Copyright is held by the author.
FORGET VEGAS, Frisco, New Orleans — all those places people gush about with watery-eyed memories. I’ll never forget Portland, Oregon, the day me and Frank played hooky to go see the Clyde Beatty Circus. That city is where I learned life can be sad and fearful and unimaginably sweet.
We were both 14. Like most high school kids in our town, we were ready to grab the world by the ear. A sunny day in late spring doesn’t wait for thoughtful decisions. And if you put things off till you’re grown up you’ll regret those days that slipped you by.
Portland was maybe 15 miles away, but we hitched a ride right away when Lester Vanderzanden picked us up in his ’51 Ford. Lester was friends with Frank’s older brother and maybe the coolest guy in town. Did construction work, I think, and always wore his white cords low around his snake hips. He kept a pack of Pall Malls in the sleeve of his white T-shirt and talked all the time about going to Korea to fight the Commies.
“Gotta get a beer,” Lester said out of the corner of his mouth, sitting all slumped behind the wheel with his arm out the window. “Then I’ll drop you guys at the circus.”
Place Lester stopped at was on the edge of Portland, coming in on the old highway where the colored people live. My Dad never stopped there, but drove our Buick straight through with the windows rolled up. I’d stare out at guys sitting on the curb shining pennies on their shoes or something, hats on their heads and toothpicks hanging out of their mouths. I’d ask myself, Who are these people?
“Give my pals beers,” Lester told the bartender, an old guy who never asked for draft cards, which me and Frank didn’t have yet.
I kept my eyes down, but I saw everything. Wood panels on the walls, mirror behind the bar with all the whiskey bottles, four or five Negroes sitting hunched over their glasses of beer. And I tried to pigeonhole the curious smell that was like someone had puked or needed a shower.
“Good beer,” Frank said, elbowing me to make his point. It was Blitz Weinhard or some stuff, but I’d never had but two beers before so it seemed good to me and I said, “It’s the best.”
Lester ignored us cause he was watching a Negro girl tinkling a little tune out of the upright piano at the end of the bar. Every now and then she sang kind of soft, “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.” I don’t think she knew all the words cause then she’d just hum a bit and plink a few more keys. Didn’t matter to me, cause she was young and thin and had long black hair sort of floating down the back of her yellow dress. Cute, I guess you’d call her. I’d never seen anything like her except in Photoplay or Jet at the barbershop.
“Mace, whyn’t we get Billy some fun?” Lester said to the bartender and pointing to me. The old guy stared at Lester and just kept wiping glasses. “How about him and Louise go upstairs? Have some fun.”
Louise. That was the colored girl’s name, but I didn’t know what was upstairs. Louise turned on her piano stool to look at me. Right in the eyes, like she was a fighter sizing up an opponent. I guessed she was only a couple years older than me and wondered if she went to school in Portland.
“You talkin’ to me?” she asked Lester. Her voice sort of slid like honey out between those red lips.
“Yeah, him and you’d make a nice couple. Like a double-decker vanilla chocolate ice cream cone.” Lester laughed and snapped his fingers to make the bartender give him another beer.
“You white boys better get home,” a guy down the bar said. “Ain’t no place for white trash.”
“Fuck you, old man,” Lester said with a nasty laugh. “C’mon Louise. Give Billy a taste of what his mommy didn’t tell him about.”
“I told you to get the hell outta here,” the Negro man said, and I saw how big he was when he stood up. Bigger’n Lester and Frank put together.
“It’s a free country, asshole,” Lester said. I kind of thought Frank wanted to get out of that bar. I sure did. I knew we were in the wrong place when Lester called the man the N word. There was a second of silence, then the man was all over Lester, swinging a bottle and screaming dirty words. Another guy jumped up to pop Frank in the eye, making Frank fall back and hit his head on the floor.
I’ve been in schoolyard fights, but I froze stiff when a third guy started to come after me — the last guy in the line of white boys going down like bowling pins. At that moment, Louise screamed and jumped up with a broom in her hands. She swung that broom across the third guy’s head, a little mosquito on a horse’s back, but it made him stop and turn around. That was all the time she needed to whack the guy who punched out Frank. She could have been Mickey Mantle the way she handled that broom.
“You drunk summabitches stop beating on people!” she shouted. “I’m sick of you ’busing me too!”
