Strippers

by Greg Jenkins

If my mouth had swung open any wider, my chin would’ve bounced off the macadam parking lot where I stood stunned and weak-kneed, teetering with my two plastic bags of groceries. The girl in the window above me was sinfully young and achingly beautiful and artlessly sensuous in her movements. (And she was moving, I noticed.) A lambent angel in the gray evening sky.

She was also, I noticed, as close to being naked as any young man would’ve dared to wish for.

It was a Thursday in early summer, the dusk misty and warm. I’d just finished buying my usual quota of uninspired staples at the Superfresh—cereal, tuna fish, TV dinners—and I was headed to the far, dim corner of the lot where I’d parked my pickup. I never parked close to my destination; I liked to walk, and I especially liked to walk when my head was loaded with chemicals, as it usually was in those days. My job got me high. I stripped furniture for a living, and all day long I breathed fumes that put the world on a tilt, and made me feel sad when I shouldn’t, and caused me to think that my sinuses—and even the inside of my skull—were coated with a thin, shimmery layer of silver or frost or one on top of the other.

When I drew near my truck, a pink light came on above me, and it shot through my fuzzy mind that this—the sudden wash of pinkness—might be another effect of the methylene chloride. But then I looked up and saw a large lilac bush, heavy with thick white flowers, and behind it a wooden apartment house, and above the white-tipped lilac, two stories up, a casement window glowing softly with a warm pink light. In a moment, the girl stepped to the window. She was wearing only a low-scooped bra and thong panties—white or possibly pink. Not a stitch more that I could see. As I stared up at her, she began to move, to stroll back and forth with a kind of slow, languid, musical rhythm. Sometimes she’d turn away from me, and that’s when I saw she was wearing a thong.

“God up in heaven,” I whispered.

It never occurred to me that what I was doing might be wrong—or that what she was doing might be wrong. I was caught up in the moment, and while it lasted, nothing else seemed to matter.

At first I didn’t think she was aware of me, but then I began to suspect differently. Her graceful movements—the strolling, the strutting—began now to evolve into something else. Into dancing. Very gradually and subtly, she’d begun to dance, swaying and stretching and undulating in the window. Her movements were slow and controlled, yet they were passionate too, especially when her long auburn hair swept across her full breasts, and her slender hands, as if of their own volition, passed down over those same breasts, to her taut belly, to her lush thighs, and then lovingly back up again. She kept at it for five or ten minutes, maybe more, and then suddenly the light cut out, and the window was dark.

Her performance had clearly been aimed at pleasing her one-man audience, and I could’ve mused that she was simply following in the grand tradition of Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr, Lilly St. Cyr—the great exotic dancers of the modern era. But at the time no such musings came to me.

“Good God up in heaven,” I whispered.

Eventually I noticed that I’d set my grocery bags down on the macadam. Without enthusiasm, I picked them up and carried them to my truck.

* * *

“You’re missing some spots,” my boss said sharply. “Look here.” He’d turned the chair completely upside down to expose the shoddiness of my work. “And look here,” he said, his probing finger finding still more flecks of dull blue paint.

I was skeptical. My nostrils felt clogged with ice-cold silver. “You really think anybody’s gonna turn that chair upside down and look up in there?” I said.

“Damn straight they will.” He was pretty fired up. His face was a bright, patchy red, and when he spoke the word straight, a bubbly strand of spit flew from his teeth. “This here’s a ball-and-claw-foot dining chair, a hundred years old! Mahogany! Folks are gonna study every square inch of this thing.”

I studied my boss, though I didn’t particularly want to. His name was Calvin Pickering, “Mr. Pickering” to me, and he was the proprietor of Auntie’s Antiques. He was a sight to behold, a tall spidery man in his forties, old enough to be my father, with protuberant eyes and bucking incisors that kept his mouth slightly open all the time. Because of the problem with his eyes and mouth, he always appeared mildly surprised, as if he could never quite accept what life was forcing him to see or hear at a given moment. He was essentially bald, but he made it his sorry habit to comb a few remaining hairs from the area of one jug ear up over his pate to the other jug ear. The effect was at once disturbing and funny. Watching him, I vowed right then that if I ever started losing my hair, I’d shave my head clean, or, like that Japanese writer Mishima, have someone decapitate me before I ever resorted to a comb-over.

