Step by R. T. Smith
The thing is, she looked like my reflection in a dirty mirror. I found out that fact dropping by Carter’s office with divorce papers, and that slut waved her hand at me like homecoming royalty in a parade. I thought, son of a bitch has found himself another me – take ten years off and add implants – which made it hard to do what I had to, her being almost a twin. But I did it, so here I am.
It’s not easy to look like me. I have to work at it myself. Train hard, eat clean, sleep regular, no booze, no pie, stay tight. Though experts say less-stress yoga and pilates are safer, step aerobics has been my salvation, turned back the clock (plus a tuck here and there, collagen and Spanx). It’s a pouty French girl look I get shadowing my eyes, highlighting cheeks with sunset rouge, the bouncy pony tail. Nobody guesses I’m past forty. Behind bars, though, it’s not like they care about fitness or diet. Power shakes, fruit smoothies, rice cakes? Forget it. Get ready for cheap meat and beans, white bread, even slabs of Spam. Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid. They want us pig-sloppy and sluggish, easy to march about in orange coverall uniforms, “D.O.C.” stenciled across the back like some softball team. On weekends they’ll let us buy Bear Claws, cigarettes and Pepsis with canteen credit, but a bag of carrots or power bar in a Virginia penal setting? No way. “Aerobics” means how we spend our oxygen, but no matter what the warden says about rehabilitation, our hearts are not his concern.
I strain to maintain, despite it all. Flex and extend, multiple sets. I train in my cell – side-straddle hop, jog in place, that mean squat-thrust – till I feel the burn. Privacy? Yoga stretches make my bunkmate Remessa howl. Fortunately, she didn’t kill anybody, but she’s pushing the gay way and says I could get some radical tats and rule this roost. I’m already not soft or shy, but no thanks, not my scene. I do the Plow and the Grasshopper and pretend I’m deep in the zone.
They allow free weights under a tarp in the yard, but I’m not after bulk, though a little resistance is good for female bones. Running the track ...? All I need is shin splints and melanoma! No stationary bikes, no Nautilus and worst of all, no old-fashioned Reebok step to work those thigh muscles and elevate your pulse rate fast. The heart is the perfect organ, complete as an apple, but you’ve got to tend it. The Commonwealth has no interest in inmate stamina or muscle tone, but wherever you are, you’ve got to sculpt your body and your life to reach peace. I believe that, and though I have failed at the second, I will not allow the first to follow. Six times a day I count my pulse to be sure my heart’s on target.
Truth to tell, I am feeling some measure of remorse, and I’m glad Wife Two didn’t go blind or die, but after the ways she shamed my Tiffany into starving her body like a cornstalk and the things that woman said about Angelie’s nose always stuck in a book, that bitch deserved to suffer. Still, I understand now it wasn’t my job to bring her justice. The judge was right: I stepped over the line, and now I see my girls just once a month, embarrassed as hell to have a guard hovering like a buzzard, all the electronic locks, a razor wire halo around the whole compound. What do they tell their friends?
My own gal-pal Jillianne, who runs Blue Ridge Amazons, convinced me to drop photography (specialty: dreamy clouds). She said, “Melissa, girl, you’ve got to give up this artsy crap and work your abs and pecs, heart rate and tone, tone. We are artists of the body. We specialize, and you are the queen of step.” And we have to focus, especially in the matter of men. No woman likes to wonder if she looks sexy. They say you can’t be too rich or skinny, but being eye-candy will not shield you, as I found out, if you falter in the eyes of the law.
Carter was a disaster from the start, despite family money, a so-called Born Again running Grace Electrical Contracting, but the fact is, he didn’t darken the church door ten times while we were married. All that showy piety was a come-on to attract the local full-ducking Baptists. True, he would not touch hard alcohol because his daddy Alton was a drunk who went up in smoke because he forgot to switch off a breaker, but Carter had a weakness for the herb, and we always had bongs and clips, screens and pipes and a stash of primo pot. Me smoking, inhaling, infecting my lungs, if you can picture that! But make-believe Christian hippies from the get-go, that was us. Leonard Skynnard, stoned goofy, humping under a mothy Indian blanket. What we did for exercise was spastic Dead dancing and sex in every Kama Sutra position. It wasn’t scientific, but he said I looked divine.
And we had money, too. Carter inherited the company and learned early to swap labor off the books and deal in cash, handy-dandy, no paper trail. Our dream house was gorgeous and dirt-cheap, most work supplied in “shadow time” by carpenters and painters who needed wiring run or just a signature. A license and code savvy can be a gold mine. Like gangsters, everybody hid folded hundreds in soup cans or an ammo box under the patio bricks. Gas and groceries, dry cleaning, lunch at the club – I never flashed a plastic card – cash only. It was a house built on sand, though I thought I was happy.
When the kids came, we changed in different ways. I started worrying – if you can believe it – about not being around in the future, since my parents (boating accident) left me to fend alone. For the kids’ sake I started doing step and getting active in the arts. Body and brain, heart and art! I commenced to measure calories and carbs and body fat, running down to the gym lickety-split. Treadmill and X-treme, the rowing machine and step galore. Obsessed, maybe, but not obsolete, with Jillianne cheering me on: “Girl, you are the original live wire!”
