Fiction: Anthony Wallace
Couples do different things when they’re about to break up. Charlie and I fly to New Mexico. We spend the afternoon in the lounge of the Albuquerque Hilton, drinking margaritas. They don’t proof me. I look older, I’ve always looked older. Charlie tells me I was born older.
“I can come out here and get a leg up,” Charlie says, licking salt from the rim of his glass. “If I’m going to work in the casino business then I should make as much money as I can.” He’s got on a lime-green golf shirt and tan chinos, and his thinning blond hair is clipped straight across the forehead, like Caesar, maybe, but a little boy Caesar, which makes me melt for him when I think about it. Charlie can still do that: he can still cause me unexpectedly to melt.
“That’s true,” I say, ruffling his bangs with my little finger. “Time is money, baby. Tick, tick, tick.”
Charlie’s friend Rodman is helping with the startup of Indian gaming. The Indians are working on a compact with the state to expand their bingo halls into full-fledged casinos and Rodman called Charlie up to say that there is money to be made, fun to be had. He wants to put a few people he can trust around him while he jockeys for position.
“I’ve got to take this, I think,” Charlie says, stroking my hair, tugging the silver buckle at my throat. “I’ve got to start thinking about the future, Amber. What about you?”
After the drinks we drive into Old Town, buzzed on mescal, energetic and trippy. The streets have this hushed quality, as if it’s one of the unspoken rules of the place that you shouldn’t be in a hurry. The buildings are old, stately, with historical plaques on the doors and fenceposts. There are a lot of people who look like Asians walking around and I decide that they are the Indians, the Native Americans of New Mexico. The white guys you see have long hair and wear bell-bottomed jeans and the girls wear denim skirts and blouses overflowing with embroidery, and I’ve never considered that a different part of the United States could really be, well, so different. New Mexico, we learn in one of the brochures I’ve picked up at the front desk, was settled by the conquistadors who came up from Central America on rumors of the lost city of gold, Eldorado.
“Gaily bedight,” Charlie says.
“It’s Poe, from a poem called ‘Eldorado.’ A knight sets out to find gold but finds death instead.”
Charlie was an English major in college, about a hundred years ago, and is always throwing that stuff around, famous lines from literature and film, and I like that, I mean, I always thought I’d be with a guy who had some education, but then again he hasn’t really done anything with it, either. He often complains that he can’t figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. Myself, I’m still in school. I’m nineteen years old, actually. I’ve been with Charlie since I was sixteen. Some people have a problem with that, but I know Charlie’s always done what’s best for me. In fact, I’m sure that if it doesn’t work out I’ll never again have a man treat me as well as Charlie has.
“I can take the shift boss job,” Charlie explains, “and you can transfer to the University of New Mexico. This could definitely be cool.”
He pulls me by the hand down the winding leafy streets of Old Town, ristras on the painted doors and in the windows and hanging down from the spindle-posted galleries, dried red peppers everywhere you look. At the Museum of Natural History we watch a movie about the Anasazi, “the people.” Their civilization flourished for centuries, then disappeared without a trace. The film shows naked, primitive people jumping around in a stream, their faces covered with mud.
“Just vanished,” Charlie says at the refreshment stand, and he makes his fingertips go poof as if he right then and there might suddenly vanish into thin air. “A few petroglyphs, a bunch of caves heaped with broken pottery and animal bones. And that’s it, babycakes; that’s all she wrote on that piece of rock.”
“I want to get married, start a family,” Charlie says to me deep in the night. He is up over me, huge in the silver light that seeps in around the edges of the drapery. “Do yourself a favor and wise up.”
“I’m trying to get wise, Charlie,” I say, fitting myself against him. “I really am.”
Charlie was married once, before I met him, to a girl named Tina. He’s got pictures of her doing all his friends. He’s even got a picture of her doing his dog, only a handjob, but still. That was in the eighties, all the cocaine and depravity: in the end he just sat back and took Polaroids. With me he liked to brag that he’d gotten a good one and trained her right. And my mom, June, was liberal enough about it; she knew I’d only sneak around anyway. Sometimes she’d come over to our apartment and Charlie would make Old Fashioneds, which is her favorite drink. June always drank too much and got weepy and asked Charlie how he was treating her little girl.
