Frank & Rudy at the Stone by Arnold Snyder

Detroit had three burlesque theaters in the 1960s, all of them downtown—the National, the Stone, and the Empress. Rudy and I had been watching their ads on the movie guide page of the Detroit News for as many years as we could remember. We discussed what we thought might go on in these places. The only thing we knew for sure was that there were women who would take their clothes off. Exactly how much they took off, or more to the point, how much they left on, was a topic of endless speculation.

Shortly after I got my driver’s license, at the age of sixteen, Rudy proposed that we go to the Stone to find out for ourselves what was happening.

“You’ve got to be eighteen,” I said.

“Pete Petrino went last week,” he answered.

“It says in the ad you’ve got to be eighteen. We don’t look eighteen. Nowhere near. Especially you.”

“Pete Petrino went with Tony Saturday night.”

“Pete’s seventeen,” I said. “And Tony’s nineteen.”

“Yeah, but Pete looks younger than both of us. He had Tony’s ID, but they never checked it. And I look way older than Pete. These damn zits makes me look way older.”

“I don’t believe it. Pete’s bullshitting.”

“Tony told me. He said there were lots of guys there our age and they don’t look at anybody’s ID. If you cough up the cash, you get a ticket.”

“How much?”

“Buck-fifty.”

“What’d Tony say about it?”

“He wouldn’t say anything. You know how he acts to me. But Pete said they’re dirty as hell. One girl named Mitzi was fingering herself.”

“They take off everything?”

“All the way. They play with their tits. They spread their legs. Everything man.”

“You think they’re any good looking? They’re probably all dogs.”

Rudy looked at me earnestly. “Pete says they’re fine as wine in the summertime.”

“Pete’s full of shit.”

“C’mon, man, let’s just go and see! I mean, who’d go to see the show if they were all dogs?”

“Pete would. So would Tony.”

“C’mon, Frank, what’ve we got to lose?”

“You’re not even fifteen till next month,” I said. “I don’t think they’ll let us in. Tony looks older. Maybe we should go with Tony.”

“He won’t take me, Frank. He hates me. I hate him.”

Rudy was right that Tony would not go anywhere with him.

“I just don’t think they’ll let us in,” I said. “And what if we get arrested or something?”

“No way, Frank. Everybody’s going. Everybody we know. They must be paying off the cops or something. Tony’s been going since he was fifteen. This is what I really want to do, Frank. It’s all I can think about. I’m tired of building models. When’s the last time you looked at your stamp collection? Every boy needs a hobby, right? We’re in our formative teenage years. I can’t think of any better way for us to spend our free time than watching girls take their clothes off. We have to start living our own lives. Detroit’s a big city. We never get out of Harper Woods. We need to start seeing what this town has to offer.”

“Dad’ll probably let me have the Chevy on Friday,” I said. “There’s a dance at Notre Dame High.”

Rudy smiled. Victory. He could convince me to do anything.

On Wednesday evening, Dad let me have the car to go to Dunkenburgers in St. Clair Shores. It was a hangout, though it was pretty dead, being a week night. Tony Bertola’s car was parked in the lot.

Tony had a ’58 two-door Dodge that his dad had bought him three years earlier. The car was a rolling joke on the east side of Detroit. With the stock slant-six engine and the push-button automatic tranny, it was an old lady’s car. But Tony had the front end raked up, as if it had a monster engine in the thing. He’d thrown away the air filter because he said he liked that “fuel-injected ‘bwah’ sound.” He’d also partially disconnected the muffler, which, he insisted, “sounds like I’m running glass packs.” The heap made a racket. He’d painted bondo-colored gray spots all over the doors and fenders so it looked like he had done all this body work on it. On the left front door, painted in candy-apple red script (his sister Angela had done it so it looked neat), it said: “Driver Tony.” As if he were running this pig out at Detroit Dragway every Sunday. The car was actually a bribe from his parents to keep him from sniffing glue.

Tony’s dad, Big Tony, was my Dad’s boss at Todd Wheel. The Bertolas lived in St. Clair Shores, which was an upscale suburb a mile or so northeast of Detroit. Not as swank as Grosse Pointe, but bigger lots than Harper Woods. A few years earlier, the Bertolas had lived right around the block from us. They were moving up.

