The Ecdysiast by Ron Riekki
I used to be a stripper. A male stripper. I’m a male. And I used to take my clothes off. So put those two things together. Male stripper.
Got the most money in the least amount of time than ever before in my life. And I ever will again.
I was working clearing driveways during the day. This was in Lowell, Massachusetts, January. I would be wrapped with two pairs of sweat pants, two long sleeve shirts, a hooded sweatshirt, and a jacket. The exact opposite of a stripper. A clother. A person who had almost no skin showing. I’d shovel until my back killed me. Sub-minimum wage.
I tried to hold down jobs. But I always failed. I’d hold down the job until it drowned. I’d hold down the job until it kicked and slapped me away and then I’d look back and the job would be gone. It would run off with some punctual person. Some person who was good at being treated like crap. I’m not good at that. I’d much rather humiliate myself than be humiliated.
Stripping was perfect for me.
First of all, I’m not a perv.
I’m actually kind of asexual.
I just don’t get into sex.
I think I’m too busy for it.
I think I’m too poor for it.
Sex, for men, I’ve found, requires money. And I’m not talking about prostitutes. Prostitutes scare me. I’ve only seen a few of them; they all looked like they were secretly Al-Qaeda. American Al-Qaeda. Like they had bombs in their pants. I’m sure it’s just me.
Where was I?
Oh yeah, money. You have to be able to afford dates where if they want to get popcorn at the concession stand, you have to get them popcorn at the concession stand.
I was thirty-one living with my parents.
I couldn’t afford to tip.
Long story short. I googled “strippers Boston.” I found some sites. I called some numbers. One guy told me to email him a photo of myself shirtless. I didn’t trust him. Another told me to come down to the office. I shaved, showered, and went down to the office. He hired me. He said I looked like the type of guy who could dance. I asked what that meant and the guy just laughed, said, “You want the job or what?”
I can’t dance. I didn’t think dance had anything to do with it. I’d been to female strip clubs and they didn’t dance. They just sort of gyrated. Pointlessly. Anybody could do that.
He told me they’d call me when they had a gig. I said I’d do it. If the party gave him feedback that they liked me, I’d be hired full-time. Which meant about twice a month.
Three weeks later I got a call. He gave me the address. Connecticut. Who the hell wants to drive all the way to Connecticut? He told me to call him when I got there.
It hadn’t been snowing lately. You can’t clear out driveways when it’s sunny out. To make money as a snow shoveler, you need snow. To make good money as a snow shoveler, you’d have to move to northern northern Canada. And there’s no driveways up there, so it’s pointless.
I’d been doing pushups. In my parents’ basement. I’d been doing sit-ups like crazy. I was studying entertainment television shows about actors and I’d realized to be good-looking, all you needed was abs. I was doing two thousand crunches a day. I looked in the mirror and I looked weird. Like you’re supposed to.
I drove to Connecticut.
I’d describe the highway for you, but you’re not a moron. You know what a highway looks like. It’s that same Morse code of white lines. Forever.
Eventually, I got to the address and it was an intersection. Nothing there but two crossing roads.
I was convinced it was a trick, so I called the home office number to yell at them, but when I got through he said the directions were tricky and he’d talk me through it. I was supposed to turn onto a dirt road. Did I see it?
I turned down it. I went right, left, left, right. The road was like shingles. Like it had some kind of disease. I think shingles is a disease.
They don’t make roads like that in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, they make roads for cars and arguments.
Connecticut is for dogs and arsonists. I wanted to burn down the road myself, but it was made out of dirt. It would take a helluva lot of gasoline.
I got to the cabin. It looked like the kind of cabin that Arthur Miller would take Marilyn Monroe to when he wanted to propose to her or have sex with her or something like that.
I got out of my car and some guys came to meet me.
I told the office I would only strip for women and here’s guys coming to meet me.
I said I must have the wrong address, but the guys said it was the right one and then girls came out. They had leis around their necks, Hawaiian shirts, a big inflatable blowup doll that had nothing to do with Hawaii. Or maybe it did. They looked like the type of girls who flunked out of cheerleading. If you could do that.
I felt like I’d flunked into cheerleading.
They handed me the money. I counted it.
I couldn’t make that kind of money shoveling if the entire Fenway Park was filled to the brim with snowflakes. In my hands, I held the original green monster—bucketloads of twenties. Fifteen of ‘em to be exact. I was rich. Even though the office would get half.
They took me inside. The feel of “oh my God, a real stripper,” which I think meant “oh my God, someone who’d actually be crazy enough to be a stripper.”
