Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2015    poetry    all issues


Cover Peter Rawlings

Heather Erin Herbert

Valerie Cumming
Sixteen Days

Audrey Kalman
Before There Was a Benjamin

Carli Lowe
What We Had in Common

Julie Zuckerman
Tough Day for LBJ

Martin Conte
Suddenly a Bright Cloud Overshadowed Them

Abby Sinnott
The Tsarina of Caviar

Slater Welte
A Late Summer Comedy

Veronica Thorson

Brad McElroy
The Deep End

Kim Magowan

Steve Lauder
Smoke Break

Winner of $1000 for first-place-voted Story

Heather Erin Herbert


I know how it go. I know how to make the boys want and the men pay. I get what I need, and I don’t give them no more than promises because my mama teach me good before she get fucked up.

She teach me how to walk. She teach me how to look over my shoulder, then away, and then a long, slow stare back with half-closed eyes. She teach me what sell, and what sell is my fine ass, tight jeans, and walking away. “Ryder-baby, you got to walk away for a man to be able to chase you,” she say. “If you ain’t leaving, he can’t be following.” Well, mama ain’t walking now, at least not right, ’cause she’s using too much. That make it my turn. I got to walk, ’cause I got to get paid.

I ain’t a ho. I don’t got a pimp, and I don’t sell it or give it away. I’m a girl for mama’s supplier, and my job is to make pickups and drops to my boys. It used to be mama’s job, but she started taking more, so I leave her enough to get by and then handle the rest. As to how I keep safe, I make sure my boys want me. A boy ain’t going to hurt a woman he still wants to dip into. You can’t fuck a girl over before you fuck her—life don’t work like that.

So I get ready before I drop. I clean up, use some of the brown sugar vanilla shower gel I lift from the CVS four blocks down across Monroe, on account of it’s science that boys go sweet on women who smell like cake. Then I do my face, and I keep it soft, with pink lips, pink cheeks, and a lot of mascara so I look wide-eyed and sweet and innocent. That helps with the cops too, because if you don’t look like you a ho, you don’t get picked up like a ho. If you look like you spend all day sucking men off, someone’s gonna want to talk to you about it, or wanna make you do it, and unlike Khadejah who live upstairs, my shade of lipgloss ain’t dick, thank you.

Then my hair need to get done. I run out of the stuff I used to use and the new bottles have security tags on them, so I don’t even try to straighten it now. Instead I let it be a little curly, a little crazy-wild, and the boys think maybe I’m a little crazy-wild too, so they go crazy. I’m working it for me. The boys like dark hair on a pale-skin girl, so I thank my mama for being Italian and only fucking white and Hispanic dudes when she was getting up with me.

Clothes, I got a thing. I got jeans that look good, and boots with studs, and then I always wear the same two tops—a thin sweatshirt with a pocket on the stomach where my hands supposed to go, and then my lucky red hoody over the top of that. That one has a hand-pocket too, but there’s a hole in it to let me put stuff in the sweatshirt pocket underneath. It’s not going to fool a cop or nothing if I get touched up, but it’s good if I got to look innocent fast. Apart from looking good for my boys, that’s the way I got to play it—looking innocent. Mama say I’m just too damn sweet and too damn pretty to go to jail.

Once I’m ready to go, I got to go down three streets to see mama’s boyfriend, Tio. He tells me where to go and for what, and either has me drop or has me pick up. I don’t like going to him because he ain’t a good boyfriend, and too many time he’s wanted to slip me something extra. He thinks it’s funny I ain’t had it yet, but he says that once I got a boyfriend and get used to a boy, come back to him and see what a real man can do for a girl. I got to work hard to keep him from looking too much, and around him I either keep my hood up, or my hair behind my ears so they look stuck out. I pull my hoody down too, so it cover more of my booty, but with me growing, that hoody don’t cover as much as it used to. Either way, once he tell me where I’m going, I’m gone from there like someone lit my ass on fire. Today’s no different, except now I got a new drop to make, and it one in a house.

