Arliss had everything he needed right in front of him for that night's performance--hardhat, check, steel-toed boots, check, tool belt, check, black mesh thong with pouch for his rather prodigious endowment, big check. Yes, Arliss was just about ready for his turn on the stage at Tricks, located in Chicago's infamous Boystown neighborhood, at its epicenter on the corner of Belmont and Halsted. He also had before him a tall tumbler of Stoli vodka with just a whisper of cranberry juice cocktail in it for color, and a half-empty pack of Marlboro Ultralights. The latter two items helped the twenty-one-year-old calm himself before a performance, and the vodka in particular went a long way toward reducing backstage jitters.
He lit up a cigarette and regarded himself through the smoke. The lights in the crowded dressing room, which he shared with the other eight or so exotic dancers, were unforgiving. Fluorescent did little to hide any imperfections like rings under the eyes, reddened noses from too much partying, and, for those on their way out of the club, track marks on the arms. But Arliss didn't have to worry about signs of drug abuse showing up on his person. He had learned to just say no a long time ago, in a manner that he preferred not to dredge up, at least not now, when he was trying to put himself in a cheerful, high-energy mode.
The face that looked back at him was young, handsome, and vital. Arliss had a shock of white blond hair that stuck up in a manner reminiscent of rocker Billy Idol back in his glory days, before Arliss was even born. Both ears sported piercings--from one a single razor blade, cast in sterling, dangled; from the other, three hoops crawled up the side of his ear, growing smaller as they ascended. Arliss had full lips, sharp cheekbones, a cleft in his chin, and the most piercing ice blue eyes in the Midwest (or so he had been told). The only thing that marred his nearly perfect face was a gap between his front teeth, which he comforted himself by saying that the space gave him character. Cigarette clenched between his teeth, he struggled into his costume, ending by stuffing his dick into the pouch that protruded from his black thong. His member stuck out in such a way that invited grasping hands, which is what Arliss wanted, as long as there was cash in those hands to stuff the thong even more fully.
Attired in a costume that would make the construction worker from the Village People look demure, Arliss turned in front of the mirror to ensure he was the perfect fantasy specimen of pornographic machismo. He was grateful he had added the angel wing tattoo to his back and the snakes that twisted around each bicep. And the one on his chest, the tiny heart with the name "Helena" in it, always brought a lump to his throat--or a splash of bile to the back of it, depending on his mood and how forgiving he felt.
But now was not the time for being sentimental! Arliss was glad for the tattoos because they added a bit of manliness to his six-foot-two inch frame that held only 160 pounds in weight. He was what the older men at Tricks referred to as a twink and, thankfully, was a desirable commodity in some circles.
He set the cigarette down in a tin ashtray and took a swig of vodka. He could feel as much as hear the heavy bass of the techno music playing in the bar and knew that Antonio, a Puerto Rican dude with a shaved head and heavy stubble, was probably just about finished with his set, which meant his boxing ensemble cluttered the small stage.
Arliss would come out, dance briefly and flirtatiously with Antonio, and then have the stage to himself. He didn't know how he did it, night after night, but somehow he managed. He had always been the shyest boy in Ruskin, Florida, where he had grown up. If they could see me now... Well, if they could see me now, they'd probably still call me a fag and try to beat the crap out of me. Once again, my dear, now is not the time for sentimentality. He took another swig of vodka, draining the glass and feeling the warmth of the liquor as it spread through his chest and extremities. Show time!
Arliss hurried to the door that separated the cramped dressing room from the bar proper. Tricks didn't really have a stage, although the dancers liked to think of the bar upon which they danced as one. It was Friday night and, from the burble of conversation beneath the pounding beat, sounded as though they had a good crowd. He sucked in a breath, looked down at his perfectly smooth pale skin and six-pack abs and told himself he was gorgeous.
"Don't forget to smile, Toots! You always look like some gloomy Gus out there!" Leave it to Emmett Myers, owner of Tricks and Arliss' boss, to try and unsettle him just before he went on stage.
