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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
by Teresa Bergen
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Sadie, holding Joan's hand at the ticket counter, with ribbons in her hair. A woman-child at seventeen, only four foot ten with tiny grabbing hands and shiny sly eyes. "Two tickets to San Diego," Joan says, looking around conspicuously, praying she looks normal.
     Sadie opens her mouth wide. "Aiiiieeee!" she says, high pitched, then giggles. Even in the bus station, people stare at Sadie. If anyone is looking for them, they will be caught fast. But they have time on their side. Sadie is supposed to be sleeping, Joan watching over her.
     "She all right?" the ticket seller asks. A black woman around forty with cat eye spectacles and a low-cut sweater. Joan's heart pounds. Black women catch things, she thinks. White women pussyfoot around, dying to be liked, scared to say boo.
     "She's fine."
     The woman prints the tickets.
     "Eeeeeeee!" Sadie cries, her voice rising.
     "You sure she all right."
     "Aaaarrrr!" Loud, this time.
     "You call that all right?"
     Joan feels her face flushing. Busybodies always expecting an apology on the behalf of Sadie. Usually Joan refuses. But this time she has to make nice. She leans in confidentially. "My sister is a little...disabled."
     "A little!" The ticket seller lowers her spectacles and stares over them at Sadie, who loves to put on a show. She breaks from Joan's grasp and begins to spin. Her yellow dress flares out at the bottom, showing perfect white thighs. Her ribbons stream around her dark hair.
     "Aaaaiiiiieeee!" It's earsplitting this time.
     "Sssshh," Joan says. "Come on, little sister." This behavior, which everyone at the Home calls the Sadie Dance, ideally culminates in shoe throwing, which is why they always dress her in high tops. Except tonight, since they were in a hurry, Joan found an old pair of clogs...
     "Jesus! What the hell?" cries an old man watching a mini TV as the clog soars overhead, arcing across the station to hit the Orange Crush button on the soda machine just after an old bag lady put her dirty change in.
      "I wanted Coke, asshole," she says to no one in particular.
     "I'm glad I ain't riding that bus," the ticket seller says, sliding two tickets through the glass window.
      Joan snatches the tickets and they walk across the station to retrieve the shoe. Sadie giggles at her off balance gait. Left foot high, right foot low. "You have to behave better if you want to go to the beach. You keep attracting attention, we'll never get to the beach." Sadie just giggles.
     It's funny how Joan never feels lonely with Sadie, even though the girl doesn't understand a word she says. She took the overnight job at the Home partly because she was sick of making a pretense at dating. All those brutal, insensitive boys. No fun, no feelings. She always felt obligated. But then, at the Home, she met Sadie. She hasn't felt alone in the world since.
     The bag lady still stands by the drink machine, frowning at her unopened can of Orange Crush. When Joan picks up Sadie's clog and eases it back on the girl's foot, the old lady looks Joan right in the eye. "You're going to Hell. I see it coming. Burn! Burn!"
     It gives Joan a chill.
     "Burn! Burn, asshole, burn!"
     Joan can't think of a thing to say, so she leads Sadie off to seats across the station, far from the crazy lady.
     At eleven PM on a Friday night, the El Paso station is quiet. A dozen people loiter about, perhaps riders, perhaps vagrants. Joan has never been on a Greyhound, and doesn't know what to expect. The station is a big rectangle, with a closed Burger King on one side, and a wide staircase leading to the restrooms on the other. It certainly isn't tidy. At the Helping Home, three of the ten clients have pica behavior, which means they put everything in their mouths. In fact, Sadie is one of those three. Joan watches her closely to make sure she doesn't lean down for a candy wrapper or God knows what. There could be discarded rubbers or any kind of filth at all! Sadie has a lot of problems. Joan knows their new life won't be easy, but she is determined to make Sadie as happy as humanly possible. And herself, too. How Joan aches to be happy!
     Joan's real sister is a 20 year old know-it-all bitch who works at the Tony Lama shoe showroom so she can flirt with men from around the world. "You wouldn't know fun if it bit you on the ass!" her sister said last time they talked. The girl tries to set her up on obviously doomed dates with tall cowboy wannabes in big hats. When Joan refuses, her sister blames it on the Home. "I don't know how you can shut yourself up with those retarded people. It's sick! You might as well be retarded yourself." She calls Joan "my retarded sister" behind her back.
     Retarded, retarded, how Joan hates that word. Oh, but the world loves it.
