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:: Rae's Downtown Blues : Gail Shepherd ::
Late night, and Rae is hunkered down feeding Jujubees into the mouth of the girl of the moment. $2.99 All Seats All Shows. Tonight's carnival flickers convincingly a couple of stories above their aching necks; Rae likes to sit close. This is the part where the hammy cop takes the vixen by the scruff of her foxtail collar, and practically shouts, You know where he is. You played me for a fool too long, lady.

The babe stares back at him, licking her lips.

Her lips are the size and texture of a pair of pricey velour love seats. You could crawl between them.

This would be the story of Rae's life except she's a big dyke with her Mama's Vietnamese eyes and her black Daddy's Boyz-in-the-Hood physique. Not a scrawny whiteman in a too-big suit and a felt fedora. "You played me for a fool too long, lady," Rae says, under her breath.

The girl next to her inclines, not ungluing her eyes from the screen, and says, "What, honey?"

Rae raises her voice, repeats the phrase. A kid behind them kicks the seat. "Shaddup," he says, mouth full of popcorn.

Rae slides a sidelong glance at Bess: If Bess were two inches taller and a little more willing she'd be the girl of Rae's dreams. As it is, nothing will come of it. Or something will come of it for a little while, and then nothing. Like this picture. Where the cop almost gets the vixen but she double crosses him one time too many; she can't stop herself, mouth spilling lies like toads from the lips of a hexed princess. But you can see she wants him. You can see that underneath the foxtails and the betrayals, if you peeled the woman down, she'd have a heart. Bess takes Rae's hand, groping the lace edge of her Wonderbra, and puts it back on the armrest between them.

Rae removes the hand from the armrest and puts it in her own pocket, feels for the blue pills, and pretending to yawn, pops one under her tongue. A jump on tranquility, for the long night of pleading and scuffling. Or, she could just forget it.

Out in the street afterwards Rae is listening with one ear to Bess while she dissects her forthcoming plans for the evening into tiny bite-size wedges. Rae already knows that Bess does this with everything; she's watched her make mincemeat of a decent steak dinner and has listened to her analyze her last three relationships until nothing is left of the years but an innocence unravelling at the seams, like an old pillow. As for the whole that makes up a life, Bess has only bits and parts that don't seem to fit together, don't even seem to come from the same machine.

"I don't want to spend my whole night looking at dick," Bess says, putting on her best cityslicker drawl. "If I go uptown with those queens I'm surely gonna end up at some foam party."

"Well stick around, then," Rae says. "We'll do something."

It's eleven o'clock and the neon signs up and down the avenue are sizzling through a low fog. Bits of garbage swirl here and there in miniature vortices -- cigarette papers, strips of newsprint, old ticket stubs -- where the updraft between buildings has coalesced into funnels of air.

Rae grew up here, swept around and around in these same small tornadoes. Two blocks east, at the House of Joy, her mother hustled Japanese tourists out of their Yen and German businessmen out of their Deutschmarks without ever giving them a taste of the lotus flower. They called her "Oriental Suzie", to distinguish her from the all-American Susie from the suburbs who was just passing through on her way to a law degree. She was friends with the whole vice squad and they were the ones that got the blowjobs and she never spent a day in jail.

Rae's father was a big Vietnam vet with a weird nostalgia for the country that stole his soul. He stayed seven years with Rae and Oriental Suzie and then disappeared, walking away into his own emptiness. Rae has his picture, though. She has his picture in her hip pocket, along with four more blue pills wrapped inside an empty silverfoil condom package, and twenty-two wadded up dollars. The pills were exchanged for a favor she did someone. She doesn't want to think about that.

You know where he is. You played me for a fool too long.

A red neon eye winks at them through the smoke and glitter. Shadows part around them as they walk, everything without edges or angles. The whole world is overlaid with soft blankets, muffling the sirens and the calls of the bouncers leaning in the doors of clubs and the swish-swish of tires on the asphalt. The night is hot and dark and blue-tinged and silent, like looking up at the world from the bottom of a lake. And at the bottom of the lake, too, the drowned bloodshot eye of a dead man.

