Stories & Other Popped Corn

China Girl

by Tara Conklin

“Damn man, I said Pepsi.”   Danny is pissed.  I got the wrong bottle.  He’s a boy serious about his cola.

I say: “Sorry.  I’ll go back, get another.”  Pepsi, any old thing, can set Danny off.

Danny looks at me cool. He does not blink once.  “Nah, nah,” he says.  “We be late already.  Just get in the car.”

Something relaxes in me then, though I don’t know it’s tight until it’s gone.

I open the back door and slide in.  These days Danny drives a 2010 BMW sedan, black, tinted windows.  A nice ride.  The engine purrs, a little kitten sitting inside, contented as can be.  I lean back and watch the city go by, the Korean grocers and shoe shine boys, burrito joints and Food Town and steam rising from the grates.

We pull up outside Bodie’s place, where he moved to last month after the fire.  No one knows how that got started.  Could’ve been his lady’s smokes, that rusted-over heater, firebomb even.  There’s no telling.  Fires happen all the time and nobody knows the first bit of why.

Bodie says to me, “Yo, brother Joe,” grasps my hand, bumps my shoulder.  We’re standing in his front room, a big ass TV and nothing much else.  Empty pizza box, can of Colt.  A poster of Jimi taped to the wall, one corner hanging down.

“Where your lady at?”  I ask.  Bodie lives with a girl named Lottie.  She’s cream on milk, that one.  I love to watch her stand in a room, eyes moving over everything, one leg straight and the other bent just a little.  Bodie has no idea.

“She’s out shopping, some such shit.  No – wait. A haircut, that’s it.”  Bodie scratches his head, as though pondering the particulars of a Lottie haircut.  She’s half-Mexican, half-Korean and her hair is long and straight, half-way down her back.  It sways as she walks.

Danny is standing in the doorway, looking pissed as usual.  “Business, boys,” he says.  “Let’s go.”   I check my piece, deep in my waistband, the metal buried in that space between the hip bone and belly.  That’s a tricky little space in there, just the right size and shape for keeping a .38 safe.  It feels right, I feel good as I walk to Danny’s car.  The sun shines down on us, the car like a black diamond sparkling on the sidewalk.

We ride to the pick-up.  It ain’t no thing, this one.  There’s stash, some hardware, the usual.  We’re loading Danny’s trunk up, and then a lady steps out of the van.  She’s some sort of Oriental, Chinese maybe, small and thin, wearing dirty jeans and a hoodie way too big on her, like she got it off someone else, like someone threw it out with the trash and she fetched it back.

Danny takes one look and says, “Whoah man, what the fuck?”  The little Russian, I can never remember his name, just shrugs like, what’s the problem?

The other Russian, the older one with the scar, Rudy his name, or that’s what we call him, comes out of the van.  He steps into Danny’s face and looks him up and down.  “You drop her with the stuff,” he says, and it ain’t no question.  Me and Bodie, we don’t say nothing.  We just load the trunk, stacking the bricks under the rug, placing the spare tire back on top, smoothing everything over, nice as can be.  Nothing in there, no sir.

We get back in the car.  I pay no mind to the China girl.  She’s so quiet and small, ain’t nothing in the car with us.  I’m in the back, Bodie and Danny up front, Danny driving real slow, abiding the speed limit.  A right good citizen.

The drive back to the city bleed on and on, pot holes on the highway, bumpity bump.  We listen to music first, then Howard Stern on the radio.  Bodie’s talking to Danny about some business, something with Little and how he done run off with stash belonging to somebody else, and so-and-so’s cousin says this but Little’s boy says different, and the whole sorry mess of it makes my head ache. I close my eyes.

At first it feels like a feather against my skin, or a roach crawling its way to greener pastures, but then I open my eyes and see it’s the China girl, just stroking the side of my hand with her little finger.  She’s looking at me with her big black eyes, and I can see straight off she wants a secret between us, just me and her.  Danny and Bodie still going on and on up front, so I nod just a little, curious as to what she got to say to me.

Her lips start moving.  I rub my eyes, lean forward, concentrate.  Please, her lips say.  Please help me.

I sit back.  What the fuck?  I ain’t in no position to be helping nobody.  I sit low on the totem pole, a good soldier, maybe someday work my way up, run a crew, get me a girl like Lottie, but not if I get myself into trouble about some China girl.  Not if I get my head shot off and for what?  The Russians are nasty work.  And Danny.

I shake my head, lift my hands up.  What the fuck am I supposed to do?  I lean back, communication over, close my eyes again but still I see her: her jeans are ripped at the knees, and her hair is black and thick as Lottie’s, and her eyes so wide you’d get swallowed whole if you looked long enough.  I got me a sister, Lisa, but haven’t seen her in a long time.  She lives with her dad, different dad than I got, way out in Hoboken.  I wouldn’t go out there to live, no way.  But I hear she likes it, goes to college, works nights at a restaurant.  Once I was on my way back from a pick-up, and I found where she works and sat outside in the car for the longest time, looking into the windows, and caught sight of her.  She’s a slight thing, never had any meat on her, and curly hair she wears up in the back.  Walks real fast, like she always itching to get there.  She was moving back and forth around the tables, white folks eating their steak and pie.  I didn’t go inside, just watched her awhile, and then I drove back to the city.

The car slows and I open my eyes.  Danny’s driving off the highway, over to a rest station.  “We need to call fucking Little,” he says, and he and Bodie get out, dragons breathing fire.  They never use cells no more for business, not after the bust on Lester’s boy last year.  Technology man, it’s out to get us, electronic signals and cops with wires and waves in our brains, chemicals in our blood.  There’s so much fear, even Danny shakes with it sometimes.

