Photo by Elvissa

 

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Squeeze Box

by Kristen Clanton

  Before she was found beneath the interstate, her face half-missing, her body stripped clean, except for the fingers with their golden rings, Destiny’s mother stayed busy. It was in the audience of men – coarse men covered in hair and flannel; chapped-faced men, their skin puffy and tight from too many burgers and too much beer – that Destiny’s mother was the brief focal point between the bare-all, rip-down, ride-out shows. She was the bright red bull’s eye in front of the stage, and it was there, possibly more than any place else in the world, that Destiny’s mother was most remembered; it was there that despite all appearances, everyone knew to leave her alone.   The regulars knew that for months, every night, Destiny’s mother sat at the four-top in the corner, right where the girls entered the stage. The regulars recognized the back of her head, that enormous mass of red hair turned pink then blue then green from the stage lights. They saw the smoke from her long cigarettes; they watched her long fingers, the giant gold rings on each one, but they rarely saw her face. In the short interlude between stage shows, before the girls would come into the crowd, greased with baby oil and tanning spray, before those girls tempted the men from their stools, purring, “Hey baby, let me do you something dirty,” pulling them into lap dances and private rooms, before their restlessness was occupied, the regulars imagined Destiny’s mother’s breasts, her ass.   They imagined her body wet, her thighs sticking to the vinyl chair as their knuckles pushed against the lace between her legs, fingering her rhythmically while she bounced and pressed, her head thrown back and face changing color beneath the flashing lights. And all this, all this good fortune, happened while they stared at Destiny on the stage, writhing to “Crimson and Clover.” The beat and twang matching the mood of the room, matching the curve and texture and taste of Destiny’s mother.   “Take me to the back room, the bathroom, take me to your truck,” they imagined her moaning into their ears as she pulled heavily on their belts, leaning her shoulders back into the chair, pressing her hips further onto their fingers.   But the fantasy disappeared as quickly as it was imagined. When the girls appeared and the sure thing could happen, the image didn’t matter. After a while, Destiny’s mother was a fixture; she was no promise, not even a tease. The regulars knew that even though Destiny’s mother was a woman in a strip club, she wasn’t worth the trouble. However, this knowledge was narrow, and sometimes a stranger staying at the roadhouse across the interstate would really lose it over her.   “Who’s she with?” Leaning against the brass rail of the bar, the stranger pointed his body in her direction, holding a pale beer. “Not the stripper, the woman. The red head.”   And the regulars at the bar all shrugged into their mugs.   Sometimes Gus, a trucker from Tennessee who was on his way home every few days, took off his hat and scratched his head. “I wouldn’t try it,” he said. “Hear she’s a real bitch.”   “A real bitch in a bar is justa dirty bitch in bed,” the stranger laughed. “And that bitch looks bout hungry for it.” Striking a match, he lit a cigarette.   The men at the bar turned away to the empty stage; they looked over their shoulders at Destiny’s mother. Gus shook his head.   “A bar full a pussies,” the stranger said to the cocktail waitress. “Take that woman her favorite drink. Tell her it’s on me, tell her I asked if she was a beauty queen.”   So he sent over shot after shot of whiskey, sometimes Bloody Marys to match her hair, to match his heart, to match the time of day. But the booze never moved her away from the stage; she never softened. At least not in any way the regulars could see.   After her body was discovered, her face pit-skinned and pus-filled after days gone missing, the regulars, in their work boots and jeans, said that Destiny’s mother was a waste. They said the money spent on her was for nothing but stories that no one really knew to believe, because when the strangers finally approached her table, they’d watch her mouth upturn into the same smile that always appeared right before she swallowed the shot of whiskey, the Bloody Mary, right before she turned her body away from the strangers and back to the stage.   “That woman is slippery as a catfish,” some strangers would say upon returning to the bar, staring into their beers. They’d spend the night silent, their faces blankly watching the stage. These strangers left the Squeeze Box before finishing their last cigarette, wanting something to hold in their hands, something to keep the darkness away, when they walked back to the roadhouse.   