One of the young men was trailing behind the three others.
"Prague, baby! Prague, baby!" the three ahead continued to sing.
"Hey, Nealy boy! Mr. Prague-baby!" Albert shouted behind to Neal. "Come on, pick it up, you're falling behind! We still got one more strip club to hit before we get to the discothèque and who knows if those guys are coming after us somewhere behind us—so les go!"
Neal turned his gaze from the bright lights of the avenue and the crowds of people out in the night, quickened his pace, and caught back up with the three other young men.
"Prague, baby! Prague, baby!" they sang and laughed and made their way onward.
When they got to the club, the four young men went right in. There was no cover charge, which was good, for they all were just about out of money. Inside they found a booth with a table in the back corner and sat down at it. The three young men that had been leading the way were still laughing.
"Oh, that was quite beautiful!" Milos said.
"Yes, how did you fellows manage to pull that off?" Raj asked, turning to Albert and Neal.
"Well," Albert grinned. "Now that is a story." He cleared his throat and began casually. "Well, so, we were sitting there, Mr. Prague-baby and me, watching the little midget stripper do her little repertoire—"
Milos and Raj laughed and Albert tried harder to look as if he were trying not to laugh.
"—and waiting to see if you two chums were really coming back. And then when I realized that you weren't, that you'd made a break for it, I turned to the Mr. Prague-baby here—" slapping Neal on the shoulder—"and I says, We got to skedaddle! But the Mr. Prague-baby was so intently watching the little midget stripper do her little finger repertoire on stage that I don't think he even heard one word I said."
Milos and Raj grinned at Neal.
"So, I just gave the old Mr. Prague-baby a good old slap on the back and said, 'All right, you wait here and I'll go scope the scene and then we'll make a break for it!' Keep in mind I was practically yelling all this right in his ear cause the music and lights were so loud and all and the Mr. Prague-baby still didn't hear me—he just had those wild eyes of his locked dead-straight right on the little midget stripper and her little repertoire."
Milos and Raj laughed harder.
"So, finally, after standing for about twenty minutes at the top of the steps, jumping up and down and waving my arms in the air, trying to signal to the Mr. Prague-baby that the coast was clear, he finally managed to pull himself away from the little midget stripper and her repertoire—and after I gave the bouncer a handshake and chatted amiably with him about how I enjoyed my night and all the pretty ladies at the club—Mr. Prague-baby and me, we walked right on out!"
Milos and Raj roared.
"Oh, quite beautiful! Quite beautiful indeed!" Milos exclaimed.
"Yeah," Raj said. "And you guys saved us like a thousand Crown or something."
"A thousand a piece!" Albert said. "Those drinks were a thousand a piece!"
"Damn," Raj said, nodding his head solemnly. "Yes, that was quite beautiful then."
The three young men laughed and gave each other high-fives. After they finished laughing, Albert suggested that they go to the bar and get some drinks.
"Hey, Nealy boy. You stay here and hold the table and we'll go get the drinks," Albert said, slapping Neal on the back as he got up from the table.
Then, as they went with their arms about each other's shoulders, "Prague, baby! Prague, baby!" the three young men sang in near unison.
Neal looked around the club. It was dark and nearly empty. The few other men that were there sat slouched in their chairs with their drinks in their hands, making few motions. The women and young girls moved amongst them, pausing, motioning, gesturing, but never lingering for too long at any one table. On the stage, under a dim green light, a lone girl was moving. She was moving slowly and abjectly but with much expression, lying and making motions upon the floor, as the light above moved towards and away from her, towards, and away again. Behind her, in a large black booth, a man in a black and white tuxedo suit with headphones and a skeleton face mask was turning records, as the great black speakers boomed and the walls and floor vibrated with the sound. And off in the corners of the club, and by the exits, the bouncers stood with their shaved heads and heavy arms folded across their chests, their keen eyes looking out, surveying it all.
As Neal sat alone at the booth in the back corner, also looking out at it all, a girl came up and sat down on the armrest next to him. She was wearing gold and silver shorts that came up to her hips, a gold-silver top that shimmered when the lights caught it the right way, and large, high-heeled, gold-silver boots. Her hair also seemed to be made of gold and silver, though it was hard for Neal to tell from the dark and from the liquor in his head. Her face wasn't very pretty though it looked as if it could have once been.
"Why you sitting alone?"
Her English was not poor yet it was not very good either.
"Huh? Who, me?" Neal was trying to raise his head and eyes fully but was having some trouble.
The girl smiled. "Yes," she said. "I spoke to you. I asked why you sitting alone?"
"Oh," Neal said. "I don't know. I just like to I guess."
"Don't you have any friends?"
"Friends?—who, me? No. I don't have any friends. Not me."
She looked at Neal with more intention. "Where are you from?"
She smiled. "Yes, where are you from? Where is your home?"
"Oh. Ah. . . America," Neal said.
"America. That's a very nice country, is it not?"
"I don't know. I guess so."
"What part of America are you from? California—or ah—how do you say it?—New York?"
"Yeah," Neal said. "New York."
