Miranda's Dance

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Chapter Nine

So now you’re an expert in the ways of dope on the street! Wow! I’ll bet you didn’t expect that, did you? You’ve just graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Skid Row! Your parents would be so proud! Yeah, right! In case you haven’t noticed, I’m the little girl your parents wouldn’t let you play with. See? You should’ve listened to them. So aren’t you glad you came along for the ride? So tell me, what do you think of my world? Are you ready to move in? Should I book your passage now? There’s plenty of room. Uh, fat fucking chance, huh? Hey, I don’t blame you. Imagine how I felt when I got here, and I pretty much knew I was here to stay. But don’t let your guard down. No matter how horrible it all seems to you right now, this place has a way of getting its hooks into you. No one believes it when they first get here. And by the time they realize what’s happened, it’s too late. They’re locked in, just like the rest of us. And then there’s only two ways out, which I already told you about.

If I seem like I’m just kind of babbling, I don’t mean to. I guess it’s because I know I’m going to die soon. You see people out here who’ve decided to cash in, and a lot of them spend their last hours just talking. It’s not because we’re scared, mind you. It’s because once you’ve been out here for a while, you get this insane need to try to make sense of it all before you go. I guess we’re afraid that if we don’t come to terms with it before we die, somehow we’ll end up stuck here for all eternity. That’s one feeling I definitely don’t want you to understand. But I wish I could do a better job of explaining how this place sucks you in. That’s important if you want to understand me and how I ended up like this. I wish I could explain how it’s like a drug that’s every bit as addictive as dope. I wish I could explain how all of the shit that makes it so scary and terrible is the same shit that makes it unbelievably seductive. Yeah, that’s the word for it: seductive. This place seduces you. It’s like you’re Eve and this place is the devil and all of the evil, disgusting, perverted shit that goes on here is that fucking apple. And as scared as you are, you can’t help but take a bite. Even though you know it’ll cost you your soul, you just can’t help it. You want to know. You have to know. You just have to take that bite. And that’s all it takes – one fucking bite. One fucking bite and it’s got you forever. There’s no turning back. There may not be a flaming sword standing between here and the Emerald City, but there may as well be. Because just like Adam and Eve couldn’t go back to Eden, we can’t ever go back to the Emerald City. We can’t go back to our old lives. We can’t go back to how it used to be. Those lives are dead and gone. Sometimes we wonder if they ever existed at all. Some of us haven’t figured that out yet, but they will. And those of us who understand the truth know it all too well. Abandon all hope ye who enter. You’d better fucking believe it.

I’d better get moving. I’ve got things to do and people to see. Yeah, right! Well, I do have to find Charlie. That’s the most important thing I have to do tonight. I need to see him. I need to say goodbye. I need to thank him for everything he did for me. I can’t die until I do. If I did, I’d definitely be stuck haunting this place for all eternity. I’m not going to let that happen. No fucking way.

I’m really beginning to wonder why I haven’t run into him yet. He doesn’t usually go far from here, unless it’s raining. He likes to stay near the center of the storm, so to speak. A lot of people go looking for him every night because they need advice or a favor or they just want to talk to him because talking to him makes you feel a hell of a lot better. I’m sure I’ll find him soon enough. And I also have places I need to see one last time. I want you to see them, too. This is my last chance to walk the night, if you’ll pardon my being so poetic. We get that way sometimes. “Here’s Miranda…she walks in beauty, like the night. Of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best in dark or bright.” Hah! Fat fucking chance! More like, “Here’s Miranda…she walks in filth and lunacy, like the people of the night.” My apologies to Lord Byron. Charlie made me read some of his stuff. I never really liked it. I know he’s supposed to have been one of the best, but he seemed to enjoy the worst aspects of life too much for my tastes. And from what I read about his personal life, he was a real asshole. Anyway, I want to see the old places one last time. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s like I told you: this place gets to you. It gets inside of you. It takes you over. You can’t just let go of it. At least, I can’t. It’s sort of like reading a book or seeing a movie that you’re not supposed to see. You know, something your parents forbid you to do because it would infect your soul and corrupt the living shit out of you. There’s just something really cool about it all. I guess it’s the thrill of being bad. This place is thrilling; there’s no doubt about that. The thrills almost never stop. The problem is, most of the things that are thrilling are also pretty dangerous. They can hurt you. If you’re not careful, they can destroy you. This place sure can. I mean the place itself. The geography. The physical reality. Everything out here can hurt you. Stay here long enough and it will. And you can’t run home to mom and dad if you get hurt. You can’t cover it with a Band-Aid, either. This place hurts you forever. Then it makes you hurt someone else. That’s the part you can’t live with. It turns you into someone you can’t live with. Someone you can’t stand to be. God help you if you can.

