The Garden of Last Days
By Andre Dubus III
Hardcover, 384 pages
List Price: $24.95
April drove north on Washington Boulevard in the late-afternoon heat. She passed housing developments behind acacia and cedar trees, Spanish moss hanging from their limbs like strings of dead spiders. Between her legs was the black coffee she'd bought at the Mobil station on the way out of town and it was too hot to drink, the sun still shining bright over the Gulf and blinding her from the side like something she should've seen coming, like Jean getting laid up and now there's no one to watch Franny and no calling in sick at the Puma. And little Franny was strapped in her car seat in the back, tired and happy with no idea how different tonight will be, how strange it could be.
But even in September, Thursday was a big money night, seven to eight hundred take-home, and that's what April concentrated on as she drove, Franny's chin starting to loll against her chest—April made herself think of that fat roll of tens and twenties she'd have at closing, how she'd fold it into the front pocket of her jeans then go to the house mom's office off the dressing room and give Tina a hundred before she found Franny in her pj's on Tina's brown vinyl couch, and she'd try not to think of the walls above Tina's desk covered with dancers' schedules and audition Polaroids of naked women, some of them under postcards from girls who came and went. In the corner were a small TV and VCR where once Louis kept playing a porno starring Bobbie Blue, who used to dance at the Puma as Denise, though the name her mother gave her was Megan.
But Tina would be sure no tapes like that were around. She'd let Franny watch Disney videos as long as she wanted. Bring her chicken fingers and fries from the kitchen. Play cards with her or give her the back of an old schedule she could draw on with a Puma pen. And if the noise from the club got too loud—the rock and roll numbers the DJ blasted, the constant clink of bottles and glasses from the bar, all the men's hooting and hollering, Tina would turn up Aladdin or Cinderella or The Little Mermaid and pull the sliding door halfway shut so she could keep the right girls on rotation at the right time because it was all just a show, April told herself now, it was just a different kind of show business and Franny'd have to be backstage just this one time and she'd be fine. She was only three and she wouldn't know what she was seeing and she'd be fine.
April passed the industrial park, acres of one-story buildings behind hurricane fences, barbed wire coiled along the top, the sky an endless coral haze. She checked Franny in the rearview mirror. There was a ring of grape around her mouth from the Slush Puppie she'd let her have at the Mobil. April had put sunblock all over her in Jean's garden. Jean, with her heavy body and aging face, she always looked embarrassed to take April's rent and had never taken a penny all these months to babysit Franny. But nothing's for free and you should never count on anything that is and April wanted to know how she could have fallen so easily into thinking that Jean and her kindness was a sure thing she could trust? How could she not have found at least one backup babysitter in all the months she'd been here, just in case? And Jean sounding so guilty on the phone from the hospital. Two days of tests. A bunch of tests for her heart.
Up ahead on the southbound side of the boulevard was the neon sign for the Puma Club. Thirty feet high and always on, it was two silhouettes of naked women, one standing, the other sitting with a knee drawn up to her breast. Just seeing it, something hot and hard gathered in April's stomach because even when she'd auditioned for Louis back in March, when she'd done her routine to a ZZ Top song out on the floor of the empty club at eight in the morning, she hadn't brought Franny inside with her; instead she'd parked the Sable under the trees and she'd locked her into the car with coloring books and crayons, a chocolate milk and two powdered doughnuts. She'd checked the doors twice and told Franny through the glass to lie down on her belly and eat and draw, and as she walked toward the club she'd tried to ignore the muffled cry of her daughter calling her from the car. April told herself it was in the shade and was hard to see unless you were looking for it, that it was all locked up anyway and what else could she do? Leave her alone back in the motel? They'd been here only three weeks and knew no one. She'd be done in less than thirty minutes anyway, though it turned out to be forty-five, and when she'd run to the car and unlocked it, it was full of heated air and Franny was sweating and it looked like she'd cried awhile. April had wiped her face and made her drink the rest of her chocolate milk, though it was warm, and she swore she'd never do anything even close to that ever again and took them to a lunch and matinee they couldn't afford.
April slowed for the illegal U-turn through the median strip, a patch of gravel she steered onto too fast, rocking her Sable, splashing hot coffee through her jeans onto her thigh. "Shit." She turned and checked Franny. Her chin had swung to her other shoulder but she was still asleep. April edged up to the southbound boulevard and waited for a Winnebago to lumber by. Her thigh burned. She reached for the box of tissues and pressed one on the spill. Barely cool air blew in her face and at this moment she hated this car and her ex-husband for buying it, she hated Jean and her weak heart, she hated Tina the house mom for being the one to watch over her Franny, she even hated Florida and its Gulf Coast that Stephanie up north had told her she'd love; but more than anything, she hated herself, April Marie Connors, for doing what she was about to do, for breaking the one rule she swore she'd never break, pulling out onto the macadam, then driving into the crushed-shell lot of the Puma Club for Men, her daughter Franny right there in the car with her.
