Green Hills Literary Lantern

Aphrodisiac

 

-1-

As the loud music died down and fused into a moderate jazz tempo, easy on the percussion, heavy on the acoustic guitar, Nancy parted her lips and smiled in a way that seemed, at least to McDougal, more than a bit flirtatious.  She stared at him from her perch on the barstool, the hem of her black cocktail dress creeping toward her thighs, her face partially obscured by the glowing red blobs of a lava lamp, her eyes lost in an otherworldly swirl of shadow and light.  He felt obliged to stare back, to flash her some sign of his virility and desire, but he felt nothing for this woman, only a mild sense of revulsion that he hoped wasn’t too obvious (she reeked of vermouth and cheap perfume), but when she fished an olive out of her martini glass with her fingers and then chewed it with great deliberation as if searching slowly with her tongue for the pimento, he could no longer disguise his loathing and looked down to study the second hand on his watch. 

It was just after midnight, and for well over an hour now he’d endured the ordeal of her insipid conversation, listening to her drone on and on about her favorite sitcoms, her outrage at the price of coffee, her indifference toward politics, her lifelong fascination with astrology and Tarot cards.  Because it gave him something to do he reached for his cigarettes, struck a match, listened to the faint crackle of burning tobacco, but before he could take a drag and fill his lungs with smoke, Nancy grabbed his arm and pressed her fingertips deep into his flesh, vigorously working his muscles like a masseuse.  He was about to yank his arm away when a strange look came over her face.

“Oh, hell,” she moaned, thrusting a hand deep into her purse to retrieve her buzzing cell phone.  “I really have to take this.  Watch my drink.  Don’t go away.” 

She tried to stand up and almost fell off the stool.  People stared.  A more chivalrous man would have reached out a hand, leapt to his feet, but McDougal turned away and hoped someone else would come to the rescue, Sheridan perhaps, but Sheridan only glared at him and continued to eat the complimentary nuts, which were stale and gummy as always.  McDougal had read somewhere that these nuts were covered in urine because people didn’t wash their hands after they used the restroom.  Sheridan was one such culprit, his fingernails filthy and sinister-looking.           

Before teetering into the swirling tunnel of smoke, Nancy straightened her dress with both hands and in a voice that was much too loud, even for this place, said, “No telling secrets now!” 

McDougal waited until she was gone before he said, “Okay, now’s our chance.  Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Sheridan slammed down his drink.  “What’s wrong with you?  Do you want to ruin it for us?”

“Ruin what?”

“Jesus, do I have to spell it out for you?”  He glanced around, almost conspiratorially, and then speaking from the corner of his mouth whispered, “She wants us to double team her.”

“I’m sorry.  She what?”

Sheridan groaned and ran his fingers through his hair.  “She wants both of us tonight.  Get it?”

“But she just met us.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what goes on in a place like this.  It’s called a one-night stand.”

McDougal waved a hand at him.  “Oh, she’s drunk out of her mind.  She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

“Exactly.”

“She’s lonely.”

            “Isn’t everyone?”

            “She’s desperate.”

            “Look who’s talking.”

            McDougal, sensing the futility of this line of argument, nevertheless offered up one last objection.  “She hates men.”

Sheridan grabbed him by the collar.  “Listen, you idiot, how long has it been since you got laid?  Can I tell you something?  Let me tell you something . . .”

And while Sheridan began yet another long-winded lecture, McDougal pondered the sad reality of his year-long celibacy.  The last woman he’d been intimate with had been his own wife, and their lovemaking, if one could actually describe a few perfunctory thrusts of the hips as lovemaking, commemorated the morning of their eighth and final year of marriage.  McDougal was the sort of man who dwelled on things, committed the most painful experiences to memory so he could relive them over and over again, all the better to feel their sting, and by simply closing his eyes he could summon forth from the fiery depths of his self-pity all the wretched details of that day.  A quick lay, a breakfast of bacon and eggs, the morning paper, the hostility that settled over the table like a heavy fog as they sipped their coffee, the obligatory trip to church despite his unabashed apostasy, his wife singing the hymns with more enthusiasm than usual as if sensing, maybe even praying, that this would be their last visit to church together, the last time she would ever recite oaths before the altar where eight years before she’d made the biggest mistake of her life. 

