A Cocktail Dress is a Sorry Thing At Eight A.M. by Laura Scalzo

A cocktail dress is a sorry thing at eight A.M., but here’s one now, coming up out of the 86th Street subway station.

The wearer of the dress needs pills. She is Kate: Twenty-seven, lean and tall, with a reconstructed knee and a long black ponytail pulled tight at the back of her head.

Kate will never use a needle, not ever. She’s been at it all night, needing and not everring and it’s obvious—the dress for one.

It’s a great dress, black with a navy blue bow across the chest, and since for now there’s some muscle left on her lean frame, in it, Kate is breathtaking.

Kate’s a planner. She has an alphabet of plans, which is how come she’s never desperate. But it’s been all night since Kate arrived at the Paige’s party and Reilly wasn’t there. Reilly was Plan A.

Plan B was a cab to a place she knows in Tribeca. It’s down a flight of stairs and Reed is always there at the back bar. The drinkers and pool shooters in there are sketchy as hell but they leave Kate alone. Kate doesn’t sit down next to Reed but taps him on the shoulder from as far away as possible. He spins on his stool, “Sweetheart,” he says, and hops off eagerly to hug her. Kate hugs him back limply; he squeezes tighter. He puts his hand on the back of her head and pulls her ear down to his mouth, his lips graze her as he whispers his wares. What she is looking for is not on the list.

Plan C is Scott. He doesn’t text he only talks. He’s a little in love with her, always picking up on the first ring. He whispers in the phone, “Kaaaaaaaaate. Keepin’ beautiful?”

This is harder for Kate than Reed’s grazing lips.

“I’m in Queeeeeeeens.” His gravelly whisper is a hundred knives on the back of Kate’s neck. “There’s a bunch of us out here. We’re hanging with Houdini. Harry Houdini.”

Kate doesn’t answer.

“At his grave. Meet up, I’m good,” Scott says, “I got everything.”

Kate never believed in Queens or any of the boroughs, not even Brooklyn, but Kate’s been broken and remade.

If she’d ever found a reason to go to Queens before, she’d at least had enough money to take a cab, but it’s not like that anymore. She walks to the Canal Street station and waits for the J Train to Cypress Hills.

The train is empty except for a reasonable looking couple asleep on each other. It’s the middle of the night but the things Kate fears have changed. She can’t remember what letter plan she’s on as she walks down Jamaica Avenue.

The grave of Houdini, what the hell?

Scott had said it was near the road you couldn’t miss it, but there were graves everywhere. This is why she never came to Queens. God fucking dammit. She sees the sign for Cypress Hills Cemetery, but no Houdini.

Houdini has vanished. Of course he has.

Kate calls Scott, “I’m here. I don’t see anybody.”

“It’s by the road, right on the road, we’re here,” Scott whispers and slurs.

“But someone beat you to my O, these guys. I’m out. Come see me though.”

Kate hangs up and calls me. It takes her the rest of the night to get home.

She tells me all this on the corner of 86th and Lex, even the part about Reed, which seems pretty personal. She’s loosening, Kate is. In fact, I now see, there’s almost nothing left of her. Still, she’s trying.

We stand there in the middle of the morning commute. I can feel her remembering how she used to be funny, how she used to be not just pretty, but . . . sexy. She is willing me to feel this, I can tell, but willing and being are not the same.

For my part, I’m tired of selling Kate pills. And this story about a trip to Queens in the middle of the night to find Harry Houdini breaks my heart. I tell her I’m out of pills, everybody’s out. I don’t give a good goddamn or even know if everybody’s out or not, but that’s what I say.

I hold out my arms palms up and shrug.

Kate just stands there.

“I’ll help you,” I say.

She squints at the sun, like there’s something up there she lost and if she looks hard enough she’ll find it again. Good luck with that, the sun is 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. I laugh. Silently, I’m not cruel.

I’m not sentimental either, but I let her squint at the sun a while longer. Whatever she’s looking for is not only gone, at 27 million degrees Fahrenheit, it’s long gone. But, hey, I think, that’s an extremely sterile needle and I silently laugh again.

Kate is very white. She can’t last much longer.

I shift my backpack from one shoulder to the other and put out my hand. Kate takes it.

“I like your bow,” I say. And I do, it looks nice, even at eight in the morning.

Laura Scalzo is a graduate of Syracuse University. Her short fiction has appeared at Hobart and Reflex Fiction, and in the Grace & Gravity Anthology Series. She has a piece forthcoming in the 18th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection. She recently completed a Young Adult novel, LOOSESTRIFE.

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