My friend Serinda, she says I take too many chances. You go anywhere with strangers, she says. You don’t use protection. You want to end up with AIDS or strangled like those girls in the park? Please, Darla, be more careful. But I say, Quit bugging me, girl. You got your own kid to mind so don’t go playing mother to me. Besides, what’s the point in caring about things I might die of tomorrow when I got to come up with four hundred dollars just to shoot in my arm today?
“Where you working tonight?” I ask her as we sit in Ernie’s for lunch.
“Huh. Nice place.” I push back a snarled lock of blond hair. I left the color on too long, and now I look like a dandelion. I can picture Serinda at the Plaza, a pretty little piece of brown sugar in a neat red dress and matching shoes, sitting at the bar sipping her ginger ale. Quiet and polite, so you’re not quite sure she is what she is.
Serinda looks hurt. “I get nice johns there, the kind you should try for instead of being out on the street.”
“Yeah, well the fuckin’ manager won’t let me in.”
“It’s your own fault. You got…you have to be more subtle, more refined.”
“Refined?” I laugh, nearly choking on a French fry. The sourpuss waitress gives me an evil look and I glare back.
“Yes, refined,” Serinda insists. “If you’d just tone down your language and your clothes, I could help you with your makeup.” She lifts a worried hand to my pale cheek. “You could be pretty.”
“No, I couldn’t. Don’t try to kid me.” I push away her fingers. Serinda and me have been friends since we got knocked up together in tenth grade, so she should know better. I’m not pretty, and all the makeup in the world just makes me look more like what I am. “Besides, nobody gives a damn.”
“You don’t give a damn,” she retorts. “Let me help you the way you helped me.”
I throw up my hands. “Will you forget that? So I stopped Buddy from beating on you. It’s not like I saved your life. He wouldn’t bruise you so bad you’d have to stop working.” My eyes narrow. “You better not let him find out you’re at the Plaza.”
“Buddy don’t…Buddy doesn’t care where I work as long as he gets his cut.” Serinda finishes her decaf, picks up her books, and slides out of the booth. “I have to go see my tutor for the GED. Please, Darla, be careful.”
“Yeah, yeah. Say hi to your grandma and the kid for me.”
Serinda leaves, and I finish my cheeseburger. Buddy definitely won’t like it if he finds out about the Plaza. He’ll like it even less if he finds out about the studying. His clients aren’t looking for brains. I pay my tab and leave the snooty waitress without a tip, cutting across the park to the bench by the playground. It was just the other side of the bushes they found that last girl’s body. Even so, there are kids on the slide, shoving and calling each other names like motherfucker and pisshead. They look about eight. After a while Rabe shows up and helps himself to the seat beside me.
“So how’s old Darla today?” His lips part to reveal a sharp-toothed smile, and he gives the kids on the monkey bars a wave. “I got some fine stuff in my pocket for you—if you got cash.”
I pull a man’s diamond pinky ring from my pocket. Rabe looks it over and passes it back, pretending not to be impressed, but I know it’s as least as good as the one he wears.
“Where’d you get it?” he asks, adjusting the crease in his pants so it peaks nice and straight.
“Cut if off a john’s finger while he was asleep.”
“I believe you would.”
“Just give me my stuff. A week’s worth.”
“A week’s worth?” Rabe laughs. He reaches in the pocket of his leather jacket and slips up a single packet so I can see the edge. Then he drops it again. Two more kids wave to him from the playground, yelling, “Rabe! Rabe!”
“Hey, dudes! Be with you in a minute,” he calls.
“You’re sick,” I say, “selling to kids.”
“Who said I was selling?” He grins and nudges me. “Free samples. No obligation. Same as you get a squirt of hand lotion in the mail.”
“Whatever happened to ‘Just Say No’?”
“Hell, they don’t buy that. That’s grownups talking. But I’m one of them. All the kiddies love their good pal Rabe.” He stretches his long legs with satisfaction.
“Three days,” I say, gambling my flattery has softened him up for a deal.
He lifts the packet, his face as friendly as a knife blade. “One. Take it or leave it. ‘Course I could give you a discount if you brought me some new customers. Like maybe your friend, Serinda. Ain’t she got a kid?”
“No. It’s somebody else’s she looks after. Give me the stuff.”
Rabe slips it to me, and I hand over the ring. “Same time tomorrow.” He rises and saunters toward the jungle gym.
“Darla! Darla, guess what?” Serinda pulls me into the booth at Ernie’s and beckons to the waitress. “Two tuna melts and coffee. My treat,” she adds, as the waitress jots the order and walks away. “Guess what happened at the Plaza last night?”
