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American Dream Serialization (Early Chapters)
Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Maurice Stoker
Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Tom Bradley
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: American Dream Title Page by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 1 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 2 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 3 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 4 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 5 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 6 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 7 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 8 by Jim Chaffee
Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 9 by Jim Chaffee
01-01-2015
Modern Tragedy, or Parodies of Ourselves by Robert Castle
01-11-2014
Totally Enchanté, Dahling by Thor Garcia
01-04-2014
Hastini by Rudy Ravindra
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 5 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
01-01-2014
Unexpected Pastures by Kim Farleigh
10-01-2013
Nonviolence by Jim Courter
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 4 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
07-01-2013
The Poet Laureate of Greenville by Al Po
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part VI by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 3 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
04-01-2013
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part V by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part IV by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 2 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
01-01-2013
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part I by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part II by Thor Garcia
The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part III by Thor Garcia
The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 1 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
10-01-2012
DADDY KNOWS WORST: Clown Cowers as Father Flounders! by Thor Garcia
RESURRECTON: Excerpt from Breakfast at Midnight by Louis Armand
Review of The Volcker Virus (Donald Strauss) by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
01-07-2012
Little Red Light by Suvi Mahonen and Luke Waldrip
TEXECUTION: Klown Konfab as Killer Kroaked! by Thor Garcia
Miranda's Poop by Jimmy Grist
Paul Fabulan by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
01-04-2012
Operation Scumbag by Thor Garcia
Take-Out Dick by Holly Day
Patience by Ward Webb
The Moon Hides Behind a Cloud by Barrie Darke
The Golden Limo of Slipback City by Ken Valenti
01-01-2012
Chapter from The Infinite Atrocity by Kane X. Faucher
Support the Troops By Giving Them Posthumous Boners by Tom Bradley
01-10-2011
When Good Pistols Do Bad Things by Kurt Mueller
Corporate Strategies by Bruce Douglas Reeves
The Dead Sea by Kim Farleigh
The Perfect Knot by Ernest Alanki
Girlish by Bob Bartholomew
01-07-2011
The Little Ganges by Joshua Willey
The Invisible World: René Magritte by Nick Bertelson
Honk for Jesus by Mitchell Waldman
01-04-2011
Red's Dead by Eli Richardson
The Memphis Showdown by Gabriel Ricard
Someday Man by John Grochalski
01-01-2011
I Was a Teenage Rent-a-Frankenstein by Tom Bradley
Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Fred Bubbers
10-01-2010
Believe in These Men by Adam Greenfield
The Magnus Effect by Robert Edward Sullivan
Performance Piece by Jim Chaffee
07-01-2010
Injustice for All by D. E. Fredd
The Polysyllogistic Curse by Gary J. Shipley
How It's Done by Anjoli Roy
Ghost Dance by Connor Caddigan
Two in a Van by Pavlo Kravchenko
04-01-2010
Uncreated Creatures by Connor Caddigan
Invisible by Anjoli Roy
One of Us by Sonia Ramos Rossi
Storyteller by Alan McCormick
01-01-2010
Idolatry by Robert Smith
P H I L E M A T O P H I L I A by Traci Chee
They Do! by Al Po
Full TEX Archive
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The Golden Limo of Slipback City

By Ken Valenti

That fucker with the baseball bat whacks you in the gut while you sleep, and he's gone before you can open your eyes. That's how you know you're back.

You gasp, clutch your stomach with one hand and reach out with the other. But you grab only air. He's gone, of course.

The room is exactly the same. The dreary filth. The not-quite-empty bottle of Old Smugglers on the night table. Tattered Venetian blinds in the window, as messy as bad handwriting. The ratty carpet worn in spots like the map of a dingy world.

You hear vermin scrambling between the thin walls. Your head throbs like your frontal lobe is being shrink-wrapped. Your gut aches from the bat blow. You want to hurl. Outside a siren wails. Welcome back to the Slipback City Hotel.

A phone sits next to the bottle on the night table, but you know it's useless. Room service will bring only dreck—leftover pizza or a half-eaten pork chop. Yesterday, you tried the cereal. The milk was halfway to cottage cheese. When you complained to the guy who brought it, he grimaced at the sound of your voice and left.

It's been like this more than two weeks, ever since Gina took her toothbrush from your bathroom and left.

