Plays Well With Others

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With great narrative inventiveness and emotional amplitude, Allan Gurganus gives us artistic Manhattan in the wild 1980s, where young artists—refugees from the middle class—hurl themselves into playful work and serious fun.  Our guide is Hartley Mims Jr., a Southerner whose native knack for happiness might thwart his literary ambitions. Through his eyes we encounter the composer Robert Christian Gustafson, an Iowa preacher's son whose good looks constitute both a mythic draw and a major limitation, and ...

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With great narrative inventiveness and emotional amplitude, Allan Gurganus gives us artistic Manhattan in the wild 1980s, where young artists—refugees from the middle class—hurl themselves into playful work and serious fun.  Our guide is Hartley Mims Jr., a Southerner whose native knack for happiness might thwart his literary ambitions. Through his eyes we encounter the composer Robert Christian Gustafson, an Iowa preacher's son whose good looks constitute both a mythic draw and a major limitation, and Angelina "Alabama" Byrnes, a failed deb, five feet tall but bristling with outsized talent.  These friends shelter each other, promote each other's work, and compete erotically.  When tragedy strikes, this circle grows up fast, somehow finding, at the worst of times, the truest sort of family.

Funny and heartbreaking, as eventful as Dickens and as atmospheric as one of Fitzgerald's parties, Plays Well with Others combines a fable's high-noon energy with an elegy's evening grace.  Allan Gurganus's celebrated new novel is a lovesong to imperishable friendship, a hymn to a brilliant and now-vanished world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A wondrous book..brimming with life.... [It] confirms Gurganus's stature as one of our most significant and indispensable writers." —Atlanta Journal & Constitution

"Gurganus, a storyteller in the grand tradition, can tell his stories as well as anyone alive." —The New York Times

"Witty and piercing.  There are sentences that glisten like black opals." —Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
La vie boheme in New York City in the 1980s is the setting of Gurganus's (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All) fierce, bleakly funny and resonant new novel. The twist here is that the narrator, Richard Hartley Mims Jr., and most of the other characters, are gay. In the heady years when it was chic to come out of the closet, a group of young, ambitious artists, musicians and writers descend on Manhattan from all parts of the country, possessed of talent, joie de vivre and the determination to succeed. They play the party scene, work at menial jobs to support themselves and enjoy the firm conviction that someday they will be famous. Initially, Hartley's discursive, episodic (perhaps semi-autobiographical) chronicle sometimes veers into self-absorbed prattle as he recalls his years growing up in conservative North Carolina, his fledgling efforts as a writer and his sexually charged friendship with the decade's most gorgeous man, genius composer Robert Gustafson, and with outrageous, androgynous artist Angie (aka "Alabama") Byrnes. These somewhat tedious asides are redeemed by hilarious scenes that verge on farce (30 dildoes fall out of a bag on the subway; two of Hartley's suitors meet in his closet and can't resist making love to each other). The specter of AIDs hovers over the novel, however, and gradually transforms the raunchy and pun-prone narrative into a wrenching threnody to lost youth and talent cut down. When the pandemic strikes and Hartley becomes a caretaker to his dying friends, Gurganus's gallows humor and innate compassion transform this material into a wrenching elegy for an innocent time when, to the gay community, artistic fulfillment, fame, love and happiness seemed just within reach. 100,000 first printing; Random House audio. (Nov.)
Library Journal
A lucky lottery winner in Grange, Florida, gets madand then gets evenwhen two thugs who won half the pot get greedy and steal her ticket, too.
As the AIDS epidemic approaches the end of its second decade, a new kind of AIDS literature has begun to appear -- a fiction that seeks not just to absorb and comprehend the awful tragedy the disease has wrought in the lives of gay men in America, but to affirm it, to reclaim it in the name of its victims, to celebrate it, even. "We have all been upstaged by the newsworthiness of our particular disaster," Allan Gurganus writes in the prologue to Plays Well with Others, his hilarious, overlong, but ultimately moving account of three young artists in Manhattan in the 1980s, a decade that began with such lustful promise and ended with so many corpses: "This is just one of the ways History snubs us."

Plays Well with Others is the memoir of one Hartley Mims Jr., an eager young talent from North Carolina, already in his early 30s when the novel begins, who aspires at first to be a painter but moves toward writing in fairly short order. In his mind, the line between one creative endeavor and another is almost completely blurred by ambition, sex, high spirits, good friends and the sheer throbbing energy of the magic city.

"For me, New York meant the chance of having fun while creating something true and beautiful," says Hartley, "a chance of lowering my address book's bucket into the deepest, coolest waters I could find." The image of Hartley's address book (or, rather, books, since he goes through nine or 10 of them as his friends begin to die) presides over the novel like the guest list of the "Titanic" -- a not incidental comparison, since Hartley's friend and heartthrob, the composer Robert Gustafson, is working on a "Titanic" symphony before, during and after his descent into AIDS. Robert is a breathtakingly beautiful Midwestern composer, "the greatest beauty of the 1970s Manhattan nights ... intensely popular at steam baths and in the backs of parked trucks along West Street where forthright boys passed fluids to and fro, past jets of spit and spunk, a secret virus riding all that liquid living pleasure." Neither Hartley as a narrator nor Gurganus as an author makes any kind of apology for the behaviors that led a whole generation of gay men to their doom.

