Appears in Other Voices #42
This one starts when a cancer patient creeps into Damascus, a Mission district dive bar. He’s never been here before, though he’s been in plenty of places like Damascus. Places that pour huge four-ounce shots of whiskey, a beautiful meniscus on the glass making it so you have to take that first sip with it still on the bar, leaning down and slurping it, no hands.
Damascus always has rock-and-roll on the jukebox. Right now, it’s AC/DC. They’re playing the only chord progression they know, howling about salacious women, which is kind of funny because Damascus is filled almost entirely with men. An odd assortment of the gender. Old Mexican drunks talking to themselves, trying to barter the price of a Corona with the bartender. Irish construction workers who drink from the minute they get off work until last call. Insipid twenty-something white boys, their cheeks stuffed with carbohydrates and college degrees, making snide comments about everyone and everything around them. Here’s to honor, one white boy will say, getting on her and staying on her. Things to that effect. This is Damascus’s pureed demographic.
That’s not to say there aren’t a couple women here; this isn’t a total sausage party. Damascus has three female regulars, but the only one that’s important to this story is Shambles. Shambles does jerk offs for chump change, gets strangers off for less than the price of a parking ticket. She’s the one in the bar that most of the other regulars have taken home at one time or another. She’s got acne scars on her cheeks, and her hair’s been bleached too many times—looks brittle, tips broken and uneven. Her eyes used to be blue like a husky, but now they’ve faded to newspaper gray, like the battery in her flashlight is dying.
So Shambles is at the bar. She’s only done one hand job tonight. There will be more. More fondling to finance her bar tab. The night is young.
The cancer patient, No Eyebrows, walks to the bar and orders a glass of whiskey. He happens to approach the bar by walking up behind Shambles. He leans between her and a Mexican guy wearing a cowboy hat. When the bartender puts the whiskey down, Shambles looks over at No Eyebrows. He’s wearing a bowler hat, and the skin under his eyes is deep maroon, looks bruised and burned.
Most people are shocked by his appearance because he reminds everyone they’re going to die. Not Shambles. She isn’t negatively affected by his appearance. If anything, she sees him as a business opportunity, dollar signs, an untapped jerk off market.
“Do you mind if I drink with you?” she says, motioning to the bartender to pour her a whiskey, too.
“I’d like that,” No Eyebrows says. “Thanks.”
“This is your last shot,” the bartender says to Shambles.
Ignoring him, she says, “Thanks for what?”
“No reason,” he says. “I’ve just been raised right.”
Instead of saying CHEERS! Shambles has a more original way to celebrate the precious ritual of drink. She smashes her glass into his, spilling whiskey on her fingers, and yells, “To livers aching like shin splints.”
He laughs, and they drain their shots.
Shambles stares him seductively in the eyes. “How’d you like to get off?” she says.
As soon as they’re in the bar’s bathroom, No Eyebrows yanks his pants down, and his cock ticks up slowly like a second hand, tip already gleaming with eagerness. Shambles locks the bathroom door behind them, shows him a rubber. “It’s twenty bucks with this,” Shambles says, her hand shaking the little silver square back and forth. “Forty without.” She pulls a lube-tube from her purse, squirts it, working it around her palm, business savvy.
“Forty, forty,” he says, bending at the waist, fumbling through his pockets for money. Stands up and gives her two twenties.
“Rules,” she says. “Don’t touch me. Don’t cum on me. Or I’ll scream.” Shambles tells everyone the same thing.
“Of course,” he says, aching. “I’ll even buy you a drink later.”
“Chivalrous,” she says, sliding her wet fist down him, noticing he’s so bald that he doesn’t even have pubic hair, tiny red sores on his stomach. “You must be from Camelot.”
“Phoenix,” he says.
He comes back to Damascus the next night. Shambles sits at the bar wearing a tattered T-shirt that says Divorced At Last. She’s with two other girls (Damascus’s other female regulars), empty shot glasses in front of them. No Eyebrows walks up behind her but doesn’t know how to say hello.
“Back already?” Shambles says, smiling.
“Can I buy you ladies a drink?” he asks.
Her friends don’t even look at him but bury their faces in each other’s hair and whisper secrets about how strange he looks: the way the chemo makes his skin fall forward like an avalanche, face gray like toxic oatmeal.
The bartender brings the Jameson bottle down the bar, sets it in front of them, asks how many.
“Four,” No Eyebrows says.
After the bartender pours the shots, Shambles holds her whiskey up in the air and says it again, “To livers aching like shin splints.” They throw back their shots. No Eyebrows makes the bile-rollicking-in-the-esophagus face, mouth watering in a bad way. He puts his hand to his stomach.
