When Praying to a Saint, Include Something Up Her Alley

by Tina May Hall

originally published in Black Warrior Review


All day, men throw their keys to her. Then they tuck a five or a ten into her hand or shirt pocket or waistband if they're feeling playful and say, "Take good care of her for me." Gigi has been headed for trouble ever since she quit her job at the art supply warehouse where she had a desk and a discount, sold a couple of lenses to cover three months rent, and started trading on her looks. She bought an ass-grabbing black skirt, resurrected the kohl-rimmed eyes that paid for all her drinks in college, and got a job as a valet at the most expensive golf course in Scottsdale. It still surprises her how many men would rather trust their car to someone got up like an aging whore rather than the clean-cut pre-law boys who stand beside her under the stuccoed portico in their crisp shirts, their empty hands loose at their sides.

First memory: The bars of her crib—dark and then pale where the light hits them. Everything scored by these patterns. The blinds in the nursery being opened and closed. The thin metal slats slowly rotating. Someone murmuring, silhouetted by the window, drawing closer, standing by the crib, looking down. The pleasure she felt at being observed, at knowing she was something that could be seen.

The dark expensive cars are a cluster of sleek beasts in the parking lot, bracketed by straggling cholla trees and withered agave. Gigi has discovered a talent for parking cars. She has always had good depth perception—a superior sense of distance, her photography professors used to tell her. After only a few weeks it is routine to her, the smile and the wink at the owner, the first smooth touch of leather at the backs of her knees, the shudder that goes through her as she shifts into second. She packs the cars into the lot as tightly as they'll go. It's a game to her, to see how close she can get without touching.

Gigi only works days. From the boys, she hears about the diamond-garrotted women sweating in the Arizona heat under their furs and sticky hair, sweeping into the country club for dinner. Sometimes she smells them in the cars, ghosts of perfume and chlorine and antiseptic that haunt the carpet and wood paneling. These cars she is anxious to get out of, back into the summer wash of tar and static. The cars she lingers in are the old Mercedes and Renaults with ancient leather that smells like burnt butter. After she turns off the ignition, she leans into the seat, letting the heat rise around her, feeling the thick battered skin give with her weight.

Age six: She pushes Billy Kline down the stairs on the way to recess. He has done nothing to provoke it except for looking so complacent in his turquoise t-shirt, his back a pudgy surface that her hand cannot resist. She shoves him hard, and he falls down eight or nine stairs before becoming tangled in their teacher's legs. When he looks back up at her, there is blood starting to gather at the corner of his mouth and she stares at him, transfixed for a moment, not realizing yet that he, at this second, will be the most fascinating boy she meets for years to come. Then, she falls in a heap on the stairs, crying that she slipped and it was an accident, sobbing so loudly that the teacher leaves Billy to comfort her.

A couple nights a week, Gigi drives her twenty year-old Ford pickup to a shrine fifty miles west of the city. She is working on a series of photographs of a statue there, a rough wooden figure of an anonymous saint. For light, Gigi uses the candles placed on the altar below the statue. This requires her to hold the camera perfectly still for the long exposure. She could set up a tripod but prefers to let the cramping in her arms record the time she has been working. The statue is clearly a woman; breasts and long hair are cut into the splintery wood. The shrine dates from the mid-1800s and is no more than a small three-sided adobe hut surrounded by sinewy palo verde trees. As if shy, the statue stands a few feet back from the wrought iron gate that guards the opening. On the low bench in front of the gate is an assortment of candles, mostly supermarket novenas with colored wax and garish Marys and Jesuses offering up their valentine hearts. Gigi never sees anyone else when she comes, but there are always candles burning. In the photographs, the statue's face materializes and vanishes, depending on the number of prayers which light her.

Other nights, Gigi goes to the places in Phoenix where a youngish woman shouldn't venture alone. They're mostly bars, though some masquerade as tattoo parlors or pawn shops. A biker bar stranded next to I-17, an unmarked club in the warehouse district, a basement in the suburbs. Some are straightforward venues for drugs and sex; some try to put an individual spin on the package, from kink to karaoke to group cutting. Gigi has a habit—she likes to watch people reach their edges. She dabbles in it herself, less than she used to as a teenager; now she confines her nights to a little recreational slicing on the forearms and the thighs, safe sex when she has it, a three-drink limit which keeps her sober enough to drive herself home.

