I met Henry Lee that evening in the balcony of the Detroit Institute of Art theater. He was on the receiving end of a hand job.
I was watching Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar. You know the one, girl meets donkey, donkey becomes avatar for Jesus and they live unhappily ever after.
The balcony was practically empty. There couldn't have been more than five or seven people up there. I was alone in the last row.
At some point, in the flickering of light and shadow reflecting off the screen, I sensed something going on with the couple two rows in front of me. It seemed one of them might be crying.
That wouldn't have been extraordinary. Hell, the misery that poor donkey was put through had me thinking that the heroine of von Trier's Breaking the Waves had it easy, or the donkey in Manderlay for that matter.
So I settled back to watching Balthazar and Marie endure the heapings of awfulness humanity can dish out, and then some. Toward the end, when the donkey knelt down in a meadow to die surrounded by sheep, my hand was pressed to my face trying to plug away the tears.
Then, there was a moan. I was certain it was the man. There was some movement in front of the couple but I couldn't make out what it was.
The woman appeared to be shaking something as I moved several seats to my left.
I could've left it alone.
I climbed over an empty seat and stepped on a cup. It should have been made out of glass the noise it made.
They turned in their seats to find me standing there and it was pretty damn clear then neither one of them was crying.
She stopped mid-stroke, mouth open, lips all shiny in the light. The side of her facing the screen was the color of sepia toned negative.
Right then the man popped in her hand. It shot out in a silvery strand like the arc of a spider's web.
The man jumped up, never saying a word. He was a flurry of running between the narrow rows, zipping his trousers, tucking his shirt.
But not her.
The woman stood and stared right at me. She had the most brazen look as the house lights came up, even though a white line of jism connected the corner of her eye to the curve of her cheek.
She snapped open her purse and didn't look down when she pulled a tissue out. Dabbing at her face, she made a point of keeping eye contact with me. Then she walked out, her back to the screen, smiling as she disappeared down the stairs.
Thinking back, I don't know if I was taken aback or fascinated by it all. I didn't think much about it because right then my supervisor grabbed my arm, asked what the fuck I was doing watching movies instead of working, and pushed a broom at me.
"Get your skinny ass to the ladies room and clean the stink in there now, white girl," he said. "You hear me?"
That night I dreamt I was in the back row, with the same couple sitting down front, only now the man was a wearing a big white Stetson. Dogs roamed the balcony, big old mongrels trotting the aisles. Then the lights came up, and the couple turned out to be Carter Stanley, face all pale and puffy from corn liquor. The blonde woman was my grand mama, dressed in the same pretty blue skirt and jacket like the woman at the theater. Grand mama smiled that toothless grin of hers, and wiped her face with a Kleenex.
When she finished cleaning her face, it wasn't grand mama anymore and I wasn't in the balcony. It was the woman, and I was in bed. She was standing at the foot of the bed looking down on me, a snake writhing around her white arm. She gave me the same dirty smirk. Then she bit the snake's head off.
"You have a friend in Jesus," she said, little bits of snake dribbling out her mouth.
It must have been a good three, four weeks later when I snuck back into the balcony, this time to watch Godzilla. I figured it was the same movie I used to watch on TV when I was a kid.
But this one was in Japanese and there wasn't a whole lot of the monster stomping on Tokyo. Mostly, it was Japanese people just looking real serious and doing a lot of talking. The guy from Ironsides wasn't even in it.
The balcony that night was full of nerdy Wayne State students with thick-framed glasses and no dates. I must have gotten lost in the movie, as I'm prone to do, because I was startled by a voice whispering, "Hi there, cutie. I'm Henry Ortiz."
His lips barely touched my ear. Just enough for his whisper to make my skin tingle.
I jumped. His hand, soft like a woman's, held my shoulder. "Easy, pretty girl," he said. "I don't mean to scare you."
Right then I knew it was him. Whatever attention I was paying to a ruined Tokyo was lost because all I could think of was him squirting all over that pretty blonde woman, just a couple rows down from where we were sitting.
