blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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from You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival
installment 3

Since Wesley Gibson’s death in December 2016, Blackbird has contemplated ways to ensure his literary voice maintains a presence in the world. With that end in mind, we are in the process of reproducing his book, You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival, which was published in 2004 by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Hailed at the time by Mary Gaitskill as “dark and sparkling, wonderfully intelligent, flip, and deeply felt,” You Are Here provides an excellent vehicle for honoring Gibson’s many strengths as a writer and his generosity of spirit as a friend. All excerpts appear with the permission of his family and publisher. Our first and second installments of You Are Here can be found in v17n1 and v18n1, and additional excerpts will be serialized in forthcoming issues. —Blackbird editors

Telemarketing. It has that ring to it, that ring at dinner, that ring in your ear of someone’s voice when they’re finished shouting, that ring of the receiver being slammed back into the cradle. I never did that. I was unfailingly polite when MCI called for the sixth time that day, like a boyfriend gone stalker, to wonder why, oh, why had I decided to go back with Sprint? How could I do that to them? Didn’t I know what I’d meant to them? I was polite because I knew that on the other side of the vast distance separating his cubicle from my living room was a poor sap trying to scrape by. That sap had been me and my friends. I remember Anne weeping into her bourbon after a night of asking people a complicated series of questions designed to discover why they used a certain deodorant, a brand of canned ravioli, different pens. It wasn’t the questionnaire she minded; it was the rejections. She took them personally.

Anne, though she seems perfectly normal to me, is a large and eccentric woman who had escaped from her small town to become a lesbian and an English major. Two stories here. One, she was beaten up weekly at her Brownie meetings by an eleven-year-old who roared up on the back of her boyfriend’s Harley wearing a black leather miniskirt. You’ll say she’s kidding, but I’ve been to that town. She’s not kidding. Two, she once told a customer at the Dairy Freeze, when he asked to speak to the manager, that he couldn’t because they were a socialist collective. While he was hunting around the back of his truck for his deer rifle, she hotfooted it out the back way. She was fourteen. Where Anne was from, you didn’t kid about commies. Every night she spent at Marketing Associates was a concentrated tablet of the past. She hadn’t liked those people from her town; but they hadn’t liked her either, and there’d been more of them than there had been of her. The gals and guys bellowing no in her ear every night were some smudged mimeograph of the hecklers who’d done the same thing back in mythical high school. So she cried, she had a couple of drinks, and the next night she went back and did it all over again.

My own telemarketing job had been even worse. I’d been in college, and I think I found the job in this loose-leaf binder at the student center. I’m sure that the job description was like the jazz-hands gig—big bucks, “ideal for student.” I showed up at around 6:00 in the evening. A bland brick building, the kind of place that had driven Willie Loman to commit suicide. A flight of steps covered in the kind of grimy rubber I associated with car mats. At least it was air-conditioned. Outside, the sweating fist of a Richmond summer was trying to choke the life out of you. There was no interview. I signed something that looked more like a disclaimer than an application. Some guy with algebra-teacher glasses and a clip-on shoved me into a cubicle, saying, “Those are the numbers and that’s the script.” He meant the two sheets of paper on either side of the phone.


“Yeah, script. You call the numbers and you read the script. A moe-ron could do it.”

Yes, but what about a person with stage fright? What about a guy who’d forgotten all his lines as Benvolio, ruining the school play? What about a guy whose legs Charlestoned when he had to recite up in front of French class? Hey, mister  . . . But Mister had stomped off, leaving behind him a rank smell of Right Guard and commerce.

I picked up the script. Who knew? Maybe without an audience I was a regular Robert De Niro.

Good evening, Mr./Mrs./Miss   , this is   , calling for Childcare (or whatever it was), and I was wondering if you’d like to sponsor a group of mentally and physically disabled children to go to the circus. For as little as one hundred dollars you could send up to twenty-five children with disabilities to the Wild Bill Family Circus. That’s right, up to twenty-five children . . .


My cubicle would have made a prison cell look overdecorated. All around me students were murmuring, except for one guy who was projecting to the third balcony. “MRS. PERKINS. BILL HERE, FROM CHILDCARE. ISN’T IT A SHAME ABOUT DISABLED CHILDREN? WOULDN’T IT BE NICE IF WE . . .” A real actor, the kind of guy who was going to end up in an amusement park biergarten wearing lederhosen and signing “Edelweiss.” I refused to think about my own prospects.