“Good, as far as I know,” Charlie would say, throwing a protective arm around my shoulder. And it was true: he sent me to college, bought me clothes. I’ve never worked a job in my life except for the year before I met Charlie when I was waitressing weekends at the Portland Café in Ventnor, which is downbeach from Atlantic City. Charlie was living down the street, having breakfast and then catching the jitney to work, a big friendly guy in expensive clothes, a casino pit boss who tipped five dollars for a five-dollar breakfast.
It wasn’t long before he had me in his power.
For the first few weeks I’d go over to his place after school and we’d just kiss. I’d get all heated up and then he’d send me home. Some nights we’d sit drinking with his friends at this lopsided picnic table in the kitchen. They were all younger casino people who rented rooms from Charlie in the ramshackle shore house he himself rented from an old lady who had been friendly with his mother and who now lived in Jupiter Beach, Florida. Charlie and his friend Stan the drunken plumber had their names on the lease and sublet rooms by the month, sometimes even by the week. Stan tinkered with the utility meters. It was like a big, goofy commune, with Charlie as the leader. All the girls who lived there were after Charlie, but it was me that he chose. He brought me up to sit by him at the table one night and put his arm around me and that was that. As soon as we slept together he told me to quit the luncheonette and concentrate on my schoolwork. Sometimes, late at night, he liked to do my hair. He’d pick out my clothes, ask me about my friends, nodding approval or disapproval at what I told him. I thought he was a weirdo but I kept going back for more, I wasn’t sure why except that I felt safe with him. At the same time the sex started getting rougher. He’d try things, whisper in my ear, “Is it good? Do you like that?” The spankings got harder, then he used a stick or a straightened coat hanger. And I wore all the plaid skirts, the English schoolgirl outfits he picked out for me. My friends laughed, but I didn’t care. It turned me on that I was turning him on, my little plaid skirt and white stockings, the patent leather Mary Janes and the Coach dog collar and my dimpled, upturned bum.
Next morning we have breakfast in the room then drive out to Rodman’s casino, The Florecita Gaming Palace, which is in the desert twenty miles south of Albuquerque. It’s low and long and white, like an oversized igloo, with turquoise and gold and tangerine patterns screaming off the stuccoed sides of it. Inside the place is quiet, a few coins trickling like bright water through the slot machines. At the far end a bingo game is in progress, a row of Indian ladies sitting with their cards spread out in front of them like all the fat tired ladies at every bingo game in the world. To the left you go up a few steps to a room with a snack bar, about eight blackjack tables, a roulette wheel, and a craps table. It looks like something they’d rig back east for a fundraiser at a Catholic school.
“This is your leg up?” I say.
“Don’t be so fast,” Charlie says. He goes up to a small, dried out woman with beige hair at a podium next to the snack bar and asks for Rodman who, as it turns out, is in a meeting. Charlie plays five-dollar blackjack to pass the time. There are a few people in flannel shirts and jeans milling around the games. The dealers root for the players and remark on players’ hands and what they should do and, from Charlie’s standpoint, the whole thing is very unprofessional. He gets up from one table after the dealer has apologized three times for taking his money.
“It’s your job,” Charlie tells him, picking up his chips and moving to a seat at the next table. We’ve been here less than thirty minutes and already Charlie is chasing his money while I sit in a chair backed out into the aisle, watching him. The dealer stares at me, deals another hand, looks some more, smiles. His face is tight and shiny, all lines and angles, topped off with kinky blond hair that appears to be preserved under about ten coats of Afro-Sheen. He’s muscular in a stringy, pulled-out sort of way, and you can see the hard contours of his body shift and move underneath the turquoise and purple dealer’s shirt, which is open at the throat. A golden head of Jesus tilts and bobs in the hollow beneath his Adam’s apple: suffering face; barbed, bloody crown of thorns.
“Well, well,” he says, slapping down the cards. “Pret-ty, pret-ty la-dy.” His eyes go flooey in their sockets. He smiles a set of long skinny teeth that look as if they’ve been set in plaster of Paris. “You know her?” he says to Charlie. “She bothering you?”
“She’s been following me around,” Charlie tells him, and laughs his amused, above-it-all Charlie laugh. “I can’t seem to shake her.”
“She ask you for money?”
“All day long.”
The blackjack dealer runs his tongue quickly over the tops of his teeth. Charlie is laughing but not turning around to see if I’m laughing too.
“I’ll call security,” the blackjack dealer says. The nameplate on the front of his shirt says: Maurice Baltimore. He turns to get the attention of the supervisor standing directly behind him.