"Call me when you stop being such a paranoid freak!" she snarled, that woman who once stroked your forearm and held you with a gaze so powerfully doe-eyed you felt sugar forming in your veins.

But oh how those eyes could cut, too.

Every night you think you're over her, drinking with your friends in Oblivion, laughing, maybe a little too gutturally, but laughing just the same. Whenever you begin to feel sorry for yourself, your friends remind you how Gina drove you crazy. "Maybe I am irrational," she'd snapped once. "But you make me irrational!"

Not to mention her firefighter "friend." You remember how she insisted nothing was going on, but then was seen with him two days after she left you. They were holding hands and laughing by candle light at the Cottlesby House, that linen tablecloth restaurant you took her to on your first date.

So every night, you're glad she's gone. You're doing great.

But that's a faint memory when you feel the blow to the gut — whup! — the brutal wake-up call that is a hallmark of this place. You never actually see the guy with the bat. Somehow, he disappears too quickly. But the pain in your abdomen, which took the blow soft and unprotected, is real enough to have its own zip code.

Morning light seeps through the tattered blinds, but it's grey. Muggy heat fills the room. You've been sweating in your sleep. You don't bother to try the A/C. It's out. It's always out.

The sheets smell like room-temperature creamed corn and sharp cheese from your stay here and from the sweat and misery of those who slept here before you. It's possible these sheets have never been washed.

And there's that photo by the bed again, also on the night table, the shot of Gina on the beach in Aruba, looking up at you, squinting because the sun is over your shoulder. She's trying to look annoyed, but she's smiling, almost laughing.

How does this photo get here every day?

Furious, you pick it up and cock your arm to pitch it against the wall. But you can't. You place it, gently, face down, back on the night table. That's why it's always here. You never get rid of it. You should to that. Throw it away. And you will. Maybe later.

You rise, and a fresh bolt of pain shoots behind your eyes. It jars loose a memory. Did you really tell a woman at the bar last night that you were the lead architect for the new Yankee Stadium?

Indeed, you did.

It would have been so easy for her to check that on her iPhone, but she didn't even have to. Her two sisters were architects, so she knew a bit about the field. And when you couldn't answer her question about the "golden ratio," the jig was up.

You make your way to the window to look down on litter-strewn streets. In Slipback City, garbage is always piling. Here and there, smoky fires dance on the trash. You're about nine stories up. You see a mugging a couple of blocks away. One guy falls to the street as his two attackers slip around a corner.

But you're not here to see what's going on in the street. You're looking for the limo.

The golden limo.

That's the one ride you can take out of here and know that you're not coming back. At least not until you're dumped by the next woman.

You know the stories. It's not really gold; it's the color of sunlight. When you're in it, you glide out of town in comfort. Memories once painful lose their stingers. The air conditioner breathes clean country breezes. The limo's wet bar is said to be stocked with a drink that will dissolve a hangover immediately. There's even a sink with a razor, where you can shave and wash up a little.

You'll step out refreshed and relaxed, and saunter into your own home wanting nothing more than to shower, then call your friends and hang out.

On the other hand, if you leave this city in a limping, valve-clattering taxi, you'll just be coming back. The taxis come from the Rubber Band Cab Co. They take you home, but somehow they know where to find you late that night, to bring you back here when you're unaware.

Well, sorry. You see the occasional cab, yellow, rust-specked and dented, inky black smoke belching from their tailpipes. But no limo.

You walk down eight flights of stairs feeling grungy. You're wearing the clothes you slept in. You have no fresh clothes and you've long since stopped hoping the shower would produce anything but clangs and a cough of dust. At the front desk, you ask the clerk if you can get the limo out.

The clerk sighs.

"You know we have no limo service here, Mr. Watkins. I can get you a cab." He speaks with a thin, elitist voice, like he's working the world's only 6-star hotel and you're there only because you won a free night as a prize on a bottle cap.

"Come on," you say. "I know about the limo. I've ridden it before."

"Yes, and when was that?"

You don't remember. But you must have ridden in it. You've been in Slipback City when other women have dumped you, or cheated on you. And yet, you stopped returning at some point, so you must have ridden in the limo.

In vain, you try to remember.

"I don't know when I rode in it, but how would I have stopped coming here the last time if I didn't?"

"Your stay ended and you opted not to return."

"'Opted'? I opted not to return? You think I choose to come here?"

"Why else would you be here?"

