SHORT STORY: Better Than Barstow by Ava Black

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Tonight will be the first time I kill a man. I don’t want to kill him, but can’t disappoint her. She’s the only friend I have.

She stands behind the swivel chair and pats my black victory rolls to complete my pinup-girl look. Drifting through the salon’s open door on the baked, high-desert air are the pungent smells of race gas and the thundering noise of ’53 Chevy engines. I look out the window. Main Street is packed for Barstow’ rat rod car show. Guys with pompadours and dolls in swing dresses stroll the sidewalks. Two dozen of them booked retro makeovers from Viv, but none reserved photo shoots with me. She’s the star, but still makes me feel important. She’s good to me. She charges me almost nothing to rent studio space in her salon and paid my booth fee for next month’s car show at The Orleans Hotel in Las Vegas. If burlesque performers or showgirls book photo shoots with me, they’ll make my pictures famous.          

“Mexican skin tone is hard to match,” she says, examining my foundation, “you’re lucky I’m gifted.”

I reach to my cheek to touch the bright blush.  

“Don’t smear it.”

Stopping, I drop my fingers to my lap.  

She rests a palm on my shoulder and whispers, “Just look. You’re the prettiest girl in California.”  

Am I? At trade shows she transforms plain Jane’s into swans and gives them a magnetic power built on attraction. I envy that she, and they, possess it. I never will. I’m short. My teeth are crooked. My tattoo sleeves are faded and my green dress reveals my love of Ho Ho’s and coffee with too much sugar. Viv has blonde waves and an hour-glass shape. She also has a new apartment in Vegas by the Strip and a space there for the new salon she’s launching there next month. I have her coat tails to ride and a shack in the desert.          

On the beauty station, my cell vibrates then displays Paco’s name. She reaches past the whiskey bottle and answers, “She doesn’t want your shit. Fuck off,” then disconnects.

She’s strong. I’m glad she’s my friend. “Thanks for handling him.”  

She rests the phone beside a curling iron and grabs the booze. Pouring carefully, she fills a glass. “Forget him. Concentrate on Mike. Remember to tell him you’ve fantasized about him since you met.” She hands me the glass.

I take it and stare at the whiskey, letting the bitter bite of its scent sting my nose. “I can’t.” 

She scowls. “It’s not meth. Don’t be chicken.”

My eyes wander to the dragon tattoo on my arm that covers the track marks Paco helped put there. I trust Viv to not let me walk that road again.  

“It’s one drink,” she says.

I drain the glass and frown. “You’re sure he’ll want me?”

“Mike wants anything that bends over.” She leans close to my face, her breath minty sweet, and places a finger beneath my chin. “What’s important is that I want you. Think, Cora. You know Mike. He’ll follow me to Vegas and drink or gamble away everything I earn. My business will fail. And so will yours, once you get out there. You know I wouldn’t ask you to do anything that wasn’t best for us, don’t you?”

I’m not so sure. “Well….”

“Don’t be afraid. I won’t let Paco drag you down or Mike stand in our way. The new salon is almost booked through June and some of my clients are Bally showgirls. They’ll want a strong and capable woman to take portfolio photos. You can be that woman. You’re better than Barstow.”

***

The last Deuce Coupe rolls down Main Street as the drag grows quiet. I stand outside Viv’s shop to wait for Mike. The whiskey in my stomach churns into vomit and I tell myself he deserves to die—Viv and I deserve to be happy. But that isn’t true. The truth is too vile to face. I won’t do it.  

The rumble of a ’32 Ford flathead approaches the strip. My knees begin to quiver and I realize I’m sweating. Mike’s headlights land on my body and he parks at the curb, then stares at my breasts and smooths his greased hair.   

“Damn, kitty cat,” he calls through the open window, “Lookin’ cherry.”

“Thanks, daddy-o.”

“You and my wife make good money today?”

“Viv made lots.”  

“That’s what I like to hear.” He reaches across the seat and opens my door. A Pabst can tumbles out. “Gas, grass or ass,” he says. “Nobody rides for free.”

Dumbfounded, I stare.  

He laughs. “Kiddin’. Get it. But this is last ride I’m giving you. Get that Focus fixed.”

“I’d like to, but I’m still behind on rent.”   

He snorts. “Go back to whoring and pick up some cash.”

I take a breath. “I don’t do that anymore. I’m legit now. I’m a photographer.”

“Keep tellin’ yourself that.” He snickers. “Viv says you haven’t booked a client in two months and any of the work you do get comes from her. What’re you gonna do when we leave?”

