going to do, if she answers what she senses may be a ringing telephone?
She answers the telephone on the sixth ring. Of course, she cannot know it, but there never would have been a seventh ring; and, more so, the lady who had been calling Grandma Alice’s house off and on for the last few days had all but made up her mind not to try again, if no one answered this time. Clearly, if her brother-in-law does not answer the telephone even now, then he has taken his daughter to some other safe house.
Horace, thank God you finally answered, the lady on the other end slurs breathlessly. I was starting to wonder…
It’s me, Aunt Mavis, the little girl responds with measured relief.
Shirley, Mavis says with surprise. You answered the phone…
Daddy is dead, Shirley remarks coldly, and then starts to cry again.
There is silence on the other end for some time. Then, the faint sound of sniffles, as Mavis apparently joins in on the cry a while.
So he really did it this time, Mavis mutters. That selfish son of a bitch…
Daddy stinks, Shirley offers, when finally she is able to get some control over her emotions. And I’m hungry.
Mavis chuckles. It is a sad and teary-eyed laugh, much more the sound of relief, than of humor. She is so glad to hear this little girl talk, as if a little girl.
I’m going to come for you, Mavis says. I’ll stop at McDonald’s on the road and get you your favorite.
With that fleshy shit smell everywhere, Mavis almost vomits at the image of a Happy Meal cheeseburger with two pickles and ketchup. Nonetheless, over the past few years of being on the run with her shitfaced father, she has had to learn a lesson or two about being grateful for the charity of others; and so, she does not say anything, except for a whispered thank you.
You just hang in there, kiddo, Mavis says with as much feigned happiness as she can muster. It’ll take me about three hours, but I’m coming. I promise.
I know, Shirley says so softly that she is almost inaudible.
They hang up without saying ‘goodbye’ to one another. It is just as well, at least for Shirley. She has had her fair share of ‘goodbyes,’ indeed, she thinks deep down inside, more than her fair share, beginning with the night her father held her up so that she could look into her mother’s face one more time before the doctor pulled the plug. She was not yet four, and so her memory consists of just a few vague images, probably more fantasy that she has conjured up since then than real memory she somehow has retained. No matter, really, as it is all very real to her: the ashen color of her mother’s big cheeks; the cold deadness in her open, but comatose, eyes; the way her lips twitched, like she was inside some sort of nightmare from which she would never awaken; the nurses outside the hospital room door who had whispered that this is what happens to a whore who cheats her pimp and that their upstanding Catholic hospital has seen more than its fair share of these whores over the years. She could not understand the nurses comments then. She does not really understand them now. Still, she has held onto those cruel words, as if they had been chiseled into her mother’s old, run down tombstone for all the world to see.
None of the ‘goodbyes’ since that night have been as harsh, not because they have been any less final, but because they have been so hurried: a parting glimpse of a neighbor, as she and her father are running out from their lease in the dead of night; a disapproving look on the face of that store manager, when he tells her father that he can no longer extend him credit and that he will not be welcomed in the future; a conniving bitch smile on the face of father’s final ‘play time lady,’ when she waits for father to pass out on the trailer couch and then digs into his wallet to find what goodies he may have. Moving on from one relationship to the next in about as much time as it takes to snap middle finger and thumb together, like nothing is rooted deep enough that a small tremor, or even a bare whisper of a breeze, cannot shake down to the dead sand. None of these subsequent ‘goodbyes’ have been as harsh, that is true; but she suspects it is because she has grown used to being on the run. Coming and going, fleeing at the drop of a hat, avoiding the glances of those whom she had once thought of as friends, this is what it means to survive. And unlike the pungent corpse in the sitting room; the body rot that is less her father with every passing second, and more a thing that will spread its stink to the ends of the earth and beyond, if it is not buried; she is a survivor, starving, beaten, afraid, but still a survivor.
And then, there is this latest ordeal: the gunshot five nights before, that creepy, slurping sound, that dull object striking the carpet, that smell that just clings to her skin like a sticky veil. It should be the most recent in a long string of ‘goodbyes,’ but it is not, because she is still mired in it, like being stuck in a lake, surrounded on every side by sand and muck, and sinking into a deep crack in the ground. Strange that she should imagine it in this way, because she does not recall ever being in a lake before; but, nevertheless, this image seems now to be as real and as visceral as the stagnant and pungent air she is breathing. It is so real; and in a life of ‘goodbyes,’ it is the one reality she cannot put away.
* * *
More than six hours pass before Shirley sees her aunt’s classic, dark red, ’66 Mustang turn into the driveway. She has been peeking out from behind the living room curtain the whole time, holding her breath every time she hears an automobile motoring slowly down the sleepy, suburban street, otherwise trying to focus on anything outside (a bird chirping on a tree limb; a red ball bouncing down the street, then followed several seconds later by a clean cut boy around her same age; a young mother pushing a baby stroller down the sidewalk, while reading the latest edition of the National Enquirer) that may take her mind off of that awful death smell. For the most part, the diversions work; and yet, now and then, she suffers a gag reflex. At one point, she even makes a mad dash to the ground floor bathroom, lest she vomit all over the faded living room carpet and add that sick smell to the noxious blend of flesh rot and shit already there.
Nevertheless, all that nausea goes by the wayside the moment she views the ’66 Mustang. She watches with bated breath, as a pair of long legs in black nylons steps out from the cabin. Above those model legs is a red mini-skirt with ruffles that calls to mind a Sexy Mrs. Santa Claus. The elevated bust, the garish makeup, the long eyelashes, and the tussled, blond hair suggest a cheap hooker or a lounge singer. She looks like Gennifer Flowers in her heyday. She swings an oversized McDonald’s bag from her right, gloved hand.
Mavis waddles on her high heels up to the front door. Before she can ring the doorbell, Shirley opens the door and looks up at her with her big, sad eyes. Mavis looks down, studies those sad eyes a moment, and then breaks into tears.
Shirley, I am so sorry, Mavis says, while stepping into the foyer.
Shirley closes the door behind her. She wipes away her own tear.
You look so hungry, little one, Mavis continues. You should have a bite…
And then she stops midsentence. She wiggles her nose, as if a deranged, orgasmic rabbit. Her skin and lips turn pale white. Her forehead gives way to a fleshy billboard of cold sweat. She looks as if she is about to faint from the flu, and it is only by her sheer will that she continues to stand upright and unafraid.
Daddy stinks, Shirley says, while staring at her toes and blushing warmly.
Yes, well, why don’t we eat in the Mustang? Mavis asks after a while.
Shirley looks at the McDonald’s bag. She cannot smell the cheeseburger and fries on account of the overriding death smell. But the sight of grease upon the bag reminds her that she is hungry and that the riches inside can subdue it.
She opens the front door and follows Aunt Mavis to the Mustang. Outside it is much brighter and hotter than when peeking out from behind that curtain. It is as if everything that has occurred inside is a silly misdemeanor by contrast.
They sit inside the Mustang, roll down the windows, and dig into the bag like starving vultures swooping out from the clouds to the very same carcass on the road. Indeed, there is a road kill scent and feel to the Happy Meal, at least in Shirley’s mind, and perhaps even in Mavis’ mind as well. They are simply too near to the rotting flesh inside the house to put the thought aside, even though they cannot smell the decomposition on the driveway.
From now on, you’re going to live with me, Mavis says after a while. I am your godmother, beside your aunt, and I promised your mama I’d be your little, guardian angel, if ever things got too rough.
Things got too rough a long time ago. Where was Aunt Mavis when mama died? And where was Aunt Mavis all those times her father (never her papa, but her father, because Horace Temple, Jr. thought that papa sounded so informal as to be somehow emasculating) grabbed her by the hand and fled down a dark alleyway, or hurried out the back exit, or just cried all night on his old suitcase because he had lost so big at the racetrack or the poker game that the cash did not pad the lining like it had the day he collected from the insurance company?
Your Aunt Mavis is a woman, Horace had lamented once to his daughter in such a way as to make woman sound and feel like whore. You notice that she never comes around? Or if she does, she’s gotta split, like she’s got the runs, or something? I’ll tell you why. It’s ‘cause she’s a woman, a working girl, you see?
Shirley did not see, neither then, nor now. She liked Aunt Mavis, even if in the back of her mind she had decided that the blonde in the tight mini-skirts would never be as dependable as anyone else in this fly by night world.
Would you like that? Mavis asks, while chomping on a French fry.
Can’t live with father anymore, Shirley says dejectedly.
No, you can’t, honey, Mavis mutters, and then looks away from her.
They eat in silence together for a while. It is a terribly hot day; and even with the windows rolled open, they are lightheaded and sweaty from the waves of heat all about them. The only consolation is that they do not smell that dead flesh inside, though if this sick heat continues it will be only a matter of hours, surely no more than a day, before passersby smell something strange about the house that used to belong to Alice Hart but that has been sitting furnished and vacant, since the old lady with the mink furs and the cigarette holders gave up her Republican ghost to the eternal tax shelter in the sky.
What’s that song you used to sing all the time? Mavis asks with a big grin plastered upon her dolled up face. You know the one your father taught you…
On the Good Ship Lollipop, Shirley answers, while still staring at her lap.
Yes, yes, Mavis mutters, while looking off in the distance as if this is one of her own poignant memories.
Shirley tries to chew another French fry, but it has been slobbered gooey and gross by her tears. She drops it back into the paper cup.
Why do you think he taught you that song? Mavis asks.
I don’t know, Shirley says glumly, like she is saying, ‘It doesn’t matter.’
It matters, Mavis remarks with the kind of determined kindness that she supposes a grade school teacher would use if trying to help a student get over a particularly nasty arithmetic problem. Everything matters. It sure does. A good, pretty girl just like you sang that same song many years ago. Everyone believed she was just so pretty at that age. They did not want her to grow up; and even when she did, they preferred to think of her as if she had never learned what it was like to be with boys, or to walk around the world on her own, or to get into the kind of business a good girl should never get into. They kept her a little girl in their hearts and minds. And when she died at an old age, it was as if nobody even noticed, because as far as they were concerned she was still a little girl in a ruffled dress singing sweet nothings. That girl and you share something really special. Do you know what it is? Can you make a guess?
No, Shirley mutters, and gives up on the French fries altogether.
You are both named Shirley Temple, Mavis whispers like it is a secret.
Shirley looks straight into Mavis’ eyes. She is wide eyed, questioning, not sure if this is true, or if her aunt is pulling a con. She definitely desires for it to be true, though she is unable to articulate why that should even matter. Maybe she just wants to know that someone else out there knew what it was like to be alive in her skin; and if that other Shirley Temple could manage to keep a smile on her face, and to wear a ruffled dress, and to sing sweet nothings, then there is no reason why she cannot just as well. Maybe it is like looking into the mirror at the funhouse and seeing someone better in your reflection. Or maybe it is no more complex than just the idea of having a special sister, and not being alone.
Your father had the last name of a man who died before he was born and a mother who had abandoned him, Mavis continues. Think about that. The lady who actually took care of him, your Grandma Alice, never gave him a name, an identity. Instead, she put him through her finishing school, and taught him how to fetch things with just the right poise. He was like a temple with no markings on the outside, nothing to indicate what might be inside, do you see? And that can be very hard for any person, but most especially for a man. Who am I really in this big and confusing world of ours? Am I free to live out my life, or is some other person always calling the shots? He was rattling the cages, but he did not know if anyone else could hear that ruckus. He was shaking the earth, cracking it straight down the middle, but he did not know if anything ever tumbled from what he had done. You see he never could figure out if he was special. This was his problem from the very start. He did not want you to have the same problem as he had. He wanted you to know that you are special, that you are sweet and pretty, as if a little girl that never grows up. That is why he named you Shirley, and taught you that song, and did all that he could to preserve your innocence.
Shirley knows this is not true. Her father just did not do all that he could to preserve her innocence. He made her drop the match into the puddle of gas. He taught her how to look hungry and dejected, when he panhandled, and how to scream out in pain, when he pleaded for a quick, charitable donation to pay for her emergency appendectomy (she counts at least a dozen appendectomies over the past two years), and even how to wink at a john and to promise him a ‘cheap quickie’ (she never knew what that meant, and mercifully did not learn, since the second act in the con consisted of her father masquerading as a mean vice cop who was going to take the john downtown, if the john did not pay him off right then and there). Mostly, he exposed her to his drunken tirades (always had something nasty to say about Republicans and women, since both reminded him of Grandma Alice), his slurred profanities, his sleepwalking (clad in nothing but his vomit stained boxer shorts, and reeking of Jack Daniels and sweaty body odors, while muttering about this or that racetrack pony or card draw).
And yet Shirley does not think that Aunt Mavis is lying. She senses that in fact Aunt Mavis really believes this version of her father. She has heard various grownups indulge in fantasies as if they were true, especially if those grownups have been swimming in their bottles of wine for an hour or two. Maybe truth is as fly by night as everything else in the grownup world. If that is the case, then like the other Shirley Temple before her she will hold fast to whatever remains of her own innocence, because the alternative is the real confusion and despair that seem to prevail among those who have reached a double digit in their age.
What are we going to do with father? Shirley asks.
Mavis breaks out of her fantasy. She frowns. She had wanted to indulge a bit longer the fantasy of Horace Temple, Jr., protector of innocence, and long, lost love before her sister had entered into the picture and taken him from her.
Now, with that fantasy ripped apart by the mature question of a girl who should be much too young and innocent still to be asking mature questions, she only can imagine what he must look like inside that house. In the last few years of his life, he had greyed, stooped his shoulders, put on weight, in essence, the once charming, if morally bankrupt, playboy had started to look his senior age. She seldom showed up, because she did not want to be reminded constantly of his mortality, of what he had lost, and of where he was going with his gambling and his booze. She had never loved him. She had loved what he represented for her once upon a time, and with that long gone there was not much left for her.
And there is nothing left now, but rotting flesh that needs to be disposed one way or another, and this little girl who is not nearly as dumb and innocent, as she would have hoped. Mavis wants to cry. Even more so, she wants to leave this little girl behind and to return to her life of johns and pimps and corrupted vice cops. It is not much of a life, but she has figured out her small place inside of it; and that is much more than could have been stated of Horace Temple, Jr.
Still, she had made a promise to her sister, and she is a lady of her word.
We need to bury him, so that he can be at rest, Mavis answers.
Shirley looks down. She had hoped somehow that she could have avoided actually seeing his corpse. The noxious smell is enough. It clings to her, and she fears she will never wash it off. But must she also see just how ghastly he looks right now, how his flesh is falling off of him in shreds, how that final moment is still etched into his face, notwithstanding how his mouth is starting to peel off?
Come on, honey, Mavis says with a plastic smile.
Shirley sighs. She follows Mavis up to the front door.
The smell really is horrible, and in the heat of this afternoon it feels like it is bleeding through the closed front door and into the doormat. Very soon, no later than this evening at this rate, a casual passerby on the sidewalk will smell just enough to know that something is wrong with the Alice Hart residence. Oh, the first few may chalk it up to a sewage leak or a dead raccoon in the garage; but it just takes one nosy neighbor to get it in her head (and her is the correct pronoun, because even if a he suspects something more insidious than a sewage leak or a dead raccoon, he will not want to get involved with something that is clearly none of his business) to call the police, and it will be impossible for the two of them to sneak away unseen. The newspapers will print their names; the local eleven o’clock news will show their faces; even those judgmental cunts at Child Protective Services will insist that Shirley remain in their custody until an appropriate court of law has determined custody.
And all of that means that the Boss Man will know where he can begin to search for the daughter of the man he has been hunting for so long. If the loser with the suitcase of cash cannot be made to pay up anymore, then perhaps the daughter can be made to cough up something. If she has nothing at all for him, then what about that blond whore mentioned in the newspapers and shown on the television news? Apparently, she is looking out for the girl, even petitioning the court to be her guardian. Surely he can beat something out of her big head.
We don’t have time, Mavis says, when she hesitates at the front door.
We should leave, Shirley offers. I’m afraid.
I am too, honey, Mavis agrees. I am too.
And so with that fear hanging over their heads, the two of them abruptly turn on their heels, and return to the Mustang. Neither one of them looks again at the old house as Mavis roars out of the driveway and down the sleepy street.
As it turns out, no one notices the death smell until the next day. An old lady hobbling down the sidewalk catches the wind of something foul and makes a point of calling her grandson, who is also a police officer. Her grandson stops by later that day to take a sniff for himself. He knows what it is as soon as he is on the doorstep. He calls for backup. He also calls an ambulance and a coroner just to cover his bases, though he is certain that no one could be alive in there.
The face of the dead man in the sitting room is so mangled it looks like a pumpkin beat inward with a blunt instrument. At first glance, the cops believe that that is how the victim had been killed; but then they see the pistol on the carpet in between the victim’s shoes. They determine that he had been shot at an incredibly close range; a gunshot into the mouth that splattered the brain at once into something like spaghetti and pumpkin ooze; a backward splatter that filled the back of the skull with so much brain tissue as to collapse the old face inward and to stick the back of the skull into the chair. They could not remove the body without first chiseling the head out of that chair under the supervision of the coroner. One of the gory police photographs leaked to the news services and that in turn began a news sensation that would go on for the better part of a week. There was a second wave of news interest, when the suicide had been identified as one Horace Temple, Jr., son of the late Horace and Grace Temple from the Redwood Mountains region, husband of the late Linda Love, who had a rap sheet for prostitution and sodomy, and father of Shirley Temple, not to be confused with the celebrated child star of the same name. The headlines asked in bold: Where is Shirley Temple? Does she live still on her ‘Good Ship Lollipop’? Can the Munchkins still believe in Santa Claus, if Shirley Temple is never found?
* * *
Mavis hopes that Shirley Temple is never found, thank you very much.
In part, she is concerned that Horace’s pursuer may try to collect what is owed to his clients from the teary-eyed girl sitting in the passenger seat beside her. Whatever Horace may have hidden away is now hers; and although he had been in dire straits the past few years, even to the point of running street cons and panhandling passersby to keep this or that loan shark from cutting his neck in a back alley somewhere, he had been quite resourceful for a person who had been under the thumb of a domineering and cruel grandmother most of his life. He had flown from the nest relatively late in his life; and she suspected that he had taken on some extreme risks, especially in the games of chance, in a failed attempt to make up for lost time. Rather than build his own nest over the span of a few decades, he had pursued the kind of get rich quick schemes that could not but blow up in his face. No surprise that at the end he had to fend with the antics of a baton-wielding bruiser with blood red freckles and glaring blue eyes.
But, even more so, she hopes that Shirley Temple is never found because she wants her for herself. Really, what is more natural for a mother?
Mavis had been careful about staying on the pill. After all, only a certain breed of fetishists wanted to turn a trick with a pregnant woman. A little bit of padding in the midsection might turn heads, especially among those johns who had an eye for voluptuous beauty; but an out and out baby bump got in the way of the lurid fantasy. Big, blond hair; pushup bra; mini-skirts; knee high, leather boots; these suggested the kind of ‘fuck me’ cheapness of a ‘bad girl,’ who has no particular reason to exist except to satisfy the needs of a man. But then toss in the flushed cheeks and the swollen breasts of a woman getting ready to milk a screaming runt, and the would be john cannot but think of his ‘old lady’ back home, especially when that same ‘old lady’ had been pregnant with their child. There is a reason why internet porn never shows the sexpots paying their water bills, or cleaning their toilets, or packing their children’s school lunches, unless there is some sort of a MILF fantasy at play; and MILF actresses tend to be porn veterans on their way out of the sad gig. Mavis had spent too much on her looks (including being under the knife of a pricey plastic surgeon, who happened also to be one of her johns) to downplay her age. The last thing she had wanted was to accentuate it by being a late thirty something blond with a loaf in the oven.
And then her sister, Linda, had decided to sail up to Horace and to pitch her flag upon his beach. Mavis had lost enough good men to her over the years; and so she was hell bent not to lose this one, even if that meant quietly putting the pill aside so that she could have an ‘oops’ pregnancy. Sure enough, the two of them conceived a girl, after finishing off a night of debauchery with three or four other bimbos. Mavis carried the girl to term. Horace promised his ‘undying commitment.’ Then, within seventy-two hours, Horace left her in the middle of the night, in order to fly off with Linda to Las Vegas. They came back to reality with matching rings on their left ring fingers, and Mavis gave them her girl with no fuss. After all, in the end the only thing worse than a pregnant hooker was a mama hooker with a baby screaming in her crib in the other room.
And so with no fanfare, Mavis had transitioned from a mother to an aunt and a godmother. She had walked away; and, for the most part, she had stayed away. Surely, she had never presumed that she might have to follow through on her promise to take care of the little girl, ‘if ever things got too rough;’ and on a much deeper level, she had never presumed that a single heart string, unseen for the most part, but so resilient, would remain attached to the little girl. But there is a reason for the overabundance of death imagery in classical literature when describing weddings and motherhood. The woman who carries life will be changed by that experience, no matter that she may have a desire otherwise in the back of her mind. Her old self will be left dead or dying on the rocks before the shoreline, as her new self sails up to the beach and sets out to explore that terra incognita commonly referred to as ‘motherhood.’ She will encounter a lot of mysteries in that strange, new land; some will be unexplained, but pleasant, surprises, others just sheer horrors; but through it all, she will remain attached to this unchartered territory as if it had been all along her most intimate home.
Notwithstanding this heart connection, Mavis is not sure she wants to be a mother. She just knows deep down that she wants Shirley Temple by her side from now unto the end, however long such may be, and wherever they may go.
Mavis looks out over the countryside, as she speeds down the freeway in her classic Mustang. It is a warm evening still, but she can sense a chill waiting in the wings for its cue. The sun breathes red radiance into the purple blue sky, but it is doing so as a last ditch effort before sliding silently beneath a western line. The whole of the universe is on that narrow precipice between eternal life and unending death, a glance at hope and a long stare into despair, and now it is tipping decidedly in the direction of the nightfall. Sunsets are moments; very beautiful at times, but always fleeting; by definition, a transition rather than a firm reality in its own right. Because everything about sunsets suggests change, the mind will keep something steady amidst all this flux by focusing even more so than normal on a very specific thought or impression. The mind may indulge a confused daydream during a long and steady afternoon; but it will zero in on a particular thought in reaction to a short and confused evening.
And so Mavis focuses on the fact that this little girl beside her is her one and only daughter. They share the same blood, the same tears, the same heart string through the years; but, even more so, they share that same horrible loss; the loss that is stinking up Grandma Alice’s house to such a gross extent that it is only a matter of time before someone smells death from across the way; the loss that is so wretched they both decided not to look into its face.
They are several hours away from Grandma Alice’s house; and yet, even now, they both have bathed so extensively in the same feeling of loss that that putrid smell seems to have found its way into the classic Mustang. It is as if the suicide, the abandonment, the decomposition into something gross and beastly, indeed everything about that awful experience will remain with them wherever they go on account of their underlying, unspoken intimacy.
In this context, the smell then is an expression of just how close they are to one another. Still, even if it is entirely inside the mind, it is nevertheless an ugly, nauseous odor, a creepy ghoul scent, a fart released from the core of the earth in the course of a devastating earthquake. Better to get this morbid flesh shit on the backburner, or to lose it altogether, before that smell inspires first revulsion, then fear, and then slow and disquieting despair at the coming night.
I need a drink, Mavis mutters, while she exits the freeway.
She drives into a Texaco station. She pumps her own gas, returns the old and greasy hose, and sets out for the mini-mart. The neon sign above the front door flashes: Cigs, Booze, Lucky Lotto. The bums loitering beneath the sign are walking billboards of what happens when smoking, or drinking, or scratching all the products inside for too many years.
Shirley had not stirred from her sorrows, when Mavis had pulled into that gas station; but now that Mavis is going inside she opens her door to follow her.
Stay inside, Mavis says to her. Didn’t your father tell you that a child has no business in a liquor store?
Shirley just looks at her. The expression on her face practically screams: Are you kidding? I was my father’s one and only sidekick, whenever he pulled a liquor store con, which given his drinking problem was about every other night.
Mavis reads it loud and clear. Nevertheless, she does not back down. She really wants to keep Shirley innocent for as long as possible, even though in the back of her mind she knows that Shirley lost her innocence when her father had taught her how to panhandle in her bare feet and reusable diapers.
Just stay put, Mavis continues. I’ll come back with a little surprise.
That brings a momentary grin to Shirley’s face. For a child, the prospect of a gift is much the same as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Mavis returns five minutes later with a bottle of booze inside of a brown, paper bag. Shirley does not see anything earmarked for her. She looks down at her lap and starts to fiddle with her fingers.
Mavis sits behind the wheel. She eyes Shirley’s dejected behavior, grins mischievously, digs into her purse, and retrieves a grape lollipop. She holds the lollipop over Shirley’s head. The goofy expression on Mavis’ face suggests she is just having fun, and yet her behavior is reminiscent of a trainer teaching an old dog a new trick. Shirley unwittingly plays the part by staring at the lollipop like a ravenous dog might stare at a slab of raw meat dangled over its head.
Finally Mavis hands her the lollipop. The two of them grin at each other.
Mavis pulls out of the Texaco station, and returns to the freeway.
Mavis passes a slow, rumbling, eighteen-wheeler truck. The white trailer seems to extend forever. There are red letters screaming along the side of that trailer: Jesus Christ is Lord. Not a Swear Word.
She catches the words, while she is passing the truck. It is no more than a red smear in the corner of her right eye, but nevertheless readable.
Jesus Christ, Mavis mutters.
Indeed, there is something ominous about strong Evangelical Christianity pushing its way down the long freeway and into the nightfall up ahead. She has not been particularly religious in this phase of her life, but she and Linda once upon a time had been reared on the knee of a sweet grandmother who baked a dozen cookies every morning (one for each of the Twelve Disciples), smelled of Frankincense and Myrrh (actually Ben Gay, but acting as the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Christmas Pageant every year from when she was four to when she could no longer convince anyone in the pews that she was still virginal had had a real impact on her imagination back then), and daily read Ecclesiastes and Proverbs as if memorizing the country truisms in Poor Richard’s Almanack. It had been a soft and idyllic childhood in many ways, but for when the sweet grandmother in her granny dress and rolled stockings had gone after her and her sister with the wooden spoon whenever either one of them happened to smile at a boy (which happened about every day about the time the Christmas Pageant Committee in its serene wisdom decided that Mavis Love was no longer ‘suitable’ for the part of the Blessed Virgin Mary, even though at the age of twelve Mavis was actually starting to look the part when she covered up her naturally blond hair with one of her sweet grandmother’s long, black wigs).
Then, a month or so after Mavis really lost her virginity (though everyone had presumed that that had happened years prior), her sweet grandmother just went to bed one night with her leather bound Bible clutched close to her heart, and did not wake up. Mavis found her with a beatified smile revealing dentures that needed to be cleaned. She and her sister both left their dead home to join the only trade possible a pair of fifteen-year-old twins with too little education outside of the Bible (their sweet grandmother protected them from the demons by homeschooling them in the stories of Jezebel, Rahab, and of course the two, prostitute sisters, Oholah and Oholibah) and too much theatrical flair. At first, they had a ball (excuse the pun) in their chosen profession of smiling, teenaged streetwalkers; but as the dusk descends into darkness, so did the series of lame and unctuous johns turn the beautiful act of sex into a sad and disagreeable old chore. Linda kept her smile, forced, but courageous in its own way; but in time Mavis dropped hers, and instead pondered: Is this eternal night my due reward, notwithstanding all those Sweet Jesus stories and hymns I had recited? Is this as much as God will give me, even though I really believed in His Son on the cross?
Mavis would go on to answer her own inquiry: Yes, this is as much as God will give me; so if I desire anything more, then I had better grasp it for myself, as if one of those Arabs or Orientals I observe at the market everyday, grasping at the best fruits in the bin before the sweet grandmothers clothed in their old, granny dresses and rolled stockings can hobble over to them, and feeding their own families and tribes if necessary at the expense of just about everyone else.
And so from that day Jesus was the one john for whom she refused to do any tricks. As with the little girl she gave her sister, she walked away from Him that day; and, for the most part, she stayed away. Jesus may have died for her sins; but He did not put food on her table, or pay for her VD creams, or offer a swig of cheap booze when the nights turned so long and high that she could not even see the stars anymore twinkling in the heavens above.
With that thought in mind, Mavis takes a swig from the booze bottle that is wrapped in a brown, paper bag and stored discretely beneath her driver seat (though she need not have bothered with that discretion, as any highway patrol officer could have smelled the rancid booze on her breath even before she had rolled down her window). She passes a Channel 2 News van (a “2” in place of a pupil inside of an open, unblinking eye above the slogan: We Are The News). In a strange way, the image and the slogan seem vaguely fascistic, controlling, on a par with Big Brother’s face plastered almost everywhere in Orwell’s dystopian landscape. Jesus and Big Brother rumbling down the freeway, while Mavis puts her lead foot onto the gas, grins savagely, and leaves them in her blue exhaust.
Driving in the fast lane, Mavis mutters. Gets me quicker into the night up ahead. And what’s up there; but some fucking, blue-eyed beast with his baton?
Mavis chuckles. She is drunk, and she is a whore, but she can still dream up a storm. She has never seen that Boss Man; but she has heard enough about him from Horace’s late night stream of consciousness ramblings upon the phone to paint a strong picture in her mind. In a sick way, she almost would like to be accosted by him one of these nights, except that she would not want him close to the little girl sitting beside her now. Having the little girl changes everything in a manner, frankly, that she had not expected. She is not sure yet if she likes the change, but there will be no going back. She made her promise; and, much more so, she desires this girl, maybe more as a niece than as a daughter, when the rubber hits the road, but nevertheless in a way that feels oddly compulsive.
