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THE STRIPPER IN HER NATURAL HABITAT

by

Jim Ruland




Magoon knew his relationship with Dawn was over the moment he returned from a bathroom break to his workstation in the data entry department and saw the red light pulsing in his telephone. He stabbed the message button and punched in his password. She wanted him to meet her at Molly's, a decrepit little pub not far from his office. She said it was an emergency.

He navigated the workstation network, sneered at the nosy receptionist, took the elevator to the lobby and made his way across the Tar Pits--his lunch-hour short cut to the pub. His anxiety intensified with each step. Maybe it was the closet pedophile parked on the edge of the gurgling pit, plucking away at a banjo and singing a ditty about a dinosaur with poor bowel control. Perhaps it was the effect the constant revelation of tar had on him, a queasy, nauseous feeling atop his stomach he knew would take several pints of stout to squelch. Or it could have been the pub itself--a place as dark and murky as the prehistoric pit he'd left behind but imagined he could still smell on his clothes, in his hair.

Molly's walls were crowded with old portraits of patrons past. The oily whatness of their easy smiles made him even more anxious. Just last week he had overheard the bartender proclaim that most of the subjects were now dead. The place was packed with shades, ghosts, nevermores.

He heard Dawn's high soft laugh and shuffled toward it. He could almost make her out toward the rear of the pub, and it appeared she had company. A lanky shadow separated from the table where she sat and receded deeper into the pub. Dawn rose to embrace him.

"Sorry I kept you waiting," he apologized.

"Don't be silly," she said.

They hugged awkwardly (Magoon was an awkward hugger). She was very tall, taller than he, with a body taut and firm like a trampoline. Her face was framed by thin dark bangs that matched her eyes. Dawn possessed the airy grace of a dancer. She folded herself back into her seat, all fleshy limbs and elastic curves.

Dawn already had a drink. The waiter took Magoon's order and withdrew.

"You look great," he gushed.

"Thanks."

"How are things at the club?"

"Great. Really good." Dawn sipped her beer.

He sensed another dreary afternoon loaded with long silences, pregnant pauses, aborted deferrals to polite conversation. It hadn't always been like this. He could remember when they’d spent hours laughing and drinking together before they went to work. Now their talk subsisted on empty words without passion or purpose, rationed out over the course of the hour. Magoon fished a tattered notebook from his satchel and flipped the pages, finding comfort in the notes he'd scribbled. The light reflecting off the green notepaper gave his face a sickly tint, the face of a drowning man.

The waiter set their drinks before them--Guinness for Magoon, another lager for Dawn--and nearly bumped into her lanky companion as she strode toward the door. He watched her watch him go. He was tall. Broad shouldered. He flashed on the two of them in bed together, the stranger falling on her like a tree. He picked up the glass and slurped at the foam before the stout had properly settled.

"I have something I think we can use," she announced.

Magoon brightened. Perhaps he'd been wrong about her intentions after all. His pen hovered over the green paper.

"What is it?"

She giggled girlishly. Heads at the bar swiveled in their direction, drawn to the light of her laughter.

"You'll think I'm being a tease."

"No, I won't," Magoon insisted. "Tell me."

"Okay. One day--Tuesday, before my day shift--I was shaving in the locker room. I swore I would never do that. In front of the girls and everything. I mean, gross! But I did it and Shawna complimented me on my . . . you know. There's mirrors everywhere."

Magoon grunted, draining his glass. He signaled the bartender for another.

"So I complimented Shawna on hers and she told me mine was way better and Selena agreed, which was weird because Shawna and Selena never agree on anything."

Shawna sported the Betty Page look; Selena had the Gothic-Mistress-Of-The-Dark thing going. Different styles, but the results were eerily the same. Magoon thought they looked like twins, weird sisters.

"Before long." Dawn continued, "there were five or six of us standing in front of the mirror, comparing notes. We're going to do hearts for Valentine's Day."

Magoon tried to visualize the scene, but found his imagination lacking. What did she mean compare? What were the criteria? Coarseness? Triangulation? At last, the waiter returned with replenishments.

Dawn twirled her hair, already bored. "Anyway, I kind of wanted to talk about something else today."

Here it comes, he thought, his dread growing. Dawn dipped a lock of hair in his glass and put it in her mouth. Magoon went electric. He lived for these moments, these little one-on-one performances meant for him and him alone.

"I'm going to Paris," she announced.

"What? Paris? When?"

"My flight leaves Sunday."

