This short story was originally published in Bridge Magazine (Chicago, IL), Fall/Winter 2002.
c Dedra Johnson, 2002
c Dedra Johnson, 2002
I needed immediate obedience so I shot the cashier. Everyone lay still on the floor as he emptied the register with one hand, the other holding his bleeding shoulder. I noticed bills that didn't look like twenties or tens and my face folded into a smile. As I backed towards the storeroom, only he moved, sliding off the stool to sit on the floor. I fired again in the storeroom to scare them and walked up the empty alley to a McDonald's on the next street. In the bathroom I washed off the pancake makeup, changed my shirt and cut up the wig, one of Eileen's. When I smiled at myself in the mirror, it felt like my skin was dry enough to crack.
At Eileen's I put frozen lasagna in the oven and sat on the floor. My back warm against the oven door, I finished a rhubarb pie.
I've stayed at Eileen's for a few months now. The first day she took out all her guns—semi automatics, shotguns, a Luger, and a rifle. They all felt too heavy, blocky. Eileen slid off the sofa to the floor to sit next to me, smiling. She liked seeing them in my hands.
She has a dinner every week. Her friends bring casseroles, fondue, fresh bread, pesto, homemade pasta, and she ties on a cherry print apron from the dollar store to pose for pictures with pies and cakes and an hysterical grin, pictures she says her parents will love. Eileen has me stand next to her to show them all how tall I am, how long my arms are. I rarely have to get up from the corner of the sofa; I hear her in the kitchen telling John, PJ, Miles, Shari, Liz, whoever, to take a piece of pie to me, take me a plate, take me a beer, put the tequila in front of her, she'll drink it. Every goddamn week.
Last week Eileen shot the TV during a commercial. In the kitchen, hugging the plates I'd been carrying to the pantry, I stayed still even after she yelled that she felt better and the gun was unloaded.
A friend from college said she could hold her apartment in San Francisco for me until March. I needed at least $2000 to move and had no idea how to squeeze it out of six dollars an hour, and I had to leave town.
Kim came into the bookstore every week, walk up and down the aisles for half an hour or an hour and never touch a book. I would stay at the register each time. Eileen called her the Albino; her hair was pale blond, her eyebrows and eyelashes almost white, her eyes pale gray. She was finally showing; even her face looked puffy. Last year she threatened to scratch my eyes out if I didn't stay away from Dorian. Whenever I mentioned her, Dorian would start about Kim's father, Kim's dead mother, Kim's abortions, Kim's sculpture, Kim's psychotic roommate. Kim threatened Dorian, he said, but he didn't stop calling or coming to my apartment. She told Eileen a week before I left my apartment that she'd have me raped. I was sick of her shit, too.
Every time Dorian and I went out, I could look down the bar or up from my shot at the pool table and make out Anthony's long coat or hear his cackling laugh. Kim was usually with him: she'd leave after I looked at them and smiled. He was so dark and she was so white. A few months before I went to Eileen's, Dorian and I were at a bar; he said Kim's baby was his and I said nothing. I just finished my beer. He said he wanted Anthony to move in with us, into the extra room. No, I said. I've always looked out for him, he said, he's my friend, that place is too expensive for him and our rent'll be that much less, I don't see why you're being such a bitch about it. She still doesn't work? I said. Is she going to move in? Dorian set down his beer, leaned close and ran his finger up my neck to my ear. Why can't you just trust me? he said. Trust him with what? Suddenly I was so angry I felt like I was going to pass out. I left, forgetting my coat, and walked home, eight blocks, and it felt like I had goosebumps even on my cheeks. Dorian broke the kitchen windows to get in but I'd locked the bedroom door so he slept in the hall. Small victories satisfied him usually.
Dorian said if we ever had to do something illegal, we should do it in the winter so we could wear gloves. He slid closer to me on the bed and my game of solitaire slipped under his leg. He stared at my face. A little makeup and you could pass, you're not that dark, he said. Neither are you, I said, and he laughed.
He had old scars, purple brown welts on his shoulder blades and side, from something his father did to him. He'd pick me up from work at night, usually drunk, and the car never weaved but I could tell: when he drank a lot of beer his sweat smelled like gin. One night he smelled more than usual and I turned in the seat and said I could drive. He said he hated his job more than I hated mine, what did I do anyway but point to where the self help books were and say the art books were five dollars off, don't tell me what to do, it's not your place. He stared at me and the car drifted across the lanes, in front of a police car. When they turned on the lights, Dorian slammed on the brakes and stopped there in the lane. I got out and ran around to the back of the car just before a semi passed. All the cop talking to me wanted to know was if there were drugs in the car. I said no. Good girl, he said. Dorian was standing next to the driver's side door, talking to the other cop and not slurring much; I told them he was tired, he had had a few beers waiting for me, I got off work late, I had been telling him to let me drive when they stopped us. They believed me, didn't bother to check Dorian's license and see his other DUI, his resisting arrest, his three months in jail for mushrooms. I went to the driver's side and had to wait for Dorian, staring at the cops, to move. Cars slowed down, faces staring, one man tilting his head to took over his glasses. When I was getting in the car, Dorian slammed the door into my leg. He said I was his wife and the cops backed away, watching until I pulled off.
