Put the Stick in Your Mouth and Take Your Beating Like A Man

“Come on then, let’s have some fun.”

“Jesus Christ, Junior, the kid’s not doin’ nuthin’ to you.”

“You turnin’ into a pussy, Kev? Last two weeks, the old man’s been kissin’ his ass cause he hit a paper target. Fuck that. Was probably pure luck those shots.”

“Maybe the kid can shoot.”

“Maybe you’re a pussy.”

“Take it back. I ain’t a pussy!” Kevin circled his brother. They were pretty evenly matched. Junior was taller, but he was heavier and and quick from football.

“Prove it then.”

They creaked up the stairs to their brother’s room. Kevin’s heart ratcheted up a beat with every step, but he clenched his fists. The old man always said you had to put the stick in your mouth and take your beating like a man, but Danny wasn’t a man. He was a boy and a small one at that.

Junior nudged him in the ribs. What was worse: being called a pussy by your big brother or sticking your baby brother’s head in a toilet filled with piss? Kevin wiped the sweat off his lip and knocked on Danny’s door.

“Danny, whatcha doin’ in there? You want some grub? Junior and I was gonna get some pizza. You could come if you wanted. We never did congratulate you right about being such a good shot.”

Would Danny buy it? There was a long silence before Kevin heard the floorboards squeak as his brother approached the door. Pizza beat peanut butter and jelly on stale bread. As soon as Danny stepped out, Junior grabbed him around the waist and swung him in the air like he was a feather.

“Lemme down, asshole!” Danny’s arms swung in useless punches, but he landed a solid kick in Junior’s face. Blood began to dribble from his nose.

“You asshole!” Junior tightened his grip around Danny’s waist and grabbed one arm. “Help me, Kevin. Get his legs.”

“No, Kevin. Don’t. Please!” Kevin heard the plea in his brother’s voice and hesitated for a second. Didn’t everyone horse around?

Kevin grabbed for the scissoring legs, but Danny was fast. Kevin caught only one leg just as the other smashed against the hall table. They all heard the shattering of crystal, and Kevin wanted to stop. But Junior was too angry now; between them, they hauled Danny into the bathroom and shoved his head into the avocado toilet that reeked of stale piss and mold.

“Let him up, Junior. He’s gonna drown!” Kevin pulled at his brother who kept jamming Danny’s head against the side of the bowl.

“I hope he does.” Junior had a wild look that scared Kevin. “My nose is bleeding!”

“Jesus Christ, you want to be a cop, Junior. They don’t hire murderers.”

“Tell that to the old man,” Junior said, but he hauled Danny up.

“You assholes!” Danny shook his head like a wet dog. spraying both Junior and Kevin with piss water.

Kevin pushed him towards the shower, putting his body between Danny and Junior. “Here, just rinse off. You’ll be okay. Be quick.”

When Junior stalked out of the room, Kevin rocked back on his heels. “Danny, it’ll be okay now. We will get you pizza.” He reached out his hand.

Danny cringed away from him and turned on the water. “I don’t want it.”

“Jumpin’ Jesus Christ!”

Leaving Danny to clean himself, Kevin followed the sound of Junior’s voice. He stood in the hall, next to the overturned hall table staring at the crystal bowl lying in shards on the floor.

“Christ on a one legged crutch,” Kevin said. “Mom’s rose bowl.” The Waterford crystal rose bowl had sat on that table for years, like a shrine. It was one of the last bits of his mother left in the house, unless you counted Danny. He was the only one of them who took after her with his dark hair and slender build.

Junior looked a little sick. “Get a dust pan. If we’re lucky, the old man won’t notice. Get Gammy’s old bowl.”

“He’ll notice,” Kevin said. “The bowls don’t look alike.”

“They might if he’s drunk. I’ll buy another bowl tomorrow.”

“How?”

“You let me worry about it.”

Kevin ran down to fetch the dust pan and Gammy’s bowl. It was crystal, but the shape was wrong. It was bigger and curved out where Ma’s curved in like a ball.

He started towards the stairs when he heard the fumbling of keys in the front door and the cursing. Kevin slipped Gammy’s bowl back in the china closet and the dust pan in the kitchen. Just as he closed the kitchen cabinet the front door swung open.

“Are ya’ deaf? Didn’t ya’ hear me?”

Kevin bowed his head. “Sorry, sir.”

“Deaf and dumb.” His father’s gait was slightly unsteady, and Kevin wondered how many drinks he had down at the Shamrock. More than five and less than twelve, he gauged. He didn’t know where Junior was, but he hoped Danny had the good sense to hide.

His father unfastened his shoulder holster, then bent down to unstrap his backup from his ankle. After he unhooked the third holster from his belt he dumped everything on the dining room table. Thomas Patrick Ryan, Sr. was the most decorated cop in the city’s history, and its most deadly. Like a shark, he had a kind of sixth sense for blood, and no problem shooting to kill.

“Never aim for the legs,” he always said. “Too easy to miss. Go for the gut shot. Puts ‘em down every time.”

“How bout if I put these away for you, Dad?” Kevin said.

The old man grunted. “Get me a scotch,” he said.

Kevin took the grunt as a yes. After he poured a drink for his father, he collected the guns. He’d put them in the locking closet in the kitchen and keep the key away from his father no matter what.

“It’s been a long, shitty day,” the old man said. He downed the drink in one swallow. “I’m goin’ to bed.”

He listened to his father’s heavy footsteps on the stair, then the long pause. “What the living fuck?”

“It was an accident, Dad,” Junior spoke in his best bullshit voice. “Kevin and I were rough housing a bit with Danny and . . . well . . . it was an accident . . . Danny accidentally knocked over the table.”

Kevin let the key drop into his pocket and ran for the steps. “NO.”

It was too late.

He heard the sound of the old man’s fist against Junior’s face. It was enough to send Junior reeling back against the wall. Before Kevin was halfway up the stairs, the old man was throwing open doors like a crazy man. “Where are you, you little shit?”

“No, Dad, don’t.” Kevin tried to grab the old man’s arm. He shoved him off, and Kevin stumbled into the bathroom and went down on the floor. Where was Danny? The old man reached the big closet at the end of the hall where they kept the winter coats. He already had removed his belt.

“Get out here, you little shit!”

When the old man jerked open the door, Kevin smelled the moth balls. He pulled himself up from the bathroom floor. The little white balls had spilled out into the hall, and he watched as his father wrenched Danny from the closet. The kid, who two weeks ago had been sitting on the bar at the Shamrock getting sips of beer for hitting a paper target down at the shooting range, was being dragged by his skinny arm down the hall, fighting and kicking while the old man administered cracks with his thick leather belt.

“NO! It wasn’t my fault!” Danny tried to slip out of the old man’s grasp, but it didn’t do him any good. The old man punched him so hard, Danny’s eye began to swell shut at once. It was like watching a horror movie unfold in slow motion.

