A Tender Age, 1968

Itty Bit, fourteen, stood in her bedroom in the tiny orange house tapping her fingernail against the doorframe: tap-tap-tap. She eavesdropped on Auntie May who was visiting her mother.

“But it’s your purpose, Baby Girl,” Auntie May said.

Itty Bit could only see the back of Auntie’s head. Her mother sat on the sofa. “I hostess at Joey Vino’s now.”

“For peanuts. How are you ever going to pay off this house?”

“That’s not your concern.”

Auntie looked up at the ceiling as if she could see through the plaster and insulation to the robin’s nest woven with Easter grass Itty Bit had just discovered. “You’re like my own daughter, dear. I want you to be financially secure.” Auntie’s head swiveled toward the bar cart set up in a corner. Baby Girl’s earnings supported a lot more than her mortgage.

Baby Girl tugged the sagging skin under her chin. “I’m too old for all that.”

“You still have a certain appeal.” Auntie stood, walked to the front door, and pulled an envelope from her purse.

Baby eyed it as if she were envisioning the strings attached. “I don’t need your money.”

“It’s a ticket for tonight’s concert.”

Itty clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from squealing.

Baby didn’t take the envelope, so Auntie waved it at her. “For heaven’s sake. It’s just a concert your daughter might enjoy.” She looked down the hall at Itty. Their eyes connected. Something in Auntie’s look also had strings.

Baby took the ticket.

“My invitation stands.”

The door closed behind Auntie. Baby Girl fingered her mother’s single lotus earring now strung from a necklace, its mate lost years ago. She went to the bar cart, poured scotch into a tumbler, and downed it in one gulp.

 

Itty Bit left the house too early, the ticket in her purse. Commotion in Millicent Gardens pulled her up the street. Most white folks avoided the projects, or Coontown, altogether, especially since blacks started calling it Killtown.

Residents gathered in the center courtyard where roses no longer grew. The lower walls of the buildings were sprayed with graffiti: FUCK YOUs and middle fingers, penises and raised fists. Mothers jiggled babies on their stoops; men swigged beer from quart bottles.

As Itty wove through the crowd someone growled: “What’s that white bitch doing here?”
“Leave her be. She’s just a whore child.”

“A white whore child.”

“Like that matters.”

Roger Winkle stood on a crate in the middle of the throng. He held a lighter to his draft card. “Why would I ever fight for The Man? Why would any of you?”

“Fuckin A!”

“That’s right!”

In the distance, Laser Beam leaned against a streetlight pole. Itty felt in her pocket for the aspirin tin. Tucked inside was the ruby he’d given her last year.

“Here’s your fork in the road,” he’d said when he handed it over, too high to explain what he meant.

She didn’t think the ruby was real, but it was pretty to look through. Better than rose-colored glasses.

Today, Laser rolled his fingers into a tube, held it to his eye like a telescope, and scanned the mob. Its dark eye landed on her and she felt chosen. As long as Laser’s eye was on her, nothing bad could happen, even here. She closed her eyes and pretended the eye’s pupil was shooting a protective net over her, but when she opened her eyes, Laser was gone.

Front Street was clogged with traffic in both directions. Cars from Ohio lined the bridge. So many people Itty didn’t know, but there was Jeb sitting on a pickle barrel in front of the abandoned ferry landing. A sign propped against his legs read: PARKING $1.00.

Preacher Boy stood on a corner shoving hell-fire tracts into kids’ hands. He pointed toward The Burlesque marquee across the street where The Needles’ name flashed off and on, off and on. “This is demon music! Don’t be tempted, children!” They ignored him. When Itty walked by, Preacher Boy grabbed her shoulder and looked too deeply into her eyes. “It’s the devil’s den,” he whispered. “Don’t go in there.” She didn’t like the look in his eyes, prurience and contrition mixed together. Itty pulled free and backed away. She tripped over Laser’s father who sat on a milk crate in front of Smyth’s Dress Shop with his dirty bowler upturned by his feet. He held out his mangled hand hoping for sympathy, but these kids didn’t have any. “Get a job!” They threw crumpled tracts at him, pop bottles, cigarette butts, until Sheriff Plowright hauled him to his feet. “You’re blocking traffic, Fingers.” Plowright pulled five bucks from his wallet and pressed it into Fingers’s good hand. “Go get a sandwich, will you?”

Plowright didn’t harass the Blue Bottle whores working every corner, black and white. The whorehouse had integrated the same year as the school.

Across the street, a boy darted from Bucky’s. Probably hawked his mother’s wedding band for drug money. Then Itty Bit knew it was true when he went to China who stood beside The Dorinda. China swapped a palm full of something for the boy’s cash.