Speaking of hurt; look what we have here. Somebody left their knife. This is what we call a typical Skid Row Slasher. A big folding lockback: five inch blade, brass frame, and some cheap wooden scales in the handle. It’s a cheap piece of shit, and it’s useless for anything but sticking somebody or slashing a few throats. Yeah, skid row is a big place for knives. They’re kind of like our national weapon. When you live on the street, you can’t afford a gun so a knife is the next best thing. Now, I’m glad you got to see this. I want you to take a good look at this one. You see these all the time out here. Fucking everyone out here’s got one just like it. They practically issue them to the new arrivals on skid row. It’s made in Pakistan or someplace like that. They probably make them in a cave or something. The parts are so bad that the thing kind of falls apart by itself after a while. The blade loosens up and the lock isn’t too strong, so there’s a pretty good chance it’ll close on you and chop off your fingers while you’re using it. It serves its purpose, though. It kills. It’s very good for that. Kill or be killed. That’s the way of things out here. They sell these for about five bucks over at this place not far from the police station. They sell all sorts of junk. They’ve got a bunch of these knives in the window. It’s almost like they’re advertising for the mayhem. You know, “Come get your cheap-assed throwaway knife so you can stick somebody! It’s big, sharp, and it’ll only cost you a five spot! Everything you need to take some motherfucker out! Get yours before some asshole gets you!” That’s pretty much it. It’s funny, this one looks new. I don’t see any blood on the blade. People dump their knives after they stick somebody so they don’t get caught with a murder weapon. Then again, they’re usually smart enough to throw it in the sewer or someplace where the cops won’t find it. This one looks hardly used. It’s still got a good edge on it. I wonder why someone dumped it here? They probably didn’t. The cops probably took it off of some guy and tossed it. Lazy cops, that is. Most cops, when they take a knife off of you, they step on the blade and pull the handle up to break it. You see a lot of these lying around broken. The cops who work the day shift usually take ’em and break ’em, as we like to say. The ones who work the night shift don’t give a shit. They just toss them. Go figure. Oh, well. Another knife is always a good thing to have, even on the last night of your life. You never know. Out here, you just never know.

All right, just keep moving down the sidewalk. I’d better hurry, though. I seem to have caught the attention of those assholes on the other side of the street. Those three guys over there. That’s never a good thing. Yeah, they’re waving at me. Asking me to come over and say hello. Yeah, right! Say hello, my fucking ass!

“Hey, little red-haired girl! Come on over here!”

“Hey, baby! How much for a blow?”

Oh, here we go! Just ignore them, Miranda. Just keep walking. And for God’s sake, don’t look at them.

“Hey, bitch! I said how much for a blow! For all of us?”

“Yeah! Show us your tits!”

Welcome to every fucking day of my life! God, I hate this fucking shit! Fuck them!

“Why don’t you guys just blow each other?”

“No, we ain’t like that! We like girls!”

Yeah, I’ll bet you do! You’ve probably got the arrest record to prove it, motherfucker!

“Maybe girls don’t like you?”

“What? You sayin’ you don’t like guys? What’s the matter, bitch? You sayin’ you’re a fuckin’ dyke?”

Yeah, I get that a lot out here. If a woman doesn’t get on her knees and start sucking at the drop of a hat, then she must be a dyke. That’s sort of the prevailing mentality out here. Don’t ask me why. I still haven’t figured that one out.

“Hey, bitch! Are you a fucking dyke, bitch?”

He’s not going to let it go. Like I said, I’ve been through this about a million times already.

“If every guy was like you, I sure as hell would be!”

“Hey! What the hell’s wrong with us?”

Is he fucking kidding me? Where do I even start with that one?

“Have you looked in a mirror lately?”

“Oh, are you sayin’ you’re too good for us?”

“I’m saying a chimp’s too good to fuck the two of you.”

“Come on, honey! We’ll give you three bucks! One for each of us!”

Believe it or not, he’s not kidding. Three bucks. Big spenders, huh? Like I said: every fucking day of my life!

“Forget it!”

“OK, five bucks!”

“You could give me five hundred bucks and I wouldn’t touch you!”

“Fucking dyke!”

I can scarcely remember the last time I got laid, and guys like that are the reason. I mean, would you want to fuck someone like that? Most of the guys out here are a walking, talking argument for female celibacy. Find one who isn’t and you’re the luckiest woman on skid row. God, how’s that for an achievement? Is it any wonder I want to kill myself?

Well, that was fun. At least I didn’t have to fight them off. Yeah, I get that shit all the time. It’s amazing when you think about it. The arrogance, I mean. Here’s their reasoning: every woman on earth must want to fuck them, so if I don’t want to fuck them, then I must be a lesbian, right? How the fuck do their minds work like that? Do these guys really think they’re God’s fucking gift to women? Or do they just think that we’re all nothing more than walking sperm banks, waiting for a chance to choke on whatever dick happens to be waved in our faces? Sadly, it’s probably the latter. I mean, I know this place strips away any hint of civilized behavior, but does that explain everything? Was it really like this back in the caveman days? Did some Neanderthal asshole just walk up to a woman and expect her to lie down and spread her legs? Not a chance. I’ll bet she cracked him over the head with a fucking dinosaur bone. Shit, that’s would I would’ve done! It’s a good thing those assholes didn’t whip out their dicks. I might just have put this new knife to good use.

