You could always get laid at the Wayside Inn, at least you could in 1975. Something casual, or romantic, or sleazy and quick in the darkened backroom. Everyone was going to the gym that year, and tiny spoons bounced against bulging pecs; the lesbians rolled their eyes at the boys, and rolled up dollar bills right at the bar. The dance floor throbbed and sulked in equal order, and polyester competed with silk, and nothing could not be cured with penicillin. A trim man with a row of neat, white teeth was behind the bar; years later, he would be asked what he recalled of 1975.
“Titties and dicks, honey. Cocaine, and titties and dicks,” Manfred Pierce answered.
He was 40. Manfred remembered that as an impossibility, as ancient, as clueless and past-prime, but he knew in his heart he was still in his 20’s and no calendar would convince him otherwise. His driver’s license could say whatever it wanted–I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it–but Manfred was still 29 if you asked. Not that anyone did.
Christ, 40. The big fuck-off. No longer needed, no longer valid. Sagging balls and a new face in the mirror, which was sadder and full of nevermind. He did not recall needing to trim his eyebrows quite as frequently as he now did. Manfred shaved every day, sometimes twice, and got his hair cut once a week: it was longer than the Navy used to regulate, but not by much. He flossed regularly and with vigor. A man ought look his best, Manfred thought. Sloppiness was disrespectful and unproductive. Occasionally, he wondered if he were just vain, but always decided: no, I have made a studied moral decision.
He kept his small house on Fantic Street–more properly called a bungalow–in a similar fashion; he had lived there fifteen years and did not believe there had ever been a mess. The unpaid runaway labor helped. Manfred took in strays: the boys thrown out of their houses, and the girls who ran away from home. Locals and soon-to-be locals. Animals, too: one-eyed dachshunds, cats mussing tails, a turtle he named Myrtle. Manfred charged no rent. He’d feed the kids, buy them clothes. He’d bring them down to the Wayside and introduce them around. (To the right people. Some of the patrons should not have been introduced to teenagers.) The Wayside’s regulars looked out for each other, except the ones that were scheming against one another, and the cast-out children would find a home, a job, someone to love or at least fuck. A few went home, moved on. A lot stayed. When Manfred looked around the bar on some nights, he realized half the room had crashed on his couch after getting off a bus from Milwaukee with six bucks in their pockets. This made him very happy, and he would give out free drinks. (Manfred Pierce gave out too many free drinks, but the ones you paid for were overpriced, so it all evened out.)
Manfred took them in, all of them, all the sissy boys and butch girls that got chased off the family farm by various iterations of an angry God.
But you had to do your chores. Patch of lawn out back needed mowing, and the front bedroom with two twin beds and two dressers and two desks had to pass inspection. Living room was to be policed on every walkthrough.
“Kitchen requires constant vigilance, and there’s a system to the refrigerator.”
“Is the system democracy?”
“The opposite,” Manfred said.
Lower Montana put her hands in the pockets of her army jacket.
“Communism is an economic philosophy; democracy is political. Can’t be opposites.”
“Good enough. This house is a monarchy. And who’s the king? Don’t say Elvis.”
“You’re my new favorite person,” Manfred said, and he meant it. Then he showed Lower how the crisper was organized.
Lower Montana was from the neighborhood. She grew up on Themistocles Street, and she thought her parents were gone for the evening so she invited her friend Grace over to get high and listen to records. They both liked the Beatles, and both had their shirts off when Lower’s mom and dad walked in. Grace ran off, down the stairs, out the house clutching her top and forgetting her bra. Lower’s dad punched her in the eye, and her mom did not stop him, and so she ran out, too. When she returned a few hours later, there was a suitcase packed for her on the porch and the door was locked. Too scared to go to Grace’s, and not particularly good in emergencies, Lower sat in a Victory Diner booth all night. She dozed off with her head in her hand while eggs poached and the teevee played on mute. The sun woke Lower up, and the waitress did the kindest thing she could, which was ignore her. She washed her face and changed in the diner’s bathroom. Then she went to high school and took a quiz on the Hundred Years War.
She thought she’d be asked questions if she went back to the Victory Diner two nights in a row, so when the library closed and they threw her out, she walked north along the Main Drag up to Sylvester Street. Lower Montana knew what the Wayside was; her parents had always made sure to point it out when they passed. Lower ignored the bar, didn’t even look at, believed her mother and father could hear her heart pounding, changed the subject. She was only in eleventh grade, but could change the subject at a post-graduate level.
