When she walked in I didn’t recognize her, but when she got up under the track lights that ran above the bar, I saw it was Rita, first time here on my shift in maybe a couple of years. I bent over like I was reaching for something in the sink, then looked up into her brown cat-eyes and smiled a little so she’d know I remembered her from the good old days that are gone now, back when the oil business was going great and all the divers were working the rigs out in the Gulf or pulling down the big money over in the North sea or Bahrain—five hundred bucks a day or more when they had to stay down in the bell—and spending it, spending it in bars all over New Orleans whenever they came back from offshore, spending it on cars and boats and deep-sea tackle but mostly on drinks and girls like Rita: good-looking and bad-mouthed and half-lit anytime you saw them after sundown.
Rita was from Cuba, but Italian-looking, not really dark, up here since she was a girl, and a sharp dresser. She used to be married to a diver pal of mine, Bobby Angell, who worked out of Caldwell Diving and Salvage till he was killed in the North Sea. Bobby was gorgeous.
Divers are a strange breed. Maybe six, eight months out of the year they don’t work a lick. They drive that 450SL to pick up their check down at Unemployment just to let you know they don’t give one diddley-damn what anybody thinks and maybe they’ll punch you in the head to prove it. Rita and Bobby used to get lit up and fight in here and up and down the street and a couple of times she even started in on me; but that was in the past now, and the divers were gone and the oil money was gone, just a lot of bad water under the bridge.
I had just finished washing the shot glasses, wiping them out with a fresh white bar towel and setting them along the rubber matt by the front sink the way I always do. I like to start my shift with everything clean.
“A beer, Sheila, for the heat.”
“It’s not the heat”, I said, remembering somebody else’s joke, “it’s the humanity.”
Rita turned away and from the bar and stared out of the front windows at the passing cars on Dauphine Street.
“That is not true, my friend. There will never be too much humanity. Only too many human beings. Ah, but I see you are still wearing your pretty little crucifix, so you must know this already.”
I looked down at the silver cross between my breasts.
“I’m going to take that as a compliment, Rita. Most of the time they tell me I don’t know much of anything.”
There was still a lot of air in the line, so I pushed the handle with the Bud crest all the way open until there was a clear stream of beer going through the foam piled up under the tap. I wiped the foam off the tap and the chrome drain, drew Rita’s beer and set it in front of her.
“I think it was your Virgil waving top me from a truck on Magazine Street the other day,” Rita said. “So when I was walking by I thought it would be nice to see you again”—she made a sweeping gesture with her arm– “and Dauphine’s, of course.”
“Nice to see you too, Rita, only he’s not my Virgil anymore, not for a year now. He dumped me for some waitress at Pat O’Brien’s. He met her by the flaming fountain. Remember that flaming fucking fountain in their courtyard?”
“I know it. I almost fell into that flaming fountain once.”
“Yeah. Well, you won’t believe this. One night we’re supposed to go out to dinner with a couple of his buddies from work, and Mikey—the owner, remember him?—calls up with the stomach flu so he can’t cover the bar. Virgil ends up going out anyway, only they stop by Pat O’Brien’s first, and he’s flirting with the waitress, talking shit as usual, and she’s making the big eyes back.”
“You saw this?”
“No. I didn’t have to see it. I know the bastard. Everywhere he goes he makes his little play for the gals. It’s like a guy with a fishing rod walking by the river. He probably won’t catch a goddamn thing, but he’s right there anyway, so he might as well drop his line in the water and see what bites. So after this waitress takes his order, she asks him to put his hand in the fountain—in the fire!—and he does it! I mean, he was drunk as a dog, but still… Anyway he did it, and I guess that was really the day I lost him, even though he stayed at my place another couple months.
“I am sorry to hear this. You were together a long time.”
“Five years. He was with me five years, and then some little bitch he’s known five minutes tells him to stick his hand in the fire and he does it! What hurt me was what it meant to him. Like he could do anything in the world after that—except keep on loving me. Men are bastards.”
“Snakes,” Rita said.
I thought about telling her a story I had about a snake, but now when I looked at her I could see that she was thinner and paler than she used to be, and her eyes were dull and bleak, like a shark’s. I poured us each a shot of Jack Daniel’s and said “Men are dogs.”
Rita raised her shotglass to me. “And made of puppy dog tails. How do you say it? Ah, but we are the ones made of sugar and spice, and still they want to kill us.”
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “I don’t think all of them want to kill us.”
“They do, if only in their dreams.”
I decided to tell her the story.
“Once,” I said, “I was with my little girlfriends in the summertime, maybe ten years old, and we ran into my brother, standing around in a vacant lot with three or four of his friends. I think they were all about eight. Anyway, they had a snake.”
“Just a garter snake, but she was a big one, long and fat. And she stank. She really did.”
“But why? Snakes are clean. What kind of smell was it?”