"O, I long to tell a Fairy Tale," Gurganus cries. "It is a true one. Not to give away the end, but most of the best fairies die ... We were children. We thought no one had ever been wilder or smarter than we." That Gurganus is a "Southern" writer becomes almost painfully apparent as his tale progresses; I found the novel rather too thick with phrase, too self-consciously "playful." It's also too intent on crafting and shaping the thoughts and reactions of its characters -- not just Hartley, but Gustafson, too, and their wise, hard-as-nails, ex-debutante companion, painter Alabama Byrnes, whose "weird combination of garden-party girlishness and toad-collecting male-childness" serves as a predictable foil and mirror for the "fairies" at the heart of the story.

On the other hand, anyone who can write the simple declarative sentence "Thirty dildoes are a lot of dildoes" knows which side his book is buttered on. This is a wickedly funny novel, unsentimental, free of self-exculpation and determined to keep a bright face on things despite the subject matter. "Don't worry," says Hartley/Gurganus, "I can still be amusing. They always liked that in me." -- Peter Kurth

Kirkus Reviews
A deft mixture of contrasting tones distinguishes this vigorous novel about the New York art scene "Before" and "After" the Age of AIDS, by the gifted author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) and White People (stories: 1991).

Narrator Hartley Mims, a writer who migrated in 1980, when he was in his early 30s, from Falls, North Carolina, to Manhattan, begins his story with a Prologue set 14 years later, on the occasion of the horrifying, lingering death of his friend and soulmate Robert Gustafson, long renowned as "the prettiest boy in New York," though only minimally acclaimed as the composer of an ambitious musical work whose theme is the launching and sinking of the Titanic. That image, along with several equally telling monitory metaphors (a street mugging that causes scarring and temporary blindness, friends first meeting at a VD clinic, Mahler's "Songs for Dead Children"), casts an ominous shadow over vividly evoked scenes of erotic play, artistic (and artful) posturing and clowning, and the up-and-down friendships that bond Hartley forever with his beloved (bisexual) Robert, their best gal-pal, heterosexual Angelina "Alabama" Byrnes (a Jackson Pollocklike painter with a splash or two of real genius), and several other intimates who, like Hartley, exercise their gayness in a feverish atmosphere that only gradually reveals its lethal malignity. The writing is pure pleasure throughout: alert, witty, and studded with virtuoso phrasemaking. Yet one must object that by sentimentalizing his characters as doomed "children" (a theme adumbrated by the witty title), Gurganus risks robbing them of their dignity as responsible adults. The point, of course, is that they're both.

Gurganus may not, therefore, be the spokesman for his generation that Plays Well seems to claim, but he's unquestionably one of its most provocative and interesting stylists.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375702037
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: 1st Vintage Edition
  • Pages: 337
  • Sales rank: 702,798
  • Product dimensions: 5.21 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus lives his native North Carolina in a village of twenty five hundred souls.

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Read an Excerpt

I don't consider myself psychic, just lucky—with friends.

Shall we start with the recent playful miracle? How fast a migraine can clarify to the buzz of good champagne! I am riding the taxi toward La Guardia airport, I'm hurrying to the old house I now occupy. My ticket to North Carolina is nonrefundable, I feel glad to be headed South. I sit studying the purple turban of a driver whose name is, according to the card depicting him, Krishna. Suddenly my forehead—from just over the eyebrows to where hairline once reigned—goes exquisite and sneezy as with some ice-cream headache. I look to the left of Krishna's ordered headdress. I see a peeling decal, "I (Heart) New York." I know.

"Excuse me, Mr. Krishna, sir? We must do a U-ie. I am going to miss my plane. We will now be heading back into the City. There's a little downtown street. I can help navigate. You will double-park, please. In thirty seconds I'll know if it's still there. I bet you anything it is."

Is, is vhhat, szir?

"One chip of paint on the backside of a radiator near our table at the coffeehouse. We all wrote on it. That chip is lying on the tile floor underneath. Piece maybe five inches long. Tomorrow, she will sweep it out. I'm this sure. Look," and, through the open plastic panel, I shove my very white-man-in-his-forties hand. It is trembling, that happy, wobble wobble. I feel proud of my hard-earned uncontrol.

Dark eyes in the rearview mirror gauge my blue-gray ones (brown can "go into" blue more often than blue'll ever fit brown). Mr. Krishna tells me, "Szir, you are having veesion. I vill join you in showing I know what veesions are. Am off-duty. Krishna he believe your veeeesion."

I cannot say how much it meant to get a free ride, forty dollars' worth. Of course, I later paid him anyway. That's part of what you learn. From taking care of people. To accept whatever they can offer. Then you try and pay it back quick. That helps them to give more, which helps them.

He speeds into the web of nighttime Manhattan; things either blink or hide; he stops, he activates the blinkers. I dash into a store all new to me. No coffee smell, no crowd. It's become one of those short-lived shops selling African crafts. The entrance stands guarded by wooden giraffes, near-lifesized, spotted in darker shellac. A dashikied clerk chats up her only customer. I feign shopping. I pass bright crocheted hats you could fit over world globes. I find four bolt holes. Here our group's table once stood. Behind it, the old bowlegged radiator that we sat on during our worst winters.

The owner seems occupied and I, clear of sightlines, drop to my knees. I reach, blind, beneath a radiator still half-warm. I pull fourth a handful. Paint chips, each flake no longer than a feather. My palm closes around them, careful not to crush one. I thank the woman, praise her loot, swear I'll be back and, smuggling litter, jump into Krishna's chariot. It, participatory, squeals off.

