Monday, July 8, 2019

The Whores Go Down With the Stars, fiction by Sarah Jilek

I wait in the hotel lobby while June blows him. We usually give them the option—me, the ballerina-small brunette, or June, the thick, tall blonde, panther tattoo wrapped around her muscled thigh. She sometimes falls asleep with that thigh, that jewel-eyed panther, draped over my hips.

The clock on the wall above the spectacled receptionist reads 6:23 PM. It doesn't take thirty-two minutes to suck someone's cock. Something's wrong.

I push my cuticles back with my thumbnail. I keep accidentally making eye contact with the receptionist, who's reading a book called The Power of Today. A big, red-lettered quote on the back cover reads, “This book made me realize my own invincibility!” She smiles awkwardly every time our eyes meet. Honey, I want to tell her, stroking her straw-blonde hair, there is so much more than this middle-of-nowhere nothing Illinois town. At the edge of the horizon, past the sunset, there is a shining desert beacon, a glimmering oasis by the sea. That’s where I’m going: to the land of palm trees and pep pills. I’m going to be a star.

I stand and walk to the elevator, pacing in front of it. I can't go up there. It could turn bad and he could leave and not pay, and then we'd never get to L.A., would never rise from our warm haven of West Hollywood bedsheets to clink mimosa glasses together at the Ivy.

Instead, June wouldn’t talk to me for days. When we’d stop for gas and I’d ask her what she wanted from the convenience store, she’d just keep staring at the pump instead of me. I’d buy her a thirty-two-ounce raspberry slushie and it would turn, untouched, to warm blue syrup.

I bite off my thumbnail and spit it onto the tile. What is taking so long?

My finger hovers over the elevator button, but I drop my hand, sighing. A boy squeals nearby, startling me, then bolts around the corner. He’s maybe six or seven, wrapped in a wet hotel towel, hair spiked. He smells like chlorine. His slim, acne-scarred mother follows him, staring at her phone. The boy presses the button, jumping in place, and when it dings, the mother glances up. I give her a thin smile, and, after a second's hesitation, she smiles back. She holds an arm out to block the door from shutting.

“Oh, no, that’s—” I blurt out, shaking my head.

“Oh, okay,” she replies. The boy wraps his arms around her waist and presses his damp face into her stomach. She smooths down the spikes in his hair, a calm smile washing over her face. Is she remembering how she used to hold her baby? As the door slides shut, her eyes flash to mine. Me, the awkward, pacing woman in the hotel lobby. She knows exactly what I do.

I inspect my blurry reflection in the door, combing through my dark hair with my fingers and wiping the smudged mascara from under my eyes. I take a deep breath, running my tongue over my straight teeth and practicing my angles, my soft smiles and my grins. The crack between door panels bisects my thin face, warping it: the left side smooth, smiling, but the right side sagging, dissolving into smudged ripples.

My stomach sinks, and I punch the button and climb onto the elevator, which smells like old cigarettes and lingering chlorine. June is probably fine, but at least I can listen outside the door for the usual sounds: the strangled grunting that means he’s about to cum, or the soft moans June sometimes makes to hurry it along, the ones that send a twinge between my legs.

The door opens on the third floor and I get out, my heart pounding. As I approach room 308, my steps silent on the teal geometric carpet, I feel like I'm sneaking into my sister's room to read her diary, find out about the sex with her high school boyfriend, my eyes scanning too fast to understand—tongue, pressure, dried cum in my underwear— and my cheeks burning.

Two more rooms to go. I lean against the wall, stepping slowly. An angry bark. I freeze, inhaling sharply. A woman’s shriek. I swallow, holding my breath. June can handle it. She once pulled her neck knife on a guy who grabbed her ass at a Quick-Stop. Almost got us arrested. She keeps that knife under every hotel pillow.

A loud thud. Another. A sound like heavy clapping. It’s skin hitting skin, I realize. I'm frozen, stuck to the wall, still holding my breath. I take a few steps, then stop again. The fluorescent strip of light above my head flickers.

"Stop," a small, tame voice pleads. It takes me a second to realize it's June. Grunts and a whimper on the other side of the wall. The door— 308, staring me in the face.

