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The steeples in Siwash still tower above all other structures. Except for the pulp mill with its spume spewing stacks but that is not actually in the municipality proper and does not really count. Caught between Devil's Head and the deep blue sea, Siwash has nowhere to grow except up. Up the sides of Devil's Head Plateau or up, up and away like so many other towns that try to transform themselves into modest, tidy cities with glass and steel.

The steeples in Siwash still tower above all other structures. Except for the pulp mill with its spume spewing stacks but that is not actually in the municipality proper and does not really count. Caught between Devil's Head and the deep blue sea, Siwash has nowhere to grow except up. Up the sides of Devil's Head Plateau or up, up and away like so many other towns that try to transform themselves into modest, tidy cities with glass and steel.

And Siwash is booming. At least that's what the two local newspapers keep reporting to whoever will read it. The Siwash Morning Sun would report anything that the mayor, Siwash's most successful land developer, said. The Gulf Current, a give away, would report anything at all, as long as it filled up space. At the Current yet another boom story was being polished when the telephone rang.

"News. Can I help you?"

"Hi News. This is Sports. Maybe you can. Busy?"

"Well, not..."

"Great, why don't you come into my orafice?"

"Unh, okay," the reporter said and hung up, not yet aware that 'Sure, bend over' was the expected response. His face twitched slightly as he jotted down a few notes on the story he was working on. He was young, 25, with the lean and gawky appearance of a computer nerd just flaring into puberty. The puzzled expression on his face suggested it had been a terrible puberty. He never dressed the part though. Instead he had a liking for tailored Italian clothes that masked to a degree his physical type. His speech belonged to yet a third category. He was slow to respond and people had a tendency to interrupt him. As a result of this he had lately begun to cast his speech in one or two word interjections, sometimes sarcastic, and tried to content himself with listening.

"What's up?" he asked from the cubical doorway.

"The sky. Siddown," the bulk at the sports desk said. "I need an ace reporter and your name instantly sprang to mind. Free this aft? Say about one-ish?"

"Well, I think Mr. Grogan wants me to rewrite a stack of press releases."

"Never fear the potentate of print. I'll fix it," Sports said, picking up the phone. "Hey, Grog, my man, I got a big favour to ask. You know the new hot shot sitting at the news desk? Yeah, I know he's not there. He's in my office. Look, I got to be in two places at once this afternoon and I'd like to borrow him for a while to cover this tennis tourney thing. No, shouldn't take an hour. You're a life-saver, Groggy. Hey, and don't forget, I owe you a beer for this one."

"Should I bring a camera?" News asked.

"Naw, won't be needed. You got some shorts? We'll swing by your place and pick up your strip."

The new Springside Tennis and Racquet Sports Club was doing badly so the two reporters had all eight courts to themselves. They played for about an hour and a half and seemed well-matched though neither of them was any good. News was by far the more athletic of the two but expended himself needlessly running hither and thither. Sports had perfected the skill of being in the right place at the right time and was usually in place waiting, squat and chunky like a spider, when the ball finally arrived.

In the lounge after the match News asked about the tournament.

"Oh, that. Relax. That was for Grogan. He never listens so he'd never question you about something he might have got wrong. Hates to be wrong. But that reminds me. Grab a brochure on the way out and dash off a bit of fluff for the Thursday sports page. I'll give you a by-line. That ought to keep the sultan of syntax off your neck," Sports said, rubbing his own, now pink from the springtime sunshine out on the court. Physically he was round though, if he cared one way or another, he could have blamed genetics as much for his shape as the beer he enjoyed drinking. It is doubtful that he ever shaved so at 28 he still had the appearance of a ruddy, chubby baby even though his head was topped by a surprisingly thick shock of coarse dark hair that looked like it had been chopped off by an amateur using dull sewing shears which, in fact, his wife had used when she cut it.

"What about that other pressing assignment you had?"

"Women's Double "A" Softball? I'll pick it up off the radio in the morning. Unless you want to watch a bunch of horny old housewives stumbling after a ball. You want that?"

"No"

"Good, because there's not a looker in the bunch. Great, because they air the new talent down at the Tartan every Monday. And, even better, today is Monday. Oh yeah, you're a member here. I arranged it with the manager while you were changing. You're on the VIP list. I told him you were a Pulitzer Prize winner so write a good bit of pap for the chap."

"Pulitzer? That's American."

"He doesn't know."

