I was almost eighteen years old but that day, the day of the bachelor party, I was so nervous you’d have thought I was twelve and had never seen a girl take off her clothes before. I paced around the house, took a walk along the train tracks, even tried to read an old book I found lying on top of Mrs. Gaweski’s garbage can. The book was called Of Human Bondage. I brought it home and sat on my bed and started reading it, but I couldn’t concentrate. I decided to go downstairs and see if my mother had any jobs she wanted done around the house but she was on the phone with this place they’d just put my brother Eddie into after his latest “run-in.” It was some kind of rehab/jail. She was crying into the phone, “I don’t know what you mean, ‘lesser of two evils.’ What does that mean? He’s a human being. He’s my son. And he’s a child of God, just like anybody else.” It was weird to think of Eddie that way, a child of God, because all he ever did with his life was mess it up. But I guess God has to let us mess up if that’s what we want to do. Anyway I couldn’t stand to hear my mother crying like that anymore so I went back up to my room and put on the headphones and cranked up Freebird.
About two hours before the party was supposed to start, my mother came up to my room and banged on the door and told me Larry Locastro was on the phone downstairs. Larry was the best man so he was in charge of setting everything up and collecting all the money. My mother followed me down the stairs and hung around near the phone, making it look like she was trying to scrub a stain off the dining room table that had been there for about ten years.
Larry says, “Tate, you got to do me a big favor. You got to pick up the girl and bring her over to the hall, okay?”
“What? Me? How come?”
“This guy Rocky just called me and told me that’s part of the deal; we got to pick her up and get her home. He said get somebody you trust, somebody halfway a gentleman, so I figured you. You’re the only guy I know who still goes to church.”
“Not always,” I said. “Anyway, why don’t you do it?”
“I got to be over at the hall and make sure everything gets set up right.”
My mother stopped pretending she was scrubbing and stared at me.
“You got to do it, Tate. It won’t be a stag party without a girl. And I don’t trust none of the other guys.”
It would be a lousy party without a girl, Larry was right about that. I was living at home with my mother and I wasn’t going out with anybody at the time, ever since Diana Remillard and me broke up because, according to her, I was “way too serious about things.” She especially thought I was too serious when it came to sex. She more or less liked it any time, but for me things had to be just right. I had to feel like I really loved her and wasn’t just horny or I couldn’t get into it. Well, I could, but not in a way that I felt good about after we were done. To be honest with you, I was still in love with Diana, even after almost a year. I still called her up once in a while. She’d always be nice for a few minutes, then give me the old, “Tate I got to go. My boyfriend’s coming over and I’m stark naked and dripping wet.”
“Okay,” I told Larry, “I’ll do it, I guess.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be glad you did.” He gave me the girl’s address. I didn’t like hearing it was down in Stapleton. I asked him what her name was. He said, “How the hell should I know? What difference does it make? Get her at nine o’clock.” Which pissed me off because that would mean everybody would get an hour of eating and drinking before I even got there, and I’d paid just as much money as everybody else. I had gone to college for a month but it didn’t work out, so I got a full time job at Jersey Printing.
The job didn’t pay much. Still, I didn’t say anything to Larry. I didn’t want to look cheap, I guess.
After I hung up, my mother goes, “What are you doing tonight, Tate? Who are you picking up?”
“There’s a little party for Jimmy,” I said. “I’m going over for a while, that’s all. Larry wants me to pick up some girl who needs a ride.”
I felt bad, knowing the girl was a stripper. My mother had always been a religious person, but she got more that way as she got older and our family got more and more messed up. She was always saying to me, “You see how your sister got herself all screwed up, and Lord knows what Eddie’s going to be like when he comes home from that place. You always had the most decency, Tate. Daddy used to say that about you, too. ‘What a decent kid,’ he used to say. ‘God really blessed us when he gave us Tate.’”
Which was nice to hear, except it tied me up in knots inside.
It was June, around eight-thirty, still a little daylight in the sky. The neighborhood this girl lived in looked even more broken down than mine did. But lots of people were sitting around outside on kitchen chairs, playing radios, dealing cards, smoking, drinking out of paper bags and Dixie cups. Most of the houses probably hadn’t been painted in twenty years. If a window was busted, it was either covered with cardboard or just left as it was. At least half of the houses didn’t have numbers on them, so I had to drive real slow to figure out which house this girl lived in. Some of the people hanging out looked up at me as I drove by, like, what’s this guy looking for, trouble? I tried to make the expression on my face look as innocent as I could so they’d see I was there for a good reason.
