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Gary Bowen teaches us to be a rodeo "Barrel Racer." Mary, Rhoda, and monogamy limn a moral fable in David Pratt's "Series." Longtime lovers and those who've just met, sea turtles and closeted TV stars, straight boys and bankers crowd the pages of His 3. In this eclectic collection, stories by established writers such as Philip Gambone, Drew Limsky, Reginald Shepherd, and David Watmough nestle up against...
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Gary Bowen teaches us to be a rodeo "Barrel Racer." Mary, Rhoda, and monogamy limn a moral fable in David Pratt's "Series." Longtime lovers and those who've just met, sea turtles and closeted TV stars, straight boys and bankers crowd the pages of His 3. In this eclectic collection, stories by established writers such as Philip Gambone, Drew Limsky, Reginald Shepherd, and David Watmough nestle up against stories by new talent, including Alex Chee, Reginald M. Harris, Declan Meade, and Robert Ordoa, to produce an anthology that doesn't establish the state of the gay imagination at the fin de sicle but provokes it.
Pentecost Sunday: Early in the morning, Quinn is in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, doing up the buttons of a velvet shirt—Quinn, who always tries so hard to dress for the occasion, but who always manages to get it wrong. The shirt is a bright red—perhaps it's too red, perhaps he looks silly. Once he went to Mass (had it actually been St. Patrick's Day?) wearing a new lime-green T-shirt and green jeans, and when he stood for the opening antiphon, a young nun sitting in the pew behind him burst into laughter.
Quinn plucks at his collar and stares at his reflection from different angles. At last, despairing, he turns toward the window.
Outside, Leager is sunning his long, sick body on the patio. His latest drug cocktail seems to be working finally. He's gained some weight and color. Still, Quinn notes the parts of his lover's body that remain tired and shriveled: his eyes, especially, and his penis.
Mrs. Chung from next door leans across the overgrown hedge and whispers in Leager's direction. Her words travel to Quinn through the hot, still air. "Mr. Peele, please. Pssst ... do cover up."
Leager answers the woman by turning over on his lounge chair and flashing her with his red, bony ass.
Mrs. Chung presses her fists to her cap of white hair and waddles back indoors.
"Ahk," she cries. "Ahk, ahk, ahk."
Quinn steps out onto thepatio with Leager's swimming trunks. Even this early in the morning, the soles of his feet burn against the tiles. He steps back inside and grabs Leager's sandals.
"Here," he says, dropping the clothes beside the lounge chair. Leager twists his head around and grins smugly.
Quinn says, "Sure, you're victorious now, but later you'll remember all of this and feel sad." Maybe Quinn will find him in the bathroom, in the middle of the night, staring into the full-length mirror and sobbing.
Quinn flings the trunks onto Leager's scaly red back. "For goodness' sakes, Lee. Put these on."
Leager covers his ears. He squeals, "Ahk."
"Ahk, ahk, ahk."
"Ahk?" Leager looks up and smirks.
Quinn sighs and shakes his head. He opens his mouth to say—what? What could he possibly say? He feels a stirring inside him, and for a moment he doesn't recognize what it is. He frowns and coughs. And then the stirring overtakes him—he's laughing before he can get hold of himself.
Leager, obviously pleased, closes his eyes and settles back in his chair.
Beyond the hedge, in the Chungs' back doorway, Mrs. Chung gestures frantically in their direction, while her husband—sweet, alcoholic Mr. Chung—fidgets beside her. He shrugs his shoulders up and down, stiffly, like a windup toy.
Quinn watches them and clutches his gut. But even the sight of his long-suffering neighbors isn't enough to restrain him. He feels helpless. Unlike Leager, he already feels guilty.
Long ago, when Quinn was a boy at a school called St. James the Greater, anything could throw him into such a fit—a priest's lisp, a nun's wagging jowls. What did he do back then to make himself stop?
Once, old Sister Daniel (the jowly one) dragged him into the cloakroom, where there was a rusty sink. She pushed a sponge into his hand. "Get to work, giggle girl," she said, her voice deep and gravelly. And while he pushed the dry sponge back and forth over the enamel, she reminded him about dear St. Bernadette and her enormous tumor, and about the Maccabees, their eyes gouged out then their hands cut off then their breasts which sister Daniel called the fronts of them") ...
