I meet Vince at a strip-joint called Bad Turbulence near the airport. This is his idea, not mine. Guy like me arranges a meeting, it would probably be at a Quizno's, or a used bookstore, something like that.
Turbulence caters to a rougher crowd. Baggage-handlers and grade C salesmen traveling coach. I squeeze past them, eyes down, picking through the darkness. There are plenty of empty tables. I choose one near the bar and order a seven dollar rum and Coke. The bartender-lady's wearing a tuxedo shirt with a bowtie, which I find a relief. Topless women make me nervous.
"Jesus, relax already."
Here comes Vince.
He sits down, takes the drink out of my hand. Sips it. "Okay. Next time order a man's drink. I'd say a J&B, 'neat,' which means no ice. If you want to get a buzz, order a beer with it. Say: 'I want a J&B, neat, with a beer back.' You can pick the brand, but don't go with a microbrew."
He reaches over and loosens my tie. We're dressed nearly the same: white, long-sleeved Axcess shirts and black slacks. Again, Vince's idea. He'd cured me of printed tees a couple weeks ago.
"You want a smoke?"
"I don't know," I say. "They've passed laws--"
He lights two dark brown cigarettes. Parks one in my mouth. The fragrance's sweet, kind of cinnamon, but harsh enough to make me cough. Vince looks the other way.
"Know what these are? Cloves. Every time you cough, it means the smoke's ripping a thousand tiny holes in your lungs."
He lets the thick vapors curl past his nose. Vince is one good-looking guy. If you took Adonis, gave him a razor-cut, then roughed him up a little with two weeks in County, you'd have Vincent Barberi. I mean, even the name. Don't get me wrong--I'm so heterosexual it's painful, but if I was a chick I'd have no choice but to do him. I wouldn't be able to help myself.
A techno-beat pulses from somewhere farther back in the club. Vince stands up. "Show's starting. Let's get closer to the stage."
# # # # #
The show's a disappointment.
Growing up on Cinemax and pixel-tweaked internet models doesn't prepare you for the real thing when it comes jiggling down the runway. Lots of cellulite, lots of birthmarks and stretchmarks, appendectomy scars and even the telltale pucker of gunshot wounds. Not very erotic. Plus, all the girls seem to be doused in the same body spray, which mingles with their sweat and makes an odor like cat piss.
"Pretty hot, huh?" Vince says.
"Real women, that's what I like. Take a look over there."
He points a shot glass at a chunky Hispanic girl. She's got a mass of bright keloid scars down her back, and she's trying to do a pole dance. Only she doesn't have the strength to haul her way up very high, so she settles for a half-ass twirl about a foot off the ground.
"Her name's Carla," Vince says. "I've watched her dance here before."
Better make that Scarla.
He drains his shot of Rumpleminz. "You up for some action? When Carla finishes this set, I can ask her about a private dance. Cost you a hundred, but trust me, it'd be worth it."
"Private?" I say, looking around. There aren't any shadowed nooks like you see in higher-class strip clubs, where the girls give the patrons lap dances. No neon sign saying "Champagne Room," either. "Where?"
"They do dances outside?"
Vince rolls his eyes. "No, dumb-ass. All the girls here turn tricks. Handjobs and blowjobs, out by the dumpster. That's why it costs a hundred."
I'm getting this feeling, sort of like my stomach's turning inside out. And I haven't had that much to drink.
"So are you up, or what?"
# # # # #
I'd met Vince in a creative writing class. Nothing special; community college at night. A burned-out prof and a dozen wannabes, mostly women. That's why Vince was there, he told me. For the women. He bagged about half of them before the semester was over, even this lady in her thirties with a gut. Said she was on the rebound and the best fuck he'd had in a long time.
Me, I was there to write. I'm turning professional one of these days. Already got the spot at Barnes and Noble picked out where my books are going to go. Mystery-thrillers, because they're so fucking simple to crank out.
I've even come up with a series character: J.B. Slade. The 'J.B.' stands for Julius Bascombe. He's a black guy, a Viet Nam vet who solves crimes the police can't and lives on a houseboat in San Diego harbor. Also, he's got a prosthetic hand he pimp-slaps the bad guys with.
Can't wait to read it, can you?
Only thing was, nobody in class liked my stuff. The prof told me I lacked the life experience to be writing about hard-boiled types like J.B. Which pissed me off, but after a couple hours brooding over a keyboard I figured maybe he was right. Maybe growing up in the suburbs really doesn't prepare you for crime writing.
Luckily, Vince had a solution.
# # # # #
I'm out by the dumpster, minus a hundred in cash and Scarla's kneeling in front of me.
She's changed into a little black dress. The clothing helps, but I'm still a thousand miles from a hard-on. There's a pile of used condoms heaped next to the dumpster. Latex caked with translucent slime, and I can't stop staring at it.
Scarla's brown hand snakes for my zipper. I slap it away.
"Your friend," she says, "he didn't take so long."
Vince had gone first. I'd been sort of, you know, curious about what he was going to do with her, but he said he wanted privacy. So I waited on the other side of the dumpster.
I look down at her greasy scalp. This isn't going to happen.
