The phone rang again, and I ignored it again. She was undressing in the hallway, in front of a flock of admirers. Not assembled for her specifically; just men who happened to be here already, pupils dilated, sweat running down their necks…

How easy to gather admirers at a place like this. Anything even vaguely erotic! A semblance of lust directed at a semblance of beauty. In this case: a slightly over-the-hill blonde with died roots, whose curves were giving over into rolls, but hadn’t quite destroyed all remnants of her figure yet. Why not lust after her? There were worse ways to spend a night. I’d spent them.

But I had now the unenviable task of corralling them all into the back rooms…the booths, the “cinema,” the bathrooms…maybe eight men, this “blonde,” and what seemed to be a friend of hers; a hefty brunette with a thick Polish accent and enormous breasts. And she’d worn the kind of top that existed entirely to draw attention to her…assets. The kind of woman my grandfather would have called bosomy in his own broken Polish accent, grinning and coughing as he said it. It was a word that always unleashed a cascade of playful facial expressions. Of course, he never would have followed such a woman into the back of an “adult bookstore,” except maybe in his mind. It was that kind of class that he’d handed down to me and which, I assumed, was responsible for my many glorious successes…

I calmly indicated the appropriate place for their activities, smiling and gesturing to emphasize the necessity of moving in the stated direction. But then the phone rang again, and my self-control evaporated.




“Do you still not recognize my voice?” asked a bland, unrecognizable female voice. And this is how I knew it was my boss’s wife.

“Yes, Ewa…how can I help?”

“I was driving past the store a few minutes ago. I pulled over to make this call. But I saw a man trying to change a tire in our parking lot. Would you go out and see if he is still there?”

“Sure, no problem. Just give me one minute. I’m dealing with…a customer.”

“A customer? Kacper, I hope there’s nothing…going on in there again? I have made myself clear on this, have I not?”

She had. But then her husband had made himself clearer still. And he signed my paychecks.

“Just a customer who has a few questions. I’ll go check in a few minutes.”

“See that you do. And if he needs a tow, let him use the store phone. We’ll be in to close. Goodnight, Kacper.”

Let him use our store phone. This was just the sort of archaism I expected from Ewa.

I finished playing sheep dog, and it was just in time. One man was already reemerging with regret painted onto his face. Eyes down, as if our carpet were a point of interest for which he’d driven many miles; hands together, jacket already on, he walked slowly toward the door, hoping not to be noticed. I turned away, with mercy in my heart.

When I’d made sure to close the rutting troupe into their hole, I got my coat and went out into the frigid Wisconsin night. There he was, as Ewa had said: trying desperately to change a tire, failing miserably, and slipping and sliding around the ice rink that was our parking lot, as if hoping his hopeless pantomime might bring him aid.

“How you doing there?” I asked, as loudly but as affably as I could, so that my voice wouldn’t be swallowed up by the noise of the interstate. He turned to me, and I could see that it wasn’t the ice alone that had thwarted him—he was stone drunk: eyes bloodshot, hair sweaty, walk unsteady. Enormous Cro-Magnon eyebrow ridge at the edge of a half-bald and enormous crest of skull, he went from wide open eyes to a squint, then back again, uncomfortably, as if trying to adjust to the bright summer sun.

“It’s been 20 years since I changed a tire.” And he shrugged with some exaggeration, hoping to convince me.

“Let me see if I can help.”

He showed me the tools, reluctantly, and how he’d wedged the jack onto the edge of the wheel well, barely touching the frame. And he pointed at all manner of things, most of them imaginary.

But as I was digging in the trunk for a towel or something to wipe my hands on, I noticed that the spare was completely deflated.

“You have a donut?”


“Spare’s flat, too.”

He took off his hat so he could scratch his head, scratched it, and then shrugged at me dramatically. “I’d better call for a tow.”

“Need to use the store phone? No problem.” I did as I was commanded.

“No, I have a cell. But…well, could I come in and warm up? My fingers are going numb.”

