Morrie has given me a new room up on the third floor because I complained about the noise last night. I can still hear the thump of the deejay in the bar downstairs, a strip joint called Thrills, but it’s better, even with all the stairs. The only elevator in the building is for freight and some of the people in here are in a lot worse shape than I am.
“Want to come down to the bar for a drink?” a raspy voice asked me
It was the old lady who used to live down the hall on the second floor. She is bald in the mornings when she trots down the hall to the bathroom, but she has a collection of wigs, not all of which are particularly suitable for her lifestyle or her age.
“Um,” I muttered, but I found that I was following her, patting her withered arm and then my pocket to make sure I had my wallet with me.
“I’m Irma,” she said. It was almost a challenge, as if I wasn’t going to believe her. I just nodded and followed her down the shallow wide steps.
Sometimes I wondered about the layout of the old hotel and could see ladies in proper dresses of the 1880s floating down the stairs for parties, or in black mourning dresses, just off the train at the Don River station when there was only a narrow wooden bridge across Queen Street.
NO VISITORS AFTER 11 PM a sign on the side of the stairs read. This is to prevent the kind of women this hotel attracts from practicing certain occupations here.
Irma nodded to another woman on the stairs, my age, but even more bedraggled. Her navy sweat pants have purplish patches where bleach has hit them. My roots may be dark, but hers are longer and gray.
“This is Freddie,” Irma said. “Comes down for happy hour.” Freddie smiled and I saw a gold tooth glint in the dim light of the landing. I was clutching at the asthma spray in my pocket.
“Hope Morrie’s not down there,” Freddie said, eyes darting. That’s the way people look around in this building. I just hadn’t gotten into the habit yet.
Another woman, Selma, joined us.
“Seen you around before,” she said calculatingly. “Not in here,” as if this is a bad thing, an omission on my part.
“Just live up the street,” I said, and realized my mistake before I even heard the humpfs and smiles from my companions.
We were almost at the bar door. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The heavy bass beat was climbing through my aching feet to my head. Freddie opened the swinging door and the sound and gloom pushed out at us, one enticing and the other pushing me away
“-hear it for Celeste, straight from the Tiki Lounge in Montreal -” yells the deejay.
“That joint’s been closed since the separatists won in the seventies,” Selena chortled as we found a place to sit as far away from the stage and the speakers as we could.
I sat in the banquette behind the table. Freddie was a heavy woman and could barely squeeze in. Irma was so skinny that she might slide into the gap between the front and the back of the seat.
The waitress prowled over.
“Two drink minimum in happy hour, cocktails not included,” she intoned in one breath. The others ordered rye and coke. I ordered rum and coke and got a look.
“Might as well make it two if that’s the minimum. And no ice,” I said defiantly, and the others nodded.
“I’d have a lot more,” said Irma, “but my liver got ruint by the chemo when I had the cancer.”
“Too much information,”
Selena said. Too many definite articles, I wanted to say, but I didn’t get the chance. I hated the phrase “the cancer;” after all, I said “the flu,” didn’t I? The music started up again and penetrated back here. The waitress plunked our glasses in front of us and collected our money. I had a sudden horrible feeling about what was expected of me.
“No rounds,” Freddie said, peering up at the stage.
She had produced a pair of very ugly harlequin rhinestone glasses from somewhere. Probably a 1964 timewarp.
I was relieved. Paying rent here to Morrie and at home to Mr. Jarusek was not making my life easy.
“Gonna go up front and talk to Jerry,” Freddie said. “Dickhead owes me five bucks.”
“More likely the other way around,” Selina snickered as soon as Freddie was gone. “And don’t let that old dyke guilt you into anything.”
I watched Freddie go up to a middle-aged man in a crumpled suit, tie askew. She wasn’t really looking at him, though; she was peering up at the stage. I had never had accurate gaydar and I was really off tonight.
“Oh, she’ll do an old guy, or two or three, if there’s something in it for her,” Irma said. “Even just a drink or two.”
There were too many lights and the music was too loud. I downed the second drink and made excuses.
I’m beat,” I said, but I didn’t know in which sense of the word.
Thrills, where old strippers go to die, my old boss at the restaurant used to say.
And where do old waitresses go to die? I asked myself as I headed up the sagging stairs to the room that would always smell of old cigarette smoke and vibrate to the endless music below like a heart refusing to stop beating after the life support was turned off.
-- Lucile Barker is a Toronto poet, writer and activist who has been writing since she first swiped her grandmother’s Waterman fountain pen and her mother’s lilac ink. The time spent in the corner gave her more opportunity to write. Since 1994, she has been the co-ordinator of the Joy of Writing, a weekly workshop at the Ralph Thornton Centre. The group now has a Facebook group page and almost 150 members, some of whom actually do the assignments. Recent publications include Glass Coffins in Memewar, Summer Vacations and Flower Shows in Antigonish Review, Diminishing Territory in Rougarou. “The Golden Age”, the first place short story winner in the Creative Keyboards contest, a project of the Hamilton Arts Council, will be published in an anthology in February 2011. Poetry and short stories are also forthcoming in Bat Shat, Lost in Thought and Flashlight Memories. Flophouse Stripper Hotel is from a collection of stories, Rehab Row, where a very luxurious addiction facility is asked to run a satellite program in a transitioning downtown neighborhood leading to a great deal of culture clash. With an unlimited supply of postage and chutzpah, there is the possibility of having the largest collection of rejection slips in the world. However, there are no plans for an exhibit of these at present.