Authors: Armistead Maupin
Michael smiled. “Matzoh.”
“Matzoh balls. Shiksas are gentile girls.”
“See? Totally fucked already. Jewish trumps everything. Even not having a dick.”
Michael laughed and stopped snipping for a moment. “And this guy in the band is from here?”
“Amos adores you, you idiot.”
Jake sort of knew that, but verification was appreciated. Having endured three shitty relationships with bio guys, he had all but thrown in the towel over penises. There was plenty of butch out there, after all, and no shortage of toys. A guy could always do without if it meant not having to deal with fucked-up fetishists or bored married gay dudes looking for a three-time thrill. But when he saw Amos Karpel on Buck Angel Dating, he decided (on the strength of his kind dark eyes and sleekly muscled arms and a genius quote from Patti Smith) not to hold his dick against him.
They had been dating for three months. Not long enough for Jake to have expectations of anything permanent, but long enough to worry about whether he was hip and smart and, yes, Jewish enough for Amos.
Oklahoma dragged along behind him like a ball and chain.
hen Jake came home that night, Anna was in the parlor eating delivery Thai with Brian and his new wife. Jake had met Wren several days earlier and had liked herâhe had told Brian as muchâbut tonight he felt like hitting the sack with Amos on the cell. He was glad that Anna had company, though. It would make this easier.
“By the way,” he said as casually as possible, sitting down on the arm of Anna's chair, “I'll be away for a few days, so Selina has offered to sleep over while I'm gone. Hope that's gonna be okay?”
“Of course, dear. But Selina won't be necessary.”
Jake touched her back lightly, feeling the sharp parenthesis of her shoulder blade beneath the smooth satin of her kimono. “She really doesn't mind,” he told her. “I think she sort of misses you, in fact.”
“It's not that, dear. I just won't be here.”
“Brian and Wren are absconding with me.”
Jake slapped a smile on his face and turned to Brian. “No shit? Where to?” Despite his best effort, he could already feel the jealousy burning in his cheeks.
Brian looked uncomfortable. “Just a little joy ride in the buggy.”
Wren glanced at her husband, then back at Anna.
“To Winnemucca,” Anna said at last, almost as if it were a confession.
customer at the Blue Moon had left behind a fancy leather valise that, after a decent interval, Margaret gave to Andy. He kept it in his room, knowing that its sophisticated air would have invited ridicule at school. He used it to store treasures (a Barlow knife, some arrowheads, a large ivory brooch he had once told Mama was part of his “pirate costume”). Andy loved that valiseâloved the buttery French sound of it: my
âso he despaired at the thought that one day some big-city hotshot might return for another Dambuilder's Delight with Margaret and, in a moment of clarity, remember exactly where he'd left his most prized possession.
The valise was the perfect size for
Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels
. Andy would have felt foolish walking into the Martin Hotel with that bruiser of a book under his arm, and a paper bag would have made him look like an Okie, but the valise, he thought, was just the ticket. It looked sporty in his hand as he gave himself a once-over in the closet-door mirror. He had broken out his best slacks and a sky-blue gingham shirt with cowboy stitching on the pockets. Feeling a sting in his nostrils, he wondered if he might have slapped on too much bay rum.
Mama settled that issue down in the driveway.
“Lord, son, you smell like a cathouse!”
Mortified, he touched his tainted cheek. Mama had made that joke with him more than onceânot out of meanness, he reckoned, but because it showed she wasn't ashamed of the life she was leading. “Should I go wash my face?” he asked.
“Nah. You're fine. It'll die down by the time you get to town.”
He opened the door of the truck and climbed onto the running board. “You look right spiffy, son.” She was beaming up at him, happy as a lark because he had lied to herâwell, sort of lied to herâabout why he needed the truck. He had told her he was meeting friends for supper at the Martin (friends plural, since only one would have aroused suspicion), and she had asked if “that nice Watson girl” would be among them. His answer had been a shrug and a rogue's smile, but that had been enough for Mama. The mere
of Gloria Watson was worthy of transportation.
Once he was behind the wheel, she barked instructions: “Don't drive 'er too fast. The hubcaps come off when you hit the potholes. And don't let the sheriff see you, for pity's sake. And park her around back, so folks can't see it, or they'll think I'm pickin' up a pussyhound at the train station. You don't need that kinda talk.”
He knew all that already.
“And don't kiss 'er till it's time to say good night.”
She wasn't talking about the truck anymore. “C'mon, Mama.”
“Otherwise she'll think you think she's loose.” She slapped the side of the truck as if it were a poky horse being released into a corral. “Go on now. Git!”
dusty pink twilight had settled over Winnemucca by the time Andy arrived at the Martin. He had parked near Pioneer Park and crossed the sluggish river on foot, leaving plenty of room between him and the telltale truck. He had enjoyed the walk: the blue-shadowed evening, the pendulum swing of the valise (as devil-may-care as Fred Astaire himself), though he refrained from swinging it when anyone was looking. Swinging a valise was probably just as bad as twirling.