I showed him the way, not sure whether to warn him about the strange menagerie currently occupying the back of the store. But I decided against it and showed him into the office, which connected only to the main room of the store.

“Have a seat, take off your coat. We don’t close for hours.”

He thanked me while trying to keep a burp from emerging from his half-closed lips. I hoped that he wouldn’t need to use the bathroom…

A young couple came in, giggling, and continued to giggle for ten minutes in order to conceal their lack of comfort from one another. One of the older men came back from the “cinema” and took up browsing the movies where he’d left off, eventually buying a few magazines and an enormous dildo. He raised his shoulders cartoonishly and smiled a toothy grin when I rang it up.

I put on a Thin Lizzy record and settled in for the after-midnight nuts. They’d start filtering in like clockwork; some of them drunk, a few high; most of them solitary, strange, compulsive, seeking out their own particular treasures. Usually I could spot the truckers; they had a kind of unsteady walk that I imagined came from driving day after day, stuck in that position, posture wrecked, curled up and hunched over the wheel…

And so, glancing at the usual patrons, listening for trouble from the back, and enjoying my music and, intermittently, my book, the night soon became indistinguishable from any other Thursday night. I had more or less forgotten about the tire-less drunk, assuming, indeed that he’d fallen asleep in the desk chair, when suddenly, a number of things required my attention all at once: first, some sort of melee spilled back into the store from the “cinema,” complete with what seemed to be a heated debate about the honor of the bosomy Polack; next, a customer tried to hide a few magazines under his coat, glancing around, already in a panic, probably regretting his cheek…and then the hapless rider stumbled out from the office and made a beeline toward the back bathrooms, pointing at his crotch by way of explanation when I caught his eye (a gesture which, here in our blissful little republic, wasn’t quite as definitive as it might have been in a restaurant or a library).

My first instinct was to stop him from going back there. But why? And more to the point: how? There was no other bathroom. And then I realized that my responsibility was to stop the thief, which I did, with an alacrity that surprised me as much as it seemed to surprise him. I got the merchandise away from him and slapped him a few times, but then he began to cry. I don’t know if it was from embarrassment or the slaps, but either way I felt so embarrassed for him that I shook my head and gestured toward the door, letting him understand that he was free to go. He opened his mouth to speak, but then, without closing it, walked rapidly for the exit.

By then, the brawl had intensified. The Polack was striking out wildly with her fat, floppy arms, while her chivalrous new friend attempted to punish what, I had to assume, was the aggressor. But as I walked toward them, everything flipped: she became enraged at her defender and seemed desirous that the other teach him a lesson. She even said this, or yelled it, I ought to say, in a kind of operatic vibrato that hurt my ears.

“Teach him a lesson! Tear him down!”

So much for chivalry. By now, her protector realized the metamorphosis that was afoot, and seemed to be calculating his next move, as the shock mounted and then drained from his face…

“Hit him! Or are you just as big a sissy as he is? What kind of men are these?” And the decibel of her voice diminished as her own insight sunk in.

What kind of men did you expect? I thought to myself, dreamily, but then, as it were, waking back up to the reality of the situation, I demanded that they stop.

“You’ll have to leave if you don’t calm down,” I said. It was a reasonable request, I thought. After all, the code of behavior here was as lenient as just about any place on Earth. We asked the bare minimum. They both seemed for a moment to settle down, the tension in their shoulders diminished and they remained silent. But then, just as abruptly, the truce was broken.

She had backed the wrong horse. The chivalrous gentleman, red of face, and plump of middle though he was, suddenly struck the other man across the face—hard. He leaned in and cracked him in the temple. But he seemed to catch the edge of the other man’s cheekbone as well, and withdrew his hand in obvious pain, shaking it and rubbing his knuckles instinctively. By now the other had gathered himself and prepared to counterattack.

