In the hallway between the bathroom and the dining hall, Maggie stopped. Bodylong memory flare. Maybe the pills the nurse at the clinic had given her — she’d just taken one with the sweet tea. She’d turned to look into the kitchen and something about the lead gray of the wash tub, the array of upended pots and the long-handled spoons and ladles over it, put her back in that club, the place they’d gone after Rain; she was too wasted by then, just along for the ride, only it had a kind of pewtery feel to it, the pale charcoal of the banquette leather, sweeping lights slicing haze and waveform dancehall… Kyle pulling her over on top of him, kicking the champagne flutes, the glassy clattering sharp against the shambling, tinselly beat; they kiss-giggled as the liquid seeped.
It was the best night of her life.
“Can I help you?”
The woman tried to say it without a perturbed air, standing there with a crusted steam tray pan, suds slipping from her yellow gloves. She could have been Maggie, a little older, an impossible future her, if you could rewind things and pitch her on another path: kids, minivan, weekly volunteer stint. The other women at the counter, the men who watched the door and the tea cooler, they were retired types who did little to temper contempt; they thought themselves saints tending sinners. This younger lady managed a nearly sincere smile, looking away from Maggie.
Adjusting her ballcap, Maggie told her, “No, I just wanted to say, the food was real good today.”
But of course, not much left of a voice, against the kitchen din. Any more, it was like when white people have to ask black people to repeat stuff. The woman set the pan on the sink top and stepped forward, and Maggie said it again.
“Oh well good. Good. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
The food wasn’t all that good, a pasty chicken casserole, the usual limp lettuce. The Fast Supper, Maggie called it, because they let in thirty at a time, and people tended to fill up and fly. Hunger had something to say about it, too, although the last two weeks Maggie had brought little appetite to the midmorning feed. It just seemed the decent thing, to let one of the volunteers know the meal is appreciated, a step beyond nodding while a woman ladles beans onto your coffered school-kid tray. Anyway, it was little enough grace. The story that stuck from Swift Creek Baptist was Jesus washes the Apostles’ feet. She took it to mean do nice things for people, but it had that unexpected humbling element. Jesus knelt, so she figured for the humbled to do nice for others, it was like standing.
As she re-entered the dining hall, she saw Tate at the far doorway. The old guy manning the door took a step away to watch egg-shaped Tate advance in swaths. Tate had white-skin goggles and pasty hands and it didn’t help he was a monologue loony. But despite his cartoonish girth Tate had become her protector.
She hadn’t known she’d needed one until two kids on bikes found her sleeping in Cedar Grove Cemetery. She used to be able to handle herself but they were on her too quick, then Tate thundered out of nowhere with a crowbar, bellowing about voting injustice. Since then, she’d spent nights with him under the foundation of a house being built behind Pasteur Street. Some do-good group had nailed flooring and run out of money, was the most she could get out of Tate. But she had slept there alone the last week.
She waited by the tray bin while Tate loaded up, working thank-yous into a commentary about malice and restraint that had the blue-haired spooners beaming eagerly.
“Where you been, Tate?”
“Never going to lose weight, eating this good,” Tate answered. “Ex post facto.” He had wheedled a second helping of day-old birthday cake, as it was getting near noon and the crowd was thinning. Maggie was able to take a seat while he hoovered the tray.
She used to like to sit across from Kyle and watch him eat, in their apartment on Warm Springs. For a while after they’d arrived in Las Vegas, when Kyle was looking for construction work, she’d make him breakfast before going to her job at Albertsons, sip coffee and watch him, framed by sun-flushed mountains. It was his idea to move, and it had cleared her world of Down East clutter, brought her to a place that wasn’t vine-choked and dense with wet and bugs and blood. The farther west they’d got, as trees thinned and plains opened and the land reddened, the more she’d sensed escaping something small and constricted. They’d rolled over the hills south of the city late on the third night in Kyle’s Silverado and Maggie finally understood the word “vista,” the valley squirmy with light, the grid sweeping up to the dim, jigsaw horizon.
“Oh yeah,” said Kyle, pounding the wheel with the heel of his fist, cranking up the Rascal Flatts, “OH YEAH!” Maggie thinking maybe he’d find some new music here.
“Seventeen-year cicada. Buzz buzz, back in the ground, seventeen years.”
She really must have blanked. Tate had cleared his tray, his hands lay one over the other atop his belly.
“Where you been, Tate?”
He leaned his head back, brown eyes slim in their pearly settings. “Seventeen years. Las Vegas.”
She liked sparring with him, mock-earnestly tracking him down verbal dead-ends, but she was too weary. Something like, “Oh yeah, win big?” took shape in her mind, but as she gathered strength to stand all she could say was, “Yeah, sure. You ready?”
Tate smiled. “No, are YOU ready?”
There was something odd about him, something… normal. He was like Daddy, times he was around; he’d tease her, his chump’s grin furrowing his cheek, then surprise her with a toy he’d bought to make up for going away. And Mama would glare from the stove.
Tate worked himself to a stand, returned his tray and when he came back he reached out his meaty, bleached hand, pulled her up. As she stood, a sharp pang. The pills were not helping much.
