Blood. Maureen sniffed again at the dark smears on her fingertips. Pungent sweetness and a hint of iron. Definitely blood. Not the answer she’d hoped for, but the fresh stains couldn’t be anything else. She studied the spray pattern of red dots peppering the outside of her windowsill. That’s the effect of sharp teeth, she thought, punching holes through skin. She hadn’t seen or heard anything, a surprise since she’d left the kitchen only for a few moments to answer the phone. Nothing left of the body but what looked like sticky feathers. The culprit sat in plain sight. These attacks had to stop.
“You’re killing me!” she shouted out the window, down at the fire escape landing a floor below her kitchen. Narrow yellow eyes stared back at her, fearless and devoid of mercy or empathy. “You’re absolutely killing me, you fuzzy little prick.” Maureen put the phone back to her ear, turning away from the window. “And you are too,” she said to her caller. “You know that, don’t you, Dennis? You’re gonna be the death of me.”
“You better not call me fuzzy,” Dennis said.
“I wouldn’t know about that.” Maureen headed to the kitchen counter. “And I don’t wanna know.” She grabbed a half-full beer bottle and carried it back to the window. “All I know is I worked the past five nights.”
Reaching out the window, she emptied the beer bottle over the skinny calico on the fire escape landing. With one twitch of its tail, the cat launched onto the railing and away from the beer shower. The cat looked down at the beer, up at Maureen, and then sailed without a sound from the railing to the leafless bough of a nearby tree. A dozen sparrows hit the air, chirping in panic and warning. “Sorry.”
“C’mon, Maureen,” Dennis said, teetering on the edge of whining. “I’m really stuck here. Help me out.”
Maureen sat at the kitchen table, jamming the phone between her ear and shoulder, crossing her ankles. “You’re totally murdering me. One more night might do me in, for real.”
She pulled a cigarette from the pack on the table and lit it, listening to the bar manager, her boss, apologize and then beg some more.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Tanya,” Maureen said, “in three words: O. Pee. Ates. She’s either too high or too sick from getting high to work. Don’t believe that bullshit about her sinuses, please…Yeah, she told me she was done with it, too, but you know better. We both do.” Maureen leaned forward, pressing her forehead into her free hand. “Okay, I’ll come in, but not as a favor to you. I need the money. This is for me. Not for Tanya, not for you.”
She disconnected and tossed the phone on the table. Well, so much for the gym. Good thing she had maxed out her credit card renewing the membership yesterday.
Maureen got up from the table and went back to the window. Leaning out from the waist up, she grabbed the bird feeder and pulled it inside. She’d have to move it again. Taking the feeder down meant letting the cat win, and Maureen hated that, but it wasn’t fair to make the neighborhood birds pay the tab for her pride. Eliminating the cat, which Maureen knew damn well she couldn’t stomach, was the only other option. Besides, punishing the cat for doing what it was built to do wasn’t fair, either. I’m the person, she thought. It’s my job to be smarter, to find the high road. She was sure a situation existed where cats could be cats and birds could be birds and everyone could go about their business in peace. She just had to find it. She set the feeder on the counter, silently promising to get it back outside in a cat-proof location as soon as possible. She couldn’t let the situation linger; the birds needed her. Winter was coming.
On her way to the bedroom, she paused at the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. For a full five seconds she let her eyes rest on the picture above the black and white grid of dates. The Outer Banks, at sunset. A vast pink and orange sky floated over the sea like a clean sheet floating over a bed. Silhouettes of seagulls hovered over purple water flecked with gold. What island was in that photo? Not this island, she thought, that’s for sure. It’s not cold, gray, late-November Staten Island. Well then, boohoo for you.
Her eyes dropped from the picture and she found the date. Who was playing the bar tonight? Full House. Okay. At least there’s a decent band, a great band, really, on the schedule. Old-school R & B. Large crowd, older crowd. Liquor drinkers, top shelf. That meant good money, possibly great. All she had to do was get there to make it. She walked into the bedroom where, arms crossed, she surveyed the contents of her closet. Two days ago she’d organized it. Work clothes, hanger after hanger of black, on the left. Real life clothes on the right, a few skirts, tops, dresses. Twice as much black as color, a depressingly accurate portrait of her life.
She slid her hands in among the blacks and examined her options, listing her selection criteria in her head. One week before rent. Her maxed-out Visa. And the electric bill was due yesterday. She pulled out a thin sweater and held it up. Tight and nearly see-through. Long sleeves but cut low at the neck and high at the midriff. With her free hand, she pinched the collar of her T-shirt and peered down. Already wearing the black bra. Sweater’s a go; she put it on. Now where was I?
