We made it down to the Trail to begin our search, but not before we were subjected to some amount of mental trauma.
As we were pulling out of my driveway we saw Bob and Janey Mitchell standing in their front yard, looking in shock at what was left of their home. What a way to return from a vacation. One minute you’re simultaneously relieved and excited that you’re just around the corner from home, and the next you’re weeping in agony with painful spasms wracking your body as you realize that everything you’ve ever worked for is now a heap of ashes and charred wood. Tragedy has no timing.
My heart went out to them, and I wanted to stop and offer what comfort I could, but then I remembered we had to go strip club hopping so I floored it and we blew past them down the street.
Luck was with us on our first stop. It was a dive called “My Fair Lady”. Fair to poor would’ve been less misleading, but I doubted the management was open to suggestions, so I kept that to myself. After paying our cover we walked in and acclimated ourselves to the strip club funk; that effervescent mix of stale smoke, flat beer, and the universally recognized cheap perfume worn by strippers everywhere. We stood for a few minutes as our eyes adjusted to the dark and the funk permeated our clothes.
“I don’t see a moose anywhere,” Simon said.
“That’s because we aren’t looking for a moose,” I replied.
“Dude, you’re confusing me again,” Jimmy complained.
“Just watch the strippers, Jimmy,” I said, “I’ll let you know if I find what I’m looking for.”
A few seconds later, I let him know.
“Over there,” I said with a nod of my head, “sitting up front by the stage.”
“The guy with the antlers sticking out of his head?” asked Simon.
“Honestly Dick, I don’t know how you do it. I never would’ve noticed.”
“It takes a keen eye,” I replied. “Look you two, I don’t know what’s going to happen here. I’d rather you stay back.” I dug into my wallet and handed Simon a dollar. “Why don’t you guys take a seat at the bar.”
Simon looked at the bill in his hand. “Gee, with this plus twenty bucks of our own money, we might have enough for a couple of drinks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
I started across the room slowly. Checked out the exits. Possible escape routes. Weapons of convenience. All the while keeping Zodar in my sights. Other than the headgear, you wouldn’t know him from any other average Joe. Sipping his drink. Smoking a cigarette. Checking out the girls.
He was smooth, I’ll give him that.
The seat to his right was empty. I took it, sat down, and leaned back. Slow and cool. We sat like that for a while. Just watching the strippers. Taking an occasional draw on a cigarette.
It’s always amazed me how much strip joints play into our lives. Movies and books – as honest in their reflection of society as could be possible – constantly make the point. Every time you turn around there’s a scene that, for no other reason than the fact that there could be no other way, had to take place in a titty bar. You think I’m kidding? Try finding a movie or a book that doesn’t have a strip joint in it. Easier said than done.
Even The Goodbye Girl has a scene that takes place in a strip club. Now there’s a movie that certainly didn’t need one; I mean it’s all about love and stuff and even has a little girl in it. She’s not the actual ‘Goodbye Girl’, she’s her daughter. The little girl, I mean. But still.
It sure doesn’t seem like there’s that many strip joints around, but after watching a few flicks, reading a few books, you discover just how much of our nation’s history has played out within their windowless walls. And here was yet another crisis of global importance about to play out in those same confines.
The girl on stage in front of me wasn’t in any way remarkable, other than the fact that she didn’t have any clothes on and seemed to be somewhat infatuated with a vertical pole running from stage to ceiling. And how many times aren’t we subjected to that in everyday life that it has now become commonplace?
I didn’t know her name, obviously – she had no name tag and where would she put it if she did? – but I figured it was probably Portia. There’s always a Portia. Always. I’m not kidding. Next time you’re in a strip club, just tell somebody that you’re there to see Portia. You won’t go away disappointed. Well, if it turns out she’s a real schnauzer you might. Unless you’re into that kind of thing, not that it’s any of my business. Point is, there’ll be a Portia.
In the end, it was Zodar who broke the tension. And people say there isn’t a God.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.
Good opening line. Wish I’d have thought of it. But oh no, I’m explaining stripper names to you when I could’ve been thinking of something to say.
“That makes two of us,” I replied, instantly regretting it since it sounded cool but didn’t make a damn bit of sense.
“Wait a minute,” I said quickly, “I take that back. Just forget I said it. Try this instead.”
I took a moment to light another cigarette and let the tension build up again. Then I exhaled towards Portia, hoping it would make her back off and go begging for dollars from somebody else.
“Been looking for ya,” I said finally.
He nodded thoughtfully, no doubt realizing that I was a serious player.
“I’d like to thank you for taking care of that situation with those two soldiers,” he said.
“Who? Oh, you mean Rok and Stinky.”
“Yes, I believe that was what they called themselves.”
“No problem. Just a couple of dirtbags. Mind you, I got no beef with someone maybe bending the rules a little in the name of making a buck – legal or otherwise – but you start messing with the price of a working man’s drink, I’m gonna take exception.”
“You’re a man of uncommon moral fiber. That’s rare these days.”
“I’ll have to agree on both counts” I said, glancing around the room. “Hey, check out the hooters on that chick over there, will ya? Holy cow, those babies’ll remind you you’re a man, huh?”
A moment of uncomfortable silence suddenly fell between us.
“Er . . . sorry. No offense,” I said.
“Say, uh, can I ask you a question?”
“You sure you’re not Austrian? I only ask because you sound an awful lot like that Schwarzenegger guy. You know, the body builder? Did some movies?”
“Yeah, that’s one of ‘em. Cool flick. Funny you should mention that one; I used to have some sunglasses just like the ones he wore in that. Supposed to stop a .22 caliber round somebody told me. Like, a lot of good that’ll do you, right? I mean, if somebody’s shooting at you, what’re the odds that they’re using a .22, and even if they were, I think I’d want a little more body armor than a pair of sunglasses, you know? And are we talking .22 short, or .22 long – it makes a difference – although I’d have to guess .22 short since – ”
“I am definitely Russian,” Zodar said.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, well, like I was saying, you sound just like Schwarzenegger, and he’s Austrian so I thought maybe you were too.”
“I am most definitely not. And, by the way, what makes you so sure that he is?”
“Well,” I said, “because . . . .Oh, GET OUT! He’s Russian? He can’t be. He’s the President of California for crying out loud.”
“Well, yeah, for now maybe, but what then?”
My mind was reeling from what Zodar had just said. Could it be true? Or could it be True Lies? New pain shot through my skull and I tried to shake off that horribly cheap pun, not believing that I had just thought it. I did my best to re-center myself, remembering that I was in dangerously close quarters with a moose that was specifically created for intellectual warfare. I realized that I was saying ‘I’ a lot and wondered if this was but more cerebral fallout caused by an adversary that I had sorely underestimated.
The stress of this battle of wits was tearing me apart, eating away at my sanity, and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could handle it. In an attempt to pull myself out of my downward spiral, I tried to envision my potter’s wheel and a few pounds of wet clay to ease the tension. It took everything I had to concentrate on the image of that spinning, shimmering clay, and that laser focus, plus my physical exhaustion from driving all day, relaxed me so much that I flat dozed off for a few minutes.
I awoke to Simon’s urgent shaking.
“Dick, Dick,” he said. “What happened? Are you okay?”
Still dazed, with half open eyes, I looked to my left. The seat was empty. Zodar was gone.
“Must’ve given me the slip,” I said, re-taking in my surroundings. Initially, everything appeared as it was before. But then I noticed that there was a new stripper on stage.
Portia was gone too.