Here’s an oldie I wrote after watching La Strada. Strange place for inspiration, but we take it where we get it, no?
“So, what was she on about?”
“Some of that female bullshit. She goes, ‘You can’t tell me what to do. I’m like the wind.’” Don pulls on his collar. “So I go, ‘Alright bitch, you’re a fuckin’ tornado. So, why don’t you make like the wind and blow me.’”
They all laugh. One asks, “What’d she do?”
“Bitch got on her knees.” The men enter an uproar. Knee slapping. Gasping. Snorting up mucus in the back of their throats and swallowing it down into their stomachs. The lights flicker.
“Generator’s strugglin’.” Don wipes at the brown, crusty stubble on his chin, still smiling. “Lizzie! Lizzie, get down here!”
I come when I’m called.
“Lizzie, go out and check the gages, huh?” He puts it like a question, but it isn’t. The men at the poker table eye me.
“There’s a storm on,” I say. There’s a fucking nor’easter on, but I don’t make it a dramatic thing.
“What’d you say, girl?”
“Nothin’.” It’s a show, but I’ve never been one to heckle. I play subservience the way men play poker. A little luck and a blank face go a long way.
I want to be an actress. Not one of those life insurance salesmen. I’m going to act on stages that aren’t Don’s basement poker game. I’m going to say the words of Shakespeare and whoever else is great, and I’m going to move people. To tears, to laughter, to the edges of their fancy, red velvet seats. And when I’ve moved enough people, I will never have to check the gages on a generator again. And I’ll have Don killed some terribly bloody way. The kind of way that would make the nine o’clock news, if he was somebody worth caring about.
The men in the basement stay all night, smoking cigars and other things and talking about attractive gusts that have blown their ways. I sit at the top of the stairs and listen. By the time the sun rises behind the hazy storm clouds, they’re all down, drowning in their own drool. I get sick thinking on it.
We get thirteen channels. When I was fourteen, I thought Don’s shitty twelve inch was magic. I would sit at the kitchen table for hours watching the fuzzy picture, face so close to the monitor I could feel the airwaves in the back of my skull. I watched talk shows and sitcoms and soap operas and even commercials. Now, the thought of life insurance jingles makes me want to puke. I’m disenchanted with the thing. If Don ever dies, I’ll take a hatchet to it. Really make sparks fly.
I flick the thing on anyway. The only channel worth my time is TCM. Black and white beauty. Soft hues and fat little men who squeak after sweet talking ladies. The kind of woman that only existed before tv went color. When I’m on the stage, I’ll curl my hair and I’ll wear gloves and I’ll be in all black and white. I’ll be a lady, true and proper. I doze off dreaming it, head in my hands on the table.
I wake up cold. Shivering. The tv’s gone static on me. I turn it off. My hands are pale and cracked and I don’t feel quite right. Out the window, I see the snow has stopped, but hell if it doesn’t feel like the arctic in the house. I stand up stiffly and my head feels heavy.
I fetch firewood and build a teepee, just like Don taught me. I listen for the men, but they must still be down. It’s almost cozy, but I’m feeling pains like I’m starving. There’s some squirrel meat almost gone rotten in the fridge, but Don doesn’t like me touching the food. I fall back asleep. Maybe it’s the cold or just god willing, but I do it.
I wake up in the middle of the night, fireplace dead and blackened. I’m still shivering and my brain is on fire. I tip toe to the stairs and crack open the door, much heavier than it should be. That’s when I hear it. Scratching and shuffling. A hushed gurgle. Sounds I take for waking, but aren’t quite right.
I’m not well. I was born broken, my Momma said. Skinny, weak, with bad breathing and a bad face. I was meant for the factory, or maybe just tied up in the basement. Louisa used to say I was lucky I’d die before they made me work. Lucky I’d die first. She was wrong, of course. Louisa died in the factory fire when I was twelve and Momma cried for a month. We kids got used to going hungry until Don the Medicine Man rode through town. Momma said I was the luckiest girl in the world, him taking me on as ugly as I am. But I know what Louisa would have said. She would have told me to run, because he was just keeping me alive. And hell if that wasn’t just terrible.
Sure I hate it all, but as I take that first step down the stairs, I get to thinking I don’t want to die. I feel that old fever burning through and I can’t get enough air to cool it, as cold as I am. I swallow down the urge to faint and hear a cry. Every step beats into my lungs. There’s laughter, but not the good kind. Mute, like nothing’s funny at all.
