UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The Right One
The bartender looked at Barry and shook his head.
“Sorry, sir, but this isn’t that kinda place. Maybe try Truman’s.” he said.
“Truman’s… where’s that?” Barry said.
“On Berkeley and South.” the bartender said.
Barry looked down at his beer, cleared his throat and tried to look dignified. His ears throbbed.
“How much for the beer?” he said.
“Two-fifty.” The bartender said.
Barry knew people were watching him. He pulled out two singles and some change and
left them on the bar. He took a last gulp of beer, put the glass down, got up, left the bar,
got into his car. The car still smelled like cigarettes. It would always smell like
cigarettes. It smelled like the warm embrace of death. It smelled like an accusation of
something he shouldn’t have done that he kept on doing. He started the car, pulled out of
the parking lot, headed towards South Street. He didn’t expect to see any prostitutes
along the way but he looked anyway, just in case.
Seventeen minutes later he was in Truman’s parking lot. It was eleven thirty-five p.m.
Barry killed the engine, got out of the car, looked to see that no one was watching,
opened the trunk. The satchel was still there. Of course it was still there. He got the key,
unlocked it, opened it, and checked its contents for the umpteenth time. It was all there.
He locked the satchel, closed the trunk, and was tempted to open the trunk and check the
satchel again. To make sure it was all still there.
The parking lot was full. The cars were of a motley and run down sort and there were
more motorcycles than he had time to count. Barry wondered if it was worth going in.
He was out of his depth. He could get beat up or robbed or something. He was tired and
seriously wanted to go home. He went in.
The juke box was loud, the people were loud, it was crowded, there was pushing and
laughing. The floor was slippery and the place smelled of spilled beer. Barry shyly
pushed his way in. He tried not to rub up against the bellies of women or the backsides
of men but couldn’t avoid it. Thank God the place was loud; he could go and ask the
bartender and if the bartender could hear him no one else would. His face throbbed. It
would be a miracle if he lasted five minutes.
There were no empty barstools. He had to lean over a skinny guy in a bandana to get the
bartender’s attention. The skinny guy looked at him a second then ignored him. Barry
lifted his hand and gave a tiny wave. Nothing. The bartender was busy. He waved
“HEY! HEY!” he said, but went unheard. He waited till the bartender was looking right
at him. He waved again. “HEY! HEY!” He wanted to leave. He didn’t want to have
anything to do with this bartender or this place.
The bartender looked at him, put a hand to his ear.
“I WANT A GIRL!” Barry said.
“You want a girl?” the skinny guy said.
Barry looked at the skinny guy. He had gray stubble, sunburn, a clean athletic shirt, and
some kind of bird tattoo on his arm. Someone else had the bartender’s attention.
Barry’s mouth was open but words weren’t coming out yet.
“You said, you wanted a girl.” the skinny guy said.
“Whuh - yeah…” Barry said. His fingers fidgeted.
The skinny guy smiled: “Come with me…”. He left his stool and made for the exit.
Barry looked around and followed him out.
Skinny was waiting for him outside in an area that was lit. Moths fluttered around the
lightbulb. He had something in his hand. He looked at Barry a moment.
“I’m gonna show you some pictures. You tell me which one you like, I give you a phone
number. From then on it’s just between you and her. Y’understand me?” Skinny said.
“Uh, yes.” Barry said.
Skinny showed him a wallet-sized photo of a blonde. She was round, ordinary-looking,
maybe middle thirties.
“Uh huh.” Barry said.
“’Uh huh’, what?” Skinny said.
“What?” Barry said. He was trying to not look intimidated.
“’Uh huh’, you like her, or ‘uh huh,’ you want to see the next one?” Skinny said.
Barry cleared his throat. He could use another beer.
“Go… to the next one…” Barry said. Skinny flipped up another photo. She was another
blonde, younger, thinner, longer hair. Her front teeth stuck out but she smiled brightly.
“Y’into anything kinky? Cause not all girls do all things.” Skinny said, showing him
another picture. This girl had raven hair and was thinner than the other two.
“This one, she’ll beat your ass black and blue. She don’t look like much but she got arms
like a Marine.” Skinny said.
“No, no, I don’t want anything like that…” Barry said.
“Well, why don’t you save me some time and tell me what you’re looking for?” Skinny said.
Barry frowned, looked away.
“No, nevermind…” Barry said, walking away. Skinny watched him leave, shook his
head, spat on the sidewalk, went back in the bar.
Barry sat in the car with his hands on the wheel, the engine still off. The steering wheel
was cool and solid and familiar in his hands.