Tony had introduced Rudy and me to glue when we were just eleven and twelve years old. Tony was fifteen then. You could get a tube of Testor’s Model Cement at Rory’s Hobby Shop for 15¢. It made your bones feel soft so you couldn’t walk, and everything sounded like it was roaring through your skull like a train. The dizziness was the bad part. It was fun to watch kids do it for the first time, especially when they tried to walk.

I liked Tony back then. Other kids his age wouldn’t have anything to do with little kids like us. Tony liked to play the big shot. We loved him. He was smart and funny, the first rebel I ever knew. He smoked cigarettes in his own house. Not in front of his dad, but his mother had given up on him. On Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, he was our leader as we roamed the suburban streets, soaping windows, ringing doorbells, burning piles of garbage and dog shit on our neighbors’ porches. We were Tony’s gang.

Tony liked to fight. He had been kicked out of three schools for fighting. Fine with him. He didn’t go to school anymore.

I could always tell when my Mom was talking to his mom on the phone by the tone of my Mom’s voice. Like she was the priest hearing confession. Calm. Sincere. Understanding. Tony’s mother was also in the Altar Society at St. Jude’s.

Tony didn’t seem to mind the dizziness of glue sniffing. He took it as a challenge. The way you sniff is you squeeze the tube into a paper bag, then you cup the bag over your nose and mouth and just breathe for about half a minute. Most kids sit down so they won’t fall over when their knees buckle. Tony usually did it standing up, and he never fell.

Every kid I knew tried it once or twice, then never did it again. It was too sickening. Some kids threw up. Except Tony. Even after he couldn’t find any more little kids to try it out on, he kept doing it himself. He’d be sitting out on the curb in the Eastland parking lot, all alone, a bunched up paper bag in his fist. Eastland was the shopping mall at the corner of Eight Mile and Kelly Road, next to Notre Dame High. That’s where Rory’s Hobby Shop was.

Tony looked sick then. His face was so red it looked like someone was giving him a bear hug. The whites of his eyes were pink and watery like raw fish.

There was a story in the Detroit News around that time about the glue sniffing fad. How it killed brain cells. For awhile, all the kids in our neighborhood were making jokes about how many brain cells Tony had left. How long it would be before he could get into the Guinness Book of World Records for having fewer brain cells than any other living human. Rudy did an impersonation of Tony accepting his award for this on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s funny how the saddest things can make you laugh the most.

I couldn’t figure out what happened to Tony. He had been a hero for so many years. I was angry at him. I hated him. If I thought about him at night in bed, I’d get this lump in my throat like I was going to cry.

“Tony’s messed up.”

That’s all anyone said. That was the whole explanation. I was twelve years old. It was 1960. Tony was messed up. Finally, he got into some kind of trouble with the Eastland cops. There were a lot of stories about the fight, but we didn’t know anyone who’d actually seen what had happened.

Mom and Dad had a big dinner table discussion a few nights later about the evils of glue sniffing. Rudy and I, naturally, insisted we’d never try such a stupid thing. Dad informed us that Tony was in the hospital, but we couldn’t get any other facts out of him.

A few months later, Tony was back on the street.

With a ’58 Dodge.

The Bondo Bomb.

He wasn’t messed up anymore, but he looked older.

He was a different person. I didn’t like him at all.

He sat down at our table at Dunkenburgers, sliding into the booth next to Rudy, across from me.

Tony was short, maybe five-foot-four. I’d never noticed how short he was for his age when we were younger. Now, it lent a pathos to his tough-guy bravado. He’d also developed a major acne problem, worse than Rudy’s. My Mom said it was because he’d damaged his pancreas with the toluene in the glue.

“So your old man’s actually letting you take the wheels?” he said to me.

“I heard you and Mikey went to the burly last week,” I said.

“Just showing the kid a good time,” he said.

“What are the girls like?” Rudy asked.

Tony looked at him like he was a child interrupting an adult conversation, then said to me, “You ever seen a colored girl’s pussy?”

A waitress was standing over us waiting for our order. She was an older woman, in her forties at least, with a blond wig. I’d never seen her at Dunk’s before. Most of the waitresses were high school girls.

“Are you guys going to order or what?” she asked.

