FANDOM: The Thirteenth Floor
SUMMARY: Ashton tries to fix his car, and instead opens up old wounds.
His father would no doubt be laughing at him. His oldest son, full of pretension to intellectual pursuits and ideals of acting like a gentleman, up at dawn like any other manual labourer, with oil all over his hands. Ashton scrambles out from underneath his car, sits on the ground for a moment, and frowns before levering himself up to his feet. He could do with a cigarette, if it wouldn’t likely make him into a human inferno. It’s ridiculous to be doing this. He’s supposed to be something better than a grimy mechanic. He was better, once. Now he’s not sure how much more honourable the profession of supplying alcohol, tobacco, and women to rich men might be.
At least he can still do this, still knows his way around an engine. He could go back to it, and become one of those decent, ordinary men he used to know. How difficult would it be, to work with oil permanently smeared on his undershirt, grease under his fingernails, and a wife making dinner for him at home? He’d have to get rid of the rings, of course, and let his hair grow back into those dark curls he remembers from photographs. His scars might become badges of honour amongst men. The thought is a cruel one, only fitted for his dark humour. But he’ll do his best to be normal for a morning.
He throws his coat in the back seat, and drives into the city. Probably no one would even recognise him as the elegant bartender of the most expensive hotel in town, not when he hasn’t shaved, and his hair is a mess, and there’s oil on his clothes. His rings are in his pocket for safe-keeping. He remembers his mother telling him, before he was old enough to think that parents only ever talked nonsense, that it was important for him to make friends as a child, because he would need them when he grew up. So today he’ll touch base with one of them, even though he’s wished he could just leave the city for good, and go where no one knows him. It would be easier if no one remembered the boy he used to be. He might not feel so guilty, so ashamed.
Last night didn’t give him much sleep, but he’s not tired. He’s used to staying up for days on end, if it’s necessary. Usually he does it because his head hurts too much to let him sleep, or because he can’t bear the nightmares. Sometimes the simplest thing is just to stay awake for as long as he can, and then plunge into a deep, unconscious slumber. However, the events of the previous few hours were rather more pleasant. Whitney seems to have a magical talent for making him abruptly, completely happy. It isn’t just the sex either, although that obviously helps. Last night, Ashton kissed a man on the street, where anyone could have seen them. He’s not sure why. What worries him more is that the recollection should scare him, make him fear his own erratic behaviour. But this morning he’s smiling. Damn Whitney and his sweet beguiling innocence, he thinks, although he can do it with no real malice. In reality, he can’t wait to see the younger man again.
In the city, he parks his car in Billy Fitz’s garage, and only has to open the door to hear the man himself hailing him from the doorway of his office. “Hey Jerry, be with you in a minute.”
Ashton nods, pushes his door closed, and takes a look around. There are a couple of other cars here, perhaps waiting pickup by their owners, but no sign of any of Billy’s mechanics. The last time he was here, there were grimy teenage boys all over the place. After only a couple of minutes, Billy walks out to join him, wiping his hands on his blue overalls. Billy Fitz is the kind of man who will never be seen at the Wilshire Grand. Even if he were cleaned up and given a good suit, something would always give him away. Ashton can’t be sure what it is: after all, eighteen years ago they were both high school losers with grease in their hair. But Billy’s never wanted to be anything more than a decent mechanic. At least he’s succeeded in his ambitions.
“You got a problem?” Billy asks, levering up the hood on principle.
“Oil leak. I can fix it, but I need you to lend me the tools.”
Billy raises his eyebrows at what he finds under the hood. “Jesus, Jerry, you’ve really fucked this up. Is there an engine in here, or just a pile of steaming shit?”
The rebuke is a familiar one. “I’ve been busy.”
“Oh yeah? Still pouring drinks at your swanky hotel? Tough life that one.” Billy winks, and leans in to check the oil level. “Especially with all those girls around. I’d say more, but Katie’s inside.”
“Sure, as if that would stop you.” Billy had had his fair share of girlfriends before getting hitched. He had the advantages of being good-humoured, athletic, and with a steady career in front of him, while Ashton had been a cynical, sarcastic boy with vague pretensions at academic achievement. Despite his largely default position on the school basketball team, no one had ever regarded him as a town hero. “How’s the family?”
“Couldn’t be better. The lad’s around somewhere. Already got him helping me out. Kids, eh? Nothin’ better than getting covered in muck.” Billy grins, wiping the oil rod with a rag.
Obviously young Michael Fitz is aspiring to be the mirror image of his father. Ashton can remember Billy hanging around the garage at a similar age, getting under everyone’s feet, spilling oil, and almost getting himself killed before the original owner had taken him by the scruff of the neck and put him to work. Perhaps, in despair at his own son, Ashton’s father had been all too happy to take on a replacement. Billy had certainly been keen enough to bind his future to four wheels and a gearstick. “He’s not at school?”
Billy laughs. “Sometimes. It ain’t that important. Some good it did you, eh?”
“Right.” He’s an overeducated bartender. When he thinks about it, he suspects that those lessons and lectures of long ago have made little lasting impression on his brain. Too much has happened since, too many formulas replaced with cocktail recipes and the inanities of small talk. What good did it ever do him? “So… the oil leak?”
“Yeah…” Billy raps his knuckles on the bodywork of the car. “Be right back.”
