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That Way They’ll Know I’m Alive

by Charles Bock


Along the top of the electric canyon, a lid of sky was the concentrated color of sputum. Neon drenched the girl with the shaved head like rain, and as she ran, she soaked in its downpour, the neon pulsing through her like radiation, infectious as hope, or, maybe, love. The girl with the shaved head whooped and laughed and skipped, her gait unsteady, her vision gone blurry with dope and drink and trepidation and the lingering flavor of Ponyboy’s kisses. Her fingers felt safe in Ponyboy’s hand and he squeezed tightly, pulling her along, and in his hardened grip, she felt brittle and at the same time unbreakable, and she suspended her hesitancies, following him through exhaust fumes and hot still air, like swimming through spit it felt. Half-forms ran alongside her, and the girl was peripherally aware of their blurred shapes and deep breaths, the bodies screaming curses, the punks weaving in between the rental cars and airport shuttle vans. One self-styled rude boy slammed his arm against a mobile home, then limped away as if hit. Another rolled commando-style across the hood of a midsized economy car (its bleary-eyed inhabitants just now getting into town, having stopped along the way at the Stateline casino). On the spur of the moment, the girl knocked askew the side mirror of a stretch limousine with a resort logo on its side door. From behind tinted windows, the limo’s tin horn bleated insipidly. The girl howled MOTHERFUCKERS. And the whole while, Ponyboy’s grip remained firm, unaffected.

On the opposite side of the eight-lane superhighway, their sprint ended. At a stretch along the edge of the Circus Circus complex. Here the pedestrian stream thinned, and tourists did what they could to avoid the string of heavily-pierced teenage corpses. Hooligans reclined against the bottom of the casino wall, some pouring condiment packages down their throats, others finger-painting, tracing portraits on the sidewalk with mustard and ketchup. A circle of teenage ghouls were passing a bottle to and fro. Ponyboy spotted the dude with the battery through his nose and immediately left the girl with the shaved head, surprising his buddy with a bear hug and an affectionate cry, COCKSUCKER.

The girl with the shaved head did not see Green Wool Cap Kid around anywhere. Piggy neither. Probably home by now, she figured. She wandered without direction amid the makeshift troupe, passing a mailbox and a lanky and deeply sunburned teenager who cackled, “Special delivery this,” as he whizzed into the mail slot. The girl thought she recognized some of the ghouls from a VBF show. Certain boys resembled certain suburban anarchists she was used to, only whereas her friends would take time to make themselves look properly dishevelled, these kids were dishevelled, their edges harder, their seams more frayed.

Predatory stares landed on her backside as she arrived on the outskirts of a small, tight circle where a game of My Past Sucked The Worst was erupting, turning argumentative, with tempers flaring over the hierarchy of incest abuses, whether you got more points for parents or grandparents, activity or grotesqueness.

—And just how do you top being jackhammered up the ass by your dad?

—Try having your grampa’s eighty-year nuts slamming against your chin, BITCH.

—bullshit.

—bullsheeyit.

Her legs rubbery, her coordination less than it should be, the girl with the shaved head recoiled, backpeddling, getting away from the words as best she could. She could not see Ponyboy anywhere. Battery-nose either. A mongrel dog the color of puddle-water, this sort of mangy wolf-looking thing, scratched its ear with a hind leg. Next to it, a pregnant girl reclined against the casino wall. Without realizing it, the girl with the shaved head stared at the girl’s protruding girth of stomach, her twisted knot of belly button, which was exposed beneath the bottom of a wife-beater tee.

The pregnant girl was as filthy as a mechanic’s rag and appeared just as used, her skin bruised with dirt and grime. Lifting her head slightly, the pregnant girl nodded towards the nearby ragamuffins, then chugged from a clear plastic bottle and gagged, doubling over, convulsing, thick green liquid spilling from her mouth, trickling down her chin and neck. The pregnant girl dropped her head down in between her legs and took deep, sucking breaths, and when she came back up her eyes were glassy and dim, and her face was adrift, unfocused.

“You okay?” asked the girl with the shaved head.

