Empty by Breaking

Empty by Breaking

Shane hung his suit on the small, silver hook on the back of the bathroom door. He took off his t-shirt and pants, wadded them up and stuffed them in his backpack. His skin was sticky from dried sweat, so he washed his arms, chest and face in the sink, using the pink hand soap from the dispenser stuck on the wall. He dried off with the stack of white paper towels by the sink.

He looked in the mirror, turned to the side and sucked in his gut. Then he faced the mirror and flexed his massive arms and his stomach. He turned to the other side and extended his arm so that his triceps stiffened into the soft shape of a horseshoe. He faced the mirror again, letting his arms relax at his sides. He unfurled his body, letting his wide shoulders hang, letting his stomach out.

When he worked a day job for his uncle down on Water Street driving a produce truck, he felt like he got enough exercise. Every day, he loaded up the truck and unloaded it. He loaded himself with crates to see how much weight he could carry. But now, he looked softer and smaller. The only real exercise he got lately was walking to and from the nightclub.

He looked in the mirror again, admiring himself dressed in a suit. The coat sleeves were a little long and the waist of the coat wasn’t tapered. “Not bad,” he said, as he turned back and forth, looking at himself from all angles. It was the only suit he had. His uncle bought it for him when Shane was a larger fellow.

He thought about his court appearance in a few days. His lawyer was a balding man with an avuncular disposition. He wasn’t a criminal defense attorney. He negotiated contracts for Shane’s uncle.

“The prosecutor wanted jail time, but I think we can get probation and a fine.”

“How much is the fine?”

“Probably about $1500, maybe more.”

“Did my uncle say he’d cover the fine too?” asked Shane.

“No,” said the lawyer. “That’s yours.”

“Shit,” said Shane.

“The scratches saved you from jail time. Good thing she got her claws into you.”

“Yeah. Lucky,” said Shane. “What happens if I don’t have the cash?”

The lawyer paused. “Bring what you’ve got on Monday,” he said, sighing. “We’ll go from there.”


He put his shoes in his backpack. He unzipped a pouch, pulled out three small plastic bags of pinkish-white powder and put it in his coat pocket. He already had a buyer for them, a promoter named Blast who came to the club the same nights Shane worked. He still owed for the shit he’d bought the week before, when he cleaned out Shane’s stash with a promise.

Shane looked in the mirror again, straightened his tie and headed to the lounge. Rabid and Diesel stood in the far corner, putting on their radios and adjusting their earpieces. Rabid was dark, bald and stout. He had a goatee and wore earrings with what looked like large diamonds. Shane’s friend, Tommy Janeski, had introduced him. He was a cop who occasionally worked nite club security gigs. He said Shane used to play football and needed some extra money. Tommy told Shane that Rabid used to be the head of security for the P Stone Rangers. “Guy’s got a nice little rap sheet,” Tommy said. “Did three years in Joliet.”

Diesel was light-skinned and huge. Looking at him, you could tell he used to be a physical specimen who had let himself go. His belly hung over his pants. He sweated if he moved around too much.

Shane stuffed his backpack and skateboard in the closet next to the bar. Diesel slid a radio toward Shane, then looked at him. “Damn. Is that your suit?”


“You need a tailor.”

“He needs better taste,” said Rabid. “No tailor could save that mess right there.”

“Dude looks like he got a job interview for a hobo,” said Diesel.

Shane knew the suit wasn’t that bad. He could’ve come out looking like an extra in a James Bond movie, and they would’ve said the same thing. He liked Diesel. When he used to make his laps around the club, Shane sometimes stopped by Diesel’s post and talked about football. Diesel played on the defensive line at a small Texas college Shane had never heard of. He’d ruptured a disc in his back and quit playing his senior year. They also talked about pain—inflicting it, as well as tolerating it. Diesel frequently mentioned how tired he was, working two jobs. He had a kid. “Man, kids are expensive,” he said. “Shit’s crazy.” When their conversation turned to the glory of God, Shane politely moved along.

