Dana brought Poor Boy home. A nice flat in a building full of safe-cracking schemers and the restless aged.
Poor Boy tapped the door lightly with his fingernail.
“Don’t!” she cried. “My roommates will wake up!”
“Okay,” he shrugged.
The air inside was filled with a heady richness he couldn’t immediately place. As they approached a pile he became aware of soft, multi-timbered breathing. They crept around a giant bed heaped with six sleeping maidens, possibly intoxicated. A partially dismantled apparatus was strewn in pieces on the pine floor and he soon realized it was a broken gasolier.
“Are there no lights in your place?” he asked Dana.
“We use candles. Here.” She handed him a cold unlit one, “This way…” She held his hand like a paw, leading him into a narrow crawlspace at the rear of the flat where she’d fashioned a small cot, as for a baby. “We’ll sleep here, and have more privacy.”
They settled in like two puzzle pieces. She told him about her situation. About her lucrative lace-making business and he didn’t really believe it, but, undeniably that was a bed piled high with sleeping girls in the next room. Living for free is the goal. But living on little is okay too… She drifted in and out of sleep, petting his chest with her hand. Soft music drifted through the curtains, a waxy smoke lingering and stinging his eyelids. An upstairs neighbor did a dance on taxed floorboards, scuffling, scampering about. One more crazy fucker. They followed him wherever he went, didn’t they? Soon he was aware of having dreamed.
And waking again he saw a stripe of morning through the gaps of her yellow cupboard door.
Poor Boy crept out, raising and lowering his face to different facets of the room like a ferret. His eyeballs, dry with sleep, sought out the big bed in the living room. Upon it was heaped a pile of lace and sleeping hands.
Their place was wrecked. Was he surprised? So they’re in the lace business… Around him he spied numerous lace underthings. Competing for his attention were the objects of their enviable, ridiculous lives — piled-up evidence of their presences, mingled and insane. His brain jogged to situate himself as he named it all (as he knew not their names). He scanned. All over the room were bits of broken jewelry, scraps of shared clothing and random trinkets of communal life: train tickets, match books, broken cigarettes, religious pamphlets in piles; a crust of bread, a rose in jar, a candelabra — stolen, he imagined — sitting next to photographs of dead relatives, boxes of hairpins given by an admirer, and a man’s wool sock. By the window, a canary soothed itself in a bamboo cage, and below that, a shawl draped over a shredded chaise, which articulated a languid seating arrangement — all decorative tasseled sash, Japanese cushion and Chinese rugs. On a nearby busted bureau: a street map of San Francisco, a book of postage stamps, a worn nub of a pencil with a rounded black pearl tip, a promotional shoe horn, an address written on a torn page from a bistro menu card. Nearby, a gilt-edged framed portrait of a black horse, a collaged valentine — folded many times, three pennies and one dime. He fingered a linen bag with lingerie inside, letting his hand move over an empty pot of rouge, a full vat of cold cream with a long blonde hair in it, a cat’s whisker in a scented envelope, a chicken’s femur bone — washed clean, an abalone shell with jewelry inside, a decorative wall-hanging of a famous dancehall chanteuse (her gown made of pasted butterfly wings), each arranged precariously on the mantle.
A growing light pleased him. He breathed in possibilities. He turned back to where Dana had placed as small stout bottle of fresh milk, warmed at the back of a stove downstairs, and a half of a loaf of white crusty bread — coated in flour, in the middle of a table laden with an orange (peeled, its skins in a neat stack on the edge of a bookcase), dirty spoons, mail and a newspaper from three weeks ago. Someone had clipped out its articles. She went to an area of the apartment where food items were kept; next to a vase almost completely drained of coffee — grounds swirling in a toxic sludge around the thick base — were a few dusty crackers in a paper wrapper.
“Your hands,” she said, “they are so cold and empty.” She grabbed one and put it in her pocket. He quickly placed the other one in the pocket opposite; drawing her close he stumbled with her around the apartment. Kissing her neck and ringlets. She suppressed her laughter and hunched away from him.
There were rustlings from under the mound of feathers, crinoline, lace and tissue paper. Six young sleepers were stirring in the beige light of morning.
Millions of years ago, vague nameless creatures wriggled out of a twilit sea, awash in stale brine. Their newness shined in the sun of the first day.
He didn’t know their names. They were Dana’s friends, or she worked with them, or maybe they didn’t; maybe Poor Boy didn’t know Dana that well at all. What she had said was that they shared everything, including clothes — the furniture was piled high with loud, bunchy fabric. Two room flat, a sleeping room and a sitting room; its inhabitants spent their days laying languidly at different angles on the bed, draped here and there (they’re kind of gauzy that way). Their faces were stilled masks made of powder; red sneers and dusky eyelids hid interesting thoughts. They were drained all the time, drained of all color below the jaw. Their faces made up for the diffuse monochrome below the neck. All things began and ended with their faces… His eye locked into a movement in the pile. Girl 2 raised her arm to wave hello and it hung there like a piece of celery.
