The Wonder Bar


    July 5th begins summer’s great trench. Nothing but sweltering discomfort punctured by periods of merciful relief.

    There is a New Yorker magazine cover which aptly suits these dog days. On it a grinning rubicund sun wipes sweat off his brow while beneath him broiling on the way to burning beachgoers merry themselves towards heatstroke.

    The best part of this season for me? Beer. Beer is colder these days than during winter.

    Lois emailed me two days before the Fourth. Another New Yorker who looked around and found dismaying the prospect of spending her life’s four most formative years with the same neurotics with whom she’d traversed adolescence into adulthood, we met at Arizona. Otherwise our paths never would’ve crossed in the East.

    She’d grown up on the Palisades side of the Hudson in one of those appleknocker towns Hasids were just starting to overwhelm. Now, black hats/black coats/bleak Messianic visions predominate her old homestead. Roles have been reversed. Once, they were the aliens. Today she’s a stranger in what remains of her former address. No. They’d regard her as a contagion. Someone to be shunned.

    On the Fourth, Lois was pleasantly exceeding their worst fears. In the area for a visit, she bunked at a girlfriend’s house on the Connecticut Gold Coast. Having read a number of these previous dispatches, Lois knew my familiarity with it.

    She suggested we meet. I decided where.

    More for its easy location rather than any past references, we rendezvoused at the same hotel lounge where Wendy met me last year. Indeed, lounge it was. Circa 1960. The interior harkened our parents’ sophistication, and summoned whatever cool their offspring acquired through Rat Pack lore.

    That occasion like this would be purely social. Which was opposite the reputation that bar had devised. Too bad the permittee lacked the foresight to name her establishment something clever like “The Q.T.” or “Winks.”

    More by dumb luck than any design that hideout had become assignation central for the region’s fidelity challenged but financially set cheating husbands and straying wives. A no-tell motel for high-earners and spouses whose shopping habits melted plastic. Lois happily approved of our illicit meeting place.

    Fair complexioned below a chestnut bushel, her precautions against the sun had worked well. Sun would’ve ravaged another woman sharing her coloring. But then Lois had been ahead of that curve while at Arizona.

    Desert heat was fine. However, on those afternoons when sun hammered on human anvils, broad brimmed hats shaded Lois’ head and shoulders. She constantly reapplied sunscreen along her limbs. Never having any need for such protection, I can only surmise by observing her they’ve been effective.

    Lois arrived after me. A longtime proponent of health over vanity, Lois’ womanly dimensions had further rounded with age. Level-headed, she didn’t see it as a consequence nor an affliction. Merely a process.

    Flushed from the pale sultry July climate outside, the first few steps inside the polarized lair brought her into attractive relief.

    Lois had swept her pile into an up-do. Smiling lightly crinkled her face. An action which would’ve fractured the features of a woman who’d neglected taking long-ago precautions.

    Our casual outfits suited the holiday. Polo shirt, chinos, canvas loafers for me; airy blouse, culottes and flip-flops for her. Had this been a normal pinched-shoe weekday, our ensembles would’ve earned glares from the de rigueur crowd of sports coat and tie wearing gents conspiring with ladies in afternoon dresses.

    Kissing Lois was different than with Wendy. Zero peril and a shorter passage of time separated me from last seeing Lois. Besides, senses of underhandedness bracketed meeting Wendy. Younger, approaching first-time wedlock, Wendy intended extinguishing any future sexual diversions by exhausting herself throughout an extended affianced phase. Nice try.

    Later, we had to respect our new social positions. Especially Wendy. So “aboveboard” ruled our most recent reunion.

    Neither circumstance encumbered seeing Lois. Between us, we’d often freely conducted ourselves however we saw fit. So no great passions though past hours of guiltless fun. I bet plenty of people would decry the immorality of that statement. Tough.

    On an ordinary day our mid-afternoon get-together would’ve had us sitting among a licentious liquid lunch clientele. Aware of this address from having read of my Wendy encounter, the sparse turnout disappointed Lois.

    Two other couples sitting in close proximity to us enlarged the room. Both pairs appeared securely bound, if not altogether satisfied by his or her partner. Without any hanky-panky undercurrent heightening their interest, the bartender and two waitresses just marked time.

    Holiday, I assumed. The unfaithful who ought have joined us there warming up the bar before heating up hotel sheets fulfilled spousal and parental duties on their respective lawns or at the beach. I imagined all having seething good times.

    Freed from spinning the room’s usual ambient music, Jerry Vale, the bartender broke protocol. Doubtlessly from his own musical stash, he’d cued up a country and western CD succotash. Hank Williams. Ray Price. Patsy Cline. Wanda Jackson. Perhaps other patrons heard those paragons as noise. Pagan noise.

    Lois and I had an association with each. Not personally. Developmental. After too short decades we “knew” them from the Wonder Bar.

    Mid June, our alumni association scheduled a booze cruise. Annually this party boat sliced a semicircle under Lower Manhattan. This year I ended a long absence.

    Up until 10 years ago the association could depend on my regular attendance. Those excursions broke up workweeks. Besides, liquor, heat, choppy water, all fine ingredients for a solicitous someone to soothe unsettled, freshly graduated and newly arrived in New York sweet young things.

    Yet there comes a time when age disparity becomes a gulf no amount of telescoping bridges. That, and after the attack too many abruptly imposed memories burdened the insouciance. Too much present referenced the past. At the expected junctures as well as unexpected ones. Especially on that boat.

    Elsewhere until July first, Lois missed the booze cruise. She’d been a regular attendee as well. Unlike my reasons for discontinuance, melancholy did not deter her. Seems the attacks set her husband adrift.

    Or maybe the disaster fortuitous cover, since in its immediate aftermath nobody was thinking straight. September 11th ratcheted the crazy notion threshold into the stratosphere for the longest. A husband giving his wife bullshit causes for desertion didn’t tremble the unreasonable meter in those days.

