Queenie's On The Strip

Once when I was very young, the girl I loved had a seizure in the deep end. Her name was Melanie Fitzgerald, and I didn’t much like her. We spoke very little, and when we did, it left an ugly, pitted feeling in my stomach. The dull features of her face scrunched tight around the nose, and the ends of her mouth were in the habit of turning inward and down. We were playing Marco Polo, a group of us, the tall boys inching along the sides of the pool to six feet. And she followed them, her hair fanning flat where it met the water. She walked until the water kissed her chin. It was midday, and the sun made her hair shine like lacquered wood.

I could feel the pool jet against my stomach, as if it were trying to burrow deeper under the skin. It seemed a very pure force. When I turned again she was facedown on the water’s surface. Someone was shouting, the lifeguard maybe, or one of the tall boys. They dragged her to the stairs at the head of the pool, where she floated in the gentle tide like a skiff.

We exited single file from the pool, and as I left, I felt her hair tickle the back of my legs. For a moment I grew warm all over. The water winked and dimpled in the sunlight, so that everything shone impossibly white. Two of the tall boys had their hands about her wrists, anchoring her, and there were many other children shivering poolside to watch the spectacle play out.

In the locker room later—after the ambulance had arrived, and all the tall boys were in the showers making jokes—I rubbed my legs until I didn’t feel anything at all, just the raw red make of my skin, the dead memory of her hair along my legs, how real it felt, even then.

***

Chronologies have never interested me. I’m going to keep things to the bone. I’m going to tell you only what you need to know. Some have said that in my retelling I withhold or that I do not fill in the right gaps. Maybe this is true. But this is all I have—the memory of a place, and the people who, for a time, occupied it.

***

Each of us was going to run away. It was only a matter of time, we said. There were the four of us: Kennie and Levi and Fresno and me. We drove the Strip for hours. We took Fresno’s car, a shitty blue pickup given him by his father, a farmhand, for his sixteenth birthday. We got burgers and shakes at this little drive-through where the waitresses still went around on rollerblades. They all smelled of cherry cola, the waitresses, and went by names like Brenda or Linda or Sherry or Jill. When their shifts ended, they exchanged their rollerblades for checkered pumps and short skirts.

The Strip lit up like a carnival at night, the electric signs flashing and winking like schoolgirls, the night sky opening up beyond the lights to where the hills grew dark and tall with pine. At the end of the Strip the lights stopped blinking and the storefronts went dead with plywood. Fresno turned us around and we started north again, toward the lights and the crowds. Fresno was a good kid. He was the first to go.

***

Kennie went to vocational school the next town over where she learned to work cars. She had three piercings in each ear, a nose ring, and one on her belly button. We met in junior high when she was the new girl and she asked me to dance. We kissed on the dance floor. Freshman year of high school she told me she’d fallen for a girl. Then she switched to the vocational school.

It was about that time that Levi and I met at Saint Paul’s Rehabilitation Center for Wayward Youths. Saint Paul’s had stone buildings with cupolas and porte-coche?res and therapists who combed their hair to one side and didn’t think a thing of taking three-week “hiatuses” to Geneva or the Berkshires. Levi was in for being a sexual deviant and I was there because I didn’t seem to have many thoughts of value and that didn’t bother me.

I slept on the top bunk in a room with four beds and one window. Every morning I slammed my head on the ceiling. The schoolmasters at Saint Paul’s didn’t know much. They bettered my handwriting and claimed improvement in French and Latin. They taught me not to leave my elbows on the dining room table and I learned the importance of cufflinks, something I wouldn’t use until many years later. When I returned to school my junior year, people thought I was the wrong kind of kid. That made me a lot of friends, though I couldn’t give you any of their names now.

***

The girls at Queenie’s had little red and gold tassels clipped to their nipples. Friday nights they lit the neon signs over the bar and served fifty-cent wings and fixed the jukebox so it played the whole song catalog on loop. Kennie’s friend Margot performed Friday nights and we went to watch her. Levi and I met Kennie and Fresno at the round table off the bar near the jukebox.

We only knew about Queenie’s on account of Kennie’s meeting Margot. The vocational school offered free car tune-ups as practice for the students. Margot brought her old Chevy in and Kennie got it running good as new. After that they started seeing each other. Kennie said Margot was like nobody she’d ever met. She had a theater degree from a little school in Michigan and her hair was a new color each week. That first time it was red.

