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Authors: Barbara Bell

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BOOK: Stacking in Rivertown
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All that pushing got to be a habit, a routine supported by special sayings, rituals performed before my act to ward off disease and to keep me safe from the fruitcake clients wanting more than sex, wanting blood.

Ben never left us unwatched. As he got more sophisticated, the rooms had a one-way mirror somewhere and a secret door. If Ben wasn’t in the room, he watched from behind the mirror, interfering if things got too nasty. Ben was the best daddy a kid could ask for.

He kept us locked in most of the time. When I first came, the only players Ben had were Kat, Toni, Matt, and myself. He didn’t pick up Violet until later.

I loved our rooms. They were tall and airy, at the top of a warehouse he’d renovated. A wall of windows looked out over the East River. The water glittered on sunny days. I had a pair of binoculars that I used to watch the boats go in and out the river. Pigeons roosted on our window ledges. We had a small patio on the south roof where we could lie out in the sun. Ben thought the air did us good.

I began to remember how Toni always tried to cheer me up with little gifts he picked up here and there. Matt was quiet, like me, but he always let me curl up in his lap when we watched scary videos together. For some reason I could never put my finger on, he reminded me of Vin.

I thought of Kat for the first time in five years. Kat’s body and face came the closest I’ve ever seen to what I would call perfect. No man ever just glanced in her direction. But it was her inner grace, a sense of timelessness, of all the days gone by, that captured you. Kat was the one that mothered me, coaxing me back to life after Ben’s basement.

As I began remembering them, I almost started to cry. I missed them so much.

And we had Charles and Princess Di, two cats Matt found in a Dumpster one day. Eventually, we caught on that Charles was really a girl. It didn’t matter to us. Di was disappointed. And there was Buster. Good old Buster. He must have weighed in over one hundred pounds and was part mastiff, part St. Bernard. Ben gave it away as a reward to be able to take Buster out to Central Park. Ben had Buster trained as an attack dog. For our protection, he said.

I have to keep my family safe, Ben said over and over. That’s how we said it. We said we were family. On nights we had off, we’d make popcorn and watch videos. We celebrated holidays and made up birthdays, spending weeks agonizing over gifts for one another. Kat posted charts of the cleaning duties. We bought groceries and cooked, spending mealtime niggling back and forth. And we cared for each other like our lives depended on it.

I laid the gun on top of my keyboard.

Why me? Why did I have to get a cult following and an undercurrent? Why couldn’t they have just ignored me?

So that was when I thought to take out the shoebox again. I lifted the top off it and found Ben’s business card. Beneath that were all my old IDs, all fake. I pulled them out, staring in amazement, the wheels turning in my head.

I couldn’t even remember what my name was when I lived by that river. But during my ten years with Ben, I was Elizabeth Boone.

It reminded me (another chit) of Ben visiting me in that hospital, but I was in a different room from the one where I first saw Jeremy. This was a lockdown ward where I got off the smack cold turkey, soaking the bed with sweat and shaking like a baby. I was restrained hand and foot, which didn’t bother me at all. But Ben kept waving the new IDs before my eyes.

“You’re Clarisse Broder. Remember that. And when the police ask, say you were Ekker’s girl. Don’t mention me.”

I couldn’t get it in my head why, and I asked him if I had appendicitis. At first he laughed, but when I kept asking about the surgery, he got to looking pale. I’d never seen him like that.

“Yeah. Appendicitis,” he said at last. And he took my hand with that gentleness that he showed sometimes, and told me the story about falling down the stairs. I remembered the ballroom and the black strapless, but I didn’t remember falling.

After I had the police as confused as Ben about the appendicitis, they stopped bothering me and wheeled me into a regular ward.

Ben came that last time and handed me my things. Thinking about it now, I’d almost say he looked sad. Then I met good old Jeremy and got married.

In the shoebox beneath my old IDs was a savings account book. It showed that Elizabeth Boone had some twenty thousand dollars saved in First Mutual. That was a stunner. And beneath that I found a batch of folded papers of stories I’d written years back.

