On the screen, a pair of giant breasts rubbed against another pair of giant breasts, each the size of a patio table if you walked right up to them. And a person could have walked right up to them, too, without bothering practically anyone, since only one seat was filled down below. Frank watched the scene from the projection booth: the four breasts mixing it up together, and the man down in the seat, angling for just the right time to jerk off and leave. There, Frank said to himself, is a traditionalist. The man had left home and come all the way here for the show.
In the booth, Frank raised a bottle of beer to toast the back of his lone customer’s head. He’d picked this movie for the theater’s last night because it was a traditionalist kind of movie, too – no amateurs like on the internet, but no big-name, unbelievable surgery people, either. Just a pair of powdered-up women stopping at all the stations of the sex act.
Frank leaned his chin, unshaven, on his hand and watched, the warmth of the projector on his cheek, the noise of it loud in his ear. He had to admit he was pretty sad, knowing this was the last show.
Something clicked for the man down in the seat, and he made his almost-hidden movements. After a half a minute or less, he was done, and he left quickly, head down. But Frank kept the movie going. After all, a lot of people came in the middle, or at least they did when they used to come. Besides, Frank wanted to watch the whole thing. There was something about flesh made so big – less of a thing without the community of men in the seats down there, but still something.
An hour later, he locked the place up, bringing the metal shutter down with a huge crash and feeling the finality of it. The trucks would be by tomorrow to haul away everything he had managed to sell, and the wrecking crews would start in soon after that. Frank fingered the night’s little bit of cash in his pocket, turned to look down the sidewalk toward the river, and saw the edge of 30 th Street Station off in the distance. It was three in the morning, and everything was closed down just about everywhere. The block was cold and yellow with thin streetlight. I should have gotten out a long time ago, Frank thought. He turned back to the theater, the graffiti on the shutter. Fla-Z, it said in two places, big and black spray-painted letters, and off to one side, the word TITTIES in silver marker.
There was one bar you could go to after legal closing time – a place that was supposed to be called Mike’s but was called ike’s because the first letter of the neon sign hadn’t worked in so long. The cops left the place alone, and Frank usually ended his worknights here.
“Hey, Ant’ny,” he said when he went in, waving at the bartender. There were a couple other guys in there, too – Eddie and some other unknown guy drinking individually. The place was small and dark, but with only a few people in it, it seemed bigger.
“Set you up?” Ant’ny said. He was wearing a Flyers jersey, even though the season was over already.
“Set me up,” Frank said, and he took a stool and waited for his beer. This was a good way to reflect after working a night, and an empty apartment wasn’t anything to rush home for.
“How you doing?” Eddie asked from down the bar. He sounded about the regular amount of drunk, and his gray hair was sticking up, like he’d been smashing it that way with his hand.
Frank shrugged. “Tonight was the night,” he said.
Ant’ny put a bottle down in front of him. “Tonight?” he said.
“Really? No idea,” Eddie said. He pushed on his hair with his hand.
Frank nodded again. He picked his bottle up and held it near his lips, not really looking at anything in particular.
“How was it?” Eddie said.
The man from down the bar jumped in then, leaning forward to become visible in the conversation. He wore an undershirt and an old sportscoat. “What was tonight?”
“Besides Ash Wednesday?” Frank said with a sort-of chuckle. “Well, I closed my place down for the last time.” He drank a little bit of beer.
“The Forum,” Frank said, pointing his thumb in the general direction of the theater.
The man at the end of the bar let his mouth open up. “The Forum? That old place? Are you kidding me? Why’d you shut down?”
“Th’internet,” Eddie said. He made a jerking-off motion with his hand. “Everybody can do it at home with nobody watching.”
Frank knew that was true. People were chicken about their desires, basically.
Ant’ny, who was following along quietly, wiping out a glass, said, “My brother’s kid’s always on their computer. That thing’s probably sticky from top to bottom.”
Everybody laughed. Frank drank a little more beer. The way he took the sip was like the way you would kiss a woman after you had sex with her, at least in theory.
“You know what that is?” said the man down the bar, his face pink even in the darkness of the room. “That’s a goddamn shame. I would of gone in there one last time if I had known it was going to be one last time. What were you showing tonight?”
Frank smiled. “You know. One of those classic kind of things in a hospital. Nurses.”
They all said “Yeah” or “Mm,” at the same time.
“I sure would of gone in there if I’d of known about it,” the man said, and everybody nodded. Then: “You know what we oughtta do?” he said. “You oughtta open that up one more time for us right tonight, and we can all pay you for one more show, and we can bring over a couple bottles or whatnot and have one last nice time.”
“That’s an idea,” Frank said, dully, not really thinking about it.
“I’m serious,” he said, and he moved over one stool to slap Eddie on the arm. “Don’t you think so? It’s like a celebration.”
