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Gloves Off: Round XV
Food service redefined
Today we’ll take a longer look at Pity Tip, a short story by Tony Mills. To read the story as it was originally posted, please click here.
By Tony Mills
Dan wants to go to the strip club so you go. On a Saturday afternoon you go because you don’t pay cover before five. So you go and cars splatter the lot and Dan goes “I didn’t think there’d be so many cars here this early,” and he goes “I guess it’s dude’s night here at the Ranch.” Dan’s old lady left him, long enough ago that now he needs to see tits again so he doesn’t forget, barely holding on to a fading sepia image of tits long lost and curling at the edges. “Is three months long enough?” Dan goes and chuckles and shakes his head and pulls the hatchback into the lot somewhere too far away from needed tits.
My Comments: Excellent launch. I love a story told in second person. I love the repetition of “goes” as both a verb for speaking and for travel. That’s very “unwriterly” so I love it. Presenting memory through the metaphor of a faded photo is also tangible and effective.
Once you pass the bouncers in the lobby checking ages—all bouncers bald with goatees per stipulation of the bouncers union—you go into the stripper room. If you show up between dancers the stripper room looks like dress rehearsal for stepdad porn. Topless ladies wander around in search of old men to dance on like naked hobos. “You doing ok?” they say. “Yes, thanks,” you say. “What brings you out tonight?” they say and you thumb to Dan and Dan says “I need to remember what tits look like.” You smile as they go by and wonder if you should slip them a little something for the effort.
My Comments: Again, a great next step. You nail the pathos without dictating a reaction to the tawdry scene. You allow your reader to decide. And you use gesture, “thumb to Dan,” to give your characters limbs and prune back dialog.
The ones with men already rub themselves against the men at the wall close to the stage. The sign shows a reasonable price and you tuck it away as an option. You can get a combo meal this price if you upsize and add an extra patty so the lap dance is a combo meal splayed all over your body for a song or two, which is how long it takes to eat fast food really.
My Comments: You avoid the abstract of money beautifully. And you equate this entertainment with food, primarily meat. You are so good at this. You’ve also avoided using abstracts—minutes, seconds—to measure time.
Some of the men are led to a backroom sealed off with a black curtain for personal dances. You can’t imagine how much more personal the dances can get than the lap dances that are already out in front where everybody can see. Any more personal means opening the patron and rolling in his viscera. So you think maybe the guy just gets a quick blowjob for way more than the combo meal price. A sad blowjob, sure, which is worse than no blowjob at all because you know the girls aren’t into it so it’s really just a blowjob from a sex doll whose eyes blink.
My Comments: Wow. Just wow.
Now a dancer comes out on stage and the first thing you see is her knee pads, only because they jar you and take your eyes. Hollywood strippers don’t wear kneepads and you wonder why but it makes perfect sense because real everyday strippers work on their knees a lot on stage to show submission. You don’t lose anything because knees aren’t sexy so you don’t need to see them as long as what they connect are both there. And you really don’t need the shins either unless you’re a shin guy and those are rare. Thighs contain the meat so that’s the prime cut. Someone cries from the personal rub room but the hoots for the former ballet dancer now on stage and doing the splits drown it out. Dan stares at tits the whole time so you forget it.
My Comments: Okay, here I’ll ask how the narrator knows the dancer is a former ballet dancer? Can you unpack the cry from the backroom for a beat? Male or female voice? Just a sentence fragment. The narrator is so interesting, I’d like to hear how he/she would describe the cry.
In the horseshoe that curves around the stage you get up close and so personal that the next logical step is indeed the lap dance. If you put out bills on the ledge around the stage the dancers slowly wander in your direction to show appreciation and drag the cash from the counter onto the sunken dance floor where it won’t fly away in the air conditioning. “What brings you out tonight?” she says and you thumb to Dan again and again Dan says “I need to remember what tits look like.” Then she goes away like how you feed goats at the petting zoo and they lose interest once you run out of kibbles. They’re not there to be your friend so there’s no use being upset about it.
My Comments: A very nice analogy. I was waiting for a pigeon comparison, but the petting zoo is better.
