Rihanna Will Set You Free, You Best Believe That

(photo by Chris B)

When she first saw him back-bent, huddled in the dark between the washing machines and the dryers, she gasped. She didn’t mean to. She regretted it. But you never expect to find a strange man in your basement. He was so much bigger than she was.

He didn’t move. He didn’t turn to face her. He stayed hunched and hidden. There was something about how he was curled-up there in the dark. It wasn’t like he was sleeping, or escaping a night on the streets. He also didn’t look like the junkies she’d seen nodded-out in the park. Nor did he look like the homeless men who fell into a drunken fetal nap. He looked like a hurt animal — a dog with a broken paw, a cat who’d unwisely drank from a pool of sweet green antifreeze. She could see he was no threat. He was wounded. So she approached him.

She didn’t turn on the lights. She set down the laundry basket. She smoothed her dress, and said, in her most big girl voice her tiny eight-year old lungs could manage, “Are you okay, mister?”

There was no response. She could hear him breathing. Short, shallow breaths, like he was pregnant and he was trying to use air to cool his pain.

“You hurt?” she asked into the darkness.

There was no response, other than labored breathing.

“You know I can see you. I know you ain’t no ghost. They’re all so lonely they either run when you see ’em, or else they’re mad they still here so they scare you. But you ain’t a ghost. I think you’re just hurt. Are you hurt, mister?”

His weight shifted. The metal side wall of the dryer groaned as it bent and then popped back into shape when he shifted his weight away. The dirt, sand, and soap crystals of the detergent, combined into a grit on the basement floor. He scratched it against the cement as he unfolded his legs and stood to his full height. He was taller than her granddad, but much thinner.

“I’ll go,” he said, his voice was flat as a Kansas highway and black as a Soul Train dancer. “You don’t need to call the police. I’mma leave.”

“Why would I call the police? Fuck the police. They trash anyway,” she said.

Her auntie had taught her to always speak her mind, to voice her truth, and from what she’d seen that was the truth of the police. But he didn’t expect this from a little girl, especially one as seemingly kind and curious as her. He laughed.

“Okay…that’s good to hear. Lemme just wash my hand in that sink and I’ll clear outta here.”

“How did you get in here anyway? That back door supposed to stayed locked. I don’t even know if anyone in the building has the key. The owner keeps it locked so people like you don’t get in.”

“I came in the same way you did.”

“You mean down the stairs?”

The man took his time turning on the faucet. He held his right hand with his left hand. He stood at the sink a moment as he worked out how he could turn on the faucet and where he could set his right hand where it would ache the least. She watched him but couldn’t see him well enough to her satisfaction; so she reached over and tugged the string for the overhead light — a single bare bulb.

“Sorry if that’s too bright, but I thought you might wanna see what you’re doing,” she said, as she walked over to the sink.

“Yeah, it’s a bit bright,” he said.

He was still working out how to turn the water on. He finally had a serviceable idea. He lowered himself to one knee. This put his shoulders slightly above the lip of the utility sink. It was old, multi-hued with all sorts of stains from its history. A soft and cool porcelain with a deep basin. He lifted his right hand and set his forearm across the edge, balancing it. He breathed through the pain.

“Jesus! What happened to your hand?” she asked, as she stared at it.

His right hand looked like the victim of an industrial accident. It looked like it owed money to a Russian oligarch. Or perhaps a fully-loaded semi truck had backed over his hand. It was purple and green with bruising, the skin was split open in places from the swelling, it oozed a yellowish puss where it wasn’t crusted with a patina of dried blood and thick early scabs.

“Looks bad, huh?” he asked.

“Who did that to you?” she asked, still staring at the mass of pulp he called his hand.

“Can you turn the faucet on for me…” he asked, controlling his breathing, and managing the spikes of pain from moving his hand around.

“Which do you want — hot or cold, or both, like sorta warm. I like it warm.”

“Let’s go with cold.”

She turned the faucet on and cold water splashed against the porcelain basin. She backed a few steps away as he stood back up to his full height. She was concerned about this wounded man but he was still a man and a stranger. So she kept her distance.

“I may scream a little bit, but don’t be scared, huh?” he said. And then eased his mauled right hand into the stream of cold water. He winced on contact. His shoulders rose with the pain. But he kept his hand in the cold. He didn’t scream.

The heat of pain and the sharpness of the cold water met right at his wounds. He knew he needed to clean it. He couldn’t risk infection. So he held it there, despite the throbbing and stinging ache. He thought about whatever took him furthest from his body — he imagined the island shack with its support beams sunken into the sand, his house on the ocean; he imagined the sea plane he planned to buy, parked out a short swim from his home just above the aquamarine waters; he imagined hoisting an icy cocktail in his right hand, clinking glasses, and then lifting that drink to his mouth, a moment to savor his criminal success. He imagined what would make all the pain worth it.

But none of those thoughts pulled him far enough from his body. He still felt the icy hot border of his skin, the thudding ache of his fractured bones, the tightness of the swelling. He wondered if he’d ever be able to hold a cocktail glass with that hand ever again.

“You okay?” she asked.

Her tiny voice punctured his South Seas fantasy.

“I–I will be.”

“What’s your name, mister?”

“You don’t need to know that.”

“Are you a bad man? Is that why they smashed your hand up like that?”

He hesitated to tell her the truth. He worried it might change her attitude towards him. He’d come to enjoy her company. She was unlike any child he’d ever been around. Absolutely fearless. And her fuck the police attitude suggested she wouldn’t judge him for being the sort of man he was.

“You could say that. People would say that. Yes, I’m a bad man.”

“I figured,” she said, proud of her junior detective skills.

“But I’ve never killed or raped anyone. Never.” He winced with pain, but it could’ve been at the thought. “Never hurt anyone who was weaker than me. But, yes, I’m a bad man.”

“My daddy was a bad man. His brothers––my uncles––they was all bad men, too. Two of ’em dead. The other one in prison. I think. Pretty sure.”

“What about your daddy? He in prison, too?” he asked, pretty sure he knew the answer. Then he learned how terribly wrong he was.

“No, he dead. He killed my mama and then himself,” she said, as if she were recounting a plot-line from a movie she’d seen.

“He was a real bad man. The police was after him. He thought my mama was gonna leave him, or snitch, or maybe he just wanted her to go out with him. I don’t know. I was only a little kid then.”

“How old are you now?” he asked. He noticed for the first time that he’d stopped focusing on the pain of his hand.

“I’m eight. I’ll be nine in September. That’s when we gonna move. So I can go to a new school. That’s why my auntie working so hard right now. She hustlin’ real hard.”

He was about to ask what her auntie did for a living, but he decided hustle hard was a good enough job description for him. He didn’t need to know the specifics of her hustle.

“What’s your name?” he asked, genuinely curious about this fearless little girl.

“My real name is Thérèse. My mama named me after a French saint. But no ever call me Thérèse. They all call me TiTi. You can call me TiTi. I don’t care.”