“Come on, girl.”
Outside, the last regulars scattered but three loitered behind a large, older convertible, ruby in the balmy noon. Maggie followed Tate over to them, and shared their astonishment as he opened its driver door and lowered his bulk into the buff leather seat. A client summoned sorrow, Maggie assumed, messing with a car in the parking lot. She instinctively turned, expecting an enraged retiree to spill from the Christian Services entrance.
“Uh. Tate,” one of the men said.
“Sup, gentlemen,” said Tate, throwing an arm over the seat and backing the boat out of its minivan-flanked berth, until its door was beside Maggie. “Care to join me, miss?”
Maggie certified to herself that she was not on another of her excursions.
“All questions answered. Voir Dire. Due process. Please.”
When she was a little girl, Daddy owned, for a year or so, what was already an older model Oldsmobile, with the big bench seat. This car recalled the sense of being too little. It might have slept five. She recognized the Cadillac shield on the dashboard.
“Seventy-two Eldorado. Maybe the loveliest automobile ever made. Classic pimp-mobile, but a charmer in the right hands. Sweet, inchee?”
“You’re taking your meds,” said Maggie.
Slowing for a light, Tate tipped himself toward her, popped the glovebox and pulled out a prescription-pill vial. “And so are you.”
“How. Tate, what —“
“Honey, take a little trip with me. And take one of those. Ever-lil-ting gonna be all right.”
Well, the Craven County slammer beat sleeping under a house foundation, Maggie figured. Here was a first among the lasts: She found nothing to lose.
So they rolled over the Neuse, Maggie sniffing that hint of brine; and through Bridgeton and up 17. Tate, black wraparounds creasing his cream-toned mask, punched the radio tabs but couldn’t find anything to suit and switched it off, then leaned back with an arm on the door and a finger hooked on the wheel. They had barely entered the road’s leaf-walled corridor when the Eldorado neared a loaded logging truck. Its fresh harvest bounced lightly, shedding leaves and bark. Tate tugged the wheel slightly, the Eldorado growled and leapt ahead. Kyle, in his Silverado, would giggle and hoot.
They stopped in Vanceboro and Maggie glanced east down Farm Life. The little brick saltbox with the rusty railing always tugged. And pushed. She missed riding her bike, hide-and-seek, the schoolyard gymset, but she needed no prompt to see Daddy on the floor or Mama in the kitchen doorway. When she was a girl, this light was a crossroads. South and seaward led to where her mother’s folks had fished and crabbed. For a moment earlier, Maggie had hoped Tate was headed there, hoped his newfound sanity had sensed her yearning for foam on her ankles, for the cool, salt-crisp air; for the boardwalk and docks and lolling trawlers. She’d loved riding with Mama to visit Uncle Henry, sometimes he’d crank up Ladybug and take them out for an hour or two. Coming back from Las Vegas, she had tried to get to Morehead City but broke down in New Bern, figured it was far enough. She sold her Honda when she learned it would cost more to fix it, found a job waiting tables at B.J.’s and a room above the restaurant. She liked New Bern, enjoyed walking Union Park, scattering the gulls, looking downriver and wondering if she’d get all the way there.
North and inland up 43 took her to Daddy’s dreaded crop-picking clan, taking her to kiss his foul-smelling parents in their leaning singlewide. And that world flowed past her now — the cotton starting to bud as the last of the tobacco scraps curled on the asphalt fringe; the family gravestones leaning under live oaks; the collapsed barns and abandoned gas-ups and hawks wheeling over roadkill. And Dixie’s, still there.
“Dixie’s All-Girl Staff,” Tate read aloud. “Class-E.”
“I knew a girl worked there.” Maggie turned to watch the pink shack and its shielding fence fly past. “Well, she was my friend’s older sister. She was pretty skanky. Look who’s talking.”
“All right… ”
“Well, just I always hated that place, thinking about… having to work there. Didn’t turn out much better.”
“What? You got sick.”
“I told you, but you were crazy then. Or were you?”
“Still crazy. After all these tears. What you don’t know, I lived in Vegas, too. Knew some big-time moneyhoneys. You never got near that shit.”
“When?” She felt the Percodan chill, slumped a bit.
“About a hundred pounds ago.”
Maggie waited for Tate to expand on this, but he just laughed and then she lacked the energy to ask.
Yes, working at Albertsons was just tolerable, but after Kyle got a job, for almost two years things were fine. Kyle worked a lot of overtime, they had money, a big-screen, a leather sofa. They liked going out to dinner, a beer at a sports book. For her birthday, they saw O.
Then Tony entered the picture. Tony ran his dad’s contracting company, building strip malls and convenience stations over the north and west of the Valley. Kyle chatted up Tony at a jobsite one day and they hit it off. Six months later, Tony offered to take him on as an assistant. It wasn’t a lot more money, but everything changed. Kyle traded in his Silverado for a loaded Yukon, started leaving it with valets, laughed when Maggie told him those kids probably cleared more than he did. Tony got them passes and listed at Light and Pure, and Kyle, who never listened to anything but country, started following DJs and news of models appearing at clubs.
