••• The International Writers Magazine: Life Fiction
In the Red Light District
Snake Doggett the cook lived in an unpainted house between a hemp shop and a whorehouse with his roommate Bert, on the edge of the red light district. One large flaw of Snake’s was that the inside of his ears were full of horribly itchy blackheads. This was a congenital condition that he periodically went to a dermatologist for. The doctor squeezed the blackheads out one by one with a long silver tool that had a fancy name. As he slowly worked on Snake’s ears one blackhead at a time the doctor would always talk about the same three things; the evils of smoking, the evils of Snake’s roommate Bert’s sleeping habits, and the big hashish transaction that would always end Snake’s office visit.
The doctor would first tell Snake how lucky he was to never have smoked. The doctor was a reformed smoker and this fact obsessed him and it was all he made small talk about. Snake had made the mistake of once telling the doctor that Bert smoked at least three packs a day and the doctor then began saying during every visit that Snake should take Bert’s cigarettes and throw them away and then when he bought new ones he should do it again, and over and over like this until Bert was finally a nonsmoker. The second thing the doctor would tell Snake while squeezing out his ears was that Bert’s habit of sleeping in the nude, that had come up in conversation between Snake and the Doctor somehow, was a bad one; it was dirty and Snake should really tell Bert to change his sheets on a daily basis because every night he was unknowingly soiling the sheets. The Doctor would repeat these things over and over as one by one the blackheads disappeared and the itching slowly eased. Lastly the doctor was a small time dealer of hashish and though Snake didn’t smoke himself, his roommate Bert did and he gave Snake money to get a tinfoil wrapped slab of hashish from the doctor every time he went there. Where Bert got the money Snake didn’t know, because Bert never told him where he worked. He went out in the morning and came back in late afternoon and had money to help with his half of the rent, but when Snake would ask him where he worked Bert would just say the same thing.
It doesn’t matter—my money’s good. That’s all that matters.
Yes but why does it have to be such a secret where you work? You know where I work.
Maybe I’m ashamed of where I work, said Bert.
Sure. Ashamed. Haven’t you got things to be ashamed of?
No. I’m not ashamed of anything.
You’re damned lucky then, said Bert, sitting back. He then began blowing perfect smoke rings from his cigarette that came from his mouth and expanded and dissipated to nothing in perfect circles. This amazed Snake.
How do you do that? said Snake.
Why do you have to know how? You’re no smoker. If you would start to smoke I would teach you. But, outside of that, no way—it’d be a waste.
Bert sat then with half closed eyes blowing smoke rings until the smoke drifted layered in the still air of the room and Snake would have to go outside to get a breath of fresh air. Sometimes when he was outside sitting on the bench outside the house Tinah the whore would come from the whorehouse next door and talk to him. She shook out her black hair, and spoke.
How’s it going Snake? Why you standing around outside here again? Too smoky in there for you again? That’s what you always say. Must be true?
Yeah. It’s true. I like the fresh air.
Tinah pulled out a pack of Caballeros and held it up.
Mind if I have one Snake? We’re out in the open. I came out for a smoke—well, not just that. I saw you out here too. I like to talk to you. You’re so—so calm.
She sat on the bench a little away from Snake and lit up a brown cigarette. Just as she had had three puffs, Bert the roommate came out of the house and stretched his arms out to the air and breathed deeply, pushing his great gut forward, straining his shirt buttons.
Ah, the smell of Caballeros, he said in a sighing voice—Tinah. How are you? How’s business?
Not bad, Bert.
Well it’s about to get better.
He pulled a few bills from his pocket and held them out to her.
How about—you and me—right now?
Sure, she said, abruptly getting up and mashing out the cigarette on the cement. I’m always up for a few bucks. Come on—see you Snake.
Snake nodded as the last few puffs of smoke came up from the crushed out butt and Bert and Tinah went over and up into the whorehouse, just as the Doctor squeezed out the last blackhead from Snake’s ear and stood up straight waving his tool before him.
