THE GATS CLUB
By Kedrick Nettleton
The sun was in that awkward, end-of-summer stage, where it refused to completely set at the end of the day and hung just slightly above the horizon, getting in people’s eyes and causing intense reflections of light off glass and steel. Albert sat next to a window about three stories up – at a two seat table in the corner of the Gats Club downtown, his friend Stephen in the seat across from him – and was almost blinded by the sunlight coming at him off the windows across the street. He peered through squinted eyes down at the pavement below.
“I don’t think it’s her.”
Stephen shrugged, a glass in his hand. “Maybe not. Looks it, all I’m saying.”
Across the street from the Gats Club was the Austere Hotel, and it was in this direction that they were staring. Most of the people who milled about the parking lot and by the lobby doors were the richer types, suits and dresses, definitely not local. They hailed taxis, waited for valets to come. The more intrepid of them chose to walk, their well-polished shoes making brisk clacking noises on the pavement. He knew their life. They travelled to dinner reservations, to anniversaries. To clubs with pulsing neon lights and the promise of easy, sweating bodies. Wherever they went, city lights awaited them, city lights and an ending to the day that wasn’t already written. That was appealing to Albert, at the Gats Club.
Most nights, nights when he and Stephen were deep enough into drinks that their own lives didn’t seem quite so bad, the people down on the pavement represented nothing more than a well-dressed ant farm. He could study the creatures, see the tunnels that they dug in their strivings, and then go back home. Tonight that had been complicated; they were now staring more intensely than usual, trying to determine if perhaps they might just know one of those ants down there on the farm.
“Could be…” Stephen mused, his breath creating fog on the glass that he held to his lips. The liquid in the glass was cherry red, but Albert had been in the bathroom when the order was taken, so he wasn’t sure what it was.
Albert shrugged, softly pursing his lips together into a shhh. To talk seemed wrong, somehow, watching what they were watching. It took out the illusion of voyeurism, of spectating. It involved them as active agents in the dramas beneath, a role that Albert didn’t want.
“I think it is her, though,” Stephen said, ignoring Albert’s previous shush. “I mean it doesn’t look exactly like her, but I think it might be.”
“And so if it is, there’s something to behold, right? Anna Fitz? Looking like that?”
Albert didn’t say anything. He cupped a hand over his eyes to watch the girl that he and Stephen were staring at down on the sidewalk. She wore a long red dress, tight to her form like a sheath to a knife, with a slit in the thigh and a low cut to showcase all that she had to showcase. Her feet were displayed in strappy silver heels, and even from where Albert sat he could see the bright red nail polish on her toes.
“Anna Fitz,” Stephen said, letting out a soft whistle. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had been a loud one; the Gats club was mostly empty. Too late for the day drinkers and too early for the nighttime crowd. They’d have to leave before those folks came, if they wanted to stay in the quiet.
“Close your mouth,” Albert finally said, seeing his friend’s expression in the glass. “You’re drooling.”
“Sorry,” Stephen said.
“Might not be her.”
“Looks like it.”
They’d been going back and forth for too long, now. Albert pinched the bridge of his nose, feigning a headache. “It most certainly does not look like Anna Fitz.”
And that was true, almost. It didn’t look like the Anna Fitz that they had known in high school, the pretty quiet girl who’d rather have spent a day in sweats and a tee reading than in anything resembling formal wear. That Anna Fitz had been popular, in a kind of detached way. She attended social events – the dances, the parties, the movie nights with projectors and bed sheets on lawns – perfunctorily, like she simply wanted to avoid the hassle that would accompany her absence. Albert had been, at least a few times, desperately in love with her, but even her modestly positive social standing was far above his own circle.
Still, even though the clothing and the hairstyle didn’t match… well, it did look like Anna Fitz. And it gave Albert a queer feeling in his stomach, something akin to stage fright. Not even the champagne that he had now had two and a half glasses of was putting him at ease, though he could begin to feel the glass slicken in his hand as his palms began to sweat.
At that moment, it wasn’t hard to see the reason that Stephen was staring, and it wasn’t because he was remembering the bookish girl that Anna had been in high school. She had bent over, down the sidewalk, and the view down to her breasts was unimpeded as they hung low. She was retying a sandal, one of the strappy heels. Retying? Was that the right word? For some reason, Albert blushed at this. He blushed as he saw the rise and fall of her mostly uncovered breasts, and then he felt angry. He wanted to push Stephen over, to tip his chair.
The real reason they had been staring for what must have been nearing half an hour, beyond the fact that the woman was leaving little to the imagination and looked vaguely familiar, was that Anna Fitz – or whoever she was; Albert was pretty much operating on the assumption that it really was her – was drunk off her ass, and she was stumbling around the parking lot trying to make contact with the wealthy passersby. Albert and Stephen had been trying to guess exactly what it was she was saying when they’d caught a glimpse of her face and recognized her.