     Joan will show the little bitch. She's cutting loose now. Going to the beach. All those hours of work, all those pay checks safely laid away in the bank. She and Sadie are cashing in! They are buying Joan's dream.
     Sadie swings her legs and giggles. She chews on one of her ribbons. Joan strokes her hair. It's so soft. The geniuses at the Home have come up with a six point plan to keep Sadie from chewing her ribbons. First they request her to stop the behavior three times, giving her a chance to respond. Then their actions escalate, culminating in prying her fingers loose and yanking the ribbon away. They chart the results in binders. How Joan hates the mentality of the Home! The geniuses sit around all day in their offices, coming up with complicated plans to thwart every individualistic behavior the residents can invent. While normal people all want to find something special about themselves, someone as original and natural as Sadie is supposed to be coaxed and threatened into someone ordinary. It never works. Sadie and her roommates have IQs measured at twenty. What's more, they could give a flying fuck if anyone thinks they're normal or not. But their lives are spent being harassed and harried by minimum wage workers, bullies and creeps, who want them to eat normal, move normal, piss normal, sleep normal, dress normal. They get shipped off to a day program that is supposed to simulate work. The most advanced clients make wind chimes that are sold at charity bazaars. But people like Sadie sit in gloomy workshops, unhappy, unloved, their true charms completely unnoticed.
     Joan noticed Sadie's charms right off, and it's been breaking her heart for two years that this lovely, dear creature is wasting away in the dreary Home.
     So. Away to San Diego.
     Joan feels the butterfly wings in her stomach as their bus is called. "Come on, my love," she whispers to Sadie, grasping her hand and leading her to gate six.
     The other passengers in line look rough. There's a huge, scowling man with tattooed arms, a middle-aged black couple in torn up jeans, some lone men, all pale and jumpy-eyed. Sadie's left hand, which moves at the speed of light, shoots out and grabs the scowling man's belt buckle. "Aaaiiee!" she shrieks.
     "Your fucking hands off me!" he rumbles, moving in like he's going to kill her. He towers a foot and a half over Sadie. The girl is never afraid of people, even when she should be. She looks up and laughs in his face. Joan yanks Sadie behind her and faces the man, trembling. "What the fuck's up with her?" he asks.
     "She's disabled," Joan says, her throat constricting in disgust. "She's just a little bit disabled."
     "Can't go around like that," the giant says. "Grabbing people's belt buckles! This is one of a kind. Where the fuck would I get another?"
     "I'm so sorry. Really I am," Joan says, her eyes dropping below his gut to peer at the precious buckle. It seems to be a woman's naked torso, but maybe she's looking at it wrong.
     "The tits light up. Wanna see?"
     "No, no, that's OK."
     The tits flash on. Little red points of light at the ends of the nipples.
     "Your ticket," the driver says to the giant.
     "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he mutters, pulling a crumpled ticket from his shirt pocket. He shows his ticket then clambers onto the bus, a parting glance over his shoulder that Joan can't decipher. Is it a warning or a come on? She shivers.
     "Tickets," the driver demands. He is tall and old with a tough, leathery face.
     "Aarrrr!" cries Sadie, biting the hand he reaches out to take Joan's ticket.
     "Jesus!" the driver roars, yanking his hand away. "Jesus!"
     "I'm so sorry," Joan says. "I'm so sorry! I can't believe she did that!"
     "Jesus! What the Hell?"
     "My sister is disabled. I'm so sorry."
     "Seems able enough with those teeth!" His hand bears ugly red marks where her teeth connected. Luckily, she didn't break the skin.
     "Aaaiiiiee!" Sadie cries, then giggles.
     "Jesus! Don't you have a muzzle for her. An animal like that shouldn't be allowed to travel without a muzzle."
     "I'm very sorry. It won't happen again."
     "Sure as shit it won't happen again! Won't happen on my bus 'cause I'm driving west and you're staying here."
     "She's retarded! She doesn't know better."
     "I been driving these buses 30 years. I been punched in the nose, stabbed in the gut, robbed at gun point and called every name in the book. But I ain't never been bitten. She sure as shit isn't getting on my bus."
     "Aaiiieee!" Sadie cries.
     "Aaiiieee, my ass. Jesus!" The driver passes them by. "Ticket," he says to the man behind them
     Joan's hands shake as she leads Sadie to the schedule board. The next bus headed west won't leave for another five hours!