Tony was a mystery to Maggie for another six months or so, until he took them to Aureole for dinner on an autumn Saturday. He picked them up in his scarlet Escalade and even in the SUV’s dim interior his girlfriend, Tara, was of another order. She had lavishly curled long hair, strawberry streaked with wheat, and softball breasts afloat in a strapped, mauve minidress. Maggie, who thought herself more than conventionally pretty, felt frumpy in the sleeveless black A-line she’d bought at the outlet mall. In the swan-pool twilight, Tara’s broad face read a little boxy, but Maggie imagined this went unnoticed by Tony, or Tara’s clients at Crazy Horse Too. She giggled childishly at the woman rappelling the wine tower, and at Tony tasting his selection, which she washed down bites of Chateaubriand with. After dinner, as Tony and Kyle talked fantasy football across a corner of the table, Tara turned to Maggie.
“I know I’m built for viewing,” she said with a roll of her outlined, hazel eyes, “but sometimes it gets a little annoying.” She turned to her right and smiled at a tubby, middle-aged man who pretended to watch the swans while his wife jabbered at another couple.
“Yeah, I guess it gets old,” said Maggie. “Like I’d know.”
“Oh come on. Look at you. You’re a kee-yootie.”
“Well… I never thought about it much.”
“Well, think, girl. You’re hot.” Tara stressed “you’re,” meaning: Somewhere under there.
Sometimes, shopping, Kyle would point to a flamenco skirt or a skimpy top. It wasn’t like she hid her assets: “This stuff not good enough for you?” Maggie would ask with her best pouty slouch. She told Tara, “There’s a lot of. Competition in this town.”
Tara emitted a caustic tee-hee. “Do tell. Well, when you make it your, uh, business, like me. Sometimes I wonder if this one,” levering an elbow at Tony, “is eyeing a trade-in.”
“He’d be nuts,” said Maggie, thinking who’d want him? Before they’d reached the Strip she had concluded: Blowhard.
“Listen,” said Tara, leaning more. “It’s up to you, but you are cute, and I know a photographer looking for models. Not porn, just, you know, sexy. Cute sexy. You could make serious dinero. I mean it. Tart you up a little and —” Tara lowered her powdery eyelids. “Oh yeah.”
On the way over to Rain, the two women sat in the backseat. Tara pulled Caleb King’s card from her satin clutch. “Just, if you feel like it…”
Maggie awoke to a fingernail tattoo that turned out to be rain on the Eldorado’s fabric roof. Tate must have lifted her into the backseat at some point, covered her with a plaid blanket. She pulled herself upright, saw Tate at the counter of a convenience store, Marly’s Gas-n-Go. They were about a quarter-mile up a two-lane above the highway, where lighted shapes rushed through the last moments of dusk.
Tate dropped onto the seat and the car rocked like a rowboat.
“You oughta be hungry,” he said, swinging a plastic sack over the seatback. “Like yogurt?”
She didn’t, but when he said, “hungry,” Maggie realized she was and that nothing appealed to her. Except maybe yogurt. She pulled a small, cold tub and plastic spoon from the bag, which also held cookies, a package of jerky and two cans of ginger ale. She took one of those, too, slid into the corner as Tate backed the car away.
“Gassed up, good to go,” he crowed, as the Caddy coasted down to the onramp. “Starry diseases!”
“Time to take your pills, Tate.”
“I’m only crazy driving north by northwest. You need some more them Percs?”
Maggie surveyed the usual groan points. “Naw. Thanks for the yogurt.”
Rounding onto the onramp, the Caddy heaved forward. Tate flicked the wipers to high-speed. “So, did you feel like it?”
“No, girl. The photog man?”
“Was I —“
“You had a pretty good story going there until you buzzed out and I had stop and put you in the back. That was around Raleigh.”
“Where we now?”
“Just about Tennessee. Rock your top. So?”
“Uh,” said Maggie, still puzzled. “Well, no. Not right away.”
“Kyle make you?”
“No. Not really.” But it was a mistake telling Kyle about Tara’s offer. Calling Caleb displaced leather miniskirts on Kyle’s wishlist. “I guess I figured. He’d like it.”
“And he did?”
If there was a no-return moment, it was the lingerie segment of her first shoot with Caleb. He rented two rooms above a shop near downtown, and had set a wrought-iron bed, nightstand and lamp near the street window, which he’d hung with floral-print curtains matching the bed linens. At the near end of the long room, he’d hung crinkled paper in one corner; across the room, a panel of stiff, black background curled onto the floor. They worked on a trade agreement — each using the other’s services without fee. She had done her hair and makeup, and brought outfits for Casual, Fashion and Swimsuit. But she never wore lingerie, and was leery of Caleb’s ensembles, a couple of them semi-sheer, which hung on the shower-curtain rod of the bathroom “dressing room.”
“If you’re going to do it at all, you need a couple lingerie in your book,” he told her.
So she selected a lacy bra and boy shorts, but still felt pained. Even in her bikini she managed a sulky petulance that pleased him, but in this costume she shrank, shoulders pinched, arms crossed.
