Loaded Gun

(The Girl Who Started It All)

It was the music, Vivica thought. This blues - this jazz. It made her move. It made her twitch. It got under her skin. Listen to that clarinet player. He must be an angel. Gabriel, maybe. She closed her eyes, took a long drag off her Lucky, exhaled, and let the music sweep over her. God, it's beautiful. It's a new world with this music in it. Where did it come from? It seemed to have jumped into existence full grown from nowhere and everywhere. Yesterday the world was filled with Sousa marches. Today there was this jazz. Jumping, swinging, new and blue, making you move to the rhythm, making you feel real. The horn player finished his riff and the thin spade girl in a white sequined dress sang about bad luck and love. She sang to the jungle beat, the piano driving the whole freight train down the tracks. Yeah. Give it all to me, she thought, tapping her fingers in time on the table. I can't get enough.

She opened her eyes and looked around. The club was dark and smoky. The small bandstand down at the end of the tall narrow room glowed in the new electric lights. The five piece combo jumped in unison, blowing the music in hopped up abandon. Clarinet,trombone, piano, trumpet, and the singer. So much sound from so few instruments. It was primeval. It reached deep inside of you and moved a primitive and wild part of you. She loved it. She remembered how it was before the war. It was a prison. She couldn't believe that people had let themselves get so bound up with rules about this, rules about that. Afraid to do anything. How did a culture get so repressed and ashamed of its own true nature? Sigmund Freud seemed to understand certain elements of it. She had read his “Interpretation of Dreams” and it had been a revelation. He had put into words many of the inchoate feelings she had about the present state of the world.

She sipped on her illegal whiskey and looked around. It was a mixed bag of an audience. Miners, of course. Lots of them. Those just getting off a shift and those preparing to go on. The mines ran twenty four hours a day in three eight hour shifts and so did most of the businesses in town. Hotels and boarding houses rented out beds for eight hours at a time. Beside the miners, there were business owners, gamblers, con men, drifters, construction workers, cowboys, and assorted unidentifiable barflies. Mostly men, of course. Respectable women were home with their families, or if they were single, like her, at home by themselves or at church or doing some charity work or some other sanctioned activity. The only other single women in the club were prostitutes like her friend across the table, Ruby. Ruby was a wild, fun girl. She had run away from home at sixteen for reasons as yet unknown, bummed across the country from New Jersey, and had fallen into prostitution at the age of eighteen. Now at twenty years old, she was a professional. She was a trim, cute girl dressed in the latest scandalous chemise. Short dark hair, bobbed and curled. Dark kohl around her eyes. Her silky, beige dress clung to her body and made it obvious that she wasn't wearing anything under it. Ruby had started dressing like this when she met Vivica, because that's how Vivica dressed. The two girls got along famously from the first moment they met. They attributed it to the fact that they had the same birthday, January 22, 1900.

Vivica pulled a small mirror out of her small sequined handbag and reapplied some rouge to her cheeks and her lips. She liked what she saw. Her short, emerald colored dress was almost as comfortable as wearing nothing. She had stopped dressing like her mother during the war when she had worked for the Red Cross just behind the front lines. All those binding corsets and girdles just got in the way and made it almost impossible to tend properly to the wounded and travel from one makeshift field hospital to the next. She had originally started wearing pants and boots like the men which was fine on the battlefield, but when she came home she just couldn't bring herself to go back to wearing the binding confining Victorian get ups that all the other women wore. It was one of the reasons that she was here. Her parents and their friends had been outraged at the daughter that had come home from the war. She, like Ruby, had basically run away. She, unlike her parents, realized that a new world was being born and an old one dying away. She had been heading to Los Angeles to start a new life, but got sidetracked to Jerome when she heard that it was the wickedest city in America. That rumor turned out to be fairly accurate. Within the space of three or four city blocks, there was more gambling, prostitution, booze, drugs, and whatever other illegal activity than in a city ten times its size. Jerome was wicked and very alive. Vivica appreciated that. She had seen enough of death in the war. Life was short, and she wanted to make the most of it. A woman shrieked and a match flared over her right shoulder. The town was still burning, and most of the houses were shelled, and had gaping windows and large shell holes, and the streets were littered with broken glass and bits of furniture. The sickly sweet smell of dead bodies was thick as the smoke in the air. Most of the city lights were out and the search lights all around the horizon were sweeping the sky, but there was too much smoke to see anything. The aeroplanes buzzed over head. Another bomb exploded a block away, instantly killing a group of soldiers, and blowing out windows in the clinic. Only two men survived the explosion, and they were brought in. They came, walking, two naked red figures. Their clothes had been burnt off their bodies. They stood side by side in the dressing-station, raw from head to foot. Injections were immediately ordered, but there was no skin to be found, and the needle had to be put straight into the raw exposed flesh.

