From workin' at the state to bein' in the life
A woman knows where her breasts are at all times. If her nipples were rubbing against my arm the way hers were at that moment it wasn't an accident.
"Hey baby," she said. Her arm slid around my waist.
She was wearing a straw cowboy hat and open sandals. A bright-colored summer dress hung high above her brown knees.
Outside, beyond the big panes of storefront glass, the sun radiated down in relentless waves. Inside, the air was cool and breezy.
"How you doing?" she asked.
The last time we saw each other she wasn't nearly so friendly. That was a couple of years earlier. We had both been working at nowhere jobs in state government, taking care of the mentally retarded, bathing and feeding people who couldn't bathe and feed themselves.
It was evening and we were walking to work, through the front gate, past the baseball field no one ever used. My arm was halfway around her waist, hand resting comfortably on the dimple at the small of her back. It had taken a few days to get that far, and instinctively you know when it's time to make the next move. Either she will or she won't, and if she won't, maybe someone else will. Casually my hand slid downward.
She stopped and turned toward me.
The moonlight was shining on her face. She was not pretty. She was either beautiful, or not beautiful, depending on your point of view, just not pretty in any ordinary sense of the word.
That night on our way to work, she wasn't taking any shit, and she sure wasn't giving up any pussy. Lazily she pushed my hand away.
More tired than angry she said, "You riding a little low there, cowboy."
Now, in the supermarket, she acted like she was selling it.
"Where you been so long?"
She had me sweating because she wasn't alone. There was a guy in dreadlocks standing with a carton of orange juice in his hands, just watching. There was a child, also, maybe 10 or 11 years old, too old to be his or hers but connected somehow.
The kid looked like the guy in dreads. Could have been a younger brother. Both of them watching her.
She called over, introducing us: "We used to work together at the state."
That's what people in this town say, "working at the state" or just "at the state." It's like being in prison doing time at the state of Texas but instead of three meals a day you get a check. Usually amounts to the same thing.
Dreadlocks didn't seem very interested in our work history together. His look was sullen, kind of down around the corners of the mouth. She was fucking with him, and he didn't like it.
Fucking with us both, maybe.
"How you been, baby?" she asked again. Still pressed up against me.
"Just working. You know."
"I didn't ask what you been doing. I asked how."
"Okay. You know."
"No, I don't know. But I'd like to."
The conversation was like that. She seemed to be talking to the guy also. Trying to piss him off. Doing a pretty good job.
His lips were pressed together tight now and he had given up pretending to look at the containers of juice. Ruby red or calcium-fortified was no longer the choice he faced. Dropkicking her ass down the grocery aisle seemed a more likely option.
The child with him was studying her pretty intently too, in a semihostile way.
The expression on the boy's face said openly what his older brother must have been thinking: "Who is this motherfucker, and what you got to do with him?"
She addressed her dreadlocked friend again. "We used to work together," she said.
His hair bounced. He knew that already.
A little male-to-male acknowledgement seemed appropriate at that moment. My lips reluctantly parted, to speak to the brother, to calm his masculine fears.
"How you doing?"
Dreadlocks nodded again.
"Doing all right," he seemed to say, looking at her, "except this bitch here."
He cooled out a little after we communicated telepathically, male to male. The situation, we agreed silently, was delicate, as diplomats like to say, but manageable.
Those breasts were still pressed against my arm. If she got any closer it would be coitus. On my initiative we broke contact.
"What's your number, baby?"
She borrowed a pen from somebody and had me write it on the palm of her hand, then brushed my arm again with her tits.
A moment later she and Dreadlocks were at checkout. Other people were watching her too.
She wasn't dressed any more revealingly than half the college girls in the store. Some of the university boopsies were even wearing fewer clothes than she was, but her movements, her postures, were exaggerated. Like she wanted to be noticed.
She bent over to pick up a magazine and her ass stuck out to the deli. It was a fine ass. Really exceptional. Spring-loaded, mint condition, ready to ride. You just don't want it in your shopping cart. The truth is, she made me feel guilty. You feel bad seeing any woman selling it, especially in the juice aisle. As quaint and self-centered as this sounds, she embarrassed me.