    Lois lagged informing. No doubt her girlfriends quickly received the news. But outside that tight circle? Well, a husband having bolted was no match for the weighty mourning encompassing the area. Even by our subsequent cruise the proceeding summer, the defiant one, I guess, the one endured to show resilience or memorialize or whatever best demonstrates coping, Lois still kept her sunder quiet.

    Fact is she didn’t tell me until we crossed five years later in Spain.

    No particular reason for me to tour Spain. Back then I’d reached a point where seniority, time and money allowed untrammeled travel. The swamp my job would become hadn’t yet started smudging the horizon. So I went. For culture. Some kind of Picasso museum. Bullfights. Muchachas.

    Friendly as we were, Lois wasn’t a kommilitone. Nor did we faithfully correspond through email. But enough of our circles overlap and eventually information gets exchanged. Down in Sitges, she learned I was just up the coast.

    Although not obsessive, I do check my email daily. Lois being within a commuter train ride was a decent surprise. And a reason to rouse myself before the crack of noon. Phoning her, I offered to come down for a meet. She insisted otherwise. That she come up.

    A man, it’s bad form to deny a woman who wants to come and see me. Lift my esteem as her gesture did, Lois had better cause to take initiative.

    On May Day, we met among the sun-blasted tourist swirl at the plaza circling the Columbus monument. Sober North Americans as we are, our joyous reunion compared blandly against loud yappy Iberian emoting. Hey. Unseen for five years isn’t an eternity!

    Slow on the peripheral uptake, I failed noticing who’d tagged along. Perhaps I expected her husband and had factored him in. A man accompanied her, all right. Just a different fellow.

    Swarthy, sullen, and brightly turned out. Younger and increasingly insolent on the way to petulant. He struggled to be pleased to have met me. I asked Lois about this cervato, then her spouse. Clutching my arm in a manner signifying a closeness threatening access to his cajera, rent boy’s pouty features ruffled. His unease pleased me.

    Resigned, Lois intoned there was much to tell. She suggested a restaurant a moderate stroll up the Ramblas. I knew it. I’d been there. I stumbled across then into it after eyeballing a nearby Gaudi facade. The quasar chef whipped up fusion meals emphasizing small portions on large plates at considerable prices. During a pay-to-impress evening it might’ve been suitable. But it was mid afternoon. Way too soon for chi-chi.

    Instead I countered with an Aussie-themed dive bar. Also a much shorter walk. More atmospheric, less hushed. Therefore, a potentially better mix of likely barflies.

    My selection swayed Lois but displeased her fawn. If he’d had a Euro to his name he might’ve opposed it. However, lack of that Euro dictated he follow her money.

    We adults pulled up at the bar. Lois’ tagalong slumped into a table seat. I asked Lois if the moody baggage was her guide or had her husband become exceptionally broadminded. That’s when she clarified the last five years.

    The attack released Ex-Valiant. While many New Yorkers sought post-devastation solace in family and friends, and others reaffirmed what had become tenuous relationships with the Almighty, Ex-Valiant determined the social disruption a fine time to make himself scarce.

    It wasn’t another woman. Were that it was.

    Lois said she somehow would’ve found his desertion more palatable had she lost him to a flesh and blood rival. Infidelity, while trite, was manageable. Instead, the carnage around them ignited his quest.

    The capriciousness of such immense death compelled his own reevaluation. Of everything regarding his own being. Gibberish to me, his earnest spouting even confused Lois, one of those easily mocked New Yorkers who sometimes suffered bouts of molecular level self-introspection.

    Whose equilibrium wasn’t knocked that day? Given their close proximity to the event, who dared say her ex-husband’s response could even have been considered untoward?

    Commonsense me saw his reaction as a breakdown. Struggling the matter into simplicity, Lois saw him needing to reduce himself to essence then re-form. Eye-glazing aside, he’d misread signs but took an invented opportunity.

    Disassembling their togetherness was easy. At 18, their child was an adult. His access to “mommy” and “daddy” finished, any future required “mother” and “father.” Hurrying to re-envision himself, Ex-Valiant contested nothing. Made sense. Astral projections didn’t need excess baggage.

    Nodding at the fawn, I asked Lois whether el cervato had been the balm since her rupture. She dispensed a look that questioned my sanity. No, Lois explained, the fawn was a happy coincidence. He provided a … presence. There. For now. Seems she’d been traveling a lot since her divorce. Sampling heavily, too.

    As for our meeting in Barcelona rather than Sitges, the fawn’s preferred habitat, that part of the coast held a heavily hedonistic populace. “Hedonistic”? She meant gay. Why the semantics?

    Lois believed my masculinity appeared overbearing. That maybe a mixed signal could be sent. An erroneously received one. A shock to me. Isn’t macho normal? Anyway, she fretted how I might’ve accepted the possible attention. (Oh! The stories I could’ve told her about that!) She didn’t want well-meaning attentions to become “irritants.”

    Seems one of us never learned steers calm bulls.

    Her caution amused me. I’d heard it before. From doormen and bartenders in bars catering to predominantly gay clientele. To a man each warned, “Just so you know what you’re getting into.”

    Yeah. Being invited to drink and chat with friends who found comforting lassitude in those establishments.

    Demonstrating my own concern, I mentioned perhaps she should exhibit some caution on her part. After all, didn’t her fawn swing both ways? Lois dismissed my suggestion. At 48, Lois was no longer young enough to become a girl in trouble. Or catch anything troubling either.

    Five years later, doubtlessly several more rent boys notched on her bedposts, Screwdrivers, not martinis, between us, Lois sat across from me in Connecticut. Two reasons why.