You look around at the girls straddled over grandpa’s knee with their mouths in his ear and you want to know what she says. You can’t tell by the men’s faces. She could detail a sloppy handjob or a gazpacho recipe and the old man hangs there like a side of beef either way. Maybe the wife is dead and this young thing on his lap keeps the blood moving. Maybe the wife left him and the girl on his knee says he’s not so bad, says there’s still time. And there she goes and hugs him for too long with her mouth in his ear and that’s the second thing you see. And maybe it’s better than fast food.
My Comments: The earlier comparison “like naked hobos” would be good to revisit. I didn’t quite understand it, and unpacking it a couple times would help.
All the strippers have tattoos. One has a tattoo of a cat face above the slit, which you can’t see unless it’s shaved, which it is per stipulation of the strippers union. Under the cat is writing so Dan leans in to read it but can’t, so he asks what it says but she doesn’t reply, so he cranes closer but she doesn’t stop gyrating so you have no idea what it says. You hope it’s something really thoughtful if it’s that close to the meat curtain and not something just mundane like her favorite dessert. You see a girl come out of the special rub room by herself and you tell Dan she was with a dude before but Dan looks at a fresh pair of reminder tits and can’t hear you.
My Comments: Wonderful, especially the undefined tattoo. To always weed out “have,” consider “All the strippers sport tattoos”. Or, “boast tattoos.” There’s always a way to avoid “is” and “have” and still stay in a character’s voice.
Half the strippers have fake tits so you see class inequity right there while the natural tits try to keep up. The surgery scars blow up in the light and you wonder what happened to some of them, if maybe malpractice suits are cooking. One pair is Frankentits and you may have to summon a mob to destroy it before more children die. Then again, all are so perfectly round they ceased to be breasts with the surgery and transcended to mammary orbs, so once you’re done with the knee pads and the hugs to grandpa you go to those third as your eyes float around to match their zero gravity hover in deep space.
My Comments: I loved “blow up in the light,” such an excellent way to phrase it.
If you get too close you see the stripper faces, which are stuck in a pose like someone woke them up early but didn’t provide coffee so that’s how they look the rest of the night. Dan says no, their faces are frozen because they’re dead inside. So it’s nice that maybe they get coffee after all and you hope it doesn’t come out of their tips.
The next girl who comes out is too old by common stripper standards. She could be the mother of all the others and maybe is and you wonder if they call her Mom backstage. When she comes out you want a card with red on one side and green on the other like they use at a Brazilian steakhouse. You put the green up and a girl comes out and you say no thank you, next please and another girl comes out and you take a slice with your tongs, and when you’ve had enough for a while you put up the red because so many shaved cunts and zits and floppy tits and tit scars in such a short time requires time to digest.
My Comments: I’ve never been to such a steakhouse, but I’ll go with this because it’s simple and well depicted. Another interesting way to explore the “horse” of meat.1
Dan likes real woman bodies. He likes pancake tits, fake tits, cellulite, flat asses, pale white skin, no muscle tone. You like Hollywood specimens: tan, gorgeous, flawless skin, curvy, plump natural breasts, all there for market rates from high demand because girls want to get their cut at the big time. Those girls would never strip for money but in front of a camera sure, before a camera they can tell their folks back home it’s a part of starting out and everyone does it and it’s better than a casting couch.
My Comments: This made sense, but be careful. “In front of a camera” can be confused with “before a camera.” For instance, they posed before a camera. A small point, but worth looking at again.
Now you see a guy you know from a local gaming group. He’s been there the whole time but you don’t look at the other men so you only see him now. The other men are chicken bones so you only eat around them. But you see this guy after you pity tip Mom, while the auction block is empty with no girls and your eye corners get a gander at the place. You stare and you know it’s him and you don’t nod and neither does he and you’re both safe. You wonder if he’s deep in roleplay here, really getting into character as a strip joint connoisseur and you’re a bit jealous because that’s method gaming you never thought to try.
My Comments: Loved “your eye corners get a gander at the place.”
So Frankentits has gaming guy’s hand and they go to the lap dance section against the wall. These are special seats that seat two in case the girl sits next to him for a bit instead of on him, or maybe he pays for two combo meals and there’s room for a slab on each knee to whisper to him how special his sauce is. Gaming guy goes dead like the other men and he’s really in character now and emotes a pale nothing while she puts a hand underneath each orb and bobs them up and down in alternating rhythm before him. He watches them work but he’s a corpse and she deserves a nice tip for the effort.
My Comments: “Emotes a pale nothing” is glorious.
