The dermatologist was the sort of pale, mousy woman in sensible shoes who made you want to grab her and give her a makeover. As she leaned over Roxie's toenails, Roxie found herself wanting to pull back the lanky brown hair that fell around the doctor's face, brighten her up with a little eyeliner and lipstick.
"It's a fungus," the doctor said, looking up. "I'll culture it, but I'm sure it's fungus. I'll give you a prescription, but you'll have to have a liver function first."
"Because these oral medications can be hard on the liver."
"But how'd I get it? I don't go to the gym."
"Hotel rugs are a common cause," the doctor said, looking down at the prescription she was writing out. Had she guessed that Roxie spent her nights in hotel rooms with strange men? She handed Roxie the prescription.
"They'll give you enough pills for six weeks, then you'll have to have another test before a refill."
Roxie nodded. She walked back to her car, wondering what to do. This liver business sounded scary. She didn't always feel so great these days, but maybe that was why she was hanging on to every shred of health she had left. She squinted at her reflection in the store windows as she passed by, smiling when she saw herself silhouetted over a vacuum cleaner. She looked good, in the dazzle of April sun, in spite of what the doctor would call her "unhealthy lifestyle": a tall, slim woman, still young, with shoulder-length dark-blond hair and bangs. Too pale without makeup, but that's what happens to "working girls" who sleep during the day. C'est la bloody vie, as Don used to say.
For a moment she thought of her ex, or maybe they were still married, since she'd never received anything to sign, had she? Maybe he was still hoping she'd come slinking back! Roxie laughed, trying to remember Don's face, but all she could conjure up were dark eyebrows and the wavy hair falling onto his scowling forehead toward the end.
She breathed in the spring air, laden with the smell of brackish water and seaweed. Over the harbor, a crane rose like a claw against the blue sky. A brown seagull dragging a broken wing limped along the sidewalk. The long, damp winter by the sea was over and, for the first time in ages, she felt almost happy to be alive. Atlantic City was sort of nice in the daytime, when most of the other hookers and the poker players and the pushers were sleeping, and you could relax. At night, the scum rose to the top, and there was a pulse of danger in the air, which she used to find exhilarating back when she first came here.
Around here, away from the boardwalk, it was like a seedy small town, with people going about their normal lives. A burly man in overalls crossed in front of her on his way into a deli, hefting a crate of soft drinks on his shoulder. A bunch of laughing teenagers in T-shirts came out of a convenience store eating Italian ices, their hoodies tied around their waists. Up the street ahead there was a flashing green sign: City Veterinary Clinic, with the first "i" flickering. Beneath it, a woman was going in carrying a cage, from which a cat's striped tail protruded. That was Al's clinic, and she imagined him in there taking care of his smelly dogs and cats, hoping he wouldn't come out before she could make it to her car. Al was a guy she'd picked up once, who'd asked for her phone number. Recently, he'd taken to hanging around Ed's Diner, where she ate breakfast. He wanted her out of the business. Some got like that, but he was impossible.
Just before she got to her car, a black woman passed, walking her daughter, or maybe her granddaughter, home from school. The little girl was bent under a backpack, with a pink ribbon in her hair. She was about seven, the age Maggie would have been now, Roxie thought. Maggie would have had long blond hair, probably no longer a towhead.
The unbidden memory made her eyes mist over, and she had to set her purse down on the hood of her red Camaro and get out a kleenex, before she could see to find her keys. This hardly ever happened to her anymore. She took a deep breath. Time for a fix.
As she started the engine, she looked in the rearview mirror and saw husky Al in his white lab coat, leaving his clinic on the other side of the street. He was reading something, but then he looked up and they made eye contact in the mirror for a moment. She peeled off. Thank God. All she needed right now was a lecture about the dangers of prostitution.
Back in the apartment, she kicked off her shoes and got the pipe out of her purse, carefully wrapped in a napkin. She was in such a hurry that she dropped the rock and had to get down on her hands and knees to find it among the dust balls under the bed. Her hands shook as she tried to light the pipe, the picture of Maggie flickering in her mind. Her daughter was wearing a new pink coat for Easter. Roxie found it hard to believe that she'd ever lived in a place where people still got dressed up for Easter. They'd come into the City for the day, been to the Museum of Natural History to see the new dinosaur, and were heading back down to Port Authority, crossing Eighth Avenue. Maggie was skipping on ahead in the crosswalk, with her ponytail flying, having somehow pulled away from her brother Jeremy's grasp: that was the last picture Roxie had of her, before the taxi hurtled into the crosswalk.
