Stephanie Dickinson has lived in Iowa, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana, and now in New York. Her poetry and fiction appear in Cream City Review, Green Mountain Review, Chelsea, Brooklyn Review, Fourteen Hills, Nimrod, Iron Horse Review, Inkwell, Ontario Review, Water Stone, Columbia Journal, McGuffin, among others. Along with Rob Cook, she published the literary journal Skidrow Penthouse. Her Road of Five Churches, a short story collection, was recently released by Rain Mountain Press. She is a 2006 Fellow in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
I’m looking at myself in the taxi’s side mirror. You will never get a kiss because you’re invisible, the mirror says, a glare of sun where my face should be. You’re not fine as a frog’s hair, you’re no longer a chick but not yet a hen with a golden egg in your gut, you’re not even a girl; you’re a pair of goat-legs, too plain to be seen. I’m glad, I tell the mirror back. Have you ever heard of Invisible Fence, a firm that makes electronic enclosures no more discernable than air to keep dogs in their backyards? Who knows what will happen for me if I stay hidden, a skinny thirteen-year old with skinny brown hair.
I wear a t-shirt across my just beginning chest that reads CHICKEN RIGHTS, and no one sees that, certainly not Daddy and Grandma Lorna bickering in the taxi’s back seat. I’m sitting up front beside the cabbie who will eventually pull over and tell us to get out; I can see that in his jaw clenching and unclenching, his brows frowning into one straight line. He’s probably from a country where you eat flies and dirt and AK-47s.
“Not the scenic route,” Daddy says, knocking on the Plexiglas. “Take Amsterdam.”
The driver hears Daddy’s voice which is plainly masculine and his nose curls.
“Pete, let him drive,” Grandma Lorna pipes up.
Daddy has on a summer dress, a form-fitting pink bodice that flares into a full skirt and a pair of pink Paradise Kitten sling-back pumps. On his head is the Carmen—twenty inches of luxurious coppery curls and soft bangs. At home on his dresser are the Holly, Rebecca, and Amber. The Carmen suits his blue eyes. As a man Daddy was fabulous and handsome. Now he’s unmarried and a too-pretty middle-aged woman with tree-trunk legs who takes bounding steps. A cross between a male leopard and a lioness. A Leopon.
“Ma, my name is Kim, remember?” Daddy snaps.
“Well,” Grandma Lorna says, “sit back, Kim.” All day she’ll say Pete, Kim, Pete, Kim. I’d wish she’d settle on one just like I’ve stuck with Daddy and him.
“Do you want to end up in Times Square?” Daddy taps on the partition behind my head with his thumb ring. “Dalloway, tell him to take Amsterdam.”
I roll my eyes. Easter break, Mommy in Albany, and I’m supposed to be with Daddy for a week of urban adventure. He promised we’d walk the length of Manhattan from the tip of Inwood to the South Street Seaport, we’d eat Russian and revolve around the city at the Rainbow Room, we’d listen to old piano bar crooners, and now everything’s different, everything’s about Grandma Lorna.
“Sir, do you think you we could go down Amsterdam?” I ask, knowing it’s best to phrase a directive as a question. The cabbie makes no sign that he hears. His lids are at half mast like stove hoods taking in whiffs of smoke. Printed on the dash next to a 1-800 complaint number are his name, Iyad Sarraj, and a photograph. I trace my fingers over his forehead.
“I’m going to need ice packs. Perhaps, Dalloway will volunteer to hold them to my face when we get home,” Grandma Lorna whispers. You wouldn’t know from her breathy utterances that she earned a degree in mathematics and has her pilot’s license. Two days ago she underwent surgery at the Manhattan Ears, Eyes, Nose & Throat Hospital. When I turn to look at her she tries to smile but the swelling squeezes her cornflower blue eyes almost shut. She’s had a full-face lift, including chin and jowls. Her cheeks have been chemically peeled and they glisten like wet red peaches. A gauze bandage winds under her chin and over the top of her head resembling a catcher’s mask. Only her ponytail and orange velveteen ribbon seem to have escaped injury. Last night I took a look at some of her rejuvenation brochures, and one sentence keeps making its way around in my head. “Some patients receive an enhanced arch at the ends of their eyebrows, giving them a cat-like look that is extremely exotic.” Like Dante’s leopard-creature the Lonza, who represents Lust.
