Dawn broke through the dark and soon the sky was white, an enraged morning that burned over the woman who hadn’t even noticed the new light rising, scattered and manic as she was having spent the night hiding in doorways and behind massive truck tires when the vacuums of darkness were thundered open by rumbling party cars fresh from the bars and floating casinos, squealing the corners with spastic headlight beams.
Any one of those cars could have been Lo-Lo Moonwhite’s, and Sheila hadn’t made the hundred she owed him for a week’s food and motel. He’d arranged a way for her to pay it with a pair of guys staying at the casino hotel who’d asked their cab driver where they could get some ass as soon as they got to Joliet off the Metra train from Chicago, and the cab driver called a bartender who called a hotel clerk who called Lo-Lo.
Sheila had lost her job dancing many months before and Lo-Lo had been helping her out by taking Polaroid pictures of her for dirty magazines. Homegrown, Honey-Hut, Next-Door Nookie. He gave her fifty bucks each time he sold a photograph. She’d never been in a magazine but she didn’t want to see herself in a magazine like that. Lo-Lo had sold five, six shots when she asked him if her face was in the pictures.
“Sometimes,” he said. “Most of the time they just show your pussy.”
The different magazines had various tastes. One time Lo-Lo wanted her to shave herself clean for the picture and another time he wanted her to grow her hair out for a whole month. But there were only so many magazines that bought homemade pictures and the ones that did couldn’t only show Sheila’s every month, as Lo-Lo explained.
“What if you turned on a television program and it had the same jokes and the same story every week? You wouldn’t watch no program like that.”
He had long frosted hair and a tattoo up on his arm of a moon with a mustache and chin beard just like his and wearing the same kind of sunglasses he wore. He’d shown it to Sheila the night he met her at the bar in the Pink Pony when she was wandering among the patrons between sets. He’d taken off his long black coat and, with a slim brown cigarette in his mouth, showed her his arm in a sleeveless tee shirt with a picture of an Indian riding a wild horse through mountains in the night.
He fingered the skin under his tattoo. “That’s the white moon of me: Mister Lo-Lo Moonwhite.”
Both he and the moon of him grinned at her through sunglasses and sharp beards, and when he spoke again she watched for the tattoo’s lips to move and when they didn’t his voice was a vaporous secret only she could hear:
“And these days I move like the moon and as slow as I want to.”
Then he pulled his coat back on and drew on the brown cigarette and guided it to his glass of scotch which he swallowed back as he clouded the ice with the smoke from his nose.
“I never seen a cigarette like that,” Sheila told him. Nor had she ever seen a man with frosted hair, the same copper shade she had laced through her perm twice a month at the Beautiful You Salon. Back home the women would think frosted hair on a man was for faggots, but Sheila thought it looked good. Big-town and now. Ideas none of those dumb country bitches she’d left behind would ever have the sense to appreciate.
“Nat Sherman cigarillo,” Lo-Lo Moonwhite told her. “Handmade in New York City and five bucks a pack.”
“For some yes, for some no.”
He offered her one but she didn’t smoke because she didn’t like the way tobacco tasted. Never had. She asked him what kind of work he did that paid for packs of five-dollar smokes.
“Built the new riverboat casino hotel and once it was up they asked me if I wanted to build another one and I said fuck no, I’ll call you when my stash is cashed and that won’t be coming down anytime soon. And I was right. I can’t get rid of the money I made. They gave us all sorts of tickets for free rooms and dinners and chips but I tossed it the second they stuck it in my hand. You think I’d spend a penny on that riverboat? Dumb fuckers I worked with were broke as shit by the end of the month. I see them up on the beams for the new place and I drive by around noon when I get up for breakfast and honk and yell and point. I just laugh.”
He’d laughed when she’d asked him about her face in the magazine pictures he took. “You wouldn’t watch no program like that.”
Sheila didn’t watch any television period. There wasn’t a set in her room. And she didn’t read books or go to movies. She pilfered what little cash she could from Lo-Lo to pay for her lousy motel and the rotten filling station food she lived on. Bags of chips, sausage biscuits lined under rows of hot orange lights, Coke in plastic bottles. And often instead of food, sweet wine from the filling station cooler, malt liquor, vodka.
And while dancing at the Pink Pony had been bad enough, the Polaroids were awful, and when Lo-Lo told her about the two men at the casino hotel, she never thought her need would have ever slithered to that lowest sewer of herself. She’d agreed, knowing there was no other answer to give him and forcing herself to believe she could go through with it. But when it was time for Lo-Lo to pick her up she left her room and ran off and kept moving and hiding all night because she just didn’t know what he would do to her for skipping out on what he’d set up–-not only for the money she owed him but for the way he’d have to look for her then hold off the two men in their room who’d paid him up front, men with liquored-up erections in their pants who waited and waited for Sheila to show until she finally never did. Lo-Lo would have to give the men their money back, but she knew that wouldn’t solve anything. By then it would be too late to find another woman, and, wasted and furious, lord knew what they’d do to him. He wasn’t as big as he used to be.
Lo-Lo had never hit her, but he’d never asked her to sell her body. Many weeks he was nearly broke and lately he’d turned mean. When she’d ask him for money he’d glare at her and shake his head and say, “Shitty Sheila. Shitty, shitty Sheila,” and since Lo-Lo and Lo-Lo alone was the only man who could, and barely, keep her from getting kicked out to the streets, she didn’t dare backtalk his cruelty that made her shame so heavy and dark that she couldn’t jolt her lungs up to cry.
The two of them had blown through his construction job savings in a few months and for a while Sheila had been helping him out with what little she made at the Pink Pony. Then sometimes Lo-Lo had more prosperous weeks. He wasn’t a pimp to any of the battered slatterns he photographed or arranged for dates, many of them former dancers like Sheila who were too old and warped and drunk to look at on stage anymore. He didn’t manage, protect, or beat any of them. He was just a greasy mule people called to find and deliver whores much cheaper than the two-hundred-dollar phonebook escorts many of the gamblers couldn’t afford. Sometimes Lo-Lo could round up a source for coke or pills, but since nobody holding and selling drugs trusted him to deal directly or regularly, knowing he was too weak to withstand interrogation if arrested, Lo-Lo Moonwhite skimmed Joliet’s gutters when asked and made a little money for his trouble. But Sheila had been fired several months ago, and the months between she could barely remember, and Lo-Lo’s prospects were vanishing.
