Dry Nights

Nevaleen loves shoes. Slutty, spiky, ask-me-for-it shoes. The higher AND thinner the heel, the better; flowers, bows, and fringe, she likes them glitzy and gaudy. Tonight she ignores dirty dishes in the tiny, free-standing sink and washes her face before squeezing into the pantry of her rented room. She gets down on her hands and knees to scan precise rows of high-heeled shoes lined up three-deep under wooden shelves that hold push-up bras, lace panties, and canned spaghetti. She locates her favorites at the back, a year-old pair of silver satin stilettos. Straining to reach them without messing up the two front rows, she groans as she gets up and takes them to the sofa that is also her bed. She bends again, this time to buckle the shoes. She curses. The ankle straps are a tad too wide for their flimsy buckle. But these babies are worth it. Rhinestones spread spider-like over the toe, almost matching the sequins on her jeans, a nice touch. She still marvels at her luck finding such a bargain on the TV Shopping Channel.

Nevaleen wants men to be seduced by her feet, hopes their eyes will travel up the road of her long, shapely legs to the promised land, a destination advertised by her swaying —no, that’s not the word — what did she read on that tabloid cover in the checkout line? Undulating, that’s it, her undulating hips.

Nevaleen sighs down at the worn polish on her toenails. It’s been over two weeks since she painted them with that new polish from the Dollar Store. The label was gone when she slipped the bottle into her purse, so she dubbed the color ‘truck-stop red.’ It is against her moral code to go out with her feet in such disarray, but she has no time to remedy the situation. Ivy Jo, her ride to the A.A. meeting, is honking in the street.

Nevaleen is not an alcoholic, mind you, but she discovered a long time ago that A.A. meetings were a great place to pick up men. She has become, in her own words, a 12-step whore.

Oblivious to paint that’s been peeling since she moved in twenty odd years ago, Nevaleen dances past rejected blouses strewn atop the television. She glides to a halt before the clouded mirror on the door for a final check and blots hot-pink lipstick with her thumb, smearing the shiny excess along her high-ridged cheekbones. She splays three fingers like a pitchfork with glitter-tipped tines and raises her teased hair another four inches. Then she pats the matte-black cotton candy mound. Thank goodness this last dye job looks a little less like shoe polish. Thank goodness also she does not need her fake eyeglasses tonight, the ones with the diamond-studded #1 on the frames; their tinted lenses are great for hiding puffy red eyes on days she’s been crying.

Nevaleen shakes her head at the offensive toenails. This just might be another dry night. As she approaches forty, dry nights occur more often. Attractive, willing men are hard to find.

Then again, she might be wrong. [After all, today’s horoscope said she was especially desirable and should expect a nice surprise tonight. Nevaleen remembers this as she turns toward the speaker when the A.A. meeting begins, and she catches the man in the corner of her eye. He sits clear across the church basement and cannot see her toenails.

The man raises a neatly bearded chin to let Nevaleen know he likes what he sees. Nevaleen gives him the smile she’s been rehearsing in the mirror. She likes what she sees too. This guy is sexy, his rear thrust to the edge of the folding chair, his pelvis extended in invitation. Maybe it’s not going to be a dry night after all.

The man hooks both thumbs inside his belt. His left-hand index and middle fingers are missing. Nevaleen asks what happened as they drive to her room. He says he lost them in a bear fight and doesn’t change his story when they’re in bed and she asks again. After they finish, he grabs cigarettes from the plastic crate beside her bed and picks up a faded Polaroid in a tarnished frame.

“Who’s the babe?” The glow from the man’s cigarette spotlights a Nevaleen half her present age, wearing a bright blue halter top, fringed jeans cut-off at the top of her thighs, and high heels. She’s smiling and cuddling a blonde toddler-baby on her hip.

“Gimme a break.” Nevaleen giggles and rubs her satin shoe inside his calf. “You know that’s me.”

“Kid yours?” Falling ashes bury the girl’s spiral curls.

“Yep. That’s my baby.”

“Um, um, um. I sure do like blondes.” He puts the photo back. “How old is she now?”

“Almost twenty-one,” Nevaleen’s voice cracks, “but she’s dead nearly twenty years now.”

“What’s her name?” The stranger stubs out his cigarette.

“Pansy Rose.” Nevaleen’s chest sputters with smothered hope as she answers his question. Is he the one? Will this be the guy who holds her? Asks how her baby died?

Instead he asks, “Pansy Rose? What kind of name is that? You name her after your Grandma?”

Nevaleen sucks in her breath. She worked out the details to her answer long ago, and she’s been waiting to share them with just the right man. She explains that Pansy Rose was her professional name, the name she used when she worked as an exotic dancer. A grunt interrupts her mid-sentence. The man is asleep.

Nevaleen picks a piece of tobacco from the tip of her tongue and decides this guy is not worth it. Why waste time telling him precious things, about her baby, her career? This one will get the basics, nothing extra. And so she begins a conversation with the stranger’s hairy back, telling him about Mama, Daddy, and how she came to the city.

