***First Chapter of my memoir, Baby Girl*** Posted here for review for the artist residency application for July-August 2013 in Paris
“Tell me what is was like,” Dawn leaned into me eagerly, the long ash of her cigarette nearly falling into my lap, her straw colored hair shielding her face, but not the sharp gleam in her pale blue eyes.
“Take a hit and pass the can, but don’t exhale,” said Billy.
I placed the hot aluminum can to my mouth and took the largest possible pull I could, drawing the smoke deeply into my lungs. My heart started beating faster, the walls of the hooch, the small shackled together pressed plywood room we called home, expanded and contracted with each boom of my heart. Billy reached over to me and took the pipe fashioned out of an empty Budweiser can away from my suddenly unsteady hand and gently tamped down the smoldering rock with the butt end of a sky blue plastic lighter.
“Nobody blows bubbles like my old lady,” he said grinning with a kind of misplaced parental pride, “her lung capacity’s fantastic.”
I thought I was going to pass out, my field of vision foreshortened and the walls crawled toward me. My heart rate sped up further, sweat began beading off my face, curling down the backs of my knees, and feathering in hot waves across my shoulder blades, and streaming down my chest in rivulets. Unable to hold my breath in any longer I expelled a plume of dirty gray smoke into the air, effectively fogging up the small crowded room—Billy, myself, his best friend Leon, and Leon’s “companion”.
“God damn it, Baby Girl, you have to hold that shit in. You wasted all that good smoke for nothing. Fucking Christ, I’ve shown you often enough, haven’t I?” Billy looked up from the fresh batch of crack he was preparing and growled at me, his blue eyes darkened to a steel grey as they narrowed in on me.
“Jaysus,” said Leon, “that girl’s got lungs o’ steel. Gimmee, the can, lemme see if I can out puff the lady dragon.”
Billy ignored Leon, staring directly at me, his full upper lip rising along with his blonde mustache in a sneer, “Watch, this is how you do it, last time I am going to fucking show you.” He settled the grey yellow rock gently on the bed of cigarette ashes nestled above the vented holes of the pipe can, pushing it just so with his finger.
He held the can up to his mouth after exhaling every bit of breath out through his nose, like a angry cat, then rolling the wheel of the lighter with his thumb he danced the blue flame over the rock, continuoulsy inhaling as the crack melted down, pulling off a huge hit. The sweet scent of death danced in the air intoxcatingly pulling every mouth in the hooch toward the wavering heat of the pipe.
Billy then began the soft tamping down of the orange glowing rock with the lighter to extinguish the small flame. He gulped back more smoke into his mouth never exhaling until the rock had completely stopped smoldering on the can. His face grew pale and sweat broke on his forehead, a thin trail ran from his temple down the rough shadow of his beard. Billy raised his left arm unconscioulsy and mopped the sweat away, rolled his face back, eyes closed, face drawn tight in esctacy—pausing for a moment his chest rising with the struggle to hold in his breath.
He opened his eyes, wide black discs of pupil ringed with sky blue and turned toward the woman sitting on the bed. It was a plank of wood an inch and a half thick of crumbling pressed dry plywood propped up on dirty brown plastic milk crates draped with a thin foam pad and covered over by a dusty green and blue plaid sleeping bag. Leon’s friend leaned toward Billy with eyes glittered wet with want. He put his mouth to hers and exhaled into it.
The woman sucked back his breah and then leaned into the wall of the hooch. She pulled back her shoulders and her breasts heavy, low, sloppy in her baggy black tank top, swayed into the dimpled white flesh of her upper arms. Her nails were thick and dirty, laquered with heavy chipped flamingo pink nail polish, and they rolled up and down her thighs as she felt the hit descend into her body. Her face suddenly flushed and she sat quickly forward, gesturing at Leon to come to her.
Leon clambered eagerly toward her and compeleted the circle to the strange menage a trois I was witnessing. She grabbed his face and pushed her mouth onto his, exhaling into Leon as he eagerly drew from her mouth. Leon’s face intent, eager, hard, softened, his mouth drew up in a small smile and his eyes rolled back to half-mast. He took her hands away from his face and rocked back onto his heels, leaning dreamily into the supportive wall of the hooch.
