Storyglossia Issue 19, April 2007.

First Love West Side Highway

by Stephanie Dickinson




The taxi raced, skimming over the West Side Highway, all the sidewalks Danielle trudged earlier, all the Walks and Don't Walks, now flew away in a blur of gray. Millions of lit windows had turned themselves off, letting the warehouses of grimy brick and scarecrow water towers do the peering out. Her feet burned. Earlier she'd pitched forward onto the cobblestones, the heel of her silver shoe caught in a crack. She didn't know why birds kept quiet at night or maybe they sang, but she couldn't find them with her ears. She loved birds. Then she wondered where the stars were, because they'd disappeared. They hated the city. Asleep, did stars and birds close their eyes? Curl their toes around a branch? Stars burn. Birds sing through rain and thunder and at night they sleep. Who keeps the lookout? They must travel together. They don't break off from the rest.

The cabbie picked them up as a couple; he wouldn't have stopped for the brawny man in sweat pants if it hadn't been for Danielle. The petite black girl in white mini skirt who must be his girlfriend made it all right. "Cold enough back there?" he asked through a slit in the Plexiglas. And then the taxi entered the Holland Tunnel where the river was on top of them and all the currents and silky filth forced back by tiles like the ones in the girl's locker room of Danielle's private high school. Gray and pink tiles that she liked to rub her toes against after a shower with a towel around her. The good feeling of a good run and those tiles neat and pressed against each other.

"See, I told you everything was going to be okay," Hawkins said, the guy who used to be a bouncer at Crobar then at Clubland, keeping to his side of the taxi's back seat. His face shone with dimples and his warm eyes seemed to drink in all the night's trouble. But it was his soft voice that convinced her to get into the taxi with him. His niceness. She'd been lucky, all that fear and then it had worked out.

"Danielle, that's a pretty name," he said. "Like a greyhound pure bred racer."

"How did you know I'm a runner?" she asked.

He grinned. "I was meant to rescue you."

Maybe someone should have rescued Hawkins when he and his mother lived in motels along Hwy. 42 right outside Zebulon, North Carolina. He flashed on his mother's boyfriend all those long years ago, his square head buried in the pillowcase's smiling violets, his jeans rumpled on the rug, Hawkins fishing in the pocket for coins. His mother on her belly, an arm thrown out, little pieces of lint caught in her hair, a balled up silver gum wrapper. Hawkins hid the coins under a piece of rug where the tacks came up, and the next day he snuck to the convenience store, pointing to the red hots and bubble gum. "A nickel a piece," the cashier said. He opened his palm, looked at the quarters, no nickels. He left the store, empty-handed. He was one dumb kid.

Leaving New York City just as the sun began to seep into the sky, Hawkins watched light break over the interstate. He wondered if the girl's eyes ached from the dump of mascara on her lashes? She had one of those upturned noses like some of the light-skins did. A plaza of tollbooths appeared. They were going to the motel where he lived with his girlfriend Tabitha. It was where his car would be parked if he'd had one. The Hudson seemed to follow them; most of the river swimmable except around the sewage plants. Water that wouldn't catch aflame like inland rivers. They called Hawkins' girlfriend with Danielle's cell phone. "Tabitha, I'm bringing a lost girl with me. We're going to drive her home." He'd had to hang up when Tabitha started crying that they didn't have no car and what was going on. Hawkins wasn't thinking more than two to three steps ahead.

"You're a greyhound pure bred," he repeated, after finishing the call. He'd been a runner too, although none of his sprints were for extracurricular activity.

Danielle liked being compared to a greyhound, the second fastest animal on the planet. Her right foot throbbed from her earlier fall on the cobblestones, the strap of her silver shoe had snapped. Her right foot was unlucky: it had been born as a club foot, which they'd operated on almost immediately. You wouldn't know it. Her dad still talked about how spunky Danielle was, a baby with a cast on her foot almost as big as she. Instead of crying for her bottle, she'd bang her crib with the cast. Her feet turned out pretty, but she took extra care when she drank because then she went up on her tiptoes and took tiny steps. Track was supposed to have cured her of that. She ran the half-mile in high school; her short legs going as fast as they could up on her toes while the ostrich girls with their endless legs tried to get by her with flying strides. Danielle ran harder, from her gut, three strides to their one. "Come on, tiptoes," the coach shouted, stuffing a hotdog into his mouth, another hot dog in his windbreaker pocket. "They're passing you. Run!" But they weren't. Danielle threw herself over the finish line. Coach clicked his stopwatch, scratched his stomach that hung over the elastic of his sweats. Blue green pickle relish like broken glass in the cracks of his teeth, "Not bad, tiptoes."

"Which side?" the cab driver asked. "Right or left." He'd taken the exit that curly Q'd off the interstate and hit his turn blinker when Hawkins told him to take a right. The neon's fading orange announced HOLLAND TUNNEL MOTEL.

