Is she dead yet?". I ask every time she calls. Last time, I swore to myself that I wouldn't ask anymore. I managed to get all the way to "Well, I'd better go now. You take care." But I couldn't stand it, so I asked. She knew I would. She doesn't even say "Is who dead yet?" She says "No. A friend of mine saw her on the Boulevard a couple of months ago. She looked pretty bad.”
As always, I'm relieved. But I'm disappointed, too. I'm not a savage anymore, so I remind myself that it really isn't nice to feel disappointed when you hear that someone hasn't died. I'm civilized now. Becoming civilized wasn't easy, either. I had to read thousands of books and spend a lot of money buying admission into places where civilized people go, like universities, so I could get credibility and credentials. All that was the easy part. The hard part was being nothing for so long, watching. Those born to savages can choose to become civilized, like me, but Cricket, who is still not dead, was born to savages and chose to remain a savage.
I can't talk to anyone in the civilized world about Cricket or my life as a savage without becoming an exhibit. This world is full of people hungry for flesh-witness accounts of how the other half lives without benefit of condoms, etiquette, and higher education. They would welcome my feeding their hunger, but once they had viewed, analyzed, and thoroughly discussed the exhibit amongst themselves, they would move on to the next without me. The same way I moved on without Cricket.
I first learned of Cricket's existence while incarcerated for the protection of myself and others-- mostly others. There, in the walled and barb-wired world of intensive group therapy, Janine, Candy, and I exchange information about valuable contacts on the outside. We try to impress one another with how many people we know and how many worlds we have visited. Our therapeutic environment is designed to inhibit our violent, sexual, and anti-social tendencies and transform us once again into the good and obedient girls we had been while being molested.
In renunciation of our weakness, we became Joey, Sunny, and Duke. Candy as Duke was funniest because she looked like candy. Her feminine beauty had been discovered by a modeling agency that wanted so much to exploit it that they paid to put braces on her teeth to eliminate her single flaw, a slight overbite. Her striking and highly photogenic eyes glowed blue and yellow beneath her dark and delicately arched brows. Her mother had signed all the release forms and given the agency her full co-operation. Candy had not, which is why she was incarcerated. Every time Candy is let out and sent back home, she runs away from her mother's boyfriends and makes herself ugly with needle marks and new and ever-larger tattoos. She rips the braces off her teeth with her bare hands, and refuses to wear a bra, so that her shapely breasts are beginning to sag. She chops off all her shining auburn hair. “What's a mother to do, judge?”
Janine, at thirteen, is already looking like the pictures under our daddies' mattresses, tall and leggy with slender ankles and beautifully arched insteps, breasts prematurely and temptingly full and round. All this could only be remedied by the forceful football stride she adopted as Joey. That, and wielding her mighty vocabulary the way Arthur wielded Excalibur. She could slice a psyche with a single stroke, or reduce me to nothing but a spasm of laughter in wet underpants.
. Duke and Joey got out before I did. When the time allotted to reform me had passed, I told my social worker I thought I would "adapt more successfully" to a group home where nobody was trying to pretend to be my mother and father. I cried a little on purpose when I got to the mother and father part. Then I told her I knew just the one that would be right for me. I didn't tell her I only wanted to go there because it was in Hollywood, where Joey and Duke were going when they got out.
I also didn't tell her about the other rumor that I'd heard, the one about there being a red caboose on the corner of Highland and Yucca. A caboose posing as a restaurant where, in the basement, young girls like me could make astronomical sums of money for beating men with whips and calling them names like "useless worm" and "sorry excuse for a man". Joey and I found the whole idea hilarious and agreed that it would be a fun job, but difficult to keep from laughing when you were supposed to sound serious. We practiced on each other, but never could keep a straight face.
Duke found me a couple of weeks after I took up residence in the group home. Taking in my new surroundings, I could hardly believe my good fortune. A cook, a piano, my own room with a lock and key. When Duke called, she told me that she'd been trying to call me since the day I got there. I told her that I hadn't been allowed phone calls or visitors for the first two weeks of "orientation".
She said "Yeah, I know. The fuckin' rules, right? Look, why don't you just split? You could stay with me and Cricket."
"You know Cricket?"
"I met her on the Boulevard".
"She used to be Joey’s girlfriend, you know."
"So? We're together now."
"Yeah. We been together a long time, ever since I got out. She even got my name on her arm last week."
"You know what? This place isn't that bad. I think I'm gonna give it a chance. Besides, if I split now, Puppy won't be able to find me when she gets out. Hey, why don't you tell your P.O. you want to come here?"