“If your mama named you Thérèse, then I’mma call you Thérèse. Don’t wanna upset your mama’s spirit. It’s a nice name. Don’t normally hear it pronounced like that. Thérèse.”

She liked how he said her name. It gave her a tiny lift of pride. She noted the feeling because she wasn’t accustomed to it. Adults rarely made her feel proud of herself. That’s not to say she wasn’t proud of herself. She was. Thérèse knew that she wasn’t like the other kids. And she was proud of that. She just wasn’t used to any adults making her feel proud.

“What’s your name, mister?” she asked.

“My real name is Halloween. But nobody calls me that. Everyone just calls me Lalo.”

The sound of the cold water splashing against the porcelain paired well with the bright happy sound of her laughter as it echoed in the cement and stonewalled basement.

“Wait. Your mama named you Halloween? Really? Were you born on Halloween?” she asked between her laughs.

He liked to hear her laugh. She didn’t seem to do anything halfway. Not if she could help it. She fully laughed.

“Oh you gonna laugh at my mama, huh? Just because my mama ain’t got the skill in names that your mama got don’t mean you need to laugh at my name.”

She seized up and stopped laughing. She didn’t ever mean to laugh at his mama.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t fooling on your mama. I just never met anyone named Halloween before. You gotta admit…your mama picked a funny name.”

“Like I don’t know it. I was just playin’ by the way, I don’t care if you laugh at my name. Like what the hell was they thinkin’? You know what my mama named my brother?”

“I don’t know…Christmas?”

“No. Worse. Mama named him Bernard.”

“Bernard?!” she said, and erupted into a paroxysm of laughter. High, happy, giggling laughter. “Why she name your brother Bernard?!”

“You know––he was a saint, too. Just like you and your name.”

“Yeah, but…St. Bernard. That’s a type of big ol’ goofy dog!” she continued laughing that way only a truly tickled child can.

“Yeah, yeah. True. My mama wasn’t like most people.”

“I can tell,” she said between gasps of laughter. “I’d like you to meet my boys, Bernard and Halloween.”

“Don’t remind me,” he said. “Please. I lived that shit.”

It surprised him how they’d reached such a genuine moment and how her laughter was helping his hand hurt less. He was sure of it. It wasn’t the cold water numbing his pain, it was her laughter fully distracting him from it.

“You have any other brothers or sisters?” she asked, hoping to be tickled again by his family history.

“Nope. Just me and Bernard,” he said, knowing it would be a disappointment.

“Okay. Then why did she name you Halloween? If you weren’t born on Halloween? Is it like her favorite holiday?”

As Thérèse’s laughter fell away, the pain had started to return to his mind. He concentrated hard on the stream of icy cold running down his throbbing hand and the shocks of pain that leapt up in waves from his fingers. He could feel his pulse in his fingertips. Each one. Each finger, each pulse.

“My mama…was an interesting woman, all right. Don’t make ’em like her. She was like one of those stamps they print upside down. A rare one. She’s gone now. Died a few months ago.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. We don’t hafta talk about her, I know how it is.”

“No, it’s fine. You ain’t said anything wrong. People die. It happens. You know how it is. I just hadn’t thought about her being gone, much. Ya know?”

“I was lucky that I was so young when it happened to me. When daddy killed mama I was there, but I was in another room so I don’t have no memory of it. Except the noise. And then I guess I crawled out there. That’s where they found me, curled up against my mama. I don’t remember that.”

“I’m so sorry that happened to you, lil sis.”

“I am, too,” she said. Entirely honest. “It’s okay, Lalo. People die, right?”

“I didn’t mean it like that. So flippantly.”

“What does that mean — flippantly?”

“Like, loosey-goosey, like, airy, or like, you don’t give a shit so you can have attitude about it.”

“Oh, yeah. Adults do that all the time. I hate that.”

“Me, too.”

“Are people looking for you, Lalo? Is that why you’re hiding down here? Or did they already find you and that’s why you hiding down here?” she asked, and stared at him, matter-of-fact, as if the question was a prelude to a second or third more serious follow-up question.

“Both. They found me. They did this to me. And I got away. Pretty sure they’re still looking for me. If I can avoid ’em, I’m walking outta here and never coming back. And ain’t no one gonna tell me shit. I’m almost free.”

“That sounds like the way to be,” she said, smiling up at him.

He both marveled at her sense of wisdom at such a young age, and he ached for how she’d come to know such truths of the world. Her world-weariness was not the put-upon exasperation of a college freshman who’s just discovered Nietzsche and Kant, Sartre and Rimbaud. Her existentialism, her wariness of humanity, they were handed to her by brutal unfairness. She got a degree in early childhood suffering.

“You don’t wanna be like me,” he said to her smiling face. “I’m running away. Because I hafta go. I fucked it all up. I lost my American privileges. They’ll never stop looking for me. Not just here, but anywhere I go. As long as their boss is alive. Or I am. You just don’t get to do what I did and then breathe the same air as a man like him. You don’t get to do what I did to him and walk the same Earth telling others how you fucked him.”

“Who’s him?” she asked, utterly enthralled that someone so mean was after her new friend.

Him is a very bad man. Him is not the kind of person you should ever want to meet. Him goes by the name Evgeny Krushenko. He’s what you call an international businessman. That’s what his card says.”

“But he a gangster, huh?”

“The worst kind. Doesn’t even have any honor, no code, just the savagery of the jungle, but released into the international business community. But I guess when you get to a certain level, they’re all like that. They all think the same. They have a price that they’ll kill for. They know it. They all gangsters once you get to a certain level.”

“Why he after you?”

“A very stupid thing. My brother’s fault.”

“You mean, Bernard? He was in on this, too?” she asked, a laugh crept into her voice when she said Bernard.

“It was all Bernard’s fault. That dumb motherfucker. May he rest in peace.”

“Oh. He dead, too?”

“Yeah, we have quite a few dead family members, you and I.”

“We do, huh?”

“We hafta look out for each other. People like us.”

She felt that small thrill of pride again. People like us was another thing she wasn’t used to hearing from an adult.

“Did that Ev–jenny guy kill your brother?”

“His men did, last year.”

“Wait, so your mama and brother died the same year?”

“Pretty sure Bernard dying is was sent her over the edge. Gave up after that. Just slipped off. She’d been battling her illness pretty good. Then she just stopped.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you, Lalo,” she said, imitating his condolences word for word. It was touching how she imitated him.

“Yeah, me, too,” he said.

The pain had come back. His hand was throbbing hard with each heartbeat. He lowered himself back down to one knee to see if keeping his arm higher than his heart might help reduce some of the pain.

“You hurting real bad, huh? You can’t go to a doctor ’cause they lookin’ for you, huh? When my auntie get home, maybe she can drive you to like a hospital a couple towns over.”

“No, I don’t want you, or your auntie, gettin’ mixed up in this. This is my bullshit to handle. These are really bad men. They won’t hesitate to hurt you. Especially if they think it’ll get me to do what they want. Probably still out there, driving around your neighborhood, looking for me.”

“What did you do to that Ev-jenny guy? You fuck his wife?”

