Part II, Chapter 2

from Gamma


Before getting dressed, Luz sprays mist onto her skin—a scent of nectarines, which takes away some of the smell. Kyle was worked up this time, sweating all over even before he took off his shirt, the morning's deodorant carried away during whatever interrogation he had to go through for losing a prisoner. Hours of pants-pissing fear, she guesses, which he shrugged off on the phone . . . now deposited on her skin as a thin crust of perspiration. Right now he's dressing, hiking up his work slacks with tugs on the belt still run through the belt loops.

She makes the mist by compressing a rubber squeezebulb. Her other hand supports the weight of the atomizer, which is the size of a small honeydew melon. This is what it must be like to be a plant, she thinks, a fern that needs to have its paper-thin leaves wetted. She lays on the bedspread, still able to smell the motel's rug and all of the cigarettes that have been smoked here in the last twenty years, waiting for Kyle to leave.

He tucks in his Mack work shirt, zips his pants, and buckles his belt. He grabs his wallet from the dresser. "We'll call it even this time."

She doesn't get his meaning until she sees him remove the folded pile of twenties she slipped into the side pocket of her small white purse.

He'd been cagey about the money from the start, saying "yeah, whatever" when she talked price and "of course I got it" when she asked to see it. The moment he came, squeezing his arm around her as though starving for comfort, she slipped off the bed to stash the money in her purse, taking it from where he'd piled it on the dresser two inches from his wallet.

"I hooked you up today," Kyle adds, "and it's damn near gonna lose me my job."

Cut and bruised from the beating, he looks pitiful. But she already gave him back the money for the other guys. "Hey." Grabbing the polyester top from the bedside table, she stands up. She pushes her head through the neck cords tied in a bow. "Don't fuckin' steal from me."

"You owe me. Serious. One of them motherfuckers talks and Kyle's fucked, understand. Richards—you shoulda seen him, baby; he was talkin' charges an' shit, like 'WHAT IN TAR-NATION YOU DOIN' DOWNTOWN?' and 'THAT BEER CAN UNDER THE SEAT GONNA BE YOUR ASS,' which if he had any idea, baby, ANY idea . . ."

"Wasn't my idea to buy beer, or any of that shit."

"I'm just sayin'." The dollar bills want to curl back together; he's having a hard time unfolding them with his wallet in one hand. "Now, I had a bad day, real bad, on account of that ho shit you pulled in the back seat. One of the numbers is gonna talk. I know it."

"What am I s'posed to do besides 'ho shit?'"

"I just need you to be with me about this, baby. We're partners, shore, but that means we share the losses. And today was a TOTAL LOSS. Plus now we got to lay low for who knows HOW long. And all the shit's comin' down on MY head. I don't know WHAT I'm gonna do. This is fucked up. I don't know WHAT'S gonna happen. Understand?"

Kyle has just about pushed the bills into his tattered snake-skin wallet. Luz lunges, the cords of her shirt tied behind her back and the skirt forgotten. Getting the wallet loose, she pulls out the money.

A jolt of energy moves through Kyle's wiry frame, but he tames it, his restraint practiced like that of a man accustomed to an erratic temper. "Girl, you move like a cat. You got the moves of a cat."

Luz thumbs through the bills.

"Gotta keep my eye on you. Shit. Come on, baby, give me the money. I had a bad day. Besides, I need it."

She counts out the right amount, drops the money on the bed, then puts the rest back in his wallet.

"I give you fuckin' more business than you ever had before. Risk my whole goddamn career."

"You ain't my pimp."

She tosses him the wallet. He catches it against his chest.

"Girl, don't fuck with me. DON'T fuck with me."

Luz picks up the money and refolds it. She looks for the purse, which is on the dresser beside Kyle. She doesn't even take a step toward it before his fist catches her jaw. She's already on the floor. Her head tingles. Kyle is leaving with the money. "FUCK you," he yells. "Fuck YOU!"

A flash of the low sun makes her blind, and then the door slams. She wrestles her legs into the white Spandex miniskirt and goes after him, forgetting the purse, jacket, high heels, everything except the atomizer, which she has a vague idea of using as a weapon.