She staggered down a sidewalk of shabby houses in the vacant Sunday morning, holding her purple high heels by their straps. One of her feet was bleeding through her nylons. She’d cut herself on a shard of broken glass sometime during the night and it wouldn’t stop bleeding. She slumped down on the curb and dropped her shoes and pulled her foot up and looked at the cut. Her skirt didn’t fit well and it gathered at the tops of her thighs. The foot of her nylon was gashed with a clot of black blood and fresh red blood stained under her toes. She touched the cut once and shivered. She picked up her shoes and stood and straightened her skirt and limped on the new throbbing pain of her swollen foot that came on once she saw how bad the cut was.
She had a big half bottle of Popov in her room, but she couldn’t go back there. Lo-Lo would be waiting. She wanted a gun that could blast ten shots of vodka straight down her throat every time she stuck the barrel in her mouth and pulled the trigger. She almost fell asleep mid-stride and when she opened her eyes she wavered, dropping one of her shoes. The empty street of little houses tilted violently in a whirl of trees and rooftops and she said, “Aw, shit,” when she caught herself from falling over.
She ended up at Cheeseburger’s an hour or so later. Before she went up to knock she ducked around the side of the house to piss. Cheeseburger’s plumbing had been shut off for over a year, all the water, all the gas and electricity. But the three old men who lived there had continued to use the toilet. It was packed solid with a mound of black shit. Now in few corners throughout the house were buckets of filth and slop they rarely dumped in the yard.
She squatted next to a loaded garbage can clouded by a fog of flies. Somebody tapped on the glass above her head in the kitchen window. He tapped again and laughed. She heard two of them laughing.
When she went around the front Cheeseburger and Amby Praveen were stumbling out the door to find her.
“Hey, Sheila. There she is, goddamnit.”
“You’re too goddamn late and way too goddamn early!”
Hamshack smiled from the porch and nodded.
The last nasty old bastards she wanted to look at, but there was nowhere else to go, and Lo-Lo would never find her because he knew nothing about them. They had sores on their faces and under their yellow beards, and long oily hair as gray as a grandfather’s. Social Security and State Disability drunks who shat in buckets. They gave Sheila liquor because she was the only woman who ever came by, and the only reason she ever came by was because they would always give her liquor. They’d weakly grope and try to rub against her but it didn’t take much to nudge them away. Wretched, decrepit, and weightless with aged inebriation. Hoarsely roaring gurgling gibberish and laughing and swatting their knees.
Amby Praveen had made it down to the front yard, but Cheeseburger couldn’t let go of his railing. “I seen you out the window, Sheila,” he yelled. “You goddamn drip-dry bitch. Pissing in the dirt like a cat.”
“Let her be,” Hamshack said.
Amby tottered in the dead grass and when he remembered Sheila was there he squinted and held his arms out wider than Christ’s in a ridiculous gesture of mirth.
“Hey,” Cheeseburger yelled. “Hey, you kick dirt over it, drip-dry?” and Sheila said, “Aw, fuck you, Cheeseburger.”
They wound up in what was left of the kitchen, leaning against the counter passing jugs of rum and wine. Sheila took two, three slugs each time the bottles came her way and the gushing heat flooded her empty stomach and within minutes she was toxic drunk and whenever she opened her mouth she was blathering thick-tongued nonsense like the rest of them and cackling and slice-eyed so that she wouldn’t have to remember where she was or have to smell the breath of excrement that choked every room of this dumpster with windows that had once belonged to Cheeseburger’s long-dead mother. The oven was stuffed with crushed cans, broken bottles, cigarette butts, cardboard beer boxes, wads of streaked newspaper they’d used to wipe their asses. In other rooms the buckets. Mattresses stained with layers of dark yellow clouds. Half of the front room couch was crushed and charred from when Hamshack had passed out with a cigarette and it stank with the stale yeasty reek of the beer they’d used to extinguish it. Black springs and split slats splayed from the scorched chunks of upholstery like the remains of a highway disaster from which shriveled corpses had been pulled.
The smoke had blackened two walls and most of the ceiling, but there was still a little room on the half of the couch that had been salvaged, and Amby Praveen was crammed there against Sheila. He didn’t notice her swollen, bloody foot and now neither did she. The cut had clotted and sealed for a while, but between standing in the kitchen and the flush of booze the gash had broken open again and the blood, thinned by the alcohol, seeped steadily.
Amby Praveen had labored to climb on top of her but he was so weak that he couldn’t pull himself up to reach his lusts. Now he was trying to feel her leg. “Why you need those pantyhose, Sheila? Huh? Take em off.”
She clutched the jug of wine and held it up and drank then wiped her mouth and slurred, “They ain’t pantyhose. My legs are snakes and they have snake skins,” and laughed and drank again and uncrossed her legs and lay back under the weight of the jug that got heavier the higher she raised it, and when Amby saw her spread thighs he reached for them and she shoved him and he tumbled off into the black wreckage of the couch and cried out in the great crash of cracked boards and thrumming springs, falling first on his hands then flat on his back when he tried to stand, finally rolling onto the floor, smeared with soot and bleeding from cuts on his arms and face, and Hamshack and Sheila howled though she wouldn’t remember any of it as she had long since blacked out. Nor would she remember Cheeseburger bracing himself in the doorway of the kitchen that had filled with black smoke from the garbage in the oven he’d set on fire, yelling from the doorway, “You goddamn drip-dry bitch! Pissing in the dirt like a cat, now how about some pussy!” Nor Hamshack trying to push himself past Cheeseburger to get the fire out or to open the window as the smoke was filling the house, Cheeseburger blocking and shoving him, “I’ll break your fucking spine, you cocksucker,” and Hamshack shoving him back until they both fell into the kitchen tangled in a writhing, pawing brawl, trying and failing to strike one another with gnarled arthritic fists until they passed out like Amby and as finally the fire in the oven died down and the smoke hung above Sheila who in her vulgar dementia had noticed nothing and was sobbing as she paced haggardly in the middle of the room smearing the floor with wide strokes of blood and sobbing through her blackout the wildest agonies of where she’d ended up and what sodden trash she’d become and what Lo-Lo had wanted her to do and what she’d already done since she’d left Paducah, wailing What the fuck you ever care even if you know I care? Shit on you. Just shit on you, you calling me Shitty Sheila because I ain’t no shitty woman deep down in my love. All you sons a bitches and your pictures of my cunt and lumbering through the house once she’d finished the wine and finding the rest of the rum the old men had neglected in the deadened end of their long night.
