Ugly Shirt Universe

Justin D. Warren

"Behold," Milt said. "The palatial Larry's Centerfold Trap.

The Trap was a real topless bar. No cover charge applied at The Trap. The Trap only served beer. The Trap would never be mistaken for one of those all-nude juice bar places where you gave up fifteen dollars at the door to drink Pepsi in a room full of frat boys. The Trap was a place where you could get your hands dirty and maybe leave with some shame on your conscience. Don't get me wrong—all the standard rules applied: You couldn't touch the girls, and you were expected to behave like a gentleman, but only at a place like The Trap could guys like me and Milt pal around with the kind of men who knew dirt and shame. This dirt and shame was why we were there.

The squat cinderblock building was separated from two run-down motels on either side by alleys and chain-link fences equipped with razor wire. Blue and green neon signs told us where we were and to expect Budweiser and Miller Genuine Draft. I stood outside my silver econo-box and buttoned my blue Hawaiian shirt that featured palm trees, red drums and little native warriors paddling war canoes through what passed for an ocean in the Universe of Ugly Shirts.

Milt's shirt was also ugly, with dozens of tiny martini glasses.

"Yes," I said. "I'm sure palatial is the right word.

Milt laughed and led us into The Trap. He walked past the bouncer into a room where the light was blue and there was little of it. The bouncer was older than me and younger than Milt, maybe thirty. His baseball cap was burgundy and turned backwards so I couldn't see the logo.

"ID," he said to me curtly.

He stared at the photo of short-haired, clean-shaven, sixteen-year-old me for what seemed like forever before looking at me closely and returning my identification.

"Enjoy yourself, sir," he said. I followed Milt to the bar.

The bartender was short, bald and obviously capable of doing damage when he had to. I wondered if he had to very often.

I sat on a stool with my back to the bar and watched the room come into focus as my eyes became accustomed to the flashing blue lights. The other two men at the bar were fat bikers with long hair and beards. They watched the action on stage through the mirror behind the bar. I had seen this same behavior before. They got most of the experience, but were left free from the obligatory slide of a dollar bill into the G-string of the dancer.

The bikers leaned on their elbows, fingering their bottles of Bud. From time to time the bikers would lean in close to each other and come out laughing. Milt ordered his MGD and I felt his elbow in my arm. I looked over and Milt was pointing at the bartender, who was looking at me.

"Heine—," I almost finished the word before I remembered the bikers and their Buds. This was no place to be drinking anything in a green bottle. I ordered a Bud, and the bartender brought us beers for which we paid separately. We each changed a ten and moved to the railed stage.

We sat on red padded chairs below the bleached blonde who was spinning on the pole above us. She was dressed—it was early in the song—in a blood red velvet dress, tied in a shoestring bow at the back of her neck, leaving her arms, shoulders, and back bare. Her hair, cut above her eyebrows in razor-sharp bangs, was light and wispy like the hair of a little girl.

A guy came up on my left, dropped a bill on the stage and went to sit in a booth in the back. His ugly Hawaiian shirt was open to reveal an ample gut wrapped in the stained ribbed cotton of a wife-beater undershirt.

The song ended. Milt elbowed me and pointed to the dancer who was now nude except for a red velvet G-string.

"Let's hear it for Lily. She's a lovely lady; don't forget to show your appreciation," a voice said over the sound system.

Lily's breasts were small, her stomach smooth and flat. Her navel was home to a silver ring smaller than a pinkie ring. She sat on the rail in front of me, her finger laced under the thin strap that curved her thigh, pulling it out in a much-less-than subtle invitation for me to give her money. I picked up the tented dollar bill in front of me and slid it under the strap. She let go of the strap and it snapped against the bill, trapping it against her skin. I realized my mouth was open and closed it. Lily swung around and presented me with the other thigh, and I coughed up another buck.

Lily exited the stage and a voice from the sound system introduced the next dancer. I didn't hear this and didn't notice when the next girl came to the pole. I was watching the man with the ample gut and the ugly shirt. Something about him disturbed me. Something about him, beyond the ugly shirt and his choice of beer, reminded me of me. I didn't like it.

Hours passed and Milt and I spent the minutes a dollar and a dancer at a time while the beer flowed freely. A Latino guy in black slacks and a white dress shirt—no doubt coming off a shift of busing tables at a $1.99 casino buffet—joined us at the rail. He drank Mexican beer from a can. I drank Budweiser and pretended that I had not seen my twin drinking from the green bottle. In my drunken mind, it was the only thing that kept this twin from being my true future self.

"She's pretty fine, eh?" my new rail neighbor said through a heavy accent.

"Yeah," I said, not really wanting to be his pal.

The man scooted his chair back and held his hand out to me. I scooted my own chair back and shook his hand with a firm grip.

"Jaime," he said, pronouncing it Hi-may.

