by Alexandra M. Lucas
Whenever I mention that I’m from Kansas City, people who think they’re clever ask which Kansas City —Kansas City, Kansas (KCK) or Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO). The popular perception of Missouri is accurate; there’s a non-trivial amount of gun violence and public schools routinely lose their accreditation.
The only reason I was sent to school in Missouri was because it housed the nearest nationally-ranked single-sex private school. My parents’ primary goal was to ensure that I would someday leave our backwards, insignificant, flyover town and learn that evolution wasn’t, in fact, just a theory. That, and, at the time, I also needed more than a little help staying the fuck out of trouble. My kind lived on the right side of Wornall Road and we weren’t supposed to do the things those other people did in KCMO and KCK; it should be noted that the Jesus-heavy Kansan suburb in the dry county in which we lived made a killing on cocaine and alcohol rehab for young adults. We were taught that KCMO was bad, but that KCK was far worse. What those clever inquirers of “KCK or KCMO?” didn’t know was that they were just as likely to meet someone from KCK outside of it as they were to meet a North Korean expat. There are just some places that people never leave.
Even though its venue was nestled in KCK, I had agreed to attend the show because I liked spending time with my younger brother whenever I was home from college. He had dutifully remained close to home for his undergrad, keeping my parents company as they endured our suburb’s arbitrary social hierarchy, which was dictated by the number of generations one’s family had suffered through living in Kansas. A small part of me still felt guilty about almost letting him drown, after he confidently rode his tricycle straight into the pool. I also had the blueblood luxury of carefree summer recreation and the final vestiges of naïve entitlement that still enabled me to ask my dad for a $20 without a trace of shame. As far as I knew, everyone lived this way.
“Sam, is this place even real? I haven’t seen a stoplight in over ten minutes.” I flicked at the Garmin GPS navigator suction cupped to the inside of the windshield, hoping for results resembling those of the Fonz whenever he hit a jukebox.
“Hey!” Sam exclaimed, swatting my hand away from his latest electronic toy. New guitars, new speakers, new phones—if you could plug it in, Sam needed the latest version. He was one of the first people to buy an iPod, but he liked to forget how defective it had been. With every new tech purchase he made, Sam was quietly chasing that first gadget high that he could never replicate. “Maybe don’t break it, though. Thanks.”
“It kinda makes sense that this place would be in the middle of nowhere. This is KCK, the land of halter tops, NASCAR, and PBR.”
“Speaking of, it’s Tuesday! This place has $2 PBR all night.” Sam whistled. I couldn’t tell if he was proud of himself for knowing about a deal—a shitty one, but still a deal—or if he was genuinely excited about taking advantage of it. Much to our parents’ chagrin (and surely to that of all of our upstanding Eddie-Bauer-wearing neighbors), my brother was a regular at this club in KCK.
“That still feels pretty overpriced.” At that remark, my brother shot me a disapproving sideways glance that caught me off guard. After just a few years away, I was losing him.
Our pristine SUV hobbled over a set of railroad tracks, then we ultimately settled for “parking” on a sickly patch of grass that was conveniently Harley-Davidson-adjacent. Not a flesh-and-blood biker actually in sight and still I felt uneasy. Once we were out of the car, my brother looked at my high heels, then at the uneven ground, then back at my high heels again. Suddenly self-conscious, I tugged at the hem of my short polka dot dress, which had two symmetrical side cutouts and had at least looked good on the mannequin at H&M. I had only worn it on a lark—a rich girl in faux rockabilly clothing—in anticipation of the event. However, the sight of six motorcycles lounging on their kickstands in casual readiness for god knows what made me wonder if maybe this whole thing had been a mistake. These people weren’t our kind.
I slid my imitation Aviators partway down the long bridge of my nose so I could read the weighty wooden placard that hung above the front door. The words “The Other Side” had been carved deep into its flesh, spotted with the wear of rain and warped by decades of extreme Midwestern heat and cold. A flimsy black-and-white poster with the name of the singer we’d come to see—an obscure voice actor and country singer named Unknown Hinson—was splashed haphazardly across a cracked display case, lacquered right on top of the numerous posters that had come before it.
One of the old posters caught my eye. “Oh too bad, we missed the Pussy Hounds Forever Trio last weekend,” I lamented with a thinly-veiled sneer.
