BY TONI ALISON
For the last half hour, and possibly even longer, Marla has stood reckless in front of the mirror in the men’s bathroom at Cojones, a drink in her hand and a dollar bill up her skirt. She hides now from the man who put it there, this because she knows the switchblade stashed in her pocket, and she sees herself on top of him, already, as she carves his eyes out like seeds from a pumpkin. She worked as a girl for many years, but business is never as fun as it used to be. Try as she might she would never kill a man, though she did try once to rip the foreskin off with her teeth.
Marla leans over to splash her tired face with water and comes out from under it like a monster in drag, some by-gone product in silver eyeliner and pock marks on her face. A toilet flushes, and the shiny lights overhead seem enraged, a bad bulb sizzling against the sour stink of shit. She spits in the sink as if to formally greet Antonio, who steps out from the stall and passes her with his buttocks tan and flexed, perfectly exposed in a Grecian-like g-string. Marla pulls a cigarette from her pocket, lights up because she knows he wants to share a full, deep drag.
She blows a cloud of smoke in his face, winks at him and says, What you looking at, hustler? Get back out there before I rip your ass to pieces.
Tell Rick-Dee I said Hi, he says.
Give me a break, she says, and chokes down a laugh. None of you pony boys better think twice about that shit. We all know who calls the shots around here, don’t you forget it.
Give me a light, will you?
Fat chance in hell, she says, and tosses him half a roll of condoms. Make yourself useful.
Antonio flashes her a slick smile like a child caught shoplifting, a teenager high on the thrill of dangerous adventure. He crushes the roll in his fist, opens the door, and a momentary blast rushes through her skull. Music pounds through the walls of the bathroom like an alcoholic heart on a sugar rush. It echoes her nerves. Sleazy glam metal types who only ask for a tank of gas and free buffalo wings, Corona on the house. Bands with names like Tommy Tucci and the Perpetual Booger, Alice Eats Dog, Sex Toys for Losers. Menopausal Maniacs.
Marla crushes the cigarette beneath her heel. She doesn’t like to smoke, only does it because she knows men will work harder for the things they can’t have. She thought about making this suggestion to be put in the Bible, if she believed in the Bible. The only thing she believes in, really, is the sex. Her father sold her when she was fourteen and had engaged her in the trade long before that. She perfected her craft the same way a mechanic perfects a vehicle, with regular hood inspections and a smooth, lubricated engine. She learned to speak the language and talk tough with the bosses. She spit and she swallowed. She took home bigger tips than the waitresses in her gym class and looked damn good doing it. Gracie was one of those waitresses.
A woman from on the other side of the bathroom door screams out in laughter and tells a man in loose, garbled language that he is funnier than her boyfriend, words bobbling in her mouth too sticky on her tongue. The bathroom door opens at once, and the woman tumbles down across the floor, slack-limbed and cackling. Her teeth glint like broken glass in the hot light overhead, her open mouth frothy and gross. One of the dancers, a new hire that in the moment Marla does not recognize, pounces on top of her like a thirsty jaguar. She’s wearing a pink satin sash that says “Dirty Thirty,” which the man rips off with his teeth.
Cross your nose and kiss your toes, Marla says to no one in particular. She pulls a lipstick out from her back pocket and rubs it carelessly over her mouth. On the mirror in front of her before she leaves she writes, I killed your baby, Bloody Mary.
Strobe lights flash across the room, brilliant touches of green and blue and purple that dart across the floor like lasers. Tonight’s band is a hazy blend of Southern rock and glam called Hookers for Jesus, the lead singer an effeminate man in tight jeans and sequined top. He doesn’t sing so much as he howls, and the overall sound is drowned in shrill, catlike guitars. In the middle of Cojones is the bar where Rick-Dee currently sits in conversation with two young, ample-chested women. Earlier in the night he had mistaken her for someone else. He called her sugar, ran his thick, leathery hand up her thigh and passed her a dollar bill for a kiss on the cock.
Who do you think you are Big Shot, Marla had said, right before she smacked him. I know your type and I ain’t scared not a lick. But you crazy if you think I do anything for just a dollar.