"Right," Hawkins said, wondering if she might get skittish once she saw the motel. He paid the driver, adding a two dollar tip.

They got out of the taxi and the sticky reek of urine struck her nostrils; there were glistening puddles in the parking lot, but Hawkins smiled and she could see dimples and wasn't it time she saw how other people lived who didn't have dads who worked for the Securities & Exchange Commission. She thought she heard a bird underneath the splash of traffic. A really tiny one. Like those hummingbirds at the bird garden in Jamaica where her dad took her after the divorce, two inches across and taken for bees. Maybe it was one of those birds beating its wings so fast until it sounded like song. All by itself, a red bird twitching like a shred of heart.

"I'm not going to be living at this motel much longer," Hawkins said, trying not to but seeing the motel through the girl's eyes anyway. "My lady and I are waiting to hear on a mortgage application. We've been looking at houses in your neck of the wood."

Danielle nodded. In her neck of the woods all the houses were basically empty during the daylight hours of the week. Her father was an attorney and worked as a fraud examiner, busy these days after the Enron collapse, all those imaginary offshore subsidiaries and holding companies that didn't exist. Employees whose lifetime savings were lost. And sometimes her father didn't exist, beyond a wave when he headed out for his hour and fifteen minute commute to Trenton, and a "Luv ya bunches," on the cell phone. Eighty hour work weeks. Before her parents separated and later divorced they loved to read mysteries, especially in series: a veterinarian detective whose cats solved murders, an ancient one-eared Laotian detective, and black, blind, female, transsexual, and born again Christian detectives. They loved dead bodies. They didn't like to drive into the city because why be reminded of what they'd left behind. And all the shipwrecked people still there. The failures, while they were successes. It wasn't the color line they broke through, but the money line. Class. Beyond her parents and grandparents, Danielle didn't know much about her forebears, only that they came from Trinidad to New York City. She was Caribbean-American, part of the African Diaspora, her ingredients included European and Indian like Heinz 57 and pasteurized milk all blended together until you didn't know if it came from cows or melted crayons.




It was still Monday, a few minutes before midnight in Manhattan near West 14th Street. Celestial and Danielle went around another block in the red Dodge that belonged to Celestial's mom. A van pulled out of a parking spot and they zipped in. Perfect. Not far from Clubland. They sat in the car. Earlier they'd eaten Thai food. Virgin Spring Rolls. Peanut-plum sauce, basil and carrots wrapped in rice paper. They had to make sure they weren't wearing any food. Celestial twisted the rearview to apply mascara and Danielle smeared on strawberry lip gloss. It felt like a race, getting the starting blocks in place, buttering on heat salve, wrapping your ankles. Most of Danielle's friends were runners while Celestial had been a glam girl, a cheerleader, not an athlete.

"Do you think I should take my bag in?" Danielle's tote overflowed.

"You won't be able to dance with it," Celestial advised. "I'll carry my purse. You paid for dinner. I put drinks on my card."

The heat came at them from all sides, a humid ninety degree brownish fog that sucked away their breath. Celestial was dressed in a black stretch top with an oval cut out of its middle so her belly button could stare out. The stretch top snapped between her legs and doubled as panties. Danielle wore a white mini, a black halter, a wide silver belt that her cell phone attached to.

Celestial lit a cigarette and they walked down the street. "How do I look?" she asked, exhaling a string of smoke. "Yummy?"

Yes, yummy like a papaya salad with cherry tomatoes.

Outside Clubland there were lines of glittering girls. Girls in one-shoulder beaded tops, in Hong Kong bustiers. Wrap-dress girls. Like those Chinese prisoners executed for stealing chickens, sold as cadavers, cut open and filled with plastine. The sight of all the chickies made Danielle ache for her ex-boyfriend. Jon, I love you still. Jon's parents owned markets in River Vale, in Closter, in New Brunswick. Upscale food, lots of organics. He had a playboy's handsome face, those kinds of special looks. Black hair, large intelligent dark eyes. His half smile could melt the cools of a hundred girls. Danielle was pretty, but not beautiful, or maybe you would call her long neck and face with almond-shaped eyes quite lovely. I would tear the skin off my fingers; I would give you the tip of my index. One toe.


                           ~ ~ ~


Hawkins was watching Danielle and her friend as he moved toward Irena, the waitress in her black fishnet dress. He gave Irena a nod, his get me a seltzer water with two limes nod. First she waited on the girls, underage you could see that, bending over their table to slap down napkins.

