February 11, 1990
When I first walked into the Paperback Book Exchange—out by highway 95, in Bullhead City—I didn’t feel too good. I remember that much. I wasn’t sick or ill or anything like that. What it was, was life. It was people. It was a person. To be exact, it was a woman who had me feeling down in the dumps.
Life and women, or the lack of them, have that effect on me. And for two days straight, before going into the bookstore, I’d been locked up in a darkened room that stank to high heaven of unwashed pits and a poorly-wiped ass.
She packed her bags and poured my beer down the drain while I was at work. I’d been hauling concrete slabs all day that day and got myself smelling like horse sex. I strained my groin with those God-danged slabs. On the drive home, all I could think about was putting a cold one right between my legs. But neither a single beer nor Sharleen Honey could be found inside the house. That wasn’t the first time Sharleen pulled a stunt like that on me. But this time, I knew she’d had enough and wasn’t going to come back.
Sharleen Darling. I’d no longer be able to bury my face into her fine, forty-inch wide behind, and that knowledge got me feeling down, so much so that I went out, bought a case of Old Milwaukee, alongside a bag of ice and several Lotto scratchers. The best time to play is when you’re at your lowest—reasoning being, ain’t no other way but up.
When I came back from being out, the sweat on my back and chest had dried. My shirt latched on, so I peeled the shirt off and threw it against the wall. I turned the volume up on Merle Haggard. His Big City album sounded real nice and loud as it poured out of the wood-grained speakers. The beers and ice, I put inside a cooler, which I then carried and placed on Sharleen’s side of the bed. Dropping down, I searched under the bed but found nothing belonging to Sharleen, so I kept rummaging around, rifling through the drawers, looking for her favorite mug in the kitchen, delving into the closet. All her things were gone, everything except for her dirty underwear, which I found lying at the bottom of the hamper. She’d left me her pink G-string, the one she decorated with sequins herself. Every time she wore that thing, I’d go buck wild. So of course, the hopeless romantic in me believed she left it on purpose—something for me to remember her by.
After shutting the blinds, I pulled the curtains to a close and fell on the bed. The mattress squeaked, and my head spun. Not surprisingly, Sharleen’s G-string brought me a great deal of comfort, and I placed it on my chest. I reached into the cooler for two cold cans of Old Milwaukee and wedged one can up against my stressed-out crotch. The other one, I popped open. Once the beer intensified my God-dang-forsaken feelings to an unbearable degree, I began singing along with ole Merle.
Shit. I just couldn’t live without her, and I thought about shooting myself in the head with Sharleen’s G-string hanging around my neck. That was the state of mind I was in while driving down to the Book Exchange. It didn’t help me none either that inside my car’s glove compartment was the .22 caliber revolver that I’d been using at work to shoot down rats, pigeons, sometimes snakes, and once a cat that’d been mauled by a coyote. I checked the revolver, making sure it was still loaded, and it was.
I’m the kind of person who reads books when I’m in the shitter. That’s what I do. At four, most afternoons, I’m in the stinking stalls at work, pushing out my morning’s breakfast and reading a good yarn about some poor shmuck who has a certain flair for failure. When I finish at both ends, I’ll flush, light a match, and say, “Good God almighty, at least my life isn’t that fucked up!”
So walking through the aisles of the Paperback Book Exchange with the revolver in my pocket and Sharleen’s sullied underwear around my neck, I kept my eye out for any book that could dig me out of the hole I was in. On the bargain rack, I spotted an old Avon copy of “Autobiography of a Flea.” A dirty book about a filthy bug who likes to follow and suck the blood out of a young, pretty harlot, who in turn likes to suck the spunk out of older men. Some people liked to get screwed over and over and over, and it was good to be reminded of that, so I grabbed the cruddy book, with its yellowing pages coming apart at the spine.
The old lady behind the counter had on a pair of oversize glasses with a chain attached. She was also wearing an itchy-looking grey sweater that matched the coarseness and color of her hair. Sewed onto the sweater were these small, deformed cats. Obviously, she’d knitted that ugly thing herself, and I kept eyeing those cats, and she kept eyeing the pink, shiny, cord-like fabric dangling around my neck. Once she realized what the fabric was, the wrinkles around her eyes and forehead got meaner looking.
A little bothered, I dropped the book on the counter, then counted all the loose change I had, but was still short three pennies. I pulled out the gun, placed it next to the book, and fished around my pockets for more coins. Upon seeing the .22 revolver, the old lady froze. She could only press her lips together, the edges of her mouth turning white. Her hands started shaking, and sweat oozed out of her old, leathery skin.
