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  • September 16th, 2013

Anatomy Comes to Birch Lake

By Joel M. Vance

It is the middle 1950s, long ago.  Birch Lake begins to slumber in mid-June and doesn’t really wake until the first cold night of autumn.  The lake turns to pea soup and fish sull in the dark depths.  The mid-day sun is painfully bright and the thick, hot air smells of road tar and lake algae.  Labrador retrievers drowse listlessly in the shade, twitching with fevered dreams of icy water and mallards tumbling from the sky.

Summer is the time of the tourist, those strange beings from other worlds—like Indiana and Illinois.  My Uncle Floyd’s bar fills with visitors in Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps who brag about big fish they’ve caught.  Uncle Floyd, the owner and bartender, arbitrates arguments over the Chicago baseball teams and the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.  He is regarded warily by the ladies of the United Church.

True, he owns a bar, a cause for concern, but he also is a member of the town’s most revered family.  My grandmother is a Birch Lake pioneer and a figure of unassailable rectitude.  One does not lightly attack her family.

The Pioneer’s Fair planners made Uncle Floyd chairman of the midway entertainment subcommittee…and he brought Flame LaTouche to town.

The owner of the previous year’s carnival was in jail for kiting bad checks, so Birch Lake needed a new show, preferably one with class.  Uncle Floyd was up against it because if there was one thing the Bluegill Bar lacked it was class.  He should have known better than to trust a stranger from The Cities who ordered yet another Bruenig’s Lager and said, “Trust me, you can’t go wrong with the Miller Brothers outfit.  I used to work for them guys and they is first rate!”

The deadline loomed and Uncle Floyd was desperate.  Uncle Floyd went for the bait.  He arranged for the carnival visit over the phone and in time a shabby collection of flatbed trucks and trailers pulled onto Main Street and began to set up some indifferent rides like a Tilt-a-Whirl that looked more bent than tilted, and a miniscule Ferris Wheel that creaked arthritically and wobbled like a wheel with loose lug nuts.

One tired old lion slumbered in a small cage, looking as if it wanted only to sleep or perhaps to die.  A group of monkeys threw shit at the onlookers which effectively limited their appeal.

For us randy teenagers Flame LaTouche was the exception to the general decrepitude of the event.  She was advertised as “An Exotic Dancer Direct From The Nile!” and she was the flame (or Flame) to our randy crowd, awash in juvenile hormones.

My cousin Hal and I stared at the posters tantalizingly offering glimpses of her charms with the rapt attention our biology teacher had vainly tried to get us to show in class.

“Exotic dancing,” Hal declared as if he knew all about it, “means she does sex stuff.”

“That’s erotic dancing,” I said, having made a study of such things since my voice began to change.  “Exotic dancing means she does stuff from Bali or Afghanistan or some place like that in the South Pacific.”

The United Church League ladies demanded that the performance be prohibited, but the city officials and county court, exclusively men who secretly planned to sneak a peek at Flame LaTouche, weren’t about to ban her exotic Afganistanian gyrations.

They cited the First Amendment, as well as artistic expression.  “You ladies don’t have to go, you know,” said the presiding commissioner, praying they wouldn’t.

The ladies gritted their teeth, mostly false, and stalked from the meeting to confront my grandmother.  “It’s your son who’s bringing that,,,,that woman here!” exclaimed Mrs. Ethel Warburton, a widow, though it always amazed me that some man could have found her attractive enough to marry.  “I should think you’d be more Christian than to allow it.”

My grandmother bristled at the suggestion she was unChristian and also that one of her sons might be flawed, although they all were in charming ways.  “Floyd is 46 years old,” she declared, just short of a snarl.  “I quit spanking him quite a few years ago.”

Mrs. Warburton huffed off with her doughty delegation and prayed for salvation.  She thought it had come when a rusty Ford van limped into town.  The Rev. Roy Lee Snyder was a frreeswinging revivalist whose biannual visit to Birch Lake just happened to coincide with that of the Miller Brothers sideshow.

