I met her because Danny wanted to see boobs on his 17th birthday. Real boobs. Like in the flesh, not just on the Internet. His brother knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy that made fake IDs, so I gave him a bunch of cash and he came back with one that said I was 22.
When we piled into Brett’s parents’ 1997 Lincoln Towncar, the vibe was good. Danny and Stony sat up front. Dom, Peanut and I sat in the back. We had two beers Stony had swiped from his dad’s secret fridge.
“So what’s this place called?” Stony asked as he cracked open a beer with his right hand and drove with his left.
“Fatty’s!” Danny shouted.
“Classy,” I mumbled from the back seat.
Peanut took a sip of beer, scrunching his face up like he smelled a fart. “What if we don’t get in?”
Dom punched his arm. It was the kind of punch you felt just by witnessing it. Peanut, all teary eyed, rubbed it and said, “My sister told me about a music club she went to in Memphis. She was 20, just a couple months before turning 21 and was real nervous because she heard the place she was going to was like, strict with IDs. She was getting close to the front of the line and could see the bouncer. She said he looked like a Hell’s Angel or something. Anyway, when she got to the front of the line he was like, ‘your ID ain’t real’ and she was like ‘yeah it is’. And he was like ‘listen, I’m in a good mood today, so I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you in if you can name one member from The Who’.” Peanut slapped himself on the forehead. “Oh shit! I forgot to tell you she was wearing a shirt that said The Who on it.”
“Get to the point, Peanut,” Danny said.
“Sis went blank. She couldn’t even understand what a band was, let alone names of band members. The more she thought about it, the more confusing it was until all of the sudden she practically barfed out the name Pete Townsend and just like that he let her in. Apparently, bouncers test you with shit like that.”
Stony honked the horn and howled. “I would’ve said Keith Moon.”
In the parking lot of Fatty’s, we checked our hair in the car windows. We sucked on mints. Tucked in our shirts. It almost felt like we were heading into the auditorium for assembly instead of a strip club. After doing a final check of our hair in the Towncar windows, we walked coolly toward the entrance. At least I thought we were walking coolly until I looked over at Peanut, who had a damn sweat mustache.
I could see the bouncer ahead. He didn’t look like a Hell’s Angel, but I ran through the names of all the members of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers in my head. Just in case. One by one the bouncer glanced at our fake IDs, and one by one he waved us through the velvet curtains into the club, just like that, with no help from Keith Richards or Jimmy Page or nobody.
It was like every strip club I’d ever seen in movies. Red and blue lights beamed from every corner of the club through endless puffs of fog. The puffs smelled of something familiar. Took me a moment to identify it as the smell in the changing room after gym class. Shrouding that smell was the perfumes of the different girls that approached. The speakers blasted heavy metal. The vibration from them was so intense it tickled the wax in my ears. Then there were the three stages, each with their own different-heighted poles. One looked like it could have been 50 feet tall.
And, of course, the boobs. In the flesh, not just on the Internet. Some were big and round like bowling balls. Many were softball size. Others tennis balls.
The first thing we did was pay for Danny’s first ever lap dance.
That’s when I saw her.
She was finishing her routine on the far-right stage, the one furthest from where we were. There was something about the way she twirled; I didn’t notice at first. Her body glided around the pole like a ribbon and the spotlight hit the curves of her stomach and hips so that it seemed like everything in the world pointed, you know, down there. It was only when the music stopped and the announcer called up the next girl and my girl was grabbing her clothes off the stage that I noticed.
Her left leg was missing. She had one of those robot legs in its place. What are they called? Prosthetics.
Someone named Lara took the stage next, but I couldn’t get the other girl out of my head. I spent the rest of the night trying to find out her name, but I was too scared to point out her most significant feature. A couple of times I caught her out of the corner of my eye, but it’d be right when Danny was head lock hugging me or Stony was handing me a beer. I left not knowing her name.
The next week Danny and I went back to Fatty’s. He was hooked on lap dances. I was curious to see the one-legged stripper again. I decided that there was nothing wrong with saying she had one leg. This made me think of that time freshman year when the school secretary asked me to get a new student, Elisha Turner, from her classroom. I went to the wrong classroom, of course, and the teacher didn’t know who Elisha Turner was. When she asked me to describe her, I said she was pretty and had short black hair and brown eyes, but I was afraid to say she was black as if it made me racist to point it out. Freshmen are stupid.
