The Tallest Man in America, Part One
Updated: Apr 15
The tallest man in the world is African; he stands 9’2” tall. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Government of Zambia evacuated its diplomatic staff from Mexico, the tallest man in the world bumped his head on the ceiling of the passport office in Mexico City.
This is not the story of the tallest man in the world getting his passport and moving from Africa to Canada. This is the story of a guy I hung out with for a few months after high school, a guy named Curtis Maynard, who just happened to have the same first and last name as the tallest man in the world. This is the story of how I met the devil’s nephew in Thunder Bay, Ontario, but quickly grew tired of his bullshit, and chose to walk a different path in life.
The summer I finished high school, I drifted from Nipigon, Ontario to Thunder Bay after my best friend left our hometown a year earlier for Hollywood, California. James Duke gave me a stack of Spider-Man comic books to look after until he got back from Hollywood, but in a fit of loneliness, I read the books, then sold them to raise enough money to buy a truck.
With ten weeks to burn off until I entered Lakehead University, my idea was to live in the truck while earning some money working a summer job, save up some cash for school.
The next afternoon, I got hired to pump gas at the Husky station on Highway 61.
My first day at the Husky, I watched one of the guys who worked in the garage repair the sole of his left boot by gluing the boot with rubber cement, binding the repair with duct tape. The guy whistled as he worked, unaware I was watching him cheap out on buying a new pair of boots for work in the garage. And this was a guy pretty much the same age as me, making considerably more money than me, but even the money he was making obviously still wasn’t enough to afford a new pair of boots, not even for work. The same guy was using masking tape as a bandage.
That was a real eye-opener. How far ahead was I going to get, earning minimum wage?
Already I reeked of diesel, no matter how long that summer I scrubbed my fists in the sink, even with volcanic rock soap I couldn’t get the headache-inducing smell of it off my hands.
That’s like waking up one day and finding out your house is beside a huge sign declaring your neighbourhood the site of a Soil Rehabilitation Project. You just feel worthless, white trash, living in a slum like a fucking scumbag and you didn’t even know it, until the government put up a sign beside your house to let everyone know your backyard is toxic dirt, and so are you.
My second day at work, I was picking up food at the No Frills supermarket across from the gas station when Curtis Maynard walked in, helped himself to a pizza sub sandwich from the refrigerated counter, grabbed a chocolate milk, and walked out without paying. The guy acted so natural, smiling at me as he went out the door with his lunch, my first thought was, he must work here. But Maynard was shirtless, shoeless, wearing faded bellbottom jeans, so I followed him out into the parking lot, wondering where he had come from, acting so casual, wondering if he had a special arrangement with No Frills. Maybe the guy worked at the Husky, and grabbed lunch on a regular basis, running a tab, because we weren’t allowed to eat in the restaurant.
“Hey, buddy: do you work around here?”
“So how’d you get the sandwich?”
“I just took it.”
“Why?” he was starting to piss me off.
“I was hungry,” he smiled again, then bit off a hunk of sandwich and continued chewing, never breaking eye contact, “What are you having for lunch?” he gestured in my direction with a dirty finger, hands black with grime, “Day-old donuts, from the clearance section? Come on, you can do better than that. That’s just crap. There’s plenty of good food in the store. Nobody should be forced by poverty to eat ramen noodles and rice cakes, just to survive.”
I followed Maynard back into the store. He returned to the refrigerated counter, grabbed a ham-and-cheese croissant, an egg salad sandwich, another carton of chocolate milk, and a box of ketchup-flavoured Old Dutch potato chips. He smiled at me. Then he walked right out the sliding doors of the supermarket, back into the parking lot, and started shaking my chocolate milk.
“Do you want the ham-and-cheese, or egg salad?”
I took the ham-and-cheese croissant. I wouldn’t share the ketchup-flavoured potato chips with him, not even to be friendly; his scabby-looking fists were blacker than mine, and he didn’t even have a job. My hands were grey with the smell of diesel, but maybe, his hands were blacker than mine, had to be, because he didn’t have a job.
“What’s your name?” Maynard asked me.
“Emmett Grogan,” I answered.
“Emmett Grogan? That’s your real name, really? You have a truck?”
“Yeah. I’m parked over at the Husky right now, behind the garage.”
“That’s cool. I’ve got a tent behind the Husky. I know a restaurant, it’s on the other side of town. You like Chinese buffet? My name’s Curtis Maynard. Pleased to meet you. One month with me, and you’ll have enough money to quit your job at the gas station, and go fishing for the rest of the summer. Come back here tonight, at 8:00 PM. I’ll be waiting right here, don’t be late.”
We were stuffing our faces at the Imperial Buffet by 8:30 that night. Maynard had put on an incredibly ugly Hawaiian shirt, and brand-new runners, I mean, brand-new, in that he left the box for the shoes on the floor of my truck. He had also acquired a belt buckle of the Confederate flag, he must have grabbed it in a head shop or a tattoo parlour, because they didn’t sell gear like that at Zellers. While I had been at work that afternoon, pumping gas for minimum wage, he had been out stealing his way across Thunder Bay, from Victoriaville Mall to Red River Road. Curtis Maynard was the Magic Bag Man. But right off the bat, I could see his problem was, he spent his days and nights stealing stuff that was essentially worthless.
Maynard stole things for no reason. He stole stuff he didn’t need, didn’t even want.
Curtis Maynard stole stuff because he just plain enjoyed thieving.
