Posts tagged ‘shoplifter’

April 22, 2008

SWEETNESS

from-John Tottenham

(excerpted from Tuesdays Are Always Dark Days)

‘I used to walk the streets of strange cities, I used to think about you.’

It had been a long day. I had driven five hundred miles. I decided to spend the night in Cincinnati. The city held a strange allure. It was one of those cities whose rough exterior harbored a certain benignity. And this was a quality I hadn’t encountered anywhere else I had stopped along the way. And the further I drove the more I realized that I didn’t want to stop anywhere else, that I was intent on winding up in Cincinnati. Something might happen to redeem a trip that hadn’t been as adventurous as it might have been. The following afternoon I could drive up to the Dayton airport.

For a week I had been on a supposedly remedial tour of the rust belt, wandering around depressed industrial towns and wasting time at obscure racetracks. My intention at the beginning of the trip had been to drift aimlessly but I failed to surrender to the first minor meltdown. In the midst of it, from a motel room in Columbus, I called a friend in upstate New York who urged me to visit. Consequently, knowing that sanctuary awaited me, I didn’t immerse myself in other places as much as I should have. I realized that I was thwarting my intentions and experienced regret in real time, constantly rueing the latest version of what might have been.

I arrived at 10.30 and headed for the Travel Lodge in Newport Kentucky, on the other side of the Ohio river. The bald and paunchy night clerk checked me in. He asked if I was in town on business. I mumbled affirmatively. I gave him sixty dollars and he gave me the keys to room # 217. It contained two double beds. The double curtains excluded that annoying morning sunlight. Upon entering I yanked the cord of the loudly humming refrigerator from the wall socket, lay down on the bed and masturbated languidly, letting all the anxieties of a long day on the road ooze out. Then I showered, shaved and changed into some fresh attire.

I drove across the bridge into dead downtown Cincinnati , along Broadway, left on sixth and right on Main. Some semblance of street life became apparent as I proceeded into the Over The Rhine district, a crowded neighborhood of decaying architectural splendor bordering downtown. Attempts to revitalize this designated historic district had been interrupted three and a half years earlier by some ugly race riots.

I drove north up hillsides straggling with faded gracious dwellings and into the quaint old north side, up Hamilton, to the Comet bar, a place where young people congregated late at night. The seats at the counter were all taken. I occupied a table and accidentally eavesdropped on a mean-spirited conversation between two sorority girls which afforded some insight into the mind of a rapist. It was a miserable way to cap a long journey. I left after one beer. I stopped off at an all-night convenience store. As I walked in a shoplifter ran out with goods concealed beneath his coat. One of the clerks ran after him. I browsed tabloids for about ten minutes, bought a Snickers bar and left.

I got back into the car and drove down Vine, a steep hill that became grimier and more perceptibly vice-ridden as it unwound into Over The Rhine. At the corner of Fourteenth I stopped at a red light. This was the eaten- out heart of that blighted neighborhood. Veiled transactions took place in dilapidated doorways and on empty lots. Standing on the corner, to my right, was a woman who would have grabbed my attention anywhere. She was looking straight at me. I wondered what a beautiful white woman was doing in that neighborhood at one o’clock in the morning.

As I turned away it finally dawned on me that she was a prostitute. I looked over again. She was smiling and nodding her head in an inviting manner. Time slowed down. Her eyes sparkled. I recognized that if I didn’t yield to this moment I would bitterly regret it later. The light turned green. I leaned over and flipped the lock to the passenger door.

She climbed in. ‘Hi honey.’ Any concerns that she might have been a transvestite were instantly dispelled. I could scarcely believe my eyes…my nerve…my luck.

She was slender but potentially voluptuous.

Her dark hair was piled up. She wore a colorful horizontally striped blouse and faded blue jeans. The blouse was cut low exposing part of a tattoo above her right breast. Around her neck hung a large cross.

Face powder covered the rough parts of her complexion. She exuded warmth and vitality. These qualities were immediately apparent. I was stunned into a state of silence. I stared into her eyes. She wanted to know what I was looking at.

She seemed to expect me to open the negotiating. I asked her how much she wanted.

‘Seventy five bucks,’ she said without conviction. She expected me to talk her down. But I wasn’t feeling too talkative. I said seventy-five would be fine. It was unsettling to consider how much less she might have settled for.

