by Bruce Michael Gans
Illustrations by Walt Phillips
Not knowing what to do, Shapiro steered his girlfriend away from the ticket booth and over to the side of the porno theater to talk things over. Boy, had this delicious little outing shaped up into one demoralizing pain in the ass.
On the way over, the first blizzard of the winter sets in, changing the drive into an ordeal. Next, the neighborhood turns out to be a frightening area to walk through. To top it off, he gets to the fat man in the ticket booth and suddenly he can't go through with it. He thinks: going in just to walk out feeling suicidal forty-five minutes later is more than I can bear. On the other hand, going home now and spending the evening in some dismal and tame amusement is also something he can't bear to face.
Wishing he were home in bed alone, Shapiro said to Jill, "Six dollars a ticket?"
Jill leaned gingerly against the brick wall. She dusted tiny hailstones from her hair. After a lengthy silence she said, "I can pay you back when we get home."
Shapiro scrutinized Jill's plain features and then glanced at the seedy individuals milling on the street corners. It was just like her. Here he gives her a perfect out and instead she's worried about him, about spending all his money. Yup, she was better to him than any woman he'd ever known. He'd never known a woman he thought more of, but he no longer felt any sexual attraction to her at all, and it seemed to him now that watching a dirty movie together would make it worse, not easier.
Meanwhile, the freezing wind had closed in on the two of them like a Biblical mob of execution, pelting them with torrents of hail as they shivered, immobilized and exposed.
Jill looked up. "Let's do it."
It finally dawned on Shapiro that this was probably the first time a guy had ever taken her to one of these. She probably figured there was no telling when she'd get a second chance, so she wasn't about to blow this one. He returned to the fat man (who tactfully resumed his original impassive, bovine stare) and reached for his wallet.
Inside they saw two young nondescript girls standing at the pay phone. Other couples were there too! Instantly Shapiro felt at home. They entered the inner sanctum to stake out some seats. Shapiro knew right away it was a normal crowd -- maybe three dozen men arranged like so many drowning fatalities in the cavernous emptiness and distributed so that no matter where the couple sat, they were within someone's solitary, sweaty proximity.
This crippled his enthusiasm. They settled halfway down -- four seats over from a comatose man still bundled in his winter coat and woolen cap. As they sat down the man slouched to his right and passed out. At this Shapiro's enthusiasm rolled over and died.
The man knew what he was doing. The theater was forty clammy degrees and falling. The couple tugged their coats around their shoulders, but it didn't make any difference. As Shapiro scanned the audience vainly for one other couple, Jill cuddled up and eased her hand inside his thigh. Not having the nerve to remove it, Shapiro turned his attention silver screen-ward.
On the strength of the ad in the paper Shapiro had sworn up and down that the double feature would be sumptuously filmed, acted by demi-gods, and constructed out of hilariously flimsy plot. Of course as far as he knew no such film had ever been made, but even Shapiro was startled by how boring this movie was. He hadn't thought it was possible to have so much screwing and so many blowjobs going on at once without anything being erotic about any of it.
Shapiro's mind wandered. He began to concentrate on the rat-a-tat of the film rolling through the projector. Oddly, it was resounding through the grim bare darkness. Shapiro uncomfortably realized that no one had so much as shifted. The film began to give Shapiro the willies. It wasn't just accidentally boring, it was intentionally rubbing each customer's nose in his own defilement and despair. Having a far deeper kinship with the audience than Jill would ever know, Shapiro sensed the evil, ugly tension in the theater. He leaned over and whispered, "Feel like heading back?"
Jill's features became arched and amused. "Are you kidding?"
Summoning the reserves of patience he normally relied upon in checkout lines, rush hour traffic, and religious services, Shapiro quietly sized the capacity for violence of the men around him.
For no reason whatsoever, the movie cut to two pretty women, one black, one white, really going at it. "It's about fucking time," thought Shapiro. He had barely begun to settle in, when Jill removed her arm and shifted away.
"What's the matter?" Shapiro said.
Jill shrugged. "Makes me uncomfortable. You know, two girls. It wouldn't be so bad, but they're doing all the right things."
Looking again, Shapiro discovered he couldn't watch anymore either. He felt too responsible for her happiness. It also embarrassed him.
"Jesus," he thought. "This is costing me a fortune, any second I'm gonna get shot, and she's gonna be raped. It's torture being forced to stay, and for the first time I'm embarrassed by what' up there. Christ, this is worse than going alone."
Fifteen minutes later Shapiro asked Jill if she wanted to go home. She replied by sliding her fingertips inside his trousers. Shortly thereafter, though, she leaned over and whispered, "Can we move?"
"That man." She shuddered and nodded toward the man four seats over. Shapiro took her back to the lobby and grabbed a smoke. For some reason, a half-dozen forlorn Chicanos were listlessly pacing about. It must've been about thirty degrees.
