Crimson Smithe is creeped out by the mannequin torsos that hang near the ceiling of the store, floating above the racks and counters. Their thin, legless, headless bodies, draped in lace and silk, showcase the only parts of a woman’s body men need apparently. She takes one of the mannequins down, lays it out on the counter, and blows off the layer of dust on its bare shoulders.
Fitting the new lingerie onto the busts is her favorite part about working at The Pornorama. Every Sunday the new outfits come wrapped in plastic and boxed in cardboard. She spends the entire graveyard shift slicing each box open, dragging the outfits out one by one, ripping the plastic off, and reveling in the sparkle, glitter, and ribbons that adorn the bras and panties. She lines the lingerie up on the counter, mixing and matching every piece until she has perfected outfits that will lure the strippers from next door to come in to buy them. The women descend on the shop around 3:00 a.m. every night and use their freshly earned loonies and toonies to purchase something new, some trifle that will make them enough money to leave this hellhole. Sometimes it even works. Crimson will sell a customer a black thong and never see her again. She imagines them, out on the road, going from one town to the next, getting farther and farther away from Fort Mac. Dancing until they reach their final destination; a place where they can discard the frills and lace and be different, better, more than their shitty surroundings.
Crimson likes that people find her displays enticing enough to return every night. Most of her regulars are rig pigs with too much money to spend and not enough of anything to spend it on. But the strippers lend an air of freshness to the store; they make the clothes more beautiful.
Crimson stands in front of the mirror by the counter. She holds a frilly white and baby blue teddy up to her body and sighs.
“Hey, I’ll buy that for you,” says a man with a wheezy voice.
She grimaces before turning around. It’s one of the regulars, Tanner. He rents a movie every night he’s off site. She has to phone him every day to remind him to return his favorites, but like almost everyone in this town except her he has way too much money and doesn’t care about fines.
She points at the movie he is clutching. “Will that be all?”
He smiles, his lips parting to reveal brown teeth. She fights the urge to retch.
“Come on, girl. Try it on for me, just once.”
Crimson puts down the teddy and steps behind the counter. She goes to the till and waits for him, her finger grazing the hidden emergency button. Once, she had to press it when a customer was masturbating in a corner. By the time the police had arrived the man had cum all over the wall and fled. Crimson had left it for the day person to clean up. Ten dollars an hour wasn’t enough for her to deal with that shit.
Tanner walks to the till. He puts the movie down and leans in. “I won’t tell anyone,” he says, pulling a wad of bills from his pocket.
Crimson stares at the money. She hasn’t eaten that day. Her rent has been due for weeks and her landlord had cornered her that afternoon and taken all her cash. She leans back and stares into his unfocused eyes.
“Fuck off, okay? If you want to see tits go next door.”
“But I’ve seen all those girls.”
“Then fucking go get a chick loaded at Cowboys and pay her to take off her shirt.”
He opens his mouth, growling with laughter. The stink of his breath hits Crimson in the face. She grabs his movie and steps back. She glances down to check the title, Ass Grabbers Two: double the trouble, before rolling her eyes, ducking down, and opening the drawer that holds all the movies. She can feel him watching her as she digs out his DVD from the pile in the drawer. This is why she always wears baggy clothing at work. Her boss often demands she don some of the tamer outfits for sale, but she always refuses. He doesn’t work alone at night like she does.
When she finds the DVD, she stands up and shoves it into the case. Tanner is still waving the money in small circles.
“Ten ninety-nine, due back tomorrow.” She stuffs the movie into a thick black bag and tosses it at him.
He laughs and slams a twenty on the counter. “Keep the change.” He winks and staggers out of the store.
Crimson pockets the change. Normally she would insist he take it back but she is starving. She’ll run to the Macs across the street after she’s finished with the displays, before the strippers drop in, and grab some pop and Hot Pockets. The East Indian guy who works graveyard there always throws in a bag of chips when she runs in to buy dinner; she assumes it’s in solidarity with a fellow worker of the night. She would do the same for him but he never ventures into her store, at least not during her shift.
