On a sleepy Friday lunch break, Caroline pulled two steaming bowls of leftover red beans and rice out of the microwave and placed one in front of Jaleesa on the cramped break room table.
"Berry's been begging me for your number all week," mentioned Jaleesa as she plunged her plastic spoon into her unevenly heated rice, mixing the scalding outside edges with the lukewarm center, " do you want me to give it to her?"
"Wait, you mean she's been asking and you haven't told me?!" whined Caroline.
"Meh, Berry's kind of worthless," explained Jaleesa, "all she ever wants to do is get fucked up and club hop. I figured it wasn't your thing."
"Did she tell you about last weekend? We had a blast!" countered Caroline.
"Well, to be honest, Berry's a dyke, and I figured she was just crushing on you. I know you're freaked out by that kind of shit," admitted Jaleesa.
For the first time since they'd become friends, Caroline realized that there were some things she just couldn't confide in Jaleesa anymore. Up to this point, Caroline had never done anything Jaleesa didn't write the book on. Apparently sexual deviance was the kind of vice even Jaleesa wouldn't touch. Drugs, alcohol, violence, infidelity, Jaleesa had never failed to understand and have the answers for it all. It was a kind of loneliness even Caroline's reclusive lifestyle couldn't prepare her for.
"Please, Berry couldn't handle all this," Caroline said in what she hoped was a decent copy of Jaleesa's voice, pushing up both breasts to emphasis what on another woman would be luscious curves, but in Caroline's case was more like just hanging skin. Jaleesa's head cocked to the side suspiciously, but she decided to get back on topic.
"So, you want her to have your number or not? Or do you need a REAL woman?" questioned Jaleesa, actively diffusing any latent homosexuality with traditional locker room flair.
"I think I'm mainly going to stick with Todd," Caroline replied, "at least he doesn't have to bring his penis in a bag." Jaleesa chuckled, and Caroline relaxed a bit. Caroline had never realized how difficult it was for freaks to fit into so-called "straight" society. Racism isn't the only kind of prejudice, after all.
"I don't have Todd's number, though, and I know Berry has it," continued Caroline, thinking quickly. She did after all, want Berry's number.
"Mmm... you have a point. Hand me that old flyer over there, and a pencil," requested Jaleesa. Obediently, Caroline handed Jaleesa a small brick of Post-It Notes and a Bic mechanical pencil over the table. In bold, looping letters, Jaleesa wrote the numbers 652-0013 and slid the brick back across the table to Caroline.
"There you go. Now I'm going to clock back in so I can get paid for sleeping."
As five o'clock rolled around, Caroline became more and more anxious about calling Berry. Last weekend had been one of the greatest, strangest, and most frightening of her life, and the idea of that being the be-all and end-all of her life scared her in the desperate way a junkie is scared of losing all her dope connections.
For example: What about Todd? They'd had fun last weekend, but she'd never remembered to give him her number. He'd never given her his number, after all. Was it just a one-night stand? Did Todd sleep with every new girl that showed up to The Fool's Card? Berry was Raz's fiancé, though, and Raz spent a lot of time at Todd's.
Thinking like that made Caroline feel guilty and manipulative, even though she was pretty sure that's what Jaleesa would do in her situation. Still, here was Berry's phone number, and if there was one thing Caroline knew, it was what Berry wanted her around for.
Jaleesa had gotten a phone call from her married daughter earlier in the afternoon and barely responded to Caroline's wave on her way out. Caroline slid slowly into her car, savoring the freedom only granted on Fridays. She still had half a pack of cigarettes left over from last week in her center console, so she pulled one out, careful to leave a single inverted cigarette in the box. It was a superstition harkening back to her days of smoking old butts behind the school and trying not to get caught, but as a non habitual smoker, she'd never had enough packs of cigarettes pass through her hands to make it an inconvenience.
