Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt – Jeff Mann (Lethe Press)

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Be warned: Endangered Species: A Surly Bear in the Bible Belt by Jeff Mann is aptly named—there is plenty of righteous indignation here. He suffers no fools gladly, and aims his wrath at homophobes and hypocrites of all kinds—regardless of their religious or political affiliation—and takes no prisoners.

Of course, that is not all that this volume of essays is: it also contain wry humor, nostalgia, regret, and even some acceptance and detachment. Mann wrote the twenty-two essays contained herein (of which thirteen have previously been published in print anthologies or online) over the past ten years, between 2009 and 2017. (Reader warning: Mann explains in his introductory Author’s Note that these essays were not initially intended to be collected together, so there’s a fair amount of overlap in autobiographical details. Mann eliminated some of this repetition when reprinting these essays, but kept some in order to preserve the integrity of individual essays.) That being said, they run the gamut: to borrow a culinary metaphor, this volume is a smorgasbord of writings, everything from short, lyrical elegies (“David”) to serious, substantive pieces about teaching Appalachian writers in college curricula (“The Feast Hall, the rsenal, and the Mirror”) and his literary influences (“Romantic”).

Most of Mann’s essays reflect on the various intersections in his life: being Gay; living in Appalachia; being a leatherbear; being a Gay leatherbear in a non-urban part of Appalachia. Mann recognizes that he is cast very much as a niche writer; nevertheless, most Gay readers will be able to connect with him to some extent when he writes about such universal topics as family, both by blood (“Amy”) and by spirit (“Big Queer Convocations”), and home. Additionally, older readers will empathize with Mann’s looking back as he nears middle age, and grows more contemplative. (Oh, the aging leatherbear is still surly; but now he has learned to choose which battles he will fight.) And Mann simply could not write a book of this length without also discussing food (“Scrapple,” “Muslim Food”).

While these essays are without doubt entertaining, the real value for the reader is that Mann writes unapologetically and with unflinching honesty about topics that most writers shy away from: the kind of sex that turns him on (passim), the memory of a long-ago affair (“Thomas”), hiring a hustler (“Whoremonger”), the envy he feels towards writers better known and more successful than he (e.g., his own father!), and his feelings towards the Civil War (“Confederate”) and about gun ownership (“Watch Out! That Queer’s got a Gun!”). These last two essays in particular demonstrate that Mann, rugged individualist that he is, is not afraid to hold an opinion at odds with “orthodox” liberal Gay thought. It is the rare reader that will agree entirely with Mann.

So, to those readers new to Mann and his oeuvre, this volume will be full of surprises; even long-time followers of Mann will find something new to chew upon. And as I noted above, this book is not entirely surliness: Mann writes about all the things that make life worth living—food, sex, nature, poetry, and beautiful men. And whether you gorge yourself on this feast entirely in one sitting or savor it course by course, you will find something to your taste, be it an exotic new perspective or the equivalent of literary comfort food.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White By the Book – Tom Cardamone, ed. (ITNA Press)

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Tom Cardamone has made a mission of rescuing Gay writers and their writings from the dustbin of history. His The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered (2010) lists twenty-eight Gay literary forefathers, as remembered by current Gay writers. In his latest anthology, Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, he focuses on a single writer, and his mission is somewhat different: celebrating a giant of Gay letters who has little chance of being forgotten.

(Full disclosure: it shames me to admit that I have arrived so very late to this party. Of White’s body of work, I have read only his most recent The Unpunished Vice, and, well, The Joy of Gay Sex–not that one exactly reads the latter, at least not from cover to cover. I read the former as an advance reader’s copy, but I encountered the latter as a closeted teen in a Waldenbooks at a mall in a nearby city.)

