4. Like A Dancer
I am serializing my collection Stories from The Last Basin currently available on Amazon. The stories are best read in the order of Table Contents:
Like A Dancer
by John Anthony, 2021
Chrissie Hunter awoke in her one room apartment in the city of her birth, but nowhere near the house of her birth. Her family house hung gracefully, in a mid-century modern kind of way, from the side of a low mountain, part of the range that separated the Los Angeles basin from the San Fernando Valley and was situated on a fortunate parcel off of Mulholland Drive that faced south, providing year-round sunshine and a view that stretched from the sea-blue bay to the office towers of downtown. Somewhere between the house she grew-up in and downtown Los Angeles was the apartment where Chrissie now lived, which was a room appointed with the bare minimum of thrift store furniture: Her single bed, two mismatched chairs and a small table (upon which sat a lonely industrial-beige telephone). There was also a low bookshelf containing half a dozen worn fashion magazines. On the kitchenette floor a small refrigerator hummed continuously, and on a small Formica counter next to the kitchenette sink rested a rusty hot plate that she never used. She had no television but did have a boom box and a shoebox full of cassette tapes. She kept the boombox’s radio tuned to KLOS, FM. On her walls she had pinned a poster of Peter Frampton singing while playing his guitar and one small photo of her father surrounded by his three young daughters. She guessed her mom had snapped it. Had Chrissie thought about it, she was a true victim of circumstances. However, she wasn’t prone to think about it. Instead, she took her medicine, generically called phenobarbital, and a sip of water to wash it down. Then she put on her robe and peeked out her door to see if the shared bathroom was in use.
She had been prescribed phenobarbital since before time began. It was supposed to ward off the auras and the troubles that followed. She didn’t really know what those troubles were as she had no memory of them, but the auras she knew well, the smell and the colors, and she truly hated the aftermath, the blood filling her mouth, the bruises and bumps of unknown origin, her muscles aching and her head filled with pain. The medicine made her almost normal, although people thought her sometimes slow, or perhaps lazy, but they rarely had to witness a seizure.
Chrissie returned to her room and dressed. She chose simple, saving the nice stuff for work later in the afternoon. She wasn’t supposed to have a job as she lived on federal disability payments, but she had found employment that suited her and paid cash, cash enough to let her buy nice clothes, which she liked to do. They made her feel pretty and a little bit special and also helped with the tips. She had been told the tips were important, but she never tried that hard to earn them. Chrissie’s social worker never asked about whether she had a job, and Chrissie’s sister Carla had warned her never to discuss it in her disability interviews.
Chrissie didn’t need to feel pretty, because she was pretty. That’s a thing in Los Angeles. The magnetic attraction of Hollywood had seeded the gene pool with handsome stock if nothing else. And Chrissie didn’t have much else. Her father, whom she adored, had died when she was twelve, and his future earnings as a writer and producer had vanished with him. Her mother, blonde and tall being her primary talents, had taken to vodka and Valium and resenting her children and her husband, whose residual earnings were sufficient to support all the inhabitants of a small town in the corn belt, but were deemed insufficient to support her and her minor children in a style to which she was accustomed, a now familiar euphemism for whatever troubled someone. So, one by one, her two older sisters disappeared from the house when they turned eighteen, first Constance, then Carla. Their fortunes looked better than Chrissie’s would ever be, but her mother played no favorites and on her eighteenth birthday there would be no cake and celebration, just a suitcase, her medicine, and her closest sister Carla showing up to give her a ride to her future. Chrissie’s mother was passed out on the couch, the afternoon sun blocked by heavy curtains and closed shades. It didn’t matter. That wasn’t to be Chrissie’s view of the city anymore.
Now her view of the city was often from the window of a bus. She had never been given the opportunity to learn to drive because that would have been pointless; her medical history would never have allowed a license to be issued. She was carless in a city that had forever been obsessed with cars, but again she accepted this social injustice without question. Her philosophy, which was much more an intrinsic part of her personality rather than a carefully constructed code, was why worry about what cannot be changed? She was careful to keep her trips on the bus short as possible; she hated the idea of an aura arising in the setting of a public bus.