Caroline took a long drag of smooth but cheap menthol smoke from her 100-millimeter cigarette. She picked up her bedraggled and much ignored cell phone and dialed Berry's number. Already, she began to feel the glossy slick sensation movie stars must feel schmoozing socially over the phone from the patent leather seats of their limousines. At that point, it was a shame when the robotic voice of Berry's answering machine picked up. Rallying suavely, Caroline used her smokiest voice to allure Berry into a few drinks at The Fool's Card. Even if Todd was just a one-night stand, he wasn't the only fish in the sea. However, if she were going to ignore the attentions of people like Straight Mike, she'd need Berry to pull her away from their blandishments.
It was 6:43 in the evening when Berry had finally finished putting on her make-up. Being presentable to the world was on a long list of things Berry had to finish, or risk spending the rest of the day feeling "unsettled" as she liked to think of it. Perfection, after all, was not a state achieved with mere intent; only through compulsive measurement could some form of order be maintained. Half-measures and dabbling had long since been broken from her nature after years of dynamic emotional turmoil. Controlling the state of her life was impossible, but her hair was definitely a known variable.
Berry turned from the mirror and walked towards her baby: a sleek, matte black phone. Inside its memory was the combined result of five years of social networking proficiency.
She removed the stubby black umbilical chord that connected it to Raz's computer. It's R2-D2-like beep of dismay at being separated from the big mother power grid sounded cute to her ears in its own special way. The only difference between her and the homeless was that tiny black box. It was a dependency, to be sure, but luckily there's a short list of dependencies still condoned by society.
A message from a new number? Hopefully some schmuck hadn't dropped her number to some random horny loser again. A familiar voice, Carl's voice, was on the message, doing what sounded like an impression of a drag queen with a decades long smoking habit.
The contents of the message, however, were quite pleasing to the ears:
"Hey there, Berry. Whadya say you give me a call and we what we did last weekend?" Carl was naïve, true, but it seemed like she had some kind of untapped well of creative perversity inside her. Carl was acceptably attractive, but by no means beautiful. It was the freshness of her personality that attracted Berry to her like a moth to a flame. She'd never met anyone so good at hiding their sexually deviant fantasies. Considering how many Berry had to hide, she could do well to take notes.
Slipping on a mental mask of socialism over her already painted face, she dialed the number Carl left on her phone.
"Hello?" said the familiar, insecure voice.
"Hey there, cutie!" Berry replied, "So... The Fool's Card at 8:00?"
"Of course," Carl said back, in that cute little 'I don't know I sound like a drag queen' voice.
"See you then." Berry closed.
Then, almost as if stolen from a bad 80's movie about New York, Carl said, "Ciao."
Berry could tell this was going to be another crazy night.
Caroline strolled through the shadowed doors of The Fool's Card attempting to coolly smoke an over priced black clove cigarette she'd had offered by some random stranger. The bar was as empty as a church on Super Bowl Sunday, and Raz sat disconsolately drinking overpriced draft alone at the bar. Straight Mike was blissfully preoccupied talking to a pair of obvious drag queens while trying to sip his rum and coke huskily through a straw propped between his fingers.
Caroline tapped Raz on the shoulder, "You wouldn't happen to know where Berry is, would you?"
Raz turned slowly and drawled, "You didn't really expect her to be on time, did you? Besides, she's still driving my car."
"Wait, you mean you're stuck here?" Caroline asked.
"Hah! No, I'm technically stranded at Todd's. Berry has a bad habit of running off with my car while I'm passed out 'so I don't drive drunk'. It's one of the many reasons I'm over there so much." Raz explained
"So, where's Todd?" questioned Caroline, looking around the bar disappointedly
"Oh, Todd's grading papers in his office on campus." Raz told her.
"Hmm.... So, what's going on?" said Caroline, steeling herself for a night of crying alcoholism with Raz.
"Well, I don't know if you know him, but Thug showed up to the club tonight. Last time that happened, someone had sold Straight Mike some fake X, and Thug ended up ripping the guy's face off" gossiped Raz.
"Wait, which one is he?" asked Caroline. She'd seen a lot of bad bar fight movies, and wanted to be prepared if guys in cowboy hats showed up chucking bottles and waving switchblades.
"Thug's the one in the overpriced suit smoking a cigar," pointed out Raz in his detached drawl.
