The cashier at the discount grocery in Grass Valley was watching her before she came in, one hand sunk in the register drawer as he stared out through the window. He looked like he was thinking about stealing, and after she walked in was thinking about her, and then about stealing again. He was tall, skinny, probably still in high school, and had a thin mustache that looked so soft she almost wanted to reach out and stroke it.
Can I help you? he said.
She put her hand up to her mouth before she opened it. Ice.
In the back.
Block ice 89¢, cube ice 79¢. She wanted to crawl inside the freezer, but instead she took the cube ice and went into the bathroom, closed the door behind her and sat down in front of it because there was no lock, clamped the ice between her knees, and lowered her face into the cold.
You’re all right, she said. You’re all right, you’re all right, you’re all right.
The cashier turned up the radio, and the song playing in all the cars that passed her by today leaked in under the door. Come on down to my place, baby, we’ll talk about love.
After the song had ended and a laughing DJ somewhere in an air-conditioned room replaced it with another and another, she stood up and went over to the mirror and took her hand away from her face, let her mouth fall open and let the air come in.
She had stopped bleeding, at least for now, and because she was too afraid to touch her mouth she rubbed an ice cube across the ragged stretch of gum where her teeth had been knocked in. If there had been anything left over, she thought, there would be some snag, some sharp pain of a shard being driven back up, but there was nothing. She rubbed the ice back and forth until she was sure she couldn’t feel anything, and then she closed her lips and smiled as well as she could.
She didn’t know if she was imagining the way her lip fell inward a little, into the place where her four front teeth were supposed to be, but who would bother looking at her close enough to care? She took another ice cube from the bag and rubbed it over her face, numbing that too. She had washed the blood away at a rest stop forty miles back but it had been on her skin long enough to dye it faint pink, like an Easter egg. She thought she might as well let it stay.
Hello, she said. Hello. Hello. Hello. Where are you going? Need some company? Think about it. Think about it. My name’s Rachel. What’s yours?
The T’s were bad, her tongue forced against the rawness of her gums, but she could do it. It would hurt when the pain came back, but what was a little more pain? But the Y sounds were the worst. Y made you pulled your lip up like a dog baring its teeth, and all she had to show was nothing. My. Your. You. Why. Yes. None of those.
Her shirt was spotted a little with blood, and she wet it with cold water under the faucet, wrung it out so it wouldn’t drip and put it back on inside out. Her tits would show and she would keep cool in the sun, which was the best she could hope for. Her legs were burned but looked okay, and her hair was oily, but you couldn’t tell unless you touched it. It was still pretty enough to distract from her mouth, and that was what mattered.
God, baby, she said to herself in the mirror, trying a little harder to keep her lower lip down. Don’t you have pretty hair, baby? Don’t you have the prettiest hair in this whole goddamn state?
She twisted it around and pulled it over her front, ran her hands through it, felt its smoothness and its heat. Black as a beetle shell, fell to her ass and never got tangled. Real honest-to-God Chinaman hair, her mother had said when she used to comb it in front of the TV. Don’t ever cut it. Only way to tell you’re a girl.
The cashier pounded on the door. Everything all right in there?
Fine, she called. Wait. Don’t go. She picked up the ice and went out and smiled with her mouth shut. He was wearing a white shirt, yellowed at the armpits, and he looked like he didn’t have a girlfriend.
Need anything else? he asked.
No, no. She hugged the ice to her chest, felt the chill of it run through the wet. Tell me, she said. What do friends call you?
He looked at her a little closer, but not at her mouth. Travis.
She smiled again. Travis, how has today been?
Is it ever lonesome, working here?
If I worked here I would want some company.
Well, I see a lot of people coming in and out.
But not staying here.
No, I guess not.
Well, she said, reaching out and grazing his hand, her other arm trembling under the weight of the ice bag. What if we spent some time in private?
She nodded. Private. Intimate.