"Here," I say, handing her a clove. "Let's just smoke these and talk, okay? Anyone asks you, I was a real stallion."
# # # # #
We decide to take my car from the club. Vince drove up in a Chevy Nova, cherry condition, but he's trying to keep the mileage down. He folds himself into the front seat of my vintage eighties Fiero and we're off, me taking it slow on account of the two drinks I've already had.
He's wearing a suede jacket now. As I drive, he keeps patting at a bulge in the right pocket.
"Got us a surprise," he says. "Ran into a friend while you were with Carla."
"What kind of surprise?"
"First, pull in here." He points at a Minuteman liquor store off to the left. "I haven't started drinking yet."
My first thought is: uh-oh, open container law, but what the hell. I just paid a hundred bucks to smoke a cigarette with a stripper.
I pull up to the window and Vince orders a whole flat of Mickey's Wide Mouths. He asks me to pay because purchasing our 'surprise' has left him short. I pay, no problem. He's guzzling from a bottle before I even start to drive away.
"Where we going now?"
"Head for 1-10," he says, and belches. "See, you scored a little off Carla, that's the first part of being a man. But there's other things, too."
He hands me a bottle.
"Look, Vince, I appreciate the education you're giving me, but there's no way I'm drinking while driving. Huh-uh."
"You believe all that M.A.D.D. bullshit?"
"I don't want to get pulled over."
"What that is," Vince says, putting a foot up on the dash, "is just another way for the state to make money. All those DUI lawyers are in on it, too. The truth? Alcohol makes you drive better. Makes your reflexes sharper. "
"What happens is, you're so nervous about fucking up, getting busted, you pay more attention to the road." He twists the cap off a fresh one and shoves it under my chin. "Try it."
He jams the neck into my mouth. Glass clinks against my teeth, cold malt liquor sloshing out, but I swallow some down. He raises the bottle. I either chug or the rest goes spilling out onto my shirt, so I chug, keeping both hands on the wheel.
"See, you're drinking and driving already. How does it feel?"
The buzz doesn't take long to hit because I've got no tolerance, and yeah, it feels okay--pretty good, in fact. I see a stoplight ahead and brake like I normally would. Maybe even a little sooner. No lightning bolts crash down or anything. I turn to say as much to Vince but shut up when I see him sitting there, just kicking back with his eyes half-lidded. The passenger window's down and the night wind's playing with his dark hair.
I swerve a little and snap my eyes back to the road.
# # # # #
The stretch of interstate, when we reach it, looks almost deserted. There's a convenience store and the yellow and black sign for a Waffle Hut.
"You want me to keep driving?" I say.
Vince peers at the sign. "No. No. Stop here. It's perfect."
"I'm not really hungry."
"That's not the point, dipshit."
# # # # #
A blast of warm grease and country music hits as Vince shoulders the door. The crowd's a couple notches farther on the bad-ass scale than what we had at Bad Turbulence. Rednecks, truckers, and bikers, almost to a man. More than a few look up from their waffles to give us the fuck-eye.
A fat waitress in a paper hat darts up and tows us towards a booth. She leaves a pair of menus in her wake.
"Okay," I say, "so this isn't about food."
Vince cranes his head around, looking over the packed room. "Who would you say is the toughest motherfucker in here?"
It's a hard choice. While I'm thinking it over, he slides me another Mickey's under the table. I take a quick sip and stash it before anyone sees.
"I'd say this dude," I say, pointing at an Extremely Hairy Guy three booths down. He's wearing a leather vest with no shirt underneath and there's enough curlies darkening his chest, neck, and shoulders to clog a pool filter. Hard to tell with him sitting, but I figure he's six-four and just a couple pounds shy of three bills.
"Yeah, he'll do," Vince says. "Now go pick a fight with him."
"Pick a fight. Slap him, call him a fag, whatever. I'll back you up."
"You pussy out, and your education ends here. Also, you won't get any surprise."
I take another glance at Hairy. He's eating chicken and waffles, scowling at everyone. With his Fu Manchu he looks like Lemmy from Motorhead.
"Vince, no disrespect to you, but this guy could kick both our asses. Easy."
He motions for the Mickey's back and takes a brazen pull. "You, maybe. I'm a brown belt in Tang Soo Do. So no, he'd find my ass quite difficult to kick."
"You'll really back me up?"
Scared as I am, I can appreciate where Vince is going with this. Ordering drinks and talking to hookers is just kiddie-pool stuff. If you want to learn how to skydive, you've got to jump out of a plane. And if you want to write about fucking people up, you'd better get into a couple fights.
I take a final swig of Mickey's. How to get this started?
There's a Sweet and Low dispenser by my hand. I shake a packet out, wad it into a ball, and toss it at Hairy, overhand. The packet arcs through the air. It bounces off his chest and lands in the syrup on his plate.
His head shoots up.
I give him the finger, just in case there's any confusion.
# # # # #
Hairy's breath, up close, violates me with nicotine and maple syrup.
". . . can't have a fucking meal, by myself, minding my own fucking business, without some college-aged cunt . . ."
