Issue 24 / Winter 2021 / Special Issue: Pleasure
Raquel took a seat and pulled a hot pink flask from her purse. She sipped, then grimaced and surveyed the women around the table. The troupe was meeting at Anne’s house to plan out their act for the 5th annual REO Town Thrift Store Gala and Burlesque Extravaganza. The five group members had been gathered around the table, drinking wine and laughing for an hour before Raquel arrived.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “You all look beautiful tonight, for the most part. We’ve got a lot to get through. You were all to choose which characters you wanted, right? So, let’s draw for the order and go from there. Anne, may I have some paper and a bowl?”
Anne retrieved the items and Raquel tore five pieces from the sheet of paper, numerated each one, then folded it, and dropped it in the bowl. Each woman took one as the bowl worked its way around the table, and then, on Raquel’s nod, unfolded the paper.
“Standard rules, number one gets first pick, but also goes on first. Who’s one?”
“That’s me,” Karen said. “I was thinking I could do Margaret Thatcher. You know, I’ll style a wig up, get a thrift store suit. Fake pearls.”
“Perfect, everyone cool with that?” Raquel asked.
The women nodded.
Anne raised her hand and mumbled something.
“Great, who’s your pick Anne? And speak up, so we can all hear.”
“Sister Aloysius Beauvier,” she said too loudly.
“Very age appropriate,” Raquel said. “Objections? No, none. Moving on. Number three, please.”
“It’s me,” Maddie squeaked. “I’m going to do Miranda Priestly.”
Raquel nodded and jotted the selection down on the pad in front of her.
“Great, Maddie will be Miranda, who is, what, three times her age? Perfect choice for a first timer.”
“I can switch, if you want Raquel. If you think it’s too much of a stretch for me.”
“I don’t care, as long as no one else does,” Raquel said. She looked around the table and found no disagreement.
“Perfect. Number four?”
“It’s me,” Lisa said. “I’m doing Florence Foster Jenkins, with vocals. I just think it will add authenticity to the production as a whole if I sing live and I’ve been working on matching Meryl’s vocals from the film. It’s really tough for me to sing badly, given all my choral experience, but—”
“Great,” Raquel said, asserting her managerial control. “I see no objections. Last, but not least, our closer will be Shanda. Pick your poison, girl.”
“I’ve been thinking about Sophie,” Shanda said.
“As in, Sophie, Sophie, like from Sophie’s Choice?” Karen asked.
“Yes,” Shanda said. “I think it could work. Give the show a little bit of a different look.”
“How exactly would that work Shanda? It’s the saddest possible option. That’s why nobody’s ever wanted to do it before. Are you trying to be original or something?” Raquel asked.
“Well, I want a challenge,” Shanda said. “And Anne is doing the nun from Doubt, which is about sex abuse.”
“But a stripping nun is funny,” Raquel said. “A stripping Holocaust victim? Not so much.”
“Since when do we have to be funny?” Shanda asked.
“We don’t, but we should at least be entertaining in a non-depressing way,” Raquel replied.
“Shanda, you don’t find it challenging enough, as a Black woman, to play Meryl Streep playing a character other than Sophie?” Lisa asked.
“Are you trying to tell me, Lisa, as a white woman, what I, as a Black woman—as the Black woman in this group, should find challenging?”
Shanda watched Lisa look down at her lap to consider the costs and benefits of continuing the argument.
“If you would like to explain to me what aspects of my life I should find challenging through the lens of your white privilege, I’d be just ecstatic to hear it.”
“Shanda, you know I love—”
“Yeah, yeah, Lisa, you love everyone. You don’t see color. We’re all the same in God’s eyes. I’m sorry, Gaia’s eyes. Whoever-it-is-you’re-worshipping-this-week’s eyes. Hell, while you’re at it, why not tell me about my lesbianism? I know you’ve got opinions on that too. How do you feel, as a white expert on Black challenges, about—”
“Shanda, I just think there are better options for a fun, happy celebration than a woman forced by Nazis to choose—”
“We all know the plot, Lisa. Just shut up already. Please,” Shanda said.
“Okay, let’s not kill each other over this,” Raquel said. “What’s your second choice, girl?”
