I own a thirty-thousand square foot machine shop about twenty-five miles north of the city. Moved into the building about a month ago. Hell, the paint on the cinder block is still wet. Bought some old farm land, demolished a splintered red barn with a collapsed roof and put up the building. The only thing left now of those agrarian days is an old oak tree framed by my office window. It stands alone out there surrounded by a skirt of fallen leaves in the foreground of uninterrupted rolling hills.
Our shop manufactures dies for the forging industry. You know, things like wrenches, hammers, nuts and bolts. Our clients are some of the best-known household names in hardware. Well, a few years ago the general economy tanked, people started doing their own home maintenance and, as a result, our business skyrocketed. Like I always say, everything has its flip-side. Demand for our services had out-grown capacity and offered an opportunity to expand. I took it. If you want to dance, you’ve got to learn the moves, right?
Generally, the die business has been good to me. The way I see it, the only drawback is the client. Having to entertain them, I mean. When it comes to being stroked, they’re insatiable. But I tell myself it’s the cost of doing business.
For example, just last week. Henry, from International Valve, calls. He says,
“Eli, I want to bring my quality control guy, Tom, to your plant? It’d be good for him to see your new operation and review some new specifications.”
What he meant to say was,
“Eli, we know you like our business so show us a good time, after hours.”
“Hours” refers to the time at the plant and dinner. So, I had Mike, our administrative assistant, reserve rooms at the Westin and a table at the Paddle Wheel for dinner with a view of the river. But I was careful to personally take care of the arrangements for the “afterhours” entertainment. It’s not wise to overeducate your employees. As we know from the bible, Adam learned the hard way that too much knowledge can lead to indigestion. Not everyone has the depth to be able to process certain activities with an eye to their business relevance. These are things you learn over time.
When they arrived at the shop, it was pretty much business as usual. We toured the plant and pointed out the machines that scattered the concrete floor with the blue metal chips peeling from the dies they had ordered. Then, back in the office, Claire, our Q.C. manager, presented an excellent report. There were some perfunctory questions but the whole thing didn’t last more than an hour and a half. Then, as they’re getting ready to leave, Henry pulls me aside and says,
“Eli, that Claire you got is something else. It’s really sexy the way she stands up to answer a question, buries her knuckles into the table, and leans over to look you directly in the eyes.”
“She’s a professional, Henry, and a mother of four,” I tell him.
Then they leave for the hotel and wait for me to meet them. You got to know that Henry’s the kind of guy who only eats dinner to get to the dessert.
The hotel where they were staying looks south across the river towards another city on the opposite bank. That’s where I’d arrange for Henry’s dessert. The two cities face each other like sibling rivals in a stand-off. About the only thing they have in common is the local newspaper, The Journal. And even that splits its morning and evening editions between the two towns tailoring its content to suit the special interests of each. The Morning Journal serves one city, The Evening Journal the other.
You have to understand that our city, the one to the north, is a “jewel” faceted by family money and over the years, has nourished a reputation as a reliable business center. As any good businessman knows, reliability channels sales into accounting offices, sales generate tax revenues and tax revenues enable urban infrastructure to flourish. So, it’s become, what I like to call, a safe bet. On top of that, its “movers and shakers” as the poet, Arthur O’Shaughnessy, called them, are also what Irving Berlin called “top hat, white tie, and tails” kind of people. Some might call them high-brows but it’s because of them that the city is also home to a renowned symphony orchestra, ballet troop, and several museums. In short, they’ve made it the cultural center of the tri-state.
Well, every yin has its yang and the family oligarchs know that. They understand that businessmen are only human and readily accept the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And they figure that’s fine as long as the work’s done in the North and the play in the South. After all, no one wants any skeletons clanging about in their closet; there’s a reputation to maintain. So, they invest heavily in their bastard sibling to balance the three- and four-star restaurants on our side with gentlemen’s clubs on the other. I think it’s just good business sense and I’ve made it the bedrock of my customer strategy.
