Corey Mertes: The Auditions
They are both fat. The bigger, balding one with the cigar does most of the talking; he must be the owner. The one who told her she could audition is the day manager. He never smiles. Neither of them smiles. Nor do they watch her performance, even as she plays up a seductive sashay from one pole to the other, in part to distract from the fumbling unfastening of her bustier from behind. They would not let her play the music she brought, an Amy Winehouse number she covers on her most recent demo. Instead, when the bustier finally drops, she stretches for the highest point on the pole she can reach and whips her legs around in an awkward bid for centripetal harmony with Nicki Minaj. She is not in great shape, never has been. An effort to support her body horizontally ends in farce, with her skinny thighs scissoring open and both heels hitting the stage with a thud. Though sober, her subsequent struggle to stand is like a drunk reaching a truce with a very slim hammock.
“Very good,” the bigger man says as the song comes to an end. “Do it again.” He resumes his conversation with the manager while she puts her outfit back on.
She was late to the audition because after picking her kids up from school she had to drop them with their father and deal with his mini-fit about taking them on short notice on his “one night of freedom,” as he put it, the shithead. Emily and Byron are their names, eight and ten. She named them believing in the redemptive power of poetry, although the actual reading of poetry has always been a craving too meager to indulge.
If they ask her to dance any more she’ll also be late for a session with the combo she recently reunited with, a year to the day after the breakup that followed their fateful meltdown at Maxine’s. Gripping the brass railing, her reflected hands in the mirror make her wish she’d worn fake nails, because her real ones are short and uneven. Despite having large pretty blue eyes, she isn’t very appealing as a dancer. She’s too thin, for one thing, her breasts too small to play much of a role in men’s fantasies. Duty, however, is the ultimate motivator—duty and survival. A friend who had once danced for six months told her the pay was better than she could expect anywhere else, that she’d make enough to support her kids working just two nights a week if she kept her daytime job waitressing, and could spend the remaining nights working on her songs. So, for one year and one year only, she’ll strip, that was her compromise. She rationalized it as just another form of showbiz. The art of performance. And, indeed, she pledged to devote every ounce of excess energy not spent with her kids in that time to reviving her moribund singing career. This was the year she would put her life back together.
Her plan depends upon these two meaty, middle-aged men hiring her despite her unpolished appearance and commonplace skills. Aware of her chances, she decides to wow them by sliding down the pole head first, a maneuver she witnessed another girl do the day she came in to ask for an audition. It isn’t pretty, her positioning herself upside-down, like a test monkey in some drug experiment gone awry. The song ends with her hanging there, unsure how to right herself, thinking how sore she’ll be tomorrow. That she neglected to take her outfit off doesn’t seem to matter to the men, who appear more interested in the smudges on the mirror than her reflection in it. Her ex- has nothing, so Plan B is to ask for a loan from her sister in Little Rock and take a second waitressing job.
“Good job, honey,” the one with the cigar says when she’s finally able to stand. “You’re hired. I need someone Monday and Tuesday nights.”
She wobbles on the strapped heels she bought just for this occasion and says “Really? Are you sure?” immediately thinking what an idiot she is. She regains her composure enough to ask about pay.
“Sky’s the limit. You’ll be an independent contractor like all the girls. You pay ten bucks for each dance on stage. After that, you keep sixty percent of whatever you bring in. Couch dances are twenty. Two hundred for half an hour in a VIP room. These girls make bank, believe me.”
She needs to believe him. She calculates she can do it if her roommate will put the kids to bed twice a week. The same song, on a loop, replays from the empty music booth. She steps down to shake the men’s mitt-like hands and says: “I’ll take it.”
Her frenetic schedule turns tardiness into routine. She was late to her audition, late to her session with Cameron, Parker and Ross, late to pick up the kids from her ex-, late again on her first night at work at the club.
