The Bones of Things-Prologue

PROLOGUE

Guangzhou, China

Three Years Ago

Li Jing stands holding a sheet of soggy cardboard over her head and looking down into the deep muddy ditch that separates the factory owned dormitory where she lives from the narrow road.  Overnight terrible rains have flooded the streets and water has overflowed the gutters and entered the lower levels of some of the sleeping quarters. A woman, soaked to the thighs, carries a green plastic basin back and forth from door to street bailing flood waters from the building.

In the grey and stinking water, garbage floats.  A young man she’s not seen before, pushes past suddenly, nearly knocking her into the filth of the street. He is carrying a rotting plank of wood and he lays it down upon the narrow strip of concrete outside one of the dormitory doors. He positions it perpendicular to the gutter and slanted across the flood waters as a makeshift bridge.  He returns to the building and a minute later he emerges wheeling an armless office chair which carries an older woman wrapped in blankets. Her head is bowed as if she is sleeping. As the man hurries past with his charge and Li Jing steps carefully away, she catches a glimpse of the woman’s face; shrunken and greyish beneath the cloth. She is so ill, Li Jing thinks.

The bus is late today, and everyone is tired and wet and irritable. The crowded dormitories are very cold, and the workers are forced to keep the windows closed to conserve heat in the winter. The humidity and stink of sweat and dirty bodies and cigarette smoke becomes overwhelming and nobody sleeps.

Still, thinks Li Jing, this is a good job. Doing inspections on an assembly line for an American company. The hours are long, and the factory is noisy and crowded but she is meticulous and careful and has earned respect from her bosses. Li Jing has health benefits and she is paid two dollars an hour, the minimum wage, most of which she sends home to the family she has not seen since her seventeenth birthday over one year ago.

The cardboard is now thoroughly water logged and has disintegrated nearly completely. She lets it fall to the gutter where she watches as it floats away in shreds and chunks beside a balled baby diaper and an empty shopping bag and clumps of weeds and mud. 

The rain falls in droplets the size of fat peas and she turns her smooth face to the sky.

The bus arrives at the factory before seven am and the workers disembark. Li Jing lockers her few possessions and quickly dons the badge and hair cap and covers her clothing with the white paper gown she is required to wear and takes her position on the line.

She will work twelve hours today and have thirty minutes for lunch. She does this six days a week.

Today is a difficult day.  She fears she might be getting ill. Her throat pains her when she swallows and there is a deep ache in her back. She thinks about the woman in the office chair. So many workers in her dorm have been sick recently and missing work means not being paid. She is distracted by worry.

She bows her head to her work.

The backpack she is inspecting is deep purple with black stitching. She examines the condition of the stitching on all sides of the pack inside and out. She checks the zipper and the zipper teeth, opening and closing it several times. This particular pack, however, has one additional pocket on the outside edge and that pocket has a zipper as well. Perhaps because Li Jing is exhausted or maybe because she is distracted by worry, or perhaps for no reason at all, she fails to detect the defective zipper closure on the little pocket on the outside edge of the pack.

She places her bright yellow approval sticker on the inside of the pack and sets it down on the conveyer belt and watches as it disappears around the edge of an enormous steel mechanism she’s never noticed before.

Bythe time an exhausted Ji Ling is on the bus headed back to the dormitory, , the deep purple backpack with the faulty zipper pocket will have been labeled and shrink-wrapped and boxed and crated.  She will be deep in a feverish sleep while it waits with a thousand others almost exactly like it. In a crate, on a dock beside a roiling black sea.   

Years later, long after the people in Guangzhou have ceased to talk about the terrible water sickness and have gone back to their work instead, a girl, not much younger than Li Jing, will discover the backpack. Dusty now and forgotten, marked on the inside by an uncapped ballpoint pen, it will sit undisturbed in the back of a secondhand store in the low rent section of a suburb just outside of Los Angeles California. On a low, narrow shelf, it sits beside a plastic Smurf toy and a stack of old phonebooks from places like Houston and Boca Raton. It is half covered by a pile of off-brand sweatshirts and miscellaneous T-shirts. The young girl will pull away one at a time, fearful of spiders but curious about what lies beneath.  She will pay just two dollars for the used backpack but, unlike Li Jing, she will take note of the broken zipper pocket. She will rationalize that it is a minor problem and will be easy to fix and, given the price, the pack is still an excellent deal. She’ll leave the store with every intention of fixing the broken zipper.