When the stripper came on at the Tartan Pub the lights dimmed and so did the din. The two journalists were seated front row and centre, each with a pint of Duffy's in front of him.

"I'm not really into this sort of thing," News announced before the music started.

"Who is? But since we're here...."

The dancer fiddled with her hair in the mirrored wall behind the stage while a barman fiddled with the tape machine. He flicked on the spot lights just as the music came up. News didn't watch much, only glanced at the stage from time to time while he pulled strands of thread from the red terry-cloth table cover and surveyed the pub in detail for the first time. Except for the mirrored wall directly behind the dancer, all of the walls were crowded with taxidermy. Peering down from every possible vantage like homespun gargoyles were the heads of goofy-looking moose and dusty black bear and deer and elk with smoke-glazed eyeballs. Over the bar itself a complete cougar, except for the insides of course, posed eternally with one paw raised as if it were about to take that final step into eternity. Elsewhere were pheasants frozen in flight or grouse standing on branches that protruded from the wainscotting. Over the pay phone an enormous steelhead leapt skyward from imaginary water, its silvery scales long since tarnished to a dull lead-grey. Bunnies hopped and raccoons and wolverines snarled and high over the stage, above the dancer who whirled luridly about, shaking and jiggling as if in the grip of a severe case of Parkinson's, a gigantic big horn ram with a full curl glared down with contempt.

Sports was long beyond noticing the local zoological pantheon. During the act he grinned and guzzled, tossing out a "She's great" after each tune. After four such pronouncement the show was concluded, the lights came back up, conversations were resumed and the woman slipped on a blue nylon kimono, gathered up her costume fragments and headed for the lobby.

"She's not great. She's terrible. She can't even dance," News declared, grasping his beer mug so hard that it whitened his knuckles.

"Dance? You came here for the Bolshoi Ballet? This is where some broad gets up in front of a bunch of guys, rips her tunic off and wiggles her titties about. You get a bit of fuzz and a few laughs but you don't get dancing."

"Well, I don't know. I saw a stripper once..."

"...That was great, right? I saw one tonight that was great."

"That's not what I mean. This one was."

"What?"

"...I don't know.. .maybe a student of dance. There was classical movement in it. How can I explain?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Poetry in motion. And you were glandulating. "So you're a dance critic. What else do you do?"

"Well at the U of T I covered music and film as well as the odd more general feature assignment. But it's true, the Arts are my strength."

"You realize what you've landed in, don't you?"

"What's that?"

"This paper is such a mess that we don't even have an entertainment section.

"I noticed that. Seems like a niche ready-made."

"You'll have to talk to the oracle of organization about that. Not my department," Sports said. At work he was in reality a one man show: sports reporter, sports photographer, sports editor, columnist and lay-out artist. It was generally acknowledged that the sports section was the strongest part of the Coastal Current. Proud parents inevitably flipped past local news to read about the accomplishments of daughters and sons in every realm possible: lacrosse, hockey, swimming, figure skating, BMX, soccor, gymnastics, football, basketball and on and on and Sports had it all stuffed into a compact eight page unit, three times a week. "And so fresh out of school you joined the Coastal Current. Surely you could do better with a journalism degree."

"Well, actually I had an offer from the Globe & Mail and...."

"Turned them down? You're mad. Think of the money."

"Yeah, well money isn't everything, you know?"

"It isn't anything on the Current."

"But at least I have a chance to do some real journalism."

"Real journalism?"

"Something besides rewriting wire copy.

"Like rewriting press releases."

"No. I mean investigative journalism."

"A glamour boy. Listen, Glam, there hasn't been anything that happened worth investigating in Siwash since the British ripped the place off from the Indians and gave them small pox for it. Come on."

"We'll see. Besides, small town living appeals to me."

"Living? You call this life?"

"I've looked around. I wouldn't mind settling down in a place like this."

"Incredible."

"My real ambition has nothing to do with journalism."

"A-ha! A closet novelist. I knew it."

"Nothing of the sort. It's simple. To have a house, a wife, a couple of kids... you know...a garden."

"My man. My man. Listen to me. That's not an ambition. That's just something that happens to you like boils or distemper."

"It doesn't matter what you do in life as long as you have a solid family backing you up."

"Dragging you down. It's invariably terminal. I've got brats up to my armpits and it hasn't done me a bit of good. Look at Grogan. He's just getting over one bout of marriage and getting into a worse one. It's a kind of prolonged suicide."