Charlie says, “I was kidding. Oh gosh, you’re not serious.”
“That’s one seriously pretty lady,” he says.
“Deal the cards,” Charlie says. But Maurice Baltimore stands there as if he’s decided to take a break. He looks at me until I look away. He’s staring at my face, my breasts, my bare legs crossed beneath the short plaid skirt.
“So she is with you?”
“Sure,” Charlie says. “What did you think?”
“I don’t know,” Maurice says. “I only know what people tell me.”
“I’m with him and we’re here to see his friend Mister Rodman,” I say, and glare back at him.
“Oh well then.” But he keeps staring at me, eyes blue as a China plate, slapping the cards down in short precise strokes and smiling the entire time, his mouth rearranging itself moment by moment, his expressions changing like a video run at fast-forward. “You folks from around here?”
“I’m here to see my friend Rodman about a job,” Charlie says. “We’re from Atlantic City.”
“Rodman is cool,” Maurice Baltimore says. “You a friend of Rodman then you must be cool, too.”
“I am,” Charlie says, and puts down a bet for him in the spot next to his own money.
“The green stuff is very cool.”
“How long’ve you been doing this?” Charlie asks.
“Man, I been out here about nearly three or four months,” Maurice Baltimore explains. He stops at the end of the hand and starts talking to Charlie as if there isn’t a game to deal or other people who are waiting for their cards. “I hed a dream,” he tells Charlie. “I was working in this crab house. Man, you get to smell of the job. Cooking crabs all day long in the Innermotherlovingharbor. That was me, and one day a little voice said, ‘You have some Old Bay, Mo, how about some New Bay?’ So I hed a dream, and in this dream the voice told me to pack up my car and drive to New Mexico. Two days nonstop, baby, and that was one hell of a ride. I came out here to this place and the man said, ‘Can you deal blackjack?’ And I said, ‘No I can’t, but I can if you show me how!’ They were so desperate for people to run these games that they took me off the street and put me right to work. It’s an amazing phenomenon how a body gets around in this world. But one thing I say and that is, if you hear voices then you better either listen to them or go see a doctor.”
The other players laugh, four dark-skinned guys who look like Indians, or Mexicans, or some combination of the two. Baltimore is white, seems white: tight blond Afro, sandy-colored mustache and chin whiskers. Only his speech and mannerisms are black, in an exaggerated way, as if he might be putting us on, but who knows him or who he is or what he might do or not do.
He deals another hand, pointing the cards downward, his long fingers decorated in turquoise and silver. “Joints are doing well,” he tells Charlie, “but the state is trying to close us down.”
“Is that right?” Charlie asks. He knows very well that the Indians don’t have a compact in place. That’s the trouble with moving out here: the job could disappear in a year or two.
“The state doesn’t want us to have it,” the guy sitting next to Charlie says. “The state says it would be bad for the people and their image. What does the state know? It’s all about the white man keeping the red man down, the same worn tune.”
“Amen to that,” Maurice says.
The guy looks at Charlie and says, “Not you, I mean, but you know, the government.”
“I know, I know,” Charlie says, “I’m totally sympathetic. I have friends who work for the Indians in Connecticut. They’re only about a sixteenth Indian and pay not one penny of federal income tax. I mean, they don’t even look like Indians.”
“Man is sympathetic,” Maurice says. “Man is overspilling with the milk of human sympathy.”
“Actually,” Charlie says, “it’s funny: they look like black people.”
“What’s funny about that?” Maurice wants to know. “What exactly is funny about looking like a black person?”
“Nothing,” Charlie says, “except it’s funny if you’re supposed to be an Indian.”
“Maybe I’m an Indian,” Maurice says. “Maybe that’s why that voice told me to come out here to live in the desert. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to tell you why. I mean, I like it here but, you know, there’s no trees. I miss the green is what I’m trying to say. I’ve got to see some green!”
Charlie bets for him, says, “Here’s some green for you,” then loses that hand and five more.
“No luck today,” Maurice says when Charlie finally stands up. “Bye-bye, pretty lady,” he says to me. “Come back when you can stay awhile.”
Charlie goes over to the desk to see if Rodman is available, but the woman we talked to earlier says that he’s still in a meeting. She’s got a cigarette smoker’s lined face and is wearing a cheap tan suit, pilled at the elbows and waist. “He’ll be sorry he missed you,” she says. “Why don’t you have some lunch on us?”
