The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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MAY 2011 Issue


Rusty panels stretch around the bottom right corner of the structure, longer on one side, with dark and broken windows three-quarters up. Along Kingston Avenue once neon letters read “Cockt” followed by four empty husks; underneath busted bulbs spell “Lounge.” Above the longer stretch of tinted windows on Bergen Street a similarly fractured pattern proclaims “Wine & Dine Restaurant.” A phone book pressed against the glass below, behind the dusty pane and dried leaves, pages 724-725 of the directory are visible—Orlando through Ortega, and Ortega through Ortiz. As weather permits, two hefty cuts of Astro turf, placed around what was the side entrance to the Kingston Lounge, serve as a meeting place for the elderly men of the neighborhood. Some walk slower than others; an old man in a white bowler carries a cane. Others drag chairs, enough for the ones who cannot. Another man wears a combination of yellow and brown accented by a red bow tie, and I wonder if his grandchildren realize how stylish he is. That side of the street is wholly shaded and gives the illusion of coolness into the hottest months.

I know summer is coming due to the growing presence of the elderly gathered on the corner, always hatted, some waving newspapers. Later in the afternoon, someone will produce dominos and a small folding table. Another sort of anticipation lures the men from their apartments, even before the season unleashes its unbearable fever. Camaraderie adds a youthful quality to aged expressions. From the bus stop across the street, I hear the old men laugh at themselves for whistling in jest at young girls passing and the girls laugh too, and the laughter of them all takes a little of edge off the heat. I am not yet used to the temperature, over dressed, still fearful of a sudden chill or overly air conditioned bus.

On the subject of temperature, the seniors on Kingston and Bergen are enthusiastic. Talk of weather dominates the conversation. I want to be comforted by their chatter but the truth is I can’t be. I am leery of elderly men, even these so full of good-natured jest. As if an excess amount of life corrupted one, anyone. Ten years ago, when I danced for money, a geriatric client went sour, leaving me leery of an entire swath of the population. On a sunny near summer day, I am reminded of that geriatric for no good reason. I wait for the bus, smell of the new fish fry joint all around, and stare at the elderly men in unwittingly modish garb across the street. Their various caps and vests manage to allay my fears somewhat, I imagine it has something to do with the distracting patterns, but the sight of a walker jumping the curb suddenly makes me shudder. I realize the feeling is childish; into my thirties and engaged in a more subdued profession, I’ve often told myself I really should be over it by now.

 The antiquated man who inspired my phobia was particularly frail. His skin hung in spotted folds, which appeared to be fleeing from evanescent bones, the whole thing a sick shade of watery porridge. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I had been working at Divas for two months and everything was going as well as it ever could. By then, I had become used to taking my clothes off; I didn’t trip stepping out skirts or underwear anymore. My dancing improved. It was the height of a Florida summer and the heat made people careless with their money. Outside, respectable women wore less and less fabric as if instructed by the sun. The humidity stuck loose outfits to damp flesh. All that bare skin drove the men in suits wild, made them want stiff drinks and to see naked women early in the day, while on lunch breaks. The club was as busy as midnight in the middle of the afternoon.

This added up to a great deal of cash. A lot of money meant life progressed with ease all around. Never a moment of the day when not high, I was generous with my habit. Back then, I was running with some asshole who nodded off behind his boss’ back at a glass factory part-time while I danced and danced. I made sure we never ran out of cigarettes, and so we never fought or talked much at all really. Neither of us had to steal anything or pawn anything. Things were good. I bought a new outfit to dance in, a full body suit of black lace down to my ankles. I didn’t think the purchase through. An ageless woman whose breasts were indistinguishable from the rolls of her stomach came to the club with a rack of neon clothes for sale and a cart of impossibly tall shoes. She smoked a cigarette that never burned out and kept glasses fastened to an awkward string of beads, the type of cord a child might construct for a grandmother. I had often wondered where strippers got their wardrobes; ever after I wondered knowingly about the circuit of hard-faced travelling saleswomen, these experts in the limits of spandex. The outfit I bought was overpriced and cheaply made but very flattering. Its pattern called to mind fine limerick lace, or so I thought out in the bar lights. But the material clung to me too tightly, and as I realized the first time I debuted the outfit on stage, it was impossible to pull off over my shoes in a graceful manner, let alone in time to the music.