"It depends on the individual. Sure, for some it's a trap. But for others it's...."

"It's your funeral. Look it, speaking of the jester of journalism I've got a phone call to make."

"Grogan?"

"Yeah."

"For Christ's sake, don't tell him I'm here."

"For your sake maybe."

On his way back from the telephone Sports stopped off to pay his respects to the dancer who was now sitting at the bar, jean-clad, warding off come-on's as a dairy cow does flies."

"Well?

"Grogan? I got him at home: the Legion. Still coherent. He asked about you."

"And?"

"I said you were probably typing up tennis at this very moment. Trying to make a good impression. I told him to expect nothing short of a tennis epic."

"Jeezus. Thanks for covering for me."

"Don't sweat it. Groggy never reads sports. There's a rumour going around that he can't read at all."

"I think I should get back. It's only my second week."

At this point the stripper got up and started walking towards the two journalists. When she got to the table she said simply "Natasha."

Sports jumped up and squeezed her hand repeating "Natasha. A lovely name. Enchanté . Please, have a seat." She would only drink Perrier so he ordered one and a couple more pints.

"So you're members of the press. It must be pretty exciting."

"Hardly," News countered, "it all gets to be pretty routine."

"Listen to him," Sports cut in, "Modest. Always Mr. Modest in front of the ladies. Fact is Natasha, every day is so damned... um... challenging."

"Yeah. A challenge to stay awake."

"Ignore him. He's trying to impress you with his hard-boiled reporter act."

"But I know where he's coming from. Tired from chasing down leads. We all get that way. Jaded. Never enough time. Always go-go-go against a backdrop of glamour and intrigue."

"Sounds like what I do," Natasha piped up, her voice dry and deep from constant smoking.

"You mean the...a...go-go part?" Sports asked, gesturing towards the carpeted stage.

"Dance," she explained, rolling her contact lens-green eyes back a bit as if trying to recall something important. "Glamour yes, but it's a hard circuit. There are a lot of dues to be paid along the way.

"Dues?"

"Yeah. Stars are made not born. Sure it takes natural talent but the most important ingredient is hard work climbing the ladder of success."

To News this sounded like a prerecorded speech but Sports suddenly held up his hand and said "Stop. Do you know what this is? We're sitting here with a fast-breaking feature article and I don't even have a notebook."

"I do," News blurted, taking the bait.

"Excellent my man. Once a boy scout always.... Take this down. With your permission, of course."

"Of course. Where was I?"

"About paying dues."

"That's right. Do you think someone like Neil Diamond was born with gold records?"

"No way. Are you getting this?"

"Yeah. Yeah. I got it."

"No. He had to climb the ladder like everyone else. It takes years to reach the top but that's where I'm going."

"Unless you're discovered," Sports added.

"There's always that possibility but it's a long shot. The way to the top is simply hard work. One day at a time."

"Christian virtue, eh?" Sports suggested. The other two looked at him blankly for a moment. "So Natasha, honey, tell the man with the pen about the long and winding road."

"Touring is hard on a dancer. As you can imagine we have to keep our bodies in shape. But we're on the road, staying in strange hotels, eating hotel food. It's hard, truly hard, to have a balanced diet, get enough sleep. Then there's wardrobe. You wouldn't believe how many costumes I have to lug from town to town."

"This is a story with soul," Sports said, waiving for more beer. "You're getting every word my good man?"

"Every one. Touring," he repeated, using her word. On tour up the ladder of success, stopping off in every one horse town that boasts as much as a hotel. Stripping for all the high school drop-outs and calling it dance. "Yeah, I got it," News said and took a long slurp on his beer.

"Time I changed for the next show," Natasha announced, rising.

Sports jumped up too. "You'll be back after the act won't you Natash? We've hardly scratched the surface."

"Of course. That's the price of success, you know," she added, winking.

"What a gal," Sports said after she left. "I can see the screamer now: NASTY NATASHA BARES ALL. Coastal Current Exclusive."

"You're not actually serious about using this?"

"Serious? Have you met the Big Guy yet?"

"Who's that?"

"The publisher. The man who signs the cheques. Fulton. Archibald 'Sir-to-You' Fulton the Third."

"No, I haven't."

"You won't. Not often. He doesn't associate with lowly peons like us. Stays drunk and worldly at the yacht club."

"Oh."

