Rock Bottom: Tales of Degradation: (A Short Story)
Episode #1: Walk a Mile in My Shoes
Roger Simmons stood and said, "My name's Roger and I'm an alcoholic."
"Hi, Roger!" everybody said, seated in folding chairs, arranged in a circle, in the basement of a YMCA.
"I've been sober for three months, two weeks, three days, and seventeen hours."
Random affirmations: "Good job!" "Stay strong, brother." "One day at a time." "Good for you!" "Give your burden to Jesus Christ."
Enough time had passed. He could talk about it now. The humiliation still throbbed, but the wound wasn't so raw.
In fact, things could have turned out a lot worse. He might have killed somebody. Or gotten himself killed.
You could say that a gangster had saved his life.
Roger Simmons and four of his upper-middle class friends and colleagues had treated themselves to an adventure. Slumming in a rougher part of town. Indulging in a bit of diverting amusement at a...... gentlemen's club.
Filled with a sense of status superiority, the five of them had reeked of arrogance and entitlement. They were drunk and bawdy; and had made presumptuously proprietary overtures toward the dancers --- in violation of the establishment's strict hands off policy.
Roger Simmons had been the worst of the lot.
The aggrieved party was called Red Raven, for the dazzling brilliance of her deep red hair.
Ralph Pickett, the manager of the club, was in his backroom office, watching things on his desktop monitor.
"Hey, Mungo!" he said.
"Come here, please. I want to show you something."
"Now, see that guy and his friends?" Ralph said.
Mungo bent down from his six-foot-eight inches to stare into the monitor. "Yeah."
"You've heard the old saying: 'Don't crap where you eat'?"
"Guys like that," Ralph said, "think their world is for being civilized in, and that our world is for crapping in. The question is: Where do they expect us to eat?"
The question was rhetorical, of course, not requiring an answer. But as usual, Mungo struggled desperately to contort his features into a mask of comprehension.
Rising, Ralph Pickett said, "Never mind. Grab Tito, Zwick, and Bill, and let's take care of this thing."
The five experienced men made a quick and sure intervention. Tito, Zwick, and Bill removed the four amigos from the premises, over their shrill protestations and preppy threats. They had even mustered a kind of physical resistance --- which would have been futile, even if all of them had been clear-eyed sober.
Mungo had secured Roger Simmons, who would be staying behind.
"Don't worry," Ralph Pickett said to the other four, "we'll be sending your friend along directly, after I've had a word with him."
The other four were put into their cars, strapped into the seat belts, and observed driving off.
Ralph and Mungo took Roger Simmons into the back office. When the three of them crossed the threshold, the club manager snapped his fingers. At that Mungo pinned Roger's arms behind his back.
The trapped little bird tried to extricate himself. But when Mungo whispered in his ear, "Don't struggle. You'll only hurt yourself," --- Roger Simmons, wisely, ceased his squirming.
Ralph appropriated the man's Smartphone, wallet, and car keys.
They were facing each other, seated across the club manager's desk.
Ralph looked at the driver's license. "You are: Roger Simmons. Age: 37; hair: black; eyes: brown; height: five-ten; weight: one-seventy-five; white-non-Hispanic."
Ralph stopped and looked up at Roger, in case he wanted to add something.
He didn't. The club manager went back to rummaging through the wallet. He found a picture of a pretty brunette woman and three children, aged five-through-ten, Ralph would say.
He showed the picture to his guest. "Your family?"
"Yes," Roger Simmons said.
Roger Simmons said nothing.
"So, what do you do, Roger?"
"Is that right? Are your friends dealers as well?"
"They're in the business."
"Any particular kinds of items?" Ralph said.
"Me or them?"
"Just about anything that's old."
Ralph studied his guest's face for a long time. "You ever do any television appearances?"
"Once in a while, as a matter of fact."
"Ever do the Antiques Roadshow on PBS?"
Roger Simmons nodded. "Yeah."
Ralph looked at Mungo. "I knew I recognized his face. One time, this old lady brought in this sorry, piece of crap wall unit, trying to be an elegant grandfather clock. Good old Roger, here, told her it was, maybe, worth a hundred dollars tops."
Big smile from Ralph. "I find it hilarious when people's pretensions are blown up. Don't you, Roger?"
Roger shifted in his seat. "I guess so. Look, you can't keep me a prisoner, here, like this."
Ralph nodded. "I know I'm not allowed to, of course. It contradicts certain legal niceties. But I'm bending the rules, just this once, for a very good reason."
