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Mademoiselle Juliette – “I am the house” – what the Starling does – Tits & Ass & Oh –

Mademoiselle Juliette n’a pas vraiment la tête, that voice slinking out over the driving beat, choisir entre Montague, Capulet, two women on the stage that fills one end of the dark red room, the same high white wigs piled atop their heads, the same blued eyes under elaborately painted brows, the same striking noses, very similar breasts bared over embroidered corsets, long wide-hipped skirts parted before like curtains over the same frothy confusion of lacey underwear and garters and stockings, all dusty pinks and ivories and pale blues and paler golds. Stepping daintily back and forth to that enormous beat hands out to either side just so, one of them holding a fan, the other a handkerchief. Cette commedia del’arte n’est pas assez déjantée sings that slinking voice, and they dip and sashay in unison stepping free of their skirts leaving them upright and empty behind, long legs bare hips turning and ducking and stopping then one of them tilting her head back the other looking over her shoulder. “Jackie!” she yells over the beat. “Jackie the goddamn lights!” And then a smile blooming her voice climbing, cooing, “Leo!”

“Ettie, darling,” calls the Duke, there by the bar. “Could we?” Waggling a finger in the air at the music.

“Jackie!” she bellows. “Cut it!” The other dancer’s stepped down from the stage, she’s wriggling her way into a long sheer robe, careful of her wig. The music stops mid-Juliette. A woman pops up from behind the bar, spiky red hair and a faceful of freckles, a sleeveless black T-shirt and skinny arms festooned with tattoos. “You want it again from the top?” and then her scowl unfolding eyes widening her voice a shriek, “Jessie!” Planting her hands on the bar she hops it in a single practiced bound. “Goddamn girl!” Dodging tables past the Duke and Jo and Ysabel to swallow the blond woman in the grey chauffeur’s uniform jacket with a spinning, staggering hug.

“Leo, chér,” says the first dancer, one hand on the column of chain at the corner of the stage, turning and stooping to lower a stockinged leg. Arms out for balance she totters toward them on thick-soled high-heeled shoes. The other dancer sitting unstraps her shoes, sets them on the table before her, white with whorls of gold. On the stage behind them the skirts still standing empty, flared shells of starched linen and ribbon and lace.

“Ettie,” says the Duke again. “Chrissie. A delight to find you here.”

“They’ve given us a night, mon chér,” says Ettie, leaning to kiss his cheek as he takes her into a one-armed hug. “Burlesque in the round.” Her voice jerks from coo to growl. “If we can ever get the cues straight.” In the reddened gloom by the pool table Jackie’s laughing at something Jessie’s said.

“If I might present,” says the Duke, “Jo Maguire.” Leaning on his cane one arm still about Ettie’s shoulder. “And of course the Princess.”

“Enchanté,” says Ettie, offering her hand. Chrissie in her robe coming up on stockinged feet. Ysabel with a smile tucked in the corner of her mouth takes Ettie’s hand and Ettie with a half-twist turns it lifts it to a lipsticked kiss on her knuckles. “It’s so sophisticated,” says Chrissie, her hands on Ettie’s hips. “How you’ve revived the pomp of a royal court the way you have.” Ettie straightening says, “The etiquette.” Chrissie’s chin settles on Ettie’s shoulder. Their wigs rustling brush together.

“Indeed,” says Ysabel rubbing her knuckles with a thumb.

“You must come see our show,” says Ettie, and “Oh, you must,” says Chrissie. “We’re premièring a piece from our new collaboration.”

“But minus our collaborators,” says Ettie.

“The Dispute d’enfants après jeux,” says Chrissie.

“They wouldn’t fit,” says Ettie. “Orchestras, you know.”

“What are you up to now,” says the Duke.

“Didn’t we tell you, chéri?” Ettie steps out from under his arm, and Chrissie as she says “We call it Pictures at an Ecdysis” steps one arm about the Duke’s waist now, the other still about Ettie’s, Ettie who’s saying “We wanted to call it Strippers at an Exhibition,” her arm settling on Chrissie’s shoulders. “Mæstro Vajda’s a bit squeamish. But so are the subscribers. He has his point. Just think of it – the Sœurs Limoges – the Oregon Symphony Orchestra – the Schnitz!” And the Duke looking from one to the other his smile growing. He says, “But you need help.”

