(A scene I wrote from an incident that took place October/November 1987 – it was to be part of a novel)
Peggy marched out of the ladies room, gliding across the scuffed tiles with the remarkable grace of an ice skater, though she lacked the petite size and shape of such an athlete, with a shoulder spread nearly as wide as a man's. Nor did her face display the usual vacuous expression dancers wore here, instead glaring at people as she came, her eyes sparking as they gazed upon each familiar face.
Yet no one would dare accuse Peggy of not looking pretty or acting feminine. She did those things to herself most other dancers did, giving a slight tease to her dark hair, painting her nails and her lips and her eye lids with all the appropriate colors. She just seemed less fragile, and when she walked towards the bar, the lights seemed to encircle her, giving her an odd glow, as if she had stepped out of the pages of some science fiction magazine, more Martian than human, with a Martian s attitude towards the whole damned sexual thing going on around her. She just didn't want men to stuff bills between her tits or their cocks in her clit. She wanted them to bow down before her, and divert their eyes. In private, some men might have questioned their attraction their attraction. For Peggy did not fit the mold of pretty that most dancers did. She hardly had eyebrows at all, and those that showed sharply in the dim light, she had painted on. And her face bore a rigidity that no man could stare at long and imagine part of a love scene -- if that was all she had to offer. Her mouth stretched too far across her face, thin-lipped and straight, contradicting the tiny nose that seemed lost between the other elements. But men did stare at her, and men did imagine what they might do with her if they could tame her long enough to get her into bed. Part of it, I believed, was the liquidity of her motion, her arms, legs and torso part of some more finely crafted machine. Where as the other dance might have served science fiction as a robot, Peggy clearly had the superior elements that went into making an android. Nothing clinked or clanked, every muscle moved with perfect control, as if she had mapped out every step of her journey to the bar while still in the ladies room, and now, with the confidence of a pilot, followed her flight plan flawlessly. Not one man in the whole bar remained unaware of her, even though they pretended to be. The men at the pool table paused in mid-shot, stood up straight, stumbling back as she passed. The Southenders ceased giggling and fidgeting, frozen into their moment of anticipation, their faces painted thickly with the mixed colors of pleasure and horror, each of the upcoming events reeling across their eyes from previous viewings, though they knew even the long-residents could not predict what Peggy would do or say when she actually mounted the stage. They knew only that it would be remarkable.
The owner grabbed her arm before she could slip passed him through the gap to get to behind the bar. "You're gained weight," he said.
Peggy turned, glared down at the thick fingers that gripped her flesh, her flat upper lip suddenly curling up like the edge of a whip.
"Fuck you!" she snapped.
"No thanks," the owner said, removing a cigar butt from one corner of his mouth, studying it for a moment, then replacing it. "I've seen what you do to your victims. I'm concerned with the deal we had."
"Deal? What deal?"
"You dance for me only if you keep off weight."
"Come off it, Jim," Peggy said, slashing at a strand of hair that dared worm its way down across her face. "You can't afford to fire me. I bring in the bacon for you."
"I can't afford to have no blimp floating over my dance floor," he said. "This is a go go club, not the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I'm cutting you off until you lose some weight."
"Cutting me off?" Peggy roared. "You mean
as in no alcohol?"
"That s right."
"Why, you son of a ..." Peggy actually took a step forward, her fist raised as if to strike the man s face, her hand closed into a fist, not to slap him, but to punch him in the nose.
"You touch me, girl, and you'll never work for me again," the owner said in a voice like dry ice, the humor drained totally from his eyes.
Peggy s fist hovered in the air, then slowly fell back to her side.
"You re still a son of a bitch," she said. "I got a day job. I get enough aggravation there without having to hear it from you at night as well. You know I can t dance dry. How about a limit? I could live with that."
"How much of a limit?"
"One? Are you fucking out of your mind? Suppose somebody wanted to buy me a drink, am I supposed to say no?"
"You could drink soda."
"Don't make me sick. Four drinks, that s the lowest I’ll go."
"Two, or you can go get dressed right now."
