Delicately holding the hot black plastic, she pressed her other hand over her ear to block out the sounds of noonday traffic whizzing by barely an arm’s length away.
“Twinkle, just a reminder, your appointment is at four o’clock. See you then…”
Twenty-one-year-old Twinkle Marigold frowned in the humid July heat as she hung up the pay phone’s graffiti-covered cradle. She was standing just outside the Down Home Market and Check Cashing store on the corner of Buckeye Road and 7th Avenue near downtown Phoenix. Staring at the bent-to-the-left aluminum box that housed the pay phone, the plain, thin white girl wiped wayward strands of sweaty shoulder length blonde hair that was plastered to her face behind one ear. One cracked nail picked at the corner of an ad the size of a business card promoting computer training classes (“Learn at Home! Make up to $5,000 a month!) as her sullen expression deepened the lines on her young/old face. Why even bother, she thought dejectedly.
“Hey hey, baby…you sure lookin’ good. What’s your name?”
Twinkle turned slightly to face the wino that had just left the market behind her. He smiled an amber toothed grin (with most of those teeth missing) and shook the slender brown paper bag he was holding in front of her. Looking up at her (she stood 5’10” in flat shoes), he exaggerated their few inches height difference by balancing on his tiptoes. Her brown eyes were blank as they scanned the man from top to bottom.
“Saw you couple times last week. How about…”
“Kiss off, ass wipe.”
He dropped down to flat feet. Before he could react further, Twinkle closed the short distance between them and screamed at the top of her lungs.
“LEAVE ME THE FUCK ALONE!”
Surprised by the sudden onslaught, the bum backpedaled away from her, tripping over his own feet in the process and landing smack dab on his ass. His smashed bottle of Boones Farm Strawberry Wine was forming a small river that snaked its way to the curb. Twinkle moved away from the man (he immediately scrambled to his feet and jetted in the opposite direction), carefully stepping across the broken pavement on the corner, and turned north up 7th Avenue toward the complex where she shared an apartment with her grandmother. Fumbling in her bad imitation of a Versace purse, she pulled out a cracked pair of neon green sunglasses and shoved them on her face. (Twinkle had accidentally sat on them after Brandy, her two-year-old daughter, had hidden them under the blanket of the futon they both slept on.)
“Why the fuck even bother?” she whispered as her stride lengthened. She and Brandy had been in Phoenix for almost five months after being stranded in Tucson by her husband (and Brandy’s father), twenty-nine-year-old Eric Marigold. Their dilapidated clunker had broken down for the fourth (and last) time on the off ramp at Saint Mary’s Road in Tucson, Arizona. They had been on the road from Texas to L.A. for Eric’s new construction job (his fifth in three years). Oil, water, and God knows what other kinds of fluids vomited out of the car’s engine as Eric, cursing loudly, pushed the smoking car to the shoulder while Twinkle steered the car with one hand and tried to calm a screaming Brandy with the other. Then Eric almost got himself arrested. Just after piling all of their worldly belongings (four boxes of clothes, a box of pots and pans, Brandy’s car seat and Eric’s bucket of carpentry tools) behind the car, Eric had argued with a city cop who had pulled in behind them. The officer had stopped to see if help was needed and Eric—with his usual “pissed at the world” attitude—ranted about the state, the heat, and (much to Twinkle’s horror), his general dislike of cops. Now Twinkle—out of the car with a crying toddler in her arms—stood between both men and tried to keep her husband from spending the night in jail. She barely succeeded. As the cop drove off, the scowl on Eric let her know that his tantrum wasn’t over. Waving down a passing cab, he threw everything they owned into the car’s trunk. Eric opened the door on the side opposite his wife and child, plopped into the seat, and was talking to the driver before Twinkle sat down. Brandy, though still whining, was at least doing it quietly.
“’There any cheap hotel near here?”
“Got the McElroy Suites. It’s just up the street.”
Ten minutes later Eric slammed the door to a room that was as dismal as the car they’d just left on the highway. It didn’t take him long to start in on her. He stepped in front of her as she left the tiny bathroom after drawing a bath for Brandy. Twinkle left the door open just enough to keep an ear on her child.
