The Dolphin by Richard Burgin
It was really just a smile he saw for a split second but it made Parker stop walking and go back to her. She was a young black woman in a cheap but pretty purple dress. When he stood in front of her, she smiled again.
It didn’t take much after that. In less than a minute they were walking together – money hadn’t even been discussed. Then he looked at her more closely and noticed that one of her front teeth was chipped but she was still beautiful, he thought. They walked another block together, talking easily while he kept looking for a cab because he wanted to get out of this part of Boston called The Combat Zone as soon as possible. He couldn’t wait to get her to his apartment, couldn’t remember ever feeling this eager in a situation like this and his eagerness made him talk more than usual.
Then halfway down the next block he suddenly knew. He turned to look at her once more and said, “Wait a minute, are you really a man?”
Her smile had a tinge of sadness now.
“Only in one place,” she said.
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I’m not interested then.”
He walked away quickly, afraid to look back. He was stunned. How could he not tell a man from a woman after all these years? Why did it take him so long to find out this time? To think that because of his illusion he’d come so close to taking her home and yet, at the last minute it was as if he’d known all along.
Parker was sitting in a bar where they sometimes had music and strippers. It was called “The Dolphin” but he couldn’t see even one image of a dolphin anywhere. He realized he was still upset and ordered a whiskey sour which he drank moments after it arrived, then ordered another. At such times he often fell into a state of repetitious thinking – what he called a “thought loop” – which was very difficult to stop. He hoped he could head this one off by drinking but it was too late, he was already in another loop.
He was thinking how often he’d been deceived in his life (sometimes, of course, contributing to it himself). Even as a child he was confused, far longer than he should have been, about the sun and moon. He used to think the moon was just how the sun looked at night – that they were two words for the same thing. For a long time he’d also never really believed that the earth was orbiting in space. He knew it “intellectually” but never felt it to be true. The world tricks us, Parker thought. Maybe that’s why people trick each other so much.
A moment later a thirtyish man (around his age) sat next to him. He was wearing a black leather jacket, dark sunglasses, and was slightly unshaven, which accentuated his overall menacing appearance. Dear God, Parker said to himself, don’t let there be a conversation.
At first there was a minute or so of silence, then the man asked him if the dancer had performed yet.
“No,” Parker said. “I’ve only been here 10 or 15 minutes but no dancer yet.”
He’d answered clearly while avoiding eye contact – the best of both worlds under the circumstances, he thought, though if the man really wanted to talk the window of opportunity was still there.
“Came here to see a dancer,” the man said. “Her name’s Trudy. You know her?”
“No, I don’t know any of the dancers. I’ve never been here before, or maybe just once years ago.”
Parker looked at the man, noticed he seemed somewhat reassured, at any rate down a notch of intensity. The next thing he knew, the man was extending his hand.
“My name’s Nick,” he said, as they shook. It was a strong, overbearing handshake, clearly meant to send a message about his masculinity and strength, Parker thought.
“Why you happen to come here?” Nick said.
“No reason. I was just walking, not feeling too great, saw this place and thought I’d try to feel better.”
“You probably could have made a better choice, but, hell, you’re here now so drink up.”
“I have been.”
“Not enough, I can tell. Bartender, bring this man another on me.”
Parker’s heart sank – there would be a price to pay for this, he knew. He would have to talk more and on a night when he was feeling both desperate and ineffectual, without a clue of what to do about it.
“So you sure you don’t know Trudy?”
“Yah, I’m sure.”
“Maybe you know her under a different name. She uses as many names as the number of men she’s screwed.” Parker laughed a little. “Seriously, I think everyone who did her knows her by a different name so I’ll tell you what she looks like. Long brown hair that she wears in a lot of different styles so she can look like different people if she wants to. She thinks that makes her more interesting. But when she combs it out right after a shower it goes down to her belly button. She has brown eyes too, the same color as her hair. Nice eyes, really nice, but she thinks they should be bigger. You know how all these bitches in the movies make their tits and lips bigger? Trudy has a device that makes her eyes look bigger. Didn’t even know about it or suspect a thing till she told me herself. Still don’t understand how they work. You ever know one who did that to her eyes?”
“No I don’t think so.”
“Yah she’s one of a kind. Anyway, you’ll see her body soon enough. It’s good, real good – not a pound of fat on her. She works out and diets all the time, like an athlete or something. She’s very ambitious that way. She wants to be the top stripper in Boston, then go to New York and get discovered. Thinks she can wind up in the movies that way. ‘Look at Anna Nicole,’ she’ll say. ‘Look at Tracy Lords.’ I’d say, ‘They were whores, Trudy,’ and she’ll say, ‘Oh’ kind of tonelessly as if to say ‘and the problem with that is?’ or else she’ll just say nothing.
