It’s a sloppy punch, thrown from the shoulder and not the hip, in an arc broadcast so widely it may as well be lit in neon. It catches me on the side of my face, below my ear, and to anyone watching it looks like a good land, but truth is, I barely feel it.
The vintage-T-shirt-wearing asshole who threw it shakes open his fingers, eyes on fire at his newfound ability to be a tough guy. Jumping and hollering in his too-tight jeans, a goofy smile warping his patchy facial hair.
His garage band friends, thoroughly satisfied that he’s dominated me, grab him by the arms and make a big show of pulling him away. Like they’re doing me a favor, holding back the beast.
It’s almost enough to make me laugh.
“That’s what you get,” he says, slurring his words.
“Fucking faggot with your faggy fucking hat.” He yanks his arms free, points at me, and puffs out his tiny bird chest. “Next time I come back here I won’t go so easy on you.”
They wait for me to say something but I just shrug at them.
There’s not really an appropriate response to that kind of thing that doesn’t involve taking his teeth. And there was a time I would have seriously considered that. Instead I watch them saunter down the block, the three of them laughing at the navy-blue night sky.
Control your anger before it controls you.
There are a few people outside now, pretending to smoke cigarettes but really watching what happened, probably bummed there isn’t blood on the ground. I tip the brim of my straw cowboy hat at the spectators and head back into Naturals.
Now that those three idiots have been cleared out and people are finishing their smokes, it’s fairly empty inside. Three men and two women nurse drinks at the bar running the length of the right wall. To the left, two young couples hover at the foot of the elevated stage, a fight not enough to draw them away from the view. The high-top tables surrounding the stage are empty, a few of them scattered with temporarily abandoned drinks.
Calypso is up on the stage, dancing to “Under Pressure” by Queen and Bowie. The couples around the stage toss dollar bills as she sweeps around and sticks her ass into the air, wraps her hand around the shiny brass pole, and dips, whipping her curly brown hair off her face. Her dark skin is nearly black in the dimness, the thin fabric between her legs glowing in the black light.
Tommi is behind the bar staring at me, pretending like she wasn’t just peeking out the window. I sit at the bar and she sets a glass of ice water down in front of me, picks up another glass to clean.
“Want some extra ice for that face, Ashley?” she asks, leaning into my full name like it’s supposed to make me feel inadequate.
“Did that guy hit me? I hadn’t noticed.”
She puts the now-clean glass along the back wall, in front of the glittering rainbow of liquor bottles, and places her hands on the bar, her thick arms laced by worn tattoos. She leans toward me so I can hear her over the music.
“I’m a pacifist,” she says. “And you know I don’t want trouble in my place of business. But you’re allowed to defend yourself. Especially with some asshole trying to stir shit up and act big. Everyone here is going to vouch for you and say it was self-defense.”
Tommi keeps a gun loaded with blanks duct taped to the underside of the bar, to the left of the slop sink. The Condom, she calls it. Better to have it and not need it. Strange sort of pacifism.
The thing I want to tell her is that if I hit the guy, best-case scenario is I hurt him enough that he sics a lawyer on me or on the bar, because he seems like the type to do that.
Worst-case scenario is I start hitting him and can’t stop. She doesn’t need that kind of weight. Neither of us do.
“They’re gone,” I tell her. “No one’s hurt.”
“You could have gotten hurt.”
The song ends. Next up is “Wasted Life” by Stiff Little Fingers. Calypso has good taste in music. With the mirrors behind the bar and the mirrors running along the back of the stage, it looks like there’s an army of naked women twirling around us.
Tommi shakes her head. “Funny.”
“Word was you were a tough motherfucker. The guy who recommended you called you dangerous. I figured, maybe a guy like that could be useful. Instead I get a guy who lets people punch him in the face and says twenty words a night.”
I take a sip of my ice water, so cold it makes my teeth hurt. “Disappointed?”
She laughs, a sound that rumbles like it’s coming from the bottom of a cave. “Maybe. I don’t know. You’re not what I expected.”
