Cruising down River Park Drive in Nick's Delta 88 Royale; I'm shotgun, Aaron's in the back. Were Carlos with us, it'd be just like the week after high school graduation seven years ago-the four of us driving around Wichita, fresh off Ray Nauman's suicide, dreaming about pussy and dorm rooms and getting the hell out of Kansas. It was a telephone booth future back then; we were all Clark Kents making the undercover bid for a piece of cloud. Nobody stays airborne long.
Aaron is going through a divorce now; he just moved home from Tulsa. Beer's on me tonight to mark the occasion. Nick steers us over the Murdock bridge. No automobile on earth is more beautiful than this Delta 88: big, boxy, and gray as modeling clay; four doors and whitewall tires. A 1978 model, one year before the oil crunch and the K-Car hysteria. Nick works at a bank, and the ashtray is full of contraband Super Bubble.
Outside, I spot three homeless guys walking along the railroad tracks behind the liquor store on Waco Street. I had to do 100 hours of work at the shelter a year or so ago, and I recognize one of them as Sterling. I'm surprised he's still in town.
"Are you training to be a preacher?" Sterling had asked me when I first met him. He'd gotten all his baggage stolen on the Greyhound from Dallas to Des Moines. His nose had been split open, and it was pinched shut with a piece of masking tape. The cops had called me at the shelter, and I drove over and picked him up at the bus station.
"The judge has me doing community service," I'd told Sterling. My crime had been petty and childish, and I didn't elaborate. Most of the guys at the shelter just assumed I was a bar-fighter or a wife-beater. Vagueness gave me the moral low-ground and helped me fit in. Occasionally some grizzled oldster would even preach Jesus to me.
"I had to do community service once, " Sterling had said. "Got jail the second time around."
"I deserved it."
"You gonna get a new bus ticket?"
"Don't know. Don't even care. Maybe I'll just stay in Kansas for a while. I wasn't going anywhere anyway."
"Maybe the cops will find the guy who took your bags."
"For all I know a little old lady took my bags. I was asleep when it happened.
"Who busted your nose, then?"
"Nobody. That happened playing tennis."
Big Sky Saloon is just past Broadway on Douglas. Brick walls, weird artwork, pool tables, rude help, Elvis fighting for juke time with Nine Inch Nails. They tried to hold poetry readings in the back room once, but fooseball tables proved more popular. Nick launches into a story about his old college roommate in Topeka ("To-puke-a") as we get our first pitcher of Bud Light. "Matt was this football meat-head who saved all his beer bottle-caps and pull-tabs in a Pittsburgh Steelers trash can," Nick says. "The day of the LA Riots he up and declares he's gonna go to the mall and find himself a piece of ass. Two hours later he comes back with the most enormous high-school girl I've ever seen. I mean, this girl was fat. Fat fat. Ugly fat.
"Why did he bring her home?"
Nick pauses for a second. "Well, she was wearing this really cool hat."
"He brought her home for the hat?"
"He brought her home to fuck her. The hat was just a bonus."
"So did he? Fuck her, I mean."
"He tried. I'd stolen a bottle of Jim Beam from a wedding the week before, so we all did bourbon shots and watched Reginald Denny get his ass beat on live TV. All the while Matt's trying to talk the girl back into his bedroom, but she wasn't even getting drunk. The bourbon just soaked in and sweated right out of her. On her way home she drove her car into Shunga Creek. Too sober to fuck; too drunk to drive, I guess. The wreck made the 10 o'clock news, right along with the riots and the sports and the weather."
"Whatever happened to the hat?"
"Never found out."
We're peering around as Nick is telling his story; Aaron spots a couple girls we knew in high school. The prettier one is named Kathy. She looked 30 years old when she was 15, and she looks 30 years old now. She is and always has been beautiful in an uninteresting way, like a day when the sun shines and nothing happens. She'll probably look 30 years old when she's 50. She had my mom for a second grade teacher.
