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issue 42: May - June 2004 

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The
Celebrated Stripper
of Subfusc County

by Bruce Henricksen

       

Sometimes, leaning on my mop by the old suit of armor, I’d watch them through the window while I was cleaning up in the restaurant. Half the time Homer was late, and it was just Paula and Oscar in the parking lot next to Babe, our sky-blue stork, in the moonlight by the county road. To the naked eye, they didn’t match up real good back then. Oscar only amounts to about five-foot-nine and one-forty. His right knee can’t bend thanks to Vietnam, and he gobbled pain pills loose from his pockets—still does. Now Paula, though, she was a different load of beef back then. Everything about Paula was writ in spades, and her walking problems were a matter of payload.
      Oscar’s what you might call conversationally challenged, and folks joke that he needs a special license plate. In those courting days, standing at the window by Lancelot—we named that rusty heap of armor Lancelot—I’d imagine Oscar’s "yups" and "nopes" out there struggling to do romantic duty as he’d stare down at the gravel with the bats swooping overhead. From time to time he’d tip his head way back to look at Paula above the bosoms. And sometimes I’d get a tear in my eye from remembering about me and Irene when we were young, and how we had wished the stork would land on our porch. It’s strange how sometimes a memory can be soft and nice, and other times that same memory can feel like a swallowed stone. And often the memory of Irene would swoop from one to the other, from softness to hurt, just like those bats in the parking lot as I’d stand there with my mop and bucket at the restaurant window.
      Like I said, Paula was a big fat woman, six-foot-two and boo-coo pounds. If Paula took a notion to go calling, Homer, that’s her brother, he’d hoist her into the back of the 4x4 and check the tires. Homer’s a big man himself, strong as an ox, some say, and twice as smart. Paula is a patriot, and when they started talking on the TV news about how Americans better lose weight, and also when she saw how businesses in the county were suffering from the effects of the flood, well, Paula, she put two and two together and came up with the idea to be a stripper.
      "Say what?" Homer asked.
      Paula explained how stripping would trim the fat and raise public awareness, but Homer, who works at the paper mill down in Black Paw, he replied how he didn’t want to think of other things that might rise if guys from the mill were gawking at her shaking her booty like Jello. He was proud of that remark and repeated it to all the boys at the barber shop, stretching his grin around a row of gravestones that pass for teeth.
      "And besides," Homer told her, "you can’t dance a lick that I ever seen. Strippers gotta dance, you know. It ain’t just standing there strugglin’ out of them bib overalls."
      But Paula was determined, and this is how me and my friend Ole fit in. There had been hard times up where I worked on the Mesabi Iron Range, still are. There’s folks up there happy to eat crow soup, and that ain’t just an expression. Anyway, after Irene passed away I lost my job, and that little split-entry house where we had lived together all those years became a haunted place. So I packed up some stuff, sold the house, and moved down here to Cold Beak.
      I wasn’t sure what I’d do with myself here, but pretty quick Providence showed up disguised as a defunct fried chicken place for sale on the county road out by I35, not far from where the New Hope River winds through our valley and makes it so pretty, nothing like what you might think just hearing a name like Cold Beak. Me and Ole, we figured we know a business opportunity when it puts its paws on your chest and licks your face, and we snapped that old chicken place right up.
      So we set to fixing it into a fancy supper club with lots of red felt and mirrors to cover where the windows were boarded. It was good, after all that sadness up on the Range, to be building something. Ole and me sang and sawed and hammered away, pausing at noon to unwrap sandwiches and pickles, which we ate quick so’s they wouldn’t get dirty, then plunging back into creativity, which the ignorant might have called pandemonium. Ole even had the idea to paint pictures on the ceiling, like in that church that you hear about in Italy, but we finally figured we’d best let that dog rest.
      One afternoon, it was May and the weather had just turned warm, we were outside figurin’ where to put the plaster stork as we waited for Lars Johnson, the plumber, to show his bony face. Lars had vowed to make every effort to be there that day, "every effort" being the workman’s escape clause—the fine print in the verbal agreement. Oscar, who’s my younger brother, was there that day pretending to help when Homer pulled up in his Dodge Ram with Paula as cargo in a big cushioned chair. It was like she was the Queen of Mardi Gras up there with her blond curls popping out in all directions like bed springs. Hauling Paula down onto solid ground wasn’t something you undertook just for small talk, so me and Ole and Oscar walked on over so she could stay put. The saplings that we had planted off to one side of the parking lot leaned on their crutches and gawked at the show.
      "See you got that plaster stork you was talkin’ about," Homer observed, climbing out of the cab. Homer had a voice full of rumblings and explosions that would usually cause a stranger to take a step back and check for exits.
      "Yes sir!" Ole beamed, unphased by Homer’s volume. "New owner of that miniature golf place up in Hinckley couldn’t see no use for it, so I got her for a song. Good as new, too, ’cept for where kids splashed paint on her butt there."
