I fully believed Peggy would not want to see me any more after I left for work that night, and I cursed myself the whole shift, struggling even to get to sleep later when I got home.
The fact that I received no 11 a.m. call seemed to confirm my expectations, and I woke up at 2 p.m. feeling so down and out I just stayed in bed, nodding off a few times fore dragging my ass into the shower.
I nearly cut my nose with the razor when I heard the phone jangle in the kitchen and dripped my way out of the bathroom to pick up.
“Where are you?” Peggy’s voice demanded the moment I said, “Hello?”
“I’m here – at home.”
“I know that. What I want to know is why you’re not over here?”
I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing.
“Are you still there?” Peggy asked.
“Are you coming over, or what?”
“You want me to?”
“No, I’m calling you out of the fucking blue because I’ve got nothing better to do with my life,” she moaned. “Boy, you take the cake. I’ve known men to forget to call me after they’ve fucked my brains out. But you don’t even remember I exist.”
“When do you want me to come?”
“Now would be a good time.”
When I got to her apartment, I found her seated on the kitchen window sill staring out.
“Give me the ashtray,” she said without looking back at my just coming in the door.
“I picked a large clear glass ashtray from the table and carried it over to her. She took it and flicked a long cigarette ash into it.
“You know there are times when I’m so lazy I won’t get up to get the ashtray,” she said, still staring out at the skyline, the sun glittering off the face of the skyscraper windows of distant New York City. “I just flick the ashes behind the refrigerator.”
Then she looked at me – and frowned, her painted brows folding in towards the bridge of her nose.
“Why the hell am I telling you this?” she asked, her eyes showing real fear, as if she thought I might use this little secret against her somehow.
“There’s beer in the fridge if you want it,” she said.
“I don’t think I should.”
“I’m drinking more than I should.”
“You? That’s ridiculous. You drink like a bird. Now I on the other hand drink way too much, and you know what? I’m not planning to stop any time soon.”
“Is that why you called so late?” I asked, drawing yet one more glare.
“You’re damned lucky I called you at all,” she napped. “I don’t know where you’re from Buddy, but where I came from when a boy gets lucky with a girl, he gives her a call the next day to say thank you.”
“I was sleeping,” I said. “Besides, I can’t call you –you don’t have a phone.”
“You could have called my mother.”
“And told her to thank you for your fucking me?”
This made Peggy laugh.
“Now THAT would be something,” she said. “I called late because I was busy, and not drinking. I had to tutor someone today.”
“You mean that’s for real?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I thought you were handing me a line with all that tutoring stuff.”
Her gaze narrowed. She took a long puff on her cigarette and blue the smoke in my general direction, then crushed the butt out.
“Is that what you think?” she asked. “That I’m bullshitting you?”
“You have to admit is does sound farfetched,” I said.
“Farfetched or not, I don’t bullshit. I have several regulars I tutor – and today I went to one of them.”
Peggy snorted out a laugh.
“Today was a marvelous day,” she said.
“The boy I’ve been teaching made a lot of progress today,” she said. “He has a speech impediment. I’ve been trying to help him get over it for months. When I’m with him, he gets better. But when I leave him and come back, he’s back to where he started.”
“How do you account for it? Or don’t you know?”
“Oh, I know,” Peggy said. “It’s his mother. She treats him like shit even sometimes when I’m there. Sometimes I want to scratch her eyes out for what she does to that boy, always telling him how worthless he is, always telling he’s not making enough progress when I know he is.”
“But you said he made progress today. What happened?”
“It was the usual shit. I make progress with him, then she comes into the room and he forgets everything I taught him. So today, she comes in and she starts in on him and he loses it, stuttering all over the place, and the more he stutters, the more she lays into him about how bad he’s doing and how he must be too stupid to learn.”
“But you said he made progress.”
“He did. I guess I just got sick of hearing it and made the mistake of mumbling the word `bitch’ under my breath, and he heart it. Worse, he repeated it perfectly, not just once, but again and again, louder and louder, so even his mother heard it and knew he meant it for what it was, not just aping me – and she stared at him, and blushed, and fled the room. I’m so damned proud of him, I could bust.”
