How to Be Royal

The first time I got paid for it, I called myself a queen. I looked out the motel-room window and thought, this is your kingdom: A dazzle of neon lights and wads the color of split pea soup. The wads of cash are scraped together because, like any proper kingdom, you have to pay for the pleasure of company. The palace is at the edge of a pocket-sized town; a motel that is all mustard-shaded lamps, stale comforters, TVs with basic cable hook-ups, and minibars. I am the queen of this place because, at the end of the day, when the temperature settles to ninety degrees, and it’s midnight, I am a blow dryer set on cold. Enough to get the job done.

*     *     *

This is what I know: Home is a blue-collar town and always has been. The men wake early to sip coffee in their pickups, cabs dense with cigarette smoke, before kissing their wives goodbye. Lunches packed in tin boxes, flasks of cheap bourbon in their glove compartments. During the day, they press metal, twist rebar, and pour concrete. They wear mustaches and spit tobacco down the bibs of their coveralls. These are union men. Teamsters. They plow through county lines, rigs churning, a daisy chain of human flotsam with ragged maps across the dash, highlighted routes to dodge the scales. They cough into their radios and chase dragons across sheets of burnt foil. Shards of dull crystal in the lining of the bucket seats. So this oversized truck stop is all the kingdom I need. Lucky because this palace can be seen from the highway. But don’t blink or you’ll miss me.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I became a queen with jagged edges, grimy nails, and spiked pumps. My eyes stretched wide until they didn’t when I realized all dicks (men and members) look alike. The same way all tricks are whelps at heart—not sure whether they want to laugh, fuck, or cry half the time. They make themselves easy to spot. They are bad teeth and beady eyes everywhere, flabby torsos. Most are wrinkled in the face—goatees all salt, no pepper—and wear their hunger like a second skin. Some wear it on their greasy breath, like they use Big Macs for breath mints. Some on their faces, puffed up and gator skinned, red from too much sun and spirits. You can smell it in their aftershave, the cheap drugstore kind made for slapping onto sweaty necks. You can see it in their bloodshot eyes that shine like diamonds in the dark. The cabbage moths that flitter about their heads.

*     *     *

This is what I know: There is a boy, of course. My king. My charming. But real life is less fairy tale than minstrel show, which would explain why my king doesn’t wear hard bottoms or a snap-brim hat. No rope chain or gold fronts. No carriage. Just a boy in a Carhartt jacket and a blue Mazda that looks more like a cough drop. A Folsom townie with spearmint on his breath, pimping on the brain. He lured me out of a fierce independence I spent a lifetime trying to cultivate. I was all ascots and pom-poms, pep rallies at Ponderosa High. A yogurt-shop girl, running the till. He was a serenade of loud music and burnt rubber, his car a rope of smoke under sodium lights. He set my mother’s rose bushes on fire, left a necklace of still-beating hearts on my front porch.

He called me his twin, his spine.

He dug a wolf pit outside my bedroom window and I fell right in.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I didn’t. A haggler. He sat at the edge of the bed, shoes off, his grubby socks smelling so bad my teeth hurt. He said he was a magician at heart but a mortician by trade. I smiled, told him that was a strange combination. He pulled a deck out of his pocket. “Pick a card, any card,” he said.

When I put the card back into the deck, he grabbed my fingers, smelled them. I could feel his hot breath in my hands, like a copper-colored afternoon, a Sacramento summer, wretched in the shade. He sniffed the deck, his nostrils flaring comically, and pulled out my card.

“Ta-da,” he said, smiling, air whistling through the slot of his missing tooth.

“Nice trick,” I told him. “But half and half is twice the price.”

He frowned. “You’re too bony anyways,” he said, tying the laces of his consignment store shoes. He let the door slam behind him, rattling the shades.

*     *     *

This is what I know: My mother used to say, “A man marks his woman the same way a dog constitutes a fire hydrant. They waste things to own them.”

“Who?” I would ask. “Men or dogs?”

“Men, dogs, doesn’t matter. They all love the same.”

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I sipped too much vodka to ease the nerves in my chest, the clarion call of fear in my brain. The next time I got paid for it, I said, not again, because vodka on an empty stomach leaves a mess in the bathroom. All Tic Tacs and gut juice. The king told me not to sweat it, though. “Leave it for the morning crew,” he said. “They make things disappear.”

