Two Nights With Suzie Wong

Renee James

 

 As soon as Jackson woke up, he knew it was going to be a bad day. His penis felt sore and there wasn't much mystery about why, only what the name of it was and how bad it was going to fuck up his life. He was hoping it was gonorrhea because that could be cured. He wasn't sure about the other stuff.

Wouldn’t it be a kick in the head to survive the fucking war and die of some exotic venereal disease he got from a woman he didn’t even enjoy?

He got up and went to the bathroom. As soon as he dropped his shorts he knew it was gonorrhea. The tip of his penis was excreting pus and when he peed it stung like hell. He’d read about those exact symptoms in a novel in college. He couldn’t remember which one, and he knew it was fiction, but still, he knew this was gonorrhea. Good fucking morning, Vietnam.

The woman in his bed stirred when he came back in the room. Suzie Wong. Her hooker name. She opened her eyes sleepily and stretched, her arms reaching overhead so far her breasts almost disappeared, Jackson watching but not getting turned on, so caught up in his own misery he couldn’t have smiled if President Johnson was standing there telling fart jokes.

“Hey, honey, you okay?” Suzie asked. She sat straight up.

“I’ve got the clap, Suzie,” he said.

She bent closer and took his penis in her fingers for a better look.

“No sweat, Jackson,” she said with a big, happy smile. “I take you to special place.”

“You’ve probably got it too,” he said.

“No sweat,” said Suzie Wong. “They fix me, too. This Bangkok. Everything no sweat.”

“But you’ll miss work.”

“No sweat. I need vacation anyway. I spend time with you.”

“We’re going back to Vietnam today,” said Jackson.

“I stay with you ‘til then,” said Suzie. The smile and cheer never left her face, and for some reason, that boosted Jackson’s spirits, even though he knew she was playing him for a tip.

Randy and Rose came down to breakfast late, Randy with a somber expression on his face. Jackson and Suzie Wong were sipping beverages at table on the hotel patio, surrounded by lush green plants and bright red and yellow blossoms.

“I’ve got good news and bad news, partner,” Randy said to Jackson as they sat down.

“All I’ve got is bad news, so let’s get it over with.”

“We can’t go back today,” said Randy. “Our bird couldn’t get out.”

“Oh, shit,” Jackson groaned. “What’s the good news?”

Randy’s face lit up. “We spend another day in paradise.”

Jackson leaned forward on the table, his face cupped in his hands. “I’m broke. I'm going to have to sleep on the street tonight unless you let me cuddle with you and Rose. And I’ve got a raging dose of clap. And when I do get back to the 'Nam, I'm going to get busted and sent to L-B-fucking-J. This is just fucking perfect.”

Randy kept smiling and shook his head in wonder. Suzie put a hand on his arm and gave it a squeeze.

“Damn, partner, that sounds like a trifecta to me,” said Randy. “But look at it this way, things can only get better, right?”

“One can hope,” muttered Jackson.

Suzie Wong took his hand. “I take you doctor, and you stay Suzie Wong’s house.”

“I’m broke,” said Jackson, like he was confessing to a priest. “I can’t pay you.”

“No sweat. You stay with me, go back Vietnam. When you go home, maybe you remember me.” She seemed as cheerful as a child on Christmas morning. “Maybe you come Bangkok and marry me, take me to U.S., I work for you, make you rich.”

Jackson smiled in spite of his worries. “I can’t get married, Suzie.”

“I know. Make joke. I take you doctor, then you stay with me.”

She said it with such finality that Jackson just nodded and said yes.

Before they left for the clinic, Jackson settled his bill, moved his some of his belongings into Randy’s room, and called his mother back in Des Moines.

Her voice was tired and fearful when she answered. He had awakened her from a deep sleep.

“Allan? Are you okay?” she asked, her voice rising with concern. “It’s three a.m.”

“I’m okay, Mom, I just need a favor. Can you wire me some of my money?”

“Where are you, Allan? What’s going on?”

“I’m in Bangkok. Thailand. On R&R.” Jackson tried to sound lighthearted, like it was no big deal. “I ran out of money and I was wondering if you could wire me a thousand dollars at this hotel.”

His mother made a series of gasps and exclamations that Jackson could hear, even on a bad transpacific connection. When she recovered, he gave her the name and address of the hotel and the phone number.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked, voice dripping with suspicion and concern.

Jackson assured her he was.

“Have you been kidnapped?”

“No, Mom,” he laughed.

“You’re not running off to Canada?”

“No, mom,” he said. “I just ran out of money on R&R.”

Which was pretty much true, except for the R&R part. And the not being in trouble part. And being okay.

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Suzie Wong had the driver drop them at a plain-looking, one-story building near the R&R bars. A modest sign identified it as a U.S. Army medical facility. The front of the building had two doors.

“That for you,” Suzie told Jackson, pointing to one of the doors. “This for me.” She flashed him her life-is-fun smile and opened her door.

Jackson watched her disappear, still frozen in place by the knowledge that nothing good ever happened to him when he came in contact with the Army. The door loomed in front of him like the maw of a ravenous animal, waiting to swallow him into the madness of the world's largest corporation, where zealots and morons directed hapless masses to kill and be killed. He tried to convince himself he was just being paranoid again, but he'd danced this dance before, and paranoid or not, he was right about the fucking Army. Still, he had no choice here. He had to see a doctor, even an Army doctor. He opened the door and entered.

It felt like a netherworld inside. Like there wasn’t another living person in the place, just the dumbass GI with clap. He stepped up to a counter on his left and looked toward the back for signs of humanity. Then he saw a memo taped to the counter top. It directed him to find his medical problem in a chart on the opposite wall, note the color code it was given, and follow that color of tape on the floor to the stations he needed to visit.

Jackson swore under his breath and looked at the chart. All the possible reasons for visiting the facility were reduced to eight items. Venereal disease was its own category, undisguised by any polite term. It was, Jackson realized, the reason for this facility’s being—to treat VD-ridden troops and the girls they infected and maybe the girl they got it from.

Jackson followed his line to the next station, where he surrendered his fake Temporary Duty Orders to a prune-faced nurse, probably Army. She ignored his greeting, and pointed his attention to a sign that told him to drop his drawers. She inspected his penis, scribbled on a form, gave him the form and his fake TDY orders, and pointed for him to follow the line to his next station.

Three stations later, a stern-looking white female nurse, Army to the core, gestured for Jackson to drop trou and bend over, his chest on an exam table, his bare ass hanging in the air. She stabbed him in the butt with a needle, not trying to avoid muscle tissue. It hurt a lot more than it needed to, Jackson taking it as a reprimand, and not caring as long as he got out of there without getting nailed for having fake orders and being AWOL. She gestured for him to get his pants on and follow the line to the next station.

Jackson’s last stop was a Dutch door, the bottom half closed, the top half open. A uniformed enlisted man, a Spec 5, was waiting for him, no expression on his face. He took Jackson's fake TDY orders and the form to his desk, and used a typewriter to bang out words and numbers on another form. He came back to Jackson and handed him his orders and an official U.S. Army form listing the details of his medical visit for the treatment of gonorrhea.

“Take this back to your unit and have it added to your 201 File,” the clerk commanded. His was the first voice Jackson had heard in this weird clinic and its message was as insane as any other Army communication. Sure, Jackson nodded. Sure, he’d let his company know he was AWOL in Bangkok and got treated for clap, and he’d make sure it was all in his permanent service record so someday, when some company was running a background check on him before giving him the job of a lifetime, they could discover rock-solid proof Jackson served his country as a whoring, deserting son-of-a-bitch who couldn’t be trusted.

Not that he’d want a job where they took exception to a soldier doing some whoring.

When Jackson emerged into the fresh air and sunshine, Suzie Wong was waiting for him, beaming, eyes as happy as a kid on Santa’s lap.

“You have fun?” she giggled, as Jackson approached. He smiled. She patted him on the butt. “Hurt, yes?”

Jackson shrugged.

“You be fine tomorrow.” She laced her arm through Jackson’s. “We go Suzie Wong’s, see real Bangkok.”

Jackson gave her a brave smile, but the truth was he didn’t want to see the real Bangkok. He wanted to stay in a nice hotel, eat five-star meals, wallow in air-conditioning, and be treated like a king. What he didn’t want was to get beaten and robbed, or hauled off to Long Binh Jail, or even think about having sex. But the only options he had right now were to go with Suzie Wong or to find himself a cardboard box to sleep in until his money arrived.