Mr. Pickering wondered out loud in a tone that approached despair why I hadn’t used a putty knife any better than I had, and I wondered to myself why I was working for somebody like Calvin Pickering in a place called Auntie’s Antiques. To this point in my life I’d accomplished only what was minimally expected of me, which was almost nothing. My family and friends had done little to distinguish themselves (they all drank a lot, they all had broken relationships or none, they all worked menial jobs or didn’t work at all), and my example was no more stellar. But Auntie’s Antiques? Was this where I truly belonged? Even the name of the place annoyed me, called up oppressive images of perfumed and prunelike old dowagers, clustered together in some ancient drawing room, murmuring inanely about sewing or flowers or recipes for apple crumb cake. Why not Larry’s Liquors, I asked myself, if we’re going to be alliterative, or Hootie’s Harleys, or Bob’s Big Boy, or—

“Just what the hell kinda stripper you wanna be?” Mr. Pickering demanded of me. “Huh? A first-class stripper that takes it off smooth and gorgeous the way you’re supposed to? Or a stripper that can’t strip?”

Truth is, I was beginning to think I didn’t want to be a stripper period, but I didn’t figure that answer would’ve lifted my boss’s spirits.

* * *

A few days later, when I made another trip to the Superfresh, I saw the girl again. This time, of course, I was watching for her. Once again it was summery twilight; a sprinkle of lightning bugs winked at me, and in the distance I could hear the sounds of a small-town baseball game: the postmodern plink of an aluminum bat, the collective shout of a crowd. As before, I was lugging a couple of bags of groceries to the far recesses of the parking lot. I noted that the girl’s house was one of three that faced me from the opposite side of a narrow street adjacent to the lot. All three houses were dark and quiet; no one seemed to be stirring.

Then the pink light came on, and the girl was in the window. (Had she been watching for me as well?) Like last time, she was clad in a skimpy bra and panties, neither of which provided more than technical coverage. They were a rich, devil’s-food-cake black on this occasion, and she had a sheer black scarf around her lovely neck. Soon she began to move, to dance, and I became conscious of my heart, which began thumping against the walls of my chest as if it wanted to escape.

She’d evidently been practicing, because her dancing was more advanced than before, more stylized. She did things, for example, with the scarf, flicking it this way and that, drawing it across her golden skin, even working it back and forth between her thighs, against her crotch. She appeared to be listening to music, and I wondered what song it might be. Or maybe there was no music, just a self-generated rhythm that flowed inside the dancer and nowhere else. More than before, I tried to glimpse her face, which wasn’t easy since the window’s rectangle tended to limit my view to just the center portions of her curvy body. But now and then I did spy her face and was struck not so much by its youthful, understated beauty as by its look of pure and innocent rapture. Her eyes were half-closed and her lips parted; she seemed lost within herself, or perhaps outside herself, and blissfully happy. Yet I was certain she was also aware of me.

Toward the end of the show, she stripped off her bra and danced topless, her round, uptilted breasts gently heaving. Then the window went dark.

My own chest was heaving as much as hers. For a long while I stood there at the edge of the dim lot wanting to do something but not knowing what I should do, exactly. I considered erupting into a raucous round of clapping and whooping but was afraid I might draw more attention from the neighbors than from the girl, and unfriendly attention at that. I weighed walking over and knocking on her door but wasn’t sure if this response would be welcome either. (Was she alone in there?) I had no precedent for how to act in this situation, and the chemicals in my head were clouding my thinking, feeding my doubt. So I continued to just stand and stare up silently at the dark window. In the end, I picked up my bags, carried them to my truck and drove away.

* * *

Not surprisingly, I began dropping by the Superfresh several evenings a week whether I needed groceries or not. I’d always arrive at the same time, about eight o’clock, and I’d always park in the same location; I wanted to be consistent. I also made it a point to go into the store and buy something, however trivial: a pack of Juicy Fruit, a roll of Tums, a carton of Winstons. Buying something allowed me to tell myself that I was there for a legitimate, defensible purpose and not just to watch some delightfully misguided babe dancing and stripping—or stripping and dancing—in a window.

But I knew the real reason I was hanging around that parking lot, and I’d bet hard cash the girl did too.

