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Last Dance

by Melissa L. White


Image of a woman with arms raised and spotlight shining on her on stage.
Image credit: Joshua Hanson on Unsplash

“Okay, gentlemen,” announced the DJ. “Last dance of the night. Let’s give it up for Monroe!”

            Five minutes till closing on Thursday night, and the only customers left in the topless bar were three men, sitting near the stage. They clapped and whistled as Monroe took the stage. Her platinum curls hung down over one eye in a messy, sexy Marilyn Monroe-like fashion.  She wrapped one leg around the pole and began writhing around it. One of the men signaled their waitress, Tina, for another round.

            Tina approached, carrying her tray and their check.  She brushed her hair from her face as it slipped down from what had begun the evening as an elegant French twist. The music blasted overhead, aggravating the pounding headache behind her eyes as she leaned down and placed the check on the table. “I’m sorry sir, but last call was twenty minutes ago. It’s time to settle the bill.”

            “But the show’s still going on. We need another beer.”

             He took off his John Deere cap and scratched his greasy hair. Tina checked her watch.

            “Okay. But drink it fast. We close in four minutes.”

            “Atta girl,” he said then turned and whistled at Monroe up on stage. She slipped her lingerie down exposing her shoulders.

            Tina approached the bar and ordered three more beers.

            “Last call has come and gone sweet cheeks,” protested the bartender.

            “Just give me the damn beer, Simon.”

             He raised his hands in mock surrender, opened three Bud longnecks, and set them down in front of her. She paid him from her till, placed them on her tray then hurried back up to the stage. The man in the John Deere cap stood beside the stage leaning over the edge, waving a five-dollar bill.

            She set the beers on the table saying, “Time to settle up, gentlemen.” Both men pointed at the man in the John Deere cap.

            Tina approached him just as he was motioning the dancer over towards him. When Monroe reached down to pick up the money, he jerked his hand away and stuffed the bill into his pants pocket.

            “Come down here and get it,” he hollered.

            Monroe’s face dropped. She set her jaw, determined, then turned around - her rear end in the man’s face - bent over and reached through her legs for the money. The men whistled and cheered. The man in the John Deere cap reluctantly took a dollar from his pocket and gave it to Monroe. She looked at the single, rolled her eyes and stuffed it in the elastic band of her thigh-high stockings.

            Tina tapped him on the shoulder, “Sir. We need to settle your bill.”

            He reeked of cheap Tequila.

            Tina laid their check on the table. “That’ll be $39,” she said, smiling.

            He gave her two twenties and said, “Keep the change.”

            The music ended and the DJ came back on the mic. “Okay, gentlemen. Drink up and we’ll see you tomorrow, back here at Lipstick in beautiful downtown Bacliff, Texas.”

            Tina couldn’t believe it. She’d served them three rounds, even served them after last call, and all they gave her was a measly one-dollar tip. She stormed back up to the bar and counted her till. Simon stood behind the counter watching her. It was a very slow night. She earned only $43 and some change. After giving Simon a $10 tip, she stuffed the rest into her pocket and began cleaning tables, collecting glasses, bottles, and ashtrays.

            Tina then took the broom and began sweeping the floor in the back. Part of the job of the last waitress on duty was to clean the restrooms and dressing rooms after the dancers left for the night. She cleaned the restroom, swept the floor, and then opened the door into the dressing room. Monroe was sitting on the floor crying while counting her money. The moment she saw Tina, she wiped her face and stuffed her money into her purse.

            “Are you okay?” Tina asked.

            Monroe nodded.  Another dancer, Charlene, came around the corner and grabbed her bag.

            “What are you still doing here?” she said to Tina.  “Make yourself useful.”

            “I’m cleaning up after your messy ass,” Tina retorted. She started sweeping the floor.

            Charlene laughed, a bit taken aback then said, “Well better you than me.” She put on fresh lipstick and then left. Tina swept a pile of paper towels, hairballs and bobby pins into the middle of the dressing room floor. Monroe pulled on her jeans and then put on a dirty denim jacket.

            “Goodnight,” she said.

            Tina glanced up from wiping the lipstick off the mirrors. “Good night.”

