by Taylor Brown
She played whorehouse piano, bawdy and loud, on a 1901 stand-up with bubbling paint, red-coated over black, under a ceiling brown-stained with water spots. She, Lucy, had straight-chopped bangs, black, like she'd done them herself with kitchen shears, and cheek bones so high and firm they made dark razors of her eyes, just a wink of vision in them.
No one listened to the piano, the songs so well-keyed to damage and abandon that no one could hear them, like the way you forgot your own breathing. She played soundtrack to their unfolding dramas, ass-groping and well drinks and let's go upstairs honey. They staggered this way and that in the dimness of smoke and glass, in this nowhere place where they could be something other than the bad-inked tattoos that swathed them like bruises, too muddy to decipher.
Tables sat in broken ellipses, chairs off-kilter with a shorted leg, the whole barroom an assemblage of wreckage picked up from the floor again and again, daily during the closed hours of daylight by skilled barkeeps who set them teetering for those scant hours before darkness fell.
That was Lucy's favorite time. She came from the barrage of daylight, the mean Louisiana sun, into dank darkness, the spotted ceiling arching high overhead, like spoiled heavens. She crossed the barroom floor on flagstones of light thrown down from the high windows, her stepping stones laid out in fours that matched the windowpanes, cruciform darkness that divided them.
She did not go into the darkened corners, no wish to consort with the trash and eaters of trash that held dominion there. She stepped from light into light, careful to avoid the tenuous erection of tables and chairs, and stepped the six inches onto her stage, that dizzying height, and swept her dress underneath her to sit on her stool, the toes of her red high heels set daintily on the pedals, her red-painted fingers and scar-nicked knuckles crackling in preparation, like a prizefighter's before they put the gloves on him.
The keys rang more crisply in that quiet time before nightfall, the light fading, the congregation of wrecked furniture sitting broken-backed and hulk-like before her. She did not sing then, singing only when other voices could drown her own. She hummed, her once-cut throat glistening whitely in scar.
Later the working girls. They came clear-heeled with fancy purses slung underneath their armpits, the newest fashions bright-spangled and fringed. Lucy had been one of them, of course. In her teens. Driven from home to here, hardly different, forced to conduct and indulge all orifice, all pleasure. Some of the men liked to see blood, hers, but she had teeth, nails, knucks, and did the thing she'd learned long ago to do, at home: fight.
Now she played the piano, no whoring, her voicebox coarsened with grit, her voice itself a hard and perfect rasp for the songs she played.
Her brother came looking for her on a black night in July, a guitar case slung over his shoulder.
"Papa's dying," he said.
Lucy had already played 13 songs about death that night, each more tragic than this. She told him to tell the family he couldn't find her. She told him he didn't know nothing about daddies and their little girls.
The man who'd done her throat was Patterson Goode, known everywhere as Whoreson for his temperament, or how it used to be. He did underwater work for the Gulf rigs, globe-helmeted with breathing hoses and undersea torches. He stopped the black clouds that pooled underneath the water, the leakage of cracked pipes. He welded fissures and busted girding. He kept the rich men in Houston getting richer, the black gold sucked twenty-four-seven from the earth's crust.
Whoreson carried an eight inch fixed blade in his boot and loved Lucy more than anything, his cheek white-raked by her nails, his shoulder moon-stamped by her teeth. He listened to her songs now and called her a pianist, the only one. He no longer drank or frequented whores and had to buy other people drinks to earn his seat. He would have killed her Daddy in a heartbeat, had she asked him to. Still he said she should go see him on his deathbed.
Lucy started playing a wordless tune left-handed and lit a cigarette with her right. Then she looked at Whoreson.
"He can die without me," she said.
"I'll go with you," said Whoreson. "We can take my truck. I got three days till next shift."
He looked pleadingly at her, needing, as always, whatever redemption she'd give him. Her nearest eye cut him up and down, steel-specked.
"Tonight," she said.
They drove all night into bayou darkness, low-hung moss and the scarce reflection of blackwater amid the mangroves. Highway signs reared before them, bleary and wayward-tilted. Red-flattened carcasses of small mammals littered the road. Whoreson crossed himself when he saw them, reborn. Her hand retreated when he tried to hold it. They never touched, not since the night he slit her throat.
They stopped at a truckstop outside town, too early to wake her family. They drank burnt coffee from styrofoam cups under the yellow florescence. Lucy saw little black things huddled at the corners of the hanging lights, insects dead in brainless awe of Louisiana Power & Light.
At dawn, they took the backroad to the little house where she'd grown up, the sky blue paint weathered green, vines clawing upward on all sides, the whole house moldering slowly back into the fecund swampland on which it sat.
Lucy told Whoreson to stay in the truck. She pushed her door open on its rusty hinges and shut it and approached the rip-screened porch, moths with wide-eyed wings clinging to what screen there was.
Her mother and brother came to the door in pajamas, her mother heavy-footed with gnarled toes. Lucy had perfect feet, sleek and shapely, like her father's.
They led her through dark rooms that smelled the same as they always had, that made her feel the passing of time all at once. How much she'd done, seen, sang, and everything here the same. The brown carpet, the yellow linoleum, the faucet bleeding rust into the kitchen sink.
They'd made the sickbed in her old room, her father swaddled in damp sheets, his breathing jagged as glass in his throat.
"Throat cancer," they whispered.
She bent over him, his closed eyes, her piano hands crackling into hard knots of fist. He would die peaceful in this blue room, no one to blame him for anything that had happened here. Lucy wished she could claw down into his innards and pluck the words out of him, the ones she wanted to hear: the I'm sorry's and please forgive me's. She wanted to see fear in that gaunted face, fear of what might be coming next when you left behind the kind of legacy he did, when you wrecked things in darkness and never turned on the lights.
Her brother and mother stood behind her. Lucy looked at them watching, no knowledge in their faces, not hearing the cacophony erupting inside her skull, like they never had. She reached out to touch her father, a final gesture of some kind, but could not open her fist. She turned and walked out of the house, the screen door banging behind her.
Whoreson saw her coming and leaned over; the shotgun door creaked open. She got inside and told him to drive home. He nodded.
On the drive back, they drove right into the rising sun. It rose white and clean over the cripple-armed trees, the twisted trunks and swamp. Whoreson squinted into the new day, his face unravaged in light, the busted pilings of his teeth white where the sun struck them.
Lucy looked at him.
"If you hadn't of almost killed me, you never would of been saved. You'd be at your old ways, whiskey-drunk and cutting whores. You ever think of that?"
He nodded slowly. "Don't seem real fair, huh?"
Lucy looked out her window and nodded. Then she shook a cigarette from her pack and lit it, cracked her window a half-turn of the crank, and blew the smoke outside.
Whoreson looked at her.
"You did save me though. I believe that. You're like an angel to me."
"Like hell I am," said Lucy.
But a sudden urge ran at odds to her words. She wished she were already back at the whorehouse tonight, at her piano amid the night's wreckage, playing a song for this one man who would listen. Who wanted to. She touched the scar at her throat with her thumb, and then she put both hands on the dashboard, the cigarette slanted sideways from her mouth, and started to thump a tune on the sun-warmed vinyl, a low voice of song rising from her cut throat.
Whoreson didn't look at her for fear she'd stop.
About the author:
Taylor Brown lives with his girlfriend and their wirehaired pointer in Asheville, North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in CutBank, The Dead Mule, The Liars' League, and The Press 53 Open Award Anthology, and his story "Rider" received the 2009 Montana Prize in Fiction. Check out his website at www.taylorbrownfiction.com.