People Like Us
H. A. Fleming
When her mother passes out, it’s up to Bean to get the men out of the apartment without any trouble. Sometimes they’re sitting in their underwear watching TV, sometimes they’re still in bed, too drunk to move. She’s diplomatic -- she helps them find their socks and shoes, makes them black coffee.
I can handle this, she thinks when she comes home from school one afternoon and finds a man sitting on the arm of the couch smoking. Her mother, Lynell, is asleep, drunk and naked, beside him. A desire to cover Lynell’s hips, the small triangle of blonde hair, and her white breasts sparks up inside Bean but she does nothing.
“Be a good girl and get me some water,” the man says. He doesn’t turn to look at her but instead speaks to her reflection in the dark screen of the television. The black handle of a gun sticks up from his waistband.
“All right.” She drops her book bag on the floor and heads into the kitchenette. By accident, she fills the glass too high and has to walk carefully, keeping it level and steady. Lynnell snores loudly, startling her, and the water spills over her hands.
"You’re wet,” he says, and touches the tips of her fingers when he takes the glass.
The air reeks of gin, but he’s steady and sober. Her mother always said to be careful of a man who doesn’t drink.
“I’m Jack. What’s your name?” He speaks slow and deliberate as if he thinks she might be hard of hearing.
“Bean,” she says. She looks at the clock on the cable box.
“What kind of a name is Bean?”
“A fake one. My mom’ll be awake soon.”
“Lynell’s down for the count. Come here,” Jack says. She notices that he has begun to sweat. Small beads form on his upper lip and glisten in the hazy brownish light coming though the nicotine stained sheers. He isn’t bad looking, he’s young, maybe twenty, and she likes the Chinese dragon tattoo peeking out from his collar.
“What would you do for fifty bucks?” he says.
“I don’t know,” she says even though she has a good idea of what she’s capable of.
“Let me watch you shave your legs. Nothing wrong with that.” He holds the bill out to her, folded and damp in his fist. “Take it,” he says, and she does.
Bean runs the water in the tub and puts on a bathing suit so it won’t be that bad-- a red polka dotted one piece that used to belong to her mother. It's gathered together in the back with a rubber band. He stands behind the bathroom door while she changes; she hears him breathing through the dark crack as he peers in. When she gets into the tub, he comes in and sits on the toilet, placing his 9mm on the tile floor. She turns her back to him when she hears him unzip.
She soaps up her leg and hooks it over the side of the tub. She uses her mother’s pink daisy razor and pretends not to notice the small noises he makes as she runs the razor over her calf. When she hits her knee, a bright bead of blood springs up. As she cries out, he moans.
“Sh, it’s okay,” Jack says and walks over to her. “I’ll make it better.” He touches his finger to the smear of foam, tinged pink with blood, and brings it to his lips. His other hand slides over the slippery smoothness of her thigh. A thin trickle of blood runs down her shin onto the chipped porcelain of the tub. He kneels on the floor and runs his lips over her skin, and she winces at the hot sting of his tongue on her cut.
“Oh fuck…Bean,” he yells out, startling her. He rinses off his hand in the tub and zips up his jeans. He kisses her softly on the forehead.
“Someone like you could make me happy,” he says.
“You don’t even know me,” she says.
“I know all I need to.”
* * *
Jack shows up to one of Lynell’s parties with his girlfriend Karla. Bean recognizes her -- the short black spiked hair, the double lip rings. She used to come to the door late at night before Lynell joined NA.
“Karla Johansson is a goddamned bitch,” Lynnell says after Karla leaves the kitchen with the last beer. “It's true.” She stretches out her legs and takes a slow sip of her fourth gin and tonic. “She has no class.”
“She has more than you. Hold still,” Jack says. He’s painting Lynnell’s toenails bright red. He cradles her foot in his hand and runs his thumb over the soft pink curve of her arch. A bead of sweat hangs from the tip of his nose, and his hand shakes as he paints a thin stripe.
Bean spins around on the kitchen stool and takes a sip of her coke. She hears the music get louder in the other room. It’s one of her CDs.
“Ma, I told you about letting your friends touch my things,” she says and crosses her arms.
“Bean, you want your toes painted? That make you happy?” Jack asks and touches her knee. She shivers at the feel of his hand.
“Don't you touch her,” Lynnell says.
“I was asking Bean,” he says, twisting the skin on her ankle. “I was just trying to be nice to your kid.”
“Sure you were.” Lynnell grabs the nail polish.
Bean runs out of the room and squeezes past the dancing bodies trying to get to her bedroom. Suddenly Karla pulls Bean to her chest.
“Come and dance a little,” she says swinging her around. She kisses her cheek, leaving a smear of red lipstick behind. “I see how you look at him. He’ll never love you,” she says as she dips Bean. Karla’s hands are hot around her waist and she has to push them away hard before she lets go.
“Don’t touch me you goddamned bitch,” Bean yells. She shoves her into the wall knocking a picture to the floor. The crowd around them looks at Karla.
“What did you do?” Jack yells over the music from the doorway.
Bean’s cheeks are hot and wet, and she realizes she’s crying. Jack puts his arm around her, and Bean grabs on tight to his shirt.
“Nothing,” Karla says, looking at Bean sideways. “I was just trying to get her to have a little fun.”
Jack meets Bean during her lunch period and takes her to Baskin Robbins. She gets pistachio ice cream in a waffle cone. He watches her eat it, having nothing for himself.
He wipes a drip off her chin and whispers, “Has anyone ever told you how fucking gorgeous you are?”
No one ever has. She bites into the cone and tries not to smile.
“Karla’s gone tonight. I’ve been thinking about you, is that wrong?”
