Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"The Cost of Living" - Act I Part I

NOTE: NSFW language throughout that although the violence doesn't occur until way later in the story, sex and profanity are used.


Muscleman’s least favorite words were creeping into his brain on another Wednesday night at 10:00 working at Core in San Antonio. Drag legend Ima Cliché and her utterings didn’t actually bother Muscleman until recently. “Don’t forget, our booty-shaking contest starts at 12:30; young, old, short, tall, noun, object, does not matter; $75 can be yours if you can shake your nalgas and work Mama’s pole, baby.” His thoughts were spinning at the same rate he was on the pole he nicknamed Fool’s Gold.

He has never hated one of the things he does on the side, after being driven to near madness whipping the overweight and the insecure into shape they can be happy with after reluctantly paying him. Temporary relief comes and goes with every R&B, Hip-Hop, Top 40/Pop, Dance/EDM and Latin track the DJ manages to work into the barely occupied Core. “Another Wednesday and these cheap bastards can’t even tip $1.” He began to think. “I’m one of many cogs in this fucking machine that doesn’t get greased enough.” His outer body has no bruising and hasn’t been weathered like his pride has throughout the years at 30.

Once done with his hustle hungry plumage on stage, he opened the door to the scant but smoky patio to pump dollar bills to repair his ego. The lines flowed from his lips like masculine ambrosia. “Hey baby, how are you tonight?”, “You having a good time tonight?” and financially driven courting noises managed to drive a rare but appreciated $5 tip. “Thank you baby.” and a smooch on their cheek added a cherry and whipped cream to a urinal cake of a night. Back inside at 10:20, Muscleman took a seat and called for the bartender; his only ally in that night. “Jamie!” He heard Muscleman’s crushed spirit and asked, “Fireball or bourbon for tonight?” “Something brighter than the light on Ima’s makeup for once.” Muscleman replied.
Jamie was stunned at Muscleman’s relatively vivid order. “Tonight is that bad, you’re willing to drink say…a margarita or fuzzy navel right now?” “It’s the rose colored glasses of drink orders.” Muscleman began. “Something bright for now to take away from stingy fucks who can barely latch onto meager earnings…” He was presented with an unnamed red concoction in a shot glass before being told, “Put on your rose colored glasses and ease up. Besides, some of the fresh meat are back tonight.”

Muscleman finished his concoction right at 10:28 when he thought of who the remaining few who came back were. He saw his only real competition be the first of two who came back and thought to himself, “I can either be bitter or just be stern enough to remind them I’m the face, body, ass and dick of this place.” His unexpected source of motivation was a lithe and inked ginger who wore his Zodiac sign and in turn his sexual energy on his body. He walked to the changing area not far from the bar, closed the curtain behind them and said “Welcome back, Scorpio. Ready to pump money out of these cheap asses?” Scorpio answered, “With every fiber of my skinny ass, I am.” Almost on cue a chapter from Scorpio’s past and Muscleman’s other scantily clad co-worker, Hi-NRG, chimed in “This is kind of fun too, admit it.” Scorpio thought to himself, “The fact I let this son of a bitch drive me insane for two months is two months I want back right now.”

Muscleman asked about the other fresh meat that survived scant rewards and near derivative music enough to come back. “Who else from that stable of newbies is back already?” Scorpio replied, “Blondie from Austin. Tanned white guy; baseball cap; needs about 2 red drinks and 2 shots of Fireball to ease his nerves…” “Oh him…” Muscleman began. “…surprised his nervous yet tight ass is back for more.” Blondie entered the changing room knowing his nerves were being brought up.
“The nerves come from this being the 2nd time I’ve danced on a bar top in quite frankly, the sleaziest club that somehow remembers to pick up after itself.” He began. “We pretty much know this place would be a whorehouse if it wasn’t for you know…regulations and shit like that.” The others concurred before Ima Cliché announced, “I need the dancers to the bar top; dancers on the bar top.” Sighs turned into nonverbal cues that show time needed to commence if any of them wanted a 50/50 chance of making one end meet.

