I've driven down this street thousands of times. A typical ugly American street. Mile after mile after mile, littered with retarded businesses. Frozen yogurt. Nail salon. Phone store. Electronic cigarette store. Car audio. Nutrition supplement. Picture frame store. T-Shirt printing. Sylvan *Learning.* Yoga pants store. The people are fat, sweaty looking. Walking seems an arduous task for them. The fat women wear yoga pants. Grotesque oxymorons.
When I was a kid, there were book stores. Newspaper and magazine stores.
When I was a kid, there were book stores. Newspaper and magazine stores.
As I get into the city, the shops are boarded up. The survivors cater to the basics. Tire store. Liquor. Collision shop. Not many people on the street. None wear yoga pants. The few shuffle along, wiping their noses and looking in garbage cans.
I used to drive down this street to go to work. The routine was awful. The job was horrible. Life wasted. Drowning in the sameness. I might as well have lived for one day, like a mayfly.
I'm down here now because I need some cash. I got a ways to go yet before I can collect social security. I park around the corner from Star Gold, walk up, then push the button on the intercom. There's a camera above the door. Somebody's saying something, but it's mostly static.
"I got an appointment," and then I say my name.
The door buzzes open.
At the counter, behind a thick piece of glass, is a little man with skin the color of shit. He's got a bushy moustache. His mouth opens. I have no idea what he is saying. His teeth point every which way.
I slide two Canada Gold Maple Leafs, sealed in plastic, in the steel tray under the window. The little shit-skin nods his head, takes the coins and disappears into a back office.
After my father died, I had to clean out his apartment. Amid the cans of sardines and tuna, the empty gallon wine jugs, I found an Alka-Seltzer box with four Maple Leafs. I've kept them for almost ten years, watching their value double, then triple, then fall back to double. Now I need to cash in a couple.
The shit-colored man gives me a paper to fill out and sign. After I return it, he passes twenty-five one hundred dollar bills under the glass. As I'm gathering the money, I remember one of the old man's favorite expressions:
"Don't take any wooden nickels."
I can get by for three months on the twenty-five hundred, easy.
Back out on the street, surveying the shabby landscape, I muse:
Three months for two ounces. One or the other is over-valued: life or gold.
A block and a half up is a little hole-in-the-wall bar, The Dark Room. I've driven past it for years and years, never been in. I haven't had a drink since New Year's Eve 1992, almost twenty-five years. A bit of gold for a swallow of gin? Why not? True alchemy.
Opening the door, I step from broad daylight into dusk. I peer into the shadows. Eight or ten tables and a long bar lit with some weak fluorescent tubes. The only other light comes from a huge flat screen in the back.
I sit at the bar. There's no bartender. I look around. There are four other people, three men and a woman, all at separate tables. I wait in the dark for a server.
The stool is uncomfortable. I should sit at a table, but I see the other four people have spaced themselves with an empty table between them, so if I took one, I would be right behind or in front of someone, possibly violating some local *drinking space* etiquette. I don't want to ruin someone's solitude. Solitude is worth a bit of gold, too. I imagine these four others as escapees. Escapees from the Great Beyond These Walls. There can be nothing good for them Out There. If life were tolerable, there wouldn't be any bars.
It's quiet in here. Just the TV and the humming of some machine, maybe an air conditioner, to break the silence. None of the drinkers even cough or sigh. They're all white. The men vary in age. Well, vary in oldness, I guess. None of the three look young. One of them wears a winter cap, even though it's summer. One of those wool knit caps. Maybe he was a seaman, in better days? I don't know. The woman is old, too. Older than me. Already collecting her check, I would bet.
I look at the television. It's showing a black-and-white movie. There's a brick shithouse blonde in a tight sweater hectoring a milquetoast.
"I'm sick of looking at your ugly mug," the shithouse spits.
"You don't mean it, darling," says the milqueoast.
"'Darling?'" she says with an ugly laugh.
The milquetoast is crestfallen. The shithouse seems satanically giddy. This might be a good movie. It would be nice to sip a little gin while I watch a few more scenes.
"Excuse me," I say to the bar at large. "Does anybody know where the bartender is?"
"Oh," one of the guys sitting at a table says, one of the guys without the winter cap. "I'm the bartender. Sorry. Didn't see you come in."
He makes his way around the bar.
"What'll it be?"
"Gin and tonic."
On the television, the shithouse says:
"You're only half of a man. And not the good half, either."
The milquetoast is on the verge of tears.
"What have I done to make you say these horrible things?"
"Nothing. You haven't done nothing. You can't do nothing. You've never done nothing, except disappoint me. You couldn't satisfy me unless you died."
Ouch. This is one tough broad. I'm trying to place the actress, but I don't think I've ever seen her before. Some old B movie queen, I guess.
The bartender sets my drink down.
"Four dollars," he says.