Still, in all their conversations, he never told Diesel how he was kicked off the football team his junior year of college. The coaches claimed he wasn’t disciplined enough. Their patience ran out after he got into a fight. It was over some girl at a party who was talking to one of Shane’s friends, a tailback name D’Mon who was now buried on a depth chart, somewhere in the NFL. Her boyfriend came back from wherever he was and wasn’t happy to see his girlfriend hanging on D’Mon’s arm, so he got in D’Mon’s face. When Shane tried to say it was a misunderstanding, the guy told him to shut the fuck up, pressed a finger against Shane’s forehead and called him a punk-ass white boy. Shane hit him. The girl jumped in, trying to hold Shane back, and he hit her on a backswing. He told his coach, “She’s lying. I slugged her boyfriend.” Like that’s better, said Coach. Time to go. At the end of the semester, Shane left school.

“What the hell were you thinking?” asked Uncle Mike, his round face growing red. He was an intense man whose broad frame was needed to carry his dense flesh.

“I didn’t want to be there anymore.”

“What? Because of football?”


“Jesus help me,” said Uncle Mike.

His mother never really made an effort like Uncle Mike did. He, at least, asked why Shane did something. He encouraged Shane’s ability for football. But his mother didn’t really care why he did anything. If it bothered her day-to-day agenda, he was wrong for doing it.

“Jesus Christ,” she said once, stretching out collar of her shirt, as she looked down into it. “If I didn’t have you, I wouldn’t have these saggy-ass tits. Then I’d have a man who’d pay my bills right now.” She looked at him, then at a re-run of Roseanne that was on the television. “But you wanna play football, not get a job and help your momma out.”

The nights she drank her vodka sodas and he helped to her room, she’d mumble what a good boy he was, how much she needed him, how it was just the two of them and how they needed to stick together. Or when she needed a favor or forgiveness, she smoothed back his hair with the gentleness only a mother’s hand can provide, then kissed his forehead and said “Thank you, bubba.”

If he got in trouble at school, she’d remind him that he was acting like his daddy, like he knew what that meant. That was only thing he knew about his dad: he behaved like him sometimes. Sure, he’d acted up a bit. But he never thought of himself as a bad kid, not compared to some of the guys on the football team. After he got into an accident with her car, she told him: “I’m not takin’ any more of your mess. All you do is cost me money. You can take your shit elsewhere.” A few weeks later, Shane went to live with Uncle Mike.

As Shane put on his radio and earpiece, Rabid issued the night’s instructions. Rabid would watch the lounge, walk around and make sure everything’s under control. Shane and Diesel would cover the ropes. No one enters without a wristband. No one leaves his post without someone covering his spot. “Keep it tight tonight,” he said. “It’s going to be busy and you two been slacking lately. I don’t want no bullshit. Pay fucking attention to what’s going on around you.”

When they were done, Diesel pulled him aside and gave him a handful of plastic wristbands the club sold at the door. It was their scam to make a little extra money. Each one was folded neatly into a tiny square and wrapped in a rubber band. Shane assumed Diesel got them from Rabid. “They go fo’ forty tonight,” he said. “Holla if you need mo’.”

Shane stood by the velvet rope hung between two gold stanchions and waited for the club to fill. Things were looking up. The last few Fridays had been slow. If Rabid said it’d be busy, there’s a good chance he was right. But that was only one night. Shane needed the whole weekend.

He looked over at the bartender setting up the bar where Vanessa used to work. It was odd seeing someone else there. When he first started at the club, he used to stare at her during the idle moments. Vanessa was a bit older than he was. Her skin was smooth mahogany. The first time he saw her, he thought she looked like the women he saw in the dirty magazines his friends used to trade with each other when they were aware their bodies were changing and were learning about women’s bodies too. He loved to watch as she danced on the bar to gather a crowd.

If some guy was mulling around, acting too persistent, she’d give Shane a look—a slight shake of the head, an eye roll—and he’d let the guy know it was time to go. Sometimes, an older man stopped by at the end of the night. A different one each time, but they all looked about the same. They wore jewelry. Sometimes, a big gold watch. Other times a gold pinky ring and a gold bracelet. The clothes were expensive casual—designer jeans, an expensive looking button-down shirt, maybe a sport coat and brown laced-up leather shoes. Most of them sounded Russian. It was hard to tell. The man would drink while she closed her register. Then they’d leave together. It wasn’t unusual if she returned to work in the same clothes she’d worn the night before.

