Chapter One

It must have been the panther.

There’s no other reason I would have let a big, dumb, good-looking frat boy hang out after hours at Stacy G’s, except that I liked his tattoo.

Normally, nobody stayed past closing time.  I’d kick the last few customers out, and then I’d wash down my bar and put away the bottles, straighten the place up a little, lock the doors, pull the grate down and sprint three blocks to my rented room with a can of mace tucked into my hand in case I ran into some kind of trouble.

But the trouble I ran into that night wasn’t on the street; he was right there with me in the bar at four o’clock in the AM.  Sexy, sloe-eyed, too tall, way too young and sixty pounds bigger than I am.  I don’t know why I bothered with him, but I was tired and bored and maybe I thought Frat Boy was just what I needed to shake up my routine.  I must have thought he’d be sleek and polished like the panther tattooed on his arm.

Talk about false advertising!

I was straightening up the room when he put the move on me, so I laughed, and ducked it.   “I’m cleaning,” I said, half-flirting.  “Don’t distract me.”

The point, which any halfway intelligent person would have got, was Hold your water, we’ll get to that.  But this guy apparently didn’t get the message.  Instead, he grabbed me by my neck and crotch, and hoisted me up, slamming me on top of the bar.  I can tell you, that killed the mood.

I tried to scream, but that’s hard to do with someone’s hands around your throat.  So when he started in on my clothes, I dropped my arm behind the bar and went for the first thing I could reach, which turned out to be a bottle of Johnny Walker Red I’d left in the well for one of my regulars.  Time stopped moving long enough for me to swing it at his temple, and the wild girl gods must have been out that night ‘cause the bottle broke clean on his stupid head and the glass fell away and smashed on the floor and nothing rained down on me but scotch.

By the time Frat Boy was finished screaming, I’d twisted away and was on my feet; and just before I reached the door, feeling grateful that I hadn’t locked it yet, it slammed wide open and in came a man I’d never seen before.  A big, hard-looking man, gleaming with righteous anger and seemingly bent on saving my ass.

He took in the scene—Frat Boy was now lurching toward us, his face streaked with blood—and then my Good Samaritan did the thing that cracked my heart into a thousand pieces.  He grabbed my wrist and pulled me behind him, out of harm’s way.

When he dropped my would-be attacker to the floor, it was almost an afterthought.

“Thank you,” I said, fervently.

He blew on the knuckles of his right hand.  “No problem.  You got a bandage around here?”

“Maybe.  Let me check the back.  You want a drink?”

“Sure.”  His smile had a warm glow.  I felt like I’d spent my whole life sleeping inside a block of ice, and now that smile was going to melt the ice and leave me naked in a world I didn’t know.

I went and found the first aid kit and wrapped his hand, and then I called the police.  When they showed up twenty minutes later, Frat Boy was mumbling in his sleep and Marcus and I were sitting at the bar drinking Patrón.

First thing they tried to do was arrest Marcus.  I had to stamp my foot to get their attention.  “Not him,” I yelled.  “The white guy!”

Finally they heard me.  They mopped up the perp, stood around while I locked up the bar, offered to drive me to the hospital—an offer that I declined—glared at Marcus and drove off.

After that, I took him home so I could thank him properly.

It seemed to be a big night for tattoos.  Among the many impressive things that were revealed when Marcus took off his clothes was a big dragon that wrapped around one very large, very hard bicep.  Its tail swept gracefully down Marcus’s left arm.  Its body wrapped around his back and its head curled up over his shoulder.  Its stark, cunning eyes looked straight into mine when, after we’d made love, I lay with my head on Marcus’s chest.  I felt like the dragon was checking me out, trying to decide if I was good enough to be with his owner.

“Where’d you get that thing?” I asked, tracing it with an appreciative finger.

“Back east,” he said.  “New Bedford, Mass.”

“Army?”  The guys I knew with tattoos had all picked them up at some base or other.

“Nah.  I don’t believe in killing people.”

“Did it hurt?”


I cuddled closer.  “So why’d you do it, if it hurts?”

He smiled.  I could feel it in his chest, and when I looked up, the smile was a little sad.  “Well, I didn’t have much of anything, growing up.  I wanted something they couldn’t take off me.”

“’Who?’”  It wasn’t like me to ask all these questions.  I usually didn’t want to get involved.

“Cops.  Gangbangers.  Anybody.  You know.”

His hand was warm on the back of my head, and I found that I was nuzzling against it, or maybe I was nodding my head to say yeah, I know just what you’re talking about.

“It’s pretty,” I said.  “The dragon.  Like you.”

That made him laugh, and he pulled me up on top of him so we were looking eye to eye.  I wondered if the dragon was jealous.

