Hank was drunk and he slugged me – it wasn’t the first time – and I picked up the radio and caught him across the forehead with it. It was one of those big boom boxes with the cassette player and recorder, but I never figured it would kill him. We were sitting in front of the fan, listening to country music and sipping Jack Daniels – calling each other “Toots” like we both enjoyed – and all of a sudden the whole world changed. My old man was dead. I didn’t feel like I had anything to do with it. I didn’t make that choice.
I spent a few days in jail till the law decided I wasn’t to blame. It was Hank’s long record got me out. He was known to the cops. Afterwards I went on drinking and missing that son of a bitch like hell. There were several months I don’t know what I was doing. He had a terrible mean streak, but we were good together – specially when we got our clothes off.
At some point I woke up from a blackout and was in the hospital. I had vague memories of an asshole buying me drinks and him on top of me in a musty smelling car. There were flashes of fist and the sound of it against my jaw, but I wasn’t sure whose fist it was – I could’ve been mixing up another time. The nurse told me I looked like I’d been kicked, beat up so bad I was lucky to be alive. I don’t know why I believed her – about being lucky – but after they patched me up and dried me out for a while I was ready to give it a go. Really try to make myself a life, for the very first time. It was a big mistake.
That morning in North Miami Hank was almost gone from my memory, and so was the half pint of peppermint schnapps I used to carry in my shoulder bag.
I handed over the nine bucks I had on me to the cab driver – close to my last in the world – slid toward the door, opened it, and hopped out.
“You’re a quarter short, lady,” the cab driver said.
I just kept scooting on my way. Didn’t have a choice.
“Hotty bitch,” he hollered. He stretched across and banged the door shut. I think he was trying to catch my ass-end in it.
Hotty – I didn’t know the word. I glanced back at him as I stepped up on the curb. He was pissed but there was nothing worth doing about it. I took a last drag and threw my cigarette on the concrete. The pavement was slick and clean from a morning downpour.
I’d been job hunting along Biscayne and on Dixie. There were stretches of gas stations, a couple pay-by-the-hour motels I was familiar with, and 7-11's and insurance agencies and such, alongside bars and strip clubs. I’d had the driver make five stops. Ran the meter up just a hair too far not even thinking of a tip. So I stuck my chin up a little and kept walking. Didn’t flinch when he laid his patch of rubber.
I liked what he said – hotty. I was hot all right. At thirty-six-looking-thirty, I was determined to get myself out of the dark bars and into the daylight. I figured I could do something besides mix a drink and puppet my bleached peach around in a blacklight. ’Course, I’d made good money at it, but it was all spent as fast as it could make the transfer from garter to nose. And then the rest of it kept up Hank’s habits. There were other men over the years too, as long as I remember – since about age twelve. They’d all cost me, just not quite so much as Hank. I made em happy and didn’t ask nothing for keeps. Thought there was love in their hearts.
My last job was dancing at Bubbles. I didn’t want to get back with that crowd. I’d taken my last hit in the mouth – or anywhere. I wasn’t complaining, but I’d made up my mind Hank was gonna be my last mistake.
What I had was a small efficiency – rent due, a wild head of bleached blond hair, and a dancer’s ass, still tight as could be. My nose was clean. All I needed was a regular day job. The “Help Wanted” in the window said this was as good a place as any.
I looked through the smeary glass walls and saw a rack packed with clean clothes that circled the store. The morning was overcast but the rose-tinted plastic shrouds glistened under the fluorescents. Yeah, it looked good.
I’d been in Miami for a couple years, but I’d missed it all. Living on a buzz, I couldn’t say I ever stopped to take notice of the surroundings – except for being warm. I rarely saw the outside of a bar since I left Cleveland, much less stepped into the ocean or even sat in the sun. Now I was beginning to look around. If Cleveland was the armpit of the world then Miami must be the eyes, clear, blue sparkling eyes with plenty of promises. It was all there for me.
I grabbed the door handle with one hand, smoothed down my miniskirt with the other, and strolled on into the Miami-Purity Dry Cleaners.
I walked up to the counter to wait for the girl. She was busy with a customer. She hit three buttons and the whole long rack of clothes started to sway and travel. It fanned a breeze up my skirt. I said to myself, yeah, I’d like to give that rack a whirl.
The girl was young, but I had better pairs of what usually counts in the world. She was dark, sweet looking, but heavy Cuban probably. I knew how it worked. If they’d hire her they’d take me.
The customer headed out and I stepped up.
“Is your boss around?” I asked. “I’m interested in applying for the job.”
“The lady who hires you is not here right now, but I will find the manager.” She stuck out her hand and I took it. “I’m Marisol.”
“Sherri,” I said.
She went off to the back.
