Things were not going well for Ray. His ribs still ached from a run-in with a real jerk, and his teeth were driving him crazy. He'd wasted the entire morning standing in line at the Dental School. Just before his turn came, they ran out of supplies. He held back from popping the little nerd at the desk, knowing full well where that would land him.
He hadn't eaten anything decent for awhile because he was broke. He'd started to go to St. Mark's but turned around when he pictured the priest who patrolled the chow line casting mournful looks at men so hungry they dared not shake off his hand on their shoulder. He was so frustrated, he threw his lucky Indian-head penny into the sewage ditch known as Slag Creek; it had been six years since the penny had done him any good, and he'd begun to think the copper-skinned chief was mocking him. Hey, brother, we lost everything, too.
The wind was whipping through the grey afternoon, driving grit into his skin. Every so often a tantalizing aroma blew in from some other county, making him yearn to be somewhere else. But right now he had more important things to worry about, like finding a place to spend the night where he wouldn't freeze to death before morning.
In the middle of the afternoon, he saw Jackie the Gyp and a black guy named St. Pierre hoofing it down the street. Jackie had his hands so deep in his pockets, he'd pulled his jeans down an extra three inches. He walked with quick little half-steps. Having his crotch lowered almost to his knees made him a parody of Babe Ruth scurrying to take a leak.
Jackie told Ray an unscheduled freight had rolled in and they were hiring guys to unload. "Five bucks an hour, cash," St. Pierre chimed in. So he decided to tag along.
A short Oriental had them sign the standard crap for temporary labor, then put them to work. A little after six another train pulled in, and he asked them to stay until it too was empty. One guy, a big Swede, said hell no, he wanted his money as soon as the first was done. When he left he told the rest of them, "Just remember, I'll be gettin' a buzz on while you're still drippin' sweat." The Oriental gave him a look that said, I'll never hire you again.
The job wasn't bad except for the fatigued-metal smell of the diesels and the aura of hopelessness. The cargo was light, possibly electronics. Guys were passing boxes out of the cars and stacking them on flat metal dollies. Every so often one of the regular yard men came by in his electric fork-lift to haul them away.
About 7:30 a boy arrived with subs and Pepsis the Oriental had ordered. "We still on the clock?" somebody asked.
"You still on clock," the boss replied. "You get ten free minute to eat."
They ate standing up. One guy took his teeth out of his pocket to chew. "I keep 'em safe when I work," he explained. "They're the only teeth I got."
Ray was called aside by a gaunt older man whose baggy pants were cinched up like waders full of last week's rain. "I don't need to do this," he said. "I got this." Digging in an inner pocket, he produced a glittery geegaw Ray could not recognize.
"What is it?"
"It's covered with zircon," the man replied, indignantly. "It's worth a fortune. Any fool can see that."
St. Pierre caught Ray as he returned. The work had exacerbated the blown capillaries in his eyes, and his skin had the gleam of a stoker's. He pulled his jacket open and showed him a package he'd wedged in his belt. "What d'you think we could get for this?" he asked.
Before he could answer, the Oriental got a peek and threw a fit. "You fired, you fired!" he screamed. "Now put back and go. Go! Never come again!"
St. Pierre blamed Ray, as if his expression had given him away. "I'll be waitin' for you, asshole," he threatened. Ray looked at Jackie, who just shrugged.
They finished about eleven. The boss passed out the pay, saying he'd have more work in two days. "I'll be in Kansas by then," one guy announced.
Someone else had a ready rejoinder: "Unless the wind quits, leavin' you only half blowed away." No one really got it, but no one cared; the thought was what counted.
Most of the gang were headed for a tavern by the bus station known for cheap drinks. Ray decided to go in a different direction. "He's long gone," Jackie coaxed. But that wasn't it. Ray simply had his own plan.
He had 35 bucks, and he wanted to find a woman. It wasn't that he was pronged up, or even that he thought he could do something for a change. But a guy he'd hung around with in Moline had told him how he would pick up a woman just for a place to spend the night. "Cheaper'n a hotel, if you play it right," he'd said. "She gotta be independent, use her own place. It's best if she got kids sleepin' in the other room, 'cause then she won't make no fuss. Treat her nice, talk to her an' shit, an' she might even throw in a meal." Ray hadn't tried it yet because he was afraid of complications, but tonight seemed like a good time to start.
He cut across a field where a factory had burned down, ducked into a gas station to wash up, and then headed down Fifth. There were women on every corner and some in the middle of the block. But they were all fancied up, the kind whose handlers were lurking nearby with their cold grins, glamour robes, and knives.