That earned me another disapproving look from Sam; it made me feel physically cold and somewhat ashamed of myself. Just then, one of my high heels—ombré red and two inches higher than I was used to—faltered in the gravel beneath our feet. “Fuck!”
“That’s what you get,” my brother said matter-of-factly, shrugging and stopping just long enough to make sure I was all right—and so he wouldn’t miss seeing me fall on my ass. He sighed in disappointment when I regained my balance. Shame and near-humiliation have a way of humbling a person, so I gave him a smile and a good whack on the shoulder with my black sequined clutch. Vintage, of course, so I didn’t hit him too hard.
I withdrew my ID in anticipation of getting carded. Even at 22, I still had bouncers in Boston giving me the stink eye and asking me which high school I went to. But the gangly bestubbled man who was curled up in half of the doorway just raised a suspicious caterpillar eyebrow when I tried to hand it over. Sam frowned at me and pushed the manicured hand that held my ID away. “Jesus, we just got here. Stop embarrassing me. C’mon.”
At first glance, the inside of The Other Side seemed like something out of A Fistful of Dollars. Only the word “saloon” did the place justice, even with its well-prepped stage, elaborate sound system, muted TV, and other traces of modernity. Those classic swinging wooden doors even led the way to the bathrooms. Most of the saloon was uncovered—just the bar, the stage, and the bathrooms provided any kind of shelter from the elements. A sizeable open pavilion made up the majority of the space, leaving plenty of room for an unruly audience, but a second level above the outdoor stage provided tables, chairs, and a great view for those who didn’t want to contend with the body-to-body pit below. Unknown Hinson’s band was just finishing their sound check, but the singer himself was still nowhere in sight.
The beverage selection was about as varied as expected: a few brands of domestic beer, some bottom shelf liquor, and a lonely pear cider. Someone had scrawled all of the options on a chalkboard menu that hung on the dingy wall behind the bar. The options were all easy to read, save for “Pear Cider”; I thought that the writing was sloppy and written in jagged, unsure strokes that murmured of mortification. Below that were written familiar words of doom: Cash Only.
“Wow, thanks a lot for the heads up. All I have is plastic.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Classic Phila. I gotta hit the head, but then I’ll get this round. Go find us a table up top.”
“What, no mosh pit?” I teased, secretly relieved that my brother was going to deal with human interaction in my stead.
“It’s not really that kind of show.”
There was just no pleasing him tonight.
I stepped carefully out into the uncovered pavilion in front of the stage, playing my own game of lava with the knots in the wood. I was no longer walking on gravel, but my high heels still occasionally caught in gaps in the floor, so I had to keep my eyes on the ground. My cheap Aviators slid down my nose, reacting to sweat that had started to build up in the evening heat. I heard a deep voice to my right hiss, “Who she think she is with her dark sunglasses?” I looked at the source of the voice; he was wearing a work shirt with the name “Jim” printed on it, his hair was blond, and his eyes were filled with contempt. I tugged at my skirt again.
I climbed to the second level. Anything to get away from the blond hissing man who had reminded me that my dark victory curls and halter dress were all just a costume. Once I reached the top of the stairs, however, I saw that most of the tables had already been claimed by potato-shaped men wearing matching leather jackets and well-seasoned women who all seemed to be sporting their own set of matching jackets. The sun began to set, and the cicadas started chirping their nightly symphony. In the dreamy glow of the white Christmas lights and thin paper lanterns strewn throughout the rafters, I thankfully no longer sparkled.
There were no “kinds” anymore. I looked just like everyone else.
“Hey honey!” a surprisingly airy female voice called out. When the voice called out again, I looked up and realized that the woman to whom it belonged was not only calling out to me but waving for me to join her table.
I bit my carefully stained lip and sighed with relief as I sat with the woman and a very fleshy leather-clad man. “Hi, thanks. Uh, people downstairs weren’t exactly happy to see me, so I really appreciate it.”
The woman’s graying brown hair puffed around her head in a thick bush of curls, having lost their battle with the humidity. “Don’t worry ‘bout the vipers, girlie. Ya get used to it. Them’s just nervous ‘cause they know you ain’t never been ‘round here before.”
Vipers. I liked that.
“Oof, it’s that obvious, huh? God I need a drink,” I replied, smiling at her gratefully, then glanced down at the open pavilion. The crowd was starting to fill in below, but I thought I could see Sam’s dark curly mop bobbing between clusters of fans.
