‘Well I could hardly be expected to pick up a perfect stranger in the middle of the night, in the middle of NOWHERE, and then fall asleep in his lap—which is just what I’d have done. I was looking for a place to sleep, not for some grubby hitchhiker. Even if he was all alone… and kind of cute… (Passing at sixty miles an hour, you mean; Jeezus, Brandy! What could you be thinking?) I wonder if he would have helped me drive? I might have been in Tucson by now, instead of all scrunched up in this front seat, freezing my buns off… (Or I could be dead; count your blessings, kiddo; he was probably an ax-murderer.) Still, poor guy, probably just wanted a ride. It’s a cinch his chances are slim to none on this godforsaken highway; no one’s passed me—and I sure as hell didn’t pass a soul myself; not after dark. Of course I’d been lost for hours. (Dumb, dumb, dumb! Jeezus, Brandy, admit it; you are dumb!) I’ll bet he’s pretty damn cold out there all by his lonesome.’

Such were Brandy’s thoughts just before the frustration and fatigue of a long day’s wrong turns, gravel roads, wasted miles, and dead ends forced her lavender-tinted eyelids to shut for the night. She had left Los Angeles early that morning—left permanently, she felt (after four years of sharing her Hollywood apartment with a long, mostly pathetic string of tinsel-town types), having worked 8 PM to 2 AM six nights a week at a club on Sunset Boulevard. She was a belly dancer, and a good one. In fact, she was the best dancer the club had, or would ever hope to have, and the management had been sorry—genuinely sorry—to see her go.

 

"Is it the new costume, Brandy?"New Costume

"No."

"’Cause, if it’s the costume, if that’s all, you can wear the old one."

"It’s not the costume, Arnie."

"Well, what then, for Chris’sakes? That guy last week? That creep who tried to stuff the twenty down your… "

"No, Arnie. I keep telling you, I like working here."

"More money? I’d pay you more money if I could, Brandy. You know that, don’t ya? It’s just that we’re losin’ business to all these porno joints right now. Nobody wants to see anything these days 'cept raw meat, if you’ll pardon the expression."

 

Arnie had been a good employer—a good friend, too. He had held out a long time against the increasing pressures to provide less ‘art’ and more flesh. His protective attitude fostered a family-like atmosphere enjoyed by all: dancers, waitresses, cooks, bus boys, and bouncers. The food was reasonably good, service gracious, and, with Arnie constantly on the lookout for quality talent, the entertainment was usually well above par. Of course Brandy had to suffer the petting and pawing one would expect in a place where half-naked women danced among tables full of ogling men. But, in general, thanks to Arnie and the character of the people he hired, a homey sort of wholesomeness managed to prevail.

Business had slacked off, however, and though Arnie was loathe to admit it, the costume change was a concession to shifts in prevailing mores. "Exotic dancers" no longer meant what it had in the 60s. Regulars started to be eclipsed by more smut-expectant clientele. Even so, the proposed switch from traditional to ‘provocative’ garb was not altogether devoid of taste. Proportions of jewelry to fabric did favor the jewelry (the fabrics themselves were certainly more diaphanous), but there remained ‘an integrity of intent’ that served to enhance the female form and thereby appeal to a more ‘aesthetic’ sensibility.

 

"Ladies and gentleman, tonight, as your lips caress our authentic cuisine, your tongues delight in its seasonings of rare herbs and spices, your parched throats savor liqueurs like nectar from a thousand-and-one flowers, tonight you will be treated to a Dance of the Ancients. Scented with perfumed oils and myrrh, luxuriously draped in the finest damask, spangled with jewels, coins, and sequins wrought only from the costliest gems and precious metals, our performers—gifted ladies all—await to fulfill your every expectation."

(Arnie stretched the truth a little, of course.)

"Having learned their voluptuous trade in distant capitals throughout the world…"

(The most distant was Albany, New York.)

"… each style a revelation of secrets safeguarded from time immemorial…"

(Many of the dancers knew little if anything about their avocation’s origins.)

"…these wondrous creatures are about to dance into your hearts and minds and perhaps into your very souls…"

(But by preparing the crowd to see something he believed personally to be absolutely special, Arnie ensured responses would travel more ‘civilized’ routes.)

"I now introduce, without further ado…"

(And, whenever the power of that suggestion showed signs of losing its influence, the "blatantly unmannered" were ushered—unceremoniously—out the door. Such scenes, however, had begun to occur with greater frequency, and though not the primary reason for Brandy’s departure, each, alas, had made its vulgar contribution.)

The ‘primary’ reason amounted to little more than a vagary, an intuitive feeling of unrest that rendered Brandy hard-pressed for any explanation. More often than not, she acted on impulse anyway, seldom giving herself time to chew an idea before swallowing it whole, the result of which often found her confused by each radically altered circumstancewhys and wherefores tardy if they caught her up at all. And, those few that did, usually found Brandy immersed in some new situation—this method not wholly disastrous because her instincts were good. She was, however, often at a loss to justify certain ‘rash’ behaviors—which made her feel inadequate (with respect to others) and foolish, if not downright stupid (with respect to herself). Still, her inner voice was so insistent (especially of late) that its driving force was something she dared not ignore—making it as hard to talk Brandy out of things she felt to be right, as it was easy to talk her into things she felt to be shy of wrong. Entreaties to stay at the club, therefore, failed to hold swayher employer, co-workers, roommate, and a few close friends adding unanimous ballast to her heavy-hearted psyche.

 

It was thus she found herself huddled in the front seat of her ’67 Volkswagen en route to an uncertain future with three suitcases, fifteen hundred dollars in travelers’ cheques, one key to an LA storage locker, and a personal journal bound in robin-egg blue.

 

And it was thus she was found, sound asleep, next morning by the enigmatic hitchhiker.

*

*

His step...

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