Sometimes she’d put in an appearance, and sometimes she wouldn’t. (Mondays and Thursdays, I discovered, were the most reliable nights.) On the nights she didn’t show, I’d feel foolish and confused. I’d mope outside my truck in the gathering gloom, smoke a few cigarettes and ask myself a whole succession of harsh, prosecutorial questions. How could I justify, for instance, being a furniture stripper, especially since the job paid dirt and I didn’t even care about furniture? What was that methylene chloride doing to my brain? Why hadn’t I gone to college? Why hadn’t I moved on to a real city at least, with real opportunities and amenities? Most of all, as the minutes collected on me like the bumps on a rash, I wondered what kind of moron would spend his evening loitering in an ill-lit parking lot outside an empty supermarket waiting for nothing. One time, in a burst of frustration, I flung a roll of Tums about fifty yards into the dark, an act which itself made my stomach hurt.

Of course, on the nights the girl did appear, all this negativity went somewhere else. Life was good. I could temporarily forget who, what and where I was, and I could abandon myself to what was happening within the four borders of that pink-glowing window..

For me, the experience wasn’t sexual, or wasn’t primarily sexual. It was more about having a peek into an alternate universe—about seeing something that logically shouldn’t be occurring but was. The experience spoke of alien possibilities, of fabulous new dreams and vistas that were dancing, just as the girl was dancing, in plain view before me, but ever so slightly out of my reach.

As I often brooded about myself, I likewise puzzled over the girl. Who was she? What was her name? And what did she do besides entertain me? Was she a secretary? A nurse? Maybe she was a student at the community college. I didn’t see her as an up-and-coming executive; she was too young, for one thing, and her general demeanor didn’t hint of one who was bent on crashing through some corporate glass ceiling. Petersburg was a small town, and I was positive that plenty of people knew her, or knew of her at any rate. But at the same time I was wary about asking around.

* * *

One night I was gaping up at her, murmuring wistfully to myself, when suddenly a male voice spoke up from just beside me. “Man, that’s something, ain’t it?” the voice said, and I almost collapsed in fright. Was it a cop? Worse, was it the dancer’s boyfriend? Her husband?

I turned and saw a dumpy-looking guy about my own age wearing a Mighty Ducks baseball cap and a dark, wispy goatee that looked as if he’d inadvertently smudged his mouth and chin with soot. His draft-drinker’s belly filled his T-shirt to capacity and beyond, and the stalklike legs that sprouted from his Bermuda shorts seemed overmatched by the weight they were assigned to support. He was whomping on a chew of tobacco. I immediately concluded that this was no cop, and no boyfriend or husband either.

“It really is,” I said, and let my eyes trail back to the window.

“She do this often?”

“Fairly often. Yes, she does.”

We said nothing more till the performance ended, and even then we didn’t gab too much.

“Well!” he offered, a minute or so after the light had gone out.

“There you are,” I said.

I guess we were both still trying to process the lingering, dazzling image of the girl’s grand finale: a prolonged shimmy move that caused her bare breasts to quiver back and forth rapidly and hypnotically. It was the kind of vision a man might carry with him for decades, one that could easily survive auto accidents, stock market crashes and the loss of close family members, one that could heat the imagination deep into old age and debility.

The guy stuck out his hand. “Hal Sprague,” he said.
“Jimmy Long.”

We shook hands and went our ways.

Soon enough, though, I got used to meeting Hal beneath the window; like me, he was hooked. It turned out he was a pretty solid guy—worked for the railroad, had a house on the river and German shepherd named Creampuff. Loved to bowl, loved to fish. Sometimes we’d arrive early and shoot the breeze for a while. I told him I was a furniture stripper, and he didn’t react much to this disclosure one way or the other. “We all got bills to pay,” he said.

Before long, in fact, other guys started to take in the shows with us. Two or three at first. Then seven or eight, ten or twelve. Maybe Hal spread the word about what was happening, or maybe the others had simply noticed us standing there at the edge of the parking lot staring up at something moving in a pink window; maybe they wanted to find out what the attraction was. Some of the guys would have groceries with them and some wouldn’t. Most of them, I learned, were single.. By and large, they were straight shooters, regular people. Fred McElroy was a mailman; Del Snider was a truck driver with the paper mill. I remembered Del from several weeks before when he’d brought me a rolltop desk, medium oak, to be stripped. They all came shambling over in their rumpled T-shirts and loose-fitting jeans or shorts and gazed up at the girl in the window with the same profound awe one might evince in peering up at some fantastic extraterrestrial craft that’d fixed itself in the evening sky, slowly rotating with a play of eerie pink light.

