- Robert L. Giron
Issue 41 — Jendi Reiter
The Away Team
Nomination: 2011 Pushcart Prize for Fiction
Runner up for the 2010 Gival Press Short Story
They were my friends and I hated them. Four-thirty in the morning and Tomas was drunk, draped like a crumpled dress on the back seat of the van we'd borrowed from his boyfriend's catering business. "It's an Irish funeral," he'd defended himself, to which Stan returned the predictable retort that Tomas wasn't Irish, sparing me the effort of opening my mouth and releasing whatever sharp fragments of words still remained inside me. Then I saw Frank.
"You are not — you are not wearing that," I groaned. His ensemble was complete, from his black patent pumps, to his Mamie Eisenhower belted black dress with pinhead polka dots, to the veiled pillbox hat perched on his crow-black waves of teased hair. Miss Anna Bollocks had stepped out of the nightclub shadows and was evidently expecting applause for deigning to wait with us in this alley where the West Village restaurant owners parked their delivery trucks.
"He loved me this way," Frank replied, in Miss Anna's voice, which was husky as his own but with the extra echo of an actor projecting to the cheap seats.
"You're not the widow." All my bitterness was turned on Frank. Hesitantly he unpinned the hat from his wig, sidled up to me and placed it on my head. I knocked it off and stomped on it. Only then did I see the kindness and pain in his mascara-crusted eyes. He'd given me what he had, like a child offering his teddy bear.
"Julian." Stan touched my arm, a mild reproach. I wondered how long I could hold out without asking him for a Valium. At the very least I'd have to wait the six interminable hours it would take to drive from Manhattan to Pittsburgh, so I could spell Stan and Peter at the wheel. Frank had put himself out of commission with this getup. A drag queen driving a bakery truck is a temptation no highway patrolman should be expected to resist. Five miles over the speed limit and we'd become the clip du jour on Fox News.
Still, I apologized. "I'm going to need a new hat," Frank pouted, but without real resentment. I helped him reattach the veil to his stiff pompadour, using the brooch as a sort of barrette. It was all a lost cause, anyhow. My nice black suit — Brooks Brothers, nothing too fashion-forward — wouldn't make us any more beloved. They knew who we were. That's why we hadn't been invited.
Peter, the last member of our delegation, pulled up alongside the van in his compact Toyota. When he stepped out, I saw his eyes were red-rimmed and tired already. He'd meant to drive down from Albany last night but his boss, rookie Assemblyman Shawn Defalque, had kept him late at a staff meeting. Peter hugged me first and I welcomed the familiar collapse into his arms, till my body sensed that for once, he wouldn't be able to hold me up.
In better days, Peter would get on our case for being flamers. He was the kind of queer that straights liked, the kind they didn't notice, at least till he said what was on his mind, which he usually tried to do through someone else. Now he showed zero reaction to the circus in the alley, even when he saw the soot-smudged white van with the legend "Christopher Street Treats" over a sliced-open cherry pie. All he said to Tomas was, "Is it safe to leave my car in this spot?"
Tomas pulled himself upright with a flourish. "Safe? You lived in New York all your life and you want to know if it's safe? Nothing is safe. Parking is...like God. It is a mystery."
"Thank you, Stephen Hawking, now move your drunk ass so Peter can take a nap," I said. Tomas climbed into the front passenger seat. Peter stretched out on the fold-out seat at the rear while Stan and Frank huddled together in the row behind me. The height difference between them was more noticeable when Miss Anna presented herself. Eye-level with her shoulder pads, Stan could have been the henpecked husband from an old comic strip. That was the problem right there. Take a picture of us, destroyers of manhood, pie-eating clowns, speeding down the highway to your big steel-hammering city, to your church. To mourn.
There was no place inconspicuous to park a catering van next to Our Lady of Sorrows so we ditched it by a supermarket a few blocks away. Full sun on the asphalt, a blazing, dusty day in June. Frank brushed on another layer of face powder. Peter straightened the boxy jacket of his off-the-rack suit, which, like everything else he wore, didn't fit as it should. A big guy, he overcompensated by buying a size he could get lost in. I should have helped him; at some point, when we were bleaching piss-stained sheets, when we were wrapping my lover's shivering body in hot towels from the dryer, feeding him his meals through a straw, there must have been a moment when we could have turned to each other and said, "So, what are you wearing to Phil's funeral?"