The memory took less than a second, but its intensity stayed with her. She took another long shot of her drink. She knew that her experiences during the war would always be with her, but she hated the way that they could just suddenly overwhelm her at the slightest provocation. She took another shot and it settled her. Her cigarette had gone out, so she lit another. They were only two or three tables away from the small bandstand. All around them the crowd was whooping it up. The end of the war had started a party that was still going strong. People were in the mood celebrate and were doing it with a vengeance.

"Hey, Viv! . . . Viv!" Ruby was yelling over the music.

She snapped out of her reverie and leaned over the table toward her friend.


"You feelin okay?!"

"Yeah, I'm fine! Hey, let's blow this joint!"

*               *               *               *

It was almost like a toy train, Zelda thought. They called it a narrow gauge because the tracks were closer together, but compared to the Sante Fe that she had ridden from Montgomery, it seemed small and toy-like. Even the seats seemed smaller. But it didn't matter. The small inconveniences were just part of the charm. Part of the charm of this grand adventure. She looked out of the window at the vast darkness of the Arizona landscape. This truly was the wild west. The land was wide and empty. Empty of people. Empty of trees. Empty of everything that she was used to. She half expected to see an indian encampment out on the dry plain of the high desert. Teepees, campfires, wild stallions, red-skinned braves stripped to the waist dancing around the fire. But all she could see was a dark emptiness, full of sharp shadows and distant cliffs.

Suddenly, the train slowed down and seemed to strain to move forward. It took her a second to realize that it was beginning to thread its way upward through mountain terrain. It climbed higher and higher, wrapping itself around the curving face of the steep inclines. On one side, the mountain was so close that if she reached out the window, she could touch it. On the other side, there was just a black void. There was no way to tell how deep the chasm was. It just dropped away into nothingness. Zelda had never seen anything like this. It was another planet. Huge, impersonal, frightening, and exciting. With real danger on hand for the very first time since slipping out of her window four nights ago, she suddenly was confronted with the irrationality of what she had done. Spoiled all her life, raised in the sheltered womb of Montgomery society, cushioned from all of life's unpleasantness, she had no idea how perilous life could be. It was now beginning to dawn on her. She remembered her letter to Scott, word for word, explaining why she had to go away for now. "Please, please don't be so depressed -- We'll be married soon, and then these lonesome nights will be over forever -- and until we are, I am loving, loving every tiny minute of the day and night -- Maybe you won't understand this, but sometimes when I miss you most, it's hardest to write -- and you always know when I make myself -- Just the ache of it all -- and I can't tell you. If we were together, you'd feel how strong it is -- you're so sweet when you're melancholy. I love your sad tenderness -- when I've hurt you -- That's one of the reasons I could never be sorry for our quarrels -- and they bothered you so -- Those dear, dear little fusses, when I always tried so hard to make you kiss and forget -- Scott -- there's nothing in all the world I want but you -- and your precious love -- All the material things are nothing. I'd just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence -- because you'd soon love me less -- and less -- and I'd do anything -- anything -- to keep your heart for my own -- I don't want to live -- I want to love first, and live incidentally -- Why don't you feel that I'm waiting -- I'll come to you, Lover, when you're ready."

As she looked into the bottomless blackness on the downhill side of the moving train, she began to wonder if, in fact, she would be able to come to him at all. She had blithely taken it for granted that she would be able to come and go where ever she wanted, whenever she pleased. At this moment, that assumption seemed shaky at best. The train seemed rickety and unstable as it jolted over the pass and started to head down hill. It now began to pick up speed.

