NOTE: There’s some things get figured out on barstools that can’t get figured out elsewhere. These are some of those things, what follows. Rachele, Ruthey, and LeeAnn of The Miracle Vignettes and The Sunshine Vignettes fame, they’re generally good for this figuring business. And LeeAnn, daft as she is, God love ‘er, she’s usually the one ends up shining a skinny beam of light on a thing.
Photo © Regency Shop
Rough-hewn stonework is all around, four sides and above. It stinks of dampness that can never escape. Sweat from the stones, urine soaking the dirt floor, waste and pus from decaying flesh. All trapped within.
In a dream once, I saw driven, dark figures building this place, and there I was so tiny in the center of all the commotion, amused by their silly striving. I watched them lay the stones, heaving and sweating blood and verbally assaulting each other’s craftsmanship. When it became a bore, I dug into my box of wooden houses and trees and cows and such, and I built a pastoral scene in the sweet, fresh dirt.
By the time night lays down shadows outside the stony confine, the progress made within is little more than the day before. And when night becomes its deepest and blackest, memory backslides into oblivion and burns off in the white-hot fire of a virgin morn.
The questions now are the same as then. And the day’s work is always the same, to find a way to unlock the cell door. At first glance it appeared made of wood so old and rotted by the dampness that it’d be easy to break through. But when I pushed it with my hands, it felt like cold steel. Kicking it hurt. I sat in the corner for awhile crying before trying again, before moving close to the door like pushing into a lover.
It smelled of wet metal, rust, and when I closed my eyes and put my fingertips to it softly to read it blind, I knew its strength. Every atom had been predetermined, every day of its existence had been written into the complex structure of it, and the stones all around were both the false witnesses and the fixed jury, and the diminishing capacity of the fouled dirt was the measure of time left for me to serve.
Rachele walked Mike to the door of her apartment. He turned to her, handed her a wad of cash. “A little extra, Darlin’,” he said, “since you were so fucking hot.”
Rachele locked desirous eyes on Mike and curled her fingers around the wad, slid it real slow off his palm then down her belly and deep into her panties.
“Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about,” Mike said.
Rachele gave a slow smile, let Mike out the door and locked it after him.
Mony was out in the hall, leaned up against the wall, her arms crossed under her adolescent breasts. She stared at the opposite wall, hating it because it was there. Mike walked past her. “Afternoon, Mony,” he said.
Mony rolled her eyes and pushed off from the wall with her ass, like it was all the trouble in the world. She didn’t have the time of day for Mike. Jealousy’s what it was. And it’d bite her one day. If she lived that long.
A smart baby would’ve known by now to suck up to Mike and the fat wallet in his fancy suit jacket. That way, if something ever happened to Rachele, Mony might just be the first name that popped into his head. But Mony, she just glared at Mike and scuffed to Rachele’s door, did the secret knock and waited.
Rachele took her time stubbing her cigarette out. She got up from the kitchen table and looked out the peephole. As soon as she undid the chain lock, Mony pushed in.
“I’ll be goddamned glad when I get a place of my own,” Mony huffed.
“You know the rules, bitch,” Rachele said. “When my regulars are in, you’re out. And you won’t never move up to gettin’ your own place if you keep up your shit attitude!”
Mony backed off and sat down at the kitchen table. “It’s just so hard starting out,” she whined.
Rachele sat down, lit another cigarette. “What do you know about hard?”
Mony pushed around the empty bottles of booze on the table ‘til she found one with a bit left in it. She downed it. “I gotta go out all night every night, compete with all the other pussies, an’ for what? To get looked at like meat, treated like shit—”
Rachele laughed in Mony’s face. “Listen, Princess-fucking-Grace, we all got pride. It’s how you channel it.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You don’ hafta do the street no more!”
“You ungrateful piece of shit!” Rachele hissed. She leaned real slow toward Mony. “I worked my ass off to get here,” she yelled at her. She sat back, looked daggers at her. “What the fuck?!”