Roxie inhaled, and after a minute or two the tape that she used to replay so often in her mind stopped -- the crumpled, bloody little body, the burly policeman doing CPR, Don screaming and trying to attack the taxi driver… She blotted them all out, and there was just her, in the bright little apartment with the spring breeze that smelled of the sea blowing in through the sheer curtains. Just her and the orange walls hung with crummy beach scenes that she'd picked up at tag sales, just her and the smoke curling up through the sunlight. Suddenly, everything was beautiful: now the cheap prints looked like masterpieces, with their gouges of yellow and blue paint, and the red lobster in one, with its claws waving touchingly, made her want to cry. She was looking at it dreamily when her new roommate came in.
"Ah, I see you are celebrating Easter with jelly beans," Eva said. "I won't bother you." That was why she'd thought of Maggie, Roxie mused. Because it's almost Easter again.
Eva was Swedish, lovely, lithe and twenty-five, with long, platinum hair, real platinum hair. Of course, she had no kids, no baggage, and she was educated. Rather than a call girl, she saw herself as a sort of courtesan, here to perfect her English (she'd already learned to say "jelly beans" instead of crack).
"No bother," Roxie said. "I just got back from the doctor's."
"You OK?" Eva sat down on the flowered sofa bed, which was where she slept. She crossed her great long legs, in tight white pants, and lit a cigarette.
"Fine. Just toenail fungus."
Eva frowned. "What's that?"
"You haven't seen those ads on TV? With those funny little guys burrowing under the nails?"
"No." Eva leaned forward, exhaling. Her blue eyes, over her black sweater, fixed Roxie's in puzzlement, as though this was an aspect of American culture she'd missed. "What happens?"
"Your nails just get yellow and icky. Watch out for hotel rugs, the doctor said."
"But I'm always on hotel rugs." Now Eva's high, smooth forehead began to furrow in distress.
"So, wear slippers." Roxie shrugged. "Fortunately, I don't get many foot fetishists."
Eva laughed, a high musical sound that made Roxie think of Tinkerbell and Walt Disney movies. The rhinos dressed in pink from "Fantasia" danced through her head as they both exhaled in silence for a couple of minutes, the smoke rising up through the sunlight.
"It's Maundy Thursday," Eva said finally. "We always used to go to church then, you know? I wore a white dress."
Roxie looked at her uncomprehendingly. It was a word from another world, from her Lutheran catechism, pronounced long ago in Montclair by a young minister with an acne-scarred face.
"It's the day before Good Friday," Eva said. "Remember the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the disciples' feet?"
"Sure, I know that."
"Well, I must get ready. I have a date at five." She rolled her small shoulders and reached her arms toward the ceiling in some sort of Scandinavian stretch. "There's a computer convention at the Center. Geeks." She smiled. "I like geeks. Do you?"
"They're OK. As good as any others."
"Intellectual types really turn me on. Always have. But then, I like variety. Like Catherine Deneuve in that movie by the Spanish director, what's his name, where she turns tricks in the daytime, while her cute doctor husband is at work?"
Roxie shrugged. "I wouldn't know. I don't watch foreign films."
"Well, the point is, there's this shady guy with a couple of gold teeth who turns her on."
"That's disgusting. It wouldn't me."
"You really don't like men much, do you?"
"No. At least, not any more. It's all the same to me, old or young, fat or thin, geeks or jocks. I really don't give a damn."
Eva looked a bit shocked, and Roxie felt like a jaded old hooker talking to an ingénue.
"Did you have such a bad marriage?"
"It's not just that. You're young. You won't be so romantic when you're my age."
"How old are you, Roxie? If you don't mind my asking."
"That's not very old to be so cynical."
"I've had a hard life."
Eva didn't know about her children. She thought Roxie was referring to her work. "Maybe if you had a manager, like me, who sort of screens your tricks, and it's a lot safer than when you're on the streets …"
"I don't need a manager, as you call him. Why should I give my money to a fucking pimp?"
"Sorry. I was only trying to help." Eva snuffed out her cigarette, snatched a dress out of the closet, and shut herself in the bathroom.
Roxie sighed and went on smoking, looking at the red lobster and the intricate spider web in the corner by the window, glistening in the late afternoon sun. Did she hate men? True, passion did seem like a quaint, distant feeling--she remembered lying in a field filled with Queen Anne's Lace somewhere with Don, when she was eighteen-- that had quieted down a bit by the time Jeremy was born a couple of years later. And then there was the long period of being parents, with diapers, dinner, and buying a bigger house and the mortgage on your mind, and sex twice a week, if you were lucky. That was love, she guessed. Maybe it would have gone on, if Maggie hadn't died, or if she'd knuckled under to Don and had another child. She'd never hated him, just found him impossible to live with at the end. And she felt nothing but indifference for most of the men she'd met here in the last three years, since she'd fled to Atlantic City-- they were nothing but hard-ons with blank faces. She remembered maybe two or three guys, a gentle, forlorn Arab who'd ended up here God knows how, working on a tanker, far from his wife and kids, and Emile, a croupier from Quebec who'd come back a few times. And, of course, Al. She remembered how soft his beard had been, how he'd been nervous and fumbled around a lot. She guessed this was the first time he'd actually paid for it. Still, he'd moved her a bit, if that was possible to do anymore.