Faster and faster it rolled down hill, around sharp curves, seeming to lean out over the abyss, barely staying on the tracks. Sometimes it seemed as if the wheels lifted into the air just slightly. Every noise was amplified. It seemed as if the whole train would just rattle itself apart. Zelda felt sweat drip down her ribs inside her corset. Her palms were wet. Her mouth was dry. She found herself clutching the arm rest of her jerky seat. She looked around furtively to the few other passengers in the car. She could see that they were also frightened, although trying to hide it. She closed her eyes and cursed herself for being so foolish. What was she thinking? Her grand plan was going to be the death of her. Her parents would receive a telegram in a couple of days, telling them that their only daughter was a pile of bones at the bottom of some god-forsaken ravine somewhere in the middle of Arizona, and all they would have left of her was some pathetic note about how she had to find herself, how she was crushed under the weight of indecision and had to get away so that she could think clearly. What nonsense! What a vapid, silly girl! What was she thinking?

Suddenly, she heard the screeching, tearing sound of metal on metal. The train lurched violently and she began to pray. It took her a second to realize that the sound she was hearing was the sound of brakes. The train was slowing down. She looked out the window and saw that they were coming into a small depot. It struck her as odd because they were still high up in the mountains, but it was a depot none the less. The engine wheezed to a stop, and Zelda bolted from her seat, anxious to get out of what she now viewed as a rolling coffin.

The air was fresh, dry, and crisp out on the wooden platform. She knew immediately that she was in an entirely different reality from the one she had left. Montgomery was moist, slow, and warm. And, of course, it wasn't just the air. The people, here, were different also. They moved at a quicker pace, were more in a hurry to get to where they were going. There was a snap in their steps, an enthusiasm, as if they were heading to a place where their dreams and desires would be fulfilled. There was hope and excitement in their eyes. There was . . . she couldn't quite identify it at first . . . and then it came to her . . . there was possibility. The possibility of a new life, of sudden riches, of freedom from drudgery, of . . . happiness. She stood on the platform and smiled. This was exactly what she was looking for. Possibility.

Everything about life in Montgomery was planned and predictable. Everyone had their place in the scheme of things. The pattern was set in stone. Out here in the west, everything was up for grabs. Anything was possible. She understood it all, as the Mexican porter, carrying her valise, escorted her to the mule drawn carriage that would take her the rest of the way into town.

As she climbed into the carriage, she could see the lights of Jerome a quarter of a mile below. She could hear the sound of voices, automobiles, music, and other unknown machines mixing together in a busy hum. When the carriage was full, they started down the hill to the town.


*               *               *               *

Vivica saw her as she came in the door from the sidewalk. The whole bar saw her. Wearing a fox fur coat that came to mid-calf and a small chocolate colored cloche hat that barely covered here short cropped dark hair, she was one of those singular creatures that reminded one of what humans had been meant to evolve into. Everything about her was beautiful. Her face, her body, her carriage, youth, and, emanating out from her in some kind of intoxicating wave, an aura that made everyone turn to her and want to know her - talk to her - touch her - be in her presence. She was the kind of female that made anyone she was with feel as special as she was.

Vivica and Ruby were threading their way through the crowd heading out of the club when Zelda came in. Not only did Viv appreciate Zelda, she also saw that the new arrival had no idea what she had walked into. She was innocence on a plate, ready to be devoured. Various men were already drifting in her direction, drawn irresistibly by her vulnerable perfection. Viv pushed a little harder to get through the shoulder to shoulder rowdy crowd. She watched as the new girl's eyes darted around the room, wanting to join in the celebration, but not knowing where to start. Deer in the headlights. The image came to her and Vivica laughed. She tugged at Ruby who was struggling behind her. They neared the girl just as a large man with large hands approached her. He was dressed in a tuxedo with his black hair slicked back with pomade. He was well over six feet and well over two hundred pounds. He would have been handsome except for a heavy chin that hung off his face like something that had been attached as an afterthought. He had detached himself from a group of his friends and was starting to introduce himself to the new arrival. He already had his meat-like hand on the girl's arm. Vivica knew him. He was one of the new breed of criminals that people were calling "bootleggers". He and his friends supplied the new illegal clubs with alcohol. They were dangerous. Viv knew that this particular man was extremely so. He had been in the war. She saw it in his eyes. He had seen the death and killing and found he had a taste for it. This attribute came in handy in his new vocation. He used intimidation, like some men used money to get what they wanted. He frightened people into doing his bidding. Viv knew him alright. His kind was another present to the world from the war. Just as he was starting to drag the new girl toward his circle of friends, Vivica stepped up and let out a cry of surprised and happy recognition.

