In north central Oklahoma, otherwise gorgeous with luscious hills and curiously red dirt, litter abounds: Styrofoam Chick-fil-A cups, empty cigarette packs, and, beginning in 2020, discarded face masks. I’d started a green neighborhood initiative in the small Oklahoma town that my now-wife and I called home. The goal was not only to pick up trash, but also to feel more immersed in a community in which I frequently felt ostracized.
More often than not, no one joined me in the abandoned, cricket-laden lot where I stooped down and collected sunburns in addition to fast food wrappers. It was on one of these days, my anniversary gift watch slipping down my sweaty wrist, that I met Ben, the owner of the one and only strip club in town.
I was standing in the weeds with my back to the gravel road when I heard his car pull up. I took a few steps back into my beloved trash pile to let the car through, when it paused and reversed to align with me. The car was red and looked expensive. It didn’t fit in with the dented pickups or broken Venetian blinds guarding the surrounding rental homes.
A young man stepped out of the still-running car. I remember finding him attractive, though his facial features are lost to me, since I have a condition called face blindness, which essentially renders my brain unable to memorize facial features. I’m sure he was taller than me, and wider—my twenty-something frame was slender with the exception of some pudge in the middle that my fiancée affectionately referred to as my “cookie pouch.” The man and I stared at each other for a moment. The intelligent, if slightly overreactive, part of me was nervous. This man was probably cisgender. I was not.
“Who do you work for?”
His tone was friendly, but I felt briefly thrown off-course like a particularly slippery beer can evading my trash tongs.
“No one.” I explained my efforts to clean up the neighborhood. No, I didn’t get paid to do it. Yes, I was usually out on my own. “I live up there,” I said, pointing up the street, “On North Main.”
He considered this a moment, and then:
“How’d you like to make forty dollars an hour?”
Of course I would.
“I’m Remi,” I said as we shook hands.
“Ben,” he said.
He said he was running late for work and got back in his fancy car, leaving me with his phone number and two coupons for free beer at The Silver Angels Dance Club.
The Silver Angels Dance Club, or Silver Angels for short, was on the very edge of town, lurking just off the highway six miles away from my place as if it knew the town was ashamed of it. “I’m not so sure about this,” said R. “It looks pretty sketchy.” I privately agreed, though selfishly, I didn’t want to admit it, as we were routinely short by about two hundred dollars at the end of each month. My fiancée and I were in the car, surveying the Silver Angels building from the parking lot. The club looked like an end-days bunker built by someone concerned with the Rapture. A sprawling at 4,611 square feet, the building looked awkward and out of place in the thickly-wooded area. We could see at once why Ben had offered me the job: the parking lot was strewn with bottles, empty cardboard boxes, and white, wormlike shapes that looked suspiciously like condoms. There were no streetlamps on the property. The place looked abandoned.
We drove by the building multiple times within the next couple of weeks, deliberating the job. R pointed out that strip clubs were oftentimes considered seedy out of classism and sexism, citing the fact that not only was there nothing wrong with a woman showing off her body, but many of the women working as exotic dancers did so out of necessity. She challenged me to look at this unconventional job out of a more empathetic, holistic viewpoint.
Ultimately, after days of deliberation, the need for money superseded any other concerns. The truth of the matter: we were broke and I routinely passed as cis, a safety factor I always had to take into account when working alongside men I didn’t know.
To see if the inside of the establishment was as creepy as its exterior appeared, we decided that I would go inside and get a drink before giving Ben an answer. It was entirely possible that the offer had already expired. I texted Ben ahead of time and told him I could meet him around seven. The tires of my used car stirred up cigarette butts as I parked at the club. I rearranged my face mask on the bridge of my nose before entering. The trick to wearing a mask with glasses was to fold the mask up under the lower rim of the glasses to avoid fogging the glass. As an immunocompromised person, I took the city’s mask mandate seriously. Nervous by nature, I took a deep breath before heading into my first-ever strip club.
A tall, orange-haired man greeted me at the door not so much by way of words but by raising two bushy eyebrows. His long beard was equally orange. There was a five-dollar cover. I paid the toll, feeling like the smallest of the three billy goats gruff, as the smell of Menthol cigarettes hit me. Following the table at the door was a short hallway leading to the bar. The floor was carpeted, an interior design choice that surprised me, with a pool table in the middle of the room; the pool table was occupied by two or three middle-aged men and two tall, much younger blonde women in high heels. Their mini-skirts seemed to move of their own volition as glittery sequins caught in the strange, hazy light. The club comprised three rooms in total: the bar with the pool table, a performance space with a wall-length mirror directly facing the bar, and another, bigger room with a stage. A DJ booth was set up in the corner. Through the door leading to this room, I could see tables and booths ready to welcome unmarried men.
I approached the counter and ordered a PBR.