Daddy taps. “If you keep going we’ll end up in Times Square.”
“Kim, did I tell you I began to hemorrhage from my face on the operating table?” Grandma Lorna says. “The surgeon was repositioning too much skin.”
Daddy says Grandma Lorna suffers from narcissistic borderline personality disorder and never gave him enough attention to become a fully operational human being. Every word out of her mouth crawls under his skin.
“He says I could have bled to death. Did you hear?” Grandma Lorna asks, just as the taxi hits a plate that covers a pothole. The metal clangs like the Croatian church bell. I don’t want to grow old like Grandma Lorna, to tear up my face to remake it. People have been remaking themselves for forever. In school we studied Leopold Ollier who pioneered free skin grafting and would take a piece of periosteum from the long bone of a rabbit or a cockerel, and transplant it to the skin of the forehead. Then there were alar reductions pioneered by Robert Weir in 1892 to reduce the flare of the nostril rim or a wide nostril floor or both. In those days they operated with saws and awls and phrenology charts.
The driver accelerates as if there are miles of empty highway in front of us not another taxi a few feet from our bumper. Times Square rushes at us with all the traffic trying to squeeze itself through the needle’s eye. Daddy and I used to walk here when they were making old Times Square into the new one. At six years old I thought the gigantic Chock Full-of-Nuts coffee cup blowing off clouds of steam was heaven and the girl in the Calvin Klein ad soaring over the canyon, a goddess with story-high thighs and the tallest pelvic bones in the world. Now I realize the model’s belly button is only the size of two human beings.
Daddy pounds on the partition with his red-fingernailed fist. “So this is how you get passengers to 45th Street?”
The driver slides open the partition. “Traffic bad. Construction.”
Grandma Lorna’s hand goes to her nose. “Pete, what is that smell?”
“It’s Kim, Ma. My name is Kim.”
“Kim, I think it’s that driver who stinks.”
That driver slams the Plexiglas shut. I take a deep breath, nothing heavy about his odor. Maybe she smells herself, the Opium perfume that hangs over her like a murky river haze. The stuff rich white ladies wear that is so oily it can’t be washed off in a shower. They scrape the anal glands of civet cats to make it. Grandma Lorna has Opium in eau de toilette, parfum classic, dusting powder, and body cream. Smartmouth.com perfume reviews says that if you can smell perfume a foot away you’re wearing too much. You can smell Grandma Lorna at four yards. The muscle in the driver’s cheek twitches and he jams his foot to the gas pedal and we lurch forward.
Grandma Lorna shrieks. “Pete, my face. I hurt my face. I’m getting sick. That stench. Kim, my face.” The jolt must have thrown her forward because her head disappears below the seat and I hear her gagging, and then throwing up. My forehead goes hot and the red burns through my cheeks.
“Ma, stop. Oh, please, for God’s sake,” Daddy shouts. “Here’s some Kleenex. Ma, are you all right?”
The light changes, the taxi squealing to the curb in front of the Holiday Inn, and the red feeling spreads to my chest and down my arms. This is it. This is where it will happen.
“Get out,” the driver commands.
I let go of a deep breath, and when I inhale I smell the sour cornmeal of Grandma Lorna’s vomit. “Please, she’s just been operated on.” I point to his New York Taxi Association license affixed to the dashboard. Then I take out my V-ball pen and write his medallion number on my forearm. “Am I spelling your name right? I-y-a-d?”
For the first time he looks at me. Fugly me. His lip curls. “Get out. You don’t have to pay. Dirty bolis. All of you smell up my cab.”
