Little Sisters (2006:4,540 words)strip.jpg

Loretta had held Little Joe to her chest and lain supine on the sofa to watch “Saved by the Bell” and “Friends” reruns all morning, eating Cap’n Crunch right out of the box. A senior in high school now, she had never before cut class, though every time she was ill her mother had accused her of faking it. Since today was her birthday, Mommy had left a card and raced to work. Maybe as a present, she had failed to bang on Loretta’s door five times to make sure she was awake as she usually did. So, this was the perfect day for Loretta to execute her plan. She never had played hooky, and her good grades proved it. But today was her day, and Mommy couldn’t catch her. Loretta polished Little Joe one more swipe with her red square of velveteen and placed him carefully in the center pocket of her purse.
    Polly, Loretta’s older sister, had been the one to hide out from school and make the principal call their mother at work; Polly was the one who had actually dropped out of school and gone to live with her boyfriend on the south side. While Loretta had sat quietly and nodded agreement, Mommy had raged repeatedly at the stupidity and the danger of Polly’s choice. And Polly didn’t come home to visit or call––except once when she told Loretta how to get to her apartment by bus. When her mother found out about that, she’d subjected Loretta to a brutal interrogation.
    “Where is she, Loretta? I know you know,” her mother had said.
    “She’s already moved again. That’s why she wanted me to come right away,” Loretta lied. She refused to call her “Mommy” when she was being mean, even though that was the required family maternal name handed down from Grandmommy and the rest of those old relatives. Other relatives in other trailer parks.
    “My God, Loretta, what will I do if can never get in touch with your sister? Why would you be like her and turn against me this way? You see what that’s done to her.” And so it went each time a thought of Polly had passed through Mommy’s mind for two whole years before the Atlanta Police called and asked Loretta if this was the home of Mary Alice Weaver.
    “That’s my sister’s real name but we call her Polly,” she’d replied.
    “Is there a family member there besides you? A father or mother?”
    Loretta hadn’t been able to answer right away because she knew what the police were calling about. Polly was dead, just as Mommy had always said she would be. How stupid can you get? Making it out of this shithole but getting yourself killed? And Loretta was relieved. Polly had always been trouble and was destined to die for her ways. She had probably been beaten to death by that “boyfriend,” a thirty year-old with a shaved head and skull tattoo on the back of it. That was the feature Polly made sure to tell her sister about in that single phone call. And, as usual, Polly’s reaction was all wrong: she said that just looking at that shiny head and that “fuck you tattoo” made her wet her pants. Wet her pants, for heaven’s sake.
    On this May birthday afternoon of staying home, not sick, Loretta at last stuffed two changes of underwear, her bib overalls and a spare tube top into her backpack that already held the lunch Mommy had packed for her. She slammed the door to her bedroom and headed to the front door of their trailer, stopping to slap a framed, tenth-grade glamour photo of Polly off the coffee table, all the way to the wall.
    Standing at the bus stop Loretta checked for people who might recognize her, looking out the left and right sides from beneath the wide-brimmed, straw beach hat that constituted her disguise. For a dollar seventy-five she could make her way from their spot on the flood plain all the way to the place where Polly used to live when she was stripping. Then she could walk the route her sister had taken over to the Ruby Fruit Canteen, find the boss and get a job, now that she was eighteen. She knew she had good boobs––better than Polly’s––because boys stared at her chest and Mommy always told her to “wear something loose” when they went to church or something. Her aunts would also say things like, “Watch out, those things will get you in trouble” and “If I’d have had those working for me I wouldn’t have had to marry your Uncle Ted.”
    She looked out the bus window and kept one hand on her purse. The skyline was growing larger when she stood to get off and transfer to the train. Then she rode six stops, got off, and got on the Metropolitan Boulevard bus. When she stepped down onto a dirt spot surrounding the bus stop sign, she looked around herself, a full 360º, and took off across five lanes at a crosswalk without a stoplight. She got angry honks from drivers used to racing past people, crosswalk or not.
    She had spotted Jackson Square Apartments right across the street. There was a clean, new sign out front with phony, carved-wood lettering, the only clean thing to be seen on the property. The asphalt sea of a parking lot had faded striping and dirt patches sprinkled with clumps of grass. The end apartment units were boarded up on two of the townhouse buildings; faded, ten-to-twenty year-old cars were spread about in front, along with a single new, yellow Cadillac.
