by Thomas Kearnes
At three o’clock, I locked the front door to San Carlos Wine and Spirits and went out the back. I shook a menthol from my pack. I perched on the concrete stoop, waiting for the old Asian woman who enjoyed her cigarette the same time every day.
I told myself I wouldn’t turn pussy. I’d ask her what she does all day, see if the rumors were true.
The heat was intense, another sweltering August day in south Texas. The forecast offered no hope of rain. In less than a minute, I was wiping my forehead with my shirttail.
I’d be pissed if the old Asian woman didn’t show. Too damn hot to wait like a chump.
The tanning salon was next door. I’d smoked my cigarette to the filter when the back door burst open. Asians age more gracefully than whites and that made it hard to pinpoint her age. Still, if I had to sum up her looks in one word, I’d say old. Two crevices ran from either side of her nose past each corner of her mouth. Crow’s feet collected around her chocolate eyes even when her face relaxed. Her forearms neither muscular nor fat, perilously thin like an adolescent girl’s. She wore a green silk kimono with a large tiger embedded on the bottom. The creature snarled, bared its teeth. Julie would like that, maybe for our first-year anniversary. I wanted to ask the old Asian woman where she bought it.
I fired up another cigarette, glancing at her. I needed an excuse to stay outside. No sane person would sit in this heat without reason. Each time I looked at her, I couldn’t speak. What do you say to a woman like her? I tried to imagine her laugh, whether she laughed at all. She looked severe and humorless, like a state trooper.
It took me a moment to register that she’d asked me a question. How long you work at liquor store? Startled, I tried to smile, like the Southern boy I hopelessly was. A month, I said. You like it, she asked. She puffed a long, slim cigarette. Man who own store not nice man, she said. He give girls evil eye.
Girls, I thought. How many worked in that place? I don’t see him much, I said. Most days, it’s just me. She nodded, her gaze so potent I couldn’t turn away. You come in soon, she said. Girl make nice with you. I chuckled and stared at my black Converses, mumbled that I had a girlfriend. The old Asian woman nodded. She said, Some have wife. Some have girlfriend. We very discreet.
I felt seduced by proxy. It wasn’t arousing, unless you count my curiosity. I dashed back inside, never glimpsing behind to her reaction. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
Mr. McEntire told me about Tokyo Tan when he hired me. I’d heard the rumors, like all the students. Most of us thought it quaint that a small-time whorehouse operated in the shadow of multi-story residence halls. From the outside, it appeared no different from the other ragtag buildings on San Antonio Street across from the strip mall housing a Kinko’s franchise and the off-campus bookstore. Not even San Carlos’s oldest residents were certain when Tokyo Tan opened its doors or why it never popped on the sheriff’s radar. Perhaps local law enforcement found it too pathetic to bust. Students sometimes reported seeing homely Asian women entering and leaving and white men even more often, but no one I knew had actually gone inside.
I still didn’t know the old Asian woman’s name. Julie would’ve asked. My girlfriend was fascinated that I worked next to a genuine slut shack. I flirted with making up stories just to please her. Until now, my interactions with the Asian woman had been G-rated. Why proposition me? Did I seem like the type who frequents sad little sex dens? I was happy with Julie. We hadn’t made love in over a week because of her condition, but what kind of sad sack uses that as an excuse to fuck around? I wasn’t some high-school shit who had to bust his nut right now.
Unnerved, I lit a cigarette and searched for the ashtray. I zipped back to the register when the cowbell rigged to the door announced the arrival of Felix and his homosexual friend. Felix wore a T-shirt two sizes too large and pajama pants he’d hacked off below the knee, making a Capri pant. Felix hadn’t turned nineteen, hence the presence of the overweight homosexual with bad teeth and a receding hairline.
Russell, he cried and marched to the counter, his arms thrown wide as if he wanted to embrace me. It was surprising after less than a month how many regulars knew my name. I laughed and hauled the vodka bottle up to the register. Felix’s shirt bore a picture of Charlie Brown missing a baseball pitch with I’d Hit That written in block letters beneath.
While I rang up the purchase and the homosexual scooped a wad of bills from his jeans, Felix smirked and waited for me to react. It’s a sex joke, Felix said. You get it? I’d hit that…? I grinned and nodded. Yeah, I got it.
The homosexual was kind and meek, like a new kid in class. His voice barely above a whisper, he asked if that was enough money. Sure, I said. You don’t have to ask every time.
I bagged the bottle and handed it to the homosexual. Rules are rules, I said. Felix brayed like a donkey, kissing my ass. He asked if I’d seen anyone enter Tokyo Tan today. He said he passed a guy three days ago, a loser in a blue business suit. Felix leaned over the counter. Would you let those chink whores anywhere near your dick? The homosexual switched the bottle from one hand to the other, mumbled to Felix it was time to go.
