My brother Max* plays bass guitar in a country western nightclub, south of Chicago. His six foot something lanky frame stoops over the instrument, like he’s peering down at it with parental concern, plucking the strings as if to ask, is this where it hurts? I am sixteen, and totally out of my element. Max’s stout wife, Rosie, flits from table to table exchanging greetings (“Hi y’all, how y’all doing?”) in her husky, southern drawl—abandoning me like a wallflower at a dance, to sit alone slowly sipping my tepid coke, feigning nonchalance.
It is the late 60’s. I am the only one here in bellbottoms and tank top, my blue and white love beads, and long middle parted hair advertising my membership in the dropout subculture of the day. (Not that I’m a hippie, by any stretch of the imagination. I can’t go two days without taking a bath, and am much too weighed down with my own emotional angst to care enough about American involvement in Viet Nam to participate in peace rallies and protest marches.)
Here, in this smoke infested red-neck stomping grounds of Merle Haggard/Johnny Cash wannabes, I’m painfully aware of how out of place I look. Rosie, from across the room, tosses me a sly wink, which could signify just about anything. I ignore it, pretending I don’t see, and take a vicious tug on my straw. She thinks she’s so hot, I inwardly fume, suddenly hating her peeling laughter, and the full bosom quivering in her low-cut dress. As the band breaks out into a foot stomping rendition of “Orange Blossom Special”, I am tempted nearly beyond reason to jump up and scream for the Beatles until my throat is burning raw.
“Ooh, me!” Rosie materializes out of nowhere and plops down at the table with a loud laugh. “Lord, there’s more folks here tonight than ticks on a hound dawg,” she says in her lazy way. She jabs me in the ribs with her plump elbow. “Y’all see that man over there, the one in the white cowboy outfit? Shoot! He’s dying to meet you.” I follow her gaze, and gasp. You’re joking, I think, that middle-aged dude in the white rhinestone studded outfit?
“Go on, now, and dance with him,” Rosie coaxes, nudging me again as the man in white advances towards us, a eager grin splitting his face. I can’t take my eyes off of his sparkling white cowboy hat, wondering why in the world anyone would dress like that on purpose. “Don’t be shy,” Rosie says, mistaking my hesitancy. “He’s a good ol’ boy. We grew up together. One dance won’t kill y’all.” I think, maybe, maybe not. All I know is, I’m not waiting around to find out.
“Excuse me,” I mumble, and scrape back my chair. Like the coward I am, I flee in what I hope is the direction of the john. I find it after weaving my way through a muddled crowd of beer bellied, cowboy boot wearing, leering good old boys, slinging back swigs of beer, their eyes watching me boldly, tracing my progress across the floor. Fresh meat, I can almost hear them thinking.
The john is cramped and shabby, but reasonably clean. I pause before the mirror, staring at what they were all staring at a moment ago. A heavily made-up woman with dyed jet black hair, her dress all swooshy chiffon, emerges from a stall, cuts me a cool look. Her ruby red lips are pursed in disapproval as she sizes me up from the corner of her eye, her attention focusing on my beads. Hippie scum. I step back from the basin so she can wash her hands, my gaze locking on the back of her head at her heavily lacquered hair. One of those pot bellied men out there is no doubt her hubby. I bet this is their big night out, away from a passel of squabbling kids, and a second mortgage. She bends over the sink, the motion straining the material of the delicate dress, a dress she’s probably had since she first got married, and insists she can still fit into. I am filled with pity for her. Pity, because she will never be open enough to discover the genius of Lennon/McCartney, or the poetry of Dylan lyrics.
After she leaves, steadily avoiding eye contact with me, I return to the mirror to see if there is any indication in its depths of what type of man the future has in store for me: Mirror mirror on the wall, will I find a man at all?
(Note: sad to say, I had 4 marriages ahead of me, none of which stood a chance of lasting…I didn’t know I had DID during any of them, so they were doomed before the ink was dry on the marriage licenses.)
*all names have been changed