He got to know her after a cocktail waitress said she’d been robbed while she waited for a cab. After that, none of the girls were supposed to leave alone, so the bouncers had to stay late to babysit. “That’s some bullshit,” said Rabid. They were having a few drinks at the main bar, after the club closed. “She didn’t get robbed.”

“How do you know?”

“Man, she ain’t got no bruises. She ain’t got no scrapes.”

“Maybe she got lucky.”

“In this neighborhood? A junkie woulda beat her ass for that money.”

“Why would she lie?”

“People lie about stupid shit all the time.”

Shane started walking Vanessa to her car. He was the new guy. He was the one who had to stay late. She asked about the knife Shane found after a stout Mexican guy had been thrown out for starting a fight earlier in the night. He said he’d found it after the guy had been removed from the club. He had dropped his radio and went back along the path that he had dragged the man to look for it. That’s when he saw the knife under a cocktail table. His radio was a few feet beyond that. He told her the man had struggled on the way out, and he had slipped his arm under the guy’s chin and choked him until he went limp. He wondered if the man had been reaching for his knife before he passed out. Shane didn’t know the man was out cold until he tossed him on the ground in the alley behind the club. “He was kind of flopping around,” he said. She laughed when he did an impression of the man’s flailing body. She told him she used dance at The Velvet Room. “No way?” said Shane. “Really? What was that like?”

Drinking was part of her job. Some nights she’d had too much. Shane said he’d take her home. When he attempted to coax the keys from her, she shook her head. “I can drive,” she said as she fumbled to fit her foot into her shoe. “Just get me to my car.” Shane knelt down in front of her, grabbed the shoe from her clumsy fingers and put it on her foot. He looked up. She wasn’t wearing underwear.

After he got her home, she asked him to park the car and help her upstairs. The floor of her apartment was strewn with shirts and dresses that looked expensive, Louis Vuitton and Gucci purses, DVDS of Scrubs and Seinfeld and old issues of Vogue. Her makeup case sat in the corner of the room, near a small mirror. An empty bag of potato chips sat on the couch next to a blanket.

She pointed to the bedroom. When he laid her down, her arms latched around his neck and she pulled him down with her. “Stay,” she said.

“I have to work,” he said.

“Stay,” she said, kissing his neck.

He thought he’d stay until she fell asleep, but working two jobs caught up to him. All it took was a few moments of rest. When he woke up, he was late for work. Vanessa was curled up at the edge of the bed. Her ass peeked out from beneath her skirt. He called the warehouse and said he was sick.


For the most part, Shane knew his job was to be present, a big meatbag with a stern expression and an unwavering ability to say no. If people thought someone was watching, they were less likely to do anything. Still, they acted plain stupid. A frat boy, out on the town with his friends, reached over the bar and stole a bottle of Remy Martin. When Shane twisted the boy’s arm behind his back and escorted him outside, the boy said over and over, “What did I do? What did I do?”

You know what you did, asshole, thought Shane.

A fat guy, who looked Latino, passed out and puked on himself. The trail of vomit went down the front of his shirt to the floor, where it pooled around his shiny, black shoes. His friends tried to tell Shane someone had thrown the puke on the guy. “He went that way!” one of them said.

Someone always wandered up to Shane, usually a group of guys from the suburbs, Indiana or down from Milwaukee who asked: “Hey, how do you get in?”

“You need a wristband.”

“Where can I get one of those?”

Shane made sure to make it sound like a hassle, telling whoever asked that they had to go back to the entrance, get in line and ask for a wristband. His special touch was, “But they might be sold out by now.”

Inevitably, the guy felt like he missed out. “You know,” said Shane. “I have a few left I was saving for some friends. If you want to avoid the trouble, I could, you know, sell them to you instead.”

“How much?”

