Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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The Rider in Fetish Boots
by Teresa Bergen
Thea was riding a Greyhound bus for the last time. She knew this because as soon as she boarded the bus in Austin, she had a revelation: I hate poor people. Yes, Thea hated the sorry suckers who rode the crowded bus, trash on the floors, fat guys with arms that slid in her direction, hands on her thigh, heads on her shoulder, breath in her face. Cold air, much too cold, pouring from vents near the window. Either that or the a/c broken entirely, overheated riders threatening violence unto the driver. Unannounced stops in obscure towns for unexplained delays. And why couldn't Greyhound riders learn to piss in toilets in stations? Piss on the seat, piss on the floor, menstrual clots in the toilets. Flush? Forget it.
      Next time Thea would fly.
      Next time they'd all fly. That's what they said when the a/c busted, when a ten-minute rest stop turned into two hours. Next time I'll fly, said one passenger to another. Yeah, me too. Me, too.
      Yeah, right. People who took Greyhounds didn't fly and never would. People who rode Greyhounds were condemned to never getting their shit together.
      Except Thea. She'd be rich. Somehow.
      Thea's bus was pretty full. Her seatmate slept, his head lolling toward her, the rotten fruit scent of a wino on his breath. Thea tried to figure if his breath partially masked his cigarette smell, or if that smoker's scent masked the wino smell. Mostly she turned away and looked out the window, cold air in her face.
      They were shadowy people with shadowy lives who were going nowhere despite their tickets. That wasn't going to happen to Thea, wasn't gonna happen, wasn't gonna happen. That was the rhythm of the bus. Wasn't gonna happen, wasn't gonna happen.
      She wasn't going anywhere special this time. Just Phoenix, to visit her Mom. Then she'd have to turn around and go back to her job in the clothing store. Selling skirts. Selling tiny tank tops. Selling pants. But next time, on the plane, she'd go somewhere significant.
      Thea realized she didn't look like someone who was going anywhere significant. She was 23, skinny, pale, blonde, and trying to take up a smaller space to escape the wino breath.
      No one talked to each other, and no one read except for the Bible and one woman who had Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus open on her lap but stared sadly out the window. A young woman in the last station had been ranting in front of a row of seats where people could pay 75 cents to watch miniature televisions. "The hair fairies and the lesbian orphans had a riot!" the woman had said. She looked the same age as Thea, but was louder, tanner, and wore a white wifebeater shirt. "The hair fairies and lesbian orphans weren't gonna take that shit anymore! At the lunch counter! They had a riot, the hair fairies did! And the lesbian orphans! Shit, yes, Lord, they had themselves a riot!"
      Thea puzzled over this as she stared out the window, her nose cold, avoiding the wino breath. She couldn't picture where this had taken place. She couldn't even picture all the elements. Lunch counter, OK. But weren't orphans kids? Were these lesbian children? Were there so many children that already knew they were lesbians? Enough to form a group? How did little girls get the courage to do that? And what on earth was a hair fairy? And what kind of riot would they have at a lunch counter? A food fight? What kind of food did lunch counters serve? Thea had never eaten at one. She pictured hot dogs, or maybe fish sticks. But she'd only heard of black people protesting at lunch counters. Certainly not gay children. She would have remembered that. Hair fairies, hair fairies, was the rhythm of the road as the bus bumped along. Hair fairies, hair fairies. She wished it wasn't stuck in her head. Next time, on the plane, she'd bring a book. Or maybe something ambitious, like Entrepreneur Magazine. She'd listen to no one.
      Phoenix would be a drag. It would be too hot to go outside but her mother would freeze her in the air conditioning. Her mother would follow her from room to room, talking, talking, always talking. Thea would eat her mother's food, lie on the couch, feel fat. She'd wish she hadn't come and yearn to go home. But she was sick to death of the clothing store, all those pants and hair clips waiting for her to sell them. On her mother's couch she'd be depressed.
      The bus stopped in San Antonio and Thea had an hour to walk around. Not trusting the baggage people to transfer her bag westward, she carried it on her shoulder, lurching down the sidewalk. She'd never liked San Antonio, with that wartime patriotic Alamo everyone went gaga over. But this time she was charmed by the old Spanish buildings, even by the Riverwalk, that touristy gaggle of shops.
      Back at the bus station, Thea's bus to Phoenix was boarding. She'd be on the bus all night long, through the dark of Texas, no sunrise until New Mexico. Thea thought about buying a book in San Antonio and reading all night, but she didn't want to irritate the other riders by leaving her light on when they were sleeping. Thea really couldn't sleep on the bus. She'd stare into the dark all night, or close her eyes and listen to the dark.
