The story I was writing for this week got a bit away from me, so I went looking for something to put up here. I found this.
I wrote the original version of this in 2009. I was delighted to find that I didn’t have a bunch of problematic language in it. A bit of reworking, and here you go.
TRIGGER WARNING FOR RAPE THREATS, DISCUSSION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT, VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, AND BLOOD
People voluntarily put a lot of crazy things in their orifices, just ask any E.R. doctor. Usually it’s a sex thing, and people tend to think that what goes in, must come out. Not necessarily true, as it turns out. That’s why the flared base is so important. It’ll keep things from getting lost.
My name is Zero, and my business is your pleasure. I’ve worked on the fringes of the adult industry for all of my adult life. At the time, I was working near porn. Specifically, selling it, retail, in the local Shack of Shame. Sure, we carried a few novelty items, but our business was mostly selling videos with titles like Amateur Teen Anal Queens 97.
The Shack was not an upscale joint. We had a front door, but the only people who used it were employees. The back door was on the alley, and people came in that way so no one would see that they actually, gasp, enjoyed porn. Plus, the booths were back that way, and the clerks can’t really see details back there, so your anonymity was guaranteed. Folk could slip in and enjoy a few minutes of XXX goodness for a buck and slip back out. Sometimes they did other stuff back there. I tried not to think about it too hard when I was working.
The job wasn’t that bad, really. I met a lot of interesting people there, and only a few of them propositioned me. If you ever find yourself in a porn store, I have two pieces of advice. First, the clerk is not interested in having sex with you. I don’t care how hot you are, how freaky you claim to be or how hot all those videos make you, they are not interested. The clerk is on the job, and could very well lose it if he or she takes off for a bit to satisfy your cravings for dirty sex. Second, that clerk knows that the kind of person who wants anonymous sex with a porn store clerk is not necessarily the safest fuck in the world. Trust me, porn clerks are not turned on by diseases, or the option of catching them.
Finally, most porn clerks are just not that into sex. We’re kind of burned out on it, honestly. We spend our shift staring at posters of women with unbelievable breasts doing unlikely things with guys who have improbable penises. Usually, there’s a video monitor going with boring porn on it. Kills the mood.
The second piece of advice is to ask questions about the stuff you’re interested in. If the clerk can’t or won’t answer them, take you business somewhere else.
The night was slow, at least up front. There were two guys browsing, some number back in the booths getting off in various ways, Mac, a local guy who came in a couple of times a week, and me. All in all, a pretty typical weeknight. The guys were middle aged, married and arguing over whether to rent Privateers, which they had heard was all ‘erotic and shit’ and might get their wives hot, or to settle for Four Hours of Butt Sex, No Plot, a perennial favorite of middle aged married guys who watched their porn alone, the way the good lord intended.
The front door chime dinged. In walked a girl, no shame on her face whatsoever. She was short, maybe 5′ 3” or so, with close cropped hair cut in a pixie. She had dyed it a fiery orange. She had on a pair of blue jeans with a few too many holes, and a tank top in a style that I don’t really have a name for, because I flat out refuse to call it a wife beater. Unlike a lot of the kids who wore that look, she didn’t have any obvious piercings.
Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the porn store clerk is usually not interested in having sex with you. I kept it to myself, though, because I’m not creepy. Plus, I never know how to talk to attractive people.
She walked over to the wall o’ cock, and began browsing. The wall was full of cheap plastic vibes that die after a few uses, some toxic dildos made out of chemicals I wouldn’t expose war criminals to, and one or two worthwhile, safe toys. She sneered at the vibes, didn’t touch the dildos, and nodded approvingly at the good stuff.
The married guys had stopped talking. They were looking at her in that delightfully creepy way middle aged guys stare at pretty girls. One of them, a blue collar guy with a mustache, was openly staring. She either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care.
After the wall, she headed to the cases. The Shack keeps the more expensive toys in a couple of glass displays. It’s a few higher end vibes, our supply of bondage gear, and the strap ons that aren’t made out of stuff that causes cancer. She was looking at the strap ons.