Probably all of her adult life she had been treated like a sex object, a piece of ass. Now she had turned into one.
My friend P. had worked for the state of Texas too. We talked later that day.
P. stayed at the state longer than me. Even rose to a position of authority, she told me, but the reason for my telephone call was that P. knew everybody at the state.
P. had a new gig now with an insurance company or something like that but she remembered her.
She spilled the news: "She's out there!"
P. said she had suspected it. The evidence was pretty compelling. Our friend was in the life.
When they were still together at the state there'd been rumors, P. said, that she was inappropriate with some of the guys. Her manner of dress was wrong, something like that. You had to be careful working for the state, especially with that particular clientele. Many of the guys we took care of didn't have the intellect to know what pussy is but on an instinctive level, they knew they wanted it.
Probably that's what she did. She dressed wrong. Maybe it wasn't the right kind of work for her anyhow. Maybe that's where she got the idea to go into her present profession. She had seen the kind of rise she could get out of men who didn't have any sense. She had decided to make a business of it.
P. said she had seen her just recently, walking down East 12th Street, real slow, the temperature outside like 200 degrees in the shade. P. stopped and offered a ride but she said no.
Could there be any other explanation?
She was working.
Her family is good people, been in this town a long time. Live over there on the Eastside. There are two ways to get out to her house if, like me, you don't have a car.
On the No. 2 Line
The No. 6 bus goes out East 12th, where she was when P. saw her. You can walk from the Chicon Street bus stop to Carver Library, which is near her crib, or you can take the No. 2 bus that goes out Rosewood Avenue and will drop you right in front of Carver. Either way it's not but a few minutes to her house. My hope was that she wasn't working that afternoon and would stick close to home. That's the way it turned out. Just like in the supermarket, she saw me first and called out.
There she was, in the park next-door to the library, sipping from a can of beer, smoking menthol cigarettes you could smell almost down the block, sitting against the trunk of a tree. It was late afternoon, maybe early evening, a breeze picking up strength, the air just starting to cool down. It was a perfect time to sit in the park and get high, which was exactly what she was doing.
"I need money for cigarettes!" was practically the first thing she said, and she was obsessed by that worry until she accepted $10 from me to change the subject.
Then she kissed me.
There was a lack of enthusiasm on my part and she sensed it. "I have to teach you to kiss," she said.
Kissing a woman who is a smoker is always a challenge. Kissing a whore, it seemed to me, is another skill altogether.
"I don't like penetration!"
She said it so suddenly we both jumped. The lady was tripping.
She mentioned something about going to a clinic on Monday. In the disappearing summer light she looked just like she did that night we were walking to work.
"I need money for cigarettes!" she said again.
It took a little effort, but she was finally convinced to open her fist, where my $10 was hiding. She wasn't trying to zoom me out of more money. She just forgot.
Her mistake about the $10 seemed to prompt some kind of self-examination on her part.
"What you think about me?" she asked.
"You remind me "
What followed was the truth, which surprised me because it wasn't just true but it was also exactly the right thing to say to her, at that moment in the park, and an accidental exhibition of the kind of social grace that otherwise escapes me.
"You remind me of a kid in elementary school who's too smart or too different and who sits by herself and the teacher doesn't pay any attention to her."
She liked that answer. She said that was exactly the way she was, back in school. Suddenly she was smiling again, looking far off, transformed into a child in class with her notebook, writing down her dreams.
A white pickup passed by on the road, going slow, and she straightened up like she knew the guy behind the wheel, or she wanted to be noticed by him. But the truck moved on and she turned reluctantly back to me. She said, surprisingly, like a game show contestant American Ho "My goal is to earn enough money to go live on the beach so that I only have to come into town once a week and I can avoid negative influences that want to hurt me."
That sounded really nice. For some uncertain reason as if she were connected to reality, which she was not she made me want to ask if she was saving money for the trip to the coast?
This time she said, also without being asked, "I want to find somebody who will fuck me mentally, physically, and spiritually." A breeze stirred the air again. The leaves on the branches trembled overhead.
A breath of cool air blew past.
Like, don't we all?