Are we born good? Bad? Inbetween and we just eventually go one way or another later in life? Or are we always walking a fine line between the light and dark sides of ourselves? Such are the themes this week. Get ready for plenty of blood.
Video and text excerpts, for your voyeuristic, twisted pleasures:
Excerpt from “A Drop in the Mercury” from Women in Strange Places: Stories. (c) Celeste Ramos, 2009
Thelma was a wonderful intimidator. She hadn’t worked in over a year because she managed to bully a few people in her building into giving her money. Eight-hundred dollars a month came from four apartments: 9F, where Lee the speed-metal heroin punk lived; 10B, where a recluse named Therese lived; and 6D, her favorite – Harry and Lorna’s apartment. It was directly above Thelma’s. Harry liked to beat Lorna. Lorna sat there and took it. Thelma saw Lorna one day in the hall and told her that if she didn’t leave him she would start to collect tax from them for making so much noise upstairs when they fought.
Lorna said, “Talk to Harry.”
Thelma could see something in her eyes that could go either way. That lady would either kill Harry or kill herself. She was stupid if she did the latter. So Thelma collected, and waited.
The fourth apartment was next door to Thelma’s, 5E, where “Porno Diane” lived. She was a former porn star that ran the all-too common track of being popular, falling into drugs, losing her looks and ending up a forgotten “whore”. Diane was living proof to Thelma’s conscience that she had a tiny molecule of goodness – she wouldn’t put Diane out of her misery. And all she needed from Diane was two dollars a month, in exchange for being Diane’s “ear”. The woman had more problems than there were cracks in that building’s walls.
Thelma went off to start her rent collection. She dragged her hands along the walls as she walked toward the flickering stairwell. Her palms were wet with the humidity beading on the walls by the time she reached the door.
At 9F, the usual way-too-loud-for-human-ears metal blared from the apartment. The ninth floor was so shady that Thelma always brought her gun up there. The hall lights were always out, except for the two red exit signs at either end of the halls. In the red light, the graffiti on the walls looked like animals watching her in a dark jungle. Cockroaches were moving lumps under the old carpet on the floor.
Lee never locked his door. Thelma came in and found him on his more-bedspring-than-mattress of a bed.
He held his arms up and said, “Thelma! You look extra kick-ass today!”
But Thelma didn’t hear anything except music.
Lee shoved his hands in his pockets and gave her a crumpled bunch of money that totaled $266.
On the sixth floor Thelma ran into a gang initiation. Nine guys were on one guy on the floor, beating him with brass knuckles and other things. They looked like a pack of dogs descended on meat. When they saw Thelma coming they made room for her to pass. She stepped over the newbie and pounded on Harry and Lorna’s door.
Lorna was mid-scream when she got there. Harry opened the door. He was a man about Thelma’s height who never wore shirts when he was in the building, like he had something to his 57-year-old torso he needed to show off.
She looked over his shoulder at Lorna, standing half in shadow wearing a lovely green and white dress.
Thelma looked back at Harry while speaking to Lorna. “What a nice dress, lady. Where’d you get that?”
“She don’t have to dress nice for nobody,” Harry answered. He reached into his pocket and handed Thelma a wad of cash.
As Thelma counted the money she said again, “What a nice dress, lady. Where’d you get that?”
Lorna didn’t answer. Thelma counted the exact amount and then looked at Lorna.
“Still not budgin’, huh?” Thelma asked her. “Very well.”
“Don’t you know when you’ve interrupted a conversation?” Harry asked.
Thelma smiled as she walked away saying, “Oh don’t worry, Harry baby, we’re going to have us a long talk one day.”
At 10B Thelma got no answer from Therese. She pounded on the maroon door. The hallway was dim and empty.
10C opened up. Mr. Cordo came out. He was a sweet old man who was about to retire from being a teacher. The nicer residents in the building called him “Grampa.”
“That girl doesn’t live there anymore,” he said lowly. “Moved out yesterday. End of the month and all.”
Thelma came to him with her aggressive energy, saying, “And how do you know?”
“She and I started talking a couple of weeks ago. She told me she was leaving. She gave me a card and everything before she left.”
“Where’d she go?”
“She became a flight attendant, she said. Off to see the world, bless her heart. She didn’t tell you?”
Thelma was a little surprised the old man hadn’t backed away from her, considering how she was standing over him.
“No. She owed me money.” She looked up and down the hall, thinking. She knew who was home at that time and who wasn’t. Anyone else she could get money from wouldn’t be around for a few hours.
“Lucky for her she left now. Did you hear? The new landlords? Damned mob bought the place, that’s what they’re saying now. A lot of people were going downstairs to pay their rent nice and early this morning.” Mr. Cordo shook his head in dismay as he turned and headed toward his small kitchen. “I remember when this was a lovely building. Oh, twenty years ago. Bright. The people were good people. Oh, well. I was just going to have a snack, some nice cool fruit. Would you like to join me?”