     "Sadie, why did you bite that man?" Joan says as the walk back to their chairs. Sadie smiles. "Maybe you had your reasons. Who knows?" There's no point in getting upset with her. After working with her for two years, Joan believes that Sadie's behavior cannot be modified. Sadie is the perfection of herself. Self-actualized, Joan's mother would have said, back in her hippy days.
     Joan sure is sick of sitting, and they're not even close to being on the bus yet.
     Sadie is tired. She lays across two chairs, her head in Joan's lap. Usually Joan puts Sadie to bed by ten, and now it is after midnight. Sadie's dark hair spills over Joan's jeans. Her face is turned away. Joan traces the path of Sadie's right cheekbone. Such beautiful bones! They could never sit like this in the group home, Sadie's head in her lap. It isn't "normal." The girl's dress rides high on her thighs, showing the bare, pale legs. Joan is the only one who can shave them. Anyone else tries, Sadie bites. Joan hasn't decided if she will continue to shave Sadie's legs. It's artificial and completely unnecessary, of course, but Sadie's skin is so lovely while her hair is so dark. Right now, in the bus station, Joan yearns to stroke Sadie's soft thighs, to hear her giggle as Joan reaches inside her underwear and feels her special place. But then Joan notices the man across the aisle also staring at Sadie's legs. Joan pulls the girl's dress down and glares at the man.
     Joan dozes, then snaps awake. She has the jitters. The morning person comes to the Home at six AM to help get the clients ready for their day programs. That means they will only be two hours out of El Paso when they're discovered missing! Joan wonders how extensive the search will be. Sadie has no family to miss her. Of course, it will be terrible press for the Home. People will find out, you can't just go around losing profoundly retarded wards of the state. No one will understand about Joan and Sadie, she realizes that. Joan will be wanted for kidnaping and negligence. She feels awful about leaving the other seven residents on their own. Most of them sleep through the night, so she's hoping they'll stay in their beds and out of trouble until the morning relief person comes. Joan prays: Lord, let the soap eater stay out of the shower, keep the streaker inside, let the eye poker keep his cool.
     Sadie looks so peaceful. Joan tenderly wipes a string of drool with the back of her hand. How can this be wrong? In the perfect world, she could adopt Sadie, take her out of the group home, and they could get an apartment together. Joan could collect the government money that Sadie gets in the group home now and use that to take care of the girl. And Joan could do some kind of work at home to supplement Sadie's little check. She could do medical transcription or stuff envelopes or assemble jewelry. Anything. If she and Sadie could be together every day, and sleep in the same bed at night, and not have to follow bizarre behavior modification programs like 17 steps to independent tooth brushing, well that would be the perfect world.
     Dozing and jerking awake. Sadie peaceful, then thrashing in a nightmare, Joan soothing her. Sadie laughing. Growling stomachs, then crackers from the vending machine. Finally, their bus.
     "Gate six, service to Las Cruces, Lordsburg, Willcox, Tucson, Phoenix, and all points west." Joan listens to the place names and thinks how many cities there are in the US, in the world. Maybe they won't be caught! Maybe they'll be free, together, forever! They'll go to San Diego, see the beach, then move on somewhere else. Joan has $6,000. They won't have to worry for a while.
     Joan gives Sadie some gum to chew, hoping it will distract her from biting. This time they board the bus without incident. The bus is full of sleeping people, but they manage to find two seats together near the back, three rows in front of the restroom.
     The bus slides out of the station and into the darkness. Soon they ride the freeway. The bus slices the night in two and Joan feels magic, her singing heart, this journey to their perfect world. Victory and peace. How she has dreamt this moment for the last two years, since the first few months she worked with Sadie at the Home. She never really believed in herself, that she'd have this courage. And now the bus moves, like a dream, to their distant beach.
     Heavy breathing and gentle snores around the bus. Cool air blows from beneath the window and Joan wishes she'd brought a blanket to cover Sadie. The voice of an old woman, muttering in the row behind. Then, a light.
     The old woman begins to read aloud. Her words are slurred, as though she is drugged or speech impaired. "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves."
     What the fuck, Joan thinks. She turns in her seat to glare over her headrest. She sees a disheveled old woman with wiry gray hair and deep lines around her mouth. Joan has little patience for drunks and crazies. She finds them self-indulgent. They make her nervous. She wishes she had the guts to tell the lady to shut the fuck up.
     "There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way."
     "Aaarrrhhh!" cries Sadie.
     The old woman breaks off her reading. "What's wrong with her?" she asks, leaning forward to peer over the seat.
     "Nothing," Joan snaps.
     "I think there really is. Something wrong with her."