Four bucks? Man! I mean, I'm sure I only paid a buck or a buck-and-a-quarter twenty-five years ago. Who has the money to be a drunk, these days? I pull a hundred dollar bill out of my pocket, give it to the bartender.
"I can't take this," he says, handing it back. "It'll wreck my drawer."
What is it with this place? Lousy service? No money?
"I don't have anything smaller."
The bartender shakes his head.
"There's a gas station with a little convenience store three blocks up. Maybe you can break it there."
"For real? You want me to walk three blocks up and three blocks back, just to get your change?"
The bartender sneers.
"No, I don't want you to. It ain't a favor to me. I'm just suggesting it as a way to help you out."
"Thanks for the help, but I'll pass on the trip to the mini-mart."
He takes the drink away.
Fuck him. I didn't really want it, anyway. I watch the movie while the bartender stands there.
"I've given you twelve years of my life. I've worked at jobs where I've never been appreciated, so we could have a home," the milquetoast says in a quavering voice.
"You would've worked anyway, whether I was here or not. And take a look around, why don't you? This isn't a home, it's a prison."
"And this isn't a homeless shelter," the bartender says. "It's a place of business. For paying customers."
Four fucking dollars. Four fucking dollars is all it takes to create hatred.
"You trying to get me to leave?"
"I'm not trying," he says, nodding his head toward the door.
"Take a chill pill, Ray! I'll buy his drink," says the woman at one of the tables. "Sit over here with me, honey."
Great. In two or three minutes, everything's been reversed. Two or three minutes ago, I did want a drink and I didn't want to leave. Now I don't want a drink and I do want to leave. I should just walk out. . .but it would be insulting to the lady barfly. I notice the two other guys, the guy in the winter cap, and the other guy, a chronic-looking type, staring at me, as, with great reluctance, I take a seat at the woman's table.
"Don't look so happy, honey!" she says. "Ray, bring Smiley his drink!"
"He can come get it himself."
I let it set there.
"Oh screw!" the woman says. She gets up, pays for the drink, brings it back to the table.
"Thanks," I say, "but I'm probably not gonna drink it."
"You can do whatever you want, sugar. Whatever you want," she says with a liquor grin.
Her hair is long and messy, dark gray and white. Her face is alcoholic red and rough-looking. She's wearing a linty black sweater over an old pink t-shirt over bra-less old saggy titties.
"Never seen you in here before, have I, sweetheart?"
"No. No, first time."
"First time," she says kind of dreamily. "First-timers are fun."
I wonder if the other people are listening? Or are they watching the TV? Maybe they're just sorting out their own thoughts?
The old woman is staring at me, with that liquor grin on her face. I look at the television. The milquetoast is now at work. He's talking with a Plain Jane secretary.
"I can't understand why they didn't give you the promotion," Plain Jane says.
"I knew they wouldn't. Things have never really worked out for me," the milquetoast says.
Plain Jane looks sad. She puts her hand on the milquetoast's elbow.
"I know that feeling, Bill. I know how hard it can be."
Bill the milquetoast takes Plain Jane's hand off his elbow.
"You're sweet, kid. Thanks for trying to cheer me up."
As Bill the milquetoast walks away, the camera lingers on Plain Jane's face, ending with her brushing a tear from her eye.
Whoever the Plain Jane actress is, she's probably been dead for twenty years. And yet here she is, with us. She's younger than the old woman sitting across from me.
"What day is it?" the guy in the winter cap suddenly asks.
What a question, I think. What a fucking question. Poor bastard, doesn't he realize there's only one day? But if I told him this, he would think I was being a smart ass. So I say:
"Thursday? DAMN." Then, a moment later:
"You like to help people, don't you, sweetie?" the old woman asks.
"Not if I can help it," I say.
"Oh screw!" the old woman says with a laugh. "You do, too. You like to help." She reaches out, places her hand on top of mine. It's hot, soft. "Drink your drink, angel." Her fingertips massage the top of my hand. The liquor grin is gone from her face. "Drink your drink, then come back to my room with me. I need your help." It's a rough-looking face, but her fingertips are soft. . .and no doubt her whole body is soft. The face is rough-looking, but her eyes are weary and liquored, beat and needy. It's a hard world. People will kick your teeth in for four bucks. I'll go to her room, all right. Two can make a break from the hard world.
She has a room on the second floor of a shabby two story motel. While she's in the bathroom, I crack the blinds and look out her grimy window. It gives a dingy view of the gas station where I was supposed to change the hundred. What a dismal scene. There was a time when Adam and Eve, naked and without blemish, walked healthy, free, eating dates and figs, drinking clean water. I ponder this as I watch a couple raggedy souls shuffle into the mini-mart, probably scraping for forty-ouncers and footlong hot dogs, burning their own stomachs in a personal holocaust.
