by Arthur Davis
I moved south on Broadway, sucking down gulps of cold, dank air and stumbled into a crowd of tourists, their arms stretched taut around packages cloaked in brightly colored Christmas wrapping.
I hated the holidays in New York City. The days were filled with a harsh gray, windswept emptiness and the nights, long and unremittingly cold, and everybody pretending to be happy.
I gripped the small, hand-carved pocketknife in my pocket, flicking the blade open and closed. A thread of honking, swerving cars and taxis snaked their way across 51st Street.
The light changed. People bumped up behind me jostling me forward.
Open and closed.
Another two blocks south and I turned west toward Eight Avenue. The street was quiet, the night opaque with beckoning neon lights that blinked like illuminated cancers. I moved along without turning to the left or right where erotic distractions beckoned.
It’s 1974. Nixon refused to hand over tapes subpoenaed by the Watergate Committee. Gold hit $160 an ounce. Patricia Hearst, daughter of the publishing magnate, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.
And I was still alone.
Two men were arguing on the corner of 49th Street and Eighth Avenue. I recognized the taller one in the frayed bomber jacket as Davy Collins, a large black man I had seen frequenting the neighborhood bars. The other man waved his fist under Davy's rolled, gray-bearded chin.
Several streetwalkers cursed the snow and, like me, probably made mind bets on the outcome of the conflict. For the briefest moment, time and temptation were suspended. Then, suddenly, Davy backed away. Streetlights changed from blood red to Limerick green. Car horns blared. The New York night spun, tumbled, and snaked on towards the oncoming abyss of midnight.
The clock over Sobel's pharmacy on 49th Street and Eighth Avenue read ten fifty-five. I had five minutes to get to the Gaiety Burlesque on 47th Street and Ninth Avenue. I chanced the light and jumped into the traffic. Cars skidded to avoid me.
I rounded the corner on 47th and Ninth Avenue and dug for the fifteen-dollar admission fee. I threw two crumbled bills at the cheerless cashier and rushed up the two flights without waiting for my ticket. The scent of urine and excitement strained my ascent. By the time I got to the top of the second floor landing, my lungs were heaving wildly.
“Fuck off,” I shot back, rushing past Kenny Fields, a regular at the Gaiety who was fishing for a cigarette in his pocket.
Two men came out from behind the curtains that shielded the unused orchestra pit and bracketed the narrow dance runway that split the hundred or so seats caged in darkness. Both men were tall, heavyset and wore black leather jackets and black pants.
I once heard the Gaiety was owned by someone connected to one of the New Jersey organized crime families. It bothered me that the two men moved about as if they didn't care what anybody thought of them. It bothered me that they could be so confident.
I removed my coat and set it neatly on my lap so it wouldn’t fall on the floor, a swamp of filth, flotsam, and abandoned dreams.
The late show was supposed to begin at eleven. Only I had no idea when Dallas might appear, and I could not afford to miss her last performance. I had worked up my courage all day to get to this one relevant moment. It was as if I was deciding whether or not to go to my class reunion because of my frail financial condition, the state of my withering wardrobe, or plague of anxieties.
Kenny had made himself comfortable on the other side of the runway directly across from where I was sitting. It bothered me that I might have to take in the sumptuous beauty of this woman in the same blink as that nervous piece of vermin.
The last time I saw Dallas was 13 years ago. She had performed in a benefit for a local children's hospital where my wife was the funding manager. It was a daring concept. A stripper, if even in a slightly less rousing routine, as part of a vaudeville review to raise money for the clinic. It was masterful. Brilliant. My wife's idea worked to perfection.
If I had not spotted the Gaiety's advertisement in the newspaper this morning announcing Dallas’ last performance of the week, I would have missed a rare opportunity to renew my vows to her clinging appeal.
You might be right to judge me harshly. One cannot make a life out of such farfetched fantasies. Except that the dissolution of my marriage had nothing and everything to do with Dallas. By the time that night came, we were well into the eighth year of an already dissipated relationship. We had long ago lost whatever bond we had brought to the altar of optimism. What was left between us could only be measured by circumstance and defined by inertia.