Marla had kept the dollar bill up her skirt, tucked inside of her panties just for fun. She had spent too much time with men like Rick-Dee, with men like her father, and goddamn it if she was going to let him walk his stuff inside of her bar and act like it was his own personal brothel. One of the women rubs his shoulders, and he throws his head back and laughs, a heavy sound that seems to bubble up from somewhere deep inside of him. Marla pulls out her lighter and holds it in her palm for a moment, feels its weight in her hand.
She pulls up a chair on the opposite side of the bar. Dancers flock behind her in tandem with the music, an orgy of sweat-scented bodies that grind against each other in tangles of heat. Dex has his back turned to her as he serves drinks to a group of middle-aged women, empty-nested soccer moms with feathered hair and high-waisted jeans. A thick-boned redhead with dry skin and cataracts squeals as Antonio breezes past, a wad of bills in her hand. Her friends yelp and jeer and cackle like prepubescent schoolgirls in a gym locker room.
You sir, the redhead says, her voice clear and solid, have a McDonald’s face. Because mm, mm, mmm I’m loving it.
M-C, and capital D, says one of the other ladies. They swap stares and gap-toothed smiles, flushed cheeks and a sudden, raucous burst of laughter.
Antonio places his hands on the redhead’s hips and together they sway. She taunts him, holds the clump of dollar bills just above his head, out of reach as if he were a dog. He turns around, bares his ass in a perfectly choreographed performance as Marla has seen too many times to count, but to these women, to this woman, this man is a grand gesture, Michelangelo’s David sent through time to carry forth her well-deserved blessings after years of silent fortitude.
You see this, Dex says as he turns around, a wet rag in his hand.
Your impeccable bar-room sanitation skills? Marla says. I’m impressed.
You give these gals one quick peep show and I swear they lose their heads.
What? She says. You jealous?
They get a room with you, then yeah. I’m jealous.
Marla looks down and smiles, rubs her hands against the shiny marble countertop. So tell me padre, she says. What it take for a girl to get a decent Bloody Mary round here?
Dex laughs, slides a tall glass right past her. Dill pickle and olive, lemon pepper on the rim. Grey Goose vodka only. No celery. What, he says. Do you really think I’d forget?
The glass is cold in her hand. She pops the pickle in her mouth, relishes the sweet crunch, the sour juice as it drips down her throat. Suddenly Marla is aware of every muscle in her body, and she tries to twist her mouth downward to keep from smiling. She lowers her head as she slurps her drink, zesty tomato with a bite stronger than usual. In the two years since she opened Cojones Dex has always been the bartender, a college drop-out she had met on the opposite corner of the street where everyday he read poetry out loud for tips. The jar at his feet had three nickels, a dime, two breath mints and half a strip of beef jerky. Something behind his eyes made her stop.
You not gone to make anything like that, padre, she says. I got this place. What say I give you a lift?
Dex pressed his lips together in thought. He was tall, boyish, with a square jawline that ran sharp with his smile. I don’t know about that ma’am. But I give you some money if you short.
Marla was quiet for a while as she stared at the jar on the pavement. You ever set someone on fire before? she said.
Is that a joke?
It’s a question. And after a while when he didn’t answer she said: I have.
Marla coughs as a lick of lemon pepper catches in her throat. She had brought Dex back to the bar that afternoon, placed a bottle of Captain Morgan in his hand and told him to make the best drink he could make. He slid over a brightly colored cocktail blended from the coconut rum, a few splashes of Abita, some blue curacao, two olives and half a shot of Tabasco. The first sip was warm in the back of her throat and reminded her of a summer camp she had been to as a child. Her tongue itched with muddy lake water and vomit. Sweaty with suntan lotion. She spit it up, swallowed it back down when she saw his face, lit up in reflection against the marble countertop.
You know, she says to him now as she sips her drink. You come a long way since I done picked you up off the street.
Who’s picking who up? he says with a smile. Not me says the little drunk hen.
Not I, Marla says. And who are you fooling anyway? Those gals deserve a drink.
She takes a long, full swig of Bloody Mary, nods her glass at Dex in a gesture of cheers. Two large hands float suddenly in front of her face like spiders, hot palms pressed against her swollen eyes with vision so black she can barely breathe. She swivels in her chair sharp enough to stab her elbow at the soft body behind her. For a moment she thinks it might be Gracie, a vision undead, silk-threaded beauty glittering ash. But when she turns around it is only Pedro.
