By Stephen T. Brophy
If you want to reclaim your place in Heaven, sometimes you have to put yourself through Hell.
Contact info for Stephen T. Brophy
* Website – https://stbrophy.com/
* Amazon – http://amzn.to/2y2dt43 (Affiliate Link)
Nothing about the décor, vibe or clientele of Little Maxy’s on South Wayside even vaguely suggests anything divine or celestial in origin. It’s the kind of down-and-out, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stripmall dive that’s just right for henchmen, lackeys and third-tier supervillains to network, backroom deal, and drink ourselves blind between gigs.
I hear the words and I know I’ve got three options, each with its own set of sub-options–A) mind my own beverage and my own business and 1) pretend that line of patter wasn’t directed my way, 2) hoping whoever said it won’t take insult and start shit anyway; B) give them my full attention so I can determine whether this voice emanates from someone worth 1) fighting, 2) fucking, or 3) both; or C) sneak a sidewise glance and see which option between A or B is the right call. Being not yet that drunk and still sore from a knockdown drag-out with Lawman and Open Carrie the night before, I opt for C.
What I get in my left peripheral is a glimpse of someone I should’ve clocked upon entrance, mostly because in my line of work it’s the smart play to clock everyone in my immediate vicinity at pretty much all times. But seeing as who’s seated nearby is a woman “of certain age” I know right away why I missed her. Poor thing’s reached the point in life where she’s living in Section 8 housing on the border of Used-to-Be-burgh and Invisible City. Doesn’t help that she’s hiding whatever she’s got under an out-of-season puffy winter coat and a pair of sunglasses with lenses the shape and very nearly the size of Magnavox TV screens, never mind the fact that this bar’s a black hole where light rarely enters or escapes. Not to mention she’s screened herself in a vaporous veil of tobacco haze and hunches over her cocktail like it’s the last thing she’ll ever own in the world and someone might try to swipe it out from under her.
“Like what you see, guero?” she asks, and under that sultry carcinogenic gravel I can’t tell if the accent’s Cuban or Puerto Rican.
“You mean there’s a person under all that?” I ask, not bothering to twist my barstool and give her the full appraisal she seems to be begging for.
“Person? Pfft. Baby, there’s a legend under all this.”
With that bold declaration I finally do turn a little and give her at least some of my attention because honestly what the hell else have I got going right now?
“Well, this is where legends are born,” I say, coming on all big and booming, the loudest, pretend-happiest guy at the corner watering hole.
She lets her shades slide down her nose just a little, taking in the riffraff and rabble peopling Little Maxy’s with a contemptuous roll of her big brown bloodshot eyes.
“More like where sorry losers come to die,” she spits with that sibilant Spanish hiss that makes a certain kind of gringo–namely me–weak in the knees and firm in the nethers. “But it used to be Heaven. It really did.”
“Do tell.” I feel kinda lame using the expression, so I dress it up in very badly British-accented irony.
“You never been to Heaven?”
I smile at that, enjoying the ridiculicious notion of an evangelical atheist such as myself ever passing through the Pearlies. “Can’t say I have. And while I got every goddamn good reason to doubt I’ll see the long side of thirty, I don’t imagine at my current rate of damnation that’d be the name over the door of the dive where I’d choose to wind down for eternity. Besides, there’s not a chance in hell I’m on the guest list.”
“I’m not talking about Los Cielos, pinga. I’m talking about disco!” There’s fire in her smoggy voice that wasn’t there before, and I swear I can see her eyes light up even through the opaque lenses of her drugstore sunglasses.
“Before my time. Thankfully.”
I’m pretty sure I demonstrate as much distaste for her preferred musical genre as she just did for all my gathered associates and acquaintances, whether I mean to or not. I mean, ‘c’mon, it’s 1993 and I’m a white dope on punk, a post-adolescent manboy on permanent testosterone overload. I want guitars that sound like chainsaws with melodies like the grinding of bone, a rhythm section at war with itself, the soundtrack for a doomed and blood-soaked world. The closest I get to boogie-ing down is taking on Nazi skins three at a time in mosh pits at the Vatican or Axiom while the Big Boys or the Butthole Surfers spike my brain with blitzes of angst, rage and high weirdness.