“We’re going out to see some sights,” Charlie tells her. “I’ll call him later.”
When we get outside the noontime heat hits me like my knees are going to buckle. I feel sick to my stomach and I’m trying not to shake.
“This place is strictly amateur night,” Charlie says. “I can’t believe I’m stuck two hundred dollars on a chickenshit game like that.”
We’ve rented a fire-engine red Mustang with a white convertible top. It’s April now, chill and melty in the east; here it’s warm and dry and you can see snow on the peaks of the mountains north of here, up toward Santa Fe. We ride with the top down and I feel good again. I put the whole weird episode with Maurice Baltimore behind me. There’s no figuring Charlie sometimes. I mean, you could argue that he felt that the whole thing was beneath him. After all, what competition, what threat from some lunatic dealing blackjack out in the middle of the desert? I go to move closer to him but the stick shift is in the way. We drive the highway up into the hills.
“I want to go over to this pueblo where they’re having a special feast day,” I tell Charlie. “It’s one of only two days a year when outsiders are invited.” He studies the map in the guidebook when we pull over at a high cliff that overlooks a little brown valley with boxy yellow houses scattered over it. The guidebook says that pueblo is a synonym for tribe, for the physical space that the tribe occupies, or for an individual in a tribe. The guidebook explains: “The people and where they live and their identity as individuals is not distinguishable, one from the other.”
The San Ysidro Pueblo is farther up in the hills. The fields and open spaces shimmer in the heat, the dip and curve of the sparse rocky landscape that leads to a place where the San Ysidro Indians have been living for centuries. Cars are parked every which way, older-make American models with dull paint jobs and dinged fenders and mangy blistered vinyl tops. Charlie pulls the Mustang beside a shallow ditch. A line of people is moving steadily in one direction; we fall in line and get moved along with them. On the left side of the dirt road are trailers with TV antennas bending from the roofs like dead trees, and the sides of the trailers are patched with scraps of sheet metal and painted different mismatched colors.
“Like another country,” Charlie says. “Strictly Third World.”
“It’s how they live,” I say.
We walk up about fifty yards, then down into a little gorge, people everywhere, Indians and also some white people wearing Western clothes. The Indians, too, wear cowboy hats, some of them. It seems that every man but Charlie is wearing boots. There is a sound of chanting and beating drums that gets louder as we walk along. Finally we stop at a place so crowded that we can barely raise our arms. A gigantic stag’s head is hanging from the peak of a barn at the far end of an open field, antlers tipped against the desert’s electric blue sky, the dancing men lined up on either side draped in animal skins, their faces painted with dark, scary colors.
“Elk’s head,” Charlie says. “Look at the goddam size of it.” The man next to him shuffles his feet and spits on the ground. Charlie keeps staring at the dancers. “They dance all day,” he says. “It’s their ritual. I feel like I’ve broken in on something sacred.”
“They invited us,” I say.
“We should go,” Charlie says. “We should leave these people to live their own lives.”
An old woman sits on the wooden steps of her trailer, tossing dried corn to a gathering of small black birds. Two piedogs scrabble in the dust, bony animals with mangy ruffs like the last part of the old wolf strain. They jimmy up on their hind legs to snarl and fight. The old woman stands to kick them free of one another, and the children playing in the dirt laugh at the sight of it. There are makeshift wooden stands lined up between the trailers and shacks and the place smells of dust and animals and meat cooking in large black pots and sizzling on old rusted hibachis. Charlie buys us two wooden skewers with chunks of blackened meat clinging to them like stringy tendons.
“What is this?” Charlie asks after he’s already paid for it.
“Meat on a stick,” the old man behind the stand tells us.
“All kinds. Put some lead in your pencil, kemosabe.”
The meat is chewy as a pencil eraser and has a sour taste of urine.
“Good?” the man says.
“Good,” Charlie says.
“That’s meat to make warriors and husbands strong and women to love their men in the secret place where we come to our bodies and then for a brief while at least are free of them.”
“You said it!” Charlie laughs.
We walk away from the greasy old man, his iron-colored hair in fat braids across his chest.
“This meat is making me sick,” Charlie says. He throws the half-eaten stick of meat into a trashcan fire where two girls stand huddled, dropping little paper dolls and wooden objects from an old-fashioned cigar box. They stop what they’re doing and look at Charlie.
“Now we have to start all over again,” one of the girls whines.
