Friday, August 2, 2013

"Red Light Plywood" by John Allison (Short Story)

Genre:  General Fiction

Type of Short Story:  Short Story

Complete Story:

I must have been quite a sight, standing in front of a boarded-up storefront on 42nd Street with my only "business suit" and a starched white blouse on, touching an indentation in the plywood under the fading red paint they'd slapped on it, with my worn leather bag on my left shoulder and a crowbar in my right hand. If that wasn't enough, the brown leather work gloves clashed with my dark blue suit! I was still absolutely soaring from my meeting at the bank. The 90's were gonna go out with a bang for me after all. I was now a businesswoman, ready to hire a staff! The sight of him, as he turned the corner, shattered my moment of pride, my moment of joy. Now walking slower, with a cane, he headed in my direction. I was sure he wouldn't even know who I was. So how would I remember this day? Would it be the start of a bright, exciting new future for me and my dear friends, or the end of my life as I know it for the sake of justice, to release years of anger with a moment of revenge?

I wasn't the only poor girl in Manhattan who took on the position of stripper. You can dismiss me, but I probably made more than you! In my 18 years in the business, starting in the 70's, I've met so many sisters who I grew to love - but you also learn not to get too attached, because they tend to be transient, always looking for a better opportunity. It was only natural that I became most fond of the full-time staff that made their careers here as well. I remember the day I had my interview, first with the owner, then with Dear Miss Amanda, the House Mother. The title has great meaning, since she was the only mother for many of the girls who passed through. She took care of us in and out of the house, and was an amazing makeup artist as well. When she first saw me, Miss Amanda told me how beautiful I was and how my slim waist and young boobs would take me far. I asked how much girls made. She said the house paid $26 a night. From your tips, you had to make a contribution to the house, and one to the non-performing staff. Typically a girl would take home about five hundred a night. My heart jumped. Five hundred dollars a night? Did I really hear this? Then she took me over to a corner table in the empty house and sat me down. She was so good at this. I came to learn that she was from Cuba, which is why we could talk about anything and she could never offend me. We were two colored girls.

"Dear," she said, "you're a beautiful thing, and men with money come here to drink and look at the bodies of beautiful girls. But even though you have such a smooth light skin, you're a colored girl. For the men, you're a dilemma. You're part of every man's fantasy, a near-naked beauty within arm's reach. But you're not white, and some will have a problem with that. Each one will be different, you'll just never know what to expect. For some, the thought of being close, or getting excited over a colored girl, will make them feel uncomfortable. I know, darling, it’s not a simple planet for us. Men want to treat strippers well, and they do, but many won't let you into their dreams. You'll constantly feel the excitement that some girls can generate, that you may not. You'll be reminded every day that you're a colored girl. I just have to tell you the truth, hon. A pretty white girl will walk away with $500 a night easy. Black girls, maybe $200. A light-skinned beauty like you, I just don't know what to tell you. Maybe $250. But if you attract a following, if they grow to love you, you could pull in $800-900 a night. I've seen both. Either way, you'll pay your bills."

I took a deep breath. Will this crap ever change? Well maybe society will be slow to deal with the color of my skin. Maybe it’s all up to me, a stripper, because when we shook on it, that's what I became.

I was terrified, but I had to tell my Grammy what I had done, and I was so pleased that she didn’t scream! I don't think anyone knew, but she was actually a stripper for two years (or so she said)! She had some interesting stories of her own, and swore that stripping was invented by Negro slaves in the United States. Of course, she'd tell you they were the first to do most everything. I think they even invented the Big Mac. I love her so.

