Tom Layou

Erik said, “You comin’ to the Bush Company with us tonight?”

I was at a shop talking to some guys I know from the cannabis industry.

“I don’t know, man,” I said.

Going to a strip club is flirting with a lot of things I’ve meant to leave behind. But it was my friend, Mark’s, birthday.

“We sell weed to a lot of their girls,” he was telling me. Some people on that crew know a few of the dancers, and Mark had told me about going to greet one in a confused social setting. In a possible case of mistaken inebriation, she reflexively delivered a full-on uninhibited windmill bitch-slap, followed by immediate recognition, emphatic apologies, and hugs.

A dancer I’d sold weed to before came in and started talking to one of the budtenders about the Halloween show at the club. The way she got me feeling fourteen again and trying to come off too old to care she always made me feel like a putz.

Around a corner I said, “Is that her?”

Mark pressed a fist to his mouth, dropped it and nodded.

I did a mirthful little dance, stopped, and let out a resigned, “Fuuuck.”

The shop manager, Derek, said, “What, so now you’re gonna go?”

I was almost to the club when I remembered Mark changing out all the singles from the tip jars and Erik telling me he was going to Holiday for ones. I had cash but only a few singles, and it’s kind of been a while since I’ve gone. ‘Fuck, do I need those when I show up?’ I imagined joining a swath of wide-eyed jackasses in khakis and sweaters who show up at the titty bar like they don’t know what to do. There were probably a lot of them, and they probably all needed singles. ‘God damn it,’ I thought in vague disappointment. ‘I do know how this works.’

The man at the gas station nearest the club was friendly, asked how I was doing and I did the same.

“Hey, this may be a dumb question, but can I get twenty dollars in singles?”

The guy blushed and said, “I don’t have it.”

I was just as obvious when I went to the next nearest station, bought a couple bags of Skittles and asked for my change in singles.

“I’ll see what I can do,” a harried, frizzed-out ginger cashier seemed to be saying for the seventy-fifth time that night. The place was packed and my retail senses told me it was the kind of line that never dies.

In a display, someone had tossed a box of Lifestyles with a discount sticker in with the Ho Ho’s. A portrait of Anchorage.

She pulled some bills from the very bottom of the drawer and said as she counted, “I might have to give you one five.”

“I can totally live with that.”

I couldn’t stop laughing as I walked out of the gas station with my skittles and singles.

We found a place to smoke nearby but by the time I caught up, Erik and Mark wanted to go. I got in Derek’s car and he handed me a Puffco, a crazy electronic portable concentrate bong astronauts probably use to get high in space. I took a dab and Derek handed me a glass container with a white pebble inside, some loose powder in the corners. He said, “Look at this.”

I was taking way too long to decide what to do with this cocaine but there were strippers involved.

Derek said, “It’s some new concentrate I picked up, but I’ve never seen it like this before. It’s like isolate.”

“THCA?” I said.

“No, it’s just this weird, white powder.”

Derek loaded some in the Puffco and gave it back to me. Taking the short puffs, pulling bubbles through the tubes running up and around the recycler attachment, I saw escaping smoke wrap around me and lift me to the moonlight. The machine vibrated and I finished the hit, stoned — a shimmering, resplendent, immaculate stoned.

When I pulled into the Bush Company parking lot, ‘I Touch Myself’, was on the radio and I cranked the Divinyls’ lone hit. I walked in with Derek and after we showed I.D.’s I stepped aside to follow. The floor plan is like a retro video game played with a digital marble on curved stairs, some built-in drunk test I found unmanageable. This is the kind of place I know I have more memories than I remember. At the far end of the room, near the pool tables, was a booth with our friends. If you call an L-shaped bench with half a barrel to set drinks on a booth. But, maneuverability.

The Old West saloon-style room had been upgraded for a darker holiday kink with shit like skeletons and bats but was dominated by scarlet bunting everywhere that held deep contrasting shadows. The apron around the thrust stage was decorated the same and a silky awning over the top obscured a respectably functional assortment of miniature conventional and intelligent lighting fixtures, and a point for hanging hardware downstage center.

