The next morning I sat in the back of Steve Scanlon’s claustrophobic, gleaming monster of a car. I was bookend with Tom McDannen, and the both of us were pinched in by George Rubio’s uncompromising girth. I couldn’t move so I just stared out the window. I wondered what Amanda Evarts was doing. I needed a cigarette, but Steve wouldn’t let anyone smoke in the Lexus. I hardly said a thing at all. Talk to whom? No one here would care what I had to say. And to make matters worse, I still hadn’t apologized to Calvin for the way I treated him in front of Karl, and God only knows how many others.
I guess I should start at the beginning.
I had gotten drunk with Karl a few hours before Calvin was to pick me up for this damned trip to Atlantic City. Amanda had just left and I began to panic over everything she’d told me. I mean I didn’t get nuts. I didn’t think about breaking up with her. I guess I just freaked out. I got upset about the fact that someone I’d been intimate with hadn’t been completely honest with me, and that my complete and total desire to not be alone had made me brush it off like it was nothing. Yeah, I know I told Amanda it was all right. Yeah, I know I was being kind of a hypocrite. But at least I was a hypocrite in private. Anyway, I called Karl. He came over to help me drown my sorrows with a pint of vodka, and a six-pack of cheap beer. I didn’t tell him what we were sad over. I’m sure he assumed it was Sarah, because how could I be upset over Amanda Evarts so early in the game? I had called Noah too, but he wasn’t around. Karl thought he might’ve been at work.
By the time Calvin showed up I guess I was in rare form. I was probably in a blind, drunken rage. I scarcely remember hurling beer cans, and insulting everyone. I was picking fights. The booze and Amanda had turned me into an uncharacteristic monster. The goddamned things I said, I could only imagine. And poor Cal, I know he got the worst of it. One could only guess what I’d said to him.
No matter. It was enough that he gave me the cold shoulder all that morning. He avoided me as I groaned through the Scanlon house, drinking orange juice and two of Steve’s father’s beers to combat my hangover, and the major urge I had to vomit. I honestly felt bad about everything. I wanted to apologize. I found myself always wanting to apologize to Calvin DeFlino now. But it would have to wait. I’d catch good old Calvin in Atlantic City. We’d talk. It would all get squared away and made right.
Then I reached inside my pocket. I felt tiny pills jostling about. They were Zoloft pills that Karl had boosted from a co-worker’s locker. He had given me a few so that I could put up with the weekend. I took one of the yellow pills and tossed it in my mouth. I wasn’t exactly sure what it would do. It was no cigarette, for sure, but it would have to suffice until we reached Atlantic City. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. It was no good. The pill made me jittery and it made my mind wander. I couldn’t stop thinking about Amanda Evarts and sixteen, and what it felt like to fuck her.
Atlantic City came upon us. It was a merciless mini-metropolis made of glass, metal, and gold. The town was wrapped up in painted sprays of muted pink and blue pastel. We hit the hotel; the wide and looming Trump Plaza on Mississippi Avenue of all places. The Zoloft I’d taken had begun to really kick in. I felt alive. Restless. My head was completely numb and without pain. My arms felt like rubber. My legs felt loose. Best of all, I couldn’t think straight. No more worries over Calvin and Amanda, and my ceaseless eternity of sadness.
“Christ, Javorski!” Steve yelled. “Quit kicking my seat, you goddamned nicotine fiend.”
“Fine, fine!” I shouted.
We stepped out of the car. I walked over to Calvin and surprised him by slinging a sweaty arm over his shoulders. All was forgiven, right? “Do you believe this place, Cal?”
He smiled slightly. He wasn’t sure how to take me. That was fine. He’d come around. “It’s pretty cool.” Calvin gazed up at the rising white of the Trump. “I kind of feel important here.”
“Yeah, yeah, important,” I said. Sweat was running down my face but I felt dry. My heart thumped wildly and I lit a smoke. I danced slightly. I watched Atlantic City live before my eyes. I took another Zoloft out of my pocket and handed it to Calvin. At first he was wary, but then he accepted it without question. I pulled him tighter. “Once we get checked-in, we should walk around this whole place and just take it all in!”
“Hey assholes!” Steve called from the back of the car. He had all of our bags and a cooler of beer out on the ground. In his hands were our fake I.D.s. He happily doled them out.
“I can’t believe you jaggoffs got me breakin the law like this,” Tom moaned.
