Strays

by Nate Lippens

I met Shane at a cramped apartment party that smelled of cat piss beneath a canopy of perfume and beer. It was one of those gatherings that turns into an all-night bull session with lofty talk about art and love and God. Shane had told me he was from Minnesota. His dad caught him in bed with another boy and beat him badly, cracking two ribs and breaking his nose. Shane left and never looked back, or so he liked to say. But with a few drinks or a little weed he’d tell and retell the story.

His clothes were more sealant than fabric—sprayed on, shiny finish. He wore their hard shell with style and animated them with others’ imaginations. I was more of a hologram. 

He told stories about yearning to be tough, scraping his knuckles on cement until they bled, cultivating calluses and rough spots, the pride he took in scars, lowering his voice and moving his mouth less beneath a slit-eyed gaze.

We were alike. Both of us shot into the world still marked by our makers like bullets streaked by their barrels. And we had collided.



*



He had a place and I needed one. I slept on the couch and he took the bedroom, bringing home a train of one-night stands after bar time. I lay awake with one eye shut as they fumbled through the next half-hour—stabs of light, burnt smells, water splashing, doors creaking open and closed. 

One night Shane brought in a thick, sweet-faced middle-aged man. The man looked at me, then back at Shane

“How much extra for the little one?”

I went along with it. 



*



That summer my face organized itself. My lips were ripe. My eyes were bright. I have photos. 

In the beginning I didn’t think to use a pseudonym. We started turning occasional doubles together. Shane had a car and I didn’t drive. We’d go out and he’d make the moves and do the talking. The men thought I was shy. That was hot. Eventually Shane had me work alone. He still drove me around so I gave him a cut. 

My clients offered advice. Usually it was to get out of the business. 

“I wish you’d value yourself more.”

“Do you want to pay more?”

I did value myself. I set a price and it was more than I made bussing tables or washing dishes. I’d finish those shifts with little in tips, exhausted from being demeaned. At the end of my pay period I’d get a check and barely make rent. Turning tricks wasn’t so bad. I was treated like an object, but I was an object with money. 

It was mostly keeping it up for the ugly and fat ones but I’d always been able to get turned on by someone else’s attraction to me. The power of holding someone in thrall moved my blood. I looked so young I figured I was practically doing a public service. Giving pedophiles a way to blow off steam. 



*



That first summer with Shane we’d stay out all night and drive home at dawn with the windows down. My arms were peeling from sunburn and their dead skin flapped in the wind. We stopped and watched the rowers on the lake. Their long, fluid strokes became parts, mechanics pushing them along. The catch, the drive, the finish, the recovery. Legs compressed, braced to push off the foot stretchers, the power of the drive, the way the body hung from the oars by the hands.

I thought I could save us, rescue us from men and money and tight rooms with hard light. I thought we could go somewhere else and change and be together.

I wanted him and I wanted to be him. I followed him into rooms and played whatever parts he needed. Shane was a child prodigy of prostitution. I was along for the ride. Spangled in his glory and sweat. 

I wasn’t beautiful but I was young and that was enough. Men with daddy/son fantasies. In a hotel room in downtown Madison, a man wore a robe and came in as I stood at the sink in my underwear with shaving cream on my face looking in the mirror at him behind me. It was the same scenario almost every time. One holiday season he brought a badger bristle brush and lather and used a straight razor. That got my attention. I was instantly hard at the glint of steel. Not that he noticed. He was lost in the workings of his dream, one he had played out countless times with boys like me and maybe even long ago as a boy like me. 



*



Tricks of the trade, Shane called them. Giggle nervously and look away or down and then back at the john’s eyes. 

“Older dudes love that shit from little guys like you.” 

Shane dispensed these street chestnuts and they worked. It maddened me. I wanted less predictability. Why was everyone so perfect to type? But if they weren’t, if they threw off the behaviors and codes, I knew it wouldn’t be good. It wouldn’t be a human moment between us. It would be a monster movie. The hand grabbing the ankle from under the bed. 

Shane taught me to haggle in cars, to get forty for a thirty dollar job, to look away from the young ones. Block it out. You can’t change it. You can’t save anyone. Third time a guy circles the block, back away and ignore him. Unless it’s freezing cold, your stomach is growling, and you’re strung out. Then go. So, always go. 