      "Well, you get her painted up," Homer predicted, "and she’s gonna look real good. You fixin’ to call this place The Stork Club then?"
      "We ain’t decided on a name yet," Ole said, "but I figure a supper club can always benefit by a stork, whatever you name it." Eventually we called the club The County Road Vista to avoid confusion.
      In this part of the country there’s always some introductory thrashing around the bush, and if there’s no stork handy you can always talk about the weather, which we did for a while too that breezy day in May when the Paula float pulled up. But finally Paula said how she hadn’t got all afternoon to be the big attraction in the back of a pickup, and so we were "cutting to the chase." She liked to talk like city folks on television.
      The chase was how Paula wanted me and Ole to let her strip in our plush new supper club. She took her a pinch of snoose—what folks from elsewhere call snuff—and focused her eyes down at us from her throne, eyes big as moons under that curly, springy hair. Then she explained how we boys had the opportunity to be part of history because this wouldn’t be the sort of strip club that exploits poor young girls that can’t find a decent job. This would be a strip club that would help fat people have pride while they trim themselves down. The way Paula explained it, you can try to improve without being ashamed of yourself in the meantime.
      We were all pretty quiet for a moment after Paula’s declaration. You could’ve heard a moth fart. Ole adjusted his feed cap and stared off at some clouds over the Mobile station, and Oscar found a few stones to push around with his sneaker. If Oscar was in Cold Beak to court his old flame, which we all figured he was, he was doing a darn pokey job stoking up his nerve. Folks were always making chances for him to throw light on the issue of him and Paula, but Oscar isn’t much for throwing light. He’s more your fog chucker. Anyway, pretty quick Paula went on about how she pictured it all.
      "The way I picture it all, we gotta divide that club in two. Folks don’t want to be eatin’ their meat and potatoes with a big ol’ fat girl yankin’ her clothes off and shakin’ her stuff right there. They don’t want their kids askin’ a bunch of questions. So the strip club is a separate room, where we serve drinks and carrot sticks with low-fat dip."
      "And besides," Homer put in, dropping his elephant’s trunk of an arm over the door of the cab, doing his beaver grin, and lowering his voice so’s the folks inside the Mobile station wouldn’t hear, "we’re gonna put shock absorbers under that stage so there ain’t no tidal waves in the beverages next door."
      "I got this stage name picked out," Paula continued, ignoring her brother, whose fat jokes were wearing thinner each year, "and it’s Paulotta, because there’s a lotta me.
      We have this big horse scale on the stage, and folks can buy chances on the day when I get me down to 300. On that day I change my name to Paulessa, and someone wins the jackpot. What you think of my idea, Oscar?" she finished off, homing in on my brother dead in the eye.
      Oscar, he had no more to say than a minnow in a pond, and the clouds over the Mobile station were still pretty interesting to Ole. I expected him to say how they looked like this animal or that. Oscar was back to pushing his shoe around in the gravel, and my fingernails grew an inch before Ole spoke up.
      "Well," Ole said, jerking his eyes down from the stratosphere, "you sure got you a new idea there, Paula, and we’re gonna give it serious thought. I never did make a business decision straight off the bat, and there’s lots of sides we gotta look at. Like whether the community is ready for such . . . things. But we’re gonna think on it and then we’ll get back to you." Then he tugged at the beak of that old feed cap as if something formal was going on.
      "Might as well surrender right now, boys," Homer bellowed as he climbed back into the cab. "Arguing with Paula is like arguing with cement."
      He jammed the pickup into reverse, nearly colliding with an old van labeled Johnson Plumbing that Lars’s "every effort" had brought to our driveway. Of course no plumbing work actually occurred that day. It was just the warm-up visit, the one where the workman walks around, nods wisely, and spouts terminology. He’d get started in a few days, he said. Up in these parts, you can sometimes tell from a fellow’s rocking hand just how broad a term "a few days" is meant to be. The rocking of Lars’s hand made it clear that nothing was clear.
      Now this might be the point in the story where I ought to stick in some sort of villain, someone that can be described real vivid, maybe with skin like grease bubbling in the pan, who never takes a bath and who’s out to thwart Paula. But this isn’t a made-up story for a book. Maybe it’ll get to be a story like that when folks in future generations here in Subfusc County tell about Paula. Maybe this made-up guy with the skin problem—I see him with a cigarette poking out of one side of his mouth and his breath whistling in the other—will have secret, whiskey-soaked meetings out in the woods with his cohorts, and maybe there’ll be a plot to burn down the new restaurant. Or, since everything’s got its shadow, maybe tomorrow’s storytellers will make Paula’s enemy be another woman like the ones we ogled in the Zapp Comics years ago.
      From a storytelling point of view, I can see how having a villain would make sense and come to be, just as dreaming up Judas made story sense by puttin’ flesh and blood on the idea of betrayal. But the truth is that the villain in Cold Beak was just the circumstances themselves—the bad economy, the old attitudes that people clung to, and other vague stuff that really wasn’t wrapped up in any one person.
