What Would You Do?: A Fictional Interpretation of a Bastille Song That Makes You Think

Monday, May 26, 2014


What Would You Do?

A young boy with sand-colored skin and bright eyes lies alone on the hardwood floor of a bedroom. The hem of his gray t-shirt falls just past his waist, but fits him like an oversized parka; one of the sleeves is crusted with tears and snot.
Down the street, a few blocks away, his mother rotates her hips upon a man’s lap in a dimly lit room. She calls herself Blondie, and will use the money the man sticks into her thin straps of clothing to buy food for her little boy. It’s been three days since either of them had something to eat.
“You don’t have to do that, you know.” The man tells her as she thrusts her chest in his face.
The man’s name is Henry, and he went to school with her. Though they never crossed paths on a personal level, they both came from a small enough town to recall little life details about one another. She knows that he is getting married tomorrow to the pixie-sized cheerleader-turned-teacher named Lizzy. He knows that she became a college dropout when her “bad boy” phase left her knocked up and alone.
“My boss is watching.” She says.
Henry looks around the room. It looks private to him.
“Hidden cameras.” She explains, turning around and circling her hips around his lap.
“Ah.” He said. “In that case...”
He sticks another wad of cash in the string of elastic around her waist. She tosses her blonde hair and sneaks him a smile over her shoulder as an expression of gratitude.
“So, a lot has changed since senior year, huh?” He asks.
Her expression hardens and she turns away.
“I guess.” She says.
“Well, how’d you end up here? If you don’t mind me asking.”
She doesn’t respond. She does mind because it’s a question she knows he won’t understand the answer to. She’s tired of people judging her situation. It’s hard enough already.
“How’s your son? Danny, right?” He asks.
She turns around, and continues her hip motion facing him.
“Hungry.” She answers.
Henry’s face crinkles in a frown. She knows he’s probably only surprised by her blunt response, but with his light hair and dark eyes, he looks evil. Judgmental. 
“Hungry?” He asks.
Like he didn’t hear me, she thinks.
“Yes.”
“Oh...well, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I’m sure.”
“Excuse me? Is that supposed to mean something?”
“I’m sure you’re sorry that you had to hear the sad, hard truth the night before your wedding. I’m sure you’d much rather pretend life is as rosy and perfect and full of happily-ever-afters for everybody.” She says. “But guess what? It’s not! For you this is just a good time, but for me? This is what I call life. Dancing half-naked in a shady strip-joint for strange guys just so I can put food on the table for my little boy who’s father is too messed up on drugs to stay out of prison for longer than a month. What would you do if this was your life?”
“You’re not the only one to have a baby.” He says. “And you don’t have a monopoly on a hard life. You don’t have to go all crazy on me.”
She stops dancing, and looks at him. The corner of her lips twitch and if it were possible, she’d be shooting fire from her eyes as she stared directly into his.
“Excuse me?” She shrills. “You don’t even know me! You have no idea how I’ve lived my life!”
There’s silence for a moment. Then, he nods his head.
“You’re right.” He says. “But I’d like to. What time do you get off work tonight?”
“Late.” She answers.
“Let me take you home tonight. To your son. I’ll buy us all some food, and you can tell me your life story.”
She cocks her head to the side. It’s the first time somebody has asked to hear her story.
“Why?” She asks. “What’s in it for you?”
He smiles.
“I finish graduate school next spring. Your story could help my thesis.” He says.
She nods.
“Alright.” She says. “My shift ends in an hour. I’ll meet you outside.”