Eight or ten people had gathered on the porch of the hotel. Some of them were waiting to be seated. Others, beer bottles in hand, had abandoned their meals to watch a long, rusty necklace of boxcars clattering through town. It was part of the nightly show at the Martin. Andy recognized several valued customers of the Blue Moon, but he knew from experience not to greet them. Not in town. Not with their wives around. He had learned that lessonâand howâwhen he was only seven.
Inside the dining room, the two common tables were riotous with chiming silverware and chatterâgossip about everything and nothing: fly strike, the church supper, Mr. Hoover's gold speculation in Jungo. Andy stood against the pressed-tin wall, the valise held tight against his leg, waiting for a glimpse of the Basque boy. The servers were both girls tonight: a tall, horsey redhead from Sparks and Lasko's sister Hegazti, who overcame her crippling name with an uncanny gift for balancing huge platters of food on both slabs of her substantial arms. The all-but-edible aroma of crusty lamb and roast potatoes reminded Andy that an actual supper lay ahead.
In his fever of preparation he'd almost forgotten about that.
A shiny cream-painted door swooped open and produced Lasko like a magic trick. He'd obviously been washing dishes, since his shirtsleeves were scootched up, and his swarthy arm still bore flecks of soapsuds, like sea foam on a rock. He acknowledged Andy with a wink and lopsided grin, motioning for him to enter. Andy squeezed through the crowded room, suddenly feeling like a privileged character, even though, of course, he was just being admitted to a kitchen.
“You sellin' Bibles or something?” Lasko encircled Andy's shoulder with his arm, buddy-buddy as can be, like a ballplayer leading another one off the field.
Andy didn't understand. “Why?”
“That,” said Lasko, nodding toward the valise.
“Oh .Â .Â . that's the book.”
Book of Marvels
. The one I showed in class?”
“Oh yeah .Â .Â . sure thing.”
“You said you wanted to borrow it.”
Lasko finally caught his drift. “Yup, sure did. Thanks, Andy.”
This was a moment both marvelous and confounding. Lasko had spoken Andy's name for the very first time, and he'd done so as if they'd known each other forever. But now the Halliburton book seemed like little more than a prop, a handy excuse for their meeting. What was going on here? Andy tried not to read anything into it; tried and failed completely. His heart had a way of prancing ahead of him.
“Sit down,” said Lasko. “I'll get us some grub.” He pointed beyond the sink to a scarred green card table and a couple of metal folding chairs. It was already set for dinner. “It's better there. The old man don't like company for supper.”
Andy wasn't sure what this meant until Lasko's eyes led him to a larger table, where Lasko's father sat sucking on a gravy-coated rib. He looked something like Lasko, but thicker of frame and darker-skinned, the only
in this swarming
beehive. He did not once look up from his glistening pile of bones, even when he muttered “No mas” at his daughter as she staggered through the kitchen with her platter-juggling act. The man struck Andy as sullen, dangerously unhappy.
“He don't mind if we're here,” said Lasko, sensing Andy's concern.
“You sure? Cuz I don't mind ifâ”
“He can go to blazes,” Lasko muttered under his breath. “I work two jobs. I can have friends. You want ribs or lamb?”
“Uh .Â .Â . lamb, please.” It was “world-famous,” after all. “Is your mother cooking tonight?”
“Nah, she's at St. Paul's polishing candlesticks. She does it every month. Creamed spinach and bread rolls?”
Lasko rose and conveyed the order to the redheaded girl as she filled a platter by the stove. There was something about the way he murmured into her ear, touching her arm ever so slightly, that made Andy wonder about them.
“Is she your girlfriend?” he asked as soon as the girl had left them alone with their massive dinners.
Lasko made a face. “Why would you think that?”
“I dunno. You were so nice to her.”
Lasko stabbed a stub of roast potato with his fork. “You get a lot more food that way.” He winked at Andy and proceeded to chew vigorously. “I wanna show you something when we're done, but you can't make a big hoo-ha, okay? Just act natural in front of customers. I don't wanna rile the old man.”
That was all the incentive Andy needed. The nature of his challenge remained vague, however, until they had polished off their plates and headed back into the boisterous dining room, where Lasko stood next to the hat hooks and cast his eyes suggestively toward the wall. It was an exaggerated gesture that anyone watching would surely have noticed. He would make a terrible spy, Andy thought.
“What?” he whispered. “The hats?”
“The wall, ignoramus.”
The wall was a yellowish green dulled by years of grease, the same pressed tin that covered all four walls of the dining room. The pattern was the standard swirl of flowers and flourishes, all but erased in places by layers of paint. Nothing about the wall struck Andy as remotely worthy of making a big hoo-ha.