That Wednesday night proved to be less damning that Muscleman thought it was; apparently, being lined up in a sexualized auction for the eyes brought out anyone feeling like a big spender. Muscleman’s signature red and white dual-tone thong, Scorpio’s black briefs, Hi-NRG’s neon trunks and Blondie’s red and black jockstrap with accompanying cover-up each took the “Stripper’s Rushmore” of Washington, Lincoln and Hamilton. “Ima uses the same joke every Wednesday, every hour on the hour but goddamnit if she doesn’t get the job done eventually.” Muscleman thought. “Now I have to try and get some cheap asses to want a lap dance.” After leaving the bar top to count and stash his earnings, he emerged from the changing room to find someone with at least $20 and a touch of loneliness.

He scoured the suddenly generous crowd to gauge who really needed his special touch in the lap dance area known as the “Inner Core.” If no one bothers, the Inner Core is where Muscleman makes extra money offering himself to the generous who are rewarded handsomely. His musk mixed with Jamie’s concoctions created a signature scent that keeps the few but fervent craving every bit of him in the Inner Core. He eyed someone at one of the tables near a game of pool. Once his eyes went to the red Converse, Muscleman thought to himself “Bingo. It isn’t pretty considering he’s pretty much a kid compared to me, but close enough." He hugged his potential mark and asked, “What brings you out here, baby?”
His potential mark answered, “A need for some fun. I graduate from college two Sundays from now and haven’t had fun like this ever. My name’s Dave by the way. You can tell me yours if you want; I like getting chummy with dancers.” Muscleman responded, “Nice to meet you Dave; I like getting chummy with anyone with money to shove in my thong. Or if you have lap dance money, there’s that too.” $40 was pulled out and before Dave knew it, Muscleman took him to the Inner Core.

Dave took off his glasses and let Muscleman work enough to have Dave near speechless. Not believing his good fortune, Muscleman upped the ante by facing Dave and moving his thong to the right hand side and offering himself to a lucky mouth. The last words in that interaction was a gracious beckoning from Dave; “May I?” he asked in a near naïve state. Internally, Muscleman thought “This might be my most sensitive mark to date. Better let him do what he can. He’s pretty good so it’s worth it.” His senses kicked into overdrive as he thought the doorman was doing his job for once and checking the Inner Core. “Someone’s coming.” he whispered before being surprised at how Dave responded on command near flawlessly. Once ushered to leave the Inner Core for more customers, Muscleman let Dave cross into rather liberal territory with him by kissing him on the lips.

Once closing time came up long after Dave had left a happier man, Blondie, Scorpio and Hi-NRG all headed out where the latter was wondering about Muscleman’s face at the end of the night. “Am I the only one surprised to see an emotion let alone nearly one of guilt on his face tonight?” Blondie concurred his thoughts saying “This can’t happen to him regularly. Maybe he’s starting to crack or maybe he’s going through something and whoever that dude was triggered something.” “Don’t read into it too much.” Scorpio countered. “Not that this isn't insightful but we’ll worry about it when we need to.”
“Besides, you’ll be in Austin so you shouldn’t worry about the scene down here.” Hi-NRG added. “You’ll be back in 3 weeks and maybe just maybe it’ll blow over by then.” “You’re right.” Blondie responded. “I’ll see you guys whenever I’m in a pinch and need to be down here.” Truthfully, Blondie knew what the score was with Dave. Prior to Muscleman using him for pleasure and money, he had done the same thing not a week or so before. The Inner Core was nothing he couldn’t handle with the same $40 and him offering himself in body glitter and then bending over to let Dave enjoy him from the back with that very mouth. “A little fairy dust didn’t hurt me that night.” Blondie thought.
Muscleman and Jamie were the last to leave Core and Jamie had to beg the question while Muscleman knew it was coming. “You’ve done what I think you did before tons of times. It can’t be that different this time, right?”
“He’s in his mid-20s but it felt kind of weird how…”
“Intense it was? Good it felt? What are you getting at?”
“It’s weird how he’s into me but seems to know it can’t happen.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s like he wants to change the outcome knowing the score.”

Jamie was unable to think of a response by the time Muscleman stepped in his truck, his incognito tracksuit and University of Tennessee hat covering more than his punishment created body. “He can’t crack for someone who’s barely been to Core.” Jamie began to think. “The motherfucker has done way scuzzier things in the Inner Core and now there’s this.”

