Cookie Doyle said, “Aren’t you broads in step yet?” She stared at Cynthia. The girl had gathered the other dancers near the door to the kitchen. For support, or something.
Joyce Crowley said, “What the hell’s that mean?”
“You know damn well,” said Cookie. Good grief. If she called her husband, Butch, he’d slap them and tell them to get back to work. “Well,” she said, “who’s got a plug?”
The girls looked at each other.
Cynthia cried. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I didn’t think it would come this soon.”
“A smart girl keeps a spare in her purse,” said Cookie. “You should have learned that when you were twelve.”
Diana and Ellen, dressed in matching, gaudy purple underwear, snickered.
“What’s so funny?” said Cookie.
“Most women are on the pill,” said Joyce. “At least the ones getting action.” She winked at Cookie.
More laughs. The girls must have sipped booze in the kitchen.
“You just had a baby, didn’t you?” Cookie said to Joyce.
“You going to let Cynthia get some tampons, or what?”
Why hadn’t the girl’s father put her over his knee when it would have made a difference? Cookie considered smacking Joyce herself. She said to Cynthia, “Find a rag and sop it up.”
“I’m first on stage,” said Cynthia. She sounded like a dog, whining for affection.
Joyce adjusted her bustier. Like reminding Cookie that she had bigger tits might intimidate her. “Why don’t you let her run down to Hook’s, on Illinois?”
“Cynthia, clean yourself and get back to work.” Cookie nodded toward the kitchen. “The rest of you, let’s go.” She shooed them away.
The girls fanned out to check on their tables. A group of men, still dressed in their office clothes, entered the club and sat close to the stage. Joyce’s section. They stumbled and tripped every few steps. She called Joyce over and told her, “Don’t let those gentlemen settle for sodas.”
“Sure,” said Joyce.
Is that mouthy broad chewing gum? One of the first rules on the poster in the kitchen—No gum. Was she raised by animals?
Joyce weaved her way through the tables to her new customers. She leaned a hand on an empty chair and asked the men what they wanted.
Cynthia returned from the kitchen. Her phony tears had left tracks through her mascara and down her cheeks.
Cookie said, “Fix your face.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” She hustled to the dressing room.
Stupid Joyce Crowley refused to do anything with the men but yap it up. Even when it was her turn to dance, she stumbled around, popping the tassels on her pasties with her fingers instead of shaking her tits. Cookie had never heard the girl say anything flirty when she took drink orders. She liked to talk politics. Went on and on about Vietnam and civil rights and how Johnson killed Kennedy. Insane. The customers found it cute and humored her. She claimed the money she made at the club would pay for her to go to school someday. What the hell for? Why didn’t her husband put her in her place? Slap her a couple of times and let her know how lucky she was to have a job. She had an infant child, for Christ’s sake. She should have been at home, taking care of her baby.
Cookie strolled through the club, listening to the girls work their customers for tips—
“Big guy like you, not married? I can’t believe it.”
“Love that tie. Did you pick it out yourself?”
“Oh, you’re so kind. No one’s ever said that to me.”
And she made sure none of the men got grabby.
Cynthia dropped a dime in the jukebox by the stage, made her selection, and climbed the three steps. She corkscrewed and kicked to James Brown’s version of “Night Train.” The men paying attention yelled for her to “take it off, already!”
Cookie passed Joyce, heard her say something about not wanting to be called a “girl.” What the hell did she think she was? Just wait until people start calling you ma’am. The men looked unimpressed.
“You boys having a good time?” said Cookie.
There were three of them—buzz cuts, gray suits, red ties, and smug eyes. She decided to name them Chet, Chad, and Chuck.
“We could use some service that isn’t so smart,” said Chuck. He pointed at Joyce with his thumb.
“Joyce, honey,” said Cookie, “take their orders.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Joyce.