“Fucking-A!” George shouted, looking at his.
“Just don’t do anything to give my mom and dad a bad name,” Steve added.
We were on the twelfth floor of the Trump Plaza. It was a two-room suite that had wide ocean view windows. The room had no actual living space because of how many of us there were. But who dawdles in their room in Atlantic City? There was a large bathroom with a shower and basin-wide sink that cut between the two rooms. There was a large king-sized bed in one room, and three foldout singles in the other.
Calvin and I lost straws and had to share the king-sized bed. Nothing like close quarters to heal a friendship. Our room had a massive television set loaded with pay-per-view channels, and a ton of channels that played nothing but a biography on Donald Trump. Trump’s smug face looked back at me, as Calvin and I hopped around, smoking cigarettes, and buzzing off of the Zoloft. We took turns staring at the rolling, green waves of the ocean. There was even a refrigerator which we stocked full of the beer Steve had brought.
The five of us went to an Egyptian-themed restaurant. What a place that was! In the middle of the dining area was a multi-spouted fountain placed at the top of a sculpted pyramid. People marveled at the thing. A pack of Pharaoh-clad waiters and waitresses descended upon us, and we all ordered a seven-course meal. Plate after plate came our way. The main course was a rack of lamb smothered in a blood-red raspberry sauce, and a slice of dark chocolate cake to finish. I washed it all down with two vodka and sodas, and a beer, in an effort to keep my pill buzz going. The I.D.s were a success. Then I looked across the table at Calvin. He was still high, and enraptured in the pulsating movement of a fleet of belly dancers. His mouth was wet with the seedy drip of saliva. I gave him a toast. Whatever I did or said or insinuated the night before, I hoped that the pill-drugged fool had forgiven me.
After the meal, we all split up. We divided into two groups. Steve and George went off to play blackjack. Tom, Calvin, and I strolled off to weed our way through the endless rows of slot machines. I had never been in a casino before, and the sensory overload of flashing lights and echoing sounds was a bit rough. In all directions came the clanking of coins into metallic slots, the scooping of change into wide, plastic cups emblazoned with “Trump Plaza” in bold, diamond-studded letters. Hundreds of silver levers with thick, black knobs were being pulled in unison, and then let go as blurry images of fruit, symbols, or words flashed by hungry faces in three square-shaped boxes. Occasionally the joyous sound of a slot machine relieving itself of its bank invaded the air and caused a stir. People pulled on their machines with greater vigor as the winner collected their cash, and accepted a drink from one of the circulating waitresses. I took it all in, the circus-like madness of the joint. Then I took another Zoloft pill. I handed Calvin one. You needed to be high in Atlantic City.
Tom left us for the poker tables. I followed Calvin over to a caged-in security area where he exchanged his dollars for coins. He brought back one of the “Trump Cups,” and set it on the mirrored surface of a game called Luck of the Draw. He slid his chair in to play. Twenty-minutes later, and Calvin was still losing a lot of money. He looked sweaty and pathetic. I looked at the slots all round us, gleaming, destroying people’s lives. What a waste. I wouldn’t play the damn things.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
“Mmm,” Calvin mumbled.
I left the casino and went out into the salty ocean air. My head was swirling with pills and booze. I went over to a wooden fence, and started into the black void of the ocean and infinity. Then I pulled out a smoke and lit it. I dialed Amanda’s number on my cell phone. It rang once, twice, three times, and then the voice mail came on. There was Amanda’s voice telling me to leave a message. I wondered where in the world she was in that moment. Was she thinking of me? Was she all right? I let the message play out, but at the beep I just hung the phone up. Still, I needed to talk to someone in that moment. I felt so alone staring at the ocean, as people walked up and down the boardwalk and had conversations. So I called Noah.
“I thought you were in Atlantic City this weekend,” he said.
“Yeah, but it’s a drag.”
“Go to a strip club or something.”
“What are you doing?”
“At the Cage?”
I listened in. “How come it’s so quiet?”
“I don’t know...slow night?”
Noah sighed. “Big Al, I have to go. Come and see me when you get back. Come up to the Cage and we’ll hang.”
“Sounds good,” I said. Then he hung up.
Back in the casino, I found Calvin in a state of absolute exuberance and sweating insanity. He was at his slot machine and bouncing around like a madman. When he saw me his eyes lit up, and he started frantically waving me over.