She never will.

EDEN – Novel Excerpt

Prologue

January 6, 1982

There is a fear I live with all the time.  It’s like a shawl around my shoulders that I cannot remove. Today has been a hard day. Gray skies and a chill in the air that bites like razors. Clothes refuse to dry on the line, and a particular angry whistle passes continuously through the house.

Perhaps it is only the memory of seeing him this morning. It wasn’t intentional. He was in town with his family, and I saw him across First Street heading to lunch perhaps. Or shopping. My mind raced in all the directions he might have been going. The pain was excruciating, but at the same time it made me happy to see him looking good.  He was smiling, reaching down to lift his smallest child to his shoulders. The last time we spoke he was devastated.  I think in my life there will never again be a love like him. I am now resigned to it. When I think of the damage our love has caused, the responsibility we bear for the lives of others, I feel ill all over again and yet, I am once again fortified against my weakness for him.

I’ve not been right since I got home this afternoon. I’ll say the truth only here, in these pages. I cannot trust myself to speak it aloud. Or perhaps it is that I cannot trust others.

 An icy terror sits within me. A feeling, or more than that, a certainty that something terrible is about to happen, maybe has already occurred. Some form of destruction, an unraveling I suppose. I see shadows following me at times. Objects are moved, no longer where I left them. Sometimes gone for good. Yesterday, I went to get the mail, walked down to the box, a solid five-minute trek and found the box empty. Upon my return I found the mail stacked neatly on the kitchen table. John says I must have forgotten I’d gone to fetch it. I’m certain I would remember if I was the one who’d put it there.

 I mention to my doctors that I sense I am being watched, but, when they only want to give me more medication, I stop telling them. I’m sure this is not sickness. I’m quite sure this is real. Why will no one listen?

-Gwen

 

Chapter One

Eden, Louisiana- Present Day

The day they found the dead girl, the sky was the color of marble and the air stank of rubber and mud. Spring had escaped Bonfante Parish early that year and it was much too hot for early June.   Ray Lee Beaumont was thirteen-years-old, skinny as a jackrabbit and brimming with the sweaty, excited, newness of burgeoning adolescence.  He stood, with the self-conscious, impatient, cool, peculiar to young adolescent boys, under the shade of a live oak, half-moons of damp staining his T-shirt underarms, and smoking a stolen cigarette. Legs slightly apart, shifting weight one foot to the other, head down and cocked, peering out from under a lock of shaggy black hair. One hand to his lips, holding the Lucky Strike between his first two fingers, the way he remembered his Daddy had done-when the man still lived with them.  A thin curl of smoke wafted into the still, hot air and hung there for a long time before breaking up into nothing.  Occasionally he held the cigarette away from his body and tapped at it, letting the ash fall to the ground next to his feet.

All at once, he flicked the butt away, took two steps forward until he was standing just outside the shade of the tree and he shouted. “Basco, what in the hell is taking you so long?”

Genie Basco twelve, just four months younger than Ray Lee, but six inches shorter and lacking the peach fuzz that darkened Ray Lee’s upper lip, emerged from the woods, pulling up his pants.

“I don’t know Ray Lee. I don’t feel good. I think I got the diarrheas.”

“Oh, shoot Basco. You ain’t got the diarrheas. You’re just scared I’m gonna shoot you full of holes before you get one round off,” Ray Lee said, laughing.

“I ain’t scared,” insisted Gene. He approached, and Ray Lee studied his face. Pale, big-eyed. “I’m telling you, I don’t feel too good.”

“Yeah.  Well don’t be thinking we’re going back now that we’re all the way out here and I got my brother’s gun and all. No way. Like my Daddy says, time to man up.”

Ray Lee gave the younger boy a hard stare, so he’d know there wasn’t a choice. Not now. Ray who’d been practically shooting out of his shoes with excitement since waking up this brilliant Saturday morning to find Mack’s paintball gun, and all his gear, sitting by the back door. Mack never left his gear, or anything else he cared about, out where Ray Lee might get into it.  Must have come in drunk or too tired to think straight. Or both. Ever since Mack made sixteen and started driving and got a girlfriend, he thought he was all that. Ray Lee had quietly snatched up the gun and the half-full box of yellow paintballs and made his way out of the house. He’d ridden his bike straight over to Genie’s since Genie was the only other kid he knew owned a paintball gun. Which, Ray Lee was pretty sure, the little softie shit never even used.

