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Traci Sobocinski

Disco Lemonade

I am not a complete loser. Even for a fifty-four-year-old, recently divorced, average, white male, I have hope. I hope, for instance, that I will win some money on a scratch ticket—five hundred dollars would be sweet, so I can have the brakes relined on my truck. I also hope I can manage to keep going to this cute new hairdresser (no more barbers for this guy) who does this amazing thing with what's left of my hair. She's not cheap, but she makes me look ten years younger. Most of all I hope I can forget that sociopath, Beth, the cheery and vicious look on her lawyer's face. The house, the car, more than half—screw that.

But I'm not saying it's easy to keep your spirits up when the weather's crappy. The sky's like milk that's gone off, the sun's on vacation. I was relieved of my duties as Quality Control Engineer with EverFreeze Refrigeration Repair exactly two days before Beth walked out on me. Being "let go" is so much better than being fired, all things considered, with the Department of Employment Security and their sleepy queues and nice pale green checks. Now the best thing about being out of work is if you still get going early, you don't have to stand in line to get your shopping done, and no one's around to see you use the cents-off coupons.

The first time I saw that little girl with the black fingernail polish and slick head like a baby seal, I was at Walgreens to buy shaving cream and a pack of blades. Keeping up appearances gives me something to do. She's got a nose like a ski slope, all upturned and sassy. I asked her for an instant lottery ticket, and when she saw I was "gambling," she tuned out, rang it up quick, but didn't say "Have a nice day" or any such thing. She just shoved my stuff into a wrong-sized plastic bag and moved a huge wad of gum from one side of her mouth to the other.

Another unemployment benefit (if they've got "employment benefits," they damn well better have the uns too), is I have more time to make people (including myself) happy these days. At Java and Juice where I go for the bottomless cup, I try to joke with the kids with their shaved heads. These kids have stuff that looks like machine parts, bolts and washers drilled into their chins and noses and tongues. They don't scare me though—I know what flak feels like. Metal screwed into a bone, shards of shit in your guts forever. I've got a nice piece of schrapnel lodged safely out of the way of my anterior medulla, but I don't wear it for show and tell.

I'm a happy guy, a "people person." At the plant I was always pushing Louie and Bill to join the softball team, taking up collections so Accounting could get those pizzas on Fridays from the Sicilian place, the ones that scaredy-cat receptionist with the buckteeth just loved.

The kids at the coffee shop comprise some new breed, they drink tea—grow the wheatgrass right there behind the counter so it's fresh. They pick at scones, dried crumbly British tea cakes, for a full afternoon. What happened to gooey donuts and crullers, I don't know. I am surprised to see the Walgreens girl lounging on one of the couches on a Tuesday morning. Wal-Mart, the parent organization, got a lot of press—employee-owned and -managed—some quasi-socialist scheme to bind the workers to their franchises forever with stock options, and she must be a star employee.

Working hard, rain or shine, bending over by the windows as I stroll along, she's perky and efficient in her polyester apron. She rearranges the rows of mouthwash, reading the backs of the store-brand herbal remedies—those Chink pills they sell now—nothing but lawn clippings and voodoo. Beth used to swear by the garlic pills and Dong Quai. It sounded like the latter would give her a hard-on, but she never lacked for dick, I'll tell you that. What they found against me was a load of horseshit: aggravated assault. Sure, I was pissed off, but it was more like her aggravating insults that caused it.

The Walgreens girl is biting those dark pellets of fingernails and pressing on the spine of a book, the cover of which I can't make out. Her skin is not so clear, faint dark half-moons under her eyes like she stays up all night watching infomercials for the psychic friends network. I get the feeling that even though she doesn't show it, she knows exactly who is looking at her at all times.

There are a couple of deaf women from the college signing each other furiously across a small table. One of them has a small Pekinese dog, which must be a hearing dog, otherwise the owners wouldn't let it in to lie on the grubby carpet. With a whoosh a greasy guy slams through the door—he's dressed nice, a double-breasted blazer and slick cowboy boots—and he stands in the middle of the floor and screams, "Boo!"

The dog starts yapping and the next thing you know the deaf woman is yelling at him, her voice in slow motion like someone drowning in an algae-covered pond, and the guy is yelling back, totally ignorant of the fact that she's deaf and the dog is a professional. The dog is spinning with anxiety at her feet. Arf! Arf! Arf!

