This month marks the release of Worthy, a novel by Lisa Birnbaum that follows a “former” con artist from Eastern Europe to Tampa, via New York and a string of international cities. The narrator, Ludmila (a.k.a. Worthy) is a non-native speaker of English. In this excerpt, she addresses an unidentified patron of a State Road 60 strip bar she manages for her boyfriend Leo.
Here around Tampa sometimes Leo and I have been on a horseback ride. We love animals and sight of hay and dirt, even if we don’t have skill for riding. Down Brandon Way, past all the supermarkets and dollar discounts and Kentucky Chicken drive-ups, there is pastures and quiet country. And we will drive out there, sometimes just for nothing drive on Sunday morning. Traffic goes the other way to church, and we have our church out there with the pigs. Also wild turkeys and deer, you don’t expect in Florida how much wildlife is there. We keep their company.
Smells of nature can be a message of meaning. If you have only false aroma, some fragrance in a can, you will have nothing to comprehend. Even in a smell we consider to stink, there contain some idea to contemplate. Yes, it may be danger, don’t eat this rotten fish, or it is there for saying, you are too far from your humanity, remember that you also can smell, as any living body, and will definitely smell when you become corpse.
Darkness coming over us here this afternoon, my friend. But you knew we were going deep, so no surprise we must have a party this afternoon. Yes, right away! Let us bring out some chip and dips, some beer to put in the champagne glasses, white chocolate from Switzerland, and music from good old banjo days or why not calypso? We will take Leo out from his back office where he lives too much, or too little! Maybe Rebecca is in the bathroom cleaning, I think so, and she can join.
If you can’t go to the country and smell the shit until Sunday, have your party in a dark room. Pretend it is midnight. In some case, immediately almost could be too late.
You come more often, don’t you? Now you look less on the stage, and sometimes you eat a sandwich while you watch a dance, or you come over on the side here during dancing, even before a break, and you ask me to continue. Sometimes you have to tell me what was yesterday. I like that help to keep going on track.
Maybe you like me to hurry—no?—but I can’t let it too fast out. It comes in pieces and together only at last, as you carry off what has been my life.
We have made a quiet music policy for between dancing, you know, so constant banging doesn’t give Leo headaches. Or me. And we can listen and talk more here in the club, and it is more social opportunity for all the guys and dancers, too. But also isn’t required and nobody bothers. And we make it nice, don’t you think? I think we have a bar cat soon, if I will bring inside one who would sit on a lap—ha, no, not a lap dancer cat! Leo, always serious manager, says what about any allergy of patrons? We still must talk it over.
We do not sell a lap dance here, no, even is popular in Tampa. We don’t have to do that. When patrons are touching a dancer, you have too many problems hard to manage. Best to just say no, isn’t offered here, you know, and keep control. If someone is not satisfied, he may enjoy bar down the way, and we can wave him goodbye. Poor Buddy, old timer around here, has to transfer, he told Leo. All right, says Leo. Not too much a shame, we all agree.
How much of yourself are you going to put on a sale? If you will not put your naked ass into a stranger’s lap, is possible to stay a distance apart from handing yourself for cheap sale. You sell your image, yes, perhaps a story of who you would be—but not all the way to the bones.
Leo doesn’t want that kind of whorehouse business, and like anyone will do, he decide where to draw a line. He anyway can be condemned for profit on the body of women, but for himself he can stand there. Nobody coming here get a chance to know him, really. Most nights he goes in the studio, he make it soundproof, whenever a chance to write his music or something, I don’t really know. We are together apart, some new way for me. It’s okay, we have respect. I know, strong word.
Looks like we are going nowhere, but we both always in process, some shifting or resistance going on. So much like you, I am sure. Parts inside are trying to move like plates of the earth.
Long time ago sailing on Stefan Batory, they have Midnight Sympathy. Is quiet for all hours when anyone could be asleep or only peaceful resting in the dark. Or perhaps making love. Or thinking. We show sympathy if we make this silence even for thinking. And we don’t knock on the door or crack on the floor. I often remember this system of the ship from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and I consider like a law, when we need to have more understanding about fragileness. Nine of twenty-four hours, definitely isn’t enough sympathy.
Here at our club we don’t have sympathy at midnight, not that kind.
But I wake up in the night sometimes, don’t you? I am like a sweater unweaving. Like a book all pages scatter out in some few piles.
Other stories I have, you know. I don’t know what to do about all my stories. One could be more important, but I forget about it. Or I want to tell and decide not, and later consider I should, but you are gone. After ten, I like to have you here, so you will understand me more, but you are here these days in the early day. You go sometimes before dancers come even. Only you stay when I talk.
Now you call me Worthy, very sweet.
If I am busy, you even go, I notice. You don’t get your drink if you will sit alone, so I start to wonder if you change something in your life. Maybe you are expecting something.
If you are listening for the answer, it will come.
My beautiful dress could be the answer today, don’t you think? I love it, how can a dress do that! Soft and silk, yes. And you notice this sleeve is slender, couldn’t fit everybody, so was a sale dress. Thank you, I like it also very much, so maybe I wear it tomorrow again. I hope I still will like it tomorrow. Sometimes is already gone, this feeling. A small problem I didn’t see now suddenly there, maybe doesn’t fit to one shoulder, or design isn’t so right for me, I consider. Could be only my heart is low on the next day, and I become not so pretty and nothing will look nice.
If it will be cloudy, this dress stays in the closet, my heart on different sleeve.
The bar, why I love the bar? This bar is only like home. Isn’t it some kind? Not public, not exactly, more private place for people. I think you can become like a family of strangers in this place. I like more here than Leo’s big house to sleep. Upstairs is warm where I sleep many nights, sometimes with Leo if he would like to be with me or doesn’t want to drive so late over there.
We have transit relationship but staying, isn’t going anywhere. We stay in this moment, like a Buddhist love affair.