Prose: Scott Miles
Two years ago my wife was brained in a car accident. Since then, I get by with cheap thrills. There is no clear line of demarcation. What constitutes cheap varies. Peeping works. Profanity, mockery.
I’m a scapegrace. It’s in my blood. As kids, we huffed paint thinner, tortured caterpillars, frogs. There was a vice involved. Shame. Much shame. Poor bugs didn’t know their fate was in my hands. That’s been the lowest I’ve been. Peaked at the spry age of ten. These days, I’m curbing the behavior. Trying out the adult thing. You’ll see what I mean.
I work at a dry-cleaning warehouse on the northeast side of Detroit, near the Rouge River. Everyday the gas hoses pisshh and passhh late into the evening, which creates an atmosphere like a sweatshop in Thailand. Work never stops and the warehouse smells like burnt people, a crematory. Goebbels would get off.
This is where I’m tempted and the adult thing goes out the window: Nearing the end of another afternoon shift, on a cigarette break in the alley, my coworker and best friend Paul says to me through a mouthful of rat-colored smoke, “We should go to the booby bar.”
“Do you even need to ask?” I feign interest. “I’m already there.”
The skin joint ain’t cheap. I’m not really in the mood, but I concede because I need entertainment to survive. Reality television just isn’t cutting it. The bell rings, ending our break. Paul and I watch the rest of the employees form a single file line, a human wick, and march bravely toward inanity. Most are from the Philippines. They look sick. Very quiet. Aloof. I’m afraid of them, and they me.
We flick our cigarette butts into a puddle. Head inside to finish out the shift.
After Paul calls his wife from a payphone, we make the trip to Atlantis, near the airport. It’s a natty grease-spot of a tit-bar. Paul and I have been going since we were eighteen. We’re now thirty-two and have faces like weathered brick, splotches of graffiti. Someday we’ll renounce our membership to this group, these dollar-stuffers. Step down in lieu of reorganization. Perhaps we’ll join the Moose. Something respectable.
Paul doesn’t want to join the Moose. Says they’re just flabby old men in a constant gripe session, mentholated backsides. And they put ice in the urinals at the Moose club. Never figured that one out. Maybe Paul’s right, but I’d still like to get out of the booby bars.
Inside, the lights drift about the room like a fish tank filled with roving sea-creatures. Legs twirling. Hands fondling. Women upside down on the brass bars. Chimpanzees in second-hand lingerie. Their world is a cage.
“Look at all the BOOBIES!” Paul points to all the representatives. “Floppy ones. Perky ones. Fake ones,” he says. “And don’tforget about the members of the Itty Bitty Titty Committee.” Paul likes them small, firm, like swollen knots.
I don’t care, as long as they don’t look like undercooked pancakes. I smell baby oil, which makes me sad. Dana, my wife, would slap it on her shoulders after a hot shower. I yearn for her touch, the clinically proven mildness.
We take seats at a table without shame. We know better. Sitting at the stage is desperate. We may have the pedigree, the background, but we’re not like these other humps, these louses. The girls will come over if they’re not ill natured or crabby.
On cue, one with a big dumper approaches the table, plops down on Paul’s lap. She burrows her hungry bum into his crotch and chirps: “Do you want a dance, sweetie?”
Paul, as calmly as he can: “Not now, princess.”
Hard to resist getting down with the first girl who approaches. I know the game. Have to play it cool. She giggles, smothers her chest into his face. I catch her fragrance; a syrupy fructose like a punch drink.
“What’s your name?”
“Paul, I’ll be back later on for that couch dance.”
Have to pay for at least one couch dance.
Otherwise girls start ignoring you like a queer. This one sways from our table, skin like vinyl, muscles like a strong river current. I lean over and remind my buddy: “Don’t tell them your real name, ok?”