I had a strong urge to go into the supermarket, just to look at the unfamiliar brands of cereal that Phil might have eaten, growing up in this neighborhood of bars and boarded-up factories. There wasn't time for anything; the service was at eleven. Peter led our phalanx down the streets of cracked pavement toward the small red-brick church. Tomas, more sober though less continent under the influence of coffee, leaned on my arm.
"Why didn't we just have a memorial service back home?" he grumbled under his breath. I heard his fear, thinly disguised as the usual queeny bitching he excelled at in several languages. But I didn't explain again.
Why? Phil's body was here.
The usher at the door, a stooped, red-faced old man, gave us a grim inspection. Without Frank, we might have passed. Four young men in adequate suits, we could have been Phil's college buddies, if he'd gone to college, or friends from work, if he'd ever had a job where people wore ties. But he marked us, potential trouble-makers, and after mentally consulting the risk table that all funeral directors probably carried in their heads, steered us toward a dark pew at the back.
Phil's older sister Barbara, standing in the aisle, recognized us with a stony look. If we hadn't already been inside, we'd never have made it, but now she too had to weigh the costs of making a scene. Phil's block-headed build and snub nose weren't as attractive on a woman. Still I studied her as long as I could, but it was worse than looking at a stranger, this hostile, imperfect copy of the face I remembered. Barbara had come to New York to take charge of the arrangements. How could I not feel for her, imagining my own sister having to identify my carcass, tears streaming down her little pixie face like Holly Golightly when she shoves her cat out into the rain? Only of course Laura Sue wouldn't do that, she'd haul my brother up from Atlanta to do it for her. And Barbara hadn't cried. She had taken his books and his clothes. They were directed to give us no information at the hospital. There's no health-care proxy for a dead man. Only family survives. Spouse: none.
The five of us crept into our pew. Frank sniffed loudly and dabbed his eyes with a black-edged handkerchief. I couldn't help but be impressed by his thoroughness. If you're going to live your life as a Bette Davis movie, get the props right.
Then I saw the casket being wheeled in from the side of the church, a closed, polished box gleaming in the dim light of the altar lamps. Who were these six strangers touching it? Involuntarily I shot up, about to run to it, unthinking, lost to myself.
Peter's embrace pulled me back down to my seat. No, I couldn't tear my clothes and fall into the grave like a soldier's mother; any break from my invisibility would be read as drama, not grief. But it was all wrong, that expensive lid over Phil's face. If they'd really loved him, they'd have wanted to look at him till the last possible minute, despite his wasted frame, his lesioned skin, death's causes undisguised by a cosmetic artist less skillful than Frank. I wondered about our former classmates at the Fashion Institute, if any of them were now working on the dead. Toward the end I'd taken so many pictures of you, Phil, our hands bathing your scarred and heaving chest, your hands lighting a cigarette you couldn't smoke, till I no longer knew what beauty was — whether it was everything that existed, or nothing, a thin film of tears we blinked away. Darling, you never went blind, you just got too tired to open your eyes.
Philip Joseph Shanahan. November 12, 1970 – June 4, 1995. Our folded paper programs curled in the heat. The small church was half full. At ten past eleven an old lady began playing "Abide With Me" on the piano. The usher helped a middle-aged couple, undoubtedly Phil's parents, into the front pew. Both short and solid, she had brittle dyed-brown hair and an unsteady walk; he wore the fixed scowl of a man who can't cry. The fat sisters sat beside them, Barbara with her crew-cut husband and baby boy, Mary Claire by herself.
The priest's brief eulogy could have been about anyone. If only we were mistaken, it was the wrong funeral, another boy who had died. This priest was too young to have known Phil. Not Father O'Shea, the terror of Our Lady of Sorrows Middle School, who twisted the boys' ears when they came to class with dirty shirt collars, but let Phil off with a dozen Hail Marys when he released the science teacher's white mice instead of feeding them to the snake. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die, the voice from the pulpit read. I remembered Phil's body, dying, how his mouth opened and stayed open, and then he was suddenly and completely somewhere else where I could never do a single thing for him again, where he could be in pain forever and I'd missed my chance to make it stop. He'd thought nothing happened after death, just dirt and sleep. I could see how that would have appealed to you, Phil, you lazy slob. Oh, no more jokes, no more fights, the judgment was in and no one cared that your few years of being yourself were over.
