Mama stood in the already blistering heat of the Nevada desert we both loathed. She watched the blood-stained dress burn, as I watched her. Black Irish, my mama looked like a Disney princess, with her long dark hair and fair skin. But she was no princess. Not that she was evil. It’s the ridiculous nature of the princesses that I deny in her. Practical to her core, does what she’s gotta do.
She had to do this.
Podunk, Kentucky was founded in 1842, boomed with forty-niners, and exploded with railroad and river travel. Then it slowly died. I lived in a dead town. Mama worked in the big chicken farm, like most everyone else. Smelled like shit every day. Whole town smelled like shit.
I heard Mama making call after call one day when I got home after school. I lingered in the doorway to the kitchen, so I could get the gist of it from her side of the conversations. They all sounded the same.
“So you work for Harley? Uh-huh. I see. Oh, really? It pays well? Higher than most? Oh, that’s good. You like living there? Gotta be better than Podunk, Kentucky.” She didn’t have to laugh that loud, and not every time. I could even hear the other women laughing loudly with her. Whoever they were, I didn’t want anything to do with them. After the fifth phone call, she turned and saw me. I faked like I was just coming in, threw my backpack on the table.
“Hey, Suzi Q, how are you?” I grinned. Though she said it every day, that phrase made me feel loved. Maybe it was the continuity of it, the expectation fulfillment. “My precious girl.” Mama kissed my forehead and pulled out a chair. “Sit down. I’ve got big news.”
“Yeah?” Why was I suspicious? Was it the phone calls, all them women laughing at my home town? Mama sat next to me, held my hands, and took a deep breath.
“We’re leaving this chicken shit town.”
“What?” She placed her hand on my cheek.
“Mr. Harley, the guy I met yesterday? He’s legit. He does own a club in Vegas. I called all nine of the dancers on his list who work for him.”
“Mama, you ain’t been a dancer since before I was born.”
“Ain’t that kind of dancing, sweetie. it’s all a show of fancy costumes and bright lights, with easy dance steps. Mr. Harley told me I’d fit right in.”
We piled everything we especially wanted in our old pickup and drove west on the advance from Mr. Harley. Two days later, we pulled into Vegas near midnight. It was glorious. Sparkles everywhere, even from the fountains. Huge fountains of sparkling water in the desert. Crazy.
On Mama’s first night, I went with her. The club was way off the strip, with a couple bars on both sides. Harleys filled their parking lots. Inside was busy, women wearing extraordinary costumes. We passed a wall of photos across a map of the US. I pointed out Mama’s picture to her and she grabbed a passing dancer.
“Why’s my photo on this map?” The woman looked at the photo and back at Mama.
“Rosalie!” She hugged Mama. “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m Donna. Let’s get you a costume. You’ll be in next week’s show, so you’ll be backstage tonight. But you gotta get used to the heavy costume.” She took her by the hand, but Mama didn’t budge.
“Tell me about the photo.” Donna turned around with a blank face.
“Oh, that’s how Mr. Harley chooses his dancers. He’s got a whole system of traveling salesmen and tourists giving him pictures of beautiful women. He’s rescued all of us from dead boring little towns across the country. Isn’t that wonderful?” Mama snake-eyed her, then followed her to costuming. On the way, Donna explained, “When someone leaves, we dancers get to pick the next one on the map. We chose you. Anyone else goes, you get to help choose our next dancer.”
Mama’s look told me she didn’t give a crap. She smiled and shrugged at me, whispered, “Whatever.”
In the costume room, Donna helped Mama pick out her size in the white dress covered with rhinestones, with slits up the sides at the waist. Mama handed it to me. Man, was it heavy. Then she tried on the headdress and nearly fell over.
“Yeah,” Donna said, “Practice at home. That’s what we do. Each costume forces a different center of gravity. Just a matter of focus, really.” She stopped and looked at me. “Hey, if you’re interested, we can get you a costume for backup. I mean, it’s not regular pay, but…..you’re still in high school, right?”
“She’s 13,” Mama snarled.
“Holy geez! I thought you were at least 17. Sorry.”
Everything went okay, I guess. I wandered through the casinos every day after school before I did my homework. Mama made more money and nobody smelled like chicken shit. Vegas had its own stench. The desert, however, had no scent of its own, which freaked me out. Mama didn’t seem too much happier here than in Kentucky. Still didn’t date, said cuz of me, how I didn’t need no one messing up my childhood.
About three months into Vegas, on a Tuesday, the only night I was allowed, cuz of low traffic, a dancer’s boyfriend touched me.
Mama danced on stage as I watched from the sidelines. She was gorgeous in the rhinestone dress with the feathered headdress that doubled her height. Just before she came offstage, Ella’s new boyfriend stepped close to me and breathed into my ear lewd suggestions that I didn’t understand. Then he latched onto my butt cheek and I screamed. I didn’t mean to. I’d never been touched like that before.
Like Mama says, all hell broke loose. The music went louder. Mama and Ella crashed through the other dancers. Mr. Harley was yelling on the other side of the stage. Mama launched herself at Ella’s boyfriend. Ella jumped me. I went down easy, the breath knocked out of me. Mama hauled Ella off me. Then the weirdest thing happened. Ella reached into her dress. I swear I heard the “snick” of the switchblade, though I know I couldn’t have. Out of the tussle, Ella backed away with big eyes.
Mama’s dress was shifting to red, like a wave coming in. The boyfriend snatched Ella by the hand and dragged her out the back door. I helped Mama to the truck. For the first time in my life, I drove. I felt bad for every jerk and lurch that made my mama gasp in pain. I doctored her up and threw everything we especially liked in the truck. By sunrise, Mama claimed she was rested enough.
“One more thing,” she said.
The rhinestone dress sat in a bucket in the bed of the truck as we drove into the desert. We watched it burn together.
“You and me, babe.” We held hands.
“I hate this fucking town,” she said.
“We going back to Podunk?”
“Let’s go to California, Mama.”
“Yes, my love, let’s go be beach bums.” She smiled and we hit the road.