Itty made her way to the pawnshop and opened the door. Bucky stood behind the counter.

“Hey, Itty Bit. Haven’t seen you in a while.”

The door to the back room was open. Bucky’s wife Gabby tossed junk into a trashcan. “We need to get rid of this crap, Bucky!”

“Hold on!” Bucky called to her. “Let me see what you’re tossing! Back in a sec.” Bucky eyed Itty as if she might steal something. And she might, except she couldn’t fit what she really wanted into her purse: the Russian Nesting Dolls leftover from Belle Fleur’s estate. Itty was there the day Mavie brought in a box of junk from her dead mother’s room. Belle Fleur’s old vaudeville costumes, paste jewelry, antique postcards, a paperweight from Baltimore. Those nesting dolls Mavie took apart to show Bucky how small the dolls got, all the way down to a baby no bigger than a lima bean. “This thing always gave me the creeps,” Mavie had said. “I knocked it off the shelf one night and Mother screamed: Don’t hurt your brother! Whatever the hell that meant.”

Itty wasn’t scared of them. She wondered if today she could at least steal the lima bean, but Bucky came back too soon.

“Heading to the concert?”

Itty nodded.

“I heard they got banned from The Ed Sullivan Show. No wonder the streets are hopping.”

Itty eyed the nesting dolls, felt the vacant spot in her own belly where a bean might take root one day, and backed out the door.

Itty joined the crowd waiting for the theater doors to open. Soon she was surrounded by people yammering with friends and dates. Itty didn’t mind being alone in their midst. She preferred feeling invisible as people pressed against her. If they pushed hard enough they would push right through.

The theater doors opened and Itty was swept inside like flood water. She made her way to the balcony, found her row, and edged in. A couple sat to her left, hands clasped. The girl blubbered: “I can’t believe they’re here. I just can’t believe it.”

To Itty’s right sat another girl, arms clamped over her chest. She looked over as Itty settled in. “You by yourself, too?”

“Yeah.”

“My friends and I came over from Trinity. They got seats down there, but I’m stuck in the nosebleed section.” She stood and shouted: “Hey, Molly and Susan!” She waved down below, but Itty couldn’t tell if anyone waved back.

“I’m Tina.”

Itty didn’t feel like talking, so she slunk down. It wasn’t so bad sitting this close to the ceiling painted with clouds, twinkling lights scattered like stars in the dusky sky. The golden box seats were filled with Pettigrews, Harbingers, Simpkins—offspring of the town founders who had streets and schools named after them. The only thing named after Itty’s family was the Goodwill Cemetery where all those dead babies lay buried.

Tina pulled a pint of schnapps from her purse and offered it. Itty pictured her mother downing scotch from the bar cart and waved it off.

“Suit yourself.”

Lights went down and this time Tina offered a joint. Again Itty declined.

“You a nark?”

“No! I just, no.”

Tina pulled a pack of Wrigley’s from her pocket. “Do you chew gum?”

Itty laughed, took a stick, unwrapped it, and flicked the foil ball into the beehive of the girl two rows in front of them.

The gum tasted like bitter chalk. Itty made a face.

Tina said, “Might be a little stale.”

A haze of smoke filled the stage.

“We’re on fire!” Itty’s tongue felt thick.

“It’s just dry ice.”

Smoke spilled over the lip of the stage down into the audience. They started stomping their feet. The energy zapped through the theater, climbed the balcony. Itty tried to stomp her feet too, but her legs were leaden, and then a roar in her ears. She cupped her hands over them and they were too hot. Her eyelids felt heavy, insides of her cheeks itchy.

Out came the band and she managed to stand with everyone else, but she had to squint to see their skinny pants, shirts unbuttoned to their navels. The psychedelic lightshow against the back stage wall made her sway and lurch. Tina held her arm out like a Ferris wheel safety bar to keep Itty from tipping completely over. Itty gripped the metal bar that felt like skin: “Weeeeee!” She tumbled into the boy in front of her. The boy spun around, looked at Tina. “She okay?”

Tina grinned. “She’s perfect.” She pressed Itty into her seat. “Just sit.”

Itty rested her neck against the sharp edge of the seatback, felt the bristly velvet.

Music drifted up like soap bubbles from the stage and bounced against the ceiling. The bubbles popped and poured out lyrics she wanted to sing—The orb will spin; better hold on tight!—but her lips were numb.

Tina swayed to the music, but she kept turning around to eye Itty. The girl beside her screamed. So did every other girl, the music soon drowned out. But that was okay, because Itty was safely tucked up here where she could stare at the stars and moon. And then she was on the moon, her fingers curled into a telescope so she could look down as the audience passed joints and booze. A girl in the highest row straddled a boy, his hands on her ass as they made out.