No one at The Cheetah seemed to care. Most of the girls were habitually late. By the end of the first month, after the anxiety of removing her clothes had worn off, she came to feel more at ease there than at any other station in her hectic life. Dancers are allowed to accept drinks from customers. At first, mindful of her responsibilities, she didn’t drink alcohol. One night, however, after a saucy exchange with a customer at Fran’s, the restaurant she worked at during the day, and a subsequent reprimand from the general manager there, she ordered, instead of her usual Red Bull at the club, a gin pickle, a Fran’s favorite she had to explain to the snickering waitress who had asked the guy she was with if he wanted to buy her a drink. Later, she ordered another. Her burly companion, who called himself Dave and claimed to work for the railroad, gave her her first VIP dance. Although she’d been assured by her friend that nothing overly sexual went on in the VIP rooms, she’d had her doubts, and was relieved when the guy didn’t press for anything more than a show and some harmless groping. She would never stick around if more than that was for sale. Reassured, she had to admit the job held potential for decent money. By the time she left, she’d cleared three hundred dollars, by far her best shift ever. As the kids were with their cousins that night, she went on a bit of a bender.
Before long, a pattern developed. She’d have one or two drinks because it loosened her up enough to talk freely with the men, who generally didn’t have much to say themselves. Most of them didn’t listen too well either; they had the dancer on stage or another girl on their minds. You can’t have thin skin in this business, she learned that early. Still, rejection affects your self-image over time, and the drinks dulled the sting. Once in a while a man would be taken by her alcohol-induced chattiness, and that’s when her resiliency paid off.
“What do you do?” was how she usually started when she sat with someone.
“I’m a student at the college.”
“I thought about going to college. I loooved books. As a kid, I had a library card for a while and brought home books every week. Not one person I knew had a library card. Okay, maybe I didn’t finish all those books, but I did read the ones about music. My stepfather . . . now he was a bourbon man. Not the good stuff, either. Used to waltz right through that front door and see me leafing through some history of rock-and-roll, or some biography of Besse Smith, or whatever, and he’d laaaaaugh, and say, ‘Girl, read all the books you want, it ain’t going to make you any smarter.’ Like he knew. He had some funny ideas about right and wrong, believe me, but he was right about one thing: school was not exactly my strength. I figured out it wasn’t going to be books that would get me out of that town, it was going to be my voice. Mother went behind his back to get me lessons. She always said, ‘Girl, that beautiful voice of yours is your ticket. You keep singing.’ And I still do. I keep singing. Not that country stuff those rednecks listened to, either. I’m talking blues, jazz. Billie Holiday. I know the difference.”
The men who listened usually ended up agreeing to a couch dance or two. The couch area, like the rest of the room except for the stage, was lit dimly in red. From the ceiling hung fixtures covered with paper lanterns in swirling phallic configurations. The rules forbade the men from touching while the girls rubbed against them. Couch dances were bait for the VIP rooms. Sometimes a man would touch her on the couch in violation of the rules and she would back away. Occasionally she’d let one of them get away with it for the whole song if she thought it increased the odds of getting him into VIP, or sometimes if she was just a little drunk or lonely and the guy was nice, or if she just didn’t care. She got far fewer VIP opportunities than most of the other girls.
One night she sat down next to a man named Clayton. That was his real name, she learned later, not a made up name like a lot of the men and all of the dancers try on. He was heavyset, but solid, not gross. A scraggly half-beard from what she estimated as three days’ growth seemed out of place with his nice sports jacket, dress shirt and shoes, and the fact that everything matched and fit right. At first, she didn’t feel an urge to order alcohol with him, even though it was about the time she would usually start. She ordered water instead. Unlike other men, Clayton looked right at her while they talked instead of at the girl on stage or the ones working the room. He asked questions as if he were really interested in what she had to say.
“Willow, I think I’ve seen you before,” he said, after they’d talked for several minutes. Willow was the stage name she’d chosen. “Not here, on the real stage. Are you an actress?”
She tried to read from his eyes whether he was putting her on or not and noticed instead that they appeared, in that unnatural light at least, to be two different colors. The left one gleamed.
“I used to sing,” she said.
“That must be it. At Harling’s, right?”