This, clearly, was too much for mustache man. He snorted. Up to that point, he knew that he could bed this girl. After all, he was a virile man, he worked for a living, and chicks dig that. He had muscles, for Christ’s sake. It wasn’t a beer gut, it was a mark of pride! Or at least that’s what he was probably thinking.
“Hey, Ted, didn’t your missus get rid a all her fake willies after you slipped her the real deal? I know Sheila sure did!” Mustache man laughed at his own wit. Ted laughed too.
“Yep. Ain’t nothing can compare to a real man.” Mustache continued. Ted mumbled something that sounded half approving, half embarrassed.
The girl continued to ignore them. She crouched down next to the case to get a better look at the Dr. Fuk Kwik-Release Interchangeable Cock Kit. It wasn’t a good deal. You can get better strap ons online, cheaper.
Mustache walked over to the case. Ted followed, but looked like he would rather be in church. Mustache stood over the girl, his six foot frame making her look even smaller, crouched down like that. I could see her face through the glass, and she looked dour, like she’d heard this all before. She probably had.
“Whadda ya think, girlie? Want to go for a ride on the real deal?”
“Yeah.” she said calmly, before I could say anything. “You know any real men I could hit up?”
I cringed. Those were fighting words, and if Mustache thought she was a dyke, all the rules about not hitting a girl went out the window. Mac sensed it too, he was already retreating towards the booths. Mustache puffed out his chest and snarled. As he was posturing, I started moving towards them. I had to go to the end of the counter, I doubted that I’d make it in time to stop a fight.
“Keep it to yourself or get out of my store, sir!” I shouted, putting as much sneer on the ‘sir’ as I could.
Of course, they ignored me.
“What did you say, bitch?” Mustache demanded.
She stood up. It shouldn’t have been imposing, but it was. There was something about her face, or the way she held herself. I stopped where I was, at the end of the counter.
“You heard me. Now walk away.” she said quietly.
“You fucking dykes are all the same. Ya think ’cause ya got tits that I won’t hit ya. I ought to take you down, show ya what a real man does.”
There was real anger in his voice. This guy wasn’t a run of the mill homo hater. He was shaking, not with fear. Ted put his hand on the guy’s shoulder, but Mustache shook him off.
“One chance.” she said. “Walk away or get hurt.”
I started moving again.
So did Mustache. He howled and lunged at her. He must have weighed in at around two fifty, but he was quick. There was muscle under that beer gut. I knew I wouldn’t get there in time. He had both arms out, his hands curled into claws.
She smiled, then, and the room lit up.
She was fast, so fast my mind had to fill in details because my eyes couldn’t see them. She stepped up, into his arm, past them. He was hunched a bit, and she grabbed his lapels and pulled him down a bit more. At the same time, she was extending her legs and spine, bringing herself out a slight crouch. She brought her head up to meet his. Time had stopped, and for a second, I thought she was going to kiss him.
Instead, she slammed her head into his. I heard something that sounded like a car backfiring, and suddenly there was blood flying everywhere. Mustache whimpered, and she just dropped him. He sprawled on the floor, bleeding on the cheap linoleum. She stepped past him, and looked at Ted. He turned white. I couldn’t blame him, I saw the sheer joy on her face.
For just a second, it looked like her eyes had turned red.
That weirdness only lasted a second. Ted looked like he was going into some serious fight or flight mode, and the last thing I wanted was more of the old ultraviolence. The girl wasn’t threatening him, but wasn’t backing down, either. Mustache was groaning, but you never can tell what an idiot is going to do. He was conscious, at least.
I made it to the cases. Maybe ten seconds had past, but it seemed like a lot longer.
“Let’s be cool here!” It sounded lame to me, but it was all I could think of to say.
“Jesus.” said Ted. “She coulda killed him. Call the cops, man.” He backed away from her as he said it.
She tensed up when she heard that. I’ve worked retail a while, and it was the same tenseness that a shoplifter gets when they know they’re caught. The tenseness of a cornered animal that is thinking about killing or running.
“Okay.” I said. “I could call the cops. We’d all love to give statements, right? With our names. Probably make the papers and everything.”
Ted looked at his wedding ring and winced. Score one for me.
