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Pass It On Poetry
When they told me about the associate editor position they didn’t say anything about stories of singers and gamblers and messy bartenders. They said nothing about cross dressing misogynists. There was no warning that I could admire such impossibly bad men and heroines deconstructed by life, that I’d feel them pushing into my spirit. No emails. No memos. Not even a tweet.
Val Haynes’ story “Shark Skin” nailed me right between the eyes. There’s a dozen lifetimes in her ten pages. It’s her first published story. First time sending one to a journal. Lookout people, there’s plenty more coming from this upstate maverick. Thinking of being an editor? Better put on your big boy pumps. Lonesome Val is coming to you on a muscled Harley-Davidson laptop and no one rides for free.
What was great about Walt was he didn’t know me twenty years ago, when I was hot shit around here, Troy, N.Y. He didn’t know my band, or that Elvis Costello had compared me to Patsy Cline. With Walt, there was no need to explain what I’d been or where or why I failed.
We met at Rusty’s, a month after I’d ditched working at
Margarita where I took action for Dink, an offshore bookie. It was the summer before I’d gotten sober the third time. I ran the open mic, poured drafts, mixed highballs, and got hit on by guys wearing Hell’s Angels tee shirts two sizes too
He saw me. Before him, the only sex I got was with an
electric facial massager, which I’d connect to an extension cord. You yank your bra above your breasts, wrap the cord around your legs, over a shoulder and across your torso, tugging with one hand while the other brings the massager closer and closer to your clit. You’ll gush to Parnassus, turn
into a swan and vanish in a thunder clap.
Was a Sunday, the kind you grind out, hoping for a decent till. And customers who feel bad for you. Not much to look at: long dirty blond hair and a face scarred deep enough to fit the tips of your nails. He smoked like a trucker, with his thumb and index finger. I liked that. There was something, though. The pastel madras? The manicure?
“Beatles or Stones?” he said. It was taking forever to draw a Guinness.
He tapped against the counter and said, “He came later.”
Rusty’s was on the ground floor of an empty brownstone 14 15
on Congress, Troy’s main drag, next to Jimmy’s Luncheonette where a sheet of loose-leaf advertised “2 eggs, 2 toasts, 2 bucks.” Across the street in a brownstone, its windows curtained by philodendrons, were the thriving law offices of the “DWI guy.”
Inside, a mahogany bar ran the room with a freckled mirror trimmed in gold. It was a smelly basement, and the kitchen wouldn’t pass inspection. I fried wings and made popcorn.
“So? Beatles or Stones?”
“Beatles for craft. The Stones for feel. Like you can’t not swing those hips.”
Some guy in a wife-beater yelled, “Gimme a Bud.”
Walt rapped on the counter, nodded and held up his empty. Hate that. Like they can’t be bothered to speak. Just plain lazy and rude. That’s one of the reasons I left Margarita, the same customers calling every fifteen minutes and all those rundowns, no please or thank you. They’d wait till post time, trying to get over. Make a bet already! By the time I’d entered them into the computer, the odds had changed. The bookie Dink would blow his stack. I set a bottle in front of Walt. His fingers grazed my wrist.
“Busy later?” he said.
“Tell me you didn’t feel it.”
And there I was like always. Wet.
His hand fit. I stared beyond his shoulder at a couple playing pool. A light hung over the table illuminating the room’s haze. Every stool was full, maybe a decent night after all.
We discovered our love for Merle Haggard and Abba, our mixed opinions on Kate Bush. He loved her. Forty-three and getting his doctorate in psychology. I mentioned The
Varieties of Religious Experience, and he leaned forward, tapped the gold band around my ring finger, “Significant?”
“Only to me,” I didn’t intend it as a joke, but he laughed. A Molson sign flickered pink, faded and flickered again. I broke down the bar and lifted racks of glasses and empties, trudging them into the back room. He didn’t offer to help, not that I’d accept. I untied the apron swaddling my hips. Fat.I jammed two Heinekens into small brown paper bags and held one out to him.
“Gets you drunk faster.”
