I was stoked to be going back to our old stomping grounds. Most locals wouldn’t feel that way, though. Tucson doesn’t have too many really “bad” neighborhoods, but the one we drove into that evening was one of the baddest. In the good sense and the scary sense.
You can feel it as you start getting closer. Unlike the rest of Tucson, which is really pretty and picturesque for the most part, that hood is sort of “inner city” seedy, even though they’ve tried to fix it up some.
I mean, Tucson is “technicolor,” for the most part. Western movie, Grand Canyon scenic. But that neighborhood is sort of concrete grey.
There’s some color, though. Mostly just these pink and seafoam motels from the 50s and 60s that remind me of The Jetsons. All space age swooshes and big old neon signs. Dingy now, but pretty spectacular once. Meant to seduce you off the highway.
The old 66 Diner is one of the last authentic ones left in town. Been sitting right on that corner since WWII days. Still has a soda fountain area with the red seated stools and those little black and white tiles on the floor. Some of the old Coke machines and whatnot are original too. The outsides, anyway. The innards have had to be replaced dozens of times, probably.
They try to build new ones that look like that. You’ve seen them. But you can’t fake the funk. And the 66 has funk for days. First of all, it’s also two doors down from the No Tell Motel.
That’s the motel’s real name, BTW. Tourists click pics of the big red sign all day long. As they drive by, usually. Too chicken to get out and take a good look.
But that tells you the rest of the story, that motel. For years, ladies used to be right out there, strutting their stuff. Even in the day time.
A lot of young pimps-in-training still hang out at the 66 to rank on each other and sip liquor out of coffee cups while their ladies are working. And there are small time drug dealers and couriers in and out of there like clockwork.
You can get anything you want there. Including all the latest local “news.” Who got shot, knifed, beat down, busted, paroled — some politics. If it’s going to fuck things up locally in some way. Otherwise, they say that shit’s for “suckers.” Rigged, like wrestling.
I actually met the girls at the 66. Outside of it. I was about 8-years-old, doing “drops” for this dude named Calvo — that’s “bald-headed” in Spanish. His was shaved. He thought it made him look all bad ass.
But I thought it made him look like a vulture, mostly. Acted like one, too. I mean, he preyed on young kids. Got us to carry “contraband” for him. Drugs, money — to be honest, I didn’t even know what all was in those packages.
And that was part of the plan. No real names, no details. He’d tell me where to go, where to stash the package. And I’d have to repeat and remember it. No writing. Nothing traceable.
I hated it. At that age, you’re not as aware of the consequences of your decisions, but I’d seen junkies. Known a whole lot of addicts, actually. So I wasn’t as innocent as I looked.
But at the time, me and my mother, brothers and sisters were living in this flea bag motel this one charity put up homeless families in. It was better than the alleys, squats and whatnot we’d been camping out in. But we still had to feed and clothe ourselves. Buy the usual stuff for the house — soap, toilet paper, diapers and whatnot.
So I was running up and down the street literally picking up change. Carrying groceries, and cleaning the soup kitchens and shelters and such to get extra stuff to take home to the family. Never panhandled. I just couldn’t do it. I had to work for whatever I got in some way. Even if it was just sweeping floors or something.
The Calvos of this world are always on the lookout for kids in need because they don’t send little kids to prison. And I knew shortcuts nobody knew, from living on the streets most of my life. He loved that.
I could actually disappear. I knew routes under parking lots, warehouses, malls. I even knew a whole network of washes and drainage culverts and whatnot. I’m not kidding. We’d slept in them. In fact, every year we lost friends when they flooded during the “monsoons.”
But I could travel the whole city underground almost. So if I felt like somebody was watching or following me, I’d slip into a hole and keep on truckin’.
Aisha ended all that, though. I was sitting on the bus bench not far from the diner that night, and she split off from the other two and came over and “Baby, what’chu doin’ out here all the time?”
She knew, of course. Just like she knew Calvo’s boss had paid the cops not to see me out there all the time.