He stole pens, pencils, ash trays, disposable lighters, newspapers, decks of cards. He stole dog food, cat food, pocket combs, plastic forks, paper plates, toothbrushes. He stole packages of salt and pepper, packages of ketchup, handfuls of paper napkins, Band-Aids. He stole light bulbs, thumb tacks, elastic bands, Bristol board, magic markers, pencil crayons, liquid paper, postcards. He stole baseball caps, t-shirts, tennis balls, golf balls, penny candy, bottles of water, toilet paper, garbage bags. He stole sunglasses, scratch-off lotto tickets, cassette tapes. He even stole books!
Close your eyes.
If I were to ask you, what colour are your shoes, and you couldn’t tell me without looking down at your feet, you’d be at the same level of self-consciousness as Curtis Maynard.
Not that he was a dumb guy. Quite the contrary.
You have to be mentally tough to be a thief. It’s an unforgiving lifestyle, really.
Maynard could be quite canny about his environment. When it came to shoplifting, he was an expert at reading the people around him. Who was watching him, who wasn’t. Where to stand in a store so that the staff wouldn’t notice him loading his pockets with merchandise. Who to smile at, and whose notice to sidestep. A shoplifter shoplifts, but a thief is out there every day, all day. Thieving is a full-time job, if you’re doing it properly. You’ve got to be as disciplined as a pro athlete, if you want to make dozens of little scores add up to one big score, day in, day out.
Grade Eight Graduation is a big day on Manitoulin Island. Then there was the summer Maynard spent driving from Espanola to Kenora each weekend, ripping off the cash from every videogame and vending machine north of Lake Superior because he lifted the coin box key from the vending machine company. Maynard only got caught because he cleaned out the entire route two days before the regular service guy was scheduled to pick up the money. Then there was the winter Maynard spent managing a video arcade in Wawa, Ontario. Within a month of getting the job, the arcade was empty all day, closing at midnight each night, at which hour Maynard would switch off the lights, unlock the front door, and charge each kid waiting in the line-up $2 cash to play unlimited games on the free toggle. Which was a clever scheme for Maynard, but not such a great deal for the video arcade, almost running the long-successful business into the ground, until Maynard got fired for short-changing the bank by depositing coin rolls padded with nickels. How he never thought he’d eventually get caught, I don’t know, but his amorality fascinated me.
The reason Maynard never amounted to anything was, most of his petty scams seemed to involve stealing quarters. He was breathtakingly short-sighted.
Maynard’s last girlfriend had trapped him in their bedroom with eight cats. When I say trapped, I mean, she nailed the windows shut behind the curtains, and removed the doorknobs he needed to open the door to escape their bedroom. Maynard was deathly allergic to cat hair. That girl was a real beauty, but you didn’t want to cross her. She had almost murdered him, but it was all a simple misunderstanding. They had been living outside of Thunder Bay in a winterized log cabin, borrowed from an absent local. Maynard shouldn’t have sold the girl’s stuffed toys to pay for firewood to heat the cabin, when there was a forest right behind the property. When the legal owners of the cabin returned from Manitoba, Maynard had put his girlfriend on a Greyhound bus and sent her home to her mother in Quebec, three months pregnant.
“And that’s how I ended up living in a tent behind the Husky.”
“How much money do you make with your thieving?”
“Last year I earned more money than the Premier of Ontario, but I haven’t got a pot to piss in. It’s a joke. I spend all my money on gambling, lap dances, and Chinese buffet. You work 40 hours a week to earn money to buy stuff, I just steal the stuff you work for, I don’t work long hours stealing the stuff you pay for. I don’t need money for food, clothes, or a place to sleep. If I need money for something I can’t steal, I sell some of the stuff I steal for walking-around money. It’s really that simple. The streets are paved with diamonds.”
“How long would it take you to get $800? Eight hundred dollars to start.”
“Not too long. There’s always something going on. Is that what you owe on the truck?”
“Something like that.”
“Don’t worry. I know a lot of people. I’ll get something set up for us. How soon do you need the money? Please don’t tell me you’re paying interest on a bank loan. That’s just robbery.”
“I need $800 as soon as possible. Why are you touching my food?”
“Are you going to eat those?” Maynard asked innocently, having stabbed his unclean fork into both of my chicken balls, picking at my food while I wasn’t watching his hands.
“Dude: it’s a buffet.”
“So go get some more. You just gotta walk across the room and take it.”
“When can we get started making some serious money?” I pushed my plate away.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Maynard leaned back in his chair, and burped.
“Nothing. I quit my job. One of the guys in the Husky garage lost a thumb this afternoon. I’m never going back there. I’m ready to start tonight. I took a full tank of gas as severance when I drove off the lot. I don’t think they’ll be sending out my last paycheque, the dirty cocksuckers.”
If you’re only going to pay for one meal a week, Chinese buffet is the way to go.
And yet Maynard traded the Hawaiian shirt right off his back for the bill. Our waiter met us in the parking lot, took the incredibly ugly shirt from Maynard, and tore up the receipt for our dinner. I had thought the waiter was joking, flattering Maynard to get a bigger tip, but apparently he was dead serious about wanting to make a trade for the shirt.
