Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Jersey Shore

No sign. A line of people and a ramp. The bouncer in a silver suit collects cash at the door. Ruby, Viv, and Boris descend down, down into the pulse throb beat where a full-fleshed woman in blue silk tap pants lifts up her thick legs, one at a time, slowly to the rhythm of the boom boom boom. Lying along a black leather bench, her breasts spilling from a tiny black satin bra like an offering. Ruby pretends not to be shocked, to be part of it all because that’s her plan and before the night is over she just might be spread on that very bench in her underwear lost in the music and who says that can’t happen? Boris stuffs his pocket with the change. “Holy Mary,” Viv whispers with cool peppermint breath. Her jet-black hair bound up in a tie, wisps of it falling all over her porcelain face. Ruby squeezes Viv’s hand. Shakes out her wheat-brown curls so they hang over one dark eyebrow and cornflower blue eye. “Let’s go,” she says and takes the first step.


She lied and said she had to go. A job requirement. The Head Start Conference in Seattle, all expenses paid (that much was true). She might have been straight with him, her husband, Joe. He’s not the type to deny her anything. But there is something about believing you’re imprisoned that actually locks you in. She’d never flown the friendly skies, hadn’t gone more than a hundred miles in any one direction. So she told him about the kids. How every morning they hugged on her, yelling, Miss Ruby! You don’t get that kind of greeting working at a roofing office, she said. He blew it out big with: My parents are ready to retire, and, It’s about time to quit that little job and help out my mom. He said: What do you need to go clear across the country for? Can’t you get that right here?


Right here. A one-bedroom apartment six blocks from the beach where Ruby can hear the ocean through a cracked window at the quietest hour of the morning. Right here is a slip of an island on the South Jersey shore where Joe is a third generation roofer in his family’s business. Just a shell’s toss from her bedroom in the back office apartment of her parents’ motel. Grade school down the street, high school up the block. Marriage instead of college. A honeymoon in Atlantic City. Twenty-five years of Right Here.


Ruby held a small hammer the day her father and the workmen tore a hole through Amber’s nursery and built twin beds in its place. The beds stretched across the length of the room. Royal-blue-painted walls loomed large on three sides. Like those Japanese capsule beds Ruby just saw in a magazine. In the dark, the sisters would knock above their pillows, the hollow thunk, thunk, thunk reassuring both that the other was still there.

Thunkacha, thunkacha, thunk, thunk, cha. Boris leads them to an opening near the dance floor. Ruby moves close to the speaker. Places her hand over the soft black covering where no one can see.


At first, Joe would unearth her with his drums. During his shows Ruby used to get up close, almost on the stage, and let his solo release her. Like a razor blade slitting her skin. Joe had it—that deep dark, his drum thump. Late at night they’d sneak into the high school band room. He’d practice percussion for hours. Light hardwood floor stretching out in all directions, high ceilings and no windows. Black cases shaped like tubas, French horns and trombones bulged out of a hive of cubbies stacked up along the wall. In the middle of the room on a single black box Joe centered his throne. With just his sticks he’d close his eyes and play in the air. Silence. His body moving to music that Ruby couldn’t hear. She’d get fidgety and he’d shoot her a glare then keep playing, tapping imaginary drums. Just when she couldn’t stand it a minute more, he’d slowly set up the kit: bass, hi-hat. Then snare and ride cymbal. He rolled softly at first, head down, dark curly hair hiding his face. Broke into a grin as he picked up the beat: an exciting paradiddle, a graceful flam. Seamless fills. Eyes closed, the twitch along his mouth relaxed. His forehead no longer wrinkled like a bulldog. And Ruby on the floor, in the dim light begging him: Play harder. So the vibration would pass through her body. Fat plops of sweat dropped to the floor. Back then Joe could turn himself inside out. Music flowed from him like that.