I assume you have some basic picture in your mind of this job. Everybody thinks they know what it's like to be a stripper. We run around naked a lot, do each other's makeup, constantly talk about our routines, perform a bunch of 15 minute sets between 9 PM and 2 AM six nights a week, and we deal with sweet, luscious men, drunk men, angry men, confused men, sweet women, crazy people, whoever looks like they want a smile from us. When we're not dancing, we're "meeting" our guests, making them feel like they almost have us, helping them to spend money.
Each of us has a stage name, one that we often change, and our lives hang on three coat hangers, each with a plastic bag attached, to keep the pieces of a complete outfit together. I've been lucky to have seen it all. We were a go-go bar for a while and I danced for hours in a bathing suit. I've worn pasties on my nipples. I've danced topless. I've danced in a G-string, which is the absolute best because the men love to slide a dollar bill into your string. You'd think they'd all be grabbing you but most are nervous and perfect gentlemen, thinking they're getting away with a little something as they slide a folded bill under the elastic. So often, they're cute. It was hard in the beginning, not knowing what to do when those fingers would get a little too big, but I learned to push them away, or kick them away, and flash my biggest smile while doing it. I grew confident that I could deal with whoever came along, you know? I was, after all, their goddess on stage. I was in charge of them! I've done some flash dancing, we called it, where they would get an occasional glimpse of pussy during the dance, but only "by accident", since full nudity certainly wasn't allowed. And of course, as the costumes changed, the girls changed. The new young things that came in always had more curves, bigger boobs, and skinny legs, and were willing to do anything for money. They gave stripping a bad name. Yes, we older girls had to step aside and let it happen, but they weren't us. They didn't know how to do it right. They saw a few music videos and thought they were pole queens. Still, you just have to let the art evolve.

I can't let you in the back room, but I'll describe it for you on a typical night, around 8:00 PM. It's New Frigging York, for God's sake. Floor space is at a premium, so don't expect much. Boobies bounce as girls run back and forth, asking to borrow your boa or big hat for the night. Miss Amanda is curling a girl's hair with one hand while putting rouge on another girl! Two bathroom door mirrors have been mounted sideways on the wall, with a plywood table under them, with old, numbered barstools for each of us. We're very sensitive about our stools. They are all we can call our own. The chairs are arranged by number. Each week, you'd sit according to how much you grossed for the past week. Every girl, of course, wanted chair #1! However there was a chair before #1, which they "lovingly" numbered zero. That was my chair. I was always in chair number zero only because I can be so easily squished up against the wall. It seemed like the place for my skinny body, and it was quite a wall! Plywood. Does that even count as real wood? I don't know. We offered countless times to do the work, paint the place, put up some hooks and things, if the management would give us a few dollars for the materials, but it never happened. So on a typical night I'd be naked, putting on makeup, smooshed up against the naked wall. I decided to make it my wall, something good for me, not a problem. I'd thumbtack pictures on the wall out of Cosmo if I thought they could be an idea for a new outfit for someone. I always had a picture of Carol Doda up, the patron saint of strippers, who performed topless in 1964 and completely nude in 1969 in San Francisco. The woman had balls. She was a trailblazer. She is worthy of being displayed every day. Whenever Miss Amanda spotted Carol she'd start telling us stories of burlesque days and the Condor Club. They were just her memories, but some of our best shows were based on ideas that came from her stories. Art lives on!

The first day I was performed, I found a carpenter's pencil and drew a line deep into the plywood, to remember that day.

The first time I had a $500 day, I drew a line on the plywood, above the first. On the first Monday of every month, I would touch the first line, and recite the date and event. Then I would move up to the second line. It was my way of recording turning points, and to keep my life fresh in my mind, since Grammy told me the worst thing you can do is make the same mistake twice.

You'd probably see Ed walk through our little room. It's embarrassing that, as good as he was to us all, we all only knew him as Ed - never thought he might have a full name like the rest of us. He was the House Father, if there was such a title - the bouncer, our drunk handler, and street barker. He could read a lone gentleman from a block away and come up with just the right thing to say, to make him stop and turn into The Strip Shop. They all wanted a reason to come in, but most wouldn't on their own. So he'd tell them about a special performer of the night, or about the chance to spend some time with a pretty lady who likes tall men, or maybe just to provide them with the alibi they wanted - just stop in for a drink!

"The girls love to perform for you. These girls could be acting in Hollywood, but this is what they want to do. Make them feel appreciated, would you please?"

He barked when he needed, he talked like a friend when it's what they needed. He was our Ed. He also knew when tits were peaking in the back room and it was always when he just had to "cut through".

I made the third line on my wall the day after my first softball game. Yes, strip joints have softball teams! I must admit we were pretty good. We always looked forward to playing the Blue Boys, the team from the homosexual strip joint. We would just laugh the whole time, watching boys swing and throw like girls. Our laughing would make them laugh. We looked like a bunch of drunken ex-lovers who decided to have one last softball game. We'd hug them and they'd pinch our bottoms, and we'd flash them when they were supposed to be watching the ball. They gave us such a sense of relaxation and freedom - God bless their oiled little bodies.

