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Killing Yourself to Survive
By David Corbett
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2012 David Corbett
All rights reserved.
Pretty Little Parasite
One hand on her hip, the other lofting her cocktail tray, Sam Pitney scanned the gaming floor from the Roundup's mezzanine, dressed in her cowgirl outfit and fresh from a bracing toot in the ladies. Stream-of-nothingness mode, mid-shift, slow night, only the blow keeping her vertical—and she had this odd craving for some stir-fry—she stared out at the flagging crowd and manically finger-brushed the outcrop of blond bangs showing beneath her tipped-back hat.
Maybe it was seeing her own reflection fragmented in dozens of angled mirrors to the left and right and even overhead, or the sight of the usual trudge of losers wandering the noisy maze-like neon, clutching change buckets, chip trays, chain-smoking (still legal, this was the '80s), hoping for one good score to recoup a little dignity—whatever the reason, she found herself revisiting a TV program from a few nights back, about Auschwitz, Dachau, one of those places. Men and women and children and even poor helpless babies cradled by their mothers, stripped naked then marched into giant shower rooms, only to notice too late—doors slamming, bolts thrown, gas soon hissing from the showerheads: a smell like almonds, the voice on the program said.
Sam found herself wondering—no particular reason—what it would be like if the doors to the casino suddenly rumbled shut, trapping everybody inside.
For a moment or two, she supposed, no one would even notice, gamblers being what they are. But soon enough word would ripple through the crowd, especially when the fire sprinklers in the ceiling started to mist. Even then, people would be puzzled and vaguely put out but not frightened, not until somebody nearby started gagging, buckled over, a barking cough, the scalding phlegm, a slime of blood in the palm.
Then panic, the rush for the doors. Screaming. Animal terror.
Sam wondered where she'd get found when they finally re-opened the doors to deal with the dead. Would she be one of those with bloody nails or, worse, fingers worn down to gory bone, having tried to claw her way past so many others to sniff at an air vent, a door crack, ready to kill for just one more breath? Or would she be one of the others, one of those they found alone, having caught on quick and then surrendered, figuring she was screwed, knowing it in the pit of her soul, curled up on the floor, waiting for God or Mommy or Satan or who-the-fuck-ever to put an end to the tedious phony bullshit, the nerves and the worry and the always being tired, the lonely winner-takes-all, the grand American nothing ...
"Could I possibly have another whiskey and ginger, luv?"
Sam snapped toward the voice—the accent crisply British once, now blurred by years among the Vegas gypsies. It came from a face of singular unlucky pallor: high brow with a froth of chestnut hair, flat bloodless lips, no chin to speak of. The Roundup sat just east of Las Vegas Boulevard on Fremont, closer to the LVPD Metro tower than the tonier downtown houses—the Four Queens, the Golden Nugget—catering to whoever showed up first and stayed longest, cheap tourists mostly, dopes who'd just stumbled out of the drunk tank and felt lucky (figure that one out)—or, most inexplicably, locals, the transplant kind especially, the ones who went on and on about old Las Vegas, which meant goofs like this bird. What was his name? Harvey, Harold, something with an H. He taught at UNLV if she remembered right, came here three nights a week at least, often more, said it was for the nostalgia ...
"You are on the clock, my dear, am I right?"
She gazed into his soupy green eyes. Centuries of inbreeding. Hail, Brittania.
"I'm pregnant," she said.
Come midnight she began looking for Mike, and found him off by himself in the dollar slots, an odd little nook where there were fewer mirrors, and the eye in the sky had a less than perfect angle (he thought of these things). He wore white linen slacks, a pastel tee, the sleeves of his sport jacket rolled up. All Sonny Crockett, the dick.
"Hey," she said, coming up.
He shot her a vaguely proprietary smile. His eyes looked wrecked but his hair was flawless. He said, "The usual?"
"No, weekend coming up. Make it two."
The smile thawed, till it seemed almost friendly. "Double your pleasure."
She clipped off to the bar, ordered a Stoli rocks twist, discreetly assembling the twelve twenties on her tray in a tight thin stack. The casino's monotonous racket jangled all around, same at midnight as happy hour—the eternal now, she thought, Vegas time.
Returning to where he sat, she bowed at the waist, so he could reach the tray. He carefully set a five down, under which he'd tucked two wax-paper bindles. Then he collected the twelve twenties off her tray, as though they were his change, and she remembered the last time they were together, in her bed, the faraway look he got afterwards, not wanting to be touched, the kind of thing guys did when they'd had enough of you.
"Whoever you get this from," she said, "I want to meet him."
From the look on his face, you would've thought she'd asked for the money back. "Come again?"
"You heard me."
He cocked his head. The hair didn't budge. "I'm not sure I like your attitude."
She broke the news. In the span of only a second or so, his expression went from stunned to deflated to distinctly pissed, then: "You saying it's mine?"
She rolled her eyes. "No. An angel came to me."
"Don't get smart."
"Oh, smart's exactly what I'm going for, believe me."
"Okay then, take care of it."