“Holy Shit!” he exclaimed. He grabbed my collar. “I just won six-hundred-dollars! I told you slots were winners! Steve always said I was an idiot for playing the same machine for too long.” He laughed. Calvin took another look up at where his ticket was printing out. “Who’s the idiot now?”
Then an attractive, surly-looking, waitress carrying a drink-less tray descended upon us.
“What do I do with this?” Calvin asked her.
“Well, first you have to rip the ticket out of the machine,” she said, condescendingly. Then she proceeded to do it herself. Calvin cringed as the waitress tore at his prize. “And then you take it over there.” She pointed over toward the same, small caged-in booth. “Sal will take care of it for you.”
We walked cautiously over to Sal. He took Calvin’s ticket, and stared at it a few seconds. Then he punched a few keys into a keyboard. Soon Sal placed a set of six one-hundred-dollar bills on the wooden counter before us. I’d never seen so much cash at once. It made me feel bad about being broke all of the time, and needing money for college and the apartment. And there was my pal getting money for nothing. Quickly, Calvin scooped the fresh bills off of the counter, and shoved the money into his pocket. Then he bummed a smoke off of me, and we left the casino.
The boardwalk was covered with trinket shops selling t-shirts and palm readings. Calvin went mad inside almost all of them. He bought tons of worthless crap. He had his sorry fortune told, and then paid two more times to hear more. Calvin picked up t-shirts that had stupid sayings emblazoned on them, and more money was blown on a pair of cheap sunglasses that looked like a pair some no good actor wore. Calvin wore them in the darkness of the night. He was acting like an idiot with a little dough. It was the biggest waste of time and money that I’d ever seen. And he wasn’t even done. All of those foolish trinkets and threadbare t-shirts hadn’t made a dent in his winnings. After we dropped the shit off in the room, we ended up back at the wooden fence on the boardwalk, tired, and running out of things to do. I lit a cigarette and listened to the ocean.
Calvin stepped away from the fence. He began to breathe heavily. His face lost some color.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Come on, Cal.”
Then he breathed heavily some more. “I don’t want to hear about you and Amanda anymore.”
“I’m sorry about that...whatever it was that I said,” I answered. “I was really drunk last night. I should’ve apologized this morning.”
“You didn’t say much, Alex. Maybe I’m just not ready to hear anything about you and Amanda, good or bad. I wish that I was, but I just don’t like the thoughts it puts into my head, you know. Plus I still have to see her at work, and....”
“I won’t mention a thing at all,” I interrupted. “I’ll just keep my trap shut until you tell me you’re comfortable.”
“That’s what I want.”
“Then that’s what you’ll get.”
“She doesn’t even look at me anymore,” Calvin said.
Then we were silent a moment.
“What do you want to do now?” Calvin asked. He looked relieved.
“You’re the one with all of the money.”
He thought for a second and then smiled. “I think I want a beer,” he said. “And I want to see some girls.”
The two of us wandered the boardwalk, until we reached an opening and came out on the street. The residential area of Atlantic City was shadowed in a gold tint from the hue of the boardwalk’s majesty. The streets were about as run down and dingy as several parts of Pittsburgh. They were Monopoly streets with Monopoly names. Many of them were thin, almost alley-like, and dark. There were abandoned homes lining the decrepit sidewalk. Soon we found a bar called Jezebel’s. It was nothing more than a strip club beckoning the monetary winnings of dupes from out of state. A sign posted on the sculpted cubes of glass by the door read: Take your winnings to Jezebel’s, in heavy black ink. It was surrounded by amateurish drawings of flowing coins and moneybags.
Inside, Jezebel’s was a motif of gaudiness and green. It had a forest green carpet, sea foam colored walls, and emerald green tablecloths on the round, packed tables. Even the bar was lacquered a pale green with a gold bar that outlined the wide length of it. Calvin and I took our seats at one of the last tables in back. Drunken men screamed and shouted. There were no other women in the joint but hostesses, and dancers gyrating a long stage. Four women danced and slid on poles. They were completely naked, and writhing suggestively in the red faces of fat husbands and loners.
A hostess came over. “Can I interest you fellows in a drink?” She was a brunette. She said her name was, Sue. Sue set down a couple of napkins. She smiled at Calvin’s hypnotized gaze. She wasn’t bad looking by strip club standards. She was a little older, maybe pushing forty, but probably still able to exude a masterful sexuality. Sue was topless except for pasties on her nipples. Calvin held up a twenty-dollar bill, without removing his eyes from them. Sue took the money with a roll of her eyes and a mothering smile. “Can I interest either of you in a lap dance tonight?”