     "I think your friend is drunk."
     "Aaaiiieeee!" shrieks Sadie.
     "Your friend's drunk. Maybe I can help her. I got this book for drunks."
     "No thank you. She's quite all right."
     The woman leans back in her seat and reopens her book. Joan fights back anger. Crazy old shrew! "They are naturally incapable of grasping and..."
     "Shut the fuck up!" yells someone a few rows up.
     "She's not drunk," Joan insists. "She doesn't need your book."
     The old woman clears her throat. "...naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty."
     "Shut up!" More cries from around the bus.
     The old woman leans forward again suddenly. "Hey, I think I've seen you in a meeting." She reaches up and turns on Joan's reading light to better examine her face.
     "I don't know what you're talking about." Joan snaps off the light.
     "In an AA meeting! I remember you from AA."
     "No you don't! I hardly even drink!"
     "But when you do, watch out! Right? Episodic drunk?" The crazy old bag snaps Joan's light back on.
     "Quit it!"
     "We can start out episodic, but it's a progressive illness," the woman slurs on undeterred. "It leads us all to the same places: jails, institutions and death."
     Joan can't believe their bad luck. Just when they need their anonymity the most, this stupid bitch calls attention to them! "I'm not a drunk!"
     "That's what everyone says at first, honey. It's called denial."
     Joan frantically looks for another seat, but the rest of the bus is completely dark. She knows it's fruitless, because there were no other seats when they got on, and the bus hasn't stopped. She has to be tougher. "Quit bothering me."
     "Your friend's awfully young. Drunks get younger and younger these days." Her voice must be audible to the front of the bus. Why doesn't the driver do something? He must take his hearing aid out when he drives.
     "People are trying to sleep!" cries a woman's voice from mid-bus.
     "I've just met my friends from AA! From Alcoholics Anonymous!" the woman announces. "I've just met...what are your names?"
     "Aaiiieee!" cries Sadie.
     "Shut the fuck up!" yells a passenger.
     Joan's nerves are raw and they've only gone twenty miles.
     "What are your names?" Joan ignores the woman, who waits a minute then taps Sadie on the shoulder with a bony finger. "What are your names?"
     "Aaarrgghhh!" Sadie shrieks, turning her head with lightning speed and biting down on the withered old finger.
     The old lady screams. "Devil! Devil!"
     The intercom crackles and the driver's voice comes on. "I don't know what is going on back there, but I hear one more sound and the last five rows are getting off just as fast as I can stop this bus."
     "That's not fair!" someone two rows up yells. "I was sleeping!"
     "Not a peep." The intercom crackles off. Joan looks out the window. They've crossed the border into New Mexico and there's miles and miles of dark nothing.
     "Devil," the old bag mutters.
     "Ssshh!" respond four rows of passengers.
     Joan's fantasies are so simple. Playing in the water together at a secluded beach. Buying expensive conditioner -- not the cheap stuff everyone uses in the Home -- and combing it through Sadie's hair. Licking the nipples of Sadie's plump little white breasts, seeing a new expression dawn in her eyes. Seeing Sadie become a woman. Passion is new to Joan. She feels like she is just now becoming a woman herself.
     "Drunken devil! There but for the grace of God go I."
     Joan's fantasies are always of the two of them, in their own private space. She's never fleshed out how they will get between the beach and the store to buy hair conditioner, and how will they find a place to stay? Will they ever be able to settle somewhere or will they be on the lam forever? How many people can Sadie bite before they get caught?
     Joan has a terrible vision of them entering a post office together, to buy stamps to pay a bill, and seeing their pictures on the wall. Abduction is a solid post office crime. Joan always reads the posters when she buys stamps, and now she is in that league. Her biggest crime is love, but she knows they have other words for it down at the post office.
     Joan sees a lightening on the horizon, a strip of sky paler than night. Shit, she thinks, the morning person will be there in half an hour, and there is nothing I can do to reverse this. Nothing.
     Joan looks at Sadie. The girl has no judgment. She couldn't survive an hour on her own. If they elude the law, the two young women will be together until one of them dies. If they get caught, Sadie and Joan will both be incarcerated -- Sadie in the Home, Joan in prison. The other inmates will not understand her crime.
     "Sadie," Joan whispers, desperately needing affirmation. The girl looks into her eyes, eight inches away in the dark. This is the life partner Joan has chosen, the person to whom she has entrusted her fate. Joan suddenly feels stone cold alone.
     "Aaaiiieeee!" shrieks Sadie.

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