With those few words, she got a picture of his ideal woman—a collie in heat, basically, but with fewer scruples. Lay out a few lines, bend her over the sofa, splay her ass—then a few weeks later, tell her to take care of it.
"Sorry," she said. "Not gonna happen."
He chuckled acidly. "Since when are you maternal?"
"Don't think you know me. We fucked, that's it."
"You're shaking me down."
"I'm filling you in. But yeah, I could make this a problem. Instead, I'm trying to do the right thing. For everybody. But I'm not gonna be able to work here much longer, understand? This ain't about you, it's about money. Introduce me to your guy."
He thought about it, and as he did his lips curled into a grin. The eyes were still scared though. "Who says it's a guy?"
A twinge lit up her lower back. Get used to it, she thought. "Don't push me, Mike. I'm a woman scorned, with a muffin in the oven." She did a quick pivot and headed off. Over her shoulder, she added, "I'm off at two. Set it up."
It didn't happen that night, as it turned out, and that didn't surprise her. What did surprise her was that it happened only two nights later, and she didn't have to hound him half as bad as she'd expected—more surprising still, he hadn't been jiving: It really wasn't a guy.
Her name was Claudia, a Cuban, maybe fifty, could pass for forty, calm dark eyes that waxed and waned between cordial welcome and cold appraisal—a tiny woman, raven-black hair coiled tight into a long braid, body as sleek as a razor, sheathed in a simple black dress. She lived in one of the newer condos at the other end of Fremont, near Sahara, where it turned into Boulder Highway.
Claudia showed them in, dead-bolted the door, offered a cool muscular hand to Sam with a nod, then gestured everyone into the living room: suede furniture, Navajo rugs, ferns. Two fluffed and imperial Persian cats nestled near the window on matching cushions. Across the room, a mobile of tiny tin birds, dozens of them, all painted bright tropical colors, hung from the ceiling. Thing must torment the cats, Sam thought, glancing up as she tucked her skirt against her thighs.
"Like I said before," Mike began, addressing Claudia, "I think this is a bogus idea, but you said okay, so here we are."
Sam resisted an urge to storm over, take two fistfuls of that pampered hair, and rip it out by the roots. She turned to the woman. "Can we talk alone?"
"That doesn't work for me," Mike said.
With the grace of a model, Claudia slowly pivoted toward him. "I think it's for the best." For the sake of his pride, she added, "I'm sure I'll be fine."
That was that. He sulked off to the patio, the two women talked. It didn't take long for Sam to explain her situation, lay out her plan, make it clear she wasn't being flaky or impulsive. She'd thought it through—she didn't want to get even, pick off Mike's customers, nothing like that. "I don't want to hand my baby off to daycare, some stranger. I want to be there. At home."
Claudia eyed her, saying nothing, for what seemed an eternity. Don't look away, Sam told herself. Accept the scrutiny, know your role. But don't act scared.
"There are those," Claudia said finally, "who would find what you just said very peculiar." Her smile seemed a kind of warning, and yet it wasn't without warmth. "I'm sure you realize that."
"I do. But I think you understand."
It turned out she understood only too well—she had a son, Marco, eleven years old, away at boarding school in Seville. "I miss him terribly." She made a sawing motion. "Like someone cut off my arm."
"Why don't you have him here, with you?"
For the first time, Claudia looked away. Her face darkened. "Mothers make sacrifices. It's not all about staying home with the baby."
Sam felt backward, foolish, hopelessly American. Behold the future, she thought, ten years down the road, doing this, and your kid is where? In the corner of her eye, she saw one of the cats rise sleepily and arch its back. Out on the patio, Mike sat in the moonlight, a sudden red glow as he dragged on his cigarette.
Claudia steered the conversation to terms: Sam would start off buying ounces at two thousand dollars each, which she would divide into grams and eightballs for sale. If things went well, she could move up to a QP—quarter pound—at $7800, build her clientele. She might well plateau at that point, many did. If she was ambitious, though, she could move up to an elbow—for "lb," meaning a pound—with the tacit agreement she would not interfere with Claudia's wholesale trade.
"I want you to look me in the eye, Samantha. Good. Do not confuse my sympathy for weakness. I'm generous by nature. That doesn't mean I'm stupid. I have men who take care of certain matters for me, men not at all like our friend out there." She nodded toward Mike all alone on the moonlit patio. "These men, you will never meet them unless it comes to that. And if it does, the time will have passed for you to say or do anything to help yourself. I trust I'm clear."
The first and oddest thing? She lost five pounds. God, she thought, what have I done? She checked her sheets for blood, then ran to Valley Medical, no appointment, demanded to see her ob-gyn. The receptionist—sagging desert face, kinky gray perm—shot her one of those knowing, gallingly sympathetic looks you never really live down.
"Your body thinks you've got a parasite, dear," the woman said. "Just keep eating."
She did, and she stunned herself, how quickly her habits turned healthy. No more coke, ditto booze—instead a passion for bananas (craving potassium), an obsession with yogurt (good for bone mass, the immune system, the intestinal lining), a sudden interest in whole grains (to keep her regular), citrus (for iron absorption), even liver (prevent anemia). She took to grazing, little meals here and there, to keep the nausea at bay, and when her appetite craved more she turned to her newfound favorite: stir-fry.