Margot was a character. She had wide owl eyes and the very smooth dark skin that men found attractive. She knew things, like how much eye shadow was too much and which outfits made the right kind of men like her. For her the whole thing was a hoot. When she was drunk enough, and enough men had squeezed her thighs, and the skinny pimpled barmen had stopped giving her free drinks, she turned to me and said, “This whole thing’s a hoot, you know. Hoot-hoot-hoot.” What was I supposed to say? I bought her a drink.

Kennie brought us to Margot’s shows. Margot circled our table with a big cherry-lipped smile to her face and performed the little tassel bit for each of us before walking to the next table to tassel for the paying gentlemen. They pinched her cheeks and about once a week one would grow gutsy enough to squeeze her breasts and she would shriek and play coy, then rub her backside along his shoulders as he closed his eyes and moaned. Margot told us she only did this for the ones who didn’t wear wedding rings. She said she couldn’t respect the men who didn’t even pretend.

Fresno was Hispanic and well-muscled, a good-looking kid one year our junior who studied cars with Kennie at the vocational school. He said he was born in Mexico and that he wanted to travel America in a flatbed. Those were the two main things on his mind at any given moment: Mexico and the road. He always had gum. Usually he chewed three to four pieces at once, a thick little wad in his mouth like a wine cork. He’d fallen for Kennie even though he knew about her and Margot. When Margot flitted about him with her tasseled nipples he always stared ahead at Kennie, who stared ahead at Margot.

***

There was a little tin bell over the door at Queenie’s that you only ever heard as you walked in or out. The rest of the time the music was so loud you didn’t know if people were coming and going.

No one carded at Queenie’s. The barmen were drunk half the time and the bouncer was a regular goof called Charlie who spent most of his time doing hits with the manager in the back lot. He was friendly and calm and when he wasn’t stoned he played at shooing people from the door. But for the most part he couldn’t keep his mouth in a straight line for more than thirty seconds. He liked a good time, and for years Queenie’s played the part.

Levi and I played games like, How many people will Charlie turn away tonight? Or, How many drinks will Margot get for Kennie tonight? Or, How many times will Fresno rub Kennie’s hand across the table? After tallying our scores, we escaped to the back lot. Levi had a soft tongue and nice smooth cheeks and he didn’t go slack when we kissed. Then we sat and smoked a pack of Pall Malls and he’d tell me about the men he met online—who they were, and how he used them.

***

 After they found Fresno’s body, I started to forget things. Small things at first, like the names of grade school teachers, or where I’d left my wallet. Then bigger things: which bus led home, where to find a good time, my mother’s maiden name. People mistook this for grief. They said it was only natural.

***

Once Charlie sat at our table and spent the afternoon with us. When Margot returned from her rounds he told us about this job he’d had right after high school mowing a rich man’s lawn. He said he spent most of the time sitting in the tool shed, which was bigger than the studio apartment he shared at the time with two roommates, reading Playboy and drinking virgin pale ales he found in a wheelbarrow. He said the job had definite perks. One was that he got to watch the house when the mister and his family went on vacation, which was often, and for extended periods. Another was that the mister’s daughter was a thing of beauty.

“She was purty,” he said.

“P-U-R-T-Y.” He pawed the rash on his cheek.

“Did you make the moves on her, Charlie?” Margot said with a drag. Smoke went from her nostrils like she was a bull, or a sorceress. “Did you take her away and make her yours?”

“I had half a mind.”

“Half a mind only, Charlie?”

“Half a mind only.”

“Tell us about her.” I leaned forward and burped into my glass. Levi popped a PBR and slid it my way but not without taking a sip first. I made no move for the can, as I didn’t like thinking where Levi’s lips went at night.

“Tell us everything.” Margot was fixing her bra. It slipped around a lot after shows. She held Kennie’s hand under the table. I could feel Fresno watching.

“Oh I would but it makes me sad,” Charlie said. He blinked a few times fast and we all laughed. “Charlie doesn’t like to be sad. Charlie hasn’t got time to be sad.”

“Why’d you quit?” Kennie asked. She wasn’t even listening.

“Didn’t,” Charlie said. He grinned so we saw his missing teeth. “I drove the mower into the pool and that done me in.”

“That done him in!” Kennie and Margot shrilled.

“Oh yeah it did,” Charlie said. “It done him in good.”