I don’t like house drops, because they ain’t my boys, and they ain’t looking to me. This one is worse, because I’m all the way on one side of the ward across Monroe Avenue, and this house is over past Culver Street and onto the Alphabets. No one want to go to the Alphabet avenues for nothing, because as everyone say, “by the time you walk across Avenue A, there’s a damn fine chance that you B Cing yo’ sorry ass in the hospital.” But I got to be paid, and if I don’t drop for Tio, there’s a damn fine chance he B Cing my ass somewhere or somehow I don’t want it saw.

I start my walk up the hill toward Monroe, then cut the alley behind Mark’s Hots by the dumpsters to come out in front of Munchie’s Bar. I make the left there, walk to the end of Monroe and cross the rusty cage bridge by the projects. I like to stand in the middle of the bridge and look at the cars under me on the city loop, and when I’m doing good I find a nice car and get a mouth of spit together in time to nail it. Once when I was a kid I got a convertible that way, and I pray to Jesus that someday I will have that much luck again. Today I get nothing though, so I move over onto Culver Street and keep walking past the old houses.

Culver still has some of my boys, and when I see Andre I give him a look and a show as I go by, rolling my ass as long as he’s watching. That’s how we do. Halfway down Culver, I make the turn onto Lyell, walking past the blackout titty-bar windows. I got to change my walk here, make it hard with no shake so them men don’t reach at me. Men’s safe after they been in the back rooms of the clubs, but before then they flat-out animals. I turn the corner onto Dewey and keep going hard on the broke-up sidewalk, past the bodegas, past the shelter, and trying not to jump when the repo-lot dog fly up at the fence.

Then I’m at the edge of the Alphabets, and I got to stand and listen, because I got to make it from Avenue A to Avenue D without nothing happening, and this is one place when a few little letters make a big fucking difference. This time everything quiet though, so I start my walk again, keeping it hard and steady. I walk past Avenue A, past the burnt up cook house that used to be green before it got exploded. A car go by and I try to act like I ain’t there, keep my head down so they know I don’t see them. Avenue B is quiet, just an old Chevy Caprice Classic backing out with its fanbelt screaming. You know that’s someone who just poor, not dangerous, because dangerous people got a quiet car, not a twenty-year old piece of junk. Someone probably shoot that Chevy to shit soon just to shut it up.

Avenue C got some boys on it, but I don’t know them and they don’t know me, and I don’t want them to know me. They start walking my way, so I try to go faster without them seeing that I spooked. If they see me walking away too fast, they gonna chase me. Mama teach me that men ain’t gonna chase you unless you walk away, but that work a bad way too, and I ain’t gonna get caught by no boys in the Alphabets. I turn the corner to Avenue D and I’m there. I head up the street as the boys come ’round the corner after me, but when they see me go up the dirt line driveway to number 78, they stop and turn around.

Now that scare the shit outta me. I step off the driveway and across the pine needles to get to the path that go to the front door. On my block, you got to knock on doors to get people to hear you, ’cause ain’t no one got a doorbell that ain’t busted. But this house got a metal bar door on it in front of the wood door, and I can’t do that. I ring the doorbell, and I hear it inside before a dog starts barking. I know it too late to hope ain’t nobody there, but I still hold my breath right up ’til the door open.

I know I got the wrong house when that old man look out at me. He look like he somebody grampa, all bald-headed and brown spots, not somebody who waiting on a drop. But he open the metal bar door and say my name, Ryder, and he knowed that Tio sent me, and he tell me to call him Abuelo.

I got to say that when I see it’s just this old man, I relax and all that. I’m bigger than him, and taller, and I know I faster. But I ain’t all the way relax, because I know he maybe got some big man in the house, or guns, or that dog, and I ain’t get to my age living in the ward and don’t know that people do more sick shit to girls than I wanna think about. Still, he ask me in, ’cause he say he don’t do business at his door, and his house all nice, with carpet, and the furniture got that funny plastic on it that everybody’s grandma got to keep it special. I think it look nicer without the plastic, but it make sense with a dog. Dogs is nasty about they mouths and how they spit, and they worse about they other end.