When he sees me sorting through my lead-based tea leaves, sees me leaning toward street lamps and stores' neon, Krish, unbidden, ignites the overhead lamp. "Here we are!" I call.

"You are finding, good. What exactly are finding, sir?"

"We all signed this. One night, half-drunk after performing for each other, our works about Paradise, we piled downstairs, needing caffeine, we make a pact to live forever in and out of art, to visit each other's podunk hometowns, scenes of our own first sex crimes. Then each of us, using a yellow felt pen, let a single line spell all our names as one long, perfect, brand-new word, Mr. Krishna."

My head doesn't hurt now, I feel ecstatic. "Krishna, sir? how'd I guess that a woman would sweep it away by noon? How'd I understand our name was still tucked under there tonight only? How'd I know that, buddy?"

Came the calming word. "Veesion."

II. As one of their caretakers, I am taking care to save a record.
(Somebody has to).

By now, my nerves are shot though my news is good: today, at last, my every dying one is safely dead.

Right now, a Thursday, for the first time in over a decade, this very morning—sunny, slight breeze from the northwest—my drycleaned funeral suit slid back into its closet, upstairs, I am allowed to guiltlessly ask, "So, Hartley, buddy, how 'bout an onion bagel for starters? Sound good? Maybe squeeze those navel oranges for juice." My last sick friend finally found peace in this very house, ten days back, in an antique bed, inherited.

This might not sound like much of an achievement, but oh and oy, is it ever! Maybe my rejoicing strikes you as a wee bit weird? I know only this: I can wake up and not wonder first thing, "Has the gasping started? Will they reimburse his apartment security deposit? Which of his aunts did I forget to phone?"  
Now...Where was I?

If you go down on the Titanic—the saga of your drowning becomes just one gust in the vacuum of a famous ship ending. The vessel's destruction outranks your own. Who will see your last three air bubbles rising to the surface of that much black ice water? We have all been upstaged by the newsworthiness of our particular disasters. This is just one of the ways History snubs us.

I now make monthly payments on this clunky, comfortable house (circa 1900); I own that dull Ford wagon (circa 1990) parked out back. Having spent some decades blinking, I am hiding here.

This, you see, is my life's AD/BC revolution. I, Richard Hartley Mims, junior, am briefly returned to my home state, to bovine health, to my own caretaking. So nice you're here; you, alive, too. What a coincidence. That gives us something undeserved in common. I need to testify. The tale of them should ride one long gasp across this first morning I feel fully safe. I need to tell our history quick.

I want it stated in a way as literal as those guides so popular at our public libraries.

"How to Tile Your Own Patio in Under Six Hours, No Previous Experience Required!"

I want it rendered into mild, safe steps.

"How to Survive the Loss of Your Beloved Address Book in Under Fifteen Years, How Not to Numb Every Inch of Your Interior While Doing So, What to Make of Their Remains, and How to Go On, Having Forfeited Your Pals and So Much of Your Previous Experience! First Time Every Time."

The relief today feels like this: having borne all the children you could ever want, you finally choose to get your tubes tied. No further worry about preventing other babies, ever. The perilous fertility has ceased.

My own artistic generation, gay and not—so essentially and goofily good—idealists for just as long as we could be, longer—is now, before age fifty, often good and dead. But not me.

There is one big advantage to getting left back.

Now I KNOW I am alive. Turns out, that is a huge plus. It makes you concentrate. Suspecting you're alive and fairly strong, that helps you let cabbies rise, godlike, to your own occasion. Your duties as a nurse now force you to half-medically forgive yourself. There's another main joy in being the representative left back: I am allowed, even encouraged, to remember them. You will not believe these people that I got to love for years. I still do!

I have always been so lucky in my friends.  Tell me I am not the jinx that "disappeared" them.

A week and a half ago, just after the exit of my best surviving pal, a final survivor of the Titanic died. She had been just five when the liner sank. Last words her father spoke to her from deck? "Hold Mummy's hand very tight. Now go and be a good girl."

She recalled everything. Considering the darkness—certain noises stayed especially real. After the hulk's immense last gasp, from one cold lifeboat where she drifted bundled with her mother in her mother's coat, the child heard many swimmers scream. Such cries. But, she reported, what soon sounded even worse was the quickly spreading silence. One by one, from a darkness out of Dante, so very fast in water this freezing, all the screaming singly ceased.

It was, this old woman (never married) recounted, the stillness afterwards that scared her most. "Out there, floating, in the dark, it became so quiet, you could not believe that a single noise was being made anywhere else on earth."

That is where I live this morning.

The phone is idled. I now take messages for no one else. True, my grandmother's mantel clock ticks on. (Not even silence ever quite mutes that.) I tell myself I mustn't burn my only bagel.

These days people newly sick with it expect to live much longer. Great. But not my crowd. Always pirate pioneers, we were, alas, among its first. The long-promised boat, tiny but already there at the horizon, seems to finally be coming in! It is a boat my darlings missed.

Now everything is slowed and eased and lazied. I have just myself to care for. I am, increasingly, a cinch. Keep it fed, keep it warm, keep things quiet. I've lost a lot but learned so much in losing them. It complexly simplifies you. Last night, showering, you know, I shocked myself. I almost hummed—four bars from an old Lerner musical.

