Authors: Armistead Maupin
Tags: #General, #Gay, #Fiction, #Gay Men, #City and Town Life, #Humorous Stories, #San Francisco (Calif.), #City and Town Life - Fiction, #San Francisco (Calif.) - Fiction, #Gay Men - Fiction
“And that,” said Michael, keeping a straight face, “is what’s wrong with the young people of today.”
Polly groaned. Thack slid his arm along Michael’s shoulder and gave him a vigorous shake. “Such an old poop.”
“Indeed,” said Mrs. Madrigal. “And such a short memory.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well…if I’m not mistaken, dear, I had to explain Ronald Firbank to you.”
Michael frowned at her. “You did?”
“You couldn’t have.”
“I think so.”
“Well…Firbank is much more obscure than Sappho.”
“Now,” said the landlady, dispensing with the subject as she turned her attention to Polly, “will you be all right while I’m gone?”
Polly shrugged. “Sure.”
“I doubt you’ll need heat, but if you do and it goes on the fritz, there’s a knob on the furnace you can jiggle.”
Polly nodded. “I remember.”
“I’m leaving the extra keys with the Gottfrieds on the third floor, so you can buzz them if you lose yours.”
“Oh…if you could keep an eye out for Rupert. I think he’s eating with the Treachers these days, but I keep some kitty food for him just in case. It’s in the cupboard here. I’ll give you a key before I leave.”
Hearing all this, Michael felt old and faintly alienated, like some decrepit alumnus who returns to his campus to find that undergraduate life has gone on without him. Who were these people, anyway—these Gottfrieds and Treachers who were privy now to the age-old mysteries of the lane?
He realized, too, that he was slightly jealous of Polly in her newfound role as junior lieutenant at 28 Barbary Lane. This was irrational, of course—it was he, after all, who had chosen to move away—but the feeling gnawed at him just the same.
When he and Thack left that evening, Mrs. Madrigal took their arms like a dowager duchess and walked them down the foggy lane to the top of the steps. The very smell of this ferny place, pungent with earth and eucalyptus, released a torrent of memories, and Michael felt perilously capable of tears.
“Now listen,” said the landlady, as she released them for their descent. “Let’s do something fun before I leave.”
“You bet,” said Thack.
Mrs. Madrigal tugged on Michael’s sleeve. “How about you, young man?”
“Sure.” Michael avoided her gaze.
“Make him call,” she told Thack. “He’ll forget.”
“I won’t forget,” said Michael, and he hurried down the steps before she could see his face.
A WHOLE DAY HAD PASSED
without a peep out of Mary Ann about her lunch date with Burke Andrew. He had almost brought it up himself the night before, but something about her skittery, overpolite demeanor told him to leave well enough alone. If there was still something left between her and Burke, he didn’t want to know about it.
This was paranoia, of course, but what could you do?
It was a clear blue evening, and he was heading home in his Jeep. The ivory towers of Russian Hill had gone golden in the sunset. All things considered, he had plenty to feel golden about himself, so this nagging insecurity would have to stop.
If anything, he decided, he should feel reassured by her behavior. The reunion had obviously been so uneventful that she had simply forgotten to mention it. What’s more, if something
clicked between the two of them, she would have known better than to draw attention to the situation by keeping quiet; she would have mentioned it casually and let the subject drop.
He had put the matter behind him when he arrived at the twenty-third floor of The Summit.
“Yo,” he hollered, coming into the living room. The slanting sun cast a sherry-colored light on the carpet, where several dozen of Shawna’s dolls were arrayed face-down in pristine rows. “I’m home, people.”
His daughter emerged from the bedroom and stood scratching her butt. “Hi, Daddy.” In her other hand she held the left foot of another doll.
“Hi, Puppy. What’s this?”
“I’m giving them away.”
“Yes.” She knelt and placed the doll next to the others, solemnly arranging its limbs. “To the homeless.”
“Was that your idea?” He was impressed.
“Mostly. Mostly mine and partly Mary Ann’s.”
“Well, that’s wonderful. Only not all of ’em, O.K.?”
“Don’t worry.” She patted the doll’s dress into place. “I’m only giving away the ugly ones.”