I had a few lines on my wall for what seemed important events at the time, but within a week they weren't so special - like the first time I danced topless. The seventh line on my wall, one that I recited and relived the first Monday of every month, was longer than the others. He came into the Shop one night around 11 PM. He made it known he was from Milwaukee, looking to settle and start a business in the City. He flashed some money around and quickly got the best table. He wasn't necessarily good looking, but money makes them look better, and he was certainly smooth if nothing else. He was particularly attentive to me, and was slipping 20's into my G-string which lusciously clashed with the one's. He whispered in my ear, "You take my breath away." I looked into his eyes, and could tell he was sincere. His smile was so attractive, so genuine. Between sets he bought me drinks. This was at a time when the management realized they could make a lot of money on alcohol, so put up "Hey honey, can I buy you a drink?" signs in the bathrooms, and encouraged the clientele to treat their favorite dancer with some champagne (available by the bottle only, of course). He was happy to do so, although I was working and wasn't supposed to touch it. Maybe I did taste test it a little more than I should have.

He was addictive. He never actually asked for sex. He just smelled like sex with him would be heavenly. His hand on my arm made me feel warm down there.

"Please come back to my hotel room with me. I'm so alone. Just a short visit. I have a television! We can have a drink and relax, watch some TV. I so enjoy being with you. It will be nice to have company." He was good. He described all the things that I wanted. I wanted to be pampered a little; wanted to take a night off for a change; wanted to kick off my shoes, watch TV and have a drink, and yes, there's always the fantasy that this could be the one, the real deal. He handed me $400 as we walked out the door, and put his finger to my lips before I could object, before I could ask what it was for. As we strolled down the street he slipped his arm around my waist and I felt so good. This was so right. He was the perfect gentleman as he held his room door open for me. When it closed, the first punch sent me flying across the room. I knew that was gonna leave a mark. I don't remember much after that, just bits and pieces of him grunting, pumping me with his little cock, then some of the others. I think, just like he'd promised me a special time, he'd promised a little something special to a few male hotel staff, who happily took what was offered, then held me up against the wall and beat me and beat me and picked me up when I collapsed so he could hit me some more - all in silence. There was not a word of why. The staff then efficiently threw me into one of the dumpsters in the back alley. I think that night he decided that New York City was the place for him.

Perhaps you can't understand, but my first and biggest feeling was not anger, but embarrassment. I didn't want to tell anyone what happened, but I had little choice. Nobody wants to see this many bruises - not the girls, not the clientele. I was shocked when someone first used the word rape. It was my stupid mistake. I trusted him. My mistake. But yes . . . it was rape. I can be important enough to myself to call it rape. My saying the word was the start of my becoming stronger. I wouldn't report it, for fear of being killed, but I found enough of myself left to label it. Still, I was just a stupid colored girl. That's how I felt inside.

I was certain that no one wanted to see a black and blue stripper. There probably isn't much of a crowd waiting to see a pregnant stripper either, I assumed. Yes, I'd gotten more than bruises from my stupidity. As my bruises healed, my belly grew. Jack, the manager, felt uncomfortable when I asked to do a set, but he agreed. Stripping was what I did. It's how I paid the bills! Plus, I had to go back. If I didn't, HE'd have beaten my soul. Jack didn't like his girls to ever be hurt in any way, and probably even would have let me buy paint, if I'd asked with my belly sticking out! Instead of trying to talk me out of it, he ran out the front door. The Barker man went to work!

"The only stripper in town brave enough to let you see her naked pregnant body, and we have her! It won't last forever folks! This is something you'll be telling the boys about around the water cooler! Hell, this is something you'll tell your grandkids about!"

And, thanks to big mouth, I actually developed quite a following. As the music would start, the spotlight would focus on the ratty velvet curtain at one end of the stage. I'd start to come out, always belly first, and they would cheer! So many men, daddies for sure, would put an extra $5 in my G-string and whisper "A little something extra for the kid," with the sweetest looks on their faces. They cared about me. The bar stocked a drink called "Baby Faced", which clients could buy to have a drink with me. It was a pitcher of orange juice, and a bottle of whiskey (for the man to add to his). They made more on juice then the bottles of cheap champagne they were selling.