"Fuck that! I ain't turning myself in. They're gonna have to catch me. Anyway, my P.O.'s an asshole. He'll probably lock me up"
"Mine's pretty cool. She's fine, too. I think she likes me."
"Yeah, right. I gotta go. Cricket's waiting for me. She's already pissed off and I don't want to get my ass kicked."
When she said that, I knew I had to meet this Cricket person. Knowing Duke as I did, I could not imagine what sort of power this Cricket possessed that would allow her to threaten Duke with impunity. Duke, about whom I'd heard whispered "You don't wanna fuck with that white girl. The bitch is crazy." (Although I, like many of the others, enjoyed a certain pleasurable release in committing violent acts, I tried to avoid participating in altercations which might result in serious injury or facial disfigurement. I chose companions with the aim of minimizing the likelihood of those outcomes.) So when she told me to come down to the cafeteria on Hollywood and Las Palmas, I agreed.
When we met, she said "Fuckin' A, I don't believe it. Never thought I'd see you on the outs. C'mon, Cricket's over at Harry's waiting for us."
I didn't have an idea about what Harry's place would be like. I didn't even try to have an idea. When I saw what it was like, I kept my face as blank as my mind had been before I'd seen what it was like. When visiting other worlds, I'd learned that it was not a good idea to tell the host what you thought about their world right away. So there was no look on my face when we went into Harry's apartment and I saw this old man with a big dent in his bald head and a bunch of blurry tattoos on his arms sitting at a little red dinette table.
It was a tiny apartment. It only took a few steps to go through the living room into the kitchen where it looked like everybody spent all their time. The T.V. was in there, and there were cards on the table. The only things in the living room were a twin bed up against one wall, a recliner, and some shelves that had pictures of what I imagined must be his grandchildren. Duke stood in the living room like a nervous visitor, not saying anything to Harry at all. Then Cricket came out of the bathroom wearing a white t-shirt, jeans and boys' high-top sneakers, combing back her wet hair with a black Ace comb. She was all of five feet tall. She started to say something to Harry and then stopped and turned around to look at us. She smiled when she saw me and said to Duke "So, baby, who's the little fox?". I beamed.
Duke said "This is Sunny. I told you I was going out to meet her".
"Hey, don't fuckin' get smart with me, you hear me?", Cricket said, leaning the top half of her body forward and making her eyes into slits.
"I wasn't getting smart, I was just telling you. Aren't you gonna kiss me hello?"
Cricket looked at me and grinned, then turned back to Duke and said "You know I don't like doing shit in front of people." Duke's face panicked a little. Cricket flopped down into the recliner and said "C'mere and sit in my lap, Puppet."
Duke went over and sat in her lap. I looked hard at Cricket. Her biceps were pretty big for her being such a little thing. The left one was covered with a tattoo of a big owl's head. On her right forearm, she had a full-length naked woman, surrounded by the words "California Girl". Those were the two biggest ones. There were a couple of other smaller ones that I couldn't quite make out from where I stood. She had a bandage taped to her left wrist and I figured that must be where she'd put Duke's name. She looked strong, but I knew that Duke could probably render her unconscious in less than a minute. I had to admit, though, that she was adorable. Big brown eyes that looked like they'd seen every sad thing there was to see and didn't smile even when the rest of her face did. Those eyes, under thick un-plucked brows, took up the whole top half of her heart-shaped face. Under those eyes, a cute little nose and dimples when she smiled, showing a gap between her two front teeth. She had perfect little tits, too. I could almost see them through that t-shirt.
Briefly, I tried to imagine what she would look like if she plucked her eyebrows and put on some makeup and a dress. I decided she would make an ugly girl. This way, she was cute. I didn't think she was so cute that I'd let her get away with what Duke was letting her get away with, but her talk was strong and I wanted to know what gave a person strong talk like that.
I looked at Duke and said, almost with a tone in my voice, "Puppet?"
Duke said "That's what they call me now, right baby?"
I was disgusted. Just two months before, one of our favorite pastimes had been making fun of all those nicknames, especially that one. There must have been at least a dozen Puppets in Los Padrinos at any given time. Nearly every barrio had one, and they seemed to get arrested more than anybody else. There'd been a Gumby and a Pokey, a couple of Spookys, and a half a dozen Hueras.
But there was still no look on my face when I said with a Mexican accent "Well, you'll always be Duke to me, eh, carnala?"
She laughed and said "Hey, let's go get some beers".
Cricket said "Wait a minute. I gotta get some money." She got up, went into the kitchen and said "Harry, we're going out to the store. You want us to get you anything while we're there? Why doncha give me a couple dollars and I'll bring you back some cigarettes, okay?"
