And It Burned

by Philip Shirley

Amanda pulled a silky black stocking over her foot. The rays of the summer sunset washed the bedroom wall behind her in red-orange, exaggerating the curve of her leg in the shadow. She sat upright in the straightback chair as she smoothed the material over her freshly shaved skin. She caught her image in the mirror behind the door and considered why men always grew excited by stockings and garters. With a foot resting on the chair seat, Amanda ran one hand up her leg from her knee along the side of her thigh to the black lace panties. She turned to see the deep cleavage created by her push-up bra. Outlines of her small breasts were visible through the lace.

She’d worn the garter and stockings, along with the high-cut panties and push-up bra, only once, three years earlier. She half-smiled, briefly, remembering the incredible sex she had enjoyed with her ex-husband after that Halloween party.

Amanda squeezed into a short black leather skirt and slid her arms into a tight red silk blouse with a deep V in front. The skirt covered the black underwear, though the dark stocking tops showed when she sat with her legs crossed. A pair of four-inch heels covered in black satin completed the outfit.

From its box inside a shopping bag, Amanda lifted an expensive blond wig with short curls, purchased that afternoon. She repositioned the wig a couple of times and was satisfied the hair looked natural. She applied heavy charcoal eye shadow over her eyelids, then accented the corner of her eyes with a bit of silver.

Standing in front of the mirror, Amanda posed to see if she could look comfortable in the outfit. Not bad for forty-five. She sprayed perfume she’d taken from her daughter’s dressing table heavily behind each ear and picked up the large purse. She was ready. As she walked out of the bedroom, she thought about her pistol under the mattress, but she knew she couldn’t use a gun for this.

Amanda sat in her car with the air conditioner blowing into her face to fend off the muggy Mississippi heat that was still eighty-eight an hour after sundown. She’d backed into a space on the side of the cinder block building that housed the Downtown Club, wedged between two huge metal buildings with faded logos painted one on top of the other until none was legible. She thought about how her comfortable life had changed over the past months, at last leading her to this tired part of Jackson she’d normally never see or even know existed. She noticed the row of shotgun houses across the street, plywood nailed over each window and scattered weeds standing two feet tall in a tiny front yard that had once held grass where children must have laughed and played.

She looked down at the smooth stockings covering her legs and knew she could easily find a man tonight. Not that she had much interest in sex. That could wait. Like everything else she’d put on hold for the past year. Her world had shrunk to a tiny two-bedroom house since she brought her daughter Pam home from the hospital to recover from being beaten to near death.

Amanda’s friends didn’t understand and most had drifted away as she refused to go out with them on weekends. No one knew of the hours she’d spent sitting in her car watching the man who’d attacked her daughter as he’d come and go from his various hangouts.

She checked the wig again in the car mirror. The curls made Amanda think of Pam, leaving a bad marriage only to end up half bloody and unconscious for hours in an alley after getting picked up in a bar. And how Pam refused to leave the house after dark now.

Amanda leaned toward the mirror and dabbed a tissue on the tears that had formed in her eyes. She went through a checklist of the items she’d placed in the purse, including a small pill, a wrapped package of cocaine and a new pair of poultry shears. She reached for the cell phone to call her mother and check on Pam, but decided it best not to call now. She turned off the phone and dropped it into her purse.

Amanda stood in the front doorway of the Downtown Club for a few seconds as her eyes adjusted to the dark room. The bar was hazy with smoke from cigars and cigarettes. A dozen or so men stood around the pool tables in back, and a row of men slouched on the bar stools on the right. A few wore dark work shirts with their names sewn over the pocket; others wore jeans and tee shirts with tattoos of flags, motorcycles or curvy women peeking from under the sleeves. She saw only two women, seated close to a man in a corner booth. Most of the men were there for a quick beer on their way home from the welding shops, parts stores and used car lots that surrounded the bar.

Above the bar mirror, bumper stickers papered the wall, some old enough to be brown where white had once been. Ski Mississippi. American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God. Wallace for President. Gun Control Means Using Both Hands. Problem with My Driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT. Work is for people who can’t fish.

The man she knew as Larsen sat alone at a table past the end of the bar near three pool tables, wearing a starched cowboy shirt with ivory studs and pressed jeans. For the first time Amanda realized he was handsome, with a chiseled chin, high cheek bones and a close shave. She wondered why his looks hadn’t registered with her before.

