Red Light – Joseph Payne

Of all the sad places in the world you have been to, this is the saddest. Tucked away past a decaying bridge is a sea of cracking and uneven concrete. Wild grasses spill through the gaps. Groups of people are hunched near dilapidated bars and gambling houses, their faces etched deep with the ridges of time. They are downtrodden and sad to look at but, strangely, you get the sense they are not lonely. They, at least, belong here. Through the smoke of their cigarettes they peer at you.

You are not like them. You are young, youthful; your attire neat and pressed. Your shoes click on the pavement: there is a false assurance in your gait. A chink in your pockets. Change you do not need. You do not belong here. They know it, and you know it.

You do not belong anywhere.

Ahead of you there is a building crowned with the silhouette of a woman. You hesitate for a moment. You have never been here before. But your eyes follow the curve of the thing and it seems almost familiar. You approach the sign, turn a corner. Her neon breasts flash.

The street is stained red. The light emanates from the bulbs of the booths that flank you. Many of their curtains are parted. Inside them are women, barely clad—portraits of flesh to be picked over. As you pass them they dip out of their windows. They smile at you, wink, call. One of them purrs at you, beckoning with clawed hands, her red-painted nails and crooked fingers resembling some primeval beast’s.

None of it appeals to you, and you think that maybe you were wrong, that there is actually nothing here. They are all so overwrought. Their broken accents carry invitations to you. It’s not that they seem false. No, it’s that they lack subtlety. They wear their scars outright.

Then you see her. Her curtains have just been drawn in a line of closed booths. She is alone, her skin pale against the crimson. Her hair is short and boyish, glasses perched atop a petite nose. Mounds of white flesh piled on her chest. She looks into your eyes. There is no call, no beg, but with one slender finger she pulls you over. She might as well have called your name.

There, under the red light, she smiles at you, and the light cannot hide that one of her teeth is blackened and withered—barely there at all. Her face is layered thick with make-up, as if underneath there is something unseen she must hide.

Without asking, she takes your hands and places them on her breasts. They are cool in the setting sun. She tells you that you should come in, but you hesitate. You want her to convince you. You will never come back if she fails at this. That you are sure of.

But you like the softness of her skin. How nice it would be to slide in. She pulls you closer so that the canyon of flesh nearly swallows you. She places her face against yours, and her lips are so close that her breath burns in your ear. You can almost feel the painted-on crimson of her lips oozing off like blood, dripping down your jaw, your neck, soaking into your skin. She breathes a lie into your ear. You recognize this—you don’t belong inside, do you?—but you accept it anyways. With her, for a moment, it can be true.

For thirty minutes, it can be true.

She unlocks the booth and you step inside, even though you know you shouldn’t. But by then it’s already too late. The curtains are drawn—bed ready, money on the table. You are undressed: the pact sealed. To be naked in front of her is not so horrible as you thought it would be. No, it is strangely comforting. She undresses. Red lace on the floor, red lipstick peeled from her mouth with a napkin. She does not want to stain you.

You wish she would.

You lie down. She hovers over you. Without her heels she is small, but you like how naked she is. She sets a timer. It will all be over soon.

In a moment her lips are on you. For a while, that is all there is. For too long, that is all there is. Naked, the red light from outside just barely passing through the curtains—and that is not enough.

You pull her off you—pin her down and push yourself onto her, your fingers up and down the contours of her body. She sighs—still, not enough. Your finger catches in her navel like a hook. You let it grind in. She writhes, and you are pleased. You wish to unwrap her, plunge in. Taste her flesh. Feel with your tongue for the beating of her heart. Sink your teeth in—sink your teeth down to the very core, and see if something is still there. You press yourself into her, as deep as you can go. She is screaming, and you know all the district can hear you for what you are. And still you go, ever deeper, and her body rocks, and she digs into you, too, and then you are locked into each other: inextricable, this bound to happen. A limb lashes out, and the timer is struck from the table. It falls, breaking wide open.


Joseph Payne is an emerging writer who has yet to be published. He has been studying English Language and Literature at Central Michigan University for the past three years and has graduated with a Bachelor of Science in that area. He has now  returned to CMU to teach Freshman Composition and to pursue a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Before university, he lived most of his life on a small farmhouse, which has fostered a quiet and contemplative atmosphere.