by Toni Alison
Outside of the bus station, at an indeterminable hour of night, Janie clicks her heels together like a child and decides at once that she must kill her husband. He had left her like this on more than one occasion, in silent servitude with raindrops like whistles over her head, gunfire hail cracked into pieces at her feet. She has waited here for nearly three hours, with the cold slippery on her skin and the wet dog smell of rank sex an impenetrable itch inside of her nose.
Above her the trees are flamed in silhouette against the moonlight, their shadows illuminated outward like fangs of a different species. Janie wrestles with her hands for a minute as their thick stalks trample her vision. A hard rattle storms the pavement as the bus finally approaches. Large orbs of demonic light bleed through the darkness, just out of reach for Janie who tries to catch the glow between her fingertips and capture it like so many fireflies. The driver bangs a fist to the windshield as the headlights shut off, pokes his head out of the door and says:
Anybody ever tell you not to stand in front of cars that ain’t stop moving? He mutters a few other words that Janie cannot understand. Go back home, you lava-faced freak. It ain’t safe.
Janie lowers her head and takes a few steps back, away from the gathering crowd. She plunges heel first into a plastic bag squishy with rainwater and dirty diapers of an indistinguishable age. Shit all over in my Holly Jolly boots, she thinks, and stomps her feet against the pavement in tantrum. Her husband had bought them for her before he was her husband. Slick, shiny leather all thigh-high and pretty. She wore them to dance for the men in the bar where she used to work, a grimy hole-in-the-wall place devoid of light that went by the name of Tootsies.
They call me Holly Jolly, she’d say. Because with me it’s like Christmas year round.
Sometimes she would take the men out behind the dumpsters where they could have their privacy, but otherwise just led them to the Jupiter Room behind the bar, so thick with smoke that everybody fucked everybody else anyway and nobody cared. Ritualistic orgies of wild and infected sex. She met her husband there. He was some sort of executive and probably still is, a man bent on respect who knows how to steal it from the women he encounters. Janie does not know, does not fully remember the exact nature of his position, although she is sure he has told her. Once.
In front of her now are several distinct and unusual faces that all seem to blur together like melted wax on a candle. Dark men in suspenders with round disgruntled faces and thick handlebar mustaches, pigeon-toed women with children at their hips and cornflakes in their hair. Clusters of drunken Japanese bridesmaids with bright skin and almond eyes, Geisha-like and slender. They shout swear words at the bride. None of them look like her husband. She never would have known he was there at all if not for the man in front of her with the dimple chin and crow’s feet who says:
Do you remember what I told you, Jane?
Janie puts her finger to her chin which she knows means to focus. Only take the blue gummy bears and just say no to Jesus.
You stupid bitch, he says, and shakes her by the shoulders.
That’s not fair, she says, her face pinched and hot. She puts her hands on her hips, bites her lip not to cry. She doesn’t even know his name. And just where have you been anyway, Mister?
Not important, he says. I could have gone to Brazil and back far as you know. He pulls a cigarette from his pocket and lights up, exhales out into the night. Don’t fuck it up, now. You hear? These people are not your friends. Don’t take anything unless I say so, and keep your mouth quiet.
Yes, sir, Janie says, and nods.
Several people in the crowd run for the bus station’s awning, shrieks and giggles and curses shouted from every direction as the rain storms down like bullets onto the pavement. Others grab for umbrellas, newspapers, and jackets. Janie and her husband have none of these things and instead must brave the few blocks on foot as lightning razors through the trees.
Goddammit, he says. It’s like the freaking piss of angels out here.
Janie’s heart sinks low in her chest as rain falls down heavier onto her shoes. She reaches for a tiny white flower that floats along the current at her feet, shuts her eyes and thinks back to a time when he still let her roam free. Once a month he’d take her out for fried bologna sandwiches and a tour of Wicked Gardens, an intimate maze of hothouses and botanical trails filled with the leaves of poisonous plants. The garden released butterflies into her brain, her body loose and drowsy with slow, patient breath. Displays of corpse flower, phallic and rotting, against gelatinous stinkhorn fungi, the predatory mouths of Venus flytraps pink and open like young, rosebud pussy.
You get one day, he would say as they passed through the glass houses. Overflowing, glittering with lush. Is this really how you want to spend your time, Jane baby?
