A few people have been asking me to post my Far Horizons Award-winning story (originally published in The Malahat Review) online. Palace of the Brine will be included in my forthcoming short story collection ‘Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush’, to be published by HarperCollins Canada in 2015.
Today’s the day Mitchell Burnhope gets the royal shit kicked out of him. That’s the consensus at the bar. Marie-Odile’s bear-shaped brothers are already brooding in the rear, chowing down on a late breakfast of hot dogs and slush puppies. Every few minutes one of them looks up at the door with his monobrow beetled.
So it’s ironic, as far as Mitchell Burnhope is concerned, that today’s feature dancer is Destiny. She keeps cockatiels in her room and lets them fly around uncaged. It’s not unusual, a lot of dancers travel with pets. The cockatiels shit on the bedspread and on her clothes, but Destiny doesn’t care or hasn’t noticed. Judging from the amount of bills rolled into coke straws on her hotel-room floor and the dregs on her dressing table, she’s not often in the frame of mind for righteous housekeeping. Vlada says she’s a bad woman. And Vlada should know. She’s made a character study of every dancer the Coronet Hotel has ever hired.
“We’re all bad,” I say to her. “We’re strippers.”
Vlada’s an odd bird too. With her whiskers and hooked nose, she looks just like the kind of witch that speaks in omens and has uncanny insights. Over time I’ve come to realize that most of her pronouncements stem from an obsession with personal hygiene. I guess you pick up strange ideas about humanity when you’ve spent five years in one of Stalin’s gulags.
Marie-Odile pushes past us in a butterfly kimono, wafts a trail of bubble-gum vapours in her wake. Vlada clutches my hand and mutters. I don’t know what particular offence to the gods of cleanliness Marie-Odile has committed in the past, but she’s made an enemy of Vlada. Marie-Odile is also my replacement. It’s unspoken, but everyone knows. Frank’s been warning me for months. I haven’t been on stage in six months. I’m the broad with the cleavage they keep around to mother the old boys at the back, soothe them into blowing their pay cheques on overpriced booze. One more pound on that ass, says Frank, and you’re three deep in the heap.
At any rate, it’s not pity that has Vlada clucking over me. Before I started stripping in the hotel club I stripped sheets, scrubbed toilets, and helped her heave around a dicky-wheeled housekeeping cart stuffed with towels and miniature soaps. For this I have earned her undying loyalty. I should get a tin star and a sickle for my hard time.
Sometimes I try to picture what this place was like before it was hacked up into smaller rooms. There are traces of old-world grandeur: peeling cherubs and the remains of a mosaic dance floor in the storeroom where I sneak cigarettes and pick at the tiles with the tips of my stilettoes. The place is sinking like Venice. Like Atlantis. Any day the city will paste a condemned sign on the entrance and the rats will pour out into the daylight. But right now we’re holding out for Mitchell Burnhope to turn up in his oversized coat and get himself pounded into Beefaroni in the parking lot.
Marie-Odile returns to her chair, the butterfly kimono fluttering behind her. She leans back and lets out a belch that resounds through the empty bar. Her brother Raoul, fake-slaps her, catching his heavily ringed fingers in her curls. Raoul and his meatier brother Hugo walked out of a Grimm’s fairy tale and laid their woodsman axes at the door a couple of years back. It didn’t take them long to get accustomed to their new life. Everyone in the club is terrified of them. Raoul disentangles himself with a grunt, walks over to the cigarette machine, and stabs at his cellphone with his stubby fingers. He’s trying to score a spot for Marie-Odile in an upcoming porno flick. The competition is cutthroat. A juicy role will triple a dancer’s salary overnight and land her gigs in every upscale club on the circuit. This is how it is now. Big business. A whole intricate system.
In my day there were girls who dreamed about dancing in the ballet or on Broadway. Of going out west to run away from their crazy boyfriends. Girls, lazy or heartbroken, who just wanted to make the world fuzz over in their hotel room with a dose of codeine and a quart of Southern Comfort. And very rarely, girls like me, who just want their noses in a book after work with a bowl of chips and a pack of cigarettes at their elbow.