    Despite an invitation to join her son, daughter-in-law, and their children down on the Jersey Shore, she didn’t feel up to playing grandmother over the five-day weekend. Hearing Lois say “grandma” jarred me. Our timelines ran the same length. Except hers had more signifying occurrences than mine.

    Shortly after graduation she’d gotten married and started a family. One of few in our circles. Most of our contemporaries extended their single sybaritic selves into the 30s before exchanging vows. Why, I’ve heard some of us haven’t yet succumbed to the societal prescribed and narrow. Or as many a married friend has spat, “Lucky bastard!”

    Her 53 is fuller, while mine is freer. How appreciable is the difference between never having had and perhaps wishing for less?

    Death itself the second motive behind her Gold Coast presence. Nikki Neu, a mutual acquaintance, had been scythed in late spring by ovarian cancer. Another New Yorker who backhanded a Northeast college for Arizona.

    Same forest but a different timber, we knew each other to nod during high school. While I jocked for Quarropas, Nikki Neu served as manager/statistician/teen boy fantasy for a rival school. Lois met her at university. There they shared the same major, anthropology.

    That was sad about Nikki Neu. So sad it almost made me regret having discontinued reading Quarropas’ local paper, The Reporter Dispatch. These days, obituaries and the movie clock are the R-D‘s only worthwhile features. Even if I had subscribed, it wouldn’t have helped. I’d forgotten Nikki Neu’s marital surname.

    Several friends of the deceased, each an involuntary member of the Dumped Wives Sisterhood of New York’s Money Suburbs, decided to dissipate their aloneness together as well as remember Nikki Neu across the July Fourth holiday. They’d congregate and commemorate in a Gold Coast beach house, one of the spoils gained after a scorched-earth divorce. Further honor would be conferred through liberal libations provided by its former master’s forfeited wine cellar.

    Naturally enough the woman to be recalled was spared the club’s common misfortune. I guess that’s irony, huh.

    Silver thread and golden needles can’t patch this heart of mine. If Lois heard that verse she ignored it.

    Thinking of Nikki Neu I saw a wholesome voluptuousness topped by a voluminous mane of black hair. No. Not just black. Mink black. The kind that auroras shimmered across. And emerging from this phenomena the sweetest face whose bluest eyes invited immersion.

    Likely quite aware of how she affected breathing males, Nikki Neu never deployed this lethal knowledge to conquer or humiliate. Neither against men or women. She could’ve been a big queen bee. She remained Nikki Neu, and no one else. If ever there were an anti-Heather, she was it.

    I told Lois a Nikki Neu encounter. The absence of sex disappointed her. Me too.

    One weeknight in the late 70s, a teammate joined me in swaying two girls into “soaking” with us at the Sweetwater Fun Tubs. It didn’t take much convincing. We could’ve been fat and ugly, and they could’ve been sober, yet both still would’ve swallowed the bait.

    The Tubs sat on Tucson’s northwest outskirts. Nothing out there but scrub and coyotes.

    Despite places galore to skinny-dip in stream-cut canyons northeast of the city, the Tubs briefly became T-town’s outdoor sensation destination. In redwood Jacuzzis, couples, threesomes or foursomes shed clothes and lost inhibitions under Nature’s great starry gaze. The Tubs churning waters relaxed, whereas canyon pools and falls were bonebreak cold.

    Lois mentioned Marion, my first real Arizona friend, the woman who introduced me to rural amusements such as outdoor nudity, cock fights, and using bottles, cans and vermin for target practice. I was unaware the two had ever met. Lois reminded me of a previous post I’ve issued. It’s good knowing these things get read.

    Returning to mountain-fed streams, days better suited canyon visits. The venturesome certainly could tramp around there at night but bigger predators far toothier than coyotes prowled those same hours.

    Given plenty of secluded land, Tub owners dotted their acreage with aboveground redwood cauldrons. Ankle-height lighting marked paths. Exposed as everything was, distances and terrain assured privacy. Well, visually. At night screams and shrieks carried damned far and clearly.

    Often as I went, I regret unto today not having gone more. Midweek. Tuesday and Wednesday nights. No drunken mobs like Thursdays-Saturdays. Moreover, it was harder during that stretch finding a set of wheels to borrow than another restless scholar ready to work out her kinks.

    Cold duck our beverage of choice for these interludes. I don’t know why. It’s what women requested. But then I only ever saw or drank beer at the canyon. Maybe some east-west/hot-cold corollary held. A Western mystery deposited for future generations!

    Tub rental hour and our dates done, we two males had one of those young and dumb brainstorms. Bundling our clothes, just wearing boots, we decided ball walking from the Jacuzzi through the facility office to the car. Again, why? Who knows. Surely a maneuver I wouldn’t try today. Young jock buff has given way to middle-aged bloat.

    Our confidence so radiant we stopped by the counter and bullshitted with the cashier. She exemplified sangfroid. I suppose in her job she’d seen plenty already.

    An open-air counter, there was no entrance door to hear open. I turned to continue onto the parking lot. There stood Nikki Neu. With some dude. Toting a six pack of Olde Ralphe.

    She got an eyeful which became lengthy appraisal. Neither of us missed a beat. Being before her gloriously naked felt natural. That is if advertising one’s gizmo in front of an at-best casual acquaintance may be regarded as “natural.” While her meatstick stewed we exchanged chipper banter. Yet all the while my fevered mind leapt.

    ‘Nikki Neu’s at the Sweetwater Fun Tubs! With a guy! That means Nikki Neu puts out! Man! Who do I have to kill to get me some of that!?’

    Okay. Kierkegaard it wasn’t. But the seconds must’ve stretched uncomfortably for the two dried now steaming girls because each grabbed an arm and hustled me out. Any conversation back to T-town may’ve failed reflecting kindly upon me.