The left side of his face was all blue ash from the screen light on his dark skin. He smiled so wide his face looked like it was splitting. That, the earring, the hair so short it might as well been shaven, the goatee, the accent. It all did something to me.
He was the most handsome man I had ever been so close to.
"Henry Lee?" I asked.
"No, darling. It's Henry Ortiz."
The way he said it, all fast and jumbled up like Puerto Ricans talk, what I heard was "Henry Lee."
He really wasn't Puerto Rican, he said, something about his ancestors being from Spain or someplace. The island was just an accident of birth, he said. But I didn't put much stock in all that.
In fact, I'd eventually learn not to put much stock in a lot of things Henry Lee said.
Although, by then it was too late.
The real reason I called him Henry Lee stemmed from an old mountain tune grand mama used to sing.
My folks brought grand mama up to Melvindale from Kentucky when she got old and crazy and couldn't clean herself anymore. She scared me, especially when she'd motion for me to go into that dark bedroom of hers that smelled of shit and old bacon. Then she'd smile and her face would wrinkle up so it looked like a cracked mirror with a black hole where her toothless mouth was.
Grand mama would sing to herself when she was alone in her room, which was pretty much all the time. I'd stand real quiet by the door and listen. "Get down, get down, little Henry Lee, and stay all night with me" she'd sing. When she sang "Henry Lee," she sounded older than all the mountains in Eastern Kentucky.
Soon enough I learned the song. I'd mouth it in bed while drifting into dreams about the handsome prince, Henry Lee.
That's what I was thinking when Henry Lee patted my arm, letting the tips of his manicured fingers linger a moment longer than my mama would have otherwise thought proper. "I'll shut up," he said. "You watch your monster movie, honey girl."
I sat there making believe I was watching what was left of Godzilla. But all I could think of was Henry Lee beside me.
After my shift, I felt embarrassed when he followed me to my car. That pretty man in his fine three-piece suit, shiny shoes, sparkling diamond ring, smelling of sweet cologne and sex.
I felt even plainer than I knew I was.
The flakes were drifting down onto the parking lot behind the DIA, falling lazy and plump. It was so quiet. I could hear the snow wandering through the air, hitting the asphalt in a dull, sloppy rhythm. Cars exited the lot, hissing onto John R.
"Let's go somewhere, sweetie," Henry Lee said.
"What did you have in mind?"
"I just want to get to know you better," he said. "You have nothing to worry about, I'm a man of the cloth."
"You weren't the one I saw with a tissue?" He laughed at that.
"You saw me in there a while ago," he shrugged toward the theater. "Just a moment of weakness."
"That was none of my business."
"But you made it your business, beautiful. I saw you spying on me," Henry Lee said. He grinned like a dog with a squirrel pinned under its paws.
"Where do you want to go?"
"Let's have some drinks, talk," he said. He unfolded the collar of his coat and I knew that man could've been royalty. "I want to get to know this woman who caught me when I was most vulnerable."
I would've followed him to any of those desperate neighborhoods along Gratiot if he'd asked me.
Instead I followed Henry Lee's big black Grand Marquis into the graying snow and the yellow fever glow of Detroit street lights, onto and off the Lodge, and eventually to an ugly brick building on Michigan. The bar looked like it might have been a glossy white a good three decades ago, but in the snow and light it was yellowish green, like the tiles of a dirty bathroom. Maybe the shamrocks on the dirty sign were supposed to give the place some Irish cheer.
But I didn't think so.
Inside was even grimier. There wasn't much to the place, two tiny spaces separated by a wall and a bar. There were maybe fifty people inside, give or take, a cramped fire trap waiting to happen.
The customers were around my age, but the difference between them and me, aside from my janitor uniform, was they acted like they belonged. Tattoos, piercings, winter caps, all the trappings that I'd never known how to use to posture my hip self.
Henry Lee looked just as out of place as I felt, but he moved like a trashy Spanish king who didn't give two shits what anybody thought.
From the other side of the dirty wall I heard what sounded like bluegrass, women singing. Henry Lee handed me a beer. "You wait right here, little girl," he said. "I'll be right back." He walked over to a group of hipster types who were probably from Royal Oak. One of them followed him into the bathroom.