“Sorry,” Charlie says.
“That’s all right,” she tells Charlie with a shrug. “You don’t know any better.”
“This is no place for tourists,” Charlie says, and starts walking back toward the car. “This is just poverty on display.”
Back in the room Charlie snaps the leash on the dog collar, says giddyap, and then apologizes for mixing his metaphors. He goes on for a long time. It’s what I want, it’s what I think I want. Only it doesn’t do anything for me. Maybe once, but no more. He does everything right, only nothing gets exchanged; we stay in our own two separate compartments. He keeps asking me if it’s good. I want it to be good, only it’s not. It’s boring. How much longer can I wait? But while it’s going on I think of the strange guy in the casino this morning. I think of Maurice Baltimore, the way he looked at me. A guy like that, he’d be capable of anything, I guess. He might even kill somebody if the opportunity presented itself. I feel his eyes on me still. It was like he was raping me and Charlie was laughing and handing him money for his trouble. I close my eyes and keep them shut. I think of New Mexico, dry riverbeds and strange languages, men who laugh because they are used to finding themselves in desperate situations, places with stories that always start out, “She was last seen—” I imagine Charlie in a room with me and in walks Maurice Baltimore. “I want the girl. The girl is mine now,” says Maurice. He goes to grab me by the wrist but Charlie takes out a pistol and shoots him dead on the spot. I want to be won back and Charlie wins me back.
Toward the end of last winter I moved back home. I couldn’t admit it to June, of course, but the reason I left is that I found Charlie with a girl in our apartment, some kid he picked up in the casino, some ponytailed little Vietnamese—tiny hips, tiny arms, tiny sprout of hair between her tiny legs—looking up from where she knelt on the floor, my patchwork quilt spread out under her in the chilly afternoon.
Later, when Charlie finally caught up with me, he explained that it was a once in a while thing, a peccadillo, as he called it, something he’d picked up in the service for Chrissakes: he thought I was a more adventurous person than that. I started seeing guys my own age. They liked the plaid skirts and they liked the dog collar. They liked my upturned bum, too. A few times Charlie called and June told him I was out, she never knew when she might see me, she couldn’t control me.
“June,” Charlie pleaded while I listened in on the extension, “talk some sense to that daughter of yours. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. Her priorities are all screwed up.”
And June did try to talk sense to me. “I must say he’s treated you well,” June offered late one night, a library copy of Glitz fallen open on her lap. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Whose mother are you?” is what I wanted to know.
“You can stay here for a while,” June said, stifling a yawn, “but then you’ll have to get a job and do something for yourself for a change.” She looked at me over the tops of two tortoise-shell half-moons and added, “And I don’t want Mr. S disturbed. He lives here too, you know.”
Mr. S is Sam Santora, a sleazy old guido who runs an escort service, a guy who, if he had to choose between his midnight blue Lincoln Town Car and the starving millions of Africa, would choose the Town Car every time, forgetaboutit. I came back home to find June with her library books and her Old Fashioneds, her Mr. S and her decorator house in Margate, everything arranged just so.
“Amber’s visiting for a spell,” she told Mr. S. “Amber’s between engagements.”
“Let me know if you want to go to work,” said Mr. S. “Those outfits of yours will go over big with my customers.”
“Mr. S!” shrieked June.
“I’m just trying to help the kid out. If she don’t want my help then all she’s gotta do is say so.”
“I don’t want your help, Sam.”
“See there, she don’t want my help. She’d rather give it away.”
June only stamped her feet and said, “Mr. S, if you say another word then I just don’t know what.”
The other casino is high up on a bare, pitted hill. Charlie says he wants to win back his two hundred, which is so Charlie, hedge if you’re winning and send it in on the downturn. The place is the same size as Rodman’s casino but completely different inside. The games move fast, the way they do back east, and the lights are low, everything crowded together on a black rug with squiggles of red and yellow and blue running through it like party streamers. The dealers wear the same pattern on their vests and bow ties.
“How appropriate,” Charlie says. “The employees match the carpet.”
The cocktail servers are also dressed in matching Spandex catsuits, and you can get soda or juice but no alcohol because it’s an Indian reservation. In New Mexico, we learn in the guidebook, it’s still on the books that a bartender can’t serve an Indian a drink. We walk the casino floor a full circle, then Charlie leaves without making a bet. He says he’d rather not throw good money after bad.
