old photos of Eulies I keep in the panty drawer, wrapped in a pair of granny
pants so old and stained no oned dare touch them. Not that anyoned
be going in my panty drawer -- its a rare occasion I go in there myself.
The photos remain in
the original envelopes, with the name of the old address scrawled on the front
in Eulies half-hearted chicken scratch, ink slightly smudged, grease spotted,
fingerprinted, but inside, the photos themselves -- flawless. Just once in a very
great while, I take them out, spread them over the bed, and examine with the cold,
steady eye of an entomologist. Calculate what theyd fetch. Kiddie porns
good money. But then, they could go the other way. I envision them in Sight,
the other end of the narrow black tunnel, I am sealed under the lens. Gently sleeping,
gently breathing, chest fluttering: a bony birdcage, skin taut, drawn tight at
sharp corners of collarbones, elbows, ribs, and hips. Scrawny is the word. Yet
I am almost translucent. The whole room smells of peanut butter, from the jar
I snuck to bed.
shutter closes briefly, triggers back, and I wake. But slowly. The eye watches,
a finger poised. This is the way that I wake. Watched. A lock of hair lashed across
the cheek like spilled ink. Glistening, moist. My mouth catches it sideways and
begins to gnaw; the eyes slit. Click. Fists. Mash my face into the mattress, squirming
like a dog. But Ive already seen her
eye closes; the camera retreats. Then it is just Eulie. Barefoot, berry-brown,
in her same blue kerchief.
takes only a quarter hour to pack. Theres not much to the room, besides
the furniture. We go in Eulies steel blue 64 Buick Skylark, David
comes he drives a pickup loaded up with several types of ladders, dozens of buckets,
dirty shovels and trowels. The far end of the seat up front is a clutter of misassembled
toolkits. This pickup is at least a decade old, splattered with paint, proclaims
FORD in big white block letters across the back. Most days he comes alone. He
is generally silent, a peripheral figure that always seems to be present, even
when he isnt, and keeps to the edges of the house, never quite close or
far. He is watchful, and smokes cigarettes. He cannot be made to play.
David that is David alone is the one I like. He shows me how to groom the horses.
Carries me on his back, arms secure under the knees. He doesnt mind that
my feet dangle, banging him about the hips, arms wrapped over his shoulders and
around his chest. Though surely I am suffocating.
smell of him is fusty, especially if hes been at the levee. The back of
his neck creases and folds like an elephant trunk as he glances up at the sky
to assess the time, smooths out like butter under knife when his face turns down.
We ride together, me before him in the saddle, gripping the pommel, through the
fields, and the cane drags against our legs, heavy as waves.
is a different story. Her eyes are the color of the river -- gray-green -- perfectly
symmetrical, with low, slow, sleepy lids. More often than not, there is only one
river-colored eye. The other, clear, stripped of iris and pupil, zooms, retreats,
from a long black socket in a small black case, and clicks when it blinks. Sometimes
it flashes a wink of starlight, or whirrs and purrs like a happy cat. When Eulie
is resting her extra eye, it hangs from a strap across her shoulder and under
one breast, resting on her broad hip, and its eyelid is a black plastic patch
that Eulie pops in and out with her fingers.
eye like that cannot be trusted.
the Buick starts slowly down the oyster-shell driveway, Eulie twists around in
her seat to watch the house disappear through the trees.
road to Baton Rouge is through flat country, past dun bayous and stands of cow
oak silvery in the early light. The mist has only just cleared and the air is
cool. Eulie rolls down the window and rests her hand on the edge of the door,
cupping the wind in her palm.
circle the morning sky, drifting low, just over the treetops. Wheeling in a lazy
rhythm, they descend in formation, sliding down on oily dark wings, knotty skulls
in a forward crook.
she lights a cigarette, the last in the pack.
the houses start to crop up, just past the first signs to town, David switches
on the AM, to pick up the Baton Rouge stations.