Business, she thought, this is business. I need to make three hundred tonight. She tossed a brushed leather skirt, very short, extremely short, onto the bed. Let them think she looked like a slut. Probably did already anyway. She made four hundred dollars in that outfit last time she wore it. Can’t hurt to leave some room for error. Service would be surly tonight; she could tell already.
Maureen stuffed the skirt, plus black leather flats, black stockings, and her apron into her knapsack. She slipped out of her running shorts and into a pair of jeans. She paused for a quick look in the mirror. Her nose glowed red and raw around the false emerald stud she’d had punched through it a week ago. It was cute, it really was. A good birthday present, no matter what her mother said. “A nose ring? I gave you money for something nice. For chrissakes, Maureen, you’re freakin’ twenty-nine years old. Be an adult. You’re almost thirty.”
Yeah, I’m an adult, Maureen thought, leaning closer to the mirror, and I bought jewelry for my birthday. And it looks good. So leave me alone about it. If only it would heal up already. Really oughta put some powder over that red. Then again, why bother? The dim lights of the bar hid a multitude of sins, red noses being the least of them. Hopefully, the black circles under her eyes would disappear as well. Christ, she was exhausted. Her nose twitched. Something smelled stale, like an old book left in the back corner of the attic. Was it the sweater? Her? She yanked open her bureau drawer and dug through the socks and bras. One thing the bar wouldn’t do was make her smell better.
She pulled out a fistful of glass vials, her collection of scented oils, tossing them on top of the bureau. Lavender, patchouli, some junk she’d borrowed from Tanya called Wind Spirit that turned Tanya into a Turkish princess but had left Maureen smelling like a lamb kebab. Real perfume was out of her price range, but the oils came cheap from the Rasta shop over by work. Some of the vials had lost their labels so she twisted off the caps, smell-testing them. Nothing caught her fancy until she un-capped a bottle a quarter full of white powder. God, how long had that been in there? She couldn’t even remember who had sold it to her. She recapped the bottle but didn’t screw it shut, pausing instead to stare again at her boxer’s eyes. Fuck it.
Maureen made a fist and tapped out a dash, not even a dash, really, of coke onto her knuckle. To get her to work with a bounce in her step, so she didn’t show up snapping and snarling at everyone, ruining her night before it even got started. She lowered her nose to her knuckle and sucked in the coke, coming up blinking at the mirror. Ouch. Bit of a kick to it. Bitter fluid gathered at the back of her throat and she swallowed it down, rubbing her knuckle over her upper gums. All right then. Time to get moving. She swept the bottles back into the drawer.
She dug the gym membership card from her discarded running shorts and tucked it tight behind her maxed-out Visa in a pocket of her wallet. No sense losing it. Replacements cost thirty-five bucks, and during the late nights and early mornings when Maureen figured she’d most often be going, the membership card was the only way into the 24-hour gym. And she would go. She’d promised herself that, too. She would go.
She dropped her arms in front of her, made fists, and then turned her arms until clean-cut triceps surfaced and pushed up against her hard shoulders. Her arms felt strong and looked it. The clinging sweater made that obvious. She knew her legs were in good shape too, even if they did wake her up three nights a week with their complaining. She peeked down her shirt again; now, if only push-ups, running the floor, and humping drink trays did something for those. And her belly, flat enough for the short sweater but getting soft. Maybe she’d stop going to the diner with Tanya after closing. Start keeping real food in the house. What good could waffles and ice cream be doing her anyway, at four in the morning? Wouldn’t it be better, she thought, sniffling, the coke making her nose run, to wind down on the treadmill or the elliptical? Who in their right mind enjoyed trading a crowded, noisy, smelly bar full of demanding drunks for a packed and stinky diner full of the same jerk-offs? Not relaxing, even if you’re not working. But the empty gym? Soundless except for the hum of the air conditioner and the thump of her sneakers on the treadmill? That could be heaven. That could put a girl in the right mind to sleep well. But that was all for another time. Tonight, she had to work.
Maureen tightened her ponytail, slung her bag over her shoulder, and grabbed her purse off the kitchen table. Makeup could wait till she got to work. By the door, she pulled on her battered wool peacoat and stuffed her purse into her knapsack. She double-locked her apartment and barreled down the stairs.
