“Tell me this.” Nathan pointed at his friend with the neck of an open bottle. The abrupt move caused a dollop of beer to leap from the bottle’s mouth and slap the tabletop. “Why do they call it ‘Export’ if they don’t export it? You can’t get this back home.”
“I know,” Dennis shouted to be heard over the grinding guitar notes. He held his own bottle close to his face. He squinted at the label in the flickering red light cast by a cabaret candle at the center of their small round table. “This is like twice the proof of the piss water they send to America. They hold back the good stuff for themselves. Fricking Canadians!”
“And what the hell is ‘smoked meat,’ anyway?” Twisting his wrist, Nathan tipped his bottle, emptying it down his expectant throat. “The menu at dinner didn’t say.”
“Horse.” Dennis shook his head in disgust. “Gotta be horse.”
With his other hand, Nathan snatched his mottled green baseball cap by the bill and tore it from his head. He waved the cap at the young blond waitress tending to a nearby table. She wore a Day-Glo orange tube top and short shorts despite the freezing weather outside.
“Another round over here, Sweetie,” Nathan called, trying to make eye contact with her.
She finished delivering the drinks to the other table and left without acknowledging him.
“See that?” Nathan set down his empty bottle with a thud. “She’s ignoring me!”
“What do you expect?” Dennis demanded. “You’re dressed like a slob.”
“Are you crazy? This is my best flannel shirt.”
“Then at least tuck it into your jeans.”
“What good’ll that do?” Nathan, who had been merely slouching, slid so far down into his chair that his lanky frame was almost horizontal. “I’ll tell ya, it’s because I speak English. Why don’t you try and get her attention? You took French in high school.”
“And did very poorly at it. Besides, the Quebecois speak a different kind of French.”
“Oh yeah?” Nathan arched an untamed eyebrow. “And what kind would that be?”
“Listen to them talk.” Dennis leaned forward, the candlelight casting deep shadows in the sharp lines of his round face. “They sound like a pair of fucking ducks.”
“Huh? You mean like Donald and Daffy?”
“No—I mean they sound like a pair of ducks fucking.”
“Ohhh!” Nathan made an obscene gesture. “You mean like Donald and Daisy.”
A hidden loudspeaker spat a staccato burst of French. Dennis pointed a finger at the ceiling, the general direction from which the sound had come. He smirked. “Quack, quack.”
Nathan threw back his head and laughed.
The announcer switched to English. “Yeeesss! That was Marie, ladies and gentlemen. Next, for your viewing pleasure—Babette!”
“I hope this one’s a little easier on the eyes.” Nathan propped his scuffed work boots on the edge of the raised platform that served as a stage.
Dennis glanced in that direction. Just out of arm’s reach, Marie stooped over, stretching calves the size of hams, and fetched her lacy bra and G-string from where they laid on the stage.
“Yeah.” Dennis took off his eyeglasses and casually polished the lenses with the tail of his Oxford shirt. “Marie’s a real sow.”
Marie made no indication of having heard him. She straightened up, turned her back, and calmly left the stage, heading toward the dancers’ communal dressing room by the bar.
Nathan snorted. “How do you know she doesn’t understand English?”
Dennis returned his glasses to his face. “Like I fricking care.”
“There you are,” said Grant, the third member of their party, as he weaved between tables and dropped into his chair. “What I miss?”
“Not much.” Dennis tugged at his goatee. “What were you doing in there for so long? Choking the chicken? Spanking the monkey?”
Grant wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his gray college sweatshirt. His sandy brown hair was matted and all to one side as though he had been sleeping. “I got lost. All these mirrors. Kept bumping into them in the dark. It’s like a fun house in here.” He looked around. “Say, where’s my coat?”
“You left it in my car. Remember?”
“Oh yeah. Right.”
Dennis rolled his dark eyes. “You’d forget your bony ass if it wasn’t attached.”
“Talk about ass.” Nathan jerked his head toward the dressing-room door, where, alongside Marie’s familiar form, the silhouette of a shapely woman waited. “Get a load of her.”
On cue, Babette emerged from the shadows, ascended the steps, and glided birdlike onto the platform. A flowing lime-green negligee—her fluorescent plumage—fluttered about her slim figure. Spiked heels added three inches to her height. With her head bowed, a comb of raven hair hid her face, obscuring all but her delicate chin and full red lips.
“That’s more like it.” Dennis eyed her like a hawk.
“Take it off, baby!” Nathan reached into his pocket, pulled out a wadded-up green bill, and tossed it onto the platform at Babette’s feet.
Without breaking the rhythm of her slow, lonely waltz, she kicked the bill aside.
Dennis turned to Nathan. “You moron!”
“First of all, that’s American money.”
“So?” Nathan shrugged his thick shoulders. “It’s better than their worthless currency.”
“She wouldn’t know what to do with it.” Dennis waved his hand dismissively. “Second of all, they don’t do that up here.”
“Tip that way. The strippers think of themselves as artists or something. You look like a stupid American when you throw money at them.”
“You mean they do it for free?” Nathan rubbed his callused hands together. “Wicked cool!”
Dennis sighed and shook his head.