The pregnant girl finished coughing phlegm and looked up. For an instant, she seemed naked in her confusion, embarrassed at her nakedness. And then, seeing another girl, relief opened her pregnant face. She nodded and ran a bare wrist over the bottle lip. Nudging the container forward, she asked, “Vicks’?”

“Ummm . . .”

A yellow and dead-toothed grin. “It’s mentholated.”

“Should you be doing that?” asked the girl with the shaved head, the words thick on her tongue (Shulld djoo bee djiingg that?).

Discolored hair nodded, eager to allay. “It’s way better than drinking from any of those assholes’ stash.” A pointed glance. “They say they don’t backwash—yeahright!”

“Whatever you say, Danger-Prone Daphney.”

The pregnant girl whirled towards the remark, more than happy to be insulted, her own voice jumping four octaves: “Eat me when I’m bloody, Lestat!”

“Whatever you say, Double Penetration Daphney.”

Somewhere in the elevated distance a digital scoreboard flashed. Somewhere else a man-made volcano erupted. The girl with the shaved head self-consciously applied a circle of pressure to the soft area behind the mongrel’s itching ear, receiving in return a happy whimper.

“He’s beautiful,” said the girl, once the verbal slap-fight had subsided, and Daphney’s attention had returned.

Then, “You sure about swigging?”

Daphney’s smile hardened. Pie eyes narrowed.

“No disrespect or nothing, I just meant, with—in . . . you know, your condition and all—”

“You one of them Angels of the Streets? Damn. I sure liked you guys better when all you did was stop by with condoms and tampons. This planned pregnancy bullshit, it’s getting to be a drag.” Daphney took a swig, recoiled at the taste. “The last one said she wouldn’t turn me into social services. Yeah, right. . . . cunt.” Her chin raised defiantly. “Don’t front on me. I been streeting so long I got my own milk carton.”

The girl with the shaved head glanced down, caught herself staring at the pregnant girl’s stomach, then blushed and felt really flustered. Her limbs seemed heavy and used and listless. Through the soles of her twelve-holes, it felt as if she were standing on lit matches. She struggled to lower herself onto the sidewalk and, on the way down, noticed, from behind the curl of Daphney’s back, the corner of a denim knapsack. Through her unsteady and imbued haze, the girl was aware of casual leers coming from the ghouls, and she primly tucked her legs underneath her tush. She emptied her pockets, donating the remaining eight dollars from her mom’s birthday gift into the community change pool. She scratched the bridge of the dog’s nose and received a lick along the forearm. The girl began to ask the dog’s name, then, midway, stopped.

“Can I see your carton?”

Daphney’s face scrunched up. She spent a moment soaking in the request, then examined the girl who had made it. “I used to have like nine,” Daphney answered, her voice suddenly giddy, her words streaming, a diarrhetic flow not unlike a tape played at too fast a speed. “It was gonna be cool as fuck, ’cause I’d be giving my baby milk from the cartons with my own face. Get it? How cool is that? Cool as fuck, right?” Hands swollen and grime-laden bloomed, each shanty finger coming alive, flaring, adding interpretive pantomimes to the performance, becoming as agitated as Daphney's voice, fervent, too alive: “What happened was, we didn’t have no place to put the milk and it went bad and they made me throw it out. But then I kept some of the cartons, you know, stored pens and lighters and birthie stuff in some; the others I just folded up, but then, right? I was supposed to go base with these fuckwads . . . well, that’s a total different story. Anyways, my shit got jacked.”

Disco ball refractions formed a kaleidoscope upon Daphney’s profile, imbuing her with an angelic, almost translucent hue. To the girl with the shaved head she appeared beautiful and full of pain and beautiful for all her pain. The girl wanted to cover her and protect her. For an instant, she thought of taking her back home.

“I went to the stores,” Daphney said, “but the cartons had all different kids.”

Her voice then became a whisper, “I couldn’t find me no more.”

A lopsided plastic fun cup emerged from her lap. Shaking away the memory, Daphney reached for passing tourists. “Please spare some change for some low-grade ketamine.”

“Punk’s way over,” came in reply.

Then, “You cannot self-destruct without being complicit.”