Outside, a frigid gust slammed the storm door against the side of the building. The door bounced off the wall and hit her, knocking the keys from her hand. She bent to pick them up, heard a pop in one knee. Not already. Come on. Happy hour hasn’t even started yet. The wind kicked up again and a chill shook her. Really oughta call a cab. No, what you really should do, she thought, is hang on to that ten bucks and hustle your ass to the bus stop. She bounded down the steps, across the sidewalk, and into the street.
She ducked her head and quickened her pace when Paul called her name, stepping out from behind the propped-up hood of his long-dormant Chevy Nova. It was so irritating, the way Paul drew out the e’s at the end of Maureen, following that up with a bad Curly the Stooge impression. Hey, Mo, ny-uck, ny-uck. Nobody ever called her Mo, ever. Not twice, anyway. How thick could a guy be? What’s it tell you when you call a girl’s name every day and she never once stops and answers? Give it up, that’s the message. But Paul wasn’t hearing it. That’s what I get, Maureen thought, for asking the guy for one favor. Should’ve put the ceiling fan in myself. She should’ve known it’d be like this when he wouldn’t take the twenty she offered and asked for a date instead. When he said call me after she shot him down. She thought leaving a six-pack on his porch—no note, no phone number, nothing to give him the wrong idea—made it clear that she wasn’t into owing favors. But Paul got the wrong ideas all on his own, no help needed. Because he was her landlord’s kid, Paul thought that got him some leverage, some play. He called her name again. Maureen ignored him.
Turning the corner onto Richmond Terrace, Paul safely two blocks behind, Maureen slowed her pace. She pulled her purse from her knapsack, searched for her cigarettes. Not in there. She stopped in the street, digging through her knapsack, though she knew they weren’t in there either. She knew where they were. She could picture them in her mind, sitting on her kitchen table, the nearly full pack of American Spirits. She started walking again, once more digging in her purse. I must’ve grabbed them when I grabbed my keys. No dice. Now she’d have to bum at work, be one of those people. Like Tanya, who was always bumming from her, telling Maureen she’d quit. “Yeah, you quit,” Maureen had finally said one night. “You quit buying your own cigarettes.”
No bumming, Maureen thought. Not me. I’ll stop at the deli on the way to the bar. She opened her wallet. After bus fare, she’d have three dollars left over. Okay, after her first couple of tables, she’d run over. Won’t take ten minutes. Or she could borrow a couple bucks when she got there. Or not. Maybe this is a sign, she thought. A sign she should quit. Yeah, because right before a shift is a great time to quit smoking.
When the bus came, Maureen paid her fare and plopped down into the seat behind the driver. She shivered, crossed her legs, and folded her arms over her bag, clutching it to her chest. No heat. A frail old lady wrapped in a tattered overcoat that had shed its buttons, groceries spilling from the plastic shopping bags at her feet, smiled when they made eye contact. Maureen closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the cold glass. Jimmy would probably be there tonight; he almost always came out for Full House. Maybe she could catch him before he left this time, invite him back for a drink at last call, when there’d be time and quiet for a decent conversation. As long as he didn’t have that banshee Rose on his arm.
God, Jimmy hardly looked old enough to be out of high school, never mind teaching it. But he was cute. She could imagine the teenage girls primping in the bathroom mirror before his class, mooning over him while he lectured. She’d have had a crush on him if he’d been her teacher. She’d almost been dumb enough to tell him that, last time they’d talked. Yeah, she’d make sure he came back to see her. Maybe the skirt would help. She wasn’t sure what she’d say exactly; she didn’t want to look too eager. Hadn’t he said parent-teacher conferences were coming up? She could ask about that. He’d have some hilarious stories. Good. She was looking forward to really laughing after a long night of pretending. Unless he asked about her classes at Richmond College. God, could she tell him she’d dropped out? Admitting she was, at twenty-nine, still working on her undergrad had been embarrassing enough.
And what if she was so exhausted after the shift she couldn’t keep her eyes open, never mind talk to anyone? Should’ve brought the coke. Yeah, like there wouldn’t be any at the bar. When the bus hit a pothole, banging her head on the glass, Maureen sat up, startled. The old woman giggled at her. Yeah, cocaine, Maureen thought, the magic elixir for intelligent conversation at 4 a.m.
Maureen watched the approaching road over the bus driver’s shoulder. The streetlights flickered, the day nearly over. The last thing I need is less daylight, she thought. Where had the autumn gone? Not where she had hoped, that was for sure. No long afternoons on campus at Richmond, paperback open on her knee instead of closed and collecting dust on her coffee table. This early sunset wouldn’t be so depressing, she thought, if I were on campus trying to read one more chapter of Conrad before the light faded. Long afternoons on campus filled with reading and deep conversation. Ideas. That had been the plan.