      Of course there was debate and falderal about Paula’s plan. The churches in town, Ole said, acted like branches of one religion called Judgmentalism. And there was one person who said some pretty rude things, one of those who never had a thought blow through her head that she didn’t straightway express. But once Paula promised that she wouldn’t take everything off, that there would be a costume with spangles and feathers and safety pins big as shoes for the grand finale, well, once that was cleared up it was the Chamber of Commerce that carried the day by convincing folks of the potential economic advantage to Cold Beak and all of Subfusc County.
      And darned if the Chamber wasn’t right, and Homer was right too about not arguing with cement. He’s really a bunch smarter than an ox. The grand opening of The County Road Vista and the Paula Show was on the Fourth of July, just a few days after Lars, after a medley of worried phone calls, got the plumbing done. People came in busloads all the way down from Duluth and over from New Persiflage, and further off too. The motel was jammed full, and Barry Olson let out plots for campers in a field where he forgot to plant his soybeans. The line at The Vista straggled out past the stork, and Marvin Updahl, he’s our Sheriff, Marvin sent one of his boys to patrol the crowd so’s they wouldn’t spill into traffic.
      You can tell from the polished shoes when folks ain’t from around here, and the group from Houston had neckties big as sandwich boards. We sat them down at the table by Lancelot, the suit of armor Ole found down in St. Paul. Lancelot is sort of propped up with sticks inside, but his ax is always poised for trouble. The Texans were "crapulous and carminative, in that order," said Ole, who had got himself a vocabulary book so as to impress bigwigs coming to see Paula. We figured if there was any ghost in that armor capable of judgment, the ax might see some use. The Texans only stayed in Cold Beak a day, though, not brushing too close to any of us hayseeds, maybe figuring that the snoose habit would rub off and next thing you know they’d be smooching with farm animals.
      And I suppose—since we’re coming to the part of the story where the villain, if there was one, would be booed and carried out of town on a rail—I suppose when folks in the future tell the Paula story, there might be a temptation to stick in villainous tourists like extra jokers in the deck. They might tell it so’s the Texans come to town and just out of old ranch-style meanness find ways to try to undo all the good that Paula was doing for Cold Beak. Because to tell the truth, people here in Cold Beak are a little insecure about outsiders, afraid they’ll think that we’re just a bunch of doofusses. And lots of times in stories villains are stirred up out of such fears. But the Texans didn’t really do any harm, and most of the tourists seemed pretty darned friendly.
      If you can call your kid brother a tourist, Oscar was the most regular of the tourists, dragging his shrapneled leg around in Paula’s wake. He was nervous at first on account of he hadn’t seen many near-naked women outside the family, if the family includes the cousins over in Frog Landing. But coming to view Paula was a publicized event, like seeing the Gophers play the Badgers, not a guilty, sneak-around event. So shyness melted right off like frost on the windshield.
      Paula called what she did "performance pieces," and there was one at eight and one at ten Wednesday through Saturday. She worked hard, her blond curls flapping, and each night a few pounds melted straight down her legs and through the cracks in the floor. Paula waved various props around—bacon strips, cheese wheels, frying pans, and so on—and every now and then she’d yank off some piece of clothing. Jan Tollerud, sitting at the end of the bar under the antlers, gawked so hard that a fly buzzed into his mouth and out again a minute later. Jan is always disheveled and pungent, like he’s been rolled in kitty litter, and there are those who wonder if he was formed by human contact.
      One night Paula tugged a live piglet from her smock. It escaped squealing over the bar, knocking the carrot dip into the lap of the art critic who was up from Minneapolis. The pig hid behind the jukebox for the rest of the evening, letting out a little oink now and then as it saw fit. But the critic gave Paula a good write-up anyway. He saw lots of meaning that us folks in Cold Beak couldn’t see, and his review was full of words like "sudorific" and "postmodern." That quieted the last of Paula’s detractors, and from then on, in her finale costume, she was Queen Paula, our own laughing, dancing savior.
      When Paula started her book, that Paglia woman came from Harvard to help with the spelling and stuff. She was nice. Me and her went fishing, and she even caught a perch. Thousands of copies of the book were sold on the Internet, and when Paula went on Oprah some doctors from St. Paul called about opening a fat farm under her name. Quick as you can grill a bratwurst, they built a hotel-type place out on the New Hope River by the old creamery. But just as quick, it started to sink into the river, what with the weight of all the clients. It was like the river was saying that it had its own job and wanted to be left alone. So Barry Olson sold them that field that had been the camp ground, and now we have the Paula Pringle Institute, with its famous Rotunda of Resolve, raking in the dollars on high ground, looking down on the river and the new golf course.
