The girl was a fat one who towered over him, making him feel aware of his own small body. Sheís all there is, the woman out front had said. The woman was old, her movements slow and languid; she had looked over her shoulder first at the big girl and then at the clock that was on the wall and told him it was late. Make up your mind, she had said, staring at him, waiting, and he had felt as if she were staring into his very being, recognizing something there that they shared.

The girlís hair was long and a pale artificial shade of yellow, like old kitchen tile. It fell onto her shoulders in thick wads that she swatted away while she talked. She leaned over him and laughed at him because he was so drunk.

What are you doing, coming in here? she said. She wore a black silk gown that was threadbare in places around her hips and breasts and bunched up around her waist.

Hell, I donít know. I thought it was a motel.

Youíre funny, she told him. Her bottom teeth showed when she laughed. They were yellow and crooked but they didnít show when she talked.

Yeah, Iím funny, he said.

How much now, baby? How much? she said. Sheíd asked him already three or four times and he had not answered. How much you want to spend, baby?

He was having a hard time talking. Words were coming out in patterns different from how he thought them, or disconnected from thoughts altogether. He was trying to to slow down and take his time and he was reminded of when he was a kid, when he was tongue-tied and was made fun of. His uncle paying him a dime to sing ĎDavy Crockettí, and all of themóhis cousins and aunts and uncles-- laughing at him while he sang. His mother laughing, too. When he was seven years old, his mother had taken him to the hospital to have his tongue clipped and not long after that heíd been able to talk in a way that was considered normal. Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. He told his mother later, when he had become a man, that he wished heíd been smart enough to tell them he wouldnít sing it, that they could go straight to hell for making fun of him. You always wanted attention, she told him. And stop the profanity when youíre in this house.

Heíd gotten high on the way over to the massage parlor. This on top of all heíd had to drink. The joint had been tucked underneath an oil-stained rag in the glove box, just where he remembered placing it. It was strong stuff and as he got high he thought it tasted of motor oil and he wondered if he was poisoning his body. After his mother passed away in the hospital, at quarter past nine, heíd walked alone to a bar that heíd spotted on the drive into town and there he had gotten good and drunk. Then heíd returned to the hospital garage and retrieved his car and driven out to his motherís house, thinking he might be given a bed there to sleep in for the night. When he entered the front door he saw his three sisters sitting around the dining table, hard-clenched fists against the sides of their faces, each one of them. See no evil, speak no evil, he had said, and they merely glanced his way, indifferent and withdrawn from him. He could see that they had been sorting through papers that had been stored away in shoeboxes. Not one of them spoke to him except to say hello, and he stood in the adjacent living room and watched them for a while, thinking them all strangers. As in the past, he felt their judgment against him, felt it as if it were a rash on his skin but extended deep into his soul. The man whom had been introduced to him earlier as the minister of their church appeared from the kitchen with a glass of water for Donna, the youngest. The minister stood behind her while she sipped from the glass, his right hand resting on her shoulder. He stood in the living room and watched the scene for a while longer, balancing himself by holding onto the back of a chair, debating then whether to ask for a bed. Remembering the time when he was sixteen years old and had beaten his father in front of them, for what he had done to them, about which his mother would never speak or acknowledge.

 

How much, baby?

How much what?

Money. Come on now.

He was thinking one thing and saying another. He knew he had started the night with ninety-eight dollars in his wallet-- four twenties, a ten, a five and three ones. Heíd spent twelve dollars at the bar, drinking first a sour-tasting draft beer and then two Dewars on the rocks. Then he had spent thirty-five dollars out front, to the older woman. Heíd still need gas money for the trip home. It had taken him ten hours to drive up from Houston. He didnít know where heíd get any more money if he spent all he had here.

Come on, baby. I aint got all night. Someone else could come in and Iíd lose my turn.

She said you were the only one.

Thereís others. But theyíre all busy right now. With customers. Paying customers. She sat slouched on the mattress with her back to him and lit a cigarette.