Hi ladies, friends of Dana. Good morning, my babies.
Dana just laughed and slid her fingers around his jaw, turning his face away from them and their growing wakefulness, a basket of lobsters coming alive in the thaw. She put a cup in one of his hands and in the other, a corner of bread.
She walked away and a moment later he heard her muffled hiss of curse words. He walked up chewing his bread.
“Ah! Darling, just look at this.” A separation was widening between the sole of her boot and the upper.
Behind him the action was bubbling. The all-volunteer army sang with one voice and gobbled up air. Living for free in homemade underwear.
He thought of his own sad little room in the SRO, empty but filled with the ghosts of dead yeggs rotting in their cots from all years past. Even the air was ghost heavy and stock still. He imagined a brown languid light hanging over his neglected bed. He should go back today.
The girls went about their morning rituals as he watched with his eyes fixed like buttons from the next room. Could they see him? Did they care? The scene burned with a forbidden quality that excited him.
A window was hoisted open and sounds of the street trickled in, still-faint pebbles of boot steps and cartwheel grindings and mumbled voices, as the neighborhood roused late on Saturday. It was no match for the swelling clutter of activity in the room, the visual emporium of sin, giddy and yielding. Scattered guffaws, milling about, loud whispers, fingers aimed straight into the air, poking into fleshy sides, each to make a point at the most important part of a story — or stories, many many stories hanging off them like clanking jewelry.
Dana joined them, rifling through small metal boxes full of sewing machine implements, papers, trinkets, and things he couldn’t identify.
His gaze darted. Playing it coy, drinking it in, he assigned numbers to keep from getting shaky, going crazy and getting a fever… Too wet too heavy, must order and tabulate… Girl 1 rose and, raising herself on her orange elbows, traipsed off to a corner of the sitting room and urinated into a jar. 2 and 3 rose and parted the oilcloth drapes at the window on the north-facing wall, a bright and wiggling mass of dirty pigeons teeming along the sill. 4 buried herself in a swath of miscellaneous fabrics, sweeping a mass over her head like risen dough. Not all of them were up yet. He saw an eye slowly opening and closing through a gap in the blankets. 5 rose and pulled on one stocking, then another, feeling the seams and picking out creases at the ankles. 6 extended her arms and legs at either side, an X with a ball of bedding in the middle. Her eyes were fused like some kind of newly- hatched creature. She contracted, curling up with a groan at the light. 3, 5, 1 positioned themselves in front of a shoe-seller’s heavy clouded mirror and painted their faces. They pulled on chemises, stringed contraptions, body-holders of all varieties, patches of cloth tacked up over their glittery plump holy forms. They latched and fastened and gripped levers, bands and strings, on their own bodies, and those of one another . Boundaries erased yet they managed to avoid fastening themselves one to another. The shoes — always a challenging brain test in matching right and left each morning — dug out from a huge pile in one corner of the room. While the others rustled for a pair, 6 emerged from the sleep room, cowering in the light. 3 and 2 laughed at her and grabbed her hips, winging her into the room. 1 returned to the apartment with a big bottle of hot coffee from the communal pan set simmering at a stove downstairs. They passed it around and felt the nudges of their famished guts. 2 offered to go get bread and raspberry yogurt and promptly disappeared. 6 drank in hungry sips, her red mouth plumping with the heat.
How many naps would he take today, he mused…
“Hey! What’s this then!” One spied him watching from the tiny cot.
“Who is this boy, Dana?”
“He’s Bill. My friend from the café.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“How are you?”
“What’ve you been up to then?”
It was a vision test, eyes pinging around a slutty tableau vivant.
“Oh just doing my thing,” he said. It felt like talking to weather. “Lately I’ve been working with cement.”
“Sufficient, I suppose.”
“Come downstairs with us.”
“Yes, we want to know more.”
“Where are you from?”
“How do you like our Dana?”
“Very much,” He replied, jumping in wherever. “I mean, she’s standing right there—”
He didn’t mean it like that, but gave up on trying to clarify when their merciless guffaws wouldn’t end. They all left at once.
Aurora, Harmony, Faith, Peaches, Laurel and Cassandra, Dana recited. He was uncomfortable with the way she yanked a big ball of blond hair out of her hairbrush and then absentmindedly kneaded the mass as she talked with him…
Now that they were alone, Poor Boy quizzed Dana on the specs:
“Let me get all this sorted in my mind so I don’t get a migraine. So this bunch of single girls live together, share a big bed—”
“—their feet stuck inside their shiny squeaky shoes, their dresses a mess of bandages, shreds of ribbons…”
“How are there not all- out wars between them?”
“Who said there wasn’t? We are a special kind. You’ll learn.” She settled into the unmade bed, “Not everybody comes from order. If you were born into war you tend to follow its rifle reports.” All their made-up names, quaint, distant references that dated them… “That’s where the action is — and by that I mean soothing family chaos, served up nightly.”
“You live in a dream world.”
He saw on her face that she took it as a compliment.