He doesn’t know that he won’t.

“No answer?”

None.

He shakes his head and shifts to first. We pass liquor stores and payday loan shops until we reach the Jack in the Box at the city limits. Outside the restaurant, three men talk under a streetlight. The two in Gap-styled clothes I don’t recognize, but the bony vato in a tattered t-shirt and shorts is Paco. He eyes the flathead as we rumble past.

I cast my sightline ahead, to the empty desert, and wonder how the straight razor will feel in my hand. I haven’t had the nerve to hold it, but Viv says it’s light. I wonder which part of Mike’s body I should cut so she doesn’t leave me.  

We speed down Route 58 as he turns up Buddy Holly and the town’s lights fade. The afternoon heat evaporates into the night as stars overtake the sky.

His hand comes off the steering wheel and reaches for my thigh. “Come on,” he says with a coy smile, “just a little peek for giving you a ride. You know I think you’re pretty.”

Closing my eyes, I sit deathly still. His hand slides under my dress and moves up my leg. My heartbeat quickens.   

“So pretty,” he says. “Prettier than Viv.”

That’s everything I’ve always wanted to hear.

His fingers glide across my panties as my stomach rumbles. Fuck! My eyes pop open. I heave, but nothing comes up.

“Jesus, Cora!” he shouts, pulling back his hand.

“I’m sorry,” I say, a tear rolling from my eye. “I just…” Stop being afraid. “I was upset because Viv and I had a bad fight so I started drinking and now I think I’m sick.”

“No way,” he laughs. “I don’t believe you two fought. You don’t have the balls.”

I stay quiet. He reads my expression and raises his brow.

“Really?” he says. “What’d you fight about?”

Will he bite? “I don’t want to tell you. It’s embarrassing.”

He snorts. “Spill it.”

He bit. Here I go. “After she dolled me up for today’s show, I said she was lucky to be pretty without her make-up—that she should feel grateful that someone wants her as much as you do.”

His smile widens. She should, but she doesn’t. And don’t think that way about yourself. Even without makeup, you’re pretty.”

“I am?” I pause. “Can I tell you something?”

He nods.

“I’ve always wanted you, I mean, to be with you. Since we first met, I wondered what it’d be like to be yours.”

A tumbleweed blows across the road and lodges in the rickety fence around my house as he pulls into the driveway and parks behind my Focus.

 “Tonight you’ll find out.”

He kills the engine and leans across the seat. His lips touch mine and I push down the bile rising in my throat.   

Inside the house we navigate the chipped, tile flooring to my bedroom. I feel an unstoppable force pull me into the abyss as I snap on the nightstand lamp and pat the mattress. “Sit here.” 

“No.” He unzips his pants. “I want you on your knees.”

Am I doing this? I hike up my dress and kneel on the tile before him. He closes his eyes and I take him into my mouth. I concentrate on images in my head of Bally showgirls in ostrich feathers and G-strings prancing before my camera. I will be somebody. I will be with Viv. I’m better than Barstow.  

Mike groans. His palms grasp the sides of my head and pull me into his groin. I suck harder then slide my trebling hand beneath the mattress.  

“Do it, baby,” he commands.

I dislodge the razor.

“Just like that,” he says.

It’s light.   

“Yeah,” he grunts.

I shake my head free.

He looks upon me and spies the blade.

His eyes widen.

I grit my teeth.

“What the fuck?”

I reach to his knee and slash.   

He drops to the floor. “Fucking hell!” he screams, cradling his knee. “The fuck are you doing?”

I lunge and rip the blade across his throat. “Helping my friend,” I whisper.

His eyes bulge. He clenches his neck and gurgles. Blood soaks my dress and pools on the floor as I heave vomit into the mix. I did it. Viv will be proud of me.

***

In the parking lot of The Orleans Hotel, hundreds of hot rods, painted with flames, throw glare under the bright Vegas sun. Chuck Barry rocks through the speakers as Viv’s stilettos tap through the waning greaser crowd who walk the rows of cars. Dressed like Veronica and a Mexican Betty, we pull dollies stacked with Tupperware bins of our beauty and photography equipment away from the convention center, and around the show cars, toward her van.

“We’re a smash,” she laughs. “The rest of June is booked and I made five large this weekend. How’d you do?”

“Three-thousand?” I say. “I don’t know. It’s in the bin in the back of the van with yours. I’d have to recount it to be sure.”   

I made three-thousand dollars? Did I really just say that? This all seems like a dream. What I did two weeks ago was a nightmare, but the sheriff’s interest is waning and Mike is safely in the sand. I’m here with three-grand in cash and Viv beside me. I never dreamed life could be like this.      

