I moved in with BJ when I was nineteen, right after mom died. I always called my big sister BJ, ‘cause Barbara Jolleen took too long to say. That was back when we both lived at home, before Daddy disappeared. He left BJ a letter. She didn’t show it to me. That was okay, it wasn’t for me anyway, but it made BJ crazy mad. She blamed Mom. She blamed me. She even stopped calling me Toodles, like she’d always done. Then she moved out. One morning, she was gone.
It just about killed Mom. She didn’t say anything, but you could see it in her eyes. Losing the only man she ever wanted to talk to, and then losing her favorite child. It was like one day being part of something bigger than herself, and the next day being nothing. I didn’t really make a family for her. She and BJ – they looked alike, talked alike, and fought alike. Mom used to finish BJ’s sentences, even when she was little. Mom and me, we never thought the same things, so there wasn’t much sense in talking about them.
Still, I couldn’t leave her by herself, even when that’s what she thought she was. I spent three years trying to prove to her she wasn’t alone. She proved me wrong by committing suicide. One night, when I was at my book club, she sat in the bathtub and ran the water real hot. Then, she sliced her wrists. She didn’t leave a note or nothing. She just bled.
It took me a while, but I found BJ. She was living in Chicago.
She was silent for a long time. “How… No don’t tell me, she probably killed herself. I don’t want to know.”
“Funeral’s Saturday. You want to say goodbye?”
“I said goodbye three years ago.”
“You just left.”
“That’s how I say goodbye sometimes.”
“How about this time?”
She didn’t answer me. That was her way of telling me she was done talking about our mother. “You doing alright, Toodles?” I admit I enjoyed hearing her call me Toodles again. “Not so good?” she asked when I didn’t answer.
“No, I’m fine. I’m always fine, I guess.”
“You got a boyfriend you can move in with?”
“No, never… nothing like that.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“A friend invited me to live with her in Fresno – she says there’s a waitress job for me if I can get there next week.”
“Jesus, Toodles, fucking Fresno?”
I heard a child’s voice in the background. BJ covered the receiver, but I could still hear her muffled voice. “Shut up, I’m on the fucking phone.” Then, I heard the child crying.
“You want to come out here and visit?”
“Who was that?”
I didn’t need to say anything to ask the question.
“I didn’t want to have my baby at home.”
“Did Mom know?” She reminded me she was done talking about our mother by not answering.
“You got a car or anything you can drive out here?” she asked.
I forgot I was on the phone and nodded.
“Oh, yeah, I got mom’s car.”
“Call before you come.”
She gave me the address and hung up.
* * *
She lived in a three story walk-up that had once been painted green. The light from the lone bare bulb barely reach her end of the hall. I squinted to read the piece of paper in my hand and looked up. The “C” on her door hung loose by one nail, and the door rattled in its frame when I knocked.
Her eyes were the same, but everything else was different. Her hair was curled and bleached blond, and her skin was paler than I remembered. She wore lipstick and earrings and dressed like, well, like I’d seen people do on TV. Seeing her there, I couldn’t remember what my sister looked like as a girl any more.
“Jesus, Toodles, you look the same as you did three years ago. Aren’t you ever going to grow up?” She opened the door and stepped aside, which was all the invitation I was going to get.
I set my suitcase down and looked around. Nothing in the apartment caught my eye except the little girl on the rug. She looked to be about three. Her eyes were red, like she’d been crying, but when she saw me, she smiled as big and bright as anybody.
“Hey baby,” BJ said to the little girl. “This is your aunt Toodles.”
The girl giggled. “That’s not her name.”
“Hell if it ain’t. Ask her.”
“Is your name Toodles?” She had that little-girl cute in her voice that made you forget about things like death, and loneliness, and sorrow. By the time I answered her question, she was on my lap.
“Names is only what you use so you know who you’re talking to. What do people call you?” I asked her.
“No they don’t.”
“Do too. That’s what my mommy calls me.”
BJ had turned away, but even so, I could see the red in her neck. It was either anger or embarrassment. I couldn’t tell which except BJ never used to embarrass easy.
“What do your friends call you?”
BJ broke in. “C’mon, Tood, I’ll show you around.” I picked up Melinda and held her to my shoulder. She clung like a limpet. There were two bedrooms, one bath, and a kitchen/living room, so the tour didn’t take long. BJ had borrowed a cot and put it in Melinda’s room, which is where I was going to sleep.
“You been here long?” I asked.
“Too long. I was thinking of moving when you called.” She looked at Melinda. “Time to go to bed, honey.”
“I don’t wanna go.”
“Goddamit dri… Mel, don’t make me spank you. Now go to bed.”