You mean — well. He blushed slightly, ran a hand through his hair. I got a boss. He might be coming back soon.
Well, she said, and pressed her palm to the rough front of his shirt, This is the only time I’ll be through here. Doesn’t that make it worthwhile?
Even as he tried to figure things out his face was empty, quiet, still. He squeezed his eyes shut and then looked at her again. She smiled.
It’s just, he said. It’s just, I work for my dad.
Want to feel, then?
My tits, she said. That wouldn’t take long.
He tried to get a look at her behind the ice bag. How much?
She held the ice bag a little tighter. She had been a hooker for exactly twenty-two hours and in that time she had managed to find only a violent jerkoff and this pussy. She needed to get out of California.
I’m not paying ten bucks, he said.
Fine, she said. Five, then.
She could see him calculating how much money he had, and what he could do with five dollars: how much beer or bud he could get, how much he would be paid this month, what kind of car he was saving for.
Lemme see them first, he said.
What’s the difference?
I want to see five dollars’ worth. I’m not spending five dollars unless you look like a magazine.
She bent to put the bag of ice down and hovered for an extra second above it, letting its cool breath cool her cheeks Then she stood and peeled her shirt up.
You think that’s five bucks? he said.
You can do whatever you want with them. You figure that out yet? Five bucks. You can do whatever you want. Suck on em. Bite em. Chew em off. Beat off on em if you want. You get this kind of offer every day?
I beat off at home, he said.
She pulled her shirt down. Well, haven’t you got it all figured out.
Hold on. I’ll give you two bucks if you let me pinch them.
And the ice. I’ll give you the ice, too.
The money first.
Like on TV, he said. He pulled two crumpled dollar pills from his pocket, shoved them into her hand, and reached under her shirt. His hands were cold, moist, broad-fingered and softer than hers. He pinched one nipple between his thumb and pointer finger and held it like that, the pain of it going away after a second and being replaced by the strangeness of having him there. He wasn’t looking at her face or her tits but down at the floor, and when he let go of her he nodded, like he was deciding something, and went on to the other. She only realized after he pulled his hand away that she had been holding her breath.
You got a girlfriend? she asked.
You got a boyfriend?
I’m a professional, she said. I don’t have time for boys.
He went back up to the register, to practice looking like he was doing his job, and she shoved a box of Mallomars, a jar of peanut butter, and two cans of Vienna sausage up her shirt before she walked out.
Nevada County was in the mouth of an early heat wave, but she had grown up in the real Nevada, and heat was nothing to her. That was what she said to herself as she walked back out to the highway to hitch a ride: You are a Nevadan, born and raised. Heat means nothing to you. Getting your tits pinched by some teenage jerkoff means nothing to you. Getting your teeth knocked in by some other jerkoff means nothing to you. Jerkoffs mean nothing to you. Nevada makes nothing but tough girls and you are the toughest of them all. So be tough.
The ice had mostly turned to water by the time she got her first ride, in a station wagon full of old ladies headed to a bingo tournament in Stockton. Their names were Billie, Betty, Joan, and Bev.
And what’s your name, dear?
Rachel, said the one to the left of her. That’s a good name. There aren’t enough girls with Biblical names anymore. Do you know what my granddaughter’s name is?
Rachel? said Rachel.
Terrible, she said, shaking her head.
How old are you, dear? said the one who was driving — Bev, maybe. They all had white patent-leather pocket books which, they said, they had won at their last tournament.
Really? You look older.
Really, she said. She had been calling herself sixteen for the last two days. In Nevada she would say she was eighteen but in California it didn’t matter. If you were fourteen it was a felony, and that was all they really cared about if they bothered to care about anything. Fifteen was too close. Sixteen was perfect. She had gone to the library to look up the law. The rest she figured out on her own.
Well, you carry yourself like a lady, said Bev. You have poise.
She’s just tall, said Billie. She knew it was Billie because she was the only one with black hair.