I could go back downstairs. Creep back the way I came. If June can't fight him off, what's my skinny ass supposed to do?

More grunts and thuds, something smashed. A sob. Another.

"Don’t—"

My key card is slippery in my hand. My thumb oozes blood where I bit off skin.

"No—"

I push the card in and shoulder open the door. It's dark in the room, the hallway light cutting a triangle onto the carpeted floor.

The man stands at the foot of the bed, pants around his ankles, his bare ass pale. He turns toward me, squinting. June lies on her back beneath him, wrists bound with something— a zip tie? He's holding the room phone above June's head, his arm ready to swing down, the receiver dangling, brushing her bare stomach. The phone’s shadow hangs long and dark on the wall.

June meets my eyes—hers wet and bruised—and blinks. Her mouth moves, and she rolls slightly to the side beneath the man's body, uncovering a corner of the pillow.

The knife. I run to the side of the bed and dive onto it, fumbling under the pillow. I grab the handle—hard, cold wood, and something slams into the side of my face, knocking me off balance and off the bed. The hard plastic block of the phone. My ear rings—I'm deaf. Hot pain stings my ear and cheek.

I face him, holding the knife, his fat, sweating face still shocked. A strange, whistling rattle fills my head and it hits me what I’m about to do. June half-gasps, half-sobs, and I stick the three-inch blade into his gut, watch his jaw go slack. He raises the phone again and I put up my left hand and knock it away, stabbing again and again and twisting the knife, my face still burning, my ears still rattling.

He grunts and coughs blood into my face and onto June, gurgling. It tastes like hot metal. Like a fever. I keep stabbing him, spit pooling at the corners of my open mouth, until he slumps forward on top of June.

I pant, adrenaline pounding in my chest. My ear rings. The air conditioner rattles in the corner. I realize only now that it’s what I was hearing the whole time.

I help June shove off his body. She looks down at her black bra soaked in blood. I let out a sigh and cut through the zip tie binding her wrists. They’re marked with red. She sits up, wiping her face, smearing blood over her nose and mouth. I swallow, holding up my hands.

"Look, I fucked up," I say, my voice breaking. "It was too long—"

She kisses me hard on the mouth. She tastes like sweat, like his sour skin. I lean in.


8:02 PM

At the hardware store, we lift everything from the cart onto the belt: a 64-pack of Hefty garbage bags, a huge Bissell steam-cleaning vacuum, a gallon jug of bleach, a bucket of Rug Doctor carpet cleaner, a Libman Wonder Mop and three empty five-gallon buckets, a jug of Certol International bathroom cleaner with hydrochloric acid, two Craftsman claw hammers, two Ace twelve-inch hacksaws, and a five-pack of Craftsman carbon steel pliers.

June walks to the cashier ahead of me, reaching for the dead man’s trifold leather wallet full of cash in her back pocket. Her wet hair smells like lavender shampoo from the shower we took together. I remember the softness of the skin under her eyes, how her eyelashes brushed my thumb when I wiped blood from that spot under the hot water. I reach out and hook that thumb into her belt loop. She turns, startled, her mouth open.

I glance at the cashier. He’s maybe in his early twenties, with a stubbly half-goatee and spaghetti-noodle arms sticking out of his black polo. His eyes flit between my finger in June’s belt loop, the heap of stuff we picked out, and the cash-filled wallet. My left ear pulses, ringing again. June gives him an awkward smile, standing up straight so that her tits lift and her nipples show under her tanktop. She has crazy eyes, though, and the cashier doesn’t even glance at her tits. That’s never happened before. He hesitates, hand hovering over the mop handle, then glances over his shoulder to the other register, where his red-polo-clad manager has his back turned to us.

I reach across the belt for a red lollipop from the impulse-buy rack and tear off the wrapper. The sudden motion makes him pause, and I stick the lollipop into my dry mouth—sickly cherry. I suck on it, twirling the stick around, then pull it out of my mouth with a wet pop. I give him my best soft smile, making sure that it reaches my eyes— a romantic comedy smile; a girl-next-door smile.

He blushes and starts scanning.


