Kubaba the Brewess
Kubaba the Brewess
Billy Seward was nineteen. She had a three year old girl, a husband who wasn’t her baby’s daddy, and a quality fake-ID saying she was twenty-one.
She was riding shotgun in a tiny truck that was the signature of her new hopefully-short-term job as a maiden of the meter. Billy was thinking about Johnathan, her recently-acquired, tall, and starkly-white, husband.
Whenever Johnathan smiled at her, as he had before she’d left for work that morning, it made her skin crawl. It made her mouth sweat, her stomach churn, and it made her feel like she needed to piss. She wasn’t sure why, but it definitely wasn’t his fault.
Billy wondered if needing somebody was the same as loving them. It wasn’t the kind of love the TV said you were supposed to fall in, but that kind of love wasn’t something she’d even hoped for.
“You see that?” Juanita asked, pointing from behind the wheel of their tiny meter-maid truck at a yellow El Camino.
They slowed to a stop.
“What am I looking at?” Billy asked.
Juanita was maybe fifty, blacker than Billy, and Billy’s on-the-job trainer for the day. She had heavy lines on her fat face that implied she scowled often, as she was at that moment. “On the tire,” Juanita said. “I already explained this.”
“Right…” Billy said, staring at it. “…it’s kinda stripped-”
“The blue chalk-”
“Ah!” Billy said, and she did remember something about chalk, but she’d been thinking about her husband since she’d gotten in the tiny truck that morning.
When Johnathan smiled, it usually made her queasy, but when he held her baby, Angie, and smiled at her as she giggled up at him, Billy felt more right than she ever did, which isn’t to say right.
“Blue chalk means someone marked it this morning, between 10:30 and 11:30…. And what time is it now?” Juanita asked.
Billy was about to make a comment about not being a clock psychic when Juanita tapped her finger on a little clock in the dash. It read 2:36.
“So… it’s been there three or four hours,” Billy said, hoping her math was right.
“In a two-hour zone,” Juanita said pointing at a sign a couple of spaces down.
“Exactly,” Billy said, as Juanita’s scowl deepened.
“…I’ll write this one, but you have to do the next,” she said, hopping out.
The heavy downtown traffic seemed to be honking all at once as the lane behind them tried to merge to the left and Juanita waddled around the front of their truck. But it wasn’t just the angry motorists, there was something else coming. Billy tasted metal in her mouth like she was sucking on a quarter.
“Juanita,” she said, climbing out after her.
“What?” Juanita asked and turned back with a look like she was about to shoot fire from her eyes.
“That,” Billy said, pointing at a woman in a blood soaked slip stumbling toward them from an alley.
“That fuck kilt my husband!” the woman screamed, red faced and crying and pointing at a man in a filthy gray long coat with a sheet of muslin draped over his face.
The man smeared the blood from the blade of a bowie knife on his coat before pointing it at Billy and Juanita. “Get back in your little truck, Meter Ladies. I was just leaving,” he said, staring dead eyes at them.
Billy had seen the light leave a man’s eyes, but you were supposed to stop walking around after you looked like that.
Juanita seemed to be frozen, and Billy tried to remember the chapter in her training manual on confrontation avoidance.
The man swung himself through the window of his El Camino and sped out, clipping the rear bumper of the brown Rambler parked ahead of him.
“What…?” Juanita said.
Billy heard sirens coming and her stomach clenched on impulse. What wrong she’d done was buried in the Pine Barrens a hundred miles away and hadn’t caught up with her yet.
Juanita waddled quickly back around the truck and Billy followed suit as she climbed in.
“We should go,” Juanita said, looking out at the woman on the sidewalk in the bloody slip, now on her knees and sobbing. “The police’ll have questions- I still need more paper for the quota,” she said as they pulled out.
An hour passed in relative peace, for Billy at least. Juanita, who’d seemingly forgotten about Billy doing the next one, had been splashed with hot coffee by an old man in a suit.
Billy was starting to wonder if this was really the right job for her.
Johnathan’s mother owned a few apartment buildings, Midtown, and she seemed to think Billy had married her son for her money. That wasn’t right exactly.
Billy knew she could kill to protect herself, or maybe it had been about revenge, but no amount of killing would keep her little girl safe. Billy would have been just as happy marrying a simple school-teacher, Johnathan’s chosen profession; the cash he had at his back had been a pleasant surprise.
His mother had offered her a job cleaning up after evictions. Billy had heard stories of cat-litter covered floors and shit-smeared walls. His mom had probably meant it as an insult, but Billy was starting to wonder if it might not be a better job than this one.
“Your turn,” Juanita said, pulling to a stop next to a long black Continental.
“What?” Billy asked.
Juanita pointed at the red expired flag on the parking meter, and Billy hopped out.
“Book,” Juanita said, handing her a spiral notebook filled with white and pink carbon sheets.
Billy walked over to the front bumper of the Continental and stared down at her notebook. There were a hundred little empty boxes just screaming to be filled with relevant information.
If it had just been a dozen boxes she would have started at the top, but she was reminded of the last class she’d gone to in seventh grade. It had been a pop quiz and her feet had fallen asleep while she stared at a hundred very similar little boxes.