Oh, I’ve had plenty of fucking idiots whip their dicks out in my face like it was nothing. Please! As if I was going to say “Oh, thanks!” and start sucking on them! What the fuck are they thinking? Don’t they realize I might just slice it off and stuff it down their throat? But they do it just the same. Like I said, people out here are pretty uncivilized. Still, it’s more than annoying. It’s scary sometimes. You never know how many are going to be satisfied with just insulting you like those assholes back there. A lot of these motherfuckers don’t take “no” for an answer. One thing I learned right away: every time I tell one of these guys to fuck off, I’m taking my life in my hands. Literally. It’s especially dangerous when it’s more than one of them, like just now. Three guys looking for an easy fuck are more likely to drag you into a crawlspace and rape you. Two of them hold you down while the other one rapes you, and then they switch. After they’re finished, they either beat the living shit out of you or just kill you. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve seen women out here who were beaten so bad you couldn’t recognize them. Some of them didn’t even look human anymore. I never had the nerve to ask any of them if they’d just been raped. I figured that’s what happened, but the truth is, I didn’t want to know. Every time I saw one of them I got this horrible feeling that I was next. Sometimes I was sure of it. You don’t want to know what that kind of fear is like. What it does to you. It’s a hell of a way to live, and that’s what being a woman on skid row is like every fucking night of your life. I mean, what does it say about you when dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you? What does it say about your life? It’s like I always say: out here, you’re not living. You’re just alive. There’s a big difference.

You probably noticed that one of those assholes called me “little red-haired girl.” I haven’t heard that one in a while. I used to get that a lot when I was a kid. Did you ever read Peanuts? You know, the Charlie Brown cartoon? Charlie Brown always had a crush on a little red-haired girl. I don’t think they ever said her name. She was always just the little red-haired girl. Some of my friends used to tease me about that when I was little. “Hey, Miranda! Charlie Brown’s got a crush on you! Are you going to kiss him? Miranda and Charlie Brown sitting in a tree…” Yeah, that was a barrel of laughs. Then again, compared to the assholes we’ve got out here, Charlie Brown is Prince fucking Charming. Those guys were a perfect example of the male of the species out here. I’d fuck a goat before I’d fuck those three rejects. I’m pretty sure most women would.

I’m going to cut down this alley. If those assholes decide to follow me, I can see them in here. I can fight them better, too. This alley’s a bit different from most. For one thing, it’s covered with homeless graffiti. See it on the walls? Yeah, we’re pretty big on doing that. We’ve got a lot to say, and this is one way to say it permanently. You’ll notice that most of it is carved into the walls. They can paint over shit you write with a spray can, but not the shit you carve into the walls. Maybe I should use this knife to carve my name into a wall? I think I should do that before I go. I don’t want to use my own knife, though. It’s too good to fuck it up doing that. It’s the best knife out here. Now there’s a dubious distinction. But it’s true. My knife is head-and-shoulders above everyone else’s. It’s the most valuable thing I own anymore. Needless to say, it’s stolen. I got it during a burglary at a hardware store where I kept watch. I asked the guys to steal it for me. I wanted a really good knife, so I asked Charlie what I should get. He saw it in the store and said that’s the one. He said it was better than what they gave him in Vietnam. It must be really good, then. For killing people, I mean. See? It’s a folder with a lock so it won’t close on your hand, but this one’s a good lock. It won’t fail on you and chop off your fingers. It’s got a wide blade with a strong point, and it’s just long enough so you can hit all of the major organs. Charlie said that’s what you want. See these little teeth at the back of the edge? That’s so you can cut rope and shit like that. They’re very useful out here. This knife is like a razor. The thing is so fucking sharp, I’ve actually cut myself a few times. I guess I’m a bit of a klutz sometimes. It’s called a Benchmade. I don’t know what the hell that means, but it says so on the blade. It cost about a hundred and twenty dollars. Can you believe it? A hundred and twenty bucks for a fucking knife! I’ll bet every knife in my mom’s kitchen put together didn’t cost that much. Thank God I didn’t have to pay for it. Even if I did, it’d be worth it. It’s razor sharp and it’s strong and it’s got a little stud on the blade so I can open it with one hand as fast as a switchblade. That makes a big difference in our little Shangri-La. The one who gets her knife out the fastest usually wins. It’s a real kill-or-be-killed knife. It’s saved my ass more times than I can remember. I never go anywhere without it. I sleep with the damned thing. If it were a guy, I’d probably marry it.

Why am I going on so much about a goddamned knife? Because of all the things I never thought I’d do before I wound up out here, getting into a knife fight has got to be at the top of the list. Since I’ve been out here, I’ve been in a few. I’m actually pretty damned good at it. I’ve earned a reputation for being very handy with a knife, and that’s spared me from more than a few fights. When I have to fight, I usually try to cut the other guy hard and fast and then run like hell. That was Charlie’s advice. He said the longer they go on, the worse your chances are. Hit the son of a bitch hard and fast and then run like hell. He was right. Knife fights aren’t like you see in the movies. They’re ugly, bloody and scarier than you’d ever believe. You can do a lot of damage to someone with a knife. There’s a shitload of places you can cut someone and cripple them for life. A slash across the face can take both of your eyes out before you can blink. Cut deep behind the knee and the guy will never walk straight again. It’s fucking brutal. Charlie says if you have to get into one, do whatever it takes to get out fast. Hit and run is definitely the best strategy. Make the first cut count. Make it major. Make it debilitating. Do whatever it takes to end the fight fast or at least give you a chance to escape. That’s why I keep it so damned sharp. The sharper, the better. Charlie told me that if you want to know what your chances are of surviving a knife fight, you just look at the edge of a razor-sharp blade. He said that’s the difference between life and death: that unbelievably thin line. That’s your chances of coming away alive. They’re that slim. He was right. I speak from experience.

