Iowa Writes

MESHA MAREN
August 1988


        "Check," a voice calls out through the swarm of smoke, the zing-bang-ping of slot machines, and the rattle of ice cubes in the bartender's shaker. The voice is not too high but distinctly female in a room full of the low, cigar-tar vibrations of maleness.
        Jodi swivels on her stool and turns to face the far corner, past the Wild Wolf, Crazy Eights and penny arcades, where a poker game is under way, illuminated by a single dangling bulb. In a cocoon of smoke, at a long green table, sits a trucker, a bearded dude in a hunting cap, one thin, pale-suited man and a woman dressed like a redneck boy. She leans forward, elbows on the table, cards held in two delicate hands and black hair slicked back under a cap. She's been there for three days, winning more than half the hands, and her presence at that stained table carves a space in the room disproportionate to her physical size.
        "Here you go, my dear."
        Jodi glances over her shoulder and watches the bartender pour a long stream of reddish-orange liquid into a frosted glass. He lifts the shaker high, drips the last drops in with a flourish and sets it up on the bar.
        Without even looking, Jodi can feel Jimmy Lauder on the stool beside her, his half-hard dick hidden in the folds of his khaki pants and his pride swelling over his ability to give her this drink. Jimmy was hired on at Render High only months before, taking over the junior and senior year chemistry classes. He has not started balding yet but the rest of him is loosening, preparing bit by bit to let go. He is grateful though, nearly pious in his appreciation of Jodi's tight flesh, and his chemical-stained fingers move electric when they touch her chest.
        In the weeks after Effie's death, while the bank men and realtors had stalked her grandmother's blooming land, Jodi had escaped the tangled newness of her parents' house and lost herself in the pulse of Jimmy's fingers and those long, chalk-dust afternoons. In some strange moral compromise Jimmy never brings his hands down below her waist, and when he fucks her he only ever does it from behind, turning her face away and finishing quickly. Jodi is enamored with his need for her, the lost-dog look he gets in his eyes and the way she can, simply by removing her shirt, cause him to tremble and beg. She is secretly astounded that this body of hers with its bony angles and pale, chigger-bit skin could have such power. She marvels at how this same utilitarian abdomen and ass could mean so much more to someone else and she carries the knowledge of this power around with her throughout her humdrum days and it makes her feel colossally tall, as if she is already looking back on her former life from a great height.

