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Tuesday, November 1, 2016




The Itty Bitty Titty Contest

            The entrance to Cowpoke's Bar and Boogie Roadhouse featured a two-story pointed boot, painted like snakeskin, and weathered wood.  It was almost midnight as I walked up to the door, with "Howdy, Partner!" in red letters, avoiding first a fist fight in the parking lot, watched by a circle of drunken, shouting Nashvillian youth.

            The blue blazer I had put on over my dress shirt made me conspicuous as an ambassador at a tractor pull.  Though single and divorced for ten years, it had been awhile since I had gone out.  Plus I was more than 50, and the average age of the fight fans was, I estimated, about 21.

            Inside, it was easy to find the Itty Bitty Titty Contest.  To the left was the Aloha Pardner room, with 'grass' on the walls, and harried waitresses in hula skirts and cowboy hats.  Straight ahead loomed a depressing, dark bar with no personality except a sign that read Bar None.  One poke brooded at the stools.  But to my right waited a parquet dance floor surrounded by a wall of men yelling and screaming, "Boobies!  Boobies!"  Yes, I had found the place.

            It was hard to spot Mary, the finalist who had invited me, but against the right wall, on stools sat a couple who stood out even worse than I, a tenured professor, did.  Indeed, from the stern expressions on their spare faces, they might have been listening with approval to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" at some Puritan church.  The elderly man's back was stiff as a rod in his black suit.  Next to him, the gray-haired woman wore a black dress from her ankles to her throat, and her expression was so severe she might have been condemning witches. 

            Mary's parents of course.

            I spotted the 28-year-old public relations exec in a gold metallic skirt almost crotch high, fish net stockings, black high heels, and a sparkly red blouse so low cut I could count every rib down to her flat tummy, the belly button visible even across the room.  It was the first time I had ever seen my former pupil out of a business suit.

            "Robert, you made it!" she greeted me, clearing a spot for my own stool.

            Before I could be introduced to the young couple, likely her sister, with the family's drawn face, and her husband, across the round table, so small their two beer bottles about covered it, the crowd of what I immediately thought of as 'Neanderthal' men let out a roar.  Factory workers mostly in their early twenties.  And a few women, factory workers too, working this night their tight t-shirts and jeans to be picked up.  I am Dr. Robert Turly, by the way, with a Ph.D. in religious history.  I don't believe in God.

            A woman, almost a midget, bounced into the middle of the surrounded dance floor holding a microphone.  Blonde, curly hair to her neck, rough face with a big nose.  She hadn't exactly dressed for the occasion, in jeans and a sweat shirt, but the men obviously knew who she was.

            "Hi!  Everybody having a good time!"

            I felt like I had landed on another planet, with a research grant of course.  Current religious history was really a branch of anthropology.  None of my colleagues believed in God either.  I left the quiet of my apartment, near campus, to dig for signs of America's declining culture.  We academics are all for decline.  Might be good for a paper.  My field was religion in America.  On the decline, of course.  Puritans marked the high point in religious intensity, and now it was TV evangelists and hack, country preachers.  I had made a living out of writing papers on such.

            The appropriate uproar.  A man with a muscular back straining a white t-shirt standing before Mary's support team held up a beer bottle.  I was glad my first wife, whom I had met in graduate school, never had a child.  This one had no hair, the fashion being for men to shave their heads bald.  Every person in the dance room was white.

            "I'm Savannah, DJ on WDEX!"

            New uproar.

            Mary looked nervous.  One of the best students I ever had, with an M.A.  Her dissertation was on masochism in Puritan communities.  I had wanted her to continue with her doctoral studies, but she took a well-paying job in public relations instead.  We had maintained contact, and a kind of platonic friendship that I didn't really believe in between male and female had developed.  Occasionally she or I called, and we talked for hours about her bad boyfriends.  Or the Puritans.

            Mary whispered in my ear.  "I think I'm better than two of the contestants, but there's one I worry about.  She's really beautiful." 

            Mary actually sounded worried.  I had taken the whole contest as a joke, but it dawned on me she was deadly serious.  She was the kind of woman who could look bad on a bad day, with stringy black hair and the thin face of her parents, or good on a good day, sophisticated and lithe.  As her teacher, I had noticed her looks in the way one notices the weather, but now in a kind of impossible way, due to the age difference, I was more direct.

            "Ready for the Itty Bitty Titty Contest?!"

            Savannah revved up the oval of cavemen, like a wall of muscle and thigh. 

