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Third place 

'Terminus'

Elizabeth Rose Anderson is a 24-year-old freelance writer, bookseller, and native Atlantan. She received her B.A. from Bard College and an M.A. in Southern Literature from the University of Mississippi. She facilitates a writing group for young women at Charis Books and More. She currently is working on her first novel, Waking Where You Fall.

Warren props open the Limber Lady's red vinyl door, which bears only the sign "no minors, no cameras," and exposes us all to the milky spring afternoon. No one seems to mind, not even Miss Bonita who is dancing. I just nod at Warren and he flaps his big tattooed arm at me and grins.

"I wanted to hear some birds," he shouts. I draw my finger across my throat pantomiming a "you're dead" motion 'til Miss Bonita nudges my shoulder with the toe of her stiletto. I grab the damp dollar from the old guy leaning over the bar and hand it to Miss B. Without looking, I know she will fold it in two lengthwise, drag it around her tits in a figure eight motion, trace it down the middle of her stomach, over the top of her patchily shaved pussy, and tuck it with one finger into her orange garter where the rest of her bills arrange themselves against her thigh like a tourist's Chinese fan. All the girls have some variation of that move, but hers is the sexiest even though she has twenty years on me. Warren's got about ten years on me which is why he's not so worried about Darla, our walrus looking bitch of a boss, firing his ass for opening the front door and letting God and half of Atlanta get a peek for free.

Warren ambles up, flopping a heavy paw on my shoulder. Since I spend most of my days watching him check IDs in the beer-sign light, I know how big he is, but when he stands next to me I feel like a kid. Normally I feel as tough as him, like I'm six four and three hundred pounds of underused muscle and hard alcoholic fat. But I know that's not why Darla hired me. She wanted a girl behind the bar to make "her girls" feel safe. Besides, I look about as mean as a bulldog puppy, all floppiness and false intimidation.

Tishaun is up now, strutting to "All My Ex's Live in Texas."

"What are you up to tonight?" Warren has his own friends, a crew of aging rockabilly boys that drag around on his coattails like swooning girls, but he is forever asking about my plans.

"If Tommy ever gets here we're going to a thing in Cabbagetown."

"What kind of thing? A homo thing?" Warren's grin is all gums as he tears the ring off an empty High Life can and lobs it at me.

"Yeah, man, a homo thing, all for me, none for you."

Warren makes his best downtrodden face and says, "How come you won't ever let me go with you?"

"'Cause man, if I took you everybody'd be trying to show you their ID's all night, thinking you were hired to be there."

"I'm not that conspicuous." Warren runs his palm over his stubbled head.

"You're as inconspicuous as a whore in church." I punch his shoulder and he laughs, a big fat man's laugh.

"Who's a whore in church?" Tommy bounces through the door, the sideways afternoon sun gleaming off his studded belt and sending little bits of light scattering around the room like a mirrored disco ball.

"You're my whore in church, baby. Where the fuck have you been?"

"I got caught up. Can I get a beer?"

"He got caught in some dude's zipper is what he means," Warren says.

"Least somebody takes the time to undo my pants every now and again. When's the last time you got your shit taken care of Dubya? 1985?" Tommy cackles and reaches over the bar into the bucket where we keep the Bud Lights.

"You keep your hands on your side of that line, Tommy," Warren says, pointing to the bar's edge. "I'm going back to the door to make sure no more riff-raff like y'all gets in. You ladies have fun tonight."

Tommy takes a long pull off his Bud. "Always do, darlin', always do."

"Were you really getting your shit taken care of?" I ask, 'cause the truck radio's busted and I don't like silence.

Tommy raises his eyebrows, smiling, and for a second his cheekbones look sharp enough to cut.

"Naw, I just got held up at work. There was this guy, but nothing happened."

"Really nothing happened, or y'all hooked up in the bathroom but didn't fuck?" I know this is my most frustrating quality to Tommy. He hates questions and I don't let things go. He identifies this trait as being the result of two factors: one, me being a woman, which he says he forgets most of the time until I start harassing him about shit, and two, me being only twenty-four and him being thirty-two and thus infinitely less concerned with all the little moral things that I hold onto for dear life. I say it's cause I love him.

"No, really, we didn't even touch. I just served him his pizza and he gave me his number. Simple as that."

"Cool," I say, just as a Mercedes with Cobb plates cuts in front of me and I nearly run right up over it like the monster trucks used to do at the Saturday rallies when I was a kid.

"Jesus fucking Christ. How am I supposed to ever get laid again if I'm in a goddamn wheelchair?" He lifts his arm towards the open window to air out his armpit. "You're about to make me sweat." He kicks one of the Red Bull cans that have been accumulating on the passenger's side since I started letting him drive the truck to work, and stirs up a cough syrup smell that could have attracted yellow jackets if I was driving slower.

We coast by the Brewhouse and I strain to see if the hot waitress is on the patio. Nope. Just a couple of graying bikers with MIA/POW flags on the backs of their jackets.