The mattress was on the floor without box springs and when she sat, fat collected around her waist in three neat rolls beneath her gown, translucent where it was worn nearly bare. She leaned over and looked into his face and then she rubbed the backs of his thighs. You going to tell me? she asked him.

I already paid thirty-five.

Thatís for her. Iím separate. Come on now.

He nodded and looked at the floor.

So how much? she asked him.

I donít know.

She turned her back to him and drew on the cigarette and exhaled toward the ceiling. Legally, you need to tell me what you want or how much you want to tip me, she said, speaking toward the ceiling.

I got to tip you or pay you?

She regarded the burning end of her cigarette. Okay then. We can do it this way. I donít figure youíre a cop, so how about if you tell me what you want. Or you just tell me how much you have and Iíll tell you what I can do for it. Or you can tell me what you want. Either way.

Youíre confusing me.

Forget it, she said. She inhaled and turned and blew a pale blue stream of smoke in the space between them. Her lipstick was a deep red, almost maroon. Her lips were drawn tight against her teeth as she inspected him, looking him over in entirety, as if she were evaluating his worth and dismissing him.

Earlier heíd removed all of his clothes, following the terse instructions of the old woman, and folded them on a painted wicker chair in the corner of the small room. He lay on his stomach on the thin mattress that was covered only by a gray sheet that was pilled and worn thin. A towel covered his buttocks. It hurt his back to raise up and look at her.

You want to just forget it then? How about if you pay me ten for my trouble. How old are you? he said.

Twenty-six. How old are you?

How old do you think?

Forty. Maybe forty-one or two.

He whistled and shook his head. You sure know how to say the right things, donít you?

How old are you then?

Iím fifty-eight years old. Thatís the truth. Iím a war veteran.

She sucked on the cigarette again and turned her head and blew smoke toward the door. Thatís the truth, she said, looking at him now and touching the side of his face and then the hair above his temple. Why do men always say Thatís the truth? She repeated the words in a voice deeper and gruffer than her own, as if imitating him and other men in general, drawing the words out.

You making fun of me?

I aint making fun.

You think all men are liars?

I just know about the ones Iíve known, she said.

Maybe you been hanging out with the wrong type.

Instead of someone like you? What are these scars?

Shrapnel. I got a bad one on my head, too, but my hair covers it up.

Is that why youíre so crazy?

Yeah, thatís why Iím so crazy. He turned his head and looked at her and touched the end of her hair. Youíre a damn bitch, aint you?

What do you do? she said. For money.

Iím a welder. Mostly unemployed. And thatís the damn truth, he added.

She smiled and nodded and looked away from him. I know one thing about men, she said. All men think with this. She wedged her hand, her palm turned upward under him, and worked her fingers against his pubic hair. Then she moved her hand away and put the cigarette out in the ashtray that was on the table beside the bed. She blew smoke over his back and he felt the warm air on his skin.

I aint necessarily like other men, he said.

His eyes were closed and it seemed to him that much time elapsed before she responded. Iíve heard that before, he heard her say. The words sounded far away, as if she spoke from another room. He heard her light another cigarette and felt the warm smoke drift across his back again.

Then she set the cigarette in the ashtray that was on the floor. She rubbed his shoulders, her hands gentle and precise, as if she were smoothing out wrinkles in linen cloth. Then she sighed and sat up straddling him, pressing both her hands hard against his buttocks.

You ready for me now? she said. You ready for some loving? Cause this is last call.

The room was warm and his head and neck hurt from all the drinking and from the pot. Heíd arrived at the hospital too late to see his mother before she died. His older sisters Lucinda and Betty were standing with their backs to the bed, reading over some papers on a clipboard that the nurse held out for them. Just sign it here? heíd heard Lucinda ask the nurse. When the nurse left and they had begun to gather their things they turned and saw him. They each nodded and looked at the floor and around the room for their purses and coats. They looked much older than he remembered and standing before them he had tried to count the years but found that he had no basis for computing them. He could not remember the year it was his father had died, and that would have been the last time he had seen any of them in the flesh.

We didnít know if youíd make it or not, Lucinda had said.

I made it.