“Have you seen the waitress lately?” Grant retrieved his beer from where he had left it on the table. Clutching the bottle by its neck, he swirled the backwash around the bottom. “I sure could use another one.”
“No fricking kidding!” Nathan pounded on the table, knocking over his empty, which rolled off and landed intact on the crimson-carpeted floor. “Where is that stuck-up ho?”
“I know how to get her attention.” Dennis placed an open hand over the top of the cabaret candle, his palm forming a seal on the red rim of glazed glass.
“Dude!” Grant exclaimed. “You’re gonna burn yourself.”
Without diverting his eyes from the candle, Dennis growled, “Don’t be a pussy.”
The candle’s flame wavered and died. When Dennis removed his hand, a thin wisp of smoke rose from the wick.
Nathan huffed. “Now what?”
“Now wait and see.” Dennis drummed his fingers on the table. “Voilà! Here she comes.”
The waitress appeared. She produced a cigarette lighter from her apron’s front pocket, flicked the lighter to life, and relit the candle.
“So who do you gotta blow to get a beer in this place?” Nathan leered at the waitress, the corner of his mouth rising in a lopsided grin. “Oh right. That’s your job.”
Her face a neutral mask, the waitress turned away from him and toward Grant.
“Uh, yeah… . Right.” Grant bowed his head and stared at his hands folded meekly on the table. “Could we have another round of Export?” He hastily added: “Please?”
“Oui.” The waitress stacked the empties on her tray and left without another word.
“Nice going, dumb ass.” Dennis flicked a bottle cap at Nathan, hitting him right between the eyes. “She’s gonna piss in our beer for sure.”
Nathan’s grin grew wider. “I usually have to pay extra for that.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Dennis rebuked him, making no effort to lower his voice. “The waitresses aren’t whores. If they were, they’d be up there instead of down here. Treat them that way and they’ll cut us off. No more beer. Get it?”
Still grinning, Nathan gave him a stiff military salute and barked, “Yes, Sir!”
“Whoa!” Grant mopped his brow with a cocktail napkin and pointed toward the stage.
While they had been arguing, Babette had disrobed unnoticed. At the moment, she hung upside-down, her leg snaked around a brass pole. With eyes closed and arms outstretched, she arched her back and bent her other leg so the heel of that foot rested on her knee.
“Nice,” Nathan said. “This girl’s got talent.”
Grant gaped, his mouth hanging open like a broken tailgate.
Dennis noticed Grant’s expression. “I told you you’d like this place. Maybe next time we won’t have to twist your arm.”
Grant’s eyes fixated on Babette, who remained suspended in midair, perfectly motionless. “Are … are those real?”
“Can’t you tell?”
“I’d like to get me some of that.” Nathan stuck his hand into his pocket, thought better of it, and pulled the hand out again.
Gracefully, Babette descended, her body revolving around the pole, her shimmering reflection caught in silvery mirrors behind her. As she reached the bottom, she placed her palms flat on the platform, disengaged her leg from the pole, and tumbled away to hoots and applause.
Once the noise—including the technobeat accompanying the performance—had subsided, a short balding man in an ill-fitting black tuxedo joined Babette on the stage. He sprayed rapid-fire French into the cordless microphone in his hand, followed by: “Yeeesss! That was Babette, ladies and gentlemen. Isn’t she lovely?”
Babette cocked her hip and bowed her head slightly. Her hair fell back over her face like a curtain. Her mouth revealed no emotion at all. The announcer continued, this time only in English. “Here at Chez Magnifique, we like our audience to participate in the show. Is anyone celebrating a birthday or anniversary tonight?”
Dennis looked at Nathan and nodded. Together they each grabbed Grant’s wrists. Despite his protests, they yanked both arms skyward.
“This guy over here,” Nathan hollered. “He’s the birthday boy!”
Before Grant could wrench his arms free, the announcer hopped off the stage and approached their table. Placing a firm hand on Grant’s shoulder, the announcer said, “Congratulations! What’s your name, birthday boy?”
“His name’s Grant,” Nathan answered for his friend. Grant shot Nathan a withering look.
Nathan—the picture of innocence—smiled back at him.
The announcer squeezed Grant’s shoulder. “How old are you?”
He blushed. “Twenty-one.”
“Wonderful! Would you come join us? The girls have a surprise for you.”
Grant hesitated. The audience shouted encouragement.
“Come,” the announcer said. “The girls won’t bite.” Grant slowly stood and followed him.
As Grant climbed the steps, a nude Marie suddenly approached from behind. He peered over his shoulder at her. She smiled at him, her expression matching what Nathan’s had been.
Grant stopped where he was told, at the center of the stage. The dancers flanked him on both sides and entwined an arm with each of his. Lacking a free hand with which to shield his eyes, he squinted against spotlights that blazed in his face.
Marie whispered into his ear, her breath like velvet against his cheek. “On your knees.”
Wide-eyed, he looked to the announcer.
“Do what she says.” The announcer shrugged. “She’s the boss.”
Grant knelt at Marie’s feet.
“Now go down on all fours,” she commanded, more forcefully this time.