“I really do think so. Like ninety-eight percent,” Stephen finally said, his breath reaching a normal pace as probably-Anna stood up to her full height.
Albert felt dirty, but it was just an uncertain flash of feeling. Being there at the Gats Club had always seemed somewhat empty to him. He had always been reminded of the zoo, of the thick panes of glass that separated the contented visitors from the teeth of the predators. People wanted to see action, wanted to see power, but they wanted it from a safe distance. Only with a barrier separating.
“She’s asking them something,” Stephen said. He nodded down at Anna, who was engaged in conversation with somebody going out the lobby of the hotel. The man was dressed in bright white pants and a blue polo, and his hair was arranged like the subject of a cologne commercial. When Anna got his attention, she stumbled over and wrapped her hands around his wrists. For a few moments, she spoke, her head facing the opposite direction as Stephen and Albert’s. Finally, the man shook his head no – not before glancing down and helping himself to a look – and walked on, the same as everyone else had done. There was the hint of a smile on his face. Anna Fitz stumbled over to the elevated flower bed that framed the front door of the hotel and sat on the concrete, her face broadcasting drunken defeat.
“Maybe she wants to use their phone?” Albert shrugged. “Waiting for her ride?”
“Why wouldn’t she just ask the front desk?”
“Maybe she doesn’t know what a landline is.”
That got Stephen chuckling. Chuckling a little too much, actually, and it caused Albert to wonder how many glasses of the cherry colored liquid he’d had.
“We should go before too long,” Albert said. That dirty feeling was only intensifying, settling in the dregs of his body. A kind of casual, unfocused sadness, not foreign to these nights he spent drinking with Stephen. The sun was setting, now. Soon the city lights would turn on, the ones that held so much promise for the Austere people.
Stephen nodded. “Taxi, though.” He smoothed out the front of his slacks and sighed. “I don’t want to drive.”
Albert nodded, thinking. Which was the worse prison, in the end? Solitary confinement in a windowless room, or a glass cage open to the world going by? It was an image that always seemed to spring to Albert’s head when he was here. The walls of the Gats Club, at least in his estimation, served effectively as prison bars.
The place was decorated in the style of a fifties Bond movie – stark white tablecloths, varnished wooden floors, and a lounge to the side of the room with sofas of crushed velvet. The bar itself was framed by large-bulb lights, almost like a makeup vanity. The man behind the bar in the slim shirt and vest had his head buried in his hands. Albert wondered if his shift was ending or beginning.
“Did you know her?” Stephen said.
He inclined his head down to the girl, who still sat on the flowerbed. “Back in school, you knew her, right? You liked her.”
“Just a crush.” Albert shrugged.
“Well, congrats.” Stephen grinned – almost leered. “Never would have guessed she’d turn out this sexy. Kudos on the judgement.”
Albert shrugged again. She was. Sexy, that is. Back in high school, he’d probably have paid cash to see Anna Fitz dress like a high society slut. He still remembered the fantasies, actually, the ones he used to have. He imagined her under him, he behind… imagined her smooth skin, her soft breaths. Later, of course, after the hallway and the janitor’s bucket, those fantasies turned rough, tinged with the bitterness that had ended up clouding Albert’s last few years in school. Seeing her now only made the sadness settling in his gut that much heavier.
“Asking for directions?” Stephen mused, raising the glass to his lips. “Waiting for someone? Getting worried?”
“Let’s go,” Albert said.
“I changed my mind. I want to see what happens.”
They were close friends, these two. Albert couldn’t think of anyone that he trusted more than Stephen. Couldn’t think of anyone that he’d been through more with than him. Still, he felt his collar tighten around his throat and he felt his blood pulse. The beginning of a sweat sheen was beading under his hairline, and he imagined shoving Stephen’s face hard against the table.
“Well I want to go,” Albert said. “Place’ll fill up soon.”
Stephen turned towards him with red-flushed cheeks and a look that was partly combative, partly confused. “What else do you possibly have to do tonight?”
It was too saddening to answer the question truthfully, so Albert rolled his eyes, laughed in a kind of haughty way that he would hate coming from anyone else, and stayed put.
“How close were you two?” Stephen pressed. He and Albert hadn’t really gotten close until college, until the admissions department put them together by chance. The fact they’d gone to high school together was just so much trivia. “You guys ever talk?”
“Not much, honestly.”
Stephen shrugged. “Thought I remembered you saying something about her.”
“Just a crush.”
“Yeah,” Stephen said, the word a lament. Both, probably, still wished for a world where something as innocent as a crush could exist.