“And look,” added Ray Lee, picking up the weapon from where he’d laid it on the ground. “I gotta get this gun back before Mack wakes up or he’ll kill me. So, get your stuff and come on. I already loaded yours for you.”

They started out back behind a wood structure that looked like, once upon a time, it might have been an outhouse.  Everything out here looked like it came from another century. As far as Ray Lee knew, nobody had lived out at the Crazy Yates Place since the old man died and that was almost before Ray Lee was born.

“Ray Lee,” came Genie’s whine. “Are you sure we should be doing this? I mean, what if we get caught? My mom says the Sheriff will arrest you for shooting outside. In, like, the wild.  I don’t know.”

Ray Lee turned around.  Peering at his friend. “See, I told you, you were scared.”

“I ain’t!” Gene took another step.

“Well then, quit jabbering.” They trudged across the field about a hundred yards before Ray Lee stopped just on the edge of the forest. “Ok. Here’s good.” He looked at Genie. Softening. “Hey, look, I won’t aim at your face ok? Or your neck. And I’ll give you first shot. Ok?” The twelve-year-old nodded, looking reluctant. Ray Lee felt a little badly for him. Getting splatted with paintball hurt like a bitch and Genie knew how good a shot Ray Lee was too.

They crept into the forest in opposite directions, counting off before they turned and began. Almost immediately, Genie started firing. Randomly. Aimlessly.  Almost all Genie’s balls hit tree trunks or rocks, leaving neon yellow and green paint splatter everywhere. He’d be out of ammo in five minutes, thought Ray Lee. Idiot.

Ray Lee avoided the shots and snuck deeper into the woods and was circling behind the thick, gnarled trunk of a live oak, when the toe of his runner clipped a fat root and sent him sprawling, face first, into the earth. The gun spilled from his grip and went skittering off into darkness. Once he’d caught his breath, he pushed himself up onto hands and knees, peering around for the weapon. A tiny kernel of panic seeded itself in his belly.

Mack would murder him, literally, if he lost that gun.

He screamed back at Genie to quit firing and come help him. Continued to scrabble around in the half-dark. Finally, there it was. Brown plastic sticking half out of the mud. Reaching for it, Ray Lee wrapped his palm around the hilt and knew immediately the thing in his grasp was not the plastic gun. Fear shot through him like black ice water and he yelped drawing his hand back so quickly, droplets of mud splashed his face. His eyes. He scrambled back away from…whatever it was, and leaned against a rock, panting. Peering into the darkness.

He pulled a penlight from his jean’s pocket and, using it to navigate, he took a few steps. It seemed suddenly darker inside the cypress wood. His foot sank into mud so thick it overflowed the top of his shoe. He felt it oozing through his sock. Like fingers.  Inside the jungle of plants, he was momentarily disoriented.  He swung his head this way and that, panic rising, suddenly, he saw it. Sticking out of the wet earth.  It was small and appeared dipped in layers of earth and rot. Picking up a branch, he used it to poke a bit. Trying to separate the thing from the gun. No way did he want to touch it. He pushed some of the filth away and leaned in for a closer look. He jammed the branch underneath the thing and as he did so, a brownish bowl-shaped object emerged from the earth.

He stared as a clump of long hair fell away in a thin stringy sheath.  He made a garbled gagging sound, dropped the stick, turned and pushed his way back past a giant palmetto plant. Emerging from the edge of the forest, he stopped abruptly, bent at the waist and vomited into the dirt.

 

Chapter Two

San Francisco-Present Day

It was happening again. The sleepwalking. Or whatever it was. When Evelyn was a child she’d called it dreaming but that wasn’t right. Dreaming was that thing people did while remaining stationary in their beds. And dreaming had a sort of pleasurable connotation. The word nightmare wasn’t right either. Evelyn’s ex-husband, Stuart, had called it her “Linda Blair Thing,” and thought it hilarious. Of course he was a prick and had only witnessed two episodes both of which had involved copious amounts of alcohol followed by nakedness combined with something having to do with mud and nocturnal enuresis so, Evelyn wasn’t even sure it had been the same thing. But these more recent events: these were too familiar; occurring too frequently.

 

Evelyn   picked up the tweezers and leaned into the beveled glass over her sink.  The marble vanity edge dug painfully into the soft flesh of her abdomen. She pursed her lips. Tilted her head and expertly plucked at an errant eyebrow hair, while casting furtive glances at the reflected image of her daughter, Libby, who stood behind her across the large bathroom. Scowling.