"Louise!! You finally made it!! How was the train ride?! Did you get settled in!? This is great!" She stepped forward and hugged Zelda affectionately, starting to pull her away from the man's grip.

"C'mon we were just leaving for a another party!"

The man did not let go of Zelda's arm. Vivica saw her wince as his grip tightened. He leaned forward aggressively and looked Vivica directly in the eyes, smiling all the while.

"I was just going to introduce the lady to my friends over here," he said with his voice. His amused eyes said "I will hurt you and enjoy it." He was very convincing. Vivica believed him. But she had also been through the war. She leaned toward the man and whispered over the band and into his ear.

"I wouldn't want to ruin your tuxedo," she said and then let her eyes trail down to the space in between them. As his gaze followed hers, he saw that she had a small nickel plated 22 caliber pistol cupped discretely in the palm of her hand. It was right next to his crotch. He looked back to her and instantly recognized the hardened scar of the war in her eyes. He smiled at a fellow traveler.

In a rough whisper and a smile that showed teeth, he said, "Maybe later." It was a promise. His large hand opened slightly, and Vivica slid Zelda out of his grasp.

It had all happened so quickly and in such a crush of loud, intoxicated people that no one but Ruby had seen it all. Not even Zelda was quite aware of what had happened. The man had blocked her view of Vivica. But the next thing she knew, she was out on the crowded sidewalk with two girls she had never seen before. Vivica pulled her down the street, talking as she did.

"I don't usually poke my nose in other people's business, but you were just about to get introduced to the wrong crowd. My name's Vivica and this is Ruby."

Zelda stopped on the sidewalk and let the celebrating crowd swirl around them. It took her all of a half of a second to size up and fall in love with Vivica. She felt at home with her. Relaxed. She smiled and stuck out her hand.

"I'm Zelda. And you were right. I did just get into town. I-"

"Well, darlin," said Ruby, interrupting, "I'm sure it's all a long and interesting story, but we've got some plans, and it's time to party. Are you with us?"

Zelda's eyes lit up. They were standing on a crowded sidewalk with laughing, shouting party goers moving all around them. The buildings around them were lit up like Times Square. She could see department stores, movie theaters, pool halls, gas stations, barber shops, hotels, banks, restaurants, saloons, drug stores, grocers. It was all here. Within three or four blocks. The streets were filled with the newest cars, people shouting to one another between them. It was wild. It was the wild west, she thought, and laughed with delight.

"I'm with you. Show me the way. Is there anywhere we can get a drink?"

They looked at her and laughed. Viv took her by the arm.

"I've got something even better. C'mon."

They walked toward an intersection that seemed to be the center of things and took a left. A block down they entered a restaurant. The sign on the building said "The English Kitchen," but when they walked in, Zelda could see that it was a Chinese food restaurant. The place was packed. It was a long narrow building about fifteen feet across and sixty feet long with a tall pressed-tin ceiling. On the right side was a long oak counter with revolving stools that were bolted into the floor. To the left was a row of narrow wooden high backed booths. Toward the back she could see the kitchen through two swinging doors. Three Chinese waiters were running back and forth bringing steaming bowls of food to the tables. The diners were happy and boisterous. The clatter of dishes and the clanging of pots added to the mayhem. Zelda had never seen anything like it. One of the waiters shouted something in Chinese to Vivica and smiled. She nodded her head, and he motioned with his head for her to follow him. The girls walked down the narrow center aisle, through the swinging doors and into the kitchen. If she thought it was chaotic in the restaurant, it was madness in the kitchen. It was hot and steamy and small. It was crowded with Chinese cooks and waiters yelling at each other in their incomprehensible language. The girls followed the waiter in single file to the back of the kitchen where he opened a trap door in the floor. Zelda could see a set of stairs leading down into a dimly lit basement. Vivica immediately stepped down into the hole. Ruby was right behind her. Zelda looked at them in astonishment. This couldn't be their destination. She hesitated, waiting for them to come back up and let her in on the joke. The waiter said something short and impatient at her and motioned for her to go down into the basement. Ruby, who was half way down, turned and motioned with her hand for Zelda to follow. Laughing nervously, she stepped carefully down the stairs into the darkness.

