"Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky — "
Thin and bonewhite and unlovely in her threadbare jacket that would have been patched if there had been someone to patch it, Cheshire Finnegan wasn’t a woman. She was some sort of razor thin genderless dwarf: a kid the puberty fairy had never visited so she was eternally skinny and raw with angles all the places women were supposed to be rosy and round and dimpled. Her hair was short and ragged because she cut it herself or had him do it, which was probably worse but better than when she tore it out in clumps when she was screaming or shivering. She was always lost inside her shapeless clothes, like a jacket buttoned around a broom. She was jagged and brutal and hard and broken she wasn’t a woman. She was a thing. She was like a rat he’d found living in his house and hadn’t stomped because it was something else breathing. She wasn’t a woman. She was a small troll. She was a little crooked gremlin. She was an it.
But when she opened her mouth sometimes what came out wasn’t poison. Out of that drug thin, self-scarred body came a sweet, husky, musky sound. Whenever she let it all go and sang with her favorite songs when he tuned the radio to WEAF she didn’t sound like the Cheshire Finnegan he knew. Her voice was old and sweet and low, slinking muted and bronze through her favorite Gershwin tunes or Irving Berlin, and he knew it was the same as when together they’d been the two voices to lead the caroling on the first day of Yule, or when she was queen of May and the world smelled of grass or clean fires burning and the crowd howled for her to sing the may song. When she sang, she closed her eyes and tilted her head back and he could read the impossibly thin line of her chalky white neck and listen to the sound pulse out like the beat of her blood: intense, mewling, languid.
"Since my man and I ain’t together — "
She liked the program that was on so she hollered that he’d better not change it if he valued his genitals and then she left the door open when she took a shower. She wasn’t worried anyway. People on the street didn’t touch her. Not even children. She broadcast Typhoid Mary. She looked hollow eyed and sick and sick at the world. Nobody touched her. Nobody wanted the mange. She scrubbed at her scalp until it was raw and she was raw and hanging close to the beat of the song.
"Been rainin’ all the time."
She dug through her clothes that lay crumpled in the corner of the bathroom, hot water cooling on her skin until it stood like droplets of cold sweat, slidling ticklish over what there was of her to puddle sullenly on the floor. There wasn’t anything in here worth wearing. She needed to have her laundry done. It all smelled. She smelled — or had smelled — a common indicator that she’d been going through other people’s garbage again. She sat back on her haunches and shivered in the draft from the open doorway then cloaked herself in a towel and stopped belting along with Lena Horne long enough to holler at him.
"Hey Cagney, I don’t have anything to wear. Think you can spare me something from the prince’s wardrobe? I swear I won’t get too many fleas on it."
He was still listening to the radio and didn’t move from his battered arm chair where he was nursing a blue ribbon, as was usual and dainty.
"I guess I ain’t got any choice unless I want your bare ass distracting me from the jazz hour." He shrugged, although there was nobody to see it. "Go ahead. It ain’t no secret where I keep my shirts and drawers."
She came out like a half-swadled scarecrow delinquent, arms crossed over narrow shoulders so he wasn’t sure if she was hugging herself for decency or for warmth.
"I’m not wearing your shorts, Cagney. Hate to dash another of your hot night time fantasies. I’m not gonna loan you any of my dirties either, so don’t ask."
"I want your dirty laundry I don’t exactly gotta look hard to find it," the blue ribbon gestured eloquently to the far corners of the room, where she was apt to leave clothes wherever she stripped them off.
She ignored him in favor of a shirt, dropping the towel with a complete disregard for what he was or was not interested in looking at. She always did that. She wasn’t afraid of being seen. She wanted to be seen. She wanted to throw it in the face of whoever would watch. No one wanted to watch.
She kept her back to him and her fingers were slow and awkward at the buttons. The button holes were too small or she was too small and suddenly she was burning with a hot wretched sob that wanted to vomit out of her like a storm. She bit it back. She bit it back and tried to breathe. She breathed.
The song had changed. The song had changed and it came out rich and hot and sweet and poison.
"Treat me rough, muss my hair, don’t you dare to handle me with care. I’m no innocent — "
His nose bumped the back of her neck, finding bare flesh between the collar and the fine wet weed of her hair that clung unlovely to her collar bones, his hands awkward and heavy on her bony hips that were naked under the unbuttoned shirt.
"Why can’t you sing any songs about a tisket a tasket or about how you’re dreaming of a white christmas?" he asked into her neck and she was still and he wasn’t sure whether it was because she was thinking or not, "Why can’t you sing about all the rhythm you ain’t got in your white girl feet?"
She shivered and closed her eyes. “Tomorrow. You know what I want to do tomorrow, Cagney? I want to go out to the park and roll around in the grass. I want you to take me to see Follow the Fleet three times and buy me so many peppermints I get sick on them. I wanna go walking and not stop walking. I don’t ever want to stop. I wanna find what’s gone. I gotta find what’s gone. So many things are gone.”
He leaned forward, chin over her wet shoulder the same time as he pulled her hips backward until she was leaning against him, skin and his sweaty undershirt and her open shirt that was his anyway.
"That movie ain’t been in the theaters for years," he pointed out, and this was true. She was limp.
"You ain’t gonna take me to the park either, are you? You and me, we aren’t going dancing. We aren’t going anywhere."
She shivered again, a full body tremble like she was going off clammy and gooseflesh cold turkey again and he held her hips hard to hold her still while she shook so hard her teeth chattered, like he was afraid she was going to shake herself apart.
"Where you wanna go, Chess? When we get there you’ll still be you and I’ll still be me. There ain’t nothing you can do to change that."
She hung like a little piece of lean meat, a soup bone, gelatin white and milky.
"So tell me what it is I should be wishing when I’m ripping the petals offa flowers, Raph," she asked slowly and she at last deliberately moved, one hand to brush fingertips against the side of his face. "You’re warm. You always been warm. I guess that’s one thing I gotta say about you." She leaned back into him, into the slide of a clarinet that was singing softly to itself on the radio and felt his breath on her neck. "You’re warm and you burn. You burn, you burn, you burn," she repeated half to herself because he had put his mouth on her neck — open, tongue and teeth and heat — and one of his hands had shifted up her rail thin body to catch a nipple between callouses.
They didn’t have a question and answer session for why they were doing what they were doing, her breath coming out fast and trembling as she fumbled with the belt of his trousers unexpectly and then he fumbled with it and then they were both swearing and laughing and laughing, bare-bottomed on the floor like children after wrestling them off finally, and then her with her arms around his waist and her cheek on his stomach and her mouth, her mouth, and him fisting up a handful of her shaggy brown hair and pushing her head down, her pleading whimper and then his hands on her, in her, the feeling of old, greasy carpet. The two of them wild and desperate and grasping, then him empty and her spitting white into his crumpled undershirt and falling over limp on her side, breathing shallow, body blushed, eyes closed.
"I don’t love you enough to swallow," she volunteered.
"I don’t love you enough to want you to," he answered, and lay back beside her on the carpet. The song was soft and low and after a moment, her voice spilled out again like caramel.
"So deep in my heart, that you’re really a part of me. I’ve got you under my skin."
"You find Follow the Fleet at the goddamned theater," he said at last. "And I’ll take you to see it. Three times."
I lied. I totally found more crap.