“Don’t…don’t talk like that.”

He looked back over his shoulder at her. She’d sat down on the stairs to the basement. She was five, maybe six feet away. What a lucky man he’d have been if he had a daughter like her. She had those kind of eyes that don’t just look reveal that she’s smart but peer back at you with a brightness that hints at the universe of thoughts inside her head. She stared, wide-eyed, waiting, expecting an answer.

“Did I…fuck his wife? What would your auntie think if she heard you talking like that?”

“She wouldn’t say nothing. She knows she’s the one where I learned it.”

“Then I ain’t gonna scold you for it. The answer is no. I ain’t fucked his wife.”

“That’s good.”

“No, it’s not. ‘Cause…I fucked his girlfriend, instead.”

She laughed hard, and it echoed around them, like bouncing joy.

“No, it was bad. I mean, he didn’t care too much about his wife anymore. But me fucking his girlfriend? Now that pissed him off.”

“Of course, he wants to kill you then, huh?”

“No, well, yeah, partly that. That pushed him over the edge. But the real reason he wants me dead is I stole about four and a half million dollars from him.”

“Holy shit!! Lalo! You lying! You’re just messing with me,” she said, incredulous, yet wanting to believe him.

“I shit you not. I swear. Hand to God. I stole — I don’t know, exactly, I still have to fence it all — but I’d say at least worth two million or so, for all of it.”

“What’s that: fence? You said you have to fence it…what’s that mean?”

“The black market. When you steal something you have to find someone else to broker a deal with a new buyer. That person — they’re called a fence. I have one, well two, lined-up. His stuff is listed at least 4, maybe 5 million. What I stole.”

“What did you steal? Like diamonds and rubies and emeralds and stuff?” her eyes lit up at the dream of stolen treasure.

“No, he doesn’t have that kinda taste. I stole his artwork. Paintings, mostly. But all of it.”

“He had 5 million dollars in art in his home? Wow. You stole that from…a Russian gangster? You so stupid. They gonna kill you!” she said, and immediately started laughing again.

He knew exactly why she was laughing. He would laugh, too, if it wasn’t him. But hearing her laughter did sweeten the air of the basement, and for another moment he stopped focusing on himself, he let her laughter carry him away from his pain and shame and embarrassment and his crumbling life as a bad man. And it all became funny. He laughed, too.

Who the fuck steals millions from a Russian gangster…and then also sleeps with his girlfriend?!

Shooting yourself in the head with a gun is a less certain form of suicide. If you really wanna guarantee you die: fuck around and publicly shame a gangster. And then, fuck his woman. He will kill you. The thought of it was just so stupid to him. He’d been wronged, sure. He had access to the home, that was their mistake. He got them back for his brother. But there was no way he would get away with it. He went too far. He made it personal, as a man. And that arrogance doomed him. Now he’d be humbled for it. He knew it was coming. Out there, hunting for him in the night. And it made him laugh. What he’d really fucked was: his whole life.

The basement echoed with both their laughter — her high bright laugh and his low rumbling baritone — as dark as their shared humor was, it was a light moment for both of them.

“You’re right. They are so…gonna kill me…” he said, between laughs.

“Yeah they are…you so…stupid,” she laughed in unison with him, and at him.

“TiTi! TiTi! Who you down there laughing with?! You better’ve started that laundry!” the voice shattered their moment.

It was like being woken from sleep with a splash of ice water to the face. They’d settled into such a nice moment. It felt like they could go on like that, the two of them laughing at Lalo’s arrogance, his stupidity, his coming doom. It felt good to laugh, for both of them. They were two people who desperately needed to have a laugh at Death, together they could. Lalo had a pretty good guess who was shouting down at them.

“Shit…my auntie…don’t say anything…” she whispered before she twisted around and shouted back-up the stairs, “Auntie, I just got down here. I’m putting it in now! I be right up!”

“Who you down there with? That you Mr. Copeland?!”

“No, it ain’t Mr. Copeland. He new to the building!”


“It’s okay, auntie. He not a bad man. We’s just talking a second. I be right up once I put this in. I promise. Like, one minute!”

“You better. And if you don’t I’m coming back down here with my pistol. You hear me?”

Thérèse knew her auntie didn’t mean the pistol was for her. She was threatening whoever the man was in the basement with her niece. She also knew her auntie trusted her sense of people enough that she figured Thérèse, who almost never opened up to anyone, must have a good sense about this guy.

“I said, you hear me?!”

Thérèse hadn’t responded fast enough, “Yes, auntie! I hear you. I be right up.”

They both could hear her auntie’s high heels as she ascended the two flights of stairs up to where their apartment was on the third floor.

“Once I put this laundry away, you’re gonna come with me. I’mma ask my auntie to make you some dinner.”

He was touched. It was the first truly kind and selfless thing anyone had offered him in so long it almost made him cry as soon as she said it. Instead, he steeled himself, he focused on the pain of his smashed hand, and said, “No, that’s okay. You’ve already done enough for me. If you could just turn this faucet off, I’ll be on my way. I need to see if I can make it to a hotel, or hospital, or something.”

She stood up on the bottom stair. “You’re coming to dinner. Once I put the laundry in. I wasn’t asking, Lalo.”

He pushed the fingernails of his unbroken left hand into the skin of his palm to stop the tears from coming. Pain to prevent tears. It worked.

“You need to eat. My auntie a good cook. And we have groceries right now.”

“Okay,” he said, his voice quivered enough that she heard it, “Thank you.”

(photo by Jenn Cooper)

The record needle dropped into a familiar groove, the vinyl began to sing. A woman’s voice. Brassy, she growled, she ached. Lalo listened as Rihanna told an unnamed partner that they needed her, but they should’ve known she was savage. Fuck your white horse and a carriage.

Seated alone at the dinner table, Lalo curled his attention around every syllable Rihanna sang. He noticed how his heartbeat was causing his hand to throb in pain right in time with the song. He was aching at 111 bpm.

“You like greens?!” she said. Her back was to him. Her words echoed off the wall, bounced back over the stovetop, fell past her shoulder and found their way into his ear, where they turned into a question to be answered.

“Yes, ma’am,” Lalo said.

“I prefer Candi,” she said.

“How did you get that name…Hurra Candi? When you said it, I didn’t know if I should call you Hurra, or the full Hurra Candi.”

“Just call me, Candi. That’s fine. But do you like greens?”

“Candi, I love ‘em,” he said, trying to be social and meet their act of kindness with an openness he’d didn’t typically offer to others. It distracted him from his hand, somewhat.

“I don’t hear no water!” Candi yelled, without turning around.

A scant moment later, a tiny voice shouted back from down the hall, “I’m getting in now!”

It was followed by the twisting whine of an old knob turning and the sound of a faucet coming to life with a rush of water that fell fast and splashed against the basin of the bathtub. Soon water gathered in the tub and the noise grew softer as water splashed against water and the tub filled.

Over the noise of drawing her bath, Thérèse shouted once more, “I’m getting in!”

