Secret Smile

by Tribe

......I'm playing pinball in Tribe's Tavern when she sneaks up on me.

......Tribe's is just another of those faceless bars that dot Toledo like chickenpox. Nobody even knows why it's called Tribe's.

......"I hear you're an investigator."

......I don't look up. I'm in the middle of what could be a wham bam flipper job. The kind where you save the ball from going through, slap it to the top of the table, and score a shitload of bonus points. I used to be able to get laid with moves like that.

......This time the ball slides through my flipper action.

......"Shit," I slap the glass and tilt the machine.

......"Stop hitting the fucking machine," Martha the barmaid yells.

......The kneeling Playboy bunny urges me to pop another quarter into her. Instead, I drain the rest of my Miller and light a Marlboro. "Who wants to know?"

......"You don't look like a private investigator. I don't know if you look like one of those UAW working stiffs from the Jeep plant or one of those guys who spends their life going to college. Whatever. You're just not what I had in mind."

......"Sorry to disappoint you." I put my bifocals on, sweep the long hair out of my face and turn toward the TV hanging from the ceiling. "What's the score?" I ask Martha.

......"The White Sox are up three to two, bottom of the ninth, Vizquel's up..." she snarls at me. Vizquel taps a weak grounder to the pitcher.

......I look back at the girl. She's wearing tight jeans and a black Metallica T-shirt. She doesn't look old enough to be drinking that Bud. I smell a fake ID.

......"What? You expected fucking Humphrey Bogart?" I turn to pop another quarter into the pinball table.

......"Who's that?"

......With a wave of a hand I dismiss her. "I don't have time for this, kid."

......I feel her blue eyes on the back of my neck. "I've been watching you tonight. All's you've been doing is playing pinball, working that big crossword puzzle or reading. Who reads in a bar?"

......"I do, kid."

......"If you were really interested in what you're reading, you'd go someplace quiet. The way I see it, everything you're doing here is a waste of time. Why not waste some of it on me?"

......She uses that goddamn tone. The one that has the right amount of sincere desperation.

......Alomar smacks a liner to right for a single. I pump a fist in the air. Then I feel embarassed about my celebration. I can't ignore her.

......She follows me to the table. She goes to set her beer down on my dog-eared copy of Guy Debord's "Society of the Spectacle." I pull it away from under the bottle. Instead of saving the book, I end up spilling the beer all over it and the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle that I've been working on all week.

......She tells me her name is Dawn. She lies to me about her age. "Spare me, kid. What do you want from me?"

......"Martha told me you could help me."

......"She did, huh?"

......Dawn nods at me. She's pretty the way poor white girls sometimes are at last call.

......"It's my sister."

......"If she's missing, call the cops. It's cheaper than using me."

......"She's not missing. She hasn't disappeared. I know where she is."

......I watch Manny Ramirez strike out while Alomar steals second. "If she's not missing there's nothing for me to do, kid," I collect my soggy book and get up from the table.

......"She's being held."

......"Kid, all the more reason you don't need me. You need muscle. Look at me, do I look like I can bust in somewhere and kick ass?" Her look tells me she agrees.

......She tries to tell me anyway. Jim Thome strikes out swinging to end the game.

......"You have a good night, kid. I can't help you."

......I unlock the maroon Buick Century. It doesn't look like much. It's not much. It reeks of cigarette smoke, the stuffing's coming out of the front seat and when it rains my feet get soaked from the hole in the floor. A client looking for her deadbeat husband gave it to me as payment. The CD player is worth more than the car.

......I sit on the cigarette-burned printout of Fredric Jameson's "On Raymond Chandler" and light a Marlboro. The alternator belt squeals as I turn the car on. I don't move though. I sit and listen absent-mindedly to the Indians' post-game show.

......Poor kid, I think to myself. She probably lives in one of those ugly little houses off Telegraph Road in the North End. To folks in the North End, Fredric Jameson is the guy who owns Jameson Stereo.

......If a woman can't get a job at one of the auto plants or at General Mills, there isn't much else for her to look forward to. Not when you're from that part of town.