The longest trip she allowed herself was the monthly visit to her social worker, which took her from the edge of Koreatown, where she lived, to the edge of downtown, where the social worker’s office was. If traffic was favorable, and counting all the stops, the ten-minute drive by car took about thirty minutes by Rapid Transit. She tolerated this risk for two reasons: 1) Since the visit was mandatory, she couldn’t miss it, there was no one volunteering to give her a ride, and she definitely couldn’t afford to call a cab, and 2) The big window of the bus was her private TV set, which she found diverting and mostly enjoyable. From her perch above the traffic she could watch normal people doing normal things such as shopping and talking and walking and kissing and wrangling children and jumping out of the way of skate punks and avoiding the ever-present panhandlers. For her, looking through that bus window was very much like the time in high school when she looked through a microscope at a clear drop of water and saw a world of protozoa bouncing around. From her childhood home off of Mulholland she could look clear across the city but never see it, at least not until she was in it. Then it was all protozoa all bouncing around pretty much all the time.
This day, she had no plans for the bus. She finished dressing and carefully used a blow dryer to shape her long sun-streaked hair. She economically applied her make-up to highlight her dark blue eyes; she’d spend more time on it before work. A touch of lip gloss and she left her apartment, locking the door behind her, and walked down the stairs to the street. She remembered a conversation she had had with a client.
“You don’t own a car?” he had asked, trying to make conversation.
“No. I don’t have a license. I walk everywhere, mostly.”
“You haven’t heard that no one walks in LA?” he said, trying to make a joke.
“That’s not true,” Chrissie said. “You mean no one who doesn’t have to walk walks in LA.”
She guessed that conversation didn’t go well, or the man was simply cheap. She didn’t get a tip. That was okay though, the man needed to be corrected.
Chrissie walked to the corner market. There, she poured herself a cup of coffee, adding two sugar packs and one creamer, picked out a blueberry muffin, and browsed the magazine rack for any new issues. She discovered she had a choice between the latest Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle and chose the latter because Cosmo could be too wordy. She just liked to look at the ads and the fashion spreads.
She went to the counter and set her items down. The Korean lady at the register greeted her by name and with a big smile.
“Good morning, Miss Chrissie! And how are you today?”
“I’m feeling fine, Annie,” Chrissie answered while searching through an immense Hermès bag looking for her wallet. “How are you?”
“Fine, fine,” she said, but her face turned stern. “You shouldn’t walk around with that bag. Someone will grab it from you.”
Chrissie smiled. “Don’t worry, Annie. No one around here knows what it is. Anyway, I stole it from my mom when I moved out, so it isn’t really mine anyway.”
Annie clucked and rang up the purchase. “Your mother isn’t angry with you?” she asked.
“I don’t know. She probably hasn’t even noticed. She’s like that.”
Chrissie stuffed the magazine and muffin into the bag in question and picked up her coffee. “I’ve got to run, Annie, see you tomorrow!” she said to cut off further conversation on that particular subject.
“Stay safe!” Annie called as Chrissie hurried out the door.
Stay safe? Chrissie thought. Safe was when my daddy used to hug me and I’ll never feel that way again. She walked back to her room and locked herself in. Sitting at her little table she sipped her coffee and picked at her muffin while scanning the pages of her new magazine. She looked at the clothes and the models and thought to herself that her hair was just as pretty as their hair was, and she was right. It was one thing she had obviously inherited from her mother.
She finished the first pass through the magazine. The corner shop coffee was no match for the phenobarbital, and she grew tired. She opened her door and as always, peeked down the hall at the bathroom, then went to pee. When she returned, she locked the door, undressed and put on the loose tee shirt and shorts that she used as pajamas. She set her alarm clock to make sure she woke up in time for work and lay down to sleep.
