Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Stripper Lessons

by John O’Brien

“O’Brien handles [his] story with a masterly and subtle art, as her turns the unlikely into the possible without gush or affectation: Like Carroll himself, the change is slow, timid, but intelligent and increasingly hopeful. . . . [T]his is a fine book.” –Carolyn Jack, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 208
  • Publication Date July 16, 1997
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3507-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.95

About The Book

John O’Brien’s books have established him as a writer who communicated the voice of the loner with blistering realness and unmistakable force. Stripper Lessons is perhaps O’Brien’s most interior and intense novel, a powerful story of one man’s obsessive search to belong.

Tags Literary


“The delineation of Carroll’s characters is strong and moving and complete. . . . [T]he book has cumulative power.” –Washington Post

“O’Brien handles [his] story with a masterly and subtle art, as her turns the unlikely into the possible without gush or affectation: Like Carroll himself, the change is slow, timid, but intelligent and increasingly hopeful. . . . [T]his is a fine book.” –Carolyn Jack, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The power [of Stripper Lessons] lies in the tangible, excruciating details, which remind us that a marginal life can very often be a life on the edge.” –L.S. Klepp, Entertainment Weekly

“[Stripper Lessons is] a short and fast and eerie book that comes at you from a place you’ve never been, and when it’s over it will leave you in a place you’d never go.” –Steven Kotler, Bikini

“A riveting portrait of a strip-club devotee. A grim and powerful novel.” –Rob Spillman, Details

“The club world, distilled to its seedy essence, and O’Brien’s acknowledged grasp of lonely lives, male and female, are impressive.” –Kirkus Reviews


Tuesday Wednesday

Dark, but not really. In fact when you come in night after night your eyes adjust before the dirty velvet curtain swings almost-closed at your heels, parting into a vertical peephole and making you feel more INside than if six inches of oak had just slammed shut tight at your back. It’s when the exit in the rear–EXIT ONLY – NO IN AND OUT PRIVILEGES–is pushed open and the security lights of the parking lot flood the room like sunshine, washing out the red and blue spotlights that some of the girls are partial to, that you realize, or remember, just how dark it really is. True, that door has a big spring on it to make certain that it never stays open by itself, and the human eye is a remarkable thing, and what he sometimes thinks about is a commercial, TV commercial, say it was on last night: woman, dripping out of shower, into bedroom, back to camera, lets fall towel, and you just gotta buy some thing. You just gotta believe in something. And naked is naked.

And he wonders, really, if just knowing that they’re naked wouldn’t be enough. Really. After all, how hard can you touch something anyway? It seems like even that wouldn’t do the trick, so where’s the difference? Think about what will and won’t be seen in here. It’s a call made solely by the powers that be, and Carroll can see well enough to write whether the door is open or shut.

On the napkin (so far):

Think about Nikki.
Think about Carroll.
Think about Nikki and Carroll.

His pen crawls along the white surface of the cocktail napkin, retracing as necessary those characters that have the tough luck of falling on a moist spot. The writing is done in lieu of talking, as a way for Carroll to bounce thoughts out of his brain. It helps assuage the pressure of the echo. Somehow, the voice in his head, his own silent voice, isn’t quite so clamorous when he’s scratching on a napkin. And when, later, he balls up the evening’s napkins and drops them in the tall, scummy garbage can near the soda-pop bar of this place, he’ll feel lighter, as if what he wrote really was lifted from his mind, or maybe, in a way, as if one of the dancers took it, accepted it as a secret, romantic missive, and batted her lashes, smiling to him from across the room as she read it. Not this place, not tonight. Not likely.

