“Ambition,” said “Honest” Abe Kowalski, as he stood over Harlan Winters, rhythmically scratching a spot behind his ear. Tiny flakes of dandruff floated down on Harlan as he kneeled on the floor in the front the camera shelf, marking down the prices on last year’s digital cameras for the pre-Christmas sale. The white flakes decorated Harlan’s red Santa hat like bits of scaly snow.
“Ambition,” repeated Abe sternly as he withdrew his finger from his scalp and glared at it as if it too were guilty of laziness and inaction. “That’s what it all starts with. You got to want something better for yourself. You’ve got to close the fear loop of “How Can I?” by substituting “Now I can.” It’s part of changing your instant think-feedback pattern from “can’t” to “can”, you know what I mean?”
“I guess so,” said Harlan. His back hurt from bending over and he didn’t care for Abe’s work-hard-dream-hard-improve-yourself-speeches. These speeches occurred most in the weeks before Christmas. The employees at “Honest Abe’s Electronics” called them the Honest Abe Christmas bonus, though on occasion Abe would also hand out gift-wrapped second-hand copies of his favorite self help book, “Putting Yourself First.”
“You don’t know what I mean,” concluded Abe. “The only way to know what I mean is to read the book which you refuse to do. But really, you should take the PYF self-knowledge workshop. It’s only five hundred and fifty bucks. Worth every penny.”
“I don’t have that kind of money,” said Harlan. “I work for you.”
“Hah,” said Abe. “Seriously, you’ve got to put yourself first. Right now, tell me if I’m wrong, but right now your fears are coming first.”
Abe noticed a woman with a baby in a pouch standing in front of the glass doors peering in. Abe looked at his watch.
“Showtime,” said Abe, stepping back to give Harlan room to rise to his feet.
After work, stuck in traffic, and staring out at the band of red brake lights that bridged all the way to the darkening horizon, Harlan wondered, not for the first time, if he did lack ambition. He lacked a college education, he lacked a girlfriend, damn, he lacked all kinds of things, but he still dreamed; he still wanted things. Chiefly, Harlan dreamed of one day owning an electronics chain and running Abe the hell out of business.
As he did every Friday night, Harlan pulled his car into the parking lot of “Girls! Girls! Girls!” The parking lot was filling up as Harlan pulled into a spot at the back away from the danger of dings from the drunken patrons flinging their doors open. At the entrance, Harlan had to wait behind a group of loud men in cowboy hats. Once they went in and Harlan moved up, Goulash, a Hungarian giant with a drooping handlebar mustache, gripped Harlan by the arm. “You not allowed in, troublemakey-mudder-fooker,” said Goulash with garlicky menace. Harlan smiled and handed Goulash the ten-dollar entrance fee. Goulash patted Harlan on the back and winked him inside.
Harlan sat at his usual table against the back wall and collected his light beer from the waitress. Harlan relaxed into his chair, feeling the groove of the bass as it thumped the room. The girls kept coming, most familiar, a few new and after a while, Harlan, his beer untouched in front of him, entered a trance. As the women revealed themselves slowly, shedding feathery boas, fuzzy robes and diaphanous gowns under the mirrors in the purple glow of the black lights, Harlan felt his sexuality emanate from him like lightning bolts from a cartoon hypnotist’s hands. The clothes dropped as the women spun and danced, puppets pulled by the strings of his libido. It was a sense of power and control that kept Harlan transfixed and aroused at the back of the bar.
Towards the end of the evening, as the crowd was thinning out, Harlan watched with renewed interest as Rainbow did her routine. Harlan liked Rainbow; he felt a connection with her, maybe because as a red head she had a harder time with tips than the other girls. Rainbow was beautiful, with red hair that flowed to her waist and a rainbow tattoo, nearly obscured in the black light, that circumscribed her belly button. Harlan felt that she watched him tonight as she danced her final song, her movement choreographed to get his attention and excite him. After her last song, Rainbow in the Dark by Dio, Rainbow collected the bills off the stage but instead of slowly circulating hustling lap dances, she headed straight for Harlan’s table.
Harlan dug in his pocket and had a five-dollar bill waiting for her when she arrived. He held the bill up to her but she waved it away.
“No thanks,” said Rainbow. “Can I sit down?”
Harlan nodded struck dumb as much by her refusal of money as he was by her sudden presence at his table. Rainbow reached over and picked up Harlan’s beer and took a sip of it.
“Ugh,” said Rainbow, putting it back down. “Warm.”
