TUB O' SUDS
We are also above a bar called the Crown. The doors to all these places open on the corner, like the angle has been lopped off the building, and triangular steps jut out onto the sidewalk. All three look the same: a stone step with wrought iron railing, the dark wooden door with three slanted windows. The Tub is owned by a Vietnamese couple now, but the Crown belongs to these old Sicilians who keep a little picture of the Santa Rosalia in the window, next to the Quick Draw neon sign.
We've stopped having sex, or even fooling around, and I'm just kind of waiting for Pinky to die, which I sometimes think will happen any day and sometimes think will take longer than I thought. We really only had sex once anyway, more than a year ago, when we first met. We were totally shit-faced and driving his car.
Let’s play a game, he said, pulling me over. His foot on the gas, he said, You steer.
So I lifted up my skirt and climbed on, the only time, and steered while he floored the gas and we sped down the highway in the dark, with trees and trees just rushing by, more blurred than ever, and no other cars. It seemed to take forever, and I had no idea where we would end up, going this fast and this far. I leaned my head down on the wheel after, forgetting to look, and Pinky let off the gas some, also sliding into a long relax. When we veered off the highway, towards the exit, we missed it, and I crashed his car into a stack of highway signs that hadn’t been hung yet. They tumbled back like giant steel dominoes, leaving a clatter that summoned sirens and made lights go on in houses for a mile. So we backed out, half laughing, not checking the damage, and got the fuck out of there.
But this doesn’t happen any more, and I think it’s because he can’t get it up at all and so doesn’t even try to paw at my arms or face. Also, I think he’s going to die. I think it’s going to kill him. But first, we are moving into this shit-hole hotel, and we're going to play some gigs that will be the best ever, and maybe I'll get him to admit some things. Maybe I'll get him to admit that he loves me.
I have a high, thin, tinny voice, which is what attracted him in the first place. People either love my voice or they hate it. For our gigs they mostly like it, and it seems like if they don’t, they just leave. But Pinky plays so well, the sound is just so much like the sound of crying, that people stay anyway. He plays a steel guitar on his lap, feet working the pedals. Sometimes he backs me up. He said this when we met. That he’d like to back me up. And he winked, kind of creepy, but I smiled anyway. Something disarmed me.
Look at you, he said. You’re right out of some kind of cowgirl porn.
I laughed right out at this. We were in a different shitty bar, and I had pigtails and a pink cowboy shirt. It was open-mike night, and I had been singing June Carter songs.
For some people, I guess, I said.
For me, he said.
I wear the pink cowboy shirt still, and the pigtails, and whatever I think will get his blood moving in the right direction, but none of it works. I walk around deliberately in next to nothing. He puts on headphones and hums, drums with wooden spoons on the side of the swayback bed, out of time probably with whatever he is listening to, and with me. Sometimes I wonder if he’s listening to anything at all.
We call ourselves Maker’s Mark because the only thing Pinky loves more than his guitar is his whiskey, and because it means something else, too, like the inscription on a gun. I didn’t know.
We play at the Crown every other Monday, when it's dead, and they only pay us if they can. Otherwise we try to book around. I sometimes hit the bars with flyers and my acoustic, if they want a taste. It’s not the same by myself, but I can usually at least get us in the door. We write what Pinky calls sad hillbilly punk songs about drinking and heartbreak, and people don’t get that. I say, You have to hear it, and I howl into the microphone, and sometimes they get it, and sometimes they just ask me to go.
We've been playing the same songs for months now, with no new ones. Sometimes we cover an oldie, a Maybelle Carter, or a Hank Williams, but it has been taking Pinky longer and longer to learn anything new. He’ll sit on the floor and play the same notes over and over, hitting the same mistake and then starting again. It can last for hours and can end with his guitar—or worse, his amp—hitting the wall. I'm surprised he can still pick it up, swinging it around like a discus. Another nice thing about a carpeted wall: no dents.
When she comes to visit, my sister says, Wow, you have a shitty life.
