Shakespeare's Trollop Page 9

I felt dizzy suddenly, almost sick, so I plopped down on the couch and stared at my hands. I'd gotten too wrapped up in my inner depiction of Deedra's last minutes. I was remembering the hours in the shack in the fields, the hours I'd spent chained to an old iron bedstead, waiting to die, almost longing for it. I thought of the sickness of the phone calls Deedra had been getting right before she was killed. There are men who should die, I thought.

"Lily? Are you all right?" Lacey leaned over me, her face concerned.

I yanked myself back to the moment. "Yes," I said stiffly. "Thank you. I'm sorry."

"You're sick?"

"I have an inner ear problem. I just got dizzy for a second," I lied. It made me uncomfortable, lying, but it was easier on Lacey than the truth.

She went back to her task, casting an uneasy look back at me, and I began going through the tapes Deedra had had around the television, making sure there weren't any pornographic ones mixed in with the ones marked ALL MY CHILDREN or SALLY JESSY ON THURSDAY. These tapes were all presumably still usable. I figured I'd make sure there wasn't anything risqué on them, and asked Lacey if I could use the tapes. As I expected, she agreed, and I packed them in a box without finishing my evaluation. If I found anything objectionable in the tapes, I could pitch them at home more easily. Just another little cleanup job to complete.

We can't leave this world without leaving a lot of detritus behind. We never go out as cleanly as we come in; and even when we come in, there's the afterbirth.

I looked forward to karate that night more than I had in weeks. So much reflection, so much unwelcome remembrance needed to be worked out of my system. I liked to do, not reflect: I wanted to kick some butt so badly I ached. That's not the right way to approach the discipline, and that's not the correct mind frame for martial arts. My body twanged with tension as I took my place in line.

Attendance at the Friday-night classes tended to be a bit lighter than at the Monday and Wednesday classes. Tonight there were only ten people stretching at the barres along the wall. Bobo bowed at the doorway and strolled into the room in a white tank top and the pants-half of his gi. His girlfriend, Toni, had tagged along. Bobo kicked off his sandals and got into line two people down from me, pulling Toni in beside him. She was wearing black shorts and a purple T-shirt, and she'd pinned her dark hair back with an elastic band and a million hairpins. She was trying to look comfortable.

As always, Becca was first in line. She'd stretched on her own before class, smiling at Carlton when he wandered over to talk to her, but not saying much herself. Raphael, usually on my left, was at a dance; he and his wife were chaperoning his daughter's Spring Fling at the high school. He'd told me he thought some of the restraining moves Marshall had taught us might come in handy if the boys went out in the parking lot to drink.

"You and Lacey 'bout done cleaning out Deedra's place?" Becca asked as we waited to be called to attention.

"We haven't finished yet. But a lot of boxes are gone. Just a little left to pack, and the big stuff can be moved out."

She nodded, and was about to say something else when Marshall put on his hardest face and barked, "Kiotske!"

We came to attention and exchanged bows with him.

"Line up for sit-ups!"

Becca and I usually paired up, since we were much the same weight and height. I moved to stand facing her and checked to make sure everyone in my new line had a partner. Then Becca and I sat down facing each other, legs extended in front of us and slightly bent at the knees. Becca slid her feet between mine and turned them outward to hook under my calves. I turned my feet in to latch on to hers.

Marshall had motioned Bobo's girlfriend, Toni, to pair with Janet, who was much closer to Toni's size than Bobo. Bobo, in turn, had to make do with the only man approaching him in height and weight, Carlton. The two men of the world, I thought, and watched as Bobo and Carlton silently contended over who got to be "outie" and who got to be "innie." Becca and I grinned at each other as Carlton slid his legs between Bobo's, who'd held out the longest.

"Put your hands under your butts, like this!" Marshall held up his hands so Toni could see. The index finger of his right hand touched the index finger of the left, and the opposing thumbs touched each other, but the matching pairs were spread as far apart as possible. "Your tailbone should be in the open space. Let yourselves lie back, but don't touch the floor!" Marshall ordered, being specific since we had a visitor. He strolled down the line with his thumbs hooked in his obi. He examined himself in one of the mirrors that lined the wall, and smoothed his black hair with one ivory hand. Marshall's one-quarter-Asian blood was his favorite fraction, and he did everything he could to emphasize his otherness. He thought it made him more effective and attractive as a sensei and a gym owner if he looked exotic, or as exotic as southern Arkansas would tolerate. He was right.

