MERCEDES' DANCE was like all her others - slow and stylish and done with all her props. The night before, someone had walked off with her Fanny Brice hat, the one she had brought at auction in New York, so she had a different one on. Not that it mattered. The audience didn't really react until she had taken off all her clotes. In this respect, her last dance was like her first. Only the hat was different. Please, mister, she wants it back.

He went out the door with it. He went out into the steamy night and the other strippers just watched him go. The thought Mercedes wanted him to have the hat and she though they would stop the man and so he just went - slipped out into the night with the hat that Fanny Brice once wore.

Soon Mercedes would dance. At the moment, she sat at a table, sipping amaretto on the rocks. At nearby tables, men drank beer (2 for 4.50) and watched the dancers taker off their clothes. The one on at the moment was the star of the show, top billing and all, a blong, young in the body by the miracle of chemistry, old in the face and children parked in some nearby hotel watching television.

"I would never take my kids on the road," Mercedes said.

Mercedes has children. She also has an ex-husband and what used to be called "a past" but now, at the age of 36, she wants nothing more than out. She wants the house and the car and the "prince charming." Write "prince charming," she says. You think maybe this is a movie. It is not. Mercedes excuses herself. She has to change, She is next.

It had been about a year since Mercedes dropped out of sight - out of sound would be more accurate. She used to call all the time, latched on to me because of something I wrote. At first, I had no idea what she did for a living and then, even after she said she was a dancer, she made it sould as if it were something special - certainly not stripping. It was about then that she had herself confused with Fanny Brice.

Once, Mercedes had a dream. She dreamed she played Radio City Music Hall and she was Fanny Brice and she stopped the show. In her dream, cannons went off - boom! boom! - and she sang all the Brice songs and the place went crazy.

I was in the dream. I was in the audience, but in the dream nonetheless. She used to call all the time to talk about things and to tell me about her act. She said her act was something special, a little pearl down there in the Washington tenderloin, a pice of real entertainment and not your basic strip. Her act had its roots in vaudeville, in old-timey burlesque. Fanny Brice herself would approve.

Now Mercedes is about to go on the stage. She is a tall woman, lithe and sinewy, not voluptuous - so unlike the others. She get on the state. She is wearing her new hat, a shawl and cut-offs and she is holding a red parasol. This is something different. A woman with hair like steel wool puts a cassette into the tape deck and Mercedes, a name she picked because she likes the car, is on.

The music is the score of the movie, "Funny Girl," the film biography of Fanny Brice. Barbra Striesand is singing and so is Mercedes. They both are signing "Second Hand Rose." The old hat was perfect for this number. It was straw and had a flower in it - the sort of hat you see on horses that pull hansom cabs in places like Central Park. Oh that hat. The new hat is just a hat.

Out in the audience, the men are patient. They have come for a strip and if Mercedes want to take her time, do this crazy number of hers, that's all right with them. They drink their beers and makes jokes among themselves and all the time Mercedes is dancing and singing - singing very long, longer even than Barbra Streisand. She is singing "My Man" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long." This is a joke because her pants are too short. She pats her rump and the audience laughs and now she lets go with her shawl. The clothes are coming off.

The music continues and slowly all her clothes come off. It is a strip - a strip with a twist, a little something extra, but a strip nonetheless. Mercedes throws her clothes to the men in the audience and they catch the garments, laughing, patting themselves on the back. Soon Mercedes is nude. All her clothes are gone - including her hat. She stands on the stage, 36 years old, kids in camp, a dream in her head that she is not what she seems to be. She is an entertainer - another Fanny Brice. If only she had her hat. That is why she wants me, finally, to write about her. She needs the hat back. I'll write it.

Please, mister - the hat.