It was one of those nights. You know the kind of night I mean. The kind of night where you’re tortured by the heat. The kind of night when you’re alone in a cheap hotel and there’s no air conditioning. The fan above the bed just swirls the heat around and fills the air with the smell of ozone and kicks up the dust, stirring up odours from past desperate lodgers; rancid sweat, South American tobacco and poodle urine.
It’s amazing what can happen in a couple of hours, the time it takes to have your entire life upended.
Yes, it was because of a dame. Isn’t it always? You’re in a crumby bar and there on a stool you see a nice pair of legs and you look up and see a pair of eyes that can rip your heart apart with a single blink, and the next thing you know you’re buying the legs and eyes a drink.
She says, “I had me a diamond ring once, bigger than an olive and clear as a shot of vodka. But you don’t want to hear about that, do you honey? You don’t want to hear about my troubles. I saw you looking at my legs. You must be looking for a good time.”
Looking for a good time in San Francisco. There’s a good time to be had every night of the week, the kind of good times that end with lousy tattoos and a shot of penicillin, or worse.
Good times. They always end badly, with overdoses and trips to the emergency room, irate boyfriends and pimps gunning for you because you stole their girl and didn’t bother to pay. One barkeep job after another, an endless succession of foul-mouthed bar managers that fire you the moment you find they’re stealing from the customers or taking money from the till.
There she was, her smile cocked like a loaded pistol, her foot wiggling seductively down at the end of a gorgeous gam, and she’s wondering.
“Is that it, honey, are you just looking for a good time?”
I knew the dangers, the pitfalls, but she could read it in my eyes like I had newsprint and headlines on my eyeballs: “Harry Mannilow is looking for a good time.” When wasn’t I looking for a good time? And if I got into trouble there was always my best pal, a palooka named Bunny sitting next to me who wasn’t too smart, but loyal as a sheepdog, who’d do anything I’d ask just so I’d be his friend.
“Hey, Harry, you want to go bowling? We ain’t been bowling for a long time? You used to be really good at it, Harry, always bowling over one-fifty. That’s pretty good. And they got those good coney dogs over at the bowling alley. We could get some coney dogs and have a couple of beers and bowl a few games. How’s that sound, Harry?”
“What’s wrong with you, Bunny? Can’t you see I’m talking to this lady?”
“Oh, geeze. Sorry Harry. I didn’t see you talking to her. I come into the bar and see you sitting here and I’m thinking I hadn’t seen you for a while, and maybe . . .”
“Tell the nice lady hello, Bunny.”
“Hi there. My name is Bunny. They call me that on account of my ears. Like Bugs Bunny. What’s your name?”
“What a coincidence, my name is Bunny also. My real name is Bernita, but an old boyfriend called me Bunny because he said I had a fluffy tail, and the name stuck. Isn’t it funny? Here we are, two Bunnys.”
There they were, the two of them, rabbits from the same warren, not a carrot of intelligence between them, laughing it up as if they were having a good time, and Bunny, my pal, hadn’t even looked at her legs or stared into those front page eyes of hers or taken in her scent of whiskey and mary jane that clung to her like a stormy cloud.
So the two of them are laughing about their names, as if it’s the funniest joke in the cosmos and she says to me, “I know a thousand guys named Harry. I only know one guy named Bunny.”
Right then it hit me. She was right. There was a Harry on every street corner, in every bar, in every jail, and in every place where a guy like me, a guy named Harry, would go looking for a good time. And suddenly I felt like the dummy, sitting there with a Bunny on each side of me and it wasn’t even Easter. It was a cosmic joke.
Then she put her hand on my knee, and I noticed the color of her nail polish. Gray. There was something about it, the absurdity of having gray nail polish, the most in-between color in the universe, the one color that says nothing much is going on, and I fell for her like a jet’s mid-air release of toilet waste.
“I don’t want to go bowling, Bunny,” I said to my pal. “Me and the lady are going dancing.”
“Oh, sure, sure, Harry. I didn’t mean to intrude. I just thought, well maybe another time. Maybe Bunny can go bowling with us sometime,” he said.
When fate steps in you better have your eyes open.
A little man was pulling on my pants cuff. “Hey, buddy, can you spare a pair of socks for a down and outer?”
You can’t call them midgets anymore. It’s not politically correct. It got me to thinking.
“Hey buddy, are you going to give me your socks, or not?”
He was looking up at me, like a little kid wearing an adult’s mask, and trick or treating for clothes. But he was like all the other little people I had run into in the streets, scrambling for handouts, because no matter how politically correct everyone was, few people would give a little person a decent break. You can change the name from midget to little person, but the truth is they’re still small, and smallness makes people nervous.
I laughed, nervously. “You want my socks?”
“You got other socks at home, don’t you? I bet you have a whole drawer full of ’em. I bet you put on fresh socks every time you go out.”
The lady Bunny reached down and patted his head. “Isn’t he cute?”
“Look toots, you lay a greasy palm on me again and I’ll yank you from that perch like a pigeon knocked from a hot electric wire. I ain’t cute, got it? Cute is what babies and kittens are, and you can pat them on the head all you want, but I don’t need your condescending head-patting bullshit, and telling me I’m cute like I was a Munchkin from the land of Oz. I just came in here to get a pair of socks, and sister, if your boyfriend here can’t give me his socks nicely I’ll just have to take them from him.”
I was never the kind of guy to give the shirt off my back or the socks off my feet, no matter how little the person was.
“So what do you say, buddy, do I get the socks or not?” he said.
The dame looked at me expectantly like I was Santa Claus and fresh off the boat from the North Pole.
“Go ahead, Harry, give him your socks. You got other socks, don’t you?” she said.