Mavis glances at Shirley. The little girl looks sleepy and withdrawn as she licks at her lollipop. Quite some time has passed, as Mavis has been roaring her Mustang down the left lane, and escaping now and then into Memory Lane, and yet Shirley has not even licked half of her lollipop. The burgundy colored sweet resembles the setting sun. It seems as morose as the little girl now licking at it.
You don’t need to be afraid anymore, Mavis comments after a while. The Boss Man will never find you, and no person ever again will be able to hurt you.
Shirley looks at her with disbelieving eyes. Mavis wants to squirm within her seat. She had been told her share of tall tales as a girl (mostly a number of old wives’ tales masquerading as ‘Biblical Truth’ that were meant to comfort at the time and yet always sounded vaguely as if the words a judge might say just before condemning a person to the gallows), and she had sensed from the start that these tall tales were just cruel attempts at messing with her head. Still, it is conceivable anyway that the Boss Man will never find Shirley, if Mavis in fact follows through with every precaution she has been contemplating since setting out to be with Shirley earlier today. And as for no person ever again being able to hurt her, well, is it not possible even in this day and age for a girl to be held far enough away from the hardships in the world to remain happily naïve in her own innocence? Must every last refuge be found and upended by the Old Goths?
But Shirley is not buying it, at least not now. She just stares back at her Aunt Mavis with eyes made cold and distant by despair. Indeed, her eyes seem so cold as to freeze up any tears before they can slide down her cheeks, so that she is as incapable of crying now as she had been crying without restraint prior.
Did you ever see the Boss Man? Mavis asks.
Shirley does not answer at first, but she stops staring at Mavis with those cold and distant eyes of hers. Instead, she just looks down at her lap and sighs.
You never saw him, did you? Mavis continues.
Father talked about him, Shirley replies. I dream about him all the time.
Let me tell you something, Mavis comments with a thoughtful look in her eyes. The monsters we imagine are always worse than they are in real life. The next time you see him in your head just tell yourself he is not real. Keep saying that over and over again. He will vanish just like all of the other silly monsters.
Monsters aren’t silly, Shirley says adamantly. And they never go away.
The monsters stay around only when you’ve been hardened, Mavis thinks with a shudder. But ignorance is bliss. And if I can keep you silly and stupid you just may come to believe that they’re not there. Ironic, isn’t it? It’s the wise in this world, who know that the boogeymen are all too real; but the silly and the stupid can stop fearing the beast in the forest the moment they see a butterfly.
How’s your lollipop? Mavis asks.
Okay, I guess, Shirley mutters, and then looks away.
Would you like to hear a story? Mavis continues.
Only if it’s a true story, Shirley answers.
Mavis again wants to squirm. She recalls when she was a little girl about the same age as Shirley. She sat by her sweet grandmother’s smelly feet (rolled stockings so soiled and moth eaten that they cannot hold back the terrible odor of gnarled and diseased toes), looked up, and listened quite dutifully as the old lady recited Psalm 23 from memory. Her sweet grandmother painted the pretty mental picture of the shepherd laying down on green pastures and being led by quiet waters; but her sweet grandmother’s cold stare suggested that she really did not believe this tale. Psalm 22 is a true story, those eyes said, not this one.
It is the true story about how I got this car, Mavis says, while she returns her gaze back to the long road ahead of her. This is a very special car, not just because it is a ’66 Mustang, but because of who owned it before me. Did father ever tell you about the Red Witch?
Shirley perks up. She turns her head to indicate ‘no,’ but there is an odd look in her eyes that suggests that she has been introduced to her share of dark and elusive persons over the years she and her father had been on the run. The people who live on the edge bump into other outlaws out there where the dark shadows reign, and that is as true of little girls clutching to their Princess Ariels as of the grown men who have dragged them out there. Shirley already knows a heck of a lot; maybe too much; about the way the world really is when you are not safe and sane at home. Mavis hates to see that odd look in her eyes, but no matter. She will press forward. She cannot say why she should care about a girl she hardly knows; but regardless, she will do what she can to make certain that Shirley remains an innocent. Only the silly and the stupid can live out their tiny lives on their own terms. For every one else, there is that damnation of having so much wisdom as to know that every horizon is the vertical bar of a big cage.
People called her a witch, because she seemed to show up and to vanish without any warning, Mavis continues. You could say that she was on the run at all times, even when she was speaking with you. She also had the most striking, beautiful, red hair, even when she was so old it should have been as white as a hill of new fallen snow. But even more so she had the kind of eyes that seemed to be alive. They did not just look at you. They spoke in a language no one else in the world could hear or understand, except that person they were watching. It made your skin crawl just to see that she was looking at you. Anyway, that is what people said. You probably know I am a working girl. Well, you don’t need to know how I earn my thirty pieces of silver; but you should know that working girls meet lots of people; and they hear the kind of tales that people would not say anywhere else. Most of these are just fantasy tales, but once in a while you get a feeling that the tale is true. And everything I heard about that Red Witch, how she was never really there even when talking to you, how she was running, how she was also long dead and gone, and most of all how beautiful she was for those who happened to see her along the highway, well, I knew all along that it was all true. She was a legend, a witch who had cast her spell a long time prior but who still had an almost magnetic pull on people, a woman still living in her eighties, but also a ghost of her prime. It is hard to put your finger on it, but an old legend like that is more real than most other people we think of as real. No doubt about it in my mind. She is true all the time. Most other people are true sometimes, or never at all. And that’s why people are frightened of her. She is not bad. She is true, that’s all, when most everyone else is a cardboard cutout.
Mavis looks over at Shirley. She fears she may be confusing the little girl, but it only takes one look for her to see that she is not. Shirley understands too well what she is saying, because of course Shirley knows what it is like to be an outcast. After all, the true and the outcast are one and the same, are they not?
Well, one night, I was working at a gentleman’s club, Mavis continues. It is not a place for little girls, but it is a good place for meeting lots of people. It was my job to provide comfort to the men sitting at the bar…
You mean to make them happy? Shirley asks with a slight grin that could be an innocent or a knowing grin, depending upon what Mavis chose to observe.
Yes, you could say that, Mavis considers.
I bet you made them really happy, Shirley says with a big smile.
I make people happy, Mavis remarks, and then looks away from Shirley’s big smile and penetrating eyes. It is what I do well. Anyway, there are no ladies at a gentleman’s club, unless they’re working girls or girlfriends. I observe this beautiful, red headed, older woman sitting alone at the bar. Now, I know all of the working girls; and she’s not one of them. And as for the girlfriends, they’re always beside their boyfriends. So here is this woman, sitting all by herself in a place reserved for men, drinking a martini and smoking a cigar like she’s one of the guys. The bartender looks at me, and nods towards her. The other men just sign their tabs, and step out, like there is something discomforting about her at that moment. It is my duty to show her the door. I walk up to her. Even now, I can hear my high heels tapping on the hardwood floor. She must have heard me coming from the other side of the room, but she does not look up. I tap her on the back of her shoulders, but she still does not stir. I am about to shake her all around, when suddenly she turns on her stool and stares at me. She’s got those sparkling, blue eyes; what some would call the eyes of a hussy; but, for me, at that moment anyway, they were the eyes of my dearest friend, a sister born of my own heart, maybe even a mirror image. It’s not that we looked the same so much as we were the same where it really matters. She invites me to sit down beside her. Do you get how strange that is? This is my club, and yet here she is inviting me like I am the guest. Well, I sit down, and she orders me a drink. She tells me her name is Lana. She had been born and bred in a sad, little place she called the Texaco Gas and Grill. I’d never heard of it. After I had met her, I did look it up on the Internet. It had been a little shithole; excuse my language; in a bigger shithole named Beulah County. But even then, before I’d had a chance to investigate for myself, I just knew she was telling me the truth. She says her old man slipped on some rat shit in the pantry and hit his head on the floor. He bled to death, snarling and cursing the whole time, looking up at her from that puddle of old man blood, while she’s just looking down at him. It was like she’d pushed him into that puddle of blood, and he’s now sinking to the bottom, and they’re just looking at each other one more time before the blood plugs his big mouth and nostrils. She could’ve gotten help. He died slowly and miserably, so she had had the time. But she remarked that it was like they were the only two people left in the world, just the two of them transfixed in that death stare for God knows how long, until finally he stopped snarling and cussing, like a cursed brute that’s been gutted silent in a slaughterhouse. She leaves him there. It’s a worthy tomb, she says, though she thinks the good ol’ boys probably tossed him into the beggars’ common grave alongside the heretics, the perverts, and even the niggers. She cannot say for sure, ‘cause she roars away at once in this very same ’66 Mustang, and she doesn’t turn back. She’s like the wind, blowing from one horizon to the next, never returning to flutter the same leaves twice. And, when you think of it, who can blame her? Lana had spent about half of her life cooped up in that little shithole. She never got further away than their friendly neighborhood Ho-Jo’s. She sees her chance, and she takes it. For the remainder of her life, she’s the Red Witch; but she’s a free woman; and my impression of her is that she wouldn’t have changed that for the world. I listen to her stories, until the bartender starts to clear out the register; and then I take her home to listen even more. She’s lived a full life. Witches usually do. It is the reason we hate and fear them so. At the end of our night together, just as the sun begins to rise from beneath the line back east, she says she wants me to have her red, ’66 Mustang. Her eyesight is failing her, and her driving days are over, she says.
You didn’t take it from her? Shirley asks incredulously.
What? The car? Mavis asks nervously.
Yes, the car, Shirley answers in a cold and deadpan voice.
Is that what your father said? Mavis inquires.
Father never talked about it, Shirley answers.
Maybe he never did, Mavis thinks. But she knows. The little girl can get a hold of the truth, and hold on for dear life, because everything else around her sinks into the crack and is lost forevermore. People on the run have an uncanny bullshit meter inside their heads. Some people call it ‘street smarts,’ but really it is ‘survival’ in its most basic form.
Yes, I took it from her, Mavis says, while avoiding the little girl’s sad and penetrating stare. First, I put a special pill in the drink I prepared for her in my kitchen. Then, when she had fallen asleep on my couch, I took off her clothing. She still had a beautiful body for her age. Her red hair flowed lustfully over her dead breasts. She was like a poem reclining on my couch. But I did not stare for long. I had some work to do. Witches do not sleep for very long, unless they are put down the right way. And so I filled my bathtub with boiling water; even hot enough to scald the fur off of a black cat; and I carried her lovely corpse in my arms, like I was a groom carrying my bride across the threshold. I stood by that bathtub for some time with her lovely corpse in my arms, thinking of the ages, perhaps, or just smelling her perfume. And then I fell to my knees, dropped her into the boiling water, and held her face down there for as long as I could. The water burnt me, too, even though I had been quite careful enough to wear long garden gloves. But I kept smothering her dead face beneath the surface of that water, like I was planting something that would never again see the light of day in this world. Of course, she did not move; or did she? I must have been moving my arms, or something, but she seemed to be splashing for dear life. Squirming in my death grip, even screaming back at me from beneath my clutching hands. Her arms flapped along the side of the bathtub like the fins of a seal. Her head pressed inward, like a crushed pumpkin. Her red hair flowed out from her skull in every direction, like blood squirting out from open wounds. And then, just as suddenly as it had all started, it was over. She was just a corpse in my bathtub; a dead, old lady with a queer grin on her face; hard breasts that looked excited and, even more strangely, as new as the breasts on a girl just hitting puberty. I stumbled backward and screamed holy hell. I called your father. He buried her with the rest; but I still see that face, and that hair, and those breasts. She had been a witch; the kind my sweet grandmother had warned me about whenever she’d read from the Good Book; the kind I’d started to dream about when I was your age. And the strangest thing of all was that she must have known all along what would happen. She must have wanted it to happen. She was tired of being on the run, that’s all, and I was willing to give her a hand in ending it all. So, in a way, she did give me this Mustang. It’s like a red baton that has been handed from one runner to the next. Someday, I’ll pass it on to some other lost soul on this long, dark highway, just as the Red Witch had passed it off to me. I realize it sounds like murder. It sounds hideous. But really, this is how we free women; we witches on the open highway; help each other end it all. Anyway, little girl, it is just a story; true, but a story, nonetheless; and this is not going to be your fate, because you’re going to remain an innocent girl, so help me God you will.
Mavis finishes her story. She is exhausted at the effort; teary-eyed; dead to the rest of the world, like a guilty woman would feel when she has made her confession and then determined that there is no priest on the other side of the black wall. Only her daughter has heard her; and her daughter is in no position to absolve her, notwithstanding Mavis’ desperate hope (more a crazed fantasy, she suspects just now) that by shielding her daughter’s innocence she somehow may balance out what she has had to do in order to finish out her life as a free woman, a witch on the open highway, a blond in a mini-skirt on the run.
How am I shielding this little girl, when I am exposing her to my own sin? Mavis thinks. Isn’t innocence ignorance? Hasn’t she seen (and smelled) enough, not to be burdened by the image of a dead witch squirming inside a boiling tub?
Then, she remembers her sweet grandmother; her diseased feet smelling like rat droppings in a sewer; her floral dress hanging loosely upon her thinning, wrinkled frame; her face the countenance of a grim scarecrow; and yet, though so close to the grave, her eyes still inflamed with the absolute conviction in her own mind that, indeed, she is doing her granddaughter well by scaring the holy hell out of her. Psalm 22 is a true story, those eyes said; and if you are going to remain good in a bad world, an angel among the demons, then you will need to have that goodness bashed back into you. No, innocence is not ignorance, those eyes said. Innocence is what you fall back into when, at an impressionable age, you have been scared shitless of the alternative.
Why did you tell me that terrible story? Shirley asks, as she stares glumly at her grape lollipop, and begins to shed a new round of tears.
Mavis almost slams her lead foot on the brake, even though she is driving more than eighty on the fast lane. The utter despondency in the little girl voice beside her slices through whatever shield she has managed over the many years to wrap about her heart. Mavis feels a sickness in her soul reminiscent of a first love, as love and despair are much the same in the heart that has been broken.
Rather than slam on the brakes, Mavis pulls over to the right lane, slows down, and stops on the shoulder. She folds her fingers upon her lap in a manner that is penitential, but the erratic twitching of her eyes and lips suggests a sad woman who does not truly believe that forgiveness is on the table. Instead, she seems to be waiting for a baton to strike the back of her head and to end it all.
Why can’t you tell me a story that’s true and happy? Shirley asks.
Because that’s not the way the world works, Mavis explains. The best we can do is to take what we need and to hold on to what we have. It is the way of the jungle. It is like civilization has fallen to the ground, and we are the people left behind to forage through the junk. I’ll protect you, but I can’t promise you that life will be pretty, because it won’t. It will stink, just like your father now stinks to high heaven. It will be ugly, just like your father would have been ugly to our eyes, if we had looked at him. But because it will be so bad, you will see what is good in your own heart, and you will focus on that, like there is nothing else that matters in the world. You will be so beaten down, you will throw your wisdom aside, just toss it like the heavy baggage it is, and be a fool. And in the end, the girl who gets smacked around, and learns to be a fool, is the only truly happy girl in our times. I know what I am saying is hard, but do you understand?
They beat my father, Shirley cries out. They made him a fool. And where is father tonight? And where am I? And I don’t have my Princess Ariel anymore…
Mavis does not know what to say. She sees herself in the rearview mirror and almost vomits. She is a haggard, twitching, horror show of a woman beaten down as much by self-loathing as by fear of what lies ahead on this road. Worst of all, she cannot shake the feeling that in imparting the truth to her daughter, she has violated her. She has saved her, but she also has scarred her.
Shirley no longer sucks on her lollipop. Instead, she clutches the stick, as if it is a lifeline back to a past that never really was. She looks out the window.
Mavis considers the back of Shirley’s head a moment. She then wipes off a solitary tear, restarts the engine, and roars back onto the long and dark road.
* * *
Shirley continues to look out the window. Except for the cars and trucks that they pass occasionally on their right side, it is totally pitch black out there in that cruel world. It is like being tossed about the waves of a turbulent ocean and realizing that there is no life preserver on which to cling. There is nothing, really, but the fast cut memories of a young life on the run that vanish into the night as soon as they are grasped. Shirley would feel hopeless, except that she is too tired to feel much of anything at all after crying out the last of her tears.
Then, she blinks her eye; and the window is the door to the sitting room.
She is standing in the foyer of Grandma Alice’s house. It is dark, except for a silver streak of moonlight shining through the long rectangular windows on each side of the front door, and draping everything inside the foyer in ghoulish, breathing shadows. There is not a sound anywhere. That silence is deafening. It is a cold weight pressing over her ears and pushing her cheeks inward, so that if observed, then she would look like a ghoul herself.
She is naked and barefoot. Her skin feels dirty, as if she has been rolling in the mud. She imagines that if she were to view herself in a mirror, she would look like a little Indian girl she saw once in a coloring book. The cold mud upon her cheeks would look like war paint, as if she were some sort of Indian Warrior Princess come alive from within the pages of a fantasy book.
That is how she would look, but she certainly does not feel like an Indian Warrior Princess. To begin with she is much too frightened. She trembles at the sound her breath makes in the silence. She wonders if it is so loud, the pungent dead will arise from within the ghoulish shadows all about her. Besides her fear and trepidation, she also feels very small, almost inconsequential, not so much a princess come alive from within the pages of a fantasy book as a filthy corpse that has just crawled out from an unmarked grave. She cannot remember at all her name, not even the first syllable, and it occurs to her that her grave has no tombstone because her life had had no past. Her life had been a mad dash from one hideout to the next, a loss of friendships, a burying of memories, a present intentionally divorced from the past and too hurried to contemplate the future.
There is an earsplitting gunshot. It seems to come from everywhere, but she knows that it comes from the other side of the door to the sitting room. No doubt about it, everything that matters is behind that door. If she steps inside, and closes the door behind her, then the whole of the universe will be captured and contained within the walls of the sitting room.
She steps toward the door. Her footsteps echo on the hardwood floor, as if she is strutting in high heels along a marble floor of a high ceiling mausoleum after hours. In fact her barefoot walk across the hardwood floor is the opposite of haughty, but she could not know that from the way that vicious sound shakes inside her imagination. Every step seems to unleash an earthquake that spreads cracks along the walls of her mind.
She hesitates a moment before the door. She bathes in the moonlight. It penetrates her skin like pinpricks from an iced dagger. Her spine trembles from the absolute coldness seeping through the holes in her skin and spreading about her bones and organs like frozen putty.
This is what it feels like to be dead, she thinks. This is life inside of a big iced cube. Death and life are much the same when it is cold enough.
Fortunately, she quivers from a fear spasm that seems to come out from every part of her body all at once. But for that fear spasm, she probably would have remained frozen and alone in that silver moonlight forevermore; but with fear contorting her thin limbs every which way, she breaks out of the iced cube and senses vaguely that she can control her body and her mind enough to open the door and to step inside the sitting room.
And that is what she does. The door creaks like a cat that has had its old paws crushed and is now in the process of being strangled. It is a dreadful tone; tingling the spine at first; then draping the heart, like a cold and heavy shroud.
She steps into the sitting room. The room is even darker than the foyer, because there are thick curtains pulled over the windows. The silver moonlight barely slithers through the fabric, and then falls to the floor as if a dead snake.
Nevertheless, strangely, she can see even better in here. She wonders if she has the eyes of a bat; the sonar that does not see so much as zero in on the dead things it must scavenge so as to stay alive another frigid night; the feeling of sight that conjures an unreal image in her mind, a surreal blend of memories and real time impressions, that she senses is akin to the sight a dead girl has on the occasion of crawling out from her unmarked grave to take a stroll. Because the memories mix so seamlessly in and out of the real time impressions, like an image superimposed over another so that it is impossible to tell then where one begins and the other ends, she cannot separate fact from fantasy in what she is seeing all about her. If she were really an innocent girl, then that would not be a trial upon her mind, since for children fact and fantasy are one and the same.
But she is not nearly as innocent as she should be. Innocence started to bleed out from her frail soul about the time she first took notice of her father’s sad and inebriated gibberish, when he slept on the sofa with a big booze bottle cradled in his chest. It was the same sofa that went up in flames a few months later, when her father told her to drop a lit match into a puddle of gasoline on the driveway. There had been a heart pillow with ‘Linda Love’ stitched on both sides, and her boozy father had been cradling that pillow in between his thighs.
Innocence is not lost in a moment of awareness. It bleeds out, so slowly, almost imperceptibly, so that the little girl does not even realize that she is in the process of substituting wisdom for fright and of putting knowledge ahead of open-minded acceptance. Thus, as Shirley takes in the sitting room, she has yet to turn jaded; but she is aware of that grave sin sitting dead in the tall chair at the back. She knows what it means. She knows then what she must do about it.
She walks through the sitting room with blank eyes. Her bare feet sound still like high heels on a marble floor, even though now she is walking upon old, faded, smoke filled carpet. Much worse, there is that awful decomposition odor that she had not sensed at all in the foyer, but that is now everywhere. It feels as if it is reverberating out from her bowels. She knows that it is coming from a mangled corpse hidden in a shadow up ahead, but that is not how it feels.
She bumps her left knee on a table. A jolt of pain slaps her out from her sleepwalking, and she no longer sees like a bat. Instead, as her real eyes adjust to the darkness, and gather in what little moonlight actually manages to break through the drawn curtains, she sees with her actual eyes the mutilated corpse of her father. His head is smashed so far inward it resembles a mushy pumpkin shell emptied of its flesh and seeds and carved concave. The back of this awful pumpkin head had been splattered into the back of the tall chair, presumably a result of the same gunshot that had carved out its face and brains; and it looks as if it is stuck to the gooey and gunky pumpkin splatter dripping onto the seat.
There are two open eyes on the inner wall of the concave pumpkin shell. They squint like a murderer sizing up his next victim, and yet the pupils appear to be catatonic.
There is the barest stub of a nose. It is not breathing, and as a result it is about as real in appearance as a plastic toy nose purchased in a costume store. The stub nose would inspire laughter, but for the severe menace that bleeds in every direction out from the mangled corpse.
Then, there is the mouth. Like the rest of the face, it too is on the inner wall of the concave pumpkin shell. It is open and contorted to one side, like an unending grimace of pain captured once and for all time at the very moment of death. There is blood streaking down from the two corners of the mouth. It is a bluish stringy blood that seems incapable of ever having sustained a man’s life.
Extending straight out from inside this silent scream is a grape lollipop; indeed, the very same grape lollipop that Shirley had been licking despondently inside the ’66 Mustang; except here it is brand new and oversized. The purplish candy pokes outward like a stiff tongue. The lollipop stick remains inside of the mouth, presumably held in place by the top and the bottom halves of its teeth.
Clearly, the lollipop is meant to be a lure. Shirley knows that if she steps forward to take a lick of that candy she will be trapped in a way never foreseen even in her psychic nightmares.
Ever since she hit her knee, she has had her wits about her. As such, she is not under any illusions that she would be better off sitting in her father’s lap to get up close and personal with the candy.
And yet that is precisely what she sets out to do. She walks forward with the sound of high heel footsteps ringing in her ears. She puts on a brave smile, but the slight quiver in her cheekbones and eyes suggests that she is frightened almost out of her mind at the prospect of sitting on that bony and bloodied lap.
She is about to climb onto the lap when she hears that playful children’s song that her father had taught her. There is a little girl singing over a bouncy, laughing orchestra. In fact, it is the voice of the movie star Shirley Temple way back when; but she does not know that. For her, the voice seems to be echoing out from her own heart. It is an airy reverberation of sound that seems ghostly, even vaguely sinister, notwithstanding the syrupy and goopy innocence.
Shirley looks about the room to try to find the source of the happy song.
It seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It is loud, like a score of enormous speakers suddenly let loose inside of a concert hall to snap the eardrums of anyone who may happen to be too near; and yet, in a way, the music is no more than a soft flutter in the shadows, perhaps caused by the dim, silver moonlights slithering about the carpeted floor, more likely caused by her overactive imagination. Regardless, that song seems at once bold and intimate, something big and uncontrollable, and yet also something barely pulsing inside of her blood. Could she be hiding something so powerful within herself? Hiding, even smothering, it so well that it barely registers, like an earthquake that has broken the very foundations of the earth, but that is no more than a tiny quiver upon the surface? Or is she just deluding herself, like a caged beast that insists in its own mind that it is the queen of the jungle?
The questions fly through her mind. She does not attempt to grab a hold of them. She is happy enough to listen to the gay refrain sung by a girl who will never grow up. The song puts a smile on her lips, and she deserves a brief smile at this time, especially given all she has had to endure in a life on the run.
On the Good Ship Lollipop
It’s a sweet trip to the candy shop
Where bon-bon’s play
On the sunny beach of peppermint bay
The movie star Shirley Temple never sings any of the other words in that song. She just repeats the same four lines, like the proverbial broken record, or even more so like a mantra taking hold of the singer just a bit more with every repeat performance. Somewhere beneath the singer, down there inside of that hellish orchestra pit that cannot be seen but that can be felt as a radiant sizzle beneath the goofy words, there is a maniacal laugh. It calls to mind the Woody Woodpecker laugh; the glaring insanity inside Woody Woodpecker’s eyes before it pecks at a log of petrified wood; the loopy grin on Woody Woodpecker’s bird face, when it recoils from the log of petrified wood with nothing to show for its efforts, but a bruise. Better enjoy the good ship lollipop, the laughs suggests. It is going to hurt big time, when the little kiddie game is over. It is going to hurt, like a smashed face hurts, ‘cause everything ends up rotten, smelly, dead flesh goo. Everything ends up a festering wound. Everything ends up a blood splatter or a writhing limb. So go ahead. Enjoy the good ship lollipop while you still can.
The dark menace beneath the song becomes more prominent with every repeat. Soon, it clouds out the movie star Shirley Temple altogether; and then, there is nothing left, but the maniacally happy melody and the insane laughter.
Shirley jumps onto the lap. She is motivated more by a terrible fear that that laughter is going to get her somehow, than by her prior interest in the big, purple lollipop sticking out of the pumpkin mouth like a petrified, dead tongue.
The moment she is on the lap the song ends. There is just that deafening silence, that awful human decay smell, and that lollipop tempting her to take a lick. What is so wrong with one little lick? It is not as if it is that forbidden fruit that gave Adam and Eve a reason to blurt out a few colorful metaphors on their way out of the Garden of Eden? Certainly, it is not so momentous. It is just one of those little somethings meant to pacify the tykes, like a plastic toy intended to keep the ragamuffin in line, or like a sweet handed out as a reward for good behavior. And who says that little girl upon her father’s lap does not deserve it? Or, more importantly, who has a right to insinuate as such to a naked innocent?
Shirley does not really grasp these questions, even as they are exploding up from within the cracks in her brain, as if geysers heralding the Next Big One. The Kingdom of God belongs to the little ones, not just because they are stupid innocents, but because they are powerful. There is so much more beneath their wide grins and dancing eyes. There are angels and demons aplenty inside them.
She is balancing her knees on the dead thighs. Strangely, those thighs at once feel both gummy and brittle beneath her knees. She can scoot forward on those thighs as if moving across a spongy surface, and yet at the same time she hears the dead flesh beneath her father’s bloodied trousers crackling like dried paper. More than anything, it is the incongruent nature of those sensations that frightens the little girl. The carved pumpkin face in front of her is horrible, but it is so surreal as to seem unreal in a way. The decomposition odor is eating the life out of her soul; but it is doing so in a slow, almost imperceptible, way. But experiencing two opposite feelings at once will do the trick every time because of course it calls to question the basic sanity of the observer. An eight-year-old girl may not have a problem with combining fact and fantasy, but she wants to be able to look at herself in the mirror and to see a sane person reflected back.
She is so afraid she starts to cry. She shivers, like she may fall backward.
And so the dead, cold, clammy hands on either side of her legs reach up and grab a hold of her wobbly knees. She wants to scream, but her little throat feels like it is stuffed with petrified wood. Her eyes bulge out, and flicker light, as if an electrical current erupted out from those hands, and flew up her spine.
Don’t worry, little girl, her father speaks telepathically, though with the wiseass tone of a Mafia muscle or a bookie whose idea of ‘going to the country’ consists of dumping a body in Central Park in the middle of the night. That sick whore Aunt Mavis is right, that’s all. Ya stay innocent, ‘cause your poppy scares it into ya. Make things too easy, and ya start wandering from the neighborhood, maybe getting into things a good girl shouldn’t, maybe kissing the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Now, I admit, ever since ya burned down the house in the middle of the night, I haven’t been able to provide ya much in the way of a stable home. But that’s gonna change. I’m dead, you see, way passed the point of filing tax returns and paying off creditors; and the dead don’t run. They kind of stay put, stink up the place, sort of like living on a toilet that cannot ever be flushed. Anyway, since I ain’t running, I guess I’m home. And that means you’re home, too, ‘cause I ain’t letting you go ‘till you’re so damned scared, so stupid and silly, ya can’t do much at all, but smell the roses and grin big like a nigger.
Shirley manages to get a hold of herself. She does not hear much of what her father says. In her soul it all can be reduced to a simple refrain repeated in an everlasting succession of ghostly echoes: Lick the lollipop. Don’t ya want to?
And she does. She wants to lick that purple candy as much as a girl twice her age would want to experience a French kiss for the first time with the most gorgeous boy. She knows this is all wrong, but she really wants it just the same.
Yes, she is inside her cage. Like that caged beast that imagines that it is still the queen of the jungle, she feels powerful, capable of anything for which she may devote her heart and her mind, indeed even capable of retaining what residues of innocence had not been torn out and spent along the long highways.
