by Diane Thomas-Plunk
As soon as the velveteen curtains closed at the front of the stage, Francine Fontaine quickly grabbed up her discarded garments and escaped into the wings to get out of the way for the next dancer. On her way to the shared dressing room, she passed the toothless old doorman who made his usual grab at the tassel dangling from her right breast.
“God dammit, Papere.” She didn’t really care. She always swore at him with a smile. He always cackled and spittle always sprayed. She never even slowed down. Their daily exchange was as choreographed as her striptease.
Francine carefully hung her costume on her section of the clothesline strung at one end of the dressing area. Her spike heels were exchanged for fuzzy slippers and the tassels were removed so she could wrap up in a worn, chenille bathrobe. A silky, red robe hung with her clothes and costumes, but she only wore it when she went out front to chat up customers and hustle drinks. There weren’t many spenders out there now and it wasn’t worth her time.
It galled Francine that she was still scheduled for mid-day. Neither fame nor fortune came with this shift. She was having a new costume made and was working on a new routine that would surely bump her to a later time slot. That’s where she could be seen, be discovered. Francine was going to be famous.
She was just 17 when she moved out of her mother’s downtown New Orleans shotgun rental house. She saw what happened to girls in her neighborhood. They married at 18, bore two babies by age 20 and kept having them while they got fat and their minimum-wage husbands ran around on them. That wasn’t going to be her fate. She was born pretty, but, more importantly, she was coldly determined.
When Francine first moved out, she lived with three other girls in a tiny apartment in a slightly better area than her mother’s home. The converted, two-story house included four apartments, a brick courtyard and enough charm to overcome its run-down exterior. Her waitress job bought her the living room sofa as a bedroom. It wasn’t much, but it was some place to be while she figured out how to get where she was going. When she had extra money, she’d go to movies, sitting through the same film three times to study her idols – Sheree North, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. She memorized the way they walked, gestured, spoke and tilted their heads. When no one was looking, she practiced.
She traded up to a cocktail waitress gig in the French Quarter where she’d get better tips from drunk tourists. She loved the tawdry flashiness of the Quarter, smells emanating from restaurants, gawking tourists, free spirits who lived in quaint apartments like those in Streetcar Named Desire, and the odd characters who populated the streets like a surreal Halloween parade. Francine always smiled as she walked to work from the streetcar stop. She felt like a character in one of the movies she watched.
To start her new job, Francine bleached her hair blonde and bought figure-hugging clothes. Men paid more attention after that and sometimes they just paid. The men weren’t important. She needed cash for her next move up. The biggest names in the Quarter were the super-star strippers like Blaze Starr. They made a lot of money, hob-nobbed with celebrities and even got movie roles. That would be her ticket to fame.
And that’s when Frances Hebert became Francine Fontaine. She got a waitress job at one of the best strip clubs and studied the dancers while she served drinks. Sometimes she sneaked backstage after her shift to question the dancers about how to get started and how to compose a routine. Close up, the dancers didn’t look as good as they did onstage. Most of them looked older and worn out, but the two stars were exceptionally beautiful. Francine focused her attention on the older women who shared their secrets without concern for the blonde pup nipping at their heels. Maybe they wanted her to eclipse them so they could get out.
When she’d worked up a routine and put together an acceptably flamboyant costume, she stripped her way into a morning slot at a lower-end club. She was on her way.
It wasn’t long before she climbed a rung on the stripper ladder and used her charms to get a spot at her current job at The Show Lounge. That had been two years ago. But now the clock was ticking and the career was stalled. She still claimed that she was 25, but needed a break while her body was still good. Her frustration made Francine a willing target for the photographer who approached her one evening when she was working the bar in the red silk robe. His business was taking pictures of pretty girls and he’d pay a modeling fee. Francine agreed immediately. She could use the photos for her next career jump. And she might have paid him if he hadn’t offered first. He took some photos of her in pedal pushers and tight blouses, then short-shorts and halter-tops, but he quickly asked for skimpier outfits. That was fine with Francine. She remembered Miss Marilyn Monroe’s calendar photo that propelled her into fame. That’s what Francine needed – something artfully bare.
“Frannie, you hiding back here?”
“Just resting before the next show, sugar. Nothing’s happening out front.” Francine’s feet were propped on an empty, wooden chair and she was practicing blowing smoke rings. Eve was just arriving at work. Even Eve had a slightly later shift.
“There’s a party tonight, Frannie. Want to go?” Eve dumped her clothes on the floor and poured her make-up items onto the counter that ran along one partially mirrored wall.
“Is it a party for fun or work?”
“Maybe both.” Eve winked at her. “One of our regulars out front – Joseph, you know him, a cuddly old guy – well, he told me about it. There will be a lot of businessmen and they want some pretty girls around. Make it what you want it to be. There might be someone important there. C’mon, let’s go. It doesn’t start ‘til 9 and neither of us is working then.”