The little girl set her face. BJ’s neck turned red, so I intervened.
“I’ll put her to bed.”
BJ transferred the glare from Melinda to me. “She can stay up all fucking night for all I care. I’m going out. There’s food in the fridge if you get hungry.”
I made Melinda a glass of warm milk and read her stories for an hour. Then, we went to bed.
* * *
Melinda’s crying woke me up. Then I heard it too. BJ was moaning and begging, and a man was grunting. The bed was banging the other side of the wall like a wild beast battering itself to death against the bars of its cage. It was as loud as if they were in the same room with us.
“Make him stop,” Melinda begged. She was standing by my cot, squeezing my arm.
“He’s not hurting her, sweetheart.” Just then, a particularly loud scream seemed to make me a liar. “But you can sleep here with me until they stop.” Melinda jumped in before I could roll back the covers. She burrowed into my side, sucking her thumb. I held her and stroked her hair, and soon her crying was just little huffs and puffs. The noise from the other side of the wall subsided, and when it did, Melinda fell asleep. I lay awake until morning, cradling her. She was like a kitten.
* * *
“C’mon baby, time to go to Debbie’s.” BJ stood in the doorway, her hair mussed, her t-shirt not reaching her panties. There were scratches on her neck and stomach.
“I don’t wanna go.”
“Goddamit Mel, I’m in no mood for your bullshit today. Get your fucking clothes on.” BJ turned from the doorway as Melinda started to argue. I got out of bed.
“C’mon honey, I’ll help you. Where’s your clothes?”
“I wanna stay here with you.”
“I’ll pick you up this afternoon and we’ll go to the park.” She made me promise, and then showed me her clothes, in a pile in the corner. Clean clothes were mixed with dirty ones, and the shirts and pants were all mussed, but we did the best we could. When BJ came back, she looked surprised. “You look good honey.” To me, “Thanks, Toodles.” She gave me the address of the daycare. We made plans to meet back at the apartment in the afternoon, and then they were gone.
I lay in bed for a while, clearing the fog and thinking about what I was going to do. When I ran out of ideas, I got up and went to the bathroom.
The grout was moldy, the mirror was cracked, and the water from the faucets had stained the sink brown. I slid the shower curtain aside, being careful not to tear it from the three remaining rings, and turned on the shower. I soon realized that lukewarm was the best I was going to get, so I showered quickly. She had no shampoo – I used soap to wash my hair.
I wrapped myself in a towel, picked up my clothes, and opened the door. There stood a fat man, about thirty, clothed only in boxers, hair, and a leer.
“Hey, sweetheart. So you’re the little sister, huh?” As he spoke, his cock slid out of the slit in his shorts.
I lowered my eyes and tried to walk around him. He grabbed my arm
“Hey, tiny tits, it’s just you and me here, so let’s be friends.”
I pulled my arm free.
“C’mon honey, don’t be that way. Show Georgie your ass.” He reached for my towel.
I slapped him, and his smiled flipped into a frown. His face turned red.
“Goddam fucking virgin. You still a fucking virgin, sweetie? Georgie’ll take care of that.” He lunged, but I’d already moved. I made it to Melinda’s room and locked the door before he could recover.
He stood outside the room, pounding on the door, shaking the walls and generally disturbing the peace. “Your sister’s ten times the woman you are and I was good enough for her. Open up.”
“Get out of here, or I’ll call the cops.”
“She ain’t got no phone.”
I looked around. If she did, it wasn’t in Mel’s room. I opened the window.
He laughed. “In this neighborhood?” He rattled the doorknob. The door held. I looked around for anything I could use as a weapon, but this was a child’s room.
After a few minutes, I heard him grunt, and the door and the walls stopped shaking. Soon, I heard him clattering about in the kitchen. I stayed in the room, listening to him rustle about and shout offers I had no trouble refusing. When I heard the shower running, I opened the door. A spray of semen glistened on the floor. I stepped around it and left the apartment as quickly as I could.
* * *
“C’mon Toodles, let’s go out. Time for you to have some fun, too.”
I’d been three weeks with BJ. More often than not, she stayed out late, and when she did come home it was always with a different man, or woman. Melinda slept with me those nights, and then every night. I woke up the same time as BJ, to avoid any more scenes.
BJ showed me seven things you can do with an expired credit card, none of them legal. She showed me how to get men to pay for things, like groceries, bandages, and iodine. I helped her with the bandages and iodine after the really rough nights.
We got into a routine, the three of us. I took Melinda to daycare, after which I’d go out hunting a job, and BJ would go do whatever it was she did during the day. She never told me.
It was a Friday night and BJ had just come home when she invited me out.
“Someone’s got to stay with Mel,” I said.
