LET me be very clear.
I’m not mocking the tiny cashier’s fractured English.
As someone who is breezily called “ma’am” by pizza delivery dispatch, I don’t dare.
I hesitate to even quote her. I was raised not to ridicule the accent or language barrier of another. Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi and his buck teeth in Breakfast at Tiffany’s always disturbed me, and Jonathan Pryce’s eyes taped back to look Asian as The Engineer in the original production of Miss Saigon was just wrong.
I could rephrase it more PC: “Here’s your change.” That would sound better. But I just handed this woman in Qiana with a bun a twenty-dollar bill, and it’s what she said.
My attention is elsewhere. I am lost, as friends have called it, in aesthetic astigmatism, my eyes twirling different directions in survey of my radius. It’s what I do, what I used to do, edit your stuff, reduce clutter. I’m that precious someone who finds exposed electrical cords distasteful and wishes all lamps ran on batteries. I’m the dumbass who complains in the sports bar if an HD broadcast isn’t set to the right aspect ratio. Little things, big things, they all count, and gift or curse, OCD Me is compelled to mentally reset this bodega, counter to shelf, beginning with the crowded checkout.
Yes, I know bodega is Spanish. This mart is Korean. But everyone in New York calls them that, and I am a Newer Yorker.
The first thing I’d do is find a new place for those small foreign-made American flags, since I stopped counting at fifty-two stars. Vials of ginseng energy drink provide companionship to Pilgrim salt-and-pepper shakers. A chalkboard tells me I can have a $3 Sanwich! For fifty cents more, can I get the D? Only in New York City is a cellophane-wrapped stale corn muffin an impulse purchase. And so many spools of twine. It takes a lot to lash your nerves together here, I guess.
This is the stuff that drives me bonkers.
A lot drives me bonkers.
Like that dairy case, which I want to squeegee. It looks like someone’s been kissing it. I can barely see the Yoo-Hoo behind the glass.
She says it again, serenely.
She could be congratulating me. It could be urgent instruction. The cash register says $18.03. It’s a current model I would swap for something with period charm, before Hell’s Kitchen became Midtown West, something she could really pound with those fists.
A male employee, trying to activate an edible color from the bottom of a soup kettle, stops stirring to stare at this wayward customer holding flowers.
Here’s an idea. Why don’t you change? And how’s that courtship working out for Eddie’s father?
It has been said that most of the biggest moments in your life pass unnoticed or unremarked upon. That’s funny. My last year has been accompanied by a John Williams score. I just did my damnedest to stay afloat. I can make order of your disorder, but for my own life, I’d need a considerably bigger feather duster.
This is not, you see, not where I thought I’d be on my forty-sixth birthday, buying two bunches of daisies in dripping, crinkled plastic for myself, ahead of another customer holding a plastic container of fake crab with the real stench.
No, this is not the life I thought I’d be living.
WE ARE making our way downtown as others scurry home in the last gasp of Friday night rush hour in the last gasp of summer.
“The sunset is like the healing stages of a bruise,” Andy observes.
“It reminds me of a church window lit from within,” I suggest.
“Like you’ve been in church to know.”
“Does the ‘Church of the Poisoned Mind’ count?”
The nightclub we’re bound for is a temple of sorts—a sanctuary of hymns, sisters, at least one choirmaster—and there is sure to be ritualistic sipping. It is as close as we’ll get to a place of worship on this, my birthday weekend.
At his request, Andy is at the wheel. I brake too much, he says. It makes him feel epileptic. We’re in my 1971 Mercedes 280SL Pagoda convertible—Mercedes-Benz red 576 over a black leather interior. It’s the same model and year my father once owned and always regretted selling. I called it Mercy B. The broad assumption was the car, purchased via auction, was the prickly heat of a midlife hot flash. A Caesar haircut would have been cheaper, friends mocked. They were correct. After my winning bid, the car was transported to the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California, where it spent weeks—at $100 an hour—being rebuilt, restored, rechromed, repainted, replated. The wood in the car is show quality; even the upgraded armrests match the veneer. Mercy B. has only gotten better. Damn shame I haven’t.
At first, Andy isn’t taking one of the many alternate, and shorter, routes, and I decide this is fine. It gives us more time for what we do best: banter. He pushes my buttons until his finger cramps. I yank his chain until I need a heating pad. We pick each other’s scabs like bored kids at summer camp.
“Did you realize we’re the same age right now?” Andy asks. He turns forty-six at the end of October.
“Technically,” I remind him, “I’m forty-four until September 16, tomorrow. Still and always younger than you.”
Both of our fortieths were, by decree, private. Leaving our thirties was more tearshed than watershed. But after that, we figured, why not? We would intermittently arrange something special.
“So how shocked do I act when I walk in? Should I shit my pants?” I ask.
“And make that twice today?”
“I wouldn’t pursue that. I do your laundry. I bought you new jockey shorts in camouflage.”
This forty-fifth birthday party isn’t a surprise. I hate surprises. That I surrendered the guest list to Andy’s charge worries me enough. I requested that he not “mix it up a little,” but I have to ask.
“I hope you didn’t invite fillers to make the room look crowded.”
“No meat-extender guests,” Andy promises.
Good. I don’t want to get drunk with the man who cleans our gutters. We’ve been to enough private parties populated by cardboard cutouts watching the lips of others, trying to figure out who’s being toasted. What I like is anachronistic clash in the minutiae. Everyone will know, for example, that I commandeered party details when they encounter the concessionaire hot dog machine alongside ceviche. Andy is a banker for a reason; intended irony is not part of his astrological sign.
