Works in Progress: Critique Please
11/1/2010: I’m learning how to add new pages to my blog, I will post pieces here for feedback from readers or writers. Fire away, I have a tough skin.
Here’s an experiment in voice. RULES FOR COLLECTING.
I find my girls on street corners. Shivering, raggedy, their eyes defiant, their shoes wet. There’s a guy on the edge of Harlem who pays me good money. Thousands, I mean. I don’t ask Trader what he does with them. If I knew, it might queer my spiel. When you’re moving flesh, for whatever reason, you gotta be cool. It’s not rocket science, but heck, it’s a living.
Hey, kid is how I usually start. Okay, okay, it’s not very original, but most of them aren’t eighteen. Slang is what they know. They’re not interested in poetry. Sure they pretend not to listen, but they never walk away. Curious, I guess. They know better than to talk to strangers, but they’re out there, hungry and mad and lonely; who else is gonna stop? They’re like everyone in this town, only worse ’cause they’ve been sleeping under park benches and hiding from cops. For most of them it’s easier to talk to a stranger who looks halfway decent than to the folks they left behind. Home’s a relative term.
I don’t force them. It’s better if they make up their own mind. Usually they don’t answer right away. They check the street corners, shuffle in and out of the shadows to get a better look, like I’m what they’re investing in and not the other way around. If they’re runaways, they won’t take chances. They don’t want to be cuffed and carried back, no matter how long it’s been dumpsters for dinner. I don’t ask where they been. It’s never a real choice. Some of the bruises still show, even weeks old.
But every single damn one of those girls is hopeful. Craziest bunch of optimists I ever seen. No money, no jacket, pumped up on whatever freebie the last jerk paid for his with, they look at me with the dumbest doggie eyes, begging me to take them. A nice guy can’t refuse.
I stay away from real addicts. Twenty-four hours without heroin can make any chick ugly. Once they’re in, if I’ve misjudged, I gotta feed that habit or lose the sale. It’s an added expense that cuts into my profits. Plus Trader likes them without scars. And quiet.
I don’t do repeats. If one of them turns up again on my corner, I drive on by. She’s stupid enough to try it again, she’ll have to make her own way. I’m no Don Quixote.
I bank the proceeds. Cash is dangerous and this is strictly business. I feed ’em, give them a warm place, a bath, all kinds of female beauty products to make them feel good—it ups the prices—and clean clothes. I even keep a closet full of shoes, a couple pair in every size, from church bazaars, Salvation Army, that kind of place. You can’t start a new life in the crappy old stuff.
We burn their junk together. It’s a ritual. They love it. She tosses the pile, shoes and all, into an old fifty-gallon drum I stole from the railroad. Took me an hour to roll it from the train yard. Idiot thing kept wheeling to the left and crashing into things, parked cars mostly. By the time I got the top torched off, and the barrel chained to the back fence, I woulda given it away if anyone had asked.
But all that trouble’s worth it to see their faces once it’s lit. Those blue orange flames lick the black sides of the barrel, curl into the material, melt buttons, and send that sweet, chemical smell of yesterday into the atmosphere. As the fire burns hotter, you’d think they’d step back, let it go, but they stay right next to the barrel as if they don’t want to miss a second of it. Their cheeks get so hot you swear they’re gonna combust themselves. It’s a purge, that’s what it is. A regular religious experience.
And then, after they’re all talked out, rested, and as beautiful as the drug store and ten hours of sleep can make them—it’s too dangerous to keep them more than one night if they’ve been reported missing—we trek up to Trader and they’re gone. I could guess what he does with them. Once I thought I heard him say adoption. Families with too many kids who need an older one to babysit or a businessman who needs cheap labor to answer the phone, a grateful kid who’ll stay put and not complain. Who’s he kidding? Trader, he moves them quick, out of town, definitely not local. If his clients want more than a warm body, he deals with it, not me. In this business everyone sticks to his own thing. I’ve heard those TV guys, they call it division of labor. It really works.
Every once in a while I make a mistake. No one’s perfect. Just this morning I spotted a girl who looked pretty tough, but she broke down in the car right after I picked her up. She was still bawling when I parked. Honey, I said, give it a break. This isn’t the end of the world. I put my arm around her, trying to be nice. She grabbed me in a neck hold, five and dime pocketknife to my throat, and wouldn’t let go, right there on the sidewalk in front of the neighbors.
Even though the apartment where I take my girls isn’t my pad, I can’t have that kind of public display. Pay-by-the-month joints still have standards. Sure, a few bills here and there to keep people quiet, it’s a cost of doing business, but I don’t need some chick with second thoughts to file assault charges and start me a criminal page.
The Jane this morning only nicked me once, no scar this time. Better to be lucky than good, but I gotta be careful. If they ever finger Trader, I don’t want them to be able to trace anything back to me. I’m the middle man, that’s all. Plus if I shell out extra, there’s less to lay out for the next girl.
So that’s the new rule. Don’t even pretend to feel sorry for them. It doesn’t pay. And what’s the use, since I’m in it for the money?