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HELLO. TWO HOURS. HER KNEES. LIPS AND JAWS.

by

Lina Ramona Vitkauskas



She is blind in one eye -- the right one -- and she can sway, sway, sway her hips to the rhythm of any jazz tune with a glint. You can't see her teeth through her lips -- she is concentrating on the multitude of chords and jam sounds -- pulled tight into a pucker. Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon -- there they are in the sway, sway, sway. She is blind and she is stripping down to the last lacy thread.

A blind stripper, a half-blind stripper. The other girls are already completely buff -- their breasts all hanging out like a belly flop in December -- icy, flat, cracked teeth. Transparent panties flash in this amateur strip joint -- the black lights keep flickering like penguins. I'm always there with Suze, my partner in organizing this neighborhood, down-low, amateur strip show.

Someone told me they thought she was an Eskimo. But she doesn't look like an Eskimo to me. She's barren, sure, but she has more grace. Then someone said she was Swedish. But she isn't a fish. But Suze and I know she is Lithuanian. This was our old neighborhood -- Marquette Park, Chicago 1976. Grandfather still waters his canary in the cage on Mozart Avenue. I think she told me that canary was dead.

The neighborhood wasn't the old Lugans anymore -- there came some Poles, some Ricans, and now just mostly Black. She used to run through the public park sprinklers in the city summertime: water streams running between the web of her toes into the sidewalk cement cracks -- little landfills -- near the Nabisco factory. Grandmother worked at Sunbeam wrapping cords of appliances into plastic bags and tying them off with a twist. Every day, there were more cords to wrap -- the deep ocean of electric snakes piled in the center of a room like a charmer's lair. And her brown-spotted chapped hands would wrap, and she was still young -- 38! Every day another chaffed pinky from the monotony and rubbing of the cords when she wrapped them in kept time - pizzicato -- remembering her days at the music conservatory in Germany during the war.

When I was little, I came into my sister's bedroom thinking about silk -- and butter. I put my buttery hands all into the silky drawer of my sister's underwear. It was crazy in there. Her dresser drawers smelled like baby powder and sweat all mixed together. Sometimes she caught me. I would feel like staying awhile to feel the warming cream of the butter slink sideways up against the silk bottoms like eels -- I wouldn't run.

"Get out!" My sister would scream, face ballooned up like a puffy jaybird. But I wouldn't run.

You can pay the girls five dollars at the door. They all stand in line right as you walk in and five dollars is enough to get you in to the halfway just to get a look around -- up and down. She usually comes out last, with some long pants on, suspenders over her tiny acorn nipples -- dressed in a man's suit bare tits -- just old felt suspenders over those alert nipples. She wears sunglasses and a fedora. The other girls move away from her. The guys start giving out the money to the gaggle -- all clumpy mauve eyeshadows and gurgly cragged lips.

"What's a'matter boy -- don't you want the rest of us to get in and see some snapper? What you waiting for?" Someone yells to a young one, shoving his shoulder forward with a hard slap.

I wonder if she could see me staring at her through that glassed-up eye of hers. She took off her sunglasses as she was walking off the platform one night and squinted towards the back of the room -- she looked like a porcelain doll or an egg with a fever. She could sweat even under the cool breeze of the ceiling fan in the basement. Amateur Strip Show-$10.

This used to be Daina. It means "a song" in Lithuanian. It got boarded up when the last Lugan left for his retirement home in the suburbs -- that was grandfather. And he carried his canary cage out empty.

This was me and Suze's place now because we pried open the boards and made our way in from the back. This was our enterprise. The girls in the neighborhood who didn't go to school started coming here for money. More girls kept coming and more high school boys kept coming. Suze and I were the only drop-outs. We hadn't been back in years. We just stayed in the neighborhood and kept the younger ones coming back for some uninterrupted, unlicensed fun. No taxes, no license. You just bring you liquor, hush it up, and people play a tape recording of their favorite music and the girls come out and dance around for you.

They all pile in and crack open beers, swig bottles in paper bags. Suze barricades the back entrance with furniture and I lead the group downstairs, after the girls descend into the inverted darkness. I can see her hips they go: sway, step, sway, step, sway . . .

What can I tell her to make her scrambled eye see? Suze calls her Magoo and the rest of the guys think her body is a trip. But they see her eye and go ballistic. It's a maze of distortion and intricate vessels. I've been that close to her to see it. There's some rounded, molting tissue off the white part.