I peeked around the divider. The band was two women with guitars and a tall string bean of a bass player, a cigarette hanging from his lip. The women, a thin, pretty blonde, and a tough-looking brunette, sang out of key. Either one of them would've sounded awful without the other.
Together though, they sounded like they had just come out of some dark hollow and Greyhounded up the Dixie Highway to Detroit.
They played lots of old songs I knew, tunes by Merle Travis, the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family. They sang other tunes that sounded familiar, but the words were all weird. I could've sworn one of those was "My Old Kentucky Home," only it was about Lincoln-head pennies, vampires and genies.
I stood there drinking my beer. The more I listened, the sadder they sounded, and the more lonesome I felt. But it was that good kind of lonesome, the kind my mama used to say came from being alone all your life and not knowing there might be something better.
"I can tell you like that," Henry Lee said from behind me.
"They sound beautiful," I said.
"This hillbilly stuff don't do nothing for me, pretty baby," he said. "But I'm glad you like it."
We didn't do much talking all in all. Instead he spent most of the night walking into the restroom with different people and keeping me supplied with cheap beer in the interim. The more I drank, the less self-conscious I felt. By the encore, I'd been singing along whenever they'd do a classic song.
Their last tune was an old Stanley Brothers standard, "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake." That tune is pretty no matter who sings it and I felt my throat knot at the end when the little girl is dying from the snake bite. When the singers belted out the girl's call to her daddy to kill that snake, I shouted it with them, hooting and hollering with the rest of the audience.
When it was over the dark-haired singer asked the crowd to give me a hand and I felt as good as I'd felt in years.
I was so happy that when Henry Lee showed up at last call, I gave him a big kiss on those beautiful lips of his and didn't hesitate when he asked me to follow him in my car. The snow was a good seven inches, but I hung onto Henry Lee's fine fur coat and held myself up, then managed to keep up with him as he got onto the Fisher Freeway and headed south. We got off at Southfield, drove to the Allen Park Motor Lodge, where Henry Lee fucked me the rest of the night.
And the night after.
I loved it.
He must've loved it too.
What else was I to think when he let me move into the Motor Lodge with him?
I didn't care that Henry Lee was a crank dealer. That night at the bar on Michigan, I knew his visits to the bathroom weren't because he had a weak bladder. It didn't bother me when he'd snort the stuff up himself. I liked watching him sitting naked on the bed while he chopped up the yellow chunks on a telephone directory with a pocket knife which opened up into a small machete.
The way I figured it, he knew what he was doing and, aside from that minor character defect, he was still my prince.
He didn't mind when I'd sing along to my Stanley Brothers CDs. Henry Lee even arranged another janitorial job for me.
"Wadi, meet your new housekeeper," he told the Arab who ran the Motor Lodge one morning.
"I can't afford," Wadi said.
"I'll bet by the time I get back from breakfast, this little girl will have a job here," Henry Lee said. "In fact, how much you want to bet she gets to pick her own hours?"
Henry Lee left and Wadi shook his head, muttering something in Arabic. But it was settled, and I had a second job.
Wadi started explaining the finer points of motel housekeeping when I heard the roar of a rig pulling to a stop in front of the office, rattling the glass door.
A huge man climbed out of the tractor, walking in smelling of sweaty vinyl and diesel fumes. He towered over me, his head a thick tangle of gray hair, beard and eyebrows. I couldn't see his eyes until Wadi slid a key across the counter. Then I saw the icy blue stare from his good eye, like the eye of a bird.
Where his other eye should've been was a wrinkled knot of protruding scar tissue that looked like a stuck walnut. When it moved, I about peed.
The good eye held me in its gaze for the longest time. Wadi broke the silence. "New housekeeper," he said. "Ortiz's girl." The man nodded, then picked up the key from the counter.
"May the good Lord bless you on this glorious winter day, young lady," he said. He nodded again and left.
Wadi waited, making sure the giant of a man was really gone. "You not his type," he said.