She put down her pipe. As she closed her eyes, her children came back to haunt her. Jeremy appeared as she'd last seen him, in the baggy black clothes he'd taken to wearing before she moved out, looking at her sullenly, with those blond wisps of beard sprouting on his defiant chin. When she took a step toward him, he stomped off to his tree house, the happy refuge of his boyhood and now his lair, his marijuana den. She shouldn't have left him with Don. He was too authoritarian to handle a rebellious teenager, she was the one who'd always gotten along better with Jeremy. She should have taken him with her, rented an apartment somewhere in Leonia and found some kind of low-paying job, instead of abandoning him with his hormones and his guilt. She could still do that, why not? Then Maggie came back: as Roxie fell asleep, she chased her daughter in her pink coat around slot machines being played by women with yellow or blue hair, around poker tables occupied by grim men. She was aware of Eva going out, dressed in something black and poufy, and the door clicking, and then Maggie disappeared and Roxie herself was a girl again, riding in the green Buick with her parents and sister Claire, toward Margate and Lucie the Elephant, watching the asparagus ferns waving in the spring sunlight. She slept.
When she woke up, it was raining. She walked into Ed's at two, actually hungry for once, after a blissful sleep. The joint was jumping with the usual night crowd: insomniacs, prostitutes, and night-shift workers. This was home now; she'd even worked here for a while, when she'd arrived in Atlantic City three years before. Kathy and Trixie were at the counter: Kathy, older like her, a refugee from a bad marriage, Trixie, a round-faced, longhaired girl of twenty who'd come up from the south hoping to be an exotic dancer.
"Hey, honey," Trixie said, taking her pink-sequined bag off the stool beside her. "We wondered where you were."
"Sleeping, for once. Nine hours, imagine that!" Roxie slid onto the stool. "Now I've got to hustle. The usual," she said to Mollie, the waitress.
"There's two conventions in town," Kathy said. "The computer nerds and the farm guys."
"Farmers?" Roxie began to laugh, happy to see her friends.
"Oh, you know, they sell agricultural equipment in little towns in Iowa, one came from a place called, I swear this is true, What Cheer, and they're just so glad to get to the big city, away from their six kids and their dumpy little apple-pie baking wives, and they're just raring to go!" Kathy waved her lipstick. "I know, I've already been with three of them, and I'm going out for more."
"Great," Roxie said. "Is this child eating?" She nodded at Trixie, who was picking at the remains of a western omelet, speaking loudly over the noise of some factory workers down the counter, who were slapping each other on the back.
"I sure am. Look, peppers even!"
"Just keep it down, sweetie, or your insides will get all mixed up, and then you're in trouble."
"I'm not throwing up anymore," Trixie said.
"Good for you."
Mollie set down Roxie's fried eggs with American cheese and sausage on a hard roll, and she tucked into it.
"Don't look now, but here comes your doctor friend," Trixie said.
Roxie sighed. "He's not a doctor, he's a vet. And he's not my friend."
"I think it's so romantic," Trixie said. "Like that movie, with Julia Roberts… He looks sad."
"He doesn't either," Roxie said. "He's just tired, 'cause he can't sleep."
"Like hell." Trixie slid off her stool, grinning. "I gotta go work."
"Don't go." But the next thing Roxie knew, she was gone, and Al was sliding his big frame between her and Kathy. He wore a wet navy-blue pea jacket, and his longish dark blond hair was dotted with raindrops, which dripped down his forehead.
"Good morning, ladies." He turned first to Kathy, but then his smile rested on her.
We're not ladies, Roxie wanted to say, but she just ate her sausage. "Hi."
"Hello and goodbye," Kathy said. "No offense, but I gotta make hay while the
tractor guys are in town. Make hay while the moon shines." She went off laughing at her own joke.
"You were in a hurry today," Al said, reading the menu.
"Yeah. I had something on my mind."
"How're you doing?" he asked, as he put down the menu.
"All right. Not bad."
"You look better. You've gained a little weight, haven't you?"
"Maybe. A few pounds. Was I thin?"
