Back then, in Myrtle Beach, we worked out every day, two hours of lifting, one of cardio, then down to the shore to fry ourselves in the sun. We were bodybuilders, serious amateurs maybe turning pro. Rankin had won a competition out in California, in the heavy division. I was smaller, but had better definition. At the gym they called me The Chart because you could see every muscle group. We walked around town half naked, with our dicks hanging out. We were big and hard and our veins glistened. We wanted everyone to see.
Rankin lived with his girlfriend, Dana, who stripped at the Trap Door, and her daughter, Crystal. They had a little split-level right on the beach. Dana was in her thirties. She was half Swedish, half saline that was how she put it. Crystal was about nine. Rankin and I were both twenty-three. By April, I’d moved into their place. I slept in the Florida room, the sea breeze rolling through all night, salting my skin.
Dana didn’t mind. She liked having men around, a pair of beautiful young guys. It flattered her. She knew this was some kind of arrangement. She probably even knew that Rankin kept fucking her friends, the other strippers who came by and sunbathed naked on the deck. She wasn’t exactly looking for someone to grow old with.
The night I’m thinking of was mid-July, those thick days after the fourth, when the real heat settles in and the only sounds are the night dogs panting and the whistle-pop of leftover fireworks. Rankin and I headed over to the Spanish Galleon to see what the cat dragged in. Nothing. Nothing but us sausages, so we started back. Just as we got to Dana’s place, an old Buick pulled up alongside of us. The window scrolled down and this little blond said, “Where’s the party, guys?” Rankin looked at me and I looked back at him.
“Our house?” he said, hopefully.
“These girls are here to get fucked tonight,” Rankin said. “There is positively no doubt about that.”
“Groovy!” this little blonde said. “Hop in and we’ll give y’all a ride.” She had one of those slow southern accents, like she was speaking through marshmallow syrup and wasn’t it all, every word, just delicious?
“Actually, we live right here,” Rankin said.
“Right here. This house.” He pointed.
“How convenient,” she said. “Can we park around here?”
“Wherever you please,” he said. They pulled the car onto the side of the road and hopped out. The blond was the main attraction. Her friend was the bring-along: tall, a little gawky, with dark hair and a bump in her nose. The blond went around to the trunk. She wore white shorts, a tank top, cowboy boots.
“What’s in there?” Rankin said.
“Supplies.” She popped the lock and there it was: beer in a cooler, a couple of bottles, a bag of weed, chips, ice, the works. “Always come prepared.”
“Just like the Boy Scouts,” Rankin said.
“That’s right,” the blond said. “That’s us. Real Boy Scouts.”
Rankin lifted the cooler and the blond set her hand on his arm and made a purring noise. We ushered the girls into the living room and took their drink orders. They both wanted bourbon and coke. I followed him into the kitchen. He turned suddenly and brought his face close to mine. “Can you believe what’s happening here?”
I shook my head.
Dana was working at the Trap. She wouldn’t be home till close to dawn. Crystal was staying at a friend’s. The place was ours.
“These girls are here to get fucked tonight,” Rankin said. “There is positively no doubt about that. Fucked.” You couldn’t have wiped the grin off his face with an atom bomb.
I’d met Rankin at the gym. We were the only two serious grinders in that place. Both of us were doing cycles. There’s all this noise about steroids today, like the stuff is going to dust you if you look at it twice. But the amount we did was just perfect: enough to turn us into bulls without shrinking our nuts. Our bodies were our dreams. We wanted nice dreams.
Rankin carried the drinks into the living room and we did introductions. The blond called herself Betty. The brunette was Veronica.We understood these to be joke names, and we couldn’t have cared less. They were drinking bourbon and draping their bare legs over the furniture. These were the important facts.
They were from Fayetteville, I think. Maybe they went to school somewhere, studying something. Maybe it was interesting. We had things in common. Whatever it was. Rankin and I kept popping up, to refresh the drinks. We mixed just enough soda in to keep them swilling. I was sitting next to Rankin on the couch. We were facing Betty, who was sitting in the recliner, with her legs falling open. Her shorts were tight denim. We could see everything, outlined in fabric.
