Leonicide — Part 1 (Fiction)
It was lovely, the day I stood on a porch railing and delivered a speech about the physiology of alcohol — everyone was laughing and someone else was buying the wine and someone had a guitar and my legs finally looked good in a skirt. “If alcohol could replace the blood,” I kept saying and laughing — a hot hooting laugh. When the doctors repeated it to me I laughed the same way, and winced at the scabs on my ass and the stitches in my back where the gravel was taken out. All my friends were dead, they said nicely, perished, if you prefer; the building caught fire. Well, all right. When the nurse came with a cup of ice and a sponge on a stick to wet my lips I grinned at her with my false teeth and asked for a gin and tonic. She took pity on me and brought me pineapple juice.
I wasn’t to have drinks for a long time, she said in a low voice, in case they gave me any more surgeries. Under anesthesia I was known to be cantankerous and liquids increased the chance that I could throw up and die.
When I reassured her I was good at the former but not the latter she didn’t find it even a little funny. She said she had read about what happened in the paper. There was a picture of me on a stretcher yelling, she said.
“I hope they got my good side,” I told her. The last thing I remembered before the hospital was taking off my dress, and I had a long ugly scar on my left hip from a farm incident many years before I discovered wine.
“You should be glad that you’re alive,” the nurse said.
“I am,” I said.
But I don’t think she believed me.
They didn’t end up doing any more surgeries and when the lacerations got a little better I was moved to a normal room with a guy named Biff. Biff had been hit by a car when he was out on his motorcycle and he had been drunk besides. “Ten High whisky,” he said. “Makes you shit,” he said, and it rasped when he laughed because he had punctured a lung. He had a pretty bridge of false teeth, not a whole set like mine. He showed me how he could take them out with his tongue and I showed him how I could put mine in the toe of a sock and make a puppet.
Once the staff was reasonably sure that I wasn’t aiming for waterskiing or something equally as inane upon my release, they let me out with a firm pat on my scabby buttocks and a pair of rubber-soled hospital slippers. I had a few quarters in my gown pocket and walked carefully across the street to get a powdered donut. It came with a free cup of coffee and I sat on a stool by the window and considered my fate.
I couldn’t go home — obviously. My apartment complex was ashes — obviously. Past that I had nothing. The coffee tasted like the cup and the donut peeled off in bits and stuck to my fingers and chin. The problem with being an ascetic is that if you don’t choose it you get to flounder for a while. I was a champion flounderer — I kind of had been my whole life — but I didn’t really want to choose floundering either. It was a bright day and the sidewalks sparkled. It was fall overnight. No one knew who I was. I dipped the donut in the coffee and it dissolved.
Absurdities, that’s all it was, the whole lot of it, a chain of events plaited and gilded and wound round and round. In the back of my eroded little brain I was well aware that nothing could touch me now — if I didn’t want it to. At this a bum staggered into my vision past the entrance to the hospital and fell heavily against the whitewashed wall. At the core we were the same, I mused, licking sugar from the webby bits between my fingers. Maybe on the outside too — me in hospital slippers and all. We both liked drink, we both chewed our fingernails every now and then. I bet he even had cracked heels. The basic difference was gender — and not a difference really at that. What does penis or vagina matter when no one can see you?
In the end I decided that — all philosophy aside — it was probably a good idea to go home to my parents and their horse farm in Oregon. But I didn’t know how to get there yet and I didn’t feel very rushed.
Since all of my friends were dead I stayed at the Y. They gave me a t-shirt and pants and a shower to use. All I had to do was gurgle a bit. After a week they started demanding proof of me and I left. Being out-of-doors kind of itched and I wondered how I could rustle up some bus fare.
The first spot I went was an Italian place where I had worked previously as a dishwasher. I went right into the kitchen and found the manager Giuseppe and asked could I have a hundred dollars.
“You help me do lunch and I’ll make you salmone alla bracchia,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. He looked at my hospital slippers and whistled a little through his toothy grin.
I needed salmone but I needed a hundred dollars more. “This place is packed,” I said. “Give me a hundie, Giuseppe, I just lost it all.”
