Fiction

The Cool Cat

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 FICTION
The Cool Cat by Steve Almond

Langston had worked late again. It was past ten, which meant he’d missed the sitcoms, would have to settle for a drama. His office was downtown, about a mile from the causeway. He enjoyed unwinding in the emptiness, drifting from lane to lane. Sometimes he would smoke a menthol cigarette, fishing one from the pack stashed under the maps in his glove compartment. Langston believed smoking was wrong — both personally and in a broader sense — but he enjoyed pulling smoke into his lungs and watching himself exhale in the rearview. It made him feel dangerous and a little removed.
    

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Construction of a new overhead tram left the on-ramp backlit by yellow lanterns. Two figures were camped beside the road, fifty yards from the entrance to the causeway. The first stood with one hip pointed at the road, a knapsack riding her shoulders. A thicker figure sat on a duffel bag behind her. He wore what appeared to be a fedora.
     Langston was the kind of guy who picked up hitchhikers. At least he liked to think of himself in this way. The truth was, he stopped only if they looked relatively benign, clean and so forth, and if he saw them soon enough. Even if he saw them soon enough, there were times when, pinned within his own daily concerns, he drifted past, staring straight ahead as if he hadn’t seen them at all.

She wore no bra, that was clear, just a cantaloupe orange tank top that clung to her fallen breasts.

     It was hard to tell about these two, but he slowed anyway and in a few moments heard the soft crunch of gravel and a hand scrabbling for the passenger door. The girl dropped down into the seat; Langston was immediately regretful. She was bony and soaked in perfume and too much of her skin showed and it was not nice skin.
     “Where’s your friend?” he said.
     The girl regarded him blankly.
     “Your friend,” Langston said. “The guy back there? Your boyfriend?”
     “Just me,” said the girl, touching her chest. She wore no bra, that was clear, just a cantaloupe orange tank top that clung to her fallen breasts. Her mini-skirt was of the same improbable color, and her thighs were thin without muscle. She held a can of Diet Coke in one hand. Crumbles of lipstick stained the straw.
     “I’m headed to the Beach. That okay?”
     The girl nodded and he threw the car into gear. “You don’t mind putting on your seat belt, do you?”
     The girl said nothing. Langston considered repeating himself but let it ride. The little backpack, held on her lap, was bright pink, emblazoned with a white kitten in blue overalls. The cat’s eyes were diagonal slits. The caption beneath the cat read: The cool cat rides the city night on motorscooter. It was the sort of backpack a much younger girl would carry, someone in grade school.
     “Nice backpack,” Langston said. “Cute.”
     The girl said, “I’m Kim.”
     “Kim,” Langston said. “Okay. Sure. Dave. Pleased to meet you.”
     The girl dabbed at the straw with her tongue. Her fingernails were spotted with glitters of polish; the left pinkie nail, left uncut, curled like a prong. There was something obscene and sinister about its length.
     Outside, a homeless encampment slid past the passenger side, black men squatting around a fire, drinking quarts. The yacht club was on the other side; boats dipped their prows against the black water, like thoroughbreds. Beyond the moorings, a condo tower rose from a dredged island. Light from the terraces shone down on the bridge, fisherman lined along the bay side.
     “Can I smoke?” the girl said. She pulled a gold lamé cigarette case from her pack.
     “Yeah, okay. Actually, I’ll join you. But let’s open the windows, okay?”
     She cranked her window and the wind threw her hair around like yarn. Langston lowered his window and the stink of low tide knifed into the car. “God, that was a mistake.” He raised his window. But the girl, Kim, didn’t seem to notice the smell. She shook the lighter from its carriage and lit up, then took the cigarette from her mouth and offered it to him.
     “Oh, actually, no thanks,” Langston said. “I don’t actually smoke menthols. What brings you to Miami?” he added quickly. “Or maybe you’re from here?”
     She sighed, as if Langston were somehow stalling, and she were leaking patience. “Baltimore,” she said. “I’m from Baltimore.”
     Wasn’t that the city with the new stadium? Or was Baltimore the one that had eliminated their smog problem? There was something hopeful sounding about the place, anyway. Langston glanced at the girl. Her face was drawn, the eyes hooded in makeup. In profile, she could have been nineteen.
     “Cold too much for you up north?”
     “I had some problems with a judge.”
     They were on the straightaway now, past the drawbridge. Langston noted, with some annoyance, the strobe of one of those dinner cruises that trolled the bay, disco music shoving couples around the deck.
     “How do you keep yourself busy?” Langston said.
     The girl said: “I give head.”
    Langston thought to seek a clarification, but realized he would only embarrass himself.
     “Good head,” she said. “I suck cock well. If you want, I’ll suck your cock.”
     Langston tried to laugh, but the sound was more a cough.
     “Suck cock,” she said, now with what seemed to him a slow belligerence. “That’s my specialty. That’s what I am good at.” She tapped her fingertip on his thigh.
     Langston came up tailing a Toyota and tapped the brakes. One hand gripped the wheel. With the other, he took hold of the girl’s wrist. “I’m afraid I’m engaged.”
     With a deft motion, she twisted her wrist out of his. “I’m not the jealous type.”
     “She is,” Langston said. “Nothing personal.”
     “All I want is to make both of us feel good. You like to feel good, Dan?”
    

