With the fresh twenties burning holes in our pockets, we all repaired to Goldy’s Bar for a debriefing session. Once there, however, we couldn’t cross the threshold for quite a while because two patrons had apparently barfed up inside. According to a witness who waited with us on the sidewalk, the first guy had spewed all over his booth after watching an alligator eat a dog on the TV there. His reaction sickened a woman nearby to the extent that she barfed up a colorful storm as well. The bartender was pretty sore about it all, according to this witness, whose amusement with the entire episode was not tempered by the effects of the stifling sun, which just about killed the rest of us. He said the bartender had kicked everyone out for half an hour so they could clean up the joint without having a bunch of drunks tracking vomit all over the place.
When the witness left our group to report the same news to another party, Bub pointed in the direction of Peter Piper’s, a juice bar a couple blocks down, and voiced an observation that had probably been voiced a half-million times by him and others like him: “That nudie joint would be perfect if you could only have a snort in there. But they don’t let you mix booze and total nudies in the state of Missouri.” While it always pained Lou to agree with Bub on anything, in this case he had no choice, and the two of them commisserated about the injustice of it all.
Now, I was fifteen and naturally inclined to the distractions that come from any reference to nudies, much less “total nudies,” so my head (among other things) was spinning. Though I grew up motherless and in the center of a party, I never had easy access to Playboy or Penthouse or Oui or Hustler or Honkers—the magazines they kept on the top rack at Quik Trip. Dad didn’t buy those things; he wasn’t much for printed materials. Over the years, I’d glimpsed a dozen girls in various stages of undress as they passed my door on the way to the bathroom. But voyeurism is nothing like horseshoes to an inquisitive boy: closeness does not count. All I really had to go on was the occasional picture of a celebrity’s breast in the library’s copies of Time or Newsweek or Esquire. Standing there in the blazing sun—teetering, really, for I was very hungry and thirsty as well—I tried not to dwell on the fact that beautiful naked girls, some not much older than I, were contorting themselves to pulsating music just a couple-hundred yards from where I stood.
If only to impress Toby, a goal that all of us shared, I disclosed an idea I’d hatched months earlier when I first learned of the juice-bar dilemma. I said, “So why not sell your own beer from out in the parking lot?”
Toby laughed and said, “You are a clever boy no less, but I don’t know about this scheme.”
Usually Toby’s disapproval was all it took to kill an idea, and for a moment my spirits were crushed, but Bub and Lou began looking at each other with the kinds of squinty eyes and furrowed foreheads that suggest deep thought. Bub wondered if there'd be enough customer traffic. Lou said in the daytime hours the place allowed free “pass outs,” meaning you paid the cover charge only once and you got your hand stamped so you could come and go as often as you wanted until the prime-time dancers started at eight p.m. He said it was a way to attract customers during the slow hours.
“There you go,” I said. “Buy a case of cheap beer and put it on some ice and then peddle it in the parking lot for like three bucks a can. The customers can come out, guzzle a beer, then go back inside.”
“Milwaukee’s Majesty should do the trick,” Lou said, nodding with certainty, as if the choice of beer was the only detail left unresolved. “We can buy a case of that shit for ten or twelve bucks and turn it around for a whole lot more.”
“About sixty bucks profit per case,” I said.
“And that’s just in one day,” Lou said. “Do it five days a week for the rest of your life and you’ll never have to work again. Of course, we cut you in on the profits, Mick, on account it was your idea.”
“Let’s do it and let’s do it now! Brody’s might even have the stuff on sale! Tobes, Rog, you with us?” Bub asked.
The fat man said, “No offense, but I’ll sit this one out. I got my heart set on a pork fritter right now. And you fools, shouldn’t you eat something first? And have a drink or two so you don’t get a headache?”
“I’m good,” Lou said, and Bub’s response was the same.
About 90 minutes later, after Toby had been through a pitcher of beer and after Dad and I had been through a pitcher of soda—and after the three of us had eaten our fill of tenderloins and curly-cue fries—the dark innards of Goldy’s lit up as the big front door swung open, and then it slammed shut rather violently. The purveyor of the door slam was Lou. He and Bub were drenched with sweat, and each had the posture of a dying plant. Lou heaved his cooler towards our table and then stalked off to the bathroom. Bub dropped into a chair and began the process of cooling off by lighting a cigarette.
“Economy must really suck,” he said.
“How’s that?” asked Toby, sneaking a wink at Dad.
“We sat on the cooler in that parking lot for a long damn time but nobody came by. So finally Lou sent me inside to spread the word. To do some marketing, you know.”
“Sent you inside that nudie bar?”
“He’s on the blacklist there. Anyways, so I paid the steep cover charge and . . . it was actually pretty comfortable in there, Tobes. Climate controlled. Lots of pretty lighting and some interesting artwork on the walls. I’ve had worse times.”