A waitress with a lazy eye approaches. “Bourbon. Beautiful bourbon,” I holler over the din of sexual frustration. Cigarettes blaze around the darkness of the room like firebugs in a thicket. Mirrors refract the light onto the ceiling. The music is more annoying than the sirens of a bomb raid.
“I don’t know how girls can dance to this,” I say to Paul. “These hip-hop artists cut up Marvin Gaye and don’t even know he was shot by his father.”
Sit back. Relax. This is no time to get worked up. Let Paul enjoy himself. He’s eyeing a long-legged girl with a fuzzy black patch and rosy cheeks, a smile that probably makes his stomach ripple with adrenaline, deviance. He waves to her. She waves back but can’t come over. She’s straddling another customer. I break his balls, jabbing him underneath the rib cage.
“I think maybe she likes you.”
“You really think so?”
“She likes your personality, your looks, your charm.”
The bourbons arrive. I’m jazzed to be out of that dry-cleaning trap. Been a long winter. Summer is upon us, and I plan on getting out in my garden more often, finish what my wife started two years ago. Stupid as it sounds, I want to give back to the earth. It would make her happy.
Paul’s eyes continue to wander. Abruptly, he sits up, inspects the stage.
“What is it?”
He nods toward the stage. “See that retard over there in the wheelchair?”
I needle my way through the crowd. At the foot of the stage: a man in a wheelchair; rumpled legs, face twisted. Little bastard is enjoying himself, too. Waving dollar bills around with his withered hand.
“What’s he doin’ here?”
“Evolution my friend.” I slap Paul on the back. “WE ALL NEED PUSSY!”
Sure I’m trying to change, but cheap laughs are always at hand. We pound the table, garnering the attention of the bouncers. The bouncers are big, chests the shape of industrial-sized propane tanks. They have fists like hammers. We raise our drinks toward the wheelchair.
The waitress walks back through lewd banter, hungry hands that yearn for the touch of a female. Those crooked eyes; one looks at Paul, the other one at me. Sexy in a way.
Off she goes.
Paul slams his empty glass down – CLINK – waves to his girl again. “COME ON OVER HERE SWEET MAMA!”
She finally slinks over and I tug on Paul’s shirt.
“Think he’s ever been laid?”
Paul draws back. I always do this. Ruin the night with pesky questions.
“You mean the retard?”
“I dunno–who’d do it with him?” Paul grabs his goatee, his charred cuticles rustling through the bristles of hair.
“Maybe another retard?”
“What about a whore?”
“Even a whore’s got enough sense not to fuck a retard.”
“What if the retard is loaded?”
Paul’s girl arrives, plops herself down on his crotch. He squeals.
“Am I interrupting an important conversation?”
“What could be more important than you?”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, darling.” She ruffles Paul’s hair. Dame has blue eyes that dig into my skin like hot shrapnel. Face is round; cheeks that remind me of the crabapples I would throw at the passing school buses as a kid.
“Name’s Streeter and this here’s Harris,” Paul says.
A genius, my friend.
She smiles, extends her hand. “My name’s Darlene.”
“Nice to meet you Darlene.” I dig into my billfold.
A quick peek and I register nipples like pink seashells.
“How about giving Streeter a special dance?” I slip $50 in her g-string. Give her thigh a comforting pat. She takes Paul by the hand.
“Thanks Harris,” Paul says.
“No problem Streeter,” he says and gestures as if the touch of her ass burns his fingers like a hot frying pan.
I refuse a few dance offers. One from a girl with braces and a protruding belly. About two-and-a-half months pregnant. Another with weaves, sniffling the snot back into her nose. Eventually, my eyes float over to the handicapped fellow near the stage. I inspect his body, his mannerisms. I’m fixated. Can’t stop looking.
“That’s $14 for the drinks,” the waitress says.
I slip her $20.
“Keep the change,” I tell her. “Come back later and give me a dance?”
My voice is tender, sincere. Two things that don’t mix well in a strip joint.
“Dancers tend to get bitchy when a waitress horns in on their business.”
“Sit down a minute. What’s your name?”
