Creative Loafing Tampa Fiction Contest 2019: "Edge of Town"

Morality is in the eye of the beholder. An opened bottle of red wine sat between us on the table for two. I knew nothing of vintage or what paired well with what meals and selected the most expensive bottle I could afford. The waiter, a dark-haired man wearing black skinny pants and an immaculate white shirt, poured our glasses and left us to look over the menu. There was a nervous sensation in my stomach. It was like the butterflies, like the hopeful feeling I got when I started reading a new book; hope because it was a new beginning.

The restaurant was in a shopping plaza off South John Young Parkway. There were mirrors with hand bars along the walls, and it looked like the previous business was a ballet studio. Our table was in the middle of the dining area surrounded by other couples. Sharp sounds of plates and glasses punctuated the hum of private conversations. The place had the aroma of bread with a hint of vinegar. Buildings across the street blocked the sunlight and gave the room a rosy glow.

I said, “I’ve never been here before, but Lou said it was the best French place in Orlando.”

Lou had set up this date. He had wanted to help me rebound with a decent lady. Her name was Henrietta and she was a friend of his wife. He said she was a middle school teacher like us, and just got back from Germany where she taught at a prestigious international school. Because I’d been stationed in Ramstein when I was in the Army, Lou figured we’d have something to talk about other than work.

Henrietta waved her hand. She had an airy voice, “I’ve been to Paris and the food there brings the U.S. to shame.” Her tone implied the opinion was final.

I didn’t know what else to say, “Have you been to the Eiffel Tower?” A string quartet was set up in the corner and played an unfamiliar melody. I sipped my drink and smiled at her. The cabernet tasted a lot like hobo wine.

Without looking up from the menu, Henrietta only nodded. She was attractive and wore a long black skirt that was the same color as her hair and a bright yellow blouse with a matching scarf around her neck, probably to hide the onset of a sagging chin. Her skin tone was vaguely Mediterranean, but her accent had a German lilt.

After an uncomfortable silence, the waiter returned and took our order. She ordered low fat sautéed marinated scallops, and I went for a French stew. He collected the menu and Henrietta drank her wine. Her lips made a slightly curved smile, and I chuckled; at least we both agreed the red sucked.

My loneliness had started at the end of last summer, and this was the first night of spring break. Not that I missed my last toxic relationship, and I’d grown to like my apartment not stinking of cheap cigarettes and trash bags full of beer bottles. There were moments when I would feel empty, but fortunately the new literature competency tests mandated by Florida filled all my days and nights.

I rolled up my shirt sleeves to get comfortable. Henrietta’s manicured eyebrows rose, “David, are those guns on your skin?”

She meant the tattoo I had on my forearm. It was my only one, a souvenir from my time in the Army. It was a custom design, a pair of crossed M16 rifles above an olive wreath that surrounded a gunshot wound, a through and through, from when I was in Iraq. “Oh, uh, yeah. It’s an Army tattoo.”

Henrietta averted her eyes, “I don’t really like guns.”

Nervous laughter left my lips, “I’m not a gun nut or anything like that. I don’t even own a firearm. It’s just a memory from the war.”

This seemed to not make any impression on her. After a sip from her wine she said, “I didn’t know you were a soldier.”

“Oh, I thought Lou would have told you,” I rolled my sleeves back down.

“Wasn’t it a horrible experience?” So far as I could tell, there was no genuine curiosity in her voice.

I quoted the Odyssey, “A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time.”

There was no recognition of the Homeric quote in her expression and her lips kept a straight line. She straightened her blouse and lectured, “Well, I still think it is inappropriate for an educator to have something like that tattooed where students could see.”

A part of me thought she was joking, and that Lou told her to mess with me. I struggled to think of a response, but it was like trying to go up a muddy trail.

Henrietta continued, “You know, I always tell my students that if they don’t study hard, they’ll end up in the Army and they’ll deserve everything that happens to them. You have an opportunity to show them that.”

The stomach flutters and hopefulness disappeared. It was replaced with a mix of loneliness and rejection. My chest felt hollowed out. She shrugged and said, “Are you just going to look at me or say something?”

