Fried My Little Brains - The Kills Let England Shake - PJ Harvey Observations in the Alley - The Secret Secretaries Jim - Swans Cherry Lips - Archie Bronson
05 Sep 2011
Seducing The Dismal - novel extract
Let’s start this one when a cancer patient named No Eyebrows creeps into Damascus, a Mission District dive bar. For years the floor, walls, and ceiling had been painted entirely black, but that afternoon Owen, the bar’s owner, added a new element, smashing twenty mirrors and gluing the shards to the ceiling. The pieces shimmered like stars, transforming Damascus into a planetarium for drunkards; dejected men and women stargazing from bar stools.
When the first customer of the day had walked in and noticed the bar’s broken-mirror constellations, he said, “There must be 10,000 years of bad luck hanging here.”
“That would certainly explain a few things,” Owen said, who had a heinous birthmark underneath his nose that looked like a piece of sausage from a pizza.
Damascus always had rock and roll on the jukebox. Right then it was AC-DC, playing the only chord progression they knew and howling about salacious women, which was funny because Damascus had an almost exclusively male clientele. Old drunks talking to themselves, trying to barter with the bartender for the price of a Corona. Surly construction workers who drank from the minute they got off work until last call. “Off-duty” mariachis getting more tone deaf with each tilt of tequila, wearing matching black outfits spotted with silver buckles that made them look like decorated war veterans. Insipid twenty-something Caucasian boys, their cheeks stuffed with carbohydrates and college degrees, wowed by their own flickering wits: “Here’s to honor,” one would say, “getting on her and staying on her.”
There were few female regulars, and one who haunted the place was Shambles. She had acne scars all over, her cragged cheeks were pocked like the mirror-shards glued to the bar’s ceiling. Her hair had been bleached too many times: tips brittle, broken, crooked. Frayed bangs fell down to her eyebrows like tassels and pointed a million directions. Her eyes used to be blue, but they’d faded to matte gray.
Shambles was the patron saint of the hand job, getting strangers off for less than the price of a parking ticket. So far, she’d done only one, though there would be more fondling to finance her bar tab. The night was young and full of fisted opportunities.
No Eyebrows stood next to Shambles’ stool and ordered a double shot of peppermint schnapps. He liked to drink it because the taste reminded him of mouthwash, in a way that stoked his hostile nostalgia, reminded him that there had been days, real days where he used mouthwash and had a family. Days long before they found tumours stuck to his lungs like poisonous barnacles.
Owen placed the huge shot down on the bar, and as No Eyebrows reached for it with a shaking hand, Shambles looked at his sallow skin, the way it clung to him like a layer of film on cold chicken broth. Most people were shocked by his appearance because he reinforced the fact that everyone was going to die. People pursed their lips and averted their eyes, shaming him into near invisibility with their avoidances as they tried not to ogle the prowling dead.
Shambles, however, wasn’t deterred or deflected or weirded out by his appearance. She saw him as a business opportunity, dollar signs, an untapped member of the masturbation market. But she wouldn’t establish eye contact with him during the act itself; she never did with any of ‘em.
“Do you mind if I drink with you?” Shambles said to No Eyebrows, then asked Owen to pour her another whiskey.
“I’d like that,” No Eyebrows said. “Thanks.”
Owen brought her drink and said, “This is your last shot.” He wasn’t cutting her off, per se. Owen wasn’t one to micro-manage another lush’s consumption. It wasn’t Shambles’ drunkenness that he monitored, but her cavalier attitude toward men. He resented how openly she flaunted her zeal to fondle the customers because the only hands that had been on him in over a year were the incidental brushes with customers. Often he felt like a person collecting tolls at a bridge, interacting with hundreds, thousands of people every day, but never knowing any of them. They approached, idled, vanished, and he was stuck in his tiny shack, Damascus in this case, awaiting the next impatient exchange.
Shambles frowned at Owen’s warning. She waved him away. Though he could be testy he was a nice man, but definitely grumpy. Not to mention his birthmark. She tried not to stare at it every time they spoke, but she couldn’t help herself: it was like a third nipple on his upper lip.
“Why are you thanking me for drinking with you?” she said to No Eyebrows.
“I was raised right. Cheers,” he said, holding his schnapps up in the air like a Bible in a minister’s hand, a retrofit prop to shore up the fragile world.
Instead of echoing Cheers, though, Shambles crashed her glass into his, spilling whiskey on her fingers, and said, “To livers aching like shin splints.”
He laughed. They drained their shots. Faces flushed from the spirits. Humidity spreading through their private ecosystems.
“I’ve never seen you here before,” she said.
“What brought you into this dump?”
“I was incredibly parched.”
“You don’t seem like you have much in common with these deadbeats.”
He pointed at some of the men nearby. “Doesn’t that make them the lucky ones?”
Shambles didn’t know how to respond to this, didn’t know what to do with that kind of tactless honesty amongst strangers, especially in bars where men and women typically honed their deceit, cloaked in personas. Deception was the norm: cab drivers claimed they were venture capitalists; rickety alcoholics morphed into ex-athletes; anonymous office workers were recently retired from the cubicle because of an important invention - one even tried to convince a woman that he masterminded the Caps Lock key.
Every interchange was a con.
Every night a pitiful costume party.
Except here was No Eyebrows blowing the whole cycle of charades for everyone else. He had the audacity to be heartfelt, and what was Shambles supposed to do with someone showing honesty?
So instead of answering him directly, she turned her attention to commerce: “How’d you like to get off?”