Rankin punched my leg. “Would you look at that?” he said.
“Does that look sweet to you?”
“That is one sweet-looking thang,” Rankin said. He was imitating her accent now.
“You have no idea,” Betty said.
“I’ll bet you that tastes just like honey, J.”
“I’m sure you’d like to find out,” Betty said.
Rankin made a growling sound.
Veronica shook her head.
“What?” Rankin said. “What?”
“You’re so porno,” she said.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Rankin said.
“You would,” said Veronica.
“Look at that sweet little puss. Itty Bitty Miss Betty. Is that not an epic view?”
Rankin hit her with a grin. He could afford to. Little Betty was already half gone to the booze. She’d lit up a joint, too. Everyone could see where this was headed. And really, it went this way so often. There were so many women around that summer. They came for the weekend, in rental cars, on chartered buses, to escape from their landlocked lives, their offices, their boyfriends, to break the rules, their own rules, to have something to talk about when it was over, to get tan and get drunk and get laid, and that’s where Rankin and I did our work. We were friendly and uncomplicated. We knew how to flirt, how not to care too much, how to separate the ones who were willing from the ones who were serious. How to say what had to be said to a girl, at a particular moment, to bring the next moment into being, and how to make promises that could be believed just long enough to get them out of town again. It’s not that we were shallow, exactly. We just had better things to do with our energies than gaze inward.
It was quite a deal we had going, between the tourists and the girls from the Trap Door, to whom we were like little brothers, a welcome relief from the mouth breathers who stared at them in sullen trances and tucked money into their garters, men immobilized by their own desperation, fat, gassy, balding, trapped in the bad dream of dwindling lives.
Another round of drinks, another joint. Betty and Rankin talked tanning, tanning salons, tanning technologies, while I toiled to get Veronica to smile.
I heard Betty say, “I don’t need any players in my life.”
“Oh, I get it,” Rankin said. “Miss Betty’s looking for Mr. Right.”
“More like Mr. Right Now,” Veronica said.
“You’re one to talk,” Betty said, “with the mouth you got on you.”
“What sort of mouth is that?” I said.
“Filthy,” Betty said. “Impure. Unchristian.” She gave the last word that old Southern extra syllable.
Veronica threw a piece of ice at Betty, but hit the stereo instead.
“Seriously,” Rankin said to me. “Look at that sweet little puss. Itty Bitty Miss Betty. Is that not an epic view?”
“Puss and boots,” I said.
Betty got up to look at the pictures lined up on the stereo. She stopped in front of one that showed Dana dressed in a leather mini with her arm in Rankin’s lap.
“Who’s this?” she said.
“My sister,” Rankin said.
“She doesn’t look very much like you,” Betty said.
“We have different moms.”
“You mean different dads?”
Rankin paused. “No. Different moms. Same dad.”
“And this is her daughter?” Betty said, holding up a photo of Crystal.
“That’s right,” Rankin said. “That’s my niece. Little Crystal.”
“How sweet,” Veronica said. You could tell she was a little too smart for all this. But she was drinking her way to a greater tolerance, or seemed to be trying.
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Betty said.
Rankin shrugged. “I might be lying.”
“Do you make it a habit to lie to your guests?”
“Just the ones I’m hoping to fuck.”
Betty giggled. “You’re going to hell.”
“See you down there,” Rankin said.
Rankin came up behind Betty, pressed himself against her, then walked her into the bedroom.
In the kitchen, Rankin leaned close and whispered: “She’s gonna need a cane when I get done with her, my man.”
“A wheelchair,” I said.
“Electric,” he said. “She’s gonna have to work the thing with her mouth.”
“No doubt,” I said.
It was what we said to one another back then, a kind of awful rallying cry.
And a little later, things went as they usually did. Rankin came up behind Betty and pressed himself against her, all his size, all his muscles. She made a sound, stunned, pleased, and her head fell back against his chest. Rankin walked her into the bedroom he shared with Dana, just like that, from behind.
Veronica finished her drink. “And who are you supposed to be, the strong, silent type?”