    Lois wondered whether Nikki Neu and I ever connected. Sadly, no. However, some days later we crossed during a class change. I don’t recall ever having seen Nikki Neu smirk. If there was a time, that should’ve been it. Rather, she touched lightly upon our prior meeting.

    She praised my boots. Then complimented what filled them.

    My brain’s reptile portion diverged. One way scrambled for a mot juste. The other schemed how to rush her back up there for some furious wet ‘n’ wild ratfucking.

    ‘Nikki Neu. Her hair. Mussed. By me!’

    Amused, Lois asked the resolution.

    Brain fused. Desire and articulation tripped over another. I slunk away under cover of suggesting next time she went up there buy better beer.

    My last three words repeated by Lois. Except she punctuated with a question mark. From her they sounded weaker than after I’d first spoken them.

    Next 20 or so years I’d see Nikki Neu from time to time. She married. Had children. Lived in suburban splendor — as she ought have. We’d converse amicably like fully invested adults. But invariably a flicker arced her face. She’d peek at my feet. Then let her eyes give the rest of me a big long lick. That grin at the end. A knowing grin? A telltale one? Cheshire? Whichever. Didn’t it confirm what had been within reach could’ve been in my grasp?

    Insincerity pinning her statement, Lois lamented Nikki Neu hadn’t ever accompanied us to the Wonder Bar. I rejiggered Lois’ memory putting events in their proper progression.

    Wonder Bar. Reservation. Then the Sweetwater Fun Tubs. Any other way and the Wonder Bar episode goes another direction. The Tubs only rose to prominence after our reservation excursion.

    A free November weekend loomed in the late 70s. With any kind of diligence I would’ve put a few of the incipient unstructured hours towards study. Ha! Instead, that late Friday afternoon found me behind the wheel of Joe Zah’s car. Along with Lois, Nikki Neu and some raised-in-Tolleson coed, we joined a multi-vehicle convoy grinding an Arizona state route destined for the reservation.

    Joe Zah belonged to the Peaceful People. One of those native Americans whose savagery Fenimore Cooper never ennobled, nor John Wayne ever slaughtered in a John Ford Western. Whenever I hear some “Proud ‘Muriken” of European heritage blubbering about his or her “true-blue 100%-ness,” I recall the Joe Zahs met while in Arizona.

    They were in prime positions to haggle percentages.

    Joe Zah must’ve been one of the most placid people I’ll ever meet. Maybe a good joke might ruffle his flat sun-baked features. No subterfuges fomented behind his abyss black eyes. For better or worse, he spoke minus guile. He stated honestly what the more worldly finessed.

    “Finesse?” “Nuance?” “Subtlety?” “Deception?” “Skepticism?” “Facetiousness?” All alien concepts. Bald truth never troubled him. Joe Zah’s imperturbability and inability to “shade” initially rendered him inscrutable to people like me. It took time but I certainly came to value the difference.

    Why the res on a weekend? At the time, the spur-of-the-moment suggestion seemed like a good idea. And that was before I learned Lois and Nikki Neu were parts of the trek.

    Sure. I could’ve remained in T-town. Drinking beer, anticipating the next Tubs session, preparing to swyve away the weekend, when Glen Don accosted me on that late Thursday afternoon. Glen Don was dormitory head resident. Also an exemplary white man. His qualifications will appear later.

    I’d only been at Arizona two years and such locutions had already become habit. Weren’t uncommon experiences among the reasons I’d gone West? If partying were all I sought from higher education, plenty of New York state universities beckoned within driving distance of my Quarropas home.

    Glen Don recruited me to help chaperone a number of anthro novices, mostly coeds, who’d accepted invitations to witness the corn dance. Witness, not participate. There was departmental worry concerning the traveling male-female imbalance. (Remember this occurred during the late 70s. Tired notions remained strong because Wounded Knee still lingered.) The male side of the ledger needed bulking. Glen Don asked whether I could provide my heft and, if needed, scowl.

    Did I even bother considering otherwise? After all, hadn’t Glen Don’s insistence delivered me to the Wonder Bar?

    When Lois understood that I would be among their party, she double-clutched. She’d geared herself for investigation, serious scholarly pursuit. A dry weekend. And now there was mister Crazy Arms to distract her good. Again.

    Nikki Neu was just surprised and glad to see me. Nowhere near as damned glad as I was to see her! As cover, I repeated Glen Don’s worry. All the girls who eventually heard it disputed any danger. Though looking over the male contingent perhaps the people behind Glen Don were correct. Some of those guys could’ve fit right in with F-Troop.

    Our caravan climbed north along the Tom Mix Highway. A good bet no one else in that aggregation knew who the hell Tom Mix had been. Not even the Tolleson girl. What he represented. Unlike monotonous Interstates, state routes had character, i.e., scenery, switchbacks and haphazard gradients. Not that the macadam adhered faithfully to terrain, but alertness was rewarded.

    Funny. Those days, Arizona almost demanded non-local incoming freshmen take its Desert Orientation course. In the desert. Today GPS laden devices lend belief those lost can always be located. For better or worse. With such technology on the Star Trek horizon, we paid attention to our crinkly orienteer.

    A man who looked as if he’d driven borax mule trains, a fellow whose crust lent Cary Grant’s urbane suaveness to Gabby Hayes, he gave us greenhorns some “lissen-up lessons.” He scared us good while teaching how to avoid miserable, prolonged, desiccated deaths. Afterwards he included pointers on regional aesthetics.

   Aside from signs and techniques, he emphasized if we did meander far beyond pavement at least wear leather shoes, if not boots. Such footgear made it difficult for scorpions, black widows and snakes. Of our group who spent the afternoon scrabbling in sneakers or sandals, I wonder how many of us hustled over the bargain boot emporium the next day and got fitted with shitkickers?

