How to Have a Sleek Pelt
“Pussy will and can do a lot of other things to you, though.” — M.F.K. Fisher

The first incongruous piece of the strip club was the leatherette A-frame table tents. I had just been hired, it was my first day as a dancer. Outside, it was early summer; the light lingered in the sky. Inside, black plywood covered the windows, which were hidden behind dingy velvet drapes. I was 23. The table tents were fire engine red, braced with silk ribbon. The color matched my vinyl heels. I picked up one of the little menus to read it; I towered over the round bar table in my seven-inch Pleasers. The lunch special, for $5.99, was a sixteen-ounce New York steak, a baked potato or fries, Texas toast, and a side-salad. Choice of dressing.
“Five ninety-nine?” I asked the bartender.
He was wiping down pint glasses as he removed them from the squat dishwasher behind the bar, and then pushing them clinking into the glass-front cooler. There were no customers.
“Yep,” he said. “Half-pound burger basket’s three bucks. Not bad.”
The bar was small and dim, it was a dive. There was one stage, a pool table, and a pair of lotto machines. The bar had been open two months, and I was the first new dancer they’d hired. I wondered where one might cook a steak, or bake a potato.
“I’ll have the special. Medium-rare; baked; bleu,” I said.
The bartender fished a water-warped dupe pad from behind the register and wrote down my order in a second-grader’s irregular printing.
He said, “It’s a lot of food,” which meant, you’re a dancer and you’re not allowed to get fat.
I snorted: Try me. I’d eat every last bite on that plate.
I had overlooked the obvious:  the first incongruous piece of the strip club was me being in it at all.

The cook, a young man in a white apron, emerged from the hallway that led to the office with my meal on two plates: the side salad on one and everything else on a big oval platter. He set them on the bar. A dive strip bar just off the highway on the edge of town, and there was a cook?
“Where’s the kitchen?” I asked him.
“It’s right back there,” he said, pointing. “Dancers aren’t allowed.” He shrugged.
“Will you show me?” I asked. I ate standing up, leaning over my food so I didn’t drip on my red lace lingerie. The steak was fatty and juicy; I cut off big hunks with the dull serrated knife. The wood handle was pale beige from having been run through the dishwasher dozens of times.
“Are you going to get me in trouble?”
“Never,” I said, and wiggled my eyebrows at him.
“Yeah, well, I’m looking for another job anyway. They’re paying me to do basically nothing here.”
I dropped my balled-up napkin on my plate and followed him into the back. The kitchen was as big as the bar, the stage, and the dressing room combined. There was a grill, a fryer, old deck ovens for pizza, a hood, and prep tables. Overhead lighting made it all feel cleaner than it must of been. I was in heaven.
“This was a restaurant,” I said, “before it was a strip club. Wasn’t it?”
He shrugged.
I had to be careful with my stilettos on the fatigue mats.
On the shelf above the grill stood wide-mouth plastic jugs of dried herbs and spices. I turned the last of them, which contained snowy white powder, to read the label. The handle was stained orange with grease from perpetual use.
“You know, they used to call this ‘gourmet powder’?” I said to the cook.
He wasn’t paying attention.
I’d never seen it in real life, and somehow it seemed like the perfect seasoning for a strip club: harmless yet demonized, misunderstood, delicious, thrilling. Umami, Magic Salt of God, monosodium glutamate: I was looking at five freshly-refilled pounds of MSG.

The club manager, who had auditioned and hired me the day before, appeared in the doorway. Her hair was in a bun and she wore a lace-up crop-top. I was about to get fired.
“Do you cook?” She asked me.
“Yes,” I said, knowing she meant professionally, but choosing to answer literally.
“Oh, this is great. We can run you as a promo. We’ll do an ad. I’ve been wanting to do a special.”
I glanced over at the cook. “Great,” I said. It was a big deal to be in an ad.
“Don’t let me forget to get a copy of your food handler’s card this week,” the manager said, “I have to run. Get back out there and have fun!” She turned and left.
“What’s your name?” I asked the cook.
“Dale,” he said.
“Dale. I thought we were going to get fired. You want a lap dance? I need practice.”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
I went home that night and took the test to get my food handler’s card, and then paid my ten dollars and printed it out.
Welcome to the service industry, Tasia,” I said out loud to myself. You can now legally go in the kitchen.