So we began stealing right after dinner that night, and there was no messing around with dollar-store inventory: no sports socks, no key chains, no ramen noodles or rice cakes. We stole liquor, cigarettes, cough syrup, men’s razor blades, condoms, pregnancy tests. We stole perfume, nail polish, lipstick, hair spray, face cream, contact lens solution. We stole diapers, baby formula, laundry detergent. We stole blue jeans, running shoes, work boots, high-end lingerie, men’s long underwear, swimsuits. We stole maple syrup, licorice all-sorts, boxes of chocolate bars, batteries, spray paint. We stole wristwatches, bracelets, earrings, pirate skull rings, pornography. We stole VHS tapes, CDs, vinyl records. We even stole a cheese wheel from an Italian restaurant, drove it across town, and sold it to another Italian restaurant, before taking a case of wine from them, and selling it back to the first restaurant! It was exhilarating, empowering, the sense that we could do whatever we wanted, we weren’t trapped like welfare rats by our circumstances.
We spent two months stealing everything of any value that we could get our hands on. Every once in a while, Maynard would backslide, and steal an air freshener for my truck, or a tin of cat food, even though he didn’t have a cat. The larger problem was, just when we’d get a little money set aside, Maynard would go out on a bender, drop $100 in quarters at a strip club. It was hard to keep our operation financed, when I had to pay premium insurance on the truck as a new driver. We stole gas from a construction site, the foreman even gave us hard hats each morning, no questions asked as we filled the truck and a few jerry cans for the road. But you can only sell so many pairs of brand-name hockey gloves or goalie pads in the middle of summer. Maynard had this idea of opening a storefront, a daylight-hours only pop-up operation in one of the many abandoned retail units in downtown Thunder Bay, post a lookout on the street, but his plan was to supplement our stolen goods with the junk you find in charity donation bins, and charge full price for everything, so that didn’t go too far. Who wants a garbage bag full of dirty old clothes?
Who would pay full price for shit you could find at a church sale?
Then Maynard even got a job. He took an apprenticeship as a butcher’s assistant at the No Frills across from the Husky on Highway 61. He liked the idea of being able to walk to work each day, and they started him out at $16.25 an hour, which was just ridiculous, considering the amount of meat that he was going to end up stealing from No Frills. We had to buy a freezer for the amount of prime rib steak Maynard stuck down his pants each day, and that set me back even further from my goal of saving $800 by the end of the summer.
I busted my ass while Maynard spent his weekday afternoons in air-conditioned comfort, but I wasn’t getting any further ahead. The windshield of my truck got chipped, which developed into a crack, so there was another $600 down the toilet. How do you steal a windshield? The heat shield over the gas tank started rattling, the muffler fell off, the winter tires were bald. Why was I stuck with premium insurance for a truck that should have been sold for scrap? It probably would have been cheaper to rent an apartment for the summer, and buy a bike to get around town, rather than live in my truck until entering residence at Lakehead University.
The Thursday before I was scheduled to register for university, Maynard woke up in a dumpster behind McDonald’s on Red River Road. He had spent the last three nights at Shakers, the local strip club, flicking coins at the featured performers. From a payphone, Maynard told me he had finally put together a big money deal, and it didn’t even involve stealing the merchandise.
I almost hung up the phone at the Hoito. The Hoito was the world-famous Scandinavian restaurant where I had breakfast each morning, blueberry pancakes, eggs, meat, potatoes, coffee and water. When I wasn’t out shoplifting with Maynard, I used the Hoito as an informal office, it had that vibe. You could hang out for hours at a time, nursing a single cup of coffee, and Tikkala Hoito himself might step out of the kitchen to sit down at the piano with his magnificent baritone voice, and lead the room in a rousing rendition of the Communist Internationale, despite the fact that the Berlin Wall had fallen almost a year earlier, communism was dead, and even Gorbachev would be under house arrest for three days in less than a year.
Whenever the crowd broke into song and rhythmic clapping, Maynard used to jump up on one of the banquet tables, and drunkenly dance the Cossack squat for laughs.
Maynard wanted me to drive him across the border to Minnesota on Friday. He had been trading Indian cigarettes for cheap booze to bring back for resale in Ontario since 1986. The age of majority in Minnesota was 21, unlike in the province of Ontario, but Maynard’s birthday was August 31, 1967; he had been nineteen years old on September 1, 1986, when the age of majority in Minnesota was raised from nineteen to 21. Maynard had a long-standing special arrangement with the manager of the roadside liquor store in the nearest border town; Maynard could pick up 120 cases of beer on trade, no questions asked, and resell it for almost four times the U.S. cost in Canada. For this deal, Maynard needed only my truck, and $1000 cash for the cigarettes.
Which is how I came to meet Maynard’s friend, Dirty Norman. They were more than just colleagues at No Frills, they had known each other since high school; Maynard should have been in college when Dirty Norman started grade nine, but Dirty Norman had left Manitoulin Island to join Maynard in Thunder Bay when Maynard telephoned Dirty Norman years ago to explain how easy it was to get welfare north of Lake Superior, especially if you were an Indian.
Who knew they had telephones on Manitoulin Island, prior to 1990? It would be another ten years before 911 was established on the largest freshwater lake island in the world.
Not nineteen, Dirty Norman was a year younger than me. He weighed maybe 98 pounds, soaking wet, but he had this ridiculous coif of feathered hair curling up underneath the lip of his Atlanta Braves baseball cap, so he looked taller than he actually was. His glasses alone probably weighed a couple of pounds, added to the hair swirling around his head, and the wispy mustache. But the kid had $1000 to invest in cigarettes among his people down at the reserve, so Maynard had brought him into the deal as a junior partner: $1250 for Dirty Norman; $1250 for the use of my truck that weekend; $2500 quick profit for Maynard when he flipped the 120 cases of beer to a bikers jamboree that Labour Day. The only way Maynard could have made more money in one weekend was if Brewers Retail had gone on strike across Ontario that summer, and we hijacked a train headed from Montreal to Winnipeg through the Thunder Bay shipyards.