But the big ones—the ex-football players, the bikers, and barroom lovers – were angry. “That cunt. That red-headed lesbian bitch cunt muncher,” they shouted until the end of the night when their wallets were finally empty from all the lap dances, and beers, and chicken wings. They’d stay and they’d wait until the lights went up, until the only skin left to look at was their gray-faced reflections in the bar back mirror.   Before Destiny’s mother disappeared, these stranger stories circulated among the regulars in those dark moments between stage shows when no one could stand to watch the last live nude girl on her knees, collecting her hard-won earnings. But after Destiny’s mother was found, her body swollen with mosquito bites, her face caved in, black molten inside, soft as cake, the outsiders and the regulars and the dancers all agreed: Destiny’s mother was too entranced with destiny. Destiny in the dressing room; Destiny on the stage.   “Destiny’s gonna make it big someday,” Destiny’s mother first said to the Town Motel manager when Destiny was seven-years-old, and she danced in Birmingham’s Christmas Day parade. A bright snowflake, glowing in silver glitter and silver spandex, Destiny frantically hula-hooped silver bangles and streamers around her hips while she marched in line, leading the boys dressed as toy soldiers.   “You’re gonna make it big first,” the manager said. He unhooked his belt and stared out the motel room window, watching Destiny twirl a baton in the parking lot. As her mother peeled off her heavy sweater and boots, preparing to pay their dues, the manager noticed Destiny’s fingerprints smudged on the glass. “It’s gonna cost more than yesterday cause today’s a Saturday.”   “Saturday’s are even better,” she said when Destiny was thirteen and performed on Frenchman street in New Orleans. “Everyone’s here to party, and you’re the queen.”   In the stall between a poet who sold his love poems for cheap, and a fat gutter punk who told jokes for free, Destiny was dressed in a shimmering bikini and painted like a mermaid, painted like a sailor’s dream. She shook her hips and sang siren songs while her mother demanded money from the crowd.   “Thirty bucks before you see her,” she said in Biloxi when Destiny was seventeen and began modeling lingerie in casino hotel rooms. Constantly moving between the Isle of Capri, Treasure Bay, and the Grand Royale, Destiny wore lace; she wore fishnets, and gauze, and pasties. While Destiny danced slowly and posed longingly in front of the closet’s mirrored doors, the seasick spinning of the hotel rooms were amplified by the radio’s static fuzz, her mother’s cigarettes, and the heavy rotation of men on the beds. In those cramped and crowded rooms, Destiny kept her eyes on her mother, sitting in one of many small windows, staring at the Mississippi River far beneath. While Destiny and her mother considered separate things, the men pulled at Destiny for relief, but that cost another fee.   Before Destiny’s mother went missing, before she was an image in red hair and a lime green dress on local television screens, she kept a sewing machine in her daughter’s locker, on the floor, beneath a pile of clothes, sex toys, and Polaroid photos of Destiny as a child, posing in the costumes yet to be remade. Unlike the faces of the lockers that belonged to every other dancer, lockers that were haphazardly covered in topless photos and phone numbers, cock shots, sex jokes, and signs about being sanitary, Destiny’s locker displayed her name in pink glitter paint. And beneath her name, in lines of perfect pairs, were the Polaroids of her mother’s consummation, her remakes: Destiny then and Destiny now.   Destiny then: eight-years-old, posing by a “Piggly Wiggly Grand Opening!” sign; her hand on the hip of a Chips Ahoy sailor costume, a toothy grin beneath the sailor hat.   Destiny now: twenty-two, her Chips Ahoy costume turned into a mini skirt, white thigh highs, chocolate chip pasties, and that same sailor hat, though far less white than cream.   Destiny then, doe-eyed and ten, a gold coin in sequins for a tap recital of Aladdin; Destiny now, her body painted gold, a thong of clinging coins, a bow of sheer lamé loosely knotted between her breasts.   Beneath the dressing room’s pink-dim lights, Destiny stood on the vanity bench while her mother kneeled beneath her, staring in absolute imitation of the Squeeze Box audience. With a needle pursed between her lips, she scrutinized Destiny’s costumes, making sure the hem of the Little Bo Peep skirt fell just right when Destiny straddled the Shepard’s hook on stage. She replaced every hook and eye with Velcro so Destiny could dramatically tear away each piece, especially when she climbed the poles and shimmied down, her mother’s doe-eyed angel returning to earth.   