The night was frosty and wet and suede with the smell of leather cologne and harmony and wonderful pink air. As people staggered out of flakey white taverns, the stench of alcohol followed them, and as we passed Asian markets, duck eggs and wasabi and fried noodles carried through the damp blue loveliness of the city center. The signs were all neon green and blue and red; the ones we were walking under were soaring blue angels, shining brilliance on everything they saw with their fifty-eight turquoise-blue eyes and their sparkling sapphire skin, all lost and hot and soft and pure and angelical and ecumenical, dripping holiness.
Bo put his arm around me and pulled me in. Our bare feet slapped the wet pavement with each step we took, one foot in front of the other; my steps were slippery and awkward because Bo was nearly dragging me along.
I shrugged my shoulders to ease the burden of his arm. He was using me as an armrest. My neck muscles ached and I wanted, so desperately, to abscond into a cute, yellow-and-white Korean massage parlor to let the pretty Asian girls work out the tension in my tense white body as the air conditioning poured nicely over me and as I lay there on my belly, breathing out the tiny agonies.
Bo knew how to party. He’d abandon his wife, Betty, for days at a time, sleeping on his girlfriend’s couch and smoking tea from an ornate glass bong; Betty did not know about Bo’s goings-on. He usually told her he would be staying at a friend’s house because she “doesn’t know how to cook” and he “can’t stand living in the same house as her for more than a month.”
So, with such a convenient excuse already set in place, Bo and I were free to go out on the town and party at the end of every April, when I came to California to sell my books to the beautiful folks who liked to read.
My publishing house allowed me to sell their books only when the rain began to fall, since that was when America spent most of her time indoors reading. Although I was not much of an entrepreneur, I was still able to make a decent living by selling books in Sacramento since there was a grand variety of people swarming through the thousands of other nonconformists and activists and literary farts who liked to criticize everything they examined, whether carefully or not.
The first bar Bo and I stumbled into was called Shelter—the flowery pink letters on the sign were sexy and evocative. We crashed through the doors and drowned in heat and sweat and slow beautiful jazz. The gentlemen on stage were all black and their wet faces crawled sweat round their wide white eyes.
The bar was busy and the people were dancing and waving their hands and four pretty blond girls were right before the stage, dripping with delicate posturing and lily-soft honesty—most likely Christians with their glossy skin and wrist bands and rings—most likely purity rings because they were all silver and glassy and woven with pretty metals and jewels and things. Bo would have started dogging them if he saw them but, thank God, he didn’t, because when the girls turned around, their breasts were newly developed and their faces were small and gentle; they were a brand-new 21, weak and effete and youthful and helpless. Bo would have made them do things they didn’t want to do—all four of them at the same time. Bo would’ve taken advantage of them—he would’ve asked them, “What’s a couple’ve pretty young ladies like you doing in this smelly old joint? Nothing’s going on here, girlies, come on, let me take you all home. Here—Bo—here, er-hum, take the tab, I’m gonna make a quick stop and I’ll be right back.” Then he would’ve driven them all back to his girlfriend’s apartment and he would’ve defiled five girls and ruined them all—he would have sliced and burned and stabbed at their pretty little souls.
But, thank God Almighty, he didn’t.
He was busy ordering two beers and two cigarettes and a tray of French fries at the granite counter. The bartender looked tired—his stubble was visible even in the smoky dim of the tavern.
I sunk down in a padded leather booth and reclined, digging the bluesy black jazz. The guitar went waah, waah, waah! and circled around and around to make the rhythm repeat, shifting through big and small tones—reusing the flats and the sharps to meet the twinkling piano and the burly brown bass, creating a weird melody like music from an old saloon swirled with music from the plantations—weary black slaves using a broom stick and a yard of twine, slapping the twine to make a sound similar to a bee’s buzz amplified by twenty notches, the scorching black sun pounding their blood-streaked backs. Oh, the heart—the soul it takes to make music as beautiful as jazz and blues and everything in-between!—it’s substantial…so endearing and stunning and sensational.