And, “Get a fucking job.”

* * *


Daphney had been waiting for another girl for so long and now here one was so, Come on, let’s go, yeah, now—no time for exposition, just help me up. And Lestat saw and went oooh. And then a bunch of other dickwads saw and went aaaawww, and Lestat yelled ooh again, and then the dickwads did the same thing with ahh. Faster and faster they kept at it, ooh ah ooh ah, and despite their grunts, or maybe in spite of them, feeling the slightest bit emboldened, flickering with power and pride, bidding adieu with a good and proper eye-talian salute, Daphney and the girl with the shaved head stumbled and leaned on one another and helped one another upright, the mongrel dog noticing this, shedding its lackadaisical facade, turning eager, bouncing alongside, its grin wide and tongue lapping. And while the dickwads called out where ya going ladies? and munch that carpet and can I watch? come on, let me watch, the makeshift trio turned a short corner. Daphney’s waddle was strained, ginger, her every movement hampered by the backpack she insisted on lugging—this tattered, overstuffed sack, far too large and heavy for Daphney, especially in her condition, and as she started down the alleyway, Daphney leaned into the girl with the shaved head, using the girl’s body as a crutch, and insisted, with perturbed affection, I’m fine, I got it, just slow up please.

The girl wondered what was she getting herself into here—even as she was intrigued by Daphney, drawn to her verve and life. She had an instinct to confide in Daphney about not having her period for almost four months. Daphney should know about that, it seemed to the girl. She intuited there were questions she should have been asking Daphney, things she should have been saying out loud. Like about the baby’s due date? And the dad? And would Daphney stay on the street when the baby was born? One by one the questions trickled, a Chinese water torture through the girl’s brain, and she almost buckled under Daphney’s weight. She wanted to ask Daphney what sex felt like, wanted to know if it hurt. Did the baby have anything to do with the Danger-Prone Daphney nickname? Did Daphney have any idea of how they abused the cows to get the milk for those cartons? How was the girl going to get back to Ponyboy? If only she could feel her tongue.

Lordy loo, she was soooo drunk.

Doubling as the side of the two casinos, the alley walls ran high and long and were covered by all kinds of shadows. All sorts of bizarre lights and colors split the shadows and bisected one another, and to the girl with the shaved head it felt a little bit like traveling down some sort of psychedelic tunnel, like she was travelling deeper and deeper into the unknown, this bizarre adventure she was on, to where who only knew. She tripped over Daphney’s inside leg, then was steadied by her new friend, and the both of them continued, giggling and stumbling along this forsaken path. The girl’s arm ran around Daphney’s lower back and she sort of held her by the side of her stomach, and it was kind of creeping her out, what was in there. At the same time, it was kind of beautiful too, but this was not the time for beauty, no, beauty was being preempted, canceled by barking, deep and alarmed barks, the dog suddenly berserk, chasing some unseen rat or roach. Daphney cursed the dog and yanked on its jump rope, and now the mongrel picked up some other scent.

Good shit if you get there at the right time, Daphney said, and nodded towards a series of dumpsters that the girl would not have otherwise noticed. By now though they’d been scavenged like eight zillion times. The real place to go for leftovers, slurred Daphney, was the dumpsters behind the restaurants, long as you didn’t mind fighting with the bums. With every step she leaned further on the girl with the shaved head, relying more and more on the girl, pawing her, clawing her. Daphney’s backpack kept swinging down and banging the girl’s knee, and Daphney was oblivious, somewhere else, staggering atop a wave of cough syrup and who knew what, drifting towards and then teetering on the brink of consciousness. Too clean, she was calling the girl with the shaved head, a pavement virgin, it looks like to me. The girl was doing Daphney a big one here so Daphney was gonna help her out, look out for her, let her know the way it was, out on the street, on the cold concrete, I got your back you got mine, tit for tit; she was gonna drop science and kick the ballistic. Daytime coverage being key, what with parties and desert gigs, all kinds of shit going down at night, all you had to do was get out of the sun in the day. Forget the stupid bumper sticker, Daphney said, the public libraries had great air conditioning, although on Flamingo this one bitch librarian was always looking to call juvie. There was this faggot at Underground Records who let you sleep in the storage room as long as you didn’t filch. And if it was slow, needle jockeys let you hang at that twenty-four-hour piercing and tatt shop.