It was Carter’s eyes that changed, or whatever he has instead of a heart. He always liked bigger knockers than mine – something to do with weaning – and when I started slimming down and getting fit, mine shrank to apples, though I still had raspberry nipples, skin silky as a child, my gingery thatch shaved down to a cute strip of fuzz. Girlish, you understand. French.
I was getting sleeker and more delicious, but that boob-addict strayed, despite my being pert and chirpy, winning ribbons with routines to Madonna’s “Vogue” and “Open Your Heart,” while I led in K-step, the flamingo, lunge and punch. Oldie music is crucial, and you’ve got to give tough love: “Keep that oxygen flowing, girls – slide, grapevine, slide, jumping jack. Add on, amp it up. March. White smile! White smile!”
But I haven’t mentioned Henry Lee. I guess he was our tragedy, something in his lungs not right. He’d wheeze and hack. Then I had Tiffany – easy birth, a squally elf – but one night Henry Lee choked. We never heard even a cry. A bona fide mystery and why I put so much stress on filling the lungs. Breath is life. Doctors said not to beat myself up, but it broke my heart. All I could do was exercise, losing salt to sweat. I’d also sugar binge – sweets for go, sweets for grief. You can’t lapse like that and expect results. Even now, if my mind slips back, I picture a quart of Rocky Road and have to distract myself: “Grapevine, throw your shoulders back, swing kick, go for broke, feel the burn.”
Her name is Debe, which in the Bible means bee. I hate that, since I am all sweetness myself – Melissa, you see. Mel for melon? No, really – mellow, melody. I am the one with the royal jelly, and now the bitch bee knows I’ve got a stinger. I’ll bet old Carter doesn’t get randy over what’s perched on the next pillow now, her face all blistered and patched. He’ll stray, come home rumpled, stinking of jasmine and gin. You watch. But I’ve got to get past thinking like that, if I’m to repent and reform. “You can’t build self-esteem on spite,” Dr. Prosser says, and it’s true. My own lawyer wanted to plead me as crazy, but any shrink would see past it. I was just flat-out mama-mad.
Right now, the craze is all Pilates or kick boxing from Roanoke to Richmond. Personal trainers, step-climbers, iron man or Zumba. Trends and fads. And Lawtonville is the worst to jump on a craze. The faculty frumps and pullet wives who love velvet cake and Martinis more than a junior size or muscle all clean and steady, they started dropping classes to join the newest scam and fell for every diet on cable. “I got this smoking-hot body through Nutriplan, and you can, too,” some airbrushed idiot parrots, like it’s not sweat work. Bullshit. Professor types can strut their sheepskins, but most three-strike felons have more discipline than the free smarties, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I lead a group. A chunky Danville gal named Barbara (bad checks, resisting arrest) says I’m their Fonda now. We’ve got a boom box, so I give them Christina, Mariah; even Whitney’s still got the beat. Nothing’s really old hat: The past is now! Warm-up and thirty dirty minutes, then cool-down to space music. Not up-to-date powerhouse stuff, “Pi-rates,” as Jillianne calls it, but their hearts are true, and we push it, drive it, ride it till we scream. You know, plenty of these so-called criminals are in for striking back at men. Law or not, you’ve got to admire that. But I should focus on range of motion, my own problems and progress instead of sweet revenge.
The first time I found out he was hounding, I went into a tizzy, threw lamps and screamed, but eventually forgave him, if you can believe that. Stupid! I’m southern-raised and naturally self-destructive. That Debe was working in his office, wiggling and jiggling, temp-tramp. I had my hands full on the home front, also running classes and building routines for a video. People said with the right exposure I could become a senior star, and I was beginning to believe. Carter promised his long days were due to windfalls from commercial work and a sub-division on the side. He said, “If county supervisors want to turn the Blue Ridge into a McMansion paradise, I’m happy to lend a hand. Our motto is ‘Power to the People.’ Let the voltage flow.” He’d laugh and pinch my glutes, mix himself a g-and-t. He didn’t appreciate training, but kept fit with client golf, or maybe he was somewhere between the sheets. Dog.
Still, I was not so busy I couldn’t open the Grace VISA bill. When business takes a man to Nashville and the room service tip is steep, a wife can read the score. A taxi in St. Thomas? A necklace I never saw? Sloppy. Found out, he begged and swore “never again” on his mother’s grave, then dug the pool and got me a Cartier watch. I told him to get her off the payroll toot-sweet, filing skills or not. So we had truce and I had power. The heart is a fist.
Before you know it, she was in a condo, the Grace truck out front with safety cones and a “Men Working” sign. Honest to God. Last straw. That low dog. I threw everything he loved – golf clubs to Hokie nation gear – onto the lawn one night and had the locks changed while he was in Lynchburg. When he rolled in, an ex-Falcon was sitting in an Adirondack chair with the restraining order, a pitcher of lemonade and a Louisville Slugger. Nothing Carter could do. They say a cheater wants to get caught, but a low-life contractor just expands his territory and adds a crew, more voltage, alarm systems, Cinderella chandeliers. He raises fees, and cash rains in like manna. At least I got my share, and though I am not about money, it’s the best insulation I know.
