Editor’s note: This story is an excerpt from the novel Clean Time, to be published by Burrow Press in May 2018. Click here to learn more.
Out toward edge of town, buildings crumble around the vacant lots and trashcan fires, and as I walk past the decay, I feel like I’m being chewed up by a giant mouth filled with rotten teeth. I keep heading toward the Gryphon’s Den where I’m supposed to meet Geoff and settle some business.
I’ve been stuck in a bad loop: staying up two days and then sleeping away the third. But at least when I’m asleep I’m not thinking about Haley. The last time I saw her, she was wearing the same blue dress from our first date, which was a million years and two detoxes ago. We were supposed to get on a bus to Georgia the next day, supposed to get clean and start over. We hadn’t slept in almost a week, so we checked in to the downtown Holiday Inn to come down, and when I finally woke, Haley had vanished and country blues played on the stereo. Now every moment between our first night and our last is connected by that blue dress, and all the memories in between are broken and sharp.
I talked to her once while I was in rehab. She said she found legit work. She said not to call her again.
Almost two months I’ve been out, trying to get by doing nowhere-near-legit work. Trying not to think about her. Trying to focus on the tasks at hand—collecting my money from Geoff and getting out of this town.
* * *
The front of the Gryphon’s Den has a big neon sign of a naked lady riding a winged lion under a rainbow. Overhead, the stars hang dull and lazy. I head to the back lot and take a seat on a milk crate and pick at a hole in my Umbros. Almost five grand Geoff owes me. I consider this figure while I throw rocks into the gully and listen to cars whip by on the overpass.
Geoff shows up an hour late with a Bob Seger song blaring from inside his pickup. Since I started dealing with Geoff, I’ve heard so much goddamn Bob Seger it makes me suicidal. If I could, I would punch Bob Seger right in the balls.
The crate cracks when I stand. As soon as Geoff’s boots hit the gravel, I’m in his face. “I don’t like how you do business.”
“Inside,” he says and pushes past me.
The air inside is thick with the smells of fresh paint and burnt plastic. In the center of the room, a crooked wire rack holds two Penthouse back issues and a bottle of lube. My sneakers squeak on the pink linoleum as I follow Geoff to the register where he hands me a paper bag. When I look inside, it’s full of small bills and a stack of play money.
“What the fuck? Where’s my money?”
“Best I can do right now is $875, and some VIP coupons.”
“What am I supposed to do with coupons?”
Down another hallway we go.
“This is a soft opening,” Geoff says. “Third door on the right. Enjoy the show.”
The door opens into a dark room the size of a closet where I grab a beer from a mini-fridge and take a seat in a leather chair. I stretch out my arms, grazing the walls with my fingertips.
To my right is a control panel with a bill slot and a list of services available to Gryphon’s Den patrons. Coupons in one hand and my dick in the other, my life has devolved into a series of cramped rooms, rank basements, and two-way mirrors. I choose the Gryphon’s Deluxxx option.
I try to put all the coupons in the slot at once, but it only accepts one and spits out the rest. The front wall parts and slowly disappears into the ceiling and floor. Rows of lights blink to life around me.
Haley’s eyes are closed. She’s twirling around in a blond wig and a little blue g-string, like some porn star version of Alice in Wonderland. She never could dance for shit. Behind her I see two more girls, one dressed as a mermaid, the other, as best as I can tell, has on a sexy-pilgrim outfit.
“What are you doing here?” I say.
She’s looking at me upside down from between her legs, nodding her head to a twangy song about prison.
“This is your legit job?”
“Six hundred bucks an hour legit.”
She squats in a three-point stance and thrusts her butt up and down.
From a speaker near the bill slot, a sultry robot voice asks for more money. The wall starts to close. I slide another coupon into the slot.
“You don’t have to do this.”
She leans sideways while she talks. “I am doing this.”
“I have money. We can leave together.”
“Wish I could,” she says, and tries to do a split but can’t get all the way down.
Behind her the mermaid and pilgrim are really going at it and I lose my train of thought. I fumble with the stack of coupons and they scatter over the floor. The robot voice speaks and the wall starts to close. I kneel with my cheek against the front of the chair while the lights blink around me. Reaching for the coupons, I think about how Haley used to nuzzle her head against my ribs while we smoked cigarettes in bed.
With a shaky hand I slide a coupon in the slot.
The wall opens.
Haley walks into the booth, straddles me and puts her hands on my shoulders. Her nails dig into my skin.
“You think I want this?”
“Then why?” I say.
“You don’t get to ask me why.”
“Who else is going to ask?”
All those sharp memories of us cut into me all at once as Haley grinds her ass into my lap.
“You should’ve saved me back when you were busy fucking your ex-rehab counselor.”
“You’re taking that out of context.”
She grabs the back of the chair and grinds harder, leans in and whispers like she used to. “For $200 you can take me into the back room and I’ll suck your cock one more time.”
“Please Haley, leave with me. We’ll get clean,” I say, and consider her offer.
“I don’t want clean. I want it like it was.” She says and shoves her tits in my face. “$200 for head. $400 to fuck. Don’t you remember how good I fuck, honey?” Her tongue slides into my ear. Her hand up my shorts. She’s never called me honey before.
I hear the sexy robot voice and the wall starts to close.
“Last chance,” she says.
“Haley, please.” I put my last coupon in the slot.
Under the colored lights she looks shot-out and vacant. I kiss her with my eyes open, stand and push her away. I reach for the $875 Geoff gave me.
“You two,” I say. “Yeah, with the tail and the hat.” The two women approach arm in arm.
Haley says, “Fuck you,” and drifts back over the shimmering floor.
Mermaid and Pilgrim wait for me out in the hallway, while I watch the wall close around Haley, keep watching until the lights in the booth finally stop blinking.