Betty had stepped closer and placed a hand on his shoulder. Do you want some time with her before they-

Before they take her away? heíd said. He shook his head and stared at the floor. No. No I donít.

Betty had always been the nicest of the three, the middle one. Before heíd left home sheíd urged him to go somewhere and get an education and make something of himself. She had been the only one who would talk to him on the phone these past years, the only one who would not chastise him for being drunk. If not for Betty, heíd not even have known his mother had failed.

Heíd crossed over to the side of the bed and stared at the shapeless form of his motherís body beneath the sheet. She suffer much? he asked.

Betty shook her head. It came on real sudden, she told him. It was a cerebral hemorrhage. Her brain.

I know what cerebral means.

I reckon you do. Iím sorry.

You donít have to tell him youíre sorry about anything, Lucinda said.

No. You donít, he said. He continued to stare at the sheet stretched taut over his motherís body. Itís good she didnít suffer, he said. She suffered enough all those years. Married to that son of a bitch.

We donít need any of that kind of talk, Lucinda said.

 

Whatís the matter, baby, you had too much to drink? the girl said.

Iím pretty good and drunk.

You got problems?

I got problems.

Iím psychic, she said. I can tell when a man is running from something. I think thatís what youíre doing.

You donít know a thing about me, he said. He raised up to look at her, turning sideways and exposing himself to her, and then she turned him over onto his back like dead weight.

I know you, sugar. I know you like a book. She pulled her hair back behind her head and looked at the ceiling.

Did you drive here?

I did.

You ought not be driving around in this kind of shape.

I donít need you lecturing me, baby. Iím old enough to be your daddy. As much as I got around in my day, I might even be your daddy.

I donít think so.

You never know.

You live here?

I was run out of this town a long time ago.

Whatíd you do?

Nothing. I just ran out of friends.

She laughed at this and waited for him to talk more.

Hell, he said.

She chewed gum and she hummed a tune that was playing on a small plastic radio on the floor. He felt like heíd been there for a long time and wondered if heíd passed out for a while. He looked for his wallet that heíd wedged inside one of his shoes and saw that it was still there. She rubbed the muscles on his thighs and then she situated herself closer to his head and reached around to massage the back of his neck. Her humming came and went. He smelled the vanilla of her perfume when she leaned closer and he felt her damp breath against his ears and on his neck. Sheíd allowed her gown to fall down around her waist.

How much you got for me, sugar? She chewed her gum and stared at him. Ten seconds Iím walking out of here, she said.

Iíll do thirty, he said.

She sighed and shook her head. She swallowed and he thought she might cry. But she didnít argue and he figured this was the way it usually went for her. When she went out with the money he heard voices, hers and that of the older woman whom heíd encountered earlier, conferring, the old womanís voice insistent and harsh. He heard a door open and a TV playing, a comedy with a laugh track and then the same door close. Then he heard quick bare footsteps coming toward the room. When the girl entered she shut the door and turned a latch. The door fit loosely in the frame.

God, she said.

That old hag give you a hard time?

Sheís just being the boss.

I take it you donít want to mess with her.

She stood beside the bed and removed her gown and folded it and laid it across the corner of the mattress. Then she came over to the bed and lay down beside him.

So whatís your story? he asked. He lay on his back, his hands behind his head.

No story. Iím just your dream girl, she said.

All I ever had was nightmare girls.

Maybe you always had the wrong type.

He said nothing and stared at the stained ceiling, brown stains that spidered from the far corner nearest the door.

Iíd say thatís definitely a possibility, she said.

Definitely a possibility, he said, repeating her words. Thatís contradictory. He raised and watched her, her large swollen hands on his stomach, wrapping around his waist. Itís funny, he said.

Whatís that?

What you said. Definitely a possibility.

Itís just what Iím saying is all. About the women in your life.

She sat up and inspected him again. She ran the tips of her fingers across his stomach.

I been drinking most of the day.

I can see that.

I just left the hospital.

Were you in it or visiting?

Visiting.

You ought to be in it.

You are so nice.