And that means she is capable of wrapping her tongue about that candy, and licking, and licking, and licking, smacking her lips, swallowing sweet slime.
She opens her mouth wide. She is about to lower her lips over that grape lollipop when she senses a quiet, observant, sinister force in the shadow behind her father’s tall chair. She cocks her head to the side so as to make out what it is; and while she does so spit drops lazily off her lower lip and down her throat.
It is a thin, freckled, bony-faced man in black. Its eyes sparkle hot blue; and yet everything else about its countenance is totally calm, even to the point of being catatonic. It just stares at her with enough intensity to crack her apart and to toss the debris of her life into the earth. Shirley is surprised frankly that there is no fault line blasting out from her heart, and cracking her torso in two.
Father must have seen the questioning look on her face, as he speaks up again in her soul, though this time in a tone that is more authentically his own.
That’s the Boss Man, her father continues. He is the man who will come out from the shadows and put you down, if you wander too far afield. Make you pay the price. Show you the cost of wisdom is a smashed head.
Shirley tries to look away from the Boss Man, but he is everywhere all at once. In the silver moonlight she can just make out a thick baton that he hangs typically from his waistline. Now, he is holding it firmly in his right hand, while he is snapping the fat end into his left palm. He is calm, collected, only biding his time, until she tires of the lollipop and lowers herself from her father’s lap.
She looks again at the lollipop with even greater urgency. It is either the candy or the baton. She slides her open lips over the candy, and shuts her eyes.
* * *
Shirley opens her eyes. She gasps, like she has fallen back into her body.
Or maybe like her head has been pummeled by a thick, bloodied baton…
She does not know where she is. She is not frightened by this fact, as she is used to awakening in strange places after running all night in shadows cast by the silver moonlight. She is used to turning onto her side and finding her father beside her. She is used to shaking him for God knows how long until finally he is able to awaken from his drunken stupor and to glare back at her then with one, confused, bloodshot eye. The sick look in that one eye, the accompanying deep moan, the snakelike licking of chapped lips, these were the signs that her tired and beaten father had come back from the brink to fight on for another day. In those moments, when she beheld her father awaken, and offered him her smile in return, she was no longer in a strange place. She had no idea where she was, but she was home; and she would remain home, until she and her father fled in the dead of night yet again. This cycle had become her norm; and so, in a way, she felt more herself when everything was strange than when familiar.
She turns onto her side, but her father is not there. Instead, there is this blond, buxom floozy sleeping in the bed beside her. She does not know who the woman is. She wants to scream, but she is too catatonic in fear to give voice to anything, but a strangled croak. She clasps her hands over her mouth, since she fears that even that small sound will be enough to awaken this stranger next to her. She is afraid that that croak could awaken every corpse out from its grave.
But the blond, buxom floozy does not stir. She just snores, and then tugs at the booze bottle inside the paper bag, like a mother might tug unconsciously at the baby girl nestled in her chest. Her lips twitch manically, but soundlessly. She could be engrossed in a dream conversation, or she could be slipping into a bout of madness from which she will not be awakening in this lifetime. Is there really a difference between the two? Isn’t madness just a dream without cease?
Shirley senses that there is no difference. She recoils from this stranger…
And then, all at once, she remembers that this woman is her Aunt Mavis; that her father is dead and pungent back at Grandma Alice’s house; and that a blue-eyed, freckled, string bean thin monster is waiting for her in the shadows.
Her catatonic fear lessens. She could scream now, but she holds it back.
Instead, she sits up in the bed, and looks about the room. There is an old dresser against the opposite wall. The dressing mirror is so cracked and warped a person observing her reflection would see three ghost faces staring back from within a murky void. The person would recognize herself in the ghost faces; but also she would realize that the faces are more ghoulish than human, what with their abnormally long cheeks, saggy eyes, and light bulb shaped foreheads. The three ghost faces are what I really am, the person would mutter. A kind of sick and perverse trinity that mocks the divine trinity, because what else can a lady do when she sees in her reflection just how far removed she is from God above?
Shirley does not think about the divine trinity. Like most children, she is able to get to the core of the matter immediately and intuitively; and what she intuits in the three ghost faces staring back at her is total despair.
There is a tall candle on the dresser. It had burned out long ago, though the hardened drips of melted wax down the side of the candle suggest that the torch had sported a great flame once upon a time. Looking at the candle now is like looking at the corpse of a once great athlete. The only plausible conclusion is that the many hours spent in the gym, or on the track, had given the athlete no advantage whatsoever in his final struggle with the Grim Reaper. He may as well have gorged himself on deviant sex and ice cream, because for all his good discipline in the end he ends up in a grave alongside perverts and fat diabetics.
Beside the tall candle is an open Bible. The wind blowing in from outside the open window to the side flips the yellowed pages one by one. It looks like a stooped ghost is standing before the dresser, and speed-reading the Good Book.
There is the sound of rushing water outside the open window. It is a soft and clean sound, indicative of the countryside, but also hinting at those waking dreams that can predominate when people venture too far off the beaten track and into the wilderness. Shirley rather would not hear that river or stream, but she observes that the glass window had been forcibly removed sometime ago. It is impossible then not to be swept up by the hungry winds in this strange place; impossible to find even a moment of home while on the run; impossible, really, to do anything steady and sure in a room that practically smells of moral laxity.
Shirley pulls the sheet aside, and steps on the creaky, wooden floor. The old, rancid, wood plank walls respond to the floor creaks with screechy cries of their own. Surely this chorus of wall planks and floor beams will shake the dead out from their restless sleep. Shirley braces herself, and looks back at her aunt.
Aunt Mavis does not stir. She snores. She tugs at her bottle. Her mouth is open, like a corpse that had given up its ghost while screaming for dear life.
Shirley waits until her hearts settles. She listens to the yellowed pages in the leather bound Bible flipping from Genesis to Revelation.
When she senses that the coast is clear, she tiptoes to the door. She may as well have walked normally, as there is not any appreciable diminution in the creaks and moans.
She wraps her small fingers about the doorknob. She imagines that it is a locked door. In a way, she hopes that it is, as a locked door would set this room apart from everything outside. She would be in a cage, but also she would be in her home, no doubt as temporary as the others, but for now anyway as real and as tangible as the trailer where Princess Ariel is and the house she had burnt to the ground. She is used to being on the run, to be sure; but now, she just wants to rest in a little jail cell beside her blond, buxom aunt.
She has no such luck. The door opens, and she steps into a dark, narrow, carpeted corridor. The doors in this corridor are hidden in gloomy shadows. She senses that they exist for no other reason than to veil the evildoings that occur in the small and creaky room on the other side. Everything here speaks of dark secrets, whispered laughs, twitching pupils rolling into the backs of wide eyes. The levity is just too intense to be good. It is more like the ranting of old devils set loose to roam the corridors all night and then concealed in shadows all day.
There is a staircase at the end of the hall. She creeps down the carpeted steps. There are paintings of proud, glaring, fat Madams with improbably large hairdos and enough necklaces about their jowls to pull them to their old knees. The paintings hang along the side of the staircase, like the Stations of the Cross inside of an old and musty church. The glaring eyes, coarsened by so much mad debauchery and wisdom, stiffened by years of survival in a cruel world, appear to follow her down the steps. She does not actually look at these eyes, but she can sense them staring down at her with a mixture of contempt and familiarity.
The staircase winds into a foyer. There is a large, round table inside the foyer that showcases the largest floral arrangement she has ever seen. It is like a jungle of colors and fragrances within a blue crystal vase.
The foyer opens into a living room full of Victorian furniture, art pieces, long, ruffled dresses and lacy bonnets draped over the backs of tall chairs, and Oriental screens hiding open chests and various silken indiscretions. Everything is buried beneath yellowed dust. The air in that room seems heavier than in the foyer, and it smells of mildewed and moth eaten fabric. There are ghosts inside that room. One need not be particularly psychic to feel their listless memories.
The foyer also features a door to a sitting room. It is shut and apparently locked. There is an uncanny similarity between this configuration and the foyer and sitting room in Grandma Alice’s house. Indeed, for a brief moment, Shirley senses that she is back at Grandma Alice’s house and that she can smell father decomposing on the other side of that locked door.
Shirley also senses that she is being watched. Indeed, it is even stronger down here than when she had been creeping down the steps. Stranger still, she senses she is not being watched by a person, so much as by the ages. History is watching her. Or much more precisely, a particular, recurring cycle in history is watching her, waiting for its chance to snag her into a dark drama of which she has no knowledge but with which she is intimately linked, lurking behind a door or inside a shadow with its baton in hand.
She loses this insight about as soon as she starts to grasp it. Knowledge is a fleeting treasure for a little girl. What remains is the emotional impression on the subconscious mind, the toll on her heart, the slight quiver in her breaths. In those moments of intuited awareness, flying in and out of her like the soft wind through an open window, she is at once wiser than her years and smaller than a babe at her mother’s breast. She cannot do anything with this dichotomy but to stand still, until someone or something should act upon her.
She breaks out of this spell, when she hears the door unlock before her.
A heavyset woman in a sequined party dress stands in the doorway. Now, well into her middle aged years, she has a round, plump, jowly face, a volcanic eruption of charred, black hair that falls over her large shoulders and breasts in every which way, and a pair of lipstick red lips, snarling about a lit Lucky Strike that hangs off to the side, and taunting whoever happens to be standing before her to give her a reason to smack him or her over the head. She has the largest pair of lips Shirley ever has seen on a white woman. They call to mind the huge and oily lips that Shirley had viewed in a picture book about Little Black Sambo one long night while sitting on her father’s lap. He had been four or five sheets to the wind already, but he had had enough wits about him to explain to her in a kind of conspiratorial whisper that those big smackers are called ‘jungle lips.’
Shirley did not understand that odd reference then, nor frankly does she understand it now, except to state that ‘jungle lips’ are different. They are not the tense lips of a trained liar, like she had observed on the faces of the seedy, pungent men with leather jackets and slicked back hair that had stumbled into their trailer now and then to swap numbers with her father. They are huge fish lips just trying to get as much air out of the water to survive another couple of hours. They are the big lips of a survivor; and in Shirley’s experience, survivors have neither the time nor the tools to seek advantage through dissimulation. As far as she knows, all survivors can do is lie out their cards, and hope for a good hand somewhere in the mix. Her father had had tense lips. He had sought some sort of advantage in a world of chance, and he is now so dead and beyond ripe.
Shirley looks into the heavyset woman’s eyes. They are the cold and grey eyes of someone who learned long ago not to let herself feel much of anything. Those too are the eyes of survivors. It is impossible to live long in this world, if you are going to cry out every time someone hurts you. Shirley knows this hard lesson all too well. She has been crying a gusher for a while now; and she feels the life seeping out from her little girl soul, whenever she indulges those tears.
Then, after staring into those cold and grey eyes for a while, Shirley sees the feather headdress tilted off to the side on the big woman’s head. It is not a Big Chief headdress, like she had discovered in the very same picture book that had featured Little Black Sambo. No, these feathers appear so foreign as to be otherworldly. In fact, the feather headdress is vaguely Egyptian, but Shirley has about as much knowledge of Nefertiti as she does the Man in the Moon.
The heavyset woman drags deep on her Lucky Strike. Her breasts heave, like firm round mountains about ready to blast lava and smoke into the charred air above them. Her jowls wobble, like frightened chickens.
She holds that smoke for what seems an eternity, all the while staring at the little girl before her with the mad intensity of a tigress about to pounce, or of a drunk fool trying to fixate her eyes on something steady. It turns out she is neither; as she relaxes her snarling lips into a grandmotherly smile, while she is exhaling finally the foul and gunky smoke.
You’re Mavis’ girl, the heavyset woman remarks.
She is my aunt, Shirley responds in a soft whisper.
Is that what she said? The heavyset woman inquires with the air of a lady whose bullshit meter has hit the top.
Shirley does not respond. In a way, she does not think she has to respond with words. What they do not say in the silence that follows says it all.
Come on in, little girl, the heavyset woman says, while stepping aside to reveal a sitting room much like the one in Grandma Alice’s house (except there is no decomposing man sitting on a tall chair and staring blankly into his private hell). Don’t worry your precious, little heart. I ain’t gonna bite ya.
Shirley considers a moment. She looks up at the big mama with her huge searching eyes, while that big mama in turn waddles back into the sitting room.
Shirley finally steps through the doorway. She stops in mid step, and she almost cries out in fright. This sitting room is not similar to the one in Grandma Alice’s house. It is an exact replica; or way more likely, hers is an exact replica of this stately and timeless place. Even that old phonograph with the collection of 1920s Jazz records resting on its side is the same.
The heavyset woman watches the little girl’s reaction with a mix of real affection and amusement. She waddles over to the tall chair that is a replica of the one on which the girl’s father is now sitting. It is also a replica of the chair on which Grandma Alice had held court those many years. In many ways, it is a death and domination chair; and this stately sitting room is this woman’s black, medieval dungeon, when the lamps are turned down low enough after nightfall.
Shirley has made the mental connection, as she gasps when the big lady is about to drop her considerable butt and thighs onto the cushion of that same chair. She imagines her father’s corpse is a fleck on that worn cushion, and this big lady is about to squish what little remains of the corpse into the upholstery.
But then the silly illusion passes. Shirley looks down, more ashamed than frightened at that moment, and waits to be reprimanded by her hostess.
The heavyset woman has no such mind. She drags upon her Lucky Strike, and smiles warmly. The folds of her enormous party dress drape over the arms and the legs of the chair, so she calls to mind a smiling grandmother goddess in full-feathered opulence, floating a few feet off of the floor while maintaining a sitting posture, and looking benevolently upon one of her fair court attendants.
You’ve seen this room before, haven’t ya? The heavyset woman inquires.
I don’t know, Shirley mutters.
‘Course you do, little girl, the heavyset woman says. What’s it look like?
Shirley just shrugs her shoulders. She continues to look at her bare feet.
The heavyset woman reaches beneath her chair. This is not all that easy for her to do on account of her considerable girth, but she manages in due time to hold up a crystal bowl of sweets. She shakes the bowl, so that that timid girl on the other side of the room will brighten up at the sound of hard candy inside a bowl. All kiddies are the same, she reflects. Like puppies before a dog treat…
It takes a while. Shirley really is deep inside her own shell; but that lady with the cigarette dangling from her Sweet Mamie lips will not stop shaking the bowl, until finally Shirley looks up from a doldrums.
Reach in, and take whatever you want, the heavyset woman offers.
The fear falls away like a discarded jacket, and so Shirley walks forward to claim her prize from within the crystal bowl. She looks again at that strange headdress. She imagines that she is approaching some sort of fortuneteller, and is about to retrieve her omen from the bowl. That thought should have stopped her in her tracks. She and her father had pulled a con with a fortuneteller back in the day, and so she knew all too well that they were a nasty bunch. But, just then, she would rather have a reason to grin than indulge yet another old fright from her years on the run, so she rushes forward to the sweet and colorful bait.
There is a grape lollipop in the bowl. She is not surprised to see that it is waiting for her on top of all the other candies. She takes the lollipop, sits upon the floor beside the heavyset woman’s legs, and licks the sweet candy as if it is the last food she ever will have. The whole time she fastens her eyes upon the woman’s in the manner of a student waiting for her teacher to tell her a story, hopefully a happy story, but most importantly a truthful story.
Your Grandma Alice had a room just like this one, didn’t she? The obese woman says after a while. It’s okay. You do not need to be ashamed.
I guess so, Shirley answers with a trusting grin.
Some people run away from their past, the woman reflects. Others hold on. In either case, the past turns into something obsessive. It becomes a life of its own, you could say. Cut it off, and it lives on in the memories. Hold on, and it lives on in the furniture we choose, or in the color of our drapes, or maybe in the songs we play on the phonograph. The ones who run think they’re free. The ones who hold on think they’re responsible. But they’re both damned, I can tell ya. The men end up here, or in a watering hole somewhere, just hoping for the smallest reason to smile, a clean, well lighted place to ease the pain. The lady folk don’t have as many options. Not a whole lot of ‘working boys’ for them, ya see. And who ever heard of a chick watering hole that wasn’t a spot for lesbos? Anyway, ya don’t understand me. Best ya don’t. Just keep on licking. It’s best…
Did you know my Grandma Alice? Shirley asks.
The woman smiles. She considers the question a moment.
Be a good little girl, and fetch me my memory box, she says after pause.
Shirley responds with a quizzical look. The woman smiles even more and points at a box partially hidden behind the phonograph.
Shirley retrieves the box. It is not as heavy as she had presumed it would be. It is full of old, yellowed, creased photographs. Some are in rickety frames.
One of the framed photographs stands out even before the obese woman picks it out of the box. It is a picture of a fun and flirty redhead flapper. She is reclining on a lounge sofa; a champagne flute in one tipsy hand; a Lucky Strike in the other; an Indian feather poking out from behind the band of her so lovely cloche hat; a wild smirk inside her eyes that totally robs the blushing cheeks of their innocence. Shirley does not know anything about the Jazz Age. She would not be able to point out a ‘flapper’ if her life depended on it. But, even though she knows Grandma Alice only from one framed picture of her as an old woman and from the stories her father had told her (usually when plastered after hours and seldom in a positive light), she sees Grandma Alice at once within the face and the red hair of this young and flirty soul smiling in a den of jazz scoundrels.
The woman nods toward a sofa on the other side of the room. It is worn, even yellowed by the little sunlight that has been able to bleed into this sitting room over the decades, but it is definitely the same one.
Shirley practically sees the smoke from her Grandma Alice’s Lucky Strike slithering in the air several feet above the sofa cushions. It is ghost smoke. It is what remains of that particular party so many years ago. Every one of the jazz musicians, and smoking flappers, and married men seeking a good time with an unwholesome mistress in tow, indeed even those baby faced vice cops who had been sent there undercover to sniff out the booze, but who stayed for a chance to swing with a pair of loose legs and loopy eyes, every one of them is gone, no more than a chiseled name on a tombstone, or maybe a framed picture on top of a mantle somewhere; but the cigarette smoke lingers. It is the death omen, after all; and so it is fitting that it should remain thereafter as a memory of the lives wasted and the laughs lost. The ghost smoke slithers pointlessly above the cushions, pointlessly and thoughtlessly as when first exhaled in a fit of silliness.
I never met your Grandma Alice in person, the woman reflects. But I had this picture of her. All the Madams before me had kept it. It was special, like a captured memory of the last time there was real, unrestrained gaiety inside of this place. And I knew she had kept a copy of the picture for herself. Back then it was not easy to get a duplicate photograph. This was long before computers, where you can point, and click, and get a zillion copies of whatever nonsense is able to tickle your funny bone at the moment. But she got it, and kept it, or so I was told. And so I knew she wanted to keep this place with her, even after all the obligations of married life and of motherhood had convinced her that, good woman that she was, she should be ashamed of her past. And the thing is, that damned woman had no reason to be ashamed. Oh she turned her share of tricks before she met the man who swept her out of here; but she was never formally a ‘working girl.’ She just loved life, that was all, and a good song a sweet little girl and a handsome boy could dance to, and maybe a nightcap ‘neath the thin sheets upstairs. Hardly a reason to turn all hoity-toity Episcopalian, or vote the Republican ticket, or whatever the hell else she did to convince herself she had as clean a soul as before she ever showed up in this den of thieves and whores.
The woman looks down at the little girl. She can see the resemblance in her cheekbones and eyes. She suspects the little girl sees the resemblance too.
How do you know so much about my Grandma Alice if you never met her in person? Shirley asks thoughtfully while still licking her candy like a little girl.
So mature beyond your years, the woman comments wistfully, and then returns to her story. I had heard about her over the years. Some of the oldsters had known her husband. Like every man, it seems, he was the type to plant his seed in someone else’s fertile field, and then to moan about what’s wrong with his own. Most everyone knows a ‘working girl’ makes a man happy. What only a few know is that she makes a man happy, not primarily ‘cause of what they do together. It’s ‘cause she listens to him quietly, and without judgment, when he is putting on his trousers and lacing up his boots. So, yes, I knew her. I knew all about her the way we can know someone in stories whispered at small tables or behind screens. In a way, I know her better than if I’d met her; and I bet that’s the same with you. She’s in your heart, and mine, and this little sitting room is in hers, wherever she is now that she’s moved on from this tenement. Ya know, back when your Grandma Alice was here, we were a jazz den, what they called a speakeasy. The man shut us down, and we came back a place for fine men to be happy, and finer women to be well paid. But before all that, we were just a place for kicking up heels, and laughing at corny jokes, and mingling with them colored folk who could play so fine. That’s how your Grandma Alice knew us. As long as she lived, that’s what she kept close to her heart. She held on, damned woman, and your father ran for the hills. And they ended up just the same, did they not? There’s no judge of men six feet under. They’re all equally ugly down there. So what’s it matter? You hold on, or you run. I say lick your lollipop, and be stupid. In truth, there’s not much better for a woman than the life of a fool.
The heavyset woman stares intently at the little girl. She allows that last sentence of hers to linger in the air a while. If nothing else, then that sentence is what she wants to hit home to the little girl who already has learned way too much about this cruel world. Especially if she is pretty, a foolish girl can expect to be cared for in one way or another, perhaps even loved, while the wise, old hag ends up overseeing ‘working girls’ and reminiscing about beautiful ghosts in feathered cloche hats she never had an opportunity to meet in real life. That is the bargain; and if the heavyset woman could have it all over again, then she’d give anything to be in the same place as the innocent licking her grape lollipop.
There is a sound at the doorway leading into the sitting room. The obese woman and the little girl look over to see who has joined them.
It is Aunt Mavis. She is dressed in nothing, but a bordello red nightie that is hanging low and loose from her heaving breasts. She is unsure of her steps on the carpeted floor. She wipes away tears compulsively. They are not sad tears, so much as her hangover sliming out from her confused eyes and onto her face.
Girl, don’t bother Mama Gracie, Mavis blurts out.
I don’t mind, Mama Gracie says. We’re just doing some female bonding. Isn’t that what ya say nowadays? ‘Sister talking’ the rest of the morning away…
I like Mama Gracie, Shirley offers with a smile.
Aunt Mavis staggers over to Shirley. The carpet is an obstacle the whole time, and she nearly knocks over a vase on the way. When she reaches Shirley, she pats her head, and stands before the grandmother goddess without a damn clue what to do next.
Oh, love, ya never can beat the bottle, Mama Gracie says disapprovingly.
We’re all something’s nigger, Aunt Mavis reasons.
Mind your tongue, Mama Gracie snaps back.
Aunt Mavis blushes crimson red. She rests her right hand on Shirley’s left shoulder in order to keep her balance. She looks at the candy bowl, all of that wrapped sugar in one place, and a wave of nausea ripples out from her sick gut and up her throat. It takes every last bit of her will not to vomit just then.
Sis could handle it, that’s for sure, Aunt Mavis reflects.
Linda’s dead, Mama Gracie reminds her without sympathy. You’re living.
Yep, I’m living, Aunt Mavis says with a hiccup.
And ya little girl needs ya strong as a thoroughbred and dry as a Mormon, Mama Gracie continues without seeming to mind Aunt Mavis’ brief interruption.
Aunt Mavis looks at Shirley a while. She grapples with a sad and anxious thought that she thinks she needs to articulate to the little girl now beside her.
Go ahead and say your mind, Mama Gracie finally cuts the tense silence.
Aunt Mavis looks at Mama Gracie with a mixture of thankfulness and fear written all over her face. She is thankful that her adopted mother gave her the nudge she needed to say what she has to say. She is also fearful that she is such an open book that her Mama Gracie could see that, indeed, she has something to articulate just then. Are there no secrets in this world? Is literally everything scrawled on our faces so that we are the walking graffiti of our own dark souls?
Aunt Mavis kneels, so that she can talk face to face with Shirley.
Shirley looks into her eyes. She continues to lick at her lollipop with the enthusiasm of a kiddie come back from her first Trick or Treat, and yet there is a maturity in her face that suggests she is totally ready to take in whatever her Aunt Mavis wants to dish out to her. In a way, she is the adult, and Mavis is the little girl. This should be unnatural enough to give Shirley the creeps, but she is outwardly calm and collected when Aunt Mavis finally says what she has to say.
I’m your…I’m your…um, Aunt Mavis sputters out, and then glances at her Mama Gracie as if to say, ‘please throw me a lifeline, here.’
But Mama Gracie remains silent. It is time for Mavis to sink or to swim.
I’ll be like your mama, Aunt Mavis continues.
‘Like’ my derriere, Mama Gracie speaks up. Best ya be straight with her.
I’m your…um, Aunt Mavis falters again. Listen, I’ll never abandon you to the beast out there. Your days and nights of running have come to an end. Your home will be beside me, and mine will be beside you. I promise…
But how can Aunt Mavis promise anything, when she cannot even tell me the truth? Shirley thinks without letting that thought show upon her blank face.
I know you are my mother, Shirley goes on to think. Why can’t you say it to me? There must be something wrong with me. I must have been so bad that I deserve to be abandoned. It is like I am your orphan before I am your daughter.
Mama Gracie can read through Shirley’s blankness. The little girl knows, Mama Gracie thinks. And, really, isn’t that the most natural thing in the world? And isn’t it a disgrace how Mavis will not man up enough to acknowledge her as her daughter? Times like these I wish I had given up my ghost long ago. There is just no charm in living in an age of cowards.
Aunt Mavis hugs Shirley. After a brief moment, Shirley hugs her back; but there is no denying the hurt in Shirley’s eyes. Her face may be blank, but those teary eyes of hers attest to the living pain of being abandoned while embraced.
* * *
Long before the sprawling, gabled house on the banks of the Manchester River had been a speakeasy for flappers and jazz fiends, it had been a towering expression of the very soul of the American Puritan. At once a charitable home for ‘wayward girls’ and a jail for ‘wanton women,’ its many tiny rooms, narrow corridors, and spiraling staircases cloistered generations of women despised for one reason or another. The ‘good people’ in the white steeple churches in the towns of Manchester and Beverly would pass the plate twice a year to replace a few of the porch beams, or to repair a portion of the roof damaged by the hard winters; and the Christian Ladies made a point of showing up in early December with a Christmas gift basket for the dour and crippled spinster who ran the girls in small circles with her foul mouth and her cat o’ nine tails. The hardscrabble men trying to eek out a living from the tall trees in what would become in later years the Redwood Township also supported the London House (built by an old, scowling, serpentine gnome named Hosea London, who embraced an especially harsh, Calvinist vision of the Man of Sorrows late in his life, and who sailed out to the American colonies to inflict his mad vision on as many orphaned girls and loose women as could be snagged out from the poor farms and country hovels), though they did so not by passing the plate but by planting their Old Scot seeds into any girl who seemed ripe enough to carry them to term. The London House soon became synonymous with unwed motherhood. The girls born there stayed. They boys born there were sold to farm families always looking for another pair of hands to milk the cows and to hoe the fields. Though founded by Mr. London and the small vestry of Calvinist elders who always surrounded him like a queer entourage of skinny, stooped shouldered, Bible clutching demons, his sprawling house on the banks of the Manchester River would be run thereafter exclusively by spinsters, schoolmarms, and then Madams, thus forever identifying the place with the ‘female species,’ and so castigating it into the shadows of civilization.
The London House frightened the smaller boys in town. They would dare one another to play hooky, to wander along the mossy banks of the Manchester River beyond the township line, to climb up the rocks that were the foundation of the gabled house, and then to stare into one of the oval windows for a count of thirty seconds. Most boys never even got as far as the rocks. They saw all the triangle roofs and oval windows from a distance, and ran back to their mothers. They few who climbed the rocks fled as soon as they saw one of those maudlin, pasty faced, scarecrow skinny girls peeking back at them from behind their old, tasseled curtains. The girls always had blank looks in their unblinking eyes; and so far as the boys could tell, they did not have any mouths at all. They seemed to be stringy haired skulls wrapped tightly in white skin. One of the scared boys insisted that the girl he’d seen was ‘floating’ through her second story window, when he finally managed to break out of his frozen fear just enough to hightail it back to the world of Male Breadwinners and Christian Ladies.
As the London House frightened the smaller boys, so it thrilled the pants off of the bigger ones. An adolescent boy who had yet to roll in the hay with his neighbor’s daughter, or who had yet to stay ‘after school’ with the spectacled, horse faced, one room schoolhouse teacher who had a reputation as a ‘bookish trollop,’ could learn a little something about the birds and the bees by taking a detour out to that strange house by the river. He’d climb up the rocks, hide out in the basement (the basement door lock had been broken eons ago, and so the door swayed on creaky hinges all day, as if calling the thieves and the perverts to come on inside for a spell), and wait patiently in the cobwebs for one of the ‘pasty loons’ to walk downstairs carrying a laundry basket. Then, he’d stumble out from behind the cobwebs like some sort of six-foot tall spider monster, pull her into the black shadows, and beat her over the head until she was ready and willing for some love. She’d moan. She’d mutter baby talk in her half conscious state, no doubt because she is a retard, the rapist would think at the time. And then she’d awaken with a vicious start a few hours later, when the spinster had managed finally to hobble down to the basement and to strike her with the cat o’ nine for sleeping on the job. If God had been merciful that day, then the girl with the bruised thighs would not be with child. There’d be no lasting legacy of that ‘boyish excess,’ but a recurring nightmare of a spider draped in its stinky, gooey cobwebs crawling on top of her, and poking its eight legs into her vagina. If God had not been merciful, then she would be with child; the spinster would beat the ‘Jezebel Whore’ out of her (a brutal session with the cat o’ nine every morning and every night, until the baby had been born); and the baby would be pulled out from her womb and handed off to an in house nursemaid, if the baby turned out to be a girl, or to a married couple waiting outside the dark delivery room, if the baby turned out to be a boy. Either way, she would not be allowed ever to know that child, since of course the ‘licentious’ by definition are ‘unfit mothers.’ The only positive to come out of the whole, sad affair was that a boy in town had learned a little something about the birds and the bees well before his honeymoon night. God forbid he should learn on the job with his new bride.