We reach the van and set the dollies upright. She throws open the cargo doors.

“I can still crash with you once I fix the Focus and get out here, right?”

“Absolutely,” she smiles with bold, red, lips. “For as long as you need to.”

It’s so good to be her friend.  

We shove the last of the bins atop the stack, then load the dollies. She slams the doors and jingles the keys in her fingers. “Last trip to Barstow!”

The sun’s warmth spreads inside me. As I walk to the passenger door I can’t help noticing an African-American woman in a red dress with a white gardenia shoved in her long raven hair. She’s got a sinister way about her, like a modern Joan Crawford, and exudes a relentless dominance. I don’t like it. She locks her gaze onto Viv.

“Viviane!” she calls.  

Viv spins around. Her smile fades.

“Where’s my answer?” the woman asks.

Her face turn ashen. The reaction unnerves me because nobody intimidates her. Who is this woman? What answer? What does she want with Viv?

“Um…I wanted to stop by, but couldn’t find you.”

“Bullshit,” the woman says. “You know our ’59 Herse and the stall number.”

That’s a seriously expensive car. Whoever this woman is, she’s rich.

Viv gives me the side-eye and tilts her head, signaling she wants to be alone with her.       

“I forgot something in the piano bar,” I say, walking to the back of the van and taking my purse from it. “Text me if you need anything.”

“Take your time looking,” Joan says. “She’ll be a while.”

They stride toward a distant Herse and I try to ignore my apprehension, but something inside says Joan is trouble.    

The piano bar’s soft lights and smooth jazz are an oasis from the hot sun and blaring rock n’ roll. Worried about Viv, I slide onto a stool and flag the barkeep, promising myself to order club soda.

“Pick your poison,” he says.

“Club soda with lime.”

He nods and serves me.

I drink and watch rat-rodders come and go from the lounge, then drink another and check my phone again. Nothing from Viv. I can’t stand not knowing who that woman is or what she wants. And I can’t stop wondering why Viv didn’t tell me about her. I don’t keep secrets from her. Why’d she keep this one from me?

A pack of men, dressed like James Dean and talking loudly, enter the room.

“I told her,” the tallest one says to the pack, “gas, grass, or ass. Nobody rides for free.” They roar and high-five, then sink into a round corner booth. I feel the bedroom’s tile floor bite my knees. I taste Mike in my mouth. I see his blood on my dress and my vomit on the floor and can’t wonder why, after all I’ve done for her, she’s keeping a secret.

“More club soda?” the bartender calls.

“Old Crow.” 

An hour later Viv texts me and I stumble back to the van. Smiling brightly, she waits beside it, pretty and angelic, but I can’t get that secret she kept out of my head.   

“Are you,” I slur, “keep…keepin’ secrets from me?”   

Disgust coats her face. “You’re drunk,” she snaps. “Don’t talk. Get in.”

I climb into the passenger seat as she rolls down the windows and starts the engine.

“I’m sorry,” I mumble. “I was upset that you left me to go with…with…that woman who you never even told me ‘bout. I dunno what to say.”

She scoffs.

“Don’t be mad at me,” I mumble.  

With a stern expression, she shifts to reverse and checks the rearview mirror. “Fuck!”

Her head swivels.

I do my best to follow her sightline, then spot the empty cargo space.   

“Fucking, fuck!” she shouts. She throws the van into park and rushes to the back. When she the open doors, the sun illuminates the missing Tupperware and dollies.     

“My cash,” I whisper.

“My money!” She screams. “It’s all fucking gone!” 

“My camera equipment…”

She rubs her forehead and marches to my door. “Why didn’t you remind me to lock it?”

“Th-that woman,” I mutter. “She distracted me. I…I didn’t think to—”

“You don’t think at all! There’s no way we’re getting our shit back. There’s twenty thousand people here. The cops will never find it. It’s fucking gone!” She narrows her eyes. “I protected you. I helped you. You were supposed to support me. Why didn’t you remind me to lock it?”

All I can think to say is, “I’m sorry.” 

She marches to the rear doors and slams them. Tears well in my eyes.   

As we roll through the desert, the heat, whiskey, and strain produce a headache that hurts more than the realization that I can’t fix my Focus or pay rent. That means I can’t can’t move to Vegas. I can’t be with Viv. We drive the long trip back in silence and I don’t ask about the woman—or her question. Viv doesn’t say a thing. 