Be my be
my little --
Specter and the smoke from Eulies Virginia Slim. Thats the last thing
I remember before Baton Rouge and all the rest of it.
the Vieux Carre. Carnival over. Stuff clogs the gutters. The boulevards fairly
steam, glittering with doubloons between street lamps where the light barely touches,
and the strains of a tango ballad from an anonymous reach. This night tastes of
walk it eyes closed, the usual route. The first two blocks down Chartres, toward
the crush of zydeco bars and market, then at the café, the sugary scent of
beignets, a right, and past the jasmine courtyard and a right again to pass the
little banana garden. Six blocks further a graveyard crowned with azaleas and
incense, next the praline shop and the twin tap dancers beating out a sidewalk
rhythm, whistling hey girl!, a turn then again on a narrow residential
street, and Im three minutes from something.
part of my being is honed in, hunkered down and focused on the hunger, the pain
of vacancy. I look at my hands. Nails crusted black, broken, tissue thin. Palms
skinned. These are my hands. But the shock is sluggish, slow to come.
benign the night is, the night I realize I am going to die. Maybe a different
turn to the wind, a few more stars or a few less. But no human being could see
proposes an arrangement. Materialized from nowhere, from a titty bar or an oyster
bar or Antoines, I dont know what -- he has a suspiciously bland,
cultivated Midwestern anonymity. A nose pushing bulbously from a thick clammy
layer of slightly moist skin. He is sweating. Nervous. And he should be. Sick
fuck. But I do it, and in the end its not so spectacular. Five minutes and
its over, hes so excited, and for 300 seconds, 3,740 francs. Five
hundred, U.S. He scribbles the name of a bank where I can change the money. A
Frenchman -- his English is flawless. He sounds to be pure Chicago.
long ago was that? I can still hear him, the tricky idioms I didnt get,
the double entendres that only now I recognize for clever. My first lover.
Nightly now I tread
the rubber waffle-weave mat, fallen ice cubes crunching underfoot. Safe. Tiers
of glass bottles soar clear up the wall, contents shimmering in the footlights.
Bombay Sapphire, Tanquery Ten. Vox. A positive shrine to liquor.
deep, slick expanse of mahogany separates my person from all. I can ignore them,
and do so. I cant stand the way they push up to the bar, hunching up to
fit, waving twenties. Hey. You. Kamikaze.
off, I think. Ill see you when I see you. Its a professional
hazard, the megalomania. Weekends theres two of us working the territory,
and as we bustle hither and thither, doling out the liquor, the air is thick with
schadenfreude, comradery. Delicious silent spite. I wouldnt recognize any
of them in full daylight, colleagues and customers alike. No matter. By nights
end Ill have pulled down two hundred in tips, at least. The beauty of tending
in the Vieux Carre. Two months and Im flush. Three and the debts gone
completely. A few more weeks and Ill be set to go for that tour of the Hawaiian
islands Ive been planning since forever. I can practically taste the pina
colada. Last week the brochures came in the mail from the Princeville Resort,
so slick they almost fell out of my hands when I took them from the envelope.
A big photo spread of the beachfront property. I never thought the ocean could
look so blue as that.
I could just stop thinking about Eulie and the usual. The goddamn photos in my
panty drawer. Sell them and be done with it, I say. Fresh start, new leaf, and
et cetera. But its not happening.
its that girl thats been hanging around lately, working the bar, trying
to be subtle. Shes got Eulies way of looking at you sideways, drinking
you up when she thinks you dont see -- even that kind of eye, the color
of a river not moving fast enough. Stagnating. Not getting much clientele, either,
from the looks of things. The college boys who come around here want a clean lay,
or a quick trip to the titty bars with their frat brothers where they can get
themselves all worked up and then go home and finish the job in the privacy of
their Hilton bathrooms. Street whores are a little much for that kind of kid.
I could tell her where
to go. If I wanted to, if I cared. I just wish shed eat something. Its
the sight of those skinny little elbows that gets to me, propped up on my bar
where everytime I go to squirt a tonic from the well I have to look. Finally,
after a few days, I order her a hamburger on the house at last call.
thanks," she says. "Whats this for?"
shrug. "They had it left over."
eats, never taking her eyes off her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Shes
a weird kid. Hair bleach blonde, and not much of it, wisping all over the place,
skinny shoulders drawn up tight, fingers clenched around the burger like it might
fly away. A big dollop of ketchup drops off the backside of the burger, straight
onto her white, faux fur micromini.
she says, and, still hanging onto the burger, makes for the bathroom.
the owner, says to me, "I want that whore outta here. Were not that kind
do you want me to do about it?"
a woman. You say something."
she leaves anyway, before I can kick her out, on account of the ketchup. "Gotta
change," she says. "See you later." She sounds as if weve made an appointment.
dont even know why Im surprised to find her waiting outside when I
close up. Its three in the morning and all I can think about is scrambled
eggs. Shes smoking, leaning cross-legged against the dumpster, trying to
look casual, sexy, something. And has changed.
do you want?" I say.
you were so nice to me in there I just wanted to thank you. Fix you breakfast
you want. Grits? Bacon? I make a killer breakfast."
this her line? Breakfast? But I say, sure, yes, make me breakfast. I live right
around the corner.
the car, I start to get nervous, the way she watches. My heart is pounding all
over the place.