“Come on, loosen up a little. You were great before. Same deal.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. Just feels. Weird. Can we skip this?”
Caleb set his camera on a table, switched off the lights.
“Look, I got girls pay me for this. I’m doing this as a favor, really.”
He prodded her from the paper background to the bedroom setup, had her lift a knee on the bed.
“Try biting your lip.”
She clasped her upper lip with her lower incisors.
“Your LOWER lip. Holy crap.”
This cracked up both of them, and Caleb snapped while he laughed. Sitting and then lying on the bed, she’d giggle again, and he got it all. They were some of her best shots. Kyle thought so.
And so began her “modeling career,” as told to Tate across Tennessee, long into the headlight night. She made the rounds of Vegas shooters, got loony propositions from MySpace and networking sites; quit Albertsons after a couple of paid assignments convinced her, and Kyle, she should model full-time.
Tate talked, too. He’d worked security for a couple of “gentlemen’s clubs,” before she and Kyle got to Vegas, and knew several dancers who, like Tara, modeled on the side — Maggie had worked a couple of car shows with Gina Starr. But Tate found himself trapped in a sting. He was making good money and liked to spend some of it in North Las Vegas: “It was hard, working around those ladies all the time, and I was nothing to them.” He took off his wraparounds to let road glare play over the pink mask. Said he got busted one night with a woman who turned out to be a girl. “They tailed me and nailed me.” And they twisted him to turn on his boss. From tapes to testimony took more than two years, and stress swelled in waves, rolling over him, the undertow pulling him into gray nights full of voices, voids in the hollow dark harassing him. Sometimes he stomped through his apartment, playing out roles in impromptu dramas. He learned that food sometimes quelled the quaking in his head.
The story seemed to tax him. Beyond Nashville he pulled into at a truck stop whose blue-white blare bleached the night. Tate helped Maggie out, kept a hand on her shoulder all the way to the restroom, and waited, then led her back to the car. It was a painful exercise. She swallowed two more Percs and lay flat again, dozed until Tate got back in and pulled away.
“You gonna sleep sometime, or do I have to do it for both of us?”
“All you, girl.”
This time she awoke to strained daylight and muffled highway sounds. The Eldo sat by itself on the fringe of a supermarket parking lot, with elevated I-40 in sight and Tate once again absent. It was stuffy, despite the cracked windows. He had parked by some trees along the perimeter but the sun had worked its way past them, bleeding through high cirrus.
Maggie watched Tate trundle away from the supermarket with two bags. She hoped he had some more yogurt, and something fizzy and sweet, to usher two more Percs into her bloodstream.
He did, Dannon Peach and Dad’s Root Beer.
“Did you sleep, too?”
“Oh yeah, plenty,” said Tate, wedging his soda can into the ashtray and turning to back away. “Goodbye Little Rock. I like Ike. Next stop, Oke City.”
“O-o-o-o-o. Klahoma. Where the wind comes whipping through your brains.”
“Kay. But I gotta go sometime.”
So they stopped at the first big pumper outside Little Rock. Tate gripped her arm and shuffled her, woozy but not hurting, to the ladies room.
Inside, she kept a miserable rendezvous with her cratering body. For the first time, she noticed blood, and this sent a wedge of adrenaline coursing against the even, analgesic tide. Maggie steadied herself to the sink, there caught sight of herself, bony wraith with matted hair. Furiously she pumped soap from the dispenser, drew hot water and smeared her face, rubbed her head. It hurt to bend, so she palmed water over her head. As she rubbed it with paper towels, she lost balance, managed to lean against the wall before she sank to a crouch, suds slipping to her sandled toes.
The block wall’s seafoam green was the color of the silk dress she’d worn to the Kitteaz.com launch party.
“I’m here with one of the models,” she’d heard Kyle tell someone, early on, at one of Caleb’s studio parties. But a month or so before the Kitteaz launch, she’d worked a promotion with three other girls at a West Sahara car dealership, and Kyle had shouted away a guy with a point-and-shoot for taking too many pictures of her. Since then, he’d turned pissy, and Maggie had started to dread the Kitteaz event, suspecting Kyle would find the shots neither “tasteful” nor “classy.”
So she clacked on her platform heels ahead of Kyle, past cartoony paintings of wrenched bodies with warped heads and a T-shirted downtowner couple who watched her and Kyle up the stairs to the carpeted mezzanine space. Sam Kovalesky in his silvery suit glad-handed his way to them.
“Hey, it’s some dude with a HAWT girlfriend,” Sam said. Kyle smiled limply. Then he grimaced at the champagne flute offered by a sturdy-bosomed server in a body-painted teddy that went to the trouble, Maggie couldn’t help noticing, of simulating sheerness. Maggie was grateful Kyle could not see the framed pictures for the crowd. She expected when he saw her biting her lower lip in a teddy he’d scowl, they’d leave early, he’d grumble all the way down 95. Instead, he walked away while Maggie chatted with Corrie Voll about their twosome shoot, and about five minutes later she saw Kyle stride past the artsters downstairs.