“I guess it was cause of Mama that I got interested in shoes…she used to buy me these sweet little patent-leather maryjanes…even found pink ones once…I like to think it was the shoes that sparked my interest in dancing. But Mama died when I was little…about eight…and then it was just Daddy and me… I loved my Daddy but he was just no good at raising a girl-child by his self… always worried I’d get knocked up…he was always trying to scare me with those fire-and-brimstone scriptures of his…him being a preacher and all…”

Nevaleen pulls the sheet over her shoulder. She shudders as she remembers Daddy calling her a harlot when hormones transformed the flat landscape of her chest to buds then mounds.

“‘Now Nevaleen-girl, he’d say, don’t you go forgettin’ there ain’t no place for fornicators in the kingdom of God!’ ” Nevaleen never did find out what a fornicator was. “I bought me my first high-heeled shoes for my seventeenth birthday…and oohee, Daddy did not like that, I tell you…Pulled his belt off outside my bedroom door, rattling that locked handle, yelling about some whore of Babylon. I slid through the window and hitched a ride to the city. Ain’t seen him since…I sure do miss him but there ain’t no way I’m going back there.”

Nevaleen blows smoke rings as she tries to think what the snoring man said his name was at the meeting. Joe Pat or something. Who cares? He’s just one more man she won’t be inviting back. This one reminds her too much of Jap.

And Jap, short for Jasper, reminded her of Daddy. Jap was a regular at the First-Stop Dandy Club where Nevaleen had worked clearing tables when she first came to the city. The Dandy sat on the Outer Loop, a long, low, windowless building slapped together with cinder blocks. Three foot high red neon letters did double duty outside, screaming ‘Girls! Girls! Girls! while they lit up nightly brawls in the parking lot. Inside, empty-eyed dancers doted on nameless losers, flicking kisses as they wound their legs around poles like rubber ribbons.

At first glance Jap seemed like the other oil workers and cowboys with his terra cotta leather face, bowed legs, and mud-crusted, plain boots. Nevaleen overheard a dancer say he was from the hill country, had been in some trouble down near the border. His eyes were ink-black; not soft, deep wells that lure you down to the soul but rock-hard barricades that hide it.

But what Nevaleen noticed was Jap’s smile, wide like Daddy’s. His voice was like Daddy’s too, with an air of authority. It sounded like gravel crunching under your feet. Plus Jap smelled better than the other customers.

When they met, Nevaleen had been dreaming of working her way up to exotic dancing. Peering through blue smoke veils, she memorized the dancers’ dips, splits and slides. While she stacked glasses on her tray, Nevaleen studied how the girls slithered on their poles—up and down, up and down—like someone had put snakes instead of ponies on a carousel. She began to tap out steps as she swung between tables and performed subtle shimmies as she put down drinks. Her tips got bigger.

Nevaleen was observant. She watched the customers and decided it was the shoes that grabbed the customer’s attention, pulled their focus like a magnet up toward the writhing bodies. Hot-darn, she concluded, look at these girls, buck-naked, and those guys are looking at their feet! Nevaleen wanted shoes like that.

One night Jap pinched her. “Nevaleen- honey, why ain’t you up on that stage?”

“Think I’d be good?” She winked. “Well, I just might surprise you.”

An hour later, Nevaleen got up her nerve and talked to the manager. “Um. Hey. Uh. Can I talk to you about being a dancer?” They had not spoken since he hired her three months earlier.

“Hmmph! Ain’t you a tray girl? What makes you think you can dance? What makes you think the customers want to look at you?” His eyes stayed on the dollar bills he was counting. Nevaleen knew that the dancers called him ‘The Toad’ behind his back and not just because of the way he looked.

She mumbled. “I-I- been studying how the dancers do it.”

The Toad scratched half-moon tobacco-colored stains under his armpits. Her nostrils twitched trying to ward off wafting fermented flesh.

“Yeah? So?” Fringe rimmed The Toad’s shiny head and reminded her of a dead rabbit’s pelt.

“Well, the customers think I’d be g-good.” The Toad did not need to know that one customer thought she would be good.

“Well, that’s somethin’ I guess. Okay.” He waved his slimy unlit cigar stub. “Wait in the office after last call.”

The Toad’s office, half the size of Nevaleen’s rented room, smelled like a damp cave. Flat black walls flaunted moldy puddle-shaped stains that made Nevaleen think of bats. When the Toad entered, he banged into the lop-sided card table he used for a desk and knocked a gooseneck lamp to the floor. “Why ain’t your clothes off?”

The turned-up lamp beamed up on the ripped vinyl orange sofa. Nevaleen saw an unstained spot and laid down her clothes. Then she saw the Toad look at her in a way that let her know he’d never seen her before. Nevaleen didn’t like those eyes. Her right forearm snapped shut across her chest like a sprung gate, shielding erect nipples while her left hand slid down to protect the triangle between her trembling legs.