I hung up on my first three calls, waiting the third time until a woman was finally saying, “Chuck, is that you? I know it’s you, Chuck. I’ve told you, this is over. Do—” I crossed my arms over my desk and laid down my head. It was dark there. I wondered if there was a Coke machine somewhere in this science project, like that pellet rats get for being Pavlovian. Tap on my shoulder. Couldn’t be good. I turned around, trying to look like a person too valuable to fire, then remembered what I did look like: shoulder-length hair, earring, canary-yellow overalls. In Richmond, in 1978, a mood ring was considered daring.

“Hey, this isn’t getting the job done.” Clip-on again. Did I mention he had sideburns the size of Florida, polka-dotted with acne?

“I was, uh, resting. I already called, like, six people.”

“Any sales?”

“One lady said to check back.”

“You get a break at eight.”

“Is there a Coke machine around here?”

“Down the street at the Hess station.”

“Welp. Back to work.” I swiveled around and moved my finger six places down my list. I shook out my script and cleared my throat impressively. Dialed. Listened to Sideburn’s loafers thump down the slender corridor.

OK. I had to do this if I wanted to stand around the Dial Tone, the local gay bar, also known—and not for nothing—as the Busy Signal, drinking beers, playing pinball, and opening the door to my mystery dates. That cost money. So did cigarettes. So did the ingredients for a week’s worth of chili and the occasional impulse buy. My needs were simple, but they weren’t scot-free.

“Uh, hi, Mrs. Dandridge. Is that how you say it?”

Five-minute dissertation on the origins of her name in a vibratoed, ancient voice. She was southern, so I had to hear about all her great-great-cousins on her mother’s sister’s side who’d fought in the Battle of Bull Run during the “wo-wah.” All these dragons called it the “wo-wah,” and you knew exactly which wo-wah they meant. Me, checking my nails for dirt, then biting them off in delicate slivers. Neat pile of off-white crescents by the place where I tapped my pen.

“Yeah, wow, that’s great. Hey, listen, how would you like to send some, like, retarded kids and stuff to the circus?” I’m sorry, I just couldn’t stick to the script. I was more of a method telemarketer. “You would? Great. What should I put you down for? Well, let’s see. There’s a hundred-dollar level, a two-fifty, the golden circle but that’s like a thousand. I guess you couldn’t really be a corporate sponsor. Hundred dollars, huh? Great. Let me make sure I’ve got all your stats right here.”

Hey, this was easy. It was too easy. Except for one woman whose husband had got his hand caught in the thresher and couldn’t send her own “goddamned kids to the circus,” they were all nice and accommodating. And old. I talked to more hearing-wrecked ladies than you could shake a social security check at about their cats and their Civil War dead. And they coughed it up too. All you had to say was “retarded,” “kid,” “circus,” and the next thing you knew they’d walkered over, broken out the magnifying glass, and read me the numbers off their dead husbands’ MasterCards. I didn’t know about target marketing, but even a moe-ron could see that his was no random list.

Clip-on sneaked up and leaned over my shoulder to check my progress, his sideburn uncomfortably close to my temple. Something about him felt contagious. I tried to lean away, but that only sent me into the crook of his bare arm. “Good work,” he said, grabbing my shoulder and giving it a meaty shake. His breath smelled like chewing gum and eighteen-hour days.

“Uh, what kind of circus is this exactly?”

“Why, are they asking?”

“Uh, yeah, some of them.”

“Clowns, animals. You know, people bouncing and swinging on stuff. A circus-circus.”

“And where is it going to be exactly?”

“Different places. Like here, I think, the Fairfield Junior High Auditorium.”

“You’re having a circus in an auditorium?”

“I’m not having it. They are. Childcare. They’re like the Lions, the Elks Club. Something. Look, buddy, I’m a marketing director. My job is to get you to call those numbers, and you’re doing a damn fine job of it too. Why don’t you take five, make it ten, go over to the Hess station and get a Coke?” He winked, broadly. The sideburn constricted like a small bird with cramps.

I stood outside, smoking, leaning against the building. The edge of a circle of streetlamp light fuzzed near my high-top. I had gone to the Hess station. It was night now, but still just as hot as ever, which felt unfair. With the hazy moon and the barely blinking stars, it should have been cool out, shouldn’t it? I rolled my dewy Coke against my cheek, feeling grubby as a mole. Maybe there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. Maybe there was a Wild Bill Family Circus. Maybe some kid who’d had a genetic bad break would have the time of his life watching people swinging and bouncing on stuff in the Fairfield Junior High Auditorium. For all I knew there was a baby elephant in a baby elephant hat. But one of those women had said that she’d have to cut back on groceries that month; it wasn’t a problem, she didn’t eat that much anymore at her age. Something felt wrong. So I flicked my cigarette, showering sparks on the deserted city street, and I headed for the Dial Tone. I only had, like, three dollars, but I had a friendly face if it came down to it.


