To Hell and Back in Time for Dinner
– Creative Non-Fiction by Erica Briggs –
I packed a bag with a few outfits and antiperspirant; I heard it gets hot in hell. Said goodbye to my friends. Looked away as I lied to the sitter: “It’s a weekend gig promoting this new club.”
In truth, I’d be doing something considerably less favourable in the eyes of most people. Though Rachel’s is the best in the industry, I’d still just be a high class stripper. So, I only told those who needed to know.
“Call before you leave,” one said.
“I understand. Gotta do what you gotta do,” agreed another.
“But you’ve got so much talent.”
Alas, ass sells faster, it’s tax free and I didn’t think I’d have to do much but smile and look sexy. Smile and be sex.
Arrived in Palm Beach hungry, the last of my money spent on gas. I stepped out of the ‘97 Civic I could no longer afford toting an unravelling woven bag containing a cheap, red spandex dress and old black heels. The silver bells on my anklet jingled with each step but my inner child dragging her feet all the way to the door.
Stop! I don’t want to!
We have no choice, I declared, shooting down any further objections. Cold, conditioned air blew out as I opened the door. A woman with double D’s barely acknowledge my entrance, looking without seeing like a mannequin in a window display.
“Lookin’ for someone?” she asked.
“I have an appointment with the manager,” I said nervously.
“Richie? Upstairs, to your right,” the automaton directed.
I found Richie easily enough. Men in charge are obvious in a place like this: white skinned and wearing a button-down silk shirt open just enough to expose an excess of hair. Richie’s dress pants were neatly pressed, the tailored cuffs draped over expensive Italian shoes. Expensive shoes work best for walking on the souls of others.
Richie was seated next to a middle-aged man wearing a wedding band and next to him was his gaudy friend gawking at a topless blonde wearing an orange thong. The hairy manager noticed me immediately, my chiming anklet drawing his attention. He glanced at his watch then assessed me with a calculating leer.
“Money maker,” I heard him hiss out the side of his mouth as I approached. “And how can I help you?” he asked me.
“I talked to you last week. I thought you said two o’clock.”
“Yeah, yeah – Alexis, right?”
“Allure-a” I pronounced.
“Allura,” he said, rolling the ll’s on his tongue as if deciding their taste. “I don’t know if I like that. We’re pretty particular here.”
“So I see.” I looked at the blue-eyed dancer entrancing the married man who had loosened his tie.
“It’s slow right now,” the manager said. “We’ll talk about better hours after I watch for a while, see how you work. This is a job just like any other. Come to work on time – sober. Don’t talk to anyone too long unless they’re paying for the time. You tip the house and the DJ first.”
He paused to make sure I understood. I nodded for him to continue. “Give Vic your name.
He’ll announce when you’re next. Be on stage when your name is called. You dance for three songs on stage for tips. Private dances are $20.”
I nodded again. “Where do I put my stuff?” I asked.
“One of the girls will show you where to change.” Richie paused to evaluate my worth one more time. “Do good,” he said.
Vic was bobbing his head to Blondie when I tapped him on his shoulder. He turned around, still bobbing and pushed back the headphones to the side of his ear.
“Hey, honey! What’s up?” he shouted over the music.
“Richie said I’m supposed to talk to you first.”
“Yeah, baby, that’s right,” he turned down the volume of his headphones. “I’m Vick. What’s your name?” he asked reaching for a pen and his clipboard.
He handed me the pen and clipboard. “Write it down for me, baby. Be sure to mention where you’re from, your hobbies and all that.” His cavalier smirk suggested he’d signed in hundreds before me; he knew I wouldn’t be the last.
“Do you have any other music?” I asked, pausing a moment to consider how to spell my fake name so it would be pronounced correctly.
“I don’t know, like R&B, hip hop. Maybe some salsa?” I handed the clipboard back.
“I’ll see what I can find Miss…” he paused to read my stage name. “Allura?”