"Oh. That's very nice. New York. I would like to go there some day."
"Is that right."
Neal looked away towards the stage where the other girl was still making her fantastic motions.
"Yes. Some day," she said. "When I have the money."
Neal's eyelids were getting heavier. He had to work hard to keep them from closing all the way.
The girl leaned closer and touched the back of Neal's head. She rubbed his hair. Neal looked up. She smiled and slid further down the armrest. She crossed her legs. A long, lean line formed between her thighs as they pressed together and became tight. Neal looked down at them. They were the color of honey.
She touched Neal's face. "Do you think I am pretty?"
"No," Neal said. "I think you're beautiful."
Her face began to contort, but then, seeming to understand, she smiled. "Well why don't you come with me then? You have some money?"
She stroked Neal's hair and cheek with her fingers. She moved farther down the armrest.
"Money? What? What d'ya want that for?"
She did not seem to understand. "Money," she said again. "You have some money?"
"No," Neal said, shaking his head. "You don't want money."
"I have young child. Young child need—"
Neal looked away across the club. The dim silhouettes of the other girls could be seen moving in and out of the shadows of the booths and tables along the walls.
After a time, Neal said, "I'm sorry. I don't have any money. But maybe I can give you something else. Something even better."
"What can you give me?" She moved her fingers slowly from his face down over his body towards his stomach and lap. "You have credit card? We take that too."
"No. I don't have a credit card."
"What you give me then? You give me something and then I give you something. That's how it works."
She moved her hand farther down Neal's body. Her mouth was close to his ear. Neal could feel her breath. It was warm and sort of wet.
"A poem. I could give you a poem," Neal said, and suddenly seemed to awaken. He pulled himself up straight in his seat. He looked at her and tried his best to concentrate.
"Listen. Listen to me now, all right?"
She looked at Neal but did not make a movement or gesture.
"Are you listening? This won't work unless you're listening."
She looked at Neal but her expression appeared somewhat distorted.
"Okay, okay. Here it is. Here it goes. Listen now. Be sure to listen. This won't work unless you're listening. Do you understand? All right, here it goes now—" and after a short pause, during which Neal seemed to be trying very had to concentrate, as though he were remembering something from long ago, he said, "Go and catch a falling star. . . "
He stopped. He looked away from her. Then he looked back.
"I'm sorry. I can't remember the rest. But isn't that nice?"
As Neal and the girl sat there looking at each other, Neal tried to see into her eyes, but suddenly they seemed so sad and swollen and empty all at once that he didn't know what to do.
"Can I kiss you?" he said.
She didn't say anything. Neal moved closer. He reached out to touch her face but she moved it away.
"Please. Please, can I kiss you? Can I just—I just want to—"
She seemed startled suddenly and withdrew up the armrest.
"I have boyfriend," she said.
"Oh." Neal's eyes fell away towards the floor. "Well, I'm sorry. But I don't have any money."
Neal had expected her to leave then but she didn't. She seemed to be waiting for something. So Neal stuck his hands in his pants pockets and pulled them out. They were both empty. He looked up at her. She looked down at the pockets. Neal looked away.
At first Neal wasn't going to say anything else, but then the strange, happy-sad feeling passed through his chest and temples once again and he thought maybe he'd try to say something else, something more, but when he turned back she was already gone, moving away off across the club, her back to him, and after another moment he couldn't even distinguish her outline anymore from the outlines of the other girls.
At the same moment, there was a great roar of laughter and Albert, Milos, and Raj leapt out from behind the booth.
"Old Mr. Prague-baby trying to pick up strippers with poetry!" Albert exclaimed. "Oh, that's grand!"
"I'm sorry," Raj said, shaking his head solemnly. "I don't think she liked your poetry."
They all laughed.
Then, after they were done laughing, Milos said, "Oh, come on, guys. Let's get out of here. This place is dead. Besides, it's getting late, and we've still got to get to the discothèque."
The four young men rose and made their way from the club back out into the street and night. Along the walk to the discothèque, through the narrow and winding lanes that were still bright and busy with life in the night, the four young men sang and laughed together and felt very good and young. But as they were crossing the Charles Bridge, the crowds suddenly seemed to vanish and the night become still and quiet. It was then that one of the young men fell behind to take a leak.
It was well into the night now, no moon was out and the sky was black and starless, so it was very dark on the bridge above the water. Below the bridge, on the big wooden pilings, the young man noticed there were some seagulls. Their outlines were dim and hard to make out against the waters of the river, but he could tell that there were many of them, almost a strange or frightening number even. And as he was standing alone there on the empty bridge, looking out over those dark waters of the Vltava, whose slow and quiet ebb was the only sound that could now be heard, suddenly, and all at once, the seagulls rose from the waters and began to dart off in great bursts of winged flight through the sky, rising, and then swooping low again, forming an arc over the bridge.
And as Neal stood there silently and stared up into the darkness, they seemed to be falling stars.
Joseph Modugno is a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China. His fiction has appeared in The Fiction Circus, Bent Pin Quarterly, Static Movement, Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), and Forge Journal.
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