Part One – James
Hester’s story seemed like filthy folklore. “There’s a lady in Louisville who’ll fuck you cheap,” he said. “My brother paid her fifty bucks and then bam, she popped my hymen.” James couldn’t believe Hester’s brother took him to a prostitute. He couldn’t believe you could have sex for only fifty dollars. He couldn’t believe Hester thought boys had hymens. When James voiced his disbelief, Hester said, “Yuh-huh, she is too real,” and he drove James to see her.
That was sixth months ago. Tonight they’re visiting her for the thirteenth time (James keeps count), but James doesn’t care about Karine, mystical popper of boys’ hymens; he is visiting her daughter, Sarine. They park on the street, Louisville’s gap-toothed skyline jutting above the squat buildings, and enter the building through a metal door next to a shuttered convenience store. Inside, a coffee can filled with cigarette butts sits at the foot of the stairs, and a dim wall fixture streaks orange light through the foyer.
Hester trots upstairs singing, “Karine, Karine, Karine, doesn’t mind I’m just sixteen.” James has never seen Karine, but Hester has claimed she could pass for Sarine’s sister. James hates that he met Sarine because her mom is a prostitute; he hates paying for her company, but that doesn’t mean he’ll quit. She won’t see him for free.
His posture stiffens when he hears Hester knocking, the door opening, Sarine shouting to Karine, “That tall dude’s here.” James leans against the wall and crosses his arms, a superhero pose that looks especially goofy on his dumpy frame. Sarine paces onto the landing, exiled from the apartment while her mom conducts business. She leans against the railing and squints down at him, pursing her lips, seemingly just woken from a nap. James clears his throat, trying to shake off his nervousness, and says, “Your profile is radiant in the sconce light.”
Sarine snorts back a laugh and covers her teeth with her hand. His superhero pose deflates as she comes downstairs. Chubby legs in gray sweats, t-shirt riding up a glimpse of chub, hair straightened to long sheets, eyes slightly wide-set, a cute little gap between her front teeth. She stares at his chest, which chills as she takes his forearm.
“Looking especially pretty tonight,” he says.
“Shut it,” she says.
She leads him down the narrow hall and then pushes through a door to the defunct convenience store. He waits in the hall, a rule he has followed since the time he snuck up behind her in the dark and got smacked. After she clicks on a lamp, he is allowed to enter. The display racks have been pushed to the sides of the long room, leaving an open strip of linoleum. Sarine once said her father ran the store before he ran away. James told her that his mom ran away, too, hoping to find common ground, but she refused to discuss her “piece of shit daddy.”
Sarine sinks into the green couch that is hidden behind a long countertop. He shuts the door and sits next to her. She smells of key lime shampoo and sweat. When he grabs her hand, she jerks herself free and then flaps her cupped fingers. Pay me. He hoped after knowing her for half a year that she’d sit with him for free. It’d be easier to call her “girlfriend” if she didn’t charge him.
“A fifty,” she says after he digs the bill out of his pocket.
“I’m a high-roller,” he says.
“More like just high.” She grins, enjoying mocking him, and holds the rolled bill in her fist. When she opens the other hand on his thigh, he interlocks his fingers with hers. Her touch radiates beyond where their skin contacts; the back of his head tingles, his knees tremble, he is instantly hard. Simply holding her hand is better than sex, he tells himself. He doesn’t need to have sex with her to feel perfect. But if that’s true, why does he pulse with the urge to smother her with his body?
“You’re creeping into my space,” she says, and he pulls back, wishing his money bought more.
“So,” he says, searching for something to say. “What do you think Hester and your mom are doing?”
“Dear god, I do not even want to know.”
“I’m not asking because we aren’t doing what they’re doing.”
“Which is how it’ll stay.”
“But, you know, Hester thinks we’re doing the same thing. Not because I told him that but, you know, he assumed.”
She sighs, shaking her head. “Quit talking.”
He does as told, and for a while he listens to traffic pass on Broadway, trying to gauge if the sweat on her palm means something. He rubs his thumb on the back of her hand, rubbing harder when she doesn’t complain, hoping the friction puts her in the mood.
“Keep doing your thumb business if that’s your thing,” she says. “But it’s not leading anywhere devious.”
“I wasn’t being dirty.”
“Boy is lying.”
“Nuh-uh. Sex is cheap anyway. I want to, you know, make love?”
“Oh, Gentleman James. You are annoying, but you are legit entertaining.”
She sniffs and then wipes her nose with her wrist.
“Allergies?” he asks.
“What if you’re allergic to me?”