Harry took out his wallet and his hand palsied around until it grasped a five-dollar bill, which he handed to her.
"Are you coming right back?", he asked, wearing a worried, lost look.
"Well, give me a hug, then”, he said, while his face relaxed.
We walked over to Hugh's market on Highland and Cricket bought a six-pack of Old English 800 and a couple of packs of Marlboros. The cashier wanted to see her I.D., and when she gave it to her, she called the manager over. I figured it was because, aside from the tattoos, Cricket only looked about twelve even though she was twenty-four. When the manager came over, she waved at him and said "You know me, right, Chuck?" Chuck told the cashier it was okay and said "Yeah, I know you all right. Just do me a favor and don't come back in here after you drink it, okay?" Cricket raised one hand, made two fingers into a little pistol and pointed it at him, winked one eye and said "Anything for you, Chuckie. You know you love me, baby." Chuckie just shook his head and walked away.
We didn't go back to Harry's house right away. We went to a park where, way back from the street, there was an old car seat hidden behind some trees. When Cricket saw it, she said "Fuckin' A right, we got it all to ourselves. Step right this way, ladies. C’mon, sit down and make yourselves comfortable and let me offer you a beer.” We sat down on the red vinyl car seat. I looked over and saw that Duke had already ripped one of the beers out of the ring and was half finished with it. Cricket reached over, took one out and started to hand it to me.
"I’d better not”." I said. "I've got to be back at the home for dinner and if they smell it on my breath I won't be able to go out for a while, and my girlfriend is coming to visit me tomorrow."
Cricket looked surprised. "You got an old lady? Who is she?"
"Puppy. From Fourteenth Street."
"Never heard of her".
"She just got out."
"Hey, I know that place you're at. I used to have an old lady that stayed there. You got plenty of time. C'mon, you're not gonna get fucked up on one beer. You hear this shit, Puppet? She ain't even going to party with us. You got some rude friends, ain't you?"
Duke didn't say anything. She'd already sucked down a whole can and was reaching for another. I wondered what she was like drunk. I thought she looked a little drunk already. She had another can in her hand and was about to rip it out of the ring when Cricket slapped her arm.
"Slow down, man. We gotta take a couple of these back to Harry, and you just got fucked up last night. Damn, woman, leave a little for somebody else."
Duke didn't look like she needed another one. Her eyes were already red, and her head was starting to roll around a little. I started worrying that she was going to have a seizure.
"Candy, you okay?", I say.
"Shit, I am FUCKED UP!"
"On one beer?"
"It's that fuckin' stellazine they had me on to keep me from kicking their asses. I drink two beers and I'm out of it."
"Yeah, and I ain't carrying you home today, either" says Cricket.
"Don't hit my fuckin' arm again", says Duke.
“Oh, one beer and you think you're bad, huh? Don't make me slap the shit out of you in front of your friend."
"Hey, I'm just fucked up. You know how I get."
Cricket turned to me with a beer in her hand and said "Here, take it. We'll all catch a little buzz and then push each other on the swings." I took it.
Duke started pushing Cricket on a swing, just about falling over every time she pushed, and they were laughing hard. It looked like Cricket could be a fun date, but I didn't think that was why Duke let her get away with threats of violence. All things considered, I concluded that it must be lust.
I guess lust is one of the reasons I eventually became Cricket's "old lady". If it hadn't been for lust, I never would have let my sweet Puppy go. There were no limits to my desire for her because she denied me so softly and sweetly with her Bible, so that her kisses made me more important even than God. With her soft mouth, she took me each night to the border between pleading and seizing and left me there panting. Then she would go, leaving her inviting softness behind with me for safekeeping before taking the bus back to the barrio where it would invite only death. When I'd tired of languishing on that border, I told her I'd find somebody who would.
Somebody like Cricket, whose power I had seen transform somebody like Duke into somebody like Puppet. One night, Duke had one of her seizures right on the dance floor at Gino's and somebody called an ambulance before we could get her out of there. It was a bad one, and every time we'd try to pick her up, she'd go stiff and start jerking around so hard that we'd drop her again. She got sent to the mental hospital up in Camarillo. After she'd been gone for three weeks, I made my move.
For the two months that I was Cricket's old lady, she gave me cheap gold-tone jewelry, stuffed animals, and long love letters written with nicotine-stained fingers in speed-induced frenzies. She shared with me the best human resources that her world had to offer, middle-aged men who in exchange for a glimpse into our world freely shared with us the wealth of theirs. They took us to eat in fine restaurants, paid for our admission into museums and movie theaters, sat in the back seat as we drove their convertibles. And if they masturbated later to visions of us fondling one another in the hotel rooms that they paid for, they did not subject us to witnessing it. And in our gratitude, we took them for every dollar we could.