There are two popular clubs on the other side: the Brass Calf and the Three Sisters. The Brass Calf, located just off the interstate after you cross the bridge, is nestled in a row of shell-shocked brownstones. There’d been rumors, though, that it had begun hiring underage strippers, and being entrepreneurial by nature, these kids use the club’s client base to support their own startups. Well, nothing pricks a vice squad’s interest more than the tarnishing of a discreet luster. Consequently, for my part, the risks far outpace the return. And my clients would be the first to admit that, although they like to play hard, they want to do it discreetly. So, I decided months ago to use the Three Sisters exclusively.
So, after Mike made arrangements for the hotel and restaurant, I called the manager of the club.
“Jim,” I say, “I’ll be bringing two guys over tonight for the show, Tom and Henry. Henry’s almost a regular. He’s got an eye for Sal, though. Yeah, she’s all he talks about. She still working the stage?”
Jim tells me that she had a performance at eleven so she’d be there by nine. He’d make sure she kept an eye out for me.
Not only is Sal one of the club’s finest dancers but she knows how to make a customer feel special, loved, you know what I mean? It’s nothing personal. It’s a skill she’s mastered. She’s a professional. You’d think being businessmen, these guys would understand and appreciate this but they don’t.
Three Sisters epitomizes discretion. I mean it’s so low-key, people drive by it all the time and never know it’s there. It’s buried in a pitch black, no-street-lamp neighborhood around the corner from Marty’s Liquor. You park on the street and enter from a narrow alley. Once you’re in the alley, it’s not difficult to find because above the entrance there’s a flashing neon sign of some kind of partridge with a bifurcated black tail curled like a supine question mark over its back.
Three Sisters has got a colorful history, too. If you’re ever there, read the flip-side of their laminated menu. The story goes that, during the Great Depression, there were three beautiful sisters, Meeni, Winni and Gunney. Abandoned by their mother, they wandered the streets scavenging garbage cans for food. One summer night, they curled themselves in the alley outside what is now the club. But, no sooner had they fallen asleep when they were awakened by the jingling of keys. They look up to see a Kodiak of a man, whom everyone called Bear, fumbling to open the door. They beg Bear to let them sleep on his floor until they find a job. Well, Bear, opportunist that he is, agrees, on the condition that they dance for him at night. There is, however, a problem. He’s married. To make it worse, his wife’s a very jealous woman. If she found another woman, let alone three, in her house, she’d kill them all. Luckily, she worked the graveyard shift at the meat packing plant and didn’t come home until the morning after. Bear had already left for work. All he needed to do was make them disappear during the day and come out at night. You know, like the moon. Well, he’d heard of a guy who hung out at the liquor store, a doctor of sorts from the islands. Word was that this doctor sold mojos. So, Bear gives him a visit and buys an elixir that will turn the sisters to stone during the day as well as an antidote that’ll convert them into dancers in the evenings. He tells his wife he’d gotten the statues at a flea market to spruce up the house. And, believe it or not, she buys it. All’s fine until one night, his wife, feeling ill, decides she’ll stay in bed and not go to work. When Bear returns eager to watch the sisters dance, he’s once again frustrated by his habitual search for keys. He calls out the sisters’ names, one by one, to let them know he’s coming. His wife hears him and believes he’s brought some hookers home. Red eyes, wide and wet; hair like a nest of snakes, she grabs a butcher knife and plunges it into his heart. Bear, who had just reached for the antidote, now lays spread-eagle-dead beneath the stony stare of the three sisters. The wife, meanwhile, realizing what she’d done, never recovers from her frenzy, misses the mortgage payments and loses the house at auction to a developer. After changing hands several times, the current owner, a natural born speculator, purchased it to open a gentlemen’s club. He immediately saw the marketing potential in the three statues, placed them around the stage for ambiance and named the club in their honor.
When we get to the club, everything’s in full swing. In the middle of the room beneath an enormous mirror is a raised stage lined with foot lights. Burgundy theater curtains hang at the back of the stage and highlight the three statues. As for the statues, they look like the ones you’d see at a Greek restaurant. Each is dressed in a chiton clasped at her right shoulder revealing the left breast. The one to the left of the stage holds a jug in the shape of a squid’s body on her shoulder. Another to the right stoops down and appears to be pouring something onto the stage that, beneath the overhead mirror, looks like a peaceful pond. The third statue standing in the back near the entrance plays a stringed instrument that resembles an electric guitar without a neck.