            Twenty minutes later, after she’d finished cleaning the dressing room, she put on her jacket and grabbed her purse and keys. She walked out front into the bar. Simon waved to her as she headed for the exit. The bouncer stood at the front door, muscular arms folded across his chest, talking to Monroe.

            “Hey, Tina,” he said, “can you give Monroe a lift home? Her ride isn’t coming and I’ve gotta go.”

            Tina checked her watch: ten after three. She sighed. “I suppose so.”

            Monroe slung her bag over her shoulder, murmuring a quiet, “Thanks.”

            The bouncer walked them out to Tina’s Ford Explorer and waved as they pulled out of the parking lot.

            “Where do you live?” asked Tina.

            “La Porte,” said Monroe.

            “That’s pretty far.” Tina’s head was throbbing. All she wanted to do was drive the five minutes across the Kemah bridge to her apartment in Seabrook and crawl into bed next to her husband. Every night when she got home, their bed was all warmed up and waiting for her.  Her husband would rub her feet and tell her it was only temporary until she could find something better.

            She’d lost her job as a Direct Support Professional the year before, after suffering an anxiety attack at work. Her employer told her they couldn’t risk letting her work as a DSP, taking care of developmentally disabled clients, if she was emotionally unstable. Tina’s anxiety stemmed from depression which had consumed her since her mother’s diagnosis with inoperable cancer. Her mother’s health deteriorated, and she withered away, dying a slow, painful death.

            Tina checked the gas gauge; the needle rested just this side of E. They stopped at the corner Quick Mart and put in three dollars’ worth of gas.

            “I’ll pay you back tomorrow,” said Monroe.

            “Sure. No sweat.”

            ‘I’m 36 years old,’ Tina told herself, ‘That’s almost twice the age of most of the girls who worked at the club. I have a college degree.’  She knew she was capable of earning a decent living, and as soon as she could find a better job, she’d leave the seedy world of Lipstick behind for good. But what chance did most of those girls have to better themselves? The one thing they had going for them was youth and looks, but when that was gone, what would they do for money?

            Tina felt fortunate if not somehow removed from the politics of despair surrounding life at Lipstick. She constantly reminded herself she was just passing through. Then again, how many of those girls told themselves that very same thing each night as they downed their shots just before stepping onstage? It was so incredibly degrading.

            “So, did you grow up in La Porte?” Tina asked.

            Nodding, Monroe rolled down the window halfway then leaned her head out into the cool night air. Tina turned on the heater and then turned up the radio, realizing that a conversation with this girl was out of the question. What could they possibly find to talk about?

            Tina drove up Highway 146, lost in thoughts about her mother until they reached the industrial part of town. As they approached the Houston ship channel, Tina noticed refinery lights glistening through the early morning fog, altering the world around them so that all the intertwining towers, smokestacks, and miles of piping looked like alien spaceships. The air smelled of sulfur. Her eyes began to water.  She wondered how anyone could stand to live here.

            As they veered off Highway 146 towards the Bayport North Industrial Park, Monroe said, “Turn here.” She directed Tina down a narrow dirt road to a small trailer park wedged in between two oil storage tanks. The air was thick with sulfuric smoke from the waste burn-off—the foul taste of rotten eggs settling on Tina’s tongue. The flame from the smokestack rose high into the night sky like a pillar of fire marking the entrance to the underworld, where Hades ruled with an iron fist.

            “Turn left up here,” said Monroe.

            As they neared the bay, the fog got thicker so Tina inched her car along cautiously, gravel crunching under the tires.

            Tina thought about the hospice worker who’d come to help with the transition of her mother’s passing. He suggested they set up a hospital bed in the living room downstairs so her mother’s friends could visit and say goodbye without having to crowd into her bedroom upstairs.

            On the day she died, her mother had been lying in bed in the living room, with her family gathered around, having difficulty breathing. She’d slipped into a coma three days earlier and hadn’t spoken a word since. But as she lay there gasping for breath, she scrunched up her face and cried out, “I’m falling!” as if she were sinking back into the pain of her cancer-racked body instead of floating up to the heavens.

            Tina eased her Explorer along the single-lane shell road down to the tiny trailer park where four dilapidated mobile homes sat dwarfed by Shell Oil refinery storage tanks on either side.