I am tall, said Rachel, who knew you could get away with being brash and pissy with men, even did better that way sometimes, but always felt nervous around women.
She told them she needed to catch a bus to visit her grandmother, but that she was short of cash for a ticket. Oh, said Bev. What are you going to do, dear? said Joan. Do you have any friends? Any family you can call? Oh, said Rachel, doing her best to look mistily out the window, I’ll think of something. She was getting good at keeping her lip down, which was lucky, because if they noticed her teeth they might figure out she had already done the things they were afraid she might would do for money, and if she had already done them then there was no saving her.
When they dropped her at the bus station Bev gave her ten dollars and told her to take care of herself and not to take rides from strangers, not realizing, Rachel thought, that they were strangers themselves.
I’m just going to take a trip to the little girls’ room, Billie said. Rachel, would you like to take a trip to the little girls’ room with me?
She didn’t have to or want to, bud she didn’t quite know how to say no. She looked like the kind of woman who’d supervised her in Sunday school, pouring out two inches of punch and pinching her when she talked too much.
They went inside. Once they stood up she saw Billie was tall, too, taller than her, her skin the tobacco leaf color of someone who had spent her whole life in places like Grass Valley and Stockton, places like Nevada County, places like Nevada.
Where are you from? Rachel asked, not caring of her lip pulled up and showed the dark. She had the ten dollars.
They were making their way through the terminal, Billie a little ahead of her. Where are you from? she asked.
I spent some time in Reno.
But where are you from?
She nodded sharply, like a cadet.
Do you like California better?
I like it better now.
Did you ever live in Los Angeles?
She put her hand on Rachel’s shoulder, her palm soft and pouchy, her rings spark-hot with the sun stored up in them. Don’t go to Los Angeles, she said. Hard G. Angle us. Angle is.
They had crossed the terminal and gone into the bathroom, where the light was flickering and orange as baby aspirin, and dyed them both to match.
I know what you’re up to, and you can’t do it in Los Angeles.
Because Los Angeles isn’t set up for it. It’s set up so that ten or twelve people at a time can get what they want. It’s no good unless you’re one or those ten or twelve people, and you’re not.
Well, I’m not going to Los Angeles, she said, thinking, she could be talking about anything.
I’m going to Las Vegas.
Go to Las Vegas.
Because people get what they want there?
No. But they get something.
Billie went into a stall and Rachel couldn’t think of anything else to do, so she went into the next. While she peed she looked at her hands and arms, the light making one big bruise. There were no cuts on her, no scars or scabs. Apart from her teeth she looked clean. Her piss burned a little but she knew the bad things were the ones you couldn’t feel. She was young. She was from Nevada. She was going back to the place she knew, but she could make it anywhere.
She flushed and found Billie studying her face in the mirror, pushing at her temples and examining the arching of her eyebrows, the line around her lips.
My advice, she said without looking away from the mirror, is to go north.
Nye County. White Pine. Pershing. Elko. Just stay out of the cities. You can get steady work without as much trouble from strays. Go where they have to drive a hundred miles to get to you. Go where you’re taken care of.
I can take care of myself, said Rachel, thinking — as she had been for the last three days — of the men who beat the house in Vegas, the suites with the marble bathtubs, the room service french fries, the movie mobsters in sharkskin suits.
I guess you just had your front teeth pulled out on purpose, said Billie, fluffing her hair.
Rachel walked with Billie out to the parking lot and waved goodbye to the women, smiling her most closed smile. When she went back inside the terminal she saw the place for the first time, the height of the ceiling and the coolness that seemed to live there, the huge fans placed here and there, the hum of them, and the construction project that took up a corner of the building but which lay silent, like whoever was in charge had suddenly grown bored of it and decided to go home.
She went to the newsstand and decided she wanted everything: a candy bar, a magazine, a can of Coke, a pack of cigarettes, a doll. She went back out to the terminal. She didn’t have enough money for a ticket, and she should have asked for more.