‘What are you into?’ she asked.

‘My tastes are very simple,’ I said.

She said she had a place we could go to. I suggested we head back to my motel room. That was fine with her. We were already headed that way, though with her beside me I was plunged into such a state of distraction that I lost all sense of where I was. She didn’t have much of a clue either.

I told her I didn’t have any prophylactics.

‘We should get some,’ she said in a rusty whine, which sounded both tired and alert, jaded and innocent.

Five minutes ago I had been driving back to the motel in a disenchanted mood, a moment later there was a beautiful woman sitting beside me. I didn’t tell her that I had never been with a hooker before but I did confess that I was nervous. Such were my efforts to suppress rattling nerves that, on the evidence of the shaky stunted utterances I did come up with I was afraid she might think me a dangerously repressed deviant. But she didn’t appear to make anything of it.

Her name was Sylvia. She hailed from Lexington Kentucky. She was twenty-four.

‘That’s right,’ she said, ‘a single mom.’

She used to work at an escort agency in Lexington. I asked what kind of clients she dealt with there.

‘Horse people,’ she said.

‘Centaurs?’

‘What?’

‘Any jockeys?’

‘Pat Day,’ she said.

‘I thought he disdained the pleasures of the flesh.’

‘One of his daughters goes to the same day care center as my daughter and she doesn’t know he’s her father.’

Suddenly we were thrust together in the night. There was a conspiratorial aspect and an element of trust was involved. An arrangement had been made. She complained of hunger. Once over the bridge the lights of a White Castle stand could be seen shining a few blocks away. After driving the wrong way down several one way streets we made it into the drive-through lane. She tried to order a Number One meal but the employee on the other end of the intercom couldn’t decipher our requests. We had to drive up to the window where the order was taken in person by an ashen-faced old woman.

‘So what do you do,’ said Sylvia.

I avoided that question.

‘What’s your profession?’.

Thankfully we were interrupted by the server’s muddled instructions.

‘Shit, I’m wore out now, ‘ said Sylvia at the end of a complicated exchange during which the word ‘coke’ had to be repeated four times.

While we were waiting for the order I stared at her.

‘Hello,’ she said, apprehending my gaze and smiling sweetly.

‘You have a great smile,’ I said.

‘Thank-you,’ she said, ‘it helps.’

She started singing as she delved into the bag.

‘Best White Castle I’ve ever eaten,’ she said after a couple of bites. ‘It’s wonderful right now…I probably won’t think that tomorrow.’

We drove off.

‘Prophylactics,’ she sang out, ‘now where the fuck is the store?’

There was a drive-through liquor store a few blocks away, Big Daddy’s.

‘You’ve got it babe.’

‘Uh-oh, another one way street,’ I said, backing out.

‘That didn’t stop us before,’ she said.

I erupted in tension-releasing laughter.

‘Can I get a little half-pint?’ she said.

‘What?’

‘I don’t know… something dark… not clear.’

Whisky?’

‘Yes…Kessler…how come there’s no liquor stores in Cincinnati?’

‘There weren’t any where you were standing around?’

‘No’

‘What do you want, a half of Kessler?’

‘Yes, just a half-pint. Just get something that’s cheap.’

She was requesting the smallest bottle of rotgut, when I would gladly have sprung for a bottle of the finest. Why should someone of such singular charm and beauty have to scuffle and suffer when so many led graceless complacent existences? It was already beginning to distress me.

‘Do liquor stores stay open this late…in Lexington at 12.01 it’s over.’

‘Lexington seems kind of repressed,’ I remarked. ‘There isn’t much going on there.’

She groaned in assent: ‘nothing…absolutely nothing.’

I ordered a half-pint of Kessler’s and a pack of condoms.

We drove away. ‘Alrighty,’ she said, ‘let’s do it.’

‘Thank-you very much,’ she said after a few more bites. She said thank-you a lot.

‘You’re most welcome,’ I said.

‘Is Travel Lodge pretty nice?’

‘Not particularly.’

The motel was a few blocks away. I took care to enter through a side door, avoiding the night clerk. I opened doors for her. She inspired me to behave like a gentleman. I had seldom known graciousness to flow out of me with such ease.