In any event, I have been given an excellent road map to rectify this lack. Crashing Cathedrals is a hefty book: clocking in at 443 pages (plus author bios), it contains 33 essays written by a veritable Who’s Who of Gay literati, discussing 30 different titles authored by White. The heft is not surprising, given that White’s oeuvre is scarcely insignificant: he has written both fiction and non-fiction—novels, biography, memoir, essays, and reviews—during a career that spans decades, from just after Stonewall, during the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, White’s “exile” in Paris, into the twenty-first century. Most of these tributes were written specifically for this volume, but it also incorporates nine reprints, including the introduction to the Modern Library edition of A Boy’s Own Story by Allan Gurganus, as well as contributions originally published online in such venues as the Lambda Literary Revue and Chelsea Station. (Again, not surprisingly, the title with multiple essays is the classic A Boy’s Own Story, with essays not only by Gurganus and Robert Glück, but also Brian Alessandro, who worked with White’s own husband Michael Carroll on a graphic novel and screenplay of this seminal title.)

The volume is organized chronologically, beginning with White’s first novel Forgetting Elena (1977) and closing with his most recent memoir The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (2018). Although one may read the essays in any order, I suggest reading them consecutively: as one reads the essays sequentially, one not only learns about White’s development as a writer, but also learns about the arc of his own life story. Thus Cardamone’s volume not only serves as a bibliography of White’s oeuvre, but also functions as a biography of sorts for him.

Lest one think that this volume is purely a pedantic series of obtuse critiques of White’s writings—with copious footnotes—most of the essays contained herein offer not only discussions about the specific work by White in question, but also personal reminiscences about “Ed”–where and when the essayist first encountered the work under discussion, and sometimes even how and when the essayist met him in person. And since most of the contributors are likewise writers, it is just as relevant knowing how White the writer influenced their work, as knowing how Ed personally mentored and inspired them. By reading this book, one not only gets a sense of Edmund White the writer, but also of Edmund White the person, and this festschrift is as much a tribute to the latter as to the former.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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Justify My Sins – Felice Picano (Beautiful Dreamer Press)

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Felice Picano returns to the genre he founded—the great American gay epic, in a decades-spanning, dishy, Hollywood-focused story that brings to life both the thrill of sexual freedom and the trauma of AIDS in the Post-Stonewall era.

Victor Regina is the fictionalized hero who is partially based on Picano’s experience in TV and film per his author’s note. It’s 1977, and Victor’s just been launched into celebrity through the success of his straight romance novel that’s flying off the bookstore shelves. Now a film company wants to buy the rights and hire him to adapt the story for a TV movie of the week. It’s the ’70s, so of course they’re offering to fly him out to Los Angeles from New York City and set him up at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Thus begins Victor’s love affair with “El Lay.” He’s dazzled by the lifestyle of chauffeured sedans, rubbing elbows with movie stars, exclusive restaurants, and the risqué bars and bathhouses filled with gorgeous, horny men. Victor is a guy in his late twenties who has already cultivated a strong sense of self-importance, so he’s well-assured this is the world where he belongs. From the jump, he’s outsmarting the production team, impressing bigger fish in the Hollywood pond over comp’d dinners, and earning propositions from all the hottest men wherever he goes.

Victor is well-drawn as a queer man of a certain era who peppers conversation with witty French expressions and sexual innuendo aplenty while gabbing with his gay male friends. One isn’t especially enchanted to root for him at the outset when everything comes so easy to him. But what moves the dialogue-heavy story along is Picano’s breezy, clever writing and eventually some humanizing events in Victor’s life.

The book is subtitled A Hollywood Novel in Three Acts, and structured around Victor’s three attempts to bring one of his bestsellers to the big screen across three decades. It’s an enjoyably complex mammoth of a story that achieves quite a lot, from commentary on the deep-rooted obstacles to creative freedom in the film industry to an honest portrayal of gay life for the privileged set both pre-AIDS and at the height of the epidemic.

While the title relates to the title of Victor’s unproduceable romance novel, Justify My Sins, doesn’t quite gel or perhaps gets lost a bit in long passages of voyeuristic Hollywood anecdotes. While Victor’s smarminess annoys, there’s nothing sinful about his life choices nor is it a story of a torturous journey to self-acceptance. Victor’s unrepentant attitude toward his sexual escapades is one of his better qualities, and though he’s hardly a warm and fuzzy guy, he shows himself as a caring partner to his one true love who dies from AIDS, and later, most movingly, as a sturdy pal to a lifelong friend whose partner is dying. If his high opinion of himself counts as a fault, Victor redeems himself through loyalty and writing stories that are true to who he is when his platform allows him to do so. Given what’s at stake for him to live his life openly gay, one can’t find any sins to justify.