“Dinner gonna be ready in twenty-five minutes, you set your watch timer, want you out in your bathrobe and at the table in twenty-four minutes. You hear me?!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

He stared at the back of her head. It was a twist of tracks, extensions that needed some attention. They were held up in a headscarf, just a few peaked out in gaps where the scarf was gathered and tied in the back. Reminded him of his sister’s head on a Saturday afternoon before she got ready. It was a vulnerability in the presentation of this rather formidable auntie.

She had not looked kindly on him when she let them into their apartment. She was suspicious of him, as she had every right to be. And she also saw that he was suspicious of her. She could see in his eyes his mind formulating the question: is she a she, or a he? A tiresome question for her. But expected from a man like him.

And he sat there wondering if he was right, if he’d guessed correctly Candi’s gender, but he was at least a considerate enough guest not to ask outright. Instead, he just wondered, as if it was any of his business to know.

“C’mon, you’re coming with me,” she said. Candi spun around and faced him for the first time since she’d let him into her apartment.

“You want me to come with you-“

“You heard me. Now, c’mon, get up and walk with me. I need to check on the laundry.”

“But I — do we — “

“I insist,” she said, her eyes were as certain as her tone.

“Okay,” he said. He pressed himself up from the table with his one good hand, as he cradled his right hand against his body. He held it there like he had an invisible sling.

Candi stood with her apron on, still holding the wooden spoon she’d been stirring the greens with, looking like a cross between a Southern chef and the Statue of Liberty. She held it with a hint of malice.

“After you,” she said.

Lalo stood a few inches taller than her at full height. But at the moment he stood somewhat hunched, he curled around his hand as he clutched it against his body. This meant they now stood practically at eye level.

He peered into her eyes, a long moment. He couldn’t read her at all. Her tone of voice was flat with him. But caring and parental with Thérèse. Her body language was neither aggressive, nor defensive, just on-guard. Ready. Her eyes held no obvious clues what she was up to. None he could find. He just hoped she saw in his eyes that he meant her and her niece no danger.

“Okay, I’ll lead the way,” he said and took a step toward the door.

She followed him. It took a moment for him to grasp the door handle, turn it with his left hand, and then pull it open as he cleared the way for the door to sweep open. She offered him no assistance. She waited for him to step out of the apartment. With an awkward spin move, he held the door open with his foot, twisted around it to step across the threshold. He saw that Candi was still holding the wooden spoon.

They took the elevator down to the lobby. Neither spoke as the little box slid down the shaft. Gears whined as they were lowered, slowly, so terribly slowly. Lalo decided he would not be the first to speak. Candi had decided she had nothing to say. And so, they made their slow descent in awkward silence.

When the elevator doors slid open, Candi stepped out first. Lalo followed her.

At the open doorway to the basement, she let him pass. But he hesitated. Lalo remembered how steep the stairs were the first time. He took a breath to steady himself. He eased his body back and took the first step down, careful that if he fell, he fell backwards rather than forwards. Candi followed him.

His feet scratched against the grit of the basement floor. She yanked on the pull cord and the bare bulb once again illuminated the darkness of the basement. The washing machines were still in their spin cycle, extracting the last remaining moisture from the clean clothes. They rocked on a steady rhythm.

“What’s your deal?” Candi said to his back.

Lalo stood in a familiar spot, he laid his wrist across the cool porcelain lip of the wash basin sink.

“You mean my hand? It’s — it’s broken,” he said, as if that would suffice.

“You’re whole deal, not your hand. Where did you meet my niece? How do you know her?”

“No, those are good questions to ask. It is weird. I told her I should stay here–”

“You live in the building? You a new tenant?” Candi said, her tone still flat as possible.

“I, um, when she said that — that wasn’t true. I’m not new to the building. She was covering for me. I’m not a threat. I swear,” he said, speaking directly to the issue rather than cat around it.

“I’ll be the judge of that, Mr. Halloween. What kinda name is that, anyways?”

“Mama thought it was cute, I guess,” Lalo said.

“Halloween is your government name, for real? Why would any mama do that to a child?”

“Don’t really know. Anytime a stranger asked her, she always made up a different story. So I don’t even really know myself. She was just like that.”

“Well, go on, mama,” she said. It was the first instance her guard seemed to fall, a little. “But you ain’t answered my first question: how did you two meet? You and my niece?”

“Look, I appreciated the offer of dinner. Tried to turn it down, told TiTi it was a bad idea. I ain’t one of those. I don’t strike up friendships with eight-year-old girls. That ain’t me. I was just down here hiding. She found me. We got to talking. She told me about your…sister?”

The washing machine’s motor stopped spinning, but the clothes continued to spin as the machine shuddered its way to a slow, eventual stop.

“She told you about that, huh?” Candi paused, she couldn’t help it, the mention of her dead sister came as such a surprise. She was usually much better at keeping any thoughts of her from crossing her mind. “Guess she trusts you a lot then.”

“Guess so.”

“Who you hiding from him? They still looking for you? They gonna come here?”

“No. Well, yes, they probably still looking for me,” Lalo didn’t want to lie to her about the danger he was in, and thus he posed to them. As much as he wanted dinner, getting them mixed up in his stupidity was not something he wanted to do.

“I should probably just go. You guys — you’re very kind. You’re good people. I appreciate how you’re raising her. She’s gonna be an amazing woman someday. I should just go and leave y’all to it.”

“Who all looking for you?” the flat tone returned to Candi’s words.

“Bad men. Real bad men. I was lucky to get away the first time. I did a stupid thing.”

“Cops. Feds. Gangster shit. Who looking for you?”

“Russian gangster shit.”

“Oh shit.”

“I know,” he said, exhaling pain and embarrassment at the same time.

“But they don’t know you’re in this building, do they? Don’t lie to me,” she said.

“I don’t know what they know. But I been here a few hours, and they ain’t come in yet.”

The washing machine finally died away completely. The basement was silent. Except for their breathing. His labored and pained. Hers cool and even. Both of them were thinking about the other. Wondering what comes next. He wanted to go, he wanted to stay, he wanted dinner, he wanted to bounce and leave them alone. He couldn’t think straight. She hated him for making her care. She had a long track record of reasons why she shouldn’t ever trust a hurt man. Hurt people hurt people, especially hurt men. But TiTi never liked anyone. She read people better than a preacher reads the Bible. And with more insight. She saw something in him, something decent. But some gangster shit? That wasn’t anything to bring into their tiny world. She hated that once again she was considering risking her safety, and TiTi’s safety, to save some man. Another broken man. She exhaled, and prayed to Beyoncé that this man would be different.

“Well, you said you like greens. So, you stay for dinner. Then you can find somewhere else to hide that ain’t my apartment or this basement. We good?”

Lalo looked at her, once again hoping she could see in his eyes what he couldn’t find in hers.

“We good,” he said.

“Okay, then.”