I had plenty of socks, drawers and boxes full of them, some I’d never even wore, but as I said, I’ve never been the giving kind.
“Oh, Harry, do this for me, will ya?” she said.
She was a broad I had met ten minutes before and now she was wanting me to give the socks off my feet and she was pouting like a kewpie doll, and in a flash my mean streak started and I wanted to punch her in the kisser, just like a dame like that deserves, but instead I untied my shoes and gave the little person my socks. That’s when she kissed me, not a little peck on the cheek, but a full tongue-in-the-mouth kiss, that French style some guys are crazy about, but her tongue tasted like pickled herring and I never liked the French, and if you’ve been to France like I have, you’d know why. I knew I’d made a mistake.
He hadn’t even gotten his little shoes off when I gagged out Bunny’s fishy tongue, grabbed the socks from the little person’s hands and looked at my pal, Bunny, and said, “I can’t go bowling without socks.”
Then she scratched me, her gray fingernails trailing across my stubbled face, drawing blood quicker than a phlebotomist on amphetamines.
“You’re a big ol’ meanie,” she hissed.
In less time than it takes to bake a cake, I’d fallen in love, fallen out of love, and lost the only girl that had meant anything to me in the past twenty-four hours.
“You can’t give me socks and then take them back. They’re mine,” the little guy said.
That’s when I shoved him with my foot.
“Oh, you’re a super-duper big fat meanie,” the dame said to me as she went to the little person’s side as he scrambled up from the floor like a broken wind-up toy.
“Harry, I can’t believe you kicked a midget,” my pal said.
“Bunny, he’s a little person, not a midget,” I said.
“But Harry, it’s just not right.”
The little person charged me, and if I hadn’t been trying to figure out why my pal was being critical, I probably would have stayed on the bar stool instead of falling backward into a guy named Bruno.
“Bruno don’t like to be jostled,” he told me as he grabbed me and held me in a double nelson and whispered in my ear, “Bruno’s been watchin’ you and you ain’t a very nice guy. Now give the little guy his socks and get outta here before Bruno gets really mad, and Bruno can tell you, Bruno isn’t pretty when he’s mad.”
Earlier I had seen Bruno, just like one of the endless faces that pass in and pass out of the drunken and smokey haze of a bar. I noticed he was tall, like he was two guys, one standing on the shoulders of the other, and I had to admit, and don’t get me wrong, he was the prettiest giant I’d ever seen. Bruno had a gorgeous face like the picture of Angel Gabriel that my mother kept hung over my bed until I found out at age fifteen, Gabriel wasn’t a dame. I realized I’d been having sexual fantasies about a guy with blonde curls and wings and blowing a big horn with the look of euphoric lust in his eyes.
Then the dame spoke up. “Give him the big socks you meanie.”
“Yeah, Harry, give the little guy the socks, “ my pal said.
I only had a ninth grade education, and I’m not very good at math, but I could always tell when I was outnumbered. But if I knew then, what I know now, I don’t think I would have held on to those socks as if they were made of gold and had diamonds sewn on. No, in thinking back on the resulting consequences I should have given the little person the socks.
I didn’t see Bruno’s big meaty knuckles coming at my head until it was too late.
I woke up in the downtown pokey. It was a dirty, crwoded, hot, little joint and everyone in it was dripping with malice. It was no place to spend a Saturday night when you’re down on your luck and you’ve lost your gal and your socks.
“Hey, Harry, you got a smoke?” Bunny asked me sitting on a bench across from me.
“Don’t talk to me Bunny. We ain’t pals no more. You got it, Bunny? You and me, strangers,” I said.
“Ah Harry, don’t be sore with me” he said. “You shoulda let the little guy have the socks.”
Bunny was the only person I ever heard of that nearly drowned as a kid while playing in the water shooting out of a fire hydrant with his mouth opened and didn’t know enough to keep his trap shut. That was Bunny, and there he was looking at me the way he looked at me when I pulled him away from the hydrant, like I was a lifeguard.
“Hey Harry, remember when we snuck into the precinct and opened the cops’ lockers and put glue in their shoes, then snuck out? It was a good time, huh, Harry?” he said.
That was my life, one good time after another strung together like cheap pearls. And what did I have to show for it?
“You ain’t getting your socks back, either.” the little guy said from the cell across the aisle.
There he was, the little guy, sitting on a bench in the cell next to the one I was in. My big socks were dangling from his little feet.
Next to him was Bruno, taller and prettier than Lana Turner and staring at me like I was next week’s roadkill. “You shouldn’t have kicked a midget,” he said.
“I ain’t a midget,” the little guy said to Bruno. “Atleast he’s politcally correct you jerk.”
“Watch who you’re calling names. Bruno don’t like to be called names,” he said.
“Go kiss the front end of a moving locomotive,” the little guy said.
Ignoring that I was mad at him, Bunny came over and sat down next to me. “Hey, Harry, when we get outta here are you going to see that dame Bunny again?” he said.
That dame. Just like all the other dames with ten cent ear rings and million dollar tastes. Here I was, prisoner number 790871 just because she made that jerk-off bartender call the cops, not because I was beating up on the little guy, but because I was trying to steal back my own socks. That dame. Legs like railroad tracks all the way from Portland to Chicago. Maybe she was just another misunderstood broad, taken for stupid ’cause her brain is in her heart and not her head. Funny thing. That dame gave me another herring breath kiss just before I was thrown in the paddy wagon and charged with being a public nuisance.
Yeah, that’s me alright, a public nuisance raised on car fumes and chilli peppers, in and out of boy’s schools, jails and tenements. A bad times lifer looking for that one, single, good time that will last forever.
Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had nearly sixty short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He lives in Richmond, Virginia and writes full time.