In all honesty, I didn’t mind the company. Certainly I had no personal claim on the girl, and I rather enjoyed sharing my discovery with others. We’d show up early and have some ripsnorting bull sessions: sports, movies, politics, the economy. It was really quite pleasant. Some of the guys took to bringing snacks from the Superfresh. Doritos chips, salted peanuts, chicken wings, Coke and Yoohoo—that sort of thing. Two or three times Hal brought his gas grill and cooked us all some hotdogs and hamburgers. Funny how food always tastes better when it’s cooked outdoors. I’d have three hotdogs and then three Tums, one per dog, and wash them down with a bottle of Lipton’s iced tea.

But when the girl took her place in the window (and even before; we could usually sense when the moment was at hand), a hush would descend on us. It was as if we were in church and the sermon was about to begin. Once she got going, wending her way through a routine that was never the same twice and never less than riveting, someone might occasionally let go with a soft grunt of approval or a stifled cry of delight, but mostly we kept ourselves in check. More often than he should’ve, Boomer Nazelrod, a cattle farmer who was prone to drink, would holler out: “Lookit them ta-ta’s! Lord, Lord!” but he always said it in a wholesome way, I’d argue, never in a vulgar way. When she finished dancing, our applause would be sincere but not boisterous.

The shows went on like that for weeks, and then abruptly they ceased, all at once. No warning, no explanation. A half-dozen evenings in a row we congregated beneath the window with our snacks and banter, our hopes and shortcomings, but nothing happened up above. The window stayed dark.

Maybe she was sick, we speculated. Or maybe she’d moved away. Maybe the man in her life—surely she had a man—had learned of what she was doing and put a stop to it. Maybe the police had gotten wind of the burlesque shows and shut them down. As with so many facets of the world’s business, we just didn’t know. I recalled that in her last performance, the girl had stripped down absolutely to the buff, the only time I’d seen her do so. A lot of impressed fingers dropped a lot of food that evening.. Had the nudity been her way of saying not just goodnight but goodbye? Had it been the glorious capstone to what she meant as her farewell performance?

Well, as I say, we didn’t know. Didn’t know her name or anything about her, other than she was easy to look at and wasn’t opposed to stripping in a public window—or up till now she hadn’t been. The scant knowledge I had of her left me feeling somewhat guilty, though I couldn’t have explained why.

I told Hal that he and I should get together sometime under different circumstances—go bowling or fishing or maybe just sip a few cold ones—but I doubted we ever would. And, as it happened, we never did. The other guys I’d hung out with all seemed to vanish as well, and on the rare occasions when I bumped into one, we found we had little to say to each other. After a while, my trips to the Superfresh shrank away to what they’d been before the advent of the girl. I went there only when I needed groceries. If I thought about it, I’d glance up at the window, which nowadays was always dark, but mostly I didn’t. I felt sad that a special epoch in my life had ended, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the moon or the stars or all the antiques in the world.

* * *

Speaking of antiques, I recall with singular clarity the last time I saw my boss, Mr. Pickering. Or, to put it more accurately, I recall the last time he put his bulging eyes on me.

The quality of my relationship with the boss tended to parallel the quality of my stripping, and, by mid-summer, both were in breathtaking decline—the sort of decline you get when you drive a car headlong off a cliff.. On this particular afternoon he’d turned a table made of tiger maple upside down—he was a great one for turning things upside down—and was registering dismay at my handicraft.

“You’ve scratched the wood!” he said, letting his mouth dangle open about an inch wider than usual.

“I wanted to make sure I got all the paint off,” I said.

“My God, you got all the paint off and half the wood!”

I tried to explain to him that when people used the table, they’d have it right-side up and wouldn’t be able to see the scratches underneath, but he never did give this type of argument much credit.

“You can’t strip!” he said from his kneeling position next to the table. His tone was one of both outrage and sorrow, but mainly outrage. “You cannot to save yourself strip!”

Right about then two of our better customers, Mrs. Deffinbaugh and Mrs. Seilhamer, came wandering back into the stripping room, I guess to see what the commotion was about. I noticed them all right, permed hair and pressed outfits, but even their presence couldn’t dissuade me from doing what I’d already started to do. My pent-up frustration with life, the chemicals singing in my head, and my own poor judgment had blended together into a perfect storm of misbehavior.