Then, Peggy looked at me and shook her head.
“There I go again, telling you this shit. You can’t repeat any of this to anybody.”
“And you can’t use it against me.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because others have, and I can’t trust anybody any more.”
“I told you. I promise.”
“Okay, I believe you. Now let me get ready. I have to dance tonight. You can come watch me dance if you have time.”
But since I had to work later, I would have to meet her at the club, a new dive she’d danced it previously, but was out of my usual circuit, up at north, at the top of dingy Route 1 & 9, near the approach to the George Washington Bridge. It was one of those enclaves for urban cowboys to take refuge in, lacking even the most remote sense of style places like the My Way at least offered, situated in a box like building along the side of the highway in what amounted to a macho strip mall with a gun shop a few doors down and gravel for a parking lot. The interior, when I finally got there, was filled with broad-shouldered men in work shorts and work boots already over the legal limit for driving.
The dance stage sat behind the bar with a wall mirror behind it, giving the small, crowded low-ceiling room the illusion of being larger than it was. The bar and stage sat on the long wall across from the front door – with a batch of wooden tables and chairs filling the middle. To either side of the front door were the doors to the men’s and women’s rooms. Along the right wall was a line of machines – cigarette, jukebox, gambling games and an out of date game of Pong.
Some bars are naturally more angry than others, churning with testosterone and men looking for an excuse to fight – and this was that kind of bar, each grim face looking around at other grim faces for someone to be offended by, the worst and most angry lining up along the bar like gunfighters waiting for the next contender to challenge for his place.
I sat down at one of the tables, out of the line of fire, in as dark a corner as I could find, letting the barmaid serve me, risking that even Peggy might miss me in the smoke filled room.
But she didn’t miss me.
She was on stage and she nodded for me to find a place at the bar.
I shook my head.
I sipped my beer and looked the other way.
When she finished her set and came down to where I sat, she was foaming.
“Why the fuck are you sitting over here?” she demanded.
“Because sitting at the bar is lethal,” I said.
“Don’t tell me you’re scared of those jerks?”
“Let’s say I’m no Karate Kid.”
“Coward,” she said and sat in the chair across from me. “Buy me a drink.”
I signaled the bar maid who didn’t need to come over, just directed the bartender to make Peggy’s usual.
While I had never seen Peggy at this bar before, plenty of other men had, waving to her and calling to her by name.
Some of the wise guys along the bar eyed her, clearly annoyed at her sitting with me since some of them had given her tips or bought her drinks while she had danced.
No one apparently supplied her with any cocaine, and the booze seemed to affect her more than usual on this account. She slurred her words and seemed to forget things she had just said.
She was telling me one of the tall tales I had heard her tell before.
I laughed; she frowned.
“You don’t believe me?” she asked.
“It’s a bit farfetched.”
“I don’t lie.”
“Everybody lies,” I said.
“What I mean is, I don’t lie well. When I try, I can’t look someone in the eyes. People tell me I blush and look away.”
“That’s nice to know,” I said.
She glared at me.
“Don’t you dare think you can take advantage of that,” she said.
“I wouldn’t think of it.”
She drained her drink the moment it came and then stood up.
“I have to mingle,” she said. “Don’t leave. I may need a ride home.”
“What about your car?”
“I didn’t bring it.”
“How did you get here?”
“How do you think, Alfred? Someone brought me.”
“You mean Tom?”
“I mean it’s none of your business.”
“Well, if Tom brought you, how come he can’t bring you home? I have work later.”
“If Tom was here, he could bring me home, but he’s not and I’m asking you to do it. Or do you want me to ask one of those fine gentlemen at the bar?”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll drive you home.”
Then, she went off to join the boys at the bar, the angry men with grim faces and crude manners, who pawed at her as they bought her drinks, one or more of whom supplied the missing ingredient that allowed her to perk up later during her dance, she apparently trading her attention for the favors so that I felt more like an ornament at the table than someone she’d invited to come.
