My Daughter, Shot Girl
By Scott Gould
My daughter balances a tray of Leg Spreaders on her palm and works her way through the crowd at Chief’s Wings and Firewater. She is a Shot Girl. She has been told by her boss to dress “sexy not slutty.” She is poured into a pair of jeans. She is hiked up a little on red shoes I’ve never seen before. I am the worst father ever.
Maggie is not a Shot Girl all of the time. Most of the year, she studies violin performance at Northwestern University, under the tutelage of a small, intense Portuguese man who was supposedly a child prodigy. She goes to her sorority parties that have cute names like the Theta Hayride and the Theta Wild West Showdown. She takes courses she isn’t required to take: Astronomy and Intro to Buddhism and British Love Poetry. But this summer, here at home in the South, she ices down Dry Humps and One Night Stands and Pretty Pussies, pours them into what appears to be miniature specimen cups and peddles them to tables of over-cologned car salesmen and pharmaceutical reps and bachelorette parties, and walks out at the end of the night with a pocketful of cash. She appears content with this arrangement.
She is, however, unsure about becoming a shot girl when the opportunity first presents itself. Yes, she needs money and her mother’s husband (who would be, of course, her stepfather, but I have trouble bringing that marble of a word into my mouth) has a friend who knows a guy who knows somebody. It all feels very post-Sopranos to me, but I like. It is the beginning of a good story. She calls me the afternoon she is offered the job.
“I’m not sure,” she says. “I mean, really, Dad? A shot girl?”
“You have to do this,” I say, immediately wishing I’d been less enthusiastic. I live, I admit, too much for these stories in life. If I’d written more of them down through the years (and if I possessed more talent), you would probably already know my name, because I have, in fact, heard dozens of great stories. And if there is one thing I am completely confident about, it’s my ability to flag a good story when I hear one. And this one has Hall of Fame potential: Violinist/Shot Girl.
I am ashamed to admit, I sleep very well the first night Maggie goes to Chief’s for Shot Girl Training. I cycle a lot of miles that afternoon, probably 40 or so, and decide to rehydrate on my porch with Pabst Blue Ribbon. My neighbor, Brandi, sits 20 yards away, smoking Camels and talking on her cell phone. I never actually see her, just hear her, holding up her half of the conversation behind the stacks of boxes and old toys and Christmas decorations. Brandi holds weekly yard sales because she isn’t working regularly. Before the economy tanked, she was a classroom assistant at the local Head Start program, but her hourly position was eliminated. She never really enjoyed the job anyway. Brandi was having trouble adjusting to a changing world. She told me once, “Every year they’s more and more Mexican kids in the class speaking Mexican and I never learned Mexican in high school.” I wonder how many Saturday yard sales Brandi can have before she is down to carpets and appliances.
I smell her cigarette smoke drifting to my seat on the porch. Brandi has twins, Jared and Jada, who are about 8 or 9, but I don’t see them anywhere in the yard. Jared always wears his towhead shaved, bareheaded except for the impressive rattail that snakes down his neck and between his shoulder blades. Jada could pass for a high schooler. She already has the look of somebody who knows she can fool you. Their father is pretty much a mystery to me, other than the obvious facts I can pick up from my seat on the porch: He drives a large red pickup; he has barbed-wire tattoos encircling each bicep; he never married Brandi. She says this is a good thing. “We never really got along except the one time,” she told me. Brandi and I live in a strange neighborhood, full of old mill houses and scattered pockets of ethnicity. There’s a two-block Hispanic section. Brandi is basically a redneck. I’m a school teacher.
I have this sudden compulsion to holler at Brandi and tell her my daughter is a Shot Girl at Chief’s Wings and Firewater. Brandi has probably been there with her new boyfriend who drives a loud Harley-Davidson. I realize saying loud and Harley-Davidson is redundant, but his SuperGlider seems obnoxious beyond legal limits. One afternoon, Brandi asked me if I was going to Bike Week in Myrtle Beach, and I thought to myself, She’s not the most observant neighbor I’ve ever had. I don’t believe I look like the Bike Week type, especially when I walk out on my porch in tight spandex cycling attire.
I want to tell her about Maggie. I want to tell her because I need to try the story out on someone. I know it’s a good one. Or maybe I’m feeling a little guilty. My daughter — my 5-foot-10-inch, blond, wise-cracking, violin-playing daughter — is going to Chief’s to carry shots, to be trained by someone named Carmen who will show her the ins and outs of shot transactions. Maybe I want to hear the story out loud. I tell my students to read aloud what they’ve written, and they might hear what’s wrong. Maybe I need to hear my own parenting mistakes.