Jill wandered over to the drinking fountain. Shapiro, however, noticed that the fat man was standing just a few yards away, gasping and dabbing the cold sweat from his face with a crumpled handkerchief. It startled Shapiro out of the illusion that the fat man was nothing more than a piece of the movie house -- like the seats.
The fat man was talking to a nodding, mute Chicano, and Shapiro forgot all about Jill. "Nothing great," the fat man was saying adjusting his trousers, "just so's I get ta be my own boss. Here, I don't have to tell ya, the lousy hours, the 'terrific' pay, and then..." He gulped and mopped his brow with a feverish hand. "Me and my wife, we figure, maybe, maybe in a year we'll have enough, got our eye on a diner, maybe a dry cleaners. Nothing that's going to set da world on fire. Just so's we da boss..."
"Let's go back in," Jill said tapping Shapiro unexpectedly on the shoulder.
"You wanna take a leak?"
Jill smiled gallantly. "I'll hold it."
"Wait here," Shapiro said. She grimaced while he approached the fat man who quickly concealed his handkerchief. Shapiro asked him when the next feature would begin and was completely startled to hear the fat man assume an urbane, impeccably articulate polish.
"This evening's fare, 'Reams in Babeland,' will conclude within the ensuing quarter hour. The balance of tonight's entertainment will begin following a ten minute intermission. The Mulebach Theater, of course, values your patronage." The fat man's face contorted into a sickly grin.
Shapiro and Jill took seats in the back. Jill said, "Men go together to these things like they go together bowling or to football games, huh?"
"Not at all."
"They do too," Jill insisted.
"I'm telling you, they don't."
Shapiro shrugged. She didn't know what she was talking about, but he let her have her way. The movie ended and the lights went on. The men filed out, keeping a cautious distance, turning away their faces a chain gang of lonely flops in limbo.
"Yeah," Jill said. "I guess you're right."
"Don't ask me how I know," he muttered.
A new group entered the theater. Though no more numerous than the other bunch, they were livelier and by contrast they swooped down into the first two rows. Seating themselves they fell silent.
Their behavior baffled him and then he thought no more about it. The lights dimmed and from two coliseum concert speakers came the theme from "Rocky." The auditorium had been quiet enough to permit you to hear the man across the aisle change his mind. The music, played at top volume, felt like the Voice of Judgment being piped through the panels of Shapiro's grave. In mid note, the amplified voice of the fat man cut in.
"Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the Mulebach Theater, providing Chicagoland with the ultimate in adult entertainment. At this time, the Mulebach would like to introduce to you as part of our regularly scheduled Friday program, one of the finest exotic dancers in the country, and surely one of the most stellar performers ever to grace our fair stage. Known throughout the world for her mastery of the modern and folk idioms, for the delicacy and penetration of her interpretations, for the duendatic energy of her performances, let's welcome with a nice, warm round of applause -- Laverne LaToole!!"
"Christ, what next?" Shapiro grumbled.
"Have you ever seen a stripper?" Jill asked.
Shapiro shook his head, which was the closest thing Laverne LaToole go to a round of applause. He decided she must have been one of those girls at the pay phone.
"This could be fun," Jill whispered.
Laverne, wrapped in an ankle-length silver dress that fit her like a straitjacket, with an ostrich feather in her hair, stood clutching two enormous feather fans. She made her way to the middle of the stage precipitously balanced on spike heels. Flashing the audience a hostile smile, she advance as though stumbling through a mild case of dizziness.
The song "Masquerade" thundered through the moribund hall. Laverne closed her eyes and raised her arms. With a look of intense concentration -- which even her sudden cough couldn't break -- she wandered around the stage like she was searching for her glasses in a dark room. The song intensified. She responded with a halting, incomprehensible pantomime, which she executed with the stern self-absorption of someone conducting art at its most ethereal. As the singer broke into a scat, Laverne joined him with a flurry of syncopated tortured yowls, demonstrating to the mute and uninterested audience that Laverne LaToole couldn't sing either.
The music ended and she dropped her hat to the floor with a flourish, one might've added, had not the record begun to skip like a jack-hammer until the unseen hand of the fat man yanked the tone arm, making the needle scream like an F-14, which at least muffled Laverne LaToole's seismic sneeze.
Watching her wiper her nose with the heel f her hand, Shapiro thought he would run out and hang himself. The first two rows did not bother to yawn. She stepped up and said, "You owe me some applause, you shits."
The audience did not care. She walked toward the wing and then turned on them, her being contorted with rage. "You don't clap for the dance, you don't get no skin." Judging from the catatonic quiet, the audience dismissed this as an empty threat.
The opening strains of "Hot Stuff" began to bludgeon the auditorium. Suddenly Laverne LaToole froze and underwent a metamorphosis. She assumed an open stance, tilted her head back, stretched out her fingertips, and parted her lips in a theatrical pose which, had it been captured in oils, could've been entitled "Doris Day Being Violated by the Enema Bandit."