“Now there’s a girl after my own heart. Fiona,” she offered, extending an extremely tan hand with a skull ring on her wedding finger to me.
“Nice to meet you. Phila.” Relaxing, I let Midwestern twang creep back into my voice. Unlike my snooty college friends, Fiona sure wouldn’t give a shit.
“Phila, huh? I think we got a Phil in the MC,” the man chimed in, his voice so abruptly loud that I wobbled in my cast iron chair. He had a long, thin white mustache that drooped onto his chest and made him look like a lost member of The Eagles, and his cheeks were riddled with psoriasis. Tattoos crept up and down his substantial arms, which were clearly firm beneath a layer of fat and the visible ravages of time. The tattoo that covered his entire left forearm said “FIONA.”
“The MC?” I asked, unconsciously abandoning my tendency to pretend to understand acronyms. I was too relieved to have found some friendly faces to bother with pretending.
“Motorcycle club, a’course!” the man erupted with a level of excitement that might have been bad for his heart.
“Don’t mind Dale,” Fiona insisted, waving the man’s excitement away. “Twenty-five years in the Iron Order MC and he still gets giddy as all get-out about it all.”
“Woman, you forget we never would’a met without it.”
“I do love me a man with a mustache on a bike,” Fiona admitted, smiling at him and running her knobby fingers through his long mustache. They pecked a quick, well-practiced kiss on the lips, exactly as I had seen my parents do countless times. Before I realized what was happening, a huge smile had stretched across my face, so broad and genuine that its unfamiliarity made my face hurt.
Sam finally located us, having survived his quest to acquire alcohol and break the seal. He set down the beers, high-fived Dale—also a fellow regular?—and was instantly part of the group despite his late arrival. “Gross as it is, I love that fuckin’ bathroom. Dicks and phone numbers all over the walls, smells like Satan’s asshole. And goddamn glory holes! Like three of them. Haven’t ever seen ‘em in use, but they’re there. This place is like the redneck CBGB.”
I raised an eyebrow at Sam; in our twenty concurrent years of being alive, I had never heard him talk like that. The nuns at our respective high schools would not have been pleased.
Fiona slapped her thigh at that, causing rippling waves of worn leather and skin. “Darlin’, you ever been to CBGB? ‘Course not! You—and our two boys, too—were in diapers when them doors shut! Well, let me tell you, CBGB was the redneck CBGB. Damn, those were the days.” She smiled at Dale knowingly. Based on the look the married bikers exchanged, I was fairly certain that Dale and Fiona had conceived at least one of their children at the now-defunct music establishment. The thought of missing something that was now forever closed, no matter how disgusting, made me feel a pang of jealousy.
Sam slammed down his PBR in playful protest. “Just how old do you think I am? Fuckin’ diapers! It only closed ten years ago.”
“Somebody knows his stuff,” Dale remarked, whistling in approval as he lit a cigarette. “What’s got a young kid like you keepin’ an eye on old joints like that’n?”
Sam pointed both of his thumbs at himself. “Raised on classic rock and been playing the guitar for ten years, so…” That was when Fiona and I lost the two men to debates about the best brand of wah pedal and whether CCR or Three Dog Night was the superior band.
Just as Fiona inhaled a deep breath to launch into some lost line of thought, I felt a few fingertips firmly tap my bare shoulder. When I turned my head to investigate the source, I locked eyes with a full-grown country boy in a red gingham shirt and a cowboy hat that looked like it had been through actual cowboy activities.
“Ain’t seen you before,” he said, his voice thick and commanding. “You dance?”
I was too startled to respond; this sort of thing didn’t happen to me. Boys among my kind did not approach me or ask me to dance. Not only was my family not from Kansas, but I was taller than most, curvy, and had a crooked smile that even four years of braces couldn’t correct because of a missing tooth. I was more apt to discuss the social and cultural implications behind Faye Valentine’s existence in Cowboy Bebop than which church my family frequented. Even if I was beautiful, I didn’t think so, and most would-be suitors could tell. I quickly rationalized that this encounter was either a joke or a misunderstanding.
“Jake’s nice, darlin’. A good boy,” Fiona whispered, offering a knowing smile. “Go have some fun!” She punched my arm a little too hard.