Times Square is the crossroads of the world. You only notice the truly dazzling and the hideous, Puerto Rican beauties with banana lips and the bag ladies. How beautiful or ugly do you have to be to be seen? Watching Grandma Lorna from the back is worse than seeing her from the front. Her square ass tries to wiggle in gray stretch pants that have stretched too much. She’s tied a sweater from her neck, which is festooned with lint balls. Daddy who knows how to dress as a male and female didn’t learn his style from her. His real father was an Irish window dresser who beat Grandma Lorna, and she left him before Daddy was a year old. The next year she managed to hook a bank president and lead him to the altar. You wouldn’t know by her appearance that she’s one of the Hudson Valley’s wealthiest women.
I swing Grandma’s overnight case over my shoulder and disappear. You can’t hold onto yourself here, not when the Virgin Megastore and MTV signs tower and the digital headline making its way around the New York Times Building announces NORTH KOREA RESUMES WEAPONS GRADE PLUTONIUM. I don’t feel my arms and legs or the breath in my mouth. Everything happens fast. Lion King Theater and Muddy Waters Blues Club. Zanzibar. Gangsta girls in low-riding jeans and silver sequin tops, Dominican chicks in gold lame stovepipe pants carrying gold guitar purses, and behind them ex-burb white guys trying to strut under the weight of their boa constrictor dreads.
“Catch up, Dalloway, my little duck.” Daddy stops with Grandma Lorna in the middle of the sidewalk. “Quack quack you’re falling back.”
“I can’t walk any faster,” I lie.
Tourists turn to gawk at Grandma Lorna. The crowded sidewalk is separating, people moving to the side to let her through. The Red Sea parting. URINE TOWN is coming down from the marquee. A man in bowler hat sits on a fire hydrant. “Are you an actress?” he asks Grandma Lorna. She stops to give him a giggle and he tips his hat. He’s about the right age for her.
We pass a bunch of project boys. They’re tall and show upper body strength in their slow-moving strut. It feels like hours before they pass us. “Whoa! There she is, man. That sea hag’s your girlfriend. Lookee!” the tallest one snickers, elbowing his friend, and throwing a thumb at Grandma Lorna. “What a face!”
The shorter one laughs loud enough to wake the fish in the East River. “That’s your mama. Go on, man, and scrape the barnacles out of your old sea hag.”
I hope the sidewalk opens and sucks them in. Daddy and Grandma Lorna don’t seem to have heard.
“I insist we wait for Dalloway,” Grandma Lorna says, reaching out her hand “Every time I walk through Times Square,” she says, “I think of the late late movies I watched as a girl in that tiny town of Highland, New Jersey. They were interrupted by advertisements for Revco vegetable slicers and shredders. They could only be ordered by writing New York, New York. Now I am here in New York. The sexiest address in the world, the address of all the Chop-o-Matics.”
“Are you feeling better, Grandma Lorna?” I ask.
“The fresh air always helps, kiddo.”
I glance at her cut up face and look away.
Black metal shelves climb the walls of Daddy’s two-bedroom apartment from ceiling to floor. There are containers filled with Popular Science, Architectural Life, Wineries of the Napa Valley clippings. Businesses he wants to invest in when Grandma Lorna dies and makes him rich: jaglion (jaguar x lion) hybrids, ostrich farming to produce eggs low in cholesterol, Nap World where business people can power nap, and rocketry to thrust garbage barges into outer space for quasars and solar flares to fry. Three boring days later Grandma Lorna is still recovering in Daddy’s apartment. The bathroom and kitchen sinks are littered with her tapes and gauzes, ointments, rinsing pans and soaking solutions. She’s entranced by the lumps and bruises, the yellowish discolorations as she waits for the miracle of growing young. Opium saturates even the dust motes. She calls out in her little voice. “Am I less bruised?” I understand now that a whisper can run a household as well as a shout.