She sometimes wondered if she’d followed him… Instead, she popped ecstasy for the first time, drank a lot of Cava and had sex in the kitchen of Sam’s downtown condo with the second man she’d ever had sex with. Billy, Benjy, something — Sam’s friend from L.A. She sat on the butcher-block island while he pushed languorously and mumbled about the shoot they’d do at his studio and Maggie thought what great punishing fun as she gazed through the window above the sink at the Stratosphere’s laser patterns. She remembered, sometime during the first month in town, Kyle had taken her to ride on its encircling roller coaster. It was no longer there.
As Sam drove her home the following afternoon, Maggie clouded her shame in resentment, rehearsed her “thought you liked it” speech, but panicked when she noticed Kyle’s Yukon missing from its slot next to her Civic, at the end of the covered parking. Tire tread tailed up the curb and a broken shrubber lay pressed into moist clay. Upstairs, he had cleared out. The computer screen winked alight, a high-res of her and Corrie almost-kissing filled the screen. In the mirror at the end of the hall, Maggie wore the same dress Corrie pretended to pull from her shoulders.
Apparently he’d bought a membership.
“Oh. It was THAT kind of site…”
“Yeah… Wait. What?”
“Girl you been here but not here again.”
She was in the front seat, buckled but slumped against the door. A perilously flat landscape pinwheeled by. The view brought on a kind of vertigo, as if she might roll off the horizon, but that was all she felt.
“Well, this is Texas. Panhandle. I don’t know where you been.”
“No, you been here, talking to me, for a half-hour. Softcore Sam the Photog Man? That Kittens or whatever?”
“Kitteaz. With a Z. Really? I told you about that?”
“No, I hired a private detective. Yes, you.”
“Oh wow.” It was almost as scary as the land, being alert not knowing it. Like running a video camera without recording anything. “Um. What did I miss?”
“Besides the best parts of your story, all of Oklahoma. Including a pleasant visit with a doctor fellow. You were awake for some of that. You don’t remember?”
“A hospital?” A corridor, a bed came to her, and talking, but no faces.
“Old buddy of mine. Another favor called, right and left lately. Anyway, got you some nourishment, and some candy.” Tate nodded down; propped in the otherwise clean ashtray, a popsicle stick protruded from crinkled foil.
“Oh. Yeah.” Morphine struck her as more a grade of privilege than as an index of decline. She reached for the sweet crystal sucker.
“Go easy on that. Before, it just dropped out of your mouth.”
The top was still up, but Tate had lowered the windows about a third all the way around, and the clamorous wind was bracing. She held the sucker and hazarded another look. Here and there huge, wheeled metal booms had scored green circles. A bank of ivory-white grain silos rushed past. She remembered this, too, now — the empty Panhandle; once with Kyle, the other way alone.
Then she thought everything was fine, if fuzzy. If she stared at the horizon, she risked rolling off. Sure. But this worked, watching the Eldo’s broad prow swallow asphalt, throwing swaths of crop and dirt into Then. She was pretty sure she was headed back to Las Vegas, which she had fled, but somehow it all made Tate sense, and who knew? Maybe the closer you inched, the more everything made a kind of Tate sense.
“So what happened to Lyle?”
“Kyle. He bought a condo in one of his boss’s whatever, places. And found himself a model. Another. Who did only bikini and fashion. But she worked full-time at the Forum Shops, that Anthro-what. So she wasn’t making a whole lot. Modeling. She was, I don’t know what to him, clean?
“But she did. She got into… some car shows I did. Hot Import Nights. Marianne. Was her name.”
“Allen’s own font. What about Softcore?”
“Sam. Sam was a jerk.” Maggie liked this, letting it fly. “I guess I always knew it but it was easy. To forgive him. He was so nervous but nervy.
“Sam. He had a whatsit, warehouse kind of place. In Henderson. Off 95 there. And in the front he ran a gallery, with BIG nature prints, swirling layers, desert rock type thing. And in the back space, a big, cold, truss-roof barn, sometimes he’d clamp lights up there…”
Sam was great with backgrounds — beach with reeds; all kinds of bedrooms, brass with grandma’s quilt, tropical four-poster with mosquito netting, French Provincial with teddy bear; ladders to sling limbs through, casements to look moody by, fields of geometric blocks or gauzy strips or cardboard boxes draped with sable linen.
“Did them all. And there was always. In each sequence, a close to showing something. Moment. Lean with bra loose, tug the thong. Type thing.”
“How’d you get with him?”
“Corrie Voll,” Maggie said, as if she’d just sat down, toothy-faced bundle-of-fun Corrie, bottled in vinyl at Modelrama’s Southwest Shootemup. Avoiding a creepy guy intent on cornering her with a popup-flash Nikon, Maggie slipped out a ballroom service door, stopped in the blockwall hallway when she heard giggling from a janitorial closet. It was Corrie and her boyfriend, Hector, in his Paris livery, still, and a little peeved at the interruption. Corrie just kept giggling, a kind of clucking. Later, Maggie saw her at the sponsored barbecue talking to the creepy guy.
“Sam.” Tate said. “Damn.”
