This isn't the only place where I watch the Cube. For her other paycheck she dances at a place across the river on the Illinois side. She dances during the afternoon to early evening, and though she's never told me why, my guess is that her tits are too small for the nighttime crowd. My guess is that this is also the reason why she has to hold down two jobs.
I started going to see her there a week after the Cube had cut me loose, and at first I thought that her seeing me there would embarrass her, or have some kind of effect at least. I'll admit it, I was hoping for a particular effect at the time. I'd never gone to see her before and we'd never talked about the subject. I was so sure she wouldn't have wanted to see me while she danced, while she shimmied her crotch up against a pole in front of old alcoholics and frat boys, their hands lingering after slipping a bill under her string. The Cube said nothing about it the next time we worked a shift together.
If someone asked why I went to the club, I'd tell them I was working on my figure drawing, that it was cheaper than hiring a model or taking an adult ed. course. This isn't so outlandish an excuse. My apartment is full of paintings. They cover the walls and rows of canvasses crowd the corners of the living room and dining room. My palettes and easels are permanent fixtures of the sun room, but I haven't painted or drawn in over a year. The bright globs of the oils glisten on the palette as if still wet, but if you were to touch them you'd see they're dried hard and stuck fast.
They still know me around U City as "that artist guy," a moniker I'm embarrassed by and I've been tempted to put to rest more than once. What I am is a guy who picks up empty bottles and dirty glasses in a popular bar and washes them, who lifts full cases of longnecks from the basement, two or three at once, and who goes down into the cooler from time to time to switch the tap lines to fresh kegs, who crosses the river to sit in a strip club some afternoons when he's sick of reading, or playing pinball, or bullshitting at the outdoor cafes. This is how I'd like to be introduced, how I'd introduce myself if I could.
I got used to going to the club and sitting in the dimly lit room in the middle of the day with its faint powdery smell of a locker room. I'd order one beer and sit at a table far from the padded edges of the platforms with my sketchbook opened to a blank page.
When I went to the club, I took only a mild interest in the other dancers. I'd be lying, though, if I said I wasn't aroused at all. After my first visit, I learned that nudity alone is no longer the goal in a strip club. Was it ever? Somehow I had thought perhaps from scant depictions in the Million Dollar Movies of my childhood that stripping was more a festive, clothes-tossing parade toward nudity street. Perhaps it was, perhaps parades are what turned guys on in the early twentieth century. But these days at least how they play it at this place in western Illinois, the clothes are off almost as soon as the dancers hit the platforms. I was a little surprised to discover that shortly after the first tune and some suggestive hip wagging, exotic dancing is little more than women acting as if invisible men are fucking them--that is if men had three foot long strikingly versatile anatomies that could last fifteen minutes with a stripper grinding through at least ten different positions. They run the gamut, but the finale of most acts is an invisible fuck from behind.
I did, however, learn early on that the performances expose the customers more than they do the dancers, each performance being a catalogue of the petty taboos of the American bedroom. I like to think my reasons for attending are far more complex than my fellow customers', but perhaps I am fooling myself.
I remember when I first saw the Cube come on, her straight black hair was sprayed and teased high and full and her skin was perfect, without a single blemish. I found myself glancing at the other customers as they watched the Cube, her perfect skin, her teased hair, and shadowed eyes.
I looked at the patrons and imagined why they were there, what their home lives were like. There were different types, Armani suits next to tattered camouflage in a wheelchair--not at all what I would have expected.
I'd look at them and at the Cube and I knew I was the only customer who knew she has tattoos over her whole body, that she uses makeup to cover them, that the flesh the others steal isn't the real thing, that shes clothed after all. They shoot the decoys, not the ducks. They watch a woman and see a creature that is as much a part of their imagination as what is really in front of them.
I remember when I first started going there how I'd close my eyes at times and imagine the tattoos back onto the Cube. How I'd smile. I couldn't help but smile. I'd sit there and think, This is why it's worth watching the Cube.
Something the Cube told me when we were seeing each other stuck with me. When she was hired there, she told me the manager had advised the new dancers to be careful about taking rides with people when they left, that they should walk to their cars together or escorted by one of the bouncers. The Cube is kind of a loner. She doesn't hang much with the other dancers and this concerns me, so much so that after I go to the club I sit out in the gravel lot and wait in my car to make sure the Cube doesnt get hassled after work. I hunch down in the seat, having angled the rear-view mirror and I watch until the Cube gets into her car.
It was yesterday that I was in my car in the lot. I must have fallen asleep. I heard someone tapping on the window. It was the Cube and I rolled down the window. She asked me for a ride home since her car had broken down. I asked her what was wrong with it.
"I don't know," she said. "There's smoke coming out of it," she said.
I asked her where.
"The front, I guess. I mean, under the hood."
We didn't speak much on the way. I felt feverish and I had trouble breathing. I cracked open the window and when the Cube asked me what the matter was, I said it was nothing, that maybe I was allergic to her perfume.