“Plus, like it says on the door, this place is under video surveillance, and that was pretty clear self defense, especially with the rape threat.” I continued. “I’m always happy to testify. In court. Publicly.”
I let that sink in. Ted was panicking, he just needed a push.
“Or we could call this a learning experience about not threatening people, and be very cool about it, and go home knowing that nobody needs to know about this.”
Mustache groaned some more. Ted half dragged, half pulled him out of the store. His face was a mess, covered in blood. He left a trail spattered all the way out to the back door. I sighed. I had to clean it up.
“Sorry about the blood.” the girl said shyly.
She had curled up on herself. Her shoulders had be proud, now they were hunched. She looked at the floor, away from the stains. There was a bloody smear along her forehead, running up into her hair. I had just witnessed this woman flatten a man twice her size, but she looked like a stray kitten. Fierce, but needful.
“It’s okay. It’s not the most unsafe thing I’ve ever had to clean up. I’m Zero, by the way.”
She looked confused. I get that a lot, with my name.
“It’s my name. Dad was a fan of an actor. Your response is ‘My name is…’” I let the sentence drop off. “Or not, I get that. No worries.”
“Cassia Clay Dunter.” she said, after a moment.
“Well, Ms. Dunter, if you’d like to clean up, I wouldn’t recommend the public bathrooms. They get a little icky. If you want, you can use the employee bathroom. I disinfected it not a half an hour ago.”
She thanked me and went to wash up. I got the mop and bleach and started in on the floor. Cassia Clay, she had to have been named after Ali. I wondered if her family had pressured her into being a fighter. My family had never much pressured me to do anything, I sometimes thought that having hippie parents had prevented me from being a lawyer. Then I would remember that I hated most lawyers.
I finished bleaching the blood, hopefully killing any nastiness that Mustache might have been carrying with him. Mac had returned, he was clutching a couple of rentals. I checked him out. I could hear the water running in the sink of the employee john.
Mac handed me his money, and a folded sheet of paper. I looked at him quizzically.
“For the girl.” he grunted.
“Mac, this isn’t a dating service.”
“Business opportunity.” he answered. “Not a dirty one.” he added before I could say anything. I had heard rumors that Mac was shady, but I didn’t know any of the details. I had no idea what kind of business opportunity he had in mind.
“I’ll see that she gets it.” I said. “Remember, those are due back tomorrow.”
“Make sure she gets it. I got a feeling she’ll like it.”
He left out the back. This was a new experience for me. Everyone makes jokes about porn being a mob thing, and maybe that was true, once. In modern times, though, the only laws we broke were obscenity laws, and then only because of the Miller test. Community standards means too many goddamn things.
Cassia came out of the break room. She had gotten most of the blood off of her face, but there was still a sheen of crimson on her hair. She had obviously tried to wash it out, but hadn’t had much luck.
“Thanks.” she said. She paused for a little too long. “For everything.”
“No problem. All a part of providing superior customer service.” I didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in my voice. “Which reminds me, actually.” I held out the note.
She looked at me, then down at the piece of paper. She didn’t reach out for it. I couldn’t blame her, accepting notes in porn shops is a dicey thing.
“It’s from a guy who saw you tussle. He claims it’s a business thing, not dirty, whatever that means.” I said by way of explanation. “There’s probably no harm in looking at it.”
She took the note, unfolded it. Her eyes got a bit wider, and she touched a scar on her collarbone, gently rubbing it. It was jagged, but it had obviously been a clean cut. You could barely make it out against her pale skin. Her knuckles were covered in layers of tiny scars.
“I’m sorry if he lied to me. I didn’t really have time to screen it before you finished up in there.” I apologized. She had the kind of physical scars that made me think she had others that weren’t seen so easily.
“No. It’s cool.” she said. “What time do you get off?”
I did a double take. She didn’t seem like that kind of girl. It was an idiotic statement to begin with, because appearance has nothing to do with anything, but I just didn’t feel that kind of energy from her. I glanced at the clock.
“In about an hour.” I said carefully, trying to keep inflection out of my voice.
“I wanted to buy you a beer, if that’s cool. I owe you.” she said.