Candi yanked open the dryer door and let it swing open and slam against the machine next to it with a high metallic crash. She pulled up the washing machine lid and lifted the limp damp clothes out in armfuls and stuffed them into the dryer. She tossed in a pair of dryer sheets, slammed the door shut. After a wave of a payment card, she pressed some buttons, chose her settings and the dryer rumbled to life. It turned over with that familiar whump, whump, whump sound of clothes still heavy with water.

She stood back up and righted herself with a dancer’s flourish, “Hope you eat hog, because in my house we serve pork. That fine with you? Not like that’s really a question.”

“Yes, ma’am. I eat pork,” he said.

“That’s good. Well, you coming?” Candi said and stomped her way up the rickety wooden stairs.

“Yes, ma’am,” Lalo said.

(pic by Jenn Cooper)

Eating left-handed was awkward and slow. Lalo felt embarrassed and frustrated in equal measure. Luckily, he had the throbbing waves of pain to distract him from his embarrassment and his frustration. He kept his right hand propped on the table. It was a hot mass. The swelling was so severe it felt like his skin would rupture if someone gave him a firm handshake. He concentrated on shoving the fork deep into the pile of greens, stabbing at his food to secure it on the tines of the fork, and then lifted each bite into his mouth with an uncertain bend of his left elbow.

Thérèse watched him eat. She felt bad for him, and thought it was kind of funny looking. He looked like someone had taught a pelican to use a fork. But she made sure not to snicker or laugh whenever his food dropped back onto his plate, missing his open mouth. That part was sad and not as funny as him struggling. She tried to distract herself with the other thing that was on her mind.

“You gonna let me go with you tonight? I don’t have school tomorrow,” Thérèse said, between bites of food.

Candi looked across the table, her eyes on her niece. She chewed, finishing before she answered.

“Where you going?” Lalo said, and immediately regretted asking the question.

Her eyes shifted seamlessly from her to him. Still she did not speak.

“She going to her contest. And this week, I think she gonna win,” Thérèse said.

“He don’t need to know all that,” Candi said, speaking up before she was fully done chewing. Her words rushed out. The tone of them changed the room. The levity fell away. It was replaced by quiet, and the sound of Lalo clumsily scraping at his plate.

“I was just thinking, if you go, and I go, we could drop him off at a hospital, out by — ”

“You thinking a little too much, if you ask me. First. And second, we already talked. Mr. Halloween’s gonna eat with us. Then he gonna find himself a place to sleep tonight. A safe place. That ain’t here. And ain’t with us,” Candi said, then returned her attention to her plate.

No one spoke. Everyone just ate. It was a delicious dinner, Candi still could make a mean plate of greens. Since it was getting close to New Years, she’d also made black eyed peas and rice. Everything had chunks of pork in it, for seasoning.

“What if I insist?” Thérèse said, the first to break their silence.

“Excuse me?” her auntie said, with all the attitude an auntie can muster.

“I mean, like you, the way you insist. When you know you right, and you don’t want to hear any argument from me. What if like that I said — we need to take him to a hospital,” she said, not defiant, but childishly righteous.

“He wanna go to the hospital, he can take himself. His legs aren’t broken, just his hand.”

“But they’re looking for him.”

“Look, it’s fine,” Lalo said, he’d had enough of them arguing about him like he was a houseplant that needed to be moved to a sunnier spot.

“I’m fine. Let’s just enjoy our dinner. After we’re done, I’ll…I’ll take myself to the hospital.”

Everyone knew he was lying, including Thérèse. But no one said anything. Instead, they ate.

And again Thérèse was the first to break the silence, “But before he goes, can we do a fashion show, can he see what you going as tonight? It’s so good! Do you wanna see it, Lalo?”

This was a tough one for Candi. She wanted to dismiss the idea outright because it was not part of her plan. But if she were fully honest with herself, she hesitated to dismiss the idea, just long enough to hear how Lalo responded. She wanted to hear if he wanted to see her in her outfit or not. A performer’s weak point — the audience’s wishes.

“I’m kinda at a loss, because I don’t wanna pry, but I can’t answer that question unless I know more,” he said, waiting and hoping that Candi would wave the idea away like a nuisance, a mosquito on a summer evening. But she didn’t.

“You like Rihanna?” Thérèse asked.

“Of course. Anyone who doesn’t like Rihanna isn’t someone you want to know,” Lalo said.

“She is…going as…Rihanna at the Met.”

“The 2017 Met gala outfit, if you’re aware of which one that is,” Candi said, finally speaking up, now that it was clear she did have Lalo’s curiosity, that her audience was present.

“I don’t know that one, exactly,” Lalo said, predictably.

Candi laughed, “Oh, I didn’t — you woulda surprised me if you did.”

“It’s a-mazing!” Thérèse said, like a pint sized hype man. “You have to see it.”

“That’s not up to me, that’s up to your auntie,” he said, his eyes shifted to meet Candi’s, as he finished speaking.

“That’s…fine. Don’t imagine it’ll hurt anyone if we have one tiny lil’ fashion show. But you’ll have to wait awhile, because Peak Black Beauty gonna take me a minute. But it really comes together then.”

“That’s true of everything that’s worth waiting for,” he said.

“Shame you can’t see her at the club tonight — but you will get to see the winning number, so I guess that’s good enough,” Thérèse said, with a lift in her voice.

“Stop it,” Candi said.

“Stop what?”

“Stop it. I know what you’re doing. You two are not coming to the club,” Candi said, but did not sound nearly as resolute or hard-headed as she did earlier.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go to that kind of club anyway. I don’t go that way,” Lalo said, his intention harmless, but his implication hit the air like a record scratch.

“What do you mean ‘that kind of club?’ You mean…a gay bar?” Candi said, her words arched like a cat’s back.

No one was eating. They sat staring at each other. Thérèse stared at her auntie. Candi stared at Lalo, waiting for his answer. Lalo stared at his food, but lifted his eyes to meet Candi’s stare.

“I’m not a — ”

“You’re not a what?” Candi said, her words pounced, a stalking jungle cat.

“I’m not a homophobe, or nothing like that. I like the gays, just fine, When y’all is with your own, and I’m with my own. I mean, I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, no one should get to hurt you, or like, not let you have wedding cakes, or whatever — ”

“How kind of you. Let them eat cake. That historic phrase sure is known for its kindness and compassion. Are you fucking kidding me with this, Mister Halloween?”

The way she pronounced his name, she made it sound more ridiculous than usual. It was rivaled only by the sing-song of schoolyard bullies. Hal-low-weeeen! It stung in those same old places, hit those childhood wounds, and surprised him. It was so basic an insult. His name.

“I’m not. I’m not like that. I don’t know how to say it the right words. But I’m fine with you guys, I just don’t want to be in your bars. I don’t want to lead anyone on, or have my butt grabbed, you know.”

“No, I don’t know. You come into my home––a notorious drag queen of international acclaim and renown––I make and serve you greens, against my better judgment, and then as you eat said greens you spit poison in my face, at my goddamn dinner table? No, no you do not. You better apologize for what you just said. Or you can put that fork down and get the fuck up out of here and take you broken ass on down the road.”