It’s one of the many traits we don’t share. Our longevity as a couple also doesn’t extend to looking like one another or our pugs, Gertie and Noel, although I think we chose that breed knowing we’d also someday be low to the ground, wheeze a lot, and require that our facial creases be thoroughly washed. Many think Andy resembles Matthew McConaughey. I don’t see it except during arguments, when his deep dimples smirk at me. Our physicality, though, is similar enough that we can literally give the other the shirt off our back. Not that I would want the Tommy Bahama shirt he’s wearing tonight. It’s too resort.
“Did Rick and Sarah get an invite?” They are new to our neighborhood.
Andy nods and says Sarah mentioned she’d never been in a gay bar. “I think she wet herself.” Then he requests, “Find some tunes. Not the theme from On Golden Pond.”
I shuffle through my iPod. “On the subject of loons, did you invite LezbyAnn?”
“She won’t be there. She has a blind date. She’s already making out a change-of-address card, I’m sure.”
“Hers come with bubble gum by now,” I observe. It will help her prospects if the blind date is also deaf. LezbyAnn has such a filthy mouth I’m surprised her face hasn’t evicted it.
Andy warily watches my fiddling. Sometimes I invade his iPhone and add bizarre things, far worse than William Shatner singing. I wish I could see his face when he’s on the elliptical and a lewd LaWanda Page comedy routine from her sixties stand-up act interrupts his Scissor Sisters playlist. Controlling music is a skirmish without end, one of many. The muffins don’t have enough chocolate chips, our pool is too cold, why don’t you ever shut off the hallway light? Then, when it’s finally sorted, tastes change. Now the muffins are gooey, pool water’s downright hot, I can’t see where I’m going.
“Something other than show tunes, at least.”
I think I hear a muffled cell phone ringtone. “You or me?” I ask.
Andy evenly notes, “Since it’s not the Overture from Gypsy, it must be me.”
“Better not be work,” I warn.
“Like your employer never calls.”
“I am the employer,” I remind him archly.
“You know what I meant. We all answer.”
He begins to counsel someone quietly. I won’t have it. “What do they want?” I won’t have him ignoring me, either. “Excuse me? What? Someone’s debit card won’t swipe at Walmart?”
Andy puts the phone to his shoulder. “Barry, I am talking a very wigged-out twenty-four-year-old IT programmer through a system workaround in Kentucky.”
“It’s my birthday.”
“It’s my job, you fucking brat.”
“I hate your guts sometimes,” I remind him.
People that many—and by people, I mean my mother—would call dodgy huddle outside an abandoned storefront and glare at Mercy B.
“Answer me this,” I whisper, watching a toddler in a full diaper skip off a sagging porch. “Why are our bars always in terrifying neighborhoods? What about HUD housing attracts Nicki Minaj?”
The lowered caution arms, blinking red lights, and metallic clang at a train crossing represent nothing but a challenge to Andy. He maneuvers between, then around, the beams.
“Back up!” I direct.
“What is life but caution lights to be outrun, little butterfly? Nothing’s coming. Really. Look.”
I look. Of course something is. Suddenly, the train, with its warning blast, is zooming toward the crossing. We easily clear the tracks, but still I fume. “Everything’s a damn dare with you!”
“And everything with you is sarcasm,” Andy says.
As we turn west, we agree the sky looks like succotash.
IF YOU didn’t know where the gay birthday party is, the rainbow arc of balloons flanking the entrance of Gyrate makes it very clear. They were not my idea. Nor is the 45 And Barely Alive banner strung over the nearest thing to a VIP room: their Skybar on the second floor. It has the promised bar, but as for sky, one small oval window faces a vacant lot of trash and snakes. (And that window, it’s cracked.) After only two months open, the sheer scrims and white divans are already dirty and stained, yet I chose Gyrate because I want the young owner, Joey, to succeed. He acquired the club, which had gone into default, as a lark, spending little on upgrades but expecting a lot of profit—another gay-owned enterprise overly ambitious and undercapitalized. I’m sure Joey’s learning the hard way how employee theft has to be built into your budget like mixers and, from what I’ve heard, how important parking lot lighting and security is, which is why we stuck Mercy B. in a private pay lot a block away.
Friends drift in. I go into inventory mode. Ranking people like dry goods seems catty, but it’s pretty accurate. Most of our life rack clangs with caveat emptor—damaged but sellable. Andy is my Display Only haute couture, custom-designed, fit on me and altered as wear and gravity has dictated.
Dee is an exception. She would discontinue herself before ever being marked down. She was the Realtor representing the seller’s interest when we bought our house. Despite being Ann Coulter’s doppelganger, our rapport was immediate. We knew within minutes that she was divorcing for the second time and that she considered herself “Ground Zero for Erectile Dysfunction.” After the sale closed, we—Andy was as smitten—delightedly called our immediate friendship Gift With Purchase. She is every gay man’s idyll: the slave style confidante in the little microbeaded black dress. Dee appears effortlessly beautiful but works as hard at it as any listing. Girlfriend, balanced on Louboutin red-soled heels as thin as pencils, is right now talking creative financing with Vic and Neil. She’s one of the state’s highest producers, but she’s been less successful in marriage—three husbands, so far. Her last, after a few too many, approached Andy and me in a bar and confided in us that “Miss Perfect has big moles on her ass, and some of them have faces, and those faces, even they scowl.” We immediately called her to ask about those moles.
Stan, over there by the food, is our Sell-By. He’s closer to seventy than sixty, a few years short of my mother’s age. He sought a divorce and came out late in life after retirement from teaching English literature in public high school. Seeing him try to catch up is painful; he has what everyone assumes is a perm and his popped collar isn’t so much hip as it is Elizabethan. His sons never speak to him, a cause of great pain, yet whenever we meet his newest underemployed twenty-four-year-old boyfriend, we do the math and shiver a little. We no longer bother learning the name of The Vapid he squires, since the arrangement usually lasts about as long as a rinse cycle. It’s never quite May/December; it’s usually closer to Bassinet/Dawn Of Man. I’d call the boys tricks but the word dates me, a throwback to when Fran Lebowitz actually finished a book. They’re just a collective Protégé, invariably regifted. Tonight’s Protégé is all bitchflip and clunky eyewear.
