Monday, January 14, 2013

Lola Dances excerpt by Victor J Banis

Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and often bawdy, Lola Dances by Victor J Banis ranges from the 1850 slums of the Bowery to the mining camps of California and Montana, to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco.

Little Terry Murphy, pretty and effeminate, dreams of becoming a dancer. Raped by a drunken profligate and threatened with prison, Terry flees the Bowery and finds himself in the rugged settlement of Alder Gulch, where he stands out like a sore thumb among the camp's macho inhabitants--until the day he puts on a dress and dances for the unsuspecting miners as beautiful Lola Valdez--and wins fame, fortune and, ultimately, love.

Lola Dances
MLR Press (February 2008)

ISBN: 978-1-934531-42-6 (print)

978-1-934531-57-0 (ebook)



"Hey, little girlie."

"Guess what I've got for you."

Terry Murphy was used to it. He went past the loading dock every day to get to the theater for his dance lessons. They were always hanging around there, never fewer than two of them and more often four or five, and always quick to taunt him. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and ignored them.

At first he'd been afraid they might physically assault him and he'd had to resist the urge to run from them. Some instinct told him that would be a mistake, that it would only empower them, encourage them to follow through with threats that were, as yet, only implied.

It wasn't that he lacked courage. But even if he had, even for a moment, thought of standing up to them, what chance would he have had? They were young, some of them probably younger even than he was, at least in years, but they were far older than he was in other ways. They were all of them as tall and as burly as any grown man, hard muscled from loading and unloading the drays that came and went at all hours of the day and night. He was five foot five inches in his stocking feet, slim, skinny really. He was muscular enough, in a wiry, dancer's way but it wasn't fighting-muscular.

Anyway, it wouldn't have mattered how tall he was or how muscular. He wasn't the sort for fisticuffs. He had learned that early on, at the Mission School. He'd always been smaller than the other boys his age and it hadn't taken the bullies long to discover him.

Once, when he was little and working in the washroom, he had found one of the girls' uniforms, fallen behind a rinse tub and left unnoticed. On some whim he hadn't paused to analyze, he'd put the blouse and jumper on—and had been found in them by a couple of the older boys. The story had quickly spread around school, and made him the center of an attention he would rather not have known.

He had quickly learned the strength of passivity. He couldn't outfight them, or outrun them or stay clear of them. What he could do, he soon discovered, was spoil their fun. The pleasure of just punching on him had paled quickly for them, especially since no matter how often or how brutally they did it, he flat out refused to cry or, as they demanded repeatedly, to "say uncle." He simply would not give them that satisfaction. Even if they had killed him—and once or twice he thought they might—they couldn't get that out of him.

There wasn't a lot of fun for them, as it turned out, in punching someone who responded so passively, and it hadn't been long before they found better candidates for their torture. After that, they had mostly simply ignored him and Terry had conspired with them in that by getting very skilled at "fading into the woodwork."

At first, he had been convinced that these toughs at the loading dock, too, would eventually take their fists to him, until they lost their enthusiasm for a victim who refused to participate in their sport, and the prospect dismayed him. At the same time, though, there was something about these hooligans that fascinated him in a way those other boys when he was younger hadn't, though he couldn't have put into words what it was.

The truth was, he could have avoided them. Though it would have been several blocks out of his way, he could have reached the theater from the alley on the opposite side, and he wouldn't have had to cross their paths at all. But that, some stubborn part of him insisted, would have been a victory of some sort for them, too much like crying uncle.

Sometimes when he saw them, though, stealing glances at them because he tried to pretend he was not aware of them at all, he was assailed by a strange kind of lightheadedness, a dizziness almost, that came over him out of nowhere.

They were ruffians, crude, boorish, unwashed. Sometimes, even at a distance, he actually thought he could smell them: the grease on their hair, the stains on their too seldom laundered clothes, the sweat of their too seldom bathed bodies.

He couldn't, of course. They were never close enough for that. It was just some trick of his imagination. They never ventured from their places standing by or sitting on the loading dock where they could usually be seen playing cards, or kneeling, dice snickering on the ground between them.

Still, it seemed as if there was a scent that emanated from them, that filled his nostrils, like the odd spices that wafted from the shops in the Jewish quarter when he walked that way, odd and yet strangely familiar, reminiscent of something he couldn't possibly have known.

But where did it come from, that odd sense of familiarity with these young men, of some proximity, even, that was not of a physical sort? What caused it? What was it about those thick muscled arms and legs, those stubbled chins, already showing men's beards, the hair some of them already sported on their chests, while his chin was as smooth as porcelain, his body all but hairless?

His voice, too, was hardly changed from what it had been when he was a boy. When he sang, it was in a woman's voice, not a man's. But why did those man-deep baritone voices with which they jeered at him make his head swim, give him that strange fluttering feeling in the pit of his stomach, at the same time it—and they—frightened him? None of which he had experienced with those earlier bullies.

What had changed, then, in the years since he—and his tormentors—had passed through puberty? That something was different here, he was stone certain.

He had a strange feeling that if he had even paused to smile at them, to stroll over to where they were, they'd have run from him just as he had sometimes wanted to run from them.

He couldn't think why that should be true, though. It was ridiculous to think that these street toughs could possibly be afraid of him, of anything he could do; but somewhere inside himself, he believed it. There was something overdone in their bravado, something concealed within it of an opposite nature.

It had given him courage, that peculiar conviction, not the stand-up-to-them kind of courage, but the stoical, go by and pretend he hadn't seen or heard them kind. He did that now, looking straight ahead, his chin tilted upward. He ignored the titters that followed him, though his senses as he passed by them were so preternaturally heightened that he heard them clearly enough, was aware of them not just as a group, but each of them singly, could have sketched them if he'd been an artist, recognized each voice for his individual timbre, as a mother was said to know by instinct the cry of her child out of an entire crowd of children.