***
After her shift, Blondie exits the strip-club, surprised to find that Henry is standing out front, casually leaning up against his dark Mercedes with his hands in his pockets.
“You look surprised.” He says when she stops in front of him.
“Yeah, well, you’d be surprised how many men tell me they’ll stick around only to disappear at the first chance to escape.”
“Try me.”
“It was a rhetorical statement. You really think I’d keep count?”
He chuckles and opens the car door for her, gesturing with a wave of his hand that she should get in. What if this is a trap? She thinks. Maybe he wants out of his engagement. Maybe I’m his way out. His escape. Reluctantly, she climbs into the car, and he shuts the door before quickly running around to get in the driver’s seat.
“So, where to?” He asks as he puts the car in drive.
“What are my options?” She asks.
“Whatever you feel like.”
What she feels like is getting out of the car and running before the night can get any uglier. Danny is waiting for her at home, hungry. She’s hungry too, and has enough money stuffed in her bra to pick up some hot dogs from the 24-hour Gas N’ Gulp near her apartment, the only place close that she knows is open this late. Of course, they’d have to eat them cold because she hadn’t been able to pay the electricity bill on time this month, but she knows they’re both too hungry to mind.
“I feel like food.” She says. “And the only food place I know around here open this late is the Gas N’ Gulp.”
“Gas N’ Gulp? No.” He says, shaking his head. “No way. We can do better than that.”
“Well, that’s all I got.”
“I think there’s a McDonalds a couple blocks north. Would that work?”
She can’t remember the last time she had McDonalds. She doesn’t think Danny has ever even eaten fast food before. The only hot meal she’s ever been able to give him is oatmeal.
“Yeah, that’s fine.” She says. “I live in the south end, though, so it might be longer getting back.”
“That’s okay.” He says. “Don’t worry about it.”
Henry starts to drive, and they sit in silence for a while. She watches the city lights of her neighborhood pass by in a blur. She’s never really looked at the area before. She tries to keep her head down most of the time. The area she lives and works in isn’t exactly known for it’s safety, and she can’t afford to have anything happen to her. What would Danny do if something happened to her? Who would take care of him? She shudders to think that he might end up in a foster home. The one she grew up in was as close to hell as she could have ever imagined. She’d rather her son be homeless than end up in a home of strangers like she did, but neither was an ideal situation. She needed to be home.
“What are you thinking about?” Henry asks, breaking the silence.
“Home.” She answers without looking away from the window.
She turns to look at him when he doesn’t respond. He looks so calm, she thinks, driving me around in his fancy car.
“Doesn’t your fiancé worry about you?” She asks, and he chuckles.
“Nah.” He says, giving her a quick look. “Why should she?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because it’s the night before your wedding, and you’re taking a stripper out to eat?”
“Correction: it’s the night before my wedding, and I’m buying a meal for an old classmate and her son so that she’ll help me with my thesis.”
“And what’s your thesis?”
“The Dehumanizing Effects of Poverty.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing bad.” He says. “It means people start to treat you like you’re not human because of your financial situation. People think it’s easier that way. Rather than being understanding, and trying to help you out, they just convince themselves you’re somehow less than human. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re job? I bet you have to deal with a lot of men who treat you like some sort of animal, or like a piece of meat. Like you’re not even human. Just some plaything they can do whatever they want with. Am I wrong?”
Blondie is silent. She’s never heard somebody put it that way before. Exactly how I would say it, she thinks. She shakes her head, and Henry grins.
“Let me ask you, have you ever missed a rent payment?” He asks.
“Rent payment? No. I couldn’t.”
“Because your landlord would throw you out, right?” She nods. “Again, like an animal. If a dog pisses on the carpet, it gets thrown outside for punishment, right? When you’ve been dehumanized, your landlord won’t have a problem throwing you outside for missing a payment. Same thing with billing companies. They’ll turn your lights or your water off so you’re stuck in the dark unable to flush your own waste or drink a fresh glass of water. It’s sick.” He pulls into the McDonalds drive through, and rolls down the window. “What would you like?”
“I’ll just have a cheeseburger and some fries. A kids meal with nuggets for Danny.” 
Henry nods, and orders before pulling into the pay window. He hands the clerk his credit card, and after paying, pulls up to the next window to wait for the food. 
“They can’t help it, though.” He says, tucking his credit card back into his wallet, and stuffing his wallet into his pocket. “Or really we, as human beings, can’t help it, dehumanizing those less fortunate than us. We’re all trying to make a living in this world. We all have our own set of problems, and struggles, and mouths to feed. If you saw a homeless man on the street, you wouldn’t give him your paycheck just because he was homeless. Or maybe you would? I don’t know. I’m jumping to conclusions.”
“No,” she says, her voice practically a whisper, “I wouldn’t.”
She’s ashamed to admit this. She used to be homeless herself. How many times had she cursed every person who walked by her, people who had money for a four dollar cup of coffee, but couldn’t spare even the smallest amount of change for a starving girl without a home? Now she realizes she’s become those people. Maybe she doesn’t spend money on a four dollar cup of coffee, or any other pointless luxury, but she definitely isn’t going around handing money to the people on the streets, not even spare change.
Henry hands her the bags of food as they come through the window, and she holds them in her lap, her mouth watering and her stomach grumbling as the smell of fresh fries fills the car. Henry thanks the young man who handed them their food, and then rolls up his window as he begins to drive away.
“I should have tipped him. Poor kid’s stuck working in the middle of the night for a paycheck that’s barely minimum wage.” Henry says, shaking his head. “But I’ve already run out of my stash of cash for the night, and I’m not sure their system even knows how to handle tipping from a card. You see? Everyone’s guilty.” He stops at the street and looks at her. “Now where is home from here?”