Night began to open, spreading beyond the center of the alleyway, a series of small circular lights now coming into view, flashing red and blue shapes, streetlights, traffic signals, signs advertising construction rig rentals and pool decking. Soreness spread through the girl’s shoulders, upper back, and arms, and alcohol and dope oozed from her every pore, and she was momentarily unable to carry Daphney’s weight, and she had to regroup, had to adjust her body and grip. She almost tripped, then regained her balance and continued. Daphney did not want word to get out, did not want it becoming trendy and what have you, but she was sort of surprised that more streeters did not end up here, Daphney giving a tour de force, mixing guerilla theater with performance art, with generous sprinklings of pheromonal territorialism and big-sister-to-little-sister confiding thrown in, her gestures simultaneously kind and combative, self-important and self-congratulatory, her every word delivered like some telemarketer needing to fill her employment quota on the last day of the month.

Really, she said, when you looked at it, Vegas was a good place to run to.

A frost of solitary white light came weakly from behind the gas station’s grill-covered pay window, and Daphney made sure they stayed out of its line, away from any potential sightings, moving instead in a wide arc and around the side of the service station. The mongrel dog stopped every five yards to mark territory, damn thing, wasn’t cute any more. How much piss could a dog hold anyway?

Behind the garage, the door to a bathroom hung from a single hinge. A row of locks had been installed down the side, but some of the bolts had been unscrewed, and others had been ripped from their stations, and the remaining lock chambers were jammed with gum and clumps of once-wet toilet paper, now dried into a cementlike surface. Daphney pushed the door open with ease and was met by droves of exiting black flies. A wafting stench brought vomit rushing up the girl’s throat; instinctively the girl with the shaved head gagged and felt weak in the knees.

“Leave the door open,” Daphney said. She took the backpack and staggered resolutely inside, disappearing into a blackness not quite the size of a prison cell. No matter how many flies had escaped, it sounded to the girl like ten times that number were still in there. It sounded as if Daphney were walking through the shallow end of a pool. “Wider okay?” said Daphney. “We’re gonna need more light.”

The girl squinted but could not make out much, part of a toilet fixture; still, it was something—the night air beginning to spread, puncturing the vacuum with lesser shades of darkness.

The mongrel dog barked and barked again, staying in the doorway, agitated, not wanting to follow. The girl with the shaved head rubbed the top of its head, knowing exactly how the dog felt, not wanting to be here, and at the same time understanding that she had a part in this, she was a part of this, whatever this might be. Despite her better instincts, the girl edged forward, stepping into what felt like a sheen of swamp water; some sort of waterbug danced along her calf, then skittered away.

Daphney had reached the toilet and began the lengthy procedure of lowering herself onto its rim, calling out that this was totally fucking gross and someone had stolded the seat and oh shit fuck god.

She had been waiting for this a long time. You don’t even know, Daphney said.

As best the girl with the shaved head could tell, Daphney had her knapsack between her legs and was foraging through it. The girl took a reluctant step forward, and the smells of urine and shit filled her nostrils and burned her throat. Reflexively she fingered the fringe of her summer vest.

“—this total bitch for me since way back in the day,” said Daphney, continuing, “even before I got thrown out.” From inside the backpack, Daphney pulled what might have been deformed Happy Meal box, then spent a moment examining it, and put it aside, reaching back inside, emerging this time some sort of half-rolled tube, possibly toothpaste, who the hell knew.

“It’s why they tossed me, really—I mean, things were bad enough already with my stepmonster, from when I borrowed her Mercedes and went to a rave, you know the warehouse district on Sepulveda? You know L.A. at all? Well, anyways, with the whole pregnancy and whatnot, there was big-time tension, you know? I mean, daddy was totally flipping and pissed and bitchcakes, he didn’t want no grandkid, especially no half spook—wait, here we go, that’s right, come to mama—”

A flicking sound, a small cocoon of illumination. The lighter’s flame revealed Daphney’s curled torso, the knapsack balanced between her legs, and, hanging from the sack’s opening, a pink nightgown, its neckline having fallen into the sheen of water, a string of embroidered roses now damp with muck.

