Billy’s Topless

A MONOLOGUE

This was back in the 90s, I walked into an ATM on 23rd and 6th Avenue and a man was sprawled out on the floor.

“Here I am!” he shouts.  “Here I am!”

Two in the morning.  His wallet was flipped open a few feet away from his open hand.  He was looking up at the ceiling and seemed okay aside from the obvious.

“Here I am!  Not going anywhere.”

He was probably mid-50s.

Which is to say, you know, he was the age I am now. So … remembering this NOW … I have a different perspective.  Different from when I was a snide, young dude.

Those harsh fluorescents burning in there seemed extra bright somehow in the middle of the night.

I had seen him, the guy on the floor, earlier at Billy’s Topless a few blocks away.  He was at the bar talking to one of the dancers and looking very desperate.

Ha! … Billy’s … man.

I didn’t go to strip clubs much, but my friend Alex got me hooked on Billy’s.  Whoever picked the dancers had a real eye for types that perfectly matched a fantasy you didn’t even know you had.

I didn’t notice this right away.  My first time, Alex drug me there under protest, and I was overwhelmed and distracted for the first beer.  You have to get yourself acclimated to sitting on a bar stool looking at tits.

But then I heard Alex say, “Ah, there she is.”  This languid girl with very long, very thick hair was slipping out of her robe and stepping on stage.  She didn’t dance as much as she flowed like mercury with complete disregard for the music.  Her tits were nice when they peeked out through the long hair.  She was pretty.  Sure.  Naked girl, you know.  But why the hell was Alex so mesmerized?  He looked like he was remembering his first Christmas.

But watching her was giving me a funny feeling too, more than just the wood I was springing.  Then … click! … I could totally see what he saw.  She was a perfect type of something I couldn’t put my finger on.  Something right out of the very first throb of puberty when you start noticing the boobs in comic books.  Back when you got that first funny feeling looking at the bra page in the Sears catalogue.

And … then … boom … it was my first Christmas too.

I went through the same thing every time at Billy’s.  The click.  This night the dancer on the far end wasn’t doing it for me.  She just looked scrawny.  But half-way through my beer, the lights … the lights on the girls and the little white LED lights running along the stage … they looked a little warmer and I really SAW her, with her long, long torso and tiny breasts.  She had a pout, and her black hair fell over her eyes.

Yeah.

And she just sort of twisted there in the warm light.  Eyes closed.

For a second or two there, I really wanted her, more than you’re supposed to want a stripper.  Whenever you’re thinking you’re going to try to get a stripper’s number, that she’ll see you as more than just another slimy guy in a strip bar, you’ve lost it.

This guy who wound up on the ATM floor had lost it.  His girl was the perfect cutie-type.  She had short blond hair, a very round face and big blue eyes.  Big melon boobs.  She’d wind up chunky.  This guy was all over her.  She was smiling a grimace-like smile, and I got the impression she was angling for some backroom business.  But I just got all this in a quick flash then looked back at the dancers.  You know … naked girls.

Later in that ATM, I had to step over his legs to get to the machine.

“Here I am,” he says.

To me?  To somebody?  I didn’t know.  Cell phones weren’t, you know, universal back then.  So he wasn’t talking on the phone.

Naturally, I pretend he isn’t there.  You know … New York.

“Not going anywhere,” he says a second later while I’m beeping away getting my cash.

I was pushing the bar on the door to go out and he shouts, really shouts: “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?”

Some Good Samaritan impulse finally kicks in.

“You okay, buddy?”

“Not going anywhere!” he shouts at the ceiling again.

A young couple come bustling in and step over his legs.  I offer my hand.  He takes it and sits up.

“Oh, well,” he says.  “Not gonna happen.  Not gonna happen.  Why not?  Why not?”

I snatch up his wallet and offer it to him, but he just stares off into space.

“Is he okay?” the girl asks.  I shrug.  She and her guy bang out.  So it’s just me and him again and I gotta decide whether to just walk away from this situation.

The man goes, “I just wanted him to know I wasn’t fighting him.  Wasn’t trying to pretend I didn’t deserve the worst he could do.”

Who the hell was “him”?  I guessed it was “God.”  Sounded like he meant God.

I offer my hand again.  He gets up on his feet.  Wanders over to the window, buries his hands in his pockets, looks out at the night.  Like he was on a deck looking out at the sea.

“I wasn’t disputing his judgment,” he says.

I say, “Let me put you in a cab.”