My girl was on stage when we walked in. She was gripping the 50-foot pole with her thigh and twirling down. I used to watch the Olympics as a kid, thinking they were super heroes, but the moment she dismounted the pole onto her good leg and slid into a split they stopped seeming so impressive.
The announcer told us to put our hands together for Shiva, so I clapped my hands raw. We had just learned in our world religion class that Shiva was the deity of destruction in Hinduism. Also a dude.
That night I told Danny to leave me there. He winked at me before he left. I waited. Then I waited some more, every now then getting up to pace or throw rocks at an old metal sign that said Parking for Fatty’s Customers Only. Around three in the morning, Shiva walked out the back exit, wearing a gray sweatshirt with sunflowers on it and lime green leggings. The sweatshirt looked kind of funny. I realized later it’s because Nanna has the same one.
“Excuse me,” I said, in my most gentlemanly voice.
“All I do is dance, nothing more,” she replied as she lit a cigarette.
“I just wanna’ talk.”
She looked me up and down. “How old are you?”
“Is that right? Then you’ll probably have no trouble remembering your parents’ music from the 60’s and 70’s.”
“Kidding, kid. I don’t check the IDs.”
“How can I help you?” She pulled on her cigarette, the cherry lighting up her dark skin and the wrinkles around the eyes that were invisible from the seats. It was only then I realized she was about the same age as Mom.
“I wanted to ask you…”
She stared at me, waiting for the question. When it didn’t come, something changed in her eyes. “Listen kid, you probably should hit the road. Don’t you have school in the morning?”
“So it is. It’s probably past your bedtime though.”
“Not sure how I’m getting home.”
She looked me up and down again, taking quick pulls from her cigarette while
nodding. “Do you need a ride?
I followed her to her car trying not to stare as she walked. Her limp wasn’t so bad. It looked more like her foot had fallen asleep than her leg was missing. She unlocked the door on my side. When I opened it, I got a shock of perfume and cigarettes.
There was a plastic guardian angel figurine hanging from the rearview mirror. She got in on her side and put the key in the ignition and started the car, the engine puttering before it revved. She gave me a sideways glance as I wrestled the seat belt. I couldn’t get it in, which made my leg twitch. Then I realized I was twitching the same leg she was missing and that made my other leg twitch too. I let go of the seat belt. The retractor thingy didn’t work so it just sat there flaccidly in my lap.
I told her where I lived and she sped off. The highway was all ours. Now that she was concentrating on the road, I had an opportunity to take her in. There were gold sparkles still on her skin. Just above her left eye she had a scar. Stiches maybe. Maybe from the same accident that got her leg.
She caught me staring at her, so I turned my attention to examining her car: tapping the window, attempting and failing to retract the seat belt again, pushing the lighter in on the center console, testing how far back the seat went, opening and closing the glove box. A picture was taped to the top of it. It was of an elderly woman wearing a floral housecoat and slippers. She smoked a pipe.
“Who’s this?” I asked, pointing at the photograph.
“She looks nice.”
“She still around?” I asked. The lighter popped out, which made me flinch because I forgot I’d pushed it. She grabbed a smoke from her pack and lit it.
“99 two weeks ago,” she said mid inhale.
“Holy shit! Ancient. She live nearby?”
“Ancient? She ain’t the Great Wall of China.” She paused. “She lives with me.”
“You take care of your grandma?”
“We take care of each other.” She blew out a ring of smoke that wobbled in front of her before getting sucked out the cracked window. “Listen kid, what do you wanna’ ask me?”
“I…” It felt like a classroom of eyes was on me now, staring, waiting. Elisha Turner was laughing at me and repeating, ‘I am black, you know. Just say it!’
It was so hard to speak—it felt like Dom had punched me in the throat. My mouth hung open. I’m sure I looked real dumb. Suddenly Shiva veered across two lanes and stopped short on the shoulder. She put the car in park and pushed the hazards on and turned in her seat to face me, her arms crossed over her breasts. “Just say what you need to say, kid.”
