Stories

Red Renee – Eric Cecil

Lee told me it worked for him.  I was sure it wouldn’t for me.  I didn’t want to try it.  Lee wanted me to try it.

“I tried it,” he said.  “I tried it and I got laid the very first night.”

“Mm,” I said.

“No, really,” said Lee.

“I believe you,” I said.  But I wasn’t sure.

Lee was sure.  He was so sure that while he was talking, he nearly forgot France and I were there.  He stood there on the fire escape, marching arrhythmically in place to emphasize certain points, gesturing wildly with his hands to exaggerate others.  His reedy twang rose and fell around the neighboring buildings.  They held it for a moment and gave it to us in a short echo.

France and I didn’t say anything.

So Lee continued: “I had ’em in my back pocket—in my right back pocket—and by last call, I was getting into a cab with a random.  She was a nice one, too.”  At this, he turned to France and asked, “Wasn’t she?”

“She was,” said France.  “Very nice, actually.”

“Mm,” I said.

“Chrissakes,” said Lee.  And with his head tilted back, he said this to the night itself: “Try it!”

The night itself was quiet.  So was France.  So was Lee.  So was I.

I threw my cigarette off the fire escape onto the patio below.  It was cloudy, cold.  No moon.  France coughed, giggled a moment.  Lee shook his head.

“Well, you should try it, anyway,” he said.

He took a pull from France’s bottle.  Then he ducked through the window and left.  France and I looked after him from the fire escape.

After I heard the door shut, I said, “I don’t know, France,” and he laughed.  We both did.

“What’s stopping you?” he said.

I thought for a moment.  “I don’t think I need the help.”

“The hell you don’t.”

“I don’t,” I said.  “I don’t.”  I brought out my arms, my hands palm-up.

He wanted to know how long it’d been since I’d been with a woman.

“I don’t know.  Probably three months.”

“You need the help.”

“Maybe I do.  But I don’t really care.”

“I think you care.”

“Not much, I don’t.”

“You care.  You talk about it all the time.  We all do.  You could knock off a piece.  So could I.”

“Then you try it,” I said.  “I don’t need it.”

“No,” said France.  “I don’t either.”

“Mm,” I said.

I stared at him for a moment, my lids heavy and eyebrows high on my head.

“I wouldn’t even know who to ask,” I said.

@@@

I asked Renee.  She agreed right away.  She was just as curious as we were.  Also, she liked Lee.  France knew this, which is why he insisted I ask her.

“That worked for Lee?” she grinned.  “Who was he with?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “And I didn’t want to ask you.  I didn’t want to do this.”  Then I added: “France talked me into it,” and I nodded in his direction.

“That’s right,” France smiled.  There was no guilt in his voice.

“What bar?” Renee asked.

“Who?” France asked.

“Lee?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Where was he?”

I told her I wasn’t sure.  Then I told her it might’ve been this place in a nearby neighborhood.  Or maybe a place down the street.  “Anyway, it wasn’t here.”

She wanted to know why we approached her.

“Because we thought you’d say yes,” said France, laughing.

I also laughed.

“OK,” said Renee.  “I have no problem helping you, I guess, but I don’t want to hear about it from anyone else.  OK?”

We nodded: OK.

“When do you want them?”

“Well, when can you have them ready?” asked France.

“Probably before the end of the month,” said Renee.

I told her to call me then.

She walked to the other side of the bar and served two other patrons, both comically intoxicated.  It was about 9 p.m.

When she returned, she had one final question: “Is Lee coming here tonight?”

We weren’t sure.  It was hard to know about Lee sometimes.  I guessed aloud that he was probably just as intoxicated as the patrons she had just served.

@@@

Renee called at the beginning of the next month.  I agreed to meet her at the bar and retrieve them.

I entered with my hands deep in my pockets, uncertain about my reception.  It was 5:30 p.m. or so.  It was still light outside.  It was not light in the bar.  The bar had a way of eating the light and depositing it elsewhere, and it did not deposit any of the light on the one rummy at a front table.  He studied his drink intently, didn’t break his communion with the highball upon my arrival.

Renee was smiling.  I was relieved.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey there,” she returned.

I removed my hands from my coat and took a stool.  I placed my palms on the bar.

We looked at each other, but not really.

“Well,” said Renee.

“Yeah,” I said.

“You want something to drink?”

I asked for a beer.  She brought one over, then removed a plastic bag from beneath the bar.  She set it next to the beer.

I could only say, “Ah.”

“Put it in your pocket,” she said.

I did.  I felt blood reddening my face.  I put my hand to my chin.  I didn’t have much of one.  It was melting into neck, just as my father’s had melted into his, and his father’s before him.  We all had pancake cheeks, too, and mine burned now.

I forced a dry laugh and said, “Well, I guess that’s it.”

“Yeah,” she murmured.  She smiled still.

I didn’t know what else to say.  I decided to ask her if I owed her.

“It’s three dollars,” she said.  “Happy hour.”

“No, I mean”—and I leaned in—”what do I owe you for those?”  I said it quietly, almost whispering.