“Try this ceviche,” I hear Stan urge Protégé.
“Fuck ceviche. I want a chili dog.”
Kerrick, he’s our Irregular with the ill-placed seam. His event company is called Planned With Kerr. He is all high concept and low execution and generally makes everyone uneasy. Local gay leaders were outraged at a charitable event when he crafted chocolate butt plugs for dessert. The crawfish boil in that FEMA trailer he got his hands on was especially heartless. He’s pouting tonight. The only thing I let him supply for my birthday were two servers who, for no good reason, came dressed as Pee-wee Herman and Bettie Page.
Faith is tall and manages the human resources of a CPA firm I do business with; Suzi is squat, runs a preschool center, and isn’t much larger than her charges. There’s not much more to say except that they clearly came from Women’s Separates.
Suzi implores, “So lay the Termination of The Week on us, Faith. Who got the Das Boot at ten ’til five and why?”
We often tell Faith she should alter her department’s name to Humorless Resources, since they’re well-known for overreacting and canning employees for arcane reasons.
Faith stiffens. “We did rightfully dismiss a financial analyst overheard telling a sexually divisive joke.”
“What was the joke?” Tracy asks.
Tracy has hair somewhere between the color of Welch’s Grape and red velvet cake. Cats are her obsession. She and her husband Matt have nine indoor cats, plus another three feral. She greets with a meow, not hello, and will excuse herself to the ladies’ room by explaining she has to visit the litter pan. She oversaw the installation of voice-recognition telephone equipment at Andy’s bank headquarters. It malfunctioned from day one and was eventually replaced; she wasn’t. This makes Tracy a Consolation Gift. Matt is easygoing to the point of lethargy. I think of him as a Store Label: nice enough yet absent the finishing touches, bought for others but never yourself. We call him Doormatt (not to his face).
Faith crosses her arms. “What did the leper say to the prostitute?” The group waits. “Keep the tip.”
“Divisive? Who felt singled out?” Andy laughs. “Do you employ the diseased whose genitals are falling off?”
As I pass, I wonder aloud, “People still tell leper jokes?”
Since they’ve been coupled, Greg and Greg have been commonly referred to as Gregsquared. They are Buy One, Get One Free. Like us, they have two dogs and saddled them with gay names: Abercrombie and Fitch. Unlike us, they dress alike: pink button-downs, khakis. Gregsquared circles the hot dog machine.
Emily, heavy with child, chugs San Pellegrino. She’s been relocated to our Maternity Department. She stands with Miss Sondra.
I pat Emily’s stomach. “Boy or girl, Em?”
“No clue,” Emily says.
Miss Sondra drolly notes, “That’s okay. Me neither.”
Sandor Cornajo has been Miss Sondra Cornajo since we’ve known her. She is from Mix ’n Match. Her ultimate anatomical intentions remain unclear. We don’t know if she’s seen a real gender vendor, but she’s had a tracheal shave to soften her Adam’s apple and hormones diminished her penis to not an angry but a sheepish inch. “It’s sorta like a piece of rotini pasta,” she told us all one night, “without the spring-like appearance.”
I compliment Miss Sondra’s shawl. It is her dining-room table runner: “It went, so why not? If I didn’t have such man hands, I was going to wear my new napkin rings for bracelets.” Who else at my party is in a textile, I wonder.
Sarah Tanner pinches a centerpiece like it might say ouch. To her husband Rick, who’s plucking a frankfurter from rollers, she says admiringly, “Wow. It’s not silk.” They are, obviously, New Arrivals.
When my gaudy birthday cake appears, ablaze, I close my eyes and pucker.
Vic casts his eyes heavenward. “Blow out your candles, Laura.”
Sarah’s eager to learn the lingo. “Laura? Is that what you go by on nights like this, Barry?”
Someone summarizes The Glass Menagerie for Sarah, or at least I think they are, because I hear Wingfield, not Petrie, Ingalls Wilder, or Brannigan. I hear someone else say pleurisy. Our best friend Potsy disbelievingly echoes, “…on nights like this.”
I blow. All but one extinguishes. “See? I’m still forty-four.”
Andy licks his thumb and index finger to snuff the stubborn candle.
Thank God everyone ignored his edict and tithed me. I flip around a playbill from the original flop—not the 2012 flop revival—Carrie: The Musical and announce, “Carrie. There’s never been a musical like her.”
Neil’s justifiably proud. “See where the star signed it? Betty Buckle.”
I laugh so hard I snort. “Buckley. With a Y!”
I walk among a shadowy subculture of theater queens who shoot shows through a small hole cut out of a Bloomingdale’s bag, plagued with misdirected zooms and nervous blackouts if an usher is near. We also bid on glossy programs from shows cut short by awful reviews; we neurotically change passwords for the encoded websites where we barter a backer’s demo CD for a bootleg of rare Ed Sullivan Toast of the Town kinescopes; I still scour used-book sites for the annual Theatre World volume I’m missing. We’re all united in the so-far fruitless pursuit of the Holy Grail: a complete video of the original 1971 Follies. From the Boston tryout. At the Colonial Theatre. It’s our secret handshake.
I wave a white cloth. “Look, Andy!”
“Surrendering to forty-five?” he gloats, to laughter.
“It’s a hand towel Hugh Jackman wiped his sweat off with when he did The Boy from Oz!” I trill.
This is immediately passed around for obscene sniffing.
