This guy, Bobby, called asking for money. He was with three hookers at the hot dog stand and they needed to be paid. He had enough to buy them each a hot dog, but that would only hold them off for so long. Soon they were going to find out that he was broke. The skinny one was almost done with hers, he was telling me, and, lowering his voice to a whisper, he said he knew she wasn’t going to ask for another one. She ate as if she had other things on her mind, like where’s my goddamn money, stuff like that. Even if she did want another one he didn’t have the cash for it, the three dogs had wiped him out. He was lucky to have enough for those three, he said. He was lucky.
I paced around the dark apartment, phone to my ear. I could see how he was lucky.
Playing off my silence, he mumbled some more into the receiver, fast talking, while I was trying to figure out how to react. He said he met them online. He had been under the impression that they liked him for who he was. After all, he confided with me, he had been a little famous. He said he didn’t know they were hookers and now he owed them for the entire night. Actually, maybe, he said that again—maybe—he didn’t need to pay all three of them. The skinny one was totally his type and, he could be wrong, but maybe there was something there. Something real. She looked French, and it had always been a dream of his to have a French girlfriend. He starting talking about this TV show they’d watch in French class back in middle school about a Parisian family with a beautiful teenage daughter, and he had been floored by how she looked so at ease with her boyfriend as they’d stroll down the street in spring and discuss going to the boulangerie or the supermarché and buy some fucking pomplemousse, the entire time while she wore a sweater with no bra underneath. They’d hang out with her little sister and help her with her homework, not giving a rat’s ass about who’s getting stoned without them in the Genovese parking lot. The show was so wholesome that it was pornographic, filthy, foreign propaganda and his adolescent brain was confused about whether he should buy it or not. The part of his mind that dreams, or maybe it was his heart, invested in the girl, big time, and it tore him apart. Each episode was a new way to desire her, to fall madly in love with her, but also a new way to understand that he was trapped in his blue-collar pain cave, growing up out on the island, smoking stolen women’s cigarettes on the playground, giving kids wet willies and purple nurples for looking too pensive. He had forgotten about it until just tonight, had completely buried it in the scuzziest corner of his soul, until right now, talking to me, but he realized that his love for her had been there all this time, propelling him forward in life, yanking him backwards, closing doors while opening up others, kicking him to this dirty curb, right here. The shit we learn in school, you know what I mean? But it’s not too late, right? For a French girlfriend? He just turned forty-five, he reminded me.
The poor guy had the wrong number. I didn’t know who he was. Before I could speak up he was off again.
Ah, bitch finished her hot dog, he said. It’s now or never. Maybe it would be safer just to have all the money. What did I think? He was asking me for three thousand dollars. Three thousand or two. My choice.
A desperation had creeped into his phrasing and it seemed to throw him off. He must’ve sensed I wasn’t who he thought I was.
I sat on my couch, then got right up. I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. It was one of those moments where the act of speaking was more important than what words you chose. Say anything just to keep him talking. “Let’s play it safe, Bobby. Three thousand.”
My voice didn’t match whoever’s he thought he was talking to. He let out a knowing groan, like he got a punch to the gut. “I fucked up again,” he said.
I stayed on the line and walked around a little, waiting for him to hang up.
But he just breathed into the phone. Heavy, middle-aged breaths. A half a life’s worth of heartbreak pushed those breaths out of his inner organs. “Dans ces affaires . . .” he said to himself, recovering from his bout of nostalgia.
During our conversation I had paced around my entire apartment trying to picture a world full of famous people and hookers and hot dogs, midnight playground dates with middle-aged Frenchmen smoking stogies. My mind was getting spun around. It was late and I was up only because of a text I received from my friend, Jay, claiming that he had met an old high school acquaintance of mine, who turned out to be someone I didn’t remember. He remembers you, Jay wrote. He reenacted your jump shot from memory. Right outside 7-11. And he nailed it bro. A moment passed, maybe while he sipped from a Big Gulp, then one more message. Looked so pure. Unsettled by the compliment and reunited with dead memories, I dug in my closet and found a videotape that I knew was there, the only remaining recorded proof that I had once played ball, saved for future children that might never appear, and I reconnected my VCR. There was a rumor that the team manager had a crush on me so he had zoomed in on my ass for most of the game. Between the auto-zooming in and out, his nervous hands, and the fact that it had been recorded by an ancient camcorder on low batteries, there were streaks everywhere, as if we all played while on acid. The artifacts overrode the facts. The tape had transformed into shit. When the phone rang I had paused it precisely at the height of my jump, the ball ready to be released by my fingertips. My head streaked like a comet.
Bobby was still on the line. I stood in front of the TV again, staring again at my fiery face.
“What are you doing, Bobby? Watching them eat their hot dogs?”
I backed away and turned the thing off. Black dots sparkled my vision and I rubbed my eyes, giving up, letting go. “Tell me about the girls. They beautiful?”
He dismissed my question with a snort. I could almost hear him shaking his head on the other end of the line.
I got it. He had been answering that question the entire time. All of it. Everything he told me was about the beauty of the three hovering hookers.
“I was duped,” he said. “I thought I was back, you know what I mean? I thought I was back.”
I already had my coat on and was heading out the door, my cell phone cradled next to my head. I patted my pockets to locate my car keys. I didn’t have three thousand dollars in the bank, but I had something.