Me and the China girl alone in the car now.  I don’t look at her though I know she’s there, I can hear her breathing.  She coughs and I look over and she starts talking:  “Please.  Help me.  No passport.  I have cousin.”  And she reaches down and takes her shoe half-off and pulls out a tiny folded up piece of paper.  She opens it and there’s a name, address.  Canal Street.

“They take me.  I want job, good job.  Not this.  Please.”  She’s crying now, big fat tears rolling from her eyes, down the sharp bones in her cheeks.  They’re like a cliff, the way her cheeks come away from her eyes, and the tears roll off those cliffs and into the great wide beyond.

“Jesus, lady.”  I see now that she’s young, real young.  Her voice is all wavery, going hiccupy on me.  “What the fuck?” I say.  She starts crying harder now but there’s no sound, just more of those fucking fat tears.

I say to her, “What you expecting me to do?  Listen, I’m a nobody.  I can’t do nothing for you.”

Long time ago, I lived with my Mom and she’d do this thing where she’d just be crying all the time, when she was watching TV or doing the dishes or cleaning up the floor, all the while crying like it was as normal as breathing is to other folks.  I hated it.  Got so I was spending more time out of the house than in it, so finally I just left and didn’t go back.  Just left one morning, ma crying over the cereal bowl.  It was summertime then.  I didn’t take a coat.

Danny and Bodie come back to the car, still sweating over one sorry ass motherfucker name of Mr. Little.  “What he do?”  I ask, wanting to make it so they don’t notice the girl, how she been crying and shit.  I lean forward into the space between their seats, blocking their view of the back.  “What the fuck did Little do now?”

Bodie starts to tell me the story and Danny fires up the engine but Bodie loses interest half-way.  “Whatever man.  It don’t concern you, you just sit back there and talk to your new girl.”  And he and Danny start laughing like this the funniest thing they ever heard.  I do not say a word.

I sit back.  I watch the scenery go by, all those poor fucks waiting at the bus stops, looking like they just born and raised to swallow it all back and say yes, sir, gimme some more.  Swallow it all down whole.  I don’t look at the China girl.  She’s stopped crying by now, I can tell, her body is all rigid next to me.  I sneak a look and sure enough, she’s looking straight ahead at the back of Bodie’s head, her face a mask, giving nothing away.  That’s the way, China Girl, yeah, that’s the way.

We’re out of Jersey, down into the tunnel, noise of the traffic notches down into lower notes, the radio turns to static.  We sit, the four of us, without saying a word and spin our wheels under the Hudson River.  Sometimes in the tunnel I think of the water rushing overhead, how heavy it is that we down here, underneath it all, swirling and churning above, boats and fish and some bodies, sure, rushing along with the current and down here in the tunnel all us sitting pretty in our cars, racing to get somewhere, nowhere.  Sometimes I think about how if you stopped some man a hundred years ago and said to him – some day you’ll ride beneath the river with the water running over you – he’d look at you like you was high or funny in the head.  Maybe someday somebody’ll pull me over, tell me a story about Danny, Bodie, the things we’ve done and I’ll just say the same: no way man, you got it all wrong.

We come out the tunnel and noise returns, light and Howard Stern saying ‘Lick my pussy’ on the radio.  Bodie snorts a laugh.  We driving through Wall Street, past ground zero man, still a building site, ain’t it a shame, and up through Chinatown, all those signs I can’t read and people selling weird ass fruit off little wooden tables set up on the sidewalk and fake Armani, fake Burberry, those skinny guys yelling to the high-heeled bitches walking by.  We stop at a light and Danny’s cell phone goes.  “What the fuck Little,” he yells into it.  “What I tell you about the cell? Don’t you know a fucking thing?” and he pulls the car to the side, cutting off a white guy in an itty bitty Ford, who starts yelling and then calms right the fuck down when he see Danny get out, walk to the man’s car, raise a finger.  Danny’s mean, and he looks it too.

Danny goes straight to a pay phone on the far corner, must be the last damn pay phone on the island of Manhattan, reaches in his pocket and pulls up empty.  He’s gesturing to Bodie who goes, “Shit man, this embarrassing,” and runs to him like a puppy being called.  The two of them stand like that at the pay phone on the corner, small bodies beneath a building that stretches towards the sky, our car angled on the curb, and I look up and see: Canal Street.  Here we are, green sign tells it true.  The China girl sees it too, she looking up out the window, straining her head round to see.  She turns towards me and says the word again.  “Please.”

Jesus.  Danny’s yelling into the phone across the street, Bodie’s yelling too.  Both of them, waving their arms.  Little must’ve fucked up bad, is what I think.  I wonder what they’ll do to him, but it’s not because I wonder what they’ll do to me.  That I already know.  I look at them shouting their damn fool heads off, traffic going by, yellow cabs and big trucks and long black limos and the whole world here on Canal Street, and I reach over the China girl and open her door. “Go,” I say.  She looks at me with those black eyes with no bottom and she does.  She goes, into the crowd, her dark head melting with the others, gone like smoke in the wind after a fire.

4 thoughts on “Stories & Other Popped Corn”

  1. Michelle Feder said:

    Way to go, Tara. You nailed it. [Think I should start watching more TV… ; ) ]

  2. Awesome story Tara and I agree, the wire is an outstanding show. I was addicted.

  3. Tara Conklin said:

    Thanks Susan & Michelle! Glad you enjoyed the story and the voice!

  4. Wow! Very powerful story. So sad that it could easily be true. I’m looking forward to reading The House Girl. Congratulations on your debut novel!

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