The basement ran the entire length of the building. The ceiling was only about seven feet high with exposed floor timbers and supports. The floor was packed earth. Against both walls were sets of narrow bunk beds that ran thirty feet toward the front of the building. Lying on the beds, lit by candle light, were a mix of asian and anglo men. All in a state of languid relaxation. Zelda grabbed Ruby by the arm as they walked past the beds.

"Is this what I think it is?" she whispered.

"It sure is, darlin. This is the best opium den in town."

"There are others?"

Zelda watched as a Chinese man helped a prone customer to light a small, long, clay pipe. The man's eyes looked at her in some kind of ecstatic stupor, a small smile trying to tug at the corners of his mouth. As he inhaled, his eyes closed and his head fell back on his pillow. As they reached the front of the basement, there was a small room with an ornately hand-carved, round oak table and a set of chairs. In the middle of the table, a kerosene lamp lit the room with a warm glow. Seated at the table, with his back to the front wall of the building, was a small thin Chinese man dressed in what appeared to be some type of dark blue silk pajamas. A long braided pig tail fell down his back to his waist. He might have been twenty-eight years old. He might have been fifty-three. He was painting Chinese letters on a large piece of rice paper with a small pointed brush. When they entered he looked up, recognized two of the girls, and smiled.

"Ahhhh . . . " he nodded happily, "Vivica and Luby. Good to see you. Halla you?"

The girls sat down at the table and Zelda followed their lead. The man blew gently on the piece of rice paper to dry the ink and then placed it and the brush aside.

"Mr. Yee," said Vivica, "I hope to hear that all those in your family are healthy and rich."

The man looked up from the table at Vivica. His eyes were slightly yellowed and slightly bloodshot. He smiled at her and said, "Glowing in liches and hearlth. Thank you."

He then looked briefly at Zelda. She tried to smile politely, not really knowing what to do. She couldn't tell what he was thinking or feeling. It seemed as if she were looking into the eyes of another kind of human being. Or an animal. She sensed that they looked at the world from two very alien points of view. His gaze passed from her back to Vivica. He then looked out into the room with the beds and barked something to one of the helpers in the other room. He stood up and walked over to a small pot-bellied, wood burning stove over in the far corner. On top of the stove was a kettle. He picked it up, walked over to a hutch, and poured some steaming water into a large finely glazed white tea pot. He picked four cups from a shelf and came back to the table. As he poured the tea into the cups and handed one to each of his guests, the man he had spoken to came in the room with a small black lacquered box which he placed on the table in front of Mr. Yee. As their host opened the box, he spoke to Vivica.

"I have something new. Velly, velly good. You rike."

As he talked, he pulled out a small ceramic vial with a cork stopper and an ornate hand mirror with an intricately carved jade handle. He put those two items to the side and opened a silver cigarette case, offering one to Vivica. She selected a cigarette, pulled a lighter from her small purse, and lit it. Zelda thought it queer that the Chinese man didn't offer Ruby or herself a smoke, but she would never have said it out loud. She watched as Vivica took a long drag off of the cigarette, inhaled, and held it in for the longest time. She had never seen anyone smoke like that. Maybe it was something that they did out here in the west. While still holding in the smoke, Viv passed the cigarette to Ruby, who smoked it in the same fashion and then handed it to Zelda. Not wanting to seem out of place, Zelda took a deep drag off of the ready made and held it in. By this time, Vivica was slowly exhaling a large cloud of odd smelling gray smoke. Zelda thought that perhaps this was some kind of Chinese ritual. Suddenly, the smoke seemed to expand in her lungs. She couldn't hold it in, and found herself spewing the smoke out with a racking cough. She could feel her eyes tearing up as she coughed the smoke from her lungs. The girls laughed.

"This is your first time, isn't it, darlin?" asked Ruby.

"No," said Zelda a bit defensively and in between coughs, "I've been smoking cigarettes since I was fourteen."

"Ohhhh . . . " said Mr. Yee, "This no cigalette. This melyjane. Jus come up flom Coorican. Velly good."