At five after eleven, a voice rose over the public address system.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to the Gaiety for one of the stage's preeminent dancers—one of the most successful exotic dancers of our time. This lady has captivated audiences in London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid as well as in every one of the most famous dance halls in the states. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you Dallas, in her fabulous dance of the red flames.”
The audience barely stirred with anticipation.
The taped drum roll played out its long, tantalizing introduction until a hand snaked out from behind the black curtain. Two yellow lights focused on the taunting, sinuous movement of a long red satin glove that went clear up the arm as fingers suggestively stroked the curtain. The hand curled and caressed. Then a long, sinuous leg hooked itself around the curtain.
When she stepped out from behind the curtain, Dallas was wearing the familiar cascade of bright red feathers. The filmy facade enveloped her body from red stilettos to hair. All you saw out from behind the fan of feathers was her legs and face and, as one after another feathers slowly dropped away to the beat of the music.
Most of the twenty-or-so men in the audience were in their forties and fifties. A handful were considerably older. I counted five women. Dallas was first on the evening's line-up, which meant that the other eight performers were younger, more beautiful and more talented.
She moved about the runway weaving small, precise figure eights with her fans until all her feathers were scattered along the runway. Then she began to peel off her gloves, then the halter covering her nearly sheer red bra revealing the opulence of her breasts.
It was immediately apparent that Dallas, while still quite striking, was no longer young, not in the conventional, theatrical sense. She, like every other athlete, had seen her prime pass without being able to stop its cruel march. Her skin was not as tight, her breasts not as high, her face not as smooth, and her eyes slightly, if noticeably, swollen with the strain of trying to please others. Since my wife told me she was twenty-six when I first saw her and she had been dancing since she was a teenager even back then, twenty years had passed.
I couldn't imagine a woman being more beautiful even if she was no longer the youthful temptress of my dreams. The woman had been my constant and trusted companion once or twice a week for many years. And now she was again flesh and bone and beauty and accessibility. We had grown into maturity together, even if we were separated by space and time and reality.
Open and close. Open and close. Open and close.
A particularly scrawny customer in his early fifties wearing a maroon beret tilted over to one side of his head—a beret for Christ's sake—stood up at the edge of the runway and waved a twenty-dollar bill in his hand.
Dallas danced closer and squatted down in front of him and, with her back towards me, the flare of her hips and butt-cheeks accentuated by resting them on the heels of her shoes, greeted him with the full breadth of her cleavage.
Dallas pulled off the guy’s beret, waved him a kiss, and jumped up beaming joyously to the applause of the crowd. She wiggled and danced, teased and taunted. Her garter, bra, and G-string transformed into an apron of greenbacks. She slowly removed the money and dropped them on her red-sequined skirt that was lying at the back of the runway. She spun around on the brass pole, though more with coy seductiveness than acrobatic flamboyance.
She slowly unclipped her bra then ripped it off in one exaggerated movement, swung it around her head and tantalizingly dragged it up and down between her buttocks. She thrilled. She dazzled. She promised the men what they knew was impossible.
A torrent of five and ten dollar bills rained down on the stage. The more they showered her with money, the more intimate she became. I was on my feet too though not merely with appreciation. I suddenly resented their adulation, the demonstration of unrestrained desire and, worse, their familiarity.
Open and close. Open and close. Open.
Her breasts were still large and firm. Her nipples, pink and generous. Her legs and buttocks were even more fit and athletic than I recalled. Her belly was flat and firm.
Kenny Fields cursed, and reached for her over the runway, quickly bringing one of the security guards to his side and me to my feet. As Kenny was ushered to the back of the theater I slumped back into my seat and instantly felt a searing pain cut across the front of my thigh.