There wasn’t a hint of anything beyond beer in her voice. I couldn’t decide if I was disappointed or not.
“Great. Call me Cassie. Plus, I want to talk to you about this business thing. How well do you know this guy…”
The warehouse was crowded. It smelled of blood, stale beer and staler people. Someone had scavenged some stadium bleachers and crammed them up against one wall. Behind a makeshift counter, a middle aged woman sold beer and popcorn, and took bets.
The place was lit up by halogen work lights, casting everything into sharp relief. The shadows were darker, and the brights were brighter. Most of the space was empty of stuff. In the brightest lit space, someone had pounded four chunks of rebar into the concrete floor. A line of rope ran around the rebar, marking out the world’s sketchiest boxing ring.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked her, for probably the eightieth time.
“Relax. I’ve done this sort of thing before.” she replied for the eighty first time.
It had turned out that Mac was more than a bit on the shady side. He ran underground boxing matches. Well, if boxing was more like the Tyson/Holyfield fight. The one where the ear got eaten. Only more violent than that. He wanted Cassia to fight in them. She wanted me to bet.
The theory was sound. She weighed in at maybe one twenty. She was short. Mostly, she was a she. I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. There were maybe two hundred people there, and if they got the notion that the fight was rigged, it could get ugly fast.
The thing that bugged me the most was how calm she was. She didn’t quite strut, but there was no trace of the little lost kitty I had seen at the Shack. She was in her element. Word had gotten out that a girl was going to fight, and people were checking her out. I wasn’t sure if it was an act.
“Who is this guy?” I asked, changing the subject without really changing it.
“Leon Maynard. He’s a heavyweight. You know what that means, right?” she asked. I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not.
“Yeah. He’s big.” She glared at me, and I managed to laugh. “Okay, it means he’s over two seventy. I got in to boxing to piss off my folks. You know that.”
“Yes.” She said it like she was talking to a socially retarded younger brother. “Other than that, I don’t know much about him.”
There was a fight going on, two guys beating the piss out of each other. Don’t get me wrong, I like boxing. But this wasn’t boxing, not really. This was more like old fashioned pit fighting. The crowd was here for blood, nothing else. There was no pretense of sportsmanship, of the ‘sweet science.’
“Here, wrap me.” she demanded suddenly. She held out a few strips of fabric, probably torn from a sheet. I took them and started wrapping her arm, mostly around the wrist, through the hand, not too tight, the way she had shown me at the bar.
I didn’t see the end of the fight, but I felt it. The crowd stopped surging, and it felt like someone hit the dimmer switch in a bright room. Cassie was fighting next.
“Don’t worry.” she said as she walked up to the rope.
The crowd cheered as someone dragged off the last matches loser. Mac got up on a stool across from the bleachers. He had a microphone. He had a glint in his eyes.
“Now, we got us a grudge match!” he shouted, dragging out the word grudge. Cassie’s head snapped up. So did mine. She had never fought here before, there was no one to have a grudge against.
Except, of course, for Mr. Mustache.
He walked out, no shirt on. The crowd roared. Mustache had a lot of fans. I was standing ringside, and I heard Cassie mutter ‘Oh, fuck.’ He shook his fists in the air, and the crowd responded. Mac glanced our way, but wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“These two know each other! They got a beef!” he shouted into the mike. Feedback squealed through the cheap P.A. he was using.
“But, Leon here is willing to settle the difference in the ring, winner take all. Pride is on the line, ladies and gentlemen!”
He looked at Cassie for a while, building the tension. The crowd was eating it up. They were shouting, whistling, catcalling. Finally, he motioned for the crowd to get quiet. I’d never seen his so animated.
“Cassie Clay! What! Do! You! Say!” He shouted in staccato. He jabbed a finger in the air after every word, and ended by pointing right at her. She waited for a heartbeat, then jabbed a fist into the air. The crowd screamed in unison. Mac grabbed a ball peen hammer and whacked a bell. The ding cut through the noise of the crowd.
Cassie and Mustache charged.
The night we met, we talked.