A full life time of minutes, perhaps one, perhaps two, passed before Leon slowly exhaled—the plume of smoke was not nearly as large as the one I had exhaled, but still substantial.
Leon slapped his knees, his face slowly returning to it’s true ashy color from the mottled eggplant it had been, and whined up at Billy, “Dang it man, I threw in for this shit, and this is what I’m getting not even seconds, but thirds? Pass the fucking pipe and serve up a fresh rock while you’re at it”!
Billy looked at Leon through slit eyes, and then took the proffered pipe out of his hands. He carefully scraped at the can with the flat edge of his generic Swiss army knife then scooped up a fresh pile of ashes from the Shoney’s metal ashtray he’d swiped the last time we’d eaten there aka dined and dashed. He shook out a smaller piece of rock and laid it on top of the ashes.
“Here you go man, but make sure you pass the smoke around, don’t waste it like my old lady does”. Billy glared across the small space at me. I looked down at the hem of my dress and held my silence.
Leon hit the pipe, and then mouth passed the smoke to the woman. She barely paused to enjoy the hit before passing it on to Billy. Her greedy thick sticky lips fastened onto his and stayed there far longer than she had with Leon. They lingered against each other, her hand on his knee. It was not a kiss, pers se, but the contact lasted far beyond my comfort level, and I tapped my foot rapidly in the corner. Billy finally turned to me. I leaned into him and he blew the hit over my face. My eyes watered and I coughed, watching the smoke waft away into the corner of the room.
“Now do it right this time or you’re not gonna get anymore”. He snarled but handed me the bent can, I reached for it with hands that I mentally stilled from shaking.
He did not bother to load up a fresh piece of rock or even to scrape up the one that had melted down into the ashes. I rolled the lighter and the flame sprung up-floated it down and over the ash crusted plastic pool before I finally found something that would hold onto the lick of flame. My breath was painfully short from trying to draw against the nothing that was there. But I knew there was something there—I could smell it. I could smell the wire hanger burn igniting in my lungs. I wanted it.
Billy pulled the can out of my feverish and once again shaking hand, “enough! There’s nothing fucking there, Carmen, stopped tweaking on the can! Give it the fuck up girl.” He shook his head in disgust and then set the pipe gently down on the edge of the bed in a fold of sleeping bag, and turned away from me to get the last of the rock from the narrow ledge lining the hooch. I stepped behind him and tapped his shoulder.
“Hold you’re fucking horses, girl!” He said and shrugged my hand off his shoulder.
I tapped him again, insistently.
“What the fuck, get off me!” He said and spun to face me.
I beseeched him to come toward me. I was drenched in sweat from the effort of not exhaling. The anger faded off his face and he quizzically looked into my eyes, then, as though his body sensed it despite the annoyance of listening to me, he acquiesed and leaned into my body. I pressed my mouth to his and exhaled. I could feel the pressure from his lungs as they struggled to take in the large volume of smoke. He sucked in what he could then pushed me off and gagged.
“God damn,” he said breathlessly disorientate, his hand groped to the wall and he leaned against it sagging down, “I guess there was something left of that hit.”
I still had smoke rolling out of my mouth. My dress clung to me as my chest heaved. I was soaked with sweat. I sat down wilting, using the wall of the hooch to hold me steady as I slid to the floor. I felt the crumble of press pinewood push soft splinters into my back. I ignored the room and closed my eyes.
Mama watching The Waltons with Grandma Vivvy and Cissy, on the couch in the late afternoon sunlight; the light fluttering like moth dust through the waxy lemon tree leaves. The grass in the back yard is high, dry, and prickly. The honey suckle tumbles down heavy on the sun bleached high wood fence enclosing the lot. The cement patio is hot on my bare feet.
I don’t want to go to bed yet; I don’t want to come in from the warm air. My underwear is stuck. I reach back and pull them out. I dance on the cement watching my reflection in the patio door. Maybe I’ll just dash down the hallway, run to the bathroom and sneak back. I can watch the Waltons behind the couch!