A tiny red outline on my pants quickly grew into a three-inch slit like the tongue of a serpent. The tips of my fingers and toes grew numb. My arms and legs tingled with confusion. My head swam in fright and fear. The music faded. Dallas moved as though she were overtaken by a powerful solution of drugs and despair. Her arms swayed in slow motion. Her eyes were embedded in a dull, smoky haze of regret.
I wanted to reach out and put a hundred dollar bill I didn’t have into Dallas' G-string. I wanted to know why she had grown old. Instead, I staggered, tripped and fell. I remembered the edge of the runway rushing up and crashing into the side of my face.
Night turned into a deeper, more bitter and unrepentant darkness. I heard noise, a thunder of unfriendly voices. The music had turned into a muddy murmur.
I looked into the eyes of humanity and felt the resolute kick of every heartbeat in the world except mine. I saw my ex-wife's distrusting grin, my grown son's practiced frown, my mother's visage of regret, my father's scowl of knowing disapproval until my right leg became detached and floated, end-over-end, some distance away.
“Are you all right,” a woman's voice asked, hovering overhead in a flame of a garish amber glow.
“He’s okay,” the man standing next to her said.
“He could have hurt himself,” she insisted.
“The asshole could have cut his dick off.”
“He's kind of cute.”
“He's kind of stupid to be carrying an open pocketknife in his pants.”
“Maybe he found it in the street?”
“Maybe he's a serial killer hunting for his next victim in a burlesque house?”
“Okay, Tony. I think that's enough.”
“Suit yourself sweetheart, but when Joey gets back, he's going to be pissed.”
I saw her push the man towards the door. “Yes, well, Joey doesn't like anything. That's what makes him such a special human being,” she said and slammed the door behind him.
She came over to me and adjusted something cold clinging to the side of my face. I wanted to reach down and see if I had cut off my leg, then I realized that the woman hovering over me really was the Dallas of my dreams.
“Your finale upstaged my finale.”
“Don't be. I was glad to be done with it.”
In the glare of the dressing room, her body looked different. There were soft lines under her jaw and around her waist. The faint shadow of an inch long scar that disappeared in her hairline was clearly visible. “Why?”
“Because I'm tired. That's why,” she said and got up and tightened the drawstring of her robe.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to my dressing room.”
“I thought this was your dressing room.”
“You must be worse off than I thought,” she said shaking her head. “Look around. Do you see anything that would indicate this place was a woman's dressing room, or the office of the prick who owns this shit-evil, godforsaken dump?”
I noticed the desk and battered file cabinet in the opposite corner. I examined my leg. A makeshift bandage had been applied. The wound hurt like hell, though not as much as the side of my head. I needed a doctor, but that could wait.
“It's only a flesh wound, a long and nasty bleeder of a flesh wound. You were lucky. I mean, really lucky.”
“Please don't go.”
“Because I've been waiting for thirteen years to see you again.”
She stopped at the door. “Thirteen is an unlucky number.”
“Please, for a minute. Please?”
She tightened her robe, took another moment. “The minute I hear Joey's voice, I'm out of here,” she threatened.
“The minute you hear Joey's voice,” I said not knowing who he was, “we're both out of here.”
She sat down, lit a cigarette, and inhaled slowly. Dallas was wearing a heavy red and orange robe with large, colorful red Chinese dragons embroidered on the front and back.
“What's all this business about thirteen years?”
“It's going to sound stupid.”
“That's okay. It usually does.”
“What do you mean, usually?”
“Guys do stupid things.”
“So do women.” This was just a guess on my part.
“Except that men do stupider things to see naked women than women do to see naked men. Take my word for it.”
“We're not a very evolved species.”
“I saw you thirteen years ago in a fundraiser for a neighborhood outreach clinic in New Jersey. I was with my wife then. I never saw such a beautiful woman in my life. I mean you, not her. When you stepped out on stage, my blood stopped running. I thought I had been hit by a truck,” I said managing to get myself into a sitting position. “My head actually feels like it was hit by a truck.”
“I saw you coming towards me out of the corner of my eye. I saw you trip. If a couple of guy’s hadn't caught you, you would have cracked your skull open.”