The address Larry gave me was 333 Theresa Street. I spotted 329 and then 331. The next house had no number on it. I parked in front and locked all the doors and stood on the sidewalk for a minute, looking around, thinking, what the hell am I doing here? Larry should be the one doing this. Finally I walked up onto the porch. It was a big, square, gray house, and the porch was slanted like it was sinking into the ground at one end. The doorbells were painted over and stuck, and there were four different mailboxes with four different names on them. I thought I might be able to figure out which one was the girl’s, like her last name would be Mounds or Willow or Pink or Juicy. You know. But the names were all pretty regular last names: Barr, Chaney, Bonds, Cruz.
I peeked in through the screen door, which had a hole in it so big that small birds could fly in and out. The inside was dim, but I could make out a hallway and some doors and a stairway. Before I knocked on the door I blessed myself, which I tend to do when I’m in a situation I don’t really want to be in. A dog started barking in one of the apartments, but nobody came out. I thought, imagine I show up at the party without bringing a girl, everybody all drunk and psyched up. They’d nail me to the wall.
I knocked again, this time on a window to the right of the door, and after a few seconds a Puerto Rican girl came down the hallway with this big crazy drooling dog jumping around beside her.
“Poco,” the girl said. “Quiet.”
She was around seventeen. Pretty. Wearing cut offs and a tank top. Big, light brown eyes, nice thick long hair. She had a gold crucifix around her neck, which distracted me for a second, Jesus hanging right there in front of me like that. I thought, what a sweet-looking girl. But a little young to be doing this. I wasn’t sure about bringing her back to the hall with me. I mean, I knew most of the jerks who were going to be at that party. I also thought I wouldn’t mind going out with her by myself. On a normal date, I mean. See a movie. Get something to eat. Maybe fool around a little in the car. That would be fine with me. That would plenty for starters.
“Can I help you?” She sounded as sweet as she looked. “Poco, stop. Down, Poco.”
“Are you the girl I’m supposed to pick up, by any chance?”
“Huh? You must mean Isabelle.” She looked behind her and leaned up against the screen and whispered, “She lives upstairs. On the left.”
“Maria, who you talking to?” It was some lady’s booming voice.
“Some boy who?”
I could tell Maria was trying to think of something, but I guess she wasn’t a quick liar because she finally said, flat, “For Isabelle.”
“Oh, Madre de Dios, help us!” The lady came barging into the hallway. “Go back inside,” she told Maria. The dog started to follow, but decided to stay with the lady.
“Look at you,” she goes, and she looked at me for a long time. I looked at her, too. She was fat (“heavyset,” I could hear my mother saying), wearing a flowery dress with no sleeves so you could see her arms shake whenever she moved. “Nice looking boy. What do you want to mess with her for?” Her eyes looked up at the ceiling. “You don’t have no girlfriend?”
Right away I thought of Diana. “Not right now.”
“Your mama know about this? Your poppy? He’ll knock you out if he’s any kind of a good man.”
I could feel my face burning. “He’s dead.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. But it’s no wonder.”
“The girl’s not for me.” I told the woman. She gave me a look, like, yeah, right.
“I just have to drive her somewhere.”
“Hey, who’s down there?” The high-pitched voice came down from over the banister. “Is that my ride? Yo, one minute.”
“Okay,” I called up, trying to make my voice go around the lady.
“You know what?” she said. “Now I got to look out the rest of the night for the daughter. She got a daughter, twelve years old. You know that? A retard. What do they call it, Mongolian? Now I got to look after her while her mama goes and plays whore. She don’t even ask me no more. She knows. What, I’m going to let the kid stay locked in a closet up there? Or watch her go out on the roof with no clothes on and sing Christmas carols so everybody on the street can laugh at her?”
I watched the fat shake on her arms as she crossed them over her big chest and I wished I knew why I got into some of the situations I got myself into. Like helping Narky steal his father’s car. Or going with crazy Jackie to Snug Harbor to fight Vito Tomisone that night. It always seemed like I got myself into a situation and only after it was over did I think about how I could’ve gotten out of it in the first place. When it was too late. Just once, I thought, just once I’d like to figure something out before it’s too late.
“God forgive you,” the lady said. She blessed herself. “Poco. Come.” She went back into her apartment with the crazy dog flopping around at her legs.
A minute later, this girl came walking down the stairs, real slow, like she might tip over if she wasn’t careful. She was carrying a red duffel bag with WABC written in musical notes. She was just a tiny, thin thing, like a little girl with a woman’s face.
“Okay,” she said, kind of bossy, as she stepped out onto the porch. She had a short, plain white dress on, which looked nice, and these red high heels that she didn’t look too comfortable in. Her hair was piled up on top of her head and her eyes were huge, almost too big for her face, which, now that I got a good look, was pockmarked and dark under the eyes. She had the brightest lipstick on I ever saw. Day-glow fire engine red. She must have hurried putting it on, because it kind of skidded off her lips in one spot.