Julie lived in the south side of town. She complained about driving all the way across town for school. But the rent was cheaper there than close to campus. I’d been debating whether to ask her to shack up.
We cuddled on her unmade bed watching a Real Housewives rerun. Those women are whores, Julie said. They marry these poor assholes for their money and then bitch about the whores who found an asshole with even more money.
Maybe they’re really in love, I said. Julie laughed and patted my chest. She kissed my forehead. Every time we had sex and I climaxed, she kissed me there, like a mother comforting her child. People with that much money never find love, she said. They stop believing.
She gazed at me with sharp, gleaming eyes. I knew our friends envied us, what they believed went on when we were alone. I promise we’ll fuck soon, she said. I grinned and took her hand. No rush, I said. I’m having a great time just like this. It wasn’t a lie, but I suddenly wanted to leave. There was nowhere to go, however, so I stayed.
The next day, I sat behind the register reviewing college algebra when the cowbell announced a customer’s entrance. The girl looked so young, I almost started my spiel about no one under 21 being allowed. She approached the register so meekly, her black eyes shimmering. Her subservience spooked me, so I said nothing. She was Asian, even thinner than the older lady. Dressed in a neon pink tube top and denim cut-offs, her thighs were no wider than her shins. When she reached into a tiny backpack she’d slipped from her shoulder, I spotted a butterfly tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
She handed me a crinkled slip of paper. Written in a scrawled hand was the name of our most expensive champagne.
I asked her name. Shii Ann, she said. Mr. Lee send me for good stuff. I waved the scrap of paper like a winning bingo card and entered the aisles. When I returned with the bottle, I went to tally the sale. Her eyes widened and she cried, No money! Mr. Lee give me no money! I held out my hand to calm her, explained that even merchandise given freely must be entered. I had no clue if she understood. She calmed down when I handed her the bottle and receipt. She let the scrap of paper flutter to the floor. At the door, she gave me a stiff, brief bow. Thank you for help, kind man. Her smile reminded me of my kid sister’s Christmas portrait.
It was almost three o’clock when she left. I didn’t want to talk with the old Asian woman, but she’d be disappointed if I didn’t show. Julie loved to tease me about always putting the other guy’s wants before my own. If I didn’t, maybe she’d love me less.
The old Asian woman stood on her stoop. She’d smoked her cigarette halfway to the filter but never flicked her ash. I lifted my chin to acknowledge her presence, a gesture I typically reserve for guys. The woman glared at me as I sat upon the steps. She wanted something, but I had nothing to give.
Shii Ann my girl, she finally said. You not see her again. I handle business, not her. I felt like I’d broken curfew. She seemed like a sweet kid, I said. The woman’s smile unnerved me. Perhaps you can see girl again, she said. I pretended my cigarette required my full attention. I didn’t look over, afraid she might be like Medusa, able to turn me to stone. But once I grew a pair and glanced her way, the stoop was empty.
The electric company started rolling blackouts that day. I offered to let Julie spend the night, but she refused. My roommate blatantly stared at her tits. It’s not my problem he’s sexually deprived, she said. We spent the evening in her bedroom. She lazed on the windowsill in her bra and khaki shorts, fanning herself with a program from A Doll’s House, the last show she did at the university. I wish I were a slut so I could parade around half-naked, she said.
I wanted to invade her, make her call my name like I was running from the law. After I quickly pawed my crotch, she gestured for me to approach. Part of me had hoped she missed the gesture. I grazed my fingers along her collarbone, down her sternum. Anxious like a teenager, I wanted to bury my face between her breasts.
The sound of a slamming car door ejected me from my reverie. Anyone in the parking lot two stories below could see us. Blushing, I withdrew my hand. Why did you stop, Julie asked. That felt tremendous. The doctor said we have to wait, I mumbled. The look on her face puzzled me. Even after nearly a year, Julie knew how to surprise. I imagined how I could seduce Shii Ann, seduce and protect her. The two could not be separated, like links in a chain.
Julie resumed fanning herself. Doctors, she said. I wish people believed my word like I was God. I promised to call later. She didn’t watch me leave.
The rest of the week I went to class and work, cuddled with Julie in front of the bullshit reality shows she adored. Customers came and went, including Felix and his homosexual hostage. I continued my three o’clock smoking ritual. The old Asian woman hadn’t spoken to me since her vague suggestion about Shii Ann. I’d lost my confidence, allowed the minutes to slip away.