Crimson settles onto the stool behind the counter. Behind her a screen flashes porn; she has begged her boss to get rid of the TV but he says it drives sales. She once told him that if someone made it that far into the store they were already going to buy something. He laughed and walked back to his office, slamming the door. Crimson knows when to pick her battles so she let it go. All she has to do is not look behind her. The volume is low, so all that is audible is soft moaning. She can live with soft moaning.
Crimson rips into the Hot Pocket. The thick cheese and ham burn her mouth, so she takes a swig of cold Coke. She grabs her sketchbook and a pencil and flips the book open and starts to draw a face. The night before, she had a dream of a man with brown hair and green eyes. She reached out to trace the stubble on his chin with her fingers but her hand bumped into the sweaty wall of the trailer. Dark reality. She awoke alone in a child-sized bed, in a town that devoured people. But now, at work, she reaches into her memory and draws line after line to capture that fleeting hope, that dream.
Country music floats through the store, blending with the soft moaning from the screen behind her. She ignores the throbbing rock and dance music from next door and settles into the stillness. She forgets the porn and dildos that need shelving. All of her attention is focused on the fantasy man, on his eyes, the promise of freedom, of someone.
The door opens, letting in a rush of hot air. Crimson looks up from her sketchbook. A woman painted up to look sexy, her hair held in a huge, hairspray poof on the top of her head with damp tendrils stuck to the side of her face, surveys the store.
“Hey,” Crimson says.
“I hear this is the best place in town to get clothes,” the woman rasps.
Crimson sets her sketchbook on the counter. “Depends what you mean by clothes.”
The woman laughs and starts to cough. She pounds on her chest before speaking again. “Something to wear to work, to make all the little boys in this town part with their money.”
“You work next door?”
“Got in this afternoon. Just finished my first shift.”
“Michelle, or I guess Candy if we’re being formal.”
Crimson blushes. People always think her name is fake, but her mom was just really stoned when she filled in the birth certificate.
“Can I smoke in here?” Michelle asks.
Crimson glances at the security camera pointed at the till, nods, and drags her stool to the side of the long counter. Her boss was too cheap to install more than one camera and she knows the boundaries of its sight. Michelle follows Crimson’s gaze and smiles as she walks to the end of the counter. She hops up and faces Crimson, shimmying back until she can cross her legs. She digs into her oversized purse and pulls out a squished pack of cigarettes.
“You got a light?”
Michelle swivels around, her legs uncrossing, giving Crimson a view of tiny hot pink panties.
“Dick lights. Haven’t seen these before,” Michelle says, flicking the lighter on. Fire shoots up through top of the cock. Michelle wheezes out a laugh.
“People buy them for stagettes,” Crimson says.
“Can you imagine pulling this out at a bus stop? Excuse me while I light my cigarette with a dick.” Michelle laughs at her own joke. The rawness in her lungs makes Crimson wince.
“Want one?” She holds out her squished pack of cigarettes.
“No, I don’t smoke.”
She shrugs before taking a long draw. Crimson grabs the empty Coke can and hands it over. Michelle flicks the ash into it before leaning back against the top of the counter. Her legs are still open.
“So, what’dya do when you’re not working at The Pornorama, Crimson?”
“I like to walk around town, read, sketch. Just usual stuff.”
“You got a boyfriend? Girlfriend?”
“No, my ex was a bastard. I don’t know if I want another man in my life.”
“Gotcha. What’d he do? Fuck another pussy?”
Crimson blushes. “And moved out, leaving me with high rent and a shitty apartment.”
“Aren’t all the places here shitty?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You from around here?” Michelle takes another long draw from the cigarette. She holds the smoke in her lungs before it starts to escape through her nose.
“No, I moved from Edmonton with him when he got a job up at site. I thought we’d be together forever and all that shit but now I’m stuck here.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
“You could dance. You have nice tits.”
Crimson crosses her arms over her chest and stares at Michelle’s legs. The skin around her knees is wrinkled and a bead of sweat trickles down her calf.
“No, I wouldn’t be any good at that.”
