Whenever you mention that you’re from Kansas City, people who think they’re clever ask if you’re from Kansas City, Kansas (KCK) or Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO). The popular perception of Missouri is accurate; there’s a non-trivial amount of gun violence, and public schools routinely lose their accreditation. The only reason Phila went to school in Missouri was because she attended a nationally-ranked private school that wasn’t dragged down by the utter failure that is No Child Left Behind. What the mealy-mouthed clever people didn’t know was that they were just as likely to meet someone from KCK outside of it as they were to meet a North Korean expat. There are just some places that some people never leave.
Even though it was nestled in KCK, Phila had agreed to attend the concert because she liked spending time with her brother whenever they were both home from college. That, and she still felt guilty about almost letting him drown ten years ago, after he bravely rode his tricycle straight into the pool. It was also summer and she had the blueblood luxury of carefree recreation and the final vestiges of naïve entitlement that still permitted her to ask Daddy for a $20 without a trace of shame. As far as she knew, there was nothing else.
“Sam, is this place even real? I haven’t seen a stoplight in over ten minutes.” Phila impatiently flicked at the Garmin GPS navigator suction cupped to the inside of the windshield.
“Hey!” Sam exclaimed, reflexively swatting his sister’s hand away from his latest electronic toy. New guitars, new speakers, new phones – if you could plug it in, Sam needed the latest version of it. He had been one of the first people to buy an iPod, but he was one of the last people to admit just how defective it had been. With every new technological purchase he made, Sam was quietly chasing that first gadget high that he could never replicate. “Maybe don’t break it, though. Thanks.”
“It kinda makes sense that this place would be in the middle of nowhere. This is KCK, the land of halter tops and the sincere enjoyment of PBR.”
“Speaking of, a little birdie told me this place has $2 PBR all night,” Sam crowed, pretty proud of himself for doing online recon about the venue beforehand.
“That still feels pretty overpriced.”
After their pristine SUV hobbled over a set of railroad tracks, they ultimately settled for makeshift parking on a sickly patch of grass that was conveniently Harley-Davidson-adjacent. Not a biker in sight yet and still Phila felt uneasy. Suddenly self-conscious, she tugged at the hem of her short polka dot dress, which had two symmetrical side cutouts. She had only worn it on a lark – a rich girl in rockabilly clothing – in anticipation of the crusty event. However, the sight of six motorcycles, lounging on their kickstands in casual readiness for god knows what, made her wonder if maybe this whole thing had been a mistake.
Phila slid her imitation Aviators partway down the gleaming bridge of her nose so she could read the weighty wooden placard that hung above the front door. The words “The Other Side” had been carved deep into its flesh, spotted with the wear of rain and warped by decades of extreme heat and cold. A flimsy black-and-white poster with the name of the singer they’d come to see – an obscure voice actor and country singer named Unknown Hinson – was splashed haphazardly across a worn display case, lacquered right on top of the numerous posters that had come before it.
An especially classy band name on one of the old posters caught Phila’s eye. “Oh too bad, we missed the Pussy Hounds Forever Trio last weekend!” Phila lamented with a thinly-veiled sneer. Just then, one of her high heels – ombré red and two inches higher than she was used to – faltered in the gravel beneath their feet. “Fuck!”
“That’s what you get,” her brother said matter-of-factly, shrugging and stopping just long enough to make sure he didn’t miss Phila falling on her ass. He sighed in disappointment when she regained her balance and gave him a good whack on the shoulder with her black sequined clutch. Vintage, of course, so she didn’t hit him too hard.
Phila withdrew her ID in anticipation of getting carded, but the gangly be-stubbled man who had curled up in half of the doorway just raised a suspicious caterpillar eyebrow at her when she tried to hand it over. Sam frowned at her and pushed the hand that held her ID away. “Jesus, we just got here. Stop embarrassing me. C’mon.”
At first glance, the inside of The Other Side seemed like something out of A Fistful of Dollars. Only the word “saloon” did the place justice, even with its well-prepped stage, elaborate sound system, muted TV, and other obvious traces of modernity. Those classic swinging wooden doors that looked like upright washing boards even led the way to the bathrooms. Most of the saloon was uncovered – just the bar, the stage, and the bathrooms could be said to provide any kind of shelter from the elements. A sizeable uncovered pavilion made up the majority of the space, leaving plenty of room for eager audiences, but a second level above the outdoor stage provided tables, chairs, and a great view for those who didn’t want to contend with the body-to-body pit below. Unknown Hinson’s band was just finishing their sound check, but the singer himself was still nowhere in sight.
