"In the Penile Colony" was originally published, in August 2015, in Word Riot, a publication that seems to be defunct. Note: this story has been altered or updated since its original publication. If you like it, you might like to read it inside a book instead of on this website, in which case you should procure a copy of The War on Xmas. There just aren't many places where you can steal it. It will never be for sale at War-Mart, so stealing it will always be immoral. This is why I have the sliding payment scale option in the bookstore.
If we had lived in a godless, socialist country like Finland we would have been fine, but here in the land of Family Values our marriage could not survive paying for preschool. We were not like the Patagonias, who toured the school with us in their matching down jackets and drove away in their silver Lexus. We were Wash. Park interlopers, working class people who refused to admit we couldn’t give our children the lower-middle class upbringing we had enjoyed.
It was actually cheaper to shuttle Connal, our boy, out of Westwood, the sort of neighborhood most Denverites only know of, if they know of it at all, as a place to avoid, to a Montessori school in lovelier, swankier, tidier, gang-free Washington Park. The school was nicer and higher-rated than the one in our neighborhood, and cheaper because their rent was insanely low. Yes, Connal—I fought for the name, pagan, Irish, strong, rare. It means “powerful wolf.” I am aware that children will call him Connalingus, but I expect that to work in his favor when he enters high school. For the record, I am not a pagan (more like a provisional deist, like Brett Gurewitz, E.O. Wilson, and Thomas Paine) but repelled by the combative, culture war Christianity of my youth. Before all this started we had been flirting with Unitarianism, which provides the spiritual comfort and sense of community of Christianity without the gaybashing.
I moved to Denver in 2009 with my band, The Magic Skinflutes. We were a hillbilly noise group out of Stillwater, sort of Slanted and Enchanted-era Pavement blended with Ray Wylie Hubbard. We had a modest following but never made it big, even though, maybe because, our only full-length album was reviewed in Pitchfork: “If Scott Kannberg raped an inbred Appalachian, and their offspring recorded an album while simultaneously being waterboarded and trying to pass a gallstone, the result would sound exactly like Ghetto Palm.” We named the record after the tree of heaven I found growing from a small crack in the concrete patio in my back yard. Westwood is a hidden gem, albeit a common, low-value gem like quartz, and I love it. It’s affordable, seemingly ungentrifiable. White people have been trickling in, but not the hip and rich. It’s an odd neighborhood, neglected by the rest of the city, including the people responsible for running the city. It still has several dirt alleys (which I like). People keep roosters, in violation of the city’s rules on chickens. Three-fourths of the carports are in violation of city building code. The bicycle path goes nowhere; it zigs, it zags, and it disappears. There’s too much graffiti and too much trash, but we are happily free from the terror of yard Nazis and covenant control. My biggest complaints were the fireworks, which I got used to, and the street racing, which reminded me of Oklahoma, as did the men who dressed up in tight jeans, boots, and cowboy hats on Saturday nights. In the years I lived in Westwood, I pulled up hundreds of these trees, all over my yard. In China the tree of heaven is known as the foul-smelling tree; here it is a weed tree whose annual growth can be measured in feet instead of inches and that is often found in poor, often toxic neighborhoods with little botanical diversity. Hence its nickname: ghetto palm. The reviewer particularly hated one of my favorite lines, from a song called “Kate”: “I found a tick on my perineum that reminded me of you.”
It’s easy to have principles, but hard to stick to them. I’m an American, which means I don’t submit to urine tests, especially to go work at Target or Costco. I don’t do drugs, so I would pass the test, get the job; that’s not the issue. I may be a whore, but I’m not a sellout. The business fundamentalists want to keep government out of business. Well, I want to keep everyone who’s got no business there—the government, Office Depot—out of my urethra. So after the band broke up I found a gig pedaling a pedicab, a bicycle taxi. I hauled tourists all around downtown. The pay was not great, about $12,000 a year, but it kept me in shape. There were no benefits, other than the ability to live by my principles, set my own hours, and stay home with my child during the day.
“We’re going to have to come up with an extra $970 a month,” my wife, a fifth-grade language arts teacher, reminded me after we got a packet in the mail from the preschool, four months before he was due to start. “And there’s a $250 materials fee. And they finally cashed the deposit, so there’s only about $150 in the checking.”