I slide the door open and patter past Grandma Vivvy; she smiles at me. I sneak off through the dark tunnel of hallway with its avocado green carpeting, down to the bathroom just past mami and papi’s bedroom door.
“Who’s out there”? My papi’s voice rumbles out from behind the door. I pause, frozen.
“It’s me, papi,” I take a hesitant step toward the bathroom. My eyes are still adjusting to the change in light. I blink and wish my papa were home. He has been gone for days. My mama is angry, I don’t know why.
“Come in here,” says papi, his voice is choked with mucus, gravely and thick.
“Hi papi,” I peek in. He is watching a movie on the TV. I look past the orange and green and brown check bedspread, it is Tarzan!
“Come here, keep your papi company,” he pats the covers which are pulled up over a grayish green blanket and stark white sheet. He is under the covers in his pajamas, sky blue with navy piping. I look back toward the living room; I can’t hear the Waltons anymore. I look at Papi; his dark brown eyes glower at me from under bushy grey eyebrows.
I step back.
“Come here, Carmen, now” he says in an insistent soft voice, it is not a voice to ignore.
I push open the door, my hands glow against the dark grain of the wood. The curtains are pulled closed against the falling of the day. I walk into a cave of gloomy murk. I squint.
“Baby girl, go turn up the TV set. Your Papi’s hearing isn’t so good anymore.”
I nod and walk further into the room toward the TV set at the foot of the bed. It is big. It stands on tapered peg legs and has rabbit ears on top. Jane sees a leopard on a tree branch; her dress looks like the leopard. She is pretty. I turn the volume knob up two clicks and look back over my shoulder at my grandfather.
“Louder, honey, good.” He nods as I turn up the volume louder. “Thank you, know why don’t you shut the door so we don’t disturb mami with our show.”
I walk back to the door. I can hear mama laugh with the show in the living room. I hesitate at the door.
“Go on baby girl, shut the door.”
I open my eyes, sticky and cloudy with the high, I lick at the top of my lips and wipe my clammy hands on the bottom of my dress. I do not, however, bother to wipe off the sweat rolling down my face. I like it, it is good wet physical proof of the high. Billy shakes a Doral out from the pack he keeps in his breast pocket, lights it and hands it to me. I nod my thanks, draw my knees up, close my eyes again and smoke the cigarette. I enjoy the peripheral high of the nicotine and formaldhyde combining with the residual crack in my lungs, the cigarette after getting high is almost as good as the getting high part.
I walk back out to the living room. The light has changed. Grandma Vivvy turns and looks at me from over the top of the couch, she smiles.
“That was nice of you to keep your papi company, he doesn’t like the Waltons.”
I walk around the sofa. The backyard is dark and the TV set glows against the sliding glass door. John Boy is stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel. I sit down on the cushiony carpet and press my back against mama’s legs. She is warm. Her hand falls on my head and plays with my hair, gathering it up and letting it fall. She twists a curl around her finger and tugs at it.
“You’re up past your bedtime,” she says, patting my head while regarding the screen. My sister is asleep in her other arm, curled up small and protected in the circle of her warmth.
I nod. I know. I won’t ever stay up late again. I get up and go to my room, shutting the door, I crawl under my covers. I am sticky. I wipe myself off and huddle against the wall farthest away from the door.
Billy loads up the last of the rock, making sure to carefully slice open the cellophane that houses the rock to loose all the stray crumbs. He lights up and draws hard on the pipe, then he passes it around to Leon and the woman before I have the chance to ask for my share. I come out of my strange reverie to the sound of the can being crumbled.
“Shit,” said Billy with disgust, “that’s it, fuck.” He stepped out the door, blinding me in hot white sunlight, and tossed the crushed can out behind the hooch. It was a garbage pit of junk that slid down a steep slope to a man made lake on the abandoned air force base we were camped at outside of Homestead, Florida, a suburb of Miami.
“Hey man, no way,” said Leon jerkily starting up, “what are you doing? There’s still plenty of hits left on that.”
“Bullshit,” said Billy, “it’s gone, and don’t you dare go looking for it,” snarling at Leon.