Image of red car lights with two figures standing outside in the dark.
Image credit: Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

            “Which trailer is yours?”

            Monroe didn’t answer.

            Tina stopped the car and said, “Monroe. Which trailer is yours?”

            Monroe licked her chapped lips and said, “My name is Nancy Jean. And I live in the second trailer on the left.”

            Tina pulled into the driveway and parked her car. “Can you make it inside okay?” she asked.

            Nancy Jean rubbed her forehead. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

            Tina hurried around to the passenger side and opened the door. She helped Nancy Jean out of the car and up the steps to the trailer. Nancy Jean dropped her keys trying to unlock the door. Tina picked them up, unlocked the door, and helped her inside.

            Once inside, Nancy Jean turned on the light, and a baby started crying.

            “You left a baby here…alone?”

            “My boyfriend was here when I left. He stays with our baby while I’m at work.”

            The baby’s crying crescendoed into a full-scale scream.

            “She’s hungry,” said Nancy Jean, lifting the baby from the crib. “I don’t have money to buy milk. I only made three dollars tonight. She needs diapers and cereal. What the hell am I going to do?” She started to cry.

             Tina pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her pocket and said, “Pay me back tomorrow night.”

            Nancy Jean looked up at Tina, mascara streaking down her cheeks. She took the money and said, “Thanks. You saved my life tonight. I mean it.”

            “How old are you?”

             Nancy Jean wiped her eyes. “I’ll be nineteen in three weeks.”

            “You’re so young,” Tina said, disgusted by the filth and squalor all around her. “Things will get easier as you get older.” She stepped over the dirty clothes on the floor as she made her way to the door. “Get some sleep. See you tomorrow night.”

            Tina shut the trailer door behind her and headed back to her car but was suddenly caught like a deer in the headlights of a large pickup truck as it rattled up the driveway. It pulled into the grass beside her car. She hesitated, watching as a man of medium height and build got out of the truck, slammed the door, and staggered up the steps to the trailer.

            She got in her car, and just as she was about to start the engine, she heard Nancy Jean scream. Tina began to get out of her car and then recalled her husband’s voice, clear as a shrill steamship whistle saying, “Don’t get involved.” She sat there for a moment then stuck her key in the ignition.

            A sudden crash of breaking glass and the baby screaming startled her back to reality. She got out of her car and ran up to the trailer. The door stood wide open. Nancy Jean was lying on the floor, sobbing, her hands covering her face. Tina knocked on the open door.

            “What the hell do you want?” yelled the man.

            “Is everything okay here?” Tina asked, stepping inside.

            “Help me!” cried Nancy Jean. Her mouth was bleeding.

            The man walked over and kicked her in the stomach. “That’s all the help you need, telling me you had a slow night. I’ll show you a slow night, you lyin’ whore!”

            “Now just a minute,” said Tina.

            “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

            “A friend.”

            “Is that so? Well, maybe your friendly little ass can help this miserable sack of shit here get off her lazy lard-ass and clean up this dump.”

            He bent down and stuck his hands into Nancy Jean’s pockets. She cowered away from him, covering her face. He pulled out the twenty-dollar bill Tina had given her earlier, and he shoved it into his shirt pocket.

            “I knew you were lying!”

            “Jimmy, that money is for groceries! Jenny needs milk and diapers!”

            “Shut the hell up, bitch!” He kicked her in the groin then grabbed his keys and staggered out of the trailer. Tina knelt beside Nancy Jean and touched her shoulder.

            “He’s gone. Let’s get out of here before he comes back.”

            Nancy Jean sat up slowly. The sound of Jimmy’s truck tearing down the driveway carried in through the open door. The baby’s cries grew louder. Nancy Jean crawled over to her daughter lying in the middle of the floor and picked her up. She wiped the blood from her lip onto her jacket sleeve.

            “Come on,” said Tina. “I’m taking you home with me.”

            “I can’t just leave him like that.”

            “Do you want to end up dead?”

            Nancy Jean held her child to her chest and kissed its downy head. “He wouldn’t kill me.”

            “He’s high out of his mind. No telling what he’ll do if you’re here when he gets back. He might even hurt your baby!”

