by Merrill Sunderland
Few people are ever willing to barter with the boy: to trade a back rub for a neck rub, for instance, or a foot massage for a scalp massage. And those who even occasionally entertain such requests, he abuses without a second’s though. He becomes animal. He nudges and whimpers and lies down for them, his belly flat on the carpet.
The hair on his back, the boy has seen from pictures, is cropped like the ears of a Pit Bull. It has the shape of an angel’s wings at rest. But there is certainly nothing angelic about his back hair; it is curly and thick and has twice been waxed off, only to grow back at least as curly and thick as before. It gives him fits in the hot summer months. The back of his shirt is always the first spot where gray becomes navy with sweat. When the sweat dries and the residual salt cakes his skin, he itches like a madman. He must be scratched.
This wolf-hair on his back is a trait he shares with his father. And his father itches too. Unlike him, however, his father is content with scratching his own back; he keeps a ruler-sized wooden instrument, five-fingers carved into the end, on his bedside table. He can thread this wooden hand down the collar of his shirt, past the tufts of hair that peek out, and scratch and scratch and scratch until he is satisfied. More than once, when the boy has come to his father for a scratch, his father has offered him this tool. But he always declines. “Please. Please. Only for a second,” the boy pleads. He even bends a little to further entice his father, shimmies lightly up to his bedside—his father is always reading the thickest books in bed, he thinks—so his father has to move only minimally. When his father’s hands begin to scratch under the shirt, as requested, the boy closes his eyes and shuts out the world.
Sometimes the boy—now older—can get his girlfriend to scratch him as they lie in bed together. He runs his nose up her arm, down her stomach like the Tramp pushing a meatball before the spaghetti-kiss. This may seem romantic to anyone but him or her. His desire is motivated by something different, more primal, than romance, and she, she wants nothing to do with him when he’s like this. Needy like a child. But she’s very clever, his girlfriend, and she considers all her options. If she does not scratch him, he will continue to beg; if she says “in a minute,” he will turn sour and pout, which embarrasses her to no end; if she says “yes,” he will grin from ear to ear and tell her how good they are together. Perfect for each other. It is easier, she knows, to say yes.
The boy’s relationships seem less symbiotic than parasitic. It appears as though he is not trading touch for touch, but stealing. This is true, he knows, but it doesn’t have to be this way. He is more than willing to reciprocate with his own hands, small as they are, yet people rarely accept his medium of exchange. What is it, he wonders, that makes his father and girlfriend reject his hands? He knows they itch, his father in particular. What drives them to scratch by their own hands and contraptions instead of his? And what else, he wonders, do they do for themselves that he does not?
Whenever he gets a massage—a birthday gift from his girlfriend, a gift for both of them, really, because this is a day off from her massaging duties—he is amazed by the therapist’s hands. He is amazed by how easily this person gains control over his body. In seconds, he is a puppet and couldn’t care less who’s pulling the strings.
These hands of his cannot relieve the tension in his body precisely because they are his. They are small and weak. He has tendinitis in his wrist from a childhood playing baseball, swinging aluminum bats and flipping balls to lanky first basemen. On extremely cold days, even a decade after playing the sport, the weakness beneath his palm spreads to the tips of his fingers like a tide supplanting the shore, and his hand hangs heavy. His are not ballplayers’ hands.
Nor are they the hands of a laborer. Sure they can do the job, laboring that is, and they have in the past plied and planted, hauled and heaved, sawed and scissored. But with padded gloves and friction-reducing tools. Without such protection, his hands too easily crack and bleed and stiffen. Instead of hard-packed calluses sprout weepy, fluid-filled sacks.
But none of that matters, really. These hands could relieve the tension in his body perfectly well if only they weren’t his.
He must never touch the girls. This is the most important rule to remember at Zachary’s, a strip club twenty minutes from where the boy went to high school and a spot he sometimes goes with his friends from back home when he’s in town and the gang is too riled up to be pacified by the more traditional haunts. The boys are back in town.
Zachary’s is a one-story building that seems to sag, as if the roof might collapse on both the girls and the boys at any minute. The inside is dimly lit and the hallways are narrow, so narrow, in fact, the boy brushes shoulders and hips with other tongue-waggers on his way to relieve himself in the bathroom. But he never touches the girls.
They dance on a stage better suited for cock fighting (no pun intended) than stripping. The stage is canvas-dressed, the surrounding vinyl ropes barely thigh-high. One girl—no, woman—with sharp-angled bangs as though she has trimmed them herself does a special move in the ring. Dollar bills are folded tent-like over the highest rope, catching her attention, which is precisely when she sinks, slowly, to her knees and drapes her breasts over the dollars, snapping the vinyl as she backs away, now clutching the money between breast and rib cage like a spent mouse trap. By the time she’s standing on high-heeled feet, more bills have appeared, placed atop the highest rope with Jenga-like precision.
Between turns on the stage, naked women with names like Candy and June and colorful puckered lips ask the boy if he wants a dance. Never to dance. Always a dance. Nothing the two could ever do together, but a good to be sold. He knows this and yet finds these women—girls, really—difficult to resist.
During a dance, she bends and twists on him, but he doesn’t touch her; he cannot touch her. It’s a rule in this place, and a good one, the boy knows, but it defeats the whole purpose for him. He wishes, more than anything else, for a meeting of the flesh. His hands to her bare shoulders or, better still, her hands to his. The boy has come here to make some sort of connection.
He, realizing this too late, always too late, has come to the wrong place.
As these naked girls—no, women—dance on top of his clothed body, he never feels more disconnected. Most of the time, these women dry-humping the void between them, he starts a conversation about his girlfriend, his job mowing greens at the local golf course, a tough thing to be good at, he says, because you have to be sure to keep the lines straight and not scalp the edges. He’s doing all the talking, it seems, so he asks her questions. How does she like it here? Where is she from? Then, he sees, for the first time, maybe, the looping dragon tattoo that begins on her chest and ends on her back. He points to it, keeping his distance as if her skin might still be sore. Did it hurt? He asks.