It’s difficult to not draw comparisons between Justify My Sins and the author’s celebrated Like People in History. Both works are sprawling epics that move from New York City, Los Angeles, and Fire Island with AIDS figuring in as a turning point.

Readers who enjoyed Like People in History are likely to adore Picano’s latest book, which approaches gay life in the 70s, 80s, and 90s with honesty and heart. It doesn’t hit the same emotional high notes, dragged down a bit to a lower register in favor of sexual exploits and celebrity exposé. But it still stands as good reading from a trusty historian of bicoastal gay life.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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In Search of Stonewall – Richard Schneider, Jr., ed. (G&LR Books)

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Just in time for Pride (though the review is a bit late), this collection of essays originally published in The Gay & Lesbian Review looks back at Stonewall through a variety of prisms at the fiftieth anniversary of the riots there. Attempting to place the events of that weekend in context, the pieces here seek to answer some basic questions such as who actually started it and why, of all places, a seedy, Mafia-run clip joint should have struck such a chord when we had fought back–even harder–in other cities. I’m not so sure either of those questions have a definitive answer, but maybe the point is in the discussion.

The first section of the book, “Flashpoint: New York City, June 1969” takes on the iconographic history of Stonewall, focusing on personal accounts of that evening from a number of gay authors such as Edmund White, Felice Picano, Rita Mae Brown, and others who were there at the time. The most interesting commonality most of these reminiscences has is the fact that no one was really aware of how important their brush with this part of history was.

The second part, “Flashback: Roots of the Riot” is very interesting in terms of history (and herstory), with essays by legends Harry Hay, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and John Rechy, among others. I particularly enjoyed the essays on the earliest gay organizations, especially Martha E. Stone’s “Unearthing the ‘Knights of the Clock,'” which is a too-short piece about the interracial gay organization Merton Bird founded in 1951 and Eve Goldberg’s coverage of the Black Cat Riots in L.A. I was disappointed, however, to see nothing by or about Ruth Simpson (“Out of the Closets, Into the Courts”) on her involvement with Daughters of Bilitis.

“Flash Forward: Aftermath and Diffusion” deals with both activism and gay cultural life post-Stonewall, including looks at the Radicalesbians, Andrew Holleran’s summation of the Seventies, and an overlook of San Francisco by Jewelle Gomez. The last section, “Stonewall’s Legacy: Whither the Revolution” attempts to place the riots in some context and has some interesting essays by D. Gilson and Larry Kramer. Honestly, having Larry Kramer’s level of anger must be incredibly wearing. Reading him exhausts me.

My favorite piece, though, has little to do with Stonewall other than its title: “The Birds as a Pre-Stonewall Parable” by the late Bob Smith. This gay revisionist look at the Hitchcock classic has its tongue firmly in cheek–or does it?  The brilliance of this piece is not knowing how serious Smith is and how much he’s sending up both gay historians and film scholars, because his interpretation of the film can be read as both. Every time I read him, I regret we lost him so quickly.

But as with any collection of this nature, you’ll find something that piques your curiosity and sends you down one or two rabbit holes. A valuable and worthwhile compendium, this deserves a place on your TBR pile.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Catch Me When I’m Falling – Cheryl A. Head (Bywater Books)

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I always love being in on the ground floor of a great series. I felt that way about Cari Hunter’s Dark Peak books, J.M. Redmann’s Micky Knight series, and Hank Edwards’s Critter Catchers. Cheryl Head’s Charlie Mack Motown Mysteries gives me the same vibe. Whereas Hunter’s strength is her action sequences, Redmann’s her characters, and Edwards’s his plotting, Cheryl Head makes the procedural part of policework her domain. It’s all about the investigation, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the second Charlie Mack volume, Catch Me When I’m Falling.