“I don’t really…”
“Drink,” finished Rainbow. “I know. I asked Goulash. I know a lot about you.”
“Relax. I mean I just know that you come in here a lot but you don’t have a favorite. You tip everybody the same who comes over to you. You never spend money on lap dances and you always sit way back here away from the action. Also, you work in a camera store.”
“Electronics,” said Harlan, suddenly uncomfortable. “I should be going.”
Harlan started to rise to his feet but Rainbow stopped him with a palm on his knee. “Wait, it’s Harlan, right?”
“Harlan, are you interested in a business proposition?”
The next night Harlan waited until the evening was over, the girls had left the stage and the house lights had been turned on. Then, carrying a plastic bag from Honest Abe’s, he walked around the stage to a scuffed blue door marked with a tinfoil star and a big “No Entry” sign over the peephole. Before he could knock, the door swung open. A girl with an orange colored tan and blond dreadlocks, Harlan remembered her name as Amber, smiled at him. She was wearing beat-up jeans and a t-shirt that said, “With Tits Like These Who Needs Brains?”
Amber winked at him and held out her hand. “You must be Harlan,” she said. “I’m Amber.”
Before he could answer, Amber bellowed, “Rain, your boyfriend’s here!”
A couple of dancers taking off make-up with cold cream in front of a long, dirty mirror looked up and tittered. Rainbow appeared from behind a shower curtain wearing a blue kimono and clear plastic high heels. Her wet skin glistened in the light from the mirror’s bulbs.
“Where should we do it?” said Rainbow toweling off her hair. Harlan pointed up at the ceiling.
On the roof the lights of the suburbs spread out around them, hazy and indistinct. The “Girls! Girls! Girls!” sign that dominated the roof had just been turned off. The hot plastic ticked in the cool wind that whisked across the roof.
“I’m not going to stay up here long,” said Rainbow. “I’ll freeze my tits off.”
Harlan took the Polaroid camera box of out the plastic bag. He broke the seal, pulled the camera out and loaded it.
“Hurry, seriously,” said Rainbow.
“Stand against the sign,” said Harlan. He sighted through the eyepiece. “You’re really beautiful.” He’d never told a girl she was beautiful before.
“What should I do?”
“Lean on the sign with hand. Right. Let the wind pull the kimono open.”
Harlan shot a photo and then another. He moved closer, feeling in control, and kept shooting.
“There,” he said. “There. You’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.”
“You keep saying that,” said Rainbow.
“Because you are,” said Harlan. Harlan moved closer to her. Rainbow looked startled, no longer in control the way she was inside the club. He reached up and brushed her hair away from her face.
“Rain, you OK?” said a voice.
Harlan turned and saw Amber standing next to the roof entrance. She had a coat on and a gym bag over one shoulder.
“Yeah,” said Rainbow. “We’re done.”
Rainbow moved away from Harlan her arms clutched around herself.
“Just wanted to make sure you weren’t being murdered or anything,” said Amber.
Before she reached the door, Rainbow turned to Harlan who was picking up the photos off the ground. “Thanks,” she said. “Bring those down so we can pick some.”
The photos were spread on the green felt of the pool table. Amber, Rainbow and Harlan began to pick them up and hand them around. Goulash, a cigar protruding from his mouth, was sweeping up and putting the chairs on top of the tables. As Goulash pushed his broom by, he paused and peered at the photos.
“Have seen before,” he said and began pushing the broom away.
“He doesn’t know shit,” said Amber “These are really good. They’ll get into Hustler for sure.”
Rainbow looked flattered. Harlan, as he looked them over, got a peculiar sensation. He loved them, loved his handiwork, and loved the way Rainbow looked in them. He didn’t want to let them go.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Harlan.
“She’s not paying you anything until it gets published,” said Amber.
“I didn’t want to get your hopes up before I saw these photos but I think I can send them directly to a friend of mine who is the editor at Hustler.”
“How do you know somebody like that?”
“Sure. Old buddy of mine,” said Harlan quickly. “Of course if you want to just send them in randomly yourself that’s fine but they’ll probably just end up in the garbage.”
Amber looked at Harlan. “Yeah? What’s his name?”
“Abe Kowalski”, said Harlan, spitting out the first name that came to mind.
“I think I’ve heard that name,” said Amber.
“You have?” said Rainbow.
“Look, do you want me to do you a favor or not?” said Harlan.
