by Loie Rawding
One night not long into our courtship, I got thirsty for a little kissy face and ice cut straight off the block. Mix that with some sweet bubbles and easy fumes coming off the crowd and I knew I could be satisfied for the evening. M was tired of being dragged around, and then left waiting in front of a broom closet. Who could blame him? I tell him someone has to pay the bills. I’ve sold off all the war medals. Compensated myself by pressing them into my skin and once the imprint faded, I just took them off to pawn. We have to eat more than the bedpost, I say and give him a little slap across the cheek. He does not argue.
On the streets, I ease into a strut as if I’m always wearing my highest boot heels. I bounce. M drags, but I’ve taught him to quicken his pace in order to avoid the one-armed and hungry or worse, their wives.
Back on the streets, fliers and paper prayers stick to drainage ditches, crowding the gutters with pulpy sludge. I tell him, the night doesn’t have to hide anymore, darling. The papers suggest new sanctuary, coating our streets with sweet, easy filth.
Come to us in Shangri-La.
Heal your wounds, Soldier, in the Basement of Beauty.
Discount for a friend, tonight only.
First show on us. Second show on you.
I warn M that the acrobatics of nighttime might leave us bloody, but what other way can we stop this machine from making exhaust of us all? He is always watching and it compels me to speak without pause. My voice grows hoarse from its own blabber. His voice grows hoarse from the dis-use, from his lack of ausspucken. I steer us towards the covert address. He always gets fidgety just before we enter, reaching for his missing cock and balls. I whisper into his collar: They want you. They want you. Watch. Just watch.
I reassure him with a pat on his flat ass and rap on the door: Such shrines are for the faithful and we are among them! Nothing but finely spun gold here. And I will take care of you. Let’s relieve you of your identity. Tonight, we’ll load our guns and smoke them till they sizzle.
M lets everyone else get sloppy around him. He stands straight, dares me to touch my toes and I obey for that rare smile. We enter the show at half past midnight and the crowd has already started to glaze over, letting sweat streak their makeup. The blackened wall shows chips in the wood. A nail sticks out here or there, proudly displaying threads and sequins from so many snagged dresses. Dampened lamps are shaded in orange and rose. Round tables wobble as we pass, approaching the bar the polished floor creaks and I dig my heels in. The stage is set with thick curtains and a well-made chair, all of it pocked with cigarette burns that give the scene a volcanic impression. Large elephant palms line the wall, heavy with dust. The warmth feels tropical with bird’s breath and a muslin of cigarette smoke whips by with each flick of hair or some other lustful gesture. The tin tiles behind the bar are hammered and dimple my face as I adjust my lariat and order an American whiskey, with ice. The stage lights rise in perfect sync with the parting curtain.
All I see are limbs. Such joy. A leg and a fractured arm with elbow skin a shade darker. Glowing. A tanned flesh colored tree waving silently in space, with vines, tight straps of cloth, tugging against gravity, growing up around this trunk. She is thick, but not large. Slabs of branches with very bony joints. Wide fingernails, chipped with red paint, and a pair of made up eyes. A stare that barks. The woman is sturdy, somehow still seeming to crumble with each muscle spasm, fighting against the air. She reaches to the audience, a look of desperate yearning. Calling attention to whom else, but M. I whisper: They want you. Watch. They want you.
And I want to see all of her but then start to feel like an object myself and hate them all for it. I admit that she chews on the tastiest morsel of every one of us here and we’re so jealous. We know diese hure, Jemma the Gem. She opens her mouth with a set of full lungs to sing with but no sound comes out. She is yanked by a leash and a chain fused to her neck running into the hands of a young man. Ah Klaus, in a silk slip tonight, slit up to the crease in his hip. He sings on her behalf. His bra is stuffed but not so perfect as hers. The sweat around his nipples makes the tissue sulk. Klaus, un amateur parfaite.
She flexes her lips up and down and open and out. By the bridge, they have switched roles. The spotlight turns orange, turns red. She swings a thick leg across the hollow stage, her long foot slipping just a little bit. She flattens her back above the young man. She wraps the chain through his mouth, a knee around his neck. Ban- ished, tied to the chair, he opens his mouth. She sings with the force we so needed.
I love the taunt, but M looks rattled. The way her skin flickers as if I am staring at the sun through the trees on a car ride into the country. Wide eyes, made damaged with too much shade. She is ecstasy. She has worship on his ugly knees. I stare at her. The threat, the saint. I take my watch off and stick it in my pocket. A mother. A kid sister. Tisk tisk tisk. I am forever struck by the smell of our shared eter- nal history. Her flabby arms stretch across oceans. She fingers my vision, balances with me on the wood of a rotting dock at high tide. A vision I only know from M’s stories. I shake my head at the mingling of worlds, the dreams of the man by my side and this evening’s siren tears.
Her laugh is a rusty spring protruding from a piece of furniture you want to sit on really bad. She bounces. She pings out a secret code on your skin. I like it very much, and I wonder if M wants her too. She winks at the bar, that subtle demand for a drink.
The last time we came here, I got sloshed and M took me home. He whispered: I want to draw your shiny boot in ink, send it back home, to die with me in old age. On my pillow. In my mouth. There’s nothing you can do to stop me dying just like this. Drunk as I was, I knew he thought I’d forget this by the next day. What he said. What he wants from me. I can’t figure M out, so I fall prey to him all the more. He carries himself with a sensual disregard. He seems to teeter on the scale between a birth and a murder. This lures me deeper and I feel the need to take one strong finger, a living trigger, and rip open what’s left of my skin for him.
I consider floating on stage, taking her body and choking him with it. Can his faith be so different than mine? Sturdier maybe, but so much less involved. The smoke bends my mind in half, collapsing any understanding of whose body is whose. I can see the pulsing blood and tension around her neck. And mine pulled tight, needing to be filled. Her song is precisely timed, the length of a single cigarette. I flick the stub of mine onto the stage. M hands the Gem a drink containing small red fruits. Where did he find that ripeness? I haven’t seen cherries like that since before the war. She rips the pulp apart, juice running down those empty veins, puddling along her collarbones. She spits the little stem at our feet. A few tears, too, sliding back into her right ear. Klaus, the young partner extraordinaire, seizes her and oh who will take us tonight? Herkommen. Herkommen. Who will lick the tree’s sap and spit her out onto the daylight street? Song and pain are tied together. She opens her mouth once more.
This time no one makes a sound.
In a corner booth, two women pause in their caresses to stare as the bodies on stage strangle each other. Jemma smiles at her finale. Twitching the wisps of her short hair in pleasure and turning her back to us. The fatso backstage closes the cur- tain early and it whips her powdered tush. Klaus steps out, alone, on the downbeat. He bows and lusts himself off stage to address his public. His palm slips behind my back and his fingers travel, underneath my boxer shorts, down the crease of my ass.
I can only think of M’s fluids defying direction and consistency, cascading to the wrong places, all the wrong color. I eye his suspicion with caution and plea- sure, thinking he might come right there, smelling of salt, but his tears are made of ammonia.
Klaus lifts M with one arm as if to rescue the man and my chance to push him too far is gone. I consider interrupting the women immersed in each other’s mouths to ask for one of their black cigarettes, Please Mesdemoiselles, for the love of our shared country. My vision blurs and I move to the backstage of this scene, this scene of utter schatz.
Reprinted with permission from KERNPUNKT Press
Loie Rawding grew up on the coast of Maine. She received her MFA from the University of Colorado and served as Fiction Editor of Timber Journal. Her work has received international attention in 3am Magazine, Heavy Feather Review, The Ekphrastic Review (Toronto), SAND (