Prime Decimals 11.5
by Mark Richardson
followed by Q&A
I’m masquerading as an exotic dancer to win the heart of Param Singh.
“Are you a new girl?” asks a Latina who’s officially on payroll.
I’d just exited the bathroom where I’d stuffed my trench coat deep into the garbage can. I only wore the coat to get past the doorman. Cleavage is climbing out of the skimpy outfit that was hidden underneath; my breasts are inviting.
“Just keep away from my regulars, girlfriend,” the Latina says, looks me up and down, and then struts toward the bar.
Her chocolate eyes betrayed no suspicion that I’m a fraud.
Param is a vice president at the financial software company where I’m an administrative assistant. He moved here from India and speaks with very precise English. He wears pressed suits and polished shoes and I have a crazy-mad crush on him. I think he’s lonely because he visits this strip club, “The Barbary Coast,” every Friday night. I know this because I’ve been following him for months.
I walk toward the Copenhagen room.
Inside it’s extra dark with little partitioned rooms, each with a sofa and a curtain you can slide shut. Girls take clients inside for lap dances. Three weeks ago, Param spent most of the night in one of these rooms with a redhead. I have no idea how much she made, but I suspect it’s more than I make in a week. That night, two separate strippers approached me in the corner where I was trying to blend into the wall and asked if I wanted a dance. If you’re a woman, they must suspect you’re a lesbian. I’m not.
Param isn’t here yet. It’s only 6:45 and he arrives every Friday at 7:00. One thing I like about Param: he’s always on time. If a meeting starts at 12:30, he’s there at 12:30.
I feel a hand squeeze my ass.
“Can I have a dance?”
The hand belongs to a tall man with an early Beatles-style hair cut. It sticks up in back, like Alfalfa. Well, not exactly like Alfalfa, but it sticks up.
You can’t successfully masquerade as an exotic dancer and turn down a client, so I take the hand off my ass and pull him into one of the rooms.
“How much?” he asks.
“What you got?”
“I was hoping for two.”
“Well, I’ve only got one hundred.”
“Okay, but my top stays on.” I never had any intention of taking off my top, but I think negotiating like this makes me seem legit. Not that it would really matter to Alfalfa. He’s going to have a pretty young girl rub her ass on his crotch whether she’s officially on the payroll or not.
Another thing I like about Param: he has impeccable manners. If someone sneezes, he always says, “God bless you.” It’s close to impossible to find a decent fella in this town. My last three boyfriends were a married man, a dope fiend, and a ne'er-do-well. I deserve a gentleman.
Alfalfa sits. I stuff the cash into my bra, turn my back to him, bend down, and start grinding. I can feel that he’s enjoying it. I mean, literally feel it. He’s wearing khaki pants.
Alfalfa puts his mouth right up to my ear and whispers, “I like dirty talk.”
“That’s because you’re such a bad boy.”
“I am. I am a bad boy.”
“Do you need a spanking?
It goes on like this.
One thing I don’t like about Param: he doesn’t know who I am. He never says hi to me in the hallways or acknowledges me when I hold the door open for him. When I follow him, I don’t always keep a safe distance, because I’m sure he couldn’t pick me out of a crowd.
Alfalfa tells me he’s going to the ATM to get more money so he can have another dance, but it’s practically 7:00 and I need to find Param.
I fling open the curtain, adjust the bottom of my outfit, and then see Param already on the other side of the room. He’s talking to a redhead who has legs like a showgirl. She’s playfully tugging his shirt with her fingertips.
Note to self: Param likes redheads, consider dying your hair.
Alfalfa’s behind me saying, “Just wait here, I’ll be right back,” but I don’t wait. I force myself between Param and the redhead. “Sorry, girlfriend, this one’s mine,” I say, and flash a winning smile.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she says. Her pupils grow wide.
“We have a regular thing,” I say, “every Friday night.”
“Ah. Well. Whatever.” She stomps away.
I take Param into the room Alfalfa and I just left; I know I do good work there. I close the curtain, but before we can sit down, Param says, “Mary, what are you doing here?”
