Shannon wipes her hands down the front of her apron. She has nine rooms left on this floor, and she’s supposed to be off work in two hours. She pushes her cleaning cart out of room 311 and knocks on 312 across the hall.
No reply. Shannon sticks her master key through the knob, bits of metallic paint chipping off as she turns the handle.
She flicks on the light. “Motherfucker.” The floor is covered in trash, take-out containers dotting the carpet like forgotten constellations. The bedding lays in a heap halfway off the mattress, the corner of the comforter dipping into a bowl of what had probably been Thai soup. These fuckers even left the TV on.
Shannon doesn’t want to look at the bathroom, but the stench sifting through the cracked door forces her to peer inside. She gags. Apparently the residents of 312 had an aversion to flushing the toilet.
Shannon thinks about leaving her apron at the front desk and saying to hell with employment for the first time since the volcanic eruption of vomit in room 147 two months ago. She sighs. Eight years since the universe traded her dad for a stack of medical bills, and she still hasn’t torn down the mountain. Her brother Brent gave her what he could, but his last wheat crop had hardly brought in any profit, and he has two kids to feed.
There was always the gig at Full Moon Strip Club. Whitney had offered her the spot last week when one of their lead dancers ran off with a customer to live happily ever after in Bermuda. It would be cleaner work than mopping up other people’s shit seven days a week. She probably picked up more dirt in one motel room than she ever would from a night’s worth of dollar bills. Plus she would make at least twice of what she does at the motel. She runs the numbers every night, double and triple checking. Her bank account really would look that different.
But her dad would climb out of his grave if she started displaying her body for cash. And she could already hear her brother’s voice through the phone, muffled because his kids were finally asleep and he didn’t want Lisa to hear.
“Why didn’t you tell me? One of my buddies saw you tonight, I had to hear it from him.”
To which she would ask, “What did he think of my form?”
“Christ, Shannon. This isn’t a fucking joke. Don’t do it again.”
“Or what? You’ll tell Dad?”
At this he would swear and slam the phone. And his silence would mean she shouldn’t stop by his house to see the kids or invite Lisa to go on walks with her anymore.
Shannon gathers her dirty blonde hair into a ponytail and pulls her cleaning cart into the bathroom.
Back home, Shannon eats cold, leftover Easy Mac. Still in her uniform, she sinks into the worn couch cushions and props her feet on the rickety coffee table. The clock ticking on the end table to her right is the only sound. The room looks clean, but that’s just because there’s hardly anything in the place.
They sold off anything that could be exchanged for more than petty cash while cancer spread deeper into her dad’s lungs. When he started chemo, Brent sold his baseball card collection. When the first round wasn’t enough, they sold the pickup and Shannon started walking to school. When insurance wouldn’t cover funeral costs, she took her mother’s jewelry and china set to the nicest pawnshop she knew. She had never felt more foolish than she did as she packed her mother’s things into a cardboard box, crying over gold-trimmed plates and a few diamonds as if holding on to them would make her life look any different. So this was being an orphan.
She had spent four years watching her dad’s life deteriorate. Mom had done the job in seconds, introducing her front bumper to the tree trunk on the corner of 12th and Laramie. But Shannon only thought about her mother’s death when she took the long way into downtown to avoid those streets. It’s easier to have a parent die when you’re seven. No one expects you to do anything but sit still during the service. It wasn’t until her dad was gone that she realized just how little she had. Brent had married Lisa two years earlier, and they’d just bought their fifty acres and gotten pregnant with their first kid a few months before Dad died.
Shannon had put a second mortgage on the house during Dad’s final round of treatment, so she hadn’t been able to justify selling it when he was gone. Instead she did what the rest of her graduating class did: stayed right there. But unlike everyone else her age in Stewart, Missouri, she didn’t have a high school sweetheart to start a family with. Being single was her version of breaking the mold.
Whitney was the one who really got out. Sure, she didn’t go far – just a town over, fifteen-minutes south on I-29. But it was something. A place where the most common occupations weren’t “farmer,” “factory worker,” and “house-wife.” They even had a K-Mart.
Headlights flash behind the closed blinds. Shannon hears Brent’s car idling in the driveway.
“Hey squirt,” he says when she meets him at the front door. “I have a half hour to kill before I pick the kids up from youth group, thought I’d check in.”
“Just finishing my five-star meal.” Shannon motions toward the mac and cheese as they sit on the couch.
“You got anything going on tonight?”
Shannon’s flip phone buzzes in her front pocket. Whitney’s number flashes on the screen. “Sorry, it’s Whit. One sec.” To Whitney she says, “Hey you. What’s up?”
“Hey, baby doll.” Shannon hears girls chatting and the bass of a pop song in the background. “Just getting ready for my set. How was your day?”