“Alluuura,” he tested the name again, emphasizing the “lure” like a cheesy Las Vegas DJ, his likely position before working here. Vic was a cheaper, tackier version of the manager in fashion and demeanor; younger, thinner, his leer more vulgar, smiling for no damn reason. He chewed his gum like a piece of gristle, its strong spearmint scent barely masking the stench of cigarette breath.
“Did Rich tell you how it works?” he asked.
“Yeah, I tip you first.”
“That’s right, baby. You take care of me, I make the music work for you.”
“We’ll work that out later. Go get ready.” He grinned eagerly, turning up the volume as he placed his headphones back over his ears.
I felt my heart harden and sink to the pit of my stomach as I searched the room, for what I had no idea, but that voice inside was screaming: Someone, somewhere, get me out of here.
I noticed a tall, trim woman with long, straight brown hair.
“Excuse me, where’s the dressing room?” I asked.
The woman looked up at me with effort then without a word, she lifted her arm and pointed down the hall. If she’d been wearing a hooded black cape and holding a scythe, she’d have made a convincing grim reaper. With tits. I laughed nervously as I followed the reaper’s directions.
I dressed quickly, slowing only to wrap miniature rubber bands around my inverted nipples to force them out and erect. The pain wasn’t too unbearable, like breastfeeding for the first time. I tousled my soft, curly hair and flipped its shoulder length to the side. Satisfied, I smoothed on burnt sienna lipstick, sprayed too much perfume and locked up my belongings in an empty locker. Looking in the mirror one last time, I searched for an answer. Expression blank, my only thought was something my mother use to say: Let’s get this show on the road.
I had no cash, but needed a drink fast. The DJ announced I was up next to dance. The woman at the bar recognized the discord on my face and waived the charge for two shots of tequila, gulped back to back without salt or lime. As the burn barreled into my belly I considered last minute earning options before I sold my soul, but I ran out of time.
“And here’s a new addition to your fantasies, gentlemen. All the way from the west coast, working on her Master’s, please welcome to the stage, Miss Ahhlluura!”
My soul slowed and went to sleep as Santana’s Black Magic Woman accompanied my careful stroll down the stairway to the dance floor.
You’re on your own, mother’s words echoed.
Swayed hips. Starving eyes. Pale faces, washed out by the stage lights. Concentrate. Steady thinking. Gotta get that money. Gotta pay those bills. Gotta get that degree. Got a child to feed. Got to…Have to…No choice.
A still, small voice whispered from behind the curtain of my worry: What about faith?
Shakin ’dat ass, spinning on poles, frequent over bending, squatting in six inch heels that cramped my toes. My almost 30-year-old body creaked in protest, the exaggerated moves causing a heavy pain to settle in, like being slowly rolled over by a compact car.
With a smile plastered on my face, I sashayed, shimmied and forced my knees to drop down, dip, and do a twist, for three songs in a row. I went straight for the bar to spend my first five on another shot of tequila. Richie was waiting, inspecting me as I swallowed.
“You did good, Alexis,”
“Allura,” I corrected.
“Alexis.” He stripped me of my name casually. “You’ve got about an hour before you’re up again. Spend the time wisely.”
I nodded, still out of breath but trying not to let it show. “And watch your drinks. Don’t get sloppy or I’ll send you home.”
He left me alone to collect myself. I stared at the bottom of my empty shot glass, longing for another.
Off stage I worked my intellect. Exotic erotica, dazzling the suit and ties with titillating conversation over their $10 buffet. I got a big tip from an old hippie who enjoyed talk of Zen and being appreciated for his free loving wisdom again.
Captain Lee from West Point, stubborn as hell, smelled like mothballs, cheap cigars and Old English aftershave. He criticized my gypsy ways.
“You move around too much. You need some stability,” he told me.
He went on to brag about his work in the military, his paid off house and car, his life of ease in retirement before bitching about how America was going downhill from changes in immigration and the crime rate in “those” neighborhoods.
“Can’t live in peace without worrying about someone stealing from you,” he complained.
I thought about this country’s history, and who stole what from whom, but chose to hold my tongue rather lose the tip.
“Can barely survive anymore,” the Captain grumbled into his beer.