The sun had just set; it was that first little bit of night that belongs to the fireflies. Madame Cazee’s and the Wash n’ Slosh were on the south side of the street, and so was she. She circled the block once, twice, and then felt paranoid that people would think she was a narc or a spy. Teenagers always think the world’s looking at them. Lower jaywalked across Sylvester and strode up the to outer door–the Wayside had an outer and inner door separated by a curtain of thick black rubber–and flung it open and walked right in. Lower Montana had decided to pretend to be brave, and it worked, right up until she set foot in the bar.
The light was dim and flattering; several disco balls on the ceiling fought for dominance. The deejay was tall and black and shirtless–Lower would later learn he was also pantsless–on an elevated platform in one of the back corners of the room. Pool table opposite: a lithe man in a tank top was stripes, a burly woman in a flannel was solids. Door to the backroom in between made out of the same thick black rubber as the entrance curtain. It was early, so everyone was still dressed (except the deejay) and the dance floor was not full. Lower Montana could not move. She felt like it was the first day of school squared. Everyone seemed to know each other: they were kissing hello and hugging and teasing and dramatically ignoring one another.
Manfred could tell from the shoulders. A barman–a competent one, at least–keeps an eye on the door, and he had seen Lower Montana walk in like a lesbian lion only to immediately turn into a lesbian lamb. He had a liquor license now, he was legitimate now, he could get in trouble for having teenagers in the bar. But there was a black-and-white photo of a tall woman, smiling and with her friends, hanging above the top-shelf liquor behind him, and so when the girl looked at him he waved her over with the friendliest smile in his arsenal.
And then he said the thing he always said.
Lower Montana went home with him that night. He introduced her to Singal Maran, who was from Flagstaff, and also staying in the front bedroom. Manfred always preferred to have a boy and a girl in there; it cut down on the fucking.
She slept in her clothes, for fourteen hours straight.
Singal was gone when she woke, his bed made, and she was scared for a second but then remembered the kind bartender with his row of neat, white teeth and obviously-dyed mustache. There was a one-eyed dachshund curled up in the heat of her armpit. His name was Winky, and Lower Montana had been introduced to him the previous night.
“Hello,” she said.
Winky licked her nose and lips; she pulled her head back and scratched his belly. The dog started wiggling in furious glee.
And then Manfred explained the refrigerator to her.
At six, they walked down Fantic to the Main Drag and turned south towards the Downside, towards Yung Man’s. They were both wearing jeans; Manfred’s were tailored and tight, and Lower’s cuffs bagged up on the top of her Earth Shoes. Over wonton soup and pork fried rice, they told each other their stories of their lives. Their versions, at least. Manfred paid–Lower offered, but he pursed his lips and looked at her under lowered eyelids–and then they walked back up the Main Drag to Sylvester Street, where they turned east and walked towards the gaggle of men in suits and women in dresses holding signs. One of them had a bullhorn. Her name was Brannie Dade. It was the first little bit of night, and the fireflies were out.
Lower would have stopped walking–she did not like confrontation and still had a black eye–but Manfred grasped her upper arm and said,
“Stay with me,” and his chin and chest were jutting out, his blue eyes like a storm. She ducked her head down, tucked her long brown hair behind her ear with the arm Manfred did not have hold of. Lower Montana was not five feet tall; she never would be. She was wearing too many rings and no longer had a home, but the man who had taken her in told her not to be afraid and so she decided not to be.
She said to Manfred out of the side of mouth,
“I have a knife.”
“Let me see.”
Lower Montana took her flick-knife out of the pocket of her army jacket. Manfred Pierce plucked it out of her hand, put it in the back pocket of his jeans, gave her the keys to the bar, said,
“You can have this back later. Go inside.”
“Go. Inside. Now.”
She put her head down and walked through the protestors, ignoring their greetings. Flung open the door and disappeared into the dance floor.
Manfred Pierce was 5’9″ and weighed 144 pounds. This made him a welterweight; he knew this because that was the class he boxed at in the Navy and he was the exact same weight at 40 as he was at 20. He forced his hands out of fists and walked up to the protestor with the bullhorn. Her hair was brown, high, and swept-back; she was wearing a white sleeveless dress with a hem right below her knees and a high spread collar. He asked her,
“Who are you?”