The other sister, Mary Claire, rose to speak. She had a welcoming sort of plumpness, unlike Fortress Barbara. The shiny black bow on the broad bosom of her dress kept getting knocked askew when she leaned over the pages of her prepared remarks. "My brother loved books," she said. "He wanted to study history. When we were kids he wrote a history of Pittsburgh for a term paper. It was only three pages because, he said, nothing ever happened here. Father O'Shea got mad and asked why he picked it, then, and he said, because that's where we live." She smiled through her tears and sweat.
Tomas groaned. I hoped he wasn't going to be sick. Stan slipped him a pill. The usher coughed meaningfully behind us. Some clean-cut young guy was in the pulpit now, talking about how he'd copied the wrong answers off Phil's test when they shared a desk in Catholic school. Now he was studying for the priesthood, this guy, and what a shame it was that Philip had died so young. Yeah, get over yourself, kid; no one remembers who played opposite Cagney in "Angels with Dirty Faces".
Stan slid out of the pew to help Tomas outside in search of slightly fresher air. Frank's queenly posture sagged a bit when his boyfriend was no longer beside him. His makeup, still intact, seemed over-bright for his tired face, like an actress at the end of her tour. I held his hand. On my other side, Peter sat at the edge of his seat with fists clenched. I thought I could feel his heart thumping.
When they'd all left us, helpless, Peter had been there. When Phil could no longer eat the meals Tomas brought from his restaurant, or even laugh at his efforts to make gourmet food in a blender; when he couldn't pay attention to Frank's Edith Piaf imitation; when my sister made the mistake of telling him about a healing at our new church and he asked her to pray for rain because the Mets were losing in the fourth inning; all those nights it was just me and him, touching anyplace he wasn't sore, reading to him to share insomnia's loneliness, my sleep so broken that I put the mayonnaise in the microwave and my camera in the fridge. Phil didn't like to hear the Bible. He wanted poetry instead, all weird stuff about swans raping girls and daffodil bulbs sprouting from skulls. He had no idea what it meant, I'm sure; crazy words proliferating like cells colonizing the brain. When I burst into tears during a fashion shoot for Redbook, I realized it was time to radio for backup. Tapestry versus straw handbags should not be an emotionally fraught topic, even for fags.
Peter would lie on our bed and read the minutes of legislative committee meetings while I bathed Phil; later, we would clean him together, when he wasn't able to hold himself up in the tub. I could take a precious hour to cry and stare at the television while Peter sorted through the bills and hospital paperwork that had piled up on our kitchen table. No one could argue with insurance companies like Peter Edelman. Relentlessly polite, he had read every policy down to the last "subpart J" and woe betide you if you didn't accept his explanation of how it related to subparts K, L, and M.
Did you see us, Phil? You weren't talking much by then. Did you hear us watching the Home Shopping Network in the living room at 2 a.m., passing a joint and a bowl of popcorn back and forth? We were laughing so hard we had to hold each other. This poor woman was hawking a set of folk-song CDs and her jowls were just like the hound dogs on the album cover. And as for "Blowin' in the Wind," well, you were never too smart to enjoy the obvious. Then that song came on, the one you said your Pop used to sing at family parties, about the green green grass of something or other — the only thing you told me about him, other than that he drove a truck and kicked your queer ass out at sixteen. We almost ordered it for you. Peter had his hand on the phone. I admit, his other hand was under my shirt. The small print below the toll-free number said orders would arrive in six to eight weeks. We got as far as the woman saying hello and he hung up on her. She didn't hear the rub of our jeans together when I rolled on top of him, wanting to discover the clean salty taste of his body, at last, after all our false starts. Peter had too many thoughts to fall in love easily. My poor cock had to compete for his attention with the fate of mankind, particularly that segment of mankind that wanted Assemblyman Defalque to fix their potholes. And you, Phil, tumbling out of bed, overturning your bedpan, just as he was groaning into my neck and digging his fingers into my thighs so hard it hurt, and we were ready to let something good happen to us for the first time in so long.
A pretty girl was speaking at the funeral. Her solemn pose was like a suit worn for a first interview, a temporary muting of the bouncy energy of her brown curls and round blue eyes. She folded her hands dutifully in the pulpit. "Phil was my boyfriend in high school. I just want to say that he was the most... real...guy I ever met."