Luckily for Muscleman, escapism came with every speed limit on his way home where he would find his four children tucked away. “I hope at least the kids are sleeping.” He thought. Every trick gone right, every face of Stripper’s Rushmore and every “moral” dollar went to the vicious and unstable financial end goal of bettering his kids’ upbringing from the fact impulse and haste were the bases of their livelihood. Unbeknownst to Dave, he kissed the name of the youngest child as tattooed on the side of Muscleman’s body; Catherine, who as it was discovered wasn’t asleep. “Shit…” Muscleman thought. “She can’t be up already. It’s not even close for her and her sisters to get ready for the bus.”
He heard footsteps nearing the kitchen and slowly whispered, “Catherine…Daddy’s home and you need to be asleep.” She replied, “Hi Daddy. I’m just putting my water glass back. I forgot to do it after Mommy gave it to me.” He took the water glass, put it on the counter and walked Catherine back to her room.

As he tucked her in back to sleep he asked, “Did Mommy read you a story when she tucked you in?” She replied, “No, but I don’t need one now.” He asked again, “You sure you don’t want one? I don’t mind reading you one.” She answered, “No thanks, Daddy. Good night.” He whispered almost heartbreakingly, “Good night, baby girl.” Dave triggered the same heartbreak Muscleman learned to cope with at first; knowing that as soon as it was time to get up for the bus to school, Catherine’s earliest memories of her father would be him on the couch after what she only knew of at the time was “Daddy’s late night running.” He couldn’t believe this was happening long after he thought he had dealt with this pain. “I told myself the longer I do it, no questions, my kids would have better. Why am I questioning shit now?”

Hours passed and the kids and their mother were long out of the house when the phone rang. Muscleman woke up and answered it, hearing Jamie on the other end. “Hey, you up? Scorpio, Hi-NRG and me are out for lunch. Swing by and we’ll just shoot the shit as usual.” “Give me 15 minutes and I’ll be there.” He replied. “Cool; meet us at that burger joint.” Jamie said before hanging up. “He’s cracking, isn’t he?” Scorpio queried. “That muscly façade has finally cracked after so long, hasn’t it?” “We don’t know yet, dude.” Jamie assured.

Once he pulled up to the burger joint, Muscleman knew more would be asked of him regarding Wednesday night. “I don’t have a fucking answer to any of their questions and they won’t even hardball my ass into answering them.” He stepped in, spotted them and faced their music. Sitting next to Hi-NRG, Scorpio wasted no time breaking the silence. “Let me ask; what was up with you at the end of the night? Did you feel guilty about something?” Jamie reassured Muscleman, “It’s not like we’re shaming you for anything you did, we’re just wondering…why be affected now, dude?” Hi-NRG played pacifist and said, “Don’t answer if you don’t want to.” He knew he couldn’t escape this much longer, so Muscleman answered the question posed to him about his near ethical dilemma.

“I kind of feel like I took advantage of this kid.” He began. “Yeah he’s like 25 or something but he’s a fucking kid. Something about him or how he said it made me feel like he’s in need of a friend but won’t admit it.” Scorpio countered, “You knew it was just a money thing and that he knew his role right?” “That’s the damndest thing.” He started. “He told me about himself, probably the truth and he still has this wall up or some shit like that.” Hi-NRG tried to reason, “Maybe he’s just that damn nice but putting on a tough front or something. Not like he was all cocky or grabbing you in the middle of other money pumping right?” Jamie dug deeper asking, “He didn’t flip the script on you, did he?” “Again, that’s the damndest thing.” Muscleman relayed. “He has to know what he’s getting himself into but there’s something else there and I don’t know what it is.” Once done with their lunch, Jamie and Hi-NRG pulled away being content with how Muscleman explained himself. Scorpio, however, though lightly satisfied had to have one last bit of input. “I’ll tell you what I think the score is with him.”

Before resistance could be had, Scorpio was already in the passenger seat. “I’m sure you’re telling the truth, but this is what I think and you know you can’t escape this shit.”
Muscleman was cornered so he had no choice but to comply and hear Scorpio out. “What happened that night?” he asked. “That’s not what I mean.” Scorpio began. “That dude you took in sounds like a lot of the guys I’ve either fucked or know in community college right now. Horny enough to want you in some capacity but not totally out there, right?” “I literally called it the damndest thing about him twice.” Muscleman replied. “It’s kind of the reason my head is spinning.” Scorpio continued, “You’re dealing with someone who’s not out to family but out and open with complete strangers as long as he’s happy with them for some reason. Your case revolves around that dude being repressed and self-conscious but never wanting to admit that for reasons both of ‘others have it worse’ and crippling self-doubt they won’t confront.” Muscleman was stunned at Scorpio’s insight but not before the damaging blow when he said, “You feel some type of way because you either have these feelings too or you’re protecting him because you know he sucks in social settings and he’s like a gay version of you or the son you wish you were raising.” The only response Muscleman could give was, “Something tells me at least part of that makes sense. Otherwise I wouldn’t have hidden my face under my cap so much. See you tonight or whenever, dude. Thanks.”