The teenager was fidgeting from foot to foot, arms folded across her chest, ready for battle. The pale skin of her face, nearly shrouded in a mass of black clothing. Her fierce dark eyes laser focused as she spoke.

“You said it, and if you take it back now, I’ll hate you,” she spat, pressing her lipstick-blackened lips together so that the baby fleshiness of her mouth became a hard line. Evelyn leaned away from the mirror, set the tweezers down on the marble counter, and turned around. Then she folded her arms and stood to wait for what would come next.  “I can’t stand it here anymore,” Libby continued. Her eyes wet. “You do this all the time. Say things. Then say you didn’t.” That, Evelyn thought, was unfair. It happened. But definitely not all the time. Did it? “I’m going anyway. You should say ok and let me do what I want.” Libby was breathing heavily.

“Uh huh,” Evelyn said, weariness rolling over her; a thick, grey, muck.  “Look, Lib there’s no way. There’s just no way I would have approved it. So…no. You can’t go. Sorry.” She hoped she sounded…what? Parental? Certain? Like an adult?

“I am,” said Libby. “I am going. You said I could. Last night, you came in my room, totally fucking blotto and you said I could.”

Evelyn considered which part of that sentence she should address. The curse word? The accusation she’d been intoxicated (which was true of course)? The claim she approved her sixteen-year-old daughter could attend an overnight party for graduating high school seniors? Hmm. Parenting provided so many opportunities to screw up. There seemed no good choice here so she gave up.  Tossing about in her mind for something to say. To change the subject. “You know, Libby, I think that thing is getting infected. It’s pretty awful looking.”  Evelyn uncrossed her arms and reached a hand, forefinger outstretched, toward Libby’s right eyebrow, which sported a small silver ring surrounded by a quarter-sized bruise the color of a ripe plum.

Libby ducked out of the way. “You are not even listening to me!” Evelyn jerked back against the sink, banging her hip bone on the porcelain.

“Fuck, ouch,” Evelyn said rubbing at her hip, fighting the urge to say what she should not. She really wasn’t good at this. At least not first thing in the morning.

“Whatever, I don’t really care,” Libby hissed, rolling her eyes. She ferreted in her purse and pulled out her phone.

A more direct approach, Evelyn said. “Look, Libby, I listened. I said you couldn’t go. You’re barely sixteen. It’s a ridiculous request. I don’t have time to argue about it. I don’t even know what you guys would be doing all night in a hotel.” She fumbled around in her cosmetics drawer for something although she was not entirely sure what.

Libby’s reflection in the mirror stopped texting. Evelyn turned around to look at her. “Mother, again, you are not listening to me. I told you what we would be doing. We will be doing nothing. We won’t be out all night. We will be at the hotel.”

Evelyn sighed, the breath coming from a deep, tired place all bone-dry and withered and lost; a place where remorse and guilt and something incomprehensible lay. Her mouth tasted like stale chardonnay. She tried to remember how much she’d had to drink.  It had started with the voice mail message in the early afternoon. I’m calling from Eden.  Please call me back as soon as possible.  She’d already been reaching for the wine bottle as she listened to it but, in fairness, she’d seen the area code when the call came in. She’d known. It’s important, Mrs. Adamson. Please do call me back. Mrs. Adamson? She hadn’t been Mrs. Anybody in over five years. The name hit hard.  Then there was the other name:  Eden. It conjured images she’d thought had evaporated from her brain. Or been drowned out. Her father at the kitchen table. His long narrow face, eyes sliding over her like she didn’t exist, knobby fingers gripped around the neck of a beer bottle; Sunlight and dust on pine floors under bare feet; and Carolyn, there was always Carolyn.

She reached out to touch Libby’s shoulder with the tip of one finger. Her daughter jerked backward, both arms up as if preparing to defend herself from attack. Evelyn snapped her hand back. Rivers of eyeliner ran down Libby’s cheeks, and there were slashes marking the inside of her left arm from wrist to elbow. Some delicate white lines like embroidery cloth, and some new ones, freshly scabbed. Evelyn tasted vomit in her mouth. Libby followed her mother’s gaze and quickly dropped her arms allowing the layers of fabric to cover her skin below the wrists again. They both looked away.

