Authors: Marshall Thornton
On Thursday, when I arrived at The Bird for my shift, I was unceremoniously fired. Let go. Laid off. Canned.
When I walked in, Carlos was leaning against the bar, chatting intently with a tall guy in waiter’s garb. Carlos turned and saw me and went white as a sheet. Not an easy feat for a brown boy. He wasn’t even supposed to be there. It was his night off.
As I sauntered over, I had a dreadful feeling about what was happening; that terrible sense that something’s happening and there’s nothing you can do about it except let it happen. I said “Hel-lo,” to Carlos, tossing in a few extra syllables to give me courage. “What’s going on?”
“This is Andrew. I’m training him.” I glanced at Andrew, who was so good-looking it was startling. He could have been on a magazine cover. Any magazine. Seriously,
Horse & Hound
would put him on the cover. We’d had his type before. They never seemed to worry about actually serving anyone, they just floated near the tables and collected large tips. I ignored him.
here, though?” I asked Carlos.
“I have to train Andrew.”
“But I could train Andrew.”
Carlos looked stricken. “There’s an envelope for you in the office. On the desk.”
“What’s in the envelope?”
“I would never open someone else’s mail.” He feigned insult.
“Especially when you already know what’s inside.”
“It’s a termination letter and a severance check.”
“Bob’s not even going to fire me in person?”
“His lawyer advised against it.”
Lance, the bartender, plunked a shot glass onto the bar and filled it with Fireball. “This one’s on the house,” he said, and walked away.
I threw the shot back, defiantly raised my chin, and said, “Excuse me.” Then I marched back to the office. Office was a polite word for it. It was really a closet with a desk squeezed into it. On the desk, amidst the clutter of receipts and timesheets, lay an envelope with my name on it. I picked it up and opened it.
Inside, was a letter that, in the blandest, most non-committal way possible, said that I no longer had a job. In addition, there was a severance check for six weeks pay. Of course, I only made minimum wage so it wasn’t enormous. Bob must have realized that because there were also three crisp one hundred dollar bills in the envelope. That gave me enough to get by for almost a month without dipping into my car money. Maybe six weeks. I had to get another job and I had to get it fast.
While it wasn’t a lot of money, it did seem a lot of money to spend to keep one customer happy. I knew Chuckie Cooper was in The Bird a lot. But even if he spent a hundred dollars a week, it was going to take a long time for Bob to recoup his money—the profit on every dollar spent in a restaurant being notoriously slim.
I went back out to the bar, put one of the hundred dollar bills in front of me and ordered a Sapphire Martini from Lance. He set the martini down in front of me and pushed the crisp hundred back across the bar.
“Your money will be good tomorrow. And not one minute before.”
“Thank you. You sir, are a gentleman.”
“Don’t mention it, darlin’.”
Lance was sweet. He was nearing forty, a casual body builder and covered with tattoos from the tips of his toes up to his chin. He’d slept with just about everyone and managed to remain liked by the majority of his conquests. I had never had sex with him, but then I’m a natural born contrarian.
It was still early; there were only two customers in the bar: regulars Bill and Phil, who seemed riveted by my drama. They raised their glasses to me and made sad faces. Andrew floated around looking sullen and bored; I doubted he was either. My guess was he’d spent enough time in front of a mirror to know that pouty was his best look.
Carlos slipped onto the stool next to me. “Can you believe it?” he asked. “He’s straight. Keeps talking about his girlfriend.”
I shrugged. “I suppose you have to hire them. It would be discrimination not to. But really, shouldn’t they stick to their own kind?”
“I know, right? But the thing is, Bob went out and found him. He was working at a place that sells sneakers. Bob went up to him and offered him a job. He’s never even worked in a restaurant before.”
“He recruited a straight guy?”
“He says a straight boy will create less drama.”
Was that it? I’d been too much drama? But I’d only had sex with a handful of the customers, and only had a couple of cat fights with Carlos, and never gave attitude—well, seldom gave attitude—all right, always gave attitude to everyone in the bar. But, seriously, what was a bar without drama?
I looked across the bar. Andrew’s pout had deepened while he played at wiping down a table, somehow making him even more attractive. “The customers will spend a fortune buying drinks while they try to seduce him.”
Something dreadful occurred to me. I’d have been more likely to keep my job in a gay bar if I’d been in the closet. If I’d pretended to be straight, I’d probably still be working there. That was so upside down. And depressing. I was trying really hard not to freak about the disaster my life was becoming.
Where would I get a job?
I wondered. I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t go too far. I could take the bus I suppose, but not without a concealed weapon.
I was nearly finished with my martini when Larry Lamour came in and ordered me another. Then he sat down, dressed like your average retiree on his way to play golf—which in his case looked so very, very wrong. He said, “I heard what happened to you. That awful man calling you names and then Bob fires you. Shameful.”
“You don’t have to worry about me, I’ve climbed out of the gutter more than once. I can do it again.”
“Spoken like a true queen. People never understand how strong you have to be if you’re a girly-boy.”
That embarrassed me. Yes, sometimes my life was hard, but things were better than they used to be. Life had to have been much harder for Larry. I mean, he was wearing a muumuu and fruit on his head back in the days when you could get arrested for it.
“But I’m no activist. All I’ve ever done is wear silly hats and sing silly songs. Bill is much more the activist. He was in a bar riot over in Wilmington years before Stonewall. Isn’t that right, Bill?”
Bill hadn’t heard a word Larry said, “What?”
“I SAID YOU HAVE A BIG COCK!”
Bill gave us a thumbs up.
“When I was young, I worried for awhile whether or not I was masculine enough, but then I thought, I’m gay; there isn’t any way I’m going to fit into the straight world so why even try? Yes, I wear caftans; yes I wear silly hats. Who really cares?”
“Oh I know. But none of the ones who matter to me.” He sipped his drink and then said, “It amazes me that we’re not all kinder. And when I say we, I don’t just mean gay men, I mean the whole big we. Humanity. If you think about it, there really isn’t anyone, anywhere who isn’t on the outside looking in at some point in their lives; at some point everyone is the wrong color, the wrong religion, the wrong weight, the wrong age, the wrong sexuality, the wrong gender, the wrong
. We have so many ways of judging each other that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting through life without being some kind of wrong at least some of the time.”
Since I’d just lost my job I was having a little trouble caring about the whole of humanity, which must have shown on my face since Larry said, “You’re not drunk enough for this kind of conversation, are you?”
I shook my head. He was right, of course. He was being sort of profound. Profound should never happen before three martinis.
“Let me get you another drink, then,” he said, waving down Lance. “Give us another round, dear.” Lance nodded and started our drinks. Larry continued, “I’m not surprised at Chuckie Cooper, though. I’ve heard plenty of stories about him. But the whole team. That does surprise me.”
“The whole team?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“It was the whole team that wanted you fired. They all sent emails to Bob.”
“The team. All of them?”
“That’s what I heard.”
I was sleeping when my cell phone rang. It was still in my jeans pocket and my jeans were somewhere on the floor. I crawled off the bed and sorted through the clothes on the floor until I found my jeans. Glancing at the screen before I picked up the call I saw two things: My mom was calling and my battery was nearly dead.
“Hey,” I said, accepting the call.
“Douglas?” Crap, full name. I was in trouble. “I spoke to your sister.”
I left a long pause, hoping my battery would die and the conversation would be over. When it didn’t I said, “Okay.” I knew what they’d spoken about. It had taken Maddy less than seventy-two hours to spill the beans.
“This is some kind of prank isn’t it? You’re playing a joke on your sister and it just got out of hand.”
“Um, okay, sure. It’s a prank. Nothing to worry about.” Hey, she’d thrown me a life preserver; I grabbed it.
“Good. Call your sister and explain that to her.”
That wasn’t going to work. Maddy knew I was gay and there wasn’t a way she could un-know that. If I called her and said, “Hey it was all a joke, gotcha!” she wouldn’t believe it.
“You know Maddy, Mom, she’s going to believe what she wants to believe.”
“It doesn’t matter what she believes. Call her and tell her the truth. Tell her you’re not gay.”
And then it didn’t feel much like a life preserver, at all. Now it felt like an anchor, pulling me down again. “You know Mom, I can call Maddy and tell her it was prank. I can tell her I’m not gay if you want. But…let’s not call it the truth, okay? Because it’s not the truth.”
“We can pretend I’m not. That’s okay.”
“Dougie, I’m your mother. I would know something like this. You were always such a boy.”
“I’m still a boy, Mom.”
“But…” She went silent. I knew she was struggling to understand. “There are a lot of gay guys in nursing. I’m not unsophisticated. You’re not like them, Dougie. I mean, they’re all such girls.”
“The ones you know about.”
“Well…I don’t go around asking about people’s sex lives.”
“Yes, you do. All the time. You ask people if they’re married. Or dating. Or trying to have babies.”
“Is it? You know how babies are made. You know what married people do.”
“Married couples do a lot more than just have sex.”
“So do gay guys.”
“Wait...there is this one guy at work. He talks about his partner, Terry. They’re trying to have a child with a surrogate. I thought he meant Terry with an ‘i’, but…
“I thought it meant they weren’t married. You know, this explains some of the confused looks he’s given me.” She got quiet for a moment. “So, you’re really gay?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m really gay.”
“This is going to take some getting used to. Why didn’t you tell me before now?”
“Because of Dad.”
“What about your Dad?”
Where had she been?
“Honestly, you and your sister have blown this all out of proportion. It was a minor heart attack and your father’s health is excellent now.”
“Please, Mom, don’t tell him.”
“Fine, you can tell him yourself. How about Saturday night? I’ll make dinner. You’re not a secret vegetarian, too, are you?”
“Um, I’m not ready to tell Dad.” I really didn’t buy the ‘it was just a small heart attack’ line. I wondered if his doctor would answer questions if I called.
“You can’t wait, Dougie. You know I’m bad at secrets.”
She was terrible at secrets. She’d announced to the entire world that Maddy was five months pregnant when she got married—even after helping her choose a dress that would disguise that fact. She also let the cat out of the bag when Maddy got pregnant with Leland, claiming that she didn’t really understand email distribution lists and hadn’t even known she’d made one. Luckily, I’d shared very few secrets with her. Except, of course, my prom. She’d asked who I wanted to take, so I picked out the prettiest girl in the class expecting she’d turn me down. Unfortunately, my mother knew her mother, so I spent my senior prom dancing with a very pretty girl I didn’t want to be dancing with while half the boys in my class hated my guts and the other half egged me on.
Crap. I was going to have to come out to my dad on Saturday.
I wanted to kill Dog. It was one thing to abandon me in the middle of a restaurant and not come back, but then to send an email to my boss getting me fired—I mean, what did I ever do to him? Why would he treat me like that? Okay, so right before I killed him, I would ask some questions.
All day Friday I suffered through a bad hangover. I’d stayed at The Bird until closing, which meant I’d gotten really, really sloshy. Larry Lamour sat with me until eleven. He said a lot of things that I didn’t quite get or didn’t exactly care about, but before he left he said this one thing that just got to me. He said, “One of the hardest things in life is truly being yourself. Most of us are the person we think we should be, the person who pleases our parents, the person who pleases our friends. So few of us are truly who we are.”
I was completely drunk when he said it, so I had a little trouble working it out. But it stuck with me. I was thinking about it when I crawled into bed. I was thinking about it when I woke two hours later and puked my guts out. And I was thinking about it while I stumbled over to the coffee shop to get a latte.
Was I who I was because that’s who I was? Or was I who I was because that’s who I thought I should be? Did I act like a big old queen because that’s what I thought gay guys were like or was I just naturally queeny?
Oh my Gawd, I have to stop,
I thought. I had to focus on finding a job. I had to have money coming in. This was exactly the wrong time to be questioning my very identity; self-examination would be pointless if I was living on the street.
Finally, in the late afternoon, I showered. I shaved. I dressed as conservatively as possible: pressed baby blue shirt, khakis. Gawd, I hated khakis—it had taken nearly an hour for me to find them, crammed in the back of a drawer behind a half dozen Jägermeister T-shirts—but they were perfect for job interviews. Not that I had any set up. My plan was to walk around the neighborhood looking for “help wanted” signs and put in applications at places I’d like to work even if there weren’t any openings just then.
There were actually a ton of restaurants and bars within a half-mile of my apartment. I assumed Bob would give me a good reference, though I wondered what he’d say about why I didn’t work there anymore. It might be a good idea to avoid Bob all together. I found my phone and called Carlos.
“Carlotta, I need a favor.”
“I’m going out to look for a job.”
“Oh, you are ambitious. If I were you, I’d be laying in bed hoping for the world to end.” I’d actually done that for three hours. It was tragic and boring.
“I’m going to give people your number as a reference.”
“All right. I can say nice things about you. Let me practice. He’s so, so nice. He’s attentive. He’s such a hard worker.”
“I need you to say you’re Bob.”
“Yes. Say you’re Bob and that I still work at The Bird. Say you’re upset that I might leave.”
“Sure, I can do that. ‘This is Bob Grotolli and Lionel still works at The Bird.’” If you knew Bob, you’d know his impersonation was horrible; if you knew Carmen Miranda, you’d think you were talking to her. Fortunately, Bob was kind of reclusive and no one knew who Carmen Miranda was anymore.
“Thanks, Carlotta. You’re a peach.”
For the next two hours, I walked the length of Broadway from Alamitos to Redondo, about thirty blocks, twice. I filled out applications at three restaurants and four bars. I didn’t find any openings. That meant, I had to widen the search. The sun was going down when I started down Fourth Street.
A place called the V-Bar, which was a small, boxy gray building, had a sign in the front window that said: Bartender wanted. All the other places I’d left applications were places I’d feel pretty comfortable working at, but they had no jobs. This place had a job, but I was pretty certain I was not going to feel comfortable.
I walked by it, deciding not to go in. There was no way a girl like me was going to get hired in a place like that. I might as well not even try. Then I kicked myself—in the shins until I squealed—metaphorically. If I didn’t go places I might not be welcome, I’d never go anywhere. And, unfortunately, going home and pulling the blankets over my head was not going to pay the rent.
Turning around, I walked back to V-Bar and went inside.
The bar was dark as night, the only real light coming from a digital jukebox stuck on the wall. There were peanut shells on the floor. I think they were mainly there so no one ever had to mop it. The place smelled of beer and piss. I squinted and saw a woman behind the bar in a leather vest, jeans and not much else. She looked sexy, but it was the kind of sexy that could knock you on your ass if you said the wrong thing.
I made a snap decision, one that I hoped would have positive results.
Taking a deep breath, I widened my stance and stomped up to the bar. “Hey,” I said. “Saw your sign.” I kept my voice low and tried to sound dumb. I glanced around the bar, it was filling up with the after work crowd; almost twenty men, all burly and rough around the edges, and two women both trussed up in skimpy dresses and push-up bras. Okay, so maybe applying for a job at V-Bar wasn’t a good idea, but it was an idea, and I desperately needed one of those.
The barmaid looked me up and down, walked over to the register, slipped out a piece of paper from a folder and brought it over and laid it on the bar in front of me. An application. I started to say, “Could I have a pen, please?” but checked myself. In my lowered voice, I asked, “Gotta pen?”