            For this was the finals of the Itty Bitty Titty Contest, to determine who had the most need for first prize, breast implant surgery.  The silicon blobs had been in the news, leakage, disfigurements, and billions of dollars in law suits.  This crowd, however, acted as if they had never heard of surgical malpractice.  Second prize was mere money, $2,000, and Mary had no need for that, making maybe twice what I made as teacher.  I had joked with her that second prize might be one breast, but, come to think of it, she hadn't laughed. 

            She wanted that big chest.  Her chest was flat, there was no doubt about that, but that made her body like a snake's, sinuous and beautiful.  Too bad she was half my age.  That too was anthropological research, what young Americans were like.  A study in godless empire.

            The night she called and asked me to attend Cowpoke's Bar and Boogie Roadhouse, I tried to talk her out of being ridiculous.          

            "Mary, that's sexist," I heard myself say, standing in my underwear.  My apartment was the usual one bedroom, post-divorce hole near campus.  The floor was littered with my dirty clothes and tomes, life works that nobody but me would read.  "It's what's inside that counts.  Sensuality comes through attitude and the eyes.  You don't need those implants.  Besides, they might be dangerous."

            I used every thought from the year 2000's list of college mores, feminist especially.  My first wife had left me after joining a campus feminist group and finding that she was lesbian.  That was no surprise to me.  Still, I supported less patriarchy, less machismo, and more equality between the sexes.  Sex object: that obviously, to anybody with a brain, was what this ridiculous contest was all about.

            "I want the woman inside to show in the body outside," Mary said on the phone, her voice so serious and so profound I wiped the smile off my face.  "Men like them, and I want a man to love me."

            No use.  What kind of man, blah blah blah.  Mary felt self-consciously girlish, and with 30 in sight wanted to become what she defined as 'womanly.'  I discovered that once a notion was in Mary's mind, an executive decision made, nothing, not even the world of reason which she was usually so professional at, made her change.

            Around that dance floor I'd bet there wasn't a man or woman who had heard the name Simone de Beauvois.  A new uproar brought me back to the spectacle.

            "Let's bring 'em out!" Savannah said, with a wave of her hand.

            Mary stood up.  "Wish me luck, everybody," she said.  As she passed me her hand squeezed my shoulder, and a bolt of electricity shot through my body.  I needed love too, that was clear, though often I wished I didn't. 

            Her parents' faces didn't move, nor did their upright posture.  Their table was bare.  The sister and her husband waved encouragement, and I, from a distance again, heard myself yell, "Knock 'em dead, Mary."

            Mary Wilkerson, M.A., rushed to join the line of three women who stood beside Savannah on the parquet floor.  Two of the others were lumpy working class women, also mid-20s, with dyed lifeless blonde hair showing dark roots, thick muscular legs, and flat chests.  These were women like I grew up with in a factory area of the city--my father built air conditioners on an assembly line--and the type I might have married if it wasn't for a scholarship to the state college that started my climb out of that hole.  I was smart, was all, and full of religious spirit that changed from redneck revivals, like my parents dragged me to even in high school, to knowledge that destroyed all my beliefs.  I missed God, like I missed love, and had tried to believe again, but simply knew too much.  Was too self-conscious.

            Mary stood next in her gold mini-skirt.  Her body seemed more alive that the other two, somehow tense, manic.  Her face too, by comparison, looked as if something was happening behind the flesh, thought and psychology.  The blondes might as well be cows.

            Mary, who looked self-conscious as a dean's wife at a beer chugging party, kept glancing to her side.  Once my attention moved from my ex-student I almost gasped.  There stood one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.  Black hair flowing like wind to her thin waist, tan skin like a Tahitian's, perfect without a single mole, the most beautiful warm face and wide lips . . .  I fell instantly in love, as I was sure each beer holding man in a t-shirt circling them did as well.  She wore, slightly, a tropical, flowered bikini top and a matching blue sarong.  Legs of the softest skin and finest shape peeked from the cloth.  Yes, she was flat, but who cared?

            Mary's only chance, I thought, was pity.  If the judges, whatever qualified them for that role, thought the beauty--Leilani I named her--didn't need help, and Mary played on their hearts, appeared in fact pathetic, she stood a chance.  But Mary was a strong woman.  She was used to ordering lesser employees at the public relations firm, of drinking chardonnay at executive sessions--she was on first name basis with the mayor--and this crowd wouldn't react well to female inner strength.  They wanted a submissive inner child with a whore's body.  At heart, these macho men were afraid of women.  They might fail in bed with Mary.

            "Each of the finalists will introduce herself, then tell the crowd why she wants those big boobs!" Savannah announced, holding the mike.  From her FM radio voice, it was clear she'd done dumb stuff like this before, likely every week.  Extra money.  "We will start with contestant Number 1!"