......Unless, of course, she's stacked. Then maybe she can wait tables at Hooters or dance nude. If not that, there's always clerk jobs at the porn shops that cater to the autoworkers.

......Poor Dawn isn't stacked.

......I'm sick of listening to the Indians commentary. I'm sick of thinking about Dawn. I'm sick of this pit of a town. Not sick enough of it to leave though.

......The Century's bald tires spray gravel as I do a U-turn in the parking lot. Then I brake hard.

......Dawn is standing between the headlights.

......"This needs an oil change," she said, "it could also use a tune-up."

......"Thanks for the tip. C'mon, I told you I can't help you."

......"Then don't, okay? Just hear me out."

......I give her an exasperated look.

......"Get in. I live out on Sylvania Avenue, near Five Point. I'll drive you back."

......Why are you here, kid, I'm thinking. 'Cause you invited her in, you idiot. You could have just let it go. You could have just gone home and finished Debord. But no, you had to go and feel sorry for her.

......I click the CD player on and sing along with it. It's one of those obscure British pop bands that no one's ever heard of around here. I can be such a snob.

......Dawn paws through the CDs laying on the floor. She shows me the Lucinda Williams one. "Can you play this?"

......I'm not in the mood for songs about broken hearts and gravel roads right now. I've already pitied myself for weeks now. I turn off the car stereo all together.

......The rest of the drive is silent as a morphine buzz.

......When we walk into the apartment, Dawn knocks over a stack of books. She picks up one of them-something by Foucault--and asks what it's about. "It's about power. He writes about how people and institutions sort of achieve some level of coexistence within a power structure."

......"You lost me."

......"Well, for example, you know how psychiatry separates people into sane and insane? There's power at work there, it's the power that language has . . . .

......It's over both of our heads. I'm grateful she doesn't understand that I'm making a fool of myself. I go to the fridge and opt for coexisting with the power of beer.

......She browses through the stacks: books, magazines, CDs, videos, DVDs, Indians media guides. She examines my framed Class A private investigator's license.

......"A license and everything. You actually see people here? In your living room?"

......"I'm seeing you here, aren't I?"

......I pick up the portable CD player and lead her to the roof. I light a cigarette and turn the music on low. "Okay, Dawn. What's your story?"

......Dawn looks out in the direction of I-75. "It's my sister Darla. I saw her in a movie."

......I already know what kind of movie it is. I'm positive that Katie Holmes isn't Dawn's sister. There aren't any other people from Toledo making mass market movies at the moment.

......Still, it's important to me to hear her say the words.

......Darla is almost twenty. According to Dawn, Darla is being all that she can be in Toledo's fledgling porn industry. She lives in the South End with some Mexican guy, one Geronimo Cortijo. They live on South Street, near the Anthony Wayne Trail.

......The South End is sort of like the North End, but with more Mexicans. A lot more Mexicans.

......"How do you know Darla is being held against her will?" Dawn gives me denial. Darla would never do that. Darla is a good girl. Darla has so much going for her.

......Sure. Darla just happened to fall face first in a naked man's crotch.

......Dawn tells me about the last time she saw Darla. She went to the house on South Street. Darla told her that everything was fine, that she had everything she could want. Darla said the porn was nothing serious. She was just having fun.

......Dawn starts crying. "She looked fine. But she was holding something back, I know she was. She smiled a smile at me that I'd never seen before. I know she's keeping something from me."

......"Some people want that, Dawn. Everyone wants to be something, something that can make him or her stand out. People don't like blending into the woodwork, they're afraid of being ordinary." I open another beer. "You have to realize that just maybe Darla wants to be doing what she does."

......Dawn sniffles and finishes her beer. She walks to the edge of the roof and looks at the lights of Toledo glowing in the distance. It looks like Sarajevo must have looked during the war.

......"If that's what she wants, you'll have to let it go, Dawn. I'm not promising anything."

......She nods. I take a deep breath and walk over to her. "I'm not a good investigator, Dawn. I do simple jobs. I spy on cheating husbands and deadbeat fathers, I repossess cars, and I even do security detail on construction projects. The work I do let's me make a living. But it doesn't live with me."