* * * * *
The alarm woke Chrissie at four o’clock. She was still tired but that was normal. What did cause her a slight bit of concern was that she thought she detected an odor, the smell of an electric storm. Her doctor had told her long ago that the way she had described it made him think of something called ozone. He told her it was like the oxygen we breathe only different, and humans can smell it, which was one of the ways ozone and oxygen were different. He told her lightning could create it, right out of thin air she guessed. When she smelled it, it usually wasn’t from a thunderstorm, it was part of the aura that foretold a seizure. She got up and looked out her window. There wasn’t much of a view, but high in the sky, above the haze, masses of clouds were collecting on the east side of the San Gabriel Mountains, over the desert where hot updrafts were pushing against moisture laden coastal air causing towering thunderheads to form. Chrissie didn’t know the specifics of why there were thunderheads but seeing them spread across the sky was a relief. Thunderheads proved there was a lot of lightning out there over the mountains even if she couldn’t see it or hear the thunder. She must be smelling the real thing. Of course, from her perspective, the mountains with their clouds were just past the downtown office towers; she had never had the pleasant opportunity to take the long hundred-mile drive over the mountains and down Pearblossom Highway in the spring.
It was time for her to get ready for work, and with her mind at ease, she set about the task of preparing herself. She took off her sleep wear and slipped on her panties and a bra. She took a moment to look at herself in the mirror. She saw a fashion model staring back. If only! Her hair was a mess from sleeping so she wet it in her little sink and used the blow dryer again until it was perfect. She scented her neck and chest with her precious Chanel and sat down to do her make-up. This was the most important part of her routine. Where she worked was dark, with artificial lights, so the environment called for different accents and highlights. It was all very subtle but that was the point. Make-up was meant to enhance the face, not distract from it. Chrissie considered herself very skilled in this art and was rightfully proud of the outcome. She slipped into an evening dress, one which accented her slender body. She picked out a little gold cross on a delicate chain to wear as a necklace. Lastly, she put on her hated high heels. They were part of the dress code and yes, they looked nice, but they made her job more difficult and by the end of her shift, her feet cried out to her in pain. She transferred her ID, some make-up, and a few dollars into a clutch purse and left the Hermès behind. She locked her door behind her and dropped her key ring into her clutch. When she reached the street, she walked in the opposite direction from her morning’s journey. Her destination was only three blocks away. It was a place called The Swing Club and she was a taxi dancer there.
* * * * *
The club looked depressingly rundown in the daylight, with cracked plaster revealing several layers of paint and with weeds pushing through the parking lot asphalt and trapping litter that was blowing past. But at night all of this disappeared with the dark. It was then the colorful neon lighting and the bouncer sitting on a stool by the entrance under a single incandescent bulb transformed the establishment. If she didn’t look too closely Chrissie might imagine she were walking up to a club on the Sunset Strip.
Chrissie entered by way of the employees’ door. Inside, the lights had already been turned down. The bartenders were readying the bar. Chrissie checked in with the manager, another Korean woman who called herself Judy. Judy was friendly enough, but she wasn’t like Annie. This was a business and there were rules, rules for both the dancers and the clients, and it was Judy’s job to enforce the rules as well as make sure the bartenders weren’t pouring large for personal tips and the dancers weren’t offering professional services. Chrissie took a pack of cigarettes and lighter from her clutch and handed the purse to Judy. This was one of the rules. It made sense. She was supposed to spend the night dancing, not worrying about her accessories. On her breaks she was allowed to retrieve it so she could touch up her make-up.
Chrissie only smoked at work. She thought it added a bit of sophistication to her appeal, and for the mostly old men who patronized the club, maybe a little nostalgia as well. If she let an unlit cigarette dangle from her lips it gave a prospective client an opportunity to approach her and offer a light. It was all very ’50s, just like the slow dance tunes that played continuously throughout the evening. She settled in at her usual place at the edge of the dance floor and watched as the other girls arrived. They were mostly Asian and Hispanic and were naturally cliquish, but Chrissie didn’t mind. She didn’t believe she had much to talk about anyway.