“Yeah, not working then. Rub it in, Eve,” Francine thought.
At 8:55 that night Francine entered the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel on Baronne Street. She thought it was important, professional to be on time. She wore a black, slim-fitting dress with a fuzzy, white collar, and black pumps. She read somewhere that Miss Monroe shaved a quarter inch off one heel of each pair of pumps to enhance her trademark wiggle. Francine did the same. Her high-heels clicked across the marble floor and she knew that heads were turning. It pleased her, but she didn’t acknowledge the admiring stares. She had nothing to gain there. Spending your time and effort on “gain” was businesslike. At the lobby bar, she perched atop a stool and ordered a Dr. Pepper. She used her Marilyn whispery voice while flirting with the bartender and ensured herself free refills. Her jangly bracelet clanked a tune each time she raised her glass.
Swiveling to observe the lobby while waiting, Francine spotted the young couple. They stood out as brightly as if a spotlight shone on them. They were flushed and giggly, trying to act like grown-ups. He wore a boutonniere, and she had a white corsage. Newlyweds.
Francine lit a cigarette and turned her back to them. With no sentimentality, she recalled her two marriages. Naturally, those thoughts also called up the youthful pregnancy and the abortion that ended her first, short marriage. She hadn’t wanted to marry in the first place, couldn’t be tied down by a baby. The sweet young man who loved her too much insisted on the wedding, though, and was heartbroken when the baby went away. He never believed that she’d miscarried. One day, he just packed and silently left.
Her second husband made himself her manager. He talked a sweet line, but cashed her paychecks and snorted the rent money up his nose. She kicked him out. She didn’t need either of them anyway.
Francine knew that Eve would be late. Eve wasn’t serious about anything. Francine was serious about everything and even had tucked three copies of her photos into the handbag that now lay on the bar. Maybe someone important would be at the party. She was always prepared.
At 9:15, Eve rushed into the bar almost at a trot, laughing and fingering the bobby pins in her French roll hairdo. Francine pictured Eve as a Golden Retriever puppy romping in a field, but as irritating as Eve’s laziness was, Francine was consistently yet reluctantly charmed by the girl’s guilelessness. “I had an early date. Am I late?”
“Couillon! Of course you’re late. You’re always late. Don’t you ever pay attention?” Francine only feigned anger, but would never again agree to depend on Eve.
“Dearest Frannie, you’re just cranky, and I’m not a fool. I just like to have fun. Let’s go upstairs. Let’s go.” Eve kissed Francine on both cheeks and took her hands to encourage her off the barstool. “Relax, ma petite. We’ll have such fun.”
Room 622 was a suite. A dozen or so men in expensive suits and ties noticed their arrival. A bar was set up on a side table and rhythmic, Negro music drifted out of a radio somewhere. Naturally, a few girls were already there and circling their prey, just as the men thought they were doing. Francine smiled. Hard to tell the difference between the predators and the prey. The girls were younger and thinner, but Francine knew her way around this kind of party in a way that would take them years to know. She’d been to this rodeo too many times, and it was a strain to keep the desperation from showing. With a glass of white wine in her hand, she scouted the room for the priciest, hand-tailored suit so she could set her hook. Maybe tonight.
By breakfast, she had struck gold. Francine and the wealthy man had made a connection. Jon was attentive, but polite, and was taken with the beauty of her photos. He went to the restaurant’s lobby and made a long-distance telephone call and reported that an important photographer would be in Vicksburg the next day. He wanted Francine to pose for him. Jon jotted down the address and appointment time as well as his own office phone number so they could get together again when Francine returned.
Here was her big break at last. She was exhilarated. Her mind raced with the many preparations to be made in quick order: plan the 210-mile drive, choose and pack costumes, arrange for a day off – no, two days. She should pack sandwiches. It was a four and a half hour drive up highway 61 and cash was short. But not for long.
“You’re late,” said the important man.
“I know. I’m very sorry, so sorry. I’m just honored to model for you, but I had car trouble – unforeseen – and I had to spend hours upon hours at some country lady’s house waiting for repairs. So sorry. I’m more professional than this. You’ll see.” Francine babbled uncharacteristically. “This isn’t my usual behavior, sir.”
“You’re sweating, and you’re heavier than I was told.” His appraising eyes were flat and cold like a catfish left too long on the dock.
“I just need to blot, and my curves photograph quite nicely, seductively. You’ll see.”
“Go change and be quick. Put this on. My time is valuable.”
He thrust cloth items at her. Francine took a quick look at the set before heading to the small bathroom he’d pointed to. The set was simply a white backdrop and a bed draped in black satin sheets with many matching black satin pillows. Francine knew that her blonde hair and pale skin would photograph well on the bed.