"Is this," he sputtered, "something you've always wanted to do?"

"Oh, you have no idea," Dawn squealed as she brought the glass to her lips. He picked up his drink and sloshed the dark libidinous fluid around the bottom of the glass. She was right. He hadn't a clue.

***

Her stage name was Dawn, but her real name was Jessica Brandt. They met at the Foxfire Room in North Hollywood, a bar that had teetered on the brink of respectability for so long it had become impervious to bottom feeders like Magoon.

He had been fired from his job as a script developer's assistant earlier that morning and he was getting a jump-start on the celebration. The Foxfire, which opened at six a.m., was the only place he knew would be open. Dawn was the only other customer. He introduced himself and offered to buy her a Bloody Mary, which she rejected three times before she finally relented. He discovered she was a dancer, classically trained. He told her the story of how he got fired for stenciling a handicapped sign in the studio head's parking space, and the story amused her. They spent the day together, lighting up dank rooms all over the Valley. He promised to help her find work. "I know places," he told her, neglecting to mention that he was no longer welcome at most of them.

That night, and several double Absolut martinis later, Magoon had her up on stage for amateur night at Hollywood A-Go-Go, a crappy little bikini bar on Cahuenga Boulevard. She stole the show, wowing even the dancers. The top talent, which wasn't saying much, bought her drinks, told her how good she was. Good enough for Hollywood even. She walked out of there with $200, much of it from tips he had persuaded the other girls to give. A stripper was born.

They made love for the first, last and only time in her car that night. Their passion was fueled by low-grade speed provided by a dancer named Cheri. They got high enough to forget how drunk they were, but their lovemaking was a complete disaster. He could not stay erect. Dawn was helpful at first, eager to please (perhaps too eager, he'd thought) but it was no use. The speed robbed him of his concentration. When they finally gave up, they were sober and hours from sleep. Magoon wanted to go to Mexico, feel the pull of the surf around his ankles while he watched clouds as big as battleships roll in from the sea. Jessica just stared up at the sagging overhead of her decrepit Dodge Dart as if stars only she could see twinkled there. He told her about T.J., Rosarita, Ensenada. It was enough.

Over pancakes at a Burbank diner, they cooked up a plan. She would put her dreams of becoming a dancer, a real dancer, on hold and look for work as a stripper. He would help, he explained, syrup gathering on the tips of his mustache, by documenting Dawn's experiences in a tell-all Hollywood exposé. The book would make them rich and famous, a springboard for bigger things. By their third cup of coffee they were talking movie rights, appearances on Oprah, sipping champagne on a red tile patio overlooking the Aegean.

Her first job was at the bikini bar where it had all started. From there she went on to work at Cheetah's, a topless bar on Hollywood Boulevard. Four months later, she went over to Le Urge, a fully nude gentleman's club on Olympic. With each move she revealed more of her body. It was something he liked to joke about it. "It's good that we're seeing more of each other," he told her, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

There was no book. His many failures had taught him to keep his dreams in check and the compromise cost him his ambition. The book was nothing more than a sham, a pathetic ruse. His only desire was to be with Dawn, to never let her out of his sight. Dawn danced. Magoon watched. It was a formula he understood.

Eventually, inevitably, Dawn made herself less and less available to him. She needed sleep, she'd told him, lots of it. The more she worked, the more she slept. Nine, ten hours a day. When she wasn't sleeping, she was with her friends from the club. To fill the days, he reluctantly took a job as a data monkey with one of the trade papers in the Wilshire Corridor. He needed her a great deal more than he knew.

***

The figure in the portrait hanging above Dawn's head seemed to fix its greasy eyeballs on her. "You're jealous," she said.

"No I'm not."

"You are!"

"When can I see you again?" he asked.

"You can't. I'm picking up extra shifts for the trip. This is it."

Something came loose inside him. This is what it feels like to go crazy, he thought. "Just one more time?" he pleaded.

She shook her head. "I don't know when I'll be back. If I come back…"

"If?" He couldn't believe what she was saying. "Why Paris? Why now?

Dawn shrugged, lit a cigarette even though there were no smoking signs everywhere. Who could stop her?

"Is it dancing?" he asked.

"Live sex shows," she said, and there was that infuriating smile again.

The rest of the details came out in a rush. "I have a friend who did it last year. He said he made a killing."

"What about the book?

"What book?"

"I'll get an agent. I'll--"

"I've seen your notes. You don't need an agent, you need a therapist."