*



A friend drove over a thousand miles on his motorcycle to surprise Shane for his birthday. This was the height of allegiance, a brother or sisterhood we strove to live. The biker stood in the living room of the decrepit house, posing in Sunday morning light, and we gathered around. We believed in each other. Tomorrow someone would fuck a friend’s man, steal something for drugs, run a scam for fifteen bucks, but today, we rang his odd arrival with love. Lemme take your coat. Lemme get you coffee. Have a seat. Need a bath? A blanket? Are you hungry? How do you like your eggs? Five boys playing mom. 





“Bitter crown, don’t be that queen,” Shane sang. A made-up song in a surprising voice. 

“You can really sing, man,” I said. 

“Nah.” He laughed, dripped beer on a rug, wiped it up with his finger and stuck the tip in his mouth. 

Bitter crown, bitter crown.



*



Another night, another room. Naked and mad at God, because the guy kept saying, “Oh God, oh God.” Rapture already and get off me. 



*



Shane had been gone for three days. He would disappear for a day sometimes but never this long. He wouldn’t call. We didn’t have a phone. I went to the laundromat and called around. Someone said maybe he’d gone to Chicago with this guy they’d partied with at . . . he couldn’t remember where. Someone else said Shane had gone to the burbs with a business guy and his wife. “They like to share boys. Usually black cock.” I was acting too concerned and attached like one of the hysterical fag hags who orbited us. Chill, I told myself. He’ll come back or he won’t. If he didn’t I could find someone to move in. Or I could ditch the place and move into a one-room. No need to panic. No need to spin out. I drank and ate a little something. I threw up. I couldn’t sleep. 

Shane reappeared a week later like nothing had happened. He didn’t want to talk about it. He found me at the diner. I’d moved out of the apartment. I didn’t know what had happened to his stuff. Rent was due. I didn’t have it and no one would commit to moving in and paying. I moved in with an older guy, a painter. Shane was shocked I’d done anything without him. I could see his surprise and disappointment, the fear. I was no disciple. 

“How’s that?” Shane said. 

“Fine. He paints, sleeps, and does coke.”

“He keeping you?”

“No, we don’t fuck. He likes having someone there. I’m still working. Hey, order some fries and we can split them.”

“I was going to see if you could float me some cash,” he said. 

“I’m broke, man.”

I didn’t ask where he’d been or what he’d done. Shane was agitated that I’d moved out and not moved his stuff—a small suitcase of shitty clothes and toiletries. There were no sheets on his mattress and the furniture had come with the place. We’d had a couple plates and random flatware from Saint Vinnie’s but no pots or pans. 

“There was no time and you weren’t here,” I said. 

“It was one suitcase though,” he said, moving his thumb along the bent aluminum lip where the tabletop was cracking. 

“Here,” I reached in my pocket and handed him a little packet under the table. “It’ll set you right.”

He took it without touching my hand and got up, turning his back to me. I watched him. While he was in the bathroom, I emptied my change on the table and counted out my coffee and tip. I got up and left. 



*



Gray lather from black tar soap and the smell of cheap cocoa butter. Dead insects and browned flower petals on the sill. The shades pulled almost all the way down. Envelopes and birthday candles on the table. Crayon stick paints mashed like bright stubbed cigars in the big room where canvases were set up. 

The painter had models sometimes. Strung-out kids. I went for walks to the diner or bookstore when they came over. I had a small to-go shoulder bag for my important things and took it with me. 

At the diner I bought a plate of fries and a bottomless coffee. I was flush with a fresh pack of cigarettes and people came over to bum them. 

“Thanks man, thanks. Whatcha reading?”

I flashed the cover. 

“Is it good?”

I nodded. The exchange reminded me of childhood in the house of The Bible, McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, and Reader’s Digest where reading was viewed as rude.

I checked the big clock over the register. A john had given me a watch but I’d sold it. I avoided him after because I didn’t want him to ask about it. 

“So you sold the watch for money and then lost the money you’d make from the guy by not tricking with him?” Shane had said. 

