I sat at the far end of the bar shoveling white cheddar popcorn into my mouth like the world wasn’t really gonna end in a week, casually eyeballing the stripper working a VFW party in the other room. She swayed along to bad music, her youthful body earning her the attention her aged spirit wasn’t really interested in.
I could have sworn I knew her from somewhere, and I sipped the darkness from my glass, delicately wiping away the condensation until her name surfaced in the foam.
Six. The stripper – sorry, the woman who took her clothes off and danced for money had a name – but she told everyone it was Six. She finished her gig, made with the smiles and the flirting, endured the hungry looks from the old farts poised atop the red pleather stools and darted into the bathroom to change, leaving soon after with the hired tough in the stupid sunglasses and the floor length duster. She’d be back – she’s in here more than she should be.
I say this as though I have room to talk.
A few hours later (told you so), she was back at the other end of the bar, half off her chair. Her head kept beat with the belch of the jukebox with all the precision of a broken-necked drunken junky rag doll riding a slow motion roller coaster to Sweden. The dark-featured man looming over her, however, was sizing her up, dressed as he was in a suit and an unbuttoned shirt. The look is called “power casual.”
I know what he’s thinking. She’s easy prey, and if he can cock block the rest of us long enough, he’ll have her TV dinner all to himself. I take another sip and look around. It’s dead for a Tuesday night; the septuagenarian soldiers engrossed in the game, the bartender, the Suit, Six, and me. I watched him paw her with a catlike smile for a good quarter of an hour, whispering sweet bullshit in her ear. She batted away his pimp hand, fluttering like a bird with a broken wing and mouthing the word “no”, but he won’t let go. He’s too hungry. I can’t even imagine what line he might be using on her, but it ain’t working.
Shit. Guess I’m the Calvary.
I sigh a heavy sigh and make my way over. My drink in my right hand, I nod to the bartender who takes a few bucks from the dwindling pile of bills where I’d set up camp.
“Hey, Six! How’s it going?” My voice breaks the spell, but she turns to me so slowly I thought I might have to slap her for a reply. Wow. She’s really bad off. To be honest, Six isn’t that great looking, but when I talked to her before she seemed a nice enough person, and this is the gentleman thing to do. That’s the only reason I’m shooing this vulture off her back.
The Suit sizes me up the way all guys do when someone barges in on their action. He probably thinks I’m after his meal. As long as we’re telling the truth, I haven’t thrown a punch in anger since the eighth grade, when I got my ass kicked by Lee Sorentino, but I’ve watched plenty of Kung-fu Theater in my time. I figure I can take him.
I glance back at Six. Her eyes are nearly closed, an Olympic ring of empty glasses in front of her. I look at the bartender, who leers back at me. He’s marked her, too. I’ll bet he’s the kind of slime who calls a cab for a girl when she’s had too much and cops a quick feel while he’s pouring her in the back of the cab so he can look like the ‘concerned big brother’ when he goes back inside. “Aw, he’s so nice!” Fucking vultures, both of them.
I put an arm around Six and led her to a booth against the opposite wall, smiling my best Fuck You over my shoulder. She can barely walk and I’ve got my liquid muscles on. The Suit looks to be about six-four, and built solid. If he takes this any further, I could be in a lot of trouble.
After some cuff tugging on his behalf he follows us to the booth, and stands right in front of me, one hand reaching into the breast pocket of his jacket. He doesn’t see Six anymore; she’s not important. It’s as if he were looking through me now, examining the insides of my T-shirt, eyeballing my spine, surveying the red metallic flake of the bench seat through my ribs, and watching my heart pound. And it is pounding.
My attention is 100% focused on his hand, like a dog waiting for a biscuit. Or a knife. Or a gun.
Finally his hand comes out.
He’s holding a tape cassette. Inwardly, I exhale with relief as he lays it on the table with a careful click and slides it over. Outwardly, I scowl and try to remember everything I’d learned about predatory animals from watching television. I think I’m supposed to hold a chair over my head so’s I can appear taller.
The Suit doesn’t say a word, this bastard. Just looks at the tape, and grins at me all shit-eyes.
“What’s this?” I demand, picking up the tape. I sipped the last of my drink, eyeing him through the bottom of the glass, a move both casual and guarded. The glass was heavy in my hand. I set it down, tape still in my other hand.
“Well, what is it?”
“Do you like science fiction?” I couldn’t place his accent.
I turned it over in my hands. There was nothing special about it, no markings or play list, just a glossy black cassette, rewound to side A.
When I looked up again, he had vanished in the sudden crowd that had gathered. I felt a strong desire to chase after him and give back the tape, but Six mumbled something and held onto my arm. It was strange, him just approaching me like that and giving me this. I shrugged my shoulders, and slipped it in my coat pocket. I was just glad he was gone.
When I got home, I dropped my keys on the table by the door, flung my coat over a chair and flicked on the lights in one rehearsed motion, grateful for the eternal mercy of the electrical company.
Something fell out of my coat. The tape. I picked it up, and put it in the stereo (the one thing I’ve not yet hocked) and pushed ‘play’, heading for the kitchen to look for food that didn’t exist.
And that’s when it hit me.
I collided with the floor, the strength sucked out of my body like air from a slashed tire. Reaching the little piece of black plastic on the stereo marked ‘stop’ was out of the question, because I lacked the iron will needed to cross the miles of cheap shag carpet that lay between us. A few feet away was as good as forever.
It was the sound of an entire civilization, dying all at once.
I felt my throat choke up, clogged with the horrifying sensations of some terrible doom which flooded my brain. I can’t even describe it without crying, that’s how bad it was. Then again, that doesn’t even come close.
All I could do was lie there in a puddle making a lot of weird noises, and shivering like a leaf while something dark and intangible poured out over the room from my speakers, crawled through my ears and kicked down the door of my mind.
The real bitch of it was, I saw my cassette player was set to ‘loop.’ After that, I blacked out.
Consciousness returned like a red beast in a dark tunnel. Bright sunshine silhouetted against my crusted eyelids, and my face was stuck to the pile of sick on the floor. I was badly dehydrated, and my pants were literally full of shit. I had been there for days before the electric company shut off the power – I seem to recall drinking the money meant for the bill.
And, I can’t get rid of the tape. No one else will take it. I’ve tossed it in the river, left it in the street and mailed it to Rhodesia with no return address. When I got home there was a package in my mailbox from motherfucking Rhodesia. I would have known what it was without even tearing it open, but I did it anyway. It just sat there in my hand, smooth and black. Mocking me.
There are no scratches across the surface from smashing it with a rock, and no marring of that inky ribbon after dousing it with lighter fluid and setting it on fire. I fed it down the garbage disposal for almost two hours – all that did was piss off my neighbors.
I’ve got a court case next week, the small matter of a B&E. I broke into the junkyard and tried to erase it with one of those giant magnets they use to pick up cars. Imagine how my story sounded to the cops when they busted me.
So I’m stuck with what I presume is an alien artifact I don’t dare play and can’t get rid of. I can’t eat proper, can’t sleep. My landlord is ready to evict me, I got fired from the last job in this shitty town when I didn’t bother to show up for a week, and now I find out Six has spreading rumors that I took her home that night and fucked her in a “very uncomfortable” place. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That’s what I get for being a gentleman,