I begin to guess what has just happened—what delicate, expensive ship so recently slid under. Look, I'll squeeze those eight nice oranges. They've only just begun to "turn." Too much juice for one bachelor, but it'll probably get drunk. Simple pleasures. A few sure things now get me through.

Today, no waiting for three doctors' grand rounds, no single ending whimper. Which reminds me of a tacky joke.

It was told at the start of the plague. It was told about a gorgeous Miss America, disqualified. A committee found that, precrown, this ambitious hardworking girl had made some lesbian porn. A girl has to eat.

Q: What is the difference between that Miss America and the Titanic?

A: "At least you know how many people went down on the Titanic!"

My dead friends, see, just urged me to offer you this sleazy joke. Departed, they can bear most anything but solemnity, especially solemnity about THEM. My circle misses noise, brass, vamping, and action for the sake of action's being pretty.

Now, I can bear everything but loudness. I live in a small village. I like its evening train whistles and morning mockingbirds. I dread old New York's pointless crash-cart's frenzy. Now I sit here in a foursquare kitchen, not some apartment's narrow galley.

I am five hundred miles due south of Manhattan. I am safe from the wild silver city I still adore.

Here, I am determined to stay basic, How To. On-Off. On. How to live at six-forty a.m. How to keep your house hushed. My phone is yet asleep, if not quite dead. Out there, the garbage men keep banging cans so loud, cleaning up after the spoilt sleepers they secretly hope to wake. I identify with those garbage men.  Wake up, beloved litterers of my life!

O, I long to tell a Fairy Tale. It is a true one. Not to give away the end, but most of the best fairies die. I want to tell about our crowded hearty "Before." It will, I hope, outlast my pals' more recent spindly "After." Now we have floated to smoother waters, a continental divide, the "After After" of this plague. From here, to me, "Before" looks even holier. We were children. Because we thought no one had ever been older or smarter than we. Before they became strawmen by Giacometti (his sculpted figures predicted the disease) my boys and girls were gorgeous, strong-backed, impenitently sexual, ambitious, irritating, adorable, high-energy, lost and found then lost, the best hopes for our passions now-so-antique-seeming—painting, writing, composing.

Don't worry: I can still be amusing. They always liked that in me.

Even their sadness often happened very funny. Disaster never rushed you from the direction that you bravely faced. From behind, it jammed its knees into the backs of yours. It played too well with you. It did play very rough.

Look, I've squeezed this juice, for us alone. What a color! Let me pour yours into Granny Halsey's only leaded cut-glass tumbler not yet broken. With your permission, and in your warming company, may I award myself a morning off? A whole one, too. No changing sheets. No bureaucratic mop-up. No dealing with the parents. No talk of sick, sicker, sickest. Let's end all emergency thinking. Please.

I inherited those crystal pendants there from Robert. I strung them in three eastern windows that'd feed them each dawn's best. I cannot say I bought this house only because its kitchen faces sunnyside-up; but the brilliance of those crystals has become, for me, our Robert's own.

I'm now an early riser. One blessing of the plague, I need less sleep. Even when I try and force myself to stay in bed, I wake by sitting upright, feeling stressed but needed. I rest here with my coffee in night's final dark. I wait for day's first color. My hot mug, caretaken, is circled by two hands merely warm but still glad to feel useful. I welcome light. I dare it not to come.

You may think me superstitious (oh, by now I've grown quite pagan!). But, some mornings . . . I speak to hatching prism brilliance. There'll be a first wink, usually redness, then an almost comical glimmer, all points.

"Well, star, hi. Look at you, back everywhere. RobertRobertRobert."
Rainbow saturates one kitchen drawer pull with his old drama, motion, value.

I have a minute now my friends are finally courteously (slowly, then suddenly all too quickly) dead. All of it remembers like some country tale concerning lethal gorgeous city life. I guess, it is one. A whole Village fell asleep and only a few of us woke up, got out. Then, lucky, later, we are allowed to wander back in, among the wreckage, gathering precious evidence. Here, a long name on one piece of paint, the magic beans—retrieved. I get to spill them.

Oh, but we thought that we were truly something!

Boy, but I have really meant to get to this.

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Table of Contents

PROLOGUE The Comedy of Friends 1
BEFORE The Thrust of the Launch 27
AFTER That Ship Left Already 239
AFTER AFTER The Company of Spirits 313
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First Chapter


Thirty Dildoes

There are just two kinds of people in the world: those who will help you and those who won't.

In New York, New York, 1983, we--being this talented and so young--found but one roadblock to our careers.

It was called getting sick.

I myself seem able to help my friends. Know what?--I often hate it.

Nothing roused him from the sweet ice of his final coma. Nothing till we mentioned his parents' flying in today from Iowa. They'd arrive bearing baked goods and one greeting card signed by their entire Lutheran church--they would stay at our patient's very own apartment.

We'd tried everything to lift Robert, thirty-four, from his old-man stupor. We played him his favorite music: Mahler's Fourth and Ninth; Peter Pears doing English folk songs; lots of Bach; three shrill emotions from a Callas Norma; one whole summer's Donna Summer disco ecstasy. And I mean loud. Only after nurses complained did we clamp headphones directly onto him.

Above Robert's famous blue gaze, we held postcards--works by painters he loved best: "Here's some Balthus, a Francis Bacon, here's your top Vermeer ... and, mmmm, Bonnard--look, a table in the garden, sunlight through trees, wine, fruit, nice lunch waiting. Like?"