She became protective of me, too. When I'd ask her to get me high because I wanted to see what that was like, she'd say "What do you want to do this shit for? Do you want to end up like me? You know if they see tracks on your arms, they'll throw you out."
I'd say "It must be pretty good if you're doing it. You probably just want more for yourself." That line worked a few times, but she wouldn't ever let me use the needle myself. She'd tell me to put out my arm and look the other way while my blood clouded the syringe, swirling pink. After a couple of times, she wouldn't let me do it at all. She'd tell me that if she caught me doing it she'd kick my ass. I didn't want to become a junkie anyway. I liked the rush all right, that made you rise up inside, like somebody just inserted a backbone where you didn’t have one before, one with a key wound all the way up until your body screamed “GO!”. It was mighty fine, but it wasn’t better than sex. Secretly, I found the whole shooting up process disgusting, especially the blood spurting onto the walls when somebody missed. But I didn't say that. I just pretended I'd let her kick my ass if it came down to that to make her happy. Since I let her get away with that, she started threatening to kick my ass for other things, too, like not finishing school. She said I was smart and didn't belong in that life.
Sensibilities are when you feel superior to people who have to do disgusting things that you don't. Joey and I had lots of them while we were locked up together. When she got out, she was so appalled at everything she saw on the street that she got drunk one night and tried to climb the barbed-wire wall back into the junior prison that we all said we couldn't wait to get out of. But they wouldn't take her in. They just let her go with a warning to straighten up and fly right. Probably they were full up. Besides, they didn't like it when people came back because it made them look bad.
For a while after that, Joey and I went on an anti-drug crusade. We made posters and put them up at Arby’s and Arthur J’s where everybody hung out. One was a picture of a globe that was cracked and bleeding with a needle and syringe sticking out of the crack. When Duke got out of the mental hospital, she called us assholes and had a picture of a needle and syringe tattooed on her arm. The modeling agency gave up for good after that.
Joey had the idea that people got high because they didn't know how to have fun. We used Cricket to test her theory. She agreed to stop drinking and taking drugs for a week so we could show her how to have fun. We pushed each other down Highland Avenue in shopping carts, screaming at the top of our lungs. We took the bus to the nude beach where Cricket took off all her butch clothes, made a hula skirt out of seaweed and did a mock hula dance like a girl, all doubled up and laughing like hell.
We made whole crowds of tourists laugh when we did imitations of drag queens doing imitations of movie stars in front of the Chinese theater. Cricket was having so much fun that we couldn't keep up with her. But the next week, she got drunk, told some psycho to eat her shorts, and ended up with a black eye. Joey gave up on Cricket after that, and after the black Jesus incident, she wouldn’t even open her door if Cricket was with me. After that, the only people who would open their doors for her were the hookers.
Cricket shared everything with me except the one thing I wanted most. She never hit me, but it didn't take me long to figure out where she got her power. All the while I'd been thinking that she must be the best lay in the world to be able to get away with telling Duke what to do. Well, maybe she was, with Duke, but then, you get power over different people in different ways. With me, she got it by holding out. If I wanted tender kisses, she clamped her mouth over mine like a lamprey until I pushed her away, my lips swollen and bruised. If I wanted a gentle caress upon my thigh, she'd leave a red handprint there where I'd guided it. And if I wanted nothing so much as to see her succumb to pleasure, to feel her thighs tighten around my neck while she left me behind to watch her body forget all else but itself, she left me alone instead with a drugged lump of flesh to do with what I wished, while she herself was away in some place that I did not take her and where I could not follow.
Finally, frustrated beyond endurance, I declared my independence from my lust for her by punching her in the stomach until my arms were tired. To my surprise, she didn't fight back. She didn’t have to. Instead, with her lips, she gave each blow a smiling welcome, while her eyes went so gentle dead and peaceful that I had to stop so I wouldn’t have to see that look anymore. She called me the next day to say that since we were now "broken up" and were going to be just friends from now on, she thought I should help her get a date with Nancy, who’d just broken up with her girlfriend, too. Maybe I should have had a little talk with Nancy’s ex-girlfriend before I said I’d try.
When Cricket got thrown out of a moving car onto the steps of the hospital because she overdosed and her buddies were afraid she was going to die on them, I went to visit her in the hospital. I sat there by the bed trying not to stare at her scabs and the tubes in her nose. That, and trying to get her to stop yanking them out by holding her hand while she ranted deliriously about how much she loved me and wanted me back. But I'd already found somebody else who would.