Yah, she wants to be the city’s number one stripper, works on her dance moves all the time. Has to have the best moves too. She’ll fuck anyone – man, woman, in between – just cause they could show her something new to do with her pole, you know? Or help her get a better gig somewhere. Yah, she’s real ambitious in a twisted way, I’ll give her that. So you probably wonder why she’s dancing in a dump like this?”
Parker shrugged. He’d been wondering why Nick was wearing his sunglasses in a dark place like The Dolphin but it was slowly beginning to make sense, for some reason, the more he talked.
“She’d say it’s cause her tits need to be bigger and she needs another operation. I say it’s cause she takes too many drugs and the wrong ones too, like crack. These club owners aren’t dummies. They don’t want to hire a crack addict who’s apt to cross the line with the customers or with an undercover cop. I tried to tell her all of this. I tried, but guess who won the argument, and guess who ended up paying for her new tits that are plenty big enough now, believe me.”
Parker made what he hoped was an empathetic sound. He wanted to say, ‘that’s harsh’ or ‘that’s cold man’ but was afraid it might sound too flip and only aggravate Nick. He could tell Nick had a short fuse.
“Hell of a world ain’t it, where you can’t tell if the eyes you’re looking at are real or not.”
“I know what you mean,” Parker said, thinking about the black hooker he’d picked up, then how he’d spent the first 20 years of his life trying to figure out if he loved his parents or hated them and later whether he loved or hated his girlfriends until ultimately he’d walked away from them all and, in effect, from his parents, too, without ever really talking about it or reaching a conclusion.
“And if the lips aren’t real, what chance is there that you can believe the words that come out of them?”
“Not much. None,” Parker said. He was feeling nervous now because Nick was nearly yelling. Even the seen-it-all bartender was giving them a funny look.
“Let’s move to a table, OK?” Nick said in a voice that was more of a command than a question.
“Sure. I can do that.”
“I’m not getting a good vibe here. This bartender doesn’t like me. He’s sick of me. I think he wants Trudy for himself. We’ll be better off at one of the tables. We can see the dancers better too.”
“Sure,” Parker said uncertainly. He was surprised that Nick chose a table directly behind a pole that half obscured the small, slightly elevated, spot lit stage.
“Don’t worry, some whore will be waiting on us in a second. Drinks are on me.”
“No, I’ll get the next one.”
Nick ignored him, wanting to make an additional point.
“That’s what they do to the old strippers – demote them to waitresses - long as their legs still work.”
Parker finished his drink and thought he could see Nick’s eyes darting around behind his sunglasses but wasn’t sure.
“Yah, lucky for her I paid for her chest before I found out what she was doing behind my back. Kind of like collecting her life insurance all at once, she must have thought.”
Parker didn’t know what to say and merely nodded, not sure if Nick detected it in the half dark of the bar.
A waitress in a black miniskirt and fishnet stockings approached the table and Nick ordered two more whiskey sours.
“I told you they’d pounce on us right away just like alley cats.”
“Yah it was just like you said.”
Nick took a long swallow then placed his drink down on the small circular table with emphasis. “Don’t you think there ought to be a line, something you can see clearly, in your head at least, that once it’s crossed you have to do something about it?”
“I mean really do something. Like if the line is clear and the other person knows where that line is, can see it as clear as you, then you have to take a stand, right?”
“You wouldn’t be a man otherwise, would you? If you knew the line got crossed and you just pretended you didn’t see it ‘cause you were hallucinating or something or had some kind of instant amnesia and you forgot the line, forgot the thing you’d based your life on then you’d just be another pussy yourself, am I right?”
“Right,” Parker said softly, and then nodded as if to further indicate his support.
“You can’t go through life in blindness – that’s not what we’re here for. Look, look at my eyes,” Nick said, taking off his sunglasses.
Parker looked but it was hard to see them right maybe because he was staring too hard at them.
“I don’t know you very well but I’m gonna tell you anyway ‘cause I’m not a pussy, OK? … You know what I got in my jacket?”
Parker shook his head.
“The answer to her crossing the line, that’s what. I’m talking about moody Trudy, OK? You want to feel it so you know I’m not lying?”
“What, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying I’m gonna blow that bitch’s brains out the second she steps on stage – which is any minute now, right? Any second.”
“Are you serious?”
“God damn it, man!” Nick said, pounding his fist on the table. “Don’t I sound like I’m serious? Why don’t you feel my fucking gun? I already said you could.”
“I believe you. I believe you,” Parker said, holding his hands up as if Nick were pointing the gun at him. “I just think you ought to consider all the consequences if…”
“I’ve been ‘considering’ all my life. You have any idea how much time I put into her? How many times I fed her, and took her to the hospital and cleaned up her puke? You know how much money I spent on that bitch? Have you ‘considered’ that?”
“I just meant to think about what will happen to you, if you, you know, do what you said.”