By the time our guests adjourn to the lower dance floor, the evening is no longer mine. I can barely make out my friends. Blanche du Bois designed the illumination here: ten thousand square feet, one night light. Sarah is jumping up and down with Rick. Faith pole dances. Emily presses her lower back to the music. Stan plays air bongos as Protégé undulates around him.
I find an Employees Only door and walk through it. I pace the tar periphery, past rooftop mechanicals. A starless cityscape surrounds me. A plane is passing over the dome of our state’s capital building. Beyond blinks the spire of the tallest building, which houses the corporate staff of Andy’s bank.
“How you durrin’?”
Potsy has trailed me to the rooftop. We’ve known Potsy, born Louis Van Bourgondien, almost the entire time we’ve been together. At Andy’s first job, as an assistant bank branch manager, Potsy was the teller who made tsk-tsk sounds when a sheepish customer came in to settle bounced checks. He was verbally warned and sent to sensitivity training. Children only got the foul flavor Dum-Dums at his window because Potsy had taken the rest of the suckers. A note went into his personnel file. My favorite episode was when a carload of pranksters farted into a drive-through canister. Potsy opened it, gagged, tore out of the bank, caught the teenage boys at the exit, and caused about $1,000 in hood damage with his fists. Andy excused that one. But he could not excuse it when Potsy cruelly told a Depression-era customer who came in and worriedly checked their balance every day that “there’s nothing left. Nothing.” He became the first employee Andy ever fired. How his unemployment claim turned into a friendship is murky, but the next thing we knew, Potsy was in our new hot tub, announcing he’d just peed. This makes him hard to classify, but he’s a little like the extra acquisition the cashier accidentally tossed in your bag at check-out. It’s not to your liking but you keep it anyway. Occasionally, when he’s a real asshole, we threaten him with Clearance.
We look down at the velvet rope and a doorman who thinks he’s Vin Diesel. The deflating balloons arc has sprung partially loose, thumping the nightclub facade and, occasionally, Vin.
“That’s me. I’m a sagging balloon.” I point my finger at the fresh-faced boiz that Vin grants entry, then to whom he ignores: older gay men in ironed short-sleeves, too-white sneakers.
“We all line up for inevitable invisibility.”
It’s already started. One buzz-reducing moment was at a P’town Tea Dance four summers ago. I was playing a wood block someone had handed me and Andy impulsively leapt onto a cube. Someone near had catcalled, “Go, Gramps, go!”
A man with Sun-In hair—blond the goal, popsicle orange the result—is blocked by Vin.
“From pursued to pursuer.” I tip some of my drink into Potsy’s martini glass. “Here. No desire to be a morose old homo in his cups.”
“Too late. Lose that long face, Judy. You own a mall.”
I remind him that I am Laura tonight. “And it’s not a mall. You can’t buy a soft pretzel.”
“But you can buy the imported mustard to put on it. You’re a Williams-Sonoma in utero. Homes, plural. Here, Key West.” He rubs his shorn head. “You still sport major hair, you son of a bitch.” He lights a cigarette. “Plus a handsome husband since forever. That kind of monogamy pisses off the right-wingers and lets down your own whoring people.”
I point to lightning outlining the clouds. “Even the sky has varicose veins in my honor.”
“They said rain tonight, later,” Potsy says.
“God’s tears, to sanctify my forty-fifth year,” I muse.
“The pearl-clutching move up here, boiz?” It’s Dee, carrying her shoes and someone’s hair. “Miss Sondra lost her clip-on bangs, and I can’t find her.” It’s like a wide paintbrush minus a handle. “There’s a Hispanic neuter loose covering her high forehead with a birthday napkin.”
Potsy slaps his arms, neck. “Damn fruit-fly repellent didn’t work again!”
“My fruit loop detector must be stronger,” Dee hotly offers. “You don’t treat LezbyAnn this way.”
Potsy flicks ash toward her. “LezbyAnn isn’t needy and bleedy.”
“Seriously. I’m curious. What did I ever do to you?”
“I can’t stomach women who act cool with gay men but secretly resent they can’t change us.”
“I couldn’t even get a husband to stop washing his hair with a bar of Irish Spring, so I have no illusions that I can coax that dick out of your mouth, ass, or armpit.” She gets in his face for this last part. “I’m not looking to convert anyone. Especially you.”
“Maybe not,” he admits, “but it’s always like this. You’re always at everybody.”
Their Best Friend competition has always been intense and flattering. Potsy calls her The Thresher (this is when he’s not calling her The Penis Flytrap). Dee has a brisk stride. Her arms chug, like opposing handshakes suddenly taken away. “Do you generate actual energy, like wind farms?” Potsy challenged her one night. “Enough to blow away the likes of you,” she coolly assessed.
“Potsy, Potsy,” she now purrs, then snaps, “always so superior. Just remember: everyone shits between two shoe heels.”
“Not that gnarly ex of Paul McCartney.” At the roof’s edge, Potsy tilts the martini glass. “Not Totie Fields.” A drop plinks the dome of Vin, who looks up. Potsy steps back just enough. “And that shark-bit surfboarder chick they made the movie out of.”
“That was an arm,” Dee sighs. “Potsy, it must physically hurt, being so dumb.” She wraps her arms around me. “Sweetheart, Andy’s doing a cement-mixer-with-white-man-overbite.” She demonstrates. “Stan is helplessly watching Pee-wee put the move on Protégé, who’s trying to talk Andy into taking his blouse off.”
“He hasn’t worked out since Memorial Day!” I cry.
Potsy places his glass on his ribcage like a Madonna cone-bra. “Low-nip intervention!” He flicks off what’s left of his cig. Balloons pop and a startled Vin screams in falsetto.