Cookie rounded the club to the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and paced while Chubs Mullen made drinks. She’d have to call Joyce to the dressing room, give her the business where no one else could see. She didn’t want to humiliate her, just do the job her parents forgot to do. She dropped her cigarette. As she picked it up, she kept her eyes on a disaster near the sink—the airhead Cynthia had cleaned her mess with good, white towels and left them on the counter. Menstrual blood dripped down the drawers and snaked into the spaces between the tiles.
“Chubs,” she said.
The bartender turned around.
“Did you not see this?”
He looked at the pile of towels. “No ma’am.”
Joyce tossed her cigarette into the sink and snuffed it under the faucet. “Can you imagine one of those jerks in suits out there getting a glimpse of this?”
Chubs said he could not.
“Clean it,” said Joyce. She stopped him. “No, no,” she said. “The girls will take care of it. It’s their mess.”
“Okay.” Chubs continued mixing whiskey and Coke.
Joyce charged into the kitchen. Her chest heaved, like she had run a marathon. She calmed down and said, “I want those bastards thrown out onto the goddamn street.”
“Did they get fresh?” said Cookie. “Butch and his boys aren’t here to bounce folks.”
“Then have Chubs do it.”
“If one of those suits touched you, I’d be happy to ask him to leave. I doubt the rest of them will agree.”
Joyce stared at the floor.
Cookie lifted her chin so that she would face her. “Did they grab your ass or something?”
“No ma’am,” she said.
“What the hell’s the problem?”
“The tall one, in the middle,” she said, “he asked me how much for an orgy.”
Cookie waited. “That’s it?”
“I’m not a hooker,” said Joyce.
“This your first night here?”
Joyce didn’t answer.
“That’s a yes or no question,” said Cookie.
“Tell them you’re not for sale and carry on.”
Jesus, Joseph, and Mary. Young women acted like they were made of china. Like they actually believed they were sugar and spice and everything nice. They would never have made it through the war. Cookie, her mother, and any other woman capable had built engines at Allisons while the boys were overseas. Her knuckles were still gnarled from the assembly line.
She followed the mouthy broad through the door. Near the entrance, a table of men in short-sleeved shirts and ties—Lilly employees, no doubt—yucked it up with their arms waving every which way, threatening to pinch Diana. Where the hell is Butch? Cookie spoke over the music, “Gentlemen?”
They put their hands in the air, like bank robbers in a movie.
“My girls are to be looked at, not touched.”
“Aw,” said one of the scientists, “you can’t tease a fellow like that.”
“I’m Cookie. My name’s on the door. I can do as I please.” She smiled.
Diana reached for an empty glass on the table and put it on her tray. Before she could stand straight again, another Lilly man slapped her on her butt.
“My husband will be here in a few minutes,” said Cookie. She waved her fist in his face. “He’ll be happy to show you the door if you don’t keep your mitts to yourself.”
She left Diana to fend for herself. The girl needed to learn how to slug a man who didn’t respect her boundaries.
Cynthia shook it on stage to “Harlem Nocturne.” She had rainbow-pasties on her nipples. Didn’t match her vanilla-colored panties. Dumb broad. Good thing men were too stupid to notice.
“Don’t make me tell you again!” Joyce threw a tray of drinks to the floor.
Before Cookie could reach Chet, Chad, and Chuck, the front door opened and Butch walked through. Two of his thugs, Pooch Madden and Kellen McCabe, followed. Good. Now she could focus on the women, and her husband could settle the rowdies.
Chet, or Chad, or Chuck—Cookie couldn’t remember which was which—snapped his fingers and called to her. She motioned for him to wait a moment. She grabbed her husband. “The hell have you been?”
“Hush, woman,” he said. He pushed her away.
She pointed at the table of Lilly men harassing Diana. “Fellows over there can’t stop the grab-ass with my girls.”
Butch and his thugs surrounded the Lilly men. Cookie smiled, watching them shrink in their chairs. She checked out the mess Joyce had created.
None of the glasses had broken, but the floor near the table was soaked.
Chet, or Chad, or Chuck, said, “You need to fire this bitch.”
