by Alexandria Prosperie
First Place Albert Davis Fiction Award
Growing up, Charlotte never knew she’d have such an affinity for lights. Not for how they
worked, or for aiding her vision. She appreciated lights for their ability to blind her. When lights change color and flash and follow you around stage, you can’t see the lingering eyes. The slack mouths. The tight fists on the top of the sleek bar. She can’t see a damn thing. For all she knows, she’s alone, dancing because she has something to celebrate. Dancing because she likes to. Because she’s happy.
An electronic cat’s meow vibrates through the speakers and wakes her from her daydream. Who really knows if they’re happy? One day you’re fine—the next you’re convincing yourself that you only have to pull this G-string up your ass a few more times to get where you want to be.
Her leg slides up the pole. Even though the lights have shined on it for hours, it still leaves a chill on her skin. She’s flying now. That’s what it feels like the moment she starts twirling.
Flying. She pulls herself up, twists her body around the pole, opens her legs, then slides down. Her whole night consumed by variations of these moves. Over and over. Pull, twist, open, slide, pull, twist, open, slide. Everything around her one blur of light.
“Take it off already!” someone yells. Probably a frat boy, or maybe a husband whose wife started saying no a while back, or maybe it’s the guy who always cries when he hires her for private dances. Maybe it actually is a woman. It’s hard to tell.
She leaves her pole alone and bare and starts her promenade toward the voice. As she unclasps her bra and throws it, the cheers begin. She finds her gentleman caller—a new face— playing with a wad of cash, sitting at the only chair in front of the blood-red booth. His cronies are cheering for the other girls on stage, telling them where they can sit—it’s not on a chair—and yelling for more beer.
The sound of glass shattering doesn’t stop her from forcing his legs open with her ass. She continues on, but when she turns toward him she sees the chaos at the bar. Some drunk roid-rager is following the bartender, shoving the liquor bottles off of their pristine mirrored shelves and yelling about being ripped off. In seconds, Rooney’s there, bat in hand. He grabs the dumbass by his neck and pins him to the chrome bar until he stops fighting back.
Her bachelor didn’t even turn around to look, but then again, why would he when her tits were so close to his face?
She sits on her back porch—if you could call it that, it’s just a small slab of cement with plastic chairs–and finishes her imaginary cigarette. A real cigarette has never made it to her lips because she refuses to get more wrinkles than necessary, but she needs one now. She can’t sleep and her stress proves itself every time she looks in the mirror and is welcomed by dark craters around her eyes. She’s tried everything the internet has told her. Yoga, meditation, massage, sex, masturbate, eat apples. No, eat ginger. The list goes on and on, but nothing works. So she’s left to her imagination and inhaling her joe seems to be working.
The orchestra of crickets puts her mind at ease as she looks toward the rows of sugar cane. Even though the leaves are as sharp as blades, she’s always had the strangest desire to run through the field. Far and deep. Just to see if she could find her way out. She’s pretty sure she could. But what would she do if she couldn’t?
She flicks her faux cigarette on the ground and starts to get ready for her nightshift.
The dressing room is a megawatted hub for beauty. They can’t get their contours perfect if they don’t have the right lighting. The floor is covered in glitter, sequins, and feathers.
“Tonight never wanted to end, huh?” Chasity wiped off her makeup in her mirror, already changed into her leggings and tank top. She looks like she’s going to a yoga class instead of straight to bed.
“God, I know. How many guys did Rooney have to kick out tonight?”
“I don’t keep track anymore,” she says. “Anyway I’m sure you didn’t hear about this in your “science” classes, but I saw Kaku’s tweet about new evidence that could possibly tie string theory and loop quantum gravity together. They don’t know much about it yet but they’re saying…”
She goes on a five year story about string theory. When Chasity goes on these rampages–and she does often–it’s best to just sit and nod your head until she says everything she needs. If you ask her a question you’ll be sitting for a ten year story instead.
“I’m telling you. Someday soon I’ll be the next Isaac Newton.”
“Well, of course you will. I heard he was super boring too,” Charlotte jokes.
“Whatever, bitch. Don’t come crying to me when I’m on the cover of Science Today and you’re still talking to Joe Smith about how sad his life is. Have a good night.”
Call her small–minded but she thought that when she came here she’d find emotionally damaged strippers who would need Charlotte’s psychology skills. She’d be able to sit with them and help them sort out their feelings about their tortured lives. By redeeming their self-esteems, she would help each one of them, and they would appreciate her for it.
What she found instead were strong-willed women who were here because they chose to be. No underlying issues of confidence; they couldn’t care less what others thought. And not in a way that you could tell they were convincing themselves not to care, but in a truly indifferent way. They are who they are, if you don’t like it you still have to deal with it.
Most of them didn’t even need the money. Want it maybe, but need it, no. And she couldn’t really say that they were materialistic either. Chasity has two kids at home, who she eventually wants to send to private school. “They have my brains. I can’t have them going to the shit schools that I went to.”
Fiona, one of the oldest at the club, is the chairmen and founder of so many non-profits no one could keep count.
If you ask Melissa why she does it, to her it’s simple. “I know where I stand. I don’t have the brain for school. I don’t have the patience to deal with people in stores and I’m pretty fucking good at taking my clothes off.”
All of these women have separate lives. Their club lives and their home lives, none of which consisted of a double-wide trailer or drugs or men in wife beaters. They were just normal lives. Buying groceries, taking care of family, going to events in the city. Normal.