To show her I meant no harm, I handed her the money, down to the exact change. That seemed to calm her down a bit. Her lips returned to their normal shape and color, and whatever body tremors she still exhibited seemed to come only from her old age.
She took a good hard look at the book I was purchasing. On the front cover was a young woman—softly focused—standing in front of a full-length mirror. Her hair was curly and coiffed, and she wore only a pearl necklace, white stockings, white heels, and a garter belt. Her dainty hands covered her breast. It was like an advertisement for a classy 70’s porno flick starring Annette Haven. Glancing at the book, the old lady made a face as if it had farted, and she grabbed it using only her fingertips and threw it into a brown paper bag. Annoyed by whatever she might be thinking, I said, “Lady, you’re the one who stocks and sells this smut!” And left.
Pulling into the curb in front of my house, I was hoping to see Sharleen’s rusted old Mercury in the driveway. But no. She ain’t there. Not her, not her car, nothing. Good thing I had made a quick pit stop for more of the alcohol stuff, a pack of cigarettes, and an Easyriders magazine. I surely needed to read Miraculous Mutha’s raunchy advice column on how to best cope when an ole lady leaves her good-loving but hell-raising man.
I stayed inside my car for a good while, reading, drinking, smoking, sniffing what little sweet-musty odor I could from Sharleen’s underwear. On the radio, Stevie Ray did his thing. He made the sky cry by bending his guitar’s strings almost to their breaking point. All the meanwhile, I messed around with the .22 revolver—unloading it, bullet by bullet, then loading it, bullet by bullet, playing a game of she loves me, she loves me not.
I’ll be honest, taking that first step through the front door was tough enough. Sharleen’s absence could be felt and seen all around, but what helped me was Merle. Before stepping out, I’d rigged the stereo so that he would be playing when I came back. He would never stop singing, and that made things a little easier on the soul.
While restocking the cooler, I heard Tito’s wife from across the street. She was squealing, and I imagined her in a faded lemon-yellow, crosshatch-patterned apron with curlers in her hair, waving a rolling pin above her head like they do in the movies. Tito was making his way on over for a visit, and he was paying for it by getting an earful from his ole lady. She didn’t like me very much, and she screamed real loud about it. She also squallered about her Viejo’s lack of money, his drinking too much, and his need to stay away from that dirty, drunken redneck Gringo from across the street.
“He’s no bueno. That’s why his Vieja left him…Fucken drunks,” she said.
“Why did you leave me, baby girl?” I whispered into Sharleen’s pink G-string.
The doorbell rang, and I wanted to yell out, “Go away!” so that I could be left alone to read my dirty book, scratch my scratchers, and listen to ole Merle sing. But I felt bad for Tito. He got into it with his wife and risked sleeping on the couch on my account. He’d heard the big bad news and came to check on his good pal Larry. God bless that little brown-skinned fella, all five-foot-three of him.
Bullshit. I knew better. The truth was that Tito thirsted after my beer. His wife forbade alcohol. She kept their home like a dry county on a hot summer’s day. Sharleen would try that shit too from time to time, but it never worked. Not on me. I was no pushover like Tito. Not one bit. Still, I had nothing against the fella. He at least still had a woman.
I opened up, and there he was, Tito jammed into a sea of denim and flannel glory. A dirty trucker hat on top of his head. “Hola,” I said.
He swooped right past me and made himself comfortable on my couch. I closed the door with a hardy thump and slouched next to him.
“Ey compradre, where’s the cervezas?” He asked.
He commenced to drink and drink and talk and talk, and although I tuned him out for good portions, I couldn’t ignore him altogether because it’s in his nature to be annoyingly inquisitive.
“Good God, Ler, why does it stink so bad in here? Is that why your Vieja left? She couldn’t stand the stank? But really, Ler, what’d you do to Sharleen? Did you smack her? You know some women need that from time to time…I saw her take all her things the morning she gone up and left. Did she tell you she was leaving? Dios, you guys were together…for how long? Three, four, five years? Hey buddy, this isn’t all the cervezas you have, is it, pal? ‘ey, hombre, what’s that around your neck?”
I lifted Sharleen’s underwear and said, “This…this is real love.”
“It looks like your Vieja’s dirty panties to me.”
Of course, Tito’d be the kind of person to take something pure and beautiful like my love for Sharleen and turn it into something ugly and perverted.
