A novel excerpt by Adam Schrader-Brown
I am finding it difficult to concentrate on my routine. I am Tom Cruise in Risky Business. I slide across the waxy parquet floor stage in ankle-high sporty socks, knock-off Ray Bans, tighty-whities and a half-buttoned shirt soon to come off. A hot light is on me and the smoke turns it viscous, obscuring my view of the oscillating figures watching me from the red faux-velvet seats. The room smells like the inside of a piano and the floors carry the faint but sure scent of bleach.
I had looked for work for two months after Louise left, without warning, without a note, as if to say I should have chosen a better hand to hold me. We’d been squatting in a peeling Victorian. I’d been hustling day-labor on days when I wasn’t methodically answering each want ad, but Portland had shut down in this first year of the millennium. After she left I would spend my day picking cans off the streets, not for the money but out of a sense that I should be doing something with my time to better things. It was, in my mind, a test of humility. Moreover, it was a ritual that satisfied my acute obsessive compulsive attacks, generally manifested in a “tapping” problem.
After pointless days and dwindling means I answered a want ad in the Willamette Week for a male strip club. The Cowboy Club, small and dimly lit, is inconspicuously set back from the corner of Division and 43rd, between an AM/PM convenience store/gas station and a Motel 6. Its clientele is male, mostly middle-aged and older, married, probably with kids. The money is decent and there is always the opportunity to make more.
My shirt comes off to a break in “Old Time Rock & Roll.” In the third row the man with the comb-over and chronically sweaty brow has his zipper down and is leaning forward with his hands in his lap like he’s deep in prayer. His glasses remind me of my father’s. The tortoise-shell frames sat patiently for a year on my parents’ dresser where he’d left them the morning he drowned in the bath tub at the age of 43. I reach down with my right hand and hit the stage four times in response and notice a gray-haired man in a tailored suit - probably on his way back to Lake Oswego, his loving wife and two kids - give me a confused look. My boss, Eva, a Ukrainian woman of sizable heft if not height and a lazy eye, shakes her head disapprovingly but knowingly. Kim the D.J. with hair the color of red licorice, starts to laugh. She spits out some liquid she’s drinking from a plastic cup. All the regulars but the suburban know what’s coming next. I slide across the stage once more, this time without my shirt, but I catch sight of the glasses again, and am caught in an obligation to continue the slide all the way to the side of the stage where I slap the wall four times again loudly.
Like I said I have a bit of a “tapping” problem, a compulsion to hit an object four times or in any multiple of four. It is not always there, but when it is I can’t control it. It’s triggered by negative thoughts or stress. It’s a complicated and ever-changing ritual that emerged somewhere in my adolescence.
My father’s glasses are now staring slightly bewildered at me perched on this impervious man with his hand unconvincingly holding his peeping cock. I look toward Kim in the booth. She turns up the volume and I drop my whites and walk to the front of the stage where two Japanese men have come up to stick five-dollar bills and their hotel room number in my white-with-two-red-stripes athletic socks. I am out of control by now though and I can’t stop tapping their wool sport jackets. In response they are smiling, wide and nervous, while bopping up and down to my autonomous hand’s inflictions. I see Eva signaling with a chop towards Kim to cut the music and the stage light to announce my exit and introduce the next act.
I slide to the back of the stage in the dark and my socks catch a splinter. Fucking ten dollars, that’s it, and I know Eva’s had it with me for the night at least. Sure enough, Eva’s waiting for me as I come out of the changing closet, her face the color of the borscht she religiously drinks out of a glass jar every night at 11:00.
“Waz wiz da hidding, every time wid de hidding. No more, I am sorry. You are a good kid, but you too crazy, maybees, I dough know, too much wid da drugs?”
Her one working eye raises skeptically, the other stares blankly at the linoleum wall to my left. I follow it for a second with my gaze.
“No more, please. Mr. Cass, don’t come back tomorrow wiz dis buzzit!”
“With this buzzzzzzzzz what?” I sass back, knowing by now that she has a soft spot and I have a place in it. How else can I explain how she has kept me on after my numerous show-stopping performances? Most of them are due to my problem. Like the time I was doing “Taxi Driver,” I actually shaved my head on stage, half-naked, while doing my best “Are you talking to me?” Unfortunately I became a little too focused on getting the lines on my Mohawk just right and kind of forgot about the audience. Or when I was doing my “Rocky” routine which entailed a naked jump-rope finale to “Eye of the Tiger;” I got caught up in a “counting” fit, and wouldn’t stop jumping that rope even after the music died down and the lights went off. To make matters worse, I felt the need to count loud that day, like every number uttered was gonna prevent yet another imminent disaster. Reuben the 250-pound Cuban bouncer with the tattoo that reads “R.I.P.” underneath a picture of a man I’d swear was Harry Hamlin from L.A. Law, had to carry me off, jump rope and all. Eva had yelled even louder that day. “We can’t be habing zese people zinking youze crazy. Iz nod good, iz nod zekzy!”