Okay Mr. Doggett—that’s it! All cleaned out. Good for another month.
What? What? Oh, said Snake, coming out of the daydream and rising from the chair.
Okay, he said—thanks Doc.
All right. Now here’s the stuff for your buddy.
The Doctor went in a drawer and brought out a three by two inch foil wrapped slab.
Got the money?
Snake handed over the money and the Doctor handed him the hashish. As Snake pocketed it the Doctor said Okay—I’ll see you in a month. There’s some good Lebanese coming in next week. I’ll save some for your pal.
That’s great—hey Doc.
Why do you suppose I get these damned things in my ears anyway?
The Doctor folded his arms and spoke.
It gets dirty in there. It gets sweaty in there. It’s hot in there. That’s it. That’s why god created q-tips. But be careful with them, don’t bust your eardrum. Never put anything bigger than your elbow in your ear—hey listen—here—there’s a new drug that might help you with this. Try these sample pills. One a day. And we’ll see how you are in a month. Okay pal?
He slapped Snake on the back hard and laughed with his face distorted looking like a large pussy cat. The Doctor was extremely overweight and smiled and laughed a lot. Snake liked the Doctor but he wished he didn’t have to come here—though Bert would probably still send him for his stuff even if he didn’t need his ears cleaned out. He took the boxes of pills from the laughing doctor and stuffed them into the pockets of his grey overalls. And again the Doctor slapped Snake hard on the back and laughed, his great belly quivering and his mustache writhing under his great porous nose. Snake tried to laugh with him but it was time to get down to the tiny cheap dive of a diner that he worked in. Snake knew how to cook a few things when he came over from the states and when he told the owner the owner slapped him on the back much the same way the Doctor did and said, in a curiously yelping voice, Okay, you got the job!
All right, Snake told the Doctor, and after shaking hands with the unwashed Doctor with fragments of blackhead under his nails he left the office and started off toward work. As he walked down the narrow stairs and out into the hustling bright lit street and turned toward the restaurant, thoughts drifted ahead as the scene passed him by. As he often did, he played games with himself. He imagined he was invisible and could see through the clothes of others; and as he walked he was not self-conscious as he usually was, because no one knew he was there. He fingered the boxes of pills in his pocket. It would be great to have no blackheads. He arrived at the greasy spoon and went in and greeted Piggy, the boss, who wore a bloody apron and whose bald head shone greasy in the light from the bare bulb above. Snake worked the shift cooking under the bare hot bulb and it was nearly unbearably sweaty as always but he mindlessly got through it as always, every day.
Arriving home from the blur of work he went into the house and found that Bert was not home yet from his mystery job. Snake put the pills on the kitchen table and put the slab of hashish next to it and went and got himself a beer. He sat down at the table and began to drink. He pushed the drug sample box with a fingertip and thought What if these pills work and I get no more blackheads? That would be great. Snake quickly drank his beer and ripped open the sample box, twisted off the cap of the pill bottle, and took a pill washing it down with the dregs of the beer. All his life he had struggled with these blackheads. It would really be nice if they were gone. At last fat Bert came in through the door, his ruddy face bulged out with delight at the sight of his slab of hashish lying on the table. He touched it with his finger then pointed to the samples.
What are those, said Bert? Who are those for?
They’re for me. They’re to prevent the blackheads in my ears.
Oh really? Does that mean you won’t need the Doctor any more?
Maybe. Maybe in time.
Bert clutched his suddenly sunken stomach.
Will be still sell you the hashish though? After the blackheads are gone? He will, right?
Well, I don’t see why not—we’re friends.
Good. I’m going next door to the whorehouse to ask the girls if they want to go someplace to eat. I don’t feel like cooking. Want to come?
Uh—oh—okay. Just let me go change—
No, go like that. I’m going like this.
But I’m all sweaty under this.
Join the club. Come on.