    Loretta remembered Polly’s apartment number and walked without hesitation to the third row of townhouses in search of C301. When she stepped up and tried the doorbell, a woman peered out of C302, and then closed the curtains when Loretta returned her stare. On the windows of C301, in place of curtains, were faded blue sheets. Loretta knocked on the door and punched the doorbell again. She knocked loudly, then kicked the door three hard times, leaving dirt marks with each bang. Looking behind her––at the rear of the middle townhouse building––she saw the line of back doors, so she walked around to look for Polly’s rear entrance to C301.
    She found it. The door stood open six inches, and there was no electric light or sound from inside. Loretta stepped in.
    “Anybody home?” she said. Then louder, “Hello?”
    The place was dark, the refrigerator was open and empty, and the pantry door was off its hinges, leaning against the soiled wall. Loretta left the back door swung wide and put her backpack, hat and purse on the kitchen counter. She pushed a nearly spent roll of toilet paper aside and climbed up to sit. From her bag she took out a peanut butter sandwich and a juice box and began to eat lunch. She looked across the stained paths on the avocado-colored carpet over to the warped, scarred front door.
    “Nice color scheme, Polly,” she said. “Earth tones.”
    Momentarily dazed by being near the spot where Polly had died, she pictured her sister’s face as it had been in the coffin the day of the funeral, with the odd make-up not hiding well the bruises and swollen skin of her jaws. Everyone said that the body wasn’t her sister’s anymore––that it belonged to the earth and Polly was with Jesus––but the lumpy, trouble-making face was there for the world to see and for Loretta to hate, as if she were in the middle of another screaming fight with the stupid girl. Three years older than she was, Polly had used her size advantage to leave more than a few bruises on Loretta, until she left to move into C301 with Jeb.
    But hitting wasn’t a big deal to Loretta. She actually wished sometimes that her mother had been more willing to throw a punch. Maybe then Daddy would have stuck around longer with a spunky woman. Daddy liked spunk in a woman, he always said. He’d taken six year-old Loretta out back at Granddaddy’s barn so she could help him get a couple of chickens ready for dinner. Loretta had, till then, considered the clucking birds to be her pets, though they were unresponsive and hard to catch. During the few times each visit that she could sit near nesting hens, she talked to the birds, pretending that she was the teacher and they were her students. On that day, though, Daddy cut off the first one’s head, and Loretta was momentarily stunned.
“Oh, honey,” he’d said. “You can’t worry about the chickens of the world. Some of them have to die so our life can go on. Come over here.” He hugged her.
While the first hen was rolling around, bleeding from the neck, Daddy held the second one on the block for Loretta to chop with the hatchet. She used both hands, guided by his, and did it without getting any blood on her. She smiled at her father.
    “You got spunk, ‘Retty,” he’d said with a laugh. “Mommy and sister ain’t got the guts.”
    “Gotta have guts!” Loretta replied.
    She had been just as calm when Daddy showed her how to shoot a gun, how to avoid blinking before the shot exploded beside her ear.
    “Just picture that old squirrel already dead. Then you won’t flinch,” he’d say. “That’s my girl.”
    Now, at Jackson Square C301, she sniffed the air of her sister’s old apartment. "From one  shit hole to another." This place was actually worse than the trailer, but perfect for the happy couple.
    She finished her drink, pulled out a baggie of Oreos and hopped off the counter to take a walk upstairs. The mid-afternoon light leaking from the bedroom windows above was enough to light the steps. On the top landing she paused to look into the bathroom, at torn plastic curtains hanging on one hook by the tub, draped over the toilet. There was an odor. Walking into the back bedroom, the larger of the two, she picked up a CD case from the floor. Nirvana. Empty. She threw it back down. She recognized a sweater in the closet, hung among a bunch of empty wire hangers. Loretta removed it and put it to her face, trying to smell what her sister might have left on it, left on this whole stinking place. It smelled just like her sister’s room at home. Then she dropped the sweater over the CD case and burst out laughing, spewing cookie crumbs. She belched, and then sauntered out of the room to descend the stairs, amusing herself by wagging her ass, pretending to be her sister in a nightgown.
    When she got to the kitchen, she picked up her clothes bag, squeezed her purse to make sure Little Joe was still there and walked to the back door. As she touched its panel to push it open further, she stopped at the sight of a black dog, tongue hanging, drool dripping. He was tall and lean, and he was handsome, considering where he lived. Loretta eased out and smiled.
