Rouge Part 1
by Blake Campbell

R O S E M C K I N L E Y ’ S F U N E R A L

A bottle of pills—that’s all it takes to end a life. This wasn’t a murder scene. It was a suicide note sprawled across a bed, a bombshell who’d wished to be left alone. This was the starlet who couldn’t handle the pressure any longer, the girl who’d wanted to die. Poor girl got what she wanted. The fiery haired dame passed out around midnight, by herself in a hotel room barely suitable for the hookers and Johns that frequented the place. She wouldn’t be waking up.

Her left arm hung from the edge of the mattress, the bottle on the ground, red and white pills spilled along the vanilla colored carpet. Wrapped in a white sheet, she waited in eternal slumber to be found that following morning, for someone to come knocking. Girl didn’t even bother hanging a “Do not Disturb” sign on the door. She didn’t bother finishing the glass of white wine which remained on her nightstand, either. Was it so wrong that I couldn’t take my eyes off her, off those perfect breasts no longer moving, off those glossy, cherry red lips? Even in death, Tabitha Shrill looked beautiful as ever. Before then, she’d been a sought-after talent, the sort they’d negotiate multi-million dollar contracts over. What a wasted investment.

This wasn’t the first suicide I’d stumbled across. It was a cleaner kind of suicide—a sterile way to die. They said she was a manic-depressive. Her name was Rose, though her hair was the color noir. Her eyes were dark with mascara which had smeared down those soft, youthful cheeks as she cried, there at the edge of her bed, the gun held tightly in her small hands. Rose was a young girl, a high school tragedy. She could’ve grown to be something more, to blossom in this ugly world.

So soft a cry were her parting words, soft as a morning sprinkle, heard faintly in the ears of a stranger who could not help her. They’d diagnosed her, called her irrational, said she was a dangerous child. There before me, she placed the gun firmly against the bottom of her chin, and asked, “How can this world be so cold?” The trigger squeezed, a bullet burst from the barrel, spraying blood along white curtains with a loud pop which caused a ringing in my ears.

Mendez asked me if things were all right, seeing me staring at her, at that still, lifeless face, at that mouth which would no longer speak, lips which would no longer sing those songs of a pop princess. Like Rose McKinley, the diva had perished. I told her I was fine as I started walking off, into that hallway with puke green walls and peeling paint. Room 232 had become a tomb—a transient resting place for a corpse before it would be taken away by the coroner. The funeral would be a star-studded occasion, with attendees she’d hardly known in life grieving over her in death.

Atop her casket, a single flower was placed—a white rose over a black coffin. The grieving lady, Sister Sarah Franklyn, had few words to say, overwrought with the loss of that poor girl, the loss of her Rose. People from the church had come. The nuns and priests all stood ‘round, heads low in mourning, eyes closed in prayer for the girl’s lost soul. Sister Franklyn wasn’t what I was expecting, being such a young woman herself, one not even in her thirties. And so beautiful was she, was that face, were those tear-filled eyes. Such a shame, that one so lovely would give herself to God.

I searched through my pockets, looking for that smashed pack of cigarettes and some matches. Found the cigarettes—well, there were only two left. The third had broken in half, the tobacco spilling out into the bottom of my pocket. I placed one between my lips, still patting myself down for the matches, searching through my jacket, until Mendez came up next to me, bringing her lighter up to my face. With a flick, the flame ignited in front of me as she asked, “Got another?”

Pulling the remaining smoke from the crinkled pack, holding it between two fingers, I told her, “Last one,” as I handed it to her, to Carol, with half a smirk—closest thing to an honest-to-God smile I could muster. This sort of thing wasn’t new, seeing a corpse, a woman no longer breathing. Still, there are some things you can’t ever get used to seeing, no matter how many times you have to see them, no matter how many rooms like this I’ve had to walk through. Tabitha Shrill’s story was the sort I knew too well. Thinking of Rose’s funeral, of the casket being lowered, of Sister Franklyn’s tearful eulogy, I breathed in, taking the smoke down into my lungs, and leaned against the wall, staring up at a flickering light, hearing in my ear that soft humming sound.

I’d need a drink before the night was through.

