Friday, March 27, 2009

Odd Bills

Odd Bills

I’d become somewhat of a regular there. Once, maybe twice a week I’d go, sit at the same booth and write. Always at happy hour, cheap drinks and pretty much no crowds. No one bothered me, and I liked that. I could tune out the boom and the swagger of the place, and focus on smoking, and my pencil. At night, the lights hurt my eyes; there was too much glitter, too much sparkle. Strobe lights and disco balls refracted anything I tried to focus on, and it was impossible to get any work done. Plus, at night, that’s when the real hustlers came out. During the day it was nice. There would be entire days where I would hardly notice the distractions so readily available around me, because some little sentence or something would preoccupy me. It was my dirty little version of Flaubert's rotten apples, only instead of a desk drawer full of spoiled fruit, I had bourbon, Pall Malls, vinyl seats and brass poles. These days, most of the people, and especially the employees, didn’t talk to me. They had, at one point, but had apparently given that up. Sure, there were some there that never quite gave up on me, always offering to take me for a talk in the back, but it had become fairly lighthearted; they knew I was a cheap, that I never even went in there with enough cash for that. Then, one week, it was audition time. I was in my regular spot when it happened, sipping my bourbon and ginger. I had been caught up in some stupid little story for days, struggling with ideas of truth and pathos and shit. Today, I decided, would be the day it all came through. Then the new girl stepped on stage. She wasn’t overly beautiful, didn’t have that certain whatever that makes a stripper instantly identifiable. I glanced up once, just once, and had not really intended to do even that, and suddenly I knew that I wasn’t going to write anymore that day. What I saw up there crushed me, and I stared, transfixed by this girl. She was stiff and awkward, and looked almost pained as she gyrated against the pole, as she ground her way towards the rail. I realized the difference: She couldn’t take herself out of it. She had no thousand yard stare like the vets did. This was still very much a personal battle for her. Once, years ago in Canada, I hit a deer in my old Cadillac. I had been doing around 80 on some back road at night. The thing bounced off my grill like a fleshy pinball; it must have gone 60, 70 yards. My CD player didn’t even skip. That’s what I was seeing in this girl’s future. She’d end up broken and bloodied, and some back woods tow-truck driver would come along and pull her out of the ditch, asking whoever it was that put her there, “You sure you don’t want this? I’ll use it!” and toss her in the back of his truck. Maybe that’s how she got here in the first place... I don’t know. I felt myself moving to the rail, pulling money out of my pocket as I went. Strange scenes kept popping into my head as I walked: I couldn’t stop seeing this girl’s past, present, and future. The music all but stopped. The red bulbs overhead seemed like floodlights, like a fucking x-ray machine. I laid a dollar on the rail and she approached. Her eyes locked onto mine, huge and terrified, but hellishly determined to be alluring. Panic rose in my chest and started to choke me. She leaned in and whispered, “Be nice, it’s only my second day.” I laid another dollar on the rack, forcing myself to break the eye contact. She shimmied her way over to a pair of middle-management types at the other end, almost falling in her heels, a little girl playing dress-up, and a hammer struck me, someone jabbed me with a hat pin, my heart shattered. The smoke from my cigarette drifted up into my eyes, and I had to start blinking. Then, all of a sudden, the music stopped... It was over. I wanted to say something, comfort her or convince her that everything could and would move up from there. I wanted to say that no matter what it looked like, things would get better. She smiled timidly at me as she collected the odd bills off the stage floor. She locked onto my eyes again and said, “Thanks, and just let me know when you’re ready for a dance in back.” Those words, the slight (had I imagined it?) cock of an eyebrow, shook me out of my trance. I nodded, then shook my head, then stopped trying and moved to the bar to order another drink. I caught my reflection in the mirror behind the bar; I looked like a deer caught in a pair of headlights. My mistake, she would be just fine

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