11:12 PM

“We’ll have to flush him,” June says as we stand over the unmelted body in the tub.

We filled it up with the acidic bathroom cleaner, poured it thick and pale green over the pudge of his stomach, into the gaping stab wounds, across the patches of wiry hairs on his chest. We watched a House Hunters marathon on HGTV, sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the pile of bloody sheets. June said House Three’s mint-green retro fridge didn’t go with the granite countertops. I disagreed: a pop of color was just what the kitchen needed, especially with all the natural light. As we watched, the sun set behind the curtain and the bathroom fan whirred behind the closed door. Every so often, a whiff of searing citrus fume made my eyes water and my nose run.

Dissolving his body didn’t work, and June says we can’t risk carrying him out—too many cameras. We have to cut him up in tiny pieces and flush those pieces down the toilet.

“Checkout time is noon. We’ve got just about twelve hours,” June says. She hands me a hacksaw and a hammer and gets to work sawing, the muscles in her tanned, confident arm pulsing. I can barely breathe in the bathroom, but we can’t open the door. I stare at myself in the mirror as she saws back and forth, at my Beatles t-shirt hiked up over my nose and mouth. I look funny with the tools—the hammer’s too heavy for me to hold without my arm shaking. June’s sawing is rhythmic, and I wiggle my eyebrows along with it, raising one eyebrow and then the other as the blade works back and forth.

Then June holds out an arm to me by the wrist. Blood drips from the sawed-off end, just below the missing elbow, onto my white ankle sock. My gut churns. June wiggles it around, like, we don’t have all day, the limp fingers flopping against her hand. I set down the hammer on the bathroom counter and grab the forearm. It’s cold and sticky from the bathroom cleaner. My thumb stings where I bit off the skin hours ago. We forgot to buy rubber gloves. In the mirror, I hold the arm, blood dripping into the sink. I meet my own eyes, hold them, and take a deep breath. It’s a new role, I tell myself. A role I’ve been practicing for. The role of a lifetime.

I lay the arm on the bathroom counter, hold down the wrist with my left hand (try not to think about the pulse that used to pound there), and cut into the skin with the hacksaw. The blade bites in easily, blood blooming onto the metal teeth and spraying onto the white laminate counter. I work the saw back and forth until it hits bone with a horrible scrape that jars my wrist. I glance at June, who has the other forearm already resting on the rim of the bathtub, palm up, and is at work on the left upper arm, her jeans rolled up around her ankles.

I lean into the blade, sawing with all my might, splinters of bone flying, embedding themselves into the skin of the arm and into my raw hand. I keep sawing, the smell of blood and chemicals pressing in on me, wet and sharp. The friction gives off the stench of warming meat. My eyes water and snot leaks from my nose and over my lips, tasting salty. Every now and then I wipe the blade on a bath towel to clean the teeth of muscle, fat, and bone shards. My left ear throbs, ringing intermittently.

I drop small pieces of him into the toilet, flushing it as I go: first and second thumb joints, first ring finger joint, whole pinky. His cock, taken from June and chopped into three pieces after I caught her staring at the severed thing bobbing up and down in the bathwater. Eventually I have a system down, and June and I are in sync. I imagine myself as the star of a thriller, camera focusing on the piercing blue of my eyes, darting over the shining blade and the gleaming muscle and fat of the limbs. My slender fingers cracking ribs, blood and marrow flecking my forehead and eyelids.

I dump the rest of the foot I’ve been chopping into the toilet and flush it. The toilet sighs and stops with a clunk, and the foot chunks swirl in the rippling water. June’s head jerks up, pliers in her hand. She’s got a bunch of his teeth lined up on the bathtub rim.

“It won’t flush,” I pant, suddenly lightheaded.

She wipes sweat from her forehead with her upper arm.

“What do we do?” she asks me, glancing at the toilet, like I’m supposed to know.

“One of us needs to get a plunger from the front desk,” I say, and she looks down at her pliers, at their jaws covered in pulpy blood.

“Okay,” she says, nodding. My stomach sinks. I thought, like always, that she’d offer to handle the problem. But she’s already back to work, grasping a molar and yanking it out.