I backed away as Louise stood in front to shield me. I didn’t want to get hit, but neither did I like a woman defending me. It was an honor thing, even though I was only 14. A sick kind of emotion stuck in my stomach. I was caught between running or fighting, hating those Portland guys and respecting the woman who stood up for me.
“C’mon,” Louise said, grabbing my T-shirt and pulling me to the door.
Outside, we stood side by side on the cement, our hands hanging down and not knowing what to do. Inside, I could hear Lester and those other guys arguing. I didn’t hear any shouting and screaming, and guessed they weren’t fighting anymore.
“You name Billy?” she asked.
I nodded. “Those guys were Frank and Lester, my friends. I thought they were gonna get killed by your friends.”
She shrugged. “Nah. They just pissed at the world. Not pa’tic’ly at your friends.” She grabbed my shoulder and spun me around to face her. I never saw a girl with such long red fingernails, and she had these earrings for pierced ears — not like the girls in my class. “Where you live?” she demanded.
“Hillsboro.” I nodded toward the road we came in on. “We were going to the circus, and just stopped . . .”
“Whyn’t you and me go?” she asked. “I ain’t seen a sideshow since I don’t know when.”
“Okay,” I said. “Frank can catch up with us maybe. Later.”
She walked with me to where the bus ran down Sandy Boulevard and told me how much I owed the driver. Then we settled in the back seat, like it was our very own private coach. When we passed the Coon Chicken Inn, I tried not to stare at the huge black face where you walked in the front door through his mouth. I wondered, Did Louise ever think maybe there should be a restaurant that looked like an Indian or an English man. She was smiling at the window, and I guessed there was a whole world separating us — something more than 15 miles or her being a colored girl.
The circus grounds were a magic place of tents and flags flying and people shouting over the music. We saw the elephants and threw darts at balloons and I bought Louise an ice cream before we rode the Ferris wheel. What made me feel so fine was the danger that I was Pinocchio and somebody would turn me into a donkey for running away to the big city. I don’t think Pinocchio ever had a girl hanging onto his arm, though. The warm sweat of her hand made the forbidden pleasure feel specially good.
Later, I counted my money and had enough for us to share an orange soda. Curiosity — maybe familiarity — inched up on me as we sat behind a tent sharing the Nehi. “How come you acted so tough, Louise? Back there. Before we got to know each other.”
“I have to be. Ain’t nobody else gonna take care of me.” She pulled down the shoulder of her yellow dress and pointed to cuts on her brown back. “See? It’s where my mother’s boyfriend whupped me with a belt. Then he ’bused me.”
“Didn’t you call the cops?” Pain was a stranger to me. I’d never known anyone who’d been hit that way, feared to guess what she meant by abused.
“What would the cops do?”
“D’you ever wish you could get away? To somewhere else?”
“I wish I had a bedroom of my own ’stead of sleeping on a couch. Sometimes I just want to be invisible so no one can see to hurt me.”
“Don’t,” I said. “You’re too pretty to be invisible.”
She just nodded her head, not agreeing so much as saying she’d heard my words.
The sun was dropping down over the city, over the Coast Range where it sinks into the ocean. Frank hadn’t shown up so I asked Louise where the bus depot was. “I gotta go home before my Dad kills me,” I said, but that wasn’t true. Dad would’ve gotten red-faced and left the room if he learned I played hooky and hitched to Portland and had a beer. Mom would wring her hands and say, “I am so disappointed.”
Truth was, I was filled up with everything Louise told me and had to get away and think some. Same time, I didn’t want to leave. You ever have that feeling you have to do something or else you’ll explode?
Neither of us had any more words as we walked to the bus station. Louise put her hand on my leg as we waited for the Greyhound to Hillsboro. “You okay, Billy.” Her statement was simple as boiled potatoes, but it told me volumes of poetry. Then she curled an arm around my neck and kissed me.
I never told Frank what happened. Just said me and Louise hung out. I sure as heck never told my folks, but every time they drove me to Portland to buy me school clothes at Meier & Frank’s, I stared at the bar where I had my beer. And I looked for Louise.
The bar just stared back from its dusty windows until we were out of sight. I never saw Louise, and wondered whatever happened to her. Did she succeed in becoming invisible? When Clyde Beatty came to town each year did she think about me?
Being grown up now, I figure that sometimes people and events are better in memory than they really were. You can jaw about your experiences, but sensations are like half-remembered dreams. Sensations like how her tongue felt on my teeth can make your brain forget the words to describe them.
Sensation is what I can’t tell anyone, what a late spring day can feel like.