Don’t ask how I know this, but the next time you think you’re fat, there’s a whole lot worse way you can look.
Illustration by Milano Chow
Vice: When did you first write?
Chuck: In fifth grade, because of praise from my teacher, Richard Olson, who still runs the library in the very small town of Burbank, Washington. That writing stint lasted until the ogreish Mr. Dorn in sixth grade. It wasn’t until I bought a slum house in an area with no television or radio reception that I began writing again. To stimulate myself. No, that sounds dirty... How about: To “entertain” myself.
What is your daily writing routine like?
Early in my day, I row or do something exhausting so I can sit still and write later. During my shower, I think of the day’s plot problem and brainstorm ideas. All day, exercising or driving or whatever, I’m making notes of details I want to include in the day’s work in a spiral-bound notebook. The final task is to sit and keyboard all the ideas together, then print a hard copy I can line edit the next day.
OK. We’ll check back in with you after the story, Chuck.
on’t ask how I know this, but the next time you think you’re fat, there’s a whole lot worse way you can look.
Something to picture, when you’re at the gym counting stomach crunches or hanging knee raises to flatten your ab muscles, just know that some people have a whole other person growing out of that spot on their body. That fleshy, jiggly area under the bottom of your rib cage, where to you is just a “love handle,” those other people have arms and legs, most of a whole other person hanging over their belt.
Doctors call this an “epigastric parasite.”
Some social workers, they call that extra person a “heteradelphian,” a fancy word for “different sibling.” It means somebody who should’ve been your brother or sister only got born with their head still inside your stomach. That extra person, he’s born with no brain. No heart. He’s just a parasite, and you’re the host.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
And, please, listen. If I’m telling you this and you do have another person growing out from underneath your arm right now, please don’t get all bent out of shape.
The only reason I’m telling you is I kind of used to have one, too.
And trust me, what’s worlds worse than some jiggling subcutaneous fat is you popping out some heartless, brainless stranger. Sometimes that happens even years and years after you’re already born.
Don’t ask how I know this either, but after you’ve done a hundred million stomach crunches, when you apply to be one of those Chippendales-type sexy dancers—just to get hired as a buff, naked exotic dancer—they ask you: “… do you suffer from epileptic seizures?”
The question’s on the form they give you at the doctor’s office for the physical exam right after your audition. The nurse hands you a clipboard full of forms and a pen and a Dixie cup she wants filled with piss. And the dance company, it’s not even the real Chippendales, but you ask any has-been, washed-up male exotic dancer what troupe he was with, and just to shortcut a lot of explaining, he’ll tell you Chippendales.
We all recognize those copyrighted white paper cuffs and the black bow tie.
Really, my audition was for the Savage Knights. That’s “Knights” with a capital K. The Savage Knights are your Chippendales type of all-male, high-energy, feel-good touring exotic-dance company that caters to a ladies’ audience. Their home office ran this ad in the newspaper for auditions. In the sports section, across the top, their ad said: “Live Your Fantasy.”
In the banquet room of the airport Holiday Inn, on that Sunday afternoon, my smile on my face was a lie. My tan was a lie. So was my hair being blonde. On the job application, when I wrote 185 pounds, that was a lie. Under eye color, I wrote the color of my contact lenses. During the sit-down part of the interview, I said I wanted to be a Savage Knight because I really liked to travel to interesting places and meet new people.
The truth was, really I just wanted a career where every night, hundreds of drunk young virgins, they would stuff cash money into my underpants with their teeth.
For my age, I lied away three years and wrote down 24.
Every one of my capped teeth, it was a shiny white lie.
I buzzed off my brown pubic hair, and the agent for Savage Knights said they had an opening for another Mister Elegant. At any moment, she told me, 16 different companies of Savage Knights are crisscrossing the world, meeting the male stripper needs of global billions. Each troupe includes a fireman, a police officer, a soldier, a construction worker in a yellow hardhat. Like a roving high school Career Day. Plus Mister Elegant, who makes his entrance in a breakaway tuxedo and gives roses to all the women at the ringside tables. All smooth and cosmopolitan. A cool James Bond.
Troupe 11, their last Mister Elegant had turned gun-shy and bailed after some coked-up birthday girl in Fairbanks yanked him a torsioned testicle.
That’s when my own parasite started coming out.
In that Holiday Inn ballroom, I looked like nothing I’d ever seen in my bathroom mirror. Tanned and baby-oiled. Blond and smiling.