4:16 AM

The hallway air feels fresh and cool. I’m in my last clean outfit, a tight, butter-yellow minidress. I’ve put my hair up in a bun and covered it with a baseball cap to hide the flecks of blood on my scalp. I’m just a manic pixie dream girl, I tell myself as the elevator bell dings and I step on. They wear weird shit like this all the time. The elevator lurches to a stop, and my empty stomach rears up. I grab the smudged metal bar with a raw, red hand.

When the door slides open, I stroll to the front desk. The same receptionist is there, a steaming paper cup of coffee next to her; she’s nearing the end of her book. I think of everything that has happened above her head since she started it, and heat blooms on my cheeks.

She looks up as I approach and smiles. I smile, too, but it’s like I’ve forgotten how—my mouth jerks unnaturally, and my eyes feel too wide. I clear my throat, glancing over the desk at the upside-down book. “Nothing prepared me for the day I realized that I was invincible,” a sentence reads. The receptionist’s eyes are watery—is that from lack of sleep, or is it the book? Has it resonated with her that deeply? Has she changed?

I’ve been quiet too long. “Um. . . can I borrow a plunger?”

She frowns, staring at my arm. A clump of glistening flesh sticks to my bare bicep. My hand twitches to wipe it off, but I realize that I can’t. That to remove it would be to acknowledge it. So, I don’t blink. I will my eyes to water. Seize the day, I tell her with my eyes. You’re invincible. She searches my face, eyes widening almost imperceptibly behind her square glasses. My vision blurs. This is the most important thing you will ever do. Her mouth twitches, and her nostrils flare—does she understand? She purses her lips. Finally, she gives me a glorious nod.


4:21 AM

I can hear June laughing from outside the door to room 308. It’s a maniacal laugh, a deep chuckle punctuated by high-pitched cackles. The only other time I’ve heard her laugh like this was when she was stoned out of her mind at a porno theater in Nashville. But, no—even that laugh wasn’t this crazed. I slip in the key card and open the door, making sure the powder-blue “Getting Some Shut-Eye” sign stays in place.

When I open the bathroom door, the smells hit me again, harder than before. Shit and blood and acid and vomit (mine, in the sink). June squats in the tub, shaking with laughter. Tears roll down her cheeks. Next to her, two broken hacksaw blades and a gouged thigh.

I set down the plunger and crouch next to the tub. June giggles and takes a breath, exhaling hard. Her eyes are red and watery. For a second, I think she might be high, but I don’t smell weed. The panther on her thigh shrinks away from me, lips curled over its fangs.

“We’re fucked,” she says, wiping her nose and tapping the femur, her fingernail hitting the jagged groove she cut into it. Half of me wants to cry, too, seeing her like this. The new half, the half just born tonight, wants to smack her.

“No, we’re not.” I reach for the hammer on the countertop and hand it to her. She takes it, cradling it in both her chafed hands, sniffling.

“Come on,” I tell her. “It will be dawn soon.”

When the toilet finally flushes again, after I’ve plunged it for what seemed like an hour, I cry. We keep working. June pounds the bones with the hammer until they break. I use my hammer to crack the skull, prize it apart with the claw. I hold it over the toilet, let the brain leak and splash into the bowl, force down the gagging in my throat. It smells like sickly meat, like diseased fluids. I wonder which part of that brain wanted to smash June’s head with the phone. If there was a part that just wanted to cum in her mouth. I wonder how my brain looks, if I could glimpse that new half of me sparking inside it.

The last of the brain plops into the toilet, and there’s a rapid, hard knock on the door. I freeze, glancing at June, tear tracks oiling her cheeks. I’ve never seen her so scared.

I swallow. “It’ll be fine,” I whisper, my throat raw. “They’ll go away.”

But they knock again, three times, even harder. My whole body shakes. I set down the mangled, dented head on the counter.

“Don’t answer it,” June pleads, crouched in the tub, her eyes hooded and dark.

“We have to.” I flush the brain and then wrap my hair in one of the few clean towels buried in the stack. I wipe blood smudges from my cheeks and hands and leave the bathroom, shutting the door behind me. I change back into my minidress as another succession of knocks comes.