“Just so you know,” Kim said, leaning close enough to nose his palm. “This is how I do it.”

“Dave,” Langston said. He knew she was teasing him, but felt helpless to defend himself, suspended between fear and some twisted notion of chivalry.
     “You do have a cock, right?” Her hand moved quickly, grabbing for his crotch. Langston was so shocked that he lost hold of the steering wheel for a moment. The car swerved. “Damn!” he said.
     Kim laughed softly. “Relax. You’re fine.” Her hand clung to the inside of his thigh. He could feel the jab of her prong.
     Langston had imagined scenes of this sort; more so when he was younger, but even in the past few years. In college, a friend of his, Mike Tunney, had taken him to an oriental massage parlor. The story was that the masseuse would jack you off if you paid extra. All you had to do was say, “Front too,” and slip her twenty bucks. But Langston had chickened out in the end and snuck out the back.
     And then a couple of years ago, after an office party, a guy from the office named Simpkins, a real joker, had roped him into cruising Biscayne Boulevard. They pulled over and Simpkins spoke to a tall, black woman whose lipstick was woefully smeared.
     “What’ll twenty bucks get me?” Simpkins said.
     “A bus ticket to Tampa,” the whore said. Langston felt a secret relief.
     He enjoyed pornography, the video parlors especially, with their latched booths and TVs that ate quarters and moaned, and the dark close air that hung around him like a salted veil. He enjoyed the knowledge that a world of epic sexual achievement and ease existed, where trained men and women did these things, and that they could be visited, if one dared, then retreated from, demurely.
     But this was a different matter, an assumption that he was a part of this world, that he cruised the lavish width of night with just such encounters in mind. The idea — and the actions performed in the service of this idea — struck him now as a grotesque intrusion. An attempt to make him something he wasn’t. “Get your hands off me!” he cried. He grabbed the girl’s hand and held it firmly, then squeezed until he could feel the bones of their fingers slide against one another.
     “Okay,” Kim said. “Okay.” She tried to play it cool, but her pale hands were trembling. Langston found his eye drawn, again, to the backpack on her lap. There was the bright kitten, the cool cat, its slitted eyes and strange mantra. Her possession of this backpack struck him as more perverse than anything else about her &#151 more than her brazen offers and mottled skin.
     The girl snuffed out her cigarette and her head fell against the window, where her breath clung. They were gliding past Star Island now, pillared homes where celebrities nibbled at each other in the cleanliness of marble foyers.
     “Look,” Langston said. “I’m sure you’re very good at what you do. I’m just not in the market.”
     “I been tested, you know. I got a report.” Kim made a show of rummaging through the knapsack. “Fuck.”
     “Why don’t you take a few bucks anyway.” Langston reached into his pocket and drew out a five and laid it on her knee. “Just for the principle of the thing.” He had no idea what he meant by this.
     She slipped the bill into her top.
     Langston clenched his jaw and gazed at the lane dividers between his knuckles. The tires roared dully on the pavement. They reached the red light at the base of the final bridge, and Langston eased the car into neutral, his hand resting on the stick shift. He felt a yank. She held his hand now with an unexpected power.
     “Just so you know,” Kim said, leaning close enough to nose his palm. “This is how I do it.” She lowered her mouth onto his index finger. Langston felt the warm-wet pull of suction, her tongue widening, his middle joint thocking against the grooved roof of her mouth. He thought of an expression he had overheard his father use, at a cocktail party long ago. “That girl,” he told a grinning associate, “could suck the rust off a drainpipe.”
     That seemed the right spirit, the one that should apply to his current circumstance, but her suckling sounded foolish and he couldn’t help thinking of her mouth as a trap; moist bacteria, germs. He tried to withdraw his finger, but met the sharp rake of her teeth. A brief and comic struggle ensued, Langston’s finger seesawing until, with one devious jab, he slid his finger against her uvula. Kim gagged and coughed and coke spilled on her lap. Langston began at once to apologize, feeling put upon and foolish.
     “I should kick your sorry ass,” Kim said. A brown stain was spreading on her skirt. “You motherfucking dickless asshole.”
     “I wanted my finger back.”
     “My boyfriend is going to kick your ass.” The girl began to weep, then abruptly stopped and assumed a stony silence. She looked out the window. They were on the Beach now, gliding down Fifth. Shops glowed on either side.
     “Where do I stop?”
     “Here,” the girl said. “Anywhere.”
     Langston pulled over and the girl, Kim, opened her door. But she didn’t get out. Instead, she leaned toward Langston and he could smell menthol on her breath and something darker, more rotten. She spit in his face. “Okay,” she said. “Okay?” Only then did she remove herself from the car, swinging her knapsack, the small white kitten in blue overalls twirling wildly while Langston kept his face still, very still, trying to avoid any movement which would make her any more a part of him. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steve Almond‘s new essay collection is (Not that You Asked). It is, like much of his work, filthy.

©2002 Steve Almond and Nerve.com