    Before reaching the res, we stopped in the last “American” outpost where we provisioned before entering tribal lands. Joe Zah topped off his tank, bought then secreted some hooch inside his car. Lois did something I saw strange at the time. She purchased a shopping bag full of single serving boxes of cornflakes.

    Replenished, Joe Zah requested I take the wheel for the trip’s remainder. Glad to because he’d done yeoman driving. But relief wasn’t his reason. Alcohol was forbidden on tribal land. A reservation policeman seeing me behind the wheel was unlikely to stop and search the vehicle. Joe Zah, any tribe member, could’ve caught all kinds of holy hell if a res cop nabbed him or her possessing such contraband on their soil.

    I thought he pulled my leg. Lois verified his apprehension. So drive soberly I did.

    An already lonely road became lonelier on the reservation. Basic Arizona. Or more of nothing.

    Driving up, we’d breached an alpine altitude where conifers belied the state’s arid character. Thick verdure threatened squeezing our two-lane blacktop. Then we suddenly broke the treeline, returning to extremes. Pitiless dry earth and achingly mauve sky.

    Arizona is barren. Add desolate to the state’s northeast void.

    From behind the wheel nothing much distinguished tribal land. A few mounds, maybe. A rare dirt road disappeared into inconclusive distance. Until we reached a habitation.

    Trailers comprised this small settlement’s housing stock. Anchored on raised foundations, none were trashy nor lovingly ornamented. Utility structures which kept elements and animals at bay. Or maybe not so severe after all. Wind chimes tinkled outside a few. Or maybe these were dreamcatchers. In back, empty clotheslines bowed against a steady breeze.

    Joe Zah’s sister Robin resided here. Unlike her brother, Robin wore her shoulder-length black hair tied in a ponytail. A softer, sensitive version of her brother, she’d kindly house us for the weekend.

    Robin was one affable hostess. More so after discerning how our presence would cramp her two bedroom residence. Her husband, a coal miner, assessed the potential correctly. He decamped elsewhere until Monday. That left Robin to configure space for us five, herself, as well as their two toddlers.

    The husband must’ve computed the situation as I did. Four women, two kids, one bathroom. Facing that what working man wouldn’t have skedaddled?

    Joe Zah and I kept out of the way around the kitchen table while the kids played underfoot and Nikki Neu, Lois and the Tolleson girl helped our hostess slap dinner together. No stereo. No TV. Only our voices to distract, to entertain, to inform.

    Robin brushed aside outside world trivialities. Joe Zah, we interested her. She preferred us talking about ourselves.

    Her brother had an easier time adjusting to his studies than “big city” living. (Coming from the East Coast, it jarred me hearing anyone regard T-town as a metropolis.) Unselfconsciously, Joe Zah added he’d been lucky to meet people who’d somewhat eased his way.

    Into, through, and after dinner, Lois, Nikki Neu, the Tolleson girl, blabbed. Each possessed a vast store of words. Opinionated, not purposely disparaging, words. What hadn’t both New Yorkers observed about Arizona and Arizonans? Anglos that is. The strangers’ views stirred both Zahs. The Tolleson girl must’ve wondered who they meant.

    Following them I improvised. A week earlier, Glen Don had dragged some of his dorm charges down to the border. Not Nogales, but the afterthought crossing of Naco. An echt border town.

    Glen Don led us into a cantina for lunch. Many beers, many tequila shots, a lot of ranchera later, we’re ready to chow. Ordered, pardon the expression, the whole enchilada. We figured, hey, we’re on the line, this place probably served up genuine Mex grub. So we heavily sampled the menu. With green chili sauce.

    Now, all this time a dog barked. Sounded like a Chihuahua they had tied up behind the kitchen. No one paid him much mind. Ambient noise in a Mexican restaurant, right? Except …

    — A yelp. No more barking. The whole table cut eyes at everybody else. Few minutes later the waiter arrived with a plate of tacos. That plate got cold. Glen Don cracked the ice. He said, “Boys, whatever this was it’s been fried!” He dug in. We followed the leader.

    Never heard that dog bark again for the remainder of our meal.

    Robin related a dream. I doubt it would’ve captivated Freud or Jung. But her brother listened intently. Hearing it discomfited the kitchen’s guests.

    She had had crossed over to visit someone who had died long ago. So long I believe they’d never met on our then current plane. Robin had a temporal problem needing advice. Apparently this entity was sage. A well-recommended sage because many in Robin’s circle also sought out this, uh, manifestation.

    There Robin’s story ended. What transpired remained between her and … ? Joe Zah digested this, and nodded gravely.

    I think for me, Lois, Nikki Neu, the Tolleson girl, it was parfait minus flavor.

    Next morning Joe Zah drove us up to ‘Ville. As puro as Naco seemed to Spanish Mexico before Anglo hegemony, the Peaceful People imbued the site of their impending corn dance with immense spiritual significance.

    Saying we easily found the expedition’s other members is an understatement. The day’s attendance had a Custer-Plains Tribes ratio. We would’ve stood out against the area’s dun coloring anyway. Most of our jackets covered a bright spectrum. Dust further faded the local’s earth-shaded coats and denims. In the brief break twixt arriving and sorting out, students compared notes. Lois, Nikki Neu, the Tolleson girl and I lucked out by staying at Robin’s. Some hosts’ lodgings apparently harkened back to territorial days.

    Joe Zah tuned out women’s chatter. He showed me around.

    ‘Ville lacked a plan. And pavement. It sprung more from celestial forces than any rational mind. Laid out and constructed at every angle other than 90° , it oddly reminded me of Expressionism. Not the art genre, the German filmmaking style. Could a child sitting in a sandbox bearing a shovel and bucket have contoured with less care?

    Definitive structures appeared to have been erected before Coronado’s arrival. I admired many split-level abodes shorter than similarly single floored ones. Eons of desert climate had undermined building sections but left imposing drifts on opposite sides.