Yeah, Hawkins thought, wasn't he alive only in his eyes at work, looking out for trouble, but mainly checking out the ladies, coiffed and perfumed into goddesses. The girl were black, but they'd been groomed and might as well have been white. Look, but don't touch you low rent mother. Hawkins liked to study cockroaches back in the day, staying in those long-term rental motels, his bed made up in the tub while on the other side of the bathroom door his mother tended to business. She'd put out black plastic roach traps all around the commode and under the sink and he'd see the big bugs stagger away, flip onto their backs, their whiskery legs peddling in the air. When Hawkins finally couldn't stand it, he'd flip them onto their stomachs and they'd crawl away, but you could tell the poison had got to them, they were wounded. He threw out the traps once and his mother's boyfriend Clovis gave him a beating. "That's not blood, Hawkins," Clovis said, between smacks. "That's a new shade of lipstick for sissies." Fuck, Clovis. Hawkins fed lots of bugs five star meals. Sticky fruit they liked. He'd seen a cockroach wrap itself feelers and all around a bit of raspberry like it was making love to the fruit, curling around and sucking it deeper.

The girls ordered strawberry daiquiris. Hawkins watched them settle into the air-conditioning. The dancing was far away across rings of tables and terraces. Irene brought the strawberry daiquiris on a silver tray with juicy strawberries on each rim. Danielle smeared her fingerprints onto the ice goblet. Hawkins liked the one in that white denim skirt sucking on her strawberry same as that cockroach, her lips like feelers doing the love making. Wouldn't he like those lips on him? The other girl had a light brown weave and tossed it around her shoulders.

He checked out the posse of girls in cobweb dresses and rhinestone shoes drifting off the elevator. There was a short guy in white jeans and black leather mid-calf coat with them. He waved his arms in front of him. "Come on, girls. They'll have to clear the VIP section for us. None of those people are on my list."

In the roped off VIP section, you could see that there were more than one Very Important Person, like expensive cars you rented for weddings to take you from there to here. Like here was the heart of clubland, its bloody beating muscle. Red stitched leather chair, swivel cushions. Wild red cherry walls with mirrors, not really mirrors but fish sequins of glitz.

Hawkins had to clear the section.


                           ~ ~ ~


Shouldn't Danielle stick with strawberry daiquiris? How was that Thai eggplant and coconut broth going to mix with liquor and chocolate? What about the Thai Meing Kum Coconut Wraps. Crying Tiger Sushi. The crusted Salmon. Ginger, onion peanuts, crispy shallot, roasted coconut flakes, in Boston lettuce wrap. Black and white sticky rice.

It was the length of her face and slanty eyes that made Jon see Danielle as exotic, not like her suburban sisters, all her friends, the ones she spoke to on her cell phone. The silver bracelet on the knuckles of his wrist, how she liked to watch it move against those bones. All the languages he knew: English, Spanish, Hindu, Bengali, from working in his parent's store. They were of the mercantile caste. The second or third highest caste after the Brahmin. But Danielle soon came to realize over there was also over here. Did he remember the afternoons in August, in the hottest part of the summer when she was sixteen and he seventeen? Or the following spring when she liked putting her mouth there tasting his cinnamon? You smell. It smells like cinnamon too. He laughed and asked if she was comparing him to the dried bark of the laurel tree.

"Ever have a chocolate martini, Danielle?" Celestial had been dancing and her partner treated them. "Come on,have a chocolate martini with me. We'll split it."

The chocolate martinis came in triangle glasses with a stir stick of cinnamon.

Two guys came over and then the drinks changed to pineapple shooters.

"Girlfriend, don't worry." Celestial said. "We'll get a coffee before we drive home."

Danielle wanted another shooter and then to go dance with those guys in cut away shirts. A pineapple shooter. "What's in that?" she'd asked, even her voice syrupy. Absolut vodka, muddled pineapple, Absolut kurant. It tasted so good. She wanted to sip it, but the adult held up his shot glass. "Bottoms up." DJ Big Vinod was spinning. Mos Def and Bizzy Bone. The drinks kept coming and Danielle was anxious about her tote bag in the car. Not to worry, Celestial had her credit cards. She'd be glad to pay for Danielle's drinks, but look; some guys had already been taken care of everything.

Danielle sipped a blue drink. It looked cool—a miniature swimming hole but tasted hot. Like blue licorice. It hadn't been there in her hand and then it was.

They were back to daiquiris. Neither girl was counting. Or they were starting all over again.

Danielle knew that sometimes when she wasn't totally aware of herself she got up on her tiptoes and walked. Her dad thought it was endearing and adorable, his little girl who grew but not as tall as her brother and sister and tried to catch up. Do I look yummy? Yummy enough to take your love in my tummy? A hot girl likes sucking and swallowing. Likes it like peanut butter plum sauce slathered on a spring roll.


Tow Zone


Danielle and Celestial left the club. One of the bouncers, the nice one who'd checked their IDs on the way in, escorted them out. "Take care, ladies," he said. They tried walking a straight line outside, but they weaved across the street. Now it was Tuesday morning, 2:00 a.m. The buildings that a few hours earlier twinkled with nightlife and excitement were blacking out. Near the entrance to the City Bank ATM machine, a woman with strips of garbage bag wrapped around her ankles held out her arm as if clutching a microphone.