"Wait, which one?" Caroline asked, squinting in the dimly lit club. A cherry the size of a dime glowed into existence after shedding its load of ash. It partially illuminated a shaven face and shades, under what, against all odds, appeared to be a fedora hat.
It was as if Jake Blues himself had gotten out of prison after ten years of fighting in the Folsom Boxing league, sitting alone behind a rickety table in a seedy niche bar.
"Don't stare." Raz warned her in his easygoing monotone. "Thug is probably here on business. He used to work security at The Velvet Glove; he's not so bad to hang out with. He's probably looking for Star again."
"Why would he be looking for Star?" Caroline asked curiously, completely ignorant of who Star was.
"Star's had a coke problem for a while. Whenever she gets in debt or stops doing shows, Thug shows up, takes her to rehab, and she comes back a few weeks later with a couple of extra pounds and religion."
"Oh shit! Scar's here! Watch this, this is going to be funny!"
A tall, lanky but muscular man with a pierced eyebrow entered the bar, paid his door fee, and strolled up to the bartender. As he got closer, Caroline noticed a huge scar extending from the corner of his mouth midway into his cheek. He was shirtless under his leather vest, sporting a waxed chest and gauged nipple rings. As he went to order his drink, the bartender whispered in his ear and pointed down the bar towards the dime-sized replica of hell floating beneath the gaudy fedora. Then the bartender reached into his own tip jar and placed three dollars, the exact amount of the cover charge, into Scar's outside vest pocket. Swallowing visibly, Scar broke into a cold sweat. Briskly turning, he walked out of the bar at a pace that would be considered jogging by any other standard.
"Ha ha!" Raz chuckled, "normally Straight Mike and Scar just ignore each other these days, but it looks like Scar's not taking any chances tonight."
"You mean that scar on his face... that was Thug?" assumed Caroline.
"Well... yeah. It's a small scene. You get in a fight with somebody, you're still gonna see them around. Unless you're Thug, of course," Raz corrected.
A pair of car keys slapped Raz in the forehead and fell into the empty cup in front of him at the bar.
"You wanted these?" Berry said demurely, posing in front of the bar. Raz sighed, turned towards the bartender, and ordered a stout mixed drink.
"So, did I miss anything?" Berry asked Caroline. Raz had already withdrawn into his alcohol, the position he always seemed to be in when Berry was around.
"Some guy came in, saw Thug was here, and left. That's about all I know." Caroline supplied.
"Was it Scar?" Berry giggled.
Caroline nodded, "I think so."
Berry shrieked with schoolgirl laughter, "I guess this means Star's back on blow, then. That's weird... she didn't seem coked out when I saw her last night..."
Berry went slightly stiff, as though her puppeteer had raised her strings a little too high.
"Oh crap...Straight Mike is looking over here. Damnit Raz! Stop making us look so single!" Berry exclaimed, punctuating her exclamation by slapping Raz on the back of the head. In response, Raz chugged his drink and ordered another. The bartender solemnly served the empty cup containing Raz's keys to Berry.
Meanwhile, instead of coming over to annoy the two girls at the bar, Straight Mike walked over towards Thug and whispered in his ear. He pointed towards the trio, and then slunk back over to the queens he'd been talking to previously. Thug took a large hit from his cigar, and killed his neat whiskey. He thumped the cherry from his cigar, wrapped the stub in a napkin, and placed it in his inside pocket. The cherry fell from his fingers in a tiny spray of sparks and dropped cleanly into the ashtray in front of him. He pulled a small card from his suit coat pocket, his hands cupping formally around the card like an usher carrying communion.
"Excuse me. Ms. Parker?" said Thug politely. Caroline turned. It was her last name, after all. And last time she checked, none of the people at the bar with her knew that. She didn't know how to respond, but Thug was being polite, and Raz didn't think he was all bad.
"Yes?" she replied. What else did she have to say to him?
"Mrs. Black has sent me to cordially invite you to 1st Holiness Pentecostal Church Sunday" Thug said formally. A bead of sweat formed on his forehead and trickled down under his black-framed shades to drip from his chin. His eyes were covered by the dark, almost matte black lenses, hiding his expression.
"She asked me to give you this..." he continued, and handed her the card.