Chrissie squeezes against him. “Are we so obvious, mon grand?”

“‘Help’ is such a vulgar word for it,” says Ettie.

“Tell you what,” says the Duke, lifting Chrissie’s hand from his hip taking it in his own. “Have your people call my people.” Scooping Ettie’s free hand up along with it. “While they’re distracted, we’ll sneak off for dinner somewhere.” Kissing their knuckles each in turn. “Just the three of us. But later!” Taking a heavy step back from them both. “Is Starling back there?”

They look at each other, Ettie and Chrissie, and then Chrissie says, “Yes.”

“She is,” says Ettie.

“In the which case,” says the Duke, taking Ysabel’s hand, “the Princess and I should excuse ourselves.”

“Whoa,” says Jo, pushing past Jackie and her tattooed arms, Jessie in her grey jacket, planting herself there between the Duke and Ysabel, and Ettie and Chrissie arm-in-arm. “Easy, killer,” says the Duke. “No hanky-panky. I promise.”

“Where she goes I go,” says Jo.

“And here you are!” says the Duke. “And we’re gonna walk through that door over there. Back in five minutes. Not even.” He shrugs. “What could I possibly manage to do in just five minutes? Shut up, ladies.” Ettie and Chrissie snort precise little giggles.

“Jo,” says Ysabel.

“If you won’t trust me,” says the Duke, “trust your boon.”

“Jo,” says Ysabel again. “This is just part of his little show. Let him have his fun.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t have put it that way,” says the Duke, “but okay. And you have your fun. While we’re back there, bar’s open. Whatever you want. It’s before noon but it’s not like you’re driving anywhere anytime soon. Everybody!” Taking in the sweep of glimmering glass on the wall with a sweep of his cane. “Drinks on the house!”

“Really,” says Jackie, tattooed arms akimbo.

“I am the house, baby,” says the Duke. “And the house is feeling famously profligate today. Princess?”

Lurching he leads Ysabel toward the nondescript door by the stage as Jackie hops back over the bar. Jessie settles herself on a stool. Chrissie murmurs to Ettie, “What do you think? Four digits?”

“Five,” says Ettie.

“You always did like one-stop shopping,” says Chrissie, letting go of Ettie, pulling her robe more tightly about her, walking over to sit on a stool next to Jessie. Jackie’s pouring from three bottles at once into a silvery cocktail flask.

“It’s a little Marie Antionette,” says Jo. “Don’t you think?”

“What?” says Ettie in her stockings and garters and her thick-soled shoes and her embroidered corset. She reaches up to loosen the wig, lifting it from her head. Yellow hair severely straight slithers down to her shoulders.

“Wouldn’t you want something more medieval? The song.” Jo takes her hands from her pockets, folds her arms in her butter-colored jacket. “Montagues. Capulets.”

“You’ve obviously never tried stripping in a kirtle,” says Ettie, setting her wig on a table.

Past the nondescript door a short and narrow hall, dark, one end another door half-opened on white light and papers stacked high atop an old grey metal cabinet. At the other end a dim room, small, walls painted black, a sliver of mirror, warm pools of light. The Duke stops there between leans on his cane close to Ysabel as her eyes flick from his to his lips and back again, but he’s looking down the short length of that hall to the dim room. “Just,” he says, “Starling’s – well. He’s a little odd. Don’t, ah – ”

“Don’t be rude?” says Ysabel.

“Okay, sure,” says the Duke. “Don’t be rude. Wait.” He’s looking at her now, and her eyes flick again, his eyes, his mouth, the door they just stepped through, his eyes. “We were both oblique at brunch,” he says, “so let’s run through it again. You asked.”

“Yes,” says Ysabel.

“And she said no.”

“She said no,” says Ysabel.

“See,” says the Duke, looking down at the tip of his cane, “what I don’t get is why you’d ask. I mean, you must’ve known – ”

“Why’d you sleep with her?”

He looks up again. “She said that.”

“Did she lie?”

“Tell me something else,” says the Duke. “When you ate the tongue. What did you see? Oh come on.” Ysabel’s drawn back against the wall, looking down, away, her white hat in her hands. “I let you have his tongue. I let you have his tongue because I knew you couldn’t resist eating it. I knew when you ate it you’d see what’s to come. I wanted you to see that.” He’s even closer now. “What we all know will be. Tell me!” She’s looking at him now leaning over her. “You saw me as King, didn’t you. The banners of hawk and hive together over the city. A new day dawning.”

