Inside With The King of Jugglers.

A short story about crimes, misnomers and slutty dresses.

A person who learns to juggle six balls will be more skilled than the person who never tries to juggle more than three.” Marilyn von Savant

I ran into my friend Wes coming off the subway the other day. He was standing at the end of the platform juggling. I’d never seen him juggle before. Some people go to prison and wait out their time. Wes had obviously found a calling of some sort. He said he was living with his girlfriend now, a prostitute named Marcie. He was on his way over there and asked me to come along.

Out on the street, he explained his life behind bars, especially how he met The King of Jugglers, Rube Walker. Rube was inside for burglary and hijacking cargo trucks. But juggling was his first love. He taught Wes how to juggle five balls, a big step for any juggler.

“I can do six now,” Wes said, but he only had four balls with him. The other two were at Marcie’s place.

One night Wes heard him hitting Marcie. I asked what he did about it. “Pretended I was sleeping,” he said.

Living with Marcie was complicated, he told me. Sometimes the phone would ring and she’d leave in the middle of the night. Other times, her pimp would show up. One night Wes heard him hitting Marcie. I asked what he did about it. “Pretended I was sleeping,” he said.

That’s what got him juggling in the first place. Nobody beat up jugglers at Kingston Pen. Rube never got into fights, and there were plenty, the worst being the trannies. They ran the hair salon and you had to be careful.

“Very emotional girls,” Wes told me.

Many of them were in for serious crimes. Roxy — the head queen stylist — had stabbed three guys. Wes got along with Roxy, probably better than most. Before he left prison, Roxy gave him her card. She said, “I’m getting out soon, too. You keep in touch, hear?” The card had Roxy’s Hairstyling and a number.

“I got my duckies in a row,” he told Wes.

Well, Wes certainly needed a haircut. He was always pushing it back, using his hands. When he did that, everything jangled in the pockets of his army surplus trench coat. He had bolt cutters, lock picks, a jimmy bar.

That was something else Rube taught him. Stick to burglary. Rube said he wouldn’t be doing three to five if he’d stuck to burglary. Jacking trucks just wasn’t in the cards — although Rube didn’t know it at the time.

A shadow appeared under the door. Wes knocked again. “I know you’re in there,” he said. “I can see your shadow. I need my stuff.”

Wes was telling me this when we got to an old apartment building on Pacific Avenue. It was a dull, red brick place. At the back was a rusty fire escape. For some reason, Wes wanted to take the fire escape. We got up to the second floor, and he goes to the nearest door, knocks, and says, “Marcie, it’s me.”

A shadow appeared under the door. Wes knocked again. “I know you’re in there,” he said. “I can see your shadow. I need my stuff.”

“Maybe she’s with a customer,” I said.

“She’d tell me that through the door.”

He stepped back and kicked in the door. A dog was standing there, a black lab. It didn’t bark, it just wagged its tail. “I forgot about Huey,” he said. “I guess I shouldn’t have kicked in the door.”

He checked the bedroom, the washroom, then the bedroom again. He started pulling out these long silk dresses from the closet. They all had low necklines and long slits up the side. He bundled them in a tight ball, sticking them in his coat pocket. Then he grabbed Marcie’s clock radio.

“Why are you stealing her stuff?” I asked.

“So it looks like someone robbed the place,” he said.

Out in the kitchen, he found his two rubber balls on the counter.

“We’d better go,” he said. “I don’t want Marcie to find us here.”

He stuffed the balls in his coat, then the clock radio.

“Isn’t she going to know it’s you if you take the balls?” I asked.

“It could be another juggler,” he grinned.

Back on the street, Wes explained the situation. Marcie wasn’t to be trusted. Sometimes she’d say she had a customer when she didn’t. Maybe she had another boyfriend, or she wanted to get high without sharing. You never knew with Marcie. She was a survivor. That’s what Wes liked about her, but she still couldn’t be trusted. Wes had to stay on his toes with her.