It occurred to McDougal that with the possible exception of pornography and masturbation, their relationship had been free of any real eroticism, and like millions of married men he often fantasized about leaving his wife, selling the house, making a fresh start in the world, but now that he’d embarked on this adventure he found that he was hardly the debonair Casanova he used to be in his early twenties.  Each day came with its own little epiphany, a terrible flash of self-discovery.  Tonight, for example, he finally understood that he lacked the requisite style, the necessary stage presence, to drink overpriced booze and approach young women as they came through the door of this swanky nightclub on West 6th Street where every booth was upholstered in purple velvet and every wall shimmered with the light dancing off a gigantic aquarium teeming with exotic tropical fish.

Sheridan was turning red.  “. . . because our wives used to define our lives.  I was the dutiful spouse who painted the dining room and wallpapered the kitchen and tiled the bathroom floor and pulled dandelions from the front lawn and spent my Saturdays in the mall—the fucking mall!  And now?  Well, just look around, man!  We’re out on a Friday night, we’re drinking single malt scotch, and the best part is . . .” and now Sheridan had to lean over and nudge him in the ribs “. . . we’re about to get laid.”

Nancy returned with fresh layers of eye shadow and mascara.   “You know what I was thinking?” she said, moistening her lips with a reptilian tongue, curious and slow and snaking its way from one corner of her mouth to the other.  “I was thinking we should get out of this joint.  I live right around the corner.  My place is a little messy but I think I can dig up a bottle of booze somewhere.”

“Well, we’re not particular, are we?” Sheridan said, slapping McDougal on the back.

But McDougal sprang to his feet.  “I need to make a pit stop,” he announced, throwing some bills down on the bar.  “I’ll meet you at the door.” 

He hurried away, felt a momentary reprieve, a sense that a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders, liberation after having been enclosed in a small dark space, but he knew the feeling wouldn’t last for long, and as he went into the restroom he looked back and noticed how Sheridan scowled at him with barely contained rage and loathing.

 

 

 

 

-2-

An attendant dressed in a white dinner jacket and black slacks extinguished his cigarette and came to attention. 

“Good evening, sir,” he said as McDougal stepped up to the urinal.

McDougal avoided eye contact.  He gripped his dead prick in one hand and gazed straight ahead at the strange expressionistic murals of men and women in the throes of ecstasy.  Sex was everywhere, subtle innuendos and outright vulgarity, and the only way to escape from it was to either live in hermitic solitude as he had been doing for nearly a year now or to find a woman who was willing to spend her life shackled to him in intolerable monogamy.

“A rather frigid night, sir, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said McDougal, “very cold out there.”

“The winters in Cleveland can be rather cruel, sir.”

“You’re right about that.”

McDougal couldn’t stand being in the presence of this man who leered at him and tried to come off like some kind of sophisticated English butler, always lifting his chin before addressing McDougal and speaking in a pseudo-sophisticated tone of voice, trying maybe for the sharp and nasally elocution of the blue bloods but failing to disguise the dull thud of Cleveland cadences, his words clip-clopping along like a horse’s hooves, an inimitable blue collar accent with its emphasis on the consonants so that the word “the” sounded like da and “that” sounded like dat.  The man’s body language made the charade all the more obvious—he couldn’t stand still, constantly shifted from one foot to the other, adjusted his balls when he thought McDougal wasn’t looking, drummed his fingers against the countertop.  A wretched member of the chronically unemployed, always struggling to make ends meet.  Even his cheap dinner jacket was just a little too long in the arms.

The attendant straightened his bowtie.  “The nice thing about our club, sir, is that we offer a number of opportunities for. . .”

A young man burst through the door and swaggered up to the urinal, “’Sup, dudes?”  Despite the blustery weather the man wore a T-shirt that clung to his clearly defined pecs and biceps.  Well, that was part of the game.  Even the men had to highlight their physical attributes, and this made McDougal, dressed in a pair of faded blue jeans and white button-down shirt, feel more conspicuous than ever.  He’d always assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that women weren’t concerned about appearances and superficiality, that they regarded weightlifters as narcissistic and men dressed in stylish clothes as closet queers, but the longer McDougal loitered in the nightclub the more he was convinced that the truly attractive women, the desirable ones, the ones with the golden highlights in their hair and the provocative tattoos on the smalls of their backs, were invariably drawn to such men, boys really.  No one here looked much older than twenty-five. 