The bartender looked at me in suspicion. Was PBR regional? I tried again.
“I’d just like a beer, please.”
I realized too late that I’d forgotten my free drinks coupon and sat down, leaving an empty stool between an old man and me. I looked at my phone and texted R an update. “All good,” I wrote. “No sign of Ben yet.”
As I sat on my stool and resentfully sipped beer—not only was it overpriced, but I was actually allergic to gluten and should not have been drinking hops in the first place—the show began. As this seemed to be a preview leading up to the main event, the dancers gathered in the space across the bar with the mirror instead of on the stage. I felt wildly out of place, my Midwest Lutheran roots showing as I turned my back on the public partial nudity in panic. Where was Ben? All I wanted to know is if he still needed a garbage man.
More men arrived, thickening the scent of tobacco. The pool ball sparked conversation and the occasional laugh. I could not tell if any of it was genuine. I ordered another round of gluten as seven o’clock came and went. Where was Ben? I really needed the money. My discomfort grew as the music grew louder. More than an occasional wary glance landed on my small frame and partially-covered face. No one else was wearing a mask.
Just as I’d decided to get up and try to find Ben by sight—a tricky endeavor, considering my face blindness—the old man at the bar leaned over. He gestured at my mask.
“You don’t have to wear that here, you know,” he said, as if to reassure me.
I nodded politely and kept the mask on.
He tried again. “Do you play pool?”
“Not really,” I told him. In actuality, I did play pool, but having been socialized as a girl, I tended to hold my body in a way different from other men and only played tabletop games around those I trusted. Besides, at five-foot-four, I found most pool sticks difficult to wield.
He looked slightly put out. To placate him, I continued our conversation with something friendly and trivial. He offered me a smoke.
While I don’t remember our conversation word for word, I remember that when I left the club that night, I felt sadder than I had in a long time. I don’t remember the man’s name. What I do remember is that his memory seemed to short-circuit repeatedly throughout our conversation. He would ask me what my name was. It was Remi. He would ask me about my occupation. I was a student. He would ask me what my name was.
Multiple times, the man informed me that he’d been on scholarship to the local university—the same university in which I was currently enrolled—when he got into a car accident at eighteen years old and had suffered significant brain damage. He had been on track in a major with which I was not familiar; it was something like math or engineering. Too smart for me, I admitted with a smile that he mistook for a joke.
What felt like an hour passed, both of us repeating ourselves over and over again, the repetition necessitated even more by the loud music and buzz of other conversations. I kept looking at my watch so I could find Ben and tell him I still wanted the job, but it felt too rude to cut the man off. He said he lived just down the road and visited Silver Angels weekly, adding something about his grandchildren that I couldn’t quite catch. I kept nodding politely, trying to find ways to relate to him when I could. He said he’d been a trucker for a while, driving eighteen-wheelers across the Midwest.
“I worked at a truck stop once!” I blurted out excitedly.
He paused and waited for me to continue.
“It was years ago in Ohio,” I mumbled into my beer, “for just a couple months.”
He pretended like my blunder hadn’t happened and finished his anecdote: a small social grace. What was it about that moment that made me want to relate to him? Me, a trans guy thirty years his junior, having nothing in common with him except the current shared experience of strobe lights and eighties dance music. Neither of us looked at the dancers. We were looking at each other and at the surprise we could see on each other’s faces. Or was it recognition? Did we have so little in common after all? His yellowing teeth and gray hair, my crooked teeth and acne scars—we were neither of us the most attractive person in the room. Had the car accident not happened, he could have done well in college and gotten into grad school. Had my bad choices as a teenager had the insidious repercussions they almost did, I could be short-circuiting at a strip club every Tuesday.
When I finally extricated myself from the conversation and found Ben, who seemed to be high on an illicit drug and was busy as the emcee announcing Sweet Lips Taylor, I took the job. We shook hands and I left the door under the stern gaze of the orange-haired watchman. My car’s headlights glinted as I unlocked the doors and hopped inside. I was painfully aware of my own implicit biases due to class privilege as I locked the doors quickly behind me. Looking through the windshield, the glass bottles called to me like sirens in the night, plastic shopping bags caught like coral in a sea of makeshift crack pipes. The dark trees surrounding the bunker-like building seemed taller than before. I thought about the man and our conversation and my foolish attempt to liken my eclipse of an experience to his lived misfortune. A dog barked in the distance, echoing last call, last call, last call.
Remi Recchia is a trans poet and essayist from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a PhD candidate in English-Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. He currently serves as an associate editor for the Cimarron Review and Reviews Editor for Gasher Journal. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Remi’s work has appeared or will soon appear in World Literature Today, Best New Poets 2021, Columbia Online Journal, Harpur Palate, and Juked, among others. He holds an MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University. Remi is the author of Quicksand/Stargazing (Cooper Dillon Books, 2021) and Sober (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2022).