“Why the hell’d you push me off that cop?”
“Honey…he was only trying to help.”
“Oh, so I’m the fuck-up here, huh? Car breaks down, son-of-a-bitch gets in my face, and I’m the bad guy, right?”
“Eric, stop shouting, I’m right—“
That’s how fast the slap came.
Twinkle looked up at the skinny, bald man who had just struck her. Slowly reaching up to her face with one hand, she massaged the red spot the blow had left. Her eyes locked onto his as he stepped to within inches of her and held his nicotine-stained finger in her face.
“Don’t you EVER step to me in front of no man, girl. You hear me?”
The ugly look on his now beet-red face was colored with white dots of spittle, some of which flew the short distance and peppered Twinkle. Cocking her head to one side before she answered, for a moment Twinkle listened to their child playing in the shallow water. She looked back to Eric, raised her hands easily to either side of his waist, and grasped the belt loops of his blue jeans. As she gazed up at him, the slight smile that spread across her face brought a look of confusion to his. Her voice was low and sweet with venom when she finally spoke.
“Don’t ever hit me again.”
Before he could pull away, Twinkle slammed her knee into his crotch as hard as she could. As he deflated to the floor with his mouth opened wide in a silent “O,” Twinkle pushed him away from the restroom door. She closed and locked the bathroom door behind her as she heard him start to retch. She grabbed one of the hotel hand towels and dropped it into the toy-filled bathwater. Brandy smiled while she tried to talk and splashed water at her mother. With one hand Twinkle retrieved the drenched cloth and pressed it to her face. The other hand pushed floating toys toward her daughter. The silent tears didn’t start until she heard the outside door to her room slam.
When Eric left that day, he’d taken his tools, a box of work clothes, and all the money (about $1000) he’d had in his pocket. He’d also poured her box of clean clothes into the puddle of vomit he’d left on the cheap carpet and stomped on the pile. After waiting for Brandy to fall asleep, Twinkle left the room and found two large plastic trash bags by pulling the trash liners out of the first two hotel garbage cans she came to while giving thanks that they were empty. She brought both back to her room and dumped her soiled clothes into the filled tub and tried her best to clean them with the tiny bar of hotel soap. Wringing out the pieces, she tossed them into the bags. Twenty minutes later, she was leafing through the room’s tattered yellow pages until she found the listing she wanted. As she stroked her sleeping child’s dark hair, she dialed a local number.
“Greyhound Bus Lines. How can I help you?”
Using the last of her emergency money (four folded twenties she kept in her bra), she brought one-way tickets to her grandmother’s apartment in Phoenix.
Opening the door to the hot apartment, a thick wave of air scented with too many cigarettes and last night’s dinner washed over her as it escaped the cramped unit. Closing the door behind her, Twinkle dropped her purse and sunglasses on the sheet-covered futon in the living room as she bee-lined to the mango yellow refrigerator in the kitchen alcove. She opened the low humming dinosaur but stopped the door in mid-swing as she stifled a scream of frustration. The rush of air out of the obviously dead refrigerator was hotter than the stagnant air of the apartment. It took every ounce of her being to keep from slamming the refrigerator door until it fell off. Moving with calm she didn’t feel, Twinkle opened the small freezer compartment at the top of the unit and was greeted by a half-thawed plastic bag of mixed vegetables and a foil wrapped pound of hamburger meat leaking red juices. She ignored both packages and reached for the two ice cube trays in the corner of the compartment. Both held tiny cubes of ice floating in little lakes of water. Carefully removing both, she took a cup from the sink and slowly emptied both trays into the wide mouth plastic mug. Water and mini-cubes barely filled the cup halfway. Dropping both trays into the sink, she crossed back into the living room and, after pushing her purse and glasses aside, flopped down on the futon. She sat in the heat of the apartment and sipped the water as she thought of turning on the evap cooler but quickly decided against it. She didn’t think she could take any more disappointments today. Twinkle glanced at the fake wood wall clock across the room as she finished her drink and saw that it was just past 1:30. She didn’t have to pick up Brandy from the sitter’s until 5:30 or so—after the bi-monthly session with her county welfare appointed counselor, Laura Gaye.