When he goes in search of tools, Ashton takes the battered pack of cigarettes from his pocket and knocks one out into his hand. To hell with the oil and gas around the place. He needs a smoke. He did it enough when he was younger: that lanky sullen boy press-ganged into working for his father, taking refuge in tobacco and a kind of passive rebellion. That was before he learned the infinitely simpler escape of running away, first to the shoreline, and later to college.
“Can I have one?”
It should be said in a hopeful tone, but from Mike Fitz it’s more of a bored threat, wiping his nose on the upturned material of his shirt. Ashton smiles at him: the kid must be sixteen by now, bulky like his father, with a bit of brutishness in his eyes. It doesn’t seem so long ago that he and Billy hung out by the waterfront, smoking and cursing in some wild attempt to be adults. Now Billy has a son who, in his spare time, probably does exactly the same thing. It makes him feel far too old.
Ashton passes him a smoke, and pulls the silver lighter from his pocket. It’s too flashy for life outside the hotel, but he can’t be bothered investing in another one. Mike takes a draw on the cigarette and frowns at him. “You’re that barman, ain’t ya?”
“How’re things, Michael?” Maybe in another life he would have been the concerned godfather, that other life where he would have been normal.
“All right,” Mike says, eyeing Ashton’s car. “You got an oil leak.”
This reminds him why he left. Hours of inane, pointless conversation with his father’s employees, punctuated by the occasional lecture on why he was the spawn of the devil and bound to damnation. He could stand up to the beatings and the angry words, but the boredom had been killing him.
“You work at that hotel? Bet you get a lot of action.” Mike is looking at him as if he expects a personal referral to a whore or two.
Ashton shrugs. “Something like that.”
“Mike!” Billy is coming back, armed with a wrench and an irritated expression. “You finish sweeping the yard?”
Mike looks equally annoyed. “Hell no.”
“Don’t you ‘hell no’ me!” Billy gestures with the wrench. “Get to it!”
His son rolls his eyes at Ashton, and lopes off behind the garage, trying to appear unconcerned by his father’s orders. Ashton wonders just how long Billy’s ability to instil fear in the young man will hold out. His own father’s threats had ceased to have much impact after he had turned thirteen, but then, so had everything else.
Billy leans over the hood, obviously troubled by more than Ashton’s oil leak. “You gave him that smoke?”
Ashton laughs, a little confused. “How old were you when you started, Billy? Eight?”
Billy turns around, and it’s clear that his real anger is nothing to do with the cigarette. “You stay away from him, Jerry. I’ve taken you down before, and I will again.”
A moment passes, and Ashton breathes out smoke. “What do you think I’m going to do, Billy?”
“I know where you go at nights,” Billy says firmly, straightening up, his hands fidgeting with his dirt rag. “You stay away from him.”
There’s no point in denying it. Billy knows the rumours, knows some of the facts as well, enough that his mind is made up. Even without the rings and the clothes and the immaculate hair, he can’t disguise what he is. Billy knows what he used to be, and today’s appearance, shabby as it is, is nothing but an approximation.
Ashton looks away first, dropping his cigarette butt on the ground and grinding it out with his heel. “Forget the car,” he mutters. “I’ll do it myself.”
“Jerry…” His point made, Billy is never one to want to lose a friend. “Listen, you’ve gotta get out of that life. I can help you. You can always work here – you know that. Okay, it wouldn’t be money like that hotel, but it’d be honest.”
He’s shaking his head before he can think of the words to say as a dismissal. It’s easier just to open the door of the car and get ready to leave again.
Billy doesn’t give up so easily. “Katie knows plenty of girls. I mean, nice girls, Jerry, not like those whores. You’d like them. They’d be good for you. They even go to church. You could be a decent guy again. Make your Dad proud of you.”
“Make my Dad proud of me.” Ashton repeats the words quietly, and drops into the driver’s seat. “Look after your family, Billy. I’ll see you around.”
“Jerry!” Billy protests, but he doesn’t take a step closer.
The journey back to the hotel is a battle through lines of frustrated, reckless drivers. He hates having a car in need of repair, but he’s in no mood to argue moral virtue with a mechanic. After all, he might lose.
He has a vague hope that he’ll find Whitney lingering by the pool, looking lost and vulnerable like he always does. The idea of spending a spare morning hour before his shift at the bar in Whitney’s arms would be tempting. But there’s no young man waiting for him, only holidaying families splashing and laughing. All of them ignore him as he walks past and slips into his room. Just another ordinary workman.
How tempting it would have been to nod and smile at his friend, to break down in tears and beg forgiveness for his sins. He could do it. He could make himself do it: throw those rings into the ocean, and forget the reasons he ever put them on in the first place. He could buy a girl flowers, and learn to kiss her like a lady instead of the rough boys he’s used to. He’d marry her in a church, and live in his parents’ house again, and pretend that he was in love. Maybe there would even be children, if he could put out the lights, close his eyes, and concentrate on remembering the firm bodies and hard cocks of young men. Yes, he could do it. But he won’t.
Ashton pulls off his undershirt, darkened by sweat and oil, and throws it in his pile of laundry. In the mirror, he regards his own reflection with something approaching disgust. As he turns away from the glass, he catches the edges of those terrible, ridged scars, creeping into his line of vision. No normal man has marks like those. They’ll never be anyone’s badge of honour.
There was a reason he left, after all, even before his nights became consumed by illicit desires. There was a reason that he never wanted to live the life his father wanted for him, the life Billy Fitz has appropriated.
He was seventeen before he left for good, nineteen before he condemned himself to hell. But none of it had ever really mattered. It hadn’t mattered for years.
The damage had already been done.
Wee Damn Table