I opened the car door for her and she got in. But what surprised me was that she leaned over and opened my door for me. Diana used to do that all the time, but I guess I didn’t expect it from a girl who stripped at bachelor parties.
As soon as I pulled away from the curb she said, “I quit at eleven. I stay till twelve it’s fifty more bucks.”
“Tell Larry when we get there,” I said.
“You the one taking me home? Because last time this guy told me he was taking me and before I know it him and his friends are gone and I got to call a cab and wait an hour in the rain and waste five bucks.”
“I’ll get you home,” I said. I don’t know why. I know I wasn’t sure I meant it.
“Okay,” she said, but suspiciously. Then she goes, “You like my shoes. I just got them today in the city. Like them?”
“Yeah. They’re nice shoes.” To be honest, shoes never meant much to me.
“Anybody messes up these shoes, I swear I’m out of there. Okay? You got it? You tell your friends they better be careful.”
“Okay.” I couldn’t picture myself really doing it.
She said, “You got a cigarette?”
“I don’t really smoke.”
She waited about ten seconds–it looked like she was thinking over something very carefully–then she opened her duffel bag and took out a brand new pack of Marlboros. “Oh yeah,” she mumbled. She opened the pack and lit one up with a Zippo.
I said, “Can I get one of those from you?”
She didn’t give it to me right away. Her eyes just ticked around my face. Finally, she shook one out of the pack and handed it to me. She gave me hers to light it with. The tip was covered in lipstick that looked like blood.
“I’m filling in for my friend Elise. She ain’t feeling good. I told Rocky okay I’ll do it. He usually comes with us but he ain’t going to be there tonight. I’m not worried. It’s all white kids like you, right?” She swallowed some smoke down her tiny throat. “I was just going to relax tonight, watch TV. But you got to work when you can, right? You know how much these shoes cost? A lot. The lady in the store told me they’re the exact same ones the princess of England wears. I swear to God.”
I nodded, but to be honest I wasn’t really concentrating on what she was saying. I said, “You got a daughter, huh?” and took a quick peek at her body. Her breasts weren’t big but they were nice and firm-looking, and her legs were thin but muscular. I thought about how she’d be dancing around with no clothes on soon; it made my heart beat faster.
“Who told you I got a daughter? Milagros told you, right? Woman minds everybody’s business but her own. I swear to God. Fat old smelly lady. Telling me about how the Lord Himself start crying every time I go out the door on a job. You don’t say that shit to somebody who ain’t family. I’m taking care of myself, bro. Lord’s crying over all these busybody ladies is more like it.”
I couldn’t picture the Lord crying, but I could picture him looking really sad. We had a picture of a sad-looking Jesus in the living room that somebody gave us after my dad died. I thought, both of them are probably really sad right now, watching me. I threw my cigarette out the window.
Isabelle said, “Her name is Carmen Rose.”
“My daughter. Carmen’s my baby sister who died, and I just like roses. So I put them together. It’s pretty, ain’t it?”
“Yeah.” I nodded, but I didn’t care for the name.
“She’s smarter than you think,” she said, and took a long drag of her cigarette. A tiny flick of red ash fell off the tip and I swear she let out a scream and kicked out her legs like she was afraid she was going to go up in flames.
“Whoa. Are you okay?”
She kept lifting her leg and turning her shoe left and right. Finally she goes, “Man, that was close.”
We pulled into the parking lot of this dumpy place called Oddfellows Hall, down near Proctor and Gamble’s. The air smells so soapy around there it makes you want to puke. The funny thing is, it makes you feel dirty, like you need a shower.
I felt jumpier than ever. I even had the idea to just leave her off and go home. I could picture Jesus giving me a little thumbs up. Finally, Tate, finally.
I didn’t, though.
“I’m going straight into the ladies room,” Isabelle told me when I shut off the engine.
She got out of the car real quick. She had a way of walking like she was trying to look tough, except it didn’t work because with the high heels she looked more like she could fall down any second. I walked behind her. Right before we got to the door she turned to me and said, “When I’m ready, you get them to sit down, and point me to the groom.”
I thought, what am I, your manager? All I wanted was to sit in the back and watch the girl dance and drink beers and eat sandwiches and then go home. Simple as that.
Isabelle went straight into the bathroom and I went into the main hall, which was just a big boxy room with a small bar in the back, a small stage in the front, and a torn up, grungy American flag hanging off a beam in the middle of the ceiling. About thirty guys stood around drinking and laughing and eating. Somebody’s stereo had been set up on the stage and the Allman Brothers’ “Whippin’ Post” was blasting away.
As soon as Larry saw me he came over, handed me a big plastic cup filled with beer. “You got her? How she’s look? Big ones or what?”