Scorpio stepped out of the car, closed the door afterward and went his own way. Muscleman had better though not all that clear of answer. “I’m talking to him if I see him again tonight.” He thought. “I’ll have a clear sense as to why I feel this way and why now.” He was unable to formulate a plan as a text message from Catherine from her Mom’s phone reading, “Mommy left for work and says to pick up your track pants from the couch.” had him back home. Minutes later, he went right to the couch and picked up his tracksuit, damn near horrified his thong from Wednesday was still there. “God I hope none of the kids found this.” He heard knocking on the wall before he heard, “Hi Daddy. Sorry that text sounded bossy.”

He sighed with relief and told Catherine, “No, it wasn’t bossy. I had to get home anyway.” “What time do you go to work?” she asked. “At 10:00. Well, right after I tuck you in for bedtime like I always do.” He answered. “OK.” She began. “Don’t worry about story time. I’ll be sleepy by the time you go to work.” Muscleman’s heart was breaking. “I know I work a lot, but I’ll read you your favorite story. Mommy even told me where you keep it.” Catherine replied with a little cutesy tone, “Well give it a minute. I have math problems to do and that could take a while.” Temporarily relieved, tracksuit in hand, he went into the master bedroom to discreetly hide the thong from Wednesday in his laundry basket. He then stripped down and showered off the swirling emotions he felt for the first time since before Catherine was born.

The shampoo went from the jade green in the blue bottle to the Easter egg green/white suds he washed out before literally then figuratively conditioning himself. Body wash turned from the deep blue in the red bottle into the light, sudsy, pastel blue/white against his body; scrubbing most of Wednesday’s workload off of him physically. “I can’t let these feelings consume me if it doesn’t consume him. I just had a freak out moment because this dude is so young but kind of a loner already and I’m not used to that shit. Or I haven’t been in a while. Either way, I leave this shower not affected by him like I was then.”

Once done hygienically absolving himself, he toweled off, pulled his other signature thong out in camouflage print before changing into that and his other tracksuit. He began to check on the rooms to see if his daughters were asleep before Catherine said in a whisper, “They’re already sleeping. I just did all my math homework and it made me sleepy.” She showed him to the dresser drawer, where her favorite story was. She undid her bed, got under the covers and waited for Muscleman to be puzzled. “All I see is a folded up piece of paper called The Little Star.” He said. Giggling, she replied “You got to open it and it’s there, Daddy.”
Once opened, Muscleman discovered that The Little Star was the poem he wrote and put into Catherine’s baby book. “How did you find this?” he asked. Catherine was worried and answered, “I hope you’re not mad, but when you and Mommy had this fight one time I was bored after doing reading homework, I looked at a book with my name on it.” He was concerned but pressed, “When you showed Mommy this, what did she tell you?” She answered, “Well I thought she would be mad, but when I told her I didn’t know Daddy made this and wanted to hear it she started to tell me it and lets me hear it every night before bed.” He started to explain, “Well, I didn’t make it myself…” before she interjected saying, “Oh she said you heard a song and made it into something about being happy about me.” He could have cried then and there but Muscleman read every word of The Little Star to his youngest.

“There is nothing special about me, but I see A Little Star.
If I try to reach out and touch you, I know you’re really not that far.
Know that in my darkest night, you’re all I can see,
because you sure look like A Little Star to me.”

Catherine was asleep and Muscleman’s heart was breaking despite the reassurance that her memories of him thus far are good ones. After tucking her in, he turned off her lamp, closed the door and was on the road to potentially confront his emotions in the form of Dave.