As Amanda walked slowly behind the long row of bar stools, the room grew quieter. She found a stool near the end of the bar, not far from Larsen’s table. The bartender flipped a small white towel over his shoulder that he’d been using to wipe freshly washed mugs.

“Yes ma’am?” he said, lifting his eyebrows as if asking an obvious question.

“Vodka. Rocks. Double,” Amanda said, loud enough for Larsen to hear. Opening her purse, she removed a pack of Virginia Slims and a twenty-dollar bill. She placed the twenty on the bar and shook out a cigarette from the pack. The bartender reached into his shirt pocket for matches, lit one and held the flame a few inches in front of her. She leaned forward toward the match, allowing the bartender a look inside her blouse at the black lace pushing her breasts together. She remained expressionless when he realized he’d been caught looking, as if his glance down her blouse was expected and appreciated, but wasn’t to be acknowledged. The bartender deposited the drink in front of her on a thin napkin.

Amanda could see herself in the mirror behind the bar, behind bottles of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels Bourbon, Taaka Vodka, Gilbey’s Gin, and a pyramid of cheap glasses stacked upside down. She looked in the mirror and pretended to find something wrong with the makeup around her eyes. She turned toward the bartender as she stood up and clutched her purse. “Where’s your ladies room, Sugar?”

“Back in that corner, behind the pool tables.”

Amanda picked up her drink and walked toward the restroom, taking a route that allowed her to walk close enough to Larsen for him to smell the trail of perfume. In the restroom she leaned toward the smudged mirror as she opened her lipstick. She twirled the tube, then slid the end between her lips from left to right, coating both lips at once with the thick red color. She checked her wig, then took a gulp of vodka and swished the liquor around in her mouth to make sure she had the smell on her breath. She spit the mouthful of vodka into the nasty sink and poured out the rest while holding her fingers over the ice. Looking up and seeing the curly wig she wondered if Pam had stood before this mirror that night. Amanda reached up to touch her face, suddenly tearing up again as she saw Pam’s face in the mirror and the deep red scar from the knife Larsen had turned on Pam after ripping the blade from Pam’s hand as she tried to fight him off.

Amanda refilled the drink with tap water and walked back to her bar stool. For the next ten minutes she sipped the water to regain control, before downing the last few drops. She wouldn’t cry again. She slid the glass across the bar and caught the bartender’s attention. “Another, please.”

The bartender dumped the ice from her glass into the sink, picked up a fresh glass and filled it with ice and a double vodka. He put the glass on a square napkin in front of her. He picked up a five-dollar bill from the ten and five still laying on the bar.

Amanda slowly sipped the vodka, thinking that a couple of swallows might even help relax her. Soon the only way out would be to finish what she started. In the mirror behind the bar she checked to see if Larsen was watching. He was. She put her elbows on the bar and crossed her legs, allowing the tight skirt to slide up her thigh to show the top of the stocking. After a moment, she rocked sideways on the stool and pulled the skirt lower. Larsen was practically staring now, but didn’t realize she was watching him in the mirror. She could tell he didn’t recognize her. The charges against Larsen were dropped when Amanda wouldn’t let Pam testify, and the months of fitful sleep that followed for Amanda made her lose twenty-five pounds. A change of hair color and length completed the disguise, especially with enough leg showing to keep Larsen’s eyes focused away from her face.

The bartender served a couple of beers at the other end of the bar, then wandered back to stand in front of Amanda. She spoke first. “What kind of stuff you got on the jukebox?”

“Oh, you know, the usual. It’s a pretty good selection. Dwight Yoakam, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Confederate Railroad. Some older stuff, too. George Jones, David Allen Coe, Willie Nelson. Here, I’m buying if you’re flying.” The bartender grabbed two dollars from the tip jar and held the bills toward her. She reached for the money, knowing the cash was just to see her bend over the jukebox.

She smiled as she took the money. “Anything you want to hear?”

“Whatever you like is fine, Sweetheart.”

She sipped her drink as she walked to the jukebox swaying her hips. As she bent over to punch the letters and numbers, she knew every man nearby was watching her and hoping the skirt would ride higher up the backs of her thighs.