But of course, I don’t say anything because I am that kind of neighbor. I’m quiet and dependable. I keep my grass cut and my trash dumpster rolled out of site during the week. I might drink cheap beer on my porch, but I won’t ask the yard-sale entrepreneur what she thinks about the Shot Girls at Chief’s. I’m afraid she might actually answer me. Instead, I wave to her when she emerges from behind the boxes. “Did you know we got us a pet raccoon?” she asks me. “His name is Buckshot. He follows the kids around the house like a puppy.”
All I can do is nod and wave my beer bottle. Having a potentially rabid animal in the house seems borderline dangerous, but what do I know?
Eventually, I try the Daughter-As-Shot-Girl story out on a group of people I don’t know. Which is probably not the most intelligent strategy I’ve ever used. A friend, a poet I teach with, has invited me to her house for a dinner party. The rest of the crowd is composed of her young, hip friends, none of them over the age of 35, I think. I am their fathers’ age, so I’m not sure why she invited me. I feel like a class project. Or an uncle.
But I’m aware of the demographics ahead of time, which means I consume quick, intense amounts of PBR on the way to the poet’s house, in violation of several city and county laws. But I want to be glib and fluid and appear (through my ease with banter) younger. I am 53 years old. Some of these people could comfortably qualify as my progeny. When I arrive, I notice there are couples who orbit closely to each other, letting all of us know they are paired. The single people mingle with each other. Only when the food is almost gone does everyone gather around a battle-scarred wooden table in the kitchen. This is when the poetess asks me to tell the Shot Girl story. She’s heard rumor that it exists. She is a curious woman.
I give my best, beer-fueled rendition and, like a standup who gets enough laughs to keep telling jokes, I embellish and modulate the story as people grin at me. The poetess/friend even helps, tossing in sidebar comments like, “Oh yes, she’s classically trained” and “Gorgeous. Blond and gorgeous.” I finish the story and take a sip from the red Solo cup I brought with me. I let the laughs settle and wait for the reactions, the questions.
Then, from the border of the kitchen, I hear an unexpected sound, a nasal, derisive snort – the kind of snort that should, in most cases, be accompanied by a loose wave of the hand. The snort came from the blonde I didn’t think was even listening. She was busy sliding trays in and out of the oven and scraping leftovers into an already overflowing trash can. She is the overactive guest, the one who helps out in order to make the other guests feel guilty about not helping out. I know other things about her: She is gorgeous. She is an exercise maniac. Her plastic surgeon father did her breasts and gives her free Botox. She married a somewhat older, equally gorgeous man who has two sons. She is an expensive interior decorator. She speaks French randomly. She knows everything about anything.
She snorts again, and follows the sound with a comment: You’re going to regret that, she says. The laughter I created dies like road kill. I wouldn’t let my daughter do that, she says.
I am smiling, and because I am warm with PBR, I shrug my shoulders, hoping to look unconcerned, but she has, frankly, shaken me. She is the first person to question the parental ethics behind My Daughter, Shot Girl. “She’s 21,” I say, hoping to have the last word. But the Helper snorts again and smiles at me the way a kindergarten teacher might when she catches someone passing a note, a delicious smile.
Here is what I want to say:
You know nothing, you. You inherited children. The same way you inherited your oven or your leaf blower or your breasts. My daughter has a backbone and an attitude. When she was 4 years old, she used to run around the house wearing nothing but a hat. She loved hats. Is this when it started? Would you have known at that moment that shirtless hat-running is the gateway activity to carrying Leg Spreaders? You are too smart for our world, you.
But of course, I don’t say a word. I just reach for the artichoke dip and feel myself aging in front of everyone’s eyes.
I imagined I would become a better parent after I divorced. I realize that sounds counter-intuitive, but in my mind, not having to deal with a wife would leave me more time and energy for my children. The traditional Mom and Dad Paradigm always felt a bit like an ambush on the kids, a double-team when they had their backs turned. I never enjoyed ganging up on anyone.
I was wrong, of course. Once I was divorced, I devoted my time to beer-soaked contemplation about how I lost a wife, rather than what I should be doing with my daughters – at least for the first few months. After that, my ex-wife and I eased into a very comfortable, businesslike approach to our children. We both expended a great deal of effort not to fuck them up further. We used phrases that were new squatters in our lexicon. We said things like, “Just wanted make sure we’re on the same page” and “Where do you stand on this?”