A little robotic, hands still in his pockets, he walks past me and out the door then stops.  I follow him out.  And we stand there on 23rd, again, like on the deck of ship.

“You know, I wasn’t expecting actual lightning.  Just something bad.  I just thought I’d help him get it over with.”

I found his driver’s license in the wallet.  He still didn’t give a shit that I had it.  An address in Brooklyn.

That was when the spark of the thought I should take him home sparked.  Just a spark.  Brooklyn was still like going to Mars back then.

I put him in the back seat of a taxi.  I’m about to slam the door, but then I feel a bigger spark about making sure he got home.

Truth be told … I didn’t want to go home myself.  I got into a divorce-grade fight with my wife earlier.  I didn’t actually say “I want a divorce” to her but I shouted, “Okay, that’s it!”

“What do you mean ‘that’s it’?”

“It means that’s it!”

And I walk out.

I had a lot of bottled-up rage.  I had a shitty temporary job at a hotel downtown.  I wore a suit and told people where to find the bar or the concierge desk.  I didn’t know what else I was going to do with my life, but I wanted to do something.  But they offered me a permanent job right when Jenny lost her job.

She had the approximation of a real job, setting up window displays.  She thought of it as a real job, so she took getting fired as a blow instead of an excuse to collect unemployment.  My gut told me she was depressed way out of proportion, but I played the hero and took the hotel job.

Then it sucked even more.  When I was a temp, they knew and I knew I could just stop showing up.  There was no carrot and no stick.  Once I was hired I had to start dealing with all the real job bullshit.  “I thought you already took your break.  Golly, I know there’s no one around, but we’d prefer that you not sit.  Are you growing a beard?”

Then I walk in one night and the sink is full of dishes like always.  The TV’s on.  And she says, “You think we should talk about having kids?”

The cork just came out of the bottle.  She’d just decided I’d work at this miserable hotel forever while she sat around letting the dishes pile up while some baby squirms around on the floor.  She didn’t think I’d ever do any better than this!  Suddenly I was 100% convinced that she was a totally selfish bitch out to ruin my life.

I looked around at the stupid cliché Matisse prints and the throw pillows and just had to escape.

And I wasn’t sure I was coming back.  For real not sure.

But I didn’t have anywhere in particular to go, so I said, “What the hell” and got into the cab with this guy.

We ride in silence for a bit, then he takes out a cigarette.  Remember this was back in the 90s.  He meets eyes with the driver in the rearview.  The driver nods, and the man lights up.  So do I.

Then this guy starts talking like we’d been hanging out talking all night and is just picking up the thread of the conversation.

“You can’t live without sex.  It’s like food and water except sex deprivation doesn’t kill you as fast.  Jerking off doesn’t count.  The body knows.  They’ve done studies.”

He talked in, I guess, an educated manner.  What’s the word I’m looking for?

He says, “Sperm count goes up when there’s another body present.  A partner.  A mate.  Whatever.”

He stops talking for a block or so, then just mutters, “little whore.”

I’m like “Oh boy.”

“Little whore” – in this nasty voice.

Then he starts up again in that tone, what’s the word? …

“Yes, they’ve done studies.  But, of course, they’ve done studies on everything.  Little whore.

“I KNEW she was a little whore.  I think she thought I didn’t know I’d have to pay her.  I just wanted her to let me keep the dream going.  Without the dream, it’d just be jerking off.  And, as we discussed, jerking off doesn’t count.”

Yeah.  Sure.  As we discussed.

We reach Houston.  I’m trying to think of something, anything, to say, but really afraid of getting trapped more than I already was.  But about now I mostly just want to say, “Get over it!”

“There wasn’t even a proper bedroom.  It was an office at the top of these stairs.  She had to kick someone out of there.  Another dancer.  They had a little argument.  She pushed the door closed on me, but I heard her practically scream ‘Come on!  I gotta blow this guy.’  And then once it was happening it wouldn’t work.  My big worry going into it was that it wouldn’t last long enough for my money.  I was so excited.  But turns out I really made her work.”

Another long pause.  Just driving a long toward Delancy.  I’m sure now I’m not going to make a squeak.  I just want him to shut the fuck up.  Last thing I want to do is prompt him.

I light another cigarette.

“Finally, I was just numb.  And I’d lost all trace of the dream.  So I just go, ‘Please, just step back and just let me look at you.’  She looked a little worried until I threw more money on the desk.  It wasn’t how I wanted it to happen, but it worked.  Technically.  But it didn’t count.”

He starts making a gurgling sound.  Then a choking sound.  Then he leans over and bursts into tears.