"Yeah. So anyway. So the Big Guy did an informal survey of a few bookshops in town and you know what he found out?"

"That people here can't read? I don't know."

"Almost. That, by subject, far and away the most popular magazines in Siwash were car and girlie magazines."

"Un-huh."

"And on the basis of that he issued an edict from under some table somewhere that we were to have a girl and a car, preferably together, in every issue."

"Journalism's finest hour."

"Exactly. Well, in one week you should have noticed that anything really exciting in either category is hard to come by in this burg.

"I wasn't shopping but, yes, I noticed."

"So, to make a short story long, the stripper will get in. "But not without pictures. Grogan's not going to free up a single column inch without pictures."

"You're right. What do you propose?"

I have my bazooka out in the car. Back in a flash with a flash."

Sports loaded up with a fresh roll of film and changed lenses. His camera was a Minolta, dented and scratched with generic brand lenses. "The lens is filthy," News declared.

"Doesn't matter," Sports said. "Dust is too close to be in focus anyway. He smeared the glass with a corner of his shirt then groped through the camera bag for the flash.

The waiter, dropping off more beer, said, "No pictures in here, you know that boys."

"We're press. The Current," Sports replied.

"I know. Doesn't matter though. It's against the law."

Just then the tapster paged Sports over the PA system. "That'll be the wife. Tell her I'm not here," he implored, handing the waiter a dollar tip. The waiter was busy now. The sawmills nearby had started belching their day shift crews back into the streets. Many of the workers found their way to the Tartan more from habit than interest. They'd catch the show then go home to their families for dinner. All the tables were full now and many of the workers congregated near the exits or the bar, making it hard for the waiters to restock their trays. The tapster was working full out trying to keep up with the brief spurt of demand. He didn' t have time to tell the caller that her husband was not there. Eventually she hung up, the bar room racket still echoing in the receiver.

Natasha came on stage wearing some kind of lime-green Arabian pyjama outfit. "I dream of Jeannie," News whispered but Sports didn't seem to catch it. She started her act by moving around, fully clothed, to the Neil Diamond tune "Cherry. Cherry." About halfway through the song a joker at the back yelled out "Some cherry, jeez" and got a lot of laughs. Even News smirked but Sports just stared in rapture at the dancer. Through the next number, "Sweet Caroline," she worked off her short, sequined jacket and revealed full breasts with erect nipples under the flimsy gauze of the outfit. "Some sweet," the same joker called out and got a few chuckles here and there around the room. The next song was "Kentucky Woman" and, as it opened she slipped out of the greenish mosquito netting and stood grasping her breasts, pushing them out towards the audience while quivering up and down. She still sported a green and glittering G-string. "Nice tits," someone at a table near the two journalists remarked. "Too many veins," a buddy countered. "I've got a blue-veiner myself," a third one added and the whole table laughed.

"Pink. Show some pink," a guy over by the door called out and then looked at his mates to see if it was funny. They were all grinning.

"Flabby ass," someone else noted.

As "Song Sung Blue" started the dancer whipped off the G-string and tossed it onto the pile of clothes at one corner of the stage. "Pink," the guy by the door tried again and the stripper responded, kicking her leg high to a bass drum beat while coyly shielding her exposed genitals with a hand. Heads craned to get a glimpse and she kicked again. Then she arched backwards, legs spread, until her hands reached the floor behind her. She maintained the arch, writhing in portrayal of ecstasy, gyrating to the music. When the music stopped a few of the mill workers politely clapped. "Put it back on," someone inevitably yelled.

She put her kimono on and, gathering the costume up into a bunch, strode across the pub towards the lobby, returning in 20 minutes wearing her street clothes again. In the meantime the crowd had thinned out somewhat and Sports' wife had had him paged one more time. Again he didn't answer it.

"So what did you think?" was all Natasha said as she seated herself.

"You're something that's for sure," Sports resumed. "My colleague from the newsroom and I were just saying this could be the start of something big. A major scoop. How's this for a headline: NEW STAR ON THE HORIZON: Natasha Shines at Tartan?"

"You're an artist too. I can feel it. It's something in the heart. I know. We're really in the same business after all. You write and I dance but it's all the same. Art," she said, growing sentimental.

"But without photos we're nowhere with this story. Nowhere. Photos are illegal in the pub. Did you know that?"

"The pub could get its license suspended for allowing it."