Joyce gripped the back of an empty chair. “Call me that again,” she said. “I triple-dog dare you.”
“Young man,” said Cookie, “my girls are here for your enjoyment, not your abuse.”
“She’s talking commie bullshit,” said one of the other suits.
“Joyce?” said Cookie. “What did I say about that fruity jibber-jabber?”
The girl looked down.
“Now,” Cookie said to the men, “what were you drinking?”
“Bloody Mary’s, all around,” said Chet, or Chad, or Chuck.
“Very good.” She turned Joyce away from the men. “Clean this mess and fetch them fresh drinks.” She grabbed her before she headed back to the kitchen. “And if they don’t tip, don’t be surprised.”
Joyce walked to the kitchen with her head slouched.
“Broad like that,” said Chet, or Chad, or Chuck, “should have her tongue cut out.”
Cookie stared at him. The song on the jukebox ended. Cynthia gathered her top from the floor. Cookie left the men. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t want to sound just like Joyce. The men would have gotten up and left.
Cynthia clomped down the steps of the stage.
“Young lady,” said Cookie. “I don’t know what kind of slaughterhouse you were raised in, but around here, you sop up your Aunt Flow with rags, you best put them somewhere the rest of the world can’t see.”
The girl tilted her head.
Cookie spoke through clenched teeth. “Clean those goddamn towels.”
“I have to check on my tables,” said Cynthia.
“Yes, ma’am.” She wiggled through the room toward the kitchen. Kellen McCabe, sitting with Butch and Pooch in a booth along the side wall, snapped his fingers at her.
Joyce swung a bucket on her way back to Chet, Chad, and Chuck’s table. She dropped to the floor, pulled out fresh, white towels, and drenched them with the spilled booze. Diana walked around her to the jukebox, put a dime in it, and made her way to the stage.
Kellen McCabe had Cynthia on his lap. He tied the strings on the back of her bustier. Took his time doing it, copping a feel off her hips whenever his hands slipped.
“What’s the story on our drinks?” said Chet, or Chad, or Chuck.
Cookie nudged Joyce with her foot.
“Chub’s making them right now,” she said.
Without looking at the floor, Cookie said, “That’s good enough. Get these men their booze.”
“Yes ma’am.” Joyce put the soaked towels in the bucket and headed to the kitchen.
Chet, or Chad, or Chuck, tugged Cookie’s sleeve and said, “Bet you need to do all the thinking for these floozies, eh?”
She left them without answering. Kellen McCabe and Pooch Madden wouldn’t stop pawing Cynthia. Butch just sat there, saying nothing.
“Excuse me,” said Cookie. Her eyes shifted between Kellen and Pooch. “This girl is busy.”
“We know,” said Pooch.
Cynthia tried to stand. Kellen pulled her back to his lap.
“Clean that crap by the sink,” Cookie said to Cynthia.
“What’s going on?” said Butch.
“Never mind,” said Cookie. She started for the kitchen. Found her pack of Lucky Strikes and knocked one out.
Joyce charged through the door with a tray of drinks over her shoulder. She refused to make eye contact with Cookie. Didn’t even say “excuse me.”
Cookie lit her cigarette. She looked at the sink. The soiled rags had been moved. The bucket Joyce had used to clean the spilled drinks was filled with stained towels. It looked as though Joyce had dumped Cynthia’s mess in with her own.
“That little bitch,” said Cookie.
“What?” said Chubs.
“Hush.” She opened the kitchen door and stuck her head out. Joyce Crowley set a dark red Bloody Mary in front of Chet, or Chad, or Chuck. Cookie looked at the cigarette in her hand. Then she saw her husband, Butch, slap Cynthia on her butt.
She stood by the sink and took her time finishing her cigarette. She dropped it near the drain without bothering to douse it under the faucet.
Alec Cizak is a writer from Indianapolis. His work has appeared in several journals and anthologies. He is also the editor of Pulp Modern.