“Stop calling me girl. I’m not your girl, Raquel. I’ve never been your girl and I’ll never be your girl. I’m a woman. And why do I need to use a second choice? Everyone else gets to do exactly what they want. There’s never been an objection to anybody doing any character before. Last year, Karen did a terrible zombie Karen Silkwood. I mean—”
“Shanda, this event is a celebration. It’s meant to be a fun night. Do you think the REO Town Commercial Association will be thrilled with me if I bring that act as my contribution? I don’t think so. I don’t even understand how your idea would work,” Raquel said. “Any way you slice it, it’s not going to happen. It’s in our rules, objections have to be taken into consideration.”
“Okay, I’ve taken your objections into consideration, and I still want to do it,” Shanda said.
Raquel shook her head, “Let’s take a vote then. All in favor of having Shanda close the show with the most depressing striptease of all time, raise your hands.”
Shanda and Maddie raised their hands. The other women avoided looking into Shanda’s eyes as their hands remained below the table.
“Settled. Second choice or nothing, Shanda.”
Shanda let out a guttural groan and crossed her arms over her chest, “As a second-class member of this group, under protest of subjugation, I’ll do Joanna Kramer.”
“Don’t look at yourself that way,” Lisa said.
“I don’t,” Shanda growled, “but the way you’re all—”
“Great. Glad that’s over. Moving on, I have newly stoned pasties for you ladies, provided by my friend Nyck,” Raquel pulled a baggie out her purse and emptied the glittering decorations onto the table. “Take your pick.”
The women shuffled through the kaleidoscope array. Shanda waited until the others had chosen, then took the chartreuse pair that were leftover and smiled at the others.
“Oh, thank you so much,” Shanda said, “I love this color. It’s my favorite. Neon watermelon, y’all.”
Raquel rolled her eyes and stood up,“Alright ladies, I’ve got to go. We’ll have a rehearsal a few hours before the actual show. It’s at that same warehouse as last year, on Hazel. I’ll shoot you an email with the exact address. Get me your music selections as soon as you can, and of course, let me know if you need any help finding props or whatever.”
Raquel grabbed her purse and threw her coat over her shoulder as she left. The other women quietly finished their wine and left Anne’s home a few minutes later.
The cold of the warehouse’s concrete floor seeped up through each woman’s slippers, as the Streepers explored the makeshift dressing room area. A small section of space behind the stage had been blocked off from general view by thin black curtains. A couple of vanity mirrors sat atop a long table, their glowing bulbs the only source of light within the curtains. The women wore robes as Raquel guided them through the event space. They dodged volunteers setting up table displays of thrift store merchandise. Vintage furniture, old lady dresses, jewelry, houseware, and cheesy artwork provided a vision of hipster cool. The musty smell of damp basement permeated the air. Raquel led the ladies onto the stage, noting the uneven stairs so they stood a chance at not falling once they were in their heels. Maddie shook on stage as Raquel lined the women up. Shanda put her arm around the youngest member of the group and brought her close.
“Nervous?” she asked.
“A little,” Maddie whispered.
“Don’t panic. It’s just your body. You’re lucky, because you’ve got a good one,” Shanda said. “If you forget your routine, don’t worry, just take your clothes off. That’s all there is to it. It’s not brain surgery.”
“Lights, please,” Raquel shouted off into the darkness.
The snap of a switch being thrown sounded and echoed against the distant walls. The bank of lights above the women flickered on. Raquel scooted off the front of the stage and stood a few yards back from its edge. She squinted at the line of women, then tilted her head.
“Can you all move about a foot closer to me?” she asked.
The women obeyed and Raquel released her squint.
“There, that’s where you need to be. Take a look around, make a mental note. This is how far out on the stage you need to go. The lights are hitting you all perfectly. Gorgeous,” she said.
A line of three food trucks filed into the space like trained elephants, led by a brown-suited man waving a pair of flashlights. The great beasts settled into a corner across from the stage. Raquel returned to the stage and shooed the ladies back into the dressing room.
“They’re going to get everything else set up, so just try to stay out of the way,” she said.
The women slowly descended the stairs to get off the stage, and as they did, Raquel motioned for Shanda to come over.
“I just wanted to clear the air between us,” Raquel said. “I know you’re disappointed, but just trust me. The show’s going to be great! You get to close it out. You’re the one everyone is going to remember. I love you. We all love you. We only want the best possible show.”
“Oh, I know,” Shanda said. “I respect that. I’m glad to have the opportunity to perform.”