Slowing and almost out of space on this napkin, Carroll is not quite sure where to go from here, so he lifts the pen, chews it, taps his teeth, decides to abandon the writing for now. That much, then, is done. Clock ticked, heart beaten, worried plastic pen to pocket. His attention turns more directly to the dancer. She knows how to work her hair, tossing it now for Carroll’s benefit with an idiosyncratic coordination of hand and neck, making it, she likes to think, appear slightly longer than it actually is (not that it isn’t plenty long on its own). Carroll’s tongue, via a half orbit gone long around the inside rim of his glass, manipulates his straw back into his mouth. He sucks on sparkling apple cider, thinking that he might continue writing after he finishes his drink, after the waitress takes away the empty glass. He’ll quickly snatch up the napkin before she can read it, but not so quick that she doesn’t get enough of a glance to arouse her curiosity. What could she do? Just put another clean napkin in its place, that’s what. Just go about her life, never knowing what was written on that napkin that Carroll swept away and kept to himself. This thought makes him grin and feel randy. The dancer has loosened him up. He inhales. From across the sunken stage he overhears the remarks of two other men, apparently strangers but conversing nonetheless.

‘man, I wouldn’t mind grabbing myself a handful of that!” says one of the men.

For the answer: “Oh yeah. Yeah.”

As much as he hates the sound of their words, Carroll can’t help but wish he could join in, speak with these guys, capture, somehow, the secret of their profane prattle.

His ear drifts to another exchange. The man seated nearest him is saying something to the cocktail waitress, who has evidently spilled something on his suit.

“I hope you cook better than you serve drinks,” chuckles the man.

For the answer: “He didn’t marry me for my cooking.” (Laughs)

The dancer works her hair for Carroll. This is her, part of how she sees herself. The gestures are so closely integrated into her every move that if tomorrow she were to rashly cut her hair short it would no doubt take her weeks to break the habit of pulling it off her face. Indeed, he is impressed, and he dutifully adds a second dollar bill to the space that is his on the rail before him, creasing it so that, like the other, it won’t fall from its perch. The cocktail waitress glances at his glass, and seeing that it’s still almost full, she turns tartly, meanders back to the bar. Carroll chides himself for not drinking more quickly. Nervous, distracted, this was, he promised himself last night, this was to be the night that he tried talking to one of the other customers, one of the other men.

“. . . pretty blond hair,” Carroll Mine mutters to no one at all, perhaps himself. And then, as if this rehearsal has come off better than expected, he says across an empty chair to the man seated nearest him, ‘she has pretty blond hair.”

The moment hangs like that for just a beat; then with some relief this other man watches his inquisitor abruptly look away, back to the napkin he has evidently written on, guarding it jealously, blocking it with his palm. With some relief this other man sees that a response will not be required of him; the guy has gone back to his writing, has forgotten all about this other man, so he won’t have to answer. With some relief this other man returns to himself, looks at his watch and also at the naked dancer before him. “Not all that blond, buddy,” he snorts into his glass.

Not quite as loose now, Carroll turns to the dancer and tries to turn on to her. Her face seems to betray some regret over the drawn-out final verse in the song she chose to be her third and final number. Maybe she just dropped the G-string too soon; next time wait for the bridge. She spins low on her heel, simultaneously bending forward in a tricky twist and giving a full view of her backside to the men seated along the rail, which surrounds the stage on three sides. It’s a cool move, but Carroll’s been coming here long enough to know that she’s really making a quick tally of the bills hanging along the top of the rail. He beams as her eye passes the TWO bills in front of him. Her face remains impassive, and he understands that it would be unprofessional for her to openly express the gratitude that she must be feeling upon discovering such a nice little surprise. This is a nice way to talk, he thinks. These girls don’t ask for a heck of a lot.

He drains his glass, hushing with a wholly clamped mouth the sudden gurgle of the straw. Ears ever alert for such a sound, the cocktail waitress materializes at his side.

‘ready for another,” she asks-says, her inflection point vanished. She’s been told that this guy, unlike most of the others, is sometimes good for a dollar on a three-fifty drink. She dips, tray level, her I-only-serve-the-drinks attitude belied by a sheer pink negligee, a whisper of a nipple.

She is not known to Carroll, who knows most of the girls here by sight if not by name. This is not unusual; a place like Indiscretions has what they call a high turnover. Too many times has Carroll arrived for another evening, sure that This Would Be The Night, sure that a certain special girl, usually a waitress (but sometimes a dancer), was on the verge of letting him talk to her, not just thank you, but really talk about. . . about whatever the hell she wanted to talk about, only to find her missing. He might look around, panic growing. I knew it, he might think. Finally mustering the nerve that such a situation calls for, he might ask whoever is serving his sparkling apple cider, What happened to the other girl? And thus he would receive the inexorable news: Her? She’s gone. I think her boyfriend made her quit. And only himself to blame.