It was Monday morning and slow. Harlan took his break and was sitting in the employee lounge looking at the photos he had taken. Abe stomped in holding a Polaroid camera box aloft.
“I just found this sitting out,” said Abe. “The seal’s broken on it. You know about this?”
“I borrowed it,” said Harlan.
“What?” said Abe. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Harlan spread the photos out in front of Abe. “I used it to take these. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“This one of your strippers?” said Abe as he scrutinized the photos.
“Rainbow,” said Harlan.
“These girls easy?” said Abe and Harlan smiled knowingly.
“Mind if I keep one?” said Abe as he slid one into his jacket pocket. “What you going to with all these?”
“Send ‘em in to a magazine,” said Harlan. “Get them published, make some money.”
“I underestimated you, Harlan,” said Abe. “Maybe you’ve got some ambition after all.”
Abe turned to go and stopped. “How about if I come with you with Friday when you go? I’d like to meet some of these ladies.”
“What about Mrs. Kowalski?”
“What she don’t know won’t hurt her.”
“No, I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Why the hell not?”
Harlan paused. “I told them I know the editor at Hustler.”
“So, you lied. Big deal,” said Abe.
“They asked me what his name was and I told them Abe Kowalski.”
Abe looked confused and then he began to laugh. “That’s perfect, that absolutely perfect!”
“What?” said Harlan.
“We’ll go this weekend and I’ll pretend to be the editor who got the photos and who is very interested in them. Flew in from the West Coast just to meet her.”
Harlan smiled. “That’s a great idea.”
“There’s a reason I’m the boss,” said Abe. He scratched his scalp in meditation sending down a shower onto the already dusted lapels of his jacket. “We’ll get our ashes hauled for sure.”
Harlan was already sitting at his table, untouched beer in front of him, when Abe arrived. Abe was dressed in a dark three-piece suit. The black light made the dandruff on the shoulders luminescent.
“You’re early,” said Abe.
“You too,” said Harlan. “Early worm gets the bird.”
“Hah,” said Abe, squinting at the stage. “So who we got here?”
“New girl,” said Harlan.
“I’ll say,” said Abe. “What she having, an epileptic fit? Quick somebody shove a wallet in her mouth.”
“Maybe that’s what she’s waiting for.”
“Hah,” said Abe. “So these chicks are all whores, right?”
“Just dancers,” said Harlan.
“They’re all whores,” said Abe, catching a passing waitress by the hips. “Bourbon rocks, sweetheart.”
“Women, I mean,” said Abe, staring at the stage as the waitress moved off. Amber had replaced the new girl and was in process of shedding a boa. “It’s just a question of price.”
“Not all of them,” said Harlan.
“Sure, all them.”
“Your mother, too?”
“Hah.” Abe paused. “Hell, my mother especially. She had my father by the balls. Henpecked him into an early grave.”
Abe pointed with his drink at the stage. “Do know that slag dancing?”
“That’s Amber,” said Harlan.
“That one I’ll fuck,” said Abe. “That hairdo, what do they call it, corn cobs?”
“Right,” said Harlan. “Corn cobs.”
After Amber finished dancing she began her rounds, wearing only her thong. She pulled out the side of the thong with a finger, allowing men a quick caress as they tipped her. By the time she reached Abe and Harlan’s table she had a green ruff of folded bills on each hip.
Abe lingered as he inserted a twenty into Amber’s waistband.
“Hey Harlan,” said Amber. “Who’s your pal?”
“This is Abe,” said Harlan.
Amber stared at Abe. “Abe Kowalski?”
“Heard of me, huh?” said Abe.
“It’s an honor, sir,” said Amber, shaking Abe’s hand. “I can’t believe it. I thought Harlan was maybe bullshitting.”
“Believe it,” said Abe, sipping his drink.
“I’ve got to tell Rainbow before she goes on,” said Amber and turned and left.
“Feel guilty at all?” said Harlan.
“Hah. Just hustling them the way they hustle everybody else.”
At that moment, “She’s A Rainbow” came on the sound system and Rainbow pranced out. She kicked and flung herself around the stage with a graceful abandon. Whenever she faced the audience, Harlan could feel the heat of her stare directed at their table.
“She’s really socking it out,” said Abe as the song changed to “Like a Rainbow in the Dark” and Rainbow began to shimmy up the tall brass pole.
“She’s auditioning,” said Harlan. “Rainbow’s the one I photographed.”
“Gotcha,” said Abe, as Rainbow twirled at the top of the pole and then descended, pole grasped between her thighs, red hair fanning out, slowly to the stage.