"Damn."

"What?"

"Nothing. So did this guy tell you his name?"

"Jeff."

"What's he look like?"

"I don't know. He's short, like five nine. Nice ass, blue eyes, a mohawk."

"A mohawk?"

"Yeah, I know, but he rocks it well."

Tommy leans out the window and studies a MARTA train as it passes overhead, the cars linked like tin cans on a string.

"Is he a cokehead?" I try to make my voice light; I know these are the questions that bother Tommy most.

"Jesus, man, I don't know. He didn't order a fucking line on top of his pizza or anything."

"Well."

"Well what? Maybe you should worry about getting laid yourself instead of fussing over my shit." Tommy's voice is hard-edged now and though I shouldn't, as we pull on to our oak-shrouded street I ask him:

"You gonna tell him?"

He watches me as I cut the engine. "Fuck off."

Our house looks like all the others on Thornton Avenue; red clay bleeds through our grass like a scar, and our sickly azaleas hold more paint chips than flowers. The inside, though, is a vision. Aside from our eight-year friendship, this is the main reason I still live with Tommy. His taste is not some Laura Ashley floral abomination. It's the real deal, wet looking metal and deep colored fabrics that make me think of exotic foods that I will never be rich enough to taste. Even the kitchen, which we never use, is pleasant tonight, the sun shining on the varnished floors reminding me of a freshly oiled baseball glove.

Tommy's meds sit on the counter, the legal ones anyway. The others he keeps in his bedside table next to his porn. I wait for him to talk to me but he grabs a beer from the fridge and strolls into his bedroom.

When we leave the house at ten-thirty it is still over eighty degrees. The sky's a nuclear orange as we squeeze down broken alleys in search of a place to park.

"This is what I was afraid of. Where am I supposed to put this tank?"

"How 'bout you just roll up on that Civic there. I'm sure whichever little vegan dyke drives it won't mind it getting crushed once she sees what a big old stud you are in this machine."

"Shut up."

"You're the one that has to assert what a tough ass motherfucker you are. Some might suggest you're overcompensating."

"Well," I say, finding a space long enough for me to parallel into, "what does it say about you that you spend more time driving my substitute dick than I do?"

"That, my friend, is a question for the ages," he says, slamming his door. I can hear the bass from Kendra's place two blocks over.

Kendra's apartment hides in the gut of a burned-out cotton mill, and the transition from inside to outside feels seamless. You walk through one door, in search of the keg or a place to piss and end up in the kitchen, you walk through what you think is the same door and end up in a furnished room of charred bricks, filled with sweaty grinding bodies under a roof of stars. Kendra is a legend for these "garden parties" and we rarely skip them.

As we approach the graffiti-soaked outer wall of the mill, the smell of bodies and vanilla-tinged blunts assaults us and I wonder if old General Sherman would be happy with the art Kendra makes from his destructive masterwork.

"Do I get to meet this Jeff guy?"

"Yeah, sure. You can meet him."

Three girls in crinoline dresses huddle near a couple of thugged-out gay guys in Sean Jean hoodies and platinum chains. Tommy nods at a guy as we push a curtain aside and enter the first room.

Kendra buzzes immediately towards us, her short Afro backlit, a purple halo from some art instillation involving TVs and colored cellophane. She kisses us both on the lips -- she doesn't believe in cheeks -- and I loop my arm around her tight waist.

"What's up? I haven't seen y'all in a minute. You still up to no good?" Her voice is a lilting alto. Somebody told me once that she was in a gospel choir when she was at Spelman, and I like to believe it's true because it makes her current impurities that much sexier.

"Always up to no good, baby, don't you worry about us." Tommy says, waving over Kendra's shoulder at somebody I can't see.

"I'm glad to hear it. Y'all go get acquainted. They're some hotties here tonight." She squeezes her body against mine before rolling off my arm like a flamenco dancer and disappearing into the crush of other people's torsos and backs.

When I turn, Tommy is kissing a boy.

"You must be Jeff," I say, extending my hand to the space where their chests meet. They disentangle and Tommy wipes spit from his lips. Jeff grins and we shake. Tommy's right, Jeff pulls off the mohawk well, but it's his eyes that get me. They're a perfect shade of blue, not trite like robin's egg or Virgin Mary or Pacific Ocean, but real, honest to God, '57 Chevy blue, that tint that gives car collectors wet dreams.

"You're Tommy's friend, right? Hey, good to meet you." He has a full out South Georgia drawl and I imagine he comes from a place where you eat catfish for breakfast and ride tractors to school and make love for the first time on a river bank with an Alan Jackson song playing in the background. His voice is such a stark contrast from his tight clothes and his heavily tattooed body, that it makes me love him and want Tommy to love him too.

"I'm gonna get a beer. Can I get you one?" Tommy and I nod and Jeff enters the enveloping mass.

"Tommy," I start.

"I don't want to hear your shit right now."

