Friday, March 1, 2013

Burnt the Fire

“Coming out with us tonight, Pearl?” Sam asked, poking his head inside her trailer.

He caught a glimpse of her in the faint moonlight just before the gauzy curtains blew inward, obscuring her. The candle on the dressing table shivered, but she cupped it in time. Her hands looked unusually white, but then he realized she was wearing elbow length gloves.

How many months had it been since he’d seen her without specially ordered makeup, long-sleeved blouses, large veiled hats. He blamed himself for what happened. It was he who found Ray in Miami and brought them together. Ray wasn’t like her other partners; he had a hair-trigger temper and acted on it. But Pearl liked his volatility, insisting it complimented her more docile manner.

“I don’t have the heart for goin’ out to party tonight, Sammy. But tell the gang to have one on me.” She reached for her handbag, but he waved it away.

“Come for a little while. Raise the glass. Do you good to…”

“I couldn’t—not tonight.”

“Let me see that mitt,” he said, his voice shaking. “Let me see all of you for once. What he did to you.”

“What happened was just between Ray and me.”

“You shouldn’t be defending him.” Bile rose in his throat.

“We had a lot of good years. A few bad times can’t change that.” She looked around for signs of those good times, reminders of Ray, but someone—Sam, perhaps—had cleared all his things away. “You can’t fight what’s natural, can you?”

“Showing me might help. When did we ever keep the bad stuff from each other?”

“Maybe tomorrow—when I’m feeling better. I’ll get dolled up and we’ll walk the boards. Ride the Ferris wheel. After dark—when it’s magical.”

“You ain’t been out in the sunlight in years, Pearlie. No one’s seen you in a natural light since Frisco.”

She laughed, lighting her gas lamp. “Some say too much sun ain’t so good for a fair-skinned girl. All those bathing beauties letting their faces burn now it’s the style.” She shook her head. “I’ve never liked the sun. Where’s the romance in it?”

“You’ll always be beautiful to me.”

She reached out to pat his cheek, but the distance was too great. An imaginary line separated them—a line that kept her in the shadows.

They listened as their friends began to assemble outside her door. “You two comin?’” someone yelled.

“Go ahead with ‘em, Sam. I got things I need to do.”

“You’re putting salve on those wounds, right? Don’t want more scars.”

“I don’t really mind the scars. It’s part of the life.”

“What like war wounds?” Could they be any worse than his imagination had made them?

“No, like metals.”

Shaking his head, Sam stepped outside and closed the door behind him. It was only then that she raised the light on her lamp and slowly stripped down to her naked fifty-year old body, still as slim as on her eighteenth birthday. But there the resemblance ended in a frightening show of ruined flesh.

Ray, and the six males that came before him, had made a mess of her all right. The older scars resembled tattoos. Raised tattoos where flesh had been sewn back together inexpertly: sometimes by her own hand, sometimes by an amateur surgeon. Once, when there was no one else, by poor Sam, in fact. But never like this. She was raw meat this time.

Ray had gone crazy in Iowa City last week. It wasn’t really his fault. She’d slipped on the mud brought on by a week’s worth of rain and fell on top of him in the ring. In a rage, he almost ripped off her leg, lacerated her in a dozen places, pretty much tore her left eyelid off.

He’d been shot on the spot. A man in a straw hat stood up in the bleachers, let out a roar to rival Ray’s, and fired the gun. She’d hear the screech of that bullet from some faraway place where the pain had taken her. Their ten years together came to an end in an instant as Ray slumped to the muddy earth. The crowd cheered, then booed, and then a low keening began. It was her voice as she looked at her cat. The last tiger she’d ever have. The last cat that would share her trailer, the ring, her life. What was left to her? She really hadn’t minded the scars—but this slaughter she couldn’t live with.

The one possession of Ray’s she’d salvaged was his pearl-studded collar, which she put around her waist. Reaching out, she toppled the gas lamp and threw the candle into the now still curtains. In seconds, fire rushed across the small room.

She didn’t mind it when the fire began to nip at her. Ray had prepared her well.