Eva doesn’t respond right away, she stares through me. For a second I forget which eye is functional, then abruptly she states “You my friend must get wiz it. Ziss here is America.” Then she turns and walks off, presumably to her office.
I walk out the side door and into the harsh buzzing lights of the Am/Pm that look like they’re paving the way for the landing of an alien craft. A cool late-August night, it smells of coming rain and leaked gasoline. I light a cigarette and lean into the glass storefront where I can see the entrance of the club. High above it, pink neon lights form the head and arm of a cowboy smoking a neon green cigarette. Every few seconds, through a trick of light, he tilts his hat and shares a sly wink with the passing cars driving too fast on Division. The Japanese men who slipped me their room number are outside the club smoking, the details of their faces lost in a smog of pink and green each time they exhale.
“You come here to smoke every night?”
I stand up straight. There is a woman leaning against the glass not three feet away. She has choppy midnight hair cut like a boy’s, but overgrown in parts and casting uneven shadows over her slightly crooked nose. The glare makes her face ethereally pale in contrast. She looks about my age. She’s wearing a smock-like blue shirt emblazoned with the purple and pin-stripe Am/Pm logo. The name sewn on it is “Tim,” which presumably isn’t accurate. She wears a pair of dark jeans underneath, with what, at first glance, looks like a skirt, but I quickly realize is a white t-shirt with its neck stretched around her hips. The sleeves are folded inside-out, playing pockets at her side.
“You work next door? I saw you come out.” She gestures to the side entrance with her left hand while her right tugs a pack of soft pack Reds from out of the back pocket of her jeans. She draws one out, puts it to her mouth and lights it in one seemingly choreographed motion. She concentrates on the task, only looking up again after exhaling.
I wait for her features to come back into focus before I answer. “Yeah.” I feel strangely embarrassed. “You’re new here, right. I come here to buy smokes every night. Never seen you before.” I become acutely aware that my cigarette has become an impossibly long stem of ash burning pointlessly to its conclusion between my reluctant-to-move fingers.
“First night. I figure I’ll be working the graveyard here a couple of nights a week. It’s a second job, so I’m only part time. Extra money. My husband can’t work right now.” I notice her ring. She follows my eyes. “He used to drive the Seattle to LA route.” She takes a slow drag from her Red.
I stamp out my wasted smoke. “I hear that. I don’t figure that you’ll mind working here though. It’s pretty quiet. Only two self-serve pumps to watch. I’ve never heard there be any trouble.”
She looks down at her sneaker covered feet, and then back up at me, “Here is the same as most, I suspect. I’ve never myself worked the convenience store circuit, but I’ve been in plenty. They all seem pretty much alike.”
“Well, I’m sure you won’t have to be here long. Your husband will find something soon enough.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“This place is a change from my day job at least.”
“What’s that, your day job?”
“I work up at OHSU, translating text books and manuals onto audio cassettes for the blind. It’s a small office, everyone busy in their own sound-proof cubicle. I pretty much don’t say more than two words all day to anyone but the recorder.” She rolls up her sleeves as if out of nervous habit.
“That’s an odd job,” I say. Her left arm is bruised, purple near the inside flesh of her elbow.
“Well, it’s not every day that I get to meet a real live cowboy either.” Her lips fall into the curve of a smile as she tips an implied hat and winks.
I try unsuccessfully not to smile back. She puts out her cigarette, and moves so she is standing directly in front of me. “I should get back inside.”
“Yeah, sure,” I respond with a half-nod and hesitant wave.
With a shy elegance she lifts her right arm upwards, her hand dangling at an angle somewhere between a call to be kissed and a gesture to be shaken. “I am Maria,” she states firmly, but not without kindness.
I take her hand in mine to shake it, but instantly feel that I am holding it too long. Her hand is strong and wiry. Worn calluses hold competing claims for he limited space on her small palms. It makes me think of a child laborer, of tiny fingers shelling pistachios or sewing undergarments in a sweaty factory somewhere in the Philippines. I release it.
“Oh, I’m Cass.” I gesture again with a similar nod and wave.
“I’ll be sure to see you around,” she says and disappears through the double doors, triggering a chime that dissipates in the air as they close in her wake.
Adam Schrader-Brown is young and in love with his wife, originally and once again a New Yorker and pursuing an MFA at Brooklyn
College. He is a graduate of Princeton University. Cowboy is an excerpt from his novel-in-progress, Labor Days.
Top photo "MotelSIGN" courtesy of James Pauls.
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