Ed was right. It didn't last forever. In answer to my prayers, sweet Jesus lovingly blessed me with a stillbirth. I was so relieved. I named her Julie, and as soon as I did she became real, and I sobbed, and I begged for her forgiveness, and begged my Lord to never do anything I ask for again, ever. All I could see were tiny baby faces, and tiny baby fingers, in my mind. I made myself small and stayed there. After weeks of self-isolation, there was a knock on the door. It was Ed. He handed me a ratty book called "Get in Shape in 30 Days". He took my face in his hands and said “She died. You’re alive. We need you back now. They’ve been asking for you. Find any reason you need to come back. Live for yourself. Live for her.” Then he reached behind him, pulled a softball out of somewhere, threw it to me, and left - no hug, no smile, no words of encouragement. He’d said what needed to. He knew not to help. He knew I had to do this alone.

I spent a night saying goodbye to those images of little fingers. They just wouldn’t wrap around a ball. I started to picture all the loving faces who gave me extra money “for the little one”, and swore that I would make it right with them. I knew I had to do this. My life was not going to become a series of bad turning points. I was better than that. My Grammy taught me so. “Even when you got nothing, girl,” she’d say, “you got your strength. Use it.” I’d just forgotten for a minute. And so I worked with that stupid book, worked for a killer body, better’n before. I knew my goal, because the first game was ten days away - a ball game in the real world - a ball game in my world. Mine!
And so, through a door built with sit-ups and push-ups and jumping jacks, I pulled myself from out of the shadows and into the light that felt . . . different . . . but good.

For some reason, Ed wanted to give me a new stage name, so he called me Betsy Ross. "Your flag pole will never be the same, my friend, my countryman!" he'd yell, as he ambled around in front of the place. Too funny. My first day back, tummy tighter than ever, I watched lots of my regulars come in. I peeked through the curtain as they took their usual seats. When the music started I stripped down, fast! They whooped when they saw me in a G-string and a big, filled (!) lacey bra. As I danced around the center stage, I told my regulars to reach into that bra for their present. Their eyes got wide, and I got a big smile from all of ‘em, as they found that it was filled with rolled-up $5 bills, each with a little pink ribbon tied around it. On every bill, I wrote, "bless you". I was giving something back to as many of them as I could. I couldn't ever return the love I felt, but it was a start.

Do you understand how much family love you can feel in this job? Those on the outside just thought of us as dirty, degrading exotic dancers. It's too bad they don't know how much the performers and the regulars become such a close family - always there for you. It is true that New York City had become quite a stripper Mecca, and since we attracted people with "vices", an unsavory crowd slowly grew around our street. The pushers came in. The first sign of that was when drink sales went down and the smell of pot went up. Crime did go up in the area, as local thugs would roll our clients (on the way in, when they still had money). I'm sure there was a little Puerto Rican boy, who owned a big knife, not far from here, who paid cash for a used Cadillac, and counted out the money, all in one's.

Rudy Giuliani. Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Perhaps he did the right thing. He decided to clean up New York City which meant get rid of us. He declared all adult establishments a threat to public health, safety and welfare, and said we made New York City sleazy. Rules were passed, ordinances they called ‘em, which said that no adult establishments could operate within 500 feet of a residence, school, or place of worship. There were ratty high-rise apartments above all of our places. And so they started to shut us down - the strip clubs, the adult movie theatres, and the stores. Some said Mr. Giuliani Disney-fied Times Square, and while everyone in the business was fit to be tied, I knew it was the right thing. It was too bad for the strippers and the go-go boys, who really had no other skills to fall back on. But, hey, I was a taxpayer too, baby. This hurt New York! It took a few years to chase us out, and we were among the last to leave.

