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PHOENIX

By John P. Thompson

The first time I saw Phoenix she was wearing a red g-string and highheels; her hair also had red highlights, though these were hard to distinguish under the lights. I had my feet on the stage, and my elbow on the table, next to Chris's beer. We both had Buds, as always, the cheapest drink in the bar.

Phoenix smiled down at us, said "Hi, guys," danced for awhile, and then swung off down towards another table. Chris and I were smiling.

Most of the other tables around the y-shaped stage were occupied by single men, most fat, many old. Only a few smiled back at Phoenix; most were somewhere between looking morose and looking mesmerized. Some of the older men, who seemed to be regulars, Phoenix talked with awhile, resting her legs on the backs of her highheels while they put bills in her g-string and made chit-chat. Phoenix laughed and nodded, occasionally making a small hand gesture, but their voices were inaudible from our table. Then she would dance off again, pausing by the speakers to unload her g-string tips. Unlike most of the dancers who had mascaraed eyes and sun-bed glossy skin, Phoenix was slender and pale. I worried about her tendons, wincing when she threw her head towards her knees, snapping into the full rear-view stance.

I hadn't seen Chris for months. He's twenty-seven or so, a professional cook, with broad shoulders, a mustache, and a good eye for pool. Every Christmas for the last few years, we meet and play at Rotten Rodney's on Lake Street in Madison, Wisconsin. This year my father joined us and we played cutthroat for a couple hours. My dad went to Harvard, before becoming dean of a string of law schools, Chris paid his own way through school, after doing time on the oil rigs in Montana, and I'm a smart-ass undergraduate, so we had interesting conversation. After Dad went home, Chris took me for dinner. Gyros, a shot of ouzo, and beer (Miller Draft; it was early, and Chris felt flush).

"So, what do you want to do tonight?"

"I don't know...I'm pretty open."

"How open?"

"I don't know. Open."

Chris finished his glass, smiling. "Ok. We'll go to Visions."

"Visions? Man, ok. I've never been there...Hah! I've always driven by--it's on East Washington right? ("Yeah")--I've always wondered what it was like."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. I'll go."

The second time I saw Phoenix she had on a blue g-string and black cowboy boots; we were on a darker side of the stage, and I could see her redgold hair more clearly. My first love had redgold hair, reminded me of fire and roses. She also lives in Madison, with her three-year boyfriend. We talk occasionally; I'm lobbying to become godfather to her first child--she thinks she'll marry Marty. I don't know if I'm happy for her or not.

Chris and I had left to go pick up his friend Jim. Jim was friends with Jan, who also dances at Visions. We'd seen her before picking up Jim. She came on after Phoenix, and had an elastic brace on her left knee. Tendons.

She was a little surprised at first sight of Chris sitting there; we talked. "I've got a son to support." She danced with only a little embarrassment. She was pleased when Chris told her we'd go get Jim.

Jim bought us each a Budweiser, and I put my foot back on the stage, and my black hat on the table. The hat is important to the story, so it's worth explaining: I grew up with a series of Finnish children's books about the Moomintroll family.

There is a sly, quiet traveller character in them called Snufkin, who wanders around, with his shapeless black hat, a harmonica and a pipe. This summer, in Inari, Finland (working for Let's Go), I bought a hat which looked like Snufkin's hat. Phoenix came to our table, leaned over, picked up mine, which is mostly shapeless.

"Mind if I wear this?" She had a southern voice. Tennessee, she told me (the third time I saw her).

"No not at all. Here...you've got to make sure you've got the front right." I reached out my hand. There is a tiny tear in the felt which identifies the back of the hat. Phoenix tried it on.

"Hm. It's too big."

"Oh, your head's about the same size as mine...try it with your hair up."

It fit. It looked wonderful. My first love looked wonderful with her hair up, slender neck exposed. Phoenix danced away, pulling it low over her eyes; Marlene Dietriech. I never brought myself to give any of the dancers a tip, but I hoped that the Snufkin hat was helping Phoenix inspire some generosity around the stage. I told her she could keep it for the rest of her shift.

Chatting to one of the regulars, she flipped up the brim, bumpkin style. I laughed at Chris. "That woman's got a sense of humour."

The third time I saw Phoenix, she was wearing jeans, a grey cotton turtle-neck, and white cotton socks; it was about a week later. "I'm going to ask her out to lunch," I had told Chris. "Yeah, bullshit," he had told me.

It was a Saturday night near closing; I told the doorman I just wanted to ask, "you know, the red head?," a question. He let me stand by the door, waiting for her to come out of the dressing room.

The doorman was huge, with a striped head (shaved blond streaks), a Mr. Universe tanktop on, and sun-bed glossy skin. He wasn't real interested in talking. But he told me her name. Phoenix.

"Seriously?...You know, I come from Boston, and my bank card password is phoenix."

He said, "Yeah?" I waited for Phoenix to come out of the dressing room.

She did, about fifteen minutes later. She hadn't put her shoes on yet and her white cotton socks were obvious against the dark floor.

"Really?" she said, "`phoenix?' Spelled 'oe'?"

Lunch seemed too far away, but she invited me to go to a club to go dancing, "if you want to go out that way."

"Um, sure, but I've only got seven bucks with me."

"I'm not asking you for your money," she said, in her wonderful Tennesse voice.

"No no, I just wasn't sure if I had enough to get into the club."

But the club didn't have a cover charge. I can't remember its name. It was a big modern place with a dance floor, and a large-screen tv for the music videos. I hung up her and Aline's coats, while they shuffled ID's to get in. Aline was only twenty, but when they told the doorman they worked at Visions he let them in. Phoenix is twenty-one. About five foot three.

We sat, talked, drank a drink. She was resting for a bit, but, even after an eight hour shift, she still felt like dancing. I told that I'd seen The Flamingo Kid the other night; that the father in it had said to the son: "There's two things in life. To find out what you enjoy doing, and what you're good at. If they're the same thing, then the gods are smiling on you."

"Well," she said, "I guess the gods are smiling on me."

We never danced. She said she liked "progressive music" which she defined for me as The Cure, The Smiths...maybe Blondie. She knew of Big Audio Dynamite, but hadn't known they recently put out an album called Megatop Phoenix.

She got the name from a highschool friend, who she reminded of a firebird with her hair. Phoenix had ended up in Madison after winning the Miss Nude Arizona contest; she met an agent who brought her to Wisconsin. Madison is a very comfortable place to live, with a huge student population, two lakes, and an isthmus between the working class east side and the suburban west.

At bar time, I left her my number if she wanted lunch, and drove west down East Washington past Visions, between the lakes, and back home.

Phoenix never called.

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