When Rainbow’s act finished, she quickly snatched up the bills that were scattered across the stage but instead of slowly table-hopping for more tips she jogged straight back to Harlan and Abe’s table.
“I’m Rainbow,” she said to Abe.
“That I know,” said Abe. “Have a seat.”
Rainbow sat down. “Did you get the pictures?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
Rainbow grinned and covered her face with her hands. “I think I’m going to cry,” said Rainbow. “Being in your magazine, it’s like a dream of mine.”
“Harlan has a great eye,” said Abe. “He was right to overnight the photos to me. We need new girls desperately.”
“Are they really good enough?” said Rainbow.
“No,” said Abe and as Rainbow’s expression collapsed he added, “But you are.”
“Of course, really. Here’s the deal – the Polaroid’s were fine, like I said they show your talent, but they’re not magazine quality. And I can’t take them to the big boss. What I need are professional grade photographs, ones that I can use to make your case.”
“The thing is,” said Harlan, “Abe has to fly back tomorrow.”
“I can come by your hotel tonight after work,” said Rainbow. “We could do the photos then.”
“Sure,” said Abe.
“One more thing,” said Rainbow, “My friend Amber, she won’t say so but she really wants her photos taken too. Can she come along?”
Abe furrowed his brow and gave this some serious thought. “Fine, honey,” he said with a sudden smile. “Why not make it a party?”
After Rainbow had left, Abe looked over at Harlan and winked. “See? You got to know what you want and go for it, you follow me?”
“I’ll go get the photo equipment from the store,” said Harlan.
“Open boxes or returns,” said Abe.
“Get a room at the Hilton?”
“Keep it on the cheaper side. The Winchester – I’ve taken chicks there before. And put it on your card; I’ll pay you back. My wife would flip if she saw the charge on the bill.”
“You’ll drive them down?” said Abe.
“Don’t you trust me?” smiled Abe. “Sure, but we’ll take a cab. Keep up the illusion.”
As Harlan got up to leave, Abe stopped him. “Hey, you had this whole thing planned out, didn’t you?”
“Sure,” said Harlan. “Why not?”
The Winchester loomed like an abandoned castle over 4th street. Harlan parked under a broken street lamp between an adult video arcade and a boarded-up bar.
Harlan opened the huge brass doors and slipped on a long trail of congealed grease that trailed into the marble lobby. He righted himself after nearly falling down.
“You should clean that up,” Harlan said to the man behind a caged-in desk. Hair sprouted up from his collar and his face was nearly covered in wispy black hair. He held a comic book in his hands; Harlan noticed his hair ran down to his fingernails. Like a werewolf, thought Harlan. “Somebody could sue.”
The werewolf laughed. “Jesus, you’re right. I’ll get the bell staff right on that.”
“You got a room?” said Harlan.
“Sorry, buddy. All full up. Hooker convention in town.” The werewolf laughed at his joke and turned the page in his comic book. “You get this Japanese stuff? My grandchildren are crazy for it.”
The werewolf coughed deeply and spat into the palm of his hand. He examined the phlegm and then poked his upheld hairy palm out of the slot in the cage. “My quack doctor says I’m fine. Does that look fine to you?”
The room was surprisingly large but smelled of stale sweat and cigarettes. Harlan went to open a window but they were painted shut. A crooked print hung on a wall, partially covering a large brown water stain. Harlan set the camera bags on the bed. He then took the equipment out and readied it. There was a knock on the door.
Harlan opened the door. Abe, a big grin on his face, had a bearish arm dangled over Amber while Rainbow stood slightly behind them. Amber took the room in at a glance and looked up at Abe with distaste.
“Not exactly the Ritz but it was all I could get on such short notice,” said Abe. “Come on in.”
Abe walked in followed by Amber and Rainbow.
“There’s a convention in town,” said Rainbow. “Crop dusters. Shitty tippers.”
Abe had walked over to the bags that that Harlan had brought in. He pulled a bottle out of one of them.
“Magic presto,” said Abe. “Would you beautiful ladies like a drink of fine tequila?”
Abe unscrewed the cap and took a swig. “Like piss from the dick of a Mexican donkey.”
“When you say it like that,” said Amber who walked over and took a gulp. Abe held the bottle out and but Rainbow and Harlan shook their heads.
“So what now?” said Amber.
“Usually I get acquainted with the girls before anything happens,” said Abe.