The beverage selection was about as varied as expected: a few brands of domestic beer, some bottom shelf liquor, and a lonely pear cider scrawled hastily on the chalkboard menu in unsure strokes that murmured of embarrassment. Cash only.
“Wow, thanks a lot for the heads up. All I have is plastic.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Classic Phila. I gotta hit the head, but then I’ll get this round. Go find us a table.”
“What, no mosh pit?” Phila teased, secretly relieved that her brother was more gallant than he seemed.
“It’s not really that kind of show.”
Phila stepped carefully out into the uncovered pavilion in front of the stage. She was no longer walking on gravel, but her high heels still occasionally caught knots in the experienced wood, so she had to keep her eyes on the ground. Her cheap Aviators slid down her nose, reacting to the evening heat. She heard a deep voice to her right growl “Who she think she is with her dark sunglasses?” in a whisper that she was certainly meant to hear. She tugged at her skirt again.
Phila decided to head up to the second level. Anything to get away from the growler who had reminded her that her dark victory curls and halter dress were all just a costume. Once she reached the top of the stairs, however, she saw that most of the tables had already been claimed by potato-shaped men wearing matching leather jackets and well-seasoned women who all seemed to be sporting their own set of matching jackets. It might have been something about the type of folks who would sit on the second level, but tempers seemed to soften with the setting sun. In the dreamy glow of the white Christmas lights and thin paper lanterns strewn throughout the outdoor pavilion, Phila no longer sparkled. She looked just like everyone else.
“Hey honey!” a gravelly female voice called out. When the voice called out again, Phila looked up and realized that the woman to whom it belonged was calling out to her and waving for Phila to join her table.
Phila bit her carefully-stained lip and sighed with relief as she sat with the woman and a very imposing leather-clad man. “Hi, thanks. Uh, they weren’t too keen on me downstairs, so I really appreciate it.”
The woman’s graying brown hair hovered above and around her head in a thick bush of curls, having lost their battle with the humidity. “Don’t worry ‘bout the vipers, girlie. Ya get used to it. Them’s just nervous ‘cause I know you ain’t never been ‘round here before.”
“Oof, it’s that obvious, huh? God I need a drink,” Phila replied, looking around anxiously for her brother. The crowd was starting to fill in below, but she thought she could see Sam’s dark curly mop bobbing between clusters of fans.
“Now there’s a girl after my own heart. Fiona,” she offered, extending an extremely tan hand with a skull ring on her wedding finger to Phila.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Phila.”
“Phila, huh? I think we got a Phil in the MC,” the man chimed in, his voice even more gravel-riddled than Fiona’s. He had a long and thin white mustache that drooped onto his chest, and his cheeks had matching scars that reminded her of the Joker. Tattoos crept up and down his substantial arms, which were clearly firm beneath a layer of fat and the visible ravages of time and the road. One of them said “Fiona.”
“The MC?” Phila asked, without thinking. Usually she pretended to understand acronyms and did her best to just pick them up from context, but she was too relieved to have found some friendly faces to bother with pretending.
“Motorcycle club, a’course!” the man erupted with a level of excitement that Phila was sure had to have been bad for his heart.
“Don’t mind Dale,” Fiona insisted, waving the man’s excitement away. “Twenty-five years in the Iron Order MC and he still gets giddy as all get-out about it all.”
“Woman, you forget we never would’a met without it.”
“I do love me a man with a mustache on a bike,” Fiona admitted, smiling at him and running her bony fingers through his long mustache. They pecked a quick, well-practiced kiss on the lips. Phila blushed with the flavor of embarrassment that young children feel when they see their parents being intimate.
Sam finally found them, having survived his quest to acquire alcohol and break the seal. He set down the beers, high-fived Dale – a complete stranger – and was instantly part of the group despite his late arrival. “Jesus Christ, you shoulda seen that bathroom, Phila! Dicks and phone numbers all over the walls. And goddamn glory holes! Like three of them! This place is like the redneck CBGB.”
Fiona slapped her thigh at that, causing rippling waves of worn leather and skin. “Darlin’, you ever been to CBGB? ‘Course not! You – and our two boys, too – were in diapers when them doors shut! Well let me tell you, CBGB was the redneck CBGB. Damn, those were the days.” She smiled at Dale knowingly. Based on the look the married bikers exchanged, Phila felt fairly certain that Dale and Fiona had conceived at least one of their children at the now-defunct music establishment. She felt a pang of jealousy.
Sam slammed down his PBR in playful protest. “Just how old do you think I am? Fuckin’ diapers! It only closed ten years ago.”
“Somebody knows his stuff,” Dale remarked, whistling in approval as he lit a cigarette. “What’s got a young kid like you keepin’ an eye on old joints like that’n?”