“You ever think like that? If people can be allergic to each other? Like how some people are allergic to cats? There’s guys at school I wish were allergic to me. They pick on me, if I’m being honest.” He always opens up after sitting with her. Squeezing her hand, he lets his head fall on her shoulder, risking a slap.
“Is this okay?” he asks.
“You know full-well it ain’t.”
“What if we did make love?”
She pushes his head off her shoulder and bolts off the couch. “Quit clowning.”
“Hold on. Pretend I spent that money on a fancy restaurant dinner and now we’re back at your house. Not so far-fetched.”
“In your head, maybe.”
“If you can imagine it, then it could be real.”
She rolls her eyes and then paces to the door. “Living in an absolute fantasy land,” she says.
Hester bangs on the door. “Yo,” he says. “I’m all done, dude, so I know your minuteman-ass gots to be, too.”
She relaxes her posture, clearly relieved he’s leaving, and opens the door, hiding behind it.
“Time to go,” she says.
He leaves without saying bye. She told him to go, so he does. He’ll do anything she says.
* * *
Part Two – Sarine
She punches the door closed after White Boy leaves, the fifty in her fist. She pictures him driving home to Happyland, triumphant after owning her for twenty minutes. At least he didn’t try to kiss her bye like last time. She would’ve puked.
She turns off the lamp and then cuts down the clear lane of linoleum, the junk food displays piled in corners of the room. Headlights blink through gaps in the boards covering the storefront, lighting her steps. Before he split, her daddy ran the shop; he was more interested in pontificating to customers than making the shop a success, and chit-chatted it out of business. Better quit selling yourself to White Boy, she imagines Daddy saying. But she isn’t selling herself; she is only renting her hand. If Imagined Daddy wants to hassle someone about selling herself, he can haunt Mom’s head.
She leans against the front wall, listening to traffic. She blames Daddy for White Boy coming around. Before he ran away, Mom only tricked at the hotel where she works; with Daddy gone, Mom can host men at home. The first time White Boy showed up, Sarine actually wanted to get with him. Make a little money, have a little fun. But as she unbuttoned her jeans, she broke out in regretful sweat and shouted that he needed to stuff his little thing back in his pants. She shamed him so bad he paid her fifty bucks despite getting no love. But that money wasn’t enough. She still itched through the night, gouging her skin as if trying to rip it off, to erase her toe-dip into tricking.
She leaves the shop and then climbs the creaking stairs to her second-floor apartment. The front door opens to the living room. Mom is reading a romance novel on the couch, staging a normal night. Looks tired, like always. Her legitimate, less lucrative job is waiting tables at a hotel bar near the airport. She started tricking at the bar, joining businessmen in their rooms after her shift, collecting business cards, giving out her phone number, telling guys to call when they’re next in town. That’s how the white boys learned about Mom: one of their brothers met her at the bar. Sarine wants to know what kind of skeeze takes his little brother to a prostitute. Then again, what kind of mom shares her tricking tales with her daughter?
After Sarine plops on her side of the couch, Mom sprawls her legs onto her lap. Sarine hopes the pumpkin pie-scented candle burning on the end table covers any stink White Boy left on her. He always smells like he’s been playing outside, his sour skin just short of rank.
“Did the other boy visit this time?” Mom asks, eyes on her book.
“He still in love with you?”
“Like I care.”
Sarine shifts in her seat, worried Mom suspects her of hooking up with White Boy. Still holding the fifty, she grabs her book from the floor, Inherit the Wind, pre-reading for Senior year English. Compared to most school books, this one’s okay. Her favorite scene is where a guy named Hornbeck talks to a monkey at a protest, teasing the dumbass townsfolk for disbelieving evolution. She likes when smart people talk down to dumb people without the dumb people realizing it. Think of herself with White Boy. She rakes him across the coals, and he sits there grinning like duh, you pretty, take flower, be my girl.
“He cute?” Mom asks.
“He’s dumb as a mug.”
“I got no clue.”
“I dated a few white boys when I was young.” Mom laughs playfully, either mocking her age or the white boys she dated. “It was, you know, not half bad.”
“You are straight gross.”
“So you two just sit around together. Never kiss or nothing?”
“What do you talk about?”
“Nothing to talk about.”
“Probably wants to ask you out.”
Sarine wishes Mom would go out with somebody. Find a replacement for Daddy. Tie down a guy who has a steady, bill-paying job. Guys at church flirt with her, using Sarine as a prop. “Dang, Karine, you and Sarine could be sisters.” Infuriating, considering Mom, unlike Sarine, has a honeydew pooch. Mom always bats down the flirtation, forever loyal to Daddy. Who, newsflash, ain’t never coming home.