I gulped two long swigs of my beer and took Jake’s hand. It was covered in firm, fleshy ridges that I could trust, and his strides had a certainty that could only be achieved from years of performing all activities in the same footwear. I glanced at his shoes; unlike the rigid, bedazzled designer cowboy boots of the women of my kind, Jake’s boots looked as soft and honest as a worn-in baseball glove.
As we walked down the stairs, a heavily accented voice drawled an announcement of Unknown Hinson’s entrance, and the crowd exploded with hoots and hollers.
“You seen him before?” Jake asked, lazily slinging an arm around my shoulders as he scanned the crowd.
“No, I don’t think so.”
He laughed a little at that. “Oh, you’d know.”
I knew that Unknown Hinson was eccentric, but I was not prepared for the Johnny Cash-Dracula hybrid that sauntered onto the stage. In the adult cartoon show for which he provided his voice, he played a caricature of a hillbilly, often using poor grammar and wearing trucker hats sporting irreverent sayings like “Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes.” As soon as he opened his mouth, I realized that he was not acting on the show; Adult Swim was paying him just to play himself. With a retro guitar slung over one shoulder, he locked arms with two buxom rockabilly pinup girls and started singing a song about Satan in a thong.
I barely had time to take in the spectacle before Jake led me into the crowd and planted his hands firmly on my waist. Although I hadn’t been in that position too many times before, I knew that it usually started with careful exploration of personal space. As Unknown Hinson asked the audience how they were enjoying their “party liquor,” I linked my hands behind Jake’s neck. The back of his head was warm, and when I ran my fingertips through his dark hair, I could feel that it was clipped short; he struck me as the kind of person whose mama probably gave him a weekly haircut. To my surprise, we skipped the awkward intermediary stages of physical touch when he reached into one of the geometric slits on the side of my dress and pulled me against him.
Though the act was brazen, I liked the feeling of his calluses on my skin and the hint of an erection pressing through our clothes against my abdomen. They felt real. They reminded me of a fantasy I’d had for quite some time but felt too embarrassed to tell anyone; despite all of my privilege and opportunities, sometimes I wanted nothing more than to escape. Move to a small town where no one knew me, work in a diner, and live alone in the woods—maybe with a dog. No one from my old life would be able to find me unless I wanted them to. I could even change my name or invent a whole new backstory for myself. No one would ever have to know that I never became a lawyer or doctor or that I fell woefully short of my home community’s expectations. I wouldn’t have to answer to anyone, and I could just…be.
“I like your tattoo,” he yelled over the music. The elaborate face of a Greco-Roman goddess peeked out from the right cutout of my dress; I thought about explaining the subject, but I didn’t think he would care about some inane story about an expensive indulgence that I would almost certainly regret in a few years. He didn’t know that it ran up my entire right flank, or that I cried like a child during the entire seven-hour procedure, or that I only bought it on a whim one month before Bonnaroo. He was simply smiling at it because he relished the creamy softness of someone who had never worked a day in the hot Midwestern sun, and I wanted to hold onto that smile as long as I could.
A thick cloud of sound began to build—something separate from Unknown Hinson’s utterly irreverent country crooning. The pavilion seemed to become increasingly dense, and I could feel the din of jubilant, thrashing dancers coupled with live music and the thick cloud of sound start to wrap around me, seeping into my pores. Jake took hold of my chin, lifted it up so that I could not avoid eye contact, and kissed me squarely. Our dancing became faster and more urgent, and the cacophony of spinning axles and whirring engines finally exploded right next to The Other Side. The conductor of the passing train tugged the whistle hard, and everyone in the venue called back “Hell yeah!” in sacred unison.
“You really ain’t ever done the 9 O’Clock Holler before, have ya?”
“Oh, that’s what that was?” I managed, breathing hard and covered in the satisfying sweat of an uninhibited dancer. I swallowed the laughter bubbling within me that I knew would come off as mockery if I let it escape. I couldn’t ruin it. My hands slid down to his lower back; I clawed at his shirt in an attempt to grip it, but it was too soaked. So much sweating would have been considered uncouth in a certain Bostonian club that my friends liked to frequent. But Jake smelled of grass and sunshine, and a little bit like the saddles I used to clean when I went to horseback riding camp. It felt right here.
“Don’t worry,” he assured me, kissing my cheek. “There’s another one at eleven. You’ll get it, darlin’.”
