Let’s start this one when a cancer patient named No Eyebrows creeps into Damascus, a Mission District dive bar. For years the place’s floor, walls, and ceiling had been painted entirely black, but that afternoon the owner added a new element, smashing twenty mirrors and gluing the shards to the ceiling so the pieces shimmered like stars, transforming Damascus into a planetarium for drunkards: dejected men and women stargazing from barstools.
When the first customer of the day walked in and witnessed the bar’s broken-mirror constellations, he said to the owner, “There must be 10,000 years of bad luck hanging here.”
“That would certainly explain a few things,” Owen said, who had a heinous birthmark underneath his nose that looked like a Hitler moustache.
Damascus always had rock and roll on the jukebox. Right then it was AC/DC, playing the only chord progression they knew, howling about salacious women, which was funny because Damascus had an almost exclusively male clientele. Old drunks talking to themselves, trying to barter the price of a Corona with the bartender. Surly construction workers who drank from the minute they got off work until last call. “Off-duty” mariachis getting more tone deaf with each tilt of tequila, wearing matching black outfits spotted with silver buckles that made them look like decorated war veterans. Insipid twenty-something Caucasian boys, their cheeks stuffed with carbohydrates and college degrees, wowed by their own flickering wits: “Here’s to honor,” one would say, “getting on her and staying on her.”
There were a few female regulars, and one who haunted the place was Shambles. She had acne scars all over her cragged cheeks, pocked like the mirror-shards glued to the bar’s ceiling. Skin crimped. Her hair had been bleached too many times: tips brittle, broken, crooked. Frayed bangs that fell down to her eyebrows and pointed a million directions like tassels. Her eyes used to be blue, but they’d faded to matte gray.
Shambles was the patron saint of the hand job, getting strangers off for less than the price of a parking ticket. So far tonight she’d done only one, though there would be more fondling to finance her bar tab. The night was young and full of fisted opportunities.
No Eyebrows stood next to Shambles’ stool and ordered a shot of peppermint schnapps. He liked to drink it because the taste reminded him of mouthwash, in a way that stoked his hostile nostalgia, reminded him that there had been days, real days where he used mouthwash and had a family. Days long before they found tumors stuck to his lungs like poisonous barnacles.
Owen placed the huge shot down on the bar, and as No Eyebrows reached for it with a shaking hand, Shambles looked at his sallow skin, the way it clung to him like a layer of film on cold chicken broth. Most people were shocked by his appearance because he reinforced the fact that everyone was going to die. People pursed their lips and averted their eyes, shaming him into near invisibility with the verve of their avoidances, trying not to ogle the prowling dead.
Shambles, however, wasn’t deterred or deflected or weirded out by his appearance. She saw him as a business opportunity, dollar signs, an untapped masturbation market (though she wouldn’t establish eye contact with him during the act itself; she never did with any of ’em).
“Do you mind if I drink with you?” Shambles said to No Eyebrows, then asked Owen to pour her another whiskey.
“I’d like that,” No Eyebrows said. “Thanks.”
Owen brought her drink and said, “This is your last shot.” He resented how openly she flaunted her zeal to fondle the customers because the only hands that had been on him in over a year were incidental brushes. Often, he felt like a person collecting tolls at a bridge, interacting with hundreds, thousands of people every day but never knowing any of them. They approached, idled, vanished, and he was stuck in his tiny shack (Damascus, in this case), awaiting the next impatient exchange.
Shambles frowned at Owen’s warning. She waved him away. He could be testy. A nice man, but definitely grumpy. Not to mention his atrocious birthmark. She tried not to stare at it every time they spoke, but she couldn’t help herself: it was like he had a third nipple on his upper lip.
“Why are you thanking me for drinking with you?” she said to No Eyebrows.
“I was raised right. Cheers,” he said, holding his schnapps up in the air like a Bible in a minister’s hand, a prop to retrofit the fragile world.
Instead of echoing cheers though, Shambles crashed her glass into his, spilling whiskey on her fingers, and said, “To livers aching like shin splints.”
He laughed. They drained their shots. Flushed faces from the spirits. Humidity spreading through their private ecosystems.
“I’ve never seen you here before,” she said.
“What brought you into this dump?”
“I was incredibly parched.”
“You don’t seem like you have much in common with these deadbeats.”
He pointed at some of the men in their vicinity. “Doesn’t that make them the lucky ones?”
Shambles didn’t know how to respond to this, didn’t know what to do with that kind of tactless honesty amongst strangers, especially in bars where men and women typically honed their espionage, cloaked in personas. Deception was the norm: cab drivers disclosed that they were venture capitalists; rickety alcoholics morphed into ex-athletes; those with anonymous office jobs had recently retired from the cubicle because of an important invention. (One bloke even tried to convince a woman that he masterminded the Caps Lock key.)
Every interchange was a con.
Every night, a pitiful costume party.
Except here was No Eyebrows blowing the whole cycle of charades for everyone. Here he was having the audacity to be heartfelt, and what was Shambles supposed to do with someone showing honesty?
So instead of answering him directly she turned her attention to tawdry commerce: “How’d you like to get off?”
Owen should have been dumping olive juice into a dirty martini, but instead he stared at Shambles guiding No Eyebrows into the bathroom. Owen sighed, worried that it would take more than some shattered mirror-shards pasted to the ceiling to really change anything around here. Maybe the art show would do the trick. It was coming up pretty quick and was going to be unorthodox to say the least. Anti-George W. Bush. Anti-war. Dead fish dangling from the walls.
No one knew this yet, but the show was actually going to change a number of things, including lives. It would end up being covered on CNN, the BBC, all the major news outlets. Torching its way across the internet news feeds and social sites as one of the most surreal, outlandish, unbelievable stories to come around in a while. But we’ll get to all that soon enough.