The whoop whoop made me jump. It was followed by a flashing blue and red light not unlike those in Fatty’s. Shiva pushed me back in my seat, snapped the seat belt strap back and let it go. It whipped into the car frame. Then she leaned over me, her boobs grazing my arm, and buckled me in. “If he asks you, you’re Denise’s kid and I’m taking you home. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.”
In the rearview mirror just above the plastic guardian angel I saw the silhouette of a cop walking his cop walk toward the car. He tapped the window twice with two of his knuckles. Shiva rolled it down.
“Just finishing up for the night, Shiva?”
“That’s right, Bill.”
“Any reason you just cut across two lanes without signaling?”
“It’s Denise’s boy. He thought he was gonna’ be sick.”
I held my stomach miming pain and looked down before he could spot the bullshit in my eyes.
“Come with me, Shiva.”
She sighed and opened the car door. They walked toward the cop car together, occasionally lit up by blue and red. He got in on his side and turned off the lights and pushed open the passenger door for her. They seemed to be talking, so I closed my eyes. I could still see an impression of the colored lights flashing on the back of my eyelids. When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see Shiva anymore. Less than a minute passed on my digital watch when I looked in the rearview mirror and she was there again, hobbling back to her car.
“Did he give you a ticket?” I asked as she got in.
She dug through her bag and pulled out a piece of gum. It smelled like strawberry as she unwrapped it and stuck it in her mouth. “Nope.”
“Lucky,” I said.
She popped the gum in her teeth and watched his car as he drove past us. “Yeah, sure.”
“What’d he want?”
“Oh…just to talk,” she said, pulling down the visor and fixing her hair in the mirror because somehow it had gotten all in her face.
“Doesn’t he have friends he can talk to? Ain’t he married?”
She pushed the mirror up and looked me in the eyes. “Married people are sometimes the loneliest ones in the world.”
I looked ahead at his car speeding away until she asked, “It’s about my leg, isn’t it?”
I stared at her, trying to group words together in my head to make a sentence that wouldn’t make me sound like a jerk.
“Your question—you want to know why they let someone like me dance, don’t you?”
“No! It’s not that. I think you’re the best. Really the best. The best ever. I didn’t even notice the leg the first time I saw you.”
I did as she told me, still smelling strawberry gum. “I guess I just wanna’ know how you got so good at dancing with only one leg. I mean, I have both legs and every time I dance it looks like I shit myself and I’m trying to shake it out the bottom of my jeans.”
She laughed, loud and long, a gold tooth I hadn’t noticed before peeking out the right side of her mouth and flickering under the highway lights. She had to wipe tears from the corners of her eyes by the time she finished. “You’re a weird kid. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Danny and Stony say that sometimes, but they’re assholes.”
“Mmm hmm. With a name like Stony it’d be hard not to be an asshole.” She paused. “I lost my leg after I became a dancer. In a really stupid accident. Don’t want to get into that right now though.”
“How long before you were back at it?”
Shiva looked away from me. “At first I couldn’t really do anything. Buuuuut, eventually things got easier. It’s amazing what we can get used to.”
“You’re kind of amazing, Shiva.”
“It’s Delores. My name is Delores.”
“I like Delores. Shiva’s the god of destruction, so he’s an asshole, too.”
“Do you think any of my customers know who Shiva is? It just sounds like any other stripper name to them.” She paused. “What about you? You haven’t told me what they call you.”
“You promise not to laugh?”
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway, but try not to laugh. People always do.”
“I promise to try.”
Delores didn’t laugh, but she did smile. “I bet you are.”
After Delores dropped me at home, I snuck inside so Mom wouldn’t hear me. I went on the internet to study members of classic rock bands and to buy a guardian angel figurine, this one made of crystal, so Delores could hang it from her rearview mirror and watch it sparkle and maybe think of me. I gave it to her the next time I saw her and she planted a kiss so big the red lipstick mark stretched from ear to jaw.
We were having an event in school that week called American Heroes. I would’ve liked her to come and speak, so she could tell my class about how she lost her leg but kept dancing, about how she cared for her gran’, about how she helped out the lonely.
My school invited a lifeguard to come speak instead. It turned out he never even had to save anyone from drowning. Some hero. And he had both his legs.