I just like to know stuff is all, she’d say with her finger over the glossy signage of the closest exhibit. Deadly nightshade, or belladonna, an extremely toxic hallucinogenic species. Once believed to be used by witches to help them fly.
We don’t have all day now, he’d say. And it ain’t like I married you cause you was smart.
Well, then, she’d say. Why did you?
Because you give the best head this side of of the whorehouse, he’d respond. And you listen like a dog when I call you. I like that in a woman.
But all the while Janie had been more interested in the wildflowers. Layers of vibrant foxglove beneath bushes of blush-colored oleanders, dangerous and lovely. Devil’s weed and hemlock, the large, fan-like sprouts of pink elephant ear bled green. She loved to pass her hands along the glass display as if she could whisper secrets to the flowers through her palms, as if she could tell them that she too was trapped. Suddenly an alarm goes off in her head, blood working fast through her body. Her husband’s name is Luke, Luke Warren. It comes to her in a vision, her memory like the antenna of an old radio, flooded in sparks, in waves of clarity and disconnect.
Where did you say we were going again? Janie says to him now, breathless and feverish as they tiptoe along the flooded streets.
Gone to see a man about some Molly, Luke says. Goes by the name Chemical X, but ain’t nobody ever seen his face. All I know is man’s got the best rave scene in town.
Janie nods as if she understands. They pass through a row of storefronts sheltered beneath some scrappy tin overhang. Several shocks of drumroll thunder nearly shake her out of her skin, and she imagines herself as she might be only seconds from now, a tumble of flames glittering ash. She pauses for a moment in front of a department store window where a woman of undetermined age poses in reflection. Half of her face is scarred, bubbles of tissue hidden in clumps below the skin, a dark hole where her eye used to be. Her mouth bloated, wounded in detonated burns.
We ain’t got all day now, Luke says from a short distance away. He taps his foot as if to speed her up, as if this could save him now.
Coming, she says. A flash illuminates the store window if only for a moment, lights up the red leather boots that have been warped in reflection but nevertheless they are there.
Janie plops down onto the sidewalk with her legs crossed and her head tilted downward toward the pavement. She closes her one good eye and the left half of her face prickled numb, a constant twitch buzzed throughout her body that until now was only the muted drum of rain. Beneath the skin her muscles shattered and alive, each nerve a hot tiny hand stabbed through to her insides. If I try really hard, she thinks. I could whistle loud as a bird. Luke was the one who whistled though, in the shower and out on the street. Sometimes when she was especially bad he would tie her up and leave her for a few days, unfed. He whistled then, too.
She runs her hands across the red leather boots and wonders suddenly the way it would feel to die, right here on the street corner with mud on her bare feet and tire tracks across her face. A bus like the one from before, a white convertible with the top down. A motorcycle with a limp wheel still strong enough to crush. She slaps herself as if it were the same thing. Luke slapped her too back when he could still stand to touch her, her skin soft and velvety-white. Because her knees were too sore. Because she said no. She didn’t have enough in the tip jar. She’d have to try harder.
What did you say you do for a living? Janie says.
Advertising, he says and smiles, the word like a song with upward inflection on his lips.
Can we go for a fried bologna sandwich after this? she says. I always liked them fried bologna sandwiches.
Anything for you, doll, he says. Now speed the hell up.
Janie nearly trips as she shuffles to her feet. She slips out of her red leather boots and skips like a clumsy schoolgirl across the pavement until her toes tingle with cold. Already her muscles ache from the thought of sweet pickles and a diet cherry coke, tangy mustard spread thick over the burnt crusts of bread. She trails behind Luke as he turns the street corner, down a narrow alleyway scattered with thick, hairy rats and garbage from the nearby oyster house. Sour fish guts like warm vomit beneath her heels. She puts her shoes back on and marches down toward the dead end street.
A rusty ladder reaches up from a deep, dungeon-like pit below the ground, an abandoned warehouse carved out of the alleyway into a makeshift bunker. Down below the party rages in hot neon lights, tangles of women with rainbow-colored hair, hard at the tits in body paint and pasties. Shirtless men pierced with glow-in-the-dark nipple rings, Rastafarian beanie caps on their heads. Electronic thunder rattles the walls as a DJ mixes beats at the turntable, acid house sounds of Cotton Pussy and Crackfinger, Psycho Stalks Johnny. King Kai and the Manwich Sandwiches.
