It was early in the fall of 1951. There were three of us, in our late teens. We were foolishly trying to drive home in a battered, ready-to-die Chevrolet, all the way to San Francisco from Alberta, where we had been playing baseball for the Medicine Hat Mohawks of the Western Canadian League. Our route took us through Nevada.
“Yep, transmission's busted,” said the mechanic in Lovelock. “Cost you a few hundred. You boys got it?”
We had it. But by now that's just about all we had, and it was going to take three days to get Larry's little gray coupe running again.
We wandered aimlessly around Lovelock. It seemed a temporary oasis of long, low, washed-out buildings waiting for a gust of hot desert wind to whisk them away, like the tumbleweeds and rare patches of green on the bleak hills and fields and alongside the all but deserted highways in the gritty, bone-dry countryside that surrounded them. We fed our dwindling supply of coins into slot machines, but managed only to further reduce our capital. It was early morning, but we'd given up breakfasts; a hamburger at noon, a hamburger at dinner had been our limit for the past 300 miles.
When lunchtime finally arrived, we chose a diner with faded blue paint peeling off a clapboard front; it appeared to be the cheapest in town. A crude hand-lettered sign was taped on the wall in front of us at the counter: WE DO NOT SERVE COLORED PEOPLE. We were studying the sign and talking about Chris Scott, the Mohawks' popular third baseman — “colored” third baseman, as the Canadian papers described him — when a cheery waitress came bouncing forward.
Larry looked down from the sign, chin still in hand. “What color people don't you serve?” he asked dryly. “Purple people? Green people?”
We had our hamburgers at another diner down the street. The prices were only a little bit higher.
But where could we sleep? There were a few hotels in Lovelock, but whatever their prices, it would be too much. It was about three in the morning when a deputy sheriff shone a flashlight beam through the window of Larry's car in front of the garage.
“Can't be sleeping in the streets like this,” the deputy told us.
“What's the problem?”
Well, all right, he said, he'd let us be for the rest of the night. “But, look, we got a big jail and lots of room. You want to come over there and sleep tomorrow night, you're welcome. Sheriff won't mind — but he's not gonna like it much if you're out here again.”
We awoke early. But what then? Larry had an idea.
The mechanic acted as if it was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. “You want to 'take a look' at what? Take a look!” Still chuckling, he gave us the directions.
Down the main drag then over two blocks to the right we found it, a neat two-story frame house, white with dark green trim around the windows. We walked up as close as we dared, trying to peer through the screen door as we stood in the dusty yard. Suddenly, the door squeaked open. A pleasant middleaged woman in a white blouse and black tailored skirt — we thought her old, of course — held back the door. She looked just like Mrs. Houston, one of my favorite grammar school teachers — tall, red hair, glasses, everything.
“Somethin' I can do for you boys?” the woman asked in a not unfriendly tone.
Lew and I moved our feet nervously in the dirt — but not Larry. “Yeah,” he said right out, “could we look around?”
The woman stepped out onto the porch and stared at Larry, then smiled and glanced at Lew and me, now looking hard at the ground.
“Lookin’s not what people do around here, boys. Don't you worry, you're old enough. You come right on in.”
“No, no,” Larry protested. “We're broke. We really would like to just look around — if it's okay. You're not ah ... too busy right now, are you?”
The woman broke into a deep laugh. “Never heard of such a thing. But if that's what you really want… well, maybe… But where you from? Don't live 'round here, do you?”
Larry rapidly told our story, stressing that we had a burning curiosity to see how things were outside California, in a place like Nevada, where it was legal.
The woman looked us over very closely. “Well,” she said finally, “it's hot out here. You come on inside and have a Coca-Cola or somethin'. But don't get in the way — if you're just lookin'.” She laughed again.