“You are so right sir. You know now I think she was doing him, too, the time. Yes. But she was fun, and Kyle, he just was getting weird, you know. And so we all Maggie Hector me and Sam. To Sam’s condo. Downtown. One them new.”
“Yes. And that’s when he came up with. Kitteaz. Be honest, I didn’t tell Kyle. Right away. But before the first you know shoot. I did my little seduction voodoo. On Kyle? Cause he liked that. He liked it, he did. And that’s how when I told him, and he didn’t seem. Then. Well, he was getting laid at the time.” Later, in the bathroom, he launched the interrogation that would bleed her slowly, question at a time, driving to dinner, watching Survivor, pouring coffee; just how much would she show, how many times, was Sam legit?
But he liked it, too.
“Girlfriend is a centerfold,” Tate sang, then added: “Habeus corpus.”
He seemed cheery, so Maggie hoped he wouldn’t mind: “So working around all those um. Dancers, hunh? But was it cause of your you know? Skin.”
Tate laughed sourly, turned and lifted his wraparounds. “You mean the brown part or the white part?”
“You tell me.”
He weighed this a bit. “Well let’s say if they could get past the one, they couldn’t deal with the other. I mean, I knew some hung with brothers. But I never got to ask.”
Maggie wanted to tell him that under other circumstances maybe she would. Or would have, but she knew it wasn’t true. Imagined thinner, he still looked odd, raccoon-like. But she thought some more and realized she hadn’t been much attracted to any men after Kyle. It wasn’t about them, or her. Just sometimes alcohol, really. Or Kyle. A couple of times, the night in the tinselly club, sure. But she could have done without it.
Worse, it troubled her to consider, with Tate. Here, finally, was something not about sex.
They rolled into wavy land pocked with rocks and succulents. Maggie felt the sting return and she sucked a bit on the stick, but only a few minutes, and took care to rewrap it and set it in the ashtray.
“You from Vegas?”
“Honey I’m from Craven County, just like you. Just like you, I came home, wound up in New Bern. Better food, I guess.”
“No kidding.” Of course it wasn’t surprising. “You came back. Cause you were crazy?”
“I was crazy to come back.” He glanced to check he had time enough for an answer. “Why did you come home?”
“Vegas ain’t a place to stay,” said Maggie.
This echoed Chelsey Li, who worked the after-market show with Maggie and Megan Gonzalez. Sam had needed a third girl to accessorize the Top Audio booth at the Convention Center. They wore matching yellow-and-black halters and shorts, fishnets and platform boots. Maggie felt lost in the get-up, made for a fuller frame than her next-door-cutie. Chelsey and Megan lived in Los Angeles and were stars, sort of. Each had a website, in addition to modeling for paysites racier than Kitteaz. They fit their uniforms.
The three were off the floor for a break, drinking Diet Cokes at a folding table. Chelsey and Megan were condescending, however gracefully.
“You gotta be in L.A., girl,” said Megan, tossing her streaked curls behind her shoulders while exhaling and tapping the Marlboro Light she wasn’t supposed to be smoking into her empty soda can.
“I’ve never been there.” Maggie instantly regretted admitting this.
“Vegas to play,” said Chelsey, adjusting her halter. “L.A. to stay.”
“Work here, too,” Megan added. She checked her wristwatch, stood and canned her cigarette. “But then you get to play. Well, eventually.”
Chelsey stood, too. “One more round with the car-toy boys.”
Maggie laughed meekly. She didn’t work as many shows as Megan or Chelsey, but she thought most of the men who attended were all right. A few assholes, but most were shy and respectful. “I guess you see a lot of these guys.”
“Worse than Star Trek geeks, really,” said Megan, “and yeah actually greasy.”
Afterward, on the way home, Maggie stopped at the Maryland Parkway Starbucks across from UNLV. Waiting for her skim latte, she saw two young guys at a corner table, clearly talking about her. They had seen her Kitteaz pictures, she figured — Corrie had shown her how easy they were to find. She was in carpenter’s jeans and a blank yellow T-shirt, but knowing she had noticed, they frankly ogled. One of them mouthed a kiss as she walked out.
It scared rather than annoyed her. At events like a car show, a given hierarchy protected her. But everywhere else, she was fair game.
About a week later, she realized she had to leave. It came to her one morning after doing her sit-ups and crunches, in combat with the paunch she’d always tended to. She blamed exercise for the lingering abdominal ache. She needed to do the gym thing, but it wasn’t like she was making a fortune. Even after moving to her studio off McLeod, she sometimes felt pinched. She thought about trying to get another job. In addition? Instead? And what? She knew a couple of girls who served drinks in casinos, and it sounded nasty, working your way up from the skinflint nickel-punchers. Anyway, they were modeling to get out of that.
What was she doing, anyway? She enjoyed the model fellowship, mostly, and she liked Being a Model, especially at club parties. But it was always work to turn it on.
And she kept seeing herself in that mirror, in that dress.
“So, why go back? Why not somewhere new?”
It was night. Moonlight outlined the pale volume of Tate. She guessed they were talking.