"Hey," says the guy as he casually runs his hand over his head, "you're deaf." The woman reads his lips and a wicked look shoots across her face. She shuts up. "It was just so quiet in here," the guy continues. He shrugs. "Like a morgue!" He turns his back on the deaf woman so she can't see him and scoots into a chair across from the black-fingernail girl. "Handicapped witch," he says to the girl, and I can see him smile. From the side I can see he is missing a couple of teeth, the ones just behind the eye-teeth, lapses more than anything on such a young man.

The dog curls up at the deaf woman's feet again who starts signing furiously to her friend. Suddenly, I get the impression that the guy and the black-fingernail girl are onstage in a play, spotlights and respectful hush from their audience as we wait for their next lines. The girl has just sat there through all this action, although she stiffened in her seat a little, edged deeper into the musty cushions of the couch.

"Now, Natasha, darling," he says. "How's it come that I find you here, playing hooky from your high-paying and prestigious job?"

She dips her head.

"Why don't you buy your lover Vincenzo a nice double mocha latte with two percent and try to explain why you think a community college course on abnormal psychology will do you any good, long-term?"

She grins and closes her book. He grips her wrist, too tightly it seems, and when she tries to get up to order his drink, he yanks her into his lap and bites gently at the side of her face while she tilts her head to the ceiling and closes her eyes.

I am not afraid that my car won't start. I am not afraid of the new weight machines at the gym with their incremental fifty-pound plates. I am not afraid to open the letters from Cox, Fink & Fink, Esquires. The letters are signed by women, but those partners are all men. The letters are on heavy creamy bond paper and use language to build indestructible decisions, to offer summations of what Beth and I said to each other for two years. The DOBs are underlined. Nineteen-forty-three was an exceptional time to be born. No dads hanging around to change diapers. In Beth's case 1980 was full of men changing diapers, their names, and brokers. What did they have in 1980? The end of disco? She was fifteen, the letter states. She's fifteen! I wrote my old man from Hawaii. My father took one look at her when I brought her back and said, "Good job."

You look at me in the mirror and here's what you get: white, brown, brown. I walk around. The town's not big. It's cold so I wear my old fatigues. The kids like that, they wear that kind of thing themselves. In the mornings I hear the engines of the commuters gunning in the lot across from my house, the Old Faithfuls of monoxide rising into the brittle air.

Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Reminds me of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Now there was a cartoon to pay homage to the Cold War. There's a lot of Russkies settled in these parts, they sell canned borscht in the grocery. I think Natasha's name is changed from something like Dolores the same way Lu Quong Ping's was changed to Beth. Affectation. I told her it was a KISS song. Beth, I hear you calling . . . Women enjoy putting on affections the way they enjoy splashing perfume on those pulse points. After all, who would be attracted to a woman named Dolores? Only Nabokov. A Russkie. I rest my case.

Natasha lives in a prewar walk-up next to the Elks. Her apartment is on the second-floor rear. A Korean dishwasher lives across the hall in a four-hundred-fifty-dollar studio. A widow who used to own a dress shop my mother went to on Main Street is dying of loneliness downstairs. Natasha goes to a Wiccan drumming session every other Sunday. Vinny, her boyfriend, the guy with the wet head, picks her up in his Honda CRX, when she comes out of the basement of the Unitarian church struggling with a large conga that is decorated with rawhide strips, seashells, and beads. I listen to those strange rhythms. I try to pick out Natasha's contribution to the general melee. I think of her getting into it, her head bent down over the drum, eyes closed, palms and knuckles slapping the skins, a button just ready to pop on her black blouse. In the jungle of lilac bushes I smell spring coming. I can feel it in the twigs that scratch across my face. The smell of dirt begins to overpower the smell of cold.

"Because I want you to get it pierced," Vinny says. He leans back in the chair and sips an espresso. "It's the last thing I'll ask you to do for me." Natasha looks in my direction, and I mouth the words "Don't. Don't. Don't." Natasha looks through me to the bad paintings done by high-school art students hung on the wall. Because I know that attention is directed to movement, I get up fast and stand outside smoking a cigarette by a flowerpot filled with sand and filters that have half-lives of subatomic particles.

I am just flicking the final ash when Natasha slams out of the doorway. "I'm going to WORK!" she yells over her shoulder. Vinny looks hysterical trotting after her with his arm stuck half in, half out of his leather jacket.

"We'll talk about it later," he yells, and she suddenly stops. He walks up to her and shakes her and shakes her so her head flops around, flowerlike, unwatered.

