issue twelve

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(1600 words)
Topless Ladder
Bryn Greenwood
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
I WENT TO THE INTERVIEW in a short black skirt, a white t-shirt, and too-small black pumps I'd borrowed from my upstairs neighbor. The club was quiet in the middle of the afternoon and not too smoky. A dozen men sat at tables around the stage, but for the moment the poles were empty, the lights dim. At a table near the door sat a guy in his 40's, with the kind of haircut former military men get. He waved me over.

"You here for the job?"        

"Yes, sir," I said, like a dope.

"Let's see what you've got."

No surprise there. I'd spent half the night before preparing myself for that moment. I put my purse on the table and pulled off the t-shirt, folded it on top of the purse. I'd planned for two deep breaths, but after the first one I reached back, unhooked my bra, and removed it. Cup into cup, I folded it on top of the t-shirt. Hands on hips, I gave him a friendly smile to camouflage how nervous I was. He looked at my breasts in a way that was not at all salacious, strictly business.

"That's nice. Not too big."

"Sorry." I was not quite a B, but they were perky.

"No, the big ones get in the way. Here. Go take their drink order."

He pushed a server's tray toward me and cocked his head at one of the tables. Three young men, soldiers from the nearby base, sat at the table. They were my age, probably just old enough to drink, and they had trouble making eye contact. That was fine by me; it seemed less embarrassing to have them look at my boobs than at me.

"What can I get for you?" I said, although it sounded out of place. Like a waitress in a diner instead of a strip club. They ordered another round of long necks. I minced toward the bar - I wasn't used to wearing high heels, let alone high heels a size too small - with the tray balanced ridiculously on one hand, just below the boob line.

"How are you holding up?" the bartender said. He seemed encouraging, avuncular.

"Okay, I think." Surprisingly I was, despite the fact that in the last five minutes more men had seen my breasts than in the previous twenty-one years.

"You'll be fine. The ones who freak out do it before they get their brassieres off."

He set me up with the beers and told me how much to charge: $5 a beer, which seemed like a lot at the time. I tiptoed back to the table without mishap, served the beers, and made change for a twenty. Remembering the bartender's advice, I offered them five ones.

"Keep the change," one of the soldiers said. Big shot.

During the whole exchange, I felt the club owner watching me, evaluating me, I suppose. When I finished, he motioned me back to his table.

"That was just fine, but it'll be busier on a regular night shift. Think you can work through a crowd with no problem?"

"Absolutely, yes," I said. I didn't have a clue; I'd never worked as a waitress before.

"The job is four shifts, Thursday through Sunday, 9 pm to 2 am. It's eight bucks an hour in cash, plus whatever tips you get. Most the wait girls clear at least sixty in tips every shift. You want it?"

I nodded vigorously, trying to do math on the fly.

Four shifts, five hours each, $40 a shift, plus $60 in tips. $100 a night, $400 a week, $1600 a month. The math on the job I had at the time was much simpler. Minimum wage was $4.25 an hour. $170 a week, $680 a month. I knew that math all too well. Enough to cover my rent and utilities with about $80 a month left over for food and anything else I might need.

It was killing me, not just being broke, but the work itself. I was a hotel maid, and my days passed in a blur of rumpled beds, filthy bathrooms, and used condoms stuck to night tables. I was exhausted all the time, my back ached, my hands were raw, my knees bruised. It was only June and I had to face three more months of the work until I went back to school and started earning my graduate stipend, which was $800 a month.

"Great," the club owner said and stuck out his hand to shake. "My name's Royal."

"Bryn," I said, still in shock, thinking of eating something other than rice and potatoes and beans, and maybe making a dent in some of my student loans.

"See you on Thursday, honey. Don't be late."

"No, sir," I said, and only then realized I'd been standing there talking to him topless. I put my bra and t-shirt back on, picked up my purse.

"Don't forget your tip," he said. He picked up the five ones on the tray and handed them to me.

$5 for fifteen minutes of work vs. $4.25 for an hour of back-breaking labor. Just like that I'd gone from being a nice, innocent Midwestern college girl to being an employee of the vice industry.

Behind me, the spotlights flickered on and a woman came onto the stage with a backdrop of Bon Jovi music. She was blonde, older than me, tanned, muscular. I didn't really want to stay and watch, but I figured I should get used to it. The dancer twirled and twisted around the pole in nothing but a g-string. She seemed completely indifferent to her own nudity, the way her breasts bobbed under skin that was too tight.

I thought of my college advisor, who talked about "moving up the academic and career ladder." I always joked that because I was an English major my ladder was more of a stepstool. Watching the woman dance, I got the impression there was a ladder and perhaps I wasn't standing on the bottom rung.

I knew something I hadn't known a month before: how bad things would have to be before I was willing to flash my tits to a room full of strangers. The thing I didn't want to know was on stage in front of me: how bad things would have to be before I was willing to take off all my clothes and shake my ass in front of strangers. After that, how many rungs were left on the ladder?

Excited about the prospect of real money, I told my sister everything. She told my parents, who then managed to scrape together enough money to support me for the rest of the summer.

I NEVER WENT BACK to the strip club, so I never met the dancer I saw that afternoon. But I met others. I went on to a series of jobs where I worked with women like her. I saw her hundreds of times when I worked at a family planning clinic. She paid for the pregnancy test with a pile of one dollar bills and I held her hand while she decided whether to have the baby, knowing she'd lose her job in a few months when the bump started to show. A hundred times I wrote her real name, not her stage name, on a referral form to the only abortion clinic within three hundred miles.

When I worked for a domestic violence shelter, I met her there, too. Freshly-bruised and strung out, she sat across the desk from me and shook her head. I begged her to press charges, pleaded with her to go to court, even though I understood why she wouldn't. If her boyfriend went to jail, he wasn't going to help pay the rent or take care of the kids at night while she worked at the club.

She was my student when I taught at a community college up the street from Mons Venus - one of the most famous strip clubs in America. She came to class, embarrassed and ten years older than the other students. With a fake tan, bleached hair, and a leopard print purse, she might as well have worn a sign that said, "Exotic Dancer." She missed class to take care of her sick kid, turned in assignments late, and scraped her way to a B-. At the end of the semester, she sat in my office, clutching her final grade in rhinestone-studded fingernails. "Thank you, thank you," she said, fighting tears, like no one had ever told her she was above average at anything.
Since the day I walked out of the strip club, I've gone on with my quiet non-profit life. I finished college, got married, and bought a house.

The woman I never met went on to a hundred different lives.

       She got her nursing certification.

       She moved back to Kentucky and got married.

       She gives blow jobs behind the liquor store to buy crack.

       She got her kids back from foster care.

       She's working on her graduate degree.

       He beats the crap out of her.

       She left him and took the kids.

       She's still a stripper.

It changes every day, what I think happened to her, the woman I never met. All the women I met. Their future changes every day.

$5.85 an hour, $234 a week, $936 a month. What hasn't changed much is the math: a minimum wage employee in 2008 still doesn't make as much as a topless waitress did in 1992.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Bryn Greenwood. All rights reserved.