I'd found Dizzie, who was in a butch gang called the West Side Playboys. Armed with a black El Marko, Dizzie wrote “PBS”, for Playboys, on every available surface. When I introduced her to Joey, Joey pulled me aside and said “What are you doing with a dumb gangster who’s so stupid she doesn’t even realize she’s advertising Sesame Street?” I laughed, but Dizzie’s kisses brought me to my knees and made me stupider still. Dizzie, whose lithe black body became the alter at which I worshipped, who whispered in my ear that she was going to make me come so much that she'd be able to make popsicles out of it to suck on later.
She'd been living with older women since she was twelve, and at seventeen, her skills were considerable. Her power over me was equally considerable. If she’d told me to lay down on the floor in a room full of people and take off my clothes, I'd have done it. I'd have done it because I respected the way she knew so completely that I would. I trembled and bowed before the immensity of her faith. Faith in her power to infuse me with a desire of her own creation that only she could satisfy. A desire so powerful it had me riding shotgun, feeling only the electricity of her hand on my knee, impatient for the shooting to be done, wanting only to be alone with her again. Had me on my knees in the middle of the street with police rifles pointed at my head, blinded by helicopter searchlights and deafened by bullhorns screeching "Put your hands over your heads. Do not move, I repeat, do not move."
The group home bailed me out, but I had to find somebody else after that just to diffuse that power. When Dizzie found out about the rich white girl I had on the side, she and a couple of her gangster buddies threatened me with knives and committed acts of violence upon my person. She then delivered the "You better watch your back, cause the next time I see you out on the street..." speech that I’d heard her deliver to other people before me. I was a little nervous, but I went out anyway because I’d already learned that showing fear is more dangerous than having it. She saw me, too, but she didn’t touch me. I thought it was because she'd heard about the straight razor I’d started carrying, but I later discovered it was really because Cricket had heard about what happened and told Dizzie that if she laid a hand on me, she'd kill her. Getting thrown out of moving cars and surviving earns a person a reputation for being indestructible. And crazy. Cricket's name was on a lot of lists in a lot of places, with instructions not to let her in. Clubs, restaurants, even my mansion.
At my graduation ceremony, our teachers made speeches saying that they were sure that we were going to "make it". As far as I could tell, that meant getting a job and an apartment. The ceremony ended with all of us descending the steps of the mansion. Our first step onto the sidewalk was supposed to represent our first step into the real world outside. And there was Cricket, standing across the street at the phone booth with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of her mouth. She was clapping like I’d done something great, when I knew that all I’d done was fill in the blanks of some workbooks designed for people they hope will never learn to think too good. But that ceremonial step onto the sidewalk was really to get us acquainted with where most of us were going to be living in a couple of months when we’d have to leave to make room for the next crop--on the streets.
By the time I was dropped from the womb of the mansion out onto the sidewalk, my long hair that men loved so much to touch was useless to me. The only thing I could imagine myself doing if I got into one of those cars that were always slinking along the curb behind us, with middle-aged drivers in business suits dangling twenty-dollar bills out the window beckoning to us with plump ring-laden fingers had nothing to do with sex. I'd imagine him taking out the hairy purple thing and watching it swell up with his power to stuff it down my throat for the price of a hamburger and a room for the night. When it had swollen up good and big and was just throbbing for my hungry little mouth, quick as a bolt of lightning I'd cut it off with my straight-razor and stuff it down his own throat. So I cut off my hair instead.
I had reached the magic age of eighteen where anything I did would be held against me for the rest of my life. At least that's what all the social workers kept saying. They said there were a lot of really great things you could do if you weren't locked up that you couldn't do in prison. And that if you had a permanent adult record, you wouldn't be allowed to do them. I wasn't sure if they were telling the truth, but I figured I'd better keep my file clean just in case. So I stopped doing illegal things a couple of months before my eighteenth birthday, to get some practice for when I wouldn't have my mansion to come home to anymore. For when I would be staying with Cricket at Harry’s place.
Some of the girls were afraid of the streets and made deals with their parents. In exchange for pretending that nothing ugly had ever really happened, that they just made it all up because they were going through a rebellious phase, they could go back home. Then they wouldn't have to work for wages that couldn't quite pay the rent and have to supplement their incomes by sleeping with strange men. They wouldn't have to eat Top Ramen or get raped at the bus stop and have to go to the indigent emergency room. They would only have go to a nice private mental hospital when it got too hard to hold the truth in anymore, or have an operation to take out the organs where the truth was stored when it started rotting in there. I never changed my story.