There were adult men who visited the London House from time to time. Of course there were the male halves of married couples hoping to add another boy to their already considerable litter, but there were also men who came and left by no wifey by their sides. He could be a constable ‘checking up on rumors of impropriety,’ or a preacher man ‘bringing Jesus even to the lost sheep,’ or a laborer ‘fixing the roof before the wintry snows.’ Regardless, these men always had booze on their breath, when they staggered up the porch steps, grabbed at the porch column to regain their balance, and pounded on the front door. They slurred incomprehensibly, and wiped anxious sweat from their brow, when they told the little girl who answered why they were there in the dead of night. And then, when they felt that they had done enough explaining (after all, even this cursed London House is in a man’s world, and since when does a good man have to answer to a skull faced girl with big, dumb eyes and filmy, white skin?), they would push their way inside and demand some private time with their ‘favorite girl.’ The spinster always kept a clean, vacant bedroom on the top floor for any private time; and the ‘favorite girls’ went along about as blankly as they did all of their other chores. On the positive side, these men never hurt their ‘favorite girls,’ even when they brought along ropes and masks to play ‘dungeon love.’ It would make no sense to hurt them, just as it would make no sense for a farmer to hurt his best horse. The beast has a task to do; and it cannot do it very well, if it is hobbling about like a drunk with a load of shit in her overalls. Sometimes the ‘favorite girl’ felt a little sore the next morning, but she was never going to be with child. Her man would make sure of that. And if her man tipped well on his way out the door, then the spinster would spare her the cat o’ nine the rest of the week. She’d hear the others screaming from the intense pain of the lash, but as she sat in her bedroom experiencing no such pain herself, she would see the very truth of the assertion that the only real blessing is the punishment not divvied out. Better the other girl’s ass be raw and prickly the rest of that night.
And so the London House earned yet another black mark upon its already bad reputation. It was not only a home for unwed mothers, and wayward girls, and wanton women, and the occasional ghost floating in and out of the second story oval windows, but it was also a house of ill repute, a den of whores, a sad blight that will be struck down by the Old Testament God one of these days, so as to protect the good men in town from the Sirens intent on seducing them. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the creepy spinsters started to don the dresses and the hats of disreputable Madams. Rather than scowl, they smiled as if Moroccan traders trying to sell you a rotted area rug. Rather than glare, they looked upon the visitor with sparkling eyes. Their eyes said that this is the spot for an ‘easy time,’ if you have it in you to spare a coin or two for Jesus, that is.
Of course, since time immemorial, ‘easy time’ usually refers to a private bedroom, a clean sheet on a firm bed, and a girl in a nightie with nothing at all to say, except for an occasional moan and a starry-eyed admission that she had never known that a man’s manhood could be so big and heavenly. But an ‘easy time’ also could refer to a large stash of hard to find opium, or a box of banned books (add an extra quarter, and you get to observe the pictures that had been in the books initially, but then had been ripped out by the censors), or even an old tigress that had been stolen out from a travelling circus show and had made its way somehow into the basement. The old tigress did not last long, since the girls had no idea what to feed it; but it was a sensation as long as it lived; and, on account of all the ‘donations’ offered for a chance to see the beast up close and personal, the spinster had enough discretionary money on hand to purchase a whole new closet full of extravagant dresses and hats.
And then the colored folk started to come around. That would have been sometime in the teens. They were playing already the jazz that would explode in the white world about a decade later. They were a ramshackle bunch, like a Gypsy caravan, except with better suits hanging upon their smooth black flesh, much better command of the English language (though with a Negro dialect the older ladies in London House could never totally comprehend), and penises that really were as big and heavenly as the girls had said untruthfully to their johns.
Many of the girls were taken with child. Knowing that in nine months the sprawling, gabled house beside the river would be overrun by nigger, half-bred, beast babies (their imagination ran wild with screaming, saber toothed, darkies crawling out from white wombs and tearing the white flesh off of every woman in the delivery room, before scurrying down a vent to squeal with all the other rats inside the rocky foundation of the house), the older ladies conspired to buy the services of an abortionist. He did not come cheap; and when he did stagger drunkenly up the porch steps one night, he came with the smell of dead babies and booze on his breath; but, nevertheless, within a span of twenty-four hours, he had poked and prodded enough girls on a makeshift surgical cot in the dark, cobwebby basement as to make sure that no half-breeds would see the light of day inside the London House. Only two of the girls lost their lives from internal bleeding. A good percentage in my line of work, he had indicated, before those few girls spared the knife had dragged the mangled corpses of their friends out of the blood drenched basement, passed the crate of baby parts just outside of the swaying basement door, and into the newly dug graves inside of the London House Bone Yard. Those twenty-four hours would live on in the memories of all the girls who had been there. For them it would be ‘the day of the baby killer,’ and the morbid ghosts from that day would haunt them until they too had been lowered into their cold graves. For everyone else it would be just one more bit of lore surrounding the house out by the river; one more tall tale; one more sad campfire story that ends with an unexpected scare (usually, one of the aborted darkies coming back to life by the light of the silver moon, squirming out a hole in the crate, and crawling with its three remaining limbs into the old spinster’s bedroom, where it proceeds to dine on her screaming, writhing flesh, while the other girls pretend not to hear her cries in the dead of the night).
Notwithstanding ‘the day of the baby killer,’ the London House girls still received the colored folk. Yes, they loved the sex (or pretended to love the sex so as to keep the man’s affections); but much more so, they loved the jazz, the swing, the brand new ‘thing’ that would mark forever their generation from all the others that had preceded. Add the Prohibition Amendment into the cultural blend, and it is no surprise that the London House overnight should become the main speakeasy within a fifty-mile radius. The musicians, the rum runners, the not-so-undercover vice cops came in droves; and with them came the beautiful flappers with their cigarette holders and their cloche hats. Alice Spencer made her way into this mix. She smoked, drank, and lindy-hopped better than any of the others. The musicians insisted she had to have at least some Negro blood in her. What else could account for her wild moves on the dance floor (the sitting room converted into a dance floor every Friday night from dusk until dawn)? No way a pure white could dance like an Ethiopian Queen, the musicians snickered to one another in between sets. Way too much demon fire in her red hair, they commented. The rumor had started to spread beyond the circle of musicians. If Alice Spencer had not been swept away, and transformed into the rich socialite Alice Hart, then her reputation as some sort of a ‘secret Negress’ in time would have taken hold among the ‘best people;’ and her life would have been turned down a very different road than the one she eventually would travel. No way to tell if it would have been a better road. Maybe she would have followed a path similar to the one followed later by her own daughter. Instead of marching with Martin Luther King, she would have been in that generation that marched with Upton Sinclair almost into the California Governor’s Office. Her battle cry may have been ‘social security for all,’ as the battle cry for her daughter would turn out to be ‘civil rights for all.’ She would not have holed herself up in her sitting room, that’s for sure. She would not have spent her life trying to preserve as a mausoleum the last time she had been really happy. But really, would this have been a better road or would she have turned out to be hard and miserable still?
Shirley cannot say. She does not even know the question. Of course, this is not to say that she knows next to nothing of her Grandma Alice. Mama Gracie had been right when she said that sometimes we can know people even better, because we have not met them in person. Their stories reveal so much more of themselves than the polite lies and the affable masks behind which they would be hiding, if ever we were to meet them in person. And while Mama Gracie has precious little to offer about Grandma Alice; and whatever her father had said, usually while agitated and drunk, in fact says more about him and his sad state of mind than about that grim lady with the cigarette in the framed photograph back at Grandma Alice’s house; the London House imparts plenty of old stories.
There are the creaks in the wood panels, the moan of the night wind as it slides under the eaves, the rattle of the windows in a rainstorm, the rippling, wafting echo of laughter or conversation moving sluggishly through the maze of narrow corridors and cracked vents from one side of the house to the other, all the old bone, musty flavored, settled in sounds of a house with too much tragic history etched into its walls and fixtures. These are the voices that tell the old stories. Shirley can hear her Grandma Alice in the way the basement door even now sways creakily in the wind. It is as if Grandma Alice is inviting people from outside to take a look at what is beneath her long skirt. And then there are the rat squeals further inside the basement. Here is Grandma Alice laughing like an unbridled loon, while someone pours the champagne into her flute and another someone asks her if she’d like to do the Charleston. Now, walk up the creaking basement steps. Can you hear the rustle of her dress, when she is walking hand in hand with her charming paramour up to one of the vacant bedrooms? Walk to the kitchen upstairs, and close the door behind you. Can you hear now how the lock latches, when she lets her nightie fall beneath her breast, slides her naked back into the door, and opens her arms for the wide-eyed man standing in front of her? These are adult thoughts, to be sure; but Shirley has seen a lot of adult things over the past few months of living at London House with her Aunt Mavis, Mama Gracie, and the other ‘working girls.’ She has heard even more than she has seen. Aunt Mavis keeps telling her that she’s an innocent girl; Mama Gracie keeps feeding her grape lollipops; but she thinks there’s just a little bit of hard wisdom creeping into her eight-year-old soul. And maybe that’s not a bad thing after all, she thinks now and then. Maybe it is okay, if I know what the score is.
Because, truth be told, there is a lot of scoring at the London House. All the men are impeccably dressed in suits, ties, even hats, when they show up at the front door sometime after sunset. Shirley would like to greet them, but her Mama Gracie explains that the men would find the experience of being greeted by a little girl somehow ‘deflating,’ unless of course they were the kind of sick, child loving perverts to which London House does not cater. You mean deflating like a balloon? Shirley asks. Yes, it is like a balloon. Ya can even hear the winds blowing out the tiny hole in their trousers, when they’re shuffling back to their Cadillacs or their Mercedes Benzes. And so, no, Shirley cannot be a greeter, but she is allowed to watch them while peeking out from behind the closed door to the sitting room. Actually, it is good that she watches, learns the techniques of an experienced greeter, sees how the men react to this or that gesture, as that day will arrive when she is bold and busty enough to do a grown woman’s work. And when that day comes, she needs to be ready for the score. When all is said and done, she needs to make sure she earns more points on her side of that old ledger sheet in her head than the man with the big smile and the bigger wallet.
Frankly, that should not be too difficult, Shirley thinks. The men all look and act like fish out of water. Even the repeaters (and there are many of them, thank God, for the bills to be paid every month on time) never appear to be all that comfortable. First, their smiles never fit in with their eyes. They have the self-assured, even cocky, lips of a mature lover plastered upon their faces; but their eyes dart about anxiously, as if they are expecting a vice cop to jump out from the shadows at any time. They recite their usual lines (Now, how is this or that girl? Warm brandy always hits the spot, thank you. Hon, always know that what we share really means something to me, because you’re not at all like the others. Was it as good for you as it was for me? I cannot wait for our next date. Give my regards to so and so. I hope she feels better soon.), but take them off script, and they are flustered. It is not that they have moral qualms about what they are doing here. Rather, it seems to be about where they are now and with whom they are sharing a brandy in the foyer before walking up to a bedroom in the second or third floor. If there is a sin in this whole affair, then for the men at least it has to do with the class of people with whom they are associating for an hour or two. The ‘working girls’ may as well be niggers; and instead of 2014 on the banks of the Manchester River it may as well be 1961 in the Deep South.
The ‘working girls’ understand that this is part of the allure. It is like the men want to be uncomfortable; out of place; somewhere so nasty they hope no one will ever be the wiser. Think of the white man on the hunt in the jungle. It is not good enough just to bag the trophy. He wants to know that he has put on his khakis, laced up his boots, set his Panama squarely on his head, cleaned his rifle, and ventured into a dark and forbidding place. The actual sport is walking into the heart of darkness, and coming back out with your mind and your place in society still pretty much intact. The actual sport is stumbling into a lost tribe behind the bush; and seeing how the aboriginals twist and thrust their flesh out from the confinements of their bodies and into the fire spirit crackling up from the great bonfire; and participating fully in this experience, while also keeping intact all that education, and class, and racial privilege that permits him to be counted among gentlemen. The men stepping into London House are not on the hunt in Darkest Africa. They will not be sharing a tent with Ernest Hemingway, or trading for medicine with a primitive shaman. But they want to be out of the safe zone, just enough anyway to get their heart pumping and to feel the beads of sweat trickling down their brows when they ascend the porch steps; and the ‘working girls,’ therefore, oblige them. They wear the kind of colorful lingerie, the gaudy feathers in their hair, the garish makeup on their faces, the platinum blond wigs on their heads, and even more so the exaggerated, hippy walk, and that star-stunned, whispered voice, that indicates that they are not at all like a decent white woman raising the munchkins and paying the bills in a tract home in good, old Suburbia, USA. The ‘working girls’ are all white, and they really do not want to think of themselves as ‘niggers,’ even though they realize that that is how the men think of them. But they are happy to be ‘Ethiopian Queens,’ or Cleopatras, or Nefertitis, as the case may be, because they know that when the hour chimes, and they are shuffling out their john to get ready for the next one later that same night, they will have razzle-dazzled a score over and above the little bits of sexual warmth that the john will be able to take with him into the cold darkness beyond the front door.
And that’s all that Grandma Alice wanted, Shirley thinks. She wanted to stay in her sitting room, wrap a mink about her neck, and smoke her cigarettes until she had no more lungs to smoke them, because that meant she had scored over and above the johns hustled out the front door. And if that is okay for my Grandma Alice, then it is okay for me, Shirley concludes with a contended grin.
Shirley imagines herself prancing about the great bonfire. She glances at her own skin. It is no longer white. It is caramel brown, and turning stark black with every new twist or turn of her acrobatic body about the fire spirits.
She sees that Aunt Mavis is inside the bonfire. Mavis is tied to a pole and screaming in desperate agony from the sting of the flames. There is dark smoke billowing out from Mavis’ mouth, ears, and eyes; and yet she is able to talk still in intelligible words, although Shirley has no doubt that the end is near for her.
I killed the Red Witch, Mavis cries. I killed her. I killed her. I killed her…
You killed me, Shirley cries back, while still dancing. ‘Cause I’m the Red Witch. You killed yourself, ‘cause you’re the Red Witch. You killed all of us, my Mama Gracie, my Grandma Alice, ‘cause we’re all the Red Witch.
And we’re all living in London House, Mama Gracie sings exultantly from somewhere inside the dance circle.
But we’re all on the run, Grandma Alice continues with the next refrain.
Outlaws, outcasts, witches, and niggers, the entire dance circle chants.
The dance circle moves faster with every revolution about the bonfire. It is like the tiger in Little Black Sambo. It is trying to catch its own tail. It moves so fast with its hips thrusting and its hands waving that is turns into butter. The butter is unlike anything that Shirley has seen. It is not at all like the picture of butter in Little Black Sambo. It is only yellow for a moment, and then it breaks down into something stinky, and gooey, and brown, as if dead flesh and mulch. There are ghost cries inside this butter, screams of agony, calls for revenge, all the torment that comes from living free, on the run, beyond the reach of moral and temporal laws. There is a crack running down the face of the earth, and all the butter seeps into the crack. It is like hell falling back into itself in eternity.
But while the butter is lost, the bonfire still burns, and Mavis still cries: I killed the Red Witch. I killed her. I killed her. I killed her. I killed her. I killed…
Because Linda is dead, but Mavis is still living. Mavis is a survivor. Mavis is the person who has to take care of Shirley, because she is Shirley’s mother in this world, even if she will not admit it. And she needs to keep Shirley innocent in this world, even if Shirley already lost her innocence on the long, dark roads.
But how can Aunt Mavis protect me when I have fallen through the crack in the soil? Shirley thinks. How can she protect me when she is still on the pole?
With those two questions repeating themselves ad infinitum in her head, Shirley awakens out from her dream. She had been sleeping on the thick carpet in the sitting room. Her silver plate is next to her. It is full of dollars and coins, though like the silver collection plates at church there is always room for more.
Mama Gracie is towering over her. She had nudged Shirley out from that dream with her right foot. Her flabby eyes and sunken cheekbones suggest that she is ready to call it quits for the night, but she manages nevertheless to smile down at the little girl. She observes Shirley scrambling back onto her bare feet.
Don’t forget your duty, Mama Gracie says. We still have one more guest.
Shirley likes that Mama Gracie refers to the johns as ‘guests.’ The others who live and work at London House have a less generous word for them. Shirley is not sure if the men are good. They just seem weak and out of place, as far as she can tell; and a ‘guest’ is a good way to describe a man, who is out of place.
Shirley is not allowed to be a greeter, lest she ‘deflate’ the man; but, in Mama Gracie’s view, a little girl with a sweet smile and no bust is the ideal girl to ask for a tip when he is on his way out the door. It makes sense, really. He is about to return to civilization. He wants to reclaim his moral dignity, his sense of what is right and wrong in Suburbia, USA, and so he can do that on the cheap by tossing his change in the direction of a little girl who is obviously very down on her luck to be associated with a place like London House. Indeed, the moral and upstanding man would march right over to the police department, or child protective services, if there was any way he could report this unholy child labor without also letting the authorities know that he had been there. Oh, sure, the powers that be say that they have set up ‘anonymous lines’ for reporting abuse of children, but what is anonymous anymore in 2014? For all he knows, the NSA is liable to have that ‘anonymous line’ tapped, like everything else in the good, old Soviet States of America. And so the man tosses her his change, shuffles out the door, and says nothing to no one. He forgets about her, until he sees her at the front door again the next time he is stepping back into the cold, dark night.
Shirley steps into the foyer. The man is there already. He is buttoning up his coat, and wrapping a scarf about his chicken neck. He is a balding, old man, his Hitler mustache looks ridiculous, his pudgy midsection says that he does not have a whole lot of success with the girls outside of the London House. The sad look on his face says that he already wishes to be as far from this indecent spot as he is from the stars in the sky. He does not seem to be in a charitable mood; but, in fact, it is the sad, ornery, disgusted man who is in most need of a bit of moral redemption. Shirley expects this guest to unload everything in his wallet.
He does not give her everything, but he gives her more than anyone else that evening. She smiles back at him. He seems mildly relieved, and that makes her feel good. She watches him shiver from the brisk, cold winds outside, as he walks down the porch steps and toward his Audi. She closes the door upon him.
As she turns from the door, she sees Mama Gracie watching her from the sitting room doorway. Mama Gracie looks very proud. That makes Shirley feel a good, warm wholeness in her soul that she will never experience again. She will try to retain this good moment in the horrors to follow, like her Grandma Alice had tried to retain the last time she was genuinely happy, but she will learn all too well that memory is fleeting, and never measures up to the intensity of the good moments in time. That is a hard lesson to learn. It makes her far too wise.
* * *
Mama Gracie dies before dawn.
Shirley awakens suddenly from the last restful sleep that she will have in this lifetime. There is a terrible scream coming from the attic. It sounds like an old alley cat ensnared in the fight for its life; but then, after sitting upright and wiping the sleep out of her eyes, Shirley recognizes that it is not the scream of an alley cat, but rather of one of the ‘working girls.’ She thinks that it is Diane, the mysterious ‘working girl’ with the long, black hair and catlike eyes that has the disconcerting look and feel of a Gypsy. Talk about a woman on the run. The mysterious Diane always looks like she is harboring a terrible secret and as such may split without notice at any time. She seldom says anything; and even when she does speak, it is never louder than a sultry purr; so the very fact that Diane of all people is screaming confuses and frightens Shirley even more so than the actual scream itself. Coming from Diane, the scream sounds unnatural.
Shirley looks at Aunt Mavis, who is in a deep sleep beside her. Mavis stirs to the extent of moving from her back to her side. She is clutching her emptied bottle of booze. There is a smelly booze stain on her nightie and her bed sheet.
Shirley hears wood panels creaking, as bare feet scamper down the dark and narrow corridors and up the winding staircase. One of the ‘working girls’ is on the wall telephone downstairs in the kitchen. She is speaking in a breathless voice. Her words are so garbled it is almost impossible for Shirley to understand them; but that does not matter really, as Shirley can feel the thick and hot air that always seems to settle into a place when there is an emergency underway.
She pushes her bed sheet aside, and rushes out of her bedroom. As soon as she steps into the hallway, she senses what has happened upstairs. Her heart sinks into her bowels, and it takes every bit of her will not to curl up into a ball right then and there and to bawl like a baby.
She rushes down to the foyer. From there, she can hear the phone call in the kitchen beyond the living room. Gladys is on the phone. She is the oldest of the ‘working girls’ who still takes ‘riders’ into her ‘stable’ now and then. Mama Gracie would sit with Gladys and Eunice for hours at a time in the sitting room, playing poker, puffing cigars, and swapping stories about the ‘old days.’ Gladys always put the other two in stitches with her play by play accounts of the older ‘guests’ who preferred Gladys over the younger girls. Shirley eavesdropped (not hard to do, since Mama Gracie allowed her to play inside the sitting room, even when the three older ladies were holding court there). Most of the lurid details flew over her head, but she got the common thread: the geezer ‘guests’ simply could not ‘get it up’ anymore, and so preferred talking about their problems at home (no longer the frigid wife, since they were all widowers now, but instead the ungrateful sons who were going to be removed soon from their wills, or the clueless grandsons who never looked up from their goddamned smartphones so much as to say ‘hello’). Gladys felt more like a therapist for geezers than a real ‘working girl’ for hard up men, and she joked that she would replace the bed in her room with a Sigmund Freud couch and a set of Rorschach inkblot cards.
Now, Gladys is not joking. She is a gibbering mess on the wall telephone. Shirley makes out that she has called Desiree, the black midwife and ‘Ethiopian Shaman’ who visits now and then to cast spells and to clean up messes. Desiree is the only black woman to show up once in a while; and yet, whenever Desiree is there, she does not seem out of place. She is welcomed like a member of the London House family; and as long as she is there, all of the ‘working girls’ seem to be as black skinned and as sensual as the tall, thin, timeless beauty with the enormous, round earrings and the hand embroidered, hooded, habesha dresses.
Shirley does not stay around long to listen. In spite of all the hours spent eavesdropping the three older ladies over the past few months, she senses now that she would be violating Gladys in a particularly terrible way, if she were to try to make sense of what Gladys is saying to the black witch on the other end. Anyway, Shirley is much more drawn to what is going on upstairs, although she knows that it will break her heart.
There are many staircases in the sprawling, gabled London House. Hosea London apparently had had a premonition of DNA strands, as every one of them is a corkscrew winding from a wood floor to a dark and musty space somewhere between the ground floor and the attic (like DNA strands tethered to the walls of cells and ascending into the empty space inside of cells). Only one of the old and windy staircases makes it all the way to the attic. It starts from behind the secret wall door in the living room, and ends at the bolted, attic door up there.
Shirley pulls the secret wall door open. She steps onto the staircase, and looks up. She sees the shadowy forms of three ‘working girls’ ascending the old and narrow steps. It is such a small space the girls need to stoop their head and shoulders downward, so that they almost look as if they are climbing the steps. Shirley wonders how Mama Gracie could have travelled up and down this small space several times every single day. Obviously, she had been much stronger in person than her obesity and her asthmatic attacks would have indicated.
Shirley normally would have ascended the steps with ease, but her heavy heart drags her torso forward and slides her bare feet over the splintery planks. She stops several times along the way to fight back tears.
Diane stopped screaming like an alley cat sometime ago; and so there is nothing up there, but a maudlin deathbed silence broken occasionally by a sigh or a sniffle. This is even more frightening than the scream that had yanked her out from her restful sleep. She imagines that hell is a place of muffled whispers and nervous foot tapping, rather than the loud and raucous domain of bawling, gnashing burn victims. Hell is the Church of the Damned; and like any church in her imagination (not her reality, since her father had never seen fit to educate her in the Bible, let alone to take her hand and to walk her into a parish church building) it is a small, smoky, dark chamber of echoes during the day and ghost wails during the night. There is just hell up there, and Shirley is walking into it.
Every one of the ‘working girls,’ except for Gladys and Mavis, is standing at the open doorway. Either Mama Gracie had not bothered to bolt her door, or Diane had been able to force her way inside anyway (force may not be the best word to describe the subtle and sly manner by which Diane gets from point A to point B; and so, in the case of Diane, it is easier to imagine that the Gypsy Lady had moved through the closed door magically, than that she had taken a bar or a pistol to the bolt). They are huddled there, like anxious girls at a parade line.
Shirley takes up the rear. Unconsciously, she folds her fingers before her chest in the pose of a little girl offering a prayer to her favorite angel. A single tear falls down her right cheek, but this one she does not bother to wipe away.
She finally did it, the old witch, Eunice remarks through her tears.
No one responds. There are no words to be said at that moment. Though heartfelt, even Eunice’s remark somehow seems inappropriate.
We can’t just stand here, one of the ‘working girls’ says after some time passes. Mama would want us to do what we have to do.
There appears to be an unspoken agreement with what she had said, but no one moves forward. There is a greater force at play here. It may be no more unusual than the confused inaction that follows surprise, or it may be that first inkling of grief that will develop over the next few hours into a group paralysis; but, regardless, it is powerful enough to hold them back from what they all aim to do. Shirley feels this paralysis as much as everyone else. She cannot do more with herself than to keep her fingers in prayer and to roll on her feet anxiously.
Finally, Gladys joins the others. She stands behind Shirley, and rests her hands upon Shirley’s shoulders, as if she is about to massage them. At first, she does not look like she knows where she is; but then, she finds enough of herself to inform the others that indeed Desiree is on her way now to bless Mama.
That bit of news breaks the spell. First Eunice, then the others, step into the attic bedroom. Diane is already in there. She had never left. She had given up screaming like an alley cat, and then she had walked over to the small deck that juts out from the attic and overhangs the Manchester River.
Gladys takes Shirley’s hand. The two of them are the last to step inside.
The attic is a small, cramped room with a triangle ceiling. Everywhere in this dark and dusty place, there are piles of vintage attire, feathered hats, long leather boots, and costume jewels. Open chests reveal more expensive goodies that she would mix in with her costume pieces, so as to imply that her costume pieces were more valuable than they really were. She had been a master in the art of mixing the cheap and the pricey, the gaudy and the sophisticated; and it really took no more than a glance at her sprawling mess to hit that point home.
The main feature is a hospital bed that Mama Gracie had installed a few years prior. Because of her obesity, she wanted a bed that she could lower with a push of a button. She also wanted to keep her back raised, so as to cope with her sleep apnea. A medieval machine with a hose and a nose mask humming by the hospital bed also had been installed. It had had something to do with sleep apnea; but in Shirley’s mind, its real purpose had been to transform Mama’s big but beautiful face into the face of a robot aardvark.
Mama Gracie is on top of her bed sheet. Her eyes are closed, which must mean that she had died in her sleep. Hopefully, she had been having a pleasant dream, and had stepped into that dream when she died, Shirley thinks. It looks that way what with that relaxed expression etched forever into her death face.
Mama Gracie is clutching a white carnation in one hand. She is holding in her other hand the framed photograph of a young and tipsy Alice Spencer. Even at the end, she had been treasuring beside her heart that flapper girl she knew so well precisely because she had never met her in real life. Maybe when Mama Gracie died, she just stepped into that photograph and joined Alice at the gala.
Shirley looks away from the corpse. She is overwhelmed by her sorrow at that moment. She would rather remember Mama Gracie as the maternal figure in the flamboyant dresses and feathered hats who rattled the crystal bowel full of candies whenever she wanted to get Shirley’s attention. She would rather be laying on the sitting room carpet, listening to Mama Gracie laugh at something risqué that Gladys or Eunice had said, and smelling the floral scented cigar that she sucked deeply into her lungs until there was barely a stub left in her greasy fingers. She would rather be watching from the black shadows, as Mama Gracie held Aunt Mavis on her lap, like the buxom blond had not yet reached a double digit age, and listened attentively to the young woman’s confused cries. There had been many mental breakdowns in London House over the years, warm tears that seemed never to mellow into a glassy stare, mad utterances in between all those sobs; and Mama Gracie had been there to lend her nonjudgmental ears to them all, since the evening so long ago that she had become the beloved House Mother. She had taken the calls in the middle of the night, buried the babies in the London House Bone Yard, sprinkled the blood alongside Desiree to keep the gods smiling over the sprawling house by the river.