But when I call to ask how she feels about our daughter becoming a Shot Girl, I am not sure what to expect. Her relatively new husband – the small man with the used-car-salesman mustache who had bequeathed me cuckold horns – has been the prime mover-and-shaker in finding my daughter this job. So when my ex-wife says she thinks this is a good opportunity for our offspring, the subtext comes oozing through. What she’s really saying is: My new husband got her this job and you didn’t. You couldn’t. But maybe I am just hearing things. I’ve had tinnitus since the divorce.
“Did she tell you what they want her to wear?” I ask my ex-wife.
She says, “She looked fine when she left the house. She doesn’t look like a stripper or anything.” Which I wish she hadn’t said, because it reminds me that a number of my daughter’s colleagues at Chief’s are former and current pole dancers, according to Maggie. Several of them already have children. Most of them have surgically altered chests. My daughter, who like her mother is not significantly endowed, told me she hasn’t, to this point, witnessed a correlation between cup size and tips.
“Most of the girls with stripper boobs don’t know how to talk to people,” my daughter says, which I realize is a correlation of another kind. If you are inarticulate, bigger breasts can do some of your talking for you. This theory, naturally, does not apply to the snorting, plate-scraping Uber Helper whose father implanted her. She has amazing breasts and talks way too much. Whatever. The last thing the world needs is another theory about breasts.
Early one evening, I sit on my porch and watch Brandi’s twins toss a football across their front yard. Brandi is, I think, a good mom. She seems to get Jared and Jada involved in a steady schedule of healthy activities, like sports and church and the raising of feral animals. I wonder if she would ever let Jada be a shot girl.
I wave at Brandi to let her know I’m not stalking her kids. From where she sits on her porch, I can hear Buckshot the Raccoon doing frenzied laps in his tiny, metal cage, pinballing off the wire mesh. I’ll say this, Jada has an arm on her. She cocks the ball near her ear like a real quarterback and slings a bullet at Jared. He flaps his hands up, more for protection than an attempt to catch the ball, and it bangs off his palms. He flutters his hands a little more, skips (literally) over to the ball, then tries to throw it back to his sister. He is noodle-armed and the wounded-duck pass lands yards short of Jada and he laughs.
That’s when I realize Jared is gay. Not because he can’t throw a football, but because he couldn’t possibly care less about his inability. He’s in the front yard because somebody told him to, not because he wants to be there. He is more worried about getting his feet dirty than he is about running a pass pattern. His sister is the alpha male of their duo. I wonder how all of this is going to net out, how Jared’s dad – the guy with the barbed-wire biceps – is going to handle a son who cares more about fabric textures than football. I see him, years down the road, sans redneck rattail, trying to navigate between motorcycles and wild animals on the porch. I suddenly feel sorry for him.
I’ve had three beers, enough to create ridiculous scenarios. For instance, I could strike a deal with Brandi. She could counsel me about My Daughter, Shot Girl, and in return, Jared could come, unpersecuted, over to the house and tell me what color palate to use in the kitchen. This way, he could always have a place to hide out while he decides which way to run. It’s sad how simple it is to parent someone else’s problem and how easy it is to screw up your own kids.
Maggie comes home pissed. It seems her manager, a 30-year-old guy prone to bursts of white-hot anger, followed by thick apologies, orders Maggie and Carmen to perform a little guerilla marketing. Some east coast faction of the Hell’s Angels has hit town, I assume to burn and pillage in a sort of end-of-summer bacchanal. Manager Man tells Maggie and Carmen to drive over to the Hell’s Angels’ hotel, something along the lines of a Motel 6 or an Econolodge, and hand out free drink cards, redeemable the next night. According to Maggie, the last things the Hell’s Angels need are free drinks.
“They were lying all over the hotel parking lot, right on the pavement. They mumbled at us a lot,” she says. She has, in her time as a Shot Girl, become a Friend of the Biker. Certain local groups come to Chief’s and request her shots after a long weekend ride in the mountains. But these bikers, these out-of-towner Hell’s Angels, are different.
“They were from New Jersey,” she tells me, which, as far as she’s concerned, seems to explain the guys face-planting in the parking lot.
Marketing to Hell’s Angels wasn’t, I’m guessing, in the Shot Girl job description. But to be honest, there is no job description, per se. There isn’t any paperwork, in fact. Maggie never fills out a W-9 or any sort of insurance forms. Being a Shot Girl, it appears, is an all-cash proposition. The Leg Spreaders walk out and the cash pours in.
Again, guilt washes over me like a blush. Parading around a hot parking lot with a fistful of free drink chits, weaving among supine Hell’s Angels, is a good story. It’s life experience! I want to tell her. You just opened up a new fold in your relatively young brain! But I’m so full of shit. I should be more worried. My daughter and a former pole dancer walk into the teeth of leather degradation and live to tell about it.
