Candy had always been a sweet girl. In high school, boys would line up to lick her arm or the back of her knee or the inside of her ankle. They would say, “Candy, you are as sweet as sweet can be,” and she would smile brightly. She would say thank you because she was also polite.
When she was a little girl, Candy’s mama Lurene loved to tell Candy she was the best gift God had ever given her. Candy was born the night before Christmas and Lurene liked to say it was because God knew she needed a little something sweet to hold on to before yet another holiday dinner with her inlaws and her own kin. Lurene died young like all the women in her family but on her deathbed, she kissed Candy on the forehead and said, “Whatever happens to you in life, always be something sweet for someone good to hold on to.” Candy cried sugary tears that fell on her mother’s dry, cracked lips and her Lurene whispered, “See, you’ve started already.”
Christmas was Candy’s favorite holiday even though she had little reason to feel any fondness for the day. Once her mama died, her daddy took to catting around and wasn’t much for remembering his daughter or her birthday or her love of Christmas. That didn’t bother Candy, though, because she stayed sweet even though she had little reason to do that either. She liked to walk around her neighborhood in the days leading up to Christmas, looking into nicely decorated living rooms. She knew the Glenn family down the street made ornaments out of homemade clay and the Jacksons next door decorated their tree only in red, silver and gold. She always found a tiny tree just for herself and she decorated it in her room, hid it in her closet where it would be safe. On Christmas morning, she would sit in front of her tiny tree and she would think of her mama, and when she started to feel a deep sadness rising up in her, she remembered her promise to Lurene to stay sweet so she smiled instead.
The Sugar Shack was a classy strip joint just off Highway 44 on the edge of town. Unlike the other strip joints in the area, the owner of The Sugar Shack, Gary Joe Thompson kept a clean place with a well lit locker room for the strippers to change in between dances and such and he only hired girls who had graduated high school. A stripper needed to be able to talk to a man, he always said. The day after she graduated high school, Candy showed up at The Sugar Shack and asked for a job. She had long learned that there weren’t a whole lot of options for a girl like her with a no good family and not a lot of money. Even though she knew it would be real hard to stay sweet taking her clothes off for strange men, she also knew she didn’t have much choice. She wasn’t good at balancing trays or standing on her feet all day.
In the five years since starting at The Sugar Shack, Candy had become the most popular dancer for two hundred miles. At work, she was Kandi Kane. She worked four nights a week and only danced to holiday music whether it was July, October or December. At first, Gary Joe wasn’t at all happy about the music Kandi wanted to strip to but on her first night, she did a sweet and sexy little dance to O Holy Night. By the end of her routine, she had men falling on their knees praying. Big Pete, one of the most godless men in town, left the club in tears and walked right on over to First Baptist. He had been one of the most passionate members of the congregation ever since and came to watch Kandi dance every Saturday night so he would always have something to be thankful for in mass on Sunday morning. When she took to the stage men and sometimes women would crowd at the tip rail holding their sweaty, dirty money between their teeth or their fingers, staring at her with glassy, eager eyes. They would shout Kandi, Kandi, Kandi, and she would extend one of her finely toned legs through a small slit in the curtains separating the backstage area from the club. She would wiggle her foot from side to side while the chanting grew louder and louder. She would force herself to smile, and as she emerged from behind the curtains, she threw her hands in the air, offering the gathered crowd the gift of her body.
The floor of the stage was black and shiny and in the middle was a red and white pole. She was so popular Gary Joe had the pole installed just for her. On the day the new pole was put in he said, “You’re something real special, little girl so I got you a special pole.” Then he grabbed his crotch. Candy smiled. When she turned away, she rolled her eyes. When she did her first routine on the new pole, wearing a skintight red latex dress and spun herself around the pole so fast it made her dizzy, the crowd cheered so loudly, she could swear she felt the walls of the place trembling.
She wasn’t much for dating. By the time she left the club after a long shift, Candy wanted nothing more than to go home to the small tract house where she lived alone. She washed herself clean of the oily fingerprints and the heavy makeup and whiskey and cigarette smoke. She wore soft, loose clothing and watched old movies or wrote long letters to her mother. She knew she didn’t have much stripping left in her so she saved almost all her money. On Wednesdays she had her father over for dinner. Sometimes he brought the woman he was currently seeing. It was rare Candy met the same woman more than twice. Candy loved to cook so she prepared fancy meals like the ones she saw being prepared on TV. She liked how the TV chefs talked to her while they were cooking. Sometimes, she pretended she was in their colorful, well-appointed kitchens with them. To have a cooking show of her own was her fondest, fondest dream.