So the music is too loud here at Indiscretions. So it annoys everybody–the dancers, the waitresses, the customers, the DJ/doorman, the unctuous bosses in white-on-white polyester shirts that are unbuttoned at the collar as well as the belly, everybody–but Carroll. He likes it, and it seems wonderful to him that he should find this little victory here, that serendipity should light on him in this dark place that has become more of a place-he-likes-to-be than anywhere else he’s ever been. So it is with a childish glee that he looks up to the waitress, fills his lungs, and responds to better the music, “YES!” making his insides smile and helping him to forget all about trying to talk to the other men.

So the music is loud and long, and the dancer draws on her weeks of experience, draws on her face and pulls it into something of a smile; she will grin and bare it. From the ceiling hangs a short, ring–tipped chain, an unsightly thing of chipped paint and steel that nonetheless looks quite at home amidst the red and blue spots and the sprayed-black ceiling tiles. She grabs it, twirls, swinging on the ball of her left foot with her right knee bent, back arched, breasts large and firm from the forces of the spin, lips parted from the angle of her thighs, buttocks poetic from the fact of her youth. The music is loud. On each of the three walls that stand behind the tables that stand behind the men seated at the three-sided stage is a giant mirror, and her eye skims the surface of each of these mirrors in turn, bouncing here, then the next, another, and back, following her turn, her twirl on the chain, keeping track of her motion the way her ears keep track of the music, making sure she looks good, keeping something for herself, the most personal stare, which is too quick for the men to trace and so keeps them wondering what she is looking at, what she sees. All is well. The dollars accumulate on the rail as the music at last succumbs to its inevitable fade-out. The dancer slows her spin, finally letting go of the ring and standing on her own two feet. She looks great. Carroll watches a drop of sweat roll along her buttock. She looks just great.

“Nikki, gentlemen, put your hands together for the lovely Nikki.” This voice, a deep monotone filling the tight air of Indiscretions and replacing the faded music, is followed by a predictable yet always startling thunderous whack-whack of the microphone striking something or other as the DJ/doorman rotates his stool from the admission booth to the turntable. “Once more for a lovelylady named Nikki, gentlemen. As with all our lovelyladies, Nikki is available for a topless table dance. Just ask her for details, or any one of our other lovelyladies, for that matter, and as you know, Indiscretions has the loveliest ladies in all of Southern California.”
Carroll, still waiting for his drink
, has to admit that this is true. As often as he has heard this claim he has reflected on the consistent beauty of the dancers in this club, and so it is now. The loveliest ladies in Southern California, he thinks, lovelier than the Valley, lovelier than Hollywood, probably lovelier than the whole country! He watches the cocktail waitress collect his sparkling apple cider from the bar across the room. The words topless table dance are floating in his head. He can’t believe that some guys have the nerve to go through with that; he doesn’t even have the nerve to ask how much one costs.

The DJ/doorman continues: “Okay, gentlemen, up next is a lovelylady that I’m sure you all know. Put your hands together for the lovely . . . Tina.”

The record scratches once, then finds its groove. Tina parts the curtain and emerges on the stage just as Carroll’s drink arrives.

“Three-fifty,” nags the cocktail waitress.

Tina, thinks Carroll, oh Tina.

Think about your apartment building. Alone thankgoodness in one of two available elevators, Carroll rises interminably to the second of three available stories. He entered the empty car with the usual feeling of relief; nevertheless, he can’t help but steal nervous glances over his shoulder, finally giving in and turning fully around to look straight at the dim and hollow space in the back of the car. Alone. There are twenty-four mirrored self-adhesive tiles on the top half of the rear wall in this elevator. Each shares the same tacky veined patina known to its manufacturer as Jungle Mist, and each is fractured save one–and that one has a hole cut smack through the middle of it for no apparent reason, as if it were once part of an abortive plan to mount the emergency stop button here instead of on the button panel where it belongs. The car jolts to a halt and pauses to muster its resources for the opening of the door. It is 2:15am, and Carroll is home.