The Needles below were so, so small. Harry and Eric and Leif and Nils. Itty knew their faces, their instruments. Meant to bring an album for them to sign, especially Nils, the one from Norway whom she dreamed about when she hugged her pillow. And then she was in bed under the covers with Nils and the moon. When Nils kissed her he shot moon rays into her mouth.

The bed started vibrating. “Wake up.” Someone shook Itty’s shoulder. “Come on.”

Itty willed her eyes open, but the house lights assaulted her. The concert was over. Kids stumbled into the aisles to get to the stage door for an autograph, a button ripped from a shirt, a handful of hair.

“I missed it?” Her tongue felt tacky.

“Yeah. But I have something better.”

Itty’s head lolled forward. “I don’t feel so—”

“Stand up. It’s not too late.” Tina pulled Itty to her feet. Her soles skimmed the stairs down to the lobby. She aimed for the front door where everyone else poured into the street.

“This way.” Tina yanked Itty toward the side stairs to the basement dressing rooms where all those Vaudevillians once changed costumes.

“Where are we going?”

“To meet the band.”

Itty didn’t know if she believed her. “What about your friends?”

“What friends?”

They bumbled down into a narrow hall, white-washed walls water-stained. A row of doors on the left were grimy with greasepaint. One door was open, and Itty stopped at the sight of a boy she recognized from school. He lay on a sofa. A woman by his head stroked his face. A man knelt beside him tap-tap-tapping the thin skin on his inner arm.

Itty said, “Kevin?”

The man and woman looked up, alarmed, until they saw Tina and nodded. The man reached over with his foot and closed the door.

“How do you know them?” Itty’s hands and feet tingled.

“I don’t.”

The tunnel ended at a stone stairwell. Itty ascended one slow step at a time. Tina pushed from behind, hands on Itty’s waist so she wouldn’t tip backward. Soon they were in The Dorinda’s kitchen, a grimy echo of its former self. A short order cook slapped frozen patties on the grill; another lowered a basket of fries into the deep fryer.

Itty recognized Dishwater at the sink, Laser’s grandpa. He dunked industrial plates into gray water, no more fine Dorinda china. He looked up at the girls with rheumy eyes as if he were used to virgins rising from the pits—if they were both indeed virgins. He nodded to a plate beside him loaded with scraps. Tina scooped up half a cheeseburger and took a bite under the fluorescent light. She wasn’t a teenager at all. Closer to thirty.

One of the short orders called: “Dishwater, finish those plates!”

Tina led Itty through the dining room, also sadder: the carpet stained and squishy. No more linen tablecloths or maître d, just two harried waitresses in stained uniforms trying to feed the stoned concert crowd.

The main leather door groaned when Tina pushed it and soon they were in the lobby. The Dragonfly Lounge door was propped open with a stool. The smell the cigarettes and beer wafted out. The businessmen of former days were gone. Only barflies went to The Dragonfly now. The occasional bum who’d scraped together enough for a shot, since there was no longer a doorman to keep the riffraff out. Penny and Sondra from the boarding house exited the lounge in their working clothes.

“We’re too old for these teeny boppers,” Sondra said. “Let’s go home and play cribbage.”

The defunct elevator was padlocked. Tina and Itty climbed the wide stairs to the second floor, then the narrower stairwell up to the top floor. They passed door after door, suite names too tarnished to read.

A drum beat where Itty’s heart should have been. “How do you know the band?”

“My cousin’s a roadie.”

Tina stopped at the door at the end of the hall and knocked. A woman answered. Her eyes widened when she saw Itty.

“Well, come in.” She grabbed Itty’s forearm and tugged her over the threshold. “I’m Meg.”

“I have to sit down,” Itty said.

Meg shot Tina a look that meant something.

Meg led Itty to the couch where two other girls sat. One resembled Twiggy, the other’s hair styled in a flip.

“Scoot over girls.”

They eyed Itty with derision, but made room.

“Make nice,” Meg said. “A little appetizer?”

She offered Twiggy a square mirror where four lines of coke had been arranged, an amber snorter beside them. Twiggy inhaled two lines. The flip held her hair back, snorted the rest, and smudged her fingertip through the remnants to rub into her gums.

Itty leaned her head against the sofa cushion. The room was dated, but nicer than any Itty had ever been in. A vase of Japanese lilies on the table compliments of The Dorinda. A basket of fruit. Bottle of champagne. The sitting area was twice as big as her living room and appointed with scuffed furniture. A bar cart sat in a corner. “I bet that’s where Mom got the idea.”

