Fiction by Marie Biondolillo
You have four dollars. Two of them are going for a gin and tonic, with a quarter tip that you’re embarrassed by (but not enough). It’s raining outside, and the damp releases ghosts from your clothes, of old meals, past cigarettes.
The bar is dark, lit only by scattered table lamps. Through the window, rain light comes, green and white and wavering. It falls on your fingers, which are shaking. You’re sure you didn’t always have such big knuckles.
Roger’s late. The gin and tonic comes, and you suck on an ice cube. It’s got the mildly bacterial flavor of old, unfiltered water, like the kind that’s flowing through the bar’s rain gutters and onto the sidewalk out front. A man steps his leather shoe in it. He curses, shakes it off, comes inside. His face, long and sharp, has been improved by suffering.
The gin creates a warm, fluttering confusion at the back of your skull, which doesn’t detract from the tightness of your stockings or the cold in your feet, but it’s a thing. A new thing to focus on. Another new thing is a stack of dog-eared paperbacks on the counter. There’s a book about the Enneagram. Your Erroneous Zones. John Grisham. Nothing that will fix the fact that you’re jobless and half-drunk at 2 in the afternoon.
This bar fancies itself an “Irish pub.” Functionally, that means nothing, other than Guinness on tap and trivia on Mondays. You briefly entertain a vision of staying at the bar all night, winning trivia single-handedly, and bringing your worldly capital up to twenty-six dollars and seventy-five cents. But it’s Tuesday, and you don’t know about anything besides movies.
The man with the wet shoe won’t look at you, so you consider him instead. A pale gray trench coat the color of oyster shells, with loose threads. Dark blue khakis wet almost to the knee.
Maybe he would take you home, or at least somewhere else. And then what? There would still be want ads to circle, dishes to wash.
Besides, rent’s due. You need to meet Roger. But does he need to meet you? Is that why he’s not here yet?
Maybe Wet Shoe could be another Roger. Paying most of the rent, throwing his coat on the couch. All you’d have to do is say things, girlfriend-shaped words. Wind yourself up, play the right song. Over and over again, until you fell down.
You should have known Roger would move against you. A word to the superintendent, and suddenly your contract isn’t getting renewed. But of course he doesn’t want to see you every day. Not after the garbage bags full of clothes. The trouble with the dog. Nick.
Maybe you were in the wrong, but did you deserve to be such a miserable fucker? If you lay down in the street for an hour and let every passerby give you a kick, would that redeem you? Would guilt depart?
He can’t cut you off like this. When you called, he agreed it wasn’t fair. He said he’d meet you at 2. It’s only 2:20.
The man with the wet shoe has moved several seats down the bar, until he’s sitting one seat over, practically next to you. He gives you a tired, catlike look.
“Want to go see something?”
“Come on,” he says. His eyes are a darker gray than his coat, enclosed in layered shadows like petals.
“Back off, Conrad,”’ says the bartender. He’s a healthy blond, well above your pay grade. You’re surprised he’d bother to intercede. You are, after all, fully willing to fuck Roger for a loan, and you feel like this fact must be visible to everybody.
Conrad mutters into his glass. “I’m just asking questions.”
The bartender leans toward you. “Watch out for him.” His mouth is beautifully firm. He can’t be more than twenty-seven years old.
You nod, and the bartender goes into the back. He’s got a clipboard; maybe he’s doing inventory.
Conrad looks at you. “He’s wasting his time,” he says.
“I know girls like you. You don’t care about anything.”
Something hot clenches in your stomach. “Yes, I do.”
“No, you don’t. I could do anything I wanted with you.”
You snort. “At least buy me a drink first.”
Several hours later, you’re walking under an overpass, holding Conrad’s hand. Roger never showed, so Conrad bought you a series of drinks, paid for with quarters. Finally the barman—disgusted, Teutonic—kicked you out. Now you’re off to “see something.”
It should make you uneasy, the fact that you’re walking out here, in this weather, with this man. The longer you talk to him, the more you notice that’s wrong — dirt under the fingernails, broken capillaries on his cheeks. For some reason, there’s a swath of dust on the top of his non-wet shoe, and you wonder what that means. Were these shoes waiting in his closet for months, only to be whisked out today, a wet Tuesday in January? Why?
On either side of the highway, rain catches in the long grass. Conrad veers off into it, pulling you alongside him. The grass paints Conrad’s coat, makes your dress cling to your legs. There is still time to turn around, to go home to the newspaper and the kitchen sink.
