CUT BUDDIES - CINDY ROSMUS
Cut Buddies, collected in Angel of Manslaughter by Cindy Rosmus. Copyright © 2006 by Fossil Publications. Originally appeared in Hardboiled, No. 19, November 1994.
“Watch your back,” was Yo’s advice. Her black face was dead serious.
“I’ll kick her ass,” Carla said. They’d had a few, so she could talk big. Even to Yolanda, her best friend and co-worker for years. “It’s too big to miss.”
Without looking at her, Yo sipped her drink.
What’s with her? Carla wondered. She sucked down the last of her own rum and coke and smacked the glass on the bar. “I know,” she said, as Manny the bartender scuttled over. “We’ll fight like you guys.”
Yo slowly shook her head.
“Like black chicks.” Smirking, Carla got up. She mimed removing her earrings. “First: we take off our jewelry, right?” Yo didn’t answer, so Carla went on stiffly. “Well, Tammy hasn’t got any. Shows how Rich feels about her.”
Yo tossed Manny a five for the round.
“No weddin’ ring, either.” Carla nudged her. “Betcha one of them hocked it for coke.” She ran her hands through her bleached hair, holding it up around her face. “Next we tie back our hair.”
Yo stirred her fresh drink.
“Well,” Carla said, “hers usually is.” She picked up her drink. “Saves her the trouble of washin’ it.”
“Hey, Carl?” Yo said finally.
“Last we grease up our faces. Well...” Carla couldn’t help laughing. “Least I’d have to grease up mine.” Quick as a whip, Yo’s fist shot out.
Carla fell back, shocked, into the old guy behind her. He missed his mouth as his drink spilled, and hers crashed to the floor.
The Spanish guys cheered. Manny ran to clean up, and one of the regulars howled, “Fuck the broom, man! Give a quella beleza a shot of Felipe!”
Carla’s heart raced. She just stood there, holding it, as if it would eat its way out of her chest.
“Asshole,” Yo hissed.
“Why...” Carla could hardly speak. “You almost hit me.” She edged closer, as Manny approached with the broom and dustpan. “But you’re my friend,” she said childishly.
“You were hers, too. ’Member?”
“Not really. I just...”
“You’re messin’ with her husband.”
Both were silent as Manny swept up the broken glass beneath their stools. Carla found she was leaning on Yo’s shoulder, and she moved.
“Made like you were her damn friend. To get in close. Shee-it, you even babysat their kids.”
Now Carla was pissed. “I love Rich. He was eyein’ me for years.”
“Rat. You deserve to get your ass kicked.” Yo gulped her drink. “Worse,” she added.
As she reached for her shot, Carla's hand shook. “You done it,” she said. “Wasn’t Leon still married when you shacked up with him?”
“Watch your back,” Yo mumbled. She slid her empty glass across the bar. “Watch your back, baby.”
Bombed. Carla thought, relieved. She hated when Yo got like this. They were clerks in a lingerie company. Hung out after work. ‘Cut buddies,’ Yo called them, but they were even closer than that. Like sisters, really.
“My round,” Carla told Manny, who was making Yo’s drink, much weaker this time.
Rich, Carla thought, as the shot glass reached her lips. Downing the Felipe, she felt wild. Horny as hell: like her insides had caught fire, only better. There he was, in her woozy mind, as clearly as if he were standing right there. Rich, with his Slavic cheeks and Christmas coal eyes. Biker’s voice and tattoos. She could smell his leather, taste him as bitterly as the brandy. God, she loved him.
She’d wanted him since high school. Ten years she’d waited, watched him win, dump, then win back a slew of chicks, mostly coke-sluts, the main one Tammy. Dumb as she was, she’d been smart enough to get knocked up. Eight years and four brats later, Rich was still hers.
Oh, yeah? Carla thought smugly.
“Your ‘wife-in-law,’” was-how Rich referred to Tammy. “She won’t give me up. So like it or lump it, baby.”
Sad to say, Carla liked it. It beat lumping it. Tough as she’d like to be, she was Jell-o where Rich was concerned. It was scary, but hell, he was worth it.
“Always wanted you,” he’d said, the first time they’d done it. “But you didn't blow coke. I didn’t know how to approach you, baby.” It had to be true. That night, he’d done lines off her stomach. In between grams, they’d fucked fast and hot. His bone-hard tongue had brought on her wildest climax ever.
The Felipe had worked! She felt cocky again. On top of her and Rich’s white trash world. Pure genius it was, making friends with Tammy, Carla believed. They were practically ‘cut buddies.’ Every morning sipping coffee at the diner where Tammy worked. Hearing her bitch about those four brats, the lack of good coke. Her ungrateful husband...
“I hope he gets electrocuted!” Tammy said about once a week. Refilling Carla’s coffee. She rarely charged her. “Steps in a puddle, and grabs the wrong wire. That sonuvabitch, I hope he fries!”
“You’ll work it out,” Carla always said, in her most sincere voice. “I got faith.”