      Thea got a seat with no one sitting next to her, and felt triumphant. The wino was gone, probably passed out in a corner of the station, missing his connection. She spread out her box of crackers, her bottle of water, on the seat next to her, put her purse under the seat in front. She'd bought a postcard of the Riverwalk and considered who to send it to. Maybe an old boyfriend who'd moved to Maine. She'd never been there but gathered it was boring, nothing but trees, and old people adept at needlecraft. The boyfriend lived with a woman. Maybe she wouldn't send it. Thea remembered how he'd admired her small breasts, but as soon as they broke up he fucked some stacked tacky bitch that went to his gym. Maybe she'd send the postcard. She still had an hour to write it before the sun went down and the bus fell dark.
      Just when Thea thought the bus would pull out, the door opened for one last passenger to get on. Thea was blinded by blonde hair, lipstick, boots and skin. The inert passengers revived to stare. There in the aisle stood a scrawny woman with enlarged red lips and platinum hair to her ass. Her top seemed to be three or four bras in different colors, made from varied materials, worn on top of each other. Her midriff was bare except for three concha belts worn at different heights. What looked more like a scrap of fabric than a skirt covered her crotch and ass. A tattoo wound around her upper left arm. But what struck Thea most were the black patent boots the woman wore, six-inch spiked heels, tight leather up to the knee, with laces up her thighs gladiator-style. Thea had only seen such footwear in the window of a fetish clothing store on Sixth Street. She'd never seen anyone wear them, and certainly not for bus travel.
      The platinum woman stood in the aisle, huge red lips turned downward, looking for a seat. She started down the aisle, lugging a gray tote bag behind her, then stopped by Thea. "Excuse me," she said in a low hoarse voice, barely audible. "Is this seat taken?"
      No, you can't sit here, Thea wanted to scream. But all she managed was "No."
      The woman waited for Thea to move the crackers and water, then sat, setting the tote bag between her scrawny scabby knees. She smelled stranger than the wino, but not a scent Thea could identify so easily. Sweat and cigarettes surely. But also something sweet. Cinnamon, maybe? Perhaps she smoked clove cigarettes. Or maybe she had a cottage industry making potpourri. How could Thea know? Thea just tried to look out the window and ignore the strange creature who had picked her out of the crowd. She felt the eyes of everyone on the bus spying toward her seat.
      "I'm LaRose," the throaty voice said. From the corner of her eye, Thea saw a thin hand covered with gold rings and tipped with black nails. She didn't want to shake it. The hand felt like a damp Emery board. "Mary Ann," Thea said. "I'm Mary Ann. From Wichita."
      "Charmed," said LaRose, exposing some jagged off-white teeth. Up close Thea could see the veins in LaRose's hands, the blood vessels in her knees, the decreased elasticity of her skin. The tattoo around her arm was a cobra. Thea hated snakes. She guessed LaRose was close to forty, and one of the most gruesome creatures she'd ever seen. Certainly the most gruesome she'd ever shaken hands with.
      "Where are you going?" LaRose breathed.
      "West. Tucson."
      "I'm going to Hollywood."
      Thea made a great show of pretending to get comfortable against the window. She closed her eyes.
      "Look at my Yosemite Sam keychain," LaRose whispered. Thea opened her eyes. LaRose held Yosemite Sam four inches from Thea's nose. She smiled conspiratorially at Thea. "Yosemite Sam."
      "Uh huh," said Thea, wondering if it was wise to close her eyes around this person.
      "Yosemite Sam, Yosemite Sam," LaRose sang quietly. "Yosemite Sam loves Mary Ann." She cackled.
      Thea closed her eyes and leaned into the window. The bus shook like it would break her teeth. Thea felt LaRose shifting forward in her seat, then talking into her tote bag, apparently to Yosemite Sam. "What a good little man," LaRose whispered. "My little man is a good little bus rider."
      Thea kept her eyes closed. She tried to picture what seats were available. No one sat next to the pasty-faced guy in the light blue shirt and the unfashionable jeans with bright orange stitching. It looked like the kind of outfit people got released from prison in. Surely there were a few other seats, too. But Thea couldn't fathom climbing over LaRose's skinny, scabby legs. Accidentally rubbing against her bare thighs.
      "I love you more than anyone," LaRose whispered into her tote bag.
      Thea felt cold and stiff. She wanted to merge with the window. She kept her eyes closed while LaRose fidgeted, talked to herself and made strange mewing noises. Every once in a while she heard LaRose's boots clicking up to the front of the bus to plague the driver, but always she clicked back to Thea's side.