"That's not what I meant," she said.
I checked the rear-view mirror and raised my hand to adjust it. I clicked my teeth as the car ran past the dashed white lines, as they slipped from sight beneath the hood.
"I'll take a look at the car if you want," I said.
"That's all right," she said.
The sky ahead was still light, beginning to fall into deep reds and purples, and I looked to the mirror again and I could see only darkness behind, the trees along the side of the road an irregular wall of gray. I realized her hand was on my knee, lightly touching as if it were only my imagination. I wanted to return that touch but I fought myself and kept my hand on the wheel. I could feel her eyes on me.
"You're a mystery," I said.
She laughed and I felt the pressure of her eyes on me drop. I looked over at her and saw that she was looking straight ahead out the windshield. "I'm no mystery, Wayne," she said, looking intently forward as if she were straining to read a book at arm's length.
"Maybe not," I said and of its own volition my hand moved to my knee. There was only the coarse fabric of my jeans.
"How's the painting?"
"Fine, I've got plenty of ideas," I said. I listened to the tires plunk over the expansion joints in the road.
I realized I had been quiet for a long time that the Cube was waiting for me to say something more. "You might think it's funny, but the club is where I get some practice in with figure drawing," I said.
"I do," she said.
"You do what?"
"I think it's funny," she said.
I rolled the window down a little further and I turned my face into the humid air rushing in.
"Why are you doing this to yourself?" she said.
"To myself, I said shaking my head. I'm not the one who strips."
She said, "What's wrong with that?" like there is nothing wrong with it.
"Nothing, nothing," I said.
"Look. They pay me well to be naked. That's all it is. I take off some clothes and I shake around. I don't have a problem with that. You're supposed to be the artist, supposed to be liberal-minded about the human body."
I had no answer to that at the time though now I'd probably say that it isn't the human body I have a problem with, just what people do with it. I tend to be the kind of person who never thinks of these things at the right time.
"But, that's not the problem," she said.
"Come on, don't the customers disgust you?"
"Only one," she said. "Look, I don't think about them. They get some kind of fantasy out of it; I don't give a shit. I'm glad to take their money."
We were driving over the river on the Poplar Street Bridge by this point and then we kept going west on Route 40 and she didn't say anything for a while. I started clicking my teeth again as the dashed lines passed.
"You know why I asked for a ride?" the Cube said.
"Because your car broke down?"
"Right," she said. "I want you to do me favor. Can you do me just a little favor?"
"Please don't wait out in the lot anymore. You're getting some of the girls nervous," she said.
"You know what I'm talking about."
"I'm getting them nervous?" We passed the arch and the stadium, and the brick building with a Eqyptian Revival fascade painted onto it, the one by Kiel Auditorium. "That's fucking beautiful," I said.
"Can you do this, please? I don't care if you follow me around. You can do whatever, just for their sake, you know."
"Do I make you nervous?"
"Pull-lease," she said.
I held on to the steering wheel. Shit. Right then I had a clearer idea why we broke it off. The Cube had a way of seeing things, of putting a bad spin on everything.
I drove to Trader Bob's on the south side. The Cube always goes there for her tattoos. I didn't know why, I thought maybe I wanted to get a tattoo. Of what, I didn't care. It's funny. I think I might have been feeling the way the Cube does when she wants to get one herself. She's confided that she doesn't care at all what she gets. She's told me she lets Bob do whatever the hell he wants. Bob is amenable; he's always got some design he'd like to try out and gives them to her for a discount. Bob, apparently, when he has free reign likes designs with bones, designs that look something like a cross between the fossils of flying reptiles and the blurred contortions of a figure in a Francis Bacon painting.
Trader Bob's is a dingy parlor with the same dark walnut paneling you might find in a split-levels basement. Designs are tacked all over the walls: standard designs for Navy, Marine, and Army, faded copies of every album cover you could imagine, cartoon characters, a bestiary of mythological creatures, and various depictions of women with mythological proportions. When I walked in, Bob nodded at me. Bob's thin, and he looks like a skeleton himself, hunched over the drawing pad in his lap. Every inch of his arms is covered with ink. I looked at the designs on the wall and I thought of getting the worst heavy metal design I could think of, right on my forearm. Screw the sketch I had in my pocket. I thought, What could be worse?
It came to me then. I leaned over the small counter that was also covered with the same dark paneling. "You know the Cube?" I said. Bob looked dazed, the very act of remembering a terrifying passage through uncharted jungle, the same look Ive seen on many guys his age, so-called survivors of the 60s, those who say it was the worst of times but the best of times, you know what I mean, but Im beginning to think most of these guys are too fried to remember any other decade to compare it to. "Leslie, Leslie Kubinski, she comes here all the time." Then it looked like something finally came loose and began to rattle around in there somewhere.
"Chick with black hair?" Bob asked.