 ***

Record heat that summer, and the girls knew it well. They cut belly-shirts from their good-girl shirts, cropped their tight jeans near the waist. Kennie was like any girl that way. She did her hair in pins and hairspray. Fresno listed all the chemicals in the hairspray like a child reciting the animals on Noah’s Ark. Kennie would smirk and pinch his cheek and flop around on the hood of Margot’s car. She’d make poses for us.

The other girls at Queenie’s were chummy with Margot but they hated her. They said so any time Margot scampered off to the restroom to readjust her tassels. The other girls had been around and didn’t think Margot would last. They saw her type often. It was only a matter of time before she left for a whole- some trade, like telephone operating.

Kennie didn’t like the other girls. She called them trash. The other girls liked Kennie.

One of the other girls kissed me on the mouth. Her name was Fredericka but she told me to call her Freddie or Fred or whatever I preferred, she didn’t care, she could be anyone I wanted. She sat on my lap the whole night and ran her fingers through my hair until I didn’t feel her there at all. She sucked at my lips like a wounded animal, my fingers teased the small of her back. For days I smelled of jasmine powder no matter how hard or long I washed.

***

In August Fresno came up with a plan. He was going to run away. We told him it was a bad plan.

“Easy for you to talk,” he said. He had a look to him that told us he was already gone. “You’re all going to leave me behind now you’re finished with school. I’m just waiting.” He smiled without looking up from his glass. “Don’t you see?” He looked mean when he smiled.

“Fresno,” Kennie said. She reached out for his hand and rubbed the backside of his fingers, which had grown hairy since May when we graduated. She brought his hand to her lips and he pulled away.

“I’m set,” he said. “All I need is some help.”

“You need some help?” Levi said. Levi hardly knew Fresno at all. It was easy for Levi to ask a question like that with a straight face.

“Don’t indulge him,” Margot said. She winked at Kennie and me. She leaned forward so her breasts caught the tabletop and peeked over her neckline. Her hair was blue. Levi was playing with one of my belt loops under the table and I had the urge to slap his hand, just to see his face go flat. “Look, Fresno. I ran away when I was sixteen and look at me now.”

“You went to college,” Fresno said.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” she said. She gestured at the neon signs over the bar, the skinny pimpled barmen, her recently detasseled nipples. “Look where I’m at. A regular paradise I’m working, huh?” “You got away,” he said. “I got away,” she said.

“You got away from the grind.”

“Oh yeah, Fresno?” She laughed and made a face at no one in particular. Fresno went quiet. He looked around. The only one who seemed to find his idea any good was Levi.

After Margot and Kennie left and it was just the three of us, Levi leaned across the table and kissed Fresno on the mouth.

“It’s a joke, Fresno,” he said.

It struck me as terribly sad that we didn’t have a nickname for Fresno. I was ready for him to leave, though.

***

 Sometimes Kennie left messages on my phone. She would read a poem she liked, or tell me about something that went on in her day. She was working in a garage for the summer and sometimes she would tell me about the customers and their problems. She would say words that meant nothing to me—she knew they meant nothing to me—but she’d say them over and over until I felt like I knew what she was trying to communicate.

I erased them all, of course. Now I wish I’d saved one, or two.

***

Charlie hadn’t slept for three days straight and he was wearing sunglasses even though it was half past nine and black as ink outside. Earlier in the evening he’d crushed a glass bottle in his hand and he was still bleeding everywhere.

The manager told him to take the weekend off. He said some other things, too. They went out back and finished their conversation. When he returned he kissed each of us on the forehead. His lips were dry as birch bark. As he left, the little tin bell over the door dinged like it always did, and like always, we didn’t hear it. It was the last time we saw him.

***

In dreams, the Queenie’s girls are running down the Strip. It is snowing and the neon signs are lit even though it’s midday and the sky is overcast. The first snowmobiles of the season arrive in the distance, inching forward, their great yellow scrapers marking a frontline. I hear the girls’ laughter—they’re laugh- ing—when the sky turns black and their mouths start to pucker and curl like paper in flame and soon their faces are swallowed up with age and they drop dead.

For a time I woke in the middle of the night, crying. Then one day I woke without any tears at all and I didn’t like it one bit.

***

It was Fredericka started calling me Hank. She said I looked like an old friend she used to have, called Hank, who lost an arm and both legs in Iraq. She said it was funny but it made him a nicer person. She told me this when she was drunk and lying on the pool table in the back room. Kennie and I were lighting cigarettes and putting them out on the felt padding. We knew it made the manager angry.