“There’s always another guy,” I’d said. 

All I had to do was look outside and see two boys waiting to get picked up, waiting for a long time by the look of it, and know that wasn’t true. At some point beauty, novelty, and youth went, and all that was left was sour will. 

Almost midnight. I had gut rot from the coffee. The junky boys were probably gone. I reached into my pocket for money and found a two-of-diamonds playing card. No idea how it got there. I paid and idly played with the card on my walk home. 

I opened the door and two naked boys were standing in front of a green wall. The smell of fresh paint was strong. 

“You wanna join?” the painter asked. 

“Good night.” I kept moving to my room and closed the door. 

I couldn’t sleep. I turned off the light and watched the shadows under the door. I couldn’t make out the voices but they whispered outside. I closed my eyes. 

I heard the door open and the painter said my name. I opened my eyes in the half-light and could see one of the kids crouched beside me. He touched my hair and I rolled away from him. The other kid was on that side but standing. His cock was by my face and he shook it and made a weird high whistling laugh. The painter crawled on top of me. 

“No, no, no.”

“You sure? They wanted to meet you.” He was still on me. 

The boys had already backed off. They didn’t care. They wanted more drugs. He had his face right by my ear. 

“Get off me.”

He got up and joined the two silhouettes in the door.  

I waited as their voices left. I heard laughter and got up and placed a chair under the doorknob. I lay awake listening to the voices as I did with my mother’s card club when I was little but this night I wasn’t lulled. I was thinking about the knife in my bag. 



*



The john sucked my fingers. We smoked pot, which I never liked, and watched TV. I found it pleasantly distracting, but looking at the time I decided I wanted to get this over. I rolled onto him and he smiled. An ad played in the background. Suck, suck, suck. “The quicker-picker-upper . . .” Oh yeah, daddy . . .



*



“We put dicks in our mouths and asses. They’re never going to be okay with that,” Shane said too loudly. The other diners looked over. 

Shane had brought a quiet kid named Arlo. He ordered a burger and Shane berated him for eating animals. The kid blinked back tears. 

“Lay off,” I said. 

“You think the animals didn’t cry when they were killed?” Shane said. 

Arlo got up and went to the bathroom. 

“Stop being an asshole.”

“I am a professional asshole,” he said. 

I asked about Arlo. 

“He’s puppy-dogging after me. Can’t do anything for himself.” 

“Awww, he’s your new foster kid.” 

“Fuck yourself. I’m going for a walk, man.” He left the diner. 

When Arlo returned he asked where Shane was. 

“I pissed him off and he left. I’m not sure if he’s coming back,” I said, “can I have a bite of your burger?”

“Sure.” He pushed the plate my way. 

I bit in and chewed and smiled with meat showing. 

“He fights with everyone because he doesn’t want anyone to get too close?” Arlo said, looking at me through thick bangs. 

“Yup.” I took another bite and held the burger up to him. “Bite?”

He shook his head and gestured for me to finish it. 

“You in love with him?” I said between bites. 

“No, he’s . . . it’s hard to . . .”

“Got it.”

“I was supposed to stay with him tonight but now that he’s left, I don’t know.”

“You can crash at my place but it’s not the best.”

“What?”

“I mean you can crash tonight but you have to fend for yourself. I live with an old freak who loves guys like you.”

“Okay.”

“You can sleep on the couch in my room. It’s small. There’s a bigger one in the big room but he’ll bother you. How tall are you?”

“Six feet.”

“Yeah, it’s small.”

I ended up letting Arlo sleep in my bed because he looked uncomfortable on the little couch, which he called a loveseat. He kept saying he was fine but I could see him shifting positions, trying to not make the couch creak. I remembered my nights like that, trying to not take up space, to disappear. 

“Just sleep in my bed.”

Arlo joined me and slept. I woke with his arm over me. Be careful. These small moments were how people got in trouble. 



*



Arlo started tricking. I tried to talk him out of it, told him to get a straight job. He was too sensitive, too young. 

“Creeps will eat you up in ways you won’t realize until it’s too late, man.” 

I always called him man because his eyes brightened at the word. 