***

P A R T O N E: W H O R E S & J O H N S

Those Southside sidewalks of Angel City—I’d walked that path several times before. That rain-drenched pavement beneath my echoing footsteps reflected the faint glow of streetlights, of flickering neon signs advertising the pervasive perversion found on the famed Lonesome Avenue—XXX; Topless; Nude; Peepshow. There was flesh for sale on Lonesome Avenue. There was debauchery to be found on that street, a lowness we foul creatures had grown accustomed to, and drinks; there was always a liquor store nearby, a means of escaping those dreadful thoughts which filled my mind the day I saw Tabitha Shrill’s lifeless body laying across the bed.

There was Ruby—there was rouge. Red was the color of the night, on Lonesome Avenue. Green was the color sought, the color of profit—from sale of body and drug, of poison, as there were so many poisons to be found there. There were so many means of forgetting, of losing one’s self, of escaping identity. This was the place sought by the lamenting hearts, by the desperate sorts, by the dregs and by the politicians, by those idolized and those despised. It was a place disparaged against yet praised in the same breath. My poison was the one who called herself Ruby, whose true name I didn’t care to ask, as she never asked mine—ours was a mutual transaction of cash and satisfaction.

Profit drove this crime-ridden shred of dystopian darkness. They’d come to know me, as all the loyal customers were known, as a John looking for something; for a “good time,” they called it, though smiles were rarely seen on Lonesome Avenue, on those Southside sidewalks of Angel City. It wasn’t a “good time.” We’d all become lost, the victims of an era, of having no great struggle, of losing ourselves to the tragedies of strangers, to those of Rose McKinley and the countless others who’d wished to die, to welcome oblivion, while us onlookers observed helplessly, losing ourselves to the despair of others. Her lipstick was the same color as Tabitha Shrill’s. Her hair, too, was a fiery red. This was Ruby—rouge found within noir, a cherry in the blackness.

She came to me, that smiling product of some well-to-do pimp—my sanctuary. It was on the corner across from the Sloan Hotel—fine real estate for prostitution—where we met that night, her under an awning, the window of a sex shop at her back, plastered with pornographic images. That look she had was something so natural for her, the way she moved her hips, the way that sparkling red dress hugged her ass, how it pushed her tits up. A place like Lonesome Avenue was made for that type of woman, for a Working Girl who knew how to earn her money and keep earning it. It was that sort of look that kept the customers coming. This woman, Ruby with those eyes of emeralds, she came to me.

She came to me and asked, “How ya doin’, Carefree John?” She asked me that, and she smiled. Maybe it’d been a slow night for the girl. Maybe she was glad to be getting the business. Whatever the case, I knew Ruby wasn’t really all that glad to see me. I knew it was her act, one she didn’t have to put on for me. I was ready to pay, regardless of the sale’s pitch. “How ya doin’, Carefree John?”—it was the nickname she’d given me. All I’d asked was that she called me John. The “Carefree,” that was her own little joke. She could’ve called me anything at that point.

Music played in the streets of Southside Angel City, a bluesy sound in the background, that of street performers trying to make a dime. They sang of rhythm; they sang of sorrows, of yesterday and today. They played their tunes loudly—played their saxophones and played their drums. They played for the hookers, for the Johns, for the pimps and the suits, for any willing to drop some change, and sang the same, for those folks passing by, to them, their audience. The sound I heard that night was a smooth beat, a toe-tapping sound, one coming from across the way. It was the sound beckoning me into the Sloan Hotel, to the building of scarlet floors and curtains, of burning candles and soft music.

The rooms there smelled of perfume; they smelled of the many scents of the many whores who’d frequented the hotel. The rooms smelled of cigarette smoke. They smelled of contraceptives. They smelled of sex, of sinfulness. They were proof of why the Sloan Hotel made such good business on the weekends, those many scents hanging in the air. Room 232 had its own smell that night.

My pleasure then—my poison—she’d come in the color of crimson. My Ruby had her style of doing things—her style of talking, of walking, of fucking. She had her style for sale and I was the buyer, her faithful customer Carefree John of the many faceless Johns. Outside were little offerings for heightening the experience within these rooms. There were needles and powders, pills to ingest, all manners of illegal substances, nothing which interested me. I’d have taken a bottle over any of that shit. She, however, was of a different mindset. The woman who called herself Ruby, she’d earned herself another name—Heroin Queen. Heroin Queen Ruby—the whore was a junky.