"Tommy, seriously." I grab his forearm, feeling his thin muscles harden under my fingertips. He stares at me with a hot fury.

"Let go of me."

"Tommy, he's a kid. A sweet kid. Goddamn, he's beautiful."

"Could you tell how big his cock is?" Tommy laughs.

"You fuck."

"What do you know? You're just a kid too. "

"Tommy, stop. You have to tell him."

"I should have never told you."

"Let's go home."

"Go without me."

"Tell me you're gonna leave him be."

"No." His voice is all guts and gasping breath.

"Fine." I shove the curtain aside, ready to leave, but he calls after me.

"I'll see you later though, right?"

I feel the bass under my feet, licking up through my bones. Kendra dances through a tangle of girls, her fluid body wavering just beyond where Tommy stands, his arms crossed and his feet shoulder-width apart like a cowboy waiting for a fight. If Kendra would meet my eye for just a second I would go to her, pull her from the throb of arms and stomachs, backs and thighs and beg her to leave with me. But Kendra slides her way down another woman's body and doesn't look up.

"Yeah, man, I'll see you later," I say, pushing through the curtain, aiming for a room with a ceiling of stars.

The line at the Limber Lady curls around the cinderblock wall that separates the cracked parking lot from the purple building. I shove between two men in pink polo shirts. A girl whose arm I knock says "bitch," then takes it back when I reach over her head and pound Warren's fist.

"What's up? You have the night off. Why are you back? Did the party suck?" Warren yells over the throb of our Saturday DJ.

"Yeah, sort of."

"If you're gonna block the door you better help. You take the cash."

"Where's your fairy godmother?" Warren asks after an hour, during our first lull.

"I don't know." I step outside and wipe the sweat off my face with the front of my T-shirt. "He's pissing me off."

"What, did he leave you for another dyke?" Warren lights a cigarette and passes it to me.

"I wish. He's kind of sketchy sometimes and I don't know how irresponsible he actually is."

"Did you fall on your head or something at that party? Do you know where you are? Since when do you give a shit about responsibility?"

"I just don't want him to hurt anybody."

"Tommy couldn't break a nail." Warren chuckles at his own cleverness.

"Never mind. You wouldn't get it. I'm gonna grab a beer." I start inside, but Warren grabs my shoulder.

"Is he sick or something?" Warren flicks his cigarette into a tangle of honeysuckle on the retaining wall.

"What do you think?"

Between last call and closing there are four fights and Warren and I have to break up all of them. Saturday night fights are always stupid. Buckhead boys shove each other over money and women. Weeknight fights are just as stupid but I can see the hurt in the guys that fight on a Tuesday. Saturday fights are all posturing and bravado. Weeknight fights are awkward grappling and sadness.

Warren's not allowed to knock patrons unless they got really out of hand, so he spends most of his time ducking and hauling folks into the parking lot. I'm not on the clock, so I throw some punches. It feels good.

I am counting the money when someone yells outside. Christine, the bartender, shrugs her bony shoulders and continues emptying troughs of ice into the drain.

"I guess Warren's still cleaning out the parking lot," I say, winding a rubber band around a stack of fives.

"I reckon," Christine says.

The noise keeps on, so when I finish I step outside to see if Warren needs any help. The four A.M. sky is purplish blue and the birds are tuning up to sing until full light. I can't see Warren. Then one of the orange street lamps reflects off something in the middle of the lot. Warren straddles a man and punches his face. When his head bounces off the asphalt Warren hits it again. It reminds me of one of those pop-up punching bags with a clown's face that I'd had as a kid.

"Take it easy. Darla hears about this your ass is gone."

"This ain't no customer."

It's Tommy. Warren broke his nose, I can tell that right away. His lips are so puffed up they might burst at any moment. His eye is swollen shut. Warren stands, wipes blood from his own nose and looks at me.

"He won't have such an easy time fucking innocent people without a pretty face."

"What..." I can't finish my sentence.

"Help me up." Tommy says.

I haul him up, but he walks on his own once I get him to his feet. Warren's gone before we make it over to the cinderblock wall.

"What did you say to him?"

"Nothing. He asked me if I had gotten laid tonight and I said yeah and he stared yelling some shit about respect. Out of the blue. Then he calls me a sick fuck."

"You are a sick fuck," I say, pulling a sprig of honeysuckle off a vine and biting the end off a flower.

"I'm your sick fuck, though, right baby?" He gingerly places a bloom between his fat lips. The flower absorbs the blood from his mouth, and I think of science fairs where kids turn carnations blue with colored water.

"Yeah man, you're my sick fuck."

The sky lightens. The morning crew at the bakery next door fires their ovens. A woman jogs with her collie. A kid speeds up the street in his rusty Accord, tossing papers to the beat of a Tupac song. I finish my honeysuckles one by one and throw them in a pile on the ground.

I'm not sorry Tommy got beat.


Podcasts:

Elizabeth Rose Anderson reads "Terminus."

David Lee Simmons interviews Elizabeth Rose Anderson.


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