Custer's Last Stand

Even the bartenders, two burly guys with dark curly hair and mustaches—they look like brothers—seem bored stiff.

Custer's Last Stand
Photo by Michael Kucharski / Unsplash

by Leonard Kress

Strange vibes in Paradise tonight. They usually got girls tending bar, tends to make the guys more restrained, better behaved. They get rowdy and some girl hollers, cut the crap, they usually do. Or else they storm off. I get that—we’re supposed to be a little civilized. Don’t want to see any fights breaking out or anyone getting hurt. There’s already enough of that in the world. But the new owners are different, they tend bar themselves. And they keep watching the girl dancing up in the cage like they’re regular paying customers, paying two bucks a draft to watch a dance while the jukebox blares. There’s something not right about that. They’re supposed to ignore the whole thing, like it’s not the main reason men come in here. The only reason. It’s crowded, pretty tame, even for Monday night. About ten guys here, mostly young, dropping by after their shifts at the carpet mill and the slaughterhouse and a couple old bums asleep on the sticky counter. Probably been here since the place opened, about five hours ago. When it was just a regular taproom.

The first girl tonight sucks. I’m guessing she’s Puerto-Rican, her name’s Carmen, she says, in a spanishy way. But I don’t think that’s the problem. She’s got blotchy brown skin. Saggy tits, wrinkled ass. Doesn’t even tease us guys by pretending to remove her top. No one pays much attention. Even the bartenders, two burly guys with dark curly hair and mustaches—they look like brothers—seem bored stiff.

Then everything changes. Her songs end so it’s almost noiseless, and during the break this biker walks in. He’s real handsome with long straight blond hair down his back, like General George Armstrong Custer, the Indian fighter but without the facial hair. He’s wearing a peaked cap and shiny leather jacket with polished zippers up and down the sleeves. It’s like a fucking history museum or Disneyland. God bless America! Except for the poor Indian, what’s his name, Sitting Bull. I mean it’s tragic, what happened. But it was Custer who got killed, wasn’t it. I can only imagine if instead of calling himself Sitting Bull, he used Standing Bull or maybe even Charging Bull, then all of history would be different. Anyway, Custer’s not alone—there’s this little guy, a crippled dwarf about three feet high, wearing leg braces, struggling to get through the door before it slams shut on him. The biker picks up the little guy and places him on a barstool. His tiny crutches fall on the floor, but no one makes a move to pick them up. No one wants to mess with the biker-guy, so if it’s okay with him, it’s okay with me. From across the bar, this little guy almost looks normal—straight brown hair cut like Prince Valiant, straight nose, nice clean boyish features. Big brown eyes.

Then it’s time for the next girl to dance. She shoves some quarters into the jukebox, presses some buttons and climbs onto the platform. Everyone looks a disappointed, though she’s pretty in a petite blond way. She’s wearing a skirt and sweater, and instead of pointed spike heels, she’s wearing pink ballet slippers. The owners wink at each other and mumble something in a foreign language. But everyone else looks perturbed. Me too, though I’m not really into this tonight. I know I should be getting home to my wife and kid, but I’m not quite ready to face them. Still haven’t told her about being laid-off, though she I’m sure suspects it. They say it’s only temporary, why should I believe them. I’m relieved when the blond starts dancing and it’s clear she must be some kind of gymnast or professional dancer because she lifts her leg up real high and holds it there with her toes pointed while she unwraps her skirt. The men sitting around the bar heave a collective sigh of relief. Even the old guys peel their faces off the bar as if they can sense that something’s going to happen.

The dwarf gives a shrill, “Whoop,” and yells out, “Don’t stop now, honey, don’t be shy!”

The music gets more intense, something I never heard before, and the dancer begins to remove articles of clothing, not fancy like she’s a stripper but stopping her movements and bending over to take off her sweater, pasties, garter belt, stockings, even the slippers. Then she takes a sip of beer from a bottle one of the bartender’s hands to her and decides to put her ballet slippers back on.

One of the owners yells out in a thick accent, “Now she ready for all things. Take collection and she do it all.”

“I prefer fives and tens,” the dancer calls out sweetly, speaking for the first time. I drop a five into a basket that’s going around. I know I shouldn’t, but everyone does. Everyone except the old guys who seem to have only quarters that they guard like it’s a stash of gold.

As she continues to dance, more like striking poses than actually moving to the music, the biker and one of the owners grab the dwarf by his elbows and lift him up onto the dance platform. At first, she doesn’t notice him because she’s swinging around a pole, but then he chases her—tiny arms with tiny fingers outstretched—on wobbling legs secured by metal braces. With each stumbling step towards her, he almost falls but miraculously recovers his balance. Each time she dances away from him to another corner of the platform. He tries to re-orient himself and place a thin wobbly leg in her direction. When he seems to be getting the hang of it, the dancer finally smiles.

“I’m a hungry man, yes I am,” shouts the little man, though he looks more like a child. “I’m so hungry and I see just what I want to eat.”

Everyone laughs—the dancer, both owners, the biker, men sitting around the bar. Then suddenly, the dwarf stops speaking and gets a desperate look. He lunges at the girl, but she steps aside like a bullfighter, grinning even wider than before. The dwarf loses his balance and falls on his face. Unable to pick himself up, he grabs onto her legs and hoists himself up. Before she can get away, his tiny arms surround her ass and I can almost feel his tiny fingernails dig into her flesh. He buries his nose in her belly and nuzzles his way down to her crotch. She is unable to push him away, and all of a sudden, she stiffens as though paralyzed. He buries his mouth inside her and tries to drill deeper in, the whole time his tiny tongue lapping away like a hungry and frisky puppy. She turns pink under the spotlights and places her hands over her eyes, as though she doesn’t want to see the reflection of what’s going on in her audience’s glazed eyes.

I want to look away, but I can’t take my eyes off them. What the fuck’s going on? I can’t decide if this is some kind of freak show or some kind of fantasy. It’s probably not even legal. I think I should leave before someone calls the cops, but it seems like I’m the only one who isn’t cheering it on. I want to get up and go, but I haven’t paid for my draft and a shot yet and I only have a twenty left. Lucky for me—but not so lucky for the girl—it’s over almost as soon as it began.

The biker and the owner, who just seconds ago had been screaming gleeful encouragement, rush up to the platform, grab the dwarf under each elbow, pry him loose, and return him--legs pedaling and kicking the air--to his stool. Immediately everything returns to normal. The girl raises her leg high to the ceiling rolling her pelvis at several young guys who twist and contort their necks to get a better view of her throbbing crotch. The other owner reaches into the case to grab a beer and places the basket with the collected tips on the stage. The biker re-mounts his stool, his long blond locks flowing majestically over his shoulders. He licks his lips and makes slurping sounds. The dwarf, no longer dwarflike because only his handsome face shows above the bar, gulps down his final ounce of beer. It’s all just General Custer and Prince Valiant again. He looks up at the girl, smiles, and shakes his head from side to side in appreciation. It’s as though none of this ever happened and he’s just some guy watching Monday Night Football on the large screen of the sports bar down the street. That’s it—like he’s just witnessed a Hail Mary long-bomb pass-completion play. The whole bar cheers.

Leonard Kress has published fiction, poetry, translations, non-fiction, in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. Among his collections are The Orpheus Complex, Walk Like Bo DiddleyLiving in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Craniotomy Sestinas appeared in 2021. He has grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. Kress currently lives in Blackwood, NJ. (USA) and teaches at Temple University.