“Oh God, strike me down!  I don’t deserve to live!  Strike me down!”

“Hey!  Listen! Give yourself a break.  Jeez, man, it’s not a big deal.”

He just sniffs and sort of gurgles in the dark for a minute.  Then lights another cigarette.

“My wife was a healthy farm-girl type from Maine.”

He sounds normal again.  Normal for him.

Patrician!  That’s it.  He sounded patrician.

“I mean, she was right out of a postcard from Maine.  A milk maid, you know.  Blonde-blonde hair in a sort of bob.  Blue-blue eyes.  And, to be honest, a great big, luscious pair of tits.  Oh my God.  And I get on the subway one morning and there she is.  I mean, it wasn’t my wife, but it was.  It was my wife when I first met her.

“This was in the morning when the F train comes up above ground at 4th Avenue.  So the sun was shining in, blazing up that blonde hair.  It was like a divine light.  Truly, a light shining down from God above.  And I thought God was speaking to me, saying, ‘It’s okay.  It’s okay.  I’ve sent her to you.’  I was flooded with peace.

“Not that I thought God wanted me to do something.  But it was okay to want this young girl on the train.  It was okay.  Because this was my wife.  Jesus said if your eye causes you to lust, it’s better to pluck it out than be thrown in hell with two good eyes.  But this was my wife there on the F train.  So it wasn’t lust.”

We were finally turning onto the bridge but there was serious gridlock.  So I’m really regretting my decision.

The driver shouts out of his window to another cab, “What the hell?”

“Brooklyn Bridge is closed, mon.”

“Construction?”

“Yah!”

My “friend” starts laughing.  Here we go with more of his shit, sounding more and more patrician as he goes along.

“Ha, ha, suddenly I realize she’s smiling at me.  Eye contact!  I mean, ha, ha, ha … I knew, ha, I knew she wasn’t really my wife.  I knew it was just a girl on the subway.  But, I’m telling you, this moment of complete and total lucidity hit me.  An attractive young woman on the train was flirting with me.  With ME!  And, you know how it is.  I mean, I don’t know how it is with a young guy like you, but I think most men are like me.  We’re just not … we’re not PRESENT.  So we don’t know that what’s happening is really happening.  Hours later you realize the girl in the store didn’t really need help reaching the box on the top shelf.  But this time I knew.  I knew.  And it was like grabbing hold of the reigns.  Taking control.

“I stood up.  I crossed over to her bench and sat down.  I knew my … my … my role.  Experienced older man.

“I started a conversation about the book she was holding … Pride and … no, Sense and Sensibility.  We chatted for stop after stop.  It was flowing smooth and effortless.

“Then, just as relaxed and naturally as you can imagine, I heard myself say that I was planning on having dinner that evening at this lovely place on 13th Street.  ‘Oh, my stop’s coming up,’ she says.  I asked if she’d like to join me.  And she smiles this huge, huge smile and goes, ‘I’ll think about it.’  And, listen, she writes her number on a blank page in the back of her book, rips it out and hands it to me just as the doors are opening.  And she zips out.

“For two or three stops I just sat there in a state of euphoria.  Then I thought of my wife.  My actual wife at home.”

He clutches his head with both hands and growls through his teeth, like he’s burning in hell: “STRIKE ME DOWN!  STRIKE ME DOWN!  STRIKE ME DOWN!”

Traffic had started to move, and we’re zooming across the bridge.

“I tried to throw away her phone number.  That little shred of paper.  I tried a hundred times, but I just kept thinking … I kept thinking …”

He thumps his cigarette out of the window.  Mysterious Brooklyn peeps at me through the girders of the bridge.  We get all the way across and join more gridlock on Flatbush.

Then I realize it’s very quiet over on his side.  Maybe he’s passing out. But growls in the this Golem-like, dirty-old-man voice:

“I kept thinking I could fuck her.”

That word had never sounded so nasty to me.  Because he meant it that way.  He sort of slurred it and snarled it at the same time.  Making the word sound as ugly and dehumanizing as he wanted it be.  Making the word sound like the act itself, that is, like it would be for them, an old lech on top of some sweet, young thing.

“I kept thinking I could fuck her.”

“Sure … sure … all the little reasons it probably couldn’t happen were there.  I’m a lot older.  Is she that type of girl?  Whatever.  My own hang-ups.  But I kept thinking it could happen.  I kept fingering that shred of paper and thinking about fucking her.  Those massive tits.  Mmmm.  Yeah.

