Strip the Light Fantastic

If the idea of visting a strip club chilled Xchab, the reality treated her to hot blasts of sheer panic. It was bad enough out on the sidewalk. Not the teeming crowd of testosterone mainliners she’d seen in high season, but even in summer there were enough bargain-hunting gringo men, narco downliners, and the usual Machus Mexicanii milling around outside the rope trying to spring for or weasel out of the cover charge to qualify as a crowd. And it turned out that a striking redhead wearing practically nothing and a Mayanita cum punker in slitherene and lethal cockatoo crest were crowdpleasers. The same mob that had ignored Xchab in her tribal drag now brayed their interest. With a certain degree of detail and body language. She had stepped off the bus with a degree of assurance and matched Copper’s leggy strides with her own imitation of forward press femgression, but once dangled in front of the slavering maw of mankind, she balked and quivered.

Copper shot her a sidewise glance. Should have expected this. She was surprised her faithful Indian sidekick didn’t drop into a submissive squat. And if she did, it was a good thing she’d made her put on the RoboUndies. The stagedoor Juanitos interpreted the falter as a wound, calling for culling. But Copper dealt with that briskly enough. The first guy that stepped up, coming on with “Hey, guapa, why don’t we…?” found her right in his face, wafting him a complex perfume of faux-expensive musk and curdling erotica. “You’re on. Let’s see the four hundred bucks.”

A comment that almost sent Xchab into mental arrest, but then she marveled as the fratpack parted in front of them. No child of Israel had been more amazed at the parting of the sea, nor walked through the gap with greater trepidation.

Inside of BlackJack was worse. Instead of a looming mob, it now started to look more like an organized sport where the rules all favored the team in trousers. Shirts vs skins. Xchab stared, apalled beyond words, at her first inside shot of Sodom by the Sea. The music hit her like a swollen black fist. The big trashcan thwallop of last-quarter grudgefucking, the nasty nature of the sneered lyrics obvious even to somebody who didn’t speak English or rapjive. She felt it on every inch of her skin, deep in her tripes. It made her ill.

Made her want to kick things. She registered the entire, uncensored antics of men for the first time. She’d seen the eyes on the beach, the leers. And of course had put up with Winston. But here for the first time she saw what her aunts had told her all along, Brutes yowling for their meat, shoving each other aside to rub their hands on girls’ privates. Holding up money, then exchanging it for crude degradation and twisted pleasure. A temple of release where cats toyed with mice and ripped the veils from their intentions. They stared at Xchab, even though she was clothed, more or less. She quailed from their eyes, unable to sort out admiration from rapaciousness, longing from lust.

Copper was yelling at her, finally grabbed her bare shoulder and shook her out of her paralysis. Numbly, she followed her twitching butt through a labyrinth of tight-packed tables, lightly packed with men. Tables on which nude girls did a stylized prance. This was what Mexicans call “teibol”, she realized. Whoring from middle distance. She revised that definition when one girl jumped on a man’s shoulders, calves kicking the beat on his back, hands twisting in his hair, naked crotch grinding into his face. Copper had to come back, grab her and tow her away, she locked up so bad behind that little performance. And it was going on all around her.

Copper sat them both down at a table far from the main stage, where two blondes simulated lesbian bliss, and close to the service bar at the rear. She gestured and a stocky waiter with a scar on his jaw and a white shirt that glowed like blue dashboard lights in the club’s stutter of blacklight and discoduck strobes. He hugged Copper with an obvious affection and respect and they chatted in friendly yells. Then she introduced Xchab. Who had been noticing and trying to sort out the looks she was getting from the men, but saw nothing but professional courtesy in this Manuel. Who shook hands, leaned over for the perfunctory Mexican kiss at the cheek, and went to get drinks.

Copper was speaking very loudly in her ear, “Stay at this table. The ladies’ room is right there behind you. Don’t accept a drink from anybody except Manuel. If a man sits down here while I’m gone, tell him he has to pay a hundred pesos each song to sit with you. And buy you some twenty dollar fake Johnny Walker. Anybody lays a hand on you, call Manuel and he’ll come cripple the fucker.”

Then she was gone, plunging Xchab into fullbore anxiety. But then Manuel was beside her, handing her a Margarita. She took it with a tellingly grateful lunge. He smiled at her; a dark, dangerous face above the ghostly glow of his shirt, and waved a hand around the place. She followed his gesture: it was all Bosch to her. He leaned down by her ear, chuckling, and said, “Bienvenida a BlackJack, ‘mana. Provecho.
Startled, she realized that he was Mayan, too.

She sipped her tequila slush and turned her attention to the girls. How they dealt with it: some bold, some reticient, all trading the ogling and pawing for American dollars. Pura carne. Then Copper came out and she saw something very different.