        "Check," a voice calls out through the swarm of smoke, the zing-bang-ping of slot machines, and the rattle of ice cubes in the bartender's shaker. The voice is not too high but distinctly female in a room full of the low, cigar-tar vibrations of maleness.
        Jodi swivels on her stool and turns to face the far corner, past the Wild Wolf, Crazy Eights and penny arcades, where a poker game is under way, illuminated by a single dangling bulb. In a cocoon of smoke, at a long green table, sits a trucker, a bearded dude in a hunting cap, one thin, pale-suited man and a woman dressed like a redneck boy. She leans forward, elbows on the table, cards held in two delicate hands and black hair slicked back under a cap. She's been there for three days, winning more than half the hands, and her presence at that stained table carves a space in the room disproportionate to her physical size.
        "Here you go, my dear."
        Jodi glances over her shoulder and watches the bartender pour a long stream of reddish-orange liquid into a frosted glass. He lifts the shaker high, drips the last drops in with a flourish and sets it up on the bar.
        Without even looking, Jodi can feel Jimmy Lauder on the stool beside her, his half-hard dick hidden in the folds of his khaki pants and his pride swelling over his ability to give her this drink. Jimmy was hired on at Render High only months before, taking over the junior and senior year chemistry classes. He has not started balding yet but the rest of him is loosening, preparing bit by bit to let go. He is grateful though, nearly pious in his appreciation of Jodi's tight flesh, and his chemical-stained fingers move electric when they touch her chest.
        In the weeks after Effie's death, while the bank men and realtors had stalked her grandmother's blooming land, Jodi had escaped the tangled newness of her parents' house and lost herself in the pulse of Jimmy's fingers and those long, chalk-dust afternoons. In some strange moral compromise Jimmy never brings his hands down below her waist, and when he fucks her he only ever does it from behind, turning her face away and finishing quickly. Jodi is enamored with his need for her, the lost-dog look he gets in his eyes and the way she can, simply by removing her shirt, cause him to tremble and beg. She is secretly astounded that this body of hers with its bony angles and pale, chigger-bit skin could have such power. She marvels at how this same utilitarian abdomen and ass could mean so much more to someone else and she carries the knowledge of this power around with her throughout her humdrum days and it makes her feel colossally tall, as if she is already looking back on her former life from a great height.
        "You want more vodka in there, you just tell me." The bartender smiles and his eyeteeth creep out from under his thin upper lip. He is Jimmy's older brother, and pathetically proud to be serving Sex on the Beach to a sixteen-year-old. It is in his pickle-green trailer, in Wheeling, that Jodi and Jimmy are staying, blinding themselves all day with alcohol and the jittery screens of slot machines. Four days at the Wild-n-Wonderful Casino and the woman at the card table is the only interesting thing Jodi's seen.
        "Raise two hundred," she says and Jodi looks over to see her push two black chips across the ratty felt. She could be beautiful if she didn't look so strange, dressed in the same worn flannel and leather work-boots that all the men in Jodi's family wear, a web of blue-black tattoos sketched across the skin of both arms. She is softly familiar but altogether different, a mixture of beautiful and ugly that wavers, like a hologram, back and forth the more you look at it. High, sharp cheekbones and a full pink pout of a mouth. She's built like a country boy too, broad in the shoulders, thick biceps and narrow hips.
        "What do you want to eat?" Jimmy bends in close, his hand smoothing out a pattern against the back of Jodi's tank-top.
        "I'm not hungry," Jodi says and takes a sip of her drink, the cold crystals catching in her throat.
        "Check." The pale-suit pushes his own black chips out onto the green. Beside him the trucker glances from the table to his hand. He shakes his head and sends his cards sailing in the general direction of the dealer who collects them swiftly and points at the woman. She adds a third chip and pushes up the stack.
        "Raise," she says with no emotion. "Three hundred."
        Sliding his cards to the dealer, the bearded hunter folds and sits small in his chair, as if losing to a woman has made him physically shrink.
        On the stool beside Jodi, Jimmy spins, turning his attention to the game. His fingers have found the clasp of her bra under her shirt and he plucks it in a rhythm of one-two-three.
        "Showdown," the dealer barks.
        Neither the woman nor the pale-suit move.
        "Gentlemen," the dealer says, then flinches, glances at the woman and starts to correct himself. The pale-suit flips his cards and the dealer stops talking, leans in then pivots to the woman who flashes him her hand. The dealer nods and rakes the pot across the table to her, the chips clattering like tiny shoes.
        She stands, lips set, eyebrows raised, and stares straight at Jodi.
        "What a game." Jimmy laughs a laugh-track laugh and brings his hand down to Jodi's waist. His sweat hangs between them, smelling of fast food and anxiety.

        In the bathroom, under the sharp, overhead lights, Jodi looks too skinny, too many freckles and all that stringy black hair. She sticks her tongue out at her reflection, smooths her tank-top and pulls it low across her tits. The light flickers and the door swings in. The woman stands behind her, same height, same dark, oily hair, a mirrored twin.
        "How much is he paying you?" she asks, eyes catching Jodi's in the flecked glass.
        Jodi blinks and shakes her head. "We're just friends."
        The woman's mouth opens wide to show a jumble of yellowed teeth between those rosy lips. Jodi looks down at her feet. I don't need your pity or your judgment, she thinks, I don't know why I let him touch me, except that I'm trying to do something, feel something.
        "You like those fruity drinks he buys you?"
        Jodi moves away, scuffing her sneaker along the tile floor.
        "You don't even know what you like, do you?" the woman calls, and then, as Jodi opens the door and the flush of casino music filters in, "Paula," she says, "my name's Paula Dulett."