“Get’n the car or I’ll snap your fucking neck!” a woman said, and Billy jumped, almost dropping her notebook.
The woman had an afro like a ball of dark-chocolate whipped cream and was dressed head to toe in red.
It was like meeting Coffy in real life, but, in the version of the movie Billy had seen, Pam Grier’s abs had been formidable while this woman looked to be about ten months pregnant.
Billy’s eyes traced along the arm of the woman’s shiny red jacket down to the man she was dragging along by an ear.
“Boss gave me over-time,” the man said. He was wearing a pair of boxers, white with blue stripes, and a pair of red All-Stars, but nothing else, and it looked like he was about to cry.
“You gotta pick either drinking or cards, or we’ll starve before I get a chance to kill… you….” The woman stopped in her tracks. “Shit,” she said, staring at Billy as she let go of the man’s ear.
“…I’ve got one at home,” Billy said.
“Better kick him to the curb before he takes you with him.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said, now kneeling on the sidewalk and bawling.
“I meant a baby,” Billy said.
“Maybe, you’ll give an expectant mother a break?” the woman asked.
“…It might take me a while to figure this,” Billy whispered, glancing at the notepad in her hand. “Maybe you’re gone before I get it filled out.”
“Billy!” Juanita yelled.
“Thanks,” the woman said, climbing into the passenger side of her Continental and dragging her man in after her.
She took Billy’s suggestion to heart and was down the block before Billy even found the box for a license-plate number.
“What was that!?” Juanita screamed, stomping over to her.
“That one,” Juanita said, pointing at a step-van two cars down and the red-flagged meter next to it.
Billy started walking but her feet felt like lead. She still had no idea how she was supposed to fill out that arcane form. She’d found the slot for a license-plate number, so she filled that in, but then her eyes started to wander.
The van was big and rusty, with newspaper pasted over the windows. It was already out of place, being in an expired parking spot, but even if it hadn’t been, it was still wrong, as if it smelled of sulfur, even if it didn’t.
“Oh, come on!” a man yelled in her ear. He was bald and pale, pasty white except for the yellow around his eyes, nose, and mouth. She would’ve known he was the van’s owner if she’d met him a week later and across town.
“Sir, your meter has expired,” Billy said, staring down at her pad.
“And I just came down to drop in some change-”
“I get that!” Billy said, adding another Sir as an after thought.
There was someone else coming. At first Billy thought the new man was looking at her, but he was staring at the back of the pasty man’s bald head.
This new man was almost normal, she thought at first, but then she realized that wasn’t a normal first impression.
When Billy was eight, she’d stayed a month with an aunt in Florida. She’d gone to a tourist trap on her first day there and seen a dozen alligators flopping around in a muddy pit. She’d been fine, standing there with her aunt, eating boiled peanuts and staring down at them, but looking at this man made her think of what it would be like meeting an alligator on the street.
“That the one, Amadeus?” a woman asked. Billy hadn’t noticed her, but she’d been trailing after the lizard-man. She was blond and tan as if transplanted from the west coast.
“That’s the one,” the man said.
“So, Lady, you gonna let me off with a warning?” the pasty man asked, glancing at his van.
“Whoa!” Billy said, taking a step back as she noticed a pipe in the lizard-man’s hand.
“I’m gonna pay, see,” the bald man said, but as he turned toward the meter, Lizard Man swung his pipe.
Somewhere, far away, Billy heard Juanita screaming, but for a moment time seemed to crawl; Billy wished it hadn’t.
She watched, in Wild-Bunch-style gratuity, as the lizard man’s steel pipe connected with the pasty man’s bald scalp. She watched as his scalp pealed back and saw the bloody cracked skull underneath.
Time started chugging along again, Juanita was now whimpering instead of screaming, and the lizard man was rummaging inside the step-van.
The pasty bald guy was twitching on the sidewalk as the beach-bum girl stood over him.
“Billy!” Juanita screamed from somewhere behind her, but Billy couldn’t look away.
The blond woman drew something from her pocket. It wasn’t a weapon, at least not a weapon Billy recognized. Like a roll of film, Billy thought, but it was a salt-shaker, the kind that belonged on a breakfast table, and the woman started to sprinkle the dying man as his twitching slowed to a stop.
“Got it, Mel,” the lizard man said, emerging from the side door of the step-van. He was holding a length of wire the blond woman seemed to find fascinating.
“‘Kay then,” she said, and the pair started back down the sidewalk the way they’d come.
“Billy…” Juanita said again, and Billy turned back, finding her huddled down against the window of a stationary shop.
“…It’s okay, now,” Billy said. She knelt in front of her but was knocked back onto the ground as Juanita tackled her.
It sounded like she was trying to speak, but amongst the few dozen syllables, muffled as she cried into her shoulder, all Billy heard was I quit.
“…How ’bout cleaning apartments?” Billy asked.
“I can get you a job, probably, working for my mother-in-law.”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “This city… it’s kinda like hell, huh?”
“How d’you think I look in blue?” Billy asked.
Even if Juanita was unresponsive, Johnathan had seemed to like her uniform. Probably not in a creepy way, even if Billy found his flared nostrils disconcerting.
“I think I look pretty good,” Billy said as she heard new sirens coming, “but a uniform’s not shit without a pistol.”