“Punch Line” by Kathleen Balma

Kathleen Balma


One night I was the first dancer in the bar.
My shift hadn’t started.
I had time to get ready.
I had the dressing room to myself.
I was in the right frame of mind for work.
The owner was a biker named Van Zandt.
He was a 50-something strawberry blonde, short and beardless with long hair.
The bar was called Changes.
Van owned another bar, a biker bar, called Van Zandt’s.
I had the dressing room to myself.
I had my pick of chairs.
I was getting into my good money head.
Van came downstairs with a green-handled broom.
He was trying to look serious.
He was serious and trying to look dire.
He did not want sex.
He had karate on his mind.
He was drunk.
I was in stilettos.
We stared at each other.
We knew each other’s names—his full name, my stage name.
I don’t remember my stage name then.
Van laid the tip of the broom handle on the counter and held it out like a limbo stick.
I’m really good at limbo.
I made a joke about it.
He stared at the handle and made slow chopping motions.
“Hold the broom,” he said.
I didn’t know this man.
The dressing room was at the ass end of the building.
The building was huge with a maze of halls and empty side rooms.
How fast could I get up the stairs?
I would need to get out of my heels first.
They weren’t the kind you could just kick off.
They had long straps that wrapped around the ankles and tied.
“I don’t want to hold the broom.”
“Hold the broom.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to chop it in half with the power of my hand.”
“You’re too drunk.”
“I’m not drunk.”
“You can barely walk.”
“I’m not drunk! I can do this. Hold the broom.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Hold it!”
Van loved on the unbroken broom with his eyes.
“I’m not going to hurt you. I know what I’m doing.”
“I just want to get dressed here, man.”
“I’ve done this before. I’m good at it.”
“Find somebody else.”
“You’re the only one here.”
“Cherry comes early. She’ll help you.”
“I need to do this now!”
“Just. Just hold it.”
“No sir.”
“I’ll fire you. I can fire you.”
“There are other bars.”
“I’m not going to fire you, okay? This’ll be quick. You won’t even feel it.”
“Hell. No.”
“What are you afraid of?”
A titty bar is a funny place.
You don’t think it gets funny in there?
You don’t think it’s hysterical fun?
It was a slow night.
I made four hundred dollars.

from Rattle #66, Winter 2019
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Kathleen Balma: “This is one of those things I had to write. It represents a decade of my life, and it mostly wrote itself. It’s for all the women in my night family—you know who you are, hosebeasts.”

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