Instead, we stop at a place down the road—the area’s best, according to the guidebook—a fancy room with wide pine vigas and a clay fireplace, flamenco music wafting. We drink margaritas made with Cuervo 1800 and Grand Marnier, eight dollars apiece; the menu features Southwestern specialties like saddle of elk and pan-seared rattlesnake.
“That’s like something sacred we witnessed,” Charlie says, explaining the festival to me. “Or what’s left of it anyway. Something that’s lost to us, but I guess it’s lost to them too. Little torn bits of Native American religion and Christianity fastened together with duct tape.”
The waitress says, “You folks from around here?”
“That seems to be the question of the day.”
“Well, you stand out just a bit.”
“We’re in the casino business,” Charlie tells her. “What do you think of Indian gaming in New Mexico, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I think they’re like little children and they need to be protected,” the waitress answers without missing a beat. She’s got blond hair and shocking cat-green eyes. “I’ve lived out here since I was five. Bingo has been disaster enough. They say the casinos are for the tourists, but the people who’ll get hurt by it are the Indians themselves. They’ll drink till they drop and would rather bet every last penny in their pocket, sell their car, and then walk home. Anything the white man introduces only brings more trouble.”
“Well,” Charlie says, “I did ask.”
“Another round!” I holler, slamming my fist down on the thick wooden table. The waitress smiles knowingly at me and pirouettes away.
Charlie sips his drink and talks his big talk; I’ve heard it all before. First we were going to have an upscale deli. Then we were going into the charter fishing business. Then it was a life insurance pyramid. In his mind Charlie goes from this to that. “Could you live in a place like this?” he wants to know. “We could get a real house. I’m tired of living in other people’s houses. And I’m not the only one who’s not getting any younger, Amber.”
“I’m nineteen,” I say. “Speak for yourself.”
“You were sixteen years old and one hundred and two pounds and you were beautiful,” Charlie says in his best Rod Steiger. He takes my face in his oversized hands and in his eyes I see sadness, for the first time I think, and that he’s getting tired, shocking to see, the old sport is getting played out. “Can’t you,” he whines. “Can’t you just—”
The best time for us was when Charlie had that house on Portland Avenue, the gang of us sitting up drinking all night at that picnic table in Charlie’s kitchen. I liked to cut school and hang around the place in the afternoons when everybody was at their jobs. I’d clean the house, think about what I could fix for dinner. Stan the drunken plumber was always coming on to me when Charlie wasn’t around. Then one day he cornered me on my way out of the bathroom. He forced himself on me without bothering to find out if he had to. When it was over I gathered up my things and said, “I’m going to tell Charlie about this, you know.”
“No, you won’t,” Stan said. “And we both know why you won’t.”
And I never did, although I’m still not sure what Stan meant by that. But not even a few days later the old lady who owned the house was back in New Jersey for a funeral, dropped in for a peek one morning and had a nervous breakdown. She said she’d trusted Charlie: now look at her lovely house in squalor. The authorities padlocked the front door and Charlie and I found an apartment together. June helped me box up my things, then took me out for a fifty-dollar lunch followed by an afternoon at the Lady Day Spa.
Rodman is tall and swarthy, he wears Italian suits, you notice his teeth. Two years ago he beat skin cancer: melanoma on his face from twenty years of surfing days and working nights. When the doctor told him he was clear he said that his life was changed; he signed up for karate lessons, went to night college, learned to play the saxophone. He packed up his wife and three kids and moved to Albuquerque.
“This is a big day for the pueblos out here,” Rodman says. “We’ve decided to turn it into employee appreciation day.” We’re standing in the middle of a bingo hall decorated with ribbons and piñatas; there is a buffet table and a band playing loud music on a low stage, like a homemade wedding reception. Maurice Baltimore is the lead singer. He’s got his purple dealer’s shirt on, a black sports jacket draped over it. He’s sweating and screaming into the mike.
“McSween has got the whole thing locked with Abraham Two Bears,” Rodman explains over the noise. “You remember McSween? He was lucky if he could pay a six dollar six. Forget I just said that. Now he gets two percent of the drop, right off the top, two fucking percent.”
“Strong,” Charlie says.
“You’d have your own shift, Charlie, and report directly to me. It’s a piece of cake. Just the Indian chicks alone—sorry, Amber—and if somebody gets undesirable, you can eject them like a shot. The guards carry pieces. I mean, this is Federal. You don’t get out of line in these joints unless you want to go to jail, and every motherfucker in the state knows it.”