He was right. Many kisses and fondles later, the sound began to build again. Unknown Hinson was reaching his apex; even I was entirely unsurprised when he started launching enormous dildos into the audience. I happened to look up just as Fiona caught one. Her elation reminded me of contestants getting selected on The Price is Right. Still seated next to her, my brother waved at me with moony eyes.
At least four cans of PBR were on the table in front of him.
I grabbed Jake’s hand and pulled him over to the edge of the pavilion that was closest to the railroad tracks. He laughed and used his free hand to secure his hat as we ran to make it in time. We could see the smoke before we saw the train, but I found myself antsy with excitement. It was almost time.
“Here it comes—you ready?”
The train whirred by at last, the whistle blowing in four long spurts. “HELL YEAH!” I shouted, my voice lost in the chorus of many, many other voices. Jake pulled me close again, reaching back into one of my dress’ cutouts and cupping one of my breasts as he kissed me, hard. Even the viper who had hissed at me before—Jim—nodded at me in approval. I had passed the test.
The music ended, like it always did. Jake and I were the last two on the dance floor, swaying solemnly to some B.B. King album that was playing while Unknown Hinson’s crew broke down their set. Jake asked for my phone number and I gave it. He wrapped me in his arms one last time, pressing me so hard against his chest that my breasts hurt. Beyond the mix of physical pain and pleasure, I felt an earnest longing flow from him that made me feel abruptly sad. I kissed him gently and cupped his cheek one more time so as to engrave it in my memory.
Once Jake was out of sight, I returned to the second tier of the bar and made a point of hugging Fiona before she and her husband departed. “Take care’a yerself, won’t ya, honey? And don’t be a stranger,” she said, squeezing me tight.
Sam shook Dale’s hand vigorously, and Dale passed him a business card that was stamped with the same iron-horned skull emblazoned on the back of his leather jacket. Then, my brother and I put our arms around each other’s shoulders and stumbled out to the car, laughing as we recounted each of our evenings.
My brother was telling me about a particularly cute biker—“Sweetbutt”—who had been flirting with him all night when we heard a loud thwack. Like startled gazelles, we both immediately turned toward the sound. It took a moment for my brain to process the sight, but it was clearly Dale and Fiona, and Dale had just smacked her across the face. Hard. Fiona did not object. She spat. Then, as if they could sense our gazes, both of them looked over at us. Sam and I quickly looked away and kept our heads down during the remainder of our walk.
Once we reached the makeshift parking lot, we saw a silver sedan with all four doors thrown open. Every possible car light was turned on, and two unconscious people drooped out of the front seats. Partly empty, bargain-sized liquor bottles littered the backseat. While the car’s “open door” warning sound beeped steadily, Sam and I looked at each other in silence.
“Do we call 911? What the fuck is this?”
“Don’t be stupid. The police won’t even come here. KCK, Phila.”
I threw my hands in the air and widened my eyes at him in an effort to rephrase my question.
“They’re just sleeping it off. They’ll be fine.” I could see in his eyes that Dale’s behavior had cut him deeply.
As we drove past the silver sedan, I recognized one of the unconscious people as Jim, the viper who had eventually given me his approval. I looked down at Jake’s number on my phone. I knew that we would talk but that we could never date. It was either a clumsy, impersonal hookup in the parking lot that night or nothing. We weren’t of the same kind. I was only visiting, casually, from my sparkling perch. In the morning, I would return to my gated suburb, leaving him to languish in 8:00 a.m., ninety-degree heat and a lifetime of limitations. There was no small town waiting for me. The cicadas continued chirping, just the same.
I felt stupid for thinking I could ever be a part of it.
Alexandra M. Lucas is a game writer and narrative designer. She won the GDC Game Narrative Review Platinum Award twice, and she has delivered gender studies presentations at GDC, PAX Dev, GeekGirlCon, and Wellesley College. She contributed chapters to Digital Love: Romance & Sexuality in Games, Pop Culture Matters, and the Encyclopedia of Sexism in American Films. Alexandra is co-chair of the IGDA Serious Games SIG, and she recently wrote about Dragon Age relationship mechanics for Love and Affection in Games: A Design Primer. Professionally, she has written for interactive novels, digital assistants, RTS mobile games, educational MMORPGs, and more.