“Dad, please,” Kevin said, “no more. It was my fault. Me and Junior–“

But the old man didn’t want to hear. He held Danny with one arm clamped around his neck. “You shut up or you’ll be next.”

Then the old man was howling and Danny was making a break for the stairs, heedless of the shards of crystal bloodying his feet. The old man caught him before he could make it. Grabbing Danny’s arm, he twisted, and Kevin heard a snap, like the crack of a hard pretzel. Danny’s face turned the color of ashes. Even Junior said, ”Dad, no.”

The old man slammed Danny against the wall, but at the sound of Junior’s voice he turned and swayed just enough for Danny fall out of his grasp and go rolling down the hardwood steps to smash up against the radiator directly below.

“Jesus Christ,” Junior said. “Jesus Christ. Is he dead?”

Kevin pushed past them both and took the stairs two at a time. Feeling for a pulse, he watched the blood pool around Danny’s head from the deep gash in his forehead. It looked as though his skull was dented.

“Call an ambulance,” he said. “For the love of God.”

He heard his father’s voice, but didn’t move, not when Junior came down and told him they had to get their story straight, not when the ambulance came, and the EMT’s slid a plastic board under Danny and encased his head in a plastic collar. He saw the one EMT’s stony face and realized he’d been here before. Kevin look away ashamed.

Ten minutes later Stan Witkowski showed up. He’d been the old man’s partner for twenty years, and he patted Kevin’s shoulder. “It’ll be all right, Kevin,” he said. “Danny had a fall. It happens.”

“He didn’t fall, Stan. You know it.”

Stan looked at him, his dark eyes unreadable. “He had a fall. He was running and slipped. That’s it, Kevin. There’s nothing you can do. You gonna turn on your own father?”

“My father deserves it.”

“Well, maybe, but your brother needs a man to take care of him. That’s gonna have to be you.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“You need to decide what kind of man you want to be, Kevin.”

Stan was gone then. Stan, the old man, Junior. They left him behind to clean up. Kevin wanted to run after the cops and say, “My father did this.” But he didn’t because it wouldn’t matter. Nobody messed with his old man. He was the cop who saved the mayor’s life from some druggie-prowler by putting eleven rounds in his chest. A perfect cluster.

Everyone swore the guy had a gun. They even found one. It looked like one of his father’s old pieces, but no one even questioned it. The druggie was on the mayor’s front lawn on the wrong night and made the mistake of calling the mayor an “evil rat bastard” when the old man was in ear shot. When he reached into his pocket for his manifesto about the evils of the city administration, that was the end of him. The mayor gave the old man a medal and a citation.

Who was going to challenge that?

So who was going to care about a ten-year-old kid? All Kevin could do was clean up the mess and try to protect a brother who didn’t trust him.

He swept up the shards of crystal and began to scrub his brother’s blood. It had seeped into the cracks in the wood floor, and Kevin had to wash the boards with the Murphy’s Oil Soap. He watched the water turn pink. Later he went to the bathroom and dumped the pink water down the toilet. Adding some more Murphy’s Oil, he scrubbed at the toilet until the piss and mold smell was gone.

He washed his big hands and scrubbed them until they turned red. The sleeves of his yellow sweater were stained with Danny’s blood, but by now the blood had dried and started to turn turned brown. Kevin knew he’d never wear that sweater again.

He pulled off his clothes and took a long hot shower, but he still felt dirty.

He didn’t know if he’d ever feel clean again. All he knew was he’d never hurt his brother again. It didn’t matter what Junior called him or did to him.

He’d put the stick in his mouth and take his beating like a man.

Tin Trashcans

I stand in my parents’ bedroom and run my hand over the pile of New York Times Magazines sitting beside the bed. Their puzzles—finished, half-finished, or just begun–mark the progression of my mother’s illness. The last four magazines haven’t been opened.

Downstairs I hear the murmur of voices and know I should go help my father greet the relatives and friends who have gathered to pay their respects. Instead, I linger here the bedroom, searching for traces of my mother in the detritus of her life: the piles of magazines, the stacks of books, and the old flowered bag that held her knitting projects. I can still detect the faint aroma of her Chanel No. 5 beneath the cloying odor of sickness and the sharp bite of antibacterial cleaners.

Her perfume always made me think of summer nights.

It’s fitting somehow. My mother slipped away in the silvery blue twilight just as the garden came alive with the flickering of fireflies and the whirring of cicadas. It was a beastly hot day, and the humid air hung thick and heavy until in the late afternoon a cooling breeze began to rise. My mother, who hated the central air, asked my father to help her sit up in bed for a moment.

“Isn’t that lovely? I can smell the roses.” She smiled and settled back with a small sigh, her spirit separating from her broken body to slip out the window. I like to think she has finally managed to break the chains and wander free, but knowing my mother, she worries too much about those she left behind to wander far.

Today the window is shut, and thanks to the air conditioning, the room seems unusually cold. I look down at the garden. My mother’s beloved roses have grown leggy, but they sport magnificent blossoms of deep pink and yellow and coral. I should cut them or fertilize them, but I’ve never been much of a gardener. The Sold sign stands proudly on the front lawn.

I hear a movement outside the room, and look up to see my sister lingering by the door. She wears a baggy black dress with grease stains down the front. Her eyes are circled with thick black liner, and her red mouth turns down in a belligerent scowl.

I realize my hands have turned icy. Roslyn still has the power to unsettle me, but then my first memory of her is feeling her hand pushing against the small of my back a moment before I tumbled down the uncarpeted front stairs. I remember feeling a bit like a rubber ball bouncing off the hard edge of last step, the blood from my nose dripping over my blue dress with the dancing elephants. I was somewhere between three and four.

“So what’s going to happen to the house?” she says in a voice that seems too loud.

I grasp the windowsill. “We’re selling the house. You know that. Dad can’t manage it any more. It’s too big.”

“Me and Malcolm can help him.”

I shake my head. Malcolm is her son, and his father is missing. Malcolm is only twenty, but he’s already been in trouble with the law for drinking and drugs. My husband has bailed him out and found him jobs, but Malcolm keeps getting fired. Malcolm doesn’t help; Malcolm makes problems.

“Dad can’t keep up the house,” I say, but I think, Dad can’t deal with you.

“You could help.” She walks into the room and heads for Mom’s jewelry box. Dad has already given me all the good pieces. “Where are the diamonds?”

“I have them.”

“I should get first choice. I’m the oldest.”

“You stole your share.” I didn’t expect to have this fight so soon.

Roslyn looks like she wants to challenge me, but she doesn’t. “It isn’t fair.” She takes a step closer. “You take the jewelry. You sell the house.”

I try to step back and realize there’s no place to go. “I’m sorry. Dad’s coming to live with us.”