Bo came and sat down with the two beers, the tray of French fries and the two cigarettes. He slid the tray to my side of the table, and then worked on uncapping his beer. I could smell the salt and starch—it didn’t seem very attractive to me. I wanted something sweet. (Maybe a root beer float and some candy? I’d be better off at a soda shop.) I smiled to myself and sat up and reached for my beer, which Bo bought for me, of course, and uncapped it with much more success than Bo; Bo was still struggling with the metal lid, trying to twist the cap rather than push it up with his thumb.
“Bo,” I said. “You’re not doing that right, man. It’s treaded. You gotta pop it up with your thumb, see?” I took his bottle from him and showed him—the cap pulsated violently on the table when it burst off.
He grinned and took his beer back. “Yeah, I know.”
We drank out beers in perfect harmony and Bo devoured the French fries with bits of potato dangling from his wiry beard. His eyes were wild and excited when the next band came onstage to perform—they were all black, again, but this time a little guy was playing the blues guitar—a little black guy with a little black hunk of curls atop his little black head. He wore a pinstriped zoot suit and huge black shades and made more women than Marlon Brando.
A tall white stagehand lowered the mike for the poor leadsman. The young man twisted the rod till it sunk down three notches above the little black guy’s head. They glanced at each other awkwardly and then the stagehand turned and sauntered offstage without another word.
The little black guy pulled the mike closer to him, stood on his tippy-toes, and eventually ripped the mike from its holder and spoke into it, saying, “Alright, now-uh, we’re-uh, we’re-uh gonna play some blues for ya’ll—and I mean blues, man, I mean blues.” He-uh, pointed-uh at a young white couple at a table near the exit. He said-uh, “What do you—uh-what do you-uh know s’bout the blues?” Without giving the couple a chance to answer, his eyes popped wide open and he screamed, “Don’t you tell me ’bout the blues!”
With sweat leaping from his forehead, he squeezed his eyes shut and played the highest blues riff, weeeeeeeeeeee-we-we-we-we-we-wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh. The percussion sizzled in about fifteen seconds later, and the harmonica swam around the drums and the guitar after all that with a low whuzza-whuzza-whoo-whoo-whuzza-whuzza-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo. “I said-uh, lookout!” The leadsman played a squealing black tab on the high E-string, doubling over, sweat shooting out in all directions as he attacked the blue-and-white electric guitar with tremendous speed and accuracy.
Bo turned his head and gaped at me, as if to say, Can you believe this?
“Alright, man,” he said. “There’s more to see—more to do, man, more to do! It’s only 11 o’clock, and we’ve got all night. Look—how’s this, Hermit, tell me how you like this—how about we go back to my place, grab the car, cruise around—meet a few gone betties? I promise you, Hermie, like I’ve promised you before—I’m not gonna disappoint you.”
I sighed. I had nothing better to do, so I agreed. We walked back to the house, Bo checked on Betty, found her in the kitchenette doing the dishes, kissed her goodnight, told her he’s going to grab a motel with Hermit, and ran down to the carport and sped off in the black station wagon with me in the passenger seat.
He said, “Man, it’s so good to have a woman like her. She doesn’t ask too many questions. She just smiles and says, ‘Do whatever you like, darling. I’ll be here in the morning.’ And then I always come home and—there she is! She’s right there. Gosh, I love her, Hermit. I don’t know if I’ve confessed that to you yet.”
I chuckled. “She’s your wife. Of course you love her.”
“Oh well, yes. Yes, that’s true.” He looked at me and smiled, his greasy hair shimmering like obsidian in the pretty neon lights. “Alright, so you’ve got a choice: Right or left?”
We were stopped at a busy intersection. The stoplight was dimmer than the entire city—just shivering in the intimidating black night like three fireflies lined up vertically—their tails watery and silent.