Without even looking up at her, I said, “Nothin’.” Trying to go for bad.
So she said, “Well, if you ain’t doin’ nothin’, come talk to me for a minute.”
And when I looked up into those big old hazel eyes I couldn’t even think straight.
I’d seen the three of them before, of course. They came to the diner a lot back then, to have a big breakfast and laugh their asses off at the stories the waitresses told them. They had some good ones, too, the girls. About kinky customers. Everybody on the street knew a few of those stories.
But some of the stories weren’t funny. Those ones were about scary stuff that had happened to them. Guys who’d stalked, slapped or choked them. Pimps who’d threatened them, too. There are some homicidal suckers out there who act like they hate women. I mean really hate women.
They’ll tell you how no “hoe” should be “free.” And they get all agitated and pissed off whenever a “freelance bitch” walks by. Not just prostitutes but any woman.
They’ll go, “Lookit that hoe think she better than anybody! One day I’ma snatch her snooty ass off that street’n’ show her what’s up!”
The girls got that sometimes. Even at the diner. But mostly they were treated like queens there, because the waitresses loved that they’d beat the “system.” And the owners liked how it got real crowded whenever they came in. Guys thrilled to see them in real life. For free.
I never dreamed they’d ever talk to me. So, I just followed them in like a love-sick puppy.
They bought me my first chocolate malt which is still my favorite thing in the whole wide world. I’d had fast food shakes and stuff, but not the real thing. I actually dreamt about malts for weeks after that. Almost as often as I dreamt about Aisha’s eyes.
And after all the waitresses finished going nuts about my “big old eyes” and how handsome I was going to grow up to be and whatnot, she got serious on me.
The message was, “I don’t want you messin’ with none o’ that stuff no more.”
I ducked my head a little bit, when she said that. And I think she was glad to see I had some shame left in me. Because she mussed up my hair and asked me about my family then. How many we were, where we lived.
I told her a little bit about us. Didn’t pour it on thick, just the Cliff Notes version. Which was apparently pitiful enough because she reached into her purse, took out her wallet, and handed me all the money in it.
I’m not lying. All her tips and everything from that night, she shoved in my hand.
And said, “I’ll pay you to stay away from them fools ’til we find you some kinda lil job or sum. You hear me?”
I remember I just sort of froze up. How do you even begin to thank somebody for a thing like that? But she kissed me on the forehead and said, “Gon’ buy them babies some food. And I wanna see a receipt from that grocery store, too. Don’t have to spend it all on food, but I wanna see you went there.”
I remember I stuck that money down in my shoes like foot pads. Somebody still might’ve gotten at it, but they’d have had to fight me pretty hard first. And I probably would’ve gotten away with one shoe still on, at least. So, I divvied it up equal, to make sure.
And I bought a whole bunch of canned and dry goods and stuff at Food City that I had to steal a cart to take home. It was all those generic, two for a dollar cans. And three for a dollar mac and cheese. And some hot dogs to go in the mac.
Yeah, holla if you hear me. That’s a po’ folks’ casserole. But us kids went crazy for that stuff. That orange powder probably didn’t have a speck of cheese in it, but it took the hunger pains away.
I brought her the receipt the next day, too. And after that, the 66 was my second home. They let me work in the back on the sly. Everything from loading stuff off trucks to sweeping up, mopping, doing dishes. Whatever they asked me, I’d do it.
And all the waitresses would fawn over me even worse than the girls because I reminded them of their own kids or grandkids. Most of them had grandkids by then already. In fact, Etta, June and Lupita had been there since the 60s.
Annie got hired not long before I started showing up. She was this wiry little black woman who could cuss up a storm. The pimps got on her because they said she looked like a man in a wig, but she didn’t pay them any mind.
And she was the first one who grabbed me that night so many years later, as we were coming in. Hugged the stuffing out of me for a minute, yelling, “Lord, have mercy! Y’all look at this child!”
And Aisha grabbed my other arm and said, “Ain’t ‘e pretty?”