“What about me? What about Malcolm? Did you think about us at all? You’re rich. You could take care of us.”

How do I explain to my sister that I’m not rich when life is so much about perception. My sister can see that I wear good clothing and drive a Lexus. She doesn’t understand why I can’t be my mother. My husband reminds me at least once a week I have my own family to think of now.

“Roslyn can’t live with us,” John says. “We’ll use the proceeds from the house to get her a place and set up a trust.”

He’s right, of course. I don’t want either of them around my kids. I am not going to bring that up now though. Roslyn has me at a disadvantage for the moment. I don’t really think she’d hurt me, but with Roslyn there are no guarantees.

I think of how she used to chase me around the house with a butcher knife when I was eleven on the few occasions when we were left alone together. It’s a suitably macabre memory, one that summons up visions of Anthony Perkins hacking at poor Janet Leigh in Psycho, but my memory always has an almost comic undertone, possibly because Roslyn never caught me. I’m not entirely sure that she would have used the knife; though, she did seem capable of it at the time. Then again, if her heart were really in it, she probably would at least have hacked off my arm or left me with a sucking chest wound.

I ran. She laughed. The cycle repeated itself until I learned to fend her off with an umbrella. Roslyn, as it turned out, was afraid of choking, so I would threaten to shove the umbrella down her throat. She’d drop the knife, run outside, and tear around the backyard like some kind of wild animal. I’d lock the door and watch from the safety of the kitchen until my mother came home from work.

I should have been more alarmed, but by then it had become an adventure of sorts, which probably says more about the warped condition of my mental state than my sister’s. I don’t know why I didn’t tell my mother about the butcher knife and our peculiar game. Possibly because I enjoyed outsmarting my sister in a small, mean way, but I also had some sense that I didn’t want to add more to my mother’s troubles. Roslyn was already difficult.

That’s what you called children like Roslyn back in the ‘70’s. Who wanted admit to having a schizophrenic sister? You didn’t stand up and proudly announce at school, “Hey, my sister is crazy!” It was better to say she’d cooked her brain on drugs. At least that had an element of cool. Bad trip at a Stones concert, or sometimes it was an overdose at a boyfriend’s house.

As I got older it became easier to say, “I have an adopted sister.” After all, we didn’t look alike. I was the cheerful blond; she was the scowling brunette. Light and dark. It was fitting.

Of course, I had to tell John the truth. I could hardly marry someone and not tell him about the crazy sister, if not in the attic, in the third floor bedroom. He only said, “I’m marrying you, not Roslyn.”

Now that there are new treatments, she won’t pursue them, though I can’t say I blame her. She’s been through so many. None of them have worked.

I say to Roslyn, “We will take care of you. We’re putting the proceeds from the house into a fund for you and Malcolm. John and I have found you a place to live.”

She gives me a scornful glare, one that sums up our unhappy relationship. One that says you got everything and I got nothing. It always makes me feel guilty.

“I’ll bet you did. Some shithole or group home. I’m not going to some home for crazy people. I’m going back to school to be a dental technician.” Roslyn puts her hands on her hips as if to dare me to contradict her.

I don’t, even though every few months she has some new scheme. She’s going to become a physical therapist or an x-ray technician. She’s starting beauty school or computer school. She’s always about to embark on something that never comes to fruition. I don’t know if she really enrolls or believes she’s going to enroll.

“It’s not a group home. It’s a house,” I say. “You’ll be able to live with Malcolm, and it will be private. It just isn’t as big as this place, so it will be easier to keep up.”

“But you don’t want us living with you. We used to come visit you, but you don’t want us around you or your precious kids.” She waves her hands at me. “We aren’t good enough for your neighborhood.”

“We don’t have enough room,” I say.

The last time she and Malcolm visited, my son ended up in the hospital with fourteen stitches above his right eye.

“It wasn’t Malcolm’s fault,” Roslyn said.

If Malcolm had swung the hockey stick any harder, David would have lost that eye. We were lucky Malcolm’s aim was slightly off, and the plastic surgeon was on call that night. But it wasn’t Malcolm’s fault.

It isn’t anyone’s fault.

We always said that about Roslyn. She heard voices, though not the ordinary sort of voices one associates with schizophrenia. Her demons didn’t tell her to do anything. They simply shouted “Who” and “What” all day long. She would hold her hands to her ears, her mouth open as strangled whimpers and stifled screams forced their way out.

“She can’t help it. She doesn’t want to be this way. Who would want to be this way?” My mother would say over and over as each calamity occurred. The day Roslyn attacked the Thanksgiving turkey and pies as if they were living things, my mother stood among her roses and cried. The following Sunday she went to visit Father Dailey. The priest told her the Lord loved her especially because he had given her such a large cross to bear. My father said the priest was full of shit.

“We’re doing the best we can,” I say. It sounds lame.

“Your best sucks,” Roslyn says. “You always do what’s best for you.”

Roslyn told my parents it wasn’t fair when I went away to college. It wasn’t fair when I got my own apartment. It wasn’t fair when I married.

“She gets everything,” Roslyn said. “Everything. She always does. It isn’t fair. She’s five years younger.”

When I was a teenager I took to putting a tin trashcan in front of my door, so I would hear if Roslyn tried to enter my room. She’d taken to wandering the house late at night, and she liked standing outside my door at one in the morning. I would lie in bed clenching my fists, my nails digging into my palms, and the sweat trickling between my breasts, until Roslyn would eventually shuffle off to bed.

When I left for college, I found myself for the first time in a room where I didn’t have to listen for footsteps outside the door. This was the normal world where people could go to bed without fear of being butchered in their sleep. I didn’t know what to do. For a while I couldn’t sleep at all.

I suppose in some way growing up with Roslyn saved me from doing many stupid things: drinking too much and running around. I was the good girl, after all, and I was afraid of disappointing my parents, of taking too many chances, of becoming my sister. Fear was endemic to my personality.

While we were searching for pictures of my mother, I came across two shots of Roslyn and me as children. In the carefully posed black and white photographs, we sit together on a lounge chair in the back yard. I am the short blond with bangs and a ponytail, and I smile a gappy smile. Roslyn is taller and dark. Her smile looks forced, her eyes unhappy. I wonder now if she understood that something inside her mind had gone awry?

My sister is forty-seven. She used to pose naked for artists, but she no longer is in demand. She has lost so much weight her skin hangs in loose folds over her skinny frame. Her hair is now the color and consistency of straw, and dark roots frosted with gray sprout in an inch-long stripe from her scalp. I know I should feel sorry for her, and when I’m away from her, I do. She can’t help the state of her mind. She is my sister, and my responsibility.

It is easy to pity in the abstract. It’s in the up close and personal and everyday muck of life that pity turns to fear, and things that should be forgotten rise up to choke you. That’s when I still hear the sound of those footsteps outside my door.