Who’d ever suspect?
Yo was nodding, absently. Ignoring her fresh drink.
Carla had another shot. This one she savored. Liquid courage, Felipe was. Tonight she had nothing to fear, least of all, Tammy. Maybe, Carla thought, Tammy’ll be the one to lump it.
Yo mumbled something Carla didn’t catch.
Carla leaned over. “So I’m fuckin’ her husband,” she said drunkenly. “If she asks me, I can always deny it.”
Finally Yo looked at her. She might have been viewing a corpse. “Use your head,” she said. The hand that clutched Carla’s was suddenly ice-cold. “And watch your back.”
She’s right, Carla thought later, I am a rat.
Walking home cleared her head, mostly in the winter. It was only September. Too cool for summer clothes, though her spandex top was cut out in eight places. Rich’s favorite, it was. She wished she’d worn a jacket.
Drunk, she was never scared to walk home alone. Sometimes she found herself on the curb, or brushing somebody’s fence. But tonight she was thinking too hard. The delicious wooziness was gone.
“He’s cheatin’,” Tammy had confided to her last night. “I know it.”
Gina, the four year-old, had been sprawled in Carla’s lap, half asleep. She was ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’. The image of Rich. Silent, Carla had run her fingers through Gina’s black hair.
“I know who it is, too,” Tammy had said.
Without meaning to, Carla had yanked Gina’s hair, jerking her small head around. “Who?”
The little girl’s eyes were wide and accusing. Her Mommy had promptly removed her from Carla's lap.
Child in arms, Tammy had started for the bedroom. “Tell ya later.”
But she hadn’t. Carla, her coward of a ‘cut buddy,’ had split.
Watch your back.
Yo had been wasted. Paranoid, Carla told herself. One of those dreamers who spent a fortune playing numbers: symbols of death, babies’ weights and birth dates. Everybody at work kidded Yo about it. Now and then she won; but wasn’t that just a coincidence?
Watch your back.
It was cold, Carla realized. Her back was actually cold. And it was the one part of her top without cut-outs. Rat, she thought. The lowest. User. How could she look at herself in the mirror? Every day it was a mystery. On her way to the diner every morning...what if she got hit by a truck? Why shouldn’t she? She’d better pray there was no hell.
Tammy must have missed her this morning.
At the light, Carla stopped, though no cars were coming. She started to sweat.
Rich. Did he love her the way he claimed? Or was it a con job? Licking coke off her huge tits, he’d said lots of great things. But what had he said to Tammy?
Before she knew it, Carla was halfway down the next block. Sweat poured down her back.
Was he worth the risk?
She lived in a four-family house. As shabby on the outside as her place was cluttered within. Down a hill at the end of a dead-end street. Since it was Friday and after nine, Carla’s block looked deserted.
Gettin’ bombed, she thought. And I’m just comin’ home.
It was too quiet. None of her neighbors’ radios playing, not even softly, to confuse burglars. Not even a plane flying low over the bay. Nothing.
She was soaked with sweat, now. Freezing, and shaking, for no reason. Keys, she thought suddenly. Should’ve carried them. One key propped up between each two fingers. Better to scratch out your eyes...
The front door to Carla’s house was always unlocked. She was still searching for her keys when she pushed it open.
Tammy was in the foyer.
“Hi,” Carla said, instinctively. But her hand had stopped dead in her bag.
Tammy didn’t answer. She was sitting on the steps, staring. It was the first time Carla had ever seen her without make-up. Tammy looked like an acne-scarred kewpie doll. Her hair was squeaky-clean.
“You tell me.” Even Tammy’s voice was different.
Carla could feel her keys. “You...” she began. “You wanna go...have a drink? Talk about it?”
Almost in slow motion, Tammy got up. Carla had forgotten how tall Tammy was. She herself was a shrimp. From out of nowhere came a hopeful thought: too big to kick my ass. Wouldn’t be fair. It’d be like Carla beating up little Gina.
She was clutching her keys when she realized Tammy was holding something, too. She knew what it was before Tammy even flicked the switch.
The blade was about eight inches long. It gleamed in the glow from the bare ceiling light. Too bright, Carla thought and swallowed hard. “It’s you,” Tammy said. “You’re the one fuckin’ him.”
Carla dropped her bag, keys and all. She couldn’t take her eyes off that blade.
“Can’t deny it.” The blade moved, and Carla jumped. Tammy’s eyes were glazed. “Can’t even play dumb.”
Carla felt dizzy. The blade seemed to spin, like Tammy was juggling it. “Rich...” Carla began to slowly move backwards. “Is he okay?”
“Nothin’ ever happens to him.” Tammy’s voice was bitter. “Just me. And those poor kids.” She held the blade low, aimed for Carla’s stomach. “Now you.”
As Tammy came toward her, Carla froze. In her mind, Yo’s urgent face appeared. Use your head, she’d said.
Tammy’s breathing was heavy. Like she was panting. She looked bigger than life.
Those poor kids.