She said. "Think of that when you get that tickle in your throat."
But now, snorting crazily on the patio, Quinn is not at all affected by these images. Instead, another memory bursts into his head: a summer evening on this patio, ten years earlier—the scent of jasmine in the air, sweet and mournful as incense. In the darkness, Leager slides his shorts down to his hard, tan calves and Quinn kneels behind him, bites the taut, muscled flesh of his ass.
"Aw, don't stop," Leager says now, from his lounge chair, his eyes still closed. "Such a pleasant sound, your laughter. Listening to it, I almost forgot what a bitch you really are."
Quinn presses his palm to his forehead.
"Hello? Quinn?" Leager's eyes flutter open.
"I'm still here, Lee."
Leager sits up achily. He covers himself with the trunks Quinn had brought him. "Listen, Kinny, will you bring me out my pipe? I think I need it."
Quinn looks at his watch. "Come inside, then. The last thing I need is for Mrs. Chung to smell the smoke and send the cops out for you."
"Let her," Leager says. "The crazy bitch."
Quinn presses his lips together and looks beyond the hedge. He remembers an autumn season not too long ago when Leager heaved baskets of tomatoes and apples from their garden over to Mrs. Chung.
"I love you," the woman had cried. "Oh, how I love you."
Later, Quinn comes out of the bathroom, fully dressed at last. He'll be late for Mass now. He'll have to find a place to sit way in the back of the church where he won't be able to concentrate.
"Leager," he calls out. The house smells of pot. He finds Leager, still naked, in the kitchen, his eyes heavy lidded, foggy and serene. He's lifting a jar of peanut butter off one of the cupboard shelves.
"Ah," Leager says. "Off to see the wizard?" Then he stares at Quinn's shirt and for a second his eyes sharpen. "Kinny, look at what you're wearing."
Quinn freezes and runs a hand down his sleeve. He allows himself to be hurt, but only for a moment. "I'll be back in an hour or so," he says. "What are you doing?"
Leager chews his lip and looks down at the jar in his hands. "Hmmm ... making a sandwich."
Quinn clenches his teeth, sucks air through them. He doesn't have time for this. The taste of pot smoke, bitter and spicy, enters his mouth. The pipe lies in an ashtray on the kitchen table. He's annoyed with himself for craving a toke. "You know you can't eat yet. You just had your pills."
"I'm hungry. That's good, isn't it? It's been so long since I've been really hungry. Maybe I'll just have some bread with a little sugar—"
Quinn pulls the jar away from him and rolls it sideways back onto the shelf. He says, "You're hungry because of the pot. You should have waited."
He slams the cupboard door shut. They both jump at the sound it makes.
The sound rattles something loose inside Quinn. Idiot, he wants to spit out at Leager. Are you an idiot?
It's an odd feeling, to be angry at Leager after all this time. Five years earlier, when their doctor first told them that Leager had AIDS, Quinn thought: Whore. Then he was never again angry at Leager, until now. And he wonders: Why now? The anger swells in his throat, oddly, in the same way lust used to swell in his throat—how it used to gag him.
Soon after they first met, Leager turned Quinn on to poppers. He held the brown vial under Quinn's nose and the stinking vapor flooded his head. Soon, Quinn felt slow and reckless and desperate. He felt tears rushing behind his eyes, and a thin membrane rising before him, fogging his vision. He wanted to taste the skin of Leager's belly, his long toes, the fleshy line that ran down his scrotum. He wanted to suckle Leager's cock forever. Head spinning, Quinn looked into Leager's face, which was hot and moist and dreamy. He saw that Leager's eyes were foggy as well, and Quinn wanted to live behind this fog—live in the power he felt behind it.
But the high lasted for only moments. Afterward, his head pounded. He felt queasy and exhausted and ashamed. Now, in their kitchen, Quinn feels the anger draining from him just as swiftly. His head clears and he finds himself staring at the lesion above Leager's right nipple, now so familiar, and at the one below the knife-sharp basket of his ribs, and the one blooming in the hollow of his neck like a dark petal. But where are the rest? Quinn steps back and runs his eyes over Leager's body. Three blemishes where once there were so many.