Charlie Mack thought her toughest assignment was going to be finally moving in with her new girlfriend Mandy or maybe taking care of her mother, starting to show the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. But that’s not quite it. Three homeless people, one of whom was Charlie’s mother’s friend, have been murdered at the hands of a particularly gruesome serial killer who likes to burn his victims to death. As she goes underground, posing as a homeless woman, she also runs into drug trafficking and problems with a rogue cop.

I know I said it in my review of Bury Me When I’m Dead, but I’m an old Detroit boy myself, and it’s always fun to see landmarks and things you grew up with in books. It really gives me a sense of place. But beyond that, Head does a remarkable job of balancing a large cast of characters. There are her two investigators, Don and Gil, as well as her office gal Judy, and Don and Gil are usually assisted by someone from the police force. Plus, this time there are a number of homeless people, including a trans hooker Gil becomes protective of, not to mention the rogue cop and the drug trafficking elements. But somehow, she makes her introductions at the right time and keeps all the principals in motion.

Part of the reason for this is that Head never stops moving. Her books are precision timepieces, always ticking along. You can almost hear her thinking: first a character bit, then some plot, another bit of character, a clue sown, back to the plot, start some tension between Gil and Don here, hook Judy up managing the girlfriend’s moving schedule and then they’re out of the way, then…  I mean, writing these must be exhausting work because she and her editor have made almost every individual word work, applicable to either mood, character, or plot. And each word has to carry its burden to squeeze all that plot into just over two hundred pages without the reader feeling cramped or cheated. But you won’t.

I’m delighted to see that no matter how hard she and her characters work, they’re always happy to tuck in to a meal, however hastily. In that respect, Cheryl Head and Jeff Mann are culinary cousins. Where Mann’s food descriptions run to the Appalachian home-style variety, Head gets misty eyed over White Castles and deli take-out. Having often waxed poetic about pastrami on dark rye myself, I get it.

So, Catch Me When I’m Falling is a tightly spun mystery that will have you guessing right up until nearly the last page. Perfect for summer reading, this one is a worthy entry to the Charlie Mack series.

JW

© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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Flannelwood – Raymond Luczak (Red Hen Press)

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When cub Bill (a barista and struggling writer) meets daddybear James (a disabled factory worker) at an OctoBear Dance, more than sparks fill the air: conflagration ensues.  The two men immediately embark on a winter-long affair of passionate sex-filled weekends spent in the cabin of James (located, in true Midwest fashion, “up north”) that ends on the vernal equinox, when James phones Bill that it’s not going to work out between them and then hangs up.

Thus begins Raymond Luczak’s novel Flannelwood, which starts not at the beginning of the relationship between Bill and James, but rather at the end; the rest of the novel is Bill examining the arc of his romance with James, in an effort to understand how something that was going so well could end so abruptly, so completely. Along the way, the fortysomething Bill retells his entire life trajectory, compulsively searching for a reason, any reason for the end of their relationship. He revisits his childhood, the slow realization that he was different from his family and the members of the rural community he grew up in, his escape to college, his eventual coming out and the repercussions within his family, his relationship with Craig (who succumbs to AIDS), and the subsequent loneliness that is briefly lifted when he meets James. It is only near the end of the novel that Bill learns a truth about James that causes him to re-evaluate their time together; in this way he finally achieves closure—their ending becomes for him a beginning.

For all that Bill feels that he has failed as a writer, his narration of the novel is profoundly poetic, deeply truthful, and unashamedly erotic. He describes perfectly the intensity of both new-found love (especially after a long absence) and the despair and confusion when a relationship ends. (The endless self-examination and asking What if… and What could I, should I, have done differently?–we have all been there.)

Luczak, not surprisingly, writes about disability directly, without being gratuitous. In the very first scene of the novel Bill recounts an incident whereby he surprises James, who has finished showering, but has not yet reattached his prosthetic shin and foot. Instead of bolting or looking away, Bill approaches James and kisses his shin, a “space far more private than anywhere else on your body.” Although the novel begins with this vivid scene, it does not define the entire novel: yes, one of the main characters is disabled, but the novel is not about his disability.