“Oh,” she said.  She twisted her bottom lip under her teeth and tapped a tower of pint glasses with a delicate hand of painted nails.   “Nothing, I guess.”

“Maybe you want a new pair.”

“They were old anyway,” she said.  “Keep them.”

“Ah,” I said.

“It’s fine,” she said.

“Mm,” I said.

I drank the beer and ordered another.  She turned to grab a glass.  The door opened behind me.  I felt a rush of cool air as I took my hand off my melting chin, turning to see France, beaming as he entered.

“There you are,” he said.  His voice was loud in the empty room.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey there,” said Renee.

We were glad to have the company.

“You get the goods?” He slapped my back.  “You give him the goods?” he asked Renee.

I told him I had the goods.  Renee said so, too.

“Great,” said France.  And to Renee, “I almost thought you’d back out.”

“Nah,” she said.  “It’s no big deal to me.  I just don’t want to hear about it from anyone else.”

France nodded, asked for a beer.

“Sure thing,” said Renee.  She turned to fetch another glass.  Her back to us, she asked, “So why do they call you France, anyway?”

He released a peal of wet, wide laughter.

“It’s a long story,” he said.  “Some other time.”

@@@

(France’s real name was Philip.

The nickname: He once drunkenly told a woman, upon welcoming her to his apartment for the first time, that she would do well to call his place “France.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because,” he said, “that’s the place where the naked ladies dance,” and he pointed to his bedroom.

She left.

He became France.)

@@@

I was half-cocked when I got back to my apartment.  I placed the bag on the dining room table.  I hung my coat on the back of a chair.  Then I went to the tub, grimy from use and lack of care, and ran some hot water.

I grabbed the bag from the table and brought it back into the bathroom.  I ran my hand under the rush of water, and it was too hot.  I added some cold.  Then it was too cold.  I cursed and got the hot going hotter.

I sat on the toilet and took them out of the bag and looked at them.  They were off-white, cotton, sparsely decorated with a pattern of little red and yellow rabbits poised to hop this way and that.

And they were old, just as Renee had said they were.  Her many wearings and washings had pilled them in several areas.  They were no longer their intended color—or their original shape, even.

And there was a violent and dark brownish-red stain in the crotch area.

I studied it, thought of Renee.  She was nice enough.  I liked her blonde hair, long and often pulled behind her head.  I liked her laugh.  She had nice lips.  And she was easygoing, funny.  Strange and personable and tall.  Boyish, a heavy drinker.  With a large, round ass.

I put my nose on the red stain and breathed deeply, thinking of Renee.  It was alkaline and sweaty, like pennies and bleach and fish heads.  Renee.

Renee.

I balled them up and put them on the lid of the hamper in the corner.

Then I went back to the water, and it was too hot again.

“Goddamn it,” I said loudly.

@@@

France kept calling.  I knew it was him, and I wouldn’t answer.

I also knew of the party that night.  And I knew of some mutual friends gathering at a nearby bar, and there was something else happening somewhere else.  I couldn’t remember what.  France probably knew.  I wouldn’t answer.

It was around 9 p.m.  I walked to the store down the street and grabbed some beer.  Then France called again.  I twisted the cap off one of the beers.  OK, I thought, to hell with it.

“Yeah.”

“You avoiding my calls tonight?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why?  Didn’t you hear about that party later?”  He was incredulous.

“I heard, France, but I don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?”

“I don’t feel so hot.”

“C’mon,” he said.

“I don’t.”

“C’mon,” he said.

I didn’t say anything.

“Don’t you want to try them out?  I’m dying to know if this works.”

“Then you try them out,” I said.  “I have some writing to do at home,” I said.

“I doubt that.”

“I do.  I need to write.”

“You don’t want to know if this works?”

“Lee already said it did.  Talk to Lee.”

“Lee,” he declared, “is probably full of shit.  He drinks too much.”

“All the more reason to forget about it.”

France yelled, giggled, then said something unintelligible.

“I’m coming over,” he continued, and he hung up.  Or maybe I hung up.  I can’t remember.

@@@

I handed him a beer when he came in.

“Take a seat.”

“I’m not sitting,” he replied curtly. “Neither are you.  Get your shoes on.  Drain this drink and get another in you.  We’re going to this party.”

I just looked at him.  He rushed into the living room and put on a record.

I sighed and rose to my feet, tilting the bottle upward and into my mouth.  France craned his head around the corner and yelled something like “THAT’S THE TICKET, YOU RAPSCALLION!”

I smiled with much effort on the way to the bathroom.  I walked in, looked at the grimy tub, then moved to the side of the toilet.  I opened the hamper, dug out Renee’s underwear.  I sniffed them again.  I put them in my back pocket.

When I came out, France was digging two more bottles out of the fridge.

“You got Red Renee on you?” he smirked.  There was something blaring on the stereo in the next room over.  He was really feeling good about himself.

“Yes.”

“Can I see them?”

“No,” I said.  Before he could argue, I added: “Let’s get this over with.”

He twisted both bottles open and really let the laughs fly.  “I love you, you bastard!” he yelled.

“I’m not too crazy about you right now,” I said.

“You’re a crazy bastard!” he yelled.  “We’re both crazy bastards!”