So it started. The beginning of my “year,” as I call it, when I began counting up chits and thinking about a different type of suicide, the kind where you end up free, in a new life that you yourself decide.

Holding the IDs in my hand and having my recurring problem with memory, I picked up my phone to call Ben. He was the only person I knew that could get me a batch of new IDs.

And it’s funny how you forget the important things. How the bad stuff just falls right out of your head and you remember a whole ten years of your life with a man like Ben, thinking that everything that happened was only natural and not all that terrible when you get right down to it.

So at that moment, for some crazy reason, I was thinking that Ben was the one to help me.

It turned out to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

2

Weekend Number One

Ben’s message machine drones on. I almost hang up, but then say fast, “It’s Beth, Ben. I’ll call back.”

I pack my pistol into my bag and make reservations at an Italian place Jeremy likes. Then I work on my new plan. It’s like making up a story. First you get the general idea. Then you embroider, working the details. You search for the tragedy and irony. If you’re lucky, you’re surprised by unexpected twists and a satisfying ending.

Kat taught me Shakespeare when I was at Ben’s. She’d been with Ben the longest, and was almost twenty-five when I first came. Ben didn’t usually have players that old, but Kat was different. I guess she spent a year in college somewhere. That seemed weird. She kept a whole collection of Shakespeare on a shelf.

Sigh no more, I’d say to her.

We’d hang our heads and lie back on her bed. Sigh no more. I got a real appetite for Bill, or B.S., as we called him. We even acted out some of the plays. I practically knew
Romeo and Julie
by heart. But for me, nothing could be better than
The Tempest
. All that forgiveness at the end, the blessedness.

I want to write a story like that.

Kat took care of the rest of us. After our plays, we’d bathe, worn out but flush with arousal and fear. She’d check us over, tending to any bruises or open cuts. We’d sleep past noon, then Kat would cook breakfast.

The evening hours could be the hardest as we waited for the plays to begin. Ben never told us what to expect. It added to the show as far as he was concerned.

The scare worked its way into me. That’s when Kat would sit me down with a book. I thought it was dumb at first, but Kat was insistent. And once she got me hooked, I couldn’t get enough.

Kat guided me. Whenever she returned from a shopping trip, she dropped another book in my lap. Later on, she’d get me sitting right next to her. We’d talk about what I was reading. Kat taught me more about everything than any teacher I ever had.

The morning after my failed suicide, I go jogging. About a mile down the road, a limo with black windows wheels up and stops a little ahead. The back window slides down as I come alongside. It’s Ben.

He smiles that awful smile that he gets just before something bad, and I decide that maybe I don’t want to see Ben after all. The driver jumps out and opens a door for me.

“Hop in,” Ben says.

I look around, not a soul in sight. I sigh and slide in, sitting across from him.

“You took your time,” Ben says as the limo pulls away from the curb. “You’re what, thirty-one now? That’s too old.”

“I just need some IDs,” I say. “I’ll pay.”

“We’ll see,” he says. “Strip for me.”

This isn’t what I had in mind at all, but I don’t see that I have too many choices, so I take off my clothes.

When I’m done, he says, “Bring up your knees. Spread.”

He checks me over.

“Crouch. Good. Now hands and knees.” He feels my sides, runs his hands over my rump. “Head up.” He pokes my thighs. “You’re clean and fresh,” he says. “Like new. Jeremy’s been taking good care of you. You don’t look a day over twenty-five.”

“I just need IDs,” I say again.

“Planning on going away?” He cups my breasts and works them over like a doctor feeling for lumps. “Still firm. Still good.”

Ben reaches into his black bag and pulls out a blindfold, fixing it over my eyes. He knows how much I hate that.

“Crouch again.” I crouch. Wait.

“It’s your lucky day. I’m down a player right now. I could use you. Not every night. Weekends. What IDs you want?”

“The usual,” I say. “Driver’s license. Social Security card. Maybe a birth certificate.”

“That’s four weekends. Friday and Saturday, the biggest nights. You up to it?”

I begin to shake. “I’d rather just buy them.”

The limo slows, and Ben throws a blanket over me. The driver leaps out, opening the side door. Somebody steps in. Ben takes off the blanket.

