by Holly Quinn, 2002
Disclaimer: Joe & Galactor belong to Tatsunoko
Warning: Profanity; Mature Themes
There was a loud knocking at the door, jolting Joe from his sleep.
"If you don't get up," a shrill voice called, "we gotta charge you for another night."
He looked around the ratty little room and sighed. The clock read 10:22.
"They said I had till eleven o'clock," he said, loud enough for the woman on the other side of the door to hear.
"It's eleven-fifteen," she called, "your clock is slow. It's after eleven, you gotta go
or we'll charge you."
He got out of bed, still dressed. He didn't change much, even to wash his clothes.
He found that he hardly ever needed to, anymore.
"No, no," he said. "I'm leaving." He lowered his voice. "I'm not paying for two nights in this shithole."
He opened the door.
"Shithole?" said the woman as he walked past her. She was smaller than he'd remembered, with stringy black hair and a grubby old housecoat on.
"Where can I get something to eat around here?" he asked. If he went too many days without eating, the cerebonics tended to seize up. Not fun.
The woman made a face. "You need to learn some respect. You were in there till eleven-fifteen. I could charge you for two nights!"
"It's OK," Joe said, without looking back at her, "I'll find someplace."
"You don't want to go to the blue, it sucks completely. The sign says 'breakfast,'
but he don't even make pancakes."
Joe glanced at the shoddy-looking cafe, then at the girl offering him the advice. She looked like she was about 14, but he guessed she was probably actually a little older. She looked like she could have used a meal, too.
"Well, where else is there?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I dunno... you gotta go downtown to find anyplace decent."
Joe nodded lightly. "Well, I don't want to go downtown." He watched her light a cigarette. "Hey, maybe you should think about spending some of your smoke money on food," he said.
"Screw you," she said. "I don't have any money." She stuck her chest out in a grotesque display of teenage sensuality. "But if you're interested..."
He shook his head. "I don't think so," he said, heading for the blue door, "but I'll
buy you breakfast if you want."
She made a face. "I don't take charity," she said, losing her pose.
Joe shrugged. "Suit yourself."
The inside of the blue was just as ugly as the outside. It was nearly empty, except for one old man apparently passed out at one of the tables and a stocky-looking woman at the counter. It was so dark it felt more like a bar than a cafe, and maybe it was. He sat down, two stools over from the woman at the counter.
"What'll you have?" the tired-looking man behind the counter asked him.
He looked behind the bar for a sign of coffee brewing. "What do you have?"
"We got beer, we got whisky," he said.
Joe nodded. "I just got up," he said. "Not really in a drinking mood. You don't have any coffee?"
The man shrugged. "This really ain't a coffee place," he said.
The woman at the bar leaned forward, pointing the top of her glass at the bartender. "Oh, for God's sake, Charlie, put on a pot of coffee. You haven't had this much business in a month." Her voice was low and gravely. Joe looked at her. It wasn't hard to tell that under the red wig and too much makeup, "she" wasn't a woman at all.
Charlie grumbled something about making him pay the price of a beer for the coffee, and limped away, through a swinging door.
She looked at him. "He'll do it," she said. "Nobody comes here any more." She looked at him and smiled.
He nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Thanks for..." he motioned towards the kitchen.
She leaned towards him. "My. Pleasure." She sat back, and lit a cigarette. She held the half-empty pack out, offering him one.
"No thanks," he said. He watched her for a moment, then stared down at the counter. "This part of town's been hit pretty hard, huh?"
"This part of town has been a shithole since..." she took a drag of her cigarette.
"Since... God... forever."
Joe nodded slowly.
"Home sweet home," she said, quietly, tapping an ash onto the floor. She sniffed.
"What're you, anyway?" she asked.
"Gangster... vigilante... partisan, maybe?"
"I could ask the same thing of you."
She smiled broadly. "Me? With me, what you see is what you get, baby!" She laughed loudly.
Joe smiled, then laughed at the irony.
"Come on," she said. "You must be something... guys like you don't hang around places like this... "
"I'm just here to get some coffee," he said.
"Fair enough," she said. "Fair enough." She tapped the counter for a moment. "You like dancing?" She asked.
Joe paused. "Not especially..."
"You like watching it?"
He shifted on the stool. "Uh... that's not really my thing..."
"Look, I'm not trying to pick you up, if that's what you're thinking," she said. "Just
making conversation. I can see you're just a regular, nice guy. I can see that."
He looked at her. "Is that what you see?"
"Sure I do," she said. "Most people can't tell, but I can tell. You like your girls
'organic'... that's fine. I'm not offended. If I was offended easily I'd be..." she took a swig of her drink. "I dunno. I'd be dead, right?"
"I don't know."
"Miss Pearl -- " she wiggled her hands, with their phony pearl rings on each finger, at him, "that's me -- is the number one dancer at the Sneak A Peek." She leaned towards him. "Most of 'em don't even know till showtime what's in store... Oh, but they never forget it!"
Joe smiled. "I bet they don't."
"Nope," she said, "nobody forgets Miss Pearl." She lit another cigarette.
Charlie came out from the kitchen with a beer glass filled with a dark liquid. He set it in front of Joe. "Don't got any milk," he grumbled.