Scared much, little lady? he says, choked up on laughter.
Shove it up your ass, Marla says, and smiles.
I love a woman that talk dirty to me, he says. You come around here often, miss?
Ain’t in the business of saying so, she says, and gulps down the rest of her drink, stands up and wraps her arms around his neck. You gone get me out of here or what?
What’s it to you?
Marla steadies her eyes deep into his. You ask anymore questions, and next time it won’t just be my elbow.
Pedro holds up his palms, his chapped lips puckered and fishlike. Alright, alright, he says. What say you cool down, and I can have you at Heavy Brains Apartment in the next ten seconds.
The first time Marla stumbled into Heavy Brains Apartment she had not yet opened up Cojones bar, but she had spent so much time drinking alone that nothing else really mattered much. Earlier in the night she found herself strapped to a metal table in a dark room with a client named Chuck. I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV, he had said as he blindfolded her, a dog’s muzzle belted over her nose. He slashed her with a leather riding crop as he jacked off and never once let her touch him. Afterwards she hobbled over to the nearest convenience store, one hand pressed against her thigh to stop the blood, a bottle of Grey Goose in the other to cover the bruises.
Heavy Brains Apartment was on the other side of the street just past Pablo Garcia’s Tex-Mex diner and an adult film store named Dirty Betty’s. The place was once a semi-decent artist’s gallery, a wax museum filled predominantly with post-mortem anatomical models of women with their heads’ split open, thickly coiled intestines and taut, spaghetti-like veins bloated from the insides of a new-aged Venus. Electrical fire had charred half of the building years before Marla ever stepped inside, this secret island that she knew at once had been destroyed just for her.
Marla met Pedro a few weeks later at a rave thrown by a pimp she had never seen before and knew only by the name of Chemical X. The first time he took her out she insisted he fuck her on the floor of the abandoned apartment, threatened to switchblade his wrists if he didn’t.
You is a scary bitch, Pedro had said to her then. I like that in a woman.
In the years since she opened Cojones, and even more so since she had met Dex, Pedro seemed to find her a little less scary and a little more fruitless, still impish but without the designated pornstar appeal. Something easily jettisoned like a used tampon or a snot rag. Most of the time Marla felt simply as if she herself were one of the broken-down wax effigies in the museum, an ugly, bloated woman with a melted face that no one really wanted to see.
They sit beside each other now on the last step of the ruined stairwell, a soft, crumbly bench spattered with ash just below their heels. Pedro slips his hand inside of his pocket, grabs a tiny plastic bag dusted with fine powder that he takes in through his left nostril. He wiggles the bag in front of her face, and she snatches it out of his hand at once, hurls it across the room. It skitters soundlessly over the sunken floorboards.
What? he says. I thought a loose gal like you would like a little blow.
Shit’s toxic, she says.
Sounds like you been spending too much time with that good-for-nothing bartender, he says. Guy’s a pansy hole, if you ask me.
Ain’t nobody asked you, she says. You offer me that again and I break your neck.
Pedro leans over and wraps both of his hands around her throat. Don’t you forget, he says, and his voice is dark, hollow. That I can break yours.
Marla steadies her eyes on his, gulps down a hard, uncomfortable breath. She shifts her weight, flinches under his large, thick hands. A piece of wood from the stairstep falls through the floorboards as she breaks away from beneath his grip. Her feet shuffle across the room in short, delicate strides. She keeps her back turned towards Pedro all the while as she picks up the tiny bag of Coke and unzippers it, shakes it loose over her face with a meticulous energy. Cowabunga, she shouts, and pinches her nose red for effect.
How you like that, Daddy, she says as she turns around, unbuttons the top of her blouse.
Stay where you are, and the edge in his voice tells her he is not playing around, this time. Lie down and touch yourself, like a whore.
Small beads of glass trail the floor at her feet, shattered from a window nearby that has been boarded up with large slabs of frightening, mold-spotted wood. She drops down on her back, pin-pricked with the sensation of several tiny daggers. Freshly sliced skin razored with papercuts. She shuts her eyes, imagines her father’s face swarmed with flesh-eating worms in the dirt where he was buried. And he had died that way too, with dark blood dried over his blistered nose. His cold, blue-veined mouth. This Marla had always resented. She liked to have killed him first.