Faced with an implacable phalanx of righteous church ladies, the county court let Brother Snyder set up his revival tent at the edge of the Midway, figuring that while the town wives were being saved the husbands could roam the Midway, awkwardly shooting basketballs at a goal half regulation size, firing a .22 at tin targets that refused to topple…and skulking into the dark corners of Flame LaTouche’s crimson tent, a tent lit by flickering lamps that made their eyeballs glitter.

Hal and I were throwing rocks at a poster advertising the visit of Brother Snyder when his rusty van jerked to a stop beside us.  There was an ill-painted sign skewed to the side of it reading “Jesus Saves!”

“At the Birch Lake Bank,” Hal snickered.

“Geez!” I said, “that’s blasphemy stuff.  Don’t make jokes like that.”

“You boys!  Get over here!”  Brother Snyder had the eye of a raptor, sharp and hungry.  He crooked a long finger at us that reminded me of an illustration I’d seen in a Weird Tales Magazine  of the Grim Reaper beckoning a lost soul.  My mouth went dry.

“Whayuh is the fairgrounds?” the lean preacher asked, a hint of the South and dusty gravel roads in his raw voice.  He needed a haircut and a shampoo wouldn’t have hurt either.  He was at least a day short of a shave and I thought of a buzzard perched in a tree over a road kill.

Hal, who never met a stranger he couldn’t irritate, pointed down the road.  “Can’t miss it,” he said.  “It’s where the hootchy-kootchy dancer is.”  He did a clumsy shimmy and Brother Snyder’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Do you attend church, boy?” he growled.  We stirred uneasily because while we did go to church it was not a matter of choice.  I suspected it didn’t qualify as real churchgoing.

“I see sin in you boys,” Brother Snyder said.  “Oh, I fear you are whoring and gambling and lost!” he exclaimed, wrong on all counts.  But he was just warming up.  He drew a tattered Bible from his coat jacket as quick as John Wayne ever unholstered a Colt Peacemaker.

Brother Snyder grabbed my arm.  It felt like a huge eagle had me in its talons.  “Lust is in your heart, boy!” he hissed and reflexively I shut my eyes so he couldn’t see in.  He had me pegged.  I could smell his breath.  It was as if he had been snacking on Hell.  “Repent or suffer as the damned!”

I was suffering already but just as I was on the verge of blubbering repentance, he let go of me.  “Thou shalt regret thy sins and become whole!”

He clambered back into his van and was gone in a flurry of dust.

“Shazaam!” Hal exclaimed.  “What a weirdo.”  I rubbed my arm.

We resumed our study of the poster immediately adjacent to Brother Snyder’s, the one advertising the forbidden charms of Flame LaTouche.  Meanwhile Brother Snyder set up his revival tent as close to the Midway as he could get, not realizing it was only a few steps from that of the evil Ms. LaTouche.  Dangerous business, like storing explosives close to an open flame.

The Pioneer’s Fair began and the bay of the calliope and the racket of the sideshow barkers mingled strangely with the preacher exhorting his sweating faithful through a sound system that occasionally screamed like a gutshot tomcat.

The United Church ladies swayed as one, inspired by Brother Snyder’s fervent rhythm.  A couple of husbands, incompetently evasive, glowered uncomfortably, wishing they were sucking up Bruenig’s Lager and drooling over the charms of Flame LaTouche next door.

Charlie Pete, the town drunk, wandered into the revival tent on the second night of the Fair and the holy man threw him out.  Charlie Pete was a Chippewa Indian, coppery and seamed, with an unkempt pony tail.  He would not swat a pesky deer fly.  “Get out, you heathen Indian!” shouted the good Brother.  “Get thee to Hell with your Godless aboriginal ancestors!”