......I'm lying. Even simple car repos get to me. My mind wanders to the black guy standing on the sidewalk in his underwear, a little boy looking through the window. "Man, I've been laid off. I just need some time to come up with the money"

......Stuff like that.

......I toss a cigarette butt over the roof. I watch it tumble in a trail of sparks.

......"Listen, kid. I didn't want to hear about any of this because I was afraid that I'd end up helping you. Which is what I'm going to do."

......Dawn takes my hand. "Thanks. I can make payments."

......"I didn't want to help you 'cause I was afraid it would be somethingwell, something bad like this. I just had that feeling."

......"Martha told me not to worry if you didn't want to listen to me. She said you'd end up helping me. She told me to act like I had read a lot and stuff. Something like that would have impressed you and then."

......I cut her off. "Don't. I'm a softie for a good kid."

......"You know, I'm not a kid." She smiles for the first time tonight. "I'll be nineteen in October."

......"Good for you, kid. C'mon, I'll drive you back home."

......"I wish I weren't alone tonight."


......Dawn wakes me up the next morning to tell me the phone is ringing. Her pink, skinny body disappears under the sheets. It's Farrar from the security agency. He reminds me it's almost ten and I haven't shown up for security detail.

......"We went over this last week. The Building Trades are picketing that scab condominium project. I've told you again and again, I don't do security on non-union projects. You lied to me when you told me about the job." I slam the phone down.

......I tell Dawn to wait for me if she wants. She says she wants to.

......I don't like the fact that she accepts. It's an old habit of mine, offering something that I hope is turned down. I get pissed when those half-assed offers are accepted.

......My four ex-wives can vouch for that.

......After a breakfast of coffee and cigarettes, I drive to the Westgate strip mall, pick up The Cleveland Plain Dealer, make it a point of ignoring The Toledo Blade and park near the arcade. It's supposed to be a secret that there's a porn studio in there.

......Are things still secret if you can find them with little or no effort? Or are secrets only things that you never know?

......The Westgate mall is only yards away from the super-rich Ottawa Hills Village, an enclave carved out of Toledo. It's so exclusive that its cops have been known to even harass white people.

......I scan the American League standings and glance up to see handsome, thin women in their late thirties and early forties go in and out of the wine shop. They walk past the front of the studio, unaware that they are only feet away from more semen than they could possibly imagine.

......That's Toledo.

......Finally, I see him. Jessie Moses is carrying a black duffel bag. His white gut peeks out from the bottom of his T-shirt, looking like ripe afterbirth.

......After he enters the studio, I walk over and rap on the glass door. The door and storefront windows are covered with mirrored adhesive. I know he can see me through it. He doesn't open. I slap repeatedly with my open palm on the glass.

......"Jessie," I'm talking loud enough that a skinny, tanned lady and her blonde little girl look at me, "open up." I'm getting pissed off - the shit is avoiding me.

......"Okay, you don't have to open then, Jessie. I can talk to you from out here, if that's how you'd rather do it. Tell me, is it anal action or strictly gangbang today?" I yell out the later.

......The tanned thin blonde with a rock the size of a small ice cube on her finger scurries away with her daughter in tow. Jessie opens in a hurry. He pulls my arm and I'm in.

......We exchange greetings. "What the fuck do you want from me?" he smiles. The carpet is sticky. I make sure I don't touch anything.

......I tell Jessie I'm looking for a missing girl and show him the school picture Dawn gave me this morning. He knows her. Jessie describes how fine, hot and talented Darla is. He's about to go into her specialties when I cut him off and ask him about Cortijo.

......He opens a file cabinet and pulls out some glossy photographs. Darla's orifices are not only on display, they're being penetrated. Savagely. Jessie points out that the tattooed penetrator is Cortijo.

......Darla has a mad, depraved smile in Jessie's pictures. I wonder if she knew she had a smile like that in her when she sat for the picture that Dawn gave me.

......Jessie admires some of the pictures. "Look at that," he drools, "and she loves it, man. You want to see the rest of this shoot? It gets better."

......"No, Jessie. Thanks anyway. What's Cortijo like?"

......The word is that Cortijo is a longtime heroin dealer. He's been a star dealer for about five years now. He finances these cheap self-produced porn operas with whoever his current girl happens to be at the time.

