sporklet 14

Douglas W. Milliken

Wetnap & the Sensualist

But hell, I started out wanting to tell you about matching drinks with the Mule up at the Poptimistic—this was the same day everyone had thought his more-than-trade-but-less-than-boyfriend Twink had drowned in the river of trash, the same day no one would take my money no matter how insistently I begged, not even the cabby after she helped me get the homeless couple and their sick baby to the nuns’ hospital by the highway, not until I found the Mule walking alone in the rain by the Amtrak tracks, eyes like burnt-out gun wounds in a thunderhead, who told me yes, absolutely, without question, I could buy him a drink—so the Mule and I took up our roost way in the back, far from the glowy dance floor and jukebox and over instead near the pool tables no one ever used on account of the felt was all tore to shit, the two of us rain-wet and weary on either side of a dinky table where we had a good view of the whole bar but no one could easily see us. The dusky maze of the Poptimistic was halfway filled with rummies and bums, which made it feel cozy the way only a stormy day barroom can feel cozy. Like we were all here together surviving something as a brotherhood, celebrating the good fortune of our being inside. The simple immersion into the promise of booze amid strangers made me feel way better about my everything. Warm and a little dopey and in love with my anonymity within the caul of the Poptimistic. The Mule and I each were absorbed in our dollar drink specials because it was that kind of place, beer from unlabeled kegs and vodka from unlabeled bottles, and it must’ve been Two for Tuesday because our table filled up quick in a mess of too many empty glasses glazed in pilsner scum and anonymous pink mixer, and to be honest, this was likely the one and only comradely moment the Mule and I ever shared—me with the suburban confidence of up until recently still having a permanent address and he with the Blanche DuBois impregnability of being gay and homeless and alive—we each of us blathering not so much to each other as near each other as to the harsh mystery of love and youth.

“Okay, stop me if you’ve never heard this one. My first time? Was with my best friend at a sleepover. As if that’s never happened before. Just hands, dicks, and tongues right under his parents’ nose. I think we thought we were practicing for something better coming just around the bend.”

I’m certain one of us said this. But I’ll be damned if I could tell you who.

“Never would have guessed we were what we were waiting for.”

Oozing from the jukebox, something gross by the Stones slinked and skulked the room, from the tacky dance floor to the beery bar. Ever feel like Mick Jagger’s voice is somehow too his handsy hands? Me neither. Yet across the way, the only woman in the Poptimistic threw back her head and laughed at something said by a man with a face full of scars, so what do I know about a handsy voice? An avalanche of blonde hair pouring down her back: she laughed like she owned the place. And maybe she did. Chances are good, if she made an offer, she could own me, too.

“Kids at my school used to call me Houdini,” and this I know for sure was the Mule. He was rotating the sweatband on his parakeet wrist like the way some widowers rotate their wedding rings. “I’d learned a couple magic tricks, I guess, to delight and entertain.”

It was hard work tearing my eyes from the woman with the blonde, blonde hair. From what I’d heard, the kid had more than just a couple tricks. But I didn’t see any reason to mention that now.

“I never had any nicknames growing up,” I said, though really, I had no way of knowing. How could I? “I’ve only ever been me.”

To this, though, the Mule snorted and rolled his eyes. His mascara was really something. All that rain!

Now I don’t want to say there was anything like a sexual feeling happening between he and I right then, but to use words like “father” or “uncle” in this context feels immeasurably worse. Is it wrong to want to clean the tears from the eyes of a broken queen? To hold his fragile hand like it’s the tiniest fallen bird? It honest to god makes my heart hurt, how we all walk around so fractured and armored against our loneliness, too cagey to admit that we’ve always been cagey. My bet is half the people in this room are just wishing they could hug their moms one last time. Bet that’s what all of us are looking for— excuse me, I don’t mean to be a barroom philosopher, but isn’t that what we’re each looking for? In the bottom euphoria of any escape and the illusion of each other’s eyes. The sweet hugging narcotic of unconditional love we were promised and never received.

So sure, why not, let’s bandy that word around. From the fucked-up face to the laughing blonde avalanche to the powder-burnt, bullet hole eyes. Pass my love all around. Like a dirty diaper or a hat at open mic. Keep it moving. Don’t hold on long enough to get burned.

“So what’s the deal,” I asked the kid then, “are you still high or what?” Seemed to me like he had the shakes pretty bad. If he tried to strike a match for that cigarette he’d been worrying, he’d never get it lit.

What I was referring to, of course, was the speedball or whatever powder drug it was he and Twink had shared earlier while playing house in an abandoned train car alongside the river of trash, Twink dipping his dink into the plastic baggie over and over again while the Mule recklessly snorted it all up, one cockful of oblivion at a time, taking neither heed nor stock of his crazy nasal intact until it was too late, too much, and he was way too high to put up anything like a fight. So much fine white dusting his brain, icing crystals between his synapses, shit, at that point he could have been anyone or anything. A personless doll or a lotion-wet napkin. Twink could do what he pleased. Which he did, with gusto, then ditched the Mule in that rusted-out train car while the trash river eddied and burped in scummy perpetuity, ankles tangled in his dirtied underpants and on the cusp of a fantastic OD. Just a little bit drowning in his own vomit and maybe wishing he could hug his mom. But that was hours ago, long before I found the Mule railroad-side moping with his wet cigarettes and sweatbands in the rain.

“Not at all, Coleman,” is the answer he finally landed on. He blew some bubbles in the pink ectoplasm of his cocktail. Like a little kid with his daily milk. “Not even a little.”

It was just about then that Twink sauntered into the Poptimistic. Or anyway, that’s when I noticed his centerfold torso parsing the room like a barrel-chested prow. Maybe he’d been there all along. Maybe I was the last to see. He was in the company of two women who looked way too fresh to be in a place like this—by which I mean they should have been in study hall—their cartoonish little hands wrapped real tight around each of Twink’s profound biceps distending the sleeves of his stripy black-and-white T. How’d we ever convince ourselves a man like Twink could die? A brand new starch-white sailor’s cap perched jauntily above his brow. All lust and all power. Military-grade dick. America! These girls likely were in the company of their fathers when Twink scooped them into his wake. And what possibly could the fathers do? What defense can anyone launch against this, this primordial sensualist?

It’s amazing how guys like Twink can own all the kids he finds.

It’s amazing how we let him.

“When I was in high school,” I said then, “my basketball coach would make us each lick the basketball. The whole team. All of us huddled up to give that dirty ball a long lick.”

The pebbly feel of textured rubber on my tongue—

“What, was that some sort of good luck thing or something?”

—slick with the spit of my friends.

“Not the way you mean,” I said. But I was smiling around the words.

I wonder what those pebbles are called.

Twink had the girls now on the light-up dance floor, each colored square flashing on and off wherever he let their feet fall. I do not think you could call what they were doing “dancing” in any legal sense of the word.

“I think I know what you mean,” the Mule said. “I mean, my old man—”

“I hear you, kid.” And like a show of solidarity, I picked up a used straw and blew some bubbles in my beer. “I know exactly what you mean.” I was thinking right then of the homeless family I’d found earlier, squatting in their garbage shelter along the river. Their baby had been a dying monster. Then we got it fixed up.

“Fucker booted me on my fourteenth birthday.”

But isn’t the concept of healing just another violence against us who are broken? Dreamily, I smiled through this room of spilt beer and men who’ve resigned their names, the bad breath and missing teeth and the impossibility of ever remembering, Have I told you this one before? It’s rude to tell people they can be better than they are.

The avalanche laughed.

Twink’s hand sliced the air.

One of the girls made a sound.

“You’re okay, kid.”

And though I know these words came from my mouth, the voice sounded high above me.

“We all are. We’re all gonna be okay.”

Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novels To Sleep as Animals and Our Shadows’ Voice, the collection Blue of the World, four chapbooks, and several multidisciplinary collaborations, most recently [STORAGE] with the Bare Portland theater collective. His honors include prizes from the Pushcart Foundation, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, Glimmer Train, and RA & Pin Drop Studios, among others. He lives with his domestic and creative partner, Genevieve Johnson, in the industrial riverscape of Saco, Maine. www.douglaswmilliken.com