Danielle had her cell phone that could do almost anything, but it couldn't slide into the ATM machine and get money.

Celestial tried to slip her Chase card in the door to the ATM. The red light stayed illuminated. "Come on green. Green, you ass."

The homeless woman shuffled toward them. "Ladies, I'm talking to you. A man isn't going to save you. That almighty man is going to land you in Hell. For eternity. Do you know how long eternity is? If you ground down every building in this city and a pigeon flew each pebble to the moon and came back for the next, ladies, it's longer than that."

The sky between buildings was the color of pebbles, a lighter shade than the behemoth buildings that seemed to walk with them. Old sweatshops with their locked windows straggling after. At last they were standing in the empty slot where they left the red Dodge earlier.

"Is that where we parked?" Celestial hiccupped. "Mom will kill me if we lose her car."

The no standing sign stared at them from its pole. That couldn't have been there before. Maybe they'd miscalculated, parking on the next block. But then they hadn't and after walking in circles, Danielle called 911 and was transferred to the Tow Pound.

"Twelfth Avenue and 32nd Street," the dispatcher said.

"Eleven blocks, think you can make it?" Danielle asked Celestial. She had fewer of the pineapple shooters inside her body and knew she could.

"Lead the way," Celestial slurred.

They headed toward the Hudson River back to the Meat Packing District where earlier they'd eaten. It wasn't the same. All the closed stores watching them stagger by. The French Cleaners, Leather and Fur Experts. The heat hardly parted to let them pass before it moved against them.

Jon loved the heat although in each of his parent's markets ice cold air conditioning blasted along with the Indian pop songs that Danielle grew to appreciate, the one note over and over with trills. Like yellow curry, the sweat of it simmering down an esophagus. And since all the girls flirted with Jonathan, she never really knew why he chose her. They couldn't date in the open. Not in front of his parents. After graduation from high school he enrolled at Rutgers, and his mother had gone to India and engaged him to a diamond merchant's daughter, rich and beautiful. Danielle heard from his friends at the market that she was very nice. A virgin. That Jonathan said, "She's great."

"Shit, Danielle. Oh, shit shit," Celestial moaned, facing the building, wishing for a crack, somewhere to hide herself. Not shit. But vomit. Her Thai meal splattered on the sidewalk and on her stretchy shirt with the open belly hole. Danielle swayed and the lights on the street split apart, so much jittered in her eyes, but the liquor kept her wide awake.

Someone was following them, someone barefoot and fat and fanning himself with a beautiful violet fan. At first Danielle thought he might be a woman, but under the streetlight she saw it was a man with long grey hair. Behind the man with the violet fan about a half of a block back strolled Hawkins.

He figured he'd see where the girls were going, if they needed help getting home. They lurched from right to left, the girl in the white mini tiptoeing. Maybe a part of him was feeling protective, the way he wished someone had felt about his younger self. It still made him sick to his stomach when he thought of his mother taking off with her square-headed boyfriend Clovis, leaving Hawkins behind in the Dutch Windmill Motel, ten years old and totally alone except for TV and the remains of an everything pizza. He listened to the ghosts of their old fights. "Fix your hair," Clovis shouting." Ivonne, fix it." His mother snorting, "You're not going to be sleeping in my hair, baby." Clovis lighting a match. All the years he lived in foster homes, he remembered the scrape of match over the strip of grist. Hawkins wiggling the knob, the door popping loose and him running alongside the highway and into the ditch where his friends the frogs and toads lived. He huddled down, letting the cold mud squish between his toes. Wish I could croak, wish I could just be a toad.

When the man with the fan turned up another street, it was just Hawkins and the girls. They out walked Lenscrafters, and Chipotle Mexican Grill. They passed Sin Sin Happy Hour, Salvation Army, La Nueva Rampa Restaurant. Gatorade bottles and orange juice cartons and cigarette butts.




Part of the sidewalk was closed. Blasting instructions the sign said. Three short whistles meant the blast was one minute away. Dynamiting out the roots of old buildings. The Impound was a long lot with chain link fence around it. Two tow trucks entered with their catch.

"Shit shit shit." Celestial staggered against the chain link. A No Standing Zone. When they parked the red Dodge they honestly thought that sign meant no teens or gangs hanging out.

The uniformed men inside the Impound glanced up, and then really stared.

"Get it together," Danielle nudged Celestial.

They walked deeper into the office where it was too bright, like walking into a lit refrigerator. Celestial fumbled her purse but Danielle opened it for her. Soon she'd have her tote, her cards, and the keys to her car, cash. She'd have her life back. Her father wouldn't have to know. Danielle's father voted for Ralph Nader in the last election although he knew he was only throwing his vote away. Letting George W. Bush back in the White House. He had to vote his conscience. Both parties were bought men and women. The day after the election America would wake up. But now it was years after the election and you still couldn't tell if America was asleep or awake. You couldn't tell if the city employees were awake or asleep either. Were they motor vehicle police officers in their blue shirts and decal patches on their shoulders all alike?