Night had faded into the washed-out black of worn jeans. Everywhere reeked of rot: street crud and Chinese Trees of Heaven. Troy’s feeble street lamps shone on its potholed streets and cobbled alleys. I heeded the sidewalk’s cracks.
“Smartest woman I ever met.”
My insides glittered. Tilting my head, I sucked the last of my beer. We fucked against an arch of concrete buttressing City Hall’s tiered parking lot, its air tinged with gasoline.
He came like a fifteen-year-old virgin and said, “Sorry.”
I finished myself off at home.
Betting 101: Underdogs get points. Favorites give them. Knicks are ten point favorites over the Bulls. Play the favorite, lay the ten. Bet the Bulls, take the ten. Final score: 83 over 74, Knicks. The Bulls lose but win the bet. And we charged to broker bets; that’s called the vig.
Odds: six to five on a hundred dollar bet means you lose one-twenty if you lose, but win a hundred if you win. We make twenty bucks off the top. You got a loser and a winner, both hundred-dollar bets. You still make the twenty when the bets cancel.
I’d been busted four times for felony bookmaking in New York so I went offshore. I’d been a singer on a small label with more than twenty years of squeezing into a van with four 16 17 guys and putting on tights in cold bathrooms. And drinking. Then I got sober and yours truly, Queen Baby, thought all it took to grow up was to quit the booze, but being clean made me a know-it-all. Guys don’t like that. I lost my best friend and my true love. Kicked ‘em both to the curb. I’d done the miraculous. I could sing. How tough could it be to talk to people?
Being a person was more difficult than I thought.
I said yes to fifty-dollar gigs in the wilds of Southern Jersey, knowing I couldn’t drive. I could barely play guitar. The sound man in Philly shook his head when I showed up with my white face and a guitar slung over my shoulder. I encored and left with cash only to find my car jacked from South Street. I had a talent for misfortune: opening for a Sylvester clone in the Meat Packing district; singing for tips at the Cupcake Cafe and diners in Jersey. Fucked. I could book action, clean mushroom caps or dice carrots.
When Dink called, you bet, I said yes. But as soon as I could, I left the racket. Only took three years.
I hoped I’d see Walt again. Two Sundays later, he rambled into the bar. “Been a little short on cash, if you’ve been wondering about me.”
I grabbed the remote, turned-up the TV’s volume and shook my head. I felt used, but I’d used him too. I charged him every other beer, so he’d stay and watch football.
At closing time, I swept and hoped he was watching. He walked me home. At my building, I lowered my eyes and shifted my weight, hands behind my back. “Now what?” I said.
He guided me through an alley to a weedy patch of green and jerked me on top of him. Coy at first, my Super Girl
The following weekend he invited me to his place.
He shoved against a smudgy glass-door, nearly breaking it. A door to the right of the stairwell read: THE COPY SHOP. Inside, faded reams of card stock were stacked like columns along the bare wall. Boxes scattered the floor. I kicked one, releasing a curl of dust. You could see the clean space on the carpet where a copier had once been.
He spread his arms and said, “Worked here for years until I bought the business and the building. Went under my first term.”
“Still own it?”
“Yeah. Me and the courthouse. Whatever.”
I wanted him to get out of bankruptcy, reopen and let me work there. It was a gamble. Who’d take the gig?
“Shall we?” he said. Exiting into a cold hallway. I made a vampire joke.
He sprinted and waited on the second landing, arms folded, somewhat annoyed. Maybe he thought if I ran like him I wouldn’t notice messy details. The walls reminded me of growing up. Filthy. There were several gouges in them and someone had scrawled Fuck TV on new plaster. I could see the slats under the mortar and imagined Fortunato. What would it be like to die walled in?
He picked up a black high heel on the landing. “Ex-wife,” he said, tossing it into a room of junk.
I tip-toed behind him and fished out its mate from a garbage bag full of skirts, blouses and bras. Not my size, too bad.
“Coming or what?”
“Almost tripped, that last flight of stairs,” The third floor was straight out of House Beautiful. Large windows with shutters overlooked the street and a neon sign outside bathed a corner of the room red. The walls: shades of green and mauve moldings. On the kitchen’s chopping block stood an empty bottle of Tignanello, my favorite red.