Zelda looked over to Vivica with a confused questioning look as her coughing fit died down.

"It's marijuana," said Viv, "Just give it a minute. You'll like it."

She already felt a little light headed. She didn't know if it was from the coughing or the marijuana. She watched Mr. Yee take the cork out of the small vial and pour a small amount of white powder onto the glass face of the hand mirror. He methodically divided the powder into three small piles and then formed those piles into narrow lines with what appeared to be a Gillette blue blade. She was taken by the beauty of the carved jade on the handle of the mirror. It was an impossibly intricate carving of a dragon breathing fire. She suddenly felt a heightened sense of perception. She seemed to be able to see more detail than she normally could. She felt more relaxed in her own skin. She felt a contentment and, at the same time, an amusement, with everything around her. She watched as Mr. Yee handed the mirror and a small cylinder of what appeared to be ivory to Vivica who placed the mirror on the table in front of her and then proceeded to suck one of the lines of powder up her nose with the cylinder. She sat up straight and wiped her nose with her thumb and forefinger to clean off any residue and passed the mirror and cylinder to Ruby who repeated the process. When Ruby was done, she passed the implements to Zelda.

"Okay. Now, wait a minute," said Zelda, "What is this? Is it opium? I've heard that opium is addicting."

"No, no," said Vivica, "It's only cocaine. It's a little pepper upper. It stimulates the central nervous system and helps you think more clearly. It's actually good for you. It's a tonic. Go ahead."

As she bent down over the mirror, she saw that the white powder was actually slightly pink in color and that the powder itself was structured more like soft crystalline flakes. She put one end of the cylinder to her left nostril and the other end to the line of cocaine. Closing her right nostril with the index finger of her other hand, she snorted the cocaine up into her nose. Within seconds a wave of mental clarity and alertness came over her. Not only did the cocaine seem to clear up her thinking, it gave her a rush of physical energy. She felt content, amused, sharp, energized, and somewhat sexually stimulated. She looked over to Vivica who could see it all coming over her at once. It made her smile.

"Well?," she asked.

"This is nice," said Zelda looking around the room, seeing everything for the first time, "very nice."

"I thought you'd like it." She handed Zelda the marijuana cigarette. "Here, take one more drag before we go."

This time Zelda took in a smaller amount of smoke, held it in, and exhaled slowly as she had seen her new friend do.

Vivica stood up and addressed Mr. Yee. "Once again, you have been a most gracious host, Mr. Yee." She held out her hand for the Chinese to shake or kiss. Zelda wasn't sure. Yee grasped her hand gently with both of his.

"The more gracious the guest, the more gracious the host," he said in perfect English.

Zelda could see that this was a scene that they had played out before - each one knowing their lines. She and Ruby rose and followed Vivica out of the room. As they passed through the opium smoking room, she noticed that Vivica handed the attendant some folding cash. He went before them, walked up the stairs, and opened the trap door that led up into the kitchen. From the darkness and quiet of the basement to the glaring light and noise of the restaurant's kitchen was a shock to Zelda's system. But she felt so in control and in tune with everything that it only made her laugh. Look at these crazy humans, she thought. They came up with the most bizarre institutions. What is a restaurant anyway? A place to pack together with other humans to stuff things into your mouth, chew and swallow. Only to excrete it later. It seemed slightly obscene and yet hilarious at the same time. She shook her head and laughed as they threaded their way through the crowd and out to the street.

Zelda marveled at her luck. She had blundered into exactly the kind of experiences that she was seeking. It was now obvious from a very short bit of hindsight that it was only blind luck that led her to these two girls. They were exactly the kind of woman she wanted to be. Independent, free, not bound by outmoded societal conventions, forging their way into a glorious and exciting future where a woman could be anything she chose to be. Since she was a young girl, she had been head strong and rebellious. All her instincts told her that the society around her was sick to the core. She had watched her parents and their friends closely and it had become glaringly obvious to her that their way of looking at life was, in fact, a denial of life. She wanted none of it. She wanted to live gloriously, madly. As she looked around her, she saw other people who felt as she did. The street and sidewalk were packed with revelers. There was something in the air that was new and exciting. She could see that everyone could sense it. These thoughts ran through her mind with the speed of light, but, at the same time, held weight and substance. Although she had come to these same conclusions on an abstract intellectual level back in Montgomery, never had she experienced them so deeply. They now became emotional realities. They integrated themselves into her emotional core. They became an active and real part of who she was. She could feel herself deepen and mature as she was pulled along by the other two girls through the laughing crowd. It was an epiphany. She felt euphoric.