Twinkle and Laura had been seeing each other on a regular basis for the last three months as part of the family service package available to her through the county. As much as Twinkle sometimes dreaded the hour-long talks in the beginning, she now (most of the time at least) enjoyed talking to Laura, whose no-nonsense attitude and big sister like advice were a welcome relief from the knuckleheads Twinkle had to deal with on a daily basis.
The brief physical vacation the ice water caused was now replaced with the same heavy, wet heat she’d felt earlier. Wanting a cigarette (but not having any), she rifled through her purse looking for a stray. She found twelve dollars and a ten-dollar food stamp and not a cent of change (she had used her last of that to call her voice mail service earlier). These meager funds she had to stretch until the middle of next week. She tossed everything but the money and the food stamp back into the purse.
I can get some ice. Maybe the frozen stuff is still good, she thought.
Returning to the kitchen, she opened the under-sink cabinet and pulled out a small Styrofoam cooler. She rinsed it out and left it upside-down in the sink as she picked up her purse, keys, and glasses and stepped outside. Twenty minutes later she was back holding a bag of crushed ice and puffing on a cigarette.
A minute later, the cooler was crammed with ice and food transferred from the broken refrigerator. Sipping from the ice-choked tumbler of water, Twinkle scrawled a note to her grandmother to pick up the baby when she got home at 6:00 (Brandy’s sitter lived in their complex) and included that the fridge was dead. She grabbed faded blue jeans, a pink tee shirt, and clean panties out of her box of clothes and carried everything into the apartment’s tiny bathroom. Momentarily relieved by the quick shower she took and with a cigarette firmly between her lips, Twinkle quickly changed.
She filled her plastic cup with ice from the cooler and checked her purse for her bus pass. Twinkle exited the apartment and walked the short distance to the bus stop. The negativity of the morning gone, Twinkle was now looking forward to her talk with Laura. This kind of life had to stop. She had to get on her feet. No more shitty burger flipping jobs.
Twinkle knew that Laura was just the person to point her in the right direction. Seeing the bus coming, she pulled her bus pass from her purse along with another business card sized scrap of paper. For the first time today she was calm and determined to do something—anything—to get on with her life.
Forget livin’ like this, she thought. I gotta find a real job. Laura will help me figure this out.
With a slight smile on her face, Twinkle looked at the paper in her hand as the bus door hissed open in front of her.
Laura’ll know if these guys are full of shit, she thought as she boarded the bus and glanced at the business card ad she’d taken from the payphone about computer training…
* * *
“Twinkle, a reminder, your appointment is at four o’clock. See you then…”
Laura Gaye hung up the phone, disconnecting from Twinkle Marigold’s voice mail service. Getting up from the gunmetal gray government surplus desk in her office, which was in the only county building on the shittier side of 7th Avenue and 13th Street, she maneuvered past overflowing boxes of client files as she made her way to the door. Sticking her head outside it, she looked both ways down the deserted hallway before stepping back inside, closing the brown painted metal door, and locking it. She pushed aside a stack of government manuals that lay on top of the beaten file cabinet she was now leaning against and began to shake violently as she tried to muffle her sobs by clamping both hands over her mouth. Her uncontrollable shaking was accompanied with an equally forceful river of tears.
Oh God, please, she thought, just a few more hours…then I’ll be all right…please…
Tonight, after she saw her last client, Laura was going to put an end to her pain—to the endless string of nightmares (when she did sleep) of her mother’s murder at the hands of her father three years ago. Laura, as soon as she got home, was going to kill herself. It was a full five minutes later before Laura was able, on unsteady legs, to wobble back to her desk. Glancing at the door to check the lock, she picked up a small ring of keys from under the mountain of papers that covered her desk. She selected the last one and used it to open the locked bottom drawer of the cabinet she had leaned against. Pushing aside reams of memos she never read, she dug out a half full bottle of vodka. Laura took several long, deep swallows before recapping it and placing the bottle back in the drawer. This routine is what, for the last two years, got her up in the morning, through the day, and past too many sleepless nights. The year of counseling she took after her mother’s death was a joke.