“So you pay us up front or I’m not doing it,” said Amber.
“Amber,” said Rainbow.
“How’s a hundred a piece?” said Abe.
“I can make that in a dance,” said Amber.
“It’s just a very small advance. We buy the pictures for publication and we’ll pay you…” Abe paused for effect.
“Twenty grand?” said Rainbow hopefully.
“Try two hundred thousand,” said Abe. “How’s them potatoes?” Amber and Rainbow exchanged grins. “But usually there’s a little give and take before the photo session.”
“Abe, let’s just do the photos,” said Harlan.
“Look,” said Abe. He licked his lips and stared at the girls. “I’m gonna be straight with you. We’ve got hundreds of hot chicks, just as good looking as you, who’d kill to be in our magazine. The ones who get in are the ones that form a special bond with me.”
Amber looked at Rainbow. “You do what you want,” said Rainbow.
“A blowjob?” said Amber.
“Sure,” said Abe wetly. “Absolutely.”
“Not in front of them,” said Amber. “In the bathroom.”
“Of course,” said Abe. “My thoughts exactly.” He took a pill case out of his pocket and chased down a couple pills with a gulp of tequila.
“Viagra,” he said and winked at Harlan as he followed Amber into the bathroom.
Harlan waited until the door shut. He then pulled out his phone and punched out a short text message and sent it. He then picked up a camera and looked at it. Rainbow walked up to him and whispered in his ear. Harlan smiled at her before he kissed her.
“Suck it, bitch!” they heard Abe yell from the bathroom. “That’s it.”
There was a light, single tap on the door. Harlan separated from Rainbow. He went to the door, opened it and let Goulash in. Harlan pressed his finger to his lips and pointed at the bathroom door.
“Fucking suck it, whore!” shouted Abe again. Camera in hand, Harlan followed Goulash to the door. Goulash put his hand on the knob. Harlan held the camera up and Goulash flung the door open.
Abe was sitting on the toilet seat with Amber’s head bent over his crotch. Harlan began to flash photos as Goulash said, “Smile, son-bitch. Is fooking candy-camera.”
Harlan snapped a few more photos as Abe stared and then said, “OK, Amber. That’s enough.”
Amber stood up and made a face. Goulash reached in his pocket and pulled out a travel toothbrush and tooth past.
“I bought for you,” said Goulash, handing them to Amber who went to the sink and began to brush her teeth.
Abe pulled his pants up and stood up. “You son of a bitch,” he said to Harlan. “Give me that camera or I’ll kill you.”
Goulash unzipped his sweat suit jacket, revealing a stubby pistol tucked in his waistband.
“No fooking about,” Goulash said. “Have you by the ball hairs.”
“What’s your gross income every year from all your electronics stores?” said Rainbow.
“Fuck off,” said Abe.
“You tithe at church, don’t’ you?” said Harlan.
Abe didn’t respond. He leaned against the wall and put his face in hands.
“Ten percent,” said Harlan. “Every year, off the top. Think of us as your church, your church of secrets.”
“Fuck you,” said Abe, but this time he barely whispered it.
“Honest Abe,” said Amber. “Getting an honest blowjob from a stripper. In your mail, on the web.”
Abe put his hands at his sides and looked straight at Harlan. “You son of a bitch, you set me up. You framed me. You took advantage of me.”
“I guess I started looking at the big picture,” said Harlan. “Every month you’ll make a deposit into an offshore internet bank account that I’ve set up. To keep it honest, Abe, you’ll give me copies of your tax returns.”
Goulash had been looking at the photos displayed on the screen in the back of the camera. “Sweet,” he said to Amber. “Is like honey pie gets many flies.”
Abe stood still backed against the wall. Abe’s eyes had turned black with anger, a bead of sweat trembled at the tip of his red nose. Harlan tried to feel sorry for him but gave up.
“One last thing. You’re going to give your workers a real bonus at Christmas, not fucking advice,” said Harlan.
“Anything else?” said Abe, his voice shaking.
“That’s it,” said Harlan. “Now get your sorry ass out of here.”
Abe walked out the door and slammed it so that the wall shook.
Harlan stared at Rainbow. “You’re beautiful,” he said finally.
“You keep saying that,” said Rainbow, a smile raising her pretty lips.
“Because,” said Harlan, “you are.”
Chris Iovenko is a contributor to The Los Angeles Times and lives in that fair city. His first collection of short stories “Lucky Streak” is being pushlished in the fall of 2009.