It was just a second before he came stepping out from behind the partition ahead of the girl. I took a look at that baby face, and those Jagger lips, and I got hot. He was wearing the cleanest shirt I ever saw, with a smooth, soft neck coming out of the open collar. Some dark curls feathered up from his chest.
I wasn’t expecting a dry cleaner to start my juices running. It was the mix of innocence and animal that did it. He was looking at me with his bright blue eyes, sweet as a baby’s.
I could feel the weight shift to my heels and my left hip swing out. I wanted to feel his hands grab at my hips while I watched those lips work. It was the first time since Hank my body started to heat up and come alive on its own. It felt good, but I knew I ought to watch it.
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m interested in a position,” I said. I parked my tits on the counter between my elbows and crooked a thumb under my shoulder strap to keep steady. Looked real straight into his blue eyes. “What kind of position is it?”
“You can fill out an application, but we were expecting to hire a retired person. It only pays minimum.”
I didn’t know if I could live on that, but those lips were sure convincing. It had already been a long morning.
“It’s handy,” I said. “I’ve done worse. I’d like to give it a try.”
I had his attention and I spoke a little lower, kinda privately with him.
“I’ve been workin the bars all my life. Now I’m after a change. When I saw your place, I got a feeling. You know – like fate brought me here. I said to myself, I’ll walk right in and get that job. I can do cleaning. That’s something I’m good at.”
I watched his face. Looked at the shiny gold cross hanging around his neck. I figured he was a Christian. I knew a lot of dancers that were Christians and I admired their good intentions. He was sizing me up and down.
“It was an impulse. I believe in fate, don’t you?” I said.
“Yeah. Anyway, I can give you an application.” He put out his hand salesman-style. He had long clean fingers, and a tan muscular forearm showed below the crisp rolled shirt sleeve. “I’m the manager. My name is Payne.”
I couldn’t resist. “Ouch,” I said. I kept my lips rounded an extra second while I took the hand, and then smiled. “Mine’s Sherise Parlay. Sherri, for short.”
One corner of his mouth went up smirky-like. “Payne was my grandfather’s name. We’re Irish – Mahoney.” He slid a sheet of paper across the scratched white counter. “Here,” he said. “Fill it out. The owner will be here in a few minutes. You’ll have to wait. I can’t make that kind of decision.”
I sat down on a plastic lawn chair against the side wall. I could see he was watching so I made a little show of crossing my legs under my short pink skirt and wiping the sweat off my neck. My body was jittery. My foot started to jiggle and I put both feet down flat on the floor. I knew I didn’t have to fuck Payne to get the job, but I would’ve felt more comfortable with that.
The application was long and complicated, like most I filled out that morning. I wasn’t sure if I did it right. I guessed at some dates. When I finished I gave it an overall glance. The page was printed neat but it showed up the blanks in my life. Well, I wouldn’t lie. It was a fresh start. I could feel the bad luck dropping off my back making my shoulders lighter.
I sat still and straight, looking like I’d applied for regular day jobs a hundred times and gotten em.
“Here she comes,” he said. I saw the woman before she flung open the glass door. Her lips said it all – those and her eyes, and thick dark hair – she matched him. She was his mother. She looked about ten years older than I was. Pretty good shape. Small and compact. Tough.
Payne introduced her as Brenda Mahoney.
She didn’t waste time. “Let me see the application,” she told him. Her face was kind of puffy up close, eyes yellowish with pink around the edges. Her hand was shaky when she held it out, and that tipped me off right away that she’d had a few too many the night before. Probably the night before that too, a long string of those nights. She started tapping the counter in front of her for him to slide the paperwork over there fast. He frowned and flung it to her like it burned.
I watched her face to see what she’d think when she got to my past employment, dancing and bar jobs with gaps in between where I couldn’t recall or couldn’t put down a name for what I was doing, but she didn’t flinch.
“It’s not a glamorous job,” she said to me. “I’m not sure you’d like it.”
I picked up the sweet scent of alcohol on her exhaled breath. She talked fast though, and didn’t slur.
“You’ll sweat in here, and your hair will frizz up. We can’t use air conditioning because of all the steam – cold air would turn it into rain. And you have to be careful every second. You’ll be using jets of steam for some fabrics and white-hot metal pressing plates on others.”
I wondered how careful she was herself by afternoon if her drinking started this time in the morning.
She leaned forward and crossed her arms, fingering a gold cross with green stones that hung on a heavy chain between her tits. It was cute – mother and son both had their crosses. The stones were the color of her eyes that burned into me.
“If you touch one of those plates with your arm, the skin sears right to it.”
“I’m real careful.”
“Your past experience shows that you’ve always worked with the public – in entertainment. You’re in your thirties and never had a routine job. Are you sure you want this kind of responsibility?”
I nodded. “I’d appreciate it, Mrs. Mahoney. I’m ready to be responsible. I need the regular hours.”
