Strip Club
By J. Alan Brown

Gladys Fielding heard the garage door rumble open. Her eyes never left the television screen.

It's about time.

She listened with only half an ear to the familiar, lower-pitched drone of Roy's Corvette as it eased into the garage.

Probably going to want some tonight, way he is.

She continued to stare at the medical drama as she heard his Corvette go silent, heard the garage door close back down.

He'll be all juiced up, just like last time.

The back door leading into the kitchen opened and, in her mind's eye, she watched her husband work through his familiar routine. Drop keys on the counter with a jangle. Set briefcase down beside the refrigerator. Sort through the day's mail--she had already pulled out her stuff: a decorating magazine, and a book-club catalog. She heard Roy drop maybe half of the remaining stack into the trash can.

Roy looked up over the bar into the living room. The television flickered in the dark room like an electronic campfire. His wife of six years--his third marriage, her second--kept her back to him.

Watching a little TV for a change? he asked her, but not out loud.

"I'm home," Roy finally said.

"Hey," she said, without turning from the TV.

Roy knew from her greeting--toneless, lifeless--that she was mad. She wouldn't say anything, of course. She knew very well why he was late this evening. But she was still mad about it.

He stepped over to the couch, stood beside her. He pretended to watch the show, some stupid show about stupid doctors that was just like all the others, except this one took place in a stupid HMO. "How's your day?" he asked after a minute.

"Fine," she breathed out, a drawn out sigh that seemed to say that no one in the world had it as bad as she.

Roy rolled his eyes and sighed himself, a heavier, louder sigh. Why do I even bother? he asked himself.

Gladys heard his sigh. "What's that supposed to mean?" she said with some heat. She clicked off the TV and suddenly they found themselves in swift darkness--only the stove light in the kitchen was on now. She blinked as the square green image of the TV faded from her vision.

"Nothing," Roy said.

Here we go, she thought. All evening at that place and he's got the nerve to act like he's the suffering one!

"Just feels like I'm interrupting your day, is all," Roy said.

Gladys fumed. She levered herself up off the couch and clicked on a floor lamp. Roy was loosening his tie, still standing there. He looked like a teenager, wondering if he was going to have to hear the lecture and can he just go now? Gladys plopped back down into the couch, crossed her arms beneath her breasts and looked at him.

"What do you expect?" asked Gladys. "I came home from work, ate by myself, and I've been sitting here all night."

"I told you I would be late tonight," said Roy. He pulled his shirt out of his pants, letting it hang down wrinkled around his hips.

Her eyebrows raised and she nodded around the room, as if to an unseen group of sympathetic friends. Her look said, Oh yeah, you're all just broken up about having to spend all night at a strip club, aren't you. Are you hearing this, girls?

Roy knew that look very well, could see her imaginary coterie just as clearly. Even with just the two of them, he was outnumbered and on the defensive.

"Look," he said, "I know you don't like me going to those places, 

(The smell of warm bread is released into the room, invites itself into his nose, spoons against him like a long-time lover.)

"but I have to.

(His boss, Roger Daniels, inhales deeply, greedily, then breathes out in ecstasy, his enormous belly pressed tight against the small table, shirt stretched as smooth as unbaked dough.) 

"These clients come into town (all eyes turn to the stage and the spotlights swivel and the young woman slips out from behind the curtain, the covered tray in her hand dazzling in the light's reflection) and they want to go. It's just business," Roy said.

"Fine, whatever," she said, with a flick of the hand, the gesture used to shoo a fly from a picnic.

Roy knew very well it was not "fine," that she would stew for two days like this.

He said, "If we don't take them, (the woman struts from one end of the stage to the other, she teases the tray close to the people in the front tables, they lean forward like iron filings to a magnet, some reach, try to touch, she pulls away quickly with a flashing smile, her free hand slowly waving in front of the smooth, burnished metal) they'll find someone else to do business with. Corporate insurance may not be very sexy to you (the dark, smoky room fills with shouts and whistles, her hand, slowly, accidentally, deliberately brushes against the handle, his breath catches in his throat) but it pays the bills quite nicely.

(She plants her legs wide, the tray fixed before her, held low, the music rises, she curls her long fingers into the handle and takes a firm grip.)

"There's plenty of others who would be happy to do whatever these guys want to get their business.