So I don’t use my knife for carving shit into walls. It’s a fighting knife; not an everyday knife. I use other shit for carving things into walls. I’ve scratched my name into quite a few out here. We all do it. We have to. How else are we going to leave our mark? We sure as hell didn’t make a mark in the world by doing anything worthwhile. It’s important to make a mark. Something to let the people who come after you know that you were here. Some of us write our names with a pen, but that usually isn’t permanent. It wears away. Some people do it the old fashioned way with a can of spray paint. Graffiti. We’ve got a few graffiti artists out here. Some of them are pretty good. Most of them aren’t. And a lot of the graffiti gets painted over or sandblasted away. No, you need to carve your name if you want it to last. Even if they paint over it, you can still see it if you cut deep enough. So why do we do it? Why do we carve our names in the walls? Because we can’t let ourselves disappear completely. Not after what we’ve been through. It’s a permanent reminder of us. It’s the only thing that says to the world that we were ever here, even if the only people who ever read it are a bunch of losers and junkies and psychos. That’s important. It’s important to be remembered. If someone remembers you, then it means you were worth something. Maybe not much, but at least you were worth remembering. It’s something. We’re all so worthless. We’re worthless and we know it, so we’ve got to grab hold of at least that much. Like I said, it’s important. For a lot of us, it’s the most important thing we’ll ever do. It’s probably the most important thing I’ll ever do. I can’t explain it any better than that. I have to leave a mark. I have to let some asshole I’ll never know understand the truth. Understand me. Understand that I was here and maybe I didn’t mean jack shit, but I was here just like them and I went through hell and it finally got the best of me. I need someone to know that. I need people to come by and see that on the wall and understand. People out here who see it; they’ll understand that much. It’s practically instinctive for us. You have to leave something before you go, and when you’ve got nothing, then all you have left to leave is your story. Stories are important out here. They help people understand, even if you don’t understand it yourself. Stories. Stories on the walls. Stories on the walls where no one is ever supposed to see them. But we see them. We can’t help but see them. They’re everywhere if you know where to look for them, and we all know where to look for them. There’s even one particular wall where we write some of our most profound shit. It’s a few blocks from here, and we call it the Prophet’s Wall. The collective wisdom and insights of skid row can be found there. It’s a pretty amazing place, but unless you’ve been out here, you probably won’t understand one-tenth of it. But some of the shit they’ve got on it is downright mind-boggling. Yeah, people write all sorts of things on the walls out here. Write them, carve them, it’s all the same. The words change, but the message doesn’t. It’s always the same: This is my name. This is what happened to me. This is how I ended up. I was here. Remember me.

So I guess I’d better get to it. Where should I leave it? Somewhere where people can see it, but not too easily. I don’t want them trying to erase it. Over there, by the loading dock. People out here always hang out by the loading docks in the alleys. They’re good places to sit. They’re good places to do a lot of other shit, too. Those wooden beams look like they’ve been there forever. They won’t be replacing them anytime soon. That’ll do nicely. Cut deep. Make sure they can’t just paint over the words. Nothing fancy. Like I said, just the name. The name and the fact that I was here. I was here and I failed, just like you. I walked these streets and alleys in the night just like you. I asked the questions and never found the answers, just like you. I was here. I was here and there was only one way out and on this night, I took it. I was here. Remember me. The rest is up to you. I wish I had some profound words. I wish I could sum it all up perfectly. I wish I could come up with something really moving. Something great. You know, something like “Go tell the Spartans,” or something like that. Yeah, that one’s a tough act to follow. No, make it simple. Nothing poetic. Poetry has no place here. Poetry is about life. This place is about death. This place is about the end of life. It’s about failure in life. Out here, poetry would be almost blasphemous.

There. Done. Someone will read it. They’ll never know who Miranda was, but in a way, they will. They’ll know enough. They’ll know she was here before them and that she went through the same shit and she knows what they’re dealing with. She thought the same thoughts they’re thinking and she didn’t have any answers, either. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. She ran out of whatever the fuck keeps us going from one day to the next. That’s why she killed herself. That’s why she scratched her name into this beam in this fucked-up place where no decent person would ever be caught dead. She’s you and you’re her and this is what happens to people like us and this is how we remember them. Take a minute to remember her. She didn’t deserve much, but she deserved at least that. She doesn’t have a grave or a headstone or anything. No final resting place. Just this. Just this little epitaph scrawled on the wall. This is my name. This is what happened to me. This is how I ended up. I was here. Remember me. The story of Miranda in a couple of lines. Pretty pathetic, huh? Oh, well. It’s enough. People like us don’t deserve headstones. Besides, no one would visit our graves if we had them. It’s just not our way.

Well, that was pretty maudlin, wasn’t it? I get that way sometimes. Sue me. You learn to live with the pain and misery that this place causes, but no matter how strong you are, it eventually finds its way to the surface. It gets to you. You think you can’t feel any sadder and then bam! There it is. On any given night, everyone who’s been out here for a few years would tell you that they’ve run out of tears. They just can’t cry anymore. But then it breaks through and suddenly there you are, sitting somewhere all alone and crying your eyes out. Sure, it’s us feeling sorry for ourselves, but if you’d been through what we’d been through, you’d feel sorry for yourself sometimes. If you didn’t, then you’d be a member of the tinfoil hat crowd.