I shrug, take another sip. Feel a slight swell of warmth on the side of my face.
The song ends and Calypso goes about picking up clothes and crumpled singles while Carnage waits in the back by the door to the kitchen and dressing room, wearing her patchwork schoolgirl outfit, red Mohawk spiked up into the air nearly a foot off her head, pointy like a buzz saw.
The trick is Elmer’s Glue, she told me once.
It’ll be quiet in the bar until Carnage gets on stage. This is a low-budget operation. Rather than paying a DJ, which Tommi can’t do, the girl coming off the stage goes to the dusty iPod hooked into the speaker system and queues up the next few songs for the girl going up on stage. Not exactly elegant, and there’s something very awkward about silence in a strip club, but it works for now.
“So, when are you going to tell us more about yourself than your name, cowboy?” Tommi asks.
I hold up my hands and count on my fingers.
She asks, “What’s that?”
“Think I hit my twenty words for the night. What needs getting done?”
She shakes her head, this time like she really is disappointed in me. She says, “Check the bathrooms and straighten up downstairs. Got more beer coming in tomorrow.”
Another thing Tommi can’t afford yet is a janitor.
I begin to push away from the bar and Tommi leans close to me again, says, “Also, talk to Crystal before you leave tonight. She needs a hand with something, thought it might be in your wheelhouse.” She arches an eyebrow. “Though after tonight, I’m wondering if she might be wrong.”
Rather than ask for an explanation—because, truly, I don’t care—I tip my hat at her and head off.
Carnage’s song starts up, some metal thing I don’t know, and she proceeds to hurl herself around the stage. Launching herself off the pole and catching herself on the thick-gauge chains that extend from the corners of the stage into the ceiling. Stopping herself just before she topples into the crowd.
She winks at me as I walk past. The asshole I kindly asked to leave had been making a grab at her, which sparked our little showdown. I give her a nod and knock loudly on the door for the ladies’ room. No answer, so I duck in and it’s mostly clean. I’ll give it a once-over when the place is locked up.
The men’s room destroys any hope I might get off easy. Someone missed the toilet by a wide margin, forming a puddle on the wide gray tiles in the back corner. The room smells sharply of ammonia. I head back into the restroom alcove, open the small service closet, and roll the mop and bucket in.
Get to work cleaning up some drunken asshole’s piss.
You want to get the true measure of a town? The strip clubs are a good place to start.
Back home, six months and a million years ago, I’d only been to one strip club, out in some industrial section of Queens. It was an anonymous building that disappeared into the night sky, the red brick painted black.
There was a big line out front. The line didn’t seem to move. I was there for a friend’s bachelor party and someone in our group knew the owner, so we got to skip the line. Then we got “bottle service,” which meant two bottles of middle-shelf vodka and some containers of orange juice and cranberry juice, like you’d buy in a supermarket.
I went and sat at the bar and ordered a whiskey, spent the rest of the night brushing off the women who were insisting on separating me from my money through the mechanism of lap dances.
It was like a plague of tanned and glittery flies buzzing about, and when you thought the swarm was gone, it would loop back. The night took a bad turn when the bachelor passed out, and a handful of girls proceeded to dance all over him in some private corner, then insist to us they were owed several thousand dollars for their trouble.
But that’s New York, and fuck you if you can’t cope.
Portland’s polarity is completely reversed. The strip clubs here aren’t hidden behind black paint, tucked away in otherwise- abandoned neighborhoods. They look like bars. Sometimes you don’t even know what it is until you walk inside, where you find an equal mix of men and women. Sure, you get the weirdos who are attracted to places where naked women congregate, but going to a strip club in Portland is like going to a bowling alley most other places.
There are no lap dances. The strippers aren’t even allowed to touch you, by law. There’s a difference between a guy who thinks he can cop a feel and a guy who knows it’s against the rules right off the bat.
Lowered expectations keep the temperature down.