Something rose in my throat, a laugh or a cry. I swallowed it back. Peter tensed, leaning out of his seat. "I can't stand this," he said, loud enough that heads turned and the usher cleared his geriatric throat again.
"It can't be true. She doesn't look a thing like me," I whispered, putting my hand on his broad back to keep him down.
"They're telling lies about him, and they think that God..." He said the last word like it was a curse. I spotted Phil's mother staring at the girl, a fierce triumph warring with the grief that lined her plain square face, as if she were willing into existence every word that came out of that cute gap-toothed mouth. She had to live the rest of her life in this parish pretending she wasn't ashamed of her son.
As for Frank, he chewed his scarlet-painted lips. Miss Anna's confidence was leaving him. Real is a word that ends stories, with the happiness of Pinocchio, finally wearing a face that doesn't give away his thoughts. Or the Little Mermaid, that post-op trannie, split in half and silenced by love. Who was the real Frank Abruzzo? I never asked Phil whether he wore his drag when they did it. Now here he was wilting in the back pew, the widow turned Other Woman. "Buck up, Jezebel," I murmured. Recalling his diva, he stiffened up and showed us his Bette Davis eyes.
It was taking an awfully long time for Stan and Tomas to come back from the men's room or wherever they'd gone for a breather. The service was drawing to a close. It was torture but I didn't want it to be over. Only seeing the box go into the ground would be worse. My sister had wanted me to do something about Phil's soul, and by extension, my own. They were praying for us at the Broad Way Church, where I went with her every Sunday because I felt worse when I didn't. Phil had gotten that bit of Walt Whitman stuck in his head, about living like the animals who don't lose sleep over their sins. He was resolved to go to his grave an unrepentant cocksucker. "You're not sorry, Julian?" he'd whispered to me, one night, after I'd tried to pray over him again. His faded blue eyes so innocently needy, his hand clutching mine like a child's: "You don't wish...we hadn't been?" My courage failed me, Phil, my sweet pain in the ass, what could I say but the truth: I couldn't call it worthless now, our love, the only life you'd had.
I'm half Catholic on the X-chromosome side but I didn't go up for Communion. I was tired of my body and I didn't want God or anyone else inside it. The idea of life continuing after the last chord was struck exhausted me. Maybe that was hell, to know that you were insubstantial and yet forced to play out that story, to remain in that consciousness forever. Souls in paintings are like diamonds, outlasting the pitchfork and flames. Another reason pictures lie.
But the young priest dismissed us, to the plink-plunk of the old lady's piano beating out "Eternal Father, strong to save," and the six strangers maneuvered the casket off the altar and trundled it down the aisle on squeaky metal wheels. Phil was not in there. This whole performance was about his not being in there, wherever else he might be. Still I shoved Frank aside and rushed out of the pew to touch the box, as if that could make this day not be about our absence, too. My fingers brushed wood as the frowning procession moved on, their tempo unbroken.
The pallbearers descended into the hazy white glare of an inner-city summer day. Peter, Frank and I followed the black-suited crowd. Barbara stood between us and the limousine, squinting into the sun. "I think it would be better...for my parents...if you didn't come to the gravesite," she said flatly.
"You think?" Peter's voice carried above the noise of muted conversations and traffic that sped thoughtlessly past the line of black sedans. "Did any of you once pick up the phone and call him when he was sick? Did you take him to the hospital in the middle of the night? You wouldn't even touch his body without rubber gloves."
"Peter." I gripped his sleeve. The edges of my vision were turning green, breaking apart into black starbursts.
Barbara's gray eyes were hard in her doughy face. "My brother wouldn't have died if he hadn't run around with you people."
Peter stepped back, but he was only gathering his forces for the next round. I envied his simple, guiltless anger.
"Phil died because you didn't accept him, you and your phony God. You cry over Jesus on the cross and kill your own kids." His broad face was flushed and the cords of his neck stood out. At that moment I didn't know him at all. He was like someone you see on the TV news, aiming his educated voice like a brick through a stained-glass window. There is no God but the Democratic Party and the New York Times is his prophet.
"Phil died," I said, light-headed in the heat, "because he fucked guys for money."
Frank looked daggers at me. I was forcing him to break character. In Mamie Eisenhower's day, one didn't say such things on a church sidewalk. "If he'd been with me..."