I surprised myself a little by playing to emotion, since I didn’t care even a drop, but Giuseppe was nodding. “I saw you in the paper,” he said. “That’s an awful scar.”
“They got my bad side,” I told him. “I just don’t know why the goddamn event was such an exciting story.”
“Over a hundred people died,” said Giuseppe. “You got pretty lucky.”
“I’m not lucky,” I said, “because I haven’t got a hundred dollars. I need to go to Oregon.”
“Well,” said Giuseppe, “I haven’t got a hundred dollars.” He wiped his hands on his apron and felt around for a pen. “Give me your hand,” he said, and when I did he wrote a number on it. “That’s LaBrant. He knows me from way back. Maybe he could get it for you.”
“God damn it, Giuseppe,” I said. “I hadn’t washed that hand yet.”
“You’ll just have to wait a little longer,” he replied. “Now get out of here or Cormorant will come and hit your head with a broom.”
“I’m not afraid of Cormorant,” I said. “He’s an awful boss anyway. Have a little sympathy for the poor,” and here I affected a bent spine.
“That’s enough of that,” Giuseppe growled, and as I made my way out the back I heard him yell and the water running.
“Gypsy bitch,” he hollered as the door vacuumed shut. I laughed but it wasn’t true. Giuseppe had the most awful luck with knives. This would be the third fingertip he lost. Maybe only Italians believe in gypsies — and clumsy Italians at that.
It was a moron thing to do, give me a phone number — and here I didn’t have any money for the phone. On my way down the block I kicked a lamppost. I went into a nice hotel and used the courtesy phone while the front desk ladies glared.
LaBrant had a soft Bob Ross voice and told me where he lived. It was all the way across town and I was about to tell him I would see him in a few days when I saw a taxi driver I knew and dropped the phone. “Mehul,” I managed in a croak, as I fought with the door to the hotel. “Mehul, wait,” I yelled, but it was unnecessary; he was smoking a clove cigarette and watching me with an amused expression.
“Your superhero entrances,” he commented as I tripped over the curb, “leave much to be desired.”
“Mehul,” I replied breathlessly, “I need a ride.”
“I hope no one else does,” he said. “To where?”
He whistled. “How much cash have you got?”
“None,” I spat, feeling murderous. “I’m going there to get cash.”
“Henrietta,” he said, in soothing tones, “are you on drugs again? You can tell me. I smoke hash myself, you know, I’m not a square.”
“Mehul,” I replied in equally soothing tones, “I hope you like your testicles where they are. My apartment burned down, you know.”
“I know. I read about it in the paper.” He licked his lips and added, “That’s an ugly scar you’ve got.”
“Thanks. It’s my bad side.”
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
“I’m not lucky to be alive,” I nearly yelled, “because I haven’t got a hundred dollars.”
“Well, I won’t make a hundred dollars today,” said Mehul. “So don’t go looking at me.”
“I’ m not looking at you for anything, you dumb cluck,” I replied testily, “except a ride. Someone else has got it for me — maybe.”
“In Rogers Park,” he grumbled.
“Are you going to or not? Because it’s quite a long walk and I’d have to start now if I wanted to get there by Wednesday.”
“I’ll take you,” he said. “Let me call my wife.”
“Ask her does she have a hundred dollars,” I offered. “Then you could look for another fare.”
“You aren’t a fare,” Mehul said, “you leech,” and he pulled out his phone while I got into the stinky backseat of the taxi. Mehul was a god among men but also liked spicy noodles and ate them every day for lunch — in his cab. Unbeknownst to his employers there was usually an empty to-go box or two under the driver’s seat.
Mehul had humble beginnings and he told me about them as we drove. He emigrated at the age of five. His father was a doctor and bought a big house by Wrigley Field — to scare all the rich whities, Mehul said, and also because he thought he could rent rooms during important baseball tournaments. “That’s the way he said it — tournaments,” said Mehul with a smug smile. We turned a corner on a busy street and a cyclist yelled as she veered out of the way.