I started taking the bus home. A month later, he started not coming home a few nights a week and I tried to ignore it; I didn't want to know anything about it. Then one night the back door was open, all the lights in the apartment on. I could see my breath, like I hadn't gone inside. Anthony stood in the extra room where I had the TV, a chair, and a sewing machine I meant to sell, taking clothes out of paper bags on the floor, folding them carefully and piling them on the TV. Dorian was moving the sewing machine into the hall. He looked at me twice before telling me to get Anthony's other bags off the stairs. I said no to this, I said. Dorian didn't look at me or say anything. My name was on the lease; I was still paying most of the rent. He can't afford the other apartment, Dorian finally said, I told you that, you just don't listen. I was so angry my eyes burned. I went out the back, kicked over Anthony's bags then, hands gripping the wood rails, went down the back stairs in threes, and walked the six blocks to Eileen's. She spent a few hours going through her closets and boxes, giving me clothes that didn't fit her anymore, some she just wanted me to have, others she'd bought because she wanted to see me in them. She sold me a .22 for the ten dollars I had in my pocket, thinking Dorian would come after me, like one of her husbands did when she left him, and I had no idea what to do with a gun for weeks. Eileen took the Spanish moss a friend had brought from Louisiana down from the walls and said she wanted to take a picture of me wearing it. Please, she said. I lay on a quilt on the floor, moss over one breast, in my pubic hair, over my face.
Eileen paid for half my tattoo the next week since, she said, she'd encouraged me to let Dorian move in. She said it made my body my own again.
I have a picture in my album no one pays attention to, skips over to see what my parents look like: me at four, at the kitchen table in front of a pink and green cake, singing Happy Birthday to myself. I never liked pink and green but every cake I remember and my bedroom then was pink and green. I didn't have an uncle like Eileen's who rented her to his friends when she was twelve. No first husband cut a chunk out of my leg and no third husband shot up the car I was driving away from the house. My father didn't hit me like Dorian's did. My parents left me alone. I don't remember them talking to me much except my mother telling me my father was an asshole and my father telling me one night I was dumb to help kids in my kindergarten class because then they'd be ahead of me instead of behind me. When they divorced, I saw my father every day. He'd pick me up after school and we'd eat lunch at the store, behind the high pharmacy counter where I'd sometimes help count and bottle pills. When I was sixteen he and my mother bought me a used car and gave me an Amoco credit card. In college I only worked during the summer and he paid my rent. I have nothing to feel bad about so that means, I suppose, I have to be patient with everyone and smile a lot.
When the guy burst in the diner and said, Everybody freeze, I smiled. I hadn't left the apartment yet and Dorian was still pressuring me about Anthony; he'd brought it up as soon as we sat down. Dorian kicked me under the table. Be serious, he said. I watched the guy, about twenty, white, a little familiar because his face was so plain, wave the gun around a few times and hold it on Kathy as she emptied the register, probably less than $100, while everyone else, about a dozen at the tables and five at the counter, sat stunned and silent. Dorian kicked me again, for staring, and his eyes were narrowed slightly, like he was about to smile. The guy walked out the front door, a bicycle swerved around him, and he ran up an alley. I thought I heard sirens. You're crazy, Dorian said. If he had shot that gun, I said, I wouldn't have noticed his face.
I wouldn't dance with Eileen in front of everybody so she pulled me to the dark kitchen, turned on the oven and opened the oven door to warm up the room. We could barely hear the boom box. Her hands were hot and damp through my silk undershirt. She unbuttoned her flannel shirt, Dorian's, the one I was wearing when I went to her place, raised my shirt and leaned to the side so our nipples were pressed together. When she turned me I saw Anthony in the doorway, smiling. He said Dorian had a new job out in the suburbs and he was gone every afternoon.
The next afternoon Eileen, Miles and I went to my old apartment. Anthony let us in, smiling at me; he had beer boxes on the kitchen counters. Most of my clothes were gone but I found a sweater, a picture album, a coat with scarves and gloves in the pockets. The bed was new, king size, crowding the bedroom. Anthony slept on the floor in the extra room, and the chair and sewing machine were gone. My books were already packed. Alone in the hall, I clenched my fists until I trembled. Eileen and Miles carried things down to his car. I took a few plates, some silverware, glasses and a double boiler my father gave me at Christmas. Eileen opened the cabinets again. You bought it all, she said, he had shit when he moved in here, you ought to take the bed and sell it. You got any string? she yelled down to Miles. Bungee cord? She and Anthony helped me pack, Anthony setting his pots and plates on the table out of the way. When I picked up a box, he held out his arms and said he'd take it. No, it's fine, I said. He squeezed my upper arms, making the muscles shake, then, smiling at Eileen, stepped behind and squeezed my shoulders. Strong, he said. You should feel her legs, Eileen said.
