"Dancing in September" wept from the doorway of a music shop. I pulled my scarf and jacket collar open, exposing my neck and ear.
I stayed on that street for the day. I wanted to hear more music and the passing people seemed to be generous. I looked from face to face, interpreting nuances. If someone spotted me then looked away and down abruptly I knew I couldn't ask them. Not too many people gave when I did ask. Mostly, kind strangers would walk over to me and drop Koruns into my gloved hand without me asking. "D_kuji vám," I'd say, thank you, in Czech.
That night, in front of a four-story club of lights and tinted glass, a rich Euro-trash man in a white turtleneck, blue ski jacket, and tight jeans grabbed an American girl's ass. The girl spun around and yelled, "Asshole!" in his face. The jerk's friends grabbed his shoulders and leaned against him, laughing.
The front door of the whorehouse discotheque opened and a measure from "Dancing in September" spilled out while a group of revelers was admitted entrance. The song was clipped when the door swung shut again. The girl stormed over to the curb and waved her arm for a cab.
The group of young Euro hipsters followed her. She ignored their come-ons and pushed them back when they grabbed her again. They surrounded her like a pack of wolves and were just as intent, blocking everything else out except their prey.
The tall blond who had goosed her earlier looked to be the Alpha of the group. My left hand found the collar of his bulky jacket and jerked it backwards. He spun to his left on the way down and landed on his hip and elbow. I still had hold of him and gave him two right-hand shots to the jaw. Wap. Wap. His friends jumped and gibbered. I grabbed one, but he broke free. They pulled their dropped buddy by his collar until he was standing and then marched down the sidewalk shouting in the staccato "SH"s, "T"s, and "N"s that string together to form curse words in German.
I hadn't seen myself in a couple days, and my appearance must have slipped from "American Tourist" to "Loser" because the girl thanked me at arm's length with an overturned fist of bills. It must've been everything she was carrying on her: I noticed the white lining of her inside-out jeans pocket. "Thanks," I said, ashamed to need a handout, but grateful for the money. Last year she was my peer, just another American. This year she was my benefactor. If we'd been in San Diego I would have asked for her number. But with bleary eyes and a dope-sick face, I just turned and walked away.
I walked the long hill from downtown, past Winston Churchill Square, to the Clown and Bard Hostel on Borivojova Street. The junky receptionist with blond dreadlocks and sharp elbows handed me a key attached to a six-inch block of wood. It felt good to be indoors again. I lugged my pack up three flights of stairs and unlocked a metal fire door. I chained my backpack to a bunk bed with the bike lock I'd brought with me from America, even though the 18 other bunks in the room were vacant. I couldn't risk losing the only things I had.
The shower and shave revealed how gray and drawn my skin had become in the past three weeks, since I'd lost my way. What was 240 pounds of muscle, sinew, and joints had become soiled sheets on a rickety wooden frame. I was surprised I'd fared so well against the wolves.
Sitting on my bunk in long underwear and a sweater I rummaged through my clothes and separated them for washing. When I pulled the wad of cash from my pants pocket something else fell out and tick-ticked against the checkered tile floor. I followed the sound back toward the light spilling in from the bathroom. There, in the cold glow, sat a pale pink pill with small flecks of orange in it.
Where the hell had that come from? I knew every stitch and bob of fuzz in my empty pockets intimately; this couldn't have been in there for long. When the American girl on the street had emptied her gratitude onto me it must've come out with the wad of money. Now here it was. I cupped it in my hand and washed it down my throat under the tap, slurping at the icy stream.
Soon my hands were clapping and wringing at each other. The bright lights of the city danced against the panorama window and brightened the room. Why shouldn't I have some fun tonight? I thought, I did my good deed for the day. I've still got a little coin left. I deserve a little music and beer. I dashed to my bunk and pulled my jeans on, grabbing the money and the big blocky key ring. The yellow light of the stairwell got more intense as I descended until it revealed the blinding pale bulb outside of the cellar bar.
Inside the bar I ordered a glass of Amber Czech pilsner and scanned the room for potential. Groups of backpackers gathered at tables beneath the orange pendulum lights and their brown shadows waved along the walls while they laughed and drank. One girl in a red fleece and matching headband climbed her chair and sang along with the blaring music, "Ahh, ahh, say do you remember," she shouted, "Ahh, ahh, dancing in September."