Mony was smart enough to keep her mouth shut at this point, but too dumb to know to apologize.
“You want out?” Rachele sneered.
Mony cast her eyes down.
Rachele leaned toward her. “Go then, fool,” she said. “Go on down to Minyard’s. They got a stocking job open. Go. And you’ll feel the same way, like a piece of meat been pushed around all day. Go down to the Metro Diner, get a job waiting table all hours of the day and night, holiday or no, come home stinking with grease in your hair, and you’ll feel just like shit. Go to the Cinemark, sell tickets, popcorn all night, same thing. And you know why?”
Mony kept her eyes down, her voice low. “Why?”
“Because you got that slave feelin’ working for someone else. Always workin’ for someone else to get a few measly bucks that slip away with rent and food. This job here? You’re working for yourself, gettin’ more money than you could ever get working some shit job for someone else.”
Rachele jabbed her cigarette butt into the ashtray and sat back. “So give your pride a room in your head. Dress nice, treat yourself right. And when you’re turning tricks, you shut the door to that room for a short while in the big picture of life, and you think Game. You’re playin’ a role that you get the big bucks for, just like an actress that gets to choose when she works and what parts she plays. That’s all it is.”
Mony lifted her eyes to search Rachele’s. “But aren’t you just fooling yourself?” she said.
Rachele was now nineteen, had been in the business of selling sex for three years. A lot had happened during those years. She figured just one year of learning in the sex trade was like four years of school learning. If you paid attention. And she had.
Rachele thought of what ol’ Kat had said to her over smokes and a whiskey once when she’d got all headstrong. It’d set her straight, and she owed Kat big. She squinted into Mony’s naïve eyes while she lit another cigarette. It had to be done, or this girl would end up dead in a dumpster like Mary M. had.
Rachele blew smoke out her crimson lips, made her eyes like steel. “Listen,” she said to Mony. “One thing gets honed real quick on the street and that’s reading people. An’ I can tell you’re in that trap of thinking big with nothin’ to back it up. You’re a pissed-off baby run from a bad home. Here you are, you got no money, no skills, but you do got a pretty face and a twat. If that ain’t destiny, I don’t know what is.”
Mony stared past Rachele, her eyes flat. “Yeah,” she whispered.
Ruthey paced in front of the blackboard as she taught.
“Outlaws and inlaws. You dig Burroughs because he’s a black sheep in the literary fold, an outlaw so to speak. You can’t stand Austen because her characters are rigidly bound by the laws of the social status of their day. Her works are fraught with cloying, Georgian love. Burroughs thought love a myth invented by women to manipulate men. Even so, did you know Burroughs dug Austen?”
The classroom erupted with What the fucks and You don’ know what the fuck you’re talkin’ ‘bouts and No fucking ways.
“Alright, alright!” Ruthey hollered.
The class settled down to a drone of hostilities.
“It’s true. Burroughs admired her because he thought her a good social satirist—”
The bell cut Ruthey short and the class shot their mouths off and their asses out the door. “Read Eric Mottram’s ‘…The Algebra of Need’!” she yelled after them.
Ruthey turned slowly away from the empty doorway and put her copy of “Pride and Prejudice” tenderly on her desk. She sat down hard in her chair and stared straight ahead until everything in the room blurred.
Teaching teen thugs and prostitutes on the wrong side of the tracks was beginning to get to her. At the close of her first year into this mess she was riding a sweet and powerful high when she saw that she was making a difference in some of their lives.
Then over the next three years, four kids in her English Lit classes had been killed in gang wars. One of those kids had especial promise, had a light in his eyes that had been growing brighter with every book she gave him to read. She thought he could have made it out.
Now, she realized that her first year high, her gung-ho belief in beating all odds, was just the exhilaration of reaching a mountain’s peak, heart pounding, eyes full of the vista like a god looking down on its creation.
But the creation, these baby hoodlums, they ran amok, miserably and proudly so. The force that dictated their gang behavior had the power of thousands of years of wiring behind it. And a voice within her more and more frequently asked Can the willing handful of teachers in the world rewire it?