The eye keeps winking, and Rae can make out the words below it now, "Madame Varoushka's Fortune Telling."


They stop in front of the bead-curtained window. A plastic hand in the window is holding a dusty crystal ball with a crack through the center. The fingernails of the plastic hand are painted purple. Bess says, "Let's go see if I'm going to the foam party tonight, or if I'm hanging with you."

Rae is up for that. Usually she prefers to know as little as she can get away with. But tonight she feels adventurous, as if she were setting out on a road trip with no clear destination.

The window reflects her handsome face, her Daddy's mouth, her Mama's evil eyes. Hers is a mouth made for the love of women; she's been told that. She likes to use it to take their breath away.

Maybe if Bess would let herself be kissed she'd sink too, but Rae has an inkling she has another girl in another part of town she probably calls "Daddy." With those big green eyes. Bess wants to be wooed and plied with champagne and cherries, but all Rae has at home in the fridge is an open bottle of malt liquor. No cherries.

Love is always an exchange. You put your money on the table and the girl in the spandex bikini hops up in your lap, a dollar a minute. Just long enough you can smell the musk oil in her hair, just long enough that her hot breath bleeds into you. Or love is a blend of compatible neuroses. Who said that? Rae's hands and her pockets and her heart feel even emptier than usual. They are full of pin-dot holes, and love drains through them like water through a sieve.

Bess grabs Rae's arm and pulls her in through the open door and they are in a tiny little foyer, like a room in a doll's house. There are travel posters with Russian writing and an old jukebox playing Willie Nelson. Nobody home except a stuffed parrot with red eyes that light up every few seconds. The parrot's beak opens and it squawks, "Nevermore."

Wasn't that supposed to be a raven? They stand around, ill at ease, not knowing what to do with their hands. Bess is messing around in her purse, shifting from foot to foot. Rae says, "Maybe Madame Varoushka is otherwise engaged."

But that's when the lady in question pokes her head around the corner. Rae had imagined someone going to seed, maybe a filterless cigarette dangling from a mouth crazily smeared with red lipstick, and a turban. There had to be a turban. But this one looks like a sorority girl, maybe twenty-six years old. She has cornsilk blond hair. She's wearing a linen sheath in a shade of dusty rose. Her black low-heeled pumps match a pair of crisp wrist-length gloves beaded with dark sequins.

"Well hey there, lovebirds," says Madame Varoushka. "Come on back here a minute. I just have to. . ." and the rest of the words are lost and garbled. Madame Varoushka has a cellphone wedged between chin and shoulder. She is holding a small dog in the crook of her arm, trying to force feed it something by prying its jaws open with her fingers. The dog looks angry and rumpled.

They follow her rose-sheathed, heartshaped rump into another, larger parlor. Madame Varoushka throws herself down in an overstuffed chair, and says into the phone, "There's sweet talk and sweet talk and it's all cheap, lover. If I wanted to dance by myself I would have learned Flamenco."

Rae watches her cross and recross her long legs.

Madame Varoushka says, "This isn't rocket science. Girl meets girl. Girl loses girl. It's a plot as old as The Well of Loneliness, hon. Don't take this the wrong way, but you can't even get past first base. If I wanted to examine my conscience every minute I'd be doing my therapist. God knows she's cute enough."

Madame Varoushka's minuscule dog has escaped her stranglehold and has squatted to pee on the cover of a well-thumbed Vogue magazine on the floor by her feet. Madame Varoushka sees this, raises her eyebrows, and points significantly at Bess, then at the dog. Covering the phone with one hand she says, "Sweetheart, will you do something with that dog?"

She says this as though she and Bess are the oldest and best of friends.

