Mama never leaves me for this long. I’m always a good girl and do what I’m told, but she never stays away so long. I don’t like the smells here. I don’t like the sound of the dripping water. I don’t like this scratchy couch. I’m scared. I’m scared. Mama, please come back and get me.
When Brad finally returned, flicking on the lights and causing me to squint into the sudden brightness, he looked even more mad than before he’d left. He sat down and lit a cigarette and sucked in a puff of it before blowing the smoke out, causing my eyes to water. “What am I gonna do with you, kid? Just what the fuck am I gonna do?”
I looked away, tried to swallow back the sob that wanted to escape.
Mrs. Hollyfield told me that hearts are meant to beat all the time to keep us alive. Mrs. Hollyfield said that when your heart stops beating and you go to heaven, you don’t feel pain anymore. Mrs. Hollyfield’s heart had stopped beating. My mama’s heart is going to stop beating, too. My heart was still beating, even though it felt like it was crumbling in my chest. I didn’t want to hurt anymore. I wanted my heart to stop beating so I could fly to heaven and be with Mrs. Hollyfield. And Mama.
I told my heart to stop beating.
I told it not to hurt anymore.
I told my heart I wouldn’t let it hurt anymore.
Come with me, I’ll help you. It looks like you need a friend.
Racer, the Knight of Sparrows
He didn’t belong here. Why that thought came immediately to my mind the moment I laid eyes on him, I couldn’t be sure. But it did. It wasn’t the way he looked—I’d seen handsome, clean-cut, seemingly wholesome boys here before. Get a few drops of alcohol in them, or a few whiffs of the pack mentality wafting thickly in the air, and they’d be acting just like the other drunken fools eager to part with their money and any common decency they might possess. And it wasn’t that he was out of place because he looked scared. I’d seen that before, too—eyes darting around, nervous and excited by the surroundings. No, the man sitting alone at a table near the back of the room, nursing a Miller Lite, didn’t look scared, merely curious. His head turned slowly as he took in the room at large, and I couldn’t help that my gaze followed his, wondering at his assessment.
My own curiosity confused and disturbed me. It was so unlike me to wonder about any of the men who came here, and I couldn’t find an explanation. I closed my eyes, pushing the thoughts away as the loud music filled my head. When my performance ended, the applause exploded and I plastered a smile on my face.
Anthony walked behind the crowd, making sure no one took liberties, pulling the ones who did away from me as they protested. Five minutes later, as I turned to leave, my eyes met those of the man in the back, still sitting at the same table, watching me. I straightened my spine, something about his face niggling at my mind. I knew I hadn’t seen him here before. Did I know him? Is that what kept drawing my attention?
Once I was backstage, I pulled the cash out of my underwear, uncrumpling the bills until I could fold it all into a thick wad.
“Nice job, honey,” Cherry said as she drew closer to me, headed toward the stage.
“Thanks.” I smiled, squeezing her arm gently as we passed each other.
I unlocked my locker in the hall and stuffed the tip money into my purse before heading to the dressing room I shared with two other girls. They were off tonight, so for once I had the too-crowded space to myself. I sunk down in the chair in front of the small vanity table littered with cases, tubes, and compacts of makeup, jars of cold cream, and bottles of lotion and perfume. In the quiet of the room, the sounds of the men in the audience who’d just watched me dance filled my head—the whoops, hollers, and the catcalls that described in lurid detail what they wanted to do to me. I could still smell the scents of the beer-laden breath, heavy cologne, and body odor that had overwhelmed me as I’d bent and shimmied toward all those masculine shouts and reaching hands.
For a moment I fantasized using my arm to swipe everything on the surface in front of me to the floor and watch as it shattered and spilled, mixing together in a mess of gloppy, powdery color, and scent. Shaking my head, I stared at myself in the mirror, overcome by a sudden urge to grab a towel and begin scrubbing and smearing the makeup caked on my face. God, what’s wrong with me? A lump filled my throat and I stood too quickly, the chair I’d been sitting in tipping backward and clattering to the floor.