“What exactly goes on with a lap dance?” Calvin inquired.
“Basically you go into a room. One of the girls comes in, hops on top of you, and does a nice little dance.”
“Naked.” Sue smiled. “Only, you can’t touch her. You have to be a gentleman. That means your arms have to be at your sides the whole time. A bouncer accompanies the two of you to make sure no funny business goes on.”
“How much?” he asked.
“Forty-five dollars. Plus you have to buy two soft drinks for your dancer.”
“Alright, I’ll do it!” Calvin enthusiastically got up from the table. He handed me a twenty. “Alex, are you cool to wait here?”
I quickly grabbed the twenty and shoved it in my shirt pocket. I pointed at the stage full of naked women. “I think I’ll manage.”
Sue led Calvin away toward this hole in the wall. A fool and his money, I thought, as he disappeared out of sight. I stayed where I was and had a drink on Calvin’s twenty. I watched the girls dance, but soon the whole set up bored me. The women did nothing for me. I missed Amanda, and all I wanted was to hear her voice. So I stepped out of Jezebel’s and tried calling her again on my phone. I got no answer again. I got the voice mail. I checked my watch. It was damned near eleven o’clock. Where in the hell was Amanda Evarts? I was both worried and mad. I left an urgent message asking her to get back to me. Then I went back inside the strip club.
“Hey Sue. Where’s the bathroom?” I asked, when she came back over to the table.
“Over there.” She pointed toward where she’d lead Calvin.
“I thought that was for lap dances?”
“There’s a can back there, too.”
I got up from my seat and emptied the rest of my beer down my throat. I shook the bottle in a crass, demanding way, and then handed it to Sue. Then I limped off to drain myself. Inside the break in the wall was another, smaller room with two long, black couches facing each other. On every cushion sat some drunk with a naked girl bouncing on his crotch. Forty-five-dollars and you got dry humped in public while men went to and from the bathroom behind you. Pathetic.
Then I saw Calvin. He was on the end cushion with his head back and his eyes closed. Calvin’s cheap, high school moustache wrinkled. He wore a look of pain or enjoyment on his thin face. Calvin had his hands rigidly at his side, but his fingers were clenched, ready to grab the ass of the auburn-haired stripper, as she shook it in his face. Calvin wasn’t even looking. His goddamned eyes were closed. The bouncer standing over him had a long, superior grin. I felt sad and sickened, and somewhat responsible all at once.
Then Calvin began to gyrate. Slowly at first and then quick for a few seconds, until he stopped all together and raised his sweating head to look at the stripper with eyes full of shock. He’d cum in his pants. She put her arms around his shoulders, and leaned in like she was feigning some afterglow of her own. Calvin mindlessly shook his head, deep in some lost thought. What was he thinking about? Sue? Some other girl? Amanda? The stripper and the bouncer exchanged glances and smirks. I entered the bathroom before Calvin rose and saw me.
We didn’t stay long after it was all over. Calvin sat through one drink at the bar, and then handed the stripper ten dollars so that she could buy the other one herself. We didn’t talk much when he came back and sat with me. Calvin and I just stared blankly at the strippers on the stage, as he shifted restlessly in his seat. Eventually he started talking. He was quiet at first, but then he became boisterous and boastful. Calvin started talking about his lap dance as if it was some conquest on his part. I didn’t bother to tell him what I saw. We left.
In the Trump Plaza, the casino was still packed with people. Atlantic City was one great and never-ending party. Everyone was still winning and losing. Waitresses were still passing out the drinks. Steve and George were still playing blackjack. Tom was bent over a poker table, examining his cards. They all looked haggard and tired. What a place to end it all. Atlantic City was a great neon suicide.
In the room I undressed by the light of the television set. Donald Trump’s biography was on again. He looked seedier than he had before. Calvin showered in the bathroom, getting all that sinfulness off as quickly as he could. I checked my watch. It was now twelve-thirty. Amanda hadn’t called. I went to dial her cell, but then I gave it up. I just lay down on the bed. I was half asleep when Calvin came out of the bathroom. He crawled onto the far end of the bed. My bet was he was still fully clothed. I was going to turn and say something, but I didn’t. Calvin had quietly begun to cry. So I shut my eyes and listened to the ocean, and the waves as they roared below.