When a potential employer spots a gap in your work history, he just assumes you spent that time in prison. It doesn’t matter if you were backpacking the Continental Divide Trail with your childhood best friend who is dying from cancer, or if you were volunteering teaching adults who were failed by their country how to read; as far as the reader of your résumé is concerned, you’re a jailbird, unhirable. The longer the period of unemployment, the harder it is to get an interview, let alone a job. I tried. I let Connal watch four hours of Wild Kratts while I sent out my résumé and cover letters. I stayed up late every night for two weeks applying for dozens of jobs. My schedule was an obstacle. With my education, a mere bachelor’s degree in biology, and spotty work history, there was no way I was going to land a nine-to-five job that would pay enough for us to afford Connal’s preschool and send Elle to a non-abusive daycare, unless I wanted to join the oil-and-gas industry, in which case it would have made more sense to just murder my children and save myself the trouble of trying to build a future for them, so I could only apply for jobs with odd hours, and they all required urine tests. Weekend barista at Starbucks—urine test. Home health worker—urine test. Overnight security guard at a marijuana grow house—urine test. I feel like I should repeat that last one, with some italics: overnight security guard at a marijuana grow house—urine test.
Fortunately, there was no urine test required to become a minimum-wage-earning sign spinner for a marijuana dispensary on Alameda, a weekend gig offering two six-hour shifts, rain or shine, blizzard or heat wave. Why is it that people tolerate sign spinners but hate panhandlers? Both just stand there and hold a sign. There are some superficial differences. Panhandlers usually fly signs made out of cardboard, while the sign spinners usually have flashier signs with loud graphics and bright colors. Then there is the actual spinning, which can get pretty fancy and hypnotic. But fundamentally, they are the same jobs. They’re both advertising. Sign spinners advertise things like tattoo shops, cheap pizza that tastes like cardboard, and marijuana, while panhandlers advertise inequality. I applied and got the job, which wouldn’t even get us halfway to the extra $970 a month we needed.
“I can pedal every night this summer. Donate plasma. Donate sperm.”
The sperm idea was moot anyway. The people most in need of the extra money from sperm donation make the worst candidates. The infertile want rich sperm, from successful men, not poor sperm from struggling artists and failed musicians. But I’m not failed; you’re only failed when you stop trying.
“I can turn tricks on Colfax.”
She laughed, a bit too hard for my taste, and said, “If you can make $970 a month, then do it.”
It wasn’t as simple as shaking my callipygian moneymaker on Colfax. I had to go on the internet. I thought I would have to cozy up to some hacker who could serve as my Virgil in the infernal Deep Web, but all I had to do was head to Craigslist, where less than twenty minutes of searching got me connected to a company called Gentlemen of Pleasure. They maintained an elegant website and offered a free app for tech-savvy clients. The gentlemen posted their pictures, along with brief profiles, and the ladies browsed and set up an appointment with the gentleman of their choice. It was beautifully simple. When a lady chose me, my phone beeped.
No urine test was required; I just had to look pretty. I’m not Zac Efron, but I was in top cycling shape. I had my teeth whitened the next day and then sent in my photo and created a profile, and two nights later I had my first date. I had lied about my age. Thanks to sunscreen, exercise, clean living, and a less-than-thirty-hour workweek, I am young-looking, like Kafka, especially when clean-shaven. I know guys my age, especially back home, who look like they’re in their fifties. I told the agency I was twenty-five. That first night I earned $600 for four hours work, escorting the nice lady, fit, in her forties, to dinner and a show, then back to her room, where I failed to perform and nearly started bawling, so distraught was I over this near betrayal of my wife, even though it was in support of our family. “Sara” thought it was adorable, my overwhelming guilt, and slipped me an extra hundred.
My next client would not be so easy on me. There are a lot of unwritten rules in the male escort industry. One of the big ones is that if you earn a rep for not putting out you won’t get as many clients, and the ones you do get will be weird and bad tippers. “Erin” threatened to leave negative feedback if I didn’t deliver. So I stripped to my boxers and eased her on the bed. “I hope you’re ready for this,” I said with a roiling, guilt-ridden gut. I closed my eyes and pictured my wife. “Oh, I’m ready, baby,” she said in an excited voice. Then, breaking character, she said, “That’s more like it, mister. Keep it up. Pun intended.” Then she resumed her intimate tone: “I’m ready, baby. It’s so wet down there. It’s like a can of peaches.” There is no way the feedback she would have left if I hadn’t put out could have been nearly as negative as the feedback she left after I vomited on her while attempting to perform Saran-guarded oral sex.
I thought I’d spend my whole life in Oklahoma. Then Obama got elected and three of my relatives named their black Lab puppies after him. Don’t believe the politically correct hype: people in the middle of the country are as racist as you think they are, not all of them, of course, but more than you’d like to think, and not just old people.
When we moved to Denver, right away we all started hanging out at the Hi-Dive. We played a few gigs there, but mostly we drank and watched the other shows. Nicole, who is thankfully far removed from Denver now, having followed her heart, in hock to a dreadlocked drummer, to Austin, was a bartender there and dated our bass player for about a year. (I played guitar.) She called me the predator. I hadn’t learned that people don’t meet in bars anymore; they meet online and then arrange to meet at a bar. She thought it was weird that I would sit at the bar and drink and talk to women I didn’t know.