As soon as we entered the room she wanted to get the distasteful matter of payment out of the way so that we could relax and enjoy ourselves. Money changed hands. I had the exact sum of $75.00 in my wallet.

‘You’ve cleaned me out,’ I said. I lay down on the bed.

‘Aren’t you going to take your shoes off,’ she said.

I turned on the television. Some election coverage was screening.

She couldn’t be bothered to vote, she was fed up with the government. She lay down beside me and I reached out to touch her prematurely sagging breasts.

‘How often are you with a woman who’ll let you do anything you like to her,’ she said.

‘Actually,’ I said, ‘quite often.’

She stood at the end of the bed and encouraged me to breathe deeply. She made the appropriate gestures with her arms… breathe in, breathe out…and excused herself to brush the White Castle taste from her teeth.

As she emerged from the bathroom she was singing. ‘An old R&B song…by Shirley Murdoch.’ I had never heard of it.

‘Shall I get undressed?’

I told her not to, that it was not a negative comment on her body, just a quirk of mine.

She wanted to take a shower. She said it would ‘make it nicer.’ She suggested that while she was gone I should ‘create a mood.’

She said these things with a mixture of kindness and mockery. She wasn’t as bored and business-like about it all as she understandably might have been. I formed the impression that this line of work was something she only resorted to when times were hard.

I lay on the bed, trying to compose myself. I could hear her singing in the shower and it gladdened me that she could relax in my presence even if I couldn’t do the same thing.

She emerged with her hair down and a towel around her. I told her to put her clothes back on. In her hands she held her panties. I told her not to put them back on. She seemed to find my request unusual and confusing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ‘not the panties.’

She put her pants and her blouse back on.

She lay down beside me.

‘I probably won’t be able to get it up,’ I said, unzipping my trousers and pulling out my prick.

She began lazily sucking on it and I relaxed at once. Then she picked up the tempo and started making a lot of unnecessary noise.

‘Do it slowly,’ I said, ‘soothe me.’

I formed the impression that my prick couldn’t be of less interest to her, that she was probably mentally reliving some pleasant event from her past that had nothing to do with sex. But at least she was making the effort. That, in its way, was affecting and deserving of reciprocation. To my surprise, I found myself with something resembling an erection. Enough of one that she was able to slip a rubber over it.

‘I’ll do you from behind,’ I said.

She bent over the edge of the bed and pulled down her jeans, exposing a skinny white ass. I positioned my knob at the portal and, with her help, stuffed it in. I got a few good thrusts in before her exaggerated moaning deadeneded any incipient ardor. It felt as if I were thrusting at nothing. Her absence was almost palpable. Her body felt weightless, as if the substance had fled elsewhere. I told her not to bother faking it.

‘I’m not,’ she said unconvincingly, ‘it’s erotic.’

‘How many other men have you been with tonight?’ I asked, giving it another weak thrust.

‘One other guy…a chiropractor…in his fifties… fifty dollars…straight sex.’ Her hair fanned out wildly across the synthetic bedspread.

‘When was the last time you had an orgasm?’ I wondered out aloud.

‘ A month ago,’ she said, ‘just because you have sex doesn’t mean you come.’

‘I know,’ I said, wilting in earnest.

She reached down and offered some halfhearted encouragement. I requested that she lay down flat on her belly. But in the process of pushing her across the bed with my sagging member still inserted I lost it to a degree that rendered any further squirming futile. We collapsed into laughter. I removed the condom from my limp knob, stretched it several feet and flung it across the room.

‘I doubt I’ll come,’ I said.

‘You said you wouldn’t be able to get it up,’ she said, suggesting that maybe I’d already achieved enough for one night.

Though I knew it wouldn’t make any difference I asked her to suck on it some more, which she proceeded to do listlessly and to no avail.

‘Tell me a nasty story,’ I said.

From between my legs she described a recent three-way. It didn’t have the required effect. She gave voice to some gently scornful impatience.

‘What are you used to?’

‘It usually takes them about five minutes,’ she said.

I was pleased that she felt comfortable enough around me to exhibit the full range of her apathy. I asked about the proclivities of other men. ‘You’d be amazed by how many men are into being dominated,’ she said, ‘then there are the other kind, the ones who like to dominate…I don’t like that.’