“She was a nice girl.”
“Looks it.” Stephen snorted.
“I mean it. Kind of a nerd, honestly.”
“Yeah, I’m just messing. I remember her. Could have sworn you said you guys talked.”
Albert had lied about that. It made it easier to forget about the day in the hallway with Anna and Paul Sanders, easier to forget about the day that he’d slipped a note into Anna Fitz’s locker in between classes, casting furtive glances around the gray hallways and about to burst with the feeling in his heart.
“Oh, no,” Stephen said, though his tone was one of glee. “Look.”
Anna Fitz had abandoned her seated position by the flower beds; she was now hunched over, on her knees, heaving into the bushes. The slit on her dress rode high enough where Albert could almost see butt-cheek, but not quite. One of the strappy heels was stretched tight and looked about to break.
“Someone’s had a bit too much,” his friend continued, chortling.
The people passing by her from the hotel lobby didn’t stop. They cast their own glances, judgmental looks that said Oh, here we go, another one. The women’s faces got smug, but the men’s gazes were directed downward, to the rear bulging in the dress. Nobody asked her if she was okay, nobody offered to hold her hair. Albert kept expecting someone to do something.
“She needs somebody to take her home,” Albert said, finally.
“If she’s not careful, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You know that I’m right.”
Paul and Anna weren’t dating when Albert had slipped his note into Anna’s locker. Talking, that’s what it was known as, to the kids who engaged in it. Albert understood it now as a kind of pre-dating. But maybe even that was too strong a word; Anna didn’t even really like Paul. They never did end up together, if he remembered. He was exactly the kind of person that she didn’t belong with, the kind of brash high school boy who’d end up a cynic in college when he finally discovered that the world doesn’t bend over for him. Albert should look him up, sometime, to see. Would it make him feel better, to see that Paul had failed?
It didn’t matter that they weren’t dating, or that Anna didn’t even have feelings for Paul. Paul thought it was leading somewhere, arrogant ass, he thought he was wearing her down, and he took exception to the note that Anna Fitz found in her locker – stupidly signed, by the way. Albert had sometimes wondered how different his outlook on life would be now if he had just scribbled something generic like Cyrano or from a secret Admirer. That was more romantic, anyways.
Paul had beaten Albert. No, not beaten. That was the worst part. Slapped him. Found him walking towards his last class at the end of the day, pushed him into a corner of the school, and shoved the note in his face. Anna Fitz had followed behind him, for reasons that Albert never really found out. Maybe she was trying to stop him. He’d have liked to believe that.
Paul slapped him, twice, on the cheek. Hurt less than a punch would have, probably, but there was something condescending in the action. Like Albert wasn’t even worthy of a beating, that he wasn’t even threatening enough to expend the energy on. It was a humiliating slap, and thinking of it now still made Albert’s collar hot.
He’d taken a step back, then, to avoid whatever was coming next from Paul, and he’d slipped. Of course, of all the possibilities, there’d been a janitor’s cart behind him. His foot didn’t quite land in the soapy water, but it hit the edge and tipped the whole procession over, and him with it. Again, it didn’t hurt physically. The water wasn’t even cold. But he found himself soaked, slapped, and on his backside in some apparent form of supplication in front of Paul.
And Anna? The bitch had laughed. The worst kind of laugh, the kind that she tried to stifle, but couldn’t, so it just came out louder. Like she knew that she shouldn’t, that it was cruel, but just couldn’t help it. When she slapped Paul on his shoulder, it was almost playful. “Leave him alone,” she’d said, hooking her arm through Paul’s shoulder and tugging him away from where Albert sat dripping. “Let’s go.” They didn’t even end up dating. Albert heard through the grapevine that she’d let him down easy after that. Paul never got to get her in his car, never got to slip her panties off and watch the windows fog up.
Every time Anna saw him after that, she smiled at him. Not a mocking smile, not a friendly smile. It was a pity smile, the kind of smile that said she was embarrassed to see him and remember what she had seen. Of course Albert was embarrassed, too. He turned red right along with her.
Albert’s face was deep red, now, and he was glad for the Gats Club’s lighting, glad that Stephen couldn’t see him. Albert had always had this strange fear that his thoughts were transparent. He feared that, somehow, people could read what was passing through his mind as easily as one of those electronic banners in Times Square. It’s why he found it difficult to talk to the women that he met at work and occasionally here at the Gats Club. They’d see through him, see the images that his mind would create. They’d be disgusted. It was enough to shut him down.
“She’s really down now,” Stephen said.
She was. Anna Fitz had abandoned her four-on-the-floor position by the flowerbed and was now sprawled out on the concrete, her long legs pressing against the sheath dress. One arm was thrown over her forehead – dramatic, it would have looked, if the expression and hue of her face didn’t speak so clearly to sickness.
