Floating on a bed in this all-white room, kept company by the buzz and tick, the monitors, the systems array. I am a head case. A pale girl with limp hair and a skullcap made of gauze and plaster. A new look.
This by way of my introduction is not self-pity, because Iím just delirious, really, thatís the prize in my Cracker Jack. The prize in my Cracker Jack? I was cracked by a Jack.
My name is Vanessa. I came from Ohio, from a motherís empty house in a wintry field. Itís all a northern, unheated blur now: our scrabbly yard and Lake Erie smell, perch on Fridays at the All U Can Eat, snow-frozen feet in wet sneakers, old rusty car coughing itself awake, midnight sky turned white by the cold, prairie wind rumbling my girl room, rocking the dresser free of my hairbrush, my glass horse figurines. Iíd lay sweaters on the floor to catch their nightly fall. Mornings, my mother would watch me gather up the fallen.
Youíll go places, sheíd say.
And so I did.
Say more, says the blue-shirted reporter guy whoís in the orange chair a mile across the room.
Iím twenty-eight. At twenty-eight youíre still supposed to feel omnipotent. Like youíll live forever.
That so? he says. Can you be more specific?
No, I tell him. Hardwareís a little fried. And my story comes out the way it wants to.
He says, Oh. No, itís not Friday.
I used to say I knew where I was going. I left my motherís gray house, left the stand of cottonwoods and the old porch swing and headed south to escape the winter and start a whole new life. First year, I thought, Iíll get my feet on the ground, find a job, a place, get some friends. Do it slow. A few months in, buy a car. I bought a ticket for a seat on the autotrain. I flew low along the southernbound tracks into a new life. By the time I landed, I was ready to hit the ground running. Screw caution, I thought, awed by the happily blinding sun. Whatever comes my way, Iíll take it.
Now they say, Try to remember. My headís a tumbling clothes dryer, set on endless high heat.
Apparently I know something they need to know. Or they think I know it, though I honestly donít know that I do.
Try to remember, the reporter guy says.
There are reporters and a detective and nurses and doctors, and then there are miscellaneous. Some people I can say some things to Others, I canít.
You authorized? I ask him. Officially?
It was a surprise, he says. And yes, it was awful. You were taken by awful surprise, yes.
The door swings open and I shut my eyes, listen to the bodies moving. I want to see my friends, my lovers, but Iím off limits to anyone nonauthorized and nonofficial. For how long, I wonder, but there is really no such thing as long or short. How long have I been here? Theyíve changed the dressing four times. And now reporter guyís being replaced with police lady. They do their weíre both official do-si-do. Police lady has been here twice. They time her session with the morphine drip, pull back on the dosage when sheís here so I can lighten up and think a bit.
They keep talking about someoneís welfare. The word does not quite get through the walls of my head, it kind of clangs on the metal, falls flat.
Itís all so incredibly heavy. I know that. So incredibly life and death. The thing is this: somebody tried to kill me. And it didnít quite work, and they make a lot of that. I escaped death. If heíd been a little stronger, they say, or if Iíd been standing a foot to the leftó they make a lot of that too. If heíd had better aim, they say, very good chance youíd be dead. If you hadnít been knocked out, if heíd swung again, if it was raining or the sky was falling or a fire had been lit or a hurricane had actually touched down like it was supposed to, or if my coworker, darling red-headed Lila, hadnít decided to do an afterhours session for one of her neediest, if she hadnít decided to borrow my spurs, if she hadnít decided to check if I was taking a nap on the leather shrinkís couch, if she hadnít swung open the door with a great big Lila smile and hadnít found meó
But she did. Lila is not a creature who dwells in the land of If, I have come to conclude from my place in this white room. There is a God or at least a guardian angel and she is Lila and I hope I see her again.