For some reason he looked back and saw St. Pierre come out of a side street and stand in the intersection with his hands on his hips, momentarily looking the other way. He was the type to think the invention of the carving knife was a step backwards because it eliminated the thrill of tearing meat from a bone. Jolted by fear, Ray stepped into a small grocery where the Pakistani manager was talking to a woman by the counter. This man, a long-time student of human nature, intuited the meaning of Ray's darting eyes. Motioning for him to follow, he led him to a back door. Ray was so grateful he was tempted to shake the man's grubby little hand.
He was standing in the alley, wracking his brain for a plan, when the door opened again. He tensed, but it was only the woman. She came right up to him and asked, "Hey, were you lookin' for me?"
She wore a flower-pattern blouse tied at her waist and a short blue skirt with clear high heels. Her make-up had been on all night and needed a touch-up. He put her at thirty-five. "Maybe," he said. "It all depends."
He could see her acne scars through the paint. She had her hair pulled into a bun and stood close to him with her legs apart. She might have been five-one, five-two. "Depends on what," she said, placing her hand on his stomach. "How well I get along with Junior?"
"What's the price?" Ray countered.
"Fifty bucks, and I'm well worth it."
"I'm sure you are, but you're out-a my league."
"What the hell, it's slim pickin's this late. How much you got?"
He pulled out his wad, which she fanned and counted. "Go back inside and get us a bottle a wine to split, and you can have the rest," he said.
She looked him over. "This'll just get you a quick one."
"C'mon, have a heart."
"You're a sorry son of a bitch," she said, making it sound like a compliment.
She didn't say anything when she returned, but Ray could tell there were two bottles in the bag. If one was sweet, like a rosé, he'd vote to drink it first to make it easier to take what usually came next: the disappointment accompanying the inevitable discovery he was neither somebody nor just another nobody, but his own unique collection of ticks and tells clumped together in a mockery of what it meant to be a man.
She led him through the alleys to her musty rented room three blocks away. Halfway she said, "I don't allow no pain. You got that? Nobody can pay enough to hurt me."
"You already hurt yourself plenty. That it?"
The bathroom was down the hall, but that was okay; he didn't like anybody listening. There wasn't much furniture. She lit a candle and turned on the black-and-white TV. They sat on the edge of a mattress placed on the floor. Both bottles were the same cabernet. She gave them each their own, and Ray drank half of his in one long swig. "Oh my," she said.
Some sit-com was playing. The volume was too low to hear more than the laugh track, and he'd heard it before. He wondered if there were laugh-track experts who could tell for sure, who had their favorites and might say things like Hey, they stole that loony hee-haw chuckle from the track for Cheers!
She found a box of granola bars and gave him one. He asked if she'd been in town long. "Long enough to know I don't like it. It's a rat trap, and it's full of rats. How about you?"
"Just passing through. Slowly."
She wasn't bad looking. Brown eyes, a small, heart-shaped chin. One of her ears seemed a little thick. Maybe both; he couldn't see the one on the other side. That was the trouble with skulls not being transparent. One of the troubles. Another was one couldn't tell if somebody had an idea in their head or not—although today a pretty safe guess was not, unless it was yet another form of I better dump on him before he dumps on me.
They both froze when footsteps came down the hall and stopped outside the door. Time took a break, as though Big Ben had gone to bed. Ray's teeth were throbbing worse than if he'd been chewing barbed wire. Then the footsteps moved on and they breathed again, back at the dance.
He wondered if she'd been married much.
"You sure ask a lot of questions."
"I'm just interested in you."
She tilted her head a little and gave him a look. He was pacing himself with the rest of the bottle, not wanting to finish first and then have to watch her enjoy hers. Leaning forward with her hands together and her forearms resting on her knees, she started talking about an old flame. "He was quarter Indian. Cherokee. This was seven years ago in El Reno, Oklahoma. He was part of a crew going around dismantling Pizza Huts. He used to bring me the dumbest souvenirs. He was a sucker for wind-ups. Then somebody wound him up. Gave'm the humpy-jumpies so bad he jumped right outa his life."
"Ever have any kids?"
"Jesus, what is this? The grand inquisition?" She took a large pull from her bottle and got up and turned off the TV. "Well, let's do what we came for," she said. She tugged her skirt free and slipped out of her underwear.
"What's your hurry?" Ray asked, taking another measured sip.
"Jesus. What I gotta do, talk dirty for you? You wanna hear about how I used to make out with my sister? She was a wild little bitch, a real cock tease. But by lickin' her nipples I could get 'er humpin' like a dirty little devil, beggin' me not to stop."
