Her name was Burpee, and she ran a snack bar. I was 9 years old and I never asked if it was her real name; there are things in this world too perfect to quibble with. In my frontier youth, when I rarely came indoors, Burpee was a provider of shelter and vittles. I loved 114-degree days about as much as it’s possible for a child to love near-deadly conditions. I loved cracked concrete and hot chain-link fences and army ants. But Burpee made grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwiches and a concoction called an Orange Freeze. And I loved those even more.
Did I mention that the portion of my frontier youth in question was spent at the Las Vegas Country Club? It’s a hard-knock life. My brother, who was 14 and just entering his invincible phase as a tennis player, took me to a lot of interesting places back then. The LVCC’s parched Court 8, tucked between the rear of the pro shop and the driving range, was one of them. The price of my privilege was a lot of running. I dove after wicked cross-court forehands, bloodied my knee in pursuit of drop-shots, took the occasional big-brother bullet serve off my chest, accepted some sharp advice, and always reloaded my soul for the next drill. There was a name for these workouts in our family. The name was “Saturday.” Although sometimes we also called it “Sunday.”
At lunchtime, we made the charmed hundred-yard walk past broken-down golf carts and into the bowels of the stone clubhouse. The hallways of the hushed lower floor curled in circles, inviting folks who didn’t belong there to get lost. The lighting was dim and fluorescent, glowing through a grid of white plastic squares. It seemed like a great place to take a nap.
In one of the hallway arcs there was a door. If you didn’t know the door was there, you’d just walk by it. Those hallways were built for discretion, not commerce. On the other side of that door was Burpee.
She was about 4 feet, 10 inches tall. She wore her hair in a short brown bob. She had a coffee-and-milk tan, though I never did see her outdoors. She always smiled at us. I thought she probably didn’t smile at everyone else the way she smiled at us. She may have been a figment of my imagination, a grandmotherly phantasm produced by dehydration. If you tasted that freeze, you’d agree that Burpee was too good to be true.
But until an early October day in 1979, we never knew quite how good.
The snack bar itself was tiny and shaped like a crescent moon. It was precisely what a snack bar is supposed to be. There was no television, no gift stand selling bulk Sumatran beans. Just five tall stools on metal poles spaced along a high, curving counter. That day we bellied up as always, placed our orders and watched Burpee go to work on the Hamilton Beach blender.
The Cowboys were playing the Rams that day. The Rams’ quarterback, Pat Haden, was a favorite of ours. And the Cowboys had a quarterback named Glenn Carano, who had been a star at UNLV. Carano was third-string, behind Roger Staubach and Danny White. He wasn’t going to play, but they might show him on the sideline. Maybe that’s what gave my brother The Idea.
“Burpee,” he said, “is it OK if we go back there?”
Back there? I thought. I had no inkling of a there to go back to.
Burpee looked right, then left. The coast was clear. She gestured with her head toward a narrow blue curtain at the end of the bar. My brother grabbed his rackets and went. He didn’t necessarily invite me to follow, but I went, too. Beside the curtain was a sign: No one under 16 years of age permitted.
My brother pulled the curtain aside, and we went in.
It was a great, round room, with wood-panel walls and circular tables and the biggest television set I had ever seen. There was Haden. And Staubach. No Carano, though. Only one table was occupied. Old men were sitting there, leaning toward one another, saying quiet things in knowing tones. They did not acknowledge our arrival.
Burpee brought our sandwiches and freezes. She gave my brother a not-bad-eh? grin and disappeared behind the blue curtain. Even the queen of the snack bar did not linger here, in the realm of kings, the Men’s Clubhouse. But she apparently had the power to knight us. The Cowboys were crushing the Rams, poor Haden was hapless, and we didn’t care. One of the men at the next table finally lifted his head from conversation, as if coming up for air. He saw me, the youngest man in the men’s clubhouse. He did not smile. But he did wink.
In those days, the books on my blue bedroom shelf were filled with black-and-white pictures and jazzy sentences produced by men in fedoras. When I loved the now of a thing, I immediately set out to read about its then. I am telling you this so you’ll believe me when I tell you that I knew who the old guy was, and that he was Joe DiMaggio.
“He was married to Marilyn Monroe,” my brother said.
“Marilyn who?” I said.
I had been reading all the wrong books.
Joe did not look at me again. He finished his conversation, emptied his coffee cup and stood up. My brother and I conveniently finished our freezes at that very moment. We followed Joe out of the realm of kings and back into Burpee’s benevolent domain. Joe’s legendary right arm hung lank at his side. Between his index and middle fingers he was flicking a thousand-dollar bill. I counted the zeros. Some things you don’t forget.