The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” sounded from the speakers, and Destiny pounded the hook into the stage, matching the beat, forcing the hook to support her weight as she slowly bent backwards to the ground, legs open before her face, her bright eyes and red mouth pressed into the stage. Slowing, splitting her legs farther, she pushed the hook between her thighs and crawled towards the audience. She licked the hook as her mother sat at the four-top in the corner, mouthing the eight-counts of the routine, pounding her golden rings against the table when Destiny stopped smiling.   “They turned and burned Destiny easy cause she’s cheap.” In the Squeeze Box , Sugar balanced her elbows on her chest, and lined her eyes with a kohl that was the same color of the dressing room walls, a heavy black with its own magnetic force. Though Sugar’s eyes looked like fractured diamonds drowning in all that darkness, the Squeeze Box walls were sinking tar pits, mirages amplified by the rows of vanity mirrors. “That’s why she only pulled tourists.”   “She made more money’n Genie’s psychic dildo shows.” Vanna leaned against her locker, the metal door emblazoned with the letters E T MY P SSY. She pulled off her overalls and plain eye patch, which hid the empty socket, its green eye long gone with the arc of a poorly cast fishing line.   “Genie’s a hag— best her pussy can do is cough ash when it’s hot and get sore when it rains. But Butch’ll still schedule her cause she turns and burns too.” Sugar stared into her reflection critically, drawing a beauty mark onto her cheek with the same kohl pencil.   “You wearin black again?” Vanna bent down and untangled a vinyl corset from the heap of costumes in her locker. Her long pale legs were echoed in the vanity mirrors; like neon pyramids, each set tunneled farther into the glass beneath the dressing room’s pink bulbs.   After lighting a Pall Mall, Sugar twirled her black-tassel pasties like party favors.   “Fuck,” Vanna moaned. “Come on, black is the only thing I got that doesn’t smell like rank pussy.” She kicked at the stiff thongs and limp bras in her locker.   “A hundred bucks,” Sugar said. The audience of men and all the dancers knew that on a naked woman, black was a mean beetle shell. So each night at the Squeeze Box, only one dancer was allowed to wear black, and all the girls wanted to be that one: the queen bitch in command.   “You’re sucha cunt! Always here first cause Butch gives you a break if you suck his dick.” In the pink-film darkness of the room, Vanna’s features, her green eye, upturned nose, high cheekbones, and thin mouth, seemed to slowly sink into the empty socket on her face.   “I’m sicka seein that fuckin hole in your head.” Sugar fluffed her blonde bob, which looked more like a haystack than a halo.   “Don’t make me wear this lame shit again,” Vanna held up a pink sequin bra, the one that matched a G-string and an eye patch, both embellished with sparkly V’s. “Destiny wouldn’t even wear this garbage.”   Sugar laughed. “Shoulda kept your mouth shut.”   “Fuck.” Vanna grabbed a bottle of bronzer from the community supplies table –which included body spray, condoms, alcohol swabs, and paper towels – and rubbed it on her thighs. “I gotta be fuckin orange to wear this thing.”   “You saw that weird shit Destiny’s mom made for her, those weird routines, you shoulda known better.” Sugar tossed the cigarette to the floor and smashed it beneath her black stiletto boot.   “She acted like she was preppin Destiny for Miss America.” Vanna slid the pink eye patch onto her face; matched with her thigh-length blonde hair and the pink sequin set Destiny’s mother made, Vanna looked like an assassin Barbie.   “Whatta joke.” Sugar dragged the black lace gloves up her arms. The beginning of Bowie’s “Modern Love” vibrated the wall between the stage and the backroom. “Fuck, I’m up,” Vanna grabbed a pink whip from the prop wall and ran to the stage. The girls’ songs looped in a constant, pounding circle, even if their bodies never appeared.   Two days after she went missing, Destiny’s mother was discovered not a hundred yards from the front door of the Squeeze Box. She was found by a nine-year-old boy, walking his Dachshund in the roadhouse parking lot at eight a.m. By then, her face was a cratered half-moon, her body open wounds: claw-beaten and bruised.   “I thought it was a balloon stuck under the road bridge,” the boy said about her lime green dress.   