Hours later she pulls into my driveway. I look at her, but she refuses to look at me. I reach for her arm. “Viv—”

“Get out,” she says.

***

Three days of silence and all I can think of is her. Food nauseates me. Sleep evades me. And the eviction notice on the counter doesn’t snap me back into reality or stop this need. Her, and my need for our friendship, is all-consuming.     

The sun rises beyond the mountains as I sit in a lone plastic chair on the patio and check my cell. No messages. I set it on my lap and stare fifty yards into the desert where Mike rots, letting the memory of that night torment me.  

When my phone vibrates, I jump, then answer and blurt out, “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry—”

“Still here?” Paco says.

For some strange reason, in the absence of Viv’s voice, his feels comforting. Familiar. His tone sounds like home.      

“I miss you, baby girl. Let me get you. We’ll take a ride.”

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

“Corazón,” he coos. “Come on. I got something for you. You’ll like it—it’s hers.

***

I know going into town with him is a bad idea, but maybe he’s found Viv’s equipment. Maybe mine.

When I peek out the window I see his silver CRX cruising down 58. It’s still got the mismatched green door and dented fender. It slows and parks out front. My chest tightens as I leave the house and move toward the car. I stare at his bony cheeks and tan t-shirt. His dark sunglasses and a few of his neck tattoos are new, but I remember his edginess well. I open the door.

“Gonna like what I got,” he says over blaring club music. “You gonna be happy.”

I doubt it, but sink into the seat. “Where’s Viv?” 

“Call her.”

“She doesn’t answer.”

He backs onto the highway. “Give it another try.” He turns up the music and smiles, but it looks more like a sneer. I tap her name on the screen and a recording tells me the number is disconnected.

We slow to thirty-five when we see the Jack In The Box. I can’t control the thoughts spinning in my head. Why can’t I reach Viv? What does Paco have? Who was the woman? We pass the liquor stores and loan shops, then Paco whips a U-turn at the salon and parks at the curb. A “For Rent” sign hangs in the window.  

I look to him. “She wasn’t supposed to go yet.”

“Get out,” he says. “Check on it.”

I stand on the sidewalk and peer through the window. The shop is vacant. The salon chairs and beauty stations are gone. The door to my studio at the back is shut.   

Paco rolls down the passenger window. “Pretty, ain’t it? Maybe not as much as a ’59 Cadillac Herse, but not bad.”

I turn to him. “What’d you say?”

He sneers. “Yeah, that lady you met in Vegas was a hot-shot. She’s a show manager for Bally’s. Viv gave me a message for you: she never had no salon there.”

The world falls out from under my feet. My mind separates from my body.  

“And the answer to that lady’s question was ‘yes.’”

My power to speak has left. 

“I know you wanna know what the question was,” he laughs. “So I’ll tell you. Her question was, “Can you start early?”

Start early? At Bally’s? The entertainment director at Bally’s hired Viv? There was never a salon?  

“Something’ wrong, kitty cat?” he laughs. “Don’t got no friends?” He reaches to the glove box, pops it open, and removes a syringe. 

“Hey,” he calls. “I got your friend right here. Ride with me, girl.”

My tattoo itches.

“Come on,” he says.

My mind burns.

“Get in.” He reaches across the seat and opens the door.

“She used you, Corazon. Right from the jump. But I got you now. I got you. You ain’t alone. Nothin’ bad gonna happen to you when you’re with me. I’m your friend.”

He waves the syringe.

All thoughts return to Viv. I loved her. I killed for her. And she used me.

“Don’t do this alone, baby girl. Get in.”

Numb, I walk to the car.   

“That’s right,” he says, handing me the needle as I sink into the seat. “We’re friends.” He shifts to first and heads into the desert. I stare at the dragon and hold the needle close to my arm, watching it hover above my skin. I want it so badly. So very badly.

“You ain’t meant to be friends with someone like her.” He pulls a rubber-tie from the glove box and places it on my lap. Knowing he’s right, I wrap it around my bicep and sink the needle into the dragon. “She’s better than Barstow.”  


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Ava Black’s publications include: The Bug Jar, Jacked (Noir Nation Magazine), and The Box (Spinetingler Magazine)

She has written numerous reviews and conducted multiple interviews for Crimespree Magazine and has read at Murder At The Mic in Chicago and Noir At The Bar in New York City.

Regularly, she attends crime fiction conventions and workshops in the Milwaukee and Chicago areas. She has a Master’s Degree in Education and teaches English as a Second Language.  


Find out more about Ava Black here: https://avablackbooks.wixsite.com/website

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