Johnny Cash launched into the second verse of Ring of Fire as Amanda started back to the bar. She stopped off briefly at the ladies room, where she again replaced the vodka with water. She walked past Larsen and sat sideways on the bar stool, giving him a quick view between her legs as she swung around to face the bar. From Larsen’s viewpoint an inch of thigh above the stocking tops would be visible.

Amanda drank her water for another fifteen minutes. Occasionally she spoke to the bartender, who always returned to her end of the bar after he served customers at the other end.

As she finished the second double water, the bartender slid a drink in front of her. “Compliments of the gentleman over there.” He tilted his head toward Larsen.

Amanda felt her pulse throbbing at her throat. It was happening just as Pam had described it. She took a deep breath and turned back to the bartender. “I don’t usually take drinks from strangers,” she said, attempting to sound a bit drunk.

“Hey, it’s up to you,” he said and stepped back, standing a few steps farther away than before and letting the conversation go cold. Larsen wasn’t someone the bartender wanted to compete with. She wondered if Larsen still carried the same nickel-finish pistol he’d forced between Pam’s teeth.

Amanda let the glass sit on the bar for a minute, inhaled deeply once again to calm her heart, picked the drink up and turned in her seat. She held the glass up toward Larsen in a toast. Larsen picked up his can of beer and returned the toast, leaning back in his chair with his legs crossed. His boots reflected the colored bar lights.

Amanda turned around to face the bar, but let the skirt slide up another inch so that a fraction of the garter was showing. Enjoy it while you can, you smug bastard. I hope you remember this for the rest of your life.

For ten minutes she sipped her drink and watched Larsen in the mirror, not wanting to appear too eager. Whenever someone walked past Larsen, he was quick to speak and seemed to know everyone by first name. He had an ever-present smile and even the two women stopped to talk as they walked to the ladies room and laughed at something he said. He seemed very at ease with himself, and the regulars here obviously liked him. She found herself asking how he could’ve done what Pam said.

Amanda wondered if Larsen was used to waiting out new women he met. When the bartender returned from checking his customers at the far end of the bar, she asked him to take Larsen a beer. Amanda stood up and walked to the table right behind the bartender as he delivered the can. Amanda saw the looks of disappointment from the four men nearby playing pool, who must have had some thoughts about their own chances with the whore in the short leather skirt. “Mind if I join you? I hate to drink alone.”

“Please do,” Larsen said, halfway standing and reaching to help with her chair. He didn’t appear surprised to see her, but was gracious like most men she knew in the South when meeting a woman the first time.

“I’m Casey. What’s your name?”

“Everyone just calls me Larsen. I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before.”

“No, you ain’t seen me here. I just moved into town. I split with my old man in Hattiesburg and moved up here to try something new. Everywhere I went down there I ran into one of his sisters or his drinking buddies.” She tried not to pour on the country too much. She wanted to sound uneducated, not stupid.

“Well, you might like it here. Just about everyone that comes in this bar is a regular. We don’t see many new people here. Especially any as good looking as you.”

Larsen was smart. She knew he was venturing a safe compliment to see where it might lead. She smiled and didn’t act offended.

It worked. He grew a little bolder. “Are you meeting someone here?”

“No. Just wanted to get out of that little apartment and have a drink around some people.” Amanda fumbled in her purse, acting a bit drunk as she removed her cigarettes. She shook out the last Virginia Slim and held the cigarette in front of her face. Amanda was pleased she’d thought to empty the pack of all but three cigarettes before leaving home. “Light?”

Larsen reached into his pocket and pulled out a Zippo lighter, worn from years of use, with brass showing at the corners where there had once been shiny chrome. He flicked his thumb across the little wheel and a flame appeared on the first try. He reached over to hold the flame for her. Light from a beer sign caught the side of his face. That’s when she saw light sparkle off the tiny diamond-stud earring on his left ear. Pam’s earring. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. Just get through it, she told herself, breathing through her nose with her lips pressed together. Then she leaned over to light the cigarette, allowing her blouse to swing open and giving Larsen a clear view of her breasts.

“Thank you, Sweetie.” She took a long drag on the cigarette and tilted her head back as she blew the smoke into the air. The smoke tasted good. She was surprised she was ever able to quit.