"Forget about you!" Suze boomed with a flappy wave to me. "What's the matter with you, dumbass?" I could feel his anxious hand on my shoulder. "You got no one except me and that stupid sister of yours, you got that? We're the only ones keeping you around, dumbass." Suze laughs at me.

I just shook my head. Like now. Eyes down to the floor. The girls have all chosen one guy each and the music is droning on. There's a lot of choking hairspray smells and wavy shampoo and bobbing apple cider smells -- peach smells -- nectarines, burbuon, limes -- all the slow motion of dark princess mops of hair, glassing each grinning young boy back in their chairs. Girls painting them smiles with their hair and retracting back like willowy serpents.

She is standing there behind Suze. Her fedora is still on. But now there is a sweater covering her front. I know what she is thinking -- she is thinking no one likes jazz, why am I blind, why can't I leave this place. She walks toward me, sliding gently across the floor like the soft slide of pointe shoes in the Auditorium Theater -- like when we were little and saw Swan Lake with grandmother -- me in this finale of piss and banality.

"Come on Ritchie, let's get some air."

I am standing there like an extinguished fire. She takes my hand and leads me up the rickety steps. Sway, step, sway, sway.

Now we are outside and in the back of old Daina in a pile of broken glass shards and carboard boxes.

"We're not sick to our stomachs, " I mantra. "We are not . . ."

She is cocking her head and her glasses slip down the slope of her nose. Her hair is like the butter and the silk and her long slender fingers are like milkpods -- cracked open to release the woven fibers of feathery milkseeds. She spreads them open in front of her face. "I think we need to end this, Ritchie," she finally says through the mirage of her splayed fingers. "We need to, I think," she sighs.

"I have a sister that . . ." I blurt.

I do have a sister. Now what else will I say? That is she is blind in one eye -- the right one -- and she can sway, sway, sway her hips? I don't want her to paint me with her hair.

"Ritchie, I feel like . . . I am my own sister now." she sits down on a box. It breaks and she falls to the ground. Second grade. She fell on the ice. Does she remember, her knees, her lips her jaws, cracked and bleeding? For two hours she cried and just kept wheezing, "Hellooo . . . hell oo o o . . ." I kissed her very hard to make her little breaths die down.

She doesn't seem to be embarrassed from falling. "I guess I didn't see that."She sort of smiles to herself. "Ritchie, we need to go in now, and I've been thinkin' yes, no more of this . . . we can't."

I am still staring at her, I think about her, this conversation, as if she is gone. And I think about how everyone else can be painted inside. She is the only one who can dance to jazz, at night, when there is only me and Suze there. And she is slipping away from me like an icicle. Even Suze doesn't know when I run away with her during the sex, I am back in the bedroom dresser drawers, numbing my hand with what she used to be to me. Then I started forgetting things, but I think she started remembering. Grandfather left and grandmother worked too hard, too hard to see that I was turning into her sway.

"I'm going to go downstairs now, Ritchie," she was saying. "I am going to leave this place after my last show . . . I have a place I need to go."

But I had nothing left in my mouth, only notes. I was playing the saxophone with my tongue, wanting her to stay. I was nothing but the trip of my mouth and her faltering sight.

"We can play some Eric Dolphy," she said over shoulder, gravel crushing under her heels.

Because I know you liked me that way, she never said. But I knew. I grabbed her arm.

"You can't go where you think you can," I need you . . .

"Ritchie," she stopped and pivoted like a statuette. "We're not sick to our stomachs. Just forget about this. Ever, ok?"

I took off her glasses and pulled her face close, her eye, all her cuts and bruises, everything I had inside of her. "I am not . . ." I whispered into her mouth.

She slid her glasses back on and curled herself up, arms folded and shoulders sinking like a doll. "No, Ritchie. I know what I'm doing . . ." she turned on her heel and ran through the basement door. I watched her vaporize and the click-clack hard down the steps meant no returning this time. I remember someone told me they thought she was an Eskimo. But she doesn't look like an Eskimo to me. She's barren, sure, but she has more grace.







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lina Ramona Vitkauskas has perfected the art of near-blindness. Her work has appeared in The Mississippi Review, The Wisconsin Review, Canwehaveourballback?, Mudlark, Big Bridge, La Petite Zine, 3AM Magazine and many, many other publications. She received an Honorable Mention for STORY Magazine's Carson McCullers Award (1999), and a recent semi-finalist nod in the CSU (Cleveland State University) Open Poetry Series (2002). The Milk Maid, as she is called, is fiction editor and webmistress at Milk Magazine.




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