Thérèse had shifted her eyes from her auntie to Lalo. She knew how her auntie felt about homophobia. She didn’t need to watch her to find out the answer to that. She wanted to know how Lalo could make it right — he was saying everything wrong. She wanted to help him, but she knew that wouldn’t satisfy or quell her auntie’s anger.

“Look, I don’t care about men pretending to be women, or becoming women, or men dressing up in dresses, parading around and doing whatever. I really don’t. I’m sorry if it came across that way. I ain’t one of those people. I mean, at first, I didn’t like how the world is getting all gay––I mean, like, how it’s all in your face all the time now. I mean, like, two homies kissing on they mouths on tv. That shit used to shock me. I ain’t gonna lie. That was shocking. But look, I got used to it. I did. I don’t even wince anymore.”

“How big of you. Love doesn’t make you wince.”

“No, I mean, seeing it. I mean, it being shoved in my face. Like, I wouldn’t even say that anymore. It’s just what it is. It’s how it is now. I’m fine with that.”

“Glad you’re fine with it.”

“I keep saying the wrong things. What I mean is––the others, the ones who were so graphic about it, like, “Yeah, you see this! Get used to it!”––that was shocking, that shit seemed aggressive. I just mean them, I mean them others, I don’t mean you.”

“You do mean me. I am those others. They are me. You mean me. If I found love, you’d be happy to tell me you no longer would wince,” Candi said, her voice was below flat. It was cratering.

She was hurt, and it showed in her voice. Even if her face remained implacable, her voice couldn’t hide her pain. She’d let him in, she’d trusted him, she’d made a man dinner for chrissakes, and he’d done it. He’d hurt her. Just like she knew he would. He made her feel like a freak in her own home. But he wouldn’t wince, though.

No one ate. The unfinished plates sat before them and cooled.

The tiny peacekeeper spoke up, once again, first to break the now pained silence.

“Auntie, I don’t think he meant what he said. I heard what he was saying. It came out real bad, but he didn’t mean what he said. I’m sorry he hurt your feelings.”

“Don’t do that! I told you that. Don’t you dare apologize for anyone else. Don’t ever apologize for someone else’s ignorance. Especially a man. Don’t you do that, baby girl. He a grown man, he knows what he said. And now we know what’s in his heart,” Candi said. Her words like her hurt were completely unmasked.

“She’s right. Don’t apologize for me, TiTi. I know what I said. Candi, I’m sorry. I won’t say a lot because I keep saying everything wrong. I like you. I want you to be happy. I want you to find love. And if you wanna make out with some dude right in front of my face, I want that for you. I want you to wear a dress, or whatever, or become a woman, if that’s what you wanna do. I don’t really care what you — I mean, I do really care what you do. As long as you happy, and you ain’t getting hurt, I want that. Whatever that is. And I’m sorry I didn’t know better before. I am.”

No one ate. Eyes shifted around the table. Thérèse looked at Lalo, he looked back at her, his eyes an open question if what he said would make everything okay again. Her bright eyes offered no clear answer. They both shifted their attention to Candi. She sat staring down at her food.

Once she could feel both of their eyes on her, she lifted her fork and dragged it through the greens, pushed it into the black eyed peas and rice, lifted that mix of flavors up to her mouth, and then paused before taking the bite.

“Y’all better eat up, your food’s gonna get cold.”

She let her anger drain away with the satisfaction of her well-cooked greens and beans and rice. She exhaled her hurt and then swallowed the bite of food.

“I forgive you,” Candi said.

The words surprised her, she still hadn’t made up her mind to say it when she heard herself offering her acceptance of his apology.

“Thank you,” he said, careful to limit his response, and to let the bad moment pass away.

(photo by Jenn Cooper)

The dishes remained on the table, meanwhile, Thérèse and Lalo sat on the couch in the living room of the undersized apartment. Each leaned against an arm of the couch, waiting. Thérèse folded the fresh laundry while they waited.

“She’s done Eartha Kitt, and Diana Ross, Beyoncé, she did Cher once, and Madonna a few times, she did Dolly Parton last Halloween — on your day,” Thérèse laughed at the reminder. A child’s joke.

“Okay, which was your favorite?”

“Oh, it’s always Rihanna. Auntie’s Rihanna is second only to Ms. Fenty herself.”

“She says that a lot, huh?” he said. “You sound like your auntie.”

“Yeah. Because, in this house, we stan a black queen,” Thérèse said, sounding every bit like her auntie. “Rihanna is baddest bitch who ever graced the Earth with the pressure of her high heels on its back. She is…her excellency…Robyn…Rihanna…Fenty.”

“Well then,” he said, the amusement sounding in his voice.

“Auntie says one day I’ll understand how lucky I am to grow up in a world with Rihanna. She say, right now I have no idea what Rihanna means to drag queens and the fags, like her, and all the little black boys who dream of being drag queens when they grow up, and for all the little black girls, like me, who see her and we all know we can do whatever we want and be smart and beautiful and sexy, all at the same time, just like her.”

“She’s right,” Lalo said. “Smart and beautiful and sexy, all at the same time.”

The words tumbled around inside his mind like laundry. He bent forward, lifted a pair of leggings, woman-size, and tried to carefully fold them with just his left hand. His right hand was still throbbing with pain timed to his heartbeat, but he thought folding laundry might distract him. He heard her giggle and turned.

“What?” he said.

“Not like that. You don’t fold those like that. She likes to roll ’em up, so there’s no fold lines. Here, hand them to me. You can’t do that with just one hand.”

Lalo handed Thérèse the leggings. She let them unfurl, and then with competent practiced hands she held them up. She let gravity do its work. And then carefully, she rolled from the top down, from waist to ankles. He watched her as she rolled the leggings for her auntie, and thought it was a funny little tender moment. It reminded him of some Little House on the Prairie shit, with them sitting there tending to the laundry after a satisfying home-cooked meal, waiting for her auntie to get ready for Saturday night. It was very much a homey scene. Just more homie, than little house.

Candi had watched them for a couple minutes through the space between her sliding bedroom doors. It was an old apartment and her bedroom lacked any true door. Instead she had two magnificent sliding doors that felt very theatrical for entrances or exits. She liked that. They also didn’t shut all the way, which left a tiny gap she could peer through and watch them as they folded laundry.

She could see he was indeed not a bad man. A confused man. An insensitive man. A poorly-educated man. A hurt, broken man. But he was trying, at least he could say that about himself. And he did seem to be a genuinely good person. She watched as he stood up and crossed the living room.

Lalo bent at the waist. With just his left hand he carefully flipped the record, and then replaced the needle with a delicate touch. When he stood back up, his body stuttered. A series of tiny jerks. Then he locked still. He was looking out the window, down at the street. Something frightened him.

The doors slid open at the same time, “What is it? Is it them — the ones looking for you?”

He didn’t turn his attention from the window, “Yes.”

His back to them, his breathing visibly changed, his shoulders lifted and fell in arrhythmic pulses of fear.

“Shouldn’t you get back from the window?” Candi asked.

“Too late, they already crossed the street,” he said.