“Maybe. I’ll come over later, if you want me to.”
That night in the dark Bean pulls at a tangle in her hair and waits in bed for Jack to get off the phone.
He lights a cigarette and offers her one. She refuses. The lighter is silver, carved with some stranger’s initials. Stolen. Flicking it open and closed, she watches the flame dance and stop, come and go. She passes her finger through the fire to see how much pain she can stand. It turns her fingertip dark with soot. Jack snatches the lighter away and slaps her hand.
“I love you baby. Yeah, I wish you were here too,” he says into the phone. Slipping his boxers down to his knees and switches the receiver to his other ear. “Tell me how you’d do it, Karla, be fucking nasty,” he says, and grabs Bean by the hair. Be quiet, he mouths to her and winks. He guides her face down, runs his thumb over the soft curve of her bottom lip, and smears her strawberry lip-gloss over her chin.
“You’ve got me so hard.”
She isn’t sure what to do. She’s had sex a few times, lost her virginity at twelve pressed against the brick wall behind the junior high to one of the Benson twins. Since then, she’s done it twice on a mattress on the floor in the basement of her building with Raul, an eleventh grader who doesn’t speak English. She kept her eyes closed. She’s never seen a man naked. She looks at Jack; she’s surprised by how ugly it is. It makes her want to protect him from something.
“Lick me first,” he says to his girlfriend on the phone, to Bean on her knees. She sees how this will go: she’ll wait for his voice, breathless and broken by sudden moans, for direction, hoping he’ll think her hesitation is a game.
“Karla…” he says as she takes him in.
Bean wakes up alone. The bed is dirty; there’s a cigarette butt stuck to the mattress and a smear of semen on the comforter. She flicks off the cigarette and wraps the sheet around her, covering herself, and goes to the bathroom to find her underwear. She’s late for school. There’s no time for a shower. She gets dressed in yesterday’s clothes, smelling of smoke, of Jack, and leaves without brushing her teeth. She’s afraid to use his toothbrush.
On the table is a note that says he can’t wait to see her again, a bit of something to keep her awake, and a twenty for lunch. It’s for lunch, she repeats to herself. Not for last night. She grabs her backpack, unopened, homework undone.
The girls talk about her as she finds her seat. They whisper, hush each other. They stare. They know Bean is wearing the same clothes because she’s been out all night.
Her friend passes her a note about Jack. What does his thing feel like? Is it hard like stone? Is it something you can break?
She doesn’t answer, instead she searches in her book bag, looking for something to occupy her until the bell rings and English class starts.
“Mr. Castor! I can’t concentrate, it smells like fish in here, can we open a window?” one of the Benson twins says and laughter breaks out across the rows. Bean feels it like fingers pinching her skin, turning her black and blue all over.
* * *
At Dairy Barn after school, Bean stacks the milk, makes change, and listens to the boys on her shift talk about their girlfriends. One girl is tight and gets wet like you wouldn’t believe, the other calls too much. One boy is in love, the other is not. Bean likes the boys at work because they never try to touch her. Her t-shirts are baggy and her breasts are nothing to look at. Their girlfriends wear bras with underwire.
“What’s with that freaky guy who picks you up?” the blonde boy asks.
Bean is counting the cartons of creamer. Things like that have an answer. Seventeen. “He’s my mother’s boyfriend,” Bean says.
“But he’s in his twenties, your mom a cradle robber?”
“My mother’s a whore,” Bean says, and digs her nails into her palms, leaving red crescents.
“You’re kind of a fucking nutcase aren’t you?” the dark one says.
* * *
Bean never takes a pregnancy test but after six months of missed periods, she is beyond sure. While scrubbing the tub she decides she has to do something about it. Lynell has been happy with her and she didn't want to ruin it. Bean’s out of her hair most days and the apartment is spotless. Bean likes to clean when she’s tweaking.
Lynell is flopped across the couch eating Chinese and watching a Seinfeld rerun. Soft curls of hair around her temple are starting to turn gray. Bean touches them, feeling the damp skin underneath.
“Mama, I’m pregnant,” she says.
Lynell sucks a noodle from her lo mein. “Is it too late to get rid of it?”
“Baby, come here.” She opens her arms. Bean leans in, breathing the alcohol tinged sweat on her mother’s neck and closes her eyes.
I always knew it would turn out like this.
* * *
“I found a couple in Ohio. They’ll be real good to the kid,” Jack says and unfolds a piece of paper from his wallet. “Mr.and Mrs. Warnkin. Fifteen k in cash at the delivery.”
“Let’s do it,” Bean says.
She slides her palms over the mirrored tabletop next to his bed, leaving streaks of sweat across the surface. Lowering her head, she watches her mouth opening and stares into the dark red hollow of her throat. She touches her lips to her reflection. She remembers practicing kissing on the mirror in her bedroom. She leans her tongue out and tastes the bitter remains of powder on the glass
“Stay bent over just like that,” Jack says and yanks off his leather belt, cracked and peeling with age, and snaps it against the table, inches away from Bean.
“Careful of my belly,” Bean says and closes her eyes, enjoying the cool slick surface on her cheek.
He takes the belt and yanks her arms behind her and ties her elbow-to-elbow, winding it up her arms and snugly fits it into the buckle.
Tomorrow is the final in Mr. Castor’s class. She imagines an alternate version of her life where she is still living at home, studying and eating fried bologna sandwiches cut up into small bites.
“I’ll buy you something lovely,” Jack says. He tightens the belt.
She feels her arms going numb. Her toe brushes against slick metal of the gun under his bed. Fifteen grand could get her far from here. It’ll be easy, she thinks. People like us disappear everyday.