Meanwhile, Becca and I tucked our hands under our respective butts and leaned back very slowly, mirroring each other, until our shoulders were about two inches from the floor. I was looking at the ceiling, concentrating on the crack I always used to focus my attention. With the pull from our linked legs providing an anchor, we would be able to maintain this excruciating position for an indeterminate time. I rolled my eyes sideways to check out what our sensei was doing. He was straightening his gi. Bobo, right beside me, met my eyes and shook his head slightly in mock despair. Carlton, beside Becca, had already broken into a sweat.

I made a tiny, derisive sound, just loud enough to carry to our sensei. Marshall was preening while we were hurting, and the weakest of us would be worn out by the time we started the exercise.

"On my count!" Marshall barked, and we all tensed. Carlton was trembling, and Toni, hooked to Janet, seemed totally unable to pull up off the floor, where her entire body was firmly settled. At least she was providing good ballast for her partner.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, twenty! One, two ..." With each count we tightened our abdominals, then relaxed them, our upper bodies rising perhaps six inches off the floor to relax down to two on the off count. Our row bobbed frantically to keep up, abdominals rigid with the effort of keeping our backs off the floor. I glanced to the right, checking my half of the row, since Marshall might ask me to correct their faults. Carlton and Toni were side by side on Becca's row, which pleased me. Bobo looked to his left just then, and our eyes met. He grinned at me. He thought this was great fun. He had to have found another dojo in Montrose, to be in such good shape. I shook my head in wry amazement, and turned my concentration back to my own work. I closed my eyes and kept up with the count, knowing Becca would never give up and go slack.

"Get your elbows off the floor!" Marshal admonished, and the two new boys at the end of the row gasped and obeyed. I scowled at the ceiling as I heard the thud of a head hitting the floor only seconds later. That was on my side, and it was one of the new boys. After a few halfhearted attempts to make his abdominals obey, he openly gave up, and he and Toni did fish imitations together, mouths open and gasping. Toni had lasted maybe the first set of ten. Obviously, Bobo hadn't met her in a gym.

Finally, only Bobo, Becca, and I were still going.

"One hundred!" Marshall said, and stopped. We three froze with our backs off the floor. I could hear Becca breathing loudly, and tried not to smile.

"Hold it!" commanded Marshall, and with an effort of will, I stayed up.

"Hold it!" he exhorted us. I began to tremble.

"Relax," he said, and it was all I could do not to let myself collapse with the same embarrassing thud. I managed to detach my legs from Becca's and let my shoulders and back ease to the floor without any urgency. I hoped.

Ragged breathing filled the room. I turned to look at Bobo. He was beaming at me from a couple of feet away.

"How ya doing, Lily?" he gasped.

"I could have done thirty more," I said with no conviction. He giggled weakly.

Marshall didn't tell us to put on sparring pads tonight. At least partly because of Toni's presence (even the students we called "the new boys" had been coming a month) he decided to instruct us to practice breaking away. There were about four simple moves that each new class member had to learn. While the other people practiced more sophisticated maneuvers, I was set to teach these moves to Toni. She protested nervously several times that she was just visiting with Bobo - probably she would never come to class again. I just kept on instructing her. No one (least of all the timid Toni) would quite dare to just tell Marshall no. At least, no one I'd ever met.

My estimation of the girl rose as I worked with her. She gave it her best shot, though she was obviously uncomfortable with being in the class at all. I could like that determination - admire it, even.

"God, you're strong," she said, trying not to sound angry, as I gripped her wrists and told her to practice the breaking-free method I'd just taught her.

"I've been working at this for years."

"You're some kind of hero to Bobo," she said, her eyes fixed on me to see how I'd react.

I had no idea how to respond to that. I wanted to ignore what Toni had said, but she refused to move when I took her wrist, playing my role of attacker. She just waited, her face turned up to mine.