I guess I should start heading over to the Tables. That’s a place where Charlie sometimes hangs out. He spends a shitload of time over there during the summer when it’s warm at night. I hope he’s there. I’m really starting to worry about him. God, what if I can’t find him? I have to find him. I have to say goodbye. I can’t do this without saying goodbye to him first. I’d never forgive myself, even in the afterlife. That’s trouble I don’t need to take with me. I’ve had enough trouble in my life. Even before I wound up out here. Unfortunately, it was almost always my own fault. I was a perennial fuck-up, so I had no one to blame but myself.

When I was a kid, I could always tell how much trouble I was in by watching my dad’s glasses. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But it’s true. You see, my dad was always reading something. If he wasn’t reading papers he brought home from work, he was reading a book or a newspaper or who knows what else. Maybe that’s where I get it from? Well, from him and Charlie, that is. Anyway, dad wore reading glasses. Big, horn-rimmed glasses like your average middle-class dad wears. Whenever I got in trouble, my mom would chew me out and then she’d escort me over to where my dad was sitting. Then she’d fill him in on whatever the fuck I’d done while I stood there, looking ashamed. Most of the time I wasn’t ashamed, but when you’re a kid and you get caught doing something wrong, you’re supposed to look ashamed. I figured that much out by the time I was eight. So mom would tell dad whatever it was I’d done wrong and he’d give me this look. When she was finished, I’d look to see what he did with his glasses. If he tipped his glasses down to the end of his nose and looked over them at me, then I knew I wasn’t in too much trouble. It meant he found something amusing about it. Sometimes he’d even smirk. Mom hated when he did that. She’d yell, “Don’t encourage her!” But if he took the glasses off – especially if he took them off really fast – that’s when I knew I was fucked. That meant he was seriously pissed. Sometimes that’s when I really did become ashamed. God, if he could see me now he’d probably rip his glasses off and throw them against the wall. That’s if he didn’t just kill me where I stood. Oh, who am I kidding? He couldn’t bring himself to do that no matter what I did. Part of me wishes that wasn’t true.

I mention this because I’ve got a really bad feeling about tonight. I suppose I should, seeing as I’m going to kill myself in a few hours, but it’s more than that. It’s worse than that. This night has a really bad vibe to it, and it’s hardly started. There’s something seriously fucking wrong tonight. You learn to pick up on that shit after you’ve been out here for a while. It’s one of our many survival techniques. Nothing’s gone right so far. I haven’t seen Charlie yet, and he’s usually pretty easy to find. And the cops are out in force and I’ve already been jacked up twice. Something’s definitely going on, and that’s not good for me. And I don’t exactly know why, but I’ve got this strange feeling like I’m being watched. Like I’m being followed. Like earlier tonight, when I thought I saw someone. It’s like I’ve seen someone out of the corner of my eye a couple of times already. It’s been going on for the last couple of nights. Maybe I’m just being paranoid? That’s nothing new. But I just…oh, I don’t know. I’m fucking crazy and this is the last night of my life; that’s what it is. Fuck it. I’ve got to find Charlie and there are some more places I want to see before I end it all. And I sure as hell don’t want to get locked up for some useless shit because the cops have a bug up their ass and a fucking quota to fill. The way things are going tonight, that might not be easy. Looking around, I can see that even the assholes are on edge. Put it all together and that makes this place even more dangerous than usual. Great! Just what I need on the last night of my life! Something tells me that I’m going to spend the whole fucking night looking over my shoulder. That wasn’t part of the plan.


What? Who the hell said that? What’s going on? What the fuck…

“Look out, lady!”

Oh, shit! Up above! Holy shit! Move! Out of the way! Fast!

“Look out, lady!”

Jesus Christ! That was a fucking bag of garbage! Somebody threw a fucking bag of garbage out the window! God, I hate that shit! Thank God that guy over there gave me a warning! Look! That window up there! That’s where it came from! And the asshole’s still staring down at me! Hey, shithead! How about looking down at the sidewalk before you toss your shit from four stories up?

“Hey, asshole! What the fuck is your problem up there? You almost hit me!”

Of course the son of a bitch doesn’t answer! Why should he? All he did was drop a load of fucking garbage out of a fucking window and nearly hit me! No big deal, right? I guess I should thank that guy in the doorway for the heads-up.

“Hey, thanks for saving my head back there.”

“No problem. Damn, lady! He almost nailed you! Did you see that?”

“I did, thanks to you. I appreciate it.”

I guess there are still a few Good Samaritans out here. Of course, this guy just works in that store. He doesn’t live out here. If he did, he’d probably have just kept his mouth shut and enjoyed the show when the shit caved my head in.

“You’re welcome, lady. Damn! Four stories up! That shit could’ve killed you.”

Christ, he’s right! It could’ve killed me. Holy shit! It could’ve fucking killed me!

“Hey, lady? What’s so funny?”

Because it’s fucking hysterical, that’s why! Can you believe it? That shit could’ve fucking killed me! It could’ve been all over right then! And I blew it! I fucking blew it! I don’t fucking believe it!

“Hey, lady? What’s so goddamned funny? You almost got killed! Why the hell are you laughing like that?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“Trust me, you wouldn’t understand. God damn! Did you see that shit hit the ground? Like a bomb going off!”

