Welcome to chapter four of Bump and Grind. If you’d like to listen, rather than read, CLICK HERE.
I’m in some kind of hammam, judging by the hanging lanterns and ornate mosaic work. I shed my clothing and step into the warm water.
A woman with perfect brown skin and the regal bearing of a queen stretches out on her belly, trailing her hand in the steaming bath.
Another woman, pale and curvy with a fire engine red bob, slips out of a beaded robe and crouches to dip her feet in the pool.
The door to the bath slides open and yet another woman enters. Her flesh is the color of linen. She drops her orange kimono and slides into the water, inky hair floating out around her as she moves like a mermaid.
From across the pool, a girl with wild curls and gray eyes watches me. Her tawny skin glows in the soft light. Her lips are bee-stung and pouting as she struggles out of her ivory corset.
A statuesque woman stands behind the girl, helping her with her laces. Her robe is the same color as her flaxen hair. At her feet is the winged helmet of a Valkyrie. She has the cold, wise eyes of a husky.
I can feel the final woman in our company before I see her. I turn to her, and am startled by her glare, as naked in hostility as the rest of her. Her eyes are dark, her short hair bright turquoise. Her copper body is hard with muscle and covered in tattoos, images in bold tribal lines and earthy colors.
“You are not my sister,” she hisses.
My cell phone rang at exactly ten a.m. I couldn’t believe I’d slept through the night.
“Karen darling, it’s Bruce.”
I sat up in bed.
“Good morning, I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, not at all.” I cleared my throat as quietly as I could.
“Listen, there’s just a small thing we need you to do. For the gala.”
Were they going to change their minds?
“Okay,” I croaked.
“We just need you to come down and do a bit of movement and singing for us. Nothing complicated. Just pick a song you know and show us a bit of choreo.”
Oh dear God, no.
“Hello?” Bruce said.
“Karen, it’s not an audition. You’ve got a role. We just need to see where to cast you.”
I switched to speaker because my hands shook so violently I couldn’t hold the phone any longer.
“Okay,” I said. “When?”
“How’s six o’clock?”
“Today?” Maybe I was still asleep and my dream had shifted into nightmare territory. Bojangles hopped up beside me and started butting me with his head.
“That’s right. We’re seeing a few local performers later. I trust you’re free to come by?”
I nodded, and then remembered Bruce couldn’t see me. “Yes.”
“Oh, and can you come up with a sexy character?”
“Like a persona for the audition. The choreographer wants you to ‘play with an archetype’. Just for fun. Oh, and make sure you dress the part.”
For a moment I wondered if this was a practical joke. Or maybe a very convoluted way to lure me into a rendezvous.
“Who’s in the room?” I asked. If I was lucky, it would be Bruce and the choreographer. Two people wouldn’t be so intimidating, and I was pretty comfortable with Bruce.
“As far as I know, it’s Eureykah, plus myself, and of course the choreographer.”
Clearly, Bruce had no idea how far out of the game I was, or else he would know what a ridiculous request they were making. I had to end the call before I started to cry.
“Oh and Karen, just so you aren’t surprised, our choreographer is Mocha.”
No matter how Bruce tried to pitch it, an audition was exactly what this was. An audition for Mocha, the pop superstar and burlesque sensation. How on earth was I going to put together a number, and a sexy character, in a matter of hours?
I got out of bed and started pacing. Bojangles tried to keep up, but instead, I punted him into my closet. Of course! It made sense to start with the outfit. Whatever I wore would inform how I’d move. Everything I owned was either for going out to bars and restaurants (sexy, but appropriate only for a Real Housewives archetype at best), or for working at the library.
That was it. A librarian! Maybe I was being set up for total disaster, but at the very least, I’d fail in character. And I always did look cute in tweed.
The rain trickled in enthusiastic rivulets down the pane of the streetcar window. Commuters rushed home from work, navigating the busy sidewalks and brandishing their umbrellas like shields. Scraggly little trees that sprung from cement planters were battered by the wind.
I caught the glare of the guy seated across from me. Clearly he was done with my impatient foot-tapping, which I believed would make the ride go faster. Or maybe he was annoyed because the chair I’d carted from home was parked in the aisle of the packed streetcar.