Bert pocketed the hashish as Snake rose and they went out and across to the whorehouse. Thirty minutes later they were sitting out front of a sidewalk burger joint waiting for their food. Tinah was there with two of her girls, buzz cut Marie and the little blonde Lydia. As usual, Bert said he would pay. Where did Bert work? thought Snake—he’s always loaded with money for eating out and the best hashish, and the rent and internet and the whores and all—but Snake didn’t ask him. He never asked him anymore. It really didn’t matter—and it was impossible to tell what he did by his clothes—simple slacks and a shirt and slick black shoes. Snake guessed it must be some kind of office job, but it could just as well have been a filthy factory job—people often kept their work clothes at work and changed into them in the locker room and showered at the end of the day and changed back.
Boy, said Bert when the burgers came. I’m up for this—had a hell of a day!
Where do you work? said Lydia, the small blonde whore.
Snake raised a finger before Bert could open his mouth.
Bert’s ashamed of where he works—aren’t you Bert?
What? Snake, you don’t know that, said Bert, holding a burger before his face, dripping from the application of too much ketchup. There’s nothing I’m ashamed of.
So where do you work then, asked Marie, the buzz cut whore. She slowly stirred her coffee and peered at Bert as he said, Never mind—it’s not important.
Sure it is, said Tinah, as Snake also nodded, warming his hands around his cup of coffee. Where you work—what you do—well, that’s where you get your identity.
What? said Bert, eyebrows raised.
Right. It’s where you get your identity. I read that someplace.
Yeah Bert, said Snake—it’s your identity.
Here, said Bert, pulling out a cigarette from the breast pocket of his soiled white shirt. He waved it in the air.
Here’s my identity. In this.
He thrust it in his mouth as Snake pointed, laughing, chewing burger, speaking.
My Doctor says those are poison.
Oh, said Bert, lighting up—you mean the hash Doctor?
What’s a hash Doctor? asked Lydia. The three whores looked intently at Bert.
He blew a smoke ring out over them and they waved it away as he answered.
Snake’s dermatologist. He sells Snake hashish.
But why would he sell hash if he thought smoking was poison? said Lydia, her face screwed into a confused look mirrored in the faces of the other whores.
I don’t know. Ask Snake.
All eight eyes turned to Snake and the whores’ lips were pursed.
I don’t think he smokes anything, said Snake, putting down his burger. I think he just sells drugs to make money. He’s strict about not smoking. He told me I ought to throw all Bert’s cigarettes away.
He’s a damned hypocrite then, said Bert. He thinks its okay for people to smoke hash when he says at the same time smoking’s no good for you.
Yeah, said Lydia—he’s a hypocrite.
Yeah, chimed in Tinah and Marie.
They chewed and swallowed bites of their burgers and Lydia spoke to Snake.
You say he’s a dermatologist?
What kind of growths you got?
Everyone smiled. She looked at Snake eagerly, wanting to know.
I—I got blackheads. I always grow blackheads. He takes them out, but they always come back.
Where are the blackheads? she said—I don’t see any blackheads.
They’re in his God-damned ears, snickered Bert. Way up inside.
Wow, oozed Lydia. Does the Doctor go up in there and squeeze them out?
I’m eating, snapped Tinah.
Yeah I’m eating, said Marie. This is not a good topic.
Yeah, said Snake, pushing his empty plate to the side. My Doctor always says sleeping in the nude is bad too. He’s got a real thing about it.
How did that come up? said Bert. Between you and the Doctor it seems an odd thing to come up.
I told him you sleep in the nude, said Snake.
You sleep in the nude? said Tinah to Bert in a surprised voice, burger hung in her hand. I sleep in the nude, too, she said.
Yeah, me too, said Lydia.
And me, added Marie. Why is it bad to sleep in the nude? Do you sleep in the nude, Snake?
No I don’t.
I asked you why it was bad.
He says it’s dirty. He says if you sleep in the nude you should change your sheets every day. Of course, he also says you shouldn’t be sleeping in the nude in the first place.