There had been one other death at London House since Shirley had come into this outcast family. A ‘working girl’ named Tabitha had succumbed, slowly but finally, to a brutal beating that she had suffered in town. Shirley had heard the other ‘working girls’ whisper among themselves about how Tabitha had had it coming, how she had gone off and fallen in love with one of her repeat johns (a fatso mama’s boy with the kind of oversized grin that suggested to everyone else but Tabitha that indeed his still waters ran very deep), how she had stayed with him, in spite of Mama Gracie’s dire warnings that he was a ‘Sneaky Pete,’ and how, notwithstanding her consistent recklessness, Mama Gracie would not give up on the rosy cheeked nineteen-year-old. Shirley had heard it all in those subdued days after one of the Manchester Vice Cops had dropped her corpse off on the front porch without saying a word to the ‘working girls’ assembled there (no body in the morgue, no reason to determine officially that there had been a homicide, no prosecution of the son of the Mayor’s ex-wife). But mostly she’d watched Mama Gracie cradle the dead girl in her arms, mutter the kind of soft, intimate prayer that only the dead can hear, and then gather her up as if she’d been a sleeping toddler ready for the crib. That had been a feat in itself. Mama Gracie normally did not walk, so much as waddle. Her asthmatic, charcoal dark lungs gave out about as soon as they started up. The near constant sweat beads upon her brow indicated just how hard it was for her to perform those tasks the others took for granted. And yet, with Tabitha in her outstretched arms, and a brisk night wind whipping her skirt in every direction, Mama Gracie had walked out to the Bone Yard with the strong step and the erect spine of a lady half her age and weight. She’d stood stoically beneath the whispering redwood branch, while two of the younger ‘working girls’ had shoveled away enough dirt to form a proper grave, and the rest of the ‘working girls’ had cast their eyes down and wrung their hands. When finally the grave had been dug, she’d stepped forward with the grace and the silence of a ghost, had placed Tabitha into the dirt, had cast a white carnation onto Tabitha’s chest, and had offered such a forlorn cry that the gods had responded by shattering the sky with a crash of thunder. The service ended, Mama Gracie led everyone back into London House, uncorked an untold number of wine bottles (and a Martinelli’s Apple Cider for Shirley), took out her favorite Jazz records, and drew everyone into the living room for a fun, magical, all night party in honor of the girl now forever etched into their home.
Now, with Mama Gracie gone, Shirley has experienced her second death at London House. She knows of course what Mama Gracie would want her to do on this occasion. Indeed, Mama Gracie would want all the ‘working girls’ to do the same. But Shirley just cannot envision walking downstairs, putting on a big, phony grin, and uncorking the Martinelli’s Apple Cider, while the others search through the liquor stash and turn on the phonograph. The very thought of being jubilant at this moment makes her sick to her stomach. Yes, she knows that the dead can be remembered, indeed honored, through inane laughter and slurred stories as much as through whispered tears. It is not the emotion that matters. It is the sincerity. And that is precisely why the thought of being jubilant twists and turns her stomach. She cannot imagine being sincerely jubilant, while once more she has to confront the fact that those who come into her life then leave.
Shirley looks at the deck that juts out from the attic and hangs over the Manchester River. Diane is out there. She is staring into the river with her back to everyone else. Her long, dark, Gypsy hair flutters in the morning breeze like a silky waterfall shaded by the trees and the mountains of Middle Earth.
Mama Gracie had been standing out there, staring into the river, feeling the night breeze whisper its omens, before she had returned to her bed, taken up her white carnation and her Alice Spencer photograph, and crawled onto her sheet. There had been nothing obscure about that omen; nothing to tease from her subconscious mind yet another long ordeal with those surreal dreams that, on account of their very strangeness, frightened her more than nightmares; not even the kind of riddle or word play that might keep her awake another twenty minutes or so. The mysteries in her life had been spent, and so the omen in the night breeze consisted of nothing more nor less than this sad refrain: It is time.
How does Shirley know this? Surely, she did not view Mama Gracie stand on this same deck. Neither did any of the other ‘working girls,’ for that matter.
She just knows. She has been intimate for too long with the dead, or the soon-to-be; and so it is really not possible for her to pretend that she does not have a clue about Mama Gracie’s last moments. Better to acknowledge that she knows and to remain honest about every last emotion that may climb out from her bowels. The alternative is to be swept up by that river outside and to be on the run forevermore, while truth remains the fixture embedded in mossy rocks.
* * *
London House celebrates the life of Mama Gracie.
It takes a while for the first bottle of wine to be uncorked. The ‘working girls’ first need to drag Mama Gracie’s gargantuan flesh in a large bed sheet all the way down the narrow staircase, across the living room and foyer, and into a dreary and overcast afternoon. Having dragged her down the porch steps, they form themselves into a decent funeral parade and lift the bed sheet the rest of the way to the Bone Yard. Eunice leads the pack. Presumably, she is the House Mother now. There does not seem to be any democratic process by which she is elected to that position. Everyone just accepts without question that she is the next in line. Gladys accompanies Desiree behind the corpse. Gladys looks quite worried the whole time. Desiree rolls her eyes, contorts her face, and mumbles a lot of voodoo mumbo jumbo, while the pallbearers stagger forward like Christ bearing his Cross on the road to Golgotha. The rest of the ‘working girls’ follow behind. There seems to be an unwritten order in how they had filed into line. It is perhaps seniority, perhaps closeness to the deceased, or perhaps some other consideration that eludes any rational description. Regardless, they all seem to know where they should be in line, how they should walk (slow and tortured, as if beaten nuns on the last afternoon of a Novena), and where they should stare, glassy-eyed and withdrawn (downward, and off to the side, as if not worthy to behold the deceased queen they are following now to the grave). Then there is Shirley taking up the rear. She clutches closely to her chest the white carnation and the framed photograph of Alice Spencer. Her heartbeat thuds in union with her steps. She dreams it is breaking through the glass and into that photograph.
Aunt Mavis finally had joined them. She remains at the porch. She is way too lost in grief to make the trip out to the Bone Yard. Shirley senses that Aunt Mavis’ grief is selfish, but she does not fault her for that. People do what they must to survive. If that means selfishness, even madness, then that is the hand to be played. Hopefully, someday, Aunt Mavis will shed a tear for Mama Gracie.
The interment is especially somber. One of the ‘working girls’ faints. All of them cry out, like Greek or Italian mothers burying their sons. Shirley cannot really see through her tears, as she bends beside the grave, and puts the white carnation and the framed photograph upon Mama Gracie’s chest.
But then, there is the obligatory celebration. They drink the liquor stash clean, laugh uproariously at this or that remembrance, play Mama Gracie’s old, timeless records. Shirley sticks to the nonalcoholic Apple Cider, though she had had a chance to dip into the sauce when the ‘working girl’ pouring the wine out had turned her attention elsewhere. Well enough she does not taste, as Shirley feels tipsy enough from the sugar high she gets when consuming a whole bottle of Martinelli’s. God forbid if indeed she had been both sugar baked and blitzed.
And yet, through it all, Shirley feels an underlying somberness. Also, she senses an emerging menace. It is like Mama Gracie’s death had been as much a clear omen for her, as the river had been for Mama Gracie sometime last night.
* * *
Every day progresses into night, every night into early morning, as if the kind and maternal Mama Gracie had never set foot on this earth. The sameness of the hours, of the gossip whispered in the halls during the day, of the smokes dragged after supper in the sitting room, of the men knocking on the front door from dusk until about midnight, is what most defeats Shirley at this time. Sure, she misses her Mama Gracie; but even more so, she has been knocked back by a heavy concoction of sadness and fear on account of the fact that the world as a whole does not seem to miss her Mama Gracie. It is like the world is on the run, sweeping into a vacant room in the dead of night, mingling as necessary to find a bite to hoard or a bottle to share, and then exiting stage right in the dead of night before anyone can pick out its face in a lineup.
There is nothing for her to do, but to occupy her time. Thankfully, most of the ‘working girls’ are kind enough. They teach her how to count cards, play dress up with her whenever they take out the chest of vintage dresses, scarves, and bonnets, even share some of what they have learned about men (though in a G-rated version that Mama Gracie would have found laughable).
Eunice spends much of her time in the sitting room. Perhaps she believes her perceived authority will increase, if she sits where Mama Gracie used to sit all those years. Perhaps she just wants to keep her one good eye out on all the comings and goings. While Mama Gracie used to reign in her sitting room chair facing the door from the foyer, Eunice has turned that same chair, so that now she can peek out the window that opens onto the porch. Still, while observant, she does not exude half as much authority as her predecessor. She looks like an old, frail, cat woman, even when she dresses up for those nights her particular johns will be showing up. Usually this is once or twice a week. The other nights she occupies herself painting a canvas she had carried into the sitting room just after burying her predecessor. Supposedly, it is a painting of Mama Gracie, but Shirley thinks it looks like a surly Grimace from the McDonald’s advertisements.
Aunt Mavis sees a few johns on any given week, but she surely would be ranked in the bottom quarter in sales and performance, if anyone kept a ledger around here. Most men simply are not all that excited when a woman suddenly, and inexplicably, breaks into sobs, while straddling him on top of a crimson red comforter in her bedroom. Of course, Shirley never sees this; but she does note how her aunt looks so bloodshot throughout the day; how she keeps referring in her sleep to the Red Witch; and how, as a result of all this anxiety, she pushes out from her daily routine that girl she cannot acknowledge to be her daughter.
Yes, Aunt Mavis is caught up in her own sadness and fear. Probably she is a lot like Grandma Alice, sitting all day in her sitting room, smoking incessantly her cigarettes until she does not even have enough lung capacity to stroll back and forth between her sitting room and her bedroom. But Shirley suspects that there is more at play. Aunt Mavis must feel what she has been feeling since she and the ‘working girls’ celebrated Mama Gracie’s life. She must sense that that menace is approaching and that one of these evenings he will be waiting on the porch for one of the ‘working girls’ to show him inside their very humble home.
Notwithstanding the certainty that this menace will be at the front door one of these nights, Shirley angles to be one of the greeters. Mama Gracie had put her foot down on that matter; but Eunice does not seem to fear that a john will make an about face and run for his car, if he hears a sugar sweet voice say hello to him from somewhere between his waistline and his chest. It would be better if she could sound like Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Eunice advises her in confidence. Of course Shirley has no idea what Eunice is talking about at this point, but she nods agreeably just the same. Eunice goes on to explain that the typical man, and especially the kind of man who will drive his Audi or his Benz all the way out to London House after tucking his children into bed, will do just about anything for the prospect of hearing Kathleen Turner’s voice near his sad and flabby waistline. It is about all he has to hope for in his dark corner of hell.
With that sage but useless bit of advice lingering in her ears, Shirley says that she will cover Tuesdays. Eunice smiles warmly. There is something distant in that smile that suggests that Eunice has forgotten already why she is smiling. Hers is the warm, but vague, smile of a woman sliding into dementia; and, as a result, Shirley does not feel that she has won a promotion now, so much as she has snookered a concession out of an old lady who has no idea she has been the victim of a con. Shirley feels dirty and cheap, like her father’s smelly corpse at Grandma Alice’s house. She wishes she could run upstairs and take a soap bath.
Still, when Tuesday comes around, Shirley makes the most of it. This is a chance to stand with the grown ups. She even found a small dress and a feather cloche hat in the chest of vintage clothes. One of the ‘working girls’ had been so kind as to alter them both, so that the items would fit Shirley’s small frame.
Why are you dressed like a chippie? Aunt Mavis slurs, while reaching for the booze bottle beneath her pillow and squirming in and out of her bed sheet.
Shirley is standing before the cracked and warped dressing mirror inside their bedroom. She is in her full costume, except for makeup upon her face. No matter her desire to stand with the grown ups tonight, she is frankly not ready in her own mind to be applying lipstick and rouge.
Shirley had not told Aunt Mavis about Tuesday night. She told herself her aunt was not really in a position to talk about the ‘promotion,’ what with all of her drinking and bawling these past few days. She convinced herself that one of the ‘working girls’ would pass on the word before the Big Night.
But all that rationalizing is nonsense, and she knows it. She had not told Aunt Mavis, because she had been afraid Aunt Mavis would stop her. Dressing as a ‘chippie’ (whatever that meant) surely did not fit in with remaining innocent, and Aunt Mavis had made it clear she was all about keeping Shirley a little doll.
So Shirley had decided she would dress in front of her aunt (really, dress in front of her mother, but since Aunt Mavis cannot acknowledge that relation, Shirley has no choice but to try to forget), just before going on stage. What can Aunt Mavis do then, but to roll over in her bed and to lash her with her tongue?
I am going to say hello to our guests; Shirley tries to say nonchalantly.
That slaps Aunt Mavis in the face. She blinks her eyes slowly, like she has been hit hard and is trying to figure out who and where she is at that time. She sits up in her bed, forgetting all about the booze bottle, and glaring at her girl with a mixture of hurt and hatred. She flexes her hands, as if she is attempting literally to reach out and to grab from thin air her response.
You’re not saying hello to anyone, Aunt Mavis snarls.
But Eunice said, Shirley whines…
And you’re not dressing like a whore, Aunt Mavis continues.
Shirley stops what she is doing. She looks down at her bare feet. Because there were no high heels in the chest small enough for her, she would greet the guests in her bare feet. Earlier, she had convinced herself that was fine; but as she stares at her small, white feet now, and sees how naked her nails are when not wearing any polish, she senses just how ridiculous it is to try to pass herself off as a grown up while walking about without shoes. She wants to cry; but just as much, she wants to tell off the woman who will not admit to being her mom. Now is the time she needs her mama to tell her she can do it. Now is the time she needs her mama to take her by the hand, to kneel into her face, and to say just how proud she is to see her daughter all grown up. Instead, she gets a self-righteous, buxom, blond drunk who will shed slimy tears only for her own grief.
Eunice said I could, Shirley says slowly, but without looking into her Aunt Mavis’ face. And I am…
Aunt Mavis leaps from her bed with a ferociousness Shirley had not been able to foresee what with Mavis’ boozing over the past few days. She backslaps Shirley to the floor. She looks down at Shirley with her stupid, black, wild eyes.
Shirley is not hurt; but she is stunned; and she is defeated. She sits upon her elbows and breathes heavily, until the wild woman above her stops to spin. Part of her knows that she could get right up, walk passed the wild woman, and do what she had promised Eunice she would do tonight. Aunt Mavis is not really there. A confused, mad, drunk off of her ass facsimile has replaced her, maybe just for tonight, maybe forever. Still, that facsimile does not have it in her now to strike her again; and so, yes, Shirley could get right up, and walk passed her.
But she will not. This is her mom. This is the woman who picked her up, when the smell in Grandma Alice’s house was about to press her into her grave.
They are on the run together. It is pointless to deny what is so obvious.
Shirley looks up. She opens her arms, as if requesting her mommy to pick her up from the floor and to erase the pain in her heart. She sheds a single tear down her left cheek. It glistens in the candlelight like blood gushing from a cut.
Aunt Mavis picks her up. They cry together a while.
And then Aunt Mavis returns to her booze bottle while Shirley undresses.
* * *
Shirley awakens in the middle of the night. It is pitch black in their small bedroom. The silence feels like a heavy weight pressing upon her chest; and, as a result, her initial impression is that she is a not-so-dead corpse gasping for air inside of a closed coffin. She imagines that when she sits upright on her side of the bed, her forehead will strike against an unseen wood coffin door above her.
Before she can pursue that fantasy very far, she hears the bedroom floor creaking. Someone is walking from the bed to the dresser. She almost observes a darker shape within the pitch blackness, though she wonders if her own mind is playing with her. Dreams always seem very real to her at the time. That grey zone between dream and reality also seems very real, indeed, so real at times she can be consumed by a paralyzing fear that seems to go on forevermore. As soon as she is fully awake, and sitting upright in her bed, she has some doubt as to what she sees in the dark.
She hears the flick of a match. Someone lights the candle on the dresser and steps back to observe herself a moment in the cracked dresser mirror. That someone is her Aunt Mavis. She is totally nude, but for her long, red fingernails and blond wig. Strangely, the way that candlelight flickers on and off her body, she does not seem nude, so much as clothed in an ethereal, mesmerizing light, like a dream figure come to life in the real world.
Aunt Mavis does not look back then; but, apparently, she can feel Shirley staring at her backside. She leans forward on the dresser, like a tired professor holding herself up on a lectern. In the warped reflection, she looks disfigured, even extraterrestrial, and so weighed down by her own life as to be trapped in that discomforting and ugly image she sees in the mirror before her.
She’s coming, Aunt Mavis says to the mirror in a sad and dreamy voice. I think you’ve known since the day Mama Gracie died.
Is she talking to me, or is she talking to herself? Shirley wonders. Maybe, for the lost anyway, there is no real distinction between the two.
But, even more strangely, Aunt Mavis is referring to a lady visitor, while Shirley always identifies the ‘menace’ in her imagination as a tall, thin, scarred man. She just cannot make out his face; but everything about him is masculine, nonetheless. So is Aunt Mavis tapping into some other visitor? Or is she slipping?
It’s the Red Witch, isn’t it? Aunt Mavis continues. One pissed bitch upon the highway. Cannot blame her, really. I’d be a royal piss bitch, if someone had the gall first to poison me, then to drown me in hot water. I’m funny that way, it seems; and I try to tell myself that killing a red witch is just fuckin’ hilarious.
Shirley cannot respond, though her mouth contorts like she is attempting to vocalize words. She pulls her bed sheet up to her chin. All of a sudden she is feeling exposed, though she is dressed in her T-shirt and covered up by a sheet.
But it doesn’t work, Aunt Mavis continues. Lies never really work, even if everyone else is fooled, because the liar herself knows that deep down she just isn’t going to buy her own propaganda. First off, it’s too damned expensive; so much given away or lost just so the liar can keep her lie. And then there’s that problem of what she sees, when she looks at herself in the old mirror. Far from ‘just fuckin’ hilarious,’ she sees a depressed and unclean woman; a psycho mad murderess; the kind of woman who frankly deserves to get a knock on her door one evening, and then to see firsthand what the Red Witch has in store for her.
Aunt Mavis, I’m scared, Shirley whispers.
Aunt Mavis either does not hear her, or she does not care. She just goes ahead, as if she had pressed ‘play’ on the secret tape machine inside her mind.
But what’s it all matter anyway? Aunt Mavis continues. We all pick up old stones along the way. Some are prettier than others. Some we admire, even in a way love; others we throw into our pockets, and forget. Eventually, there are so many stones stuffed inside our pockets, we stumble into our opened graves, silly and stupid children for having picked up many more than we could handle.
Aunt Mavis turns abruptly. There is a mad intensity in her eyes. To some extent this may be attributed to how the ghostly candlelight flickers on and off her pupils, but even more so there is a crazed desperation coming out from her own soul. It is unrestrained, abusive neediness; and it directs its madness upon the little girl sitting upright on the bed.
But that’s not going to be your fate, Aunt Mavis snarls. I’m going to keep you silly and stupid.
Shirley watches her very closely. She feels like she is inside of a bedroom with a wild beast that could pounce upon her at any moment.
I’ve got a gift for you, Aunt Mavis says with a big grin. Oh, it’s just a tiny something I picked up at the five and dime in town, but I think you’ll like it.
Aunt Mavis opens the top right drawer of the dresser. She removes a tiny box. A digital readout on the box indicates that the battery is full. She pushes a button. There is the slight tinny sound of music reverberating out from the box. It would be so much more, if it were connected to speakers. But this is for the better, since otherwise the music would be awakening the other ‘working girls’ on this floor, and initiating God knows what level of hostility between them all.
Shirley recognizes the song at once. Normally, it would bring a real smile onto her lips; but on this occasion, it sounds to her like an omen of doom.
Come over here, and dance with me, Aunt Mavis says with open arms.
Now, Aunt Mavis looks like she belongs in a padded cell. Shirley feels the cold, empty bottle beside her; and yet she knows that precious little, if any, of Aunt Mavis’ behavior can be blamed on drunkenness. Better to lay the blame in droves upon a mind ill suited for its own inevitable demise and death. Ill suited indeed, not because of whatever spell the Red Witch cast, but because life has a way of casting its own magic spell upon those who are nearing its conclusion.
Shirley starts to cry aloud. She wipes away her tears with the bed sheet.
Now, that’s no way to show your gratitude, Aunt Mavis declares in mock anger. Come over here, and dance with me, before I slap your derriere with my sweet grandmother’s wooden spoon.
Shirley does not think that Aunt Mavis has a hard, wooden spoon; but she is frightened of her, nonetheless. It is one thing to be on the edge. It is another thing to have fallen over it. Maybe Aunt Mavis’ reflection in the mirror is what ‘splat’ looks like, when a body has fallen from her high horse and has landed on a creaky, bedroom floor. Maybe Aunt Mavis has no choice but to be a fierce and mad monster; a beast that invites her with open arms; a lady who chuckles way more than would be expected of a sane person. Regardless, Shirley is afraid, as she feels her own restraint falling away with the up tempo melody of that song.
On the Good Ship Lollipop
It’s a sweet trip to the candy shop
Where bon-bon’s play
On the sunny beach of peppermint bay
Shirley crawls out of the bed. She places her little fingers inside of Aunt Mavis’ hands. Aunt Mavis leads her playfully over the creaky floor. Aunt Mavis is having a gay time on the dance floor, but Shirley is wide eyed and halting from fear. Still, Shirley keeps up with her dance partner, because she fears what the buxom blond may do, if she does not keep up with her.
You’re never going to leave this bedroom, Aunt Mavis states in between maniacal fits of laughter and sorrow. Nope, you’re going to stay silly and stupid upon your ‘good ship lollipop.’ When I’d seen you dressed up like a greeter, I’d known then that that was the way it had to be. Too many temptations all about the world. Too many chances to slip up. Too many opportunities to believe that you have poisoned and drowned the witch, when in fact the witch cannot die….
Shirley almost stops on the dance floor. Is Aunt Mavis speaking literally, or metaphorically, when she declares that Shirley will never exit this bedroom?
Does it really matter? Shirley thinks. No, it does not. What matters truly is that Shirley has been grounded. Whether her ‘bedroom’ reaches out as far as every horizon, or as far as the wall opposite her bed, she is still grounded. This is for her own good, Aunt Mavis insists. This is so that the Red Witch cannot get Shirley also, when she comes to snatch Aunt Mavis away from hearth and home.
While Shirley thinks about the Red Witch, Aunt Mavis turns off the black box, and blows out the candle. She is again a dark shape in the pitch blackness.
Shirley senses that she too is a dark shape. She hates how that particular thought makes her feel, and so she returns to bed and tries to forget this night.
* * *
Apparently, Aunt Mavis had been speaking literally.
Shirley awakens the next morning. Aunt Mavis is facing away from her on the bed that they share. The buxom blond with the long fingernails is breathing slowly, like the loser in a prizefight. Her ridiculous wig is disheveled, and she is grasping a second booze bottle that is three-quarters empty by now and leaking what remains onto the bed sheet. She mumbles incoherently, but does not stir; and for a moment, Shirley wonders if her Aunt Mavis is going to remain this way forever. This comatose mumbling seems to be as close as she can get to peace.
Shirley pulls the sheet aside, and steps off of the bed. The creaking floor sounds like it could wake the dead; but this time, Shirley is not frightened that she will awaken her sleeping bed partner.
And then, Shirley tries to twist the doorknob; but it does not budge. She can rattle the door a bit, but it is not going to open.
For the first time since she arrived at London House, Shirley experiences the same frantic, heart stopping fear that had consumed her during those long, torturous nights following her father’s suicide. She smells the dreadful stink of decomposing flesh. It seems to be slithering out from within the bedroom walls and under the door. It wraps itself around her skin, and slithers up her nostrils, like a clammy boa constrictor come back to life.
Before she can scream, she senses that it is a bit different than the flesh decomposition smell with which she had become so familiar in the aftermath of her father’s suicide. It is much too damp, even mossy, like a rat with drenched fur and dewy whiskers squealing beneath the surface of a marsh. It also feels in her mouth like something sick that is fermenting. Maybe it is a rat with a gooey yeast infection. Horrible and frightening, to be sure; but not the same as a dry, flaky, dead thing decomposing into its own dried up blood…
She remembers the leaky booze bottle. She decides that there is nothing here to indicate decomposing flesh. Instead, she is trapped inside of a brewery.
Not that that is particularly good, but at least that thought sets aside for a while her claustrophobic reaction to her closed coffin fantasy. She can forget about being frightened, and put some energy into being testy, even downright belligerent. How dare she be locked inside this bedroom? Didn’t she back down as her Aunt Mavis had insisted? Didn’t she spend the night silly and stupid inside of her ‘good ship lollipop,’ like good little girls in ponytails are supposed to do?
She pulls the doorknob. She kicks the door. She slams the door over and over again with her open palm, while calling for anyone outside to free her. No one outside responds; and when she listens, there does not seem to be anyone in the adjoining rooms and the hallway. It is as if she and her crazy aunt in fact are the last two people on earth.
That thought should scare her even more, but she surprises herself then by responding with a new round of vitriolic anger. She frankly did not know she had so much bitterness inside her bowels. It feels like a hellish earthquake had cracked open a big dam and is now releasing an endless flow of red, hot steam.
Don’t bother, Aunt Mavis says groggily. The door is locked…
Shirley looks back at her as if to say, ‘you’re kidding me.’ She turns back to the door, but does not rattle it further. Either no one can hear her crazy ass temper tantrum, or they have decided not to intervene.
Aunt Mavis sits up in the bed. Her disheveled wig falls to the side. There are a few clumps of grungy hair underneath, but for the most part Aunt Mavis is as bald as a lady undergoing chemotherapy.
Shirley remembers what her mother had looked like the week before she had died in the hospital. Much of her hair had fallen away. Her bald head felt a lot like a wax doll after it has been left inside of a refrigerator a while.
Aunt Mavis permits the booze stained bed sheet to slither down from her breasts. There is a clueless look in her eyes that would have excited a john but inspires in her daughter a strange blend of sympathy and anger.
Shirley is still mad as hell to be locked up. At the same time, she finds it hard to blame the woman, who is so obviously sick in the head. Her father also had succumbed now and then to the sordid spells his own sad life had cast upon him. She had learned to love him, in spite of what he could say and do in those darkest moments. She should try to do the same with her Aunt Mavis now, since Mama Gracie’s death means there is no one else for her. In Shirley’s experience anyway, ‘family’ is the last person left when all the others finally have run off.
Come over here, sweetie, Aunt Mavis states, while holding out her arms, and licking stale booze off of her lips.
Shirley eyes her carefully. She is not sure what to do.
I know I’ve been acting strange, Aunt Mavis remarks. Lots of giggling and crying; but don’t worry, you ma…your aunt…is just fine…
Aunt Mavis says ‘fine’ in her best rendition of the sultry Kathleen Turner voice. Eunice would be proud; but Shirley feels even sorrier for her, if that is at all possible. There is something really sad and pathetic about a woman putting on her ‘sexy voice’ when it is least appropriate. It is like the woman at the end of her rope has no other choice, but to talk as a decadent, irresponsible whore.
Let’s go and have breakfast, Shirley whispers.
Aunt Mavis scrunches her face, like she does not understand what Shirley has said. Even though Shirley spoke very softly, there is nothing to suggest that Aunt Mavis did not hear her. It is just that the words themselves did not make a whole lot of sense in that booze addled brain of hers.
Come over here, sweetie, Aunt Mavis pleads desperately.
No, Shirley answers in a voice that is stern, but also sympathetic. I want to go downstairs. I want you to come with me.
Aunt Mavis relaxes her face. She thinks about what Shirley has said. Then all at once, she recoils in a spasm of fear into her headboard.
Oh, no, sweetie, we can’t do that, Aunt Mavis whispers. The Red Witch…
But I’m hungry, Shirley whines…
But she’s out there, Aunt Mavis says adamantly. She’s on the open road, coming straight for us, not even stopping for booze and cigarettes. For all that we know she may be pulling up to London House right now.
I’m sorry about what I did; Shirley starts to cry. I promise I’ll never dress up again. Really, I promise; and I won’t be a greeter, never ever…
Stumble once, and you’ll stumble again, Aunt Mavis reflects. It’s like my sweet grandmother used to say. Psalm 22 is true. Everything else is just poetry.
Shirley sobs uncontrollably. She leans her head on the dresser and covers her eyes with her arms. Even though she had eaten the night prior, she feels as if she has been starving for days. After all, how can she tell that this is the next morning? Maybe she has been cooped up in here for days. Maybe, since she was born. It is a terrible and depressing thought; but right now, it feels like a more honest thought. Certainly, it is closer to the truth than believing that someone, one of the ‘working girls,’ maybe a john who had fallen asleep the night before and is now walking down the hallway in search of his coat and his belongings, is going to open up the door from the other side.
We’re like the extras in Psalm 22, Aunt Mavis explains. The first time we jeer at Jesus Christ, maybe even throw something hard in His direction, we are ashamed. We see our own guilt written in the guilty face of the person standing next to us. We tell ourselves we’ll never do it, again; and we mean it. But then we slip. Or one of us does, and the rest of us follow him, like sheep just happy to be led by their noses to the slaughter. We attack the Man of Sorrows, and on this occasion we realize that it had been a whole lot easier than before. Hit the Man of Sorrows a third time, and it is much easier still. It’s sort of like whoring. You never get enough of it, and then you’re dead.
Shirley cries until there are no more tears. She wipes the wetness off of her face, and looks back at her Aunt Mavis through bloodshot eyes. Her lipstick red lips (she had not managed to wipe off all the makeup, before going to bed) twitch downward sullenly. A john would interpret it as her ‘fuck me, ‘cause I’m no better than a whore’ look. He would feel his boner hardening just then, and he would unbuckle the belt beneath his beer belly with all the finesse of a mad dog snapping back at its own leash. But, of course, there is no john inside here, no one but a mother and a daughter, and the dark secrets they keep from each other. And so ‘fuck me, ‘cause I’m no better than a whore’ really could not be further from her mind, though she feels now spent and degraded just the same.
So what are we going to do? Shirley asks.
Aunt Mavis is taken aback by the question. Everything said and done the past few minutes had been so emotional, as if an exchange by two persons who are dancing precariously on the very edge of their own lives. This clearheaded, logical question seems totally out of place.
Really, what are we going to do? Shirley asks again, when she reads all of the confusion on her Aunt Mavis’ terrified face.