He couldn't prevent himself from blushing, though, as they shouted and jeered him—something that he did all too easily and that was one of the banes of his existence; but he doubted they would notice that.

His face the color of rose petals, he let himself in the stage door, hurrying. He was late. The girls were already in the rehearsal hall, the pianist banging out a facsimile of a can-can, slippered feet making a swishing noise on the wooden floor. The Professor stood in the open doorway, watching Terry run down the corridor.

"So good of you to join us, Master Murphy," he said. "I hope we're not interfering with your social life."

"I'm sorry," Terry said breathlessly, hurrying past him, to the dressing room. "The manager was late. I can't leave the bar until he gets there."

"That, Master Murphy," the Professor said, "is not my problem. My problem is a dance class that I run for all my students, and that I cannot hold up for one of them who refuses to be on time."

Terry didn't waste the breath arguing. He stripped quickly, donned the dance cup, the tights, the slippers. He left his glasses in the dressing room—he saw everything through a myopic haze without them, but it was too hard to keep them on when he danced and he couldn't afford to have them go flying off and get broken—and hurried back to the hall. He did not even take time to do the customary warm up stretches, though he knew he was flirting with disaster dancing without warming up.

Flirting with disaster. That, he thought, pretty well described his life, didn't it?

# # # # #

Afterward, when the others had gone, he stayed to practice. His body ached, the predictable penalty for skipping his warm up. There was a pull in his groin that would be an actual cramp in no time, and the Professor had been particularly punishing today. The muscles in his shoulders felt as if he'd been tortured on the rack.

He stretched at the barre to loosen up, and worked some more on the jeté. He almost got it right, but he landed badly, nearly twisting his ankle. He dropped to his knees instead to spare it, and found the Professor watching him from the doorway, unsmiling.

"I think, Master Murphy," he said, "perhaps dance is not your métier. Not classical ballet, at any rate, though if you had arrived in time for the can-can…" He shrugged and left that thought unfinished. It was hardly a compliment, in any case. The girls danced the can-can.

"I'll get it," Terry said, getting up and brushing the stage dust off his tights. "Anyway, so long as I'm willing to pay for the lessons…"

"You pay half what the girls pay," the Professor said, "and cost me twice as much work. And, you're two weeks behind in your fees, might I remind you?"

"I'll get your money," Terry promised. "And I'll practice more. I really want to be a dancer. And I will one day. I know I will."

The Professor regarded him solemnly for a moment longer. Then, with another dismissive shrug, he turned away. "Be sure the stage door is locked when you go out," he said as he departed. "The watchman's not here until ten."

# # # # #

The girls had left already. The dressing room was empty. Terry stripped wearily and paused for a moment to look critically at himself in the mirror that ran the length of the dressing room. His jet-black hair fell in damp ringlets about his face, making it look even paler than it was. It seemed to him as if he could see the bones through his skin, like a baby bird's.

He had lost weight, too. Even working half the night as he did, rushing from one end of the Bowery to the other, cleaning three different bars for old man McGuirk, it was all he could do to make ends meet. Most of it went for that dingy room with its one tiny window and its soot covered walls, and what his landlady called, rather grandly in his opinion, "dinner"—all that watery soup, with bread that was always stale and occasionally moldy, and on Sundays, beef ribs that were mostly ribs with the occasional bit of fat or gristle still attached.

One meal a day. He had hope sometimes of being able to supplement that with something more filling, from one of the street vendors, maybe. Even an apple from the apple cart would have been a delight. They always looked so red and shiny, they might have been made of wax, and every time he passed the cart, saw them sitting in their crimson loveliness, he could imagine the taste, the crunch as he bit into one, and the sweet juices running down his chin—but by the time he had paid the Professor's fees, and too frequently replaced the quickly worn through dance shoes, he was lucky if he was left with a penny or two to spare, if that, and the growl that these days never quite left his belly.

Of course, hunger was no stranger to the neighborhood. Others, little children, even, ate what rotten food they could find on the streets and sifted through the piles of garbage outside the saloons and whorehouses to find anything edible. Terry had not yet gotten that hungry, though he had often come close.

To read more from Lola Dances, see the excerpt from 2/11/08.

To purchase the ebook, click (MLR Books) or (Amazon)

To purchase the paperback, click (Amazon) or (Barnes & Noble)


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

I've read this a few times and each times is better than the last. Will definitely be a gay literary classic, no doubt about that.

Lloyd Meeker said...

I agree with Mick. Lola Dances is already a classic to me -- beautifully written, moving, hard to forget long after being read.

Anel Viz said...

Lola is among my favorite Banis works.

Rick Reed said...

Lovely. I think this is one of Victor's most powerful books and this reminded me of when I had the honor to hear him read aloud from it at Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia. I was moved to tears then, just as I am now. One of your best, Victor!

Victor J. Banis said...

thank you all for the kind words. It's no secret that little Lola has a special place in my heart. Can you believe that when the idea first came to me I mightiy resisted writing it? That's a fight I'm glad hat I lost.

C. Zampa said...

Lola. Just the one word says it all. One of my most beloved characters/books of all time.

AlanChinWriter said...

This is a book that has been on me to-read list for years and for some reason I haven't gotten to it yet. I will now. Powerful writing, Victor.

Jon Michaelsen said...

As a fan of your mysteries, I always knew you as an awesome writer, but the angst and passion presented in this short excerpt from "Lola Dances" is beyond incredible. I'm honored to call you one of my favs!

Jon Michaelsen said...

As a fan of your mysteries, I always knew you as an awesome writer, but the angst and passion presented in this short excerpt from "Lola Dances" is beyond incredible. I'm honored to call you one of my favs!