She flicks her three-inch-acrylic-taloned fingers at me dismissively and regards me with a sneer that reveals the sparkle of a diamond embedded in her left front tooth. “Big bad boy too cool for soul, but you’ll learn. There’s more to this life than misdirected anger and fuck-you fingers stabbing the eye of Madre Tierra. There’s actual joy and warmth and sunlight to be found up in this bitch if you kick open the saloon doors and go out there looking. I mean, really, what’s a strong young man like you doing wasting daylight inside a smoky-ass pocilga like this? You should be out there soaking up life, fucking some beautiful girl…” Again she lets the sunglasses dip as she takes in my leather pants and vest over bare muscled chest. “…or boy or whatever you’re into…”
“Hey,” I start, all macho manhood-threatened indignant like how dare she think a man’s man like this could ever…
She cuts me off with a long throaty laugh that has the odd effect of making me a little angrier and simultaneously shaming me to shut my ass up. “Chill, gran chico. All, I’m saying, the problem with boys like you today, you don’t know how to dance.”
Considering I weigh just shy of a fifth of a ton and frequently fire bullets out of what most people call a right arm, I wanna tell her that there aren’t that many boys like me, but one glance around Maxy’s kinda disproves my point. Even my steel-plated skull is more of a henchman trendsetter than an out-and-out rarity these days.
“Yeah, well it’s not really compatible with my lifestyle,” I say, regaining my cool and wondering if I should maybe dial it down on all the studded leather gear, which is meant to look Punk As Fuck and not S&M biker boy.
“Explains why you’re sitting alone at a bar on a beautiful day. You wanna get with a quality…” She shrugs, again casting aspersions on my hetero bona fides. “…individual…you really should be able to bust a move or two.”
“So, what’s your excuse? I mean, you’re in here drinking your day to death same as me.”
“Ah, but you see, I came here with a purpose.”
“As does every barfly ever.”
“I’m no barfly, honey. You ever seen me holding down this stool before?”
I gotta admit, I ain’t.
“I haven’t dared come into this place in over fifteen years. Not since I lost the lease. Couldn’t bear to see what’d become of my beautiful home.”
“You used to own this joint?”
“Este inodoro? No. I was the ruling goddess of Heaven.”
“You just love sayin’ that, doncha?”
“You don’t name a place Heaven if you can’t have a little fun with all the metaphors. Anyway, this place used to be alive. Jumping. Off-the-hook. Diverse. And I don’t just mean ‘guy with a squid for a head’…” She nods over at the pool table, where Suicide Squid is currently rookering Rawbone the Living Skeleton. “…though he would’ve been welcome, too. We let everyone into Heaven–gay, straight, trans, post-human, subhuman, nonhuman, homo sapiens, homo erectus, homo superior, every kind of homo you can imagine, plus extradimensional beings, alien fungal spores, whatever you are–as long as they came to play, and with open hearts and minds, there was always room in Heaven.”
“Sounds like a goddamn utopia,” I say with a sneer. “I woulda had a hard time not kicking down the walls and unleashing a few thousand rounds.” I wave my prosthetic arm for emphasis, even though it’s currently a skeletal mech hand and not a belt-fed mini-gun.
She’s a good two feet shorter than me, but she still manages to make like she’s looking down on me. “Oh, such a tough hombre. Is that fun for you, all that cool late-millennial cynicism? I hope it’s fun to spew, because it’s goddamn boring to listen to. But at least you understand how I feel.”
She sighs and looks around the room again, squinting like she’s trying to see through the ruins of the present to whatever cheeseball pantywaist pseudo-glory clung to the space way back in the Great Lost Whenever.
“I know its day has come and gone, just like mine, but I’ll be damned if I can stand to see my dreams end up like this. A nice cleansing fire is about the only thing that could repair the damage done to the one true Paradise I ever knew on Earth. And I am here…” and as she says it she slides down off her barstool and lets her oversized winter coat drop to the floor in one languid motion, revealing a form-fitting sleeveless jewel-studded jumpsuit and a body that still does it justice. “…to turn this mother out.”
