Paul Heatley

The Stripper

Leland gets to the street a half-hour early. He stays in the car, smokes down a cigarette, and watches.

Even without the address written on a scrap of paper and stuck to his dashboard he’d be able to figure out which house it is. The porch is roped with bunting, balloons hang from the railings and the roof. The windows are adorned with banners that announce the impending marriage. Leland’s here for the bachelorette party. He doesn’t know, or care, when the wedding is.

The street, as much as it can be referred to as such, is comprised of a handful of houses spread haphazardly up and down either side of a dirt road. The whitewash on them all is peeled down to the exposed and rotting wood. Their windows are murky, and some look to have moss growing over them.

Cars fill up the driveway of the party house, spill out down the road and up onto the dead grass embankments. Their paint is fading and their wheel arches and frames are rusting. One car has a shattered windscreen. He spots a truck with bullet holes in its side. None of them seem to be without a dented or scuffed fender. Inside the house should be mostly women, maybe a couple of gays, and he wonders what kind of drivers they all are, or if they’ve borrowed the vehicles from their husbands or boyfriends, brothers or fathers.

Leland blows smoke out the open window, checks the time. Down the road, from the house, he can hear music. It’s muted by distance. He can’t make out what it is.

Next to him, on the passenger seat, is his stereo. When it plays, the music is instrumental, bass-heavy like it belongs in an old porno flick. Behind him, the backseat of his car is littered with takeout wrappers and cups. The air is thick with the smell of past meals, of greasy burgers and ketchup-drowned hot dogs. The smoke from the cigarette masks the smells a little, but mostly it mingles with them. As he readies himself to get out of the car he feels an ache in his chest. He straightens up, takes a couple of breaths, fingers the scar where the hospital cut him open to fit the pacemaker after he had the attack. The doctors said years of steroid abuse was the cause. He hasn’t touched them since. Hasn’t seen the inside of a gym since, either.

He dumps the cigarette, sprays himself all over with cologne kept in the glove compartment, then buttons up his overcoat, grabs the stereo, and begins his walk to the house.

It’s country music – he can hear it clearer as he draws nearer. Dolly Parton, turned way up. He catches his breath on the porch, then knocks. No one hears. He rings the bell, wonders if he should try the handle, but then someone answers. A big woman with red hair. She looks him over, eyes narrowed down to slits. “Yes?”

Leland clears his throat. “I’m the entertainment.”

Those suspicious eyes settle on his midsection. “You sure about that?”

Leland holds up the stereo, as if this will somehow answer all further questions. “Pretty sure.”

“You don’t look how you do in your picture.”

“It’s an old picture.”

“I can see that.”

Leland shifts his weight from one leg to the other. This is a song and dance he has grown accustomed to since the heart attack, since his body softened. “We gonna do this, or we just gonna talk out here the whole time?”

“I ain’t decided yet.” She curls a finger round her chin, looks him up and down, up and down, a prolonged examination.

“I can still go,” Leland says, conscious that if she declines him that it is another lost payday. “Dancing, I mean. Once that music hits. I ain’t slowed any.”

The redhead raises her eyebrows, drops her hand. “Fuck it,” she says. “It’s too late to get anyone else anyhow. You’d better be as fuckin good as you say, buddy – better, in fact.”

Leland steps inside. “I can still go,” he says.

Inside, the music does not sound so loud. Leland wonders if the speakers are in the yard, if the party is happening outside. Through the doorway, down the hall, he can hear women screeching, laughing, talking at such high volume it’s as if they’re shouting.

“Where do you want me?”

The redhead is looking him over, still. “The bride-to-be is outside. She’s expecting you. I really fuckin hope you don’t disappoint.”

Leland cocks an eyebrow. The redhead takes him through into the sitting room. A couple of other women, of similar size and bulbous shape as the redhead, have spread themselves out on sofas there. They stop talking, turn and stare. One of them is black. She says, “Who’s this, Jackie?”

Leland figures Jackie to be the redhead, and it is she who answers. “This,” she says, “is the stripper.”

“You sure about that?”

Leland ignores them, starts setting up his equipment.