“Can I talk to you in the bathroom?” he says to Shambles, and her friends giggle.
“Julia Roberts,” Shambles says. “The hooker with a heart of gold.” She washes her hands after it’s over, after No Eyebrows is all over the floor in harsh streaks.
“What?” he asks.
“That’s who you’re looking for, but that’s not me. Pull your pants up.”
“I’m not here to save you,” he says and follows her orders–—zip, snap, fastening of belt. “I just want to get to know you.” He bunches up streamers of toilet paper and wipes the floor clean of evidence, wincing when he thinks about all the samples he’s been handing out over the last couple years, since they found tumors stuck all over his lungs like poisonous barnacles. They’ve performed biopsies, digging worms of tissue samples. They’ve slurped fluid from his spine.
“I’m not even a hooker,” she says. “I just do jerk offs. You’re in the wrong neighborhood for hookers.”
“Let me take you on a date,” he says, throwing the carnations of dirty toilet paper in the bowl, flushing them.
Here, Shambles disregards her experience, that voice of vast jerk off knowledge that’s telling her to walk out of here and not see him anymore. The knowledge she’s accumulated over the last eighteen months, night after night of strange dicks, bringing unknown men to orgasm. She recognizes that he’s getting a false attachment to her; she doesn’t need a new stalker. But there’s a charming combination of loneliness and desperation in him, and it won’t let Shambles sever their business arrangement. After all, it’s just that: business. He needs the commodity that Shambles so perfectly peddles.
“I don’t date clients.” Shambles laughs awkwardly, dries her hands on her pants because there’s no paper towels left in the bathroom.
“Just dinner. Do you eat dinner?”
“Not that often,” she says. “I’m more of a grazer.”
“Sashimi,” he says. “Easy to digest.”
“Too cold. I don’t like raw things.”
“Some of it’s cooked. Barbecued eel.”
“Why would you want to get to know me?” she says.
“I stumbled into this bar for a reason.”
“You were thirsty.”
“It was raining.”
“That’s not it.”
“Accept this fact,” she says. “This is all I can give you.”
There’s a series, a subset of nights, a consecutive streak of No Eyebrows coming in to see her. Eight days in a row he comes to Damascus. Their ritual is always the same: he offers to buy her a drink; she accepts; they go into the bathroom; she jacks him off; he asks her on dates repeatedly; she refuses; he asks why, why, I don’t understand, is it the way I look? and she always tells him it has nothing to do with him, that it’s just a rule she has, not to get involved with people from the office. That’s what she calls the bathroom at Damascus, the office. No Eyebrows swallows it, though it’s obvious to Shambles he wants to push the argument. He always drops the issue right on the brink of her telling him this whole arrangement is over. He knows just when to quit. But something in his persistency is wearing on Shambles. She doesn’t understand his motivations. She starts thinking about him, wondering if maybe she should make an exception to her rule about office romances, change her tenacious stance on amorous prospects cultivated in the bathroom, and go out with him. Why not? What’s an evening of sashimi going to hurt? Shambles has a consecutive night streak at Damascus herself, quite a stint, months on end. Maybe she’s due for a night on the town.
She tells one of her girlfriends what she’s debating while they’re sitting on their normal stools, playing the same songs on the jukebox, the recycled agony of rock-and-roll ballads.
“I’d let him take me to dinner,” her friend says.
“He likes strangers to jerk him off,” Shambles says.
“He likes you to jerk him off. Since when are you the fetish police?”
“He probably has a routine. Goes from bar to bar, getting jerked off by every slut in town.”
“Tell him to pay you,” her friend says. “Then it’s not just free dinner, you’re making a profit.”
A song comes on from Shambles’ old life, one of her ex-husband’s favorites, a whiny British melody. She tries not to think about that sham marriage, but every time someone plays this song, she sees all the ways he betrayed her in a whipping montage, vignettes of his vile duplicity.
“You’re right,” Shambles says. “I’ll have it with him. When’s the last time someone wanted to get to know this forty-one-year-old hag? I’ll tell him tonight.”
The problem is No Eyebrows doesn’t show up. Shambles sits at the bar all night, refusing all her regular customers, even turning away some greenhorns because she wants to tell him YES. She wants to go out to a restaurant with a man. A man who seems respectable. Yeah, she met him in the office, toilet instead of a desk, but he’s always polite, pleasant, and most importantly, he seems genuinely interested in her, even if she doesn’t know why.
She nurses her cocktails, not wanting to get too wasted. Pacing herself isn’t one of Shambles’ fortes. The later it gets, her pacing picks up and soon she’s drinking faster than usual, mad at herself, embarrassed, silently humiliated. She stays at the bar twenty minutes after the bartender says he wants to go home, and as he’s taking the bottles outside for the homeless to collect, Shambles leaves alone, walks the eight blocks home. She can’t sleep, and there’s no booze left in her apartment to seduce her into fatigue.