Arlo told me about a man who took him to fancy restaurants and watched him eat. The man enjoyed the discomfort of the other patrons. He was old and rich and therefore untouchable. 

“My grandson has an appetite,” Arlo said, imitating him. 

“Free meals,” I said. 

“Oh he pays me to eat and there’s no sex.” 

Another guy paid Arlo to beat him with a belt. He had feeder and masochist regulars. At first I was suspicious but I realized it was true, or true enough. The kid was smart either way. I ordered us burgers. 



*



We shuffled our feet to stay warm behind the arcade. No cars were out but an occasional yellow cab. Everything was still. I jangled coins in my pocket. Shane rattled his keys. We sang our ditty in low voices. A penny for your thoughts, a nickel for your kiss, why does your pussy smell like old man’s piss?



*



“This garbage you eat will make you fat. It’s very bad,” the man said. He was gesturing at a bag of chips and a soda. 

“These crisps and fizz?” Shane said in a ridiculous accent somewhere in the vicinity of British by way of a Chattanooga theater troupe. 

“You can laugh but you are what you eat.”

“Do you eat goat?” 

The man sputtered. I was worried we were losing him and his money. 

“I try to watch what I eat. It isn’t easy though.” I smiled a little and held his eyes when he looked at me. I knew he wanted Shane more than me. That was where his attention had been, but I could see him reappraising the situation. Shane was in an impossible mood. He would be mad at me if the man went off with me instead of him, but he was doing everything in his power to lose the guy. This wasn’t a game we could afford. I felt schoolmarmish even thinking like that. Who cared about some shriveled old cock that had to be coerced to half-mast in some dreary room? I did. At that moment. It was late and I wasn’t in the mood to go find another guy. Either I would have him or Shane would. This was the end of the night. The long Thanksgiving weekend loomed during which every suburban closet-case would either be in town visiting family and in desperate need or every ring-fingered dad stuck in an endless loop of Black Friday holiday buying would need attention. It would be good but tiring money. A lot of repressed amateur hour foolery. 

“It’s getting late,” I said. 

I touched the man’s hand and smiled again. I could feel Shane's eyes. I was leading the man away now and would probably pay for it later. Shane didn’t seem to care. He had turned his attention elsewhere and I realized he had done this on purpose. I was getting his castoff. I could still bail out. I could turn and say forget it. But I thought of tomorrow, waking and feeling out of sorts, maybe even sick. I turned and said, “Let’s go.”



*



I had joked about the Pony Express. For no good reason. Whatever the conversation was, a space had presented itself to show off some wit. 

“You’re the smart one, aren’t you,” the man said and ran his rough hand across my cheek like I was a cat. His pet. Fine.

The man said, “You know the Pony Express only operated for two years. All these years later people still talk about it but it only existed for a brief time. Do you know why?”

The telegraph, I thought. 

“No,” I said. 

“The telegraph,” he said. 

“Oh.” You’re the smart one, aren’t you?

I was unbuttoning his shirt. He made little noises. 

“I’m glad . . .” He looked at me. “I’m glad I came with you.”

“Me too.”

I opened his shirt and saw the big scar. I’d seen that kind before. Heart surgery. 

“Heart surgery,” he said. 

“Oh wow, that must have been something.”

“It was,” he said and began. 

I knew where it would land: gratitude to be alive. He rambled about his doctor.

“It’s a big scar but I’m glad just to be alive.”

“Can I touch it?” I already was.

“S-sure.” 

I pushed his shirt back. Touched the ridge of flesh dividing his chest. I ran my hands over his shoulders. He’d shrunken some from his drunken chatter. He was quiet and hesitant. 

I unbuttoned his pants and slid them off. The paunch, the good underwear worn for tonight. The mismatched dress socks. 

I stood and undressed and let him look at me. He reached out and his hand shook. 

“Do you want the light on or off?”

“Off? Is that okay?”

“Sure.”

We were in darkness and I went by feel. A mixed blessing. I didn’t have to see him but I also couldn’t take any facial cues. I had to pay attention to his body and mine. I had to be present. I am here. That would pull me into the future of it being over. 