The owner removed the cigar from his mouth, motioned vaguely towards the ladies room with it, then returned the butt to the corner of his mouth. Peggy s gaze followed the motion, her blue eyes sharp and hard, even though the dim light dilated the pupils.
"Three," she said. "That s a good compromise, isn't it?"
The man gnawed on the cigar as he studied her -- the anger in his eyes eased again, returning to that mingled expression of humor and caution.
"All right," he said. "Three. But you make a ruckus when the time comes to cut you off and I'll have you tossed out onto the street. I don t want no riot in here tonight."
Peggy smiled, and touched her chest with her finger tips, the red nails as sharp and bloody as a cat s after a long drawn out alley fight.
"Me? Cause trouble?"
"Yeah, you," he said. "Now get your quarters and set up your music before I change my mind. I don t know why I m so kind to you. I don t like let any of the other girls get away with talking the way you do."
"None of the other girls deliver the way I do," Peggy said, with a smile nearly as sharp as a sneer.
"Get!" the man said,
Mary put five quarters into Peggy’s palm, and then returned to fill the orders now clamoring from around the bar, every patron in a hurry to get his drinks before the action started. Few of these men met her gaze as she paraded down the eastern side of the bar towards the juke box near the front door, each man diverted his eyes just as she approached. She seemed to accept this as accolade, her expression smug, the undisputed queen of the My Way Lounge, marching down the aisle in the first moment of her bi-weekly coronation. But no queen ever walked so scantily dressed, nor with orange tassels dangling from the tip of her breasts --with firm nipples pressing out from the brazier like outfit she wore. No queen ruled such a world at this with the smell of booze and sweat and vomit, though her step sounded as confident and regal as if walking through a palace.
A little of this showed in her eyes as her gaze shifted ion her study of the bar. She seemed disappointed at the small size of the crowd and the caliber of people. She glanced at the multiple faces staring back at her in the angles of the mirrors. She glanced at me, at the middle bar regulars, at the newcomers, and finally at the crowd of stone-jawed men at the north side . Her expression grew grim with her calculations; absent were the curious
Businessmen, horny salesmen, legal clerks, office workers, postal people, court administrators and others of downtown's middle management off whom she took the deepest tips, these types hanging around the long hours after their offices and stores closed just to catch her act. Although more people had come than was usually for a winter night, the room wasn't packed, and those who had come, the truck drivers, the cab drivers, the bus drivers, factory workers, unemployed warehouse men, and men less noteworthy, few had cash or conscience, coming to avoid their wives with a quick peak at a chunk of tit so they could jerk off later. The contempt for them showed on Peggy's face, her mouth twisting into sneer, promising she would take someone's head off before the night ended.
Then, she saw the pudgy man, and her whole expression changed. Her eyes grew bluer, sparkling under the blue of the flashing jukebox lights. The edges of her mouth rose, and what had been rage, suddenly erupted into an expression of delight, and into one of additional calculation. She slowed down when she neared him, but didn't stop, allowing him to twist his pudgy frame around on the bar stool. His disappointment at losing the other dancer melted from his flabby face, though his eyes did not regain the mirrored reflections of lust. Instead, they grew wider, and alarmed, his mouth dropping open beneath them like a guppy's when confronted with a shark, hypnotized by Peggy's stare.
Having caught his attention, Peggy's head jerked around and she continued on, not with the same brisk pace she had after leaving the own, but with a much more fluid sense of dance, hips swiveling to music only she could hear. By the time she reached the jukebox, she had already made up her mind on what songs she wanted to play, and her fingers punched out the code for each with the same professional beat as an accountant over a calculator. Her retreat, however, did not take her passed the pudgy man again. Instead, she pranced around the stern-eyed men whose heads did not turn, nor expressions alter. Their eyes said they did not approve. Not because she was new or even a dance, but before she showed them no respect for their long years here at the bar. They were men and as men she saw them as vulnerable to the same organic juices as other men, all she had to figure out is what stirred up those juices in them. She blew kisses at them as she passed. She patted some on the back, calling them "Sweetheart," "Honey" or "Cutie" before passing beyond their ranks again. The newcomers and middle bar regulars welcomed her with grins, especially those whom she had victimized in the past and knew they would not get the same treatment tonight, looking forward to watching some other poor fool squirm under her attentions instead. But each of these was a light switch she turned on and off at will, and their lives seemed to brighten or darken depending upon how much encouragement she gave. Even now, these men brightened as she came and grew dim again as she moved on, swallowing their drinks whole as they held out their glasses for Mary to refill.