“I can so strip,” I said. “Check it out.”

And I began to glide through the room, swinging my butt, pouting and vamping. I imagined myself moving to the throbbing, brassy sound of that timeless classic “The Stripper.” My hand went to my goggles, which were strapped around my sweaty forehead, ripped them off, whirled them repeatedly overhead and tossed them at Mr. Pickering. They missed him but horseshoed around one of the table’s upright legs, spun once and clattered down. Next I took off my rubber gloves, inch by inch, fondled them a bit and cast them aside. I never stopped moving; I’d seen this done before. Still in full strut, I removed my toolbelt, flipped it this way and that and dropped it at the ladies’ feet. Popeyed, they both sat back against the edge of a shipping crate and watched me intently.

Mr. Pickering stood up. He was watching me too, his permanent look of surprise more focused than I’d ever seen it. “James?” he said.

But I couldn’t be stopped. I took off my workboots and socks and flung each in a different direction. I was wearing one-piece denim coveralls, and my hand found the zipper and tugged it down, lower and lower. When I got the zipper to waist-level, I stood straight and let my coveralls fall to the dirty floor in a heap. The ladies gasped audibly, and Mr. Pickering looked as if he wanted to say “James” again but couldn’t summon the strength. I was wearing nothing now but a pair of paisley boxer shorts—not the most powerful effect, I’ll grant—and I meant to shed those as well. So I sashayed around the room twice more, tossing my arms, tossing my head, and pranced into the restroom. Out of sight, I yanked down my shorts, chucked them back into the stripping room and hung my naked leg out the doorway.

A moment passed, and Mrs. Deffinbaugh said in a scattered, winded voice: “Well!”

Another moment passed, and Mrs. Seilhamer put in: “There you are.”

I waited to hear Mr.. Pickering’s comment, but he never said a word. He didn’t have to.

* * *

One evening a week or two later I was pushing my shopping cart through the Superfresh lost in thought. My former job was just a fading memory at this stage, and I was concentrating more on what lay ahead for me. I was venturing back to school in the fall, and not the community college either; I’d been accepted into the state university two hours away. The chemicals had left my head—I felt natural again—and I was thinking more clearly than I had in ages.

I was rolling along toward the meat section when suddenly wham!—my cart collided with one being pushed by a young woman. I said excuse me, though it was my impression that neither of us had been watching where we were headed. She had shoulder-length auburn hair and warm brown eyes that said nice things to me just in the way they blinked.. She was wearing a pink tank top and tight denim shorts, and something about her hair, her golden arms, the way those shorts molded themselves to her hips . . . She looked like someone I’d known years before, and she was staring at me in the same hesitant, quizzical way.

She said: “You’re one of the guys in the parking lot.”

Astonished, I took a step backward to have a better look at her. She seemed shorter, more petite, from this angle. “You’re the . . .” I didn’t know what to call her. “. . . the girl in the window. The dancer.”

“Lisa Broadwater,” she said, and offered her hand.

“Jimmy Long.” Like her eyes, her hand was warm. “I haven’t . . . seen you lately.”

“I quit,” she shrugged. “Retired. It was fun for a while, but you can’t build a life on stripping in a window.”

I nodded. It occurred to me that you couldn’t build a life on watching someone strip in a window either.

“What you did was artistic,” I said. “Communal.” I fumbled along at some length trying to convey my notion that there’d been more going on with her dancing than met the eye, but I don’t know if she took my meaning.

She said she was going back to school to become a veterinarian. “I want to help sick little animals,” she said.

I told her I was going back to school myself.

“To study what?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” At the time, I really didn’t know, and it was fun just pondering the savory menu.. “Something worthwhile.”

The moment had come for me to strip away my inhibitions—to get down to the naked wood.. In this regard, I was more capable than some people would’ve believed. She gave me her phone number, and in the days ahead we’d get together again, more than once. But the important part of what would happen between us had already happened, and that was enough.

Hands on her cart, she tossed her hair in a way that made my blood jump. “It was nice seeing you,” she said.

I watched her as she pushed the cart up the aisle. “It was nice seeing you,” I said.

_______________

Over the years, Greg Jenkins has had 40+ stories and three books published. He's the author of Stanley Kubrick and the Art of Adaptation and Code Green: A Novel. He lives in western Maryland, where he teaches English.

Strippers
© 2009
by Greg Jenkins

 
     
     

 

 



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