*



The dark sky seen through heavy clouds, lit from below by distant streetlights. The only stars were scattered on the beach towel bunched up in the grass. 

“Let’s swim!” Shane stripped off his shorts. 

Arlo’s slender legs and flopping cock flashed by as he ran toward the water, his filthy soles flipping up and down. 

I was so high. This was all beloved. Everything powdery. 

I moved my head and there was my childhood. A basement, a shooting gallery, Xeroxed punk show fliers, dingy rooms. I was back on the beach. 

Arlo straddled Shane by the weak tide. I sat down and traced the stars on the towel and thought of leaving. That would be something. 



*



Shane said New York was the only place where he could make something of himself. I wasn’t sure if I could make something of myself, but I didn’t think I could make much less. Getting away sounded good. I was still too near to home. The proximity meant I hadn’t made it far. I was out of earshot but that was it. My family was close but they weren’t coming for me. 

On the bus I looked out at the landscape. We rode past sulfurous mill towns, trailer parks, strip malls, and a sign with the Ohio motto: With God All Things Are Possible. We headed into Manhattan. 

We had a few places to crash. Shane and I moved from bed to couch to crash pad for the first month. The days were hard, but they had been before. Only now, they were filled with skyscrapers and dense neighborhoods, and entirely new rules for living and interacting. I walked through the canyons, scribbled down directions, and made my way past places I’d read about in books. I gazed up at scroungy brick buildings with fire escapes like loose braces and tried to picture the lives inside. 



*



Pop a Valium. Keep even. 

We were in a hotel downtown, a nice one, and I was thinking we’d be asked to leave. No matter how much money our trick had, it wasn’t likely such an establishment would tolerate what Shane and I meant. But we weren’t asked or told anything. We glided through the lobby’s reflecting pools to its smeared metal elevators and were scooped up and taken to another floor. My feet snagged at every step but I was trying on a smile. 

John’s eyes and skin were jaundiced. Couldn’t be good . . . didn’t matter. No matter. Matter and energy, that was us. I held Shane’s hand. John wanted schoolboys. We had a set of improvisations. Shane went Method, all Lee Strasberg, and I followed. John had whiskers like a sturgeon, bottom-feeding the whole time. Was that all he wanted? Maybe. Probably not. I threw myself out of my body and watched what happened. I was the passenger pitched from the car. I watched it burn. 

Everything took twice as long as it should’ve, but then it was over. Money was exchanged. Shane’s hand to his pocket and we hit the door soaring, down elevator, lobby, street. Into the night. We were headed somewhere to make more money or spend what we’d made. 

Walking through the cold, Shane and I shared a pair of gloves. He wore the right and I the left. I put my other hand in my pocket. Shane’s pants were too tight for the pocket to accommodate his hand so he opened his jacket and tucked it in the lining.  



*



The door barely cleared the bed when opened. The room was a closet with flocked wallpaper the texture of old newspapers and carpet like moss. The window faced a brick wall. In that furred claustrophobia a man stood nervously, not wanting to sit down on the bedspread.

“You a cop?” I said.

“No, I’m a salesman.”

“Where are you from?”

“No Name, Colorado.”

He smiled and loosened up. His shoulders dropped. His hometown was usually a conversation starter for him. No Neck from No Name went on for a bit and I let him. It was his hour. He ran out of things to say and I told him to get undressed. 

“I’m going to the bathroom to take a leak. I’ll be right back.”

The bathroom was tiny and had a shower stall with a plastic curtain that looked like a used condom. The lighting was sallow, making my bruises pop for inspection. I’d known they were there but hadn’t realized how many there were. They were in various stages of blooming and fading.

I opened the door and No Neck was under the covers. He had draped his button-down shirt over the bedside lamp. Ambience. The bed was spongy and I straddled him with the filthy blanket between us so I could turn off the other lamp. 

“That better,” I said.

It wasn’t a question. We were shadows and I began to work. 



*



The man was dressed in all black except for his strange tan shoes. He talked too much. It worked to cover something up and created imbalance. I told him to go clean up in the bathroom and as soon as I heard the faucet turn on and water running, I grabbed my coat and left.

“Did he seem like a cop?” Shane said. 