I fell on my ass more than once, legs spread, laughed at myself on stage. The sweaty drunk customers poked fun; all the better because men tipped well a girl who made them smile. And the black body suit was good for lap dances. A second skin dulled the specifics of men moving along my thighs. I preferred not to know if their hands were rough or smooth. After a while all I could feel were the tiresome hard cocks struggling against thin pants anyhow. Two months in, the money was good; I didn’t mind the jeers of stiff men anymore.

I became work friends with a dancer who was an albino, save for a few drops of blue pigment in her eyes. She and I practiced lies on one another. We told half-truths about our personal lives, just as if we worked at any other job. We did not discuss any of our illicit pastimes, but we could read the stories in each other’s movements. More or less. She did most of the talking, and I scratched at my skin, so there really was no reason to get into it. I did not need her friendship like that, a desire to exploit her for more. Instead, we lied for fun, tried the words out in our mouths.

“I used to be in pageants all the time when I was a kid.” Her eyelashes looked as though someone had blown a fine white powder at her face, “Yeah… my mom was Miss Tennessee before she let her weight go. It was like, once she had that trophy, who cares? Then I came along… That’s why I’m such a good dancer. I had a lot of lessons… you know, for talent competitions.”

She made her voice husky on purpose, because she thought it sexy, so she sounded like a heavy smoker though she was not. Or maybe she smoked crack. In either case, she could not dance well but was rather an average dancer whose routine was greatly improved by nudity. There were not many girls who opted to go fully nude mid-day, making it a damn good strategy, and it only added to her novelty. In fact, I don’t see how she could have done anything but dance with all her petals pulled back, given the circumstances. The curiosity in the room was palpable when she took the stage. Through the pale parchment of her skin, you could watch the blood flow. The occasional flash of dark blue veins offered the only proof she wasn’t truly porcelain. Men tip more for anything out of the ordinary, except sores, moles, or scars. One girl refused to shave, a certain kind paid through the teeth to be close to her. Naturally, everyone wondered if the mons Venus of the albino girl appeared as colorless as the rest of her. It did not. Blood and sweat gathered there, and the pinkness was striking compared to the incandescent columns on which she stood. She wore long gowns to heighten the anticipation—black only, to supply the most contrast.

“I took classes in everything for years—jazz, modern, tap… you know, ballet. After a while, I was better than most of my instructors anyway, so I stopped going.”

I wondered in which class she learned to grab at her crotch so often. Modern, I guessed. Soon as she was up on stage, she was bent over or back. Fingers fanned out reaching towards her ass, all impossibly white like a daisy set against plump clouds.

“I’ve thought about becoming an instructor; I was even offered a job once, in Fort Lauderdale. But I want to be able to retire early, maybe invest or something… and there really is more money in this… I might still teach later on though. Maybe yoga. Did I ever tell you I hung out at an ashram for a while?”

 I remember the albino girl gave me some salve one day when I came to work too high to realize I had rubbed my nose raw. A small drop of blood had formed on the tip. These were our salad days.

She handed me a crushed tube and said, “Yeah, my allergies have been terrible lately, too.”

And because business was booming, a girl could afford to be choosey, turn men away. The ability to choose made you almost feel like a real woman. In the smoke and smells of the bar, you could imagine a guy like this might actually respect you, one of the office types or small business owners who paused at the bar on the way home from work. I gravitated toward the ones who paid the most for doing the least—the talkers. The albino girl got herself wrapped around an Italian suit who said very little. I think they saw each other on the outside. He had a stony profile, pocked from the salt of some unimaginable coast. When he did speak, something in his voice betrayed a temper even as he attempted to sound atonal, ordering a drink for instance. I was afraid of him really and steered clear, which caused something of a rift between the albino and me. But after all, naked or not, we were just work friends.

