Welcome to chapter six of Bump and Grind. If you’d like to listen, rather than read, CLICK HERE.
Malcolm greeted me with what I call his “Joan Crawford” face; eyes wide, brows raised, mouth open in a silent scream. I immediately started laughing.
“Get in here and tell us everything!”
For the second time that evening, someone grabbed my chair and pulled me through a doorway.
“What, you don’t like our furniture?” Sam asked, kissing me on both cheeks and shoving a glass of red wine into my hand.
“It was for the audition,” I said. Their place smelled like heaven.
Samantha had Darnell strapped to her and he was fast asleep. I’d started to think of him as an extra appendage.
“Did you blow their minds?” she asked.
I parked myself on my usual stool at the kitchen island.
“Actually, first they blew mine,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Malcolm asked, loading a wire basked full of sliced bread.
“They made me strip,” I said grinning into my glass.
“What?” This time the Joan Crawford face was genuine.
“Yeah, they wanted to see if I could do burlesque.”
“And they just sprung that on you?” Sam wrinkled her nose. “That’s unprofessional, no?”
I shrugged. “It’s a part of the show.”
“Still, don’t they usually make it clear when that’s expected?” She looked genuinely upset.
The weird feeling returned. It was a show produced by Eureykah Johnson, but would I have agreed to take my clothes off so easily if I were at the top of my game? No, I wouldn’t have. And my agent would have known about the nudity and warned me first.
Still, I hadn’t gotten naked, had I?
“I didn’t take my clothes off, Sam. Well, not all of them.”
“Come and sit; it’s ready,” Malcolm said.
The table was laid with a small feast. We took our seats, but Sam wasn’t backing down. “What do you mean, not all of them?”
She filled her plate with pasta, careful not to disturb Darnell.
“I stayed in my bra and skirt.” I said.
Sam continued to stare at me.
“It was fine,” I added.
“So it went well?” Malcolm asked.
“I think so…” I said.
Sam obviously didn’t approve, and she was stealing my thunder.
“Well, where’s the uncertainty?” she asked.
I sighed. “I’m pretty rusty, guys. And some of the people there are, well, really different. I’m not sure I’m a good fit with the rest of them.”
“Have you met them all now?” Malcolm asked.
“Not really.” Nobody had introduced me to the pile of women in the corner.
“Then you don’t know that,” Sam said. I realized she was also breastfeeding the now-awake Darnell. Parenthood had given her ninja-like stealth.
“What if I can’t keep up? I mean, that’s a real possibility. I haven’t danced in three years. Yoga can only help so much.”
“Darling, I’ve seen burlesque. It’s not that athletic,” Malcolm said and popped a cherry tomato into his mouth.
“I have a feeling this Clandestine Cabaret troupe might be a different caliber than what you’re used to. Otherwise, why would Eureykah hire them?”
“Honey, do you really think this is the best move for your career?” Sam asked.
“What career? You know how it’s been. I’d given up. I mean, you’re the ones who set this whole thing in motion. Did you not know it was a burlesque show?”
Sam shook her head. “Actually, no, we didn’t.”
We all burst out laughing. How absurd. I’d trained my whole life for the stage, and this is where I’d ended up. Fringe theater, produced by the biggest name in media. I couldn’t tell if I was moving up or down the ladder.
“How do you feel about all this?” Sam asked. At the end of the day, she knew I’d do whatever felt right, even if it made no sense to anyone else.
“I’m shit scared,” I began. These two knew me better than anyone else. There was no point in trying to bullshit them about having higher standards for my career aspirations. “But what happened today, the strip tease, was possibly the most exciting thing I’ve ever done on stage.”
“Even more exciting than getting cast as Bruce Thompson’s Juliet?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, actually. It was.”
Malcolm gave Sam a smug look. There were certain debauched parts of my personality that he understood better than anybody.
“Well, there you have it,” he said, raising his glass. “Our girl gets a second chance with the gorgeous and talented Bruce Thompson, and this time around there’s no clothing required. I, for one, will drink to that.”
A tornado of swirling autumn leaves chased me down the sidewalk as I raced to my first rehearsal. Five minutes late was as on time as I could ever be. I needn’t have rushed. When Atilla finally opened the door to the Vault, the place seemed deserted.
“Yikes, get in here outta that cold.” Atilla shook his head. “I am not made for this kind of weather.”
“Oh, I love this time of year. It’s better than Christmas.”
Atilla took my coat. “The only thing better is there’s no damn snow. It’s Karen, right?”
“Gotta know my girls if I’m gonna protect ‘em.”
Atilla smiled and I immediately thought of Sam. He was completely her type, when she was into men: hulking, gorgeous, inked. I wondered if he’d be interested in dating a woman with an infant. If he was straight, that is. Malcolm wouldn’t appreciate him as much. He liked his men trim and bookish.
Before Atilla left to hang up my things, Bruce had stepped through a doorway draped with red velvet curtains.
“Karen, welcome.” He spread his arms wide for a hug, holding on just a second longer than he needed to. He warmed me to my toes, so I didn’t mind. “Did you get to see this place when you were here the other day?”
“No, I was ushered right downstairs through the coat check. That wasn’t sketchy at all.”
Bruce looked startled for a second until he realized I was kidding. Then he smiled, and took my hand.
“They call this The Vault.” Bruce drew back the curtain and gestured to the main portion of the bank.
The interior was transformed into a lavish supper club, like something out of a Dietrich film. The decor perfectly preserved from the turn-of-the-century, with frescoed ceilings nearly twenty feet high, and rich plaster detail.