Even before we got our final eviction notice, the Shop had become more of a bar with dancing girls than a strip joint with a liquor license. It was over and everyone knew it. Most of the girls stopped showing up altogether, but I came every night, whether we did a show or not, and touched the lines on the wall, and recited every turning point in my life, including the line I'd drawn in for tomorrow, when we would be out of business. When the time came to go, I turned up the music ("Girls, Girls, Girls" - God, how we grew to hate Motley Crue), turned up the lights, and I slowly swung a wide circle on my pole. Miss Amanda leaned on the wall and watched. When the electrician walked by I slid a screwdriver out of his belt, got up on a chair and took the screws out of the plate that held the dance pole to the ceiling. Then I pushed it over. Surprisingly, I found myself sobbing and crying as I pushed and pushed, until the screws in the floor creaked and gave way. Just as the pole fell, the power went out, the room went quiet, with only a few worker lights remaining on. As we walked out the door, I hugged and kissed Miss Amanda, and turned back for one last look. The pole was gone. It wasn't a strip club any more.

I noticed that the carpenter was standing in front of my wall! Gently he eased it off the 2x4's it was nailed to. I stood by the door and watched as he hauled it out past me and hung it onto the store front, boarding it up. All the bars and stores on the whole block - all boarded up. Time there had stopped.

I didn't like unemployment, so I looked hard for a job every day. It kills your savings account, and I had a pretty good one going for a while! I printed my resume on business cards. They had my name on the front and said "ex-stripper" on the back. It made people smile, which made them talk. I did, after all, have some schmooze abilities!

For three years, I moved around, mostly as a Kelly Girl, working a few months in an office here or there, then a few months stuffing envelopes in a cold warehouse, then, I don't remember, it was a blur. One Monday morning, I picked up an old, dog-eared copy of the Sunday Times and read an article about how there was a block on 42nd Street of boarded up storefronts, and some local artist had been hired to brighten it all up. So he painted each one a bright primary color, so the one-block walk wouldn't be depressing, but "uplifting" for visitors who wandered around Times Square. The article reported that the block still sits, still painted but a little less bright and shiny, undeveloped, three years later. The writer wondered if anyone would ever risk trying to reinvent this real estate. The city was even willing to help! There was also a story from San Francisco. A new idea was sweeping the Bay Area - New Wave Burlesque Halls. They were classy, upscale, modern, rooted in the basics of pure Burlesque, but updated with smart new looks, intelligent humor, and magic! Low on the strip, big on the tease! And fun! As soon as I saw "Neo-Burlesque", in the time it took to read the phrase, I knew exactly how I was going to do it. It would be fantastic - not a place for drunks, but for hip couples and groups. And not cheap either! There would be no walk-ins. You'd have to buy tickets for this one, baby. We were going theatre! I remembered a Miss Amanda story of a girl named Charmion, and I looked her up because I thought her act would be a great classic to recreate! She was actually in vaudeville, a trapeze artist, and Thomas Edison made a movie of her way back in 1901 called the Trapeze Disrobing Act. Is that sweet or what? I didn't know who to turn to so I found a lawyer who helped me write up a business plan. I found Miss Amanda, my bottomless pit for the history of Burlesque. I found Ed, who now had a job as a machinist, who knew about how to run an entertainment business in New York. He'd done everything from working with distributors, running a loading dock, maintaining stock - all the things he did by day; to being a people mover - a schmoozer to the kind, and a bouncer to the ornery - at night. He was a licensed bartender too! Once we talked, I had no idea how much he actually had done! Both agreed to help me, if I could get money to buy a space and hire a staff, and we all agreed that The Strip Shop and the store next to it was a pretty nice little starting point, with ample floor space, high walls, and what was probably, at one time, a beautiful bar and kitchen.

I was 40 minutes early for my appointment at the bank, and practically peed my pants, I was so excited, as I made my presentation to two of the staff. They listened like they had no face muscles. It was hard to go on, but they had to loan me money. This was a great idea, a sure thing! After I was done, they thanked me. I expected them to go out in the hall and probably talk about the Yankees for five minutes before they came back in to tell me they couldn't help, but it's not the way it went down. I finished. The suit on the left wrote something on the back of a business card, slid it over to the suit on the right who nodded. Then he slid it across the table to me. It was an amount, with a big check mark after it. It was everything I asked for plus 10%. They stood up (so I did as well, not sure why). The suit on the left broke into the warmest smile I'd ever seen. He (professionally) gave me a hug, told me he wished he had 5% of my energy and excitement, and the suit on the right gave me his business card and told me to call him in 24 hours to get the account set up, and the contract signed. He thanked me for picking them, and said that they were excited to be part of re-energizing Times Square. Only a few years ago, we were a blight in the neighborhood. Now a burlesque house was going to be part of "re-energizing Times Square!" They didn't know how I'd managed to line up such an amazing staff, but with them in place, it was a sure-fire investment for them! If I were white I would have run out in the street and thrown my hat up in the Minneapolis air!
The Strip Shop (possible new name Bottoms Up Burlesque) was mine! I walked 14 blocks back to 42nd Street. I'd not seen it since. I stopped in a goofy little junk/hardware store that had old tools in the window, and bought a used crowbar. There was some young kid behind the counter who claimed it was a valuable collectible antique. I handed him a ten, and he took it, and without expression, he reached under the counter and slapped down two ratty workman's gloves (they must have been a set). Then he went back to reading a magazine. I tried on my new fashion statements, and they fit! Off I went.