She didn’t look it, the way she cleaned herself up. You’d never have thought, looking at her from a distance, that she was high as a kite most the time. That’s how they operated on Lonesome Avenue, though, always high, always ready for another fix. You could tell, once you got close and personal with one of them, close enough to look ‘em in the eyes. In her eyes, those glassy eyes of green, you could see the emptiness. You could see what she really was. She was desperate. The whore was a junky.

For another fix, she’d sale her body. She’d have sold her soul, if she still had one worth buying. I’m sure the devil lost interest in that long ago. This tainted mess of a woman had nothing more to offer the world than that body of hers. She’d known no other way but to please, and she did it all, always, for another fix. It was good business practice for the pimps—get them hooked young. Get them aching for another hit, aching to tie one on. Get them wanting enough of that poison they’re willing to do anything for a fix. Drugs and prostitution, they were a harmonious combination of evils.

But none of that really crossed my mind, looking at her then, looking at that shapely figure silhouetted in the darkness. None of it mattered to me, watching her remove one article of clothing after another, hearing her softly spoken words. Ruby was every bit as beautiful as all those dames who’d died and every bit as tragic. It could’ve very well been Tabitha Shrill standing in front of me instead of her, in that sweet smelling room. It could’ve been that same filthy hotel, that same room, the color of scarlet in place of vanilla.

“Like what you see, Carefree John?” Outside, the city cried—she pleaded for salvation—but all I could hear were her words, the sound of desire in her tone. I could not hear the sirens, the angry cries of drunks and druggies, all that screaming just beyond those walls of the Sloan Hotel. Ruby had her way, all right, and with talking—that voice so sensual—she’d perfected the art of her sale’s pitch. She’d perfected the act of the whore, that simple role she’d been given to play out, and she’d played it out flawlessly. Angel City was crying then, but none of that mattered to me. What I saw, what I heard, I’d wanted from the second I saw that dead girl’s body, from the moment I witnessed the hopelessness of another’s existence.

I needed Ruby then for the same reason I’d needed her all those nights before—to forget that which could not be forgotten. Why, then, were we in that room? I could’ve had her anywhere. I could’ve done her in some back alley, for all she cared. Whore’s only concern was getting paid. So why the Sloan Hotel? Why that same room number? I couldn’t have put my finger on it then. I couldn’t have figured it’d lead to bigger issues. No, I was just trying to forget, or maybe trying to hold onto the memory. Tabitha Shrill—I wanted to remember her name, same way I remembered Rose.

I would’ve whispered it to her then. Don’t suppose she’d have cared. I could’ve called her anything, long as it wasn’t Heroin Queen. Of all the things she let people get away with doing to her, calling her by that aptly suiting nickname was her one and only cardinal rule—break it, and she’d likely break something of yours. It was a line I wasn’t poised to cross, having seen the mess she made of the last guy who’d made the mistake of uttering those words while she was around. Funny, the way people act when you point out the obvious—like looking into a mirror and seeing an ugly reflection staring back at you.

The obvious is more easily observed from a distance, rather that be from another perspective or another time. Looking back, I know what’s wrong with the picture here. I know it was a mistake to go there, to be in that room, to have been thinking of Tabitha, of dead girls. But none of that mattered to me. I hadn’t stopped to look myself in the mirror just yet. This was the way things were done, the way I’d been doing them for a while. See a dead girl, a beaten wife, an abused child—whatever—you go and get yourself a drink, you get a few drinks, and find some whore whose name ain’t important, whom you’ve no interest in getting to know. You find something to help you cope, I suppose.

But what I was doing there, in that room, was anything but forgetting. The whole time, it was only her, only the dead girl on my mind, the dame who’d taken her life, while I watched and did nothing time and time again. This wasn’t coping. It wasn’t any way to be dealing with things. But no, I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t considering what it’d lead to down the road. The road? It seemed like I was coming up on a dead end. It seemed like all I could see was the face of Rose McKinley, and in the words of every woman, I could hear her sorrows.

“How can this world be so cold?” Because men allow it in their hearts—the coldness. Because somewhere, we all lost our way; we all found ourselves on the same damn road going the same damn route. And always, we look back and sigh, thinking there might’ve been a chance to make a difference, little good it does after the fact. The questioning of things which have come to pass, that foolish questioning, solves nothing, makes you feel no better. I should’ve said something to the girl. I should’ve told her things didn’t have to be so bad for her. Would it have made a difference?