A chill passes through her as she breathes in the dull, dusty smell of his cigarette, burned against her back when she was seven and it was just the two of them then, alone in the abandoned trailer while Gracie and her mother went out. The lights overhead seemed darker than usual, the room smaller and more sweltering in nature. He bent her over the coffee table with his hands to her throat, knocked her head against the wooden panels until half of her face was bruised. He pulled out and slapped her clean across the cheek as blood streaked down her legs. She had thrown up all over his shoes.
To this day Marla cannot remember the name of the man who had first taken her from her father, only that he had thick hands and scabby, pus-filled boils on the right side of his face. A fat belly that jiggled against her face as they fucked. He called her Oryx and believed wholly in his own divinity, a Christ-like descendant reincarnate with warty feet and stretch marks that roped his inner thighs. He never knew her real name and each night chained her to the bedpost with several other girls, their faces illuminated only by candlelight in a bunker that had been prepped for the apocalypse. In those moments Marla let go of her father. She gave her body to God.
Before her father and even before her mother, Gracie had been the first one to go. She was four years older than Marla and went out of her way to make sure that she knew it. Her body was a wild thing unable to be tamed, and at thirteen she spent most of her time storming around their trailer topless. She took a job waiting tables at Pablo Garcia’s when she was old enough to find work and came home each night with outrageous tips from preppy, long-haired school boys and bloated truck drivers, pornography-obsessed dads in the heat of mid-life crisis. All Marla had were tiny brown nipples that wilted like dead flowers inside of her training bra.
Look girls, Gracie would say in the halls at schools, at sleepovers with all of her friends. Someone’s a part of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee.
They’d slap hands and cackle with each other, draw mustaches and lewd comments on her face while she slept. Pimple nips and Flatty McGee. Pancake Face. Whisper Tits.
Above her in the moonlight shadows of various shapes creep across the ceiling, the rush of passing cars somehow illuminated against Pedro’s violent, razoring moans, the thump of her head as it bangs in tandem to the floorboards. The city lights ribbon in pieces against the walls from cracks in the boarded up window, sheets of torn wallpaper of an indeterminate pattern spotty with mold. Dark waterworn stains overhead blossoming large as flowers. Against the walls the fractured body parts of mannequins, vital organs of unknown origin soaked in jars of formaldehyde.
Pedro yanks down on her hair. He screams as he pulls out of her, rolls over onto his back. Perra caliente de mierda, he says, breathless and shaken. Now ain’t that some shit.
Marla opens her mouth to take in the air, but still, she can barely breathe. Every inch of her throbs to the phantom weight of his body, the heavy muscles between her thighs quaking like an illusive machine. She closes her eyes for a time with the vision of Dex as she most often dreamed, the necessary void that rushed up her spine in a way that made her brain bleed. Once or twice he had casually asked her to a poetry reading, for a drink he didn’t make himself, but as always her answer was the same. She had built herself up from the ash, crawled around each day inside of her own dead skin and the only man capable of her living suicide was Pedro.
Marla props herself up on her elbows, stretches out her back. She winces at the sting of it, but she reaches up anyway, shuffles to her feet and drifts languidly across the room. Suddenly she feels weightless as a cloud with her hands touched to each burned artifact, blistered mannequins’ heads and sticky mummified babies’ brains. A shattered glass coffin is perched up on a table to the far right corner, large chunks of glass glittering in the dark by her feet. Inside the coffin is a wax figure of a pregnant woman with her feet burned off and the left half of her abdomen fully charred.
Just around the corner is a broken mirror splattered with ash and scarred in funhouse reflection. Marla stops in front of it as Pedro jabbers on in Spanish from across the room. Her face droops ever so slightly in the distorted frame, two fractured halves on either side though neither one is alike. This perfect image of her brain, split clean down the center. She had been sold first by her father in exchange for some blow and spent the rest of her life going backwards, as if she could shrink herself smaller each day until she didn’t exist anymore. The only memory she had as a child was of Gracie, this second skin that was never the same as the other one inside her.
I killed your baby, Bloody Mary, she says to no one in particular.