Evelyn checked her watch. “I’m late. I have to go to my office. I’ve got that Clark thing to finish.” Only a part-lie. She did have to go to her office, just not at any particular time. “What if we talk about this when I get back? Tonight?”

Libby rolled her eyes. “Right, whatever.” A car honked.

“It’s your carpool.” Evelyn nodded her head toward the window.

“I’m going on Friday. You can’t stop me,” Libby said over her shoulder as she walked out. Evelyn closed her eyes and sucked in air through her teeth in long, tough strands like twine.

Then she heard the front door slam and felt a cool relief pass over her like a prayer.

#

It was early summer, and the city was pale and chilly. A gray mist hung low obscuring the neighborhoods and erasing street signs. The Honda was freezing, colder than the street outside, and Evelyn fiddled with heater knobs. She headed down toward Market Street where pedestrians lurched off sidewalks without warning like carnival surprises. The sky, occluded by the architecture, left the streets feeling airless and claustrophobic. She poked her fingers into her right temple, which was growing angry with hangover pain. Fighting with Libby didn’t help. A drink would help. She shooed the thought like a picnic pest.

One hand on the wheel, one eye on the road, she reached into her bag on the passenger seat and fished around for the Tylenol. Not there. She pictured herself placing the medicine on the bathroom counter after the fight with Libby. She tried to remember if she’d taken any of the pills. Likely not, given the pain in her temple.

She thought about the trellis of scars on her daughter’s lovely arm, her eyes simultaneously radiating guilt and accusation.  Evelyn had considered just letting Libby have what she wanted. Anything to be left alone with her pain. Her thoughts. Eden. Eden. Eden.  Instead, she’d tried to hold her ground.  Be some version of a good parent. The resulting fight had not been worth it. Anger rose in her chest when she thought about Libby intentionally choosing that moment for a confrontation. What did you expect? She’s angry. You drink. You lie. You sleepwalk (or whatever). She’s pissed off and you have no right to be surprised.  Probably it was only partly about going to the party Friday. It was also about Libby’s resentment of Richard. Libby detested him. Thought he was a player, whatever that meant. Libby had chosen to confront her in the bathroom this morning specifically because she knew Evelyn would be feeling awful. Hungover, sleep-deprived. Vulnerable to giving in.

So, she’d made a promise. Another one she wouldn’t keep. Shit. She told herself she’d genuinely forgotten about her evening commitments when she promised Libby they’d “talk about it” tonight. But it wasn’t true. A familiar pang of guilt hit, squeezing her gut into a tight ball. She shook her head as if she could dislodge the thought. What choice did she have but to make promises? Libby pushed her into corners all the time. She was practically a single mom. Doing the best she could. Are you? Doing your best? What did it mean that thinking about Libby sometimes made Evelyn feel far away as if she were floating high above the ground looking down upon the scene? Like a witness.

She’d had to practically shove Richard out the door. He’d been so nasty.  What had he said to her? Something awful. Something Libby had heard no doubt. There was a space in her head where memories seemed to be missing.  It happened like that. Was it getting worse? Maybe. Probably. It was like the tape recorder had run out of batteries and just lay dormant in her brain for a few hours until someone dug out the double A’s and replaced them. Then the recording started up again as if nothing unusual had happened. Often she found herself filling in the blanks: “I was home at ten,” or “Sure, the movie was great,” or “My car? I left it at the office. Too tired to drive home.” Not lies as much as best guesses.

The last thing she remembered was her anger at Richard for being such an asshole when she asked him to leave. Looking around the kitchen this morning, it appeared she’d finished off a second bottle of wine after he’d left. She’d gotten into the good vodka as well but had no idea how much she’d consumed.  It was after two in the morning when her brain resumed full operations. She knew this because she’d found herself standing in the kitchen, in the dark, leaning into the digital clock on the stove trying her best to interpret the numbers in the LCD. A two, a one and a five, in that order. 2:15 am. Fuck. Last she remembered, she’d swallowed a couple of sleeping pills and gone to bed. She wished she could recall what she’d said to Richard exactly. What he’d said to her. On second thought maybe the not remembering was better. He’d finally left but not without slamming the front door. For some reason she had this one isolated memory.

The whole day had collapsed after that goddamn phone call. A man’s voice. Eden. Please call me back. Important. He’d left a number. She’d stared at the phone in hand. Told herself it was nothing. Just as her finger hovered over the button to delete she’d changed her mind. Left the message there. Infecting her phone. Her life.

