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An Arrow's Flight

From chapter 1, Pyrrhus struts his stuff

Start with the boy, Pyrrhus. Clambering onto the bar at the Escapade, swaying lazily with the music as he unbuttoned his shirt.

Pyrrhus was wearing his standard ensemble, the white oxford button-down and the pressed, snug khaki trousers. The other Golden Boys wore less -- just cutoffs and a T-shirt, or maybe some kind of one-piece elastic number that disclosed the merchandise prematurely. Less starting out and less to shed, because hardly anyone tipped you till you had it all off. Yet Pyrrhus insisted on his incongruous straight-boy outfit. For someone whose job description consisted of the single word undresses , he was uncompromising about the crease in his trousers and the starch in his shirts.

Maybe he understood the memories that outfit evoked for the older men pressed close to the bar, the ones quickest with their dollars. He might have been their first high-school crush: the baseball player, maybe, just stepping into the locker room, joking with his teammates, now so casually unbuttoning his shirt. Above the crisp collar Pyrrhus's face gleamed, somehow chaste despite the faint, reckless smile that stole over it as the music overtook him and he began to dance.

He had to stretch to hang his shirt on the hook over the cash register. His khakis, teasingly unbuttoned, drooped as he stepped nimbly over the cocktail glasses and the beer bottles on the bar. He pulled his pants off, hopping on one foot and then the other as he struggled to slip them past his huge, many-feathered sneakers. When he was down to his briefs -- as far as he would go till the next song -- he closed his eyes, lost in his...dance, to be generic, though it was just a random series of wiggles and jerks to the rhythm of the music. Here again, he wasn't like some of the boys, who had elaborate routines, or as elaborate as one could manage while slaloming amid the glasses and bottles. As if anyone had come to see choreography. Not to mention that, if you danced all over the place, you inhibited the gesture that was now occurring and that made Pyrrhus open his eyes: the hand sticking a dollar in his white sock. He rewarded his benefactor with a wink and a single thrust of his pelvis, almost too restrained to be called a bump. He earned another dollar.

The Escapade -- the Cafe Tip-and-Grope, Pterelas called it once -- was a brick box in the warehouse district, windowless, with an old neon sign that showed, absurdly, a dancing girl. Maybe they bought it used, from some failed Escapade somewhere else. This Escapade was doing just fine, already jammed with men at ten-thirty, even though the neighborhood was scary at night and there had been that incident, a month or two earlier, between the high-school principal and the profoundly misunderstood sailor.

You'd pay your six bucks, pass through the metal door and into the crush of men. The crowd was always younger than you'd expect. Yes, a few grizzled fairies at the bar, at the feet of the dancing boys, but also, right next to them, kids in their twenties cruising one another. As if the dancers weren't the star attraction, but just decoration, or background noise, like the string trio at brunch at the Park Court Hotel. In the corners of the room, away from the bar, the customers hardly glanced up at the Golden Boys. The parade of naked flesh just above eye level was even a little embarrassing. Child, does your mother know what you're doing? And of course the regulars could be picky. Where did they get this one? they'd say -- too skinny, too stoned, too...little. Not that they'd throw him out of bed on a snowy night. But really, for six bucks...Or that one -- he tried too hard, as if he were in the talent competition at a beauty pageant. You practically had to look away.

No one looked away from Pyrrhus. Some people just stared at him, open-mouthed. Others glanced intermittently, or sidewise, as if not deigning to seem too interested. A few had come just to see him. There had been word of mouth: Honey, I know you haven't been to the Escapade in years, but....The most popular Golden Boy in a long time; the owner was thinking of extending his run, though the first song was almost over and he was still technically decent. Even the regulars, who were already fully acquainted with what lay hidden under his residual garment, glanced at him now and then.

At the far end of the bar was Tydeus, who had undressed too rapidly -- not teasing, more as if he were heading to the showers. He jogged in place to the music, his anticlimactic penis wobbling up and down.

Tydeus would as soon have kept his shorts on. Tydeus was (he insisted) a straight-boy, just up there for the money; he was putting himself through computer-repair school or something. He almost never got hard. He greased himself, with the little tin of lube he carried in his sock, he worked at it, but he just didn't get hard with men looking at him. Pyrrhus got hard, helplessly, with men looking at him. As for the money: of course it was gratifying to have people mindlessly shoving bills in his socks. Mainly, though, he was there to feel their eyes on him.

They obliged; the men in the room were transfixed as he slipped off his shorts.

He was a dilute divinity. His father was Achilles, of course, so his grandmother was a B-list goddess. Making Pyrrhus only a -- what? -- a hemidemigod, shoulders mortally narrow, visage human. The genitals he now revealed were of ordinary size. (Not tiny, as the gods' are, sheltered in their massive loins as if to protect the divine seed.) Only his hair, the flaming red of a warrior's, hinted at his origins.