Tito stood up and walked over to where my cassettes were scattered on the shag carpeting, next to the three-piece stereo system. He kneeled down and scanned my collection of Mexican folk songs. I was more than likely the only Gringo he knew who could sing along to Vicente Fernandez’s La Ley del Monte. Tito picked up a cassette and stopped playing Merle so that he could start playing Vicente’s El Rey. I was more than tempted to pull out my revolver and tell him to leave good ole Merle well enough alone. But Tito would sing along with Vicente if I let him, and that’d be better than him probing into the whys of my life. So I left him unshot.
Tito did sing along and drank my beer, one after another.
I rubbed Sharleen’s g-string with my fingers and noticed that the tag hung by a thread. By then, many of the sequins had fallen off. But it didn’t matter none. The way Sharleen’s behind looked in that piece of nylon and cotton always made my mouth water.
“Jesus,” I said.
About seven years ago, before she and I moved in together, Sharleen would come to my place, and we’d take these long naps together in the middle of the day inside my red-walled bedroom. At the time, I was nineteen and living with my pa. He’d be out of our trailer house, doing his regular nine to five. I’d be in bed, lying next to Sharleen, hard and trying hard to get her to take her jeans or shorts or skirt or whatever she damn wore off of her. Even back then, she liked to tease. My face would be a mixture of tears, sweat, and frustration, and I’m guessing seeing me that way was some kind of boost to her fragile ego. Not that she had a fragile ego, but at eighteen, she was still a girl, and all girls are fragile no matter what they say.
Fuck, fuck, and fuck. With those memories swirling around in my head, I began to cry, but only a little. Tito made as if he didn’t see me, and I get it. It’s an awkward thing to witness, a grown man crying.
“God danged,” I said softly.
“Listen, Ler, it’s okay. I’m your pal. You can talk to me. What happened? Do you have another piece on the side? Sharleen found out? That’s what happened wasn’t it? It’s okay, we’re only men. It’s natural . . . But ‘ey, Don’t worry ’bout it. You’re still young. Take it from me, who’s much older, you’ll do just fine. You’ll get over it. You’re, what do you Gringos from your neck of the woods say, ah yes, a tall-drink-of-water. I’m not coming on to you buddy, but you’re a good-looking guy. You’re what? Six-two, six-three, and built like a thoroughbred. And sure, maybe your hair is starting to go thin and your hairline’s receding, but under bad lighting, it’s hardly even noticeable…”
I narrowed my eyes at Tito, got up, rubbed a cold one up against the fly of my blue jeans, and moseyed up to the gold vein mirror above the stereo. The top of the speakers were covered with filmy rings of residue from never having used any coasters, and Vicente’s booming voice vibrated the walls and shook the mirror. Staring at my own reflection, I partly agreed with Tito. I was indeed built like a thoroughbred. I had hair on my chest, and my body was muscular, firm, and hard. Sharleen would surely miss this. Well, it was gonna be her loss. I then leaned forward to take a better look at what the hell Tito was talking about in regards to my hair. I ran my fingers through it a couple of times but couldn’t figure out what it was he was seeing, so I turned the volume up on the stereo, hoping Tito would get the cue and quiet down.
But he kept poking me with his talk. Irritated and feeling resigned, I reached for my Lotto scratchers and was about to get at them when Tito asked if he could get at them first. Shoving the scratchers in his face, I said, “Go ahead, but keep your damn thoughts to yourself.”
“Orale, Ler. Sure thing.” Tito dug a penny out of his pocket and got to scratching. “Nothing on this one pal. This one, no winner. Oooh, ticket; that’s five dollares. Can I keep this ticket, Ler? Next one. Nope, not a winner. Oh, Dios, five hundred!” Tito stood and hollered. “Ler, we won. We won. God danged, we won. We gotta celebrate. What damn luck. What damn, stupid luck! Oye Ler, listen, just listen. Mike Tyson fights tonight, and I got this bookie friend downtown. We can increase our money real easy tonight. What luck. Tyson fights that bum Douglas. Easy money. Tyson is a forty-two to one favorite.”
A sure bet if I’d ever seen one. “Why the hell not,” I said.” Call your bookie friend,” and Tito did. Right when he was telling the shady figure on the other line, “Quinientos dollares para Tyson,” I interrupted.
“No. Five-hundred for Douglas,” I said.
“Good one, Ler.”
“I’m not kidding.” Like I mentioned before, the best time to gamble is when you’re at your lowest. If Tyson won, the payout wouldn’t have been enough to buy second-rate dog piss, but if Douglas won, that’d be twenty-one thousand dollares.
“I won’t do it, Ler. This is our money. I won’t lose it. Tyson’s not going to lose. He won’t lose. He can’t lose.”