“Some nice feminine scenery no less?”
Bub held his cigarette in front of his nose and stared at the burning tip. With unusual solemnity, he said, “Toby, you can have Hollywood and you can have Paris France. The prettiest girls in the world are just one block away, inside Peter Piper’s Juice Bar, in Kansas City Missouri.”
“Is that right?”
“And you know who goes to that joint? Doctors, lawyers, CEOs.”
“How you know that?”
“That’s what Mystika told me.”
“Mystika, you say?”
“A really sweet chick. After visiting with her for a while, I went back outside to get more cash from Lou because they don’t like it when you’re not spendin money in there. So I get outside and I see this big bouncer hollerin at Lou.”
Amused, Toby said, “Is that right?”
Bub said, “I mean, it’s the Riot Act, Toby. He’s sayin ‘We could lose our license for this!’ And ‘You know how many laws you’re breakin?’ Finally he tells Lou to hand over the beer. Now this bouncer was a big horse of a guy. So Lou hands over the Majesty, and this horse just takes it by the armload. Ice goes dripping down his arms. Had forearms like Popeye. A big sum-bitch. And that was that.”
Toby shrugged and said, “Well, your heart was in the right place.”
“I think so,” said Bub.
I was very interested in getting a detailed, graphic account of the naked dancers in there, but before I could find the right way to pursue the topic, Lou emerged from the bathroom and took four or five steps and suddenly blew buckets of puke in every direction.
While at Goldy’s, Bub had invited all of us to go cruising that night in his RV, which was air conditioned and full of gas. Dad declined the offer; he had to work in the morning. But I happily hooked up again with the threesome at around nine, in the parking lot of the burned-out Su-Preme Thrift Store. The RV was a pitiful-looking thing from the 1970s, with a hump-backed shell and exaggerated wheel bases. Its exterior was a pastel blue, accented in purple. Inside it had clashing shades of red and the inevitable shag carpet. All the colors had long ago chipped and faded, and the carpet was matted and gooey. The ceilings were so low an averaged-sized man had to hunch at all times, his back taking the shape of the RV’s shell.
It had been a strange day, but things took an even odder turn when on my walk to Su-Preme I noticed a pair of geezers necking in a car at a traffic light. I stood watching from about ten feet away, until the car peeled off.
“What’s that look on your face?” asked Lou when I reached the parking lot a couple minutes later. The three of them were leaning against the RV, drinking Majestys. Bub tossed me a cold one.
After I reported what I’d seen, Toby said, “Two old men kissing?”
“They had to be in their seventies,” I said.
“I don’t know whether to salute them codgers or toss my tenderloin.”
“I already tossed once today,” said Lou. “Maybe we should talk about something else.”
“They sure enjoyed it,” I said. “I’ll give ‘em that much.”
“Hell, son, everybody likes to smooch,” said Bub.
“You like to smooch?” Lou asked me.
I got anxious and shrugged and looked every which way and then took to guzzling the rest of my beer, which really got their attention because I usually nursed a single beer for half a night. So the old sleuths figured it out. Bub winked at his peers, and Lou said, “Don’t tell me you never been smooched? I suppose that means you never been laid neither.”
Toby said, “Lou, the boy’s business is his own business.”
“You never kissed?” Bub followed in a sympathetic tone. He then tossed me another can of Majesty, as a bit of a consolation prize, I guess.
“Well, I’ve been occupied with other pursuits,” I said, ridiculously.
They all laughed—and rightfully so.
Lou said, “It can’t be hard to get a kiss these days. These young city girls got ants in their pants.”
“Well, the truth is, I’m not interested in kissing just any damn girl.” Which was somewhat true. I mean to say, I had no interest in kissing a homely girl.
Toby said, “You want your first kiss to be memorable no less.”
Lou laughed, but Toby scolded him. “What’s so funny about that? What about you, my man. Was your first kiss special?”
“Hell if I know. I was too drunk to remember. But I bet it was.”
“I halfway forgot what it’s like to kiss,” Bub disclosed. “Ever since Doris left me, I’ve been in a slump.”
“Try kissin your own arm and you’ll remember,” said Lou. He demonstrated it for Bub’s benefit.
“It ain’t the same, Lou,” the coot said. “Trust me on that one.”
To me, Lou said, “You ever feel a lady’s tit in your mouth?”
He said, "Some ladies' tits are so good, make you wish you had two mouths!"
Bub said, "Tell him what it's like to have a tit in your mouth, Louie."
The skinny man smiled dreamily. “What can I say. Tits are soft as hell, and the nipples get all pointy and hard, like erasers on brand-new pencils.”
Toby said, “Bub, can you go over to the Quik Shop and buy me a couple brand-new pencils?”
The geezer started that way, but Toby said, “Get back here, old fool. That was a joke.”