No matter what, no matter how many times I look back and go over the this and that’s, she’ll always be dead and I will have failed her. I will have failed all of them. I have failed all of them. Those extinguished lives, if only they could’ve realized how precious they were before it was too late. If only. But the thought didn’t cross my mind at the moment. The only thing I saw was Ruby. The only thing I was thinking——

Don’t suppose it matters what I was thinking. I should’ve been thinking of how I ended up there, in that mess of a situation I dared to call a life. I should’ve been thinking of earlier, when Mendez asked to join me for that drink. I couldn’t have said yes, though. Girl didn’t need to be dragged down to my level. She didn’t need to be exposed to all that depravity and dreadfulness. It would’ve just been another mistake in a life full of mistakes. I didn’t want to do that to her, not to someone still young enough to have a chance. Hell if I know why she was even interested.

I held Ruby closely and whispered quietly in the darkness, while outside, Angel City waited for the dawn, for the cleansing of another day, only to be dirtied once more by the night. The city cried. Within my heart, I too was crying, searching for the answer, for an exit to this road leading nowhere. I wanted to see the dawn. Instead, I was seeing red. I was seeing the loathsome side of mankind. Those Southside sidewalks of Angel City, I’d walked that path several times indeed. Where was the path taking me? Why would I always find myself there, someplace so close to the darkness I was trying to flee?

I held her closely, held her like I’d have held a lover, had I one to embrace, and whispered, knowing I could’ve said anything. I could’ve just as well said nothing. It didn’t matter to me then, that she wasn’t a lover, nor a friend or a companion. She was a familiar face, sure, same as you remember the postman or the waiter at a restaurant you frequent. There is nothing there, nothing but the familiarity; a comforting thing, you’d think. And maybe, if I didn’t have those dead girls on my mind, I’d have felt comforted If I hadn’t failed so many, I would’ve found peace in the moment, if only for the moment.

I held her closely, but there was nothing there. There was emptiness vast and ever growing, consuming me, leaving me cold as the world Rose McKinley had known, and still I heard her words in the depths of my thoughts, lingering in the back of my mind. The world before me, my dying city, didn’t matter to me; nothing mattered to me. Like the dead girls, I was lost of hope, done with this life of mine—a shell of what some might’ve dared to have called a man. Maybe others, those not in the know, would’ve called me a good man. Maybe that’s what Mendez thought of me.

Funny thing, the way people don’t ever really seem to know one another. Funny thing, the way they presume to understand, though what goes on inside their heads, knowing what goes on inside mine, I don’t even wanna venture a guess. The lot of us are better left ignorant, I’m sure. I never wanted to involve myself with too many people anyways. I always just wanted to be there—wished I was there—for Rose, for Tabitha, for the beauties who’d perished. A bottle of pills—that’s all it takes to end a life. A gun held tightly in a pair of small hands—that’s all it takes to make a mess of things.

Nights seemed long and cold back then, longer than the days through which I slept. It was just another day at work for her, for Ruby who never thought to ask what bothered her customer Carefree John. We’d do our business and part ways. Nothing was to be discussed. Nothing was to be resolved. And that was fine. It didn’t need to be anything special. It didn’t have to be anything nice or descent. The filthier the act, the dirtier her words, the better. This was how I’d survived, how I’d lost touch with identity. We were both victims to those Southside sidewalks, to the neon signs and flickering streetlights—to rouge.

Room 232 had become host to two more casualties that night.

I found my love in the dreams of a drunken mind, dolled up like something you’d pay to see. She was so distant, so far from the reach of my voice, though I cried out to her still, cried out to my Angela, and reached for her, running through the darkness. She spread her arms, as though to embrace me, yet she could not. The two of us wouldn’t be finding each other again this lifetime. Slowly fading from my vision, she vanished into the light, away from the darkness, leaving me once more alone, where, on the ground so cold, I wept for the loss of my love, for the broken heart within my chest which no longer beat with purpose.

Angela, my sweet, where had you gone? Why could I not have followed you? These plaguing questions raced through a restless mind, driving deeper the pain which filled my soul. As I stood, I took a look back, down the path which led to nowhere. There stood the ones I could not leave behind. There was Sister Sarah Franklyn and Rose McKinley, staring at me accusingly with hateful glares. There was Tabitha Shrill whose eyes remained closed as she held her head low. There was Ruby, who even in the dream was still smiling. Even further back, there were more, so many more, standing there, staring at me, and at the forefront stood Carol Mendez, who still asked about that drink.