Coming down the cool concrete steps, she sees Kyle start his old PT Cruiser, but he won't be going anywhere. Cars on the avenue idle with no sign of impatience. It's evening. Everything is moving in slow motion. The few palm trees lean toward the south with grim resolve. The Cruiser swings out with the sound and speed of an electric bumper car, ejecting puffs of blue smoke, but Kyle's acceleration into first comes to a quick stop at the small parking lot's one exit.

As he drives by, she glimpses the money curled into a ball on the passenger seat. Road pebbles and glass cubes from a shattered windshield jab her bare feet as she goes around the back of the car. The passenger door is unlocked. She opens it and snatches the money.

Kyle cuts her off before she can reach the stairs, arms wide in a wrestler's stance. Most of the time she thinks of him as a small, comical man, but he has the arms of an orangutan. "You're tryin' Kyle's patience," he says.

She makes a run to one side, but his long arm catches her in the belly. With both hands, she bends his fingers back before he can encircle her. He goes down on his knees with a grunt. She can't hold him this way for long, though, so she breaks for the sidewalk.

The smooth pavement lets her speed up to a run. The walk is wide, the buildings set back behind a strip of ground . . . plenty of room to maneuver. Kyle is gaining, though, and there's nothing comical about the look on his face. He'll catch up.

The safest place within reach is a bus at a stoplight. She pushes past the people waiting to board, climbs the steps, and goes inside without paying. "I'm getting off in just a second," she says.

"Bus ain't free, ma'am." Coins in the fare box rattle in a complex way. She has a fistful of money but no change.

Kyle waits his turn at the end of the line. The front of the bus is a wide open space, with benches along either wall. Rows of front-facing seats fill the back. There's no place to sit but plenty of room at the handrails. All she wants is to stand here behind the driver for a minute. Kyle won't have the balls to try something in here.

After depositing a handful of change, he comes to stand beside her. The run has left him strangely calm. His breathing is deep and even, his eyelids low, his lips pushed tightly together. "You one greedy girl," he murmurs in her ear.

Kyle's slow approach has worked; she hasn't thought to move until it's too late and she's cornered against the stamped-metal panel behind the driver. "Fuck away from me," she says.

He very gently clasps the wrist of the hand that holds the money. "You're gonna respeck my property. I respeck yours."

"Ma'am?" the bus driver says. The light turns green, but there's no room for a bus across the intersection.

"You're gonna pay what you owe," she wants to say, but everyone is listening now. A red-headed boy obviously from a university watches her with deep concern, toying with the strap of his backpack.

Kyle is pressing her against a pole with his shoulder, while with the big chapped fingers of his other hand he tries to open her fist. He's gaining courage. "You don't fucking steal from me," he says loud enough for people to hear. He flattens her knuckles against his thigh. "Let go."

She twists free into the middle of the open area, tugging loose the hand with the money. "Fuck you!" She sets her feet and shoves him with all the weight of her body. He's solid as a horse, but she forces him back. He falls over the knees of an Asian man dressed for the office who leaps across the compartment, letting his newspaper fall to the floor in pieces. Kyle looks around dazedly, having hit his head on a handrail, then gradually his look steadies. Again she notices his slowness, the crouching, creeping way he approaches.

"Cheap SHIT," she says, seeing a change in his eyes, a new vigilance.

He grabs both her wrists, lifts them above her head, and pins her against a support beam. The atomizer sinks into her belly under his weight. The Asian businessman backs away another step, his mouth half-open. He stammers, "Hey—hey. . . . Take it easy there."

"Oh, you proud," Kyle says an inch from her face. "You one proud bitch. Huh, mujere? Drop the FUCKIN' money!"

He lifts her by the wrists so that she has to stand on her toes. She has the idea of flinging the bills into the air so that he has to chase them, but when she opens her hand they come out in a tight, moist ball that lands at his feet.

The businessman, backing away, looks more afraid than angry. "Um . . ."

The other passengers watch. No screams or shouts, just hands tightening on poles and handbags, eyes charged with amazement.

"Hey!" the bus driver yells, looking at them in the mirror. "HEY!"

She catches the tip of Kyle's nose with a wild punch as he bends to get the money. "Bastard!" She goes for his eyes with her long thumbnails, but he has no trouble shoving her back against a window. The low eyelids and slow breathing are gone. Just sweat, staring eyes, a clenched mouth. He pushes her onto one of the long benches, from which passengers scatter as quickly as she crawls backward toward the rear of the bus. Everyone seems to be standing now. She keeps him off with her knees. He's shouting something. Blood is dripping into his mustache. She gets a foot under his shoulder and pushes him off, but then he's right back on top of her. She kicks at him madly with her bare feet, screaming. He finally topples sideways onto the floor. She removes the atomizer from around her neck and hits him in the forehead. He tries to stand, but she hits him again. The passengers make way as he staggers backward.