“Lots a pie tonight, huh?” the young man asked, unleashing a powerful stream.  “Usually it’s a sausage fest, but not tonight.  Snatch everywhere you turn.”  After letting out a satisfying groan, he flushed and said, “Well, catch ya later, dude.”  He zipped up and strode off without washing his hands.

Dude.  The word sounded like something heavy and blunt, a stack of bricks toppling to the ground, and McDougal cringed, tried to get out of the way as if it were a wall about to crash on his head.  Chicks.  Action.  Hooking up.  He hated this lingo, felt uncomfortable listening to it, felt mortified when trying to use it himself.  As a thirty-five-year old suburbanite, a one-time family man, McDougal was accustomed to speaking about things like property taxes and school levies, topsoil and mulch. 

“Care for a stick of gum?” asked the attendant.  “A mint perhaps?”  He pointed to the small circular table with an array of accoutrements: cologne, hair gel, combs, condoms, a plastic container brimming with assorted tablets, red, green, blue. 

McDougal washed his hands carefully, made sure the water was scalding, and then he studied the tablets, tried to imagine what they might be.  “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Do those things work?”

“Things, sir?”

“Those, uh, pills there.”

“You’re very perceptive, sir.  The ancients have been using those tablets for centuries.  One hundred percent natural, sir.” 

McDougal fingered one of the tablets.  “How much?”

            “Sir?”

            “For a pill.”

“Oh, they’re complimentary, sir.” But the man shifted his eyes ever so slightly toward a glass jar stuffed with dollar bills.  Outside, the tempo of the music changed and the bass made the jar on the sink vibrate and ring like a bell.  “If you’re interested, sir, I do have something . . . more effective shall we say.”  The man reached into his shirt pocket and produced a vial of white pills.  “I underwent surgery some time ago, nothing serious, and my doctor prescribed this wonderful medication, and, well—you’ll forgive me for laughing, sir—but, you see, the fact of the matter is I’ll never use all of these myself.  Of course, I’d be willing to do you a small favor if you feel the need for one or two.  To help you relax perhaps?”

McDougal leaned forward, scrutinized the white pills, felt his stomach tighten.  Clearly the man expected him to know what they were.  Probably the kid who’d been pissing beside him would have recognized the stuff right away, had probably purchased a handful earlier that night and was now drifting pleasantly along on the crests and troughs of a vivid hallucination.   On the other hand, this might be some kind of police sting.  Big Brother was always watching.

McDougal decided to tempt fate.  “Well, hmmm, I guess I’ll try two.  No, make that three.” 

Once again the man shifted his eyes to the glass jar, and McDougal produced two twenties. 

“That’s most generous of you, sir.  I think you’ll find the rest of your evening quite memorable.”

McDougal put the pills in his pocket and as he raced through the door, nearly knocking over a waitress with a tray of empty glasses, it suddenly occurred to him that with the exception of Nancy and Sheridan the only other person in the entire nightclub who seemed to be his age was the restroom attendant.  He couldn’t help but wonder if there was some deep meaning in this.

 

 

-3-

“I have a serious problem,” Nancy said. 

The threesome trudged through the snow, making slow progress to a row of apartment buildings near the river.  The city echoed with the wail of police sirens, the pavement glittered with broken glass, and high above in the gray industrial sky newspapers yellow with age twirled round and round, sometimes landing in the skeletal branches of sycamore trees.  There they would remain for months, maybe even years.   In an alleyway near the railroad tracks, a man shouted obscenities and then disappeared through the gaping window of an abandoned warehouse.

“What is it?” Sheridan asked.  “You didn’t lose your keys, did you?”  He draped his overcoat across her shoulders.

“Naw, that’s not it!”  She sighed.  “I’m an alcoholic.  I need to drink all the time.  I can’t stop myself.” 

“In that case we better get to your place so we can fix you a cocktail.”

She lived in an old brownstone above an ethnic bakery that overlooked the steel mills.  They climbed the creaking stairs to the third-floor landing where she fumbled with the lock.  McDougal heard scratching, and when Nancy opened the door a German shepherd jumped up and swabbed her face with its tongue. 