“My stepmonster had scheduled the abortion with her private doctor and everyone was trying to pretend things were normal, one big happy family and all that. We had these sit-down dinners every night, totally lame, you know? Where you’re supposed to be all Beaver Cleaver?”

Yellow light spun off the cover of a paperback guide to single parenting, which Daphney examined for a moment before jamming back inside some compartment. With some effort, and an “aaaah-haaaah,” she then dislodged a felt red heart—a cardboard Valentine’s Day candy box the size of a stuffed bear. Ignoring the dog-grooming comb which spilled from the sack and splashed politely amid spent needle casings, Daphney resumed her tale: “I’d just gotten pierced, like a day ago, right? And I wasn’t really all that into wearing panties just then. Well, everyone’s finished with the salad, but the pot roast isn’t quite finished yet, you know how it goes, right? Blah blah, chit chat, this that. And right when no one has nothing to say no more, that’s when I felt this little ball, you know? It sort of, like, clinked off my leg and, like then, you know, rolled.”

Daphney worked to undo the valentine bow. “You could hear it ping on the kitchen tile and, like, bounce?” She opened the box, and without pause, continued her search. “Don’cha just know my stepmonster had to go and pick it up.”

“I tried to tell her it was the ball clasp for my earring—but she saw I wasn’t wearing none.”

The girl with the shaved head made a sound bordering on intelligible. She felt dizzy and needed a wall to lean against, her knees suddenly weak, her body unable to support this happening on its own.

“That was the first,” Daphney added with pride, momentarily waving a blackened diner spoon. “Base of my clit. Right where the nub splits.”

—No—

“—I gots four more now.”

—you—

“—All labs. Majoras and minoris.”

"—don’t.

“—They do it for you at the tatt shop. When nobody’s around and there’s nothing else goin’ on.”

How to respond? What can you possibly say to such a disclosure: You must have a really strong vulva?

“Did it hurt?” the girl came up with.

“Can you, like, ask a more obvious question?”

“Did it?”

For the first time since they’d entered the bathroom, Daphney’s attention moved away from her search, up toward the girl. “When I first hit here,” she said, her voice suddenly serious, “I used to have to always defend myself about my background. Like, because my parents have dough, I don’t have problems? Now I been out for like six months and all their money ain’t doin’ jack for me, and whether I want it or not, it looks like I’m’a have my baby on the street. Even Lestat and the other kids are like, oh Daphney that’s soo hardcore, how can you?”

She paused and sat forward, her forearms resting on her thighs. “Every day I sit on the street and feel my baby grow inside of me and I ask for change from people who pass by and pretend not to see me and, you know, sometimes, it makes me feel like I’m not there; like, I kinda forget I’m alive?” Daphney wiped her nose with her bare wrist. Spent a moment listening to the dog scratching on one of the few remaining pipe fixtures. “I mean, I know I’m alive, because feeling like that, feeling all shitty and numb and wanting to die, that’s what life is, you know? Feeling. So I try to ask for change all nice, be polite and all to these rubes and shitkickers who totally don’t want to look, they don’t want to see some fucked up pregnant chick in the middle of their vacation, you know? They don’t want to feel alive like that, right? And me, sometimes, I just want them to see me so bad, I could just fucking die; I mean, it’s like I want them to see me dying. That way, they’ll know I’m alive.”

Daphney wiped away tears that had not yet formed, took a deep breath. “The pain’s part of it. If you’re not into pain then don’t do it.”

She sniffled, pulling snot back into her nose. The cough syrup bottle had somehow reappeared in her hand. She took a long swig and grimaced. “Okay. Time to jam.”

Drawing from the crumpled valentine in her lap, Daphney placed some sort of metal into the girl’s hand—some sort of tool; compact, heavy and smooth, though flaked with rust. “You’re gonna have to get in close,” she said. Squirming, Daphney wiggled her bottom. She then yanked her gym shorts down to her ankles, pushed aside the knapsack, and spread her legs.