Estás loco, pretty mama, Pedro says. Sounds like someone could use another drink.
Marla looks over her shoulder, holds out her hand. We ain’t leaving til I say so, she says. Get your ass over here.
He sprints over and slips his hand into hers. Alright, he says. But if you want to talk to me like a mama, you better remember to spank me like one too.
Would you shut up already? she says. This is important.
Marla pulls out the lighter from inside of her pocket, flips open the tiny, trembling flame.
Hey now, Pedro says. What you think you doing with that?
You never seen a woman to light her own fire before? she says. Tonight I’m going to make you see ghosts, and let me tell you. This bitch is uglier than I am.
She shuts her eyes with the flame ignited as close to her face as possible, the warm glow gentle as a hand. She loops her left arm through Pedro’s as she guides him in incantation. Together they move in slow, dizzying circles to the rhythm of Bloody Mary. Cross your nose and kiss your toes, she can hear Gracie say, as she always did each time they went into the bathroom together. A large prayer candle, their mother’s, illuminated from atop the marble lavatory, a rush of hot water broiling steam against the windows. Say it, Marla would tell her. Say her name.
Bloody Mary Bloody Mary Bloody Mary, Gracie would scream as she twirled clumsily around the room.
Neither of them ever admitted to having seen her ghost, though both were visibly frazzled each time they walked away from the room. Marla left the ritual with the slight sensation that inside of her something devilish had formed, a chill on the back of her neck as if a haunted hand had touched her. She spins Pedro around as long as she can stand it, shuts the lighter off and pulls the switchblade out of her pocket. She holds it just close enough to his neck to make his thick veins bulge. I killed your baby, Bloody Mary, she says. Say it. Say her name so she can hear you.
What do you want from me? he says as he kicks at her legs, tries to escape. Mi perra psico.
For fuck’s sake, Marla says. Say it, goddammit. Just say it.
Pedro gags as she grips him tighter to the throat. Alright, alright, he says. Bloody Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.
She lets him go in one harsh, quick sweep, and he tumbles to the floor, slack-jawed and limp as he crashes against the wooden boards. On the wall behind him is an effigy haloed in fire.
And this is Gracie. Just as Marla has last seen her, just as she left her that one day when she was thirteen and she set the room ablaze and not on accident. Gracie tall and voluptuous and proud, even in wax. Her statue distorted, looms scarily over the museum walls in large and unusual shadows. She appears to Marla then with her face shattered in blood, powdery ash speckled like bullet holes over her body. A zombie reincarnate of the Blessed Mother.
Because Daddy only eats pancake tits, she would say. He would never do that to me.
Gracie stretches out her hands in effigy, an offering of their mother’s prayer candle that had lit so many rituals, so many playful incantations that died by fire the day she spoke to Marla in the darkness. Marla had set the flame to her heels. An electrical fire, they had said, just like the one at Heavy Brains Apartment. Gracie’s voice whispers to her now in the moonlight, the sound of a soul in exorcism, demonic, lovely and deep. Bloody Mary. You loved it too.
Marla walks over towards the candle as if pulled by thread, every muscle in her body as still as if she herself were a statue. She moves closer until she can hold the candle in her hands.
You know what to do, says this voice from above. Ethereal, a dark, unearthly sound.
Marla takes the candle and tiptoes over towards Pedro, his body curled up against the floor like a cat. A large greenish bruise has already flowered over his forehead, the dry skin of his lips cracked in blood from where he had fallen onto the floor. Marla stretches her hand outward as she holds the candle, uses her other to flip him over onto his other side. Spotty, wine-colored blood drips out from a cut on his temple, his breath short and grating in the silence. She takes his thick, dirty fingers and places each one to the flame, bright light that crawls up his arms like spiders. Eats every inch of him raw. She turns around and the statue is gone, as if it had never even existed.
Out on the street her steps are quick and light, and all is business as usual. The hookers on the street corners, a homeless man who uses the drainage grate as his own personal toilet. College kids too drunk to stand. And she, the owner of Cojones bar, who after this night needs a drink. She’ll meet up with Dex after he throws out the last of the old-timey drunks, the priests and the pimps and the housewives way past last call. He’ll smile, and she’ll ask him to pour her her favorite drink. She’ll ask for a martini.