When she’d left her mother in Kentucky Sheila had already hit thirty-six. If she hoped to make one solid dollar at dancing, she knew she didn’t have much time.
She told her mother, “I’m going up there to work so I can send you money. In one week I can make what it took Daddy two old months.”
“Don’t shame what your Daddy made. He worked hard for you.”
“I know it. You don’t got to tell me that.”
“I damn well do. You’re moving up there to shake your ass at a bunch of men. You make that fast money while you feel sick about yourself.”
Luanne Ryder had already gone and so had Ashley Jakes. All the way up to Chicago. Two younger girls Sheila worked with at the plant where they all sprayed powdered glitter through thin white hoses onto plastic Christmas ornaments that slowly drifted past on a line of hooks. They’d been gone for four months and Ashley had called every week to ask Sheila what the hell she was waiting for.
“I’m thirty-six, Ash. I’m old. Men like to look at girls your age. They’re married to women my age.”
“Old, shit. Get the hell on up here. Y’all got tits and ass no man can pass!”
They laughed hard. “I just don’t know, Ash.”
“Well I do. I know you’re sick as shit of picking glitter snot out your nose.”
Sheila didn’t want to look back because she knew her mother was weeping in the dusk-lit doorway and shaking her head. “Ask for water instead of Coca-Cola when you eat!” she called.
At the bus station she tried to buy a ticket to Chicago but the woman at the window told her she only had enough to get to Joliet.
“Well how far’s that from Chicago?”
“Forty miles south. An hour.”
Forty miles was nothing, nothing. And an hour was even less. She shoved the wrinkled cash under the slot and imagined the fresh stacks of bills that would be waiting at the other end of the trip, like a magic trick. She’d call Ashley Jakes as soon as she got to Joliet and Ashley would get her up to Chicago that day. Ashley would hoot and laugh as soon as she heard Sheila’s voice say Hey, Ash. I’m forty miles south. An hour.
She couldn’t sleep once during the eight-hour ride, though she could have easily stretched out across the seats since there were only a handful of passengers on board. There was nothing to see out the night-blackened windows but her own reflection under the little light above her seat, and her reflection beamed back at her every time she looked at it. Ashley Jakes was right. She was a good-looking woman.
The bus finally pulled into the Joliet station a little after two in the morning, but Sheila was so fired up that it might as well have been noon. She scurried into the terminal looking for the payphones so fast that she didn’t notice the comatose wine drunk sprawled on the bench she swung right past, his lips parted and slackened in the shape of a moan. Leaking through a spreading stain on his tattered slacks a loud shower of piss that spilled through the wood and splattered the floor.
She stuck fifty cents into a phone and dialed. She didn’t expect a man to answer but a man did, and she thought What man? and was all the more confused when the man didn’t say hello but, “Here we go!”
“Ashley,” he said. “Is Ashley there. Is Ashley here.”
The terminal speaker was another man’s voice that bellowed a number of echoed destinations right above her head like a commandment and both voices squeezed the burning excitement right out of her and both voices impressed instead a tremendous inward wince of frantic disorder that darkened her vision with pulsing reddened hues.
“Ashley Jakes,” she nearly yelled. “Can I talk to Ashley Jakes? Luanne Ryder? Luanne Ryder there?”
“Yes, Luanne Ryder.”
The man’s voice lowered to a whispered danger. “They got cooties in their booty and get sent to toilet duty.”
When she tried to hang up her shaking hand couldn’t get the phone back onto the hook and she pounded it against the whole unit, the clatter of hook metal and bell and change sounding through the whole terminal. When Sheila turned around she saw a few weary faces gazing from their benches at the all the noise she’d made.
She bit her thumbnail and looked at the phone once more and wondered–-hoped–-if maybe Ashley and Luanne hadn’t gotten off work yet. It was only two-thirty. She had enough change for one last call. Fifty cents. That was all. And as she moved to find a seat she forced herself to believe that her last two quarters would find her friends and when she finally sat she decided she’d wait another hour and further decided and knew that one of them would answer.
When she looked up she saw spread on the bench across from hers the wine drunk and the puddle beneath him unsettled by occasional drips that fell from the wood. She immediately stood and marched to find another seat and the few faces she passed looked coldly foreign with an expressionless anger. She couldn’t help inhaling its meanness that glared at her through her insides and wanted to stick her with knives.
And when she went outside to try to breathe the meanness out she saw dirty yellow lights dimly spotting cracked and buckled sidewalks and lifeless streets that all stank like machine oil. An empty junkyard waiting for hulks of crushed and wasted steel to fall in great stacks from the darkness.
She couldn’t wait the rest of the hour. She went back to the payphone and decided for better luck to make the call at another phone three slots down. But the man still answered and Sheila didn’t even get a chance to ask for Ashley, because the second he picked up he told her through his teeth, “You call here again and I’m coming to cut your goddamn head off.”
This time she had no trouble getting the phone back on the hook. It fell from her hand and landed. When she turned away she too felt like falling in a sudden hopeless exhaustion. She could not move from the spot where she stood. Her arms hung and the blood dropped into her heavy, tingling hands. She picked up her bag and found an empty bench among an assembly of other empty benches and slept.
When an attendant nudged her with the end of his broom she jolted and stammered an electrified babble of terror that echoed through the station like sheets of shattering glass.
“You been sleeping there five hours,” he said. “Go on.”
She went out to the colorless morning only vaguely aware in her searing half-sleep that she was penniless and stranded, the commencement of a three-day wandering during which she ate nothing and barely slept. She tried for roughly an hour to figure something out but when she realized there was no solution she quit figuring and just moved, dulled and disordered by the horns of dingy busses and freight trains, by smokestacks sending bulbous clouds of concrete into the already concrete October sky, and by the constant clamor of hissing and steel sounds pounding from the plants and mills along a river she crossed over rusty green bridges several times in her aimlessness.