This I hadn’t anticipated. My plan was that Param would offer me money, which I’d decline, telling him I found him so attractive I wanted to do it for free. Param, of course, would like this arrangement, and we’d agree to meet here every week. Eventually we’d move the operation to his apartment on Sacramento Street, and as he grew to know me better, we’d become a couple. The exact details weren’t fleshed out, but that was the general plan.
“You recognize me?”
“Of course, Mary, you work just down the hallway from me. I see you five days a week. You keep a Garfield stuffed animal and a jar full of jelly beans on your desk.”
“Maybe you want a lap dance, no charge.”
“Mary…” But before Param can finish, the curtain flies open. There’s a bald man the size of a Buick in the doorway. The redhead with the legs is peeking around him and saying, “That’s her, that’s the bitch. I don’t even think she works here.”
The bald man doesn’t say a word, but with one huge hand he grabs my arm and leads me toward the exit. His grip doesn’t hurt, it’s just firm. Param follows behind saying, “Excuse me, sir, can we discuss this?” He’s polite even in a crisis.
Once we get to the front door, the big man stops and says, “If you want a job, come back and fill out an application.” His eyes don’t wander down to my chest; the restraint impresses me. He pushes me out the door.
It’s cold outside. Param appears behind me. “Mary,” he says, “I don’t understand.”
“What’s to understand? Can’t a girl decide to sneak into a strip club and offer men free lap dances?”
I’m a little rattled that things haven’t unfolded as I planned, so instead of talking more, I start to walk down the street. I walk quickly, with big strides, which turn into skipping, then jogging, and eventually I’m running as fast as I can. My breath hits the cold air and forms into little clouds. I can hear Param running behind me, trying to keep up. I pass a group of homeless men drinking out of bottles concealed in paper bags who yell out something, but I’m moving so fast I can’t make out what they say. I keep running down O’Farrell past Jones. I was on the cross-county team in high school and can run like this forever. Eventually I end up near Union Square outside a little Chinese restaurant where I know Param likes to eat lunch on Wednesdays. He typically orders soup and pot stickers and washes it down with hot tea.
I walk inside.
“Can I help you?” asks a little Chinese man.
“A table, please.” There are two college boys sitting at the counter ogling me. The cute one lets out a soft wolf whistle; normally I’d be offended, but since I’m shining with sweat and wearing fewer clothes than a high school cheerleader, I can’t blame him.
As I’m reading the menu and trying to decide between sizzling rice and hot and sour soup, Param walks in the front door. He’s taking big gulps of air, and once he makes it over to my table, he puts a hand on the back of my chair.
“Mary…” he says, and then takes another breadth. “Mary, we must have run for ten blocks.”
“I’m ordering soup. Would you like something?”
Param straightens up. He’s still in the suit and tie he wore at work. He takes off his jacket, wraps it around my shoulders, and then sits in the seat next to mine.
“Hot and sour. And tea,” he says. We wave over the waiter and place our order. I’m warm under Param’s jacket, but my sweaty bare legs are sticking to the chair.
“Now Mary,” Param says, looking me square in the eyes, “are we going to talk about this?”
“Don’t be coy. Why were you at that club?”
“Why were you at that club?”
“Mary, that’s not the point.”
“Maybe it isn’t your point, but it is my point.” This seems to throw him. Things have changed. Param does, in fact, know who I am. And he just chased me for ten blocks. That’s got to mean something.
Our food arrives and the tea and soup warms me up even further.
“You must be cold,” Param says.
“The tea and soup are warming me up. And your jacket.”
The bill arrives and I dig the cash out of my bra, but Param insists on paying.
Outside it’s clear, no fog or moon.
“Let’s get a nightcap,” I say.
The past few months when I wasn’t following Param or looking at him longingly in the office, I fantasized about him. Sometimes it’s wild stuff with leather and mirrors and condiments—whipped cream, mostly. But I also liked to write the names—Mary Singh or Mrs. Param Singh—with a felt pen on Post-Its. I’d stare at them, and then crumple the squares into tight little balls. I also liked to picture myself on our wedding day, me in a beautiful white gown and that red dot on my forehead. I’d be willing to wear the dot for Param.