But I compromise with myself, and I do this to make myself feel better. I decide to go to Chief’s the next night. I will be the Good Dad, the Dad in the wings, a guardian angel for my little girl who used to run around naked in hats. I will keep my eyes open. I will keep a lookout for those other angels, the ones from Hell.
I have been to Chief’s once previously, but I don’t remember much about it. Not because I was over-served by a Shot Girl, but because I was in love with the woman across the table from me and she wanted to go there and she was the only thing I managed to notice the entire night. And the next two years after that. Then she got tired of my attention (and intentions) and ran away with someone who loved her less annoyingly. However, I do recall Chief’s was cavernous – lots of wasted space above my head and plenty of places for people in large groups to hide.
I make up my mind to dress down for an evening at Chief’s, to not look like the event is overly important to me. Jeans and a T-shirt. I don’t bother shaving. I’m not out to impress anyone. I’m there to blend in and appear only if needed, not unlike a superhero. I fortify myself with a couple of PBRs before the trip across town, and as I lock the front door, Brandi calls out to me from her sniper nest behind the boxes.
“You going out?” she asks.
For a flash of a second, I consider asking Brandi to go with me. She would be authentic camouflage. I could blend in to the point of disappearance behind her. And she knows biker lingo. She could serve as translator it things got dicey with the Hell’s Angels and their free drink cards.
I don’t invite her. “I’m going to see my daughter at work,” I say, then realize my mistake. I’ve left the door open for her to ask me where Maggie works. But Brandi doesn’t walk through the door. She is not a conversationalist. “I’m having a sale tomorrow morning. Lots of good stuff. I might try to sell Buckshot,” she says. On the drive to Chief’s I wonder what a raccoon brings on the open market.
Maggie has already been at work for a couple hours when I pull into the Chief’s parking lot. I scan for motorcycles, but the spaces are mostly filled with cars and pickups, with only a small covey of motorcycles in a far corner, and these aren’t even Harley’s. They are bright-colored crotch rockets, high-speed street bikes decorated like Easter eggs.
There is a cover charge at the door, collected by a large man with a distant smile, as if a good joke he heard an hour ago still lingers in his brain. When I ask him why there’s a cover, he suddenly looks hurt. “It’s the weekend, man,” he says. I ask him if there will be a band or something. “The DJ is here,” he says, and as he regains his smile, he adds, “The cover helps keep out some of the rednecks, too.” I wonder if it will keep out the Hell’s Angels.
I grab a stool at the bar, order a beer and inspect my surroundings. I scan for Maggie, but she’s nowhere in sight. I do spot a couple of her fellow Shot Girls, meandering through the crowd, which is, to my mind, fairly large. The Shot Girls I see aren’t happy. They frown and move like workhorses in their traces, heavily ambling in and out of the people, stopping only when they are hailed from the crowd. The DJ is definitely on duty. Dance music — old school dance music — bumps from large speakers suspended from the rafters over my head, and the bass notes rock the bar. My beer shimmers in its glass from the vibrations.
On the tile dance floor near the DJ booth, line dancing spontaneously breaks out, led by a gathering of large women who move more daintily than I would have imagined. They are relatively synchronized, which I chalk up to their apparent friendship, but when other dancers (mostly couples) join them, I realize that this dance is obviously well-known in line-dancing circles. It’s almost tribal.
Between me and the dance floor proper are two long tables of University of Nebraska fans. I know this because they are all wearing red Nebraska swag: red sweatshirts, red T-shirts, red baseball caps, red sneakers. I never realized so many Nebraska people lived in my town. They scream at a bank of televisions high on the wall, where Nebraska plays baseball. Three of the men wear large, long hats in the shape of corncobs. They wear their hats even when they go to the bathroom or to the bar. None of these people seem the least bit interested in dancing.
The only other discernible group is a collection of African-Americans at the far side of the bar. The women are all seated, their heads down, talking to one another, while the men scan the crowd like Secret Service agents on high alert. They don’t seem at all interested in the music, which has now morphed into a country tune I almost recognize. The-line dancing tribe expands noticeably when the new song begins to play.
Maggie finally appears in the crowd. I spot her blond head. She has more energy than the other shot girls I see. She smiles and dances a little through the crowd. She skirts the edge of the line-dancing tribe, stopping only to sell one of her shots to a large woman who takes a break from her routine. Maggie sees me and makes a beeline to the bar.
