Lou & Billy Joe

There is a place—the Night Owl— in the fictional town of Rolling Hills in California's San Joáquin Valley where local men of a type flock on weekends to see the headliner, an auburn-haired pole dance calling herself 'Poler Bare.'

Most Night Owl customers couldn't imagine the star performer, the object of their unrequited sexual dreams, also worked a day job. Had they known of it, they would not have accepted it as proper for the 'lady' of their fantasies.

There is more they couldn't imagine.

'Poler Bare' dared to lead a third life, one requiring compassion, cunning, and courage—a life fraught with danger, including the possibility of death.

The secret of these separate lives began to unravel when a brash, young smart-ass asked a boorish question. From that point, a chain of events brings readers face to face with one of the most intractable social, economic, and political problems of the 21st century.

The inexplicable exterior mix of stucco and asbestos siding that passed for the Owl’s façade were partially responsible for dissuading patronage from the well-thought-of and the blessing of elites in Sacramento and Washington with the power to identify and preserve America’s heritage.

The chipped, grayish asbestos siding of the Night Owl reminded the well-traveled visitor of corner taverns in the rundown but honest ethnic neighborhoods of Midwestern or Eastern cities. Sadly, the comparison ended at the curb, for Rolling Hills was missing the comforting umbrella of shading maples and oaks that typified distant metropolises.

The discordant outer sidings met abruptly above an entry door of standard dimensions. The convergence of panels and stucco, however, did not center on the door, which further signaled the obvious: aesthetics was not in the establishment’s interest or purpose.

A single square window, three feet on a side with a decaying wooden sash, seemingly planted as an afterthought amid those cracked asbestos shingles, prevented any encroachment of sunlight inside, as well as the curiosity of passersby. As if needed, a hand-painted sign in the window held in place by dried out, pealing duct tape, read, ‘Adults Only,’ followed by the familiar words of legal necessity that one had to be 21 years of age to see what exactly all the fuss was about.

The thick wooden door, which was more appealing than the stucco and siding, begged for fresh stain and a coat or more of lacquer. The door’s expensive, oversize and incongruous brass handle thrust itself toward the sidewalk and, in a figurative sense warned those tempted to enter: ‘Touch me at your peril!’

Rot caused by the little rain that fell annually in the San Joáquin showed at the bottom of the door, which had become an unintended entry and exit for rats and mice. A buzzing, flickering blue neon sign above, which was running out of gas, beckoned customers not put off by the Owl’s reputation, decay and tacky appearance to enter.

The exterior showed signs of mildew and cried out for a heavy dose of elbow grease, bleach and new paint. In short, the Night Owl looked seedy. But the appearance of the place was not entirely the central point voiced by detractors. What occurred inside the Owl was more responsible than the dingy façade for its reputation in the community as a pariah.

*

Before a customer’s eyes could adjust to the dark, before he—sometimes she—could find a chair and table, he would need to maneuver, nearly blind, across a checkerboard floor of black and white cracked and chipped tiles.

The chairs and tables were situated several feet back from a U-shaped stage, the leading edge of which, lower by about a foot, served as a cocktail bar, accessible to waitresses along its full length with breaks for easy access. Customers seated at the bar had the advantage of proximity to the dancers that those at the tables didn’t, an advantage, however, that rated a supplemental cover charge.

Three brass poles, each about two inches in diameter and sufficiently separated to give each dancer space, occupied an otherwise empty stage. The poles disappeared above behind a wine-colored, velvet ceiling valence that hid the lights illuminating the stage.

Chartreuse feather boas and bright, gold-sequined leotards festooned otherwise unremarkable walls. A disk jockey’s station fronted one wall and behind it a room that appeared to be an office. A red ‘LXIT’ sign with a broken ‘E’ sat above a door next to the office and one intact ‘EXIT’ sign flickered over the front door; those pesky fire codes again.

The purpose of this auditorium was no mystery to anyone who ventured inside.