Daddy shuts himself into the second bathroom to exercise, running on double carpets for twenty minutes. He huffs and puffs like my old daddy used to. In those days he’d come out dripping sweat, his chest, his arms, his hair raining droplets the size of grapes and chase Mommy and me. He’d shake the slimy sweat onto us and we’d all scream and laugh. I put my ear to the door and imagine it’s him. Then I plop down at the table and open my laptop. I see rubber plants casting fleshy shadows on the chessboard, ferns falling out of baskets. It’s nice here but I wonder if Daddy misses the wet bar in marble he installed in Mommy’s apartment, the chandelier dripping golden light onto the mahogany dining table, his orange chair and hassock where he’d sit with his feet up reading Omni and eating croutons from a box.
I have six new emails. One from Kojo Annan who keeps writing me. This time he goes straight to the point and claims to be the son of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He wants me to assist him in moving whole funds abroad (sixty million dollars) and he will split it with me 40%/60%. He gives his word as a business man. I have other friends. Viagra Man and Mrs. Helen Amed of Kuwait City who is fifty-six and dying and a major oil tycoon. And Senator Patrick Osakwe in the Federal Republic of Nigeria who discovered an abandoned fifteen million United States Dollars. There is Mr. Cherokee Lawrence who deals on raw material. None of them can spell and I find their broken words endearing. If I get bored with them I may listen to Daddy’s tapes that come with the breast development kits, a special cream that causes full plump nipples or Stephanie Anne Lloyd’s voice lessons for transsexuals and transvestites. I need to accept Daddy as a she. I have to let go. I can’t hang onto the pronoun him much longer. But I don’t want to call him Mommy or Mom. He’ll have to be Kim.
Grandma Lorna breaks from her spot before the bathroom mirror and strolls into the living room carrying a compact so as not to lose sight of herself. “I’m starved, Kim,” she lisps. “I’ll buy.” She’s wearing another pair of stretched out gray pants and her bra.
Daddy bounces out of the second bathroom and for an instant I think it’s him. Old Daddy. But it’s the new Daddy in black Baha pants. He’s taken off Carmen and there’s his naked head in all its glory. No hair plugs or transplants or hormones could grow him new foliage, and the Velcro strips that wigs and hairpieces stick too are glued onto his scalp like Band-Aids. His pretty face is tanned but his head shines white as the bottle of saline nasal mist he’s spraying into his nostril. I can’t help but think of ligers and lijaguleps, first a jaguar and leopard crossed, and then the offspring, a jagleop, mated with a lion. I think of genetic leaks, species boundaries, sparse manes, spots too close together, sterility.
“Forget it, Ma, I’m buying. Dalloway will go to the Golden Chicken & Ribs and pick up three chicken box dinners.”
“Daddy, is that all I am to you—an errand girl?” I say, typing in “Dear Kojo, Please send particulars about how I can help you to move funds abroad.”
I hit send.
“Dalloway, you’re the genius in the family. My sun rises and sets on you. You are my arms and legs,” he winks, kissing the top of my eyebrow. Then he hands me a hundred dollar bill. “Three four-piece chicken dinners and you keep the change.”
“I can’t eat chicken, Daddy, you know that.”
I click on my next unopened message. This one from Barrister Ugo Bueze in El Salvadore contacting me to kindly assist him in a project of mutual benefit.
“Since when?” He reddens under his tan and his lips pull back into a grimace. “What will you eat? Tofu and alfalfa sprouts? Has your mother Chairman Mao completely brain washed you?”
“Chickens are toxic,” I say, letting Daddy know that factory broilers are injected with antibiotics, steroids, and hormones. I click yes to open new mail. The barrister wants to represent me as bona fide next of kin in the recovery of earthquake money. His grammar isn’t fractured enough to interest me. I hit delete.