I told him “right” since it wouldn’t require him to break the law (which he loved doing, whether it was spontaneous—such as this—or plotted.) He balled the car left, speeding through the intersection at 73 miles per hour, the tires shrieking on the wet pavement—rain fell softly, in porous black sheets like roman candles and spewing silver…I told him to pull the goddamn car over, Bo. Just pull over.
He pulled over. I ruined his fun and he was solemn and rueful. “I’m sorry, Hermit.” He pleaded. “Come on, man, we can still have fun. You’re only here once every year. Don’t let this ruin our night, man. Please?”
I looked at him, my brow furrowed. It was a stupid thing to be mad about. He was just trying to be spontaneous and exciting—nothing wrong with that.
That’s why I was there, anyway. “Just drive the goddamn car, Bo. But slow it down. We’ll have plenty of fun—we’re not in any hurry.”
He smiled, satisfied and jerked the car forward. My head hit the seat. The window-shield deflected thousands of rain bullets as we roared through the center of the city, as drunks stumbled out of taverns, as prostitutes stood on street corners wearing close to nothing, as greasers crashed haughtily through the passers-by on the sidewalks, prideful and handsome, as the signs blazed blue and green and red and pink and purple, as the bars bopped and hopped, as the pretty young women tried to get some sleep on strangers’ couches…we ventured forth without a care, prepared to have fun, no matter the cost.
So we stopped at exactly 12:15 p.m. for a young girlie wearing black leather panties and a strapless half-gown. She was smoking a Marlboro and offered Bo and me one. I politely declined—Bo snatched the long white gasper and immediately shoved it between his lips.
He raised his chin slightly for a light; she pulled a case of matches from her pocket in the front of her gown, struck one, and cupped her hand around the flame and the cigarette tip blossomed red as Bo sucked on it. He took the cigarette from his lips and rested his arm on the window sill.
Hot smoke swirled in front of my face and burned my eyes, making them water silently. Bo asked the slut how much he and his buddy here should pay you. She told him five bucks for a blowjob and ten bucks for full-on fucking (in the backseat only—nothing behind the dumpster, she stressed.) I felt uncomfortable having sex with my best friend and another woman, but I kept my mouth shut. Hopefully Bo would realize how overpriced she was. In the dusky moonlight and with the illumination of the city lights, her face looked gloomy and dire and bleak and sad. She looked completely abused; I would ultimately feel bad for doing her, anyway, so even if Bo did accept her deal…I’d pretend I had an STD of some sort.
Bo rolled the window up and the whore shrugged and stepped back onto the sidewalk. He revved the engine back up and we sped off. “Pft, that’s likely. Did you hear what she said, man? Let’s go through here. I saw some gone little tricks up here a few nights ago. I’m sure they’re still working this corner. Else our night is pretty dumb, right?—Okay, hold my cigarette for a minute.”
I pinched the burning Marlboro from his fingers and took a solemn drag. I sensed tremendous pains of guilt in my belly. I didn’t want to do this with Bo or any other poor girl he found, no matter how pretty she was. It didn’t matter. I felt abusive and monstrous—my belly ached and ached with sorrowful dread of the simplest idea of prostitution, of me engaging in such a dirty act with my best friend! Of course I’d seen his genitals before—I’d seen him make love to Betty countless times as I gazed breathlessly through the crack in their door (from when Bo punched it out of frustration during a bout with his wife.) He was always so rough and overbearing and ruthless. He gagged her and made her cry and punched her and choked her—I didn’t want to be there when he did this to anyone else. I didn’t want to partake in it.
With his free hand (one on the steering wheel), he reached into his pocket and produced his wallet and threw it on the dashboard. He took his cigarette from me and puffed on it and said, “Take out five dollars. That’s all we’re gonna spend on girls tonight because, frankly, that’s all I’ve got.”
I looked at him sadly. “Oh, come on, Bo! You don’t gotta do this. We can have fun some other way, man—don’t spend all your money on something as silly as this!”