Carrie Ann perches on the edge of the bed. It's covered with the gold quilted satin bedspread that was on it when we moved in. Beside it there’s a lamp screwed into the nightstand, an ashtray full of cigarillo butts, and a bunch of wadded-up used tissues. She looks good, had her hair cut to her shoulders. She’s been going to some college up on the lake.
Our conversations degenerate like this. I lean against the middle of three windows on the one wall, which faces down to Peale Street.
You seriously live in this one room? she says to me.
Yeah. Don’t you live in one room?
She kind of clucks like it’s not the same. I’m sure it’s not. I’m sure her roommate is not like mine. I pick at a fingernail, and I hate her for going, for cutting her hair, for calling my life shitty. We used to be in this shit together.
What she's not saying is there just in the way that she looks at me. And I know, I know this feeling is what I call paranoia when Pinky feels it. But I still think his is paranoia and mine is guilt. The difference is what we left behind. The difference is how much I love him. And how much I thought he might love me. And I think he does, I think he's just forgotten, or has gotten bad at showing it. I say none of these things to Carrie Ann. Except this one:
She huffs. He’s got one hell of a grandma, you know? she says.
Have you seen him? I say.
I ran into them at Wal-Mart, she says. Buying school clothes. She kind of arches an eyebrow at me.
I know, I think, I know.
Did you say anything? I ask.
I told him, Hey, have a great first day of school, Jakey. I did not say, Hey, Jakey, your mom’s living like a junkie in a hotel with a total fucking loser. He’ll figure that out on his own someday.
I squeeze my fingers together till they hurt. I purse my lips. I think about crying: it doesn’t work. She starts to talk again, and I hold up my hand.
You know what, Carrie Ann? I know you don’t get it. I don’t expect you to get it. And I can’t change it.
You could if you wanted to, Carrie Ann tells me. You just don’t want to.
There are a lot of things I would change, I say. But you’re right, I wouldn’t change this.
You wouldn’t change this? she says, pointing at the carpet, as if it’s a question of décor.
I can’t change my heart, I say.
You’re wasting it, she says to me.
I shrug. Maybe, I say. I can never explain it. Not when we met, not now. I love him. He makes my heart burn like it will combust and turn to tar. I feel the prick of a tear that would not come for Jake.
Sharlee, she says. She holds her hands out, open, like I should take them. You should just come home with me.
I can’t, I say.
I have a job, I say. I have to stay with Pinky.
She blows out a long breath. You should see Jake, she says. You should see him get on the bus. She shakes her head. But whatever. Then she says, You have to see Dad.
The fuck I do, I say.
Shar, she says, and a long time goes by. He’s going to die.
I shrug. So’s Pinky, I say.
She lets out a whoop. Good, she says. What’s he got? Loseritis?
Fuck you Carrie Ann.
She chews her lip a little and then gets up off the bed, gets ready to leave. She hasn’t taken her shoes off, because who would? The carpet is dirtier than the sidewalk. She stands by the door, looking back into the room, into the bathroom, where suds have started foaming, plopping little clouds onto the gold speckled floor. She says, all soft and trying to be effective, It’s been a long time.
And I say, Does that make it better?
You know how he feels about you, Sharlee, she says.
Yeah, I know, I say, and I grunt and buck my hips forward. Hold still, Shar, I say. I know how he fucking feels.
She shakes her head, and I look up at the ceiling and notice a new water stain. She says, I wish you wouldn’t lie.
Me too, I say, and then she goes.
Somewhere towards the end, Pinky brings me a cat that he ends up killing—later that same day. Like this: he comes in with something clearly tucked in his coat. I figure it’s a bottle, so I don’t get up to see. Then he kind of plops it in my lap, this little white puffball. It’s so small it can hardly mew. It butts its little head against me. I play with it for a while, on the bed, on the floor. I get it to paw at a string. Pinky tries to learn a new song. He has the acoustic out, picking away at the same few notes. He starts to make a groaning sound like he’s clearing his throat but more desperate, more final sounding. He does this several times.
I pick the kitten up to my nose. I say, Let’s name him Jackson. I've been thinking about learning this song. Thinking that we could sing it together.
