The light begins to go from the sky, graying further the faded, cracked concrete of the nearly empty street and of the low buildings running along one side. It is the last street in town, and opposite the buildings there are open fields, bare now in the dry season. Across the fields, the sun sinks large and listless toward the horizon. Dust drifts indifferently in the air and a single coconut palm, leaves drab with dust, leans over the street. Folding tables are set up at intervals along the curb. Over each table an incandescent bulb dangles from a wire held precariously aloft by bamboo poles. At the last table two girls sit eating noodle soup. One, just old enough to be pretty, is striking with her bright red tank top, streaks of red hair, bright lipstick and blush on her scrubbed cheeks. The other, younger, with a smudge of dirt on her face, is acutely aware that she is not pretty; even the movie star emblazoned on her T-shirt has faded almost beyond recognition. As the sun falls into the earth it sends out a brief, volcanic flare as long scraps of cloud on the horizon gleam suddenly like sharpened steel. The children’s faces shine in the glow. There seem to be sparks in the air, and the top of the palm tree erupts in flame.
The bulb comes on. The proprietress stirs her kettle of broth and watches her tables from the open front of one of the buildings. The girls are, for the moment, her only customers.
“It’s not funny,” the older girl said, sitting up very straight and making a serious face. Melanie, bent over her bowl, noodles dangling from her mouth, looked up into her friend’s face. She enjoyed gazing at Gay’s soft round features, her full red lips, her wide searching eyes. Melanie knew very well that it wasn’t funny, and she had serious business of her own besides. Still, she could not stop giggling.
Melanie shrugged. She had known Gay for two or three years, since Melanie and her mamma took the tiny room in the same ruined apartment house as Gay, but Melanie had never thought to press for details.
“Sometime. When it’s a regular customer you trust, you know it’s a good man, and he bring you presents and talk to you real nice. Then, sometime it’s fun. Alot.”
With a slight movement, a stiletto appeared in Gay’s hand; the blade flew open with a clean snap as the handle settled gracefully into her palm. The dusk was deepening and the light from the bulb glinted in the blade as it moved toward Melanie’s throat. “That’s what this is for.” She said, eyes gleaming. Gay glanced quickly about. People were beginning to come into the street, but the other tables were still empty; the proprietress was fussing about her kettle. “It’s a secret.”
Not long before, they had been playing hopscotch on the broken concrete slab next to the apartment house, two tattered children, content in the androgyny of girlhood. The freedom to play, however, meant that there was no laundry and no laundry meant no money and with every toss of the stone Melanie remembered and forgot again her mother’s desperation, the urgency of her need: Money! With every hop, skip and jump, she remembered and forgot again the desperation of her own plan.
“Take me for noodles?” She begged.
“Sure!” Gay laughed. “Wait’ll I change.”
Gay will help, Melanie thought as she sat on the stoop. She is beautiful and wise. She’s been all the way to sixth grade and can read and write and add and subtract. Besides she’s older: she’s fourteen-fifteen and she knows things. She’ll know what to do. And she likes me. Melanie looked down at her skinny legs, feeling useless. Mamma said that she was ugly and they’d always be poor. The other girls, the girls who dressed up pretty and went out to make money, those girls said that Melanie was ugly, too. And dumb. But Gay said that Melanie would be prettier than any of them. She would, she said.
Melanie may not have fully understood her situation. She knew that when Daddy died they had left the house she had always lived in. She had left school in order to go door to door begging for laundry to lug home and to wash with Mamma. She knew the humiliation of begging the mothers of her former friends, of washing their school uniforms. She knew that there were such things as borrowing and paying back and rent. And she knew that men had come and frightened Mamma. Most of all she knew the desperation in Mamma’s voice: Where we gonna get the money?
“Sexeee!” Melanie said when Gay emerged, transformed. Gay posed in her black mini-skirt and red tank top, hands on her hips, breasts thrust forward. She had them, Melanie knew, though she also knew that she stuffed rags in her bra. That was what seemed so funny to her later, slurping noodles at the folding table under the bare light bulb. If she had to undress, wouldn’t the rags fall out?
The stiletto danced, blade flashing, among Gay’s narrow fingers. Melanie stopped giggling. Then, as swiftly as it had appeared, the knife was gone. “It’s a secret!” Gay hissed. Hungry, Melanie had already finished her noodles and asked for another bowl.
They ate silently as the day ended. The street began to fill with people, and the two girls were no longer the only customers. Gay would soon go into the night, leaving Melanie alone and helpless.
“I got a secret, too,” said Melanie, pulling a rag from her pants pocket and laying it on the table between them.
“Ooo! I love secrets!”
Slowly she unfolded the rag to reveal a gold necklace. “My God!” Gay gasped as the heavy gleaming squares were exposed. Quickly, she covered it again and looked about. “Don’t let nobody see!” Then slowly exposed it again. “My God! Where’d you get this!”