“That’s enough, Dorothy.  Do you hear?  Now get!  Leave mommy alone.  Don’t worry, boys.  She won’t bother you.  Just keep your hands in your pockets.”

The dog growled as they entered. 

“Hi, puppy,” Sheridan said with a nervous laugh.

The dog bared its teeth.

“Christ,” McDougal murmured, glancing back at the door.  Would he be able to escape before the animal lunged at his throat? 

“So,” Nancy said, letting Sheridan’s coat fall to the floor, “anyone want a martini?”  She removed her high heel shoes and lobbed them at the dog’s head.  It dashed into the dark bedroom, whimpering pitifully.  “God, that feels better,” she said, collapsing on the futon.

“Allow me,” McDougal said. 

“Booze is in the freezer.  I like to keep it on ice.”

He had to tiptoe and pirouette around laundry baskets overflowing with dirty clothes and stacks of magazines.  Though he’d been expecting something like this, he nevertheless winced at the incredible disarray, the bras and panties strewn across folding chairs, the dishes piled high in the sink, strands of spaghetti dangling from the faucet, a clock on a distant table frozen at 5:15, a lopsided poster of Monet’s “Water Lilies” tacked to a cracked and crumbling plaster wall, the rank odor of trash bags and wet fur, a dead goldfish floating in a bowl encrusted with green slime.

 McDougal flicked on a fluorescent light above the stove and after excavating three glasses from the sink and rinsing them under the faucet, he reached into his pocket for the white pills, pinched them one by one between forefinger and thumb and thenMcDougal dropped them into each drink.  After a minute the fizzing stopped. 

“What’s the hold up?” Sheridan asked.

“Here you are.”  McDougal distributed the glasses.

Nancy slurped the vodka, said, “Sorry about the dog.  This neighborhood is still pretty rough.  I used to think having a man around the place would make me feel safe, but let’s face it, most men are pretty goddamned cowardly.  No offense.  I mean, they feed you a line of crap, about how tough they are, how determined, motivated, ambitious, and then it all turns out to be a bunch of bullshit.”  She pointed an accusatory finger at McDougal.  “They watch TV all day or run off to the golf course.  Any excuse to get away from you.  And they don’t say two goddamned words to you all day.  They just grunt and pretend to be listening.  That’s what amazes me.  That they can be so goddamned indifferent.”

            Sheridan nodded.  “I know exactly what you mean.”

“Communication, boys.  Communication is the key.  I know it sounds hokey, but it’s the truth.  Just spend a little time talking to us and you’ll do fine in any relationship.” 

“Absolutely!” Sheridan agreed.  “That’s what I always say.”

Nancy set her drink on the floor.  “Would you mind unzipping my dress?”

Sheridan didn’t hesitate.  He brushed her hair aside and slowly pulled the zipper down.  Nancy let the black dress slide off her shoulders and around her hips.  McDougal’s heart pounded when he saw the mysterious engineering of a woman, the thighs, the arch of her back, the black thong that disappeared between the curves of her ass, magnificent firmness despite her years.  But something wasn’t right.  The sight of this nearly naked woman didn’t entice, didn’t make his cock, dormant these many months, come suddenly to life.  He concentrated instead on her heavy makeup, her crow’s feet, her drooping eyelids, the small mole on her left cheek, the acne scars, the sun damage on her high forehead, the dark roots buried beneath the auburn highlights. 

She cupped her breasts and disappeared into the darkness of the bedroom.

Sheridan clapped his hands together. “It’s go time,” he said and followed her.   

McDougal trembled, gulped down the rest of his vodka.  Why wasn’t the pill working?  Did he forget to put one in his own glass?  He couldn’t understand it.  He rushed to the bathroom where he bolted the door and then clutched the towel rack with both hands, breathing in and out, concentrating as best he could on keeping down the booze.