You walk until you can’t hear the highway anymore. Beyond the fields lies the back wall of a huge apartment complex, and a scrubby copse of oaks.
The center of the grove is ringed with a scattering of tents. Conrad takes you to a tree with steps nailed to it, and you climb up onto a platform perhaps fifteen feet off the ground, roofed by a rope-rigged tarp.
He pulls a bottle of Old Crow from a metal toolbox. With every sip, you feel less employable.
“Can I sing you a song?” Conrad says.
“No, thank you.”
“I’m pretty good.” He pulls a battered guitar out from under a garbage bag and strums it, humming in a high, tuneless tone.
You realize you could be getting drunk with a boring guitar guy who did not live in a treehouse. Then the sex would only be regret-tinged, rather than evidence that you’re having a nervous breakdown. Wouldn’t that be nice? To make an ordinary mistake, one that doesn’t make you feel like you’re spiraling toward your doom?
And then what, you think. The same old problems would turn their loose, lank faces toward you like so many motherless children. Hungry for answers you’re not sure you can provide.
Besides, it might be something, to lie down on this damp wood. There’s something dead and European about Conrad, an attractive lack of decency or shame, which calls to the guilt that dogs you. It’s the reason you followed him here in the first place.
Suddenly, the platform creaks. Men are pulling themselves into Conrad’s treehouse, one after another. A strong scent of skin and hair fills the air, and a voice in your head that sounds like your mother observes that now would be a tremendous time to get the fuck out of here.
But Conrad is passing around the Old Crow. Someone is dealing Texas Hold ’em. Conrad is picking out “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” You can’t find your parting words.
Conrad casually presses his thigh close to yours. You’re waiting for someone to angrily declare that you don’t belong there, but no one does.
The light leaches out of the sky, and a camping lantern is deployed, so the cards can be seen. You realize they’re betting with dollars.
There’s a few minutes left of sunset. Enough time to get to the highway. If you stay until it’s dark, you might be too afraid to leave. This has . . . implications. What would the bartender think?
“Cut me in,” you say. It’s a quarter ante. $1.50 left.
This is not a way to make money, says your mother.
It’s probably fine, you reply.
You get a jack and a two, but they’re both spades. Michael, who’s low on teeth, bets a quarter. John, the dealer, folds. J.D. and Conrad stay in, and so do you.
Where do they get their money? your mother says. Have you thought about that? She’s ten years gone, but she still sends you these reminders.
The flop is promising: nine of spades, king of hearts, ace of spades. Two more chances left to get a flush. Maybe even a straight flush — nine ten jack queen king, or jack queen king ace two.
It’s not likely, but it could happen.
You don’t know what J.D. has. His face is like a steel ship — blank and beaten. Conrad looks sly, but that’s just a game his face plays. Michael bets a dollar. You think he has a straight. Your almost-flush will beat a straight, so you stay in. Down to fifty cents.
You remember how much money fifty cents used to feel like. When your mother still braided your hair every morning. She’d pull the coins from her change purse, which smelled of pennies and leather, and you’d run like hell for the ice cream truck, only to be unsure of what you actually wanted once you got there.
Everyone else is still in, too. Conrad raises a quarter. You’ve got a quarter left, and feet like ice blocks. You rub them, but it does no good. Michael watches your hands on your feet, jaw a little loose in a way you don’t like.
John deals the turn. It’s a ten of clubs. Now all you need is a queen, and you’d have a straight of your own. Judging from the looks around the circle, you’re not the only one who’s thinking this.
Through your Old Crow haze, your mother’s voice rings out, reminding you that it’s not safe here; that it’s a long walk back to the apartment; that in the dark, anything could happen. But you have to play this out. Otherwise, you’re down to a quarter.
Move in with your sister! Donate blood!
Same difference, Mom.
Michael bets a dollar again, and you go all-in. But J.D. doesn’t want to split the pot.
“Come on, man,” says Conrad. He puts the guitar down; slings an arm around your shoulders. You smell the dirt of many days. He’s trembling, and you wonder if drink is his only vice.
“Pay to play,” says J.D.
Birds rustle in the tree above you. Starlings, displaced by the rain. Michael’s betting too confidently; maybe he doesn’t have anything. You could let him bluff the others off, then take the pot with your flush.
Apologize for asking. Say they’ve cleaned you out. Gracefully bid goodnight to Conrad, speedwalk through the grass. Maybe you’ll make it.
“How about this,” you hear yourself saying. “Let me stay in, and if I lose, I’ll unbutton my dress for five minutes.”