A group is only as good as its lead singer and when he drowned trying to surf a hurricane, the band broke up. Eventually Joe just stopped playing altogether. The drums were left to mildew in the basement of his parents’ house. When Ruby asked about them he’d say, I’ve got a real job now, and you. What do I need with a drum set? But when he began to slump around their living room, complain about clients, his parents, the cashier at the bank, a stranger on the street. All the things that interrupted his sleep: her tossing and turning, his night sweats, how the sheets were sandy, felt sticky and when had they been washed last? When he began thumping his fingers on the sides and tops of things, when she recycled three then four then six empty beer bottles each morning, she worried about all that beat building up inside of him.


Doon doon cht . . . doon cht, doon doon cht . . . Ruby’s eyes adjust to the dim of the club. Dingy plaster rough to the touch. Ceiling beams compress the room. Square columns mark the space like street posts without signs. Tall, brightly papered candles in a line on the buffet table along the side wall. Our Lady of Guadalupe, three of them burning in the corner. Five eternal lights extinguished along the center. And Barbie dolls arranged on top of one another, legs spread around the prayer candles. Missing arms, ripped out hair, and black Sharpie designs on their private parts. Arched rubber feet waiting for plastic high-heeled shoes long gone. Takes her right back to the man in Apartment B.


People always asked her what it was like to grow up in a motel: “Year ’round,” they’d add. She’d tell them about sliding into the turquoise pool with just-made friends, eating bright orange cheese crackers from the Lance machine, drinking Dr. Pepper from cracked plastic cups.

About the happy howls from the loop de loop in the rear parking lot. The chug, chug, chug as the cars went up. She’d squint into the sun to see those faces. Eyes wide, mouths closed. Then, with just a tip of an angle, their mouths flew open like angels in a chorus. Screaming. She never tired of watching them.

If summers were soft-serve with jimmies on top, (and she’d leave this part out), winters were dull gray clouds. Gray sky, gray empty streets, gray ocean . . . gray fucking gray.

For eight whole months each year, Ruby could lie stretched out on the black asphalt road for hours and not a single car would come by. Wind whipped down the frozen boardwalk lined with trinket shops. All boarded up to keep the storms out.

Nor’easters rushed the ocean into their living room and sucked it back out again. Black muck and trash embedded in the gold shag carpet.

A loaded gun in the cash drawer. Three a.m. and the relentless ring of the telephone, some drunk looking for somewhere to sleep.

No place for a child to grow up, her mother said, years too late. Stragglers, convicts, and men on the 1 a.m.

The crazy all locked up in Apartment B. When the cops busted down his door the walls were smeared with feces and blond wigs were scattered everywhere.

But, who wants to hear a story like that?


Amber is twenty-two now. On her eighteenth birthday she hitchhiked the Garden State Parkway to the New York Turnpike, straight up the coast clear to the tip-top of Maine. Last Ruby heard she was weaving silk ribbon and flowers around hula hoops, selling them at music festivals. Lives in a VW van like the 1960s. A few months ago she sent a postcard with a giant red lobster claw that said: “I Like Lobsters Better Than People.” On the other side, written in large, looping letters that gradually grew cramped and tiny until they dropped off all together: Except you of course. Missing you SissyCome visit. Some kind of fun up here! xoxo. But there was no address, or a phone number even. Apparently there wasn’t any room. Ruby stuffed the postcard deep into her dresser drawer.


Viv sets her handbag down on the dirty cement, smooths the creases along her bright pink pencil skirt. “Give me your stuff,” she yells. “You don’t want to lug that around all night.” Ruby takes out a twenty, then hands over her cell phone and zippered change purse. Viv tosses them into her bag, looks around like she might see someone she knows. You won’t, thinks Ruby. You won’t see anyone you know here. No one.


I can go with you, Joe had said.

You could, but they have me in a room with Viv.

Viv? He laughed. That might be fun.


