Little Girl Lost
The headline made me sit down when I read it, that and the picture next to it and the article that spilled out over two columns underneath.
After I finished, I spread the paper out on the table, flattened it down with both hands, and stared at the photo. I wasn’t reading, not any more, just watching the girl in the photo stare back at me, a big smile on her face, all her teeth showing, her eyes squinting against the photographer’s flash, blond bangs hanging down under the peak of her mortarboard cap. That was one of two photos the paper had run; the other was on page nineteen, where the article continued. I didn’t turn to page nineteen, not again, just stood up, bearing down on the table, leaning on my fists, and looked at her. The strangest thought came to me then: I thought about the bird.
It was made of styrofoam, with a yellow-and-red coating on it meant to look like feathers, a black plastic beak, and wire feet twisted into claws at the ends. I found it in the incinerator room at the end of the hall, in a balsa wood cage balanced on the rim of the slop sink. I’d come out to throw out the kitchen garbage for my mother, so I went ahead and dragged the door to the incinerator open and let the knotted plastic bag slide down the chute. But my eyes were on the bird, the shoddy styrofoam bird in its shoddy wooden cage.
One of our neighbors must have thrown it out, either the Tolberts or the Nelsons or Mrs. Knechtel in 14-D. No one would mind if I took it. My mother complained that it was filthy, but it wasn’t, not very, and when I promised to wash it off, she said she’d let me keep it.
My father put a hook in the side of my bookcase and hung the cage on it, higher up than I could reach, and it stayed there, where I could see it every time I lay in bed, for the next ten years. My father left us somewhere along the way, but the bird stayed.
When Miranda Sugarman finally let me sleep with her, she did it looking up at that bird, a ten-year accumulation of dust mottling its coat, the cage splitting where the hook bit into the wood. It was the night before we graduated from high school and only a week before she would leave New York for summer school in Los Alamos, where she hoped to get a head start on the pre-med courses that would put her on track for a career as an optometrist, or an ophthalmologist, I could never remember which.
But that night I remember. I remember her eyelids trembling as she kissed me and how, afterwards, she weaved her fingers into my hair and pulled my head to her chest. I remember the curve of her shoulders as she leaned over the side of the bed to pick her glasses up off the floor. I remember listening to her heart as it hammered slower and slower against her ribs. Her chest was sticky with perspiration and so was my cheek, and we lay like that for a long time.
Out of nowhere she said, “I hate that thing. That bird. I really do.”
I followed her glance and it was as though I were noticing the cage up there for the first time. It was an ugly, god-awful thing. I couldn’t remember why I’d ever wanted it. I stood on tiptoe to get it down, wobbling a little as blood rushed to my head. Miranda laughed and I felt her hands around my waist, trying to hold me back, but I carried the cage out to the living room and she followed, my blanket wound around her body. She hissed at me as I unlocked the front door – “You’re naked!” – but she held the door for me and I walked out into the hall, past 14-B and 14-C and 14-D. The door to the incinerator room squeaked as I opened it and again, once I’d put the cage on the edge of the sink, when I let it slam shut.
I walked back, all the length of that long hall, to where Miranda waited wrapped in my blanket, a look of mischief and delight shining in her face; and at the last instant, while a neighbor might still have opened the door and seen her, she opened the blanket and let it fall to her feet.
A sign of things to come? I didn’t see it that way then. I only knew, in that instant, and maybe only for that instant, that I loved her: loved her as only an eighteen-year-old escaping from virginity and high school in the same night can. We swept the blanket under us. It didn’t matter to us that we were in my mother’s living room. We struggled to be silent, and failed. Thankfully, my mother didn’t wake up – or, if she did, she was discreet enough to stay in her bedroom with the door closed. Or if she wasn’t, we never noticed.
The following afternoon, as I mounted the stage to the sound of our music teacher pounding out “Pomp and Circumstance” on the piano, I was struck by a thought. Last night, I’d left the bird in exactly the same place I’d found it ten years earlier, in more or less the same position on the edge of the sink. And despite the decade that had passed, we still had all the same neighbors. One of them was the person who had thrown the thing out in the first place. What a shock it would be, I thought, what a Twilight Zone kick in the head, if the same neighbor who had thrown the bird out all those years earlier happened to walk into the incinerator room today and see it there, exactly as he or she had left it ten years ago. What would it be like? To think that you have safely disposed of something, that for better or worse it is out of your life forever, and then to walk into a room ten years later and find it there again, staring you in the face?
I saw Miranda for the last time a week later. She went away, and despite the best intentions on both sides we didn’t stay in touch. I didn’t know what happened next in her life, but I could imagine: after college, she settled down into a safe, sensible, hard-working Midwestern life, turned into a damn good doctor, while I – I stayed in New York and turned into what New York turns people into.
That was where I thought the story ended. And it was – until I walked into a room ten years after our graduation and saw Miranda Sugarman’s yearbook photo staring at me out of the Daily News under a headline that said “Stripper Murdered.”
Visiting a strip club in the middle of the day is like visiting a well-lit haunted house. The magic, such as it is, is gone. At night, the Sin Factory was probably decked out like a casino, with a flashing marquee and a tuxedoed bouncer checking IDs at the door. Maybe even a velvet rope to make the patrons feel special when they were let in. But at three in the afternoon there was no one at the door, the neon was turned off, and even the beat of the music leaking out into the street sounded sluggish and half-hearted.
Under glass in a frame on the door were photos of this week’s featured performers, Mandy Mountains and Rachel Firestone. In her photo, Mandy was cradling breasts some mad doctor had built for her out of equal measures of silicone and cruelty. Rachel’s photo showed a thin brunette straddling a chair backwards, her bare breasts peeking out between the slats. Judging by their shape, hers had gone under the knife as well, but next to Mandy’s, Rachel’s breasts looked almost modest. Either to keep the cops from complaining or to keep passers-by from getting too much of the show for free, management had stuck tiny silver stars over each woman’s nipples. Along the top of the frame, a printed card announced the dates on which each woman would be appearing. Rachel had more than a week left, but tonight was Mandy’s last night.
I pulled the door open. The place was smaller than most strip clubs I’d seen, just a single, narrow room with a bar against one wall and a tiny wooden stage at the far end. Mirrors on all the walls struggled to make the place and the crowd it held seem larger, but the attempt was a failure. The stools at the bar were all empty, the crowd consisted of two men on opposite sides of the stage, and the mirrors weren’t fooling anyone.
Behind the bar, a woman was wiping glasses and racking them overhead. She was wearing an open black jacket over a lace-trimmed black bustier that gave her deep cleavage. Her chest couldn’t have been on display more if she’d been holding her breasts out to me on the palms of her hands. Her blonde hair was pulled back with an elastic band and her nails were painted the color of a cosmopolitan.
I sat on a stool and asked for club soda when she came over. She thumbed one of the buttons on her dispenser and tossed in a plastic stirrer and a piece of lime while the glass filled. “Just so you know,” she said, “it’s a twodrink minimum to watch the show. Doesn’t matter if you order club soda, I’ve got to charge you for