What was my responsibility here? As I contemplated this and other weighty questions, the fight continued, the two overweight middle-aged men sprawling around between the “Ebony” videos and the buttplugs. But it didn’t last long. Within maybe half a minute, they were both drained and completely out of breath. They both took two more ineffectual shots, but so lightly by then that neither could have done any real damage. And then they leaned up against the wall, panting, next to the hallway, by the entrance to the bathrooms.

By then, the tire-less Cro-Magnon man had returned; still drunk, amazingly, and with an even more enormous dome than I had realized in the darkness of the parking lot. Under the fluorescent lights, he seemed an actual monster of the night. Another Slav, clearly (they all were down here, as was I, along with some Germans and a few Nords, of course, but they mostly lived in the suburbs on the other side of the city). He smiled as he watched the pugilists, who by then were starting to laugh. The object of their struggle was, if anything, even more irate, now that they seemed to be on the verge of making up, wondering if anyone would carry her banner. Though, of course, she had played a not insignificant part in this outcome, it seemed to me.

The larger of the two took out a flask, wiped off the spout, and offered it to his antagonist, who, looking much relieved and very thirsty, shook his head in approval, smiled an enormous and genuine smile, and thanked him audibly. The Polack was beside herself at this point, and she turned, huffed and rearranged her bustline, presenting it to Cro-Mag, with something like a smile. He smiled back, raised an enormous hairy eyebrow at her, but then turned toward the flask with an even deeper longing. And the men, by now slapping each other on the back and making sly jokes at the Polack’s expense, realizing that he too looked to be a thirsty man, offered him a belt. Relieved, grateful, he pushed apologetically past the object of his lust and took the flask between his enormous fingers, thanking its owner profusely. And then, being unsure which of the two had actually produced the flask, he made sure to thank the other with every bit as sincere a blessing.

Red in the face, outraged, she was also—and reasonably, it must be admitted—very thirsty from all the commotion. So that eventually she managed to shrug off the indignity of the foregoing fracas and cozy back up to the men, who were only too glad to welcome her back! And so, passing the flask around and laughing, they disappeared back into the “cinema.” And why not? It was only one in the morning!

After that, things settled down, and I managed to read a few chapters of my book, sell a few movies, another dildo, and a cock-cage before it came time to begin closing up. I got my mop, steeled myself for the cleanup that lay before me, thanked the gods for the low lighting of the bathrooms and “cinema,” and filled my bucket at the big sink at the end of the hallway.

The tire-less gentleman wandered back out, found me, and asked if the tow had shown up yet.

“Not yet, no. When did they say they’d be here?”

“Not for hours, they said. But I just wanted to be…safe.” And he hiccupped and tried, comically, to cover his mouth well after the fact.

“My new friends are getting ready to go. So…I guess the driver will have to drop me off somewhere.”

“Where do you live? Is it by the garage?”

“Not really. But it’s not far from here. South Milwaukee, by Grant Park.”

“I can take you,” I said, shrugging, as I turned off the faucet and plopped the bucket wetly onto the floor, adding more soap and stirring it with the mop handle.

“No…I can’t…”

“It’s fine, really. It’s on my way,” I lied, to save him any guilt feelings. What did it matter to me? I didn’t sleep until close to dawn in any case, and from Grant Park it was only a few minutes to 794, the bridge, and my apartment. “Meantime, you can wait in the office again, if you want.”

He thanked me profusely, yawned, and wandered unsteadily back through the office door. I wrung out the mop and moved off toward the disaster area that was our back room. The night’s gathering was indeed breaking up, with most of the congregation outfitted again in street clothes, coats, hats, and gloves, saying final parting words as they let go of the strange things they’d just done and prepared to return home.

Only two stragglers remained in the corner: two old men, finishing up on their own, eyes glued to the Polack’s bosom, hands jerking wildly on their limp members. She was already wearing her hat and coat, but she refrained from buttoning it, kindly allowing her admirers to ogle her for a few minutes more as they savaged their shriveled old organs, pursuing a joy that lay now decidedly out of their grasp.

