For Joe Pulver
This was maybe ’91 or ’92. The economy losing its footing, stumbling into recession, the glories of the Gulf War receded in the national rearview. The turn of the century—of the millennium—no longer a description of past events, but a predictor of things on the way, less than a decade’s distance. Across central Europe, groups manacled by toppled tyrants massaged raw wrists, regarding one another from the corners of their eyes while reaching for the knives. HIV-AIDS rampaged through the bloodstreams of young and old, rich and poor, celebrity and nobody.
Joe was working as a bouncer at the End Zone, a strip club in Latham. Most of his job consisted of taking money at the door and maintaining a generally hostile expression to everyone who handed him cash, from the college boys up from SUNYA, down from Sienna, or over from RPI, to the truckers and businessmen in town for the night, to the assorted regulars, most of whom knew how to circumvent the club’s no-alcohol policy by gulping from their bottles in their cars in the parking lot. He kept the camo patrol cap on because it added to his bellicose appearance, and when he inclined his head forward the bill made it more difficult for the customers to be sure where he was looking. Even in the club’s air-conditioned atmosphere, his denim jacket rapidly grew humid, but it lent a good ten pounds to him, and he figured the bigger he seemed, the less chance there was of a random asshole trying anything with him. Plus, the jacket’s pockets were capacious enough to hold a flask of rye on the right and a dog-eared paperback of French poetry on the left. The liquor, he treated himself to after locking the club’s door behind the last patron to exit. The verse, he read as the alcohol’s heat spread from his stomach and the girls changed into their regular clothes and prepared to leave. He murmured the French: “Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,” “La lune s’attristait,” “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien.” When it was time for the girls to go, he walked those who did not have rides waiting for them to their cars.
He encountered less trouble than he’d been warned to expect by the man who hired him. In most cases, his arrival was enough to put a stop to whatever bullshit was in progress—usually, a guy who couldn’t or wouldn’t get the message that the dancer he was crowding wanted him gone. Every so often, he found it necessary to grip the arm of the offender high on the bicep and steer him to another part of the club, up to and including the front door. Although plenty of customers played tough, thrusting out their chests and glaring at him, they were roosters, showing off for the other cocks. The only one who truly made him nervous, to the point he retrieved the aluminum bat he’d propped behind his stool at the front door, was a short guy with curly red hair and a van dyke who entered one afternoon not just drunk but angry drunk, his face flushed, his eyes sparked bright by an altercation with his girlfriend, or the woman he thought was his girlfriend, from what Joe overheard of the tirade the man unloaded on Kelly, the bartender, and then to the mirror behind the bar. Before he was done with his speech, he grabbed the empty glass in front of him and smashed it onto his forehead. When he stumbled off his seat, blood was streaming down his face, shards of glass shining in his hair. He opened his mouth and screamed, a howl of frustration and rage that turned all the heads in the room his direction and sent Joe hurrying for the baseball bat. His fingers had just closed on it when the man burst into tears and sat down on the floor. Kelly was already on the phone to 911, and although Joe hustled to where the man was sitting, the situation was over. During the five minutes the Sheriff’s deputies took to arrive, the man screamed twice more, but no one paid attention to him. That night, Joe remained in the club after the last girl had departed, smoking his way through a pack of Marlboros and reading Baudelaire: “Dans des terrains cendreux, calcinés, sans verdure, / Comme je me plaignais un jour à la nature.” As dawn was bloodying the horizon, he crept into the backseat of his Dodge and plummeted into dreams of men with glass studding their skin.