“Ma, did you hear that? Dalloway’s afraid of eating chicken. What, do you know how many hours you had to work to afford a chicken in 1919? One hundred and nineteen hours. Do you know how long you have to work to afford a chicken in 2005? Come on, Dalloway, you’re the fact checker here. How long?”
“Fifteen minutes. We’re eating the cheapest foods in history.”
“Why should chickens have to be murdered to fill the guts of greedy selfish people? So chefs would have something to pour cream sauce over? So you could leave half your lemon chicken because you’re dieting that night?”
“I’ve never left chicken on my plate. Do you hear that, Ma? Dalloway cares more about chickens than human beings. You’re worse than your mother. Chairman Mao, Jr. is standing before me.”
“Dalloway’s a real cutie,” Grandma Lorna says. “She’s my kiddo. Takes after her grandmother. She has my brain.”
I want to stay cool, but my hair feels like it’s coming loose at the roots. If I get angry I lose. “How about those passengers on cruise ships who toss Bics overboard for the albatrosses to swallow? I suppose that’s fine by you?”
“You’re going to get a reputation as a zealot,” he tells me, shifting the saline mist to another nostril. “Better stop or you’ll be branded at school. You’re a genius, Dalloway, but you don’t have to be a nut case. Don’t throw your brains away.”
They’re finding albatrosses that have starved to death because the plastic lighters won’t digest and the birds feel full. I can’t tell Daddy how badly I feel about the birds that come to me in dreams because he’ll accuse me of being a double zealot. Nothing is worse.
“You get such good sun here, Kim,” says Grandma Lorna as she walks over to the west window and draws the mini-blinds looking out at the view of the Hess Gas Station and Kankahan Deli. “How is that chicken prepared? Pete, you know I don’t like skin.”
The Golden Chicken & Ribs smells of blood, but it’s the barbecue sauce bubbling in a gigantic can on the grill. Broilers sizzle on the pit and orange grease beads on thighs and legs. I watch the cook dip a toilet bowl brush in the can and bring it out dripping to swab the ribs.
“Two chicken box lunches to go,” I say. “Beans and pita bread.”
I think of the cages where the chickens live from lights on to lights out, debeaked and wings clipped. Who hasn’t seen the video of chickens being tortured by poultry workers? “Do you know that millions of chickens are scalded alive in tanks of boiling water every year?” I ask the Latin boy who is lifting a drumstick off the grill with tongs and letting the juice trickle off.
He shrugs. “Everything’s got to die.” Flames spatter up. “Your boyfriend is trying to get your attention.”
“What?” I turn, startled.
A man carrying a bouquet of flowers is outside staring into the Golden Chicken. His blue eyes seem riveted by the sight of cooking chickens. His gaze moves to the vat of farting mashed potatoes, and then he looks up and smiles at something over my head. There is something familiar about him.
“I’ve never seen that man before,” I tell the boy, and then I can’t seem to help myself. “Chickens are able to problem solve. They understand recently hidden objects still exist.” I pull out the hundred-dollar bill and pretend not to notice the sign. No bills bigger than 50s. “It’s all I have.”
“Okay, okay,” the Latin counter boy says, lifting the hundred-dollar bill to the light.
I imagine lying headless on the grill and the counter boy turning my legs with giant thongs. Would grease from my meat make a popping sound? Then 1931 Berlin pops into my head. Lone genius Konrad Zuse invented a computer but was ignored. I want to develop synthetic meat and end the slaughter of the innocents. Don’t cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys have a right to their own lives? What about the lives of violets?
The boy waves the toilet bowl brush at the window. “He’s still waiting for you. Lucky guy.”
The man is definitely staring at something. Maybe he’s checking out the hundred dollar bill. Maybe he’s looking for a box of money like Mrs. Helen Amed.