“You’re the one who’s pretty,” he said, which wasn’t something I was used to hearing.  Usually men said I was hot, but Marcus looked like he meant “pretty.”  Then he kissed me, slow and tender, as if he was drinking the secret of life.  As if we had all the time in the world.

I didn’t realize until that first night with Marcus how sick I was of the SRO where I’d been living the past few years.  The Gendarme—a fancy name for what was basically a flophouse—was dingy and drafty and usually smelled of booze and piss.  Marcus took one look at the lobby, at the vinyl chairs with knife rips in them, the cage where the night clerk locked himself in, and said, “You deserve way better than this.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about.  But the next day, when I woke up to find that I was still wrapped tight in his strong arms, I started thinking that, if this lasted more than a week—if this didn’t turn out to be drive-by sex—it would be nice to entertain Marcus in a place where he could take a leak without going down the hallway.

Of course, I didn’t really think he’d stick around for even a week.  But when a month went by and I was still looking at that dragon tattoo in bed each night, we started talking about a real place to live.  And lucky for us, there were places in the Mission.  We settled on a two-room walk-up that was painted white and had high ceilings.

The Mission was low-key in those days.  It was still mostly Mexican, with some white old-timers and students and hustlers, people who liked paying cheap rent in a half-decent neighborhood no one had ever heard of.  Every block had a restaurant with a Mariachi band, and a sidewalk stand where, for a dollar, you could buy a burrito the size of your head.  People were mostly friendly, and the ones who weren’t gave you fair warning—though truthfully, since I didn’t speak Spanish, it may have been a lot rougher than I knew.

Our landlady was happy to have what she took for a respectable couple on the premises.  We paid on time and stayed out of trouble.  We even did a little maintenance for a few bucks off the rent each month, taking out the trash and sweeping the sidewalks on Tuesday and Thursday when they cleaned the streets.

By that time, I was working in the Mission, too.  I’d been sick of Stacy G’s, even before getting slammed around by Frat Boy; sick of the yuppie clientele, those spoiled brat kids who ordered blender drinks and wanted to tell you how great they were.  Eventually I found work at a small neighborhood bar called the Tijuana.  I opened up at six each morning, brushed off the felt pool table, cashed people’s VA checks, served them a liquid breakfast and otherwise left them pretty much alone.  It probably would have gotten old real fast—particularly getting up that early—but after two weeks Miguel, the owner, moved me up to managing nights.

Even at night, the Tijuana crowd was no-frills:  Hookers and bikers; working men and waitresses; locals trudging home from the swing shift, dragging their groceries and sometimes their kids.  The money wasn’t what I was used to—unlike the manicured crowd at Stacy G’s, nobody at Tijuana tipped me for putting extra cherries in their drink—but the place was lively.  It kept me awake.  I hired Marcus to do some maintenance and act like a bouncer when someone needed bouncing.

With both of us working, there was enough money to furnish our apartment after a fashion.  I bought some throw pillows for the bed, and we got a 26-inch TV.  We even paid Rosita, at the fabric store, to sew some bright blue curtains for us.

It was the most settled I’d ever been.  And I was just starting to believe it might last when that first Carnivale came around.

Carnivale isn’t really a carnival, and it certainly isn’t a holiday.  It’s more like a yearly ritual—an excuse for everybody in the Mission to let down their hair and get sloppy drunk.  The beat cops all take their guns off.  The bar owners pour double shots on the house, and put people’s drinks into plastic cups so they can take them out on the street.

That night, my boss Miguel, who wasn’t usually on the premises, let a guy ride into the Tijuana on a horse.  It was a friend of his, or else Miguel was just impressed with the guy’s nerve, so when the man and his horse bellied up to the bar, Miguel served them each a Seven-and-Seven.  I can’t stand those, personally—they’re too sweet; I don’t drink anything sweeter than Johnny Walker Red—but the horse liked that Seven-and-Seven just fine.

Of course, when Sanitation showed up, Miguel wanted to claim that I was the one who’d let the horse in.

Probably I should have kept my mouth shut, but I never could stand to be the fall guy.  I told them it wasn’t me, that I knew a horse’s ass when I saw one; and then I smiled at my boss.

Well, Miguel didn’t like that smile one bit.  Tension had been brewing between us over the little matter of my never getting a raise, and this was his chance to act tough, with an audience, plus get rid of too-expensive me.

He opened the register and took a bunch of bills out and threw them in my face.  He called me puta, a prostitute.  So then I had to scoop up the coins in my pocket—my night’s tips, a pitiful pile of change—and throw them at him.  One slapped Miguel in the eye.  He screamed, and I figured that was fair, since I was now unemployed and Miguel was just embarrassed.