She spent many hours in a library sitting on yet another hard wooden bench against her bag and looking at the pretty ladies and all their fancy dresses and earrings in the fashion magazines, willing herself to stay awake by coveting their diamonds. She’d already been kicked out once for falling asleep and got drenched in the rain until she found a plastic bus stop shelter.
Nights, she knew she had to keep moving. She hugged herself, a slouching silhouette in headlights padding down the sidewalk past Mexican used car lots, taverns, darkened stores with iron gates across their doors and windows. The sidewalks always lead to viaducts and every time she walked into them she wondered if she would emerge from the other side alive, black throats slick with grease and phlegm. Cars would blast their deafening pranks of horns when the drivers spotted her. Others would howl vulgarities through opened windows or simply scream. Freight trains rolled above like explosions and rocked the concrete. She couldn’t walk as fast as she otherwise would, fearing she’d slip and get all slashed up by broken glass, squeezing herself and holding her breath through the jolting concussions that might collapse right over her crouched head in a tonnage of boulders and twisted steelwork. And when she walked out such waking nightmares never left her. She had to keep moving and the sidewalks eventually lead to viaducts, no matter what direction she went.
When on the third night she found the Pink Pony, which looked from the street no larger than a house without windows or a door, just the dim pink neon sign with the little pink horse that jumped over the letters back and forth like a pair of railroad crossing lights, though when she got closer she saw that the rest of the place stretched on back to a parking lot filled with cars, Sheila knew this was where she would end up, that she’d never make it to Chicago like Luanne Ryder and Ashley Jakes had, to dance in clubs with three floors of strobe lights and disco balls and long crystal bars where women in sexy clothes made three-dollar cocktails for men stuffed with twenties, fifties, sometimes hundreds.
“And some of them are hot,” Ashley Jakes had told her on the phone. Sheila didn’t know it was the last time she would ever hear her voice. When Sheila had left she hadn’t spoken to Ashley in over a month. Her weekly calls had stopped and Sheila couldn’t call her because her mother couldn’t afford long-distance service. Now, watching the little pink horse jump back and forth, she admitted that she’d always known she’d never hear Ashley’s voice again when the month without her calls had passed. Part of her had known, anyway. The part that knew she never should have left at all.
“Hot!” Ashley had laughed. Her voice had changed, deepened, slowed a bit. “It ain’t so bad when them young hot guys in suits stick money down the front of my panties. Secret? Makes my pussy wet. I don’t care. Making a thousand bucks a week is what makes my pussy wet. I even date them sometimes.”
“Where they take you?” Sheila imagined waiters in white jackets brining platters of steaks and pouring them glasses of wine.
“Take me? It ain’t that kind of date. You ever try ecstacy?”
“No, I heard about it though,” Sheila said. She squinted. She knew what kind of date Ashley meant. But that was Ashley Jakes so she didn’t give it another thought. She was going to Chicago and that was that. “I heard about ecstacy,” she said. “I heard it’s real good.”
“Oh, lordy,” Ashley told her. “You just call me when you get your country ass up here.”
She walked along the whole length of the Pink Pony and finally found the door all the way around back. Two fat men in ties were standing in the parking lot hollering a boozy conversation over one another. They stopped when they saw her and said nothing as she pulled the door open to low blue light and the menacing energy of men stone-still at their tables and booths leering at the curling, crawling woman on the stage, topless and in nothing else but panties. The loud music was a slow-dance colored song she’d never heard, a melody of black men calling, pleading, If it isn’t love, no no no, what do we call it at the end of the night?
She was hired by the faggot manager named Gerald. She never would have guessed he was a queer. He was balding and heavy and his voice sounded like any other man’s. But he told her so when he asked her to take off her clothes in his office and she blanched.
“Relax,” he said. “How the hell else can I tell if I can put you on stage? Besides, I’m gay,” he said without the slightest shame. “You couldn’t turn me on if you tried.”
She was surprised she’d made it this far through the interview, that Gerald hadn’t laughed when she came through the door ragged and drenched after three days sleepless in the rain. She didn’t know of the countless disasters who had ambled into his office. The toothless, skeletal insects who’d crawled out of drainpipes and toilets. Ringworm, lice, scarlet limbs swollen with dripping infections. One so drunk she vomited all over his desk the moment she took her seat.
She’d gotten down to her panties and was about to pull them off when he said, “Leave those on. You won’t be showing that to anyone here, and I mean it. Those guys are going to be flashing fifties for blowjobs and pussy out in their cars. Any one of them might be a cop. And then none of us will be on stage or backstage. They’ll shut us down that quick. Next day quick. Okay?”
“You’re going to be the oldest one working here, but you still have some body on you. And I can tell you don’t use shit.”
“What do you mean?”
“Shit. Drugs. Coke, junk. Do you?”
“Naw,” she said.
“Now and then. Just a beer. I don’t like getting drunk. I don’t smoke cigarettes neither.”
Gerald smiled and shook his head. “That’s a first,” he said. “You a cop?”
“No, I ain’t no cop.”
“Where you from?”
“Kentucky,” she shrugged. “Paducah, Kentucky.”
Sheila started the next night. Gerald had let her sleep in his office and then one of the other dancers, a colored gal named Treasure, asked her if she wanted to share her apartment.
“My roommate, she worked here for a while. She died.”
“Yeah. OD’d. Heroin.”
“When she die?”
“Two, three nights ago.”
“Same bed you’ll be sleeping in if you want it.”
Sheila tried to hide her disgust.
“Nothing to worry about,” Treasure said. “Ain’t like she’s still there.”
She moved into Treasure’s apartment that night and she and Treasure sat on the couch and talked. Sheila’s mood lightened. She needed it. She’d hated dancing, if that’s what you wanted to call it. She felt like a sawhorse with tits, a warped toddler. And yet the men stared with a wicked intensity, as her bumbling shame was a condition of being forced to perform in captivity.
Treasure was thirty-three and had been dancing for five years. Her man Howard was in prison for murdering a liquor store clerk, but he was actually innocent and Treasure was saving up her money to get a better lawyer who could get Howard out for good.
She spoke with hope and smiles and happy eyes, and Sheila was glad she’d found a new friend. She said little while she sipped the rum and Coke Treasure made her, while Treasure drank down three, four, laughing more and talking about all the things she and Howard were going to do once she got a good lawyer.