When Ruby invited Viv, her co-teacher, to Taco Tuesday last month, she showed up in a short orange skirt, over-the-knee spikey brown boots and a sweater that kept slipping off her shoulders. First thing out of her mouth: Oh, my god! Joe Palermo of the Soul Surfers! I loved you guys! Ruby was used to this. Liked it even. That night, Joe was his former self, chatty and filling glasses with five-dollar pitchers of Margaritas. Telling stories of old gigs: the time Kenny fell off the stage, the mystery of the missing drum stick. Viv told about her band. Her band? The Swiveltones, back in New York where she’d come from. Ruby read labels off the beer can collection lining the walls while Joe and Viv busted up laughing. Again and again. When karaoke started Viv jumped up on stage and sang “Like a Virgin,” gyrating her hips like she thought she was really Madonna. Back at the table she slung her arm around Joe and slurred: I like a man who can keep a beat. Joe blushed and said it was time to go. When they got in the car he said, Funny, she doesn’t seem your type. Whose type does she seem like? Ruby thought, envying Viv so comfortable in her own skin. Like Amber that way.


There’s a mirror on the club’s ceiling. She doesn’t recognize herself and likes it that way. Hair in wild strands stuck to her face. Smokey eyes from the glamor magazine back in their hotel smudging too thick a line. The mirror looks right down her low-cut shirt bought yesterday in the street, on a whim, and do you think it makes me look like a whore?


The night had begun at Pioneer Square with its rows of bars, people drumming and laughing, music spilling out from open doors and colliding over the cobblestones. But then it was late and almost quiet. They’d been out for hours drinking and dancing, hanging out with Boris—picked up at the last bar (Ruby hoped Viv would go for his sharp-bridged nose and coarse dark locks). That he could bust out a flawless salsa was a surprise that made him worth hanging on to. Ruby said, “Why not keep going? See what else is out there?” Viv said, “I don’t want to miss tomorrow’s keynote.” But still they crammed into the back of a rickshaw riding through neon streets of a city they didn’t know. Ruby’s hair, long and tangled, blew back in the wind making her feel loose and full and ready for adventure. Boris used the sharp turns as an excuse to drape an arm around each girl’s shoulder. Or maybe just to keep them all from falling out over the bump of a curb, to be left, lost on a sidewalk that was beginning to fill again with clusters of people laughing and pointing at the foolish lost threesome paying too much money for a tourist’s ride.


Earlier that day, she and Viv had hiked all the way down to the wharf where they sat on a bench and ate some chowder. Ivar’s because someone had said so. The sticky salt air covered their skin. Her phone rang for the fourth time since she arrived.

“Do you miss me?” Joe said. She pictured him running his rough hand through his thick, black hair. Feet shuffling along the linoleum. He was short of breath from pacing.

“I might if you stopped calling so much,” she said.

Viv’s thin-waxed brows formed a V like a child’s bird drawing. Ruby laughed a little to show she was just teasing. Behind them a fishing trawler was docking. Seagulls swarmed along the nets. Their cries were different out here.

“What? You’re breaking up.”

“Shitty reception. Sorry, hon.” Ruby hung up and stuck the phone deep into her backpack where she knew it would ring again muffled under her sweater, rain slicker, and the conference program.

“That was a bit cold, don’t you think?” Viv picked at a stray thread from her sweater dress, unraveled it.

“What?” Viv was turning out to be a pain in the ass.

“How you talk to Joe. He’s so sweet to you. It’s like you don’t even appreciate it.”

“Well, you know what they say about too many sweets.”

“At least candy doesn’t call you a bitch and leave a bruise on your face,” Viv said. “You should be grateful. I would be.” She tore the strand. The seagulls were screeching. Deep, rowdy voices shouted instructions. A bellowing air horn.

“Do you know what happens when you leave a piece of raw meat in a Coke can?” Ruby said.

“No idea.”

“It disappears.”


Ruby closes her eyes. Scarcely sees the guy who stands exactly behind her with his legs spread, arms crossed, black maze tattoo spread out across the back of his head. Eyes fixed on her. “Come over here,” Viv says and Ruby lets herself be moved. “I should get you home.” Viv’s voice is high and squeaky.

“Home?” Ruby says. “No.”