Sam pointed both of his thumbs at himself. “Raised on classic rock and been playing the guitar for ten years, so…” That was when Phila and Fiona lost the two men to debates about the best brand of wah wah pedal and whether CCR or Three Dog Night was the superior band.
Just as Fiona inhaled a deep breath to launch into some lost line of thought, Phila felt three firm fingertips brush her bare shoulder. When she turned her head to face the source, a smile on her lips, Phila locked eyes with a full-grown country boy in a red gingham shirt and a cowboy hat that looked like it had been through actual cowboy activities.
“Ain’t seen you before,” he said, his voice deep and thick. “You dance?”
At first, Phila was too startled to respond. This kind of thing didn’t happen to her, so her brain rationalized that this encounter was most likely a mirage or a misunderstanding of some sort.
“Jake’s nice, darlin’. Go have some fun!” Fiona whispered, accidentally punching Phila’s arm a little too hard. Phila blinked twice, gulped two long swigs of her beer, and took Jake’s hand. As they walked down the stairs, a heavily-accented voice announced Unknown Hinson’s entrance, and the crowd exploded with hoots and hollers.
Phila knew that Unknown Hinson was eccentric, but she was not prepared for the Johnny Cash-Dracula hybrid that sauntered onto the stage. With a retro guitar slung over one shoulder, he locked arms with two shiny and plump rockabilly pinup girls and started singing a song about Satan in a thong.
The one and only Unknown Hinson
She barely had time to take in the spectacle before Jake led her into the crowd and planted his adept hands firmly on her waist. He reached into one of the geometric slits on the side of her dress with brazen coordination fueled by an excess of alcohol and years of women tripping too often on the word “No.” While he reached into her polka-dot dress for reasons that are obvious, Jake was also fascinated by the tattoo peeking out from within. He didn’t know that it ran up her entire right flank or that she only bought it on a whim one month before Bonnaroo, but he relished the creamy softness of someone who had never worked a day in the hot Midwestern sun.
A thick cloud of sound began to build – something altogether separate from Unknown Hinson’s utterly irreverent country crooning. The pavilion seemed to become increasingly dense, and Phila could feel the din of jubilant, thrashing dancers coupled with live music and the thick cloud of sound start to wrap around her, seeping into her pores. Jake pressed her against him so she could feel his hard-earned chest. Their dancing became faster and more urgent, and the cacophony of spinning axles and whirring engines finally exploded right next to The Other Side. The conductor of the passing train tugged the whistle hard, and everyone in the venue called back, “Hell yeah!” The whole thing seemed almost sacred.
“You really ain’t ever done the 11pm Holler before, have you?”
“Oh, that’s what that was?” Phila managed, breathing hard and covered in the satisfying sweat of an uninhibited dancer. She swallowed the laughter bubbling within her that she knew would come off as mockery if she let it escape. Aside from the growling “viper,” as Fiona had called them, Phila had been shown nothing but kindness.
The music ended, like it always did. Phila and Jake were the last two on the dance floor, swaying absently to some B.B. King album that the proprietors had turned on while Unknown Hinson’s crew broke down their set. Jake asked for her phone number and she gave it. It was a social ritual that was done purely out of habit; they both knew he would never call. It was either a clumsy, impersonal hookup in the parking lot that night or nothing. Phila was only visiting, casually, from her sparkling perch. In the morning, she would return to her well-gated suburb, leaving him to languish in 8am 90 degree heat and a lifetime of limitations.
Phila made a point of hugging Fiona before they departed. “Take care’a yerself, won’t ya, honey? And don’t be a stranger.”
They both knew that Phila would never return, but it made them both feel better to hear the words. Sam shook Dale’s hand vigorously, and Dale passed him a business card that was stamped with the same iron-horned skull that was emblazoned on the back of his leather jacket. Then, the two siblings put their arms around each other’s shoulders and stumbled out to the car, laughing at nothing.
Once they reached the makeshift parking lot, however, they saw a silver sedan with all four doors thrown open. Every possible car light was turned on, and two unconscious people drooped out of the driver’s seat and the backseat. While the car’s alarm beeped steadily, Sam and Phila looked at each other in silence, unsure of what to do. In their safe suburb, they would have called 911. But would the police even come here? Neither of them remembered the address offhand, so they reasoned that there was nothing they could do. They quietly put their GPS-enabled phones and Garmin navigator away.
As they drove past the silver sedan, Phila recognized one of the unconscious people as the viper who had growled at her when she first entered The Other Side.
Phila felt stupid for thinking she could ever be a part of it.