I want to say, right off the bat, that Telesessions was nothing like Childcare. They were on the fifth floor of a building you had to sign in and out of. Their offices were discreetly lit and tastefully decorated in oceany colors. They had a receptionist. The managers, and there seemed to be a few of them, were well-dressed people with fundamentally nice haircuts. Brisk, cheery people who went to the theater regularly, and ran 25Ks for charity on Sunday. But basically, their faces had the lived-in set of people whose jobs were their lives.

Unimpeachable; far better people than I could ever hope to be with my ten-dollar haircut. And what was a 25K anyway?

But those were the managers. The staff, the folks who manned the phones, were the restaurant business all over again. You had to have a certain amount of intelligence and a nice speaking voice to work at Telesessions. But if you had the intelligence and the voice, odds were you could have been a manager instead of working for fifteen bucks an hour—not bad—four hours a night, less than five nights a week. Question: Why weren’t you? Answer: You couldn’t hold down a day job because you were a snakebit. One guy used to be a professional gambler before his nerves got the better of him and so he’d settled into a quiet life of solitaire and sex lines. He lived in Queens. Another guy had started out as a filmmaker, but he hadn’t had the stomach for showbiz, so he’d turned to golf, which he played fervently and, from the sound of it, frequently. Actor. Actor. Actor. Composing student. A woman who was hoping to strike it rich—something to do with glass beads. Me.


I strolled in between six and seven. Sometimes I called doctors and said, “Good evening, Dr. Medicine Man, this is Wesley, calling from Telesessions to remind you that your conference will begin in about forty-five minutes. One other thing . . .” I had between fifteen and twenty docs to ring. There was plenty of time for cigarette breaks, and a place to have them, a strange balcony overlooking a whirring fan the size of a studio apartment, the kind of thing Wile E. Coyote regularly fell into.

There was always somebody out there to chat with, but my favorite was Asher. Asher looked unhealthy, yellowish, but he was borderline ordinary by Telesessions standards. He did have a day job. He was a boss in a plant agency. I didn’t really understand it. Mostly, he grumbled about the plant job and threatened to quit almost nightly; but occasionally he’d describe some day he’d spent sprucing up, say, the plants of the QE2, which had docked. Asher was an artist. Though I had never been on the QE2, I knew exactly not what it looked like, but what it felt like to be awed by it. He had a pager that he could also check news on, and he always had it set for Entertainment. We’d stand out there, huddled over the square gray glow in his hand, the giant fan blowing our smoke back at us, reading about Madonna’s baby Lourdes.

Asher was a riffer. He could do fifteen minutes easy on the baby Lourdes. He’d do a Lourdes voice, then he’d pull whatever fifties sweater he was wearing up around his head (Asher had more fifties sweaters than the entire run of Happy Days, in such perfect condition that I would have pushed him off the balcony for one except that it would have gotten shredded in the fan) and do a baby Lourdes fashion show. Before you knew it he had Lourdes singing “I Am Woman” with Helen Reddy at a Boston Pops benefit for sinusitis. You couldn’t keep up with him. It was like trying to chase Jesse Owens to return a bead of sweat he’d dropped. I adored Asher, but the one time I’d gone to his apartment, we’d both frozen, somehow startled to be off that balcony, something about work selves and real-life selves—Asher, it turned out, was shy—and after a third silence had clubbed its way into our conversation, I’d guzzled my beer and left. With Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits. The next night at work, Asher was up to his usual tricks, pretending to be Asher Spice in his gorgeous Orlon and leather diamond-printed jacket, rapping out a ditty about polishing hibiscus in the Trump Tower.

On other nights I was a tech. Telesessions organized phone conferences for physicians. Say you were Pfizer-What’s-Their-Drug, and you wanted to publicize your new attention-deficit-disorder drug. Telesessions would organize conferences with a moderator, a specialist, and the doctors being hawked to. The drug had to have good word of mouth. From the sound of it, most of the M.D.s found it useful, trading anecdotes and info that had nothing to do with the topic. That’s where the moderator came in, herding them back. My job was simpler. I hooked them all up from a room that looked like the set of Plan 9 from Outer Space—high tech, low budget. Then I listened. If a cardiologist’s kid was screaming in the background, I could contact him privately to shut the brat up. Any interference on the line, I was the man.

I said earlier it was a perfect job—easy money, my kind of hours, pack of weirdos—but there was one giant flaw. I was a hypochondriac. In fact, I was a genius of hypochondria, perhaps the greatest of my generation. I could actually develop symptoms as I heard them. I have given myself infantile paralysis, muscular dystrophy, all forms of heart disease and cancer, beriberi, and a disease I returned to over and over like the scene of a crime, AIDS. That’s a woefully incomplete list. If I’ve heard of it, I’ve had it.