    “Are you a girl or a boy?” she said and knelt down. “Ah, yes. Hello, sir,” she cooed, and put her free hand on his head to rub around his left ear, the way she had done with her own puppy––the Jack Russell-looking refugee she had had for only one year before someone at home left the door open so he could run out onto the highway and get greased. “It was Polly. Polly left the door open,” Loretta said to the dog behind C301. “Are you thirsty?” She went back inside, found a lone, chipped cereal bowl in an open cabinet and drew some water. Placing it just inside the back door, she invited the dog to come and get it. He did, and she stroked his neck and sides as he drank. “I’ll feed you when I come back. Don’t run away.”
    She left the door open and walked around the building and back the way she came, back across Metropolitan and toward the sign a quarter mile away for Ruby Fruit Canteen. Its marquee read, “We Need Dance_s.” Across a deserted parking lot in the baking heat she walked, stopping at the front door to give a self-conscious heave of her arms under her breasts, as if to prepare them for their debut.
    She was startled to see an old woman standing at the inner threshold when she entered the glass door. “Hello, honey. The boss will be here at five, but you can sit at the bar till then,” said the woman. She had dyed red hair and pasty skin, and wore what looked to Loretta like a negligee under a silk bathrobe. “And don’t worry. He’ll hire you, honey. If you pass the audition. And for you, believe me, it ain’t hard.”
    The pounding bass guitar was almost as startling to her as the negligee on an old lady in the daytime, but Loretta was all the way in now. Yes, she would dance today.
    From the nearly empty bar a harmless-looking businessman in a tan sport coat and open collar spotted her and smiled. Loretta looked away from him and around the room when her eyes fell on the lone dancer at the center of three runway stages. The dancer’s eyes were closed and her movement was out of rhythm, Loretta thought. Then again, maybe she was exactly half as fast as she should have been. Maybe that was what they liked around here. Slow dancing to fast music.
    Measuring five spaces for herself away from the man at the bar, Loretta took a seat. The lingerie lady came around and filled a glass of Coke for her. “I’m Ginger. What’s your name and where you from?” she asked. “And don’t worry about making up a name. We’ll do that with you later. What’s your real name?”
    Without pause, Loretta lied serenely. “I’m Lori Evans and I’m from Charleston. I was stripping in a little place over there but the men I met told me to come to Atlanta to make the real money. So here I am.”
    “They’re right,” said the man five stools away.
    “You should know,” said old Ginger. “He’s here three times a week, and he only watches the girls between drinks. Look at him there. That girl has her tits out, she needs a tip and he’s stirring his gin and tonic and talking to me.” With the bar mirror reflecting her own face next to Ginger’s, Loretta saw herself––her dark brown hair, the paleness of her skin emphasized by too much blue eye-shadow and dark red lipstick. She looked younger to herself than when she’d left home a while before. And she had forgotten to check her face before she left C301. But these people were talking to her as if she were included, as if she were just like them, at home around all this dirty stuff––private parts hanging out and stinking cigarette and beer smell coming off the carpet.
    “Want one?” said Ginger, offering a Marlboro.
    “Sure,” said Loretta, who had spent her life bugging Mommy about her smoking, ever since she learned in first grade that it could kill you. But the daughter had lately gone to Waffle House on her way home from school and practiced smoking, how to look comfortable, how to pretend that cigarettes were candy to her. Ginger lit her up, and she took a drag. Disgusting. In the mirror she saw that the dancing girl was now on her knees, breasts exposed, g-string down on her thighs, pretending to masturbate. Loretta couldn’t picture Polly doing that. Not with that other picture in her head from the funeral, that carcass lying there while a preacher they didn’t know said lies about the half-assed hooker-dancer who used to cheat her little sister at gin rummy.
    “Do you know somebody named Jeb?” Loretta said suddenly. The other two at the bar looked at her, searching her eyes as she looked from one person to the other.
    “How do you know him?” said Ginger, stubbing out her smoke.
    “I don’t know him. One of those guys in Charleston told me I should look him up when I got here.”
    “Well then forget that, because he’s long gone and good riddance. That’s all I’ll say, and I won’t even say his name. Don’t you say it around here, either. He’s in Florida somewhere.”
    Loretta thought that maybe she could have told them who she really was, then. If they weren’t Jeb’s friends they could have been on her side. But it was too late. Soon she would be on the floor, outperforming that skinny girl onstage, getting hired so she could go to the VIP room where Polly had told her the real action is.