“This isn’t as good as I was hoping,” Stephen sighed. “Kind of just sad now, really.”
Albert nodded. He envied Stephen. He wished that he could look with casual disdain at Anna Fitz below and laugh and smile and think that she got exactly what she deserved, that that’s what hanging out with guys like Paul Sanders does to you – turns you into a drunken, high society slut, waiting to get picked up by some other douchebag and probably raped. He should have felt vindicated, felt that he got the better end of the deal after all. He couldn’t.
He suddenly wondered why it hadn’t popped into his head to get up and go to her. There were only three flights of stairs separating him and this woman. She needed someone, clearly. There was a phrase that Albert’s mother used to use, though he didn’t know where it came from. Wherever she’d gotten it, it leapt into his mind, now: Heap burning coals of shame on their heads.
And there was more to it than that, Albert knew. He hated to admit it, but the thought of walking those flights, of bending down on the sidewalk and reaching out a hand to Anna Fitz… it brought the same kind of butterflies to his stomach that he’d had the moments before he’d dropped that ill-fated missive into her locker. He couldn’t stop his mind from creating the narrative: he’d help her up, direct her to his car – maybe carry her, if she was too unsteady on her feet – and they’d go to his little apartment. Not in a pushy way; only because Anna was too drunk to tell him her address. He’d ask, of course. Of course he’d ask. He’d lay her down on the ratty little couch in his living room, cover her with blankets, maybe help her out of that dress. And the rest…
Would he tell her who he was? Would he mention that day back in the hallway, the janitor’s mop bucket? Paul? Albert wasn’t sure. He hadn’t had this feeling of lightness – buoyancy – in him for some time, now, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that the feeling alone was worth acting on. It was worth it.
“Where are you going?”
Albert hadn’t realized that he was standing. His friend was staring at him, eyebrow raised, a confused and pleasant expression on his face that made Albert feel slightly guilty about leaving. Hopefully Stephen would have the sense not to drive home.
“I’m going to help her,” he said. He was sweating freely, now.
“Help her?” Stephen pointed down to where Anna was now attempting to crawl into the hotel lobby. Judging by the progress she’d made and the distance of the lobby’s automatic doors, Albert had time.
“She needs somebody.”
Stephen leaned back in his chair, clearly searching in his addled mind for something funny to say, some double entendre, but Albert was already off. He dipped his chin at the little bartender in the shirt and vest, throwing his jacket around him as he walked out the doors.
His steps were light on the stairs, though his breathing was heavy. When he hit the ground floor he strode out the door with purpose, not bothering to cut across to the crosswalk. There were no cars.
Anna was still crawling, her dress visibly dirty and tearing at the seam down the leg. Albert got a brief glimpse of her panties, red ones.
But then he stopped. He was across the street now, just a few hundred yards from the lobby. He had stopped to look up to the window he had just been sitting at, expecting Stephen to raise a glass, but the sun’s reflection made the window a mirror of the buildings around it.
When he turned back, there was someone next to Anna. Two someones, actually. Two men, both dressed in shirts and ties. They had come out of the hotel, probably; Albert could see there was an SUV waiting for them by the lobby doors, a driver staring at them expectantly. Both men had smiles on their faces, and one of them had stopped and knelt down to where Anna was splayed out on the ground.
Albert stopped walking, feeling for the first time how hot it was.
Anna was saying something to the men, and the men’s smiles grew wider. The one who was down next to her reached hands out, one under her and one over, and they rose together. Albert saw the other man wink at his friend.
And it would have probably been easy to stop it, he realized. He could tell them that he knew the girl. That he was late and that she’d had too much to drink. He could thank them for helping her but assure them that he’d take it from here. He could make sure they didn’t try anything; he could make sure that Anna Fitz didn’t disappear into their SUV and wake up in bed with one or both of them tomorrow, remembering nothing, regretting everything. He could stop it.
But he didn’t. The two men awkwardly walked Anna Fitz to the SUV, and together they worked her into the backseat, like two parents with their child. Then they started laughing. One of them – the one who’d knelt down to Anna – took the keys from the valet and got in the driver’s seat. The other climbed in back.
Maybe they’d just take her home, Albert thought. Hoped, maybe. Did he hope? He watched the SUV drive away.
About the Author:
Kedrick Nettleton is an undergraduate student, currently pursuing a degree in Creative Writing from Oklahoma Baptist University. He has had stories published in The Route Seven Review and Dragon Poet Review, and has been a finalist in the Scissortail Annual Writing Contest at East Central University. He is the two time recipient of the Mitchell English Scholarship for Creative Writing at Oklahoma Baptist University.