On the day of the raid, the Italian suit reacted swiftest. Before the first camera flashed, he threw the albino girl from his lap, bruising her against the floor. While grabbing for his coat, he spilled his drink, spit and cursed in another language. I heard him growl as he shielded himself from view behind his suit jacket, and with two long strides he was out the door. I never saw that man again. He escaped the flash bulbs as a vampire flees from day—just barely. Once the albino realized what was going on, she scrambled to her feet. She howled, drowning out the constant drum beat inside the club; the music stopped. The camera flashes progressed like a fireworks display. It was chaos.

At the time, we were under the impression the reporters were sent by a local paper, set off perhaps by a jealous wife or an overzealous community official, though no article ever appeared. Now that I have given it some thought, it seems more likely the hack-kneed group was part of a nearby church congregation; do-gooders without enough influence to cause any serious waves. It didn’t matter though—the threat of exposure was enough. The half dozen cameramen and handful of silent assistants offered no identification, made no statement, jotted down no notes. They merely terrified with their presence and their cameras and their implications. Customers ran wildly about. With no time to settle tabs, patrons pitched money in the general direction of services rendered. Each chair knocked over was punctuated by a flash. Dancers squealed like pigs, running first to the back of the bar, then the front, then in horrified circles, watching their income head for the door. I watched the entire scene perched atop the back of a chair in the far left corner, like a housewife avoids a mouse on the kitchen floor. The albino girl leapt at one of the cameramen with her long fingers curved into talons. She scratched his neck as the owner suddenly scooped her up from behind and carried her off into the locker room. By the time the bouncers seemed to remember their jobs, the perpetrators had assimilated into the crowd of escapees and disappeared. The bar was cast in a thick dampness. The music returned to its throbbing volume.

“Goddamn assholes! Well, there goes business for the next month and a half! Goddamn assholes—they’re in here taking pictures three times a year. What gives them the right? I own this building, I pay taxes… I provide a service with these girls here; moralistic bastards can’t tell my customers how they should spend their money. What gives them the right?” The owner paced behind the bar, barking commands to restore order. All of us dancers appeared discarded, strewn about tables, hanging over the backs of chairs. I was confused as to what had just occurred, why none of the girls talked, the overwhelming sense of dread. “There goes business,” the owner said.

He continued, “Angel! Get up on that fucking stage—this isn’t break time! All of you girls—look alive! This is a business, what do I pay you for? Come on!” He didn’t pay us, of course; we worked for tips. We paid him out at the end of the night. “I hope you girls know you’re going to have to kick up the slutty factor if we’re gonna get any customers in here now.” To Mike, the DJ, he said, “I guess we’ll have to run another ad, include more drink specials or something.”

For the rest of the afternoon, time dragged. Not a single customer came in, as if the structure itself caught a communicable disease. Men sensed embarrassment from the street, some offense they wanted no part of, and drove by without slowing. When we ordered greasy sandwiches from a deli down the block, not even the delivery boy lingered. At shift change, the night crew was informed of the incident.

Scandalous, a tall, smooth dancer made of legs, said, “Shit. Just what the hell am I supposed to do now? We’ll be lucky to squeeze minimum wage outta this rock. Scared motherfuckers’ll be back at a crawl. Shit… well, ladies, I guess we all know what this means—every woman for herself.” With that she turned her nose up, let the dressing room door swing closed behind her.

It wasn’t until then that I understood the severity of what happened. I took off to get high and to pretend the worst wasn’t yet to come. In this way, it was like any other day. I did not tell my man what had happened. I didn’t want to worry him.