It was not quite six yet, but parked up against the split-rail fence were pickup trucks and station wagons, a Mercedes next to three motorcycles next to a gray Lexus with gold trim. Always all kinds of men. It didn't matter if they were in the trades or gave orders in a high-rise office, if they were married and had children or lived alone and had nobody—men were men and soon enough, it seemed, every one of them would find their way to the Puma or places like it. Most nights she felt nothing about them whatsoever; they were simply the objects of her work and she worked them. But tonight, she hated them too.
Under the fake-Puma-skin canopy leading to the front door, two regulars in shirts and ties talked and laughed. One of them glanced over at her as she drove by and she accelerated past them, her rear tires spinning in the crushed shells. She steered around the club to where the employees parked up against the oak and acacia trees. Twenty or thirty cars were there already in the late-day sun. She saw Lonnie's red Tacoma and pulled alongside it. A lot of the floor hosts wore tight Puma Club T-shirts and drove big SUVs, anything to show off just how much room they could take up themselves. Lonnie wasn't big like the rest of them, but he had a knockout punch and when he talked to her during her shift he always looked right into her face and not at her naked breasts. The way the others did, like it was their right. Like it was another kind of tip.
"Franny?" April sipped her coffee. Still too hot. She ran a finger down the side of her daughter's forehead and cheek. Her skin was warm, her chin sticky. "Wake up, sweetie." April checked her watch—four minutes to sign-in. She balanced her coffee in her other hand and opened the glove compartment for the box of Wetnaps and began to wipe off the purple ring from around Franny's mouth. Franny turned her face away and whimpered and April had to press harder to get the syrup off.
"Wake up, honey. You're gonna see some movies."
Franny pushed at April's hand. She opened her eyes, a little bloodshot, green as Glenn's.
"Don't you want to see The Little Mermaid?" April opened her door, dumped her coffee. She unbuckled Franny's car seat and grabbed her pink starfish backpack that held her toothbrush and toothpaste wrapped in foil, her pj's and two books, a Berenstain Bears and Stellaluna.
Outside it was hot and smelled like the trees but also the Dumpster near the kitchen door, bar trash and kitchen trash, and next to it the steel barrel of rancid Frialator oil. April carried Franny with both arms, the backpack hanging from her fingers and bouncing off her leg as she walked over the crushed shells for the kitchen door. It was always hard to walk in them in her flip-flops but harder now, holding Franny, her arms around her neck, her cheek resting on April's shoulder.
April reached for the door handle. She could hear music coming from the front of the club, someone spraying dishes. A cool sweat beaded up across her forehead and upper lip and there was a sickening pull in her belly and she breathed deeply, pulled open the screen door, and carried Franny over the greasy linoleum, a fine mist rising on the other side of the big dishwashing machine and its short conveyor belt on her right, somebody new working there, an old man with brown skin spraying a rack of bar glasses. He looked up at them and nodded his head, then looked away. A Cuban probably, an old Cuban who didn't speak English.
To her left, past the chrome racks glowing orange under the food-warming lights, Ditch's back was to her. He was slicing up ribbons of steak on the greased hot top, the steam and smoke rising off the bell peppers and onions he flipped with his spatula. Someone had left the hatch to the ice machine open, and she moved past it and the battered swinging door the waitresses used, Renée's Foreigner song blaring out there in the darkness behind it. For a second, hearing this meant nothing. Then it did, that Renée was already into her ice queen act, shedding her icicle costume one silvery fringe at a time, and unless Tina'd changed the rotation, April was less than two numbers from having to be onstage herself.
She stepped quickly into the dark hallway lit only by the crooked sconce over the dressing room door. Franny lifted her head. Zeke sat on the stool against the wall with his glass of iced Coke, all shoulders and blond crew cut, that strip of whiskers down the center of his chin. Franny squeezed April's neck and Zeke leaned over in the dark noise to open the dressing room door, a long bright room full of naked and half-dressed women, most of them talking and smoking as they got ready, and it was stupid of her to only tell Franny she'd watch movies with a nice lady like Jean, that she hadn't mentioned all the women they'd have to walk through right now, most of them bitches April had nothing to do with—they smiled right at you while they tried to steal your customer for a private, they paid the minimum to everybody in the house from the DJ to Tina, and a few of them were into Oxy and Ecstasy and went back to hotels with big-spending clients and gave the rest of them a bad name.
But now they smiled for Franny; they sat or stood at the long makeup mirror under the lights, all hair and naked backs. A few waved at Franny in the reflection, some turned and came closer with their smoking cigarettes and naked breasts and big smiles for her daughter, but April kept moving, heading for Tina's office straight ahead, the door wide open. Tina was leaning over her desk whiting out something on the wall schedule. April squeezed behind her and dropped Franny's backpack on the couch.
