Read Lizards: Short Story Online
Authors: Barbara Gowdy
he music—The Pointer Sisters singing “I’m So Excited”—is way too loud. Some of the women are covering their ears. Hot Rod doesn’t care. He struts around mouthing the words. He has disastrous teeth, crooked and bucked, and there’s a gap on the upper left side where at least two are missing. Every time he reaches the end of the runway he flicks his tongue in and out and flutters his black cape to offer a glimpse of his long, pale penis. Emma is beginning to wonder if this is all he’s going to do when he raises his arms and starts pumping his hips. His penis flaps around like a noodle. Women scream.
Not Emma. And not Marion, who can’t seem to see past his acne. “It’s all over his bum!” she shouts in Emma’s ear when Hot Rod turns to face the wall.
“Watch out,” Emma says. Hot Rod has suddenly leapt off the stage and is dancing in their direction. But it’s the woman sitting on Emma’s other side that he targets. Two inches from the woman’s face he resumes pumping.
“The ones on his neck look like shingles,” Marion says to Emma. She leans across the table to get a better look. “I guess you get what you pay for,” she says, referring to no cover charge.
“That’s debatable,” Emma says. She is referring to what Hot Rod has just said to the woman. She tells Marion: “He said, ‘For ten bucks, I’ll stick it in your drink.’ “
Marion slaps a hand over her wine glass.
That was also the other woman’s reaction. The woman is
about Emma’s age, thirty. She keeps shaking her head until, as if out of revenge, or conceit, Hot Rod wraps it in his cape. The woman’s shriek is muffled. Hot Rod opens his arms, triumphant, then commences a frenzied, complicated flourishing of his cape as he backs up the three stairs and onto the stage. Under the fixed spotlight he turns away from the audience, lifts his arms and begins pumping his hips again. Faster, faster.
The music stops. Not the way it’s supposed to but as if the needle jumped off the record. Hot Rod freezes, legs bent, groin thrust forward. A good thirty seconds go by and then the spotlight dims. Hot Rod still doesn’t move. Women begin giggling and exchanging looks of uncertain hilarity, and Marion elbows Emma, but Emma is thinking that from the back and in this light, he’s not bad … great shoulders, nice tight ass, long thighs …
The spotlight and the house lights come back on, and Hal, who owns the bar, yells, “Let’s hear it! Hot Rod Reynolds, ladies!” Hot Rod leaps back around to reveal the semi-erection he managed while frozen, just a flash of it, then he hangs the cape over one arm like a toreador and strides offstage.
“Show him you love him, ladies!”
Generous applause, a few whistles. Even the woman who had her head wrapped applauds. (People in this town are so polite! When Emma and her husband, Gerry, moved out here from the city they had to learn that a stranger waving at you as you drove by wasn’t waving you
What’s going on now is more than good manners, though, as Emma realizes. It’s that the women
to clap, they want to have fun tonight, “Ladies Night,” Hal has called it, substituting the Bear Pit’s usual topless waitresses for what he says are Miami Beach boys. He says it now, trying to milk the applause. “All the way from Miami Beach, Florida!”
Marion crouches over her drink and says in her thrilled way
that Craig, her new boyfriend, is going to kill her. She has a lovely, kind face and a grandmotherly manner that gives the pet store she manages a homey, animal-shelter atmosphere. What initially attracted Emma to her were her breathless accounts of horrific pet deaths. A border collie puppy goes missing when the hay is being cut and baled; months later, the farmer is breaking open one of the bales and out tumbles the dog’s rotting, mangled head. A budgie is flying around the kitchen and lands on the hot wood stove, where, instantly, its feet melt like wax and its twig legs ignite and burn down to ash.
“I mean,” Marion says now, “I thought there’d be, you know, whatchamacallit, jock straps.” She extracts an embroidered handkerchief from her sleeve and blows her nose. “Why didn’t you warn me?”
“I didn’t know,” Emma says. “The only other time I’ve seen guys doing this they wore G-strings.”
That was seven years ago. On the same night Emma also saw female table dancers for the first and only time. She suspected that she was pregnant but hadn’t had the test yet and hadn’t told anyone, so she was still drinking, sharing a carafe of wine with Gerry on the patio of a downtown restaurant, right across the street from a new bar with a neon “25 Girls 25” sign. Gerry had heard about the bar from some guys in his office, and he said she wouldn’t be able to take it, but she said she was going over whether he did or not.
It was like underwater in there, a murky pond. Dark, smoky. Quiet, since it was between stage acts. All around the room, like seaweed in the current, slender, naked women stood on little round tables and slowly writhed for men who sat right underneath them and looked up. The men hardly spoke or even moved except to reach for their drinks or their cigarettes.
As if nobody could see her (and nobody seemed to), Emma twisted in her chair and stared, while Gerry tried to get the attention of a waitress wearing a tight T-shirt that said “Better A Blow Job Than No Job.” Emma asked him if he wanted to hire a dancer for their table.
“Is this some kind of test?” he said. He took a quick glance around. “You’re the only woman in here who’s not a dancer or a waitress,” he said.
“I don’t care.”
He smiled at her and shook his head. She squeezed his leg. She was getting excited, not by the women’s bodies (they aroused in her nothing but a resolve to lose weight), and not by what some of the women might be feeling. It was the men who were turning her on, what
were feeling. “Feasting their eyes,” she thought, although they didn’t seem to be getting any pleasure out of it. They were almost grim, in fact. It was as if they had finally got down to the true, blunt business of their lives. “Are there male table dancers?” she asked.