Maynard and Dirty Norman were waiting for me outside Victoriaville Mall in downtown Thunder Bay with 10,000 cigarettes packed like bales of hay in clear plastic garbage bags. It was 9:00 in the morning, Friday. They must have taken the hourly shuttle bus from the mall out to the smoke shack operating tax-free at Fort William First Nation, while I got my shit together. I knew Maynard would be fast asleep in the back seat of my truck by the time I peeled off the curb, tires smoking, but Dirty Norman was wide-awake, and more than willing to talk about Maynard. They had known each other for quite some time. Speaking frankly, Dirty Norman filled me in on some important details about his friend. His friend, but my business partner.
“So, why do they call you Dirty Norman?”
I had known a guy in high school named Grubby Dave, he had me hold his cigarettes for him once at a bush party while he went to race his snowmobile, because he knew I didn’t smoke.
“Ah, Maynard started that nickname.”
For some inexplicable reason, Dirty Norman not only worked at No Frills, he was head butcher in the meat department, and had taken on Maynard as his apprentice that summer. But Dirty Norman dreamed a bigger dream than that: he wanted to become a male prostitute. He had seen help wanted ads in the Thunder Bay newspapers, and decided to call around the local escort agencies for details. If he could get paid to have sex with women, why give it away for free? He had a plan: he’d charge by weight: if a client was 98 pounds, he’d charge her $98; if she was 600 pounds, he’d charge her $600. He didn’t care: his idea was “Everybody needs somebody to love: fat chicks, skinny chicks, makes no difference to me. I’ll fuck ‘em by the pound!”
“We were at a house party in Espanola. Maynard had been talking to this woman on his CB all winter, some trucker broad who drove out of Sault Ste. Marie. They had been flirting for months, over the radio, telling each other dirty stories. So that night she was on her way to North Bay with her husband, she stops in at the party to hook up with Maynard while her husband is in the next room. She’s in her 30s, you know, like, somebody’s mom, but she still has an incredible body. Just smoking. She walks into the room, says, which one of you guys is Scott McCullough, I hear you have a 12-inch cock. Maynard steps forward, says, I’m Scott McCullough.”
“This woman doesn’t miss a beat, she unzips Maynard’s jeans, hikes up her skirt, climbs right on him, starts to ride. The whole room’s laughing, clapping, cheering them on. Maynard is pushed up against the wall, she’s totally in control of the situation. So I decide to walk over, stick my pinkie in her asshole while she’s banging out Maynard. She liked that! So, I step back, think about it for a moment, then lick my thumb and stick it in her ass while working my middle finger into her vagina. She really liked that. I was carrying her like a six-pack! Maynard’s huffing and puffing, like he’s gonna have a heart attack, it’s hysterical, but this woman just keeps riding him, even when her husband steps into the room to watch them fucking. She was getting off on being the centre of attention, anonymous public sex. I’m cupping her from underneath, like bouncing a bowling ball on my knee; she’s about to blow her load. Then Maynard froze up, said, Norman, you’re touching my balls, and the whole thing came to an end as quick as it started. She pushed my hand off her ass, climbed off Maynard, got dressed, and left the party without saying so much as goodbye. We never even got her real name. Next afternoon at the free STD clinic, as Maynard and I sat there together waiting to get swabbed for gonorrhea, they were already calling me Dirty Norman. They wedge a slice of sandpaper up the head of your cock for the test, but I don’t regret having a threesome with Maynard. Sex is beautiful; nothing is too gross for me when it comes to making love with a woman. I do it all. I love it all. It’s the best.”
“Why would you take him on as your apprentice at No Frills?”
“He’s like a father to me,” Dirty Norman paused to push his plastic-framed glasses back up the thick bridge of his crooked nose, “Sure, he’s a thief, and a liar, and he doesn’t even own a toothbrush, but he took me in when my parents died, put me through high school, paid my tuition when nobody else would. When he still owned his tarpaper shack, that place was like Disneyland for drop-outs. We slept all day, played videogames all night, ate backyard barbecue for breakfast. The last couple of years, he’s been living in welfare hotels during the winter off-season, sleeping in ditches during the summer. You’re lucky you still have this truck to live in. Maynard lost his truck when he drove it into the fire,” the kid fingered his mustache, maybe having said too much.
“The fire?” I pressed him.
“His house, the tarpaper shack caught on fire, so Maynard drove his truck into the flames, said fuck it, let the insurance money buy me a new truck as well. But it turned out, he didn’t have any insurance on either the shack, or the truck, so he’s been homeless ever since.”
Maynard was sawing logs in the back seat while Dirty Norman told me these stories.
We had been on the road for over an hour, and had almost reached the United States.
Dirty Norman looked at me cross-eyed, and I couldn’t help noticing how ugly he was.
“This deal in America, Maynard really needs it. He owes $2000 to the Bugger Brothers, Jake and Joey Hurd. Those two are the guys who take you out behind the Husky gas station, and cut off one of your thumbs when you don’t pay your bookie on time. Maynard’s got a gambling addiction, it’s not just Lotto 6/49 and horse racing. He bets on football with the Bugger Brothers, pre-season NFL games, and it won’t be that hard for them to find him when they come to collect their money, because he’s already out behind the Husky in his tent, sleeping in the rain.”