“Fuck off man, I can at least scrape the inside of that can, I bet there’s a fuck ton left inside. I gave you the last of my fucking money ‘til Friday, I want what’s mine” Leon shambled up and scooted out the door. Billy went after him; they scuffled in the garbage sliding down the embankment taking their argument to the shore of the lake.
I slowly blinked and pulled myself up off the floor. I looked over at the woman, this “friend” of the boys. She smiled at me revealing her yellowed crooked teeth, one insicor missing, her gums a dark plum and diseased looking grey. I pushed my mouth up in the semblance of a smile and plucked the soaked bodice away from my body, it peeled off my body with a soft sucking sound. I fanned myself with the material.
“You want a smoke,” I said unconsciously groping to instill some sort of normality into the situation, to be a hospital host, despite wanting to push her out the door, I offered her a cigarette from my stash pack.
“Sure,” her eyes lit up and she swiped the cigarette from me. I was glad I had not handed her the pack, she probably would have smuggled a few extra out of the pack.
She walked outside and I followed her out into the hot sun. I climbed up on the hood of Billy’s silver two door Honda Accord, pulling the skirt of my dress up and off my legs. She leaned against the passenger side of the car noisily inhaling her cigarette and sucking on her teeth as though there was some last residue of crack tucked up between what remained of her teeth and deteriorated gum line.
“What the fuck are you doing hanging out with Billy,” she said suddenly, slowly looking up at me from behind a curtain of cigarette smoke.
“What? What do you mean,” I asked startled by the directness of the question, “Billy’s my boyfriend.” I replied, as though this dutifully qualified me to smoke crack with him and his best friend and his best friends “lady friend”.
“Honey, girl, you too young for him and you’re pretty and you seem smart, why the fuck you hanging out with this dumb motherfucker?” She turned and gestured at the hooch with her cigarette.
My hackles raised. This dumb motherfucker who you were all over just minutes ago.
“I love him,” I said indignantly. Then I looked down and began kicking out my foot from the bumper, trying to distract myself from the truth. I did not love Billy, I was his hostage, even if I did not acknowledge it out loud, that was the truth of it.
“Oh please, sugar, you don’t love him, do you even know what love is? That man is a fucking red necked hillbilly motherfucker, you don’t really love him now, do you? Tell for real.”
“Yes, of course I do,” I said pausing, I fished another cigarette out from my pocket.
I could not love him. But there were things about him that excited me. I was in love with some one else, but Billy had attributes I found myself quite appreciative of--he was furry, downed with light golden fuzz that was softer than male hair has any right to be, I liked to stroke his chest hair, there was something deeply appealing to it. Then there was the way his blue eyes looked at me, constantly hungry, I was desirable. I liked his tattoos, even the faded out ones with his children’s names scrolled in blue cursive around his biceps, one for each arm. Or how he looked in overalls with no shirt on, the tight round high globes of his ass bouncing underneath the faded denim. He was sexy and raw and leonine.
“I love him,” I said again, this time adamantly, turning away from the blue sky back toward the woman and looking into her jaundiced eyes.
“You a fool.” She said with derision and flicked her cigarette away from her. I was being called a fool by this?
“Well, don’t you two look cozy,” said Billy walking toward the car. He came up behind me and slapped my ass, “get off the car, we have places to be.”
“Baby Girl,” he said leering at the woman, “it’s been fun, but you need to scoot on outta here, we got business to attend to.”
The woman leaned over and kissed Billy on his cheek. He reached out and slid his hand underneath the dingy fabric of her sweatshirt, grabbing a handful of breast. She slowly slapped his hand away, “no pay, no play, you know the rules sugar.” She laughed and then continued, shooting me a fast look, “’sides, looks like you got your hands full with this one.”
Billy laughed, “She’s a little hellcat in the sack, that’s for damn sure.” He turned away from us, “Leon,” he bellowed, “move it man, I want some beer now!”
“Beer,” I asked quizzically, raising my eyebrows. “I didn’t know we had money for beer.”
“Yeah, beer, I need to calm down this god damn tweak before I’m down there scraping every damn can I run across like my man Leon over there.”
“Fuck you man, I can hear you,” said Leon his voice a thin strained whine.
“Then let’s go!” Billy turned to me, “Baby Girl get the fuck in the car.”