Sometimes, when Joe finally falls asleep, Ruby takes out her rusted green bike and pedals to the end of the island. To the very tip. Wanders through the soft sand of the dune mounds, sea grass catching between her toes as she tries to find her way. But there is no way. Just the black surging of waves. A riot of stars. The pitch-dark. And that is enough. Each intake of air, moist and salty, breathing the ocean. Digging her fingers and her feet under the rough, crystal sand. Then back home. Pedals squeaking with a rusted chain. She slips through the door before Joe wakes. The bedroom silent, except his snorting snore. No photos, no posters thumbtacked to the cheap textured sheetrock. Just a bed with starched white sheets and itchy tan blankets. A full-sized bed, not even a queen. A wedding gift. Cast off from the Ebb Tide. He sleeps, mouth opening and closing like a fish gasping for water. That’s when the walls grow. Tall, taller, rising like a wave, cresting even and she grips the damp sheets and knows it is only a matter of time before she’ll be crushed.


By the age of eleven, she and Amber could make a hospital corner, take reservations on the old switchboard, work industrial washers and dryers, and place the paper band across a clean toilet: “Sanitized for Your Protection.


On trip day Joe took the morning off and drove Viv and Ruby to the airport. On the way, an idea was hatched. A new band. A trio, this time. Joe said, we can get Ben on guitar. I’ll play drums and you on vocals, Viv. That’s all we need. Keep it intimate, folksy. A sickening sweet voice spilled over from the back seat: I’m leavin’ on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again . . . oh, baaaabe, I hate to go. Spare us, thought Ruby. But Joe’s laugh was deep and throaty, a sound she’d almost forgotten he could make. At the airport, he carried their bags, even spent the extra money on SkyCab. Viv said, What a gentleman, what a catch. He waited as they went through security waving his arms, shouting out: Take care, have a great time! Who was he talking to anyway? After Joe left, Viv grew silent, her mouth puckered as if she’d been eating something sour like a lemon. Ruby watched the planes take off behind glass walls. In the reflection she stood on the wide wing of a 747.


And the club girls swing by in dresses that skim their upper thighs, long straight legs with three–inch heels strapped to blistered feet.


One in a sequined mini and red cropped hair, creamy arms and legs stretching everywhere gets stopped by the smooth brown hand of a guy with long layers of dreadlocks sprouting from his head.


She and Amber made fake commercials during bath time. They’d take turns standing on the rug-covered toilet in the tiny bathroom papered in oversized black and white daisies. Shouted like carnies: Get your one and only Jokers’ bathing suit. Nothing like this, ladies and gentlemen! Only $9.99. Why wear a real one when you can have a Jokers’ bathing suit? And they would pose in front of the wall-length mirror—one hand on hip, the other on head, making a curve with their stick straight bodies. Coppertone tan lines outlining perfectly the distinct white shapes of a skirted bikini, an off the shoulder one-piece.


Boris leans in. Smells of clove cigarettes. “Relax, have fun,” he says. “We’re here now—paid ten bucks for this.” He drags his fingers along her bare arm, but she doesn’t get goose bumps. So he turns to Viv and slides his hand around her waist, pulling her close. Viv shoots Ruby a look that says, I’m not sure about this. “Go for it,” Ruby says. The words float away and she wonders what she meant by them. Into the dark throng they go. Viv tosses her head back, blue eyes closed, lips slightly open. Beautiful like that.


Joe had winked at her from the gym stage of the Our Lady of Mercy High School dance. Came down between sets and shared rum from a silver flask. The look on his face spelled sweetheart—arced nose, long eyelashes over sea green eyes. It was enough. That wink. For a girl who thought she knew everything at eighteen. A girl who was sick and tired of late nights under the boardwalk, panties around her ankles and cold sand stuck to her sweaty legs.

The boys were all different but, oh, so much the same.

A wink felt like love.

And since no one would ever really know her, and because there is no such thing as trust, why not pair her life to kindness? Kindness. And a beat that reminded her a heart was still possible.