My biggest fan, Aisha. Loves to show me off. Brag about everything I do or say. Not because she saved my life but because she truly believes I saved hers. We’ll go there later, I promise. It makes sense in a way, once you follow her logic.
So then Betty said, “And tall, too! What you feedin’ this boy?”
She’s another old trooper. Looks like the waitresses you see in 50s movies. The cotton candy beehive, drawn on eyebrows and all. They all look how they looked back when they first got hired. People think it’s part of the “décor,” but it’s not. They’re the real deal.
“I don’t know what they feed ‘im, but I know what he wants,” Annie said.
And she got that blender whirring right quick, too. Best malts in town. In the world, maybe. In my world, for sure.
They were still messing with me when Rick came in and stole the show as usual. Women start primping and posing when he walks in. You can almost feel the eggs dropping.
He got me in a head lock and said, “Free man next week, huh?”
Aisha slapped him on the arm and said, “You gon’ choke ‘im! Don’t be doin’ that!”
Rick let me go for her sake. But then he me this very familiar glare and said, “So we’re gonna have that talk, right?”
I was rescued by Annie waving us back to the big booth they always gave us. It took up damned near the whole back of the restaurant. And put you on display, sort of. Everyone who walked in could see who was back there. They used to put the cops there a lot, too. So if you had a warrant or something you could turn back around and leave right quick when you saw them.
Once we’d arranged ourselves, Aisha grabbed her glass of water, poked the slice of lemon she always asked for deeper down in it and went, “He ain’t goin’ to no Harvard or nothin’. Nothin’ ‘way back East.”
“And we’re off,” Cat said. Like she was an announcer at the horse track or something. Mike elbowed her, but we all sort of laughed a little bit.
See, Rick and Aisha had had the same argument over and over again through my whole senior year. About me going to college.
He told her, “I don’t care where he goes. As long as he goes.”
“And I second that emotion yet again,” Cat said.
And I said, “Because you loved it so much,” just to tease her a little bit. She went to Sarah Lawrence for a hot minute. Before she ran off to New York City and got all buck wild.
She gave me this smirky little smile and said, “You live and learn, my darling. Or some of us do.”
“Yeah, but it drove you nuts, you said.”
“Everything I did at that time was about my father,” she said. Way more seriously than I expected. “I wasn’t being me, I was rebelling against him. Took me long years to realize that.”
“I’m not rebelling against anybody.”
“You sure?” she said. Giving me this little wink that made me sort of wonder, actually.
“I wish I’d gone,” Mike said.
I had to ask, “Why?” Given how happy-go-lucky Mike generally was. I didn’t think she had any regrets at all.
But she said, “She’ll say something, like, when we’re watching TV or just…I dunno, walking down the goddamned street, and I’ll realize how much more she sees than I do. Knows than I do. It’s…I can’t explain it. But I know her world is just deeper than mine. She gets more out of it.”
“There you go!” Rick said. “Happens to me when I’m in business meetings — the higher-level ones in New York or London or someplace like that. Or when I’m talking to my lawyers, too. They’ve got all this knowledge and experience — they know the whole history behind the thing. They’ve studied all this shit. Read all this shit. So you’re flailing around trying to reinvent the wheel, but they’re already using the damned wheel. To run rings around you.”
Cat sort of chuckled to herself then. And shook back that sexy hair and said, “I had this one teacher — wow, I can’t believe I still remember this! Connolly, was her name. Barbara Connolly. Every week, we’d meet in her office in small groups to talk about the week’s readings — that was a huge part of our grade, how we did in those meetings. And one time, when she asked me to give her a passage to prove my point, I had the audacity to admit that I hadn’t even done the reading — very proud of myself, I was, too. I was used to that from high school. You know what I mean. You tell me that all the time. How you don’t even have to read things to get an A.”
“I read sometimes. In my one class. My English class.”
“Well, I almost never did. And I got away with it even in my high school, which was — ”
“A real high school,” I said.