The cost was five dollars for a five-minute dance. Chrissie’s cut was half. Sometimes one dance was enough for the old guy to get half a hard-on and wander off to the men’s room. It was better to get them to buy Chrissie a drink or two or three. They served the taxi dancers tea over ice with a splash of bourbon so they would have the smell of alcohol on their breath. Chrissie got a little bonus for each drink her clients ordered for her. She hated the taste and the low dose of alcohol just made her tired and headachy. But she guessed it was worth it, although the arithmetic of counting the dances and the drinks was impossible to keep track of, so she had to trust Judy. On a good night, the tips averaged about a dollar a dance, and she might leave with eighty dollars or so of cash in hand, which made her smile. However, the feet, they cried all the way back to her rented room.
When she worked, she was Violet, a name she chose herself, which was allowed if no one else had claimed it. Some men didn’t care enough to ask her name, they just wanted to feel her body move against theirs. That didn’t bother her. She just moved to the music. Other men really wanted to believe they were on a date. They were polite, asked her name, tried to make small talk, respected the boundaries (no hands below the waist, no pelvic grinding), and played the game of buying her a drink or two. These were the profitable clients and some of the girls really worked this angle, but Chrissie wasn’t a natural. She didn’t talk enough, make up stories, lie about a man’s age. She couldn’t ignore the cologne that they tried to use as cover for their body odor, the comb-over baldness, the corpulent waists, the perspiring foreheads. It wasn’t that her clients disgusted her, after all, she was well aware of her own faults. She just had nothing to share and found it hard to make things up.
Judy urged her to work harder. “What’s wrong with you, girl? Don’t you like money? You have so much potential!”
“I’m sorry, Judy. I’m doing my best.”
“You work for yourself here, young lady. Let me tell you now, these days won’t last. Make money while you can. This is about your future.”
“You’re right, Judy. I don’t think enough about my future.”
“Okay, girl. Break’s over. Get back out there and hustle!”
These pep talks never made a difference, but it was part of Judy’s job to encourage productivity. Chrissie knew this and didn’t hold these useless talks against her.
On this particular night things were slow. Chrissie sat for an hour before her first dance and it was a one off. If things didn’t improve soon, she planned on heading home early and getting out of her damned heels. It was then that a man entered the club. He appeared to be younger than average, maybe early forties which would be considerably younger than average. He was also tall and wore a European-cut suit. Chrissie knew fashion. You don’t wear that cut unless you have a body that works with it, at least if you’re smart anyway. She sat up a little taller as he surveyed the room. His eyes locked on hers and he walked up to her table.
“Do you like to smoke?” he asked.
“A little,” she answered.
“It’s not good for you.”
“You shouldn’t care.”
“Fair enough. What’s your name?”
“Violet. What’s yours?”
“Raphe,” and Chrissie laughed.
“That’s amusing?” Raphe asked.
“Sounds like a little boy’s name.”
“You shouldn’t care, Violet.”
“Fair enough, I guess. Do you want to dance?”
“That’s why I’m here, but I’ll have a drink first. May I buy one for you?”
“Only when I’m out. Why?”
“I hear it’s not good for you.”
Raphe laughed. Chrissie thought he had a nice smile. “What would you like?”
“Bourbon on ice. They’ll deliver it. It’s one of the rules.”
“Safety first, right?”
“That’s what Annie says.”
“She sounds like a good one. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”
Chrissie watched Raphe walk to the bar and order. He seemed nice and was definitely different. He actually wasn’t that hard to talk to either. When Raphe was done ordering, he walked over to where Judy watched over the club and engaged with her. He kept his back to Chrissie making it hard for her to figure out what was going on. When he was done, he returned to Chrissie’s table and sat down. “The drinks should be here shortly,” he said.
“Great. What were you up to with my manager?”
“Striking a deal. I reserved your company for two hours.”
“Two hours? That’s like . . . like . . .” Chrissie tried to count the number of dances that would be.
“You’re going to break me!”
Raphe laughed. “That’s not my intention. I do want to dance; I just want it to be with you.” Chrissie could feel her face redden and was thankful for the dim lighting.
“Are you on the level?” she asked.
“On the level? What decade did I walk into?” Raphe’s response embarrassed Chrissie.