"We're here to pick up a car," Danielle said.

"Is that so?" a tow pound officer said, lifting his red face and dark eyebrows. Three long wrinkles stretched over his forehead.

Danielle rubbed her temples, feeling groggy. A headache was beginning in her forehead and left eye.

"A red Dodge," Celestial piped up, pushing herself against the mesh. "My mom's car."

The impound officer lifted the three wrinkles. "Do you have the registration papers?"

"They're in the car. As soon as you bring it around you'll have 'em," Celestial slurred, beginning to sway, her fingers tightening around Danielle's arm.

A light was shining in the red-faced man's dark eyes. "We can't bring the car around if you don't have that registration." Two other impound officers had gotten up from their chairs and stood behind the red-faced officer.

"Come on," Celestial said, hitting the counter with her bracelet. "How are we going to get home?"

"Are you ladies intoxicated?"

Celestial dropped her purse and Danielle scooped it up. Tears budded in Celestial's eyes. "It's my car." Nothing would be worse than getting a citation for public intoxication.

A sign read Traffic Department Tow Pound. Fine to release $150. Money orders, cash, on-site ATM.

"You can't operate a motor vehicle if you're intoxicated, ladies."

"May I just get my purse out of the car? Please it's got my credit cards and house keys in it," Danielle asked, her hands shaking, the headache streaking from her nose to her eyes.

"Let's see ID."

Danielle pushed Celestial's license into the slot.

"That's her. Who are you?"

Celestial gave a hand wave. "Let's go outside," she slurred clutching her mouth.

The impound man called EMS when Celestial fell down. She kept falling deeper into the puddles of saran wrap and Gatorade bottles, her shirt with the belly hole more open, as if she wanted to crawl back into her navel. Her light brown woven hair spread around her on the ground like it was trying to run away. Her pony print purse went flying.

The white shirted EMS guys left the red siren circling and bleeping, as they rolled out the stretcher and lifted Celestial. "Okay, what's in her?" the EMS man snapped. He chewed gum so hard it made his ears bounce up and down. They strapped Celestial to the stretcher. The impound guys with their clipboards surrounded the gurney.

"Any drugs in her?"

The real police were coming and Danielle knew it. "No drugs."

"You want your friend to die?"

Danielle's hands trembled, her knees knocked.

"Please," she said. "I told you the truth."

Two drunken Jersey girls, two liars.

They'd arrest her for underage drinking, put her name in the police blotter, and what would her father say? "You know how to hurt a man. I have government clearance. Don't do this, Danielle." Since the divorce when her mother dumped her father for another man, Danielle tried making it up to him by being a good daughter. Once Danielle had to go to the River Rove bank where her mother worked. She followed a brown woman in a red suit walking hand in hand with a tall white man upstairs to Customer Accounts. There on the low tables magazines rested, one called Sail, white sails bending into the blue seas, cloudless skies. Then the couple turned. It was her mother and the new husband. Danielle's mother used to oversee the cashiers on their high stools, how cool and disembodied they looked, dispensing cash. More asleep people.

They had Celestial between them, loading her into the ambulance, the EMS guys looking nothing like skinny Nicolas Cage in Bring Out the Dead. They were burly and their faces well-fed. But the movie had it right about all the junk food. She could see all the Big Gulp cups, Ritz crackers, wrappers from double-stuffed Oreos on the floor in the back of the ambulance. While they were all gathered around the moaning girl, Danielle simply walked away and no one stopped her.

"I'm in love," her mother had said to Danielle's father. "You're in love?" he repeated. Danielle listened from the stairs. Even now thinking of those words the daiquiri grew thick in her throat like a cut so rich and bloody she couldn't swallow. "Who is he?" her father asked. After a pause her mother answered, "A man I work with. He took me from the side. I wasn't expecting it." It was how her mother slipped away from her marriage and family. When no one was looking she went.

Danielle's whole body trembled now and her heart raced. The street grew dirtier as she hurried and the moon a huge blob of hot lard, an ice cream scoop of lard, a bushel basket of sheep fleece. Did she think she could run to New Jersey? Tattoo parlors. Liquor stores. Everything 99 cents. Ricky's Unlimited Jeans. At the Don't Walk a man sat on a fire hydrant and poured what looked like beer in a water bottle onto his toothbrush. He brushed his teeth, and then spat. Warehouse mouths where earlier the cows twirled on hooks, where the fat hit the cobblestones and wormed its way into crevices.

There were buildings on either side; grates pulled down Kerry/Edwards's stickers, I Love New York.


West Side Highway


Hawkins hailed a cab, an off-duty cab, sometimes those were the best kind. He explained to himself about this girl, that he was watching out for her. A rich spoiled girl for sure. The highway that had crumbled more than once formed a line between the Hudson River and the interior of Manhattan. The girl probably didn't know how she had managed to stumble here where cars flashed around her, making splashing sounds like fleeing water. They'd recently renamed it Joe DiMaggio Highway. There was New Jersey, the Garden State across the river.