She’d woken up this morning with a head heavy from hangover and the weight of the phone message she’d never returned.

Carolyn’s small fingers dancing like butterflies across her scalp as she braids Evelyn’s hair. Mama hanging laundry from the sagging cord stretched between the house and the shed, her skirt flipping in the morning breeze…Carolyn on that last day…the man from social services carrying her past the sheets fluttering there on the line…his broad back, her flailing arms and legs, the soles of her shoes sticky with mud. Moving away and away… into the distance…into the glare of morning sunlight…until they both simply disappeared.

 

 

Janie Lucille Paradise-A Novel (Excerpt) Chapter One

I was twenty-eight years old when I first met Janie. I was a writer living in San Francisco scratching out a living writing ad copy and freelancing for various independent pseudo political publications which were, by and large, not very good. Like most writers, I also had a day job to pay the real bills and mine, despite sounding sort of interesting in conversation with other twenty-somethings, was no more glamorous a job than any other city-living unpublished young writer’s. I worked for the police department at one of the smaller district stations. Although I was officially hired as assistant to the Chief, my real role was lackey to everyone, including the janitor.  I cleaned up, fetched coffee, ran errands, emptied trash baskets, ran copies, washed cop cars including wiping vomit out of backseats.  Whatever they told me to do I did it. Some days I wondered if I had a limit. What if they asked me to bury dirty money? Hide evidence for fucks sake. Ok, so that would be the line. No hiding evidence. Ok with burying dirty money but absolutely no hiding evidence. I felt better after that.  I’d gotten the job through my Dad’s connections as Chief of Police in my hometown, a hundred miles north. I wasn’t proud. I needed the money and I wanted to be in San Francisco.

The job, however, had one redeeming feature beyond a paycheck. I heard things. Lots of things.  As a fiction writer I found that a police station has a way of stripping human beings back to their very nature and leaving them most vulnerable, most transparent and therefore most easily understood. Whether the criminals, the victims, the families or the cops themselves, the very nature of crime is so barbaric, so intrusive, so vile that it disallows the presence of our delicately contracted civilized behaviors and actions. The two , civilized society and crime are, in a way, mutually exclusive.

Police radios are constant chatterboxes and once you learn the codes, or like me, download them from the internet and keep them on your smartphone, you pretty much know what’s going on. I actually think it’s ridiculous they don’t change those codes around more regularly. Some of them, like 10-4, everybody knows means message received. Others like 10-15 (Have Prisoner in Custody), or, my personal favorite, 10-54 (Possible Body), are less well known but can so easily be sorted out by anyone with an IQ above room temperature and access to the internet they are not really codes at all. Perhaps they are meant to be  short-speak like short-hand for speech, rather than code. In any event, the whole system made it easy for me to follow along, as I am sure thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians do every day. The other way to hear things at a police station is even easier. Cops talk. Just like everyone else they gossip. So, I listened. I’m a very very good listener and I got even better working at the station.

I’d been working at the station around eleven months and had finally become  invisible to most of the officers and other employees. During the first six months I’d been asked out and declined so many times I finally started a rumor that I had lesbian tendencies. It was actually a true rumor but irrelevant. I wasn’t interested in dating anyone of any gender at the time.  It backfired and I continued to get invitations, just more crude. I discovered that some men take lesbians as a challenge. The wanted to change me, convert me, make me see how great it could be the other way.  Some wanted three-ways. There seemed to be this general assumption that if I wasn’t heterosexual I did not have the right to be treated with the minimal respect they might treat a “normal” woman. After a month or so of enduring the worse penis jokes I’d ever heard, (one joke actually had a donkey and two lesbians in a room together, I’ll say no more,) I invented a female finance who lived in New York City but would be joining me as soon as possible. That helped diminish much of the interest. The stragglers I slapped down with a flat, “Look, bug me again and my wife will come after you. She’s six foot one and she’s a mean bull dike. So fuck off.”  I don’t think they were frightened as much as weirded out by that statement. That was that. Rumors spread.  I was, not only a lesbian, but also a crazy lesbian engaged to an insane bull dike the size of a linebacker. Game over. I was left to concentrate on whatever I wanted. At just under a year, the thing I really wanted came along.