“I’m sorry. I’m not good with words.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Raphe said as the drinks arrived. Chrissie took a sip of hers. “I think you don’t give yourself enough credit,” he said.
“You obviously don’t know me.”
“That’s objectively true, but I reserve my right to make a few assumptions based on experience.” It was Chrissie’s turn to laugh.
“You’re a wordy guy.” That made Raphe smile.
“Is that bad?” he asked.
“Hell no. Better than a handsy guy.”
“I suppose handsy is a common liability that comes with the profession.”
“Profession? I guess. Are you a lawyer?” Chrissie asked as Raphe finished drawing from his glass. He almost spit it out.
“Goodness no!” he said, wiping his lips with his napkin. “I’m in sales.”
“What do you sell?”
“Happiness.” Chrissie looked hard into Raphe’s eyes. To her surprise, she realized they were a deep emerald green and her favorite color.
* * * * *
Raphe wasn’t just a good dancer, he was extraordinary. Over the course of the evening he led Chrissie through steps she’d never learned before and he did it without making her feel clumsy or foolish. Three or four dances would pass before she realized she needed to sit and only then would she hear her feet whimpering. She told them to be quiet. Over the course of two hours, they only ordered one more round of drinks and that was because, as Raphe said, all the ice had melted in the first round and spoiled them. When they danced, he held her at a respectful distance as he talked her through the different dance steps.
“Why don’t you hold me close like the other men?” Chrissie asked.
“I like a dancer. I couldn’t watch you if I held you close.”
“But you never take your eyes off mine.”
“You caught me.” Just then, Judy walked by and said, “Last dance.” Chrissie suddenly felt a surge of loneliness and it took her by surprise. For the first time in her life as a taxi dancer she embraced her client, pressing her head against his chest. He had made her feel like a dancer, like Ginger Rogers. She couldn’t look up at him; she didn’t want him to see the tears forming.
The music ended and Raphe gently unwrapped Chrissie from her embrace. He walked her back to her table. “Do you want a cigarette?”
“No thank you. I think I’ll quit.”
“Probably a good idea.”
“Is that your real name?”
“It’s short for Raphael. What do you think?”
“I think you wouldn’t lie to me.”
“What’s your real name?”
“Chrissie. Chrissie Hunter.”
“I knew you wouldn’t lie to me.”
“But then you knew I’d break the rule.”
“Only because I knew it would make you happy.”
“Happy and safe.” She smiled at him.
“I have to leave now,” he said.
“My time’s up, and it’s getting late. I have had a wonderful evening. Thank you, Chrissie.”
“The rules say it’s okay to kiss me good-night . . .” Raphe leaned over, as she finished saying, “. . . on the cheek.” And he kissed her on the cheek. As he straightened, he said, “That’s a beautiful cross you’re wearing,” and she self-consciously grasped her necklace; then he was gone. She had wanted to ask him if she’d see him again, but she was afraid of the answer. Better to just believe.
Judy walked over and handed her one hundred and eighty dollars and her clutch purse. “You had a good night. You must be tired. Go home now.” Chrissie obeyed.
She barely remembered the walk home and didn’t even worry about all the cash she had in her purse. Her thoughts were filled with the evening’s memories. Her building was dark when she arrived. It usually was when she came home late. Her feet hurt and the rest of her body did as well. She decided to do something she’d never done — take a hot bath. She changed into her bathrobe and slipped down the hall to the bathroom, making sure the door was bolted. She wiped down the tub and let it fill, watching the steam rise out of it. She took off the robe and stepped in. It was surprisingly hot, but she eased herself in. She submerged herself and then realized she’d forgotten to remove her make-up. She grabbed her face cloth and scrubbed her face clean, then lay back again, floating. Her memory of dancing with Raphael returned, only now they were floating as they danced. She felt as though she were dreaming. Raphael must have been the first real angel she had ever met. She wondered if he knew her daddy. Then she smelled the ozone and she opened her eyes and all around her the bathroom glowed with an unearthly deep emerald green. As her body stiffened, hands clenching, arms crossing, head jerking backwards submerging her face, the final thought she had was of Raphael’s brilliant green eyes.