*     *     *

This is what I know: The cleaning lady is a saint, but these bedspreads are terrifying. A black light will give you nightmares. When I was younger, my mother told me about bed mites, and I couldn’t sleep for a week. “They come out at night and feast,” she said. “Your head, the hair on your skull, is like one big Bon Bon.” My mother called it the savage law of the universe. Everything eating everything else.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I left the king a voicemail. “This one didn’t work out,” I said. “And I’m hungry.” I walked to the Food-4-Less, the same one I lost whole summers in. Lapping aisles in poom-poom shorts with my friends, our lives a series of Polaroid pictures, all sunburns and white teeth. Diet cokes. Stolen Butterfingers in our back pockets. Girls I never saw anymore. Lena, Kara, Kayla, and Rachel. Girls whose names I poached for posting ads on Backpage: my Nordic face, my red hair, my entire life a prize for all the world to win.

I kept my chin down, hands up. Like an old-school boxer. Ready for confrontation. The random clerk or high school teacher. An old classmate. Anyone who could recognize me from home or, worse yet, the classifieds.

“This is what I know: If you spend your entire life on a leash, then all that matters is the length of the chain.”

The man behind the counter wasn’t a local, though. He was a river rat, a Placerville tweaker: Pockmarks on his face, grease in his hair. Probably killing time working the graveyard before heading back up the mountain to chase dragons, find happiness in the fat end of a glass bulb. I tossed the chips onto the counter. “A pack of Marlboros, too,” I said. “The long ones.”

He scanned my items, bagged them, and stared me up and down like he’d never seen a queen before. “What are you doing out this late?” he said. “Moonlighting?”

I smiled, like, you couldn’t afford me, anyway. Like, off with your head, river rat. And then walked out the store like I owned all creation.

*     *     *

This is what I know: Most men are talkers. They explain everything, answering every question you never asked like it’s their last chance to speak, eyes shiny with desperation. The king’s tongue is a tool for soft power; a whip, a bludgeon, a bucket brigade dumping flora and fauna into my ever-waiting ears.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, my king said he booked a couple. I was sitting in Room 18, chewing Tics Tacs, the mattress my makeshift throne.

“They seem nice,” he told me then. “Young.”

I lit a cigarette, blew a smoke ring. “Did you know that sometimes I sit here, pretending I’m a queen?”

“A married couple,” he said. “Christians.”

“Or that I lick my salty lips, ready for an execution?”

“I know,” he said. “You have a midterm tomorrow…”

“That I’m dying to see heads roll…”

“… but it’s only junior college, babes…”

“… maybe it’s someone at random…”

“… and it’s not like you’re majoring in STEM or anything…”

“…a store clerk or a church lady or a townie with a mustache…”

“…and you still have time to get things done…”

“…but most times,” I said, “it’s your head rolling across the floor.”

He laughed. “We have all the time in the world, Twin.”

*     *     *

This is what I know: Growing up, I had never felt so utterly ignored. It was almost conditioned. Pavlovian. I opened my mouth, and people closed their ears.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I learned royalty is a weapon that can be turned against you. The parking lot was a lot of moonlight and crickets when the truck pulled up. The Christians. He was a receding hairline and a pocketknife in his bootcuts; she, a dimpled thing in a summer dress.

As for me? I was a tight-lipped royal smoking a cigarette, counting headlights along the overpass.

He spoke first. “You’re Rachel, right?” he said.

“Right,” I said. “Rachel.”

“Great,” he said. “Name’s Mike.” He turned to the girl. “And this is, um, Mandy.”

“M&M,” she said then. “Like the candy?”

“Right,” I said again. “Nice to meet you, M&M.”

I tossed the butt into the gutter and escorted them inside.

*     *     *

This is what I know: When I was twelve, I found an old box of photo negatives in my grandmother’s basement. Pictures of monarch butterflies, their migration. They travel five hundred miles. The monarchs. It takes four or five generations to complete the journey. I imagined being the second leg, the third, how you can spend your entire life moving between two points without knowing, really knowing, either one.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, Mike looked me up and down while Mandy raided the mini bar. She left the soda but took the water, the alcohol. She lined the airplane bottles along the dresser like a tiny rank and file. “Look at my little soldiers, babe,” she said, pointing. “Private Walker. Lance Corporal Beam.” She cracked the top on each one and paced the room, playing at Patton. “Water is water,” she said, sipping her chaser, “but the price tag makes it, I don’t know, more than water.” She downed the bottle, wiped an arm across her mouth. “It’s like I can taste the sadness of all Melanesia with every swallow.” She laughed. “I’m not saying it’s better, but it has a certain mouthfeel, you know? Like tannins or whatever.”

She handed me one of her soldiers; vodka, the same brand my mother mixed with OJ in the morning. “Bottoms up,” she said, her eyes dizzy with innuendo.

Mike said, “I prefer the heady rush of powder, myself.” He took a baggy out of his pocket and, dipping his knife inside, pulled out a tiny bump. “You want?” he asked, offering the blade.

“I’ll just stick with this,” I said, downing my drink.