She sits, setting her tray on her bare lap.
“It’s Veronica – do you need something else?”
I point to the man in the wheelchair.
“See that guy over there?”
She cranes her head toward the stage, turns back.
“You mean Marvin?”
“You know him?”
“He’s a regular.”
I watch his body and imagine a bug wriggling in the vice.
“I’d like to send him over a drink,” I say.
She looks surprised. “He drinks Mai Tai’s.”
Marvin suddenly curls his head like a deranged owl. He inspects us, knows we’re talking about him. His face is heavy. Eyes dancing in a gelatinous pool.
“Set him up with a Mai Tai,” I say.
I give her the money plus a tip. Deep down, I’m a good guy. Changing my ways. We both watch Marvin struggling to put a bill in a girl’s trapdoor. We’re all into cheap thrills. Retards are no different. Men are equal.
Paul plops in his seat like a spent banana peel, eyes droopy, laggard. It’s as if God reached down and fondled him; a hand-job from the Lord.
“That was amazing,” he says.
Veronica stands. “I’ll leave you two boys alone.”
“Don’t forget Marvin’s drink.”
Veronica’s pink panties reach out through a frayed hole in her cut-off jeans.
“Who’s Marvin?” Paul whirls around, winces when he sees the cripple near the stage. “That drink’s for the retard, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” I say, defiant. “Thought the guy could use a drink.”
“We all need a drink,” Paul says, grabbing his bourbon/rocks, sloshing it around like some haywire cement truck.
“Here’s to Marvin!” I say.
“Here’s to Marvin!”
Paul and I are bottomed-out drunk. I don’t want to go home. I pretend I was never married. I pretend I don’t work in a dry-cleaning warehouse. My life has disappeared.
Marvin is still at the stage with his foamy pineapple drink, eyes on the prize.
“Should we get Marvin a couch dance?” Paul’s tongue is thick with bourbon.
“Seems like the right thing to do.”
“If we pay the girl enough,” Paul says, “you think she’d jerk him off?”
“I don’t see why not. My girl did.”
Her name was Leila. She’d escorted me back into the lounge area, her light pink boa fluttering along the back of her legs. A dance later she offered her services.
“Ve haff to keep up vit deez Mexican girls,” Leila whispered to me. She had a Slavic grind; thin, almost fragile teeth.
I was nervous, looking for bouncers. Fumbling, Leila found my fella, grasped too brusquely. A sand-paw rub-job was not what I expected. She appeared more delicate than her scratchy hand proved to be. My stomach dropped as she slipped a condom over my stem. Then the warmth of her mouth.
“What do you mean ‘keep up’ with the Mexican girls?”
Leila stopped, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Dey break de rules. Dey get all de dances vhile ve haff to scrounge around vit de odders. Ve have to keep up vit deir vays or ve go broke.”
“Oh,” I said, pushing her head back into position.
“We’d like to get Marvin a couch dance,” Paul tells Veronica, our waitress.
She furrows her brow, hesitates. “Marvin doesn’t usually get lap dances.”
“How about Leila?” I press the issue. “Is she busy?”
Veronica looks back at Leila. She is sitting at a table teeming with Japanese businessmen. She twirls a red drink straw between her lips. Last-call lures. Veronica gains her attention, waves her over. Leila lingers, giving the Japanese one last chance. But no takers. She flips her boa over her soft neck, saunters over.
“Bye Ryrah,” says one of the Japanese men with an inebriated coo.
“Vat can I do for you boys?” She looks at me. “Vant to go again?”
Veronica takes the opportunity to disappear into the oncoming rush of lonely college boys: ball caps, tribal tattoos, shopping mall cologne. Drakkar Noir. I miss her already. Maybe I’ll come up on lunch one day and ask her out.
“Could you give our friend over there a dance?” Paul asks.
Leila looks at the nearly deserted stage. Her sexiness dissipates, slumps forward. “Marfin?” she says, confused. “He is your friend?”