Jackson figured Suzie Wong for a ghetto tenement, probably with bugs and rats, but Suzie lived in a nice house in a nice neighborhood that Jackson would enjoy living in. The house was small, modest, and immaculate. It had sparkling wood floors and held an unpretentious kitchen and living/dining area with simple bamboo furniture. Stairs led to a main bedroom and a smaller one where a woman was dressing a tiny toddler. Jackson did a double-take as they passed the small bedroom. He had assumed Suzie Wong lived alone, maybe entertaining johns there sometimes.

Suzie smiled at his reaction and led him into the main bedroom. She placed his small bag next to the bed and turned to him cheerily.

“Suzie Wong house okay? Not U.S., but okay?”

“It’s beautiful,” said Jackson. He looked out a window at the quiet street below, trying to comprehend that Suzie Wong, steamy, dark-eyed sex goddess and professional prostitute, had one foot firmly planted in a lifestyle he could understand.

The woman and toddler from the other bedroom joined them, the toddler smiling and laughing and hugging Jackson’s leg, the woman reserved and friendly. She was also quite beautiful, with features similar to Suzie's—long hair falling in sensuous profusion like a Tahitian princess, full lips and flawless chocolate skin, and a face and body as radiant and sexy as any of the girls hustling sex in the bars.

“This Malai, my roommate,” said Suzie Wong. She said the word “roommate” slowly, making sure she pronounced the syllables perfectly. “And this beautiful baby is Lawana.”

At the sound of her name, Lawana lurched to Suzie, who picked her up and hugged her. Malai watched with a motherly smile, and she and Suzie exchanged warm glances.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Jackson,” said Malai in formal English, bowing slightly, enunciating each word carefully. When she straightened, she and Suzie exchanged glances again.

Jackson greeted her and bowed back. A breach of Asian protocol, probably, but he wasn't some damn feudal lord.

Suzie and Malai spoke in Thai while Jackson and Lawana rolled a ball back and forth, Jackson glancing up at them occasionally. They spoke casually, Malai nodding several times, Jackson thinking they were well-suited as roommates.

Their conversation stopped and both of them looked at Jackson. He stood.

“You sleep here,” said Suzie Wong.

Jackson looked at her questioningly.

“With me,” Suzie added, as if that explained everything.

Jackson looked from her to Malai, then back again, finally figuring out that they usually shared the bed. Of course, they just had the two bedrooms and the baby slept in one.

“I can sleep on the floor in the baby’s room,” he said, not wanting to disturb their order.

Both women objected in unison. It was more than politeness, Jackson realized. No mother in the world would bunk a stranger, a farang at that, in her baby's room.

“Or on the floor downstairs.”

“No, no,” said Suzie Wong. Malai shook her head and waved her hands in front of her. “No, you our guest.” The women looked from him to each other, something passing between them.

Jackson thought there was some kind of Asian custom at play here, and to argue any further would be an insult, so he acquiesced. Then he realized, and it hit him like the concussive wave of an exploding rocket, that they weren't just roommates. They were lovers. Roommates didn't look at each other the way they looked at each other.

He hid his shock—he had never known lesbian lovers before—but as he followed them downstairs, his mind was racing. To his surprise, what he mainly felt was understanding. They were probably both hookers before Malai got pregnant, surrendering themselves nightly to GIs who treated them like whores. Of course they’d want the tenderness of a woman after that. He wondered how they made love, or if they made love, or if having sex for money and doing it a lot would turn them off it altogether.

Downstairs, Suzie Wong seated him and brought him water, then went back upstairs and carried a small clothing bag downstairs, Malai following her with Lawana in her arms.

“Malai stay with sister,” said Suzie. Malai smiled and bowed slightly.

“We have good time, she help her sister,” said Suzie.

Jackson figured there was no sister, and he knew there wasn’t going to be any boy-girl sex here, not involving him, because his dick felt like a blowtorch every time he peed, and because he wouldn’t re-infect Suzie Wong anyway, even if he felt like a million bucks, so really, what was the point of moving Malai? The point was, that’s how they wanted to do things.

Suzie embraced Malai tightly, then Lawana, and mother and child disappeared down the street. Jackson watched them go, wondering what it would have been like to share the bed with two women, not for sex, but just sleeping with two soft, beautiful women and feeling their warmth and the soothing strokes of their hands on his skin. He knew it wasn't normal, a GI wanting to sleep with two women and not have sex with them, clap or no clap, but that's how it was with him; he'd always enjoyed the intimacy more than the climax, and if someone didn't like it, they could go fuck themselves.

Suzie led him back upstairs. She seated him on the bed, then sat herself at a makeup table and began un-pinning her elaborate hairdo. Jackson watched, mesmerized, as she unwound a long tress, separated it from her own hair, and carefully placed it on a form. She unpinned the rest of her hair and brushed it out, letting it fall to the middle of her back. She glanced at him in the mirror and laughed. The eye lashes were next, long and dark and elegantly curled. She peeled them off carefully and placed them in plastic holders.

Jackson couldn’t take his eyes off her. Suzie's beauty ritual was far sexier than any stag movie or striptease he'd ever seen. She stacked her jewelry on a corner of the table. She used a cream to wipe off the makeup and removed the last vestiges of her lipstick. Then she stood and peeled off her tiny dress, her bra and panties, then turned to Jackson and smiled.

“No more Suzie Wong,” she laughed.

Jackson managed to smile, but she was right, and the drama of the transformation left him agape. His sultry, lesbian sex goddess had turned into the girl next door, a pretty young woman with a happy face and a slim figure. If he didn’t know she was a hooker, he’d think she was a student or a teacher or maybe an airline stewardess.

Suzie Wong wasn’t sure how to interpret his silence. “What you think, Jackson?”

“You’re beautiful,” he said. He wanted to say more, but couldn’t think of the words so he just smiled and let the silence cover them like a cocoon. They took a nap then, their bodies intertwined, Jackson's last waking thought being that this was real intimacy. She was a hooker who was probably playing him for a big tip, but it was still intimate.

When they woke up, Suzie took him for a walk in the neighborhood, greeting neighbors, waving to shopkeepers, taking his hand now and then, making like they were school kids on a date. She supplied most of the conversation, but she spoke more slowly and less often than when they were hooker and john. Jackson realized that he was seeing the real person, even as he kept most of his person secret.

Suzie purchased dinner from a cart on the street—a plate of rice topped by a fish of some kind, cooked with its head still on. Suzie Wong engaged in repartee in Thai with an older vendor who seemed to like her. The fish was delicious.

They walked on, covering residential streets and commercial strips, Jackson having no idea where they were. Gradually, he realized no one was going to knock him senseless and steal his money, partly because he didn't have any money, but mostly because Thais were friendly, good-hearted people.           

When they were exhausted, they returned to Suzie Wong's house, stripped to their underwear, and slept deeply, Suzie spooning with Jackson, Jackson thinking he'd never felt anything so warm and soft, and wondering what it was like to be in Suzie Wong's body.

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Jackson’s peace ended with the bright rays of the morning sun. The contentment and harmony of the previous night evaporated and his mind fixed on his urgent priorities. Get his money, get back to Vietnam, and try to slide back into the barracks without anyone realizing he'd been gone. And never, ever go AWOL from a war zone again. Ever.

Suzie got him back to the hotel by nine. Jackson's money wire had arrived. The desk clerk gave him a discreet looking envelope containing U.S. greenbacks, twenties and hundreds. He repaid Suzie for her expenses, then bought them breakfast while they waited for Randy and Rose.

"You look pretty good for a guy who slept under a bridge last night," Randy greeted Jackson when he and Rose came down.

"Bangkok is a bridge paradise," said Jackson.

"Well," said Randy, "our plane is supposed to come in today. We need to be ready to go this afternoon. Call me here around one for a departure time."

Jackson nodded and glanced at Suzie. She was standing so close to him their bodies touched, legs, hips, arms, like they were spooning again, but in a way that other people wouldn't notice. Jackson wondered if this was a hustle Suzie did with all her johns, or just with special ones, or maybe just with him.

They talked about what to do with their half-day of freedom, but Randy and Rose wanted to be alone, and Suzie had to get herself ready for another night in the bar. She invited Jackson to come with her.

"See Suzie Wong beauty secrets," she said.

Jackson said he didn't really have any place else to go, but he was also intrigued. The driver he shared with Randy drove them back to Suzie's neighborhood and promised to return when the flight information was confirmed.

Suzie Wong chatted as they walked along the narrow streets lined with small shops and street vendors. Jackson enjoyed the lilt of her voice and her cheerful spirits, but most of his mind was occupied with a sense of dread he just couldn't shake—dread of going back to the war, of going to jail for desertion, of the aching, soulless, mind-numbing monotony of base camp life in Vietnam. He felt like he was living his last hours and willed himself to enjoy them, thought maybe they should go to Suzie's place and make love since his symptoms were gone, thought it might be nice to have the sex smell on him for the ride back to 'Nam to remind him of his moment of happiness, that flickering candle in the pitch black of the shitstorm he'd been bucking since he volunteered for Army service.