Leager pushes his blond hair off his eyes, a mannerism once so familiar to Quinn. And Quinn sees that Leager's hair is growing thicker and softer, that it is once again beginning to curl, and that there is a new fleshiness and color softening the sharp angles of his face.
"Don't look at me like that," Leager says.
"Lee, baby—" Quinn doesn't know what to say. He's quiet, and then he stammers, "You're beautiful."
"No, I'm not. Why do you look so terrified?"
"Why say that, Lee?" Quinn says shakily. He takes another step back. He tries to swallow. He looks at his watch. He must get to Mass. "I'll be back soon," he says. "We'll have a nice lunch then."
When Quinn steps forward, Leager stiffens and his eyes squeeze shut. He remains very still as Quinn kisses his neck, like a good boy suffering the slow, sharp poke of the nurse's needle.
The man on the phone says to Sister Sharman Summer, "My new volunteer boy is a slut."
Sharman holds the receiver to her ear and looks out the window of the office, which is in a renovated Victorian flat across the street from St. John of the Cross.
"Oh, Gustavo. Now why would you say that?"
"Because he is. He comes in always with the short shorts and the tight shirts. And his body—it's not even that good."
"Gus, seriously—how would you know? You can't see a thing."
"He let me touch," Gus says.
"I don't need to hear all this," Sharman says. She tugs absently at the rusted window latch. "All I want to know is if he's being of help to you." Sharman's voice rises because the television in the office has suddenly become very loud. The two other volunteers are hooting at the end of a football game. Sharman covers the receiver and calls out, "Guys? Please."
"Sorry, Sister," says the man who doesn't know her very well. "Sorry, Sharm," says the man who does. They turn the television down and return to their desks and their telephones.
Gus says, "Oh Sharmie, I was kidding you. I just wanted to make you laugh."
"Yes, Gus. All right." She closes her eyes and touches her lips to the receiver. He's one of her favorites, this Gus, and actually, he can almost always make her laugh. One of the first stories he ever told her was about desperately wanting to be a nun when he was six years old, and how he had made a little habit for himself out of a bedsheet and a lampshade.
Since his lover died, she's begun calling him from her apartment, sometimes quite late in the evening. He tells her about the sixty years he and Jack had spent together. Sixty years! Almost twice her age—the enormity of it is a solid wall she can't climb. Sometimes she takes her heavy wooden rosary off its peg and holds it in her lap while she listens. She runs her fingers over the smooth, dense beads and considers that each one represents a year of Gus and Jack's life together. Other times, she listens with a glass of wine on the table beside her. She leans back and sips from the glass and after a while allows the tears to slip down her cheeks.
Now she's frightened for Gus. If his new volunteer doesn't work out, there might not be another to take his place. With the new treatments, people think the worst is over. Everywhere, she feels a surge of cautious cheer. She can picture the politicians slapping each other's backs and looking for new causes. But what will happen to her dear Gustavo, and the others, on whom these new treatments have no effect?
Sharman shields her eyes and looks down on the sunny street. She watches men dressed in sport shirts and sneakers, or scuffed, comfortable loafers, climbing the steps to church. Afterward, they'll walk in groups down to the nearby restaurants. They'll huddle together on the bright sidewalks, whooping at each other's stories, until the host calls out their names.
"Oh, Gustavo. Is there anything at all I can do for you?"
"You can take me to the ballet. No, I don't like the ballet. Was it Jack who liked it? I have no idea anymore," Gus says. Then he whispers, in a tired, serious, kind voice, "Remember, my sweet Sister, that even if I did not have AIDS I would still be a very, very old man."
Sharman laughs softly, to please him, even though she doesn't quite understand what he is trying to say. Nevertheless, she is comforted somehow.
After they hang up, Sharman looks down at her phone list. Gus's was the final name. She taps a pen edgily on her lips. She feels restless and wonders if she should hear Mass again, even though she had attended the eight o'clock. Perhaps she should walk the eight blocks down to Mission Street and window-shop, budget herself two dollars for a treat—a cup of frozen yogurt or a pretty greeting card.