Ricky Dean was mean and ugly but most people forgave him for his meanness because they knew anyone that ugly didn’t have much to be friendly about. He was tall and strong and a hard worker but that didn’t seem to matter much to women. It broke Ricky’s heart to know he had all this good inside of him and no damn way to let any of it out. He went to The Sugar Shack twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. He would go every night but he didn’t want to be that guy, didn’t want to seem too desperate. He liked being there, though, liked how the place, even beneath the cigarette smoke and the men and the drinking, still smelled like women. He liked how the girls moved through the place like cats, their eyes always moving, their movements always quick and real careful. Sometimes, in the back room when he was getting a lap dance, some of the girls would let him touch them because he paid extra and tipped real well. Ricky Dean would close his eyes and rest his hands on their hips or the flat of their bellies and he’d think about the taste of their skin. Kandi was his favorite dancer but he never looked at her too hard, never went in the back with her. He didn’t want to get too close to something he wanted so much.
It was just after Halloween and Candy couldn’t believe how many Christmas decorations she was seeing in the Walmart and around town. For the first time in her life, she didn’t give a good goddamn about Christmas. She was tired of Christmas, Christmas music, and caring. If she thought about it too hard, Candy knew she was simply lonely. She hadn’t slept with a man in some time save for a drunken mistake with Big Pete one night when he drove her home from the club after her car wouldn’t start. All through her shift she had been drinking vodka tonics because she was bored and when Big Pete kissed her hand and tasted her sweet skin he blurted out, “I love you.” She had never heard a man say that to her, really say that to her, when it was just the two of them and she wasn’t on stage, so she started feeling sweet toward Big Pete and invited him into her home where she poured each of them a glass of wine. Before long the whole bottle was gone and they were listening to Willie Nelson and Neil Diamond and old time music that reminded Candy of big romantic things. Big Pete said, “I love you,” again and with the fogginess in her head and the heaviness in her arms, Candy couldn’t help but feel real tender to Big Pete who was a big old meaty slab of a man, something she secretly liked. She let him lay her down on her living room floor and she let him lay his body down on top of hers and even though she couldn’t wrap her arms all the way around him she sure did try. He didn’t bring her much pleasure that night because he was so nervous he couldn’t get his stroke right but Big Pete did bring Candy a whole lot of comfort. She fell asleep lying on top of his meaty body. Every time he breathed she rose up and the sensation of it made her happy. The next morning, Big Pete stumbled out of her house saying he was sorry and needing to get on to church. He tried to get back between Candy’s thighs but she never accepted an offer for a ride home from him again.
Candy stared at her reflection in the crowded mirror and forced a smile. She ran her tongue over her teeth and tried to ignore the chatter of women all around her. Blue, one of the newest dancers, walked in and shouted, “It’s a crowded house tonight,” and all the girls cheered. Men were better tippers when the club was crowded, like they were trying to show off how much money they were willing to spend on their hopes and dreams. When it was time for her first dance, Candy slapped her self and tried to shake her bad mood out of her body. She stepped through the heavy curtain and ignored the irritation she felt as she looked out into the sea of wide eyes and gaping mouths. In the corner of the club she spotted Mean Mean Ricky Dean as the girls liked to call him. He never paid her any mind, which she thought was curious. She knew what the other girls said about him, how they felt sorry for him but Candy didn’t feel a lick of pity for someone as mean mean as Ricky Dean.
She grabbed the pole with one arm and slowly stretched her body out until she felt the strain in her shoulder. She closed her eyes and tried to sink into the velvet of Nat King Cole’s voice. When she heard, “Santa’s on his way,” she held on to the pole with both hands and leaned back until her hair brushed the stage. As she shook her chest, the men around her started to whistle. The song ended and the faster paced “All I Want For Christmas,” started playing. Kandi pulled herself upright, did a quick about turn, and shimmied out of the bright red corset she was wearing. The catcalls started and Kandi forced a bounce into her step. She returned to the pole and simulated fellatio while offering a sexy wink to a group of college boys on the left side of the stage.
When the dance was over, Kandi grabbed her clothes and returned to the warmth and shelter of the dressing room. Gary Joe did his hourly walk through and urged the girls to get on the floor because hot damn, there was money to be made tonight. Kandi shrugged into a short silk robe and a more comfortable pair of heels than the stilettos she had worn on stage. As she walked through the club, she could feel hands grabbing at her ass and voices asking for things she had no intention of giving. She saw Mean Mean Ricky Dean sitting in his corner, sulking in his ugliness and something about it made her so angry she could feel a flash of it throbbing beneath her temple. She went to the bar and ordered a vodka tonic, told the bartender to make it stiff. After she downed the first drink, she waved her finger, requesting another, and then took her drink and made a straight line for Ricky’s booth. As she sat down and slid toward Ricky his jaw dropped. Instead of saying anything, he looked down at the warm beer he was nursing.