The door is a simple matter of one lock, and through that, he switches on the light, a frosted bowl-like fixture suspended from the ceiling in a manner fully understood only by the building’s maintenance man, who futilely tried to explain it to Carroll during his brief visit last Saturday, arranged two days prior. “Everything okay at your place?” Maintenance Man had asked rhetorically upon bumping–literally–into Carroll on their mutual morning way to the Dumpsters in the garage. “Yes . . . fine.” But it wasn’t good enough; he needed to say something else, to be more conversational. ‘my ceiling light jiggles sometimes . . . like it’s gonna fall,” he said diffidently, trying hard to please. The maintenance man, now knowing that he should’ve known better, blinked and pressed his lips together, unwilling to accept that it was he, after all, who had been the one to ask. Can of worms, his wife always says. “Umm, I guess I can come up and take a look at it– it’s probably nothing (hopelessly waiting for Carroll to agree and call the whole thing off), but if you really think there’s a problem then I can take a look . . . ah . . . (in desperation) Saturday.” Carroll, too intimidated by the greasy beer-bellied man to say no, had simply nodded several times quickly and muttered his way back through the security door. When Saturday finally arrived he was a nervous wreck, fretting over his ignorance of the proper social conduct for a visit by the maintenance man, and settling on a bowl of peanuts to be placed in view for easy consumption but not offered verbally so as to avoid presumption. Nonetheless, with the visit almost completed he heard the word peanuts slip out of his mouth in response to the maintenance man’s patient dissertation on the esoterica of fixture suspension. ‘so that’s why it looks like it’s about to fall–but it isn’t. Understand?” asked the man of Carroll’s wide-eyed, vigorously nodding face. “Peanuts?” responded Carroll to the man, who was by then folding his stepladder.

So it is with a theretofore unfelt sense of trepidation that Carroll witnesses the lighting of the living room, unable to bring himself to look at the fixture for fear of witnessing the jiggle in a far more advanced stage than that which had been looked at by the maintenance man. He hadn’t really thought of it until then, just a chance meeting, a slip of the tongue in an effort to make conversation. Now he’s stuck with this light no matter how precariously it hangs. He cried wolf, and that guy will never want to look at his ceiling fixture again. Face it: he’d be a fool to waste his time.

As well the mixed feelings, a given whenever returning home from Indiscretions, prey heavily upon him, overwhelming, in fact, the relatively minor distractions of the light, the maintenance man, whatever. He feels an inner loss, a separation anxiety whenever he leaves the club, and it is only exacerbated by his empty apartment. This though is tempered with a queer sort of anticipatory thrill deep in his gut, the Christmas Eve thrill of his childhood. Already his mind is at work, confidence building and plans being laid. He need only complete another day of work and he will be right back in the music. Sparkling apple cider, girls, things to be said, and perhaps even the will to say them. Yes, tomorrow could be the night that everything comes together. Tomorrow could be the night that he opens his door, not alone, but with a girl on his arm. He’ll say something witty (maybe an amusing little apology about the smallness of his apartment), step inside, turn on the light . . . damn! And pray, that’s what! Just pray that the light fixture doesn’t jiggle and ruin the whole night. Maybe he should pay someone from the outside to take a look at it. Maybe he should cool it at the club, not bring home a girl till this whole Light thing blows over. One stinking little apartment. One crummy little life. A million things to worry over. Work. His cousin Adam’s wedding Sunday all the way down in San Pedro or some godforsaken place (just trying to find it will be a nightmare, don’t even think about what happens if you do). A million things.