“Going which direction?”

“This way. Coming this way.”

“They see you?”

“There’s no way. They were already crossing the street when I saw them, and they didn’t look up. Probably going door-to-door at every building on this block.”

“They’d do that?” Candi asked.

“They do when they want to find someone badly enough,” he said, his shoulders fell again.

“You look beautiful,” Thérèse said, interrupting their conversation.

Lalo spun around and his jaw fell when he caught sight of her. It was like Rihanna was in the tiny apartment living room with them, teleported in from the Met gala back in 2017. Hurra Candi stood still and let their eyes feast on the dripping glamour.

“You think so? This ol’ thing?” Candi said with a winking laughing tone in her voice.

“You. Are. So. Gonna. Win,” Thérèse said, her eyes swimming in all the decadent beauty.

“You truly are…a vision,” Lalo said, his words as honest as a deathbed confession.

“Why, thank you,” Candi said, the smile evident in her voice. “What are we gonna do about your friends? I can’t have them messing up my night.”

“No, that would be a crime,” Lalo said, his sarcasm sharp.

“I know what we can do,” Thérèse said.

The adults both knew immediately what the girl’s plan was.

“Um, no. If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking — ” Lalo started to say but was interrupted.

“It might be your only hope,” Candi said.

Lalo spun on his heels, he needed to check if Candi was kidding or not. See it with his own eyes. She wasn’t.

“They ain’t gonna wanna fuck with a couple drag queens, trust!”

He stared at her, long and hard. He saw finally what he’d been looking for this whole time. He could see what she was thinking. And she thought they could get away with it.

(photo by Marc Schiller)

He mentally calculated how much time they’d have. Thérèse had told him there were four apartments on each floor. They were on the third floor. He guessed a minute and half, per apartment. The men hunting him down knew what they were looking for. That look of guilt and fear that told them the person was hiding someone in their apartment. None of the neighbors would have it. Fear, sure. But not both, guilt and fear. Twelve to fifteen minutes and they’d be at their door. He hoped Candi would finish his make-up faster.

He could feel Thérèse situate the wig on his head and straighten it with her tiny efficient hands. He tried not to move much. They’d draped a heavy fake mink stole over his right arm and shoulder, not quite a sling but something to distract from the swollen mass of bruises and split skin he called his right hand. He wasn’t sure it would work, but it was all they had. There was no way any of Candi’s gloves would fit. It was painful enough just wrapping the stole around his arm.

He guessed they had another five minutes left before they heard a heavy fist pound at that knock-knock-knock on the door. He could see massive, nauseating waves of pain on the horizon, coming for him. He just hoped he could ignore the pain, glide through the moment, pretending like he was fine, and happy, and gay.

His mental calculation had them down to two minutes before the knock. Candi stepped back, considered her work. Her face said something wasn’t quite right with his. She leaned back in and worked on his lips.

“It doesn’t need to be perfect, just make sure I don’t look like me,” Lalo said.

“Oh you don’t look like you, that’s for sure!” Thérèse said. She smiled at him.

He could see she wasn’t aware how much danger they were in. She knew these were bad men coming to their door, but she didn’t really know what that meant. He regretted ever speaking to her. He regretted that Candi ignored her instincts and experience and had him come back up for dinner. He regretted his weakness, that he had let her let him in. He regretted that he’d brought this danger to their home. He didn’t want to let the little girl know how dangerous these men were, or how this might be some of the last moments of her little life. Instead, he pushed those thoughts from his head long enough that he could smile back at her. An honest last smile. Maybe.

“Good, as long as I don’t look myself. I think we’re ready to go then,” he said.

“Go? Go where?” Candi asked, as she continued to examine the job she’d done with his makeup.

“Your contest, the gay bar, or whatever — the club. Grab your keys.”

“Oh, you think we’re going out there with you? I thought about it more, and we don’t need to go with you, if you’re…” she whispered, “…disguised.”

He hadn’t thought of that. Of course. Why would they need to go? He could step out of their apartment on his own now. And that way, at least, he wouldn’t be risking their lives. Just his. Maybe his disguise would fool the gangsters looking for him, maybe not. But if he died, shot down in some crummy apartment building stairway, dressed in drag, his mascara running, his blood ruining his foundation, then so be it. He’d earned that fate. He’d been stupid. He deserved a stupid death for what he’d done. He sighed. How had he gotten here? Well, he’d fallen for every macho trip. His ego insisted.

“No, yeah, you right. I don’t need y’all to go,” he said. “Don’t know what I was thinking. I better get going, though, before they knock on the door. How do I look? Is my wig straight?”

He looked more earnest than probably ever before in his life. He looked well put together. Candi had worked a miracle in under ten minutes. He could enter a drag contest and he wouldn’t win, but he damn sure wouldn’t be laughed off the stage. If they had thirty minutes more they could fixed him up where he might actually take third place. Looking at him Canid was proud, and she was scared. For him. Everyone in the room was.

“We have to go with him,” Thérèse said.

Lalo wished she hadn’t said it. He wished he argued with her. But he didn’t. Fear paralyzed his ability to ignore a better plan than him walking out there alone dressed in drag. They might make him. They might see past the eyeliner and contouring to see the man underneath. But they definitely wouldn’t be looking for two drag queens and their eight-year-old girl. The bigger the distraction, the more likely it would work to save his life. He needed them. And he hated that he knew that was true, but he didn’t know how to say it.

“We don’t have to go with him, either,” Candi said.

He wanted to agree with her. He tried, “She’s right. You two don’t need to — ”

“You go out by yourself and they might take two looks at you, but we go out there together, they won’t look twice. They’ll be laughing to themselves,” Thérèse said.

Knock, knock, knock. They heard it. But it didn’t rattle their doorframe. Loud as it was, it was likely coming from their neighbor’s door across the landing.

Lalo’s eyes searched Candi’s. Thérèse’s looked up at her auntie. They both waited for her to speak.

“If he ain’t come up and fix that goddamn faucet tomorrow, I’mma call a plumber my damn self. And they can pay for it. There ain’t no way that it’s legal to make a person shower in ice cold freezing water, for two weeks, that’s cruel and inhumane — Oh, hello!” Candi laid into the surprise in her voice.

The men stood on the landing at the end of the hallway, waiting at her neighbor’s door. Neither men replied. They were both dressed in well-tailored tracksuits. Their Jordans were spotless, practically gleaming in the low light of the hallway. Their haircuts matched, short and brushed forward. Their faces were equally doughy, pale. One had a broken nose. The other had a thin beard wrapping around his chin line to give his potato face some shape. Their eyes small, close together and mean.

Candi led the way. Behind her, holding her hand, was Thérèse. Lalo slammed the apartment door shut and then caught up to them, where they’d frozen in place.

“Are you friends of Ms. Lopez?” Candi asked, in a high sing-song voice.

Neither men answered.

“I think she down in Miami at her cousin’s. But I don’t know, she may be back now.”

The words fell away after they echoed and bounced around in the hallway and landing of the building. No response.