“See my body was just starting to show back then,” Daphney said. “I guess with the trimesters my lips must have become wider, something, because it’s come totally unclasped.”

“Just take it out then.”

“I CAN’T. All the hole needs is an hour and it closes. NO WAY I give up the stud after everything that’s happened. Come on. We have to get the ball back into the clasp.”

Daphney paused, giggled self-consciously. “Don’t be such a pussy.” Her legs opened, wide and inviting. “All the boys been begging me to let them do this.”

“Hey,” she added, almost as an afterthought, “you know how to use pliers, right?”

Not far away a door creaked on its lone hinge. Cars passed with airy swooshes. Water felt warm on the girl’s knee as she knelt, settling onto tile that was hard and cracked and uncomfortable. The fecal stink intensified—the difference between stepping around and into a pile of moist diarrhea. All kinds of bugs circled the girl. She transferred the pliers from her weak to her strong hand and made an uncertain, preliminary attempt at working their jaws. If she needed more light, Daphney offered her the Bic, and though the offer was made in halfhearted jest, the concern underlying it was undeniable, and the girl weakly asked Daphney to hold the lighter a little lower please, yeah, that should do it.

With a wary grimace, she edged forward, sober now, too sober for her own good, she did not want to be here and she did not know what she was doing and she did not know how to get the hell out of this, and these thoughts were shattered by growling sounds—to her immediate left—threatening snarls, the mongrel dog baring its fangs, barking murderously, doing its damndest to protect Daphney, an event Daphney found hilarious; Daphney atop the toilet like an upended turtle, her legs spread incitingly, her pregnant belly hanging down on top of the girl’s forehead; Daffney shaking with laughter and pulling on the dog’s jump rope. The dog pulled right back and went for the girl’s eyes. Daphney lurched and the lighter’s flame caromed wildly and Daphney snorted with laughter, calling out, with more than a degree of amusement, “Careful now!”

Between the meat of her thighs the studs were gleaming jewels, forming a misshapen five-petaled flower, and as the girl with the shaved head moved in, an unfresh aroma was pungent, suddenly powerful, stale fish and rotting garbage, and despite herself, the girl gagged, then gave a nervous giggle, then continued, peeling apart the vagina’s lips, feeling the steel bloom delicate on her fingertips, smooth, its appearance fascinating and alluring, poetic and beautiful.

Daphney exhaled a gasp and her body stiffened. And now the girl had a passing urge to kiss her crown jewel, to take Daphney’s clitoral bolt in her mouth, suck and roll it around on her tongue.

As quickly as this instinct passed, the girl was struck by the desire to reach inside, dig her hand, indeed, her whole forearm in there, to reach inside of Daphney until she got to the unborn child.

Canine fangs snapped inches from the girl’s jugular and the lighter’s flame dropped and lurched and almost singed her eyebrows, and the girl thought of petting the child on its forming skull. She wondered if crushing the child’s skull right here and now might be the best thing. Crush the little fucker and rip its body from Daphney’s stomach, abort this fucked-up mission and tear it out through Daphney’s cunt and leave the embryo in the toilet, floating in muck and shit, but at least finished, at least that.

“I need the cough syrup,” she said, withdrawing from between Daphney’s legs. She sucked for air, as deep a breath as had ever been taken.

Daphney reached down the side of the toilet and found the backpack. “Totally.” She fumbled about in the darkness. “Oh, snap. I know what we can do.”

There was more rummaging, the sounds of clatter. The Happy Meal box returned to the domain of the blue-yellow flame. Daphney liberated the burnt spoon. A small clear vial.

“Wh . . . wha—”

Incredulous, Daphney cut her off. “Let me get this straight. I’m letting you take a lighter and motherfucking pliers into my cooch—and YOU can’t trust ME?”

 

Charles Bock’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in AGNI, The Iowa Review, and The Mississippi Review. He holds an MFA from Bennington College and has received fellowships from Yaddo, UCross, and the Vermont Studio Center. His first novel, Beautiful Children, will be published by Random House in early 2008. (10/2006)


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