UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
SOMETHING TO HOLD ON TO
The Chandeliers is a classy joint, strictly topless. This allows them to serve alcohol and before I’m even through the curtains, Anthony the bartender is putting the cherry into my Manhattan. They know me here. “How ‘ya tonight, Phil?” he asks me
“New York up by eight,” he tells me. “Jasmine’s dancing in five minutes.”
I order a twelve-dollar vodka tonic for her, for afterward. Anthony fills a highball glass with ice and splashes into it something from an unmarked bottle. The girls here aren’t supposed to drink while they’re on the job, but this is the kind of exception they make for me.
Wednesdays and Fridays, I sit in the near corner where the stage forms a T. These are the nights Jasmine performs. Tonight it’s early, still light outside. The place won’t fill for a few hours, but if someone had been sitting in my seat, I could get Anthony or one of the bouncers to move them for me. That’s how good a customer I am.
On stage, there’s a blond girl with tan lines finishing up her number. She’s inverted on the center pole and as she slides down, I can hear her bare thighs squeaking against metal, louder than the rap music fading out in the background. The song ends and the DJ bellows on cue, “Let’s all give it up for Anastasia!” His voice ricochets off the mirrors that circle the room and I wonder why the microphone’s necessary. The ten of us can hear fine. We’re all positioned around the stage except for the group in the back wall vinyl booths and the few guys in the fit-for-two swivel chairs. We all give it up for Anastasia. There’s scattered hand-clapping and high-pitched whistles. I lean back in my front row seat and nod my head in approval, because that’s just what I do. And anyway, I didn’t see most of the show. I say as much to her when she scuttles by and bends over to collect crumpled dollar bills off the stage floor.
“I just got here,” I say to her anxious eyes and put up my hands like, what do you want from me? Sometimes you have to be a little rude. Women go in for that sort of thing. Then I wink at her and give her one of my smiles. I pull out the money roll I keep in my pants pocket, lick my thumb like this is going to require careful riffling, and peel off a couple singles. She blows me a kiss and then scampers off to fetch her clothes.
I never carry a wallet. Not in here, I don’t. I keep a wad of cash, big bills on the outside. I use a money clip. It’s just my thing. It says something. It says that I’m the kind of guy who appreciates good jazz music, the guy who doesn’t pull off a mustache but makes it look good. It means I’ve got taste. It says I’m the one with the expensive shows, only I don’t need to show them off. Maybe I smoke cigars and not just any, but the good kind, the illegal kind. Maybe Cuban. Yeah, there’s something dangerous about a money clip, something mysterious. Women love mystery. I tell them I’m a real estate mogul when they ask me what I do.
Overhead, a huge chandelier hangs. It’s an awful, gaudy looking thing. A white Christmas tree strung upside down. They try to pass it off for genuine glitz, for show. In my pocket, the ring I’m giving to Jasmine tonight, now that’s the real deal.
The lights around the chandelier give the place a dim lit, pink-purple tint, so it’s tough to make out the other customers’ faces, but not hard to tell who they are. Office park middle managers who cut out early and are now texting their wives to say the meeting ran late. Delinquent strip mall workers sitting far enough back from the action to avoid feeling obliged to tip. There’s a group of bankers leftover from a business lunch. Today was payday. We look enough alike—shirt collars buttoned, ties loose at the neck—but me, I carry it casual. Think cool nonchalance. It’s important to be the most important person in the room. Women notice.
Girls in high heels and see-through outfits slink their way through the aisles. Only the new ones brush my shoulders as they wander past. The others already know better and spend their time elsewhere. I can’t blame them for trying, but my eyes are for Jasmine only. She’s about to go on and I’m tapping my fingers on the ledge that runs the length of the stage, not like I’m impatient or excited, but like I’m keeping time to a fantastic beat that only I can hear in my head. It’s the little things that set the vibe. I sit far enough back in my chair and can see that, underneath the ledge, there’s no less than a dozen pieces of gum stuck to the bottom, little pink and green stalactites.
Strobe lights begin to pulse about the room and the DJ’s voice booms once again. “Now coming to the stage, please welcome the one and only…Jasmine!” He pauses before unleashing her name to the crash opening riff of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Welcome To The Jungle.” She tears in along with the music and attacks the pole, spinning wildly. I get dizzy just watching, but then she always makes me dizzy. Her outfit tonight’s one I’ve seen before: torn camouflage shorts with suspenders that go up and over her white tank top. She has on the black commando boots that ride up to her knees, the ones with the heels that make her four inches taller. The red bandana is new. Her hair’s twisted up inside it like a knot, and under the stage lights it shines the color of a brand new penny.
I watch Jasmine saunter around, stopping here and there to gyrate. Her eyes stay above the crowd, searching the ceiling, somewhere else. I’ve seen her dance a hundred times and notice how she still moves about with a certain preoccupation, as if she’s looking for someplace to put her hands, for something to hold on to. No luck, she settles instead on the suspenders clinging to her shoulders. She plays with them, stretches them, takes them off. She tugs her tank top, pulls it tight, takes it off. I take a drink. Through the glass, I fix her in my sight and watch her glow. She’s worked her way to my corner and is facing me now, and even though she’s nearly naked, I look her in the eyes because that’s the kind of guy I am. Not that women don’t want you to stare, but show them you can restrain yourself and they’re taken aback, they don’t know what to think. It’s that mystery element again.
Jasmine’s squatting in front of me. She’s pulled off the bandana and is tossing her hair around in that way I like. I watch her eyes drift down from the ceiling for a moment to find me. She gives me that look like she’s in heat and then has to move on to the guy sitting across from me. It’s okay though. I know I’m her favorite. The rest of them, they’re the well. I’m top shelf. Just wait until she sees the ring. I swallow the last of my Manhattan and pluck a twenty off the top of my cash roll to leave on the edge of the stage. From my empty glass, I take the cherry and set it on top of the bill. Women love it when you do things like that.
I wait at the table farthest from the entrance where I always do. There’s gum stuck underneath here too, even more than last week, and I’m thinking maybe I should say something to Anthony later. Jasmine’s just come back out on the floor. She’s left her hair down and has a tiny black bikini top on and the same camouflage shorts. Some guys by the bar stop her to whisper something, and she visits one of the booths to say something to the man sitting there, something I can’t make out because her back’s turned, but then she comes over and sits on my lap. “Hey Sugar,” she says. It’s this pet name she has for me.
I could tell her to do whatever I want, but I don’t because I’m a gentleman. She just goes to it, starts sliding up and down my leg. Up close, her chest glitters, little sand sparkles that catch on the purple light when she arches her back. Her skin smells like baby powder, her hair like strawberries, and when she dangles it in my face, I notice that she’s not wearing the earrings I bought for her last week. “You were wonderful tonight,” I say. She comes in close to smile at me and then pulls back, turns around so she’s facing the chandelier. I touch her hips and can’t tell if her skin has goose bumps or if it’s mine. “I love you,” I say and she thanks me. She can’t say it back, not in here, not while she’s working. My pants are so tight I can feel the pull of the ring box in my pocket. I push the vodka tonic across the table toward her and like a joke I say, “You’re twenty-one, right?” even though I know she’s nineteen. She’s a sophomore at State majoring in anatomy. Or anthropology.
“Aw, thanks,” she says. “My favorite!” She stops wriggling in my seat and reaches for the cocktail. Into one hand, she spits out gum she’d been chewing and smacks it against the bottom of the table. With the other she throws back the whole drink like it’s water. “You’re so sweet,” she says and I smile a little, like I’m embarrassed. I reach for the ring. Women love sweet. That’s just the kind of guy I am.
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