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Suzie Wong’s beauty shop was like an exotic foreign country. Jackson had never been in one, though he'd passed by them often enough, always intrigued by the magical transformations that women underwent in them, always strangely attracted to aromas emanating from such places. He knew it wasn't manly to want go in one, and certainly not manly to enjoy the strange smells of perm solutions, hair-coloring chemicals, baking hair, and the flowery scents of shampoos and sprays. But that had been part of his secret self since he was a child.

Suzie's salon was compact and seductively dim, with most of the light focused on three swiveling chairs, each in front of a mirror and a shelf containing beauty tools. A young woman sat in one of the chairs as a beautician worked on her hair, puffing it up into huge balls as they talked quietly. Another woman, young like Suzie, sat under a high-pitched hairdryer that made her look like a creature from outer space, but sexy somehow, maybe because she looked so feminine and comfortable with herself as she glanced at Jackson and Suzie. A middle-aged hairdresser who had been organizing her tools when they walked in greeted Suzie and bowed slightly to Jackson as Suzie introduced him. The client in the other chair and her hairdresser exchanged secretive remarks in Thai and tittered as they assessed Jackson in the mirror.

"Are you sure—?" Jackson started to ask. He felt wildly out of place, like he was invading the women's bathroom. And yet he couldn't take his eyes off the woman in the chair and what was happening to her hair.

"No sweat, Jackson," interrupted Suzie. She directed him to a chair next to a table holding an array of nail polish bottles. "Men okay here."

"Really?" asked Jackson.

"Some come with girl friends. Some come to be girls. We call them kathoey, lady boys."

Jackson took his eyes off the woman in the chair for a second, long enough to look at Suzie and grimace, like he knew she was having him on.

"No, Jackson. Is true," she said. "They pretty. Some men like them more than lady-ladies."

"Sure."

"I show you kathoey later. Maybe you like?"

"Maybe not," said Jackson. But he could feel his dick starting to swell and he shifted in his chair hoping no one noticed.

Suzie sat in one of the empty chairs and stared in the mirror as the hairdresser brushed out her long locks, then she followed the woman to a back room. Minutes later, the two emerged, Suzie's wet hair wrapped in a towel. She winked at Jackson, and sat in the chair again, smiling and chatting as the hairdresser wrapped her hair in curlers. Jackson's eyes pivoted between Suzie and the woman in the other chair, whose hair was being fashioned into a towering up-do that made her look like a nymphomaniac getting into her fuck-me costume.

The woman working on Suzie wrapped her hair in huge curlers, her tiny hands moving with the speed and dexterity of a pianist's fingers on a keyboard. Jackson was entranced. When Suzie's hair was wrapped, she was put under one of the hooded hair dryers, stopping on her way to pose for Jackson.

"How you like Suzie Wong now, Jackson?" she asked playfully. "Very sexy, yes?"

Jackson smiled, trying to hide his discomfort. He could feel the curlers on his own head, could feel his own hair as long and as full as Suzie's. It was erotic and shaming at the same time. His dick was as hard as iron. Suzie noticed and bent to whisper in his ear.

"Big love later, okay?"

Jackson nodded, and she sat under the dryer and looked at him, smiling once more before turning her attention to a magazine.

Jackson watched the other client rise from her chair and come to the nail station, sitting so close to him he could smell her perfume. She was wearing a mini-skirt and a low-cut top that showed off her cleavage and her slim arms. She smiled at Jackson and said something in Thai to the woman working on her nails. They exchanged smiles and glances at Jackson, then continued to chatter, Jackson trying to watch surreptitiously, while also watching another client go from the hair dryer to the styling chair and get transformed.

By the time Suzie Wong transitioned from the dryer to the styling chair, Jackson wasn't just seeing the processes in the salon, he was feeling them on his own body. He wanted desperately not to. He wanted to feel contempt for all the silly primping and posing, but he was overwhelmed by the fantasy that it was all happening to him. It was his terrible secret, sneaking out of the dark place he'd kept it in all his life.

"You okay, Jackson?" Suzie called from the chair. She was watching him in the mirror. He couldn't imagine what he looked like, but his pulse was pounding and he was fully aroused and feeling faint. He glanced at the row of wigs on the shelf above the styling mirrors.

"Sure," he said. But his voice cracked. He was sure everyone in the place could see he was queer.

"You sure?" she asked again.

Jackson nodded. He tried to focus on her but his eyes glanced at the wig just over Suzie's mirror. It was a masterpiece of long, dark hair, with back-swept bangs in front, rising to a sexy mound at the crown, then falling in full tresses down the back. Jackson couldn't stop wishing that was his hair.

"You like?" Suzie asked, pointing to the wig.

Jackson flushed and tried to deny it, but his mouth was dry and his voice shaky.

The other hairdresser smiled at him. She took the wig off the shelf and unpinned it from its mannequin and approached Jackson, holding it to place it on his head. He objected, shaking his head, saying no, but the closer she got, the quieter his objections became, and he finally bowed his head so she could put the wig on him. He felt it slide over his short-cropped GI haircut, and he felt her make adjustments side-to-side and front-to-back. He could smell her scent mixed with the chemicals of the salon, and he glimpsed her face, still wearing a smile that said a big hairy white man wearing a woman's wig was kind of funny, but a smile that seemed sympathetic, too, like this had happened before and it was okay.

She took Jackson's hand when she was done and led him to a styling chair. When he sat, she primped and teased the hair, expanding the hair to fit his larger face and body. Jackson saw Suzie Wong and her stylist staring, locked in the moment, Suzie smiling, almost laughing, but in an affectionate way that didn’t make Jackson feel like a jackass.

"How you like?" Suzie asked.

Jackson looked at himself in the mirror. He didn't see what the others around him saw. He saw what he felt, the beautiful hair brushing against his cheeks and the nape of his neck, falling gently on his shoulders, rippling when he moved his head. He saw himself as a woman, mysterious, exotic, feminine. He could hardly breathe.

"You beautiful girl, Jackson," said Suzie.

He made himself look away from his own image to look at Suzie. She was wearing a minidress that showed most of her perfect skin and her shapely legs and clung to her bodice, outlining her firm breasts and tiny waist. Her hairstyle was very much like his wig, tall and long and full of body, with sexy ringlets at the temples. And Jackson knew at that moment that what he wanted more than anything was to be in Suzie Wong's body and wear her clothes and get his hair and makeup done in her salon every day. But that was not something any man could say out loud, so Jackson tried to compose himself and pretend like it was all a joke.

"Think I'd be a hit at Thai Haven?" He smiled and started to remove the wig. The hairdresser intervened and took it off while Jackson exchanged glances with Suzie, trying not to blush, but feeling his face get red.

"Other bars for sure," Suzie laughed. "You stay one more night, I take you, okay?"

"I can't," he said.

"I take you as my girlfriend, okay?"

"Stop," he said, embarrassed, feeling like she read him.

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"I’ve got good news and bad news," Randy said cheerfully when Jackson called.

"Give me the good news," said Jackson. "I've had enough bad news for a month."

"The good news is, we can't go back today."

"Jesus Christ!" Jackson swore, thinking now, for sure, they were going to jail. "What's the bad news?"

"Well," said Randy, in his story-telling Southern drawl, "first of all, the company found out we're AWOL, and they sent a Lifer to bring us home."

"Motherfucker!" said Jackson, his hand trembling and his head feeling watery.

"Relax," said Randy. "They aren't going to bust us. They'd have to bust everyone else who ever travelled on these orders, and the officers who signed them would lose their commissions."

"So, why aren't we going home tonight?"

"Turns out Sergeant First Class Bates is giving himself a fun night on the town. He's already rounded up two girls that he calls 'his team.’ We won't see him until sometime tomorrow. We'll go back when he's ready. Probably around lunchtime."

Jackson almost collapsed with relief. Suzie looked at him with concern. He cupped a hand over the phone and briefed her on the conversation.

"You stay one more night?"

Jackson nodded.

"You want Suzie Wong?

Jackson nodded again and touched her arm gently with his free hand.

"Should I get you a room?" asked Randy.

Jackson looked at Suzie. "Hotel or your place?"

"My place," she said. "I make you very happy, then you marry me, take me to States."

"Don't bother," he told Randy. "I'll stay at Suzie's and see you in the morning.”

He turned to Suzie and stroked her arm again. "You love Malai," he said. "Why would you leave her for me?"

