The dreadlocked regular held up the buffet line to inspect the lukewarm holiday ham.
He pinched a slimy, pink sliver between his thumb and forefinger, sniffed it once, twice and took a miniscule bite with his front teeth. Having apparently made his decision, the piece was returned to its fellows on the serving tray.
“Hey man, that’s …”
A glance—not even that, really, just a half turn and a blast of recognition, stopped the rebuke in the stranger’s throat.
Welcome to Thanksgiving dinner at the Lusty Leopard, where the regular had spent this solemn occasion every year since 2010. The year before that, the occasion was rung in at the Spearmint Rhino in Dallas—further back, Gabrielle’s in Nashville.
Thanksgiving is our most family-centric of holidays. Christmas brings the folks together, to be sure, but between Santa, Rudolph, Frosty—not to mention its actual origin story—it brought too much distraction. The Fourth of July was close, but the effect is diluted by its falling smack-dab in the middle of the summer. Easter? When’s the last time your extended clan got together for Easter?
Circumstances could thus be depressing on this particular Thanksgiving Day at this particular greater-Cincinnati-area strip club, but not for our protagonist. This was home—this was his family.
And hey, at least there was green bean casserole this year.
The regular heaped a pile of that next to the mashed potatoes, stuffing, and a single drumstick of fried chicken on his paper plate, and ambled over to the VIP booth set up next to the stage.
The place was dim as always, no sense messing with the ambiance for the big day, a red glow cut by neon signs over the bar.
“Pac daddy, may I join you?” a dancer ambled over, long legs shaking on high heels.
“I’m eating,” barely perceptible through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
A deep sigh, a slight pause for a change in tone, then a storming off in a huff.
Another dancer approached, even more confidently than the first. Tracy was wearing nothing but a deep cut Santa Claus get-up—is nothing sacred any more? Couldn’t this wait until the 28th?
The regular grumbled, didn’t even look up from his plate. But some kind of acceptance had been conveyed.
For six long minutes, the pair sat in silence, house music bumping techno through the speakers set just to the left of the booth. Six long minutes of biting and chewing, biting and chewing, followed by a return run up to the buffet.
“Pac, you want to talk about it?” Tracy cut right through the bullshit—that’s what he always liked about her.
“Ain’t a whole lot to talk about,” he mumbled back.
She knew him better than that. He’d never touched her, not once, not even when she offered him at lap dance at a heavy discount the first time he ever visited the club. Theirs was a different kind of give-and-take.
Don’t ask, don’t prod. Just wait.
“It’s just, I’m having a good season, right?” cranberry sauce was being pushed around the plate, from side to side then in circles. “Other side of 30, nobody thought I’d even make it this far. Especially after…well, you know.”
She did. A barely-perceptible, brunette-haired nod. Go on.
“I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Not even when I was young, car-shopping by day, Patron showers by night. This business, you know. Time ain’t your friend.
“Nobody is, really. Took me a while to get that. A.J.? He don’t know that. ‘Taze? He don’t know that. And I ain’t gonna be the one to break it, not me. I’ve been the bad dude, played that bad apple. Let somebody else take the shine off.
“But this year…even when I’m playing well…it’s like the walls are closing in, like every play—every practice—costs me a little bit of sand in that hourglass. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, my shoulders hurt. Last week, I could barely give my baby girl a hug.
“Mortality ain’t an easy thing to look at. Hell, I don’t gotta tell you that, lord knows. But this is new for me. This isn’t who I’m supposed to be, who we’re supposed to be. Modern-day gladiators, lady, don’t you show them that weak spot.”
Silence fell between the two of them.
A dancer took the stage, shedding clothes more slowly than usual, hoping to get a rise out of the sparse crowd. Holidays, you never know who might get in the spirit and start flashing some cash.
Minutes passed. One, then two, three, four. The act was almost over, not that the regular was paying much attention.
“But still—I love this job, still do. The rush, the crowd, seeing that glimmer of daylight between the kickoff team. The weeks may be longer but man, Sundays never change.
“And I should’ve lost it. Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I did some stupid shit, shit that might’ve cost me everything. The gatekeepers let me back in.
“One run, that’s all I ask. One ring—they can never take that away. One ring will make it all worth it.
“This team has got it in us. I can feel it. Setbacks, we’ve had ‘em. But we’re close.”
His voice had risen in pitch, words picking up steam. His excitement cut through the gloom, caught the attention of the long-limbed dancer from earlier.
She came back over, took his hand, led the way to the VIP room.
Pac hesitated for a second, laid a sheaf of bills on the table for Tracy.
“Happy Thanksgiving, lady, go buy yourself something nice.”