People stay away from Pinkie Daws because her body’s full of scars. But that’s also why they can’t get enough of her. She has scars across her body like high water damage reaching the tops of houses or rainbows, clouds of mist that take on the shapes of charging animals. She was cut up bad and burned by her first husband Lou who left her for dead when she was seventeen, and the men she’s slept with since say her skin changes color like a sunset panorama, sometimes getting bright enough to light up a room. Her scars are shaped like sickles and falling leaves and bits of foreign writing scrawled across her skin. Every time you see her, the scars are different somehow, rearranging themselves to reflect her changing moods. Sometimes they’re almost lovely, curlicues and patterns taken from an Arab’s rug, and sometimes they’re downright scary, climbing around her skin like man-eating birds. You see her in the middle of them like a little girl looking out of a fish tank dancing with weeds and bubbles coming up to the surface.
She lives in a trailer at the end of town that’s longer than all the others, an extra long shoebox that looks like a boarded-up hallway. People say she has a full-length mirror at each end of the trailer so that she can see herself coming and going, constant reminders of how she was slashed and burned. Despite the scars she keeps herself in rock hard shape, except for chain-smoking Pall Malls. She dances down at the Leopard Lounge, but her show’s unlike any other, more like a shocking display of exploding fireworks. Some even call it a religious experience. Instead of dance music they play a slow delta blues as she reenacts what happened to her over thirty years ago, where he scarred her and how she almost died, a one-woman show coming out of her own personal pain. It lasts almost twenty minutes and ends with Pinkie naked and spread-eagled on the floor, her arms and legs trembling to the echo of that fade-away hurt. No one claps or whistles. No one calls out her name or even scrapes a chair. Drunks whisper and nod to each other, and others make the sign of the cross. They look into their drinks like they got lost somewhere along the way. But soon the lounge is back to what it always was, an old-fashioned titty bar.
No one knows why the owner Bud Walsh lets her do it, if he has a stake in her dancing, or if it’s a reminder of what we all stand to lose one way or another, love or looks or the chance to start over after you’ve been maimed. He refuses to talk about it. “I don’t make a habit of explaining my actions and I ain’t about to start now,” he says. So Pinkie ends up bringing men home to her narrow living room. There they pledge themselves in wild abandon, proclaiming an undying faithfulness they swear has nothing to do with her kaleidoscope of scars that looks like a burning building and broken stained glass, Pinkie going through every color of the rainbow as if each one lights up a different part of her body. She turns blow torch blue and stucco façade, lemon rinds and moon beams crying across other parts of the spectrum, blinding people with her looks and then dying down to a heap of glowing coals. She lets the man of her choice touch the map of her scars with delicate fingertips, gliding over the peaks and small valleys, the ridges and declivities and odd puckers where her skin used to be smooth. Sometimes she doesn’t even look human except for her knockout figure. Then the men get down on their knees and ask her hand in marriage or beg for her forgiveness, but she gets rid of all of them sooner or later.
Sometimes her scars get infected and then she looks older than forty-six, walking gingerly around in her trailer like she’s stepping on eggshells. Those are the nights she doesn’t dance and stays inside wrapped up in medicinal bandages. People don’t know what to do about her, don’t know what to say. She’s off the charts in unpredictable behavior, how she keeps turning every color under the sun so that looking at her is like staring through a scattered rainbow broken up by the stars. She could be a ghost or a medicine woman, a freak or saint backing away from hell by walking straight through it, her hair and feet on fire, her fingers curling up in the flames. She takes drugs for the pain, but sometimes it sinks through the burned tissue of her scars so that she can only sit there letting it drip through the gauze of her wrappings. She’s had at least a dozen skin grafts so that she looks like a patch-work quilt of radical design, the skin taken from her ass and replanted on her face or the back of her arms where her husband burned her with an acetylene torch. Her scars announce her long before she says a word as people get hung up on the scorched landscape of her body like it’s a place they visited before they were born. But they can only take so much of it. There’s a limit to her scars. She can’t keep going on at the rate she is. Her life and motives are questioned as she drives off at night in her peach-colored Corvette, her long blond hair loose and free as she peels out of the driveway.
Then Merrill Strait confronted her one day when he walked down the middle of the gravel road waving a white flag and calling out her name.
Things can’t keep going on like this
Something’s got to give You can’t You can’t
Keep doing like you’re doing because it ain’t
Right No one said you aint suffered I ain’t
saying that only you can’t use your scarred body
like you done and pretend somebody ain’t going to
call you out on it.
When Merrill Strait did this the trailer park rocked to a standstill. The shadows under clotheslines and grills went into deep hiding, dug out from mother earth. June Percy’s pit bull sat back in its chains like it was falling into a black hole. Pinkie stood outside her place eating a ripe tomato that dripped down her chin in watery red drops reminiscent of watered-down blood. She was wearing a tight yellow halter-top that made her breasts strain against the fabric as if they were racing for the finish line. Her scarred legs shined with baby oil and looked like a dragon from South America or fancy snake-skinned boots, something wild and dangerous and full of scales that hid a deeper meaning.