Down near the subway, there was a little parkette. An old woman was sitting on a bench with her dog. Wes took out his rubber balls and started juggling. He got three balls going, then four. The old woman took a five dollar bill out of her purse. “You’re very good, young man,” she said.

“I don’t know,” Wes says. “I’m no good thinking that far ahead. Rube says I’d be a better juggler if I did. He can juggle eight balls.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he replied, taking the money.

We started walking again.

“What happens when Marcie says she’s been robbed?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Wes says. “I’m no good thinking that far ahead. Rube says I’d be a better juggler if I did. He can juggle eight balls.”

He scratched his head and took the dresses out of his coat.

“Here,” he said. “Give these to your girlfriend.”

“They smell like Marcie’s perfume.”

“Then get them cleaned.”

He said goodbye and headed for the eastbound subway platform.

Not far from my apartment, there’s a Chinese laundry. I went in there and handed the woman the dresses. Just steamed and pressed, I told her.

“Thirty minutes,” she said. I went for a coffee, came back and sat outside the laundry. She finally waved to me.

Back at my apartment, I took the dresses out of the cellophane and laid them across the couch. Louise wasn’t home yet. When she came through the door, she saw them right away and said, “Where did you get these?” I told her Wes got them off the back of a truck. “Who’s Wes?” she asked, holding one of the dresses up, pressing it against her waist.

“A juggler friend of mine,” I said.

“This one’s pretty tarty,” she said.

“Try it on,” I said.

“Let me shower first.”

She did a twirl. I couldn’t believe how hot she looked. I pulled her down on the couch.

After the shower, she came out in the black dress, hair pinned up, a few damp curls hanging down. She did a twirl. I couldn’t believe how hot she looked. I pulled her down on the couch.

“Let me try on the other ones,” she laughed.

She put on a red one, then a yellow one. I was getting hotter by the second. “Wow,” she said. “I’ve never seen you like this. Don’t you want to see me in the white one?” I told her it could wait. “Let me try it on,” she said, getting up, taking the white dress in the bedroom.

When she came out, she said, “I’m about to pop right out of this.”

“Get over here,” I said.

Next thing you know, we’re in the bedroom, going like mad, making more noise than we’ve made in years. “What’s gotten into us,” Louise kept saying. “We’re like a couple of sex-starved teenagers.”

The phone started ringing in the living room.

“Leave it,” I said.

“What if it’s someone calling you about work?”

I needed work. I hadn’t had a job in months. So I went to the living room and picked up the phone. I wanted to open a bottle of wine, anyway.

“Hello?” I said

“I need those dresses back,” I heard Wes say. “Marcie figured out it was me. She says those gowns are worth three hundred bucks a piece.”

“I just gave them to Louise,” I whispered. “What am I going to say?”

“Don’t say anything. Keep her in the bedroom and put the dresses where I can find them. What’s your apartment number?”

“Twenty-three,” I said. “Sheffield and Thompson.”

“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Leave the door unlocked.”

The dresses were in a pile on the couch. I unlocked the front door, turned up the stereo, grabbed the wine, then went back to the bedroom.

“Who was that on the phone?” Louise asked.

“Wrong number.”

“That was a long time for a wrong number.”

“Here, have some wine.”

“Why’s the music so loud?”

“You make a lot of noise, Louise.”

“Me? What about you?”

I let her have a couple sips of wine, then we started in again.

“Wow,” she said, after we’re finished. “That was the longest we’ve ever had sex. I need to wear sexy gowns more often.”

She jumped up.

“I want to try those dresses on again,” she said.

“ Please don’t,” I said. “I’m too exhausted.”

As soon as she closed the bathroom door, I got up and looked in the living room. The dresses were gone.

“Okay,” she said, “I’m kind of sore, anyway. I wouldn’t mind eating. All this sex is making me a hungry girl. I need another shower, too.”