So there I was. The storefront had been painted red - nothing fancy, just a fingernail-polish red. I could see, under the thick coat of cheap paint, faint indentations in the wood. My lines. My diary. My turning points. My finger slid slowly over the first one as I started to recite the history I knew so well. After that, I was going to oh-so-gently remove my wall and take it inside, because it was a part of me and I just wanted it!

I must have been quite a sight, caressing painted plywood on a boarded up storefront with my only "business suit" and a starched white blouse on, my worn leather bag on my left shoulder and a crowbar in my right hand. If that wasn't enough, the brown leather work gloves clashed with my dark blue suit! I was still absolutely soaring from my meeting at the bank. I was now a businesswoman, ready to hire my staff! And I was ready for this. I was a different person now. I felt strong.

The sight of him, as he turned the corner, shattered my moment of pride, my moment of joy. Now moving slowly with a cane, he walked in my direction. I was sure he wouldn't even know who I was. When he was six steps away, I reached into my bag and released the safety on my handgun. I'd bought it after he assaulted me, and always had it with me. My little 9 mm bodyguard! When he was five steps away, I imagined taking aim and pulling the trigger. When he was four steps away, I decided that this gun was never me. I choose a better life. This is my decision.

Let him go.
Let him pass by.
I didn't get this far to throw it all away.

At three steps he looked at me, a stranger to him, smiled and said, "you take my breath away." I actually started to feel something, the feeling of melting into his smooth line, a line he'd used on me years ago.

He violated me.
What he did to me was unspeakable.
How many other women had taken his breath away?
How many more will there be?

When he was two steps away, I reset the safety, and let the pistol slide out of my hand and back into my bag. I calmly and deliberately took my best batter's stance, both hands in place at one end of the crowbar. One step away - it was my best homerun swing - going for the left field wall. I swung through his fat head. I heard the crack of the cranium, and was amazed at the speed at which his head and aging body flew, almost two feet! His head stopped when it hit the dumpster that was on the edge of the sidewalk.

"Did that take your breath away, asshole?" I asked. He didn't respond.

His fresh blood was a perfect match for the cheap, fading paint.

His body had crumbled onto the sidewalk and his head flopped over the curb, with his blood nicely draining into the sewer grate. He looked good. I bet that one will leave a mark!

I realized I was shaking. I ran over to my plywood wall and slammed the crowbar into it, making one large gouge above my other turning point marks. Blood ran into the gouge as it blended into the paint, disappearing from casual view. It was magic. It was a sign from Saint Carol.

The sound - people running, shoes against cement, people yelling,
"I saw her, stop her!"

I strained to hear the sound, but I didn't. There was only silence. I looked around. The street was empty except for a small group headed in the opposite direction. I spotted the bulge of his wallet in his back pocket, threw it down the sewer grate, and watched its shadow rush off with the flowing water. If his wallet was missing, they'd assume he'd been robbed. My mind raced - what to do with my sweet metal bat? I looked at it, and realized that these gloves were so soft; I'd forgotten I'd been wearing them. No prints, only his red blood cells on the crowbar, which I just dropped beside him.

I slipped the gloves into my bag and went down the nearest subway steps. As I got to the bottom I thought I heard a woman's scream from the sidewalk. I thought of my Grammy and silently explained to her that I chose not to shoot him. "I made that choice," I told her. "In the end, I did what I had to do. I won't feel guilty about it. I promise Grammy, I won't make the same mistake twice - but I did allow myself to make it once."

More stories by Allison can be found here.  Be be sure to check out his latest work here.

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