“Yeah, it was a goddamned explosion! Look at that mess! What the fuck is wrong with people?”

“You got me.”

“He almost took you out. Good thing you knew to get out of the way. You got some moves on you.”

“I’ve been out here a long time. I know about this place. They’re always throwing shit out of the windows.”

“Tell me about it. It really pisses me off. I got to clean that shit up!”

“Well, be thankful it didn’t hit either of us. Hey, you know Charlie, right? Have you seen him around today?”

“Charlie the old-timer? No, I ain’t seen him around for a few days.”

“If you see him, would you tell him Miranda’s looking for him?”

“Sure. He’ll know who you are?”

“He’ll definitely know who I am. Thanks.”

See? Even a guy working in a bodega knows Charlie. He’s the closest thing we’ve got to a celebrity out here. Of course, it’s a kind of celebrity nobody in their right mind would want for themselves.

Jesus! Can you believe this shit? Talk about death from above! I guess I should enjoy this. It might be the last good laugh I ever get. What was I saying about looking over my shoulder? Jesus Christ! I didn’t think I’d have to be looking up in the air, too! That thing could’ve killed me! Shit, it almost did kill me! And I moved! I fucking moved out of the way! Can you believe that? All I had to do was stand still and it would’ve been over. Wham! Splat! Miranda sandwich! That’s it! And I fucked it up! I blew it! What the fuck is wrong with me? I guess I’m too conditioned by living out here. Shit falling out of windows is a hazard we have to deal with. You’d be surprised. Sometimes its people throwing shit off of the roof, but when you pass by these hotels, you have to watch out for people throwing garbage out of the goddamned windows. What? Don’t they have garbage cans in there? I never understood that. It happens all the time. It’s actually pretty fucking dangerous. It’s so dangerous that when the cops walk foot beats out here, they don’t wear their hats because they can’t see the shit falling out of the sky with them on. They wear their hats when they walk around the other parts of town, but not here. I guess they learned the hard way, just like everyone else.

Fucking falling objects! It’s like the skid row equivalent of a meteor or something. I’ve been hit by a few of them. Lucky for me, it was usually an empty beer can. People throw a lot of beer cans out of those windows. I guess it has to do with being a drunk. They hurt when they hit you. As long as it isn’t full, you’re OK, but it still hurts. Other times it’s some asshole tossing a whole fucking trash bag out the window. Sometimes they don’t even bother with the bag. They just dump the shit out the window. You’re walking down the street and suddenly it’s raining garbage all over you. Getting a bunch of trash dumped on your head from fifty feet in the air isn’t fun. Actually, it’s disgusting. As if we’re not dirty enough, someone has to pelt us with their fucking garbage. It’s bad enough that people throw shit at me just for the hell of it, but dumping a bunch of garbage on me from a window? Give me a break. But then again, I’ve seen worse. You’d be amazed at what comes crashing down from above, and I don’t mean skid row meteors. Sometimes thieves throw scrap metal and big pieces of air conditioners and shit off of the rooftops. It’s the quickest way to get it down to the street, and since they’re just going to take it to a recycler anyway, they don’t give a shit if it’s trashed. Some of those suckers are huge. They hit the ground and you can hear it from a mile away. I remember one time a guy threw a TV out the window. I don’t mean a little TV, either. I mean a big TV. One of the old box-style TVs with the big glass picture screen. It was from a building about two blocks away from here. It hit the ground and exploded like a fucking bomb. I was about twenty feet away and it scared the living shit out of me. I swear, I just about had a heart attack. Remember what I said about how I freak out when glass shatters nearby? There you go. It was the middle of the day, too. There were people everywhere. It’s lucky no one was standing nearby when it hit. It would’ve killed them for sure. Why the fuck would someone would throw a TV out the window? If you want to get rid of a TV, just give it away. Somebody will take it. If I’d had my room back then, I’d have taken it. Besides, if you hit someone with it, you’d go down for manslaughter. The cops may not give a shit about the people out here, but they’ll catch your ass for a manslaughter case no matter who the victim is. That’s some serious shit. And he might have hit a decent person like that guy in the store back there. Killing a taxpaying citizen? Yeah, they’ll definitely catch your ass for that. They’ll probably execute your ass for it, too.

I’m kind of surprised that guy back there didn’t offer me a couple of bucks to clean up the mess. I’m sure it was his store the shit landed in front of. A few weeks ago I would’ve asked him. I’ve been able to make a few bucks doing that since I ended up on the street. Cleaning shit, I mean. Cleaning up messes for stores is pretty easy money when you’re homeless. At least, it is for me. I guess people will take a chance on a woman easier than on a man for bullshit jobs like that. They’d drop shit on the floor and it would break and they don’t want to clean it up themselves, so they ask me if I want to make a couple of bucks. They usually offered me something like two or three bucks. Sometimes they gave me five. It beats the hell out of panhandling. I’ve had storeowners pay me to sweep the sidewalk in front of their shops or wash the windows or even mop the floors. One of the bodegas near the south end of skid row used to let me do that when it was raining. The guy took pity on me, but he didn’t want me just hanging out in his shop so he said he’d give me a few bucks to mop the floor. He didn’t want people slipping and breaking their necks. Lawsuits, you know. He also said he didn’t care how long it took me to do it, which was his way of saying I could stay in there until it stopped raining. That was a fucking Godsend. I didn’t even care about the money. I just hated being outside in the rain. Being homeless is bad enough. Being homeless, freezing, and soaking wet is a thousand times worse.