“How many times do you think someone could take a shit in the same toilet without remembering to flush?”
Brent stifles a laugh.
“Oh honey, I sure never want to find out. I’m sorry you had such a shitty day.”
Shannon can picture Whitney’s sly grin. She laughs. “How’s the crowd tonight?”
“Why don’t you get your tiny ass down here and take a look? My manager wants to see you do my routine after we close. He says he could get you on the schedule by next weekend if you dance for him tonight.”
She glances at Brent, his smile fading. He holds her gaze as she asks, “Who’s going to help me up off this couch?”
“I thought you had the day off tomorrow…”
Shannon sighs, but she’s sure Whitney can hear the smile in her voice. “I’ll come.” She counts the creases between Brent’s eyebrows, watches his lips form into a frown. “But I’m not promising anything.”
“If you say so.”
Shannon stuffs the phone back into her pocket and meets Brent’s eyes again. “Well, looks like I’m going out.”
He leans forward off the couch cushions, his body stiff. “She’s trying to get you to dance again.”
Shannon shrugs. “She knows I need the money.”
“Not that money, you don’t.” He shakes his head. “You really want Dad’s debt to be paid with cash that’s been in your pants?”
“Well, it doesn’t look like any’s gonna start spilling out of yours.”
His shoulders stiffen. “It’s bad enough that you spend so much time with that whore. You don’t need to become one yourself.”
“For fuck’s sake!” Shannon walks toward the door, clenching and unclenching her fists with each step. “You know it’s just a job.”
She pauses before letting the night air crawl inside, makes a show of gesturing toward the outdoors. “Go find someone else to preach to.”
He pauses in the doorway, gracing her with another disapproving glare before heading to his car. She flips him the bird, hoping he can see it under the porch light as he drives away.
Shannon finishes the twenty-minute drive in ten. As she pulls into the gravel parking lot, the pink neon sign advertising “Full Moon Strip Club” reflects off her front window. The club is a tattoo parlor turned bar turned strip joint with chipped paint and unidentifiable carpet stains to prove it. Whitney had her first gig here when she was eighteen, hardly a year after she dropped out of school and moved into an apartment down the block. Shannon missed Whitney’s first show. Dad’s lungs decided to stop working for good that night.
Shannon smells the sour scent of alcohol and stale cigarette smoke before she has the smudged glass door all the way open. The room looks like a patchwork quilt of faded John Deere tee shirts and Royals baseball caps. Everything has a cloud of nicotine looming over it, and she smells the soot clinging to every pair of work boots pointed toward the platform at the front of the room. Pink and purple streams of light cut through the smoke and cast geometric patterns across the stage. Whitney is the eleven o’clock act, so she’ll be up next. Shannon catches a guy, still in his factory uniform, spit his dip out onto the floor. She digs her fingernails into her palm to stop herself from gagging. She takes a seat in the back, ready to play her strip club drinking game. Take a shot for every woman in the room who doesn’t work here. She scans the crowd. Another sober night.
The radio blaring overhead cuts off mid-chorus and Whitney’s opening track pulses through the room. She emerges from behind the black curtain, her dark hair in wide, loose curls and charcoal liner rimming her eyes. Even in high school, Whitney wore her hair tall and her makeup thick. A performer without a stage. Shannon hasn’t seen her do this routine yet, but she remembers each step from helping Whitney choreograph a few weeks ago. They had been dancing at the only studio within a hundred mile radius from Stewart since they were five. When Whitney was practicing for her audition at the club, they worked together to make their catalog of moves sexier. That was the only distraction she’d had from everything going on with Dad. Shannon gets up from her spot at the bar and moves toward the stage.
A succession of blue, pink, and purple lights flash across Whitney’s skin as she twirls her legs around the first pole. She starts with a back spiral, holding her pose for a few counts after the turn is complete. Then she struts to the pole closer to the audience, undoing her halter-top as she walks. Next she takes the first steps into the fireman spin, which had given her the most trouble when Shannon helped her rehearse. Shannon watches her heeled feet. When she lands, they’re supposed to be on either side of the pole, but they end up crisscrossed instead. They’ll have to practice that one again.
The cluster of guys to Shannon’s right breaks her concentration.
“The ass on this girl is fucking perfect. I would fuck that so hard.”
The speaker takes a swig of his Budweiser.
The man closest to him nudges him with his elbow. “Not if I get to her first, man.”
“God, I wish my wife was half the whore this one is.”
A series of high-fives and “Hell yeahs” ripples through the group.
Shannon’s cheeks ignite. Fuckers. Give a boy one beer and a wad of singles and suddenly he thinks he’s God.