I was lucky because Harry wouldn't let just anybody stay there. Lots of people paraded through, mostly Cricket's street buddies, but the only one that Harry would let sleep over was Gail, Cricket's best friend. And then me. I think it was because I would look at those disgusting black and white pictures of his that he'd drag out every couple of weeks. One was a picture of a human head flying through the air, and a guy with a sword still in mid-swing standing next to the body that the head just came from that isn't finished falling to the ground yet and looks like it's still standing up, only it's knees are bent. Another one was this Oriental guy peeling a big strip of skin off another Oriental guy who was still alive and had a big frozen scream on his face. Harry said he took those pictures himself and smuggled them out of Korea after the war, which was where he got that big dent in his head. He liked it when people would look at his pictures with him. He just couldn't get over them.
During the day, you could never tell who you would find at Harry's because it was known far and wide as a possible place of refuge. Total strangers would show up at the door sometimes and say "Hey, is this Harry's place?" We'd let them in and Harry would look them over and either tell Cricket that they were okay or to get them the hell out of his house.
One night this junkie hooker with a face full of acne scars that Cricket used to know but hasn't seen for a long time shows up at the door with a box. She comes in and sets the box down in the corner and says "Look, I gotta go score. Keep an eye on this for a while. I'll be back." We figured it was her clothes and that she had the idea that Harry might let her move in if she tried to make herself invisible enough. Before any of us can say anything, she's out the door. We look in the box to see how many clothes she brought, but instead of clothes, there's a baby in it. None of us wants to admit that we've actually seen a baby. Then, once we admit that we know what's in the box, we don't want to call it a baby. Cricket says "I ain't taking care of it." Gail and her girlfriend bolt out the door, and then it's a race for all of us to leave first because the last one out is the rotten egg that has to watch the baby. It's a quiet baby. It just sort of lays there like a fat lump and stares into space, like it doesn't notice it's somewhere different. But we don't know what it might do--it might start screaming, or die.
Harry says that somebody has to stay and watch the baby and since Cricket is the one who told the hooker about his place, it's got to be her. She talks me into staying with her so she won't be bored. We play cards while we wait. The baby is quiet, but it's making us tense just knowing it's there. Cricket keeps saying things like "That bitch better get her ass back here pretty soon, or I'm calling the cops to come get it." It gets late and she still isn't back, so we lay down on the floor to try and get some sleep. It's been hours and the baby hasn't made a sound.
We think it should have started crying by now, but we don't have a bottle for it or any diapers, either. Cricket doesn't want to ask Harry for any money to get things like that because it will remind him that she's telling too many people about his place. So we just lay there in the dark feeling that baby in the corner and waiting. Pretty soon, Cricket starts whispering "What the fuck is she doing leaving a kid here? What the fuck is she doing with a kid in this fucking life?"
Then, because ever since I've known Cricket, I've been trying to find out about her and still don't even know her real name I say "Well, if this life is so fucked up, then why are you in it?" She didn't say anything for a long time. Just when I started to think that she'd fallen asleep on me, I hear this voice in the dark. It's different than Cricket's voice. It's smaller. It says "The only way I'm gonna get out of this fuckin' life is if somebody kills me. They shoulda just killed me then."
I say "When?"
It says "When they took me away”.
I don't say anything. The only thing I know about any other life of hers is that she joined the Job Corps in Washington and that's how she got to L.A.
She says "I used to have a picture of me when I was a little girl and I used to live with them. They took it the day I got my first bicycle. I had on a little red dress and matching barrettes in my hair and I was laughing..."
I could hear her looking at that photograph in her head while she talked. The back of her throat started closing up, like somebody was squeezing it from the inside. Then it closed all the way up and I heard her gagging and trying to swallow and gulping for air. When she finally got enough air to say something else, her voice was big again.
"Then when I was nine, the crazy bitch who said she was my real mom came from somewhere and they took me away from them and made me go live with her and her drunk-ass old man. When he first started fucking with me, I tried to run away and go back to my old house but I didn't make it. I always wished they would find me, but I don't know if they looked because the court told them they weren't supposed to. When I was bigger I hitchhiked to that house, but they were gone and other people lived there."
It was hard for me to say anything while I was still staring at that picture of her in a little red dress that was in my head now, but I was trying to think of something to say so she wouldn't think I didn't hear her or didn't give a shit. But before I could, her talk got strong again and she said "And if you tell anybody that I ever wore a dress, I'll kick your fuckin' ass." I took a chance and said "Yeah, right. How are you going to kick anybody's ass when you love getting your own ass kicked so much, huh?" She started laughing so hard that she got stuck in a cigarette cough for about five minutes.