"Let's go to my place," shouted Ruby above the crowd, "The girls got a case of Dom!"

They pulled her across the street, forcing cars to stop and let them pass. A group of young boys in a model T hooted and whistled after them, but the girls were already across the street and walking down a hard packed dirt lane that ran in back of the buildings on Main Street. The lane was filled with people, mostly men, going back and forth between a series of open doorways on the left hand side of the street.

She saw a string of one and two story brick buildings that looked like apartment houses packed next to each other. They were all lit up. She could hear music and see people in the windows. It seemed to be a large open house. A block party of sorts. They walked in the third door and were greeted with loud shouts of people calling Ruby's name. At first, Zelda thought that, because of the back alley location, they were entering a speakeasy, but it took her one more second to realize what kind of a place they had actually entered. The women, most of them young and pretty, were in various states of undress. Couples kissed and petted openly on the divans and large overstuffed chairs in the main room. A tall thin man in tails circled around the room carrying a platter with lines of cocaine laced across its surface, offering them as nonchalantly as cocktails. Somewhere a Victrola was scratching out a tinny recording of James Reese Europe's "One Patrol in No Man's Land". Zelda knew that she was under the influence of drugs, but the influence was observable and clearly defined. She also knew that there was an intoxication in the air of this town. The people here were feeling a new freedom. Freedom from the past and its stultifying constraints. This was how she wanted to live her life. Another waiter passed by with a tray of champagne glasses. Zelda grabbed one and tasted the bubbly liquid. It was crisp and cold and delightful.

She followed Vivica and Ruby as they drifted deeper into the brothel. This was like no party she had ever attended in Montgomery. No one even tried to contain their excitement or enthusiasm. Conversations were loud and boisterous. Laughter broke out often. An older woman with blonde hair piled high on her head approached Ruby and whispered in her ear. Ruby looked over to a couch where a good looking young man in an expensive suit was watching her. She looked back at the older woman and nodded. The Madam looked over to the young man and motioned with her head for him to come along. As he stood up, Ruby began moving toward a hallway over to their right. As she did, she whispered in Vivica's ear and pulled her down the hallway, laughing. Zelda followed them. Further down the hallway, they stopped in front of an open door. Ruby continued to talk in hushed, pleading tones with Vivica. It seemed like a very private conversation, so Zelda kept her distance. The young man passed close by her politely, and made his way to the girls. He, too, then entered into the conversation. Vivica was laughing and shaking her head. Whatever it was that Ruby was proposing, Vivica was declining. Finally, Ruby seemed to bow to her friend's refusal, and she slipped her arm around the young man's. Just before the couple entered the room, Ruby leaned over and kissed Vivica on the lips. Vivica did not recoil in shock and confusion as Zelda might have done, but instead leaned into the kiss and extended it. She gently cupped Ruby's cheek in her hand as she returned the kiss. Zelda saw their tongues flicker back and forth. Then Vivica pulled away, and Ruby and her customer disappeared into the room.

As Vivica walked back toward Zelda, she saw a look of shock on the new arrival's face. It made her laugh. Zelda started sputtering.

"Are -- Ruby . . is she? I mean do you? . . . I mean, . . . are you? . . . "

"Ruby is in the business. I'm not."

"But . . . what? . . . She was just . . .," Zelda finally pulled herself together somewhat. "She wanted you to have sex with her and that man, and you kissed her."

"Yes - "

"I don't mean to pry, but . . . well . . . ," she stopped, not really knowing what to say.

"Go ahead," said Vivica, as another couple passed them, walking down the hallway.

"I don't think I've ever met a lesbian," Zelda blurted out.

"Well, I don't know if I'd really classify as a lesbian. I like men, too."