“Sure you would, you just,” Michelle drops her cigarette into the can and jumps off the counter, “shimmy, bend over, and wiggle your ass. Then, just get naked and spin around the pole a few times. The moneymaker is when you sit on your blanket anyhow. You ever seen that? I do a good one. I had all these posters made up, real classy and shit you know? I had a professional take the pictures, I’m in a red thong, like that one,” Michelle points to a mannequin behind Crimson, “and it’s all smoky and the lights are dimmed. Anyway guys love it. So the blanket, I sit on the edge of the stage, open up my legs and I make a show of rolling up the poster. Then I shove it up my pussy. The guys take turns trying to toss money in. If it goes in they get the poster. Trust me, it makes me loads of cash, and the guys love it because of the smell. They like to think they have a piece of you.” Michelle hops back up on the counter. “Anyways, you could do it I bet. I saw one girl do the same thing once but in her ass.”
Crimson could never do that.
Michelle lights up another cigarette. “You mind if I keep this?” she says before she tosses the lighter in her purse. “It’s too funny.”
Crimson shrinks back. Michelle notices the sketchbook open on the counter. She extends her whole body to reach it. “What’s this?”
“Nothing, just something to pass the time I guess.”
“Who is this guy?”
“I don’t know. Just someone from my dreams.”
“He’s hot,” Michelle says.
“Wow, fuck, these are good girl. Why aren’t you in school or something?”
Crimson shrugs. “It’s too much money.”
Michelle keeps flipping through the book.
The door opens again. Both women turn to look. A young guy stands at the entrance wearing a white t-shirt and jeans. His hair is pushed back and hangs to his shoulders.
“Welcome to The Pornorama where all your dreams come true,” Michelle says.
The guy smiles and walks towards them. His feet catch on the dirty carpet. He falls into the far end of the counter.
“Whoa, buddy, you been out having fun tonight?” Michelle asks.
“Only a bit,” he says with a smile.
Crimson can feel her face flushing. Unlike most of the regulars this guy is young and good-looking. Young guys usually got their porn from the Internet.
“Do you need any help?” Crimson asks.
“Maybe,” he says, looking at her with a shy smile.
He looks around. “I’m, uh, looking for something. As a gift.”
Crimson suppresses a smile. She’s heard this before.
“Come on, honey, just pony up. We’re all adults here,” Michelle wheezes.
“No, really, it’s for my sister.”
Crimson glances at Michelle and they both laugh.
“No, what I mean is, she’s getting married. Fuck, this is awkward. But I swear I’m normal,” he says.
Crimson walks over to the young man.
“Toy, movie, or clothing?” she asks.
“Oh, God. Clothing, clothing, I don’t want to know anything else. Something nice though, I guess. I don’t know. You’re a girl. What would you like?”
“I’d like a fat rubber cock, one with enough girth to get the job done,” Michelle yells.
Crimson giggles while the guy just smiles.
“I was talking to her,” he says pointing to Crimson.
“I guess, from my brother, I’d like something simple, nothing racy.”
“That sounds great,” he says, stumbling forward.
Crimson catches him by his forearms. They are solid. She leans in a bit and notices he smells like beer, cigarettes, site, dirt, and Old Spice. It has been a long time since she has touched a man.
“Hey, sorry, my buddies and I just got off. We were down at Podollin’s for a few pitchers. I’m too wired to go to bed yet. I was just wandering around and thought it would be a good time to shop.”
“You should get her a dick lighter,” Michelle says with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth. She picks up a small tube of pink gel beside the lighters, “Or some nipple nibbler.” She screws off the cap and sniffs it. “Mmm, this actually smells good.”
“It tingles,” Crimson says. “Most women use it as lip gloss.”
Michelle squeezes the tube until a glob catches on her finger. She wipes it across her mouth. “Yummy, how about a kiss, ah…?”
“How about a kiss, Danny? Free of charge.” Michelle leans forward, her slinky tank top billowing open to show a pink lacy bra cupping impressive tits.