Larsen said nothing, merely nodded as he slid the lighter back into his jeans pocket and crossed his legs. His own cigarette sat on the ashtray burning. She noticed his boots were polished to a fine sheen, which fit with his pressed clothes and well-kept fingernails.

Leaning forward, Amanda gave Larsen her made-up personal history and then steered the conversation back to him as she stubbed out the cigarette. “So what’s your story?” she asked.

“Not much to it,” Larsen said. “I run liquor stores. Hang out here after work.”

She tried not to stare at the earring, by looking into Larsen’s eyes. “There’s got to be more than that. Did you grow up here?”

”I was raised up in the Delta before moving to Jackson twenty-five years ago.”

She asked a few more questions, but he would say little. Even as Larsen kept up his conversation with Amanda, he paused every time someone walked past, calling each person by name. His personal questions to his friends about this one’s daughter’s soccer team or that one’s new job surprised Amanda.

Amanda sipped the vodka drink, allowing the liquor to melt the ice and water itself down, and wondered if she somehow had Larsen’s story wrong. She had to be sure. “I like your little diamond. What’s the story behind that?” she asked.

He didn’t answer, just watched her.

She saw the muscles in his jaw tighten as he searched her eyes. In that moment she knew Pam’s story was true. It was all true. She was careful to stay cool. Play dumb she told herself. “You’re not gay are you?” she asked, smiling like it was a joke.

Larsen cocked his head to the side and said nothing as he looked hard into her eyes, a half smile showing he thought she was a little funny.

She knew what she needed to know and tried again to break the tension before he said anything. She picked up her empty cigarette package, crumpled it and mumbled, “Oh, damn.” She reached into her purse and pulled out four one-dollar bills. Smiling, she looked into Larsen’s eyes. “Honey, do you mind getting me some smokes? Virginia Slim 100s?”

Larsen accepted the bills and walked toward the cigarette machine near the front door. As soon as his back was turned, Amanda reached into her purse and removed a small pill. She looked around. It seemed no one was watching closely. She moved her hand over Larsen’s beer as if reaching for the ashtray and dropped the pill into his beer. She picked up her own drink and walked to the restroom, repeating the switch of water for vodka. She reached up and fluffed her hair a little, leaving it slightly imperfect. Opening her lipstick, she ran it across her lips, coloring both in a single stroke and not bothering to be too careful about being perfect.

Larsen was waiting at the table. She lit another cigarette, took a drag, then tilted her head back and downed the last swallow of water. Larsen immediately held his beer up to the bartender and made a circular motion with his finger extended to order another round. He then downed his beer and, she hoped, the pill. She had no experience with the pill that her lifelong friend Benny called the Date Rape Pill. When Benny—the only friend who knew what she was doing—brought the pill to her house, he told her to watch for signs that drug was taking effect, because once it did she had to get Larsen out of the bar quickly–or she might not be able to get him out at all.

Amanda leaned back in her chair and again held up her drink toward Larsen. “Here’s to new places and new friends. And to women who want to take back their lives.” When Larsen’s expression was slightly puzzled at her words, she simply smiled at him. And her smile was genuine.

She placed the watered-down drink to her lips and took a big swallow as she leaned back and crossed her legs. Larsen was taking a long drink of his beer, but she saw him look down. She shifted in her chair so he could see above the stockings to her garters.

A pool table was open behind Larsen. She uncrossed her legs and momentarily held her knees three or four inches apart as she leaned forward. Larsen could see the insides of her thighs all the way to the lacy panties. In a low, husky voice, she said, “Want to play pool?”

“Sure,” Larsen said, smiling again for the first time since she’d asked about his earring.

She walked to the table, wobbling slightly. She could feel the three quarters she had stacked inside one of her shoes on her last trip to the ladies room. The quarters made her walk unbalanced. She’d seen the trick on a spy show on the History Channel.

Larsen put coins into the pool table and racked the balls. “You want to break?”

“Sure baby,” she said as she began applying chalk to the cue stick.

Larsen walked behind her as she bent over to make the pool shot. The cue ball made a crisp, loud crack as it sent the triangle of balls spinning around the table, though no balls went in.

“Good break. Bad luck,” Larsen said, seeing how hard she’d hit the cue ball.