Behind the Walgreens there is an alley and a loading dock. I can't believe every employee, no matter what their rank, has to go outside on a damp morning and stand at the tailgate of the delivery truck checking inventory off a clipboard as the driver, whose butt-crack winks when he bends, slides cartons of hemorrhoid cream onto a dolly. This must be one of those benefits, part of the stock ownership plan, full exposure to all company operations.

Natasha brings the cap of her pen to her lips and chews. Her eyes edge toward the alien. Too pinched and slanty for real beauty to emerge. The dark lining of her lips implies the hope some girls have in makeup. Still. She shudders when I finally walk over. Up close I see five purple bruises on the inside of her forearm, the torn tissue at the side of her eye which is bright with the colors of healing.

"Hi," I say with gusto. "Cold morning for short sleeves." She squishes her face up as if to say "so what?" The driver disappears into the trailer for more cartons of aspirin and Pampers. I straighten my shoulders and look around. It's sort of intimate in the alley with just us three. A real behind-the-scenes sort of atmosphere. I get the idea that we're comrades, coworkers. I almost offer to help. "So they make managers do loading dock duty, huh?"

"Do I know you?" she says, and glances back at the clipboard.

"I've seen you at the coffee shop," I say. "I wouldn't do anything for that jerk."

"Listen," Natasha says and I can see the ambiguity of my comment floating and then registering. She backs up three and a half steps when she gets it. "I'm busy."

The driver, a bald guy about my age, pops his head out. "You want the full case of condoms, Tash?" he says and sees me standing there and grins.

"I was just thinking of applying for a job here. Who might I see?"

"We have a special deal for retirees," Natasha says and snorts. "You'd see me."

"What's your name?" I ask. "I have plenty of experience."

"There's applications at the front of the store." Natasha hands me a card from her apron pocket. A business card for a store clerk. Now that's something.

"Thanks, Natasha," I say and back off. It's the first time I've said her name out loud, and although I've practiced it silently plenty, the name has its own soul once it's released from my mouth. The morning is brighter, warmer. I picture myself filling out the application form with lies, imagining all of Natasha's bruises gone and Vinny dead, asphyxiated by his own overbearing hand with the hair spray, OD'd on breath mints that Natasha unknowingly sold him, discounted beyond belief in the weekly flyer. "It's a date then. I'll see you tomorrow." Natasha doesn't watch me walk backwards, and by the time I turn the corner by the industrial Dumpster I am flicking my lighter towards the clouds in victory.

That afternoon I stop by a bookstore and buy Natasha a book on self-defense for women. I bring it home and put it on a pile of the other gifts I've bought for her which are stacked up next to my mattress. Nutritional supplements in powder and bar form, sandalwood incense and meditation candles, and a can of aerosol pepper spray I bought at the Army-Navy. Beth was funny about the charges she brought against me. Her lawyer had to explain what the word battery meant. Beth kept saying, "No, not Duracell. He hit me."

When I was about four years old I stopped crying for good. This would frustrate my mother with her strap and her consequences. This behavior of passive resistance is an evolutionary technique which is great for survival. I think a lot of the early beatings I went through were the best form of combat training available. I should write a letter to the U. S. Marines.

But for girls like Natasha, they need something more. Maybe they need courage, maybe they just need skills to deal. I can picture myself coming up on Natasha from behind, applying a perfectly torqued body lock while she struggles. No, I'd tell her, don't struggle. Just like I used to tell Beth: Use your brain. You're overpowered. The Adam's apple, the solar plexus, the groin.

The next morning the Walgreens has shards of sun slanting through the tempered plate-glass windows. An unfortunate-looking boy with boils the size of blueberries on his face is alternating generic dandruff shampoo with cans of Spam and boxes of confectioners' sugar. That's what the corporate mentality has done to a goddamn drugstore, I think, but I don't let it get me down because my future might be looking me in the face.

"Is Natasha available?" I ask. I feel more secure not using her last name although I have known that it is Fisk for weeks. He looks at me as if I am not speaking English.

"Are you her father?" he asks.

"Yes," I say quickly. "From out of town."

"She's called in sick today," the boy says and goes back to stacking shelves, his turquoise pricing gun swinging on its holster.

"I'll catch her at home, then," I say and turn into the blinding glare that hinges over a display of panty liners. He is intently reading a spreadsheet and doesn't say a word.