Pinky groans. Then he says sharply, Is that supposed to be funny?
I pause, confused. I’m looking at him, but he has mostly stopped making eye contact. A lot of the time his eyes are closed. I say, No, is it funny?
It happens fast. He whips the guitar at the bed. He starts hollering that it is absolutely not fucking funny. And why do I have to be such a meddling fucking bitch anyway? He does not stop here but yells, working into a howl, Why Why Why Why Why? And then he picks up the kitten and hurls it towards the window, which I think he thinks is open, but it’s not, and the cat just falls to the floor, without any sound at all after the one thud against the glass.
I sit on the floor, cross-legged, like my voice was taken right out. I cover my mouth. I am too stunned to cry or scream or even throw up, though that is brewing in my gut. He goes to the window, slides it up, picks up the kitten by its head, and tosses it out, like a tissue or a wad of trash.
I will not ask him about the song. I just sit. He goes into the bathroom for a long time. Thirty minutes maybe. When he comes out, he has combed his hair and washed but not dried his hands. He picks his jacket up and goes to the door.
I say, Where are you going? but my voice comes out creaky, like something unused.
He turns at the door and holds up his thumb and finger the way a kid would, pretending to make a gun. He points it at me and shoots, his lips moving but not making the pishew noise I expect. His eyes are squinty, maybe looking at me but maybe not. It’s hard to tell. Then he goes. It is the beginning of some kind of end. I guess it has been. But this is somewhat out of order.
Pinky calls me Chuck. This is a variation no one else has come up with. It’s because when we met, he thought I said my name was Charlie, and not Sharlee. I like Chuck. I go by it. It gives me something, being a girl named Chuck.
Pinky did not take me away from Jake. I had been gone from the beginning. I remember standing in front of Jake’s dad, saying I was not supposed to be doing this.
But you are, he said to me. You are doing this. You have to.
I don’t, I said. People make mistakes. And I remember thinking: guys do this all the time. They just up and leave. Or they stay and fuck you up some other way.
I was flailing, something like drowning. I started waitressing. I tried singing. That was where Pinky found me. Pulled me to shore. Or to the boat, which was sinking already. I get my metaphors mixed up, because he jumbles my insides so.
Most nights he wanders around the room, picking at the guitar, drinking. He sleeps in fits, never still, sweating, mumbling in his non-sleep. In bed he rolls over. It’s hot, humid, the sheets sticky. He lays his arm across me. He says, Chuck, whose bed is this?
It’s our bed, Pink.
He props up. It is? he says. I mean, where did it come from?
It came with the room, I say.
Oh. He makes the low groaning sound and lays back down. When he sleeps sound, it’s like he'll never wake up, instantly snoring, mouth open, wet. He leaves me awake and shivering.
One of the first times we went out, we were drinking and smoking little vanilla cigars and he said to me, Chuck, let’s plan on being full-blown alcoholics within the year.
I kind of laughed. I toyed with saying something like, Aren’t you already there? But I was still in the trying-to-impress phase, which is different from the trying-to-protect phase that happens towards the end, which is more about not getting something thrown at you.
He said, You’re fun to drink with. This was before we had sex the one time. And, he said, you’re pretty.
And you’re drunk, I said. What kind of compliment is that?
I’m always drunk, he said.
I’m always pretty, I said, laughing.
Let’s start a band, he said. And that’s how that came to be. We started writing immediately. He had a store of the saddest fucking lyrics I have ever heard and a drum machine set to shuffle. They were that perfect combination of songs that would make you die if you had to live through them, plus a walking bass and a happy guitar lick. I worried at first that he was a genius who would forget me within the year. This was until I realized that he would pretty much be dead within the year, and the forgetting would be mine to do.
Someone at the Crown says to me, Do you know that Pinky has a gun?
It stops me cold as I walk past the bar. It's the manager, Pat. She leans over, wiping out a glass.
Hmm? she says to me, catching my eye. Like it’s business or something, like it’s my responsibility.
No, I don’t know that, I say.
Well he does.