Aunt Mavis pulls the bed sheet over her breasts. She slides down, so that once again she is resting horizontally. She closes her eyes, but they still twitch nervously behind her lids. It is like she is waiting to be released, or maybe just given the word, so that she can slide back into her dreams.
Shirley crawls back onto the bed. She sits beside her, and takes her right hand into hers. She strokes the hand the same way she used to stroke the cold, waxen hands of her dying mother and her shitfaced father.
Shirley relaxes. She feels more at home in stroking Aunt Mavis’ hand now than she has felt in a long time.
We’re going to stay in here, so the Red Witch can’t get us, Shirley states with all the calm and the sureness of a mother used to seeing her girl heed her command. That’s just the way it has to be. Locked away for as long as it takes.
Shirley suspects that it is not going to take very long. The ‘menace’ is so near she practically can smell his car fumes. And no doubt about it, regardless of all this talk about the Red Witch, the ‘menace’ will be a man when he walks up the porch steps and knocks for his greeter.
She can make out more of him now. She already had decided that he is a tall, thin, scarred bastard with a reserved, but brutal, mind. Now, she sees the red crew cut on his head; the sparkling, blue eyes; the lips that remain ever so grim, except occasionally when he twitches them into a look that is effeminate (actually, gay is a better word, but Shirley does not know about homosexuality as of yet). He is much too stiff in his black uniform to suggest the countenance and the bearing of a witch; and yet, beneath the surface, isn’t there something witchy about this guy? Isn’t there something timeless about him, not to suggest that he is outside of time, but rather that he is not bound by time? Doesn’t this guy dip in and out of the generations, punishing past sins by smashing up future heads? Shirley senses that this is the case, because it is so near and dear to her own experience on the run. After all, wasn’t father always running forward just to try to escape something he’d done in the past? And didn’t the past catch up, shaping the future into something he and his little girl had seen so many times, until finally her father had decided to fire that bullet that would keep him here and now forevermore? Shirley cannot articulate any of this; but she knows that this is the truth of the matter. The ‘menace’ will find them, no matter that the two of them lock their bedroom door and veil themselves beneath their sheets.
* * *
Several days pass, and Shirley and Aunt Mavis remain locked inside of the bedroom. Shirley concludes that they have been locked from the outside by the request of Aunt Mavis. The fact that it is self-imposed prison does not alleviate the psychological strain of being cooped inside this small space, and so Shirley wants to alternate from screaming out in righteous anger and staring blankly at the creaks in the wood beams. In fact, she never does any such thing outside of her own imagination. What she does do is to stare out the window at the raspy, gurgling Manchester River and to nap intermittently on her side of the bed. She never speaks, except now and then a subconscious stream of consciousness she mumbles while captured by a dream, because Aunt Mavis is way too lost inside of her booze bottles (seems to be an infinite supply stashed underneath the old bed) and her long bouts of sleep to be responsive.
Every morning, before dawn, the door opens; and a hunched woman in a long nightgown creeps over to the dresser with a few plates of warm food and a jug of water. She switches out the jug that they use in place of a toilet.
Shirley awakens before the hunched woman arrives. She remains in bed, and watches the black shadow remove the items from the previous day and set out the new items.
Evidently, the visitor is a crone with stooped shoulders and gangly arms. She smells vaguely of Ben Gay. Shirley thinks that it may be Eunice (referred to now as ‘Mama Eunice,’ though Shirley prefers to think of Gracie as her London House Mama), if only because Eunice is the oldest woman in the house and also gives off an eccentric, “cat lady” vive. Still, there is something about this early morning visitor that is not at all like Eunice. Shirley cannot put her finger on it, except to say that there is a chill in the air whenever that visitor opens the old, creaky door. It is a musty chill that calls to mind the cold breath flowing out of a crypt on the rare occasion of opening a crypt door. Shirley dreams that one of the paintings along the spiral staircase leading down to the foyer comes to life an hour or so before dawn for the sole purpose of keeping alive the imprisoned mother and daughter. Under any other circumstance, this would be interpreted as a mission of mercy; but Shirley thinks that the hunched woman is setting out to harm them much like the farmer fattens his lambs just before the slaughter.
If there is anything positive to be said about imprisonment, then it is the opportunity for quiet reflection. Shirley has been always intuitive, perhaps like all girls are, but she suspects more so than the average. It may be a sure talent there at birth, or it may be a sensitivity acquired over the years of running the highways after hours. Regardless, she just knows so much more than she should and, more importantly, has learned to trust in what she knows.
On the other hand, reflection is a more mature attribute. It suggests the steady hand of reason, a higher level of intelligence, and frankly a blossoming, but also well rooted, wisdom. The fact that she reflects so much while so many hours pass beyond the bedroom walls surprises her. She senses vaguely that this is what it means to be a grownup. It is not about holding onto power, so much as making the most of ones own time; and she is learning that there really is no better way to make the most of ones own time than to think dispassionately on ones condition. The truth shall set you free, Shirley had heard somewhere; but, she is learning now, there is no better path to the truth than to mull it over for hours on end. Maybe that is why grownups usually have besieged and exhausted looks in their eyes. They are just doing what is required to seek after the truth.
And what is the truth of her situation? Clearly enough, she needs to exit this bedroom, go down into the kitchen for a proper breakfast with the others, and reclaim her status as the Tuesday Greeter. Hopefully, Aunt Mavis will break free from her depression, and join the rest of civilization. But even if she does not, Shirley must go ahead. She is not sure why she needs to exit this bedroom. Maybe it has something to do with confronting the past, rather than attempting to run from it. No doubt, if she is the Tuesday Greeter, and if the cosmic fates so determine, then she will be the person opening the front door for the lanky, redheaded ‘menace.’ And for some reason, that may be her all-important task.
Therefore, on the fifth morning, Shirley awakens early, as usual. Instead of holding the bed sheet up to her eyes, she pushes it aside and sits on the foot of the bed. She stinks of body odor and urine. Her ‘princess’ T-shirt is torn and dirty. Her bangs keep falling in front of her eyes, and she in turn keeps blowing her bangs back above her forehead.
But none of this bothers her. She is a tigress waiting to pounce; and as a result, there is nothing in there that will distract from the possibility of escape.
Shirley listens to Aunt Mavis snore behind her. It is a deep, guttural, ugly sound; and yet she is soothed by its slow repetition. She wonders if this is how other little girls feel, when they count away the night by the persistent chimes of a grandfather clock down the hall. Or perhaps this is how the same girls feel, when they hear their own heartbeats through a stethoscope. In either case, the girl steps away from the experience with the certain knowledge that indeed all the current horrors will pass. They may be replaced by worse situations; and as she determines when imagining the ‘menace’ out there, those worse situations in the future very well may be shaped by the past. Still, time ticking means the world will be different, perhaps in ways unimaginable, and somewhere in all of that is a cold and vague impression commonly referred to as ‘hope.’ She is not sure that she can trust ‘hope,’ but she is very glad to unearth it in ticking time.
Is this consideration a distraction? Is she any less of a tigress, because of her willingness to acknowledge the ‘hope’ amidst the confused and overlapping sinews of times past, present, and future? Or does all this reflection mean that, in a way, she is so much more than a simple tigress behind a bush somewhere? Impossible for her to tell, but glad to let her reflection pass the minutes away…
The doorknob clicks and turns. Someone on the other side has inserted a key into the keyhole, clicked open the lock, and turned the doorknob. Each act occurs so slowly and meticulously that she has the time to cup her left ear, and to listen carefully to every one as if it is a standalone event. In this way, every click and twist sounds loud enough to wake the dead.
After the doorknob twist, there is nothing at all for some time. Shirley is consumed by her own heartbeat rattling inside her inner ear. She unconsciously raises her right hand to her mouth, as if getting ready to stifle a scream.
What is happening on the other side of the door? Did the crone decide to go back? Or is she waiting for Shirley to open the door from her end so that she then may catch Shirley in the act of trying to escape? That would mean the old lady is on to Shirley’s intention, which does not make any sense logically, since Shirley had not said or done anything that would indicate that she intended this morning to make a run for it. But, of course, Shirley has learned that not every insight is the result of logical deduction. There is that sixth sense, and it is very pronounced in crones with stooped shoulders and gangly arms. Shirley knows an ugly crone is hard to con. She has seen the flicker of resentment in their beady eyes long before her father had finished with his sales pitch. She has seen how their lips curl, so that they are ready to slap down her father the moment he is done with his set up. Those old bats know; and so the early morning visitor may be standing now in the darkest corner of the hall, and curling her own lips in an anticipation of Shirley’s next move. She may be clutching at the cold blackness in front of her chest, so as to prepare her fingers for when they snatch the hair of a girl presumptuous enough to try to escape. Her eyes may be sparkling blue iced cubes in a dead face. Her red hair may be hanging long over her shoulders, like the disheveled hair of a witch falling into the bubbling cauldron before her and adding its strands to the concoction. Her long nightgown may be fluttering in the cold breeze that blasts out from her own heart; and when her nightgown flutters, it may look like a white ghost sheet in the silver moonlight that is now shining into the hall. All of that may be happening, almost surely is happening, because those old bats know when the silly punch line is about to be delivered.
But how do I know that she has red hair and blue eyes? Shirley thinks. In the past few mornings, I have never seen anything more descriptive than a dark form creeping in and out of the bedroom. Now, as I sit here upon the foot of an old bed, and listen to Aunt Mavis snore, I could describe her in a lineup (she has no idea what a ‘lineup’ is, but remembers her father using that word within the same context). Maybe I have intuited her red hair and blue eyes, but that does not seem to be right. It is more like I have seen her before with my own natural eyes; and not like I have seen the paintings hung alongside that spiral staircase; but like I had seen her before I ever had stepped foot inside London House. She is an old friend. No, that’s not right. She is an old friend who has turned gnarly, stinky all over with death, same as overripe fruit that makes my stomach hurt. That is what she is. She is an old friend who has overstayed her welcome and so is crazier than senile, indeed, so off her rocker as to be lip curling dangerous…
The door opens slowly. It creaks as a screaming feral cat upon its hinges.
Shirley squints her eyes. She is trying to make out a tangible, black form in the doorway, but she cannot see anything. She feels a breeze whisper across her face. It is so cold she senses her face deaden into brittle candlewax. Maybe there had been a breeze in the hallway, and it had pushed the door open. Very often the breezes outside will make their way into the sprawling house through the cracked and rusted vents. The breezes will converge in a narrow space, and turn a hallway into a wind tunnel strong enough to lift skirts and to push open…
But that is not right, because what flew across my face was not a breeze at all, Shirley thinks. It was like the stale cigarette smoke I observed above the sofa in the sitting room. It was not a life force. On the contrary, it sucked out a bit of the life inside my face. It is the sick and twisted breath that wheezes out from the black lung of a vampire woman.
The vampire breath that had whispered across her face now turns about the back of her head and coils around her neck. The vampire breath is a noose breath. It strings you up, and sucks you dry. Or you put a bullet in your mouth…
Or you just run, run, as in get the hell out of here before it is too late.
Shirley drops her bare feet onto the floor. The wood beam creaks loudly, and Aunt Mavis moves onto her back. That just makes the snoring a whole heck of a lot worse, but Shirley is not going to be around to listen to it.
She is delirious in fright, but unable to scream out. She cannot sense her bare feet pushing against the floor, though she hears the creaky squawks every time she takes a step. She cannot breathe, because of the cold vampire breath that is now digging into her throat and clutching at her windpipe.
As she rushes through the doorway, she sees in her left peripheral vision how the door is in the process of slamming shut. It is going to slam her into the right side of the doorframe. She is going to smash into bits, like a baton hitting against a rotten pumpkin; and what little remains of her flesh will slither down the frame and into the wood floor cracks. There will be nothing to clean up the next morning, as she will have seeped into the mossy rocks below the bedroom.
She makes it through the doorway, but stumbles onto her knees.
She grimaces in pain, and clutches protectively at her right knee.
She looks over her right shoulder. There is something stepping out of the dark corner in the hallway. That something is an old, gnarled, stooped woman. Her long, fire red hair is as dry as kindling about to be tossed to the flame; yet, incongruently, her hair drapes her stooped shoulders and flat chest as if sheets of wet silk, witchy, but also strangely sexy. The face is blank, except for those sparkling, ink blue eye. Indeed, as she had anticipated, they resemble tiny iced cubes, except that the light bleeding through them suggests oxymoronically the radiated iced cubes of a demon. They are possessive, mad, hateful eyes. There is a penetrating intelligence behind those eyes, but they have no more curiosity in them than is necessary to discern a weak spot to exploit.
She seems to have an especially long index finger on her right hand. It is tilted up and away from the other fingers in a manner that implies that she had suffered a severe bone fracture. Even more strangely there is a snake slithering out from the fingernail. It is coiling up to the ceiling and hanging over her head like an umbrella. The umbrella hisses, and then vanishes into the darkness.
Shirley blinks her eyes. Then at once, the right index finger is a cigarette holder, the snake is cigarette smoke, and the witch in the hall is her very own…
Grandma Alice, Shirley whispers in awe.
Go back in your room, the crone says inside her head. It is safe in there. I should know. I spent much of my life remaining safe and secure in my sitting room. Oh, too bad your father stunk it up, but as the Parisians say, c’est la vie.
Shirley is too frightened to move. She just clutches at her knee.
Are you waiting for a bribe, weak sister? The crone asks. If so, then you will be waiting a long time, because I am not like that fat whore, Gracie. I have my standard, earned my culture, and so will not bribe you with grape lollipops.
What do you want? Shirley barely manages to ask her.
The crone steps out from the dark corner. In the silver moonlight shining through the hall window, her face is a narrow, wrinkled, ghostly white prune. It is bobbling on top of a neck that is no thicker than her spine. There appears to be black charcoal dust floating out from her chest and forming into a thick soot cloud about a foot in front of her. Every time she drags on her cigarette, there is another burst of charcoal dust from inside her chest. The soot cloud looks as if it is a smiling minstrel, before it vanishes into the same blackness that seems to be absorbing the serpentine smoke.
The crone looks down at Shirley a moment. She seems to be lost in some thought of her own. Then, she bends down so that her ghoulish face is no more than an inch or so in front of Shirley’s. They look eye to eye like lovers.
The crone thrusts her left arm backward, so that she is pointing an ugly, accusing, index finger toward the bedroom door. All the while she continues to stare into Shirley’s eyes as if looking for something to kill.
I want you to get back in there, the crone snarls, and never come out…
Shirley squeals like a stuck pig. She staggers backward upon her elbows.
The crone crawls forward, so as to keep up with the frightened girl. She licks Shirley’s face. Her tongue is as long as a snake and as dry as sandpaper. It is the same color as a grape lollipop.
Get back in there, you bitch, the crone screams, and then cackles like a deranged hyena.
Shirley stumbles backward down the spiral staircase.
For a moment, while the dark and musty world is turning upside down at an ever increasing speed, Shirley glimpses the snarling, ghoulish face of the old witch going down the staircase with her. Nonetheless, by the time she lands on the bottom step, and looks up at the high ceiling in the foyer, the old, cackling witch is gone. There is just a trace of her in the black charcoal dust hovering in the air. It is like the grimy residue from a nightmare that follows a waking girl, scary at first, but then a tepid thing that just vanishes before a conscious mind.
* * *
Shirley must have blacked out, because the next thing she realizes Mama Eunice is kneeling beside her and staring anxiously into her eyes. There is a soft candlelight flickering on an antique table behind Eunice’s head. She must have been carrying it into the sitting room when she almost stumbled over Shirley. It is still very dark outside, though the first stirrings of dawn can be sensed in the air. The flickering candlelight seems to be calling the old sun up from its grave.
Little girl, can you speak to me? Eunice repeats the third or fourth time.
Grandma, Shirley mutters, and then spits out something thick and slimy.
Another woman emerges then from the darkness. She is hunched over a candle of her own as if protecting the flame from a gust of wind; and yet there is no wind, not even a tepid breeze, blowing through the foyer at that moment. It takes a little while for Shirley to recognize this woman, not because she has limited discernment then, but because frankly she is too focused on the pain in the back of her head, and with the gooey something or other inside her mouth, really to care all that much about the scaredy cat woman behind Mama Eunice. Shirley recalls who she is just before Mama Eunice turns to address her.
Gladys, call in the Black Magic, Eunice whispers.
Yes, of course, Gladys mumbles, and steps away.
The Black Magic of course is Desiree, the exotic, African Queen midwife and shaman, who seems to be the timeless spirit about this place. Shirley is not afraid of her, notwithstanding her very strangeness in face and in dress. Shirley had looked into her eyes from a distance during Mama Gracie’s burial. There is a peace in those eyes that is as still as the eyes of a grey corpse but as virile as the wings of a bird in flight. Dead eyes are never peaceful. They are ravaged by whatever fear or pain had been strangling the life out from the man at the end. Living eyes see beyond what is seen. They soar past horizons as if the very edge of space and of time is just a line drawn arbitrarily on a map. They look openly into the endless spread of forested mountaintops we call ‘imagination,’ but the eyes that see call ‘reality.’ Desiree has living eyes, and so she is way beyond all that rubbish that gives someone license to hurt or to scare someone else.
Shirley’s mind returns to the moment at hand. She is experiencing still a lot of pain, but more so she is sad, even angry, as the feeling of betrayal begins to creep into her heart. She looks up at Eunice and sees that Eunice is a bit less anxious than earlier. Shirley should feel better as a consequence; but the cold, filmy feeling of betrayal pushes out everything else.
Grandma Alice, Shirley says with a little more force, and spits out blood.
Here, here, little girl, Eunice whispers. Don’t say anything.
Eunice looks at the foyer ceiling. The first hints of purplish sunlight shine through the windows. She barely can make out the crisscrossing ceiling beams, which Hosea London had had installed into the foyer ceiling in order to remind any person who might happen to cross the threshold that the home is dedicated to the Man of Sorrows. She imagines scores of prepubescent girls crucified upon those crisscrossing ceiling beams. They are naked, but for the bloody nightshirt fabric hanging still about their necks. The rest of the nightshirt apparently had been torn off, so as to reveal the many scars and open wounds scattered about their pinkish flesh. None of these girls had been sparred the rod, it seems; and, thus, the Righteous God indeed may glorify His strength in their cries and tears.
Is there nothing else? Shirley asks as she drops her gaze from this horror.
Yes, there is, honey, Desiree’s eyes seem to respond.
Shirley sees that she is no longer on the floor in the foyer. Instead, she is on the sofa in the sitting room. Eunice and Gladys stand behind Desiree. There is an odd mix of relief and fear on both their faces; relief that Shirley seems to be coming out of the woods; fear that they are standing now so close to all that Black Magic. Off to the side there is a ‘working girl’ sobbing uncontrollably into her arms. Shirley cannot see her, but she can smell the booze.
What else is there? Shirley asks, though this time without her voice.
Desiree smiles with her eyes. She lowers her face, so that she is no more than an inch above Shirley.
There’s a whole world outside, Desiree says telepathically. It’s where all the little girls can walk hand in hand with the sun. They never ever fall into the cracks in the earth. They never ever hit their heads on any ceilings, either. The whole world outside now is just waiting for you to open the door.
Grandma Alice, Shirley mutters telepathically.
She didn’t betray you, honey, Desiree responds. She’s just trying to love you the only way she knows how. She’s a dead thing. Been dead since that time she looked into Henry Hart’s eyes and said, yes, I’ll follow you to the moon. All a dead thing can do is clutch at the past, try to hold it all inside a tiny room for as long as the fates will allow, and then turn into a rabid bitch when everything she ever loved seems to fall away from her.
Shirley wants to look away, but she cannot. She is caught in a spell, a bit of black magic, and she has no choice but to stare into those peaceful, old eyes and to take in all the timelessness offered unto her just now.
Anyway, you can’t blame a woman for turning on the bitch, Desiree says. Especially when you buried her…
Shirley remembers putting the framed photograph of Grandma Alice into Mama Gracie’s dead hand, before the ‘working girls’ with the shovels started to throw wet dirt back into the grave. She observes the tipsy expression upon that flapper’s face, the hand holding out a champagne flute, the eyes searching the room for the next charming devil in jacket and trousers to escort her back onto the dance floor; and then she observes that the picture has been covered up by clumpy mud. She turns away, because the mud smells like death ripened within a marsh; and she imagines the glass over the picture cracking into jagged lines, like the earth after the worst earthquake. She starts to forget the picture when she returns to her spot beneath a branch; just a detail forgotten then, but a bit more the next day, and a bit more the day after that one; and, finally, she has so forgotten the look on Grandma Alice’s face that Grandma Alice herself must come out of the dark corner to remind her. That is just the way it is going to be with Grandma Alice. She is a dead thing, and that is how a dead thing can love.
But you’re not a dead thing, Desiree continues. So open the door, and go on outside, and take the sun by the hand, and leave the earth beneath you. No, it is not all going to be pleasant, all that shaking and rattling in the high winds; but you’ll be free. And truth is you’re meant to be free, Miss Shirley Temple of the Good Ship Lollipop. Living life on your own terms, like your mama, and like your real grandmamma, and even like her grandmamma, damn spitfire she was.
Shirley remembers the picture of the nineteen-year-old girl she had seen on the dresser back at Grandma Alice’s house. The girl had been so pretty; her cheeks still flushed with innocence; her eyes still untouched by sex, and death, and Civil Rights marches. The camera had captured her just before she saw her fiancé at the altar, walked solemnly up to him with a most proper, Episcopalian bouquet in her gloved hands, and said ‘I do’ to his weak mustache and twitchy, sweaty lips. Grandma Alice had tried to keep her in that framed photograph on the dresser. When she failed, she had tried to keep her daughter’s son wrapped up with nowhere to go. She failed with him, and so she is giving it the good, old college try with her grandson’s daughter. Clutching, and grabbing, and nagging, whatever works to hold back the wayward child; indeed, even scaring the little one what with her shriveled face, blackened lungs, and serpentine smoke trail, if that is what is necessary. And yet all for nothing, because the nineteen-year-old girl in that framed photograph opened her door, and stepped into the light.
My real grandmamma, Shirley says with her voice.
That’s a good child, Desiree says with her voice. Now, rest a while here. You have a long trip ahead of you. You’ll need everything you’ve got to hold on to the sun and to keep your feet off of the ground.
Desiree stands up. She turns to Eunice and Gladys, and smiles warmly.
I’m finished here, Desiree says.
Gladys escorts Desiree out of the sitting room. Eunice looks down at the little girl on the sofa, and smiles.
The sobbing, boozy woman off to the side runs over to Eunice. Of course she is Aunt Mavis; but with the frightened look on her face, and the thick drool sliming down from her protruding lower lip, she could be a ravenous dog with a blond wig strapped to its head. She is altogether pathetic, and so Eunice waves her back dismissively, not because she wants to do so, but because the London House Mother, whoever she is, can offer only so much empathy for weakness.
I need to take her back upstairs, Aunt Mavis pleads.
Who are you talking about? Eunice asks her angrily.
My niece, Aunt Mavis says haltingly. I need my niece…
You mean your daughter, Eunice scolds. You need your daughter.
Aunt Mavis looks down at her own hands. She has a horrid expression on her face, like she is flickering blood and baby flesh off of her fingers. She tries to speak, but the most she can do is to make a series of severe choking sounds, like she is on the verge of vomiting everything in her bowels all over her hands.
Your little retreat from reality has lasted long enough, Eunice snarls, and then turns her back to her. You’ve had enough time to hide from whatever it is that is scaring you so much. I am no longer going to keep your door locked, and come in with food and water before dawn, and take out your shit and your piss. You’ll have to come downstairs. You’ll have to face your personal demons with the rest of us whores. We are a house; not a hotel; and don’t you forget, sister.
How did she get out? Aunt Mavis mutters, while still staring at her hands.
Eunice looks back at Aunt Mavis. She studies her a moment.
I unlocked the door last night, Eunice says calmly. I thought it was time…
But it was my Grandma Alice, Shirley whispers.
No, it was not, Eunice says firmly as she turns back to face the little girl.
Eunice reconsiders her approach. She sits beside Shirley, takes the little girl’s hands into hers, and smiles in a grandmotherly way. Aunt Mavis continues to whimper in the background; but for the moment, Eunice only pays attention to the little girl in front of her steady gaze.
You spoke with the Black Magic, didn’t you? Eunice asks confidentially.
Shirley considers the question. Then, she nods in the affirmative.
She told you secrets, Eunice remarks. I could read it in your eyes.
Shirley looks down. She is embarrassed. She squirms on the sofa.
Now, don’t worry, child, Eunice says with a knowing smile. I don’t know what she told you. Your secrets remain your own. But you need to understand a little something about the Black Magic. You think she told you something secret that you didn’t know before, but in fact she just allowed you to observe in your mind what had been buried in your soul long ago. You always have known. Just think of what flew through your head in the past, whenever you saw a face in a picture, or heard a special name, or hummed the melody of a song. It seems to me that life isn’t about learning. It’s about digging up the graveyard, one tomb at a time, and letting the corpses crawl out, if they are so inclined. Sometimes the dead remain pretty; sometimes, decayed and creepy; and the best we do is to mother them, sort of like I’m mothering London House. The Black Magic only replaces your garden spade with an excavator for a while. Digs up a lot more of the dead that way, but they’re still just the dead, and you still just have to be a mother to them. That’s a lot for a little girl. Heck, it’s a lot for an old lady. It is our lot, so you best get used to it, while learning how to make the johns grin wide and tip big.
I need to take her upstairs; Aunt Mavis interrupts. It is not safe here.
Who do you need to take upstairs? Eunice asks without looking at her.
Of course, the answer is ‘my daughter,’ but Aunt Mavis still cannot say it out loud, maybe not even to herself; and so she just sits on the arm of the sofa and stares blankly off to the side. Eunice feels sorry for Mavis, but more so she hates the emotional turmoil that Shirley has to endure because of Mavis’ secret demons. It is hard enough for any one of us gals to fend with our own, let alone to shoulder our mother’s. Hopefully, someday, Mavis will wise up and see what the hell she is doing; but until then, Eunice is going to protect Shirley from her.
If you want to stay upstairs, then you can, Eunice proceeds. I’ll lock your door, feed you before dawn, remove your shit and piss, even make sure you’ve got plenty of booze beneath your bed…
Aunt Mavis glances down like she is ashamed. Did she really think no one else knew about her elevated booze consumption? Apparently, she did so think.
But Shirley’s staying with the rest of us; Eunice concludes. She’ll sleep in my room, until you get some sense.
Eunice looks down at Shirley. They smile conspiratorially at one another.
And you’re going to be my Tuesday Greeter, aren’t you? Eunice asks her.
Shirley nods in the affirmative. Her smile widens.
Aunt Mavis unleashes more crazed tears. She runs from the sitting room.
She’s got to work it out her way, Eunice confides to Shirley. And you’ve got to work it out yours.
Shirley agrees, but she is still sad to see Aunt Mavis run off like that. Her wide smile falters, and it takes every last bit of her own strength not to tear up herself. Instead of shedding tears, Shirley just seems exhausted and withdrawn.
Now, take a nap, Eunice says. I’ll cook you breakfast when you wake up.
Eunice squeezes her hands, stands up, and leaves. Shirley ponders all of the corpses that had been unearthed this morning. Indeed, her heart feels as if an excavator had broken it up. It is raw and mushy. It smells like overripe fruit, manure, and death. Before this morning, she would have been repulsed by that smell she imagines; but now, strangely, she does not find it offensive. Not sure if this is a gooddevelopment, but it is a step nonetheless toward adult wisdom.
Mostly, Shirley thinks about that nineteen-year-old girl she’d seen on her Grandma Alice’s dresser. She knows now (and, indeed, had known then, if only she had been completely open to her own intuited knowledge) that that woman is her real grandmother. ‘Grandma Alice’ is really her Great-Grandma Alice. No doubt about it in her mind. It is as if she has read her father’s birth certificate.
And hasn’t she known always that the woman’s name is Grace? Naturally this is so; and so Shirley imagines how Grace must have lived her life, until that pain and nausea finally gets the best of her. Then, she slips into a restful sleep.
* * *
Surely, it is better to be freed from Aunt Mavis’ madness, even if only to a degree. Shirley learns to value those small things in life that had been denied to her the few days she had lived in a jail cell. Pouring out her favorite granola cereal and filling the bowl to the rim with cold milk; rummaging through chests to find an appropriate Tuesday Greeter outfit (the one she had chosen before is no longer ‘sexy’ enough for the ‘lollipop girl,’ as she now calls herself); helping the other ‘working girls’ with their hair and makeup after supper; even lying on the sofa in the sitting room while watching Mama Eunice pursue her love of the canvas and the paintbrush; all of these once mundane activities has taken on a new importance in her mind. They also seem especially fragile, as if her liberty to engage in such activities may be taken from her on any half-assed pretext at any time. As a result, she learns to covet what she has; and though she smiles a great deal, there is a glint in her eyes that says that she does not trust entirely the person to whom she is smiling. Her inability to trust anyone else is an awful weight, first upon her soul, but then upon her flesh as well. The others cannot quite see it; but they sense, for example, how her whole face seems to hang on her skull, especially when she smiles, or how her shoulders hunch forward, like she is carrying an invisible boulder on her back, or just the fact that she hardly runs about the sprawling house anymore. Shirley walks now, guardedly, maybe just to show outwardly how much her mind has matured since being freed from captivity, but maybe because she is suffering from a deep and abiding sadness. Notwithstanding her smiles, indeed, maybe because of them, the others sense a pervasive gloom lingering in the air just above her. It is like a bit of Grandma Alice’s black lung cloud has attached itself to her.