His bored grey eyes betray no sign that he's joking.

"What about that idiot with the bat? How do we stop him?"

"You know that Dave is very proud of the job he does."

Dave is the guy with the bat. You know that because you've asked this just about every morning.

"Can't you have Dave do something constructive around here? Like maybe wash the sheets every once in a while?"

"You are so critical of our establishment," the clerk says with a sniff. "I assure you, we launder the sheets here."

"Yeah? When?"

You see his thin mustache twitch in what you realize must be a smirk. He says: "Every once in a while."

Disgusted, you cross the lobby to the bar. It's the one good thing about Slipback City. It's always open, and the liquor is cheap. The bartender assembles a gin and tonic for you before you even order. He's a friendly guy, with a trim red beard and mustache. The way he pronounces your drink, you think he's saying "Gina tonic."

Next to you, a haggard looking woman, pregnant, mutters bitterly; "Just friends. Just friends! The little prick!" You hope that it's plain seltzer that she's sucking down, one drink after another.

Voices in different languages mutter from others on stools around the bar and from shadowy booths. One guy in his 40s sobs, hunched over the juke box. You'd think it would be playing blues, but it plays only sweet, light love songs, and they hurt even more. The guy moans something in what sounds like German.

One guy drinking a fruity drink at a small table is trying too hard to sound happy.

"Oh, this is great! It's not so bad here. I kinda like it. I won't be here long anyway." After every three or four sentences, he lets out a high-pitched laugh, obviously forced.

And now there's another woman sitting at the bar, quietly. She gazes into her dirty martini, but doesn't seem to see anything. Her light brown hair is frizzy and wild. She's wearing an avocado-colored top, kind of tight, and a short, flared skirt of several bright colors. She probably looks pretty when she's cleaned up and ready to go out.

She doesn't smell too bad. You hope you don't either, and when you talk to her, you take care not to breathe in her direction.

"Looks like you were partying," you say.

She nods and sniffles softly. You realize her drink is salted by more than the olive juice.

"Martini?" you ask.

Finally she speaks, her voice rough and wet from crying. "A ‘Mark-tini.' That's how that guy says it." She nods toward the bartender.

"Was Mark your—"

She nods. "We dated three years."

"That's hard."

But she's not finished. "He wanted me to move in. When I came over with the first box of stuff…"

She's getting emotional.

"You don't have to tell me."

But it's like you didn't even speak.

"It was a woman he works with."

"Well, hell with him. ‘Mark-tini.' Maybe you could call it a ‘Teenie Mark.'"

She nods a little, a tiny puff of air coming from her nose to acknowledge the joke. But now, unexpectedly, she's smiling. And she is pretty, even in the rough. You want to take a warm washcloth and wipe the tear stains from her cheeks.

"'Teenie Mark,'" she says, testing the sound of it. She nods more definitively. "I like that. ‘Teenie Mark.'"

For the first time this morning, you smile. It doesn't last long. A memory stabs you behind your ribs. It's of Gina, sighing and running her hand across your chest before you both fell asleep once at her place. Just as suddenly, the bartender is standing by you, offering a phone. Has he read your mind?

"Call her if you like," he says. "Just pick it up and say her name."

You take a moment to decide, then reach for the phone. But the woman you've been talking to grabs your wrist. Her palm is warm.

"Don't," she says. "It's a trap."

You can tell from the regret in her voice that she's made that call. Maybe more than once.

You rest your hand and shake your head at the bartender.

"God, I miss her," you tell the woman.

"I know," she says. She's still holding your wrist. She lets it go after a soft squeeze.

The bartender is still there, watching your conversation, and it makes you uncomfortable.

"Forget the call," you say. "What about the golden limo? Can you get that?"

You can't believe you haven't asked the guy about it before. But most days you're here, you're getting a cab called by the clerk before you finish your drink.

"Sorry, guy," the bartender says. "A limo? No such critter in these parts. Everyone asks, no one gets."

"Then how do you get out of here for good?"

"Me? I'm always here."

"No, I mean the rest of us."

But he's already walking away to pour someone else's drink.

"No one admits it," the woman says.

"But you know about it, right?"

"Oh yeah. Of course. Everyone knows it's out there. But these people—" the way she's waving around, it's obvious she means the hotel management — "won't ever admit it."

You both shake your heads.