* * *


We told Robert his own best jokes. Punch line hollered--"after all, what's time to a pig?"--we hovered above the face.

Still nothing.

Even whittled, the face had stayed so beautiful it was hard to look at, but for new reasons. Rote breaths, one at a time, decided provisionally to, maybe/yes/no, continue.

Robert must've overheard: "His parents' flight gets in from Cedar Rapids at, what? noon? And, since they say they `don's feel comfortable paying New York hotel prices,' his folks asked to crash at Robert's place. And we just couldn't think fast enough to say why not ... Of course, somebody'll have to wait over there and greet them, and explain about the six keys, and warn them against taking sugar cookies to that lunatic Serb Rasta man next door, and where not to wander after dark and ..."

Robert had lain silent for three weeks. This boy so gently forward in life now hid far back in a cave he must've told himself he was learning to almost like. He lived beneath the manhole of a mask he left us on his pillow. Where his sexy raucous grin once worked, find only an "Occupant" sticker. By now, his body was crafted mainly of aerodynamic holes. "O! that this too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew." Hamlet predicted a disease. Our friend's body, once lusted after citywide, had become all chiseled bone, Henry Moore's finest work. "Human form" rendered as hat rack.

"The prettiest boy in New York of his decade." You only get ten of those per century and here lay the incidentally living remains of the greatest beauty of the late 1970s Manhattan nights. Robert, his platinum hair once shaggy as some fashion-conscious Tom Sawyer's, Robert in a tailor-made bottle green velvet suit (created "on" him by his next-door neighbor, an ancient African-American seamstress who'd once Singered acreage ruffles for the Ziegfeld Follies); Robert pedestaled upon platform shoes as steep as cinder blocks; Robert sporting a tasteful rhinestone lapel pin shaped like, what else, a single star! It helped that he moved like a high school band major on Orange Bowl Day. His exceptional male stuff got so strutted, you laughed with the joy of watching him maneuver it, his.

Everybody wanted Robert, girls especially. Many got him, boys especially, once he finally declared. Back then, in ballrooms lit by mirror-mosaic spheres that were half joke, but mostly magic--it was Robert Robert Robert. A common name, but one he made glamorous and, even odder, fully only his.

Now, face up, eyes closed, doing what some witty visitor had recently called "Robert's exceptional Pharaoh imitation," our friend managed one final feat--superhuman.

The closed right eye trembled in sneezy little spasms all its own. Then both his eyes tore open with such sound, twin zippering rips, no louder than a mouse's scream, and exactly that terrifying.

We, lolling on windowsills, slumped in tacky plastic orange chairs, rushed to Robert's bed as if summoned by a thunderclap and forty French horns.

Radical as only being alive can make a guy, Robert strained upward to answer. I bent my head against his mouth. (We would press a compact mirror here in just four days.) Now, gusts of hard-earned air bore sound waves as Robert managed: "Kee po. Dee do. Gee ou. Fo com."

I had learned the language of his language ending. Not unproud of how my skill had evolved to coil inside the nautilus spiral of Robert's own exquisite devolving, I translated for marveling friends.

"Says, `Kiddie porn. Dildoes. Get out, before The Folks come.'"

We watched him nod, our pal, Robert, the composer (already diatonic when only joyless twelve-tone cacophony still counted; already wooed and won by our best judge of male beauty and symphonic talent, Mr. Copland). Hearing his own last words replayed aloud, Robert nodded so.

"Don't tire yourself, Babes." Somebody touched his spindle shoulder. And one gigantic grateful tear--the size of something sold in your better gift shoppes--slid from the outer corner of a glazed crystal blue eye. It was one of two baby-blues that'd made Robert briefly yet intensely popular at steam baths and in the backs of parked trucks along West Street, where forthright boys passed fluids to and fro, passed jets of spit and spunk, a secret virus riding all that liquid living pleasure. Tax. Everything good is taxed so. On a 30 percent pleasure, a 1001 percent tax. Is that fair?

"Robert? Okay now, Robert ours." I drew closer. "I know you're listening and, buddy, look ... no, here.--I'm guessing as how the kiddie porn is stuffed into that steamer trunk beside your bed, okay? `kay ... good. But where'd you tend to stash the majority of your dildoes, honey?--Robbie?"

There came the deepening dent between eyes. There came a setting of shoulders: A launchpad is readied for eventual rocket. You saw how much energy his speaking up from such a cave-in void would cost him. And, vertical achievement, here it came: "Boo ca."

That said, he fell so far back into pillows, it seemed he'd dropped down all nine floors, clear to Manhattan's cold stone platelets supporting this-- our diseased, endearing St. Vincent's Hospital.

"`Broom closet.'" I beamed.

And Robert, though hearing me, though gladdened that my translation proved correct, Robert was so asleep, we heard immediate snoring. Half comic. Half. We'd just received his final words. My friend, Robert Gustafson, composer of Symphony no. 1, his final words: "Broom closet."


The parents would meet me at their only son's fourth-floor walkup. Rain seemed likely. After last month's hurricane, any sign of black sky brought merchants scurrying forth to roll up their awnings. The whole town still looked piratelike and scarred, plywood baffles left in place.

Just as the Gustafsons' plane was landing, I unlocked Robert's apartment, the red fire door. I figured I'd have time to haul incriminating loot to my place. Then I'd catch a subway back downtown and just wait on Robert's front stoop. His folks were strangers. But how hard could it be to spot a cab unloading the Lutheran minister and his wife, two silvering blond Iowans, tall--blinking around, toting Saran-wrapped date-nut bars?