The voices from below rouse me, and I take a breath. I’m grown up now. I have a husband and three children of my own. I have responsibilities. I can’t remember what dreams I had when I walked away from my parents’ house, but I never thought I’d be circling back to this spot again, to be facing my sister and her anger and illness. Nothing has changed, yet everything has.

My sister has grown old and fragile. My childhood demon has lost her power. I should feel strong, but I don’t. What a coward I am.

“What’re you gonna do?” Roslyn rubs her hands on the front of her dress, and I notice that her fingernails have been chewed down to bloody stumps. 

“There’s nothing to do. It’s been decided. We have a buyer,” I say.

“It’s not fair. You shouldn’t get to decide. Mom always said—“

“Mom’s dead.” I push past her and walk downstairs. I half expect her to chase after me, but she doesn’t.

I go to my father’s side and give him a kiss. “Holding up?”

He gives me a shaky smile. “I’m fine. I just wish . . . Mom could be here.”

I squeeze his arm. Life cuts in a thousand little ways.

Late that night I hear the screams of a rabbit trapped by one of the many predators who roam the perimeter of our house. I lie twenty inches apart from John in our king-sized bed with hands clenched, nails digging into my palms until silence once more descends.           

Sometimes I believe I am the rabbit.

 

The Wish

We sit in a circle on the floor in Lucy’s room with the lights low and our shadows making ominous silhouettes against the neon grape walls of her room. Marissa, Hanna and I watch as Lucy brings out her trinket box, a carved wooden box trimmed in gold and placed it in front of her. Outside the wind sighs and the branches of the tulip poplar sway and creak; rain leaks down the windows. I expect to see glowing red eyes peering in at us, but there is only darkness. A spring storm.

We’re supposed to be studying, but first thing on the agenda is Tarot cards and gossip.

Lucy lifts out a packet of tarot cards wrapped in black velvet and looks around. “Who wants to go first? I’ve gotten good at this. I practiced a lot.”

Lucy and her cards don’t scare me particularly. She thinks she’s a seer, but for one with the gift of sight, she didn’t realize Brad was cheating on her, and she never can tell you anything useful like if you’ll pass your next chem test or get a date for the Sophomore dance.

“The cards don’t always talk,” she says.

Marissa believes everything Lucy tells her, even when none of it works out, and she contorts the truth to fit her reading. “Now, I understand,” she says. “I asked wrong. It wasn’t the cards.”

Hanna’s too timid to say anything. After a reading, we ask her, “Did your question get answered?” She always nods and smiles. It doesn’t matter what the cards said. But Hanna’s cards always say the same thing, “Work hard, and you’ll achieve your goals.” What a big psychic revelation that is.

With me, nothing ever comes out the way Lucy says it will, so I never pay much attention.

“I’ll go first,” I say tonight. “Maybe you’ll answer my deep, dark question, and my dreams will come true.”

Since I’ve been dreaming that someone really cute will ask me to the Sophomore Dance, that’s as likely as me growing six inches taller and sprouting long blonde hair. I get tired of just being the smart girl in the back of the room. Why couldn’t I have big blue eyes like Marissa or pouty lips like Lucy or Hanna’s long blond curls? I guess if you put us all together, we’d make the perfect girl: smart and sexy.

Lucy sets down my signifier, the card that represents me: the Page of Cups. It’s close enough. I have brown hair and hazel eyes. I don’t think of myself as particularly romantic and sensitive, but under the right circumstances, who knows?

I shuffle the cards, cut the deck, and she begins to lay them out. I havn’t seen these cards before: the Tower of Destruction, the Three of Swords—it looks ominous, a heart with three swords piercing it—a bunch of other cards meaning sorrow and sadness, and finally a card with a fat man surrounded by cups that Lucy calls the wish card. The last card is the Sun.  She looks at the cards for a long time.

“Wow, Katie, these are some weird cards,” she says at last. “I guess I’d say you’re in for some really rough times, where everything will seem to go wrong, but it will turn out okay in the end because the Sun’s really powerful. Plus you have the wish card, so you should make a wish. Quick do it. Make a wish.”

Shrugging like I don’t care, I close my eyes and make my wish but feel kind of awful. Stupid, I know. Lucy reads everyone else. Her cards are especially good tonight, and Marissa says, “Oh, Lucy, maybe Jimmy Knolls will ask you out.”

Lucy blushes. “I don’t think so, but I think he’s so hot.”

I don’t say anything. Jimmy Knolls is a junior, but he’s already captain of the basketball team and one of the best lacrosse players in the state. He’s also smart. He’s signed a letter of intent at Dartmouth, which means he’s already been accepted at there even though he’s only a junior, so next year all he has to do is keep up his grades and play the way he already does. Every girl at school has a crush on him, but he’s like a god so he can pick anyone he wants. It isn’t going to be one of us.

We all laugh about our readings, but I feel off. Usually, I like hanging at Lucy’s, but tonight I’m actually relieved when my dad picks me up at ten.

My mom is super cheerful when I get home.

“I got a call from school today,” she says. “You won the J. P. Vesper Trophy for winter swimming. That’s exciting, isn’t it?”

“I guess.”  I’m surprised. I was sure Lucy would get the trophy. I thought her times were better than mine, though I did come in first in the four hundred freestyle at conference championships and at state finals.

“Coach Roebuck said you were consistent, gave one hundred ten percent, and were a real leader. I’m so proud of you, honey.”

Mom hugs me.

I should be enjoying the good news that I finally won something at school, but instead I feel spooked. Stupid. Maybe Lucy read the cards wrong. After all, I had the Sun. That’s a good card.

“Do you believe in Tarot cards?” I ask my mom.

“Tarot cards?” She smiles a little. “Oh maybe some people have some insight, but mostly I think it’s coincidence. When I was your age I was mad for them. But nothing turned out the way it was supposed to. Why? Do you want a set?”

“Lucy has a set,” I say. “She gave me a weird reading.”

My mom shakes her head. “I wouldn’t worry too much about Lucy and her reading. You make your own future pretty much, don’t you think?”

“I guess,” I say, but secretly I wonder: Do you make your own future or do things just jump in your path and push you in different directions? Why is it that some people are just riding along in their cars when a tractor trailer jackknifes and crushes them? Is it really because they left five minutes later than they planned, or is it weird Karma, and if someone read it in their Tarot cards, could they change it?

I go to sleep wondering.

In the morning, I set off for school feeling better. The sun is shinning, and I wear my new skinny jeans and riding boots with a black sweater and blazer. I know I look pretty good when Jimmy Knolls actually speaks to me. He congratulates me on winning the swimming trophy and walks down the hall with me to my first period AP chem class.

“I’ll see you later,” he says. “By the way, if you’re not busy, Katie, there’s a bunch of us going over to grab pizza D’Angelo’s after practice. You should come along.”