Suzie grinned without embarrassment. "Because I want live in States. I save money and send for Malai and Luwana when I can." Her voice was jovial, like they were sharing a joke, but Jackson could feel the soft drums of a young woman's dream just beyond the jest.

"So I share you with another lover?" He kept it light, not wanting to lead her on, knowing there was no way he'd be marrying anyone, maybe ever, but for sure not until he got his head straight.

"No share, Jackson. You have two lovers and a daughter." She laughed gaily and took his hand and they went for a stroll in the soft light of an overcast afternoon in Bangkok.

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They sat across from each other on the floor, their food on a low table between them, Jackson handling the chopsticks like an Asian. Suzie Wong chattered all through the meal, a meandering soliloquy on everything from the events of the day to memories of her childhood.

"You like wig today." Suzie said it, she didn't ask it.

Jackson flushed and started to deny it, then silenced himself.

"It okay, Jackson. I like you. You want boy tonight, I get you boy. You want be girl, I make you girl. I love woman. Means nothing. Means I love someone. You good man. Or girl. Either one, is fine with me. You good."

Jackson was quiet, his thoughts exploding like tracer rounds.

"What's it like to be in your body?" He blurted the words, knowing they were crazy. "How does it feel? Your skin? Your breasts? Looking in the mirror?"

Suzie regarded him curiously, not understanding the question.

"I know what I see when I look at you," said Jackson, "and I know what I feel when I touch you. But what do you feel like to you?"

Suzie looked about and shrugged. "I don't know," she said, pronouncing the words carefully. "I never think like that."

"In the salon today, I thought I felt what it's like to be you," said Jackson. "I could feel your clothes on my skin, your hair on my face, your bra on my breasts. Right now, I can feel your void between my legs. I can feel what it's like to be so light and delicate, to have big, sexy eyes and small, perfect hands and feet."

Jackson paused and touched her lightly.

"I would give anything to be you. To be in your body. It's my worst secret. I'm not really a man. I just got this body by mistake. I want to be you."

Amazement swept over Suzie Wong's face, her mouth slightly agape. She took a deep breath and touched him.

"In my village, girl marry or work. I sixteen, old man want marry me. Farmer. Not nice. He want someone cook, clean, fuck. I beg my father, please, no, don't make me do that. He say I must work or marry. Work mean go Bangkok. Sew clothes, one dollar day, all day, twelve hour. Six dollar week. Until you hands and fingers don't work right, or you eyes see blur.

"Or I can work in bars. Whore. Five dollar night. Four, five night a week. Sometime tips. Ten dollar. Five dollar. Sometimes no tip. Nice clothes. Sexy. Get VD three, four time year. Get hurt sometime. Men fuck me hard. Curse me if too dry. Hit me, I talk too much, he can't come, he no like Thai girl.'"

Suzie didn't cry, but her face was sad, like she was holding back a reservoir of tears that had been building for years. He held her hand as softly as he could.

"You see old lady in bar?" she asked.

"No," said Jackson.

"No old ladies in bars. No old ladies in sewing shops. Only old ladies in families. Grandmas. Suzie Wongs no have families. Suzie Wongs do not get old."

"But you're so happy all the time."

"No help be sad and angry. Still get old."

Jackson looked away from her, cast his eyes around the room, trying to find some sense of equilibrium. He felt like nothing was real. He wasn't a man. His hooker wasn't a sex object, she was a person with a good heart and a dim future. He could go to jail and not be as fucked as she was.

"How can you . . ." Jackson stopped. He couldn't think of the right word. ". . . You know." He shrugged.

"How can I live?" she asked.

He nodded.

"You marry me, take me States." She laughed at the absurdity of it.

"I can't, Suzie Wong." Jackson used her name for the first time. She noted it with a raised eyebrow. "I'm a mess. I don't know if I'm a boy or a girl. I'm queer but I'm not attracted to men at all and sex with women is just for relief. I don't fit in at home. Everything's changed in the U.S. Nobody likes GIs, nobody wants to hire one. I can't take care of someone else. I'm not sure I can take care of me."

"No sweat, Jackson," she said. "We have fun tonight. You think like you lady, I think like you lady, we make love. Very sexy." She laughed, and he laughed with her.

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The driver came for Jackson at eleven o'clock the next morning. He offered to take Suzie Wong along and bring her back if she wanted to see Jackson off at the airport, but she declined. "Too sad," she told Jackson, "but I dream about you at beauty salon." She grinned mischievously and he smiled back.

"I want you to have this," Jackson said, as he handed her a wad of U.S. currency. "It's five hundred dollars. I wanted to give you the rest, too, but I might need to lay bribes to stay out of jail."

Suzie's eyes focused on the money for a second. It was more than she'd ever seen at one time, they both knew that, but her eyes shifted back to him and she tried to pass the money back. "I no want you money, Jackson," she said.

She stood on her tip-toes and kissed him softly on the lips and held his hands in hers.

"I wish I could do more," he whispered to her. He put the money back in her palm and gently closed her fingers around it. "Maybe you and Malai can start a business," he said.

She smiled, sadly at first, then impishly. "Maybe you come Bangkok, marry me, make me rich old lady."

He laughed too, squeezed her hands softly, and said, "Maybe." Then he left.

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Randy leaned across the aisle of the small airplane and spoke into Jackson's ear above the din of the engines. "You got into it with Suzie Wong, didn't you?"

Jackson nodded soberly.

"Whoa, is it love? Do I hear wedding bells ringing?"

Jackson tried to hide the sadness in his face as he shook his head. "A guy could do worse."

Randy nodded like he knew what Jackson meant, like Jackson had just shared the secret of the universe. He sat back in his seat for a few minutes, deep in thought, then leaned over the aisle again.

"This was one wild ass fling, wasn't it?" Randy grinned.

Jackson smiled a little. "That it was."

"What are you going to tell your kids about this?" Randy asked.

Jackson deadpanned, "Gonorrhea's a bitch."

Randy laughed. "Seriously."

"I'm going to tell them that nothing is real,” Jackson said. “Everything you think you see is really something else."

"You okay with that?"

"Yeah, man. Sure. I mean, what the fuck, worrying about it isn't going to change anything, right?" Jackson grinned at Randy, then sat back and closed his eyes. He wished he'd given Suzie Wong all his money. He wished Suzie and Malai could have a business of their own, a café, maybe, or a beauty salon. And he wished he was flying home in Suzie Wong's body.

 
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Renee James is a confessed English major and out transgender author who is also a spouse, parent, grandparent and Vietnam veteran. Her most recent novel, Seven Suspects (Oceanview Publishing, 2017), focuses on Bobbi Logan, a Chicago transwoman whose business and family are under siege by a mysterious stalker who gets closer and more violent every day.

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 Midnight At Red’s

Chris S. burns

 

“Man, that car is so goddamned fast.”

It was maybe eight-thirty, just past dark. David and me heard the car coming before we saw it. It was a ‘69 Mustang, the fastback GT, solid black and all growl. It powered past us doing at least twenty over the speed limit and was already out of sight but we could still hear it slamming through gear shifts. We knew that car. Hell, I had pictures of that car on my phone. The owner, a human socket wrench named Joey Turnell, lived in the center of town where the cracks in the sun-bleached roads were filled in with cheap rubbery tar after the economy tanked. It was already coming up, little black tic-tacs of it lining the gutters and waiting for rain.

Turnell was thirty, five years older than us. We had always hated him but, honestly, I hated him more before he stabbed me than after. If I had any idea that later that night Turnell was going to cut into my spine with a busted bottle and put me in the hospital for weeks, I would have gone out anyway. I would have thanked him.

Turnell cared about the same things as us: cars, cheap beer, shooting pool, but he didn't care about anything else. It wasn’t because he was too busy dreaming, like David, or planning, like Laila—he just wasn't bright enough. Turnell could tell you anything about any car ever but he couldn't count to twenty without taking off his shoes.

We didn’t hate him because we thought he was an idiot or even because he was just another white trash example of what we could have been; we hated him because he caused trouble everywhere he went. I mean, it’s really no surprise he attacked me. He had a reputation going back forever. Normally he was in one of the redneck bars on the east end of town, over by the closed wood and paper factories where it still smelled like glue and rotten eggs even though they’d been dark for years. We only saw him when he was dropping off or picking up his kid sister, Leslie, but even then we’d seen him start fights for no reason. When he wasn't drunk at the bars he was sleeping it off in jail, but no one ever pressed charges and the police just gave him some Tylenol and let him go when he woke up in the morning. People said maybe if we had the factories back guys like him would get union jobs and straighten up like they had in some collective vision of the past, but I don’t know. I just knew I despised him. And that he drove a really nice car.