He turned his greasy face and looked at me with sunken blue eyes and said, “I only get to see you once a year. It’s worth it.”
“What—ruining some young woman’s life? Is that your idea of kicks?” I felt preachy.
Dammit. I shouldn’t have said that. I felt my cheeks get red and my head flush with all sorts of butterflies and my stomach did the exact same thing—it fluttered and fluttered and fluttered.
He pursed his lips together and kicked the car up to 80. We were suddenly on the highway, soaring through the inky night, the hail battering the cold window-shield and the icy metal roof, all white and blue and black, bruising the poor old station wagon. A geeky Buddy Holly song was playing wildly on the radio (duh-de-dumb-duh-de-dumb)and we just listened to that as the car raved on at 85 across the half-deserted highway (thank God Almighty) and rain spewed out from underneath the tires.
I had no idea where we were going. Bo kept driving and driving and driving and we didn’t stop for anything, not even gas, and the song started to die down, so inaudible that the rain took over, started playing a watery orchestra, that was the end of that and then some brand-spanking-new New York bop started bopping and rocking and rolling out of the speakers, and Bo was almost down to the butt of his cigarette, the filter part, the hot, hot smoke making pretty gray exposés of Satan and Jesus battling right after The Sermon on the Mount.
Finally—finally—I asked him where we were going, in the politest and sweetest and softest tone I could muster. “I don’t know,” he replied, and kept on driving.
“Bo, look: I’m sorry if I upset you. I didn’t mean to. We can still go back and have fun, man—no more fighting, I promise. I won’t say another word. We’ll get our kicks, and if you want to do that in the red light district, then fine, we’ll get our kicks in the red lights district. Does that sound alright to you?”
He agreed happily and whipped the car around and revved the car up to 95 miles per hour. I had no idea that station wagons had the capacity to go that fast. I’d only ridden in sedans my entire life, and they didn’t go faster than 70. But nevertheless, no one I grew up with was as crazy as Bo was.
Bo wanted to stop at his girlfriend’s loft so we parked the car on the side of the street and walked up to her door. He knocked loudly and a few moments later a very pretty young blond emerged with a baby in her arms. She grinned loudly and said, “Oh, Bo! I’m so glad you decided to come over tonight!” She wrapped an arm around him and kissed him softly on the lips and then looked at me with peculiar black eyes and asked Bo, “Who’s your friend?”
“His name’s Hermit. I don’t think you two have met, so Hermit, this is Sue, and Sue, this is Hermit.” We shook hands and said, “Nice to meet you.”
“Please, take your coats off and have a seat! Oh, darn, it’s so messy in here, I really am sorry. I’ve been so busy with this goddamn baby I haven’t had time to do anything ‘round the house!” she joked, pinching the child’s ruddy little nose.
I shrugged out of my coat and hung it up on the hanger by the door. Then I padded guiltily across her carpet and sat in an armchair, afraid I’d get it wet. Bo went shirtless and pantless and lay on his belly on the couch with a beer in his hand. He looked like he was about to fall asleep in his dirty gray briefs.
“Well, what brings you two rascals here tonight?” she said from the kitchen, the baby still in her arms. She was making coffee.
I stared up at the bug-infested light-bulb with my mouth precariously open. I breathed through my nostrils and waited for Bo to reply. He didn’t, so I took the liberty of explaining ourselves.
“We’re partying the night away,” I told her. A loud crash exploded from the kitchen and the baby started wailing. She picked up the pots and the pans and replied, “Oh that sounds like a plan! Well then why aren’t you doing just that—or is this your idea of having a good time?” What she said made me uncomfortable. She was completely at ease—completely loose. She was down for anything. So I didn’t say anything back.
Bo, however, spoke up and said, with his cheek on the cushion, “We’re just taking a pit stop, my dearest Sue dear. We’ll be back at it within an hour, and at that time you can wipe the dirt off your couch.” She giggled as she came into the living room. “Ah, oh Bo. Here, hold your baby boy while I put the coffee through the strainer.”