“I don’t know, a wild smell. Strong. I don’t think any of us had ever smelled it before. It was like something dead, you know, but it smelled like life, too. Hell, the poor thing had just given birth, or was just about to, when the boys got to it.”
“They killed it, correct?”
For a moment it came back to me—the iron smell of earth and rotting weeds, the boys’ bare feet spotted with lemon-colored sunlight, then suddenly sprayed with the snake’s bright blood.
“They killed her, didn’t they, Sheila?”
“After a while they beat her head against a rock.”
Rita smiled her half-smile, a glittering, quick smile I had forgotten. “Then she died because of her scent.”
“I guess so,” I said.
Rita’s half-smile became her fullest, most radiant smile, a smile I could never forget, and she said, “Tell me, is that why you take so many showers?”
“I don’t take that many.”
“Come on, yes you do. When I used to live across the street from this place I came in here every day, and your hair was always wet when you came to work. See, your hair is damp now. Perhaps you take so many showers so there will be no chance of having a wild scent—a scent that could make a man bash your head in, kill you for smelling like life and death together? I think you are very smart.”
“Not that it makes any difference, but I take baths. That’s two compliments from you, Rita. I better not let it go to my head.”
“It was not meant to go to your head, but to your heart.”
“Hey, lady, how about a boilermaker down this end?” I hadn’t even noticed anybody come in.
Sometimes I like a person almost right away—the way they speak, the sound of their voice, sometimes just a pretty shape their lips make as they order. It’s easier to like someone after he’s had a little time to settle in, once he slides his pack onto the bar and sets his cigarette in the ashtray and eases himself against the back of the padded stool and takes a slow look around the place. Unless a guy’s already loaded when he comes in, right then, a couple of sips onto what he’s ordered, you can tell what kind of person he is trying to make the rest of us believe he is, and it’s not like it’s true exactly, but it is a picture of what a person hopes to be mistaken for and that says a lot, enough that I can tell if I would like them. That’s how I know.
“I ain’t got all night, lady.”
I looked down the bar then, and I could see right off that this was a guy I wasn’t going to like.
When I got back, Rita had lit a cigarette and was shaking out the match in a blue cloud of smoke. I slid an ashtray under her hand.
“So what’s been going on with you, Rita? I heard from Kenny Perkins you were living in the Irish Channel and seeing some married guy with a couple of kids.”
“What has been going on?” She leaned closer to me over the bar. “I stopped seeing the married guy over a year ago and this spring I quit my job at the boutique. I quit after I was raped. That’s the big news. I will tell you all about it when I come back.”
I watched her walk to the ladies’ room. Her gray silk shirt glowed like a pearl in the light from the bulb over the door. I poured us each a draft Bud and lit a Marlboro. The pay phone rang but it was only a tape of somebody trying to sell me something. Mr. Boilermaker slapped some singles down and left. I was wrong about him. He drank up quick and left a half-decent tip. I liked him a little bit after all.
After Rita came back from the ladies’ room and sat down again at the bar, I took her hand and squeezed it. Through her fingers I could feel her pulse: it was slow and steady.
“Look,” I said, “if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”
“I don’t mind. We’ve known each other a long time.”
“Yes, but we haven’t always been that close—“
“We were close. You are wrong, Shelia.” She looked away. “I hadn’t seen Janelle in years.”
“Ray the diver’s Janelle?”
“Who else? We ran into each other at the Court of Two Sisters and then we went up to the Cache-Cache Club. Janelle had to have a prescription filled, so we drove to a pharmacy near Audubon Park—a twenty-four-hour one called the Belle-Rite Drugstore. Do you know it?”
“Sure. Is that where it happened?”
“No, but he was in the store. He said so later. He said he had his eyes on us since we were at the Court of two Sisters with our stupid umbrella drinks. But we never noticed the bastard at either place. How did the lawyer put it? ‘A bland young man with a completely forgettable face’—unless he was your torturer—and so he became. We never noticed his van following us.”
“Jesus, what a creep.”
“No shit. He came up behind us as we walked back to Janelle’s car. He was wearing a long leather coat, a cheap one—it smelled like meat and motor oil. It was a warm night. He didn’t need the coat. He put a gun in Janelle’s back and a knife against my throat.”
“Did you scream?”
“Of course I screamed, and naturally enough, he hit me on the back of my head with the handle of the gun. Not so hard he would knock me out, just hard enough so I couldn’t think straight. Stunned. I don’t remember us getting into his van, and I don’t remember him handcuffing us together, but I remember Janelle’s crying. Once he had us in Audubon Park, Janelle and I looked at each other and took off.”
I didn’t know what to say. Rita wasn’t looking at me.
“Janelle ran fast too, for being so short. We ran toward some lights in the distance shining through the trees because I thought they must be from the little houses at the edge of the park, but he caught up with us under these blossoming trees. He spread his coat on the ground beneath a cherry tree and told us to lie down or he’s blowing our fucking heads off. He told Janelle if she didn’t stop crying he’d fire his gun up inside her.”