“You think I give a fuck about myself anymore? You think I’m a regular flesh and blood person like you are? Or maybe you think I’m a vampire ‘cause I’m dressed in black. I don’t want her whore’s blood if that’s what you think. I don’t need anyone’s blood to live. I’m wearing black ‘cause I figure I’m already dead. Yah man, you confused me with the living but I’m actually dead. Death is really different. Only thing is, they don’t tell you that you get lonely when you die. Yah, that’s why I’m gonna take her with me. It’ll solve my loneliness problem real fast.”
Parker pulled his chair back, rehearing various exit lines in his mind.
“You getting ready to run out on me?” Nick said. “I’m getting a little too freaky for you, maybe? Hey, it’s too late to leave now man. You gotta stay and watch the show. I’m serious, man. Hey, your face has gone all white. Maybe you’re dead too and you’re really a ghost.”
“I do feel like I’m dead…sometimes,” Parker blurted, surprised that he’d said something so personal at a moment like this. “Dead in the sense of feeling hopeless.”
“Dead in the sense of feeling hopeless,” Nick said. “I like that. If you look at it that way then half of Boston is dead,” Nick said, laughing. Parker thought Nick’s laughter might be a good sign and forced out a laugh himself.
“My problem is I’m dead in the sense of dead,” Nick said, “but I like your line ‘dead in the sense of feeling hopeless.’ You must have gone to college to come up with that. You a college man?”
“Yah. That’s where you start to meet the hopeless and the dead,” Parker said, hoping his little joke would keep things lighter.
“No, I didn’t go to college. Couldn’t afford to – spent all my money on a certain whore I told you about. Just think, any minute you’ll get to see her. Maybe I won’t do her right away so you can get to see her naked first? You like that idea? That’s a dumb ass, non-college idea. Yah, I wanted to go to school but I was too busy becoming dead in the sense of being dead.”
“Well, I may not be as dead as you but I’m still dead so we could still do something together.”
“Do something?” Nick said, fingering his gun which was now partially visible. “What’re you talking about?”
“Like go outside and take a little walk. You know, dead men walking.”
“You hear a thing I’ve been saying? Maybe you’re deaf instead of dead?”
“I just think it would be a good idea to go outside now and talk there.”
“A good idea?” Nick said, mockingly. “Tell me, college man, what makes something a good idea? Is something ‘good’ if it’s what you want? Does that make it good?”
“Sometimes ideas can be good for both people,” he said, looking directly at Nick’s eyes for the first time. It must have upset him in some way, Parker thought, because Nick put his sunglasses back on, though they had only been off for a few seconds.
“How would it be good for me? Can you tell me that? Why at this exact moment would it be a good idea for me to go outside? You trying to keep me from doing her? I thought we agreed that she crossed the line?”
“We did. I just don’t think you should do, you know, what you planned. You’re too young to throw away everything like that.”
“You never killed anyone, did you?”
“No,” Parker said softly.
“So how could you know whether it’s a good idea or not?”
“It’s because you’re both too young for this to happen.”
“Hey, brother, if sins counted as years, that lying bitch would be a thousand years old.”
“You never lied to her?”
“I hand washed her blood stained underpants. I wiped the vomit off her clothes. I kept her from OD’ing three or four times. Yah, I lied to her but it didn’t matter. So, it’s not the same thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“My lies didn’t hurt her. She didn’t care who I screwed as long as she had money or crack. I could do it right in front of her and she wouldn’t care.”
“Come on,” Parker said, “I’m gonna go outside now, why don’t you come with me, huh?”
From the moment they were outside Nick began to look different. He seemed thinner and somewhat shorter, too. His face looked almost gaunt and his eyes were a lighter shade of hazel green. His seemingly flawless leather jacket was faded in spots and had two tears in it, and his body that leaned forward aggressively in the bar was now slightly stooped.
I have no reason to be scared of him any more, Parker thought. Then he remembered the gun but it still didn’t seem to be enough of a reason. He didn’t know if it was even a real gun with real bullets.
Nick looked at him as he took his sunglasses off. “You want to shine the light of truth on me? Is that why you brought me out here?”
“I brought you out here ‘cause I don’t want you to do what you’d planned.”
“Don’t think I’m evil enough to do it?” Nick said sarcastically.
“No, I don’t think you’re evil. I think you’re good. Here,” he said, withdrawing a pill from the breast pocket of his shirt and handing it to Nick. “Take this. It will calm you down, help you sleep.”
Nick swallowed the pill without looking at it. Meanwhile Parker was thinking that before he could sleep he’d have to speak to the bartender or someone else about Nick and also speak to Trudy too, and that he’d have to do it as soon as Nick left.
“So you think I’m good, huh?”