Nothing clever came to mind. “Sorry.” I took the expensive hobo wine and laid three twenties on the table. There was no reason to bother with her reaction, so I walked out. The hostess wished me a good evening and didn’t stop me from carrying out the bottle.

It was a Friday afternoon and the traffic outside the restaurant was expectedly heavy. I crossed the parking lot, flipped off every impatient driver, and got in my red ten-year-old Camry. The wine sat snugly between my legs, and I drove like it was a getaway from a bank heist. After nearly getting T-boned, I turned south and made a right on Oak Ridge Road. Car horns blared from the people I cut off while getting to the I-4 West.

I texted Lou while driving, U SOB. She basically called me a baby killer. Wtf?

I rolled the windows down, plugged my phone to my stereo, and played my power ballad song mix. Lou replied after “Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe finished: Sorry Dave.

It seemed I was always going from one relationship to the next, like a monkey swinging from one tree to the other. Never in one spot. After about three-and-a-half sad eighties songs played, I exited the interstate to Highway 192 and headed away from Kissimmee.

The sun had set, and my entire playlist finished, by the time I turned to get on a one-lane road. The manicured subdivisions left my rearview mirror and I was surrounded by pine trees. The breeze carried scents of life and the illusion of wilderness.

For a dozen or so miles I drove with the wine bottle in my hand and no music. The sounds of the country road filled my ears. The wine somehow tasted better now, though still not worth the cash, and it lasted until I pulled up to a dirt parking lot with a sign that read Edge-of-Town Gentlemen’s Club. In the center of the property was an aluminum aircraft hangar larger than the French restaurant. There were Christmas lights still strung on it.

I parked between an old Ford Ranger and a Crown Victoria that had clearly been bought at a police auction. It’d been five years since I was a sophomore at UCF and a regular at the Edge of Town. The Post 9/11 GI Bill money was more than enough to cover classes and party, but I had quit coming here because I wanted to teach and declared my major as education. A teacher with a strip club habit was a liability no school administrator wanted. Besides, the salary wasn’t high enough to have fun. I sat in the parking lot of the titty bar and worked on the wine. When the last drop was gone, I stepped out and didn’t care who found me here. The bottle had a good weight to it, so I put it on the ground and kicked it towards the treeline before walking to the club.

The closer I got, the more I could make out the thumping of music. Next to the bay door of the hut, a side entry was opened for me by a hefty Okeechobee southerner wearing a black wifebeater with matching jean shorts. He had a high and tight, and sported a gold chain shaped to look like concertina wire. I exchanged nods with the bouncer, palmed the cover charge in his hand, and walked right in.

It was dark and smelled of the perfumes bought in drug stores. The wood floorboards looked like they hadn’t had the dirt swept from them since the last time I was here. Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” was playing over the low-quality sound system. There was a large circular stage in the middle of the space where a chubby ginger girl danced on the pole. Christmas lights were strung up on the aluminum substructure of the building. In the corner furthest from the door was a DJ wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Next to him was an ATM where I pulled out more money than I should have.

While looking for a place to perch, a tall barefoot woman sauntered over wearing only daisy dukes. Her left nipple was pierced. She held a tray of empty glasses and said, “I’m Missy. What can I get for you baby?”

Her feet were dirty as hell and it turned me on. I said, “Missy, I’ll take some Jim Beam and Coke,” then I remembered the first time I was here I got sick from the water they used for the cubes, “No ice, please.”

She smiled and traced her finger along my jaw. “Coming right up!”

I stared at her as she walked off to the bar, which was just a table with a cooler and some bottles guarded by another massive Florida Man I guessed was the doorman’s brother. There used to be another guy named Dale who ran security here. He never looked too hard when I showed up with an underage dorm buddy who had a fake ID, if it was wrapped in a twenty. I had liked Dale.

The regulars here hadn’t changed much. Some were college kids, but most were truckers and construction workers. I could always tell who they were by the way they looked at the dancers; by the way they eyed their desires. It was one of the many skills I learned in the Army.

A sofa that had chunks of the paisley upholstery missing was empty. I sat down, and it smelled of too much Febreze. My phone had one more text message from Lou. Henrietta said you were rude. Told my wife what you texted me. She didn’t know she disliked soldiers so much. Again, I’m sorry bro. Make it up to you with bourbon? I turned off my phone.