“You done your thing yet?” Mom asks.
“Your homework thing. That personal narrative thing.”
Sarine has had all summer to read a few books, complete a packet of pre-cal, and write a 250-word personal narrative. You’re worth a million words, the writing prompt says, but for this assignment you must only tell a fraction of that. Cheesy. Writing about herself should be no sweat, but she keeps putting it off.
“Yo, you high?” Mom asks. “All staring off.”
“So’ve you done this personal narrative thing or what?”
Sarine drops her book shut and rolls off the couch, untangling her legs from Mom’s.
“Fine,” she says and heads toward her room. She slows when passing Mom’s purse on the bench in the hall. The purse is giant, purple, and dotted with quarter-size mirrors. Sarine makes sure Mom isn’t looking and then stuffs the fifty through a gap in the zipper. Mom doesn’t need the money, as she banks enough at her two jobs to cover the bills, but Sarine wants free of White Boy’s money. Let Mom deal with whatever icky byproduct comes with it.
She heads to her room. Her twin bed consumes most of the space, leaving only a foot between it and the dresser. The walls are covered by magazine-snipped pictures of K-Ci & JoJo, Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, TLC. She pokes PLAY on the small boombox on the dresser, and the tape begins with DJ Mix Master introducing “All My Life.” She recorded the song off Mix 106.9, figuring why buy music when they give it away on the air.
Personal narrative thing. What the hell is she going write?
K-Ci or JoJo starts the song with a whiny-sexy vocal, saying proper poetic sentiments that are totally unlike what White Boy barfs at her. She wonders what magic words Daddy laid on Mom to make her love him forever. Sarine hates Daddy most when she hears Mom crying in her room. Mom may sell herself, but she started doing it for Daddy. God knows he wasn’t making any money after the shop went bust. And it ain’t like Mom fucks these guys for fun; she is keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table. She is the only reason they survive.
She stops the tape, grabs her backpack from under her bed, and digs out a pencil and notebook. Then she sits on her bed facing the magnet mirror glued to the wall, searching her face for an angle she’d call beautiful, frustrated that’s she’s ugly today after looking fine yesterday. But she should quit stalling. She opens the notebook to a clean page and mumbles to herself as she writes.
The wrong guy loves me.
Daddy’s supposed to love me, and what’d he do? Ran away. Claiming Mom is evil, all because she got creative in order to feed us. He bounced as soon as another lady agreed to bankroll him. That’s all men do—mooch. That don’t mean Mom’s perfect, but at least she stuck around. Now who am I going to love—the woman who’ll do whatever it takes or the dog who ran away?
Then there’s White Boy. He wants to hook into me permanent. Do I make him feel free? How much freedom can he buy for fifty bucks? What would I sell him if he had a million? Not my heat. He can’t handle it. If I kissed him, my spit would ignite like gas and cook him like one of those protesting monks. Doesn’t he know he’s this close to dying each time he comes to buy me?
But where does selling affection lead me? Does renting myself begat something devious? That’s why White Boy is a monster. He is a monster like a mouse living under the fridge, scampering in the walls, owning my sleep. Because he won’t quit until he owns me. He’s on the fifty-dollar installment plan.
But listen, White Boy. You will never own me because you will never know me. So why don’t you run along with Daddy. Be gone from my world, both of you, and stay gone forever.
She counts the words, poking them with her pencil, indifferent to leaving graphite marks. She is doing the bare minimum, 250 words. A little short of what’s required, she rewrites a few sections, cramming in you know, for real, and you better believe it. That gets her to two-fifty. Then another line hits her, a final message for Daddy and White Boy, and she tacks it to the end.
All you clowns stay in your unknowable worlds and keep out of mine.
She leaves her notebook on the bed and returns to the living room. Mom hasn’t moved, and she sighs when Sarine sits beside her.
“I know you ain’t finished already,” Mom says.
“Let me read it.”
“Come on, sugar. I love what you write.”
Sarine grabs her book off the floor and opens it, shaking her head. She loads so much distance to her face that she might as well be on a different planet.
“Can’t,” she says. “It’s personal.”
W. Brandon Bell lives in Louisville, Kentucky. His stories have appeared in Emerson Review, New Plains Review, Harpur Palate, Jelly Bucket, Barnstorm, The Broken Plate, and other publications. His website is home to The Convergence, a catalog of recurring passages in Don DeLillo’s books, plays, and stories.