“Okay,” she said and put her hands on her hips. “You sound like you mean it. Good. We’ve been trying to fill this position for a time now. I can see you have the energy, even if you lack the experience.” She put a hand on my upper arm. I think she meant it to be firm and warm, but her nails were long and felt a little like claws.
“You’ll eventually meet the other employees working their shifts on the pressers. We’re all friends here.” She moved her hand across for a shake. “Call me Brenda.”
I looked at her face and thought, yes, maybe in ten years that’s where I’ll be – smart and tough, with the know-how to run my own business. “Thanks, Brenda,” I said.
I glanced over the counter at Payne as she walked away. He looked fed up. His full lips were pursed and he was watching me with those cool blue eyes. I thought of grabbing the back of that thick curling dark hair and yanking his face down on mine.
“How about you?” I said. “Think I’ll fit okay?”
He just looked at me and didn’t say anything, but our eyes stuck for a second.
Vicki Hendricks's Miami Purity is considered one of the best noir debuts of the last twenty years, and is a must for all fans of the genre!
Find copies at your favorite independent, chain, or online bookseller, or directly from BFP here. See the list at the right for some of the indies that support & stock BFP titles.
Vicki Hendricks lives in Hollywood, Florida, where she teaches English and creative writing. A fan of dangerous sports, she has completed 550 skydives, learned to dog sled in Finland, and has been birding in the jungles of Costa Rica. Her fifth novel, Cruel Poetry (Serpent's Tail; 978-1-85242-927-0; $14.95), was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.
Praise for Miami Purity...
“Sex and murder, sunny places and shady people – Miami Purity is a modern noir masterpiece.” – Michael Connelly
“The authentic heir to James M. Cain, Vicki Hendricks is the high priestess of neo-noir. A fierce and fearless talent.” – Dennis Lehane
“One of my top ten all time reads. Hotter than Miami in August.” – Charlie Stella
“Shocking and supercharged, both reverent and original, this is the novel that amped up a new generation of noir writers.” – George Pelecanos
“Miami Purity is as sleek as a well-oiled weasel and tight as the Gordian knot. One of the best of its kind from a very fine writer.” – Joe R. Lansdale
“Vicki Hendricks is a true original. She is undoubtedly one of the most important noir writers of the past twenty years, and Miami Purity is one of the best crime novels I've ever read, period.” – Jason Starr
“Miami Purity is the toughest, sexiest, most original debut noir novel ever written, and instantly rockets Hendricks into the list of all-time great noir authors. Gripping, super-sexy, and unforgettably raw.” – Lauren Henderson
“One of my favorite books to read and reread. Vicki Hendricks supplies heat and steam aplenty, and one of the hottest femme fatales in history. It’s the crime fiction version of Viagra.” – Robert Randisi
“Did I like this dark and twisted story about Sherri Parlay and her lover? I came home with the book and opened it at the kitchen counter and was still standing there at the end – literally did not put it down. Miami Purity might make you think of James M. Cain's ultra-noir The Postman Always Rings Twice – but Vicki Hendricks is a lot sexier.” – Barbara Parker
“Miami Purity is a book of raw, primitive power with a relentless drumbeat of sexuality. James M. Cain is a timid schoolmarm compared to Vicki Hendricks. This is a shocking book, brimming with vividly perverse characters who are driven by the strange and twisted logic of evil. If Hannibal Lecter were in the market for a mate, he would look no further than Miami Purity.” – James W. Hall
“Miami Purity cooks white hot – it’s Hard Copy meets James M. Cain meets white trash with a vengeance. This book is an instant redneck idiot savant classic: so gruesome and funny and deadpan outlandish that you wind up baying at the moon like a Florida coondog.” – James Ellroy
“Steamy and erotic. Raw and real. Miami Purity will knock your socks off, and anything else you happen to be wearing.” – Paul Levine
"Vicki Hendricks has been called the 'Queen of Noir,' and after reading Miami Purity you'll know why." -- Timothy Lockhart, The Virginian-Pilot (12/21/08)
“This book is the very definition of noir. Ms. Hendricks steers us head long into the down and dirty life of Sherise Parlay as she attempts to make her life a better place. The best way to accomplish that? Murder of the cold-blooded variety, of course. In a circumstance of the darkest irony, Sherise lands herself a job at Miami Purity, a local dry cleaners. She is minutes into to living out her resolve to better her life when she is introduced to Payne, the owner’s son. On the surface, he seems to be everything she hasn’t had before in a man. Underneath, possibly worse. A deeper shade of black. I inhaled this book like a drowning victim takes in lungs full of air upon hitting the waters’ surface. It is very fast, very dark and very good. The darkest parts of human nature are dissected and put on display, for your reading pleasure. And the ending will mess with you. I had to take a shower when I was done with this book.” – Jennifer Jordan, Crimespree Magazine