“Don’t puke, don’t puke, don’t puke,” he told himself, but he made the mistake of focusing his eyes on the floor covered in dust and long strands of hair.  The tiles started to spin, slowly at first, then gaining momentum until they pulsed and glowed and flashed like a thousand little strobe lights, becoming a swirl of kaleidoscopic colors, rich, vibrant, multitudinous.  He slumped down on the toilet, noticed a little shelf beside the sink, the stack of Tarot cards, Death, The Goddess, The Lovers, four or five books Nancy kept there, Dr. Seuss, an anthology of illustrated fairytales.  On the wall, a framed picture of a little girl, maybe four-years old, laughing in a field of flowers.  He knew right away who she was, the resemblance was unmistakable, the same tired eyes, the same sad downward curve of the mouth, but he tried not to think about what life was like for such a girl, living in this godforsaken shit hole, coloring on the filthy futon with broken crayons, playing house with a couple of battered dolls, eating frozen dinners, drinking cans of grape soda. 

A series of awful scenarios played themselves out in his mind, a thousand ghastly images in which the girl was struck by a passing car and thrown into a ditch, kidnapped while playing on a jungle gym in the park by a man with a video camera and a rusty conversion van, left in front of the television for hours at a time while her negligent mother guzzled martinis and propositioned strange men at the nightclub.  Where was the girl now, he wondered?  Living with her grandparents, abandoned at an orphanage? 

He thought of his own daughter with her blonde curls, her big blue eyes, her fondness of all things pink, his baby who was forced to visit him in his bachelor pad, which was not unlike the place he found himself in now, another squalid apartment of the recently divorced, the unfit, the irresponsible, the drunk, the indigent.

From the other side of the door there came a gentle but persistent scratching, something clawing to get inside, a ferocious beast that would surely slash at his face and rip apart his flesh.  He could almost taste blood on his lips, salty, sweet, plentiful.  Clutching his stomach, panting with nausea, McDougal glimpsed the moldy shower curtain and found the smell of mildew and decay so intolerable that he decided to sacrifice himself to the dog rather than to stay in here another minute.  He threw open the door. 

“Come and get it!” he shouted but the dog was not there. 

He scanned the apartment for signs of life and saw Sheridan standing naked before the bed, a wrecked Adonis, the high school athlete gone to seed, his hairy ass pumping away, his skinny legs bouncing up and down, his pimply back glistening with sweat, shoulders shuddering, the roll of flab around his waist jiggling with the acrobatics of carnality.  Nancy was motionless, her body stretched across on the mattress, her arms hanging limply at her side, legs spread wide, the soles of her feet black and blistered. Beside the bed sat the dog, watching this scene with great interest and occasionally swabbing its genitalia with a long dripping tongue.  

McDougal gurgled something apologetic and rushed out of the apartment, hands clamped over his ears so he wouldn’t hear the gasps and groans, the thrashing and grinding, the wild and rhythmic squeaking of bedsprings, and in his haste he nearly toppled down the dark staircase.

Outside, in the wind and the drifting snow, in this neighborhood of mad laughter and hissing alley cats, McDougal stood rooted to the street corner as though paralyzed and wondered if he’d ever manage to hail a cab.  One would probably come along eventually, but for now he was mesmerized by the baffling array of colors that dribbled out of the soot-covered windows of these Depression Era buildings, almost like someone had knocked over a thousand cans of paint on the narrow ledges, thick globules that hurtled into space and then vanished like ghosts in the darkness only to reemerge an instant later in striking new patterns, and while he watched this mystifying cascade, tasted the essence of it, breathed its strange energy, he felt a sudden and unshakable conviction that somewhere in the world, not far away, a mature, refined, educated woman was waiting for him, a woman in whose arms he could take refuge for the night. 

Then he remembered the club.  Only a few blocks away.  But he needed to hurry. Last call was at 2:00 AM, and surely a woman like that, so dazzling and perfect, wouldn’t wait around for him forever.

 
Kevin P. Keating’s essays and fiction have appeared in a number of literary journals, including Underground Voices, Mad hatter Review, Smokebox, Fringe, Perigee, Megaera, Double Dare Press, Identity Theory, Plum Ruby Review, Fiction Warehouse, Fifth Street Review, Juked, The Oklahoma Review, Slow Trains, Numb Magazine, Tattoo Highway, Exquisite Corpse, Thunder Sandwich
and many others.

Interested readers can view much of his work by visiting his blog: www.kevinpkeating.blogspot.com

He currently teaches English at Baldwin-Wallace College in Cleveland, Ohio.