"Yeah, that happens, you know, with crack."
"How would you know?"
"My son got into it last year."
"You have a son?"
He nodded. "He's with his mother. We're divorced."
"You are, too, right? Divorced?"
She nodded. She wished that he'd stop studying her, hunched over, with his blue eyes, and his little beard and moustache, and that look of concern that made her feel she was one of his sick animals. "Don't worry about me, OK?"
"It's hard not to. You hear things."
"A cop was in with his dog this evening and I heard him talking on his cell. Something's going on in town, something bad. I couldn't hear."
She shrugged, and started to put on her jacket.
"Don't go." He put his hand on her arm. "Come on. I'll pay you. Just stay here and talk to me."
"You're going to pay me four hundred and fifty dollars to talk?"
He laughed. "Well, I don't have that much. But I'll give you one-fifty for an hour of your time. Isn't that what you make?"
"You're crazy." But she took her jacket half way off while he ordered his eggs and hash browns.
"I'm worried about you. You're not from this life."
"Nobody is. You don't hear many little girls saying they want to be a prostitute when they grow up, do you?"
"Where'd you say you're from?" he asked, stroking his little beard. "Teaneck, or one of those nice places?"
"I don't want to talk about that. But yeah, I lived in a nice house with four bedrooms and trees outside. Even a tree house, which my ex built for our son." She smiled.
"Why don't you get a real job?"
"It's really simple," (you idiot, she thought). "No skills. Zero. I got married at nineteen. Waited tables for a while, right here, when I first came, but couldn't make it."
Couldn't support your habit, she heard him thinking as he nodded his head.
Mollie brought his food, but he didn't look at it. "Why don't you come and work for me? I could use another assistant."
She began to laugh.
"You like animals?"
She made a face, remembering Jeremy's nasty ferret, and Maggie's guinea pigs, and the stray cat they'd adopted that had a penchant for pooping under the bookshelf in the living room. "Not particularly."
"Animals are soothing. You might be surprised. They're more fun than most people."
They sat for a while, smiling, while people walked in and out, and the old cash register that Ed still used rang up sales, and Mollie called out "Hold the potatoes!" A tall black transvestite in a shiny red coat and fishnet stockings passed on his/her way out, and Al said: "Hi, Lily."
After Lily had clicked away in high heels, Roxie said: "For such a straight-arrow guy, you have funny friends."
Al smiled. "He has a dog. I meet all kinds of people."
"What would you pay me for my non-skills?" she asked.
He shrugged. "A couple thousand a month? Couldn't do much better than that."
"That's very nice, but that's about what I make in a week. So, you see the problem."
"And now," she said, sliding off the stool. "I've got to go. Stop trying to save me. I'm too… raw."
She walked to the cash register and paid. "How you, honey?" shaggy Ed asked, squeezing her hand.
"OK," she said, through tears.
She knew Al was following her, dropping change on the floor.
Outside, she stood in the rain, leaning against the building, making her face into the mask she needed for the now-dwindling night. In a few seconds, he stood beside her.
"What do you mean, raw? What happened?"
"Listen, I'm going to tell you once, because I want you to leave me alone. My daughter died, in an accident, and then my son, who was the nicest kid you'd ever want to meet, turned into this awful teenager, stayed in his room playing video games, smoking pot, wouldn't talk to anyone…"
"That's awful." Al placed his big hand on her arm.
"Yeah." She blinked back the tears. "The shrink said he felt guilty for his sister's death. Then, my husband wants to have another child, when I haven't gotten over the two I have… had. So, I had an abortion, and he threw me out. Well, more or less. He made it so I had to leave. So, you see, I'm not free. There's too much baggage, too much crap."
"You can still start over. I have, we all do."
She faced him for a moment, then shook off his hand. "No, not me."
Just then a black Nissan drew up to the curb. Al winced, but she'd opened the car door and gotten in before he could say anything. The driver was an average-looking john in a leather jacket with a moustache and slicked-back dark hair. Some sort of shiny religious medallion hung from the rearview mirror.
"One-fifty," she said, and the guy nodded and pulled out into traffic. In spite of herself, she turned around and looked back at Al, who was standing there in the rain looking after her, under Ed's flashing red sign.
When they'd driven along for a block or so, the man suddenly turned and looked at her. "Have a fight with your pimp?" He had a long, skinny face that reminded her of her son's ferret.
"What? Oh, he's not my pimp."
"You work alone?"
"Better that way, I guess. You get to keep the whole thing."
She tried to relax, as they drove along.
"Nice weather," he said, in a reassuring tone of voice.
"Where are we going?"