“Like hell you won’t. Make the bet. That there is my money,” I said and pulled out the revolver.
Tito looked me in the eyes. He gripped the winning ticket, not ready to say goodbye to any of it. I cocked the gun, and Tito’s eyes went big. He had this real scared look on his poor mug, “Ler, come on, who are you kidding. Five hundred for Douglas?” He said. I pulled the trigger, shooting the couch underneath him. Six shots. Six bullet holes. Tito’s face went whiter than mine. Hell, it went whiter than Terry M. Colb, the kid from down the street, and that boy’s a God danged albino. Tito’s voice quivered over the phone as he said, “Quinientos para Douglas.” On the other line, the bookie-friend laughed. Tito hung up, looked my way, and said, “Adios dinero…now we just gotta find a place to watch the fight…and drink some more…but before that, Ler, please do me a favor, please go take a damn shower ’cause if you shooting me doesn’t kill me, your stench certainly will.”
I knew that I should, so I jumped into the shower with three cans of beer. It felt real nice, the warm water hitting my chest and sliding down my back, the cold beer going down my throat and into my belly, then pissing down the drain and watching the yellow swirl away. Felt real good.
When I came out of the shower, I felt refreshed, but not by much. I still missed Sharleen a whole lot, so I went ahead and put her underwear back around my neck. I’ll say this, standing naked in the bathroom with Sharleen’s G-string made me feel closer to her, so I stood there for a good while before putting on any clothes.
Tito jumped into my truck and into the driver’s seat. He was less intoxicated than I was, and he wanted to drive. But seeing how Tito is brown, his chances of being pulled over by the cops were much higher than mine. “Scoot over,” I told him, “I’m driving,” and he moved to the passenger’s side without putting up a fight. I sat behind the steering wheel, turned on the ignition, and kissed Sharleen’s underwear for good luck in the same manner that Tito and his kin kiss rosary beads for heavenly protection whenever they’re about to go everywhere.
Tito and I kept passing a can of Old Milwaukee back and forth like if it was the last cigarette on earth. After taking the last gulp, Tito pointed me to a God-forsaken place called La Playa Bar. Inside, there was nothing but Mexicans, and more Vicente Fernandez played on the jukebox. He was their Johnny Cash and Hank Williams rolled into one, and all the men in the bar sung along to a tune about some poor dope who ripped his veins to shreds because of a love gone wrong. That much I understood, or maybe I reckoned that because that’s how I felt myself.
The bar’s floor was covered in sticky grime, and my steps sounded like Velcro coming apart every time I took a stride. The patrons themselves had vomit on their breaths, and I could smell the vinegar-like stench. From the bar’s dark corners, I could also smell the potency of their piss. The place was small and packed with older men whose eyes were spider-webbed red around the irises. Mostly, they wore cowboy hats, cowboy boots, big belt buckles, and denim jackets lined with warm beige Sherpa that covered hard-earned sinewy muscles. Those older men tended to lean to one side but never fell. The young ones who were scattered about stood with their arms crossed, legs far apart, and they scratched and adjusted their family jewels every so often.
At the far ends, women sat on stools and laughed with ease and stretched their legs real friendly-like. They wanted to show the magic that lay in between their legs. Tito got in my ear, “Look at those legs. I bet…” and he headed that way without completing his sentence.
“The poor fool, they’re gonna take everything he’s got,” I said and maneuvered myself to the counter. The lady serving the drinks had been a real beauty in her heyday, I could tell. I gave her a good eyeful and began imagining her in Sharleen’s G-string. A passing of the torch.
No one paid any real attention to me or to the underwear I was wearing like a necklace. Everyone was too busy looking at the three large monitors mounted on the walls, next to posters of girls in bikinis holding frosty bottles of beer, the nineteen-eighty-six Mexican national soccer team, and the great Mexican boxing champ, Julio Cesar Chavez.
I myself kept looking at the bartendress whenever she walked away. She was the Latin version of Sharleen. A bit on the shorter side, darker hair and darker skin, bigger eyes, a bigger bust, sharper penciled in eyebrows. But her behind was just as plump, and she moved it from side to side as if she was on a conga line. When she came to me, I tried a line or two on her, but she didn’t give me much of a response, so I let sleeping dogs lie because I’ve never been one to beg. But I thought this: women have no idea how much we need them, their bodies, their skin, their warmth. A pretty woman’s touch can revitalize the soul of any man and bring him back from the dead. If only they could learn to love us unconditionally, we’d be kings.
The fight was about to begin.