And then you two talk. You talk about everything. Her name is Jasmine and she's an artist, from Seattle, across the country from your New Jersey home. (Slipback City exists in everybody's time.) You tell her about your job managing a small firm that sells orthopedics.

"So you help people," she says. "That's so sweet."

You wonder to yourself why you had thought last night that the architect lie sounded more impressive than the truth.

Jasmine is not Gina. Gina has a shaper wit, more passion. But Jasmine is nice, and that's what you need right now. She says her father owns a microbrewery. She knows all there is to know about beer.

You don't want to sound completely ignorant.

"I'm sure I don't know as much as you," you say. "But I know the difference between a lager and a pilsner."

"A pilsner is a type of lager," she says.

You feel ignorant.

But she's smiling, and not unkindly. You smile back, and for a moment, you feel a sense of openness. Airiness.

And that's when you see light flash through the windows like the sun is passing by outside at street level. Jasmine jumps. Obviously, she's seen it too. But no one else in the bar reacts.

"That was it!" you say. "The limo!"

"It had to be!" Jasmine says.

You both rush out of the bar, through the small lobby and outside. But no limo is there, only piled trash, boarded-up windows, broken glass. You and Jasmine return to the bar and call the bartender over. He dismisses your belief.

"Probably the sun reflecting off the side of a passing truck."

"The sun?" you say. "When has the sun ever shown in Slipback City?"

The bartender shakes his head, and as he walks away, he mutters, "Everybody thinks they know everything about this place."

"Forget him," Jasmine tells you, and as the two of you resume your conversation, you get an idea that's almost unthinkable.

"I don't suppose you'd want to stay here," you say.

"Here? In Slipback City?" She seems appalled.

"Yeah."

"Instead of home?"

"Home is Seattle for you, New Jersey for me. Here, we can keep talking."

A change comes over her face as she thinks about it. Finally, she says, "Sure. Let's do it."

You wind up talking all day.

By evening, the conversation still flows, and you've swapped contact info into your phones. The only time you and Jasmine have left the bar was to take a short stroll down the street. A very short stroll. The stench, muggy heat and the trash piles overwhelmed you. Amid the piles, shards of smashed wine and liquor bottles glistered, shredded photos tangled with the pieces of their broken frames, flowers dried almost to dust, a box of chocolates squashed until its mashed contents pushed through rips in the gold foil. The stench came from rotting remains of elaborate meals; soufflés, oyster half-shells, a chicken Francaise dinner being chewed by two rats, the lemon slices soggy and deep green with mold.

Storefront windows were covered, though not quite completely, by haphazardly placed greying plywood, the words "It WAS you!" spray-painted on one.

You'd returned before you'd gotten two blocks away. You're sure you would have been mugged if you'd stayed out.

For dinner, you order hamburgers and baked potatoes. The burgers are overcooked and you're by no means sure that the meat was fresh. But they're not inedible.

Jasmine has her potato with sour cream.

"Can sour cream go bad?" she wonders aloud. "I mean, it's already sour."

"Oh, it can go bad." Your nod and your expression tells her you're speaking from experience.

"Oh. You're one of those guys," she says. But she's laughing.

Gina never laughed when you left a jar in the refrigerator too long. She made disgusted faces. But you also remember the time she surprised you with a Thai dinner, prepared as carefully and meticulously as she kept her apartment. Candles lit. The works.

Gina never minded, either, when you teased her about her neatness.

But that was Gina, and Gina is gone.

Or so you think.

A couple of hours later, the taxis are bringing in the night's arrivals. The drivers have to "help" most of them to the counter. Suddenly, you hear that familiar voice, now sounding panicked.

"No, no, no! You don't understand. I'm happy! Happy!"

Jasmine is in mid-sentence, but you look over to the counter and there's Gina. She's protesting her arrival to the clerk and to the cab driver who holds her by the arm.

"Certainly you're happy," the clerk says, displaying obvious disinterest. To a bellhop who has appeared, he says, "Room 1473."

"No! No!"

Gina's dark chocolate hair is held back by a band that's slipping toward her neck. Her face is reddened. She's in tight jeans and a deep maroon sweater with a neckline that plunges, though modestly. (Isn't that the one you bought her last Christmas?) A thin gold chain hangs around her neck.

She's still holding a daiquiri glass with a tiny pool of pink liquid sloshing at the bottom.

"Holy shit!" you say.

"Something wrong?" Jasmine asks.