“You’ll be a great Joanna, I know it. Hug?”
Shanda embraced Raquel warmly.
“Break a leg,” Raquel said, “and shake those titties.”
After a brief introduction from Raquel, Karen took the stage in a plum-colored wool suit. Orchestral music began as she stiffly wandered the stage from side to side. She loosened her collar at one end, then thrusted her hips at the other. The crowd whooped as the music came to a crescendo. Karen faced away from them, unzipped her skirt, and dropped it to her ankles. A sparkling Union Jack was revealed and she waved the sequined design covering the back of her panties to great applause. She faced the audience again and ripped open her shirt. She proudly shook the tassels covering her nipples as the music ended. Raquel climbed back on stage while the crowd clapped and Karen returned backstage.
“Let’s give it up one more time for Sylvie LeTickle as The Iron Lady,” Raquel said into the microphone. “And please keep it going for our next, and most seasoned performer. She wanted me to let you know that she is sixty years old and proud of it. Show your support for the sexiest senior I know, the singular, Fanny.”
Anne carefully climbed the stairs to the stage as her track of church bells began. She slowly swayed to the bells and mimed a prayer, before she lifted the edge of her black habit to reveal a pale slice of leg. A whistle sounded from the crowd and she lifted the habit higher and higher, then tore it away from her body. The revelation of her bedazzled white corset sent a wave of applause through the warehouse and the church bells ceased to ring.
Backstage, Shanda handed Maddie a shot.
“You’ll be great,” Shanda said as Maddie drank. “I’m going to sneak out and watch you from the crowd. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll be cheering you on.”
Maddie nodded, smiled, and took a deep breath as Shanda disappeared behind the curtain wall.
Raquel informed the crowd that the next performer was a burlesque virgin and they warmly cheered as Maddie took the stage. She looked down at Shanda, rooting her on from the front row. As the music began, Maddie sashayed the stage, revealing one pale shoulder from beneath a long fur coat.
“You show it, girl,” Shanda shouted as the crowd clapped agreement.
Maddie shimmied out of the coat and twirled it above her head before tossing it out into the audience. As the crowd continued cheering Maddie on, Shanda ducked her way beyond the audience. She made it to the DJ and leaned over to whisper into his ear. He nodded as the pace of Maddie’s track picked up. Maddie gyrated to the techno beat so hard, her gray wig fell off. A look of panic hit her face for a moment before she tore off her red dress and did the running man until the end of the music, her black pasties sparking in the lights.
Lisa crept to the center of the stage while a stagehand brought up a microphone on a stand and placed it in front of her. She stepped to the microphone and proceeded to squawk away, like an operatic demon while removing her long white gloves. She screeched louder as she unzipped the side of her white satin gown, then flung it away, revealing a nude-colored girdle. She bent at the waist, hands on her knees, viciously taking in breath for a moment, before she peeled away the girdle. Lisa shimmied and twirled around for the audience, then took a bow before leaving the stage.
Raquel returned to the stage as the microphone stand was removed, “We’ve come to that time, ladies and gentlemen, that our Meryl Streepers must leave you.”
The crowd booed and Raquel shrugged, “I know, we don’t want to go, but there are other entertainers for you tonight. And the Miss Thrift Pageant is coming up next. Who will it be this year? Who knows? It could be any one of the beautiful contestants. But before we go, we do have one last Meryl Streeper for you. Our parting gift, if you will. We’ve brought along our very own Joanna Kramer. Give it up for the dark beauty of Miss Cristal Dix.”
Shanda stepped onto the stage wearing a long, blonde wig beneath a black hat. A spray of wispy bangs hung down over her forehead and a long gray coat covered her entire body. She looked out to an invisible point in the distance, as German chatter filled the warehouse. The audience was still as she looked down at the other Streepers watching her from beside the stage. Her hands cupped each of her breasts over the coat, as a louder German voice made a demanding shout. She shook her head no. The German voice yelled louder and tears began to fill her eyes. She looked down at her left breast for a moment, then the right. The choice seemed impossible. The German shouting again filled the warehouse until she tore open the right side of her coat, exposing a single breast with a chartreuse pasty adorning her nipple. Shanda sank down to the stage in a heap—her mouth open in a silent scream.
Trevor Lanuzza holds an MFA in fiction from Temple University. He was the recipient of the 2019 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers in fiction.