She shook her head. “A place called Benny’s, usually. It’s kind of a hole-in-the-wall on the West Side. Mostly jazz and rhythm and blues. Some pop.” Then, in a more sober tone, she added: “I sang at Maxine’s once.”
“Is that right?”
“It was more like an audition.”
The waitress came by. This time Willow ordered a real drink, not to loosen up or dampen the sting of indifference, but because having revealed an episode she had long fought to suppress, she needed a drink to dilute the memory. When he told her he’d certainly heard of Maxine’s, she remained silent. On stage, Jasmine demonstrated her flexibility by pressing her palms to the floor. Clayton stared at Willow and smiled.
“What happened, they didn’t like your voice?”
“They liked my voice.”
She crossed her legs and straightened the one on top, deciding that her feet might be one of her best features. The waitress set down her drink. Clayton watched as she stirred the gin slowly with the pickle.
“What?” she said, turning her head.
“You don’t want to talk about it?”
“Maybe I don’t.”
“Well, maybe I don’t want to hear about it,” he said, turning toward the stage, arms crossed. But he was smiling, and then she was smiling too and said: “I’ll tell you after a couch dance.”
While she rubbed against him on the couch, he looked only at her face, never at her body. He smiled the whole time but gave no other indication of arousal. She wondered if he might have been injured or something. When it was over and he paid, she asked carefully, “Was that alright?”
“Fine. I didn’t really want a dance. I want to hear your story.”
Though she’d promised herself she would look forward from now on, not back at her mistakes, that she had goals now and a program for achieving them, she would have told him the story of Maxine’s that night because he was easy to talk to, and she liked him. Just then, however, her name was called, and by the time she’d finished her two stage dances, changed outfits and got back onto the floor, Clayton was gone. He emerged from a VIP room a little later followed by Carly and walked straight out the door, head bowed. Carly, she noticed, changed into street clothes right afterward and left the shift early.
All the girls tell you not to get emotionally involved with the customers. Seeing them outside the club is technically forbidden, but even though it’s a rule that is never enforced and often broken, not one of the girls had a good story about a healthy relationship that lasted. Simply enjoying a man’s company enough to want to talk to him again, as Willow wanted to talk to Clayton, can only lead to disappointment, because you never know when, or if, he’ll return. Everything is on the man’s terms.
As it turned out, Clayton came back the very next night. It was early in her shift and no men were there yet. She was sitting in the long booth with Gemma, one of the only dancers she could really talk to. She’d decided the reason the others had been so cold was that she had ambition and they didn’t, and they resented her for it. Gemma went to college during the day to study communications. Clayton dressed casual this time, in a polo shirt and shorts. He still hadn’t shaved. He took a seat at the other end of the booth and waited for her to come over.
“Want company?” she offered, standing with her legs against his.
When she sat down, he said he wanted to hear about Maxine’s. She asked for a dance first, but he wasn’t going for it this time. As there was no money to be made elsewhere—little, in fact, to be made on these early-in-the-week shifts generally, as she was learning, the occasional big spender notwithstanding—she thought, what the hell, maybe this is how to plant the seed that will blossom into her first good-paying regular. She wanted to tell the story. Talk is therapy, as an aspiring therapist friend of hers always said, the same friend who had recommended she try stripping. Besides, Clayton had a sympathetic manner and he remembered what she drank. He ordered her a gin pickle when the waitress appeared, without her even asking.
“Maxine’s is big time,” he said, all it took to get her started.
“Best gig in town if it’s regular. Jazz, soul, blues, a little of everything. Parker got us the audition, our drummer. He knew someone who knew someone who knew the manager, or whatever, and they gave us a tryout after someone there must have seen us at Benny’s. Monday’s their tryout night because it’s so slow, like here. Only that night it wasn’t slow, there was this big crowd. The first set, they loved us. But then, at the intermission, we got involved in this . . . incident.”
She stirred her drink with the pickle. He waited.