"Don't go there," Peter ordered.
"I wanted us to be exclusive," Frank said defiantly.
"To quote the great Patsy Cline," I drawled, "'People in hell want ice water, but it don't mean they git it.'" Then I fell down.
When I came to my senses on the hot pavement, the funeral party was gone and Tomas was pouring something fiery down my throat from a small flask. "Where have you assholes been?" I sputtered.
"The van's gone," explained Stan, who was standing behind him.
"How do you know?"
"Because it's not there, dumbo," Frank snapped.
Ever-patient, Stan filled me in on what he'd already told the others: after the usher refused to let them back inside, he and Tomas had walked back to the supermarket to buy some coffee, only to discover that our borrowed ride was being towed because we were in the wrong spot for commercial vehicles. "Pittsburgh hates us," Stan sighed.
"Niko is going to kill me for losing his truck," Tomas fretted. "The cop said I couldn't get it out of the impound lot because it's not registered to me."
"So now we've got to lay out the cash to rent another one, like we should have done in the first place," Frank said.
"Excuse me for spending all my money on someone's medical bills," I spoke up.
Peter hoisted me upright. "Guys, let's find someplace air-conditioned to sit down and work this out."
We dragged ourselves past a bustling McDonald's and the remains of the Sunflower Diner, an empty room with soaped-over windows beneath a pink and silver sign. Around the corner from the church was the White Dove, a pub with a fizzling neon ad for Harp Lager in the window. A couple of heavy-set guys in jeans and work boots shouldered their way through the brass-handled doors while we stood considering our options. I looked from them to Frank. I wasn't the only one doing it, either.
"Why'd you have to dress like that?" I griped once more.
"Why'd you have to be a fag?"
"Maybe we should go rent the car," Stan said, drawing his arm around Frank in a conciliatory way.
"No, fuck this. All for one and one for all," Peter declared, and shoved the doors open, so hard they banged against the walls of the dark wood-paneled vestibule. We shrugged and followed him.
There was probably a gay bar somewhere in Pittsburgh but this wasn't it. I could tell because, first of all, the roughnecks nursing their pints had good biceps but had totally let their abs go, and second, the name didn't lend itself to double-entendres. We found a table in a dark corner and ordered a Bloody Mary for Frank and beers for the rest of us. The free pretzels were crisp and so salty they burned my tongue and made us all realize we wanted lunch. We ordered some soup and bread, and argued a bit half-heartedly before agreeing that one of us should go rent the cheapest possible car that seated five, and then we'd all chip in to buy Niko a one-way plane ticket to come rescue his truck because none of us could bear to drive down here twice. Tomas drew the short pretzel so we took his beer away and sent him up to ask the bartender for a Yellow Pages. The soup was warm and filling, and I felt good and also terrible that I could be enjoying my meal when one of us was dead. Peter's eyes met mine and I could tell somehow that he was having the same thought, both of us pausing while the others were bent over their bowls.
The White Dove seemed as good a place as any for us to wait for Tomas to return with the car. A Pirates-Mets game had started on TV and we moved up to the bar to watch. Frank went to the ladies' room to adjust his veil and wig, hoping by this charade to pass for an actual woman in the dim light. I wasn't optimistic. A lady of Miss Anna's caliber would not be tying one on in a blue-collar pub at one o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. Not unless she'd conceived a reckless passion for the handyman at the country club and was making an effort to appreciate his rough but wholesome lifestyle, like Jane Wyman in "All That Heaven Allows".
The Pirates scored a run and Peter gave a disappointed sigh. "Could you make an effort?" I muttered. "It's not bad enough to be queer in this neighborhood, we have to be Mets fans?"
But he only drew up one side of his mouth in a smile and clapped me on the back in a false sort of way, leaving his hand there long enough for anyone looking for trouble to find it. This wasn't the Peter I knew.
"You boys not from around here?" the bartender asked. He was a balding middle-aged man with big forearms whose muscles flexed as he wiped out the glasses with a dishrag. I saw only mild curiosity on his apple-cheeked face, for the time being.
"We're down from New York." Peter glanced at the TV, a little more apologetically this time. "For a funeral."
"I'm sorry, fellas. I had a feeling, 'cause we don't usually get suits like that in here." He pointed at my Brooks Brothers tie and winked. "This round's on the house. Was it family?"
