Hard Pussy was the one who pointed it out to me. She ran the bar at Butch’s, a narrow joint wedged between the deathtraps and bum flops in Old Town. Butch’s was the first place in the state to buck the local ordinances and offer, as the neon said, LIVE GIRLS TOTALLY NUDE ONSTAGE. Another neon featured a curvy dancer swiveling her hips. You could see it for blocks.
The stage wasn’t much, a single platform thrusting like a dock between the tables. There was no pole or any of that fancy crap that newer clubs had. There wasn’t even a DJ, just an old Seeburg jukebox at the back of the stage, its arc of yellow lights glowing through the haze.
Hard Pussy had been in the Merchant Marine during the war, cutting her hair and passing as a man for the duration. She said her real identity “never came up.” She had a face like a work glove, meaty hands and a genuine Sailor Jerry tattoo on her arm. She’d worked at Butch’s since it opened in 1948, so long that most people thought that she herself was Butch. She’d set them straight on that score if they asked. Most didn’t. There may have been a real Butch, but I never met him.
Butch’s did good business, even in the daytime. There would be at least three or four men in the joint fifteen minutes after it opened at 11, guys with outside sales jobs, cops and firemen, construction workers on lunch. For the talent, Butch’s was either the first rung on the ladder or the last, depending on the dancer’s age and ability. Once in a while there was somebody extraordinary, like the black girl with a bass clef tattooed on her ankle who went on to play with a famous jazz trumpet player in New York City. It was rare, but it happened.
Pretta was a girl like that. I thought so, anyway. She was my favorite. I was in love with her, I realize now. I was twenty-three, new in town. I had no friends, an outside sales job I hated, and the start of a drinking problem. It was a cliché for me to fall for a stripper, but there you have it.
I’d come in and watch her, try to figure out what she was thinking. I knew she was smart because sometimes she’d sit with me and make jokes. I never got to know her at all, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that at the time.
I loved how she leaned against the jukebox, fingers in her mouth while she flipped through the selections. It didn’t matter how carefully she picked. Her music was always shitty. Some dancers have a knack for picking the perfect song, but with Pretta it was just the opposite. The music never fit the mood and was always inappropriate for her style of dancing, if you could even call it a style. Lena Horne and a fast gyration. The Electric Prunes and a slow swivel. It was always just wrong.
I guess she was maybe 20, with a the lovelest face I ever saw in my life. Long black hair like a crow’s wing spilling over high cheekbones and huge dark eyes that seemed half asleep. And a body without flaw, smooth and pearly in the smoke, a figure carved of ivory by a Chinese master. Pretta habitually wore an expression of intriguing blankness, a canvas upon which anything might be written. Sister. Daughter. Whore. Maybe all three.
Hard Pussy gave me my drink, rye and ginger in a beer mug. I offered her a smoke and we lit up. “Say, Charlie,” she said in that diesel voice, low and rattling, “I think you’re shit out of luck. Your honey’s taken up with Doctor Bob.”
Hard Pussy knew I had it bad for Pretta and teased me about it whenever I came in. I tried to always be there when Pretta was working, so lately she’d had plenty of opportunity.
The news about Dr. Bob was bad, but I can’t say it was a surprise. I’d been around long enough to see it happen a few times. Sooner or later Dr. Bob would come in to check out the new girl. He’d stand and watch the stage from across the room, sipping his bottled tonic and not tipping a dime, leaning his pointy elbows on the tall table like he was at a livestock auction. Then he’d leave. This would go on for a while, but one time he’d saunter across the bar and drop a hundred at the dancer’s feet, looking at her face from behind his tinted glasses.
Some girls would fawn all over such big money, but the cooler customers would ignore it like it was fifty cents. It was his test. If the dancer treated the money like shit, then the Doctor would be interested. If she so much as presented her ass to him he’d have nothing more to do with her. More girls than you might think passed the test.
Later, he’d have them over for a table dance or two, talking quietly to them all the while. Hard Pussy frowned on table dances, except for Doctor Bob. He paid for that unique privilege.
Within a few days, the dancer would belong to Dr. Bob. She’d still get up on the stage to do her set, but afterwards she wouldn’t sit at the bar with the other customers. She’d sit with the Doctor and ignore any other overtures.
Hard Pussy didn’t mind because even though Dr. Bob only drank tonic water, he would always drop a hundred or two every time he came in. Hard Pussy didn’t pay the girls. They worked for tips. Some of them cleared five hundred a night.
Usually, Doctor Bob’s chosen would start to put on airs, showing off some new ring, necklace or a dress. Before long she’d be staying up at his house. Sometimes she would disappear for a week or two, showing back up with a cosmetic improvement like new tits or a nose job.
And then she’d be gone altogether. A month or two. Maybe longer. But then she would come back, looking like she’d been though the wars. Hard Pussy told me the longest any girl had stayed gone was six months. That was Jaqui, whose father was a lawyer. Jaqui was hard as rocks about getting her way, an amazon, six-two with red hair and eyes like a pirate. “But even she came back, ” Hard Pussy said. “And she looked worse than all the rest of ’em put together. That Dr. Bob knows how to tear down a woman, chew her up so small she chokes on herself.”
Hard Pussy wouldn’t say what went on up at the Doctor’s house, but I found out later he was a trust-fund MD who didn’t need to practice. He had particular tastes, most of which he’d keep to himself until the moment was right.
With each new girl he would create the illusion that she was the one. And so it would go, Dr. Bob asking more and more until one day she’d refuse him, refuse to allow a further escalation. The next thing the dancer knew she was outside the front gate, lucky if she’d been able to grab an outfit or cabfare. Plenty of girls knew the humiliation of flapping down the streets of the affluent Hills neighborhood in slippers and a teddy, cried-out mascara giving her raccoon eyes as she squinted in the harsh sun. These broken girls would usually dance for maybe a month or two, shadows of their former selves. Then be gone for good.
I figured I knew what Pretta’s fate would be with the Doctor. Everybody did, except Pretta herself. It was like the last act of a farce where all the actors but one are in on the secret and the audience laughs along with them at the fool who hasn’t figured out the obvious. Pretta was mindlessly picking out her music because the poor kid actually thought that her ship had come in. She was positive that within a year she’d be driving around in a Mercedes , a pink poodle on her lap.
My take is this: a guy like Dr. Bob only feels alive when he ruins something beautiful, like a vandal who slashes a Monet. I guess up until he met Pretta, he never found one he couldn’t destroy. Maybe that was why he did what he did.
I was out of town when it happened, but it was spectacular enough that it made it onto the evening news. The neighbors had heard the screaming and called the cops and one of those nightcrawler vultures with a police scanner got there before the police and took that footage that made it to the crime show. Most of it had to be heavily edited because it was too much even for cable, but the blood on the walls and the carpet told enough.
The picture they ran of Pretta must have been from her high school annual. She looked about fifteen, but her eyes still had that look, that never-touch-me stare like she stood alone on some island you could never get to. That look could make a man fall in love, or worse. They gave her real name, too. A little girl’s name. It didn’t fit her. I could see why she had changed it.
I never said goodbye to Hard Pussy. I got a regular job in another town, quit drinking, and settled down with a girl I met at church.
With her long black hair and big dark eyes, my wife looks like she might be Pretta’s sister. But her eyes are different. They invite you in and ask you questions.
It’s not the same kind of love I had for Pretta. It may not be love at all.
But it’ll do.