Someone comes in the front door and I’m momentarily blinded by a blazing white-hot sunburst as the light hits her outfit, which I just then realize isn’t rhinestone-bedazzled; she’s tricked out like a freakin’ human mirror ball, one head-to-toe, Afro-to-roller skates reflective surface that dazzles the eye. And all of a sudden I know exactly who she is.
She glides backwards on her skates, beckoning me with one hand while she points at the jukebox with the other. As soon as she does, Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” stops dead in the middle of Randy Rhoads guitar solo and after the click and clack of changing discs, a slow-burn jam starts up and takes me a hot minute to recognize as Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” To be dead honest, I’m pretty sure that song’s not even actually on that jukebox. Or wasn’t until Sequin wished it to be.
She reaches the middle of the room and kicks backwards with one wheeled foot, sending the pool table sliding to crash against the lip of the old stage. Squid and Rawbone are too stunned to react, and bad as they both are, they aren’t really the girl-hitting kind; it’s that kind of old school chivalry that’s cost us all a time or three in a throwdown. Superchicks do not play.
“Dance with me, gran chico, and I’ll tell you about the good old days.”
Saying I’m a bad dancer is like saying a Stage Five hurricane is lousy weather; it does nothing to define or encompass the scope of the terribleness. It doesn’t help that every move the old girl makes is effortlessly fluid, rhythmic, sexy, perfectly timed and executed, all in spite of having the worst possible partner on the floor she could ever be cursed with. She might as well be performing Swan Lake around a maypole for all that I’m bringing to the table. But the craziest thing is that while she coaxes and guides me without ever acknowledging the futility of her cause, it doesn’t seem to bother her one bit. Matter of fact, she seems downright overjoyed that someone’s dancing with her at all, even a clubfooted lummox with the musical ear of a tone-deaf howler monkey and all the moves of a flatlining patient twitching in spastic time to the defibrillator.
“You’ve heard of me then?” Sequin says as she slides by me with a sassy smile that shaves twenty years of her Earth Mama features.
“When you said you were a legend…I figured it was only in your own mind,” I huff back, barely pretending to try and keep up with her ceaseless flow.
“Sometimes I think maybe it was,” she replies with a wink that makes me fantasize about having some kind of Harold and Maude/“Maggie May” thing with this crazy old broad.
“You were Houston’s favorite street hero…” I pant. “…back in the ’70s. Protector of club kids, immigrants, junkies and winos…” Pant-pant. “We used to call you…” Pant-pant. “…the Avenging Disco Godmother.”
“Favorite female hero. Ahead of every superwoman, there’s a man hogging the spotlight and making sure you’re in his shadow.”
“Oh yeah…who was that guy…you used to run with? Blackhawk?”
She comes to a complete stop mid-glide, and I’m briefly aware of all the henches and hood rats and hard guys gathered around the periphery, all eyes on us, a few amused, a couple enthralled, most of them glowering dangerously.
“Blacknight,” she says, and there’s a heaviness in her voice, a sense of all the decades between and the exhaustion that’s come with it.
“Whatever happened to him? He wasn’t on the scene too long, huh?”
“An African-American vigilante taking on crime outside the law in 1970s Texas? What the fuck you think happened to him? He foiled the attempted kidnapping of Mayor Hofheinz’s daughter by Killer Queen and Dr. Void and the cops gunned him down. Hasn’t been a black man willing to put on a mask in this state since. Meanwhile, Dr. Void gets a 312-year prison sentence for his laundry list of crimes but turns out he’s immortal so he’ll actually get to see daylight again in another century or so. Texas justice.”
She resumes moving as Donna Summer kicks in with what I hope is the climactic round of the chorus to this epic disco jam that’s way longer than I remember, probably because I’ve never sat through the whole thing before. I do the white man’s overbite and awkwardly spasm just the parts of my body above the waist, and only keep that up because I find this out-to-pasture heroine of historic Houston endlessly fascinating.