He nodded. “Good thinking.” Then he touched the tip of her nose. “You’re a regular Mother Teresa.”
In the kitchen his wife was shelling peas, looking raw-boned and Sally Fieldish in her Laura Ashley apron. When he kissed the nape of her neck, he caught a whiff of her ripe six o’clock smell and felt totally, stupidly, in love with her.
“Would you please tell me,” he said, “what our daughter is doing?”
“I know.” She gave him a rueful look over her shoulder. “It looks like Jonestown out there.”
He popped one of the raw peas into his mouth and munched on it as he leaned against the counter. “You sure it’s a good idea?”
She shrugged. “Why not?”
“I dunno. What if she misses one? Remember how she was when we threw out her banky?”
“She wants to do this, Brian. It’s a rite of passage. She’s getting off on it.”
“I know, but if she…”
“If we’d listened to you, she’d still be sucking on that damn banky”
“O.K. You’re right.”
“She’s keeping her nice dolls, anyway.”
“Whatcha want for potatoes?” she asked. “Sweet or new?”
“With baby marshmallows?”
He gave her a skeptical glance. “Since when have you bought baby marshmallows?”
She shrugged. “If you don’t want ’em…”
“Oh, I want ’em. I just thought you said they were gross and middle American.”
She gave him a feisty glance and continued shelling.
“Want me to help with that?” he asked.
“No, thanks. I like having something to do with my hands. It soothes me.”
He moved behind her and nuzzled her neck again. “Do you need soothing?”
“No,” she said. “I just meant…it gives me something manual to do.”
“Mmm.” He nipped at her flesh. “I know something manual you can do.”
She giggled. “Go set the table.”
“Let’s eat in front of the set.”
“O.K. Nothing’s on, though.”
“Sure there is.
. Two shows in a row.”
“Well…Michael loaned us
The Singing Detective.
“No, thank you.”
“It’s Dennis Potter.”
“Brian, I don’t wanna watch some old guy having psoriasis while I’m having dinner.”
“You did a show on it last month.”
“All the more reason.”
“You’re hard, woman,” he said, and pinched her butt.
She gave him a push toward the door. “Go play with Shawna. Maybe after she’s in bed…”
“Well, not if you don’t…”
“Scoot. I’ve got shrimp to stuff.”
“Hey,” she said, mugging at his amazement. “I’m a Total Woman.”
She hadn’t stuffed shrimp for years.
In the living room he sat on the floor and listened as Shawna recited—a little too cheerfully, perhaps—the deficiencies of her soon-to-be-homeless dolls.
“This one doesn’t talk anymore.”
“And this one has dumb hair. And this one I hate.”
“You don’t hate it, Puppy.”
“Yes I do. And this one has a really funny smell.”
Brian frowned, then sniffed the doll. The odor nipped his nostrils like tiny fangs.
“Pedro peed on her,” Shawna explained.
“The Sorensens’ iguana.”
“Great.” He returned the doll to its resting place.
“Can we get a iguana?”
“I’d take care of him.”
He thought for a moment, then picked up the reeking doll. “I think we’d better retire this one, O.K.?”
“What do you mean?”
“Throw it out.”
“Because, Puppy, if it smells bad to us, it’ll smell just as bad to some other little girl.”
“Uh-uh.” Shawna, miraculously, shook her head and scratched her butt at the same time. “Not if she’s homeless.”
“Yes she would. Trust me on this, Puppy.”
His daughter gave him a blank look. “Whatever.”
“C’mon,” he said, taking her hand. “Let’s go help Mommy set the table.”
The first time he’d seen
The Singing Detective
, Mary Ann had been off networking at a cocktail party.
“It’s amazing,” he told her now, back in the kitchen. “This ugly of guy is in bed in the hospital, with like crooked teeth and this craggy-ass face, and he opens his mouth to sing and out comes ’It Might As Well Be Spring.’ Only with like a crooner’s voice—you know, whoever sang it originally—and with all the orchestration and everything.”
“I don’t get it,” said Mary Ann.
“Me either,” said Shawna.
“You will when you see it,” he told his wife.
She wasn’t convinced. “Not if it takes six hours.”
“Well…we can watch it a little bit at a time.”
