Excerpt - Which Way Up?

I peeked through a slit between two heavy black, pink-paw-print-patterned curtains, squinting against the burn of stage lights while I scanned the Friday-night crowd at The Pink Pussycat. Not the real one. Just a joint near DC that ripped off the name. The place was packed, an ass on every chair and barstool, and a bunch of other asses standing around the edges of the large, semi-dark room.

Go home to your wives and girlfriends, you pervs. But first... gimme your money.

I needed it. The rent was overdue. So were the car payment and electric bill. I wasn't a deadbeat—not on purpose, anyway. It's just, when recession hits, exotic entertainment is one of the first things people quit spending money on and, even when recovery starts, it's one of the last things they channel money back into. Most of them still show up, having enough to pay cover charges and buy their liquor, but they're stingy with the dancers.

About the only thing I'd managed to pay on time that month was the installment for the boob job Dr. Fegan—we called him Dr. Feelgood—had performed on Hailey. Even after the blow-me discount, that was a hefty payment, but I was never late with it. Hailey wanted a nose job next.

A girl's got to have her priorities. Hailey's were all backwards and upside-down but I loved her and so I did what I could to indulge them. Besides, she made a lot more than I did.
My eyes fell on Hailey, giving her all to the quest for the almighty dollar down at the far end of the center stage. It wasn't really a stage, more like a runway. Hailey and I called going out there 'walking the plank' since it took us out and over the rough, choppy sea of eyes and hands. Once upon a time it had been hazy up there but people couldn't smoke in the main room of The Pussycat anymore. I kind of missed it.

Shona danced on Stage One and Lissa danced on Stage Three but Hailey was the one getting all the attention. She was a sight to behold, a toned, tanned, liquid statue in a silver G-string atop matching five-inch heels.

While she twisted her spray-on-glittered body around the pole, I studied her, trying to calculate the sum of green she'd collected. Looked like maybe fifty in the G-string, twenty in the shoes, another twenty or so clipped in her hair, and a wad of unknown denominations in her left hand. That was her second run out that night and, if she kept it up, we just might be able to pay the rent on Monday.

The song at the moment was "Closer" and, when it came to Hailey—or Amber, as she called herself when she danced—that was what every guy in the place wanted to be.

She looked like a fashion doll, come to life. Hailey could eat anything. And did. And never gained an ounce. Meanwhile, I had to count every calorie and exercise every day to keep my body in decent enough shape that people might want to see it near-naked. I suspected every sturdy girl like me had a friend like that, someone who, merely by existing, reminded her of all she'd never be. Still, from the time we met—she at the bottom of a pile of hair-pulling girls and I at the top, yanking them off—she twisted my heartstrings as few other things ever could. She might look like Barbie but, when it came to getting by in life, she was more Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp. Plus I often liked her better when she wasn't talking.

Hailey undulated her way to a kneel and a brawny young man in flannel tucked a five into her strap. She smiled and wriggled for him. He raised his hand toward her head, clearly hoping to pull her down for a kiss. Yeah, right. I watched her put her hand to his shoulder, pushing herself up and away.

Priorities aren't enough. A girl's got to have standards, too. Even in a crashed economy, Hailey wouldn't kiss for five bucks—not unless the guy was cute, anyway, and then, she'd just as soon do it for free. Like I said, she had priority issues, which was why I'd laid down the law. She couldn't kiss any guy at a club, cute or otherwise, for less than twenty. That kept her kissing clientele elite and so all the guys who could pay it, did. Me? I kissed for five, just like all the other girls at The Pussycat.

The DJ's voice purred over the speakers. "Thank you, Shona."

The crowd clapped and screamed as Shona took her bows and last-minute bucks. My heart pounded. I was up next.

No matter how many times a girl's gone out in front of a roomful of men and taken off her clothes, it's never an easy thing to do. Especially when she doesn't look like Hailey. I moved toward the opening in the curtain nearest Stage One as Shona approached from the other side.