The owner rocked back on his stool and scowled, jerking his hand up in a sign that he wanted her to hurry, teeth now firmly grasping the tip of his cigar as if he would soon bite completely through it.
Peggy engird him, slowing against when she reached the first and least favored of the owner's minions, the loose chinned and unshaven jaws struggling to contain their giggles, caught between their won queer attraction and the wrath they knew she was capable of committing. They stared, eyes flashing as Peggy passed, and she in her turn acknowledged them, scowling out the names they bore on the street: Bumpers, Zero, Sterno, Snoot, Wrinkles, Head Start Bob, Losing Louie and such, each head rising at the mention like a pigeon stirred out of sleep, then falling back into sleep and giggles when she moved on.
"Now that you're finished taking the tour, do you mind getting up to dance?" the owner asked when she finally reached him again and pushed through the gap to the inner bar. She grinned, wiggled her fingers at him, and then paraded up the interior in exactly the same fashion she had the exterior, only now easing along the east side, her gaze making a closer survey of the pudgy man. He had, unwisely, gawked during her whole parade, and gawked still when she finally reached the stage and slowly mounted it, sitting on its flat surface, lifting on long leg up to the first high step, then the second. Even more wiser regulars could not avoid staring at the stocking'd legs, so smooth and long, they seemed indecent.
The pudgy man licked his lips, his big brown eyes flicking back and forth trying to focus on her face and legs at the same time, his expression growing confused and desperate in the attempt.
"What's your name?" Peggy asked him when she was finally up, glancing over her shoulder at him, her face caught in the beam of a red bar light. Even now, nothing about her face bragged of beauty. If anything her too-bread face hinted of the dull Eastern European heritage that most people associated with the word "peasant," eyes too far apart, her nose, subtly flattened, and thick at the bottom, floating above the mouth. In high school, someone might have called her "a cow," but no one in the bar did. Her so subtly smug expression defied the crowd, and somehow transformed her into an attractive being, her whole manner making up for the flaws of her individual pieces.
"B-B-Billy," the pudgy man said.
She stared at him twice, blue eyes flashing with the humorous disbelief one tall-tale artist reserves for another, though she blinked this look away, trading it for something more cunning. "Billy Bilby?" she asked.
"Mother calls me, William."
"I'll bet she does," Peggy said, drawing a chuckle from those near enough to hear the exchange. "What would mother said if she knew you were hanging out in a place like this?" Red splotches colored poor Billy's puffy cheeks.
"She doesn't know I'm here, or even th-that I'm out of the h-house." Peggy lifted her long forefinger to her lips, its sharp red nail poking into the crack like the edge of a razor, her eyes glinting again in the bar light.