“I know what’s happening here,” she said.
“Good for you,” I said. I was through trying too hard. There were plenty more where she came from.
“You guys really think you’re all that.”
“You’re welcome to leave,” I said, perfectly friendly.
Veronica smiled. “Now you’re going to be mean.”
I sighed. “Not at all. I’m just a little bored.”
“Oh really? I’m a bore?”
“So far. Yeah.”
She punched my leg. “You asshole!” She tried again, but I caught her wrist and held onto it, easy enough. She seemed to like that.
I pulled her in close, till we were just a few inches apart. “Couple things can happen here,” I said. “We can go upstairs and do what you came here to do, or you can keep trying to provoke me. I’d prefer to go upstairs, but I’m not going to kiss your ass about it, so figure it out and let’s move on.”
“Such a tough guy,” Veronica said.
“Not tough,” I said. “Just don’t like wasting time.”
From the other room, we heard Betty let out a squeal of laughter.
“All right, tough guy,” Veronica said. She took me by the hand and led me up the stairs.
I don’t remember much about fucking Veronica, only that she queefed a lot, made these little pussy farts. It was hard to find a rhythm with these sounds coming out of her; they embarrassed her. I wanted to say something, make a joke, like: did someone step on a duck? But I could see that wouldn’t go over too well.
So we did our business: bang, bang, bang. The old human dance. We were both pretty disappointed: in ourselves, in our failure to feel something more. I’m not even sure I came. I might have faked it, and she didn’t even bother. That’s how it goes when you’re young. The glands are there, functioning, reliable. It’s the other stuff you can’t rely on.
Really, the one I wanted was Betty, that was my thinking. And Veronica wanted Rankin, no doubt. He was bigger and stronger, more at ease in his misbehavior.
The smell of sex was all around. It was so thick in that room, like a cape, or a veil.
We went downstairs. The door to the bedroom was ajar and there was Rankin, his broad back winged out, pumping into Betty. With each thrust, she let out a little cry. Rankin looked like he did onstage, actually, his muscles all plumped up, rippled, shining with sweat. Veronica was behind me, watching, listening to her friend. We were about to back away, but Rankin must have known we were there because, without turning, he lifted his arm and waved us inside.
So we went and sat on the bed and watched them fuck. I’d seen Rankin naked plenty of times, in the showers at the gym, skinny dipping with Dana and the other girls. We were together so much that summer. And this just seemed the logical extension: to see him in this context. I could smell the lotion he wore, some kind of aloe shit, and his hair gel. I was impressed with the articulation of his hip muscles.
Veronica was more focused on Rankin’s cock. It was something to see: long, fat, with a swollen vein squiggling down the top, a scary, humbling thing, very much in scale with his body. I tried to focus on Betty. We could see the top half of her face when Rankin came out of her, her eyes half shut, blond curls falling across her cheek. The watching made us both worked up, and this time there was some heat involved.
So we had them side by side, on the same bed, Betty making her noises, Veronica queefing away, the tips of their hair touching on the bed sheet. At some point, Rankin and I looked at each other we had turned at the exact same moment and smiled and we knew that our entire summer, in some way, had been building toward this. He made a signal with his hands, one index finger circling the other and pulled back, out of Betty. And I did the same thing. We were quick about it.
Betty looked up at me as I lowered myself onto her. She was glassy-eyed, loose-mouthed. “Now what’s all this?” she said, like she had caught us doing something naughty.
Veronica said, “Here comes the hit parade,” and made a sound I’d not heard before, like she was easing into a cold lake.
The smell of sex was all around, their pussies, our cocks, spit mixed with bourbon and cigarettes and pot smoke and beneath it all that faint sweetness of a woman’s ass. It was so thick in that room, like a cape, or a veil.
Betty’s body was smaller. I remember that. Her breasts bounced as we went at it, framed her chin, and when my hand slipped to her ass, her eyes seemed to clear for a moment and she nodded slowly.
Rankin wanted to take Veronica from behind. Her got her up on her knees, but the angle must have hurt her, because I could see her arm go up and she said, “No, wait, not that way.” Rankin liked how she looked like that, though, and he knew what he wanted and thrust his hips forward and she let out a shriek.