I feel a prickly sweat break out at the back of my neck, up under my ears. I stop walking and I face her at the bar. Have you seen it? I say.
I sure have, she says. You better watch your back is all I’m saying.
I better watch my back? I say. What kind of gun? I say. It seems ridiculous to me. And we’re going on in ten minutes.
Damned if I know, Pat says. Short thing, she says. Fit in his hand.
Like a BB gun? I say, stupid. I don’t know guns.
Didn’t look it. Didn’t sound it either.
Where was he shooting it? I say.
Back behind. By the back door. She nods to the corner. Loud fucker. Then she laughs a little. He was setting off a box of roman candles, she says, and shooting at them, like you can shoot a firework. He’s lucky he didn’t shoot out any windows, aiming up that high. Had to call him in, she says, and blame it on a bunch of black kids when the cops came. The cops went looking down Peale, she says. They didn’t find nobody.
Where was I? I say to her, but trying to think.
Damned if I know, Pat says. Looking for work that pays? she offers, and laughs. Then she adds, Sandro tried to take it. And I picture him, the old Sicilian, trying with his soft accent to talk Pinky into handing the gun over. He looked like he was on something, Pat says. Anyway, she says, he don’t listen.
No, I say. He doesn’t.
I am in a knot. We go on and I can’t sing the higher notes. They break and come out as just plain air. Pinky orders me a brandy to warm me up, lights up a cigarillo for me, and sings the next two songs while I strum along behind. He has a fantastic talent for appearing normal on stage, for talking to folks like he is completely unaltered. I watch him play with his eyes closed, sweating a little at the hairline, his black glasses slipping down his nose. His hands are shaking on the guitar, his lip quivering. He plays a song I’ve never heard, and I stop playing because I don’t know the chords, I can’t back him up. People are not really paying attention, which is good, because I’m about ready to freak right out. It's a soft song about fighting, or drinking, or both, and it would sound nice if we both sang, but he has to let me know. He has to let me know what the fuck he is doing.
I begin to feel like a hard plastic doll. I think I begin to look like one, too, but mostly I am afraid of the tightly wound rubber band holding me together, afraid that it is wearing with dry rot, that it will snap and my head and my arms and my legs will come unstrung, hang loose, and then fall off.
I know you're leaving, he says to me. We're on the parkway after midnight, speeding along. He's driving but not really paying attention, so he keeps drifting into the center lane and then back again.
You do? I say. I am used to his tactics.
Where am I going? I say.
He reaches in between the seats, fishing. Back home, he says.
Right, I say. I think that he hasn’t remembered anything I've ever told him.
He rolls down his window, and I see that he is steering with the gun in his hand. I was beginning to doubt its existence, but there it is, almost black, and small, like Pat said, just peeking out of his hand.
At least your dad will fuck you, he says then, and he laughs, kind of mean but mostly sad.
Is that funny? I say.
No, he says. Nope. It’s not funny at all. And then he aims out the window, over at the other lanes of the parkway, and starts shooting. It's so loud my ears fuzz, and I lose the sound of his voice, the highway, the motor of the car. He whoops, his mouth open, but silent to me, and he swerves across all four lanes and back. He motions for me to roll down my window, and I do, because I’m afraid if I don’t he'll shoot it out.
We drive down the parkway, way out to the Mills and back, with him shooting out one window and then out the other, reloading while he steers with his knees, and the cold cold night air blasting in, freezing me out. We drive with the lights off until after three, and then he just kind of stops driving. The car drifts over to the median, and he falls asleep, just like that, head back, the gun in his lap, having slipped down between his legs.
Thinking about fingerprints, and not wanting to touch the gun, I lift it up with my shirt wrapped around my hand, my hand sliding down against his thigh. I lay the gun on the floor in the backseat, pointed towards the trunk in case it goes off. I have to push him over, out of the driver’s seat, and into the passenger’s seat. A bunch of shit from his pockets and wallet is all over the seat underneath him. Papers, bills, pictures, old business cards.
My skin prickles. I pick up a picture of a little boy in a tin tub, with a towel and a rubber duck. The back of it says Jackson, ‘99, in a girly, bubbly hand.