"It's our little secret," she said, and then turned as owner pounded on the bar, with some primitive jungle message ordering her to dance. And she, responding to it, began to move her limbs, arms and legs falling into a rhythm so smooth it did not seem like dancing so much as -- as a mass seduction, Bruce Hornsby music followed by Fleetwood Mach, then through the history of pop music from 1965 to the present, sliding Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson in between songs to which no other dancer would dance. The whole time, she surveyed the bar from her new elevated perspective, a remnant of her former thoughtful smile clinging to her lips. She surveyed the men to the north, and the others to south, as she surveyed those nearest to her along the narrowest part of the bar, making sure that every face was turned up at her. She wouldn't stand for any downcast eyes. She wouldn't stand for any shy faces, all making up a fence around her, an enclosure in which she could continue her dance. And then, once contained, she did everything to break free, swiveling her hips, swaying and shaking and flowing across the dance floor, her eyes and their eyes locked into a tug of war -- her gyrating limbs and hips and shifts of chest, too subtle to be called dance. These places of her anatomy made promises. Her fingers flexed, and petted, caressed and soothed. She exposed sections of flesh no man would have found sensual on another woman, but on her, any and every inch of exposure created a ruckus of surging hormones. She did not caress her breasts or pinch her nipples the way other dancers might have. She did not stick her hand down between her legs and move up and down on it, pretending it was a man's penis. She just melted and molted, grinding out each man's passion as if against a stone, and each man cried out for more, each man peeling dollar bills from their wallets and pushing them at her, and when she ignored their offerings, they pushed more at her, dropping them like still green leaves onto the bar floor where she might recover them later. By the third song, sweat dribbled down from her stark black hair. She stopped, bent, recovering a small pink towel from her bag and deliberately patted the pellets from her face. Then, with one painted eye brow raised, she glared at Billy Bilby again. He sat transfixed -- his hand glued to his beer bottle, his mouth set at a queer angle, as if the mind behind the wide open eyes struggled to work out the mystery of Peggy's attraction. The right side of her upper lip rose, revealing a single canine tooth. Her blue eyes sparkled as she changed the rhythm of her dance.
I’d seen this part of the act before, though it lacked any sense of routine -- her arms and legs growing even more limber, melting into each movement, hands rising from her knees, past her thighs and eventually, with just the slightest hesitation, reached to her breasts -- sharp red nails tweaking, only in an instant gesture -- the very tip of the fabric around her protruding nipple where it pressed so hard against the thin pale pink top the top threatened to burst, the top thrust with the same building pressure as every man's pants at that bar, only without the bar or the bottle to disguise its contents. Then, her hands swayed with her over her head, and her fingers wiggled, Billy Bilby wiggling with them, his arms, legs, torso twisting in an erotic torture he struggled to endure, reacting not to his own desire but to some command issued to him from Peggy on the stage, as if every part of his pudgy body was reacting to pulled strings, and at any moment, he would leap up and dance himself, repeating everything she told him to do. He sweated more than she did, and when he could break himself free of his twitching, he wiped his pudgy face on his already sweat soaked sleeve, only to have the beads of sweat reappear instantly. At this point, he started to suck on his beer, and emptied bottle after bottle without realizing it. Without word, perhaps with some signal issued from the stage, Ruth rushed up and replaced the bottle, sliding it onto the bar, before ducking out of the line of fire again. As if planned that way, the voice of Madonna started up on the juke box and Peggy's broad face pouted from the stage. One shoulder eased down as the other rose, then in a back and forth battle, she released one strap, and then the other, and finally let the top of her outfit flop forward, her two perfect breasts easing out of their cups. Billy Bilby's jaw dropped like an unhinged gate, one single breath before he threatened to cease breathing totally. The owner whooped! Peggy's spell collapsed around her amid the giggles of the owner’s minions, giggles that ran along the southside of the bar like spreading fire so that even the mid-bar regulars started laughing. Peggy's deft fingers flipped up her top and reattached the straps, first over one shoulder, then the other, as Madonna's voice sang "like a virgin." Mary rushed along the interior of the bar, responding to the sudden surge in orders for drinks. Northsiders, Southsiders, Newcomers, too, rattling on in a sudden gush about Peggy's act. Only Billy Bilby remained silent, his mouth just then snapping shut and his breath returning through his clenched teeth. His now-squinting eyes did a quick and angry study of the other patrons, all of whom grinned at him, chatted at him, laughing openly in his face -- he clearly understanding about his becoming their evening entertainment, subject to review, analysis and comparison with others who had come before him. Then, his narrow eyes turned towards Peggy again, as full of rage now as they had been full of desire a moment earlier, red rising into his cheek and then onto his wrinkled forehead. His hand fell limp from the beer bottle as he finally pulled himself off his stool. He pulled money out of his pocket, coins and bills falling onto the bar in a confused tumble well over the amount of his drinks. Then, with his mouth suddenly pinched tight, he staggered towards the door.