I say. "Dont look at me, all right?"
your problem? Do girls make you edgy?"
hell, what is this? I have no control, nothing. Its like being sucked into
a black hole, all my limbs going numb and useless in the excess of gravity. Like
being seven all over again. She lights a cigarette and laughs. Her name is Chancee,
she says. Its French for lucky.
in the apartment, there is no preamble, her halter off before I can shut the door.
At me like a moth, fluttering up, trying to be pretty, those eyes in the dark
all pupils. Cornered, Im useless. I know nothing but men, weight, insistence.
Her lightness terrifies. She circles me like the two dozen moons of Jupiter, whispering
what she thinks to be filthy delights. Pries at me, making me naked. In the end,
I do nothing. I lie down on the carpet and let her go about it. I study the geography
of my popcorn ceiling. At the end I ask how much.
hundred. Hawaii money.
she sleeps. Apparently she plans to stay the night on my couch. Did we agree to
this? I cant remember. I go through her wallet, find the drivers license.
Nineteen. Her name really is Chancee. Ridiculous. Whod call a kid lucky?
the zippered compartment theres exactly three dollars and forty-nine cents,
mostly in pennies. It takes me ten minutes to count it out.
I find the camera, the one Eulie sent me for my tenth birthday. By then I was
already at the third place after hers, had nearly forgotten. Tracking me, thats
what she was doing.
feels good and solid to the hand, heavy. Its got to be worth something.
Maybe not as much as the photos, but something.
theres no viciousness about her. Nothing to be afraid of. Twisting the lens,
she jumps into startled focus against the threadbare velvet of the couch, alabaster
white, all edges -- elbows, knees. Ribs poking up as she inhales. Even sleeping,
she must feel me watching. The eyelids shift. My finger edges. I will her to move,
just slightly to the right, so shell fit entirely in the frame. Go on,
I think, and like magic, she does, perfect as a puppet. I squeeze down. Click.
Eulies camera hums in my hands, ready for the next. The new angle. I adjust.
oclock the next morning, waking in my own bed, I remember theres someone
else in the apartment and cant move, flattened by a nameless dread. Ridiculous,
I think. I have every right to be here. Shes the one who should feel
out of place.
lies on the next pillow, watching me with its blank eye. I turn it away so it
looks at the wall instead.
when I finally work up my nerve and wander out to the living room in my bathrobe,
trying to look casual, as if this happens all the time, the place is empty. I
stand in the kitchen, staring around stupidly. Everything seems smaller. I am
like Alice after the potion, looming over things too small for me to even pick
up with my own hands, a giant with tree trunks for arms and roots for feet. My
throat feels thick, soft as cotton.
dress, dropping hands through the sleeves of a sweatshirt, fitting legs through
blue jeans, anchoring feet in a pair of chunky boots that are so good and heavy
they feel like brick walls. Ive always loved these boots. In them I could
storm Russia, run an army. It is always strange to take them off, however, and
see my feet emerging so thin and white and defenseless, the naked nubs of toes
that could be broken with a stubbing, and have been, often.
grocery is nearly empty, given that its a Monday noon. The stacks of vegetables
glisten intriguingly in the fluorescent lights. Just as my hand extends uncertainly
for a head of iceberg, the misters crank on, and I nearly jump out of my skin.
Tiny showers dew my frozen hand. I catch sight of a terrified woman in the overhead
mirror and for a long, slow moment dont even recognize her as me.
after a good, hour-long prowl through the empty, glaringly white aisles, my cart
overflows with bounty, and I depart with a deep sense of satisfaction at the cashiers
awed "You saved 53 dollars and forty-eight cents today, Ms. Cutrer."