“So you can see…” she says, taking me by both hands and using me to spin in faster and faster circles as the dance anthem builds in intensity. “…why I need to tear this place down to the beams and rafters and kick-stomp the shit out of all the creeps, crooks and ne’er-do-wells pissing, shitting and puking all over its sacred memory…”
My jaw–still my own real flesh and bone at the time–drops open, I’m pretty sure. Not so much because of her intentions, but because I’m mildly panicked that she’s serious and might go through with it and maybe get herself killed. Also slightly anxious that she’s gonna come after me first.
She swings in close so that we’re hip to hip and somehow she’s spinning my bulk right around with her petite curvaceous frame, which is clearly still packed tight with well-maintained muscle. “Not you though, sweetie. I like you. And I make it a policy to never ever fight with my dance partners.”
She hops up and wraps her legs around my waist, still somehow keeping us both moving in dizzying circles through sheer force of will, and plants a warm wet kiss on my mouth with her full Latin lips.
After what seems like nowhere near long enough, she pops free and whispers sultrily in my ear, “So unless this place is super-duper special to you for some godforsaken reason, I suggest you clear out right after this dance.”
She leans back and keeps us spinning, her arms extended, fingers outstretched toward the crowd as if she’s pointing out to herself who she plans to take on and in what order as she observes them from her upside down vantage.
The song ends and I don’t so much set her down as she springs free of me, somersaulting into a perfect wheels-first landing and gliding around like a gold-medal figure skater doing a victory lap.
She presses a finger to her lips and keeps moving, and I can tell she’s building up momentum, moving now to a song only she can hear. I realize there’s nothing I can do but stay and help, which would get me in dutch with every fellow hench in Houston and turn my rep to overnight shit; or try to smack her down myself, gently enough that I can get her out without serious injury to either one of us. But she’s already forgotten about me, doing her lazy circles, cracking her knuckles like a cage fighter, rolling her head and neck on her shoulders, totally entering warrior mode. That’s a switch that can’t be unflipped a good 89% of the time, and for anyone in nothin- to-lose mode, that number shoots to 110 pretty quick.
I think maybe at least the right thing to do is to give somebody a heads-up as to what’s about to go down, but then I’d just be stacking the odds in favor of the house. I cast a look around the room, all these guys and gals that are supposedly my peers, my business associates, my friends and fuck buddies. There’s the Familiar, a total creeper who uses dark magic to get on bosses’ good sides and into women’s panties; Elementa, a weather witch who a lot of us are pretty sure is responsible for the current drought conditions in most of the Southwest; Wreak, who I think mighta tried to kill me for my share of the Laredo job; Thundra, who definitely tried to kill me in her bedroom on multiple occasions; the Expositioner, who talks too goddamn much; Sinkhole the Subterranean, who pretty much everyone wishes would stick to the sewers instead of bringing his stink topside; Motherfinger, the gangster’s moll who killed her lover-boss Bigshot to take over half the Baytown rackets; and Killer Queen him/herself, who’s seen better days but is nonetheless due for the reckoning he/she’s about to receive. Plus Suicide Squid who owes me four hundred bucks; and Rawbone, who’s just a dick. Fuck ’em, I figure. They can either hold their own against a seen-better-days badass superheroine with a hard-on for a final blaze of glory…or they can’t.
In my effort to leave our makeshift dance floor, I realize the whole room’s on Tilt-a-Whirl from all the spinning Sequin just put me through and instead of stumbling back in the direction of the bar I end up going the opposite way and kind of staggering into the jukebox, where I lean for support. I look down at the song selection and notice there’s a lot of disco on offer now, most of which I don’t even recognize except by all the “Boogie-this” and “Disco-that” and “Dance-a-rama-blah-blah” in the song titles. So I drop in a couple of quarters and punch up Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From.” Seems like an appropriate mood-setter for what’s about to go down, and even this diehard grindcore-and-grunge grump has to concede, it’s a pretty damn fine little pop song.
As I sidle past the bathrooms and toward the back exit, I risk a last look back just as Sequin snaps her long-nailed fingers. The whole place comes ablaze with light as a spot hits her mirrored outfit, strobing as she goes into a low spin, one foot kicked out, no contact yet, taking her time, enjoying the moment, the music, the last gasp blast from the past.
It’s not until I’m out in the parking lot, fishing for the keys to my truck, that I realize my stupid mistake.
I shoulda played “I Will Survive.”