Given my present position, I couldn’t argue his western point very well.
“I don’t sleep anymore,” he said as he handed me a five dollar tip. “I’ll get plenty of sleep when I die. I sleep less and get up early to enjoy more daylight. It’s like stealing back time.”
I made a mental note to remember his anecdote when recovering from this sideshow on the backstage of my life.
“Alexis!” I heard my new name echo from the DJ’s booth, beckoning me back on stage.
The grim reaper had just finished a performance of handstands and upside down splits on the spinning pole, her breasts remaining perfectly still for the duration of the exhibition. Tough act to follow.
I made my way down the stairs. Hold your breath, child, this is the part that hurts. But I was wrong. Self-inflicted pain rarely dissipates with time; its memory stands out like pigs feet at a vegan dinner party.
I tried to apply another bit of motherly advice: When all else fails, keep smiling and go on with the show.
As I did so, failure swelled in beads of sweat dripping down the nape of my neck, throbbed in numbing pain from the mini-rubber bands that were turning my nipples purple. Lacking sizeable silicons and limited gymnast skills, my second set of stage duty left my body aching from tit to toe, all for $15 in singles.
Off stage again, I gave myself a headache working to earn twenties. I hooked a few men, taking them to square caves in the back for private dances. The light, muffled and heavy, reflected a sharp glare from fire-engine red artificial leather seats.
Twirled thick round hips and full behind, murmured obscene fantasies from plump lips. I tried to remember how long the average song lasts. Three minutes, child, just three minutes more. Smile. Bend over. Another twenty more.
I stared at the commercial black carpet speckled with pin pricks of silver.
Where is he? But the knight in shining armor would not rescue me from this hell.
He’s not coming. I bullied my childhood fantasy to the ground as I tucked another tip into my thong and tried to remember when dancing was fun, when I believed I would grow up to be something special, a princess, a ballerina. A married woman. Now, I just wanted to be a writer and a mother who had time to cook a good meal for my daughter.
An hour before the dinner crowd, the club slowed to a lonely crawl. Competition for the few men in the house was not mentioned in the job description. I was the only brown girl, a familiar reality of my hometown experience. I was already groveling. Competing for attention against white girls with blonde hair and blue eyes was like setting myself up to be sucker punched by rejection and side-kicked by triggered childhood trauma.
Instead, I tried the compassionate approach, a siren humming to hurting, easing comfort with an alluring voice. Their eyes cried mother, wanting peace from what was dissin’ them in life, a brief escape from a gold-digging wife, or just a chance to hide from the truth.
“I only come here for the food.”
“My wife and I have an open relationship.”
“I’ve never been here before.”
I pretended to believe them, and even wanted to help. Such sad sops with fat pockets and empty hearts. I said what I could, barely hiding my own desperation.
“Sorry, but I gotta get paid, love. My rent is due.”
They nodded, tipped me a few singles and then let me go on ‘bout the business of selling myself short.
Tequila soaked thoughts stumbled around each other. How much longer? As long as it takes! I wanna go home! Stop crying before I give you something to cry about!
The last thought my mother’s warning, one that always followed as her final solution to my hurting. Take that shit somewhere else!
How I ended up here was a story for which I would not get paid, so I made one up, even faked an English accent to bait their curiosity. For a few dollars more I offered to tell them my race in percentages. It was an easy sell; their own dichotomy of what is and isn’t a discomfort had to be settled.
“But you don’t look Black.”
“It’s a lot deeper than that.” But none wanted the full explanation. As the dollars added up, the turmoil ran over. I prayed for mother’s solution. Please, dear God, take me somewhere else.
So God entered.
Appearing in the form of one quiet man, aged and gangly, he never looked at me directly, as if embarrassed to see me in a place like this. Instead, he fondled his keys like a set of prayer beads. He shared travel stories and future plans to explore Ecuador or maybe Malawi. When he did finally make eye contact, he pleaded with pious hope.