“It’s just creepy,” she told me, and she even started warning girls away from me, but Jen didn’t listen. I never dreamed, as I stared into her vodka-clouded blue eyes, how my Ludditic predation would change my life. I bought her some drinks, chatted meaninglessly until the music got too loud for us to talk, asked her on a date, and we went to an exhibit at DAM the next week, followed by dinner at Le Central, and seemingly in an instant I was a thirty-one-year-old stay-at-home dad wondering how to pay for his son’s preschool. Getting a full-time job wasn’t the answer because about a month after he would start preschool Jen would have to go back to work and I would be starting over, staying at home with Elle, who was due in late July. I had hoped to use my month of downtime to work on some new songs, but that is never how it works out. The things, and the women, I would do for my family.
One morning in June, out of nowhere, Connal said to me, “But dad, I don’t want to go to school by myself. I want you and mom and Elle and Ashcroft to come.” Ashcroft was our dog, an adorable and well-intentioned but hopelessly inbred pug. It was heartbreaking. We were in his room playing. Let me amend that: he was playing, and I was lying on the floor in agony, having hauled seven hundred pounds of Texas newlyweds from their hotel to the theater the night before, followed by a date with a generously proportioned young woman who asked to call me Brad and paid $100 to sit on my lap and cry for an hour while I said nice things to her. “You’re pretty.” “You’re a good person.” “God loves you.” “I’m sorry I was mean to you in high school.”
“You’ll love school,” I told Connal.
“But I want to stay with you.”
“You need some socialization. You’ll make so many friends.”
“But I have friends.”
“Your dinosaurs are good friends, but you need some more people friends, too.”
“The diplodocus is my friend.”
“I know, buddy.”
“Pachycephalosaurus is my friend.”
“I know, buddy.”
“Deinonychus is my friend.”
“I know, buddy. He’s my friend, too, and when you go to school you’ll be able to tell all your new friends about your dinosaur friends.”
“And my animals, too?”
“Your animals, too.”
Something adults could learn from children is not to belabor a point. A three-year-old knows when he’s licked and can move on to the next subject. “Where’s your work?” He pointed to the bedroom: “Is that your work?”
The ceiling. “Is that your work?”
“Are you not going to work?”
“Not today. Are you going to work?”
It was. I don’t mind working, but I hate jobs, being a wage slave. I’ve always thought jobs are for people who don’t really like spending time with their family. That’s not me. I love my family, and I like being around them. I genuinely like them.
The guilt was eating away at me, eroding my soul as if it was the Constitution and my secret was the Patriot Act. So that night, after Connal had gone to bed, I told Jen.
Why is the idea that other women would want to sleep with their husbands so comical to so many wives?
It took a moment for my revelation to really register.
Never confess a horrible secret to your wife while she is holding a hot iron. We picked up our conversation after I had washed and slathered butter over my burn.
“I just need to do it for a year.”
“A year in which you’re unfaithful to me.”
“I wouldn’t be being unfaithful. I’d just be going to work. It’s like if I was a porn actor. It’s just work.”
“But I never would have married a porn actor.”
“You wouldn’t have fallen in love with me if I was a porn actor?”
“I would have listened to Nicole.”
“You know, people do a lot worse things at their jobs, and it’s considered perfectly acceptable.”
“Lobbying. Advertising. Pop music.”
“I’d rather sell my body than my soul. I can make enough money in a year to cover preschool for both of them, and squirrel away money in savings. This gig has a short shelf life anyway. This”—my toned body—“isn’t going to last forever. I know it’s not ideal. I don’t want to do it. I’m not having fun. But it’s for the children.”
We came to an agreement: no sex and a firm time limit. I would do it for a year, which we hoped would be enough time for me to save enough money to cover a year of preschool for each child. I would not have sex, or any variation thereof, with any of my dates, even if that meant less money. That was really a huge relief for me.
About two weeks before Elle was born and six weeks before Connal was due to start preschool my phone beeped. I was getting steady dates; I even had a few regulars. And there were some weird ones. “Shelly” was a hard-core conservative Christian lesbian who paid me to accompany her to full-frontal strip clubs where I was to act as if I’d dragged her there against her will. She would slip me a large wad of dollar bills before we went in, and then I had to pretend to force the ones upon her to pass on to the strippers, which she preferred to do lip-to-lip, so to speak. “Mary” liked for me to listen to her use the toilet after she had overindulged in Indian food. “Zelda” liked to scream profanities at me while pleasuring herself as I videoed her. That arrangement really pushed the boundaries of my agreement with Jen, but Zelda was an amazing tipper. I wasn’t earning big money because I wasn’t putting out, but it was still more lucrative than sign spinning. At this point, I had earned nearly forty percent of our goal, which meant we had almost enough money to pay for Connal’s year of preschool. I could pull out at any moment and be safe. We would have money for Connal and time to think of a new plan for Elle. I was getting comfortable. A woman named “Nadia” had scheduled a date with me for that night, 7 p.m. at Elway’s. I had never been there, and I couldn’t imagine eating there. I’ve always been bothered by John Elway’s gigantic teeth. But I was bothered much more by the picture of Nadia. My wife is beautiful, but Nadia was another level of beautiful; she was legitimately pulchritudinous (good album name). Blond, tall, athletic, alluring—here was a woman who could tempt me. With the others it was relatively easy to be faithful; attractive as some of them were, my wife was always more attractive. Nadia, though, she would almost make it worthwhile to lose your home and family.
