As Bousum stepped outside, Gage said, “I’ll do that. I won’t touch anything in the third-floor apartment. I’ll leave it just the way I found it.” But that was all he said. He didn’t thank the old man for letting him stay in the third-floor apartment and he didn’t wish him a good night. Gage’s chest was still pounding and his head was still spinning about losing his apartment without notice. He was so sick and tired of everyone dumping on him all the time. He kicked the dairy case so hard with his bare foot he thought he broke his big toe.
* * * *
Things didn’t get any better when Gage went to work later that night. Thanks to his conversation with Mr. Bousum, he didn’t arrive at the strip joint until almost nine o’clock. When he did, the owner of the club was waiting for him in the large open rear dressing room where all the strippers hung out at the same time before their performances. When the other guys saw Gage enter, they all exchanged quiet glances and left fast, as if they knew something Gage didn’t know.
Gage’s boss, a fat, bald guy everyone called Mr. Cline, remained seated on a tall stool near a long mirror that was surrounded with light bulbs. Every third or fourth light bulb was burned out, and had been that way since Gage had started working there five years earlier.
Gage rushed to a dressing table and dropped his backpack on a chair. He wasn’t one of those strippers with a gimmick and a costume. He usually just walked out on the stage, slowly removed his street clothes, and performed as if he were stripping on a subway platform. He’d learned that most of the customers appreciated it when he kept his show real, especially when he let them slide their hands down his G-string for a quick feel when no one was looking. “I’m sorry I’m late, Mr. Cline. But I’ll be ready on time.” From what he saw as he’d jogged through the bar, it was a packed house, which meant he’d be getting a lot of tips that night.
Mr. Cline stood up and smiled. “Take your time, Gage. I hired three new boys today and they’ll be going out first. You won’t have to go out for at least a couple of hours.”
Gage’s chest caved in. He stopped moving and turned to face his boss. “I don’t understand. I always open.”
“Look,” Mr. Cline said, gazing down at his lap. “It’s like this, Gage. You’ve been working here for a long time and everyone who started with you is now gone. Business has been slow lately and I decided to hire a few more guys younger than you.”
“I’m only twenty-eight years old,” Gage said.
“In this business that’s not considered young. The clients want them in their late teens and early twenties. When you’re pushing thirty and you’re a stripper, it’s time to start thinking about the future.”
“That’s age discrimination,” Gage said. “It’s against the law. You could be sued for this.”
Cline laughed. “This isn’t a union job. You’re not working for the state. You’re working for me, a poor bastard running his own business and trying to pay for his own medical insurance. What do you think you’re going to get, collective bargaining? You’re a stripper, not a schoolteacher.”
“So you’re firing me,” Gage said. He felt a burn in his stomach.
“Of course not,” Mr. Cline said. “You’re a great guy. I’m just cutting back on your stage time. I may even let you work at the bar mixing drinks. This way you can pursue other things and give the younger guys a chance. We all have to keep moving forward.” He laughed again. “Maybe you can go back to school and become a teacher.”
Gage looked down at the crooked hardwood floor. This place was even more of a dump than his apartment in Brooklyn. He couldn’t say he was stunned by the news. He’d seen it coming for a while but he hadn’t paid attention to it. He was afraid to ask the next question. “How much of my stage time are you cutting?”
Mr. Cline hesitated for a moment. Then he looked up and rubbed his jaw. “You’ll only have to work part time. Maybe one or two nights a week. I’ve wanted to make these changes for a while now. Eventually, you’ll understand this is the best thing for you.”
When Cline made this announcement, Gage’s head jerked back. If he hadn’t lost his apartment that night, he may have reacted differently. If his twin brother hadn’t treated him with such disdain, he might have taken this news in his stride. But it felt as if the entire world had decided to kick him into the ground and he was tired of sitting back and taking it. So he grabbed his backpack from the chair and glared at Mr. Cline. He lowered his tone and said, “Eventually, you’ll wind up getting kicked in the ass by one of these younger guys. They don’t give a damn about you or this club. For most of them this job is just a stopover until something better comes along. They all think they’re too good to be strippers for too long. I’ve seen so many come and go over the years I stopped getting friendly with them years ago. Eventually, you’ll drop dead and I’ll piss on your grave.” Then he turned fast and headed toward the exit, without waiting for Mr. Cline’s reply. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a few of the younger strippers eavesdropping from behind a shabby black curtain. When Gage glanced in their direction, they giggled and jumped back.
“Don’t leave this way, Gage,” Mr. Cline called after him. “I didn’t mean you had to stop working completely. A lot of the regular clients still come here just to see you.”
Gage shouted over his shoulder, “I know that better than you do. Good luck.”
He didn’t stop walking until he was out of the club and he’d reached the end of the block. His head was spinning by then and he wasn’t sure where to go or what to do. He felt even worse than the time his parents died and left him with nothing but a broken-down, mortgaged-to-the-hilt farm and more debts than he’d ever imagined. This time he was pushing thirty and wasn’t trained or skilled to do anything but take off his pants and wiggle his ass for other men. He couldn’t call Donny and tell him what had happened. He and Donny weren’t partners in a committed, defined relationship and he didn’t want to cross the line. He thought about going to another strip club and auditioning for a job that same night. He knew he could at least lie about his age and pass for twenty-three instead of twenty-eight. But after what Cline had just told him, he was terrified to have someone else tell him he was too old.