No one says a word. No one helps. The only noise she hears is a man's loud gasp. The inch-thick glass container is solid as a stone. She pounds the side of his face. The bus driver watches over his shoulder, both hands on the wheel, as Kyle falls, rolls over, and then crawls toward the front. When "Officer Kyle" stops, the blood coming down his chin and dripping on the top step, she shoves him face-first into the gutter with a kick to the crack of his ass. His feet get stuck on the bottom step. She picks them up and throws them high to one side.

As quick as she can turn around, the doors shut. The bus springs forward. It accelerates through a yellow light and then has to slow down. The driver checks his mirrors, out of breath. Into the radio he stammers for the operator to call the police.

She goes back to the passenger section.

The bus is marooned in traffic. Kyle gets to his feet and has all the time in the world to shuffle across the intersection. He comes up alongside the bus, his face and shirt awash with blood. He repeatedly points at her through the window with hatchet movements of his arm. He points and points, then he walks away, glaring at her over his shoulder, his index finger coming to rest, steady in its aim. Finally, he turns around.

"Dress like a ho this time," he told her on the phone. Something was off, she should have known it, right from the start.

Now she does look like a whore, all ragged and cut and breathing heavily. She wishes she could calm her breathing. They watch her sit down like she's some exotic creature they'll never see again, mostly commuters, office workers, an Hispanic construction crew in muddy overalls, a fat man with a plaid shirt and a plaid thermos, still sitting on the bench, other people in the soft blue fluorescent light, an old Asian woman with bags of groceries. They all want to know something about her. They stare and stare.

Dress like a ho. She has no shoes, no jacket, no underwear, just the small top and skirt. The missing panties create a bare-naked feeling all over her body. She probably looks aroused. The breathing, the racing pulse, the livid veins . . . her nipples are even erect and showing through the thin material. Just what you would see in a porn film, she thinks. Absurdly, she wonders if anyone saw her crotch while she was on her back and kicking.

Dress like a ho. The money has rolled under the opposite bench. She pretends not to see it, putting the strap of the atomizer around her neck. She sprays her face and shoulders, her arms, trying to cool down. She tries to breathe more slowly. Some of the people stop staring. With both hands, she pulls her long glossy hair over her shoulders and onto her chest.

The Asian businessman has rolled the salvaged pages of his newspaper into a tight cylinder. He sits across from her, holding the paper on his knees. The urge to intervene seems to have been replaced with an urge to watch. He takes long looks at her legs. He rotates the newspaper forward with one hand and then the other. He looks at her knees and then her chest, back down, up again to her eyes, keeping his face still like a painting with cut-out eyes for spying from behind a wall, then he looks away. He's not the only one, but his interest is especially strong. She makes up thoughts for his glances, automatically, the voice that seems to come from some deep hole in every man. God . . . The voice that comes as a whisper and seems to address every living thing in the world . . . that woman . . . His chest rising and falling with this feeling . . .

Dress like a ho this time I need me a butta-smooth butta-pecan ho cake, dig?

God this woman . . . The man abruptly gives her an embarrassed, obsequious smile. "Um," he says. His gaze lowers, and there's the money inching forward at the tip of his brown leather loafer. With a smile, he kicks it to her. The paper bounces off her bare foot. She looks away. She sprays some more water on her shoulders. Look at those legs. . . . She's almost naked. . . . What do I say? Can I say something? . . .

The man cants his head, shrugs, and looks down. The old woman with the groceries has been giving Luz a dark, sad look that grows more ancient and earnest with every passing second. Gold evening light fills the side windows. The sky is all light. The bus seems to float inside a great glow.

Beautiful, so beautiful, you're so beautiful, God you're beautiful. . . .

Draining her face of expression, she picks up the money. She thinks she sees the man's fingers tighten on his newspaper. She gives him a quick smile. She closes her hand around the bills. The atomizer is in her lap. With her thumb she wipes away a spot of blood. Just one spot. The rest looks clean. She holds it up to the light. Still intact, she notices. Just one thin line that may be a crack.

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