In the club proper, metallic red, green, and gold lights ricochet off the walls and paint the smoke that rises like steam from a Turkish bath. Along the walls, beyond the lights’ glare, are mauve velveteen booths. Between the booths and the stage, there are twenty or so round tables for those who want a closer, unobstructed view of the shows.
That night, as we waited for Jim to get Sal and her friends, a jazzy rendition of “Here Comes the Bride” began to filter through the mist and a man’s voice came over the ceiling speakers.
“Our very own Judith will now perform the Dance of the Lonely Bride. Remember, no touching. You can pay but you can’t play.”
Now I’ve seen this act a million times but never grow tired of it. The curtains just behind the statue with the neck-less guitar open. A woman dressed in a cascading bridal gown of lace cut low in front strolls out sliding one leg after the other across the floor as if she’s skating in time with the music. A wispy translucent veil anchored by a crystal star studded tiara falls about her shoulders. The glow of the stage lights behind her dissolve the robe that outlines the twenty-four year old body beneath. Tight blond ringlets belie her rock-solid thighs and rippled abdomen while her white daisy pasties and silver g-string look as if they’re part of her anatomy. I remember she had just grabbed the center pole above her head and wrapped her ankles around the other end when Sal came up to the table.
“Eli, it’s great to see you. This is Demi and Shayna. Jim tells me you fellahs need some company.”
She raised her arm to catch the attention of one of the barmaids at the bar when Henry steps in between us.
“Sal,” he says.
“Henry, I didn’t know you’d be here tonight.”
“I left you a text right after I mailed you the scarf.”
Then Sal takes Henry’s arm and whispers,
“Things have been crazy lately. The scarf’s beautiful. Had I remembered you’d be here I would have worn it as part of my act. Come on, let’s get a booth.”
Just before I turn to follow Sal and Henry, I see the bride remove her opera length gloves and let them fall to the floor. Each time a glove hits the floor, there’s a loud hollow beat of the drum.
Walking to the booth, Henry has his arm around Sal’s waist. I remember thinking,
“Don’t eat your meat where you get your bread, Bud.”
We’re just sitting down when the barmaid approaches Sal.
“The usual, honey, all around?”
Sal’s mind seems to drift off for a moment.
“Yeah,” she says drawing it out, “It’s a special night.”
“That’s what we heard. Congratulations.”
Tom and Shayna slid to the center of the booth. I followed Demi at one end and Sal and Henry got in the other opposite us. Sal looked over at me and rolled her eyes. Sal and I have an understanding: when we’re at the club, we’re working. It’s my job to bring the client and hers to paint a smile on his face. That night, though, it seemed like she wanted to tell me something.
The voice of the announcer blares from the overhead speakers again.
“Now, Nurse Sweetheart will take your temperatures to new highs.”
A heavy staccato beat of a base drum fills the room and a tall brunette in a white cap, black lace trimmed apron and starch white nurse’s uniform enters the stage. She makes three circles and reaches for the pole.
The barmaid interrupts, blocks our view and replaces the empty glasses she had brought before with filled ones. Somewhere between the time the nurse dropped her apron and unbuttoned her uniform, Henry leans into Sal, puts his hand on her lap and whispers something in her ear. Next thing, Sal’s directing me with her eyes in the direction of the bar where the barmaid is talking to a large man in blue work clothes. The way this guy’s t-shirt sleeves cut into his biceps, he could have been a bouncer. As the barmaid talked, he was looking at Sal and shaking his head. At one point the barmaid puts her hand on his cheek and makes him look her in the face. Then she starts to shake her head and raise her arms.
Meanwhile, Tom has staggered to the bar to exchange a hundred dollar bill for ten tens. When he comes back he’s laughing.
“That was strange,” he says, “some muscleman at the bar wanted to know who was sitting with Sal.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“I told him it was Henry. Then he said for me to tell Henry to watch himself. I told him Henry was harmless, not to worry.”
Tom then gives us all a ten.
“Here you go fellahs, something to make the girls feel appreciated,” he says and goes over to a table in front of the stage where the Nurse has begun to twirl the tassels of her pasties like pinwheels in the wind. A trombone draws out a deep note followed by three shorter ones and Tom starts waving the bill at her.