“I saw,” says Ysabel. Not looking up. “I saw myself as Queen. I saw Jo, at my side.”

“Yeah, well,” says the Duke, stepping back. “I was obviously out that day when you looked in. Taking care of business!” He taps his cane against the floor. “Always taking care of something.”

The dressing room, small, dim, painted black so many times the regular lines of the cinderblock walls are soft and blurry. Under one of the mirrors surrounded by stickers and photos a short red velvet chaise, on the chaise a figure in sweatpants and a large black hooded sweatshirt, the hood pulled up, looking down.

“Starling,” says the Duke.

The figure doesn’t move, the head doesn’t lift, the hood doesn’t fall, the hands don’t shift from the lap. “Your Grace.” The voice is rich but worn and ragged.

“You never miss a Friday.”

“Or a Monday. Or a Thursday.” One of those hands now dips a moment into the shadows under that hood, then comes back down between the knees. A big hand, the back of it snarled with thick veins, the nails short and flat, painted red, the enamel chipped and flaking. “I am so sorry, Your Grace. I am not myself today.”

“No need to apologize,” says the Duke, squatting. “No, Your Grace, please,” she murmurs, but he’s shaking his head, putting a hand in the pocket of his tweed jacket. “I have something for you.” Pressing into those hands a little baggie twisted round a thimbleful of gold dust. “Better sometimes than never,” he says.

“Does he always bring it to you himself?” says Ysabel in the doorway.

“Highness!” cries Starling, hitching up from the chaise, dropping to one knee by the Duke slowly straightening, standing. “I was so wrapped up in pity for myself I did not see you there.”

“The Princess has kindly agreed to come about with me on my rounds,” says the Duke.

“His Grace can be quite persuasive,” says Ysabel.

“His Grace can be quite cruel, in his kindness,” says Starling. Turning, lifting herself to sit on the chaise again before the mirror. “We’re opening soon,” she says. “I must prepare myself. I thought it best to go on early today. When it wasn’t so busy.”

“Show us,” says the Duke.

Ysabel in her white coat in the doorway, the Duke leaning against the dulled black wall, the stern, rough-hewn hawk at the head of his cane in his hands. Her hood turns away from them both, looking to the litter of makeup vials and jars on the little stack of shelves bolted in the corner by the mirror. “Quite cruel, Your Grace,” she says.

“Show her,” says the Duke. “Show her what you do with her mother’s gift.”

Starling picks up a jar filled almost to its wide-mouthed brim with a viscous, milky fluid, touched with just a hint of gold. “I cannot but as you ask,” she says, handing the jar to the Duke. “In answer to your question, Highness,” she says, setting the little baggie on a shelf, untwisting it open, “no. He does not. Not every time.” Dipping finger and thumb to pinch up some dust. “Usually, his man Sidney came to me. The Dagger.” Holding up that pinch, taking up a tube of lotion with her free hand, deftly opening the tube and squirting a dollop in the palm of the hand with the pinch. “Sometimes as often as once a week, or even every few days. He could be quite – boisterous. Enthusiastic. He often told me how beautiful he found me.” Letting the dust drift from fingertip to lotion shining white in her palm. “He would not have liked to see me as I am today.”

“He was an oaf,” says the Duke. Both hands on the hawk again. He’s tucked that jar away somewhere. “I should’ve listened to you.”

“I never said a word against him,” says Starling. The fingers of that hand lit up a little, calluses and creases picked out in sharper shadows now.

“Well,” says the Duke. “Still. I should’ve listened.”

Those hands pressed together now rubbing the lotion front to back, criss-crossing, the sleeves of her sweatshirt sliding away as she rubs lotion along her wrists, her forearms, her hands again, and Starling says, “But His Grace does come from time to time.” Her hands smoother now, more slender, longer perhaps, her nails definitely longer, and a glossy, flawless red. “I am honored when he does.” She lifts her hands to her face there under the hood and holds them still a moment.

“An artist of your talent honors us all,” says the Duke.