Tony looked at her deadpan. “Hey, let’s get something straight between us,” he said, then gave her a big wink and a grin.

Rudy looked at me with disgust. Tony had been delivering this line to waitresses since the beginning of time. The first time I heard it, I thought it was pretty funny. I was about twelve then.

“You’re taking up space,” she said. She started to put her pad away and turned to leave.

“I want a burger and a bowl of chili,” I said quickly. “And a small Coke.”

“Burger and fries,” Rudy said, “and a large Coke.”

She didn’t look back at us but she took the order.

I leaned toward Tony. “You mean the girls aren’t white?” I said.

“Most of them are white,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Are they fine?” Rudy asked.

Tony stared at him blankly.

“C’mon, Tony,” Rudy persisted. “Mikey said they were fine.”

Tony snorted. “You’re too young for this conversation,” he said. “When you get a little older, I’ll teach you a few things.”

Tony lit a cigarette and started blowing smoke rings.

“Mikey already told me they were fine,” Rudy said.

Tony looked fed up with the discussion. I wished Rudy would just ignore him.

After a minute of silence, Tony said, “Lesson number one, dipshit: It doesn’t matter if they’re fine. You ain’t gonna be looking at their faces anyway. And it doesn’t matter if they’re white…”

The waitress appeared with our Cokes, and Tony stood up to leave.

“It’s all pink on the inside,” he said. He put his hand on the waitress’s shoulder. “Ain’t that right?” he said to her.

Detroit decided to have a downpour on Friday, not atypical for April. It seemed likely that Dad wouldn’t let me have the car since the rain hadn’t let up much by supper time. I didn’t like the idea of driving in heavy rain at night. A mile to Notre Dame High was one thing, but to go downtown to the Stone was something else. Rudy almost had a fit when I suggested we call it off. I was hoping my parents’ good sense would intercede for me, but no such luck.

When I’d had my learner’s permit, Dad took me out to drive in the worst snow conditions that hit town. For three months, any time the weather was miserable—snow, sleet, blizzardy winds—I knew I’d be out driving that night.

Before we left the house, Mom said, “Drive carefully, dear.”

Dad added, “Stop at every intersection. There are a lot of idiots out there who don’t know how to drive in the rain.”

The rain was coming down in sheets. The wipers hardly cleared the windshield.

“Dad must be nuts to let you drive tonight,” Rudy said as we inched down Seven Mile toward the Ford Freeway.

Long stretches of the freeway had an inch or more of water on the road. Traffic was crawling. I found a parking space a couple blocks from the Stone, relieved to have made it.

“This is not the best neighborhood,” I said, turning off the engine. “Dad’ll kill me if someone slashes the tires.”

Rudy opened his door and jumped out into the rain. “Get serious,” he said, running under a store awning to wait for me. “Professional tire slashers don’t work in this kind of weather.”

We half-ran to the theater. My jeans were soaked from the knees down by the time we got there. Otherwise, my raincoat was keeping me dry. We stopped and stood for a moment about five feet back from the ticket booth on the sidewalk. We both had our hoods up, but rain was splashing in our faces. Rudy had his front collar snapped so that it covered much of his chin.

He nudged my arm. “Go ahead, Frank. Get out your money.”

The ticket taker was a woman in her fifties, maybe sixties. Her hair was dyed jet black, her make-up an inch thick. I had a sinking feeling that she was one of the strippers. I did not want to see this lady take her clothes off.

“Maybe that’s Mitzi,” I said.

“Bullshit. Let’s go. C’mon, I’m getting soaked!”

I stood for a moment more, looking at the black-and-white glossies of the strippers under the glass display beside the door. They were all wearing evening gowns and either bending over provocatively to show off cleavage, or displaying their legs through the slits in their floor-length dresses. All of them looked great.

“Do you realize we’re actually going into this joint in raincoats?” I said. “This is a classic!”

“C’mon, Frank, let’s go in! You’re chickenshit. I’m getting drenched!”

“What’s a professional tire slasher?” I asked.

“Chickenshit. Go ahead and stand out in the rain all night. I’m going inside to watch the naked girls.”

He turned and took one step toward the ticket booth, then reconsidered. “Before we go in there,” he said, “would you explain something to me?”