As soon as they were in Damascus’ bathroom, he yanked his pants down. Shambles locked the door, showed him a rubber. “It’s twenty bucks with this.” She shook the little silver square back and forth, business savvy. “Forty without.” She pulled a lube-tube from her purse and squirted it in her palm, working it around.
The bathroom light fluttered off and on, a faulty bulb, making a noise like a fly smacking into a window.
“Forty, forty,” No Eyebrows said, bending at the waist and fumbling through his pockets for money. He stood up and gave her two twenties.
“My rules,” she said, “Don’t touch me. Don’t cum on me. Or I’ll scream.” This was the same canned speech she reeled off to everyone she brought in here.
“Of course. I’ll even buy you a drink later,” said No Eyebrows, hoping this offer would make him feel less seedy. But it actually made him feel worse, its macho predictability.
“Chivalrous,” she said, almost laughing. This was what passed for small talk while your hand was lodged in a man’s crotch. She slid her wet fist down him, noticing he was so bald that he didn’t even have pubic hair, just tiny red sores on his abdomen. “You must be from Camelot.”
“Kansas City originally,” he smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back.
“Does that feel good?” Shambles said.
“It feels great,” he said, closing his eyes so he didn’t have to watch the droopy thing flop around. God damn chemo. Closing his eyes so nothing existed except her hand on his body.
“Just keep touching me.”
Shambles maintained her speed, looked at him more closely since he’d cinched his eyes. She didn’t understand what he was doing at Damascus in the first place. He was sick, no doubt seriously sick, yet here he was in the bar’s bathroom with his pants around his ankles.
Someone jiggled the locked door and knocked on it.
“Just a minute,” Shambles said, increasing her speed.
No Eyebrows moaned feebly. Grinned. Remembered when his wife used to touch his body. He’d taken it all for granted, every fingertip across his skin. The way his wife, Sally used to run her hands through his hair when he couldn’t sleep, and now there was no hair. No hair, no wife, no daughter, no chance of living more than another couple months. He’d removed himself from his family, vanishing from the North Bay into San Francisco, because what was the point of prolonging a life mired in illness? Why postpone death, if it was the only way to hush the squealing reality that he’d never see his daughter grow up? He stopped going to his appointments at the hospital. Prescriptions unfilled. Phone calls never returned. If these were his last weeks, he wouldn’t waste them saving himself.
Now No Eyebrows glanced at Shambles, who averted her gaze to the ceiling’s wavering light. For some reason, it was harder to resist eye contact with him—something about his whole honest spiel, the way his disease was exposed while the rest of us tried to veil our glitches and bankruptcies and stale sins. Shambles found him enticing, which hadn’t happened in a long time, a man seeming to be anything besides a danger, a liability.
Someone knocked on the door again.
“More time,” Shambles said.
“Why can’t I touch you?” No Eyebrows said.
Her hand slowed down. She wanted to look at him but beat back the urge. “It’s one of my rules.”
“I know. But I’m wondering why.”
Still resisting, her eyes fixed up on the shuddering light: “Because I’m not a whore.”
“How would that make you a whore if I touched your shoulder?”
“Don’t touch my shoulder.”
“I’m not going to.”
“Do you want me to stop?” She let go of him and he shook his head. “Then don’t ask any more questions.”
“Please, I need you to touch me.”
“No more questions." She fumbled for his penis, squeezed it harder.
“Do you like that?” she said, and he said, “Don’t stop touching me,” and someone knocked on the door again and No Eyebrows threw his head back: every disappearing detail of his disappearing life dwindled while Shambles touched his body, and he felt pleasure, actual pleasure. This was the first hand on him in months that didn’t belong to a doctor or nurse, and thirty seconds later he came, gasping for air and life and hope.
She let a few moments go by so he could gather himself, then Shambles turned around to wash her hands, using Damascus’ green soap that smelled like menthol cigarettes. Finally, she let herself look him in the eyes and asked, “Why were you asking about my touching rule?”
“I don’t understand it.”
“I don’t know you.”
“I don’t know you either, and I need you to touch me,” No Eyebrows said.
He pointed at his face. “Do you know who wants to touch this monster?”
She didn’t say anything, shook her head slowly. She saw his disease all over him, and she wondered what he saw in her. Probably a has-been, a hooker. She couldn’t blame him. Her sicknesses were harder to inspect, caged under the skin, captives within a captive.
“No one wants to touch me,” he said.
“I want to.” She didn’t know what else to say, what was there to say? “You’re not a monster; lots of people are sick.”
“This is all that’s left of me,” he said, still pointing at his gaunt face. “I’m withering.”
“It’s okay,” Shambles said and pointed at her own face. “So am I.” Then she sent her finger toward the wall, indicating the other deadbeats in Damascus. “We all are.”
The bathroom’s failing light bulb kept flashing, stuttering, buzzing.
“Can I pay to touch your shoulder?” he said.
“Please.” He stuck a hand in his pocket, pulling out some more money. He counted forty and held it out to her. “I want to feel your skin. Nothing dirty, I promise. Just your shoulder.”
How could Shambles deny him such a naked want? And how could she accept any money if touching her shoulder was going to mean so much?
She shook her head, pushed his hand away, didn’t answer until their eyes locked again. “I don’t want your money.”
“Please take it.”
“Please,” he begged.
“I don’t want it,” she said and stepped forward and took him in her arms, right there in Damascus’ bathroom. She hugged him and he hugged her, and they stood. An old Tom Waits song seeped through the walls from the jukebox, the sink dripped, the toilet ran, and the light flickered its paltry wattage like the gloomiest disco ball in the world.