“But I do wish you had warned me,” says Starling, pushing the hood back, sweeping out a wave of black hair glossy in artful tangles. Looking green eyes up into the mirror at Ysabel looking back at a reflection of herself, a little older, the nose a little wider, the chin more prominent. The red smile hesitant. “Please,” says Starling. “Forgive me. It is – something of an homage, intended with the utmost respect – ”

“Why,” says Ysabel, there in the doorway, “why must I forgive such flattery?”

“Red Ruth?” says Jo. On the bar before her a shot glass half-full of something clear and colorless. Jackie shrugs her tattooed shoulders. “It’s in England somewhere,” she says. “Saw it on a map once. Said to myself, that’s a bad-ass stripper name.” She holds up a hand. On the stage a man in jeans and a morning-coat holds an umbrella strung with little white lights. He’s singing over a roughly strummed guitar Narcisissma, Narcisissma as Ettie and Chrissie in shimmering haltered gowns and opera gloves dance a foxtrot about him. Narcisissma is the pride of Pomona, he sings, and Jackie slides a couple of dimmer switches on the console sitting on the bar, and lights dim and shift onstage from yellow and red to blue as the white lights strung about his umbrella flare. Pomona, Pomona says she looks like me, but she will look like you when I’m set free. “I used to do this pirate thing,” says Jackie, turning back from the console. “Back when it was big.”

“Sisters, huh,” says Jo, watching them twirl into a dip onstage.

“The twin thing,” says Jackie.

“It’s a license to print fucking money,” says Jessie. She shoves a glass rattling with a few loose ice cubes at Jackie. “Pour me another one, babe.”

“Diet Dr. Pepper on the house,” says Jo.

“Maybe you don’t have to drive, but I do,” says Jessie, smoothing the front of her grey chauffeur’s jacket. She takes the glass of soda from Jackie. Jo says, “So what was your name?” and Jessie sets the glass down unsipped and squeezes her eyes shut and says “Oh God it was so fucking emo.”

“Oh please,” says Jackie.

She’s got no braids in the inkwell, no money on the prize, the man’s singing as Ettie or Chrissie slips a glove from Chrissie’s or Ettie’s arm. Ain’t got no boyfriend behind her that she can’t hypnotize.

“Rain,” says Jessie, opening her eyes.

“Rain?” says Jo.

“I moved up here from San Diego, okay? I had this idea I’d spend these long lazy afternoons in a hot tub in a cabin in the woods with candles and wine and a good book and it’d be raining all the time on a tin roof or something. So I was Rain, okay?” Swaying back and forth nose to nose Ettie and Chrissie gloveless undo the straps to each other’s gowns. Narcisissma is the pride of Biloxi, sings the man in the morning-coat. Biloxi, Biloxi says she’s not your kind, but Narcisissma gives me peace of mind. “So fucking romantic,” says Jessie.

“If there’s somebody in the hot tub with you,” says Jackie.

“Speak for yourself. Let me tell you something.” Jessie leans over, puts her hand on Jo’s. “It’s the music, okay? Picking your songs. Everything else, it’s just tits and ass and your oh face. You gotta get the music right.” Ettie and Chrissie hold their last pose forehead to forehead arms about each other’s necks and then one of them turns away suddenly saying “Thank you, Jeff. Can we run that again? To get the lights right?” as the other works her gown back up in place. “And if you really want to tell them what it’s all about,” says Jessie, “there’s only one song to dance to.”

“What’s that,” says Jo, her hand still under Jessie’s.

“Eleanor Rigby,” says Jessie.

Table of Contents

Mademoiselle Juliette,” written by Jérémy Chatelain and Jean Fauque, ©2007 Sony ATV Publishing – Sir Sid / Sir Sid. Narcisissma written by Don McLean, copyright holder unknown.

M.E.Traylor    12 September 2010    #

What a treat (and change) to see the Duke and Ysabel talking plainly to each other. I’m surprisingly captivated by the Victorian strip joint and the Duke’s involvement. I can’t wait to see what Jo’s reaction is to all this.

Also, there is some hopeful, childlike part of me that is convinced Jo is male. And I keep telling myself that I could be completely off the wall and that it won’t happen and I’ll only be disappointed. But I’m still half-convinced. Somehow. That maybe Jo is the King Come Again.

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