Betty seemed roused for a second. She looked over. Veronica was wincing and Betty said to her friend, so sweetly, “You look hot like that.”
Then she and I were back into our thing, following the rhythm, and I felt her clinging to me, the inside of her, and she reached around and set her hand on my ass, to show me how she wanted it to happen. We got lost there for a while, and when we came out of it, Veronica was gone and Rankin was propped on his elbow, watching us and stroking his ridiculous cock.
“Where’s Vicky?” Betty said softly.
“She went to get something,” Rankin said. “Just us pros now.”
Betty looked at Rankin, than at me, then at the door.
“Bye bye, baby,” she said softly.
“I can tell you what I want,” Rankin said.
Very little time had passed. I was still inside Betty, still touching her, slipping my finger inside her ass, enjoying that firm ring of warmth.
“I want that beautiful little mouth to kiss me.”
Betty smiled. You could see, right then, how much attention she needed, how bottomless that need was in her.
“Get her on her knees,” Rankin said. “Move her back a bit and get her on those knees, J. Good. Good. Now take her from behind.”
I did as I was told. This was Rankin’s show. It was his body we all wanted. Not the thing itself, in my case, but that variety of assurance. Or maybe it was more complicated. I was sort of mixed up.
I could see myself moving into Betty, the sweet curve of her backside dividing and rejoining, the dark, tiny folds of her. She made all the lovely noises she made. And then Rankin was on his knees, facing me, with Betty between us. He was leaning back against the headboard, and Betty was grappling with his cock, trying to fit the thing into her mouth. It kept slipping out. She was distracted. Her hand was around the base. She was trying to play with his balls, hanging on to them for balance, practically.
We were the ones in love, it was that sad blend of exuberance and terror.
Then I got fixed on that, her efforts to take him into her mouth, the ardency of her efforts, the sheen of him, her lips and cheeks distorting.
And there was a moment, just a moment, when our eyes met again, Rankin’s and mine, and we leaned forward, slowly, both of us smirking at our good fortune, examining one another’s muscles, as we did constantly, when we couldn’t find a mirror, as if the other were really only a pleasing reflection of ourselves. His face got larger and larger and then our foreheads came together with a dull smack and we leaned against one another. We’d dropped our hands to our sides and though Betty was between us, though our cocks were safely tucked inside her, we both knew, at that very instant, that she was only a bridge connecting us. We were the ones in love, however it was that men love, that yearning for the final boundary, that sad blend of exuberance and terror. We weren’t that way for very long, a second maybe, with all the blood roaring inside us, our lips so close, our noses, our tongues.
And I won’t tell you that one or the other pulled away, made a joke, punched a shoulder. We were too excited and too ashamed of our excitement and a little later on, we took all that out on Betty, going a little further than we should have with that poor, drunk girl, pushing too hard, pumping too hard, causing her pain that went beyond her want, which is when Veronica appeared and said, “Party’s over, guys.”
They didn’t leave immediately, though. This isn’t one of those stories. It was Betty’s car, you see, and she insisted on driving, so we had to get her sobered up. We took them out for a swim. The Atlantic was like a bathtub, and Betty floated there, under the stars, in her tank top, complaining about the sting.
That was the last night Rankin and I felt totally at ease with one another. We’d come too close to the edge, seen down to the filthy, unthinkable bottom of our love, and drawn back. And now, drawing back further, I can see how absurd we both were, mighty little muscle boys with cocks made of iron and hearts made of tin.
I stayed in Myrtle Beach through August, then took a bus back to Jersey and the safety of the first Mrs. Wrong. Rankin left not long after, drifted out to L.A. and, by his own account, did some work in the porn industry. He wrote me a postcard, promised to send along a tape. Ass Angels 6, something like that. Then it was carpentry, then stunt work, and when those didn’t pan out, he decided to write a screenplay.
We only talked when things went seriously wrong, when the loneliness in us turned sharp. Often one or both of us were drunk. Eventually, we fell out of touch.