***

Home, as it turns out, is a one bedroom apartment currently without electricity. After unlocking the door, Blondie whips a lighter out from her purse and begins lighting the candles she has scattered around the apartment. The whole apartment smells like mildew and the cheap wallpaper is peeling from the walls, leaving hints of the blackened plaster behind it, evidence of the fire that resulted in the building being condemned for six months until everything was fixed to pass inspection. The fire (and the half-attempted repair job) was the only reason Blondie was able to afford the rent.
“Sorry about the mess.” Blondie apologizes sheepishly as she fluffs the thrift-store pillows from the moss-green couch, and swipes her palm over the wicker footstool that she seemed to be using as a coffee table. “You can sit here while I wake Danny. Or stand. Whichever you prefer.”
Henry takes a seat on the couch, pressing his palm against the footstool to make sure it’s stable enough before placing the bags of food on top. 
“Sorry.” Blondie says, offering a weak smile. “I’ll be right back.”
She hurries into the bedroom where Danny is asleep on the queen-sized bed. It’s summer, so there aren’t any blankets on the bed. Only a paisley-print cotton sheet that she’d found at Goodwill for a dollar three years ago. To keep warm, Danny pulled his arms and legs into his shirt, like an embryonic sac, and is sleeping with just his head peeking out. He looks so peaceful, Blondie almost doesn’t want to wake him. But with the electricity out, she’s afraid she won’t be able to keep the food fresh for him until morning, and she doesn’t want him to get sick. The hot meal enough might be too much for his little body to bear. They’ve never been able to eat out before.
“Danny, baby, wake up. Mommy has a happy meal for you.” She says, gently prodding his bony shoulder.
Danny lets out a heavy exhale before opening his eyes, blinking twice to clear away the sleep. 
“Mommy, I’m sleepy.” Danny says.
“I know, baby, but you need to eat. Mommy brought food for you.”
“What kind of food?”
“A happy meal. From McDonalds.”
“I thought McDonalds was bad. Cost too much money.”
“You don’t have to worry about that, baby. Not tonight. Just come eat, okay?”
“Okay.”
Danny pokes his arms through the sleeves of his shirt and climbs out of the bed limb-by-limb. Blondie takes his hand and they walk together into the living room where Henry is sitting. Henry stands when they enter the room, looking about for another place to sit.
“It’s okay. He’ll want to sit on the floor.” Blondie says.
Danny isn’t surprised to see Henry. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see any stranger sitting in the living room. This wouldn’t be the first time Blondie has brought a man home. It’s just the first time she doesn’t have to use her body to get a man to help her.
As predicted, Danny takes a seat on the floor with his back leaning against the couch and Blondie gets his happy meal for him. Henry sits back down on the couch, and Blondie takes a seat next to him, right behind Danny. She tousles his hair before beginning to unwrap her meal.
“Thank you, Henry.” She says.
“Of course. You’re welcome.” Henry says. 
The sound of content chewing fills the air for a moment, and nothing else is said. Blondie wonders whether she should bother introducing Danny and Henry. Danny has a tendency to get attached to people Blondie introduces him to. They’ve created an understanding that if Blondie doesn’t introduce him, the person won’t be around long, so Danny should just keep quiet and pretend the person doesn’t exist.
Danny is the first to finish his meal, and he hands his trash to his mother.
“I’m all done.” He says. “Can I go to bed now, Mommy?”
“Yes, baby, you may.” 
She waits for Danny to disappear into the bedroom before she turns her attention to Henry.
“I’d introduce you, but I’m not sure how long you’re planning on sticking around. Danny and I, we have an understanding. I only introduce him to people he’ll actually see more than once.” She tells him, and he nods.
“I understand.” He says. “He’s cute. Seems like a good kid.”
“Thank you.”
“It’s the truth.” He takes the trash Blondie is holding in her hands and places it all in one bag on the table. “Speaking of the truth, are you ready to tell it?”
She nods.
“There’s not much to tell.” She says.
“We’ll see.” He says, taking out his cellphone. “Mind if I record this?” 
She shakes her head.
“Go ahead.” She says.
“Okay. We’re recording. You should start by stating your name, and spelling it. So I can get it right when I type it up.”
“My real name or my stage name.”
“Whichever one you want published.”
“I guess my real name. Maria Edinonzo-Smith." She spells it for him. "Smith was the name of my foster parents.”
“And how old were you when you moved in with the Smiths?”