It was a Thursday and I’d been working since six am. I requested that schedule  sometimes to keep my afternoon and evening clear for other things, forgetting that there really were no other things in my life.  I guess I lived in a persistent delusion that between the time I put in my schedule request and the time the actual schedule came out two weeks later I’d spontaneously develop a social life. It never happened, but a girl could dream.  Anyway, I’d heard radio chatter all morning about a convoy coming over the bridge into the city. Generally codes for convoys included the make and model of the vehicles and gave enough information to determine exactly what the convoy was about. This was a convoy of late model Ford Vans and it was headed down highway 80W.  That meant prisoner transfer from one of the high security prisons north of the city, Chowchilla or San Quentin. The escort meant important prisoner transfer and important meant dangerous or high profile or both. Any time something like this occurred I put myself on alert for other information via cop gossip or radio chatter.

The particular car I’d been assigned to clean that day belonged to a cop I despised. He was arrogant and rude and had never ceased looking at me like I had some sort of disease once he’d heard I liked girls.  Every time I washed the car he was assigned I swore he left it extra dirty. Not that there was trash or used condoms in the car. I’m pretty sure that would have got him a reprimand or fired or something like that. It just seemed dirtier. Sticky, dusty, like he’d taken a used vacuum cleaner bag and scattered the contents over the backseat and smashed it into the carpets.  I was kneeling on the backseat suctioning the floorboards when a I heard two officers come up behind me. I was in the habit of eavesdropping whenever possible so I shutoff the vacuum and picked up rag and began wiping the seats down. Slowly. Listening.

“Major transport this morning out of Chowchilla, you heard it?”

“Yeah, I heard the chatter, four van convoy, crazy coming over the eighty.”

“Is it her?”

“I hear it is. She’s pretty sick. Headed for City Hospital I heard.”

“You’re kidding? All that for her?”

“That’s good. I heard she’s a piece a work.”

“Ahh not anymore, what’s it been? Ten years?”

“More like twenty I think.”

“What’s her name? Janie something Paradise,” he chuckled, “what was she a stripper?”

“Nah I don’t think so and its Lucille. Janie Lucille Paradise and she uses the whole thing you know. Like Jennifer Love Hewitt or Daniel Day Lewis.  Weird story though. Anyway, it’s a no brainer thing. She’s sick, maybe dying I heard. Sort of sad.”

“Are you kidding? Sad? No way. Not sad not after what happened.”

“I guess; I’ll catch you later.”

I stopped wiping down the seat and sat up and looked out into the half-empty police parking lot. The low clouds parted and the sun sent ribbons of light onto the street and the asphalt revealed millions of secret diamonds.

My name is Virgie Barron. I’m twenty-eight years old and I’m going to tell you the story of Janie Lucille Paradise; child, mother, wife, concubine, lunatic, murderer.

To most readers this is likely to be a disturbing story not because of it’s strangeness, although it is certainly strange, but because of it’s tragic familiarity.

Birthday Girl

She stands naked before the full length mirror in the bathroom and sticks out her tongue at herself. Her body looks no different today. She looks like a bald, wet, cat, she thinks, and she runs her palms over her small breasts and down her hips, disappointed they have not changed overnight. She is, after all, thirteen today. She stands there another minute making ugly faces at herself and then shrugs and picks up the towel off the floor, wraps herself in it and opens the door into the other room.

She pads across the soft carpet to a vanity elaborately draped in chiffon and polyester (made to look like silk) scarves in all sorts of silly feminine colors like lavender and rosy pink. She sort of hates it now but doesn’t have the heart to say anything about it. It’s been that way such a long time. She sits on the stool and resumes making faces at herself for a while. She thinks perhaps if her nose was shorter or her face was a different shape. She read in a magazine that oval was the best shape. Her face is most definitely not oval. She’s not sure what shape she has but its’ not oval. Round maybe or square. Not oval. Too wide for oval. She likes her eyes though. Very blue. Everyone always says how blue they are. Especially with makeup. Lots of makeup. That reminds her.  Her watch is lying on a small decorated mirror on the vanity. She picks it up and checks the time. Her heart skips with anxious anticipation. She needs to hurry. This is an important night.

She picks up the earbuds connected to her iPod and plug them into her ears, switching on the electronic hip hop music she goes to work.