She did notice me when I got up to go to the men’s room, since that door was directly across the room from the dance stage. But then so did several men from the bar who crowed around two of the urinals as I used the third.
“She’s too fat,” one of the men said, picking up on a previous conversation.
“Who cares, fat or skinny? It’s her mouth I want around my cock.”
“Is that why you gave her the coke?”
“Maybe that’s get her horny enough to do us all.”
“Do you really want her mouth around your cock after I’ve cum in it?”
“If we get her out to the truck, we can all get a piece of her,” a third man said.
“I don’t know if I want to share her with you guys,” the first man said, drawing growls from the others although it was clear they had come up with a plan.
I finished first, washed my hands and left. Peggy was looking at me as I came out, and passed me at the other men who were zipping up and coming out without washing.
When she finished her set, she came over to me, once more drawing glares from the three men at the bar.
“You look upset,” she said. “Are you jealous?”
“And if I am?” I asked.
“You shouldn’t be.”
“Those three have plans for you,” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the bar.
“Them? You’re jealous of them?”
“I didn’t say I was jealous.”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead with any of them.”
“You took their cocaine.”
“That doesn’t mean I’d sleep with them.”
“They seem to think differently.”
“Well, they can go on thinking that way. I saw them in the bathroom. They didn’t even wash their hands when they were through.”
“Most men don’t,” I said.
“Most men are pigs,” she said. “Come on. Drink up. We’re going home – that was my last set.”
“What about them?”
“Fuck them,” she said.
We stood. Peggy had apparently brought nothing with her but her coat and her purse, both of which she’d brought to the table when she’d came down from the stage.
One man noticed us heading towards the door. He nudged one of the others, who nudged the third. It took a moment for the event to register in their small brains, by which time we were out the door and headed across the gravel parking lot to my car.
I saw them coming out of the bar in the rearview mirror as we rolled out onto the highway, and then I kept an eye on the mirror for a while until I was convinced they were not pursuing us.
We rode north on 1&(, then west on Route 46, then down Outwater Lane to Midland, by which time we were back on familiar turf and I felt a lot more comfortable, and finally pulled up in front of her door.
“Well,” I said. “It’s been fun.”
“You’re not coming up?”
“I told you, I have work.”
“So you’d rather make donuts than make love to me?”
“I never said that.”
“We can make it a quickie like I sometimes get at work.”
“Close your mouth, Alfred, you’re letting the flies in. Do you want to come up stairs and fuck or what?”
I went up with her, but we didn’t fuck after all.
Her mood had changed by the time she got undressed. Perhaps the spike of cocaine had worn off and all she wanted by the time we got into her bed was for me to hold her.
She claimed it was because I didn’t have any condoms.
“We’re not going to have any more accidents like we nearly did last time,” she said.
“But you invited me up here for a quickie, remember?”
“I thought you’d bought some.”
“I didn’t buy any because I didn’t think I would need them.”
“So you don’t want to fuck me after all?”
“I thought we were through until you called me to come over.”
“Well, now you know to buy some. You can leave them here. I won’t let any other man use your condoms on me.”
“You keep talking about other men,” I said. “I was under the impression you wanted to go out with me.”
“Doesn’t that generally mean exclusively?”
“Not to me it doesn’t. Just because I’m going out with you, doesn’t mean I’m going to stop seeing other men – and if decide to fuck one them, that has nothing to do with you.”
She must have read some of what I felt from my face.
“You’re taking all this too much to heart, Alfred,” she said.
“I suppose I do,” I mumbled.
“Just hold me and forget about everything for a while.”
I nodded. But I wasn’t going to forget. I had stepped too deeply into this and I knew a step more and I might drown. I was thinking it wasn’t too late to get out before both of us got hurt. But as she settled to sleep, I knew I was kidding myself. It was too late and we were both headed down a path of inevitable pain, and there was not a damned thing I could do about it.