“Not in here, big boy,” says the dark haired woman that hasn’t spoken yet. “Party’s outside.”

Leland glances at the open door leading out back. “Cold out,” he says.

“Warm enough,” Jackie says.

“You scared it’s gonna make it so you don’t have anything to show?” says the dark haired woman. She grins. Leland sees that she is missing teeth, huge gaps in the spaces between the mossy-looking remnants. He imagines her breath to be a foul, fetid thing. “You scared you ain’t gonna be filling out your spangled thong? I really hope you’ve got a thong on under that heavy coat, big boy.”

“Hell with his underwear,” the black woman says. “It’s everything else he’s filling out that’s getting me. Jackie, this some kinda joke?”

“It ain’t a joke, Donna,” Jackie says. “He reckons it’s an old picture.”

“Then you oughtta get that shit updated, son,” Donna says. “That’s – that’s false advertising is what that is.”

“He ain’t so bad,” gap-tooth says.

“Ain’t so bad?” Donna says, incredulous. “Did you even see the picture? He looks like he’s swallowed the good-lookin boy in that shot. Not so bad – it’s bullshit, is what it is! Tell me,” she wheels on Leland. “It even actually you in that picture? Really?”

“Yeah, it was me.”

She shakes her head, sits back. “Damn, but you’ve let yourself go.”

“Yeah,” Leland says, eyeing her numerous curves and chins. “Guess so.”

“Leave off of him, Donna,” gap-tooth says, seemingly his only ally in the room. “I reckon Cathy’ll like him. He’s kinda built like Brad, only he’s got more muscles than Brad.”

“Muscles.” Donna snorts. “You sweet on him or somethin, Mary?”

“Could be,” Mary says. “Just a little.” She winks at Leland, pokes her tongue through the gaps in her teeth.

“Point of getting a stripper is that he ain’t supposed to look like the damn guy she’s gonna marry – he’s supposed to look better,” Donna says.

“Come on,” Jackie says. “No point in debating this. It’s too late for anything else. Let’s just get out there and pray for a good fuckin time.”

Donna and Mary stand, start shuffling toward the back door. Donna looks him over again, sneers. “I got a purse full of singles, got them specially. I’m keepin them all.”

“Ignore her,” Jackie says. “I’ll go get everyone ready.” She takes his stereo. “Do your thing.”

She heads outside and Leland waits. He takes deep breaths, can sense the possibility that things may turn hostile. The screeching country music dies abruptly. Jackie announces that the entertainment has arrived. He hears Donna tell everyone not to get too excited, but most ignore her and an expectant whoop goes up. Leland takes another deep breath and sucks his gut in for a moment, but then gives up on that idea and lets it hang. He needs his breath for the routine.

Jackie hits his music. The guests begin to clap in time with the slow bass. There are a couple of expectant cheers, a couple of wolf whistles. He steps out onto the back porch, and begins.

He doesn’t look at the gathered faces as he slides off the overcoat and starts in with his routine. He’s already seen enough disappointment for one day, he does not need to witness anymore to drag him down further.

He can’t help but notice, however, the hush that has fallen. The clapping has ceased. There is only his music, and the laboured breaths he hopes are audible only to his own ears.

Someone out there cheers. His back is turned, he’s shaking his ass from side to side, but as the cheer turns into a laugh, then an uncontrollable giggle, he thinks he recognises it as Mary.

He turns then, casts his eyes momentarily over the bloated gathering and their unimpressed faces. His eyes accidentally lock with Donna’s, and she’s shaking her head, but then he finds what he’s looking for. The bride-to-be. Cathy. She sits front and centre. She looks as confused and disappointed, as borderline angry, as the rest. Jackie is by her side, a hand on her shoulder.

Off to his right, at the edge of the crowd, there is a buffet table. Leland feels his stomach grumble at the sight of the cakes and cold meats and casseroles.

“Forget about the food a minute, fatboy!” someone calls. “Shake that big ass some more, huh?”

There’s laughter, a lot of laughter, and Leland snaps back to attention. He reaches Cathy, puts his hands behind his head, gyrates before her. Cathy looks up at Jackie. Jackie rolls her eyes.