I’ve never been good at talking to girls. Or boys, for that matter. Even before I worked in a porn store, I always had trouble finding words to express whatever I’m feeling. It’s worse when they’re cute. I mean, I can talk, but it’s not real. It’s just me being polite.
I wasn’t polite with Cassie. I mean, I was polite, but I was real.
It started that way. We talked about the fight over a beer at my favorite drinkin’ hole, Shiloh’s. It’s quiet, cheap and they know me there. Cassie, it turned out, was new to town, and didn’t have a regular place yet. She wanted to know what little I had heard about Mac, and if I was comfortable betting on underground boxing.
Then things went sideways.
It wasn’t a fight. It was a brawl. They hit each other at about mid ring. Mustache had strength, but Cassie had speed. She tackled him at about waist level and knocked him back, but not down. He wasn’t expecting the tackle, but recovered real quick. While she was rearranging herself, he hit her in the face.
She spun, but as she was spinning, she lashed out with her own fist. She caught him in the ribs, and he grunted. She brought her arms up in some sort of defensive thing, and he did much the same. Both of them wanted this to be over quick, but that didn’t seem likely.
It started simple enough.
“Why here?” A simple question, I thought, though I knew better. Nobody with a simple story ends up in nowheresville Oregon. I wanted to get to know this girl. She was intriguing as hell, after all.
“Why not?” she said after a minute. There was hesitation there, and maybe a little sadness. “What about you?”
“I grew up around here.” I said. It was more complicated than that, of course.
“Why the porn shop? You’re not an idiot, and you might not be some sort of freak.”
“It’s a job.” I said. It was my stock response.
The fight was starting to remind me of Beowulf versus the Grendel’s mom. The part where Beowulf gets his ass handed too him, anyway. Mustache had reach, and he had experience. He was staying away from her, getting hits in when he could. His gorilla arms could hit her from a ways off, and she had to take a pounding every time she tried to get in close.
She was getting tired. I’d seen her take at least five solid hits to the chest, and a couple more to the face. I knew that any of those hits would have taken me out. She was still standing, but she was breathing heavy, and starting to sway.
Mustache saw his opening. He jabbed at her chest. She moved to block. Too late, she saw the feint. He sent his off hand at her face, and I heard his meaty fist connect. There was a popping sound, and I saw her nose go out of joint. Mustache smiled.
She was going down, but she had just enough strength left to uppercut. She didn’t connect with his jaw, but her fist pushed his already broken nose up. Blood spurted, from both of them. She landed on the concrete, her short hair resting in a pool of someone’s blood.
The crowed started counting.
I knew that it was a bullshit answer. The look on her face told me she knew it, too. I drank my beer quietly, and she let me. Unlike most people who asked me that, she didn’t press the issue. That’s probably what did it.
“Politics.” I said, finally. She raised her eyebrows in question. I noticed, then, that they were the same color as her hair.
“So, my folks are a bunch of hippies. I grew up hearing all of that ‘follow your bliss’ shit, no motivation or anything. Back in my school days, I knew this guy. He was trying to be a player. He would find girls on the rebound, or drunk girls, that sort of thing. Fuck them for as long as he could get away with it, then go on to the next one. He did that to a friend of mine, when she was drunk one night. She never said ‘no.’ I tried to get her to go to the cops, but she didn’t want to be that girl. You know, the one who actually liked sex. Which I’m pretty sure she did. She didn’t want it all dragged out for everyone to see.”
I stopped. I hadn’t talked about this in years.
“Anyway, it fucked her up. She ended up with some serious mental issues, and a virus that’s going to kill her. And he’s still out there, fucking girls.”
Cassie reached out, took my hand.
“If she had called the cops, who knows? Maybe some other girls wouldn’t be dying now. I decided right then that the problem was attitude. If she hadn’t been so scared of being called a slut…” I trailed off.
She let me collect my thoughts.
“So my bliss is making it okay for people to enjoy sex. I’m trying to put together the scratch to open a sex shop, a decent one that doesn’t make you feel dirty. One that you can go in through the front door and not get judged. I can’t help her, maybe I can help someone else.”
She squeezed my hand. “This guy got a name?”
“Caleb. He’s in Seattle, last I’d heard.”