My absolute favorite part about the strip clubs here, though, is that any place in Portland that serves alcohol also has to serve food. And this is a town where they take their food pretty seriously. I have yet to eat a bad meal I didn’t cook myself. Every menu in this town includes at least one instance of the word “artisanal.” Like if you aren’t making your own pickles you may as well give up.
There’s one club where the guy who owns it also owns a cattle farm, and you get a solid steak for a few bucks and eat it while women take their clothes off for you. There’s an observation about the American psyche in there somewhere, for someone smarter than me to make.
I don’t work in that club.
Naturals is all vegan. This isn’t even a new concept—Tommi was the third person to think animal-free products and boobs would make a good combination.
Most of the furniture is secondhand and the stage creaks when the music is low. The carpet very badly needs to be replaced. I try not to think too much about the carpet. People seem to like the food, which is mostly hummus plates and black bean tacos and cumin-dusted popcorn. Tommi is trying to crack the code on stuff like vegan cheesy nachos, but it isn’t going so well.
She also has designs on the vacant storefront next to the club. Once the money comes pumping in she’ll knock down the wall and expand. Any day now. Until then it’s a low-key endeavor.
But Tommi is dedicated. She takes the name of the place so seriously she won’t even hire dancers with bolt-on tits. Again, probably an observation there worth making.
This is not the job I dreamed about when I was a kid— archeologist—but as a layover, it’s not so bad. It’s enough money to keep me alive long enough to figure out where I’m headed next.
Which is hopefully: Someplace else, soon.
The stainless steel surfaces of the closet-sized kitchen are gleaming by the time I’m done with them. This is the one thing that’s not supposed to be my job, but Sergio had to cut out and I offered to do it, because what the hell else am I going to do with myself besides sit alone in my apartment and stare at the wall?
It’s been nearly two hours of cleaning and fixing stuff and everyone is gone and the only thing left to do is lock up, and I figure I’ve successfully avoided Crystal, but as I step out of the kitchen she’s sitting at the bar, like she materialized out of thin air. I’m not even sure where she’s been this whole time I was working.
She’s in street clothes, which means a black T-shirt and tight gray jeans, the two of them not meeting, so there’s a thin strip of cream-white skin around the middle of her. Black-and-white canvas sneakers on her feet and a small red purse sitting on the bar next to a bottle of beer. Her black hair is shaved down to stubble on the side of her head that’s facing me, and on the other side it’s draped like a curtain, reaching down to the middle of her back. Her face is flush and pink, freshly scrubbed free of makeup.
The way she sits, her back is arched a little, like she’s posing for someone across the room. But she always seems to sit like that. She gets up as I approach, and her voice and posture are normal, but her eyes, blue-green like tempered glass, are concentrating real hard, like she’s carrying something that might shatter if she drops it.
“Hey, Ash. How’s your face?” she asks.
As I get close I’m flooded with the smell of her. Something citrus.
“I’d say the guy hit like a girl, but you could probably hit harder,” I tell her.
She doesn’t laugh at that, asks, “Can we go outside?”
We step out and I pull down the front gate and clasp the thick padlock. The street is deserted, streetlights glaring yellow in the misty air. It smells like the ocean.
Crystal pulls out a slim cigarette and places it between her lips. She looks up at me as she fumbles with a small white plastic lighter. “I know these are a little girly, but would you like one?”
The truth is, yes, seeing a cigarette and I can feel the handjob tug of nicotine at my brain. But I resolved to stop pumping my body full of poison. Because in the not-too-distant past, my blood was mostly a mix of whiskey, nicotine, and whatever drug I had most recently gotten my hands on.
I shake my head, lean my shoulder up against the gate. “You wanted to talk to me?”
“I’ve heard things about you. Like you used to work as a private eye when you lived in New York?”
Ah, fuck. Tommi must have told her.
How I got the job at Naturals is, when I made a mess of my life in New York and decided it best to see the world—or flee, depending on how you look at it—I found it’s hard to get a job in a place when you don’t know anyone. It’s even harder when you don’t have any marketable skills. So I called around at the bars back home, figured someone might know someone and I could get myself a gig bartending or dishwashing.
So my friend Dave says he knows somebody who’s opening a strip club and is looking for a bouncer. I don’t want to take a job as a bouncer, my attempt at pacifism running counter to that. But I hear that Portland is a pretty chill town and my bank account is full of dust and dashed hopes.
Not that I’m called a bouncer, officially. I don’t have an unarmed bodyguard permit, because who cares. I’ve got enough work to busy myself with that if anyone asks, I can say I’m a custodian. Tommi likes to keep things simple. I tend to agree.
So I go in for the job, and Dave wanted me to sound like an asset, so he told Tommi more about what I used to do than I would have liked.
And here we are.
“I wasn’t like a licensed private eye or anything,” I tell Crystal.
“I didn’t do it professionally. I was more like a blunt instrument. People asked me to do things and I got them done and sometimes they paid me or gave me stuff in return. But I don’t do that kind of work anymore.”
Crystal takes a long drag and blows out the smoke hard. “I need some help. I know I don’t really know you, but I don’t know who else to go to.”
“I’m sorry, but…”
“It’s my daughter. She’s missing.”
The words vibrate in the yellow mist between us.
Before I can stop myself, I ask, “What happened?”
“My ex-boyfriend, her father, took her from day care. He’s not supposed to have her.”
“This sounds like a custody issue.”
“Dirk and I were never married. No divorce. There’s no custody or visitation or anything. Just, he’s not supposed to have her.”
Shrug. “Go to the cops.”
She looks into my eyes like she’s trying to burn a hole through them. Like she wants me to know the thing she’s about to say is something she’s not ashamed of. I know this look well, even though I’ve never been able to replicate it.
“I used to use,” she says. “I stopped soon as I got pregnant and promised that I would never touch it again. But the cops see an ex-junkie stripper, they’re going to take my daughter away. Do you know what kind of terrible shit can happen to kids in foster care?”
I nod. “No offense, but are you sure you’re not overreacting?”
“This isn’t an idle fear,” she says, like I’m an asshole, which, probably. “I know a girl, same situation as me, single mom who dances and she doesn’t have any family. Some shit went down and some holier-than-thou caseworker decided she wasn’t a fit mom. So the caseworker made her get a legit job as a waitress, which she had to take a huge pay cut for. Then the caseworker said she wasn’t making enough money. She has supervised visits with her son until this shit gets worked out. That’s horrible. I’m not going to risk that.”
“Okay. That’s not an unfair point.”
“All I need is someone to find him and get her. I’m not saying my ex is dangerous, just that he’s more apt to listen to someone his own size. If I go… it’s not going to end well.”
“What does that mean?”
“He’s hit me before. I’m going to hit him back. I don’t want my daughter to see that. And I’m not even totally sure where he is.”
Something sparks in my chest. As a rule I really don’t like guys who hit women. Still. “I don’t do that work anymore. And if he was hitting you this is something worth solving soon. If she’s not safe…”
“He wasn’t good to me, but he was good to her. If he wasn’t such a fuck-up he might even make a good dad. I’m sure he wouldn’t hurt her, but that doesn’t mean he should have her. He’s not someone you have to be afraid of.”
The way she says it is like she’s trying to reassure a frightened child.
The thing I want to say is: If you only knew.
Instead I tell her, “Talk to Hood. Call another friend. I’m sorry. I’m not the kind of person you want to put your trust in. Best of luck. Truly.”
Her face contorts into something sharp so I turn to leave and walk in the direction of my apartment. Don’t give her the chance to say anything.
I turn onto West Burnside, past the long line of homeless people camping out on the sidewalk. I don’t know why they’re always here. Maybe there’s a shelter nearby. Maybe it’s where they gravitate. A few bug me for change, but most of them know me as a person who never hands any over, so they ignore me.
That’s not a moral stand. I just don’t have money to spare.
It’s a nice night, teetering on the edge of summer, so I can wear a T-shirt this late at night and not feel like I should have dressed smarter.
The air gets a little chillier as I approach the Burnside Bridge. There’s no one on the pedestrian pathway, with only the occasional car interrupting silence so deep I can hear the lapping of the Willamette down below me.
Halfway over, even though the wind is whipping and raising goose bumps on my skin, I stop and lean on the rail and look out over the river. At the gentle sprawl of the city, the lights dim and the buildings not tall enough.
This is the junior-varsity version of a city.
Truth is, more than anything, it reminds me of home home. The West Brighton neighborhood on Staten Island where I grew up. A mix of suburban and urban that came down too hard on the suburbia side for my taste. You could still walk to things, it just took a while. The streets eerie quiet after dark.
In fairness, that familiarity breeds a bit of contempt.
A big part of me still feels like a tourist. Six months now and any moment I’ll have to pack my bags and catch a flight, go back to the things I know as normal.
Everything outside my East Village apartment was always moving, always alive, always flashing. So big it blotted out the sky, so bright at night you’d swear it was day. Here, though, it’s just silence and damp, and everything is green and shadow. Quiet houses and people who seem to always be half asleep.
My rhythm and the rhythm of this place don’t match up yet. Maybe with time it will, if I stay, which, probably not. This isn’t the place for me but I don’t know where to go next. Maybe Europe. I’ve never been to Europe. Though to pull that off I’d need to stow away on a freighter or something.
Until then I jump every time I hear a creak, because there aren’t sirens or roaring trains or people screaming to drown those sounds out anymore.
I get back to walking and the smell of citrus lingers after me. I’m sorry for Crystal and her daughter. But I don’t want to feel that feeling anymore, of flesh pulping under my skin and my fingers slick with blood, slipping on each other as I clench them into a fist.
It’s pretty nice living a life without that feeling.
Tonight is the first night I’ve gotten hit in a long time, and even now it takes me a second to remember exactly which side of the face that dummy clipped me on.
Going headfirst into a situation where I might very well have to start swinging again? No. That’s not me. Not anymore. The path of the righteous man, et cetera, et cetera.
I hang a right on SE 7th Avenue, a few blocks from my apartment now, and a car jets past me and coasts to the curb a half-block ahead. The driver gets out and darts across the street, into the cover of some trees.
I keep walking. Not wanting to think about Crystal and the kid, doing it anyway.
That’s the thing tugging at me: There’s a kid involved. And Crystal is right. I don’t trust the cops either.
My dad’s words come back to me, the thing he worked so hard to hammer into my head. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and the good guys need to stand up for each other. The bad guys only win if you let them. They’re words that have gotten me into trouble, but that doesn’t make them untrue.
As I come alongside the car that pulled to a stop, the trunk pops open with a soft thunk, gaping at me like a yawning mouth. I stop to look at it, because there doesn’t seem to be anyone around, and for a moment I wonder if I did something to make the trunk open.
Behind me there’s the crunch of footsteps, and before I can turn there’s an arm wrapped around my neck, pressure on my throat, something hard poking into my back. Good money on it being a gun. Given the height and location I hope it’s a gun.
I feel spittle in my ear as a raspy voice whispers into it. “Hand over your phone. Reach for it slow. And don’t look at my face.”
It’s a man. Strong. About my height. Can’t tell much more than that. A few scenarios run through my head. They all end with me being shot. I am more than happy to give up my phone if it means this guy will fuck off, but the open trunk indicates this is more than a mugging. Still, I reach down to my pocket, slow as I can, pull it out, and hold it up.
The arm wrapped around my neck comes loose and snatches it away. The hard thing in my back presses harder.
“Now climb in,” the man says. “We’re going for a ride. I detect the slightest bit of tomfuckery and I will shoot you fucking dead.”
I take off my hat, toss it into the corner of the trunk, and climb in, face down. The lid slams closed on top of me.