They were in this sad little motel on the edge of Vidalia, and it stank of crack and weed and fried food, everything smothered in the smell. Maggie knelt like a girl praying, her stomach pressed up against the sharp edge of the tub, water sloshing everywhere. Bouie’s fat fingers were rough against her skull. He pushed her head into the tub again and again, each time shifting his palm around. All the while, he kept clucking his tongue a little, just like he used to when they were kids swinging at imaginary baseballs in his auntie’s yard. Finally, Maggie felt him settle on the base of her neck, meaty fingers tangling in her curls. Every time he allowed her head to clear the water, she arched her back, pushed out her chin, and flipped her dark hair, a mix of water and tears sliding prettily down her cheeks.
She wanted to get it just right.
They’d been dunking for about half an hour. She kept her eyes wide open, the water stinging like hell, and her sobs quiet, pulsing, coming out in small, raptured hiccups. She’d practiced crying like that in front of the mirror night after night. Knew how to make her breath short, shallow sounding. A little stutter. A little gasp. She thought maybe she’d smile at the end. Just the front teeth. Tried it. Then she shivered a little, shaking rivulets of cold water down the front of her dress.
Man, wearing that good little Baptist dress gave her a spark. Made her feel dirty. It was cut from milky white linen and had a boat-neck collar and no sleeves. Maggie liked the way it showed off the curve of her shoulders, the angle of her chin, barely hinting at everything else—when dry. But it was soft and thin and unlined, and that prissy Baptist dress went clear as glass once it was wet—her nipples showing sweet and pink right through the bath water. It was her wet breasts, free of bra or even gravity, that were Maggie and Bouie’s secret weapon— the perfect bait for the poor, redneck sons of shrimpers, farmers, and single, grocery-packing mommas.
“Little lost lambs to the last,” she’d say when they scouted a town, her eyes peeking over her sunglasses at packs of broad, out-of-work young men. Maggie always peeking over those glasses at things, day or night. Always practicing her Lolita, despite the fact that she was nearing thirty.
She liked to call them the lost boys, those aimless men. They were easy to spot, talking and drinking in deserted parking lots long after the bars closed, their Chevys and Fords waxed and glittering under the fluorescents, their girlfriends and mommas waiting in frayed easy chairs at home.
She spit out some water. The faint taste of sulfur sat on her tongue, and she spit again, snorting a little as she imagined herself waiting for one of those boys under a fucking crocheted blanket in some Goodwill easy chair. Bouie shifted his grip from her neck to her breast, and Maggie let it sit there for a minute, cupping her. It used to be, she’d swat at him when he got handsy, but only a week ago, when they were tooling around up in Natchitoches, she saw Bouie slip his knife between the ribs of a big, old corn-fed boy and then walk away without even a blink. He was getting meaner as they got older, she’d realized, cautious with him ever since.
“We got to focus,” she said, digging her nails into her palm. “Come on.” He gave her a little squeeze, and Maggie resisted the urge to jab him in the eye with her thumbnail. When they were kids she might have done it.
She counted and waited for Bouie to let go of her. He didn’t, and she imagined slamming his head into the dirty tub. Imagined him dissolving in the gray water, how lonely that would be for her.
Finally, she yanked her tit from his paw. Bouie smiled a little.
“Where we going to dunk?” she said, grabbing a towel and struggling to her feet. Bouie didn’t even put out a hand to steady her, and she wobbled some. Her knees hurt, were dimpled and red from all the kneeling. She rubbed them and curled her lip at him. “Well?”
He stepped out of the bathroom. “You’ll tell them to meet us near that river we passed on the way in.” His broad back all that was facing her anymore. “I went down there while you were in town. There’s a narrow spot with a sandy bank that’s easy to cross, near a mile from the road.” Bouie flopped on the bed, turned on the TV. “We can start out with me on one side and you and the mouth-breathers on the other, then a ‘halleluiah, halleluiah,’ pass the plate, and you come on across, dunk, dunk. Then we pass the plate again. You doing it this time, catching the coin in your skirt, I guess.”
Maggie nodded. “All wet.”
“Next night, we give them an encore.”
She pushed her hair into a makeshift bun. “I don’t love the idea of wading through no backwoods bayou,” she said. “Fucking snakes and gators and shit.”
“Don’t be such a pussy.” Bouie always cool. The whole thing had been his idea—he’d heard his auntie lamenting the fact that the old tent revivals never came around anymore and figured the two of them could fill the void. Make a little bible scratch.
“Give big daddy a kiss,” he said, grabbing his crotch.
She thought about his knife, the pearl handle slick with the corn-fed boy’s blood and didn’t tell him to fuck off. But Bouie’d been grabbing his dick and saying shit like that for years. The two of them just that way. They joked. “How about a beer?” Maggie made herself smile. There was a six pack of Schlitz icing down in the sink. She grabbed two and tossed him one, giving it a shake. That too— they’d been shaking cans at each other since they were maybe eleven. Everything they did, something they’d done before.