"I'm just sayin', there's no reason to rush."
She muttered a curse and stepped out of her shoes. Coming around behind him, she slipped into bed. The candle wavered from the blanket's breeze.
After awhile she asked if he had ever been married.
"Just once. A girl I met at the movies. We used to do it in her parents' car, parked right in the driveway. Two different times she bumped the horn with her foot. Her Mom and Dad played it cool, though. Couldn't ruffle them.
"One day she got in a fight with her old man and told him we were married. He didn't believe her, so she marched us down to the courthouse and we tied the knot. He threw a real fit when she showed him the paper. He kept sayin', How could you do this to me?"
"So what happened?"
"You know. Usual thing. I wound up likin' her old man. Hell of a welder. We used to go to the hockey game together. He showed me how to make a carb really hum. From then on she couldn't stand me. He apologized when she took off."
"You shoulda gone with her."
"The other guy didn't have room in his car."
He finished his wine and went down the hall to take a leak. Standing there trying to hit the target, he felt the next time somebody asked him if he could believe his life, he'd have to say no. Everything was just so arbitrary. He had long since given up his belief in reasons for things. Life was a confusing mix of what he'd done and what he hadn't. Since time was invisible, he had learned to ignore it—which meant he still might do any of the things he'd passed over. From his stunted point of view, all these possibilities were still open to him. At any minute the tumblers might fall into place and the lock pop open, and he would step into a world where he wouldn't have to waste all his energy trying to dodge the one-two blows of fate.
When he came back he lay down next to her on the bed. She waited a few minutes and then grabbed his crotch. She had a nice, practiced touch, but he delicately removed her hand.
"What's up?" she asked.
"It's not you."
"Don't you think I fuckin' know that? Just for once I wish it was me."
He resigned himself to the likelihood of her complaining for the next hour or so, but he was wrong. Instead she rolled over and settled into a mood making him think she was going to sleep. He lay there listening for five or ten minutes before dozing off.
She woke him by coming back into the room. It was still dark out, and silent. He put the time between three and four. She moved around in the darkness, and he had to guess what she was doing until he heard the clink of ice in a glass. He was so surprised he rose up on an elbow.
"Sorry. Couldn't sleep. Want a drink? I got some real stuff, not that pissy wine."
He didn't answer, which she decided to take as a yes. She reached into a cardboard box under the coffee table for a second glass. He took a sip before he could think of a polite way to say no. He loved whiskey, but he knew what it did to him. He'd learned the hard way, once he started, once the sweetness was in him, it was foolish to think he could stop. Acting like a runaway bulldozer at a sand-castle competition was too irresistible to pass up—even if he had made all the sand-castles in the show himself.
"You got a job?" she asked.
He shook his head, doing his best to stay in lock-down. The mention of work made him think if he looked out the window he would see St. Pierre lurking by the garbage can with a tire iron in his hand.
"I'm too busy keepin' on to have time for one." The problem was, he thought, you had to be somebody specific before they'd give you a real job, and he had always avoided defining himself, to keep his options open.
"I know what you mean. I've had lots of good ideas, thousands, but I never know how to plug 'em in. That's pretty much the same, right?" He disagreed, but didn't say so because it was her whiskey. "Really, I'm just killin' time, waitin' for a guy I know to get outa jail. Me'n Johnny're partners more than anything, but the sex ain't too bad—which's a bonus." He nodded. "We're goin' to France. Find work, blend in. Wait for the chance to grab something big."
He finished his drink and put the glass down. It was strong stuff. Dark spirals were forming under his eyelids, mad little whorls of intense black light playing havoc with his sense of balance. He knew he'd been hit good when he began to think something might be possible with this woman—a familiar false hope he associated with his frequent past failures. Life just didn't work that way. Shaking it off, he lay on his back and put an arm over his eyes.
The booze affected her differently. She stood up and started traipsing around the room, doing a stumble-waltz to the scratchy, one-note tune of everything going wrong.
The next thing he knew she was shaking him awake, wanting to tell him something. "I used to be a dancer," she said, sitting on the edge of the bed with a full glass. "Still am. In a pinch I can always shake my booty for five bills a night. The problem is, they're always changin' the beat. There's somethin' about changin' the beat that tears me apart."
He was skeptical. She didn't seem bounteous enough. Not that it mattered. In his book, dancers believed there was nowhere worth going but were obsessed with staying in step along the way. He himself had always refused to place his feet in the cartoony footsteps painted on the fun-house floor. He propped himself up to listen to her sob story—a price he was resigned to pay. But nature called, and she sashayed out the door. He glanced around, wondering where she kept her stash.