She was even more pulchritudinous in person. Elway’s was interesting—not that you care; you want to get to the juicy part. (I’ll be honest with you: I did, too; at least part of me did.) After dinner she took me back to her room, didn’t invite me, just took me. She was staying in a former mansion that was now a bed and breakfast. “I’d like to give you a bonus,” she said. “Say $500?”
“I won’t make you work too hard for it.”
She disappeared into the bathroom, then emerged a few minutes later wearing lacy underwear that redefined the word “skimpy.”
“There’s a condom in that drawer.”
“The thing is . . . .”
“Don’t you want your bonus?”
“$500 for real quick sex. Most guys would be willing to pay me $500 for what I’m about to do to you.”
She placed her hand on my chest, let it slide south.
“I thought so,” she said as she leaned into me. And the front door opened and two large black-suited men strode in, handcuffed me, and informed me that I was under arrest. I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about this recently, and I can confirm that the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a man is to get arrested while suffering from a painful, raging, unappeasable erection.
We had been informed of ways to protect ourselves from the feds. Don’t accept a date until the Jane has entered her credit card information (something the feds can’t do). Never explicitly agree to take payment for sex. (Apparently an erection can be legally considered as a substitute for verbal consent.) But I had gotten comfortable and lazy because I wasn’t putting out. I also figured the feds had better things to do with their time and resources than bust a high-class sex worker who didn’t even have sex with his clients, what with all the sex traffickers, drug kingpins, gangsters, and terrorists running amok. Of course, those people all have big weapons and no consciences, while I was low-hanging fruit.
The feds took all my gigolo money, but my parents sent bond money. The feds wanted to flip me and take down the other Gentlemen of Pleasure, but there are some lines I won’t cross. Not just urine tests; I also won’t rat on people who don’t deserve it. This meant I would go to prison, minimum security. I spent nearly two years there, managing to remain faithful to Jen, who basically was forced to divorce me and take the children; otherwise they would have become wards of the state. I was in a putrid jail cell, what smelled like a home for wayward farts, waiting for the paperwork on the bond to be settled so I could be there when my daughter was born, when my daughter was born. I was born to be a father. Aside from playing guitar, it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. But I am not there to read to my children. I am not there to change Elle’s diapers. I am not there to sing “Dock of the Bay” so Connal can go to sleep.
This is a stupid country, where a racist rancher can rally thousands of supporters so he can continue to run his cattle on public land in the Nevada desert, land completely unsuitable to cattle, without paying his cut-rate grazing fees, all in the name of fighting Big Government, and a devoted father of two can be entrapped and imprisoned without a whimper of protest from the public. What was even my crime? I did not run around raping those women. They paid me for the pleasure of my company. That may be befuddling to you, but befuddlement is not a crime. I don’t understand why people pay for bottled water when they could drink tap water for free. I’m befuddled by it. Yet I don’t demand that bottled water be outlawed in the name of morality. I’m not a highly political person, but class warfare is one thing that will set me off. I’m a Teddy Roosevelt, Square Deal type of guy. I like for people to get a fair shake. And when it comes to prostitution, no one gets a fair shake, except for rich guys. Once a month or so in Denver, the police raid Colfax. If you take the time to look through the records, you’ll see they usually hit Colfax and Vine and Colfax and Gaylord on the east side of town, Colfax and Quitman on the west. They’ll haul in a dozen or so working-class men per spot, usually Hispanic guys. Maybe once a decade they’ll uncover a high-class brothel, and that gets all the attention.
It’s like the people who oppose welfare and raising the minimum wage. You’re setting people up to fail, really to starve or turn to crime. Or the people who oppose abortion and birth control. It’s the same with prostitution. If the government’s not going to legalize prostitution, at least do something to restore the middle class. Don’t drive us to it and then tell us it’s illegal.
After I finally got out on bail, and before I was officially remanded to my second-rate prison, I saw Nadia, whose real name is Amanda Parker, outside the courthouse. “Hey,” I said, “I was thinking, since you ruined my life and all, and left me with the blue balls to boot, we might as well finish what we started. Do the deed. I mean, I’m sleeping in my car tonight, but if you’ve got a hotel room somewhere . . . .”
It was just as well she said no. As it turns out, she had a cock-wilting laugh.