The whole enterprise was dubious. He didn’t know what he was doing. He’d read in the
newspapers that prostitutes frequented certain places but had never seen any, not even at
None of them were right. They were all too good. They were well-fed, not too drugged
out and not bad looking.
He started the car and went home. He went to bed without undressing. The
chemotherapy was kicking his ass. In a minute he was asleep.
A week later he was out driving again, late on a Friday night, in a neighborhood he would
not otherwise have gone to. Why would he? It was block after block of dilapidated
apartments, storefront Baptist churches, industry deserted and rusting, windblown trash,
graffiti, empty parking lots with weeds growing tall through the cracks.
There were few people out at this hour. There were no movie houses to go to, no bars,
the few fast food joints closed for the night. There were small groups of people, three or
four at a time, hanging out in front of liquor stores or convenience stores. Some of them
watched him drive by and Barry said a silent prayer: Please Don’t Let Me Break Down.
In some of the movies he’d seen all a guy had to do was drive around for a while and
he’d see girls waiting on the curb. Barry wondered if this was some kind of Hollywood
fantasy. He didn’t think it would be this hard to find a hooker. But then, he knew he was
He saw a police car in front of one of the convenience stores and panicked. He never
thought about that. What if he found a girl, picked her up and got caught? His
intentions were… he was… but try to explain that to the cop. The girl wouldn’t believe
it either. His mission would degenerate into a tawdry soap opera, for nothing.
He would just have to be careful.
He drove around the neighborhoods for an hour, sticking to the main roads mostly, trying
to not look too obvious, but here he was, a middle-aged white guy driving around the
black neighborhood late at night. What business did he have?
A car honked behind him. The light was green and he didn’t notice. He was worrying
and not paying attention. He drove on for another thirty five minutes but every street was
the same, as if they knew he was coming and evaporated before he got there.
Barry went home, undressed and went to bed. He dreamed he was sitting in a chair,
unable to move, and somehow shorter than he should have been. He saw a hazy screen
like a window blind, the shadows of a woman and a man moving on it. They were -
together, moving together, close, something was wrong and he wanted to yell out to the
woman but he couldn’t move, he forced his lungs but nothing came out of his mouth.
He woke coughing. He switched the bedside lamp on, fumbled through the nightstand
drawer for his cigarettes, found and lit one. Barry turned the TV on, turned the sound
down so he could still hear but the talking and the music was muffled, distant, and the
sound of the talking and the music made the loneliness go away.
During the week he had a doctor’s appointment. The prognosis was not good.
A few days later he pulled into the parking lot of Kelly’s Boulevard Tap. It was a
Tuesday night and the place was almost deserted. Two guys shot pool, a young fellow
watched a basketball game on the TV with his mouth open and a woman sat at the bar
fingering her drink. Barry took a stool four stools down from her. The bartender came
over to him.
“Goodnight, sir..” the bartender said.
“Oh, yeah, I’ll have a Granite City and freshen up whatever the lady is having...”
Barry put some bills on the bar.
The bartender looked back at the woman, looked at Barry.
“Ok, Granite City…” the bartender said. He poured something into a glass and put it in
front of the woman. She turned, nodded, and took a sip. The bartender brought Barry’s
beer. Barry looked up at the basketball game. He didn’t know much about it. A tapping
on his arm. Barry turned to see the woman sitting next to him.
“Hi, my name’s Tawny, what’s yours?” she said in a husky voice.
“Did you say ‘Tommy’?” he said.
“No, silly, Tawny.” she said.
“Oh, sorry… I’m Barry…” he said.
She was thin, muscled, above average height. She was taller than he was.
“Hello Barry… like some company?” she said.
Barry’s heart pounded.
“Um, yes, that sounds like a good idea…” he said.
Barry was running out of time. He looked at her face. It was hard to tell anything in this
light. Her hair looked like a wig. Her skin had a roughness to it… her life must be very
“Do you live around here, Barry?” she said.
“Well, yes, not too far. You?” he said.
“Oh, just right around the corner.” she said.
Barry tried to imagine her life. Bad childhood, abandoned by one or both parents, life
was a struggle. Now reduced to selling herself to strangers to make the rent or feed her
“Come here a lot?” she said.
“No, no, this is my first time here. It seems like a nice place. Quiet.” Barry said. He
gulped his beer. It went down the wrong way, he gagged and sputtered, beer came out
his nose. He wiped his face with a napkin.
“Oh! You poor dear! Are you all right?” she said.