“It looks old,” he offered, trying to make a stab at it.
“Pseesnpukrs,” Lasko mumbled. (Or at least that's what Andy heard.)
“Sorry, I still don'tâ”
“C'mon!” Lasko grabbed his tweed cap off a hook and headed for the door. Andy followed him into the silky night, still toting the valise and feeling chastened and simple-minded. Lasko blazed a trail along the railroad tracks, where a weedy swath of gravel and broken glass finally gave him the privacy he needed.
“Pussies and peckers,” he blurted. “Didn't you see them? They're everywhere.”
“On the wall?”
“Yessiree! All them little curlicues are nothin' but sex organs. Some of 'em are pussies and peckers at the same time. Whatchacallit? .Â .Â . hermapherdike.”
Andy frowned. “Not on purpose, though? The pattern, I mean?”
“Hell yeah, buddy. Fifty years ago that place was a whorehouse!”
The thundering silence that followed had to be filled by someone, so Lasko obligingly did it. “No offense. I just think it's a hoot that my mama and Father Garamendi and that snooty Mrs. Snow all sit there and never even see it.”
“Yeah,” said Andy without much conviction, since he himself had sat there and never even seen it.
“You have to be lookin' for it,” Lasko added generously.
“Guess so,” said Andy.
Lasko picked up a piece of gravel and chucked it down the tracks. “I don't care about your mama or the Blue Moon or nothin'. No matter what anybody says. I figure we got more in common than most people in this hellhole. Hell, you're a lot smarter'n I am. You memorize poetry and shit. You read books.”
I not only read them, thought Andy, I carry them down the railroad tracks in a heavy valise for no earthly reason in the dead of night.
Lasko was picking up speed now, building toward something with every breath. “Shake a leg, Andy! Here's a place we can sit.” The place was a rough cube of concrete, set back from the tracks and prickly with rusty metal. It was barely big enough to hold them both, but they managed somehow, feet dangling and trousers touching perilously. Lasko fished a match and a cigarette from his shirt pocket.
Andy shook his head. He had tried that once and found it unpleasant.
“It's a Camel.”
Lasko struck the match against the concrete, lit the cigarette, and took a long drag, staring into space with shiny black marble eyes. Down the railroad tracks red and green lights were blinking like lost pieces of Christmas.
“How does that poem go, anyway?”
There was only one poem that Andy knew by heart: Tennyson's “Lotos-Eaters.” He had recited a portion of it in Mrs. Peacock's English class to a sea of listless faces, unaware that he had caught the fancy of anyone, much less Lasko.
“I don't know it all,” he said.
“Just do what you know.” The tip of Lasko's cigarette went bright orange in anticipation.
Andy thought a bit. “Um .Â .Â . okay.” He straightened his spine for the recitation. “Eating the lotos day by day, to watch the crisping ripples on the beach, and tender curving lines of creamy spray, to lend our hearts and spirits wholly to the influence of mild-minded melancholy, to muse and brood and live again in memory with those old faces of our infancy.”
He stopped, embarrassed, unsure how much he could remember. Lasko was still gazing ahead, his face wreathed in smoke. His leg was still pressed against Andy's, warm as a radiator and just as solid. “Have you ever been to a beach?”
Andy said he had never even seen an ocean.
“Me neither. They have beaches in Frisco, but it's too cold to swim in the ocean, so they all go to this big swimming pool. Indoors with big glass windows and stuffed bears and a penny arcade. They have a big waterwheel up above it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like at a sawmill, you know?” Lasko turned to Andy, his face so close that Andy could feel the breeze of his tobaccoey breath. “Only you jump into it, and it tumbles you round and round and dumps you into the pool, one on top of the other.”
“Wow,” murmured Andy, ostensibly about the mechanism, but mostly at the thought of being tumbled round and round and dumped on top of Lasko. “Really nifty,” he added, impersonating the hale-fellow tone of the Hardy Boys.
“I figured you for the adventurous type,” said Lasko. “Soon as you brought that book to school.” He looked down at the valise, waiting at their feet like a puppy craving attention. “I can pull this off, Andy, but I need a buddy to help me.”
“Pull what off?”
“My escape to Frisco.”
Andy envisioned that rattletrap truck bouncing over the Sierra, dropping hubcaps at every treacherous turn. “That's a long trip, Lasko. My mama won't let me drive that far.”
“We ain't talkin' to your mama.” He shook Andy's knee conspiratorially. “Or my mama neither. Besides, you don't need to drive me. I just need you to help me for one day. Right here in town. Easy as pie.
You can be my alibi
Those five words, with their presumption of intimacy, seduced Andy so completely that they might have been imprinted on a candy Valentine heart.