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Earlier in the day David and me had gone to the only theater in Streisberg County, right near the center of town on Main Street. It was a three-screen place from the seventies, sweaty and crumbling in on its peeling dark blue paint. We always sat in the back since David was six-foot-two and if anyone sat behind him they wouldn’t be able to see over his head. The sound was terrible, and the whole place swarmed with popcorn-chomping high school kids who weren't old enough to go to bars yet. School wasn’t out but you’d never know it. Let’s just say our town didn’t really prioritize studying.  

We watched a forgettable comedy and afterwards went to pick up Laila from work at Johnny Lee's Chicken and Ribs. There was no traffic and the ride over was fast. The buildings down Main were all two or three stories and spaced apart by thin alleys, forming a skyline like the turrets on a castle. Sure, half the storefronts were closed or boarded up; the restaurants, offices, the ice cream shop my parents took me to when I was a kid, they were gone, their walls turned dirty and gray with neglect. But Greene Records was still hanging on, and Nathan’s Diner. Starbucks, the small law office, the post office and library were all impervious to time and the economy and kept well-tended flowerbeds hanging from their windows and boxed along their walls. Employees were careful to keep them watered and pull out cigarette butts that were always put out in them even though most of the shops had ashtrays by their doors. The shopping traffic had moved to the new Walmart so the sidewalks sat empty, wide and immaculate, overhung with the brown branches of the maple trees waiting to bloom. As much as I wanted to get out, I had to admit the trees were worth an Instagram account. They’d probably outlive the town itself.

David and me got to Johnny Lee’s right after Laila texted us, “Manager sat me extra tables and they’re not friggin leaving. At least it’s 💲 Need a 🍺” So we waited in the parking lot in the early May warmth watching YouTube videos. That’s when we saw Turnell’s Mustang go by.

Laila came from around the back of the building where employees used a big trough sink to scrub the BBQ and spilled beer smells off their arms. “Sorry about the wait guys. Fuckers wouldn’t leave. But they tipped better than I expected. First round’s on me!” Looking down at herself, she added, “Just give me a minute to change. These clothes smell like a slaughterhouse.”

“Yeah, no shit. I get hungry every time you come home!” David said.

Laila climbed into the cab of her truck and stripped off the shirt that stank of slow-cooked meat, changing into a tight brown one with short sleeves and a stiff collar. She replaced her stained work jeans with a pre-faded, pre-ripped pair and crammed the dirty clothes into a plastic bag, tied it tight, and tossed it into a storage bin in the bed of her truck. She added a pair of chunky earrings, plastic and light blue, and a matching bracelet, and spent a few minutes picking her fro. She covered her hair with a wrap at work to help keep the smell out, and she wasn’t much into fashion during the week or at school, but on a Friday night we all needed to look at least better than the rednecks, so we put in a little more time. I was wearing my best shirt, and David had on a pair of new jeans Laila made him get when we went shopping last and a nice watch she found for him on the online.

We smoked a cigarette each waiting for Laila to change and swatted away the bugs that were starting to swarm. When she was ready we left her truck in the lot and the three of us got into my piece of shit Camry, fifteen years old and held together with bailing wire and prayers, and drove down the poorly lit streets toward Red’s.

“God, you still smell like ribs and beer!” David said to Laila before we even got off Main.

He was right—the smell was hard to get rid of. I didn’t even like washing her clothes with mine.

“I know. It’s the worst part of that shitty job,” she responded.

“You know you love your job!” David said.

“You know you love that your job keeps you busy,” I corrected so she didn’t have to. “Anyway, we’re going to a bar and you’re going to be drinking beer, so you don’t need to worry about the beer smell.”

“What about the reek of death and barbeque sauce?” she asked.

“You’ll still smell better than half the people there,” David said.

“Smoke a cigarette and no one will notice,” I recommended.

“True, and good idea,”

We were driving through the outskirts of town past low-slung houses set on plots of land big enough to have forests or streams cross their back yards. Most of them were falling into neglect despite their owner’s best intentions, front lawns brown and giving to weeds, cars as bad as mine or worse, some sitting on blocks and rusting down to the primer. Some residents had started cooking meth or heroin in their garages or sheds. We were soon past them.

Red’s was a mile beyond the last stop sign where the city officially ended and the sky gave way to the towering trees that dominated our area for hundreds of miles. We pulled into the gravel lot and at the dark tree line along the perimeter. Climbing out, we were hit by the sound of the forest in in full after-dark swing, crickets chirping, an owl and other birds I couldn’t identify, all of it rhythmic and louder than the human noises coming from the bar.

We crunched across the lot toward the archaic cinder block frame with a roof held up only by the smoke and rock music inside. As we approached, the unlit name of the bar came into focus, painted huge along the wall in swooping yellow letters my Mom would have remembered from when she was young. A few months ago the place had gotten a pretty serious cleaning and a new coat of paint, but it was just lipstick on a pig. The fifty-year-old structure still looked its age, and I mean that in a bad way. We passed between the two blue bug zapper lights and into the music and the smell of rotting ceiling panels and spilled whiskey, threaded the six pool tables, and dodged everyone we knew until we made it to the bar.

Red’s may not have been nice, but it was ours. Everybody we associated with hung out there. It was one of the few places where attitude meant more than what you did or where you worked or what color you were. It was one of the few places above the South Side that Laila felt comfortable going into, and in our town I didn’t blame her.

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These were our lives. I worked at the biggest grocery store for thirty miles and took night classes at the state college a county over. It was a surprisingly liberal college and generally people in town sneered when it came up, but that’s one of the reasons I liked it. I was majoring in math, because I was good enough at it and didn’t know what else to do.

Laila went to school with me but was smarter and took a full load of classes. Her finances were better since the factory her father had worked for paid a serious insurance policy after he died, and she could afford full-time school. She was double majoring in political science and ethnic studies—she would brag that our sociology department was the only one for hundreds of miles with classes that focused on race and ethnicity—and planned to go away for a master’s as soon as she graduated. I would go too, probably as a transfer, but it didn’t matter how. To the hard-working but wildly blue-collar people who lived in our town it was weird that we were even still in school, and our majors were baffling. In our town the options were a factory job, the military, or jail. Half the factories were shuttered and the economy was never going to come back, but people acted like we were putting on airs.

It had always been me and Laila’s plan to get out. We had wanted to leave for college right after high school, but our senior year, when we should have been applying, we’d just been trying to survive. We only applied at the state school because a teacher pushed us to. And besides, if we left, what would David do? He was never going to college. Hell, he barely finished high school. He didn’t aspire to leave the way we did. David bussed tables during the week and cleaned the Motel 6 on the weekends—he would brag that he was the only guy on the maid crew. The motel kept him around despite his often showing up late because he didn’t mind doing dirty work and could lift about anything, and because everyone liked him.

When Laila and me were in class, he would watch TV or play video games or lie out in the mulching grass under the first line of trees where the forest came up to the buildings near our house and stare up at the stars, enviably content. He even slept out there sometimes, just nodding off and not snapping out of it until some bug crawled over his face or the dew set in. One night in January he nearly got himself frostbite but it didn't stop him. He said, “Why waste a perfect night sleeping in a bed? The air's just better outside, man. You can see all the stars.”

I was concerned David didn’t take things more seriously. I saw that as what set Laila and me apart from the rednecks in our town. We took life seriously. We had plans. When his parents died, David became more internal and stopped being distracted by the real world. I used to tell him, “Things're important, David. They have to be.” He always got the same confused look, like I had just interrupted his entire sense of reality, and asked, “Why?” There was never a middle ground, so we generally didn’t discuss it.

Despite that philosophical difference, we were a tight group, maybe brought close by tragedy, but tight all the same. All our parents were long gone—Laila’s father to an industrial accident and her mother to suicide six months later; David’s both to addiction, first opioids and then heroin; mine in a car wreck, hit by a drunk driver. All we had was each other. We lived in Laila’s house, which was more than big enough. She got us all-you-can-eat ribs for free. I got us expired or damaged stuff from the grocery store—food, of course, but mostly household stuff like dish soap. David got us free rooms at the motel to hang out in when we were bored and let us into the motel's pool in hot weather. In a pinch, he could get us a box of those mini bottles of tequila or vodka from the storage room. For as long as we've been together, we took care of each other like that. That’s what family’s for.

David and me have always seen each other as brothers. Mom said he was the first friend I ever made. When his dad finally died from kidney failure and he didn’t have any other close family, my parents took him in. We’ve always been together while other people came and went. People in our lives were always like that—just coming and going. Or dying, like our parents had.