I just looked at him, rain dripping off my nose.

“The reason guys wear raincoats to these shows is so they can jack off, right? I mean, even in the summer time. Are there going to be a bunch of guys sitting in there jacking off?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” I said.

“I didn’t say I was going to do it,” he said with annoyance.

“Do you think we should try to go in?” I asked. I was now thoroughly drenched from my knees to my toes, right through my shoes. I had a feeling we were about to go back to the car and just forget about it.

“I think you’re chickenshit,” he said flatly.

He walked up to the booth and slapped a buck-fifty onto the counter. He got a ticket, no questions asked.

I was right behind him.

The lobby was small and rundown. The carpet was worn, the candy counter glass was cracked and taped. No one was behind it. We hurried through the lobby to a curtained doorway at the far end beneath a dirty lighted sign that said “THEATER.”

As we waited for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, Rudy commented, “Smells like an outhouse.”

Not really, but the odor was definitely not appealing. It was stale and smelled of disinfectant. “Duke of Earl” was playing loudly on a has-been speaker over our heads. I liked the song a few months back when it came out, but I was sick of it.

When my eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, I could see that the theater seated maybe a hundred and fifty, but it appeared that only about half a dozen seats were occupied. At least another half-dozen seats were either missing or in a crippled state of disrepair.

”Must be the weather,” Rudy said.

The stage was empty except for a dark colored cushion that sat on the runway. The main stage curtains—a faded crimson velvet, in tatters where the gold fringe hem swept the wooden stage floor—were closed. The runway jutted out three rows into the audience seats from stage center.

“Where do you want to sit?” I whispered.

“C’mon,” Rudy said, walking down the side aisle.

As always, he led and I followed. At the fourth row from the front, he turned and walked to dead center and sat down. I followed. We were right at the front of the runway, which was chest-high as we sat. We were close enough to touch it.

“I hope you brought the binoculars,” Rudy said.

It was warm, but we left our coats on.

“Duke of Earl” expired suddenly as the needle was lifted in mid-chorus.

An over-loud, grating, and tired-sounding voice came over the speaker. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together and give a nice round of applause for our lovely belle from Buffalo—Rachel!”

Rudy and I started clapping but stopped abruptly when we realized that no one else was. Or maybe one other guy in the back. Probably the announcer.

“Ladies and gentlemen?” Rudy whispered. “Was he talking to us?”

The frayed curtain opened jerkily, revealing a curtained wall some twenty feet behind it. A white spotlight hit the bottom edge of the back curtain. Except for a straight-back wooden chair at one side of the back curtain, the stage was empty. When the belle from Buffalo still had not appeared some ten seconds into the record—the Sensations’ “Let Me In”—Rudy remarked, “She’s a little thin for my taste.”

This started me laughing, nervous energy that died a quick death the moment Rachel appeared on the stage. She was a knockout. Maybe we shouldn’t have taken these front and center seats. The feeling I had was close to panic.

Tall, dark curly hair, big dark eyes, olive skin, Latin features, maybe Italian, as beautiful as any woman I’d ever seen. She looked about twenty, wearing a clinging black satin gown with a slit up one leg to her upper thigh. She walked slowly and gracefully back and forth on the stage, not really making any attempt at dancing. Just strutting her stuff. The panic faded into a warm trance.

“Let’s move to Buffalo,” I said.

Rudy leaned toward me. “If this lady is actually going to take all of her clothes off right here, right now… I am going to shit in my pants… Is she actually going to come all the way up here?” We were so damn close to the edge of the runway.

I didn’t have to answer him. She was heading in our direction. She zeroed in on us right away. Two young punks sitting front and center in bright yellow raincoats. She came right to the end of the runway, close enough to touch. She swayed back and forth, showing off that one gorgeous bare leg. Her perfume was strong, sweet-smelling, like candy. She had a pleasant, relaxed look on her face as she looked back and forth from Rudy to me.

As many times as I had fantasized what it would be like to go to a burlesque show, as many times as Rudy and I had talked about this very moment, of looking at a beautiful woman, a complete stranger, and knowing that she was going to take her clothes off right in front of us, there was something else happening that I’d never considered. It wasn’t like I was just watching a show, watching a performer as an anonymous member of an audience. She was watching me watch her. And when she smiled at me, it was a personal smile. She was watching our faces every bit as intently as we were watching her.