Once inside, Muscleman discovered Dave being the only face on a suspiciously dead Thursday night. He waved to him, went to the changing room and changed into his thong for the night. Dave surprised Muscleman by admitting to him, “About what happened; I know full well it’s your job but I have to admit something. If you were actually into this, I’d want to get to know you outside of here. I take what I can get because I need the male contact so much.” He was stunned to hear Dave be vulnerable enough to admit why he was into him so much.
Stunned but relieved, Muscleman had Dave sit next to him in the sparsely occupied Core. Another of Jamie’s concoctions were made to soothe whatever aching pride he was taking. “You don’t drink, Dave?” he asked him. Dave replied, “Nah, I drive here; my reminder not to drink and drive.” The two eventually learned a little more of each other that night and more of this bizarrely kinetic though platonic puzzle was being put together. Muscleman revealed his trinity of side hustles to make a living and the four reasons he still does it, despite the vicious and unstable financial outcome.

Dave revealed he was lonely and happened to warm up to someone that he knew was simply doing his job. “You’re doing your job right if off the clock I want to make a pass at you.” He kissed Muscleman’s shoulder and hugged him for as long as he could at the bar. “He really is that innocent but still in on what the score is…” Muscleman thought. “I don’t feel like shit anymore, but I’m still concerned he might actually be ‘in love’ with me.” Minutes later, Dave let his favorite that was San Antonio exclusive do his job with others. “Go hustle, babe.” and a smack on the ass would in turn cap a night that could have easily turned chaotic. Right before leaving Core, Muscleman picked up Dave’s phone and gifted him something to make him less lonely. Seeing his name in his contacts was an unexpected delight. Almost instantly, he texted a thank you for such a generous act.

Texting him back “no problem”, Muscleman was relieved that the problem with Dave was averted. The drive home was at last completed without a hitch. No one was creeping around the house and he was able to crash on the couch with ease. Then a mere thought about answering to more people came up and before he knew it, Muscleman was staring at a new message from Scorpio. “Sorry I wasn’t there for the fireworks, but what happened?” He dreaded the conversation at hand, but Muscleman responded “Dave stopped by.”
“And, what happened?” Scorpio pressed.
“He and I spent a little time at the bar together.” Muscleman answered.
“I’m not trying to fill your head with doubt here. What happened?”
“I found out he’s legitimately like this all the time.”
“So he knows the score.”
“Yup. I did give him my number though. Just to make him happy.”
Scorpio was beside himself. “Fuck, really? I’ll chat with you tomorrow. I just need to hear this shit in person.” “Talk to you soon.” Muscleman answered. He knew giving Dave his number could have turned out way worse than it did and Scorpio knew first hand that Muscleman played with fire.

Scorpio’s near killer instinct is guarded under his deliciously evil aesthetic and was strengthened one night long before learning what happened with Muscleman and Dave. He had only encountered one lunatic before, but after giving his phone number to a frequent customer at Core to discover his need for prose ridden texts, Scorpio guarded himself ever since. “He and I both got lucky.” He thought. “This could have turned out way worse and I need to know what drove him to risk his ass like this.” Then Scorpio thought to himself, “If he resolved whatever near coming out type feelings he had over some newbie, I suppose I don’t need to ride him like this. I’m sure I’d be Dave in a different life.”

Muscleman’s sleep was at its deepest it had been five years. However, he had slipped and while he managed to hide his lower half of his uniform, a text message from Catherine revealed he had been exposed from the waist up. “I asked Mommy why there’s writing on you and she didn’t say anything.” He was berating himself in his head yet again. “Fuck. I promised myself she’d never see the tattoos.” The worst of it came when he saw life or death.
Specifically, the tattoo that depending on which angle you look at it spells out “life” or “death”. He knew that of all the tattoos he wished he never wanted her to see, life and death was the one he would have the hardest time to explain to her. “If her mother doesn’t kill me for this, the broken promise to myself might.” He called Jamie to see if he was prepping the bar for a special Friday event at Core. Jamie picked up the phone and before he finished saying, “Hey, I’m just now cleaning the bar for Fri…” Muscleman interjected, “Catherine saw my tattoos, dude.” He was reassured when Jamie replied, “I’ll be here. I’ll tell Alejandro you’re coming by. He’s back on door duties for the next two weeks.”
Speed meant little to Muscleman as he was barely able to park in a straight line before Alejandro let him in Core. “Hey you; we’ll talk sometime later. Jamie’s at the bar outside.” Thanking him under frazzled breath, he rushed to the patio to see Jamie look concerned. “Tell me what’s going on this time.” He was one of the few who learned of the promise Muscleman made to himself right around Catherine’s birth. “I got sloppy and I paid the price. She saw the life or death tattoo and I can’t deal with it right now.” Jamie countered, “Why the hell is it just that one that made you snap? You have other tattoos on your body.” He admitted, “It’s the one that I got the night I almost regretted going through with a fourth child in the house.”