Well, I’d better get out of here before somebody drops a house on me. That’s a Wizard of Oz joke. You know, what with the Emerald City over there. It seems fitting. Anyway, I’ve got to find Charlie pretty soon. This is getting ridiculous. The later it gets, the harder it’ll be to track him down. I can’t believe no one has seen him tonight. Usually, everybody knows where he is. Even a lot of the store owners. Being out here and not seeing Charlie is like going to the Vatican and not seeing the Pope. You just don’t do it. Of course, I’ll bet it’s a lot easier to get an audience with Charlie than with the Pope. If you want to see Charlie, you just walk up and introduce yourself. I don’t think I ever saw him turn anyone away. Damn! Where the fuck is he? He usually doesn’t go very far from here. Charlie likes to park himself somewhere and stay there all day and most of the night. He’s old, he’s got a bad leg, and he’s not exactly in great shape, so he doesn’t like to walk if he doesn’t have to. If he can, he won’t move until he has to take a piss or go find a place to sleep. So where the fuck is he? Damn! What the fuck is going on tonight?

In addition to finding Charlie, I still have to hit all the places I really want to visit before I check out. I need to say goodbye to them, too. Besides, I promised you the grand tour, didn’t I? You’ve already seen plenty – more than most people ever will – but believe me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. And this is the last time I’ll ever see it and as much as I hate this place, I need to see it one last time. That’s the plan, you know? I always knew I’d do it this way. By that, I mean I always knew this was how I’d spend my last night. One last trek through it all so I can say goodbye and good fucking riddance. I guess it’s because I’ve always been really nostalgic. I don’t know why. I’m only thirty-two, and only for a few months now. Charlie likes to say I’m the youngest goddamned old-timer he’s ever met. Anyway, I figure this will help me to understand it all. That’s important. When you die, you should die with some answers. You may not get them in life, but you should get them in death. I said that; not Charlie. It’s probably the most profound original thought I ever had. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just trying to convince myself that I’m not damned for all eternity. The thought of that scares the living shit out of me. It’s easy to live with the idea that you’re damned when you think you’re going to live for a good long time. But when you’re staring death in the face, it’s different. It’s terrifying; especially when you’ve spent your life believing in heaven and hell. So much has happened over the last few years. I’ve seen so much. I’ve done things I can’t believe. I’ve done things that honestly, I can’t live with. After tonight I won’t have to, but I know that I’m going to have to account for them. I just hope to God I don’t have to pay for them. My account’s a little short, if you know what I mean.

Now here’s a fucking place I did not want to see tonight! Shit! Why did I come this way? See that little empty lot over there? Well, it’s not exactly empty, is it? It’s full of homeless people. That’s Alistair Place. I don’t why the fuck they call it that. I mean, I don’t know who Alistair was. I don’t even know if there was an Alistair. Maybe somebody just thought it was a cool name? It’s basically a trash heap between two big buildings, but a lot of people sleep there at night. Sometimes you even see tents in there. They’re not real tents, though. You know, they’re just blankets stretched across a rope or a stick or something. Anyway, I hate that place with a fucking passion. Not only is it a pretty good place to get your ass kicked or get raped, but three years ago I saw a guy burn to death in there. Talk about a sight you want to forget and can’t! Some guys had stolen a bunch of gasoline and they were using it to build a campfire. Who builds a fucking campfire with gasoline? Don’t even try to understand it. Anyway, they were pouring it out of a big plastic box. I don’t know what happened, but one of the guys got covered with it and all of a sudden he went up like a fucking torch. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet away from me. It was just like you see in the movies, only this was real. The guy was thrashing around and he was covered in fire. I could see his face in the flames. He was screaming like you wouldn’t believe. A lot of people were screaming. I would’ve been one of them but I was too scared to do anything. I just froze. I think my heart actually stopped. I could see the flesh burning off of him. It was dropping off of his arms like candle wax. There’s really no way to describe it. I can’t even begin to tell you what it was like. How horrible it was. Nobody could do anything to help him. People were freaking out, but in the end everyone just stood there and watched him burn and scream and die. After a few seconds he collapsed, but he didn’t stop screaming. That went on for about a minute or so. Then he stopped. That’s when I knew he was dead. People were throwing dirt on him to try to put the flames out. A lot of good that did. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget the screams. I’ll never forget the smell. God, that smell was horrible! There’s nothing like it in the world.

