More Than Drinks
When Sonny went to jail, I sent him pictures, nothing smutty, me in a bikini on the beach, me in a burlesque gown in my early days. John, the bartender at Aphrodite, where we work, ragged me Sonny would sell those photos for cigarettes in the joint. Couldn’t crack-up enough saying some guy named Bubba was jacking off over me while Sonny kicked back with a Winston. But the first thing Sonny did after getting his walking papers was stroll into Aphrodite and slap those photos down on the bar right under John’s nose. I smirked at John and cozied up to Sonny the rest of the night. We were more than mere rumor by then.
He’s a gambler, sometimes bets fifty on just one number. When he wins, he buys the house a drink. When he loses, he goes on a bender so deeply self-destructive it takes angels, real or pink elephant-imagined, to wing him back to reality.
Sonny manages Aphrodite. He’s so good at it Stanopoulos, the owner, held his job open for him when he got locked up—suspended license, his fourth DUI. When we’re short-handed, he drops into another joint, orders a drink like he’s just passing time, and ends up walking out with half their dancers.
That’s not how he got me, though. I’ve been stripping at Aphrodite, off and on, since I turned 18. Now I’m 30 and taking writing classes at Goucher, where nobody knows where I work. I’m not from swank like most Goucher girls. My dad was an alcohol-, speed-, and tranquilizer-addicted trucker until his rig tumbled 900 feet into a ravine in the Sierra Nevada. He’d been on the road two weeks and it took another week to get the news he wasn’t coming home. He was 43, two years older than Sonny is now.
“You’re Melanie,” Sonny said when Stanopoulos introduced us. “The one that only works weekends.”
He took my hand and held it so long I had to wiggle it back so I could get on my way.
“’Long as I’ve been here we haven’t had a manager,” I said to John later. “What do we need one for now?”
John said Stanopoulos was sick of the game; wanted more time on the golf course and less time managing hare-brained broads who couldn’t manage themselves. John’s a pig but still, I chuckled. I had money in an IRA and was putting myself through college. No way was he talking about me.
When I got up to dance, Sonny took a seat right up front with his Seven-and-Coke. Intent as the customers but without their desperation, he watched me peel stockings, working them between my writhing legs like I do when I know there’re big-spenders in the house. When I finished, John said I had a drink waiting. No surprise there; the stockings do it every time. Not ‘til I sat down with my champagne split did I know it was Sonny who’d bought it.
“What kind of strip joint manager buys drinks for the girls he manages?” I sassed. Kind of like a pimp paying for sex, I thought, but didn’t say.
He struck a match for my waiting cigarette and fixed me in his deep-set eyes, gray and shimmering as storm clouds with the sun behind ‘em. “The kind wants you workin’ more than two nights a week,” he said.
We ended that night in the office, rolling from sofa to floor to top of desk and back to sofa until 6 a.m., when Carla, his wife, came in to clean the place. Earlier he’d mentioned she cleans strip joints for a living. He’d left out “She cleans this joint.” His way of saying he’s married without scaring me off, I guess. I got plenty scared though, crunched butt-naked under the desk when he flung the door open, shouting, “I told you there’s nobody here.”
I went to work the following night vowing never to fool with Sonny again. His number wasn’t even close, so I spent the next two weeks wondering if he even remembered my name.
By the time his fog cleared I’d added Thursday to my schedule. Tuition was due the same week as rent.
“Right,” said John, working a chewed-up toothpick around in the corner of his mouth. “So much for not needing a manager. Know what I think? I think you need management of the kind reminds you men are for more than buyin’ drinks.”
I lit a cigarette and blew smoke right in his face. What did he know about what I need?
Just then Sonny blew in, shouting his number had hit. Sweeping me off my stool, he twirled me around, whispering, “Let’s blow this popsicle stand,” as he set me back down, his arm cinching my waist. My dress swirled around my thighs as my feet floated to a stop, smooth as a Mallard duck touching down on water.
We ate in Little Italy and ended the night at a place called The Hangar, a has-been dance hall out by the old Martin airport. The band was good and I’m light on my feet, on stage and off; but the drinks were better, and every time I tried to prod Sonny out onto the floor he said, “After I finish this one.” Then he’d order another and I’d be back at square one, longing to feel what I’d felt when he swept me off my stool at Aphrodite.
He came up to my apartment, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Couldn’t prove men were worth more than drinks by Sonny that night. I didn’t want him driving though, so I slipped his keys out of his jacket and into my nightstand, and only when he started to snore did I fall into rock-solid sleep.
© Margo Christie
Margo Christie’s fiction focuses on creative but fallen characters and their struggles to redeem themselves. Her novel, These Days, described as “a glittery romp down memory lane on an historic burlesque strip, Baltimore’s “Block,” won a second prize in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award. It is available via www.margochristienovelist.com.