“The only man I’ll be dancing for then is Howard,” Treasure told her, twirling as she moved to the kitchenette for another drink. “We’re going to open a flower shop, Sheila. You know how a flower shop smells the second you walk in?”
“Oh, yes,” Sheila lied, having never stepped foot in a flower shop.
“You know how you just smell all the flowers at once? They’re all different, they all have different smells, but the way they all smell at once is what I want to smell every day. Smelling that will be my work, you know? That’s the prettiest smell in the whole world. And I want to work in a place that’s nice and quiet. Flower shops are always nice and quiet, you know?”
“I know it,” Sheila said. She was getting tired and she hadn’t even finished her drink and it was almost four in the morning.
“Howard’s going to invent a flower that smells like all the flowers at once like when you just walk into a flower shop. He works in the garden at the prison and he’s inventing one. Just like that.”
Treasure was drunk. She dropped all the talk about flowers and stood in the middle of the room and stormed a furious, rambling attack that frightened Sheila wide-awake.
“El Chuco was the motherfucker that shot that liquor store man, not Howard! You hear me?”
“I hear you, honey. It’s all right.”
“Howard don’t even look like a Mexican. El Chuco. Shit!”
Sheila stood up and put her hand on Treasure’s shoulder but she slapped it away and went into her room, yelling, “Don’t look nothing like that motherfucking El Chuco.” And when she came back out she shoved a picture of Howard at Sheila and said, “Lookit.”
She was surprised to see that Howard was a white man. A white man with a gray crewcut and a bright red face. He was leaning against a car in the picture, smiling and holding a can of beer.
“Sure, I see. He’s handsome, Treasure.”
“You don’t think I don’t fucking know that? You don’t think I don’t know he’s a good-looking man?” Then she went into the kitchen and grabbed the bottle of rum and went to her room and slammed the door.
Sheila couldn’t bring herself to try sleeping in the dead girl’s bed, or to even use the dead girl’s pillow and blankets on the floor, where she lay with the light on burning through her traumas into the late morning and curling herself to keep warm.
She’d only been dancing a few nights when a man in a turtleneck sweater motioned for her to come closer when she walked by his booth. He showed her a fifty-dollar bill and said, “I got a new Monte in the lot you can check out. A little head? I come quick.”
Sheila snapped, “I ain’t going to see your goddamn car. Go on and suck your own dick.”
She turned and ran right into Gerald, who took her by the arm and said, “Don’t you ever do that again. Ever.” And when Sheila started to speak he said, “Just tell them no. No. That’s it. No.”
She saw the man in the turtleneck shove the door open and stomp out.
“Say it,” Gerald told her.
“Say it again.”
“No. Okay? Jesus,” she said, then pulled herself away and went back to the dressing room and pissed.
She often heard a song called “Private Dancer” by a sad-sounding colored woman, and she hated the part of the song that said, A dancer for money, do what you want me to do, hated it especially because it was such a pretty song she knew she would have loved had she heard it on the radio after work at the ornament plant back home.
At least she had the apartment to herself most nights, since Treasure was out with a man who frequented the Pink Pony and had subsequently fallen in love with her. He was always in a tie and wore a wavy haircut shiny with gel. Sheila saw him there constantly, beaming in his seat right in front of the stage and clapping every time Treasure danced. Then holding Treasure’s hand at his table when she was done, leaning close to her, jabbering and twitching on the edge of his chair.
Sheila had asked one of the girls about him.
“Roger,” the girl said. “He’s got loads of money. Manages a big car dealership on the Westside. Son of a bitch is married with three girls and as long as Treasure tells him she loves him he keeps her stuffed with money. Son of a bitch is sick is what.”
Sheila eventually resigned to sleeping in the dead girl’s bed. She was sure she could feel the dead girl’s weight, her dead weight and her white eyes and her ghoulish drooling mouth. The weight that made the mattress sink and groan like the dead girl’s last breath as the drugs gurgled in her heart until it bubbled away like a melted candle of gore.
None of it frightened her and as long as she lay there in a fatigue so deep she couldn’t fall asleep she hoped the dead girl would pull her into the sagging mattress until it folded around her and sucked her all the way down into the ground, forced from the other direction by the leering and whispers from the tables and booths, their eyes like the ends of the little hoses spraying her tits not with the glitter she was already wearing but with jism and shit as she drifted by on a line of hooks.
When she met Lo-Lo Moonwhite and his long frosted hair and moon tattoo and expensive New York cigarettes, Sheila was immediately captured by the mystery of his difference. He never stayed long, just enough for two drinks at the bar. He didn’t even pay attention to the girls on stage. And so Sheila always went to see him when he came in, as soon as he came in, because she didn’t want to miss him before he left. He’d shake her hand and ask her by her first name how she was feeling, not just doing. Weeks passed while she waited for him to ask her out. He’d finish his second drink and tell her to take care and then he’d leave. She was disappointed to think that he wasn’t coming to see her, especially after the way he’d shown her his moon tattoo. She found herself curiously possessive to know where he was going next and who with. But she didn’t ask about who, only where.
“So what’s the plan tonight, Mister Lo-Lo Moonwhite?”
“Burning through the town with my stack of cash.”
Sometimes she’d see him slip in while she was dancing. And when she was done he’d already be gone, and she’d be angry and jealous of whatever woman he was taking out to fancy steak dinners.
“I wouldn’t mind burning through town with you,” she finally told him one night as he took the last sip of his second scotch. She’d been scared to tell him that, so scared she hadn’t known what to say and that he’d tell her sorry, he already had too many women to count. And it had taken her both of his scotches before she finally said it, thinking she wouldn’t say anything and feeling the chance to say it slip away each time she watched him take one more sip closer to leaving.
“Hell,” he said, “why the hell not? I’d like that, Sheila. You got it.”
She had the next night off and Lo-Lo picked her up at eight in his black Monte Carlo with a mean old engine and red stripes on the sides and tinted t-tops she could see the stars through as she sat back in a frightened elation for how fast he was driving, shooting through the viaducts and flying over the bridges and railroad tracks with the rock and roll music loud from the dashboard speakers he kept pointing to, smiling and making the Satan sign with his first and last fingers at the end of his fist. She laughed and shook her head and when he passed her the bottle of Jack from between the seats she drank and felt the booze light up behind her eyes and she liked it because Lo-Lo had turned the radio down when he first passed the bottle and said, “Don’t think I’m trying to get you drunk, Sheila. I’m taking you out for a good time. Enjoy yourself.”