Mandy handed me another, said, “Ask not what your liver can do for you, but what you can do for your liver, dig?” Then she danced around the room, chanting Give me liver tea or give me death until Mike poured vodka over her teeth.

*     *     *

This is what I know: Some people live to break fragile things, and some people yearn to shatter. Tell me which one you are, and I’ll tell you your kink.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I had a braid on my head, spiked pumps on my feet. Mandy wanted me to leave them on. “I like a gal I can look up to,” she said, preening, twisting dark curls around a finger.

Mike laughed. “Look who’s crushing hard now.” He took another bump, licked his teeth. “Mandy here’s never kissed a girl before.”

“Oh, stop!” Mandy said, giggling. She turned to me. “Watch yourself,” she said. “This one’s a real charmer.” By the time I realized she actually meant that, she pulled a joint out of her bra and lit it. The room filled with smoke and, for a fleeting moment, I worried about getting charged a cleaning fee.

*     *     *

This is what I know: Motel life is a way station between nothing and not much, between the blade and a brass pole. Any which way you turn is skin trade, so why not make the best of bad, rent a room. At least you’ll save your feet.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, the windows were wet, and Mike was a limp shrimp. Stripped down to his boxers, his sweaty T-shirt. He sniffed the last of the cocaine off the edge of his knife, spilling powder onto the carpet, a ring of white around his nose. “You get to be our first,” he said, tonguing the baggy.

Mandy giggled again. “What do you mean our?” she said, pointing. “Looks like it’s lockjaw hour to me.” She offered me the joint. “Mike here doesn’t know when to stop, if you know what I mean.”

I took the joint. “Lockjaw hour?” I said.

“Plus whiskey dick,” she said. “Minus the whiskey… and the dick?”

Mike looked down, shrugged. “He’ll come around,” he said. “I just need a little inspiration, is all.” He picked his jeans up off the floor, pulled a wad of cash from the wallet. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll tip you extra if you watch us first.”

*     *     *

This is what I know: There are some offers you don’t want to pass up. At the end of the day, most tricks want to fuck a child. A facsimile, not of their own daughter, but of her friend. The one with the uniform and the Catholic school mouth, dense with metal, the blood of Christ still fresh on her lips. They’ll pay extra for a jumper. Ditto pigtails.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I thought of all the things I opened up in the kitchen that morning. A bay window, a peanut butter jar. I thought of the magnolia I picked the day before at dusk, the mason glass of bacon fat on the stovetop, my favorite ashtray with its bloom of cigarette butts. Ooh, and that smell? It is the room. It has grown feet and scampers down the hallway, leaving its mark all over me.

Mike took off his shirt. He had a tattoo of a giant bear on his chest. A Kodiak, mid-dance, balanced on a tiny ball.

“It’s a circus bear,” Mandy said, stroking my head like I was some sort of lapdog. Gazing into my wet, poodle eyes.

“You know how they get them to dance?” said Mike.

“The bears?”

“They chain them to the circus floor,” Mandy said, “and put flames to their paw parts.” She spread her hands, gave her fingers a wiggle.

“It seems cruel, right?” Mike said. “But they get used to it. In my experience, you can get used to anything.” He smiled, showing teeth. “Everything adapts, Lord willing.”

*     *     *

This is what I know: If you spend your entire life on a leash, then all that matters is the length of the chain.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, Mandy pinned my arms behind my back. My head was swimming and Mike’s face was there. He grabbed me by the throat and squeezed. Not hard enough to hurt, but not exactly gentle either. He put his knife to my cheek. “Do you want a safe word?” he asked.

Mandy licked the side of my face. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We know what we’re doing.” She winked. “Don’t we, babe?”

He laughed. “Of course,” he said. “Not our first rodeo.” Then he stuffed his fingers between my lips, into my mouth, all the way down my goddamn throat.

*     *     *

This is what I know: The gilded butterfly is a beauty forever.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I remember a Gordian knot of arms and legs, fingers and hands. Mike’s teeth at my neck. Mandy’s tongue, my ears. My hair white-knuckled in her fist, she whispered, “Our wittle pet, our wittle pet.” Over and over again. Like a prayer. A hymnal. Some lost gospel to the patron saint of whores.

“Oh, God,” Mike said. “She’s like a doll.”

I wanted to say, “And isn’t she some kind of divine?” I wanted to say, “Isn’t she royal?” But they were too busy dancing inside my mouth to say so.

*     *     *

This is what I know: When I was little, I remember hearing about this musician, this boy, who blew his own head clean off with a shotgun. Pulled the trigger with his toe. My mother said he was too sad for the world and all the people in it. She said, “Sometimes, if you can’t beat ‘em, you leave ‘em.”