He's waddled over to our booth and hovers about four inches from my face. There's a double lightning bolt tattoo on his right shoulder. Man actually shaved that spot so the ink could be seen. Which would be kind of funny, under different circumstances.
". . .no respect for my colors, my traditions, just up and throws shit at me in a Waffle Hut, a goddamn American institution . . ."
The volume cuts out and I can't hear him anymore, only the thud of my own heartbeat. Thud, thud, thud. It's pretty fast. And Hairy's face is coming into sharper focus, while everything else around him blurs. It's like seeing him through a peephole, his nose and eyes warped in sudden closeness.
Now he's reaching towards me. I can see his big hands in the periphery, moving near. But they're slow. Slower than mine as I whip the almost-empty Mickey's from under the table and slam it against his head.
Why'd I do that?
The bottle makes a hollow thok sound, but doesn't shatter. It slips from my fingers. Hairy blinks and his eyes seem to clear. The slowness is gone. He grabs me, hauls me out of the booth while my left hand tires to grasp a pitcher of Boysenberry syrup, and fails.
# # # # #
You know how in the books, when the good guy gets sapped or sucker-punched? The world spins around and Our Hero dives for a spreading pool of blackness. The scene fades.
That doesn't happen to me.
What I get is a montage; Hairy cinching the tie around my neck with one hand while the other jacks knuckles against my face. Repeatedly.
I'd like to say I can't feel any pain through the wall of adrenalin my body's thrown up. I really would.
But the pain, baby, it's on tap tonight.
# # # # #
At some point Hairy drags me outside. The montage ends. There's cold sidewalk under my ass and the thunder of a motorcycle ripping out of the parking lot.
"Man, you just got nailed," Vince says, sitting down next to me. "I wanted to jump in, but that guy was too fast."
The front of my shirt looks like the Red Sea. "Did he--did he bite me?"
"I think so."
I want to start crying, and realize I already am. "One thing I figured out," I say, babbling, "is that J.B. Slade fights too much. I'm going to have him be more diplomatic. Buy people beers and stuff, instead of just smacking them. It's not realistic."
Vince pats my shoulder. "There you go."
He's almost as close to me as Hairy was, and I don't know, it could be endorphins finally kicking in, but there's like a charge between us. A charge for me, anyways. What I'd like more than anything is for him to wrap his arms around me, comfort me. But not in a queer way. Like in those war movies, when one soldier embraces his wounded buddy.
A siren keens.
Vince leaps to his feet. "That's probably an ambulance," he says, eyes darting. "And look at you. You're a mess."
He whips off his suede jacket. Wraps it around me, so my bloody shirt's covered. The gesture, I've got to admit, is so tender I start crying again.
"Look, I'm going to find another way home," Vince says. "And I'd really appreciate it if anyone asks you anything, you don't tell them about me. Okay? Like you were sort of a lone wolf tonight and I just happened to be sitting in the same booth. Alright?"
"Sure, Vince, but--"
He's already moving, tearing off into some bushes along the frontage road.
# # # # #
Okay, the siren isn't coming from an ambulance.
Red and blue lights swirl across the Waffle Hut lot, and a police cruiser comes skidding right up to the curb, almost hitting me. Doors chunk open. A pair of cops climb out.
I hear a woman's voice behind me: "That's him, officers," and I'm being hauled to my feet. One of the cops tells me to spread my legs and put my hands behind my head, but I'm hurt for Christ's sake, so I guess I don't do it fast enough. Down I go, against the cruiser's hood. Now one guy is going through the pockets of my slacks and the other's slapping cold steel over my wrists.
"Check his jacket. Something fell out."
I wonder for a moment about Vince's surprise. Then the cop behind me, the one not forcing me down against the hood, makes an 'ah-ha' grunt and calls his partner over. The pressure on my back relents. I try to crane my head around to see what's going on, but only catch the reflection of the Waffle Hut in the cruiser's windshield. All the customers are pressed against the windows.
The cops are talking fast, like they're excited about something.
"Alright, in you go for a sec," one of them says, grabbing my cuffed wrists. He opens the passenger door to the cruiser and shoves me inside. The seats are made of hard plastic. I've watched police shows enough times to know these guys are totally screwing with my Miranda rights, plus they're using way too much force and I can probably sue. I tell the officer this before he slams the door shut.
He grins at me through the passenger window, and holds up a plastic baggie wound tight with several rubber bands. The baggie's full of white powder.
"Gotcha," he mouths, and turns away to his partner.
So that was the surprise.
# # # # #
Now, I'm not a lawyer, but you got to figure with the drugs, on top of fighting in a Waffle Hut and God knows what else, I'm looking at some time here.
And you might think I'm pissed at Vince, for ditching me like this.
Because my education's not over.
I'm going inside. A couple months in the pokey is exactly what my writing career needs. Ex-felon--that's going to look great on the dust jacket.
My one concern is who I'm getting as a cellmate. The right guy could be both a protector and a teacher, sharing some jailhouse wisdom while he's fending off all the homos.
God, I hope he's just like Vince.
BIO: Mr. Elliott lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. His most recent stories have appeared in Plots with Guns and Out of the Gutter #5.