      Long after the sky grew dark, the bus stopped at a McDonald's in Van Horn. Thea couldn't fathom eating. She stood alone in the parking lot, staring at the moon. When she was little she used to think that the moon sent girls their husbands and soulmates. That when she grew old enough she'd pray to the moon for a boy, then, eventually, a man. She started to pray, then remembered she already had a boyfriend. She wondered how she'd forgotten, and why he wasn't enough.
      Four men in their twenties or thirties huddled ten feet from her, chattering, excited. Suddenly they all turned toward Thea at once. "Hey, you'd know," said a big blonde man, six-feet high and beefy. "Is she a guy?"
      "No way," said another.
      "She's such a man!" said a third. "Obviously."
      "A man," Thea repeated, embarrassed she hadn't thought of that herself. "Her voice is awfully low." That was enough to draw the four men close around her. They all wanted to know what she'd said to Thea, what she did in her seat, what she smelled like up close, how old she might be.
      "Is she single?" asked a small, dark guy, and they all hooted.
      "She talks to her bag," Thea disclosed, getting into the spirit of things. "She has a Yosemite Sam on her key chain. She talks to it."
      "Did you see that black guy up near the front? Breaking his neck to stare at her," said one man.
      "You think he's attracted to her?" Thea asked, surprised.
      "Damn right!" said the beefy blonde guy. "He wants her bad! Half the guys on the bus are having sex fantasies about her. The other half thinks she's as disgusting as you and me."
      "You really think so?" asked Thea.
      "Shit! I know guys."
      The other three guys went inside for hamburgers, but the blonde one stayed with Thea. "I've seen things you wouldn't believe," he said. "Things I wouldn't believe if I hadn't seen them for myself." She barely had to press him to make him spill a story he at first said was too awful to share. "Me and my friend were at Fort Lauderdale a few years ago. It was during spring break, so the beach was crowded with college kids. Me and my friend were older than all those frat boys. We must have been about 30 then. So we're lying on the beach and there's this girl close by, this really beautiful girl in a bikini. This guy's taking pictures of her, she's posing, you know. Well, suddenly she takes her top off. And I'm like, cool, this is great. I get to watch this beautiful girl with these great tits frolicking on the beach. So I tell my friend to check it out and just then, that fast, I hear this noise and I look up, and guys are running down the beach toward this girl. Guys that couldn't possibly have seen her, they were too far away. They just came out of nowhere from all sides, like they smelled her taking her top off. Me and my friend, we stood up to try to protect her. I knocked four or five guys in the head with our radio before I was down. Trampled. These guys were gonna rape her, right on the beach, like a pack of dogs! But then out of nowhere, this huge Samoan guy plows through the crowd. One of the biggest guys I've ever seen! He's knocking guys out left and right, trying to get to this girl. Well, he reaches her and picks her up over his head. She's totally lost it, just quivering, crying, babbling. And he carries this naked girl over his head, kicking guys out of the way, until he gets her to safety." The blonde guy lit a cigarette. "I've seen people as no more than animals. I won't even tell you the ways these guys wanna use that girl next to you. I won't even tell you. I'm not kidding."
      The driver called them back to the bus, sparing Thea from having to comment on his story. The night seemed darker and she felt sick to her stomach. For the hundredth time, Thea reminded herself that she really, really should make time for one of those women's self defense classes.
      LaRose brought a hamburger onto the bus. Thea didn't like meat, and hated being so close to the smell of hamburger. She retreated into her window seat again, but this time she snuck glances at LaRose, searching for an Adam's apple. Instead, Thea saw her seatmate slipping pieces of hamburger into the tote bag. For just a second, Thea thought the Yosemite Sam fixation had gone way too far. A second later, she realized something in the bag was eating the hamburger. Thea's heart quickened. She pulled her knees to her chest to get her feet off the floor. What kind of creature would someone like LaRose carry on the bus? Thea imagined a gargoyle or a troll. No, of course those weren't real, but it could easily be a snake or a monitor lizard or even a scorpion! She did have that cobra tattoo on her arm. Thea grew convinced it was a large snake, loose in the bag. She'd hated snakes ever since childhood horseback-riding trips where she'd heard rattlers in bushes. Their rattles sounded exactly like a dry, raspy voice calling "Thea Thea Thea Thea Thea." It had almost driven her crazy when she got separated from the group and all the snakes calling "Thea Thea Thea Thea Thea." Afterwards the guide tried to convince her she'd just heard cicadas, that she had weak nerves, but she knew the snakes had called her and the guide didn't give a shit.