“She can stay with Cathy, down the hall.”
“We’ll have fun,” BJ promised.
“Where’re we gonna go? I’m only nineteen.”
“Age limits are for guys. Only ID a girl needs is her pussy.”
That didn’t sound promising, but I was bored, so I put on my only skirt, my white blouse, and sandals. BJ said I still looked like a librarian, but we were now set if we ran into any other librarians.
* * *
“Hey Miss B.” The bouncer at the door waved BJ through. She took my hand. “Who’s this?” He blocked me.
“She’s my sister, Chuck. She’s harmless.” BJ tugged at my arm.
“Jesus, Miss B, you trying to get us shut down?”
“With her? Gimme a break.” BJ tugged at me again.
“No way.” The bouncer wasn’t moving.
“Get out of the way, Chuck. I’m going in with her.”
This wasn’t my idea of fun. “It’s okay BJ, I don’t…”
“Shut up, Tood.”
The bouncer looked at her as he pointed to me. “Don’t give me that crap, Miss B. What is she, sixteen? Look at her.”
“You think I don’t know what she looks like? She looks like our father, that’s what she looks like. And while that may be a turn on to some of the degenerates you let into this hole, I can handle them, and I can handle her. I repeat, she goes in or I find someplace else to haunt. Permanently.”
The bouncer looked around as if trying to spot the stakeout. He waited until there was no one else on the sidewalk. Then, he stepped aside. “Hurry up.” He urged us through, and we entered Benny’s.
* * *
The air was thick with sweat, smoke, and sound. It was thin on visible light. Music battered my ears. A man with dreadlocks sat in front of a mixing board in a glassed-in booth, staring at nothing.
The bar was black granite with embedded glitter stars to make it look like the night sky. We sat on barstools made of black leather and chrome.
BJ looked around the room while talking to the barkeeper. He nodded and pointed as they talked, and then did a double take on me. “She’s with me,” BJ said, as if that was the only explanation needed. It was.
“What would you like, Miss?” he asked.
“Water,” I said. He looked at me like I had a frog on my face. “Sparkling water,” I hastily corrected myself. He looked to BJ.
“Gin and Tonic,” she said. He nodded and turned to get my drink. “You have to at least act like you belong, Toodles.”
I looked down. A cup full of drink umbrellas sat on the bar. They looked fragile and worthless, like something made for a child. “Melinda’s a good girl,” I said, putting a few of the umbrellas in my purse to give to Melinda later.
BJ shrugged. “I learned my lesson.” She turned to me. “Don’t ever trust a man with a hard-on.” She looked around the room. “Better yet, don’t ever trust a man.”
A woman in a far corner of the room waved to BJ. “You’re famous,” I told her over the noise.
She shrugged. “There’s a handful of us who keep places like this alive. Watch and learn, grasshopper.” She walked over to where three tall, athletic-looking young men slouched in a booth. Their caps were turned backwards, and they were holding their beer bottles by the neck and talking and laughing carelessly, as if they were waiting for something to happen. That something must have been BJ because when they saw her, they stopped talking and stared.
She sat down next to the largest of the three men, nestling up against his side as if she belonged.
“Hey, baby.” Her voice curled up around him like a cat.
“Hey to you. I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”
“That’s ‘cause you haven’t bought me a drink.” She left her mouth slightly open and ran her tongue over her lips. “Baby’s thirsty,” she said. The other two men at the table laughed, while the big man just smiled and signaled for a waitress.
BJ’s eyes glistened as she listened to them talk. She seemed to toy with her drink, but it disappeared quickly and was soon followed by another, and another. Finally, the big man turned to her.
“My name’s Jeremy, sweetheart. What’s yours?”
His friends laughed. “I didn’t ask what you did, I asked you what your name was.” More laughter. BJ looked coy and embarrassed, which I knew she wasn’t.
“You can call me Bobbie.”
“I prefer BJ.”
“Most men do.”
BJ rested her hand on Jeremy’s thigh. She looked up at him and relaxed her lips. Jeremy kissed her, lightly at first, then deeply and vigorously. She seemed to melt. Her hand moved up his leg. The other two men tried to look bored. Nobody said a word.
After maybe thirty seconds, Jeremy broke off and reached under the table. He seemed to be struggling with something. When he lifted up off the seat, I knew what he was doing. He was taking down his pants. BJ moved her hand.
“Feels like a penis.” She smiled sweetly.
“And you know what to do with a penis, don’t you baby? You just put your lips together…and blow.” He pantomimed his words by puckering his lips.