Three of the ‘working girls’ approach Mama Eunice. They inquire ever so indirectly if perhaps it may be a tad bit too soon to thrust Shirley onto the ‘big stage.’ Of course, they insist, they are only concerned here about what is good for her emotional and physical wellness. It never crosses their mind that maybe Shirley will say or do something, oh, they don’t know, let’s say strange, when a john comes a knocking on their front door on Tuesday nights. It is just that that ‘poor girl’ has gone through so much what with her old man swallowing a bullet and her auntie falling off her rocker. It would be a shame to push her too hard. Maybe it would be best if one of the ‘working girls’ helps her greet the johns at the front door. Shirley could dress up and smile all pretty pretty just the same.
Mama Eunice listens politely. She then waves her head no. Shirley is one of the smartest little girls she’s seen in a long time. She’ll catch on really quick if they try to take back from her what little she has. Anyway, she’s not going to do anything that would scare off the johns.
And with that Mama Eunice picks up her paintbrush and refocuses on her canvas. The three ‘working girls’ watch her paint a while. They honestly do not have any idea what their mother is painting. It is no longer that White Grimace that is supposed to be Mama Gracie. Now, whatever it is looks vaguely like last year’s Halloween pumpkin bleeding out pumpkin juice, or maybe it is an exotic sunset over a field of shit. Maybe that little girl and her auntie are not the only loony tunes around here, the three ‘working girls’ think, as they step out of the sitting room, and return to their cigarettes and eye shadow.
As Mama Eunice had anticipated, they had worried for nothing. Shirley is a real hit at the front door. She dresses in a red, burlesque, Mae West costume. Butt and hip pads allow her to strut her stuff. The excessive makeup makes her face look like a demented, porcelain doll. It is laughably cartoonish; and yet, in a way, it also suggests that the girl who barely reaches above their waistlines is vulnerable, no doubt down on her luck, maybe already doing tricks on the side to support an ailing grandmother or a drunk off her ass mother. Whatever is the scenario, she is having a hard time of it; and, really, isn’t that a turn on for the hapless john with his hat in his hand? In this age of immediate self-gratification while surfing the net (made easy with innocuous sounding entries on the credit card statements and with lots of free material that does not even need a credit card on file to verify the user’s age), why else would a man with some name in the local community drive all the way out to the banks of the Manchester River and so incur the risk of being spotted by one of his peers? Of course, these girls are good in bed; but even more so, they are outcasts. They need their johns to survive, sort of like the slave needs her Massa to sneak into her hut every night, ‘cause she can’t live without eating his blond beefsteak. They need to be taken advantage of like a dog needs to be kicked when the wifey and the kiddies are not around to see. London House is not about sex. It is about abusive power for an hour or two. It is about the john walking back to his Benz or his Audi with an unwholesome, smug grin on his face and the knowledge that he has done a bad thing to a vulnerable woman, who is just a bitch whore anyway and so deserves it. The little doll girl with the big smile and the sad eyes is like a cherry on top.
Shirley loves the surprised expression on their faces. Even as the regular Tuesday crowd gets used to her, they still smile or chuckle, when she opens the door, takes their hat and their coat, and invariably says in her closest Mae West voice, ‘So and So will be down shortly; but, honey, why don’t ya come and see mesometime?’ She gets another grin, when she hands them the polished, silver donation plate at the end, and says again in her closest Mae West voice, ‘Hope ya had a good time tonight, ‘course good had nothing to do with it.’ Even those two vice cops who show up every Tuesday to double-team Diane (known to the two vice cops as ‘Gypsy Jap,’ because they insist there is something oddly ‘Jap’ about her eyes, while she is having an orgasm) make a point of high-fiving ‘Mae West’ after she says her ‘good had nothing to do with it’ line. So much amused attention can get to anyone’s head. Shirley understands why some people want nothing more than to receive a standing ovation after giving it all on stage.
And yet there is something more than adulation going on here. Shirley is manipulating the johns, pulling the proverbial cap over their eyes while digging into their pockets, not literally of course, but in her imagination. She feels like a puppet master on a rafter above stage. She is pulling and releasing the strings just right. She may be wearing the ridiculous makeup, but in fact the johns are the dolls in this scenario. Although she is still not really sure what the ‘working girls’ do with these stiffs behind closed doors (her imagination adds only a little to the bits and pieces she picks up from the ‘working girls’ at the old breakfast table), she knows that it is just as manipulative as what she does, except with a lot more heavy breathing and pungent sweat involved.
And so she too is a ‘working girl,’ it seems. That thought makes her grin, not contentedly, but knowingly. She is going to be a free woman. She made the decision the morning her Grandma Alice attacked her (still her ‘Grandma Alice’ even though she knows that she is really her Great-Grandmamma, since the old mental games we play with ourselves die the hardest); but actually surviving as a free person out there, beyond the London House front door, no longer able to be pulled and prodded by the very same fates that had killed her hapless father and is now tearing down her alcoholic mother, well, that is going to take lots of street smarts on her part. She is going to have to be a manipulative bitch, or a conniving cunt, or whatever it is men say to put down the women who can strut their stuff and have smarts at the same time. The alternative is a pitiful life on the run that ends with a bullet, or a romance with a bottle that ends with some sort of liver disease. In either case, it ends behind a closed door; and the death smell sneaks under that door and spreads to every inch of that sprawling house.
Everything changes one Tuesday afternoon, although Shirley does not see it at the time. She is already in her Mae West costume, even though the first of the johns will not arrive for another few hours. She is sitting on the sofa in the sitting room, twirling a lipstick smeared champagne flute that had been left on one of the cushions the previous night, and smiling humorously at Eunice’s back (though as always the humor on her lips is undercut by the sadness in her eyes). Eunice is not looking at her. She is so focused on her canvas she does not notice that blood red paint is leaking off of her brush and onto the floor. If Eunice had turned around, then she would have seen how Shirley is striking much the same pose as her Grandma Alice in that buried photograph. Of course, Shirley is a lot younger than Grandma Alice had been in that picture; and ‘Mae West’ indeed is the polar opposite of a chiseled, flat chested, unisexual flapper girl; but if she were to put aside the surface difference, and to focus rather on the attitude on display, she would see that they are two peas in a pod.
Aunt Mavis stops a moment at the open door to the sitting room. She has to take it all in before she makes her next move. She does not know about that Grandma Alice photograph, but she can see Shirley’s attitude. That little girl is never going to be under lock and key. One way or another she will find her way outside. Mavis had been a goddamned fool to think otherwise. Oh, not the first time she’s been a fool; but it will be the last time. She’d rather be snatched by the Red Witch, forced fed her own poisons, held beneath the surface of boiling water, than be a fool any longer. She remembers something a recovering drunk had told her once. That silly, old boozer had said that God gives us all so many drinks in a lifetime and that he’d used up his allotment early on, so now he has no choice but to toe the line ‘cause there’s no more left in the freezer for him. Same can be said about foolishness. The last of the stash also has been emptied dry and tossed into a plastic bin. There is simply no more foolishness to be had.
She had figured this all out in bits and pieces over the last few days. The booze just was not knocking her out cold anymore (building up a resistance will do that), and she had grown bored anyway with what minor level of inebriation she could achieve. She would open the booze bottles out of habit, maybe even take a few swigs for good measure, and then set them aside only to forget that she’d opened them in the first place. She must have a half a dozen open booze bottles that are more than three-quarters full. With so little shitfaced drinking, she’d had no choice but to think. That’s the problem with an unoccupied mind. It starts to fill in the empty spaces with thought, more often of the sordid, self-defeating variety, but sometimes in a way that actually does the thinker a little good. We attribute the former to some sort of neurosis. The latter we attribute to an act of divine grace, as if we can only do bad shit to ourselves, so that the good has to be a gift from the Man Upstairs. Regardless, Mavis occupies her sad and listless boredom with thoughts of what her life might be like if finally she’d stop playing the part of the fool. No doubt, she’d get herself killed. That gnarly Red Witch is out there, and she takes down uppity women as much as the Boss Man takes down uppity niggers. But maybe, in the meantime, Mavis would learn how to live again (if indeed she ever had lived in a way that was not really self-destructive, what with that bloodguilt her sweet grandmother spoon-fed to her straight out of the King James Bible, and the rotten semen her johns spoon-fed to her since then); and maybe, if she put her heart and her soul into the effort, she would learn how to be a mother to her daughter. It is never too late, or she likes to think, anyway. The only way to find out for sure is to get up and to try.
And so this morning, when Eunice had stepped into the bedroom as usual with her warm plates and water jugs, Mavis had been sitting upright on the foot of the bed. She’d been sitting there for a while, fidgeting with her fingers, and thinking about what she should say. In the end, after Eunice had laid out all the food and water, she simply had told Eunice not to lock the door behind her. No teary apologies were exchanges, no heartfelt confessions were absolved, Mavis simply said what she said; and Eunice responded with a quick, affirmative nod, which Mavis could not see in the darkness, but which Mavis inferred by the very fact she did not hear Eunice locking the door soon afterwards.
Mavis had intended to go downstairs for breakfast, but at the last second she decided to eat what Eunice had provided and to stay in bed until she might be able to speak with her daughter in privacy. She knew from prior experience that would be in the late afternoon. Most of the other ‘working girls’ would be out and about at that time. They would come back for supper and then prepare themselves for whatever tricks they had scheduled for that evening, but from 3 to 5:30 or so they’d be somewhere else. Gladys would be in her bedroom, most likely fidgeting nervously about something Desiree had told her, or perhaps just reading the stash of old and threadbare Reader’s Digests she kept hidden under her mattress. Eunice would be smearing paints on a canvas in the sitting room, all consumed by whatever artistic flair she imagines she has, but managing still to give the little girl on the sofa beside her a grandmotherly grin now and then.
And so here is Aunt Mavis, standing in the open doorway, staring at all of that attitude written in her daughter’s face and pose. Talk about butterflies in her stomach, but she walks forward anyway. What on earth has she got to lose?
Hello, daughter, Mavis says in a voice made firm by its conviction.
Shirley turns toward her. There is a startled and uncomprehending look upon her face. For a split second, Mavis wonders if she had handled this wrong, if she should run back to her bedroom, if she should let the tears flow until she is dead; but then Shirley breaks into the most beautiful smile she has ever seen in this lifetime anyway. There seems to be nothing there but absolute sincerity. Even Shirley’s eyes smile, as if a pair of suns first poking up from underneath a distant horizon at the cusp of dawn. They hesitate a moment; then arise in full, radiant splendor, as if heavenly babies given a chance to see what they can do.
Shirley leaps from the sofa, and runs into Mavis’ arms. They cry joyfully onto one another’s long faces, while Eunice looks on in silence from a distance.
* * *
Over the next several Tuesdays, Mavis mans the sitting room. She sits in the chair usually occupied by Eunice (a replica of the very chair where Shirley’s father swallowed a bullet and where Grandma Alice held court with a fine mink wrapped about her neck and a smoky cigarette holder in her right hand), while Eunice paints in the privacy of her bedroom. Though no one ever says anything, it is understood that every Tuesday night the sitting room and the foyer are to be set aside for Mavis and Shirley to oversee together. How better for a mother and a daughter to bond than for the mother to hover anxiously offstage, as her daughter steps into the spotlight on cue to say her lines? How better than for a mother to give her daughter a kind word, when her daughter returns later on to the backstage? The London House women understand intuitively that the strong and visceral love between a mother and a daughter is nurtured through shared performances, much like the bond between the two actors who have performed the same two-person vaudeville act since Jesus and the Twelve bought thirteen tickets to the tent show. They endure the same butterflies in the stomach, feel the same rush when an audience gives them a standing ovation, have the same sense of time slowing down to the pace of slug when there is nothing else to do but to wait for the first john of the evening to come a knocking.
Mavis combs Shirley’s hair the way her daughter desires. Privately, Mavis does not care for the look, especially after putting in those hair extensions that make her daughter look like a cross between a sultry Mae West and an innocent Rapunzel. It is like her daughter is teetering on the thin line between good and bad, ignorance and wisdom, safety and harm; and her own mother is now doing her part to push her daughter over the edge. Mavis feels that she is really doing something dirty, downright sinful, in combing her daughter’s hair just so. What can she say, though, that would not push her daughter away just when she is in the process of bonding with her? Moreover, what right does she have to point a finger, when she looks like Gennifer Flowers the morning after a hard coke and rum binge? And so Mavis keeps her peace, and tries to return Shirley’s look with a big smile. She is pretty sure her eyes convey her true feelings on the matter, since she’d never mastered the art of lying with her eyes (an art that separates the commoner ‘working girl’ from the high class courtesan). But this is the best that she can do, and she is learning to accept her small place in a world that is neither blessed nor damned. The new motto for her life then is ‘do what I can, don’t bother with what I can’t, and enjoy the simpler pleasures when possible.’
Shirley can read the insincerity in those eyes. She knows that her mother is not entirely happy with this situation. She does not believe her mother wants to go back into their jail cell. That part of her life seems to be behind her. But, at the same time, her mother seems lost outside of those confines, like a blind, old man trying to feel his way through an unknown room.
Shirley will smile all the more. What else puts the troubled heart at ease but the smile of a little girl?
A few weeks ago, Mama Eunice had seen a television commercial about a mail order collection of Shirley Temple films (offered for a limited time only in both ‘original black and white’ and ‘beautiful colorization’ formats). The DVDs arrived several days later. Oh, the look on Shirley’s face when she’d seen what was inside the UPS package. Since then, she’s been spending a few hours every afternoon in Mama Eunice’s bedroom watching one film after another. She has a bowl of grape lollipops by her side, and she sings along with her very favorite star. At those times, it is hard to imagine that on Tuesday evenings she puts on her sexy costume and struts her padded butt and hips in front of ravenous eyes.
And what is the one common denominator she gathers from all the films? Isn’t it that the worst situation can be ameliorated completely by the big smile of a little girl? That certainly appears to be the case with the cheeky girl on the grand television screen. It is going to be the case with her charmed life as well.
Except that life is not that simple, and Shirley knows too much about life on the run to believe that a smile changes everything and that a bad turn must invariably right itself into a happy ending. Sometimes (most of the time) what’s bad is bad, and stays that way.
Maybe that is why her mother never smiles with her eyes. Maybe (likely), the Red Witch is getting closer, and Mavis knows that there is nothing either of them can do about it.
It’s going to be okay, Shirley says to her mother, when she steps away to answer the knock at the front door.
Of course, it will, Mavis says, though her eyes say otherwise.
Shirley lingers. She is not so sure anymore she wants to answer this door.
Go on, Mavis urges. Do what you got to do.
Shirley cannot shake the sad resignation in her mother’s voice. She feels a cold heaviness sink down her throat and into her bowels. No matter the sultry costume and hair, she is anything but an assured adult at that moment. She is a little girl being forced to ride a rollercoaster that has been a fixture within her nightmares for as long as she can remember. The grownups may refer to this as a ‘growing experience.’ If that is the case, then she wants to remain a silly and stupid girl, like her mother had been trying to keep her before she escaped the jail cell. Maybe her mother had been right to imprison the two of them upstairs and far away from the front door. Yes, she had had a mental breakdown, to be sure; but maybe she had been right as well. A crazed person can be right, after all; and given what Shirley has learned about this dark and unpredictable world thus far, she senses that maybe the crazed person is right more often than not.
I don’t want to go, Shirley whispers.
Mavis does not say anything verbally, but her eyes says: ‘You have made this bed. Now, you have to sleep in it. My girl, this is what it means to be free.’
There is another knock at the door. This one is heavier and meaner. This one suggests an authority figure hell bent on getting inside the house to do now what he damned well pleases.
Thunder rumbles outside. Shirley had not been aware of a coming storm, and so the very suddenness of the stomach churning sounds from on high really frighten her. It takes every last bit of her will not to cry out like a scaredy cat, but she cannot do anything about how her whole body trembles in anticipation of certain doom. She staggers over to the foyer like she has been gripped by an epileptic fit. Her color rushes from her face. Her eyes bulge from their sockets.
And there is the door in front of her. It is a ghost door in the wavy, silver moonlight washing through the foyer windows. If she had not pinched her lower lip, and felt the burst of physical pain there, then she would have thought that she is inside of a horrible dream and that that door before her is a dream door.
A dream door that opens up to what is out there…
There is a third knock. This one is even meaner. It is petulant and cruel.
Shirley glances at the spiral staircase leading up from the foyer. She can run up the steps now and barricade herself in her bedroom.
But then, her mother would have to answer the door. Her mother would have to contend with whatever is on the other side. She would get to keep near and dear everything that she had wanted, her costume, her DVDs, her lollipops, but her mother would have to pay the price intended for her. Avoiding the cost by passing it on to some other poor soul. Isn’t that what her father had tried to do by putting a bullet into his face? Hadn’t he passed his own debt unto his girl for no other reason than that he was a scaredy cat himself? Is that the best any one of us can do in this awful world? Or can we put someone ahead of ourselves now and then? If the answer to this question is no then why bother living at all?
And so Shirley turns her face away from the spiral staircase. She holds up her head, and stares squarely into the imposing ghost door. She is scared, to be sure; but she is not going to act like she is scared. She is going to smile big and sultry, thrust her butt and her hips, and tell that man that ‘bad is even better.’
* * *
Shirley pulls the front door open. It creaks on its hinges.
There is a tall, thin, black form standing in front of the door. While it is the form of a man, it is so immobile at first that Shirley imagines it is a faceless ghost hovering an inch or so above the porch. Indeed, there is something about this form that suggests the distant past; a traveler who has been on the road an awfully long time, but who has not travelled a great distance, so much as taken along with him a recrimination first voiced long ago. And so, he is more akin to a courier, or a devil’s mailman; and his ‘package’ is a high drama that has been recycled with each successive generation.
The man is not carrying an actual package, but he does have a thick and phallic baton hanging from his belt. That baton has delivered its share of clear, unambiguous messages. After all, what is more cogent truly than the proverbial ‘attitude adjustment’ smashing through the skull and into the soft grey matter?
Quite a lot of insight in about a second or two of observation; and yet, in Shirley’s experience, the truth of the matter is always front and center. It may take a while to figure out someone’s con; but for those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see, the essential truth of that person is apparent from the get go. Survival on the run is not possible without developing an intuitive ‘truth meter’ and trusting in whatever it whispers, before the conscious mind then has had a chance to throw all sorts of doubts and obfuscations into the mix.
And yet this is an extraordinary observation, even for her. It is one thing to know from the get go that a person is some sort of ‘menace.’ Indeed, even a person with little intuition can feel the negative vibes of a man intending to do them harm. But to know that this man (assuming he is a man, and not an actual ghost, as her very first observation had suggested) is a courier of some sort and that he is carrying on his belt a ‘message’ repeated over the generations, well, that defies even an advanced psychic impression.
Perhaps Shirley knows so much so soon because she has encountered this man before, not necessarily in her real life (her father had been quite reckless, but at least he had tried to shield his daughter from his worst enemies), but for sure in her nightmares. Perhaps the knowledge is in her bloodstream, a terrible legacy from her father’s side of the tree, a curse that lays just beneath active consciousness, but that manages to rear its ugly head now and then in the dark and surreal figure that pops in and out of her dreamscape. If indeed this black, immobile form is all in her little head, then that does not make it any less real.
There is an intense lightning flash. The light allows Shirley to observe his face. He has the bright red hair of a doll. A prior generation of observers might make a mental association with Howdy Doody. For Shirley, his crew cut appears vaguely cartoonish. His boyish face is nondescript, but for a couple of blue eyes that sparkle cold and robot-like, and a glaring scar running along his chin. What is most disturbing is the utter blankness of his expression. He has the empathy of a mallet striking an anvil. He is a tool, or a machine set loose, perhaps in the manner of Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. And yet, there is nothing futuristic about him. He is in the service of the past; and if he has any capacity to dream at all, then he envisions the scarred, bloodied backs of those writhing slaves he had beaten silly for one infraction or another; or the bruises upon the skulls and necks of those Negro prisoners he had smashed around, while he had been overseeing the chain gang; or the cracked foreheads and the gouged eyes of those Negro Civil Rights marchers he had assaulted, while he had been trying to protect ‘Southern heritage’ and to stand up for ‘what’s fair.’
In that split second of clear observation, Shirley senses that she can read his dreams. He dreams the dreams of a Boss Man: an endless series of bleeding, gurgling wounds; the immediate aftereffect of a strike to a head or a back or a thigh; the raw, gaping, screaming flesh torn open to the hot air; the splatter of blood and sweat back against the baton. There is no context for any one of the images, except that each wound is in the service of a ‘creditor,’ a man in a suit who is ‘settling accounts,’ a man as distinguished as his enforcer is blank. What is most disturbing about the Boss Man’s dreamscape is the sheer banality of the violence. He is not even excited by what he does. Her father at least had felt a rush whenever he managed to pull the wool over the eyes. Her mother at least had felt passionate about what she did (or imagines she did) to that Red Witch. But this fellow offers nothing of himself to the world. He just sneaks out of the darkness, delivers his ‘message,’ and leaves someone else to clean up the mess and to wash out the death stink, while he continues down the straight highway from one damned generation to the next.
Thunder rumbles overhead, while the lightning flash fizzles back into the thick darkness. There is an electric dampness in the air; a stinging sensation on the nostrils; a coppery taste on the tongue reminiscent of spilled blood. All this can be attributed to the lightning, of course; but Shirley thinks that it has even more to do with the ghost form standing before her. It is like the ghost form is becoming more substantial. It no longer seems to be hovering above the porch, but rather to be a solidifying into a real person in the here and now, a man in a pair of knee high, fascist boots, a man in a nondescript, dark uniform, a man in his element, because he is as smooth as a cat and yet the girl before him is too scared even to launch into her outlandish ‘Mae West’ routine.
Then, there is a blue aura flaming up from the Boss Man’s flesh. His cold eyes warm, as if they are each being cooked by a radiant energy source deep in the socket. The eyes seem to turn darker blue, though Shirley may be dreaming that up on account of the heat in those sockets. What is strange is that, as that Boss Man solidifies, he energizes. As he comes up to his target, he incarnates a timeless hell that is only intimated in the fleeting nightmares and feelings prior to his arrival. And all that incarnate hell heat speaksto her. It sounds like fires crackling in her head, but it states clearly: ‘You have made this bed. Now, you have to sleep in it. I’m here to tuck you in so nice and tight, you nigger whore.’
Nigger Whore? Shirley thinks. But who is the nigger here? I am as white…
But then she remembers the fantasy she had; the one where she and the other ‘working girls’ are dancing like African women beasts about a surging and crackling bonfire; the one where she and the other ‘working girls’ remind Mavis that each and every one of them is the Red Witch, each and every one of them is an outcast, each and every one of them is a nigger whore…
Shirley manages to step backward. Only a few seconds have passed since she opened the door, but she feels like she has stepped backward after having been frozen solid inside of her own fears for untold years. She also feels naked, notwithstanding the skirt rustling by her feet.
Aren’t you going to invite me inside? The Boss Man asks her with a blunt authority in his voice.
Lightning flashes, while the Boss Man asks his question. In the damp and electrified light, Shirley can see the barest hints of a grin on the Boss Man’s lips at that moment. Really, it is no more than the upward twitch of the left side of his mouth that could indicate indigestion as much as satisfaction.
Whether or not he had grinned, his eyes remain blank. There is so much radiant energy behind those pupils, so much resolve to beat this nigger whore; and yet, at the same time, they neither feel nor emote anything.
Shirley steps backward again. She cannot make any sound. She feels as if her larynx has been replaced by a deep well. Dank, smelly air flies up from the murky depths; but apart from a slight screeching sound, as the air escapes into the world above the well, there is just a dark and heavy silence. Never has she felt so vulnerable, so tiny, like a miniature, ceramic doll squeezed by the devil.
House Nigger should know her manners, the Boss Man says with a hint of sarcasm, while also stepping firmly across the threshold.
Shirley hears how the wood floor creaks beneath his jackboot. It sounds like a man strangling a duck; and perhaps because that horrific image flashes in and out of her mind, she is able to concentrate briefly on something other than her own paralyzing fear. That breaks the spell, and so Shirley turns abruptly on her heels and runs for the sitting room door nearby. She still cannot scream out in fear and in fury, but she figures that her heavy steps upon the creaking foyer floor must be loud enough to draw at least some of the ‘working girls’ out from their private bedrooms.
She runs into the sitting room. She pushes the door behind her; but just before it latches, the Boss Man’s gloved, right hand holds it open. She sees how his fingers wiggle against the door. They look like black worms sliding out from one side of the door to the other, so as to snatch at the ruffles on her costume.
She trips on a rug. She falls onto her knees beside the phonograph.
The Boss Man does not immediately push the door. He just keeps it from latching. Apart from his right hand, the Boss Man is no more than a black form in the foyer shadows, holding the door open, biding his ideal time to strike the nigger whore refugees now trapped inside of the sitting room.
Shirley returns to her feet. She beelines for her mother.
Mavis is sitting dispassionately upon Mama Gracie’s old chair. What with the blank look upon her face, Shirley wonders if Mavis has checked out already.
Mother, the bad man is here, Shirley barely manages to remark out loud.
Mavis does not say anything, though the look in her eyes suggests that in fact she is fully aware of this mad situation. Whatever fear had been inside her eyes over the past weeks has been replaced by resignation. Shirley senses that that same resigned look had been in her father’s face before he ate the bullet.
The Boss Man sneaks into the sitting room. He shuts the door behind him and leans upon the door panels. He folds his bone thin arms, and silently waits.
Mother, the bad man, Shirley cries out more forcefully.
Mavis strokes Shirley’s hair. Mavis waves her head no, as if to say, ‘dear, dear, little girl, don’t trouble your heart so.’
Shirley struggles free. Clearly, her mother has taken a side tour into the loony bin. Maybe that is her way of dealing with stress. Sit on the tall chair and pretend that what is happening is not really happening. Take up the old bottle, or a couple of packs a day, while the murderer glares at you across the room. It is a passive standoff; the woman holds court with her booze and cigarettes; the man just waits until the woman commits slow suicide, say liver failure, or heart disease, or emphysema, and then takes from her rotting corpse what is owed to the creditor who had sent him there. Business transacted, mess cleaned up, no one the wiser, except those who may feel the ghost of that buxom blond whore who had squandered her life at this very spot.
And if the Boss Man had come for Mavis, then perhaps that is how this all would have turned out. She’d stay on her side of the sitting room; he’d stay on his; and about a half a century later, she’d die, and he’d cuff her corpse. None of the Madams or ‘working girls’ would notice that there was anything amiss for the next half century inside this sitting room. For them, it would be business as usual. But for Mavis and the Boss Man, time would be ticking away, unchanged, dogged beats in a metronome, until finally she gave up that tired ghost of hers.
But the Boss Man is not here for Mavis. He is here to exact a generational claim for justice, and the cry for vengeance indeed rests hardest on the littlest and the meekest.
Shirley turns away from her mother. She just cannot stand to see the sad resignation in her eyes. There may be no hope this close to hell, but at least at the end they should put up a struggle. The alternative is a dumb rabbit, beaten over the head with a baton, tossed into an eternal blackness out therewithout so much as a twitch of its whiskers.
Shirley looks up at the Boss Man. He has moved from the door to the arm of the sofa. He must be supernaturally stealth, as Shirley had not heard his big, thick boots plodding across the sitting room floor.
Leave us alone; Shirley screams at him with about as much anger as fear in her little girl voice. We are at home, and this here is our safe place.
House Nigger thinks her Massa’s home is her own? Is that one of your silly ideas? The Boss Man inquires with a hint of contempt in his blunt voice.
Shirley is speechless, though not with fear this time. There are white-hot coals of anger in her cheeks.
I said leave us alone, Shirley screams, while pushing against his right leg.
Why didn’t you teach her to mind her elders? The Boss Man asks Mavis in a voice that sounds matter of fact but that is snarling just beneath the surface.
Mavis looks up at him with questioning eyes. She cannot quite tell if this is for real, or if she is back upstairs laboring through one of her old nightmares.
Shirley pushes again against his right leg. This time, the Boss Man grabs a hold of her ‘Mae West’ costume, and slings her into the phonograph. She senses a vague, hollow pain in the back of her skull upon impact; and for a second the entire world turns dark when a pile of vinyl records falls over her bruised head.
But she does not lose consciousness, at least not for very long, since the next thing she notices her mother is on her feet and screaming vitriol. It seems this bit of violence against her daughter had been enough to slap her out of her resignation. Shirley wonders how it is that the others do not hear her just then.
I poisoned you, Mavis cries, while beating against the Boss Man’s scrawny chest and arms. I drowned you. You have an axe to grind; you have it with me…
No axe, the Boss Man interrupts her with a hint of a smile. Just a baton…
And with that refrain, the Boss Man unclips his baton, and swings it down hard and fast upon Mavis’ blond wig. There is the sound of a smashing pumpkin. A zigzag of blood drops down her forehead from beneath the wig. Her eyes look like vibrating saucers. Her face is a spasm of pain and disorientation. Her knees buckle, and then they fall to the floor like a hurried penitent slamming onto an old prie-dieu. She folds her fingers in front of her chest, like she is consumed in dark and trembling prayer, though the manner in which her arms and her hands twitch out and recoil suggest that she has no conscious control over her fingers.
Shirley and Mavis lock eyes. There is a lingering intimacy between them.