He paused paused before a squat dark man with no hair at all except in his ears. A conventioneer, maybe, strayed far from the downtown hotels but still wearing his suit, with his tie loosened and his collar open and even his face slack. He looked up at Pyrrhus sullenly, as if Pyrrhus's very existence were the source of some grievance. Still, you don't sacrifice to the gods because you are fond of them. It didn't matter what he felt, envy or contempt or frustrated desire; after Pyrrhus smiled down on him for a few seconds, he gave up the buck. Almost involuntarily, as if to propitiate some elemental spirit.

Next to him sat one of the very young ones, and good-looking -- certainly Tydeus's equal, if not Pyrrhus's. You had to wonder what brought them to the Escapade, when they could have been meeting their peers at the Barracks or the Lighthouse. Pyrrhus danced before him, back turned, but watching his expression in the mirror behind the bar. The boy bit his lip and made himself stick a dollar in Pyrrhus's sock. Pyrrhus stood still as the boy diffidently caressed Pyrrhus's calf.

Now Pyrrhus squatted down before him; he reached forward tentatively and began to stroke Pyrrhus's inner thigh -- not holding it but grazing it with the hairs on the back of his hand. The kid came up with a couple more dollars: he was entitled to a good feel now, and he reached for his prize. Pyrrhus granted it, arched his back and smiled down on the boy, who gingerly grasped Pyrrhus's human-sized offering as if it were something fragile.

Pyrrhus's grin looked artificial at first: I'm supposed to smile as if I were enjoying myself while I let you do this. Yet his eyes were so bright and his smile so very broad that one could believe it wasn't put on. He gazed down at the kid almost affectionately, as if to say: Yes, isn't it wonderful, I don't know how I came by it, but here it is, all for you. For these few seconds. Though he kept the smile fixed in place, Pyrrhus was already sizing up the next customer. A little man with white hair and a perfectly tailored suit. Still, he didn't move on just yet, let the boy keep holding him. And really: what difference between touching Pyrrhus there for a few seconds and having him for a night, or a lifetime, what except mere duration?

The boy was pumping in earnest now, evidently imagining that two bucks gave him the right to conclude Pyrrhus's performance for the evening. Pyrrhus gently withdrew, still smiling, and sidled down the bar to confront the little white-haired man. He regarded Pyrrhus with pursed lips and furrowed brow, as if he were scandalized by Pyrrhus's nakedness, as if he had not driven all the way down to the warehouse district to partake of it. These were Pyrrhus's favorites, the accusers. He liked to kneel in front of them, presenting himself at eye level, inescapable. Sometimes they turned away, ashamed of themselves. More often they lunged for it. Pyrrhus would playfully scramble to his feet to elude them. Then they had to laugh and pretend that they, too, were only playing. They had to feign a laugh and give him a dollar. Pyrrhus would laugh, too, or at least chuckle, rather distantly. With the ice broken, he would kneel before them again. Now that everybody understood that it was all in fun, everybody was having fun, they would touch him freely. And feed him bill after expiatory bill.

The little man ignore the object proffered two inches from his nose and looked straight up into Pyrrhus's face. He studied Pyrrhus as if they'd met and he couldn't remember where. Maybe they had. Pyrrhus would have thought he'd remember, such a tiny man with his perfect suit and his fussy pocket square. Still, maybe he was once a trick, and maybe he would be again. Pyrrhus would have to speak to him.

Usually he didn't; he disapproved of colleagues who squatted down and had long conversations with customers, breaking the spell as surely as if the actors in a play were to step down into the audience and chat about the weather. Archias, the owner, said he'd get more tips if he'd only talk to the customers. "They just like to get to know the boys," he said. This wasn't so, of course: they only wanted to know that the boys were exactly what they seemed. And Pyrrhus had the obstinate conviction that he wasn't what he seemed.

Just this once, he broke the mute, precious anonymity of nakedness. "How you doing? Haven't seen you lately."

The man looked startled. "I shouldn't have thought you'd remember me."

"To tell you the truth, I'm not sure I do. I should, though, huh?"

"I don't suppose so."

Pyrrhus was afraid the guy was offended. "Oh, I know we've met. But it's been a while?"

"Yes, a good while."

This was enough talk. "Good to see you again," Pyrrhus said. He straightened up and danced, more or less, to the other end of the bar. Tydeus looked annoyed: wanton Amyclas, a legendary tipper, was at his end. Still, he had to pretend it was okay, as if they were supposed to switch sides just then. He gave way, headed over to try to rouse some interest from the little white-haired man.

Pyrrhus smiled faintly at Amyclas, then looked away; he scarcely glanced down even when the old goat stuffed a five in his sock. He was still looking at the white-haired man, who in turn was placidly surveying the room, as if oblivious of Tydeus's gyrations just above his shoulder.

They hadn't tricked; Pyrrhus would surely have remembered such a strange, icy little man. After a minute Pyrrhus gave up trying to place him and looked down at Amyclas, who rewarded his renewed attention with another bill.


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Copyright © 1998 Mark Merlis.

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