We sat in a lousy all-night diner with an assortment of human wrecks and Shane stared at his plate of ketchup-sodden fries and coffee, too high to eat.

I nodded but I didn’t think so. Cops worried me, they could tangle you up or toy with you, but I was afraid of psychos who’d torture and kill you, disperse you in trash bags along the West Side Highway.



*



The guy had a slender build and a shock of gray hair. He was like a beloved regional college—small but well-endowed. 

I beat him. I called him worthless, ugly, and stupid. I slapped his face, spit on him, and made him strip. I insulted his cock. I forced him outside onto the balcony and locked the door, berating him. He wept and begged to be let back in. He pressed his naked body against the sliding glass door and shot his load. Afterward he told me I had done a great job and he wanted to see me every week.



*



An old man, with thick flecks of dandruff on his silk robe patterned in black-and-red swirls, told me, “I feel so alone.” I offered comfort—for a price. But our whole arrangement said this: you are.



*



Shane listened as a woman told a story about her young son with a heart condition. She talked about his medical expenses and her long nights with him at the hospital between her grueling waitressing shifts. 

I had grown up among women like her with genuinely hard lives. They had learned how to turn a good tale out of their misery and win sympathy, which was as close to compassion and understanding as they were going to get. Sometimes sympathy led to a helping hand, something as small as a meal or a ride to an appointment. Sometimes to something as glorious as free babysitting or secondhand clothes.

This woman was shrewd. She surrounded herself with a mix of former middle-class types and artists, the demographics that were people likely to be bohemian enough to be fun yet still have memories of comfortable upbringings that could be exploited for guilt. 

I slipped away to snort a line and when I returned from the bathroom she was regaling someone else with a story of her sassy comebacks to problem-customers at work and Shane was gone. 

“Where’s Shane?” 

“Who?”

“My friend.” 

She looked at me. She acted as if she hadn’t been pouring her heart out to a stranger only moments before but years ago: how could she be held responsible to remember something that far in the past? She turned back to her audience. 

I walked outside and saw Shane walking with some man. I called out his name and he turned and squinted. I went to him and he hugged me. He told me about a party, told me to call him, told me it had been a fun night. The man stood behind him waiting patiently, swaying to an invisible song. 



*



Shane and I teamed a trick. He was huge and sweating. Shane was in a strange mood about the guy. We had him bookended. Shane was behind him and I was standing in front of him sinking into the mattress, catching awful glimpses in the mirror across from me. My unfocused eyes zeroed in on my face in feigned ecstasy, trying to find pleasure in it so I could stay hard.

Usually for this kind of trick I watched Shane for inspiration but he was hamming it up, slapping the guy’s ass as if he was keeping time.

Shane had obviously crossed that line between loosened up and sloppy drunk. He started talking dirty, fake cooing and trilling. 

“Oh yeah, daddy.” 

Finally I cracked, laughing so hard I spit. Shane broke into a grin, then a gust of laughter, until he couldn’t breathe. 

Like a rhino, the trick moved with amazing dexterity, standing up in one motion and wiping his mouth. 

“Get the fuck out of here you fucking bitches.”

Ha ha ha. Bitches!

“I hope you whores get AIDS!”

Ha ha ha ha. AIDS!

The trick threw our clothes in the hall where we dressed quickly. 

“What about our money?” Shane said, dancing from foot to foot as he shimmied into his pants. 

“Fuck you.”

We cackled and crowed. Everything triggered more hysterics: the buttoned-up passenger on the elevator, the serious night clerk at the desk, a passing police car. Tears streamed down our faces. 



*



Months later, Shane and I had a falling out that involved drugs and money. The exact denominations of each and the sequence in which they occurred are illegible to me now. There were words. Shane accused me of using him, said he’d brought me to New York and helped me out and I owed him. I stopped speaking to him. Months passed. Like I did with my mother, I let the silence grow until I couldn’t speak.

Nate Lippens has published stories in Catapult, Entropy, Fugue, and Hobart, as well as in the anthology Queen Mob’s Tea House: The Book (Dostoyevsky Press, 2019). This story is from his collection, Help is Coming, for which he is currently seeking a publisher.

Image: Bullets Colliding