And the agent shook my oily hand, saying, “Good.” She said, “From now on, you’ll be Mister Elegant…”
The emergence of my new heartless, brainless different sibling.
Life is nothing if not a slippery slope.
What was true was, I figured if I made a relentless and ongoing effort I could pass for 24, forever.
For my dance part of my audition, the song “Bodyrock” by the artist Moby gives you your best 3:36 grabber. Call my taste a little retro, but you start with a song folks like and you’ve halfway won the game. Plus the dropout toward the end, when the track cuts to just lyrics, that gives you your perfect window to nail some stunt work. Inside that frame, I pegged a standing flip, dropped to splits, and recovered with a kip-up. After all my tanning and shaving and smiling, the agent for Savage Knights, she gave me a sheet of paper printed with directions to a clinic. The nurse gave me a cup for piss. And the forms asked:
“Do you have a history of epileptic seizures?”
So after all that bullshit, it was easy to check the little box marked NO.
I just made sure and took my Clonazepam.
If you’ve seen the video people uploaded on the Internet, of the naked muscleman flopping like a fish, surrounded by women holding Rum Hurricanes and Blue Hawaiis, his pink balls popped out one side of his black G-string and slapping in a puddle of his own piss, then you know what kind of mistake that last lie turned out to be.
Everybody in the world’s seen that video.
Little bastard teenage kids, now they even do a dance they call the Mister Elegant where they keel over in the middle of the dance floor and wiggle like hyperactive spastics being electrified. Little shitheads.
People imagine it’s so easy to be a Chippendales-type, high-energy exotic dancer. Male people, they imagine your worst problem is not sprouting a woodie.
Some other questions on that same medical examination form, they ask you: “Do you suffer from stress-related incontinence?”
And, “Have you ever had an episode of narcolepsy?”
Just from those questions, I should’ve seen where this was headed. Lawyers don’t just pull those questions out of a hat. Any big dance company from your Bolshoi Ballet to Chippendales, they’ve mapped out their doomsday scenario. Maybe smack in the middle of Swan Lake, some swan pitching a fit center stage, her eyes rolled up to only show the whites, drool gushering out from her long, yellow beak. Sweating. Pissing her lovely white feathers.
In the Savage Knights training brochure, they teach you to watch for anybody in the audience with a pad and pencil taking notes. Some deal called ASCAP—stands for American Society of Composers and Something-Something—if they catch you dancing to a song and not paying a royalty, they’ll sue you and Savage Knights. Besides them, every state sends liquor-commission spies to fine you for touching a patron inappropriately. Even just wearing white paper cuffs and a black bow tie, you risk a cease-and-desist letter from the real Chippendales for copyright infringement.
Don’t even ask me about managing body hair.
Really, the worst part of this job is paying to buy people a new Tequila Sunrise after you boogie off a pubic hair. Just a single good hip check can mean you buying the front two rows a fresh round of banana daiquiris.
Live Your Fantasy… Again, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Getting a drunk anybody to put money in your pants with their teeth, it’s worlds harder than it sounds. So is staying 24 years old.
One minute you’re shaking your bag in the face of some bachelorette so shitfaced on Long Island Iced Teas you can smell your pube stubble curl from her lit cigarette. Her ugly bridesmaid is sticking a dollar bill up your ass with her tongue, and her mother’s shooting video. That’s how drunk virgins behave. Police officers or firemen—I mean real ones—they complain about job stress. They don’t know real stress. Dancers I worked with, they used to soak their bag in salt water, the way a boxer will pickle his face to tough it up before a big fight. Every bit of your free time, you spend pickling your balls and managing body hair.
The only other most important part of job training is telling time by songs.
David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” that gives you an exact five minutes of fuzzed power chords.
Keith Sweat’s “One on One” is a slow grind song (5:01) perfect for choreographing an elephant. By that, I mean any dancer too bulked up to move except for hitting competition poses. Step, flex, step. The Double Bicep. The Crab.
How you keep from getting a hard-on is you’re counting all the time to anticipate the end of each song. You name a song, and I can peg the time—and not just the minutes and seconds listed on the jewel box liner. I can tell you the actual time that shows on the deck in the booth. A good dancer knows the Digweed remix of Bryan Ferry’s “Slave to Love,” the liner says four minutes, 31 seconds, but in actuality it’s 24 seconds. A lazy dancer will find himself still waist-deep in drunk women when the music stops.