Bouie caught the beer, gave her the stink eye, and she took a pull from her own can. “Hot as it’s been, the river will be warm as a bath.”
“Good. Wouldn’t want you to catch no cold.” He flipped the channels until he hit ESPN. “Your whore momma’d tan me if I let you get sick.”
“Shut up about my momma.”
Maggie’d gone to live with Bouie and his auntie when she was in elementary, after her momma was caught getting high and ‘entertaining.’ The porch light of their little shotgun house had been rigged with a red bulb, and everyone, even Maggie, knew what it meant. Nights it was on, Maggie stayed out, the men her momma entertained not happy to be interrupted. So she played in the neighbor’s deer corn until late, sometimes even camping out there. Bouie would maybe sneak out to join her, the two of them lying down in the warm ruts between the stalks, swinging their flashlight to see bucks’ and does’ eyes shining green as they crunched the corn.
Bouie always rubbing her back if she cried into the mud.
Maggie patted her nipples. Her momma used to spread lipstick on her own, never shy about Maggie watching her get ready. “With this heat, the girls might not perform.” She took another drink of beer. “Maybe a dab of Prep H to make ‘em pucker.”
Bouie shrugged, “It’s your tits.” He turned the volume up on the game, and she knew that was the end of it. LSU was playing.
Maggie glanced at the clock and at Bouie, his eyes sleepy despite the announcers going nuts over some pass or something. She grabbed the rest of the six pack, leaving him only ice, and moved to the little walkway outside their room. She sat on the concrete, skirt pushed high on her thighs, and slid her legs through the slats of the railing, swinging her bare feet over the parking lot. Waiting.
It was the same every town. She’d find herself one of those lunch joints specializing in big servings, poboys or plate lunches or gumbo, the kind that advertised cheap Bud Light with your meal, and she’d sit near the front door a few days in a row. Maybe a week, sometimes two if the locals were slow to notice. At night she’d walk, all wide-eyed and trembling, into dive bars with pool tables, televisions, and pickled eggs. She’d sit with her ankles crossed, prim as could be, sipping water, her gin flask only coming out in the bathroom.
It was never long before a guy bit, his courage all screwed up into a knot pushing his chicken chest out. She’d smile with her mouth open just a little, showing the tip of her tongue, a bit of her teeth, and tell him all about angels, all the while looking like a mix of angel and sin herself. But those strutting boys were only 50/50 at best. Sure a lot would show up for the dunking, especially the ones out of work, curious and looking for something to believe, but their wallets might be tight.
The key was the shy boys. She’d watch for the ones who stared but didn’t talk, who scooted their seats a millimeter closer each night.
When they were ripe and ready, hard-ons straining their work khakis whenever she bent over, she’d wait for them in the parking lot. Alone, trembling and peeking over her glasses, she’d maybe need a ride or, even better, protection from a stranger, claiming this guy or that had touched her “inappropriately,” the word a drawn out whisper too close to a shy boy’s reddening ears. And after a good week of her showing up in his diner, his bar, his dreams, that shy boy’d do damn near anything for Maggie.
Last night had only been a little different. A kid in a long jacket following her outside instead of finding her there. Putting his hand on her like he owned her. That black hole of a jacket, crazy in this heat, touching her thighs.
Just a little different.
She’d always say she was hungry, get them to talk all night over cooling coffee. These days, she’d tell them all about finding God. She’d sob a little, Maggie a good crier, and each and every time, she’d say that she’d never done this before, opened up like this. Whoever they were, they’d nod, they’d all nod, and Maggie figured every goddamned one of these lost boys must have waited his whole fucking life to grin and nod at her like that, like a goddamn bobble head.
That was how it was supposed to go, anyhow.
She counted eighty-four stars and named two new constellations before Bouie popped his head out of the room, looking for a beer. Eighty-four stars before she heard a gunning V-8 below her.
She hadn’t planned on Bouie being out there when that motor revved its hello, Bouie’s thick arm resting on the door all casual, the elastic on his boxers sliding below his belly. But she’d taken all the beer, hadn’t she? So maybe she had planned on it. Her momma’d say, “Freudian slip-up.” Maggie not sure if she wanted him to be jealous or it was something else, but sort of liking him catching her. Sort of hating it. A little scared of him these days.?
“Hear that?” Bouie said. “That squeaking?”
“Yeah.” Maggie was trying to look at Bouie and not over the railing, like the motor meant nothing to her.
“Mag-gie?” A voice like a cattle call cut between them.
Bouie didn’t blink though. Kept his arm high on that door, leaning into it. “Your fella has a belt slipping down there.”