“It’s something,” I said.
“Yeah, me and a buddy. Took a weekend.”
Engravings of Troy’s local landmarks hung on the walls. A shelf of books: golf, plumbing and the DSM, Fourth edition.
LPs lay strewn over the parquet floor—Aerosmith, Pretty Things, and New York Dolls.
“Pick something,” he said.
I plopped into the easy chair and locked my arms ‘round a pillow. “It’s nice like this. Quiet.”
“I don’t like your kissing,” he said. “Like a teenager, shoving your tongue down my throat. No finesse.”
I felt small, and flushed, “Really.”
He slouched on the sofa, gazed like a coquette, unzipped his jeans, took his cock in his hand and moistened his fingers with his tongue.
“I’m so bad you’d rather do it yourself?”
He touched himself and asked me to do the same. We masturbated facing each other. Tiny lights flickered within me, and I teetered on the edge of wanting and not wanting to come. I hoped my sex face wasn’t as stupid as his.
Not long after giving me his number, he invited me to dinner and a movie: Chinese take-out and Blue Velvet on DVD.
I picked at my food and wanted the movie to be already over. Should I mention the unreturned phone calls, nah, it’s petty. The truth? I wanted to get laid and didn’t want to jeopardize the real part of the date.
He stuck in the movie and sat too far from me. I wanted to be fucked until I was erased. The movie was stupid, a twohour bore war. As the credits rolled, he asked my opinion. I downed my beer, cleared my throat.
“Not sure I understood it, but Kate Bush would have loved it.”
“You kidding? I thought you’d like it.”
I didn’t want to talk about the movie. I inched along the sofa, teasing him like a game. He jolted and grabbed an LP. “Roxy Music!” I made an O with my mouth and stupid little hand claps.
“You didn’t like it.”
“Dennis Hopper? And that breathing mask?”
“Yeah? Next time you pick the movie.” He tossed the album, marched into the kitchen and returned with beer. “I used to watch porn with Maggie.”
The darkness within me quickened.
“Isn’t that a little, you know, sick?”
“Think so? Tell me, what’s over the line?”
I wanted him to like me, wanted him to fuck me. “Grandpa in the playpen, playing doctor till college.” I stared at the floor. “Covert stuff, like when your dad and brothers talk to your tits. Or walk around naked.”
“So-called normal people pay professionals to shit on their faces,” he said. I braced a cushion against my chest. Wet, but why? Lifting a barbell, he did a bicep curl. “Crossdressers, think they’re sick too?
“What if I told you that right next to where we slept and fucked was a garbage bag full of women’s clothing? Stuff I wear.”
That was it, the knock-out punch. I went at him, hungry- -nothing but nerve endings. I couldn’t make him come.
“Is it me?”
He cupped my shoulders tenderly. “Close your eyes.” I heard the rustling of plastic bags and imagined a brassiere and a wig.
“Turn around,” he said. It was a dildo attached to a harness.
His shoulders sank.
I pictured The Marlboro Man, riding me wearing nothing but boots.
He entered slowly. Some heat. Some waves. It was OK. But I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so when he asked I told him it was interesting.
I motioned toward his hardness. “We didn’t need it.”
“I got it for you. To use on me.”
My fizzy insides went flat. I flashed on my brother, standing over my bed.
I sucked him until a-million-o’clock and left when he began snoring. At home, I grabbed a Penthouse, tied myself stupid, and flicked the massager on and off till I shuddered while envisioning his sex hidden and me kissing his made-up face.
Rusty’s was slamming. Walt pushed his way to the bar and threw down his keys. “Bring beer if you can.”
It was nearly dawn when I arrived. Alongside a towel full of makeup lay a red satin dress.
He stood haloed beneath a light fixture, holding a mint crinoline, his face radiating pale Kryptonite. “Red or green?”
Something airy and fine passed between us, a deeper knowing. How twins felt, maybe. I held the red up to his face. “This one.” I sounded like a person, neither tough nor helpless. The real me. “I have a scarf,” I said. “Reddish-gold. It’d be perfect.”