When found, I was apparently unconscious, blood trickling from the top of my head. I was wearing my rubber merry widow and killer stilletos, and I wasnít on the shrinkís couch. I was tied to the Jacobís Cross, one of those dungeon devices we had at the house. I was tied to make it look like maybe I was involved in some kind of reverse scene. And of course they made a lot of that, the tied-up part. Really, this whole civilization was schooled on Gulliverís Travels, on cowboys and indians, and we all love to think about being tied up, secretly.
Nurse pads in softly and checks the plastic lines. She taps, squints at the drops crawling down their pristine little highways. I love it when they tap.
I backed her off, she says to the police lady. Give it a few minutes and youíre good to go.
Police lady has placed the orange chair by the bed and placed herself in it. She looks maybe Cuban, very plucked eyebrows on a fierce-at-the-firing range kind of face, brown hair drawn back, moon forehead shot with frown lines. She sits waiting for my head to clear. Are you ready? she asks. When she asks questions, the eyebrows go up. When I answer, the frown lines come out.
We left off at the flash, she says. Yesterday?
I remember a tiny flash just before it happened.
As it happened?
Can we get back to the costume?
That you were wearing.
Thatís my uniform. I was at work. I think I told you that.
At work? You were tied up. You were left for dead. Thatís your work?
Thatís not the work part.
Getting nowhere. Want to sit up?
Nurse appears, pulls me up by my armpits. I smell bad floral scent. Iím a ragdoll. The police lady frowns and waves the nurse away. She taps her pen on the chair arm: Wake up.
I try. I blink.
Letís work it backwards now, Vanessa. Try that.
You were found in a house of prostitution.
Actually, we donít call it that.
Well, sex is sex, violent or not.
We donít have sex.
Itís not violent.
Can we stay on point here? Working backwards, right? Who do you think did this? Do you remember a face? Features? Hair color, eyes? Anything distinguishing?
I remember faces all the time, but not from that night.
And they pay to beat up girls?
No, I start to say.
Sheís got it all wrong. I hold up a hand. This world assumes weíre the losers in the power game, us poor wretched females. Even the females assume that. The reputedly fairer sex. But I guess I was, right? I am my own worst example. Still, I have to try.
The House was a matriarchy, I say.
It certainly wasnít a church.
Sheís wrong, but Iíll get to that. I try to explain, as my neck starts to feel kind of frozen, cables stiffening. It happens when I sit upósomething about fibers, frayed and broken. I swallow, try to ease my head loose. Try to explain that usually I do the tying up. That usually thereís no baseball bat. Thereís never a baseball bat. Baseball bats are so not part of the program. Thereís no siren light. Thereís just a switch, a whip, whateverís called for in terms of dark and shiny props. But something apparently went terribly wrong that night. Someone broke in.
Police lady taps the pen on her knee.
We think vendetta, she says. Step on anyoneís toes lately?
All the time. I mean, as requested. Itís called shoe work.
I nod my head as she takes that in. The head mechanism needs oil.
More what weíre thinking is you crossed someone. Thatís what we think. Iíd like a list of all the people you may have crossed.
There is a certain part of what she says thatís on her list, her script, then there are the other parts.
I tell her, I canít do that. I canít remember. I try to say, are you sure you mean cross? Because I was found on one, and it makes it just a little confusing to try to imagine. It crosses back and forth in my mind, the context.
She looks at me and the corners of her mouth flex and twitch. Sheís not getting what she needs.
Weíll get back to that, she says.
Look, I say. Itís not my calling. Only my job. I kind of lucked into it. I just needed work. Iím not one of those natural-borns.
Maybe one of your clients felt, possibly, a need to fight back?
Thatís your theory?
Police lady taps that pen again.
Letís try tomorrow, she says, as a vein on my temple begins to test out a ponderous beat. She gives me that look again, the certain twitch, and slips out the door. In her place the nurse comes to restore the dosage. Yes, please, thanks, fine. Questions hurt. One cc of morphine per question would be about right, if I had my way.