“No, that’s cool. I’m not into tingly stuff,” he says, his eyes on Crimson.
Crimson smiles. She notices his eyes are green. Her heart hammers in her chest.
“Fine, I guess I’ll just have to entertain myself,” Michelle says, turning to the TV.
Danny steps in close to Crimson. “What was your name again?”
Crimson looks up at him through her eyelashes and says her name.
He smiles. The lines around his eyes make him more handsome.
“Well, Crimson,” he says, his face hovering above hers, “let’s find something you’d like.”
She shivers. She doesn’t want to be attracted to him but the way his hair catches on the scruff on his chin makes her legs weak. He licks his lips and her breath comes in a shallow gasp.
“Uh, we, um,” she has to step back. “We have some nice stuff over here, on the rack.” She turns and walks away from him. He follows her, humming along with the radio.
When she gets to the rack she pulls out a pair of pale yellow panties with white bows.
“You like these?” he asks.
“They’re nice,” Crimson says, looking into his eyes.
“Okay, I’ll get them.”
She smiles as he takes the hanger from her. He leans in, pinning her in place, and reaches past her. His face grazes her cheek for a second before he leans back holding the matching bra.
“You gotta get the set, right?” he says.
“Yeah, I guess you do, if you’re that kind of brother.” She breathes out.
“Oh, man, look at that guy’s dick, it’s like a toddler’s arm,” Michelle yells.
Crimson slips past Danny and walks to the front of the store. Danny follows her again. She wishes they were alone.
Crimson steps past Michelle’s swinging legs to get to the till. Danny puts the lingerie down and stares into her eyes.
“When are you off?”
“I, uh, seven am.”
“Wanna go for breakfast?”
Crimson checks her watch. “That’s in four and a half hours. Aren’t you tired?”
“I’ll go home for a nap.”
“Okay, seven am sharp though or I’m going home.”
She wraps the lingerie in tissue and places it in a black bag. As she gives his purchase to him he places his hands, warm and rough, over hers.
“See you at seven, Crimson,” he says, walking away and pushing the door open. The pavement outside the door is bathed in green neon light.
When the door shuts Crimson turns around to find Michelle leaning forward with a huge smile on her face.
“He is fucking hot, babe.”
“He is, right?”
“Yeah, and he looks like the guy in your fucking book here,” she says.
“It’s weird, right? Getting picked up in a porn store?”
“Nah, I found my last boyfriend in my last strip club. When you meet someone you just gotta go for it.”
“Hey, look, I gotta go. I’ll be back tomorrow. You can help me find stuff that’ll make a guy cum in his pants,” Michelle says, hopping off the counter. She hoists her big purse up. She pulls out another cigarette and slides it between her lips. “Maybe your luck is changing. Maybe this guy will take you far away from this hole and you’ll become a famous artist.”
“Everything will work out. I’m sure of it. See you tomorrow—I’ll bring you a poster.”
She pushes the door open but before it closes all the way Crimson sees her cupping a cigarette with one hand and flicking the dick lighter with her other hand.
Crimson is filling in the details of her sketch when the door opens. Danny stands in the entrance. His smile is sloppy as he lurches into the store. Crimson looks at her watch; it is only 5:19 am.
“Hiya, honey,” Danny says.
“Hey, it’s only twenty after five. I’m not off for a while,” Crimson says.
“I just wanted to surprise you.”
“Okay,” Crimson says, standing.
Danny walks to the middle of store. “Come here. I gotta show you something.”
Crimson frowns. “You been drinking?”
“I went home and had a few beers. I only live a few blocks away. But I was still wired so thought I would just come back and say hey.”
Crimson doesn’t want to leave the emergency button so she stays in place.
Danny’s smile widens. He takes a few lumbering steps towards her. At the counter he leans over and grabs her hair to drag her in for a kiss. Their teeth smash together, his tongue presses against hers, and she gags. She pulls away from him, afraid.
“You’re so pretty, Crimson. And your name is like fire.”
“I mean it. You’re like the prettiest girl in Fort Mac. You could totally be a stripper.”