“About eight. My father was never around and my mother was a cokehead. Me and my sister got taken away when my mother got herself busted.”
“You had a sister?”
“Yeah. Melissa, but I called her Lissy.”
“And what happened to her?”
Blondie swallowed and looked down at her hands.
“She died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Do you mind me asking how it happened?”
“Mr. Smith…he would do stuff. I mean, I’m sure it could have been worse. He didn’t beat us or anything. But I was only twelve and Lissy seven. He only touched Lissy because she was too small, but me…”
“He raped you.”
“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t consensual.”
“Did you report it?”
“To who? The social worker wouldn’t have believed me. I didn’t have anyone to turn to.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I ran away. And I took Lissy with me. We lived on the streets for a while. We still went to school, and after we would do our homework in the local library. I had a teacher then who was always telling the class how important school was. She said we could never be anybody without school, so it was really important that we went to school everyday.”
“Did the Smiths ever come looking for you?”
“Once. At the school. But I told them that if they didn’t leave us be, I’d tell the whole world what Mr. Smith had done to us. They didn’t want that. So they listened.”
“What happened to Lissy?”
“Well, you see, we didn’t have any place to sleep. We slept wherever we could, wherever was safest. Usually it was underneath the bridge over by the school, but sometimes it was a park bench or under a tree somewhere…” She looked at him. “This is hard for me. I’m sorry.”
“Take your time.”
“She got hit. By a car. The driver didn’t even stop to see if she was okay. He just ran over her and kept on going. This was about a year after we ran away. She was only eight years old.” She looks back down at her hands. “Some lady who saw what happened called the police. She kept saying they’d be here any minute, not to worry, they’d catch him. But I wasn’t worried about the bastard who killed my sister. When she said the police were coming, my only thought was that I had to get out of there or else I’d get sent back to live with the Smiths. So I ran. The lady was shouting at me to come back, but I just kept going. Didn’t look back.”
“That must have been hard.”
“Life is hard.”
He nods his head, and changes the subject to high school, when he knew her. She was a good student. Nobody even noticed or cared that she seemed to wear the same clothes everyday, that she didn’t have a home to go back to. After Lissy’s death, she would ride the bus around town all night because she had trouble sleeping. The hum of the engine and the feeling of motion were the only things that could get her to sleep at night. On weekends, she spent all her time reading in the library. She knew she would need to get a scholarship in order to put herself through college, and that’s ultimately what she did. She worked three jobs to pay for meals and school supplies, but the school itself was paid for. It was at one of these jobs that she met Ricardo, Danny’s father. He was a drug dealer and a pimp, but she didn’t know that at first, and he was so willing to spend his money on her that she didn’t care when she found out. He never made her sleep with anybody else. She was too smart for that. But knowing the business, how easy it was to make money, did make it easier for her to take part in it when Ricardo was thrown in jail shortly after Danny was born. 
“Why did you drop out of school?” Henry asks her.
“Well, I missed a lot when Danny was born. I just didn’t have the energy to go to school and work three jobs and come home to take care of a crying baby and his druggie father. So I dropped out before my grades could get so low that I’d be kicked out. I didn’t want that on my record.”
“And Ricardo? What happened to him?”
“Who knows? I’m assuming he’s still locked up, but I really don’t care if he isn’t. I left him behind a long time ago when he made it clear he wasn’t ever going to clean himself up.”
It’s almost morning when Henry gets up to leave. He got more than enough material to make his case for his thesis, and she got more than she ever could have expected: a hot meal for her and her son, and someone to listen, really listen, to her story. She isn’t sure who got the better deal.
“Well, you’ve certainly been through hell. I’m glad you were willing to share you story with me.” Henry says. “You certainly don’t deserve to be treated the way you are.”
“Thank you, but it’s like you said. Everybody’s guilty. Everybody’s got their own issues and stories to tell. All we can do is just be willing to listen. Really listen.”
“That’s true. Maybe more people will be willing to listen now.”
“I hope so, Henry.” She says. “I really hope so.”



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