"Yeah," I said. "You give her freebies sometimes, right, discounts, too?" Bob squinted and I thought for a second this guy's really whacked. Then, of course, I realize why he's playing so dumb. "I don't want a discount," I said. "I don't want anything for myself . . . He loosened up a bit then and I told him what I wanted was to pay in full for the next tattoo he does for the Cube as a gift, only I get to pick the design and hes to act just like all the other times, like its a design of his own hes been wanting to try. This way I tell him itll be a surprise. He nodded and took a drag off his cigarette.
I handed him the sketch in my pocket.
"Whatever, man" he said. Thats cool, he said and he took another long drag as he looked the drawing over. And this is when I realized even as I saw myself pull out my wallet and pay that this guy was shitting me. He had no intention of putting my design on the Cube. Why would he? How could I demand that I had asked him to? And yet I still paid him and thanked him, and when I got back to my car and sat looking out at the white glare of the pavement I felt some kind of relief.
My bin's about full now. I could probably stretch things a while longer, but then I decide to head on over and prop the tub up on the garbage can while I deposit the dirty glassware on the end of the bar in front of the Cube.
"Got a new one," I say.
The Cube stops washing. "What?" she says.
"A new tattoo," I say and I point to the bandage on her thigh.
"That's right," she says.
"You mind if I see?"
"What's with you?" she says.
"Forget it," I say and I start lifting the tub to take the bottles to the recycling bins in back.
"Hold on," the Cube says and she begins to work the edge of the tape from the bandage.
"I put money in for four more plays," I hear. The voice comes out of nowhere. The Cube stops peeling the bandage away. There is a fat man standing at the bar in front of the Cube. The man has a beard and ruddy face and he is wearing a small black leather jacket zippered only at the very bottom so that his belly spills out the opening, pretty much the Hell's Angels' answer to the miracle bra. The man's hands are big, rounded like gloves and the stumpy fingers of his right hand fiddle with the zipper of his jacket.
"You heard me," the man says. The fucking jukebox ripped me off.
"You'll have to speak to a bartender," the Cube says and she begins dunking the glasses while she nods in the direction of Jay who is at the other end of the bar. Jay glances over quickly when the Cube and the man aren't looking and he continues talking to the regulars sitting at the other end.
"That's why I'm here," the man says and then he turns away from the Cube. He's looking directly at me, at the center of my chest, but I can see the man's eyes are glazed with anger, that the man can't see me at all.
I feel my head start to throb. Something in the man then clicks. "What are you looking at?" he says to me.
"Nothing," I say and when I say it I really do mean it. I look at the Cube and I see her in profile. On her leg, the tape is hanging partway off the bandage but the bandage is still held in place. I feel sick, sick to my stomach, and I realize then just how hard it is to make a change, any kind of real change in this world, a change that counts that makes a difference; I realize that this place goes on and on as it will, despite us all.
I lift the tub and take it to the back room. I hear the man in the other room, just above the booming of the reggae. "Well, if you're not a bartender what the fuck are you doing behind the bar?" the man says to the Cube.
I leave the tub on top of the recycling cans to take care of the bottles later and I walk around the dishwasher into the kitchen to get another look at the fat man. He could be trouble. What is Jay's problem?
In the kitchen, Vince is staring at the bubbles rushing up from a basket of fries. Through the kitchen door I can see the fat man is yelling, but all I can hear is the smoothness of Bob Marley crooning. I can't move. I'm paralyzed, but its then that I think of something.
I tap Vince on the shoulder.
"Hey artist guy," Vince says, "the man behind the scenes." He laughs at his own joke.
"Vince, man, Jay wants you," I say.
Vince rattles the basket of fries. "Fuck Jay," he says, but he hangs the basket of fries over the fryer and shuffles toward the bar.
I walk around back by the dishwasher to finish sorting the bottles in the tub. I hear the smack then and see at the end of the bar that Vince is lying flat on his back on the floor. Jay has come over by now and he doesn't say anything. He points at the man in the jacket and he swings his arm around to point it at the front door. The man is laughing. He rubs his fist and walks across the bar room toward the door.
The Cube helps Vince up and takes the towel from the loop of her overalls and throws it at his face. "You're a total idiot," she says to Vince. "I don't need your fucking help."
I'm washing glasses and from time to time I look up and I can see the Cube in the dart room where she is loading glasses into her tub. There's some blood on the bib of her overalls and the tape holding the bandage to her thigh is still loose. I don't care to see the outcome any longer, and I look up and there's something clearer about the Cube, more definite as are all the other people in the bar.
I have a margarita glass in my hand and I lift it to the light and see that a little down from the salted rim there is a half moon print of bright red lipstick following the curve of the surface, minute lines radiating along the arc. I pull the towel from the back pocket of my jeans and wipe the glass clean. I push it over the brushes, buff the bottom, and dunk it in the first rinse of hot water and then the second rinse of cold water and bleach, and I line it up on the rack to dry. I reach for the next set of glasses and the next, and I watch as my own hands disappear in the blur of repetitive movement.
© John Rubins
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