They couldn’t find a chambermaid’s uniform big enough to fit me when I started working here. I wasn’t big on purpose, I simply never gave a thought to anything that happened below my collarbone. But cleaning rooms is hard labour. The pounds melted off, and it wasn’t too long before Frank was smacking my rear and getting me up to audition with the others on amateur night. He still brags about how he rescued me. I often ask myself what’s worse—grinding in a pair of crotchless panties to a bar full of wing-eating oafs or scooping up Chihuahua shit in an overheated hotel room? Most days I could go either way.
On my first shift as a chambermaid Vlada hobbled into the lobby, led me up to a room on the second floor, and flung the door as if she was opening the imperial gates to a lost civilization. Scarves and stockings were coiled around a stuffed elephant swimming in a pool of melted pink ice cream. A tipped-over jar of nail polish had drooled down the tv screen. A sequined belt nestled in a plate of gnawed steak bones beside a banana-cream pie studded with ruby-lipsticked cigarette butts. The room’s centrepiece was a pyramid of clothes with a chicken carcass picked clean and perched on top. She handed me a bucket, a few garbage bags, and a carafe of cleaning supplies. She warned me to separate the rotting stuff from the makeup and clothes. Grinning, she handed me a paper sash with the word ‘sanitized’ stamped on it.
“Don’t forget to put Miss America on the toilet.”
When Vlada came back we humped the bags down to a basement storage room that was crammed full of other garbage bags tagged with girls’ names. Dancer names like Bambi and Barbarella. Every once in a while, a girl turns up in the lobby to reclaim her abandoned things, wild-eyed and rapping her car keys or fingernails on the front desk. It’s amazing how many of them disappear. I asked Vlada once if she thought a cruel fate had befallen them or if they’d just turned over a new leaf.
“Either way, they go to a better place,” she said, sucking the side of her cheek.
More and more often now the girls are neat as soldiers, ordering their brushes and makeup bottles into symmetrical rows. For this they earn the unseen respect of a bandy-legged, moustachioed ex-Soviet whose chief nervous tic is to stick her tongue out as far as it will stretch.
Whitney Houston comes on the sound system, and Destiny totters on stage in six-inch platform heels. She grabs the pole to steady herself and bends over backwards with an arcing fan of platinum hair.
For my first show here I made a cassette tape of corny songs and worked out a routine in the storage room. The songs sounded wrong when I mounted the stage. At first I thought it was nerves, but the tape was damaged. I got lost in the distortions and wobbled my way to the end while a part of me watched myself transform from Helen Blackmore, winner of the inter-high school spellathon, lover of Reese’s peanut-butter cups and ex-member of the youth choir, into a naked human, knock-kneed and shivering in a draft of winter air from a door some idiot had left open. I stared out at a sea of shadowy faces. I climbed down the steps after the machine ate the rest of the tape reel, the last song snarling into a wordless tangle.
Mitchell Burnhope came here on his birthday with a bunch of other young bucks trying to look sober. Not for him, the ritual jacking off into a wad of Kleenex in the booths at the back. He was going to fall in love. You could see Cupid’s arrow hovering a few inches in front of his chest as he gazed around the room. Which was when Marie-Odile stepped out of the dressing room like a fawn into a woodland bower, pausing to fix a beaded strap on her tiny ankle. The blossom of a smile on her cherry-glossed lips was all it took to plunge the arrow so deep into his chest you could see the tip poking out through the back of his cheap blazer.
The next day he turned up early and sober. He dealt out business cards embossed with his name and the word “entrepreneur” in shiny letters. It took Hugo and Raoul the amount of time it takes to flick a switchblade to measure his worth and turn their backs, bending the cards in half before tossing them into the brimming ashtrays. Soon after the flowers arrived, a matronly bouquet of chrysanthemums that sent Marie-Odile into a sulk after she tears open the box.
Later on that day I saw the abandoned flowers arranged in Vlada’s old green vase down in the laundry room. Not much happens at the Coronet without her knowing about it. She’s always somewhere: a flash of grey, a bent back disappearing around the corner, the sound of a vacuum cleaner in a distant room. I feel her presence wherever I am, the way you feel mice in a wall or pigeons fluttering in the eaves. The basement laundry room is where she makes herself at home, losing herself in reveries too painful or too lovely to talk about, smiling like a village idiot at the embroidered daisies on an old kitchen towel while the tumble dryers churn endless loads of laundry. I sat down and asked her what she thought about the unfolding love story upstairs. She pursed her lips.