Laila moved to our area in the middle of our freshman year of high school. A lot of people didn’t know how to approach her. She was the only African American in our class and most of our classmates weren’t exactly great at being welcoming. They tried, but just didn’t know how. Most of the Black people in town lived on the South Side and we didn’t interact much. Plus, everyone around here was fairly disdainful of city people, and since she was from Atlanta that was a big strike against her. I liked her because she was from a big city. David liked her because she had more imagination than most of our peers. He would say she came from the stars.

Laila’s father had been recruited to our town as a manager for one of the bigger factories. They had the nicest house of the three of us by far. Her mom didn’t work, but not because she was unemployed like David’s mom. She just didn’t have to.

It’s a good thing we were so close. Junior year, when my parents died, it was Laila’s family that had the space and money to take us in, just like my parents had taken David in. They had strict rules, of course, but her mom told us we were the only two who welcomed her daughter on her first day. So Laila, David, and me became three siblings instead of two, not knowing that soon Laila’s parents would be just as gone as ours.

I still remember Laila’s mother, who had always supported us, sitting in her house for those six months after her husband died, the sympathetic visitors long since stopped coming, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, and feeling a little more ruined every day. She stopped cooking and wouldn’t get out of her bathrobe. We tried to spend more time with her but she didn’t leave her room a lot, and we were all so buried in our own grief. I can’t say I’m surprised she killed herself, and all three of us feel some part of the responsibility. But I could never stop holding it against her that she abandoned her daughter. No one knew better than us that families are supposed to stick together.

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We were at Red's, only one beer in, and playing pool while Laila checked out a factory guy a few tables down. He was lanky and too old for her, but she liked that type. She liked how they never got tired even though they woke up early in the morning and how they never showed up late for a date, never sent a “sorry can’t make it” text. I was hot for a girl near the pinball machine, a girl I'd never seen before, who was hanging out with Leslie Turnell. Seeing a stranger in Red's was odd. I mean, really odd. The whole bar was in whispers.

The new girl was cute. She wore her hair short and it was streaked through with pink and purple. And she had a skirt on, which, well, meant she was the only girl in Red’s not in jeans.

David went to the bar for a shot of whiskey and came back with our second round of beers. “Can we talk about that girl by the pinball machine?” he said, setting the three glasses down on a standing table we were using. “She must've come straight from the stars. A girl like that is not from around here!”

Laila, who always threw her support to the underdog, came to my aid. “Relax, Davie. Joel’s already got his eyes on her. Just pick up one of those trashy girls at the standing tables by the bar. Try asking one of ‘em for a quickie in the forest. They’d prefer it to your room, for sure!”

David checked out the girls in that corner of the room and said, “Actually the brunette—what’s her name? Michelle or something—has had some quickies out there. Her and Jimmy French woke me up one night last summer when I was sleeping off some drinks by the berry bushes just off the parking lot. They nearly smacked down on top of me. He was more embarrassed about it than she was.”

Laila flicked her eyelids. “Why am I not surprised?” She paused and looked around. “Jesus, other than Factory Guy there’s not a real man in here.”

“Hey!” we both said, incredulous.

We shot a few games of pool before David got liquored up enough to try picking up one of the girls. She must have thought his line was good since she didn’t slap him, and soon after they left together. We knew he'd be back, smiling and laughing whether anything happened or not. Once he was gone, Laila and me talked about school for a bit. David got bored when we talked about it in front of him. But, as though he knew, I got a text from him. It read, “Be back later. Stop talking about school and make a move on New Girl!” Laila and I had a laugh at that, then she started in on encouraging me to go after New Girl.

“You seeing the looks everyone’s giving her? You need to make your move before the competition gets heated. Too many of these people get drunk and she’ll be swatting them off.” We were openly staring at her while we talked, but she was alternating paying attention to Leslie and texting.

“I know. I’m still trying to figure out who she is. Why is she hanging out with Leslie Turnell?”

“They must be related.”

“Well, I didn’t wear my nice shirt for nothing. But you’re going to make a move on Factory Guy.”

“Fine with me.”

We returned the pool balls to the bartender and agreed to meet at the bar in ten minutes or text if we needed more time.

New Girl was cuter up close, with big city hazel eyes, and she was real nice. She was twenty, maybe twenty-two, and in the dim light it was hard to tell if her hair was black or dark brown under the colors, but it was short either way. Leslie was a senior in high school but she was savvy enough to know what was going on. She focused on the pinball machine, giving us space.

While we flirted, the new girl pulled out a slim Parliament and lit it with a lighter smaller than her thumb. That's when I knew for sure she was from a city, I mean a real city. People from big cities always use really small lighters and people from small towns always have really big lighters. David noticed that working in the motel. Besides, most people around here smoked Marlboros or vaped. I asked if she was interested in a game of pool with me and a couple of friends. She looked at the back of Leslie's head and I was quick to add, “Her, too.”

“Sure,” she said, and turned to Leslie. “Come over when you’re done.” This girl was calm in all the wrong ways. Her shirt was light blue and cut with a hole to show off the center of her back. Just the edge of a tattoo, big and in color, was visible running down her right side. I waved Laila over from the bar and she came back with the same balls we had just returned, as well as a tray with four beers, two for us, two for Leslie and New Girl.

I never figured out where she came from. Her name was Aria, one of those names we heard on TV when we stayed in the motel and watched shows none of us would admit to watching the next day, shows that took place so far from our tiny world. David came back pretty quick with some mud on his shirt that he’d smeared trying to dust off. He stopped by the bar and then came over, smiling. He was holding five beers—three in one of his giant hands and two in the other. The girl he left with never came back. Before we could ask about the half-hour he'd been gone, he said, “Hey guys! Hey New Girl! Nice to see you at our table.” He set down the two beers and picked up Laila's half-empty one, drinking it in three or four chugs before asking if she minded.

We played pool for more than an hour, and that whole time I didn't really think I had a shot with Aria. I was just killing time and rolling the dice. But she returned my smiles and stood close enough to let me smell her perfume, vanilla and some kind of flower I couldn’t place. She didn't wear too much but it made my nose itch—I wasn't used to smelling perfume. Then she took my hand in between shots. We kissed a few times and moved ourselves to the corner of the bar where we had a little more privacy.

Honestly, I don’t know if I would’ve gotten her home, but tell that to Joey Turnell who’d been working in the garage all day and then gotten liquored up and was looking to howl. Turnell had driven over from one of the redneck bars in his fucking Mustang to pick up Leslie and Aria, and was probably already in a bad mood about having to do that. It turns out Aria was their cousin, and Turnell wasn't happy when he saw us making out. But I think he was just looking for an excuse.

Turnell wasn’t big but he was tall, and he was menacing in the way loose cannons are. The second he spotted Aria and me he stalked toward us. David and Laila saw him coming at me and moved in behind him, but none of us knew why he was there or why he singled me out. He looked like he wanted a fight. I’d been in a couple of fights but wasn’t any good at it. Turnell would hand my ass to me without breaking a sweat. But I had all the beer in me, and I’d just been making out with a pretty girl, and I felt like nothing bad could happen.

“Aria,” he started after sneering at me, “we’re leaving. I gotta take Leslie home and you're coming too!”

With all those eyes on us Aria must have felt the need to defend herself or her autonomy. Her voice could have broken windows with its fury. “Like hell you are! I didn't come here to be bossed around by you. I'm twenty! I can get home my own way. Or maybe I won't come home at all. There’s people here who would let me spend the night at their place, you know.”

“Him?” Turnell snarled, violence competing with alcohol in his voice as he pointed a greasy finger at my chest. The earlier high of invincibly washed out of me. I should have run right then—I could see on his face what was coming. I knew I could make it to the door, and that maybe the violence in him would be satisfied if I ran and he wouldn’t need to chase me, but my panic had nailed me to the floor. I just stared, seeing an escape and not taking it.

David reacted better, moving quickly, taking a guy's pool cue and separating us by a good swinging distance. Laila moved herself between me and Turnell, hoping she could distract him, that some sense of chivalry wouldn’t let him hit a girl, but we knew more than one of his girlfriends had ended up in the hospital, so I didn’t think chivalry was going to stop him if she got in his way. All of Red’s was watching but everyone seemed to take a step back. The distance between us was empty, but filling quickly with his rage and my fear. I was hoping Aria would talk him down.

“With him?” Turnell demanded again, sweating rage at being talked back to in front of everyone.

“Now!” I thought. “Get out!” But I just started at him, playing dead.