      So Paula saved Cold Beak after the flood. She shook and shimmied and laughed until God winked down on Subfusc County and the whole region was prosperous and smiling. Everyone in town lined up at the bank with piles of bills to be counted out with much licking of thumbs. The collection plates are still stuffed every Sunday, and the Judgmentalists have let their outrage evaporate like last year’s joke. Why, I even saw the husband of one of the pastors wearing a Paula sweatshirt in the grocery store the other day. Seems like a moral position don’t have much chance against prosperity, a carton of milk’s got more shelf life. I thought that up and said it to the boys at the barber shop and they laughed, except for Jan, who’s about as dumb as a box of rocks.
      By and by Paulotta got to be Paulessa and plunked for matrimony. After a few months of courting in the moonlight by the stork, with the bats scribbling their swoops in the air overhead and me looking through the window, Oscar shuffled off with his bride back to his little farm south of here. That’s where they live now, and they have me down to supper Sundays when I’m not busy at The County Road Vista. And I hear that there are a lot of fat people marrying up at the Pringle Institute, which doubles as a weight-loss clinic and a love boat. The local clergy got themselves new cars and new sun decks on their houses thanks to the spike in the bliss business. Seems like everyone’s getting married except Ole and me.
      Homer, he moped for a month or two when he didn’t have his sister to haul around, but then he started stretching himself out in the new tanning salon. He got brown and shiny as a Thanksgiving turkey, then he took to splashing on cologne, tugging on his Paula sweatshirt, and walking the road up by the Institute. Folks thought he was climbing a fool’s hill, but darned if he ain’t gonna be married next month. We’re not an adventuresome people here in Subfusc County, and one of the boys at the barber shop commented on the wisdom of Homer sticking with fat.
      "It’s like with ice cream," the fellow said. "Once you get used to a flavor, ain’t no sense in changing"
      "Or it’s like when you got a good fishing hole," Jan Tollerud put in, shooing a fly off his nose. "No point drivin’ up every dirt road lookin’ for another."
      A third fellow was about to offer his comparison, but Homer roared out, flashing his rubble of teeth so’s they’d know he wasn’t mad, that any more such talk wouldn’t be polite. Usually talking about good taste with the boys at the shop is about as productive as discussing the Dow with a carload of basset hounds. But when a big man like Homer asks for quiet in a voice that rattles windows, folks don’t get analytical. So, as cuttings accumulated on the floor and pomade penetrated scalps, the boys took to boasting about fish they’d caught and people they’d met, all lies and tall tales shameful enough to shrivel the ears.
      One Sunday in October I was down to the farm for Paula’s special meatloaf supper. The day was warm for the time of year, so before eating we sat in the yard and watched the swallows arcing about. The creek in back of the house, which empties into the New Hope River about a mile away, made a soft sound. The maple leaves in the grass were sheets of gold beat thin, the sunset was all purple and orange, and the clouds on the horizon had that corrugated look. People’s spit was all bronze from the snoose, and their remarks seemed poetic and beautiful, no matter what they really said.
      We watched the cattle out in the pasture shuffling back toward their dormitory, and pretty soon Oscar would be hooking up the milking machines. In the meantime, smiling sheepishly off toward the corncrib, he performed an overture of throat clearing. Then he asked if I wanted a nephew or a niece. Paula’s under 200 now, and the doctor thinks everything will be smooth as butter.
      Me and Ole, we’ve been sharing the same house for quite a while. We added a room on the back for the pool table and the Paula memorabilia, and Lars Johnson, after every effort, found time to fix us up with a sauna and a hot tub. And I’ve got my pictures of Irene. It was hard losing her, and as I said, hard when jobs dried up on the Iron Range. Now that I’m where the economy is better, thanks to Paula, I wonder how Irene would feel if I started walking up by the Institute like Homer did so’s I could meet me one of them prosperous types too. It’s been a lovely sight, seeing people all rich and fat ambling along the road when the air is snappy and the leaves turn color. But I guess it’s like what that fellow at the barber shop said about ice cream—Irene was the best gift to my life, and experiments would be ungrateful. And besides, Irene is doin’ a pretty good imitation of a river, waltzing and laughing through my thoughts and making a summertime sound. I wouldn’t change it.
      It’s winter now in the real world. A couple months ago, me and Ole got us a big St. Bernard named Swede, who drips saliva by the quart and snacks on the evening newspaper. On a cold night there’s nothing like stretching out by the fireplace with Swede and some cocoa in my Paula mug. Then I think about Oscar and Paula, and also about rusty old Lancelot and Babe, our sky-blue stork. Soon I turn to thinking how I’ll be playing with my nieces and nephews and wondering what new wrinkles they’ll give the world by and by.
      If you ask me, there’s a lot of fine things still ahead in Cold Beak. When I try to imagine them as I relax in the evening, they mix themselves up with thoughts of Irene when we were young and starting out on the Range. And all those hopes and memories, the personal things and the things about Cold Beak, and America too, and the future—all those things are a river laughing and turning in my head while Swede dozes, digesting the evening news and turning all of the world’s troubles into fertilizer. And then it seems to me that the embers in the fireplace are a city that you see at night coming over a hill in your car, a city down in a valley glowing with dreams, a cluster of separate dreams that add up to one big dream.

