There’s a girl at church named Katy who shows up late and leaves early, sitting in the balcony back pew. She’s a dancer, so I’ve heard. Not ballet.
“Somebody told me you’re a counselor here,” Katy says, catching me on the stairs, “and you work at the mental hospital, right?”
“I’m also the DJ at the skating rink.”
“Yeah,” she says, “I heard that too.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I’ve got a friend in trouble,” Katy tells me.
“What kind of trouble?”
“Trouble like bad,” she says, voice cracking. “You think maybe you could talk to her? Please?”
“Sure, okay,” I reply. “Just tell me when and where.”
It’s midnight and I’m knocking on the back door of a seedy strip club off Jefferson and Ninth.
A big bald bouncer who looks like a buff Uncle Fester ushers me in and goes to fetch Katy. Girls strut through the club, dressed as the stereotypical fantasies of the American male. Asian schoolgirl. Sassy cheerleader. Bad cop in hot pants, twirling her cuffs. A platinum blond sashays by who could be a dead ringer for Britney, if Britney broke her nose and worked the line at Chips Ahoy.
There’s a Black Rose pinball machine near the back so I plug in two quarters just as the DJ cues up “Gimme Three Steps” and welcomes Dixie to the stage. Before I can hit the flippers twice a cowgirl grabs my arm and spins me around. She’s dressed in a Western vest and chaps over tight satin pants with gold pigtails and a ten-gallon hat.
“Hurry,” Katy begs, cursing and jerking back her wig. “She just locked herself in the bathroom!”
She drags me through a mirrored panel hidden stage right and we run down a low dark hall with red dome lights toward a black door at the end. Katy pounds it and yells for Sunshine. Big Fester arrives and puts his shoulder to the door. It collapses and we rush in. There’s a girl scrunched up in the corner, tears streaming down her face.
“Sunshine,” Katy shouts, “What did you do?”
Sunshine is lashed into a shiny black corset and tiger lilies are tattooed up both thighs. I pry open her fist and it is full of pills. Katy slaps her hand and they scatter across the floor. Sunshine’s palm is stained yellow and pink.
“How many you take?” I ask, checking her pupils and pulse.
“Not enough,” she slurs.
“Why?” I ask and she shakes her head slowly from side to side.
There’s one dim bulb over the bathroom sink and the walls are covered with sleazy graffiti, like a porn-obsessed Jackson Pollock with a Sharpie and Tourette’s. Scrawled in a clear spot near the floor:
love is risk / love is pain / love never ever lets go
“Sunshine’s been selling herself,” Katy explains.
“What’s that mean?”
“For drugs,” says Katy. “I used to but I quit.”
In the smallest, most broken voice Sunshine says, “I wanna quit too.”
Big Fester scoops her up and we race out the back door. “I’m sorry, sorry,” Sunshine cries. “I didn’t want to hurt nobody else. Just myself.”
“My car,” yells Katy, throwing me the keys. “Take mine.”
She leads us to a two-tone tan Cutlass Ciera and we wedge Sunshine between us in the front bench seat. When I buckle her in, she looks me over and asks, “Who’s this guy?”
“Jamie works at my church,” Katy says. “But he’s all right.”
Fester runs into the street and blocks traffic so we can leave. Just before we turn he sticks his head in the window and presses a ten and three ones into Sunshine’s pill-stained hand. “Get better,” he says, “Okay?”
Sunshine squeezes his fingers and forces a smile. “I’ll try.”
It’s quiet in the car, driving up 7th to Highway 39. Sunshine shifts in the curve and falls against me, a string of drool spilling down my shirt.
“She’s not a bad person,” Katy says. “She’s just made a lot of bad mistakes.”
“Made a few myself,” I confess. “Sometimes still do.”
“You think she could ever be all right?”
“Don’t know,” I reply. “What do you think?”
“I think God forgives and helps us,” Katy says. “But sometimes the hardest part is forgiving yourself.”
“What if we don’t ever get it right?”
“I don’t know, Jamie,” she says, cracking the window to smoke. “Guess that’s why we sing ‘Amazing Grace’.”
There is a fourth man in the fire, in silence and dark cars. In a beat-up Cutlass rolling toward the psych ward with two strippers in the front and a roller rink DJ-turned-therapist at the wheel.
“That’s good,” I tell her. “Maybe someday you oughta come work at the church too.”
“Someday,” says Katy, in a raspy whisper. “Maybe.”
Sunshine’s head is on my shoulder, snoring now. I turn down the hospital’s long drive. Beyond the trees, a far light shines.
“Sunshine, wake up, baby,” Katy says, pulling her face back straight and pushing the hair from her eyes. “You’re gonna make it. We’re almost there.”