The suspected answer was No. Not in the terms in which most of us think, anyway. And the voice agreed A few may depart from old behavior, but they will ever be drawn to return, return, return…
From the mountain to death valley.
Her last mountain peak had been a professorship at NYU. She’d breathed the high up air of a tenure track there and plummeted like a shot bird to the stench of back alleys and the bowels of subways. One man was all it’d taken to flip a switch in her head from sound to unsound, from a nice house to a park bench.
Her mountains were getting shorter.
She’d made it out from under the bellies of bridges to the ho-hum heights of mediocrity. She was on the way to her Everest. That was the plan. Trouble is, the thought of it now made her shake, feel panicky. Doubt wracked her like The Fear haunted William Burroughs.
And in her panic she watched her mind scrambling to right itself, grasping for the same old tools to get her unstuck. Never mind that these old tools had never worked for her before.
First, she would dump Louis, the Geometry teacher here. He’d been a failed experiment anyway. She was used to having a man whose intelligence showed hers up and she’d just ended up lording it over Louis. Never mind that she’d grown up watching her average IQ mother lap up every word of her genius father.
Then she’d plaster the universities with her resume. She had to get out of this pit of hell high school. Never mind that no reputable high school, let alone university, would touch her with her record of mental illness.
A hope continues to burn within Ruthey that there’s a chance all her old tools will work this time, in this particular situation.
And a stirring from her deeps becomes more and more agitated and uncomfortable and instead of examining the stirring, she feels a dominant desire to skip straight to obeying it.
Return to the valley it says. Return, return, return…
Ruthey blinked out of her blur and looked down. She’d gouged the cover of “Pride and Prejudice” with her fingernails.
LeeAnn had passed out of her sun-blasted, trusting days and into dark, suspicious nights on barstools. During the days she was still the small creature that God babysat, but he left her to her own confusion and limited resources at 5pm every day. As soon as he was gone, out would come the beer and laptop, and then the jaunt down the street to Leo’s Bar or The Dog & Pony, depending on the drink specials.
Eventually, both Jim, the owner of The Dog & Pony, and Leo figured it out and both had Jack Daniels on special every night starting at 6pm just so they could get to see LeeAnn perched all pretty on top of one of their barstools. She was the only good-looking ornament left in their small town and therefore good for business.
Folks would buy her drinks in exchange for a few words and some laughs. Then they’d go off and discuss what was said over buffalo wings or a game of pool. Eventually they’d get around to speculating as to what it was she scratched down so madly on those little spiral-bound pads of hers. They never asked her, though, because that’d violate the rules of the game. Everyone suspected LeeAnn was less than she seemed, and LeeAnn knew she was less than she seemed, but they both had a mutual desire for her to be more.
If LeeAnn had thought further out about all of that, she’d have realized that unspoken mutual desire was irrefutable evidence that she was destined to be an enigma. But being unable to see past the nose on her face was one of her many failings and also her destiny. Another failing was indecision, so you can imagine the difficulty she had in dividing her time between Leo’s and Jim’s establishments.
But it was all part of a divine experiment. To God, things were going exactly as planned. To LeeAnn, life was getting like going through the skinny part of a Venturi tube only to be spat out into the vast, floating space of chaos, like a puffy white astronaut separated from her craft and doomed for eternity.
Lee Ann was in part correct with her loosed-astronaut feeling, but with a nose so short, she couldn’t possibly see that her puffy white speck of genes and personal experiences came from many millennia of countless specks and is on its way to many more millennia of countless specks in an infinite adaptive flow of existence.
AFTER PARTY NOTES
Those candy apple barstools at the top of this piece, they caught my eye, I tell you. They look like they could go zero to sixty in three point four. So I wrote to Regency Shop to ask if I could use the photo for this piece and they said not only can you use it, but we’ll give you a store-wide discount. In fact, we’ll give anyone who reads your post a discount. I wrote back it’s a deal. So there y’all go : )