“A Hollywood producer walked in and said he’s gonna make you a star.” I draw my coat closer, not feeling too good. The greasy smell from the grill doesn’t help.
“No, listen. Remember last month I told you I met a john there from New York who owned a couple of jewelry stores? He was back last night—and he wants me to come to New York, too.”
“What? He’s going to marry you and you’ll live happily ever after?”
“Of course not. He’s already married.” Serinda glances impatiently out the window. Then her gaze falls on a couple walking hand-in-hand, a baby in a carrier on the man’s back, and her face softens. “I’d like that someday, you know? To be somebody’s wife. But sometimes I feel like their fingerprints are all over me, like you could read my skin and tell where every man left his mark.” She wrenches her eyes away from the couple outside. “Listen, Darla, this is serious. The john gave me the name and address of a woman in New York who runs a real high-class house. He said if I contact her and tell her to call him, he’ll vouch for me. He says I’m as good as any girl he’s had there, and the woman—her name is Beth—she takes good care of you. Some of her girls are even college graduates.”
“So you going?”
“As soon as I pass the GED. It’s a chance for Joshie and me to get out of here, to earn some decent money and have our own place to live. I want you to come with us.”
“Ha—uhh.” I grimace, and Serinda frowns.
“What’s the matter? You okay?”
“You look bad. Darla, what is it? Did somebody hurt you last night?”
“No. I think Rabe sold me some bad stuff.”
She opens her mouth in dismay. Then the waitress comes with our sandwiches, and Serinda bites her lip till the woman leaves. She lets out an exasperated breath.
“You promised me you’d go to the treatment center.”
“I lied. Quit bugging me, girl. Quit trying to save me.” My voice rises angrily, and for a minute we glare at each other. The customers turn to stare.
Serinda gives up quietly. “All right.” She picks up her tuna melt and starts to eat. After a while she asks, “How’d you do last night?”
“Okay. I don’t remember how many.”
“Where’d you sleep?”
“In a car.”
“I didn’t feel it.” I chew slowly, forcing down a bite. “So you’re as good as the New York girls, huh?” I tease.
“Yeah…I mean yes.” A little smile comes on her face, half serious, half pleased. “Look, Darla, if I have a choice of working for Buddy or being high class in New York, I might as well aim for the top. Come with me. There’s no family to keep you here.”
“That’s for sure, the bastards.” All the time my father was screwing me, he still went to church. All the time, my mother pretended not to know. They told the nurse at the abortion clinic I was such a tramp there was no telling who the baby’s father was.
“It’ll get you away from Buddy and Rabe, too. Come with me.”
“I’d only bring you down.”
We both fall silent. Serinda finishes her food. “My tutor’s waiting. You want to stay?” She nods at my half-eaten sandwich.
“Yeah. Thanks for lunch.”
“I’ll get the bill on the way out. Talk to you tomorrow.”
She leaves, and I turn my head into the corner of the booth and puke onto the leatherette seat. I cover the mess with a napkin and slip out.
In the park, Buddy and Rabe are hanging around the bench with three or four of the kids. I stop, not liking the look of the two of them together. Buddy sees me and starts up. I take a few steps backward, then veer away, my head throbbing like a bad dream. When I glance over my shoulder, Buddy and Rabe are on their feet, brushing off the kids, gaining quickly. The bushes are ahead, but I stop where I am. I’ll be safest in full view.
“Not so fast, Darla.” Buddy catches me by one arm, Rabe grabs the other side tight. Buddy’s scar puckers like a dead worm across his cheek. “Me and Rabe had a little talk about you, baby, and it seems you been tellin’ some lies.”
“Get fucked,” I say. Buddy is less than brilliant, and I count on outsmarting him.
“You told Rabe Serinda don’t got a kid and you told me Serinda spent last night working Third when Rabe seen her inside the Plaza. And you never told me ‘bout this.” He nods to Rabe who draws the diamond pinky ring from his pocket. “What else you holdin’ out on me, Darla?”
He spits in my face, and the goop sticks to my nose and cheeks. Arms pinned, I can’t wipe it off. I can’t reach the old wrench I carry in my coat pocket either. Too bad I puked at Ernie’s or I’d heave on both of them.
“You want me to keep working, you tell this sleazoid to stop ripping me off and selling me crap.” I jerk my head toward Rabe, who twists my arm harder in reply. “Lemme go!”
Buddy’s face darkens with suspicion. Rabe eases his hold and smiles. “Hey, man. Bad stuff. Sometimes that happens.”
“Yeah, well I can’t work if you don’t keep me supplied, prick.”