Age thirteen: She pretends she is orphaned, abandoned, loveless, independent. She cuts orchestra to sit behind the gym and smoke. Other girls get glamorous as they smoke. They practice flirting, letting boys light their cigarettes, using their ash-flicking fingertips as punctuation. She already knows all the tricks, the legacy of three older sisters. She is not there to learn what boys like or how far a good, slightly rebellious girl should go. She is there because she is in love with her orchestra teacher and because she has read Fear of Flying, which she found on her parents' bookshelf next to Beyond the Pleasure Principle, so she can imagine all the things she'd like Mr. Pelasky to do to her instead of correcting her bowing, and she knows the best way to get his attention is to stay out of sight. So she sits and burns things, leaves, insect carcasses, permission slips, a perfect circle on the skin of her calf, something permanent, a souvenir.

Tuesday afternoon, police find a pair of woman's hands in the dumpster behind a club near Gigi's house. She reads about it in the paper the next morning between parking two nearly identical Cadillacs. In the past year, three other pairs of hands have surfaced in dumpsters, apparently all severed with the same tool, by the same person. While maneuvering an Aston Martin into the northwest corner of the lot, she daydreams herself into a serial killer romance which ends in ever-after stalking instead of confession and reform. That night, she goes to the club near her house and tries to seduce the dangerous types. She smiles extra hard at anyone whose gaze lingers on her hands. The bartender rolls his eyes at her because he knows her from the other places in town, places he spends his money, but can't afford to work. She dances with a gaunt man who slams his pelvis into hers so roughly she feels a bruise starting and thinks, perhaps. But he is married or a poor housekeeper and wants to go back to her place, and when she was twenty-five, Gigi stopped bringing men home. She ends up in the bathroom where she sterilizes the bartender's pocket knife with a whole matchbook alight before skating it over the skin of her inner arm two, three times—a triangle, a rose petal, a whisper.

Age fourteen: She and a friend read The Diary of Anne Frank together and flirt with anorexia, formulate schedules of non-eating and jogs around the neighborhood. If one of them eats more than the daily allowance, she has to get down on her knees and confess it to the other. They wear black-red lipsticks and form a cult of Anne Frank, trapped in her attic room, forced to be quiet and motionless. It is that same year, the year of Anne Frank and living on one potato a day, that she perfects obedience with Mr. Pelasky in his stiff polyester pants, turning more and more remote each time he whispers, keep still, keep still, in their afterschool tutorials that have nothing to do with learning how to play the violin. After about a month of this, she tires of the cliché of being finger-fucked by her orchestra teacher behind the instrument cubbyholes, tarts herself up in a babydoll dress, and pleads, spank me. Mr. Pelasky flushes red, yanks his hands away, and ignores her for the rest of the year.

Despite the summer heat, Gigi wears long sleeves to work. Wednesday, she gets a twenty-dollar tip for returning a man's vintage Rolls to him intact and goes to the camera shop that evening to buy a new filter. Lenny, who owns the store and has a near-perfect mental inventory of his customers' equipment, groans when she points at it in the case. He hoists his belly off the edge of the counter and leans down to pluck it out for her, saying, "You don't need it." She reminds him his job is to sell her things and drags him outside to look at the sky. "Yeah, yeah," he says, "Makes it bluer, just like the other four you already own."

Gigi holds the slice of glass to the east where the sky is beginning to darken. "Not bluer," she says, "Perfect."

