The Raindrop Dahlia
A woman in black stilettos turns in a languid circle, gives the flash of a glance over her shoulder. Flat-toned metal flaring up above its headlights, a silver, ‘67 Corvette Stingray slows down. The car comes to a full stop beside her. From the air-conditioning of her Mercedes station wagon, Teal studies woman’s swaying motion. She watches how the woman lets her hips dip from side to side as though pressured by a wind that is not here in this absolute arid stillness of summer― the temperature touching 95 midday and letting go from there. Now, it’s nearly dinner time, and Teal only has to get home to open a box of macaroni, time pressing her energy dry, her mouth moving haltingly, lips still, almost unable to prepare another sentence let alone push her tired body across her kitchen to cook, again. Low-key, she’d already told her daughter. It’d be a low-key night.
“You see her?” Teal asks her child, pointing to the woman in jet-black stilettos, “you know why she has such good legs?” clicking on her left-turn signal: a metronome.
“Because she spends her days walking the streets.”
Time does not turn them with a signal to go.
Click. Traffic builds, stretching out toward them, an unrelenting rainbow of cars.
Click. There is no answer from her mother.
Click. Teal’s daughter feels the Stingray’s revving engine reverberating up her spine as she watches a silvery chip of its peeling paint fleck down to the newly re-paved asphalt. The driver’s hand, a man’s hand, she sees it hang outside of his window, a cigarette held loosely between his calloused middle and index fingers. Plumes of smoke float up toward the smog-tinged skyline.
A pair of pink streaked mourning doves fly past through the soon-to-be starless sky above them.
“But why?” she asks her mother again.
“It’s her life.”
“She walks around all day?”
“She makes up her own hours.”
The girl looks from the Stingray to the red light in front of them. She watches the woman bend down, lean inside the car’s window before the man brings his cigarette up to his mouth. The woman steps inside, swallowed into the car’s gray interior.
“If I walked the streets all day, I’d have legs like that too,” Teal looks back at her daughter, watches the girl trying to braid her own hair but failing.
The girl says she doesn’t think anyone should be walking the streets all day, and Teal says she’s right, but this is America, land of the free.
“Home of the brave,” she starts her braid over, parting her long, brown hair with gentle flicks of her friendship braceleted wrist, “is she brave?”
“You see the man in that car?”
The girl nods, not looking at him but the woman’s darkened silhouette in the window of the Stingray.
“That lady doesn’t know that man, but she’s willing to take the chance because, I bet, maybe, she has a baby at home, and she needs to be able to pay the bills.”
“Why doesn’t she know him?”
“Because she’s a lady of the night.”
“But it’s the middle of the day.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The light turns green, the Stingray accelerating out before them only to reach another red light a block ahead. Teal turns to look at the woman now, but she isn’t there.
The passenger’s side door is open, and the man is leaning over, pulling it shut.
She recognizes the expression in her mother’s eyes is the same way she looked at her the last time she needed stitches— the little girl had stepped on a piece of a green, broken beer bottle glass while playing on Santa Monica beach. This is how she looks now: frenetic, eyes searching through their windshield for a trace of the woman. Teal watches the man. He doesn’t avert his eyes from the red light. His cerulean iris is light-soaked, and his skin is bleached out in the earthen glare of the sun bleating out on his face.
The woman’s hair pendulates from side to side behind her as she runs down the street in front of them, one black heel in her hand, her feet― bare. Without hesitation, or thought, the kind of thought she reserved for her own life, her own matters, Teal slows. She now drives alongside the woman, slipping into the world of another. It isn’t so much different than a Venn-diagram, the kind she used in her old marketing job, research, for the cereal company: Life. The diagram: a simple place where two different forces coalesced, and then one inextricable element fused them together. What it is, only, if she slows down, if she has time to ask herself, she will not be able to say so easily. It is more than her role as a recorder of the event— a witness.
This feeling is new, taking her closer now to this woman’s life, blurring her into something sharply foreign. Teal pulls over next to her, asking the woman if she needs a ride and the woman is shaking her head, yes, but it’s not just her head. Her entire body is shaking. She opens the front car door, swaying against it, throwing her metallic-aquamarine, sequined, purse into the footwell first; she throws her frail body in second. The girl thinks that the woman smells sweet, like the Gardenia from their garden at home.
She wants to ask the woman what happened to her other shoe, but the lady is giving her mother instructions on where she needs to go, the woman’s voice impelled forward as though it’s about to run out, and she only has so much more left to give before it cracks apart to nothing. There is a soft coarseness to what she says, words wrapped with care but pressured to come out of her dark, ruby-tinted mouth, glossy in the sunlight as her smoker’s cough thinly presses up to take over.