“Not good,” she said.
“How long do you think he’ll last?”
“Who knows,” she said. She smiled and let out a little cackle. “Why not ask Destiny?”
An idea infects you, occupies your mind like a virus. A St. Vitus Dance that has you jerking and twitching, laughing and weeping, dancing around the room for no apparent reason. Makes a holy fool of you. Has you tossed in vats of boiling oil and thrown to lions. Has you oblivious to the monsters slouching in loosely formed groups in a bar full of muffled grunts and a covert exchange of glances. It wasn’t enough for Mitchell Burnhope to adore Marie-Odile from a distance. He wanted to save her.
He comes back again and again, alone in the oversized coat, like a man who has found Jesus, smiling and holding out his hand long after the person in front of him refuses to shake it. He sends more flowers. He sends presents. A fuzzy heart-shaped pillow with wings. A chocolate astronaut in a box lined with tinfoil stars. A googly-eyed teddy bear on a pair of pink-plastic downhill skis that Marie-Odile plops into the restaurant’s kitchen garbage canister seconds after ripping off the wrapping paper.
Vlada gave me a tea set from Zellers a few years ago. A blurry willow pattern on grey-flecked china. I was just about to hand it back and tell her I didn’t drink tea when I remembered her endless white coffees sloshing alongside us in the housekeeping cart. The tea set was meant to sit on a shelf looking ceremonial. Because I don’t have my own place yet I keep it in the trunk next to my spare tire. The box is frayed and warped and stained with salt and antifreeze. I try to get rid of it sometimes, but whenever I dump it on the curb I feel Vlada’s eyes burning holes into my head and put it straight back in the car.
Each night the club fills up with rednecks and hicks, their hair slicked back as if for church and portly salesmen in polyester suits and half the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels. The girls undulate like sea anemones under the blue lights and the room is awash in booze and hormones and the stink of genitals and sweat. A slight change and the equilibrium is lost. Algae blooms. Blood spills in the emergency exits and out into the parking lot to mingle with the asphalt and tiny pieces of grit and other people’s teeth.
Have you ever had a fish tank? You’ve got to keep the balance right. My father had one when I was growing up. He bought it for relaxation but like everything else to do with him, it turned into a horror show. He had Japanese fighting fish maiming each other and inbred cannibal guppies and a crab that ate every other creature and then died of loneliness. He left it like that for a while, a tank full of cloudy yellow water that he stared into sometimes looking for signs of life. One night when he was drunk he smashed it with a hammer. I heard the glass crack from my bedroom, and then the sad whoosh of water. We never got the sour smell out of the carpet.
I almost couldn’t look when Mitchell Burnhope came into the lobby the last time, a small velvet box in his fist, his neck sinking into his collar as he made his way to the bar where an imperious Marie-Odile sat flanked by her burly brothers.
In the room of a ransacked palace, fires guttering in the streets below, someone has an idea and tells it to an undersecretary, who jots it down and types it into a directive. Someone has an idea and then the idea has you, led at gunpoint to a train station, forced on board a cattle car, and set trundling across the tundra on a bed of dirty straw. Vlada almost never speaks of those years but when she does there’s no overarching story, there’s no moral or ending. A battle for a dropped crust. A night search that has her standing like a statue for hours, naked between the winter stars and the piles of frozen excrement at her feet.
I went to her apartment once. There was a bus strike and a snowstorm and, after she mentioned that she was walking in to work, I offered her a lift. All day and all the night before squalls had blasted waist-high drifts along the streets, and we drove through the white half-buried city to its farthest outreaches. I pulled up at her apartment block just as the streetlights were casting their first sallow haloes onto the still unplowed sidewalks. How she had made her way into work that morning was anyone’s guess. I stared at her in stunned respect. Childless, husbandless, she was tough enough at seventy to cross the Khyber Pass.