I looked at his face. His eyes were red and watery and out of focus, and his mouth hung open like the hinges on it were busted. I shrugged.
“Where the hell is she man?”
“In the bathroom.”
“Cool. Jimmy’s psyched. She’s going to blow him right up in front of the stage.”
“I thought she was just going to, you know, dance.”
“Yeah, her tongue’s going to dance.” He laughed in that drunk, stupid-sounding way, too high for his real voice. “Hey, make sure you don’t
go anywhere. I got a present for you.”
Larry walked over to Jimmy and pointed to the ladies room. You could see all the guys start looking that way, drinking extra fast and refilling their cups from the plastic pitchers that were all around the place.
Isabelle peeked her head out of the bathroom and waved me to come over. I didn’t want to go, but I did. She was wearing one of those red, see-through nightie things. “Which one’s getting married?”
I nodded toward Jimmy.
“Oh, he’s cute.” She took a sip of my beer, kissed me on the cheek and said, “Not as cute as you but. Gonna have me come and dance at your party, too?”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
Isabelle patted the top of her hair with both hands, blessed herself and started strutting out across the floor toward Jimmy. Everybody in the hall began to whistle and howl and yell out all kinds of disgusting stuff. A few guys grabbed her ass as she walked by. Isabelle slapped at them, like she only pretended to mind.
Jimmy stood there with the stupidest-looking grin I ever saw on anybody’s face in my whole life. His knees wobbled and he put his hand on his zipper like he couldn’t wait to pull it down. Isabelle strutted up to him and dropped to her knees. It looked like a move she practiced. She teased him pretty good for a while, then got going on him.
The rest of us gathered around them in a circle that, little by little, kept getting tighter and tighter. I was in the middle of it, until it got so tight and sweaty I couldn’t get my beer to my mouth so I pushed to the back.
That’s when things turned weird. Because as Isabelle got more and more into what she doing to Jimmy, it was like we all started turning into animals. Everybody started barking and howling and mooing and growling. I swear t the hall sounded like some berserk barnyard.
So there’s Isabelle’s head bobbing away on Jimmy, and everybody going crazy, and I started feeling really scared. Like we’d crossed over some line and at any minute we could all be turned into stone. Somebody filled up my cup. I kept trying to see as much as I could over everybody’s heads, but then when I could see, I had to turn away. I did that two or three times. I know this sounds stupid but I was thinking, if everybody would be quiet and take this more seriously, it might be okay.
I couldn’t look at how it finished, but it sure sounded raunchy. All of the sudden Larry gets behind me and shoves me through the crowd right into the middle of the circle.
“All right, Tate!” Everybody whooped and slapped me on the back like I just won the lottery.
“What?” I said. “What the hell you doing, Lar?” But I wasn’t stupid.
The next thing I knew, Isabelle was kneeling in front of me, those big eyes looking up into mine. “Hey, baby,” she smiled. She started playing with my zipper, pulling it up and down to tease me, and I could feel myself getting hard, and my heart slamming against my chest. Then, for one split second, everything seemed to get quiet and still.
What I did was reach around Isabelle’s back and pour my beer on her shoes. I did it plain as can be. She shot up from her knees and for a minute she couldn’t even talk. She looked at me like I’d just sold her into slavery or something. Finally she screamed, “You fucking bastard! My shoes! My shoes!”
All the guys started roaring like it was a comedy skit. I looked around at everybody and I started laughing too. Until I noticed that Isabelle had tears in her eyes.
“You fuck!” she cried. “How could you do that? I told you. I told you.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really sorry.” I sounded drunk, even though I wasn’t, and my eyes started filling up with tears, too. I thought, maybe she’ll look at it like it’s some stupid thing some jerk does at a bachelor party. Something that doesn’t make sense. After all, being a stripper she must see guys do stupid things all the time.
I felt like a cornered animal. I said out loud, “I got to take a piss something awful,” and ran across the hall and straight out the side door. I don’t know if anybody even noticed. From outside I held the door open a crack and looked in: everybody was crowding in on Isabelle and she was looking all around, kind of crazy-eyed. Then Larry threw up his hands and shouted, “Everybody shut up. We’ll buy her a new pair of shoes. Two more bucks each from everybody.”
Right away, guys started throwing bills at her, and she stopped looking lost and confused and started scooping up the money off the floor.
When Isabelle finally held all the bills in a big wad in her fist, Larry yelled, “Okay, now where were we? Where the hell is Tate? The chauffeur didn’t get his reward yet.”
That’s when I let the door close and ran to my car.
I started the engine but just sat there for a couple minutes, trying to get my heart to stop banging against my ribs. I wanted to feel like I made the right decision for once. Like I did the most decent thing I could do. The truth is, I felt like a guy who’d just escaped from prison. Yeah, he was free, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t guilty.