Jesus Christ this is some weird doctor, said Lydia. I thought everybody slept in the nude.
No you don’t, said Tinah. You’ve heard of pajamas haven’t you? Why would there be pajamas if everybody slept in the nude?
To lounge around in, if the room’s a little cold, before bed.
You’re weird, said Marie.
No I’m not.
Cut it out, snapped Tinah.
The burgers were all gone. Out came the cigarettes. Bert had already lit one up. Tinah pulled out her Caballeros and Lydia produced a small hash pipe.
Hey, smiled Bert. Light that up quick. I could use a few hits. What you got?
They sat a while not talking, as the smoke formed a dome about them that dissipated outwards from the sidewalk burger joint. Soon the whole space was filled with hashish and tobacco smoke, mixing up with that of the other customers. It seemed to Snake like everybody smoked in this town. Everybody but him. He coughed lightly into his hand.
Hey—we’re all done eating, he said. Let’s go. You can smoke on the walk home. I’m choking.
Okay, said Tinah, as she also rose as Bert threw some bills on the table.
Yeah, said Bert as they walked out. And this is something for you, Tinah, he said, fishing in his pocket, producing a foil wrapped chunk of the Doctor’s best hashish and handing it to her. This is in return for the smoke just now, he said. This is the best Lebanese. Better than that black shit. That black shit just puts you to sleep.
Wow, she said. Thanks.
They went out into the street and Snake made them all invisible, even though they didn’t know it, and put on his x-ray eyes. The only thing that was visible about them was the smoke entering and leaving Bert’s and the whore’s bodies; and his was coming out in perfect circles; Bert did not even have to try, this happened naturally. The smoke drew down from the invisible cigarettes and the invisible hash pipe they were passing around and went down into the perfect shape of lungs and then came up and blew out; and this was a spectacle for all the passersby who seemed though to not take any notice; and Snake was dismayed because he had hoped to see Tinah, Marie, and Lydia naked with his x-ray eyes, but could not because they were invisible. All the other people passing by were in various conditions of nakedness and various states of attractiveness and ugliness, but none could possibly equal or surpass the beauty of the three whores accompanying him and Bert. The smoke rings followed them and the cloud drifted off above as they walked to the front door of the whorehouse. They stopped there and Snake turned off the invisibility, and the x-ray eyes, and Tinah spoke.
Well boys, lunch was great—hey how about now that we’re adequately buzzed, how about a little fun up in the house? It’ll be on us.
Marie put up her hand before Bert and Snake answered.
Leave me out, she said—it’s time of the month for me.
Tinah nodded, and said to Bert and Snake, Well boys, how about me and Bert, and Lydia and Snake?
Lydia came up beside Snake and took him by the arm and said Fun, honey; it’s time for some real fun—and Tinah and Bert and Marie disappeared up into the whorehouse front door and Lydia led Snake, who had no buzz on, sober as a judge, up into the front door also, and they went up the narrow staircase to a small room hung with red draperies and Lydia sat on the bed and patted it next to her but Snake just stood there. She began to strip but he stepped forward and put a hand on her arm, stopping her.
No, he said. I don’t want sex. I’m not in the mood. How about we just have a nice relaxing chat? I’m pretty pooped.
Okay, she said, buttoning back up—I’m not really in the mood either. Tinah said do it, and I do it. She’s the boss. But I’m glad you said that, because I’m just too buzzed out. I feel too crazy. Not horny. Crazy.
Yeah, he said, as he sank into an overstuffed chair up against the wall. I don’t feel crazy but I’m tired. I appreciate your understanding.
Hey, no problem, she said, leaning over on one hand. Say Snake. Let me ask you. How come you don’t smoke anything—nothing—no cigarettes, no hash, nothing? You’re pretty clean cut. What are you doing in this town? Few in this town are like you—at least of those I know. I don’t pretend to even come close to knowing everyone in town, but of those I do know, you’re the straightest.