Mr. Cordo turned around again. Thelma was gone.
She ran down to her apartment, where she found Diane about to knock on her door with two dollars in hand. She was dressed in a pencil skirt and a mesh-sleeved blouse. Diane always looked older and older to Thelma. She was only thirty-one but looked like a woman who had survived all her children.
“Here. Sorry. I almost forgot,” she said.
Thelma took the two dollars. “Hey, is it true about the landlords?”
“I guess. Why?” Diane combed her nails through her red hair as she chewed her bubble gum lunch.
Thelma resented the feeling of worry inside her. The mob was the only group she had to worry about, yet it was the only group she envied and wanted to be a part of. They were organized chaos. In a matter of a handful of years they had grown into a network with many arms, strangling the city from the inside out. But they were very much a boys-only club.
“I’m short,” she said.
“Oh that’s no good. I heard they beat some old lady up like an hour ago cuz she didn’t have her cash. The ambulance was just here, didn’t you hear?”
“No. Give me money.”
“Sorry. I just gave my last grip to Daisy after I paid my rent. She was scared of getting beat up too.”
“Oh come on, T, she’s my aunt!”
Thelma went inside and called Paul.
“I need four hundred bucks.”
Paul laughed. “Jesus Thel. Some girlfriends call for a twenty. Maybe a hundred.”
“Shut up. I never ask you for money. I’m short on rent.”
“I just am. And now the mob went and bought my building.”
“Is that right?” Paul said with wonder. James had never mentioned to him anything about picking up a building. “Yeah, sure. I’ll bring it over. Just meet me outside? I can never seem to leave your place without getting into a fight. I got a meeting later. I have to look right.”
Paul looked at his watch. 6:40. Thelma was due over in twenty minutes.
He finished counting the cash in the black boxes in a hurry. Twenty-one thousand dollars sat in front of him in dirty hundred dollar bills. He had nine thousand dollars to go.
He put the money back in the boxes and put them in the closet where they belonged.
Paul lived in the industrial district, also known just as “the industrial.” He lived in one of the four newly renovated living spaces in what used to be a sugar factory. They were stacked together in one part of the rusty waste of the building. Renovations had stopped a long time ago. The downstairs was left as a hollowed-out factory, with scrap metal and glass, dimmed with age, strewn all over the vast main floor.
Paul had the stealthy walk that his profession commanded, and he always wore white. It brought out his evergreen eyes against his black hair. He never smoked aside from the nights he had to work. He was the only person he knew that had addictions that were genuinely healthy: he was addicted to loving Thelma and he had to have four glasses of apple juice a day or else he’d get moody.
The only thing Paul hated was his talent. He had just gotten off the phone with his mother before he sat down to count the money. She told him he was so handsome; when was he going to get a proper girlfriend? He imagined all mothers said that to their sons. He wondered if somewhere, some mothers hoped their sons would grow up to be the perfect hitman he was on the job.
He’d told Thelma he just ran cocaine and that’s how he made his money. And he did run cocaine from time to time. He couldn’t bear for her to know the truth – that he loved the precision and the seamlessness of killing people from distances. It was like he was God’s own eye when he caught the person in the crosshairs, and God’s own hand when he fired.
He wanted Thelma to believe that goodness didn’t equal perfection and the strictness of the rules of society she perceived. Goodness could be something as simple as minding your own business, and going to sleep at night without a gun under your pillow, or having a sore hand from a fight. Paul hoped that if Thelma could believe in him as an example of how anyone could be “good”, despite their imperfections, they could start a life somewhere else. And besides – she couldn’t have been as bad as she thought she was. To Paul she was just an angry woman.
Paul had his own problem, however. He was shaving money from the drug deals he made. His hitman pay wasn’t enough to leave the life behind. And it wasn’t like James, the mob boss, also his best friend since they were kids, was going to let him go.
Paul needed to buy a new life from people that helped mob folks disappear when they didn’t feel like dying. They were expensive of course. Fifteen grand per person. And that was just for the basic “disappearance” stuff. Full-out relocation cost an extra ten grand. But Paul could handle relocation. He just needed to make it so that James could never find him again.
It was a bet – his hope that Thelma would agree to go with him. He worried about how Thelma would react to his being a hitman. Nine thousand dollars more and Paul could cover her disappearance too. He was sure the guys would charge him for her just because she was mob by association with him.
Thelma was at the bus stop on Almore Street. She slept the night before but again, her dreams were full of Edward. Her mind was full of questions too: why didn’t she just earn her money? What lasting result came from slapping people around for it when she needed to?
She told her conscience to can it. She did what she did because that’s who she was. It was impossible for a person to train themselves out of being who they were.
She stood outside the bus shelter and felt cool rain drops on her shoulders. She looked up and smiled at the grey clouds above, bloated with water and static. They came alive with lightning.