They sipped their watery beer and watched other customers arrive. By 11:00 p.m., the place was packed, and more strippers and dancers worked the stage and the crowd. Calvin watched with jealous rage as Amber lap danced on another man, less than ten feet away. He noted with some pride, though, that she did the face-to-face thing for only a few seconds. If he had plenty of cash, he would happily stuff it in her G-string and get lap danced on all night long.
Cash, though, was quickly becoming an issue. During another pause between songs and strippers, Calvin, the unemployed, admitted, "I'm not sure how long I can last here. This is some pretty expensive beer."
Their beer, in eight-ounce glasses, was almost gone, and they had studied the waitresses enough to know that empties didn't sit long on the tables. The customers were expected to drink heavily, tip generously, and throw money at the girls for personal dances. The Memphis skin trade was very profitable.
"I got some cash," Aggie said.
"I got credit cards," Roger said. "Order another round while I take a pee." He stood and for the first time seemed to teeter somewhat, then he disappeared in the smoke and crowd. Calvin flagged down Amber and ordered another round. She smiled and winked her approval. What he wanted much worse than the river water they were drinking was more physical contact with his girl, but it wasn't to be. At that moment, he vowed to redouble his efforts to find a job, save his money, and become a regular at the Desperado. For the first time in his young life, Calvin had a goal.
Aggie was staring at the floor, under Roger's empty seat. "The dumbass dropped his wallet again," he said, and picked up a battered canvas billfold.
"You think he's got any credit cards?" Aggie asked.
"Let's take a look." He glanced around to make sure there was no sign of Roger, then opened his wallet. There was an expired discount card from a grocery store, then a collection of business cards - two from lawyers, two from bail bondsmen, one from a rehab clinic, and one from a parole officer. Folded neatly and par-tially hidden was a $20 bill. "What a surprise," Aggie said. "No credit cards, no driver's license."
"And he almost got shot over that," Calvin said.
"He's an idiot, okay?" Aggie closed the wallet and placed it on Roger's chair.
The beer arrived as Roger returned and found his wallet. They scraped together $45 and managed a $3 tip. "Can we put a lap dance on a credit card?" Roger yelled at Amber.
"Nope, just cash," she yelled back as she left them.
"What kinda credit card you got?" Aggie asked.
"Bunch of 'em," he said like a big shot.
Calvin, his lap still on fire, watched his beloved Amber weave through the crowd. Aggie watched the girls too, but he was also watching the time. He had no idea how long it took to give a pint of blood. Midnight was approaching. And though he tried not to, he couldn't help but think about his girlfriend and the tantrum she would throw if she somehow heard about this little detour.
Roger was fading fast. His eyelids were drooping and his head was nodding. "Drink up," he said, thick tongued, as he tried to rally, but his lights were dimming. Between songs, Calvin chatted with two guys at another table and in the course of a quick conversation learned that the legendary stripper, Tiffany, didn't work on Thursday nights.
When the beer was gone, Aggie announced, "I'm leavin'. You boys comin' with me?"
Roger couldn't stand alone, so they half dragged him away from the table. As they headed to the door, Amber glided by and aid to Calvin, "Are you leaving me?"
He nodded because he couldn't speak.
"Please come back later," she cooed. "I think you're cute."
One of the bouncers grabbed Roger and helped get him outside. "What time ya'll dose?" Calvin asked.
"Three a.m.," the bouncer said and pointed to Roger. "But don't bring him back."
"Say, where's the hospital?" Aggie asked.
Aggie looked at Calvin and Calvin looked at Aggie, and it was obvious neither had a clue. The bouncer waited impatiently, then said, "You got ten hospitals in this city. Which one?"
"Uh, the nearest one," Aggie said.
"That'll be Lutheran. You know the city?"
"I'll bet you do. Take Lamar to Parkway, Parkway to Poplar. It's just past East High School."
The bouncer waved them off and disappeared inside. They dragged Roger to the truck, tossed him inside, then spent half an hour roaming midtown Memphis in a hopeless search for Lutheran Hospital. "Are you sure that's the right hospital?" Calvin asked several times.
In various ways, Aggie answered, "Yes," "Sure," "Probably," and "Of course."
When they found themselves downtown, Aggie stopped at a curb and approached a cabdriver who was napping behind the wheel- "Ain't no Lutheran Hospital," the cabdriver said. "We got Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Central, Mercy, and a few others, but no Lutheran."
"I know, you got ten of 'em."
"Seven, to be exact. Where you from?"
"Mississippi. Look, where's the nearest hospital?"
"Mercy is four blocks away, just down Union Avenue."
They found Mercy Hospital and left Roger in the truck, comatose. Mercy was the city hospital, the principal destination for late-night victims of crime, domestic abuse, police shootings, gang disputes, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related car wrecks. Almost all of said victims were black. Ambulances and police cars swarmed around the ER entrance. Packs of frantic family members roamed the dungeonlike hallways searching for their victims. Screams and shouts echoed through the place as Aggie and Calvin walked for miles looking for the information desk. They finally found it, tucked away as if it were intentionally hidden. A young Mexican girl was at the desk, smacking gum and reading a magazine.
"Do ya'll admit white people?" Aggie began pleasantly.
To which she replied coolly, "Who are you looking for?"
"We're here to give blood."
"Blood Services is just down the hall," she said, pointing.
"Are they open?"
"I doubt it. Who you giving blood for?"
"Uh, Bailey," Aggie said as he looked blankly at Calvin.
"First name?" She began to peck at a keyboard and look at a monitor.
Aggie and Calvin frowned at each other, clueless. "I thought Bailey was his first name," Calvin said.
"I thought it was his last name. They used to call him Buck, didn't they?"
"Sure, but his momma's last name is Caldwell."
"How many times has she been married?"
The girl watched this back'and'forth with her mouth open. Aggie looked at her and said, "Got anybody with the last name of Bailey?"
She pecked, waited, then said, "A Mr. Jerome Bailey, aged forty-eight, black, gunshot wound."
"Anybody with the first name of Bailey?"
"We don't enter them by first names."
The shooting was a gang skirmish that had begun an hour earlier at a north Memphis housing project. For some reason it resumed in the parking lot of Mercy Hospital. Roger, dead to the world, was jolted from his blackout by a burst of gunfire close by. It took a second or two for his brain to react, but before long he knew damned well that, again, someone was shooting at him. He eased his head up, peeked low through the passenger's window, and was struck by the realization that he had no idea where he was. There were rows of cars parked all around, a tall parking garage nearby, buildings everywhere, and in the distance flashing red and blue lights.