Tina turned around, the bottle of Wite-Out in her hand, the whole office smelling like it. "Rachel's history and Lucy just got bumped to days so now my rotation's all fucked up. You're on after Renée, Spring. Sorry." She fixed her eyes on Franny standing on the couch, leaning against April and gripping her T-shirt. "Jesus, I forgot." She capped the bottle, her one-inch nails a bright orange. She'd been in the business for years and had her boobs done before anybody and they were massive and hard-looking. April grabbed the sign-in pen hanging by its string near the clipboard.
"So you're Annie."
"Franny." April wrote: Spring—5:58 P.M. She wanted to ask Tina why she hadn't called her in earlier, but Tina was asking Franny about her starfish backpack, if she had anything yummy in there to play with, and Franny being quiet wasn't a good sign but April was thinking how she didn't even have time for makeup now and she quickly signed into the pickup log, wrote: Spring—drove self. Sable.
Renée was already into her second number, a heavy metal song she ended with her ass in the air.
"Your mama's gotta work now, sweets. Show me what's in your bag. Are you hungry?" There was an edge to Tina's voice and April knew it was to get her moving, though it was scaring Franny, her face so still and about to take a bad turn, her arms held out, and April wanted to pick her up and hold her just a second but then Franny wouldn't let go and April was due out on the floor in less than two minutes.
"I'll be right back." She blew Franny a kiss and stepped by Tina, moving fast by all the girls who could take their time getting ready, and she hurried to the wall of gray metal lockers across from the mirror and had her shirt off before she got to number 7, Franny beginning to cry, a long shriek and wail, calling her. April lifted the padlock and spun the dial right to 11, then left to 17, then right again to 6, but she stopped two marks past it and now it wouldn't open and she had to do it again, slower this time.
Tina's office door slid shut. Behind the walls to the club Renée's number was in the final crash of guitars. The padlock dropped open and one of the girls behind her, Wendy or Marianne, asked about Franny, asked if that little doll was hers. April didn't answer and could give a shit if they were offended or not. The music ended and a half-full house clapped, a few of them letting out a whoop or a yell. April knew Renée was on her hands and knees now, scooping up bills, showing her ass to whoever wanted to toss more before she had to make her exit. And April only had on her white halter top, buttoning the three buttons up the middle. No time to get into her T-back, nylons, garters, and skirt. She started to pull down her jeans, but no, she wouldn't make it—she'd just have to do a blue jean act with heels.
She jerked her black stilettos out of her locker and pushed in one foot at a time and leaned over to cinch the straps. There were just men's voices now. Two of them laughed, she could hear them clearly as Renée came whisking into the dressing room naked, clutching her ice queen costume and a fistful of cash. Franny's crying was louder now and April couldn't get the metal pin in the hole of the strap and her Melissa Etheridge song had started and Tina stuck her head out her office doorway. "Get out there, Spring!"
"Mama! Mama!" It was almost too much. April's face was hot, her chest tight with trapped air, and she took a breath and found the hole and didn't bother threading the strap any farther. She moved by Renée standing there in heels and silver glitter and pathetic white frosted eyeliner, counting her money. Franny kept calling her, and out in the club a man called for her, too, then another, and Tina looked hard down at her jeans as April passed the office and didn't look in, her daughter's cry the only sound she heard as she stepped into the darkness of the hallway heading for the blue glow of the backstage hall and the three carpeted steps she climbed. She told herself her daughter would be fine. She would. She'd be fine. She waited behind the main curtain for her cue, for Etheridge's voice she heard now, but shit, how was she going to get her jeans off past her stilettos without taking them off first? And Louis didn't allow bare feet on the stage—everything else but not the feet. And when she got her jeans off, it'd be her underwear she pulled down for them. Not Spring's, but April's. Etheridge started singing about coming through the window, and men were calling for her now, calling for Spring, and she put on her nightworld smile, parted the curtain, and stepped into the amber glow of the stage.
A few regulars let out a yell. A few more clapped. She smiled and smiled and her hips started to do what they did. She swung her head back and looked hard down into the darkness of the tables, smiling like nothing would ever make her happier than what she was doing right now. Men sat back with their drinks and bottles of beer. They stared at her face, her crotch, her breasts. A college kid in a white cap smiled up at her but he couldn't look her in the eye, and that's the one she'd come back to, that's the one she'd unsnap her jeans for first, the one that made her feel this was her show, that she controlled them and always would, that she'd be fine—this was her show and she'd be just fine. She and Franny both.
Reprinted from The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III. Copyright (c) 2008 by Andre Dubus III. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.