I did see him once more, a few years later. I was out in L.A. for a conference. I’d decided to go back to school, get my degree, and this had led, somewhat inexplicably, to a job in pharmaceutical sales. Rankin was down in Venice Beach by then. I’d tried to call him a few times, but gotten his machine. I assumed he was out on the beach, working out, strutting, trolling for tail. Good old Rankin. But I had his address from a postcard. And one night, bored out of my skull with cocktail hour at the Sheraton, the idiotic drone of drug trials and commission schedules, I decided to pay him a visit.
I found the place, a little bungalow a few blocks from the beach. Nobody answered when I knocked, so I went to the car and got a pen and piece of paper and started to write out a note.
It began: Hey fuckface!
Then I heard that voice behind me. “Look at what the cat dragged in.”
I turned and there he was, old Rankin, in a wheelchair.
He was wearing fingerless gloves what I thought of as his lifting gloves and he still had the massive upper body, a few new tattoos. But his lower body just sort of disappeared into a baggy pair of jeans. He’d shaved his head, too, and I could make out the faint outlines of a bald spot. His eyes had sunk deep into their sockets.
I must have been staring, because Rankin cocked his head and said, “Surprise, surprise,” just like Gomer Pyle.
I made some perfectly idiotic comment, greeting, whatever, as if we could just move right into the visit.
“You’ll probably want to know why I’m a cripple,” Rankin said.
Inside, he gave me the story; the bare outlines anyway, just what you’d expect: driving late at night, drunk, spinal cord damage. “You know what the spinal cord is?” he said. “It’s just jelly, J, a bunch of smart fucking jelly.”
We were at his kitchen table by now. He talked a lot about the hospital, his rehab, his new program. He had the whole twelve-step inspirational bullshit down pat, speaking with a great nervous vehemence. I couldn’t see it then, but he was furious that I’d just shown up with no warning. My pity was about the meanest thing I could have done to him.
He wasn’t drinking, so I couldn’t drink, and pretty soon he announced that he had a meeting to attend.
“Sure,” I said. “You need a lift?”
The word, just that single word, seemed to catch Rankin off guard. There was a long pause.
“You remember that night?” he said, finally.
“You know the one.”
“Those two girls, those crazy bitches.” Something of the old fire, his massive assurance, flickered. “They drove out there to get fucked that night, J. And they got fucked, did they not? Am I right?”
“That’s what I remember.”
“We should have filmed that shit.”
I knew he was a dead man, right then, pills, a gun, whatever it was going to be, the body was dead.
He began to sing that old tune, “You Oughta Be in Pictures.”
“I still see her sometimes,” he said. “You know, that one little blond, the southern belle.”
I was about to ask him how he’d tracked her down. Then I realized what he actually meant.
“What was her name?”
“Right. Betty. What a sweet little whore. Taking it from behind from you, sucking me off. Remember that? On Dana’s bed. We should have filmed that shit.” The way he said it, real guttural, I thought he might even be feeling turned on.
Then Rankin glanced down at his lap and shook his head. When he looked up again, his eyes were red. “Jesus, J, I gotta pee through a fucking tube.”
I wanted to get up and embrace him, to consummate whatever we had started, all those years ago. But I was also afraid of him, his suffering, his sorrow, his abject lack of self-respect.
Anyway, he didn’t wait around for me to work up the nerve. After a few seconds, he wheeled himself away from the table. That’s what the gloves were for now. “I need to get ready for this thing,” he said. “Sorry I can’t hang longer.”
“No problem,” I said. “I’ll give a call soon. Promise.”
Then I felt compelled to add, “You’re all right,” which is when I knew he was a dead man, right then, pills, a gun, whatever it was going to be, the body was dead, the dream was dead, and I think I even approved of that plan. I did what most of us do, every day of our lives: I turned away. Got in the rental car, took to the highway, and there was the ocean, on my left, tugging at the dark shore, waiting for me to tell this story, to pretend such stories ever teach us anything, or ever end. n°
IN STORES TODAY
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Candy Freak: A Journey into the Chocolate Underbelly of America
©2004Steve Almond and Nerve.com