She was carrying a pair of high-heel boots, red high-heel ankle boots. She came in like a gust of wind, blew the papers off the coffee table. “Got change for a five?” she asked. It was like nothing had happened. An hour before, she was bent double on the floor, on her knees. Cussing and crying. Black streaks down her cheeks. Now she was smooth and bright, made up like a movie star. The big flower blouse, Capri pants, barefoot. Honey baby. Have mercy.
“We going out? You going out?”
“I got pinball fever,” she said. She did like it. She could spend a whole roll of quarters in the time it took to drink a beer. “You can come if you like.”
I was jealous, I admit. There was no relaxing with her. You had to be on top of your game, exuding all your charm — if you had any or not. There was always — always — somebody circling around, looking to get in, and she enjoyed the attention. I could stand at the pinball machine for the next two hours in the clinking noise, fending off goobers like a man overboard knocking sharks away. Or I could stay here in this borrowed apartment and read the man’s weird books and drink his liquor. In neither case would I be guaranteed to end the night wrapped up with her naked body, which, I admit, was the main thing on my mind. Sometimes taking the focus off, a few hours of distance, made her hotter than ever. But sometimes leaving her alone just brought the frost. You never knew. It didn’t matter. It was never up to me.
I had some money that week. “Yeah, let’s go.” She didn’t put on the heels. They weren’t hers, she’d found them in the closet. She just waved them around to show me — “I wouldn’t have thought it of her,” she said — then got her own shoes, black slippers, and off we went.
The place was dead; an empty shark tank. Maybe there was a ball game on. Was it time for the World Series? I used to know these things. I could tell the emptiness, the lack of eyes, took the edge off for her. The fever abated after a few dollars of quarters. She was listless, restless. She wanted to go somewhere else for a drink.
“Let’s go home,” I said. “We can drink there.”
“You can’t mix anything,” she said. “I want a real drink. A cocktail. You can go home if you want to.” She wasn’t mean about it, just matter of fact.
I knew she didn’t have any money. And I knew she didn’t need any money to get a drink. I went with her. It was a Tuesday night. Turning cold. Not much happening on the streets. She bristled and shivered in her thin white sweater. Liked it when I put my arm around her to keep her warm. I felt a stir of hope.
Cocktails. White tablecloth. The slippers came off. Every now and then, the slightest glimpse of the earlier blowout, but she would sweep past it, getting a little drunker, a little brighter. It wasn’t forced gaiety; this was the flow she wanted, where she wanted to live. Me too. She put her foot on my knee. I massaged it as we talked. It was loose chat, light. She told me a long story about something she and her friends did in high school that got them into trouble. I couldn’t quite follow, but it was something uproarious. Until they got caught and were hauled in to see the principal. She went dark for a moment at the memory. “What a mean, pinched, bitter little face. He was the kind of man who could put a dog in the fire and hold it there with tongs.” The other foot came up. “Try that one.”
We passed a pleasant hour or so. Three or four drinks, nice buzz, no hurry. Then a gaggle of suits came in and sat down at the next table. Businessmen out on a toot. Big shots, loud with it, worshiping the dollar with their mouths. “Who the fuck are these sick idiots?” she said. They heard her.
“I got something that won’t make you sick, baby,” one of them said. He reached down, below his shirt’s protuberance, and grabbed his crotch.
She laughed. “Bow your neck and spread, Junior.”
“I hate a mouthy bitch,” he snarled back.
“How sad for your mother.”
“His purse is empty already,” I said. “All his golden words are spent.”
“You’re the one with the purse, fag,” he snarled. “You can’t keep your whore in line.”
She and I both burst out laughing at this. “Another dog-roaster,” I said to her. She nodded: “Yeah, tongs and all.” She took my hand beneath the table. “Let’s go.”
“Right, Skeezix, you done told us good,” I said to him as we got up. “We’re going off now to lick our wounds. That ought to be a hoot, don’t you think?”
He kept fuming, maybe his pals said something too, but we weren’t listening anymore. When we went outside, the night had changed. The sky was clear, darker, the weak streetlight wasn’t spreading like a roof on the low cloud cover. You could see stars, there were heavy shadows everywhere. Colder too. We walked back double-quick to the apartment. “See if you can keep your whore in line,” she said as we kissed in the elevator on the way up.
Sometimes you don’t have to use any willpower. As the man says, you’ve got to reach a state of mind where you don’t want it or need it.
It was a good night. We did all kinds of things. I said we should get insulted more often. We talked for a long time afterward, drifting in the watery dark like two tangled leaves in a stream. When she went to sleep, I got back up. Booze works on me like that.
The place had a river view, the kind you pay big money for. The night had taken on yet another nature. Gray mist rising and moving off the water. There was no particular shape to the shore, just a high black wall. I cracked open a window to the damp. Sounds poured in, tangled in the mist. No highway noise (you pay good money for that too), but distant tugs, low motor-rumble slicing through the water, and wind in wet trees.
I came here busted a year ago: a petrified heart, a closed oyster-can. Then she came along and suddenly I could feel a melodic note rising, a note that seemed to reveal the ultimate clarity of some thought — the real thing, the first utterance of a truth, not a worn-out ragged echo dying in the air. A dangerous thing, a dangerous thing to be in such a state. At the mercy of someone else’s secret heart. At the mercy of your own. But this has got to be learned; there isn’t any getting around it.
Suddenly I felt heavy, with sleep, with hours. I’d been awake for a long time. Now I wanted to bulk my weight with hers. A pair of spiritual derelicts, sinking down in a weird stranger’s bed. God, she was warm in the pitch-black night. She stirred, moaned, molded herself to me, went still. What is it, what is it, what is this thing? Why is it what it is? It would tangle the head of the oldest man that ever lived.
© 2016 by Chris Floyd