I had a boyfriend once who worked in the merchant navy. I used to take him up to the rooms on the third floor where nobody goes now except Vlada with her rags and feather dusters. He lay on the bed, a slab of raw pink beef staring up at the ceiling. The harbours in Asia are full of girls, he said. There are so many to begin with, they start them so young and there’s so much sickness. Most of them are washed up by the time they hit their twenties. What to do, have them crawling the alleys like diseased cats? A slit at the throat, a shove off the pier. It’s almost a kindness.
I see it when I close my eyes, the seafloor littered with pelvic bones that settle into the sediments like spent oyster shells. Once you know something like that, how can you go on fooling yourself about anything?
The girls playing Hearts at a nearby table put their cards down to get a better look when Mitchell Burnhope went down on bended knee. He couldn’t have picked a better moment. Having somehow displeased her brothers, Marie-Odile was already in a terrible temper. His grovelling shape was probably a reminder that she would also be on her knees in a few hours, bracing herself for blows after the brothers had swilled their quota of beer.
Of course she would have said no. But if he’d picked a different day, maybe she wouldn’t have flown up out of her seat and kicked him so hard in the balls that he curled into a fetus around her candy-red stilettoed foot. Her curses and the mirthless chuckles of the two Goliaths on either side of her would have been enough to snuff the intentions of most suitors. Not Mitchell Burnhope. As soon as he could draw a full breath, he brushed himself off and said he wouldn’t stop. Whether that meant loving her or hanging on to his death wish wasn’t clear.
Destiny whirls around the pole, smiles and gestures at the mostly empty room with her free hand. Marie-Odile shivers and reties the sash of her kimono, then pats the wrinkled butterflies in her lap. Raoul and Hugo grunt and glare at the door, suck the last of their slush puppies through their straws.
After Destiny leaves the stage I slip down to the basement to chew the fat and fold towels with Vlada. Frank comes down to pester me into giving him a backrub. With his red-rimmed eyes and drooping paunch, he’s easy to feel sorry for. Even if he does make a living off my naked body. Even if he is just about to fire me. He sits down at the table and watches me fold towels while Vlada clucks over him and doles out the same flavour cup-of-soup she’s just prepared for me. To Vlada we’re all slaves, indentured to a menacing, intricate system she’s always abstractly aware of even if we’re not.
She hobbles out into the corridor with a pile of folded towels. I’ll take her place in a few years when her arthritis is so bad she can no longer hold a mop. Will I be strong enough to survive as long as she has?
There’s a harsh cry and I run to the door.
Vlada is sprinting down the corridor as fast as her bandy little legs will carry her, shaking her fist at the tiny blur of white and yellow that flits and whizzes ahead of her. The escaped cockatiel darts around the corner.
By the time I reach them the cockatiel is in the boiler room, flying from pipe to pipe, perching in the warm recesses of the ancient grease-encrusted furnace that not even Vlada attempts to dust. She stands there with her hands outstretched, chanting a Russian nursery rhyme under her breath. The bird eyes her suspiciously.
Losing patience, Vlada pokes at it with a broom handle. The cobwebs stick to the handle and droop into ragged fringes. The cockatiel flies over to the rectangular window set into the rough concrete wall and flutters there for a moment before flying back to the pipe. Vlada coos, hands cupped and outstretched again, as if she were offering a gift. The bird is in a panic, flying back and forth, tapping its beak on the glass and then returning to clench the pipe, its tiny chest heaving.
“Fine you stupid bird,” says Vlada. The cockatiel cocks its head at her. She pushes her footstool beneath the window and climbs up. Even so, she can barely reach the sash. She heaves it open with a grunt. A cascade of paint flakes, dust, and snow settle on her shoulders and the furnace-room floor. She bunches her face into a knuckle and steps down. A blast of wind sweeps in another small flurry.
“So go,” she says. “Go into the dirty fucking snow and die.”
It’s a scene from a fairy tale: the cockatiel perched on a cobwebbed pipe with its scarlet China-doll cheeks looking down at bandy-legged Vlada with her broomstick and then back again at the window, alive with whirling snow and the sound of approaching sirens. There is a moment when even the cockatiel seems to understand what has been happening, what is always happening, beyond the borders of its birdy world. And now all eyes are on the grey-white rectangle as it blushes to pink and then cherry red, and the ambulance swings into the parking lot.