Into that despondent atmosphere two days later the old man entered. When I look back, it seems like he planned it, the raid, to push us to desperation. Old doesn’t do enough to describe him. His skin hung in spotted folds. He thrust a walker six inches in front of himself, leaned against it, and then dragged his legs which moved like thick clubs. He was not skinny; rather, his frame told of a once husky man wasting away. A thick white frosting clung to the corners of his mouth, visible from across the room, glowing in the black light. His eyes neither opened nor closed behind spectacles, the clear plastic frames of which had gone yellow with age. Also yellowed, resembling strings of snot, tubes dangled from his nose, connected to a green tank of oxygen wheeled by a plain clothes nurse behind him. I watched the two of them enter. The old man bypassed the bar completely, slowly moved to the back couches reserved for lap dances, while the nurse trailed obedient, silent, and expressionless. An accessory, like the walker. The nurse helped the old man onto a red couch out of the direct light, stuck the walker behind a table in the corner, then sat bolt upright alongside his charge. The nurse placed his hands on the knees of his pressed khakis and looked straight ahead, showing no interest in his surroundings. The old man, meanwhile, licked at lips incapable of moisture and jerked his head around so that I feared for his neck muscles. He had a gaze like a police spotlight: you wanted to stay out of it but couldn’t. There were only three other customers in the place—two at the bar, sipping the same drinks for an hour, a guy getting dry fucked by a blonde in the back, six dancers doing nothing, and one on stage. We were all hungry. I was hungry. I sweated and shivered, couldn’t be bothered to puke. Already I felt the lack of business; I hadn’t gotten the sizable morning hit I deserved. I moved closer, as a mongrel dog is attracted to the scent of trash.

But the song ended, and the blonde in the back finished her gyrations, collected her fee. Since she was there anyway, she sauntered over to the nurse and his charge. In an obvious manner, she offered the nurse a dance at a reduced price; we were all working for reduced prices. I stared, sipped soda: nothing better to do. All the while she talked, presumably laying it on thick, the nurse looked away from her. She paused, and he put his hand up to signal she need not continue. He gestured toward the old man, while saying something too low to be overheard. The blonde shook her head, took a step back, and the old man’s arm shot out with a speed he didn’t seem capable of mustering. She laughed nervously as he stuck a thumb in her garter.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize… it’s time for my break,” I heard her say as she fled the scene.

No one else dared go near the unsavory pair. They remained in the back, unmolested, for over an hour, then left. It had only been two days since the raid. I didn’t know hunger yet; it hadn’t fully taken hold, reduced scruples enough to send a young girl into the folds of an old man for cash. That time wasn’t far off though, as I am sure they knew, for the old man and his companion returned the next day. And the next. I don’t know when exactly the albino girl started dancing for him. I looked over one day and there she was on top of him, squirming. He had both hands on her ass. Her body blocked his face from view. The nurse gazed forward at nothing, at the stage maybe.

I kept on with my sickness. I couldn’t seem to pull in more than seventy-five a day, a fraction of what we had become accustomed to. That translated to only about four caps of dope a piece for my man and me, and maybe, maybe, if I got a dealer who was sweet on me, one extra one to share. It wasn’t enough to stay sane. While I fought ruthlessly with other girls over the limited clientele, cheap clientele at that, my man went back to nicking chainsaws from unlocked garages and violating parole in general. I tried to appear charming, as I pawned power tools before work each morning. Sometimes there wasn’t enough dope to carry over to the next day. I held on to hundreds of empty caps, in a dirty purse beside the bed. When things got real bad, I tapped at the empty halves and tried to knock out the residual grains of heroin cut with meat tenderizer. We pawned everything, not just our own things; I paid a visit to a relative just to get my hands in her jewelry box. She had been so happy to see me and never knew. But all that was easy; I feared soon we’d be engaged in something far more sinister. Everyday now I arrived at work already sick, already defenseless. My man met me in the parking lot midway through my shifts and took some money, brought back a fix, so that we were starting off the game from behind. I had to be careful not to get caught. That was the state of things when the albino girl passed the old man off to me.