“How’s he going to afford visiting the strip club tonight? Don’t think I didn’t notice he was singing Happy Birthday to me this morning, and he wasn’t washing his hands! All he’s been talking about, since Monday night, is Marilyn Melons, at The Dollhouse, in Duluth, Minnesota.”
Dirty Norman sighed, which slid his glasses back down his face: “We spent all day yesterday going from Canadian Tire to Canadian Tire, gathering as many 5¢ Canadian Tire money paper bills as we could steal, because Maynard says they look like $5 American bills, in the dark. Each charity bowl we hit, we cleaned out all the cash, but then returned everything except the 5¢ bills. Even Maynard has standards. It wouldn’t be right, stealing Canadian Tire money from a charity bowl on Labour Day weekend in Canada. We’re not fucking scumbags, like Poppy Box thieves on Remembrance Day.”
“Yeah, well, while you and Maynard were going around town, stealing nickel coupons from Crappy Tire, I spent most of the day at Mister Muffler, getting the suspension repaired on the truck. Since we’ll be dragging 120 cases of beer across the border, I couldn’t put off getting the work done any longer. So, that’s another $450 out of my pocket. I really need this deal to go through just as much as Maynard does. I need $800 as soon as possible. I sold my best friend’s collection of Spider-Man comic books to get the money to buy this truck, and now I need to buy them back, since he’s in the hospital. This is not the time for Maynard to be fucking around with stealing toothpicks from a Greek restaurant, when we both have heavy debts to repay; this is the last weekend before I get off the street, and start university on Monday.”
And then, as if on cue, Maynard woke up, and filled the cab of my truck with a fart.
Crossing the border into the United States, there’s a plywood shack where you have to write your name in a ledger, and have your photograph taken. Coming back into Canada from the United States requires either a passport, or a driver’s license, and also two major credit cards. It’s much easier to get into America than to come back to Canada, as I would find out. As soon as the border patrol has your photograph up on the wall, you’ve got a month to do whatever you want, eat, shop, get laid, get a job. After 30 days away from Canada, the border guards toss your photo in the trash, they assume you’re not going back. You could be dead, for all they care.
In America, everything is a 24-hour buffet, even the liquor stores and gun shops, which are often under the same roof. From some reason, Maynard wanted to get a tattoo of a parrot on his shoulder, like a pirate. We were cruising the highway, windows rolled down, wind whipping through our hair, with Dirty Norman behind the wheel of my truck while Maynard and I planned out the rest of the afternoon in Minnesota, what we would do for a few hours after we traded the cigarettes to Maynard’s contact at the liquor store, and loaded 120 cases of beer into the payload of my truck and covered them with a tarp before returning to Canada the next morning.
We needed to find a dollar store, so that Maynard could shoplift a plastic tarp and several bungee cords to fasten down the corners of the tarp with, just in case it rained that night.
We needed to find an Imperial Buffet, so that Maynard could get his birthday lunch for free, then fill two smuggled Styrofoam trays with takeaway for the parking lot.
We needed to find a telephone book, so that Maynard could make fake IDs for myself and Dirty Norman: he had this trick he was exceptionally skilled at, where he took a telephone book, lifted numbers out of it with a piece of Scotch tape, then carefully applied the numbers to your driver’s license, in this case, bumping the birthdates for Dirty Norman and I back to July, 1962 and February, 1961, respectively. Going back ten years was just easier than forging 1969, or better yet, 1968 or 1967, on our documents, just to match Maynard’s year of birth.
But most of all, we needed to find a dirt cheap motel, no more than $24 for the night, in downtown Duluth, preferably within walking distance of The Dollhouse, in case Curtis Maynard “hit it off” (as he put it) with Marilyn Melons, and she ended letting him take her home. (Would that make her Marilyn Maynard, after the wedding?)
As Maynard and I studied the road atlas, Dirty Norman steered us into the parking lot at Rynard’s Border Store, just a quarter mile around the corner and over the hill from Canada. The deal went super smooth. We traded the cigarettes for 120 cases of beer, hired some teenagers in the parking lot to work the bucket brigade, and stacked the beer five cases wide, four cases deep, six cases high, approximately 5000 pounds in the payload of my 1983 Ford F-350. Maynard paid the teenagers with Canadian Tire money, apparently that trick works in sunshine as well, not just the dark, especially when the kids don’t notice your license plate is from Ontario.
We should have hauled ass out of the parking lot before someone realized Maynard had cheated the local football team out of $40, but fully loaded, it was going to take us seven or eight hours to drive down to Duluth with the beer, and God forbid we hit a stoplight. Too late, I asked why we weren’t picking up the beer on the way back to Canada, rather than dragging it south. It wasn’t a scam; it was simply a bad decision. But once we had loaded up the truck, we were stuck with the beer until Saturday afternoon, come hell or high water. Because we were on a dangerous mission: that weekend’s “bikers jamboree” turned out to be a hundred full-patch members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club counting on Maynard to deliver their beer for them, so what could possibly go wrong? Knowing Maynard, he would in all likelihood try selling them empties filled with tap water, get himself stomped half to death, and then be tossed on a bonfire: Maynard was kind of an idiot when it came to taking unnecessary risks, even with the Hells Angels.