            I was having a good time.  Anthropologically, there was a thesis in this, The Metaphysics of the Breast.  Did these men worship the boob?  Only in the subtle, vaporish way academe filled its journals.  Laughter from my colleagues, yes, but a graphic point to be made as well.  This was these men's church.  O.K., it was crap, but my colleagues got out even less than I did.  Erotica, but, as always, underneath Eros.  Thoughts habitually formed in my trained mind, like weeds growing in the sun.  I had quit believing in thought as well.

            #1 got a small rise of applause, and a shout from a single female friend.  She looked deeply uncomfortable, as if she was being barbecued. 

            "Mumblach!" this female potato mumbled into the mike, holding it like it was mildewed cheese. 

            The image I had been trying to find all night finally popped into my mind:  Mary's parents stared straight ahead, like American Gothic had come to life at Cowpoke's.  Except, of course, that couple was father and daughter.  I knew these things.

            "Nipsorb dooflag," the poor dear continued.  I hadn't understood a word.  Words and thought were not her forte.  When #1 finished, she slid back into her place in line, like an apology.  Like she'd messed up a job application at a factory.  Calves like hard balloons, and a nose to match.  One "Yeehah!" was all she got from the men.

            #2 was much the same.  This one had an accent so hick her teeth stuck out at every syllable.  #1 and #2 could be twins, but weren't.  The one sentence I understood was a tactical mistake.

            "My boyfriend wants me to have a big chest,"  she said.  Oh dear.  Don't mention boyfriend in this crowd of men with sex on their minds.  Might as well mention the Virgin Mary, or their mothers.  This one too got a single "Yeehah!", from the same man, who held up his beer bottle.

            "Contestant number 3!" Savannah yelled out, fumbling back the microphone. 

            Mary stepped from the line, making the Well-Known DJ look like a squat midget, flat herself.  She looked poised, which was a mistake, but then she had been doing presentations before commissions and business boards for years.  Clearly, she had planned her strategy, while the first two had no strategy.       

            "Go Mary!"--her sister.

            Hoots and howls from the brother-in-law too, and I joined in, my reason for being there.  Three of us, then, cheerleading as loudly as we could.  The parents remained silent statues, as if waiting to rescue their daughter from a brothel, and return her to ankle-length gingham homemade dresses. 

            #3 stood with her hands at the waist of that metallic mini-skirt, ready for a graduate oral exam.

            "And why do you want those big boobs!"

            The audience hushed.  This was odd, because they had continued to talk and move about rudely while the other two were mumbling.  Respect?  These men respected no woman, except their mothers who weren't women of course.  Likely they were just curious, and respectful in the way employees are to their superintendents.  Mary was obviously above them in class.  Her voice was like a book of Spinoza in a pile of Tattoo World magazines.

            "I want my outside to reflect the inner woman I feel inside," she began, with school-girl seriousness.  "Men, I have found, don't want slim women, like the models in magazines.  They like more curves than I've been given.  Inside, I am alive with sensuality; outside I need help.  And that is why I need bigger breasts."

            Thought.   Actual thought.  It seemed to dumbfound the audience.  The sister-husband and I applauded and yelled, and the audience, as if awakening from sleep, let out a 'yeehaw' or two as well.  I looked at the nearby men, expecting them to be laughing at her behind her back, but they didn't.  Enthusiasm?  No.  A weird kind of respect?  Maybe.  I was sure they were glad when she stopped. 

            "Well all right!" Savannah exclaimed yet again.  "Big knockers are what we're here for, aren't we boys and girls!?"

            The DJ was a pro.  She wasn't going to let a brain intrude on the hormone display, and the men as one raised their beer bottles and yelled in response.  Back on track.

            Mary, bless her, took her place in line, and Leilani took two long-legged, physical steps to Savannah, leg muscles rippling below the perfect, tanned skin peaking from that sarong.  The men in the crowd went nuts.  She knew this crowd.  Poor Mary.  Poor me.  Being smart had done nothing for me outside the university.

            "And now contestant #4!"  Savannah shouted.  "Nikki.  Why do you want those big plastic boobs!"

            Instead of answering in words, words not her medium, Nikki flashed a smile at the crowd, the dazzling result of a lot of porcelain crowns, shook her shapely hips, the breathtaking result of many hours in a gym, and took one step forward in her high heels.  Slowly, like a snake its skin, she removed that sarong, then threw it in the air.

            Below, hidden only by a thong bikini, appeared the lower, luscious, muscled flesh.  The woman was a stripper.  In a flash she pranced around the dance floor, shaking her exposed bottom, grinding her pelvis.  She had sex with the entire audience of shookened men.  Leilani's long black hair floated over the perfect face, like a Pacific sunset.  She was physical perfection, except for the flat chest.