When I sat at the bar, I didn’t drink soda anymore. I tried chewing ice, but the feeling reminded me of squeezing cotton balls, a rubbery crunch, and I couldn’t stand it. Inconsolable and self-centered, it took me a while to notice her stare. When you work at a strip club, you learn to get used to stares. The albino girl spoke; I turned slowly, as if her words were coming at me from underwater. I was fucked up. It was the sickness that did me dirty, the high that kept me straight. But perhaps I’m being melodramatic.

From atop the stool next to me, she said, “Hey… the old man wants you to dance for him. You should do it. He pays well.”

Being sick played games with me. I already felt a little better, as soon as she mentioned money. I swung my head around—there he was in the back, the old man. A loose pile of flesh covered in disparate hairs, fastened together with liver spots. I saw the rough way he handled the albino girl and tried not to notice. And the nurse? Still beside him, with corners of his mouth turned down. Somehow sitting without touching anything, watching everything, nothing, having the sort of thoughts a woman would rather not know.

“What gives? I thought you were squeezing him?”

“I—I am. I… was. I just… need to do something else, you know? Anyhow, the old geezer is very… particular. He wants someone else. I kind of… suggested you. You know, talked you up. ‘She knows how to have a good time’ sort of stuff. I know you’re hurting for cash. He’s got money, this old man.”

“I figured he’s got money, but… I don’t know. What do you mean he’s particular?”

“I’m just saying not every girl is gonna want to dance for him. He’s pretty rude… with what he says and what he does. Nothing we haven’t put up with before. It’s just a little… creepy. He’s old and… sort of clammy. But he’ll pay you. Well.”

“Then why are you backing off? I don’t get it. Why the ‘favor’?”

“I’m just over it at the moment ok? Thinking about taking a few days off… Look, if you’re not into it, I know that college chick is hurting for money, too. I’ll run it by her… Whatever. Business is slow as fuck. You’re not the only dancer in the place.”

My breath caught in my throat. “No. I’ll do it. Chill out… I’m just asking what the deal is… but hey, what’s up with the nurse?”

“The nurse? Humph,” she smiled, “He’s the one who gives you the money. Come on, I’ll introduce you.”

I followed her toward the red couches, rubbing my arms to smooth out the goose bumps. The nurse watched our approach, his expression impossible to read. It was no expression, just as his eyes were no color. The old man regarded me up and down with a series clicks and gnashes. His lips were cracked and dry, but the sounds that came from them were wet.

“Hey baby, this is my friend—the one I was telling you about. Doesn’t she look sweet?”

“Baby?” The old man snorted, “Get out of my way, you dumb slut. Let me see her.” His voice reminded me of the grandfather of my grade school best friend; it was unnerving. The albino girl let out a short laugh and stepped aside. The old man thrust a thumb and forefinger above my knee and caught me off guard. I startled.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “she’ll do.” The nurse handed the albino girl some money. Her eyes met mine for a brief moment.

“I gotta go, baby. It’s my turn to dance on stage.” And with that, the old man was mine.

“Come here. Get on my lap, where I can reach you. I bet you’re a little slut, too, aren’t you. Yes.” His dentures made a popping sound after every third word. I turned to the nurse; it was as if he wasn’t there, or I wasn’t there, I’m not sure which.

To the old man, “Hold on sweetheart. The next song is about to start. Did my friend tell you what a good dancer I am? How I’m gonna dance so good for you?”

“And I see you’re stupid, too. I don’t care about the music or how you ‘dance.’ Get on me and shake yourself, let me see those nice tits. You stop when I say stop. When I’m paying, you do as I say. Forget the music. Even a stupid slut like you can understand that, right?”

“Hey listen—”

“Don’t talk; moan if you want… Now about your fee, let’s say we start at a hundred dollars an hour. Is that enough to shut you up?”

Business still hadn’t returned. The nurse and the Old man constituted two of the six patrons in the club. If I didn’t dance for him, someone else would get that money. I couldn’t stand it. My goose bumps flared up. Looking back, I should’ve asked for more. Instead, I simply nodded.

“There you go. Maybe you’re a smart little slut after all. Now come here princess, put those tits in my face. I want to be able to smell you.”