Instead she’d struggled through eight weeks of bleary, headachy mornings spent rushing to early a.m. pre-req classes wearing her work clothes. She thought of her fresh-scrubbed, fashion-labeled classmates staring at her as she stumbled to her seat fifteen minutes late, pen in her teeth and used textbooks tumbling from her arms, breaking the pained silence of the interrupted lecture. She knew her classmates saw her as a warning, a symbol of what awaited them should they not study hard and come to class.
She’d dropped those two morning classes, Psych II and History of the American Revolution, by the end of September. Shame about American history, Mr. Curran was cute and a great teacher. She’d hung on to Shakespeare’s Tragedies until the end of October. That met at two in the afternoon, though she always attended that one in her work clothes too, leaving early every third class to get to work on time. She felt more comfortable in an upper-level English class, pretending that wearing black every day marked her as arty and not overworked.
Dr. Travis wore black most of the time too. It was the first thing he’d pointed out they had in common. More things in common came up over rainy afternoon coffee on campus, even more over late-night drinks across the island.
At his Jersey Shore beach house, he recited poetry to her in bed, dense and ornate verse he claimed as his own life’s work, a tragic retelling of “the fall of men and the dawn of time” that Maureen recognized almost immediately as John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I actually finished that semester, she wanted to tell Travis, having stuck with that class mostly because of that poem, charmed as she was by Milton’s portrayal of a defiant and driven Lucifer. But she suppressed the urge to call out Travis as a phony and instead tried to enjoy his busy hands at work under the sheets.
It’s someone reading you poetry in bed, she told herself, and almost making you come as he does it. A man who can multitask. Be happy.
Maureen hadn’t harbored any unrealistic hopes for either a future or a genuine gut-busting orgasm with Travis, but she figured they’d wear a hole in the carpet in front of the beach house fireplace pretending there was reason to believe in both. But Mrs. Dr. Travis, mother of their three sons, matron of the home the Travises shared on Todt Hill, had other plans. Mrs. Dr. Travis of the short black hair had found long reddish hairs in that carpet by the fireplace, and that was that.
In his office, after getting busted by his wife, weeping and moaning like a poor version of a character from the tragedies he taught, Travis offered Maureen an A and the rest of the semester off if she promised not to bring sexual harassment charges over getting dumped. She laughed at him. Like the last time this happened? she’d wanted to ask him. Then she laughed at herself. She hadn’t considered herself his Juliet, and Travis was no fucking Romeo, but she had imagined herself an exception, a powerful if not intoxicating temptation. Instead, she felt revealed as only this semester’s diversion, not significant enough to be tragic or comic.
When Travis had stood and reached out to embrace her across the desk, the glint of once for old times’ sake in his eyes, Maureen walked out of the office. That afternoon she dropped the Shakespeare class, though she lost half the tuition she’d paid for it. She set her sights on a fresh start in the spring and that night posted a sign in the waitress station at work, offering to pick up extra shifts.
On the bus now, on the way to one of those extra shifts, she sat slumped, rocking her molars together and thinking of Jimmy’s Rose and Mrs. Dr. Travis. Maybe Jimmy wasn’t such a hot idea. Seen that movie already. It always ends the same. If she stayed out of trouble with Jimmy, maybe the money she lost on the Shakespeare class would end up being worth something after all.
Maureen rubbed her eyes with her fingertips and unzipped her bag. She picked through her purse, searching for her compact, needing some powder for the outside of her nose. She found the compact and popped it open. Oh, shit, she thought, staring down at her empty pack of birth control pills. When did this happen? When had she taken the last one, yesterday? The day before? She clicked the pack closed and dropped it back in her bag. No problem. Monday I’ll go to Planned Parenthood and get more. Did this mean she’d have to go off and go on again? Start all over? There wasn’t much point. Considering her total lack of prospects, she certainly wasn’t in any danger.
But still, you hate to break the cycle.
She repacked her things and stood, grabbing tight to the cold metal pole beside the bus driver. The bus settled to the curb at her Bay Street stop with a groan like it was dying, like its own legs were all but worn out.
THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS Copyright © 2011 by Beats Working, LLCBill Loehfelm is the author of Fresh Kills, the first winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and another novel, Bloodroot. He was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Staten Island; he lives in New Orleans with his wife, the writer AC Lambeth.