The woman — Florence was her name, she told us — held the door as we stepped hesitantly into a short hall and then into a room at the left. Thick beige carpeting covered the floor wall to wall, and a heavily padded dark brown couch sat directly under a window, covered with closed lace curtains, that looked out over the yard. Matching arm chairs sat at angles at the sides of the couch, varnished tan end tables beside each of them. Magazines were stacked, overflowing, on shelves beneath the tables and under a coffee table in front of the couch; two straight-backed wooden chairs with padded red leather seats were placed along the pink walls at each side of the room; a shiny mahogany bar stretched across the room's full width, facing the couch, the wall behind it covered with a mirror to the ceiling. Bottles filled four shelves placed flush against the mirror.
“Here you go, boys,” said our hostess, handing us Cokes as we leaned forward from the edge of the couch. “On the house,” she added, turning to wink at a squat brunette in a peasant blouse who sat behind the bar leaning on her elbows over a tattered paperback book.
“Enjoy yourself, honey,” Florence said to Larry as we settled back uneasily. “You and your friends stay as long as you like. I got some things to take care of.”
She crossed the hall and went up a flight of carpeted stairs.
Dot, behind the bar, looked up from her book. “You guys want some action?”
Lew and I flushed and looked quickly at Larry.
“Uh, not right now,” he said. “We're kinda relaxing.”
“Suit yourself,” Dot said, and returned to her reading.
We spent the next hour or so thumbing through the magazines. As I slid one back into the pile I looked up, catching Dot's eye.
“You sure you don't want to go upstairs?” she asked.
“Not unless you're giving out free samples,” I thought, but managed only an embarrassed, “Uh, no ... not yet.”
The screen door banged open and in came two wiry, heavily tanned locals who looked to us like they were from a movie: cowboy hats; tight, brightly colored shiny shirts; tight, faded Levi jeans; high, sharply pointed boots. Dot greeted them noisily as they climbed onto barstools, not so much as looking around at us. Florence was coming down the stairs when three more customers walked through the door, construction workers, undoubtedly, with sunburned faces and dusty work clothes. Florence took one of them by the arm as she led the three to the bar.
“You go up anytime you want,” Florence told the cowboys loudly. “You guys know who's up there, for sure. Pick any room; ain't none of 'em busy.”
One of the men banged his beer bottle down on the bar and grinned at Dot. “C'mon, Smitty, let's get to it!”
Smitty stopped for a moment at the foot of the stairs and turned. “Hey — Flo, old buddy. How 'bout you? Wanna give us a big treat?”
Florence guffawed and turned to the construction workers. They talked about how hot the weather had been, about a job they were starting the next week, and had a couple of beers.
The cowboys stuck their heads into the room to say goodbye, and in a few minutes four women stepped in, ranging themselves on either side of the open doorway, with broad, fixed smiles. They wore matching lacy black merrywidows that forced their breasts high into view, with dark silky hose attached to broad vertical bands at the bottom; translucent black panties, and shiny black pumps with high spike heels. The construction men looked them over; then each got up to take a woman lightly by the arm and head up the stairs with her. The remaining woman turned toward us expectantly, flipping the ends of her long black hair from her neck.
“No,” said Florence, chuckling. “They're special customers.”
The woman shrugged and sat at the bar with her back to us. Nice legs, but I really liked that front view.
The construction workers were gone in less than a half-hour. After they left, Florence came over to ask, “Well, boys, what d'you think of it?” Larry mumbled something like “looks pretty busy,” but even he didn't have the nerve to ask for free samples, and soon we left, just as two new customers were sitting down for a drink.
“Remember,” said Florence, her hand resting on the shoulder of one of the newcomers, “you come back when you get some money. We'll be here.”
It was about nine o'clock that night when we wandered up to a dirty white concrete blockhouse kind of a building all dirty apple green inside. We each got a 10-by-10 foot room to ourself, a wool blanket that must have been very popular with the moths of Lovelock, and a thin, badly stained straw pallet. As I lay down on the narrow wooden bed I heard a loud click.
“Sorry,” said a deputy sheriff through the bars as he pocketed a key, “but we got to do that; it's the rules.”
In the morning, the click sounded again. “Breakfast,” said the deputy. Oatmeal, coffee and three stewed prunes. On the house.