Diesel had told him always to ask for a multiple of twenty, never throw out a number like fifty or seventy-five. “They gotta go to the cash machine,” he said. “And it only got twenties in it. You ask fo’ fifty, then you got to give them change.”

The first sale of the night was always the hardest. But then word spread or people became desperate or had enough to drink and thought, “Why the fuck not?” Next thing you know, someone who had acted indignant at the suggestion of illicitly buying admission to the lounge earlier in the evening, suddenly handed over money. He needed to have a really good weekend to pay that $1500. Even if he got it, he wouldn’t have enough to pay rent. Shane thought about the money he’d make tonight, then he played with the small bags sitting in his coat pocket. He got it from a guy Vanessa introduced him to. Rocky. Or Rocko. Shane just called him Rock.

“How’s Vanessa?” asked Rock when he handed Shane the small, plastic bags.

Shane shrugged.

“Man, she’s wild, bro. Girl is crazy.”


Shortly after they started sleeping together, Vanessa took him to Cavern, a club in a depression-era building somewhere in Uptown. Early in the night, while he was in the bathroom, she slipped molly into his drink. When they left, Vanessa had another girl in tow—someone she knew from the scene, a brunette who claimed she was a model. They crowded into Vanessa’s bed, alternating between primal passion and explorative caressing. By the time the sun came up, Shane leaned against the kitchen counter furiously masturbating while the women slept in the next room. One more, he told himself. One more.

He collapsed on the floor in exhaustion. He lay in a puddle of his sweat. His heartbeat was the sound of someone pounding on the wall from another room. Each beat made his body vibrate. He waited for his heart to slow. He couldn’t stop playing with himself, feeling if he could simply finish one more time, he could finally rest. But his body wouldn’t respond. He slowly drifted off to sleep. When he showed up late to work at the warehouse the next morning, he looked like hell. He dragged his feet loading trucks until one of them left almost a half hour after it was supposed to. Uncle Mike told him to go home.


Shane barely noticed when a small, thin blonde girl smiled at him. She had a wide mouth and large eyes. She was clearly very young, even though her face wore the weight of a nightclub lifestyle. She was part of Blast’s entourage for the evening. They all sat at a table not too far from where Shane stood.

Someone once said Shane and Blast kind of looked like each other, which he took as a compliment. Shane didn’t know what promoters did, exactly. But it seemed like they made a lot of money. He thought, maybe, someday, he’d be a promoter, surrounded by attractive young women in the VIP lounge. The blonde girl and her friends danced in the space between tables. She kept looking at Shane.

Her movements were awkward. Her hands moved up and down her body. She danced closer to him and rubbed against him. She felt insubstantial, as if her skeleton were made from the hollow bones of a bird. The display was a quick jump over the fire.

Blast waved to Shane and came over to where he stood. “You got that shit I wanted?” he asked.


They shook hands. Blast put his hand back in his pocket. “I got you,” he said.

“You still owe from last week,” said Shane.

“I got you, son. I’ll take care of you,” he said. “It’s all good.” Blast went back to the table.

Shane watched as he held hands with one of the brunettes for a few seconds. She prodded her friends with an elbow and a nod. They all got up and went to the bathroom. When they came back, they danced. They sipped their drinks. The girls rubbed against each other and crowded around Billy. One of the girls ground her hips against his lap.

Shane leaned against the wall. He saw Blast whisper to the blonde girl. She looked over at Shane again and walked toward him. “I need some help,” she said.

“With what?” said Shane.

“Come with me,” she said. She took his hand and led him toward the back of the lounge to the private bathrooms. Once the door closed, she pulled out a tiny silver vial she hid in top of her dress. She unscrewed the vial to reveal a small scoop filled with white powder. She held it to her nose and snorted it up. She re-filled the scoop and held it under Shane’s nostril. He snorted up reflexively.

She kissed him while her fingers fumbled with his belt buckle.

“No,” he said. “Please.”

“What’s a matter?” She kissed him again. “Are you shy?”

“I have to get back to work,” he said.

She pulled away. “I’m just trying to suck your dick.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“What’s your fucking problem?”