The place was filling quickly and some of Mark’s friends came to join us, first a couple ladies he knew and then a couple dudes who sat near me. I’d been to karaoke with one the night before and had never seen the other, but I knew there were naked people everywhere and I was getting all personal with some guy I’d never met. I looked around the room. There were a couple ladies by the stage with white buckets and I gradually realized I was staring at the one nearer to me. Strip club or no, she was just hanging around before the show and it seemed a party foul. Then I realized I’d friend-requested her on Facebook late one night and promptly unfollowed her because I didn’t need that kind of gorgeousness in my life.

“Oh, God,” I thought, and leaned in to the crowd seated with me, who’d apparently been talking the whole time.

I didn’t have to pretend for long. Lights dimmed and the evil music started. Everyone looked around the room like unfed livestock. In the back of the room, on the second level, two dancers played out a BDSM pantomime, the dominant partner leaning her submissive over the banister, choking and lightly beating her. The ladies finished and walked behind a wall and people craned around, watching the walkway that wraps around the second level. I saw stairs and wondered how they connected to the floor area, where the ladies would appear next.

The room shifted and the woman I’d seen at the shop earlier was marching another dancer down the stairs forcefully. On the stage I watched the dancer I knew abuse the other, they flailed in white fishnets and platinum wigs, something more strappy, tattoos, fangs that popped in the UV stage lights and unsettling opaque white contact lenses. The dom marched her sub off the stage toward our booth. When you step off a lit stage that moment of pupil fluctuation is like seeing a world you only half-expect form out of complete mystery and I don’t know what you can see through those contacts. I watched the Alpha Dom march her sub up the aisle leading to the table behind us.

The Dom was marching the sub backward, then slammed her into my lap. I was piecing together my stoned-ass reality when the Dom straddled the sub and began devouring her carotid. I smiled. It seemed to last a while. They got up and left, club sounds drowned by the blood pouring through my ears. I swung right and Mark spread his arms, piercing it with,

“And instantly, your day is better!”

I wasn’t arguing.

The two moved around the room, bringing the performance to the whole audience. Were there more out there? Fuck, I kinda checked out for a while, but the stage brought me back. The dancers performed an abstract wedding establishing roles, largely doms and subs. The stage was crawling with these semi-naked vampire chicks and zombie stagehands had rigged a multiple tiered chain swing the dancers were arranging themselves on. Something like six dancers filled this device starting at the bottom, and by the time there was one lying here and a few curled there, the Alpha Dom climbing to the top over all of it, I realized these women had come here to do more than take off their clothes. They had put time into this, rehearsing, applying and coordinating acrobatic talents not a lot of humans have, and they were going to put on a goddamn show. The swing began to pivot, spiraling naked writhing tattooed mayhem.

The show was broken into separate scenes that allowed for a vista scene changes and drinks to be served. With audience lights up, some zombies and I think Frankenstein took down the swing to rig a pole with a small round platform at the bottom that swung freely on a carabiner.

A new girl joined our group and sat somewhere on the other side of my sausagefest seatmate.

I looked ignorantly around the room.

“If you don’t mind,” The Sausage said, and I moved over until I had about a half a cheek off the seat. I’ll admit, after the opening sequence and a few visits from the girls with the tip buckets, I felt committed.

“Tips for the girls onstage?” one had said, then turned around and bounced on my thigh two or three times. I felt like a game of Whack-A-Mole you could hammer tickets out of. It worked.

Mr. Sausage moved again and I wasn’t having it. I looked around the room and scooted my whole ass back on the bench.

He stayed.

I was going to have to make him uncomfortable.

Erik shouted out, “Yeah, but how are they supposed to boof in that?”

I had no idea what anybody was talking about besides drugs up the ass and my opportunity.

“It’s a good question,” I announced. “Hard to aim.”

A few moments later I realized The Sausage had receded. Ah, the sweet quarter inch of breathable freedom in a man-packed titty bar.

