Friday, April 20, 2012

An Excerpt of The Independence of Carolyn Woltkowski by Benjamin X. Wretlind

It took a day, a phone call to a friend back in Vegas she hadn’t spoken to in months and a talk with her irate but slightly understanding boss to convince herself that the man she saw on the casino floor was not, in reality, the man she’d been running from for the past two years. In fact, the friend on the phone said she’d seen him just a few days ago, and for him to figure out where Carolyn was, hop a flight or grab a rental car and drive to the middle of nowhere was probably an unlikely scenario. He wasn’t the type of man who hunted down people.
Carolyn didn’t mention she knew that wasn’t true. It wasn’t a day before she left for good that he promised to find her and to kill her. That cut below her left eye–the one that bleed for nearly an hour–was to remind her that he was in this for the long run. And no, she couldn’t get stitches.
Thank God she got away when she did.
Carolyn looked up at the crystal blue Colorado sky. She’d been walking up and down Bennett Avenue for an hour or so. It wasn’t a long street and while most people viewed all the little shops and ancient signs painted on century old buildings as quaint, she saw something different. In fact, she was in love with the area, with the people, with the serenity that could only come from a town that had died once and been reborn through an industry she was not only familiar with but would probably continue to work for until the day she passed away alone and surrounded by a hundred cats. There was peace in Cripple Creek, even if that peace felt tenuous to her at best.
Tenuous peace was still peace.
She stopped at the walkway to the Wild Horse Casino, its richly painted sign contrasted with the deep red brick of the building to shine in all its ancient glory. A white stallion leapt from the painting, chased by four other stallions. Perhaps it was a mare; she didn’t know. But there was meaning in the painting, something she found at nearly every corner of her life: she was running, hard and fast. Maybe she could stop one day, find the peace the rest of the painting portrayed, one of grass meadows, mountains in the distance, a clear sky free of trouble.
To her right, another painted sign pointed the way to the Red Lantern, offering food and cocktails. She knew it pointed to Myers Avenue, a former “Red Light” district if ever there was such a thing at the turn of the century. Down the steps and next to the Wild Horse Casino stood the Homestead House, the most famous brothel in Cripple Creek. She knew the history, even respected the owner and operator Pearl DeVere. The opulent parlor that bustled with activity was known for its impeccable service, high-powered customers, its glamorous madams. At a time when three dollars a day was considered a good wage for a miner, Pearl charged $250 a night, and got it.
Carolyn sighed. The museum existed to glorify the days of women used for their bodies by miners who used the earth for its gold. Then again, what was so different now?
She turned from the sign and tried to exorcise the horrible thoughts that bubbled up from her memory like deadly gases in a swamp. She’d been used for her body, perhaps not by a miner but rather by so many men she lost count when she turned thirty. Now, two decades later, she lived in regret of nearly her entire life. The man she married a few years back told her she was more than a body; she was a woman with thoughts and desires and all the things that make up the soul trapped beneath the skin.
When he hit her the first time, she still believed he meant it. When he broke her arm the night she didn’t feel like spreading her legs for him, she started to have doubts. When he threatened to kill her for being nothing more than a whore who got a job as a casino waitress to look for more men–his festering delusion–she lost all hope he had ever meant what he told her. She was trash, a woman to be used, neglected and disposed of like a tissue full of snot.
Carolyn shuddered. She didn’t need to think of these things. She escaped, and now it had been two years of relative peace. Yes, she was still haunted by the threat and the man she once loved, but it was getting easier.
She looked back at the Wild Horse Casino sign then down at the ruins in front of it: a building without a roof, grasses infecting every crack in the foundation. Bricks were poorly laid out and wrapped around an unbroken window that reflected her face. She stared at the face for a moment–weathered, wrinkled, scarred. She was that person she saw: a beautiful woman now in her fifties, a body that could wrestle large tips from drunk men at the Spanish Mustang, a face spotted with history. She hated the way she looked. While her face aged, her body didn’t. She needed to do something else with her life, something that didn’t require wearing tight shorts and a blouse that exposed nearly all of her breasts to drunks. She needed to be a waitress in a café, an accountant working daytime hours, a bus driver for little kids. She needed to do something, but that something was elusive. You don’t get real jobs unless you have an education, and her father–the motherfucking sexual predator who got his due in prison–made sure she never even finished high school.
“I heard a fly buzz when I died,” she said. They were the words her mother used to comfort her as a toddler, to soothe away the demons in the night. She never knew where the words came from or why her mother would even use them, but she didn’t need to know. The words were a blanket.
Carolyn wanted to cry right there on the street, surrounded by history. Who lived in these buildings, worked the mines, sold their bodies? What was their history? Did they leave a legacy? Her body quivered with shame, with regret, with so many feelings built up in her life since childhood.
Life was a disaster waiting for an ending. Life was a quest without a goal. Life was a thing of beauty ruined by others.
Life was hell.
She turned away from the window and walked up the street toward the Spanish Mustang. She didn’t have to work that night, but she was damned if she was going to sit in her house all day and let the memories creep in. A walk was what she needed, complete with fresh air, the wonderful smells of fudge coming from the General Store and the peace of a street filled with strangers.
As she passed the General Store and reached an intersection, she noticed a woman on a bench with what looked like a sketchpad. The woman stared at something or someone in the distance while her hands worked a pencil across the paper. She was a small woman, frail, with light brown hair draped across her shoulders and gently tossed by a March breeze. Her hands–naked of gloves despite the weather–seemed to shake more than glide across the sketchpad. If Carolyn had seen the hands first, she would have sworn the woman was in her seventies, maybe older. However, the artist’s face countered that assertion.
Curiosity welled up inside Carolyn and she crept up behind the bench to get a look at the sketchpad. She’d always wanted to draw–as a little girl, a teenager, a woman bouncing from job to job, casino to casino–but outside of doodles on cocktail napkins or notepads meant for taking orders, she never produced much. Still, the act of sketching something–anything–was liberating to her, and those who did it more professionally or with more conviction interested her. They were creative souls who saw the world with different eyes, eyes not tarnished by men who beat them, men who leered at them, men who reduced them to nothing more than disposable objects.
She shuddered. Where did that thought come from?
The woman on the bench didn’t notice or seem to care that Carolyn was now directly behind her, looking down the sketchpad. Her hand still shook, but moved effortlessly while her eyes appeared to be locked on whatever was across the street.
It was hard to discern what the woman drew at first, but the longer Carolyn stared the more she recognized a form, a man with brute strength buried under what might have been a heavy winter jacket. The curves, the shading, even the stippled whiskers of a week-old beard were impressive if not alive. She leaned in a little closer to see the detail in the man’s face. . . then froze.
It was him.
In a split second, naked, bitter fear crashed down around her body like a wave against an exposed cliff. Her body shook, her lips quivered, her heartbeat escalated. Carolyn slowly raised her eyes from the sketchpad and looked across the street.
It can’t be.

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