A week after that, Joe had his encounter with the shirtless guy. It was closing time, the last girl left from the stage, the music switched off, the house lights raised. Joe had thought all the customers were gone. But when he glanced at the stage, he saw a lone figure seated on one of the chairs that lined it. One sneakered foot propped on the railing that ran the stage’s perimeter, the guy had pushed his chair up on two legs. Didn’t your mother ever tell you, Joe thought. At some point after entering the club, the guy had doffed whatever shirt he’d worn in, which had escaped Joe’s notice—odd, because if there was one thing the patrons of a strip club were absolutely obliged to do, it was to remain clothed, themselves. The guy was skinny, but his flesh was roped with muscle. None of the girls had mentioned a ride waiting for them inside, so it was likely Mr. Shirtless was waiting to surprise one of them with his attentions. Joe approached quickly and quietly. He considered kicking the guy’s chair out from under him, but on the off-chance he wasn’t there for some nefarious purpose, Joe opted for the usual bicep grab, ready to ease the guy to the floor should he startle and topple the chair.
Instead of closing on the man’s arm, however, Joe’s fingers grasped the man’s right hand. In a move whose serpentine specifics happened too fast for him to follow, the guy corkscrewed to his feet and twisted to catch Joe’s grip in his. Joe’s brow lowered, his frown becoming a grimace as the shirtless man tightened his hold. The guy couldn’t weight more than one-fifty, and that was assuming you threw in the sneakers and black corduroys hanging from his hips, but he possessed circus-strongman strength. As best he could, Joe returned the pressure, but it was no contest. The man squeezed his hand, pain lighting Joe’s arm as his bones gave to the brink of breaking. No telling what the guy’s next move was going to be, but if it was preceded by breaking Joe’s hand, it couldn’t be anything good. The baseball bat was hopelessly out of reach; Joe clenched his left hand and brought it back for a roundhouse.
And the guy released him and stepped away, hands open and up. “Well,” he said, “I guess I should be going.”
“Yeah,” Joe said once he could catch his breath. “I guess you should.” In the combined relief and pain that rushed over him, he saw that the guy was older than he’d first taken him for, at least his age. He had a tattoo of some kind on his right shoulder, a figure Joe didn’t recognize, done in jaundiced ink. Rubbing his right hand with his left, he walked the shirtless man to the front door and out into the parking lot. He wanted to watch this guy get into his vehicle, start it, and drive away from here.
The man took half a dozen steps across the gravel, stopped, and turned. There was a cigarette Joe hadn’t seen him roll or light between his lips. “Almost forgot,” he said. He reached his left hand behind him. When he brought it around front, it was holding a pistol, a black automatic Joe had failed to notice tucked into the guy’s waistline as he trailed him. The man held the gun by the bottom of the grip, dangling it upside down. “Here,” he said, holding the weapon out to Joe, “take it.”
He couldn’t see how a gun in this guy’s possession was a good idea. He caught the pistol with his left hand and the man released it. “Two bullets,” the guy said, holding up the index and middle fingers of his right hand.
“Two,” Joe said. “Why? For what?”
Joe slid the gun into his jacket. He heard gravel crunching, looked up to the sight of the shirtless man striding out of the parking lot and along the shoulder of the road. Before Joe lost sight of him behind the silhouette of the auto parts place next door, the guy shouted something at him Joe couldn’t distinguish. It sounded French; something to do with Carcassonne, maybe.
His right hand hurt for days, to the point he considered a visit to the emergency room. He opted to increase his intake of rye. It didn’t help, nor did the painkillers Kelly slipped him. What reduced if not relieved the pain he discovered one night he was playing with a ballpoint pen. Silver, the kind with the button on one end you click to extend and lock the point, and again to release and retract it, it had been left behind by one of the customers. Doubtful the owner was going to return for it, but Joe had it at his place at the front door, just in case. Bones aching, he pressed the button over and over—until, prompted by a sudden and ferocious impulse, he dug the book of French poetry out of his pocket and opened it to the inside back cover. His hand felt as if it was filled with fire. He pressed the tip of the pen to the blank surface, and started to write.
The room wheeled. High overhead, the moon rolled across the sky, crashing through the stars, cracking the firmament. The pen drove across the paper. Cities shuddered, burst, collapsed in glittering ruin. Across a great distance, someone was speaking. Joe leaned forward to hear what was being said.