He ducked back into the living room, spun the volume knob on the stereo.  I think the windows rattled.

@@@

We were both uncomfortable at the party.  I had the feeling I was a few years older than everyone.  France had the feeling everyone was rich.  I always had that feeling.  I just assumed everyone was.  It didn’t matter anymore.

“At least there are women here,” France said.

It was true.  There seemed to be dozens of them.  I counted.  There were actually ten.  But they were all smiling, laughing, dancing—drunk.  Their activity multiplied their presence.  They had the projection of dozens.  It filled the room.

The buzzer went off.  A few folks cleared a path while a well-dressed man named Toby made his way to the speakerbox to the side of the door.  He pushed one of the intercom’s three rectangular buttons and said “COME IN!”  He had a deep announcer’s voice that sounded of black licorice and ball bearings.  It was his apartment.

He retreated to a neighboring room.  The living room, I assumed.

More men and women piled in.

“Grist for the mill!” yelled France.  He hoisted a drink.  He was also drunk.

Some guy we didn’t know grinned at us.  A girl screamed and carried on into hysterical laughter in the neighboring room, from where there issued loud music that started, stopped, started, stopped in a comical staccato.  I gathered that the screaming woman and Toby were fighting over the stereo.  His giggles joined hers.  He, too, was drunk.

I glanced around at everyone talking to each other in the kitchen.  I sipped my beer.  I wasn’t much for conversation.

France was.  He moved along and talked with a couple girls in a corner.

I looked for the bathroom.

Someone motioned: “It’s at the end of that hall over there.”  The man gestured down a long hall off the kitchen.  I nodded and started walking that way.

France called after me.  I heard him say something to the two girls as he beckoned me to his corner.

I motioned to the bathroom, nearly ran there.

@@@

I stood in front of a mirror and looked at myself.  I turned the faucet on.  I stared in the mirror for a while.  Then I opened the medicine cabinet, inspected its contents: Noxzema, some prescription medications, tweezers, a couple disposable razors, a figure-8 case for contact lenses, errant cotton swabs, some pennies, empty box that once contained bandages.  I shut the cabinet and looked in the mirror again.  Deeply, this time, studying the pores on my nose, my teeth, my eyes.  I didn’t look good.

I brought out Red Renee.  Sniff, sniff.

I turned the faucet off and left the bathroom.

@@@

As I made my way to France and the two girls, I heard him say, above an increasing, thrumming hubbub of intoxicated men and women: “Well, my name’s actually Francisco.”  And he turned to me and said, “Have you met our two new friends yet?”

I said I hadn’t.

“We haven’t met,” one of them agreed.  She was mousy and short.  A redhead.

We exchanged names, shook hands.  She introduced me to her friend, whose name I learned, hand I shook.  And she asked the question about what I do, and I said, “Nothing.”

She smiled, sipped, blinked.  France frowned.

“C’mon, tell her what you do.  Tell them what you do.”

“I don’t do anything,” I said.

France made up a lie about my attending school—grad school.  I glared at him.

“Tell them about school,” he said.

“It’s great,” I lied.  “Learning a lot.  Busy.”

Mousy wanted to know what I studied.

“Writing,” I said.

“You write?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.  I affected a papery enthusiasm.  “But not the Great American Novel.  No.  Mine will be a subterranean romp.”

She nodded, sipped, blinked.

“Lots of kink, too,” I continued.  “No love in my book.  Just belt in the mouth, boot in the ass.”

Her eyes searched the room for something, anything.

@@@

Lee walked into the party.

“There he is!” screamed France.

Christ, I thought.

We waved.  Lee waved in return: a languid, happy signal.  Some other folks greeted him.  He was wearing a vest and a blazer.  He looked drunk and happy.  I wondered how I looked to Lee.

He didn’t know about Renee in my back pocket.  Neither did the girls, of course.  No one did.

Except France, who now cornered Mousy’s friend.  She was his height and was, like him, a brunette.  I could tell she liked him because she seemed to be feigning shyness.  I could tell he liked her because he talked so loudly.

I continued with Mousy.  Lee walked into the adjoining room, where I heard him greet another group of folks who were eager to see him.

“Who is that?” she asked.

“That’s Lee,” I said.

“He seems nice,” she said.

“He’s something,” I said.

My papery enthusiasm was now watery.  I knew it would soon become wooden, and, finally, empty—gone.  Gone.

I was drunk.

@@@

I woke to the phone.  I let it ring a few times before I cursed and answered it.

“What?” I asked.

“Well?”  It was France.

“You want to know if it worked,” I guessed.

“Yes,” he said.

“It didn’t,” I said.  “I’m alone.”

“Anything else?”

I paused.  “I’m tired.  I have a headache.  I have a hangover.”  It was true.  I had a mouth of charcoal and caramel, a heart of brittle birdbones, a belly of curdled air.  I brought my right hand to my temple and rubbed.

“At least you tried,” he said.

“And failed,” I added.  “Like I told you I would from the beginning.”

France said nothing to this.

“Are you happy now?” I asked.

He laughed and said, “Not really.”

“Good,” I said, and I hung up.