Anticipating that this woman whom I did not know, and never would know, was about to remove her clothes, I started to get an erection.

Biology has always confounded me. Why would this anticipation cause half a pint of my blood, which had been coursing quite normally through my veins, to take an agitated detour into a dead-end appendage between my legs?

Rachel looked at Rudy and bent forward, looking him right in the eyes. Her breasts pressed against the top of her strapless gown. Placing her hands on her knees, she pressed her arms together, squeezing her breasts to accentuate her cleavage. She was so damn close to us. I had never imagined being this close, not even in my most erotic fantasies. I had never considered how human she would be. When she spoke to Rudy, I thought my heart would stop.

“How old are you?” she asked him softly.

When he made no response, she said, “Sweetheart, you’ve got a grin on your face like the cat that swallowed the canary.” Then she smiled at him and stood up straight.

I looked at Rudy and it was hard not to start laughing out loud. His eyes were as big as fried eggs and his face was so red I could almost feel the heat emanating from his cheeks. He looked so young, like an embarrassed cherub. What the hell is my little brother doing bare inches from this sex goddess?

I looked up at Rachel to see she was now staring down at me. She had a serious look on her face that took me aback. Her lips parted in a hint of a smile, then she opened her mouth and deliberately and lightly touched the tip of her tongue to her upper lip. When she smiled, it seemed a genuine smile, and I realized my mouth was literally agape.

She bent down toward me the same as she had done to Rudy.

“Are you guys brothers?” she asked me.

I nodded slightly, unable to speak.

“Don’t you know better than to bring your little brother into a place like this?” she asked.

I smiled nervously.

“You’re cute,” she said. “Your brother’s too young for me, but you’re a doll.”

The record ended and the spotlight on her was doused. One person somewhere in the theater started clapping. Rudy half-heartedly joined the feeble effort at applause. I couldn’t applaud. She was still standing there, looking right at me.

“Now don’t go away,” she said. “You’ll miss the good part.”

She backed up a step and some unknown Motown tune blasted from overhead. The spotlight hit her as she turned and started walking back toward the stage proper. I breathed easier for a moment, feeling a relief that she was no longer on top of us. With her back to us, she reached one hand up her back and slowly drew down a zipper on her gown which ran from under one arm on a diagonal to the leg slit in the dress at her upper thigh on the opposite side. The gown, now just a rectangle of black satin, fell completely away from her back, revealing the fact that she was now wearing just her black lace-edged bikini panties, a strapless bra, and her black satin high heels.

I started to unbuckle my raincoat. Sweat was running down my back.  I don’t get it. Let’s say I accept the fact that my blood decides to engorge this otherwise limp tissue. The big mystery is why do I like it so much? As she paced the stage, still holding that black gown against her, I squirmed in my seat to pull one arm out of the taut plastic sleeve of my raincoat, never taking my eyes off her, those long beautiful legs.

“You gonna strip too?” Rudy asked, nudging me with his elbow.

“It’s too damn hot,” I grunted, freeing my other arm. I wondered momentarily if I should have come without him. I rarely felt self-conscious in front of Rudy, but I did now. I knew he could tell Rachel was turning me on. It was the single most erotic moment of my life, and my little brother was sitting there watching it.

I wondered if Rachel still lived in Buffalo, or if maybe she now lived in Detroit. How much money did she make for this? I wanted to know personal things about her.

She swirled around, pulling the gown up to her shoulders like a flaring black cape. She walked toward us, her legs and stomach bare, all the way to the front of the runway. She unfurled the gown onto the runway, then dropped it right on the edge, like someone might spread a beach towel on the sand. She stood before it with her hands on her hips, proud of her body, arrogant, daring.

Science is stumped. The greatest minds proffer no explanation. I watched in a trance as she turned around and bent forward at the waist, her legs spread straight and wide apart. She was watching me watch her, peering at me from behind one knee. The whole show was for me, or so it seemed.

She stepped to the front of the runway and knelt down onto her spread gown, facing Rudy directly, staring at his face. I felt relief, like she was giving me a breather. She remained in a kneeling position, studying Rudy’s face seriously.