“Be right there,” I call, my voice wavering. I kick the pile of bloody sheets behind the bed, along with all the bags and packaging from the hardware store. The walk from the bed to the door is slow and sickening. I flick the lock and grab the cold door handle, licking my lips and tasting blood. I crack open the door, wedging myself in the doorway.

It’s a large man in a too-tight gingham button-down and khakis, with a walkie-talkie strapped to his waist. He reminds me of the youth group leader at the Vacation Bible School my mom made me go to one summer. I smile sleepily at him.

“What is it?” I ask.

“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am, but according to some of the other guests, there’s a bunch of loud noise coming from this room,” he says, gesturing with his hands and then wringing them, pursing his lips at me like he’s sure he’s giving me a good scolding.

I tilt my head, feigning surprise, then nod slowly. “That must have just been the music. Sorry. My friend’s really into goregrind right now,” I say, shrugging. “We’ll try to keep it down.” The man narrows his eyes at me, glances behind me into the room. Can he see the bloody handprints on the bathroom doorframe? Is he explaining them away in his mind? He takes his walkie-talkie off the clip. What would June do? I keep myself firmly planted in the doorway, allow one smooth leg to jut out over the threshold, my toe curling on the hallway carpet. He glances at the ridged muscle of my flexed thigh, then nods, shifting uncomfortably, replacing the walkie-talkie.

“Well, good. Okay. If it gets loud again, I might have to—”

A deafening clatter from the bathroom. It sounds like June threw a goddamn hammer at the mirror or something. My ear starts its dizzying ring again. A cackle, then June starts singing. The man touches the door like he’s coming in. “The goldfish sing all night…” June sings. I almost back away, but I plant my feet and hold my ground. He frowns, lets his hand drop.

“What was that?” he asks.

June sings, “The whores—” then erupts into laughter again. It’s that poem she’s always mumbling—Bukowski? —but she’s never sung it before, much less to a made-up tune.

I shrug, pulling up the strapless dress so that more of my thighs are exposed and adjusting my tits beneath the top. His eyes linger there.

“My friend is a little bit drunk,” I say, grinning and rolling my eyes, looking him up and down, like, I’m a little drunk too—maybe enough to think you’re cute. “. . . go down with the stars. . .” June sings, stars long, low and melancholy.

I trail my finger down the doorframe—there’s caked blood beneath my fingernail.

He sighs, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. I’ve got him.

“Just try to keep it down,” he says. He actually winks. I give him a wink in return before slinking backward into the room and slamming the deadbolt.


11:26 AM

The vacuum whirs, its steam bathing my face. Dawn broke under the bottom of the curtain hours ago. The stained bedclothes rest in black garbage bags. I scrub the vacuum hose over the carpet, the sound of it deafening. On my hands and knees, I scan the floor for tiny specks, my lower back achy and sweating. June scrubs the wall and the fake headboard.

On one of the beige leaf patterns in the carpet, there’s a bell-shaped spot that won’t come out, no matter how hard I scrub. I sit back on my heels, sighing, and glimpse something black in the corner of my vision, at the foot of the bed. June’s sheathed neck knife. I pick it up, that cold wooden handle still bloodstained, and slip the lanyard over my head, tucking the knife under my Beatles T-shirt.

A tap on my shoulder startles me. June stands over me, staring at the door. I switch off the vacuum, my ears ringing in the sudden silence, and turn.

The hotel maid stands in the doorway, one hand on her cleaning cart, her mouth hanging open. She takes it all in: the half-scrubbed stains on the wall, the hulking garbage bags, the bare mattress, the trail of blood leaking out from beneath the bathroom door. She’s pale.

June doesn’t do shit but stare back at her. I scramble to my feet and hurry to the door, grab her warm hand and pull her in. The woman yanks her wrist free, her long braid swinging.

“Wait,” I tell her. I snatch the dead man’s wallet off the TV stand and fish out a handful of hundred-dollar bills.