Across the room, leaning against the wall is the dreadlocked boy with his long fingers hooked around the tiny waist of the strawberry and cream girl. His hair coils over her bare shoulders, lips grazing her diamond-lined ear. Whatever he says makes her part her legs and press hard up against him.


Boom, boom, pow. Boom, boom, pow.


Boris and Viv grinding in a dark corner empty of light and color except for Viv’s red leather purse on the cracked gray floor.

His hands on her ass but that’s okay.

Viv needs a night like this having no one at home. Maybe it’ll turn into something. Ruby hopes so.

But then, maybe she doesn’t really care that much. Viv and Joe can go ahead and start their little band.

She thinks she better sit down.


“Want to dance?” His voice is cave deep and his breath beer and cigarette smoke. He wears a white mesh tank, striped boxers peer out from his shredded jeans. Draped around his neck are layers of silver linked chains, a small black metal cross. “Sure,” she says. Sticks her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and flashes a smile to anyone who might be watching.


They are awkward at first. His hips move half the speed of hers. She closes her eyes. Tries not to think of Joe. He never sleeps well in an empty bed. Fingers woven through her belt loop pulling her tight.

Dun, dun, dun. Hips in sync now.

She feels the hard-on and pushes back a bit.

“I don’t know your name,” she says. He pulls her closer and she stays.

Just a dance.


Soft lips pressed to the skin on her neck. It isn’t unpleasant, his mouth. Not unpleasant at all. Like a jolt of electricity, in fact. She turns her head to accommodate his tongue.


It’s not that she doesn’t love Joe.

It’s not that she doesn’t love Joe, but sometimes.

Sometimes she can’t help but wonder what else is out there. Like the bass turned up when no one is home. How that beat gives her something she wants so bad.


The drum’s membrane, Joe told her once, is what really makes the sound, the body only acts as an amplifier. Life is a balance of dissonance and consonance, he says, consonance and dissonance. And everything wants to resolve.


But, Ruby’s about done with consonance. There’s no dissonance anymore. And, Joe’s wrong. Nothing really resolves. It all just keeps circling back again when you least expect it. Reminding you, reminding you, reminding you that things don’t ever shake loose.


You want to hear a story like that.


The music is louder; the throb of the beat speeds up. Wet mouth on the hollow of her throat. She reaches up to his unfamiliar hair—short and prickly with nothing to hold onto. His hand slips between her thighs and presses up along the seam of her jeans.

He whispers, “You want this.”

The vibration of his voice more than his fingers make her say, “Yes.”

A Barbie’s tiny feet tap against her hip when Ruby bumps the table just a bit.

The man in Apartment B had said, You can call me Mr. Steve. Told her she could have one of those beautiful blond Barbies if she’d just bring her little sister in for a visit. We’ll have some soda pop, he said. Called it that ’cause he wasn’t from around here.

She knew it was wrong.

She knew it was wrong to go into a stranger’s room. But, man, she wanted that doll. Inside, the thick brown curtains were all drawn so tight only the thinnest stream of sun leaked through. Both air conditioners blew as cold as they could go.

Sesame Street was on TV. Big Bird and Oscar in his trashcan singing, I’ve got two hands . . . one, two.

The tiny galley kitchen was spotless, not a dish or pot in sight, stainless steel faucet gleaming, but dripping. Small drops of water.

He handed her a Blow Pop that ripped her tongue with its sweet edges. Cherry flavored. While she waited, she licked and licked until the soft, chewy gum began to poke through. Then bit and chewed. Bit and chewed the gum off the fraying white stick.

Memory boils to the surface of her pores colliding with the caress of this stranger who is saying: “I want to fuck you.” He places his finger onto her tongue and she takes it and tastes his salt and dirt, the dried blood from the crack along his nail.

The long blond wig Mr. Steve wore as he brushed out the curls from Amber’s soft white head.

Like cotton candy, he said, one thick arm draped casually over her little lime–green shorts, securing her to his lap. Fat fingers disappearing into the folds. Sweet cotton candy.

He separated the tangled blond strands. Then brushed and brushed. Just skimming the surface, so careful not to hurt her.