Before I know it’s coming, Buddy’s fist slams into my jaw. “You don’t talk to my man like that!” he roars. “I’m the boss! I’m the boss!” His fists keep coming, and my head cracks left, right, left, with the blows. I sag to my knees, trying to shield myself with my arms. Over in the playground, the kids point and laugh.
“Now, now.” Rabe steps between Buddy and me. “We don’t want to damage the merchandise. Though how she even gets a john is beyond me. Look at her.” He sweeps his hand toward me, and Buddy strokes his chin. “She’s dogmeat,” Rabe continues. “The hair’s a fright wig. Her eyes are all bloodshot. She hasn’t changed clothes in a week. Who’d want to sleep with that?”
Buddy surveys me and nods apologetically. “Some customers ain’t too particular.”
“She’s probably got diseases and bad breath.”
“How much longer you think she’ll last?”
“Maybe a few months.”
They stare at me, and I stare back, wondering why I don’t feel any pain.
“Dogmeat,” says Rabe. He puts his arm around Buddy’s shoulder. “Since she’s a goner anyway, tell you what I’m gonna do. Today’s on me. But I gotta get another customer to replace her, so you bring me Serinda and we’ll call it square.” He tosses a packet toward me, and it falls on the grass.
“What if Serinda won’t cooperate?” Buddy asks.
Rabe chuckles, a low, cruel sound. “She’s got a kid, don’t she?” They walk away together.
I reach for my stuff, but the ground zooms up at me, and my fingers touch air. I try again—no luck. Finally, I crawl along and trap it with both hands. As I get to my feet, I remember something about Serinda and Rabe, and I know I have to warn her. But as I cut through the bushes, my packet falls. I go down again to find it.
It’s very cold. Very dark. Shit, I can’t stop shaking. What are all these leaves? I roll onto all fours, not hearing anything but the rustle of my coat on grass. My head soars with pain, my insides crawl like a tangled octopus. I grope in my pocket and find my stuff. Now all I need is a needle.
The night is black, and the park is creepy. If I had a watch, I’d know how late it is. But nothing matters except to get someplace where I can shoot up, so I start walking. My footsteps sound flat on the ground. They seem to go twice as fast as my feet. Or maybe it’s an echo. I step—step—then my next foot falls. Step—step.
“Who’s there?” I yell, and suddenly the echo stops. Serinda’s voice pleads in my mind: You want to end up strangled like those girls in the park? For a minute I can’t move. Then the fear comes out in a shriek that splits the night. I clutch my temples and stumble away—step-step, step-step—pretending it isn’t there. He’s dogging me, and I realize in a panic I’m going the long way out of the park.
“Get away from me!” I whirl, expecting to feel hands on my throat, but everything behind me is black. With a cry, I plunge on, wondering when the blow will come, then wanting it to come, wanting it all to be over, but just walking—step-step, step-step—and then giggling because it’s so funny. I can see the edge of the park, the lighted buildings across the street. If he doesn’t hurry up, I’m going to get away.
“Come on!” I spin around to face him. “Come and get me!” I whip out my wrench, tears coursing down my cheeks, hair tossing about my head like an explosion of yellow dynamite. “Last chance, sucker!” Then I run screaming across the street. In a few blocks I reach a house. Inside, I share a needle with a dirty man in a stained jacket. A quick thought passes through my head—that guy in the park didn’t want me!—then I forget everything but how good I feel.
About an hour later, steady again, I remember Serinda—shit. Where’s she going to be, the Plaza? I step over a guy huddled on the floor, bump into some bleary girl in a sweatshirt who shouts indignantly after me, get out quick as I can. The night is cool and I breathe hard, running, then walking, then running again. I crash into the Plaza bar, where Serinda sits with a gray-haired man in a business suit, sipping her ginger ale.
“Serinda, you got to come with me. Now!” I grab her arm, ignoring her horrified look and the startled face of her john.
“Darla, please!” she pleads.
The bartender lifts the phone, and I hear him say “Security.” He hangs up and starts toward me.
I pull Serinda off her stool. “It’s an emergency. Joshie.” Instantly, her resistance vanishes, and with a hasty apology to the john she lets me hurry her out.
“What is it? Is he all right?” Her brown eyes widen with fear.
“It’s Buddy and Rabe. They want to get you hooked. Maybe Joshie, too. You got to get away from here.”
“But where will we go? What about Gran?”
“Take her with you. Go to New York. Call that woman the john told you about.”
“But we can’t just leave. Not like this.” Serinda runs her hand through her hair. “We’re not packed. My GED’s next week.”
“Forget that. You can take the test in New York. Listen to me!” I grab her by both arms and tell her everything I can remember Buddy and Rabe said. “Go find a phone and call home now. Tell them to lock the door and pack.”