While they’re talking I keep an eye on Maurice Baltimore. His shirt is open to the navel, the head of Jesus winking in the distance like a gold coin. He sings “Bad to the Bone,” then a few funk tunes, ending the set with “It Only Takes a Minute.” He minces his feet like James Brown and proclaims that he is Super Bad. He punctuates his patter with lots of Lord Have Mercys.
“Your friend is pretty good,” Charlie laughs.
“He’s not my friend, Charlie.”
“Well, he wants to be.” Charlie is still trying to smirk his way out of what happened this morning.
“He’s your friend,” I say. “I think that it’s you he’s after, and he just wanted to get me out of the way.”
“You’re drunk,” Charlie says. “And you’re getting on my nerves.”
“Did I miss something?” Rodman asks. “Three or four paragraphs? A chapter, maybe?”
“We had a little run-in with that guy, the guy singing,” Charlie says. “Nothing really, not a big deal, only Amber doesn’t want to let it drop. Amber doesn’t know when to let something drop.”
“You’re the one who started,” I say, and turn my back to him.
Meanwhile the band has stopped playing and Rodman calls Maurice Baltimore over. He says, “Baltimore.”
Maurice comes right up to us. He takes his thin fingers and pinches me on the hip and I go all soft and melty. “Hey, nineteen,” says Maurice Baltimore.
“Just what the fuck?” Rodman says.
“It’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about,” Charlie says. “I thought it could wait.”
“Should I fire his ass?” Rodman asks.
“Somebody mind telling me what the charge is?” Maurice asks.
“Tell him, Charlie,” Rodman says.
“That’s your job,” Charlie says. “You didn’t know when to quit.”
“I hed a job before I ever heard of this place,” Maurice says. Then he looks at me as if no one else is in the room. “You come with me I’ll treat you right.”
Charlie thinks this is the funniest thing he’s ever heard.
“You hearing that voice, little queenie?” Maurice says. “I can hear you hearing it.”
I take a few steps toward him, like it, take a few steps more.
“This is absurd,” Charlie says. He rolls his eyes and punches his hands down into his pockets. “Amber, this is not playtime—”
“He’s fired,” Rodman says. “Forgetaboutit.”
“You’re fired!” Charlie shrieks. “You come from Baltimore you go back to Baltimore!” He glares at me, sideways, like a dog whose tail has been stepped on.
“Come on,” Maurice says to me. His voice is a whisper. “We have to leave now. We have to move on down the line, pret-ty, pret-ty la-dy.”
And I go. That’s the thing. I mean, I don’t even think twice about it. Charlie and Rodman are surprised, I guess, but no more than I am.
“He’ll follow us,” I say, the heels of my Mary Janes snick-snick-snicking like tiny pistol shots on the bare wood floor.
“Of course he will,” Maurice says, and holds the door open for me. We walk straight across the parking lot like people with some purpose in life. We get into his car. There are clothes and books and records all heaped up in cardboard boxes on the back seat. He lights a cigarette, rolls the window down, looks straight ahead without putting the key into the ignition. Two guys spill out of the place complaining that, for the money they’ve blown, they could be drunk right now with a hooker on each arm.
“Let’s go,” I say. “Hurry up!”
“We will, we will,” he says, “only just wait and see. It only takes a minute, like the song says.” We both sit staring at the floodlit front door of the Florecita Gaming Palace. “Count to sixty,” Maurice says and pinches me on the hip again, his fingers moving up my arm, tracing a pattern on my ear, gently undoing the buckle at my throat. “Go ahead and do that for me, pret-ty la-dy,” he says, and drops the dog collar into my lap, my thumb brushing the silver-plated spikes while I count One, two, three, four—watching the door open and close until Charlie does come out, I see him there in the quavering light walking toward us with his bouncy walk and his goofy smile. Maurice Baltimore says, “Here, kit-ty kit-ty,” while he fumbles for something in the glovebox that he takes in his hand before I can see what it is and then stands up out of the car. He keeps behind the open door. “No, Charlie, go back!” I want to yell, but even before I stop counting I know it’s too late for that. We both know it’s much too late for anything like that.
ANTHONY WALLACE was a teaching fellow in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Boston University. He currently lives in Brookline and teaches in the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program at Boston University.
(c) copyright 2005, Anthony Wallace; author retains all rights.