And this stinking little apartment is fat with solitude, the absolute opposite of the club; that place lives, and Carroll bets it would feel crowded there even if he were the only person in the place. Right now he needs some noise, so he crosses from his door to the floor-standing fan he keeps in the corner of the room, switches it on, and relaxes in the electric hum of its motor, the rush of the air through its blades, the plenum it provides. He loves this fan like a brother, though not as much now as back when he bought it–and it took a lot of work to find it because they hardly make these anymore. He knows. He spent three weeks plus searching for one that was this tall, had this oversized spiral wire cage, one that would be as close as possible to the one at the rear of the stage in Indiscretions. It had always been there, rarely switched on, innocuous and pretty much just blending in with the scenery, and he had not paid it any special mind; not, that is, until last summer. It was then that he saw (watched) a dancer named Billie (no longer at the club) mount the fan like a lover. With a start Carroll realized it was on, had been on for some time–how long? He worried after Billie’s hair at first but soon found himself enraptured, hypnotized by her body, the sweat on her back, the gyrations of her hips, and whether or not the steel rod of the fan’s base felt cold there, in that place. Three weeks later he had one. He found it in the Valley at a Handyman’s Heaven. “Whaddeya gonna do with this?” the salesboy wanted to know. What indeed. Of course it’s just a memento now, all that’s left of Billie’s stirring performance, and if truth be told, there’s less to this story: the original fan, the one at Indiscretions, the one Billie actually danced with, is gone. Vanished. The club was simply without it one night during the winter and it never returned. Carroll didn’t have the nerve to ask where it had gone; he just came home that night, sat in the corner, and dolefully stared at his copy, windless and unwarmed by any libidinous pass. Only recently has he begun to switch it on again. Aging, perhaps a modicum of wisdom: he’s learned to appreciate this relic of his past.

He hits the sofa and switches on the TV via the little non-clicking rubber nub of an electronic button on the remote. But the unrestrained parade of late-night commercials that assault the bargain air time like a crowd hitting a holiday mall puts him off; it always does. These dubious appeals to some abject lonely troll inside of him, that he should seize the telephone, dial the salacious beauties pictured on their own sofas, getting off on their own phones, really just talking to their own studs while they wait for Carroll to call. They are at the very far end of his spiraled line, imploring, urrrging him to push some buttons, clutch himself, and rape his phone bill. Two dollars for the first minute, advises an afterthought of a superim-position on the bottom third of his screen. Ninety cents for each additional minute or any fraction thereof. So that would be what . . . three, four bucks? Now a guy in Garden Grove wants to sell him a piano–in fact ANY piano. Evidently there are quite a few to choose from. Hundreds fill the screen, the camera passing over them from above like so many used Toyotas in the recurrent Jax Jalopies commercial that will almost certainly follow.

He taps the remote–Pfftssszzzz- – – – z–the screen sizzles, and the phone girls, their studs, and the piano man are laid to waste like so much coagulated bacon grease. Not so bad. Really. Not so bad some nights, but tonight he just can’t stop thinking about Nikki and the way she spun around on her heel. That really was a cool move! Now that he thinks about it he realizes that the girl has something, that arched back, that poise, that little special something. How did that go now? Let’s see: the one foot up like this. . . . No, cause then she wouldn’t have been able to lift her. . . . Wait, that’s right, she had her thigh tight against. . . . But then how could we see everything if it was like that? He’s vexed, and he suddenly realizes that he’s contorted on the sofa, half standing in his efforts to recall Nikki’s dance. He reddens, jumps up, and goes into the bedroom, where there’s a good–sized mirror: he’s gotta try this.

Kill the living room light (it’s not jiggling it’s not jiggling), quickly goes the short trip to the bedroom, and stripped to–let’s see–just socks and underwear. Okay. The closet door is positioned twice, then again, until the bare-bulbed sixty-watt, unseen in its interior, creates a spotlight effect: a vertical column of even yellow light emanating. . . . Okay, not at all like a spotlight, but this is what he’s got and it’s as good as it gets. He checks the space in which he can spin and finds it’ll just do if he’s careful. No music, that would be TOO much. . . . Okay, music.

Now the clock radio is on, and it sounds just horrible, nothing like the system at Indiscretions. He tries a few experimental prances, sways, and drops his hands to his hips. The floor creaks like it always does, but he’s too engrossed in his mimicry to notice. He closes his eyes, returning himself to the club and recalling the picture of Nikki, her performance earlier tonight. It’s there, as clear in his mind as his own image is in the mirror before him. He spins low on his heel, simultaneously bending forward in a tricky twist and giving a full view of his white-cotton backside to the latex-painted drywall that surrounds him on three sides. It’s a cool move. It is a cool move.

©1997 by the Estate of John O’Brien. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.