“What a jackass.”
“Like you said, not very evolved.”
“Yes, well, some of us are even less advanced than others.”
“What do you do when you’re not fantasizing?”
“I’m a biology teacher. A high school biology teacher. Or at least I used to be.”
“I loved biology in school.”
“Unfortunately you're in the minority.”
“So, finish your story.”
“There's not much to finish. I saw the advertisement. I wanted to see you again.”
“What did you tell your wife?”
“Several years back I told her it was over a long time ago.”
“I told my second husband the same thing.”
I wiggled my toes somewhere at the far end of right leg. I was suddenly ashamed. I was sitting here with a woman who had shadowed my life for more than a decade. That had to count for something. Something in my life had to count for something.
“You really saw me dance that long ago?”
“You were amazing.”
“Youth,” she said patting down the robe as though it added forty pounds to her figure. “Youth and great genes.”
“You're still very beautiful.”
“I'm not the dancer I once was.”
“Is that why you didn't dance last?”
“I didn't dance last because I'm at least ten years older than any of the other girls here.”
“Then why did they advertise your appearance at the Gaiety?”
“They didn't advertise anything. I did. I was lucky to get this gig. They told me that if I didn't draw I was finished. I've heard nothing else for the last six months from Los Angeles to New York. And I'm tired of dancing in the second rate dumps where the owner thinks your ass is his property.”
“I'm glad you did.”
“It was a silly thing to do. I really can't afford it. I just wanted to prove something to myself.”
“From what I saw of the audience, you already did.”
“Sometimes I'm not even sure of that anymore,” she said, getting up. “You'd better get your banged up body out of here before Joey gets back.”
“You didn’t call the police?”
“You have a superficial cut that looks worse than it is, and Joey has no love for the cops.”
I staggered to my feet. When I began to wobble, Dallas came over and put my arm around the back of her neck. I could smell her perfume. “I think I can walk.”
“I think you should see a doctor.”
I stopped her. “I don't want to go.” I knew this was probably the wrong thing to say, but I had to say it.
“Well, you can't stay here.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You look pathetic.”
“Pathetic is my strong suit.”
“Why did you leave your wife?”
“She didn't love me and I didn't love her. We were dying with each other.”
“If I had stayed with my ex, I would have looked worse than you by now.”
“He hit you?”
“Let's get you downstairs. The fresh air will do the both of us some good.”
“I don’t want to go and never see you again. I can't do that,” I declared, a little too aggressively. “And, please, don't be frightened.”
“Of a man who comes into the theater with an open knife in his pocket? Now why would you think I'm frightened?”
“I was flicking it open and closed. Nervous habit. I should have left it home.”
Dallas glanced around the room, then walked over to Joey's desk and pressed down what remained of her cigarette into the overflowing ashtray. “Meet me in front of the theater in an hour. It'll take me at least that long to change and clean up and explain what happened to Joey.”
“I'll be the one with the roses in my hand.”
“You'll be the one with blood-covered pants, the nasty red welt on your head, and looking like shit.”
She walked me to a spiral stairway in the rear of the theater and, with more help than I thought I needed, got me down to the street. She gave me a strange glance before slamming the battered metal door to the alley shut.
I crossed Ninth Avenue and went into an all-night drug store and convinced the manager I wasn't drunk. I told him I had fallen on a broken bottle and could use some help. I showed him I had a wallet full of identification.
He let me use the store's bathroom. When I peered into the mirror, I nearly gasped. I couldn't imagine what I would have looked like without the ice pack.
I sat down on the covered toilet bowl and dropped my head into my hands. I was exhausted, tired of everything and what my life had been reduced to. I was embarrassed. Ashamed. I felt like I had been set up with the most beautiful girl in the world and showed up late, unshaven and most of all, unworthy.
I couldn't tell what was worse; the pounding in my head or my wounded leg or the realization of how far I had fallen from the dignity that once was my life. Then I realized what would be worse. Dallas not showing up. “What a fucking jerk you are.”
