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By Mary Ann Mitchell Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2005
Mary Ann Mitchell
All right reserved.
Chapter One Ten Years Later
The red lights didn't penetrate far inside the smoky strip joint. Sirena peeked out from behind the curtain at the side of the stage. Two men at the end of the catwalk seemed to be trying to outdo each other chug-a-lugging beer. The one on the left was balding, fat, and sweaty. While she watched, he laughed at something his friend said and foam spewed out of his mouth, leaving a trail of drool down his chin.
Sirena pulled back and adjusted her seaweed. The cheap costume kept shifting, and if she wasn't careful, she'd make her grand entrance looking more like a tangled fishing line than a siren.
"Honey, ya got it together yet?" Chrissie, known to the patrons as Lightning, stood next to Sirena.
"Just about." Sirena readjusted the scrimshaw bodkin in her French twist. The crowd always went wild when she removed it, allowing her tinted antique gold hair to tumble to her waist.
"A pack of wild beasts out there tonight. I told Silk this would happen. 'Silk,' I says, 'do like the others, put in those little stars on the ads, leave something up to the imagination.' Instead he uses a stark naked Tara. Boobs bigger than watermelons and the hairiest snatch I ever saw. 'She doesn't even work here,' I says to Silk. 'What are the customers going to expect?'
"I wanted to work where there's a little class. Maybe not one of those pricey joints where they're so snooty but a little respect from the boys in the audience. Please. It used to be that way here before the college folded. The kids were rowdy but cleancut." She took a quick peek through the faded red brocade curtain at the audience.
"Animals. That's all we get now."
"But generous animals." Sirena smiled. "A lot better than working your body for a kid's allowance."
"These guys are big spenders only after they're drunk and can't see what denomination they're slipping you on stage." A raspy cough cut off conversation for a few seconds until Chrissie was able to bring up a glob. She spat a distance from the entrance to the runway. "Don't want anyone to slide on that. Don't worry, hon, I can still belt out your song." She plumped up her brassy curls with both hands.
The two women moved aside as Madame Firefly exited the stage. She carried her disconnected red and gold chiffon wings in her hands. They were too expensive to leave behind as mementos. She usually wore out a battery a night, and most of the men were satisfied with the sheaths of nylon she tossed into the crowd.
Chrissie cleared her throat and took several deep breaths while Sirena prepared to step on stage. Into a well-used microphone Chrissie belted out a few whiskey-tinged high notes before a recorded instrumental version of "Splish Splash" played on the speakers. As Sirena stepped out into the glare of the lights, Chrissie warbled the beginning verse, sounding very much like she was either under water or under the weather.
Sweat, booze, and tobacco stench heaved an invisible veil over Sirena. When she had first started working at Silky's Femmes (the possessive "s" had since been painted over by a feminist dancer), she had almost barfed on stage. Not a problem anymore. She never ate immediately before her act, and besides, to her the stink was now associated with the sweet scent of money.
Sirena peeled and shimmied, her green and blue spangles catching the spotlights, to the hoots and catcalls. Those same spots made the faces invisible to her; however, she instantly sought the out-stretched hands holding paper money before the bearers could think twice. Double-jointed, she was capable of retrieving the cash in nasty poses. The exhibit spurred others to rush up to the brass rail of the catwalk with whatever they were able to dig out of their pockets. Exuberance once brought her a five-hundred-dollar bill. She had wondered about the donor. Had he been a rich clown living on the wild side or a thief celebrating his heist? It didn't matter where the money came from. Sirena knew she wanted as much as she could milk from these johns.
Correction, she was no longer catering to johns. No, now she was serving voyeurs, peeping toms, losers. Only fingertips would brush as money changed hands. Some men tried to insert a finger into her mouth as she took their money between her teeth, but those men learned not to stray far unless they wanted to lose a finger. Inserting money into her various crevices was all right as long as the hand didn't linger. Never did she stoop to pick up money off the stage with her hands. No, Sirena's long flexible toes carried the spoils to her fingertips.
Near the end of each act it was customary for the stripper to either leave behind or present to one of the customers at least some part of her apparel. Sirena's makeshift seaweed went far in this service. The papier-mâché and string couldn't be reused, so she let her woman-made seaweed cover the shoulders and heads of the nearest patrons. Some found themselves looped to strangers. Others threw out their tap brew when green papier-mâché settled inside their mugs.
Chrissie's voice broke on several notes. Time to leave the stage. Not that any of the audience listened to the music, but she didn't want Chrissie to ruin her voice completely before doing her own performance. Several times she purposely made to leave the stage, teasing bigger bills out of her admirers. Finally, she exited. But she had spotted someone in the crowd. He was dark and rugged looking, and she was particularly drawn by his bone structure. Yes, it was just right. After leaving the stage, she stood in the small wing and looked out from behind the curtain. He had turned away from the stage and was talking to Ross, the bartender, probably ordering another drink.
Good, he'll still be here at closing, she thought. Then she shrugged. If he wasn't, it wasn't a problem. There would be others; there were always others. It was almost too soon after the last one anyway. She could only do so much. Everything took time, and time seemed to move faster every day.
After her final number, Sirena went down the steps to the dressing room she shared with Chrissie and Treyce. Their costumes hung along one wall, a kaleidoscope of color, and the opposite wall was lined with mirrors surrounded by naked, glazed light bulbs designed to light every plane of their faces and make the application of makeup easier and more precise. The harsh lighting was a precursor to how they actually looked on stage with the footlights and spotlights shining on them. Sirena wondered whether the short careers of strippers were due more to burnout or wrinkles that couldn't be hidden under the all-revealing glare of the lights.
She sat for a moment at her station before dipping her fingers into the thick cold cream and slathering it on her face to remove the heavy stage makeup. Sirena remade her face in the lighter, more seductive tones appropriate for the street at night. As her own face emerged and went under the war paint again, she got into the mood of the hunt. Sloughing off her real self, she took on the characteristics that were most likely to gain her the desired end: the man who sat at the end of the bar. Sirena parted her lips and slid her long nailed index finger into her mouth. She sucked on the finger while her eyes gave a sultry look at her reflection. Slowly she drew the finger out. Lipstick circled her finger. She didn't want excess lipstick inside her mouth smudging her teeth. Quickly she wiped her index finger clean. She was under the pressure of time. If Ross started closing too soon, the man might not be there much longer. Although there would be another to take his place in a day or two, her adrenaline was flowing now, tonight. And once revved up, she wanted to complete her task.
She stood up and looked more critically at her reflection. Tonight Sirena had the to "die" for look. The sapphire blue sheath set off her eyes and brought out the gold in her hair. The exercise had given her skin a glow she'd accented artistically with a touch of metal-flecked blush on cheekbones and jaw-line. Practicing a smile, she checked her teeth. One final glance over her shoulder at the mirror and swish of her skirt, and she was out the door and heading for the bar.
Excerpted from Siren's Call by Mary Ann Mitchell Copyright © 2005 by Mary Ann Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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