Bess is too surprised by this to do anything but take the dog's pink leather leash. The dog capers joyfully ahead, pulling Bess out after.

"Basta!" says Madame Varoushka, and clicks off the phone. "And you, you loveworn hunk of inscrutable agonies," she says now, looking at Rae, "You look like you could use a drink."

She pours from a bottle of whiskey, warm, into two battered glasses. "Salut!"

Then, "How much have you got on you?"

Rae says, "What?"

"Dinero, baksheesh, hard cash, honey. What's burning a hole in your pocket?"

"Um," says Rae.

Madame Varoushka closes her eyes. A pretty frown creases the creaseless forehead. "I see many bills," she says, "of unfortunately small denomination."

Rae says, "I think maybe twenty dollars."

"Twenty two," says Madame. "And between you and me, that'll buy your friend a one-way ticket out of your life. Listen."

Madame Varoushka leans forward and says, very straight, "You come back and see me. Alone next time. And it'll cost you a hundred. But leave the pills at home."


The girl in Rae's office is fifteen and her skinny arms and legs stick out at odd angles. When she talks she waves her hands around, and she never looks Rae straight in the eye. Rae notices that a hank of her dyed purple hair sticks straight up from the back of her head, like Alfalfa in the old kid's comedy show. What was that show? Little Rascals. Rae and her dad used to watch re-runs on Saturday mornings. There was a kid named Spanky and a dog with a black circle around one eye. They were always in trouble.

The girl says, "If I don't have sex with a chick soon I'm gonna explode."

Rae studies the tattoo on the girl's wrist. It depicts what looks like a pair of snakes in the act of coitus. Rae says, "Do you talk to your friends about how you're feeling?"

The girl barks with what is meant to be a hollow laugh. "My friends are nerds," she says. "They act like they never heard of sex." The girl pauses, thoughtful. "Or maybe they heard of it, but they don't believe in it. Like UFOs."

Rae has heard this same story, in slightly altered form, maybe fifty times since she took a part-time job at the community center. Her job is to listen to kids talk about their hateful parents and their repressed rage. They are overwhelmed with ugly and beautiful feelings that they can't untangle.

"Do you know any other gay kids?" Rae says.

"Nobody knows what they are," says the girl. "All the little dykes are fucking all the little fags. And the whole time they're knocking themselves out wondering why they don't feel anything. There's no justice."

The girl starts crying, suddenly. Tears track mascara down her hollow cheeks. "I just wanna die," she says. "I'm sick of worrying about it."

Rae gives the girl a flyer about a gay youth group that meets on Thursday nights. The youth group is planning a '40s Swing Dancing Night. They're looking for volunteers.

On her way out Rae stops at the front desk where the pretty blond psychologist is filling out referral forms. This one is out of my league, Rae thinks, but no harm in looking. The blond psychologist startles; she didn't know Rae was there. When she sees Rae she looks disoriented, as if she is waking from a bad dream. Rae says, gently, "You work too hard."

The psychologist smiles a very faraway smile, and bends her head back to her papers. Her fine hair like a halo of light.

If you were mine I'd hold you like an angel, Rae thinks. And walks out the door into the rain.


Eighty-eight, eighty-nine, ninety. The king is in the counting house, counting out her money. And the queen is in her parlor, down on Lester Street under the winking neon eye, no doubt eating bread and honey. Rae pulls the change jar from the top shelf of her closet and starts rolling quarters. Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred. This is almost more money than Rae has ever managed to pull together in her whole life. No, not true. She once saved up a buck fifty for a leather jacket, swiped by a girl she'd spent only one night with. Rae has wasted a good bit of time weighing the value of the leather jacket against twelve extravagant hours immersed between the thighs of Charlotte, a French exchange student who apparently spoke only five words of English: "more", "harder", "faster", "yes," and "good." Rae remembers how the girl trilled her r's when she said "harrrderrr." OK, mais ou est le veston en cuir?