“So. What do you think?” he says. I feel hands on me. Ben’s big hand grabs my hair and turns my face toward the person.

“Yes .” A man’s voice. “I think they’d like her.”

“I think they’ll be more than satisfied,” Ben says. “Next Friday then?”

“That will be fine.”

The blanket goes over me again. The door opens, and the man steps out. The limo takes off, and we cruise around in silence. Ben slides the blanket off, caresses my cheek, and runs his hand along my back.

“Sit up,” he says. He removes the blindfold.

“Put on your clothes.” Ben watches out the window as the neighborhoods roll by. Then he hands me a card. “Arrive at this hotel at eight o’clock sharp Friday evening. The key for your room will be under the name Elizabeth Boone. Carry a bag as though you’re there for a night or two. I want that body of yours to sing when you cross the lobby. You’re naive, innocent. So turn their heads, Beth.”

I stare at the card. “Nothing in the face, Ben. It’ll be too hard to explain to Jeremy.”

He nods. “I still have your whip. I never got rid of it.” He smiles that awful smile of his again. “If you don’t show, we’ll be around to pick you up. I wouldn’t want that. I never liked hurting you, Beth.” He touches my cheek. The limo stops, the driver comes around, opening the door. I step out.

That’s what I get for not being able to pull that trigger.

Mandy turned a corner one day. We were at school in gym class, with us in our freaky gym outfits. And Mandy was laughing. She had the ball in her hands, getting ready to pitch it at me in dodgeball.

But Mandy clutched her side, made a little cry, and stood still.

The school nurse came to get her, leading her out, head down and still holding her side, with the nurse saying something about the period. All the girls tittered, but she turned on us with such a glare that we all shut up fast.

Mandy got sicker.

Sometimes it’s this way, the rumor went around, started by who knows who. When they first start up, when it comes so young.

And I waited, but Mandy didn’t come back to school. She didn’t come over to dig crawdads and chase the snakes.

Mandy died five days later. Appendicitis, the principal announced at the school, shaking his head. If only she’d seen a doctor, the teachers said.

I got the idea that doctors had something to do with periods and somehow appendicitis came along with whatever a period was.

Appendicitis, and it just busted right open, just burst inside her, they kept repeating, wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs.

I suspected it was the dangers that got her.

I wore white gloves at her funeral, though I was told it wasn’t right. But I knew Mandy loved white gloves. She used to talk about the white-gloved ladies who shopped on Dew Street. I didn’t go in for them myself. But we had a stash of money saved. We sold lemonade and crawdads, and sometimes frog legs. I had enough to buy the gloves.

After that, the dangers got hold of me. They were everywhere. For some reason Snuff kept showing up wherever I went, with Gedders in tow. I got good at keeping an eye out and not walking alone. But I couldn’t keep it up forever. They caught me near Ansel’s trailer and dragged me behind.

I bled then, thinking I was going to die like Mandy. But I didn’t. Pretty soon after that I started my blood. I thought for a long time that it had to do with what happened behind that trailer.

Snuff and Gedders held me down on my back to do what they did. When I was first at Ben’s, Kat, Toni, and Matt made me get up on my hands and knees doing me a different way. They started me slow, and I never liked it much, especially after all those weeks in the basement, crying.

And sitting at home after seeing Ben, I’m shaking just like I did then. I’m thinking that calling Ben was a big fat mistake.

And I forgot to explain about the whips.

Ben kept a whip for each of us with our name on the handle. They were all different. Kat’s was thin, with a split in the end. Matt’s was short with lots of strands, each ending in a knot. Ben never used a whip on Violet. With her, he used a cane.

My whip was thick. It was long and mean.
BETH
, it said in red paint on the hefty handle.

Because of your will, Ben said, your strength. It’s what makes you so good in the straps.

Thinking about my whip, I fret. I’m not sure I can do it now. Maybe it’s like falling off a horse. Maybe I’ll jump right back on.

But it’s more than that. From the moment I saw Ben’s face again, the thing that’s pushing from behind began pushing harder.