    The only truly modern imposition? A visible gas pump, its five-gallon glass cylinder pristine.

    I missed the signal summoning the people. While they herded away over a rise, I walked towards what seemed a cul-de-sac. Not a dead end, but a drop. ‘Ville’s back launched onto a cliff whose long plummet resumed into churned wasteland until the horizon. Had ‘Ville once served as a redoubt?

    Lois found me looking over what could’ve been the end of the world. Certainly from that vantage. She nudged me back and we joined the ceremony.

    Hundreds of celebrants circled on a crooked dirt plateau. Its locus consisted of a shaman, drummers, dancers. Shuffling from the last filmed their legs behind dust. About a 20-30 yard radius gaped between them and the assembled. Given my height, and the people’s short stature, I stuck myself in the rear ranks while Lois ducked forward.

    No way I understood the ritual’s intricacies. For one, distance. Second, liturgy was in the people’s language. I reckoned grateful exhortations for the corn harvest and hoped it augured well for the next growing cycle. If this the case, then natural rhetorical progression ought have added homilies; the continuity of life; respecting the past through divination. I bet the future didn’t rate much consideration.

    My Western-aligned mind already gathered the people preferred what had transpired to our nebulous “tomorrow.” We place great store in anticipation. As if we can truly shape upcoming events. Influence? To a point. Channel? Las Vegas mocks this day and night.

    Stately as the assembly had proceeded, its conclusion devolved into uproar. The dancers carried fattened pouches. Now wheeling away from the center they winged single serving cornflake boxes into the audience. Wherever boxes landed, loud, nearly feral scrums developed.

    Self-preservation kicked in for the attending Anglos. All of them barreled out of the swirl unscathed, though some were slightly winded.

    Another round of Screwdrivers before us, Lois and I laughed at the memory. The visiting cohort had been requested to donate cornflakes, if possible. These were to be benedictions (hosts?). After all, relative few of the people grew corn. And fewer still in their ancestral manner. What strengthens belief more than credible reward? The breakfast cereal lent credit to credence.

    Too bad the appropriate anthropological headmen neglected warning their novices about the likely slam-dance outcome. Lois admitted she could’ve done without that mosh pit. Nonetheless she saw what we’d gained.

    For Lois it required no calculation at all to know the number of Americans who’d witnessed a sacred First Nation’s ceremony sat at a miniscule figure. No playing to the whites through beseeching “the Great Spirit.” No feather-centric ornate costumes. Nor fancydancers exerting themselves for lucre rather than honor. We hadn’t even been guilt-tripped into buying silver or turquoise or kachinas. Our experience wasn’t mere open-air entertainment. Its meaning firmed from before history.

    She asked me to name an observance we Westerners adhered to today begun countless millenniums ago. I went Druid with solstice celebrations.

    Wryly, Lois said Robin’s apparition could cross over after this year’s harvest and participate in the ceremony without missing a beat. And get banged around chasing down cornflake boxes.

    We were both pleased that as outsiders sitting at Robin’s kitchen table we maintained our composure. Less respectful guests would’ve scoffed. On every level who among us each didn’t know it immaterial what we believed? The practioners valued their faith. And that was all.

    Although once Joe Zah told me about visions deciphered in a sweat lodge. Lois wrinkled her brow. She mouthed “peyote.” I nodded. Who didn’t know devil root enhanced even the most mundane inner journey?

    During his, um, ecstasy, Joe Zah reported he saw a wolf man. (!) The creature chased him round and round until the sojourner found what he thought he sought. As I told Lois, enough of that shit and such a traveler would see the Invisible Man.

    She liked I hadn’t softened my irreverence. Which was good because I wondered why the anthro department never dispatched expeditions to the Wonder Bar. I would’ve thought examining honky-tonk habits and customs a natural inquiry. Besides, the drive was hours shorter.

    Glen Don stood at the heart of our ever entering the Wonder Bar. A graduate student three years my senior, the dorm’s head resident, Glen Don was one of those banty guys who fought above his weight. More personable than friendly, he practiced inclusiveness. While I never saw him angered, intuition informed that his fuse to thermal detonation a short one.

    Here are statements of fact: Glen Don associated most closely with Mexicans and Indians; eyes shut, hearing him speak, his remarks regarding Anglos echoed indigenous disdain; until he expressed himself, at first glance people mistook him for ignorant, intolerant white trash. Talk about being misread.

    Glen Don had little use for urban Arizonans. Especially those who’d migrated from the East or California. (Funny thing. His “east” extended only as far as Chicago and St. Louis.) Recently-arrived Easterners tried reducing the Copper State to swimming pools, tennis courts and golf courses. Ex-Californians were worse. They tried shoving the Coast 500 miles east.

    He’d grown up in Bisbee, a mining town aloft in Arizona’s mountainous southeast corner. Glen Don traced his heritage back to Ruritania. Long before it achieved independence, when it merely comprised a stain within imperial boundaries whose populace bowed painfully low to a foreign emperor.

    Sometime in the 1880s Glen Don’s folks immigrated. Some pushed on and settled in Bohunk, Pennsylvania. His branch made a dogleg at Pittsburgh then a sharp left at Albuquerque and continued until Bisbee. There men mined copper. Servile as they may have been in the old country, Arizona radicalized them. Even today doesn’t mining retain that effect?

    I don’t know whether Glen Don was skilled enough to indoctrinate the feckless, but he surely could organize the aimless. Without him, many Easterners Western remembrances would’ve filled the usual Las Vegas-Southern California-Mexican beaches circuit. And knowing no better that would’ve sufficed. He yanked us off beaten-dead paths.

    Into abandoned mines. Through ghost towns. Hiking up to and marveling at promontory vistas. The Wonder Bar. In Bisbee.