The car gone quiet.
Bouie smiled a little, like he did for the mouth-breathers. “You heading somewhere? Got yourself another town boy with a bitchin car?” She didn’t like it when he talked to her like that. Condescending. His broad, honest face making the tone even harder to take, like maybe you really were that stupid.
The other voice called, “Girl?”
Maggie pulled herself up. “A beat up Chevelle. Sad really, a car like that.” Standing up had somehow put her a step closer to Bouie than she wanted to be, and she leaned back on her heels. A little bit more space. He seemed even bigger since he knifed that boy, not like when they were kids and they were the same. “It something to you?” she said, knowing that not telling him about asking the kid to come pick her up had made it weird, made it something to both of them. Their whole lives, she’d always told him everything.
She stopped her leaning and planted her feet. The beer made her hot. The thrill of him catching her draining out, replaced by something else. Feeling hoppy, one of her momma’s regulars called it. She pushed her chest forward, a schoolyard fighter puffing. “Jealous?”
Bouie smiled that preacher smile, “Don’t you look all badass? Hell, I know whoring is in your blood. You just can’t help yourself.” He moved his arm off the door finally, standing straight, and she liked that. It made him seem less like a cat pretending to bathe before a fight. “You just remember what we’re here for.” He paused. “And you keep that whore mouth shut, kid.” Reminding her he was older, in charge.
“Yeah,” she said, grabbing the last couple of beers and turning away, leaving him none.
Footsteps on the stairs. “Girl?”
“Stop fucking calling me that,” Maggie said. “I’m coming.” She waved the beers at Bouie like some sort of good-bye and kept a watch on his shadow to make sure he didn’t follow her down the stairs. Bouie stayed put.
All the way down, though, she watched the ground for a shift in the darkness and thought about how she’d already opened her damn, whore mouth.
Fingering Bouie’s knife in her pocket the whole damn walk.
The thing about the corn-fed boy up in Natchitoches was that he’d been crushing on her, following her around, trying to slip his hand into hers once in a while.
And once in a while, she’d let him.
He hadn’t been a mark, though. He was just a guy they got to help hand out fliers, haul chairs, pass the plate, yell halleluiah. Just a plant in the congregation, a friend of Bouie’s cousin. A guy who was good for keeping his mouth shut and being strong. Dumb and sweet like a good dog, and Maggie had thought she might keep him around.
So she told Bouie, and he’d nodded, and not much later the kid was holding the hilt of that knife in his belly, blood slipping around and over his hands, brighter than Maggie imagined blood could be, brighter than a busted nose or lip or the gush from your tongue after a good smack bangs it against your teeth. So bright it made her eyes sting.
Then Bouie pulled his knife out of that corn-fed boy and handed it to her to clean off, the pearl handle so slick that she almost dropped it, the kid’s blood smearing every bit of her, the way a busted up pen would get all over you. Bouie’s killing marked her forehead, her tank top. A little of the blood even got in her eye after she tried to rub the look on the kid’s face from it, trying so hard not to let Bouie see she was crying, that she touched that kid’s blood to every part of her face.
And then they’d just left Natchitoches, the boy still bleeding on the street for all Maggie knew.
But this new guy was different. Not like the sweet corn-fed kid at all. Maggie’d been around bad men all her life and she knew how they moved, easy, easy. That’s why she’d grabbed Bouie’s knife. Just in case. True, this one was barely more than a baby, no man at all, but he moved smooth as hell. Sleepy looking, really. Even driving, his fingers were light on the wheel, the shifter, like he needed to make sure he could move his hands fast, just in case.
When he’d stopped her in the bar parking lot the night before, she’d seen hatred, rage in him. Wondered if he’d meant to rape her. He looked the sort of special crazy that might would do more. He put his hand on her arm, gripping her so she felt his nails, and smiled a little, his lips wrapped tight across his teeth. He smelled too sweet, like his sweat had gone bad, rancid. “You’re new here,” he said.
But instead of pulling away, Maggie had leaned into him. “Yup, and aren’t you strong?”
The kid caught off guard by that.
“Thought I’d squirm?” she asked him, her mouth too close to his ear. “Struggle?” Her sunglasses pushed hard into his cheek. “Thought you scared me?” She crushed her chest into him, her tongue into his ear, her nails into the flesh above his crotch.
He looked about sixteen and Maggie guessed he’d never, ever imagined a girl like her.
“Drop my arm and maybe you’ll get something nice out of the deal.”
And he did. Maggie the biggest predator in the lot.
When she saw that she had him she took the kid out, told him all about the revival, maybe too much about it. The kid’s eyes got all glossy, his breathing quick. Then sometime, later that night, she told him to pick her up at her hotel the next evening, liking this new dangerous toy.