My mouth falls open and a squeaking noise comes out before I clear my throat and say, “I don’t have a car.”

“I’ll give you a ride,” he says.

“I’ll a . . . I’ll a . . . let you know.”

He smiles, and I feel my knees get weak. I know I look like an idiot, clutching my books against me like I’m some sort of moron from a romance novel.

“Later,” he says.

“Maybe.”

I figure since we both play lacrosse and have afternoon practice, it’s a likely occurrence. Still, he’s mighty cute, and he doesn’t wear those stupid saggy ass jeans. I decide not to tell Lucy that the god spoke to me, much less invited me out for pizza, with a group, I remind myself.

I sit in my usual seat when Hanna comes in, her eyes red.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

“Didn’t you hear?” She wipes her eyes fiercely. “That big tulip poplar outside Lucy’s house crashed through the roof last night!”

“Are you kidding?” I feel a little sick. “Is she okay?”

Hanna’s shaking her head. “Oh, Katie, that tree fell right on top of her. She was crushed.”

I slump back in my seat remembering our card reading session last night. It was just a stupid game. It didn’t mean anything. When I wished Lucy would get my bad luck, I didn’t really mean it. I didn’t. There isn’t any such thing as card readings and charms anyway. I tell myself that, but I kept hearing Lucy say, “Quick make a wish. Make a wish.”

I lay my head on my desk. I want to curl inside myself and hide.

I killed Lucy.

Aftershock

The students slouched in their seats in Mrs. Irving’s counseling session. It was the last period of the day, and the spring heat made the room feel stuffy and airless. Someone wore perfume that smelled like a mixture of cotton candy and vanilla. It mingled uncomfortably with the aroma of sweat and body odor that permeated the room. Emma DiAngelo drew spirals in her notebook while Will Einbender and Ted Butler texted about the stupidity of this whole meeting. Meredith Hargrove sat with her hands folded and pretended to pay attention.

“Now, kids,” Mrs. Irving said. “I know how traumatic it is when we loose a friend, especially a sweet girl like Jennifer Drew. It has repercussions that spread out through the entire community.” She spread her arms wide as if she were trying to encircle the assembled group.

Lexi Granger stifled a yawn and fumbled in her pencil case for her green pen. In its eraser she had embedded a tiny piece of a razor. Carefully she traced a white line on her finger.

 

“Would anyone like to share their remembrances of Jennifer?” Mrs. Irving said as she brought her hands together.

The kids looked around uncomfortably at each other. Who really wanted to talk about Jennifer Drew? She took a bunch of Oxycontin tablets and washed them down with a fifth of vodka. She had been there, and now she wasn’t. No one in this group was particularly close to her. Meredith Hargrove didn’t like her, and if Meredith didn’t like you, you were doomed.

Lexi punched the razor in the pad of her index finger and watched a drop of blood well up. Meredith didn’t like her for a while, and she used to say things like, “You should kill yourself ‘cause you’re just a loser.” Now Meredith mostly left her alone because in seventh grade Lexi turned Goth and told Meredith she’d stick a razor in her lunch sometime.

Meredith wasn’t used to people talking back to her.

“Jennifer was smart,” Ted Butler said. “She was nice, but kind of shy. Like she kept to herself. She was a good lab partner.”

He didn’t mention that Jennifer asked him to go with him to Junior Prom last year, and he said no. Well, he hadn’t exactly said no to her face. He told her he’d let her know then told Dana Rosenberg to tell her. As far as he knew, Dana was Jennifer’s only close girlfriend.

He wasn’t even sure why he didn’t say yes. Jennifer was pretty enough. She just was a little strange. Quiet. She studied all the time. She took a lot of AP classes.  Even the Asian kids thought Jennifer was a brain. She had did have cool green eyes, but who wanted to go with someone like that?

Actually, she did go to prom with Mike O’Connor. They’d been dating ever since.

“She was nice, and it’s totally sad, but I didn’t really like know her,” said Missy Rogers. “We didn’t have any classes together.” She crossed her legs and swung her stiletto-covered foot. That wasn’t a surprise. Missy brought up the bottom half of the class. She earned her nickname “Little Grinder” in middle school, and her cell phone number was on speed dial for every guy who was horny and hard up.

She was a good-time girl, bouncy, blonde, a three-letter jock and one of the richest kids in the school. Her parents owned a bunch of beer distributor stores, and the taps were always flowing when Missy gave a party, which was every weekend. Mostly everyone liked Missy; she might have been dumb as a post, but she liked to laugh and never acted like she was better than anyone else even though she lived in a giant house with an indoor and outdoor pool.

Emma DiAngelo said, “Maybe she just never adjusted. Like I think she missed her old school.” She glanced at Meredith as if asking for approval. Meredith gave her a small nod.

A few other kids offered comments about how alone Jennifer always seemed, how sad. They said the kind of things that adults always took so deeply to heart. They’re grieving and fragile, Mrs. Irving thought. She hoped they wouldn’t have a rash of copycats. It worried her.

Lexi Granger looked around the room. Some of the kids on the edge might follow with their own attempts to follow Jennifer, but not this group. She didn’t believe copying suicide had much to do with Jennifer. It had more to do with their own pain. But teachers didn’t know much; they loved the kids like Meredith, the ones who kissed up and put on a show, the ones who saved their cruelty for quiet moments to be doled out like so many poison pills.

They get it in the end,” Lexi’s mother liked to say, but that was a lie too.

Will Einbender stared out the window and wondered if he’d go to the funeral. He wouldn’t mind going. He’d get out of class for the morning and part of the afternoon. That’d be great. He didn’t even know Jennifer, but it kind of spooked him that she killed herself. He never knew anyone who wanted to die. He liked lacrosse and YouTube. Maybe he’d want to die if he couldn’t play lacrosse. He thought Jennifer ran cross country. He thought Mike O’Connor knew her. Mike was goalie for the lacrosse team, and he might know about the funeral.

Meredith Hargrove listened to everyone speak then said, “I think we should maybe collect money for flowers or see if there’s a charity Jennifer’s family would like us to send money to, Ms. Irving.” She couldn’t believe no one had thought of that yet. At least she hoped no one had.

Meredith didn’t care in the least that Jennifer was dead. Jennifer had a higher GPA and was sure to be ranked first in the class. Not any more. Jennifer was already the first girl in the school’s history to get fives on five AP tests her junior year. She had been admitted to Harvard and Yale and Brown. Meredith had only taken four AP’s junior year and had gotten a four in calculus. She hated Jennifer Drew. Now she smiled at Mrs. Irving. “I don’t mind collecting the money.”

“How sweet, Meredith. What a wonderful idea.”

How stupid were adults, Lexi Granger wondered.

Meredith  said, “Maybe we could talk to Mr. Roseman about setting up a scholarship in her name.”

