You can tell by the sound of Atomic by Blondie pumping through the ailing sound system that Brandy is into her third dance. By the time Black Dog by Led Zeppelin is on, she’ll be finishing her set and heading out to work the room. Later, when (Don’t Fear) The Reaper floods the ears of the remaining hangers-on, Brandy will be looking for John. John can’t stand Blue Oyster Cult.
Brandy waves and smiles and blows kisses at her regulars. They slip last-minute singles into her g-string, angling the crisp paper money so it might graze places the eye can’t see. Some casanova deals in two-dollar bills. Brandy hates his aftershave and lack of spatial respect, but two times the tip isn’t something she’ll balk at. A seventy-five-dollar dance becomes a lot more bearable when it balloons to one-fifty.
John wanders the back alley and waits for the emergency exit door to come flying open. He’s got the goods in separate bags; two drawstring Crown Royal pouches and a brown paper sack with the top crumpled over. He’s got them under one arm as he looks up and down the alley, looking more than a little suspicious.
The door finally swings, and Brandy comes tumbling out. She slams it hard behind her and leans against it, lighting a cigarette and taking a long, exhausted drag.
“Big night?” John asks.
“Big enough to pay you,” Brandy says through the smoke.
John nods and puts the bags down on the trunk of his beat-up, white and blue Lincoln Continental. Brandy slaps the side panel and says, “This is a nice boat.”
Brandy says this about all boats and most large cars. She doesn’t care if it’s a pontoon or a paddle or even a canoe. Brandy loves the water, and she really loves boats. She figures she’ll shake enough ass one day to buy one of her own. She figures she’s still got time.
John collects his pay in mostly twos and tells Brandy to take a break.
“Hell,” he says, “go legit and just leave it all behind.”
He says, “Come live with me outside of the city and let a real man take care of you.”
Brandy kisses his cheek and tells him, “Keep dreaming stud.”
On the sticky subway seat, she dumps the contents of the bags and starts taking inventory. There’s a fresh can of pepper spray to replace the spent one in her clutch. There’s a small bottle of knockoff Red Door which she keeps on hand for when Frank shows up, the widower from her neighborhood. Frank’s wife used to coat herself in it, something Brandy could tell from the leftover stench of it on Frank’s duster coat. He may not be conscious of it but his wallet sure is. His tips went up twelve percent since Brandy started using it. There’s also the vitamin C capsules and B-12 shots to keep her from picking up whatever sickness the club crowds bring in from their Petri dish children. It’s hard to sell a face when it’s covered in mucus and raw from too much blowing.
She places these items back in the velvet sacks and into her purse. After the only other occupant of the passenger car exits, she opens the brown bag. From inside, she pulls out an unmarked vial about the size of those travel mouthwash bottles and examines the liquid inside. It’s clearer than it’s usual yellow tinge. Brandy figures it’s diluted, a weaker solution than normal. She curses John and slips the vial into her coat pocket.
She wonders for a moment how someone so deathly afraid of needles has taken to injecting liquid Valium. Of course, she’d rather go on taking the pills, but after a while that delivery system isn’t quick enough. After a while, you need a faster, stronger high just to get through the shift.
Brandy tells herself that maybe six more months and she can walk away, get into a program, and put a down payment on a schooner.
For the rest of the ride home, if home is what you could call a one-room apartment with a communal kitchen, Brandy thumbs through makeup tutorials and Pinterest pages. She looks up how to paint realistic-looking hinges on her joints and believable faux wood grain. She reads about how to string up your arms with clear fishing line and hide it in the rafters, how to mime the movements of a marionette. Tomorrow is theme night at the Honeypot, and she’s got a plan to add big time to that boat fund.
One of her regulars, we’ll call him Mike, is a big Disney freak. One of those grown kids who can’t stop gushing about the teacups and the hidden Mickeys. He’s a buff on all the old animated films. Mike let slip to Brandy one night in a private dance that he’s got a real penchant for Pinocchio. In fact, it’s a full-blown fantasy. He wants a real-life marionette of his own to manipulate, pose and make dance. Mike wants his own ‘real girl’. Mike is a ‘real creep’.
Brandy falls asleep and dreams of gentle wakes and warm sunshine. She dreams of toes in sand and boozy cocktails. She dreams of telling her family at the club how much she loves her job and watching her nose grow in defiance. Brandy dreams a lot.
John gets to the club early on theme nights on account of he’s got a thing for one of the dancers. Not Brandy, although he’s got a thing for Brandy, too. He’s pretty much got a thing for all the dancers.
Another thing John’s got is a problem. He’s low on cash, and even worse, low on product. He’ll have to unload everything he has to even hope to score any more from his pharmacy technician friend at the clinic. After pressing what’s left of a joint into the driver’s door ashtray, John climbs out of the car and makes his way inside.
The new girl is finishing her set now. New girls always go first. She’s doing some tired routine with handcuffs to Mrs. Officer, complete with red and blue flashing stage lights. It gets a few of the old guys going but it mostly falls flat with the audience. Before she’s even finished picking up the scattered cash, the lights go dark again and Stacy slowly walks to center.
John takes notice and grabs a seat near the front of the stage. Everyone else takes notice, too. Everyone’s got a thing for Stacy. As she shakes her blonde hair loose and reveals her brilliantly orange-painted body, the lights come up again and the intro to Sunshine of Your Love washes over the main room.