“Bring it next time. Please?”
Maybe his bravado had been a defense. Mine too. But this. This, we could share. I bumped the bottoms of my palms together.
Clutching the mascara, and reaching for me, he said, “Would you?”
I held his hand, led him to the bathroom and filled the tub.
Holding on to me, he stepped from the bath. Small, slightly shivering. I wrapped him in a towel, patted his legs and the crack of his butt. “Got to dry off real good before the panty hose,” I said, smoothing them along his legs and over his knees and thighs. I pulled them over his cock and asked if it hurt.
I filled the bra with tissue, pinned his hair up and applied foundation and concealer. I plucked and penciled, highlighted, shadowed and mascaraed, enjoying the job till I resented never spending this much time on myself. I zipped him into the dress.
He skipped before the mirror, teetering on heels, and watching him, an energy uncoiled within me. Power. Strength. I felt embarrassed for him, so vulnerable, he almost sickened me. I wanted him.
”You could pass,” I said.
“Think so?” He practiced his walk and danced around the room and stopped abruptly. His body caved slightly. He grunted with pain.
“Fucking knew it,” he said, limping toward the sofa, holding his stomach till he lurched sideways toward the bathroom.
I knew the night was over.
Oddly though, after all the violent retching—he was loud—his makeup and clothes were perfect when he returned. Not a splotch on his heels.
Did he think I was stupid?
That night the massager got a real workout. I imagined him a twirling jewel box ballerina.
He didn’t want me? I thought I was doing him a favor— thought he found an understanding woman. No. He was doing the favor.
Three days after his ‘illness,’ I placed the scarf I’d mentioned on the driver’s seat of his van, which he never
locked, along with a hand-written note.
Here I am. Living, breathing, cock-sucking, butt-chewing, proof that God is a senseless maniac. To heaven, again and again. Can’t wait till you’re better, me.
Proud at first, second-guessing later.
That night Rusty’s was packed. Flummoxed by the crowd, I confused drink orders, broke a bottle of Makers Mark and forgot how to make ‘Sex on the Beach.’ Walt was still ‘sick.’ I had nothing to look forward to that night so I ate all the pretzels and popcorn and threw up in the bathroom. O Happy Fucking Day, in comes Rusty. He picks up a broken bottle.
“What’s going on? You drunk?”
I left work and planned on drinking till forever. Passing Walt’s, I heard David Jo, I can’t get the kind of love that I need or that I want, so let’s just dance. I threw my weight against his door. The bass reverberated so loud my ears pinged. Tiptoeing to the top of the stairs. His door was ajar. Walt was draped in my scarf, his eyes closed and that stupid face. In front of him, a jean-clad guy knelt. Golden red folds swayed and steadily accelerated in rhythm. An empty bottle of wine on the floor.
“How’s it going?” Walt said and clicked his tongue intothe phone. He called to borrow my wig, the red one I wearopen mic night.
“Sure. I’ll leave it the van.”
I waited. Until I was dehydrated, till I was good and stinky and stood in the tub and held the wig between my legs, staring at the yellow ochre, circling the drain. I dumped
the wig onto the driver’s seat of his van and slammed the door. I looked at it and felt bad. And good.
For the next two weeks I got hang ups. All hours. Couldn’t keep the phone plugged in. I wanted to kill him. Burns me up. I was smarter. A million-times stronger. So, I’m homeless. So, I drink. So, I’ll quit tomorrow. See I know stuff, know how life works. Know about him, too. It was me who dressed him in red satin. Me who made him look hotter than he ever was. Me. Miss Fucking Thing? Him? No. No way.
That New Year’s Eve Walt reeled through the door and flattened me with a kiss. “You can’t just waltz in here and kiss me.”
“Yet, I did,” he said.
He shuddered and moaned. I spit into a Kleenex. “Good, huh?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “Show your face round here again, and I’ll cut you so good all the Max Factor base in the world won’t hide it, boy.” I jabbed my finger into his chest with every syllable. The look on his face. Something. When I kissed him my tongue was like a rabbit.