As she stripped out of her traveling clothes, she lit a cigarette to calm her nerves and examined the costume – white bikini briefs and a white organza pinafore. It would contrast the purity of white against the sinfulness of black satin. Unimaginative, but fine. She could do that. Francine blotted her perspiration, powdered her face and chest and slipped into the costume. She tried to wipe the film from the dirty mirror. Someone had smoked a thousand cigarettes in the tiny room. Because she was organized, she’d brought both white and black spike heels, so she stepped into the white ones and exited the bathroom.
He positioned her in a demure pose at the foot of the bed and began thirty minutes of shooting, as she moved from one pose to another.
“Costume change,” he announced. “Here, you need a drink to loosen up. You’re too damn stiff. I thought you were a pro.”
The important man handed her a cocktail glass. Francine kept silent, but sniffed the glass. Whiskey, no ice. Good. She took a grateful gulp.
“Get rid of the pinafore and drape this fabric around you.”
Francine rose to go to the dusky mirror in the cold bathroom to make the draping artistic.
“Don’t bother. You know what to do. Just take care of it.”
Francine took another slug of whiskey and removed the pinafore. The work so far wasn’t unusual, but a warning signal was beginning to sound in the back of her head. She ignored it and draped the filmy gauze over her shoulder, across her breasts and arranged herself on the onyx-colored bed so the delicate fabric cascaded across her thighs and onto the satin.
Another thirty minutes of snapping shutters with her turning this way and that with Francine imagining the photo’s composition and drama.
“Five-minute break. Empty your glass and get rid of the fabric and bikinis.”
“Now we’re down to business,” she thought. “These will be the photos that make me famous.”
Francine deliberately reversed his instructions. She dropped the fabric on the floor and looked him in the eyes almost confrontationally while she slid out of the bikinis. She sat on the side of the bed, legs primly crossed, and tossed down the rest of the whiskey. “Let’s work,” she said.
The important man went back to his camera, reloaded film and shot photos for an hour, occasionally refilling her glass, but not with consideration or compassion.
When the camera stopped clicking off pictures, the man went to the satin bed and fell onto her. “What the hell!” Francine tried to push him away. “Hey man, get the hell off me. This isn’t why I’m here. We can negotiate, though.”
“Shut up, you Cajun slut. Negotiate, hell. You owe me.”
Francine struggled and swore at him. The first punch took her totally by surprise. No one had ever hit her. The side of her face, her head, her neck, everything hurt. Momentarily stunned, she quickly turned to indignant fury. No sonovabitch would do this to her. She dug her red fingernails into whatever they could grab.
The man pinned her down and the rape began. When that didn’t satisfy him sufficiently, he started punching her again. Her face, her stomach. Her ribs screamed. Her mouth seeped blood. She prayed that he would die. She prayed that she would die, but she just passed out instead.
When Francine woke up, she didn’t know how long she’d been out. She tried to sit up, but cried out in pain and fell back on the vicious bed. Involuntary tears sneaking down her face, she scanned the room to make sure the no-longer-important man was gone. She knew she had to go. And go quickly. Stumbling, crying. Jesus, she still had on her shoes. “That’s insane,” she thought. Francine struggled into clothes and grabbed her pocketbook. Car keys still there. She’d only had $5.50 to her name, but the SOB had taken it. Goddamn. She couldn’t even stand up straight, but she had to get out of there in case he was coming back.
She left the treasured makeup case in the bathroom. It was too heavy now. Francine licked the salty taste of blood from the corner of her mouth and slowly opened the hall door. Holding her breath, she listened but heard no movement. Just a few steps to the staircase to the street. She willed herself down each one knowing that every step was closer to escape.
Out the front door, Francine leaned against the building’s facade to stay upright as she stumbled toward her red Chevy. A misty rain started, but she didn’t feel it. Only her strength of will, which she’d always counted on, kept her moving. Finally in the car with the doors locked, Francine leaned her head on the steering wheel and sobbed. She thought she heard footsteps and bolted upright, but it was just fear pounding in her ears.
How the hell did this happen to her? Surely it wasn’t her fault. No, it was the man – the sonovabitch at the party, the one who sent her here. It was his fault. She’d fix him, oh yeah. But until she could, where would she go? The car didn’t have enough gas. Her money was gone, and she didn’t have the strength to get back home anyway. Goddamn him. Goddamn every man she’d ever known. Not a one of them was worth shooting.
The country lady, Opal. Yes, the one who gave Francine money to get the car fixed so she could get to the meeting with the important man who liked to rape and beat up women. Surely she had enough gas to get back there. Maybe Opal would take her in.
Diane Thomas-Plunk was born and raised in Memphis. NPR recognized her work last year when her entry was selected as a “favorite” in their Three-Minute Fiction contest. Another Opal Pratt story was published recently in the Editor’s Choice edition of Belle Reve Literary Journal, which has also published her poetry. Thomas-Plunk was a professional writer throughout her career in public relations and as a print journalist. Her publication credits until now, including two handbooks on community/media relations, have been primarily nonfiction. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and English. Read the companion piece to this story, Opal and the Hussy, here.