Then all of the sudden her skin started changing colors right in front of our eyes from wind-swept sky to shattered stained glass windows, her eyes hard and bright like candy as that mouth worked on the tomato. Merrill’s white flag was a bed sheet he attached to a two-by-four so it was some work getting it up and waving it back and forth as it rippled heavily through the hot, humid air. Someone was burning trash in the backyard so feathers of ash drifted by, black feathers as light as a baby’s breath coming out of its shawl. Pinkie stood taking it in, eating that sloppy tomato as if its juice was life to her, not deigning to miss a drop of its precious bounty. Merrill Strait’s mouth swung open again and again and he was breathing hard like a strange gaping hole, not like a human mouth at all but some other kind free-falling gap where words fell to their deaths.
Your colored display’s got to end, can’t go on no more, can’t live this way no more—
We were pulling for Pinkie and pulling for Merrill, pulling for the conflict that was coming and that was already here, a woman who’d been tortured and left for dead and what that might mean for the rest of us who lived next to her. We loved and hated her, our small part of Michigan transformed into another trial by fire where everyone would go away stamped and burned. You had to ask yourself if it wasn’t always like that one way or another, whether it was a scarred woman or some other kind of acid test. Merrill and his flag were slowing down, his long, windmill arms getting tired from the effort. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows as sheets of sweat poured off his face. That’s when you knew everyone was waiting for Pinkie to say something.
Pinkie’s scars told us everything we needed to know but we still couldn’t understand what it meant or what went on in other people’s hearts, much less our own. Sooner or later our vision would be restored and the chorus of moos would fade back into the contaminated ground where they came from. We’d shake our heads and tell ourselves that just because it didn’t happen the way we thought it would didn’t mean that everything wouldn’t turn out all right if we just waited, if we just prayed and pretended not to know what we already knew. We’d tell ourselves that Merrill Straight died because of a heart attack, not because of any shocking realization of the truth. We’d all be like Pinkie moments before she became scarred for life, trusting, believing, mild and meek, our arms open and inviting as any young bride could be. We’d be standing barefoot on the threshold of that little house, our cheap perfume mixing with odors from the kitchen, bacon from days gone by and lemon dish soap, our summer dress hanging off like tinsel at a used car lot. We’d be smiling and radiant as our husband slammed the door to his pickup and walked up to the house, his shadow looming larger with every step. Our smile would say how much we trusted him, how much we loved and admired him, how everything was exactly how we always dreamed it would be before his callused fist rose up in the air and came down across our face to smash our world into a thousand shattered pieces of brightly colored glass.
But she just stood there changing colors, turning into the variegated history of the world, her scars filling up with every kind of rainbow shade and dusky hue, each part of her lit up and illuminated like she was smeared with fire flies and radioactive waste. We wanted to cheer for her and we wanted to put her lights out, the bulbs of her neon body extinguished one by one by our mutual disgust and the unbearable truth. She was lighting up the atmosphere with firework displays from her scarred body, and Merrill Straight’s waving slowed down until it ceased altogether. The tomato juice ran down between Pinkie’s breasts and looked like afterbirth. Then Merrill Strait cried out in a loud, anguished voice and keeled over face first into the ground, dead before he even hit the dirt. The flag fluttered and settled over him like a parachute. Pinkie’s scars faded away, going back to desert moons. She ate the rest of her tomato without missing a beat and went inside, slamming the door behind her. People didn’t know what to do or to say then, what to be. She got us thinking about what it all meant, the end of our lives and the end of the world, those scars like another gospel to add to the bible after everything else had been burned away, vivid reminders of a different time before we were afraid of contaminated fish and losing our jobs as she waited for her man to come home with longing and a little sexual fear, not understanding what lay in store because she was innocent and beautiful and believed every good thing.
You saw her the way she was before the scars, the dainty wasps of her blond hair lit up in the dust motes near the crinkled Venetian blind where she stood vigil with a young girl’s rapt attention. You saw the Aztec designs of the tiles on the kitchen floor in the two-bedroom house and could feel the fan in the window mixing whatever cool air there was with the warm and it was okay then, it was almost serene, Pinkie a young, beautiful woman who didn’t know what kind of man she had married because she didn’t know what a man truly was or could be, the cruelty that would change her life on its way already and kicking up clouds of dust on those back roads. You saw her standing there in her bare feet with beads of sweat forming between the delicate bird bones of her shoulder blades, wings that would never get off the ground, a cold Coke in the freezer because she was waiting to share it with him. Her blue porcelain eyes had nothing inside that didn’t trust him, open as pools of clear, clean water you could see all the way to the bottom, the small country house anticipating the torture like it knew something before she did in the way it sagged, the way it bowed in the middle like a woman who’d had too many kids to be anything but broken for the rest of her life.
That’s what people saw when they went blind, the moments leading up to Pinkie’s scars foretelling the future. She couldn’t know sitting in her house that we saw it all then and relived it in our own way, no need for a striptease to reenact the evil, no explanation for the tree-bark of her body that turned into the colors of a humming electric chair. People cried out that they couldn’t see, covering their eyes with their hands and walking around in semi-circles, falling down to their knees in abject blindness. Where Pinkie had stood was a bright glowing cloud like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Five miles away they’d been burying cows from all over the state who had eaten fire retardant and now you could hear the ghosts of these cows starting to moo underground so that the earth began to shake and wobble, adding a new and hysterical layer to people’s blindness.