Let go, they’d say. You’ve got to release, to move on…
She’d been through three shrinks in a year’s time, all of them saying the same thing—the wrong thing. “It was out of your hands—you have to realize this.”
No, it wasn’t, she thought. If I had gotten there sooner, faced him sooner, Momma would still be here…
Feeling the five swallows of alcohol ebbing into her steadied Laura enough to calm her. Replacing the bottle, she crossed the room and unlocked her office door. In the last few years, drinking (and almost manic working out) had been her only escape. Every woman that walked through her door—every welfare case that sat across from her—reminded her of her mother…especially the scores of them, the huge majority of which were dragging in cryin’ dirty children. Women who were broken and cried endless tears as they sat in her office. All needing help, all running from some personal hell (usually supplied in abundance by a boyfriend or husband) with bawling, snotty-nosed kids in tow.
Kids that she could never have. Never hold. Never love.
Her father had seen to that, too.
Sitting back at her desk, she took a small compact from her purse, opened it, and dabbed listlessly at the dark power before applying it to her face. Though a bit thinner than three years ago (working out two-three hours daily while subsiding on vodka and Chinese take-out did wonders for keeping her weight down), her statuesque frame was still taut, her face still unlined. Touching the corner of one eye with a tissue from a box that stayed empty, an uncharacteristic smile bent her lips and surprised her. Laura dropped the tissue to the floor and picked up the tiny mirror as she brought it closer to her face.
Even she could see the sadness in her eyes as she—carefully—examined the sharp features of her face—the same face that seemed too full of her father’s features.
Just a little while longer, she thought, and all that will be left is a good-looking corpse. That thought actually made her smile.
* * *
It was almost 6:00 p.m. before Twinkle stepped out of Laura’s office and into the hallway of the now deserted building. The elation she felt was written all over Twinkle’s face as she turned toward Laura, who was standing in the doorway.
“Laura, thanks for the pep talk…and the info on these classes,” she gushed as she waved the thin folder in her hand. “They’re really free, huh?”
Laura answered with a nod. “Fill out those forms and get them to the Phoenix Family Services Center on 7th. They’ll get you started.”
Twinkle opened the slim folder for what seemed like the thousandth time as Laura spoke. The building Laura had directed her to was less than two blocks from her apartment, barely a walk down the street. Included with the papers was a voucher from the county, signed by Laura, which waived the $600 fee for the class and the laptop computer that came with it. The girl was now almost giddy and felt, for the first time since she came to Phoenix, that she was finally going in the right direction.
“Get there early tomorrow, Twinkle, okay? I know there are only five slots left open this quarter. You’ll want to be the first one in line when the door opens at 7:30AM.”
“Okay, I’ll be there real early. Damn, Laura, thank you!”
“You’re welcome…how’s Brandy?”
“Into everything and breaking as much as possible.”
“And, Eric—have you heard anything from him?”
Even the mention of Twinkle’s missing-in-action husband couldn’t put a damper on her elevated spirits (In the months she’d been in Phoenix, there hadn’t been a peep from him even though he knew her grandmother’s address and phone number.). For a second, hearing Eric’s name did, however, force an evil chuckle from her.
“Naw, and don’t expect to…not until I find his ass ta serve him divorce papers.”
That reply gave Laura her first (and only) laugh of the day. Twinkle looked at her mentor and almost split her face with a smile of her own. This was the first time, in her memory, that she had seen Laura anywhere near happy.
“Laura, I really appreciate everything you’ve done, all the help and everything. How about…you know…we go to lunch or something, if you have the time, next week…if that’s okay with you.”
Twinkle’s smile froze as she watched Laura’s face-just for an instant-tighten into a grimace. The pained look was gone just as quickly and replaced by sadness so profound in Laura’s eyes that it made Twinkle blush. Embarrassed, the younger girl turned away.