My insides squirmed. I had never seen a grown woman naked, except in photographs. Was this really about to happen? Right here? Now?

Squeezing her breasts in her hands, she kneaded her nipples through the black satin. She never stopped looking Rudy in the eye, and she never smiled. I was aching for her to return her attentions to me again. I wanted her for myself.

She reached for the clasp that unhooked the bra in front, pressing her hands tightly over the now-separated cups, pushing her breasts together, then apart, displaying the skin between them, allowing us to see the fullness, the cleavage, as she rolled and weighed her breasts in her hands.

My dick was tucked into the wrong direction in my jeans. I wanted to reach into my pants and straighten it out, but I couldn’t. Not right in front of her.

She knelt up straight and allowed her bra to fall from her breasts, still cupping her hands over them. She lifted and massaged them gently, allowing the nipples to peek through her fingers. She was so casual about this.

I was startled by the abrupt dousing of the spotlight. It was a moment before I even realized the second song had ended. As she stood and turned her back to us, again, the feeble applause. She walked all the way to the back of the stage, and it struck me that her show was over. Tony had lied. They don’t take off everything. But I wasn’t disappointed. Maybe I was even relieved.

Rudy reached out and touched her gown, which was still draped over the edge of the runway in front of us. I was about to tell him to stop, but instead I found myself reaching out to touch it, just lightly, while I had the chance.

But the show wasn’t over. Rachel didn’t leave the stage. She picked up the straight-back chair and carried it to the stage front, setting it on the runway behind her gown. She was wearing nothing but her panties and her heels. Her breasts were bare, and now she made no attempt to hide them. She accepted her nakedness so naturally. Maybe Tony hadn’t been lying. She sat down on the chair, sitting up straight. She put her hands on her tightly closed knees, then she looked right at me and smiled.

“Here comes the best part,” she said mischievously. Then she looked at Rudy. “Now don’t peek,” she said to him. “This is the adult portion of the show.”

I elbowed Rudy lightly in the arm.

He reacted with predictable immaturity, making a big show of socking me in the arm much harder than I’d hit him, and saying in a voice that was louder than it should have been in the otherwise quiet theater, “You turd!”

Here I was in the midst of the most erotic experience of my life, with a woman of devastating beauty, and my geeky brother wants to have a sock-out fight in front of her.

The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” came over the speaker, and the spotlight hit Rachel a second later. I loved that song. I took a deep breath and forgot all about Rudy as I watched Rachel stretch her legs out straight and arch her back, her breasts pointing upwards as she reached her arms over her head.

From somewhere deep in a trance of adolescent euphoria, a portion of my mind was still trying to figure it out. She doesn’t sing. She doesn’t dance. She just takes her clothes off. Records playing on a lousy sound system. No story. No plot. But the suspense is killing me. A human body is being uncovered. Slowly. That’s all. Skin. I don’t know her. I know nothing about her. But I want to fall inside her and drown. I am paralyzed in my seat. She’s all I want in the universe.

She stood up and hooked her thumbs under the hip band of her panties as she walked to the front of the stage. This feeling in my chest is almost one of terror. I really don’t know if I can handle this. She stepped out of her high heels one at a time and stood for a moment on her bare feet before sitting down on the edge of the runway. I could hardly breathe. The removal of her shoes made her seem younger, more vulnerable. She hung her feet over the edge of the runway, then leaned back on both hands and straightened her legs at the knees, touching my arms with each bare foot. She smiled at me.

“I got you now,” she said.

Her hand reached down to her panties. I wanted to watch her remove them, but I couldn’t look down, not with her staring into my eyes like that.

As if reading my thoughts, she said, “Go ahead and look.”

I did as I was told. She was all but on top of me.

Somehow, my father had failed to mention this acute sense of helplessness when he had told me the facts of life. He was one of those dads who believed in telling his sons the facts of life. We had our talk when I was twelve. He was driving me home from a football scrimmage. St. Jude’s Mighty Midgets. It was mostly a sixth grade team, but they wouldn’t let me play on the varsity team—the seventh and eighth graders. I was in the seventh grade. I already knew I would be sitting on the bench for every game. I was too skinny, too slow, too uncoordinated, and mostly too scared. I couldn’t throw a football to save my life. I couldn’t catch. I was terrified of the very concepts of blocking and tackling. And I didn’t really care. I liked the practices because I liked calisthenics and I liked the way I looked in the uniform. I still had my shoulder pads on.