I turned at the sound of Anthony’s voice, and whatever was on my face caused him to frown. “You all right, girl?”
I nodded, a jerky up-and-down motion of my head. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just thirsty.” I walked toward the water cooler, picking up a Dixie cup, filling and draining it quickly before looking back at Anthony. “What’s up?”
“You got two private dance requests.”
I filled the Dixie cup again and took a sip. “Okay.”
“Little extra money’s never bad, yeah?” One side of his lips tipped up.
“Never bad,” I murmured.
Anthony remained unmoving, his lips a straight line again as he studied me solemnly. “I could tell ’em you’re sick.”
I am. I am sick. Sick of this. Sick of life. I shook my head, attempting to shake off the morose thoughts that had pricked my brain. “No, just give me a minute and I’ll be out.”
Anthony inclined his head and shut the door behind him. I took a deep breath and moved back to the vanity, bending toward it and using my finger to fix the places where my makeup had smeared. I stood straight and offered the mirror a smirk. “Showtime,” I whispered before turning, opening the door, and walking down the hall, where a skinny guy with shaggy, dark blond hair and a long face waited. He jerked as I approached, pulling himself ramrod straight, his large Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. Bile rose in mine. I gave him a sultry smile. “Hiya, sugar. You ready for me?”
* * *
It was getting close to closing time when I performed my last dance and made my way back to the dressing room again, stretching my neck from side to side and sighing with both relief and fatigue. When we girls weren’t dancing, whether onstage or behind closed doors, we served drinks. The manager, Rodney, liked our presence out on the floor—liked that bending over tables to deliver drinks and brushing past the men we were serving excited and encouraged them to keep spending money. Dealing with an obnoxious group of them, made bold by the stares of their friends, was nauseating. Tedious. But it also roused their generosity when I was onstage, so I did what I had to do. A subtle wink around the table and each idiot thought my next dance was just for him.
I changed quickly into my uniform—tiny white shorts, a black-and-white-striped shirt that tied between my boobs, and red stiletto heels—and opened the door to do a few last rounds of the bar floor. I startled, as did the man standing outside, leaning against the opposite hallway wall. What the hell? Where was Anthony? My eyes darted down the empty hall, no Anthony in sight. The man—he was the one I’d wondered about earlier—stood tall and ran a hand through his brown hair, looking momentarily unsure.
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” I said, crossing my arms over my breasts, unsure why I was attempting to cover what he’d probably been gawking at earlier.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure of the protocol.”
I raised a brow. “Protocol?”
He shook his head slightly. “The, ah, procedure for meeting with you.”
I cocked my head to the side. Okay, this guy was potentially crazy. “The procedure is that you have to go through Anthony. Big black guy? Mean looking? Snaps men in half if they mess with one of his girls.” My eyes darted down the hallway again.
“Ah. Yeah, he’s breaking up a fight outside.”
I glanced back to him. “Uh-huh. And so you made your move?” I took one step back into the room, ready to barricade myself inside if he tried anything.
He blinked and paused for a second before reaching into his coat pocket. Bringing his hand out, he tossed something my way. Instinct made me reach out and catch it. A set of keys. I looked at him, creasing my brow in confusion.
“If I do anything to make you nervous, you can gouge my eyes out with one of those.”
“Gouge your eyes out? Yeah, I’d really rather not.”
“I won’t give you reason to. I don’t mean you any harm.”
Anthony appeared at the end of the hallway, shaking his hand as if he’d injured it. “Yo, you’re not supposed to be back here.” Oh, thank God.
“I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t know the rules.”
“Ignorance is no excuse, my man. Gotta eighty-six your ass. You okay, Crys?” I nodded.
“I only want ten minutes,” the man said quickly, raising his hands. I wasn’t sure if he was doing an I’m unarmed gesture or whether his ten fingers went in tandem with the promise of limited time.
“Sorry, my lap-dance card is full for the night, sugar.”