The jacket copy acknowledges that Flannelwood is Luczak’s homage to Nightwood by Djuna Barnes; a metafictional work published in 1936, it is one of the earliest novels to depict explicit homosexuality between women. Towards the end of Flannelwood, the references to Nightwood become much more explicit; Bill’s housemates quote directly from the novel while helping Bill deal with his loss.  (It is also known that Barnes wrote Nightwood as a roman à clef; one cannot help but wonder if Luczak did the same.) Like many lesbian novels of the time, it ends badly for the protagonists. However, Luczak has done more than use the post-modern structure, swap the genders of the characters, and rewrite the ending: he has written his own work, a beautiful, meaningful, and above all, honest novel.

Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske

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“Yuri: A Pride Memoir” (and other info)


Happy Pride Month!

Since this is a queer blog, you’d think I’d be posting at least weekly this month, but deadlines have unfortunately caught up to me. In addition to my own writing and editing, I’m also finishing up an anthology of axe murderer stories for Lethe Press (“Hatchet Job” coming October 5th, 2019). I am full of pride but busy as hell. I plan on returning to the blog shortly with a review of Lou Dellaguzzo’s “The Island of No Secrets,” but until then please enjoy my own “Yuri: A Pride Memoir,” from my collection of short fiction and essays, “Strawberries and Other Erotic Fruits” while Duncan watches the parade from our front window.

 

Yuri: A Pride Memoir

I’ll call him Yuri. He was short and stocky, with buzzed brown hair and watery aquamarine eyes. In his early thirties, Yuri had only been out for a few furtive years in his native country. He was staying in Denver on a tourist visa with some people he’d met online. It would be his first Pride parade.

My friend Arthur had found Yuri in a chat room and asked him out to the Wrangler, a local leather-and-Levis bar, for a drink the Friday of Pride weekend. I went along to provide moral support for Arthur and an excuse to leave if necessary.

Their eyes met, and it was magic. It was bliss. It was heaven. It was a quick drink and then total abandonment. They hopped in a cab before my ice could melt, leaving me at the north end of the bar to be pawed by a drunken bear with a shaved head who leered at me, fell asleep, then woke up and leered at me again. I wasn’t sure if he was tired, drunk, or narcoleptic.

When Arthur and Yuri arrived at my Pride party the next day, they looked as if they hadn’t seen much daylight. Their eyes may have been dull, but they only looked at each other anyway. Yuri sat on Arthur’s lap or with his back between Arthur’s legs as they stretched out on the lawn beneath the shade of the box elder in the backyard, eating from the same plate. They were at the charged particle stage of the relationship, where constant physical contact had to be maintained or they’d be thrown off into the dating vortex once more.

We hated them. No. We envied them. We didn’t hate them until after the third pitcher of margaritas, when we started taking bets on whether the relationship would last hours or days. And even then, we still envied them—because they were long gone by that time, off to Arthur’s apartment where Yuri was spending Pride weekend, leaving us to speculate on their future until well past midnight.

We reconvened at eight the next morning at Arthur’s love nest, where he answered the intercom in the foyer of his condo building on the first ring and buzzed us in, bounding down the hall to greet us.

“This one’s a keeper!” he said, pointing back at his apartment and leaping around us with the glassy-eyed glaze of too much love and too little sleep. That clarified the situation. We’d all had experience with Arthur’s keepers before, kept for somewhere between a week and a month before being thrown out like overripe bananas.

Once inside, we smiled, nodded, and made nice with the doomed Yuri, treating him with goodhearted generosity, secure in our assumption that he probably wouldn’t last past Wednesday. It was, after all, Pride weekend—as Yuri continually reminded us. His enthusiasm was as refreshing as it was irritating. Charming in a goofy way, he wore a snug NYPD logo T-shirt, matching ball cap, black leather shorts, and boots.

“I have uniform fetish,” he explained. We smiled and nodded some more. “When do we leave?”

“In a few minutes,” Arthur replied, his hands on Yuri’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, we won’t miss anything. We just have to go two blocks.”

We downed our mimosas, made last minute bathroom trips, and moved in the general direction of the door. Yuri prodded and swept us along, his camera already out of the bag. He snapped pictures of Arthur locking the door behind us, and then he was gone, covering the two blocks by the time we had congregated on the sidewalk. We heard him calling Arthur’s name, and Arthur was soon running off, too. As we got closer, we saw Yuri, posing with his arms around a group of Denver cops, his grin as toothy as a sturgeon’s. Arthur manned the camera while Yuri shouted out the angles he wanted.