There were more guys inside. They threw their chests out. The girls at the party didn’t need to throw their chests out. They were in full ritualistic American party cleavage glory. The room was stupid with cleavage.
I went to the bathroom. To hide. To figure out what I’d do.
Someone knocked. A girl asked if she could come in. I had my thong on.
“Does this look good?” I asked.
She looked like I was a candy bar. Like she wanted to do the shotput with me. Like I was Peter the Great.
Stripping is a profession for idiots. But even better than that.
I told her to put music on.
She said it was on.
It was country.
I said no, music.
She said sure and left. I heard her laughing on the other side of the door.
I had no training.
But I had no training for shoveling sidewalks either and I’d figured that one out. I figured as long as I didn’t have too much clothes on, I’d be doing a pretty good job. The goal was not to be dressed.
I walked out.
The room was filled. And I mean, filled. I mean, where the entire walls were lined with people. No gaps. Guys and girls.
“No guys,” I yelled.
“Yeah, there is!” a girl said.
“No,” I yelled.
Someone put a chair in the middle of the floor and I saw an obvious bride-to-be yanked to it.
The country music was cranked even louder. A fiddle should never be listened to full-blast. In fact, a fiddle should never be listened to, period.
The lights in the room turned off so the only light was from another room, and from all the cellphone cameras pointed at me.
“No cameras,” I said.
“They’re phones!” the girl yelled.
Girls pulled out one-dollar bills.
I got blinded by green. The foliage of money.
I started dancing. They stuck ones in my thong. They handed me money. I took money from them. It felt like a thousand dollars. It was probably twelve bucks. I moved around the room, from girl to girl, until a guy pushed me towards the center where the bride was waiting. A girl snuck behind me and pulled my thong down. I pulled it back up. Another girl came out and grabbed my ass. I thought of sexual harassment videos I had to watch before a pizza delivery job I once did. More cellphones came out.
I sat on the bride’s lap.
“When are you getting married?”
“I’m not getting married!”
Someone pulled me to the ground.
A beer can of a guy stood over me. The type of person who makes fun of deaf people. I realized I was surrounded. Literally. And metaphorically. And in other sorts of ways. I leaned into the guy and said, “I—”
But he pushed me away.
He was drunk. Or not drunk. He was inhaled. Or not inhaled. He was ingested. He was some combination of ways to get something in your body and the effect was that he was all methed up. Big time.
His buddies collapsed around him.
Seeing another man in a thong causes a lot of men’s hearts to go faster. Either they are turned on. Or they’re turned off. It’s not fight-or-flight. It’s more like fight-or-mate. He didn’t want to mate.
He pulled out a gun.
The music came down.
I thought it was fake, the gun. It looked too tiny.
A guy leaned in, said, “You better leave. He’s shot it in here before.”
Exact words. He’s shot it in here before.
I headed to the bedroom.
“No,” someone said, “The door.”
I ignored him, ran straight for the bathroom. I could hear arguing. A girl telling the guys to go away. Another saying to put the music back on. Another asking where Julie went. Whoever Julie is.
I grabbed my stuff, threw my shirt on.
A girl came in, near crying, told me to leave now. “Now!”
I went out, duffel bag in hand, still no pants on and went straight for my car. I got in and heard a gunshot.
I looked to the porch and saw a gun was being pointed at me. Not the handgun from earlier. A hunting rifle. I floored it.
I heard another gunshot.
I drove into the maze of roads, the rights and lefts so easily confused. I saw headlights through the trees behind me. I couldn’t turn my headlights off. I swung around bends, sure they were getting closer, convinced a bullet would shatter my ability to shovel. I headed into the stupidness of everything. Into the rainclouds on the horizon. Knowing that I was sober, that I was faster. That they couldn’t shoot through their front windshield. Or maybe they could.
The ride home was the soft honeybee buzz of the windows down. Knowing I had a wallet that was as fat as the entire Western world.
In all honesty, this was all I really wanted. One thick near-death memory. This one imperfect bank heist. A self-congratulation that I too have done something big and careless.
I drove straight for the heart and lungs of Massachusetts.
© Ron Riekki, 2014
Ron Riekki's books include U.P. (nominated by National Book Award-winner John Casey for the Sewanee Writers' Series and for the Great Michigan Read Series) and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (a Library of Michigan selection as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book). He has books upcoming with Michigan State University Press and Arbutus Press. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been in New Ohio Review, Spillway, Mizna, and other journals. He loves actors.
The Ecdysiast was read by Ron Riekki on 2nd April 2014