Later he was awakened by her crying. She was lying on the bed between him and the wall, turned away. A few fingers of the day's first light were filtering into the room. "I been bad again, Daddy," she muttered, her voice thick. "Go ahead and punish me 'cause I knew it was wrong but I did it anyway."
After awhile he felt he had to say something: "It'll be okay."
"No it won't. You don't know shit."
"What's wrong, anyway?"
She jutted out her lower lip. "I went for a walk and lost my damn shoes."
"I'll buy you another pair. I'm gonna work at the rail yard tomorrow. Unloading. When I'm done I'll take you to the Good Will and get you any kind you want." She hadn't hassled him, and he wanted to be nice.
"It won't be the same," she sobbed. "They were special. They took me to where nobody else could go. Made me think I had a fuckin' chance for a change."
Lady, you need more than special shoes for that.
He tried to stay awake, but it was beyond him. Besides, she was sniffling up snot, which always turned him off. But awhile later she woke him again by pummeling him with rapid but ineffective blows. He opened his eyes, saying, "What the hell?"
"I'm wise to you, asshole," she yelled, enraged. "Don't think I don't know what you're up to. Pretendin' you love me, wantin' to be my friend. You don't think I can see right through that shit?" She was obviously yet another of those who are two different people—why America's bigger than China if you count personas and not just bodies.
Ray grabbed her forearms and pulled. She collapsed on him, buried her head in his chest, and started sobbing again. She was smaller than he had realized and had a sour, vinegary smell. "Why can't anything go right?" she said, her voice coming through a rusty old can. "You don't know how exhausted I get just trying to make it through the day. I feel like I wandered into a room full of screamin' maniacs and I can't find the door. I been trapped here for years."
He pulled the blankets over them and wiggled into a comfortable position, saying, "It'll be all right."
"No it won't," she replied. "It'll never be all right. And here's another thing you don't know: Johnny ain't comin' back. His mother told me he got stabbed in a fight over some poof."
Her toughness was gone; now she was just a damaged little waif. He hugged her to him, wanting to take some of her pain as his own. After what he'd been through, it would not be an added burden. He was on the side of the street now where he wanted to make up for some of the things he had done, although he was not so stupid as to think he could make up for them all. Or that ultimately it would make any difference.
"What was worse was she was glad he was dead. He was no damn good, she told me. He stopped sendin' money a long time ago. She took a delight in tellin' me. She prob'ly thought he was sendin' me whatever he could make inside."
"Listen, at least he's free."
She pulled away and looked at him with a cocked head and tears glistening on her cheek. "Thank you," she said. "That's the nicest thing anybody ever said to me."
He didn't want to close his eyes until he was sure she was asleep, so he took up the familiar task of trying to get his bearings. He recounted the factors to consider in cobbling up a plan for the coming day: the need to get a meal, his desire to avoid St. Pierre, and his long-standing interest in reshuffling the cards in case a new deal would shed some light on what it all meant. But no matter how much he tried to avoid it, an image of the woman kept returning, along with the absurd idea that sticking with her a little longer might help ease his troubles.
When he awoke, bright sunlight had crept halfway across the floor. She was sitting in the opposite corner, still in shadow. Her knees were propped up, but she was slumped over herself as if she'd finally gone to sleep.
Then he noticed the blood. There must have been a gallon, radiating outward like an overflowing toilet. Some of it had already reached where she'd dropped her underwear and was being absorbed.
He jumped out of bed. He stepped as close as he could and leaned forward to study the corpse. She'd slashed both forearms, one of which lay limply on a throw rug bunched into an altar. The flow of blood had stopped, as if it had all run out with her time. An angelic tranquillity had smoothed over her face.
A note was scrawled on a torn piece of brown paper bag: Thanks for bein nice but now its all down hill. Here's your damn money back too I don't want nothin I didn't earn.
Pocketing the 21 dollars, he looked around to make sure he wasn't leaving any proof of having been there. Story of his life. It only took a second; he was traveling light. He didn't bother checking the drawers, knowing it would be a waste of time.
He pulled his cuff over his hand to avoid leaving fingerprints on the doorknob. Outside, it was pretty but cold. Guessing it was about eight in the morning, he set off for the tracks. Instead of unloading boxcars, though, he wanted to catch the next freight out of town. He'd only been here 13 weeks, but it was already developing all the depressing disadvantages of home.
One thing was sure: he was crazy for having thought this woman might have been of some help. Obviously, she'd had troubles of her own.