11:57 AM

I wash my hands. The bathroom gleams white, the grout spotless. The toilet smells of bleach and lemon. The vacuum shudders to a stop in the bedroom. I come out and June unplugs it and stands, panting. All the blood smears are gone from the leaf-pattern beige carpet and the walls and the headboard. The sweating hotel maid tosses her sponges into her bucket of bleach water and loads it onto her cart. She leaves without a word, the cart’s wheels squeaking on the carpet. June gazes at me across the room and opens the curtain, filling the room with daylight. It’s blinding. Spotless.

We lift the garbage bags and our suitcases into the trunk of the Mustang, and June slams it shut. Outside, it’s cool, and a light breeze lifts our damp hair. It feels good. I pull her close—at first she resists, but then she relaxes, pressing her warm, chapped lips to mine. My chest swells. We both laugh.

We are hungry, so we drive to the Jewel down the road. June pushes the polished cart, and I walk in front of it as if in a dream, passing through aisle after colorful aisle, grabbing everything that looks good, my stomach rumbling. A hot rotisserie chicken, perfectly golden-brown. A pound of macaroni and cheese from the deli counter. Bunches of fat, black grapes. Jars of dill pickles and green olives. A tub of rainbow sherbet. Glazed chocolate doughnuts. A package of hardboiled eggs. Pistachio fluff, brilliantly green. Bags of ridged potato chips and bricks of cream cheese. Two-liters of cola and lemonade and grapefruit soda. A gallon of two percent milk. A can of cherry pie filling. A 24-pack of Miller Lite and a bottle of cabernet. A red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and, at a tiny kiosk right before the checkout line, like it was waiting the whole time, a bouquet of white roses.

***


I drive us to the forest preserve on the edge of town and we hike a quarter-mile uphill on the gravel trail to the scenic overlook, panting. Behind me, June complains about the straps of the plastic bags cutting into her sore hands.

There’s no one else at the top, I’m thrilled to find. We shield our eyes with our hands and gaze out over a rolling meadow that’s impossibly green.

I choose a spot in the shade of a massive sycamore tree. I lay out the tablecloth and we dig through the plastic bags, pulling out our feast. The heroines, battered and bruised, arrive at the glorious end of the film. The smell of the chicken makes my mouth water, and I pop open the plastic lid. We didn’t buy a corkscrew, so June uses her lighter to nudge the cork out of the bottle of cabernet. It pops, and she hands it to me. I take a long swig, the mouth of the bottle still warm from the flame. The rich wine runs down my throat, acidic and buttery, and warms my belly. I hand it back to her and dig into the chicken, twisting one of the legs loose.

It breaks, exposing the gleaming white knob of bone. The wine sloshes in my gut. The red-purple streaks in the wet meat, the crispy flesh. The sycamore leaves rustle overhead, and sunlight stabs the tablecloth, burns the red and white into my eyes. The blood-dark wine stains June’s teeth. The meat in my hand is warm. The mass of macaroni noodles, wet and tangled and sloppy. The dark clots of cherries rolling in syrup. June tears off a chicken wing and sinks her teeth into it, those wine-stained teeth scraping bone, tearing flesh. I run my tongue over my pearly teeth, remember her grinding his to powder with the hammer. How she pulled them from his pulpy, bleeding gums as expertly as a dentist.

I set down the chicken leg. June has stopped eating, too. She gazes at the bounty of food spread out between us, her throat working. At the sweating gallon of milk and the blinding sheen of the cream cheese packages. The panther’s ruby eye glares at me, its sleek body curled around her smooth, muscled thigh. June’s eyes are bloodshot, creased around the edges, as if one night has aged her a decade. I stare until I can’t bear to look at her anymore, and then I turn my head and gaze out at the wide green field, the neck knife pressing into my sternum. My left ear rushes and pounds. The sun’s so bright that it hurts, but I hold my eyes wide open, even though they water and ache. When I finally close them, my vision fills with acres of bleeding grass.


Sarah Jilek is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her novel, Jiada, was published by Indigo Sea Press in 2015. Her work has appeared in Switchblade Magazine, Alcyone Magazine, and in the Illinois edition of America’s Emerging Writers. She has read at Noir at the Bar in St. Louis, and at several other bars throughout Southern Illinois.

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