“San Julian Street, south of 5th,” she pauses, coughs briskly, pulls a nail file out of her purse. The nail file is glittery and pink. Teal tells her she can’t drive there, but the woman is welcome to come with them where they’re going.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” the woman sighs.
“Please, watch your language. My daughter is in the back seat.”
Now the woman turns around to look at the girl. The girl notices the woman’s dark circles under her eyes, eyeliner smearing in the crushing heat.
“What’d you get at the gift shop of the history museum, hon?” the woman nods to the girl’s bag.
“It’s a book on the 500-year story about how Southern California went from a tiny pueblo to a sprawling metropolis.”
The girl opens her mouth to tell the woman her name, but the lady is already talking again, saying how it’s just her luck that she goes from getting kidnapped in one car to getting goddamn held hostage in another. Though, as the woman says this, she’s smiling, so the girl doesn’t know what she means.
“That man tried to kidnap you?” the girl says, but both women in front act like she’s not there, swiftly made invisible by a shatterable conversation that they wish she didn’t have to hear. If it all breaks open, they know these kinds of words could cut a child.
“I’m not dropping you off in the heart of Skid Row,” Teal tells her.
“This is LA, lady; it doesn’t matter where you drop me off because I’m going to roll right back down to Skid Row no matter where you leave me. It’s like the streets are tilted down for me, and I’m just raindrop. I'm just a raindrop, rolling,” the woman twists her hair around her finger, “just a raindrop, rolling.”
Teal flips on the radio, classical music, “We’re going to drop you off at a gas station in Beverly Hills when I stop for gas.”
“How about you take me to Indian Alley? It’s not far. More history, for the girl— homeless Native Americans held the alley through the 90s. A block over from Werdin place, running south from Winston to East 5th. It’s tucked in between Main and Los Angeles.”
“That’s fucking Skid Row too. We’re not doing it.”
“Watch your language,” the woman says, “your daughter is in the back seat.”
Teal shakes her head.
“You named your daughter Dahlia?” the woman flips around, looking at the girl again, “the Black Dahlia,” she softly whispers.
Teal turns on her right signal. Click. She tells Dahlia not to listen.
“The Black Dahlia was Elizabeth Short. If she didn’t have a date, she didn’t eat.”
The woman tells Dahlia about Elizabeth, how she was murdered in 1947, and they found her with her blood drained out of her body.
“I’m not named after her.”
“No, you’re not, honey,” Teal tells her daughter.
“Why’d they call her the Black Dahlia?” the girl runs her fingers over her braid.
“She was going to a drug store over in Long Beach, and there was a movie out called The Blue Dahlia. She looked like the girl from that, so she got the nickname because she always wore black.”
Traffic builds up around them; no one moves.
The woman is filing her nails now, rounding each side. She stops, takes out a flask from her purse and a miniature can of Diet Coke. She takes a sip from the silver bottle then turns the coke can up to her mouth, leaving the imprint of her lips on the tin.
Teal looks at her as though she’s going to say something but doesn’t.
“There are these other murders, the Lipstick murders. Some people think there is a connection between those and Elizabeth Short’s murder because one of the girls that was killed in Chicago, her name was Suzanne Degnan, and they found her dismembered.”
“Dismembered?” Dahlia looks at the streams of cars flooding in around them. She thinks it’s all a little like they’re all just raindrops rolling, rolling through the streets. The woman is right.
“It means to be taken apart. Elizabeth Short was found on Norton Avenue, three blocks west of Degnan Boulevard here in LA, and Degnan was the last girl to be killed in Chicago.”
A traffic conductor waves them through the intersection. They feel the base of another car vibrate through their obsidian-black station wagon.
The woman turns, abruptly, toward Teal, “Can you drop me off at Leimert Park? It’s on your way, Leimert Park, 10 minutes.”
“Better than Skid Row,” Teal lightly accelerates as traffic begins to move, “OK.”
“I didn’t catch your names,” the woman says, “I’m Milly.”
“We didn’t give them,” Teal stares straight ahead, “was that man going to come after you again, after you got out?”
“He had a knife, showed it to me— first thing when I got in the car,” she stares out of her window, floats her hand through the air. Dahlia watches her mother looking in the rearview mirror, her lashes perfectly mascaraed but not heavy like Milly’s lashes.
“Can you drop me on the West side of South Norton Avenue, about midway between Coliseum Street and West 39th?”