When I looked in the box, the baby was sleeping. We fell asleep, too, waiting. The hooker didn't show up to get the baby until morning. She was lucky Cricket was still asleep. Harry told her not to ever show her face at his place again.
Most of the time, we slept on the floor at Harry's place. Sometimes, we'd sleep in motel rooms and eat cold pizza while we watched cartoons with women who had names like Precious or Tiny. Cricket would time it so that we'd show up after the johns who'd rented the rooms had already left. She'd come in flashing her dimples and flexing her biceps and climb into bed with them with all her clothes on, teasing-like. She'd say things like "Fuckin' A, Precious, you're so fine. If I didn't have an old lady, I'd be all over you." They ate it up, too. As far as I could tell, Cricket never had sex with any of them, but then, I guess when you're laying in some cheesy hotel room with some ugly stranger's slippery sperm still running down your leg, a compliment can be worth a lot. Worth a bed for the night and a couple of slices of pizza anyhow.
She liked the way women looked on her arm, and how it made other women want to be on her arm, too. Made them want it bad enough to keep her supplied with anything she wanted. Once I asked her if she thought she’d ever meet the right girl, fall in love and settle down. She looked at me like I was crazy and said “Don’t be such a fuckin’ chump.”
After a couple of months, a lot of the hookers were happier to see me than they were Cricket. I was a fast learner. They bought me fine clothes so I could take them out dancing. But they were just practice for me. I had my eye on a straight girl from a rich family who’d been peeking at me shyly from behind her money at the club. They let us in even though we were underage because sweet young things like us were good for business.
She took time, but every minute it took to make her as much mine as I’d been Dizzie’s was sweet. When she took me home to meet her parents, I got a real cool reception at first, because I was the wrong sex. But I charmed them with good words, and once they had witnessed my skill in keeping their daughter on a short leash, on me and off the needle, they started to come around. Pretty soon, I’d be like one of the family, and I could kiss Cricket and Harry good-bye and move uptown to the suburbs. They’d be paying my tuition right along with their precious baby’s. Unlike Cricket, I wanted more than cold pizza and a room for the night. That’s why I became civilized.
Cricket wanted to go everywhere with me, but there were some places I wouldn’t take her. She didn’t understand that there’s a time and a place to have a filthy mouth and to show what you know about power, and a time and a place not to. Sometimes we'd panhandle some money for food and beers. She’d throw her bus pass out the window to me after she’d boarded so I could ride free, and we’d travel around—to the beach or downtown L.A. Or we'd hang out on the Boulevard to find out where the parties were going to be that night.
The best part was never knowing what might happen, who you might meet, where you might end up that day. Maybe it would be a house in the barrio off the Silver Lake exit, drinking tequila and mingling to music with the sweet cinnamon skin of pretty Mexican gangster girls called Happy or Bright-Eyes. I had a weakness for them. Or maybe it would be the roof of a tenement hotel downtown looking up at the lucky stars and down on the unlucky people that had to live there when you were just visiting. You could even end up in a mansion, caressing the smooth glossy pages of an expensive art book on a coffee table because some rich cartoonist picked you up hitchhiking and had to stop at home to get something before he could drive you to Will Roger's beach.
The worst part was never knowing what might happen, who you might meet, or where you might end up that day. Maybe it would be a party on Fountain Ave. in the apartment of a swollen ex-cop with sausage fingers who's under investigation for the deaths of all the girls that keep turning up in garbage bags on the freeway. We know he's a suspect, but we don't think he did it. He's got a nice place with a security system that he buzzes to let us in. After the Black Jesus incident, it's the most popular place in town, because not just anybody can walk into the building. But Cricket isn’t allowed in anymore after that, either.
At his place, it's a nightly reunion for we who could not honor our mothers and fathers. We've already inherited the wind and didn't even have to wait for anybody to die first. In fact, it's we who are dropping like flies, overdosing, committing suicide and getting murdered. We've got big holes in us where honor should be so we always keep our eyes peeled for somebody to honor. But there’s only people like this guy. He knows we've already been used, so it will probably be easier for him to use us than somebody who hasn't. He likes to watch us dance, he likes to be hip. He hopes that sooner or later he can get at least one of us drunk enough that we'll let him fuck us, but he's not pushing it. We can tell that he respects us for fucking each other and not him because he knows how vile he is. He needs somebody to feel morally superior to, so he picks rapists. Lucky for us.