"That's OK," Joe said. "I take it black."
"Man after my own heart," Pearl said. "This one is a man after my own heart!"
Charlie looked at Pearl, then looked at Joe. "He botherin' you?"
"She," Pearl said, pointing at Charlie.
"You ain't no she and everybody knows it," Charlie said.
"She's not bothering me," Joe said, sipping his coffee. Awful, lukewarm coffee.
"Aw," said Pearl, sliding over to the stool next to Joe, "That's sweet. You're a sweet one. I'm not trying to pick you up..."
"I'm just saying." She studied him. "You look familiar to me," she said. "You sure
you don't like a peep show?"
Joe stared into his glass. "I'm sure."
"I know I seen your face." She picked a piece of tobacco from her tongue. "Well, it doesn't matter to me. I don't judge," she said. "Jesus, who am I to judge? I got nothing because other people judged me."
Joe nodded lightly.
"Where was my government check when they were handing them out? Did I not work hard, too, all those years?"
Charlie laughed. "You're a drag queen!"
"I'm a dancer!" She looked at Joe. "I used to make five thousand, ten thousand dollars a week. Good money! My place of business got blown all to shit just like everyone else's. But did I count when they were handing out checks? Shit, even Charlie, here, got a check!"
"I didn't get a check," Joe said.
"See!" Pearl shouted. "That's not right! That's not right. You worked hard, too, I
bet, didn't you?"
"I worked hard."
"See! I don't get it. What did you do? You can tell me."
Joe paused, then looked at her sideways. "I was just in the Military."
"Well, shit, boy!" Pearl said. "You should be getting all kinds of checks, livin'
through that! What did you do, sell out to the Galactor?"
Joe smiled. "No, I didn't do that."
"Well," she said, "shit."
"I don't need much, though."
"Even so," Pearl said.
Joe took another sip of awful coffee.
"I'm good a what I do, though," Pearl said. "Only problem is, the bums around here have no money to show me they like my show. Rich guys used to come. They don't come any more. Peep shows downtown, now, they don't hire the really exotic girls any more. You know?"
"That's too bad."
"It is too bad! Everybody in the world doesn't like vanilla, you know?"
"But I'm proud. I'm proud! I don't give a shit. I'm proud. If they don't like who I
am on the outside, well, no way they'll ever like who I am on the inside, right? So fuck
"Right? You're lucky. You're the same inside and out. A good guy."
Joe stared straight ahead.
"But if you were something else on the inside, you'd understand."
Joe paused. "Yeah." He thought for a moment. "Yeah... I understand."
Joe smiled. "It's not what you think."
Pearl shrugged and sipped her drink. "We all have our secrets."
She leaned in and lowered her voice. "Wanna know what my secret is?"
Joe laughed. "I think I know what your secret is..."
"No, I don't think you do." She put her drink down and faced him. "I'm a man."
"I know, I think I figured that out," Joe said.
"No, no, I mean, I don't even like guys. Nothing inside me drives me to be a woman."
Joe looked at her. "Well. Then why do you do it?"
Pearl shrugged. "I'm good at it." She smiled at Joe. "I'm real good at it. Besides,
I'm too far gone to turn back now... it's part of me." She sighed. "Maybe it is inside me, I dunno..."
"Maybe," Joe said.
"Anyway, it's OK, you don't even know me, you don't have to tell me anything."
"I know it."
She looked up at the dusty clock on the wall. "Well, it's gettin' to be my time to
go." She pulled out a compact and started touching up her makeup."
Charlie took her glass. "Don't let the door hit ya," he said.
Pearl blew him a kiss. "You love me." She turned to Joe. "Well, you're not much of a talker, but you're a nice guy, and you made my morning. Better company than this one," she said, motioning towards Charlie. "I'll buy you a drink in six hours, if you're going to be here later."
"Thanks, but I don't think I'll be here."
"I'm not trying to pick you up or anything."
"I know," Joe said.
Pearl slid off of her stool. "Showtime," she said, striking a pose.
"Have fun," Joe said, and he gulped down the rest of his coffee.
Charlie looked at him. "You gonna buy a real drink now?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Joe said. "I've got things to do."
Charlie nodded indignantly. "Don't let the door hit ya."
It was getting late. Almost six, and nothing to do. The blue was only a few blocks
away. It was a shithole, yes, but the conversation was good. Maybe he'd stop in. What the hell.
The ambulance that ambled by him didn't make a sound. Never a good sign in a neighborhood like this. Yellow police tape blocked the sidewalk. He looked up. The sign said "Sneak A Peek." Joe paused for a moment, and noticed the teenage girl from earlier standing at the side. She was crying.
He went over to her, and she looked at him with recognition. "She was so nice," she sobbed.
"Who?" Joe asked. "What happened?" He was afraid to hear the answer.
"She was always helping me, you don't understand..."
Joe watched as the paramedics carried out the stretcher, covered with a sheet. A hand, bloodstained, slipped out from under the covering. One of the medics tucked in back in quickly, but not before Joe saw that it had a pearl ring on each finger.
He shook his head, and walked away.