    “That’s cool,” said Loretta about Polly’s guy named Jeb she’d never actually met. “I never knew the guy.”
    Again in the mirror, she saw the scene change. Through a door beyond the farthest stage walked a slump-shouldered guy in a baggy, gray suit and loosened tie. Loretta watched him as he approached and thought to herself that if the world was fair, chubby men like that would have to get up and strip in order to pay the rent at C301––or someplace like it. The girl who strips and screws for money is a prisoner of her body till her body gives out, but she’s too stupid to know it. How could Polly have quit a job that pays two hundred a night? That’s what her sister had asked her in that famous last phone call. This man––is that what an Italian looks like?–– this dark-haired man in a suit wearing a frown and shuffling toward her was the kind of customer she could picture with Polly in the VIP room. He probably would leer at a girl, talk dirty and drool––or worse––on a stained handkerchief.
    “Hey, Murray,” said Ginger, showing no particular pleasure at the sight of him. “The report and everything is in the safe. Last night was good.”
    “Thank you sweetheart,” he answered. Loretta was surprised. Now she thought he sounded sweet. He stopped by the bar and looked her up and down, stopping at her eyes. “Who’ve we got here? Looking for a job?”
    “I’ll get you an application,” said Ginger who picked up her pack of smokes, smiled at Loretta and left the bar.
    “Yes, sir, I am hoping to get a job dancing here. I’ve heard it’s a good place to work.”
    “Who told that lie?’ he said, and laughed at himself. “We’ll get you on the floor in a few minutes. Going to be a busy night. Are you hungry?”
    That was nice; he was concerned for the young girl’s health. “Yes, I could eat. I’m Lori.”
    “Pleased to meet you. Murray here,” he said, and shook her hand. He spoke to the bartender. “Get her whatever she wants.”
    Loretta ordered a cheeseburger and pretended to read a newspaper discarded on the bar. The lone dancer behind her kept the same slow rhythm regardless of song tempo. Two men in paint-stained, white uniforms came in, laughing loudly, and appearing to Loretta to have been through a couple of other bars before this one. They walked slowly past her, hands in pockets, and paused in their laughing to look her over from behind, then looked up to see that she’d caught them in the mirror. She smiled.
    A pair of skinny girls slunk in, wearing sunglasses, painted-on jeans and tank tops stuffed with what Loretta knew to be fake tits. They looked her over, too, and less approvingly than did the drunken painters. One of the girls spoke. “You going to dance here, sweetie?”
    “I hope so.”
    “Good,” said the second skinny girl. “I was afraid you was a hooker. Hah! Just kidding.”
    Ginger reappeared. “Come into my office, baby, and I’ll get you started.”
    “Is it okay if I pee first? I mean, use the rest room?”
    She wrapped the burger with one bite out of it in two paper napkins, stuffed it into her backpack and walked to the restroom. Locked in a stall, Loretta pulled out her purse full of Little Joe. She took him out, rubbed him with the velveteen again, wrapped it around him and put him away, then walked quickly to Ginger’s office.
The old woman’s deeply wrinkled skin and those black roots had been bad enough in the dark of the club. Here, Ginger was positively frightening. This florescent glare was like the principal’s office at school. Loretta took the application from her and wrote down made-up job references and made-up phone numbers.
    Ginger said, “I call all you girls my ‘little sisters,’ because you’re like family to me. Anything I can do, I’ll do for you.” Her creepy smile caused Loretta to shiver visibly. “I hope you’re not cold, sister, because it’s time to take off those clothes. Go on out and I’ll tell Murray you’re ready.”
    “Okay. Where can I put my stuff?”
    “You can use a locker in the dressing room. Here’s the key.”
    After leaving on Mommy’s too-tight black, lace bra and changing to the pink tube top she had packed, Lori put her backpack and purse away, sticking the key down her pants pocket. She had practiced, and knew the jeans she wore were excellent for peeling.
    Now her heart beat faster as she was suddenly on stage dancing to some funky seventies song she didn’t know, moving in ways she had only done in front of her bathroom mirror at home. She could see Murray’s head in front of her, silhouetted by the stage lights shining on her body. On the third song she was naked and not worried anymore, no fast heartbeat, no shivering. She grabbed her clothes, smiled and waved at the twenty men and twelve “little sisters” who watched. They shouted their approval as she counted the fourteen one-dollar bills they had shoved in her hand during her dance. She didn’t have a g-string.