“We were at the bar ordering drinks, laughing and feeling real good because everything was going the way we wanted. All of a sudden this country-and-western-looking guy pushes his way up there next to me like, you know, like his shit doesn’t stink. You can tell he’s there on the wrong night. Seems pissed off about it, too. We’re doing a jazz set and he’s no jazz lover. Real bushy mustache. He’s drunk, you can tell, because he’s talking too loud so that everyone can hear how smart he is. He’s got a big glass of whiskey in his hand. I kind of ignore him and keep talking with my friends, but he doesn’t like that. So he says, ‘Hey, dummy, I’m talking to you, can’t you hear?’ And he puts his hand on my thigh like this and tries to spin me around. They get all kinds in Maxine’s, that’s what’s so great about the place, usually. At that moment I wasn’t thinking about how great a place Maxine’s is, I was thinking about punching that asshole in the nose.”
Clayton laughed. “Feisty. I like that. Did you do it?”
“Not exactly. He leans in close to me like this and kind of whispers in my ear, ‘You’re lookin’ real sexy in that dress. You know where that dress would look even better?’ And I said ‘No, where?’ And he says, ‘On the floor.’ That’s when I threw my drink in his face.”
“Ha!” Clayton rubbed his leg. “You was askin’ for it,” he added, in some strange accent, as if he was imitating someone to be funny, but it wasn’t clear who or why.
Willow continued. She related how the man grabbed her in a headlock, how her friends and the guy’s friends got in a scuffle that ended with them all getting kicked out, herself included, after the manager saw her kick the main creep in the ribs while Ross had him on the ground. The police showed up, made a couple arrests, and, well, that was the end of her audition. They didn’t call back.
She told him she and the band were practicing together again after a long separation with the goal of getting back to Maxine’s. They had asked for another audition and were turned down, but she figured if they got good enough and were persistent, eventually the manager would have to give them another shot. She told him how hard it was balancing kids, two part-time jobs, her music, how tired she was all the time, and broke. She also expressed her determination. He listened to it all and encouraged her. He didn’t buy a dance, however. Instead, when McKenzie came in and winked in his direction, he made an excuse and followed her into a VIP room. As he closed the red curtain behind him, Willow could hear him growl.
After that he came in every couple weeks. He would inquire about her kids, her progress with the band. She liked the way he rubbed his leg when he got really interested, and even looked forward to the occasional gleam in his eye, which at first had been so disturbing—was it a glass eye?—but came to represent to her, in light of his unusually good manners for that setting, a tender distinction. He never asked for a dance. Their conversations always ended with his retreat to the couches or VIP rooms with another girl.
One night she decided to press him about it. She hadn’t been making nearly as much money as she’d hoped at this job, and hadn’t had more than one or two shows with the band, both at Benny’s, which paid next to nothing. Recently, she’d learned her son would probably need braces. For the first time, she’d had to borrow cash from her sister to pay rent. And this guy, loaded as he obviously was, just wanted to talk?
“How come you get dances from all the other girls but you never ask me?” she said one night, emboldened by the effects of an increasingly common third gin pickle.
A big smile revealed all of his unnaturally white teeth. “Maybe you’re not like the other girls,” he said. “Maybe I’ve got something special in mind for you,” he added cryptically.
“Oh do you now?”
He told her he was friends with the owner of Maxine’s, Michael Reiner, and could get her another audition. He pronounced his name Ree-ner.
She leaned back and eyed him suspiciously. “You never told me that before. I thought his name was Ri-ner.”
“No, uh-uh. Ree-ner.”
“How do you know him?”
“We belong to a couple of the same organizations.”
“Like the Crossroads Neighborhood Association. Heart to Heart. Friends of the Zoo. I didn’t tell you because I wanted to get to know you better. See what kind of person you are. Hear you sing. I heard you at Benny’s last week.”
“I didn’t see you at Benny’s.”
“I didn’t want you to see me,” he said, revealing his bright teeth again. “You can sing. I want to help you. I help you . . . and you help me.”
“Ok, I get it,” she said immediately. “I don’t do that sort of thing.”