What brought him to California? A love affair in Arkansas had finally shattered Billy Joe’s fragile ego. What should have been a pleasurable experience turned instead into a double blow to his ego; he wasn’t mature enough to handle the setback. Now, instead of facing the problem as a well-adjusted person might, he decided to run from it, to get out of town and far from Arkansas.

He should have known better before it began; he had never learned to read women. He had girlfriends in high school, but invariably he wound up being the one dumped. The aforementioned final affair, piled on top of his other failures with women, was destined to leave Billy Joe an embittered misogynist, not because of anything the women had done, but because of his unfounded conclusion that all had done or would eventually do him wrong.

Billy Joe’s most recent problem began when he picked up Gloria May Paul. She and her bright pink and green hair shared too many boilermakers and too many rowdy pool games with Billy Joe at ‘Rooster’s Blues Bar.’ Gloria May bested him at drink, but he proved to be her master on the beer-stained and cigarette-burned green felt. Later, in room 217 of the Motel 6 on Towson, Gloria was all over Billy Joe, but those boilermakers kept him from doing anything about it, despite her professional-like coaxing that, had he been less inebriated, he would have performed like a man in his early twenties.

The next morning, while vigorously rectifying the squandered opportunity of the night before, Billy Joe’s condom gave way to the strength of his ardor. In a word, it sprung a leak. In fairness, however, we can’t be sure that first night bore responsibility for what came next; there would be other nights—and days—with Gloria May, with and without condoms.

*

Five weeks later. Gloria May, whose period was late—admittedly she wasn’t particularly healthy on a junk-food diet—sat on a toilet in that same Motel 6 staring in dismay at the result of a Walmart pregnancy kit.

“Look what you done to me, Billy Joe! You bastard!” she shrieked toward the bedroom and her cowed paramour.

“Maybe the test is faulty,” he offered sheepishly. Shouldn’t you try another one? Maybe from Walgreens? All that Walmart shit comes from China!”

“So, how are you, Billy? Fully recovered?”

“Think so. I’m going back to work tomorrow. It’s been five days now. Dontja think I should?”

“I suppose that depends on how you feel … If you’ve got your strength back. Has the Doc cleared you for work?’

“Yep, said he doesn’t want a ‘goldbrick’ on his watch. Not sure what he meant by that, but I assume he meant I should do it.”

Relying on her belief that everyone who strays has some redeeming qualities, Lou tried to draw them out of the young man, step by step.

“Absolutely. You should go back to work. Might help you get over what happened. Therapy, sort of. But let’s back up, back to when I answered the door. Don’t you have something to say to me? Something not just about yourself?”

“Whataya mean?”

“Well, for starters there’s all the crap you unload on me every morning at work. You know, stuff about my body. I thought that’s why you came here. To apologize.”

“Ah, shit, Lou. I’m sorry. Sorry I didn’t say so right out of the gate. I meant to and I am … very sorry. I’m not really that guy, the one that gives you a hard time. That’s not me. It may surprise you to know that under all that dirt I was calm and I did some thinking. I suppose that’s what happens when you are about to die. Dunno. Another way to explain it might be that I had one of those ‘come to Jesus’ moments in that ditch.”

“What about all that hatred you show toward Hispanic people? Word gets around, you know. You have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment about that, too? I don’t think so.”

 “I’m working on that one. I got some good advice along that line from the guy I was with Friday night. You were sensational, by the way.”

Lou did not react to his compliment. She figured it was only a momentary thing.

“Look, Lou. Here’s the way I see it. You saved my life and I read somewhere that means you own me … Wait! Better way to say what I mean is that I owe you my life. So, I’m here to offer myself to you to have me do whatever you want. You name it and I’ll do it or die trying. I mean it!”

Lou looked at Billy, realizing that this might be that ‘Ah, ha!’ moment she thought might have been in him all along, despite the crap he’d thrown her way. He was beginning to get to her. He suddenly seemed vulnerable, looked a lot more handsome and acted a whole lot more mature. And he had discovered some manners. How much more did she want him to grovel, even though she enjoyed the spectacle? The guy damn near died!

“You had breakfast, Billy?” she said with a smile after these moments of reflection.

© 2016 Stephen Fox

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