Mehul had been a tennis champion and graduated medical school with honors. He got married to a socialite with platinum blonde hair and poor manners who did as he wished and squirted out six babies, one after the other. “Bookshelf children,” Mehul always said, never attempting to clarify. He was disappointed — he had wanted seven. But after the most recent one her womb all but fell out.
When he dropped me off at the address I patted his lacquered head and reassured him that he would return to grace and complete his brood yet. “Go get your money,” he told me, waving his hand. “I’ve got to go take up post in front of the theater.”
LaBrant’s place was unassuming — brick — and as I knocked on the door I could hear a record playing somewhere inside and skipping.
“God damn you,” came a yell. “God damn you, Jimi Hendrix,” and the door opened and there was LaBrant, obese and heavily bearded with small pale lips and a chin like a puff pastry. He had rose-tinted glasses and was waving a joint like a conductor’s baton. “There’s nothing like archaic technology,” he greeted me, and I followed him in. “But sometimes I can see why it went out of style.” And he righted the record.
“CDs skip too,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “and in an uglier manner,” and he stuck the joint in the corner of his mouth while he bent with some effort to tie his shoes. “You got my number from Giuseppe, then? What did he tell you, that I could get you money?”
“Yes,” I said. “I told you on the phone.”
“God damn it,” said LaBrant. He gestured at an orange loveseat but I shook my head. “Giuseppe loves to do this. It’s because I walk around with a wad — he assumes I can peel one off for every Tom, Dick and Harry that needs it.”
“My apartment burned down,” I said.
“Yeah, I recognized you from the photo in the paper.”
“Please don’t tell me I’m lucky to be alive,” I said.
“I was actually going to mention your scar,” replied LaBrant, “but I get you. No one’s lucky to be alive, sister. Luck has nothing to do with it, dig? You just get it and you live it.”
“Yeah, but it’s better when you have money,” I said. I was exhausted. I sat down on the loveseat, which smelled like cat.
“How much do you need?” asked LaBrant.
“About a hundred dollars. Enough for a one-way bus ticket.”
“Shit,” said LaBrant, and toked thoughtfully for a minute. He sat down next to me on the loveseat with what I felt was an exaggerated bounce. I peeled my hospital slippers off and picked at the paint on my toenails. He let out a big belly cough and said, “I can’t get you a hundred dollars. I got a shipment coming in and I’m paying out of pocket, you know? I’m fucked until the money starts flowing.”
I gave him a wan smile.
“I can get you a bus ticket, though,” he added, “or at least a ride. You know how to drive?”
“Yes. For the most part.”
“Well, I got brothers driving all over.” He scratched his chin loudly. “But isn’t it kind of a bummer, being passed all around like a cheese tray?”
“It doesn’t much matter,” I said. “It’s a way to meet new people.”
“That it is.” He pinched the last little bit of the joint and stuck it in his shirt pocket. “Well, let me make a phone call. You want anything to eat?”
“No thanks,” I said. “I had breakfast.”
“Far out,” he said, hefting himself up and stretching. “I’ll be back. Make yourself comfortable.”
When the door clicked shut I ran to peek out the window and saw him heading for a pay phone. Next to the window was a smooth wooden box carved with dragons. When I opened it there was a smell of sandalwood. There were a lot of bills, mostly hundreds, each wadded into a messy ball, and underneath a neat row of balloons. I put one of the hundreds in my pocket and went to use the bathroom.
I was admiring LaBrant’s collection of High Times when I heard the door bang again. “Henrietta, you’re set. Just go to the station and ask for Mackey, give him my name and all. He’ll get you fixed up.”
“Thank you,” I called.
Back in the living room I started to put my slippers back on but thought better of it and stuffed them in my pocket instead.
“What are you getting in your shipment?” I asked.
“China white,” LaBrant replied from the kitchen. “If they don’t dick me around this time. Scallywags.”
He was making a ham sandwich.
“Well,” I said, “good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Henrietta. Take care of yourself, hey? Don’t go burning down any more buildings.”
I had half a mind to do just that to his. The shag carpet would have gone up real quick. But curiosity as to how he had arranged for me a bus ticket won out and I left as quietly as I could.
Intrigued? Read part 2 here.