My nav let me know my destination was coming up, and once I was safe on the sidewalk, I checked the address again. According to the map, I’d arrived, but I couldn’t see anything that looked like a rehearsal hall. The only building was an imposing old bank, with the windows boarded up and a commercial real estate sign tacked on it. Across the street was the park. I’d expected a vacated dance studio, or an empty warehouse. It would have been just like me to show up at the wrong address.
When I gave the handle a try it was locked. My heart sank. What a lousy first impression. There was a sudden metallic click, and a voice came through the rusty old intercom.
“Hello, Karen. Please come in. Leave your wet things with Atilla.”
The voice belonged to a woman with a European accent. I hadn’t noticed the surveillance camera overhead.
The door swung open, and an enormous man in black stood in the threshold. He was handsome in a mixed martial artist kind of way: almond eyes, medium brown skin, tattoos circling his massive arms. I waited for him to move aside and let me in.
“Hi, I’m Karen. I’m here for an audition.”
“Come on in.”
He gestured inside, glancing at the street before pulling the door closed.
A monitor displayed a video feed of the front entrance, and three other feeds on a split screen. The big guy wore a headset. Was the high security for Eureykah’s benefit?
“Pleasure to meet you Ms. Peters. I’m Atilla.” He took my wet coat and my umbrella.
I was impressed he knew my name. The cat’s-eye reading glasses I’d picked up at the pharmacy had fogged up, so I took them off to polish them with the sleeve of my cardigan.
“Do you need a hand with that?” Atilla nodded at the piece of furniture I’d been dragging along.
I’d thrown together my choreography on one of my dining room chairs, because I knew better than to trust whatever seating I might find at the audition. A folding chair, for example, could send me to the hospital for stitches.
“It’s lighter than it looks,” I said.
Atilla pointed towards the coat check. “At the back of that room, there’s a little stairwell. Go ahead down.”
I nodded my thanks and made my way, careful not to trip. The stairwell led to the holding area, a small room where another big man in black stood sentry by a second set of doors.
The only other person present was a guy with his nose in a book, who looked up from whatever he was reading. He had the perfect curls of a sandy-haired angel and clear blue eyes that matched his plaid flannel shirt. I wasn’t sure if his ripped jeans and construction boots were a costume (the handyman archetype?), or if he’d just raced from work. I found myself staring at his hands. His fingers looked strong and capable of all kinds of constructive activities.
“Oh hey…” he said. “You brought your own seat.” He flashed a killer smile full of perfect white teeth.
I set my chair down in the spot that he’d indicated beside him and settled in, willing my heart to stop thudding. Was it because of the audition, or the perfect dimple in this guy’s left cheek?
He smelled like Old Spice and something else very familiar. Wood smoke? Incense? I couldn’t place it.
“I’m Gabriel.” He offered his large paw.
“Karen,” I said. He felt warm and solid.
Gabriel hadn’t recognized me from television, and there was no way I was going to launch into a dorky explanation about how I was the next Eureykah Johnson “Daring Dreamer.”
I heard the rhythmic fall of a sturdy pair of heels from behind the guarded door and my stomach lurched. An incredibly tall woman, clad in black from head to toe, filled the doorway.
She wore a leather catsuit featuring a zipper that started between her cleavage, ran the length of her torso and kept on going between her long legs, to the place where dreams were born. The curve of her breasts had the sturdy perfection of a comic book superhero. Catwoman on the set of a Janet Jackson video.
She pushed a strand of flaxen hair out of her ice blue eyes and scanned the room. I realized she bore a strong resemblance to the Valkyrie from my weirdo spa dream. Her gaze slipped over me and landed on Gabriel. The leather goddess lit up like Christmas.
“Gabe, you are here!” Hers was the voice that had ushered me in via intercom. And what was the accent? Not Eastern European. Germanic maybe? Or Nordic.
She sauntered over and folded Gabe into her arms. He was only an inch or two taller than she in her outrageous boots. If I thought Gabe smelled delicious, adding leather and Channel No. 5 to the mix was like opening a box of freshly baked sex.