Amber squirmed and kicked, but couldn’t break free. Ruby stood by the door, hand on the cold knob and didn’t turn it.

The Barbie? He got it. Held it up. Popped the blond shiny head off the neck and laughed as it rolled across the floor. That’s when she should have learned: Run when you get the chance.

A cold metal cross against her hot skin, Amber’s silent tear-stained cheeks, Viv and Joe singing a duet into a microphone, her mother-in-law trapped behind the desk of the roofing office. No, she’d answered, I can’t get that right here. I can’t get that right here. Joe waving goodbye until she is no longer in sight, Amber shouting out the window of a packed car: Some fun up this way! Dizzy with this music swinging her so high.


The afternoon of the bees was relentless sun and wet, wet heat. Syrupy fake chocolate from lunchtime Fudgesicles stuck to their mouths and fingers. Amber was swinging, feet scuffing dirt below the long dangling chains that Daddy set low so they could play on their own. Ruby had rigged her swing round and round the top metal bar until her head almost touched when she sat. She wrapped looped rope stirrups around her feet, her hands. A circus performer. Dangling high above the ground. Tied up tight.

She didn’t get it at first when Amber leaped off her low plastic seat, and ran screaming as fast as her chubby legs could carry her out to the sidewalk and all the way back to their apartment. Her high-pitched wail was fascinating. How it carried its tune in one singular note that faded only slightly as she tore down the street.

What a baby, Ruby was thinking when she felt the first sharp sting above her left eye. Another in the hollow of her knee.

Her upper right thigh.

The boney top of her hand.

Her eye blurred and burning.

The fleshy meat of her right cheek.

On her lip! Her lip grew puffy and swollen.

If a bee ever stings you be very, very still and it will go away, Mommy says. It will go away.


The DJ murmurs into the microphone: Get down, get down, but she hears: Get out, get out.

His teeth nip the lobe of her ear. Downstairs, there’s a place. His fingers
sear prints on her wrist. Candles flicker quivering shadows up the wall.

A fan oscillates in the corner.

Red and orange silk drapes ripple over a fake window.

In a rear vinyl booth with a black velvet painting of Jesus (or is it Elvis?), Boris drums with his fingertips. Viv yawns and lays her head on the sticky ebony table.

She’ll want to leave soon, Ruby thinks. A half hour, probably less.

Behind the wall a stairwell, narrow and winding. A long line of sweat tickles Ruby’s neck as it travels down her back. At the Head Start, the children mix red, blue, yellow, and green until their paper is a wet mess of dull brown. Ruby paints with them—tiny yellow islands and a stick figure waving, specks on an indigo sea. The little girls say: Make one for me, make one for me. And she tells them: You don’t want this. When they turn the corner, he loosens his grip. The ceiling muffles the beat as they go down.


Thud, thud, thud of feet stomping, dancing, walking. The sound soothes her. At the bottom of the stairs a narrow hall lit with white fluorescent tubes, lined with closed doors. A bright yellow sign, original letters long scratched off, newly scrawled with thick black marker: The Underground. He opens the door and shuts it behind them. No more dancing feet, only a distant boom, boom, boom. The room is as small as a closet; an electrical panel gives off a sharp blue light. Her eyes adjust. In the corner are some shelves stuffed with balled-up foil, a disco ball, odds and ends of beaded light fixtures. A twisted yarn mop sticks out of a dented metal bucket. Piles of gray rags, clear plastic bottles with black spray heads are half–filled with liquid. A dusty old vacuum stands upright.

He slips his thumb into her mouth. She knows the trick. This is how it starts. She knows to slide her lips and tongue along the length and suck it as if it’s another part of his body, the part they’ll eventually get to. She locates the fleshiest piece with her tongue and bites hard at the soft pad. He surprises her by pressing his thumb in further so she bites it again, then spits it out and unbuttons the top of his jeans.

He says, “Hang on a sec.”

Ruby places her hand on his chest and pushes until his back is flat against the wall.

“Heh, hey there.” He laughs a little.