But this Abuelo ain’t stopping in that room. Instead, he standing in the door that go to the kitchen, and waving me in. I go in careful, because I think someone else gonna be in there, but it just him and me, and he point at an old table and tell me to sit. I sit down, and he be messing around by the fridge and stuff while I look around and want to know why he ain’t just let me make my drop.

I don’t usually think back. I don’t usually think back to when I was living with my grandma, and how it was then before she gone, but there something about this kitchen, about how it smell, like green Palmolive soap and cigarettes and cabbage, and I get choke up, and look down at the placemat like I care that it got orange and red chickens on it, and little yellow chicks, and it one of those soft ones that all plastic on the top, but foam on the back, like I have for my place at the table when I live with grandma. I try to run my finger over the red chicken like I all interested, and try not to blink ’cause if you blink, you know the tears gonna slide out, and that just asking for pain and trouble. I got enough pain and trouble so I ain’t need no more.

When I look up, he looking at me. He look nice, and like he worried, like he know I miss my grandma. So I look back at him and put my cold face on, the one I use when I got to make a house drop, so he know I ain’t just some bitch who think he be my Abuelo. He talk to me. “Ryder,” he say, “You look hungry. I have some nice cold cuts here, and some soup. Do you want to join me for lunch?”

I’m thinking it’s a trap or something, but he start making food, and it like my grandma house. He put out pickles, and my mouth squeezed when I see those little ridgy pickles, sweet butter chips, like I ain’t had in years. And he put out mustard, and mayo, all set on the table, and open up soup and put it in a pot to cook on the stove while he get out bowls. He look at me, and tell me to go wash my hands, and say it all old-style, and tell me “the lavatory” is down the hall when I ask where the bathroom at. So I go down where he point, and the bathroom just like the one at my grandma house too, on account of it kinda old, with them black and white tiles and all, but it smell clean, like bleach and soap. I shut the door and peel down my jeans to pee, and there one of them old-fashion ladies who got they dress over a roll of toilet paper on the back of the toilet, and when I wash my hands they soaps shaped like little pink shells, and the towel got lace on the ends of it. That towel so pretty that I ain’t sure it for me to use, so I wipe my hands on my jeans instead.

I go back to the kitchen, and Abuelo putting the soup on the table, and it my favorite—chicken with curly noodles. He tell me to eat while he make the sandwiches, but in a second he done with them, and brung them, and then a glass of milk for me, like I a kid still. And I feel like a kid, and drink my milk, and eat my soup, and I forget this ain’t my grandma house and suck one of them curly noodles off the spoon so it twist into my mouth. When I do it he laugh and say, “Ryder, I always eat curly noodle soup that way too, but I was trying to be polite since I had a guest,” and then he suck up a noodle too, through his old wrinkle mouth, and start laughing. And I don’t know what to do, if I suppose to laugh at him or not, but I can’t help it and smile, and he smile back. It make me feel like I somewhere good, like I back home and my grandma gonna come in and tell me to behave like a lady, and like she gonna give me a hug anyway even when I don’t. It feel all like Christmas inside me, until I look back at this old man and I know that I’m there to make a drop, not because I belong in this kitchen. And the Christmas turns to sick in my throat and squeezes me so hard my eyes water up and I got to look down and try to pretend like I can swallow food past the hurt in my chest.

“Ryder, tell me about yourself,” he say. “You’re what, about fourteen, fifteen years old?”

I choke down the sandwich I been chewing, then say I’m thirteen, just turned thirteen two months back.

He shakes he head. “You look like a nice girl, too nice a girl to do this work for Tio. I don’t approve. Do you go to school?”

I shrug. I go when I wanna go, most times when I’m wanting the breakfast or lunch they give me, but sometime I go to class for a while. I like to pretend like if I do some school, then I can get a job, a job that all fancy, like how my grandma use to do payroll for the old Country Gentleman hardware store before it close down. She let me sit with her when she work, and if I good, she get me a stick candy when she done.