The first time Shannon watched Whitney perform, she poured her margarita down the back of an older guy who kept calling Whitney his “little slut.” She found out later that he was a regular and known for tipping well.
“He might never be back here because of you,” Whitney had told her in the bathroom after her set. Shannon leaned against the counter, felt water from the sink seep into her jeans. Whitney was a foot taller than her in her heels. “You can’t ever do that shit again.”
Shannon turned and sopped up the puddles with a wad of paper towels. “You didn’t hear what he was saying!”
“It doesn’t matter what he was saying. Every other guy in the place is saying the exact same thing or something damn close to it. That’s just what this job is.”
“And you don’t care? You’re just going to let them talk?”
Whitney combed through her curls with her fingers, eyes on her face in the cracked mirror. “I don’t do this for them, I do this for me because I love to dance and I do this for their wallets so I don’t lose my fucking house.” She met eyes with Shannon’s reflection. “Do you get that?”
Shannon had nodded, but she still didn’t accept the trade-off.
Forget doubling the number in her bank account. At least she never had to see the people responsible for the rooms she cleaned. What would she say to someone who didn’t understand the function of a trashcan?
Now, as Whitney dances, Shannon tries to imagine herself on stage with her friend. She feels the heat of the lights, the movement in her muscles as she grips the pole with the back of her knee, the air against her skin as she peels off one layer of neon after the other. She can do every move, that isn’t the hard part. Hell, taking your clothes off isn’t even the hard part. It’s knowing that every pair of eyes fixed on you is thinking about what they would do to you in bed, is comparing you to the dancer before and will compare you to the dancer after, is saying whatever will get him a pat on the back from his bros. How was she supposed to get used to that?
After the show, Whitney meets Shannon in the dressing room behind the stage. It’s the nicest room in the whole building because the dancers clean it themselves. Still, the smoke from the main room curls underneath the doorframe and stains the wallpaper. The few girls still there smile at her in between undoing their hair and using cotton balls drenched in Vaseline to take off their makeup. They each have a narrow section of countertop covered with cosmetics, a mirror bordered with light bulbs, and a chair. Whitney’s mirror is the only one with a full set of working lights, and her chair is a reject from the motel. Someone in room 201 had ripped the seat cushion last winter, and Shannon had patched it up and surprised Whitney with it for Christmas.
Whitney stands and motions toward her station. “Have a seat, doll.”
“You’re the one who’s been on your feet.”
“Oh hush,” Whitney pouts. “You stand all day, too. I wanna do your hair.”
Shannon sits and hears the bartender yell, “Last call,” through the thin wall. Whitney undoes Shannon’s ponytail and wraps her locks in a single twist. She tucks bobby pins sporadically throughout, her long acrylic nails gently poking Shannon’s head. She pulls a wig cap over Shannon’s hair.
“I’m thinking the lavender wig,” Whitney says. Shannon smiles.
The music in the main room shuts off, and the remaining dancers trickle out the backdoor. Shannon watches herself in the mirror. The border of bulbs illuminates the shimmer in the eye shadow Whitney puts on her lids. The blush makes it look like she actually has cheekbones. Her lips are painted “Flamingo’s Breath.” When she bats her eyes, the fake eyelashes reach the tips of her lavender bangs.
“I don’t mean to brag, but honey, I’m an artist,” Whitney smiles. “You have to let my manager see you dance tonight. Please?”
Shannon stands and swishes her hips, imagining her jeans are a tight leather skirt and her loose blouse is a lacy bra from a department store that she can’t afford. She remembers why she loves this, feels the performance rush she hasn’t in years: carefree and in control, and she hasn’t even gone on stage yet.
“Yeah,” she laughs. “I’ll do it.”
Whitney kisses her cheek. “That’s my girl! Pick out whatever you want from the closet.”
This would be like dance competitions from growing up, just her and the stage and the judge. She almost forgets the horde of grimy men that will be there next week if she does this right. Maybe she won’t be able to see their intoxicated eyes through the smoky fog, hear their catcalls over the music. Just silent, faceless hounds leaving crinkled dollar bills at her feet.
Shannon’s phone buzzes as she rifles through the cluttered closet of skirts and shear tops. Brent’s number flashes across the screen as if Jesus himself has summoned him to scorn her for what she’s about to do. She ignores the call and chooses a miniskirt that matches her hair. She doesn’t have any other memories to sell, and next month’s bills will be in her mailbox soon.
Laura Whitmer is a rising senior at Hamilton College majoring in creative writing and minoring in art. Her fiction has been published in Emory University's literary journal Mr. Ma'am. You can also find her writing in Hamilton's Duel Observer, Spoon University, and on her personal blog: laurawhitmerblog.