She continued to toy with my flaccid knob, although both of us had given up on restoring life to it. I was quite at ease now and didn’t want our time together to come to an end. I was secretly hoping that she would spend the night.

‘I don’t care if I don’t come,’ I said.

She got up.

‘I’ll bet that’s the easiest seventy-five dollars you ever made,’ I said.

She agreed that it probably had been. ‘It’s been a pleasure, she said, ‘it really has.’

I walked across to where she was standing, on the other side of the other bed, and tried to kiss her. She opened her mouth, tendered a little tongue, withdrew it quickly, kissed me politely on the lips and turned away. The act of kissing seemed unsavory to her.

She claimed that she had to be somewhere at two-thirty. That was in about twenty minutes. She had an appointment to watch another girl being fucked by a man who was so fastidious that he wore condoms on his fingers. She couldn’t find her cigarette lighter and became more distracted about it than a missing 25 cent lighter seemed to warrant.

After combing the room for about a minute she gave up the search. I was glad that it couldn’t be found. It would make a good souvenir. As we walked out I peered into the bathroom. My pomade jar was open.

‘Did you use my pomade? I asked her.

‘Yes,’ she answered with guilty sweetness, ‘just a little bit.’

It delighted me that she had used it: another souvenir.

As we walked down the corridor she defiantly waved her half-pint of whisky at the ceiling surveillance camera.

We got into the car and drove off.

I remembered my camera. I asked if she would mind if I took her photograph. She didn’t mind at all. I wanted to get a shot of her standing, as she was when I first laid eyes on her. I stopped the car and we got out. She stood in front of a wall on a quiet street. I was about to take a photograph when a police car cruised up behind us. ‘Don’t worry about them,’ she said. They drove by slowly. Once again she flashed that winsome smile. I managed to snap two photographs. ‘Are you going to show them to your friends back home,’ she kidded me: ‘this is the whore I fucked in Cincinnati.’

‘D’you live downtown?’

‘Right down there close by where you saw me.’

We drove along fourth street to Covington and from there across the bridge into downtown Cincinnati. I told her where I had come from that day, that I had driven from Buffalo to Cincinnati, from the northeast to southwest corners of Ohio.

‘Ohio’s a big state,’ she said, ‘there’s really no way around Ohio. You have to go through it. You came a long way, baby.’

‘Yeah.’

‘What’s New York like?’ she said, ‘I’m curious.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the city is a place unto itself.’

‘That’s what I hear,’ she said, ‘what are the people like, are they fucking assholes?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but there are many kinds of them and it’s very expensive.’

‘Yeah, I heard it’s fucking outrageous…I heard it’s outrageous.’

‘I wasn’t there this time around, I was in Buffalo.’

‘What was that like?’

‘It wasn’t as gritty as I expected.’

‘Yeah, I heard it was pretty classy.’

I remarked upon the ethnic diversity of New York City.

‘Cincinnati’s got a little of everything,’ she said.

‘It’s all black and white,’ I said.

‘Yeah, that’s true…that’s true…that’s very true…it’s either black or its white.’ She pondered this. It seemed to contain fresh significance for her: ‘That’s very true…it’s either this or that. It’s either shit or crap. There’s not too many imbetweens.’

She told me that she had worked as a telemarketer for a while. The week she brought home a thousand dollars she thought she had it made.

‘I injected a little sex appeal into my pitch,’ she said.

‘Did you meet anyone?’

‘One guy, a producer…of hard-core movies,’ she added ruefully.

She complained about the company she was forced into on the street and lamented the toothlessness of other whores.

While waiting at a stoplight I took another photograph of her. Once again she switched on her winning camera smile.

A police car loomed in the rear view mirror. ‘How long have you two known each other?’ she said, imitating their likely overtures. She was in a hurry to make her appointment and expressed impatience with traffic, yelling at a lingering vehicle to make haste. We found Vine street. Clusters of dubious sidewalk activity were still in evidence at this late hour. Yet another police car drove behind us.

I pulled over on the corner of Fourteenth and Vine. Sylvia stuck the half-pint into the top of her pants and got out of the car.

‘Thanks babe…have a good evening, baby.’

That was it. The lack of ceremony was somewhat disheartening.

Alone again.

I drove back to the hotel in a state of rapt wonderment and went to bed, pressing my face in to the pillow where she lay.