“I have to get back to work.”

“I’m not a whore, ok?”

“Ok,” said Shane.

“I’m not a fucking whore, ok? My dad’s a gynecologist. I keep my pussy clean, ok?”


“Ugh,” she said. “You’re such a fucking loser. Let me out of here.”

He opened the door. She squeezed past him and stormed back to her table.

When Shane came back to his post, Rabid stood at the rope. “Yo, man,” he said. “Where the fuck you been?”

“A girl needed some help in the bathroom.”

“That’s some bullshit. Bitch was suckin’ yo dick,” said Rabid. “What’d I say? Don’t leave yo’ post without someone covering fo’ yo’ ass.”

“Sorry, man.”

“Five people walked right in here. Now I gotta go round them up and get them out. Man, you costin’ the club money.”

Shane didn’t say anything for a moment. “I fucked up. Sorry, man.”

“Damn straight. Best not happen again.”

As Rabid walked away, he saw Blast sitting at his table. His hands were up and his shoulders were scrunched. His body asked, “What happened?”

Shane raised his hand and rubbed his fingers against his thumb. He mouthed the word “Money.”

Blast rolled his eyes and waved him off.


When Vanessa quit the club and started working at Limelight, Shane was relieved. Watching all those other men—especially men with more money than he’d ever had—hit on Vanessa was too difficult. After a month or so, Vanessa started taking invitations to go out on some guy or another’s boat. He knew that scene. He knew she was expected to parade around on a skimpy bikini, and schmooze with the guys. Make them feel special.

Some days she seemed disinterested in him. Other days, she was talkative and affectionate. Then she occasionally said she only wanted to enjoy their time together while it lasted. But in their most intimate moments, she whispered to him that she loved him and that she only wanted to be with him and feel him next to her. He understood the convenience of the lie, the necessity of it. She didn’t want to be alone. Like any lie, if it’s repeated too many times, it becomes the truth. So, in a moment when he wanted to believe she truly cared about him, he spoke about their future. It wasn’t what he said. It was the confidence he said it with.

“Stop. Please,” she whispered, softly stroking his cheek.

“Then why do you say stuff like that?”

She sat up, crossed her arms and scrunched her shoulders. “I don’t know. Sometimes I just feel like it.”

It didn’t matter how he felt. Because nothing mattered as long as she got what she wanted. He was, at best, a favorite toy, here to help her pass the time until someone—or something—better came along. But he needed something now. He needed something.

He slapped her. Then he grabbed her by the neck and pinned her in the corner of the couch. Her hands grabbed at his wrist. She scratched him as she tried to break free. He hammered his fist against the wall. “Tell me you love me!”

The sound of gargled words vibrated in her throat. Spittle flew out the side of her mouth and her eyes bulged. He realized how hard he held her neck. He let go and sat back. She wiggled out from under him and gasped for air. She was back at him quickly, smacking his shoulders, arms and head. As he got up, she followed him. She scratched at his face then kneed him in the nuts.  He pushed her away. Her head snapped back and she fell on the floor awkwardly. He didn’t look back. He was out the door. A few hours later, two cops were at his apartment. They told him to come with them. While he waited in jail, surrounded by gang bangers and drunks, he tried to convince himself he wasn’t wrong for what he did. She could have played along, if only that one time. His uncle let him wait before he bailed him out. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy?” he asked.


The lights came up on the dance floor. The bar-backs scurried across the club, collecting glasses and empty bottles. They filled black garbage bags until they were full and taut. In the lounge, people sat at their tables, waiting for waitresses to close out their tabs. The blonde girl was on wobbly legs as a chubby brunette with large, hoop earrings held her arm. The blonde doubled-over and began to vomit. “Tina! Oh my God!,” she shrieked as she back away from the splash. “Tina! Gross!”

She fell on the ground, her body convulsing.

Rabid swept in and picked her up by the arms. “Watch out! Coming through!” he said, as he took her down the back staircase. People parted way, rubbernecking to catch of glimpse of the skinny little girl who’d had too much fun for one night. They talked to each other cautiously. One guy re-enacted the scene for a few people who missed it. Some shook their heads, others went back to what they were doing. Shane scanned the crowd, searching for Blast. He was nowhere to be found. Soon, the lounge cleared.