I slide the bag with two box suppers over my forearm and I step outside. The man leaning against the window looks like Jude Law with hungry blue eyes. His blondish hair is combed flat as belly-skin to his head, his cheekbones jut. Maybe he’s starving, that’s why his mouth is wet from peeping at the chickens. I wonder who knotted his long skinny tie and folded the handkerchief into his lapel. I want to offer him a ten-spot when I walk past him, but at the last minute I can’t. I stop at Good-N-Plenty for vegetarian pizza, and find myself wondering if any human being’s mouth opens wider than Jude Law’s. Is that why everyone thinks he’s such a good actor? When he’s supposed to feel anger or sadness he howls stretching out his elastic mouth. But I’m not fooled. And when he kisses the love interest it looks more like he’s chewing their lips. I hope that if I ever kiss I won’t make that smacking sound that couples in movies do. Like their lips and tongues have peanut butter all over them. Like the bathtub suction is taking the last swirl of saliva. Like they are greedy and haven’t eaten for weeks. The more smacking the more you love.
I head down 43rd Street and the Jude Law guy isn’t far behind. I pass Manhattan Towers and jaywalk across the street to Buckley’s Funeral Home. No fat Mr. Buckley stands in the window checking out the street through stained glass made from colored tissue paper. I push my face against the window and squint. The casket is a long blue shadow thrown over the linoleum floor. I make myself laugh and pick up the pace to Daddy’s apartment. Jude must live close by. He’s turning off the sidewalk and following me to the double door entrance. Since I’ve never seen him before and Daddy invites everyone in the building to Sunday brunches, this guy must have just moved in. Jude’s hands aren’t as full as mine yet I unlock the door and hold it open for him. He marches into the lobby and waits for me to hit the button before stepping into the elevator. I push the fourth floor and wonder when he will reach across to punch his floor button. I scent the flowers—lilies and red dahlias rusty as old plumbing. Then I notice an ant on the baby’s breath, and looking down see an ant crawling up the man’s pants. It’s a blue pant leg shiny from being worn. His moist red mouth is smiling sadly at a place over my head. The elevator dings as we pass the second and third floors.
“Hello,” he says, and I hear an accent. The Black Forest. Tales of the Vienna Woods.
Should I answer? But I’m invisible. He must be following the smell of grilled chicken. I can feel grease leaking from the box and through the bag onto my hands.
“These flowers are for you.”
I shiver. “Huh?”
The doors open and I step out of the elevator and so does he. I feel like I’m wading. I slide the key into the lock but it’s not the right one and my fingers fumble, smeared with chicken fat. He’s right behind me and his odor is overpowering. Not terrible just strong. Like a whole slough of stems rotting in water. Like when they pull a building down and open the cellar to air for the first time in ninety years.
Does he have a knife in the flowers? Is he pulling it out now? I almost call out for Daddy.
“Wait, don’t go away,” he says in that frail voice.
I glance at his too bright eyes. “I have to go in now. My father lives here.”
“I am giving these flowers to the girl with true beauty. I’ve searched to find you.”
My head feels too big for my neck. “What is beauty?”
He keeps holding out the weed bouquet. “You have true beauty,” he repeats and wedges the bouquet between the box chicken dinners and into my arms.
The door swings open and Daddy stands there in his jogging outfit, his mouth hitting the floor. The man with the flowers backs down the hall to the fire door. He bows slightly before turning the knob.
“Dalloway, get inside the apartment,” Daddy says, gritting his teeth. “Who is that guy?” His hand with the orange flame fingernails reaches for me, his whole body quivering except for his breasts. Who would believe gummy bear silicon is solid as stone?
“I don’t know,” I answer, the stick flowers scratching my cheek as he pulls me into the apartment and slams the door, putting his eye to the peephole.
“You were talking to him right outside the door.”
I shrug. “So what? Daddy, please take some of this stuff from me. He followed me from Golden Chicken. What could I do about it?”