I mean, what do you say after you see something like that? What in God’s name could ever prepare you for something like that? When it was over, I was shaking. I was shaking so bad it actually hurt. I couldn’t stand up. I don’t remember falling down, but I must have because I was on the ground. My legs were shaking so bad that I couldn’t stand up. It felt like my insides were twisting into knots. Then I started puking. I started puking and I couldn’t stop. When there wasn’t anything solid left in my stomach, I kept puking up water and God knows what. I almost couldn’t breathe. Try gasping for breath while you’re puking your guts out sometime. It’s like the worst panic attack you can imagine. You see, I’ve always had this horrible fear of burning to death. I don’t know why, but ever since I was a kid I always thought that it was the worst way to die. I used to have nightmares about being on fire and the pain was unbelievable. I’d feel the heat and my skin burning away and I could feel my eyes burst in my eye sockets. I’d be screaming and begging for help and no one would help. I’d just keep burning until I woke up screaming for real. Yeah, I was a fucked up little kid, wasn’t I? I couldn’t watch my dad light a fire in the fireplace because I was so afraid of burning. I wouldn’t get near the fireplace until my dad closed the gate on it. Anyway, I’ve always been completely fucking terrified of burning to death and seeing it happen just made it a million times worse. I don’t think I’ve spent five minutes in that lot since it happened. I can’t. Needless to say, I won’t be going in there tonight.

Stop! Did you see that? Over there, between the buildings. I could swear there was somebody standing there, looking at me! He was right there, and as soon as I looked over; gone! Damn! I could swear I saw someone staring at me! Right over there. I know I saw someone, but I didn’t see him take off. Fuck! It doesn’t make any sense! That’s not like me. I’m usually really good at picking up on when someone’s watching me. Out here, you can understand why. God damn it! What is going on with me tonight? Is it just nerves? Knowing that I’m going to die? Maybe it was the fucking Angel of Death? I suppose that’s a possibility. Fuck! This is weird! And coming from me, that’s saying something! I don’t know. That’s what? Twice already. Twice in one night is a seriously bad omen. We don’t have a lot of coincidences out here. For us, coincidences are a major fucking red alert. I’d better keep my eyes open. If someone’s out here tailing me, it can’t be a good thing. And if I’m just hallucinating, then that’s not much better. I can’t afford to lose my fucking mind tonight. Not tonight. No fucking way. I’ve got to keep it together. It’s the only way I’ll ever get through this.

“Hey Red! What you be up to tonight?”

What? Oh, that’s Roy. He’s not the guy I saw back there. He’s a junkie who sometimes hangs out with me and Charlie. He’s older than me, but younger than Charlie. He’s OK. Most of the old black guys out here are. I always liked him. And from the looks of him, he’s also high as a kite. We’re safe.

“Hey, Roy. How are you doing tonight?”

“Just fine. What you be up to, girl?”

“Just waiting for Godot.”

Roy loves it when I say things like that. I don’t know why. I guess it’s the dope. Uh, it looks like some of the guys he’s with don’t understand the joke.

“Yo, Roy! What the fuck is she talkin’ about?”

“Yeah, who the fuck is Godot? Is he the dope man?”

As you can see, not everyone out here is a member of Charlie’s little Algonquin Round Table.

“It’s nothing, guys. It’s from an old play Charlie made me read.”

“Ah, shut up, motherfuckers! She’s makin’ a joke! Don’t y’all motherfuckers ever read?”

Hey, Roy’s definitely a few dozen levels above these two guys. Even if he doesn’t read much more than the sports section of the paper.

“You tell them, Roy. We intellectuals have to stick together.”

“Damn straight! Not like y’all ignorant motherfuckers!”

Don’t think for a minute that Roy ever read Waiting for Godot. He just happened to be there one day when Charlie and I were talking about it. Charlie explained it to him, and I guess he decided that was as good as reading it for himself. People take a lot of shortcuts out here. It’s allowed.

“Oh, yeah? So what the fuck’s it mean, Roy?”

“I ain’t explainin’ shit to y’all! Ask Red!”

Oh, great! Now I have to explain it to them!

“So what’s it mean, Red?”

“It means I’m not doing shit.”

My apologies to Mister Beckett.

“Why the fuck didn’t you just say that, girl?”

“Uh, I did. That’s kind of the point.”

“That’s right, motherfuckers! You hear that? Red done read all that shit! Ain’t that right, girl?”

“Not until I got here.”

“Bullshit! You done went to school. You know all kinds of shit. I know you know that shit! Not like these ignorant motherfuckers here!”

I didn’t know Roy thought so highly of me.

“I didn’t know anything until I got here. I was just an ignorant little girl.”

Ignorant? What the fuck you talkin’ about; ignorant? You ain’t no kind of ignorant!

To hear Roy say it, ignorance is the worst crime in the world. Hey, maybe he’s right? Out here, ignorance can get you killed.

“No, it’s true. I couldn’t even read until Charlie taught me how.”

“Yeah, Charlie had you readin’ all kinds of shit. Gave you all them books. I remember that. Used to ask you questions about it afterward, like you was in school gettin’ quizzed.”

“Yeah, he turned me into a regular Dorothy Parker.”

“Who’s Dorothy Parker?”

“A smart, crazy bitch who killed herself.”

Jesus, after tonight I guess I really will be a regular Dorothy Parker. Nah, I never wrote anything. And she was a lot funnier than I’ll ever be.

“Yeah, you’s one crazy girl, all right!”

“You see? I’m halfway there.”

“So you sayin’ you gonna kill yourself now?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

“Well, now, don’t let me stop you.”

“Oh, believe me, I won’t. You guys take care, OK?”

“We’ll do that, Red. You take care of yourself. Bad night tonight. Somethin’ evil goin’ on tonight! It’s in the air! I can feel it! You watch your ass!”

“I always do. Thanks, Roy.”

And goodbye. You were one of the good guys. I owe you for that. I’m sorry I can’t repay you for it.

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