The promo lasted a month. The first week, I made seafood fettuccine with tarragon and garlic and white wine and mussels. Mussels, yes, but mostly clams, so I could set the dish gently in front of each customer, look him dead in the eye, and say, “Lots of clam… I mean, that’s why we’re here, right?” Or else, “Mm, smells fishy.” But the food was good. I made quiche Lorraine one week. For the final night, I made, by hand, three hundred lobster ravioli.

A year passed. Among strippers, I had seniority; I turned down the ostensibly more lucrative night shifts to dance days, when the customers were white-collar businessmen instead of frat boys. I was cordial with the other dancers. One evening, as I packed my duffel to go home, I heard two of the very young new night-shift girls whine to the manager in the hall, “It’s not fair that Tasia makes so much money. She’s not even pretty.“ I laughed about this for days.

Paulo started patronizing the bar that year in late summer. He arrived early in the afternoon, in a suit, when there were no other customers, and it was obvious he fancied himself a VIP. A true VIP is always lavished with attention; he does not need to show up when the club is empty. Our eyes met once, and after he saw mine narrow skeptically, he kept his distance. I was not his type.

That first day, I watched from the bar as he approached the stage. He pulled out a chair and sat quietly, observing impassively; his face nearly blank, his chin lifted to impart the most minute sliver of attention. A pair of Latina twins had just started working in our club. They were young and very attractive; too attractive for this kind of dive, they were Gentlemen’s Club material. The wavy-haired twin was on stage. She had big hips and a perfectly flat stomach; and she wore the kind of expensive low-cut bikini I coveted, wavy extra-long ribbon-like ties trailing down her smooth thighs. She had pinned a hibiscus flower behind one ear, to hold back her thick black hair.
Paulo removed a flat jewelry box the size of a deck of playing cards from his jacket and set it on the rack in front of him. He kept both hands casually stacked on top of it. He hadn’t put out a cash tip. I wasn’t sure what I was witnessing; I knew I did not like it. The dancer moved very close to him, her cheek nearly touching his; he would feel her warmth, he could breathe in the lemony scent of her skin. She put one of her hands on top of his, to get underneath, to the box. Carefully, she lifted the lid. She looked down, and shrieked with joy. She covered her mouth with both hands. Her nails were very long; fresh baby-pink acrylics. I didn’t see what was inside; I had already turned to walk back to the dressing room: I was up next.

I saw the earrings later. They were gold, teardrop shaped, and each set with a ruby the size of my thumbnail. The next day, Paulo brought her twin sister an emerald pendant. Another dancer explained it to me: once Paulo picked a stone for a girl, he continued to buy her jewelry set with only that stone. Those girls got a lot of jewelry; a lot of big stones, and I heard he gave them cash. I didn’t ask what the girls had to do in return.

One of my regulars turned to me later that evening, when we were sitting together at the bar. It must have been obvious I was keeping my eye on Paulo.
My regular said, “You like being the big fish in the small pond, don’t you.”
Without hesitation, I said, “I do.”
I shook my head and sighed, snapping out of it. The regular bought me a drink, which was actually a $9 shot of water poured from the repurposed bottle of Patrón silver with my first initial discreetly scratched in the cork. The bartender pocketed the money. She put a piece of lime on the napkin when she served me, so I could hide the fact that my breath didn’t smell like tequila.
Paulo liked being big fish in this small pond, too. It bothered me: it was my pond.

Paulo sat at my friend Lia’s stage a few weeks later. Lia was waifish, with short red hair and a background in anthropology. She wasn’t really Paulo’s type, either: she was pale, opinionated, and almost thirty. Lia made eye-contact with me from the stage when he sat down at her rack; he had never done this before, and she was excited. She leaned back against the pole, and then reached overhead to hold it with both hands, slowly arching her back into a shoulder mount. Her legs lifted together from the floor, toes pointed, and she spun, inverted, until she was in a full bird of paradise splits. Between songs, out came the little box. She walked shyly up to where Paulo sat, and rested one hip against the edge of the rack. Her head was tilted down, her bangs hid her eyes. She was looking at him. Her fingers crept forward to rest on the box. When she brushed her hair out of her face, I saw that she was smiling. She opened the box. She did not shriek. She gently leaned over and hugged Paulo; mostly just with her arms, scrupulous about touching him as little as possible. I walked back to the dressing room to wait for her.