Though I can’t remember birthdays, I can remember, with astonishing, laserlike accuracy, my aunt Judy’s description, when I was eight, of the signs of lymphoma; and sure enough, when I checked myself out in the bathroom, I had it. It was my first major illness. I walked around my grandmother’s for days with a wan, little smile waxed over my lips. I hadn’t appreciated these good people enough. How could I not have noticed that shade of green particular to tobacco fields in early August? Bewitched with Elizabeth Montgomery, the heady aroma of squash frying, I hadn’t even begun to smoke yet—and now I was leaving it all behind. How ineffably sad my tiny little coffin would be. How would my mother ever find the strength to go on? Nights, I wept convulsively into my pillow, falling exhaustedly asleep, only to be tossed back to the surface by nightmares. Finally, I couldn’t shoulder the burden all by myself. I told Nanny one night while I was helping her wash the dishes. There she was, in her elbow-length yellow gloves, squinting at a corn-bread pan through the smoke from her thirtieth Pall Mall Gold 100 that day, telling me about one of the many supernatural things that had happened to her during her life. And now I was going to be one of them, my small ghost sitting just out of reach on the edge of her bed or knocking down the rooster-on-burlap picture my aunt Dill had made out of seeds. There was no way it could be the wind. It could only be my restless spirit, released before its time. The plate I was drying with a sunflower dish towel blurred through my tears. Little hiccup of a sob.

“Oh, now, what’s all this about?” she said, grabbing me behind the neck like a puppy she might drown. Her yellow glove got suds on my crew cut. “I didn’t scare you talking ’bout them caterpillars what ate up the whole tree, did I?”

I shook my head no, wiped snot on the back of my arm.

“What is it then, sugar?”

“I have lymphoma,” I blubbered.

She laughed, a smoker’s laugh, hacking and honking like gulls caught in a squall. It had a freeze-drying effect on my tears and mucus. “Lord have mercy. You don’t no more have the lymphoma than that pot of beans.”

“I don’t?”

“Goodness gracious no. Now wipe off your face and hand me that pie plate. I never heard such a bunch of mess in all my life. Now, did I ever tell you about the time this fella showed up dressed all in white, couldn’t nobody see him but me . . .”

I joke about it, but really, it’s only crutch funny. I can’t bear to count the hours I’ve spent on the couch checking and rechecking my pulse, my temperature, that peculiar spot on my leg, how many times I’ve said, “Does this look funny to you?” The terrible thing about fear is that it’s riveting. All things you’d like to be—a snappy dresser, an astute observer, kind—fade away into the background noise of anything that isn’t your imminent death. It’s wasteful. People get sick of you. You make yourself so miserable that you contemplate suicide, and then you can’t even appreciate the pitiable irony of that. Hypochondria is different from other neurotic fears. A person who’s afraid of high places probably isn’t going to fall from one. A person who’s afraid of snakes can usually avoid them. What the hypochondriac fears, death, is real, and it is going to happen to him. It’s only a matter of when; he can’t avoid it. The world is saturated in it. Nearly everyone fears dying; but most people make the sanity-saving dodge of simply not contemplating it until the swish of the scythe is blowing the bangs off their forehead. The hypochondriac can’t stop contemplating it. Death, its omnipresence, feels as visceral as a black dog growling under the couch, waiting to bite.

Which made Telesessions a bit of a tough break. The first few weeks, anytime I teched, I left work gray faced, my clothes sticking to me like old tape from where I’d sweated through a conference, cooled off smoking by the giant fan with Asher, then sweated through another one. Sometimes there were three of four of these nerve-shredders a night. Conferees casually batted around anecdotes about holes in throats and eyes popping from heads due to high blood pressure and testicles the size of softballs and brains liquefying into strawberry preserves and every other mortification and putrefaction of the flesh—the imaginable, the unimaginable. The other techs hummed, pulled out their nose hairs, had sexual fantasies. We weren’t allowed to read. I sat there electrified, white knuckled. My palpitations were the symptom of so many diseases that I couldn’t get out of the starting gate of general terror and begin to run the real race of a diagnosis.

But necessity is the great mother, and after a month of limping out of there, shattered, I learned a magic trick: how to listen without hearing. The words became a net of sounds. I could hear when the net ripped, and I could swoop in to mend it; but I never knew what the net was made of. They could have discussed the hour of my own death, and I could have continued to fantasize about that bullet-headed Marine on the subway that evening, the one with the gold chain around the tree stump of his neck and biceps like grapefruit. The train was empty, it was late, no, wait, we’d gotten off at the same stop together, even better, he was a little drunk and he was from Kansas, or Iowa, some corn state where they grew ’em big, I . . .