BJ smiled and lowered her head into his lap. His eyes curled to the ceiling as her head bobbed up and down. His two friends now worked very hard at looking bored. Soon, she straightened up, took a long drink, and smiled. Her left hand held a wallet. She opened it and began extracting $20 bills, while Jeremy caught his breath.
“Twenty, forty…” She counted up to two hundred. “There.” She slapped the wallet down on the table and finished her drink. Jeremy looked at the wallet, and then at her. “Goddam whore,” he said, as he grabbed for his wallet. She slapped him and was out of the booth before he could react. When he did, he was mad.
He started to slide out of the booth but looked down and stopped. He tried pulling his pants up, but this proved more difficult to do in a booth than taking them down. He was still struggling when BJ appeared beside me.
“Let’s go, Toodles.”
Nobody seemed to care that I hadn’t tasted, or paid for, my drink. BJ paraded us out of the club.
* * *
Her routine next got me past the bouncer at the Angel’s Lair. Inside, the décor was different from Benny’s, but the miasma, the rhythm of the conversations, and the shadows were the same. BJ towed me to the bar where she ordered a drink before going fishing in the crowd. She told me on the way over that most of the time she could tell within thirty seconds if a man had money. She also showed me the $200 she’d lifted from Jeremy.
She flitted from table to table, like a moth. Old men, young men, ugly men, handsome men. Made no difference to BJ. She was working. And not getting anywhere. She settled in next to me at the bar. “Nothing but losers, dammit.” She ordered a scotch and soda, and took a long drink before catching her breath. Her shoulders drooped.
“You no like?” She pointed to my drink with her face. I shook my head. On the bar sat a cup filled with plastic palm trees, for the drinks. I took some for Melinda.
“What’s Carlie Harper doing these days?” That one surprised me. Carlie had been her best friend in high school. It was the first time I’d heard her speak of the past.
“She’s married, got a kid. She moved to Cincinnati to be near his family. Why?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering.” Her face sunk back into her drink.
“Hey, cum bucket.” The voice came from over my shoulder. It was ice hard.
BJ yawned. I turned to look. Jeremy stood there with his two friends, looking not bored at all. BJ turned. “Hey baby, what’s happening?”
“Some cunt decided to strip me of my cash after playing with my meat missile. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you bitch?”
BJ stood and floated over to the big man. She placed both her hands flat on his chest, and looked up into his eyes. “Oh baby, and you and I were beginning to be such good friends.” He pushed her away, hard. She stumbled and fell to her knees.
“Cut the crap. All I want is my money, Bobbie, or BJ, or whatever the hell your name is.”
BJ looked up at Jeremy. She looked at his friends, poised outside of striking distance. She looked at their faces. She looked at their hands.
She sighed and reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of bills, which she threw at the big man. Then she stood. “Beat it while I figure out how I’m going to feed my kid.” She turned back to the bar, sat, and began toying with her drink.
Jeremy picked up the bills and carelessly stuffed all but two of them into his pocket. He came up behind BJ, slid $40 into her cleavage and leaned close. “You just never asked. Now we’re back where we started, ain’t we sweetheart? And I can be a good man to be friends with.”
BJ spoke over her shoulder. “Slow down, baby, I’m still recovering.”
“You slow down all you want. When you feel like speeding up again, my buddies and I will be waiting.”
BJ nodded and stared at her drink.
“You tell Carlie I send her my best, will you do that?”
“You can tell her yourself, if you want.”
BJ shook her head. “No. You do that for me, will you Toodles?”
I nodded. She gulped down her drink and followed Jeremy into the darkness. It was the last I ever saw of her.
* * *
I eventually gave up waiting and went home. The next night, I reported her missing. The police found Jeremy and his friends. They said they’d partied with BJ at a hotel on the south side, but when they left at 6 AM she was sleeping. The hotel confirmed their story and reported that BJ checked out around noon. Where she went after that, no one knew.
Melinda kept asking about her mother. Each time she did, I had less to say. We maintained the routine, but twelve days later came the first of the month, and with it, the rent bill. I had a decision to make: stay in Chicago – in the hopes BJ would turn up and I could find a job – or use what little cash I had left to start over.
I chose the latter. A phone call to Fresno confirmed that my friend, and the job, were still good.
I bought a second-hand suitcase and fit everything of value into it – Melinda’s clothes, books, toys, tooth- and hairbrush. I found her birth certificate in between the pages of a Bible. Nothing else was worth keeping.
I washed the dishes and put away BJ’s clothes. I don’t know why. The landlord was going to throw everything out anyway. I looked around. It was a sad impression to leave on the world, what BJ had left behind. Then I looked at Melinda. Something in her eyes made me smile.
She took my hand and put her thumb in her mouth. By the time we reached Fresno three days later, she stopped asking why.