Kandi took a long sip of her drink and sucked an ice cube into her mouth. Then she said, “I’m not scared of you Ricky Dean.” Ricky took a swig of his drink and set it down hard. “Why would you be scared of me?” There was a hard edge to his voice that he didn’t mean to be there. Kandi shrugged. “I’ve heard things about you.” Ricky nodded. He said, “Maybe I’ve heard things about you too.” Kandi chewed on the ice cube in her mouth. Her teeth were sensitive and it made her wince. “Somehow I doubt that,” she finally said. Kandi could feel Gary Joe staring at her so she finished her drink and left the glass on the table inside a ring of moisture. As she pulled herself out of the booth she said, “I’m going to figure you out Ricky Dean.” She stalked off, making her way to the college boys she winked at while she was on stage. Ricky Dean picked up Kandi’s empty glass. He pressed his lips against the imprint of her red lipstick. He inhaled slow and deep.
On Saturday, Ricky Dean shooed away the girls he regularly took lap dances from, said he was just there to watch, didn’t want to be bothered. In the dressing room, they complained he was being meaner than usual, vowed to never dance for him again, knew they were lying to themselves. Candy finished pulling on a fur lined bikini and a waist length matching cape. She was going to dance to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and liked to take a theme as far as she could. Gary Joe had lowered the temperature in the club even though it was cold outside. When he said customers complained Candy grinned. She said, “I’ll get those boys heated up, don’t you worry.” She shimmied onto the stage and stared out into the dark audience. She could practically hear the men shivering as she danced. She loved how that made her feel.
Ricky Dean waved Kandi over to his table as soon as she hit the floor after her set. She sat next to him, closer than the last time. She sat so close Ricky Dean could feel the warmth of her body and smell the sweetness of her skin. He ordered her a drink, which she accepted. She studied him closely. Ricky Dean turned away. “Don’t look at me,” he said. Candy grabbed Ricky Dean by the chin, turned his face toward her. She looked at him real hard. Ricky Dean squirmed, tried to force back the tears he felt welling in the corners of his eyes. He wasn’t used to people looking at him hard. Most of the time, they looked away, avoided eye contact, or showed their disgust in cruel, petty ways. It almost hurt how Candy was looking at him. When she was satisfied, Candy released her grip. She crossed one leg over the other and said, “You ain’t got nothing you need to hide.” Ricky Dean didn’t know what to say. He leaned back and started to cry. Candy shifted awkwardly, took a long sip of her drink. Then she rested a soft hand on Ricky Dean’s thigh, patting her hand every few seconds. They sat like that for a long while.
A couple weeks later, the girls noticed Ricky Dean had started dressing better. He smelled good, got an expensive haircut, shaved his unkempt beard. He was still mean as hell but somehow, less frightening. They tried to get him to buy drinks or dances. He refused as politely as he knew how, often with a five-dollar tip for their troubles. He only had eyes for Kandi and wasn’t afraid to show it. He brought her all manner of Christmas music, to help her plan new routines he said. He brought her small gifts wrapped in Christmas stockings and left her candy canes to snack on in the dressing room. One evening, she wore an outfit that was essentially a dress made of white Christmas lights and she danced to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” As she contorted her body in impossible positions she looked like a hot streak of light. When she finished, Ricky Dean stood up and clapped loudly, didn’t care who saw. When they sat together, he tried not to be grabby or inappropriate, waited patiently for her to come to him. Each time they talked, she came to a better understanding how a man could get so mean.
The other girls started to tease Kandi. Whenever they saw her they’d sing, “Kandi’s got a boyfriend, Kandi’s got a boyfriend,” and she’d say, “When are y’all going to grow up?” She never said, “No, I don’t,” though because she cared about what pride means to a man.
On Christmas Eve, it was unseasonably cold and the club was unseasonably full of men avoiding their obligations. The main room was brighter than usual with red and green and white Christmas lights draped across the ceiling in long, loose rows. Candy was feeling tired, knew in her bones she only had so many dances left in her. She did her first dance of the night to “Silver Bells” and wore a 70s dress made of silver lamé in the shape of a bell then performed a sassy little number to “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” cupping her ample bosom for effect every few seconds. For “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” she mimicked riding a plastic reindeer lawn ornament onto the stage and ended the night with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” wearing nothing but a Santa Claus hat, a skimpy red thong. When she took her final bow of the night, the crowd went wild and a group of men, in the frenzy of the holiday spirit swarmed the stage, climbing up, reaching for her. Candy immediately looked out toward where Ricky Dean usually sat but he was nowhere to be found. She frowned, longed to see his face. She inched back toward the safety of the curtain slowly, covering her now naked body with her thin arms. She smiled politely, shouted for Gary Joe, but he was out back by the dumpsters getting a blowjob from one of the new girls who hadn’t yet soured on the taste of his dick.