Night after night he sat on his stool drinking his seltzer with two limes, watching the chicks and young bucks get high. High was like bringing in the pit-bulls that you'd kept in a bathroom without water, all that musky yeasty smell, lifting a leg, sniffing. All fidgeting because last call was like death, last call without hooking up. Desperation.

Hawkins had the taxi slow down, pulling over almost onto the shoulder. "Hey, you look lost. Let me help you," he kept saying. "I saw you at Clubland. I'm a bouncer."

She sighed, her whole body like she might cry, so relieved. But she wasn't sure, couldn't look. Let me help you. She picked up the pace.

"Wait up," he called out, but another swarm of cars pierced his voice. Maybe she'd start running soon only how would she know where to go. Her hands shook, vehicles honked in her face. "Miss, please. This isn't any place for a young lady. Don't be afraid, I want to help you. You look like you can use some."

She started to run, felt her feet up on tiptoes. Danielle didn't want to be the one who looked like they needed help. Ever since Jonathan's grandmother grew sicker in her bedroom on the first floor with the Hospice aide there and not there, Danielle thought she might have the fortitude for nursing. The aide couldn't be there all the time and neither could Jon's parents with all the markets to work. And Danielle didn't mind really. Hospice showed her how to bedpan the old woman without hurting her, how to lift her haunches and lower her onto the stainless steel pan, and then leave the room to give the patient privacy or staying and giving encouragement.

That taxi kept following her. "Miss, I'm in training for the Marathon," the man called out, "and you look like you're a runner who is lost." That stopped her. The Marathon. He was in training. A runner would want to help her, a fellow athlete.

More of the two hundred miles an hour cars speeded past.

In the taxi Hawkins introduced himself. He hadn't asked, but she told him her name. Danielle. He'd seen her earlier. Did she remember the bouncer at Clubland? Sure, she nodded, she remembered him, but he looked different out here. More like the stone sky.

He felt like he'd just won a prize this beautiful greyhound crossing her legs in the backseat of a taxi flagged down by him. You bet she never had to kill brown lice, but Hawkins knew how you had to get them on the flat of your fingernail before you could pop them, his younger self laughed at how brown lice jumped from child to child at the foster home, how they bed down in your privates and eyebrows.

It was a hot fast ride. Ruts and potholes didn't bother the tires. You could see the ditches on either side, the telephone poles leaning in the water. Hawkins told her he lived with his girlfriend just across the river in New Jersey. That's where his car was. "My lady's name is Tabitha. Like that baby witch. Remember that old TV show Bewitched? They show re-runs on TV Land." Tabitha might not like it, but she was going to have to vacate the room for a few hours. But Danielle didn't know Bewitched "Are you sure you don't belong to that Greyhound bus?" Hawkins gently teased. "I didn't know if I could catch up to you. You're sleek and fast. A real purebred."

He patted her hand, felt her trembling. She was safe and right there practically bolted onto the back of the front seat was the Passenger's Bill of Rights, along with a telephone number to call in the event the cab driver violated one of them. When Hawkins talked he could see her trying to listen, but totally uninterested, trying to stifle a yawn. This silky fine light-skinned girl from River Vale wouldn't give him a second look in her world, but she'd done messed up and was in his world now. "I know the by-ways of this highway," he bragged, like he owned it all: the bicycle paths and granite block paving, the original cobblestone highway.

He had such a low voice like that soft spoken actor. Danielle's mind kept drifting. Why hadn't Jon even emailed to say sorry? Maybe that's why she couldn't get over him. The injustice of it when she had even fallen in love with his grandma whose face showed all the hard work done in that hotter country. "Saffron is used to color rice yellow," she told Danielle. Grandma sat in the kitchen in her emerald green sari while Danielle chopped and stirred. Was I hot enough, Jon? Saffron, the most expensive spice of all. They needed a girl to come in during the day to help prepare the grandma's meals. The old woman knew English mixed with Hindu. She taught Danielle how to prepare Indian foods. Masala dabba, the spice box. Seven tiny spoons like for a doll, seven compartments, seven spices, like crushed powdered jewels.

The meter made a whirring sound. They stopped almost in the middle of the lot. Hawkins slid his money clip from his back pocket, peeled off a five from a thin bill roll. "I'm light, man. It's been that kind of night. I'll send my roommate down to pay you the rest of the fare."


Holland Tunnel Motel


Everything was silt-covered especially the glass door—a grit of black exhaust. Hawkins held it open for her and she followed him inside the lobby. Two dusty couches faced a TV on wheels, the kind rolled into junior high classrooms to watch breaking news, usually a disaster. Only on this screen the Shopper's Channel disgorged its riches: a garnet ring mounted and turning, pivoting to show itself from all sides, then a sapphire, one naked girl after another touching herself.