He referred to an ugly argument he had with Catherine’s mother right when she told him they were expecting. Breadwinner status, places both moral yet unsatisfactory and stigmatized yet paying where money was coming from and many other points were shouted at one another for what felt like hours and days. He stormed out of the house to have his least favorite counterpoint, “This is about life or death you fucking lazy bastard!” immortalized in petty but poignant ink on his left bicep. Missed phone calls with tearful pleas to come back home in the voicemail were cancelled out by a vibrating needle.
He had stayed with a friend during the whole ordeal and right when the tattoo was prime for exposure again, he rushed back to make a vindictive but damning point. The ambivalent kerning of the life or death tattoo mortified Catherine’s mother. Further shouting occurred for only a while before they agreed that fighting this much wasn’t worth it with three going on four mouths to feed in the house. A promise to never show the new tattoo to any of the children let alone Catherine was made and kept until a costly mistake brought back these awful memories. “Shit’s heavy, dude and I feel for you.” Jamie began. “If you have to cry or want to bail from working tonight, it’s a bad night to do it. Remember that special event that was supposed to be in two weeks that got moved to tonight?” Muscleman remembered and dreaded what was coming. “Fuck; no; not now.” He muttered.

He looked at his phone and saw a message from Catherine using her mother’s phone. “Mommy says to pick up your clothes for tonight at the front door. She already read me my story, so good night Daddy.” Speed limits were back in order as he was en route back to his house. Leaving the motor running, he picked up his clothes to find his red and white thong readied with a note from Catherine’s mother. “She doesn’t know the reason behind the tattoo but that’s not the main thing I have to let you know. Text me right when you get off from work.” He had no idea how to react but was unable to prepare himself. The underwear auction was about to be underway and despite its poor organization in recent years, it was a night he knew he could hustle in overtime.

The underwear auction is an event Core hosts that raises money for a local AIDS charity. It’s also the night that Muscleman hustles the hardest even with certain obstacles in the way. One of them being certain buyers of the underwear seem to be generous with body types nowhere close to the muscle bound but still warm body Muscleman possesses. The buyers often donate when the underwear hugs the rather youthful, boyish looking types who patrons are surprised facetiously and some not so, as to them being of age let alone working as dancers. Muscleman learned quickly that buyers of his underwear despite being devotees of his form, were not as donation friendly at large like the big spenders on youthful looking men. The other obstacle which took care of itself for the time being was the other doorman, who hustlers before called “Type A”. Type A did his job, much to the chagrin of those who resorted to offering themselves as another side hustle. The third obstacle to still keep in mind was the ever constant stingy patron who every dancer, hustler or not, was surprised to see in Core with barely any drink special money to their name.

Muscleman pulled up to Core a little past 10:13 that night and went to the changing room to find Scorpio, Hi-NRG, Blondie, and a surprising but familiar face, Ranger. Ranger worked at Core for a little under six months before pursuing interests in Austin though he and Blondie worked at different clubs. Ranger stood around 5’ 5’’ but had muscles, strategic ink and an ass on him that kept the money coming in despite the fact it was clear he wanted out of the hustle. “Long time no see, dude.” Muscleman said to him. “Good to see you too.” Ranger began. “Sucks I’m not out of this yet but you know…it is what it is.” “Shame about not being able to avoid that ‘dancer-versary’ huh?” Scorpio cheekily snided. Ranger countered with a near grim reminder of tonight by saying, “Very funny, smartass. Wait until we’re deemed worthless by the predators after twinks the size of the keychains by underwear fetishists.” “Showtime, boys.” Blondie said. “Let’s get to the bar top before we’re reminded to.” The five dancers took their places on the bar top and waited for their night to be capped outside of the impending twink cash grab.