Bruce Henricksen 2004

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author bio

Bruce Henricksen’s short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Arts & Letter, The Briar Cliff Review, Edge City Review, Folio, New Orleans Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Palo Alto Review, and Southern Humanities Review. One of his stories is the lead piece in French Quarter Fiction (Light of New Orleans Publishing, 2003), an anthology that includes work by some of America’s best known authors. This volume was named the Best Book of 2003 by the Gulf South Booksellers Association. Henricksen taught writing and literature at Loyola University New Orleans, where he chaired the English Department and edited New Orleans Review. His academic writing includes a study of Joseph Conrad, Nomadic Voices: Conrad and the Subject of Narrative (University of Illinois Press, 1992), and Murray Krieger and Contemporary Critical Theory (Columbia University Press, 1986). He now lives in Duluth, Minnesota, with his wonderful wife, Viki.

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issue 42: May - June 2004 

 
Short Fiction

Oscar Casares: RG
Ron Butlin: Colours
Kathryn Simmonds: This Little Piggy
Bruce Henricksen: The Celebrated Stripper...

non-fiction
Barbara F. Lefcowitz: The Luminaries of Marienbad
Neale de Sousa: Dromedary

picks from back issues
Frederick Barthelme: Driver
Dorothy Speak: The View from Here

Quiz

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
answers to last issue’s quiz
19th-Century English Literature

Book Reviews

The Gravedigger’s Story by Ged Simmons
The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson
Handsome Harry by James Carlos Blake
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
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