You shaking your junk to a pounding mix of Underworld’s “Mo Move”—a relentless bass heartbeat for six minutes and 52 seconds—that’s artistic. But if you don’t make it backstage by when the music stops, even in just one moment of silence, you shaking your shaved parts at strange ladies—that’s just harassment.
Again, another slippery slope. And do not ask me how I know.
Silence. Silence and the closing lights coming on, bright, that’s Cinderella turning into a grinning, naked, greasy, and sweaty guy with his penis too close to your face and your watery $10 White Russian.
As outlined in the Savage Knights training brochure, Mister Elegant makes his entrance, handing out roses to the front tables. He dances the Joey Negro Club Mix of Raven Maize doing “Fascinated.” A three minute, 42-second grabber song. Then he moves to the edge of the stage and dances one shorter high-energy song to bait out the folding money. He works the edge and the floor, humping laps and taking tips, and he’s offstage just one beat before the Police Officer’s grabber song.
The next night in Spokane, same deal. Then Wenatchee. Pendleton. Boise.
A job so simple even a brainless, heartless parasite can do it.
Mister Elegant loved the dollar tips and the phone numbers. Phone numbers written on dollars. Phone numbers on scraps of paper towel, looped under the elastic leg straps of his black G-string.
All the way up until Salt Lake City.
Don’t ask how I know this, but there’s people with Milroy disease, where their lymph nodes in their legs never develop and they end up with feet the size of suitcases on legs like tree trunks. Or cyclopia, where you’re born with no nose and both eyes in the same socket.
Mister Elegant, his nipples looked too small and pale pink so to make them swell, big and red, he learned to paint them with something called Lip Plumper. Comes in a bottle with a little brush, like nail polish, and when you paint it on your nipples and lips and the head of your dick, they all swell up, huge.
Mister Elegant outlined his washboard abdominal muscles by drawing between them with mascara, then blending with a wad of tissue so his belly wouldn’t look like tic-tac-toe.
If he popped out one blue contact lens and looked at himself in the steamy mirror of a motel bathroom, yeah, he could still pass as 24. But between Billings and Great Falls and Ashland and Bellingham, between the Fireman’s giving everyone crab lice and the Army Soldier’s snoring, Mister Elegant was feeling wore out.
By Salt Lake City, his pickled balls were dragging.
Mister Elegant strutted out with his armful of red roses. Still in his breakaway tux, he gave out the roses, then started into the buttons on his pleated shirt. The only thing that makes Salt Lake City any different from Carson City or Reno or Sacramento is after the tux broke away, after Mister Elegant was counting into his second song, smiling and keeping his pubic hair out of people’s drinks, watching the dollar bills come out of purses and pocket books, the virgins writing their phone numbers on old bank-machine receipts, between his dropping to full splits and bouncing back in a perfect kip-up, one deep breath before his handspring and a full midair flip, two minutes and 36 seconds into the N-Trance cover of “Staying Alive”—(4:02)—the faces and drinks and dollar bills started to blur. Mister Elegant thumbed up the elastic loop around each hip, high and tight for his handspring, crouched down, jumped—and that’s all I remember.
In case you didn’t notice, the music’s stopped and here I am still shaking my dick in your face.
Like after all this time I didn’t learn any better.
What a retard.
Early as I can remember, I used to have Simple Stare Syndrome, a form of temporal-lobe epilepsy. My mom or dad would be talking to me, and I’d freeze. My vision would blur and all my muscles would stop. I’d still hear my mom talking, telling me to pay attention, maybe snapping her fingers in my face, but I couldn’t talk or move. Breathing is all I could do for a half minute, which seems like forever.
They took me in for MRIs and EKGs. I couldn’t ride my bicycle except on deserted streets. I climbed trees and my vision would start to blur. I’d wake up on the ground, my friends asking if I was OK. One school play, the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, six shepherds, three camels, an angel, and two other kings waited what felt like a year while I stood frozen with a gift of frankincense, Mrs. Rogers leaning out from the wings, whispering, “Bless me, for I bring you this humble offering… I bring this!”
But after ten years of Clonazepam, I pretty much had that licked.
Trouble was my prescription ran out in Carson City. Being tired makes it worse. Drinking and cigarette smoke, fatigue, loud noise, all risk factors.