The night went off without too many complications outside of who went in what order for the underwear auction and the fact the staging was made cumbersome. Instead of a simple stage number and having to pretend the emcee’s jokes were clever and subversive, the complication of doing a lap on the bar top was added and none involved were pleased. Around the patio after finding out their later order, Muscleman and Scorpio were doing their best from letting the frustration boil over into their performance. “Those sons of bitches are at it again!” Muscleman started. “As if we don’t already have to maneuver around the sty known as the bar top instead of the already tiny fucking ‘stage’…” “Which is barely a stage apart from the fact any of us are lucky to not bust our ass every night.” Scorpio chimed. Muscleman finished by saying, “…and now on an already screwy night, we now have to try and look sexy while trying not get our shoes sticky with God knows what…I’ve had it with their shitty organizational skills.” “Here, here. I didn’t get good at shaking my bony white ass on YouTube just to end up balance checking on a bar literally as wide as me.” Scorpio said in solidarity.

The speaker outside on the patio let the two know that Hi-NRG pulled in $80 for charity. He met the other two on the patio shortly after his underwear went to a well-meaning if not totally high rolling underwear fetishist. “If you hate the idea of doing a lap, take a number.” He warned them. “I’m surprised I can avoid knocking down longnecks and half empty shot glasses with what I think is Fireball or really cheap booze.” Scorpio couldn’t help but ask if Ima Cliché’s drag sister Bae-sil Leaf was actually funny. “So, Bae-sil is trying new material or at least not asking who in the club is such a bottom, they can be nicknamed ‘Tupperware cabinet’ 3 times in a row, right?” Hi-NRG only begged a rhetorical question by saying, “Would it surprise you I wanted to jump off a bridge when I even heard Tupperware cabinet once?” “We’re fucked.” Scorpio murmured to Muscleman. Nonverbally, he shook his head in agreeance at the impending doom of tired comedy and cumbersome staging.

He made the most of what he could and watched as Blondie, Scorpio and Ranger tried to raise more money than each of their svelte, boyish adversaries with only Scorpio coming close with $75 raised. Blondie and Ranger each pulled $55 and were short of inciting a riot on behalf of their bruised egos. “If it wasn’t for the fact I have more work in Austin, I’d kick someone’s ass right now.” Ranger angrily muttered. “I barely have enough for all the fucking shots of Fireball I need to soften each blow to my pride.” Blondie added. He looked at Muscleman and warned him, “Two twinks to go before you’re up.” He took Blondie’s words to heart and after pumping $10 from two patrons, stashing his earnings and watching the two adversaries pull $110 and $275 respectively, Muscleman was up for his turn with Bae-sil Leaf and her style of tired comedy.
Bae-sil’s drivel was as follows: “Here on the pole, legs spread, we have insert name here, in my favorite color; BULGE. His interests include crossing at the knee on dick just like the rest of this Tupperware cabinet of bottoms and then denying that on insert name of hookup app here. Bidding will start once he does a lap on the bar top. Get to it baby, but please take your time and let me enjoy the view.” Every bit of that tired shtick drove Muscleman to madness. “It’s even worse than I thought. I was at least spared the random ‘Spanglish’ sprinklings Ima does on Wednesday so ‘win some lose some’ I suppose.”

After managing to swerve around the alcoholic security blankets of Core’s patrons, he took the stage again and waited for an underwear fetishist to perhaps turn a tide in his favor. Bae-sil began the bidding at $30 and beckoned the patrons, “Do I hear $35? $35 for our lovely noun’s pair of underwear.” After someone motioned $50, Bae-sil beckoned the crowd again, “Do I hear $60?” before being motioned for $80. Two surprise bids later, Muscleman’s pair of underwear was sold to a caring fetishist at $120 for charity. “Sold for $120 to the man in the polo! Come get your prize, sir.” His pride was restored at the expense of the others but they knew the score.
“Well at least we made even on the fucking underwear costs.” Scorpio pointed out. Pointing to Hi-NRG he continued, “Hell, this one didn’t even nearly finger himself this time and still made some money.” “Oh my God, shut up.” Hi-NRG responded. “I just black out whenever I have a good time dancing.” Before packing what he had to head to another club, Ranger told Muscleman “By the way, one of your old friends is coming into town next week. He used to work here but he says he knew you.”