"What's that?" Roger said.
Ralph did not answer. He zoned out. He went rigid. Eyes fixed on a spot on the floor.
Roger looked at Mungo, who shrugged, as though he'd seen this before.
Several minutes later, when Ralph came out of it --- whatever 'it' was --- he said, "I want some coffee. What about you, Mungo? You want some coffee?"
"Some coffee and Danish would go down nice right now," Mungo said.
"Yeah, coffee and Danish. What about you, Roger?"
"I don't want any," Roger said.
Mungo said, "You ought to have some coffee, at least. You don't look so good."
Ralph said, "He's right. Everybody knows that nothing fixes you up like a gallon of black coffee.
Ralph went into his own wallet and took out a fifty dollar bill and handed it to Mungo. "Tell Tito and Zwick to head over to Dunkin' Donuts and get us all a bunch of those cartons of coffee and dozens of donuts and muffins of all kinds. Tell them to completely use up the fifty."
"You can give me back my stuff now," Roger said.
"Your stuff?" Ralph said.
"My phone, wallet, and keys."
"Oh yes," Ralph said, looking down at the items as though seeing them for the first time, "we're violating more legal niceties. But I promise you, we're only bending a few rules, not breaking them."
"Hand them over," Roger said.
Ralph smiled at his guest, as though amused at a five-year-old who had done a cartwheel. "In a little bit, in a little bit when we're done here."
"What do you want?"
Ralph began drumming his fingers on the desk. "What do I want? What do I want?" he said, as if to himself, as if he was really thinking about it.
"Maybe I want a house in the country and a good woman in my bed," Ralph said, "and happy, healthy, well-adjusted, and dynamic children who will grow up to help change the world. Or, for now, maybe I just want a crap-free place to eat."
Roger said, "What does any of that even mean?"
Mungo said, "Sometimes the boss's words are like a Rorschach test. They can have any meaning you want to assign to them. But you can bet we didn't bring you back here for nothing. We didn't just pick one of the patrons of the club, at random, and decide to screw with him. Most of the people who come here know how to behave and follow the rules."
"Consequences," Ralph said.
At this point the cobwebs began to clear for Roger Simmons. He expressed regret, if he had offended anyone, particularly that redheaded girl. What was her name?
Right, Red Raven! Roger conceded that, perhaps he had been a touch too... aggressive in showing his appreciation of her... performance. Roger suggested that, perhaps a cash payment by way of "damages" was in order, either directly to Raven, the club, or whatever Mr. Pickett thought best.
"Money, money, money," Ralph said, drumming his fingers on the desk. "That might help..."
Silence descended and the trio fell to waiting for the coffee and pastry.
When the Dunkin' Donuts came, they ate and drank.
Roger partook after all. The coffee and two corn muffins had hit the spot; and he was feeling a little better.
When all of that was squared away, Ralph said, "Roger, you ever see the Clint Eastwood western film, Unforgiven? I think it came out in 2005. Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, and Gene Hackman as the sheriff of Big Whiskey, 'Little Billy.'"
"Yes," Roger said.
"Good. Then you'll remember that what started it all was a scene at the whorehouse. One of the prostitutes gave a little giggle when she saw that her customer had a "little pecker." He cut her up.
"Then it shifts to this scene, in which the cowboy and his friend were seated on the floor, half naked. The Sheriff and his men are there, and they are preparing to administer at least some preliminary punishment.
"Little Billy tells one of his deputies to go back to the office and get the bull whip. And..."
Roger stood up. "What does any of this have to do with...?"
A hand was on his shoulder, forcing him back down into his seat, pinching the shoulder in the process. Mungo said, "Don't interrupt."
Roger Simmons took the hint.
"And one of the ladies, 'Strawberry Alice,' who was, sort of the chief whore, said, 'Is that all you're gonna do? Whip 'em for what they done?' She wanted them to hang, but that would have been excessive.
"And then, the saloon owner, who also ran the whores, stepped forward to say that a simple bull-whipping would not settle the matter. You see, Roger, the cut up girl, being cut up, was damaged property. The guy pulled out a piece of paper, which he claimed was a nice and legal contract for services; and he pointed out a line item which indicated that he had paid for her transportation out there, to Big Whiskey, all of her expenses.
"They call this guy 'Skinny.' He's afraid that nobody will want to pay to have sex with the cut up girl. This means that her ability to make money for him has been compromised, if not destroyed, as he sees it.