"Quentin," I said, loud enough to be heard over the music.

"Is that your dad?" Jaime asked. Milt was concentrating on the woman.

"That's Milt. He's my pal."

The girls each got two songs. During the first one they kept their tops on. The black woman on stage started dancing to her second song and Jaime stood. I assumed he was off to take a leak, but he went around the back of the stage where he could get a rear view of the woman's dance.

Jaime was soon joined by my twin. The twin sat down and laid out a tented dollar bill. Jaime stood and waved a dollar bill over his head.

"You've got a nice ass, baby," Jaime said.

The dancer turned around cautiously.

"Thank you," she said before turning back around to approach Milt and me. She squatted down in front of us and ground against the railing.

I tugged at the moist corner of the label on my beer bottle, slowly peeling it from the brown glass. Over the dancer's shoulder, I saw that my twin was also peeling the label from his bottle. I pushed the beer away from me and rested my hands on my legs.

"I'm Peaches," the dancer said to Milt and me. She had an accent, two accents really, one on top of another. I suspected that the original was Puerto Rican and the second was New York City.

"Hey, baby," Jaime said. "I said you've got a nice ass."

"I heard you the first time, sweetie. Sit down and enjoy the show."

"I want to spank you, baby." Jaime continued to wave the dollar bill over his head.

Peaches stood up on her too-tall platform shoes.

"Behave yourself, honey. Sit down like I said and have a good time."

Jaime continued to wave the dollar bill over his head. Peaches stood over him for a second and turned back to Milt and me. She dropped to her knees and stretched her long body almost across the length of the stage.

I took my glasses off and wiped them off with the tail of my ugly shirt. I put them back on, and my twin was wiping his glasses on the tail of his ugly shirt.

"I'll be right back. Milt said into my ear as he rose from his chair.

Some new guys wandered in. Peaches did her duty by cozying up to the rail where she could be seen from where they were standing. Her job was to get the new guys to come over to the rail and show their appreciation.

"I still want to spank you, baby," Jaime said, leaning into the stage area to make sure he was heard.

Peaches turned her head to Jaime.

"Don't touch me. Ever," she said before putting her smile back and turning her attention to the new guys.

I smiled a little to myself. Jaime was pretty entertaining with all his spanking talk. I had never spanked a girl before—with or without her permission—and I wondered what it would be like to smack Peaches on the ass. I wondered if it would be worth the beating that would surely follow once the bouncer and the bartender got their hands on me.

My twin was smiling. Jaime kept waving that dollar bill over his head. My twin stood up, gave Peaches a firm slap on the butt and sat down.

Peaches turned around. A stream of curses flew from her mouth as she picked up her little stripper purse from the side of the stage and began to pummel Jaime with it. Jaime looked confused and pointed to my twin, who looked as shocked as I felt. Nobody else saw what I saw. The bouncer and the bartender rushed over to grab Jaime, who was struggling to get out of his chair to defend himself against Peaches' blows. He didn't struggle long. The bouncer and the bartender were more than happy to help. They pinned his arms at his sides and dragged him toward the door.

"Never touch me, you son-of-a-bitch. I'll get you fucked up. I'll have you killed, Peaches said from the stage.

Jaime looked at me pleadingly.

"Ask the white boy, man. I didn't do nothing. It was the old gringo."

The bouncer and the bartender stopped, looking first at me, then at my twin, and back at me. My eyes met my twin's. He had that same pleading look that Jaime did. I raised my hands up at my sides in a "I didn't see anything" gesture. Jaime was dragged to the door and thrown out into the hot Vegas night.

Milt returned in time to see the bouncer and the bartender return from the parking lot.

"What happened? Milt asked.

"A guy got tossed out," I said, as if that was all I knew. My twin caught my eye again and nodded at me subtly, thanking me for saving him. I immediately felt shame growing in my chest, and it wasn't the good kind. Had I kept my mouth shut because I truly didn't want to get involved, or was I making a deposit in some strange karma bank for a horrible future transgression? I didn't want to know the answer, and Peaches provided me a distraction from thinking about it by coming over to collect money from us.

"I'm sorry about what happened, guys. I'm usually a lot nicer," Peaches said before exiting the stage.

"What's she talking about?" Milt asked.

"Nothing," I said. "It wasn't really that big a deal."

We watched another dancer and drank another beer. My twin stood up and left. I guess he figured that he had waited long enough and was in no danger from getting jumped by Jaime.

"Let's get out of here," I said. "I feel like gambling.

We didn't get far up the road before we saw my twin walking at the side of the road, his ugly shirt flapping in the hot desert breeze. I drove past him.

"Was that guy at the bar?" Milt asked.


"It's quite a life he's carved out for himself," Milt said.

I nodded and looked in the rearview mirror at my twin's shape as it grew smaller and disappeared from view.

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