The nurse removes her stockings, an electric guitar squeals, snare drums explode and she, bare-breasted now, approaches the apron’s edge of the stage, bends her knees and leans her body backward. Tom reaches out and jams a ten dollar bill into her g-string.
I focus my attention on Henry and Sal. He’s trying to slip his ten dollar bill under the table into her g-string but she’s not taking her eyes off the man at the bar. She slaps the bill onto the table top.
“Henry, you should tip the dancer. She’s doing the work.”
“But you’re the one I’m interested in.”
“Well, I dance next. Give it to me then. OK?”
“I’d rather you not dance.” I hear Henry say.
“Look, hon, I’m not a b-girl. If I don’t dance, I don’t get paid. It’s my job. It’s how I support my family, my kid.”
Then, Henry reaches into his jacket and pulls out his wallet.
“I’ll make up the difference.”
He flips through the twenty dollar bills as if they’re a deck of cards.
Demi turns to look at the bar and grabs Shayna’s arm.
“We should go talk to Sam, Shayna. Looks like he has a question.”
The barmaid comes back to the table with another round and bends over Sal.
“You’re up next Sal. Sam says for you to take it easy. He don’t want to make no scene.”
Henry puts his hand on Sal’s thigh. She gets up. Henry gets up. Sam starts to move away from the bar and come towards our booth. It didn’t look good so I get up and step between Sal and Henry.
“Henry, we’ll have to be going,” I tell him. That’s when he gets crazy.
“I don’t want to leave. I don’t want Sal to dance. If I leave, I want her to leave with me.”
Sal looks at me as if to say her shift had ended, mine had begun.
“Eli, your friend is treating me like a whore. This guy coming over here is the father of my child. He’s very protective. If I’m still here when he gets here, there’ll be trouble.”
I grab Henry and pull him down beside me. Sal disappears.
The announcer’s voice blasts out, “The last show of the night, folks. But it’s the best one. Here she comes, Mother Angela.”
Sal struts out of the curtains onto stage. Dressed in a nun’s black habit and white bib, she approaches the vertical pole in the center of the stage, bends her knees and wraps her legs around it. She starts to climb the pole arching her back and causing her gown to climb her thighs. Henry starts towards the stage. That’s when the guy from the bar shows up and casts a shadow over our table.
“That’s my fiddle you’ve been pluckin’ on boy,” he says looking at Henry.
Henry just stares at the man’s chest as if trying to bore through it. His mouth is open but nothing’s coming out. Whether out of a sense of duty or fear of losing a client, I felt a need to step in.
“He didn’t mean anything,” I said getting up. “We’re just leaving. Shayna could you get Tom and tell him we’re going?”
I didn’t turn to look at Sal or anyone else for that matter. The business at hand required focus. You’ve always got to have an exit plan and stick to it. Mine was to get into the alley as soon as possible.
After I dropped Henry and Tom off at the Westin, I went home. When I got there, my nerves were crackling like high-tension lines in the rain. So, I sat in my driveway for a while looking at the house. Under the misty glow of the front door light, everything seemed so peaceful. The thought that my family was safe, that I’d done my job well calmed me down and I wanted to share my sense of satisfaction with my wife. As I enter our bedroom, a patch of moonlight reflects off my wife’s bare shoulder and attracts me. I follow it into bed. I run my hand down the side of her body dragging the sheet with it and rest my hand on her hip. I’m just beginning to nuzzle my nose in her neck when she pulls the sheets up, wraps them around her and says,
“Mister, don’t you come around smelling like a whore house and looking for favors.”
And that, my friends, is yet another cost of doing business.
Mark Russo, born in Queens, NYC; graduated from the University of Cincinnati; ran a family business for 20 years; graduated from the University of Maine School of Law; practiced Immigration Law for 18 years and has published with Flash Fiction Magazine, New Reader Magazine, 34th Parallel Magazine, Literally Stories, Potato Soup Journal, Spillwords Press, Knot Magazine, MacQueen's Quinterly, South Florida Poetry Journal, Grey Sparrow Journal, Ekphrastic Review and Squawk Back.