Magoon set the mechanical pencil down in the crease between the two halves of his manuscript. The anger he felt was otherworldly.

"No one goes to Paris in the winter, you stupid whore."

The bar went quiet. Her eyes flashed and then went dull. For a moment, he imagined he saw what she saw looking down at him from the stage each night. Dawn gathered her things.

"You know what we call you in the locker room?" she asked.

He was pretty sure he didn't want to know.

"We call you The Eunuch," she laughed. "Why don't you put that in your book?"

***

Le Urge advertised itself as a European Gentleman's Club, which meant it wasn't run by Armenians like most of the clubs in Hollywood and the Valley. The owners, full-blooded Germans, staffed the place with still more Germans. All the bouncers were big fleshy Teutonic golems with hair the color of bleached teeth.

At midnight, Magoon got out of his car and crossed the parking lot to the tacky red carpet that led to the club entrance. It was a nice night. A soft breeze made the giant palm that towered over the club waver and sway. A fruit rat scurried along a telephone wire and disappeared in the fronds. The moon was as big as a movie screen.

Dieter and Klaus were working the door. They nodded as he approached. Klaus took his I.D., a card he'd scrutinized a hundred times before, and turned it over in his enormous hands before passing it back to Magoon. Dieter grunted into the telephone headset and let him through.

Inside the club, he skirted the tables around the lip of the stage. The DJ announced a new dancer, Tia Targa, a blonde hardbody from Düsseldorf.

Magoon headed for the curtain that separated the locker room from the club proper. He'd always wondered what it was like on the other side.

He crossed over unseen to the vestibule, the stripper's staging area.

Around the corner he heard voices, a zipper zippering, Dawn's laughter in the upper register.

He held his breath.

He was in.

There was Shawna, Dawn's new best friend, shaving her triangle. Bambi brushed her thick hair. Shayla was bent over her bureau, plugging in the curling iron. Greta stood before a floor-to-ceiling mirror, one of many, adjusting the straps on her bikini, lifting here and pulling there. Vanessa ran a chain through the hoops that pierced her nipples. Janie listened to her Walkman. Selena flipped through a stack of CDs, looking for something new to dance to. And there was Dawn, his beautiful Dawn, sitting at a makeup table just a few feet from where he stood, tapping ashes into an ashtray next to a speckled mirror. On a shelf under the bright bulbs sat a snow globe, and inside the globe, a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower.

"Dawn," he stammered, "don't go."

He took a cautious step forward into the locker room with the green notebook spread open in his hands. As one, the dancers turned their heads and froze. The hard part is over, he thought. He'd penetrated the inner sanctum, won their attention. Now all he had to do was convince them this wasn't a pervy intrusion, but an expression of his deep and meaningful love.

Dawn picked up the snowglobe and hurled it at him. The globe struck him in the forehead and shattered, releasing its glittery goo. Selena rushed to his side with a small object he thought was a cigarette lighter and let fly with a burst of pepper spray. He went down, rubbing glitter into his eyes, coughing and sputtering, wishing he'd had the foresight to bring flowers.

They formed a circle around him. When the pepper spray cleared, Magoon got the feeling that things were about to go bad in a big way. He tried to stand, and staggered into Janie's half-assed attempt to break a chair over his head. The glancing blow put him down again. He palmed the fragmented tip of the Eiffel Tower and threw it. Then, or so it seemed, a hundred furious women went wild on him, kicking and clawing and pulling his hair. Someone shattered a bottle of Eternity over his head. Another jabbed him with a stiletto heel. They elbowed his nose, kicked him in the teeth, twisted his limbs in impossible geometries. They seared his flesh with the curling iron and ripped the clothing from his body, tearing it to bits. His shoulder popped from its socket. Wobbly stars peppered his vision. Where were those fucking Germans?

In the din he heard Dawn's laugh and he clamped his hands around her neck. He could feel her black heart, that midnight organ, distended and engorged, spasming in her breast. The dancers howled in fury. They pulled him off her and left him writhing on the floor. Then the darkness claimed him--sweet murdered Magoon--and wrapped its foul tentacles around him, dragging him down to a place blacker than tar, sweeter than stout, more beautiful than the shimmering metallic snowflakes that made their way toward him through the fleshy girders of that massive monument to love, settling on his face like a kiss.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR



Jim Ruland is a connoisseur of modern dance, especially if it involves a brass pole. He has recently exposed himself in Linnaean Street, McSweeney's, and Poor Mojo's Almanac(k).






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