Arliss flashed the man a big, Farrah Fawcett smile. If the prissy older man with the pencil moustache recognized it as fake, he gave no indication.
"There! That's what they like to see! For heaven's sakes, you have to remember that if they think you're having a good time, they'll have a good time. And a good time means more money for all of us."
Arliss listened as the song wound down, morphing into yet another bass beat that signaled him it was time to stride out through the door, amble across the crowded room, ignore the covert feels and pinches he got as he made his way to the bar, and climb up on it to join Antonio in front of the crowd.
This moment, just before he went out, was always almost surreal. He felt as though he became someone else when he opened that door, or more properly, that his everyday world changed when he opened it. It was kind of like when Dorothy opened the door when she touched down in Oz and saw the color-filled Munchkinland, but instead of munchkins, his world was populated with bitter old queens, alcoholics, and trolls trying to put some oomph into their libidos by staring at boys young enough to be their sons.
"Get out there, gorgeous! Shake your groove thing!" Emmett cackled and placed a hand on Arliss' back to propel him forward. Just as much to get the hand off his back as to get to the stage, Arliss threw open the door, plastered on a big smile, threw his shoulders back and strode through the crowd, keeping his eye on the narrow strip of bar that would, for the next fifteen minutes, be his stage.
Sean didn't know what he was doing in Tricks. It was the kind of bar he never frequented. Hell, he rarely frequented any bars, period. He felt out of place among these older men, all of them leering at the strippers. He supposed he couldn't fault these men for coming here. The strippers, after all, were the bar's reason for being--providing "adult" entertainment...and to charge outrageously high prices for watered down cocktails.
I mean, really, eight dollars for a vodka and tonic? And the vodka wasn't even a call brand! Sean peered into the clear liquid, with its bubbles, slice of lime, and more than generous helping of ice cubes, and wondered again what could have possessed him to set foot inside this place. Tricks was a sleazy bar, a destination where he was certain the boys on stage probably made offstage deals with the clientele for more intimate, and less legal, behavior. It was the kind of place he and his friends once made fun of, painting the characters who frequented it with terms like "desperate" and "lecherous."
So what was he doing here? On a Friday night, no less, when other gay men his own age, thirty something, were on the prowl in countless other places on Halsted and further north, in the newer crop of bars in the neighborhood known as Andersonville.
He shook his head, knowing exactly what had brought him here. He stared morosely into his drink, the men around him hooting and catcalling as the next dancer hoisted himself up on the bar to begin his routine. The boy (to call him a man, really, would have been a stretch) was what was known in gay parlance as a twink. He barely looked old enough to drink, let alone wag his weenie at the patrons to a Lady GaGa beat. Was this kid really of legal age? Really? Sure, he had the requisite tattoos and piercings of a professional wrestler, and his smooth, almost hairless body was firm and well-defined, but Sean had to wonder what would compel someone so young to make his living in a way Sean had always thought of as demeaning.
And if what the kid's selling is demeaning, what does that make you? Sean preferred not to think about it. Just as he preferred not to think about Jerome, his accountant boyfriend who had just dumped him on Wednesday. He preferred not to recall that Jerome, his lover of three years, had responded to Sean's suggestion that they move in together with cliches. I need my space. I'm feeling suffocated. I think we should see other people. And worst of all--it's not you, it's me.
Sure, Jerome. Knock yourself out. Even you don't believe that crap. I could see it in your eyes; those wonderful amber green eyes that could change from light to dark with your mood. You were just waiting for an opening, a way to break up with me. I gave it to you when I pressed you, telling you how my lease was up the following month and wouldn't it be so lovely if we moved in together. Um...apparently not. Sean was forced to come to the conclusion that could also couch itself in yet another cliche: he's just not that into you.
And so Sean, walking home from his job as a catalog copywriter for an automotive retailer this warm August night, had been drawn to the neon outside Tricks and the raucous sounds of male voices as he passed the bar. Oblivion, he thought, a little forgetfulness is just what I need. The bar, with its promise of cheap thrills, alcohol, and who knew what, was in the business of offering oblivion at a price. He had the money and he certainly had the motivation.