She finds a tube of make-up primer and carefully dabs it all over her face, blending it in just like she’s been taught. She tries to ignore how wrongly her face is shaped. She uses the special brush to apply face makeup and blush and then goes to work on her eyes. She’s really an expert at doing her eyes and she knows it.  She applies blue shadow and black liner all the way around on both lids then heavy layers of black mascara. She cannot help wondering what her mother would say. She smiles slightly embarrassed at the thought.  She applies pale pink lip gloss and two squirts of lightly floral scented perfume. She doesn’t know the name but thinks it smells like something happy.

She removes the earbuds, switches off the iPod and studies herself in the mirror, smacking her lips a few times. Yes, she thinks, she looks good. Maybe her face is still round or square or whatever but she’s pretty. So, that’s good. She feels another skip in her chest, anxious, nervous. A little nauseous maybe. She’s surprised by it. But then, again, she reminds herself, it’s a big night.

She goes to the closet and pulls out the dress she’s been planning to wear. A short, tight sequined affair all in blue, too match her eyes she’d thought. But looking at now, she’s unsure. It seems too much. She puts it back. Pulls out another dress, less garish, not as short, still blue. She puts it on, takes it off, puts it on, studies herself in the bathroom mirror and decides she’s satisfied.

She slips on high heeled shoes and picks up a purse that holds nothing but a lipstick.

She is not allowed money or a cellphone.

She is not allowed to carry identification.

The driver arrives to pick her up. The car will take her to the event.  That’s what today is called. An event. As she steps to the door, she checks back over her shoulder. The room remains dim but she can see he’s still asleep. He will be for a while. He’s old she thinks. He needs his sleep. He’s never told her how old but she guesses he’s over fifty.  Sometimes she wishes for a different life,  but he’s been good to her.  He doesn’t beat her. Not like the others. She’s never hungry. Never cold.  The other girls say how lucky she is that he’s chosen her as his special girl. The other girls all have to stay together in two rooms with three or four to a bed. She has it good, they say. Don’t mess it up they say. Besides, she thinks, where would she go? She doesn’t speak the language. She doesn’t know anyone.  What good is she to anyone, besides this? No, she thinks, looking at the man in the bed, she’ll stay, this is good. This is her life now. 

She turns back to the man at the door. She wishes she could remember his name. He’s new, but he has driven her at least once before. She decides that in her head she will call him Snowman for his terribly white skin. He says nothing but extends his arm, elbow first.  He does not smile. The gesture makes her feel childish. Lonely. She takes his arm and steps outside. She looks up into the night sky which is clear. It is so clear, it looks perfectly empty which is exactly how she feels inside.  She is still looking into the sky from the back of the car as it pulls out into the street. She is thinking about her own self drawn in pencil on a piece of white paper, then  all colored in perfectly white, so that the background and the colored in part match exactly.  She’s thinking about that pencil line being so hard to make out with all that whiteness around that it’s almost like it was never even there at all.

Memoir of a New Orleans Stripper

 

I bloodied my hands while I scrubbed Jackson Square.

Was stripped of my skin in Metairie somewhere.

Turned in my liver to a guy with a glass

Traded my cha-cha for one with no class.

 

Was walking St. Charles, taking the air

When the streetcar swung by and stripped off my hair.

My guts went to church and somehow got spilled

And I have no idea where l lost all my will.

 

I got a ridiculous mouth

I got nothing to say

I got tits for the ages

I like it that way.

 

My teeth are still with me ‘cept the ones in the back

Which a guy with a fist took down at the Shack.

Dancing one night at the Maple Street Bar

I traded my feet for the keys to a car.

 

One August night I lay down in the street

Handless and hairless with no organs or feet.

I prayed God to take me but he’d just made a start.

And there in the street he melted my heart.

 

I got a ridiculous mouth

I got nothing to say

I got tits for the ages

I like it that way.

 

I crawled to St. Louis, cemetery bound

asking the devil to take my life now.

Face down in the dirt I stayed there all day

Found that the worms took my soul where I lay.

 

I got a ridiculous mouth

I got nothing to say

I got tits for the ages

I like it that way.

 

So boys, I’m still here, alive in my cage.

Don’t middle class pity me up on this stage.

Just tuck me a twenty and sit your ass down.

I’ll cover my scars and you buy me a round.

 

I got a ridiculous mouth

I got nothing to say

I got tits for the ages

You like it that way.

 

I’ve still got what matters boys stick around here

And I’ll tell you a tale while you sip at your beer.

And when you’re done listening, I’m here to be touched.

And tasted and tickled and flattered and fucked.