......"You got an address on any of these 'ladies'?

......"Shit, who keeps track? Gash is gash. They come, they go." Jessie smirks at his own wit. "After a while, the girls don't show up anymore and Cortijo has a new one."

......"What do you think happens to them, Jessie?"

......"I don't know, and I don't want to know. I've heard rumors though." Jessie turns solemn on me. "Let it go, man."

......As I drive back to the apartment, I know I'm not about to let it go. I'll never be able to forget that smile.

......Dawn cries when I tell her what I've found out. I'm pissed at Darla. I'm pissed at her secrets.

......So, I get my gun. "I'm going out there."

......"No. We're going out there."

......"I don't think so, kid. Not on my watch."

......"I'll go there if I have to walk there."

......I know she would.

...... "Okay. Let's take a trip to the South End."

......We take the long way there. I don't have a plan. I need time to think of something.

......Nothing comes to me.

......Nothing that makes sense, anyway.

......It's still early. Odds are Darla is home. Odds are Cortijo is likely to be home too. It's been my experience that sex and drugs take to the night, like a virus takes to its host.

......We drive up Broadway. Tangles of Mexicans sit on rotting porches. A mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe looms next to a tortilleria.

......Once we're on South, Dawn points out the rundown house on the corner to me. A gas station and a bowling alley are across the street from it, a fire station next to it. I pull into the bowling alley parking lot.

......"Dawn, you introduce me as your boyfriend. We're getting married. We want to show her our new house."

......I put the leather jacket on over the holstered gun.

......"We need an excuse to get her out into the car." I take Dawn's arm. "You understand me?" She nods.

......We're not even up the porch steps when Cortijo opens the door.

......He has one of those thin little Errol Flynn mustaches that have always bugged me. A black hairnet is pasted to his head. He has the traditional tattooed teardrops that reek of hard time. Across his hairless chest there is a leering Virgin of Guadalupe.

......Over her head, curving like a halo, the words: DIME TUS SECRETOS.

......You piece of shit, I think.

......Dawn speaks up. "Hi. I'm Darla's sister and this is my fiancé." She says "fee-an-cee." Good girl, I think, good hillbilly accent.

......Cortijo's smile spreads from ear to ear. His teeth look like vertebrae. "Well, hey there. I'm your brother-in-law, then. You're cuter than your pictures." He hugs her, ever so slightly grinding his groin against her. "Come right in. It's good to have family over."

......He offers me his hand. I look him straight in his black, souless eyes and nod ever so slightly. He's no idiot, he catches something in my emotionless look.

......But it's my secret. People who've done time can sense when others harbor secrets. It's unnerving to them. I know it's unnerving to him. He doesn't show it.

......The blinds are drawn in here. The dainty-looking lace curtains look out of place. Candles are burning all over the living room like at witches' Sabbath.

......Darla is laying on the cheap couch. She's wearing cutoff jeans, a bikini top and tracks on her skinny arms. Even in a heroin fog, she's pretty.

......"Hey, let's celebrate this here family reunion," Cortijo is barefoot, "how about shots of tequila? You man enough, ain't you, vato?" He smiles.

......I just nod.

......His long, thick, yellow toenails click against the linoleum as he goes toward the kitchen.

......Dawn kneels on the floor against the couch. "Darla, we're taking you away from here." She abandons the plan before it even gets started.

......Darla sits up on the couch. "What gave you the idea that I want to go anywhere?"

......I talk in a whisper. "Listen to me, you have no fucking clue what you're involved in here. Has Cantinflas here told you about his other girlfriends?"

......"They meant nothing to him, so he left them. If you two want to stay and chill, great. If you're gonna be judgmental, get the fuck out." She spits it out like a cat in heat.

......"Hey, you don't have a choice." I get up and grab her wrist. "He left them alright. He left them lifeless."

......"Is there a problem?"

...... It's Cortijo. He's holding a bottle of tequila. He terrifies me as he smiles like Willem Defoe.

......Dawn flies at him. He slaps her harder than I've ever seen anyone slap a woman. She falls in a heap, knocking over a tray of votive candles.