“Mary, it has been interesting, but I think it’s time—”
“Or I could tie you up with your tie and have my way with you.” I know this is amazingly forward, but under the circumstances I figure I may as well just go for it.
“That might make things uncomfortable.”
“I’ll be gentle.”
“At the office, I mean.”
“Why’d you chase after me?”
“I was worried about you.” A bus driver blows his horn and people walk past us on the sidewalk where we’re standing. “So you want to get a drink,” says Param. “Where?”
I’m in charge—yes!—I’m in charge. “Up there.” I point to the top of one of the towering hotels. “I just adore a penthouse view.”
The elevator zips us up in no time.
The room is enormous. There’s a bar in the middle and a restaurant that spins around it so the patrons can have a 360-degree view of the city.
“This could make a girl dizzy,” I say, as we take a seat at the bar.
“Yes. I’ve never seen a floor that spins.”
“No, I meant being here with you.” I slip my arm through his. “Let’s get a drink.”
I order an appletini and Param gets cranberry juice.
“You don’t drink?”
“Sometimes, but it seems wise to keep my wits about me tonight.”
“It’s never wise to lose your wits.”
“Mary, I’ve been—”
“Oh! This is delicious! Take a sip.” I lift the drink up toward Param’s lips. “Come on, a little isn’t going to kill you.”
“That actually has quite a good flavor,” Param says. He twists in his chair so that’s he’s facing me. “Mary, you asked why I was at the strip club. The truth is I’m not sure.”
I give Param my full attention, unblinking eye-to-eye, as if what he’s saying is the most interesting thing I’ve ever heard. “I know why,” I say.
“You like young, half-naked girls. Param, it really isn’t that complicated.”
“Yes, I suppose there is that. But perhaps there is more as well.”
“You think too much, you know that?”
“Mary, I’m hoping we can keep this just between you and me. I would prefer others in the office didn’t find out.”
“Whatever happens between us stays locked away.” I twist two fingers by my lips as if I’m locking a safe and then I toss the key away. “Hey, haven’t they passed us already?” I nod toward a couple seated at a table by the window. “How fast does this thing move? Let’s get another drink.”
“Look, Mary, this has been one of the more interesting nights I’ve had in a long time. But it has been a long day. It is time for me to go home.”
“Okay. Suit yourself.”
One thing I love about the city: there’s always activity. Outside the hotel, doormen are hailing taxis and people are hustling about.
“Can you take a girl home?” I say, batting my eyes. Polite Param can’t say no to this.
“Of course. I’ll get us a cab.”
“No, I like to ride the cable car.” Before he can object, I move quickly toward the corner. A car is climbing up the incline, already full of tourists, and I make it in time to grab a handle and jump onto the side. Param is right behind me. I squeeze through the crowd and find a seat. I push Param down on the bench and sit on his lap.
“I love riding the cable car,” I say. “It makes me think of fedoras and old cars with white wall tires.”
The crowd sways and I slide across Param’s lap. I grab his arms and wrap them around me. I lean back, and the car keeps climbing up the hill. When we reach the top, I say, “Here’s my stop,” and pull the cord that rings the bell.
As Param walks me the two dozen or so steps to the entrance of my apartment building, we can hear the cables spinning underground.
I unlock the front door, turn around, and say, “Why don’t you come up for a bit?”
Param clasps his hand and says, “No, thank you.” He pauses, and then with a little grin says, “I might regret this, but are you free tomorrow night? Dinner, perhaps?” Most men would follow me right upstairs, eager to get laid. Not Param. He really is a real gentleman.
“Dinner sounds good,” I say. I give him his suit coat back and we exchange cell numbers.
Once inside my apartment, I brush my teeth, floss, brush again, and gargle. I slip on a pair of sneakers and call a cab. I’ve made it to Param’s in as little as seven minutes, but the cab driver hits every red light, so it takes closer to thirteen. Param owns a two-bedroom, top-floor condo. Across the street is an apartment building. I push the buzzers to about six different apartments until someone rings the front door open. I race up the stairs; I’ve done this enough times to know that the door to the roof is unlocked. From the ledge I can look right into Param’s bedroom, just in time to see him climb under the covers and start reading a book. He is wearing the cutest striped pajamas!