    Typical Glen Don. He seemingly conjured suggestions from whim. Kid with a chemistry set who mixes solutions just to see what exploded. Thankfully our responses were behavioral, not reactive.

    Some high school friends of his had formed a band. They were in their stuffed van/crammed motel rooms phase. Fortune had scheduled them a one-nighter on the Wonder Bar stage. Loyalty second nature, Glen Don assured them of his supporting presence. He needn’t cast wide to find more bodies.

    Maybe another attendee might’ve felt obliged to him. After all, they were his friends who played country music. To me, C&W was an acquired taste. Then in R&B and guitar rock Quarropas, maybe we could listen to .38 Special and Marshall Tucker without fake vomiting.

    Coming to appreciate slide guitar and simple manipulative lyrics stemmed from Marion. Other than Heart, Nashville twangs owned her ears. Hanging with her meant listening to bevies of singers and bands who wore Nudie suits. Her musical taste also fostered early recognition that no matter my height of literary achievement, I’d never delve deep enough to wrench a line such as Just trusting you was my great sin.

    Marion also instilled in me the importance of towing a dance partner. Preferably a sweet-smelling, slim-waisted, womanly one who draped during ballads. The first two aspects were negotiable. The second pair were essential.

    I counted on Marion accompanying me. No go. That Saturday she was keeping time with her shitkicker boyfriend. She volunteered a few names. Listed perfunctory qualities. Bade me luck. Empty. Arizonans all, rollicking in Bisbee held zero attraction. Each possibility had struggled to escape such one road/no lights towns. After so much hard climbing, one didn’t voluntarily descend the ladder.

    Lois rescued me. I dimly recalled having watched her two-step in one of T-town’s urban cowboy saloons. Least I think it was a two-step. Didn’t matter. She looked good with some other guy’s arm around her. To me, my hugging her made a better sight.

    Lois bought what I sold. We didn’t bother about the small print.

    Performance day, Glen Don stuffed us and another hardy couple in the bed of his pickup. Anticipating our return ride that night, he’d stacked blankets to augment warmth. Or at least blunt some measure of cold.

    He and his girl Charlene sat squeezably delicious close in the cab. Usually I ignored couples visuals, but they formed a good pair. A Diné , Charlene calmed Glen Don’s fervor. Bird thin, her deep brown skin contrasting mightily against his pallor, she often bestowed outsized smiles. Around too many others Glen Don acted intransigent on the way to belligerent. With her he was nothing but sweetstick.

    Wind and noise washing over us limited conversation among bed passengers. High sun warmed us. The ride was so agreeable the girls didn’t bother slinging coats across their shoulders. Good thing we were attending a show in Arizona profond because nobody would notice if we appeared ruffled and disheveled. Like at an Eddie Rabbit concert.

    I could’ve told my fellow passenger that joke but they wouldn’t have heard me.

    Gray Bisbee slipped and slid on mountain slopes. Rather than the present, an outsider saw what it was. Once bustling and built to accommodate teeming throngs, the then diminished populace haunted Bisbee rather than enlivened it.

    Glen Don treated us to “supper” at the Copper Queen, Bisbee’s dowager hotel. During the town’s heyday, the edifice attracted a good many now forgotten American notables. (Tom Mix comes to mind.)

    Their names scrawled throughout the registry ledgers are a parade of national who-were’s and no-more’s. Bold-faced celebrities, long dead, whose each and every sashay and utterance swayed an idolatrous public; does their fate portend that of our own over-inflated superluminaries, those whom we’ve elevated? Let’s hope so. And soon.

    While Glen Don examined the bill, the waitress inquired about our evening. One of the girls chirped our intention to see the show. Our waitress said, “Oh, over to the Bucket of Blood, huh.”

    Danny Thomas might’ve approved the eye-bulging double-takes around our table. Glen Don clarified plenty.

    The Bucket of Blood was the local’s name for another establishment. A notorious one. In the opposite direction. We went to the Wonder Bar.

    Night rendered the Wonder Bar indistinct. Dark swallowed its façade.

    Perpendicular over the sidewalk a lighted sign swung above the entrance. The only crowd I’ve yet seen in Bisbee streamed towards the door. Stetsons, caps, shearlings for gents; big hair and mid-length cloth coats for the ladies. Except for the hair, Glen Don’s daytrippers almost fit in. Lois and the other girl were less elaborately coiffed. He’d fixed his male guests.

    Caps I owned other than those bearing school stitchings bore interlocking NY’s. Wearing one of them would’ve stamped “dude” across my forehead. Better than the other guy’s selection. He was from Cleveland. Chief Wahoo grinned off many of his lids. Sure. The Indians spent spring training in T-town. But still. Chief Wahoo?

    Simple problem simply solved. Before leaving Tucson, Glen Don presented us choices between “Arizona Feeds” or “Peterbilt” caps. Bills worn low, like his; not Sunday drive tilted high. Talk about suddenly blending in.

    At the door I read the second best sign I ever saw in Arizona. “No guns. No joke.” The first had read “If nudity offends you keep your sorry ass from here!”

What the Wonder Bar lacked in surface space it made up for in height. In fact excessive ceiling height probably shrunk the floor.

    The stage was well lighted, as was the bar itself. What opened for the dance floor was dim. Extending beyond it was murk on the way to blackout. Three lone flares pierced that gloom. Two red “exit” signs and the cigarette machine.

    Good thing everybody wore boots. The Wonder Bar seemingly begged stubbed toes.

    Giving the stage closer glim, I thought I saw a scrim across it. Wasn’t this an odd place for a theater drop? I asked Glen Don. Perplexed by my query, I explained to him. He giggled then corrected me. Not a scrim. It was chicken wire. In case the band stunk, chicken wire defended them against beer bottle criticism.