Lia banged open the dressing room door so hard the knob chipped more drywall from the busted wall behind it. This was not the first time it had happened, but it was the first time I had seen her do it; I had never seen her mad. Her eyes widened. She carefully closed the door and leaned back against it, still holding the box in one hand; it dangled as though she were about to drop it.
“Fucking Esmeralda got rubies. Victoria got emeralds. And I get this hippie shit.”
“The twins?” I said, “Are those their stage names or real names? There are so many new girls.”
“Ugh,” sighed Lia, sprawling dramatically into one of the metal chairs at the vanity counter and tossing the box down in front of me.
I scooted my chair across the ancient black-and-confetti arcade carpet until our shoulders were touching.
“What’d you get,” I sing-songed.
She shook her head and then reached across me and opened the box.
“Is that citrine or topaz?” I asked. It was a very ugly necklace.
“It’s amber,” she said. “I got sap. He gave me sap. I can’t sell this. This shit is worthless. I bought my daughter better teething necklaces than this.”
“So give it back. Tell him you can’t accept something so nice.” I chuckled. “I’m really sorry. That dude is trash.”
“Yeah. Thanks,” she said. I knew she was still hoping for money.
I went and danced my set. Paulo waited at the end of the bar, eyes fixed on the dressing room door. Waiting for Lia.

The following Friday, as usual, I was earlier than the bartender to work. I sat in my car and read The New Yorker. When she finally arrived and unlocked the front door, I went straight to the dressing room with my duffel bag and threw it on the chair against the far wall. I unzipped my black velour tracksuit and pulled on black leather boy shorts and a crop leather halter top. I never wore red anymore. I zipped up my thigh-high black leather boots; platforms with spike heels. I’d already done my makeup, the usual smoky eye; and ironed my bleached-blonde hair. I plugged in my flat iron to do touch-ups between sets. The other two early-shift girls had not arrived. They were both new girls; I didn’t recognize the stage names on the schedule.

I walked into the bar and picked up a book of matches to light the candles on each table, to help the bartender open. She was in the kitchen, I could hear her scooping ice from the machine into five gallon buckets. I flipped the switch on the jukebox to turn it on, and then found a spray bottle of disinfectant. I went into the kitchen and pulled down a clean stack of bar towels from the shelf to keep by the stage. Management had fired Dale, the cook, within weeks of the time I had met him; now bartenders were responsible for heating up the food. The oil in the two electric fryers was so old it looked black. There was no more steak special. I pulled the chain on the open sign and flipped the deadbolt on the front door on my way to the stage. On the numeric pad of the juke box, I punched in the codes for my three songs without having to look them up. The other girls still hadn’t arrived. I had no opinion about this. I was fine with working alone, though it was harder to keep the bar busy solo.

I stepped on stage and picked up the disinfectant and a rag, to clean the pole. Behind me, the front door creaked, letting in a long band of white light from the parking lot. One of the other dancers, maybe, they were often late; backlit, it was impossible to tell. The door closed. Paulo.
I yelled across the bar to head him off: “It’s just me today.”
I expected him to leave; he shot me what was probably a withering look. He took his post at the end of the bar. Paulo knew a lot of strippers, no doubt he knew the new girls. He leaned back against the counter with his elbows up on the padded edge, watching me on stage; not tipping. I had noticed that Paulo sometimes didn’t even tip when he sat at the stage, which was never supposed to happen, but his girls and the bartenders gave him a pass because he spread around so much money. Now I danced for him anyway, fuck it, because he was a customer, and practicing the illusion of interest was an aspect, albeit a stupid and overrated one, of the job. My actual regulars would begin arriving shortly, and I would be busy giving private dances until it was time to go home. Paulo seemed threatened by other men; he would soon disappear and I could forget about him.