"So Sheriff Little Billy snaps that whip around, not doing anything with it yet. He asks the two cowboys if they would like to avoid the fuss and muss of a trial and all that. Of course, the cowboys would like to avoid the hassle of a trial. The two cowboys work at some ranch, and it turns out that each man has his own string of ponies.
"Little Billy requires the cowboy that actually did the cutting to hand over four ponies to Skinny. The partner only has to hand over two. Little Billy makes it clear that if, come Spring, Skinny don't have those ponies, the Sheriff would come looking for those two cowboys --- the consequences would be severe.
"Then he hands the bull whip back to one of his deputies and says that they won't be needing it after all. Now Strawberry Alice is hot: "You ain't even gonna whip 'em?' Little Billy says, "I fined them instead," looking very proud of himself."
Ralph paused to catch his breath and let what he said sink in for Roger.
"And so Alice is going on about the unfairness of it all. Little Billy counters with, 'Haven't you seen enough blood for one night?'"
Ralph straightened and laced his fingers atop his desk. "You see, Roger, I always thought that Little Billy made a mistake in not bull-whipping those two cowboys. It sent the wrong message. You know what I mean? It conveyed the impression that the women were worth less than horses. Not only that, it conveyed the unfortunate message that the lives and safety of 'whores' just don't matter.
"One consequence of this neglect, as you know, Roger, was a whole lot of chaos that ensued in Big Whiskey, after the prostitutes pooled their savings and put out an ad for an assassin. You see, the moment Little Billy refused to even whip those cowboys, the girls feel all alone in the world, like nobody loves them, like nobody cares about them, not even the law.
"It is a mistake I have never repeated," Ralph said. "Now, Roger, go ahead and ask your question."
Roger stared back at Ralph, saying nothing.
With all the intensity he could muster, Ralph said, "Mungo!"
"Get the bull whip."
Roger jumped as though he had been electrocuted.
Ralph grabbed his belly and laughed. "Just kidding, Roger. You haven't committed a whipping offense."
Mungo was smiling, slightly, for the first time. "We do have fun here, don't we?"
"No, Roger. Your punishment is to get a first-hand look at how hard my dancers work, by sashaying a mile in a stripper's high heels."
Roger Simmons would wish he had been given the lash instead.
"Mungo, prepare him."
Mungo grabbed Roger by his bicep, standing him up, to take him away.
Ralph Pickett gave his last instruction on the matter. "Tell Zwick to oversee the operation."
Roger Simmons was taken to the back dressing rooms. There, he was forced to put on a pair of stockings beneath his trousers. His comfortable business shoes were replaced by seven-inch heels. Light make up was applied: a bit of eyeliner and some rouge.
Ralph Pickett was keeping the antique dealer's phone, wallet, and car keys for the time being. Roger Simmons was being given "a fair chance to work his way home," as it were.
Roger came down the runway. He was periodically assaulted with shouted demands of: "Shake it, baby!" "Work it, honey!" "Shake what your mama gave ya!" "Take it off!"
Roger did, eventually, begin to "take it off," in the hope that the perverts would throw him enough money to pay for a bus ride home. But that was the least of his problems.
His discarded clothes were gathered up by a club employee and burned.
Roger Simmons was down to his boxer shorts; and it was the end of his time.
He had been pelted by many coins. But his performance---trying to merely keep his balance in the heels, much less exude sexuality to a beat---had not drawn forth any paper money.
Added up, he had enough to buy a large cup of coffee at a Seven Eleven.
He was begging, "For God's sake, at least let me have some clothes."
Someone threw him a brassiere and closed the front door in his face.
Finally, a man came along who proved to be Roger's salvation. In exchange for the use of his cell phone for one call, money for a cab ride home, and a trench coat to cover his shame --- all he had to do was orally service the gentleman in the front seat of his car, while wearing the brassiere.
Roger's life had been blown to bits by this incident and the scandal that ensued. But he considered it a blessing. He thanked God, now, for what happened to him.
His wife divorced him and took custody of the children.
That was okay. Although he loved his children dearly, he had married Emily for her family's status and connections; and he had not learned to love the shrill, judgmental woman in the thirteen years they had been together.
He had lost his job amid the scandal.
That was okay. He was following his bliss now, teaching art history at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Shaping young minds for the future.
A week after the incident, Roger received a UPS parcel at the hotel where he was staying. It was his Smartphone, wallet with cash and credit cards untouched, and his car keys.
The four-word note read: Bent but not broken.