“Yeah, my old man used to take me to play a lot.” The story was partially true and she knew she could back up the statement with her play. She and her ex had played often a few years before when they’d bought a pool table for their den.

Neither she nor Larsen played well. She made a couple of easy shots to show she could, but she intentionally missed several shots to buy time and to flash Larsen until his interest in her could build to a peak. She could see Larsen was enjoying watching her bend over and stretch to make shots. She allowed everyone around to see plenty of leg and lots of cleavage when she leaned forward to study each shot. Finally the game was over when Larsen sank the eight ball after she had moved the ball so close to the hole that to miss the shot would have been obvious. Larsen was beginning to appear drunk.

“I get bored real quick. Let’s go have another drink.” She tossed her cue stick on the pool table as she walked back to their chairs. Larsen followed.

For another twenty minutes she managed to carry on a conversation. She mostly asked Larsen questions about Jackson, places to eat, other clubs, all of which he answered with short sentences. She noticed he was having trouble concentrating. She was certain the pill was beginning to take effect.

It was now or never. She scooted her chair closer to Larsen and leaned into him, putting her hand on his knee and letting her fingers trail lightly down the inside of his leg. She knew he could smell her, despite the smoke and stale beer. “Do you like to dance? Is there somewhere we could go? I’m tired of this place.”

“I don’t like to dance.” Larsen was slurring his words now. “But we can go somewhere else if you want to.”

“Then drink up,” Amanda said. Larsen tipped back the nearly full beer he’d just ordered to drain it. As he held his head back she slid two empty cans from the table into her purse, knowing they had Larsen’s fingerprints on them. She squeezed Larsen’s thigh and stood up. “Let’s go.”

Larsen dropped several bills on the table, and the two of them walked outside. Just as it had when she walked in, the entire place grew momentarily quieter. She heard a hushed comment about Larsen’s getting lucky, followed by muffled laughter.

“Where’s your car, honey?” Amanda asked. Larsen motioned toward his white El Dorado.

When they reached the car she spun around and leaned back against the driver’s side door. She grabbed the front of Larsen’s shirt and pulled him to her as she put her arms around his neck. In his eyes she could see a mixture of confusion and desire. The pill was slowing Larsen, but he managed to put one hand down to her skirt to feel her thigh through the leather. She rubbed her palm down the front of Larsen’s pants across his zipper, knowing that he couldn’t think straight once she had him completely aroused and drugged at the same time. She cupped his half-erect penis through his jeans, closing her eyes as she did and talking to herself. Just get through it. It’s almost over. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm, nice,” she whispered in his ear.

She allowed him to move her skirt up, pushing his hand away once he briefly felt the silk panties. His other hand was around her neck, as he bent toward her to kiss her roughly. She could smell the alcohol on his smoky breath and the acrid bar smoke that had saturated both their clothes. She turned her head after a second, pulled his head forward and put her mouth to his ear. “Not out here, Baby. Let’s go somewhere private.”

Larsen’s hands were moving over her body, but she managed to step to the side. “Let’s get in the car, Sugar.”

After Larsen found his keys, she unlocked the doors. She had to help Larsen into the driver’s seat and went around to the passenger side. She dropped the keys onto the floor.

“Where’re my keys?” Larsen asked, with the sentence coming out as one long word.

“It’s all right Baby, let’s just sit here.” Amanda turned in the seat so she could scan the parking lot over his shoulder. She reached over with her right hand and fondled him lightly. “Let me take care of you first. Just sit back and relax.”

Larsen leaned back in the seat. His arms fell to his sides. He closed his eyes.

Amanda left her hand in his lap, rubbing the outside of Larsen’s pants just enough to keep him occupied. When his eyes closed after a minute, she stopped. She caught a scream in her throat when Larsen grabbed a handful of her hair behind her head. She reacted without thinking and pulled away. The wig came off in Larsen’s hand.

“Whatthehell…”he said, struggling to focus as he looked up at Amanda. His eyes grew wide. “Hey you bitch don’t I know you?”

Amanda lunged at Larsen and grabbed his head with both hands, slamming it into the steering wheel. She felt his fist pound into her ribs, but she held onto his head and drove it into the steering wheel again and again. She finally realized the screaming was coming from her own throat. Larsen grew limp. She released his head and it slumped to the side. Blood was dripping from his nose and his face was swollen and red.