The other kids in the room looked at Meredith Hargrove and murmured their assent. Each of them remembered their own encounters with Meredith. Some long ago; some fresh as last week. Meredith would collect another brownie point on the body of a girl she tormented.

 

“You’re just amazing, Meredith,” Lexi said. She gave Meredith a poisonous smile. “I’m sure Jennifer wherever she is appreciates your . . . kindness.”

“Why thank you, Lexi,” Meredith said. She chose to ignore Lexi’s tone.

 

The bell rang.

“Bitch,” Meredith said as she breezed past Lexi.

Lexi grinned. “You’d better hope Jennifer’s not a vengeful ghost.”

Meredith flounced away with Emma DiAngelo.

In the locker room that afternoon Emma DiAngelo started fill her backpack when she saw Mike O’Connor, and she smiled. He starred in all the school plays and probably would have been a target for all the bullies except he also was the top ranked lacrosse goalie in the state. He was also six feet of gorgeous. Emma had a crush on him since middle school, but Meredith liked him too, so she never did more than say hi.

Mike O’Connor never said much to either of them.

Now he fiddled with the dial of his locker and threw the door open. He jammed books into his backpack, and Emma could see from his compressed lips and narrowed eyes, he was angry. She didn’t know whether to stay or go.

He glanced up and saw her.

“Oh, Jesus. Just the thing to make my day, one of the Witch Bitches.”

Emma felt the air go out of her for a second. How dare he call her that? Didn’t he know she was one of the most popular girls in school?

“You can’t call me that!”

“You gonna tell Meredith? Maybe send me some nasty e-mails like you did Jenny? Go ahead. I don’t give a shit. Everyone hates you anyway. They only pretend to be nice to you. Run along, Emma. Tell your bitch queen everyone here hates her. They just pretend to like her.”

Emma’s fingers tightened around her backpack. Mike O’Connor looked at her as if she were pond scum. She wanted to say something, but no words would come.

He slammed his locker shut and stalked out of the room. Emma listened to his footsteps echo down the hallway. She went into the bathroom and made herself puke.           

Meredith Hargrove got into her shiny blue Audi with Emma DiAngelo and checked herself in the rearview mirror. Emma was quiet this afternoon. She said she felt sick and looked it too. Meredith hoped it wasn’t contagious. She pulled out of the parking spot and waved at Mrs. Standish, the Vice Principle. Mrs. Standish had nominated Meredith for the G. H. Kettering Award that went to the outstanding student in the senior class. She intended to get that award. It would be the cherry on the topping of the perfect credentials that helped get her into Amherst.

Will Einbender and Ted Butler joined the rest of the boys lacrosse team on the field. Coach Dickenson called for a silent prayer for Jennifer Drew before the guys started practice. They quickly forgot her once they began running sprints. Ted ran a little slow today. His right knee hurt, but it didn’t stop him from making some vicious hits once practice started. Friday they played Dunsten Prep. The team needed to be in top form. If they beat Dunsten, they’d be number one, again.

Coach said Mike O’Connor wouldn’t be there today, so they’d have Greg Porter in goal. Greg was okay, but Mike was the man.

Ted knew Mike was close to Jennifer Drew, but practice was practice. Still, he figured Mike would be here for the game. Mike would never let down the team.

Will Einbender loped across the field with easy grace. “In the bag, dude,” he said. “Who’s number one?” They high fived.

Missy Rogers wanted to get home so she could lie back on a lounge chair near the hot tub and grab a beer. Her parents hadn’t opened the pool yet, but the hot tub was working. She didn’t want to get into the tub, but she wanted to soak up some rays while it was warm. Prom was coming, and she wanted to be tan. It would show off the hot pink dress she bought with her mom’s VISA.

She was hosting the best after-prom party ever. She went through her mental guest list. She supposed she’d have to invite Meredith. That would be a drag. Meredith was such a bitch. Secretly most of the class hated Meredith, but maybe she wouldn’t come. Maybe she’d fall down a flight of steps and break her neck. One thing was for sure: Meredith would never kill herself. Too bad. Missy’d kind of like to hear that Meredith swallowed a handful of pills. She hit the gas on her little Mercedes and headed home.

Lexi Granger walked out of the school and kept walking until she got to the park. She sat under a tree, pulled out her razor and began to pull it over her inner thighs. She wished it were Meredith Hargrove’s neck. She wondered why people like Jennifer seemed to get crushed while the ones like Meredith always seemed to win. It didn’t seem right.

“What are you doing?”

Lexi looked up into Mike O’Connor’s face. She’d been so intent on her carving, she hadn’t heard him approach.

“Jesus Christ, are you crazy?” He sat down beside her. She wanted to tell him to shove off, but he looked so confused, Lexi didn’t have the heart.

“It makes me feel better,” she said at last. “Like the pain builds up, and I have to let it out or I’ll explode.”

He leaned back against the tree. “You shouldn’t cut yourself,” he said at last. “You should talk to someone.”

“Yeah, right. So they can tell me about my deep-seated mental issues?” She dropped the razor into her pencil case. “Don’t you have someplace to be?”

“The coach let me off today. He knows Jenny and I were friends.”

“That’s good, I guess.”

“I guess.” He shrugged. “Tonight’s the private viewing.”

“That blows.”

“Yeah.”

“So why’re you telling me?”

“Because Jenny said you were one of the few people who talked to her. I can’t talk to Dana right now. She just cries all the time.”

Lexi pondered that for a few minutes. “Jennifer was my peer tutor in pre-calc, y’know? She didn’t make me feel stupid. I actually got a B in math.”

She pulled out a white fuzzy dandelion top and examined it. When she was little, she used to call them wishies because when she’d blow on them, she’d make a wish and hope the little pieces of white fuzz would carry her wishes through the air. She stopped believing in the power of wishies when she was about ten.

“I don’t know why she did it,” Mike O’Connor said. “Six weeks from the end of school. She was almost free, and she couldn’t hang on any more.”

When he was in middle school, kids used to make fun of him for taking dance lessons until he got tall and showed up on the lacrosse team. They didn’t think it was funny the way he played goal. All of a sudden he went from Mike the Fag to Mike the Superman. Maybe that’s why he liked Jenny so much. She never slapped labels on people.

“It’s not your fault,” Lexi said. “Maybe she just was too deep into the shit.”

“Maybe.”

She touched his arm. “Hey, you think I could come to the viewing tonight? Everyone will come to the funeral tomorrow to get out of school. It’ll be a zoo.”

He looked at her for a moment and nodded. “You think you could leave the dog collar and razors at home?”

Lexi blew on the wishie. “Maybe, I’ll even wear regular clothes.”

 

Oh What Fun It Is To Ride

I wake at six-thirty feeling like crap and roll out of bed because I’m too big to get up like a normal person. My father-in-law wants to strap warning lights around my enormous middle and announces, “Here comes the QE II,” whenever we go to my in-laws for dinner, which is almost every Sunday. My own father snaps a photo of me and says, “You’ll look at yourself in a couple months and feel so good.”