In the middle of the rave a large crowd gathers around an even larger woman as she bucks against an enormous mechanical rooster, simulated sensations of another kind of farm animal. A horse or a bull or a man. Janie steps up as close as she can in between the dancers, the hustlers and the junkies, as they jeer and holler obscenities at the woman rider. The rooster is a transparent machine, roped with ugly wire, ancient cogs, and rust. Alongside it a vending machine–50 cents a ride!–and a sign hand-painted with thick, glittering letters. Don’t be a Schlock. Ride the Cock.
Janie bites her lip, claps her hands together as the crowd cheers. She plops down onto the floor, cross-legged in the throng as the tall legs of people circle around her like so many weeds. On her wrist a thin, brittle hospital band that rubs against her skin like sandpaper. Warren, Janie. DOB: 08/13/88. Age 29. Female. Allergic to penicillin. She closes her eyes and imagines herself a butterfly in an open field, beautifully toxic. Asclepias, or milkweeds, the only food source for the monarch butterfly larvae. The plants filled them with their poison, until they became poisonous too.
Well slap my thighs three times for Kansas, says a deep, rough voice from somewhere above Janie’s head. A woman Janie thinks she knows but does not remember the face or the name.
She stands up, puts her hands on her hips. I beg your pardon, lady.
The woman chugs down her drink. I said, look who finally decided to come on home.
Luke appears suddenly as a shadow alongside Janie. He puts an arm around her, ruffles his fingers through her hair. Something wrong here, baby? he says. This woman causing you trouble?
Shove it up your ass, pony boy. The woman leans forward, spits in Luke’s face and grumbles. Cross your nose and kiss your toes. Kiss my cunt, you bible-thumping cock-sucker.
Marla? Janie says with her finger to her chin. Her brain throbs in hellfire heat, a sudden stab of too bright light like the flash of a camera. She see stars. She sits back down.
Well don’t just sit there, Janie Cakes, Marla says. Dance with me. For old time’s sake.
Bible-thumping, Janie says, more to herself than to anyone else. She runs her finger over the papery hospital band, worn-thin and stained. You’ve gone crazy, Jane baby, he’d say. Because she didn’t remember. Because it wasn’t really there. Because it had never happened.
And you, Marla says as she points a finger at Luke. Don’t act like you don’t know who I am. Why, I bet you ain’t even got the balls to ride that cock good as that old broad back there.
Shit, Luke says. You just watch. Ain’t like she’ll remember any of this in the morning. He loosens his tie and unbuttons his shirt, tosses his jacket across the floor. On his chest several tattoos that Janie has not noticed before now. A scorpion and an octopus, a topless nurse in handcuffs. Playing cards and a star around each of his nipples. Mother Superior, giving head. He forces his way through the crowd, slips in his coins and jumps onto the cock.
Marla bends down and grabs Janie by the wrist, pulls her up as Luke bucks, thrusts and grinds against the mechanical rooster. Janie follows as she leads them out towards the DJ where a cluster of middle-aged drag queens squeal vulgarities at each other in a transformative act of public sex. On the other side of the turntables a group of girls barely out of high school, double buns in their hair and belly rings at their navel. Janie closes her eyes at the thought, of a time before now when her brain was more than just the peripheral glow of strobe lights, darting across the floor.
Before Luke Janie spent most of her time at Tootsies, a place not unlike this, where cum shots stained the walls and even the water reeked of piss. A place where men would hand over big money for anal sex and the obligatory rim job. Marla had worked there for years by the time Janie started. She had the plucky tenacity of a disgruntled politician and was three times more shrewd, as wicked and ruthless a psychosis as any of the men at the bar. The first time they met she took Janie aside to show her that her dick was bigger than any pimp’s. But Marla was all woman and instead shoved two fingers inside of her. Because she was too soft still. Because she was a flower.
Marla takes her hand now and spins her around the dance floor. She grinds their hips together in between the hypnotic beats from the DJ, hugs Janie’s ass with both palms cupped and strong. A dark, sweaty man sneaks up behind Marla and pulls her off of Janie, takes a blue pill out from his shirt pocket and lets it dissolve on Marla’s tongue.