He had an idea as to who Ranger was talking about, but just because the auction was done, Muscleman had to situate himself for the rest of the night. After all, with the doorman being out of the way and the humiliation being done, all he had to do was offer himself in the Inner Core once maybe twice and he would be done for the night. Those thoughts were secondary to the fact that Catherine’s mother could potentially drop a bombshell in a text message. “If it weren’t for the fact I have to hustle right now, I’d be worried sick over what she wants right now.” He thought. As he strutted around the grounds, accepting $1s and more than pleasantly surprising $5s, he was surprised as the time came to leave and he was unable to get his side hustle in. “Shit, not one person.” He thought. “I wish Dave were here. That weirdly innocent dork is good for $40 and putting his tongue in my ass.” Strutting around one last time, he realized he had to leave and face the music in text message with Catherine’s mother.

He donned his tracksuit and headed to his car but Blondie and Scorpio couldn’t help but notice the impending doom that read in his stature. Blondie turned to Scorpio and wanted to know what the course of action should be. “Who asks him what’s up and how; but not in a way that we could sound like we don’t give a shit in the middle of asking him?” Scorpio answered, “I ask, you give reassurance. Our skillsets are used equally that way.” They began to walk to Muscleman who was barely able to bring himself to let Catherine’s mother know he was off work. He then realized Scorpio and Blondie were at the window being concerned for him. “You OK? You usually don’t leave this quick unless you have to prep the kids’ lunch in an emergency.” Scorpio said to him. Blondie added, “We’re not reaching out just to do it. We care about you too no matter how hardcore we have to seem.” Muscleman explained to them what he was facing. “My youngest daughter’s mother says she has something to tell me via text as soon as I got off work. I think my daughter spotting my life or death tattoo might have ended things for good. Four kids, three jobs, two side hustles…but one tattoo is about to end it all. At least I think.” Silence nearly consumed the three of them until Blondie had no choice but to reassure Muscleman, “Tell us what happens when you’re ready. We’re here.” He and Scorpio then went about their business that night. “I owe you for taking that bullet of sweet nothing.” Scorpio quipped. “No telling how fucked things could become.” Blondie retorted. “He might snap from what happens.”

Eventually, Muscleman texted Catherine’s mother and braced himself for what he thought the worst was. “Just got off work. What do you have to tell me?” Two minutes later, a reply came in. “The tattoo didn’t end things, but reminded us that we have to end.” He replied back, “What do we do now? We’re not married, but what do we do now?” Minutes were adding up before his phone lit up with something worse than he imagined. “Exactly. We’re not married. Come home where you can start over doing whatever you want. Don’t reply anymore.” Muscleman’s blood was rushing with adrenaline and he did his damndest to watch the speed limit but reach his house to prevent the presumed fallout from getting worse. By the time he reached the driveway however, the worst of it wasn’t even close to what he imagined. He rushed from his car inside, found the front door unlocked and discovered the suspicious fronts. “The couch I picked out is still here…the TV too.” he thought. Almost on cue however, he found the nail in his pride’s coffin. On the table was a note from Catherine explaining what drove the unhappy home to finally fracture and break. Unfolding the note, he reacted as expected of a man who for all his efforts to survive, was rewarded with emotional agony. “Son of a bitch, no. Not like this…goddamnit not like this!” he yelled.

The note read, “Daddy, I didn’t think Mommy would be mad about that tattoo but even after she wrote the note she left for you, she had everyone put our stuff in boxes and called Grandma to live with her. After everything was loaded up, Mommy had me write this note to you telling you in a nice way that it’s over. If it makes you feel better, Mommy didn’t bring up that tattoo I noticed. She will at Grandma’s later, I know it, but at least there won’t be two people yelling every time I go to sleep. Jillian, Emma and Sarah love you too and Jillian was nice enough to tell me that it’s not my fault.” Muscleman was already inconsolable by the time he read the very last sentence. “Mommy’s probably waiting for me so I’ll write down that I love and will always miss you. Your Little Star, Catherine.”

Putting the note down back on the table, he rushed to the unpainted bedrooms to confirm that he was witness to a cruel reality and not a cruel façade like he had hoped. The worst of it was when he went to Catherine’s drawer to find that the poem, her favorite story, was gone and presumably guarded against her mother. He looked around the rest of the house to find that his belongings were as they were. He thought to himself, “What the fuck does it mean to start over at 30?! How the fuck did this happen and why did her mother lie to her like this? She didn’t see the tattoo on purpose and I never told her or the others about it!”

Muscleman cried himself to sleep that night on the couch as he felt the bedroom wasn’t suited for recovering from something so emotionally devastating. He texted Scorpio that he needed to talk. “The worst happened, dude. See me in the morning.”

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