One Saturday afternoon I came home from the grocery store to find a new John hurtling around the apartment. A Mariah Carey CD was blasting and he had a fresh haircut. He was busily scrubbing down the dishwasher with a Brillo. The dishwasher—a gummy brown—certainly needed it; but then again it didn’t work. Pointless? Perhaps. Who was I to say? I raised my eyebrows in greeting—it was impossible to talk above Hurricane Mariah. He nodded ecstatically and swayed to the music. I put away my Shredded Wheat, my turkey product, a fifty-nine-cent box of pasta, a pack of Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano Cookies, and a bottle of Smirnoff. Now that I was working I could splurge on boutique cookies and upscale vodka.

John unbent from the floor and arabesqued into the living room. Mariah’s singing suddenly stopped, as if she’d been shot—maybe in a perfect world. I fisted my plastic bag into the spot between the refrigerator and the stove, turned around. John, dazzle marks of exuberance radiating from him, stood leaning in the doorframe, his fingertips iced in pink Brillo soap.

“How are you?” I said, expecting a pleasant answer after the gymnastics I’d just seen.

“I have cancer.”

“What? John . . .”

“Lung cancer.”

“Oh, my God.”

“It’s OK.”

“It is?”

“I’m taking these shark-cartilage pills and drinking Ensure.”

“Really? Is this some kind of new . . . ?”

“Well, my doctor wants me to have chemotherapy, of course, but—” and he crossed his arms with a no-siree shake of the head—“I’m not going to do that.”

‘Why not?”

A you-big-silly flick of the hand. He leaned in confidentially. “Chemotherapy kills people.”

“Uh, I don’t know about that, John . . .”

He snorted. “Well I do. I was an oncology nurse.”

I felt like I was trying to catch fish with my bare hands. This slippery conversation kept wriggling away, cutting me with its sharp scales. “Well, um, I don’t know then.” I couldn’t exactly say that I was an oncology nurse too and go to the mat with him.

“But they did give me these great antidepressants. And look.” He took a deep breath, then blew all of it out. “They drained my lungs.”

“Well . . . that’s great. It really is. I’m glad you’re feeling . . . so much better.”

“You wanna have dinner tonight?”

“Uh . . . sure, that would be great.”

“What time do you like to eat?” he studied me carefully, like I might lie.


“Seven all right?”



“Yeah, absolutely.”


We stood there, trying to out-smile each other. John had flung open—at least they looked flung—all the windows. You could hear the traffic outside, shuffling up Third Avenue. Car horn. Person yelling. Truck grinding its gears. The kitchen smelled clean. Bananas in a basket squatted on the microwave. I needed to go and sit and think and smoke, work on my own lung cancer. And call Jo Ann. “OK,” I said, squeezing by him, “see you at seven.”

Jo Ann had very little to offer other than “oh no” and “oh my God.” My thoughts exactly. When I told her he’d been an oncology nurse, she made a choking noise, like a chipmunk was scrabbling up her throat. She did ask me what I was going to do.

“I don’t know. I mean, what can I do? What should I do? It seems like I should tie him to something and force him to have chemotherapy. But you can’t do that, can you?”


“Maybe a normal person would move. Maybe a normal person would say, ‘I’m sorry, but this is none of my business. This is more than I bargained for.’”


“But I can’t do that either. Maybe that would be OK for a normal person but it wouldn’t be OK for me. It seems wrong. He has cancer. Is that crazy?”

“No, it’s not crazy.”

“Good, because it sort of feels like it’s crazy, like I’m not protecting myself or something. You know what I mean?”


“Fuck.” No response. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”


At 6:30 I decided to poke my nose in and pour some of my new uptown vodka. I passed the dining room, which was really just an extension of the living room. The table was set with Southwestern-looking dishes, fanned napkins—a basic catering fold—and two burgundy tapers in brass holders. Tortilla chips and salsa sat on the coffee table. John was in the kitchen in an apron that said something lascivious but was also a pun on food. Mercifully, I forgot it as I read it. Bowls everywhere. He seemed to be just standing there, staring at the boneyard of utensils in the sink.

I said hi and offered him a drink.

“I don’t drink,” he said, frowning. But then he smiled and said, “But I did get some wine for dinner. I might have some of that. Go in and make yourself comfortable.”

