I met him in a dream. It was a bar, and I sat staring into the long mirror as he pushed his way in. He stood listening to the creaking back and forth of the swinging doors at his back, taking in the black and white scene. The place was sort of vague and shabby, and the people were out of focus, part of the background, like the tinkling slow waltz playing on the piano. A hint of horseshit lingered in the stale air.
He ambled over to the stool next to me and I knew who he was, dressed in black with big hat and pointy boots, wiry, not too tall, but he looked like someone you didn’t mess with if you had any sense. His skin was smooth, drawn across the narrow face, a bird of prey. There was a whip curled on his hip, a sleeping snake whose breath you could feel at a distance, defiant and ready to spring.
I looked up casually, remembering to breathe, and nodded. He glanced in my direction, sized me up quickly and turned to his beer. What are you doing here, kid?
All the insecurities of a lifetime were hanging out there at the bar, ready to condense in a moment, but somehow I found my line and replied calmly, you know damn well why I’m here.
A smile unrolled across Lash’s shiny white face as if he understood everything, and he reached across my shoulders and pulled me very close. A certain kind of intimacy can crystallize when you meet up in the dream world. Those dark eyes met mine, and his grin seemed to last an eternity. Yeah, he growled, I’m ready for a little fun.
* * *
Somewhere in the stack of assorted crap on the bookcase near the computer is Alfred LaRue’s obituary. I had cut it out of the Times years ago, and kept it safe despite all the moving around, even as the newsprint yellowed and dark lines crept into that face in the photo, a publicity shot from the forties, when he was the guy with the whip who entertained on stage and screen. I imagined a Mrs. LaRue, a blond lady who fit her role. The newspaper mentioned his Cajun birth in Louisiana, an early career on the rodeo circuit, and how he made the big time in Hollywood as a cowboy star in one hour studio operas. After the champagne days, the article described a fade to retirement on a ranch somewhere beyond the Pecos. Then a slow dissolve into my dreams.
I first met Lash after school, on tv in my parents’ apartment, the Capehart struggling heroically to encompass the wild west as the man with the educated whip danced his way into my heart. Lash LaRue. Tough as nails, fighting for all those clichés that heroes are supposed to embrace, and definitely seducing a boy in Brooklyn. I remember those western movies, endless stories of cattle and Indians and handsome guys, with oddball sidekicks tagging along for laughs. Sometimes the sidekick would be more famous than the star of the film. Lash’s pal was Fuzzy Q. Jones. Of course there would be a girl to be rescued and won over with a kiss at The End, and a really smart horse who always did the right thing even if it involved crossing half the territory, through snow and ice, to fetch the troops at Fort Apache. On occasion, there would be a wonder dog, and now and then, an underemployed character from some other part of showbiz would wander into the story, like Rochester who always seemed to be on vacation from Jack Benny’s show.
Lash, my Lash. Others might dress in black and fight the bad guys, win the girl, save the homesteaders, defy the ranchers or the sheepherders, or stall the encroachment of the railroad, get the medal from the Governor, and they might even imitate Lash, like Whip Wilson. But through it all, there was only one real guy, the coolest critter, the man who could stare down a snake, crash through doors without messing up his hair, save the struggling homestead family, cleanse the town of bad hombres, settle every score, and smooch that girl before the credits could roll. Lash shredded all comers at the climax, his whip taking on a life of its own, shook out and wrapped around the limb on a hopeless villain, drawing real blood yet coming back so clean in a smooth recoil to his master’s hip. No lizard from hell could tame Lash when he was mad, a dark hero man enough for any job. One day I realized it wasn’t good looks or muscles, or his crooning, and it wasn’t his sidekick or the wonderful horse either. Indeed LaRue may have seemed spindly with his thin Bogart voice, but you just knew he did it all by himself, no stuntman for him, no stooge to take the heat. He was the one who cracked the whip.
Lash traded in fear. He provoked my attention, pushed some ancient button that made the short hairs bristle, the body tense and the stomach tight, when breath came in short bursts, and a wordless distress clouded the air as deep threat hung out there. Whatever it was, Lash came from an unknown turf, too weird to dismiss, and I found him inhabiting my mind when I needed another voice. I learned he could handle anything.
The first time was in the third grade. I let him loose when Mrs. Shapiro didn’t like something I did, and Lash stepped in to calm me down, no big deal. He sent me up front to her desk and I snapped a pencil close to her face, tossing it in her waste paper basket. Lash cheered, grinned and slapped his side as I slowly walked back to my seat. The other kids watched my act, but never knew the story. I didn’t care because I wasn’t alone when Lash went with me to the Principal’s office. After that, he would turn up whenever it was time to do something wrong.
Years later, I was a college student driving a dark green 49′ Plymouth convertible with skirts, my car in the sixties. An uncle found it for two hundred bucks even though I couldn’t drive the column shift. I learned fast. Anyway, my friend Dave who lived across the hall in the dorm had a girlfriend, and at the end of a day of classes I would sometimes drive the three of us to find food. We would ride the bench front seat, with the girlfriend in the middle. One day Lash appeared behind me and said, do something, buckaroo. I answered him in my head, whad’ya mean? He said, do what I’m tellin’ you! Right now! I glanced at the girl next to me and felt a tingling in my groin, so at the next left turn when we all leaned in, I let my elbow extend slightly to flick her breast. Dave sat on the outside so he didn’t see. Yeahhhh, crooned the cowboy from the backseat. After a few more car rides with my wandering elbow, she decided to ditch Dave and became my friend. That’s how I met Colleen.