At which I heard the bell from the front and Ewa’s unmistakable voice.

“Look, that’s the owner,” I informed everyone, flicking on the brighter overhead lights at the back of the “cinema.” “We have to close in five minutes. You’re going to have to go.”

“You heard the man,” cackled the Polack, as she buttoned her coat. And she patted them both on their heads, and caressed one comb-over and one gray head, genuinely sorry for them and their inability to finish…soon the desire itself would start to fade, I thought, mopping rapidly. And this would be a kind of gift to them. But for now…they were caught between a young man’s desire and an old’s man’s frailty.

As the patrons left, I wandered out with them to deal with my bosses.

“Almost ready to close?” Mr. Brzezinski asked, with his customary smile.

I handed him the night’s take and receipts and told him that everything had gone alright: “A normal weekday. Nothing special.” And then I added, as surreptitiously as I could: “just mopping the back a bit.”

And immediately Ewa’s eyebrow raised, and she turned to face her husband. But he raised his hand with it, preempting her tedious inquiries, knowing from long experience exactly where they would lead.

“Someone spilled some soda,” I said, hoping to help him. And he raised an eyebrow to me and grinned, receiving the same indication in return, as soon as Ewa had looked away. What kind of store did she think they were running? Luckily, Mr. Brzezinski knew exactly what kind of store it was and gave me immense latitude in my dealings with the customers.

“Don’t drive them away,” he’d said to me on my first day, through his inordinately thick accent, “but don’t get us arrested either. Anything in that range is fine with me. I won’t get in your way.” And he was as good as his word.

“And by the way, boychik, who is that sleeping in my office?”

The Cro-Magnon drunk! He of the flat tires! I’d forgotten to warn them. Ewa was shaking her head (though she, of course, was the one who’d told me to take care of the man!), buttoning her coat, giving her husband to understand that she’d had enough for the night, and that she’d like to go immediately. He just looked quizzically at me as I explained, and smiled when I said I was going to take the man home after his tow arrived.

“That’s nice,” said Mr. Brzezinski, and he put his hat back on, pressed the small of his wife’s back, and guided her out of the store. “Your tow is here,” he said as he disappeared into the night.

I went outside, pointed to the car, and got the technician started, then went back inside to finish mopping, turn off the lights, and shut down the computer.

And there he was: passed out in the office chair, snoring lightly. He made the chair look like a doll’s toy, and I was frankly amazed that he could sit in there without breaking it. He hung off the side while somehow still filling out the entire seat, back, and headrest. But he slept so peacefully there…curled up like a cat, hands under his cheek, legs tucked in beneath the seat edge…and he wore a child’s smile as well, as innocent as it was perverse. His drunken breath wafted through the place, and the sweaty crests of hair were, by then, plastered across the lower curves of his enormous skull in an irregular pattern, like a dying sunflower, open but drooping…

I let him sleep while I finished closing up. But by the time the tow truck was ready to leave, he’d woken up and was standing outside, chatting with the driver. I killed the lights, put on my coat, and joined them in the parking lot.

And when it was all done, and the truck had left with his dilapidated old Toyota, I drove him through the icy Milwaukee night while he told me all about “what a fantastic time” he’d had, giggling, still half drunk, like a little kid being taken out to dinner after dark for the first time.

“It was some kind of luck to break down at a place like that…well, you know what I mean!” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

The idea that working there night after night might rub some of the fuzz off the peach seemed never to have occurred to him. But I let him enjoy his fantasy, giving him a knowing grin and raising my eyebrow lasciviously, as if to share in the fun.

“Yes, sometimes you luck out. Not often…but now and then.”

And he seemed taken over by a half-melancholic revelry, and a kind of wistful silence enveloped us both as I drove carefully through the snowy night, heading toward the lake edge of South Milwaukee, past the half-abandoned factories and shipping hubs, past the enormous chain-link fences and the parked semis in the decaying American Midwest.