......I reach into my jacket and start to pull the gun out. Cortijo doesn't give me the time. He's younger and meaner. He throws the bottle of tequila at me. I watch it sail toward me and then I can't see it anymore. It shatters against my forehead. My bifocals fly away.

......Like a moron, I drop the gun.

......As I stagger, I notice Darla smiling her secret smile right before she stabs her nails into my face. She drags them down over my eyes. The tequila is like iodine on the open scratches she leaves. I scream out.

......Darla falls with a thud against the wall as I push her hard. Cortijo's become a blurry wraith. He rushes me, but falls face first. Dawn's skinny white arms are wrapped around his ankles. He kicks at her head, spiking her face with his toenails like a bantam at a cockfight.

......The lace curtains have caught fire. The flames zoom up them. The house fills with smoke.

......I kick Cortijo hard in the head as I move to get Dawn out of here. It only makes him madder. He grabs my ankle and bites down. I kick him in the stomach. It's like kicking a brick. But he makes a sound anyway. Like air out of a balloon.

......"Dawn? Dawn, talk to me. I can't see you!" I'm frantic.

......The thick smoke is making me dizzy. I get on my hands and knees. My hand recoils when I touch Cortijo. He isn't moving.

......A shard of the tequila bottle is sticking out of his neck.

......"Over here." It's Dawn. She's sitting against the couch. I crawl over and grab her wrist. Her palm has a deep gash where she pushed the glass into Cortijo's throat.

......I press down on her palm and smooth the hair out of her face. "Forget her, Dawn. I warned you it might be like this." She's shivering like a crack baby.

......My hair is pulled with a hard jerk and I fall from my crouch onto my ass. My head bends back until it won't go any further.

......Darla's kneeling behind me. Her face is close enough to mine that I can see the flames reflected in her eyes. She's holding the neck of what's left of the Jose Cuervo bottle. She raises the glass high in an arc.

......I should punch her in the face. That would be the end of it. I should know better.

......But I don't even think of that. Instead, I reach back and pull at her hand. All it does is pull my head further down exposing my neck.

......"You nosy piece of shit," Darla leers down at my face.

......"No," Dawn screams, "let him go!"

......I hear the crack of a gun. I know it's mine. Darla's face splatters all over me.

......"I said no, Darla." Dawn's voice is hoarse.

......"Aw, kid," is all I can manage to say as I crawl toward Dawn.

......She points the gun at me.


......"She had to have her secrets. Her filthy goddamn secrets. Well, no more!" She drops to her knees by Darla's body. "You poor, stupid girl." Dawn takes Darla's hand.

......"Dawn. Give me the gun." I move to take it. She fires over my head.

......She's bawling. She looks at me, her face contorted in a silent scream. She shakes her head as the tears stream down her face.

......"I'm so sorry," she whimpers, "forgive me. Both of you."

......The tears stream down her face. I feel so helpless when she puts the gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger.

......All I can say is "No, no, no!" I take her body in my arms.

......The sirens get me out of it. I take the gun and run to the back of the house. I run away from this cleansing of secrets.

......I crash through the kitchen window and land in black bags of garbage. I collect myself as best I can, and run behind the fire station. I come out a couple of blocks away.

......The street in front of the bowling alley is packed with gawkers. I slip unnoticed behind them and get into the Century.

......I gun it out of there, scattering the crowd.

......My hands tremble as I steer. I drive to the middle of the High Level Bridge and stop along the curb, holding up a lane of traffic behind me. I slide across the front seat, and get out on the passenger side. I stand there and look out at the Maumee and then I toss the gun as far as I can.

......I watch the filthy river flow below me. Through the open door behind me, over the din of honking cars I hear the end of the song on the CD playing, the one I played when I brought Dawn to my house.

......"I gave myself to sin/I gave myself to Providence/And I've been there and back again/The state that I am in."

Copyright (c) 2000 by Tribe.

.Tribe lives in Northern Ohio. He suffers from post-Marxist libidinal disorder. His fiction has appeared in Plots With Guns and is forthcoming in Blue Murder, Thunder Sandwich, Mind Kite and Suspect Thoughts.

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