“Come with me.” The intensity of his stare held me for several seconds, time enough to consider that it might be he who’d come to whisk me away from my self-imposed misery. Then mother reminded me. Nothing comes for free. I turned him down gently.
Moments later, God made another delivery. It came wrapped in the tight silence of an aching heart recently divorced after almost 30 years of marriage. He cited everything he had ever done for his love, listing the gifts he bestowed upon her one by one.
“Maybe it didn’t happen the minute she asked for it, but I did make it happen,” he defended himself against whatever it was that made his newly ex-wife leave.
“She’ll come back,” I consoled, rocking my hips in slow motion. The background noise seemed to quiet, preparing room for Spirit to speak through him.
“How could she give up on me?” The question was like a cool towel on a fevered head, shattering the illusion that all hope was lost.
The final messenger spent almost twenty minutes bitching about how his earnings were being eaten up by his wife’s excessive spending on primitive art.
“I don’t know what she finds so appealing. It’s all junk to me.” My attention drifted as he rambled on with his critique, clearly unhappy with just about everything until abruptly, with stern authority, he stated simply. “You don’t belong here.”
There was no dramatic exit. Confident and assured, I grabbed my woven bag and strode out the back door.
The woman formerly known as Alexis, previously known as Allura, drove north with $307 stuffed in an envelope under the driver’s seat, an amount that wouldn’t even cover my past due car note. I took the long way home to avoid expensive highway tolls. The extra miles would cost me at the end of my lease, but I needed time to think, a change of scenery and a slower moving road. Around midnight I pulled into a travel station to sleep. I woke late the next morning, stretch my aching muscles as I filled up on gas, grabbed a cup of coffee and continued my journey back home.
While passing through forgotten locales, I was struck by the struggle stowed under rusting tin roofs, poor pit stops where residents spent their days selling cheap gas and bags of boiled peanuts. The small towns reminded me of road trips with mom, stopping at all the junk stores and garage sales along Oregon’s southern coast. At the end of our trips, the 1974 van would smell of old things she would later make new, placing her creative touches around our already cluttered farmhouse. Pleasant memories such as these played tug-of-war with the guilt and shame that dragged behind me mile after mile like a string of tin cans.
I passed a sale sign hand-painted in red and posted in a patch of wildflowers on the side of the road. No harm in looking. I made an illegal U-turn and pulled off onto a dusty road that lead to an orange grove, home to a one stand flea market. Under the shade of a blue tarp tied to a raggedy RV, a portly old black man sat sleeping, straw hat protecting his face from the burning sun. A dove cooed and his eyes open.
“Take your time. Everything’s negotiable,” he said, then closed his eyes again. I took his advice, browsing through boxes of books, shelves of dishes, pots and pans, racks of used clothing, tables of knick knacks, and trunks of remnant material that could have dressed a chorus line of 1970s disco queens.
“Find anything you can’t live without?” the man asked as I approached his rusted metal box serving as a cash register.
“Yes, actually,” I admitted to my own surprise. “I’ve been looking for one of these.” I showed him a black cast iron skillet, red with rust but nothing a good scrub and olive oil couldn’t fix. Mom always said a kitchen was not complete without a good iron skillet.
“How much?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he answered. “What else you find?” I place my items before him one by one: a black apostle holding rosary beads; a small necklace charm with a turquoise stone and a dangling silver feather; an orange wicker basket with a lid shaped like the head of an elephant, missing an ear but well crafted; and a wooden box with a unicorn painted on its cover. This last item stirred the owner’s scrutiny. He opened the corroded hinges to reveal a cork board inside the box. It was a dart game with directives that offered solutions to a player’s problems depending on where the dart landed: Pay. Don’t Pay. Buy. Sell. Leave. Stay. Quit. Wait. He gave me an inquisitive look.
“I thought it might help me make better decisions,” I explained. “And I need to work on my aim,” though even if I hit the bull’s-eye I’d still only get a “Definite Maybe.”
I declined to tell him the other reason for wanting the game box. The unicorn on the front replenished faith in things I use to believe in. Unicorns were right up there with fairies and Michael Jackson, and God answering prayers.