        By the time she has resumed her place at the poker table, Paula has attracted a flotsam-jetsam audience— the bartender, a silver-haired businessman, the hunter, who is sitting out a round—everyone but Jimmy who rests heavily in the low-slung seat at the Wild Wolf machine, feeding it quarters from a gray, plastic tray. Jodi watches from the bar.
        "Bet." The pale-suit stacks up chips.
        "Check," Paula says, and the game rolls out in a repeating shuffle and snap that Jodi does not bother to follow. All she understands of poker is the tight, angry wrestling of egos. The games she's used to are a jumble of dog-eared cards and sweaty bills on old oil drums out back of the Gas 'N Go, insults and compliments traded between neighbors and cousins while the girls nurse warm beers and watch, stretched out on the hoods of rusted Chevys, showing off their newly shaved legs.
        "Jesus-fucking-Mary and all the apostles." The trucker sends his cards up into the air in a bright flurry like some magic trick. "I've seen it done like that before, the way she's watching the dealer, she knows what's coming her way." He glances around the table and up to the men who stand behind, bobble-headed and shifting.
        Paula doesn't flinch, face still, the air smooth around her like a shield. "Raise."
        The pale-suit blinks and a tickle of a smile crosses his lips. "All in," he says.
        Paula watches him move his chips, one by one, into the center and when he is done, she looks from her hand to the pile and back again. The room is a sweating, beating organ. It constricts in low instinctual rhythms, voices from the T.V. and the music of the slot machines.
        Paula reaches for her chips and the pale-suit moves with her in a fluid dance. His hand slides into his gray jacket and then rises high above his head. A shot roars out—a sound Jodi can feel, trembling inside her head—and a white rain of plaster filters down over the table.
        "She works for the house?" The pale-suit walks towards the dealer, pistol level with his forehead. "I've seen this kind of deal before too."
        "Sir, sir, please—" the dealer begins, but the pale-suit closes the distance between them, plants the pistol flat against the dealer's head. The dealer's eyes cross as each pupil moves to locate the gun stuck between them.
        Jodi's pulse thrums and she looks to Paula but Paula is gone from her seat, crouched down on the floor below. The bobble-headed men press into each other as if to blend together and disappear from view.
        "Kenjo," the dealer says, his eyes skittering over towards the bartender. "Kenjo, call security."
        The pale-suit turns the pistol towards the bartender and then, smiling, he pivots back and brings the .45 smashing down into the dealer's face. The dealer lets out a long, wet noise. All across the metal bright blood runs. It flows out his thin nostrils and into his mouth, dripping and blooming in great dark spots down his white shirt.
        Jodi looks to Jimmy, stiff in his cockpit chair, eyes closed, and then to Paula. Paula is moving now, crouched low. From the speakers overhead a song fogs out— our land, our land is far through the heart of this snow— Jodi focuses on the sad lilt of Lee Golden's voice on that radio— far through the heart of this snow. Paula hurtles towards her and clasps Jodi's wrist, the pressure of sweaty fingers and heat of Paula's close body. Though it is too fast to know, Jodi does know, she does see the choosing. She sees her own legs unfold, her body turn and move after Paula. For one long moment everything comes into sharp focus and she knows she is at the edge of something huge—a new future, far from the dusty, muted sadness of her past, a future of her own choosing.
        They tumble into the dark hall and on past the brass elevators, towards a flickering red EXIT. The sunlight burns Jodi's eyes and she pulls her hand free, stands still, there in the doorway until the black dots diminish and she can see. Ahead of her, Paula is halfway across the asphalt lot, facing forward but beckoning, a hot wind flapping around her, filling the back of her shirt and lifting it like a billowing sheet.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


MESHA MAREN

Mesha Maren is a fiction writer from southern West Virginia whose work appears in Tin House, The Oxford American, Hobart, The Barcelona Review, and other literary journals, as well as the anthology Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial.  She is the recipient of a 2014 Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, an Appalachian Writing Fellowship from LMU University, and a residency fellowship from the Ucross Foundation.  She is currently working on a collection of interconnected short stories and a novel.  She lives in Iowa City.

August 1988 is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel Sugar Run.

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