For Mike Benton, it had been a long day. From the looks of things, he did not hold out hope of it getting much better, this first day in Mountain River. He just hoped, and prayed, it wasn’t a sign of things to come.
He really had prayed. From his long-ago Catholic childhood he remembered the prayer to the Virgin Mary. And he wasn’t being a smartass when he began saying, “Hell, Mary, full of grace, the lord is with you….” He wasn’t aware of his slip-up. It was just a reflection of his mood. He had just been to see where he would be working, the job he took sight unseen, the agreement to take the job a verbal handshake over the phone. What he saw left him shaken. Then he went to the bar of the hotel, at least the only hotel he could find, that had a sign that said ‘bar’, and to be honest, after an hour or so in town, and after an hour of not knowing anything about where he was, the sign was as welcome as hearing a word spoken in his own language. He knew it was late in the afternoon, his wife and baby boy were at the hotel taking a long, late nap, and there wasn’t any reason to go wake them up. So into the bar he went.
The bar looked like a set from a bad 1970s Western television show. And it had an abandoned look to it, not quite open, not quite busy, blond-colored paneling, faded and probably sticky to the touch; the floor all linoleum with Olympic-sized cracks, whole chunks missing, and the tables and chairs, well, the tables and chairs that dung-brown color and in a state that indicated they were at least secondhand when they found their way into the place. There were fluorescent lights on the ceiling that weren’t turned on. A huge swath of late afternoon sun was catching four or five panes of dirty glass and it was amazing at how well lit the room was because of it. There looked what appeared to be heavy velour curtains that, at some point, would be drawn shut. Beyond the far curtain, a funny shade of black with a brown tint, was a small stage, probably big enough for four band mates, but definitely crowded if there was a fifth.
A bartender and a couple of old-timers at the other end of the bar were the only other people in the place. The old-timers took no notice of Mike, who sat on a stool steps from the door he just entered and ordered a beer. The beers were all local and unfamiliar to him. He hoped he asked for something good. The bartender put the beer in front of him and then returned to his post in the middle of the bar, half listening to the old timers, half thinking to himself. A short man with wavy brown hair that looked suspiciously as if it was dyed that morning, the bartender didn’t once look at Mike again until Mike asked for another beer. The beer was passable but Mike deliberately took a painfully slow 15 minutes to drink it. A reformed smoker, Mike had nothing to do with his hands except flip over matchbooks and coasters. It was one of three reasons why he didn’t go into bars anymore. The second and third reasons were asleep in a motel two blocks away.
He had driven through the most harrowing mountain canyon he could ever remember, deposited his two loved ones into a not-quite-clean motel room, and in the hopes of getting a feel for the town, went for a walk. It revealed what he feared: there was a lot of nothing. For the hundredth time he wondered what the hell he was doing there, how he was going to scrape up enough news to fill a weekly newspaper, how he was going to reconcile himself to his career so off track that the next stop was oblivion. He was in the mood to feel sorry for himself, lick his wounds, so sitting in the dank bar of a seedy hotel seemed like a good idea. And in the midst of his second beer, and thoughts of ordering another, the place began to fill up, by twos and threes, with men grubby from days spent in the mills, the woods, the machine shops, flush with their Friday paycheck and looking for a place to spend it.
Mike had forgotten that it was Friday. Within a half-hour, the barstools were filled with the rumps of the working class, the tables and chairs had filled with the jeans and overalls of their brethren. A short, plump, matronly, grandma-looking woman with a smoker’s cough appeared from behind a door at the far end of the bar as soon as the men came in and swiftly took up the chore of bringing beers to the tables the men filled without so much as saying two words to anyone at any table, even though she was greeted at the table by nearly every man with friendly bantering and a recognizable dose of respect.
Mike noticed that the bar was not the sort to set out a happy hour snack assortment, no chips or pretzels in bowls to make thirsty patrons more thirsty. There were orders for chips, pretzels and cigarettes, all to be found on display behind the bar. Most of the men asked for beer, or rye, or a rye and coke. Mike saw there was little in the way of liquor behind the bar except for the rye whiskey, and it was the type that promised powerful hangovers the next morning.
As Mike finished his beer, the men’s talk rose like a wave and coughing, joking, snorting, yelling reached a fine crescendo, the men clearly relishing where they were, and, it seemed to Mike, anticipating something special. Mike looked at the clock on the far wall, it’s brass dials stuck onto lacquered wood, the hands revealing the time was 5:14.
At the stroke of 5:15, out of a side door came a smallish, thin unsmiling woman in a pink tank top, orange shorts, and ridiculous white platform shoes with heels at least five inches high, aiding a hopeful illusion of long legs, helping her appear taller than she was. She had long arms and shapely legs and a certain roundness to her ass. She was carrying a boom box and a towel.
The place erupted.
HEY BABY! A few men shouted.
She bent over, ass high in the air, and the men began whistling.
Unsmiling still, she began a tape of raunchy hard rock, and still bent over, laid out a huge beach towel, as if she was getting ready to sun herself.
The old grandma waitress walked over the curtains and pulled the cord to close them, and as she did, she flipped a switch, and out went the lights in the seating area and on came the lights for the stage.
Standing with her back to the crowd, she put her left hand under her right breast, and her right hand under he left breast, reached down, and in one motion, flung her hands up in the air, off came the tank top, she spun to face the crowd, revealing a tiny bikini top that couldn’t help but conceal breasts no bigger than teacups, but that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for her routine, a choreography so complicated it was hard to tell if she was really dancing or havibg an epileptic fit. She managed to gracefully fall onto her beach towel and writhe like an catfish angry at being caught.
There was no smile to be found anywhere on her.
It seemed to Mike the girl had to concentrate on what to do when, what to do next, her thoughts visible by the shape on her brow. The girl, who could not have been more than 19, was so focused on what she was doing, she couldn’t help but betray that she wasn’t entertaining so much as trying to get through the set.
The audience didn’t care.
Oh, there were some discriminating stripper aficionados who turned away from the act in disgust and announced to no one, ‘She’s a rookie. She don’t know what she’s doin.” But not many.
Recovering somewhat from the shock of the spectacle, Mike put down his beer, left some changed on the bar, and walked out. The sudden, harsh late afternoon sun blinded him. Once he stopped blinking, he suddenly wondered if anyone was watching him: The new editor of the weekly paper at the hotel in time for the strip show.
He hurried the two blocks to the motel. He couldn’t wait to wash, to get the grimy feeling off him. He thought about the girl, though, and wondered what in the hell she was doing here.
Granted, she wasn’t pretty, but she had a steely determination. Surely, if this was where girls went to be strippers, this had to be the bottom. If this was baseball, Mike this had to be what old-timers called ‘the low minors.’ Hell, it was probably the instructional league.
The beer wasn’t settling well. Neither was Mike’s conscience. Everything so far had been a disaster, but he really wasn’t recognizing truth. He had made it to this place, with his wife and baby son with him, to embark on a job that had taken months to find. It was a two-bit town in the middle of nowhere, and it was a tremendous blow to his ego to find out that this was the only job he could find. And as if he couldn’t sink any lower, he walks into a bar to find a stripper to go with the watery beer.
As he reached the door and pulled out the key from his pocket, the door swung open. His wife did not look happy.
“If this town doesn’t have a place where I can get a facial, I’m leaving,” she announced, in no better mood than she had been during the eight-hour drive to the small town nestled between two mountain ranges.
Mike thought the likelihood of his wife finding a beauty salon that offered facials to be slim to non existent. He began wondering when she would start packing the car.