Single again, I finally made my peace and started taking to my bed “men friends” – a biology teacher, a one-eyed vet, a so-called sculptor with a bookstore. It wearies me to remember. Jillianne says her husband “ain’t nothing but a penis and a paycheck,” but the support settlement guaranteed I’d never need another scumbag to fund my life.
I knew where all the skeletons were hidden, the kickbacks and bribes. Carter didn’t have a chance. So long as I stayed single with the girls under my roof, I was hunky-dory, and I know how to squirrel it away. Living well’s the best revenge, and half the world has a penis. If a gal gets the itch, there’s the gym, the Night Owl Lounge, the Food Lion beer aisle. It polishes my spirit to be told I’m admired, but I’m learning you can get that from students, if you teach them how to improve their life. And gratitude, which from men is rare. “Cross over, cross over, slide.”
I was building something of a guru reputation, or maybe that’s gurette, and when he gave her a ring and the altar lie, I didn’t give a shit. If that bee slut had not started hassling my girls, we’d be having co-existence. . . , but no. First she tried winning their hearts with Precious Ellen dolls, Harry Potter and My Little Pony. She’d try to be their pal, the prissy twit, and spoil them with candy and their own flat-faced TV, but they wouldn’t bite. They know better, they’re mine. And besides, she smoked, which they know to hate. Did it on the sly, but my girls are not dumb.
So when the bait failed, she started sniping, calling Tiffany fat, making Angelie wear braces and bug-face glasses. I’d hear them crying before a weekend at Carter’s, and one day I saw blood specks in the laundry. It was summer, and Tiffany lied (daddy influence!), saying she’d been in a blackberry patch. Truth to tell, she’d gotten one of the bitch’s razors and made some nicks. Girls learn that on the internet to believe they have control. It didn’t last with Tiff, but it made me growl. I’d fix that bitch, I’d make her suffer, but now I’m paying the price – heart-choking meals, hard bed, hard time, and the bastard’s got custody.
Maybe it was her name that gave me the inspiration, and that Sunday morning Tiffany called, crying: “Momma, can we come home? I miss you. We don’t want to be prisoners.” Her voice was trembley, and that’s what set my mind afire. I didn’t think assault so much as avenging angel. Debe. Bee. The De-Con hornet spray perched on the sill was begging to be used. I grabbed the keys and was in the Tahoe, the front door behind me still standing open wide.
Like I said, she didn’t even stay blind, but in court she wore those saucer-sized dark glasses. Besides where the rim gashed her jaw, they claimed her lungs were damaged and didn’t know yet about her eyes. It made a mess of her skin. A part of me wanted to scream she asked for it, husband stealing and driving my girls to extremes, but lawyer Bill kept me calm, said I could weep a bit and should remember I was “protecting innocents.” “Watch your step,” he said. “Wear flats, lay off the lip liner and buy some bulky clothes,” in case a prosecutor might want to suggest I set a bad example.
He said I had to show shame and pain, to “rise above the rancor,” but the only way I could keep myself from rage was to picture the look on her face, Bee, like she’d seen aliens when I surprised her on the patio. I pressed the red button and heard the spray hiss out. It was a beautiful whisper, and she couldn’t get her hands up fast enough to stop the fog. I shouted, “Take that, queeny, take that, you tramp.” I’d give a thousand bucks – I’ve still got a nest egg – for a snapshot, but I’m lucky Tiffany called 9-1-1. Bill also made me promise not to mention that mirror moment looking into her squinched face, thinking, “Uh-oh, I’ve misted myself. Poor me.” I had to show I was ready to be correct, and it took all the courage I could muster. “I’m so sorry, and I should never,” I swore with my fingers crossed, “have smacked her with the can.”
“Felonious assault” has an awful sound, “malicious intent.” I just wanted to say “back off” in a way she’d never forget. Just letting my mind recall can push my pulse to overdrive like I’ve just finished the instructor super work-out. First Henry Lee – just bad luck – then Carter, the girls, my dreams and pride: all lost. It would be easy to break down, let the cardio get weak, my tummy slack, fill my mind with soap opera drivel. Tiffany sees a counselor, but she’s strong, and I’ll get probation – eighty more days, with good behavior. I paint on that big smile and won’t quit. Before you know it, I’ll be back in leopard leotards, running my life-saving boot camp and planning exercise for yardbirds coast to coast. With the fat epidemic, it’s a sure win-win. I’ve still got the juice. I’m two hundred watts. Three. I’ll show Carter some real electricity.
Till then, I have to forget that primpy bitch. Strength, stamina, good wind have got to fill my mind, oxygen pumping in the circle of life. Me and Jane, ageless and spry, blood rushing through the four red rooms of the heart. Can old habits shape the future? Step lively, slide, kick, grapevine and march in place. If a convict like me can keep the light beaming, anybody can. Bright smile, now, bright smile. Yes, yes -- breathe.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Spring 2009 Fiction