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By Nancy Bartholomew
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1999 Nancy Bartholomew Long
All rights reserved.
John Nailor and Vincent Gambuzzo are trying to drive me crazy. If they were working together on this project, I'm sure I'd be in a straitjacket somewhere, gulping down Prozac cocktails. As it is, I'm still one up on both of them, but they're gaining on me.
John Nailor is a detective with the Panama City Police Department, and up until he kissed this little brown-headed woman, I thought he was pretty interested in me. It wasn't like we were dating. We had shared an encounter of a personal and dangerous nature and I thought that in the near future we would evolve into something a bit more horizontal. But when he looked over at me before he kissed her, I knew I'd gotten it all wrong.
I guess he's not really my type anyway. He's too clean-cut. His hair is straight and brown, and he wears suits, with crisp oxford-cloth shirts and ties. He's not even quite as tall as me when I wear my five-inch stilettos, but still, there's something about him that makes me forget that I prefer a biker with a panhead Harley. Maybe it's his eyes. When I stare at him, he never backs down. That is, until he kissed that woman right in front of me. He looked away then.
Vincent Gambuzzo, on the other hand, drives me crazy for an entirely different reason. He's my boss. He figures it's his job to make my life a living hell. The Tiffany, where I work, is his little kingdom. He figures if he micromanages his exotic dancers, especially me, his headliner, then his club will one day be as well-known as the Gold Club in Atlanta. I say what Vincent knows about managing talent could be stuck on the head of a pin and you'd still have room left over.
Take, for example, tonight. I'm out on the runway doing my tribute to Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz when Vincent comes barreling right down front with some young guy in a black satin jacket. Vincent can never do anything small. He weighs about three hundred pounds, all of which he squeezes into a black suit and black silk collarless shirt. He talks loud and he wears black wraparound sunglasses 24/7, even with it dark as ink in the club.
"Hey, Rita," he shouts, "bring Mr. Rhodes here a gin and tonic. And bring me my usual."
Did he not have any respect for a working artist? Judy Garland is crooning "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," I'm reaching behind my back to undo my red sequin bra, and guys are down front panting. He completely blew the moment.
Vincent didn't even notice. He was too busy arranging for Mr. Big Shot's comfort. For somebody who's always intimating that he's mob connected and therefore fearless, he sure was kissing up to this Mr. Rhodes. It was sickening, but then, I know Vincent is no more connected to the mob than my third-grade teacher, Sister Mary Rose. So he needs all the big-shot connections he can get. Of course, that still doesn't justify why he saw fit to drag me into the whole thing. If Vincent Gambuzzo hadn't dragged me into his little plan for Mickey Rhodes and the Dead Lakes Motor Speedway, then I wouldn't have seen John Nailor kissing that bimbo and I certainly wouldn't have gotten myself in such big-time trouble.
Vincent waited until I was down to my pasties and my red sequin shoes to point me out to his visitor. He leaned across the table and bellowed: "Now you'll want her for sure. That's what you get when you use the Tiffany talent."
I'm thinking whatever scheme Vincent Gambuzzo is trying to promote, Sierra Lavotini will avoid like the black plague. I don't do lap dances and I don't have nothing but a hands-off relationship with the clientele. Vincent had to be out of his mind, and the dirty look I shot him told him so.
Vincent laughed. "She's a feisty one, that Sierra, but she draws a crowd."
I'm thinking to have a little talk with Gambuzzo after his friend leaves, maybe remind him that Sierra Lavotini is perhaps connected to the "Big Moose" Lavotini syndicate out of Cape May, New Jersey. That usually kept Vincent in his place. He didn't need to find out that I was in no way related to Mr. Moose.
When I clicked my heels three times for the finale and started saying "There's no place like home" to my crowd of admirers, Vincent started talking again. I'm sure he ruined my tips by a good fifty percent.
"Sure," he was saying. "Pick any two girls you want. I'll have them up to the Speedway for opening night. It's no problem."
I snapped my garter, trying to get Vincent's attention, but he ignored me. If he thought I was going up to some racetrack and stand around while greasy-fingered motorheads rubbed their hands all over my ass, well, he was mistaken.
Of course, if the money was right, I might consider it.CHAPTER 2
Ruby Diamond was born to strip. I knew it from the moment she walked into the Tiffany. You can tell a natural at a glance. It's the way she moves. Ruby's walk was a caress. She was comfortable with herself and vulnerable, all at once. When she got up on stage to audition, the men in the club stopped to watch, and not because her figure was outstanding, which it was. They stopped because something in them reached out to her.
Ruby walked out on stage and the music started, but she didn't move for a full thirty seconds. She just stood there, looking out like she was searching past the bright lights for something or someone. She stood there, biting her lower lip gently, wearing nothing but an FSU T-shirt and a bikini. She had long brown hair, coiled into a sleek French twist, and large liquid brown eyes. For one moment, every man in the place imagined that Ruby was a virgin and she was going to offer herself to only him.