“And I’m walking down … stumbling down 8th Avenue and finally I just leap at this pay phone.  I punch the numbers like I’m trying to push my fingers through the phone.  And what do I hear?  Those tones … do-do-do … ‘We’re sorry, the number you are calling has been disconnected or is no longer in service.’

“I dialed again.  ‘We’re sorry, the number you’re calling …’

“Again.  ‘We’re sorry.’  FUCK YOU WE’RE SORRY!  FUCK YOU!”

He punches the seat.

The driver shouts:  “HEY, ASSHOLE!”

“I’M SORRY.  I do apologize.”

“WHAT THE FUCK?”

“I’M SORRY!”

“I KICK YOU OUT RIGHT HERE I SWEAR TO GOD!”

“I APOLOGIZE!  I’M SORRY!  I’M SORRY!  I’M SORRY!”

“Shit.”

My friend lights another cigarette.

“I was lost.  I knew I was totally lost.”

He actually sounded sober and lucid.

“I’d known for years that the situation was putting me under enormous stress.  But I kept everything inside.  I was the quiet man on the train.  The anonymous gentleman sipping coffee at the counter in the Chock Full of Nuts.  But here I was wailing to the sky on 8th Avenue.  Everyone shuffling past.

He actually chuckles in this bitter way and says “Once you see your own wretchedness … no way to unsee it.”

Traffic starts moving.  The driver is tossing us around as he shifts from lane to lane.

We pass Junior’s.  A couple of lights not working in the neon “Cocktails” sign.  I came out here with my wife maybe a year before.  A birthday party.  It was supposed to be somehow funny, a birthday gathering at Junior’s.  Ironic or whatever.  Again, remember this was the 90s.  Irony was still new.  But the whole thing was just dull.  Her dull friends droned on and on about other dull friends who weren’t there.  As far as I could tell I was just eating a hamburger at some diner instead of participating in an ironic happening.

I used to be jealous of these people who went to the chi-chi schools.  Yale, like my wife.  But then the years start passing and the cutesy undergrad in-jokes, Proust-this, Roz Chast-that, it all gets thin and desperate.  And then they drag you all the way to fucking Brooklyn to be ironic in Junior’s.  That was the 90s.

We drive for a while in silence.  We turn off Flatbush into the mysterious non-Manhattan urban-ness.  A crowded chicken joint.  A skeevie-looking club with a velvet rope.  Guys sitting on plastic buckets.  Then incongruously nice brownstones.

“She showed me her pussy.  I gave her some more money.  Totally shaved.  Mmmmm.  That’s what did it.  Yeah.  God, it was so beautiful.  She reached down and pulled those–”

“SHUT UP!  SHUT UP! You disgusting fuck! Damn.”

Now we’re deep in one of those Brooklyn neighborhoods – trees, stoops, brownstones.  No idea where the fuck we were.  I lean up to the plexiglass.

“How far are we from this address?”

“Ten minutes.”

Ten minutes.  I was really annoyed with myself.  You never engage these people.  These crazies.  Just walk away.  Leave them to the night.   And the oldest trick in the book is you think you’re dealing with some regular Joe who’s just overwrought or has had too much to drink.  But this is never the case.  They’re always fruitcakes.

The cab is thick with smoke mixed with his drunk-guy-who-maybe-pissed-himself aroma.  I’m just disgusted.

I’m reasoning with myself that I can just stick it out until we reach his place.  Then I’ll dump him on the curb.

He’s curled up on his side and blubbering into his hands.  Boo-hooing.  He’s saying something.  Repeating it.

We turn, go a few blocks, turn.  More fucking stoops.  More fucking trees.

“I don’t wanna …” something he was repeating.  “Don’t wanna … don’t wanna … don’t wanna go home.  Don’t wanna go.”

Finally, I explode.

“Then where the fuck you want to go, asshole?  Where?  Where?  Huh?  You think you’re a fucking saint?  What?  What?  Let me tell you, I have a wife back at my house.  But if I could part with 50 bucks, I’d go out and buy myself a blow job or whatever 50 bucks could get me from a chick that didn’t look like a crack-whore ghoul and you know what?  I’d skip home.  I’D SKIP!  I wouldn’t feel a twinge of guilt.  Not a twinge.  You know why not?  Cause marriage is hell.  And whatever happiness I can come by is 100% okay.  It’s all shit.  How can you be your age and not know that?  Damn!”

Stony silence.

We reach a neighborhood with dinkier looking row houses.  No brownstones.  Absurdly tiny yards.