"I'm not a hero in any sense," I said curtly. "Now, break free from my hold!"

I got out of there fast when class was over. Janet had left even faster after letting me know she had a date, so she wasn't there to chat with me on my way out, and the weight room was almost empty. I thought I heard Bobo call my name, but I kept marching forward. I'd see him tomorrow afternoon, anyway.

Chapter Seven

I was exhausted, but I couldn't sleep. There was no point in tearing up my bed tossing and turning any longer. In the darkness I slid into my jeans, black sports bra, an old black Nike T-shirt, and my sneakers. My keys and cell phone were always in the same place on my dresser; I pocketed them and slipped out the front door to begin walking.

There had been too many nights of this pointless activity, I reflected. Too many nights of striding through a silent town - for the past few years this particular silent town of Shakespeare. Before that, other towns in other states: Tennessee, Mississippi. My feet moved silently on the pavement as I covered ground.

I seldom felt the compulsion to walk when Jack stayed with me. If I was restless, I satisfied that restlessness in a more intimate way. Tonight I felt worn ragged, and old.

One of the town's night patrolmen, Gardner McClanahan, saluted me as he cruised slowly by. He knew better than to stop and talk. Though Claude would never have told me, I'd heard the town police called me the Night Walker, a pun on the title of an old TV show. Every patrol officer knew I'd anonymously called in at least five break-ins and three domestic situations, but we'd silently agreed to pretend they didn't know their tipster was me. After the previous year, they all knew about my past. I thought it very strange that they apparently respected me for it.

I didn't raise my hand to acknowledge Gardner, as I would some nights. I kept on moving.

Forty minutes later, I'd circled, doubled, gone to all four points of the compass, and still was only about six blocks from home. On Main, I was passing Joe C's house, thinking once again about its size and age, when I stopped in my tracks. Had that been a flicker of movement among the bushes in the yard of the Prader house? My hand dropped to the cell phone in my pocket, but there was no point calling the police if I'd been mistaken. I slunk into the yard myself, moving through the overgrown shrubbery as silently as I could.

Yes. Ahead of me, someone was moving. Someone all in black. Someone quiet and quick like me. The closest streetlight was half a block away and the yard was deep and shadowy.

It took me only seconds to realize that whoever this trespasser was, he was moving away from the house, not toward it. I wondered if he'd been trying the doors, hoping to enter and steal. I began making my way as quietly as I could through the jungle of Joe C's yard.

Then I smelled smoke. I froze in position, my head rotating to track from which direction the thick dark scent was pouring.

It was coming from the house. My skin began to crawl with apprehension. Not even attempting quiet movement, I pressed close enough to peer through the open curtains of Joe C's living room, the room I'd vacuumed just three days before. Now that I was out of the bushes, the streetlight gave me a little visibility. There were no lights on in the house, but I should have been able to see the outlines of the furniture. Instead, there was a dense movement inside the room. After a second, I realized the room was full of smoke; it was coiling against the windows, waiting to be let out. As I stared into the dark moving cloud, I saw the first dart of the flames.

I broke into a run, crashing through the overgrown crepe myrtles and camellias, around the house and up the shaky steps to Joe C's back door. I'd decided the back door was farthest from the fire. There was no time to waste trying to track the trespasser. As I pounded on the door to wake the old man, I pulled the phone out of my pocket and dialed 911.

I told the dispatcher what the situation was, and she answered, "We'll be there in a minute, Lily," which I'd probably find amusing another time. The smell of smoke was increasing by the second. I pocketed the phone and forced myself to touch the doorknob. It wasn't hot. Though I expected the door would be locked, it opened easily.

A cloud of darkness billowed out. With it came the terrible smell of things being consumed by fire. I was gasping with terror, knowing I had to try to reach Joe C.

I hesitated, shamefully, afraid of being trapped if I went in. I knew the door must be shut behind me to prevent cross breezes from fanning the flames. For a long second, I was awfully tempted to shut myself right back out on the porch. But that was just something I couldn't do. I took a deep breath of clean air. Then I entered the burning house and closed the opening to safety.

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