“If he comes home, let me know.”
One! they shouted.
Cassie was moving, but not much. Mustache was thrusting his hands in the air, as if this was his life’s achievement.
She arched her back, rolled a bit onto her left side. Her head was still on the concrete.
Mustache was playing to the crowd, now. They loved him. Every one of the bastards was cheering for a man who had just spent a few minutes hitting someone less than half his size.
I hated every one of them.
He had turned his back on her. I saw her then, broken, bruised, bleeding but still trying to get up. Her hair was turning red, literally soaking up the blood on the ground. It seemed like I could actually see the blood pool getting smaller.
“What about you?” I asked. “Now you know my boring fucking origin story. What’s yours?”
She rubbed her collarbone absentmindedly. I looked a little closer, and realized that she was running her finger up and down the scar. I was pissed at whoever had put that scar there. This girl was okay. She really listened, and might even really care.
“Not much to tell.” she said flatly. “I was raised by my mom. She wasn’t a hippie, but she tried to do right.”
She was obviously not comfortable.
“So, she never told you to do the bliss following thing?” I asked.
“Nope. She did tell me to get a job, once.” she laughed.
“Not really.” she sighed. “I don’t handle authority well.”
I could believe that.
“So, what’s your bliss?” I asked.
“I fight.” she said simply, with just a hint of a smile.
Her head snapped up. A bit of blood flew through the air. She put her hands on the ground and started to push herself up.
Mustache hadn’t noticed yet. He was facing the wrong way. I saw Cassie smile again. Even under the halogen lights, I though the room brightened. Her white teeth were showing. I thought that she looked better, somehow, like the bruising wasn’t as bad as I had thought.
She jumped up, landing on her feet. She was moving like she hadn’t just taken the worst beating I had ever seen. Mustache was starting to figure things out. He moved to turn, but Cassie had doubled her fists and was swinging them like a hammer.
The blow landed midway up his spine.
Something in my posture must have given away my shock. She laughed, then, throaty and loud. It was a good sound. For a second, I thought that I could get used to that sound. Then I remembered what she had just said.
“It’s how I feel alive.” she continued. “The only time I’ve really felt connected to the world.”
She didn’t stop at his spine. She kept her fists together and hit the back of his head. He tried to spin around, but she hammered him in the kidneys. He finished his pivot, and swung wildly.
She stepped underneath his clumsy swing and clocked him on the side of the head. His jaw popped loudly. I heard it over the screaming of the crowd. I saw a tooth fly through the air. It landed a few feet away. It was cracked clean through.
Mustache started to fall, but Cassie unclenched her fists and grabbed either side of his head. She held him there, for a moment. His jaw was a mess, blood was spilling all over her arm wraps. It was obviously broken. He had gone to his knees; the fight had out of him.
We kept talking, that night. She was completely serious about being a fighter. It scared me, but not enough to walk away. She was the only person who had ever really listened to me, and I felt like I owed her something.
She didn’t talk much about where she had been, but I got the feeling there was a lot more to her past than mom telling her to get a job. It was weird, having someone who seemed to be really listening. She told me about the rush of the crowd, I told her about the dream of a shameless world. We kept it up all night, even after Shiloh’s kicked us out. we ended up down by the river, on a bench.
I never asked if she was a lesbian. I’m not sure why. No, that’s not true. I was pretty sure we were headed to being friends, and it didn’t matter how either of us buttered our crumpets.
She held him there, long enough for the crowd to get quieter. He was out of the fight, the hammer blows having done their work.
“Didn’t your momma teach you manners?” she said, and even though it seemed like she said it quietly, everyone there heard her. “Don’t ever hit a girl.”
As she said it, she slammed her forehead against his and dropped him. He didn’t move for a long time.
She raised both hands in the air, signaling victory. She held the pose while the crowd cheered her on. She wasn’t swaying. She was alive.
She got her cut of the proceeds, I collected on the bet we’d made. I gave Mac the stink eye, but I saw them having a talk later. She seemed more or less cool with him, so I decided to let it go, at least for now.
When we had dinner at the diner later, I noticed that the blood was gone from her hair.