    Murray walked up as she finished dressing. She straightened her top. “Look, kid, I don’t normally do this on the first night because the other girls get pissed, but there’s a guy who wants you in the VIP right now. I know him. He’s a great tipper. You’ll be there with another girl, so you’ll be safe. What do you say?”
    “Fine,” she said and kissed his cheek.  “Let me get my stuff in the locker. I’ve got some fun toys in there.”
    “What kind of toys?” he said. “No crazy, dirty stuff, now.”
    “Don’t worry,” she answered. “I’m spunky, but I’m a good girl.”
    Saying that made her remember that she should call Mommy, so she went to the lobby and used a pay phone. She got the answering machine.  “I feel much better now. I’m staying at Stacy’s tonight so don’t worry. I’ll go to school from her house. I have my toothbrush. Love you, Mommy. Oh, and thanks for my birthday card.” She went back into the club and the sound was now deafening. The volume was turned up and the bass vibrated her skin.
    She went to the dressing room, retrieved her stuff and walked into the VIP room.
    “There you are,” said the other dancer, one of the skinny, fake-boobed girls from earlier. She was not smiling. “We’re waiting.”
    On a black vinyl sofa sat a man in dark glasses wearing a blazer with frayed cuffs. He held a money clip in his right hand, a cigarette in his left. A brown liquor drink rested on the sofa arm. “Let’s get moving. You’re late,” he said, sounding to her like a coach when she was tardy for gym class or something.
    “Okay, okay,” she answered, now with her back to him and the dancer, digging in her bag and purse. “Hold your fucking horses, asshole.”
    The man laughed. “Tough gal, huh? I like that. If your ass wasn’t so cute I’d smack you. Now show me what you’ve got and I’ll make it worth your while.”
    Loretta straightened up and turned around holding a 9mm pistol in her right hand.
    “What the hell,” said the man, preparing to crawl over the back of the sofa.
    “Don’t worry, chickens. Meet Little Joe,” said Lori. “He’s empty.” She pointed the gun at the ceiling and pulled the trigger. Click. “See?” she said.
    “That’s really cool,” said the dancer. “Where did you get it?”
“A gift from my old man before the sheriff took him away. He was a big Bonanza fan. You know the TV show with Hoss and Little Joe?
“No, but can I hold it?” asked the wide-eyed dancer.
“In a minute,” said Loretta. “First I’ll show you how I use it in my act.”
    “Go, baby,” said the guy. She took her spot on the small platform ten feet from the sofa and began to move to the music, half-speed to a fast song. Still fully dressed, she pointed the gun at the other dancer. “Now this time I’ll shoot a blank and you pretend to die, okay? Like on Bonanza. Okay?”
    Loretta fired twice and the idiot girl fell back against the sofa and slammed against the wall beside the man. “That was good,” he said and pretended to applaud. Then he saw blood on the back of the dancer’s neck and a hole in the vinyl cushion beside him. He screamed, “What the fuck did you do?” and ran for the door. Loretta fired again and he fell. She picked up her bag, walked over to the dancer and shot her in the head. Then she stepped over the man who was screaming now and shot him in the chest. She picked up his money clip and stuffed it into her bag, then took off his sunglasses and put them on herself. She opened the door and peeked out. She didn’t see Murray and she didn’t see Ginger and quickly walked out of the club with the pounding music following her to the front door and into the parking lot. She ran across the street then slowed to a stroll all the way back to Jackson Square Apartments, just as the sun was going down. She stopped at an overflowing trashcan on the curb. She pulled out Little Joe and purposely dropped him, then bent over and rubbed dirt all over him. Then she got a paper sack from the trash, put the gun inside and shoved it deep into the garbage in the can. Then she went to the rear of C301, where the tall, black dog slept peacefully with his head hanging across the threshold of the open door. The harsh glare from the mercury light between rows of apartments allowed her to find her way around inside.
    “Hey boy,” said Loretta. “I’ve got something for you.” The dog sniffed the burger before she could get the napkin unwrapped, but he waited till she spread it on the floor in front of him. “There’s a good boy.” She refilled his bowl of water, changed into her bib overalls and took her place on the counter. She stuffed her hair up into her beach hat. Watching the dog eat, Loretta took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I can’t stay long,” she said.