“You don’t understand.” Before he could explain, however, Sofia, one of the more cutthroat girls, sat on the other side of him, and soon she and Clayton had disappeared into a private room. Willow was on stage when they finished. He left without looking her way.
Because he’d been a prominent businessman in town for years, a lot of information could be found on the web about the owner of Maxine’s. Willow learned that Michael Reiner had in fact been vice-president of the Crossroads Neighborhood Association, a board member with Heart to Heart, a Friend of the Zoo. His Facebook page even listed those exact organizations in that order. Although nothing she could find indicated any member of those groups named Clayton, it wouldn’t be unusual for a man to be using a phony name at The Cheetah. Willow knew enough not to ask any of the girls directly if they’d rendezvoused with Clayton outside the club. She did, however, try to feel them out for general information.
“He’s harmless,” Carly told her in the dressing room. “Some kind of bigwig developer. Seems honest.” But in the mirror as she dressed, Willow could have sworn she saw Carly wink at Savannah conspiratorially, and the two of them seemed to be suppressing giggles when they walked out.
The night Clayton returned, Willow had been rebuked again that day by the manager of Fran’s. While having her shift drink, she complained too loudly about a table that had stiffed her. The manager warned her he’d have to let her go if she continued to offend the customers. At The Cheetah, she hadn’t forgotten about Clayton’s offer. She asked for details as soon as she sat down.
“No sex,” he said. “It’s not like that.”
“What is it like?”
“It’s a little embarrassing.” He crossed his legs. “I just want to watch you . . . change clothes. Into these outfits you wear here. Into and out of them, one after another. It’ll be like I’m evaluating them, helping you decide which ones to wear.”
“I know it’s a strange fantasy.”
“I’ve heard stranger.”
“That’s what I’m counting on,” he said, with an odd little chuckle.
They watched Crystal’s entire dance in silence. Then it was her turn and she stood up and said she was sorry but she’d have to decline his offer. He opened his wallet and handed her his card. “Just think about it,” he said. The card read:
Blank Properties, LLC
Weeks passed before he returned. Her money problems multiplied. Her combo had nothing scheduled and she’d missed two practice sessions in the previous week alone, one because of a hangover, the other because of a sick child. She was dancing in front of an unusually large crowd, most of them part of a rowdy bachelor party, when Clayton finally came in. Before even taking a seat, he approached the stage and placed a fifty dollar tip on it for her. When she later sat down with him she asked what he would pay, theoretically, if she were to take him up on his offer, and where they would go.
“A hotel,” he said. “A nice one.” He had to raise his voice to be heard above the din of the party. He practically yelled his proposed payment—“Three hundred dollars!”—before things finally quieted down enough for him to elaborate on his fantasy.
“I would be in my underwear the whole time. No laws would be broken. I don’t want that.”
Her answer was still no, but she had to admit to herself she was tempted. She asked around again, this time posing a hypothetical in the dressing room to Mercedes, one of the more experienced girls, describing details of the proposition.
“Are we talking about Clayton?” Mercedes laughed. She wouldn’t admit to having been with him, claiming instead to have heard about his fantasy from others.
“Don’t worry about that freak. He’s harmless.”
“Does he do what he says? He just watches?”
“Ah. Oh, he might kiss your leg or foot or something weird like that, but he won’t hurt you. He tips big, too.”
After that she didn’t see Clayton for more than a month. She’d had only one gig in that time, at Benny’s again, before a sparse crowd. A week later she lost her job at Fran’s for drinking on the clock. The night Clayton finally returned she’d had to get a ride to work from a friend because her car had broken down. On her third gin pickle she plopped into the booth next to him with less subtlety than usual.
“You look more beautiful than ever,” he said, after sizing up her condition.
She said, “I want four hundred dollars.” Actually, she slurred it.
From the parking lot, the hotel he chose appears much older than it is. A torn red awning over one of its balconied windows flaps audibly in the wind. The neon sign on the roof announces Hotel Brighton in zesty Broadway font, except the first t is burnt out.