After the bar closed, Rabid and Diesel leaned against the bar down by the dance floor. Shane tapped Diesel’s hip and handed some money to him under the bar.

“You want a shot of Patron?” asked Diesel.


“That was fucked up tonight,” said Rabid.


“You said she was only nineteen?” said Deisel.

“Yup,” said Rabid.

“What the hell was she doin’ in the club anyway?”

“I don’t understand that shit. Maybe she ain’t got a daddy.”

They drank their shots.

Rabid nodded to Shane. “Come with me.”

He walked away, expecting Shane to follow. Rabid stopped by the back staircase, then turned to face Shane. “The fuck happened tonight?”

“Man, I said I was sorry about leaving my post.”

“I’m not talking ‘bout that. I’m talkin’ ‘bout that girl, man. She was more than fucked up.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Whachu doin’ in the bathroom wi’ her then? The fuck was goin’ on wi’ dat?”

“She wanted to get down, man. You know how it is.”

“That’s not yo’ job, tho’. I told you, man.” He exhaled forcefully. “Man, don’t come back tomorrow night.”

“I need this job.”

“Shoulda thought ‘bout that before tried to get yo’ dick sucked.” He walked away.

Shane went out into the alley and took a deep breath. The warm, humid evening air smelled like fresh garbage and grease. He walked to the end of the alley then took the wide industrial street to North Avenue. He walked over the bridge and took the cracked sidewalk that led to the highway overpass. He kept his head down as he strolled past the sleeping bums and held his breath so he didn’t smell the dense scent of stale piss they carried. He crossed the street. Down the road, he saw a three hookers standing on the corner, smoking cigarettes. One waved to him. “Hey, sugar,” she called. “You want a friend tonight?”

He turned down his street. Cars lined each side of the road, parked for the night under the glare of the street lamps. Shane dragged a finger over the cool moisture that had condensed on their windows. A few steps from his apartment door, something on the ground caught his eye. Near the front door of his building, he saw something, several tiny green dots shimmering on the pavement near the edge of the halo of a light that shined from the building. He opened the gate and took a closer look. For one fading moment, he let himself go and hoped it was emeralds—so he could be done with all of it and wouldn’t have to worry every day about what would happen next—before he realized it was only the shards of a broken bottle. Then he felt stupid for thinking someone would leave emeralds lying around. Even if they did—in the minuscule chance that something like that would happen—he knew he wouldn’t be the one to find them. He wasn’t that lucky.

While he thought about how the glass could never be emeralds, he stood over the shards, staring at them until they took a form. What was once a bottle started to look like a body lying on the ground, with an arm over a head turned to one side. The legs are spread, the knees facing out. The light hit the glass so the shards sparkled and it looked like the body moved—like it was twitching. As much as he could see the body, the specific shape of it, he couldn’t figure out who it was. As he thought about who it might be, the form faded away and all he saw were the fragments of glass.

He opened his apartment door and dropped his bag against the wall. He grabbed a pillow from the couch and tossed it on the floor, then he lay down with his hands clasped over his chest. He closed his eyes. He heard his uncle’s voice in his head: “The Lord knows I have tried with you…” He remembered the calm and focused stillness of his mother’s eyes whenever she told him he’d messed up. He thought about the first time he saw Vanessa dancing on the bar for all the men, then about how happy he was when she’d chosen him instead of all the others. And he fell asleep, softly, quickly, deeply.


About the Author

S. Grady Barrett lives and works in Chicago. You might have seen him standing in front of you in line for coffee. He frequently forgets his keys and finds himself locked out of his home. He lacks of lot of important writing credentials, which is why he's trying to be funny right now, but his work has appeared in McSweeny's Internet Tendency and The Good Men Project, and he has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern Univeristy, if that helps. This is the first short story he's ever published, which he's thankful for and impressed with himself about.


Photo "In or Out" by Hendrik Wieduwilt.