“Tam,” Carla said softly, “ain’t your kids been through enough?”
Tammy got closer. “Shoulda kept ’em away from you."
“Richie Junior still havin’ trouble in school?” Carla had no idea where this came from. “’Cos he’s deaf in one ear?”
Startled, Tammy stopped moving. But only for a second. “The fuck do you care?”
“I do. You do, too. Timmy gets those crying jags.” Carla was unbelievably calm now: “Nobody wants to play with him. Or Louie.” She realized she was trapped against the door. “’Cos they think he’s a retard.”
Tammy shook with fury. “Gonna...kill you!”
“Kids’re mean, Tam.” Carla glanced down at the blade, which was even closer than she’d feared. “Can you hear it now? ‘Stay away from those Kowalczyk kids! Their Mommy's a mur-derer!’” Tammy froze.
“Make a great Movie-of-the-Week, huh?” Carla forced a smile. “They’d change your name to Kowal-ski, or something but everybody around here’d know who you were.”
“You babysat them!” Tammy screamed. “They fell asleep in your fuckin’ lap!”
“They’ll take her away from you,” Carla said sadly. “Give her to some weirdos, somewhere. Foster fathers love to fuck little holes.”
Still clutching the blade, Tammy grabbed her own face, as if she’d rip it off.
“Wouldn’t want that,” Carla shook her head. “Or maybe Rich’d take all four of them, and...split.”
Tammy's eyes said she’d said the wrong thing. “He’s mine! He always was, you fuckin’ bitch!”
She was so close, Carla could smell her. Shampoo and sweat. “When you’re dead, he’ll be all mine!” The blade was at Carla’s throat. She could feel the point.
A dream, she thought, feeling she’d pass out. And never wake up. Praying someone would pinch her. Rich. Pinch me, baby. Or your favorite top’ll be covered with blood. In a plastic bag, as evidence, when they take your ugly wife away...
“He will,” Carla heard herself say. “He’ll be all yours. Just like before. Listen...” She smiled up at Tammy. “How ’bout I do you a favor? Wanna souvenir?”
Again, Tammy froze.
Carla pulled the hem of her top out of her jeans. “See this? It’s his favorite. Loves me in black, mostly peek-a-boos. Can you blame him?”
Tammy just looked at her.
“You don’t wanna ruin it. Think of what it’ll do for you.” Carla licked her dry lips. “With your natural blonde hair. You're built real nice.” Liar, she heard, as if from far away. “You can have it. Just lemme take it off, okay?”
To her surprise, Tammy backed up. Not much, but enough for Carla to slowly pull the top up over her breasts.
Tammy’s mouth fell open.
It worked. Carla’s arm shot out, jarring the blade out of her hand.
Tammy staggered back, shocked, but not for long. Snarling, she grabbed for Carla’s throat.
Just in time, she ducked. “You bitch!” Tammy howled, as Carla threw herself against her legs.
Tammy fell on her ass. “You ruined...my fuckin’ life!”
Before Tammy could retrieve the blade, Carla pulled open the door and was outside. She ran into the street.
“Get back here!” Tammy yelled, from inside the foyer. She was crying now. “Carla, come back!”
Carla’s breasts flapped as she ran up the hill, her heart pounding in the same rhythm. Back at her house, Tammy’s sobs were so harsh, so torturous, they seemed to get louder with the distance.
My God! Carla thought, panting. Thank you. She glanced behind her. Suddenly she stopped running.
Lights had gone on in her neighbor’s house. Now one in the apartment building next door. A guy appeared in the landing window, as he tried to see what was going on.
“Help me!” Tammy screamed, as somebody opened the door to Carla’s house. “Please help me!”
Carla pulled the top back down over her breasts. Slowly, she walked down the hill.
Somewhere, a stray cat was howling, but it was no match for Tammy. Carla had to cover her ears.
When she reached her house, her doorway was packed with people. “Call the cops!” her neighbor yelled. “Get an ambulance, man! Look at her!” People gasped.
Somebody moved and Carla caught a flash of red. Her stomach lurched.
“Slit her throat!” somebody murmured.
Carla turned away. Oh, God, she prayed, shivering, I didn’t mean...this...
How could she ever feel warm again?
“Hurt...” came from inside. No longer a sob, but a gurgle. Like her cut buddy was underwater.
Thanks to you.
That, at least, was all in her mind.
BIO: Cindy is a New York textbook editor by day, a hardboiled Jersey female by night. Her fiction has appeared in Black Petals, The Beat, The Cynic, Red Fez, Zygote in My Coffee, Hardboiled, NVF, MediaVirus, Mysterical-E, The Monsters Next Door, Out of the Gutter, Devil Blossoms, 13th Warrior Review, and Beat to a Pulp. She has four collections of stories out: Angel of Manslaughter, Gutter Balls, Calpurnia’s Window, and No Place Like Home. She is the editor of the e-zine, Yellow Mama. She is also a thrill seeker, a Gemini, and a Christian.