Told her we’d have to take a rain check. She seemed disappointed. Maybe I was reading too much into things. This place was new to her. It wasn’t as though she had a lot of friends. Still, girl like her, wasn’t like it’d have been hard for her. It ain’t difficult for her type to meet new people. I’d almost forgotten what it was like, going out and seeing fresh faces. For me, it was the familiar, the simplicity of having regulars—regular bar, regular drink, regular whore, regular girl. But my Angela—the comforting familiarity—had gone from my life, from the rotting corpse of Angel City, leaving no semblance of the man I once was.

Told her we’d have to take a rain check and left it at that; left them all with all their sad faces looking at me, into me and through me, these products of thought, of memory and dreams, of fantasy, of another time. The only thing left for me was that path ahead, that road leading to the light, away from the darkness, but it was a light not meant for me So my journey would be an endless one, the path forever lengthening. I’d have to travel beyond my own lifetime, into another. I’d have to run, have to escape the inescapable, the past, the identity I could not leave behind. I couldn’t have ran fast enough; I couldn’t have escaped those leering eyes soon enough.

In the darkness of the dream, I fell, like all the fragmented pieces of my past, like all the days regretted, all those nights spent regretting. I fell and could not be helped. With Rose, with Tabitha, with the dead girls, I fell, seeing then that there truly was no such thing as rock bottom, that I’d not seen the end of my sorrows, of the city’s sorrows. As always, I’d need Ruby. I’d need a smoke, a drink, a girl by my side, even if the girl was paid for. Funny thing of it was, the girl I wanted wasn’t even dead; she wasn’t like all those others. She was alive and well—breathing—maybe even happy. And I’d let her go. I’d told her to go.

It wasn’t something I couldn’t deal with most of the time, but things were quickly getting worse for me and all the others. I smiled at the thought of it, at the stupid way in which our world seemed to work, and again thought of Rose’s question—“How can this world be so cold?” And I heard the gunshot once more, the shot which shattered my nightmarish world. I crumbled into pieces, awakening then to the sound of a ringing phone, to another day, where the one who could not forget was left to think of days long gone.

My head was throbbing; my body expressed its discontent for me with all sorts of aches. I sat up, hunching over before I could even steady myself on the bed. I was barely capable of willing myself to stand, and had I not known who was calling, I might‘ve passed on answering the phone. But it was work. No one but work called me at that time of day. Knowing this didn’t make me any more anxious to stand, to answer that damn rotary phone. Most people were shocked to find out that there was still someone who used one of those. But it was a gift from an old friend and worked just fine, long as I wasn’t using any automated services. I also had my cell—work thing only. Figured they’d have tried that one first, but I was guessing they were growing privy to the fact that I lacked an active social life.

Home’s synonymous with prison, when you’re alone. It wasn’t a bad prison, though. Small, sure, but it functioned fine for my needs, which weren’t so great as to need a lavish pad. No, that one-room apartment with those off-white walls suited me perfectly. My only complaint would be the neighbors—them and their music. I hated the damn music, the sound of bass in my ears at all hours. Shitty neighborhood, I wanted to put my foot through every speaker in that damn building. Even at that early hour, I heard the bumping in my eardrums.

If it were Mendez on the line, I might’ve been happier to hear the voice on the other end. I couldn’t have been so fortunate, it seemed, hearing Jefferson’s voice when I answered. Ben Jefferson—guy was a prick. That’s the only thing you need to know about him. Ought to be enough to keep you from asking anything else about the guy. He was the boss—Ben Jefferson—and he was the worst sort of person to work for, the type who didn’t care about his people, who only worried about the bottom line, and even then, he’d be the one to take all the credit, after all the time you spent busting your ass for him, for the facts, for the people you’ve failed.

The guy he replaced, Marc Duncan, was a good guy, the sort who knew how to take care of his people. I would’ve rather had my first conversation of the day with a hobo than with this piece of trash. His voice was grating, not the sort one with a hangover would want to hear. An early start to my day was what this meant. It meant no more sleep, no more dreaming of dead girls. No, this meant I’d be doing something. It meant the day would be a busy one, though I’d lost sight of what the point to any of it was. Whatever I was about to do that day, there was no chance of fixing all the problems of yesterday.

Even so, knowing the hopelessness of this city, I answered the damn phone.