Leather club chairs and small marble tables peppered both the main floor and the mezzanine overlooking the room. A mahogany bar had been fashioned from the ancient tellers’ counter running the span of one wall. At the back of the old bank was a stage with a gilded proscenium, draped in red velvet curtains with gold fringe. It was all the sex and elegance you’d want in an upscale burlesque club.
“Did someone finally buy this place, or is all of this just for the gala?” I asked.
Bruce led me toward an arrangement of black sofas situated around a hearth where a fire crackled. The heat made my skin tingle.
“Yes, the other producer of the gala bought it. Apparently, he has a thing for old buildings,” he motioned for me to sit. “Would you like something to drink?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
Bruce leaned in. “Karen, I can’t tell you how amazing it is to see you again. I’ve hardly had a chance to talk to you.”
“It’s been a crazy week.”
I’d often felt guilty about the way I’d ignored Bruce after the accident. He’d been so kind to be concerned about me, even though he barely knew me.
“Why didn’t you return my calls?”
He wasn’t wasting any time. Part of me was expecting this, the other part was hoping we could just start fresh.
“I didn’t want you to see me.”
“But even to talk? To hear your voice and know you were going to be okay?” Bruce’s hazel eyes were soft.
“I was ashamed…” I tried to swallow. “Talking to you would have meant…It was just too much.” This was not the way I wanted to begin my first rehearsal. I took a sip of water, willing myself to be steady.
Bruce stared at me for a moment. I thought I saw pity. Hot shame burned to the tips of my ears. Maybe if we got this over with, he could move on and we wouldn’t have to talk about the accident again? Thankfully, he changed the subject.
“Karen, I wanted to talk to you before we got started. Not about the past, but about the show. There are some things I didn’t realize.” He frowned.
“What do you mean?”
“Your role isn’t what I’d hoped. Eureykah was also surprised by this, given your past experience as a dancer. Evidently, Clandestine is very particular about how they incorporate outsiders. I wanted to prepare you so you weren’t blindsided.”
I couldn’t guess at what he was talking about. I wasn’t expecting a starring role. I’d assumed I’d be a chorus member, some back up dancing, maybe swing for a couple of the roles in case someone got sick or injured.
“Karen, they’ve cast you as a Stage Kitten. Do you know what that is?”
I didn’t. Nor did I like the sounds of it.
“When the dancers perform a strip tease, someone has to pick up the costume pieces. It’s a tradition to have a stagehand in costume for this job. It’s more like…a clown role. In your case, they want you to use the character you created for the audition — Anna Britannica.” He looked worried, like he thought I might get up and walk away.
My mouth went dry. I tried to sip my water, but ended up sloshing it down the front of my top.
“Will I be dancing at all?” I asked.
“Right now, it doesn’t look like it. I tried to push for swing, but these women are, shall we say, quite set in their ways. They don’t usually work with an outside director, so I’ve already got my work cut out for me.” Bruce ran a hand over his stubble. “Eureykah is also pushing for you, and as you can imagine, she has a lot more influence. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here either. She wants a better ending to your “Dare to Live Your Dream” story.”
“I’ll bet she does.” How hard Eureykah could push against the Clandestine team? “So, basically, they want me to pick up underwear from the stage?” It was very possible that I might burst into tears.
“As of right now, yes. With Eureykah’s support, I was able to negotiate your contract so you would be at every rehearsal in case things change. I know you don’t have an agent anymore, so I fought as hard as I could for you Karen.”
“Thank you for that,” I said, and looked away, hoping the heat from the fire would dry out my eyes.
I’d be at every rehearsal, but only able to participate as a stagehand. This was some kind of penance.
“It’s been a long time, I’m happy to be onstage, even if I’m not doing as much as I’d hoped.”
My mother, at least, would be happy to hear that my clothes were staying on.
“Here’s your contract. They’d like it signed by the end of rehearsal today,” Bruce handed me an envelope.
He let me look over the paperwork before he spoke again. Everything seemed standard, except my pay rate. It was unusually high for the size of the role Bruce had described. I decided not to point that out and signed both copies, handing one back to him.
“Are you ready to head down?” Bruce asked.
“They sent me up to get you.” Gabriel, the cute guy from my audition, had materialized behind where we sat. I jumped and sloshed more water on myself.
Bruce handed me a handkerchief from the pocket of his corduroy blazer.
“No need, I know my way around.” Bruce’s eyes weren’t smiling.
“Of course, but Mistress Valhalla wants me to pair up with Karen for her orientation today.”
Things were looking up. I thought about threading an arm with each of them, yellow brick road style.
“Well, we certainly wouldn’t want to displease our Mistress.” Bruce chuckled. Gabriel did not.
“Sorry, what was your name again?” I smiled sweetly. Of course I knew his name, but I’d also read Neil Strauss.
“Gabriel,” he returned the smile. “But please call me Gabe.”
Bruce laid an arm over my shoulder. “No need to worry about Karen, Gabe. She’s a pro.”
Was he being possessive?
“No doubt, but like you said, Mistress’s orders.” Gabe maintained his pleasant expression.
Bruce hadn’t bothered to remove his arm, and insisted on pointing out decor details like he’d designed the place himself. When we came the far end of the bank, Gabe put his hand on a small metal box, and a secret door clicked open.
The stark concrete hallway ended at an ancient elevator. I watched the dial crawl as we sank into the foundation of the bank. When we landed, Gabe flipped all the latches and pulled back the cage. He led us past the circular door of the bank vault to a locked room, which opened at Gabe’s touch.
“Welcome to your home-away-from home for the next three weeks,” he said, ushering us into the same room where I’d auditioned.
I wouldn’t have much to do on stage, but three weeks of Gabe’s dimples would be a pretty sweet consolation.
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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.