She smiles and wets her dry lips with her tongue. Licks at his ear. One hand firm on his chest, the other about to undo his zipper.

He isn’t scared anymore, just thrilled—she can tell. But, honestly, that isn’t important. Her mouth is warm and wet like she’s been drinking honeyed tea. Sweet like that. And so strong. Every long limb, each moveable digit, even the roots of her hair are charged.


The buzzing had been soft at first. Then louder, louder the buzzing, humming all around her face. They were swarming. She could see them. Nasty yellow jackets, long bodies, not those cute fat bumblebees, not cute at all. Humming filled her brain entirely. She didn’t dare open her mouth to yell for help. They were soft and fuzzy against her skin before they stuck the stinger in. They tried to trick her like that. All of them in her hair, her long, thick hair like squirming knots getting tangled and lost there. Her scalp burned.

Be very, very still.

She stayed frozen like a statue.


She pokes a fingernail into his skin, along the muscle of his bare upper arm. Just playful, she thinks. His skin yields so easily. She needs to try it again. Not exactly a scratch, more like a pinch, not quite a puncture. She imagines a crescent-shaped mark and does it again. Two fingers now, one on each arm. His chest is dissatisfying; the bones underneath make the skin feel hard. His cheek. Ooh, so perfectly fleshy. How deeply can she press before the skin slits open? But, uh-oh her nail has moved past the stubbly growth and is touching the soft and full underneath. Is that blood? And now, his mouth is moving. He is saying, “What the . . . ? Cut it out.”

Her hands slap flat against the wall. She slides down the length to the floor and lays her head on the ground. “Sorry ’bout that,” she says. He fumbles backward through the dark dusty space. “Nice to meet you,” she says. Giggles a little, like she’s drunk. And she does feel dizzy, now that she thinks about it.

When he opens the door the room floods with bright. She shrinks back and squints. It’s as if she’s spent her life in here. She can barely see a thing. He is a silhouette, a shadow box puppet. He shuts the door and she is alone in the blue mote of light.

Ruby waits in the near darkness. Runs a clean tongue along the back of her teeth. She lies along the floor. The cement cools her legs, the backs of her arms. Cha cha cha, Dun dun dun against the ceiling like water pressure. She holds her breath. Exhales. Breathes in the damp, musty air. Eyes closed. Amber with a bright pink hula hoop wrapped with flashy magenta streamers and white plastic daisies. Her hair past her shoulders now. And braided. Hundreds of tiny braids, bright African beads woven into the bottoms so they swing heavy as she moves her head. The clay swirls and dots of henna tattoos on both hands and up her wrists. Silver bangles stacked high. Woven hemp ankle bracelets—one with tiny bells, a silver toe ring. Bare feet. Damp wool, natural body odor, rose and musk. On the grass, a pile of hula hoops, tubes of glue, a box of streamers, silk fabric, fake flowers, shakers of glitter, a hotel sewing kit. Amber spins the hoop around a little girl in a yellow sundress with white–blond hair who stands with her arms in the air. Tells her: Move your hips. Like this. And Amber sways her long patchwork skirt. Her beaded hair and bangles jingle and clang.

Coca-Cola went to town Diet Pepsi shot him down Dr. Pepper fixed him up now we’re drinking 7 Up. Let Viv take the phone that won’t stop ringing All my bags are packed I’m ready to go Miss Ruby! Draw us a rainbow an island a girl in a boat. To find a fairer spot on earth than Maine! Maine! Maine!

She gets up. Shakes off. Turns the chilled knob. Gropes her way down the hall and stumbles up the stairs. The lights are on. The music still booms but only the janitor and his mop are on the dance floor now. Everybody’s gone home. Up the ramp through the door and out.

Cracked glass bottle floating in the gutter. Crumpled foil with specks of ketchup—leftovers from the hot dog truck. Pink morning breaks along the edges of skyscrapers. There are no running cars, no moving people. Silence. Yet, her ears still thump with a beat. A drum that she knows is only really playing somewhere else.  end  

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