Later that night, my man and I got high, unencumbered by fear. We did not worry about from where the next hit was coming. We were safe. I had made us safe. I bought us each a pack of cigarettes. We smoked liberally, tried not to nod out and burn the blankets. The next day, the old man was there again. And the next. And the next. I had him all to myself; he and his companion stayed three hours at a time, no more, no less. Really, the Old man didn’t seem much worse than most of the other customers. He put his hands on me, which he was not supposed to do, but everyone else touched the dancers as well. The bouncers turned a blind eye; let the men get away with a little more for a while, an attempt to bolster business. The worst he did, what I really could not stand, was to hold me close and smell my skin. His nostrils wheezed. Whatever I was wearing, he made sure to pull it down around my stomach. If I wasn’t paying attention, he licked me. His tongue felt like a piece of sandpaper left out in the rain but thick as a slab of liver. The old man squeezed my nipples, pleased when I winced. He did not want me to take my turns on stage during the three hours he was present. At first, this pissed the owner off, but the nurse greased his palm too, so he dropped it. What difference did it make anyhow? None of the other dancers talked to me in the locker room anymore. I’m not sure if it was because they were aware I was making good money, while no one else was, or because I carried on me the stench of the old man. The albino girl hadn’t been back to work in a week, which made things easier because I did not want to talk to her. Or look at her. I’m sure she would have been bothered the most by the smell. All this I put up with for three-hundred dollars a day.

For a long time, I was unable to separate the idea of old men from sex; his smell and feel were so distinct, so like being penetrated. Nowadays, I let pornography supply the fantasy. I don’t trust my own fetishes. I watch films on all fours. I like to be fucked from behind so that nothing blocks my view of the screen.

After a week of getting paid for being fondled by his mentholated ammonia breath, the old man suggested a raise. I might have agreed to anything that day; I was doing a lot of drugs before work to cope with the clicking sound of his dentures. The nurse still gazed straight ahead.

“We’re going to have some fun tomorrow missy, oh yes we are.” Click-clack of his false teeth, “Oh we’re going to have fun.” The old man laughed, which he didn’t do often, for the sound gurgled and wheezed deep within in him, threatened at any moment to consume him. “Do you want to have fun, little slut?”

I said nothing, made no movement.

“How about we give you a little extra tomorrow? Maybe quite a bit extra depending. Would you like that?” He squeezed my left breast. I nodded. “Of course you would. Of course.”

It was easy to focus on the money and put the rest out of my mind. Everyone has a job to do I told myself, somehow comforted by the cliché, comforted by the thought of making money with ease. After my shift, I stepped into the setting sun, the parking lot bathed in purple. The light, even as it faded, caused me to blink uncontrollably. I closed my eyes, steadied myself. When I opened them, instead of having my back to the club, I faced the door. It was the next day. I dressed in black lace without ceremony. No customers, or none worth fighting for, I sat at the bar eating maraschino cherries and thought to myself, “Isn’t it strange, how I’ve never liked olives?” I waited for the old man and his nurse to arrive. It didn’t take long. I made no move to approach the two until they were settled in the back. As if understanding this, the nurse caught my gaze and nodded when they were ready for me. Back there in that corner, we were shut off from everyone else. As was habit, I began to climb into the old man’s lap. Mounting him felt like mounting a marshmallow.

“No, no. That’s not how I want you today. Sit down beside me. Here.” He wheezed and gurgled like an old furnace while motioning to a spot on the couch between himself and the nurse. I took my seat mechanically.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked, drawing out each word.

“There that’s the spirit. There—what do I want you to do? Nothing much; nothing much more than usual… I want you to put your hand in my pocket.”

“I don’t think I’m supposed to—”

“I want you to put your hand in my pocket, just for a bit, and I’ll give you an extra fifty dollars… I don’t give a damn what you’re ‘supposed’ to do. Don’t tell me you believe any one in here gives a damn about you and what you do. You are a paid slut.”

I shook my head slowly, said nothing. An extra fifty dollars; I wasn’t convinced.