Taylor Dane, or some power pop mistress from the eighties, bayed from the stereo. The apartment was so clean it looked like it had been boiled and peeled. I bit a chip, sipped my vodka. I thought about all of the events that had led me to being here. When I was a little boy I used to watch the Tonys with my mother. I’d sit there, exasperated, saying “Mama, that’s Angela Lansbury.” I only knew Angela from Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I didn’t know what Mame was. But I knew there were people out there who were not like my family. They got invited to award shows where they wore tuxedos. Of course, you could say that about the Emmys too. But these Tony people were . . . different. The men seemed like . . . they wouldn’t know how to fix a lawn mower. And that they wouldn’t care either. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, who I’d just seen on the Academy Awards singing a song with Susan Anton, might have been famous, but they looked like the kind of men who cared mightily about fixing lawn mowers; and if that’s how they were going to be, I didn’t know why they’d bothered being movie stars in the first place. They may as well have worked the pumps at the Sunoco with the rest of my relatives. I wouldn’t end up working the pumps. Men like me wound up assistant manager of the Dollar General. They lived with their mothers. People always talked about how nice they were to their mothers. These men on the Tonys didn’t live with their mothers. They probably weren’t even nice to them. They lived in New York. It was the kind of shaping thing that made you have to live here.

At about seven, John plopped down catercorner from me on the love seat, sighing, “I’ve been working my tits off in there.”

“You really didn’t have to do this,” I said, suddenly afraid that I’d done something wrong. Maybe this was one of those situations where the person offers and you were supposed to refuse, or better yet, to do what they’d offered in the first place. I could never get those things right.

“Oh no, it’s nice having somebody around again. Alan’s never here. He’s always got a boyfriend.” John rolled his eyes.

“Then why does he stay here?”

“’Cause he’s never with one long enough to move in on him. Don’t worry, you’ll meet him soon enough. He’s due to break up any day now.” He elongated “due” in the gay manner.

Dinner was tuna noodle casserole and the kind of salad in a faux wooden bowl that a woman in a hairnet might hand you. Radioactively orange dressing. There was nothing Tonys about it, though the casserole was textbook. Mock apple pie for dessert. Mock apple pie, in case you didn’t know, is made almost entirely of RITZ crackers, and it succeeds perfectly in mocking apples. If my mother had been there, criticizing us, the picture would have been perfect.

We talked about our childhoods. John’s had been the usual collection of traumas. So had mine. He looked nice there under the flickering tapers. The sixteen-by-candlelight effect, my friend Kenneth used to call it. John was hardly old, forty-two or -three; but I could tell that he had been a real cutie about twenty years ago. His face still had the angles of a vanished handsomeness. While we were having after-dinner sips of our wine, which tasted like that Kool-Aid they’d drunk back in Guyana, John pulled a floral cigarette case from the band of his sweatpants and lit a Doral 100. He was smoking. He was smoking and he was flicking the ashes onto his plate, which always made me want to run for cover. But more than that, he was smoking. And he had lung cancer. The words seemed to announce themselves one at a time, as if we’d only just met, which was far from true, particularly as regards Mr. Cancer. He. Was. Smoking. He. Had. Lung cancer.

“I miss this,” he said, exhaling deeply, and getting in some smoke rings to boot.

“Smoking?” I said, trying not to sound incredulous.

“Miss it? Honey, I never stopped long enough to miss it. No, I mean this,” he said, waving his cigarette in the general direction of life. “Me and Buddy used to do this all the time. Have dinner, sit around, watch TV. Mind you, missy—” hand on hip here—“we had our nights. One night we had about six naked men in and out of here between us.”

“Was he, like, your boyfriend?”

“Hardly. Buddy didn’t do boyfriends. He did boys, but not boyfriends. Unlike some people I could name who swore when they moved in here they never went out.”


“Her. Yes. God, I miss that wild old thing.”


“Oh, pleeeease. Alan—ha! Buddy. You’ve got to keep up, dear, if you’re going to make it here in La Apple Grande, as Buddy used to call it. This was his apartment. We lived here for what? Fifteen, sixteen years.”

“He didn’t just move, huh?”

“In a way, he did move. Back down to North Carolina. We were both from there, used to rent a car and drive to Charlotte for Christmas. Homos for the holidays. That’s why I liked you.”

I wasn’t keeping up again. So much for La Apple. Tiny smile to conceal blank look.

He wasn’t fooled. “Virginia? South? Hello? You’re from there. No more Gallo for you, sister.”

“So why’d he move back?”

