Herbert Barton sat on the edge of the dirty bed, rubbing his thinning scalp. “It’s just not the same, I don’t think,” he said to himself.
“What’s different this time?” The young woman’s voice betrayed that she wasn’t invested in his answer. Her heavy, round hips jutted as she bent to touch up her lips in the vanity mirror.
He glanced up, surprised that there was someone else there. He shouldn’t have been: he’d been rolling around with her in increasingly unlikely positions for the past hour. Her dismay was to be expected, as his third visit to her hadn’t gone any better than the previous two. It was always more ideas, more requests, more challenges, but this beleaguered and unimaginative girl just couldn’t break through that impenetrable… that intangible…
Light glowed through her window, light from a full moon and from the part of the city that didn’t shut off its power late at night. Colored lights flashed on her ceiling; a pale blue square slipped off her pillow. Herbert slumped, stick-like legs jutting from striped boxers, sock garters wrapped around his slight calves, the shade of a paunch filling out his white sleeveless undershirt. For all the world he looked like a Norman Rockwell portrait, as out of place in this time as his fantasies were in this reality. The corners of his mouth tugged down as he formed his thoughts.
The prostitute climbed past him and piled up pillows to wedge herself into the corner. She must be frustrated with him, he realized: three visits of his bizarre requests, always resulting in disappointment with this miserable little man. His comment hadn’t been to her but she was there so he had to answer. “Maybe it’s not the shoes,” he started, but she cut him off.
“Look, mister, we’ve tried bare feet. We’ve tried black sheer stockings and wool leggings. We’ve tried tube socks and short tennis socks with those li’l fuckin’ pompons in the back.” She stared at him in the shadows, her face momentarily lit up with the crackling cigarette she pulled on. The way her eyes glowed was unpleasant.
His head hung on his neck as he looked over at her. “I know, yes, I know. Thank you so much for your patience… but what if—”
“We’ve tried lying down together,” she continued, louder. “I laid on top of you and bounced. I sat on your chest and bounced. I stood on your chest until I thought I was going to cave you in. I stood on you in the bed and on the floor. I’ve balanced on one goddamn foot, right on your face. I wrapped you up in a rug and stomped the shit out of you from head to toe for twenty minutes! Mister, we’ve tried everything.”
“Right, but what if this time—”
“And I’m not your first in this goddamn house, neither. You’ve gone through everyone like a box of tissues: thin girls, fat girls, tall girls, short girls, young and old women.” Her face flared in the ember of another drag. “Sometimes in twos, threes, and fours. I was the only chick in this place you hadn’t tried, because I started last month. And you know what?” She struggled to sit up on the badly abused mattress. “I’ve already got two other regulars, and they can’t get enough of me. You know that? They actually like me, can’t get enough. You,” she said, jabbing her cigarette at him, “you’re the only one I got a problem with. You make me feel bad about myself, like I’m doing something wrong.”
His heart dropped into his stomach. When he tried to speak, she stretched one thick leg out and shoved his jaw aside with her platform boot. “I’m good at what I do, mister. I fucking love it, and those two guys are so excited to see me each time. Leave with big happy grins on their faces. But you”—she kicked his shoulder—“make me feel… incompetent. Like I’m a fucking newbie or something. I’ve tried really hard to do everything you asked, but after three weeks of this shit, I have no idea what it is you want.” Her cigarette crackled again. “And I’m starting to think you don’t either.”
Herbert tried to apologize, but the big girl only told him to pick up his clothes and get the hell out. He fumbled for his pants, fumbled to find the belt in the waist, started to pull them on but she stung him between the shoulder blades with her butt. He clutched at his clothes on the floor and scuttled out into the hallway to get dressed. A heavy-set woman in a kimono passed him, smirking, followed by one of his state representatives, trying to hide his face.
Downstairs, the Madame grinned with her whole face at him. “How was it this time, Mr. Barton? I trust we were able to make your dreams come true this time.” Ringlets of black acrylic hair hung over her shoulders in the red China doll dress.
He sat in front of her desk, lips pursed, and slid three folded $100 bills across her desk. “She’s very beautiful, it’s not her fault at all,” he said urgently.
The older woman chewed the corner of her mouth and regarded him. “Mr. Barton has very specific tastes. This is the stomping thing, yes?”
He winced as though someone had swung at him, then looked around the foyer. “It’s not just stomping, see,” he said, stammering. “It’s more like… I want more, but not just someone who’s tall or heavy-set or…” He gestured vaguely in warm air heavy with incense.
“Claudia had long feet,” the Madame mused, referring to an earlier visit.
“Oh yes, the longest I’ve ever seen. I don’t know where you found her. But it’s not just long feet, per se…” He squinted toward the ceiling. “It’s like being heavier, everywhere, all at once. Maybe that’s large feet, but also large hands, long legs… but heavier. Everywhere, everything, all at once.” He grimaced and massaged his temples. “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry to keep bothering you like this. I’m upsetting your girls, and there’s nothing wrong with them…”
The Madame simpered. “You have a kind heart, Mr. Barton. And you pay very well, we have no complaints.”