The hallway smelled of mildew. Hawkins knocked; the door had scratch marks keyed into the beige paint. "Who is it?" a girl asked through the door. Then the door opened although she left the chain-lock still on.

"What's up freckle face cartoon girl?"

"Hawkins," the girl said angrily.

The chain lock slid off and Hawkins and Danielle stepped into the room. A bed bumped against a dresser loaded with microwave and TV and CD player and quarter bottles of Coke and beer.

"Tabitha this is Danielle. Now go pay the cab," he said to the white girl.

Tabitha stared at Danielle with blue worried eyes. She stuck a cigarette in her mouth and lit it. Danielle was sure she'd never seen hair like hers. An ash blond so oily it looked almost wet. Little motel shampoo samples sat near the sink. Five or six of them that Danielle glimpsed because there was no door to the bathroom. Tabitha opened her eyes wider. They passed each other, close enough for Danielle to take in all her odors, mint and cigarettes and a rough muskiness. Her hair was a grease pit, but her skin was a luxuriousness like the white calf interior of her dad's Jaguar. What were those blue peepers trying to signal?

Danielle turned to follow the girl.

"Not so fast, greyhound." Hawkins reached for her hand. "Tabitha keeps promising to stop smoking. She's always putting on the nicotine patch and taking it off. See over there?" He pointed to a pile of discarded patches curled like silver seashells. "Relax. Have a seat. "

"But aren't you going to take me home?"

"You bet," he said, heading into the bathroom.

Danielle walked deeper into the room that smelled of sweat and semen. That must be what that milky saltiness was, a thickness saturating every air molecule. She almost gagged, and then she did, coughing into her cupped hands. No, she couldn't stay. It was a mistake getting into the cab, and once she was in the cab, her next mistake was getting out of it. A night of mistakes. When Hawkins came out smoke curled from his lips. "These funny cigarettes don't count." He stubbed out the joint on the dresser, separating the coal with his long index finger from the rest of the roach, leaving the ember to burn out like the pink eye of a chameleon.

She wiped her hands on her skirt, tried to breathe through her mouth not her nose.

"How about a dance?" He hit the radio button on the CD player and out jumped the rhymes of Notorious G. Then Hawkins rested a hand on either side of her waist where the halter separated from her mini. Danielle stepped back, hitting the edge of the bed.

"Aren't we going soon?" she said, shivering.

"You bet. All the way to River Vale." He dropped his hands. "Hungry? Looks like Tabitha ordered takeout Chinese."

White take-out bags sat in the room's one chair.

"No thank you," she said. How could anyone eat in this air? She had to get out of this room. She'd stand in the lobby and wait for first light.

"No thank you," he repeated, lifting one carton after another from the paper bags, and easing his bottom onto the dresser. Hawkins jacked up the radio volume. "Dance for me."

Her feet were sinking into carpet and taking the rest of her body with it. She swayed, swinging her arms, but inside she wasn't dancing, inside she felt hollow because no one in the whole world besides Hawkins and Tabitha knew she was in this room. Really did you think this ride would be free from a perfect stranger? Even if River Vale is only sixteen miles. She watched him dig into those take out containers. Baby shrimp and blue-veined prawns squirmed over the plastic fork, the cold noodles. Danielle's head swam. She tried holding her breath against the smell. The room stinks, Danielle. Are you afraid if you say the room reeks even in your mind he'll call you uncool. A black racist is meaner than a white one. Sheltered Jersey girl. Burb chick.

A drop of soy sauce clung to his chin—one brown tear. "You're a beautiful lady," he said after he finished eating. "I'm not sure you're a greyhound. Nah, you're no dog, but maybe you're a raven. A beautiful black scavenger. I've never seen anyone with your face. You're a goddess."

Smile, the ad said. You are in Andalucía, in a horse drawn carriage. You're the girl with blazing white teeth in a white sun dress leaning over the carriage rail, your smile so wide, and a much older black man holding the reins, steering the horse, the freshly painted yellow wheels. Andalucía, this summer, next summer, a promise.

There was still food in his mouth when he asked, "Now tell me the truth. What were you really doing on West Side Highway dressed like that?"

"Like what?" Be quiet, said her mind. Be quiet.

"Like a working girl," he said, flatly. His glassy brown eyes reminded her of goggles with mirrors.

His arms went around her and kissing her neck, using lips and teeth like he was chewing. She pulled away, backing into the dresser, spilling a carton of fried rice. The blue prawns squished under her silver shoes.

"Don't," she said, trembling.

"This is my house and I'm the only one who uses that word. Don't is my word. Now kiss me nice because your life might depend on it."

Hawkins stood above her slowly shaking his head. Then he lifted her halter, reached for one of those goldfish containers. She felt the bean sprouts and water chestnuts and snow peas on her skin even before she saw Hawkins dump them over her chest. When he looked up he was again that nice soft spoken actor, smiling his dimples.