And she laughed and said, “Well, an expensive one, anyway. But Connolly just shrugged and said, ‘Well! You’re done for the day, then.’ And I just sat there looking all confused until she told me I’d lose 10 percent of the total score each day until I got another appointment — if she had time before the end of the week. So I was screwed either way.”
“Wow. For real?”
“Well, think about it,” Cat said, shaking her head as if she was mad at herself about it, still. “It was a course in British literature. So we had a bunch of essays and three novels to read and critique. And I hadn’t read the essay. So I hadn’t earned the right to critique it. I was pulling ideas out of my ass, basically. Based on what other people had said. But the kicker was that when I read the damned essay we’d been discussing, it turned out to be something I really, really needed at that time in my life. I think that’s why I remember it so well, actually.”
“Did you ever tell me this?” Mike asked. All into it by then. She really admires Cat. It’s not just a sexual thing. It couldn’t be. Cat wouldn’t allow that.
So she said, “I don’t think so — probably not. But you’d like it. It was written by this English woman — rich, English woman. Back in the days when the man you married got all your money and property, pretty much.”
“You’re kidding me,” Mike said.
“Wish I was. She felt the same, apparently, because the whole thing was a warning not to marry for love.”
“She said that?” I asked.
“Well, she felt you needed your wits about you. The men were marrying for money, mostly, or she felt they were. And she’d seen how they could manipulate the hell out of you if you weren’t careful. Just…do whatever they wanted and ignore what you wanted. Ignore you, period — look at Byron and Shelley and all those assholes. What they did to women.”
“And you flashed back to your mother and father, right?” Mike said.
Cat smirked and said, “You bet I did. That…scene when he left her. Damned near crawling on her knees like that — she never recovered.”
“Never forgave you, either,” I said.
“Yeah, well, she had to blame someone. And I was to blame, in a sick, sordid sort of way.”
“Oh, c’mon! You were a little kid when he started messin’ around with you, Catherine! He was a fuckin’ perv, for Chrissake!”
“Look how mad he is,” Rick teased me. “I love this guy.”
And Cat took my hand, kissed it and said, “The point, however, is that the essay I read allowed me to process all that. Changed my whole life.”
Rick put a hand on my shoulder, winked and said, “I rest my case. Or she did.”
I gave Cat a little side eye and said, “He put you up to this?”
And she said, “I’ve been thinking is all. About…lots of things. To do with you.”
She just smiled and said, “One topic at a time, my darling. Right now we’re discussing education.”
“Well, you forget you’re a friggin’ debutante. I mean, you went to all those snooty schools. I’m goin’ to DeGrazia.”
“They don’t even have real teachers at them schools he been to,” Aisha said. “Had a goddamned sub for almost a year last year!”
“Aisha, the boy was in gifted classes as a kid,” Rick said.
“And his test scores are high, too,” Mike said. “Remember that test the others had to keep taking over and over again? The one you have to pass to graduate or whatever?”
“Nailed it first time out,” Rick said. Like a proud papa. Cracked me up.
“Well, what I remember is how he kep’ gettin’ into trouble er’day tryin’a make ’em put ‘im back in a reg’lar class,” she reminded them. “That’s why he quit goin’ to school! Cause they was always tryin’a make ‘im do shit he didn’t wanna do. And now you doin’ the same thing!”
Rick took her hand, looked her deep in the eyes, and said, “What does he want to do? Have you ever asked him that?”
That rattled her. You could see it. So she detoured into, “You didn’t finish. And you did okay!”
“Cause o’ Duke,” Mike reminded her.
And Rick said, “Yeah, and The Club was, like, my last chance. The old man was pretty damned desperate by then. That’s the only reason he ok’d the deal, sheer desperation.”
Aisha frowned all up, swished her lemon around in the water and said, “Well, if he so gifted’n’ all, maybe he could have a business or sum. If you helped him.”
“Look, the point is that whatever he chooses to do, he’ll do it better if he gets that sheepskin, Mami. Not just for show, either. It really does make a difference.”