You know, Rita, if this is upsetting you—”
“I know. And you know me, and I don’t do what I don’t want to do—unless somebody has a gun on me, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, setting another Bud in front of her.
“Well, Janelle was lying still as a corpse, and he had his gun down in her mouth while he raped me. The harder he fucked me, Sheila, the harder the barrel moved around. I could hear it hitting her teeth. She didn’t move.”
Rita took a few sips from her beer. “You know what was the worst thing? There was a warm wind blowing, a heavenly wind, Sheila, and petals fell down on us, showered down on us like the snow, falling on his hair and on his back, and after a while the blossoms almost covered Janelle. We were so near the little houses on the other side of the trees, so close I could hear someone’s television. We were so close but we were nowhere. Comprende?”
“Yes, I think I do.” I knew the place she was talking about—a sort of lovers’ lane where a dozen or so small trees grow in a circle with their branches touching. In the spring they make a white and pink canopy. Once I had a picnic there with Virgil.
“I tried to keep a clear head. I made very careful sounds, not too loud to piss him off, but sounds like I was enjoying it. I tried to sound like I was afraid also. Sounds he could take either way because I didn’t know what he wanted.”
Rita picked up her beer and started to take a drink but set the glass down again on the bar. Then she leaned forward on her elbows and whispered: “He called me babyheart.”
“Sssshh,” she said, putting her fingers against my lips. “Please don’t say it.”
Neither of us spoke for few moments.
“Then he didn’t rape Janelle?”
“He left her alone. I was surprised. Like in the story of your snake, Janelle had a wild smell too because it was her period and because she had wet herself; so even though the air was thick with the scent of blossoms, underneath, I could smell her. But he couldn’t. She is very lucky that the bastard had a cold or allergies. His nose kept running down my cheek. I was holding Janelle’s hand, and I squeezed but her fingers were limp. She was so cold and the air was so warm. That bastard didn’t need that coat.”
Rita pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights from her purse and I lit her cigarette with the mother-of-pearl lighter Virgil gave me when I turned thirty.
“I don’t know what I would have done, Rita. I don’t think I could handle it.”
“You would handle it—I handled it. You would have handled it too.” She took a drag off her cigarette. “I was all right for a very long time. The air and my body seemed to be exactly the same temperature, so I felt like he wasn’t really fucking me, not really, because I wasn’t really there. Afterwards, Janelle still didn’t say a word as we walked to the little houses.
Rita downed the rest of her beer. “So there you have it, my friend—my terrible night of flowers.”
She crumpled her empty cigarette pack and I took it from her hand and threw it into the wastebasket underneath the bar.
“Rita, did you ever think about seeing someone? You know, get some kind of therapy?”
“No. Everyone knows psychoanalysis is just confession without absolution. I went to Mass for a while—until my priest was moved to another parish. His devotion to the youth was excessive even for the Church. I will tell you, Sheila, it is a mistake to ever trust a priest who wears tennis shoes.”
“I’ll try and remember that.”
“You will like this part, though. I sued the goddamn Belle-Rite Drugstore for lack of security. They settled out of court for thirty thousand dollars.”
“Thirty thousand dollars! That’s great! Christ, you deserve more.” I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Ever get the bastard?”
“They did? They got him?”
“Sure. I looked over at Janelle lying there covered in the white blossoms when he was straightening out his clothes, and the way she looked back at me I knew I had to do something to make him pay. He was smoking a cigarette and I could hear him sort of snuffling, like he was crying, so I said to him: ‘I want to give you my card from the boutique where I work. I’m kind of into this. You know what to do.’ He took my card.”
“I can’t believe you did that.”
“Well, I did. At the precinct we looked at mug shots but he wasn’t there. Then two weeks later, after Janelle had moved back to Atlanta, he calls me. They sent a policewoman down who pretended to be me when he called again. She got him to come to the shop and they arrested him.”
“Yeah, me too.” She stood up. “I hate to leave, Sheila, especially because all I did was talk about this. I want to know about you. Unfortunately, I am already late. I have to meet someone, but we must see each other soon. Get out, away from here. Promise me.”
“Sure. Any time. You know where to find me. And I’m still in the book.”
“Good. But I have a favor I must ask you. Could you hold onto my bar tab for a few days? I’m starting a new job and I should have a pay check by Friday.”
“Well, I don’t know—you’re the one with the thirty K, girl. Seems like you should be buying the drinks.” She didn’t laugh.
“You’re right, absolutely right. Punto. Except that I am broke.”
“Yes. I pissed it all away. Threw it away. Gave it away.”
“Then it’s really all gone?” I said. “All of it?”
She kissed me on both cheeks. “All of it, my friend. All of it spent trying to forget I smiled when that bastard called me babyheart.”
Amanda Moores’ Dream Palace was published by Carroll & Graf and can be found on Amazon here: