An excerpt from ‘Swayed’ – Copyright © 2014 by Michael A. Kuch
HANK PEPPER KNEW IT WAS A BAD IDEA
Going Back To Sugars.
The moment Ray Delano opened his big mouth Hank’s plans went straight to shit. Strip clubs weren’t his thing. Not anymore.
Ray showed up at Hank’s place Friday night, dragging a bubble gum pink Samsonite behind him like it was a rotting cadaver on wheels.
Hank figured it was about Tess, Ray’s wife.
It was always about Tess.
“Ray,” said Hank, opening the door, giving him a panorama of the apartment. Hank eyeballed Ray. A little too anxious to make his way in.
“Sup, Ehtch?” said Ray, shuffling in as Hank closed the door behind him. “Always a treat to see how the better half lives.”
RAY STOOD LIKE A TROLL
Staring through the bank of windows stretching the length of the room with a view of a small park rolling down to a wooded ravine.
Ray turned around, side-eyeing the sparse furnishings, like he’d seen in Hank’s magazines.
A pair of slippery black leather sofas and boxy side chairs laid out to form a casual sitting area. A framed vintage poster Ray could never figure out, hung above an elongated glass-faced fireplace set into the wall reminded him of a built-in aquarium except for the fish.
“You alright, bud?” Hank asked, giving Ray a moment. Hank followed Ray’s eyes across the apartment. “No big deal, added a couple things to fill the room.”
Hank stepped aside watching Ray cart his luggage through the foyer into the kitchen. He found a spot to lean against the wall and folded his arms in front. “How’s Tess?”
“She’s Tess,” said Ray. Ray propped himself up on the kitchen counter, his legs dangling against the cupboard doors. “Whatever.”
“What’s that suppose to mean?”
Ray, being his evasive self didn’t answer, settled in like they were college roommates. He jumped down and opened one of the fridge doors nosing around, pulled out a take-out container of day-old Thai leftovers and a couple of imported beers in green bottles. He passed one to Hank and went straight for the sofa. As if Hank would mind. Ray hunkering down for the weekend like the old days.
“One, somewhere in the drawer,” Hank said. “Get off your ass and look for it.”
“Hmm.” Ray raised his eyebrows. “Be a lot cooler if you had two.”
“Welcome to stay as long as you like.” Hank sat down across from Ray. “Tell me about it later. I need to shower and be out of here in an hour.”
“Thanks, dude.” Ray chewed, smacking his lips. He scraped up the last of the sticky noodles with the tip of his fork, then chugged the beer until a residue of foam bubbled at the bottom of the bottle. He belched. “Do the same anytime, bro.”
“Help yourself.” Hank pointed around the corners of the loft. “Fridge is stocked. Bed in the guest room is made. Fresh towels in the bathroom, and there’s an extra set of keys by the coffee maker on the counter. Right where you left your ass imprint. You know the drill.”
“Chillin’ like a villain.”
“I can see that Ray.” Hank straight at Ray.
“What’s with the look?”
“Don’t screw around with my audio system.”
“It took me forever to reset it the last time you messed it up.”
“Relax, Jodie Foster,” said Ray. “I’m cool.”
“I’m taking a shower, so you’re on your own tonight, bud.”
“Oh, yeah.” Ray slouched on the sofa, kicked up his feet and hooked a thumb into the front of his jeans. “Where’re you screwing off?”
“Out,” said Hank, getting up. “On a date with a woman you don’t know.”
“To a bar you don’t like.”
“No shit, for real?”
“To see a band you also don’t like.”
“Sorry I asked, Judas.”
“Don’t burn down the place,” Hank said, walking away.
“No farting on my sofa.”
“No smoking inside.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” Ray shook his head mimicking Hank. “No having fun.”
“I can hear you, Ray.” Hank’s voice trailed off as he closed the bathroom door. “And get your stinky feet off my coffee table.”
Ray finished the second beer, got up and farted while stretching. Pleased he hadn’t technically broken Hank’s second commandment, and feeling a little rumble in his gut, he unbuckled his belt and headed for the bathroom.
AS HANK SHOWERED
Ray sat on the toilet seat with his pants pulled down to his ankles, and began rolling a joint from the weed he’d stashed in a plastic baggy behind the tank the last time he crashed there. Hank’s New Year’s Eve party seven months ago.
Ray cradled a past issue of Architectural Digest on his knees he found stacked in a magazine holder next to the toilet. He pinched a cluster of weed breaking down the stale buds into a thick tapered line, sculpting the mound into a cone shape. He licked the rolling paper and massaged and twisted the tips of the joint until satisfied it looked like a miniature baseball bat. Ray held it up to his nose like sniffing a bouquet of flowers, admiring his latest masterpiece.
“Ray, really?” Hank poked his head out the shower door as Ray lit up. The sweet pungent odor percolating with the steamy, moist air. “There’s another bathroom.”
Ray getting chatty as he toked, nagging Hank about Sugars, said how much fun it’d be. Besides, he was jonesing big time to see some fresh ass. Ray rambled on, the pest he was. Hank saying no three times, reminding Ray what happened the last time they went to a strip club. Yeah, that strip club.
Ray pulled out his closer, overplaying his Woe is Me card, explaining Tess had sent him a text message on his way home from work; saying the marriage was a charade, had dragged on too long, and not citing any particular reason, was leaving him. “What I get for marrying a teacher, eh?”
RAY MADE HIS POINT
Tess was just being Tess, and being a little stoned if he’d calculated correctly counting back the days since The Last Episode, what he called it, it was her time of the month.
There he said it, like Tess was in the room and he didn’t give a shit. Ray saying Tess got this way every now and then, unable to convince Hank he was not culpable of any wrongdoing in the break up.
Hank caved in as Ray knew he would when the joint burned down to a tiny roach and Ray flicked it over the shower door. Hank watched it land on the white marble tile and slide along a stream of water to the drain as Ray started up again.
“Shut up already, Ray,” said Hank. “I said, I’ll go.”
“What about whatsherface, the latest future Mrs. Pepper?”
“Very funny smart ass and whatsherface has a name, Ray.”
“You want me to call her, say you’re taking care of family tonight?”
“No,” said Hank, turning off the shower. “I’ll tell her the truth about how my asshole misogynist cousin is screwing up his life, pissing away his marriage to a good woman, and needs a slap before a full on intervention.”
“When you decide to be nice, you can have a towel.”
“Lucky for you,” said Hank. “I don’t think whatsherface expected a second date anyway, but if it matters, I was really looking forward to hearing some great music tonight.”
“At least tell me her name.”
“Matilda,” said Hank. “Happy?”
“As a clam.”
RAY TOSSED A TOWEL OVER THE SHOWER DOOR
Leaned back against the toilet tank with a grin so wide it would make the Grinch envy, his eyes glazing over from the buzz.
“And wipe that goofy smirk off your face, Raymond,” said Hank, popping his head through the door. “Or I may just change my mind.”
Hank towelled off in the shower enclosure mindful not to engage Ray in a debate he knew couldn’t possibly end with a rational conclusion. Hank’s curiosity turned to impulse. He immediately regretted asking why Tess would go as far to change the lock on Ray’s house, the one he had inherited from his late parents before they were married. Ray shrugged it off.
“You know Tess,” said Ray, washing his hands. “She’s a nut job.”
Hank wrapped the towel around his waist and gave up trying to reason with Ray. Stepping out of the shower he decided not to ask why Tess would be so meticulous about packing a carry-on of toiletries and neatly folded t-shirts, jeans, boxers and socks, and leaving it for Ray on the front porch. Or the part about Tess clipping a half-off coupon from a flyer advertising a party size pizza and six cans of sodas, along with a three-pack of condoms Ray found in the zipper pocket of his Samsonite.
Ray stood in the doorway with his shoulders pressed against the jam beginning to mellow as the high settled in. As Hank massaged a dab of styling paste into his palms, Ray pitched a plan for the weekend he was sure Hank would veto so didn’t bother to mention a possible hook-up he was working on as insurance if the night fizzled out and he had to bale.
Ray followed Hank to his walk-in closet, watching Hank contemplate a line of shirts covered in clear plastic from the dry cleaners. Hank pushed the hangers apart going through a dozen shirts when he found what he was looking for and took a couple from the rod. He held up a light blue cotton shirt for Ray and put aside a cream linen one for himself. Ray gave Hank the thumbs up sign.
Ray pulled off his t-shirt, gave it a sniff, and tossed it over his shoulder in one full motion making his way to the guest bathroom to wash up. He came back with his face still damp. His hair was tussled as if he had combed it with his fingers. He was dressed in Hank’s pretty blue shirt, leaving the tails untucked and sleeves rolled back to his forearms. He stood behind Hank watching him fuss in the wardrobe mirror, Hank shooting his cuffs under a casual sport coat. “You ready, princess?” asked Ray.
“As soon as I find your tiara,” Hank giving it back to Ray. “We’re out of here, sweetheart.”
ON THE RIDE TO SUGARS
Ray picked up the conversation from the bathroom, never letting go until Hank cut him off. Ray agreed to drop it, throwing Tess under the bus. Ray crossed his heart swearing to abide by Hank’s archaic rules of ‘Two drinks and we’re out of here’ and ‘Don’t talk to the dancers’. As if, Ray thought, the night was just starting.
Hank tipped the Uber driver while Ray was stirring at the entrance anxious to get his drink on inside. Hank told Ray to find a table as far from the stage as possible, he was heading to the can after paying the cover. A cheesy 80’s Hairband ballad hit its crescendo as they swung open the double doors to the lounge and split to opposite sides of the bar. Ribbons of pink neon threaded the upper walls illuminating the ceiling in a trashy homage to trailer park retro. The last letter on the bar sign blinked and buzzed, sputtering off and on, not that anyone would notice in this dive.
At the urinal Hank unzipped as he read the graffiti scratched like ancient hieroglyphics into the wall. Illegible scribble from some poor drunken bastard, jilted by the ubiquitous Jenny – everyman’s ex-something or other – pontificating about her abundant love of boners of all colors and sizes, and her lack of feminine hygiene. Classy guy this Jenny’s former beau, thought Hank. Maybe Ray knew him.
The air was rank, stifling under the malodorous Strip Bar trinity of soured beer, urine and feces. A fresh dump stewed in the clogged toilet in the stall next to Hank conspiring to annihilate what was left of his sense of smell and good judgement after dealing with Ray.
What a horror show, Hank thought, wishing Ray hadn’t been such a whiner and had suggested any place else to drown his misery, recalling why it had been so long since the last time he was here. Ray’s stag party two years ago, a disastrous night since grown to urban legend amongst chatty local bar flies. The pair banned for life, Hank antsy whether the owner Leo Sugarman would spot them. Now back with Ray on an indefinite hall pass as a newly excised bachelor, a sure fire recipe for trouble.
A rhino-sized Samoan dude with tribal tattoos inked from his neck to knuckles, leaned against the side wall as if the world owed him a favor and he was there to collect, doubled as men’s room attendant.
A white beater tee held nothing in. Cargo shorts hung so low a mass of pock marked butt cleavage spilled out over his back pockets.
He passed Hank a mound of paper towels stiff as cardboard as he finished washing. Hank dried, leaning into the mirror, and checked his teeth. He tossed the wet clump into the bin bouncing it off the rim, then pulled five bucks from his pocket and placed it in the tip jar on the counter. He was at the door holding it open, and gave Hank a nod as he passed. “Thanks, Bra.”
Hank crossed by the front of the stage as the DJ introduced the next dancer in that booming carnival voice plagiarized by monster truck show announcers, encouraging the crowd to, “Give it up, boys.” He switched to corny pirate voice that sounded like a falsetto Leprechaun. “Gentleman, put your libations down and your hands together, make some noise for the lovely Maaarrr-deee.”
Ray was ordering a couple beers and bourbon shots from the waitress, as Hank slid into the corner booth. She greeted Hank with a “Hey, dude,” and floated a fist punch that made him smile, then disappeared toward the bar.
“What the hell, Ray,” said Hank, “Is she even old enough to be in here?”
“I guess Leo still likes them really young, huh,” said Ray.
“And marinated in coconut body lotion.”
“You think he’s still pissed at us?”
“We’ll be lucky to finish our drinks if he sees us, Ray.”
Ray’s attention went to Mardi entering the stage dressed as a slutty secretary or school teacher. He couldn’t decide which one worked better for his fantasy. Mardi played with an oversized pair of Harry Potter glasses, lifting them up and down like she needed to get a better look at the horny gawkers sitting up close in Pervert’s Row. At center stage, she twirled in a pirouette wearing a tight navy pinstripe skirt cropped to her cheeks, white blouse tied in the front, fishnet stockings, and red stilettos with a heel that could spear fish.
A THUNDER OF APPLAUSE AND WHISTLES
Synchronized fists pumping as “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, the joint’s signature song, kicked up.
The Friday night crowd beginning to morph from loose-tie salesmen with fat expense accounts and contractors still in dirty work clothes, to jacked-up Frat boys priming their weekend buzz before clubbing at midnight.
A smattering of Lipstick Lesbians and chunky Bull Dykes in butchy haircuts, khakis and polyester golf shirts dotted the room.
Hank waved off Ray doing a fake reach-around for his wallet as the waitress returned and placed the drinks on the table. He gave her a fifty-dollar bill. She tucked it in her sash and said, “Thanks, dudes, I’m Brit.”
“Hey, Brit,” said Ray, eager to connect.
“Let me know when you boys are ready for another round.” Ray watched Brit leave for the next table and pushed a shot glass and beer toward Hank.
Ray held up his shot glass and toasted, “To skinny chicks with big tits.”
“To ex-wives and alimony.”
“Screw you, buddy.”
Ray sucked back half his beer while thumbing through messages on his phone. Hank waited until he finished. “You talked to Dante about Tess?”
“No, why would I?”
“You need to call him, Ray.”
“Later.” Ray was focused on Mardi as she arched her back against the brass pole and slid down to the floor, teased with the garter, and pulled herself back up.
MARDI PLAYED THE ROOM
Hitting her poses perfectly in sync to the music, untying her white blouse, black lace bra bursting in front, shimmying with the cups.
She found her prey easily enough, a naughty catwalk to the edge of the stage, holding on Ray, sliding her glasses up and back down to the bridge of her nose, then sauntered back to the pole giving Ray all he needed of the backside.
World class jerk-off moment, Ray deposited it in his pornographic memory bank for easy recall later if the night petered out and he had to resort to Old Faithful.
“Ray, just a couple drinks here and then we’re off to the Horseshoe.” Hank let it go seeing Ray was in a trance and sipped his beer looking around.
“Hate the Horseshoe,” Ray snapped back in between songs as Mardi went to a bright spot under the stage lights to sort out a malfunction with the garter. Another dancer joined Mardi helping to untangle the clip over deafening cheers. As the noise leveled Ray said, “I am not in the mood for Chick tonight.”
“It’s his old band playing.”
“Chick Fucking Valentine and the Enablers?” said Ray, turning to Hank, sarcasm in his voice. “Real original.”
“Don’t hate and ease up on the F-bombs.”
“It’s the same old shit they always play.”
“It’s the same old awesome shit they always play, and you love it, Ray.”
“Tess loved it,” said Ray, talking into his beer.
“Tess has good taste,” said Hank. “Except in men.”
“Really, Hank, you going there?”
“I’m just breaking what’s left of your baby balls, Ray.”
Hank’s cell phone vibrated on the table. It was Dante, Tess’s brother. He showed the call display to Ray. Ray shook his head. “Don’t answer.”
Hank answered, said hang on, shot Ray a look, then got up and walked toward the men’s room. Hank returned a few minutes later after telling Dante to meet them at the Horseshoe by ten and make sure Chick had them on the guest list if he got there first. Dante said he had something to do and would catch up with them later, never mentioning Tess or Ray, so Hank didn’t bring it up.
A fresh round of beer and bourbon, three each this time, crowded the tiny table. Ray was smiling.
“Expecting company?” Hank asked.
“You don’t look like a Hank,” said Mardi, blindsiding him, plopping herself between Hank and Ray. “Henry, if I had to guess, honey.”