“The female reproductive system is a wonder of biological engineering.”

That’s how it started. I was baffled. This was not my father talking.

“Men have a penis. Women have a vagina. You already know that. When a husband and wife want to have a baby, the man puts his penis into his wife’s vagina in order to plant the seed.”

I already knew what intercourse was, but I’d never heard this bit about “the seed.” A minute passed. We pulled into our driveway. It hit me that my Dad had no intention of saying anything more. I was not going to let him get away with it.

“What seed?” I asked. It sounded painful.

He looked at me. “They call it a seed,” he said, “but it’s not like a seed. It’s just sticky stuff. Semen. It comes out of the penis.”

“Are you kidding?” Nothing had ever come out of my dick but pee.

“No, I’m not kidding. This is what sex is.”

My mother was looking out the kitchen window at us. She waved. I knew that she knew that he was having this conversation with me.

“Okay,” I said. Now I did want to end it.

But he didn’t. “Your penis will get hard,” he said. “Like a stick. You’ve probably already noticed how this happens sometimes. Maybe when you wake up in the morning, or you have a dream at night, and you wake up and your penis is hard. Right now, you can ignore this when it happens. You’re not married. Your penis is just getting ready. It’s like when Rocky Colavito is on deck. The way he stretches his bat behind his shoulders and takes a couple of practice swings. He’s just getting ready. Stretching. That’s what your penis is doing. Sometime soon, maybe in the next year or so, you’ll wake up to find semen on your sheets. Just get some tissue and wipe it off. You don’t want to stain the sheets. Your mother will have a fit. But don’t worry about it. It’s normal. Don’t pay any attention to it.”

Rudy didn’t have to wait until he was twelve. I gave him my talk verbatim within twenty minutes. He was, like me, astonished. We were both trying to picture this mysterious “seed.”

A few nights later, the whole family was watching TV. The Miss America pageant. The swimsuit competition. Bert Parks looked at Miss Georgia, and his gaze went right to her body. Really drank her in. I wouldn’t have thought much of it if it hadn’t been for Rudy.

In his best sportscaster’s voice, he announced: “And Rocky Colavito steps into the batter’s box!”

A moment passed. It dawned on me what he had said. I cringed. And then, tell me there’s no God, Bert Parks gets this grin on his face like even he had heard Rudy’s comment.

My dad choked on his beer, spit it all over the front of him. It was a relief to see he was laughing. It meant that I could laugh—in spite of the fact that he was sputtering helplessly. My mother was looking at him dumbfounded.

“I don’t get it,” she said blankly.

This made it genuinely hilarious. Rudy was whooping on the floor.

All my Dad said, when he’d finally caught his breath, was, “You meatballs.” That’s what he called us when he was in a good mood. Meatballs.

Now, the belle from Buffalo was picking up my education where my father had left off. He skipped most of the good stuff. The teasing, the longing, the sweat on the back of the neck, those gorgeous legs…

Rudy tapped me on the shoulder.

I ignored him but he persisted.

I tipped an ear toward him, unwilling to take my eyes off the vision before me.

“Frank, let’s go home,” he said. There was a pleading in his voice.

I looked at him. His eyes were serious.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered. I was irritated. Geezus. At this moment?

He looked down for a moment, sheepishly, pursed his lips, then looked me right in the eye. “Colavito just hit a grand slam,” he said.

I could have strangled him. He ruined this moment for a stupid joke? That dopey look on his face got me laughing, which got him laughing, then neither of us could stop. She’s peeling down her panties, and I want so badly to be back in that trance, but it’s ruined. I can’t even look at her. We’re both just laughing like idiots through the best part.

We stayed in our seats for another couple hours. The theater grew more crowded and rowdy the later it got. There were lots of guys our age, in fact, it was mostly teenagers, guys like us too young to be there. Rudy and I enjoyed the personal attentions of the dancers that we got in our front and center seats. There were five strippers and every one took it all off. One looked like she may have been in her thirties, a couple looked barely older than us, one was black. All of them were beautiful and had bodies to die for. Those few hours for this sixteen-year-old boy were such a surfeit of lust, a smorgasbord of naked women teasing me, kneeling before me, touching themselves, slowly removing lingerie, stockings, high heels.