She leaned over him and without saying anything yanked hard on his chest hair, white now for years, an old manís curse, pulling on it hard. Tears came to his eyes.

Jesus god, baby, he said.

She began kissing his chest then and rested the side of her head on his stomach. Youíre just a mean old man, she said. I donít think youíd know what to do with a dream girl like me. You wouldnít know how to appreciate me.

He felt himself sobering. The high feeling heíd had was gone now, and he turned his head and looked at the bleached paneled walls, the objects in the room that heíd not noticed beforeóthe box of tissues, a plastic bottle of green lotion, a red lamp on a small pedestal table in the corner; at the chair with his clothes draped over it, an unframed painting on canvas of a woman in a provocative pose loosely covered by a blue sheet. He stared at the radio that was playing a song about love and then at her gown at the foot of the bed.

What are you thinking about? she said.

I told you, he said. I aint thinking about nothing. Davy Crockett. Iím thinking about Davy Crockett.

My god. Davy Crockett.

He knew nothing was going to happen with her and he felt the terrible shame that had been such a part of him as long as he could remember.

She smoked her cigarette down and lit another one and held it between her lips while she reached for her gown that was behind her. She draped the gown over her head and hooked her thumbs under the straps and looped them over her shoulders. She raised up and tucked her gown under her thighs and held her knees close together. Youíre thinking about the hospital, she said.

Maybe I am. Maybe I aint thinking about nothing.

I canít go back in there yet, she said. Iíll get in trouble for doing you too soon.

All right, he said.

You want your clothes?

In a minute.

You all right, just laying there like that?

Iím all right.

She spread the towel across his body with an unexpected tenderness and he shut his eyes. He thought about the years that went by during which he and his mother never spoke. He remembered having spoken to her shortly after his last divorce, before heíd moved down to Houston to take the refinery job. It seemed that with each year that passed sheíd become crazier with religion. Sheíd told him about the TV show that she sent her money to, in order to spread the Lordís work. He had wanted to say to her, why did you allow that bastard to spread his filth to your three daughters? Each one of them in turn, as soon as they reached the age. Afterwards he had called his sister Betty, thinking she was the only one who might come close to having any sense, but that call had come to no good either, and heíd spoken to her only a few times since. They were all still the same as when heíd left them. High on Jesus and self-deception, blind with denial. I tried to help you, heíd told Betty. Letís donít talk about that, sheíd said. You had every right to kill him, he said. Every single one of you. Well, we didnít, she replied.

 

Your friend going to be all right? the girl asked him.

My friend?

The one in the hospital.

No.

Not dying I hope.

Dead already.

God, somehow I knew that. She reached over and turned off the radio. Male or female? she asked.

He stared at the chair where his clothes were. Female, he answered.

I thought that. I could tell it was a woman. That explains why youíre here but youíre not really here. Youíre lonely, but you donít have your heart in it. I told you I was psychic.

Whatever you want to think, he said.

Iím serious. I am.

 

The old woman was sitting on a sofa in the front room with the television going. She glanced at him when he stopped to look at her and dismissed him with eyes that were but narrow slits below beefy lids. Mute, she returned her stare to the TV, her jaw set. The movie on the TV was an old one in black-and-white, with Cary Grant. One of Hitchcockís, but he could not recall which one. While dressing he had heard the girl talking to the old woman again and the woman rebuking her, speaking to her in a hateful sardonic voice. The girl telling her that she was doing the best she could. Thirty dollars, heíd heard the woman say in her raspy voice. Thirty dollars for one hour, youíre no good, sheíd said, and he then heard a door slam and footsteps down the hall and another door slamming. He spoke to the profile of the old woman in a voice that was hoarse and weak. A thoughtful, luculent condemnation that he knew she could not hear: Youíre nothing more than evil itself, he told her.



Denzil Strickland: His novel 'Swimmers in the Sea' was published by Press 53 in September, 2008. His short stories have appeared in several literary journals. He is also a recipient of a national Hackney Award for short fiction. Denzil is a native of Alabama and now lives in Winston-Salem, NC, where he owns a design firm and works when he has ten minutes to spare on a second novel.


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