Missy came back with a mason jar that had bourbon about two-fingers full and a can of Coke on her tray. She put the tray on my lap and opened the can on her knees in front of me. A Dierks Bentley song came on, “Lot of Leavin' Left to Do,” right as the hiss of the soda reached my ears. She poured half the can in and drank the rest. I handed her a ten. “Thanks.”

She took the tray off my lap and had a warm smile. “Wave if you need anything else.” As Missy walked off, her bare feet raised a cloud of dirt from the floor.

The bourbon and coke tasted better than the wine had. I settled in the middle of the couch to watch the show. The chubby dancer had finished her number and now a blonde pregnant stripper was on. The DJ said her name was Easy-bake and she was in her second trimester. No one clapped or paid her any attention, except for one Latino sitting close to the stage wearing a MAGA hat. He had a fistful of ones and a big smile on his face. Easy-bake was surprisingly limber.

Hands on my shoulder from behind made my jump. A soothing voice whispered in my right ear, “Oh, I’m sorry babe. Didn’t mean to scare you.”

I got goosebumps and turned to see her, but she walked around the sofa the other direction, and for a second, I wondered if I had hallucinated.

A wavy-haired brunette sat to my left and put a hand on my lap. There was a ring on every one of her fingers. She wore Ugg boots, a bikini bottom, and a short denim jacket that hid nothing. I’d never seen a stripper here wearing shoes before. I got the flutters in my stomach for the second time tonight, but this time it felt like finishing a good book.

She had a Long Island accent. “My name is Destiny. What’s yours cutey?”

It took me a second to reply. She raised an eyebrow and laughed when I spilled some of my drink while trying to sit up straighter. “My name is David.”

Her laughter was more intoxicating than the cheap whiskey and expensive red wine. “Hi David. You want a dance?”

I could feel my face flush. “I very much do.”

Destiny placed her hand on my chest, over my heart. “Wanna wait for the next song?”

A feeling of electricity from her hand got my leg bouncing. “Uh, sure.” I rolled up my sleeves and slouched back down.

“So,” she started folding her knees to get her feet under her, “you a college student?”

“Used to be.” The answer didn’t seem to satisfy her. Strippers did this getting-to-know-you routine to get better tips, but I was drunk on her so I told the truth. “I’m a middle school English teacher.”

Her laughter was wonderful. “I’ve never heard that line before.”

I said, “Well, I could lie if you want. I’m a truck driver.”

“Hmm,” she considered me with her hands. “No way I’d buy that. Your clothes are clean and nice.”

“College student then.”

She shook her head and I noticed the chained earrings with moons and stars dangling from them. “No, you look too responsible. You’re a teacher. So, what? That means you can’t have some fun?”

We both laughed. “OK, well then what’s your story?”

Destiny looked to the ceiling and considered an answer, then said, “I’m a college student.”

“Oh, that’s original,” I said and felt like a fool for saying something that she could think of as an insult. I mumbled an apology.

She shook her head and put a finger over my lips to silence me. “It’s true. I am a grad student. My thesis is on Homeric literature.” Destiny gestured to the stage, and the men of the Edge of Town, “Nothing feebler does earth nurture than man, of all things that on earth are breathing and moving.”

A quote from the Odyssey. There was nothing I could say, so I closed my mouth. Her smile, ear to ear and beautiful, matched mine.

From over my left shoulder she pointed to my right arm. “That’s a cool tattoo. What does it mean?”

I started to roll my sleeve back down, but she held my hand. “It’s just an Army tattoo. I put it around a gunshot. From Iraq. It’s just a souvenir.” My chest still felt a little hollow from Henrietta’s earlier reaction.

Her finger traced across the ink lines of the rifles and the olive branches. She ran her hand over the bullet wound. After a moment of staring at it, she leaned over and kissed it.

Warmth spread from her kiss throughout my body and she whispered in my ear, “There. All better?”

“Yeah.”

The song ended and a new one began, “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz. Swiftly, she moved to stand in front of me and took her jacket off. Destiny flung it to the dirty floor, closed her eyes, and raised her face to the hangar ceiling. Her exposed throat was her most beautiful feature.

I sat back and watched her dance.

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