As soon as they were in Damascus’s bathroom he yanked his pants down. Shambles locked the door, showed him a rubber. “It’s twenty bucks with this.” She shook the little silver square back and forth, business savvy. “Forty without.” She pulled a lube-tube from her purse and squirted it in her palm, working it around.
The bathroom light fluttered off and on, a faulty bulb, making a noise like a fly smacking into a window.
“Forty, forty,” No Eyebrows said, bending at the waist and fumbling through his pockets for money. He stood up and gave her two twenties.
“My rules,” she said. “Don’t touch me. Don’t cum on me. Or I’ll scream.” This was the same canned speech she spewed to everyone she brought in here.
“Of course. I’ll even buy you a drink later,” said No Eyebrows, hoping this offer would make him feel less seedy, but it made him feel worse, actually, its macho predictability.
“Chivalrous,” she said, almost laughing. This was what passed for small talk while your hand was lodged in a man’s crotch. She slid her wet fist down him, noticing he was so bald that he didn’t even have pubic hair, just tiny red sores on his abdomen. “You must be from Camelot.”
“Kansas City originally,” he said and smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back. “Does that feel good?” Shambles said.
“It feels great,” closing his eyes so he didn’t have to watch the droopy thing flop around. God damn chemo. Closing his eyes so nothing existed except her hand on his body. This wasn’t about sex. This was survival.
“Just keep touching me.”
Shambles maintained her speed, looked at him more closely since he’d cinched his eyes. She didn’t understand what he was doing at Damascus in the first place: he was sick, no doubt seriously sick, yet here he was in the bar’s bathroom with his pants around his ankles.
Someone jiggled the locked door and knocked on it.
“Just a minute,” Shambles said, increasing her speed.
No Eyebrows moaned feebly. Grinned. Remembering when his wife used to touch his body. He’d taken it all for granted, every fingertip traipsing across his skin. The way his wife, Sally, used to run her hands through his hair when he couldn’t sleep, and now there was no hair, no wife, no daughter, no chance of living more than another couple months. He’d removed himself from his family, vanishing from the North Bay into San Francisco, because what was the point of prolonging a life mired in illness? Why postpone death, if it was the only way to hush the squealing reality that he’d never see his daughter grow up? He stopped going to his appointments at the hospital. Prescriptions unfilled. Phone calls never returned. If these were his last weeks, he wouldn’t waste them saving himself.
Now No Eyebrows glanced at Shambles, who averted her gaze to the ceiling’s wavering light. For some reason it was harder to resist eye contact with him—something about his whole honest spiel, the way his disease was exposed while the rest of us tried to veil our glitches and bankruptcies and stale sins. Shambles found him enticing, which hadn’t happened in a long time, a man seeming to be anything but a danger, a liability.
Someone knocked on the door again.
“More time,” Shambles said.
“Why can’t I touch you?” No Eyebrows said.
Her hand slowed down. She wanted to look at him but beat back the urge. “It’s one of my rules.”
“I know. But I’m wondering why.”
Still resisting, her eyes fixed on the shuddering light: “Because I’m not a whore.”
“How would that make you a whore if I touched your shoulder?”
“Don’t touch my shoulder.”
“I’m not going to.”
“Do you want me to stop?” She let go of him and he shook his head. “Then don’t ask any more questions.”
“Please, I need you to touch me.”
“No more questions.” She fumbled for it, squeezed it harder. “Do you like that?” she said, and he said, “Don’t stop touching me,” and someone knocked on the door again and No Eyebrows threw his head back: every disappearing detail of his disappearing life dwindled while Shambles touched his body, and he felt pleasure, actual pleasure, this was the first hand on him in months that didn’t belong to a doctor or nurse, and thirty seconds later he came, gasping for air and life and hope.
She let a few moments go by so he could gather himself, then Shambles turned around to wash her hands, using Damascus’s green soap that smelled like menthol cigarettes. Finally, she let herself look him in the eyes and asked, “Why were you asking about my touching rule?”
“I don’t understand it.”
“I don’t know you.”
“I don’t know you either, and I need you to touch me,” No Eyebrows said.
He pointed at his face. “Do you know who wants to touch this monster?”
She didn’t say anything, shook her head slowly. She saw his disease all over him, and she wondered what he saw in her. Probably a has-been, a hooker. She couldn’t blame him. Her sicknesses were harder to inspect, caged under the skin, captives within a captive.
“No one wants to touch me,” he said.
“I want to.” She didn’t know what else to say, what was there to say? “You’re not a monster; lots of people are sick.”
“This is all that’s left of me,” he said, still pointing at his gaunt face. “I’m withering.”
“It’s okay,” Shambles said and pointed at her own face. “So am I.” Then she sent her finger toward the wall, indicating the other deadbeats in Damascus. “We all are.”
The bathroom’s failing light bulb kept flashing, stuttering, buzzing.
“Can I pay to touch your shoulder?” he said.
“Please.” He stuck a hand in his pocket, pulling out some more money. He counted forty and held it out to her. “I want to feel your skin. Nothing dirty, I promise. Just your shoulder.”
How could Shambles deny him such a naked want? And how could she accept any money if touching her shoulder was going to mean so much?
She shook her head, pushed his hand away, didn’t answer until their eyes locked again. “I don’t want your money.”
“Please take it.”
“Please,” he begged.
“I don’t want it,” she said and stepped forward and took him in her arms, right there in Damascus’s bathroom. She hugged him and he hugged her, and they stood: an old Tom Waits song seeped through the walls from the jukebox, the sink dripped, the toilet ran, the light flickered its paltry wattage like the gloomiest disco ball in the world.