Charlotte has separate lives too. School and club. She could lie to herself all she wants, but deep down she knows she isn’t here just to help her grades. Even though her psych professor was against it, she thought if she could get into a situation where being degraded wore on her psyche—like it would with some of the patients she’d work with—she’d be able to understand better. But it was really the money. It all comes down to money. No student debt. No stress. New toys.
Her new stilettos click as she struts up the white stone steps. The echoes of the piano and choir can be heard from outside the wooden door. She’s late. As she opens the door incense brandishes its scent in her nose and the cool air leaves bumps on her skin, her senses violated by a place that supposedly incites peace. The choir’s symphony of voices serenades her with some song about a precious hiding place.
She searches the glowing faces in the congregation and takes her seat next to Lanie. I was straying when Christ found me…
“Wow.” Lanie leans close, giving Charlotte a look as if she’s just left a nightclub then went to church.
“Nothing. I just really expected you to go up in flames when you walked in.”
Charlotte closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “I’m flipping you off right now.”
Precious hiding place. Precious hiding place.
Who was she kidding? She thought the same thing, even felt her skin burn the moment she walked in. But she was feeling guilty lately. Not for stripping, but for not committing. Everyone is supposed to believe in something, right? It’s a yes or no situation, not the “I’m not sure about this or that” bullshit she’s been thinking. Church was supposed to clear things up for the goer, not make them more complicated. Not make their stomachs churn with guilt because they are questioning God’s existence while sitting in a church pew.
That’s why she’s friends with Lanie, though Lord only knows why Lanie is friends with her. Lanie brings balance. An every Sunday church attendee, Lanie brings spiritual faith and optimism to the table. She’s one of the few true religious people Charlotte knows; the real true to Jesus people. The ones who don’t judge. The ones who try to help others. That could help Charlotte. God bless her.
The preacher talks about how rewarding it will feel to get where we are meant to be. Through happy times we should be grateful, and through hard times—even if it’s difficult—we should still be grateful. Because we all go through these times and our Father is watching us. He is ready to accept us through anything.
At that very moment, a light above the altar flickers and goes out. Probably the works of the devil. It’s surprising that no one in the congregation passes out.
“How much longer do you have?” Lanie asks as they walk out of the church.
“I owe school a little more, then I’m done. Probably like a month.”
The putrid smell is stronger than normal. The bayou that runs behind the church must be steaming. Nothing like the smell of mud stew.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Of course I am.” Charlotte focuses on the swaying flag in the front yard.
“What happened to your cheek?”
Charlotte has to swallow down the bile that builds up in her throat.
Four children are having a rock throwing contest in the gravel parking lot while waiting for their parents. A little boy throws his rock and screams in a younger girl’s face, “Beat that.”
“Lanie, I’m a spastic woman who dances on a metal pole. Bruises everywhere.”
The little girl winds up her throw with baseball player grace.
Lanie nods, but Charlotte knows she’s doesn’t believe the story. She should try to persuade her. The least she could do is put her friend’s mind at ease, but she won’t be able to convince her. Mustering the effort to make up a story seems like way too much today.
The rock flies through the parking lot and lands well past the boy’s. The little girl looks surprised for a moment that she won, then she yells with joy and twirls around with her arms wide. The boy moves like a whip, sticking a foot behind hers as he pushes her down.
“You probably aren’t even a girl. You’re a little boy.” He stomps off.
Goddamn it hurt. The sting. The words. He smelled like nicotine and motor oil.
Charlotte helps the little girl to her feet, both of them hiding their watery eyes. “It’s all right. You’re gonna be okay.” Her eyes bore into the little girl. “But if that happens again, you need to push back.”
No doubt or fear, since my Lord is near.
The girl nods, wipes her eyes, and runs to her mother.
She’ll be okay.
She’ll be okay.
She drives through the city and parks behind the club. They have private parking, but there’s only one light and you have to walk through a small alleyway to the back door. Doesn’t help that Rooney never works on Thursdays, and the other bouncer is a jackass.
She thought she saw the guy’s face lurking in the shadows and she let out a small squeal. Just the light reflecting off the car in a strange way. If Rooney were here, he’d already be by her side, but mister doesn’tgiveashitaboutotherpeople is here instead, and she walks the rest of the way by herself.
Pull, twist, open, slide, but she’s not flying tonight. She’s too tense; her anxiety maximized by all the tricks her mind is playing on her. All the men at the club look like him. Now, almost every sound she hears makes her jump. Her chest is tight and she feels like if she takes a deep breath she might explode. Sounding like a sledgehammer inside her head, her heart can’t slow down. She can’t help but think that he’s hiding somewhere, waiting for her.
“Come on. Get into it, girl,” someone in the audience screams.
No time for trauma right now. Don’t think about it. With her hand on the pole to steady herself, she takes a deep breath and forces the air out in a loud sigh. Putting on the seductive mask she’s never supposed to let slip, she pokes out her chest and arches her back. Strippers are put on this Earth for one thing, and if you disagree just talk to some of the people yelling at her.
Her shift is over—finally. As she saunters off stage to collect her things she knows she won’t last another month here. She’s leaving. Leaving and never coming back. No two weeks notice—do strippers even do that?—no talk, she’ll just disappear.
Though it’s warm and bright, there is something sterile about the dressing room. How could she have missed that? The white walls. The tile floor that’s probably used in every hospital in the country. The smell, like a landfill for cheap Bath and Body Works products.
She’s done. She won’t have to deal with this shit anymore. The smells, the music, the people. She won’t be degraded anymore—well, she won’t be degraded as much.
She sighs, slides into her car, and pulls the door closed. She’ll be back tomorrow.