            #4 made two circles around the wall of men, stopping to stick out her behind at each extreme.  The audience awoke from their sex dreams, and screamed like they were climaxing.  The minor three, the leftovers, stood awkwardly in their row, obeying the rules.  They were the housewives, the obedient, the dull stretch of months at the middle of a doomed marriage. 

            Until, that is, Mary stepped forward and started removing her top.

            Mary's body was thin, boyish almost, but after she removed her blouse, and after she slithered out of her mini-skirt the men screamed and hooted for her too.  She enjoyed sex.  That was clear from how Mary also bumped and ground, imitating Leilana in an amateur, awkward way that had its own charm.  All the pr executive was left with were white lace panties and a black bra that didn't match.  Nevertheless, she gave it her all, and the crowd thanked her.  She was all right, but better as somebody else's girlfriend.

            Leilani, though, had only to shake her hips, spread her legs, turning up the heat, for Mary to be forgotten.  And that, in poor sportsmanship, the dream did.  Poor, dear Mary.  She was competing in a field where she didn't have the equipment.  The customers wanted bigness, and she had beautiful smallness.  Mind, spirit, soul could wait for those boring days on the household sofa, before or after a full day's work at the factory.  The men who counted here, out of Mary's domain, wanted tit and ass.

            At some point I turned, in a steam, my mouth perhaps literally open, and saw first her brother-in-law's look of amazement, struck as if by a semi-trailer truck.  Her sister couldn't stop laughing at the sight of her straitlaced sibling next to naked before hundreds of male eyes.  I dreaded the rest of the family.

            Her mother sat more bolt upright, a matter of an inch, gray, an element of death in that steely black dress that hid even her throat.  Her sour face said without speaking, Wait until I get you home, young lady; you are going before the preacher.  The father, also a shiv more bolt, seemed dismayed, not sure what to do.  Incest!  He had watched his daughter be sexual.  I too felt uneasy, as if I had just had intercourse with their daughter, while they were in the next room listening through the wall to our moans.  As if I had just had sex with a student in my office.

            #1 and #2 had to do something.  They clumped around the dance floor, still in their Wal-Mart two-piece bathing suits.  Next to Leilani and Mary both seemed like men, though the audience hooted in respect, if that's not a contradiction.

            Nikki and Mary worked so hard under the lights they started sweating.  I know.  I stared again at the wet dark skin of Nikki.  Maybe one reason I had lost belief in God was that I hadn't lost belief in sex, despite a nearly sexless marriage.  The Baptist Church taught that Jesus was against sex.  Sex, in fact, was the demon, virtue the Virgin Mary.  The body was a horror, that shriveled and rotted at death.  Celibacy just made me sick. 

            If I had only met a sensual woman, instead of the smart woman-student I had predictably landed on at the University.  Predictable indeed.  I wish I had married a whore.  I wished I still believed in God.  Reason was garbage.  I didn't believe in anything, though beyond 50 I desperately needed faith in something.

            This was turning into a depressing night for me.  

            When the contestants in the Itty Bitty Titty Contest rejoined into a line beside Savannah, Nikki didn't put back on her top or her sarong, so neither did Mary.  She stood there in her mismatched panties and bra, looking scared and bony.  My admiration for her had increased a thousandfold.  What guts.  From a feminist perspective she was a sex object; from outside that cloistered world she was strength.

            "All right, ladies and gentlemen!"  Savannah intoned into the mike, like she had a plane to catch out of Redneckville.  "Let's hear it for our contestants!"

            A man with a shaven head, like Michael Jordan but white and in a Nascar t-shirt, whistled with two fingers in his mouth.  The crowded began to break apart.  They had seen what they wanted to see, and could care less who won.

            "The judges will decide the winner in just a few minutes!" continued Savannah, who sounded sleepy.  Men started hitting on the few women in the room.  Cowpoke life returned to normal.

            "I had no idea Mary had it in her," stated her sister, a little dumbfounded.

            Mary returned to her family, and me, her clothes back on, though they were still that golden mini-skirt and low cut red blouse.  Men passing by yelled "Way to go!" or just the expressive "Woo woo!"  And she smiled back at them.  She was sweating and looked a bit let down.

            "I don't think I'm going to win," she said.  Her brother-in-law slapped her on the back.  "But I had to try, you know, Robert."

            And she turned to me, actually pissed off.

            "The crowd liked you," I said, a stupid thing to say.  I was flustered.  "You did great."  I was never going to think I was smart again. 

