No Man Is
by Sean Taylor

Dinner at eight. Sex at nine-thirty -- ten at the latest. Depends on the service at Roberto's tonight. If we get that lousy mid-western kid again, it could be as late as eleven before we're out of there. Really, Roberto ought to fire that kid.

Should it be the skimpy red velvet one tonight? Maybe the navy blue leather one -- Warren says I look really sexy in the blue one. What would he know? He'd say I look sexy in any of them. Just play along, that's what he thinks, just play along and feed her a few compliments and he'll get what he wants, all stars are like that. . . Small minds, I get so sick of them.

Another interruption. Just great. I really ought to talk to someone at that answering service. Too many of these things slip through.

"Hey darling. I've got some bad news."

"Really. What? Having trouble matching your bow tie to your socks again?"

"Worse."

"Your polo pony caught something from an undesirable filly and won't stop scratching?"

"Hilarious. You're a regular riot. Now would you please shut up and listen?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Look. Dad's entertaining some Arabs tonight, and one of them has a daughter ready to hit the big three-oh. It's a favor for Dad. Really. She's a tramp, true dog meat. Got nothing on you, sweetheart."

What, no screaming fans at every corner? No number one re-mixes? Dry up and die, Warren.

"Yeah, whatever. Maybe tomorrow night."

"OK. . .Hey, thanks for understanding. Blood's thicker than water, you know."

I hang up, listening to the bath water lap against the sides of the tub while Boots swats at the bubbles. I imagine the same bubbles swimming in my nose, throat, lungs. Boots licking my hand, giving up, and slinking off to the bowl by the refrigerator. Rest. . .

"Here Boots. Let Mommy in. Cats aren't supposed to like water."

Nice night for a walk. Maybe afterwards.

* * * * *

Tramps, all of them. Whatever happened to real heroes? When I was kid, we had the Shadow, Lone Ranger, even Batman and Robin. Now it's these sex-crazed musicians. Self- proclaimed Messiahs for a new generation.

At seven-thirty, I'll call it a night. Been on the corner all day anyway. I'll be back tomorrow morning, shouting and screaming. "Repent! Repent!" It used to be so clear, easy to tell them. Now they can't hear me for all the noise those headphones are pumping into their ears.

Just like Ellis, everyone of them. Not one of them goes by that I don't see a little bit of Ellis in their eyes, hear a little bit of Ellis out of their mouths. Ellis cursed his father, too. Even cursed me on the note he left.

One more show tonight. Gangster rap crowd. They think it's cool. I can tell by the walk.

About four of them. The biggest one's got a knife. He doesn't know I know, but he's got it anyway. Right up against his wallet. Probably a butterfly. That's where Ellis kept his.

"Yo! What's up, old man? Why ain't ya preaching no more? You all out of things to say? Or did you change your mind all of a sudden?"

"Yeah. I got some something real smooth jammin' right now. Real smooth. . .'Ooh baby. . .give me what you got. . .' Wanna hear it?" The short one offers me his headphones.

"Repent!" I say. "Repent! Quit following the gods of that trash you're listening to. 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me.' That's what the Bible says."

"Ain't got no time for the Bible. It don't rhyme."

"Can't dance to it either."

"Listen," I say, "You'll dance soon enough. Dance right on into Hell. Dance forever. No stopping, then. All these zealots of immorality will be dancing with you then. But you can outsmart them. Repent! Repent!"

They don't like what I say. The one with the knife pushes me down. I think each one of them gets a chance to kick me as they go by. That'll hurt in the morning. But bruises heal.

They yell something at me as they run off. I can't hear it clear enough to make it out. The sounds don't separate themselves in my head when the darkness comes in. . .they just mix together. Maybe I'll go in at eight or nine -- whenever I wake up.

Some listen. Some don't. All I can do is all I can do.

* * * * *

I'd turn on the radio, but I get so tired of hearing my songs over and over again. I used to think it was so cool to hear the radio playing something I wrote, something I sang, because I knew then that they thought I was good enough. Now it doesn't matter, and I know it. They'll play any old crap I give them. All it needs is my name on the CD.

Let's see: jeans, raggy t-shirt, Papa's fishing hat, a ski-mask if I had one, and these old Nikes (the old-fashioned ones I bought before the air pumps). Maybe this windy city will be blowing so hard nobody'll notice me. Sometimes a girl needs to be alone. Without the whole crazy world chasing her down like she was wearing a sign that said "A MILLION BUCKS - - JUST CATCH ME TO WIN!"