Gigi likes to think the statue is of Saint Lucy because she's the only saint she knows from her Swedish Lutheran upbringing. She has always liked her story, the beautiful girl who gouged out her own eyes and handed them to a suitor when he complimented her on them. As a child, Gigi's parents dressed her sisters and her up for St. Lucia's day, a festival of light held in the dead of winter, in which children in Sweden wear wreaths of candles on their heads and walk through dark towns to deliver buns and coffee to their elders. Gigi and her sisters would make refrigerator rolls and carry a plate of them to their parents' bedroom, Gigi's circlet of candles always tipping, sending trails of wax down her scalp and face. The statue seems to have her eyes wide open, but she still thinks it might be Lucy because in some stories, her purity was rewarded and her sight restored. In other stories, Lucy is condemned for being madly Christian and burned so ineffectually at the stake that her tormentors declared her fireproof and finally took the more efficient route of stabbing her through the throat.

Age sixteen: She takes calculus at night at the community college because her high school doesn't offer it. The boys in the class are poor and ambitious, and they buy her sodas from the vending machine on their breaks and lean toward her during tests to steal her answers and smell her hair. She pretends she's mute and scorns them all except for one who is overweight and acne-scarred and always four points ahead of her on the exams. She lets him feel her up in the artificial twilight of the classroom after everyone has left, and in exchange, he buys her a cheap camera which she uses to take snapshots of herself, blurred body parts she fingers under her desk, trying by touch to put herself back together. At home, she practices martyrdom and throws herself down the stairs. A broken arm and batted eyelashes result in a prescription for Vicodin which she rations, two each Saturday until she gives in and takes four one night while home alone, solving integrals like a good girl, feels her flesh shrinking inside the cast, and cuts it open with her mother's sewing scissors to find her arm has indeed withered and turned pale, hairy, unfamiliar. When she uses the spread blades of the scissors to slice a line of sumas, the flattened S of integration, the blood which rises is sluggish, dark, and quick to clot.

Thursday is the summer solstice, and Gigi tries out her new filter on the statue, framing the squat hut and its contents with a nimbus of blue sky. There is a patch of white in the viewfinder, a sheet of notebook paper taped to the gate that reads, Saint Day, June 25th. Gigi is disappointed because she knows Lucy's saint day is December 13th, and the statue turns anonymous again. Gigi sits in the sand waiting for the sun to set. She thinks of Lucy, the saint of light who is celebrated in the heart of winter by children wearing fire and carrying baked goods. The statue waits with her, her face slowly darkening. Ten candles burn on the altar, red glass cylinders filled with greasy wax, and as the sun fades, they cast a trembling shadow of the statue on the back wall of the shrine. Gigi works until her fingers slip with sweat. Then, she lies back onto the hot sand and watches the sky slide by overhead. Her camera is a hard weight on her chest which she doesn't lift because she knows any shots she takes of the brief darkness will turn out opaque squares pocked by stars. Gigi wishes for a filter that would capture the saturated possibility of the sky, the way it hangs heavily between the sun and moon, black and thick and coy, as if asking to be sliced open, torn apart to reveal a wealth of light.

By five o'clock on Saturday, Gigi is convinced she's suffering from heatstroke which is why it takes the man whose hunter green Jaguar she has just returned three tries to make her understand he is asking her to dinner. Her second blouse of the day is no longer crisp nor white and her nylons feel welded to her thighs, so she laughs at him and flips a piece of straggling hair behind her shoulder as she hands him the keys. He grabs her wrist and says, "I'm serious." Gigi takes a moment to consider because she noticed this man when he stepped out of the Jaguar earlier that day. Even after a round of golf in the deadly afternoon heat, his hair is still glassily slicked back. He looks like a man who would be dangerous in the bedroom, the kind of man Gigi would vamp if she were in a tight dress at a hotel bar, but now, her fantasies are confined to a cold drizzle from her calcified showerhead and a pitcher of iced tea. Gigi flashes him a smile thinking, tip, and yanks her wrist toward her. He hangs on, his fingers pressing white spots into her skin. She keeps smiling as she tells him she has to go home to shower first but that she'll meet him somewhere later. He smiles too as he says, "No," and pulls her wrist to his mouth. His lips are cool and dry on her skin, and she doesn't argue when he opens the passenger door for her.