I feel like Moby Dick right now. People think I’m having twins. I’m not. I am now officially three weeks late and four days away from induced labor.

Merry Christmas.

I take a shower and pull on one of my husband’s sweaters and the last maternity outfit I still can wear, a huge black jumper that could double as a tent and shuffle downstairs. I stare at the Christmas tree in the family room. Dan and I spent four days putting it together. I broke a chair trying to climb up to reach an upper branch, but it’s finished now. I’d turn on the lights, but that would require me crawling behind the tree to reach the switch, and I’m not sure I’d be able to get out.

“Hey, you’re up early. You okay?” Dan comes down in a pair of pajama pants, no shirt. He’s never cold.

“Just kind of blah.”

“You think it’s the baby?”

“No contractions.”

“Maybe I should take a shower just to be sure. Do I have time?”

“Have a blast. Want breakfast?”

He shakes his head.

It snowed last night, and a thin carpet of white coats the ground. Frost makes lacy patterns on the window, and I think it looks so nice and Christmas-like. Just like a postcard. The baby starts to kick. This baby is either going to be a soccer player or a field goal kicker, I believe. Dan thinks this is fantastic; he should be the one carrying the kicker around all day.

I’m about to start a pot of coffee when I feel a tiny squeeze, not exactly a contraction, just a squeeze. I ignore it until I open the coffee can and throw up in the sink. Not a good sign.

“Dan?”

He can’t hear me, so I waddle up the steps. He’s just getting out of the shower.

“I think it might be the baby.”

He blinks for a moment, his blue eyes wide. “Oh. Oh shit. Are you packed?”

“Kind of.” I’m not really. I don’t have any clothes that fit, but I go around the room throwing my big nightgown and some underwear in a bag. Heading to the bathroom, I grab a toothbrush and the extra toothpaste tube Dan bought. I throw in some lipstick and a little eyeliner, not that it will do much, but what the hell.

Dan leaves a message on my doctor’s service.

“Jesus Christ, rush hour on Christmas Eve.”

“Sorry.”

He kisses my head. “Let go.”

We make it out to his car, but once he pulls out of the garage, we realize that not only has it snowed, there is a fine coat of ice on the ground. The wheels spin and the car fishtails slightly until we reach the road. I can see the white outlines of Dan’s knuckles. Traffic is crawling, and we live twenty-five miles from my hospital.

“Why did you have to pick a doctor in the city?”

I shrug. “I like him.”

When a real contraction strikes now, I wish Dan and I paid more attention in those birth classes, instead of clowning around with our friends. The second contraction comes five minutes later.

“What the hell?” Dan looks at me half-crazed. “Those contractions are supposed to be twenty minutes apart.”

“I can’t help it. It’s not a picnic for me either. Oh shit, here comes another.”

“Breathe.”

He’s trying to weave in and out of traffic, but it’s slow going. Dan is cursing and banging the steering wheel. “Goddamn it! Jesus Christ, move! I’m not delivering this baby!”

“Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!”

“Breathe!”

“I can’t breathe! It hurts. You breathe!”

“Take a deep breath and let it out slowly.”

“If you know so much, you have this baby. Arrrrrrrrrgh!” I bend over, which is difficult because I don’t bend very far. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”

We finally reach the edge of the city at which point Dan decides to give up on traffic laws altogether. “Hold on,” he says.

With contractions coming three minutes apart I don’t argue.

“Arrrrrgh. It’s coming. It’s coming. I feel it.”

“No, it’s not. Cross your legs! Breathe!”

“You breathe!” I’d hit him, but I’m afraid we’d have an accident.

Just like in the movies, we run every light, cars honking, people jumping out of our way. Because this morning has been a traffic accident bonanza, however, there are no cops. Miraculously, we have avoided hitting anyone, but my heart must sound like a race horse.

Sweat runs in rivulets down Dan’s face. If he grips the wheel any tighter, I think it will break.

We screech around three corners and finally Dan wedges the car into a space in front of the hospital where two cops and the valet approach the car.

She’s in labor!” Dan says. The cops look skeptical at first. Until they open the door.

I can’t get out of the car myself. Dan grabs one arm and a cop takes the other. As soon as i stand, my water breaks. I think, my boots are ruined.

Dan pats my back.

“Jesus Christ, get this girl a wheelchair!” the cop says in semi-panic.

Within moments I find myself in the relative calm of the the Labor room, my enormous belly wrapped with a monitor strap. A resident does a quick pelvic.

“You’re eight centimeters, dilated, Mrs. Gardiner. I’m afraid it’s too late for an epidural,” the resident says. “We’ll wait for your doctor. He’ll be here in five minutes. He’s just finishing with another delivery.”

“I want drugs!” I’m crying now, and Dan tries to put his arms around me.

“You can hit me,” he says. I take the opportunity to land a good one in his stomach.

“Maybe we can get her a little something to take the edge off,” the resident says.

After the shot of whatever, I’m a little calmer, but still in pain. The doctor comes in from time to time to check me. Nurses offer me ice chips and sandwiches to Dan. I don’t know why they offer him sandwiches, but I’m too tired to care. Time stretches out and looses meaning. At some point my doctor comes in to tell me that the baby isn’t moving down and is going into fetal distress. He wants to do an emergency C-Section.

Silently, Dan and I both nod. I want Dan in the OR, I say. It’s not a problem. While they prep me, they send him out. I feel like a big slab of beef. When I say that to the nurse, she laughs, and says, “It’ll be okay, honey.”

The funny thing is after the epidural, I feel no more pain. Dan holds my hand, and they wheel me into the OR. I tell the anesthesiologist that anesthesia makes me sick. He straps a bag to the the pole. “Don’t worry. I have something for you,” he says. “Let me know if you feel sick.”

When I do, he does something, and suddenly I feel all better and kind of floaty. I smile and squeeze Dan’s fingers, though I really want to kiss the anesthesiologist.

“Have they started?” I say, and Dan smiles.

“Baby, you’re opened up like a Sunbeam Alpine with it’s engine being rebuilt.”

Dan likes classic cars. I guess it’s better than comparing me to a gutted fish.

“You have a little girl,” my doctor says. “Congratulations.” He looks around. “What time is it?”

A nurse double checks. “It’s exactly two seconds after midnight. You have the first Christmas baby in the hospital, honey. Now there’s a real present.”

When they wheel me out, the anesthesiologist attaches another bag to my IV. “This should take care of everything,” he says. He’s really cute. Tall, dark, and handsome, and he has good drugs.

“I love you,” I say.

He laughs. “That what all the women say.” He’s gone, probably off to break another heart.