Then he turned the music back up and she sure as hell did. She deserved it. She felt rich and special, lifted to a sudden edge of change. She had put on a normal shade of makeup for once, no glitter on her tits. When Lo-Lo asked her what she wanted to eat, she said, “Steak. Steak and wine.”
“Steak it is,” he told her.
They ate at a nice place called the Family Table and he got her everything she wanted. French fries, bread and butter, steak, and two bottles of white wine between them. She loved feeling drunk and kept telling him how she’d never been so messed up in her life. Lo-Lo said, “Rock and fucking roll, Sheila,” and made the Satan sign and so did she and they touched their fingers across the table and Sheila hissed like an evil snake and laughed and slugged down her glass of white wine. A family in the booth behind theirs got up to leave and the waitress came running over because they hadn’t even ordered their food. The father shook his head and said to Sheila and Lo-Lo, “No, no, that’s it. We’re going somewhere else. You two are drunk and I don’t want my children eating near drunks.”
Lo-Lo shrugged and waved goodbye and said, “Nighty-night, Mister Man,” and Sheila laughed so hard that the other diners stared and the waitress told them to pay up and leave.
“Sure as shit,” Lo-Lo told her. He handed her a twenty-dollar tip and said, “Give this to the dishwasher and make him promise he’ll stop jerking off in the soap. All your lousy-assed food tastes like splooge.”
They barhopped the rest of the night. Shots, beer, cocktails. Lo-Lo backed his Monte into another car, hard, and they didn’t get out to check what kind of damage the crash had made. Lo-Lo just blasted the music and ripped through the gravel and squealed off to another tavern. They got kicked out everywhere they went, sometimes before they even made it to the bar. Sheila started grabbing Lo-Lo’s crotch and yelling, “When you gonna fuck me, Lo-Lo?”
The first thing she felt when she woke up in Lo-Lo’s apartment the next morning was the ugliest torture she’d ever known. Her head was packed with broken bottles. She couldn’t open her eyes. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to see Lo-Lo next to her. It wasn’t that she couldn’t remember whether or not they’d screwed. She was sure they had. But in the darkness of her pulsing eyes she hated his foolish ways. His long hair and Satan fingers embarrassed her. His moon tattoo was a retarded cartoon. When she opened her eyes she saw him standing naked in front of his bathroom mirror, shaving around his mustache and chin beard. Then he wiped his face clean and flexed his muscles and posed in a few different positions. He stuck his tongue out and pretended he was playing an electric guitar.
He turned and she closed her eyes so that he wouldn’t know she’d seen him. Then she felt him standing at the end of the bed, and when she opened her eyes again he said, “Nothing would be finer,” his hands on his hips, winking at her and then down at his bent red erection.
When he finished he asked her what she wanted for breakfast and she made herself smile and say, “I got to get back to my place. I promised Treasure we’d go and get our hair done today.”
She felt an empty relief once she was back in the dead girl’s bed. And since she didn’t have to work that night she slept for twelve hours straight, way into the middle of the night. The relief had dried up like a stain by the time she woke up. She slept off and on in a hopeless dread until she had to get up to go to work.
Treasure’s married car dealer Roger was fired and arrested when his superiors discovered that he’d stolen over ten-thousand dollars in the six months since he’d fallen in love with her. His wife left with their three children. He lost his house. His brother had bailed him out of jail, but a trial and prison time were inevitable. For two nights at the Pink Pony he followed and begged Treasure to stay with him in a frantic trembling voice, and since he no longer had any money, Treasure told him to leave her the hell alone.
“We’ve been together for half a year,” he bellowed on the second night. “My God, my God, Treasure, please!”
She traipsed off to the dressing room and Roger broke down and sat at an empty booth and sobbed into his arms on the table until the bouncer told him to leave.
On the third night he was waiting by her car when she and Sheila left the Pink Pony at the end of their shift.
“Get away from my goddamn car,” Treasure told him.
“Just wait,” he said. His face was red and wet and he was gasping between tears. “Just want to talk.”
“I said get away, goddamnit. I’m gonna get Rick to beat your fucking ass.” Rick was the bouncer.
“Treasure,” Sheila said. She’d stayed behind while Treasure stomped across the gravel, pointing her finger at Roger and yelling.
Roger pulled out a heavy black handgun and shot Treasure in the face. The lot was well-lit and Sheila saw Treasure’s mouth crack open and her cheek tear off in a bloody flap. He shot her four more times as she dropped and her face folded in on itself and her scalp ripped away raw. Then Roger stuck the gun in his mouth and blew his own head off as well.
Sheila watched many dawns grinding her molars while Lo-Lo paced his apartment with the phone trying to find more cocaine. After a few weeks of living with him she knew that he’d never find more at that hour, no matter how many numbers he tried. Dawns rose like rigid yellow grins and the spirals of mercury she’d snorted up stopped spinning and she drank to make herself sleep, staring at the sun until her eyes dried and clouded and she blacked out mumbling at the window.
Months passed into her second Joliet winter and then Lo-Lo’s money was gone and they left his apartment in the middle of the night with one month’s rent due and took a motel room they could afford on Sheila’s dancing money. They lived on burgers and french fries and quarts of filling station vodka, never making it to dawn without the coke they could no longer buy. Sheila would pass out for thirteen, fourteen hours and still wake up drunk and sick with an hour to shower and dress before her shift.
Her body had lost the last of its pleasant flesh and her face had long since bloated and fallen. She’d close her eyes as she soaped herself so she wouldn’t have to look at her sagging ashen breasts with monstrous purple nipples or her hideous wrinkled belly that hung like a loaf of damp bread. She’d dry herself off in the shower so she wouldn’t have to see herself in the mirror.
She’d drink throughout her shift in the dressing room and wobble about on stage in a spiritless shuffle that aroused no one. Men stretched and yawned and wandered off to piss. She was a glittered hag. Colorless, drunk, and foul. When she lifted her head or opened her eyes she saw a wavering aquarium filled with blood. She mumbled to herself and laughed and waved as the men got up to leave.
Gerald fired her in the dressing room one night only an hour after she’d shown up.