The next night, she goes back to the office. Yeah, she’s still waiting for him, but a girl has to earn a living. She has to pay for the tuna sandwiches and chicken pot pies somehow.
Shambles takes a Santa Barbara-looking young man—Hawaiian shirt, flip-flops, and holes in the knees of his jeans—into the bathroom. Shambles tells him the rules, don’t touch me or cum on me, the price with and without a rubber.
He smiles, says, “Bareback, baby.”
She puts the rubber away and squirts lube in her palm. He drops his pants. Even his cock is tan.
“For an extra twenty, will you do it topless?” he asks, rubbing himself hard. “I love seeing tits.”
She tells him no, of course not.
“An even hundred,” he says and Shambles tries to shimmy out of her top without getting lube on the sleeve.
After Santa Barbara leaves the bathroom, Shambles washes her hands. No matter how hard she scrubs, she can’t get his scent off of her: semen like garlic oil.
She sits on the closed toilet, leans her head against the wall, has the urge to cry. One of her friends knocks on the bathroom door and says, “Are you O.K.?”
Shambles lets her in, and they light cigarettes. “That made me feel awful,” she says.
“Where is he?”
“I know,” her friend says. “Stop doing it to strangers until you find out about the two of you.”
“Am I being stupid?” Shambles asks.
“No,” her friend says. “Maybe. How do I know?”
For the next two nights, Shambles sits at the bar with her friends, waiting. She drinks whiskey and tries not to take each passing minute personally.
“He’ll be here,” her friend says.
Shambles chews her nails and spits them on the floor like the shells of sunflower seeds.
By the next weekend—ten days since No Eyebrows’ last appearance—Shambles is tired of waiting around for him, feels tricked by him. Instead of turning all the jerk offs away like she’s been doing, she’s taking all comers tonight. It’s only ten o’clock, and she’s done four already.
It’s pouring rain outside; San Francisco’s had five inches today, more than its sewers are capable of processing. Water is collecting in the streets and sidewalks. The power is out in the lower Haight and Castro districts. The wind is blowing down trees, smashing homes and cars.
No Eyebrows is soaked when he finally comes in the bar and walks over to her.
“I’m not working tonight,” she says, a little drunk. Shambles’s biggest fear since her divorce is to be made a fool by another man. It’s been the story of my life, she tells her friends. I meet a man and he keeps me around until the stars are in perfect alignment, and the universe is just right for him to gouge out the remnants of my heart. Well it won’t happen again.
“Why aren’t you working?” No Eyebrows asks, confused by her clipped speech. He wipes his wet hands on his pants.
“Carpal tunnel,” she says and shakes her wrist lazily, sardonically.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he says, turning and asking the bartender to get her another one, orders himself a beer, too. “Have you thought about dinner?”
The cocktails come.
“No,” she says. “I mean, yes I’ve thought about it, and no, I won’t have it with you.” Shambles can’t understand him. It’s been over a week. What world does this guy live in?
They both stare at their drinks, pick them up and consume them quickly. He empties most of his beer in two swigs.
“I’m sorry for asking again,” he says. “I guess I should have known. You’ve always been honest with me.”
Shambles quickly drinks, using the booze to block her lips from saying any placating words.
He finishes the final sip of his beer, mostly foam. “Well, this is goodbye.” He turns to leave.
Shambles stops him, takes a deep breath. “Where have you been?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“I thought you’d be back sooner, that’s all.”
“I had radiation last week,” he says. “It takes time to get over something like that.”
Shambles knows he’s sick. It’s written all over his face in an invisible and pallid ink. But hearing that word, radiation, turns his medicinal plight from something impalpable, something Shambles tried not to talk about during their time in her office, into a symbol of life. Here’s this man, fighting to live, letting his body be pummeled by radiation so he can keep on living. Keep on living. Shambles feels wrong, awful, pathetic, selfish: While he’s been fighting for his life, she’s been feeling sorry for herself.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks.
“I come here to forget about that shit.”
“Would you like one for the road?”
Shambles greases up her palm and grabs him hard. “This is the last one,” she says, starting to slide. “I don’t want to see you again.” And at that moment, she means it. She can’t imagine seeing him again. Can’t imagine waiting to see him again. She stays in Damascus, in that grimy bathroom because she doesn’t want to be out in the world. That macrocosm has caused her too much pain. She’s O.K. with the straitjacket she’s put on herself, the feelings in her heart she’s turned off like old fuses. If No Eyebrows is the Hollywood hero in the story of Shambles’ life, she doesn’t want to be saved. Wants to be left tethered to the stake about to be eaten by the dragon. She’s O.K. with the bank robbers shooting her to show the crack team of negotiators they mean business. She’s O.K. with freezing to death on a flotsam piece of wood in the Atlantic, after the Titanic finished its dramatic breech. Those are all viable conclusions. That’s when she realizes No Eyebrows may be the perfect hero for her: he’s dying. He can’t save her forever, just for a little while.