They meet in the lobby. Sober tonight, she’s having second, third and fourth thoughts as she waits beneath a dusty chandelier while he pays for the room holding a paper sack under his arm. In the elevator, he turns sideways and examines her tight skirt and shoes. She stands in the corner clutching a gym bag full of the outfits he’d requested she bring. An intermittent clanging noise in the elevator shaft accompanies their ascent, like a secret code in a prison.
“That doesn’t sound so good,” she says, laughing nervously.
There’s an awkward silence. She wants to remind him of his promise to talk to the owner of Maxine’s after this is all over, but the timing isn’t right. She can see in his bag the red cap on a pint of Beefeaters and a small jar of gherkins. Following her eyes, he raises a smile on one side of his mouth and says, “I brought your favorite.” She just nods.
In the room, she’s relieved when the décor shows reasonably good taste, an effect mitigated, unfortunately, by its haphazard arrangement—a print hung well above eye level, a recliner with no room to recline, the bed resting at a peculiar angle—as though the decorator had been improvising and was interrupted mid-design. The muffled cry of a baby echoes from somewhere down the hall. The man plops an envelope on the bed and sits in the chair facing her as she stands fast against the bureau.
“I guess how I see this going at first is for you to change. In front of that mirror over there.”
His manner is more direct than it ever had been at the club, less giving. Sober is the word that comes to mind, even though in the elevator she’d detected liquor on his breath.
“When you’re done, parade around a little. I’ll rate your outfit and then you can change into another one.”
She opens the unsealed envelope and counts the hundred dollar bills.
“Glasses,” he says, all of a sudden.
“I forgot glasses. I bet they have cups.” He rises and skirts past her toward the bathroom, where he adds “We’re in luck!” before emerging with two translucent plastic cups. He pours them both a drink and tells her she can go ahead and get started with the frilly cowboy number.
By the time she’s changed into her third outfit and modeled each in the narrow path between him and the bed, they’ve had two drinks apiece—gin with a splash of warm tap water and a floating gherkin. They’re awful but she drinks them anyway, to blur the unpleasant sight of him gradually disrobing down to his underwear, a process no less disconcerting for his having prepared her in advance. The next scenario is more unsettling. She sits on the leather chair pretending to text her friends and ignores him while he gets on his knees and massages and kisses her calves. His movements are mechanical. He doesn’t appear to be aroused, which makes her wonder again if he’s suffered some sort of injury. His only words are commands: Cross your legs, or Stand up, turn around and sit down again, or Text someone for real but don’t tell them what’s going on. All of which she does, her only undirected movement a sidelong reach toward the desk to pour a drink, which she downs without pickle or water before pouring another. With his approval, she lights a cigarette, her first in the week since she last quit.
She thinks this might be a good time to remind him about Maxine’s, but when she mentions the name he closes his eyes and says “Shhhhhh. ” After a long silence with him at her knees and her nervously scrolling through contacts on her phone, she unconsciously begins to hum—My Baby Just Cares for Me, part of her standard set. Clayton stops what he is doing, looks up with cloudy eyes and smiles wryly.
“That’s right,” he says. “You’re the jazz singer.”
She is: the jazz singer. Not a whore. She isn’t stupid, she knows where this is going. “Listen,” she says, standing and gathering her things. “You said you were going to help me but don’t even worry about that now—” She cuts herself short after he spins and crawls speedily away from her on hands and knees, like an animal in flight. She grabs her bag.
“No no no,” he says. “Stay.” When he reaches what he’s after, his pants crumpled on the floor, he removes a slip of paper from the back pocket. “The guy I know at Maxine’s,” he says, holding it up. “Maxine’s, right?”
She doesn’t say anything, but doesn’t continue out the door, either. He stands with difficulty, grimacing from some indeterminate pain. He seems much older than he does at the club, here, in the light.
“What about it?”
“He’ll give you an audition,” he says, getting to his feet.
“Who? Michael Reiner?”
“Yeah yeah, Reiner. Come over here.” He holds out the paper.