Maybe instead of dinner, Param and I should rent a car and drive to Las Vegas. We could get married in a tacky little church. That would be a story to tell our kids.
Mark Richardson’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Segue, Crime Factory, Switchback, Nth Position, and elsewhere. Richardson lives in Northern California and works as a marketing writer in Silicon Valley.
Q: What influenced this story?
A: I’ve been reading a lot of short stories written by Aimee Bender and Haruki Murakami. They’ve had a big influence on my approach to fiction: less realistic, but stories that move rapidly, are fun, interesting, and pull the reader along in unexpected ways.
Rick of Firewood Out Back, Behind the Nursing Home
Followed by Q&A
In the back lot, the bark rots away from limbs,
home for silverfish and cantankerous beetles.
Boys playing in the alley no longer hide
for safety from mothers behind the dank log pile.
In wet and dry stammers of forgetful weather,
under the mind’s full snow of eternal moments,
the heartwood loses tissue, all the evidence
of once being a tree among other tall trees,
in a busy forest. Christian men brought the load,
mixed proud names of hardwood – oak, ash, maple –
fully seasoned and stacked to a proper angle.
The fiber now is brittle as a box of foxed
newspapers once read daily. The men had felt good
about what they had done. The young are so inclined,
counted their deed service, asked only a fair wage.
Their labor was of course appreciated, though
all the firewood is not yet used, its time not come.
If now brought to the fire, the logs could not sustain
a night of conversation, would burn in minutes,
crackling and popping like little, human voices.
Paul Dickey’s full-length poetry manuscript, They Say This Is How Death Came into the World, was published by Mayapple Press in January 2011 and is being nominated by the press for the National Book Award in poetry. His poetry has appeared recently in Verse Daily, Rattle, Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, Mid-American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review and online at www.linebreak.org A poetry chapbook, What Wisconsin Took, was published by the Parallel Press in 2006. Biographical information and notes on previous publishing activity may be found at http://mockingbird.creighton.edu/NCW/dickey.htm
Q: What was the inspiration for this poem?
A: Although the poem was inspired by my wife’s volunteer service as a guardian and friend to nursing home patients, she points out to me that the poem is totally unrealistic. No nursing home staff would have time, inclination, or opportunity to provide such frivolous entertainment to the residents as to allow them to muse and visit by an open fire. I say, my point, exactly.
Two Brothers and a Year in the Shape of a Triangle
followed by Q&A
My brother never understood my map ritual,
never gathered how pushing the colored heads of pins
into imitation vellum to indicate three things
—where we are,
where we’re from,
where we’d like to be—
would build scalene walls between points to bind up the paper ocean.
His favorite part was, once the pin-pushing was over,
pointing out how I had wired the ocean for light.
My brother would hold the map up to the window
and let the light shine through each tiny puncture,
spreading out in elongated cones that ended on our foreheads.
When you endure tragedy, you have to tell someone everything except what happened,
like seeing a little circle of Summer sun just above my brother’s eyebrow
without ever knowing the hole in the sea.
The other side of the map, outside the window:
The river there ran so close to the ocean it changed
directions with the tide, eschewed its own muddy gravity
for the sake of proximity to its destination, hesitated
and deposited its contents for fear of dilution.
The delta is the difference from—the distance
between—the change in—the before but also after—
The delta sifts its own shape from sedentary shores,
piles borders and crenellates partitions, and opacity
sinks into the carved line-laden silt, like the delta’s shape
stitched its own sides into the riverbed, peeled them off
like leeches until only the three necessary
for definition survived. The water slows
when the moon thumbs it into the earth, so refracting particles
stand stock-still for the dull moment before sinking
into a shallow curve, a slower slope—and slope
is the change in vertical over the change in horizontal
and change is notated as delta, a tiny triangle that wielded
more ideogrammatic force as its original Semitic pictograph:
a fish. The delta is where everything falls into a pile:
moonlight, ground stone, shards of bony fish,
pictures that are words, and letters with no sound.
A pile shaped a little like a triangle.
That was our geometric season—
the calendar’s squares dedicated
to sorting out the numbers
that rang in patterns, resonated
in our bones and promised
to swallow us up in their
own hulking simplicity.
Mathematics, he said, had to be
accepted, in all its arbitrary and stilted
strangeness, but it never asks more
than that. I think the strangeness
of it grew from the ground with the ice
that encased ozone-poisoned leaves
before the snow came, when
I replied that arbitrary and stilted
were the best we could hope for
and that I did more than accept it.
He sighed and watched
snow heave from the sky.
My brother alone:
He stands in the winter storm,
submerges his feet in the piling
snow and thrusts his fists into
his threadbare coat’s pockets.
He becomes the axis around which the flakes
tilt on an imaginary grid, the arbitrary cross-hatch
that gifts spaceless points with a location.
Three points determine a plane. A spinning
triangle of any three particles builds the surface
that cleaves him across his middle.
To stand in the snowstorm is to halve yourself
over and over with your own rational imagination.
He accepts the cold, endures the loneliness,
but how does he withstand the endless cross-cutting?
My brother alone: the quickly diminishing solitary geometer.
Three points (two hydrogen and one oxygen)
determine a plane. The water molecule gives
enough permission to constrict it with whatever
pins and however many triangles I can build.
The body is, more than likely, just a river on foot,
carrying water and dropping the rest, another means
of constriction to which the water submits.
In this way the body as I see it
is in the shape of a triangle.
Me alone: a slow-moving vector
if the river there had been graphed.
The snowstorm is a flood of imagined triangles.
In this way the world bent to the human will
is in the shape of a triangle.
He couldn’t follow the logic once the rains came,
couldn’t fall through the hole in the ocean,
couldn’t unwrap the water
from around his vibrating bones.
I suppose, for him, the triangle
was always a cell—in every sense—
and knowledge promised escape.
It wasn’t until that circle of Summer sun
went dark, just before the light
started shining from the other end,
that the delta picked up its three side
and finally drifted into the endless.
Here’s what I know: he was, at the very least, not afraid
of dilution, gulping down a glass of water every morning
as if to keep his insides from crusting over. I suppose, that
last morning, when he didn’t finish the glass, he had hardened
and had to tap his way out with a water-softened fingernail.
I’m listening, my brother’s bones, to your worried rattle
and click, but all I hear is the music of curve and slope,
the sounds of a watery world bent to our will.
Patrick Milian currently lives in Atlanta, Ga., where he sells shoes, plays the banjouke, and struggles with the MFA application process.
Q: Do you have any comments you'd like to make about this poem?
A: This poem is dedicated to Harold Kleeman for painting triangles all over my life.
followed by Q&A
In the hour before dark, a woman sits
on her front porch watching the geese
head south. She can’t endure
the ritual departure much longer
and feels, on her porch swing, unsafe
as if she is dangling and ready to fall.
If she dreams tonight, it will be of apples,
late in season, trees heavy with red fruit
too cumbersome for bent branches
to cling to any more. In the morning
the hard ground will be littered with them
and, if the air is right, she’ll pack a bag
and leave this town. She’s not running,
but winter is coming and this year has been
without tangible harvest. Maybe she’ll drive
far enough to find an orchard just in blossom—
fruit not nearly ready to be picked, consumed.
There, with the sound of wings overhead,
she will find a place to start from.
She wants to be more tree than fruit.
She wants to bear the weight of each
season and then be able to just let go.
Christine E. Salvatore received her MFA from The University of New Orleans. She currently teaches literature and creative writing at Rosemont College, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and Egg Harbor Township High School. Her poetry has recently appeared in The Literary Review, The Cortland Review, and in The Edison Literary Review. She is the recipient of a 2005 Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts.
Q: What was your inspiration for this poem?
A: I always imagine setting out for new adventures, especially when I’m feeling particularly cornered by everyday obligations. This yearning, and my love of Robert Frost and Fall, inspired the poem.