Teal nods but says nothing. Now on residential streets, they’re driving by more substantial homes, clean front yards and palm trees with dogs on leashes, children running down the sidewalks. Sprinklers arch in waves over dry lawns.
“You look like a Cindy or a Mary,” Milly says, staring at Teal.
“No,” Teal scans the neighborhood around them, the grass not touched by rain in weeks.
“Teresa,” Milly says, “your name is Teresa, and that’s why you have this mother Teresa complex, going around, saving people?”
“No, that’s not it,” she swings the car around a corner.
“Her name is Teal,” Dahlia tells Milly.
Teal slows the car, looking back and telling Dahlia with her glance that she wasn’t supposed to do that, wasn’t supposed to share so much about them, but Dahlia doesn’t understand why.
“We’re almost there,” Milly says.
They slow down for a stop sign; parked cars line both sides of the street.
“3825,” Milly holds her flask above her mouth. She shakes it there in the air, draining the last drop into her red, open, lips. Sunlight hits Milly’s profile, and Dahlia sees her cheekbones, so high, like one of the women in the pueblo houses of her book. She flips through the pages, finding one with the same long, dark hair as Milly’s. Dahlia wonders if Milly’s mother braided her hair when she was little like her mother does hers. She thinks, maybe, if she asked, Milly would let her do her hair, cast it down over the back of her seat. Milly puts her flask away, opening the door of the car while they’re still rolling to a stop. A party pulses next door to the house they’re stopping in front.
Dahlia thinks this is where Milly is going, that she must have family here. Teal yells at Milly to shut the door, but she doesn’t.
A bouquet of balloons, tied to the mailbox of 3827, clings together with static: a varied, pink collection of helium. A man in a palm-leaf Hawaiian shirt ushers guests in through a yellow front door. A girl in a pastel pink dress with a succession of billowing ruffles flowing outward, glittering rhinestones embossed around the waist, sits on a cement garden bench.
“You’re going to this quinceañera?” Teal asks, but Milly shakes her head and says, “come on, this is history, darling, Dahlia. You should know this.”
She’s out of the car then, opening Dahlia’s door, holding onto the girl’s wrist.
“Stop!” Teal screams but Dahlia doesn’t resist, lets Milly pull her out of the car.
Milly’s emerald-green eyes are fuller now, more alive, “We’re here, Dahlia.”
Teal exits the car as Milly lets go of Dahlia. All of them standing on the sidewalk now, together, look at a patch of grass that Milly holds her arms out to as though they’re all back at the museum, as though she’s one of the guides showing them some relic from ancient history.
The grass is fading deeply in places, worn to dirt. The blinds of a gray, brick, ranch in front of them are open. A white Jeep Cherokee on the house’s smooth concrete driveway bleeds a cut of oil down to the curb.
Music echoes from the backyard of the house next door, Latin music, the beat feeling as though it’s seeping up through the earth beneath them.
“What is she doing?” Teal whispers, wrapping her arm around Dahlia as Milly now marches into the front yard of the gray house and drops her purse.
The girl from next door, in the ruffled dress, a pink balloon attached to her wrist, watches the three women. Everyone else in her yard has recessed into the house; it’s just her outside now.
Dahlia notices that this girl, too, is watching Milly lay down on the grass. Milly extends her arms above her head, saying, “Imagine a woman without clothes, imagine her with the blood drained out of her body, cut, separated at the torso.” She turns her head up to the face the sun, closes her eyes, “Imagine her with a smile cut into her cheeks, from ear to ear,” she raises one finger to trace the outline of lips from cheek to cheek.
“The Black Dahlia,” she whispers up to the sky, “this is the true darkness this precarious world is capable of creating, this is the true horror: the Black Dahlia. This is where they found her. You want to learn about history? This is fucking it,” she lets her arms drop, goes limp in the grass.
All three of them now look down on her, the music still coursing.
“She wasn’t even ten years older than me,” the girl in the ruffled dress walks closer, as though this is a real museum, and she’s here to help guide, “she was 23; this is where they found her. The Realtor told us when we moved in.”
“Eleven years older than me,” Dahlia, barely audible, calculates.
Teal tells her she’d better get back to her party, but the girl only smiles, telling them her name is Sofia.
Dahlia stares down at the frozen body of the woman she’s just met today as light wind brushes the bangs off Milly’s forehead; a sprinkler starts up, beginning to mist the edge of her hand but still, Milly does not move.
“A woman walking her baby found the body, back when this was just an empty lot,” Sofia pulls at the string attached to her wrist, begins to unravel the knot tying the balloon to her. She walks over to Milly, sinking down to her knees. Milly’s eyes open, and Sofia gives her the hot pink balloon.