Rae slopes mournfully over to the fridge and takes a swig of flat malt liquor, the rolled change heavy in her pocket.

She hates to feel so desperate.

What is the difference between herself and the kids at the community center? A fine line, transparent as a long blond hair. She hasn't gotten laid in six months. She's twenty-five years old and she can count on the fingers of one hand the number of satisfying sexual encounters she's had. Where there was, if not love, at least affection and spontaneity and a certain good humor. Love, she doesn't even hope for. And that's the real difference between herself and the kids.

Outside her window, the rain has stopped, and the moon is rising over the utility poles and the antennas. It's a big fat moon, the color of a blood orange. As it rises, it will become paler and smaller, and it will hang suspended for some time between the banks of clouds which are now rolling away to the south, and then it will darken further and disappear around the crest of this aching world.

And that is how it is.

Out on the street there's a freshness in the air that Rae can sense between the exhaust fumes. A lighted bus moves by on its undeviating track, and the faces that stare out at her from the passing windows look lonely. At the corner where there used to be a little park with a damaged fountain, someone is putting up another seven-story high rise. The steel girders groan in the moonlight. Nous n'irons plus au bois. Les laurons sont coupees. Her mom used to sing to her in French. Sometimes.

No more walks in the woods. The laurels are all chopped down.

She wishes she had remembered to take one of the blue pills before she left the apartment.

When she gets to Madame Varoushka's she sits down in the dollhouse lobby and counts the seconds between the stuffed parrot's Nevermores. After a while a straight couple comes out holding hands and giggling. The woman leans into the man's shoulder and says, sotto voice, "You never told me you had circus fantasies!" They hang around in the lobby for no reason, licking each others faces and snuffling, happy as puppies. "Take it on home," Rae thinks. "There's no audience for that kinda business here."

"You!" says Madame Varoushka, who has materialized in the gloaming. She is wearing leopard spandex tights. "I was wondering where you'd got to." Madame Varoushka's little dog has hopped up in Rae's lap. Rae looks at the dog. It is crawling with fleas. Madame Varoushka says to the straight couple, "All right you two, you got your money's worth." She beckons Rae to follow her.

The parlor is dimmer and more depressing than Rae remembers it. A moth-eaten paisley scarf draped over a lamp, a wooden table, and three overstuffed chairs spitting up foam and cotton batting. In the midst of this gloom Madame Varoushka glitters like a new copper penny tossed into a gutter. Her hair and skin are copper, too, in the red light of the lamp.

"First things first," she says. "Let's get the finances out of the way so we can relax and enjoy ourselves."

Rae digs into her pocket and pulls out the embarrassing wad of bills, the rolls of coins. She lays these on the table between them.

Madame Varoushka spends a long time counting, straightening out the bills with the palm of her hand and turning them to face in the same direction. She empties out the rolls and stacks the quarters in careful columns. "What'd you do, break open your piggy bank?"

"It's my mad money," Rae says.

"Hmph," says Madame. And then, "I'm going to read your cards. Afterwards we can talk."

Is that all there is? This is the kind of thing Rae's mom used to do, only she'd do it wearing pasties and a g-string. Oriental Suzie would recline on a bean-bag chair in a tiny cubicle, half naked, while strange men poured out their troubles at a hundred bucks an hour. The troubles were always the same: loneliness, heartbreak, misunderstandings. Sometimes they'd jerk off into a handful of Kleenex. The thought of it makes Rae feel like crying.

Madame Varoushka has laid out the cards and she is turning them over, one by one. The pictures on the cards are surreal, with their meanings written in Spanish.

"El Diablo," says Madame. The card shows a lion-headed man/woman holding a scepter topped by a Monarch butterfly. Hands are pushing the figure off the brink of a cliff. A broken horn sprouts from the figure's right knee.