“You ordered this guy?” Cathy says, loud enough for him to hear. “You sure you didn’t just find him on the street, slip him a few bucks?”

Leland ignores them. It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before, or some variation thereof. He drops to his hands and knees, his back to them, thrusts suggestively.

“That’s what he is, really!” Cathy claps. “He ain’t no stripper – he’s my pony ride!” She leaves her chair and leaps onto his back, straddles him. She is as big as her bridesmaids, and he almost buckles beneath her.

“Ride ‘im, girl!” someone shouts. “Ride!”

Cathy grabs a handful of his hair in one hand, and with her other slaps him on the ass. She isn’t gentle. “Come on, pony – let’s ride! Let’s do laps!”

Leland tries to shake her off, but she pulls harder on his hair.

“Uh-uh, pony! None of that, now, or am I gonna have to break you in?”

Almost drowning out her words, Leland is aware of all the laughter.

“I said ride, damn it!” She slaps him again, over and over, harder than before.

Leland tries, attempts at least a shuffle, but she is too heavy. His breath quickens, his heart hammers and his chest feels tight. He flashes back to his heart attack. He was dancing then, too. Flopped forward, right on top of the girl. She screamed, right in his ear, almost burst the drum.

His left arm has not gone numb, however. It feels everything, trembling under the strain of Cathy’s immense bulk.

“Think my pony’s thirsty,” she says. She speaks in announcements, for everyone to hear. “Someone bring him a drink!”

Someone brings a bottle of beer, pours it over his face and head.

“He’s still thirsty!”

“Maybe he’s hungry, too?”

“Looks like he’s always hungry!”

Leland feels more drinks poured over him. Some get into his mouth. He splutters when they go up his nose. A potent mix of wine, soda, and something so strong he can only assume it is moonshine.

“Food!” Cathy bellows. “My pony needs food!”

Cake is forced into his face. He is blinded by it, almost choked by it. Arms grab at him, pull him forward with Cathy on his back still. He collapses, but Cathy remains on top. He can’t breathe. The arms drag him across the ground. He tries to blink the food out of his eyes, to see where they are taking him.

Finally, Cathy gets off. She’s laughing, he can hear her laughter from above him, over him. It turns into a howl, then a snort, a pig-like snorting that doesn’t stop as he is hoisted to his feet and dumped on the food table. All strength has left him. They cover him with food, force more into his mouth, pour gravy over him, still calling him Pony over and over until he almost believes it is his name now. They slap cake against his ass cheeks, stuff it into his thong. All the while they are laughing, until eventually they get bored. They leave him facedown on the table.

***

Leland runs water through his hands, splashes it over his face and body. He wipes himself down with a towel, his aching back coated in scraps of food.

He creeps from the bathroom, is cautious of being seen as he makes his way down the stairs. He’d crawled from the table outside, praying not to be noticed as the country music roared back into life.

His coat and stereo remain outside, but he cuts his losses and flees the house.

Jackie is out on the porch, waiting. “Hey.” She hands him his coat, and in her other hand she has the stereo. “Thought I’d missed you, but then I saw the car down the way there and figured it must be yours.”

Leland slides into the coat, takes the stereo.

Jackie lights a cigarette, offers him one. He accepts and she lights it. “Things got a little out of hand there,” she says.

“Yeah.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Uh-huh.”

They smoke in silence for a moment, then Jackie reaches into her pocket. “This is for you, by the way. It’s from Donna.” She hands over a bundle of dollar bills. “It’s all singles, but she says it’s twenty bucks.”

Leland eyeballs the bills, wishes he could turn them down. He takes them, stuffs them into his coat pocket.

“You weren’t all bad,” Jackie says. “Before.”

“Sure.”

“You can still go. Just like you said.”

“Uh-huh.”

“The bride-to-be enjoyed herself.”

“Good for her.”

“You’re pissed off,” Jackie says.

Leland takes a deep breath, then finishes the cigarette. “No,” he says, flicking the butt over the railing. “I ain’t much of anything.”

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