            Nancy Jean looked up, finally realizing how much danger she’d put her child in. She grabbed her keys, purse, and the baby’s diaper bag then followed Tina back to her car.

            “You can sleep on my couch tonight,” Tina said as Nancy Jean buckled herself in. “And tomorrow I’m taking you to the Lighthouse Shelter in San Leon.”

            Nancy Jean wrapped the soiled baby blanket around her daughter and then wiped the blood off her face on the corner of the blanket.

            “I don’t have any money. He took it all.”

            “You don’t need money at a shelter. They have food, clothing, and childcare. They even have job placement services, I know, because my mother’s prayer circle used to volunteer there.”

            Nancy Jean stared at Tina, not comprehending that her life was about to change drastically. She then leaned her head back on the headrest. “God my face hurts. He threw a beer bottle at me.”

            Tina shifted gears as she pulled onto the highway. “You could press charges, you know. Lock him up so he can’t hurt you anymore.”

            “I never want to see him again.”

            “Good for you!”

            “Tina?”

            “Yes?”

            “Thank you.”

            Tina glanced over.  Nancy Jean looked dazed. Tears welled up in her eyes. She looked away, clutching her baby closer.

            “You’re welcome.


Image of a highway on a foggy night with a cars headlights visible.
Image credit: Dima Pechurin on Unsplash

            Fog drifted across the beam of the headlights, casting shadowy forms on the road in front of them. The place looked haunted, as if ghosts or evil spirits were flooding the road, and at any moment would wrestle them off to the underworld.

            Tina recalled her mother, dying in the living room, struggling for her last breath until the hospice worker suggested Tina and her family leave the room.  “She’s trying to pass, but she feels your presence and it’s holding her back.”

            Her father was reluctant at first, but Tina persuaded him to go with her into the kitchen and let her mother pass on in peace. A few minutes later the hospice worker came into the kitchen and told them she was gone. Her father rushed back into the family room and knelt beside her mother’s bed. He took her hand and sobbed.            

            That image seared itself into her mind. She sometimes thought of her parents like that, late at night when she couldn’t sleep, trapped in separate worlds yet still holding hands, clinging to the chasm between the living and the dead.

            “He’ll come to Lipstick tomorrow looking for you,” said Tina.

            “What the hell am I supposed to do?”

            “Stay at the shelter, let them find you a real job. You can live there until you save enough money to move out.”

            “I’m never going back to Lipstick,” said Nancy Jean. “As far as I’m concerned, that place can rot in hell.”

            “You know what?” said Tina, as if for the first time realizing she had a choice in the matter. “I’m not either. I know we can find better jobs.”

            “Do you really think so?” asked Nancy Jean.

            “Absolutely. We can type up our resumes in the morning, then drive over to the shelter and check out their job placement service.”

            Nancy Jean smiled and rocked her baby.

            Tina turned on the wipers to clear the windshield, recalling her mother’s last spoken words: “I’m falling.” Tina hoped her mother was now free of pain and suffering, free at last to dance with the angels.

            “We can make better lives for ourselves.” Tina smiled, absolutely certain they could both manifest a much better future.


***

Black and white phot of the author, Melissa L. White.
Melissa L. White

Melissa L. White is a screenwriter, novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best American Essays Award. Her Biopic Screenplay about female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, “Blackness of Space, Whiteness of Bones,” won BEST SCREENPLAY DRAMA, and BEST BIOPIC at the 4Theatre Film Festival in June 2023. It also won the GRAND PRIZE – BEST FEATURE SCREENPLAY at the Silicon Beach Film Festival, Sept. 15, 2023. It was also a Finalist at the Catalina Film Festival in Sept. 2023. Her thriller screenplay, “Recovering Sky,” won BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY at the Golden State Film Festival in Hollywood in March 2024. Her LGBTQ+ rom-com script, “Modern Marriage,” won 4th prize in the Writer’s Digest Annual Screenwriting Contest 2021. And Melissa’s essay, “Can AI Learn How It Feels to Cry?” won Second Prize in the Writer’s Digest Annual Contest 2023. She lives in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino, with her fiancé, Mark, an award-winning commercial photographer. She can be found here: www.melissalwhite.com "X" (Formerly Twitter): maggiethecat6 Instagram: @melissa94901/ 

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