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The Fiction Issue 2008

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

It's no wonder that David Lynch made two of his best films when he adapted Barry Gifford's 'Wild at Heart' and then asked him to cowrite the script for Lost Highway.
December 2, 2008, 12:00am

Wild at Heart and then, a few years later, asked Barry to cowrite the script for Lost Highway. The story in this issue is from a forthcoming, as-yet-untitled book. And guess what? The Imagination of the Heart, the final chapter of Wild at Heart's Sailor and Lula, will be released in the States next May. Go to www.barrygifford.com to see what else he's up to.

Story read by: Dana Lavoie, youngest son of French-Canadian acrobatic troupe the Flying Lavoies.

Roy's friend Magic Frank had a job cleaning up the Tip Top Burlesque House on Saturday and Sunday nights, which, because he began work at three-thirty of the following days, were actually Sunday and Monday mornings. According to the law, during business hours patrons and workers at the Tip Top had to be at least eighteen years old and Magic Frank was only sixteen, but since the girlie shows stopped at three the city ordinance did not apply to him. He'd gotten the job through his older brother, Moose, who played poker on Thursday nights with the Tip Top's owner, Herman "Lights Out" Trugen. Moose told Frank that Trugen's nickname derived from his habit of turning out lights to save money on electricity. Trugen, who was in his sixties, supposedly had been pals with the comedic actor W.C. Fields, another famous miser who kept padlocks on his telephones to which only he had the keys. In Berlin, Moose said, Herman Trugen had operated a whorehouse favored by the Nazis, several of whom helped him escape Germany during the Holocaust. Trugen's two sisters and a brother had died in Auschwitz.

Magic Frank did not like to go alone to State and Congress, so on Christmas Eve he asked Roy to accompany him, promising Roy to buy breakfast after he'd finished mopping the theater and taking out the trash. It was already officially Christmas on Sunday night when the boys got to the Tip Top early, at two-thirty, in order to catch the last show.

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"I thought you couldn't get in until the place was closed," Roy said.

"I got a key to the back door," said Magic Frank, "and Trugen don't come in Sundays. The other guys don't care, they just nod or wave and let me sit and watch if I want."

"What about the strippers?"

"What about 'em?"

"You know any?"

"Not really. By the time I come in, they're dog tired. They mostly just get dressed and leave."

A cold, sporadic rain pelted the boys as they walked down Dearborn past Van Buren, then turned left on Congress Parkway, where a gust of wind hit them flush in the face.

"Jesus H. Christ!" Frank cried. "As soon as I can, I'm movin' to Miami."

Magic Frank led Roy down an alley just west of State Street to the rear of the Tip Top and unlocked the back door. Roy followed him through the offices into the theater. The show was on so the boys snuck up a side aisle to the very last row and took seats. Two middle-aged, red-nosed men were onstage.

"Where was you last night, Al?" one asked the other.

"Inna cemetery."

"A cemetery?"

"That's right, Joe."

"What were you doin' inna cemetery at night?"

"Buryin' a stiff."

The dozen or so members of the audience barely acknowledged this stale joke despite an urgent roll on a snare drum and a cymbal crash that punctuated it. To Roy, the comedians looked as beat as the pit band sounded once they began an overture to the last stripper of the night.

"And now, for the delectation not to mention play-zeer of you germs out there," announced Joe, the fellow who performed the apocryphal interment, "direct from Paris—that's a burg in southern Illinois—guaranteed to raise your spirits if nothin' else, the proud proprietor of the best breasts in the Middle West, Miss May Flowers!"

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May Flowers entered stage left as the duo departed stage right. Draped in a bodice-hugging, floor-length, bright yellow gown, she sashayed around out of sync to the pit band's dull rendering of "Night Train." Her high-piled hair was fiery red.

"Sonny Liston uses this tune to jump rope by," Roy whispered to Magic Frank.

Before she stripped, Miss Flowers looked to be about forty years old. After her act was finished, Roy thought, she looked even older. Her breasts were long and narrow and set wide apart, the nipples sporting silver pasties; once released from imprisonment, they depended almost to her hips. During May's flounce and inevitable divestiture, the few witnesses who had paid to get in out of the cold expressed no particular emotions that Roy could easily discern. Most of them remained passive, if not in fact comatose, undisturbed by this jactitative offering. Those individuals deep in slumber went undetected by the performer, their snores rendered inaudible by the unenthusiastic strains of Jimmy Forrest's signature composition. May Flowers completed her act without much of a flourish. Once having shed all but a strategically positioned gold lamé triangle, she strode quickly out of sight and for all anyone knew directly out of the building.

Miss Flowers was not in evidence once Roy and Magic Frank went backstage. The musicians beat a hasty retreat as well, and two cadaverous-complexioned ushers hustled the patrons into the inhospitable night. It was part of Frank's job to turn off the lights and make sure the doors were locked, so the ushers took off as soon as they were certain all of the customers had gone.

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Roy asked Magic Frank if there was anything he could do to help him, and Frank said he could empty the wastebaskets from the office and dump them into a garbage can in the alley. Roy consolidated the contents of the several baskets into one and carried it outside, careful to prop open the door with a chair so as not to lock himself out. As he was emptying the trash, May Flowers walked out of the theater into the alley, carrying a bag and a box with a handle. She was wearing a big beaver coat with a small matching hat. Roy shivered in the icy rain.

"Nasty night, ain't it?" she said.

Roy looked at her and asked, "How do you get all of your hair under that little hat?"

"You mean the wig I wear durin' my act? It's in here," said May Flowers, lifting the box. "There's a pack of cigs and a lighter in the left side pocket of my coat. Could you be a good egg and take 'em out and light one up for me?"

Roy put down the wastebasket, fished a hand into the pocket of May's coat, and dug out a pack of Viceroys and a gold lighter.

"Pull one and torch it, honey," she said.

Roy put a cigarette between his lips and flicked the lighter. Up close, she looked a lot like his grandmother.

"Just stick it in," said May Flowers, parting her lips.

Roy transferred the Viceroy from his mouth to hers, then replaced the pack in the beaver coat pocket.

"You're a livin' doll," she said. "Don't you end up like these bums come in this dive don't do nothin' but tell each other sad stories of the death of kings. Merry Christmas."

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May Flowers walked away. Roy picked up the wastebasket and went back into the building. Magic Frank was putting a mop and bucket into a closet.

"I just saw May Flowers in the alley," Roy told him. "She asked me to light a cigarette for her."

"No kiddin'. What else did she say?"

"That I shouldn't end up like the men who come here."

Later, when the boys were in a diner, Frank said, "Wow, first night at the Tip Top and you got to meet May Flowers."

A scabrous Christmas tree, bedraped sparingly with tinsel, stood by the door.

"Yeah," said Roy, "but I wish I hadn't seen her breasts first."

Copyright © 2008 by Barry Gifford, All Rights Reserved