The redhead didn’t mince or prance like another plate of libido chow, she roamed in like a jungle cat working up an appetite. She moved as if performing sports, an ancient dare from long-forbidden folklore. She swarmed up a polished brass pole: perching like a bird, soaring like a hunting shark, skinning around like a Chinese acrobat.

She leapt to the edge of the stage, daring men and rebuking them. She stomped on their groping hands and they threw money at her disdainful backside. She leaned down to rub bald heads, slap insolent faces. She grabbed a guy’s glasses and flaunted them on various parts of her anatomy, creating caricatures of the very dumb-lust they trumpeted. She jumped from the stage to a tabletop, kicked out at the howling faces, leapt from the circle of grasping hands. She dived under a long table of conventioners, her progress underneath it traced by men jumping back out of their chairs, laughing.

Then she popped up for a lope along the table and a long, leggy leap back to the stage. And the lights went out and Xchab felt another clutch of fear. But then two red eyes glared out of the darkness.

And started to move. It was the same electron dance Xchab had seen before, but now the tiny lights spun in close, their glows revealing portions of a ruddy nude anatomy. Finally the little lights–which she knew Copper had named Deimos and Phobos and referred to as her “new secret weapon”–swung around behind her and out of sight, then up between her legs from behind. She trapped them between her thighs, became an undulating patch of lurid red hairs before the little eyes winked out. The lights came up to a thunderous, stamping applause, but the stage was empty except for a busboy gathering up big drifts of tossed bills and stuffing them into a plastic bag.

Xchab felt a hand on her shoulder and leaped up in alarm, but it was just Copper, laughing at her.

The last three hours had been pretty weird, even given the location and circumstances. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect was that Xchab, barely-reconstructed teen-aged junglebunny, had gotten used to BlackJack. She wasn’t seized up by ongoing atrocities on stage, tabletop and thightop any more, could actually hear Copper without straining or flinching beneath the hit parade of anti-personnel music.

Her tour guide to gringo sex hell now arranged a big sheaf of bills the busboy brought her, fanned them in Xchab’s face; a welcome cool breeze with hints of sweat and illicit substances. When Manuel came by with another round she peeled off a third of the stack and handed it to him. Then gave him an American five and pantomimed him having a drink. Xchab had seen enough by then to realize that Copper was bringing in four or five times what the other girls attracted. And that it made her popular with the whole house.

And what she was saying was mostly about picking up tips from the other girls. How they did it, what worked and what didn’t. Watch the Brazilians, she emphasized. They’re Black as Cubans and know how to shake a booty from birth. The toughest thing about stripping isn’t the eyeballs out front, it’s stepping out of a G-string in high heels.

But after two more dances, with the same rain of currency, and a few more drinks, she leaned shoulder to shoulder with the younger girl and said, “Look, it’s a play, okay? I see myself as an artiste, really. More than that: fire is like my religion. This is just a gig, a gancho you understand?”

She took another swallow of some gold foreign whiskey and turned to talk right into the kid’s face. “Thing is, it’s a slippery slope.”

She studied Xchab’s blank look. Had to keep remembering Spanish was her second language. “You understand me? A nasty business. You get around it too much, get sucked in, they start owning your ass. I don’t have much morality… I do whatever I need to, fuck the rules. But here’s Copper’s Law: Whatever you’re doing–dancing, stripping, married, peddling your ass on the street–the big thing is that nobody owns you.”

So there it was. Xchab stiffened up and blurted out, “I’m not going to dance in front of people naked.”

Copper laughed and patted her forearm. “Some punker you are.”

That gave her pause. Copper watched her chewing on it. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, this kid. But there was something about her, something sort of draped around her like an invisible veil or rebozo that Copper responded to instinctively. Probably part of her veneration of Santa Muerte and La Alma Perdida. This girl’s soul would have to find a map in order to even quality for being lost.

Finally Xchap spoke up, almost inaudibly under the pud-thud of the soundtrack. “Then why did you bring me to this place?”

Copper leaned closer and slipped her arm around the girl’s shoulders, under the heavy rope of braided hair. Her lips just inches from her ear, she said, “I’ll tell you why, honey. You live in an unstable world. There might come a day when you need some money and this is actually about the cleanest way a girl with no education and nice tits can make this much in a night. Keep it in mind. You’ve got the stuff. To say the least. Two years from now, you’ll be legal and still tight.”

There was a longish pause while she let Xchab process the whole thing, arm still around her bare shoulders, lips still at her ear. Then she said, “Here’s three main lessons, Chiquita.

One, learn how to do things that bring money. What pays, pays off.

Two, don’t be ashamed of your body or being a woman. We rock.

Three, don’t let them be in charge. Don’t give to them, take from them.”

Her lips touched the brown shell of Xchab’s ear and laid down the softest, gentlest of kisses. With just the tiniest thrust of pink tongue into dark recesses.

Then she took another drink and said, “And if you feel like getting up there to dance, just say the word and I’ll make you a star. Maybe even a comet.”

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