After a couple of blocks, he threw a little dark velveteen bag toward her that clinked as it hit her lap.
"What is it?"
She pulled the drawstring. Inside, she saw the glint of coins. She took one out and saw that it was a silver dollar.
"Count them. There are thirty in all."
"I don't get it."
He smiled. "Think about it."
Thirty silver dollars. She began to understand.
Then he snarled: "You Judas whore."
When he slowed for the next light, she lunged for the door. She felt something hard and cold pressing into her back and stopped.
"You try that again, and this is what you'll get." His friendly voice had turned hard and menacing.
Turning, she saw the pistol, leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes.
"Do you know what day this is?"
She shook her head.
"This is the day the Lord died for our sins, and you're going to fornicate for a hundred and fifty pieces of silver? It's like the moneylenders in the temple, all over again. And you know what Jesus did to them?"
"He threw them out, because they didn't know any better then. But now, it's two thousand years later, and people should know better, but they're still doing it, still profaning the temple and the day of the Lord. And He's angry…"
She looked around the shiny, wet street, looking for a cop, but they were all down by the boardwalk. There was hardly anyone around on Pacific Avenue, just a few drunks slumped in doorways, and a distant group of college kids singing as they crossed the street with jackets over their heads.
"Just let me go. I'll go home, honestly."
"Now you're sorry, aren't you, for your filthy life? Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord…"
Is mine, is mine, echoed in her head as the road went past the motels on the edge of town where she still hoped he might stop, then wound through flat marshland. Now it seemed that that they were close to the ocean again; a damp brackish smell came through the crack in her window. They started down a road that led to a grim, deserted area where an old oil refinery used to be. After a while, she saw a chain link fence where the road seemed to end. But the man started to hum and sing something weird under his breath, then abruptly turned down an unpaved bumpy road.
"…what a friend we have in Jee-sus… sins and griefs to bear."
I am going to die, she thought, clenching her sweaty hands.
Suddenly, the veil of crack, with which she had numbed her feelings for three years now, fell away, and the night was etched with beauty: a rim of new moon pierced the opaque foggy sky, and she thought of Al trying to make an honest woman of her a few minutes before, and her lost children. She tried to pray, but all she could remember was, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." And then she heard Jeremy saying grace in the backyard one evening when he was ten and Maggie was three. It was summer, the summer before she died, and they were about to eat hamburgers. Maggie was smiling up at Roxie through her clasped fingers. "For what we are about to receive, make us ever grateful," Jeremy intoned solemnly, and Roxie repeated it now, seeing the evening shadows of August fall over Maggie's grin.
Suddenly, the man jammed on the brakes, throwing her against the dashboard. "What the fuck…?"
She opened her eyes, saw the parked car in front of them. She flung the door open and fell out, screaming, into the high, wet weeds. She flattened herself in the spiky grass. Lights flared on in the other car. The car she'd been riding in screeched into reverse and backed off down the road. Voices were muttering, doors slammed. Finally, a husky young man in a dark hoodie and disheveled clothes appeared above her.
"Ma'am, are you hurt? Can we help you?"
"Yes," she sobbed. "I'm OK, but I need your help. Please."
He pulled her up, walked her to his car, and pulled up the back seat of the SUV. As he helped her in, she saw a startled girl's pretty face looking around at her from the passenger seat.
"Where can we take you?" the young man asked.
"To the City. If it's not too much trouble."
"Not at all. We're from Wildwood, but it's not that far."
They asked no questions, seemed to understand that she'd been kidnapped and that the circumstances didn't matter. It was clear that they'd sought out that awful spot to be alone together, that they'd been making out, making love, or whatever kids called it today. The murmur of conversation that drifted back to her told her that the boy had just come home from college for the Easter weekend, that the girl was out way past her curfew and was in deep shit. Maybe, the boy said, we can tell them that we had to help the lady. They wouldn't believe it, she said. And yet, they were still taking her home.
Roxie leaned back in the comfortable seat, staring at the signs of ordinary life on the other side of the backseat: the boy's laundry bag, his running shoes and backpack. Then they were back on the highway, with the lights of Atlantic City glimmering in the distance. Suddenly, she was so tired that she couldn't keep her eyes open. When she closed them, she remembered Al sitting in the diner, his blue scrubs showing under his pea coat, offering her a job. A nine to five job, like normal people, even if it paid peanuts. Of course, first she would have to go in the hospital to get clean, that was expensive, but Al would help her, wouldn't he?
Al. She smiled as she fell asleep. He smelled of drooling dogs, antiseptic, and some sort of minty aftershave. It wasn't such a bad smell.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Paula Paige. All rights reserved.