Backstage, Brandy is prepping Jane and Holly on the Pinocchio bit. She’s telling them how between songs she’s going to toss the fishing line over the rafters, how they’re going to catch them and tie them loosely to the curtain so they don’t fall down. She’s telling them to hold her tight when they walk her out because she’s going to go totally deadweight. How at just the right moment they have to let go and get off the stage. The magical moment of transformation needs to be singular, and the focus has to be on her. Mike’s focus, anyway.
The dirty tone of Clapton’s guitar fades away as Stacy walks to the edge of the stage and collects her rent. She makes eye contact with promising patrons and takes a tip the amount of her phone bill. She rubs her tits in someone’s face and cha-ching— little league baseball fees.
Holly calls for Brandy through the bathroom door. She’s saying it’s showtime and how Brandy better not be in there doing that nasty shit again. How the next time she finds a needle she’s going straight to management. Brandy yells back that Holly ought to mind her goddamned business.
Then the three of them, Holly, Jane, and Brandy, take their places on the darkened floor.
As the club announcer starts in on Brandy’s introduction, John watches from his new seat at the bar. His phone vibrates in his pocket and he just groans and orders a beer. Three text messages from Brian the pharmacy tech. John silences his phone and swigs his drink, still unsure of how he’ll pay for tonight’s reup.
Back on stage, Holly struggles to keep Brandy upright, tilting and wobbling on her stiletto heels. Jane elbows Brandy hard in the ribs and says, “You just have to look like you’re deadweight, bitch.”
A soft keyboard melody starts and Jane and Holly look at each other, waiting for the cue to step away. Brandy stays still. From John’s vantage point, she’s indistinguishable from the real thing. The real fake thing, that is.
One of Holly’s heels breaks, and she slumps halfway to the floor, fighting to stay upright as she supports Brandy. Jane works to keep them both up while the drums kick in.
John is watching closely, but he’s getting distracted by all the text alerts. He’s starting to get pissed. He swipes away the notifications and refocuses on Brandy as J. Holiday starts singing the opening verse of Suffocate.
Holly can’t keep her balance anymore and slips offstage, falling into the lap of some fresh twenty-one-year-old who’s here with his asshole frat friends. Brandy and Jane swing wildly to the opposite side of the stage and Jane abandons ship. With no one left to steal the show, the fishing line around Brandy’s arms pulls tight and she hangs there, suspended in a stunning parody of a puppet about to be brought to life.
John gets fed up with the constant vibration and opens his messages. They say 911 and CALL ME BACK. Scrolling on, he sees SOMETHING’S WRONG and I’M GOING TO GET FIRED.
By now, the blood in Brandy’s arms is pulsing hot as the line cuts off her circulation. Her eyes are open wide, unblinking and full of fear. J. Holiday continues to sing.
John reads more texts that say CHECK YOUR STASH and DUDE I’M FUCKED.
People are beginning to murmur as the chorus comes in and the lights shift to a spiraling disco ball effect. People are standing up and moving closer to see what Brandy will do.
John reaches into his pocket and pulls out the case of Valium, now three vials short, and reads the words vecuronium bromide along its side label. The words paralysis and respiratory arrest. The words accidental and death. Brian’s texts say I FUCKED UP and I THOUGHT IT WAS THE RIGHT ONE MAN.
Up on stage, Brandy is no longer breathing. Her mouth hangs open and strings of saliva drip to the floor and begin to pool beneath her. The fishing line has started to cut into her arms and wrists, and she’s more blueish gray than oaken tan. She looks like Pinocchio drank himself to alcohol poisoning. She looks like she’s got a full 1.5 milligrams of powerful paralytic coursing through her wooden body.
John is powering down his phone and tossing wads of money on the bar to cover his tab. He’s fumbling with his keys and hoping to Hell his old Lincoln fires up on the first try. He’s thinking about Mexico or Canada or maybe some other country without extradition laws. J. Holiday just keeps on singing.
When the ambulance arrives, Fall Out Boy’s Dead on Arrival drowns out the shrieks. By the time Cascada’s Evacuate the Dancefloor stops, the place is nearly empty. Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi would have made a perfect track for John’s handcuffing and arrest, but He Stopped Loving Her Today seems just as fitting.
Brian tells the cops almost everything. He testifies in court that he didn’t know John was swiping his stuff, that he’d only ever stolen drugs for personal use. He told them how he’d typed the letter ‘v’ into the system and taken out the first medication that came up, what turned out to be vecuronium bromide, a drug used in anesthetizing patients for surgery.
Brandy’s service is one week later. What used to be theme night at the Honeypot. All the girls come, even the new girl. Mike, a few regulars, Brandy’s mom, and the owner of the club. No one else to speak of. They all pitch in to buy Brandy the best casket they can, some huge steel box that takes every person in attendance to carry. Its hulking appearance brings to mind a ship at sea, gray and sullen and void of detail and distinction.
Brandy herself would have stood in awe. She would have looked it up and down and slapped the side. She would have smiled wide and dreamed about sunshine and cool water. She would have looked at anyone willing to listen and said without the faintest hint of sarcasm, “this sure is a nice boat.”
And her nose wouldn’t have grown an inch.