"Thank you," Caroline said instinctually. Thug sighed with relief.
In a much coarser tone, he parted," Alright, you guys have a nice evening." Thug turned and left almost as fast as Scar had, nervously relighting his cigar on the way out.
"What was that all about?" Caroline asked Berry.
"I'm not sure. What does the card say?" Berry asked with kittenish curiosity. Caroline looked at the card, and realized it was actually a bible tract. The tract was folded in a Z pattern, and the front panel was a picture of a cottage-like church surrounded by a tall, thick hedge. A black wrought iron fence, in turn, surrounded the hedge. The address read 646 Cottage Church Lane.
Exactly like her dream.
"I think I want to get out of here," Caroline told Berry. Berry was still holding the plastic cup with Raz's keys in it, a parody of ice. Raz had killed another drink since Berry had shown up. The bartender gave Berry a knowing look.
"Yeah, I know how you feel. Whatever can make Thug sweat is something I don't want to stick around for," Berry agreed. She took Caroline's hand, and led her to Raz's car.
"Wanna go to your place?" Berry asked.
"Yeah, why not?" Caroline answered. Nonchalantly, Berry opened Raz's car door, locked it, and then threw the keys in the driver's side seat.
"If Raz is sober enough to jimmy the lock with a coat hanger, he'll be sober enough to drive home," Berry explained. Then she reached into Caroline's purse, snatched her keys, and raced her to the car.
It's startling how big of a bong you can fit in a tiny purse.
Grayish white smoke filled the air of Caroline's efficiency. It appeared, however, that under all of Berry's façade of social sophistication, down inside she was just trying to re-enact the 80's cartoon "Gem" with her life, with her playing one of the 'bad girl' characters. Thanks to the power of file sharing technology, Berry had access to Rainbow Bright, Strawberry Shortcake, Punky Brewster, and all the other cartoons that had filled the void in her life left by her parents' complete inability to raise a child, let alone coexist peacefully with one another.
While Caroline proudly displayed her computer skill in downloading cartoons, Berry snooped through the house looking for a nice fuzzy blanket. Lesbian seduction, after all, required slightly different tools than the heterosexual kind. When she came back, Caroline was holding a bright, shiny knife in her left hand, with that strange, dreamy expression she'd had that first night they'd made love. Caroline's eyes never left Berry's as she gently drew the blade across her own lower abdomen.
At first, no blood exited the wound as the pressure of the blade reduced circulation to the affected flesh. Berry stood there, holding the fluffy blue blanket, as blood began to well from the shallow cut and formed droplets that hung from Caroline's slight love-handles. And to think, she was the one attempting the seduction. A call of blood, however, cannot be denied, at least not by Berry.
Berry fell to her knees, and pulled down Caroline's boyish khaki's and panties. Fresh blood was not to be wasted on mere clothing.
The Glass gleamed happily. Everything was going according to plan.
In Caroline's dream, she sat in a cozy, candle lit room. Across from her sat Mrs. Black. How she knew this, she didn't quite know. Mrs. Black smiled, and handed her a cup of tea.
"One lump or two?" she asked pleasantly.
"Two please," Caroline answered. Tea, she could deal with. If the worst thing about Mrs. Black was dreams about tea, she was in the clear.
"So, do you know what's been happening to you?" Mrs. Black asked in the same tone one would use to ask about the weather. Uncertainty opened a black hole inside Caroline.
"Not really..." She stammered in answer.
"Make sure you come and see me at the church then, dearie. It's not safe here for you. In fact, you'd better wake up right now."
And she did.
It was a show cut, a mere scratch. The kind of thing fakirs and shamans have used for centuries to prove their impunity to pain. It burned more that it stung, but that was most likely due to Berry's intervention. Berry lay sleeping at this point, snuggling a fancy and overpriced knife Caroline had been given as part of a set. She'd never needed to use a nine-inch fillet knife, so it had sat unused in its wooden block. Maybe she'd used it once to open a tub of chicken livers or something, but it was curious to see Berry act so attached to it.
Caroline nudged Berry, who was now soundly asleep. Oh well, there was always morning...