Gay took the bracelet up and hefted it in the cup of her hands. With an affected air, she smelled the metal and tasted it. “It’s real!” She hissed.
Melanie said nothing. She was immensely pleased with the impression that the necklace was making on her friend.
“Where you get it?” Gay repeated.
“It’s a secret.”
“Found it in the laundry. Stole it from somebody’s house.”
“Some man likes little girls.” Something like respect came over Gay’s features. “That’s a gold mine.”
Melanie hated to disappoint her. “No.” She reached for the necklace and held it for a moment. It wasn’t like any of that.
“Daddy gave it me.” She said finally.
Gay cocked her head. “I never seen your daddy.”
“He died. Before we come here. He was in the hospital with TB and he come home ‘cause he wanted to be close to his Melanie. That’s me. Mamma kept sayin’ we got no money. Then Daddy died and we moved here. We used to have a house and I used to go to school and everything.”
“But the necklace?”
“Daddy called me while Mamma was out. He put it on my neck. Like this.” And Melanie, forgetting to be cautious, held it up to her throat. “He said keep it, don’t tell nobody, even Mamma. He said ‘It’s your future’; he said ‘It’s our secret.’ like that. Between Daddy and me only. And I ain’t told neither. Only now.” She laid the necklace back on the table where she could see it, then picked it up again and clutched it tightly.
“Wonder where he got it?”
Melanie brightened. “From the princess.”
“Yeah. He was a soldier and he was in the Capital. And he saw the King and Queen and the palace has a canal all the way ‘round and trees and grass and flowers and soldiers in little houses and you can walk all the way ‘round it but it’s miles and miles. And Daddy got to stand in one of those little houses and guard the palace. And there’s not just one palace either. There’s the red one and the green one and the white one. Daddy always talked about the Capital. There’s movie stars and everybody lives in a beautiful big house and got a pretty car to drive.”
“What about the princess?” said Gay, excited.
“I’m getting there. Daddy says she’s beautiful. Tall and thin and long hair night-black and dark deep eyes, and pure white dresses and she used to come and see Daddy in the little house all the time. Daddy was real handsome. She gave it to him to remember.”
Gay’s eyes were shinning, “The princess,” she sighed, and gently pried open Melanie’s hand to touch the prize.
“Know what else? Daddy always say someday he’ll take us to the Capital and we’ll live in a big house next to a movie star and we’ll picnic along the canal around the palace and maybe the princess will come too.
“When he give me this he said I’ll be pretty like that; like the princess.”
“Then he died,” Gay whispered.
Melanie did not speak. She clutched the necklace till it cut into her palm. As on the day that Daddy died, Mamma’s insistent cries forbade the luxury of grief: We don’t have no money!
“My daddy just went away,” said Gay. “I don’t remember much.”
Melanie remembered everything, however, and had to make herself hard before she could say it: “Can you sell it for me?”
Gay nodded as though she had already guessed.
“I got to help Mamma. She says if we don’t get money she’ll be dead and I’ll be under a bridge begging coins. I got to help Mamma.”
Gay took the necklace from Melanie’s hand and wiped it carefully with the rag; then she lifted it reverently and clasped it around her neck. Melanie gasped. It was fully dark now and the incandescent light from the dangling bulb cast Gay’s form in angular contrasts of light and dark, her chin, her lips, her nose sharply drawn in black lines of shadow. Her eyes flashed like the blade of a stiletto. The heavy squares of gold were embers in the earthy fire of her flesh.
Gay smiled happily, “I am, aren’t I!”
Then she took off the necklace and wrapped it in the rag again. “Looks like it come already.”
“What?” Said Melanie.
Melanie thought about that. They were surrounded by darkness. The table, she noticed for no reason, was green. “Daddy’s a dreamer, Mamma always said.” Melanie was thinking of the banks of the canal around the palace planted with flowers and sweet green grass and cool shade trees; she was hearing Mamma’s cries: How we gonna live? How we gonna get money? She pushed the necklace toward Gay. “Can you get lots of money?”
“Alot.” Then, “Twenty percent.”
“What’s twunny p’cen?”
“I keep twenty cents out of every dollar. It’s dangerous. They’ll think I stole it. I could get my throat slit.” She quickly scooped up the necklace and dropped it into her clutch. “It’s called,” She hesitated, either for effect or because she had trouble remembering the word, “commission.”
“‘Mishun,” repeated Melanie. It was a big word. An important word and she was proud to be a part of it. Daddy would be proud.
“There’ll be enough money to last till you’re pretty.”
As Gay walks, hips swinging, into the darkness, the gratitude, bordering on love, shining on Melanie’s face changes to grief and she begins to sob.