“You dirty bitch. You rub your dirty pussy on my lap and think nothing of it… I’ll give you an extra hundred—you’re not even worth it!” What harm could it do? I thought of the money, the look on my man’s face when I brought home that money.

“Ok. But not for long, ok? Let’s get this over with.”

“Yes, yes,” he said and he seemed to tense up all over. “Yes, yes,” he said as I slid my hand into the silk lined pocket of his trousers. “Yes, yes.” I quickly realized what he really wanted; a large hole was torn in the bottom of the pocket. I felt the slimy surface of a condom. I jerked my hand back, or tried to.

“No!” The old man barked, and to my surprise, the nurse grabbed my wrist and kept my hand where it was. It never occurred to me to call out to one of the bouncers. The money, the money. I looked back and forth between them, the nurse and the Old man.

“Make sure she stays where she is, boy. Do as I say,” the old man, excited now, wheezed and snorted. All at once, I realized the nurse was not a nurse, but his son. It seemed so obvious, the way they looked at one another.

“Now you—little slut. You know what to do. You don’t even have to touch it; that’s why I wore a condom.” He seemed proud of himself. “All lubricated. See how good I am to you? Do it. Do it.”

And while his son held my wrist, I jerked the old man off slowly. I gazed straight ahead, like his son, seeing something, nothing, perhaps looking at the stage. He never got more than semi-hard, like holding on to a half-rotted vegetable. I focused on how the condom slid around as opposed to what it was shielding. While still gripping me, his son leaned in front of us, blocking our expressions from view. I saw my hand moving under his pants, felt the second skin. His son’s fingers cut into me, moved my hand around, a disembodied sensation. I couldn’t help but steal a glance at the old man’s face. His jaw was slack; thick gobs of white foam lodged in the corners of his mouth. Every so often the corners twitched. His eyes rolled back, revealed yellowed sclera.

“Yes, yes,” said the old man, and I thought to myself, “I am doing this to him. At this moment, I am in control of his emotions. I am in control.”

This went on for a week or two, every other day, until slowly business returned. The old man had no power in a crowded room. One day, I simply pretended not to see him as another customer seized my wrist and courted my services for a friend about to be married. And without my noticing, he and the one who took care of him stopped coming in. The old man didn’t like crowds. After that, I felt my days at the club were numbered. Maybe I wouldn’t have if we hadn’t met.

Think about every movie you have ever seen in which this sort of scene occurs. Think about how young the girl looks, how bad the audience is meant to feel for her, though we may agree that she’s a slut. The sinister old man. Or is he sinister? Think about perspective. Think about the old man; we are meant to feel sorry for him, too. But again, think about the young girl. It is as if we hope guilt could modify an occurrence; to feel bad for someone’s circumstance, in a way meant to excuse the witness if not the perpetrators. But what if someone is both perpetrator and witness? What then? What does it help to be so dramatic? Feel as bad as you can for the young girl, until it’s pathetic, until you hold the feeling in your throat, then your hand. Then throat it away, without ceremony. It changes nothing. The guilt. We see a homeless woman on the street, and we feel guilty; she is still homeless. It changes nothing. And anyway, the movie has already ended.

The old men on Kingston and Bergen have long since dragged their dominos and chairs back into their buildings. In the time I’ve taken to come to this, the heat has passed, a fedora no match for the cold that’s begun to set in. Now is the time for the kind of talk that happens behind closed doors, among the aromas of stew and thick bread. Besides, I don’t want to talk about old men any longer. And I think saying it like that—“I jerked the old man off slowly”—well, it hardly sounds scandalous when put so plainly; no more than external chatter. No more than the sort of behavior one expects in such places, from people who keep inside during summer. No more than vain attempts to subvert the seasons. 


Jessica Rogers

JESSICA ROGERS writes both prose and poetry, and resides in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Also, she teaches Literature and Composition at QCC, CUNY. Her work can be seen various places, including a recent chapbook entitled Hot Water, from Cy Gist Press.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

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