The next day was Decoration Day.  It was cold and dreary gray, even for spring in San Francisco, and I was teary, unfocused and desolate until Marcus offered to take me to my baby sister’s grave.  We bought a little peony plant, its pink, blowsy blossoms tippling in the wind, and we took the bus to South San Francisco, past the blue and pale green and honey-colored wood frame houses leaning out towards the sea, to the cemetery.  I bought a little plastic trowel—not very strong, but strong enough—and we planted the peony at the head of Rosie’s grave, and I cried and Marcus asked if, when we got home, I wanted to go to São Sebastãio and light a candle for her.

By then, we’d been together for months, but I’d never gone to church with Marcus.  Growing up with a mother who liked to praise Jesus while she was swinging a belt had turned me off to the whole idea.  Plus Marcus’s church did their thing in Portuguese, a language he’d grown up around that sounded like gibberish to me.  So instead of going to church, we went home and lit a memorial candle we bought at the corner bodega.  We pulled the shades down and smoked some weed and danced to Dinah Washington and I cried some more.  I felt pretty sorry for myself, and I thought, Once a year, why not?

The next morning, Marcus woke up early and said, “One of us has to get a job.”

I said, “You have a job, what are you worried about?”  And he said, “No, I don’t.   I went back to the bar after you fell asleep last night and punched Miguel in honor of your sister.”

All I could do was hug him and whisper thank you, I was so moved.

I was sorry to see the job at Tijuana go; and not just because we needed the money.  I liked being a barmaid.  I liked drinking my meals, breaking up fights, feeling superior and compassionate at the same time, stealing from the boss (though not very much) and playing those endless free games of pool.  I liked smashing an occasional glass to make a dramatic point, and having an excuse for anything I wanted to disown later.

Marcus didn’t care for it much.  I don’t think he’d ever had a job he liked; he was more of a drifter at heart than me.  So I offered to go job hunting.   It’s easier for a white girl, that’s the simple truth.

But there was some kind of recession going on, and the long and frightening short of it was, there weren’t any jobs—not for anybody.  Every day I spent pounding the pavement just made that all the more clear.

I tried the temp agencies.  The newspaper ads.  The government jobs office.   I even tried other bars in the Tenderloin, though I knew that, after the way I’d quit Miguel, no one would hire me.

By now, Marcus was looking as hard as I was.   We were hurting for money, and when he heard through the Mission grapevine that Miguel was willing to take me back, he said, “Go talk to him.”

“You go,” I said, not too helpfully since Miguel hadn’t offered to take Marcus back.

“Naw,” he said, “we’ll starve together.”

We started trying to hustle small change.  We tried delivering circulars, which paid about thirty cents an hour.  We tried doing odd jobs, which paid better but there were none.

Marcus hired on as a day laborer, the only one in the crew who wasn’t Mexican.  By then it was summer, and they trucked him inland to lay cement; it was ninety-four degrees in the shade and he spent the money on Gatorade, trying not to faint from the heat.

I knew I’d hit bottom when I started wondering what the sweatshops in Chinatown paid, and that’s when I decided on the strip club.

“Over my dead body,” Marcus said.

“I’m not gonna touch anything.  I’m just gonna shake a little tail feather.”

“That’s what they all say, at first.”

I said, “How the hell would you know?” and Marcus had to shut his mouth.

Girl-O-Rama had started out tongue-in-cheek—a ‘50s, car-hop-style café where girls happened to take their clothes off—but by now the fun was gone and nothing but the sleaze remained.  They always needed more girls there, probably because the owner didn’t pay shit and people didn’t stay.  I knew they would hire me.

Once he saw that I was serious, Marcus took me over to Teddy Morris for my costume.  Teddy made everything that got stripped off in the Tenderloin.  She was a thousand years old, but you could see she’d once been pretty in a push-up bra kind of way.

“College girl,” she said squinting at me.

“Watch your mouth,” I answered.

She said, “I’m not talking about your life, I’m talking about the part you’re going to play onstage.”

Part?  The only parts they want to see are tits and ass.”

“You got it all wrong,” she said.  “People want romance.  Mystery.  Illusion.”  Then she sighed heavily.

“No one cares any more.  It’s all gone downhill to horse shit.”

I was about to tell her she was crazy when Marcus opened his mouth and said, “What was it like when you were dancing, Miss Morris?”

It was such a smooth move that I gaped at him.  But I shouldn’t have been surprised, ‘cause I already knew that Marcus could melt any woman’s heart—deaf, blind or lesbian included.   Hadn’t he won me over from the first?  Marcus had a way of making you feel special that wasn’t about trying to hustle you.