Charlie Pete, half in the bag, didn’t understand much of what the foam-mouthed preacher was shouting, but he did understand he wasn’t wanted.  The preacher stalked the spooked Indian like a panther after a deer and Charlie bolted through the tent door, caromed off the rusty van and fell to the ground.  Hal and I hauled him to his feet.  “What the hell was that all about?” Charlie said, rubbing his forehead.  “What’d I ever do to him?”  He dabbed at a cut on his forehead with a dirty handkerchief.

“Whyn’cha put some Jibway curse on him?” Hal asked.  “Make him turn blue or something.”

“Kid, I run outa magic before I was your age,” Charlie said.  “I need a brew.”  He wandered off in the direction of town and the Bluegill Bar, familiar territory.

“Poor ol’ guy,” I said.  “That preacher don’t have no reason to push him around.  We sighed at the incomprehensibility of adults and wandered toward the forbidden tent.  I heard the raucous bray of the barker and my hormonal juices escalated to flood spate: “Awright, step inside and see the sweetest thing this side of Vegas!” he shouted.  “You kids, move on out, come back when you’re old enough to appreciate fine art…and bring money!  You get right in to see our little Flame…not only see, I’m telling you…but experience something you’ll never experience right here in Birch City.”

He got the name of the town wrong, but that was a trifle compared to what our imaginations added to his peroration.  He talked over our heads to the adults behind us and, embarrassed by the attention, we slunk to the next tent where a pimpled, greasy guy, scarcely older than we were, implored us to knock down stacked milk bottles and win a purple panda.

I couldn’t stand it anymore.  “Let’s go see her,” I said.  Hal looked at me, alarmed.  For all his bravado he tended to fade into the woodwork when push came to shove.  And he knew of my tendency to get into cataclysmic fixes.  He believed I could break Jell-o.

“You chicken?” I challenged.  That, of course, is the ultimate flung gauntlet to a teenage boy.

“Up yours!” he replied eloquently.  We circled behind the Flame LaTouche tent.  It was dark back there, untouched by the Midway lights.  The tent was quiet, between shows.  We cautiously peeked through a gap between two panels in the tent.

“Would you look at that!” Hal hissed.  The tent was deserted…and Flame LaTouche’s tasseled brassiere was draped over a folding chair.  “Talk about a trophy!” Hal breathed.  “Go get it.”

“Me!  You go get it!”

“Shhhh!  Shut up and listen.  I’ll go stand at the front of the tent and if anyone starts to come in, I’ll give the Bobcat Bark and you run like hell.”

“How come you get to stay outside and I get to go in?” I asked.

“Cause you can’t do a good Bobcat Bark,” Hal said.  “Your voice don’t work right.  Now quit foolin’ around and get in there before somebody comes back.”

He vanished around a corner of the tent and I peered in at the spangled brassiere.  My mind dwelled on the contents for which those glittering cups were designed and I took a deep and shuddery breath.

Well, what the hell, I thought.  I wriggled through the narrow gap in the tent wall and paused inside, my nerves singing like chorus frogs.

I reached for the brassiere and a voice rasped just behind me.  “What the hell are you doing!”  I completed my grab and whirled to behold Flame LaTouche.  She was in the all-together and there was no doubt she was all together.  Flame LaTouche was not a modest woman.  She covered none of her charms.  I breathed, “Shazaam!” and my mouth stayed open.  I clutched the brassiere against my chest as if I were the one who was naked, not her.

Flame LaTouche was one angry exotic dancer.  “Gimme my bra, you little pissant!” she snarled.  She started toward me, raising her hand to display long crimson fingernails, like bloody claws.

I yelped in alarm and dove for the opening in the tent, but missed it.  I rebounded off the stiff canvas like a trampoline artist into Ms. LaTouche who exclaimed “oooofff!” and grabbed me as we both lost our balance.