He took Danielle's hand, he began to rock her in a slow dance, and she felt his groin against her skirt. When you said what he'd said, when you made a threat, you felt yourself expand, get big, everything obeyed even the radio played the songs that flashed through your head. When you told someone they could lose their life if they didn't act right, you were king, the keeper of all the cash transactions, the eater of shells, lobster, crawfish, all the stink stuff.

"I bet you don't wear a bra, not even one of those strapless." Hawkins pulled her top up. "Your tits look like baby corn." He kissed them, his lips greasy with Chef's Special Sauce. He sucked her nipple like a baby trying to drink milk. Her breast looked funny being stretched, like elastic. He nibbled on her, licking and smacking like her grandfather did the bones of pork chops. He bit her flesh that ten hours earlier she'd showered and lotioned and perfumed. On the bed in her room were the runner up choices of what to wear: an open backed midnight blue dress with a string across the wingbones, a front knot apricot halter dress, a mesh tutu skirt. She'd chosen the white studded mini.

Hawkins wouldn't hurt her if she stood still, if she kept perfectly quiet. She wondered if she would ever see Jon again. Was he married yet? His parents knew her as Danielle who was so good with grandma. They never knew her as Danielle whom their son was making love to. It was spring, the beginning of melt. Jonathan gave her a capsule of brown mescaline. They didn't know about that either. A body high. The Bangladeshi guys who worked had lots of things, had connections to Afghani hash. The pill tasted like cocoa and after she took it the rain started to fall. The new rain was long and hung in the air. Jonathan piggybacked her to a picnic table. They kissed. "This isn't fair," he said.

Danielle touched the rain on his face; there were sparkling pieces of it. Blue and pink and white like Chicklets gum. She opened her legs. The rain was so beautiful. It blessed them. Rain was caught on the branches above like warm icicles; the drops took so long falling. Then the rain was hot and full of the spices Indian families cooked with. Rain turned into mustard seeds. Mango powder. Mint. That was March. If she had gotten a baby from him, it would have been born in November. "You didn't bleed," Jon said. She pulled her jeans up, "I really am a virgin." Danielle had taken her own virginity with a Tampax. Celestial gave it to her to wear so they could go swimming. It wouldn't go in, so she pushed. Each time it wouldn't go in she pushed harder, until her eyes teared and she made it go in.

She must have fallen because he was putting his arms around her, lifting her. He helped her stand up until both of them wavered in the mirror. "See what a nice couple we make. We look like a wedding couple." Hawkins smiled like that actor, and there Danielle was with rice in her hair, General Chow's special sauce on her breasts. Not big enough. She'd asked for implants for her next birthday. Her father said, "We'll see."


No Man's Land


The lard moon must have slid down into the river. It could have been worse she told herself after Hawkin's girlfriend Tabitha put her in a cab. The driver kept peering into the mirror, dying to ask what happened. She imagined Hawkins dragging her into a laundry bag, emptying the motel towels, the panties, and stuffing her in. You wouldn't want to look at a dead girl because the second the breath goes she's no longer sexy, no longer a hot hooker body. No breath, no air, strangled, things broken in her head, forcing her eyeballs out.

She imagined him washing her body with ammonia to rid it of DNA traces, cutting her fingernails with the cuticle clippers. Then using her cell phone to call his mother who lived in Co-op City, Danielle's caller ID living after her.

The Hudson River. Maybe he would have carried her to the river. Danielle had done a paper on things that lived beneath and above the George Washington Bridge. You had to feel pity for the plants, for the things of Earth that had to share air and water with human beings. You had to love the Lined Seahorse, those little seahorses that swarm upright, their tails clinging to the underwater grasses, clinging to each other when they mated. And on the cliff-like girders of the bridge lived the Peregrine Falcons. In the laundry bag she might have felt like the seahorse upright and clinging to life. Danielle could see clearly from here, better than ever. Like the falcon.

Then she remembered being in the cab with Hawkins. "You know there's a Passenger's Bill of Rights," he said.

"Come on," Danielle said, laughing.

He'd almost hooked her with that one, "Yeah, posted right there on the back of the seat where you can read it. You can read, sweetie, right?"

"Sure, can you?"

"Right there with the emergency number. Any funny stuff, you can call."

He'd flagged down an off-duty cab. They were always ready to squeeze one more fare out. He'd talked stronger than this whisper of a girl with her smooth legs and arms into a taxi with him. A purebred. A silver beige girl. He'd make her see after midnight and before dawn, when basically people like Hawkins were the only ones out and the drunken kids who broke off from the pack. Alone ones. The cab flew over West Side Highway, passing honking cars and early delivery trucks. What had that sign said so long ago in the parking space when Celestial and Danielle pulled in? No Standing Except Trucks Making Deliveries. That was what the sign had said. The most important of her life and she'd hardly glanced.

Copyright©2007 Stephanie Dickinson