Dan appears with the nurse and our baby who lies in an incubator. We decide right then to call her Caroline, which is kind of Christmasy, but not. Dan says being born on Christmas kind of sucks. Just the same, baby Caroline is an excellent Christmas present, and she does have beautiful blue-green eyes that sparkle under the long black lashes she inherited from her Dad.

Just as I’m finally falling asleep at three-thirty I hear a baby wailing. The nurse comes in to take my vitals, and I say, “Oh, boy, do you have a wailer.”

She gives me a look that’s somewhere between amusement and pity. “Honey, that one’s yours, and she’s mighty hungry. I was just about to bring her in. Merry Christmas.”

Edna’s Doggie Cafe

The corpulent gentleman always sat at the corner table where he could enjoy his tea, almond croissant, and mushroom omelet, and look out of the window in both directions. He always brought his dog, Uncle Wigglesworth, a waddling English bulldog, with him. Uncle Wigglesworth would settle under the table while the gentleman would surreptitiously feed him bits of pastry. Edna would bring him free strips of bacon.

A good arrangement all around, Edna thought. She liked the gentleman. He tipped well. She had no official policy at the cafe against dogs, and the worst thing Uncle Wigglesworth ever did was scratch himself from time to time and drool. After they left, she’d have to wipe up the puddle, but she didn’t mind.

Soon a few other customers began bringing their dogs. Tiny Mrs. Winkler brought her gray Teacup Poodle in her crocheted handbag. The actor with the soulful eyes brought his Basset Hound. The quivering lady who always gazed around the room in panic before she chose a table brought her Italian Greyhound. Edna always found a way to slip the dogs a treat.

Edna began to bake what she called “Delicious Doggie Delights.”

Her business grew. Her cafe was written up in three magazines, and she was thinking about expanding. She even asked her friend Dominic to carve a dog totem out of wood to stand in the window. Even though it was a rather abstract dog, it was her good luck charm, and Dominic needed money. Edna told her customers that the totem represented all dogs.

Then it happened.

On a particularly crowded Saturday, a white limo pulled up to the curb, and a man exited with two Great Danes. Edna recognized him immediately from the pages of The New York Times. Ignoring the line, he pushed his way through the door.  She listened to the scratching of the Great Danes’ nails across her newly polished floor.

“I need a table at once,” he said.

“I’m sorry, there’s a line. You can take out, if you’re in a hurry.”

“I don’t do take out. Do you know who I am?”

Edna put her hands on her hips. “Yes, I do. You the man whose bank said I wasn’t good enough for a loan. Said I was too high a risk. Then y’all tried to foreclose on my house when I never missed a payment. Now you come in here all high and might and treat me like a servant in my own shop? I don’t think so.”

The Great Danes growled.

That’s when the dogs came. First it was Uncle Wigglesworth. Then the Basset, then the Italian Greyhound, a Rottweiler, two black Labs, three mutts, and the teacup Poodle. They all bared their teeth.

“Call them off,” the man said.

Edna shrugged. “They’re not my dogs.”

She heard the growling of other dogs waiting with the customers in line. The Great Danes looked around uneasily.

“I think you best be going,” Edna said.

The man turned purple, but he left.

After he was gone, Edna filled bags and bags with free doggie treats; she thanked the owners. When she finally closed up shop for the day, she patted the dog in the window.

Her totem. She picked a good one.

Ace of Spades

I’m standing with my head bent over the sink in this crap hotel rinsing dye from my hair because there’s no way I’m going to step inside that shower. The curtain probably could walk out of the room by itself.

 

I’ve already hacked off a lot of my hair and tossed it into a plastic bag along with my red sequined dress and matching slut pumps. I towel off the spiky remains, now black. Adding a little gel, I let it harden as I apply my makeup. Even my own ma wouldn’t know me in my baggy jeans and tee shirt. Without the push ‘em up and grab ‘em bra, I look like a boy.

I’m going for heavy-duty, punk gothic. I slip seven earrings around my left ear and six on my right then glue on some studs.

 

Good.

A week ago I was Sydney Barnes, card counter deluxe, looking like a Bond girl, gliding through the crowds at the Bellagio, Wynn and Riviera. I had my system. Never win too much at a time. Lose just enough not to raise suspicions. Play hard, look hot, and the big boys will comp you suites, buy you drinks, and treat you like a queen. You can live large, if you do it right.

 

Then Vince Marsdon walked into my life. With his movie star looks and that big white smile, and the way he flashed that black AmEx card around, I should have known he was too good to be true.

“You’re a hell of a player,” he said to me.

 

“I play smart.”

“Why don’t you play for one big score?”

He had a plan on how to go from one casino to another. Win big and move on. Pretend to be a couple. We could split the money. It seemed like it could work, but I had this weird feeling in my gut. Sometimes I get it. Usually, just before the shit hits the fan.

 

So I called Harry. Harry works at the MGM Grand, and I asked him to check Vince out.

“Honey, if you’re asking me to check him out, there’s a problem,” Harry said. “Are you in love?”

 

Only Harry could ask that. He’s my best friend. If he weren’t gay, I’d be madly in love with him. Come to think of it, I probably am madly in love with him. Love’s cruel that way.

“Stay at the MGM. I’ll take care of the room,” Harry said.            

 

The first four days were like great sex. Vince and I played the loving couple to perfection. The casinos may have lost money on us, but we pulled in lots of suckers who were getting off just watching our show.

The last night at the MGM Grand was supposed to be our big finale. Harry smiled at me on the way into the casino.

“Are you enjoying your stay?” he said.

“Absolutely.”

He handed me a red rose. “Compliments of the house. A beautiful flower for a beautiful lady. Good luck tonight.”

I took ten thousand worth of chips, but that night my luck ran hot and cold. I couldn’t seem to make more than a few thousand. By one, Vince was irritated and said he needed to stretch his legs.

By two, the cocktail waitress brought me a drink. “Looks like you need to get back on The Sunny Side of the Street,” she said and palmed me a card with my napkin. Ace of Spades. Shit. Harry’s code for run. I slipped her a $100 chip and cashed out. A lousy two grand.

I slipped out the door and onto the strip wishing I’d worn black instead of red. But I walked the strip until finally I caught a cab to this shithole three miles out of town. Harry had slipped me the room key with the rose.

Now I hear the crunch of tires against gravel and tense when the doorknob turns. It’s Harry. He winces at the sight of my hair and sets a duffle bag stuffed with cash on the bed.

 

I hand him the plastic bag filled with hair and dye and my dress and shoes. “You’ll take care of this?”

 

“Of course.”

“I guess I won’t be back for a while.”

He shrugs. “Don’t worry. We’ll stay in touch. I was thinking Monaco would be lovely.”

“And Vince? He wasn’t a cop, was he?”

“No.” Harry looks very sober. “A thief.”

“Do I need to worry?”

He slips a black AmEx card into the plastic bag. “He won’t be a problem.”