"My best friend. Phil Shanahan," Peter said.
"Phil...Phil?" The bartender searched his memory. "Not Joe and Deenie's boy?"
We didn't recall his parents' names. Stan produced a folded-up funeral program from his suit pocket. The bartender looked it over and shook his head sadly. "Yeah, little Philly Shanahan. He used to come in here with his pop and steal the olives out of my jar when he thought I wasn't looking. Poor kid. What — "
His question was interrupted by one of the paunchy guys at the end of the bar banging his glass on the countertop for a refill. A scuffle in the hallway by the restrooms distracted us as well. "Excuse me," we heard Frank say in his frostiest diva voice. The impatient guy's friend, we learned, had pinched his rear.
"An excellent advertisement for support hose," I observed. Frank looked partly flattered and partly scared, which enhanced his female credibility. Peter drained his second pint of beer. I pushed mine away. "Who's the designated driver?" I asked, a not-so-subtle hint that he should slow down.
"Tomas." He reached for my untouched glass.
"No thanks, I'm not ready to die till I shoot at least one Vogue cover."
"It must be nice to know what the meaning of your life is."
I thought of mentioning to Peter that weed did more for his personality than liquor, but given his strange mood, I feared he'd take that as encouragement to further impair our chances of getting out of Pittsburgh. Further down the bar, Frank's new admirer was telling an off-color joke, rather more loudly than necessary: "...and then the Jew bent over to pick up the penny, and the Jew and the Greek went straight to hell."
"Philly, he was a funny kid," the bartender picked up the conversation where we'd left off. "He'd get up on that stool — right where you're sitting now — " he pointed to me again, a storyteller warming to his audience — "and bet you a dime he couldn't reel off the stats on any player you liked. Knew all the teams, Eagles, Pirates, Flyers, you name it." The bartender smiled at the memory. "His pop picked up a few free lunches that way."
"Phil had a good head for that stuff," Stan spoke up. "He could tell you all the Oscar winners, even the tough ones like 'best foreign language film'."
"Not like we ever double-checked," Frank snickered.
"I did always have my doubts about 'Celine et la banane gigantesque'," Stan mused.
"Oh, he assured us it was a huge hit in Algiers," I joked, lost in a moment of happiness from the past.
"What did he wind up doing, up in New York?" the bartender asked.
"He taught bodybuilding classes at our gym, and he did some modeling for fashion magazines," I said. It sounded shallow, as a summary of anyone's life, so I added, "He was saving up to go back to school, for sports medicine. And, uh, he was writing a paper on Yeats." Phil had been too shy to let me read the scribbled sheets of notebook paper stashed in the drawer of our bedside table. They were waiting for the dreaded posthumous housecleaning, along with his porn videos and outdated bottles of Ensure.
"Ah, the Irish bard," the bartender said, affecting a brogue. "That is no country for old men. The young/In one another's arms, birds in the trees..." His eyes held more warmth toward us than before. It sounded like Yeats had been a regretful old queen. "A hit with the ladies, that poetry stuff," the bartender added.
Peter wore a contrary expression. I was afraid he would amend my whitewashed biography — say, by disclosing Phil's screen debut as Power Bottom #2. "Phil didn't do any of that," he said.
"What do you mean, of course he did," I said. "I have the pictures."
"He didn't finish school. He never got to — to learn. To see a better way."
"Better than what?" Stan asked, but Peter's attention was caught by the guffaws of the men at the end of the bar.
"How do you fit four fags on a bar stool?" one of them asked. His friend pretended to have no idea. "Turn it upside down."
Glancing warily from them, his regular customers, to us, the bartender put on his oh-Danny-boy face of wise sympathy and asked in a low tone, "So, eh, if you don't mind me asking, what did our poor friend die of?"
"This!" Peter slammed down his beer glass. "Hopelessness. Narrow-minded bullshitters laughing at him, making him believe he wasn't worth shit. People who are beat down, who think the answer is to kick someone even lower instead of rising up."
Frank was rising up, all right. He was halfway to the door by the time Peter stopped for breath. Stan froze, like a rabbit caught in a clearing between two trees, probably knowing he couldn't stop Peter but unwilling to turn tail so blatantly. As for me, well, I'd bleed all over a $500 suit for Peter Edelman, any day.
"Maybe you kids better move along," the bartender put a word in my ear, not unkindly.