“Well, he didn’t have much choice. You see, Buddy, she did like her cocktails. Like you.” He said it in a friendly way, like wasn’t it nice that Buddy and I had something in common; but it made me want to root out the nearest church basement with an AA meeting. “And one night he was coming home.” He crushed his cigarette out near a speck of mushroom. I don’t know if he intended it to be dramatic, but it was. “Some bar or other. I was working that night, I remember. Poor Mrs. Atkins had died. Pancreatic. They never live. I figured out the time later. I was probably just unhooking her when he stepped in front of that cab. Drunk as a lord, as per usual. He never even woke up. He never has woken up. His mother’s got him down there in Charlotte, curled up in a fetal ball in a nursing home. She goes there every afternoon and knits and watches her stories. Time of her life. Best thing that ever happened as far as she’s concerned. Brought her little Buddy back home. He. Would. Die if he knew it. I . . . went to see him once. Didn’t stay five minutes. What was the point? ‘Homos for the holidays,’ I said. But now he was one all the time.”

For my part, I was ready for the suicide pact, if that’s what he’d been leading up to. But John, already working on another Doral, just smiled at me, aswim in candlelight. Even the gray tuna casserole looked good under it. The windows were still open, and outside up-and-coming stockbrokers—our neighborhood was chockablock with the once and future frat brothers—hooted out their party-hearty-dudes. Death was something that had happened to their grandmothers and a few gerbils. Usually, I hated them on principle. I’d find myself muttering fuckingsunsuvbitchesentitledlittlewhitepricks; but tonight I felt kindness, or was it longing, or was it envy, toward anyone surfing down the sidewalk on the big kahuna of a few pitchers of beer, trying to scare up trouble with some sex in it. I gave in and lit a Merit myself, thinking, here’s to you, Buddy.

“Wanna watch TV?” John asked. “I got the cable turned back on.”

“I should probably take care of these dishes.”

“Oh no. You’re my guest tonight.”

“John, I live here.”

“But for tonight, you’re just like any other guest. And my guests don’t do the dishes. Capiche?

“I’d really—”


“Sure, OK, but only for tonight.”

Meatballs is on Comedy Central. Then Caddyshack. I love that Bill Murray.”

“Me too,” I half-lied. I actually did like Bill Murray, but I couldn’t bring myself to look forward to an evening of his old movies. It seemed like the end of hope.

“And I was kidding about the Gallo. Have as much as you want. That’s what I bought it for. Just don’t go walking in front of any cabs, mister. I’d hate to think of you curled up down there in Virginia with your mother.”

“Me too.”


I thought I could imagine what Buddy had been like, rapid-fire, extravagant, like the gay men I’d met back in Richmond when I’d first come out. There were two in particular I had in mind, Dizzy and Rose. Dizzy was six feet tall and weighed about ninety pounds, spaghetti come to life. He was always between jobs. Rose was about as tall, but he weighed about three hundred pounds, and he was black. He was a church organist. They were both from a small town forty-five minutes from Richmond, and they were both effeminate. On the street, they were an effortless spectacle. Dizzy, looking like he’d just come back from a date with Count Dracula. Rose, looking like he could pick his teeth with Dizzy. They didn’t do drag exactly—there was really no need to—but they did have a taste for clothes that announced themselves from three hundred paces and anything that reflected light. They were practically the first people I met because they introduced themselves to anyone they didn’t know. I was only seventeen, so they took me a bit under their winged sleeves. They spoke almost entirely in gay slang. “Let me go beat this do” literally meant that you needed to comb your hair, but really meant that you needed to run to the bathroom for a piss, a toot, a look around. Sometimes you really were going to beat your do. Since gay bars felt like another country to me, it seemed appropriate that this new world should have its own language, though I never used it myself. I didn’t have the delivery. Besides, even though I was new to the scene, I could tell that there were little sexual hierarchies; and while I didn’t want to be butch exactly—I couldn’t have carried that off either—I didn’t want to be seen as fem. I had this idea that fem guys didn’t get laid. Even then I could see the crippling irony of this. There I was, milling around a gay bar, hoping that people didn’t think I looked like a faggot.

One Sunday I was at the beach with my family, I’m not sure why. At that stage of the game—I had six more months before I was legal—I’d practically cut off a finger not to be seen with them in public. Mom must have thrown some sort of cow to get me there. My stepfather, Ken, was splayed out across a lawn chair, reading one of his true-crime magazines. My sister Debbie was trying out her new thirteen-year-old body up on the boardwalk. My brother, Mike, was playing Hot Wheels in the sand. My sister Karen was probably being a pest. She was six. I was deep into character as the ostentatiously bored teenage son, or I might have seen them coming. I could have ducked. As it was I didn’t see them until they were waving their arms at me. Dizzy and Rose, headed straight for me and my family. If it had been a sixty foot tentacle lashing up from the ocean floor I could not have been more terrified. Dizzy had squeezed himself into Barbie’s pink thong. Rose, in deference to his size, was wearing a tie-dyed caftan. The forty silver bangles on each of his arms were blinding. They made their way across the sand with all the subtlety of mimes walking against a thunderstorm, shrieking and collapsing against each other every time one of them lost his footing, about every other step. Families on blankets stared in gape-mouthed amazement, mine included. I was unbreathing. It felt like all the blood had left my body.