I stand just outside the car with the door open, leaning against the guard rail in the median while a tractor trailer roars past on the other side. I scream in the wake of the truck going by, hoarse and mostly silent, holding the picture of this little boy with his dad’s funny smile. I think about our boys together, not knowing each other, both of them fucked up forever. They are the same age. They could be one. They could be ours. They could be balled into one mess that is ours, instead of two separate messes left for someone else to deal with.
He lays his head against the open window, lets it hang out like a dog would. When we get home he pukes all over the side of the car, all over the curb in front of the Crown, which they hate, because it looks bad for them, and that is not something they need.
In the night he starts to cry. He wakes up three times, two hours apart, crying and getting up to pace. He finishes off a bottle of Jameson’s and goes in the bathroom to take something, paces more, tries to get back into bed but needs to be rocked before he can settle down. He says that everyone has left him. Every last fucker.
Not me, I say, but I don’t think he hears me. He lays his head on my chest and sleeps, holding me so tight that I’m afraid to breathe. He groans in his sleep, a low rattle in his chest, like there’s dirt in his blood. His mouth is wet, frothy at the corners, and I think he is connected to the sink, to the tub of suds downstairs.
I sit up the rest of the night. Down the block there are church fireworks for a saint’s day, and music far off. I sit against the wall, under the three windows, waiting. I can see them just over the rooftops and think to wake him. Pinky loves fireworks. They make him giggle like a kid.
I think he will die by my hand. Not because I will shoot him—I will never touch that gun again—but because I will leave him there, with a cigarette burning in the bed, that I will walk away and let him smolder right out, take the Crown with him, and all his stupid shit.
When it happens this way it will surprise me. Not because he will burn himself up. Not because the Crown and the Tub O’ Suds will close indefinitely. But because he will have a box of illegal fireworks under the bed that will go off in fast succession, blowing up the room like one big roman candle. It will surprise me and Carrie Ann both, when we see it on the news from her dorm room, where I will have gone to stay for the weekend, inching my way toward home, and hoping to get there by Christmas. And she will look at me, like the little girl I remember, with her mouth an open O, like I knew, like I planned it, but I didn’t, couldn’t have planned it so well. I just saw it ahead of time, like looking at all the frames of a filmstrip and seeing the end out of order, before you're even done with the middle.
It will surprise me because of the fireworks and because of the saint’s day parade, where I will ask for it, not believing it. And because I think that if you pray and don’t believe, you will never get it, but sometimes they prove you wrong.
The day after the drive with the gun, we miss our gig. In the morning, the parade goes by with the saint in the glass box and the little girls who throw flowers and pin dollar bills to the ribbons that hang off of her. Some sad fucked-up music follows them through the streets, stopping at the houses with a saint in the window, so the old ladies and the old men can reel out with their walkers and pin more dollar bills to her. They wave and cross themselves and sing along, with the little girls and the band, which distorts as it winds by, down the alley and up Peale Street. They all stop outside the Crown, because her picture is in the window, and they just stand out there like creepy carolers, so that finally, I take a dollar off the nightstand and go down. I have to snake through the crowd, and a stooped lady with dyed ash blonde hair takes my hand and gives me a safety pin to stick my dollar to the Santa Rosalia. When she looks at me she is smooth, less wrinkled than I might have thought for her stooping and bad hair. Her eyes are dark and slanted and she keeps my hand for a minute and tells me to ask the Santa Rosalia for anything, and I look up at her in her glass box with her sad little teenage face and the skull she carries, and I ask her to let it end, just let it end, to let him die already. The music has reached a pitch that is frenzy and the little girls are dancing, twirling with their ribbons flying, and people have stuck twenties, fifties even, to her, and just like that she bobs down the street, with the band behind her, and the little girls in white leading the way.
Jennifer Pashley lives in Syracuse,
New York, where she is writing a novel, shoveling snow, and working
on her tan, all at the same time. Her collection of stories, States,
is due out from Lewis-Clark Press later this summer.
© 2007 Swink, Inc.