Theo was drunk in a whorehouse when he got word that his father was dead. Languishing in the parlor, his gut sloshing with beer, he was waiting for Mark and Dan to finish with their favorites so they could get back to their rooms on campus and he could puke in his own toilet. Not that the gents’ in Missy Hollows’ house weren’t perfectly nice, but he was looking forward to emptying his load of beer and passing out immediately with his cheek presses against the cool tile, and staying that way till late morning. It was only the anticipation of these squalid sensual pleasures that had kept his eyes open. Certainly the parlor jades had given up on tempting him to an upstairs room.
They knew him well enough in this mood. Sullen, petulant. On most nights he was the best of johns; young and good looking, charming, a wit, and, best of all, generous. Charm and looks and that made the work more pleasant, but his generosity was what made Theo a popular patron on most evenings. But Theo in a mood, ill humored, became a real dick. Even his looks curdled. His self-effacing grin became a cruel leer; dark eyes were bagged; his cheeks became flushed and waxy; his pores opened and sweat poured off him. It was is if some kind of vitriol was released by a vestigial organ and began to leach out through his skin. He became rank, his sweat acrid, penetrating. His wit spoiled into biting vulgarity. He was, the whores all agreed, a mean drunk. Still, they fucked for money, so his drunken meaness might have been tolerated except that it extended to his wallet. In addition to all else, he became tight fisted when he was shit faced; haggling the price of every tug, lick, and thrust. He made the girls feel cheap, and no whore wants to feel that what she has to offer is worth less than top dollar.
Once the ladies had seen his humor, he’d been left alone that night. There he’d been; forearms thrown across the Plexiglas cover of the jukebox, forehead pressed against forearms, feeding quarters into the slot, every other one slipping from his fingers and hitting the wood floor and rolling away to hide under the furniture where Kate, the morning maid, would find them when she mopped up after sunrise. Once he’d gotten a few coins into the machine, Theo punched buttons, trying to remember his favorite songs. His vision was too blurred for him to read the tiny hand-lettered paper tags with the titles and codes that would set the platters spinning inside. Was c-18 Johnny Cash or Kelly Clarkson? Shit. Don’t want to get that wrong. G-4; Miles Davis or Aerosmith? He closed his eyes. The skin on his forehead was clammy, too hot where it touched his forearm. Fore head. Fore arms. The thing that went before him. Leading the way. Head and arms. “Need one to be clear and the other to be strong,” his uncle Dudley would tell him, and then bring a clay jug to his mouth, lifting it with his pinkie, tucking it backhanded into the crook of his elbow and taking a long drink. “The arm I have,” he’d say, “The head?" He’d see-saw his free hand, “Not so much the head." Uncle Dudley had been popular as hell in the whorehouses. Always open handed, he became especially bountiful when drunk, which was most of the time.
Theo’s forehead felt hot. The kind of hot where it became sticky. But he didn’t move it from his arm. He knew that if he moved his forehead from his forearm the skin would peel away unpleasantly. His situation was precarious, a moment’s disgust would have him emptying himself on the moment. He was saving himself for the comfort of his own toilet. If all went well, he’d be senseless for several hours until his full bladder would wake him, the pattern of the bathroom tiles imprinted on one side of his face, stripped to his shorts and shivering under a coating of clammy sweat. And after a long, hard piss he’d have the singular delight of brushing his teeth and gums, scrubbing away the remains of the night’s cigarettes and whiskey and beer; and then giving his face and scalp a similar scrub with ice cold water and a rough wash cloth. “There are subtle pleasures hidden in a hangover,” Uncle Dudley would say. Theo just needed to hang on, and all that would be his come morning.
But the jukebox had begun slipping out from under him. He could hear the radio behind the bar. That was why he had gotten up from his chair by the fire in the first place. The radio had been playing Christmas carols and he was sick to death of hearing them. If he played the jukebox the bartender would turn off the radio. The radio wasn’t playing carols now; someone was talking, but the carols would be back soon if he didn’t do something about it. He hit buttons. C-18. J-4. T-21. The jukebox clicked and whirred, it’s inner workings hidden under the hood of song titles.
It was quiet in the parlor, just the sound of the jukebox armature plucking a 45 from a slack and moving it to a turntable. That and whispering by the bar. And footsteps, as more patrons and whores came in and crowded around the bar and the radio chatter. And then there was the voice of a john at the top of the stairs. Half-naked the man was, covered by an overcoat he’d thrown on before coming out of his room, his whore draped over his shoulder, crying, wearing nothing at all. The john had a red and silver transistor radio that they must have been listening to in their room.
“Did you hear,” he asked. “Did you hear,” he asked again. “The fucking King is dead,” he answered his own question.
Theo peeled his forehead from his forearm and looked up in time to see every set of eyes in the place turn his way and watch him as he threw up on his shoes. That was how he found out his father the King was dead. Hearing the news as Kelly Clarkson started to sing. Because C-18 was not Johnny Cash.
“Oh well,” Uncle Dudley would have said, “Sometimes you eat the world, but mostly it eats you.”