Wonder if I'll see Warren and that Arabian princess tramp. His Dad does enjoy showing off the city whenever company is in town. Driving down the strip in his stretch limo. Guess he doesn't quite realize that those things are a dime a dozen nowadays. Oh well, Warren wouldn't recognize me if I weren't wearing something kinky anyway. It's a perverted kind of tunnel vision he's got.

Better call George downstairs. See if he can't let me leave by the loading area again. The winos make great company. Don't ask a lot of questions.

"George."

"That you, Miss Diva?"

"Can you sneak me out back again tonight? Last time, I promise."

"For a kiss."

"Don't tempt me, George. Your heart rate alone would kill you. And I wouldn't want that on my conscience. Besides, I might not find anybody else who'd let me use the back door."

"It was worth a try, anyhow. Sure, come on down. You gonna use the service elevator?"

Dear sweet George. I bet he hasn't seen a single one of my videos. He probably wouldn't be so sweet then. Come after me like I was the anti-Christ, jump on that "She's ruining our kids" bandwagon. Thank God Salem was a hundred years ago.

"Yeah. Bought my new album yet?" I hope he's blushing.

"Naw. Not on a security guard's salary. It'd be a little too new for me, anyhow. No Benny Goodman on it. I'll meet you downstairs in a few minutes."

"Thanks, George."

Well, Boots. You up for a little walk down the strip? No? Well, keep an eye on the apartment for Mommy. Wouldn't want to lose anything. On second thought, let someone take it all. It would be a welcome change.

* * * * *

The lights spin like showgirls, rapt in their performance. I try to focus, but the showgirls keep dancing, teasing, taunting, twirling around all glamor and frills.

Something dark that reeks of a night's sweat comes between me and the lights.

"Hey, mon. You ok?"

He's a big black man, close to six-and-a-half feet, no joke. And he's got those long dreadlocks growing like ropes from his scalp. Real unnatural.

"I say, hey mon, are you ok?"

I groggle something out to him, noise mostly, that he at least pretends to understand. He reaches out to help me up, out of the alley.

"Thank you," I say.

"Don't mention it. You need a ride somewhere?"

"No thanks. I live here." As I say it I realize he probably assumes I'm talking about the alley. . .that I'm a boozing, vagrant wino.

"Ok, mon. Take care!"

He's gone before I can correct him.

My watch beeps faintly, one of those cheap twelve dollar made-in-Taiwan kind of beeps, alerting me that it's ten till eight. I always set it ten minutes fast.

The loading bay doors of The Regal open. Probably some college kid carrying out the trash. . . No, it's a rent-a- cop checking the alley. No drugs here, I start to yell to him, just a beat-up old preacher, trying to save a few souls.

After he comes out, he holds the door for this kid who was behind him. Rough looking kid. Faded blue jeans, full of holes, baggy flannel button-up covering an old undershirt, and an ancient fishing hat. Fashion is something I'll never grasp.

The kid kisses the rent-a-cop on the cheek, makes him cross his heart on a whispered promise, and then jumps from the loading dock to the alley. I'm going to assume the best, that the kid is just leaving work from one of the shops downstairs at The Regal, and takes a shortcut home through the alley. Only walks a few feet after the door closes behind the rent-a-cop. Leans against a wall, pulls a pack of cigarettes from the pocket on the front of the flannel shirt, lights a match on the bricks of the wall, and sucks a cigarette like it was a straw. Blows smoke rings, too. Darn good ones.

Ellis used to blow rings, too. He used to try to catch them on his finger, score a point for each one he caught. Scored thirty-eight points once. His room smelled like smoke when his mother and I cut him down. Unfiltered smoke. It made his mother sick. Me, I just ignored it, washed the odor out of my clothes, and threw up later. But first we had to turn that music off.

The kid looks over to me, offers me one.

"No thanks. I like my lungs."

"Suit yourself. Gonna die anyway. Fire's as good as ice, or something like that. I never can remember."

I want to tell this kid to repent. Throw away those smokesticks, and breath the fresh air of Jesus. But I can't -- my lungs and ribs hurt too much. One of the hoodlums must've been wearing pointed shoes.

The kid finishes the smoke, then puffs down two more without missing a beat.

* * * * *

The fresh air smacks against me like a kiss, shooting me up like morphine. No pain. No memories. No anything.

I finish the third stogey, and crunch the butt under the heel of my Nikes. The wino looks at me, still shaking his head after declining my offer of a cig. Well, at least I'm not sleeping in some alley with a bottle of Jack, or whatever guys over sixty-five who live in dirty alleys drink now. I wish he'd stop looking at me that way, accusing. If I wanted that, I could just grab the Lear and fly back to Iowa to Mom and Dad. Even they would hug me first before condemning me.

Maybe that's why I hang on to Warren.