A waitress dressed in an angel or doctor or some tight white outfit came and asked for our drink order. The club had been miraculously quiet when I said the word, “Coffee,” and Mr. Sausage was on it when the drinks came.

“Oh, you ordered the cup of coffee!” he called out for my new friends in the booth.

“Yeah,” I said, lifting the cup with a comedic swing of my arm. The one with the Bukowski tattoo. “I’m classy like that.” A sip.

Mr. Sausage said, “Well, that’s cool, you never know when you might need a, pick-me-up.”

“I have my reasons.”

“I didn’t even know you could get coffee at a strip club.”

“Yep.” I stared at boobs.

“So, how is the strip club coffee?” He was like 23. The sample from my liver biopsy could have drank him under the table.

“It’s actually not terrible.” The first rule of improv is to always say yes.

“I mean, is it, like, not Folgers?”

“It probably is Folgers.”

Sausage said, “I’m fucking with you.”

I nodded.

“M’name’s Mike!” he said, and clapped his palm into mine after thirty testosterone-charged minutes in a dim room with our Vienna thighs pressed together.

‘Nice to meet you, Sausage Mike.’

The DJ prattled and booze got handed around. The audience lights dimmed again and something like a king of the hill match occurred between a submissive and the Alpha Dom, who performed first on the swinging pole. Down at the platform, up to the top, swinging it around then dropping, frozen in sensational poses. She stepped away from the pole and the sub performed a bit, but The Dom returned, aggressively climbing over the sub and cramming her down to the platform. The sub appeared to hang on without any control as The Dom danced back to the top of the pole and swung it without mercy. At some point the sub must have escaped because The Dom climbed all the way up, wrapped her wrist in a sling by the hang point and sent the pole twirling wildly, going straight apeshit on the sling. Strobes flashed and between the illuminated smoke on stage and the smoke in my head she may as well have been 35 feet in the air, flailing stiletto danger like a beautiful, murderous, helicopter psychopath.

The last scene involved a flying rack about as ambitious as you could fit on the Bush’s stage. It looked like you could chain up a display of about four or so subs in it. While it was being rigged Sausage Mike got up and one of the tip bucket girls said, “Move over, I wanna hang out with you for a minute.” All right, fuck it, I threw a five in. We talked while the girls took their places over the tarp that had been spread, pitchers and bowls of fake blood all around the stage.

“I’m pretty tripped out by all the theatrical shit,” I said.

“Oh, have you been to the Halloween show?”

“No, I never knew about it.”

“This is the best strip club in the country,” she said. She had on a full body mesh suit and kitty ears.

I smiled and looked at the floor. By comparison I’d largely known P.J.’s, where I’d wanted to pay the dancers to put clothes back on.

The girl with kitty ears said, “It’s the best club in the country, from the girls, the atmosphere, to the conditions, the way the girls get treated by the club...”

A flash and a ring of naked women covered in blood strobed around the stage.

“Whoa,” I said.

Kitty Ears looked at the stage and before I decided to think of something to say she got up and ran away with the bucket. I loved that I had been conflicted. I loved that I felt like it mattered.

For the finale the entire cast was brought on stage for a morbid tableau. Subs were loaded onto the rack and chained in place facing different directions. The piece lifted and spun as they were tortured by the doms, groping, biting, flogging. Somehow in all the naked chaos the dancers wound up in a pool of blood on the floor, stretching and folding impossibly as dollars erupted from around the stage. I thought about the girl with the kitty ears and my preposterous sense of dropping the conversation. And after seeing those ladies tie up the show in erotic violence and catastrophe, their writhing mock-agony and sadism, seeing them walk off the stage with obscene dollars clinging to their tattooed, bloody bodies, I would have been irritated as shit to have even a naked girl talk through the whole thing.

By this point the booth had separated out and my industry friends had migrated to a small table nearby. I gave up the edge of the bench and said, “I mean, from a strictly artistic standpoint…”

The guys laughed.

“All right, everyone, I’m out of here.”

The next day I realized I’d gotten stripper glitter and perfume all over my work clothes. In my profession, no one was going to give a shit.

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