Frank looked down at his drink and up at Ant’ny, who shrugged and said, “I ain’t going anywhere.”
“Still,” Eddie said.
The streets were even quieter, like you could hear for blocks, like the sound of a single car could have been coming from a mile off. Philly could get so quiet in the dead hours of night, and the noise of the shutter opening seemed loud enough to break buildings apart. Frank thought about that and thought about the wrecking crews that would be coming. A long time ago this had been a regular movie theater – not a fancy one, but nice enough. And the theater was still nice enough, even if it wasn’t quite regular anymore. It was a shame to tear it down.
“Funny how you never sell popcorn in a place like this,” said the guy from down the bar, whose name turned out to be Larry. It was him and Frank and Eddie there in the lobby. The carpet had been maroon at one time, but it was a lot darker now, like the ceiling was a lot darker, too. Frank put his hands in his pockets and looked around. This was an unexpected extra visit to his place. A bonus.
He set the movie up and then came down to join the other two guys as it rumbled onto the screen. He was supposed to stay up there to make sure the projector didn’t overheat, but if everything burned down it wouldn’t be the end of the world at this point. The guys were drinking from bottles of beer Ant’ny had sold them on their way out the door, a seat separating each of them. As the screen lit up, they clinked bottles.
After the opening credits, there was an interior shot of a room that was supposed to be a hospital room but was really just four white walls and a white-sheeted bed. Two nurses were talking, their shirts half-unbuttoned, their lipstick shiny.
“Here we go,” Larry said.
In another minute, the women were making out and getting naked.
Frank watched just about every show from the projection room, but it was a different thing being down here in the community of men. This was the one place where straight men could sit together and be with sex in the same place. And of course it was ending. Frank felt his mouth twist in a sour way, and he filled it up with some beer to remind him not to hurry into the grief of tomorrow.
“That is beauty-ful,” Larry said.
The blonde woman was going down on the redhead, the wah-wah music going over the speakers.
“Yeah,” Eddie said, not really listening.
“You get ’er, tiger,” Larry said to the movie. And then nobody said anything for a while. Frank was watching the actresses and thinking about who they were and what it meant for them that a place like his was closing. Probably they had something else going. People said there was more money in porn than ever before. He was too old for any of that, though.
When a doctor came in and the two women got on their knees, Frank noticed out of the corner of his eye that Larry was jerking off under the coat on his lap. He would have noticed it even if they were sitting a lot further apart; that was what he was used to seeing in here. Then Eddie started up, both of them trying a little bit to keep it hidden.
Frank had not had sex or touched himself or even had a wet dream in a long time, but he reached into his pants anyway, just to feel human or maybe to be a part of something. Soon, he was jerking off, too – limp at first, for sure, but out in the open, not trying to hide it under a coat or anything. This wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. This was three traditionalists together on the last night of a place. They all came when they came, and nobody said anything about it, but Frank felt good and smiled, briefly, before he got the normal afterward feeling of everything being over.
After, they stood out on the sidewalk, and Frank pulled the shutter down with another huge crash. The funny thing was that nobody was awkward or nervous about anything. Pretty soon it would be morning.
“Anybody going back to ike’s?” Larry said.
Eddie shrugged, his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched up, hair straight in the air. “I bet Ant’ny’s shut it down by now.” He was still about the regular amount of drunk.
“I think I’ll walk by there and see, anyways. What about you?” he said, looking at Frank.
Frank shook his head. “Nah. I’ve got to get home sometime.”
Larry smiled. “Little woman waiting?”
“Nah. Just me and my shadow.”
Larry clapped him on the back. “Well, for a long time you done this city good with this place. I always said it was a pretty clean place. And you done us good tonight, too.”
Eddie smiled, took a fist out of his pocket, smashed his hair back, and they all stood quietly for a minute. Then they said goodbye, and Larry and Eddie walked back toward the bar, and Frank went looking for his car. Still nobody was around. Pretty soon, there would be garbage trucks rumbling around the city, their brakes screaming, and some early morning commuters. But this neighborhood would wake up last, old and beat-up and needing the rest. Probably in a few years it would all be loft apartments or Asian fusion restaurants or something. For now, though, it would sleep in. Frank, too. As he walked along, Frank could feel in his bones that when he finally got into bed, he’d be out for a long time, like a dead man, without a dream in his head.
About The Author
David Harris Ebenbach’s first book of short stories, Between Camelots ( University of Pittsburgh Press ), won the 2005 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the 2006 GLCA New Writer’s Award. His short fiction has been published in, among other places, the Connecticut Review, the Greensboro Review, and Philadelphia Stories, his poetry has appeared in, among other places, Phoebe, Mudfish, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he wrote the chapter, "Plot: A Question of Focus," for Gotham Writers Workshops’ book Writing Fiction (Bloomsbury, USA). A Philadelphia native, he has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College, and teaches Creative Writing at Earlham College. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.