Abuelo’s still talking. “And does Tio protect you? Does he keep you safe from his boys?”

I laugh, because Tio worse than his boys is. “I keep myself safe. Ain’t nobody touch me, because they know that ain’t how I do. I in it to make money, not make a baby for some broke-ass boy who ain’t gonna buy me Pampers and formula when we need it.”

He smiled at me. “You’re a smart cookie. So, you’ve never let any boy touch you? I’m very impressed!”

I didn’t like him wantin’ to know if I still got my V or not, but I figure maybe he religious like my grandma and that matter to him. I just nod my head and finish my sandwich.

He stand, and start cleaning up, then come back with a cookie jar like my grandma old one. He open it for me, and I take a brownie. He say, “Yes, I’m very impressed. Too many young women today don’t know their own value—their value before God and man. However, I think you need to get away from Tio, because I know what he’s like, and I imagine you do too. I think you and I need to put our heads together, and come up with a safer way for you to support yourself and your mother. Don’t you agree?”

I ain’t never heard nothing that dumb. There ain’t no safe way for a girl my age to support nobody. She work for someone like Tio, it mostly safe. She a ho, it mostly safe. She get older, she can go someplace like McDonald’s, but everybody know they people don’t get no money unless they work at the register, so they ain’t no good reason to go through life smell all like French fries if they ain’t no money in it. Best you can do is hustle when you can and try to find some boy with money to be the baby-daddy.

He still talking about a good job, and “working with other young ladies your age,” and I half listen, but mostly I paying attention to my second brownie, ’cause chocolate is how I do, but I so warm and full that I get all sleepy, and I just tryin’ to be polite and listen. And I looking at him, but I got that feeling like I got to sleep soon, and I seeing the way he look, with white hair just showing over his ears and nowhere else, and them big earlobes old people got, and I ain’t nothing but tired, and start to put my head down on my arms on his table.

“Ryder, Ryder,” he say, “Ryder, you look sleepy. I have a guest bedroom. You could lie down and have a nap before we complete our business. Would you like that?”

I feel him lift me under my arms some, and I try to stand up, but I so sleepy everything feel soft and far away, and I tip over as he walk me down the hall, go pass the bathroom, and put me in a room with a bed with Mickey Mouse and Tinkerbell and shit on it, and I want to tell him I too old for that, but he get me lied down and take off my boots, and put the covers over me, and I asleep.

I so asleep I ain’t got no idea where I at when I wake up, but my mouth taste like it dead, and my head hurt, and my insides feel all twisting and watery, like I need to go bad. I try to go to the door, but I kinda hit the wall next to it before I can even get my hand onto the knob. I try to turn it, but it ain’t moving, and I scared because I ain’t sure how I get in that room with the Tinkerbell bed, and so I shake the door some to see if it pop open, but it don’t.

I hear footsteps, Abuelo I think, and I realize he strong enough to put me in that bed and that scare me, and it scare me more I hear other footsteps, too.

“Is someone awake?” It Abuelo, and it sound like him, but different too, like he talking to a baby. “Does someone want to come out?”

I tell him I need to go to the bathroom bad, and he laugh, but the door start to open. I look out, and it all bright after the dark room and it hurt, but I see he got another man there, a big man. The other man take my arm and start to pull me out.

“Ryder, Mr. Wolfmann is going to take you to the bathroom. You still look sleepy and we don’t want you getting hurt.”

I know then this is bullshit, and that I am gonna get hurt no matter what. My ass is still half jacked up on whatever that fucker Abuelo give me, but I know when hurt’s coming. That new, big man take my arms and put them behind me, and put them plastic ties that keep new shoes together on my wrists, and he make them tight before he walk me by my arms to the bathroom and shove me in. And I’m all shaking, so scared that I don’t even know what I do when I feel the wet running warm down my legs, until the new man look down at it and start talking to the old man, telling him I pissed myself.