Crimson’s heart is racing, but not from desire. The reek of beer wafts over her and makes her stomach churn.
Danny backs up a few paces before swivelling his hips. “I want to show you something.” He fumbles with his belt. Crimson presses the emergency button, but finds it is jammed. His pants drop around his ankles. “Do you like them?”
He is wearing the panties. His dick is squished in and his balls are falling out the sides. His pubic hair curls around the lace. Crimson hits the emergency button again, but it doesn’t give. She backs away, hitting the TV. Danny pulls up his shirt to reveal the matching bra.
“You said you liked these ones, right?” He wiggles around.
“Oh, my God.”
Danny turns, stumbling and falling to his knees. The panties ride up his ass crack. He laughs, then pulls down a rack of movies to the floor. He grunts from the effort of standing.
“Come on, babe, why don’t you come over here? They’re soft, you can feel.”
Crimson is in shock. Everything is wrong. She lunges for the phone. He lurches to the counter before she can get to it. The bra is no longer visible but his pants are still pooled around his ankles. He smiles at her but everything handsome in his face is gone. All she sees is pasty white clammy skin, unfocused eyes, a smile that is too wide and movements that are too exaggerated.
“Please, you have to go,” she whispers.
“What?” he says, leaning his elbows on the counter.
“You have to go,” she says louder.
“Why? Don’t you like me anymore?” There is an edge to his voice.
“It’s just my boss—there are cameras and he will get mad,” she says.
Danny almost falls again. “Oh, okay, I get it, babe. I’ll come back at seven, we can have breakfast at your place.” He winks.
“Sure,” Crimson says.
He bends over and pulls up his pants, which keep falling back down as he tries to walk. He smiles again and waddles to the door before pushing against it.
“See you at seven,” he mumbles.
Crimson tries to take a deep breath but she’s shaking and gasping. Her legs feel weak but she forces herself to walk to the front door. She latches the door shut and leans against it, trembling. She can hear Danny on the road singing. When his voice fades she moves forward. She steps over the movies that are scattered all over the store. Her eyes are blurry. She walks behind the counter, grabs her sketchbook, and rips the picture out. She holds it for a moment before tearing it into pieces.
A scream escapes her as she throws the book at the lighter display. Miniature penises fly through air and land on the movies scattered on the floor. She sinks down and holds her arms close to her body. Why did everything lovely transform into a black churning disaster, choking all beauty?
The onscreen moaning continues behind her. It’s the town, she thinks. If she leaves, then everything will be okay. She will be okay. She just needs to get away. Crimson hauls herself up and walks past the lingerie that now seems to her dusty and cheap, fit only to be ripped off. She eyes the cash register. She punches in a non-existent sale and stuffs every bill and coin into her pockets. She glances up at the camera but decides she doesn’t give a fuck.
Crimson picks up her sketchbook. She kicks the penis lighters out of her way as she walks to the door. She steps outside, into dawn air. The sun is just starting to rise. The green neon light from the strip club sign is fading on the grey concrete. She heads towards the Greyhound station. Her boss and the cops will never find her; she’ll disappear and become someone better.
Francine Cunningham is an Aboriginal writer, artist, and educator originally from Calgary, AB but who currently resides in Vancouver, BC. Francine has an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in Theatre from UBC. She graduated from Keyano College in Fort McMurray with a Visual and Performing Arts Diploma with conservatory style training in acting. Francine received an award for a First Nations artist in 2015 from The First Peoples Cultural Council, was a participant in the 2014 Indigenous Writing Studio at the Banff Arts Centre, and placed second in the 2014 Our Story: Aboriginal Arts and Stories contest. Her work has appeared as part of the 2015 Active Fiction Project in Vancouver, in Hamilton Arts and Letters, Kimiwan ’zine, nineteenquestion.com, and The Ubyssey. She is currently running creative writing and visual art workshops across the lower mainland Greater Vancouver Area with the aim of helping students express their unique ideas and feelings surrounding issues of identity. She is also working on her second novel, a collection of short stories, and an adult picture book. For more information check out her personal website.