Amanda looked around the parking lot at the cars. No one else was around. Larsen remained still. She shook him by the shoulder. Still no response.

After putting on latex gloves from her purse, Amanda began working as quickly as she could. She picked up the keys and wiped them with a scarf, then inserted the ignition key. She removed the large wrapped package of cocaine and threw it onto the floor on her side where it would be clearly visible from outside the car. Next she opened a smaller plastic bag of cocaine and placed it on the center console. She wiped a tiny mirror clean of prints. Taking Larsen’s right hand, she pressed his thumb and fingers onto the glass. She put a teaspoon of the cocaine on the mirror, along with a short McDonald’s straw she’d cut in half, and placed them all on the console next to the bag of drugs.

She pinched a small amount of the cocaine between her thumb and finger and forced it into Larsen’s mouth. She was careful not to use too much, taking just a tiny bit to show cocaine in Larsen’s blood if he was tested. She sprinkled cocaine powder onto Larsen’s top lip and down the front of his shirt.

From her purse, she removed the two Bud Light beer cans. She turned both cans upside down and shook a few remaining drops onto Larsen’s shirt where it mixed with drops of blood. She threw one can on the floor and placed the other between Larsen’s legs on the seat.

Headlights startled her as a pickup truck parked nearby. Two men got out. The man on the passenger side saw them in the car. Amanda bent forward and slid on the wig. She leaned over and put her arms around Larsen, pulling his head up and pretending to kiss him. She heard the two men laugh as they walked inside the building.

Amanda turned the El Dorado ignition key and the engine started immediately. Sliding over in her seat so she could reach the gas pedal with her left foot, she put the car into reverse. Checking to make sure no other occupied cars were around, she began backing across the parking lot.

When she reached the paved street she continued across into the parking lot of a NAPA auto parts store on the opposite side. She steered the car toward the glass storefront. On impact the large window shattered, sending chunks of glass and a shower of slivers through Larsen’s open window like an ice storm. The car stopped halfway inside the front of the store, though the engine was still running. Amanda was deafened by the store alarms.

Larsen’s head was out the open window, and specks of blood dotted his face where glass shards had pelted him. He looked like a passed-out drunk who’d bloodied himself in a wreck. His eyes were already swelling from where she’d pounded his face into the steering wheel.

Amanda reached for her purse and removed the poultry shears. For a moment she imagined unzipping Larsen and doing what every mother in her place wanted to do. She hesitated, looking at the door handle. It’s now or never. Amanda rose to her knees sideways in the seat facing Larsen. His neck was limp as she rolled his head toward her to reach his left ear. Taking the bottom half of Larsen’s ear between the blades of the shears, she clenched her teeth and squeezed. She shivered and almost vomited when she heard the metallic click of the blades snapping closed. She wiped her sleeve across her lips and reached for the largest chunk of glass on the floor. Amanda clinched her teeth and in one quick motion sliced across the cut in Larsen’s ear, deep into his cheek and down into his top lip, matching the angle of the scar on Pam’s face. A river of blood raged down the left side of Larsen’s face. She shoved his body back against the door, taking huge breaths to keep herself from gagging. She removed the earring, then tossed the broken glass and half an ear into Larsen’s lap as she stepped out of the car.

The streetlight in the corner of the parking lot blinked off and on as Amanda rounded the building toward her car, forcing herself to walk at a normal pace. She thought of Pam and wondered if her daughter would like living in Panama City Beach. She hoped the movers arrived on time the next morning, but she told herself not to worry. Learn to be patient.

Philip Shirley divides his time between Dauphin Island, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi, where he’s president of GodwinGroup, the South’s oldest ad agency. His stories have appeared in Thicket, Southern Gothic Online and the anthology Stories from the Blue Café IV. He has received more than a dozen awards for poetry, fiction, speech and feature writing, with various work in POEM, Wind, Aura, Southern Humanities Review, Epos, Art Gulf Coast, Thunder Mountain Review, and on public radio. He’s on the board of the Alabama Writers’ Forum. And it Burned began as a scene from an unpublished novel manuscript. He is working on a second novel manuscript about the death of Elvis.