“From here! Now here! Try one from this side now.”

The shoot might have gone on forever if we hadn’t heard the motorcycles. The crowd buzzed and necks arched as parade watchers tried to see down the street. Yuri leapt away from the policemen with quick thanks, grabbed Arthur’s arm, and disappeared into the crowd. We followed more slowly, taking time to say hello to people we knew as we worked our way towards the Colfax Avenue parade route.

Motorcycles roared as we approached the curb, and there was Yuri, giving a “thumbs up” to the camera, posing on the knee of a butch leather dyke on a Harley. Then Arthur and Yuri scurried to the sidelines, where Arthur lit a cigarette. Yuri frowned at him when he wasn’t looking, pretending to check the camera.

A disco thump preceded the arrival of the twink bar float, but Yuri saw it coming first. “Look,” he shouted, “they are dancing.” And then he broke into the most arrhythmic cluster of moves a non-neuropath could possibly make, whipping his baseball cap in the air and grabbing Arthur from behind. Yuri ground his crotch deeper into Arthur’s ass with each block the float progressed, until it was finally within leaping distance. He then tossed Arthur aside like Godzilla discarding a busload of tourists and advanced on the dancing twinks with his finger on the camera’s shutter trigger.

They must have seen him coming. Just as he moved within focusing range, they began pelting him and the rest of the crowd with a mix of condoms and rainbow refrigerator magnets. Yuri seized upon the trinkets as if they were manna from Heaven, lowering his camera and stuffing the tiny pockets of his leather shorts. It didn’t take long until they were full.

Throughout the morning, Yuri collected kitschy favors and free passes from every float and car that passed, hauling Arthur around by the waistband of his cargo shorts. He crammed Arthur’s pockets so full of loot that his thighs bulged—picture Pan in flip-flops and a Cher T-shirt. And when Yuri wasn’t picking up treasure, he was taking pictures of banners and political candidates stumping for votes.

“Look, look,” he said excitedly, pointing at a tanned woman with graying brown hair, sixtyish but marching enthusiastically in a PFLAG T-shirt, her face polished with a thin sheen of sweat. The placard she carried read “I LOVE MY GAY SON!!!!” Yuri snapped a picture.

“I love my gay son!” he said. “Can you fucking believe it?”

***

I could believe it, but apparently he couldn’t. Ugly American that I am, it had taken me that long to understand that he was documenting a sentiment that he didn’t see expressed regularly at home, as if to prove to himself that a place existed where you could be proud of who you were.

Yuri’s enthusiasm took on a more poignant note for me after that. I saw him with admiration instead of annoyance, watching a man in the throes of becoming, of stepping out from behind whatever walls trapped him so that he could gaze at the vistas they had obstructed. I had scanned those same horizons long ago, but they were too familiar to move me anymore. Their magic had turned to monotony. Watching Yuri discover them gave them a vitality they hadn’t had in years for me.

For a moment, I was nineteen and going to my first Pride parade—innocent, vulnerable, and staggered by the complexity of my newfound community. My stomach became queasy with possibilities, the way it had then, and standing right there on the corner of Colfax and Emerson in Denver, on a bright, hot morning in late June, with thousands of my fellow queers surrounding me, a tear welled up in the corner of my eye—just the way it had that day, so many years ago.

***

Three hundred and seventy two pictures later, it was over. The last banner had flown and the last float had dropped its loot. Yuri stood holstering his camera amidst the parade detritus. Stray condoms dropped out of his overstuffed pockets every time he moved. Plastic bracelets were stacked like vertebrae up his arms. The Mardi Gras beads garnishing his head and shoulders clacked as he and Arthur jogged toward us.

“Did you see the parade?” he shouted. “It was so beautiful!”

“Of course they saw it,” Arthur said, beaming at Yuri.

“What now?” Yuri asked, shifting his weight from one foot to the other like a five-year-old who needs to pee.