In retrospect, I cannot believe how brave they were. What they were doing was dangerous. It was one thing to lurk in bars, on certain street corners, behind bushes, in bathrooms and dirty bookstores. Sure, sometimes you got your ass kicked by the local rowdies. A couple of times a year there were a few token arrests. Yes, there were murders. But basically it was tolerated. Basically it was right where they wanted us: sectioned off in dark, furtive corners where nobody had to look at us and be sickened by our shameful lives. We were like vampires. Our real selves only came out at night. During the day, we kept those selves tightly packed in coffins. To act as if you had a perfect right to stroll down the beach with all the other moms and pops, yourself unfurled like a banner, was to risk death. No kidding. It was Virginia. It was 1977. It was not done.

At the time, though, I didn’t give a fuck about their bravery. All I cared about was that the garlic and the crucifixes were about to be drawn. A stake was about to be driven through my heart.

“Wesley, Wesley,” they were singsonging now. My stepfather laid his magazine over his crotch. I could see the rigor mortis of my mother out of the corner of my eye.

Dizzy leaned down and touched his long hands to his knees. “What are you doing here?” he said, highlighting “you” in the gay manner.

“I’m with my family,” I pleaded.

“What? Is this your little mother? She’s darling. Isn’t she darling, Rose?”

“Darling,” Rose confirmed, jangling down some bangles that had gotten jammed up around his elbow.

Mom looked straight through them. She had become her sunglasses.

“Well, we don’t want to interrupt. Just wanted to say hi. Nice to meet you, Mrs. . . . Wesley’s a wonderful boy.”

I could practically see the spears my mother had thrown through their abdomens.

“Bye, now,” Dizzy said, tinkling his fingers at me.

“Yeah,” I said miserably.

Mom waited until they’d made it back to the surf to grind out, “Who? In the hell? Was That?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” I’d learned to play dumb a while back. It had gotten me out of a lot of scrapes.

“Well, they certainly seemed to know who you were, mister.”

“Uh, yeah, you know, I’ve seen ’em around and stuff.”

“Where would you see them around? You don’t see people like that around. You have to look for them.”

“They’re a couple of goddamned faggots,” Ken said. He couldn’t believe it.

“You think so?” I said. “I just thought they were like, weird or something.”

“Wesley Cullen Gibson,” Mom said, dragging out the full armada of my name. Bad sign. “You must think we just dropped here off the turnip truck. You mean to tell me you didn’t think they were . . . funny?”

“Well, sure they’re funny, but you know, I never thought they were like that.”

“Then you’re dumber than I ever give you credit for.”

“Mom,” I said, opting for another route, the high road, “not everybody’s mind is in the gutter.”

“That’s fine if my mind is in the gutter. But if I ever see you with the likes of them again, your ass is gonna be in a sling.”

“Who’s gonna put it there?” I figured I’d pretty well slipped by this time since we were talking about possible future infractions. Might as well get some licks in.

“I will,” Ken said.

“There are laws against child abuse in this state,” I said.

“There are laws against homosexuals too,” Mom said.

“Thanks, Perry Mason.”

She threw the Coppertone bottle at me. “I’d rather you be a murderer than a homosexual.”

“Maybe I could start here.”

“What?” she said, uncertainly, suspecting she was being set up.

“Get that murder thing going.”


“Pleasure,” I said. I had no intention of going to the fucking car to sweat my ass off. Standing up, I slipped on my flip-flops. Dizzy and Rose had wandered up from the gay beach about a mile down the road. I knew right where it was, behind the wedding cake of a bingo place, which for reasons I couldn’t explain seemed fitting. Ken had gone back to his mag. He was to a page where a woman in a girdle was inching up a staircase with a luger clutched in her hands. I could’ve used some more Coppertone, but I wasn’t going to give my mother the pleasure of knowing that I needed anything from her. I did pick up my Coke. That, technically, was mine, since I’d opened it, even if it was hot enough to scald the top layer off my tongue.

I hated them. They hated me. At least that meant we were even.

John would have loved Dizzy and Rose. He liked me well enough, but he’d basically decided I was boring. I was certainly no Buddy; and that was only one of the many terrible things about life. There’s only one Buddy. When he’s gone, he’s gone.  

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