Candy felt a strange pair of fingers grabbing at her thigh and another hand on her elbow. Acid pooled at the back of her throat. She kept her cool though, smiled harder. She was good at smiling hard when she wanted to do anything but. “Gentlemen,” she said, “We’re all friends here. There’s no need for things to get out of hand.” Someone from the rear of the club shouted, “We want more,” but Kandi shook her head. She said, “I’m all done for tonight, but if you let me freshen up, I’ll give each and everyone of y’all a real special lap dance.” The men started retreating but they also started shouting, “Dance, dance, dance.” Suddenly, Ricky Dean jumped on stage. He towered over Candy and stood in front of her protectively, handing her his coat which she quickly slid into, enjoying the way it warmed her instantly. Holding one of his arms across her chest, Ricky Dean cleared his throat. Candy looked up at him and held on to his arm. She hadn’t realized how tall he was. He pointed out into the crowd and bellowed, “The lady said she’s done for the night,” and there was something in his voice that let every man in The Sugar Shack that night know that Kandi and Candy were spoken for.
Later that night, Ricky Dean waited for Candy near the back entrance of the club. She smiled when she saw him. He shuffled awkwardly, looked down at his feet. She placed one perfectly manicured finger in the dimple of his chin and raised his head. She said, “What did I tell you about looking away from me?” Ricky Dean nodded. “I thought I might walk you to your car, seeing how things went down tonight.” Candy, still wearing Ricky Dean’s coat, pulled it tighter around her body. She said, “Can I cook you something to eat?” Ricky Dean blushed. He said, “I can eat.”
After a real nice dinner, Ricky Dean made ready to go, didn’t want to overstay his welcome even though the last thing he wanted to do was leave Candy and her warm, little house. When he was around her, he didn’t feel any mean in him at all. Before he intended to leave though, he washed the dishes while Candy sat on the counter and talked to him about wanting her own cooking show. He told her she would be real good at something like that and she said, “You really think so?” This time when their eyes met, Ricky Dean didn’t look away. When the last dish was washed, dried and put away, Ricky Dean wiped his hands on his jeans. As he made his way out of the kitchen and toward the front door, he said, “I want to thank you for being real kind to me when you had no reason to.” Candy took Ricky Dean by the hand. She ran her fingers over his knuckles, kissed each one softly, then held his hand to her chest. She said, “I’d like it if you stayed tonight and tomorrow night and a whole bunch of other nights. I want you to keep me warm.” Ricky Dean stiffened. “I don’t need your damn pity,” he said. Candy reached up and grabbed Ricky by his collar, pulling him down to her height. She glared. “You listen good, Ricky Dean. I’ve never pitied you a day in my life.”
In Candy’s bedroom, Ricky Dean undressed carefully, folded his clothes and left them in a neat pile on the floor. He watched as Candy undressed and even though he had seen her naked hundreds of times, there was something different about seeing her do it for him and him alone. She was the most beautiful thing and it made him feel even uglier. He said, “I look worse next to you.” “I’m only gonna say this once,” Candy said. “You are perfect next to me.” She crawled into bed and stretched herself out. She felt good and safe and happy. She patted the empty space in the bed next to her much like she had patted Ricky Dean’s leg the night he cried in the dark corner of The Sugar Shack. Shyly, he got into the bed, tried to cover his face with his arm. She pulled his arm away and whispered, “I’m not going to tell you again to stop hiding when you’re with me.” She held his face and kissed his forehead and his nose and his lips. When he kissed her back she shivered, opened her mouth, moaned softly. She had always known that Ricky Dean was a tender man. He grew confident, pulled Candy toward him, kissed every inch of her body, savored the taste of her sweet skin, loved her right.
Just before he drifted asleep, Ricky Dean asked, “Why did you pick me? You could have anyone.” Candy held Mean, Mean Ricky Dean in her loving arms. She ran her hands along his broad shoulders and through his nice head of hair. She kissed him, told him he was beautiful and good. She said, “My mama once told me to be something sweet for someone good to hold on to.” Ricky Dean’s heart pounded like it was the first time it had ever felt anything. He said, “I’m going to be real good at being that someone good for you to hold on to.” Candy smiled in the darkness of her bedroom and so did Ricky Dean.
About Roxane: Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.