He complied, presenting his left side to the audience. Several men in the crowd howled like dogs.
“Yeeesss! It’s time to honor our young American friend on his birthday,” the announcer said. “Does anyone have a belt?”
Dennis kicked Nathan under the table. Nathan shot to his feet. “I do! I do!” He unbuckled his inch-and-a-half-wide black leather belt and whipped it from the loops of his jeans like a limp sword. He folded the belt in half lengthwise before handing it to the announcer.
“Thank you, Monsieur.” The announcer opened his other hand and slapped his palm with the belt, producing a sharp report like a firecracker. “This will do nicely.”
“Now wait a minute,” Grant sputtered.
But before he could escape, Marie swept her left leg over his back. Straddling his neck, she sat down hard on his shoulders, pinning him in place. The announcer passed the belt to Babette. She gripped the belt tightly in her right hand and moved into position behind Grant, her back to the audience.
A recording of a drum roll began rat-tat-tatting over the loudspeaker. Grant’s friends roared with laughter. Babette drew her arm back, the belt poised and dangling over her shoulder.
“Ready?” The announcer raised his hand and let it fall like a signal flag. “One!”
The belt cracked against Grant’s buttocks. He lurched forward with the impact.
“Hit him again,” Nathan cried, almost tumbling out of his chair.
Dennis cupped a hand to his mouth and yelled, “Faster, bitch!”
In quick succession, the announcer called, “Four!” Whack! “Five!” Whack! “Six!” Whack! “Seven!” Whack!
Grant tried rocking his hindquarters from side to side so as to present a moving target. Marie squeezed his face between her fleshy thighs, stilling him.
“Eight!” Whack! “Nine!” Whack! “Ten!” Whack! “Eleven!” Whack!
“C’mon!” Nathan bellowed. “You can do better than that!”
Grant, his head held fast, clawed at Marie’s knees to no effect.
“Twelve!” Whack! “Thirteen!” Whack! “Fourteen!” Whack! “Fifteen!”
One end of the belt slipped from Babette’s fingers, spoiling the shot. She refolded the belt and clenched it with both hands like a baseball bat. The muscles of her arms, shoulders, back, and legs flexed, distorting her feminine curves. She corkscrewed her hips and let fly. Whack!
“Sixteen!” Whack! “Seventeen!” Whack! “Eighteen!” Whack!
Swinging the belt feverishly, her whole body contorting with the effort, Babette shrieked, “Espèce de merde! Va te faire foutre!”
A look of concern flashed across the announcer’s face. But he completed his countdown nonetheless. “Nineteen!” Whack! “Twenty!” Whack! “Twenty-one!” Whack!
Babette stopped. With her forearm, she stripped the sweat from her eyes. Then she renewed the beating, her arms pumping in fury, the blows sloppy, landing on Grant’s back and legs. Pushed forward by the assault, the top half of his head—flushed purple—emerged from between Marie’s thighs.
Marie set her jaw. A single tear rolled down her puffy cheek.
Babette screamed, “Pigs! Go fuck your mothers!”
The announcer dropped his microphone. An explosive bang rattled the sound system. He wrestled the belt from Babette. “Tabernacle!” he snarled. “Qu’ as tu? Hein?”
Two large men rushed the stage, seized Babette by the arms, and dragged her away as she thrashed and moaned. Only then did Marie release her hold on Grant. He fell like dead weight onto the platform. Gasping and shaking, he curled himself into a ball.
His friends gave a standing ovation.
The announcer stormed over to Marie and slapped her hard. She spat at his shoes and marched off, head held high.
The audience applauded.
The announcer helped Grant to his feet. With a sheen of perspiration christening his head, Grant swayed and stumbled to his chair. A damp stain darkened the crotch of his khakis.
Wringing his hands, the announcer sidled over to Dennis and Nathan.
“I’m terribly sorry. Babette, she’s crazy. I don’t know what came over her.”
“Are you kidding?” Nathan punched the announcer’s arm. “That was great!”
“Don’t worry about it, Pepe Le Pew.” Dennis reached into his pocket and flipped a bronze-plated coin to the bewildered announcer. “Here’s a loonie for your trouble.” The announcer accepted the coin and slinked away.
Dennis and Nathan put on their coats. They hauled Grant upright. His legs wobbled but he remained standing.
“Let’s get outta this shithole,” Nathan said.
Grant groaned. “I don’t feel so good.”
“Don’t be a pussy,” Dennis told him.
“Seriously, I think she ruptured a testicle.”
“Walk it off.” Dennis, with Nathan trailing behind, led a pale-faced Grant toward the exit.
The doorman nodded and opened the door for them. Nathan pulled his baseball cap down tight on his head. “Where should we go now?”
“Home,” Grant croaked, barely audible.
“I know a better place a few blocks from here,” Dennis said, his breath puffing like smoke in the streetlamps’ sickly orange glow. “Club Super Eight. They got an all-Asian revue.”
Nathan clapped his hands together. “Wicked cool!”
Dennis and Nathan held Grant by the elbows and urged him forward. The trio shuffled down the sidewalk, carving three pairs of tracks in the newly fallen snow.
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