Leon pushed his way past me and climbed in the back, clambering over the passenger side seat, feet tangling in the seat belt. I flipped the car seat back and rode shotgun. We headed to the little gas station run by a Cuban family. Billy pulled up to the island and started filling the tank. Leon tapped my shoulder; I slid out, flipping down the seat to let him out. I settled back in and contemplated the window streaked with dust. Leon swabbed at the car windows with dirty water from the bucket next to the gas pumps.
“Whaddya want,” Leon surreptiously asked Billy.
“Budweiser, what do I always want?” He replied, looking at the numbers on the gas tank rolling forward.
“And a Coke,” I chimed in, wondering again where the money was coming from, gas and beer, cigarettes and soda?
“Girl, I ain’t gonna support your Coke habit no more today,” said Leon cackling like a lunatic right outside the car door. I reached out the window and swatted at him.
“Fuck you Leon,” I said grinning.
“Hee, hee, hee, watch what you say, or I ain’t gonna git you a god damn thing,” he said placing the squegee bak in the bucket.
I batted my eyelashes and leaned beseechingly out the car window, “pretty please, Leon, may I have a Coke?”
“Shoo,” he said, I thought I noticed him blush, but he turned and walked toward the store front before I could tell for sure.
Billy shook the gas hose from the car and hooked it back into the pump, then climbed in the car and started the engine. He pulled away from the island, angling the car toward the driveway. He fiddled with the rear view mirror, which he kept glancing from to the roadway.
“Open up the door,” he said suddnely turning to me.
“What?” I said startled, I was watching the traffic and wondered if maybe it was too soon to ask Billy for a cigarette.
“Open up the fucking door,” he said shoving me aside he fumbled with the door handle, a button on his shirt cuff getting caught on the buttons of my dress. My favorite dress, my only dress, a black cotton sundress with orange blossom and tiny green leaves scattered across the fabric. He shook his hand madly in annoyance, tearing off a button, my bodice gaped open and I pushed his hands off me.
“Open your fucking door!” He screamed at me, spittle flecked my face and dotted my chest. His breath hot with cigarettes fell on me and I winced with barely veiled disgust at his smell.
“Ok, ok, what the fuck?” I reached for the handle, which was suddenly ripped from my hand bending back my nails, I cried out with alarm. Then I was being slammed into the dashboard as Leon smashed himself into the backseat.
“Go, go, go!” He cried slapping the back of my seat rapidly with the flat of his hand.
Billy pealed out, tires screeching, my door still open flopped out of my reach. I screamed and slid toward the open door, I grabbed at the handle and screeched again. I banged it shut as we bounded over the speed bumps and onto the street, causing traffic to halt around us. My nose and mouth were stuffed with dust and the burnt smell of rubber. I struggled upright in my seat and glanced back at Leon only to see a man running behind us, hand raised, fist closed, screaming at the backside of the car.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Leon turned watching the man. “God damn it to hell, girl, what the fuck is your problem? You just about got us fucking caught,”
Billy glared at me as I shrank into the side of the door, “what the fuck did I tell you?”
Leon tossed a liter bottle of Coca Cola over the split in the car seats; it dropped heavy and cold with recrimination into my lap.
“That is abso-fucking-lutely, the last time I support your freaking habit. Damn. I could have gotten clean out the store without them noticin’ but no, I had to go back and get little miss a Coke, fuckin’ hell.” Leon mopped his brow, “man I just about shit my pants, dude actually caught on to the back of my shirt. You owe me a new button up, girlfriend.” He tucked the his shirt back into the waistband of his jeans.
I stared at Leon with wide eyes in the passenger side mirror, “I’m sorry,” I stammered, “I didn’t know what was going on.
Billy drove the car silently, hands gripping the wheel so tight the whites of his knuckles shown through his tan hands, constantly checking the rear view mirror. Leon ripped opened the case of beer and handed one up front to Billy, who promptly cracked it and drained the whole thing without taking his eyes off the road. He belched and flung it out the window. Leon handed him another, then a third. Finally, on the fourth can, he sighed deeply, then settled it into his crotch. He tapped the top of it rapidly with his fingernails. He was fastidious about keeping his nails clean. I looked down at the round moons of pink and white and bit my lip.