I checked out of the motel late the next morning. I drove up to Eden Park, a sprawling tapestry of green situated on one of the city’s supposed seven hills. On one ridge resided the art museum. Below it lay Mirror Lake, a circular pool surrounded by a walkway fanning out onto a lawn which culminated in a shorn rock side reminiscent of Roman ruins. It dropped onto another verdant ridge and afforded a pleasing view of far-flung rooftops and red brick below. I walked around it four times. There weren’t many other people around. I was tired but suspended in the lingering glow from the night before. The experience had brought me into contact with life, opened me up. It was precisely the kind of albeit one-sided connection that I craved. It happened, of course, when I was least expecting it, when I had given up. It was something I had waited about fifteen years for.

Throughout my travels I had always desired one thing above all others: to enjoy a sweet fleeting encounter with a beautiful stranger in a strange town. Many times I came close but not quite close enough. Variations on the theme occurred but the ideal continually eluded me. Until finally I consummated it… with a whore.

I had never sought out a whore or romanticized the condition of one. Once or twice I had admired one on the street but I never considered doing anything about it. Much of the pleasure in a mutually gratifying sexual act lay in its not being an act, in knowing that the other party’s excitement was sincere, and that one was responsible for it. With a whore such arousal would be feigned and I had no wish to suspend disbelief in such a situation. One could do exactly what one wanted with a whore, but if they didn’t enjoy it there didn’t seem to be much point. Fakery, no matter how sublime, wouldn’t work. I had nothing against it on principle, I was merely constitutionally opposed to it. I imagined that it was something I might be obliged to resort to as an older man. Then an unsettling thought crossed my mind: maybe I’d already reached that point.

I stared at a tree. It was yellow and its leaves were beginning to fall. I realized that this was the stage I was at in my life. Whatever blossomed in the autumn of its years?

Not much, but presumably, if one had never blossomed at all, a certain moldering efflorescence might be possible, even at this belated stage.

A familiar melancholy was seeping in, one that often rose up in the wake of memorable chance encounters. A fresh potency and poignancy altered my surroundings. I recognized once again that it was only when traveling, plunging into and rising out of these states of transient alienation and transcendence, that I experienced with clarity the true beauty of life.

I drove back downtown. I was hoping that I might find her on the street and take her out to lunch. I could imagine nothing more pleasant than sitting across a table from her and making polite conversation, treating her with tenderness and respect. It wasn’t normal for me to feel this way towards a woman. It was highly irregular. But I had always been attracted to girls who put on an appearance of being much tougher than they really were, and she, in a way, was the ultimate manifestation of this type.

I walked around Over The Rhine. There weren’t many whites around. Most of those who were appeared destitute, as did most of the blacks. She wasn’t anywhere to be seen on Vine or the surrounding streets. Some other whores milled around the vacant lots. I wasn’t interested in any of them. If a thousand whores were picked at random from the streets of a thousand cities and she had been among them, she would have been the one I picked. There was no doubt about it.

She was probably sleeping. Or she could be back in Lexington, picking her daughter up from the day-care center. Did she divide her time between the two cities? Who looked after the kid when she was in Cincinnati?

What did I know about her routine? I was beginning to ask myself a lot of stupid questions. I knew almost nothing, only what she told me, and I tended to believe she told the truth.

Doubtless she had forgotten me by now. There was no reason to think she wouldn’t have. I was just passing through, with a hunger for experiences that she regarded as ordinary. I hadn’t given much of myself.

I was too burdened by a sapping (self) consciousness concerning the fragility of our relations: of how much it meant to me and how little it meant to her. I would always remember her. But soon I would return to my usual lazy routine on the other side of the country. I couldn’t touch her life as she had touched mine. And it would all inevitably recede into dull memory.

I lunched in a booth at Kaldi’s. This establishment contained two long rooms. One served as a bar, the other as a coffee-house. Each side was stacked wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with overflowing book shelves, crammed with dusty and unwanted old tomes. A blonde woman was sitting at the bar. She looked nervous and distracted, with a doomed look in her eyes. Something in my peripheral vision flared up. While she was lighting a cigarette her hair had caught fire. She put it out as if nothing had happened.