Daddy shouts, “Where are your survival skills, Dalloway? You’re supposed to be the gifted child here. Why didn’t you ring the buzzer and give the signal? Never let anyone follow you into a building. Never get into an elevator with some pervert. He could have killed you.” He jerks out one of his plastic storage drawers rummaging inside for his scuba knife, digging until he finds his stun gun and mace. He tests the stunner, and a single bolt of crooked blue-white lightning almost strikes the floor. Right now old Daddy is in charge. Like the days when we prepared for a wilderness adventure.
Grandma Lorna takes the chicken box lunches from me. She lifts the top box, sets it on the counter. “Was he good-looking? Too young for me?” she asks before picking up a drumstick. “Dalloway, how’s your mother doing?” She bites into the chicken, flecks of black skin sticking to her lips.
“Ma, get on the phone and call 911. I’m going after him.”
“Daddy, just leave him alone. He didn’t hurt me.”
Naked Lunch is that moment when you see what is on the end of everyone’s fork. I want to turn away from Daddy’s teeth tearing flesh. And Ponce de Leon Grandma with her face of tri-colored pasta salad insists on champagne with her box dinner. “Here’s to you, Joe,” Grandma Lorna sighs. “I miss you.” Grandpa Joe died nine months ago. I liked him. He was only an inch taller than me and wore two-tone aviator glasses, his eyes peeking out like disciples. Hard to believe he had Mafia connections as Grandma Lorna claims. I remember last Christmas, his beret topped with a pompom. Grandma Lorna had belted his camel-colored overcoat and wrapped the muffler around his neck like a child overdressed for sledding; only this boy was withered and carried an oxygen tank. “Oh, he always takes nitro before coitus,” Grandma Lorna said to the guests.
I excuse myself from the table. Can I go get some air up on the roof? I let Daddy load me down with binoculars and his cell phone. “Call me,” he insists, “if you spot that crazy guy anywhere.” Nine billion chickens raised to become broilers, chickens prodded to gorge until they’re so fat their bones break. What’s crazier?
I climb the stairs to the tar roof and check out the Midtown view. The Empire State Building, its tower lit red white and blue like a Bombpop Popsicle is shrouded in black clouds. At the Park-N-Shop across the street, a car alarm is going off. I cross to the river side. Sometimes Daddy comes up with his set of binoculars and we surf the windows in the high-rises like we’re taking a long drive in the country. I rest my elbows on the ledge. There’s the neon blinking Edelweiss, the bar & grill hole in the wall that serves greasy sauerkraut. I look through the binoculars. Prostitutes swim under the streetlights. Cars from New Jersey, drivers cruising girls almost naked in the heat. They’re beautiful and there she is. The blond waif in transparent underwear and pink fishnets. She looks fourteen. Her legs are wishbones. Her breasts, two nipples, almost a boy’s chest. Daddy and I have seen her before. “Hey, I see our hooker,” he would say if he was here. “I wonder what it would be like to be her. To do what she does.”
Me too. I wonder what it would be like to be her for five minutes. Especially the approach part when you walk up to a car. I think about a vacation when Daddy took us to the Jersey Shore to eat at a fancy oyster bar. The fillet of amberjack lay on the plate dressed in lemon slices and capers, but I saw marks of the grill burned into the flesh. I wanted to press my lips to the fish. Instead Daddy cut it and fed me and Mommy, rolling the capers into our mouths. Then he asked Mommy if she ever thought about being a hooker. She slapped his face with her linen napkin. “How dare you say that in front of your daughter?” Mommy fumed. “Maybe you want that for yourself.” Daddy stood his ground, “I was just talking, Chairman Mao. But sometimes it seems hookers are free.”
Through the binoculars I watch the waif move away from the streetlights toward the car. There are two men in the front seat, someone in back, and a rack on top of the car. I keep focused on her bubble of kinky Orphan Annie hair as she takes her tiny pigeon steps. She appears totally unclothed as if her pink underwear has evaporated. A girl who could sneak into a room in a baseball hat and t-shirt and not be seen, but with a roll of her eyes, turn humid as marmalade. Not a Godiva chocolate but a Kit-Kat. Then the man in the passenger’s seat gets out of the car. He has the ropy body of a drug dealer. She stops. Don’t get in, I tell her in my mind. He probably wants her to get in the middle. No way, I hope she’s saying. She isn’t going to be boxed in, not this girl who loves Godzilla videos. But there’s no arguing with these guys, these rebuilt fuel pumps.