The pace of her hand quickens. No Eyebrows moans and throws his head back. He reaches out and touches her shoulder.
“Don’t,” she says and shakes off his hand. “You know the rules.” Shambles starts to jack him off faster, squeezing him as tight as she can.
Again his hand moves around to her back, up and down her spine.
“Stop touching me!” she says and steps away, still able to reach him, never stopping her fist. Why don’t you walk out of here? she thinks, but something won’t let her.
“You make me feel like there’s more to life than tumors and toxins,” he mumbles.
Shambles steps back toward him, letting his clumsy hands fumble her back. He puts his hand on her spine again, rubbing its bumpiness.
“I’ve got tumors all over my back,” he says, words like grunts. “They hide in between my vertebrae. Your back feels perfect. It gives me hope.”
Shambles takes her free hand and runs it behind his balls, lightly scratching the skin.
“My last CT scan showed nine new tumors on my back,” he says. “They ache. It’s like a rotisserie spinning. I can feel each cell divide. I used to name them, but now there’s too many.”
She falls down, into his crotch, laps and sucks him.
“No more chemo,” he says.
Shambles can’t look up at him, can’t believe she’s doing this in the first place.
“No more metastases. No portocath. No gamma-knife surgery,” he says.
She runs her tongue along its underside, tracing the vein.
“I don’t want to die!” he yells, and his body starts to shake, first in his thighs, then jolts running through his torso. He makes choking noises and slams his hands against his hips.
Shambles takes every drop of it in, collapses to the floor and he falls, too, backwards onto the toilet seat. He leans his head against the wall and twitches—aftershocks of his orgasm. Then he dozes off, and she listens to that goddamn song through the wall, that whiny British one her ex loved so much.
They leave her office, and he asks Shambles again to have dinner with him. She says yes. Yes! It’s almost midnight so they’ll have to settle for diner food—pancakes and club sandwiches.
Outside, it’s still pouring rain. Some of the gutters aren’t draining—jammed with cardboard, old clothing, and booze bottles—making it so the water’s starting to collect on the streets in big, gray puddles. Most traffic lights blink red.
While they’re in the taxi, No Eyebrows says to the cabbie, “Will you just drive for a while?”
The man nods.
“What about the fare?” Shambles says.
“I’ve got plenty of money,” No Eyebrows says.
The driver weaves around the Mission District, down 24th street to Potrero, past Walgreen’s and SF General. The roads are empty because of the downpour.
“We die if we don’t get love,” No Eyebrows says. The cab takes 17th street up towards Potrero hill, following its unpredictable scoliosis-bends. No Eyebrows keeps talking: “After World War One, the babies in German orphanages started dying. No one could figure out why. Then they realized that no one was picking the babies up. They weren’t getting any human affection. No contact.”
The cab’s windows start to fog up so the driver turns on the defroster. But he keeps weaving quickly up a series of residential streets, going faster than he should. The windshield wipers rub the water off the glass lazily, too old to do the job right.
He continues, “I need human contact. Anything. Even hand jobs help.”
The driver turns left, but as the road dips, it’s flooded, water too high to go on. He turns the car around.
In the midst of No Eyebrows’ monologue, Shambles has a horrible thought: what if she’s supposed to be the hero, supposed to disarm the dynamite that’s been strapped to his chest by Afghani terrorists? Who’s saving whom here?
The cab makes a couple more quick turns, and they come to another flooded intersection. This time, the driver’s able to cross it with two wheels on the sidewalk.
“That first night, when you offered to get me off,” he says. “I knew you did it to other men, but at that specific second, you only wanted to touch me.”
The next intersection is flooded, too. They can’t go forward. “What should I do?” the driver asks, but no one answers him. He puts the car in park, idling.
No Eyebrows reaches over and rubs her spine. “I’m the only child of two only children,” he says. “My wife left me. My daughter is dead. I just want to feel good.”
“Can’t go on,” the cabbie says, voice growing more impatient.
“I’m still alive!” No Eyebrows yells.
Shambles wants to say something, but nothing comes to mind except I’ll miss you when you’re dead. She decides not to say it. She’s not trying to hurt him, but she’s not ready for the possibility that he may hurt her either. She stares out the window, says nothing.
“We’ll have to go back the way we came,” the cabbie says and puts the car in reverse.