“We go way back.”
“I don’t know.”
“Just want to do something nice for the guy,” I say. “We’ll make it worthwhile.”
Paul pulls out his wallet. I see pictures of his wife, his little daughter Sandra. He tucks them neatly away without even thinking about them. He doesn’t know how good he has it.
Leila reaches for the money, dejected.
“Leila, come here,” I put my arm around her bare waist. She bends down and I whisper in her ear. “Give him the same dance you gave me.”
Leila glares like she wants to punch me in the mouth.
But, she walks over and gives Marvin’s ashen hair a rustle. She pulls his wheelchair from its stationary position, cuts through traffic, tables and chairs. With a fading smile, she heaves the wheelchair up the back ramp to the lounge area.
“Gotta hit the pisser,” Paul says. “Then we’ll hit the road.”
I take a final drag off my butt, smash the red-hot eye into the bottom of the ashtray. I watch Paul approach the lounge on his way back. The bouncers are at the bar, laughing. Paul stops to brush aside the glittering beads. Checks up on Marvin.
I feel a warm creek of goodness trickling inside. We did a good thing. I’m helping out humanity, feeding and sheltering this poor, hungry man.
Paul returns. “Just saw Marvin and Leila in the lounge,” he tells me. “Scared out of his wits. You should’ve seen it.”
I picture the scene in my mind–the bug struggling to get away, the skirmish to stay alive. “You think we did the right thing?” I ask.
“Go back and see how happy he is.”
That’s when we hear a thundering CLUNK rock the entire establishment. Everyone looks at the back lounge. We all know. The overly eager bouncers rush over, the glimmering beads of the door rattle aside. Paul and I rush to the action, too.
There we see Marvin and Leila entangled in a knot of writhing flesh, wrestling on the ground, her breasts flopping, her lingerie torn, the feathers of the boa floating in the air like a messy duck-shot. Marvin’s eyes aglow. Must’ve popped a fuse in his fuse-box. Pants are at his ankles. Hands locked on Leila’s fragile throat.
“Someone help her!” a fellow stripper screams.
But we all stand and watch. Leila’s face gets puffy, a mixture of blue and red bursting up through the skin. The struggle continues. The bouncers surround the infuriated man – drool hanging out of his mouth like cod liver oil – and attempt to break apart his hands.
Marvin keeps his grip. Tightens it.
One of the bouncers begins slugging at Marvin’s open midsection. Another evacuates the scene, extending his burly arms, moving us back with the ease of a powerful stevedore. My last glimpse: Leila’s eyes bulging, her breath leaving her beautiful body.
Outside the club, Paul and I are as silent as snowfall. Standing underneath the warm glow of the neon sign. Through the closing crack of the metal door, amid all the commotion, I catch Veronica’s sad eyes and sickened mouth.
I tug at Paul’s shirttail to warn him of the oncoming ambulance. Local squad cars roar up behind the crowd with streaky red lights. The horns jangle my composure. Two sallow-faced paramedics move into the club with a squeaky-wheeled stretcher.
The metal doors slam shut again.
The crowd loses interest. The fun is over. Tomorrow is now today. Some of us will go to all-night diners and stew in front of hash browns and black coffee. Some will go home to detached wives in the midst of menopause. Some will go home alone, too depressed to remove their clothes before falling face first into an empty bed.
Paul and I linger. We watch the parking lot empty, the gravel spitting up underneath the tires. We don’t speak. We hear nothing but the tinny whir of CB’s from the squad cars.
Time to go.
As we stroll to Paul’s car, we pass the lone handicapped space in the lot. It is occupied with a new Toyota Camry. The car has vanity license plates that say “Marvin.”
Shame. Much shame.
As we leave, I sink low into the passenger seat. I sink low and imagine that vice gripping the thorax of a large black beetle, the mealy, dry-apple guts pushed out and plopping to the ground, my right hand twisting the handle.