Who else would have massaged my feet when I was dead tired from bartending?  Who else would have cooked me paella, even though it took hours in the kitchen?  No one else had always made sure that I got off like a rocket each time we had sex.

So by the time he was finished paying attention to Teddy, she had spilled her whole life story.  And while she was talking she forgot about that college girl nonsense and made me a good serviceable pair of pasties and a g-string.

I planned to wear a short robe over them.  That was fine with Marcus, who knew that the less I was wearing to begin with the less sexy my striptease would be.  And Teddy, though she was scandalized, was so in love with Marcus by that time that she wasn’t going to criticize his girlfriend.  He kissed her hand when we left, and she giggled.

Don, who managed Girl-O-Rama, was another story.  He wasn’t going to be soft-touched by Marcus, and he certainly wasn’t going to be charmed by me.  Not that I was trying.

“Get the fuck off my stage,” he yelled, when I was two minutes into my debut number.  The place was filled with customers—and it was four in the afternoon, so I’ll leave it to you to imagine what class of people I was entertaining.

“What’s a matter with her?” one of them yelled.  “What’s a matter, Don, you blind?”

The others started chanting, “Stay, stay, stay, stay.”  So Don threw up his hands and I stayed.

“I’m paying you to strip,” he told me after I came down off the platform, “not walk around in your underwear.”

“I did strip,” I said calmly, trying not to show how cold I was in three square inches of clothing, total. Trying not to show how desperately I needed that job.

“Where’s the sex?  Where’s the mystery?”

Where the hell did they get these lines?  “You must know Teddy,” I wise-assed, hoping to get him turned in another direction.

“Everyone knows Teddy,” he scoffed, “the old bag.  I’m talking about you.  You get two layers of clothes on tomorrow night, and you take ‘em off like you mean it, or you’re outta here with no pay.”

I sighed wearily, but there was no argument to be made.  The man clearly had his standards to uphold.

The next day I went back to Teddy and bought her version of a co-ed ensemble, with a tight sweater that was hell to take off and one of those short, awful pleated skirts and real goddamn saddle shoes, like it was 1950 instead of 1982.  I was almost more embarrassed about the clothes than about stripping them.
Not that I was crazy about doing that, either.  My main problem was the clientele.  The men that gathered round the narrow stage at Girl-O-Rama glistened with sweat.  They stunk of it; they thought it was excitement.

I thought it was fear.  They knew what they were looking for wasn’t there—they knew that Don was milking their wallets, and the dancers and waitresses thought they were trash—but if they drank enough they didn’t remember that they knew.

Imagine all the “love” in your life coming from a skinny, shivering crack-head who can’t stand to look at you when she’s not high, crawling under the table on naked knees to give you a half-hearted blow job.

That’s how pitiful the whole thing was.

We were playing those men like crazy, and damned proud of it.  Don made us hustle drinks between our sets, and while we were laughing and cooing and leaning in close enough to rub against the men (those of us who let them touch the goodies) or pretend that we might (those of us who usually didn’t), we were thinking about food and shoes and our kids, if we had them, and the bills we were going to pay with their tips.

I would sooner have died than let one of them touch me.  When their hands extended in my direction, I bent my knees and twisted out of the way, throwing out some line—“Hey, Sweetie,” or “Ease up, Lover Boy”—to soothe what I imagined was the sting of my rejection.

But maybe the rejection didn’t sting them.  Maybe it was all part of the game.

Truthfully, I didn’t know who was in the worst shape at Girl-O-Rama—us or them.  All I knew was that we were the ones pulling in the money.

Marcus wasn’t thrilled with my new job, but he didn’t hate it either.  Not when he had all those long, luxurious hours at home alone.  Plus, he was a damned good wife.  While I was dancing at Girl-O-Rama—my body prancing around the stage while my mind went as far away as it could go—he dusted the furniture and pruned the ficus plant he’d bought with the last of his Tijuana money and took our clothes to the laundromat and worked up recipes for black bean soup and Cajun spareribs and sweet-and-sour chicken and broccoli.  I’d get home about five a.m. and find the place clean, the bed turned down and something tasty on the stove.  I’d eat my dinner, take a long, long shower that was hot enough to wash off most of the night, and then climb into bed, where 180 pounds of solid celebration was waiting for me.  Marcus was so warm and strong, it was pretty easy to shut out the job—and I was good at shutting things out.

Mostly, I felt like a hunter, coming home late and victorious each night, my body soaked with perspiration, my g-string stuffed with animal cash.  I teased Marcus that, except for a couple of obvious things, he should have been the woman and me the man.  That would have bothered some women, but the truth is, I was bone-deep happy.

We both were.

Want to find out what happens next?  Buy The Tattooed Heart