            The father mumbled something that sounded disapproving, and did not smile.  Mary didn't bother glancing at her mother.  In the 30 minutes or so I had sat near the mother, she hadn't said a word.  She hadn't even moved, a statue titled Chastity.

            I had much better ideas to discuss with Mary, sexuality, intelligence, and always with me, God.  But she disappeared.  I sat amongst the family, the unknown stranger, and among the young men, like male menopause.  Years seemed to pass before Mary returned with two Bud Lights, one for me.  She didn't explain, but sat at my table, facing her sister.

            "Is that woman a whore or what?" she said.  "Somebody said she was a 'Personal Trainer.'"

            "At least the personal part is right," I said, trying to cheer her up.  "You were the only one with a brain in the group."

            "Oh who wants a brain.  Men don't want brains.  Even you don't want a brain, I'll bet.  Men want sex and that means big boobs.  History doesn't want brains.  Business is all about sex.  Wake up, Robert.  Even religion is about sex."

            "Henry Adams concluded that sex was behind everything," I started my lecture.  "'The Virgin and the Dynamo.'  Sex is the dynamo of all human action, even thought."

            She was upset, and on edge.  The manic quality I admired in Mary spilled over at times into paranoia.  I wanted to tell her she was fabulous.  I want to tell her a feeling I had swelling up inside me that wasn't thought and wasn't sex, but was, maybe, love.  But I couldn't, of course.  Not then, not ever.  I felt incredibly old, like an elderly cab driver taking Mary and her lover home.

            A silence grew, a silence during which I turned to my death and senility.  The only alternatives to love.

            "Mary . . ," I started, but she looked at me like she was examining the detailed brush strokes of a painting, and began talking about fiscal years, adjusting tax ledgers.  I laughed, and that laugh maybe saved me.

            "I'll call you," she said, take charge.  Somebody had to take charge of me, Lord knows.  I was hopeless to start anything.  My only hope for love was if some woman loved me first, and grabbed me by the lapels.  "I'm just really pissed right now, about a lot of things."

            "Call me," I said, flustered.   

            And at that point our gracious hostess entered the arena once more.

            "We have a winner!" Savannah announced, and the men sort of thickened into the oval again, and sort of quietened a little.  Mostly, they ignored her. 

            "This is it," Mary said, standing to leave.  To her list of virtues I added innocence.  Despite the obvious defeat, she tingled with anticipation that she might win, and that plastic tits might lead to a prince.

            The four women formed their line, headed by Leilani.  She smiled and waved at the crowd of men, fewer than before.

            Third runner up, second runner up, and the fates of the two dyed blondes were settled.  A little polite applause.  They didn't even get so much as a certificate for their humiliation.  Such would be their marriages, their children, their lives.

            Nikki and Mary stood side by side.  They even held hands.  Mary, poor woman, still glowed with the goodness of life.  The possibilities were endless for a pr executive with an M.A. in religious history and big boobs.  Just don't teach, Mary.  Gather power instead.  My feelings had fallen to my feet.  The contrast was too much.

            "First runner up is . . .!" Savannah intoned, waving the sheet from the judges.  Get it over with.  "First runner up is . . .!"

            "Mary!"

            Not even a last name.  Nikki strutted around the dance floor in a victory march, still bumping and grinding, still jutting out that round beautiful behind.  The tour complete she arrived at Savannah, who handed her the microphone.  The winner grabbed it, like fame, and mumbled something that might have been thanks.  Clearly words weren't her medium; dance and sex were.  Words, concepts, were secondary, focused but false.  I had spent my life in their waiting room.     

            The stripper made another victory lap.  Well, she'd look complete with those breasts.  Leilana would walk into a restaurant, and every male face would turn to her.  Every female face would turn to her in anger.  Every day, the rest of her life.  Even when she aged, the boobs wouldn't.  In the grave, she'd be a skeleton, but the boobs would be smooth, still alive.  Her breasts would achieve immortality while the rest of us, seer and billionaire, rotted.

            The awful thing was over.  Mary slumped back into her knot of supporters, we who consoled her.  Even the mother unthawed to pat her on the shoulder. 

            "I knew I wasn't going to win the minute I saw her," Mary told me, sitting at my table.  She sounded deeply disappointed.

            "Didn't you win second prize?" I asked.  "$2,000?"

            "Heah, you're right," she spoke up.  From defeated sheep suddenly it was as if a steel rod had been inserted through her body.  Though I suspected second prize was a rip off, discount coupons maybe, Mary's fine, thin face turned from dejection, inferiority, and shame into mission.  The executive, and brilliant graduate student, roared to life.  "$2,000.  I'll have to see about this."         

            And off she flew, with a hard expression, and a heart full of righteousness.


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