“I thought we’d all go back to my place for another round of mimosas, then head down to the festival,” Arthur said. “Is that okay with everybody?”

We all nodded and murmured our agreement as Yuri’s brown eyes widened.

“More? You mean there is more?”

“Of course. There’s a whole festival with food and music and stuff.”

“Just for being gay?” Yuri asked.

Arthur grinned with smitten indulgence. “I guess you could say that.”

Back at Arthur’s place, Yuri downloaded photos onto his laptop. He shouted and pointed at the images, reliving the last forty-five minutes as heartily as he’d spent them. He catalogued and sorted the pictures, and when he was finished, he fidgeted in Arthur’s computer desk chair while we talked and drank.

Finally he sighed, went into the kitchen, and came back with a bottle of water. “When is festival?”

“Oh, it goes on all day,” Arthur said. “We don’t want to get there too early—it’ll be easier to move around once the parade crowd thins out.”

Yuri sipped and frowned as if he was swallowing more than water, a look Arthur must have noticed. “But we could start walking down there,” Arthur hedged, looking at everyone else for agreement. “C’mon, drink up and let’s hit the road. Anyone need the bathroom?” Even when he was in love, he was still in total control.

The reek of funnel cakes, deep-fryer grease, and warm beer hit us as we were crossing Broadway in front of a verdant drag queen—stick-thin and outfitted in green tights, green tutu avec spangles, bobbing antennae, magic wand, and green platform boots. Yuri grabbed her around the waist and posed with her in the middle of the intersection while Arthur snapped his brains out.

They hit the festival like a tornado gutting a trailer park, cutting a random swath of mirth and exhilaration. We were swept along breathlessly, lurching from one destination to the next until we couldn’t do it anymore. We wanted some time to talk with friends, have a quiet beer, or at least sit down. We made plans to meet them by the fountain in two hours to go to lunch.

They showed up two hours and forty-three minutes later, staggering under the weight of at least ten plastic sacks full of T-shirts, brochures, flyers, and handouts. Well, Arthur was staggering anyway. Yuri looked as if he were ready to run a marathon.

Three memory cards!” he shouted as he ran toward us. “Three memory cards full!” Clearly a personal best.

His energy was no longer infectious. It verged on annoying, but we were all showing signs of Pride wear and tear—especially Arthur, who had a good ten years on Yuri.

“Are we ready for lunch?” Arthur asked wearily, dragging his bags on the ground.

Lunch threatened to be more of the same. Yuri snapped various views of us at the table, demanding smiles and poses until the waitress politely forced him to sit down and look at the menu. He wasn’t even going to drink the Jagermeister shot we ordered for him until we convinced him that it was a Pride ritual. The next three shots were his idea.

The alcohol kept him in his chair long enough to scroll through his pictures until the food came, passing the camera around to share a few choice shots. Once he had eaten, he sank fast—into drunken gratitude.

“I say thank you to all my new American friends,” he slurred as he put his arm around Arthur. “And I especially like to thank my daddy, Arthur.”

Arthur choked so hard, it appeared that the Heimlich might be in order. His face reddened and his eyes bulged until he finally swallowed the word daddy. And the sour look on his face said he didn’t much like the taste of it. Yuri was too busy hugging us to notice. A photo of them at that moment would have proven more prophetic than any taken that weekend. They broke up in less than a week.

***

Arthur soldiers on, in search of yet another keeper. Yuri moved to Canada and got married to a sugar beet farmer named Dale in Saskatchewan a month later, but that doesn’t matter. I only include it because the stories I like best have endings. That weekend is all that matters. Both Arthur and Yuri will have that to savor whenever their lives get too bland.

Because Yuri’s life will become bland. If he stays in the gay community, no matter where he is, leather dykes on motorcycles and green sequined drag queens will become as commonplace as putting on his shoes or brushing his teeth. And even though all the fanfare is not just for being gay—even though it’s about history and civil rights and struggle and oppression and celebrating the escape from our collective closet—he’ll find that freedom breeds complacency, even though it shouldn’t. And when that happens, I hope he finds a way to fill his eyes with wonder once again.

We should all be so lucky.

© 2007 Jerry L. Wheeler

 

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