“I’m sorry…I didn’t mean anything…I just…”
Laura stopped the girl’s stammering with a touch on Twinkle’s arm.
“Twinkle, no, it’s alright…I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m…leaving. I need to take care of some business. Maybe some other time. I have to go.”
“Sure, I understand…I hope everything’s alright.”
Before Twinkle could finish her sentence, she was looking at Laura’s rapidly closing office door. Confused, she watched it shut and heard the lock click. Standing in the hallway a moment longer, Twinkle turned and walked the short distance to the elevator. By the time the doors opened, a cigarette was clamped firmly between her lips and smoldering…
* * *
“You have sixty days, Mr. Earley. Either show the court a cashier’s check for back child support or it is back to jail. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, whatever,” he mumbled.
Judge Valerie Rosa leaned across her desk and pointed the business end of her gavel at the overweight asshole that slouched in front of her podium. Earley’s lightweight court-appointed lawyer winced at the chill of her words as they commanded Jesse Earley’s full attention.
“‘Whatever’ doesn’t cut it in my court as a proper reply, Mister Earley. Let’s add another four hundred dollars to the check you’d better have for your ex-wife in the next two months when your sorry ass is back here. How about we call it ‘additional court costs.’ Oh, and if you find you want to skip our little meeting, I will personally see to it you’re arrested post haste. I believe there’s a nine-month backlog of cases at the county tent farm. Now, do you understand?”
His face was almost as red as hers when he replied. “Yes…your Honor.”
“Get out of my court.”
Earley’s lawyer followed his rapidly waddling client out into the crowded corridor of the downtown courthouse.
“Mr. Earley, angering Judge Rosa wasn’t wise. Especially due to this being the third time she’s seen you in a year. I shouldn’t have to remind you that you’re still on parole. If you go back to jail—for anything—it will be for a lot longer than nine months.”
Jesse kept walking toward the outside exit doors of the courthouse.
“Mr. Earley, please, I’m trying to help…are you still working? Can you get a loan?”
The fat man’s sudden turn and look of contempt stopped the counselor in his tracks. Reaching for the door handle, Jesse shoved it open before replying.
“Naw, I ain’t workin’. I quit that dump this mornin’.”
Actually, he had been fired. Again. Seems the convenience stores he’d worked at had a higher than average rate of robberies (even for the South Phoenix bottom of the barrel establishment Jesse had chosen for employment), and all those robberies had been on his shift. Jesse and his even less bright friend, Donell “Curly” Stone (the nickname a direct result of the slim man’s total case of premature baldness) had a scam that always started a couple or three weeks after Jesse started at a store. Curly would wait until the store was empty (something not too difficult on Jesse’s graveyard shift) and then burst in waving a gun (for the sake of the surveillance cameras). Stuffing cash, cigarettes, and all the booze he could carry into a pillowcase, Curly was out the door in minutes. Every now and again some poor slob would walk in at the wrong time and he or she would be relieved of whatever cash they carried. Jesse and Curly would meet up later that day and split the take. What they didn’t sell they smoked or drank. After a couple-four months Jesse would quit, stay drunk for a week or two, and the cycle would repeat itself at another store. As of late, though, Jesse’s job pickings were damn near anorexic. Word of mouth (and viewing of previous employers’ security tapes by suspicious store owners) was that this guy was trouble walking. Seems too many guys (with remarkably similar clothes and face masks) liked robbing him.
As he sat at the counter of Poppi Lows Coffee Shoppe, Jesse looked out the diner’s plate glass window at the courthouse he’d just left. Nursing a cup of coffee and his last cigarette, Jesse quietly cursed his string of bad luck as he waited for his sandwich and his buddy Curly.
“Fuckin’ cunt. Bitch thinks she’s hot shit…”
His meal arrived just as his lanky partner slid onto the stool next to him.
“How goes the war, man?”
Jesse’s somber look answered his friend’s question as the big man attacked his lunch.
“That good, huh? When we goin’ back to work? I’m gettin’ low on funds, and the rent’s due next week.”