The Pink Pony’s nightly audience had weakened to a pathetic assembly of old men and little Mexicans dressed up as cowboys. The only reason Gerald hadn’t fired Sheila sooner was that he’d lost most of his dancers to the new Diamond Showclub near the new casinos. The handful of dancers he had left were as pitiful as the patrons who came to watch them. Aging, deranged, alcoholic tramps. Soon Gerald fired them all and the Pink Pony closed down for good. The women were captured with Lo-Lo’s Polaroids and arranged for dates with farm rubes from Wilmington and Kankakee and the occasional city garbage that came down in trains from Chicago.
On Sheila’s last night she didn’t dance at all. She sat on the edge of the stage and let her legs dangle over the side. She hollered over the music through her cupped hands, “Come on up for storytime, pussylovers. I’ll tell y’all a story about my ass.”
One of the old men who was sitting at a table with two of his friends called, “I’m all ears!”
Sheila laughed and wheezed and lay back on the stage and tried to raise one leg, then the other. She started coughing and turned over and climbed back up and stood and kept coughing until she felt her way to the dressing room.
“I can’t keep you on,” Gerald told her, and she sat with her legs twisted in the cold folding chair and wept while the other dancers watched her dispassionately.
She dressed herself and walked out crying and sat in the spot where Treasure had been murdered. She couldn’t remember how long it had been but it seemed like half a year had passed. She picked at the gravel for some pieces of her skull or her brains.
An old man’s voice called, “Cheer up, sweet baby.” It was the same man who had called, “I’m all ears!” and he was with the other two old men from his table. He introduced himself as Cheeseburger.
“And this is Hamshack and this is Amby. Amby Praveen.”
She awoke on her back in a colorless light jostled by tires turning over potholes. Her shoes were gone but she was still in her nylons and her foot had split through the bloody fabric a ghastly purple catastrophe that sent excruciating waves of throbbing hell into her stomach. She groaned and saw Lo-Lo’s frosted hair draped over the back of the driver’s seat.
“You know how long you’ve been missing?” he asked.
“Aw, shit, Lo-Lo,” she said. The last thing she remembered was squatting next to a garbage can on the side of Cheeseburger’s house. “I’m sorry I ran off like that. I really am, Lo-Lo.”
“Goddamn you. You know how long I’ve been looking for you?”
“Five days,” Lo-Lo told her. “Five fucking days.”
It was raining and she watched the gray drops run down the back window’s glass. The pain in her foot made her whole body thump like a heart of thorns.
“You were passed out in a parking deck next to a bucket of shit with two empty jugs of rum.” He shook his head and made the sound of a small angry laugh through his teeth. “Do you know what happened to me? Get up. Look at me. Climb up here and look at my face.”
She put her arm over her eyes and said, “I’m sorry, Lo-Lo.”
“Get up here and look at me, goddamn you.”
His face looked worse than her foot. It was nearly black with bruises and his nose was flat and crooked. He was driving with his left arm and his right was limp in his lap.
“They broke my goddamn arm, Sheila. My arm. They’d have paid a hundred bucks. If it wasn’t broken I’d beat your eyes down into your twat.”
She lay back and tried to elevate her foot and Lo-Lo had to roll down the window because he told her it stank worse than the bucket of shit he’d found her by. The rain ran in from the lip of the window and dribbled all over her face.
“We don’t have a dime,” Lo-Lo told her. “I haven’t eaten in two days and we don’t have a place to stay.”
“Where’s my stuff?”
“The motel people threw it out and I didn’t try to stop them.”
They slept in Lo-Lo’s car for two nights behind a grocery store. It was August and Sheila sweated and shook from both withdrawal and the infection that spread from her blackening foot, ballooned now so horribly her toes were spread and blunted.
Late the next day Lo-Lo made some collect calls from a payphone in front of the grocery store and located another date with two men staying at one of the casino hotels.
“All right, Lo-Lo. I’ll do it.”
“You don’t have a choice,” he said as he drove them off.
“Do you think after I might see about getting to a hospital?”
He didn’t answer her.
Had she been lucid and well, Sheila would have been impressed by the regality of the hotel lobby, its chandeliers and rugs and fountains. A man in a tuxedo playing an elegant piano. The glass elevators. But she could barely see through her fever and Lo-Lo furtively guided her behind plants. Every step she took sent a lance of agony up through her entire body. “Oh, wait, wait,” she said, collapsing into a big leather seat. “I need a break. It hurts worse than anything I’ve ever felt in my ever-loving life.”
“Make it quick,” he whispered. “They’re not going to let us hang out here all night.”
In the elevator Lo-Lo gave her a few swigs off an ass-pocket bottle of bourbon and two bumps from a plastic bullet of coke.
“Shit it hurts,” she moaned.
“Enough about your foot,” he told her. “You won’t have to stand anyway.”
The two men waiting in the hotel room were country boys in their early twenties with red and yellow hair. They had beefy farmwork arms and they were nervous. Sheila spotted bottles of liquor on the bathroom counter and limped to get a drink but Lo-Lo held her arm.
“You bring what else?” the red-headed boy asked.
Lo-Lo produced a thin baggie of cocaine for which after overcharging the ignorant hicks he would turn a seventy-five percent profit. The paid him fifty for Sheila and one-fifty for the drugs and Lo-Lo told them all to have a good time.
“I’ll be right outside,” he said as he closed the door.
The red-headed boy couldn’t figure out how much coke to sprinkle onto the dresser. He made two small white dots and sealed up the bag and folded it and set it on the television.
Then he sniffed up one of the dots and said, “Whew!”
The other boy had been watching Sheila the whole time as she sat on the edge of the bed and panted.
“Come on and sniff,” his friend told him.
“You go on. I’ll take some later.”
“Hey, take some now. That’s the whole reason we got it. Get high and get our dicks sucked. Taylor said you never really get a blowjob unless you get blown on blow.”
“All right,” the yellow-haired boy said, and while he took his shot the other boy looked down at Sheila and smiled. They didn’t offer her a drink and it took them some time before they noticed her coughing and shivering.
“The hell’s wrong with her?” the yellow boy asked. “She sick?”
“All whores are sick.”
“Let me lay down,” she said. “Let me lay down and you can come on over to the side.”