“From the teevee show?”
“Oh, you recognize me?”
“I do. You’ve aged horribly.”
Brannie Dade had giant teeth the color of a summer cloud; she was generically attractive and had once almost been nominated for an Emmy for her work as Glassy on Dracula Daddy, which was a sitcom about a dracula and his family that ran from 1970 to almost 1973. Nick Osferatu (a dracula) gets transferred from Transylvania to Cleveland; wackiness ensued for 41 episodes. Now she was standing outside the Wayside Inn with a bullhorn and a placard reading “HOMOSEXUALS RECRUIT CHILDREN.”
Manfred wanted to knock her out, choke her, shove her to the pavement and leap atop her skull nine or ten times. Recruit? Recruit, you bitch? You throw them out. You black their eyes and lock your doors on them, and I feed and shelter them. He didn’t, though. He kept his hands from becoming fists and said,
“I own this place. My name’s Manfred Pierce. What the fuck are you doing?”
“We don’t need that kind of language.”
“Fuck you. What are you doing?”
There were eight of them, including Brannie, and now they formed around her in a semi-circle and waved their signs at him. Manfred finally got a good look at all of them: several had the word SODOMITE written on them in very aggressive magic marker. One said HOMOS = COMMUNISTS, which just confused Manfred, as he was a small-business owner, and another said THE LORD IS WATCHING, which Manfred hoped was true.
It was 1975, so the men’s ties were as wide as the women’s hair was high. Pinch-faced and squinty-eyed, the lot of ’em, and with veins cording out of their forearms like road maps of anger. Manfred Pierce wondered why it was that the people so outraged by assfucking were always the people who would be most helped by being solidly fucked in the ass. It would relax them, he figured.
“We are letting the neighborhood know what kind of establishment you’re running, Mister Pierce.”
Brannie put a little English on that “mister.” She thought she was being clever.
“Well, Mizzzzzzzz Dade,” Manfred said, sinking to her level. “The neighborhood is well aware of what kind of establishment this is. The riot and the court cases kind of gave us away. And the flag.”
There were two flags hanging above the entrance to the Wayside Inn. One was red, white, and blue, and the other had more colors than that. The corners of Frannie Dade’s mouth twisted down, and her upper lip recoiled–it was halfway between a sneer and a snarl–and she said,
“The American flag shouldn’t be next to that filth. It shouldn’t be hanging above this place at all.”
And Manfred got up on his toes, just a little bit, and forced his hands out of fists and said,
“I will have you know, madam, that that flag is the one that was flying above the USS Dextrous in January 1953 when we took Communist shelling.”
(It wasn’t. He had bought it at the store.)
“You just joined the Navy for the perversion.”
“And the travel.”
“You are destroying America with your sin!”
Now Manfred became sarcastic, which is not the best way to deal with people to stupid to understand sarcasm, as they think they’re being mocked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said and snapped off a perfect salute. “One cock at a time.”
This sort of language in front of a lady–one who had been on a sitcom, no less–upset the protestors and they became agitated; one dropped his placard and put up his dukes. Manfred went up unto the balls of his feet and then he was grabbed from behind by a group of Wayside regulars who had just walked up. They dragged him in the bar and when their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw Lower Montana behind the bar, kind of: her shoulders and head just barely peeked above the walnut surface. She was polishing pint glasses with a rag.
“Why are you doing that, sweetie?”
“I saw it in a movie,” she answered.
“I appreciate the initiative, but stop it.”
She put the glass and rag on the bar and stood there not doing anything.
“Could you go check that the bathrooms are still there?”
“Is that a serious thing, or are you trying to get rid of me?”
“They’ve disappeared before.”
The teenager crossed the room to find out if the toilets still existed, and the 40-year-old went behind the bar. There was a system. Limes here, and glasses there, and the metal scoop hung from the icemaker by a thread of yellow yarn. The Wayside had only one beer on tap, and the handle was in the shape of an arrow whose tip was shaped like an “A.” The cash register was behind him, and above that was the bronze bell Manfred would ring to signal Last Call. There was tequila behind him, too, and he poured some and drank it, then took out glasses and poured shots for everyone.
Then he called the police.
“Is this the Wayside Inn?”