Through the window, she sees a dark-haired man in a red velvet shirt rushing down from the end of the street toward church. She's seen this man before—at Mass and around the neighborhood, darting in and out of the pharmacy or the supermarket, or strolling down the sidewalk with his sick lover. Once, she went into the little Japanese restaurant on Eighteenth Street for takeout and saw them sitting at a window table. While she waited for her order she watched the lover take the napkin from his lap and fold it into a large, limp origami swan.
The dark-haired man tugged the napkin gently from out of his lover's hands, shook it out, and smoothed it back down on his lover's lap. Immediately the lover plucked up the napkin and began again to pleat its wilted corners on top of the table, and, again, the dark-haired man took it away and replaced it on his lap. Sharman sat hypnotized by this scene, which played itself over and over every few moments. It was like a child's game—the dance of their hands, the white napkin flicked between them; it was graceful as a game of cat's cradle.
Sharman cocked her head and eavesdropped on their conversation, which carried on steadily while all of this was happening.
"Have the tofu udon," said the dark-haired man. "That's easy to digest."
His lover said, "Ugh, tofu. All I want is sushi."
"You know you can't have raw fish."
"I can have crab. The crab is cooked."
"I don't know about that," the man said. "I don't know about that at all. I'll have to ask."
"Well, I want something wrapped in rice and seaweed. Maybe they can make sushi with tofu."
"You said you didn't want tofu. So now you want tofu?"
While the man turned to look for the waiter, the lover had time to shape his napkin into a little boat, which he proudly bobbed up and down in the light coming in from the window.
"Ah," said the waiter, who had suddenly arrived. "Can we hire you to fold all our napkins?"
"We'll order now," said the dark-haired man.
"Can you make sushi with tofu?" the lover asked.
The waiter, a young, milky-skinned Japanese man, batted his eyelashes. "Of course," he said. "Anything for someone as handsome as you."
"Are you big?" the lover asked.
"Excuse me?" said the waiter, his smiling stiffening just slightly. "You know, big."
"We'll have two bowls of tofu udon," said the dark-haired man abruptly. "Thank you." And before the waiter could say another word, the man added, "And two glasses of water, no ice. Thank you."
As the waiter retreated, the man shook out the napkin boat and dropped it on the table in front of his lover. In a voice cool with finality, he said, "Leave it, please."
Sharman hid her face behind a takeout menu so no one would notice how intently she was listening. Of course, until that moment, she couldn't have been sure that the two men were lovers. The dark-haired man could just as easily have been a friend or even a hired attendant. But there was something in the stiffness of his jaw and the indignant flush rising in his cheeks that even Sharman knew could mean only one thing: he was jealous.
A feeling ballooned in her chest. She didn't know what it was. It should have been pity, but it was something vastly different. It was something light and hot and almost sweet. The closest word she could think of was "triumph." Here was the lover, obviously sick under his camouflage of dark glasses and baseball cap and turtleneck sweater. His bones jutted against the fabric of the sweater. The hint of a lesion bloomed in the shadow cast by the bill of his cap. His face was taut and flaky and shiny, as if covered with a thin layer of fish scales. Yet—astonishingly—the man beside him could barely sit still, so shaken he was by the perceived threat of a pretty, young waiter. Two thoughts raced through Sharman's mind, one crashing into the tail of the other. The first was: This is love. The second was: Is this love?
She wanted to ask the man this question. Sitting alone in the corner of the restaurant, she was suddenly overwhelmed by all she didn't know. She felt like an old, old woman who had traveled the world many times over, but who had learned nothing from it. She wanted the man to tell her about his love, the hard sharp teeth of it chewing at his gut.
Now, from the window, Sharman watches him hesitate before climbing the steps to the church's entrance. She watches him absently straighten the collar of his shirt and square his shoulders. As he disappears inside, Sharman cannot calm the rush of curiosity she feels about this stranger—yet another ridiculously proud man whose world she so desperately craves to know.
|World Without End|
|The Singing Boy|
|REGINALD M. HARRIS, JR||55|
|Good News and Bad News|
|DAVID A. NEWMAN||66|
|SCOTT ALLEN BOWLES||109|
|A Pilgrimage of You|
|Barrel Racers: El Charro|
|Hating Yourself in the Morning|
|MICHAEL ANTHONY GOLD||183|
|The Black Narcissus|
|Notes on the Contributors||267|
|About the Editors||275|