Beside Robert's four-posted bed, a steamer trunk that once contained his carpenter great-granddad's tools, all brought by boat from Sweden. The family name (also the name of their return-address village) was still spelled here in a Gothicy milk-based blue. Inside the heirloom trunk lined with 1840s chromolithos of fjords, I found Robbie's kiddie porn.

I'd feared something virulent. That had been disloyal. His proved mostly benign Swedish nudist pix, circa 1953--healthy male children, undraped al fresco, just before the onset of that mixed blessing called "the Pubic." Boys, colt-legged and scarily pretty, were shown sawing wood, getting into or out of some lake, then toweling each other off, a lot. Boy-children of Sweden sure must swim often.

They must be all platinum and blush. Photographed in black and white, shown silver in an evergreen landscape, they made the most innocent meringue. I sat here on Robert's immense Federal bed, sat flipping pages--feigning a prim reproach of sorts. My erection shamed me. Then I remembered my mission. The preacher and his organist floral-print wife, bound here in minutes.

Robert's merciless if fond tales about his folks made them seem so real to me, made them seem already present in these rooms, present and watching me scout for cupid Bobby's little quiverful of dildo love projectiles. I felt (and fielded) their conventional toxic questions: "Why, son, in two rooms this postage stamp-tiny, would ya keep a four-posted bed the size of a cabin cruiser, Robbie? Not to criticize, mind you, just asking. Hmmm?"

They wouldn't know that Robert composed his music here (his Symphony no. 1, subtitled The Titanic, was already half afloat). Robert created while stretched out naked. It helped that his eyebrows and lashes were platinum. Leg hair by Harry Winston.

Given his looks, Robert's talent seemed redundant. He had the goods for immortality, according to "Mr. Copland" as Robbie called him, even after long sleepy weekends spent at Maestro's Peekskill retreat upriver. Robert's musical gift felt a spendthrift oversight by some God too briefly in too good a mood.

One snowy Manhattan night, we'd stood outside a famous club where everyone but Warhol got auditioned at the velvet cord. Robert, seeing that we two would not make the cut, called above crowd sounds, "Take off your shirt." Because he stripped of all finery, I undressed, my breath clouding blue. The bouncer, appraising Robert's flesh, considered. But I held us back. My chest was a solid A minus, not theatrical Manhattan's normative A plus.

"Pants," Robert barked. So we shucked off, despite its being four degrees. And got waved past an awed mob's tickling furs. I remember the sight of Robert's pink-gold back tapering before me. The respectful crowd divided, his head was crowned by platinum curls--snow had casually gathered there, forming natural Faberge leaf shapes. Once into the sound, we checked everything but our jockey shorts. And, shoeless, stripped, we were soon offered hand mirrors spread with powder--white and snortable and, for us then, unaffordable. So, till dawn, we redefined fun. --Copying Robbie, I became immodest as a god.

The Gustafsons could not know how often and successfully their gorgeous charitable boy had entertained in this bed. They would not recognize the names of the many models and film stars of both sexes who had achieved out-of-body bodily experiences here with the help of their cheerful, guiltless Swedish-American boy.

This youngest Eagle Scout in Cedar Rapids history had, around 1980, right here, fucked a Rolling Stone, then his wife, and then once more the Stone, whose rocky butt was surely gathering no moss whatsoever. Here, Robert made history, and most everybody else. He enabled many stars to use these four posts, isometrically. Plaques of bronze have been attached to vessels far less culturally seminal.

The uprights were topped by carved pineapples, huge owl-sized things like phallic hand grenades. Robert had lovingly recalled how his mother, on seeing pineapples anywhere, could never refrain from saying, with the sealed sententiousness of someone thoroughly middle class, "Pineapples symbolize hospitality." Looking up at these four, I thought, Yes, alas.

12:03 p.m. Robert's innocent folks would now be waiting at the brushed-steel luggage carousel. Most domestic flights to Manhattan land at La Guardia. Theirs arrived at Kennedy--as if their trip were international. And, considering the distance they had come from Lutheran Youth Fellowship socials on the Iowa bluffs, to this world of skeleton gods and boy-children forcibly undressed, to 120 blocks of talented people selling their abstract ideas first, and then their bodily presentation of those ideas, and eventually, in several cases, their bodies--considering the Gustafsons' flying into the joy of careless rapture naked, with today's total stranger naked too, and the single night (the night he wore the 1970s inaugural bottle green velvet suit), the night a whole decade elected Robert "The Sexiest Boy Alive in Town Right Now," this poor couple's flight, it could've been interplanetary.

If they didn't already know some of this, the poor things soon would. In his kitchen, I picked up an old Easter basket; I emptied it of vintage fountain pens, commenced harvesting raunchier images from under the fridge door's magnets. Now to open Robert's freezer, find an igloo with one central peephole and--in it--a single geological cannoli, one half-pint of sludgy Stoli circa 1979?, plus nine small brown glass screw-top bottles. I dropped these into my container, singing, to console myself, "Pickin' up poppers, puttin' 'em in de basket. Pickin' up ..."

I felt glad, at least, that his folks wouldn't find their ancestral tool-trunk stuffed with peach-fuzz swimmers. And, God willing, I'd at least have purged the place of their son's few store-bought boners.