We aren’t always so lucky. We end up in a rapist's house or car every once in a while. Now that I'm civilized, I know what a traumatic thing rape really is. Civilized people feel violated and have nightmares for years, and don't want to let anybody touch them for a long time. Savages know that it only takes a minute if you just go limp and if you act like you think the guy is okay, he probably won't hurt you. And if you tell yourself that since you’re going to die you might as well feel good one more time before you go, you can pretend he’s somebody else that you picked yourself. Savages are practical that way. But even savage practicality has its limits.
We'd gone to a birthday party for Lydia. Lydia had a girlfriend named Richard and they both had jobs and a nice apartment. They'd been together for so long that they'd actually bought furniture. They were spoken of in awed tones, and it was generally agreed that they had their "shit together". The party was all girls, mostly couples. At least it was all girls until a crazy man who called himself The Black Jesus grabbed Cricket out in the hall, dragged her into the laundry room and raped her. She'd probably told him to eat her shorts, like she was always doing when she was drunk. Those of us dancing out on the patio didn't even know anything had happened until we heard the ambulance sirens outside. We didn't know that he'd broken down the apartment door when he was finished with Cricket and raked the birthday girl's nose right off her face with a garden claw. Everything happened so fast that it took almost an hour before every person at the party had heard the whole story and finally believed it.
When Cricket staggered back into what was left of the party after the ambulance had taken the birthday girl away, she was whimpering. I never saw her whimper like that, not even in the hospital. But she wasn't crying even though her pants were down around her ankles and one of her eyeballs looked like somebody had emptied the jelly out and poured a glass of blood into it and her cheekbones weren't in their right place. She was too drunk to feel any of that, and hadn't looked into a mirror yet.
She didn't start crying until she looked into the mirror of my eyes and saw all the horror that I couldn't keep off my face no matter how much practice I'd had. She must have seen how she looked in there and thought that she'd never be able to get another girlfriend, because she begged me to slow-dance with her one last time for old time’s sake. I helped her pull up her pants and took her into the bathroom to get some of the blood off her, but it didn't help. I didn't know how resilient human faces are then, so I thought she was going to look like that forever, and that not even plastic surgery would help.
The whole time I was cleaning her up, she kept it up like a chant "C'mon, baby, dance with me. I'll tell 'em to play our song. You know I'll always love you." So I danced with her. I held her and cried into her hair. I touched her swollen face softly and wanted to fold her up and take her someplace where somebody would take care of her, but there wasn't any place or anybody.
Then, suddenly, at that moment, her weakness disgusted me and I knew I’d already learned everything I wanted to know from her. I pushed her away hard and told her to quit acting like a fucking baby. She stumbled backward with that look on her face that little kids get when they're about to get beat for no reason, right at that minute when they're trying hard to think of a good reason they deserve it so they don't have to believe it's just because their own mama wishes they were never born. It was a hard expression to look at without wanting to slap it off her face to stop knowing I put it there, so I quit looking. I turned around and headed for the door. Behind me, I heard her mumble “Where you goin’, baby? You know I can’t live without you.”
I threw the last words I ever said to her over my shoulder as I left her life. "You’re probably not going to live much longer anyway.”
According to the social workers, she was supposed to be dead by now, brutally murdered, overdosed, wasted away by cirrhosis of the liver—something. Or locked up in prison. That’s what they said happens to savages who refuse to civilize themselves, and who tell people with the power to hurt them to eat their shorts. Hell, after all these years in civilization, I could even keep a straight face working in the little red caboose now.
Only she's still alive. I could probably walk right by her on the street. I could pretend I didn’t see her scarred face or her outstretched hand the same as all the other good citizens. I could pretend I don’t know that even though the tattoo on her left forearm says “Cricket”, her name is Kathryn and she is waiting impatiently for someone to kill her so she can get out of her life. Or that the part of her right arm that’s missing once bore a tattoo that said “Nancy”, who was Cricket’s old lady after me, and who took back her name with a knife when they broke up.
And if after all these years, she recognized me and called out to me by name, I could look at her quizzically and say softly that she must be mistaken, because I never did tell her my real name. She never asked. That moment of me that wanted to fold her up and take her someplace safe where somebody would take care of her passed away long ago and is buried somewhere under the things I had to do to get this condo with its tasteful beige carpet. Now, I would want only to see the welcome light flicker on in her eyes when she saw the gun, for her to hear me whisper her real name, Kathryn, as I pulled the trigger and left her limp with peace. That way, she’d know that somebody had heard. She’d have to know, that’s the important thing. So I just stay away. Like I said, I’m civilized now.
Copyright © 2014 by Andy Lee Parker (Andrea L. Walker)
All rights reserved.
Andy Lee Parker