They arranged to meet in the lobby after the next show and she would pose for a few shots in her room. Then she explained how the room was kind of small but was included in her salary. "500 a week and a room to stay in. And no tricks," she said. "That violates the contract. Some of the girls do it. It's easy money- But not me. I just want to entertain. Like Neil Diamond."

"That was nice the way you used only Neil Diamond hits for that last set," Sports said.

"Did you like that? It's my favourite set."

"The choreography was good. Very, very... ah..."

"Tight," News suggested.

"Oh yeah? I did it myself. Neil Diamond is an inspiration for me. Kind of my mentor. He didn't start out a star you know. He had to pay his dues too. It's his determination that I admire most."

"Great stuff. Great stuff. Keep it coming. What about home life? Where do you call home?"

"Surrey. I live there with my boyfriend. We even have our own house.

"Boyfriend?" News said, getting drawn in in spite of himself. "What does he think of your... um... line of work?"

"My art? He's very supportive. And he has his dogs. He raises attack dogs."

"Attack dogs?" Sports exclaimed. "But tell me, don't you get lonely on the road?"

"Of course there's a certain amount of loneliness. But," she shrugged, "that's the price you have to pay."

After awhile she went to change again, as she would do once every hour until 11 o'clock. Another crowd was gathering for the show though there were fewer this time as it was nearing the dinner hour in many homes. Many of those who now congregated had no dinner to go home to and so ordered food to go along with their beer. The two reporters each ordered the house special, a double deluxe burger with thick, hand-cut fries. When the food arrived Sports suddenly leaned over to News and said, "Someone should put her out of her misery."

News smeared some catsup on a chip, took a long swig of beer then blurted, "This is all pretty sick, you know. She's right about one thing though."

"What's that?"

"You are two of a kind."

"Drink your beer. Here comes Madame Butterfly." This time Natasha was wearing tight leather hot pants and a matching body suit with a giant zipper down the front. She wiggled about to a set of disco tunes all the while mock-lacerating her bottom with a stubby cat-o-nine-tails. Towards the end of the routine Sports disappeared, camera bag in hand, into the lobby.

News continued to sit alone for a time, sipping his beer and going over the notes he had taken. Then he got up abruptly, went to the bar and ordered a taxi and a half pint of beer. By the end of the beer, with no taxi in sight, he decided to walk home.

About an hour later, as he was nearing his flat, a car pulled up beside him, honking. It was Sports, grinning as he rolled down the window. "Hey, smell my finger," he yelled.

"You pig. You didn't actually...."

] "I got the pictures," Sports said, holding up a roll of film. "Thirty-six of them. And a six-pack. Let's go dunk them in the soup and see what the camera has to tell."

News tried to decline but could not squirm out of it gracefully in the face of Sports' persistence so he got in the car.

Back at the newspaper office, deserted by now, they invaded the darkroom and developed, contacted and printed a selection of photos from the roll. After drying them they stood around and had a few laughs at Natasha's expense while finishing the beer. Sports was uncharacteristically subdued about the actual photo session and News avoided the topic. Before they left Sports put what he called a "split-beaver shot" on Grogan's typewriter.

By the time either of them arrived the next morning the story was a sensation of speculation throughout the office. They both had to give a synopsis of events over and over many times. News was somewhat less enthusiastic than his colleague. And writing the story depressed him deeply, so much so that he joined Grogan at the Legion for a couple beers at lunch time. Eventually he put together an enervated account of the latest public offering from the Tartan Pub with a few choice quotes from the star of the week. The headline too was uninspired, PEEPING UNDER THE TARTAN KILT, but everyone in the newsroom thought it was funny which raised his esteem a bit.

Sports lobbied for a nude photo with all the naughty bits cancelled by heavy black bars as in the more sordid tabloids. Grogan, however, chose the only fully-clothed picture of the lot, one with the I-Dream-of-Jeannie outfit, even though it was poorly exposed and poorly focused and made Natasha look old and frumpy. The entire feature eventually got buried in amongst the advertising clutter towards the back of the Saturday edition.

On his way out that evening, looking tired, News stopped by the Sports desk for a moment. "You did her, didn't you?" he said.

"I never kiss and tell," Sports retorted, grinning.

"You did. Yeah, you did. That's crummy. She doesn't do tricks but she gives it away free to some hack journalist with a pack of promises. That's so crummy."

"What can I say? It's hers to give away, now, isn't it?"





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