We staggered across the tent and, even in my terror, I realized that naked women were soft in delightful ways not experienced when dancing with clothed ones.  We fell over a low table and broke apart and I scrambled to my feet, facing Ms. LaTouche, who seized a book from the table and threw it at me.

I’d been catching for the Birch Lake Cookies for years and I shagged the sailing book one-handed and now grasped two items belonging to Flame LaTouche (not, however, the two I’d been fantasizing about).

Flame LaTouche spoke to me in a way that only the Birch Lake Bobcat coach had done previously.  I figured it was long past time to hit the road and dove again for the gap in the tent and squirted through it with Flame LaTouche hot behind me, a turn of phrase that in more reflective times, would have torched my hormones.

After the glare of the tent lights I was blinded in the dark and squinted desperately, trying to locate a refuge.  “Little bastard!” Flame LaTouche roared behind me.  I leaped forward, rebounded off a tent support wire and once again found myself in a desperate embrace with a naked woman.  Her claws whispered past my ear and I realized she wanted more than her possessions back—she wanted to hurt me.

I wriggled free and saw a sliver of light from under the edge of a nearby tent.  I had led the Cookies in base-stealing and sprinted toward the light as if trying to steal second base on Yogi Berra.  I dove under the gaping tent bottom and lay for an instant, breathing hard.

And then, piling terror upon terror, someone roughly hauled me to my feet.  It was Brother Snyder and again I smelled his breath only this time it strangely carried the aroma of the Bluegill Bar.  “What are you doing in my tent!” he growled, gripping my arm painfully in the same place as before.  Bruises on bruises.

Caught somewhere between Heaven and Hell, as it were, my mind went out of gear like a worn out transmission on a steep uphill grade.  I was wild-eyed with fright.  Brother Snyder glared at me.  I didn’t know what to do, so I thrust the brassiere and book at him like an offering.  I noticed that the book was Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly.  Apparently Flame LaTouche and I shared the same literary hero.

Automatically Brother Snyder took the two items and as he realized what he was holding let go of my arm.  I sprinted for the door just as it was thrust aside by none other than Mrs. Ethel Warburton, pillar of the United Church ladies and stout guardian of Birch Lake morality.

With the quick move that had made me a minor legend as a guard for the Bobcats, I juked to one side and pivoted against the tent wall, breathing hard.

Flame LaTouche had slithered through the gap in the back wall with an agility born from years of exotic dancing, and she and The Rev. Snyder were frozen face to face, as if in a waxworks.  Mrs. Warburton’s coterie of church ladies crowded in behind her, astonished by the inimitable exhibition before them.

Perhaps they thought someone had been saved.  Someone had.  Me.  “Shazaam!” I breathed again.

“Gimme my goddam bra, you scuzzbutt!” snarled the naked Flame LaTouche.  The Rev. Snyder handed it to her, much as I had passed it along to him.  He retained the Spillane book, whose provocative cover was clearly visible in the harsh light.  The church ladies exclaimed wordlessly in unison.

I waited no longer.  I slid sideways along the tent wall and scooted through the door.  The aimless clatter of the Midway was a relief after the intense scene inside.  Hal appeared out of the dark and hissed, “Did you get it?”

“No,” I said.  “But that ol’ preacher’s gonna.”

The Rev. Snyder, of course, was discredited and dismissed.  He packed his rusty van and vanished from our lives.  Flame LaTouche’s reputation was enhanced.  Her tent was packed every night with those who had heard the story, or so we heard—we didn’t go back.

The Fair faded in memory, but there were times that summer when, in the moments just before sleep, I would remember embracing that naked woman.  My imagination neatly trimmed her talons and turned her expression from steaming rage to melting affection.

Toward autumn just before school started Hal and I were chunking rocks at the same street sign where we’d first seen the preacher and I looked at the now-tattered poster of Flame LaTouche and took a deep shuddery breath.

“Do you suppose Charlie Pete really can put curses on people?” I asked Hal.

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