The joker muttered something to his friend, with a nudge of his elbow. The other guy, after some prodding, asked in a blustery too-high voice, "Hey, uh, Donny, what does AIDS stand for?"
"Asshole Injected Death Sentence!"
Peter whacked his empty bottle against the railing, leaving a jagged longneck stump. Oh, Lord. Last time my Daddy did that, I needed a dozen stitches. Then again, so did he.
I tossed my jacket to the bartender. "Take good care of this, darlin', I want to look nice when they bury me." I took a deep breath and went to stand beside my crazy friend.
He'd rattled them. I knew the signs, the ozone smell, the buzz of fear covered by a bully's laughter, as they sniffed the air to sense whether we'd back down. From the corner of my eye, I saw the bartender reach for the phone.
Peter raised the bottle end. The guys were about to lunge from us when he brought it down with a sharp swipe across his other hand. The grin on his face was terrible. "You want it?" he taunted, waving his blood-streaked palm in front of the joker's nose. "You want some faggot blood?" Red drops spattered the man's flannel shirt.
A crash came from behind us. In his haste to escape, Frank had backed into a chair, knocking it into the path of another leatherneck who took this as a sign that the game was on. Now Stan had his little arms around the guy's waist, trying to pull him off Frank, who landed our team's only hit of the day with a well-aimed high heel to the groin. Our two jokers had just taken advantage of this diversion to yank my arms back in a most unsightly position when the cops charged in.
That's how we ended up spending the night in the drunk tank at the precinct. Peter used his one phone call to ring his dad's law office in Brooklyn. Nathan's tiny ears pricked up, I was sure, when he heard that our boys had been at the center of a hate crime. He got the station chief on the line and slung a lot of fancy words at him about equal protection and false imprisonment. They kept us overnight anyhow, supposedly to see whether the guys in the bar would press charges. Against us? We hadn't laid a lily-white hand on them, unless you counted Frank, and somehow I couldn't picture that leatherneck admitting in open court that Edith Piaf had kicked him in the nuts. I called Tomas' cell phone and told him to save himself; Niko could bring us home when he returned tomorrow for the catering van. I liked Niko, a chubby, nervously cheerful guy who smelled like fresh-baked dough, and figured this was my one chance to get to know him before Tomas threw him over for some guitar-playing drug addict, the way he always did when he met someone decent.
"The false consciousness of the working classes," said Peter, "is a truly intractable problem." Squeezed in beside me on a hard bench in the corner of the cell, he picked at his institutional dinner of coffee and a packaged cheese sandwich from the police canteen. His left hand was wrapped in an awkward gauze bandage.
"You want some of my Fritos?" Since he was holding the coffee with his one good hand, I fed him a corn chip. "Scary motherfucker," I said, and he smiled. It was evening, though we had no window to see the darkness. Frank was circling the cell mournfully like the beta-male chimp at the zoo, searching for a place to sit because a pack of newly arrested hookers had taken over his bench when he got up to pee. Stan had swallowed his remaining Valiums before the cop searched him, so he was snoring on the floor with his head pillowed on his rolled-up jacket.
Done eating, Peter sighed with fatigue and shifted around to find a less uncomfortable position against the concrete wall. I stroked the wrist of his injured hand. "That's nice," he said, and winced.
"Hey, you know, Frank hasn't used up his one phone call."
"What, you want to order a pizza?"
"I thought...in case you wanted to let Shawn know where you are."
"He can't do anything for us in here." His voice took on a sardonic edge. "Maybe someday...can you believe, he's got his eye on Washington already?"
"Guy gets around."
Peter grunted assent. It seemed that each time we were together I was facing a new reason to say goodbye to him. "You going with him?" I asked.
Peter didn't answer. I could tell that his hand was paining him. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against my shoulder.
Over at the urinal, the largest hooker was demonstrating the convenience of crotchless panties for those who, like Frank, were one thing on the outside and another underneath. She was a short mountainous figure with gold-weave dreadlocks and a double chin that helped conceal her Adam's apple. Men don't look very closely when they want something. She was teasing Frank in a big-sister way, if you can imagine your big sister shaking her dick at you, to break him in to life on the street. "That old dress gotta go, honey, a man don't wanna fuck no Aunt Sadie."