We drove past the Lake without stopping. We drove into a nicer neighborhood to a strip mall with a Food Lion, parking in the middle of the lot between two non-descript suburban cars.
“Get out,”Billy said to me, finally breaking his silence, “make yourself scarce for fifteen minutes.”
I did not question him, I just got out and walked toward the sliding glass doors of the store, trying to keep my dress discreetly pinned together. I was not wearing a bra and with the middle button on my bodice now gone it was quite apparent. I walked into the cool relief of the store trying to adjust the dress around my shoulders to not draw more attention to myself.
I circled the store twice, before realizing that security was following me, I had a shadow guard keeping and eye on me. I walked past the racks of candy bars, eyeing them wistfully and exited back into the hot breath baking off the blacktopped lot. I wondered how much time I should give to Billy, then I saw a bank of telephones. I walked toward them and started sticking my fingers into the little metallic mouths, maybe I could find enough change to get myself some chocolate. I paused suddenly, looked up at the hard black plastic handsets and then picked up a sticky receiver.
I pushed the zero on the keypad.
“This is your Bell Operator, Shelia, how may I help you?”
“Collect call to Patricia Munz at 608-257-2180, please.” I said and glanced behind me to the parking lot.
“One moment please, now connecting you to 608-257-2180.”
“Hello?” I heard my mother’s voice far and small on the other side of the country answer the phone.
“This is a collect callf or Patricia Munz. Will you accept charges from,” the operator paused, waiting for me to say my name.
“Carmen Martines,” I said into the round circle of holes.
I heard a gasp on the other line and my mother quickly responded, “yes!”
“One moment please while charges go through,” the operator intoned and a number of chimes beeped in the back ground.
“Baby?” My mother’s needy voice rang out into my ear.
“Hi mom,” I said softly, what was I doing? This was stupid, what help is she going to be?
“Oh my god, baby, where are you?” My mother spoke in a rush, then paused, I could hear her fumbling for her cigarette pack.
“Homestead, Florida,” I replied, suddenly tired, so tired, I just wanted to sink down onto the sidewalk and sleep.
“Florida? When are you coming home?” She asked, inhaling quickly, the sound of her voice whistling out as she sucked on her menthol.
“I don’t know,” I said in flat monotone.
“Please come home, Carmen, please, I can’t stand not having you here, not being able to talk to you, not knowing where you are, this is kiling me.”
“I can’t right talk righnow, I gotta go, I just wanted to let you know I’m ok, love you mom.”
I hung up the phone.
“Took you fucking long enough,” said Billy with a glare when I got back to the car.
“I’m sorry,” I said under my breath. I sat very still in the passenger seat, gritty balled hands in my lap, head down. I could see the white skin demarcation from my tan line underneath the collar of my dress. I focused on the line of dark next to the white and sat without moving or looking up at Billy.
“Fuck it, whatever. Here,” he said tossing a flat hard piece of metal into my lap, “hat’s now your responsibility to take care of.”
“What do you want me to do with your license plate,” I asked startled, turning to him.
“I don’t fucking care what you do with it, you can shove it up your fucking ass, for all I car, just get rid of it! Leon helped me steal one off a car in the parking lot so we don’t get nailed by the fucking cops since you took so long to move your sweet ass that Cuban fuck face probably got the number on my plates. Can’t have that illegal fuck report my car to the county, you know I got warrants out.”
“Ok, ok. Billy, please,” I said reaching for his hand, “I’m sorry, I did not mean for that to happen.”
“Shut it,” he said and swatted my hand away. He turned on the radio and we drove back to the Lake, the hard metal of the cars liscence plate a dirty reminder of my shame.
“That sounds bad,” Dawn said to me, “was it always that bad?”
I did not know how to answer that. Was it always that bad? Had we ever had any fun?
“It was not that bad,” I said, with a forced smile, “we had some fun, Billy liked to go down to the Keys, we always had a good time there.”
“Tell me more,” Dawn demanded. She crossed and uncrossed her legs and reached for her pack of Kools from her large overstuffed bag.