"Say hello to momma for us," one of the semi-regulars said as Billy Bilby passed, though the passing man did not turn his head, sagging with the same humiliation every other one of Peggy's victim's felt, realizing that the whole time the bar had waited and watched for him to crumble. Some men handled Peggy's act better. Some laughed, bought a round of drinks, and then slid quietly out later to curse her, and later return to watch some other victim suffer as they had. Some men blew up, waved their fist and threatened to beat the shit out of her -- such men the owner escorted out on the end of his shotgun. And some men, like Billy Bilby, crawled out on their hands and knees, failing the test so completely he might never wander from mother's side again.
I actually felt sorry for the man, having seen Peggy brutalize other shy men before -- all her victims were pudgy, but not all of them shy -- the angry ones came back, grumbled a lot, but the shy ones never did. Billy even bumped into the juke box, missing the door by twenty feet, looked at it, apologized to it, then staggered out, northsiders, southsiders and in-between regulars howling with delight. Mary did not laugh. Neither did Peggy, who stared triumphantly after the man, her hands on her hips.
"Wimp," she said, and then took a drink from Mary someone had thought to buy her as her prize.
I stared after the man, too, my pen poised above my pad, unable to come up with anything to write -- something unusual for me, something which bothered me a lot when it happened. I perpetually feared the well-of-inspiration running dry. Besides, I had written this same scene so many times, I didn't know how to shape it into something that even remotely sounded original
I had told it through the eyes of everyone in the room, from owner's eyes, from Mary’s eyes, from the Northsiders, Southsiders, even from the tortured Newcomer who rages or sulked or crawled out. The only point of view I'd never tried, was Peggy's. She was too alien to me.
"That man's going to be trouble," Mary said, coming to my table with a fresh beer.
"What makes you say that?" I said, taking the beer, then stuffing several singles into Mary's hand. "He seemed harmless to me."
"Maybe to you. But men like him turn real mean when they get hurt, not beat-you-up-now-make-love-to-you-later mean like some of the jocks, but that sneaky, scared and slimy mean that has you looking over your shoulder when you leave the bar at night. If I was Peggy, I would look around real careful when she leaves tonight -- maybe for the next few weeks. I wouldn't put it past that fat little man to borrow his father's gun or maybe his mother's kitchen knives."
"Peggy attracts them from time to time," Mary said. "It s part of the cycle."
"You mean like the moon?"
"I mean Peggy goes through these -- well, periods where she just attracts the wrong kind of men."
"Is there a right kind?" I asked, laughing, though Mary’s green eyes only glinted angrily at me.
"Yes, and she gets their kind, too. You just haven t been around long enough to catch the whole cycle. For a long time, she runs along with safe men, the fat little helpless mothers’ sons. Then she get one of the fat ones that isn’t safe, a real son of a bitch who might show up with a gun one night and try to blow her brains out."
"And where do the good men come in on that?"
"The good ones think they can save her from the fat men and the violent men, from this life of evil she s living here."
"And you think she can t be saved?"
Mary started to answer, but a clamoring at the bar shifted her attention away, and the owner, taking note of her absence glared from his seat at the southern end, Northsiders, Southsiders, and middle men still ranting about Peggy s performance, as she moved into a different mode of dance, still as smooth as before, but not nearly as seductive, she, joking from the stage with the regulars, taking their tips, taking their kidding, but taking no notice of me or Mary
"Got to get back to work," Mary said, grabbing and squeezing his hand. "Be careful, will you."
"Be careful? About what?"
Mary smiled sadly, shook her head, then hurried away. Il stared after her a moment, then glanced towards the door again through which Billy Bilby had just vanished, envisioned the man floating through the dark streets dragging his punctured ego behind him, seeking the solace of one of the many women on the street.
"No, that one won t buy a gun," I thought. "But he won t go home to Momma either."
I finished my drink and rose, somehow, inspiration wouldn't come to me tonight.
I waved to Ruth, and then followed Billy Bilby s trail out to the street.