Conrad’s eyes shine. Michael looks at your feet again. John doesn’t care, and J.D. is angry.
“No,” he says. But Conrad spots you seventy-five cents. You think about the acres of grass between you and the highway; the height of the walls surrounding the apartment complex. You should have kept your mouth shut.
Time for the last card. They call it “the river”.
It’s a four of diamonds, no use to anybody.
Michael bets a dollar. J.D. sees it; raises it by two. Conrad folds. They all look at you.
Beyond the glow of the lantern, the night air simmers, navy-blue. You watch your frozen breath mingle with the smoke from John’s menthol. No one speaks. It’s clear they already know.
“Show,” says John.
You were right about Michael—he has a low straight, nothing special. J.D. has a full house, queens and aces. You can tell he’s disappointed that your and Michael’s cards are so shitty. He wanted to work for this victory.
“Were you working an inside straight?” he says to you. “Don’t you know better than that?”
“I almost had a flush,” you say.
“‘Almost’ being the operative word.”
A starling screams, a raw and lonely sound. They’re waiting.
Some situations have their own inertia. This is the turning point. After you unbutton your dress, the boulder of this questionable fucking scenario will be rolling downhill. What are you going to throw in its path?
Without thinking, you seize the guitar, aiming it at a tent below. A muffled thump, and then someone is yelling. Someone with a lot to say about That Goddamn Junkie Conrad and His Goddamned Degenerate Friends.
“Oops,” you say. “I better go get that.”
You helpfully move toward the ladder, cheerful and brisk, but Conrad pulls you back before you can set foot on the first rung. The whites of his eyes are yellow; he’s drunker than you thought.
“Why did you do that?”
“I’m sorry,” you say. “But I’ll get it!”
“Don’t bother,” he says. “Just wait for me.”
He hands you over to Michael, who locks his hands around your wrists. Before anyone can stop him, Conrad’s stumbling down the ladder, his body loose and almost graceful. You’re surprised when he falls, still ten feet from the ground. A sickening snap, then a groan, so loud it sounds fake.
There goes Plan B, tentatively titled, “Just Jump Off the Platform”.
“Shit,” says J.D. He grabs the Old Crow, then clambers down the ladder. “It’s okay,” he calls out to Conrad. “I’m coming. I’m coming!”
John follows him. Michael stays put. He’s positioned himself behind you, and you feel what’s either a belt buckle or an erection pressing against your back.
You make your voice bright. “I should go help them,” you say. “I’m CPR-certified.”
“No,” says Michael. “You promised.”
“But someone is hurt.”
He runs a hand up your leg, pushing up your dress. “I’m not.”
You wonder if Roger would like this. In bed, he liked to talk about what a whore you were, as a sort of game. Then, after Nick, he said it elsewhere. Bars, living rooms. The teacher’s lounge.
Look at you, he’d say. Look at what you are. A girl you could do anything with.
Michael’s hand is on your stomach. Even if this is what you deserve, the logical outcome of your actions, you suddenly decide you’re not interested. You lash your leg out, kicking the lantern off the platform. You drive your elbow down, into his stomach. He screams, hands loosening. You spin around and knee him in the balls for good measure. It’s something you didn’t know you could do.
You drop to your knees, feeling for the money. You manage to grasp a few dollars, and paw your way towards the ladder. You scramble down it as quickly as you dare, feeling for each rung with your foot, but not fast enough — Michael has a handful of your hair.
Over your shoulder, the moon looks small, and far away. You force yourself to move faster, and feel a chunk of your scalp tear. Blood seeps into your eye as you fumble toward the ground, Michael bellowing above you.
“Stop her!” he screams. “Thief! Thief!”
Conrad’s bent over his ankle, crying. J.D. examines it by the light of a phone that John holds lovingly over it. As what Michael’s yelling registers, he drops it, straight onto Conrad’s ankle.
Conrad keens in agony. J.D. curses, John apologizes. You skin off your heels and run through the grass for the highway, up three dollars, if only you knew it.
Marie Biondolillo is a Portland-based writer from Northwest Washington. Her fiction and journalism have been published by The Toast, Grow Northwest, and The Cascadia Weekly.
Her short and full-length plays have received readings or productions at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Idiom Theatre, and the Eclectic Theater, and her video work has appeared at Northwest Projections, Ladyfest, and on XRAY TV.
Marie is active as an advocate for art by marginalized voices, and is currently the grants writer for Open Signal, Portland Community Media Center. Follow her on Twitter at @chestnutclub.