Basket over arm, I finally opened the broom closet. One broom tilted there, leaned on by a dingy mop. I had expected oh three dildoes, tops. I found about thirty.

Thirty dildoes are a lot of dildoes.

They were piled knee-high, like cordwood. Propped, bald, ridged, and spired. Set on end, they formed a little onion-domed Kremlin. Some used adjacent cleaning products as their splints. Clumped there, the dildo quorum appeared unionized yet disgruntled.--Like toys caught in the act of trying to become the Toy-maker. Here were Toys that'd crawled up off the floor, yeah, into an erect position, okay--but had not evolved much beyond.

Striving? yes.

Brainy? no.

They seemed to sniff up toward me, weak-eyed rats, startled by daylight. Their pointed ends--the business ends--considered my new scent. The dildoes resembled some half-familiar form of household tool (actually, I guess they were). But their reiterated shape fell somewhere between a vacuum cleaner's "wand" and the fuselage of an old-timey batter-beating Mix-master. They seemed hybridized with that lanky, shameless, duck-faced go-between, The Plumber's Friend.

I counted thirty-two, then quit. One was red and white and blue. Most showed that sickly pink shade combining chewed bubble gum with old eyeglasses' nose rests and ear hooks meant to simulate caucasian skin tone. Others, browner, Latin or African, appeared tree-sized, ropey saplings. And all were lasciviously detailed: lariats of vein, cobra cowls that flared--fair warning.

They gaped up at me like an open-mouthed choir of retarded children, looking heavenward.

Some, I recognized, were actual casts from living porn stars; there was a Jeff Stryker, a monster, but somehow Roman in its genial fluted civic beauty. One such menace proved double-headed as the Russian imperial eagle.


12:12 p.m. How, in twenty-four minutes, to get this rictus of disembodied yearning uptown? I couldn't afford the round-trip cab fare. Taking yet another day off work meant the usual: tending my dying buddies was not just exhausting; during these condensed, hypnotic years, it'd gotten extremely expensive. The Sickness followed a Health of almost its equal: our early frisky New York days.

Under Robert's kitchen sink, I found a huge blue Tiffany's shopping bag (the show off!), plus a Lord & Taylor one featuring an Old English plum-pudding Christmas. These bags would make fine protective coloration for my smuggler's chore. When uneasy in Manhattan, assume the city's protective camouflage: feign shopping.

Opening my backpack, I piled in Robert's porn. Then at the kitchen's corner, I knelt, commencing the loading of dildoes into toney, neutralizing shopping bags. You couldn't just throw these things in helter-skelter. Too many to fit. So I worked, tongue pressed between teeth, as if building some Scout-worthy, log-cabin doghouse. I crosshatched nearly three dozen dildoes, dovetailing, relying on my early expertise at boyhood Lincoln Logs. (No offense intended, Mr. Lincoln.)

First I wondered, "Robert, what did you do with all these things?" Then of course I knew, and switched to alternate imagery. ("If only you'd stuck with these," I said aloud. I'd lately found I was saying things aloud a lot in public, aloud to friends alive and dead and dying. Teasing them, mostly. It was rough on strangers but seemed to help me, so I kept doing it. Why not? Apart from hospitals, I'd had little social life since about '84 on. I mostly picked up people at memorial services; I'd briefly dated a male nurse. And now, this tired, when it came to muttering aloud on streets, at least I didn't need a prescription; at least the jokes to departed loved ones made them seem less shadowy. Made me feel half-opaque. And, hey, the price was right.)

My backpack weighed with thin Swedish boys outdoors, I hoisted two shopping bags containing maybe fourteen pounds apiece of premium-cut dildoes. "This here pecker pack mule's about to trot uptown. Head 'em up, move 'em out, Rawhiiide!" Such quips helped give me strength. Don't ask why.

I locked everything, then rushed to the Christopher Street station. The rain caught me. Soaked, I jumped the local just as its rubber-edged door sucked shut behind me. How efficient I'd become. It was only 12:39.

* * *

One forearm looped around the steel pole, I tried planning what to tell Robert's naive, judgmental parents. His father mounted a weekly pulpit, preaching the need for Christian love. The pastor hadn't seen his son in five years. I knew it was my duty to lead these people, smiling their simulated smiles, bearing church homecoming keepsakes, into Robert's narrow room.

"Prepare yourselves," I'd warn these folks. They had somehow conceived, then spoiled, then offered organ lessons, then tooth-braced the former prettiest boy in New York. I loved them at least for that. I'd say, "It's still him." (Or is it "he," it's still "he?" I felt very tired. Syntax, an early casualty.) I was so tired, I could only compare today's tiredness with last month's, "At least I'm not that far gone." Pearl gray I contrasted to the brindled dove gray darkening most of last fall.

I gave my days away in handfuls, partly out of superstitious gratitude that I'd somehow been spared. I helped because I could, and just hoped this equation might continue. It made me feel less guilty if I kept myself nearly as exhausted as my beloved patients. Surely I had been undercharged. Therefore, I could brutally tax myself, passing along the savings to others. My own apartment, one block from Robert's, had recently flooded; just my luck the sublet was ninety blocks north. A beggar now hollered his spiel above the train's din. People groaned, sick to death of being cornered by such need. "Just got out of prison, folks, an' I don't want to have to hurt nobody for my six babies' food, but ..."