So he went inside, found a seat at the bar that had just been vacated by a man with a reddish beard, potbelly, and stained tank top, and ordered up the drink he currently nursed.
He didn't want to think about Jerome, about being rejected, about entering the "dating scene" again. He didn't want to think that, at thirty-seven, he was on the downhill slide to forty. He lifted his glass to his lips, took a long swallow, and signaled the bartender for a second one. It would take a lot of these to wipe out Jerome, if only for the night. And tomorrow? He would be right back where he started, except he'd probably be nursing an aching head and a nauseous stomach.
He knew he should just get up from the bar stool on legs that were still steady and head home to his apartment and his live-in lover--an overweight black and white cat named Bergamot who was always willing to pay attention to him when no one else seemed up to the task. He shook his head, imagining his lonely evening eating a Lean Cuisine, watching recorded episodes of Glee, Bergamot perched on the back of the couch.
It was enough to make him stay put and, simply for something to do, he turned his gaze to the boy on the bar, who was moving his hips suggestively, trying to make eye contact with everyone in the room all at once, and grinning like he was having the best time a boy could have this side of having an orgasm..
The boy was beautiful, Sean had to admit, in his own sordid, runaway sort of manner. His eyes were a piercing blue that somehow, when focused on Sean for the briefest of moments, made him feel he was the only guy in the room. But there was something otherworldly about him too, almost a glow, something that went far beyond his vitality and youth. It was as though he were performing to some inner music, something lurid and sexual to be sure, but far better than the tired disco crap, with its relentlessly repetitive beat with which he seemed to be forced to work.
Sean wondered what the kid thought about as he went through the motions of what could only loosely be defined as dancing. Did he really like being here? Why had he chosen this life over something with a more promising future, like college or some sort of employment that didn't involve shedding his clothes? Did he do it out of desperation? Was he on drugs? What kind of home had he come from?
Or was it that he was using to his best advantage what he had to work with? Sean had to admit--and the little man down below, the one between his legs, raised his purple head to agree--that the boy was sexy, extremely so. He had about him something that was at once alluring and needy: you wanted to take this boy in your arms and comfort him; you also wanted to fuck the shit out of him and slap his ass and whisper foul nothings in his ear as you thrust into him. Sean squirmed as his little man lengthened and thickened to his full size, which was actually about six and a half inches, and not the eight he claimed in various online profiles before he had met Jerome.
The boy shed the tool belt he wore, letting it drop to the bar's surface with a thud, then the hard hat, finally swaying in nothing more than a black mesh thong and steel-toed boots. His legs were long, lean, and well-muscled, and like every other letch in the bar, Sean could not keep his eyes off the boy's member, which bounced around in front of him like a mini baseball bat, looking absurd and breathtakingly tantalizing at the same time. Sean didn't know whether to laugh or just open his mouth and drool. How big was that thing, anyway? This boy, Sean was sure, would not have to lie about having eight inches. From the basis of the flaccid member barely concealed, the boy could honestly claim all that...and maybe even more.
Sean felt heat rise to his face as he gulped at his drink, finding the tall glass contained only ice. Where was that bartender?
And now the boy was moving along the bar, smiling and squatting down with those same magnificent legs spread, exhorting the bar revelers to stuff his thong with dollar bills.
He had no shortage of takers. Sean wondered what he pulled in during an evening, in tips alone. The bills were testing the elastic of the thong's waistband and a few errant bills would slip to the stage; the boy would discreetly snatch them up and hold them in his hand as he made his way down this lascivious receiving line, letting the patrons dip their hands inside the thong to ensure that what he had on display was real. Sean assumed it was--no way to fake that. He also let them pat his ass, running their hands over its smooth contours. When Sean watched one guy wet his finger and slip it inside the boy's butt, he decided he'd had enough.
This wasn't for him. It never was.
He climbed down from the bar stool and headed into the summer night, perfumed with exhaust from the traffic, already heavy along Belmont and Halsted.