You drove for more than an hour to get here, and the swallowing dark of this parking lot reminds you that most of that drive went by without passing any kind of building. Until you arrived here at The North Pole. Cold, packing crunches mark your footsteps as you trudge from your car across the snow up to the wood shingle clad building. Neon signs and Christmas lights dance along to silent, discordant rhythms. Smoke pleasantly drifts up from a chimney.
A jingle bell announces your entrance, followed by a blast of warm air and thumping music. A holiday remix of “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” A heavy set man with silken hair and beard wearing wrap-around sunglasses checks your ID and takes your cover charge. You step through the second door. Def Leppard, accompanied by sleigh bells, doubles in volume.
On the stage a man whose rotund belly is dusted with gray curls tucks his thumb behind his candy cane striped suspenders until they snap against his bare chest. They are attached to red velvet hotpants. You continue to glance at the stage while finding your way to the bar. With unforeseeable grace, the man leaps towards the pole, also candy cane striped, holding it with one hand and bracing one bent leg against it, he spins proudly. His outside arm and leg extended to accentuate his movement.
“What can I get you, darlin?”
Slightly startled, you turn to answer. A very pretty elderly woman in a form fitting red tank top smiles at you from behind the bar. You order a mulled wine. Back on the stage, the dancer, no longer working on the pole, sweeps his legs through the air above his head, spinning so that he is laying on his stomach. When he stops, his chin is propped in his hands and his legs, bent at the knees, are crossed behind him. He gives the sparse crowd a jolly smile and holds the cheeky pose before popping up onto all fours and gyrating to the music. You settle onto a barstool to watch.
“There’s plenty of seating up front, sweetie,” the bartender says, setting down a steaming mug in front of you. “You don’t have to sit way back here.”
You smile politely and tell her that you’re fine in the back, and omit the fact that this is your first time at The North Pole, and, therefore, want to ease into partaking in the full entertainment experience. You sip your mulled wine. Immediately you feel warm and cozy, despite your seedy surroundings. The taste of fruit and spice fill your mouth and instinctively hope that it will last forever. The song fades, and you are snapped out of your bliss by the DJ’s voice.
Scattered, but enthusiastic applause bubbles up, punctuated with a single whoop. The dancer bows before scooping up dollars and discarded clothes and then struts off the stage, disappearing behind a curtain to the dressing room.
“Up next,” the DJ stretched his gravel marked vowels like all DJs at these types of establishments do, “coming to the stage to shake his money maker like a bowl full of jelly, Kris Kringle!”
A chorus of brass horns began sneering through the air accompanied by syncopated record scratches. A round man with a cloud-like beard touching his chest appeared on stage. You barely notice him ascending the unseen stairs, because of his grace and speed. He may have pounced up to the stage, you can’t be sure. Kris Kringle’s sheer, ankle length robe, cinched tight around his waist, billows open as moves around the stage.
Over the speakers, Reverend Run describes an ill reindeer. You look around the room scanning the crowd surrounding the stage through the dark. Many of them stare blank faced at the robed man gyrating on stage and deftly making his outfit more revealing with each verse. Some audience members talk to other dancers. You catch sight of an elf in a thong leading a customer into a side room just before they disappear behind a curtain. A Mrs. Claus and a Santa, both in midriff revealing clothing, chat next to a mirrored wall while their eyes sweep the seated revelers.
A zing of surprise flies through you. You turn to the person who caught you off guard, an elf wearing an open, green vest with no shirt underneath. You acutely feel your nerves piling up. The part of you that was socialized to exist outside of The North Pole tells you to not stare at the elf’s bare chest as the vest shifts. You also wonder why you wouldn’t stare in a place centered around staring.
“How are you doing? My name is Pepper.” They put a hand on your leg and look up at you with a smile that is so well rehearsed you couldn’t fathom it being disingenuous. “What’s yours?”
You lean in and shout your answer in the elf’s ear over the music. Pepper asks a few more questions about your evening, and you turn on your stool away from the now robeless man on stage who is picking up dollars, but not using his hands, to fully face them. The two of you chat for a few songs. The bartender offers you a refill, which you take. Then the bartender suggests you buy Pepper a drink too. Which you do.
Pepper takes a drink, pauses to savor the burst of flavor, and then says, “Would you like a dance?”
You open your mouth, but you are either at a loss for words or have too many things you want to say, and nothing comes out. Pepper laughs at your silence, which somehow makes you feel comforted and not ridiculed. Their hand on your shoulder has the same effect.
“Come on, baby.”
You allow yourself to be pulled off of your barstool. You and your escort wind through the seats. Some patrons look up at Pepper, then at you as you pass. Once through the curtain, Pepper turns to you.
You ask what the difference is.
“The price. I assume you know what people do under mistletoe.”
You nod to the Mistletoe Room. Pepper guides you to the left, where a series of partitioned, red vinyl booths sit along walls decorated with an elaborate Christmas village display. A toy train runs through the scenery. When Pepper points you to a booth, you say that you would like to pay for two songs.
“Oh, yes! That way we can get nice and cozy,” they say while carefully straddling you.
Bing Crosby’s voice fades out. Pepper notes the perfect timing of a new song starting. You agree, but can’t really hide your disappointment when you hear the opening notes of “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses, a song that you have difficulty getting aroused to.
It quickly becomes obvious to you that smiling at customers isn’t the only part of their job that they excel at. Pepper hands roam over you, and when their fingertips meet your skin, you enjoy the slight calloused roughness of the touch. You close your eyes and imagine Pepper in Santa’s toy shop building and crafting. Earning those weathered palms and fingertips.
Before your first song even ends you are feeling emboldened by the Christmas spirit and two mugs of mulled wine. And so you point to the mistletoe hanging above you. Pepper smiles and teasingly leans in. You savor the anticipation. When finally the two of you kiss, you understand that Pepper’s full name is Peppermint. You move your hands, currently palm down on the seat at your sides, so your thumbs graze Pepper’s legs to test the waters. You move your thumbs in small circles. Then place your hands on Pepper’s calves. You ask if this is allowed.
“It is in the Mistletoe room.”
“Probably just a problem with the sound system.”
You try to continue from your passive position to the now absent rhythm. There is a commotion in the main room. Loud, angry sounds. Shouting. Clipped speech that sounds like orders. Pepper twists to look towards the door. You can feel their tense posture.
“Shit. It’s a raid. Shit. Fuck.”
Pepper quickly walks to the curtain and pulls it back just enough. Light sweeps across their face. You instantly know it was a flashlight. Which means cops. You stand up, but don’t know where to go.
“Definitely a raid,” Pepper’s head swivels briefly before clocking the emergency exit. They return to you, grab your hand and say, “I won’t charge you for the second song.”
The noise from the main room seems clearer now. You can make out words. But those are blown away by the blast of cold, bracing air that swirls around your head when Pepper opens the door. You are pulled outside into the dark. You are in the back side of the light dome facing endless night. Your peripheral vision is tinged with blinking red and blue lights.
“We can’t make it to our cars,” says Pepper before leading you straight ahead into the barren, snow covered field in front of you. You realize, of course, that Pepper will be fine in just a vest and hot pants. They’re an elf. Cold won’t affect them. You might have half an hour.