Highway 61 took us right along the shoreline north of Lake Superior, to the very outskirts of downtown Duluth, before we switched to Interstate 35 for the last leg of the trip. We found the cheapest motel in northern Minnesota, less than a mile from the state border with Wisconsin. The Hotel California, it was not. There was a Goodwill outlet in the parking lot of the motel.
Out of habit, Maynard trotted right over to the thrift store, to steal a stack of Ed McBain paperbacks, vintage crime thrillers from the 1970s, and begin stripping off the die-pressed covers to make cardboard police badges for us, which was kind of a hobby for Maynard.
Before we checked into the No-Tell Motel, Dirty Norman asked Maynard: “Wow, Curtis, what do you think it’s gonna be like, sleeping indoors when there isn’t snow on the ground? How long has it been for you? Five years? Seriously, can you even remember what it’s like sleeping in an air-conditioned private room? Have you ever slept in an air-conditioned private room?”
We’d managed to shoplift a plastic tarp and several bungee cords from Rynard’s Border Store; Maynard had set up both me and Dirty Norman with fake IDs; and we figured there’d be a buffet at The Dollhouse, but after we got ready to step out for the evening, the question lingered, what were we going to do with the beer? We couldn’t just leave it under a tarp on the back of the truck: we needed to find a secure late-night area to park the truck, while we visited the strip club.
Maynard’s idea was to leave the truck in a police station parking lot, but I was planning on getting shit-faced, falling down drunk, despite the eight-hour drive home to Canada Saturday morning, and what was certain to be a heavy negotiation with the Hells Angels Saturday night. We considered parking the truck on an ambulance pad in front of a hospital, or inside a fire hall garage, then coming back for the beer after last call at The Dollhouse, but even Maynard’s balls weren’t that big (ask Dirty Norman: he could tell you!): it was too much of a risk.
In the end, we parked the truck in front of a fire hydrant, getting it towed to the overnight impound lot. We could always jump the fence at dawn, and drive back to Ontario without paying the release fee in Minnesota. What were they going to do, have us extradited from Canada over a parking ticket? This was before toll roads came to Ontario in 1997.
The surprising thing was, Duluth, Minnesota is smaller than Thunder Bay, Ontario, and so we could have easily walked to The Dollhouse from our motel. But since our motel was likely a former fish canning plant before becoming a waterfront dump, leaving 120 cases of beer out in the open, especially along the train tracks where hobos might be camping, wasn’t an option.
As we heaved open the metal doors of The Dollhouse, the music drifted into the lobby.
“ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, GENTLEMEN, PUT YOUR HANDS TOGETHER FOR THE LOVELY AND TALENTED MISS AMBER WAVES, AS SHE LEAVES THE MAIN STAGE TONIGHT AND MAKES HERSELF AVAILABLE FOR THE REST OF THE EVENING IN THE V.I.P. LOUNGE SHOWER STALLS, EXCLUSIVELY ON THE SECOND FLOOR OF MINNESOTA’S HOTTEST ADULT ENTERTAINMENT VENUE, THE DOLLHOUSE!”
“THE DOLLHOUSE IS NOW PROUD TO PRESENT, FOR ONE WEEK ONLY, OUR NEXT FEATURED ENTERTAINER, THE SEXY AND SOPHISTICATED, LOLA GROGAN. LOLA TO THE MAIN STAGE! LOLA TO THE MAIN STAGE! ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT!”
That announcement gave me a bit of a startle. I mean, when did strippers start having last names? Yeah, her picture was in the lobby, next to “Former XXX Adult Magazine and Film Star MARILYN MELONS One Week Only From The U.K.” but the girl’s stage name left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. It was a little too “on the nose”, even more so than “Marilyn Melons”.
I didn’t trust unexplained coincidences. It felt like somebody was fucking with me.
Maynard himself had invented the idea where two thieves break into an elderly couple’s apartment while they’re at the opera, steal everything except their toothbrushes and camera, but leave the toothbrushes and camera in the middle of the room, on the hardwood floor, so that two weeks later, when the elderly couple develop the film in the camera, they are left with photos of their toothbrushes stuck up the ass of one of the thieves.
Maynard did that to his own grandmother and grandfather, while living one summer in Toronto. He was fifteen at the time, the first time he had been sent away by his parents. It would be the only time they sent him away from Manitoulin Island for the summer, because a year later he was on the road, pretty much looking after himself, the Man Who Stole the World.
I pointed at the photo of Marilyn Melons, and asked Maynard: “What’s the deal with you and her? Why did we drive all the way down to Duluth for your birthday? They’ve got high-class peelers in Thunder Bay, these days. It’s not just ladies who’ve been off the circuit for five years.”
“It’s about respect: she’s a Page 3 girl in Britain. That’s full frontal nudity, Emmett.”
“Is she that old trouper who was on Oprah recently, talking about how most men take advantage of her, just because she has huge breasts? I mean, give me a break...” I rolled my eyes.
Then Curtis Maynard said something profound, like words he’d read in a book: “There’s something wrong with the world, when an 18-year-old girl is legally entitled to dance for money in a dark room full of strange men, provided she be paid no less than the state’s minimum wage.”
The three of us were dressed as plainclothes homicide detectives, wearing short-sleeved dress shirts, wide ties, and fake mustaches to match our slicked-back hair, the “greaseball” look popular on TV cop shows in the 1970s. If you’re going to act the part, you have to dress the part.
We hustled the bouncers with our fake IDs, and got into the club without a second look, even with the fake mustaches, scamming toward the main stage like sharks in chrome sunglasses.