I return to the apartment, the paper bags firm in my arms like good, thriving
babies, the stereo is going, and three identical pugs assault me at the door with
I say. "Take care of these goddamn dogs."
insists that they sleep with us, and all night I lie perfectly still, afraid of
turning over and crushing one of the small, warm bodies curled up at the small
of my back. She lays inches away, naked, sheets knotted between her knees, breathing
so lightly she doesnt seem alive. But once in awhile, whole sentences emerge
in the dark, spoken with complete logic.
the thieves want bananas. Only green ones. For swimming, what dya think?"
look at her hair, which is, in the absence of light, the brightest thing in the
room, shining with the cool white of a moon.
morning when shes been here a week, she takes over the bathroom, spreading
newspapers on the floor, and in a plastic bowl mixes bleach powder into a cream
she then applies to her skull with a little brush. With her elbow-high rubber
gloves and grim eye on the timer, she resembles a scientist or a meticulous hausfrau
-- I watch, fascinated, as the dark roots that have gradually sprouted over the
past few days disappear into whiteness.
does it do that?" I ask.
kills the melanin," she says, "the color," and disappears into the shower.
with the same methodical thoroughness that she approaches when I least expect,
teasing a sleeve off her shoulder, fingering open a button, pushing her hands,
her tongue, her hip -- Im halfway naked before I even realize, and shes
making noises that sound as far away as another country, her breath coming fast
in a way that has nothing to do with me. She might as well be alone in the room.
And when its over, she pulls away, smiling a little, "Did I turn you on?"
and runs her hand up and down her leg, licking her mouth.
finds the photos I developed from the first night, spreads them across the kitchen
table and stands over them, studying them, arms crossed, while I fidget.
think Ive got what it takes," she says.
think so before, you know. I had my doubts."
tells about the community theaters, how she almost never saw the sun, the lights
that beamed in the eyes and made her sweat under the makeup, and the makeup, how
thick it was, like a cake, and how she loved it, the people who paid to sit before
her, and even the director, who when she was six took her into his office and
pulled down his zipper and made her touch it, even that didnt matter so
much, not when he told her she was so beautiful he couldnt help himself.
come home from the bar at three and shes developing her portfolio.
more," she says. "I need at least twenty for a book." She hands me Eulies
camera, already dressed, already ready. Her eyes are rimmed in purple shadow,
lashes sooted to angry points. She climbs on a windowsill and pushes her feet
together like a yogi. The pugs run frantic circles round my feet.
week later, I wake, the bed is empty, and I know. The only thing left of hers
are the pugs. They wander in and out of the bedroom with their smushed faces,
looking for Chancee, crying for food. I realize I dont know how to feed
them, what they even eat. I give them hamburger, and they have diarrhea all over
the kitchen. The landlord smells it, three doors down, comes over and tells me
he asks, eyeing the dogs.
dont know, I say.
could fetch a pretty penny for them," he tells me.
the end they net a thousand altogether. I take first class to Honolulu, drinking
free champagne until my head swims. Its high season, and I can see, as we
circle in for a landing, that the beaches are crawling with bodies that from this
distance look like bright, busy ants.
the Sheraton Waikiki, my oceanfront room waits like a clean empty shell, smelling
of Lysol, perfectly antiseptic. The color scheme is one of pinks and soft greens,
the fabric, entirely polyester, shines in the setting sun, of which I have a head-on
I am overcome
with love, a love as I have never felt for anyone or anything before -- the flawless,
plastic bathtub, the immaculate toilet, the shrink-wrapped cups stacked neatly
on the counter, a basketful of round, fragrant soaps just waiting to be unwrapped
and employed for my cleanliness. This room will never belong to me, to any person.
It belongs to itself so perfectly nothing I can do will ever touch it, or it me.
I could stay a hundred days and the room would no more be mine than the Pacific
folding and unfolding from this beach all the way to Japan.
window comes open easily. I expect to smell sea salt, brine, the stink of fish,
but fifteen floors up, the air is stripped of even this. From below wafts the
tempo of Latin dance music, the rhythm for a rhumba, the dance of love.
imagine how it will shatter upon impact, the glass splitting into thousands of
slivers over the white concrete of the plaza below. Suppose it does not break,
but sits at the bottom of the drop, winking back up with its one eye, forever
-- what will I do then?
lean over the sill, the photos sticky in my hands. They seem to fly loose of their
own accord, winging free, they flutter, catching the last light of sunset, but
Eulies gift is loathe to go. It presses in my palms. It pleads for the first
time with me as my hands split apart, wide open to the world, and the sea.