We all clomp back down into Gyrate. It is so time to go. I dance with—and try to dress—Mr. Potatochippendale, but he deftly pops his arm out of the sleeve I just got on him. At least I stop Andy from whipping Miss Sondra, who’s shaking her padded ass, with his belt.
ANDY’S blotto, so I drive. The headlights sweep across the potted topiaries aligned with the heavy wood front doors I myself reseal every spring, across the signage of Great Rooms! in a typeface I chose not because it was retro but because it looked trustworthy.
I pull close and idle. This was formerly Packard Elementary, a large brick two-story school shuttered for lackluster performance. Dee represented me in negotiations with the city. I could never be impartial, but I’m always impressed. It’s large and varied, now housing specialty shops and a culinary hub with everything from cooking lessons to knife servicing. Tomorrow, Saturday, is our weekly farmer’s market in a rear parking lot carved out of a playground.
I had been with a collective of furniture stores as a visual design manager, the pay poor but the title, right out of college, impressive. I loved cultivating suppliers. I found colloquial inspiration in the tri-state area I was given. If there was a covered bridge festival, we built a bridge and, by God, we covered it. If mesmerized by the garish lighting of a Dario Argento horror film I stayed up too late watching the night before, I replicated it. Every store walk I had with upper management was lauded and rewarded with more locations and more work. I started hating the travel, walking through hotel lobbies bleary-eyed with damp hair and realizing every other guest smelled like the same cucumber and verbena shampoo/conditioner combo. And I missed Andy all the time. My ultimatum was addressed by creating an office-based position: VP, Creative Services. I came to find the Marketing golems cantankerous and quite content to steal promotional campaigns from other furniture chains. I remained, proofreading silk-screened signage for a series of never-ending sales, until Andy drove me past Packard and simply said, “Get out of your own way.”
“I hate that phrase.”
“Shit or get off the pot.”
“Hate that one too.”
Without the third option of a colostomy, I got out of my own way, then shat. I could claim I herded my background into a meticulous master plan, but mostly I relied on my under-capitalized instinct. At thirty-three, I had mortgaged real estate with significant asbestos-mitigation issues, in the kind of neighborhood you pray turns around so your customers feel safe enough to turn their back.
I figured many curious would come because they went to school here, so we kept the old chalkboards, desks, and globes. This wasn’t just in tribute. I had a Visual budget of zero. (They’ve since diminished. Commerce trampled nostalgia.) We still use the hallway bells, now timed to signal the beginning and end of shopping hours. The PA system worked, so I still hop on occasionally, before store hours, and sing something from the score of South Pacific, which inarguably has no clinkers. The administrative space functions as the same; I took the principal’s office. I kept the marble floors as they were, having hated industrial carpeting ever since my mother used her employee discount at the carpet warehouse she worked at to wall-to-wall our home in remaindered Celadon. We have no statement staircase, just two narrow flights to a second floor that still reverberate with those energized slap-slap-slaps toward recess. I reengineered the former cafeteria to display cookware. The gymnasium is seasonal: outdoor patio furnishings spring up like a migrant camp every March, and November brings pre-lit, pre-decorated Christmas trees so towering they’d only fit into a McMansion. The auditorium with its Depression-era murals had a serviceable stage, and I offered it for community rental or, if I liked the cause, gratis. Dipping into what little his late dad had left him, Andy bought four used delivery trucks. We washed them every weekend ourselves, knowing they were the moving sandwich boards representing Great Rooms! We went green and recycled, because I couldn’t afford daily bulk trash pickup. Skids and shipping containers our woodworkers conjoined as storage sheds and kids’ playhouses.
Still, I had vast and odd space to fill. I knew what Pottery Barn could do; what they couldn’t, I made my niche. Ralph Lauren said somewhere that you can’t be too hot or too cold. That sounded right to me. Flavor of the month is nice—we’ve had our share of tables made from things like orange safety cones—but comfort food is nicer. I began acquiring. The local newspaper admiringly called it synergism. I knew it better as sink-or-swim. I brought in a struggling upholstery firm and its four employees, and we encouraged clients to bring in what caught their eye from catalogs or online. I tracked down a steelworker whose gates I admired at a museum and asked about an alliance. He began turning out everything from kickplates to customized trellises and fencing; a daughter and son-in-law later started designing bracelets. Milliners made tapestries. Local artists got their own stalls for their hand-painted canvases. (As they began to make house calls and broadened into architectural detail painting, they timidly asked if they could call themselves Damn Hue. Just being able to okay a name like that, as the owner, made owning the gallery worth it.) The only thing I insisted upon was showroom presence during business hours; it was fine, actually better, for me if they kept their off-site workrooms. I didn’t eschew heirlooms but I didn’t want shelves of empty perfume bottles, either, so we contracted a husband/wife team to bid on estates that met their antiquity standards. Sourcing has become a huge part of what Great Rooms! is. I don’t; others do. My days of bringing home a suitcase of filament bulbs when I travel are over.
Much to the chagrin of our customer service department, I started layaway, remembering how fanatically my parents paid weekly on a genuine arcade pinball machine for Olivia and me one Christmas. (It turned out to be more for them than us; we were more taken with Atari and bored quickly by the refurbished flippers and chrome balls.)
Dee goaded me into buying surrounding land when it became available. I gutted three old school buses, arranged them in a U-shape, repainted them a brighter yellow, and they became a specialty lighting depot. I added a freestanding custom home theater center, tracking down the same brick as that of Gentry Elementary. Even there I made my own imprimatur. I rejected pleas from sales for the typical sporting events as background visual for the bank of TVs; unless they’re specifically demonstrating models, a video I had produced—interspersing commercials from the 1960s, digitized science-class filmstrips, and even snippets from some 8mm home movies of me and my sister Olivia—continually loops.