Three to get ready, and four to go, so I light up one more, and start walking out of the alley. The wind has other ideas, lifting Papa's hat, whisking it back over to the wino. He's nice enough, picking it up and knocking the dirt from it. I pop my neck, stretching the muscles, and slide my fingers through my freshly cropped hair. Kind of a long flapper cut. . .it's starting to grow on me. The wind tickles my scalp, triggering the night's rush again.

"Thanks."

He doesn't answer, seems shocked that I'm a girl underneath the street urchin clothes. Oh well, thought I'd made a friend. You win some, you lose some. Nothing new under the sun. I take the hat, tuck my hair back up under it, and head incognito into the street.

Then all Hell breaks loose. The wino starts screaming at me.

"You! You're that high-fashion harlot of music that's running this country's morals into the ground! Diva! My God, what if everybody's little girl grew up to be like you?"

Great. So much for incognito. In just a few seconds, people start gathering like maggots on dead meat. Thanks a lot, old man.

"Taxi! Hey, taxi!"

People, paper, pens. No matter where I look they're all around me. Stupid old preacher. Go ruin somebody else's night. I've got enough problems.

"Hey, everybody! Look! It's Diva!"

"I think you're great."

"Can I have your autograph? It's for my cousin."

I wonder if this is what a lab rat feels like, having to push all the right buttons while the guys in glasses and white coats stand around and watch. Only, now the glass between me and the crowd has been removed, and they're squeezing in, huddling in tighter to touch me, pull me apart, get a piece of me, carry me home as a souvenir -- "The Night I Touched Diva!"

"Taxi!"

"Please, just a few autographs."

Can't think. Can't feel the night air. Won't you please leave me alone. You don't want me. . . you want Diva. I'm not Diva. I'm not Diva. I'm. . . My God, who am I?

"Sure, just a few. Anything for my fans."

A blur of yellow rescues me. I fall inside less than gracefully. In the back seat, I cup my hands to hide my face.

* * * * *

My God, Ellis. Is this what you saw when the floor danced beneath you?

The attention she commands. The worship she craves. A pimp in black leather selling sex to children. And once they're hooked, they beg for more. Not one kid in the crowd is older than eighteen. Most look at least thirty, padded and curved, showing off the adultness of their bodies. But they're children. And begging at her feet like pets, ready to play.

"Repent! Repent!" I say, but I know they can't hear. All I can do is all I can do.

My sermon gets lost in the thunder they give her. Try as I might, I can do nothing here. God forgive them for they know not what they do. If anyone causes one Your little ones to stumble, oh Lord, have mercy. . .

A cab sweeps in, screeching recklessly next to the curb. She crawls in, bowing first to soak in their praise. The yellow door slams behind her, and the cab screams off.

It takes a good fifteen minutes for the crowd to fully disperse. Most of them linger, trading stories of how close they got, what her clothes felt like. Two girls in the front lie on the sidewalk, passed out. I guess they actually touched her.

Might as well get a cup of coffee before going home. Henry's place is only two blocks away. Let the commotion die down a little.

When I enter, the smell of hot coffee is solid like a wall. Just being here cheers me up, even makes my side feel better. Sid and Gladys wave, ask me for a soul count. Marty looks up, nods, then looks away, finishing his grilled cheese and Maxwell House. Two drunks are passed out in the corner booth. I stuff a Gideon New Testament in each one's shirt pocket, and order them each an omelette plate and some fresh coffee for when they wake up. Henry will see that they get it.

"Here's twenty bucks. It'll get them each a night at the shelter," I say to Henry as I sit down, "Don't let them have it till after I leave."

He takes the money. "The last two blew it on more liquor. What makes you think these two won't?"

"Just got a feeling this time, Henry."

"You had a feeling last time."

He's right. Most of them drink it all away. Probably end up right back in the corner booth, drunk and passed out. Some don't.

"Didja hear the news, Wilson? About Diva's new album being banned in two stores in Mississippi?" Henry asks me. And as he does, I remember the color of her eyes when I handed her the cap, deep brown like Ellis', before they dulled from drugs.

"Well, preacher, didja hear me? Diva's new album was banned from two stores in Mississippi."

I ignore him as much as I can. "Ham and cheese omelette. Grits and toast, too."

"Bet those libs'll be making a stink about their first amendment rights again. Yes sir, this time it's got the smell of a lawsuit all over it."

Henry keeps talking to me, but the words get lost somewhere between us. Eventually, he gives me the omelette plate, and I join the two drunks at the corner booth. One stirs as I sit, shows me a picture of his wife, then passes out again. My watch lets me know it's ten till nine.

©1993 Sean Taylor