It’s dark, black. The lights are out and my eyes water with smoke. I get down enough on the stairs and see three silhouetted figures, red tipped cigars burning in their mouths. And there tied to the table is another figure, a bright lamp shining right on him while the vultures circle round. I reach the bottom step and stop. Maybe I can’t move, maybe I don’t want to. I fall. They see that and suddenly they’re towering over me.
“What’s this?” one grumbles.
“It’s that girl he keeps,” another answers. Their faces blur a thousand miles above me.
“A man like that got no business keeping a thing like this.”
“What we gonna do with her?”
“She looks like she ain’t been fed for days.”
“It wouldn’t be no surprise.”
“Hey, girl,” the biggest one squats down next to me and brushes the hair off my forehead. “Damn, she’s burning up!”
“What we gonna do with her?”
The biggest one picks me up in his arms and walks me to the poker table. I don’t want to see, but all I can manage is a whimper. Helpless. Don’s strapped down, bleeding into the playing cards and barely breathing. Face, a swirl of blue and red bright under the harsh lamp. Helpless.
“Don, what business you got with a thing like this?” The biggest ones asks. Don gurgles and coughs up blood. “Well go on and answer, man.”
“She my wife.” Don doesn’t so much talk as mumble.
“Leave her lone. She belongs to me.”
“Oh, is that right?” He lies me on the table next to Don and I feel blood, still warm, soak into my clothes. “That right, girl?”
“Yessir,” I whisper.
“She belongs to me. I paid for her fair.” Don says.
“How much he pay?” The other men are around now. One’s shaking his head, like he don’t quite understand what he’s seeing. I don’t like him for that. They’re the ones who put us here.
Don answers. “Five hundred dollars.” He swallows down blood. “All fair.”
“Do you think that’s fair, kid?” The biggest one looks at me and I realize he’s got these blue eyes, almost nice.
“She’s sick. Lemme up to fix her,” Don says, a little stronger. “She ain’t right. She needs her medicine. Look at her.”
“Oh, I’m looking, Don.” He is looking, but I can’t tell if I like the way he’s doing it. “You know what I see?”
“You lay one fucking hand on her and I swear it, I’ll–” Don coughs and blood comes out of his mouth. All the men shuffle uneasy, except the biggest one. He just keeps looking.
“Come off it. I’m not sick as you is.” And now he’s looking at Don, like he’s got a bad taste on his tongue. He’s looking at Don like he wants to kill him, and just like that I don’t want him to. Because Don’s good to me, when nobody’s watching. Don kept me alive, even if death’s better. Don paid his five hundred dollars, all fair.
“Please leave us lone,” I whisper. “We ain’t done nothing.”
“Would you look at that! Girl’s gone and stuck her head out for you, Don. I suppose we all have some sort of purpose in life.” The biggest one laughs a little. “But girl, this man’s done me wrong. And a when a man does another man wrong, he’s got to pay. Don’t that sound all fair?”
“Please leave him lone.” I can’t breathe. The yellow light’s shining right into my eyes and it stings.
“Joe, maybe we should let him fix the kid?” One of the men says. Joe doesn’t move, just keeps staring down into us.
“You ain’t a good man, Don. And if you ever try to take money from me or my kin again, I’ll skin you alive.” He leans down, casting a shadow. “Feed her something.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out twenty dollars. Stuffs the money in my hand and the other men slash the ropes holding Don down. They walk up the stairs, leave, and I never see them again. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to really dying, and I don’t know just how lucky I am.
I want to be an actress. Someday I’ll leave this house out in the woods and go somewhere away from the snow. Maybe I’ll find Mamma and the kids, but probably not. They got their five hundred dollars out of me, all fair.
Don took Joe’s money and put it toward a new poker table. Fixed me right with a lot of herbs and never said that I saved his life. He isn’t one for thank you. That’s alright by me. I know my place. We all need someone to love and be loved by. I got Don, and maybe it isn’t black and white, but I suppose it’s real. I’m like that woman from his story. Never mind that she probably isn’t real. I’m like the wind, just passing through the cracks and freezing. And someday the wind will stop blowing. Be it luck or because God’s fair, the wind got to stop blowing.