Mr. Albanese, a professional arborist nudged into retirement, then approached me. He and his wife overplanted a small wood behind us with seasonal produce and herbs that they sold under a side awning. Friends of his inquired, and it turned into a weekend farmer’s market on what was the playground, where I placed picnic tables, swings, and a basketball court for families to make a day of it. He loosely manages it all with the hopeful but unenforceable rule that everything must have been grown or made within ten miles of here. All I ask is that the store name appear somewhere on all labeling. It’s grown large, and Mr. Albanese wants to extend into winter with root vegetables and ice fishermen friends who want to sell their catch. He keeps telling me about two strange sisters who formulate artisanal ricotta from sheep they keep in their backyard.
No one was more shocked than I when House Beautiful accepted my invitation and portfolio to see some of our work firsthand; I had luckily stumbled into a new layer of regional editors. A six-page spread on a pharmaceutical CEO’s Tara and the millwork I personally oversaw followed. When asked admiringly how I managed it all, I honestly told them it didn’t occur to me that there was a different way to do it, and when they inquired about how I went about developing my business model, I just looked at them. More than anything, this article put us on the map, drawing customers from other states to what had been just another high-end backwater store. We became the destination others feed from and not the other way around. The quadrant transformed. A gourmet custard emporium, independent art cinema, Brazilian steakhouse, and a travel agent sprang up on the opposite side of the road. A long-dormant strip plaza was revitalized with a Greek deli, a watch repair shop, fondue restaurant, Apple store, and a one-hour photo center. And is any neighborhood metamorphosis complete until you can get your eyebrows threaded? That opens next month. I’m not thrilled about the new, small private airport and the potential noise a couple miles away, but I also know it’s another testimonial to the area’s rebirth.
It was all very heady, but it didn’t happen as fast as it seems. I was, at times, impatient and irritable, discouraged, disgusted. We took a hit in that last bout of the country’s economic woes, but our lack of snobbery sustained us. I lent, for a fee, underutilized sales associates to Dee as stagers, depersonalizing homes for sale. Other offices followed, and it became a significant revenue stream. I also didn’t panic and depart from twice-yearly sales (and never on the same date). More, and you train your customer to adjust their cost expectation downward and wait.
Mostly, I’m still a little mystified and a lot gratified. It’s a simplified summary of a complicated process, but it was simple in its hopefulness, and is still Mom-and-Pop enough that when Andy brings Gertie and Noel at the end of the workday, when they run wild and pee and no one can reprimand me, I still feel like I won something.
My biggest personal victory right this second is seeing how the variegated ivy Andy and I had planted over a decade ago—a daunting weekend project, hundreds of nursery cell packs—established a dense, seamless hedge on the exterior. The store looks like it’s been here forever, a real business as rooted as the ivy.
“Who’s the workaholic? Who? Who?” Andy is awake or, more aptly, has briefly regained consciousness.
I back out. “Only looking, just checking.”
At the next stoplight, Andy slurs at a moody shop window of female mannequins in wedding gowns: “Here’s a big howdy-do to Bethany’s Bridal!”
“Shut up! Don’t draw attention!” I warn. A DWI is one of those acronyms, like SARS or GOP, that you don’t want associated with your name.
“Hey, Bethany, where are the boy brides?” he catcalls. Before I can clamp my hand over his mouth, he’s taken my left hand off the steering wheel to massage my silver ring. “Would you marry me if we met now?”
“Driving here!” I go back to ten and two.
“I’m gonna do something to you,” he growls huskily, trying for sexy but sounding like a state governor who’s just denied a stay of execution. By the time we turn onto our neighborhood street, Dumbass has returned to mumbling out the window, now at an imposing Spanish stucco home. “Barry, order me two burritos and refried beans.”
I lightly tap the brakes a dozen times to annoy him.
For once we don’t have to repeatedly put Gertie and Noel down from the bed; we lure them away with a giant gift bow. As we thrash, they slash, all in flashes of lightning.
I AWAKE to canine asshole. “Noel, get your twinkler outta here!” I scream.
Andy’s in his favorite cargo shorts with more pockets than anyone needs and his alma mater wife-beater. “But wouldn’t mankind be better off if we all did the Presentation of the Anus? Summit meetings of world leaders should be preceded by a Presentation of the Anus.”
“It would give new meaning to dirty politics,” I say, still pushing Noel away.
“And would bring everyone down a notch, huh, Gertie? Right, Noel?”
We chose pugs because of their compactness—neither weighs more than thirteen pounds—their curly tails, lustrous eyes, and their overall jauntiness. Both are the common fawn color. Today is Andy’s turn to take them for shampooing, something we let a groomer do because they’ve both caught colds when we did it. It’s something else common to the breed: chronic breathing problems and allergies.
Noel jumps down alongside Andy and Gertie.
“Speaking of ass, someone’s breath smells like butt.” Andy waves his hand.
“Says more about you than me,” I reply. “And don’t think that counted as a fuck. That wasn’t much more than a warm, soapy bowl.” Warm, soapy bowl was our euphemism for let’s-just-do-this sex. In 1940s wartime, a prostitute would carefully wash her john’s penis in a warm, soapy bowl of water to ensure cleanliness and scope out visible disease. Excited, this often promptly brought the soldier boy off. This is another phrase we treasure: brought off. “And you didn’t even finish,” I also point out.
“‘Toot my birthday horn’ isn’t exactly a reciprocal love call.”
I wince. No one wants to be reminded of bossy shit said in the throes.
“It was all about you, baby boy,” Andy says, laughing.
“Andy, take off their collars.” The pugs are wearing their matching lavender collars, studded with cubic zirconium. “The groomer will forget and then it’s a trip back.”