I spent Saturday looking forward to a house party one of the seniors was hosting. The theme, according to a flier posted in the greenroom of the theatre, was Can’t Beat the Heat. The host encouraged guests to attend in their swimsuits. I looked forward to all the stares Julie and I would collect.
At three o’clock, I locked the front door and headed back. I smoked in silence, relieved the old Asian woman hadn’t shown. As my cigarette burned to its filter, a loud female voice emerged from the salon. It was the old Asian woman. A higher, piercing voice followed, also in a foreign tongue. Was it Japanese, Korean, Chinese? Common sense urged me back inside to let the turmoil next door resolve without me.
But all I could think was that Shii Ann might need me. I hurried to the back of the salon. I pressed my ear to the door—as if that would make them easier to understand. The blazing sun blasted crippling heat. The argument escalated, punctuated by a thump, making me think one of the women had collided against a wall. A harrowing cry erupted, abruptly ending with a loud smack that must’ve been a slap to someone’s face.
Without thinking, I threw open the door and stormed inside.
So many rooms! How could all these doors lead to different rooms inside this rinky-dink building? I imagined brittle-boned Asian girls getting fucked while they stood because there was no room to lie down.
It took me a moment to register the old Asian woman was shouting at Shii Ann while shaking her. She held the girl’s wrists, slammed her repeatedly against the wall. A thin, elderly Asian man watched with no emotion, like he was waiting for the bus. The old Asian woman spoke quickly, an odd melody to her words. They didn’t notice me, so I called out.
Only the old Asian woman looked. Shii Ann kept her gaze riveted to the woman. You not a customer, the woman said evenly. You pay Mr. Lee or leave now. She wore the kimono with the snarling tiger stitched along the bottom. I noticed two scratches on Shii Ann’s cheek beginning to bleed.
I knew I was all that stood between Shii Ann and more abuse. I bolted toward them, ripped the old woman’s hands away from the girl’s wrists. It took more strength than I expected. The woman’s grip was strong. I extended my arm and slammed it against the woman’s shoulders, her back smacking against the wall.
I comforted Shii Ann. I brushed the hair from her face, looked into her eyes and tried to smile like someone trustworthy. Are you hurt? Her jaw jerked and she made only a high, startled cry. The woman remained against the wall, watching us with the smugness of a Persian cat. I guess it was too much to hope she’d fear me. I told Shii Ann to follow me outside, draping my arm around her shoulders. The sidewalk seemed safer. The older woman couldn’t start shit out there—too many people passing by. Indeed, she did nothing as I led Shii Ann down the hall and past the old Asian man. I assumed he was Mr. Lee. His eyes were glassy, unfocused. He made no move to stop us.
Outside, I embraced the girl. Her arms bunched to her chest. Tell me what happened, I said. Where do you live? I feared she’d never manage a coherent word. After a few gulps and jerks, she said, You save me, yes? You like man in movie with bam-bam and ka-boom. You my American hero. She wrapped her thin arms around me.
We hugged like long-distance relatives reunited for Christmas. Her naked need sent a near-electric charge through me. This was what every man desired, right? More than love, more than sex. We’re small boys imitating TV superheroes, bed linens as capes.
I doubted she understood, but I kept talking until a familiar, strident voice shouted my name from the liquor store. A rattle followed, the front door’s deadbolt thumping inside the door frame. Felix needed his fix, but the homosexual wasn’t with him. I shouted that I needed a minute. He whined, said he was late meeting his girlfriend. I couldn’t believe the drunken bastard had one. Shii Ann needed me far more badly, but I didn’t know what to do. Haggling with Felix, at least, seemed an easy task. I kissed the girl’s forehead, brushed the hair from her face. Wait here, I said. I’ll be two minutes. Do not go back inside. Promise? She nodded, tears streaking her cheeks. After I unlocked the store and Felix stepped inside, I glanced at Shii Ann one last time. She gazed about as if San Antonio Street were an alien planet.
Once I was behind the counter, Felix smiled bashfully. The dumb kid was trying to charm me. He began a detailed sob story about the homosexual’s new demands. The fat faggot wanted me to suck his dick, he said. Despite his venom, the little smirk never left his lips. I said I couldn’t sell to him. I went into the spiel Mr. McEntire taught me the first day. If I made one exception, soon every underage alcoholic in San Carlos would demand likewise.
Felix whined that he’d go nuts without a few stiff shots. I reminded him about the party. You’ll find plenty of hooch, I said. This was taking longer than I’d planned. I could’ve told Felix to fuck off, but I didn’t want to snap at the poor kid. Julie was right—I’m a pushover, the designated nice guy. Felix rolled his eyes, muttered fuck this and stomped away.
