Lost and Found Boys

The only people I listened to in those days were Barry, Tim, and sometimes Roger. The others I could take or leave. Barry, Tim, and sometimes Roger had my back, my front, and my head, man, the gray matter, the place where the magic happens, the B-I-G, the stuff between the ears. Someone—she’s dead now, so we can’t ask her—said I had a smooth, boyish, look, deceptive, she said, because my attitude was all bar fights and scars. She was the kind of person who found metaphors for everything: he’s a barrel of rainwater, she’s an appliance gone bad, the world is an empty trophy case, that kind of thing. Now that she’s dead, no one in this backwater university town dares say anything containing an ounce of controversy, and I have to say her absence is a loss, like the waitress who won’t take your order, or the plumber who won’t work on Saturdays. No, it’s worse than that. She was a creative person, and I like creative people. And she had my measurements memorized. She knew all the lines from Romeo and Juliet, but she never once went to see it. She ate microwaved popcorn every afternoon at 3:30. And she bought fresh salmon from the fish counter every night after work. And she lived alone. And she died alone. And she wouldn’t want me to talk about any of this, I’m sure, but here I am.

Like a lot of costume designers, she spent most of the day in the company of a dress form mannequin, straight pins clutched between her lips, always the fear someone had walked off with her favorite tape measure. I’ll just say it: she liked my biceps. I worked hard for them, though, so it’s not like I’m vain. Okay, I guess am a little vain, but in a healthy way. Who among us does not like the sound of applause? But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? So often the 7:30 audience would clap in the middle of my soliloquy. In the middle. And it wasn’t because of my costume.

Truth told, it wasn’t because of my biceps, either. They clapped like crazy because five years ago, when I was seventeen and still in California, I starred in one full season of a Saturday morning (Christian) television show called Noah’s Park. I played Josiah, the high school quarterback who, at the beginning of every episode, sat on a tall stool in the corner of the principal’s office and gave the morning prayer over the PA system. The pay was lousy and the set was little more than a row of lockers and a chalkboard propped up against the back wall of the studio, but the show was a runaway hit, the kind of thing not talked about at the workplace water cooler but in the line to the water fountain after girls-only dodge ball in the second grade gym. The producers licensed a brief, but bold merchandising campaign: bookmarks for your bible, action figures without bendable arms and legs, and a calendar for the single year of the show’s run: 2006. In February of that year, I am forever frozen in the memory of eight-year-old girls everywhere, their eyes closed in rapture as they think of me wearing my varsity letter jacket and necktie emblazoned with cupid’s arrow, the whole world watching as I take my usual place in front of the principal’s microphone, a dunce cap on the floor in the corner, my hands folded in earnest prayer, the clouds out the window bulging into an overcast gray at the exact moment I ask God to please let it snow. The whole thing lost its luster—and I lost my job—when the (male) director took Andy Starzinger, the sixteen-year-old who played Noah, on a “working vacation” to Jamaica where the two of them were photographed smoking a joint and grabbing one another’s crotches on the third-floor balcony of a resort hotel. A letter-writing campaign ensued, and the producers gave us the ax. Still, for a little while there, I was a heartthrob. And you can catch the reruns every now and then on The Founding Fathers Network. The public doesn’t easily forget.

Romeo and Juliet, even a crappy production like the one I was starring in at Oklahoma State University, was more up my alley, since I’m not a Christian, and I’ll always prefer theater to television or film. And Lucy knew that about me. She’s the costume designer who died. For a while after she died, everyone was saying she “passed away,” a phrase I cannot stand, but, as another cliché about death attests: “everyone does it different.” People say “everybody does it different” only to excuse bad behavior, as if rushing into the home of the newly-deceased in order to steal the contents of her spice rack were just another way to express one’s individuality, like asking for an unusual haircut or wearing a funny hat. As if insisting the dead person wear pearls in her casket when she never wore pearls in life were just another predictable stage in the grieving process, right after denial, but before anger and bargaining. As if the life insurance check were just another sympathy card, the estate attorney just another well-meaning neighbor with casserole in hand. Wow, I didn’t realize how much death pissed me off. If everyone does it different, their bad manners, at least, are all pretty much the same.

No one knew Lucy was going to die. I was half-drunk when I found out. Barry, Tim, and sometimes Roger and I went across the street to the bar every Saturday after the matinee. Against all the stage manager’s rules, I was still wearing my costume—one of Lucy’s designs: a white peasant’s shirt billowing over brown, leather pants—when Barry sent me a text message to break the news. That’s just like Barry, really, so impersonal. Lately, he’d been skipping the bar in favor of doing his laundry in Tim’s basement, all the while leaving cryptic voice mail messages and texting like there was no tomorrow. So at first I thought he was joking when he said Lucy was hit by a university bus while crossing the main drag on her way to the fish market.

Tim, too, had skipped the bar, so Roger and I were by ourselves. We were splitting a pitcher, the television blaring some kind of boxing match no one was watching, the bar mostly empty since happy hour was still two hours away. I read aloud from my phone—Lucy’s dead, said the tactless Barry—and Roger, who was really very level-headed, said I was wrong to doubt Barry’s veracity.

“Barry’s a punk,” I said. “A mean joke is all.”

“I don’t think he’s joking,” Roger said. “But he is a punk.”

Time for some background information about Barry. He was a little older than the rest of us, so he had a chip on his shoulder about his supposed lack of success. And he was mean. He played Tybalt, if that’s any indication, but he swore up and down he once played Romeo, in his glory days, he said, before everything fell apart. He was the kind of person others liked to hang around because he made them feel kind and generous by comparison, and I suppose I was no exception. He was like everybody’s wayward uncle, the one who might show up drunk on Christmas and make fun of the way the children were dressed. When you referred to him, you might have said, you know Barry, and people might reply with a knowing look and a such-a-shame nod. Oh yeah, people said, and here their voices would go down an octave: “Barry.”

The bar was starting to fill up, and Roger convinced me we ought to go see Barry in person to find out the truth. Here I have a confession to make. I’m a terrible cheapskate, so much so I can’t stand to leave a tip larger than ten percent. But I like to do the dirty work in private, so I always pretend to organize the contents of my wallet while everyone else settles up, and, as soon as they’re halfway out the door, I sneak a dollar down on the table and head for the hills. I don’t know why this matters. Maybe I feel bad for trash-talking Barry.

I finished the last of the pitcher, waved Roger on ahead as I made an elaborate gesture of brushing crumbs from the tabletop, slapped down three quarters next to the napkin dispenser—I was running low that week—and finally made it to a standing position when my phone lit up with another text message from Barry.

I don’t know why, the message said. But I’m crying.

“Mr. Sensitive,” I said. “Please.”

“If Barry says he’s crying, then he’s crying,” Roger said. Roger was honest to a fault, but also error-prone and sentimental.

“He’s not crying,” I said. “Lying, maybe, but not crying.”

Just then, Barry walked in through the back door of the bar, his eyes all swollen and his T-shirt stained with blood. He’d been in a fight, he said. Tim had run out of fabric softener, and the resulting stale smell to Barry’s otherwise clean laundry sent the two of them swinging. He’d been texting us from the parking lot.

I tried moving the napkin dispenser to block his view of my tip, but it was a pointless gesture: no one cared. The bartender, a woman, though I’m not sure why that’s important, stood there underneath the blaring boxing match on television. I caught her wiping out glasses with a stiff, white towel and giving us the trouble-maker’s stare. She seemed particularly leery of Barry, though Roger, at this point, grabbed hold of Barry’s shoulders. In addition to being error-prone and sentimental, Roger was also very tall and bald—a “gentle giant,” in the classic sense, or, at least he billed himself that way for the sake of scoring. Barry shook him off and slapped a five-dollar bill on the corner of the bar.

“A glass of milk,” he said. “And make it a double.”

The bartender knew this was joke of his—a code for White Russian—so she waved off the fiver and took a spiral-bound notebook from behind the bar. We watched as she made a tally mark in the narrow column next to Barry’s name. She looked over at Roger and me and made tally marks next to our names as well. Just then, Tim walked in through the back door, scraped the mud from his hiking boots, and rummaged through a ratty backpack he had slung over one shoulder until he found a box of fabric softener, Bounce Spring Clean, pretty stupid since it was the middle of winter. I pretended not to notice when he took a single dryer sheet from the box and placed it as if it were a napkin or paper menu at Barry’s place at the table.

The bartender nodded for us all to sit down, and we obeyed. And here is part of the reason why the four of us—Barry, Tim, sometimes Roger, and I—always stuck together, even when we were not acting in the same production. Because we kept ourselves occupied with various artistic dilemmas—preparing auditions, obsessing over our muscles and headshots, and generally feeling sorry for ourselves for not yet starring on Broadway or getting that call from Spielberg—we obeyed the women in our lives, we obeyed them to a fault. This was not to say we were happy about it, just that each of us professed to like “strong women,” and each of us, at the time of Lucy’s death, was recovering from a doomed relationship in which we shared apartments and bills with our organized, driven, athletic girlfriends, only to find the girlfriends fed up with our so-called childish behavior and subsequently ditching us so as to seek brighter career prospects in larger cities on the Eastern seaboard. That this happened to all four of us at once was a continual source of dark humor: our pain, our pleasure, our names in the all-time leading scorers column in the spiral notebook behind the bar. Until Lucy died, we were having a good time.

Barry said it again. “Lucy’s dead.” And then something unexpected happened. He turned to me and looked down at the three, shiny quarters on the edge of the table. “It’s your fault, Marcus. It’s your fault she’s dead.”

If I’d had a few more drinks in me I might have spit in his face, but, as my ex-girlfriend liked to say, I was a lover, not a fighter. Anyway, everyone knew Barry was crazy. He’d say anything. Once, when the bar ran out of skim milk and the bartender told him he had to drink his White Russian with two percent, he leaned over to one of the (other) regulars, and said, “breast milk from your mother’s fridge. Next time tell her not to bother pumping.” So I was not surprised when he tried to pin Lucy’s accidental death on me.

Tim came to my defense. “Leave him alone,” he said. “He still believes in authenticity.” Here’s something to know about Tim: his greatest claim to fame was a gallery installation made entirely from Rubik’s Cubes. He wrote a “book” made from Lego blocks and peddled copies of it for fifty bucks a pop outside coffee shops and rock concerts. He was starring as Benvolio in our production of Romeo and Juliet, and, in what was called a collaborative experiment between Tim, Lucy, the director, and (of course) the audience, he was doing so in drag—a leather mini-skirt, a stuffed bustier, and a long, blonde wig made from an unknowable combination of synthetic fibers. Always he went around saying stuff like, the members of the masses have failed to move beyond romantic individualism. In spite of all this—or maybe because of it—I liked him a lot.

The bartender brought our drinks, and we argued for a while about which one of us had been nicer to Lucy. Okay, that’s not exactly true. The truth is we argued about which one of us Lucy had liked the best. It was all very subterranean—no one came right out and said, “I was her favorite,”—but the intent was clear: each one was staking his claim on the legacy of her affections.

Roger told a long, funny story about attending an opening night party with Lucy and her boyfriend from out of town. The boyfriend was not really her boyfriend, but a gay guy from New York City she liked to flatter with all kinds of undue attention. The gay guy was very handsome—he put all the rest of us to shame—and he’d just been cast as one of the lost boys in a touring production of Peter Pan. All this led to a lot of jokes about flying through windows and Sandy Duncan eating Triscuits on her way to Neverland and whether or not Captain Hook was secretly gay. The party was at some rich person’s house where they had a ballroom with a grand piano and a solarium where the guests periodically retreated for drinks. Roger had just downed a couple of shots in the solarium when he emerged to find the gay guy leading Lucy in a waltz. He looked at the two of them dancing, her head on his shoulder, his fingers pressing on the small of her back, and right off he knew she was in love with him. He watched as the gay guy whispered something in her ear. She broke away from him, kicked the leg of the grand piano, and demanded Roger drive her home. Roger didn’t have a car, but he wanted to come to her rescue anyway, so he led her to the bus stop where they ended up becoming the sole passengers on the midnight route. Lucy clung to Roger’s arm and together they sang songs, old show tunes and a couple of Top Forty hits. They didn’t mention the gay guy, he said, and he knew better than to offer consolation. The bus driver seemed to know where Lucy lived, so after a while, he stopped in front of her house, a one-bedroom bungalow surrounded by a chain link fence and a thorny, overgrown hedge. He’s like a lost and found boy, she said on her way down the steps, and Roger knew she was talking about the gay guy. He’s like one of those cardboard boxes full of forgotten old house keys and lice-infested mittens. Oh well, she said, Goodnight.

By the end of the story, Roger began to rub his eyes as if to suggest an allergic reaction. I kept thinking about what Barry said—that it had been my fault Lucy had stepped out in front of a moving bus. If anything it was Roger’s fault—he was the great bus rider after all—and probably he spent twice as much time with Lucy than the rest of us did combined. But something was nagging at me. Right after our first dress rehearsal, while standing in the single shadow cast from the mini-refrigerator’s door left ajar in the moldy corner of green room, I had told Lucy she needed to be more self-sufficient. She was sewing a button back on my shirt—and I was standing there, shirtless—when she asked me for a ride home. I told her I had an appointment to go pick up my dry cleaning and wouldn’t be driving by her house. I did not say, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, Lucy, but I might have, since I’d been reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and I was still sore about having to refuse a trip to Europe my parents offered to pay for because of Romeo and Juliet’s demanding rehearsal schedule. Anyway, I was short with her. I should point out that this was not the same day she was killed. And I had thought Barry was on stage—out of earshot—during this conversation, but he had a way of appearing out of nowhere. Also, he had spies. Lately, Tim was his favored sidekick, though, I’ll admit, I had once been Barry’s toadie—and I was damned good at it, too—and I’d never really gotten over being supplanted.

“It was an accident,” I said, after I’d finally given in and handed over my credit card to start a tab. The bar was growing darker; someone had changed the boxing match to Fox news, and a hive of of busy bees in business suits sat there swarming with back slaps and guffaws. I leaned into the guys and said, “The bus driver didn’t see her.”

“That’s just like you, Marcus,” Barry said. “Defending the bus driver.”

“That bus driver belongs in jail,” Roger said.

Tim said they were charging him with negligent homicide, and everyone turned to me as if to suggest I, too, belonged in jail, and I don’t know, I was feeling a little competitive or something because I kept going when I could have stopped.

“She never uses the crosswalk,” I said. “Used the crosswalk. Sorry.”

I could tell Roger was angry when he rubbed his head as if to suggest a cancerous tumor, looked at me with steely intensity, and said, “It’s time you use your head for something other than a hat rack, Marcus.”

“Who says that?” I said, mocking him. “Use your head for something other than a hat rack. Who the fuck says that? No one says that. No one uses hat racks anymore, either.”

“Well they ought to,” Roger said. “It’s neater.”

At this, everyone laughed, even Roger, and for the moment, at least, I was off the hook for my supposed lack of sensitivity. We drank for a while in silence until Barry said he wanted to move to a table by the window. It was dark outside, and there was nothing to see out there except a bike rack, a row of trashcans, and one of those fake, metal longhorn steers the fake cowboys next door used to practice roping. But Barry was big into transformation for its own sake—like once he asked us all to stand up one at a time and tell the others the names of our worst enemies and then describe for the sake of posterity the ways in which we had more in common with the worst enemies than we cared to admit. So moving to another table seemed small in comparison.

We picked up our drinks—Barry put the dryer sheet in his pocket—and we made our way across the bar’s polished wooden floor. By then, the men in business suits had turned off the television in favor of a round of darts. They shouted numbers at one another as if they were traders on the floor of the stock exchange, and I had a fleeting idea involving the shouting-out of numbers as a warm-up activity, an acting exercise for the voice. Roger hit the men’s room while Barry and Tim talked over the greatest albums of 1999—how they could remember stuff like that I never understood—and I stood at the bar for a while and took long, slow sips from my beer. If each one of us were assigned a number, mine would be 100, as in 100 percent. Barry would be number one. Roger would be zero, because his last name actually is Ziero, something he can’t help, but plagues him, nonetheless. I once knew someone with the first name Confidence. I also knew someone named Patty Hamburger. Roger Ziero seemed not-too-bad when you thought about those two. What about Tim’s number? If I said to him, hey Tim, man, what number do you want, he’d reply by saying something like “orange” or “negative space.” Lucy was great with numbers. As I said before, she had all my measurements memorized, and I know for a fact she hadn’t memorized the measurements of anyone else. I know it’s in poor taste to brag about something small like that, but I couldn’t help myself, I guess, because I must have told twenty people about it before she died.

Everything was fine until Barry realized the table by the window was already occupied. A group of youngish men had pushed two tables together and moved all the chairs so they were facing the window. These were no ordinary Oklahoma cattlemen in suits, however. Drinking vodka gimlets and laughing through closed lips were four gay boys, something you’d think we’d be accustomed to since we were in the theater, but this was Oklahoma after all, and all the gay boys there stuck to musical theater, and well, none of us could sing. Not that I have a problem with being gay. Already it sounds as if I have a problem with being gay because I said I don’t have a problem with being gay. I will not say: I have plenty of gay friends, because I actually don’t, and really, claiming tokenized gay friends is a sure way to make people think you’re gay yourself. Because I’m not. Gay, I mean. Neither am I afraid people will think I’m gay. I can hear it now, though, good old closet-case Marcus, dressed in leather pants and afraid of his own desires. For the record, I did not like those leather pants. And Romeo and Benvolio: good friends only.

Barry stood close—too close—to the gay boys and gazed out the window. I saw nothing save our reflections as I stood there next to him, my beer bottle inching closer to staking our claim on the occupied table. It seemed to me the gay boys were young, too young to be drinking alone in a bar. Maybe it was clean-cut thing, I don’t know; in those days, convenience store clerks often asked for my ID, too, when I was fresh from a shower and shave. But these boys were downright pre-pubescent. One of them had red hair and glasses—a kind of Howdy Doody type—and the others looked nearly identical, brown, close-cropped hair, a few freckles here and there, shirts with stiff collars, matching sweater vests that suggested membership in some kind of club or organization, and blue jeans that looked as if they’d been ironed.

“Oh my god, look,” Howdy Doody said to the others. I realized he was the leader. I watched as he held his body in perfect repose—he was a dancer, maybe, or a gymnast. He uncurled his long fingers, leaned his head in my direction, and said, “It’s him. There he is. Josiah from Noah’s Park.”

“No way,” one of the others said, in a way I couldn’t help but think sounded a little too gay. I mean, if you’re gay, you’re gay. But sounding gay all the time? Let’s not be silly.

“You’re sitting at our table,” Barry said. “Marcus will give you his autograph if you move.”

But I didn’t want to sign any autographs. And the gay boys didn’t want to move. I don’t think they wanted my autograph, either, but Barry could be very commanding, so all at once they searched their pockets for something to write with. One of them came up with a chewed stub of a pencil—like the kind you find in the library—and forced it into my hand. No one had any paper, though, and you can’t exactly write on a napkin with the dull lead of a pencil, so I went to the bar with the hope I might find a forgotten flier or a blank page from the back of the tab notebook. When I returned, Barry had pulled up a chair and was sitting between two of the identical, freckled gay boys. Roger and Tim, too, had joined the group, each one taking his place at opposite heads of the table. Elbows out and legs spread wide, they looked like lounge lizards or undercover cops. I could tell they were trying to intimidate the boys—maybe force them into an early departure or just shake them up for the pure old hell of it—and I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t a fair fight. Whatever they were doing was working, since the boys had their hands in their laps and their eyes on the table.

I asked the Howdy Doody gymnast his name so I could sign the autograph, and here is the weird part: he said his name was Lucy.

“It’s a stage name,” he said. “Too much for you?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, I’m cool.”

“Forgive him,” Tim said to Howdy Lucy. “He has trouble with multiplicity.”

Barry said, “I guess that makes me Tom Sawyer.”

Howdy Lucy said, “Who’s Tom Sawyer?”

“Never mind,” I said, as I hurried to make my handwriting illegible and crude. Masculine handwriting—that’s what I aimed for. Hasty, breezy, rough and tumble handwriting, the same handwriting the governor of Oklahoma used to sign legislation granting gun owners free bullets on national holidays. Only the governor of Oklahoma in those days was a woman—a cruel, twisted woman, but still. I was at a loss.

For Lucy, I wrote, as the gay boy looked over my shoulder. I don’t know what I was thinking. May Noah’s rainbow cast its rays on your mighty forehead. The lead broke before I could sign my name, but it was no matter; already Howdy had stolen the piece of paper from my grasp. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he said. “My forehead is not mighty.”

“You’re fooling yourself, honey,” Barry said. “They’ve already made a place for you on Mount Rushmore.”

I always knew Barry was antagonistic by nature, but I must admit I was surprised he had added another tune to his repertoire of come-ons and digs: the reality show-inspired artistic elder gay male finger-shake of shame. Probably Barry had watched enough television to realize these overpaid men enjoyed access to a particular kind of power; that is, they possessed all the worldly wisdom to tell everyone else how to look attractive in public, yet they themselves looked liked fops, charlatans who flew under the radar by making the merest efforts toward keeping themselves mostly slender, purchasing the latest in eyeglass fashion, and outfitting themselves with clipboards and hefty books of swatches. And Barry was a good actor, too; he’d done his homework. Howdy Doody Lucy shrunk under the weight of his assessment.

“Nothing wrong with a broad forehead,” Roger said, presumably to smooth things over. He pointed to his own temple and said, “Brains.”

Howdy Lucy seemed embarrassed, but, without a definitive way to conceal the broadness of his own forehead, he began to drink, slowly at first, and then with more vigor. Drinking is something I’m pretty good at, so even though I’d already consumed a couple of pitchers by then, I went to the bar and paid cash for another round. Why I paid cash at that moment when I’d already started a tab remains hazy in my mind’s eye; maybe I wanted to impress everyone. Neither were my efforts in vain because when I rewarded Howdy with another vodka gimlet, he confessed to me mine was by far his favorite performance on Noah’s Park.

I suppose that was a weakness of mine, that I was easily flattered. Playing Romeo sort of brought it out in me, too, since it was not love, but vanity that drove him to suicide. And so, I drank. We all drank. I kept thinking about the exact moment Lucy knew she was going to die. How long between the moment of realization and the moment of impact? Could she hear the sound of the bus hitting her body? I have a cousin whose face was disfigured during a freak accident involving a tractor’s collision with a riding lawn mower. To this day, he cannot mow his own lawn, not even with a push mower, and, even though many years have passed since the accident, he panics every now and then behind the wheel of his own car. None of that compares to the horror that has become his face, however, since even family members are forced to turn away at the sight of those seamless scars and burns, the permanent blemishes that look like exploding strawberry birthmarks on both cheeks and his forehead. Before she died, Lucy had been beautiful, I mean really beautiful, in an unconventional way I’ll not describe here. Had she, during those seconds before the bus hit, worried she would live through the accident and be forced to go on carrying around some lesser version of herself? I didn’t say so aloud for fear of upsetting Roger, but I knew she was better off dead.

We all lined up at the bar for last call. By now, someone had turned off the television and turned on most of the lights, the windows smudges suddenly visible, the walls and ceiling vibrating with a stale, sickly glow. The businessmen had gone home, the bartender gone sour, and the gay boys gone crazy. If you’ve never seen gay boys from Oklahoma trying to lasso one another, you haven’t lived. Clearly, they’d never before had so much to drink. In any case, I felt responsible.

“Call a cab,” I said.

Barry said, “they can take the bus.”

Roger said, “not the bus.”

Tim said, “They are not a they.”

I could tell from the way Barry shifted his weight from one foot to the other he was pissed at me. I kept insisting we should call the boys a cab, he kept insisting they could fend for themselves, Roger kept insisting we should take them over to the all-night diner across the street. In the midst of all this, Howdy Doody Lucy and his friends alternated between standing on their chairs and shouting and feeding more and more quarters into the broken jukebox on the wall. The bartender took away their lasso “for safety reasons,” she said, so they removed the shoelaces from their sneakers and tied them together as a substitute.

The bar grew brighter, more clinical, and the whole place started to remind me of music videos I might have found provocative when I was in grade school. Finally, we all agreed to Roger’s plans to buy the boys scrambled eggs in an effort to sober them up. The bartender, her notebook closed and put away behind the bar, had the back door propped open and a mountain of trash bags blocking the way to the bathroom. She wanted us to leave. Everything would have been fine, except Barry caught me slipping a dollar bill underneath the saltshaker on our table.

“Only a dollar?” he said. “Cheap ass.”

“What are you looking at?” I said. “I’m not finished yet.”

He called my bluff, throwing the box of fabric softener the floor and saying, “I know you, Marcus. I know the value you place on friendship.”

“Since when is leaving a tip some great sign of friendship?”

“That’s just what I mean,” he said. “You. Marcus.”

“You, Barry,” I said. “You fag.”

That’s all it took. Barry, I knew, was not afraid of his own strength. Or maybe he was deeply afraid, so afraid he’d attack me to compensate for the daily weakness he perceived in himself. All at once, he swept both the saltshaker and the peppershaker off the table and onto the floor where my dollar bill lay in a puddle of warm beer. Something about the gay boys and their attempts to lasso a barstool must have triggered something in him, so I could tell by the rasp in his voice he was experiencing a kind of malevolent shift, an urge toward manifest destiny, a step off the edge of a cliff, an odyssey, a march towards Western civilization’s dream of riches on the horizon. He wanted to hurt me. And though I was still wearing my Romeo shirt and Romeo pants, I neither basked in the safety of the nightingale’s song nor understood the dire implications of the mourning dove’s warning. He looked at his arm, then down to his wrist, then his hand. He leaned back and wound up in an exaggerated motion, like they do in cartoons, the pugilist and the sailor in a Saturday afternoon sideshow. And as I watched his hand become a fist and his fist become a weapon, I knew the gay boys would not come to my rescue. He hit me hard enough I don’t remember exactly what it felt like, only what it felt like afterwards. When it was over, I imagined a kind of dirge, a harpsichord’s last lament for all the costumes I would never wear. My face stung. If you’ve ever gone to the dentist and had more than two teeth pulled at once, you know what I’m talking about. The resulting burn felt like someone had taken a towel soaked in vinegar and stuffed it in my mouth. Am I oversensitive? You might say that. Melodramatic? Never.  

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