Now he stepped forward, watching me, and crossed the bar to pull out a seat at my rack. Not his usual seat, just the chair at the corner. He reached into his pocket and removed his wallet, and then produced a five dollar bill and tented it on the counter in front of me. I leaned in and whispered “Hi,” and brushed the money on to my stage. I had recently learned from a DJ that brushing off the money served two functions: drunk guys forgot they had tipped, and then put up more money; and sober guys, caving under the shame of looking like they didn’t have a tip in front of them, would sometimes put up more. Paulo fell into neither category, and five bucks was more than I’d expected to get out of him, ever.
“Hello,” he said. He tucked away his wallet, and then reached into the interior pocket of his suit jacket and produced a slender jewelry box. Bigger than earrings, smaller than a pendant necklace.
What the fuck.
He was like a deli-counter ticket dispenser with these things.
“You’re kind of a post-industrial princess, aren’t you?” He said.
This was not going at all as I had expected.
I smirked at him. “Mmhmm,” I said, maintaining the same cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. Not even a little bit, I thought. Princess? Ugh. I continued to gyrate slowly in front of him while I undid my top.
“Yes,” he said.
Gross, I thought.
I ignored the box. He seemed to understand that I wasn’t going to open it. It was plain brown cardboard, not suede or velvet like the other presentation cases I’d seen in the dressing room. He lifted the top and set it next to the bottom portion, to reveal what lay on the long rectangle of cotton gauze. When the song ended, he clapped; he was clearly the kind of person who claps when the plane lands. It was then that I looked. In the box was a tennis bracelet. Diamonds set in platinum.
“The only thing fit for a post-industrial princess,” he said. “The hardest stone, and the purest. Nothing more fierce or more beautiful.”
Was it real? He was giving me diamonds? Nothing made sense. He lifted the bracelet and unhooked the clasp. Reflexively, I outstretched my arm to give him my wrist. He held it tenderly.
“I’m going to give you a phone,” he said, “I like to know I have a direct line. All the girls have one. It’s just easier that way.”
I am pretty sure I said, “Yeah, okay,” instead of what the fuck are you talking about you fucking weirdo, because he smiled when he got up from the stage. I must not have said anything at all.
He pushed in his chair, and turned for the door. He hadn’t even bought a drink. Where was the bartender? Paulo had left in the middle of my set. He walked out, and then there I was, standing by myself, half-naked in the middle of an empty-dive bar with a five dollar bill on the floor and fifty-five diamonds on my wrist.

Real diamonds.

The next morning, I walked to the financial district from my downtown apartment and pawned the bracelet, which brought me back to reality; two karats, and flawed: only a little more than a month’s rent in cash.

That night, Paulo came in again. Lia, Esmerelda and I were all working; I had agreed to stay after my day shift to work a double. The bar was busy, but Paulo stayed, too, and got drunk. He sat by himself at the end of the counter while the other strippers and I were off giving private dances and drinking with our other regulars. He had tipped out all of his money over the course of the night; it hadn’t seemed like very much. Then it was last call; Radio Cab had an hour-and-a-half wait. The bartender did not want to sit and wait for Paulo’s cab, and nobody was going to strand him alone for two hours in the parking lot; he would try to drive himself home.
“You know him,” the bartender whispered to me, leaning over the counter, “can you please give him a ride?”
I looked at Paulo. His hair was a mess, his suit jacket rumpled, the top button of his shirt undone, revealing weird wiry old-man chest hair. I wondered what his wife was like. She was probably nice.
“I don’t know him,” I said.
The bartender looked at me imploringly.
“Yeah, alright, but I don’t know where he lives.”
“Somewhere in Northeast. Hey Paulo,” she said, “what’s your address?”
Paulo mumbled something neither of us understood.
I rolled my eyes.
“Let me have your wallet,” said the bartender, spacing out each word. She used the louder-than-normal tone I associated with trying to be understood by non-native speakers.
He stared bitterly, but she kept her hand out for it until he fumbled in his pocket and then put it on the bar. She opened it and read from his license.
“Is this where you live?” She declaimed.
He nodded.
You weren’t supposed to let people get that drunk, but he only tipped the bartenders when he was sauced. I couldn’t blame her, and I felt a little bad for her; bartenders didn’t get jewelry.

The dome light in my car was stark above us.
“Buckle up,” I said.
Paulo squinted and shook his head at me. He looked disgusted.
Fine, I thought, I’m not your mother. Why had I agreed to do this?
I merged on to the highway. He was quiet. I hoped it would stay this way. I drove for ten minutes in silence.
He reached over and rested his hand on my thigh. I removed it.
“Nope,” I said.
“You’re so fucking cold to me,” he slurred.
I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. I wished I had asked one of the other girls what his deal was. Too late now. We were almost to NE 33rd ave; under ten minutes of driving remained.
He continued. “You’re hiding behind a fucking wall. You never let it down, do you. You don’t let anyone see you. Except me. I see you.”
He was quiet for a moment.
“I’m your only friend,” he said. He let it sink in.
He said, “Nobody else knows you.”
I said nothing. I stared at the road.
“Let down that fucking wall!” He yelled.
I jumped. I cringed.
I merged into the right lane. I looked at the sound-wall to our right. The patterned concrete brick. I slowly depressed my right foot, and watched the needle of the speedometer move toward vertical, and then, like the car, further right.
“Let down that fucking wall!” He yelled again.
He was not my friend.
I had friends.
I hated him.
I had friends. He did not know me.
The concrete barrier would peel him out of my car like a sardine from a tin, the sharp bent metal peeling back first, and then.
The smallest swerve.