They moved, like a herd, down to the front of the stage, their faces changing into soft, comforting older-but-wiser lovers. She seemed to look at each man, a smile playing softly across her face, and then she began to move. She held those men in the palm of her hand, and before she'd even lost her T-shirt, her garter was full of bills.
The men didn't whistle and call out like they do the ones who strip to get naked. They whispered encouragement. They smiled like newlywed husbands on their honeymoon night. They were entranced. Ruby, in her soft, open way, was seeming to give herself up to them, but I was watching her eyes and I knew the truth. Ruby was a pro, just like me. She was new and her act lacked refinement, but she was pro material nonetheless.
Later, after Vincent hired her, I gave her the backstage tour. That's when I got the scoop, just like I do with all the new girls.
"So what do you think?" I asked. I swept my arm around the locker room, including the long makeup bar with its wall-to-wall mirror and the rusty metal lockers.
Ruby was glowing. "It's great. Just great." In the light of the dressing room I could see she was no more than nineteen, about the age I was when I started.
"First job?" I asked.
She turned to me, her eyes gleaming with the knowledge she'd just conquered the room.
"Yeah," she breathed. "Yeah. But I won a wet T-shirt contest on the beach last month." As if that counted for something.
I knew the look. She'd just discovered that there was something she could do really well. She could make men want her, and for that, she could make a lot of money. I felt the same way my first time. Most of the time I still feel that way. There's nothing like standing at the edge of the runway, towering over a crowd of men, and realizing they're yours. You own them.
"I just moved here from Wewahitchka," she said abruptly. "I got my own place and everything, but my roommate, she took off on me. I didn't know how I was gonna make the rent. Then I saw the audition sign, and it was just like my psychic said: 'Don't turn down any opportunities; this is your lucky cycle.'"
Ruby was running on adrenaline now, driven to give me every detail of her short life.
"I don't know if I can really do this," she said honestly. "I mean, Mr. Gambuzzo said we were supposed to have themes and choreography and, well, I can dance and I took lessons from Miss Loraine at the Wewa Dance Studio, but this is different." Her voice slowed and she seemed overtaken by the enormity of her situation. She looked at me as if she were seeing me for the first time.
"What in the world am I gonna do?" she asked. Her legs seemed to give out under her and she sank into one of the chairs by the makeup bar. "Aw, man," she sighed.
"Ruby, get a grip," I said. "You're new. You're green. And you got talent. Without talent, technique ain't nothing but T-and-A working a pole. Vincent is a windbag, and nobody expects you to be a pro right off. You'll learn the moves from the rest of us. Pretty soon it'll come natural, from inside somewhere."
"Like when you know something but nobody ever taught you and so you start thinking you must've done it in a past life?"
No, I thought, nothing like that. "Past life?" I shrugged. "Whatever. Alls I know is, when I stepped onstage my first time, I felt just like you did. At first you're scared, but when you see their faces, and you see that money sliding into your garter, you get this rush that's better than anything you ever did before. That's when you know you're a dancer. If you don't fight it, it'll come and take you over. Then you're on a big stage making big bucks, and don't nobody own you. Not ever."
Ruby's eyes were silver dollars. "Yeah," she said, sighing, "that's it exactly. That's what I want."
From that moment on, Ruby attached herself to me like a young puppy. When I came to the club to practice, she was there. When she worked out her first routine, I helper her. A lot of the girls ignored her or, worse, snubbed her. But that's life when you work this business. There's a lot of jealousy. I figure it this way: If you can dance, if you've got it, can't nobody take it away, and can't nobody ruin your stuff. The no-talents will move on or be moved out, so there's no sense in sweating it if they take an attitude. It's the real dancers who look out for each other. We're a family of loners and outcasts. We have to stick together to survive.
Ruby was good, but she was young and inexperienced. What I knew took years to learn; not that I'm old, but twenty-eight is light-years ahead of nineteen. I could do the vulnerable virgin for days, but I could do Aphrodite's night of a thousand pleasures, too. You don't learn that stuff at nineteen.
When Mickey Rhodes picked Ruby Diamond to appear at the Dead Lakes Motor Speedway along with me, I couldn't have been happier. My protégée was going to make her first publicity appearance. She didn't know enough to realize how fast those things can get old.
"Why did he pick me?" she kept asking. "Why not Marla, or Yvonne? They're bigger acts than me." We were lying on the floor of my living room, exhausted from working on a new routine, when I decided to finally answer her.
"Ruby, Vincent and Mickey Rhodes are looking to do a business deal. The Tiffany sponsors the opening race and one of the drivers. In return for Vincent laying out a small amount of cash, the Tiffany gets a lot of publicity. You and me are just the pawns in this little game. It's not an honor or a privilege to get picked out by Mr. Rhodes. It is more or less a pain in the ass compounded by the fact that we ain't making enough extra jack for submitting ourselves to God knows what kind of physical and mental harassment by redneck racetrack fans."