Barry coughed into his napkin, his eyes tearing. He gestured that he was okay but she put
a sympathetic hand on his back. The bartender looked down from the TV long enough to
make sure that his customer wasn’t choking, looked back up at the tube.
“You mustn’t drink so quickly, be careful!” she said.
“I’m okay…” he said, dabbing his nose.
He noticed her perfume. It was subtle but cheap.
She bent down to his ear and whispered:
“I got an idea… why don’t we go to my place… I’ll show you a good time…”
He felt a warm tongue in his ear. It was scary.
He nodded and they both got up.
“Goodnight…” the bartender said as they left.
They walked to the parking lot and found his car. He opened the passenger side and let
her in. He turned the key, backed out of the spot, and drove.
“Which way?” he said.
“Oh, just a few blocks… park on the street just past the stop light.” she said.
They found her place, he pulled over and parked. He unlocked the trunk and got the
satchel. Tawny had let herself out and was waiting by the entrance. She saw the satchel.
“Hey, what’s that?” she said.
“Something important…” Barry said.
“Ooh, a surprise… hope it doesn’t hurt…” she said.
“No, nothing like that…” he said.
They went upstairs. She looked back at him, at the satchel.
The building was shabby, the apartment tiny. It smelled like dirty clothes, mildew,
garbage and vanilla candles. Two bare bulbs in a cheap fixture lit the room. A dumpy
plaid sofa was the only place to sit. On a secondhand table sat a chubby plastic Buddha,
a romance novel, a Siamese cat figurine, and some candles.
She looked at him squarely:
“You’re not a cop, are you?”
“No, of course not!” he said.
“Hmm… didn’t think so but you never know… are you gonna tell me what’s in the
bag?” she said. She took off her shoes. Her toenails were painted glossy bright red. Her
feet were large and boney.
Barry sat down.
“Please, come here…” he said.
“No, not till you tell me…” she said.
“It’s something I have to do…” he said. Tawny looked nervous. Barry unlocked the
satchel and opened it. He pulled out a bundle of banknotes, waved it, tossed it on the
table. More bundles were in the satchel.
She let out a tiny cry. Her eyes riveted to the money.
“There’s a hundred and ten thousand dollars here… I want you to have it…” he said.
Her hands flew to her face and she coughed and let out another cry.
“I’m not gonna make it much longer. I got cancer. It’s not going well.” he said,
looking up to her.
“Oh!” she said, looking at him, at the money.
“I know you got a rough life… I don’t have any use for the money, it won’t do me any
good… I got no family, I want someone to have it, a lady who needs it… I gave it a lot
of thought...” he said.
“Oh… oh, oh, oh… I don’t know what to say…” she said, sniffling and wiping tears. Her
“Please come here, my dear.” Barry said, patting the sofa.
Tawny sat down a foot and a half away from him.
“Please, let me touch you…” he said.
She tensed a little and scootched herself closer, facing him. He embraced her and laid his
head on her modest bosom. His fingers ran inside the back of her blouse and felt… and
He sat up. She smiled sweetly, her eyes blinking.
“What!” he said.
“Is something wrong?” she blinked.
He looked at her chest. Her legs. The squareness. The muscles.
“You’re a… a man.” he said, dumbfounded.
Tawny stood up, blinking, smiling, sniffling.
“Oh, sweetheart! The main thing is… the important thing is… I’m a person and you
“No, no… this is wrong! It’s wrong!” Barry said. He grabbed the bundle of money from
the table and stuffed it back in the satchel.
“THAT MONEY’S MINE, YOU BASTARD!” Tawny said. Barry tried to stand but
Tawny was on top of him, grabbing, struggling.
“No, you… no…!” Barry said.
“THAT MONEY’S MINE, YOU SAID SO!” Tawny said. He punched Barry in the gut,
in the face. Barry wheezed, weakening. Tawny grabbed a candlestick holder and hit
Barry on the head. He grunted and went limp.
“That money’s mine!” Tawny said to the still form.
Tawny felt Barry’s neck. He still had a pulse. He dragged him downstairs and outside
and propped him against the wall, then felt for Barry’s keys and took them. He threw his
few posessions into a plastic garbage bag, took the satchel, got in Barry’s car and drove
Tawny, or Tommy, could hardly believe it. Finally his big break had come. With the
money, he would first get rid of the nuisance dangling between his legs, the thing that
stood between him and his destiny. Then when the change was complete, he would go to
Hollywood and become what he was meant to be, was born to be.
John Papiewski is nearing fifty. He lives with his wife and a zooful of animals in a
house in Chicago.
© 2007 Underground Voices