As soon as she closed the bathroom door, I got up and looked in the living room. The dresses were gone. A few minutes later, she came out in a towel, looking around, a frown on her face.

“Where are they?” she asked. “The dresses.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I came out and they were gone.”

“Is this some kind of a joke? Did you hide them or something?”

“No,” I said, “I didn’t do anything. I guess we were robbed.”

She checked the kitchen, then the dining room, then the bedroom.

“Nothing else is missing,” she said. “Who breaks in and only steals dresses? And how did they even get in here without a key? We would have heard them breaking in, right? Did you hear anything? I sure didn’t.”

“I must have left the door unlocked.”

“Maybe that’s who called before. They were casing the joint.”

“It’s possible.”

“My God, they heard us having sex.”

“That’s probably why they stole the dresses.”

“This is so weird,” she said.

She went and put on her old sweatshirt and jeans.

“I felt so sexy in those dresses,” she said. “Now I feel like a slob. Does Wes have any more?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “If he doesn’t, I’ll buy you one.”

“They aren’t cheap.”

“I’ll figure something out.”

I went looking for Wes the next day, checking his usual hangouts. Nobody’d seen him. When I got home, the phone was ringing. It was Wes.

“Heard you’ve been looking for me,” he said. “What’s up?”

“Last night was the best sex we’ve ever had,” I said.

“I heard you in there.”

“I need those dresses back.”

“I can’t,” he said. “Macie’s watching them like a hawk.”

“Do you know anyone else?”

“I’ll check around.”

Twenty minutes later, he called back.

“Meet me at the pool hall,” he said.

Eddie, the manager, was taking bets. “If he keeps them up two more minutes,” Eddie said to me, “I’ll make a hundred bucks.”

I went over there and found Wes juggling in front of a bunch of customers. Eddie, the manager, was taking bets. “If he keeps them up two more minutes,” he said to me, “I’ll make a hundred bucks.”

Wes kept them up and Eddie won his bet. He split the proceeds, giving Wes forty bucks. “Come back any time,” he said to Wes.

We went down the stairs, out in the street. Wes was counting his money, sticking the bills in another pocket of his trench coat.

“Where are the dresses?” I asked.

“A few blocks from here,” he said.

We turned north, going a couple of blocks before Wes stopped at a row of brownstones, “Be cool upstairs, okay?” he said. “Whatever she says, just agree. Don’t piss her off whatever you do.”

Up on the third floor, Wes knocked on one of the doors.

A chain rattled, then a male voice said, “Who is it?”

“It’s Wes, Roxy.”

“It’s The Juggler and — who’s this?” — he looks at me — “The Jugglerette?

The door opened and there’s this thin guy with close-cropped hair and plucked eyebrows. He’s wearing a loose pullover, white jeans. On his feet are some kind of Japanese sandals. “Well, well,” he says, leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed. “It’s The Juggler and — who’s this?” — he looks at me — “The Jugglerette?

“This is Matt,” Wes says. “Matt, this is Roxy.”

“Hello, Matt,” Roxy says, shaking my hand. “Look at those shoulders. I’m not sure my dresses are going to fit you, sweetie.”

“It’s for his girlfriend, Roxy,” Wes says.

“And what size, pray tell?” Roxy asks me.

“Same size as Marcie,” I say.

“And who’s Marcie?”

“She’s my girlfriend,” Wes says.

“I’m in the middle of a straight man’s convention,” Roxy sighs. “Come in. Excuse the mess, I’m still getting settled.”

We go in the living room. On the walls are posters, all with the word “LOVE” done in different type styles. “My friend is an artiste,” Roxy says.

Over on the couch, there are two long silk dresses.

“This is all I can part with, I’m afraid,” Roxy says. “Go on, darling, have a look.”

Neither are as hot as Marcie’s. One — the red — looks pretty good.

“How much is this?” I ask.

Roxy sighs and picks up a cigarette off the coffee table.