She pulled a pen out of a glass and slid it over to me. “I’m Pepper Dees.”
It took every ounce of restraint not to scream,
Pepper! You mean like Angie Dickinson in Police Woman. Oh my Gawd!
Instead, I just nodded and said, “Leo.”
Leo? Was that even short for Lionel? Lee, definitely. Nell, if you were tormenting me in high school. But Leo? I couldn’t remember. Anyway, it was too late. My name was now Leo.
“I’ll give you a minute with that, Leo,” Pepper said then walked away.
Quickly, I filled out the information at the top of the application. Name. Social. Phone. Address. That stuff was easy. Then I got to work experience. I couldn’t put down The Bird as my most recent job. That wasn’t going to work. I was going to have to get creative. In fact, the rest of the application was pure fiction. No working as a hair stylist, no beauty school, no GED. I mean, if I was lying I might as well finish high school. And throw on a year of junior college, what the heck, right?
When I was done I tipped my head at Pepper. She came down the bar and gave my application the once over. Then she stared at me again. She liked staring, I could tell. I tried not to flinch.
“Over-pour or under-pour?”
“Over-pour early so they stay, under-pour late so they go away.” Lance had explained that to me once. Though I think he over-poured anyone he wanted to sleep with all night long.
“Vodka, Galliano, orange juice.” I’d never bartended in my life, but two years as a cocktail waiter at The Bird did teach me what was in what drink.
“Long Island Iced Tea?”
“Tequila, gin, vodka, rum, Triple Sec, bar mix, splash of cola.”
Shit. Did she have my number? Was she calling me a name? I kept my cool. “In this place? You fuckin’ kidding me? Do you even have a blender back there?”
She burst into a laugh. “Okay. I think I like you. If your references check out, I’ll give you a call.”
I said, “Cool” and lumbered out of the bar.
As soon as I got outside, my hands flew into the air and I squealed. I’d just applied for a job in a straight bar; and not just any straight bar, a dive, an absolute dive. Not that I expected to get the job. Only one of my references was going to answer, but at least I’d had an adventure.
I got my phone out and found a number. A moment later, I asked, “Carlotta, how’s your butch voice?”
“What cha talkin’ bout, man. I am fuckin’ butch. Twenty-four seven.”
It was okay. Not as good as he thought but okay.
“You’re probably going to get a phone call. Remember that restaurant, Café Pistachio that used to be on Broadway down by Redondo?”
“The one that had the suspicious fire last month.”
“Yeah. You used to manage it.”
“I did? I didn’t start the fire, did I? I can’t go to prison, I’m too pretty.”
“When you get the call, tell them I used to work for you and that I’m a great bartender. And act really butch when you do it.”
“Oh, you want me to lie.”
“Of course I want you to lie. That’s what friends are for.”
My parents still live in the house I grew up in. It’s in the Bixby neighborhood, and began as a simple two-bedroom ranch. Now, after three additions it is a four-bedroom house with family room, den and workshop. There are big old trees turning the whole neighborhood shady, and speed bumps every two hundred feet. I hoped my parents hadn’t noticed me driving around the block about five times working up the courage to go in.
I’d just cracked a PBR with my dad when he said to me, “Funny. Someone with a truck just liked yours was circling the block a few minutes ago.”
I kicked myself. I knew my sixty-year-old, retired Dad didn’t have much to do but look out the window every few minutes. In the future, I needed to circle another block if I was afraid to come in.
“Something’s going on,” he said. We were sitting alone in the family room. The sixty-inch TV was tuned to ESPN but the sound was off. It looked like some kind of show about last year’s football season. A recap getting the fans ready for the season about to start.
“Your mom has made herself scarce. That means you’ve got something to tell me. Something I’m not going to like.”
Despite the beer my mouth was incredibly dry. How was I going to say this? Should I try to soften the blow some how? Or should I just say it? Why hadn’t I asked my mom how I should do it? Why hadn’t I read about coming out on the Internet? There had to be a right way to do it. And I knew that whatever way was the right way, I wasn’t going to find it on my own.
“I’ve been expecting this for a long time,” my dad said.
He nodded very solemnly. “What the girl’s name?”
“The girl you’ve knocked up. What’s her name? She’s keeping the baby, isn’t she? If she weren’t, you’d have just taken care of things and kept your mother and I in the dark. Are you going to marry her? It’s the right thing to do, you know. Even Arthur married your sister and he’s not half the man you are.”
“There’s no girl, Dad.”
“Oh. Well, you’ve done something wrong. I recognize the look on your face. I’ve been seeing it there since you were three years old.”
“There’s never going to be a girl, Dad.”
His face fell and he turned a bit white. He was beginning to understand. He looked sad rather than angry. I had a brief moment of hope that this might actually be—
“Is it cancer?”
“Is what cancer?”
“Whatever’s wrong with your…man bits.”
“My bits are fine, Dad.”
“Well then, what on earth is this conversation about? I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation like this with you. Ever. Just come out with it, for God’s sake. Tell me what’s wrong with you.”
He squinted his eyes at me. Something he did a lot at the TV, particularly when he watched the news. His face twitched. Softly, under his breath and with some regret, he said, “You’re not a man.”
“No, Dad, I—”
“Get out.” This in his angry-calm voice. A voice that had terrified me all my life.
“I, uh, we should talk.”
“No. I said get out.”
I got up and without stopping in the kitchen to say good-bye to my mom I walked out of the house. Sitting in my truck, I tried to think what I should do. I should call someone. I shouldn’t be alone. Couldn’t be alone. I took my phone and thought about who I wanted to call. I wanted to call Lionel. But that was stupid. Incredibly stupid. I didn’t have his number and he wouldn’t want to hear from me if I did. Shit, it had been a crappy week. I couldn’t remember when I’d had such a crappy week.
I called Fetch. “Hey, what’s going on tonight?”
“Tim and a bunch of us are going to The Pub.”
“Okay. See you there.”
I clicked off. I had about three hours. Well, I hadn’t gotten the dinner I was expecting so I should probably get something to eat. As I started the truck I had to laugh a little. It was the second time that week I’d gone to dinner and not eaten.
I was deciding between In-N-Out or Chronic Taco when my phone rang. My dashboard told me it was my mom. I clicked the call on.
Her voice was kinda low. “I’m in the garage. I’m letting your father stew for a few minutes. Now don’t worry, everything will be fine. Just give me a little time to work on him.”
A ball of emotion inflated in my chest. I pulled over to the curb just to be safe. I don’t think I’d cried since I was eight. So if was going to do that, I didn’t want to be driving. Crying while driving was a skill I’d never picked up.
“Dad was pretty upset.”
“That’s the way your father is with everything. He starts with anger and then works his way through his emotions until he gets to good guy.”
“I don’t know if this is going to work that way.”
“I said I’ll work on him, and I will.”
“Mom, you’re not exactly thrilled about this yourself.”
“I’ve had a very busy twenty-four hours. And I’ve come a long way. Last night I was on the same shift with Juan Hernandez. He’s a gay, and he explained a lot of things to me. He told me all about bears and otters and wolves and cubs and polar bears, and—oh my God you boys like your wild animals, don’t you?”
“Oh Jesus… Do we have to have this conversation?”
“And then this morning I went onto the Internet to do some research. You boys also really like your porn, don’t you? Every single Google search—”
“Oh please. I’ve been a nurse for thirty years. I know people have sex and I know they have it in unusual ways. Now there is one thing I really have to say to you. Household items are
sex toys. If you need to use something like that, buy it at sex shop. It’s much safer. I’m sure you’ve heard the horror stories of young men coming into the ED with, well, various items—”