The dress had been wholly removed before the abuse. But then, after Destiny’s mother went still, the kind of still that pulled the world down with it, that suffocated everything – the cars, the music, the street lights, and breath, and sky – the dress was there like spring grass. It was a relief, an apology, a burial tightly tucked around her shoulders, her hips, and thighs.   “Honest, I didn’t know what I would see.” The boy shook his head frantically; he tried to shake the memory.   The papers named The Squeeze Box in the story, an image of the low-slung cedar planked building by the overpass. The sprawling parking lot, a few sleeper-cab semis in the black and white view, the large neon image of a busty blonde in a cowboy hat, her legs kicking back and forth in the blinking light, winking on top of the Squeeze Box sign.   “Destiny never said anything.” Butch slurred the brown juice between his cheeks before spitting into a beer can. “Her mom, not much either, besides handlin the stage rent and fees.”   Sugar rolled her eyes as she straddled Butch deeply. “Baby, baby, baby.” Sugar bit his ear, and the audience of men watched a show they’d never seen.   To counter the bad publicity, Butch took the stage and demonstrated the Squeeze Box’s newest novelty: the hot seat. “Light My Fire” fuzzed and popped on the speakers, and each time Morrison hit the chorus, another girl joined Sugar’s dance on stage.   Come on baby: Vanna kicked her pink stiletto on the seat between Butch’s thighs. Wrapping her whip around his neck, she rubbed his face into her breasts.   Light my fire: Puddin bent over slowly, then sunk deeply into splits, bouncing her legs beneath his chair; she pressed her face into his groin.   Set the world on fire: Cherry, in a red lace teddy, put her head between his knees and wrapped her knees around his neck, thrusting her hips rhythmically.   Butch stared blankly at the audience of men, at the girls’ skin, like chameleons, beneath the stage lights. Each part of their bodies became indistinguishable as they rotated in and out of sight. But all the distraction did not take away from the fact that the four-top at the corner of the stage remained empty, and it had been since that night Destiny’s mother went missing.   That night a new stranger appeared. Blonde, lanky, and young, he had a hawk nose, a snake and sword tattooed on his forearm, which only Gus, the trucker from Tennessee, could see in the dim-dark shadows of the bar.   “She got anybody?” Facing the stage in a gray tee-shirt and jeans, the stranger kicked his boots heels against the bar rail, knocking mud onto the floor.   The regulars at the bar turned towards the stage, towards Destiny’s mother.   “The red head?” Gus asked and signaled for another beer.   The stranger shook his head. “Nah, fuck nah. The girl up there with the hook.” He turned back to Destiny on the stage, her long brown hair a tangle across her face, turned pink then blue then green.   “I wouldn’t try it, that there’s her momma.” Gus pointed. “She’s gotta tight leash.”   The stranger chewed on a toothpick, rapping his fists on the bar top. He did not order anything, but he laughed again and shook his head repeatedly. “Ain’t no woman no thing.”   Gus drank his beer and turned to the stage; Destiny was beginning the crawling part of her Bo Peep routine. Her mother, dressed in lime green, her red hair piled high and curly, was smoking one of her long cigarettes and staring at Destiny.   “I’m gonna get that girl good and free,” the stranger said before leaving the bar and heading towards Little Bo Peep.   “Somethin wrong with that one.” Gus scratched his head.   And the audience of men said nothing.   When her mother’s body was found beneath the interstate overpass, wedged between concrete pilings, her lime green dress a strange tumbleweed, the regulars, the dancers, and Butch, shocked, all agreed: Destiny seemed so happy – she seemed so sweet. She must’ve been manipulated into a violent belief. The regulars thought they sometimes saw Destiny kiss her mother’s hand. They imagined Destiny’s tongue, rolling right over each of her mother’s golden rings, slowly tasting the nicotine between her fingers. Destiny: hugging her mother, thanking her for everything, thanking her for the dream of being a centerpiece, a desire, a wonder of all good, and pure, and beautiful things.    
Kristen Clanton was born and raised in Tampa, Florida, where she works at a professor and welder’s apprentice. She graduated from the University in Nebraska with an MFA in poetry. Her poetry and short fiction have been published in the “Bicycle Review”, “Midnight Circus”, “Burlesque Press”, “Mad Hatters’ Review”, “MidnightCircus” and “Sugar House Review”.