Coughing and mincing to the middle of the stage, Laverne kicked off her shoes. After some halfhearted waif-like flutters, she unfastened her gown. As it fell below her young, tasseled ordinary breasts, a cipher rewarded her with a grotesque smooch sound. The straps slipped lower and the menacing smooches multiplied. When she stepped out of the dress wearing only a gold spangled G-string, the noise became ugly. The men wanted the G-string off, and they were losing their patience. But Laverne stood mutely, as though in her mind she was not there at all, but instead in her apartment, in her street clothes making herself a hot meal.
The song faded out. Startled, Laverne spread a small black rug on the middle of the floor and sat down cross-legged. Pelted with smooches she lowered her eyes. "Whatsa matter? Smooch smooch. You think because you make that noise, it means you can do it better? Guys who do that got tiny dicks."
Shapiro turned to Jill. At that moment he wished with all his heart to flee all the degradation, to feel drawn to his girlfriend, if only for a while. To his surprise and great relief he found himself studying her with great tenderness. She was engrossed by Laverne. Shapiro put his arms around her shoulder and drew her to him.
"You think she's a cashier?" he whispered.
"I was thinking a waitress," Jill said.
Another song came on and a crescendo of smacking told them Laverne was completely naked. The program finally called upon her to perform a role in which she was qualified: contortionist. She was standing on her head scissors kicking , her back to the crowd, the yellowed soles of her feet swishing up and back and sideways in the cold night air. She swiveled slowly around and then dropped backwards onto all fours like an inverted spider. From that position -- her moneymaker facing the drab green curtains -- she started heaving it up and down.
The number was two-thirds done when she lay on her stomach, facing away, her tight round bottom to the audience. The song's tempo quickened anticipation the boffo finale. Laverne LaToole spread her legs. She propped herself up on her elbows. The pink meat was finally on display. She humped and spread and ground her meat to beat the band. In fact, you had to look pretty close and listen real hard to catch the bored and far removed look on her face or the wrenching, convulsive hacking she tried to smother in her fist.
When it was over she stood up to a smattering of applause. She grabbed her rug, snatched up her clothes and feathers, and hurried to the wing, where she turned and cried, "Thanks for everything, music lovers and perverts."
In a moment the first two rows emptied and a new bunch was seated around the theater. Shapiro and Jill, still absorbing the abruptness of it all, fell nonchalantly into cozy gossip about their respective office mates, their friends' marriages, and so on.
The new movie started to roll. It pictured two couples, who obviously did not know how in the world they found themselves in front of a camera. They were seated on a couch looking around confusedly and trying not to laugh. A woman on the right, a Slavic blonde who resembled a steelworker in a blouse and stretch pants, rose and said, "Would anybody care for a vegetable?" The other three shrugged and looked at each other.
Shapiro was struck by their gesture which seemed to say, "I'm here because I can't earn a living, what the hell." The audience also appeared to understand and relax.
The blonde walked over to a wicker basket containing garden vegetables and removed an eighteen inch carrot.
Someone in the theater groaned, "You've got to be fucking kidding." The audience laughed. The blonde returned to where the other woman, an attractive Italian with close-cropped hair, now sat naked. The blonde sat down, eased the carrot in, and jiggled it by the tuft. "Oh," said the Italian woman as though she were reciting from a first grade primer. "It feels so yummy."
"Eeemprove your eyesight too, signora," a patron shouted.
Jill leaned over and said, "Looks like fun." Shapiro stared at her. By now the Italian's partner had undressed. He looked like a quarterback with a big, cheap tattoo on his biceps. The Italian began to treat him with some trenchant fellatio.
"It's sooo goood," the quarterback mumbled. "Oh, baby. Thasrite. Bite it. Bite it off. Bite it off."
At this the audience howled and thrust their hands into their laps. At the height of the mirth Shapiro thought how funny it was, the people here in the theater, the actors, the fat man, the exotic dancer, he and Jill. Everyone was doing something they did not want to do, trapped in their situation and condition. Far from disconcerting him, the though made him feel much fonder of everybody and closer to them.
"Getta load of this," Jill said nudging him. The blonde had disrobed. When it dawned on the audience that she was seven months pregnant, they lost their minds. The blonde pulled down the shorts of her partner, a polyester, small town, hardware store clerk, and unveiled what amounted to a third leg. The audience gasped with nauseated amusement.
"What a waste," Jill observed.
"Hey," Shapiro said, giving her a squeeze, "let's go home."
Jill turned to him. As they kissed, they didn't notice the sound of the stage door closing. The dim figure of a young lady carrying large clothes boxes was making her way up the aisle and out. The only sounds she made was an intermittent cough and the click of her spiked heels, the sort in fashion that season -- the extravagantly high kind that pushed the body unnaturally up and forward and which were known among the ladies as CFMPs -- Come Fuck Me Pumps.
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