“Yes, I do,” Parker said. He could hear the music from The Dolphin, the music that Trudy would dance to and he knew that Nick heard it too.
“So if you’re right, I owe you a lot.”
Parker shrugged. “Just forget about it. You don’t owe me anything.” He turned so he was facing the street and could hail a taxi.
“Maybe they teach you how to be kind in college. Is that it? Course if you’re wrong and you’ve misjudged me I could come back the next night and blow her away, couldn’t I, and you’d never know if you were right about me or not.”
Parker looked away from him at the streets. They were filled with bars, sex shops, sex movie theaters and a few shabby hotels. The hookers were already out in force. It was a warm spring night, ideal for business. He wished suddenly he were in the Boston Commons or any kind of park. When he was young he loved it when his father took him on the swan boats in the Commons. Of course he loved his parents, he thought, they were not who they said they were, but who was?
“You’re being really quiet, bro. Maybe you’re wishing you were with one of those ladies of the evening instead of old Nick?”
“I was with a hooker earlier tonight just before I met you.”
“Oh yah? She any good?”
“She was nice and very good looking but a couple of minutes after I met her I realized she was a man, so that ended that.”
“A man, huh? You should have blown him away on the spot. I would have done it in a second. Hey, maybe I should take out one of these whores you’re looking at now? You know, it could be like doing one of them instead of Trudy. They could be the substitute or the symbol, right? Is that how they put it in college? It would be symbolic. So’s that what you’re wanting me to do?”
“I was just wishing we were in the Commons, or any park. Some place with grass and trees and no sign of The Combat Zone.”
Nick turned away for a moment, then readjusted his sunglasses before he spoke.
“One time Trudy took a lot of sleeping pills, so many I had to help her hurl and walk the floor with her till my legs ached – till she could puke out enough pills. She slept a long time, while I watched her, almost the whole next day. When she woke up she wanted to die all over again. So I took her for a walk at this playground in Brookline, of all places, where I was living. We were making pretty good bucks then which is how we could live there. I was pretty much her agent then and was getting her good gigs, and I had a couple of other businesses going too. Anyway, we were walking slowly ‘cause she was still weak. I’d driven her to this park, although it was nearby, just because she was so weak. But I really thought she should get some fresh air. Yah, at that time I could even afford to lease a car. It was nice out too, about this same time of year maybe two or three springs ago. Even though it was warm, and still in the afternoon, she was bundled up in a trench coat and scarf and dark sunglasses. She looked like a mummy, man. Except for her nose, there was barely an inch of her face exposed. She was also being as quiet as a mummy. This is a woman who could talk as fast as a roller coaster and non stop too. Just 24 hours before she was ranting about all the club owners who’d cheated her, and all the dancers who’d stabbed her in the back and then the men who’d beaten her and then back to her childhood (which really was a horror show) about her alcoholic mother and her father who abused her but now she was suddenly completely silent. At first I thought it was the drugs she took, her system still reacting to them, her brain still exhausted, but then I realized that she was shy, without her pills or crack or a drink, she was shy, you know? I missed the old Trudy with her wild energy but I also wanted to show her that it was OK with me if she didn’t want to talk, if she suddenly felt shy, you know what I mean?”
“Yah, I think I do,” Parker said, who was just then hailing a cab. “Maybe you should always remember the way you felt then, no matter what.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just to remember who she really is and what you really felt.”
Nick turned his head away, for a moment, once more fiddling with his glasses.
“But I did remember, didn’t I? My problem is I remember too much, not too little. What I’d really like to do is kill my memories, man.”
“Yah, I hear you. That’s something I’d like to kill too – some of them anyway.”
“Yah, it would be nice if we could get to choose.”
“Here,” Parker said, handing Nick a twenty. “You got the drinks. I’ve got a taxi for you, see it coming up? Just go home and lie down, OK?” Parker said, starting to give Nick a goodbye hug. Nick backed away immediately.
“Don’t be doing that bro. You want the driver to think we’re a couple of queers?
Parker laughed and they shook hands.
“Seriously, thanks man. I really appreciate what you did,” Nick said.
Parker opened the door and Nick climbed in with his stooped posture and Parker said, “Take it easy,” and Nick said, “Yah, take it easy bro.” Parker waited till the cab turned the corner wondering if Nick would look back and thinking that he couldn’t remember the last time someone had thanked him like that. Still, he would talk to the first person in authority he saw at the club about Nick and make sure Trudy found out too, but he wouldn’t look at her while she danced. That wouldn’t be right. Even if she approached him afterwards he wouldn’t do anything with her. It wouldn’t be fair to Nick.
It had gotten dark now, but The Combat Zone suddenly seemed softly lit, like a strange kind of Christmas tree. Just before Parker opened the door to The Dolphin, he looked up and saw a half moon in the purplish sky.
At least I know it’s a moon now, Parker thought.
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