The room was sweaty, packed solid even for a Friday night in August, but we found seats together right up on pervert row, just as the lights went down, and a silence came over the crowd. Maynard fanned out his Canadian Tire money. It was time to party in downtown Duluth!
I wish I could say Lola strutted out on the stage in high heels to dance to “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, but that wouldn’t be historically accurate. No, it was much more likely the girl opened her act with “La Grange” by ZZ Top, or “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith. But at least she wasn’t a dude, like the “Lola” immortalized by The Kinks: up in the spotlight, not much else was certain, except she had two perfect tits under her tank top, and she sure knew how to shake them.
Dirty Norman chirped up: “On Manitoulin Island, we used to say, the day the Page 3 girl in the Toronto Sun is the same age as you are, that’s the day you become a man.”
Who knew they had newspapers on Manitoulin Island? They had only gotten hydro back in the early 1980s. Before electricity came to Manitoulin Island, everything was still candles and wood-burning stoves. Even the cars were pulled by horses, like Mennonites.
“Yeah, we had newspapers on Manitoulin Island, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. The ferry brought them across from Tobermory to South Baymouth on weekends, a day later than the rest of the civilized world. We got the Friday newspaper on Saturday; Saturday weekend editions on Sunday; Sunday newspaper on Monday; it wasn’t so bad. Well, until Thanksgiving each year. We only got newspapers on Manitoulin Island from Canada Day weekend until the first weekend of October. The rest of the year we were in the dark, not convinced the world hadn’t ended. Then the newspapers would come back, and we’d see World War III had been averted for another nine months; the missiles were still in their silos, and the tourists had made it to another summer.”
Before any of us could grab a lap dance from one of the freelancers wandering the room, this dodgy geezer appeared at our side, waving a bundle of flowers in front of us, with the clearly ridiculous price tag of $40 attached to his sad bouquet of anemic-looking stems and petals.
“Huhroses?” he pronounced the word with a dramatic Eastern European flourish.
“What?” Maynard shouted, pretending he was deaf.
“Huhroses?” the vendor repeated, now pulling the exact same bouquet out of his armpit.
He looked like somebody you’d expect to meet in the Black Forest, a wood-peddler by trade, bent double by arthritis, selling flowers out of a wicker basket balanced precariously on his hump. And a guy like that, he just wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
“Fuck off,” Maynard told him, pointing in the general direction of the parking lot. Which made me laugh. You can’t snow the snowman; you shouldn’t even try.
Dirty Norman removed his cop sunglasses to get a better look at the stage. As he patted down his bushy head of hair, grooming himself for the ladies, his cop mustache fell off his face, into his lap. He couldn’t help blinking because of the disco lighting, but his regular glasses were prescription lenses that promptly adjusted to the brightness of the mirrored catwalk.
“Hi, sweetie. Would you like a dance?”
Maynard acted like he was unsure of the situation, unsure of himself, unsure of how he was supposed to react to the proposition. The girl wore an American flag bikini, and had draped a red feather boa over Maynard’s left shoulder, the buccaneer shoulder, where he had just gotten his parrot tattoo “for good luck”. The parrot tattoo was padded underneath a thick bandage.
“…you want me to dance with you?”
If Maynard thought this opening gambit would encourage the girl to sit down and have a three-hour conversation with him, he was mistaken. Miss America could smell a bullshitter from across the crowded room, and had no time for him. The smile never left her face, though her pale blue eyes were dead. She simply pivoted to Dirty Norman and repeated, “Hi, sweetie. Would you like a dance? It’s only $20…and touching is allowed, in the champagne V.I.P. lounge.”
Dirty Norman was out of there and into the V.I.P. lounge at the back of the club so quick, you’d think he’d teleported across the room. The Dollhouse had him now.
As Maynard got up to visit the buffet, I watched Lola do some fancy work with her velvet top hat. It was cool, she was cool. She had short blonde hair, platinum blonde, cut short, sculpted flat to her head, probably somebody’s mom. She might have been in her early 30s, but she was in better shape than I was. I mean, I couldn’t even touch my toes, but she could do the splits.
She mounted a box horse like an Olympic athlete, before moving to the parallel rings.
I couldn’t see myself still turning cartwheels after childbirth. She obviously took care of her body. She projected strength. In every way that I felt weak, she was strong. She worked out, kept regular appointments at the tanning salon, even if she had teenagers at home. I was nineteen years old, stupid, horny, and so drunk that I had to cover my left eye with the palm of my hand so I could focus on the stage. Lola personified grace, beauty, and confidence; the full package.
I got up to visit the buffet. All they had was chicken wings, with about a dozen different types of sauce. I grabbed a plate, and some wet napkins. By the time I got back to the main stage, Maynard had reclaimed our seats, and was rolling a quarter across the knuckles of his right hand like a stage magician absentmindedly practicing his sleight-of-hand routine while on the toilet, or taking a business meeting with his manager. There was smoke coming out of his ears.
That late in the day, I was too drunk to worry about the way his wheels were spinning.
Lola was down to her tank top by the time Dirty Norman came out of the V.I.P. lounge, and sat back beside us in pervert row, grinning like the cat that ate the cardinal. Quite literally, he had feathers in his mustache, stuck to his chin, floating in the air around him; his plastic-framed glasses were steamed up, his necktie was missing, and his hair was a mess.
“What’s it like back there?” I asked him.
“It’s fuckin’ great! The best $20 I ever spent!”