"It's Gina!"

Across the lobby, the clerk is now trying to calm Gina down, more to quell the drama than out of any sympathy.

"Perhaps you'd like to avail yourself of our bar," he says. "You can refill that drink you're holding or maybe even purchase a whole new one."

More than ever, you want to rush over and deck him.

"Not in that bar." She's struggling to free her arm from the cab driver's grip. "I was in a bar. With friends. having fun. I wasn't thinking at all about that prick! I swear!"

That "prick" must be the firefighter you're sure she was seeing when she left. So it was all true. And she called you paranoid.

"Oh, I can tell," the clerk say tells her drily. "Anyway, I'm sure you'll have an interesting time in our lounge this evening, if you'll just give it a try."

As he says it, he looks toward the bar, and you are sure that he just hit you with a fleeting look and a smirk. Does he know that Gina is your ex? Does he know about everyone here?

You don't have time to wonder because Gina is shuffling toward the bar, looking miserable. She doesn't see you, and you quickly turn to Jasmine, who, by the way, is now a bit annoyed at having been ignored.

"I'm sorry," you whisper to her.

Jasmine is about to say something when Gina reaches the bar, and now spots you from five feet away. She looks dumbfounded.

You say, "Hi, Gina," in a voice that's a little too normal, trying gamely to break through the awkwardness.

Gina frowns. "Hey, Gary."

You reason that it would be better to have her in the conversation than standing five feet away listening, so you say, "You may as well come say hello."

You and Jasmine exchange looks. Hers says are-you-crazy? Yours says trust me.

Gina and Jasmine hardly look at each other when you introduce them and Gina doesn't seem to want to look directly at you for too long either.

Though she's come here from a night out, Gina still looks and smells much fresher than you or Jasmine. You two knew that spending the whole day here would mean no showers. You had hardly noticed, like two pigs sloshing in the same mud puddle, until Gina's perfume wafted over with her, that clean vanilla scent that immediately reminds you of hugs, slow dances and her leaning against you in a movie theater.

"This whole thing is really a big mistake," Gina begins rambling unprompted. "I'm happy. Really. I was having a great time. You know, out with my girls. They must have the wrong idea here somehow."

"So," Jasmine wades in, and you cringe. "You mean the firefighter you cheated on Gary with dumped you."

Gina regards her with disdain. "I'm sorry. I don't know you, do I? I think I'd remember that smell."

"Okay, stop," you say.

After an awkward silence, Gina says, "Well, don't let me interrupt you two love birds." She begins to turn.

"Yeah, that's right," Jasmine says. "Run along now."

But Gina can't let that go.

"Just so you know, I didn't ‘cheat' on Gary."

"Gina, don't," you say.

But she's riding momentum now. "I don't know what he told you, but I didn't start dating that firefighter until after I left Gary."

"So, was it the night you left him? Or did you wait a whole day?"

"What the hell do you know about it? Have you known Gary for a whole day?"

"I know him well enough to know that you let a decent guy get away."

"Hey. You don't have to tell me that he's decent. I know that he's decent."

And suddenly, they're arguing over who is more aware of what a great guy you are. You feel self-conscious about this, but not so much so that you're going to stop it. A good feeling is rising in you like a delicate but tenacious green shoot in a garbage dump.

And now the bartender is near, grinning at you from his side of the bar.

"You've got it pretty good right now, don't you?" he says.

"I suppose so," you say. Then you try, "Does this mean I get the limo?"

He rolls his eyes, then nods toward the two women, still arguing over you. "Do you really need a limo?"

You see what he means. You understand how a new phase in life can sprout from the ruins of the last. To your surprise, you find that you want to keep talking with Jasmine. Not Gina.

And now Gina is disgusted.

"Gary, good luck with your new friend."

She leaves.

You tell Jasmine: "I'm really sorry."

"No, it's okay," she says.

You struggle for words.

"I want to tell you that this has been my best day in a long time. But every time I try to think of a way to do it, it sounds cheesy. So I don't know how to say it and make you believe it, and I want you to believe it because I really, really mean it."

Even as the words hit the air, you regret the ridiculous "really, really."

But Jasmine is smiling. It's a smile you haven't seen on her yet, one showing she not only believes you, but she's touched that you agonized so much over this.

You are happy. There, in Slipback City, you are happy.