"The Devil," says Madame. "Fear through bondage." She looks at Rae with distant curiosity. "That's a fancy way of saying you've got some body problems. Let me guess," Madame Varoushka says, closing her eyes and putting her fingers to her temples in a fakey trance. "Sometimes when you make love you feel dirty. You're ashamed of how you feel and of what you do, what you want to do."

Rae feels her face going hot. Madame Varoushka opens her brown eyes and looks at Rae.

"But guess what else," Madame says. "You don't even admit this. You think you're the most sexually liberated girl on the planet, a little bit unlucky, is all, right? Otherwise, you're just having a ball."

Madame Varoushka rushes on. Queen of Swords. Two of Cups. Ten of Wands. You'll be free when you face your essential darkness. Your animal. What is the face of your animal? Frustration and isolation. Trying to prove yourself to your father-god. When Psyche looks into the sleeping face of Cupid she betrays herself. This is a state of oppression. The Empress. Your mother, her lost body.

Rae sits passively, letting the words slide over her.

The psychic gathers up the cards, gold-leaf edges glittering in the rosy lamplight.

Madame Varoushka leans back in her chair. Her upper lip is beaded with sweat. "So?" she says after a few minutes.

"Why did you tell me to come back here?" Rae says.

"Girl, you needed to meet your destiny."

"And you needed the hundred bucks."

"This goes without saying," says Madame Varoushka. "Love is a lot, but money is everything." A pause. "As the French say. Your mother is French?"

"Vietnamese, but she speaks it."

Madame Varoushka taps a tapered coral fingernail on the table. "And where is she now?"

"Who knows?" The image of Rae's mother rises unbidden to her consciousness. Turning a spoonful of opium over a slow flame. Her rapt expression.

"You know the old blues song? Since you left me Mama, I ain't even got no place to call my own," Madame Varoushka sings in perfect tempo. "Blackie Jordan. 1930s. Arrested a couple of times for beating up her little girl lover." Then, "You ever done that?"

Rae says, "I never had a girl long enough to have time for it."

Still shuffling the cards. She pulls one out and flips it towards Rae. "You've got violence in you," Madame Varoushka says.

"People pay you for this," Rae turns the card over. It's the card of The Fool.

"There's a sucker born every minute," says Madame Varoushka.


Rae walks past where the House of Joy used to be on her way home. The building has been turned into a flophouse for transients, but the big white hearts on the door are still there, underneath a sign that now says, "Hotel Mediterranean." And beneath that, a shingle: Rooms $25. Vacancy.

Vacancy. Hotel Mediterranean. Like a pretty whitewashed hostel overlooking the sea in the south of France. You look out your window over the naked children running on the beach. And into the empty and roiling blue of the ocean, the little white sails on the horizon.

Rae looks up into the lit open window of a second floor bedroom. A thin black man is swaying back and forth, staring out into the street at nothing, and the sound of a blues tune emanates from some radio, somewhere. The drawled notes of a bass guitar. Since you left me, Mama. A vacancy in the heart.

Somewhere in the distance, the sound of drums. Or thunder.

The thin man sees Rae and leans out the window. He calls, "Baby, I got somethin' you want!"

Rae calls back, "I don't think so."

"Lookee lookee," he says. "You look to be from Hawaii or Arabia or someplace. Whyn't you come on up here, precious? Good lookin' big ol' thing." And then he says, again, "I got somethin' you want!"

In a minute, Rae thinks, he's gonna flash her with his scrawny dick. Is that what she wants? Maybe she just wants to lie down and get done, for once, not have to work so hard at it. Just relax. Just relax, baby.

Who was it said that to her, so many years ago?

The thin black man has gold teeth. Rae hesitates, looking up at him. He is an abandoned boat, set adrift in a world of strangers. Since you left me Mama, I ain't even got no place to call my own. So many of us. And the child you once were, vanished, swept away, too, in a careless and indifferent sea.

I wonder where my old black Daddy is now, Rae thinks.

And turns her back on the Hotel Mediterranean, formerly the House of Joy, and starts downhill again.


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