And the police hung up on him. The courts had recently forced them to begin treating homosexuals like human beings, and they were still pissed about it.
Manfred sent out Zippy the bouncer to make sure no one hit any of the protestors, and had another drink because he realized he was paying someone to protect people calling for his death. Steppy Alouette suggested legal maneuvers when she came in. Finster Tabb, who wore a beret all through the seventies no matter how many jokes were made, quoted Shakespeare at him.
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
“Act IV, scene V.”
“A scholar and a gentleman,” Finster smiled. Manfred poured him a shot of tequila, and himself one, and they raised their glasses and drained their glasses, and then Finster wandered across the dance floor to chat up a young man in a tight polyester shirt named Earl.
Brannie Dade and the protestors had left around ten. Zippy came back inside and tended bar while Manfred hit the bathroom for a line and then hit the backroom for a blowjob. The bar had filled up. Bars do that. The deejay was paying Never Too Late For Love by the Gordon Green Orchestra, and the dance floor was sweating and free. A drag queen broke kuh-SHPAK on the pool table; she had taken her heels off for stability and so stood barefoot on the slightly-sticky floor.
Lower Montana was sitting at the end of the bar by herself. Her straight brown hair was covering her face, and she shrunk inside her olive-green jacket that had so many pockets. She had a Coke.
Manfred placed her flick-knife and the keys to his house on the bar in front of her.
“Do you want a drink, sweetie?”
“I don’t like the taste of alcohol,” she said.
“No one does. You just get used to it.”
He pushed the hair from her face and looped it behind her ears and said,
“You’re among friends, y’know. Okay to show yourself here.”
Lower smiled and then she didn’t and brushed the hair back over the left side of her face where her eye was blacked. A small part of her still believed that Manfred’s kindness was a trick, and she would not meet his gaze.
She glanced up for just a second. He said,
“Do you want a joint?”
Lower Montana looked to the left, right, back to the left.
“That would be cool, I guess.”
Manfred turned his head to the man sitting next to her and said,
And the man who was sitting next to Lower, who was named Tom, pulled a cigarette case from his breast pocket and handed her a fat joint. Manfred forgave his tab, and asked him for a minute. Tom wandered into the backroom.
He reached under the bar, came up with an all-white pack of matches with. No logo, just a scratchy brown strip running horizontal across the bottom, and Manfred ran the gray paper match with the red tip across the strip; it made a sound like fftPOP, and Manfred cupped his hand around the flame as Lower lit the joint off it PWOF PWOF and then she inhaled deeply, held the smoke down like her cousin had taught her, blew out PHWOO, and then she handed the joint to him across the bar.
There were both pros and cons to owning a bar the cops refused to enter, Manfred thought. PHWOO. Gave it back.
It was better pot than Lower was used to, and she became very high very quickly. The deejay was playing Amethyst Evenings by Autumn Brice. The music seemed to de-coalesce, split into its constituencies. She could separate the horns from the drums, and then the drums from themselves: there was the hi-hat, there was the snare, and the bass guitar was dancing around in between them and also in her chest and hair and throbbing in her blacked eye. She sipped her Coke out of the can.
Manfred Pierce walked a few feet away. Fetched a glass, filled it with ice. Straw. Poured the soda in the glass, threw the can in the trash, set it back in front of her.
“Thank you,” she said.
And he smiled. Handed her back the joint, which she hit PHWOO and then she met his glance just for a second, but Manfred had known many teenagers and could see what she wanted.
“Ask me, sweetie.”
When she looked up, there were tears in her brown eyes.
“Why do they hate us?”
Manfred held out his hand and she gave him the joint.
“For the exact same reason as I took you in, sweetie. Because they decided to.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yeah. Join the club.”
Manfred smiled and stood up straight with flashing eyes and gestured grandly around his bar. He said,
“Oh, wait. You have joined the club.”
Which got a smile out of her even through the tears which ran over her blacked eye and down her face that wore no makeup. He took her hand across the walnut bar and squeezed once, twice, and then he cried with her. Manfred Pierce would cry with you at the Wayside Inn, or dance with you. Fuck you if you were his type. Serve you a drink and a smile made of neat, white teeth under a dyed mustache no matter who you were. He’d buy you your first, in fact–second if you were cute–and welcome you in no matter who you were or what you had done in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.