Aria must not have known any better. “Of course with him, you asshole!” One of her slender hands tried to slap down his finger. Laila said “shit” and made a move to grab him as he came at me, but Turnell was past her like she wasn’t even there. I was stuck in place, my brain not sending the commands it should have. All I could do was move my arms up to protect my head, and even that was too slow. Turnell probably didn’t feel David’s cue snap across his back as he pulverized my nose. The next thing I knew he was dragging me by my shirt and shoulder into the darkness of the parking lot through the back door. I flailed my arms uselessly against his grip.

Laila was grabbing to stop him while David pummeled him from behind, trying to pin his arms. Everyone poured out behind us but no one else was stepping in to help. Turnell broke David’s grip, flattened him with a fist, and shrugged Laila off. Seeing them attacked, I finally did something. I managed a kick to his shin but it was a desperate move. He went down but was up faster than me or David could react and picked up a broken bottle from the gravel. I saw the light glint off the jagged edges as he lunged. I turned quick to run. I felt it tear through the back of my shirt. I felt the cold. Then I was on my back on the ground. I could smell metal. I thought maybe he had hit me with a pipe or a wrench or something, but it was blood from my broken nose. The night was just starting to get damp and I was lying there in the blue bug zapper light staring up at the stars, and for a moment I swear all I could think was how pissed I was my shirt was ruined.

David was over me, apologizing over and over again and saying something about Turnell driving away. Laila was on my other side, sobbing. There were people everywhere all talking too fast for me to understand. I just heard the owl and the crickets and felt the cold, no pain at all, not much of anything. Staring up at the stars from the open space of the parking lot, the sky seemed like a bubble and the trees around the border curled up as though they were growing flat against the inside of it. The stars and the trees were in focus more than the people around me, and I thought, “This is what David feels all the time.” It was a cold that wasn’t bothersome, and I wasn’t in any pain and I had no reason to move, and the stars were as close as the people next to me. That was his life, and lying there bleeding into the gravel, I didn’t mind it. After all these years, maybe it took Joey Turnell stabbing me with a bottle to make me understand my best friend better.

The stars were blinking in front of me, or else it was the flashing lights from an ambulance or police car, I don’t know. I just remember watching the sky above me grow round, and the trees and Red’s were pressed against the inside of it and everything was dark except the sky, and the stars were blinking in and out, in and out, in and out, and then I looked at David again and he was streaked with blood and looked so serious—it was the first time in years I had seen him serious like that—and then the stars winked in and out again. 

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I woke up in the biggest hospital in the area, not so far from school, actually. I hadn’t been there since Laila’s mom died. David and Laila were both there, also a vase of flowers and a balloon. My own town had stabbed me in the back with a broken bottle, but at least I got a balloon out of it.

Laila saw me looking at them and explained, “The flowers are from Leslie Turnell. She dropped them off yesterday. She was crying, and talked about how sorry Joey was. She said he turned himself in.”

“He out already?” I asked. My throat was dry and felt torn inside. My voice was a desert. David winced hearing it. He still looked so serious. Some part of him must have learned to be serious while I was lying in the parking lot.

 “They’re holding him until they talk to you.” Laila explained. “Leslie said he never expected the bottle to cut so deep, that he just wanted to scare you. He says he doesn’t know how he lost control that bad.”

“For what it’s worth,” David broke in, “apparently he cut the shit out of his own hand when he stuck you with the bottle. Must have bled all over the inside of his car.”

I didn’t have anything to say. It was nice of her to bring flowers. I felt bad for her, having to come here and apologize for something that wasn’t her fault.

“The upside is you’ll probably get free drinks at Red’s for years!” David said, because of course he said that. I tried to laugh but my body wasn’t up to it.

When the doctor came in and talked at me, I missed a lot of what he said. I certainly heard words like “spine” and “some nerve damage” and “rehab.” Maybe it was the morphine, but with David on one side and Laila holding my hand on the other, listening to the doctor lay out my injuries, it was like looking up at the bubble of stars—I’m sure everything he said was important, but I just wasn’t concerned. I’d lived through worse things.

I’d do rehab, and then I’d graduate, and, finally, move on. There was nothing here for me except David and Laila, and they would be my family whether I stayed or left. After staring up at the sky like David had all those times, I saw that from his point of view. He always knew we would leave. He’d been preparing for it all those nights, preparing to be alone again like after his parents, or to come with us, or to accept whatever life gave him.  

“You’re going to have to stay in the hospital for a while,” the doctor said, and paused to let it sink in.

David spoke up again, trying not to laugh, “Man, I know you wanted to get out of town, but moving to the hospital is pretty extreme!” Laila moved to shove him but I laughed at it. I laughed with him, a laugh worth the pain in my throat, and then she laughed, too.

 
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Chris is a writer and librarian in San Francisco. His work has been featured in Carbon Culture Review, Eclectica Magazine, the Laurel Review, Transfer, and the upcoming 42 Stories Anthology. His story "The Psychic and the Foodie" received second place in the 2018 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award. You can find Chris at @chris_s_burns, @RantyLibrarian, and www.chris-s-burns.com.

Consolation

Mary E. Plouffe

 

She knew there wasn’t a thing about this that made sense.

Miriam took pride in knowing who she was and what was true. Goodness knows, she was almost forty, old enough to let go of any “fancy ideas” as her mother would have called them. “Miriam, we’re just plain folk; nothing to be ashamed of in that,” her mother told her growing up. “Don’t set your sights too high and you won’t be disappointed.”

She had flirted with a life once years ago; married a bright-eyed, loud-talking boy from Bangor when they were both twenty-two. The night the blue lights pulled into her driveway she knew it had been foolish, a silly fantasy. She grieved that more than the boy. The next weekend she went up alone to see where the accident happened: high on a bluff, a sharp corner where the Rangeley Lakes surprised you as you came around the curve. It was easy to see his eye caught a second too long, going a bit too fast, before the car hit the ledge. Ma had let her move back without even an “I told you so”.

In the years since Willy died, she kept to herself. She worked at the diner, where the familiar smell of fried eggs and bacon grounded her each morning. At night she filled in at the Clam Shack when they needed extra help. That was mostly in the summers when tourists and truckers packed the booths until the sun was almost gone. It made for a long day; breakfast at the diner, then closing the shack and cleaning up with Sal after all the folks left. But the ache it left in her loins felt good, complete somehow.

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It must have been in early summer, she thought, counting backwards. Must have been, but God knows if she could remember. Right now all she felt was stupid. Thirty-nine and pregnant. She hadn’t even considered that the thickening around her waist was anything more than helping Sal finish up the lemon merengue too many nights at closing.

Maybe the doc got it wrong, and I’m starting the change. Maybe my luck is changing and I should start playing the lottery. Stupid thoughts like that kept rumbling around in her head, pushing out anything sensible, like what the hell she was going to do about this.

She and Willy had talked about kids years ago, one fall night when they were drinking in a half empty café. “Maybe someday,” Willy had tossed off, “but we got a lot of practicing to do before then.” He winked, she laughed. God, they were young. Thought the whole world was there for the taking, whenever they wanted it. She knew better now. 

There had been no boyfriends since Willy died. The first few years she had chances, but after a while, word got around. “Miriam’s a pretty one but not interested,” she heard one of her brother’s friends mutter. “It’s a waste, I say.”

The truckers sometimes looked her up and down over a plate of clams, checked out her figure and lifted their eyebrows in that universal interested? sign. That never worked. She had no interest in the whole merry-go-round of partying and prettiness; of looking good, and tossing your hair and wondering what curve would take the next one.

She only went with the ones who didn’t look. The ones who skipped the usual foreplay dance. It was something behind their eyes that caught her. She called it consolation. She could feel it in the way they nursed their coffee, ran a finger around the cup’s edge and read the coffee grounds. She liked it best when they didn’t talk, when the simple touch she offered was taken silently, gratefully, like an exhausted child falling asleep in your arms.

She never let herself remember the nights she went with someone. She turned off that part of her brain that would record a face or a few words of interest in seeing her again. “No, sorry, I shouldn’t have done this” was her standard lie. It let them think she was married, making a one-time mistake, giving them both permission to forget. If they showed up again at the diner she ignored them, and returned their questioning gaze with a gray wall of blankness. Nope, wasn’t me, it said. Most men were too proud to break through that.

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She knew what her mother would have said. Get rid of it. Stupid to let it happen. She could hear her mother’s voice in her head. Ma always started with the conclusion and skipped the arguments unless you fought her. Even when she told Miriam about her cancer, she started at the end. “I’m dying soon,” she said, “probably before summer.”

Miriam didn’t like thinking about her mother since she’d gone. It wasn’t sadness. It just took her to a harsh place, a coldness in the pit of her stomach that didn’t feel good. But what was in the pit of her stomach now was different: a shaky, quivering feeling that had nothing to do with her life. But there it was. And how it got there didn’t matter.