My job at EverFreeze was to make sure things stayed the right temperature. Cold. For frozen fish clients, the frostier the better. Beth smelled Freon on my skin. Called me Mr. Freeze in her generous moments. She was all meltdown. Ten hours a day I monitored degrees Fahrenheit. I felt peace in the cold, the molecules slowed down to a stupor, things gone solid, nothing moving too fast for me to understand.

Vinny's brilliantly simonized car is parked on a muddy slope of lawn behind Natasha's building. The wheel is locked with an antitheft club, and you can practically hear the alarm ticking, the car breathing softly with its electronic shield, protected with an electromagnetic net of chirping complacency. The car is waiting for its rightful owner, Vincenzo, the slippery man, who apparently doesn't work, but probably has to work at sex, lying next to Natasha's nude and feverish body.

There is a second method of egress, required by the authorities, in lieu of fire escapes on these old houses, a muddy narrow hallway up to the second floor that starts with two rotting wooden steps out back. I watch as Natasha's white face appears behind the dark glass and the door swings open. I am in her plain view, halfway between the door and Vinny's parked car with a bag of orange juice and canned chicken soup. Natasha does not look sick, but she looks different. Her lip is dark with blood and her breath is rasping. "Oh, it's you," she says with complete lack of surprise, and hurries past me towards Vinny's car, disengaging the alarm with a keychain, so the car yips in anticipation. I feel strangely grateful to be caught lurking behind her building. But Natasha doesn't want explanations. She motions me to join her on the far side of the car.

Natasha holds a box of the sugar the stock boy at Walgreens was arranging on the shelves. "Will this work, do you think?" she asks as she unlocks the gas cap with Vinny's keys.

"I stopped by the store. They told me you were sick."

"Fuck him," she says and pours the sugar from the spout into the dark hole. There is movement up in the window, and it is Vinny's enraged face I see. I count the steps he takes down the back hall. He must take them two at a time, because he is out the door in less than a breath, holding a yellow striped facecloth to a bleeding cut on his scalp. He lunges first at me, then at Natasha, and, from where I end up on the ground, I see Vinny's car keys fall from Natasha's hand and the facecloth fall with equal speed in what they say is slow motion.

Vinny has her by the hair, which is quite a feat considering her hair is so short and ungrabbable. "I can't hear you," he growls. Even with all the anger, there is something sexy in that voice. I can hear it, and I realize Natasha has probably been waiting to hear it as well. "What did you call me?" Natasha squirms, but doesn't kick or bite.

There are names for these crimes. Numbered codes for each tug and slap. There are theories of anti-involvement and disclaimer. There are methods of inquiry that can be used to reveal some rotten core behind the most usual of circumstances. Natasha's fingerprints, for example, are on the box of sugar. As I sit quietly, almost happily, in a cold rut, Vinny's fingernails are gouging microscopic bits of skin from Natasha's neck. During my trial I put my hand on a Bible (who made a case for the separation of church and state?) and swore to tell the whole truth, no ifs, ands, or buts. I stated coolly to the judge that Beth liked the abuse. Needed it for definition, to know that I cared.

Natasha twists in Vinny's arms so from a certain perspective they look like lovers caught in a Latin-inspired dance step. The hot part right before the dip and the kiss. Natasha's neck snaps back, and she opens her mouth. "I said thank you," she says softly. "Thank you, please, thank you."

Those car keys between my knuckles are a weapon. We're talking transition from misdemeanor to felony in the stretch of my arm. You wouldn't agree until you see the damage they can do to a guy's vulnerable neck. His face, jiggling as he tries to quiet his struggling girlfriend, also makes a satisfactory target.

The thing with girls like Natasha is they keep hanging on because they are afraid that nobody will believe that anyone could love them. It's a conditional thing when what they want is unconditional. That's what I love about them and that's exactly the part that I can count on with Natasha to keep this whole thing alive and moving in my direction as I put my body behind the keys and unlock the door of Vinny's face. Natasha is the first to go for the dirty rag to stop the blood coming out of Vinny's neck, but his hand soon comes up to hold the cloth against the artery all by his lonesome.

Now we've got lawyers to see, pacts to make. As I start to walk away across the snow I know Natasha sees an old man stumbling into twilight. But I don't have to turn around. I got the job. I have hope, faith, whatever. I am Mister Cool.

"You're fucking dead," Vinny cries. "You're meat."

But Natasha is moving away from him, sweet as the sugary drinks they used to sell inside discotheques. Natasha is following, no tears for this girl. She's yelling at me to be careful, please be careful.

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