“Where you wanna stop?” the driver asks.

“Hold on,” I say, searching for his license.  I still had his wallet.

“To the right,” the man says in this super calm, more-patrician-than-ever voice.  “Just past the dumpster.”

He jumps out as I’m paying the driver.  Out of this guy’s wallet, of course.  All of a sudden I hear this shouting.

Outside of the cab, the man is on his knees with his fists to the sky:  “DON’T FORGIVE ME!  STOP FORGIVING ME!  KILL ME!  STRIKE ME DOWN!”

A woman in a nursing uniform bursts out of the house.  I’m trying to pull him to his feet at least.

“Oh my God, Mr. Lexington,” she said reaching for his arm.  “You can’t DO this!”  She pulls him out of my grip hurrying to get him inside.

I follow them but I’m not sure why.  It seems to me that maybe this woman or whoever should know about the ATM situation.

I feel a little like I had walked into the Bunker’s house from “All in the Family.”  Just because it was a small, old house with a sad, little living room.  Everything kind of beige.  Books and magazines stacked high on a closed piano.  Orange plastic flowers on a round table covered with clear plastic.  A cabbagey smell fighting with the Lysol.

And there’s a rolling oxygen tank in the middle of the rug.

The woman in the nurse outfit is raking the man over the coals in whispers.  Red in the face.  Chin jutting, and she’s jutting her finger toward the hall saying something something something “your wife” something something something “your poor wife” something something.

A harsh cough came from down the hall.  They stop whispering.

The nurse makes that talk-to-the-hand gesture and says in full voice:

“Mr. Lexington, you really, really, really just can’t DO this!  My mother had to drive over and put my kids to bed.”

“I’m very sorry.”

“You KNOW you have to call Sandra if you wanna stay out late.”

“I know.  I’m very, very, very sorry.”

There’s more coughing and the man hurries down the hall.

I think, “How do you like that? Didn’t even thank me.”

The woman puts on her coat and grabs her bag.  She’d seen me toss the man’s wallet on a cluttered table before.  She slips out some bills then leaves without saying a word to me.  Probably thought I was his drinking buddy.  A bad influence.

It then strikes me how odd it was to be here alone at 3am in a strange house in darkest Brooklyn.  I just stood there.  For a long moment, everything dead quiet except for some sort of whirring sound outside.  Like rattles.  An idling truck maybe.

The shelves next to me were lined with photos in frames.  This regular-looking couple doing all the usual things people do in photos – standing on beaches, standing by lakes, standing by mountains, celebrating a birthday with friends around a table at a restaurant, standing under the Eiffel Tower.  But my “friend” is much younger in all the photos.  The styles were early 80s.  He has more hair, parted in the middle and swooping down over his ears into what you figured was an almost mullet.  The woman looks kind of like Pat Benetar, with helmet hair.

Then more coughing erupts down the hall.  A long jag.  I can hear his voice rumbling sympathetically whatever he’s saying.

Outside the cicadas are buzzing like crazy.  I hadn’t noticed before because of the guy’s shouting.

I picked a direction. After walking what felt like a mile with this maddening buzzing all around me, I came to an avenue.

No taxies in sight.  The guy in the bodega tells me the F train is eight blocks that way, but I lucked out and saw a cab finally.  The driver’s reggae thankfully shut out the goddamn cicadas.

“Where we going?”

“Not sure,” I say.  I yawn.  “Just head back to Manhattan.”

Crossing the bridge, I looked out at Manhattan and thought about how the whole city was just lying there waiting for me.

This couldn’t be what it all came down to, standing all day at a Ritz Carlton telling tourists which way it was to the restaurant, how to buy tickets for “Phantom.”  But I wasn’t going to figure it all out then.  So I gave the driver my address uptown.

I yawn again and lean back.

A picture of that skinny stripper popped into my head.  She just looked like she’d be cool to hang out with in a coffee shop.  Would be nice to be with someone without baggage or pressure or politics.  No history.  Just imagine.  You both share this unspoken understanding to stay out of each other’s shit.  Just keeping each other company.  Maybe you fuck.  Maybe you don’t.  Not as important as staying out of each other’s psyche.  Not fucking with each other.  Anything to keep from turning into what I just saw.  Life is just too damn short.  We could drive upstate.  One of those cabins near Margaretville.  See deer outside the window.  Tons of deer crowding each other.  Shoulder to shoulder.  Antler to antler.  Singing beautiful music like that Bulgarian women’s choir.  All the deer singing like dark, tragic angels.

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