I raised my hand, pretending to stifle a sneeze but really protecting myself from the stench of five-dollar-a-bottle Clive-Christian-rip-off perfume as Shona brushed past me. The girl evidently swam in the stuff or, as some suggested, used it as a substitute for bathing, which might be the truth since she lived in an RV trailer without running water. She was a sweetheart, though, and it wasn't her fault her perfume triggered my allergies. If I wasn't careful around her, my throat would lock up, my eyes would start running, and the sneezing would be real. Men just wouldn't tip a phlegm-spewing stripper.

"Sorry," she said, giggling as she moved away.

There were times I thought maybe she wasn't as sweet as she pretended to be. She knew her perfume bothered me. Maybe she kept wearing it because of that. She'd once wanted to move in with Hailey and me and I nixed the idea. She'd been willing to give up the perfume then but I told her we didn't have room. It was true. In an apartment as small as ours, there would have been no place safe from sickening sweetness. If her perfume didn't kill me, her would-be Marilyn Monroe voice would drive me insane.

"And now," the DJ said as I gave my curly auburn wig a final adjustment, "let's give a warm welcome to Georgia!"

That was me. My real name's Katherine and I go by Kate. No way I'd use either in a joint like The Pussycat. No, I never even set foot in Georgia. I just liked the way it sounded.
I threw open the curtain and moved onto the stage at the first twang of "Wild Thing."

Yeah, it's an old song. Can't help that. It's my bad-girl theme. Every woman has a song that, for whatever reason, brings out the inner slut in her and that song, for me, is "Wild Thing." I just feel it in my hips.

No leopard prints for me, though. My opening costume was a straitjacket, undone.

I strutted down the plank, stopping now and then to collect bills and show off some moves. Nobody at The Pussycat could high-kick or do splits the way I could.

I wanted to be a ballerina when I was little. I was pretty good, too, until puberty hit, damning me with the boobs and hips from hell. I went from everybody's little darling to a burlesque-style vulgarity in six months. I knew it was all over when my ballet teacher, Mrs. Hornsby, recommended I consider a future as an NFL cheerleader. I did. They didn't want me, either. I think I was a little too sturdy for them.

Yeah, take this, Mrs. Hornsby, I often thought early in my exotic dancing career as I twisted the things she'd taught me into all manner of profit-generating poses and gyrations. I even had a move I called The Hornsby, a lying-on-the-floor pelvic rolling that never failed to inspire my audience to big things.

I sashayed in my straitjacket, letting it dip from one shoulder or the other, until the refrain, when I shimmied out of it, my jiggling arse toward the audience.

By the time I got to the front of the stage, I'd gathered a collection of green, mostly ones, but there were a few fives in there.

Now and then, Hailey and I exchanged looks as we did our business, our stages separated by twelve feet littered with tables, chairs and men.

I don't think I could have done that job, if not for Hailey. Together, we were able to keep things in perspective.

"We're not strippers," Hailey told me one night early on, when I wanted to call it quits. "It's just something we do."

It was a stupid thing to say, really. Hailey came up with a lot of those. In that one, though, there was a measure of wisdom. I knew it was an artificial separation—a cop-out, really—but holding onto it brought comfort at the times one or the other of us most needed it.

Someday, we said, we'd look back on the time when we stripped and laugh about it. That might be true—but then, we'd also thought we'd learn to laugh about the years when we turned tricks to make a living, but we hadn't yet gotten there. In the meantime, we found all kinds of other reasons to laugh.

A huge drunk man stumbled into a waitress and drinks flew everywhere. Giggle. A rowdy man-boy tugged a ringlet of my wig, causing the whole thing to slide askew. Ouch. Still, snicker.
Hailey got a little too ambitious with a high kick and thunked onto her butt. I sent her an ‘are you okay’ look. She turned toward me, her eyes wide and her mouth forming an exaggerated O. Guffaw.

I choked on the laughter when a form shot up from the far side of Hailey's stage, arm extended, looking like Jason in the dream sequence at the end of the first Friday the 13th. The arm wrapped around Hailey.

Her upper body disappeared in a blur, leaving only two impossibly long legs capped with ridiculous stilettos with silver-painted toenails on top and then they, too, were gone.
It happened so quickly, it didn't seem real—until she screamed.

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