In between a couple of the strippers, a pair of baggy-pants comics came out and did awful routines. But it’s not hard to make high school boys laugh with dirty jokes. When again the unseen M.C. announced, “Rachel, the belle from Buffalo,” Rudy stood up to put on his coat. “C’mon,” he said. “We’ve seen ’em all.”

“Don’t you want to see Rachel one more time?”

He sat back down. “Don’t twist my arm,” he said.

This time she was wearing a tight turquoise gown, cut much the same as her black one. Her spike heels were also turquoise, and I immediately noticed when she spun around that she wore black seamed stockings. I was aching to be teased by her again. She was the best.

As she started down the runway, her heel caught on the stage and she tripped forward, almost falling but catching herself with one hand on the floor at the front of the runway. Instinctively, as she hurtled toward me, I leapt up from my seat. She was right in front of me, her head bowed, steadying herself on one arm.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She looked up at me slowly, her thick, dark curls falling away from her face. She smiled. “It’s you,” she said in a half-whisper. “You’re still here.”

I just looked at her. Her breath reeked of alcohol.

“I’m all right,” she said. “It’s this damn floor. This place ought to be condemned.”

I sat down quickly. She stood up and started swaying her hips to the music. I knew she was dancing for me, but I couldn’t look at her, not at her face. I watched her feet moving back and forth on the scuffed wooden stage. When she turned to walk back up the runway toward the main stage, I stood up and put my coat on.

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Don’t you want to watch her?” Rudy asked. “She’s wearing stockings.”

I didn’t answer him, just turned and made my way up the aisle to the exit. He was right behind me. There was a mad scramble in the theater for our prime seats. The whole front of the theater rearranged itself as horny teenage boys fought to get one seat closer to heaven.

The rain had stopped. We walked briskly to the car, not talking, our raincoats open. Neither of us said a word until we were rolling home.

“That place is such a pit,” I said

“Maybe we should try the Empress next time.”

After a minute of silence, just listening to the tires on the wet pavement, Rudy said, “Where do they get those girls, Frank?”

“Like I’m an expert on this subject,” I said. “It’s just a job, I guess. They hire them.”

“What if we saw some girl we knew in there?” he asked.

“Like who?”

“I don’t know,” he said, then quickly added, “Darlene. What if the guy says, ‘Here’s Fifi from gay Paree,’ and Darlene walks out on stage?”

I laughed. Darlene lived across the street from us. She had graduated from Denby High a year earlier, and was now engaged to a guy named Bobby Bonowski who looked a lot like Fabian. Rudy and I had been drooling over Darlene for years.

“Darlene works in a beauty parlor,” I said.

After a few more minutes of listening to the hiss of the tires on the wet cement, Rudy said, “We just saw bare pussy for the first time.”

Hearing him say it made me realize that this was a monumental life experience for both of us.

“Remember when we found Dad’s Playboys?” he asked.  “When we first found that whole stack of them, and we realized we had all the pictures of naked girls we could ever want? Remember how unbelievable it was, just knowing that we’d be spending years looking at all those tits? This is like that, except way better. Naked girls who spread their legs for as long as you want to look. Damn. A week ago I never even dreamed we’d be looking at pussy. We saw five pussies tonight! And those girls were so fine! For a buck-fifty… that’s only thirty cents a pussy!”

We became regulars at the Stone. Rudy and I went once or twice a month all through high school. What is it about naked women? You want to wrap yourself up in legs and breasts, lose yourself in somebody you don’t even know. You’re going through your day, taking care of business, and suddenly you get this vision in your mind and you’ve got to stop everything and entertain your genitals.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the strippers we saw. I wondered if they liked their work. A lot of them seemed to be having a good time. The best ones, the ones who would look you in the eye and tease you until you couldn’t stand it anymore, they were like goddesses. I held them in a position of reverence above all of the saints and angels I’d ever learned about in ten years of Catholic schooling. Every time we went to the Stone, I’d end up with a crush on another one. Rudy did too, often the same ones.

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