You talk a while more. You promise to call, possibly visit Seattle, and you mean it. And then you walk together across the lobby to the counter and you tell the clerk you're ready to go home.

"I'm sorry," he says, not sounding sorry at all. "At this hour, the cabs are only delivering."

Even that doesn't bother you. One more night on the creamed-corn smelling sheets, and you're sure to be free. You pause while saying good-night to Jasmine, wondering if you should suggest you share a room. But it's too early for that. There will be time.

In bed, you don't mind the muggy night air. It will all be in your past soon enough. This will work in reverse, you're sure of it. You'll simply wake up back home, comfortable in your own bed.

Almost trembling with happiness, you eventually drift off to sleep.

Some time later, that bastard gets you in the gut with the bat again.

"I was feeling so great," you moan to the clerk downstairs. You hate yourself for sounding pitiful. "Why? Why the bat?"

"Oh, you know our Dave. He just can't be stopped." He says it with amused affection for "Dave" and casual malice toward you. He begins typing something into the computer on his counter.

"But why am I here? I was happy. You saw that when I went up to my room last night. I'm so totally over Gina. I swear."

"These things are a mystery." He's still tapping at the keyboard.

"And why are you so obnoxious?"

He shrugs. "Another mystery, I suppose."

Desperate, you pull out your cell phone to show the clerk where you entered Jasmine's information.

It's not there.

Now you're about to panic. "What happened to it?"

"What happened to the information for this very special Jasmine of yours?"

"Yes! Where did it go? Did ‘Dave' do it? Because I'll kill him."

"Why don't you simply call Seattle information? She may be listed. Here, let me check for you. What was her last name?"

"It was…" But you're coming up blank. "Jasmiiinnne…Argh! I know she told me. Barrett or Barrington. Something like that."

"Yes, this sounds like true love."

"Hey. Don't be an idiot. I really like her."

"And not Gina."

"Exactly."

"Well, then you won't need this note." He crumples up a small square of pink paper that had rested by his keyboard and tosses it under his counter.

"That was from Gina?"

"Is it not possible to imagine she might have something to say to you?"

"Well, you're right. I don't need to see it."

"Wonderful."

"But, maybe I should. I mean, if she went to the trouble to write it. She could have texted. She obviously wanted this note to be more personal. Yes. I should look at it. Let me see it."

The clerk holds up a small brass garbage pail, and when you look inside, there's the crumpled bit of paper, next to a black banana peel. Both items rest in some type of green-brown slime that's soaking into the pink paper. It smells rancid.

You'd rather not touch it, but you have to have the message. It's from Gina. Against your will, you find hope rising inside you.

You hesitate, but then you snatch it from the pail. As you gingerly unfold it, you shiver, because you've touched the slime and it is cold and vile. The writing, in dark blue ink, is blurred and smeared. Now you're desperate to know what it says — can Gina possibly want you back? But you can identify only a few random clumps of letters. They're blockier than Gina's usual writing.

"I can't make this out," you say. "It doesn't even look like Gina's handwriting."

"It's not," the clerk says. "It's mine. It says, ‘Now do you understand why you're still here?'"

You don't scream at him, because you don't want to give him the satisfaction. Your face burning, you hurry to the bar, just to be any place but at the counter.

The next cab will come soon, you tell yourself. But now the bartender has come over.

"‘Morning, bud. Got something for you."

He hands you a carefully folded napkin, and you eye him cautiously, looking for signs of guile in that red-bearded face, wondering if this is some horrible two-part joke he and the clerk have planned together.

"I'd open it," the guy says.

You open it, and find a note from Jasmine. It reads:

Gary,
When I got up this morning, your info was no longer in my phone. I'll bet the same thing happened to you. So I'm writing it here again. It was so great getting to know you!! I really hope you call or write!!!
Jasmine.

Before her name, she's drawn a little heart. And after the name, her phone number and email address.

You feel lifted. Still miserable, still angry, but maybe not as much as a moment earlier.

"I'm still coming back here, though, aren't I?" you ask the bartender.

"That's where I'd put my money."

"But not forever, right?"

"Nobody comes back forever."

Strangely, at that news tears start to squeeze from your eyes. But you hold them back. You walk back into the lobby to wait for your cab, eager to get home and finally shower. Then you'll call. You won't just email Jasmine. You'll call.

You can't wait to hear her voice.

lizards fucking

© Ken Valenti 2012