Milly sits up, unclasping her purse; she pulls out a lipstick in a silver tube and begins to write in scarlet across the balloon: ELIZABETH SHORT, THE BLACK DAHLIA. She draws a heart around what she’s written, stands and brushes grass off of her red, fringed, dress.
“You wanted history? Don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you’re not good enough. Ever. And, buy your own way,” she looks down at Dahlia, at Sofia, “do you hear me?”
The girls look up at her but say nothing.
“It’s true,” Teal runs a hand through her daughter’s hair, giving way, swaying nearly imperceptibly to the music that’s begun to encase them, “she’s right.”
Sofia begins to say a prayer, her head down. Milly makes the sign of the cross over her chest, letting go of the balloon, each of them tilting their heads to the sky to watch as the speck of pink dissipates into a smaller spot of color against the upper atmosphere until it’s nothing. There’s nothing to see anymore.
When Dahlia brings her head back down what she sees are flashing blue lights against the picture window of the gray brick house before them. She hears the crunch of a police officer’s boots soon following, approaching across the dry grass behind them.
“Got a report of trespassing,” he looks at them on the sidewalk, Milly standing out in the yard. Now, they see a blonde woman in the house, staring back at them, a small white dog cradled under her arm, her face blank with fear.
Milly steps off of the lawn, opening her mouth--
“A dog ran off with my aunt’s shoe after she took them off to sit on my bench with me,” Sofia points to Milly’s bare feet then nods back to her cement garden bench, a concrete fairy angel planted at its base.
The officer brings his notepad out. Milly puts a hand in her purse, pulling out her one remaining stiletto.
“Dog with a shoe,” he repeats, glancing up at Milly with her shoe extended out at him like evidence.
“We think he went into that bush,” Milly points to a green bush in front of the house, to the left of its glossy, white front door.
He sighs, his body wilting as he says he’ll speak with the homeowner, explain the situation.
“Thank you, officer,” Milly throws her arms around Teal, “my sister just bought those heels for me, for my birthday, and I... got a little carried away, I suppose, when the dog took off with it.”
“What kind of dog?”
“Dachshund,” Milly answers before anyone offers anything else.
“Can I get my aunts back to my party?” Sofia looks up at the officer who continues to write in his notepad.
“Blood relatives of the birthday girl?” the officer squints his ice-blue eyes at Teal and Milly.
“Related by marriage,” Teal answers.
“You a cousin?” he points his finger at Dahlia.
“Our Dads... are brothers.”
“I married into the family too, no kids yet,” Milly shrugs.
“I thought you said you two were sisters?”
“Sisters-in-law,” Teal answers.
“If you married two brothers... that makes you nothing to each other. She’s just your brother-in-law’s wife and vice versa.”
“But we feel like sisters,” Milly wraps her arms around Teal.
“Get back to the party, and you’re going to have to forget about the shoe.”
Milly presses her hands together in prayer, “Namaste,” she whispers before beginning to follow Sofia up the circular, pebbled, garden stones leading to the girl’s front door. Dahlia follows, Teal behind her, both looking up to scan the cirrus clouds for a speck of hot pink, but nothing― nothing but airplanes litter over their sun-drenched horizon.
In the backyard, Milly disperses herself into the party seamlessly, twisting to the music and shaking hands with the mother of the quinceañered, landing by the buffet table where she lifts tamales one by one, but instead of bringing them to her mouth she begins to drop them into her purse.
Beside her, Teal eats a chocolate-covered strawberry, and Dahlia sips a lime Jarritos.
“I did good, didn’t I?” Milly says, leaning over, brushing Teal’s hair away from her face and speaking quietly into her ear.
“You did good,” Teal picks up a vanilla-covered strawberry this time, takes a bite.
“I did good,” Milly steps away, turning in soft circles to the music, pulling a cigarette from her purse, scanning the party for a person with a light.
“Real good,” Teal says.
“Good enough,” Dahlia tells them, “we’re good enough.”
JORDAN FABER is a writer based out of Chicago, IL. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Bull & Cross, Dream Pop Journal, Lunch Ticket, and TIMBER. Her work in theater has been produced at The Greenhouse and Victory Gardens theaters in Chicago. Jordan received a BA in Creative Writing from Knox College and an MFA from Northwestern University. While at Northwestern she earned a Princess Grace Award nomination. She has worked as a fiction editor for Black Spring Press in London and in development for the Sundance Channel. Read more words [here]