The Toad laughed. “Get used to it, honey. You’re gonna get lots worse than that…but with tips, you’re gonna make more money.” He turned to leave. “Girl quit today. Called herself Bambi Lynn. Use that name ‘less you got something else. Oh yeah…get yourself some high-heel shoes. Nice legs.”

“Let you know about the name tomorrow.” Nevaleen hurried her clothes on and scooted to share the good news with Jap. She couldn’t wait to buy her shoes.

Nevaleen made ends meet by working days at the Dollar Store. Ivy Jo was unlocking the door when Nevaleen shuffled up behind and whispered in her ear. “Girl, guess what? I been promoted! You are looking at the newest Dandy Dancer! Hey, what do you think about Bambi Lynn for a professional name?” Ivy Jo was unlocking the cash register. She screwed up her face. “Yuk! You can do better than that!”

When Nevaleen’s first customer bought two bottles of bubble bath, one pansy-scented and the other rose, she took it as a sign and created her own unique professional name: Pansy Rose.

Jap was proud at first. He liked to point Nevaleen out to his aroused buddies. That was his girl dancing up there. But he was jealous of strangers, stopped them when they tried to put dollar bills in her shoes. And he said no lap dances, which was too bad, because lap dances meant real money.

When Jap asked to move in, Nevaleen agreed on one condition. She told him that some of the girls at The Dandy made their guys get bumper stickers with a message that let other women know they were taken. She saw one that she liked for his van. It said, ‘A Woman’s Place Is at the Mall.’ He could put it right next to his bumper sticker, the one that said ‘Insured by Smith & Wesson.’ Jap agreed, and true to his word, added the bumper sticker the next day. But the one he picked said, ‘Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere.’

Jap quit his job as soon as he moved in. He said he planned to manage Nevaleen’s dancing career, but mostly he watched television. Then Nevaleen got pregnant and Jap got mad. Really mad.

“Dammit, Nevaleen! Doncha know how to take care of yourself? I don’t want no kid. Never have, never will.” He punched the wall. “And just where do you think the money is gonna come from? Soon as you start to show, your dancing career is over. What was you thinking?”

Nevaleen did not answer. She was dreaming of a little girl to dress up. She had already gone to the Salvation Army store, bought a stroller and some cute canvass-flowered baby shoes. Sure, she’d be sorry to give up dancing but a baby would be worth it. She would have someone to love her forever. She would get a job cleaning houses and get her high school diploma. She was going to make a good life for her baby.

When Pansy Rose was born, Jap was enraged. “Nevaleen, you don’t do nothing right. A kid is bad enough, but a girl? What good is a girl? And who names their kid after a stripper? What is wrong with you?”

Nevaleen was nuzzling the baby’s head and did not answer. The fuzz reminded her of those dyed chicks they sold at the five-and-dime at Easter. And she loved the name Pansy Rose. It symbolized her step up in the world, when she began to have hopes and dreams. Jap shook his head and muttered that she was a stupid something or other. His lower lip was stuffed with chaw and she couldn’t make out what he said. He spit, missed the waste can beside her hospital bed, and walked out.

Pansy Rose grew fast and Jap grew sullen. The baby held her head up, rolled over, sat and crawled. Whiskey tainted Jap’s face ruddy pink first, reddish blue next, and deadly purple finally. He ignored Pansy Rose except when Nevaleen was holding or feeding her. Then he smoldered, blew smoke in the baby’s face and curled out the left side of his lip like a puffed cobra. He hissed.

Jap didn’t say anything but Nevaleen knew he blamed the baby for ending her dancing career. Nevaleen didn’t say anything when Jap began to spend nights at the Dandy.

Jap left for good on Pansy Rose’s first birthday. It happened this way.

Nevaleen was pushing the baby in the stroller down the alley. She saw Jap sitting in his van. They locked gazes in the side view mirror. Her pale pools were no match for his black-granite walls, so she lowered her head to talk to Pansy Rose and kept walking.

She never figured out if Jap did it on purpose. Was he waiting there before Nevaleen paused at the edge of the driveway? Did he wait until she started to cross the driveway before he backed the van up? Didn’t he hear her scream? All she remembers is how hollow the metal sounded as the stroller crumpled under the wheels. That and how Jap kept on driving.

Nevaleen was mute for months, eyes fixed on the Polaroid of her holding Pansy Rose on her hip. She refused to eat, did not sleep. Ivy Jo took it upon herself to call the police. They told Ivy Jo that Jasper probably wasn’t his real name but they’d keep looking.

Pansy Rose has been crawling around the crevices of Nevaleen’s mind every minute of every day for the last twenty years. Tonight Nevaleen glances over at the sleeping man, takes off her shoes and turns out the light. Is this what Ivy Jo had in mind when she dragged Nevaleen to that first A.A. meeting, telling her she had to get out and meet new people? She pauses, stubs out her cigarette and ends her conversation by telling the stranger that despite Daddy drumming years of scripture into her head, she could only ever remember one verse. Jesus wept.