She knew she wasn’t meant to be a mother. She decided years ago that Willy’s death had been a blessing in that way. If he’d lived, they might have found themselves with kids without thinking. They could have become like so many other folks she saw, like her own mother was, burdened with children she had no idea how to nurture, no idea how to love.  

“You’ve got some time to decide,” the doctor had said. “I can arrange it in Bangor if you want. Not something I like doing myself,” he mumbled apologetically, then added, “It’s up to you. Just let me know and I’ll make the call.”

That was almost a month ago now, and she wished she had asked about time. How much time, she should have asked. But she said nothing when she left.

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Then the crazy thoughts started. Silly ideas about winning the lottery, or entering a contest for a cruise to the Caribbean. They made her laugh some days, like this whole pregnancy thing was lodged in her brain, cutting off her sensible side and teasing her that if this bizarre bad thing happened, maybe some good stuff could happen, too. But it was a waste of time. What she needed to think about was what to do. And she just couldn’t get her head to slow down enough to make a plan. It wasn’t that complicated, really. Take a few days off, call in with the flu, and get it done, she told herself when the thoughts died down. That’s it, that’s all there is.

But then the probability parade of madness began again, and she was like a kid sitting on the curb, watching the floats go by, one more fantastic than the next. Maybe I should pick up the guitar again, the one I played in high school. Maybe the recipe I put together for pumpkin cinnamon pie could win that magazine contest I saw in Woman’s Day last week. Maybe I ought to hop on a cross-country bus to Alaska, go see those glaciers they show on T.V. specials. What was going on? Was she really just scared and mad, and losing her mind now, too?

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Can’t let myself get like Hazel, Miriam thought. The possibility made her shiver. Poor Hazel, who’d been on the corner for years, leaning on the old lamp post, wrapping and re-wrapping herself in a ratty old blanket no matter what the weather. Sometimes, Miriam brought her a cup of coffee and a few broken cookies from the diner. “Praise the Lord,” Hazel would say as she took them, but her eyes never moved from the food, and Miriam never spoke. At least I’ve got my senses, Miriam always thought as she walked away. I should be grateful for that.

There was no one she could tell. Certainly not her brother, who’d drive her nuts trying to guess who the father was. He’d get all pumped up about her having a secret lover, and make it seem like she’d finally joined the human race. He’d think even less of her if she could get him to believe the truth; she wasn’t hiding anything. She really didn’t know.

For the first time, she felt bad about that. Bad about not knowing the names or the faces of the men she took consolation with. Somehow, it didn’t matter before, but now it felt small and selfish. She wasn’t sure why. She’d never have tracked him down; even if she knew which one was the father.  Telling some stranger he’d made her pregnant made no sense at all. This was her problem to be solved, her mistake to correct. That’s all there was to it.

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The calendar seemed to scrape at her. First it was Labor Day. This year that simple marker of summer’s end was taunting. Then, on September 16th, her birthday. It felt awkward to cross the line to forty, as though she should have grown into her own skin by now. Instead it felt like she was going backwards, less certain than ever about who lived there.

The last Sunday in September, she took a ride out to Freedom. There was a place out there she liked, a small marshy pond formed by the Sebasticook River drainage from the north. It was shallow and weedy and the water was always warm. There wasn’t much public access, but she’d found a way in one time, a place for a single car to park and a path that led to one of the coves. She came here once in a while to think. She liked the idea that a powerful river slowed itself somehow to create this small, quiet place, where turtles sunned themselves on protruding logs, and blue herons fished for trout.

At the southern end the pond became a river again, winding its way south to Sebago Lake. She’d been there once or twice, but it was too big to sit with, too expansive to find your own thoughts. Sandy Pond was the right size, and, except for the occasional grumpy fisherman who wanted silence as much as she did, she would be alone.

Today, that was not true. As the trail rounded the corner, she saw a figure wrapped in a familiar blanket. Miriam stopped, but it was too late to turn. Hazel had seen her. How did she get here? It was miles from town, and it seemed impossible that Hazel even existed away from the town corner where she was a fixture—like the antique lamp post. They had never had a conversation, but it felt wrong to turn away and leave.

She started to walk again, planning to nod a greeting and keep moving. But then Hazel spoke. “Sit,” she said simply. “Sit.” It was a command more than an invitation, but it was said gently, as if by someone who knew what you needed more than you did. Miriam let herself down on the soft mossy undergrowth, picked up a few brittle brown leaves, and turned them to dust between her fingers.

“Winter’s coming soon,” Hazel said.

“I guess,” Miriam said softly.

“Best you figure it out before then.”

“What do you mean?” Miriam looked at her, frightened for a moment.

“Don’t know, but I can see it on your face. Something’s eating at ya.”

Miriam hesitated, then Hazel went on, “When your mind’s as messed up as mine, you get so you read faces pretty good, so you know what’s real to be afraid of. I’m not afraid of you, though. I like them cookies you bring.”  

“Why are you here?”

“Got a little shack up the trail a bit, and a rowboat somebody left. It quiets my mind to sit in it, float on the water and let it carry me.”

Miriam closed her eyes then, and the smell of wet reeds brought tears. “I’m pregnant.” Her voice startled her, but once it was out she did not stop. She began in a whisper, but as the story grew, she rocked from side to side, and the gently wailing sound got stronger. “I didn’t mean… I don’t know… I can’t seem to…”

Then the story flowed out of her like a river, washing over them both. She told Hazel about the men, about how she didn’t even remember whose child it might be. She told her about feeling stuck, knowing what she wanted and not being able to do anything to make it happen. She didn’t know why, but she found herself telling Hazel about how Willy died and about her own mother too, how that dried-up old witch never knew anything about caring. Hazel did not move.

When it was done, Miriam was exhausted. She lay back on the wet grass. The only thing she’d held back were the crazy thoughts and the idea that she might be losing her mind. Sparing Hazel’s feelings, she thought, then winced. Who are you to judge?

“Anyway, that is my mess of a life,” she said a bit too loudly, as though to pull back some fragment of self-respect. She could feel Hazel’s expression, a soft nod in response.

“River-blessed,” Hazel said. Gently, like a priest offering benediction, she leaned over and kissed Miriam’s forehead. Her lips just grazed the skin and were gone before Miriam could move. She felt Hazel’s breath, the soft “s” sound wash across her face.

“What did you say?” Miriam was confused, but not afraid.

“You are river-blessed with a child,” Hazel spoke reverently. “Ah, yes, river-blessed.”

She began to sing softly under her breath:

Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel’s feet have trod?

With its crystal tide forever, flowing by the throne of God.

Hazel’s voice was low and soft, and Miriam breathed it in, letting the gospel melody surround her like a comforter. The phrases were familiar, the melody stored like a lullaby deep inside. Hazel seemed gone, absorbed inside the music. Miriam closed her eyes and let herself float on the sound.

Yes, we will gather by the river… the beautiful, the beautiful river,

gather with the saints at the river… that flows by the throne of God.

Soon we’ll reach the shining river… soon our pilgrimage will cease,

soon our happy hearts will quiver…

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When Miriam awoke, Hazel was gone. She had no sense of how long she had slept, except that the sun was low in the sky, and the air was beginning to bite. She shivered, pulled her jacket around her, and rose. She stood for a moment, deciding, and then continued down the trail, following it around to the next cove. The rowboat was there, sitting in the reeds. It was small and dirty, and there was green paint peeling a bit on the sides, but it looked sturdy.

Without hesitation, Mariam climbed inside. She began to row toward the center of the pond. Everything looked different from here; the shape of the land, the trees and the small islands dotting the water. Only twenty feet from shore and it’s not the same, she thought. She rowed a bit more, and then pulled the oars in. Her mind was quiet now, and she did not want to move.

She looked down at the water. The first few inches were clear, but it was murkier below. She could see water moving down there, swirling and waving the marsh grass and reeds attached somewhere deep beneath. She could see the flow.

Not yet, she thought. I’ll sit for a minute more. She put her hands on her stomach, gently. I don’t need to rush. The voice in her head was kind, gentler somehow.

Whenever you are ready. Dip your hand. Touch the river.

Feel what it brings.

 
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Mary E. Plouffe Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author who lives in beautiful southern Maine. She has published essays on NPR, Mothers Always Write, Brain, and Child Magazine, among others. Her memoir, I Know it in My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child (May 2017) was recently chosen as the Independent Publishers of New England 2018 Book of the Year. You can find Mary on Facebook, at www.maryeplouffeauthor.com, and www.maryplouffe.com.