Ay papi, she says. I could get use to you. What say you get another one for my friend here.
Oh no, Janie says, and she waves her hands in gesture. I’m really not suppose to.
Piece of shit, Marla says. Son of bitch still has you washing his dirty drawers. I never should of let you go off with that fuck.
Shows what you know, Janie says with her hands on her hips. I can take care of myself.
Yeah, okay, Marla says. That why you look as tore up as Freddy Krueger’s asshole? She grabs Janie’s wrist hard enough to bruise, holds up the hospital band just inches away from her face. Your brain may be damaged, but your clam still stinks.
Marla storms away with the man from before still attached at her hip. Janie remembers the hospital then, heaps of baked chicken too dry to taste, the antiseptic citrus smells of Lysol. Marathon telenovelas on an old television set that couldn’t change channels. She sat propped up in her hospital johnny for a few weeks with no sleep and only the occasional visit from her devoted husband Luke. He shouldn’t have left her alone. She couldn’t take care of herself. What would he do now, now that he couldn’t forgive himself? Now that the amnesia had taken over her body.
Soon as she was released he had her quit her job at Tootsies. Nobody’s gone to want you now, Jane baby. Turn that frown upside down, and let’s see what we can do.
In the months that followed Janie learned he was not really an executive at all but instead some sort of used bible salesman, taken up with the position of miracles after his feeble-minded wife’s tragic accident. He held her hand through neighborhoods and ghettos, yanked her up porch steps and dank, dirty alleyways. A girl scout disguised as a saviour. She broke bread in the homes of widowers and poured ashes over the hearts of non-believers, baptized a baby in the bathtub of a trailer park for a teenage mom who thought her child was Jesus. Marla lived two doors down.
Janie stops and looks around, her tongue heavy, too large in our mouth. Some kind of slug, a slimy limp dick for which to choke herself with and not look back. She races toward the mechanical cock where another rider has taken the place of Luke. Her breath comes in short, shallow waves, her throat constricted in a strange, strangled passion. The crowd blurs in a whirlwind haze, large and distorted bodies like misinterpreted images in a funhouse mirror.
You dumb whore, Luke says as he sneaks up behind her. What in the devil you think you’re doing? Running off like that.
Janie doesn’t say anything for a moment, just grabs him by the hand and yanks him away from the crowd, her breath like the deep howl of a slaughtered farm animal gurgling blood. She pushes him towards the ladder at the entrance until he climbs up and out into the street. The rain is now but a fine mist in the air, a cold drop of sweat on her skin. She tosses the red leather boots towards Luke’s face and howls into the night when she misses.
You don’t know how I like my chicken fry, Mister, she says, and her voice bounces off of the storefront windows like a pebble in brook.
How you like your what? he says. Jane, Jane baby. This is nonsense.
You ask me how I like my chicken fry, but you ain’t know not a lick about me, sir.
On that day in the middle of June she had set the table like a good woman should, plates prepared for fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread. Pickled okra and thick, buttery mashed potatoes, cucumber tossed in vinegar. She filled a vase with purple wildflowers she had found on the street by the bar and set it on the table in between them. Only Luke had walked in after she was finished to a song he didn’t like and told her to hike up her skirt. She wore her dresses too low to the floor when she was home, and he was going to make a real good woman of her yet. He picked up the chicken breast that was in his plate and threw it at her.
How you like your chicken fry, huh? he said. Mild like maw-maw. Or spicy like a hooker’s asshole. He rushed towards her then, threw her by the face into the deep fryer that was still popping grease even after the fire had died. Janie fell hard onto the floor with her skin scorched and woke up the next day in her hospital johnny. She remembers that now. She remembers it all.
This never happened, she tells him now. You don’t see me. And you never did.
A van approaches from the distance in muted white headlights, graffiti spray-painted on its hood in neon green letters. Cock-gobbler. On the left-hand side in pink, Pussy-maiden. All she knows now, and all that she will remember, is the way his face blurs against the night, his mouth jolted open in a different kind of climax as his ungainly silhouette lurches against the hood. The driver of the van screams and honks his horn as Luke cries out into the night, a fire alarm pitch so shrill not even the dogs would save him. Janie tosses the red leather boots out into the street and wonders who, at this time of night, would want to make her a fried bologna sandwich.