She continued working for three months, time enough to groom a clientele—fellow casino rats (her old quitting-time buddies, basically, and their buddies), a few select customers from the Roundup (including, strangely enough, Harry the homely Brit, who came from Manchester, she learned, taught mechanical engineering, vacationed in Cabo most winters, not half the schmuck she'd pegged him for), plus a few locals she decided to trust (the girls at Diva's Hair-and-Nail, the boys at Monte Carlo Tanning Salon, a locksmith named Nick Perino, had a shop just up Fremont Street, total card, used to host a midnight movie show in town)—all of this happening in the shadow of the Metro tower on Stewart Street, all those cops just four blocks away.
Business was brisk. She got current on her bills, socked away a few grand. At sixteen weeks her stomach popped out, like she'd suddenly inflated, and that was the end of cocktail shift. Sam bid it goodbye with no regrets, the red pleated dress, the cowboy hat, the tasseled boots. From that point forward, she conducted business where she pleased, permitting a trustworthy inner circle to come to her place, the others she met out and about, merrily invisible in her maternity clothes.
The birth was strangely easy, two-hour labor, a snap by most standards, and Sam shed twenty pounds before heading home. The best thing about seeing it go was no longer having to endure strangers—older women especially, riding with her in elevators or standing in line at the store—who would notice the tight globe of her late-term belly and instinctively reach out, stroke the shuddering roundness, cooing in a helpless, mysterious, covetous way that almost rekindled Sam's childhood fear of witches.
As for the last of the weight gain, it all seemed to settle in her chest—first time in her life, she had cleavage. This little girl's been good to you all over, Sam thought—her skin shone, her eyes glowed, she looked happy. Guys seemed to notice, clients especially, but she made sure to keep it all professional: So much as hint at sex with coke in the room, next thing you knew the guy'd be eyeing your muff like it was veal.
Besides, the interest on her end had vanished. Curiously, that didn't faze her. Whatever it was she'd once craved from her lovers she now got from Natalie, feeling it strongest when she nursed, enjoying something she'd secretly thought didn't exist—the kind of fierce unshakeable oneness she'd always thought was just Hollywood. Now she knew better. The crimped pink face, the curled doughy hands, the wispy black strands of impossibly fine hair: "Look at you," she'd whisper, over and over and over.
By the end of two months, she'd pitched all her old clothes, not just the maternity duds. Some old habits got the heave-ho as well: the trashy attitude, slutty speech, negative turns of mind. Nor would the apartment do anymore—too dark, too small, too blah. The little one deserves better, she told herself, as does her mother. Besides, maybe someone had noticed all the in and out, the visitors night and day. Half paranoia, half healthy faith in who she'd become, she upscaled to a three-bedroom out on Boulder Highway, furnished it in suede, added ferns. She bought two cats.
Nick Perino sat alone in an interview room in the Stewart Street Tower—dull yellow walls, scuffed black linoleum, humming fluorescent light—tapping his thumbs together and cracking his neck as he waited. Finally the door opened, and he tried to muster some advantage, assert control, by challenging the man who entered with, "I don't know you."
The newcomer ignored him, tossing a manila folder onto the table as he drew back his chair to sit. He was in his thirties, shaggy hair, wiry build, dressed in a Runnin' Rebels T-shirt and faded jeans. Something about him said one-time jock. Something else said unmitigated prick. Looking bored, he opened the file, began leafing through the pages, sipping from a paper cup of steaming black coffee so vile Nick could smell it across the table.
Nick said, "I'm used to dealing with Detective Naughton."
The guy sniffed, chuckling at something he read, suntanned laugh lines fanning out at his eyes. "Yeah, well, he's been rotated out to Traffic. You witness a nasty accident, Mike's your man. But that's not why you're here, is it Mr. Perry?"
The cop glanced up finally. His eyes were scary blue and so bloodshot they looked on fire. Another sniff. "Right. Forgive me."
"Some kind of cold you got there. Must be the air-conditioning."
"It's allergies, actually."
Nick chuckled. Allergic to sleep, maybe. "Speaking of names, you got one?"
"Thornton." He whipped back another page. "Chief calls me James, friends call me Jimmy. You can call me sir."
Nick stood up. He wasn't going to take this, not from some slacker narc half in the bag. "I came here to do you guys a favor."
Still picking through the file, Jimmy Thornton said, "Sit back down, Mr. Perry."
"Don't call me that."
"I said—sit down."
"You think you're talking to some fart-fuck asshole?"
Finally, the cop closed the file. Removing a ballpoint pen from his hip pocket, he began thumbing the plunger manically. "I know who I'm talking to. Mike paints a pretty vivid picture." He nudged the folder across the table. "Want a peek?"
Despite himself, Nick recoiled a little. "Yeah. Maybe I'll do that."
Excerpted from Killing Yourself to Survive by David Corbett. Copyright © 2012 David Corbett. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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