This last statement was more than Zelda was ready for. She just stared at Vivica. Her brain stopped thinking for a short span of time. It wouldn't digest the new information. It was just too exotic. She had, of course, heard of lesbians. Everyone had. It was considered a perverted sickness among the conservative folks of Montgomery. Lesbians and queers. They were the dark secrets that families hid behind closed doors and the absence of exiled children. But Zelda, in all her twenty years, had never heard of anyone who had sex with both men and women. She didn't know what to think. Vivica saw her confusion. It wasn't the first time she had seen it. It wouldn't be the last. As they entered back into the crowded larger room the party was still raging. Vivica looked around the room and saw no one she wanted to talk to. She turned to Zelda.

"Let's go back uptown and hear some live music."

Zelda followed her out of the party and into the alley. It was a cool, crisp night. The sky held more stars than she had ever seen. Up on the main street, cars were honking and people were laughing. As she thought about what Vivica had told her, she didn't know whether to be repulsed or titillated. As she tried to sort it out, a man appeared out of the darkness. It was the man who had grabbed her in the bar earlier in the evening. He had lost his bowtie, and his shirt was open at the collar. He was obviously drunk. Not stumbling drunk. But mean drunk. A bolt of fear shot through Zelda. Never in her life had anyone ever intentionally harmed her. But, now, in this alley, in this strange town, she felt immediately and physically threatened.

"There you are," he said, "I knew I'd find you sooner or later. I'm - "

"Don't even start," commanded Vivica, "Just step aside, and let us pass."

"I don't think so," he said and pulled something black out of his back pocket.

Zelda couldn't see what he was holding until he pressed a button on the side of the object and a long silver blade jumped into his hand. She was horrified. Her fear crippled her. She couldn't move.

"I'm not going to tell you again." This time Vivica's voice had gone cold.

"You're not going to tell anyone, anyth-"

As he stepped forward, Zelda heard an explosion close to her left ear, and the man's left shoulder jerked back violently, pulling the rest of his body with it. Then came a second blast, and his right shoulder followed his left, pinning him up against the side of the building. Her ears were ringing. She looked over to Vivica who was holding a smoking pistol in her hand. She watched as Vivica took careful aim and shot the man in the groin. This last shot seemed to stick him to the building like an insect wriggling on a pin. His eyes were wide in amazement, and his large chin dropped to his chest in stupefied shock. The smell of cordite hung in the air.

"Welcome to a brand new world, soldier," said Vivica with a grim satisfaction.

Zelda fainted.

*               *               *               *

The next morning, as she stood on the sunny train platform with the Sheriff, she asked him what had become of Vivica.

"We put her on the morning stage to Prescott," he said as he casually scanned the other people on the platform, "Wanted to get her out of town as soon as possible. Considering your testimony and considering who got shot, it's best if she just disappears. Her gun was only a little .22 and she didn't hit any vital organs so the victim will recover without any permanent damage. The girl's either stupid or gutsy as hell. Either way, she couldn't stay here."

"But she shot him in the . . . " She paused awkwardly. "In the . . . well, you know."

The sheriff smiled.

"The doc said it bounced off his pelvic bone. Chipped it a bit. He'll be sore for awhile."

Zelda digested this last item of information, remembering the look of satisfaction and control on Vivica's face. It made her smile.

"Do you know where she was going?" she asked, raising her voice as the noisy train started to pull up.

"Said something about Los Angeles, but," he answered almost shouting. He picked up her valise and handed it to the porter, "who knows?! Girl like that . . . hard to say!" He looked at her with a smile and a chuckle escaped his lips. "Tell you what - she did something that a lot of other people wished they had done!"

Zelda held out her hand politely.

"Thank you, Sheriff, for your help!"

"Nothing to it, Miss! You be careful, now! You best choose a less dangerous group of friends from now on!"

She stepped up into the passenger car.

"That's good advice! Good-bye!"

Later, as she watched the wild terrain slide by, she thought of her upcoming wedding to Scott. Now that he was a published author, he would be able to support them in an acceptable style. She decided right there and then, however, that their marriage would not even be anything like a traditional, conventional marriage. She had seen enough of that. She did not intend to be the old fashioned quiet, housebound, enslaved wife that she had been taught to be - the kind her mother was. No, she would have her own life, make her own decisions, be her own person. No one was ever going to dominate or control her. Not even Scott. It was a new world, and she fully intended in living in it to the fullest. Just like Vivica.

"Loaded Gun "      by Terry Molloy       Copyright 2002      All Rights Reserved

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