Thérèse reached out and pressed the button for the elevator. It lit up. The tiny box lifted up from where it sat three floors below and made the slow scraping climb up the shaft to where they waited.

Lalo knew better than to avoid their eyes. He knew that if he were stuck in this moment legitimately, he would stare at men like that. He would look at them long enough to recognize that they were not to be fucked with and then he would look away so as not to invite a primate response of anger and violence.

He went through each of those steps. He looked long at them, searching their eyes but not looking to see if they recognized him. He put that thought out of his head so it didn’t show in his eyes. Instead, he looked at them as if he was trying to place them. When they continued to stare back at him, in his most feminine way he could imagine, Lalo acted overwhelmed by their rock-hard masculine toughness, and then looked away. It was the greatest performance of bravery he’d ever done in his whole life.

The men stood, silent as a stone garden. Staring back at them.

And then the unexpected happened. Ms. Lopez opened the door to her apartment. Both men’s heads swiveled to concentrate on the little old woman in the open doorway.

“Hey, Ms Lopez!” Candi yelled in a friendly lilt. She didn’t hesitate when the elevator dinged. As the doors opened she picked right back up in the middle of her rant about the plumber.

“And well, anyways, it’s like I said, if my super thinks I’mma wait for his busted ass to come up here and fix my pipes, he got a whole ‘nother think coming!”

The elevator doors shut. They were together inside the tiny box. Two drag queens and their eight-year old tag-along. No one said anything. Thérèse reached and pushed the button for the lobby. The elevator chugged to life and made the same slow, scraping journey back down to the ground floor.

William Blake found an eternity in a grain of sand, infinity in the palm of his hand. Lalo found eternity in a full face of make-up and infinity in the throbbing pain of his hand. The elevator descended at an agonizingly slow pace, as their anxiety galloped and their hearts thudded in their chests at the speed of their panic.

The elevator dinged as they passed the second floor. It kept scraping down to the bottom.

It dinged again when they reached the ground floor. The elevator doors slid open.

The two men were there waiting for them in the building lobby. They must’ve run down the stairs. But they weren’t doubled-over, breathing hard. These were professionals in good shape, willing to do what needed to be done to complete their job. They coolly stared at Candi and Lalo and Thérèse.

“Oh, you again. Y’all are faster than my high school boyfriend,” Candi said.

She guided them forward. Thérèse stayed in the middle, Lalo trailed after her. He could feel their eyes on him. But he told himself this was it, the last test. If he could keep his cool, they’d be fine. Thérèse would be fine. Candi would be fine. And he would be fine. He just needed to get out the front door. This was them doing their due diligence. They’d needed a second look to make sure. He gave them that second look. To keep his mind from any dark thoughts, to keep his mind free from doubt or guilt that might show up in his eyes, in his body language, he thought about Rihanna. Her excellency Robyn Rihanna Fenty. He pictured her stalking across a strip club, a gun in her hand.

“Youuuuu neeeded meeee…” she sang in his mind. He focused on her voice. He was a bad bitch, a bitch bad as Rihanna. He’d be so bad he’d save Thérèse and Candi from his stupidity, from his selfishness, from his bad man routine. The only way out was to go full boss bitch.

“You,” the word hit his ear as the hand wrapped around his wrist. He felt it tighten and choke down. And then tug him backwards. Off balance. He nearly tumbled over and off his high heels.

“You…” the potato-faced gangster in the well-tailored tracksuit said. But then he let his words fall away, the thought remained incomplete.

The pain, though, was shocking. It stabbed into Lalo’s mind. Nausea quivered in his gut, and crept up in waves. He pushed it all out of his mind. He couldn’t feel the pain. Not now. He could certainly sense it. It was excruciating. But he couldn’t let himself feel it. He trusted Candi’s make-up job. He trusted in Thérèse’s placement of his wig and her choice of the mink stole. He trusted in Rihanna. He was a boss bitch. He was a boss bitch. He was a boss bitch. He kept telling himself this, over and over, a mantra snaking through his mind.

“Excuse me!” Lalo said in the highest falsetto he could imagine. “ I know––I know you did not just grab me by hand and nearly tear the sleeve off my new-to-me vintage Betsey Johnson blazer. I know a bitch did not just try to test me when I am this close to going off. I know that did not just happen.”

“You…your…the little girl, she dropped her pin,” he said. His left hand was outstretched. In the palm of his hand he held a Nirvana band pin.

“The little girl. This is hers.”

Thérèse stepped forward, and grabbed at his hand.

“Oh, that’s my favorite one! Thank you so much! Ohmygod, auntie, if I woulda lost this. I don’t–I don’t–I don’t even wanna think how much I woulda cried. Oh. my. God. You remember when Shoshana gave me this at her birthday party — thank you! So much!”

The gangster enforcer in the well-tailored track suit looked down at her and nodded. And then he let go of Lalo’s right wrist. Apparently satisfied.

With a flourish that would’ve made Dolly Parton giggle, Lalo pulled his crushed right hand up to his face and said with a glowing southern flair, “Why, thank you. I see there still are gentlemen in this world.”

“We best get going, y’all!” Candi shouted from the open front door.

She held it open as the cold night air rushed into the lobby.

The two gangsters watched the two drag queens and their tag-along step out into the dark of night. The door swept close behind them. Neither man said a word. They turned and headed back up the stairs.

(photo by Eva Rinaldi)

The heavy car door slammed shut with the finality of a casket closing. No one said anything, mostly out of fear they were still being watched, perhaps by someone they couldn’t see.

Candi turned the key in the ignition. The engine sounded. The car speakers filled the cold air inside with the warm sound of Rihanna’s voice. He had gone months without hearing a single one of her songs. But now, on this night, he couldn’t escape her.

The rust-bottomed Toyota Corolla pulled away from the curb and it headed off into the dark with its putt-putt-puttering rhythm. Candi drove, Thérèse sat in the middle, and Lalo sat shotgun. He was silent, but thinking hard about how they were his miracle. Them and Rihanna. He knew it as sure as the constant throb of his smashed hand. But instead of focus on his pain, he let his mind go, he listened as Rihanna sang of a desperado. One like him.

A man whose heart is hollow 
Take it easy
I’m not tryna go against you
Actually, I’m going with you

Gotta get up out of here and 
You ain’t leaving me behind,
I know you won’t, ’cause we share common interests you 
Need me, there ain’t no leaving me behind
Never know, no, just want out of here, yeah
Once I’m gone, ain’t no going back

After a few blocks, although no one said it, they each felt satisfied no one was behind them. No one was following them. Not even at a distance. But yet, none of them turned to look back and check. They just kept driving.

Candi steered them around a corner. And, in a moment of spontaneous madness, for reasons she’d couldn’t explain, she screamed. Thérèse joined her. Then Lalo did, too. They screamed with Rihanna as their soundtrack. They screamed with excitement and adrenaline. They screamed out their fears and to cheer their stolen victory. They screamed because they were not dead, they were not hurt, they were still alive in a world where Rihanna had just set them free.