“The puppets are glammin’ for your birthday,” he dismisses me. “I’ll remember. The puppets have asked can they go in Mercy B.”
I roll over. “Daddy says sure if they’re on towels until their puppet nails get clipped.” As Andy goes to get some from the master bathroom, I add, “Take the crappy ones!”
“They’re all crappy. Great Rooms! sells such plush ones. Are we poor?” Andy asks like a timid housewife.
We kiss, all four of us. I see red soaring down our driveway. It’s going to be a good day. I’m not even going to bathe, at least not yet. I put on the cast album of I Had A Ball, a 1962 musical vehicle for, go figure, Buddy Hackett. It’s Karen Morrow, belting the title showstopper like it’s a testicle she devoured, that I want to hear, my feel-good song. I put track number thirteen on repeat. I return to our bedroom and figure out a birthday suit that involves clothing. By the time I settle on a tee and pajama pants from the pine cupboard, the microwave coffee gone cold in a Drowsy Chaperone mug, it’s 10:22.
The telephone rings.
“What’s happenin’, Hot Stuff?”
And so begins the yearly ritual, an unidentified, disguised caller among our friends. I’m not even convinced it’s a male.
“That’s pretty good. Was that a real gong I heard?”
I hear the sound effect again, then, “His name is Long Duck Dong.”
“I don’t know him,” I reply.
“Fred, she’s gotten her boobies. Oh, and they are so perky!”
“I don’t know a single Fred, either,” I reply, per the annual script.
“Fred, leave her alone. You’ll make her tinkle.”
“I’ve already peed and Sixteen Candles is not a handbook for life.”
“I can’t believe it. They fucking forgot my birthday,” my well-wisher drawls.
“No one forgot. There’s another call. Good-bye.”
“Thanks for getting my undies back!” is the breathy coda.
The other call is my mother, Jeanine. (Some call her Jeanie, which makes it sound like she emerges from a lamp when it’s rubbed.) Her telephone greeting is always the same: “It’s just me.”
“You always say that so apologetically. Do you have an inferiority complex, Mom?” I tease.
“Everything about me is complex,” she announces. “I just know how busy you pretend to be. Get my card?”
I go out the back door. “Yesterday.” My mother didn’t embrace my homosexuality. She swallowed it whole. I never receive cards with barefoot boys in straw hats on toadstools. I get filthy limericks and monster dicks. “You like that particular card aisle too much.”
I walk as far as a handmade teeter-totter, where I sit. This was Andy’s wish. I was never the type of kid who was interested in a tire swing, but we have one of those, too, again at Andy’s request. I right potted petunias with the late-summer legginess no amount of pinching will revive, like they’re bungee-jumping out to self-seed. The small hedge of sedum has gone burgundy, another sign it’s September. From here, all I see are landscaping missteps: massed coleus dwarfed by the feathery flowers of astilbe, bee balm invading the daylilies. Andy had given me Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer, an encyclopedic manual, paired with a nursery gift certificate, for my first birthday in this house. I didn’t heed the admonitions that establishing any garden is a three-year process, hell no, I didn’t. I dug every weekend until I spat soil out of my coffee mug, making no allowance for sprawl. It’s too much and now it looks stomped by last night’s storm.
“You had any rain there?” My mom is two states away and it’s been a nationwide summer of drought, but, hell, it’s conversation.
“Not a drop. You?”
“Poured throughout the night.”
“Braggart! Watering right now. This is miserable. I hate a hot September. Don’t start on global warming, Al. It was ninety-one the day you were born, and that was without A/C.”
I know she’s training the hose on her geraniums, dismembering them, probably in a hat that would make Aunt Pittypat envious. Mom is, in actuality, a little Anna Madrigal and a lot Violet Venable.
Distant emergency sirens intersect like an air raid.
I remove a Bradford pear tree branch from hostas that don’t look so great, either. I make my way to our swimming pool. We’ve barely been in it this summer. In a climate that permits, at best, 120 days’ use, it was an endless and losing battle with water chemistry. All we do is skim and test pH. I net out storm debris with the aluminum pole.
A mallard splashes down and defiantly paddles.
“Where’s your buddy?” I ask.
“Who are you talking to?” Mom asks.
“A duck in the pool.” I watch it do a figure eight. “There’s usually two.”
“Our pond has a whole flock. That’s not counting the geese,” my mother boasts.
Mom’s lanai has become enough of a wildlife sanctuary that her condo board has expressed concern. Everything from birdfeeders with squirrel spoilers as big as garbage can lids to chopped lettuce on Melmac for rabbit colonies festoons her cement slab, plus a birdbath, windsock, chimes. Her grocery bill must be more suet and sunflower seed than actual food. When Andy drank a glass of what he assumed was cherry Kool-Aid from her refrigerator, she cried out, “That’s the nectar for my hummers!” (This is what she calls hummingbirds.) He paled, she consoled: “It’s just boiled sugar water and food coloring.”
Mom wishes me happy birthday. I promise to call her later.
What appears to be a medical evacuation helicopter chop-chops dips overhead, then chop-chops out of sight over our house, which is larger than its roofline suggests.
I will not pretend that we want for much. We want for less. Five thousand square feet on three different levels has become too much to care for. Every weekend is devoured by patching things. We were attracted by the hilliest part of the city in a state generally known for its flatness. The price was good, too, since it was one of the older houses in a neighborhood overbuilt by new money. Given what I do, I should be appreciative of their contributions to the economy, all these houses tricked out with security cameras and steam rooms, but I’m mostly made queasy by the gluttony, where one man’s potting shed is the next man’s recording studio, where every water feature shames Niagara Falls.
