1st Place Winner: 2006 Curios Fiction Contest
Dying on the Vine
After knocking off her dinner that consisted of a Kit Kat, Funyuns, and a rum & Coke, Hope slid off of the barstool and lazily made her way to the dressing room.
“Three more hours of this crap,” she groaned under her breath, stopping momentarily to contemplate her reflection in the Budweiser sign. Her face, although still young and sweet, had a weathered texture like aged China. I need sleep, she thought to herself. She felt like she could sleep for days.
She rubbed the side of her neck as she sauntered toward the dressing room door, trying in vain to work out a kink that had nestled itself deep into her tendons.
Wedging her way in, she closed the door behind her and plopped down on her battered old trunk, which looked like it had been through World War II.
“Another day in paradise, huh Babe?” said Frankie amicably as she pulled on a thigh-high stocking.
Hope thought the world of Frankie. Of all the girls who worked at The Clown’s Lounge, she was the only one who possessed any real substance.
“Yeah. I was ‘spose to get off at ten, but Jake wants me to stay ‘til close, ‘cuz we had two no-shows.”
Frankie laced up her black leather boot and shot her a worried look.
“Isn’t your little deal in the morning?
You’re gonna be able to make it there, right hon? Don’t screw it up on account of this hole.”
Hope smiled wanly in appreciation. She yearned to curl up on the floor of the dressing room and catch a few winks, but, looking down, she realized how disgusting the carpet was and changed her mind.
“I don’t know why you want to work at a bank, anyways. You makin’ over a grand a week. Why you wanna go back to minimum wage?” asked Tiffany, a skinny little waif with dark circles under her eyes and a nose ring.
Hope didn’t have the energy to explain, nor did she care to. Tiffany belonged in a strip joint; her personality and mindset made the job a perfect fit. She actually enjoyed it.
Frankie started braiding her long red hair, turning her head slightly in Tiffany’s direction.
“Ever heard of amelioration?”
“No…” she said, looking a little mystified.
Hope wasn’t exactly sure what it meant either, but the sound of the word was colorful and vibrant—a nice contrast to the dreary, graffiti-riddled dressing room they occupied.
“I’m nervous, Frank…” she said softly, working her flaxen hair into a bun and securing it with a pencil.
How was she going to live on less than $300 a week? She only had one respectable office outfit; it was going to cost her a mint to get properly outfitted. Then her thoughts quickly shifted to a scenario where she was at a party, cracker in hand, socializing and did not feel her heart skip a beat when someone asked the question, “So Hope, where do you work?”
After her husband left, she hadn’t had many options; a friend who worked as a bouncer at the club had slipped the idea into her head. After walking out to the parking lot that first night with $750 in her purse, the job became a crutch, a security blanket, a piece of gum on the bottom of her boot that she was unable to scrape off. She gazed once again at her image in the mirror, trying to look past the weariness that marred her features. Her nose was dusted ever so lightly with freckles, as softly colored as the skin below. Even at twentyseven, she still held tight to her girlish visage and didn’t quite mesh with the other dancers who looked so beat up and cheap. She often would speculate on what these girls would be doing twenty years from now, their bodies starting to droop and shrivel, dying on the vine.
“Girl, you’re gonna be in and out of there…you’ve already had two interviews. The HR guy just wants to get a gander at ya, and once he gets a load of you, you’ve got it,” Frankie said.
But Hope’s mind was swimming with the things that could go wrong. Would they find out that she fudged her resume? Would she slip up and say something stupid that would reveal her true intellect?
Frankie stepped over and gave her a quick embrace. “I know you’ve got the job. Now I just have to worry about myself…how will I work here without you?”
With that, Frankie opened the door and sashayed out of the grimy dressing room. Hope did a quick make-up check and headed down toward what the girls affectionately called “The Dungeon.”
* * *
The house was full. Earsplitting rap music blared from the speakers, emanating from every possible angle. The tables were arranged in a horseshoe fashion around the stage to accommodate all the usual jokers: businessmen wearing an overabundant amount of cologne, bikers, mid-life crisis guys in Dockers pants, dirty old men, college students, grisly men in camouflage, and the infamous bachelor party attendees. As she made her way back to the DJ booth, she could feel a barrage of penetrating stares boring into her, attempting to peel back her layers like an onion. Disregarding them all, she ascended the four steep stairs to the DJ platform, where she found Dave shuffling through various CDs and making notes. The stagnant smoke hovered in the air and lent a sort of swamp-like quality to the atmosphere; the long tendrils crept into her airways, throttling her lungs.
“Hey Davey-Wavey,” she said, “how long til I’m up?”
“Weeeeelll…let’s see here,” he said, sorting through his notes until he came upon the schedule.
“Cheyenne just got here about 10 minutes ago, and we have a new girl auditioning tonight, so…”
Hope’s heart did a somersault; suddenly, all she could think about was clean air and silence.
“Hey! I was supposed to get off at ten – Jake said that Cheyenne wasn’t coming in. Does he still need me to stay?”
“Well, Jake had to take off and left me in charge, so it looks like you’re off the hook if you want to bail.”
Hope let out a little shriek and pecked him on the cheek.
“Hold up there, lady! You’ll probably want this before you skate outta here.” Dave handed her a cream-colored envelope containing her weekly paycheck. It was never much, since the girls mostly worked for tips, but it was beneficial nonetheless.