I had another idea.

For the next two weeks, I asked Paulo for gifts and money until I was blue in the face. He never touched me again; I made sure we were always in public. I met him for lunch; it was a cold wet autumn day and I hadn’t brought a jacket. He slid his wallet across the table and I hurried down the street alone to buy myself a fur. I told the saleslady I would be back in a half hour, and slid her fifty bucks. I pretended to be excited to show the enormous coat to Paulo; grinning and turning in a circle. A fur, are you kidding me? Disgusting. This was the game. I returned it as soon as Paulo was gone, and kept the cash to spend the next day tipping Lia a hundred dollars a song while she was on stage. Another day, he and I went shopping at Williams-Sonoma. I found the most expensive Le Creuset enameled cast iron dutch oven, so big I knew it would never fit in the oven of my tiny apartment range, and then bought it as a set claiming we had to take advantage of such a good deal. I later returned it for store credit and bought brand new Cuisinart ice-cream makers, each in a different shade of pastel, for my best friends. (I felt like Oprah: you’re making soft serve! You’re making soft serve! You’re making frosé and passing out in a ditch!) I pawned the diamond earrings in their ugly bulbous setting he slid to me at work and bought my starving artist cousins, who had let me crash at their house after I’d moved home from Ohio, a full fridge and a full pantry of groceries. There was more. There was a lot more. I kept asking for more, as though it were filling me up instead of running him dry. More, more, more. Like the word meant anything. What was he going to do, tell me no?

A few weeks later, Paulo called my burner phone while I was working at the bar. He’d been trying to pin me down for dinner, but I always changed the topic or said I was busy. I answered in the dressing room.
“I need you to return the camera,” he said. “My son saw the charge on his debit card and told my wife. I’m an asshole, apparently; he won’t speak to me. She’s going to report it to the police if I don’t get the money back. I’m sorry, you have to take it back.”
“You used your kid’s debit card to buy me the Nikon?” I asked. I didn’t even feign surprise. I had known; I had seen the name on the card at the camera store: DEVON. For shame. He had maxed out his own cards. The base-model DSLR had been three thousand dollars, but I had made sure to get the requested lenses, too.
I wandered down the carpeted hall and stepped into the empty kitchen of the strip club, away from the thump of the music. Paulo was talking; I didn’t bother listening. I walked toward the back door, past the ice machine. I felt like I had been working here for much longer than a year and a few months. There were a couple of cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other; it looked like the manager had been cleaning in the office. Balancing on one foot, I used the toe of my shoe to nudge the top one open. I saw the red ribbon, and I grinned.
Paulo was still talking.
“I can’t return it.” I said, to stop him. “I don’t have it. I’m not a photographer, I’m a writer. You don’t know shit about me. Why would I need a camera like that? I don’t take pictures. My best friend’s the photographer. I gave it to him. I’m not asking for it back. Anyway, I should let you go.”
I have always thought this was the most passive-aggressive way to tell a person you want to hang up on them: I’ll let you go.
For good measure, I added, “It sounds like you need to spend some time with your family.”
I hung up, and twisted the phone in half in both hands, breaking it in two.
Anyway, I couldn’t believe my luck.
The cardboard box was full of the red leatherette A-frame table tents, with the opening month’s lunch special; just as it had been on my very first day at the bar. One of my regulars had told me the bar had been a restaurant: a diner, in the 1950s. He had eaten here with his parents when he was a little boy.  I had grinned when he told me.  I palmed the halves of the phone and picked up the little menu and held it tenderly. I wiped the dust from the protective film covering the printed card.

That night, as I drove across the Hawthorne Bridge to get home, I rolled down my window and flung the two halves of the Motorola flip phone into the Willamette. The warm autumnal air felt delicious against my skin. The breeze had that little bite, that tells you things are about to change. I felt guilty, in the pit of my stomach, for littering.

I kept that red-edged menu in the top drawer of my writing desk for almost twenty years: my favorite thing. My only souvenir.

Author: `aqaq`

Tasia Bernie is an essayist, and editor of  She enjoys used bookstores, offal, and hard laughter.  She is a very good eater.  She lives with her daughter and two orange cats in Portland, Oregon.


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