“Can I finish eatin’ ‘fore you start on my ass?”
“Hey, hey,” he chuckled, “my bad…”
After smearing the last soggy French fry across the plate, neither his hunger nor anger had abated enough for Jesse to notice. He picked up the ticket the waitress had left on the counter and winced at the $6.95 tab for his meal. Elbowing Curly on the arm, he nodded toward the door. He pulled two dollars from his wallet and slid it on the counter under his plate. They timed their exit when the waitress left to serve an elderly couple that had seated themselves near the back of the restaurant…
* * *
It was late afternoon when the men’s wandering brought them to the edge of downtown.
“Jes, it’s too damn hot for all this walkin’. We need a plan to make some money, not no damn exercise.”
Jesse was thinking of a smart answer when he saw Twinkle leave Laura’s building just down the street. She stopped at the deserted bus stop in front of the building. Curly stopped his babbling, looked at his non-responding partner, and then glanced up the street at Twinkle. She was smoking a cigarette. The slight smile on Jesse’s face brought a chuckle from Curly.
“Curly, how much cash you got?”
The smirk on Jesse’s face was now a shit-eatin’ grin.
“Give me a minute, then back me up.”
“You da man,” he said as he watched Jesse amble toward the bus stop.
* * *
“Excuse me; you got a cigarette I can borrow?” Twinkle looked up from digging in her purse for her bus pass and into the lopsided grin of Jesse Earley. He shrugged his shoulders as he spoke.
“Been tryin’ ta quit, and the patch thing ain’t workin’.
Jesus Christ, she thought, am I a creep magnet today?
“Sorry…that was my last.”
“Hey that’s cool…what bus you waitin’ for?”
“The next one comin’.”
Both eyed the other as Curly walked slowly behind the bus stop at which Jesse and Twinkle stood. A few feet past them he stopped and turned to face her back. Jesse, seeing him in place, took an easy step toward her.
“You wouldn’t have any spare change, would you, girlie?”
It was Twinkle who, finger raised, closed the short distance between them with one step.
“I ain’t got shit for you, asshole, so FUCK OFF!”
She turned away from Jesse and right into a full-blown, swinging-from-Mississippi backhand from Curly. The unexpected blow caused her to stagger backward, and Jesse put everything he had into a roundhouse blow that knocked her unconscious to the ground. Both men grabbed her and carried Twinkle to the rear of the L-shaped alley beside the building she had left just minutes before. Tossing her down on the hard-packed dirt, Jesse dug through the contents of her purse and dumped the contents on the ground. Twinkle was beginning to stir when Jesse stood up and kicked the loose pile from her purse toward her. In his hand was an open pack of smokes and three one-dollar bills. He kicked her outstretched foot as Curly giggled.
“No butts, huh, bitch?” He pocketed the cigarettes and cash. “This is too much work for three bucks girlie, I hope you got some more…”
“Jess let’s blow.”
“Fuck that shit, she gotta—”
His words were cut off by a badly aimed kick from the sprawled-out girl. The kick was meant for his groin but bounced off his thigh. The only damage the groggy blow caused was a dirty rip in his cheap pants where it had landed. Jesse retaliated with two kicks of his own that landed dead center in the squirming girl’s side, breaking one of her ribs.
“You fuckin’ bitch, you tore my pants!”
Curly almost collapsed against the wall at the alley’s edge. He had to cover his month with both hands to muffle his loud laughter. Looking down on Twinkle, who was curled up in a tight ball, Jesse backed off to kick her again but stopped. He bent closer to her and stared into her contorted face. She looked familiar. It took a moment before Jesse realized that his prey looked just like a younger version of the judge who had busted his chops that morning.
“Man leave that sorry bitch alone. I’m hungry, let’s go,” Curly urged.
The grin returned to Jesse’s face as he worked his belt and pants loose. He reached for Twinkle just as his fat, zit-covered ass cleared his thrift store pants.
“Yeah, you ain’t got no money, bitch, but I bet you got some pussy…”
Following his partner’s lead, Curly started to loosen his belt…