“I don’t know. Only place I knew. Maybe I figured a mistake. I made a mistake. Leaving.”
“What about your mama?”
“She died. While we. I was in Vegas. In prison. She was. I mean.”
“So… No one.”
“My little brother. Joey. He hates me. It’s all my fault. Somehow. So no. Well. One day I waited on two girls. Friends, from high school? They were polite but. It was weird. I think they knew. You know, about me.”
Maggie lay on some coats wedged between the seat and doorpost. She tried to shift but it hurt. She could see the stick in the ashtray, a water bottle by her thigh. With incremental effort she lifted it, uncapped it, tipped water past her lips. Some dribbled over her chin.
“Need some help? I can stop.”
But Tate had to reach over for the bottle, which he wedged by his door. Maggie clutched the cap. She recognized the ashen lunar landscape of the hills by Hoover Dam. Presently there it was. And the lake, oily black with a lacy trace of moon. They curled across the dam and ascended.
“Shouldn’t be too long now,” said Kyle, anxiously drumming his fingertips along the wheel. “Hey look, the first casino! Wanna stop?”
“Have any luck?” asked Tate.
“Nah. Nah, I mean. We kept going.”
Kyle was so excited, and that thrilled her. It could have been Omaha, Seattle. Just starting, somewhere. With Kyle. That was all. Then the lights spilled from the blank hills. And she knew this was right.
“OH YEAH!” cried Kyle. And the Rascal Flatts.
“Lovely Lady Las Vegas,” Tate said, in a voice both ironic and edged with wonder.
“Oh yeah…” Maggie remembered the weather girl who said that, sweeping an arm across the spangled Valley. Maggie met her once. On a date with that guy, Gary? She met him at Whiskey Bar, with Sam. He took her to a reception at the Bellagio gallery, and they went to the patio overlooking the pool so he could smoke and there she was, by herself, smoking. Maggie thought it was sad, somehow, that she smoked, and that she was alone, as if fans should swarm. But Chardonnay-limber and feeling model-y important, Maggie walked right up, introduced herself.
“I like how you always say, ‘Lovely Lady Las Vegas!’”
The woman dropped her cigarette, toed it with her black pump. “Yeah, a real charmer, isn’t she? Excuse me, I gotta work.”
“Here, you need some more of this?”
They were stopped at light somewhere. Tate offered the sucker and she took it.
Greg, not Gary. That’s right. Greg was OK. More of an artsy photographer. He did some shots of her in the desert, a trail at Red Rocks, morning sun, in an aquamarine satin, sleeveless gown, stretching, sprawling, like that. Fun but hot. And he was fun, sort of. But he liked cocaine too much. And kinky crap. She didn’t mind that so much, until he started slapping her one night. She actually let it go on a few minutes, she was so high, then understood this was bad. She’d seen this, before. This was bad.
“No shit, Sherlock. Double jeopardy.” Tate was carrying her, huffing like a locomotive. “Make it. Huh. True daily double. Huh. Huh. Right against. Huh. Selfin’. Huh. Criminal. Huh. Nation.”
Maggie swung her head around. Sand-toned walls, asphalt. A parked semi. Fluorescent trails. Bright but chilly. And no one. Tate sidled up to a double-door, leaned to work free some fingers for a keypad. She saw the sucker glistening in the pocket of his moist Hawaiian shirt.
“I can stand. I think.”
“You’re gonna. Huh. Hafta. Minute.”
He leaned her against the wall, a fist around her upper arm, while he played the keypad.
She tottered through, to a bright hallway that teetered while she stepped. It hurt but she was determined. Tate panted beside her, still gripping her arm. She floated a little, then she was wrapped around Tate’s barrel belly. Another door. This time he heaved her to his shoulder, and she slung her arms around his neck. Tate tapped lightly, three times. The door opened inward. She heard Tate speak and someone answer, both voices hushed. They turned a corner and went through another doorway, into a dim, warm space. Chlorine spread into her sinuses as Tate, groaning now, lay her on a tile platform by a tile wall.
“Don’t you go nowhere,” he said breathily.
It was too dark to work out where she was, but she heard Tate and the other person talk some more. Then she heard a WHOOSH! It moderated into white noise, accented by trickling. Lights flicked on in sequence.
It was some kind of indoor pool, she could see, sideways. A whirlpool, maybe, like the hot tub outside that guy’s house in Green Valley they went to, her and Corrie. That guy, he did something for Sam, something about the website. They were at Light, then at his place in Southern Hills, naked in the big, lighted tub in the ground, woolly bubbles everywhere. Maggie got really drunk on Grey Goose, woke up on his leather sofa in the morning, wondering had she? Had he? Then she puked over a chrome-and-glass coffee table and a zebra rug. She found her dress and purse and shoes, went outside to find out where she was and cellphoned for a cab, left without learning what had happened to Corrie.
The humid air was soothing, littoral. Like lying surf-wet in the sun. Maggie figured she could stay here a while.
“Seventeen years,” said Tate. He stood next to Maggie, a plush white robe barely surrounding him. He held some towels and another robe. “I was seventeen when I left home. Been seventeen years since I arrived in Vegas.”