Age twenty: She has her heart broken by a philosophy graduate student who quotes Kierkegaard to her and shoots up in her bathroom. She lets her hair grow long and wears stiletto heels when everybody else is in combat boots. During a dinner party at her photography professor's house, she uses one of his perfectly weighted Henckel chef's knives to open a slit across her left hip that won't stop bleeding for three days. She holds her hands as if she were praying when she's listening and sneaks into the campus chapel for afternoon naps. She finds another grad student to love, this time in Forensics, and convinces him to let her take photos of cadavers, cut in half, dissected, pinned and labeled. These she intersperses with pictures of dead birds and displays them in a one-night show at a local gallery. There, she drinks gin for its Pine-Sol buzz and smiles sweetly at the middle-aged men in skinny ties who touch her waist and say her work is precocious, sexy, gorgeous.

The air conditioning of the Jaguar rapidly dries the sweat under Gigi's arms, and she relaxes a bit, happy for the moment to be driven somewhere. The glass-haired man starts to introduce himself, and she leans over and puts two fingers across his mouth to stop him. "Let's keep this anonymous for the time being," she says. And he laughs once, as if startled, and shifts into fourth. The car slides around a corner, and even from the passenger seat, Gigi can feel the rush of holding the machine in. The Jaguar's engine is loud inside the silent car, and she imagines it, a black heart spinning before her. Summer has stripped everything to chrome and asphalt. The only people who brave the Phoenix sidewalks at five o'clock in June are those with nowhere else to go. They are bundled in layers of clothes with wool coats and stocking caps because their bodies are the only places where they can be sure of keeping anything, and they know that winter will come around again. The car pulls even with a man dragging a trash bag of cans while taking halting steps, a Bedouin or a pilgrim, inching his way from stoplight to stoplight. Then, the Jaguar leaps forward into the next block, where a hard right sends it squealing into the slim opening of a parking garage, and for a moment, everything goes dark.

Age twenty-five: She develops a sense of self-preservation, mostly because she never thought she'd live this long and it feels like some kind of gift. She has a string of serious relationships with men with prospects. For these, she transforms herself back into the good girl, the kind who likes sex in the dark on all-cotton sheets and wears jeans on the weekends. The kind who feeds the dogs when they are hungry and who listens to stories of long days at work without cracking jokes. The kind who lets her boyfriend call photography a hobby and smiles apologetically when he introduces her to his friends. The problem with these nice men is that eventually, after a week, a month, a year, she gets so bored she wants to kill something. Then, she stops feeding the dogs and rips holes in all her jeans and tunes into the impatience welling up inside her and knows it is only a matter of time before her nice guy comes home from work to find her bent over the sink, paring knife in hand, blood running down her forearms, gasping with relief.

Her eyes adjust to the dark by the third floor of the underground garage. They park on the fifth level, and the glass-haired man gets out of the car and walks around the back to her side. Gigi's breath quickens because this is clearly no restaurant. He opens her door and leans down to unclasp her seatbelt. Then, he offers her his hand decorously, helps her stand, shuts the door, and slams her against the side of the car so that she trips a little and her right pump comes off. She can't worry about this, however, because his thighs are against hers, his teeth on her lips, and he is holding her still with the weight of his body. She inches her shoeless foot up his calf and bites back. The dark metal of the car is hot as a griddle against her shoulders. He reaches around her to open the other door and pushes her onto the backseat. The cool leather is a gift, and Gigi leans into it and closes her eyes. There is a fumbling at her wrists and a sharp whisper which makes her uneasy for the first time. In her experience, the only people who use zip ties for bondage are cops and serial killers, and when she opens her eyes to see the thin translucent strip of plastic holding her hands together, a sick clenching in her stomach cuts through her arousal.