Abuelo smile at him, and it a new smile I ain’t seen before from him, and it make me sick inside all over again. He say, “Well then, she’ll need a shower and new clothing before you take her with you. Why don’t you do the honors? Just remember, don’t leave too many marks, because she’s worth more untouched, without permanent damage, and I want all the fee for her.” And then Abuelo hand the new man a pair of scissors, and I just knowed that was to cut off my clothes, and to cut me if I ain’t do what he say. The new man come all the way into the bathroom with me, and all I can do is look up because he so big, until when he shut the door.

“I’ll lock it from the outside, Wolfmann,” Abuelo say, and we both hear the sound of a chain going into place.

I look at the big man, and he look at me, and he say, “Now, do I have to take those jeans off you nicely, or do I get to cut them off?”

I say he can do it nicely. I say so, because I know they coming off no matter if I say or not, but my legs go crazy anyway and I start locking them together, kicking, and screaming, and he knock me down so my mouth hit the toilet as I fall, and I still try to move away and get all bang up against the toilet as he sit on me and show me the scissors.

“Do you see these big scissors?” he say, flashing them at me. “Do you see these big scissors? Do you see them?” he yelling, pushing me flat with one hand as he hold them up with the other. “Do you see them?” he screaming, shaking me with each word so my head keep bouncing off the floor, and I taste metal from my bust lip and see black inside my head.

I screaming too. I crying, and there snot and blood and spit coming from me as he put he hand on my front and push down again so I ain’t able to breathe.

“Do you see these big scissors?” he yell again, and I screaming that I see them, I see them, and I see them, and they all I can see because he holding them so close, and I see them. He slow down shaking me then, and just hold me down, and show them to me closer.

“Say, ‘What big scissors you have,’” he say. I choke on my own blood and tears, and then force out the words.

He look down and say, “Good girl.”

And then he smile, and press down on me harder as he lean into my face, and then say, “All the better to cut you naked with.”

The scissors cut up the front of my red hoody, and I lied on my back with my arms pinned under me, and I cried for my mama like I was a kid, and I cried for my grandma, and I cried more for me when that Wolfmann tell me that my mama give me to Tio to pay for what she need, and Tio send me to that old Abuelo to get his money, and that what I really drop at that house was me. And that ain’t nothing compare to what I cry later when this new man, Wolfmann, take me and move me somewhere else, another city even, I don’t know, and what I cry after that when I start my new job with the “other young ladies my age” that that damn Abuelo talk about. And it ain’t nothing compare to what I cry when I knowed how long some of them girls was there, and seen more come, and get how Wolfmann treat us once we all broke in for him.

And it ain’t nothing at all to what I cry when I know that we only stay there until we is too old for the men that see us, and that where we go next is worse.

But that okay if I cry, because these men, some of them, they like they little girls to cry when they do what they do. They like us to look sweet and innocent, and they like to rip that sweetness away. They like us to look up at them when they do they nasty things on us, and they like to see our tears.

And I look. I look at every goddamn, motherfucking one of these men. I look at them hard. I be sweet to them men who want it all like that, and I cry for them that want me to cry, and I ain’t never sure which way hurt me more, being fake sweet or being fake crying when I got real crying inside. But I look. I see all of them men, and I am gonna remember all they asses when I bust out of here. I’m just waitin’ for the right time, and then I’m gonna get myself loose from this. All they men that look down at me and watch when I doin’ what they make me do, they all say the same thing. All they men that look down say, “What big eyes you got, Ryder.”

Each time I think it.

All the better to see you with.

I’m gonna get loose. I know I’m gonna go away from here. I know how to make these men pay. I’m gonna get what I need, and I give you that as a promise, because my mama teach me good. Before she get me fucked up.

A native of Rochester, New York, Heather Erin Herbert lives in Atlanta with her children and husband, where they spend their summers trying to avoid melting. Currently completing her master’s degree in English, Heather works as a freelance author and editor, as well as at a college as a writing tutor, where she is extraordinarily persnickety about commas. In her few free seconds, Heather likes to knit, read, write, and consume improbable amounts of coffee.

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