The moment he disappeared, I bolted outside. No one stood in front of the salon. The whole block was empty. I peered through the salon’s front window, but it was too tinted to see inside. I tried the door, but it was locked. I could’ve tried the back entrance, but the shitty thing about failure is how it kills your imagination.
The party wasn’t as scandalous as the host had hoped. After five minutes of judging our half-naked friends, the novelty wore off. Julie held court in an upstairs bedroom with two girlfriends. She expected to be admired and envied. She was pissed when I declined to join her little display. I told her to find me when she got bored. I’d said nothing about saving Shii Ann. After midnight, Julie tugged my arm and said some creepy guy kept telling nigger jokes. The last one was kind of funny, she whispered. I took her home. She offered to suck me off, but all that near-nudity soured my mood.
At home, I wondered where Shii Ann slept. Was she heartbroken I returned too late? You my American hero. I wanted someone to tell me I’d tried my best, but that would mean reliving my fuck-up. My roommate asked why Julie had stopped coming over.
The next day, I took my smoke break at two, not three. The old Asian woman never appeared. It was another sweltering day. When I was about done with my cigarette, I heard glass breaking inside the store. Shit! I’d forgotten to lock the front door. This was why I believed in rules. The moment you break one, your world gets fucked.
Opening the back door, I heard glass break again. Some asshole was trashing the store. If it were Felix, I’d kick his scrawny ass. But when I dashed down the aisle, my urge to fight vanished.
The old Asian woman methodically pulled one whiskey bottle after another from a storefront display, smashing them at her feet. Her face was blank, her eyes small and black. What the fuck are you doing, I shouted. She stopped calmly as if I asked the time. She stepped over the jagged dark glass and approached. She wagged her finger in my face. You not come back, she said. You not pay for girl. You take her like wife. She grew louder, more intense. You never return, yes? Tell me you know this!
If you break one more goddamn thing, I said, I’m calling the police. The woman rocked back on her heels then smirked. You call police, Shii Ann say you rape her! She know men like you. I tell her men dishonor you.
Not sure if she was bluffing, I didn’t risk it. By keeping this secret from everyone, I’d unwittingly made my behavior suspect. If you leave now, I won’t tell anyone, I said. Please, ma’am. I slid my hand through my hair. I promised she’d never see me again. After a long silence, the woman broke into a loud, cackling laugh.
She was still laughing when the cowbell announced her departure.
It took me twenty minutes to sweep up the glass and mop the floor. The heavy musk of the booze filled the store, giving me a headache.
At Julie’s I called Mr. McEntire and quit. I concocted some bullshit about my tough course load. He didn’t try to change my mind. He asked me to collect my last check, but I told him to mail it. The thought of returning there mortified me. After I hung up, Julie asked why I’d lied. I told her it was complicated. She approached me, cupped my face in her hands. You’re a complicated cat, Russell. The power was out again. I was shirtless; she wore a bra and cut-offs.
That night, we finally made love. I never asked if her condition had cleared—her eager hands were answer enough. As always, she kissed my forehead after I came inside her. We lay atop the sheets, her head nestled upon my shoulder. I wasn’t tired. Neither was she. I wanted to ask her something. I wondered what I would do if I told Julie to wait for me on the sidewalk and returned to find her gone.
Sweetie, I said, do you need me or do you want me? Stillness swallowed my words. She gazed at me with a dropped jaw then roared with laughter. Did those chink whores give you a joint after they sucked your dick, she asked.
The next morning, she asked me if I ever learned the secrets of the tanning salon. I shoveled runny pancakes in my mouth. After swallowing, I smirked. We weren’t in danger. I’d given the old Asian whore what she wanted. I told Julie there was a sign in the salon window. New Girls Wanted. Apply within. Julie rolled her eyes. I stopped sucking dick for money after high school, she said. I chuckled at first, but it escalated until I almost hacked up the pancakes. She demanded to know what was so funny, tapped her foot. I was still laughing too hard to speak. The girl I loved servicing some middle-aged goon—impossible. Julie grinned and challenged me to guess her identity. She crossed her eyes and babbled in broken English. Fifty dollar, fifty dollar! Me suck you good, me suck you hard! Fifty dollar, fifty dollar! Me love you long time! Doubled over, I tried to control myself. This was funny shit.
Thomas Kearnes is a 35-year-old author from East Texas. He is an atheist and an Eagle Scout. His fiction has appeared in Ampersand, PANK, Storyglossia, Night Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, A cappella Zoo, Used Furniture Review, Word Riot, Eclectica, wigleaf, JMWW Journal, Verbicide, Splinter Generation, 3 AM Magazine, Knee-Jerk, LITnIMAGE and numerous gay publications. He is a columnist for Flash Fiction Chronicles and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee.