ACT ONE

 

 

AUSTIN SHELBOURNE knew the minute he walked through his great-uncle Boden’s door that the old man was gay. There was no mistaking it—the most naïve person in the world would have figured it out. A mannequin would have seen it. It wasn’t so much the man. Uncle Boden was a rather nondescript older gentleman: probably in his late seventies/early eighties, balding, slim, blue-gray eyes, slightly stooped, and wearing gray slacks and a frayed brown sweater. Nothing obvious; no gay pride T-shirt.

No. It was the apartment that said it all. With the three-foot-tall, gold spray-painted statue of David just inside the doorway, the print of a nude young man on the beach on one wall, the fringe on the lampshades, and the scarlet Chinese pillows—not to mention the yapping red Pomeranian—the old man might as well have screamed, “I’m a homosexual!”

Gay? Uncle Boden, gay? Austin found all his anxiety and worries about his 200-plus-mile move to Kansas City were submerged under a wave of complete surprise.

“It is so good to see you, my boy,” cried Uncle Boden over the equally exuberant greetings of his little dog. “Lucille! Stop that! You’ve done your job. Be a good girl now and hush.” The dog stopped—mostly—and sat at her master’s feet, looking up with adoring brown eyes and only one or two barks.

“Ah…. Good to see you too, Uncle Boden.”

Leading Austin to a threadbare couch, Uncle Boden said, “Sit. Please. You must be exhausted.”

“Not too bad,” Austin replied, but took the offer of the couch. A small sculpture of two men wrestling, one actually clutching the cock and balls of the other, sat on the coffee table. He tried not to react.

Uncle Boden smiled and sat down next to him, and Lucille jumped up between them. “I am so honored you agreed to come stay with me for a while, my boy. My God, you’ve grown. Has it been… ten years?”

Austin thought about it a moment. Ten years might be right. He hadn’t seen his uncle since at least fourth grade. “It was the big family reunion,” he answered. He remembered a sad man, and yes, he remembered the dog.

“Yes. Yes, it was ten years. I was still driving then. They won’t let me now, the bastards. I miss driving. Now I have to depend on the kindness of a couple of the tenants when I need to get around. Shopping. Groceries.”

“Well, you have me now,” Austin said.

“For a while at least, yes?” Uncle Boden petted his little dog, who immediately climbed into his lap for more intimacy. “I am sure living with an old man will soon cramp your style. You’re on your own for the first time. You’ll want to sow your wild oats. You won’t want to worry about me. Or try to explain me.”

“Explain?”

His uncle rolled his eyes. Spread his arms and waved to indicate the room. The painting of The Blue Boy on one wall, the small statue of a nude young man examining the bottom of his foot on the end table next to the couch.

Austin blushed. Uncle Boden was addressing the elephant in the room. Austin shook his head. It was all so weird. The last thing he’d expected was to arrive at his uncle Boden’s and find out the old man was gay.

Like me.

Austin turned to his uncle, a hundred questions in his mind. Gay. His great-uncle Boden was gay. He didn’t know what to say. “You’re gay!” he blurted and clamped a hand over this mouth.

His uncle’s eyebrows popped up. “You’re surprised? I figured everyone in Buckman talked about ‘bachelor’ Bodie.”

“No,” Austin said. “I mean, Gram and Gramps call you a bachelor, but—”

“My dear boy.” His uncle chuckled. “That’s old-people speak for ‘queer.’”

“Oh,” Austin said. It was?

“What gave me away? Was it perhaps Hercules and Diomedes there?” He pointed at the wrestling statue. “They’ve got quite a grip on each other, heh?”

Austin felt his cheeks heat up even more but didn’t say anything. What was there to say?

“Can you imagine something like that in today’s wrestling? I would be addicted to such television antics. I might even go back to college and see if they’d let an old man join the team.”

Austin burst into laughter, then slapped a hand over his mouth once again.

“What? Am I embarrassing you?”

“I-I don’t know… I wasn’t expecting…. This is all such a surprise. And you’re so, ah—”

“Old?” Uncle Boden asked. “You didn’t think homosexuality was anything new, did you? I dare say Cain and Abel kept each other warm on a cold night. Brothers do, you know. And there were no girls. Maybe that’s the real reason Cain killed his brother. Maybe Abel was holding out—being a cocktease.”

Austin’s mouth fell open, and he quickly closed it. Was this really happening? “I was going to say ‘you’re so open,’” he said.

“Oh.” Uncle Boden rolled his eyes once more. “Sorry. It’s just so nice to have someone here I can talk to.” He looked at Austin for a moment, as if waiting for a reply. “Austin. My sister sent you to me for a reason. She said you had a mission. All fired up to move to Kansas City to look for some friend of yours. And considering my ‘disposition,’ she hoped I might be a good influence on you.”

Austin nodded. Gram had said something similar to him. Originally, it had been his plan to save up enough money to get his own apartment¸ but it had been her idea he stay with her brother instead. “Just until you get on your feet,” she’d advised. “You’d do him a world of good as well. You’re so handy, and you might be able to fix some things around the building. He’s the manager, you know. Plus, all his friends are gone. He needs the company. And you’ll have so much to talk about—you have a lot in common.”

We do? Austin had wondered that day. What would he and an old man have to talk about?

And then, sitting on Uncle Bodie’s couch, the light bulb went on.

Oh my God.

Gay.

Gram knows I’m gay.

How? How had she figured it out? He hadn’t really known himself until a month ago.

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He’d been figuring it out. He’d known. But not known-known. Not for totally 100 percent certain known.

“Are you all right, Austin?” Uncle Boden asked. “You have the strangest look.”

He turned to his uncle. Tell him. Just tell him.

But he couldn’t. It was like his tongue had frozen up or died or something.

“Sherry?”

For a second, Austin thought his uncle was talking to the dog. But wasn’t her name Lucille? “Sorry?”

“I thought I would pour us a little sherry.”

“Oh. Sure,” Austin replied as his uncle stood up. But before he could leave the room…

“I’m gay.” God—there it was. He’d said it. Said it out loud.

My God. I said it out loud.

And just like that, he felt a huge surge in his chest. Felt something enormous and infinitely heavy lift off his shoulders. And this tingling. This wonderful tingling all over his body. It felt amazing.

“First time?” Uncle Boden asked. “Saying it?”

Austin gave a nod. “Pretty much.”

“Let me get that sherry.” He shuffled out of the room in well-worn brown slippers.

Austin ran his fingers through the dark-brown hair hanging on either side of his face, then chewed absently on the tip of his thumb. Gay. My uncle is gay.

Just like me.

A moment later, Uncle Boden was back with a tray holding two tulip-shaped wine glasses filled halfway with a honey-colored liquid, as well as a cut-glass decanter. He handed Austin one of the glasses.

“Thanks,” Austin said and took a swallow of what turned out to be an overly sweet drink, almost coughed.

“Sip! Sip, my boy. Let it lie across your tongue—absorb it.”

Embarrassed, Austin nodded and put his glass down on the coffee table.

“Thank you, Austin.”

“For what?” Austin wondered aloud.

“For what you’ve shared with me. Letting me be the first. Did it feel good?”

Austin smiled slowly and realized he was feeling positively giddy. “It did.”

Uncle Boden grinned and looked away. “My God, it takes me back. I couldn’t have been too much younger than you are now,” his uncle said. “You’re around eighteen?”

“Twenty,” Austin said. “I’ll be twenty-one in a couple months.”

“You look younger. I know a young man hates to hear those words, but later in life you’ll be glad about looking younger than you are.”

Austin shrugged.

“I was sixteen,” his uncle said, with a faraway look on his face. “I’d just given a boy my first blowjob—”

Austin’s eyes popped. Had his great-uncle Boden—an old man—just said “blowjob”?

“I didn’t know that’s what it was called. But I knew I wanted to do it. The first time I heard the word ‘cocksucker,’ I knew that’s what I was.” He laughed quietly to himself. “Oh, and Jimmy had such a nice cock.” The laugh turned into a cackle, and Lucille gave a single happy bark as if agreeing. Austin felt his mouth slip open and he forced it closed with a click.

“What?” Uncle Boden said. “Did you think your generation invented the blowjob too?”

“I guess not.”

“I should say not!” He slapped Austin’s knee. “You know, I have a picture of Jimmy I can show you.” He stood up. Lucille gave a happy bark and leapt to the floor. “No, girl,” he ordered. “You stay here with Austin.” He pointed to his nephew. “He’s our company.”

Lucille hopped back on the couch and climbed into Austin’s lap as her owner left the room, then stood on her hind legs and leaned against his chest. Austin looked into her joyous, adorable little face—muzzle all white with age—and couldn’t help but giggle when she offered him a few sweet little doggie kisses.

“Lucille! Stop,” Uncle Boden said, already returning to the room. “Some people don’t like that.”

“I don’t mind,” Austin said as she continued to lick his face.

Uncle Boden plopped down next to Austin, and Lucille immediately climbed down from Austin’s lap and into his.

“Here,” said Austin’s uncle, handing over a silver frame.

Austin looked down at a black-and-white photograph, yellowed with age. Two boys, teenagers, with short hair of an indeterminate color—brown? blond?—looked back at him, smiling, happy from some day long ago.

“Jimmy on the right.” Uncle Boden pointed. “Hot, wasn’t he?”

He was certainly cute, Austin admitted. But so was the other boy. “Who is the guy on the left?” he asked with an appreciative growl.

“Why, that’s me. I was hot too, wasn’t I?”

Mortified, Austin had to fight to keep his mouth from falling open once again.

“So Austin—this ‘friend’ of yours you’ve come to find. Is he—was he—your lover?”

Lover? Austin felt his stomach clench for a moment. “No,” he said sadly. “Not really.”

“Hmmmm….” Uncle Boden touched a finger to his lower lip, scratched his chin. “Not really? Is he gay?”

“I don’t know.” Austin moaned in frustration. “I’m hoping.”

“You’re in love,” his uncle sighed happily.

“I-I think I am,” Austin replied, felt his heart quicken.

“I was so in love with Jimmy.” Uncle Boden sighed again. Then: “Have you two at least been… how shall I say it? Have you two been physical? Have you fooled around?”

“Sorta… I-I….” Austin looked into his uncle’s face. The man was elderly, and yet in that moment, Austin realized the man was ageless as well. He saw the boy in the picture. Uncle Boden wasn’t just some old man. He was the boy in that picture, wasn’t he? Of course he was. The man hadn’t been born old. Austin clearly saw that there had been someone gay before him and… there would be someone gay after he was gone.

And suddenly everything seemed better. For the first time in his life, he felt as if there might be a place for him. And maybe, just maybe, everything would turn out right. Anything could happen. And he knew he could trust this man. That they could share intimate secrets. “I gave him a blowjob,” Austin said in a rush, before he could change his mind.

Uncle Boden’s cheeks pinked and the corners of his mouth flickered upward.

“What?” asked Austin. “Don’t you think men do that anymore?”

His uncle laughed. “I dare say they do!” he crowed. “At least I hope they do. Did you like it?”

Austin clutched a hand to his chest and felt his face heat up. “Oh my.”

“I know!” Uncle Boden laughed all the more. He glanced down at the coffee table and then reached out and picked up their glasses. He held one out to Austin and then said, “To a new chapter in your life.”

“To a new chapter,” Austin said happily, returning the toast.

 

 

THEY had finished their second glass of sherry, were debating a third, when Uncle Boden said, “You know, we’d better unload your vehicle. I only hope no one has snitched anything already. Let me just quick call Guy.”

“Guy?” asked Austin.

“A young man who lives on the third floor. He was gracious enough to move most of the stuff I had in the spare room down to the basement so you would have a place to sleep. Of course, we had to use Miss Hallie’s storage space, but she didn’t mind. She really wasn’t using it. She’s a thousand years old and has almost nothing. Imagine. My locker is filled to the ceiling with memories and kitsch.”

Uncle Boden left the room and was back in less than a minute. “He’s outside already. Can you believe it? Such a nice young man. I hope you two hit it off. He’s gay, you know. Peter’s aiming to get as many gay tenants as he can without seeming prejudiced.”

Guy? Hallie? Peter? Who were all these people? But Austin was sure he’d figure it all out eventually. As in any good play, it would all fall into place.

“Peter is my… boss,” Uncle Boden said. “My savior, really. He owns the building. Made me building manager—rent free—even though I can’t do much more than collect rent checks and call various handymen when a sink clogs up or a toilet stops working.”

“I’m quite handy when it comes to stuff like that,” Austin said. “I’ve got a knack for it.”

“So Wilda says. It’ll be wonderful to have your help.”

“It’s the least I can do,” Austin said. Before Austin moved to Kansas City, his uncle had insisted he not pay rent, and he agreed only on the condition he help with the building’s maintenance whenever he could.

“Anyway, I’m sure you’ll meet Peter soon enough.”

By this time, they were leaving the building, and sure enough, there was someone pulling the tarp off the back of Austin’s S-10 pickup. Tall, dark-haired, and…

Good-looking.

“Guy, I want you to meet my great-nephew Austin. Austin, this is Guy.”

The young man approached them, smiling, hand rising from his side—and then he froze. His eyes widened slightly, then narrowed; his full lips parted as if he were about to say something and then forgot what it was. After a beat, he visibly shook himself and held out his hand once more. “Nice to meet you,” he replied.

“Likewise,” Austin said and took it. The hand was nice, warm, and accompanied by what felt like a tiny shock. Guy was an inch or two taller than Austin, rugged, with close-cropped dark hair and a beard that was little more than a five o’clock shadow. He looked down with milk-chocolate-colored eyes, and damn, thought Austin, distracted by flecks of even darker brown. Guy was very good-looking indeed. They were still holding hands, and Austin quickly pulled his away with a twinge of guilt. I’m here an hour and I’m staring into some guy’s eyes. Todd. Todd is who I’m here for.

“Let’s get this done with,” Guy said, nodding toward Austin’s old red truck. “It’s getting chilly.”

At least the prediction of snow hadn’t come to pass, thought Austin—the reason he’d put the tarp over everything. It might have discouraged people from trying to snitch any of his things as well.

With Guy’s capable help, it was surprising how quickly they got Austin’s entire world out of the back of the truck and into his new room. It was a tight fit. He had moved into the basement when he started high school. His great-aunt Corvella had needed his boyhood bedroom when she got “the cancer,” as his Gram called it. When she died a few months later, he’d never moved back upstairs. If he helped with the laundry, his Gram didn’t come downstairs very often. All the tools were down there, but his grandfather hardly ever used them anymore, and so it was a rare day for him to come down either. The basement had become more than a bedroom; it had turned into a clubhouse of sorts for him and his lifelong friend Todd. He’d even given Todd a key to the cellar door.

Which, of course, had led to a complete and utter disaster in the end. One that wound up motivating Austin to leave his home. Correction. His home in Buckman. This little room in Uncle Bodie’s apartment was to be his home now. At least until he could afford his own place.

They brought in and set up the bed first, and then while Uncle Boden made it, they carried in the drawers of Austin’s desk and dresser. They were full due to the fact that Austin had opted to move them as is, instead of packing the contents into boxes and then having to refill the drawers again. The boxes he had packed went up after the furniture—once they had the lay of the land and knew where they could be stacked for the time being. Last of all was Austin’s weight set.

“Nice,” said Guy, shrugging off his coat. He wore a big baggy Royals jersey underneath. “This isn’t cheap shit.”

“My grandparents got them for me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I wanted a good set ’cuz I’ve always hated my body. I’m so crapping skinny.”

Guy shrugged. “It looks pretty nice to me,” he said with a lopsided grin and the arch of an eyebrow.

Austin felt his cheeks heat up. Guy was flirting. Guy. A real-life gay man.

Todd. Think of Todd. “Th-thanks,” he muttered. You’re not so bad yourself, he almost replied and bit his tongue.

“Another round of sherry?” Uncle Boden suggested when they were finished. “Guy? Join us?”

“No, Bodie, that’s just a tad too sweet for me. At least at this time of night. I’ll run up and get a beer, though. Austin?”

“Okay,” Austin said happily, not sure he wanted any more of the honey-like wine himself and happy Guy had included him in what felt like an adult ritual—even if he didn’t particularly like beer all that much. The buzz maybe. The taste he could definitely take or leave.

“I’ll be back in a flash,” Guy said. “You want one, Bodie?”

“No, that’s okay. The sweet stuff for me. Sweets for the sweet,” he said with a laugh.

“Bodie?” Austin enquired.

“That’s what my friends call me,” his uncle explained. “Them that’s left. Boden is just so butch. I asked Guy to call me Bodie. Makes me feel real. Young and queer again. I’d like you to do the same.”

“Uncle Bodie,” Austin said, trying the new name on for size.

“Just Bodie. You can drop the Uncle.”

Just Bodie? Austin wondered. No. He couldn’t. “We’ll compromise, I’ll say ‘Bodie’ instead of ‘Boden,’ even though I’ve always thought you had a cool name. But I gotta say ‘Uncle.’”

“Fine. Fine,” his uncle Bodie yielded. “So what do you think of Guy?”

“He seems nice.” Austin swallowed a lump.

“You know, Guy is in the theater? Director. Or is it playwright? Wait, it’s both, I think.”

“Really?” Austin asked, surprised. He loved the theater. It was a part of why he’d moved to a bigger city. Since he’d graduated, he’d only gotten to do a little community theater, and Buckman Community Theater was less than stellar.

Uncle Boden… Bodie… was nodding. “I saw one of his shows just last week. A crazy version of that movie with Dolly Parton.”

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?” Austin asked. He loved musicals. God. How did I not know I was gay? What could be more gay than loving musicals?

“No-no, not that one. The one with the Flying Nun. What’s her name? ‘You like me, you really, really like me!’”

“Sally Field?” Austin offered.

“Sally Field! That’s it! And that stud muffin Tom Skerritt.”

Austin started laughing—stud muffin?—just as there was a knock at the front door, and Lucille took off like a miniature rocket, barking all the way.

“Lucille!” shouted Uncle Bodie. “Control. A lady needs to show control. I’m sure it’s just your Uncle Guy.”

Austin wiped his eyes, and a moment later, Guy was back—damn, he’s good-looking—with two beers, bottles already open. He handed one to Austin.

“Cheers,” declared Uncle Bodie, holding his fresh glass of sherry high.

“Cheers,” said Guy.

“Cheers,” Austin repeated and took a sip, expecting one step above nasty and getting a surprise instead. “Hey,” he exclaimed. “That’s nice.”

Guy nodded, grinning. “I love Boulevard. You haven’t had it before?”

Austin shook his head. “I don’t know much about beer. If they carried this in Buckman, I didn’t realize it or know what it was. The kids I know drink Milwaukee’s Worst and Pabst.”

Guy grimaced and Austin laughed—and took a bigger swallow. It glided down his throat, all malt and hops. “It tastes like liquid marijuana,” he said with a snicker.

“We’re drinking Double-Wide I.P.A.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Austin admitted.

“Just know it means tons of hops,” Guy explained.

“So I was telling Austin about your Dolly Parton play,” Bodie interrupted.

“‘Dolly Parton Play.’” Guy grinned. “Sounds like a good name for a show, actually. Steel Magnolias. You’re talking about Steel Magnolias.”

“I love that movie,” Austin said.

“Well, this is the original play, and all the scenes take place in Truvy’s beauty shop, and there are no men.”

“No Tom Skerritt.” Uncle Bodie pouted.

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“Did you know the playwright was gay?” Guy asked.

“No, me either.”

“His sister died and he wasn’t coping—they were really close—and someone said, ‘You’re a writer, write about it,’ and thus we have Steel Magnolias.”

“Tell him what you’ve done with it,” Uncle Bodie said, all enthusiastic.

“Well, I didn’t come up with the idea,” Guy said. “But I cast male actors in half the roles.”

Austin sat up. “Men?”

“In drag,” Uncle Bodie declared.

“I figured since it was written by a gay man, and since I didn’t want to rewrite it with gay characters, and since drag is such a part of our heritage—our ancestry—it would be perfect. It’s been done. But I hope I did it better. This is the last weekend. Why don’t you come Sunday? I’ll make sure you get a seat.”

“Really?” Austin said. How amazing was that? He loved plays, and here he was, no more than an hour in town, and he was going to a play. “This is the most unbelievable day I can remember in forever,” he said, grinning foolishly. “First I get here and find out my uncle is gay—”

“Me too,” Guy said.

And wasn’t that incredible? If his uncle hadn’t told him, had he met Guy on the street, he would never have guessed it. The man was so… normal.

But why shouldn’t he be? Austin asked himself. Hadn’t he read that one in ten men were gay? Hadn’t that been his secret mantra? So what could be more normal than Guy being gay?

“Me three,” he admitted, and to his surprise, realized he had said it for the second time in one day. No. Only kind of said it.

“I’m gay,” he amended, making it official.

“Your uncle thought you were,” Guy said. “And I was hoping.”

“You were?” Austin asked, his voice cracking.

Guy’s milk-chocolate eyes seemed to bore into him.

“Now Guy,” Uncle Boden said. “Stop being naughty. I told you. Austin is on a mission to find his friend, and as it turns out, I was right. Austin looks for his lover.”

“Damn,” said Guy. “Isn’t that always the way? They’re either straight or taken.”

Austin gulped. “I’m not taken exactly.” He felt a rush of nerves sweep over him. “I mean—I’m hoping. Sorry. But… but….”

“He’s in love, Guy. We must not stand in the way of true love.”

Guy looked away—“Of course not.”—thank God. Oh, but then those eyes were back. “So how about this Sunday? Will you come and see the play? It should be fun. There’s going to be a bunch of people showing up dressed as their favorite character from the show.”

“I-I’d love to, but I don’t have a costume.”

“You’re exempt. Tell me you’ll be there.”

Now those eyes were pleading, and Austin found he had no resistance. “Sure.”

“Great! Bodie tells me you’re an actor.”

Austin found himself blushing once again. Could you honestly call community theater and high school in Buckman, Missouri, acting? “Well. Maybe not an actor, exactly.”

“Okay,” said Guy. “You’re ‘not exactly’ taken, and you’re ‘not exactly’ an actor.”

“He is an actor,” declared Uncle Bodie. “He was in almost all of his high school plays, and he starred in his senior musical Little Shop of Horrors, and the town musical Big River.”

“I love that show. ‘I have lived in the darkness for so long, I am waitin’ for the light to shine…,’” Guy sang.

Austin chimed in with the next line—all about places beyond the horizon, and beyond dreams—then found himself blushing all the more.

“You’ve got a great voice,” Guy said.

“You think so?” Austin asked and felt his ears burning. “I don’t know.”

“We do,” said Uncle Bodie.

“Thanks,” Austin replied, a foolish grin on his face.

Had there ever been a better day?

 

 

DESPITE the fact he had been warned, Austin couldn’t help but be surprised at the sight. A parade of drag queens. Well, no—not drag queens, exactly. But men in dresses and crazy wigs and outfits, marching right down the sidewalk along Main Street as if such antics were as normal as could be. Hell, maybe it was in Kansas City, but for a guy born and raised in the tiny town of Buckman, it was anything but an everyday sight.

As he stood there outside the Pegasus Theatre, he watched as the men got closer, walking as confidently as if they dressed up like characters from Steel Magnolias all the time. Assholes in passing cars honked but inspired nothing but happy Queen-of-England waves from the cross-dressers. At first Austin found the whole thing a bit of a shock, but the closer they got—as he saw the smiles on their faces, the way they held their heads high, as they laughed and poked at each other with umbrellas and, God, was that a shotgun?—he found himself getting caught up in the spirit of it all. After all, these men were coming to see the play Steel Magnolias—a production where half the cast were men—so why the hell not?

Austin felt his heart jump. Wasn’t this why he’d come to Kansas City? For this kind of magic? That and to find Todd, of course. But in the meantime, why not catch the enchantment? That’s what Uncle Bodie had told him to do.

Austin stepped back so as not to be mowed down by the leader of the Magnolia parade, a largish man with a huge blonde-white wig and breasts the size of volleyballs. As a matter of fact, Austin could see that was exactly what they were. Through the thin white blouse, he could just make out that one was orange and the other, green. Austin couldn’t help but laugh. The man came to a stop and put a hand, which was clutching a hair blower like a handgun, against his hip.

“What are you laughing at?” said the faux-¬¬Dolly Parton as Truvy in a mock-Southern accent.

“Nothing,” Austin said, taking a backward step. He swallowed hard and then smiled. “I think you look great.”

The Truvy smiled. “Well then! Aren’t you the one?” He patted his wig and straightened h