That week, I attend my two book signings in a daze. Jeremy sits beside me. He’s so proud. My agent starts bugging me for a photo for the book jacket of the next printing the publisher’s planning. I send her a picture of Jeremy’s sister.

“This isn’t you.” My agent, the complainer.

“Nobody needs to know that,” I say.

In the meantime, I get busy with my other details. I check on my savings account and find that now I have a whopping twenty-eight thousand dollars in it. I switch it into checking, using my old IDs to pose as Elizabeth Boone. By Thursday afternoon, I’ve purchased a 1993 Taurus for eight thousand dollars and rented a garage in upper Manhattan.

Friday morning, the dangers buzz me. I take a long bath, administering an array of lotions and creams. Then I dress and hit Manhattan by mid-afternoon, getting in some shopping. I find an incredible black silk dress that falls just above the knee. When I walk, it flows like water. I pick up new stockings, new heels, and a bra of green silk trimmed in black lace.

My hair appointment is at five. I have it cut shorter. If it’s too long, it gets in the way. Then I have Ronny do my face. He’s a minimalist when it comes to makeup, which suits me fine.

“You’re humming today, Clarisse,” he says. “You look like a model ready for a shoot.”

Now Violet could have been a model if she’d had the right breaks. And like I said, she had teeth. The real problem with Violet was that she never got over the berserks. Being tied down can get to you if you’re left like that too long with all sorts of things happening to you. We all got the berserks in the beginning, but after awhile, they go away.

Violet never got over them. That’s why she usually just sucked cock. Not the multiple-orifice approach for Violet. She almost always berserked on that. Or a lot of straps. If she hadn’t had teeth, Ben would have dumped her fast. She also kept that little-girl look. Violet carried it into her twenties.

Pulling off a weekend away from Jeremy is a little touch and go.

“My screwy agent called,” I say. “She’s lined up a lecture and a dinner for Friday and Saturday. I think I’m going to throttle her.”

“I’ll be there to help you, sweetie.” I think of him curling up at my feet like a Labrador while I’m at the podium.

“No,” I say like I’m talking to one of his strays. “I need peace and quiet.”

“I want to go,” he says, tucking his tail. Stay, I think. Lie down. Be a good doggie.

He pouts for two days, cultivating a hangdog look for my benefit.

I hate lying.

I guess you could say the last five years of my life were a great big fat lie. Except I didn’t always remember it that way.

Violet lied. She’d get so mixed up she couldn’t remember the truth. Her lying put Ben in a real bad frame of mind. There was something between those two. I thought of it like watching one person trying to outcheat the other at poker. It’s not even the same game at some point.

So here I am into the first five days of my “year.” Men are staring at me right and left as I’m strolling north along Fifth Avenue. I get a whiff of the old days as I turn west on Fifty-Ninth, walking beside the park.

Kat would take me shopping for clothes here, in the Village, and in SoHo. She taught me New York, the delis, the shops, how to snag a cab. She hauled me into MoMA, the Metropolitan, and taught me how to use the library.

I near the hotel, passing a line of waiting limos and cabs, hitting a wall of white panic. As I prepare for my entrance, I stop still, seeing a cab at the curb, empty and waiting. But then I remember what Ben said. I remember that whip. I shut my eyes and count one to five just like Kat taught me in the basement. I push myself forward.

I swear I can smell the mud in the water. I can hear the blackfly drone and the willow leaves shake. I feel the sway of that river. Stacking in Rivertown comes to my mind. It makes me smile. That shoots me right in the hotel doors like I’m floating downstream.

I feel plush. I flush out every square inch of my skin. As soon as I’m in the door, a bellboy jumps over and lifts the bag from my shoulder. Men turn to watch me. I walk like a writer, like I’m married to Jeremy, but powerful in need of a screw. Naive, Ben said. Innocent.

At the check-in desk, I flash the young man a smile and say I’m Elizabeth Boone. As he hands my room key to the bellboy, he informs me that my husband checked in an hour ago.

I cross the lobby like I own every man in the place, and catch sight of Ben leaning against a column and reading the
Times
. I search the strangers milling around him.

BOOK: Stacking in Rivertown
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