The old woman steps out of the shitter. She's wearing a tattered white dressing gown, tied tight at her flabby waist. I don't think she has anything on, underneath. Maybe a pair of panties? Probably as dull and frayed as the night gown. As the old woman makes her way to the bed, I notice her legs. The flesh. The skin. It's not rosy white, like it probably was in the bloom of her youth, it's that milky white that colors the old. But at least there aren't any purple blotches, and even though she's overweight, there's still some shape left. I could easily fuck her. It would be a pleasure, even. Hell, maybe I'll make a habit of it. It's not that far of a drive. We'll just have to see if it's worth the gas money.
She gets under the covers. I sit on the edge of the bed. She's combed her dirty-gray hair, washed her done-in face. Her mouth cracks a sad, doubtful half-smile. I look into her eyes. Weak blue. A faint glimmer, like a dull star light years and light years away. I lean down to kiss this pitiful loser while slipping my hand inside her threadbare dressing gown to grab one of her fat old sagged-out titties. She stops me.
"No! Not yet," she says. "I need you to do something for me first, then you can do whatever you want, angel."
It figures. There's always a catch.
What can this old bag possibly want? Money? Yes, that's probably it. She knows I got at least a hundred on me, from that shit back in the bar.
"What do you want?" I ask, not trying to hide the suspicion in my voice.
She hands me one of her pillows.
Huh? This old broad's into that weird stuff? I got to admit, I didn't see that coming.
"You want me to smother you while we're. . .uh. . .?"
"I want you to smother me to death. And then you can do whatever you want."
Didn't see that coming, either. And what's the bigger surprise? That she thinks I would actually kill her? Or that I would want to molest her corpse?
"You want me to kill you?"
I'm still holding the pillow. I look at her. Old. Homely. Hopeless. A minute ago I was ready to fuck her. I set the pillow on the bed.
"You can. You like to help people, I know."
I look at her face. It's all there. The rest of the body can hide life. But not the face. Her face is wiped-out. Wiped-out by life. Life just rolled over her and left that face.
Her face makes me feel drained, I can't look at it any longer. I look at her dressing gown. The part covering her fat old titties. She's probably not wearing panties.
"Listen, I know you got nothing to live for. Most of us don't. But we live, anyway."
"I'm too weak to do it myself. I need you to do it for me."
"Look," I say with a sigh. "Look, I'll end up in prison. Your bum life will be over, but mine will just go from bad to worse."
"Nobody will know it was you!"
"All those people at the bar saw me leave with you. It wouldn't take much to track me down."
"You could just kill yourself in prison, then!"
This old bag is something else! I almost laugh at her disregard for my life. . .but. . .but.
I get off the bed. There's nowhere to go in this room. It's just a room. A room with a chair, a dresser with a television on top, a nightstand, a door-less closet and a toilet. I'd sit in the chair, but it's piled high with clothes. I go over to the window, split the blinds. I got to walk back to my car. Drive back home. Sit around. Sit around. Parcel out the twenty-five hundred for a few months. Living.
"It's not good, but it's not that bad," I say.
"Screw!" the old bag says. "How many cocks have you had to suck that you didn't want to?"
Night is falling. The ugly street doesn't look quite so ugly under dark.
I hear the bed creak, the old woman comes padding over.
"There's nothing out there," she says.
I can see into the mini-mart. Two people moving around. The very hairs of their heads are all numbered.
"There's something out there," I say.
I shake my head. I place my hand against her back, guide her to the bed, pull the covers up. She gives me the pillow. I toss it onto the heap of clothes on the chair, it falls to the floor.
"You don't know," the old woman says. She has such an angry look on her face. "Have you ever spent a night in a Safe House with some fancy college girl giving you baloney for advice?"
Isn't it strange that the miracle of life, something when there should be nothing, ends so often in anger?
"I'm gonna go over to the gas station and get us some ice cream, and we can watch the end of that movie."
"What movie?" she spits.
"The one that was on at the bar."
"You think I'd let you back in here?" she snorts. "For some ice cream?"
She'll let me back in. I'm all she has.
I make my way across the street. I look beyond the twilight sky, to the That behind all that. I know I'm being watched.
I enter the mini-mart, head to the freezer, grab a pint of Blue Bunny double strawberry, take it to the register.
"Three hundred and seventy-nine pennies," says the clerk, a skinny old greaser.
I hand him a hundred.
He shakes his head.
"Can't do it. I just run through all my bills. The guy before you had a hundred, same as you. Two in one day, never seen that before."
I laugh. What else can you do? God damn money.
"Hey, man, how long you gonna be here?" I ask.
"Till I lock her up at eleven."
"Keep the hundred. I'll be back at eleven to get my change."
"All right, but I lock up straight at eleven. If you miss it, you miss it."
So be it, if I miss it, I miss it. But I can't go back without the ice cream. We must be faithful in the little things.