I remember she played his record every year on the anniversary. Something about fish. Something about feelings.

“Imagine that,” she’d say, “feeling so sorry for the world you press a button to destroy your own.”

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, Mandy cuffed my wrists, her wet prayer still at my ears. Our wittle pet. Our sweet wittle pet. Mike tossed his knife onto the carpet. “A doll,” he said again. His entire body smelled like milk, and when he climbed on top of me, something on the inside scattered like deer.

*     *     *

This is what I know: The truth is the same now as it was then. Same as it was in Room 18 with Mike grunting himself inside me, and Mandy pulling my braid so hard the ginger burned. The same truth that dawned on my tiny head while my mother spun her records: I never felt sorry, truly sorry, for anyone but myself my whole life.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I became a queen. Queen of Unruly Hair. Queen of Unmade Beds. Queen of Tiny Liquor Bottles and Ice Buckets. Queen of Pickups. Queen of Red Lights and Power Lines. Trailer Park, Catwalk, Charm School Queen. Queen of Misunderstandings. Queen of Being Lost in the Coatroom, Courtroom, All the Rooms. The first time I got paid for it, I became Queen of Green Eyes Crying in the Shower.

*     *     *

This is what I know: The kingdom is a party that ended two days ago. So make sure to plan accordingly: Always carry excess rubber in your car, your house, your purse. Never do bareback, never do personal info, never hurry the naughty with new clients, half and half is still twice the price, and always wear a conservative dress before seven pm.

Remember, Cinderella, by midnight all bets are off.

*     *     *

The first time I got paid for it, I had a pocketful of cash and a king in the parking lot. My throat was raw and my jaw was sore from what they did to me, so when my king said, “How did it go?” I only smiled, nodded my head.

“And the money?” he said.

I tossed the bills onto the dashboard.

“Attagirl.”

While he counted them, I wondered how the world could seem so small, yet this town so big. Wondered how many other queens were paying out, right then. I wondered, as he smiled and counted, his lips moving silently, how many pockets and fingers they’ve traveled through. Those bills. Wondered if this ticking in my skull would last forever; this hollow, this thing inside my chest scraped out with a spoon, mashed into a fine powder, and dumped into the sink trap.

“This is what I know: Most men are talkers. They explain everything, answering every question you never asked like it’s their last chance to speak, eyes shiny with desperation.”

The king kissed me on the cheek. “I’m proud of you,” he said.

We sat quietly for a while, the engine softly idling. He pulled a Zippo from his pocket.

“You want a cigarette?” I asked.

He laughed. “This isn’t about that.” He flicked the lighter, letting the flame dance awhile, casting queer shadows around the car, before setting the bills I’d handed him on fire. “Money is harder to burn than you’d think,” he said. “But once it gets going… well…” He rolled the window down and gave each bill to the wind. “But you know this was never really about the money.”

When I asked him what this was really all about, he said, “Your soul.”

He said, “All I’ve ever wanted was your God-fearing soul.” The bills rose burning in the air, trembled, and then fell.

*     *     *

This is what I know: You can spend your entire life looking for God, but then, one day, you may settle for a boy. A boy you call King. And it doesn’t really matter which one you find—God or boy—either way you’re on your knees.

Like there was one night, this trick, a regular in a navy-blue suit and tie (he was a Gideon), asked me to tell him my story. He was a man of a certain age. He was a father, a husband. He showed me a picture of his heart and said, you look just like her. Before the sick. Before the chemo. Before the honeymoon was over. He paid me obscene amounts of money to make believe I was in charge of his humiliation.

I smiled and told him, “I sold my soul for a crown.” When he asked me if it was worth it, I said, “It depends on the day.” He sat at the edge of the bed, his pale face sweating, naked save for his dress shirt and tie. I stood above him, diva-eyed and regal, in a cocktail dress, my red hair flowing. “Will you pray for me?”

He got on his knees, genuflecting, his hands placed solemnly in front of him. And as he prayed, I found a king’s words inside my throat. “You will never have it this good,” I said. “It’s a business doing pleasure with you.” I took his tie between my hands and wrapped it around his neck. I said, “A broke horse hardly feels its reins.”

I looked down at him, my green eyes burning, his tie squeezed tight around his throat.

Like a noose.

Like a piano wire.

Like a guillotine.

I pulled hard.

“The queen is dead,” I told him.

Long live her.

Daniel Riddle Rodriguez is the author of Low Village (Cutbank 2016) and Low Village: Rules of the Game (Nomadic Press 2016). His previous publications include The Southampton Review, Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, The Penn Review, and others. He is a full-time construction worker and father from San Lorenzo, CA, where he lives with his son. He is thrilled to be here.