      Thea leaned on the Greyhound window and tried very hard not to breathe. If she was motionless and breathless, why would the snake, if it escaped, attack her? Snakes like quick, noisy game, like crickets and mice. But she feared her heart would give her away. Her heart pounded. It seemed like days of closed eyes and no breathing and repeating a mantra over and over to calm herself. "Hair fairies, hair fairies, hair fairies," she silently repeated. But too often the hair fairies were drowned out by the crackly snake chorus "Thea Thea Thea Thea."
      When the lights came on and the bus stopped at El Paso, still Thea kept her eyes closed. She didn't look at the lights of town, she didn't look at LaRose or her snaky bag. She looked at nothing. She listened while LaRose gathered her things to leave the bus for the rest stop. When finally she opened her eyes she saw that LaRose had taken her bag with her. Thea felt terribly relieved but when she stood her knees gave way. The beefy blonde guy caught her and helped her off the bus.
      "Are you OK?" he asked once they were inside the El Paso Greyhound station. "You look awful! White as a ghost." He guided her to an orange plastic seat. Thea couldn't talk at first. "Are you sick?"
      She shook her head. "Can you help me find another seat? On the bus?" she asked. Her voice barely worked.
      "Is she doing something to you?" The blonde man looked ready to break LaRose in half. Thea shook her head. "What did she do to you?"
      "Nothing. Nothing to me. She, she has something in that bag. Some kind of ...pet."
      "No shit! A live pet?"
      "I think it's a snake!" Thea blurted out.
      "A snake?! No shit!"
      Thea just nodded.
      "What kind? Is it poison?"
      "I don't know. I'm just sort of afraid of snakes."
      "I hate snakes," he said. "You can sit with me. The guy next to me was getting off here."
     Thea wiped a couple of tears. She was so grateful, so embarrassed. "You wanna go wash your face or something?" he asked. "I'll watch your bag."
      In the bathroom, Thea examined her face in the mirror. Pale, with tear tracks like the wakes of meteors. No, nothing that grand. I'm pretty, she thought. No, I'm so ordinary. I don't look like anything at all. It's a wonder anyone sees me. She wore jeans and a plain shirt, something nondescript, maybe from the Gap.
      Back on the bus, Thea sat with the blonde guy. Before they left, the driver marched to where LaRose sat, alone now, and demanded to see her bag.
      "No," she cried, her voice finally audible. "No! Not without a search warrant."
      "If you won't let me see inside your bag, you're getting off this bus."
      "That's not legal!" LaRose's voice sounded like a man singing falsetto.
      "I'm the driver. You don't like my rules, you can get off this bus."
      LaRose's big red lips trembled.
      "Do you have a snake in that bag?" the driver demanded.
      "No! I hate snakes! I just have normal luggage and I really, really must get to L.A."
      "You're not going anywhere on this bus till I search your bag."
      "I have to go to LA. Someone died." LaRose was crying.
      "This is awful," Thea whispered to the blonde guy, wishing she hadn't said anything.
      "I'm not riding on a bus with a snake," said the blonde guy. "I hate snakes."
      LaRose seemed to lose all her strength. The driver reached for her bag, but before he could open it, a cat's orange head popped out, its eyes wide.
      The driver flinched, but quickly recovered. "It's against Greyhound rules to transport live animals," the driver said. "You and your cat will have to leave the bus."
      Thea had always loved cats, and had known many. But at this moment she'd never seen one as lovely as this sleepy orange cat with a raccoon-striped tail. It blinked orange eyes in the light. Suddenly it meowed, loud enough to hear from the front seat all the way to the restroom in the rear. All over the bus, riders snickered.
      "You don't understand," LaRose sobbed. "You don't understand. Someone died. I have no choice. No choice."
      Echoes of "no choice" filled the bus as riders mocked LaRose.
      She and the driver and the cat left the bus. Everyone else just sat there, uninformed. Thea couldn't remember ever feeling so low, so treacherous.
      "Come on. It's not our fault," the blonde guy said. "And she's so stupid! If you wanna smuggle something, you need a lower profile than goddamn six-inch spiked boots!"
      The riders sat for ten minutes, twenty, thirty before the driver returned, followed by LaRose, her head hanging, blonde hair in her face, eyes red and wet. She didn't have her bag anymore. As she walked down the aisle she tripped, falling almost to her knees before she caught herself on an arm rest. Thea couldn't look LaRose in the eye. Instead, she stared out the window at the El Paso bus station.
      "Meow," said one rider, then another. "Meow." It broke out all over the bus, scattershot. "Meow. Meow. Meow meow meow meow."
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