(She lifts the lid, just a crack, steam curls out slowly, like the crook of a woman's finger beckoning to come closer, to whisper in your ear with warm breath, and the lid drops back down with a clang and Mitch Whazisname from Chicago pounds the table with frustrated desire)

"It's those guys who help pay for your beloved Cadillac, remember, and this house.

(Roger Daniels pulls on the back of his head, his beefy hands running down his burr cut to clasp each other for mutual support behind his neck, his appetite honed to a knife's edge and she undulates back and forth, all eyes in the room follow her.)

"Besides," Roy said, "it's Roger who insists I go. Anyway; (the throbbing music rises and rises and the woman in one smooth action lifts the lid away and everyone gasps as the steam billows manically, suddenly released, and quickly melts away and they look and see the seared meat glisten in the spotlight, New York strip, grilled medium rare, soaking in its own juices and the potato, butter pat dissolving into the fluffy white mass, sprinkled with green chives, curls of steam rising slowly into the air and the lights and music drop to nothing simultaneously and people shout and hoot and clench their fists with raw, naked hunger) I don't even like going and in a couple of years I'll be able to retire and we'll never have this argument again." Roy turned and headed toward the bedroom, a measured retreat.

That was exactly what she needed to hear. Gladys stood up, picking up a magazine that was rolled up next to her, jammed between the couch cushions. She followed him into the bedroom. "You are nothing but a liar," she said in a low, even voice.

He had kicked his shoes off, and he turned and faced her. "Wha--?"

Her voice and face hardened like a candy shell. "You're lying to me and you're lying to yourself and you know it," she said.

"What are you talking about?" he asked.

"I found this just this morning," she said. She handed him the magazine. His face went slack and he took it with numb fingers.

"Where did you..." he said.

"I found it right where you hid it."

Roy looked down at the magazine with dismay. I knew she'd find me out someday, he said to himself. Spread magazine, August issue. A few articles, some short fiction, but mostly pictures filled the glossy pages. Full color. Strawberries, splashed with whipped cream, lay strewn across a plate. Avocados, sliced in half. Navel oranges. Vegetable soup, being ladled out of an iron pot, poured into white bowls. And the centerfold--a pair of glazed turkey breasts, pressed in on all sides by rice Pilaf, with a basket of warm, sweet Hawaiian rolls close by.

She heard his stomach rumble and she sniffed. "Uh-huh," she said, completely satisfied with his lack of explanation. "I wonder what Reverend Myerson would think about this."

He looked at her with shame and anger but said nothing. She turned and left the room.

In the kitchen, Gladys went to the refrigerator, held it open for a long while. Her body glowed harshly in the bright light. She took a tube and closed the door with a hip. She squeezed a pile of gray paste onto a plate, nuked it for forty-five. Flipping through her new decorating magazine with disinterest, she picked at the paste with a fork. The tines scraped against the porcelain plate like the squeal of a small animal caught in a trap. She barely tasted anything.

An hour later, Gladys was in bed reading by the low light of a small lamp. Roy was asleep, that soundless, motionless sleep that scared her so the first year they were married. He had not spoken when he crawled into bed, simply turned his back to her. Gladys held open her latest book club selection, Luscious, by Candy Hathaway, and her eyes were transfixed to the page:

"Shall I serve you, darling?" Radcliffe asked, the hunger in his eyes clear and bright.

Gwendolyn slowly licked her lips with a pink tongue. "I think that would be best," she breathed.

His eyes left hers reluctantly. With long-fingered hands, he gracefully picked up the carving knife and ornate fork. Ever so slowly, he dragged the blade against the surface of the honeyed ham, its soft, pink meat yielding, inviting. Carefully, he lifted a slice of warm ham to a plate. Setting down the carving utensils, he picked up the slice with manicured fingers. Gazing back into her eyes with smoky fire, he held the ham close to his mouth and blew, his breath cooling the meat while seeming to fan Gwendolyn's inner warmth at the same time.

"Is this your first taste?" Radcliffe asked.

"Yes," Gwendolyn answered, and the quiver in her voice betrayed her nervousness.

Then, with a small, knowing smile, he held the meat before her open mouth. She laid a hand on his arm, feeling his strong pulse beneath her trembling fingertips. With small, white teeth, she bit. The juices of the ham coursed through her mouth, one drop crawling slowly down her chin, and her teeth sunk into the soft, warm meat. Gwendolyn moaned...

Gladys laid the book down and turned off her reading lamp. Sliding deeper down into the cool sheets, she wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered with desire.

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