My mother still lives in the suburbs, outside D.C., in the same house. When I saw it last, the houses still looked new and the sidewalks and curbs were clean, though the grass in the front lawns was patchier from bike and car tires, barbecues, bonfires, weed killer. It's always been quiet and safe; my mother would leave me in the house, doors unlocked, to walk to the store, take a bowl back to a neighbor, or haul rugs to the laundromat.
It was a three bedroom house because my father wanted lots of kids, preferably sons. My mother took the Pill in secret somehow and after a few years my father realized what was going on and cleared out the third bedroom where my mother had her sewing machine, a rocker, a foam mattress that I napped on, and a TV. He locked the door. If the room wouldn't be used the way it was supposed to because she didn't want any more children, it wouldn't be used at all, is how my mother summed it up. My father said nothing to me about it and I didn't want him to be angry at me, too, so I never asked if my mother was right. My mother crowded all the furniture in the kitchen and after a month or two of moving the toy chest to open the oven or pushing the sewing machine away from the dryer, I helped her move the kitchen table to the back yard so there'd be room. My father moved out when I was eight, to a small apartment near my school, and my mother took the doorknob out of the locked bedroom door. Even after we'd cleared out the kitchen she let the table rust in the back yard and we ate on the sofa, floor or her bed. Eventually she took the door down and set it in the yard, too.
Dull vague aches aren't like scars, bullet holes in walls, arrest records, restraining orders. What can't be seen is hard to explain and, even if you try, doesn't seem to exist. Too many times Dorian and Eileen would sit on either side of me, talking about my legs, eyes, hands, the way they said I walked—hard, my hips rolling. Any reaction, a sneer, a hand slammed on the bar, slapping Dorian's arm, telling Eileen I wasn't her conversation piece, was funny to them; I could never do a fucking thing.
Miles' cousin was selling her truck for $1000, and Miles offered to replace what needed to be replaced if I cleaned his house for a month, twice a week. Trust him, Eileen said, and she set a plate of hot pirogi on my lap. I ate with one hand and Miles took the other, spreading my fingers over his knees. No, I've never played piano or basketball, I said and pulled my hand away. In the kitchen Eileen gave Anthony a bottle of tequila, a lime and a knife and pointed him in my direction. I did a shot and Anthony fingered the rash on my collarbone from the pancake makeup. John, Shari, PJ and two people I'd never met before were watching the video Eileen picked—a woman fucking a pig, a dog, and when I looked up again there was a ram in the frame. Anthony measured my neck with his hand. Miles said, it's long, Eileen said it would be great for brass rings. My stomach got so sour I couldn't eat. I gave the pirogi back to Eileen.
After Eileen saw Miles' house she started paying me to clean her apartment, and Shari, John, and even Anthony asked me to do theirs. Eileen liked me better than the Polish woman, who didn't know much English, and she could watch me scraping food off the floor or bent over cleaning the tub.
Eileen asked a while ago where all her old wigs were. I said I threw them out the first time I cleaned.
My boss' boyfriend watched me from the storeroom. The store was empty; I was leaning on a road atlas, adding miles, hours, gallons of gas on the calculator. When he stepped behind the counter he placed his hand on my shoulder, said use Benadryl cream on the rash, now spreading to behind my ears. The sun's out today finally, he said, go for a walk, you look too yellow. Or just go home. Smiling broadly, he took my coat, purse and scarf from the cabinet under the register and wrapped the scarf around my neck, tucking it in my sweater. I rode ten el stops past mine and walked around for an hour, looking at stores. The neighborhood was cut off, between downtown and the expressway; there were a few apartment buildings, empty storefronts and, near the one bus stop I saw, a convenience store.
Saturday the bookstore closed early. I changed in the el bathroom and went back to the convenience store. The neighborhood was deserted, no traffic from downtown coming through, and I was surprised the store was open. I shot at the mirror behind the counter when I walked in. She was putting milk in the coolers in back and didn't flinch, frown, or gasp, just stared as I emptied the register. In an office building bathroom a few el stops away, I changed my shirt, washed off the makeup and left the wig in the trash. I had used lipstick and when I smiled into the mirror, my lips felt scraped. If they were bleeding, I thought, they'd feel better. Just the gun would make people silent and their staring at the gun made me shake less. If I fired it, they would only look at the gun and my shaking would stop. I wondered why this woman had stared at my face.
People I didn't know bought me drinks because the bartender said I was leaving town. When the bar closed we crossed the street to Eileen's. PJ, whom I barely knew, gave me a list of numbers, friends in South Dakota, Colorado and Nevada I could stay with. Eileen wanted me to take her coffee table and her fifties gowns to sell for her so she could visit. Anthony gave me Dorian's work number again, said Dorian still wanted me to call. Miles had another box of old shirts, sweaters, and single gloves like the box he brought the night I went to Eileen's.
Yesterday I burned the moss pictures and negatives at the park with a wig that was still in my purse. A cop passed, saw me squatted in front of the small fire with my hands over it, and kept walking. I went back to the Midas, got the truck, and drove around the rest of the day.
I left the gun in a phone booth, in the white pages in the shelf.
I've never been in an accident, broken my ankle or arm, or run out of gas.