Frank, too lonely to keep up his what-a-dump attitude, began telling them the story of the funeral and the bar fight, embellishing slightly, but also leaving out most of the mean things I'd said to him. One of the other girls, a porcelain-faced Russian who smiled with her mouth closed to cover her broken teeth, shook her head sympathetically when she heard how Phil had died: "I know a lot of girls went like that. In here we call it 'ninja' because it sneaks up on you and — pfft." She spat on the floor and crossed herself to ward off bad luck. The guard, aiming to put a lid on our conversation, switched off the lights.
After some bawdy backtalk from the women, the cell grew quiet. I heard bodies fumbling around for their resting places, defending their territory in whispers. With nothing to think about, I noticed the smells more, baked in by a long day's heat: the open toilet, unwashed bodies, industrial pine-scented cleanser, and rising above these, a few brave whiffs of Chanel No. 5. In a shaft of fluorescent light from the hallway, the guard flipped the pages of his People magazine. There might be a photo of mine in there, if that shampoo ad was still running. Personal grooming, the great unifier of mankind.
Peter rested more of his weight on me. His dark curls were soft against my neck. "You okay, Jule?" he murmured.
"Tonight's not so bad," I said, and meant it. Tonight we were together, tomorrow we wouldn't be, the four of us, maybe living long enough to look back on this day as the sum of our closeness, the meaning of youth. All my life I had prayed when I felt about to evaporate. Now I lay me down to sleep. That verse had been on a poster over my bed, bordered with silly blue flowers. If I should die before I wake. When I first learned to read, I thought it was a warning, not to sleep under the frame or it could fall on me. The hand of God tips the picture, the hand of God stops the picture.
From the ladies' corner came hisses, a faint slap, something snatched back from wandering hands. The dreadlocked one's voice carried above the others: "Honey, we all think we too good to be here."
Still speaking under his breath, Peter suddenly asked me, "You know where I was last night?"
"You said you and Shawn were working on that bill to raise public defenders' salaries." A subject that held more interest for me than 24 hours previously, when I'd been on the right side of the law.
"I assume this story involves somebody's dick or you wouldn't be keeping me from my beauty rest."
"Why should I even tell you what you already know."
"Because you want to say it and you know you can say it to me."
"He's got a girlfriend in public now — Maxine. Black, of course. Very pretty."
"Toothpaste-commercial pretty or music-video pretty?"
"Toothpaste, I guess."
"Yeah, that's serious...so does she know about you?"
"Everybody knows about me. I'm the nice Jewish boy who writes the speeches and color-codes the index cards. But if you mean, has she shaken my hand and thanked me for keeping Shawn's dick warm, not yet."
"You poor little thing," I said.
"You think I'm an idiot for being in love with him." He sounded disappointed to get a sensible reaction from me — Julian Selkirk, photographer of extravagance, air-brusher extraordinaire.
"I think you're lying to yourself," I whispered fiercely. "I think you just like seeing your own words in the newspaper."
He let this sink in. The guard, alerted by our rising volume, paced away again when he thought the conversation had stopped. Peter inclined his head toward the sound of those retreating footsteps.
"That's what I mean," he said. "Being gay isn't the only problem there is."
"And this makes you want to drop your trousers because...?"
"Because when I'm with Shawn I care about everyone, not just myself, my tribe. Sometimes..." He searched my face for signs of mockery; he ought to have known me better. "Sometimes, he seems to me like everything that could go right in the world."
"So call him." The words caught in my throat. Peter said nothing. He was still leaning against my chest, with my arms crossed over his. "You can't call him because he wouldn't come. He's not here, not even in spirit. He won't listen to you."
I felt his breathing quicken, along with my own, in the thick silence. Touching his cheek, I found it was streaked with tears, big drops that rolled down and dampened the hair at his temples. I had nothing to wipe his eyes with but my shirtsleeve, which was none too clean, but I did my best.
"Phil's dead," he whispered. His body heaved with suppressed sobs. Holding him close, moving my lips soundlessly so he wouldn't hear and argue with me to make himself stop crying, I said a prayer for a boy who had run as fast as he could.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Jendi Reiter. Previously published by The Adirondack Review.
Jendi Reiter is the author of the poetry collections A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003), Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009), and Barbie at 50 (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). Her fiction has appeared in such journals as The Iowa Review, Passages North, The Adirondack Review, and the Bridport Prize Anthology. The Away Team is a chapter from her novel-in-progress.