In Salt Lake City, I’d pitched what’s called a tonic-clonic seizure, what people used to call a grand mal seizure. I woke up in the back of a screaming ambulance, just in time to see a med tech stuff a thick stack of piss-soaked singles into his wallet, saying, “Mister Elegant…” and shaking his head. A blanket wrapped with belts held me flat, and I could smell shit. I asked the med tech, What happened? And he stuffed his wallet in his back pocket, saying, “Buddy, you don’t want to know…”
By the time the hospital released me, Troupe 11 was already in Provo with a new Mister Elegant shipped out to meet them at the venue. The Motel 6 where we’d stayed the night before, they were holding my suitcase.
A social worker came and sat next to my hospital bed, saying how the human mind is nothing if not a constant cycle of electrical activity. She said a seizure is like a burst of static, a storm inside your head.
I said, Tell me something I don’t know, lady.
And she told me about phocomelia, a condition where you’re born with your hands emerging from your shoulders. No arms. The old-time term for this birth defect was in fact “seal arms.” It’s linked with the sedative Thalidomide, but it’s existed long before that.
She told me about sirenomelia, where you’re born with your legs fused together, to make what looks like a fish tail. Hence the name: Sirenomelia, and possibly the original idea of mermaids.
This social worker, she told me her name was Clovis, and she herself had been a dancer, an exotic dancer, trying to hide the fact she suffered from narcolepsy. She used to have long blond hair and blue eyes, long smooth legs and no tan lines. Next to my bed, her hair was curly and brown. Her eyes were brown, and the thighs of her white pantsuit looked too tight for her to cross her legs at the knee.
While dancing, she kept her condition under control with Provigil except she ran out and started skipping doses, breaking pills in half, your standard false economies. One night headlining in a biker bar in Rufus, New Mexico, Clovis made her big entrance, hit the brass pole high up and spinning from centrifugal force, her blond hair swinging, her tanned body spiraling toward the stage below.
Saying this, her brown eyes mist over.
Clovis can’t recall ever sliding to the bottom of that pole. She woke up backstage and pregnant by some 32 customers. Some twice.
I ask her, What song?
And misty-eyed, Clovis says, “Portishead doing ‘Sour Times’.”
Ah, I agree. The sweet dark vocals of Beth Gibbons. Four minutes and 11 seconds.
“Four minutes and eight seconds,” Clovis says. One eyebrow arched at me, she says, “Always check your deck time. Never trust liner notes.”
I ask, What was her stage name?
And Clovis looked at her wristwatch, saying, “That was a long time ago.” She says, “I’m almost 30.”
Me too, I say.
And looking at some hospital form on her clipboard, Clovis says, “I kind of figured this age they put here was a lie.”
Before she could stand up and walk away, I asked Clovis to tell me what happened. What really went on.
The baby was born, she said, nine months after she woke up, a textbook delivery. A boy. It didn’t look like anybody and immediately drove off in a limousine to live a gated lifestyle in the Malibu Colony with two gay millionaire movie-studio executives.
“Talk about popping out a brainless, heartless stranger,” Clovis says.
She’d already told me about epigastric parasites.
And I said, No. I asked her, What happened to me?
And for a long minute of balls-out silence, Clovis just blinked her eyes at me. Finally, in the voice of a health-care professional, she said, “There’s a videotape of the… event.”
Some bachelorette had smuggled a pocket camcorder into the nightclub and was filming me as I handed out long-stemmed red roses. I launched into my set, and she’d kept filming. They had to digitally fuzz the part where my nuts popped out, but the video had been aired on television. First just a Japanese funny-home-video program, but then in Europe. On the internet, the four-minute, 21-second segment went viral, downloaded worldwide. The stuff of jokes on every late-night talk show.
ASCAP was suing websites and search engines over the unauthorized distribution of “Staying Alive.” The Chippendales syndicate wasn’t thrilled I had on white paper cuffs. Someone claiming to be a producer from the Late Show called the hospital switchboard, asking to be connected with my bedside.
I told Clovis, I wanted to see for myself.
And Clovis said, “No.” She said, “You don’t.”
I asked, How bad could it be?
And Clovis said, “During the episode, you lost momentary control of your bowels.”
The smell in the ambulance.
“A G-string,” Clovis said, “doesn’t leave much room for error.”
I never did watch that video.
Utah was a good enough place to hide, so I stayed in Salt Lake City and let my pubic hair grow back. I dyed my blond hair brown. I scrubbed off my suntan, and ate all the food—fried chicken and Hostess fruit pies and barbecue potato chips—that Mister Elegant could never eat.