The man made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He bagged my treasure carefully as I counted out $30 dollars in tips. He thanked me and offered to put my name in his prayers.
“Please do,” I said and gave him my full name.
Driving back on the main road, I rummaged through the plastic bags, feeling for the turquoise charm. I found it and caressed the feather, thinking about what to do next. The money I earned wasn’t enough to manage my financial debts. I could afford immediate needs like gas and groceries, but I would end up the same as when I’d left: broke. If I went home now, I’d still be a day late, and hundreds of dollars short. I rubbed the turquoise stone.
To the north lies wisdom of the ancestors. That which is no longer needed dies in the west. Whether it was the charm or something I remembered from a Native professor made no difference. I had my heading, northwest towards Cedar Key, an artist’s town off the gulf coast.
I signed my real name on the motel registration card, paid the $73, and accepted my key to room three. After dumping my bag on the queen sized bed, I went straight for the shower. Refreshed, I took advantage of the free bicycle to ride into town. My legs were sore, made worse from the long drive, so it felt good to stretch them out at an easy pace. The wide seat felt cozy on my overworked bootie. While riding I thought of nothing, wearing a smile long missing from my face. The late afternoon sun was warm on my skin, the bike’s rickety rhythm jiving with the song of a whippoorwill.
Once in town I browsed through the small shops, some funky and eclectic, others tawdry and overpriced for the mindless tourist. I shelled out another $30 for a soft and flexible raw leather three-ring notebook. I walked out of the store feeling like I was missing something and laughed when I realized what it was: the guilt of spending money on yet another non-essential.
I tried to scold myself. This is why you’re always broke. The condemnation was quickly replaced by Spirit. Telling your story is essential and more than worth the cost. I would never normally want to tell anyone about this experience, but I obeyed the sudden desire to write. Crossing the street to sit on the dock of the bay, I fished out a pen and spent an hour writing to an audience of pelicans.
Hunger roused me from my musings. I stopped at a cafe and ordered a green salad with blue cheese, a side of rice and beans with extra cayenne, some black peppered shrimp, butter dip for my bread, and raspberry cheesecake for dessert. I stopped at a quick mart for a cheap bottle of wine then struggled with it all on the bike, rushing back to catch the sunset.
My room had a sliding glass door that opened to a freshly cut lawn bordering the water. A couple was already enjoying the setting sun, nestled together in a pair of weathered lawn chairs. I pushed my aching body a few steps more to settle into one of my own chairs, opened the bottle and arranged my dinner on the side table.
“Happy Father’s Day, honey,” I heard the woman say. I’d completely forgotten. Father’s day always came and went without much thought. The only father I ever really knew was the religious version. He’ll have to do. I poured some wine in the plastic motel cup and raised it up towards the heavens, now the color of freshly cut papaya.
After enjoying my supper, I headed for the bath. While the water was running, I counted what was left of my tips, the tens and twenties already spent on gas, flea market shopping, roadside snacks, motel, dinner and my new notebook. All that was left were fives and singles totaling $123 spread across the vanity counter in stacks of ten.
“Congratulations, Miss E. You’ve earned jus’ enough to pay for an all-expense paid trip to the grocery store!” I laughed hard to keep from crying.
I soaked in the tub until my skin shrivelled like a prune; the near scalding heat melted away the soreness. In the quiet, I worried about the bills awaiting my return, but muffled their heckling to think about my daughter.
I hadn’t prepared a home cooked meal for her in weeks. To busy bumbling about with this, that or the other thing. A chicken pot pie in the oven was the most I could manage lately. I watched the steam rise from the heat of my body and made a grocery list: black eyed peas, rice, collard greens, catfish, eggs, buttermilk, Jiffy cornbread, Louisiana hot sauce. Something about making lists always brought me a sense of peace until finally I could see the forest for the trees. I took a deep breath and sighed. Dinner was taken care of at least.
About the Author
If you liked To Hell and Back in Time for Dinner, read more creative non-fiction, such as Three Hots and a Cot, on Dreamers Creative writing.