One of us will have to go talk to them, but nobody volunteers just yet. I can tell Aaron wants to, but every time he looks over at them he sags and frowns, like his clothes have just turned to chain-mail. He's thinking about his wife again. He sucks down the first pitcher before Nick and I can finish a glass. The barmaid replaces the empty pitcher with a full one and I hand her a five. She looks over at Aaron.
"You look like just Bruce Willis, only younger," she says. Aaron barely acknowledges her. "But you're too good-lookin' to be so sad, Brucie boy." He gives her a shrug, pouring himself another beer. He drinks it down with a single, slow gulp.
"Maybe you just need yourself a Demi Moore," I say when the barmaid leaves.
"Who wants real life? I'll take Cybill Shepherd."
"Forget Cybill Shepherd. That was all preparation and no H. All sexual tension and no sex. Moonlighting was never as good after they did the big nasty. It was like taking the hot pants off Daisy Duke. The show lost its mystery."
Aaron smirks. "Nobody experiences the mystery of the Dukes of Hazzard until they've seen it on Italian TV: 'Palermo la vida nomo Boss Hog veni vici.'" Nick and I laugh, but Aaron is already back to glancing around and sagging. "I don't want to do the big nasty," he sighs. "Just want to smell a woman's hair."
Clark Kent dreams in X-Ray vision, but the waking world is built on kryptonite. Two years ago we were all doing things that seemed so much more relevant, more dramatic. I spent a year working my way around Alaska; Nick fell in love with a dark-eyed, long-limbed Venezuelan girl and moved to Caracas. Aaron was a trained killer, commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, a Slavic-language specialist. Drilled in Germany, studied in the Ukraine, even did some spook work in Belarus. He has a million stories about forced marches, Russian hookers, and Budapest bar brawls. But stories is all they are now. He quit the army for his wife, and now his wife has quit him. He polishes off the second pitcher and flags the barmaid for a third.
"That does it," I say to him. "If you want to smell some hair, then I'm going to find you some."
"Make sure it's attached to a woman, goddamn it."
"Don't press your luck."
Extroversion has never been my suit, but I feel a sense of duty. I walk over and sit down with beautiful, boring Kathy. Her friend's name, she reminds me, is Julie. We talk the standard haven't-seen-you-since-high-school litany. Take, eat, ladies, this is small-talk, given for you. Ten minutes, then I casually wave Nick and Aaron over. Aaron plunks the third pitcher on the table, empty, and leaves to take a piss.
Nick and I have nothing to say to these girls, but we try anyway. As usual, I manage to be interesting without being charming, telling Kelly stories of my travels that she will forget when she leaves. Nick, who after a few beers always feels singularly chosen to inspire the human race, grabs Julie's hand. "What do you want to be on this earth?" he demands.
"I haven't picked a major yet."
"No, no! What were you born for? What does your soul want?"
Julie looks confused. "I don't know. What does your soul want?"
Nick pauses, looking for the most effective answer. "I want to fall asleep tonight with my head between your breasts."
The barmaid walks up. "Die Hard just punched his ticket in the Jane room."
"Your friend's in the ladies toilet. You'd better go get him."
Kathy and I get up to investigate. The Jane room is across from the fooseball tables in the back, right next to the Tarzan room. We find Aaron in the back stall, halfway slumped off the toilet. Above him, a tampon dispenser bears an advertisement for the Word of Life Church: "Jesus is There for You." I nudge Aaron, but he doesn't react. I throw his arm over my shoulder and start to heft him out.
"At least his pants are up," Kathy offers.
Nick and Julie follow us outside. The cool air stirs Aaron, who looks up and gives me a weak smile. "Hey Jesus," he slurs.
Aaron gently pushes me off and vomits onto the sidewalk. Behind us, Nick is showing Julie the clouds. In the end, despair is nothing more than a word, fodder for cartoon bubbles. Clark Kent knows as much.
Above, the sky leaks its stuffing out into the corners of the night like a tattered baby blanket. Nobody outside the plains ever gives Kansas much thought, but we're alive and well here. It's a secret that makes us stronger.