After neighbors admired our rustic fire pit, one couple immediately commissioned a stonecutter for their own. We ooohed and ahhhed as we were led proudly back to Dante’s Inferno. “I hear the damned screaming,” Andy perspired at me. We heard the wife later speaking of how she had investigated manufacturing snow with several ski lodges during our last unseasonably warm Christmas because “it was all about the kids.” She’d forgotten they have none.
Another childless couple built a tree house costing $175 grand (they let this figure slip twelve times). The few paths through our own sun and shade gardens and our lame teeter-totter were nothing when we saw the primitive bridge of rope, which swayed when we all crossed it. Andy asked if they charged a toll. No one laughed. They were all too dazzled by the moose heads and envying the hunting lodge chic which could provide shelter to the Swiss Family Robinson and the latest contestants of Survivor.
Then there was the couple who wanted to recreate Vizcaya, the fifty-acre Biscayne Bay estate they married at. The $7 million expenditure fell a few terrazzo and about forty-seven acres short, and then they wound up planting gallon saplings and arborvitae. The entirety of their landscaping fit in their car trunk. Nothing soars eight feet in one year, despite what the nursery promises.
The neighborhood still isn’t gated, but a few of us have only barely averted a homeowner initiative to do so. From an outsider’s perspective, our life is probably chic and social, but we still feel like outsiders ourselves. We live well, even without a private plane or a philanthropic endeavor named after us; the house in Key West is our big indulgence. We don’t even have vanity license plates. But we’re starting to feel like we’re living in the shadow of Camelot, in the cul-de-sac’s servant quarters, and I wonder when we here at Green Acres will be expelled as unwelcome.
It’s 1:23 on the kitchen wall clock. I call Andy’s cell. “This is me laughing how you’re available to everyone but me.” I hold the phone aloft. “Sorry. It’s a silent laugh. So where you be? I went right to voice mail.” I’m tracing among our kitschy refrigerator magnets for the groomer’s card when the phone beeps. “Never mind. I bet this is you.”
My world detonates when I look at Caller ID.
THIS is what I remember, in no particular order:
Grabbing Andy’s Jeep keys from the back-door organizer.
“Mr. Barry Grooms? This is Saint Vitus Community Hospital. You’re speaking with Ramona.”
I’m not sure where St. Vitus is and I am in no mood for a fundraising appeal.
Ramona tells me, “Your registration was found in a car driven by Andrew Morgan. If you’ve got local news on, you’ll hear that there’s been a serious accident.”
“I don’t, but I will. I live with Andrew. What’s going on?”
Shoving my bare feet into flip-flops on the garage floor.
Even in this chaos, I make a mental note to do something about those ever-bigger oily stains.
“I’m leaving right now. Let me ask, are our dogs, are they with him?”
Ramona doesn’t know about any dogs. That, to me, is a comfort. If Andy left the puppets at the groomers to be picked up, they’re accounted for.
I’m virtually airborne down the driveway.
My mind goes to Andy’s insurance. If he’s incapacitated, are they awaiting proof of coverage? Will they find the card on him? How does it work, who would I call?
I accelerate, crossing to the left, back to the right again, passing electrical substations and tire superstores, startling a mowing crew from prison, more focused on hatching an escape plan than in taming grasses gone to tall seed.
I turn on the radio to a local station.
This, I should not have done.
“—still coming in about a downtown construction site emergency. It’s being reported that a crane and a portion of a twelve-story building have collapsed, with multiple passerby injuries and significant damage to nearby businesses.”
Eighty miles per hour. I am passing multiple cars on the breakdown shoulder.
“For more, we go to Terry Chamberlain. Terry, what’s going on?”
I speak aloud as if Terry is there.
“I don’t want to hear this. This isn’t happening.”
“What we know now is that the ColonyScape condominium site—still in demolition phase—has been isolated due to safety concerns, so little is visible,” Terry reports. “People have been tweeting from the scene but without verification we’re reluctant to pass on those details, as specific as they are.”
I activate the hazard lights.
Another unidentified voice, that of a woman, joins the reportage.
“One eyewitness now tells us—”
I take the volume up from the steering wheel to hear a breathless fragment: “…from the corner of my eye, I saw something yellow begin to fall. I started running.”
A blurting police car intercedes in my race.
Exit signs jump by. I’m afraid I’ll miss the one I was told to take but I don’t slow for the pursuing pandemonium red, not when I hear “…another witness, a store owner in the vicinity, told me emergency equipment was brought in to rescue one victim from a parked luxury car as workers removed debris by hand.”
That’s not Andy. Please, God, have it not be Andy.
St. Vitus Community Hospital directional sign looms. I still don’t defer to the police car, now parallel to the Jeep.
As preposterous as it seems, I think about the risk of disfigurement. Scarring is tricky. Dee could help on this. A competent plastic surgeon should be standing by ready to reset Andy’s aquiline nose, to ensure his crooked mouth remains perfectly crooked.
Terry interrupts the female, whose name is Rachel. “Sadly, Rachel, it now appears that rescue was actually one of recovery. We have a report from St. Vitus Hospital now of one fatality, reportedly a male, attributed to the ColonyScape collapse.”
I veer into the parking lot of a restaurant I’d never dine at.
It is you, isn’t it, Andy?
I feel like I’m in a vacuum-sealed storage bag as all of the air slowly draws out.
“Stay with us. We’ll continue to monitor this developing story, this mind-boggling tragedy, with updates.”
Departing diners stop to watch as the police car slams to park inches from my Jeep and its HRC and One Human Family Key West bumper stickers. He strides toward my blinking hazard lights. I open the door.
“Sir? Sir? Hey, Mr. Human Rights sticker? What seems to be your problem?”
I have just enough gay umbrage to think, Would it have to be a Cracker Barrel sign I’m staring at as I realize Andy is dead?
I vomit so forcefully it sprays gravel on his boots.