“Forget it,” said Shawna.
He turned to his daughter and tickled her under the arms. “You’re not watching it, anyway.”
The child squirmed, giggling. “Yes I am.”
“Nope. You’re watching
in your room.”
“Says me. And Freddy!” He stiffed his fingers into a claw and clamped it on the back of her head, getting a squeal out of her.
Mary Ann frowned at him. “Brian…”
“That isn’t funny.”
“Oh…O.K.” He let the claw wilt, then winked at Shawna. “Mommy’s making us sweet potatoes with teeny marshmallows.”
“Yummy,” said Shawna.
“Why do you think she did that?”
“He’s a child-molester, you know,” his wife said.
He glanced at her. “Who?”
“Freddy. In that movie.”
“Yeah. O.K.” He turned back to Shawna. “You think it was because we were good all week?”
“They’ve made a total hero of him. He’s got his own posters, even. It’s disgusting.”
“I guess it is,” he said.
“We’re doing a show on it, actually.”
He nodded, having guessed as much already.
“I like him,” said Shawna.
Mary Ann frowned at her. “Who?”
“No you don’t,” she said. “You do not like him.”
“Yes I do.”
“Shawna.” Mary Ann shot him a rueful look. “See?” she said.
“I think he’s funny,” said Shawna.
Brian gave his wife a glance that said: Lighten up. “She thinks he’s funny.”
“Right.” Mary Ann dumped a handful of peas into a sauce-pan. “A child-molester.”
“You want wine with the meal?” he asked.
He went to the refrigerator and removed a bottle of sauvignon blanc, transferring it to the freezer so it would chill the way they liked it. Seeing Shawna wander off again, he sat down on the stool at the butcher-block island. “I meant to ask you,” he said as nonchalantly as possible. “How was your lunch with Burke yesterday?”
“Oh.” It took her a moment. “Fine.”
He nodded. “Get all caught up?”
“Mmm. More or less.”
“He still…married and all?”
She studied him a moment, then gave him a slow, honeyed smirk. “You’re a silly man.”
On its own, his eyebrow did something suggestive of Jack Nicholson in
Her eyes returned to the sweet potato she was slicing. “I knew you were gonna get like this.”
“Hey,” he said, shrugging. “What way have I gotten? It was a simple question.”
“O.K., then…Yes, he is still married. Yes, he still has two kids.”
“How does he look?”
“What do you want me to say?” she said. “Something really disparaging so you won’t be insecure?”
“That would be good.”
She smiled. “You’re such a mess.”
“C’mon. Give it a shot. Has his ass gone froggy on him?”
She hooted, so he sidled up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “You used to like him a lot.”
“How do you know?”
“Hey,” he said, “I was there, remember? I saw you guys together all the time.”
She rotated in his arms and raked the hair above his ears with her fingertips. “Did Michael make a big deal about this lunch or something?”
“I didn’t tell him,” he said. “Did you?”
“No. Why would I do that?”
“And what could possibly make you think that after eleven years I would even…?”
“Nothing,” he said. “You’re right. I’m a silly man.”
Her eyes surveyed his with optometrical attention to detail. She gave him a dismissive rap on the butt and turned back to her sweet potatoes.
“If you wanna know the truth,” she said, chopping away, “he’s gotten kind of prosaic.”
“I dunno. Too serious and dedicated. Wrapped up in his career.”
“Television,” she replied. “Producing.”
“He’s nice, though. He was really concerned when I told him Michael was positive.” She paused. “Actually, we spent most of the time talking about that.”
“They were close, huh?”
“Well, fairly. He asked if we could all get together sometime this week.”
“Oh, yeah? With Michael, you mean?”
She nodded. “If you don’t want to, of course…”
“No. That’s fine.”
“I think you’d get along with him great.”
“I thought you said he was prosaic.”
She rolled her eyes. “I meant…about his work. Is Wednesday a good night?”
“I dunno,” he said. “I haven’t checked the book lately.” By this he meant
book, of course, as opposed to his or hers. For years now, at her instigation, they had maintained three appointment books at home. It had saved them a world of trouble.
“We’re free,” she said. “Nguyet’s available too.” Moments later she added: “Probably.”