“Maybe that girl was right. Maybe I don’t know what I want. It doesn’t sound like it, does it? All this big and heavy and I-don’t-know-what. Maybe what I want doesn’t… even exist.” Herbert’s arms hung at his sides, and the spirit went out of his spine, accentuating the cheapness of his suit.
The Madame wrapped her hands around her elbows, long nails clacking like talons. “This thing you want… I am concerned, Mr. Barton. You have sampled each of my women here. You have taken your time and, by all reports, been very patient and clear in your instructions. Yet it seems as though your goal is fading into the distance.” She shook her head and pinched her wrinkled lips. “I feel much regret that we haven’t been able to satisfy one of our most loyal and generous clients.”
It was too much for Herbert to think he’d disappointed two women in the same night. “Oh, no, no! Really, you’ve been amazing, I promise. You’ve gone so far out of your way. Believe me, deeply, I know how you’ve done everything you can for me, and more.” His laughter, meant to placade, came out as a weak cough.
“This is true,” she said, gazing at him intently. “We have done everything we possibly could for you. Mr. Barton, but your requirements seem to go beyond our sphere of influence.” When he tried to speak, she cut the air with the side of her hand. “Now I think it is time for you to move on… I can see by your face you misunderstand. Pardon me while I find the words. I mean that it is time for someone else to… it’s time for you to try someone else. If I may make a recommendation?” With a flick, she produced a cream-colored rectangle between her knobby fingers. “The big guns, I believe is your expression.”
A wild hope rushed through Herbert like a gust of cool air in a hot, stifling room. He reached for the card, but the Madame jerked it away. “I must advise you, Mr. Barton, that this is a very serious commitment. I do not make this recommendation lightly.” She leaned toward him. “Once you accept this, if you accept it, you cannot back out of it. You must see it through to completion. Do you understand?”
The little man felt a twinge of a reflex to hold himself back. “What does that mean? Are they going to hunt me down or something?” His joke fell flat; the Madame stood like a statue behind her desk, holding the card beside her stern expression. “There is a tremendous cost to be paid,” she said slowly, “but if I have any guess as to what it is you seek, you will most likely find it here.”
“Oh, I’ll pay anything!” Herbert nearly laughed in her face, dizzy with relief and hope.
The woman only murmured a tremendous cost, but placed the card face-down upon the desk with a meaningful thud, slid it toward him with much drama. He placed his fingertips upon the card to take it, but her fingers remained fixed. He looked up at her, and her dark eyes glittered with an uncanny energy for a moment before she withdrew her hand. He tried to thank her, but conversation was over: she pointed her sharp chin at the door.
Slowly he rose from his seat, watching her. Her entire body seemed tuned out to his existence. “Well, that’s that, I guess,” he murmured, pocketing the card. He turned up his collar and went outside into the cold dead of night to look for a cab.
His head raced, as he rode along in the back seat. The gravity with which the Madame impressed him gave this little business card tremendous emotional cachet, bordering on the mystical. His hand drifted to his jacket’s breast pocket, pressing it against his pounding heart. He glanced at the driver’s rear-view mirror, but the portly man couldn’t be bothered with him, not at this time of night. Herbert paid for the ride, tipped well (without acknowledgment), and walked the last block up to his apartment. His hand remained clamped to his chest, protecting the little card from errant breezes; his head shot left and right, looking out for bad agents in every alley, desperate people who could sense that he was in possession of something impossibly valuable. The full moon, bright and unimpeded by clouds, shone around him like a spotlight, leaving him vulnerable to any unseen attacker. Blood pounded in his neck and down his arms: if he had to, Herbert felt he could deliver one good shot to let anyone know he was not one to be tangled with. Perhaps a punch to the neck, stun the trachea, block off their air for the crucial seconds it would take to flee to his apartment.
Before he knew it, however, he was inside his own space, behind the locked doors of the building and the deadbolt of his apartment. As safe as he could possibly be, given the environment; he closed the windows and latched them shut, the ones that would be latched. Only then did he dare to take the card out and examine it. Floorboards creaked beneath his feet, and the full moon beamed into his living room, glaring upon the carpet, his shoes, his slacks. He looked around the too-empty room and threw himself into a large chair, salvaged and reupholstered. He had money to throw at prostitutes all year long, in the pursuit of his particular fantasy, but a new chair for himself was just too much of a luxury, a waste, one more obstacle on the way to his dream.
The card was stiff and impressively thick between his fingertips. His slim cold fingers pulled it smoothly from the interior pocket, and its pristine blankness glowed up at him. He drew a long, shaky breath and sat there for another moment. Light late-night traffic purred in the distance, and the vintage apartment building was uncharacteristically quiet in the wee hours, leaving plenty of aural space for his pulse to pound in his ears.
Slowly, torn between wariness and intense hunger, Herbert turned the card over.