“Gather thy belongings and follow me,” she said. Her English was charming. Maybe she was a supermodel.
Gabriel collected his wool coat. The woman in black paused to check me out, tilting her head thoughtfully. I worried my glasses would fog up again. Without a word she turned and ushered Gabe into the audition room.
Soon I could hear the driving bass that accompanied whatever Gabriel was doing inside the room, plus an occasional peal of feminine laughter. Who was the incredible woman who’d called him in? Did all of the other performers look like her? I thought very seriously about running out into the night. Of course, I was now under contract with Eureykah to see this through.
Minutes later the door clicked open again, and a very cheerful Gabriel backed out, blowing kisses to whomever was inside.
“What a kick-ass bunch of women.”
The idea of a ‘bunch’ of women nudged my terror level up several notches. How many women made up a bunch?
“Really nice to meet you Karen.”
With that, he slung on his coat, pulled a trucker cap over his curls, and sauntered down the hallway, whistling like some bygone era custodian.
The silence that remained made my ears ring. For a moment I felt like there was nobody else in the world but me. And the stern-looking guard at the door. Then I heard someone coming down the stairs.
A petite woman wrapped in a cardigan and scarf entered. She regarded me with mischievous brown eyes as she slipped over to the chair beside me. She wore her hair in a relaxed afro, which glistened with raindrops, like it was full of magic.
“It’s starting to finally feel like fall.” She smiled, and it felt like the knot in my gut relaxed a little.
“I’m Mocha,” she purred, demurely offering her hand.
My mouth dropped open. I hadn’t recognized her without her stage makeup, but I should have known those famous cheekbones.
Mocha was a fashion model who’d helped the burlesque movement go mainstream. She shot to fame after dating the notoriously political hip-hop artist Panther. Their relationship hit the rocks, but her star kept rising.
I glanced at Mocha’s still-extended hand. Her nails were painted with a sparkling tiger stripe, the only lavish thing about her besides her glorious hair. I clasped her hand and smiled. “I’m Karen.”
Her touch shot a warm current through my entire body. She released me. The heat slipped away and serenity remained. I was officially losing my marbles.
“Karen?” she asked. “That’s your stage name?”
“My stage name? No, it’s just my name.” I smiled harder. What the hell was she talking about?
“Well Karen, you might want to come up with a stage name before they call you in there. They’ll ask, and you don’t want to make it up on the spot, trust me.”
Mocha laid a reassuring hand on my knee. Every time she touched me, I felt delicious and warm.
“You’re cute,” she declared. “You look like a librarian.”
“That was the idea.” I peered over my glasses.
“How about Dewy Decimals?” she mused. Then shook her head. “Better for a boy.”
“Precious Stacks?” I countered, and she eyed my cleavage.
“Mmmmm…You’re not stacked enough,” she said.
“Anna Britannica?” I said.
“Ohh!” Mocha cried. “Damn girl, you’re fast. It’s perfect. Classy and memorable.”
The door opened again. The leather goddess laughed and it sounded like music. She strode over to kiss Mocha.
“Shall I make an introduction to your new director?” Leather purred.
“What about her?” Mocha asked, gesturing to me.
“You are the contest winner.” The goddess now spoke to me in her strange, formal tone.
“You may come too. It is thy time.” She turned and strode through the door. These people took their archetypes too seriously. The woman spoke like Thor.
Mocha followed her. I picked up my chair, and then froze. I had no idea how many people were ready to watch what I was about to do. Add to that Mocha, the most famous name in burlesque, and Eureykah’s audience of millions of viewers later on. Part of the fun of ‘Dare to Live Your Dream’ was the ever-present camera crew.
Mocha laid a hand on my arm. Her heat returned. I couldn’t get over the perfection of her face; it made me forget everything else.
“Relax. Have fun. Picture them naked. You’re hot as shit girl. If you can move as well as you look, you don’t have a thing to worry about.”
She smiled, grabbed my chair, and shoved me through the door.
You can subscribe to Bump and Grind below, or find this book in podcast form anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Bump and Grind is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.