Shirley cannot see any conscious recognition in her mother’s eyes. There seems to be nothing in them, but manic confusion moments before the curtains fall for the last time. And yet Shirley cannot deny the intimacy the two of them share just then, an intimacy born not from sharing one last look before the end descends like a shroud over a corpse, but from experiencing together a tragedy repeated over the ages. Shirley would not know the French word, but she has a vague sense of déjà vu in seeing her mother kneeling on the floor. The déjà vu is that much more pronounced, when her mother’s bruised head starts to knock back and forth, her lips look like they are sliding over an invisible slab of steak, and her throat bobs like it is trying to swallow something way too large for her esophagus. There is a thick and greasy scent in the air. Shirley has encountered that same scent when passing by the locked bedroom doors late at night. She is not sure what it is, but she knows that it has something to do with that sweaty, gooey discharge that she finds when washing the bed sheets the next morning. It is the smell of something that has been abandoned, maybe forever lost; and, while embracing herself the ‘working girl’ life that she still barely understands, Shirley cannot shake the impression that there is something really bad about it.
Mavis’ stomach clenches, and indeed she discharges what looks like a big pond of pee and pus sliming out from between her thighs. Her throat heaves as if she is about to vomit, but the only thing she spits out is a series of unctuous, choking barks. When her nostrils flare, and her chin juts upward, she does look like a mad bitch snapping back and forth on the end of an invisible chain leash; a mad bitch with a zigzag blood stream gurgling from its forehead and down its snout; a mad bitch clamping down and twisting its dog teeth into that invisible slab of steak. There is a blood geyser spitting up from the top of her head; and when the blood splatters into her blond wig (now lying on the back of her head, thus exposing the volcanic wound on the front of her head), she then looks like the writhing, choking Red Witch about to collapse into her own blood cauldron.
Mavis’ eyes focus in on something eternal. A kind of fog slides over them then; and when the fog dissipates, the eyes are blank, hollow, and finally dead to this world. Shirley searches them to see if they are at rest. She decides that they are not at rest, so much as captured in an endless limbo. And that is why I fear death, Shirley thinks. There is no rest there. There is just a loop repeated, a reel going round and round inside of an old fashioned movie projector, a soft, white nothing projected onto the screen, and worst of all an awareness on the part of the dead that indeed they are trapped inside of this endless limbo. This is the death hell: Going nowhere, knowing that you’re going nowhere, and also knowing that there is nothing else ever to be experienced but this nothingness.
There is the sound of ice crackling beneath the sun. Then, there is a sick gore fest of a head crackling into two halves and falling in on itself. Mavis’ lips open and shut, like she is trying to say something even after giving up her tired ghost, but instead a gooey stream of blood purges out from her mouth. Mavis is pushed backward by the force, and so ends up staring at the ceiling in her own blood pool. Her fingers remain folded before her chest like she is lost in prayer.
The Boss Man squats down, and delivers one blow after another upon her corpse. He looks like he is striking his baton through a rotten pumpkin patch for no other reason than to splatter stringy and clumpy pumpkin juice everywhere.
When finally he stands up, and turns to face Shirley, he looks like a sick, macabre clown what with all the flesh and blood sliming down his own face and torso. His baton is now coated with her blood. He strikes it repeatedly into his left palm. As he does so her blood splatters from his baton to his heaving chest.
Lights out on your Good Ship Lollipop, he says with just a hint of a smile.
The Boss Man squats down. He swings his thick baton like a baseball bat at Shirley’s face. She instinctively tries to block it with her right arm. When he hits her there is the most excruciating pain spasm, and then the world is black.
Shirley is dead when he clips on his baton and picks her up from the old, blood soaked floor. She remains dead when he carries her outside, puts her on the ground, smashes in the driver’s side window of Mavis’ lipstick red Mustang, sits her up on the passenger seat, hotwires the ignition, and escapes the scene.
* * *
On The Good Ship Lollipop
The first break in the eternal blackness is a conscious thought. It is a soft lamp switched on inside of an inner office that had been locked and abandoned a long time ago. The light bulb is so weak it casts no light beyond its lampshade and so leaves the rest of that inner office dark and dismal.
Nonetheless, just the very fact of light allows the imagination inside the mind of an observer to sweep into the space as a wind into an unearthed tomb. The mind wind upsets the stale stillness in there; separates a shadowy form out from the other items; flutters the fabric that had been draped over it until it is a sail expanded over the length of a ship. Even the shadowy form contorts into a specific shape and size. Indeed, it is not the length of a ship, but rather a girl in repose. Her fingers had been folded into a prayerful posture. They remain as such, notwithstanding the mind wind lifting her burial shroud several feet over her corpse and fluttering her hair in such a manner that the hair strands appear as snakes snapping at one another inside a cage. In fact, that cage is a hair net, but even that recognition on the part of the observer does not detract from the snakelike character of the hair. It is like the snakes above the head balance out the prayerful posture above the heart. So that is death, then, the time there is equilibrium between sin and grace, the tug equal on both sides of the long rope so that the person in the middle cannot move out from the eternal peace inside the eye of the storm. Except of course that the peace is not so eternal, since in time the person in the middle decomposes back into the old earth. Sin prevails; grace recedes; and then there is nothing, but brittle bones in a forgotten office down one of the many hallways of a sprawling hell house.
Better to awaken that little girl before the maggots find her pretty flesh. Yes, the eternal peace will be lost, but it is not all that eternal anyway. Really, what is so eternal about dead flesh falling away from bones; brittle bones just crumbling into dust beneath the slow and creeping weight of time; and then all that had been lost being gathered into a resurrected body, when Jesus returns in the Great Light and Fireworks Extravaganza at the end of time? Everything is falling down; then, being built back up; then, who knows, maybe falling down a second time. Seems like change is the only constant. Nothing eternal in all that back and forth, falling and redeeming, dying and living again; really, if possible for the mind wind to do, then is it not better to awaken the little girl now than to release her corpse to the whim of a mercurial God, who apparently gets His divine jollies in breaking her down and in building her back up forevermore? No doubt, disrupting God’s cruel and senseless game will reap the judgments from on high, the fire and the brimstone, the thunder and the rain, but in the end is it not a victory of sorts just to let the Big Kahuna know that we actually are on to His game? Before He strikes us down, can we not grin within ourselves, since we had shown His divine love and mercy to be no more than the kind words and the big smiles of a Con Artist? Who knows? Maybe when the Con Artist has been revealed unto the world, He will escape to Grandma Alice’s sitting room in the dead of night, pull out His pistol, and splatter His brains into the fabric behind His head? Maybe His large head will look like a smashed pumpkin that has to be scraped out of the fine upholstery. Maybe His mildewed corpse will stink up the whole of the universe that He had created. For all we can know, maybe He had done Himself in a long time ago, so that all the sin and decay in the universe in fact is His divine corpse stinking up the place from the bowels of hell even unto the heavenly throne. A morbid thought, to be sure; but if love indeed is a snow job, then is not this bleak consideration more likely than the happier outcomes we may conceive? If mercy is just another twist of the knife, then what may we do with our souls except to entertain heresies and to indulge unnatural desires?
So if He can play His games, then I can play mine, the mind thinks, when it considers the corpse of the little girl inside the dark office.
And so to the best of its ability, the mind directs the mind wind to flow into her nostrils. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, the mind thinks. But in fact it has a bit more hope than that. After all, its imagination all the time instills a life of sorts into the most bizarre creations, enough life anyway that the person really starts to believe that the pink elephant in the cloud or the boogeyman in the closet exists, if not for everyone else, then at least for him. And when that person is no longer there to instill a life of sorts into his own dreamscape, then is it not the case that, more often than we may want to admit, those creatures of the mind live on in the cobwebby corners and the creaky wood beams where that person once had lived? We create our ghosts, and the ghosts live on where once we had buttered our toast and had watched old game shows, do they not?
The wind flows through the nostrils as a whisper speaks in the mind. The Spirit is the Word, when living flesh arises from the tomb. Except, of course, in our example here neither the Spirit nor the Word is divine. The person who will instill life of sorts into the figments of his imagination is a person, not even one of the jesters in Mount Olympus, let alone the God of Genesis; and so the most that he can conjure is a ghost. The ghost may cry aloud at the third hour every night. The ghost may rattle a window, or creak a door on its hinges, or flip the pages of an open book; but it remains no more than a shadowy form glimpsed a moment in ones peripheral vision, then lost in the counterarguments posited by the rational mind. There may be a lot more going on with the ghost on its side of the great divide, but we may only conjecture as to what indeed this may be.
Shirley opens her eyes. She is sitting against a damp tree trunk. It is cold and slimy against her back, and her first thought is that if she sits back further, then she will fall through the trunk and, maybe, fall through an endless hole in the earth. She has a vague memory of Alice in Wonderland, except she believes that if she were to fall through that endless hole, then she would be exiting her current Wonderland and free falling head over heels toward her former Reality. So this is Alice in Wonderland, but in reverse; and she is dead, but sitting up on a damp tree trunk. The paradox defies reason. Indeed, even her imagination is going to fall short on this one; and so she chooses that path of least resistance. She will not try to explain how or why she is here. She just will respond to what she sees or hears next, and let the imaginary gods determine what comes of it.
She looks about her space. It is night, but the silver moonlight drapes all of the trees and bushes about her in a ghostly, muggy stew. As such, she is able to make out images here or there; but what she figures out is counterbalanced by what is obscure. This is a real and defined place, but it is also a fun house of mysteries. She is not so sure, if she has been delivered from death, or dropped into hell. Perhaps there is no difference between the two outcomes for a little girl set adrift on turbulent waves so very long ago.
She thinks that she could remain there, mired in confusion, lost between endless death and restored life; but something tells her that she needs to stand up. That something speaks inside of her mind with a thick, blunt voice. It is like the voice of a baton; and while that voice is not there beside her (though it is a real enough terror in her imagination), she senses that it can and will be there beside her, if she hesitates any longer in doing what she is supposed to do.
She finds it remarkably easy to stand up. She had thought that that gross pain and death that had brought her here would express itself now as throbbing pain in her joints or clammy nausea in her bowels; but that is not the case. She wipes the back of her hands against her face. She does not feel any bruise. She smells the back of her hands. She cannot make out the pungent scent of spilled blood. Indeed, she cannot sense anything that would indicate that she’d been a victim of a brutal battery way back when inside the London House sitting room.
Then, she stands up. She is now above the ghostly, muggy stew that had both illuminated and obscured her understanding of where she is and what she is supposed to do there. From this vantage point, she observes the mud mounds of unmarked graves; and she can almost feel the ghosts urging her to step away from this clearing in the woods, lest she too become one of the eerie wails that can be felt and heard, whenever the wind blows through this space after hours.
She has been here before. She remembers kneeling beside Mama Gracie, after the ‘working girls’ had lowered her oversized corpse into the muddy hole. She is aware that all eyes are on her, but she does not care. She just places the framed photograph of the young and flirty Grandma Alice beside Mama Gracie’s chest. There is nothing else she can do then, when she kneels so near to death.
The unmarked graves call to mind how her mother had been killed. Mavis is a smashed corpse, and the one thing that Shirley can do for her now is to cry.
Shirley runs from the clearing. Her tears fly from her cheeks and splatter the earth beneath her bare feet.
She is not paying attention to what is in front of her, and so she staggers into a gnarled, low hanging tree branch that rips her floral dress. It is only then that she discovers that she is not wearing her Mae West costume any more. She is instead wearing the kind of floral dress she had seen once in her picture book about little black girls. Perhaps her skin too is black. She cannot tell for sure in the silver moonlight, but she can remember in vivid detail the dream where she and the other ‘working girls’ had been dancing about a bonfire as if the African Queens of old. She remembers seeing the sheer anguish in Mavis’ face, as those flames drew nearer to her writhing flesh, and as Shirley and the other ‘working girls’ reminded her that every one of them indeed is that reprobate Red Witch.
Oh, mama, Shirley cries in a voice tinged by guilt. Mama, mama, mama…
Shirley steps out of the forest. There is an ancient house ahead of her. It is a sprawling, gabled house with an eerie visage of cracked windows and faded exterior paint. Like the unmarked graves behind her, it too seems to be sliding back into the earth from which it had been born.
This should be London House, and yet somehow it is not. For starters, as the silver moonlight moves across the roof, and casts the walls beneath in grim shadows, she senses that the house has been dead a long time. But that cannot be. Even at this late hour (not sure exactly what time it is, but the moon above suggests well passed midnight), several of the upstairs bedrooms still should be lit. Some of the ‘working girls’ go to sleep the moment the last john of the long night has bid his adieu; but others stay up for hours afterward to play solitaire, or to drink whiskey, or even to handwrite letters to fancied boyfriends living in far away kingdoms. London House may slow down in the darkest hours, but it is never dead. Indeed, the life in that house suggests a restless curse that will not be undone until Hosea London’s Calvinistic vision of salvation has been realized among the elect and the damned. So, no, the sprawling, gabled house may look like London House; but it is no more London House than Mama Gracie is back in one of those unmarked graves behind her. Notwithstanding her memories given a new lease on life by her immediate surroundings, she is really far from home.
She sits against the trunk of a rotting tree. She buries her face and cries.
When she looks back up, she sees that the sprawling, gabled house is not there any more. Instead, there is a chateau on the banks of an enormous, dark, thick lake. The chateau is beneath her, because she is sitting now on the top of a driveway that slopes down a steep hill to the front door. The tree trunk upon which she is resting in fact is a wood post holding up an old fashioned mailbox. It is damp wood, and the mailbox door had been rusted shut a long time before this hour. So the wood post and the mailbox both seem ready for the junkyard, and yet somehow she senses that that chateau down there is not as dead as the London House she’d observed or fantasized earlier. There is no tangible reason why she should think so. She cannot see any lights on in the chateau below, nor hear the creaking floor boards and dripping faucets that would suggest there is life down there. But her intuition nearly screams out the life inside those walls.
She does not ask herself how she could possibly hear those creaking floor boards and dripping faucets from the top of a long driveway. She simply knows that she could hear them, if there was anything to hear. The same way she also knows that there is life inside those walls, indeed, life kindred to her very own.
As if to confirm her intuition, she stands up, and reads the surname that is printed on the side of the mailbox and lit up by the silver moonlight: Temple.
She looks back down the driveway. There is a smiling, pretty, redheaded woman down there. She is wearing a white carnation in her hair, a white dress, even a pair of white shoes. She is nineteen going on nine. There is mischief and innocence in equal degrees just barely concealed by her soft and alluring eyes…
Those eyes…those eyes speak to her…those eyes speak to her, like pretty eyes will do, when captured by a camera, put into a frame, and left on top of an antique dresser. Nineteen-year-old eyes on the cusp of maturity, but meant for her. Mischief and innocence in those eyes, and yet eyes that can speak ever so clearly to a little girl who has known too much of the underside of life to be all that playfully mischievous any more, let alone innocent.
There is no reason for Shirley to be afraid. Indeed, she senses nothing at all but the welcoming love of a kindred soul; and yet she feels the urge to hide. It is as if she has to hide so as to play her role in a drama repeated many times.
Oh, mama, Shirley screams from behind the post. Mama, mama, mama…
Shirley is sad still. Her mother’s violent death remains too raw an image. Nevertheless, she senses an underlying insincerity in her wail on account of the fact that everything she does now seems to have been done many time before, like she is simply acting off of a dog-eared script handed down the generations.
The woman walks up the driveway. Her smile never falters, and she does not quicken her step. She must have heard this same script, performed once in her lifetime, redone more times than she wants to admit in her old nightmares, and so approaches the unfolding tragedy like a person may look casually upon a scene in a film she has seen many times.
Did you lose your mama? The woman asks with trepidation, when finally she gets to the top of the steep driveway and then looks down at the little girl.
Except that that is not really trepidation in her voice. Those eyes simply give her away. Her eyes are smiling too much for a woman, who is supposed to be trembling in fear.
Boss Man, Shirley whispers almost inaudibly.
Though she is still speaking from the script, this time Shirley senses more sincerity in her own response. She really does not want to say ‘Boss Man’ loudly lest the blank man with the baton come out from the shadows. She senses that he could at any moment and on the slightest pretext.
The woman also remembers the Boss Man. She remembers that smashing pumpkin sound, when his baton cracked open the young man’s skull. She senses him nearby, a shadow fading in and out of her peripheral vision, a vague shape in the silver moonlight that could swing out with his blood soaked baton simply because the breeze altered its path or the moon fell a bit more in the dark sky.
The smile in her eyes falters. The smile on her mouth twitches unevenly.
What happened to your mama? The woman asks when finally she breaks out from that most terrible memory. Did the Boss Man do something bad to her?
He shook her, Shirley whispers.
He shook her? The woman asks while she wipes from her face a real tear.
And broke her, Shirley finishes.
Did the Boss Man hurt you? The woman asks in a despondent whisper.
He said he’s a man, ‘cause I’m a nigger, Shirley mutters into her tears.
Shirley cannot make sense of that last line, even though she muttered it. She is not black. She remembers the Boss Man calling her a ‘nigger,’ but frankly it made as little sense then as it does now. All she has to do is to take a look at her own skin to see how little any of this makes sense…
And yet when she glances down at her own hands just then, she observes how they are a lot darker than she remembers them. Not only a lot darker, but foreign, like they are someone else’s hands, perhaps even someone else’s life…
Maybe she just looks black because it is so dark outside. The night often plays tricks. The night is a con artist looking to score a tear out of a little child, a trembling, frightened, confused tear, perhaps even a cackle of cold madness.
But this is not an illusion, just like her dream of dancing with the others about the big bonfire had not been an illusion. What passes for real life may be little more than smoke and mirrors, small time crooks pulling their cons on one another, fast friends and faster enemies, daddies and daughters skipping out of hotel rooms before dawn; but dreams and fantasies are as real as the sound the baton makes when it hits the back of the skull, and splatters blood everywhere.
I’ll save you from him, the woman promises while wiping away her tears.
Shirley looks at her as if to say that, no matter her good intention, she is no more able to save her from the Boss Man than the Man in the Moon.
Really, the woman says. I’ll save you from him. You’ve suffered enough…
The woman offers Shirley her hand. She really wants to believe that she can save this little girl. Maybe this time it can be different for the two of them, though in the back of her mind she is doubtful that ghosts can do much more in the little corner of hell allotted unto them than to repeat ad infinitum the dark and senseless violence that had so marred their lives. She feels like a character in a torture porn scene repeated over and over again for the pleasure of a sick, juvenile, masturbating God. Not much hope for anybody in that bleak scenario.
And yet again she thinks improbably: Maybe this time it can be different.
Shirley takes the woman’s hand. She leans against the woman, and cries.
So what is your name? Shirley asks the woman through her sobs, although in her sure heart she already knows the answer and, indeed, always has known.
Grace, the woman says softly. Grace Temple.
* * *
Remarkable, the older man states with a sly twinkle in his ink blue eyes.
Shirley watches the older man carefully. He is handsome; his features on the whole soft and debonair; his Howard Hughes mustache combed ever just so by hands that have not dug through the earth in eons; his fine cigar never more than an inch from his smooth lips, so that his dapper face always looks as if it is bleeding through a veil of smoke and ashes; and yet there is something strange, even disturbing, about him. Maybe it is the sly twinkle in his eyes, though such may indicate only that he is a manly man player, a heart stealer, a con artist, a man in an impeccable suit with a story to tell, not a particularly good man, but not at all strange for a little girl who has seen already more than her fair share of late night visitors and schemers. Her father entertained these types because of course he was one of them. They have their gracious manners, their tailored suits; but rub a bit beneath the surface, and they are down on their luck, just a step ahead of the taxman, or just one more far fetched con from finally getting their financial house in order. They drink, smoke, or fuck excessively, since the nervous tick just beneath the dapper surface cannot be calmed otherwise. This fellow here apparently likes his fine cigars. They are his drugs of choice. So no, the sly twinkle in his eyes alone do not account for his strangeness. There is no one thing to finger about him. The best Shirley can do is to think that he is such a con artist extraordinaire, he is conning himself. People can con themselves so long. Then, the illusion breaks apart; and they put a bullet into their mouth, or bury themselves in their sitting room, until they have smoked themselves into a grave. But this fellow is a ghost like Grace and herself, and yet he remains just as capable of conning himself silly as when he had been a gentleman writer and hunter in his prime. This old cat puts her deadbeat, con artist father to shame.
She thinks about how he is an ‘old cat.’ She fantasizes (except ‘fantasy’ is not quite the right word, because what she views inside her head feels much more like a memory, albeit one that logically cannot refer back to any incident in her own short life) that the same gentleman writer and hunter is in his khaki suit and leather boots. He is younger than he is now; his mustache simply a thin hairline about his upper lip; his face not yet wrinkled by his love for cigars; his eyes animated, but not yet sly and decadent. He has just fired a rifle. He drops it slowly from his face, and lets the crackling rifle smoke dissipate into the hot, steamy, Congo air. There is just a hint of a smile on his thin lips, when he sees the trophy that is awaiting him. He puffs out his chest (not much difference, as he is so skinny back then), and walks forward with the pretentious gait of a fine army general about to inspect his fallen soldier on the remains of a battlefield. The first one down, the fine army general mutters under his breath, when he is able to see up close the bullet hole between the shoulder blades of the tigress. The first one down, but so many more to go, the fine army general says, almost philosophically. The face of the tigress is buried in the earth, and so the man of the hour bends forward, and pulls the face up and back. He wants to behold for himself the dull eyes and the death grimace etched in eternity upon that beast face. After all, the death face is his personal work of art. Surely, when we view man’s various works of art, some beautiful, others vaguely disturbing, only that contorted death face is eternal. Paintings fade in time. Sculptures crackle back to dust. Even poems and novels will be lost when one generation of fascists sets out to censor irrevocably the past. But the death face lingers, even when all of the flesh has decayed, and the bones have crackled into dust. It lingers in those startling ghost faces glimpsed in the peripheral vision. If there is a God, then it lingers in His eternal mind as well; each death face a torture porn picture from which He can get his divine jollies; each death face traded among the angels as if baseball cards among little boys. The tigress head will be a trophy back in his den, but the real prize is in staring long and hard into that blank death face.
Oh, how Ernest will envy me, the fine army general says with a chuckle.
He pulls the face over, and looks down; but he does not behold a tigress.
Rather, he must have unearthed a reflecting mirror because he observes himself. Those are his eyes; that is his mustache; and that is his mouth, opened and contorted unhandsomely, as if struck down while just giving voice to one of his wry observations. What he finds most discomforting is the blank stupidity in his own death face. At least, the beast is ferocious. It can inspire horror within a man, who happens then to stumble upon it in the bush, and admiration within a man, who is fortunate enough to behold it from the other side of a fence. But his face is no more than a silly caricature. It is laughably pompous, officious to the point of foolishness, wide-eyed but hopelessly blind, like one of those faces in a British farce. He drops the death face, stumbles backward, and nearly falls over his own feet. It takes a long time (a lifetime, really, and then some) to be able to capture his breath and to calm his nerves; and even then, the old death face lingers in his imagination, like a strange and disturbing form in his cloud of old cigar smoke that remains even after the smoke dissipates into the darkness.
Maybe the older man can see what she sees. He is staring into her young, but hardened, eyes with such care and longing that she suspects he can read all her thoughts as if his own. Whatever he sees, she senses that he wishes she had never shown up. Oh, sure, his smile never falters. Even his sparkling, blue eyes, charming bubbles fizzing on the rim of a champagne flute, never lose their sick and devious gaiety. He could pass the most sensitive of polygraph tests without so much as a thin line of sweat upon his high brow. But he cannot fool her; and she suspects that he cannot fool Grace, either. He is writhing in anger beneath the surface. Just all piss and vinegar that he can see his ‘old cat’ self inside her eyes. Haunted by a memory (except ‘memory’ is not quite the right word, since what he views inside his head feels much more like a fantasy, given how it is an impossibility that he actually beheld his own features on the face of the tigress way back when, is it not?) that he had thought long ago to be buried under the surface of the timeless, thick, blue lake out back. He had so embraced life, for no other reason than to keep that incident buried; and here is an eight-year-old nigger girl pulling the disfigured tigress corpse out from the sand and the muck.
She looks just like her, Grace whispers, while she wipes away a sad tear.
The three of them are inside the kitchen. The doctor is sitting beside the eight-year-old girl at the table. Grace is leaning against the stove, and trying in vain to hold back her tears.
There are used soup bowls, spoons, and napkins upon the red and white-checkered tablecloth; what is left of the dinner that Grace had provided them, after bringing inside her special find. Between the doctor and the little girl is a tall, lit candle. It does not flicker out light; so much as etch gloomy shadows on the walls. Everything about the candlelight suggests a séance, though of course here the situation has been reversed what with the ghosts trying to contact the real world (more specifically, the real past that they had thought long ago lost) through the eyes of this little girl.
I cannot deny the resemblance, the doctor comments after a while. It is uncanny. This girl is as peachy white as innocence; and yet, look at her colored skin, her full lips, her peculiar eyes. The eyes of a hunted animal. Nigger eyes…
Shirley sees Grace in her peripheral vision stepping forward from the old stove, but she keeps her eyes fastened upon those of the older man beside her. She senses that she better not drop her gaze, lest she give this fellow a chance to pounce upon her. She feels that the Boss Man is very near at hand. If she had the wherewithal at that moment to look up, and to peer into the darkness that is behind the older man’s head, then no doubt she would see the Boss Man now standing behind the older man’s shoulders; his face totally blank, but for a hint of a smirk on the right corner of his lips; his right fingers fondling the handle of his baton, ready to grab and to swing the very moment the older man gives him the signal. The Boss Man is there, since the older man keeps him near and dear to him, like a planter might keep his stupid attack dog by his side when keeping tabs on his field niggers, or like a jealous farmer might keep his chief employee on hand when confronting his daughter, or like the town fathers might keep the KKK correctional officer on hand when confronting a busload of Freedom Riders one night. The Boss Man is there, so that the older man can make everything all nice and straight again. The Boss Man is how the older man rights what’s wrong in his little corner of hell, and right now this nigger girl who just came in off of the streets is wrong. She is as wrong as the other nigger girl Grace brought into the Freedom Bus so many years ago. And for all the older man can tell, this girl next to him now may be the same nigger girl as the one on the Freedom Bus. It is surely not impossible, given how they are all ghosts who had died at different times and places and yet ended up together in this old chateau beside the lake.
Shirley reads all of this in his eyes, as assuredly as he reads that ‘old cat’ memory in hers. She suspects that he knows that she knows, and vice versa. No doubt, to some extent anyway, they are on to each other; and that means that each will be a perceived danger to the other. Except of course that Shirley has much more of a reason to be afraid, does she not? After all, the Boss Man is not a tool at everyone’s disposal. He is there only for the older man. He is there to keep the bitches in line. He is there to make sure the same justice is repeated, over and over again, like a broken record skipping at the same spot over untold numbers of generations. Or maybe a better metaphor is an earthquake cracking open the same spot on the earth every generation, so that God can get his silly, divine jollies, and the angels about His heavenly throne can laugh uproariously.
Does the name ‘Abigail Spencer’ mean anything to you? Grace then asks.
Are you asking me if I am Abigail Spencer? Shirley asks without removing her solemn gaze from the sparkling, ink blue eyes of that older man beside her.
Grace nods her head in the affirmative. She sheds yet another sad tear, but this time she does not bother to wipe it off of her nineteen-year-old cheek.
I guess I have no choice, Shirley answers.
A ghost never uttered truer words, the older man reflects with a sly grin.
* * *
You are afraid of him, Grace whispers into Shirley’s right ear, when they are alone together on the second floor deck overlooking the lake. I could see it in your eyes. It is okay. You can trust me.
Shirley does not say anything. She continues to stare into the darkness of an endless night. Ever since she had arrived, that dusk that had held steady for Grace and the Doctor has transitioned into a dark and brooding nightfall. There is no way to tell exactly the hour, though the position of the silver moon in the sky suggests an hour or two before midnight. Apart from the moon, the sky is a mix of dark, thick, breathing clouds, none of them yet ready to release fire and brimstone, but all of them harbingers of a doom just beyond the imagination. It is the sad and pervasive gloom before the storm; the certainty that someday he will smash through the glass and take what is owed the creditor; the despair in knowing that there is nothing any one of them can do about it, especially when the tormentor is as much inside the chateau as at the campfire across the lake.
Shirley stares at the campfire. She barely can make out that thin shadow man hunched over the flame. He is holding his palms near the flame to keep his warmth. He seems to be at peace; and rightly he should be, since everything is coming together as he would want. He can bide his time an hour more as easily as he can a thousand years, bending at his knees, feeling his huge baton against his right thigh, and staring blankly into the crackling fire and smoke.
The doctor is downstairs, reclining on the sofa, puffing on his cigar. He is aware of course that the ‘girls’ have gone upstairs and outside to talk with one another. Let them commiserate in private. Let them conspire as silly ‘girls’ the world over will do, when it is clear that they are under a stronger man’s thumb and cannot do anything at all that may prevent the midnight hour of reckoning.
Grace leans on the deck rail next to Shirley. She also eyes that campfire.
I saw it in his eyes, too, Grace continues after a while. How he stared at that Boss Man in the Texaco Gas and Grill. I love him. I think I always shall. But I saw it in his eyes, and so I know that there is every reason to be afraid of him.
Shirley says nothing. She remembers her Princess Ariel doll. She had left it back at that trailer. She is as far from that doll as stars on opposite horizons.
I’ll protect you, Abigail, Grace states. Okay if I call you ‘Abigail,’ isn’t it?
Shirley shrugs her shoulders as if to say that she is resigned to this name.
Shirley tries to recall On the Good Ship Lollipop, but finally she gives up.
* * *