“How do I even know you know him?”
“What does that say?”
She takes the paper and reads it aloud: “‘Michael Reiner.’ And a phone number. Big deal, any—”
“I want you to take off that outfit now. Right here, not by the mirror.”
“Why? What is this?”
“I want to try something different. With your back to me, facing the bed.” They are a couple feet apart. She inhales uneasily.
“We’re halfway done already. I just want to hear you sing.”
The words freeze her. He looks ridiculous standing there in his underwear. She feels like dashing from the room, down the stairs, half-naked into the street. But just as suddenly she has a paralyzing thought: What would she be dashing toward?
“Come on. I’ll put the pants on if you’re so worried.” Which he does, while she reaches for the gin.
“Are you going to throw your drink in my face or am I going to get you this audition?”
“Tell me again how you know Michael Reiner.”
“The Neighborhood Group thing,” he says, sounding a little irritated. “The charity. We’re old friends, okay.” He gently nudges her shoulder with an open palm until she’s turned around. “And friends do friends favors, don’t they?”
“Aren’t we friends?” he says softly into her ear from behind.
She doesn’t answer. Instead, she drinks the cup of gin in one long gulp. He waits for her to set the empty cup on the night table before asking, “What’s a good one? What would you sing at an audition for Mike Reiner?”
Her knees touch the bed as he slips both hands under the thin strip of fabric around her hips. “I’d have to think about that. His name is pronounced Ri-ner, by the way. I asked around about that.”
“Let me help you,” he says, sliding her bottom down.
She grabs his wrist. “I’m not comfortable with this—”
“Okay . . . Okay.” He pulls his hands back. “You do it then,” as he guides her fingers to her hips. “What about My Funny Valentine? You know that one?”
She doesn’t answer. She grips the straps but doesn’t pull the bottom down or up, instead holding it in place.
“Sing it. My funny valentine . . .”
“This is not what we talked about.”
“I bet he’d like to hear My Funny Valentine. Mike Ri-ner.” Then he gently cups his hands around hers and directs the G-string slowly downward. She offers some resistance but says nothing. “Go ahead,” he says. “Sing . . . Sing.”
She begins to hum softly.
“No, sing it. Out loud.”
She can faintly hear the sounds of a couple arguing in the hall. She begins to sing in a soft voice, haltingly—My funny valentine . . . sweet comic valentine—as he takes over the task of removing her bottom. When it’s at her ankles, she tiptoes carefully out of it, as if inching toward a steep cliff.
You make me smile with my heart. Your looks are laughable—
He rises and gently places one hand on her shoulder to nudge her torso down and forward, the other hand guiding her hips back toward him with practiced care.
“I don’t—” She turns her head, looks him in the eyes.
“Shh, shh, shh, shh, shh,” he says, so gently. “Sing,” he whispers. “Like we’re at Maxine’s.” She lets herself be turned forward, toward the blank wall.
Unphotographable. Yet you’re my favorite work of art.
When he has her fully bent over he lets go of the piece of paper he was holding and it drifts onto the bed at her side. The phone number, she notices now, is one of those fictitious ones they use in the movies that begin with the prefix 555. It’s too late to question. She’s halfway through the song. She closes her eyes, her elbows supporting her weight on the blue chintz quilt, and she keeps singing, imagining herself on stage at Maxine’s before a crowd of applauding men of all ages.
“That’s it. Pretend it’s an audition,” he sighs.
Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak when you open it to speak? Are you smart?
The man’s zipper coming undone sounds a little like a jazz riff as her voice quavers. It turns out he wasn’t injured after all. What happens next makes her forget the refrain.
Corey Mertes grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago, in Hyde Park. He earned a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television Production from the University of Southern California and a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, including American Review, 2 Bridges Review, Green Briar Review, Sundog Lit, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Bull: Men’s Fiction, The Prague Revue, and Midwestern Gothic. He’s been nominated multiple times for a Pushcart Prize and was a semi-finalist for the 2016 Hudson Prize.