“Hey Pops, you want a shot?” she says when she’s close enough to yell at me. I ask her what she’s selling tonight and she frowns immediately. “Leg Spreaders,” she says. “I wanted Dry Humps. They move faster. But I got stuck with this.” She nods toward her tray and smiles. “I’ll just have to work it, you know?”
She sees Carmen at the other end of the bar and waves her over to us. Carmen is tinier and prettier than I imagined, almost innocent-looking. She reminds me of a cheerleader, except for the burning-skull tattoo on her left shoulder blade and the sparkly nose stud. I recall Maggie telling me Carmen has babies. I can tell she’s younger than my daughter.
Maggie asks me if I want a Leg Spreader. “Sure,” I say, me being the cool dad, the best friend/shot-buying dad. I break some sort of metaphorical parental seal when I lay bills on her tray. A Leg Spreader from My Daughter, Shot Girl. With a tip that exceeds usual protocol. She weaves away, handling her tray effortlessly. (The Leg Spreader, by the way, is awful. My guess is a mouthful of Scope, a dash of Hawaiian Punch, mixed with a few dribbles of vodka. Chief’s Wings and Firewater probably makes a mint on their $2 shots.)
I watch her work. Maggie is a fearless Shot Girl. She doesn’t wait to be called from the crowd. Rather, she walks right up to tables and, from where I sit, seems to demand they buy her Leg Spreaders. While a guy knocks back some shot he just bought from her, she berates his friends who didn’t buy. Most of them cave and reach for their cash. She organizes impromptu drinking contests, requiring new trays of Leg Spreaders. She barrels into a table of black women, probably some bachelorette party or ladies night out, and I can tell she’s dropped into her street dialect. The way she cocks her head and hip and waves her finger gives her away. But she doesn’t sell them a thing. The black women appear to be wine drinkers. Maggie even dances into the tribal lines near the DJ. She makes change while she moves, selling Leg Spreaders in time to the music. Once, she catches a couple of guys — young and mulleted — eyeing her butt. She mocks them for their transgressions and sells each a couple of shots. As she pockets the tips, she smiles at me across the room. I am embarrassed that I am so proud of her.
The Hell’s Angels never show up, at least while I’m at Chief’s. I don’t stay until closing, but I’m there long enough to see Nebraska get beat, long enough for the DJ to abandon the country line dancing for old school hip-hop, a transformation that brings the African-American contingent out of the background and onto the dance floor. The crowd seems to have swelled magically, the press of people more obvious now, later in the night. I wave goodbye to my daughter, who is hard at work, and wind through the tables toward the exit. I think she sees me, but I can’t really tell. She’s moving too fast.
When I pull into my driveway, I see Brandi silhouetted by the glows of her cigarette and cell phone. It looks like she’s wearing a fuzzy halo. She calls out to me from her porch as I jingle my keys. She wonders how the night went. I tell her Chief’s was fun. She says, “That’s where you were? That place is too damn big. Gives me the heebie-jeebies.” You can never tell about people. I wouldn’t have thought Brandi was the type of woman to use the term heebie-jeebies. For a second, I feel obligated to remind her that my daughter works there, in all of that space, but before I can, she launches into a new story.
It seems that a few people (the hard-core yard-sale groupies) showed up just before dark, hoping to get an early peek at the items Brandi has for sale. A man noticed a tag on Buckshot’s cage, but thought the price was a little high. When he found out the amount included the animal inside the cage, he become real excited. Brandi says, “He even offered me more than I was asking. But when it came right down to it, I couldn’t sell Buckshot. That would disappoint the twins. I don’t like to make my babies unhappy.”
Brandi takes a last drag on her cigarette and tells me goodnight. When she walks by Buckshot, he bounces in his cage, spinning circles that go nowhere, just to impress her.
That night, it isn’t the boyfriend’s Harley that wakes me up. And it isn’t Maggie texting me to announce that she’d made $160 on Leg Spreaders. I am already awake, unable to sleep at all, staring at the faint outline of my bedroom ceiling. I think about little girls wearing hats, running down hallways. I think about how time goes too fast to notice. I think about raccoons and rattails and the hint of Scope in my mouth. There are too many thoughts spinning in my head, spinning the same way Buckshot circles his cage. I wonder if I have used up all my chances to be a decent parent, if there is anything of value left to tell My Daughter, Shot Girl, any advice to give her. I don’t want to think about the perky-breasted Uber Helper, but she wedges her way into my thoughts, right next to the Hell’s Angels. Funny though, I’m not upset. It’s not a like a nightmare. It’s just how things are going right now, I suppose. I get up and walk to my porch. Next door, Buckshot is already awake in the early light, making noises, showing off, wanting somebody to feed him.
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