She says, "I'm not..." as he tugs off his impeccable maroon golf shirt but is silenced by the sight of his torso. At first, she thinks he is wearing another shirt, but then realizes it is scar tissue from burns that stretch from his hips up over his chest and shoulders. In the dim light of the parking garage, Gigi sees black clouds scudding across his chest, and over his stomach, scenes of flooding and wreckage, broken boards, and floating livestock. A row of skeletons lines up across his waistline; a tornado snakes around his ribs. Then, he pulls her shirt apart and leans down, and she is jolted when his teeth sink into her breasts. When he lifts his head, his mouth bloody, anger beats out fear, and she reaches behind her with her bound hands, finds the indentation of the armrest ashtray, jerks it out of its holder, and aims for his forehead. The metal edge leaves a gash that instantly streams blood, which he ignores as he presses her wrists against the window with one hand and uses the other to pull her skirt up around her waist. Through the glass, Gigi feels the heat seeping into the car, and she keeps her eyes open, focused on the storm clouds hovering over her.

Fifty miles west, a saint is standing in her shrine, motionless, looking steadily forward, awaiting the anniversary of her death. Lizards crawl through her carved hair, but she doesn't flinch. Before her, people kneel to light candles. Prayers float up on black wisps of smoke, and she absorbs them all, keeps them in the brittle wooden heart which cracks inside her.

Age thirty-three: She does the one thing her mother always told her not to, gets into a car with a strange man and pays the consequences. She ends up standing in an underground parking garage with six bite marks in the shape of lightning bolts on her chest, looking for her lost shoe. Gasoline-rich exhaust billows around her, and above her she can hear an engine straining for daylight. Her black leather pump has been run over but is still functional, so she puts it on and heads for the stairs, ground level, and a sunset so spectacular it will make her stop to catch her breath.

Sunday, Gigi stays home and develops photos in the darkroom at the back of her house. This room was added on by a cut-rate contractor who skimped on insulation so it is always twenty degrees hotter than the rest of the house. As she stands over the trays of chemicals, nearly hypnotized by the fumes and the slow swirling motions of paper under liquid, a saint appears and darkens, sometimes turns to black if she is inattentive, and sweat stings the sores on her breasts.

Monday, she is back at work, and the third car of the day to coast into her half-circle is an alabaster Lexus. It belongs to a gallery owner who has shown her work a few times as part of up-and-coming young artists exhibitions. Nothing sold, but a shot of a flock of girls dressed for First Communion was reprinted in the Leisure section of the Arizona Republic. The gallery owner lugs his clubs from the trunk and pushes his amber-tinted Oakley wraparounds up the bridge of his nose. He hands the keys to Gigi as if he's never met her. She sits for a moment with the engine idling before snapping the seatbelt into place. The beautiful car bends around her, heavy and careless. Instead of making the turn for the parking lot, she goes toward the highway.

By the time Gigi reaches the shrine, the charcoal leather seats are covered in a fine layer of sand, and the paint job is scarred from brushes with ocotillo trees. Even on the narrow dirt road, the Lexus performs admirably, its engine toiling to pull the heavy frame across the desert. The shrine is in full sun, and for the first time, Gigi sees the statue's face unshadowed. At her feet is a wreath of pink plastic roses, and on the shrine are ten new candles and a plate of tortillas. Propped against the fence is a piece of cardboard with a page from a book stapled to it. The page is an entry for Saint Eurosia, who, in the 8th century, fled her pagan fiancé to hide in a cave. There she built a fire for warmth which gave off great plumes of smoke, signaling her whereabouts to her pursuers. On June 25th, her fiancé and his men dragged her from the cave by her hair and killed her. In boldface, at the bottom of the entry, is a note stating that Eurosia is the patron saint invoked against bad weather. Next to this is written in blue ballpoint, "Phoenix has 329 sunny days a year."

As Gigi wishes for her camera, the wind picks up and a small dust devil kicks debris against her feet. One of the candles hesitates and goes out. A black beetle crawls down the statue's cheek like a tear. Gigi searches her pockets for matches but comes up empty. She remembers the car crouching behind her and snatches up the glass cylinder. The lighter only takes a minute to heat, and when she touches it to the black wick, the candle springs into flame. She cups her hand around the rim to protect it, and the fire burns a line into her palm before she reaches the altar. The statue watches her; she has no choice—her open eyes are both her penance and her reward. Gigi leans forward to put the candle down and claim her borrowed prayer. The scabs on her breasts itch; they are already healing.