He sounded relieved.
Then Wadi warned me to stay away from him.
"That's the Snake," was all Henry Lee would say when I asked him about the man.
I did the best I could not to think too much about the Snake. After all I was busy with the new life Henry Lee had made for me.
Yet, when the Snake stayed at the Motor Lodge, I couldn't help but feel his presence, no matter I didn't see him. The rig keeping vigil in the parking lot, the nonstop blare of rock music night and day from room seventeen, the stench of cat pee seeping out. They were all persistent reminders, omens dancing around the edge of my little paradise.
Henry Lee spending the bulk of his time in room seventeen during the Snake's stays made it all the more threatening.
By the second week of January there was a thaw in the deep freeze that had been December. The warmer weather brought with it the revelation of a month and a half worth of garbage buried under the snow. The DIA assigned me to a cleanup crew along Woodward to pick up the debris.
The soggy brown shopping bag fell apart when I pulled it out of the melting black snow. I picked up a wet section of a "Free Press" and dropped as if it was contagious.
It was a picture of the blonde. Henry Lee's blonde.
She'd been found floating in an abandoned pool at the old Belle Isle Boat Club.
At least her head was.
I searched for a date on the paper. When I found it I sat down on the wet sidewalk crying until my supervisor came out and told me to collect my skinny ass and go home.
I didn't go home, I just drove. The Lodge, the Fisher, the Chrysler. I don't remember how many times I drove that loop or how long.
By nightfall I found myself back in Allen Park.
Henry Lee's Grand Marquis was in its usual spot, so was the hulking shadow of the tractor. I raced up to our room, Henry Lee wasn't there, just the phonebook on the bed with a half-crumbled piece of crank and his open knife.
I slipped it into my bra.
I knew where to find him.
The music was pounding through the door of room seventeen, but it was the pulsing of my heart that filled my ears. I twisted the knob and the door opened. For just a second everything was silent before the music started again, loud enough to touch the marrow of my bones. They sat side by side on the edge of the bed, their backs facing me, not moving.
Henry Lee's naked body was as smooth and shiny as it ever was. At first I thought the Snake was dressed in something dark and shaggy, but he was as naked as Henry Lee.
The room was a jumble of blenders, Mason jars, casserole dishes, skillets, stoves, batteries, propane tanks, plastic jugs. The smell of ammonia made me dizzy and I threw up.
They didn't know I was there.
There were newspaper clippings taped to the walls, pictures of blonde women. I remember the word "dismembered" blared from one of the headlines.
The music was so loud it was distorting, bending around the corners of the crank kitchen. Finally I realized what it was, an old song from the seventies, "Spirit in the Sky."
I found myself looking over the Snake's hairy shoulder, as he worked on Henry Lee. Then a spurt landed on Henry Lee's thigh, but it wasn't his.
Henry Lee looked at me and let go of the Snake's penis, he held his hands between his legs as if to hide them from me.
The Snake reached back and slapped me. The blow bounced me off a wall in a shower of clippings and Polaroids of bloody body parts.
The Snake reached under the bed and pulled out a sawed-off. The blast sounded like just another drum beat.
Henry Lee's beautiful face was gone. Whatever was left was splattered on the Snake.
I couldn't hear my screams. The only sound was "Spirit in the Sky"’s fuzz-tone guitar and the singer starting in about never having sinned, about having a friend in Jesus.
The Snake walked toward me, his member poking out from his hair and gut. He ripped the front of my uniform down.
"Dance," he said.
The hand-clapping rhythm of "Spirit in the Sky" started up again. For a moment I just stood there, crying in my bra and panties. I didn't know what to do, so I clapped my hands to the beat.
Then I started twirling in that room at the Allen Park Motor Lodge, gradually picking up speed, feeling like Salome and Ginger Rogers wrapped into one. I sang along, ranting and yelling about where I was going when I died.
With my back turned to the Snake I felt Henry Lee's knife hidden in my bra.
I looked over my shoulder at the dreadful Snake, shook my skinny ass, and smiled.
Maybe I did have a friend in Jesus.