By the time you turn 30, your life is about escaping the person you’ve become in order to escape the person you’ve become in order to escape the person you started. So for a while there, I was becoming Mister Fat-Gutted-Pale-Bitter-Pig. I worked a fast-food job, and every few million cheeseburgers some customer would stare at me across the greasy counter, their eyes working fast to figure out where they knew my face.
And I’d snap my fingers, asking, “You want fries with that?”
I never took a single from anybody without washing my hands.
Maybe if I’d been wallowing in my own feces, maybe people would put two and two together, but then all those Chinese died on security videotape in that really goofy department-store fire and the comedy world forgot all about me and my messy disaster.
But Clovis didn’t. And I couldn’t.
Clovis came to have lunch, cheeseburgers, bringing along a young client whose fingers were fused into two fleshy pincers and whose legs were withered and useless. Ectrodactyly syndrome, what people used to call “lobster claw syndrome.” She introduced me to a young woman with pygomelia, which means she had four legs, basically two pelvises side-by-side and four functioning legs, which she hid under long skirts.
Me, I still told time by songs. Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” is four minutes and 19 seconds, time enough to smoke a cigarette in the alley. Kim Wilde singing “You Keep Me Hanging On,” that’s four minutes and 15 seconds, the time it takes me to change the carbonated gas cylinder for the soda machine.
Everything you want to forget, you never can. Every moment you want to escape.
At last, Clovis asks me back to her apartment to meet some people. I tell her my day is nothing if not meeting people. And Clovis says this is different.
At her apartment, she’s introducing me to a girl with two arms and legs, almost a whole other person sprouting from under the bottom hem of her tube top. My first real heteradelphian, her name is Mindy. Next, I meet a kid with a face huge and lumpy as a bed pillow. Neurofibromatosis, the Elephant Man disease. He’s 23 and his name is Alex. I meet a cute redhead with no legs and only her feet growing out of her stomach, osteogenesis imperfecta. Her name is Gwen, and she’s 25.
Clovis says to me, “You know music. You know the staging.” She says, “It’s their idea, but they hoped you could teach them exotic dancing…”
She meant stripping. A troupe of differently-abled exotic dancers. They were all young and bored with Salt Lake City. Their thinking was: Anyone can bulk up some muscle, bleach their hair, and spray on a fake tan. Why not offer an audience something that wasn’t based on a pile of lies? Why not serve up dancers not hiding behind fake smiles?
The bunch of crazy, idealistic kids. Only in Utah.
I tell them, Sure they’re young and full of dreams. Sure, they’re monstrously deformed. But can they dance…?
And Clovis says, “I’ve taught them what I know about working a pole, but I was hoping…”
The millionaire studio executives had fronted seven figures in low-interest start-up financing.
Hell, if I can teach some of those steroid elephants to dance, I can teach anybody.
Like it says in the newspaper: Live Your Fantasy.
I wish I could say it’s been easy. People will always misunderstand your intentions. People accuse me of exploitation. That, and no small business is all beer and Skittles. In Boulder, Glenda, our girl with both eyes in one socket, she eloped with a stockbroker millionaire. In Iowa City, Kevin, our dancer with parastremmatic dwarfism, he knocked up some bachelorette. It helps that Clovis tours with me and the troupe, as a kind of den mother. God only knows what we’ll do come September, when we launch our new escort service.
Me, personally, not a show starts without me sweating in the wings. Counting the seconds of every song. Watching for ASCAP people taking notes, and every muscle in my legs and arms twitching, reliving every handspring, cartwheel, midair flip, and kip-up I ever nailed on stage. Watching those crazy kids bait the folding money and lap dance for the tips, I catch myself still whispering.
Whispering, “Bless me, for I bring you this humble offering…”
Whispering, “I bring this!”
Have you been interested in weird medical conditions for a long time?
My goal is always to enroll the reader on a physical level as well as an emotional and intellectual level. The best way to get a sympathetic physical response is to write about violence, sex, accidents, drugs, or illness.
Does Mister Elegant really go into this thinking the life of a stripper’s going to be glamorous and sexy?
Of course. I did. Every exotic dancer does.
What’s the connection between vanity and heartlessness? Answer us that.
I’ll take a wild guess... A lack of empathy? A complete obsession with receiving love without giving it? A selfishness? How about, both words have an A in them?