Dan finds one he likes and plops bills on the counter so she ambles over to you. “What brings you out tonight?” she goes while caressing her pierced little tater tots but you thumb over to Dan and again Dan tells her, then Dan goes “Are you free for a lap dance after?” and with her face still dead inside she goes “Sure” and she goes “Wait against the wall for me” and Dan nods.
So she’s done with her exhibit and you work your way to the bar because you always need to have a drink so they don’t kick you out, so you’re always spending, so you get a rum and Coke and sit with Dan against the wall for chosen one to come out from the back after she puts her bikini back on. And you see Mom this time take gamer guy by the hand and lead him to the private rub room behind the curtain and you envy his commitment to realism.
My Comments: Can you describe the drink to get us physically into the story? How does the double chair feel? Baby oil?
Chosen one comes out and finds Dan and he takes out his last pad of cash and leans over to you and goes “This is all I have left.” She takes his hand and he puts the wad in her other hand and leans over again and goes “I’m not sure you can stay here,” which is code so you go to a table and sit with the casual observers. The ones who come in a group and talk amongst themselves, who order some fish and chips until they’re ready for the horseshoe where it’s quiet because watching naked pussy display is a holy encounter.
My Comments: After seeing where this story goes, consider replacing the fish and chips with something beefy or porky. You already touched on steakhouses, but this tweak could allow the narrator to order a burger and eat it before seeing the untimate fate of gaming guy, et al. You can also scent the room with an occasional whiff of cookery.
Your eyes are freer to wander here since you’re alone and can pass it off as scanning for tits. And you don’t want to watch Dan get rubbed on because it’s a little awkward. So you enjoy another rum and Coke and check your own thinning wad in your breast pocket and scan for the closest thing to Hollywood meat so it’s at least worth the combo meal. Mom comes out of the personal rub room alone and you look for gaming guy and don’t see him. You side-eye the black curtain in case he’s just late, in case he’s cleaning up and pulling up his shorts in the dark but still nothing.
My Comments: You might still struggle for gaming guy’s name. “You shuffle names in your head: Dennis, Liam, Tim, but he’s none of these.”
Flapjack tits stops by and asks how you’re doing, which is code so you politely decline with a smile and say you’re fine. The waitress follows in her wake and asks how you’re doing, which is code for you need another drink, so you order just a Coke this time. Chosen one rides Dan’s knee and now he’s just as frozen as the earlier grandpas and you wonder what she says to him. Waitress brings your Coke and you pay and tip and now chosen one takes Dan by the hand and leads him to the black curtain.
They pass and he glances at you and you smile because it’s nice he remembers tits but he doesn’t smile back. She leads him through the curtain into the personal rub room. You glance at your waning pad again and it’s not much more before you’re drinkless and have to wait outside if they catch you because Dan has the car keys. Cokes are cheap so they keep you afloat as you fend off goats and you can’t give any more feed. The early no cover people have thinned but it’s not primetime yet so you don’t take up valuable real estate. And you have enough for one more Coke and you hear another noise from the rub room. You look around and maybe some heard it too but they’re boozing up and feeling up and freezing up their faces so who cares.
My Comments: All good.
You glance around and at the black curtain and now you’re out of cash. If they come for you to leave (since/because…a word seems missing here) you can’t buy more drinks or more time and they’ll only ask once. You see your chance with all eyes elsewhere and sneak your way into the private rub room, where a blacklit hallway leads through iron stench and slow moans around a corner into sad blowjob slaughterhouse. And Dan is open and chosen one gives him a nice personal dance worth more than a combo meal. And chosen one sees you, and she blinks, and that’s the last thing you see.
My Comments: I LOVE THIS STORY. You pay off the joke about viscera. You keep us in every moment. The money makes a wonderful clock, counting down to crisis. You also keep the “horse” of meat consistent throughout the story.
The one element I’d like to see is a through-line object. The car keys?
I’d also like some sense of on-the-body. That could be the smell of sweat or perfume. The taste of a burger or a drink. Or a sense of the narrator getting arroused. Or the reek of urine from the Men’s room.
Otherwise, it’s a great story.
Thank you, Tony!
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As explained elsewhere, Gordon Lish and Tom Spanbauer called themes “horses.” The analogy is that if you’re a pioneer leaving St. Louis you’ll have the same team of horses pulling you when you reach Oregon. Meaning, themes must stay consistent, but should morph and expand.