Soon the men reminisced about their first kisses. Toby’s came at age eleven with a cousin who was fourteen. “I still recall how her mouth tasted like sour milk,” he said. Lou now remembered that his first kiss had actually come in the second grade, in the coat room with a classmate named Marva who wore colorful hats. She screamed and ran down the hallway and got her brother, who punched Lou on the arm. Bub had stolen his first smooch on the night of his high school graduation when he told a wall-flower named Doris he’d just been diagnosed with polio. “Sure, it was a mercy kiss,” he confessed before Lou could accuse him of it.
“But you had it coming anyways,” Toby said.
“Damn right I did. A man can’t go into the armed forces without ever bein kissed.”
“A man can’t go in the armed forces with polio,” said Lou.
“But I didn’t have polio. It was a lie to get a kiss.”
“Ain’t that contagious though?” followed Lou. “What fool be kissin another fool with polio?
“Ah, she knew it was a lie, Louie. She wanted to kiss too. Hell, she married me, didn’t she?”
By now I had finished off two beers and was squeezing a third when Toby said it was time to see what kinds of adventures the city might offer. Right away I felt intoxicated by the beer and the promise of adventures and the nearness of Peter Piper’s and the basic coolness of these old cats, a blissful feeling that grew stronger and stronger as we cruised the byways and thoroughfares of midtown Kansas City for a half-hour with nowhere to go and no place to be. Suddenly things got very dark and Bub screeched like a schoolgirl. He even took his hands off the wheel for a moment. It turns out the power grid had seized up again, due to the outrageous demand, and the street lights had gone black on us.
Soon Bub turned onto a sidestreet alongside Peter Piper’s, and we could not help but notice in the tiny back parking lot two strippers drenching each other with a garden hose. The first was a small black girl in cut-off denims and a sleeveless shirt. The second was a willowy redhead in bikini shorts and a workout halter. A crowd of men—mostly transients and businessmen—had assembled around the edges.
Lou said, “Damn, you took a left turn and ended up in heaven!”
Toby said, “On account of the black out, they got no air conditioning inside that place. I bet it’s like an oven in there, all them horned-up men no less.”
Bub edged the RV to the side of the road so that it only blocked about half the through-way.
“Mick, you awake back there?” Toby called.
“Wide awake,” I said happily, my eyeballs working overtime.
“You know that business about you wanting your first kiss to be memorable? Would it be memorable if you kissed a stripper?”
Lou said, “How you gonna do that?”
“I’ll tell these ladies it’s his sixteenth birthday and see if he can’t get a kiss or two.”
Lou said, “That’d never work, fool.”
Toby said, “Girls love to be kissed.”
“Even strippers?” I said.
Bub said, “Hell, they’re the most romantic of all. Half these gals are in nursing school, my boy.”
Suddenly my bowels felt heavy. I also had to pee really bad. The RV’s toilet was just five feet away, but I followed the men out. Toby led the way across the sidestreet and into the parking lot, where the girls were now toweling themselves in a businesslike manner. Along the way he commanded Lou and Bub to stay back and keep their mouths shut so they wouldn’t ruin the moment for me.
From fifteen feet away, the fat man called “Girls! Girls! See this boy?”
The strippers ceased toweling and looked at Toby, and then at me.
We all stopped about ten feet from the girls. Then Toby went a few steps closer. “This boy turned sixteen today, and you know what? He’s never been kissed.”
The black girl looked us over, but her friend backed away and hurried into the building.
Toby turned and said, “C’mon up here, Mick.”
Bub pushed me forward. “Go ahead, son.”
“Sixteen today, huh?” the girl said, sizing me up and down. “Well, then happy birthday.”
“She’s nice,” said Bub.
“Kiss the fool,” screeched Lou.
She looked at Toby and said, “Hey, I’m no prude, but I’ve got to be very careful because he’s a minor and there are all these laws and I signed some papers, you know, so I don’t think I can do anything like that.”
Behind us, Lou made some comments about Jerry Falwell and whatnot, but the pretty girl came nearer and extended her tiny hand and said, “How about a birthday handshake?”
Toby looked at me and smiled.
I stepped forward and shook her hand. It was a damp and cool from all the toweling.
“How’s that?” she asked when our hands were once again free.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Well, I better get inside. You know how it is.”
I nodded, pretending I had an idea of how it is.
She smiled again and then turned and strode away. Feeling a little less lonesome than usual, I watched her skinny legs climb the service stairs and disappear inside that secret paradise.
“Your first handshake,” said Bub, shaking his head, impressed. “Sure was a doozie.”
“Yep,” said Toby, his hand on my shoulder, “happy birthday to you.”
For copyright reasons, this is my final installment of Broken Homes on Open Salon. Thank you for reading. If you'd like a Word document of the complete novel, please send a message to my inbox and I will email a copy to you.