Now here they were, pulling into the Eighty Four Kwik Thru. Maggie told him she was starving when he picked her up from the motel and even this frothing dog obeyed, found her food.
“Not a lot open at night,” he said, climbing out of the Chevelle.
They ate Fritos in the field behind the convenience store, and she watched the folds of her skirt curl around his hand as he moved it up her leg.
She thought about Bouie bossing her, and wanted him to understand how powerful she was, wanted him to see the way she owned this kid. She wanted Bouie to be just a little afraid, like she was. To feel like she felt ever since he took the corn-fed boy away from her.
So she parted her thighs a little and told the kid how he felt strong, like God Almighty. She bit his shoulder so hard he bled and told him about how Bouie pawed at her, how she sort of belonged to the big guy. She whispered into his ear that it was like Bouie took her from Jesus and made her his own.
And then, how much he, this rabid mutt kid, glowed with the Lord.
The night before she’d noticed how lit the kid got when she said they were doing revivals, how he’d sweated as he’d muttered “out of the mouth of the dragon.”
So she’d said between bites, “You’re like the fury of God himself. Like you could pull me back to the light.” Then she said, “This has to be the only time,” as she eased him out of his jeans. She bit the kid there too. Made sure he didn’t finish. That he’d come back for her.
Bouie was awake when she returned, the kid in the jacket sent home, a little happy, a little frustrated.
“Have fun?” Bouie asked, pointing that preacher smirk at her.
Maggie went and sat on the edge of his bed, then lay down next to him, her over the cover, him under. She put her head on his chest. “You remember when Bobby Ray called me a whore in the tenth grade?” Maggie listening for the way his heart had this extra little thump every few beats.
Bouie put his hand on her forehead, not stroking her, just laying it there, like she knew he would. Everything they did, something they’d done a million times before. “I’m sorry I called you and your momma whores,” he said. He didn’t sound terribly sorry.
“You held him down so I could break his nose.” Maggie closed her eyes. Smiled. “Then you bandaged my hand, got all the Bobby Ray snot out of my busted up knuckle.”
“Thank you for that.”
Bouie’s chest moved under her as he shrugged, and they fell asleep like that, as chaste as children. Then somebody had her by the hair, was flinging her off the bed. Her head hit the wall. She tried to figure out the black blur, the panting.
It was the kid in the jacket. “Mine,” he screamed.
Now she was on the floor, and the kid was on Bouie, straddling the big man and wailing into him. His arms were those skinny, wiry things that could explode into violence, and Bouie’s face was soon swollen and bleeding. Maggie wondered how the fight would have gone had Bouie not been asleep.
The kid screeched over and over, “Wake up, you cocksucker!”
Bouie, obviously awake now but dazed, struggled to get his hand between the mattress and the box springs, fingers wiggling, searching. Finding nothing, Bouie expanded his chest, pushed himself upward in a burst, but the kid held on, a real cowboy in his black duster.
Maggie rubbed her head where it had hit the wall. Found blood there. Smiled a little.
Bouie finally freed himself enough to throw a punch. A real winner. The kid rocked backward with the force of it, and Maggie wondered if it made him hard, that type so turned on by the fight. And she wasn’t surprised to see the kid’s hand disappear for a moment into his duster, but Bouie sure looked surprised to see his own knife coming out of there.
Then the kid was wailing again, this time with the knife, blow after blow ripping down into Bouie. The fierceness of it more than anything Maggie could of imagined. And she tried not to see the pale blue of her partner’s fingernails as his arms thrashed about, rarely blocking a blow. Suddenly realizing how fragile he might be.
Now Maggie was up and running from the violence. Into the bathroom. Hand behind the toilet. Her mother’s derringer there. Locking the door only after it is in her hand. Fumbling out her cell phone with the other. Falling backward into the tub, crouching in there. Gun shaking. Thumb hitting 911.
Maggie such a good crier.
When the sirens came, she whispered over and over to the operator, “I’m so scared. I’m so scared,” as the police screamed “surrender,” into their bullhorn.
The room shook with the sound of repeated fire. The kid never giving up— something she should have realized about him. But maybe she had, way back in her mind.
She wondered what she’d do without Bouie.
As she waited, she pushed her fingers into the soft pain in the back of her skull and blessed how head wounds bled. No one could see all that red and think she did this. The police found her in the bathtub, the blood from where she’d hit her head on the wall smudged in a streak across the sweet Baptist dress. She made herself small in the tub, looking young and afraid, until one of the men coaxed her with a cool wet rag, bathing the blood from her face and head, the water dripping pink into her lap
“Paramedics are coming,” the cop said.
“God bless you.” Maggie wrapped her fingers around his hands, pushing them close to her face so that the washcloth, now stained, all but obscured her upturned eyes.