“That’s right, darlin’. Catch the buzz. Think you can sit up? We gotta get those nasty duds off you. I just might burn ‘em.”
Maggie worked herself to an elbow, and Tate lifted her to a seated position. She ached a little, bearably, but groaned.
“Sucker time?” Tate pulled the sucker from his robe pocket, picked lint from it.
“That’s all right,” Maggie said. “That won’t kill me.”
They laughed — Maggie a rueful heave, Tate a chesty haw. He pinched her T-shirt hem.
“I can do it,” she said over the sucker.
“All right, then.” Tate turned away.
“Shit, you can watch. Ain’t going to be much. To see. Here.”
Tate took the sucker and Maggie labored herself out of her shirt and bra. Jeez, how long had she been in these clothes? Her bundle, pants, sweater, two shirts, some underwear, was under the house foundation. Like it mattered. Tate had to help her pull off her jeans.
“We really. All the way. For this?”
“Yeah, I was going to take us down to the coast. Then I thought, hell. You know, we both left this town tail between the legs. Like being chased. So fuck that.”
Tate wrapped the robe around her. “Coolest thing I ever did here? One day, boss gave me a pass. Oh. Man. Then sometimes I’d pay to do it. Even when I started you know. Feeling bad? Just wash it all away. You’ll see.”
“Gimme.” Tate handed back the sucker and Maggie gummed it a bit. Just enough. “Kay.”
Tate helped her stand, lifted her into white slippers, shuffled her into the high-ceilinged room with lounge chairs and planters of palms, ferns, ficus and orchids. In the middle, sectioned pools, some still, some roiling, with water cascading down a tall tiled center fixture. But Tate led her to a wooden door. The blast of heat literally staggered her, and Tate had to lift her into the sauna, lay her on a bench, her robe open. She heard a hiss, hiss as he tended the coals.
Yeah, a sauna. Supposed to bake the sweat out of you. Dirt, poison. Although. Damn it was hot. Hot a lot in Las Vegas, merciless August sun tracking you. Heat in rolling waves but never like this. Her throat turned to cardboard. Why would anyone. She could not figure. Why was he. All the windows were open but Mama was cooking in the kitchen and the still air in the dim living room thickened. She couldn’t figure why Daddy was so mad. She scraped the bike on his car before, it was so hard wheeling through the carport past the hedge, and besides, he’d done worse to it himself, drove it into a tree down the street a week ago. But here he was, skinny and clay-red in his sleeveless shirt, kitten-tails of glistery hair flapping as his head dipped and rolled. Madman Daddy, had her cornered in the stuffed chair, shrieking up a fury to discharge. Maggie clasped her knees.
Then he made a noise like a pig, sharp and liquid, and froze on his toes. When he fell, Mama was there, holding something imaginary, her spindly right-hand fingers clutching a volume of air. Mama and Maggie turned and saw Joey at the hallway door. Then they screamed.
Maggie screamed but nothing came from her mouth. The slatted walls waved flamelike. Sweat puckered behind her knees, rolled down to her ankles. She lowered her legs but could not make herself sit. “Tate,” she croaked.
“We all done?”
Light, air again. Getting into the apartment, finally, and air conditioning. “Shee-it!” Kyle always bellowed. “Goddam HOT here!” Maggie smiled as she drifted toward the pool.
“This’ll be a shock, but it’s worth it.”
Tate stepped down until just her feet were in the cold pool. Maggie stiffened, said, “Hoo.” Then Tate lowered her into the pool. Ice seized every muscle, slowly thawed. Summertime in Moorhead. Uncle Henry and Aunt Lida had a portable pool in the backyard. And a Slip ‘n’ Slide. Cousins Jeannie and Janey, and they’d run around and squeal and then hop in the pool and squeal some more.
Tate toted her up again, sat her on a lounge chair, patted her dry.
“Rest here a minute.”
“You,” Maggie said. “You like that. Huh?”
“Oh, the best part’s coming. Here, want this some more?”
Tate placed the sucker in her mouth. She looked at him. Everything was fuzzy. For a moment, Tate went all pink, then all brown. He seemed slimmer. Maggie was tired.
Then she was floating again, through refreshing steam, over the large, churning pool. Tate placed her in a stone niche, breast-deep, with warm water plashing over her shoulders.
“There you go.”
And he drifted away.
At first it was too hot, but then it was fine. The water pouring over her blurred the room, but Maggie felt unusually clearheaded. She remembered the lady in the kitchen, with the steamtray pan, and wished she could see Maggie here, wished she were here, in the water. They could tell each other stories, about being a model, being a mother.
Eventually, the water cooled, but remained pleasant.
After a while, after thinking about the lady in the kitchen, and wondering where Kyle was at the moment, and hoping Joey got over everything some day, it struck her she’d been in the water a long time. She thought maybe you weren’t supposed to stay too long. She wanted to stay, but tried to call Tate anyway. She could not.
Was that it? That was it. One long trudge through sand, past pulling you down, tugging you back, then here you are. In the water.
Other women arrive, luxuriate, leave. They do not notice her. Maggie smiles.