“Fifty dollars for the dress if — if, my sweet — you let me cut your hair. That’ll be fifty dollars as well.”

“Well, Matt, darling,” he says, “since we’re all business, I’ll put on my dickering hat.” He lights the cigarette and blows smoke out his nose. “For you — and only you — I’ll say fifty dollars with a codicil. Do you know what a codicil is? It’s an addition. Fifty dollars for the dress if — if, my sweet — you let me cut your hair. That’ll be fifty dollars as well.”

“Roxy’s really good,” Wes says to me.

“You’re too kind, Wesley,” Roxy says. “But I definitely am good.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Swell,” Roxy says, pointing to a swivel chair by the kitchen sink. “Take a seat.” He starts running the water while I sit down. He pulls out a sheet, throws it across me, then tucks the ends into my collar. “Wes,” he says. “Be a dear and turn on the stereo. Feel free to toss your balls.”

Wes turns on the stereo, takes off his coat, and gets his juggling balls.

“Please don’t send them flying into the objets d’art,” Roxy says.

He tilts the chair back towards the sink, then starts washing my hair, his hands moving through my scalp, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

Symphonic music plays and, every so often, Roxy conducts with his scissors. His head sways, his arms go up and down. Then he’s tilting me up, rubbing my head with a towel. “And now,” he says, “the art begins.”

Curls start dropping down on the sheet. His sleeves are pulled up to his skinny elbows. He stops occasionally, conducting a particular symphonic strain, then back again, the scissors clipping away.

Wes is working three balls, then four and five. I watch them go around and around. Roxy pulls strands of hair from each side of my head. He measures, then starts cutting again.

“My pleasure,” he says, “straight as you are.”

The music rises, Roxy’s head sways.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?” he asks.

He brings out two mirrors, holding one in front, one behind.

“There you go, handsome.”

“Thanks, Roxy,” I say. “It looks great.”

“My pleasure,” he says, “straight as you are.”

He looks at Wes. “And you, my sweet?”

“I’m fine for now, Roxy,” Wes says. “Give me a couple more weeks.”

“Can’t blame a girl for trying,” he shrugs, going to the closet. He finds a plastic bag and starts folding the dress. “There you are,” he says, handing me the bag. “I hope you have cash. I’m not set up for debit yet.”

I give him the money.

“Now, don’t be a stranger,” he says.

He hands me his card.

“Off you go now,” he says. “Go wrap your woman in silk. And you“ — pointing at Wes — “do whatever it is you do with your Marcie.”

With an abrupt turn, he raises his hands to the music, and strides across the room. Wes and I go downstairs.

“I like Roxy,” I say.

“Those cards are ten years old,” he says. “The apartment belongs to a queen friend. Roxy shows up there every time she gets out.”

Wes tells me to throw the card away.

“Those cards are ten years old,” he says. “The apartment belongs to a queen friend. Roxy shows up there every time he gets out.”

“How many times has he been out?” I ask.

“Hard to say. Roxy’s a sensitive girl.”

Wes tells me he has business back at the pool hall. I watch him cross the street, everything jangling around in his trench coat pockets.

Back at the apartment later, I lay the dress across the couch and open a bottle of wine. When Louise gets home, she sees the dress lying there.

“Where did you get this?’ she asks.

“Wes.”

“It’s not as hot as those other ones.”

“It’s the best he could do. Go put it on.”

“Shouldn’t I shower first?”

“No, put it on, I can’t wait.”

She goes off to the bedroom. I grab the wine and follow. Louise is already in front of the mirror, pulling the dress up.

“It’s pretty tarty,” she says.

“Come here,” I say.

“I mean, it’s really tarty.”

“I know,” I say. “Now, get over here before I scream.”

Robert Cormack is a satirist, novelist, and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Skyhorse Press or Simon and Schuster for more details.

I did a poor imitation of Don Draper for 40 years before writing my first novel. I'm currently in the final stages of a children's book. Lucky me.

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