“What did you say?” asked Twiggy.

“Don’t listen to her,” said the other one.

Itty traced the crown molding that looked as if it had been piped along the ceiling with a pastry bag. A chandelier dangled from the center of a medallion that looked like the top of a wedding cake. “Pretty enough to eat.”

“What are you saying?” said Twiggy.

“Don’t talk to her,” said the other one.

There was a bedroom on the left, another on the right, both doors open. In the left room, someone sat in chair by the window in the dark, his fingers going tap-tap-tap on the chair arm.

“Who’s in there?” she asked.

Nobody answered.

Meg and Tina stood by the door. Tina scratched her wrist. She looked even older now. “How else was I supposed to get her here?”

They both looked at Itty, and Meg scowled.

“Where’s the band?” Itty asked.

“They’ll be here,” said Twiggy. “Don’t be so eager. They don’t like eager.”

The other one said, “They may not like eager, but they like young.”

Twiggy ogled Itty and huffed. “I’m only twenty-four, but I feel all used-up.”

“You’re how old?”

“Shh.”

Ruckus in the hall. “They’re coming!” said Meg.

The Needles burst through the door: Harry and Eric and Leif and Nils.

“Who the hell booked this gig?” said Nils. “Theater looks like a bordello. And no elevator?”

Harry scanned the suite. “Just like Grandmum’s parlor back in Leeds.”

Leif pointed to the girls on the sofa. “Bet Grandmum’s parlor didn’t come with those.”

Twiggy and the other one stood, but Itty remained seated, her thinking cloudy.

“Well done,” said Harry.

Nils opened the champagne and drank straight from the bottle. “What are you chaps having?”

Meg nodded toward the left bedroom. “Everything’s set up.”

“Let’s party.” Harry grabbed Twiggy by the waist; Eric grabbed the flip. Both were steered toward the tapping fingers. The man attached to it stood. His face came into view before he closed the door behind them all.

“It’s China,” Itty said.

Nils frowned. “You already know him?”

Itty’s hands started shaking. “I know who he is,” she whispered. “I’ve never—”

“Good!” Nils said. “That’s good.”

Leif stood before the free-standing mirror in the corner and adjusted his hair.

“It’s perfect,” Nils said. “Not a strand out of place.”

Leif smiled and turned to look at his ass. He sought Itty’s eyes in the mirror. “Nice, eh?”

Itty shrugged.

Nils sat beside her. “You’re just a tiny thing, aren’t you?”

“I guess.”

“You’ll have to speak louder,” said Meg.

“Not at all,” said Nils. “I like soft girls. Quiet girls.” He stroked her chin with the same fingers he used to strum the guitar.

It was astounding, and Itty felt chosen. “Is this really happening?”

“It is,” Nils said.

Leif scanned the room and looked at Meg. “Where’s my party favor?”

“Your order is harder to fill, but he’ll be here. Don’t worry.”

Nils clamped his palm on Itty’s knee. “Would you like a Coca-Cola?”

Itty’s mouth felt tacky. “Yes.”

Tina grabbed the ice bucket and uncapped a bottle. Itty listened for the glug-glug-glug, the fizz. Something normal and innocent.

The door to the bedroom opened and out came China with a satchel. He looked neither right nor left as he strode into the other bedroom, the creak of springs as he sat.

Tina carried the drink toward Itty. “This way.” She held the glass out like a lure toward where China waited.

“It’s your turn dear,” Nils said. “Are you ready?”

Itty shook her head.

“Of course you are. It’s you’re time now. Do stand up, darling.”

Because she couldn’t say no, this was Nils, after all, Itty did as instructed. Nils led her by the hand into the dark bedroom. China sat on the bed filling the syringe. Tina fluffed a pillow. In the dim light she once again looked like a teenager.

“You’re young again,” Itty said.

“Shh.”

Itty lay on the bed and felt as if her body were filling an impression left by her mother, her grandmother, her great-grandmother. It was so perfectly reasonable, the expectation, the acquiescence.

Nils lay beside her and rolled up Itty’s sleeve. “Her first,” he said to China. “I love to watch the first time.”

China grunted and lifted her arm, which was so tender, so white.

“Look at me,” Nils said to her. “Only at me.”

A tightness around her upper arm. A tap-tap-tap on her inner elbow.

“Only at me.”

A prick and then heat and then ahhhh.

“Only at me,” Nils said.

The moon behind his eyes began to glow. Light slipped from his parted lips as he leaned forward to fill her with moon rays. Itty opened her mouth to receive them.

 

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