Instantly rejuvenated, she descended the stairs and made her way up toward the stage area, where Frankie was removing her long silk cape and skirt. She watched them flutter down to the stage boards like wilted rose petals. Hope mouthed an enthusiastic “I’m outta here!” and headed toward the dressing room. A creepy little guy in an illfitting suit lurched at her as she walked past his table, roughly snatching her butt cheek.
She spun around on him and grabbed his arm while he snickered, obviously proud of himself.
“Listen, ” Hope growled through clenched teeth, “You touch me…just one more time…and I’m gonna rip you a new one...”
The guy shrugged one shoulder and crinkled up his nose, letting out a pig snort. Freaks. She saw Frankie out of the corner of her eye, still on stage and laughing.
“Toodles!” yelled Hope over her shoulder. Changing into her street clothes, she left the bar and emerged out into the crisp evening air.
She walked two blocks down to Keeler Avenue and stopped in at Key Foods to grab some milk and cash her check. It was now almost 11:00, and only one cashier was on duty. She stepped up to the checkout with her gallon of milk, a pack of disposable razors and a box of Milk Bones for Petie, her beagle. The cashier gave her a warm smile and asked if she had found everything all right. Hope nodded and produced her paycheck from her purse, smoothing it out and laying it on the conveyor belt. The “Clown’s Lounge” logo screamed out from the paper in bright red and navy. A vulgarlooking clown, with his tongue hanging out, mocked her. The clerk picked up the check and studied it quietly. Her demeanor changed instantly as she looked up at Hope and asked coldly, “I.D., please?”
The cashier bagged up her purchases and set them in front of Hope without a “thank you” or even a “have a nice day.” Hope picked up the bag and walked toward the exit. Just as she reached the door, she heard a voice call out from far behind her. “Slut!” She pushed the door open and strode out into the night, not looking back.
* * *
The sun was blinding. Hope made an impromptu visor with the palm of her hand and timidly padded into the bank, her stomach full of butterflies and her heart fluttering along with them. She had carefully pressed the only blazer she owned, curled her hair conservatively and clipped it back with a barrette, and put a new shine on her black loafers. Under her arm she carried a leather portfolio containing her fudged resume, a list of references, and a photocopy of her driver’s license and social security card. She apprehensively stepped up to the receptionist’s desk, which was covered with assorted plants and photographs. “Hello, my name is Hope Lewis, and I have an appointment to see Mr. Miles Sheehan.”
The receptionist’s eyes lit up with recognition, and she said, “Why Hope, yes, good to see you again! I’m so glad you’ll be joining our team!”
“Well,” Hope said, smiling and winding a lock of hair that had fallen out of the barrette around her finger, “I’m not exactly in yet. And I’m awfully nervous.”
The receptionist waved her hand dismissively. “Sweetie, this is just standard operating procedure. The head of HR always meets with the applicant before the official hire. And don’t you worry, he’s wonderful!”
“O.K., thank you…” Hope glanced quickly at her name tag, “Marge.” She took a seat in an oversized plush chair and thumbed through a copy of The Weekly Standard, just to have something to do with her hands. After ten minutes or so, Marge called out that Mr. Sheehan could see her now and directed her to the last office on the left. She laid down the magazine, picked up her portfolio and started on her trek down the long hallway.
So what if it only pays $8.50 an hour? she thought to herself, watching the large oak door loom closer and closer. No one will call me a slut anymore, I won’t have to be ashamed to cash my paycheck, I won’t have to put up with the lowlifes, and I definitely won’t be having customers pinching my behind. She took a deep breath, said a quick prayer to a God she hadn’t spoken to in years, and stepped into the office.
* * *
The office was huge and luxurious. Large floor lamps filled the room with a soft, dim glow. Hope approached the desk and took a seat in the chair directly in front of it, her eyes trying to adjust to the change in lighting. She finally was able to see Mr. Sheehan’s form take shape behind the desk. He had a shiny little head that gave off its own aura, much like the floor lamps.
“Be right with you, Ms. Lewis,” he told her, as he looked through some papers, presumably her application and resume. Her gaze fell on the framed photograph perched on the corner of his desk. A slightly overweight woman with buckteeth smiled weakly at the camera while two children sat on her lap, not looking thrilled at the endeavor. Hope saw Mr. Sheehan gather up the paperwork and slide it back into the personnel folder. Her tongue suddenly felt thick in her mouth.
“Oh, is that your family?” Hope asked, desperate to think of something to say, any topic to break the awkwardness of silence.
Mr. Sheehan looked up at her through his rimless glasses, shrugged his shoulder jerkily and said, “Why yes, that’s my wife Meredith and my two sons, Kyle and Parker.” He looked into her eyes for a few seconds, long enough for it to register who she was, and then crinkled up his nose and let out a soft grunt.
“Well, er, Ms. ahh…Lewis, all your paperwork seems to be in order here. However, we filled the last position this morning. So sorry someone didn’t contact you earlier. I’ll be keeping your resume on file in case anything else opens up.”
“Sure,” she said, collecting her purse and portfolio up off the floor. “No problem.”
The sun was setting in the sky like a huge orange pumpkin as she walked to work that evening, her duffle bag slung over one shoulder. After changing, she sidled up to the bar and ordered two shots of Wild Turkey, making conversation with no one. Moments later, when Dave announced her name over the microphone, she apathetically walked onto the stage, lunged at the pole and twirled around madly, spinning and twirling, faster and faster, round and round, letting the beat wash her senses. Closing her eyes, she surrendered herself to the music.