No one at the bar took Buster Douglas seriously, not even his opponent, Iron Mike Tyson, whose arms, chest, torso, and thighs really looked like they were made out of hard iron. Walking around the ring, Tyson reminded me of a caged tiger ready to devour a wild boar. Everybody was certain that Iron Mike was going to beat Douglas in a matter of seconds. But Douglas had other ideas. Showing no fear, he jumped on Tyson from the get-go. With every passing round, Douglas only got stronger. He showed good lateral movements, popping Tyson with jabs, hitting him with earth-shattering one-two combinations. In the fourth round, Tyson had the same look I had when I came home and realized my Babydoll was gone for good.
The crowd in the bar couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t either, but then it really started to sink in: tonight and tomorrow and the day after, I’d be sleeping alone. Tears rolled down my face. Fuck, not again, I thought to myself.
A few brown eyes fell upon me, and I began hearing the whispers about the Gringo who bet a small fortune on Tyson.
Over at the far end of the bar, Tito was hugging a young thing in a red dress. He bought her drinks with cherries. He was grinning and cheering wildly, overjoyed by what he was seeing.
“Fuck, these things don’t just happen. A forty-two to one favorite doesn’t simply lose,” I said, but no one listened or cared.
I began feeling sorry for Mike. He had never known defeat. He always won just like Sharleen always came back. That’s how it was supposed to be. That the fact was I needed Tyson to knock the shit out of Douglas and win the fight. That would set things right, back to their proper course. If he did that, I knew my Babydoll would be coming back.
In the eighth round, a miracle. Tyson knocked Douglas down with an uppercut. I celebrated. Jumped. Smiled. Pumped my fist in the air. But in the next round, Douglas seemed unfazed. He was steady on his feet, popping the jab, keeping Tyson at bay. I really broke down by then. Tyson was beat. I knew it. No matter what, Sharleen wouldn’t be coming back.
In the tenth round, Mike fell and hit the canvas hard. The ten count started. The ref, in Tyson’s face, yelled, “One, two.”
The ref’s fingers matched his words. Tyson, flat on his back, gazed at the referee in disbelief. How could this have happened?
Iron Mike no longer appeared to be carved out of iron. His body looked soft as he rolled to his side and got himself on all fours. The ref expressed the numbers five and six with his fingers and shouted them out. Tyson had four seconds to get back up, but he needed his mouthpiece, which had been punched out and laid on the mat. Tyson clawed at it. The ref’s fingers went from seven to eight. Tyson wasn’t going to quit. He had every intention to keep going. Finally, with the mouthpiece back in place but hanging like a pacifier, Tyson raised himself up.
It was too late. The count had reached ten, and the referee waved off the bout and hugged poor Mike Tyson, who looked punch-drunk and miserable. The ref whispered something into Tyson’s ear. But no matter what he told him, it would never ease the heartache.
Tito yelled, “Yes! Yes! Oh Dios, yes!”
A voice said, “Mira, como llora el Gringo,” noticing how I was sobbing like a little girl in that cantina bar.
Real quick, it got real quiet, and I could hear the talk.
“Porque esta llorando?”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with him? Why’s he crying?”
“He must’ve bet on Tyson.”
“I wonder how much he lose?”
“He probably bet the whole house. Poor hombre.”
“His vieja is going to kill him. Lo va a mata.”
I wiped the tears away using Sharleen’s underwear. An old-timer with wrinkles, which made me think of aerial photographs of the Grand Canyon, straight-out asked, “Oye, amigo, how much’d you lose?”
“Everything. I lost everything…Todo,” God Almighty, I felt dead, buried six feet under. If I hadn’t wasted the bullets by shooting my couch, I would’ve ended it right then and there.
The lady behind the bar, the one with the fat behind, looked me in my bloodshot, watery eyes. She jumped on her conga line and danced her way to me and showed me a little kindness by pouring me a shot of Tequila—an old Mexican cure for whatever ails you.
When Tito saw that, he winked at me and said, “Let’s all buy this pobre Gringo una cervaza…Poor guy just lost it all.”
And it began like a chorus, “Una cerveza para mi pobre amigo.” One by one, every good-hearted Mexican in that cantina bought me a drink. Even the women at the far ends came and put their arms around me and twirled my hair around their painted fingernails. It was going to be A – O – K. The women were going to raise me up from the dead with their skimpy outfits, hugs, and kisses. If that didn’t work, the Mexicans were going to put me out of my misery with shots of Agua Ardiente to the gut and by drowning me with a shitload of beer, half of which Tito would drink himself. Who could’ve ever thought that my life would’ve turned into some kind of dimestore novel.