Serinda nods dumbly, and we hurry around to the Plaza’s front door. I wait outside while she passes nervously through. Then instinct takes over, and she straightens and walks confidently to the pay phones in the lobby. For several minutes she talks—she might be making a business appointment or a reservation for a plane—then she comes out to join me.
“They’re all right,” she says, breathlessly. “No one’s been to the house. Darla, are you sure?” She stares at me and mixed in with her worry I see a look of distaste. A tearing feeling goes down my throat, a cry I won’t let come out.
“I’m sure,” I say. “Maybe not tonight. Maybe not tomorrow. But Buddy knows about the Plaza, he doesn’t trust you anymore, and Rabe knows about Joshie. They’re going to hurt you, Serinda. Please, believe me.”
For a long minute she searches my face. “All right. I’ll go home and pack what we can. I have some money…I’ll stop at the machine at the bank and empty our account. But what if it’s not enough? What’ll we live on until I can earn something?”
“You just do what you said and meet me at the bus station. Stay there till I come, you hear me?”
Serinda nods and hurries into the dark. Turning, I flinch at my reflection in the glass door: shock-yellow hair, swollen face, bulging eyes, clothes scavenged from a Salvation Army bin. But some men like that. I head for Third.
“Darla.” Buddy’s voice catches me on the street in front of some shabby buildings. He approaches, frowning in suspicion. “You’re late.”
“Went to get my hair done,” I say, fluffing it. Buddy stares hard at my head, then glares as the sarcasm finally penetrates. “So let’s get working. Send ‘em up.”
“The way you look, you better keep the light off,” he growls, handing me a key.
“Don’t you worry about that.”
It takes five of them—fifteen minutes each—till up comes Mr. Right. Wool suit. Silk tie. Wedding ring. But he’s got to punish himself for it with a dirty room and me. Dumb jerk doesn’t even get to come before I slide my wrench out from under the pillow and club him. He rolls off me with a groan and blacks out. I strip the cash from his wallet, his watch, two rings. Even in the darkness I can tell it’s a good haul. I yank on my clothes and head for the fire exit with a last look at the john on the bed. His kind don’t call the police.
“Darla!” Serinda jumps up from the bench at the bus terminal when I charge in. Beside her sits a tiny woman cradling a sleeping boy. In her hand, Serinda clutches a departure schedule.
“You got your tickets?” I demand.
“Not yet. The last bus leaves in twenty minutes.”
“Go get them now.” With a nod, I urge her toward the ticket window. Then I sit beside her grandma and the boy. The old woman’s eyes soften as she takes me in.
“I’m Darla,” I say, trying to sound cheerful. “I been to your house a few times. Serinda and me are pretty good friends.”
She nods. “I know. You don’t look good, child.”
“Naah, it’s nothing. I’m fine. God, Joshie’s getting big, isn’t he?” I give the boy an awkward pat. The grandmother doesn’t reply.
Serinda returns with three tickets just as the bus pulls into place. The driver opens the door for boarding, and the passengers line up with their bags. I help Serinda carry her two suitcases forward. There are only about a dozen travelers in all, and as we wait her turn Serinda glances anxiously around the concrete terminal. I draw her aside.
“Open your purse,” I whisper.
“Open it, just a little.”
Serinda undoes the clasp on her shoulder bag. I reach into my pocket and dump the jewelry and cash into her purse.
“Darla, I can’t take that. What have you done?”
I snap the bag closed. “You see enough to know what it’s worth? Good. Now get out of here.”
The driver shuts the baggage compartment and beckons the passengers to get on. Serinda hurries to help her grandmother rouse Joshie. Together they guide the drowsy child to the steps, and the driver takes their tickets. The grandmother climbs up, and Serinda hoists Joshie into her arms. He clasps his arms contentedly around her neck, his legs dangling down to kick her knees.
“Come with us,” Serinda pleads.
“Not me, girl. Go wow ‘em in New York.” I step away, and with a last look Serinda turns and struggles with Joshie into the bus. I wait until they’re seated, until the doors close and the engine starts. Serinda leans to the window and pounds with her fist.
Darla, be careful, she mouths, exaggerating her lip movements and making no sound. Then the bus pulls away.
I leave the terminal and trudge back toward Third, plotting what I’m going to tell Buddy. Already I’m starting to feel bad again, my head sick, my stomach doing its octopus crawl. Maybe I better find Rabe and talk him into giving me something, or maybe I’ll feel better if I sleep awhile in a car or in the park. The park’s close, but checking my pocket I realize I left my wrench back in the room with that john. What the hell, I head for the park anyway.
Serinda’s probably right. One of these days, I’m going to get myself killed.
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1994)
Wind, Number 74, 1994