7 January, 2016
We had never been inside such a place. We didn’t know why the owner was so angry. He yelled at our buddy Rob to stop filming. Rob slid the VHS recorder off his shoulder, swinging the bulky video camera like a lunch box, and stepped outside. He shot different footage. Once we left this city, we were headed southwest to Memphis, and then on to New Orleans. We wanted to drink as many Hurricanes as we could.
The owner smiled at us now through his speckled beard.
“The rest of you can look around.”
It was our cue to begin moving through the aisles. We looked back. Behind the counter, a warped pegboard wall was lined with packaged dildos. They ranged in size from the small, “C” battery-shaped to the long, curved swords with grip handles. It was so democratic, we thought, how all the colors of flesh were represented.
The owner held up his pinkie finger and twirled the air.
Part-carnival barker, part-shaman, the man kept saying, “Look around, boys, look around.” The store was a hypnotic swirl that closed in on us like a confessional. Rob stood outside, nodding at strangers who passed on the sidewalk. We kept scanning the shelves. We were discovering new things: bright red plastic ball gags with black leather straps and silver fasteners; a squat, brown rubber butt plug the shape of which was a cross between a dog’s chew toy of a cartoon fire hydrant and a fake spiral of poop.
A young woman’s voice clipped from within the frayed beige cloth of the one wall-mounted speaker. She was probably our age, though in that moment, she sounded younger, with her Tennessean accent. She was a point on a map, an attraction to see and register, like Graceland.
“Hey, boys,” she said, “why don’t you come back here?”
Gone from our minds were the dildos and the ball gags. Our heads swiveled in unison. There was a slender entrance by the store’s far corner. Rust-colored gingham curtains, long like a librarian’s skirt, draped from a shower rod wedged in the doorway.
“Hey, boys,” the lilt came again, but the rest was lost in static.
It was the static that lured us.
We brushed aside the curtains and to find a wall of Plexiglas. Behind this wall a figure sat with splayed toes on the top rung of a long-legged stool. She was younger than we initially thought. Maybe nineteen. We decided she was ordinary, as if that could be an actual thing.
We were naïve and cruel.
We expected someone different, someone more like the actress Julie Newmar from our boyhood afternoons of watching episodes of Batman. We could even imagine her suddenly appearing, lithe in her curvy, purple latex bodysuit, the triangular feline ears lost in a sensuous fluff of styled hair.
(Years later, in graduate school, I would read the poem “Oaxaca, 1983,” by the late Larry Levis, and I would find these lines:
Two small holes drilled through the glass by which men can
money through, &
I would let the words twirl inside my head like the bearded owner’s pinkie, his caterpillar-sized digit scraping at something invisible, a film formed over the memory of the store and the girl in the backroom.
There were holes drilled into the Plexiglas, just as there are holes in the wall of the Levis poem. In each space, the circumference is enough to cradle a nipple.)
In New Orleans, we heard a man call to us. He was standing at the end of an alley, his pants gathered around his ankles. The way they had fallen formed a small boundary from which he emerged.
“You want some of this?” the man yelled, grabbing at his dick.
Behind the counter, someone pushes on a button. The button sends a signal to the backroom, where a bulb flashes and a young woman starts reading from a prepared script, whispering the words into the microphone.
Why don’t you come back here?
We walk through the aisles that vanish like strangers on a sidewalk.
We reach for the curtains.
If we had wanted, we could have gone over to the glass and felt for the holes. The wall was just a boundary that kept us from going any further. Then it disappeared.