Our hospital receptionist, Lourdes Amy Llamos, spoke mostly Spanish, but with such cheer you felt you understood it. Behind her desk--stocked with candy and Reader's Digests--a stained-glass window burned. It showed Mary the Mother, receiving hurt children of all nations, kids wearing casts and head bandages. Three had wedged themselves under her either arm and, within robes too blue, even the Virgin stared up into yellow light as if for strength, further funding. Lourdes always greeted me like staff, never exhausting her own goodwill. Her melon-colored silk blouses became a fact I leaned toward. As I swept in daily, she'd wink and ask about the latest of my twenty-odd patient-friends: "He betterer or worserer?"

Squiring other parents into other rooms of other dying boys, I had done all this before. I could hardly remember ever doing anything else. I'd always coddled my New York men friends--like Wendy mothering the Lost Boys. (We'd all come to New York in search, natch, of Peter.)

Followed by my lost ones' spritely, terrified parents, I felt like one more West Village Virgil. I was starting to sound bored as that old gal who's done the Circle Line boat tour of New York for fifty years. "On your left, that green roof? The building where they filmed The Apartment ..." My references had grown dated as hers. I'd nearly forgot an upstate paradise called "Before."

At times, truth is, I felt some fugitive urge to shock these remote-control parents who'd let their boys suffer alone. By telephone, they told us, "We would come to New York, but given our schedules till Christmas, we just can't. Besides, hospital rooms are small, we'd only be in your way." My way?

They were probably decent folks, perfectly willing to dare their son's city friends to abandon him. Within the safety of their walled suburbs, they absolved themselves: "Wouldn't other lepers know leprosy just a li'l better?"

They arrived for final tearful scenes. Then, in the hall, after the first sight of the blinky, grateful skeleton who'd replaced their plump Princeton son, they would ask us caretakers--in lowered tones, "I think his accounts are with Citibank, right, Ed? Perhaps the time has come to inquire as to the disposition of Hiram's things ...?" So the genteel ones phrased it.

And we, the nurses, waited, knowing that Hiram's will, leaving us his complete Fiesta ware, a signed (Gustav) Stickley chair and one half-mature retirement IRA, would soon be revoked by the finer law firms of our American Middlewest.

Before, I was considered very funny. Do I now sound tired? There are so many reasons. Today I muted a few. Robert's parents had acted kinder than most; their church held bake sales to offset Robert's bills. Like many of us struggling artists, he'd had no health insurance. His mom once mailed me a small costly mall-bought German teddy bear holding a note: "I am a Care Bear for You, the one who's bearing care for our boy, Robbie. We sure look forward to meeting you! Rebecca Gustafson, and Reverend Bob." Robert's parents knew just the things to say by phone, if only thanks to pastoral practice and the peace afforded by fifteen hundred miles. These folks would definitely need me by 1:25 this afternoon. Pineapples are the symbol of something ... hospitality.

I patted one pocket of my rain-drenched jacket, touched the six keys required to open Robert's doors. My key ring, thanks to a wasting sickness, now weighed three butch pounds. Pills rattled. I kept, upon my person, medications for Robert and my others, all in separate little timered pillboxes that--day and night--went off like pocket aneurisms. Around me, other passengers, sogged by a downpour unpredicted, smelled of wool, rubber raincoat, contradictory beauty products, overwork.

Why did this medevac duty keep being mine? Why didn't others take off from their jobs? Why did I always feel so pulingly obliged? I had sacrificed the writing of six books, or seven--all that energy fed into the fire of this disaster.

Why me? Why not me? f

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2003

    self-indulgent but a good read

    "Plays Well with Others" is a well-crafted, well-told story, but I though the author over-idealized his subjects to such a point that I never found myself invested in them. I felt hammered repeatedly by Gurganus' proclamations of how talented Robert, Hartley and Angie were and what a great loss to the world it was to have these artists taken out of the world - because their demise would have been less of a tragedy if they had been any less great? I just didn't buy into how perfect everything was before "it" happened, and consequently I didn't buy into the characters. That said, there are parts of the novel that are fantastic and it was really a good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2001

    beyond cheap sex

    I'm still finishing it up but I really think it's fabulous. It addresses issues that are close to my heart, and I'm not talking about the AIDS thing. One of the ways in which youth culture is different now than it was a few generations ago is the strong ties that bind friends. Often coming from broken homes (or from homes in other ways almost wholly dysfunctional like the characters in the book) young adults of today create their own families from their friends. When relatives are unable or unwilling to accept an unusual child -- a too-girlish son, a too-unadorned daughter, or anyone who has fallen in love with being an artist -- that child will forge fierce loyalties with others who will be accepting. This book above all is a study of friendship, binding relationships that last years and transcend interludes passed with others outside 'The Circle.' The book examines how one man reacts when the worst befalls those he loves the most. By making Robert the object of such universal desire, the author is trying to show how much of a loss everyone suffered then , and attempts to memorialize that loss and make it meaningful even today. Many talented artists died from AIDS, and the author wants us to feel how tragic that is. It happened so fast, and to so many people. How does that loss affect someone living in, say, Kentucky? Your answer will depend on whether you believe art matters. If you think not, then you probably won't care. If you think art is the most important thing a person can do, then this book will help you realize how terrible it is when talent is wasted. It's a reminder to all of us to do our best now, because we may not have the luxury of time later. And it's a monument to the many different kinds of love that people can show each other.

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