Bo sat up and took the baby on his lap and Sue sallied off into the kitchen with bent wrists. My heart fluttered and I started at once: “Bo, you never told me about this! For krissakes, at least have the decency to tell you best friend that you’ve gone and had a baby boy!” I sat straight up and stared at him with hot wild eyes.
He kissed the baby on his fat cheek. “He’s not mine, man, not really. Don’t worry. I’m just being some sort of a father figure for this little guy since the cat who banged my girl took off after he did the deed. So she’s stuck with him—and I love her so I’ll keep on loving her kid. I’m stuck with ‘im, too.”
My best friend’s tenderness touched me ever so softly and I wanted to stand up and hug and kiss this blessed angel—what a nature! His soul was so tainted and burnt and ragged with all sorts of garbage, but in the presence of his son, his soul was white and hot and soft and pure and dripping with holiness. He rubbed his stubbled cheek against his son’s lily-soft skin and kissed his forehead and hugged him tightly, but ever so gently and ever so greedily, as if he were hoarding all kinds of love from everyone in the universe for all eternity, complete insatiability, give him more, give him more pure love from the most tender soul, from his baby boy.
I smiled and said, “Well, congratulations, Bo. You finally did something worthwhile.”
Sue came back a few moments later with two hot mugs of coffee and a pack of cigarettes which, again, Bo selfishly accepted and I politely declined. We talked about the city, police, gangsters, literature, sex, drugs, the economy, politics, desserts, and finally, how we needed to get back out on the town. Our voices were hoarse from talking so much—Bo’s voice was raspy and windy, but it still wielded an influential bass in the center of it all.
We threw our coats back on and Bo slipped his clothes back on and Sue kissed him goodbye and hugged me and we were out the door, back into the rainy darkness, back into the neon-lit cityscape, back into the swirling, ever-changing, sinful black and gray and blue and green and red and pink and purple and sometimes yellow night.
Cars soared by as we stepped into ours. My pantlegs and my feet were cold because I stepped in a puddle before I got into the car, which, once we were seated comfortably in its dry leather seats, shot painfully into the street but halted immediately at a red light.
A rustic red pickup was in the lane next to us, on the left side. The driver was a fat black man with smashed blue lips and wild white eyes. He was wearing overalls and smoking a butt, the tip flaring orange, blatant and true in the inky blackness that circled around it. He looked straight ahead with sad eyes and heavy skin. There was something bothering him but he didn’t tell me what it was. The smell of hay slipped through the cold damp air and into the station wagon and it fiddled in and out of my nostrils like something so faint it would be unnoticeable barring the large stacks in the bag of the black man’s rig—grasses of all sorts: alfalfa, sage brush, straw, wheat and barley, all in a tiny sachet of wet aroma that slid through the sodden, gold-black intersection.
The light turned green and Bo turned right. The hay truck sped forward. I didn’t bother turning my head to see it off. I’d seen enough of it.
We stopped at a burlesque little cabaret club in the corner of the shady part of town called The Bottle in bright orange letters, unlit but still visible. Bo described it to me as a nightclub with nicer activities available like drinking and card playing and karaoke and open-mike poetry reading (you little Christian boy, you.) It was very loose and free and different.
Finding nonconformist hangout places in a conformist neighborhood hurt our souls and injured our hope for America—but Bo was masterful at finding these sorts of places. He knew every drug dealer, every whore, hipster, every gangster, and every hoodlum in California. He knew every sex shop, every nightclub, every whorehouse, every gun shop and every crooked cop. He knew everything, and according to the world, he was going to hell. But I—I believed he was going straight to Jesus. There was nothing unholy about this man—why else did God give us life? He was simply what everyone else wanted to be: Unhinged. Unburdened. Free. And that was why he was my friend, my dearest, gonest friend in the entire world.