I got back in the car and drove nowhere in particular. Then I drove back down Vine. One and a half hours remained before I had to leave town. She might be back on the streets by now. I could still take her out for a drink. I could give her my phone number or get hers, if she had one. If it hadn’t been for that patrol car I might have had the presence of mind to take care of such matters before we parted. And due to the lurking Newport cops the photographs on the street had been taken carelessly. It was a good thing they had been taken at all.

I couldn’t picture her clearly anymore. All that remained was a beguiling blur. An insinuating essence in danger of becoming overidealized. This usually happened when I dwelt continually on an unfamiliar woman. Many faces had been lost forever in the void of fixation. The features would resurface, only becoming clear again when the memory faded. A photograph, however, would eliminate such concerns.

I continued my search on foot. It was becoming apparent that no real hope of finding her existed. In the air and in my bones it was palpable. I crossed Vine at Central Parkway, the wide artery separating Over The Rhine from downtown. In the light of my imminent departure the city became elegiacally serene. Workers poured out of office buildings into the soft autumn evening. Everybody appeared helpless, blameless and incorruptible. But she wasn’t anywhere to be found and it was beginning to appear unlikely that I would ever see her again.

I returned to Kaldi’s. This time I sat at the bar. A motley assortment of solitaries were gathered there. I sat by the window, keeping an eye on the street.

‘I met Syd Barrett somewhere east of Cincinnati,’ said a young fellow on the other side of the bar. Nobody picked up this thread of conversation. The girl who had accidentally set fire to her hair passed by on the sidewalk. I drove down Vine one last time with the malt glow washing over me.

The moment I first laid eyes on Sylvia had been incomparably vital and significant. It could never be repeated. She was beyond me now, had always been beyond me. Sheer chance had allowed the privilege of this one magical encounter. The corner of Fourteenth and Vine was enshrined. But she wasn’t there now. Her spot was occupied by some obese hag in an anorak.. And I was running late. My plane back to California left Dayton in two hours. Dayton was an hour’s drive up highway 75, and it was rush hour.

I barely made it to the airport in time, a bedraggled spun-out wreck, emptying out my suitcase in the departure lounge, worrying without reason that I’d left the camera in the rental car. I boarded the plane exhausted but unable to sleep, pressed against a window, staring down at the cities of the west, glittering like the dying embers of forest fires, while continually replaying and reflecting upon the events of the night before.

In trying to recapture that first moment it entered my mind that she might not have been alone on the sidewalk. She might have been talking to a youth… some sort of exchange had taken place… she had waved him away when she realized a motorist…a prospective client…a john… was checking her out. Something of this nature had taken place but my mind wouldn’t fasten on it. I hadn’t been paying strict attention at the time. Did I notice her standing around there before stopping at the red light? And how long did I spend at that red light? Between that first moment and my unlocking the passenger door ( at the time it didn’t occur to me that this could have been done automatically, without reaching over ) seemed to take much longer than is normally spent at a red light. And what if that light hadn’t been red ( … if I hadn’t waylaid myself browsing tabloids in a convenience store …if I hadn’t jacked off in the motel room before going out…if I hadn’t taken a nap in that truck stop parking lot…if I hadn’t got lost trying to get out of Youngstown)… I would presumably still have noticed her… but she wouldn’t have given me those beckoning glances…I might have driven around the block… and by the time I returned she might have been gone.

I remembered the last lucid thought I’d had before the sudden jolt of seeing her, and it had been this: whatever made me think I’d find what I was looking for in a bar…I’m more likely to find it on the street. I had no idea how prescient it would be.

In the reflection of its crowning event what at the time had been a long and tedious drive assumed a lustrous sheen. I remembered the clouds drifting over Erie. The sad eyes of the tough ex-steelworker panhandlers. The air of irreversible decline that permeated that heartbroken town. At the city limits a sign read ‘Thank You For Visiting – Please Come Back.’ There was something almost unbearably plaintive about that appeal. I resolved to return. I drove on to Youngstown, a once-thriving steel town plunged into hopeless and ominous stagnation. I had hoped to eat lunch there but not a single restaurant was open downtown. The stores were all closed and there was little sign of activity of any kind. I drove on, sinking and spiralling. I had planned on spending a few hours walking around Akron as the sun went down. I arrived earlier than expected and found, once again, that I had overidealized a place in advance. A bright sterility encumbered the city. I sat in a bare bar. The old lady on the other side of the counter bestowed a candy upon each customer when they ordered a drink. Everybody in the place was toothless, even the young people. I walked for an hour or more in the hope of getting lost but there was nothing to lose myself in, nothing in the air. I stood on a bridge and gazed down at the water trickling along a concrete riverbed, idly contemplating suicide. Upon the approach of a stranger I moved along guiltily. I left before the sun went down and drove straight into Cincinnati, regaining energy as that destination neared.