“Not that I know of,” Gerry said. “Just strippers.”
“I wonder if there are any of those clubs around here.”
“Let’s go to one.”
“Why not?” She pushed the palm of her hand against his crotch. “Hey,” she said, smiling. He was hard.
He smiled back but picked up her hand and returned it to her lap. “What’d you expect?” he said.
“Sweetie,” she crooned, nuzzling his shoulder. He was still lean and ambitious then, in his stockbroker pinstripe suits. He still had an expectant look in his eyes. She is nostalgic for his eyes. She told her mother recently, and her mother said, “There was something lifeless about them, though. When he used to blink, I swear I could hear his lids click.”
What Gerry would have said about his eyes was, “I was in paradise.”
Any mention of his old self and he’ll claim to have been in a state of ecstasy then, before the accident. “The accident” is how he always refers to it, which strikes an odd note with Emma.
accident. She has noticed that he uses the definite article in a couple of other questionable places, for instance in reference to their marriage.
marriage,” he says. Also,
weight,” “when I lose
weight,” as if she and obesity were two more bolts out of the blue.
When the waitress finally came over, Emma found out from her that there was a male strip club just two blocks away. The waitress took their orders but then disappeared for so long that Gerry said, “Let’s get out of here,” although a statuesque black dancer in horn-rimmed glasses was ascending the stairs to the stage.
Emma held back. “Oh, come on,” she said. “This should be good.”
“I can’t watch with you right beside me,” Gerry said, pushing his chair back.
“Why not? It doesn’t bother me.”
“But I wouldn’t even come here by myself,” Gerry said. He sounded unhappy.
So they left, but she steered him down the street to the male strip club. “You know, watching isn’t fucking,” she told him as they were going inside. “Dancing isn’t fucking either.”
“Right,” he said. “And fantasizing isn’t fucking. Foreplay certainly isn’t fucking.” He sounded as if he couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.
The place was packed. Mostly women, but there were a few men. Emma and Gerry sat with four flashy black women at a table near the exit. The women were all using identical silvery cigarette holders, which they gripped in their teeth to free up their hands for clapping to the music—the theme song from “Quick Draw McGraw,” Emma realized after a minute. On the stage, two men wearing cowboy hats, chaps, spurred boots and
leather-fringed G-strings twirled lassoes and rode phantom bucking broncos and slapped their own asses.
“Gay,” Gerry said in Emma’s ear. He looked gratified.
Emma shrugged—maybe. That wasn’t it, though. The fact that the dancers seemed gay wasn’t why there was nothing erotic going on here. She folded her arms, disappointed. She tried to lose herself in the dancers’ bodies, but their outfits distracted her. She could feel her whole self folding in, retreating from the light and noise, the idiotic music, the laughing.
The next act was a stripping admiral whose big finale was turning away from the audience, removing his G-string, then turning back around with his white glove waving on the end of his erection. Gerry laughed and applauded.
“Can we go now?” Emma said.
In the car they had an argument about whether the women in the club had been turned on. “They were sure acting like it,” Gerry said. Emma said they were having a good time, but it was parody, it was women acting the way they thought men did.
“I’m a woman, I know how women feel,” she said, and he granted her that, although she suddenly realized it wasn’t true. She had no idea how other women felt. It occurred to her that she could be missing entire traits—irony and caution.
After leaving the Bear Pit, Emma and Marion go back to Marion’s apartment above the pet store, and Marion admits that those are the only human penises she’s ever seen other than Craig’s and her ex-husband’s. She says they make her appreciate Craig’s. “So what if it’s not all that big?” she says. “Who wants a Hot Rod or a Submarine—”
“There was no Submarine,” Emma says.
“Well, what was the red-haired guy called?”
“Oh yeah, Torpedo.” Marion pours coffee into china cups
with saucers. “I mean, who wants a torpedo in their vagina, anyway?”
“Not me,” Emma lies.
Later, driving home, Emma thinks of Gerry’s perfect penis and can’t help wishing that he still had his perfect body, more for his sake than for hers, though, because the truth is she’d still be fooling around on him. Gerry suspects, but he thinks it’s Len Forsythe, and he thinks it’s over. He has no idea that it’s still Len, and six months ago it was Len’s twin brother, Hen, and last week it was a gorgeous nitwit who wore a hard hat (not in bed, but everything else came off first) because he believed that jet stream thinned your hair. Gerry wouldn’t believe so many guys if she showed him pictures, and what’s the point in him believing it? she asks herself. How would that much truth make a man like Gerry happier, or better equipped to sell debentures?
In the three-person branch office where Gerry works, he collects less than two hundred a week in commissions. Emma means to cheer him up when she says, “It’s not as if you’re knocking yourself out,” but he blames the fact that all his clients, inherited from a guy who retired, are dropping like flies. He usually finds out at breakfast, reading the “Deaths” column in the
“Suddenly,” he reads out loud, “in his eighty-fifth year …”
Luckily, Emma’s cat-grooming business has taken off, here where she figured she’d be doing all right if she broke even after the first year. Emma grew up in a place like this. She knows that pampering small-town cats means letting them sleep inside. What she didn’t count on were all the lonely old women, some of them wives of Gerry’s dead clients, who would gladly have spent a lot more money than she charges just to have somebody to talk to for forty-five minutes.