    The bar used canned music heavy on the fiddle for background noise.

    We claimed a table and parked our coats on seatbacks. Glen Don took Charlene along to fetch some drinks. Theirs was a gradual procession. Glen Don knew a lot of miners and ranch hands and their women. Each of whom asked about his life in “the city.” No boilerplate for Glen Don. He repeated thorough reports to all.

    In their absence my eyes adjusted. Or somebody turned a damper to ease the gloom. Squinting, one discerned Wild West and mining murals along the walls. What a surprise.

    Our bunch stood amid a hard-looking crowd. Bitter voices pummeled ears. Pinched faces implied little mercy available. Somebody occasionally laughed harshly. Women swore more meaningfully than men. On the upside smokers went out of their ways to avoid blowing plumes in others’ faces.

    Glen Don and Charlene returned filling our table with clinking longnecks. I believe we toasted to “Hawt damn!”

    Table loaded with empties later, the band took the stage. Girl singer, four-male musicians. The quintet received a warm hometown welcome. The lead guitarist sidled to his mic and graciously thanked those who attended. Genuine, his humility warmed the room. Awkward as it was, he introduced his bandmates. Awkwardly done because they were homegrown. Neighbors to many applauding them. Yet the road habit couldn’t be shaken. Formalities complete, applause accepted, they played.

    Up-tempo first. Up-tempo always first.

    Glen Don and Charlene joined the swirl, losing themselves among his fellow townspeople. Four strangers, we let the floor fill without us. Locals sure knew those steps. Their grinning told of satisfactions derived through agile footwork. Grins and the way searching eyes sought and received partners’ affirmation.

    Once we reached our beery comfort level, Lois and I, the other twosome, ventured onto the floor’s periphery. Not so much from likely embarrassment, but to skirt possible collisions. (That’s my story. I’m sticking with it.)

    The lead singer actually sang decently. She just wasn’t there because of who she screwed. Her chops were good. She phrased clearly. The grinds proved that.

    The ballads she emoted didn’t get syrupy. When songs demanded ache, she ladled enough sob to pain us all.

    Comparing R&B grinds with their country cousins, it’s tough choosing which delivers better frottage. Of course complicating that is consideration must be made after decoupling. Evaluation while involved is difficult. And unwanted. So assessment requires disengaging and recalibrating. The last thing desired during a grind is disentanglement. Of any kind.

    Back then, Arizona rang out last calls at 12:30. Bars slammed up at one. What was my hardest adjustment leaving New York? Adapting to closing times three hours earlier than I’d been accustomed. That said, while desert establishments insisted patrons “drink up!” they also cautioned them to “drive safely.”

    Which Glen Don did. One blink and what bright lights Bisbee offered disappeared. Only the pickup’s headlamps and tail bulbs broke night’s black. A dome of stars glowed brighter than the vehicle’s dashboard. But the ride could never be entirely dreamlike. Unexpectedly poking over rises were stanchion-mounted red and blue lights. These marked ICBM sites security perimeters. We could’ve been driving by our own destruction.

    At sunset the day’s heat vanished. Radiational cooling in Tucson dropped 80° days into chilly nights. A similar chop in Bisbee produced freezing. The blankets were good. Snuggling was better. A necessity. A fine necessity.

    I hadn’t thought of Lois beyond the usual paces doing the usual positions inside the usual places. Such single-mindedness didn’t distinguish me. It just proved me a normal 20-something male. We melded quick on that speedy 90 minute ride to T-town.

    Effortless proximity stirred us both. By our return I didn’t see her in new light. Just better defined.

    Lois resided in a North Drive residence; the Clevelander’s little friend shared an apartment on Euclid. Glen Don would drop Lois first, then the other girl before dead-ending at our dorm. Gentleman I was, Lois accepted my escort her to the door offer. From there I’d supposedly short-stroll back to our den.

    Everybody was on the same page. Nobody rolled his or her eyes.

    At the Wonder Bar and during the ride back we’d done a lot of clinching. So at Lois’ residence hall’s door signs boded well for impassioned drunk kissing and me copping a firestarting feel. Should she have approved of those entreaties, then I’d suggest something more involved. I had it n good authority cold duck and hot tubs went together well.

    Maybe I should’ve conferred with Lois beforehand. She rewarded faster than expected.

    It took no stealth to reach Lois’ suite. Suite? More a bedsit shared with two other girls. She resided in an older hall. Before the ubiquity of blessed air-conditioning, residents snoozed in set-aside dormitories. Easier and cheaper to chill large spaces through industrial swamp coolers than fit every room with individual units. The bedsits, or given the season, sweat boxes, were used for socializing, storage and studying.

    Oh, yeah, each one held a day bed. Probably installed for exhausted scholars seeking quick restorative naps before returning shoulders to the wheel.

    Late as it was, chances of crossing any of her fellow residents were slim. By three in the morning, they were either asleep there or would soon be asleep elsewhere. Lois had calculated the odds of a suitemate occupying that bedsit as miniscule. Dewy flowers as both were, few bees sniffed their pollen.

    One statement holds true for every Arizona bedsit I ever entered and cavorted in after hours: their occupants kept them neater than any comparable men’s unit. Women’s housing efforts made Oscar Madisons out of campus’ Felix Ungers.

    Lois laughed. Her giving voice to fond recollection had none of Wendy’s devious meaning. Lois’ laughter irked no one. She considered “sneaking” men in and out of that residence her most formative educational challenge. And upon realizing she no longer needed to keep the shuttle under radar, well, that was the hour she finally considered herself an unencumbered woman.

    Thirty-plus years later, we were both glad I’d generously contributed towards her current state.

   

Ever wonder what happens inside a bag of snakes? Then read GREEN VENOM. It’s terrific! Available through Amazon Kindle.

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