Dirty Norman had been gone for almost 45 minutes, even though Lola had been on the main stage for less than half an hour. She was rotating her hips, legs up in the air, getting ready to finish her set with a scissoring dismount of the parallel bars.
Just as “More Than This” by Roxy Music came up, Lo, plain Lo, Lola on the main stage, turned her attention to Dirty Norman, almost making him a part of the act, after largely ignoring pervert row for the last 30 minutes. She looked him straight in the eyes, mouthing dirty words in his direction. The crowd laughed, egging her on. She hoisted a leg in the air, stretching it against her breasts, while standing balanced on one foot, yoga-like, flashing us her smile; her bikini area looked like a slice of Wonder Bread that had been lightly toasted. The crowd went berserk. Dirty Norman leaned in to take a closer look, resting his elbows on the stage, hands folded underneath his wispy mustache like a choirboy. Reacting to Dirty Norman, Lola grabbed her titties, juggling them through the tank top…then pulled out two water balloons, burst them, and tossed a handful of chewing gum into the crowd. It was about the sexiest thing I had ever seen, but Dirty Norman almost shit himself, not believing his eyes. Seeing this, Lola laughed, and moved to squat in front of Dirty Norman, waiting for folding money to be stuffed in her garter, maybe more than a dollar if she played her cards right. But all Dirty Norman had for her was a quarter, on his tongue.
And it wasn’t even an American quarter; it was the Canadian quarter Maynard had been rolling across his knuckles while Dirty Norman was in the V.I.P. lounge.
Dirty Norman stuck out his tongue with a 25¢ piece between his teeth. Taken aback, Lola shook her head, and walked away from him, strutting to the opposite end of the stage to get as far away from Dirty Norman as possible. Then she had a better idea. She turned, strutted back to our end of the catwalk, looked at the crowd, looked at Dirty Norman, winked at the crowd, then said, “Give ME a quarter? I’ll give YOU a quarter, cheapskate,” before leaning over – as if to kiss him on the lips – and plucking his glasses off his face like a hawk attacking a baby carriage.
She wiped herself on his glasses, rubbing them against her crotch, then put them back on his face, clamping them over his ears like a special needs kid in deluxe headgear, walking off the stage before he even had time to react to what she had done to his glasses, sweating them up.
The room exploded in laughter. Everyone was laughing at Dirty Norman, not Lola.
Maynard laughed so hard, his fake mustache fell off.
One guy in the corner was laughing so hard, he pissed himself.
“WELL, THAT’S JUST FUCKING GREAT!” Dirty Norman jumped up from his chair and started to clean his glasses with the edge of his shirt, mortified.
“I told her you’re getting married tomorrow! I told her you’re getting married tomorrow, and that this is your bachelor party!” Maynard could hardly breath, slapping his knees.
“FUCK OFF, CURTIS!” Dirty Norman shouted at him.
I dunno: maybe it wasn’t “More Than This”; maybe the club DJ had been playing Roxy Music’s “Avalon” when Lola finished her set and left the stage. Dirty Norman was still cleaning his glasses when “Honky Tonk Women” came on, but then he stomped off to the washroom with a sour look on his face, almost in tears, as he made his way down the basement stairs.
For all his big talk about performing the grossest sexual acts imaginable and holding his vomit while doing it, as soon as he got his first bird in front of him, he spazzed out. I didn’t know how Dirty Norman was going to make it as a male prostitute, working the Husky truck stop, if he couldn’t even handle himself properly in a strip club.
All evening, one of the waitresses had been catching my eye. She was wearing a push-up bra, big frizzy hair and pouty lips, dressed like Kelly Le Brock as the high school gym teacher in Weird Science, except with a black leather mini-skirt and carrying a serving tray.
We had a thing going on, as I ordered a fresh rum and Coke every five minutes. She kept bringing me something called a Cuba Libre; I was talking with her so much, she eventually left a full platter of drinks in front of me. I figured I had a real shot, because how many guys hit on the waitress in a strip club? She wasn’t a teenager or a college student, she was cool, it was cool; we both knew the score. I may have been nothing but a speck of bum fluff to her, some cute guy for easy sex, but we were just partying not looking for a long-term romance from each other.
I had been in that situation before. I would be in that situation again, sooner or later.
Across the catwalk, on the other side of pervert row, I thought I saw myself in the mirror, but it was a guy in a wheelchair, which reminded me of a guy I had known in high school named Turk Morgan…because it was Turk Morgan on the other side of the room. What was he doing at The Dollhouse? Was even Turk Morgan paying full-price for it down in Duluth those days?
His hair had been permed, so that he looked like Prince, or Michael Jackson, but he still had a bushy black mustache. That mustache! And he wasn’t even trying to be ironic! Turk wore cop sunglasses, chrome shining in the dark, so I couldn’t tell if he had spotted me yet. I froze up, afraid to move. Then Turk looked over at me, recognizing me in spite of my sunglasses and fake mustache, and wiggled his fingers in an effete gesture of acknowledgement.
That’s not what I would have expected from Turk Morgan.
“Hi, sweetie. Would you like a dance?”
It didn’t matter what she looked like; I needed to get out of there, into the V.I.P. lounge as quick as possible. Because if I had to spend another moment watching Turk Morgan eat FREE LUNCH FRIDAY pizza and chicken wings, sitting in his wheelchair on pervert row, I was going to be sick on the lap of my sweatpants, covering myself in puke.
“Let’s go,” I grabbed the girl’s hand, and let her lead me away from Turk.
TO BE CONCLUDED...