I don’t know, said Snake—I guess I was just brought up that way.
His ears lightly itched inside and he rubbed his ear with a finger and thought of the doctor’s instrument in his ear squeezing, squeezing—it was like being violated in a way. He shook his head and brought down his hand.
It’ll be good when I get rid of the God-damned blackheads, he told Lydia. The Doctor gave me some pills.
Oh—it’s good to go to the Doctor—good to take care of your health, she said, tossing back her thick blonde hair and raising a finger. I have a confession though, I do.
What, said Snake.
I love pimples blackheads and growths on a man. I like to tongue them, squeeze them—you don’t really have to go to the Doctor, Snake. I would do your ears for you.
He bugged his eyes without knowing.
I don’t know if you could get up inside there, he said, hand gone to his stomach.
Oh yeah, I would. Be happy you have blackheads, Snake. They make you special.
She waggled her tongue at him narrow-eyed and smiled. Snake rose.
Well, I got to be going home Lydia, he said. Nice lunch.
Yeah, she oozed, then rose and came up and put a hand on Snakes shoulder, and lightly tongued his ear.
Good bye honey, she said. Then they kissed, and he left. This day being Saturday, he went home to where Bert sat in the living room watching an extremely violent old war movie on TV.
Bert—you’re back already.
Yep. Snake, I tell you. Tinah is hot and quick. We’re lucky to be pals with those girls.
Snake touched his ear.
She’s a cutie.
—I love pimples blackheads and growths on a man—
I know she is, said Snake. His hand came off his ear and his eyes off the TV, and he turned away and went upstairs to take a nap. The war movie played on without him.
Days passed, and little by little the pills did the job, and the blackheads diminished, and the itching became a thing of the past. Snake could scarcely remember how it had felt. The day of his next appointment with the Doctor came. As he was ushered into the examination room, he felt anxious to tell the Doctor the good news; and to congratulate him on his expertise. The fat white clad cat faced Doctor came in, smiling, and Snake shook his plump hand; it felt like squeezing a water balloon filled nearly to bursting. The hand withdrew and the Doctor spoke.
So, Snake. Here. Let me get a look at those ears.
Snake turned his head and the Doctor produced his ear examination scope and clicked the light on and peered inside.
Wow, said the Doctor in low tones—wow, it looks perfectly clear—let’s see the other.
The Doctor straightened and Snake turned his head and let the Doctor lean and peer in the other ear; for some reason Snake felt a sense of pride; he felt he had accomplished something profound; something unattainable had been reached. He felt the instrument moving in his ear and the Doctor spoke, peering.
There’s one in this side—way deep inside—a small one. I need to get it.
The instrument withdrew, and Snake’s heart sank, but he thought a positive thought—there’s just one blackhead, just this one. Usually there are dozens. He still felt good and maintained the good feeling as the Doctor did his magic, and probed and pressed the blackhead, and squeezed it out, and wiped it off onto a cloth lying on the examination table.
Well, the Doctor said—that’s it. You’re quiet Snake—you seem stunned.
I am, said Snake. It’s great news. These are great pills.
That’s great—you should keep on taking the pills—one a day. Your ears are clear—you’re cured of this problem. The medicine can be taken every day—it’s a natural product, over the counter. No prescription needed. Here.
The Doctor pulled up a small pad of paper and wrote the name of the medication down and handed it to Snake.
Here, he said—just show that to the pharmacist. They will help you find it. It’ll be in the vitamin and supplements section. Okay?
Okay, said Snake, sliding the paper into his breast pocket.
So, said the Doctor with an air of finality—any other bumps, lumps, growths or the like for me to look at? Is that it?
No, nothing else, said Snake. As he slid off the edge of the examining table and stood, the Doctor said, That’s it, then—you’re in good shape. Don’t hesitate to call if you need me again.
The Doctor said Goodbye, turned to the door, grasped the knob, and began to leave.