The driver jumps out, pulling her into the car. I can hear the ambulances from St. Claire’s. Now I can’t find her, they must have pushed her down, then her frizzy halo of hair bobs up and one of them raises his fist and smacks her. It feels different and the same like TV. Only girls usually don’t get hit in the face right before your eyes, you only see their gutted blue bodies.
What is the ropy man doing? He hits her again. Keeps slugging her. Stop it, better stop. I race for the stairs, take them three at a time, jumping, knowing I have to get to her while she still has a face.
My body trembles and it feels like the stairs are buckling and I’m a clouded leopard, the smallest of the big cats, I’m a male lynx and female bobcat, I’m a blynx.
Down the last flight of stairs and through the security doors out into the black fumes and sirens. “Georgio,” a woman calls out. These are the streets between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues that Daddy has forbid me to walk on by myself. I smell the dull shit odor of huskies and poodles, rottweilers and dachshunds, in every state of softening and hardening. Turds ricochet off my sneakers. I run past the Bangladesh souvenir storeowner and his battery-operated spiders. There’s a man facing a car relieving himself. Between the rock buildings and the river are stretches of wilderness, a bridge with shattered railroad tracks. Night has come, but it’s not real dark. The heavens are grey like an elevator shaft that the moon has stumbled into. I’m running now. Dalloway, stop, honey, no run, honey. I hear Grandma Lorna with her Kim, Pete, Kim, Pete. I wonder if I’ll be able to make out the license plate. Black. Michigan maybe. My long legs are pumping ready for the home sprint toward the car.
I’m running into street light and then out, toward the car with the carrier on the roof, the car of murky waters, car that is a coffin, carrying no white orchids, no friends to call at chapel. I have my binoculars and I’ll swing them at the car of gap-tooth meanness, men from South Bronx or South Tennessee, back seats where they stuff girls. I won’t let them tear up her face. As I round the corner I whiff the river, its cheap perfume. But the car isn’t there. I’m panting. Then I see her curled up on the sidewalk, tinier, younger, and pale-skinned like dirty cream, one shoe off, one of those girls you can spit on if you like.
“Are you okay?” I say. “I saw them.” Then she lifts her head and turns and I see the marks in her cheek where they hit her. She’s holding her mouth and nose like everything inside her face is loose. “Are you okay?” I ask again. She’s not silky-fine. Coarse. Not a bird like I thought with bones so light they would have to be hollow.
Then she holds up her hand and it says stop because her hand is red with nose bleed. “Don’t mix in this. Your kind causes trouble.” We look at each other as if there’s a continental divide between us. Farther than the Upper East Side of Manhattan is from Paterson, New Jersey, farther than soymilk and seven-grain-bread is from Diet Mountain Dew and Little Debbie’s. I take another step toward her where the asphalt has loosened and bits of tinfoil and glass crunch, the distance between pre-approved credit and low auto rates, Unitarians and gospel believers. How long is eternity? If you ground down every building in this city and a pigeon flew it to the moon piece by piece. Eternity is longer. Here the city is pure, no flowers to hum, no breathing gardenias, just this.
“You’ve taken your fill of gawking, now git,” she says, struggling to get up, a string of blood hanging from her chin.
She glares at me as if she knows out in the wild my hybrid kind starve. I’m a leopon, made by a lioness who produces cubs that climb trees like their leopard father. I’m a tigon.
But it is she who gits. I watch her hobble down the street, kicking off her remaining shoe. I am in the sexiest address in the world, the zip code of all the Chop-o-Matics.
I feel four-legged, all flank and spine. I run.