Fredericka started going out back with Levi and me. She told us she liked it when we kissed, that she thought it was sweet. She asked if she could join, and so we took turns with each other. Once she took us for a ride in her car, down the Strip and to the suburbs.

She showed us where she lived with her parents in a small one-level with two picture windows in front and a two-car carport and one solid brick chimney bisecting the roof. She invited us to stay the night since her parents were out of town for the weekend. Levi licked the side of her face playfully and she slapped him. We all laughed. We lit some fine grassy stuff Fredericka kept in the trunk and the car grew warm and pale with smoke. The three of us kissed until we were sore all over. For a little we just sat in the car with the radio on to fill us up. Fredericka dropped us back at Queenie’s but by then Fresno and Kennie and Margot had left, so we walked the Strip until we found the bus that could take us home.

***

Fresno ran. It happened faster than anyone might have guessed. He left a note at Kennie’s house the night before, begging her to join him.

“He’s a nut,” Kennie said on the phone to me the next day. We laughed about it for some time. “What a kidder. What a character.”

Three days later they found Fresno’s body in the river two towns over, bloated and mealy with the skin peeling off in strips. The eyes were gone, and two fingers cut clean from his left hand.

For weeks Kennie sobbed into me. She came over afternoons and wept until she felt good and empty. We lay on my bed as the sky faded through the windows, made no moves for the light, she in my arms, my legs wound with hers.

We spent one last night at Queenie’s. The manager told us we weren’t welcome anymore. He said he hadn’t known we were underage the whole time, and that he had half a mind to call the cops on us. “Half a mind only?” Margot said. He shouted at Margot in front of everyone. Kennie started to cry again and soon the manager was buying us one final round of drinks. As we left, he asked us not to come back. He said it very quietly as he tucked a strand of Kennie’s hair behind her ear. He clarified Margot’s shipping address and said her final check would be in the mail.

Kennie stopped seeing Margot after Margot ended her stint at Queenie’s. They parted on good terms. Last I heard Margot left for California to become an actress. Kennie and I continued to see each other. She told me stories about how she used to kiss Fresno in the pine stand behind the vocational school, where they kept the old car tires and empty propane tanks. She said sweet things about her memory of him, like how he prayed every night for her instead of for his parents. Soon we were making jokes about him again. Kennie had saved some of his voicemails and we listened to them over and over. Sometimes we fell asleep to them.

Once we called his cell phone to see what would happen. I counted the rings before someone an- swered. “Hello?” a girl with an accent said. “Hello? Is this you, Thad?” Kennie looked at me and I looked at the mouthpiece. “Hello? Hello?” I hung up. Kennie stared at the ceiling and told me it gave her the creeps thinking how fast his number was reassigned.

“It’s only been a few weeks,” Kennie said.

“There are lots of people,” I said.

***

“Would you come visit me?” Levi asked.

“Where? Would I come visit you where?”

“Just say yes or no.”

“Yes.”

“Some man got me a hotel room for the weekend. He’s not coming until tonight and I think I’d like some company.”

“Which hotel?” He told me. It was the wrong kind of place. I imagined him sitting on stained sheets with the shades drawn, making this call to me.

“I’m just incredibly bored. I thought he was going to be here earlier but I must have miscalculated. There’s a swimming pool. Bring your trunks.”

It struck me precisely, and all at once, that I didn’t care for any of them.

***

I told Kennie that Levi made me sick. I told Kennie I was glad to be leaving all that behind.

“What would you do without me?” Kennie said.

She flicked her cigarette over her shoulder and pursed her lips. “Where would you even be?”

I took a deep drag from mine. “Somewhere else,” I said. “Lonelier.” “Mm.”

“I leave in two days,” I told Kennie.

“Do you? I wish you hadn’t told me.”

My last night home we took the bus to the Strip, just Kennie and me. We were going to climb the hills behind the Strip, the ones with the tall pines. It was a clean path to the top through scrub oak and trefoil. The night was thick and hot. I kept my fingers to her shoulders to feel the both of us sweating. We stopped at a ledge halfway up the first hill. Far on the orange horizon we saw the smoketrees humming white along the valley rim. Below us, the Strip glowed like a lost city in the desert, like something holy and clean. Sometimes I wonder what any of it meant, that place, or if it was worth it.

I gave Kennie’s hand a squeeze.