Not There They're Not
Dick Bentley's books, Post-Freudian Dreaming and A General Theory of Desire, are available on Amazon. He has published over 200 works of fiction and poetry in the U.S., the U.K., France, Canada, and Brazil. He served on the Board of the Modern Poetry Association (now called the Poetry Foundation) and has taught at a number of colleges and at the University of Massachusetts. He's a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the International Fiction Award sponsored by the Paris Review and the Paris Writers Workshop.
My friend Earl Carlyle was talking. Earl's a minister over at that Grace Church next to the parking lot; this gave him the right to talk sometimes. The three of us were sitting at the kitchen table. A bottle of Chardonnay kept going around. There was Earl and me and Cecil Fisher. We were neighbors. Earl's wife, Sheila, left him a couple of weeks ago. Cecil's wife had been put away—an institution. My wife was at a buyer's convention in Vegas. So there were just the three of us on a Saturday night. No women. Cecil Fisher taught literature at the women's college across the river. Because of that, all he could talk about was women. Women this, women that. He thought most women were very spiritual.
Earl said, "You think my Sheila is spiritual? Running off with that French professor?"
"Maybe not your wife," Cecil said. "Sheila might not be all that spiritual."
"What do any of us really know about women?" I said. "Sure, some are spiritual. But others can be pretty carnal."
"Also sentimental," Cecil said. "I hate that."
"Then there's your bitches and your prick teasers," Earl said.
"All the way from Martha Stewart to Mother Teresa," I said. "Just kidding."
Earl said, "Cecil, how can you be so romantic about women after Vicki put all that windshield wiper solvent in your Chardonnay?"
"My wife might be another exception," Cecil said.
He poured himself another glass. He shook his head. "She slipped a cog. She didn't think I'd notice, could you believe it? I'm no connoisseur—I'm pretty lowbrow, you might say. But you tend to notice. You tend to notice those things, especially in your late-vintage semi-sweets with the crisp finish."
"We need some women," I said. I poured the last of the wine into my glass and waggled the bottle. "We need to go somewhere. Not the faculty club though."
"I know a place," Cecil said. He got up from the table. "That's where we'll go. To this place I know about."
Earl asked, "In Hatfield? Off Montague Road? That place?"
"One of the strippers is taking my Wordsworth class," Cecil said. "That's how I know about it. How do you know about it?"
Club Castaway's outdoor sign said it had forty girls available for entertaining. It didn't say whether they were all available at the same time. The inside was dark except for a floodlit stage where a girl was dancing with a brass pole. She locked her legs around it; slid her hands up and down it; thrust her pelvis at it in time to the music.
In a corner of the bar, one girl looked different from the others: She had a few rolls of fat around her middle, wore heavy makeup and a blond wig, and sat on a guy's lap, facing him. She held onto his shoulders as she squirmed around, kicking her chubby legs out, forward and sideways.
"Ada Comstock scholar," Cecil said. "There're probably a few more in the back. They get grants to go back to college when they're in their forties and fifties. They're called 'nontraditional' strippers."
He picked up his glass.
"They look unsafe," Earl said. "I mean, your diseases and all."
"They get a lot of action," Cecil said. "Fifty bucks for a lap dance. For two hundred you get to go into one of the back rooms. They can pay down their student loans pretty fast."
We were getting a little drunk. It was hard keeping things in focus. Earl and Cecil were ignoring the strippers. They began arguing over the etymology of "G-string." They didn't even notice when the lights flickered and a voice rumbled, "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! CLUB CASTAWAY IS PROUD TO INTRODUCE ITS NEWEST STAR—SHEILA THE PEELER!"
The stripper came out; she had her back to us. She tossed her head from side to side and snapped her fingers. I watched her for awhile. She turned slightly toward us and twirled her tassels. She moved in a small circle in the middle of the stage.
Earl and Cecil had their backs to her. They were talking about Earl's new book that he wrote: Intelligent Design for Dummies. I had to give him a nudge.
"Look up there."
He turned around on his stool. He looked up at the stage. He blinked his eyes.
At the break, Sheila came over to our table. She held her robe closed at her throat. We were drinking Pernod and cream soda. She sat down. The bottle went around the table.
Earl said, "Honey, this can't continue. This has got to stop."
Sheila said, "Honey, stripping is killing me too. But I didn't leave you. You left me." She nodded toward Cecil and me. "God," she said. "Always God. No time for me. Just God. God this, God that." Her eyes turned back to Earl. "You didn't love me. You only loved God, God damn you."
"Honey," Earl said. "It only lasted a month. It didn't mean anything. What about your French professor? What do you have to say about that?"
"Quand un jour d'hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison," she said, "ma mère me proposa de me faire prendre . . ."
". . . un peu de thé. Elle envoya a chercher un de ces gâteaux courts . . ." she said.
". . . et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaient . . ." she said.
"Honey, should you be quoting Proust in a place like this?"
"Should you be wearing a clerical collar in a place like this, honey?"
"Should you be wearing nothing, honey?"
Cecil nodded toward me. "They're at it again."
Back on I-91, Cecil opened it up—little jumps of eighty-five and ninety. Sheila and Earl were in the back seat. We were drinking Teachers and prune juice. The bottle went around the car.
Sheila said, "You understand? I'm only coming home with you because of the children. I want to see the children."
Earl said, "The children? I thought you had the children, honey. Anyway, they'll turn up. Right now what counts is you and me. This is a serious matter we're discussing, honey. How can we get it right between you and me? We're talking human interaction here. Yours and mine."
"Human interaction, shit," she said. "I'm trying to quit. You know that thing about icebergs, honey? One eighth above water, seven eighths underwater? Both ends are cold, honey. The top eighth is cold, the bottom seven-eighths are cold, too."
Earl scratched his head like he'd missed a boat. "Anyway, I want you to promise me something," he said. "Honey, I want you to promise me you'll stop dancing in that shithole nightclub with those crazy Ada Comstock girls."
"Be serious," she said. "Besides, they're not girls. They're women. It is really insulting to call those women 'girls.' I want to puke. They are women, honey."
"Not there they're not, honey."
"Let she/he who is without sin," she said, "let him/her throw up the first stone."
"Honey, how can we make it right between you and me? What does it take?" he asked.
"How about fifty bucks for a lap dance," she said, "and two hundred for the back room?"
Earl's face crumpled. Tears rolled off his cheeks. He dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief. Sheila's eyes rolled upward, and then she put her arm around his neck and drew him to her.
She said, "Dos cuerpos por una sola miel derrotados."
"Honey," he sniffed, "honey, should you be quoting Neruda at a time like this?"
"Sure, honey. Neruda is saying, 'Love is like two bodies subdued by honey.'"
"That's us, honey."
"It's just about love, honey. Nothing personal."