I got to my feet, washed off my face, combed back my hair, and went out into the drug store and corralled the manager again. “Do you have any idea what I can do to make myself more presentable to my girlfriend?”
He gave me a slow once over. “I can sell you a shirt and …”
“I was going to say a bandage for your head and hand.”
The side of my palm was deeply abraded with a cherry-red welt. I must have tried to break my fall with my hand in addition to my head. “I'll take a large bandage for my hand, a blue work shirt, pants—if you have a pair in my size—and a dozen balloons.”
I felt renewed. Reborn. I also felt quite foolish standing on the street with a dozen iridescent gas-filled “Happy Birthday” balloons hovering from a string overhead. The snow continued to fall. It was a beautiful, clear, crisp New York morning. I couldn't get over how alive I felt, even if I had temporarily lost some blood and sight of my life.
I turned the corner and spotted the Gaiety. I had been coming to the place for years. Not regularly, you know, but once every few months off and on for a long, long time. I don't know why, except that it had an appeal to me since I was in college. There was no one special dancer back then or, actually, at any time since. I simply enjoyed the simple stark frankness of what it had to offer regardless of who was undulating away on the walkway.
I had once been a teacher, a good teacher at a pretty good high school in Westchester, a suburb north of the city. Then, sometime after the divorce, what remained of the structure and stability of my life came apart piece by piece until all that remained was anger and bitterness.
The superficial wound on my leg and on the side of my head was nothing compared to the anguish I felt in my heart for how far I had fallen. And really, why the knife? That sickened me most of all.
Exactly an hour had passed. The snow continued to fall, coating even the most blighted sections of Ninth Avenue with a virginal patina of hope. The stage doors were locked. The only signs of life on the street were people straggling out of the clubs and bars along Ninth Avenue.
A slight breeze tugged at the balloons. An hour and fifteen minutes passed. No matter what, I had to get myself to an emergency room.
If Dallas had a dime for every stage door Johnny who came on to her she probably wouldn't have to work another day of her life. After a full hour and a half, I counted off another sixty seconds, as though that would make all the difference, then another sixty seconds, and then moved toward Ninth Avenue.
Cars and taxis swept down the avenue. The city's pulse throbbed on. It was a never-ending cycle in which I played the most minuscule, unimportant role. I was neither a player nor a pawn. I had made myself so much less than I was and what I might have been.
The tug of balloons became intolerable. I could let them go, only I wanted to stay tethered to the dream, if for only a little while longer, or maybe forever if only they would lift me up and carry me away to another land, another place in time.
I unhitched one finger from the knot of strings and two jerked their way into the milky white sky.
“Were those for me?” Dallas said coming up behind me and grabbing the knot of strings before any more flew away.
“I, ah, really didn't think you would show up.”
“I didn't think I would either,” she said examining the bouquet of balloons.
“I thought about it. I just didn't want one more disappointment.”
Neither did I. “What made you change your mind?”
“I think it was the expression on your face just before I closed the stage door.”
“I was positive I would never see you again.”
“And yet,” she said, nodding toward the cluster of balloons that danced in the chill breeze.
“Where were you?”
“I left from a side door about an hour ago. I was standing in the all-night deli across the street when you walked up with the balloons. I was so touched I didn't know what to do. I really felt badly that I had lied to you.”
“I didn't know what to do either.”
“Well, you did the right thing.”
“Actually, I didn't do anything right this evening.”
“No. You're wrong. You did what every girl wants her white knight to do. You waited. You showed me you had more faith than I did.”
“I've never been anyone's white knight.”
“I've never had one,” she said, steadying the balloons in her hand. “They’re beautiful. Thank you,” she said, hooking her hand under my arm. “Joey wants me to stay on for another week.”
“Is that good or bad?” I asked.
“I don't know. I was going to ask you.”
We walked up to Ninth Avenue without speaking. And when we did, both of us were happy.