Say Doctor—wait one minute, said Snake.
What? said the Doctor, turning.
The hashish, said Snake, pulling out his wallet. Do you have the hashish?
Hashish? Oh, that’s over now Snake. You’re no longer a patient of mine.
What do you mean?
I mean I only sell to patients. You’re cured now. Our professional relationship is over.
But I—I thought we could keep on, I thought—
No, said the Doctor, who then turned away and went out the door and disappeared down the hall. Snake stood there. The air around him pressed tight on him and it sucked the mood he had been in out of him. Then the air expanded and he was no longer in the examining room but at home facing Bert, with something to tell him. His mouth opened and it came out.
There is no more half price hashish, Bert.
There is no more—
Snake’s hands came to his face; he thought no, no, he could not say this to Bert—he could not say this to Bert today. Maybe tomorrow he would tell Bert, he thought, as he made his way out of the Doctor’s office and toward his car. Bert would be angry. Snake’s clear itch-free ears told him and reminded him all the way out of the parking lot that Bert would be angry. Today or tomorrow, it didn’t matter. Then it hit him, in the sights of the buildings flowing by, and the street rolling under him on the way to the greasy spoon; he would skip work. He would go down to the Square, where all the students hung out. He gripped the wheel. He would get Bert hashish. It would not be cheap as the Doctor’s had been, but he would pay the difference. It would buy him a month to break the real truth to Bert. It would be worth it, plus he had the money, and it seemed he breathed again for the first time since the Doctor told him.
Snake had bought hash at the square before, and knew the ropes of how to act and what to say, and he made a deal with a clean but ragged couple with filthy backpacks, who, like most who dealt with the college students at the square, leaned against the huge central column easily, as if coolly waiting for prey. After the deal Snake went to the greasy spoon and worked part of his shift and then at last after that he stood in his kitchen, a gleaming silver wrapped slab of hashish lying on the table before him, looking just like one from the Doctor, for Bert. The Doctor disappeared into the past, mists swirling about him, the dealers and driving and greasy spoon meals he had served out today faded, and the flash of the afternoon hit him hard and he sank into the kitchen chair, to wait for Bert, exhausted by it all. He dozed fitfully in the straight-backed chair until the door behind him opened and a hand came on his arm.
Wow Snake—you got a lot this time, said Bert, coming around the table, looking. What—is the Doctor holding a sale?
I guess. I suppose.
Heh, snickered Bert. For dinner they had some leftovers from yesterday and Snake felt content. After dinner Bert picked up the hash and went up to his room. He would save the hash for late tonight, as was his habit, and maybe go for a midnight bike ride after he was good and buzzed. Bert was happy with the purchase and Snake had avoided a problem or at least put it off for a while. They watched TV for a couple of hours, before Snake rose, stretched, and told Bert he had had a rough day and was going early to bed. It was quarter to ten and after entering the room he pulled down the shades turning the room pitch black. In bed, it felt great. The itching was gone; it would not keep him up; it was a blessing the blackheads were gone. The dark draped over him like silken sheets and he melted into the folds fast asleep and began to dream. All was peaceful, until downstairs, Bert unwrapped the hashish, took a sniff, crumbled it off, and looked at it lying in his palm; fake, he thought.
Damned Snake—need to go wake Snake—
He rose and headed with growing rage toward the stairs leading up to the bedroom, where Snake lay dreaming in the pitch black about being with his friend Lydia out in the open under a great harvest moon. Lydia was sighing about her love of pimples, blackheads, and growths on a man, over and over, and her hands sought all over his body to find some, and just as she found one, she squeezed, and turned and kissed him; the kind of kiss you only see on TV, in the movies, or in books about space or the universe, or, about the first great big bang that started it all; incredibly, in the midst of that chaos everything shouted Snake!
Real life again.
I want to catch up to my shadow and walk over it and be in front of it. I want it following me instead of me following it.
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