There was a moment of silence while Ruby considered this. Then she laughed. "Oh, go on," she said. "Sierra, don't you know nothing about racing? Mr. Gambuzzo is sponsoring Roy Dell Parks. I went to high school with his little brother. Roy Dell Parks is gonna be the next Richard Petty."
She was serious. I turned and looked out the bay window, biting the inside of my lip so I wouldn't laugh and hurt her feelings. Ruby Diamond actually thought some three-quarter-mile dirt track driver was a threat to the Indy 500. I didn't know anything about racing, but I sure as heck knew one thing: The big racers didn't come out of little bitty racetracks in North Florida.
Ruby rolled over and sat up, looking at me with her big brown eyes. I suddenly had the feeling we were on dangerous territory.
"Sierra, I grew up in Wewa. Those people out at the racetrack, I went to school with them. A lot of them talked bad about me behind my back, and you know why?" Ruby wasn't waiting for an answer. "Because I was adopted out of foster care when I was three. That was the only reason. Well, that and because I used to make believe I was reincarnated."
"Yeah," she said, her tone a bit defensive. "Reincarnated. You know, like I had a past life as somebody else. Madame Jeanette thinks I was Mata Hari."
I was biting the inside of my lip hard now, and I would've laughed if my hairless chihuahua, Fluffy, hadn't picked that moment to come into the room and distract us. Fluffy skidded into the room, sliding to a halt on the wooden floor by Ruby's side. It was a credit to Ruby that Fluffy accepted and liked her. Fluffy doesn't like just anyone. In fact, I have considered myself such a bad judge of character, particularly men, that I usually subject them to the Fluffy Test. If Fluffy doesn't like you, I don't date you.
I'd only seen Fluffy make an error once; that was when she took to John Nailor right off. Even I could've told her that was a mistake. Of course, Fluffy didn't see John Nailor plant one on that bimbo at the Dead Lakes Motor Speedway.CHAPTER 3
Most folks consider Panama City to be a small town, despite its reputation as the Redneck Riviera. We get people flying in here all the time from L.A., but around here, that just means Lower Alabama. We are a village made famous by a strip of white sand beach and MTV. Most people drive right past the real town in their rush to stake a claim on the sugary sands, and that suits the locals just fine. Better the tourists should not know about the huge Victorians that line St. Andrews Bay. Better they should stay away from Uncle Ernie's or Joe's. Leave the good living to those of us who can appreciate it.
I don't think the people of Wewahitchka feel like that about their town. When your biggest local attraction is a three-quarter-mile dirt track, you've got problems from a Chamber of Commerce perspective. Having dancers from the big metropolis of Panama City was not their cup of tea either. I could tell we were unwanted right away. When I pulled up to the pit gate in my '88 black Camaro, there was a small crowd already waiting. Their signs read: NUDITY IS EVERYONE'S PROBLEM and GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE CLOTHED ADAM AND EVE.
They were blue-hairs, mainly, who carried the placards, but there was a sprinkling of dark-haired, fresh-scrubbed Christian righters. The younger ones looked mean, in particular a man with a bull horn and black-rimmed glasses. I'd heard about protests, but usually they happened outside of clubs. Surely they didn't think Ruby and I were going to get naked here? Ruby sank down in the passenger seat as we approached the gate.
"Oh Gawd," she moaned softly, "that's Brother Everitt, from my mama's church."
I looked over at her. She sat slouched down in the seat, a scarf around her head and huge dark glasses covering the top half of her face.
"Didn't you figure this might happen?" I asked. I stared out the window at the tiny crowd of protesters. The women were wearing pastel polyester, their eyes focused rigidly in front of them, ignoring the cars backed up behind us in line, seemingly oblivious to the incredibly loud sound of engines being pushed to their limits.
"Well, I'd hoped not. I mean, Brother Everitt is bad to do stuff like this, but I just thought with the racetrack being technically outside the Wewa city limits, and closer to Panama City than anywhere, he wouldn't come." She sighed again, and her hand went nervously up to touch her hair. She was wearing a Dolly Parton blond wig.
"So that's why you wore a wig?"
A small grin played across her face. "Yep. Pretty slick, huh?"
No, not really, I thought. "Yeah, kid, slick," I answered. "Now put them idiots out of your head and get ready to work your ass off. These gigs aren't for your lightweight."
Ruby straightened up in her seat and took a deep, cleansing breath, just like I taught her.
"Feel your inner child," I said as we pulled into the pit entrance. "Be at peace with yourself." It might have worked had we not come face-to-face with Roy Dell Parks, the self-proclaimed King of Dirt.
Excerpted from Drag Strip by Nancy Bartholomew. Copyright © 1999 Nancy Bartholomew Long. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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