She folded her arms and said, “Well, we got a college right here, then. So he wouldn’t even have to be in nobody’s dorm or nothin’ — damned kids goes crazy in them damned dorms! Hadda close down that one — y’all know what I’m talkin’ about!”
Etta slapped some menus down in front of us and said, “Girl, you oughta have a kangaroo pouch sewed on your stomach or something. Just shove ‘im in there’n’ hide him from the whole goddamned world.”
That cracked us all up for a while. And then Aisha said, “Y’all know I’m right! They be drinkin’ themselves to death in them fraternities and shit.”
“You found that boy out there on the goddamned street,” Etta said. “He could show them college boys a thing or two.”
“I hear you,” Mike said. “He’ll have them doin’ all his papers and whatnot for ‘im.”
“Oooo, and it’ll be slut central up in whatever room they give ‘im,” Annie chimed in. “Cause they gon’ be chasin’ my baby all over the damned place! Fine as he is…”
Rick laughed and said, “Okay, that’s an angle I haven’t tried.”
“Yeah, some business man, right?” I teased him. “You need to tighten up that pitch, dude.”
But then Aisha went, “You wanna go off’n’ live someplace else?” In this sweet little voice that almost made me cry, honest to God.
“He’ll come home, Mami,” Rick told her. “You know he will.”
“You don’t know that,” she said. “He get out there in some big old city — he ain’t never seen nothin’ like that! They gets caught up in all that shit they got out there’n’ Tucson don’t look like nothin’ no more!”
That’s when I heard that little “catch” in her voice that made Mike literally crawl over me to give her a big hug and say, “Oh, my God, it’s okay, okay? We’re just talking about it, right?”
“Well, I want what’s best for him, too,” Aisha said. Looking at me, when she said it. Which just made me feel like shit, of course. For hurting her.
Rick reached over to wipe her cheek with his fingers and said, “We know that, Mami. C’mon, you’re makin’ me crazy right now — make ‘er stop that, wouldja CJ?”
She didn’t need me to make her do anything. She looked me in the eyes all strong and calm and said, “I don’t mean to make you feel like you cain’t do what you was meant to do, baby. You just the only child I’m ever gon’ have.”
“Only one any of us is gonna have,” Mike said. “Fixed that long ago.”
“Wun my idea, though, like it was for y’all two,” Aisha said. “After that man done what he done, I couldn’t carry no babies. So God sent me one.”
Now, “that man” she mentioned was one of her mother’s johns. Who got Aisha pregnant when she was only 12, and shoved a wire hanger up there trying to kill the baby. But it almost killed Aisha instead. And she lost all her female plumbing. And all hope, too.
But she finally ran away. And it gets a little murky after that, until you get to the part where she lied about her age to get a job at a topless bar when she was 16. She said she’d decided that the only somebody who was going to make money off her body from then on was “me, myself and I.”
And she stayed away from men pretty much after that, too — romantically, I mean. She’s like that woman in the essay Cat read. Men, to her, are evil. She loves driving them crazy onstage, but she doesn’t want one. Which drives them even crazier.
I am the only exception. I wish I was kidding about that, but it’s true. Not sexually. Or…well, we’re not really entirely sure who I am to her. It morphs. One minute I’m her “bae boy,” the next I’m the “man of the house.”
We just know that she will not discuss it or allow anyone to question it. When Rick suggested she might want to get some “professional advice” about it, she threatened to quit. And meant it.
Whoever I was at that moment, I gave her a little squeeze and said, “You trust me?”
“Baby, I just — ”
“’Do you trust me?’ I said.”
She gave me those eyes and said, “I’m always gon’ trus’ you.”
So then I winked at her and said, “Do I love you?”
She smiled then. And said, “You better love me!”
“More than my life,” I told her. “Seriously. Always.”
And then Mike had to do her little wise guy thing and go, “Yeah! What he said.” To make us all laugh and lighten up some.
And just as we were getting our groove back, somebody called out, “Well, Merry Fuckin’ Christmas!”