When she had pulled herself back they saw her foot and caught the stink. They both covered their mouths and the red-haired boy gasped and said, “No fucking way. Jesus.”
He opened the door and told Lo-Lo to come in and said, “We want the fifty back. She smells like she shit her damn panties and her foot’s about to fall the hell off.”
“You already paid me,” Lo-Lo told him. “And I don’t give refunds.”
“Well I’m not letting her suck my dick.”
“You don’t have to. But like I said, you already paid me and that’s the way it works.”
“Now hold on,” the boy said.
“Just hold it a second.”
Lo-Lo snatched the baggie of coke off the television and stuffed it in his pants and said Sheila and moved for the door but the red-haired boy grabbed the back of Lo-Lo’s bad arm and he yelled and spun and kicked at the boy and ran again for the door and the boy tackled him from behind but Lo-Lo didn’t go down and instead backed the boy against the wall and pounded and crushed him there and the boy grabbed the dresser lamp and tried to swing but he only hit the wall and the shade dropped and the bulb popped and then Lo-Lo backed them both into the shattering mirror and he kicked over the television and it burst on the floor and all the while the other boy had turned Sheila over on the bed and was trying to get her nylons off while she coughed into the pillow and then Lo-Lo was out of the room and the red-headed boy pulled his friend off the bed to chase him and Sheila limped into the hallway and held herself up on the walls and saw Lo-Lo and the boys fall into the elevator yelling and kicking and the occupants of other rooms opened their doors and closed them and called the desk and the police and Sheila clutched at her chest and coughed until she could no longer breathe and broke her own arm when she plummeted.
She never saw Lo-Lo again. And though neither of them knew it they were for one day only two floors away from each other in the Will County Hospital, where Lo-Lo’s broken arm was treated before he was taken to jail for felony possession.
But Sheila wasn’t released. Her weakened body resisted everything injected and fed by needle and tube to heal her gangrenous foot and soon the rest of her leg, which was amputated three days after she was admitted.
A nurse had asked her how old she was but she honestly couldn’t remember. “I’m not sure of what year it is, but I was born in 1953.”
The nurse looked down at her for a moment and then wrote something on a clipboard. “That means you’re almost thirty-nine.”
She couldn’t remember her mother’s telephone number either, and by the time the nurse asked about an address in Paducah Sheila’s eyes went white and her septic fever brought on a wild seizure.
Five days after they cut off her leg she woke up and a nurse came in to tell her. It was a different nurse who was just about as old as her mother. Sheila looked down at the sheets, saw one mound, and said, “All right.”
“You want to talk about it, honey?”
“No. No, that’s fine.”
“Thank you, ma’am. I’m sure.”
Sheila knew that she would have tried to kill herself had she lost a leg ten years before. Five years before. She wondered why she wasn’t upset.
After she slept she thought about her leg again and readied herself to be mortified, but she wasn’t. She decided it was because the leg had carried her to a ruined life and now that it was gone the leg she had left would take her to better times. She’d go home in a wheelchair and wouldn’t feel ashamed. She saw a woman on television once who’d had both her legs cut off and learned to walk on fake ones. And here, Sheila thought, I still have one of my own.
Orderlies helped her learn how to use crutches by the end of the month. Sometimes the sessions were hard because her arm was still in a cast. But she was finally off the pain pills she’d always hated taking because they reminded her of the dead girl’s bed and her fatigued inability to fall asleep in it on those lonely late nights after work before she’d started drinking. Feeling herself move, even with assistance, was a gift. Her favorite orderly was a big foreign woman named Anna who joyously laughed and clapped with Sheila’s progress. “Doing good, good, good,” Anna would announce.
The doctor was concerned about Sheila’s cough. He asked her how many cigarettes she smoked each day and for how many years she’d been smoking them.
“Good for you,” the doctor said, smiling. “It shouldn’t be anything to worry about.”
She had X-rays taken while she stood on her crutches, then made her way back to her room, proud of how quickly she’d learned to do it and of how she didn’t need two legs to move through the world.
A few days later the doctor said he wanted to take more X-rays and when Sheila asked him why he said it was all procedural.
Sheila had lied to that nurse when she was first admitted when she said she couldn’t remember her mother’s telephone number. She finally found the courage to call her. She’d put it off because she knew that if she told her mother she had lost her leg her spirit would be broken forever, and that forever her mother would blame herself for not trying hard enough to keep her daughter from leaving, no matter how many times Sheila would assure her that none of it had been her fault.
She called from her room and a message said the phone had been disconnected and she knew her mother was dead. “Oh, Mama,” she cried, hiding the sounds with her hands. The nurse would have heard her and she didn’t want to talk about it.
On the day the doctor came to tell Sheila she was dying of lung cancer the skies outside her window were the same ugly color they had been when she first came to Joliet, friendless and lost and wandering for three days in the rain.
“Cancer,” she said.
Her lungs were polluted and caked with the glitter she’d sprayed on thousands and thousands of Christmas ornaments during the ten years she’d worked at the plant. The doctor told her so. She thought about where all those ornaments had ended up. All the warm homes with families and children opening their presents under the trees that sparkled with tinsel and glitter and strings of colored lights like pretty picnic rockets. She wondered if the tumors in her lungs sparkled too. And she wondered what her tumors would look like hanging from a lit-up tree in the doctor’s big rich house.
A preacher with beads and a long black robe came to ask her if she wanted to be baptized.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, Father. But I was baptized by water in the Church of Christ when I was seven years old.”
He asked her if she believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins and the life of the world to come and Sheila told him she did. But she really didn’t. She wasn’t bitter or angry about her death. She had simply never believed in any god nor the eternal kingdoms the Church of Christ preachers always talked about on Sundays. Not even when she was a child. She never told anyone that she didn’t believe, because they all would have told her she was headed straight for damnation.
In the last days of her life, Sheila wished there was a place where she could see her mother when she died. But no matter how much she tried to make this true for herself, she knew once her body stopped living she’d be buried in the dirt and that would be all.
How wonderful it would have been to hug her mother again and walk together with a gentle bearded man far above the concrete clouds that had drenched her with relentless humiliation.
PATRICK MICHAEL FINN is the author of the novella A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovich and the short story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet, where his story “Shitty Sheila” first appeared. He lives in Arizona with his wife, poet Valerie Bandura, and their son James.