I considered making an honest woman out of her. A ridiculous notion, of course. Besides, she was probably a lesbian. I had read somewhere that most prostitutes were lesbians or addicts. About the latter I hadn’t thought to ask at the time. It wasn’t unlikely. She had been almost irrationally perturbed about the missing lighter. Why did she need it so badly? If the work didn’t support the habit then the habit would probably be necessary to anaesthetize the work. But she didn’t seem ravaged or hardened…yet. She had her whole life ahead of her. As much of it as remained. A pretty face with a bleak future. It was a shame that she had reduced herself to this precarious way of life. Naturally, I wanted to save her from it. It was the oldest story in the book. Whore stories were a dime a dozen. There was nothing original about becoming infatuated with a fallen woman. I rued the descent into exhausted cliche but what could I do about it? Surely a young man – even a middle-aged man – might be excused for getting sentimental over his first experience with a prostitute.

I liked to think that I might have provided some relief from the deprived bodies and slobbering old men that constituted her clientele. She had said that it had been a pleasure, the easiest money she’d ever made ( little did she know how I would cling to these perhaps insincere words ). But perhaps she didn’t view me as being markedly different from the rest. Perhaps she didn’t think about it much at all. It was just something to be endured as painlessly as possible. And what of the chiropractor: might the recentness of that coupling have explained her need to shower? Or was that just another way of killing time before she was obliged to put out? There were many unanswered questions. And many that weren’t worth asking.

I returned to my empty and frivolous existence on the other side of the country.

The incident continued to haunt me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep it to myself.

I regaled friends, acquaintances and strangers with the details, questioned my motives in doing so, and felt guilty about it afterwards. It wasn’t always taken in the intended spirit. Most people were chiefly interested in the coarser aspects of what had transpired. With each telling the story became staler. And sullied were the memories I wanted to preserve.

All the while her features became evenvaguer.

It took a week before I ventured into the one-hour photo department of a drugstore. It didn’t feel like the right moment but I had already waited a long time. I returned an hour later, placed the envelope on the passenger seat and drove across town in rainy traffic. After half an hour I parked on a residential street and removed the photographs from the envelope. The emergence from romanticized memory into stark reality of such a highly anticipated image induced a certain uneasiness. Here at last were the three photographs, all I would ever have to remember her by: the two of her standing in front of a brick wall, with arms folded and a smile of sweetly inviting resignation that calmly shattered my cheap and shallow intrusion. And the close-up in the car: how fine the flow of her pale features in the hard glare…and the freckles on her shoulder, exposed by low-slung blouse…and her broken nose.

When I got home I propped this photograph up against the lamp on my bedside table. The next morning I took it down and put it back in the envelope. The vicarious aspect of my fascination bothered me. Though I had long ago succeeded in falling from my social class I was perhaps still too intent upon living out the stories that cast a romantic spell over my mispent impressionable youth. But this latest episode, kin to a few other fleeting encounters, contained some unshakable native truth that I couldn’t deny, no matter how hackneyed it might appear under cold observation.

I kept replaying the moment our eyes first met: myself a spellbound john at the wheel of a rental car, her appearing out of the sidewalk mob and moving to the edge of the pavement with an unerring instinct for a customer’s probing gaze. She looked out of place amid such squalid surroundings but supremely self-possessed. The way she bobbed her head up and down with that eager-to-please smile, obscene as it might sound, was infinitely charming. My sense of wonder was reawakened. She went straight to my heart. Seldom does a woman give of herself so freely, bravely and vulnerably. That it was offered at a price, indifferently and indiscriminately, didn’t depreciate the generosity of the gift.

It left me with exquisite pangs.

But like everything else, it faded…into dull memory. -30-