Some Men Are Lookers
By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1997 Ethan Mordden
All rights reserved.
Virgil and Cosgrove have a new sport they call the Commercial Game. They cruise the television with the mute button on, seeking commercial breaks for which they provide their own extemporaneous soundovers. It's hectic but simple. All car pitches are for Subaru. All horror movie trailers are for something Cosgrove has entitled Exorcis—"You can run, you can hide," he gloats, "but it's coming to get you"—and all cereal spots are for Sugar Boy Pops, a brand I am unfamiliar with.
They were playing the Commercial Game one evening when Lionel dropped by Dennis Savage's to tell us that Tom Driggers was back in the hospital for what was almost certainly the last time, and had asked to see Dennis Savage. Tom and he had been very close once—very, very close was my impression. But they hadn't spoken in quite some time now.
"Subaru!" Virgil cried. "The car in a million!"
"With hatchback and full accessories!" Cosgrove added. "Radio, tape deck, mascara tray."
"He's really bought the farm," Lionel was telling us. "All that money and power, and down he goes to nothing."
"You'll ride like a king!" Virgil announced. "It's Subaru!"
"See how it goes!" said Cosgrove, as a Pontiac sailed by.
"You should be there," Lionel went on. "He's got a roomful of ... of toadies and pimps and comparable phantasmagoria of the bad old days. That's what he's dying to. There's nobody human in that room."
Virgil, Dennis Savage's live-in, is, like Cosgrove, considerably younger than most of our circle. So he isn't as well informed as we are and, again like Cosgrove, often keeps one ear on our conversations, sifting through the terms and concepts for material he can use in the act: his life. I saw him sifting now, losing touch with the television as he took in this new thing about toadies and death and power.
"Tom had everything and now he has nothing," Lionel continued. "I'm afraid to have to admit that this is a very gay story. What ups and what downs, I mean? He looks like a beanbag sculpture. So, if we could only not maximize his failure ..."
Dennis Savage looked at him.
"Okay?" said Lionel.
Dennis Savage looked at me.
"As a kind of restabilizing act of mercy?" Lionel added. "For me? Okay?"
Dennis Savage said, "Not okay."
"Ladies, aren't you tired of your derodeant?" Cosgrove declaimed, smoothy-announcer-style. "Don't you want Mamzelle Hint O'Spring instead?"
"That's not deodorant, Cosgrove, that's laundry de—"
"I think a man deserves something better than to die with all his would-be heirs drooling over him," Lionel went on.
"What about that carpenter Tom was living with?" I asked. "With all the tattoos? I thought that was supposed to be love for life."
Lionel sighed. He gestured then, resolute but resigned, one of those things hands do in the air when words can't tell. "It sort of was, actually. Love. Which was very unusual for Tom. Tuffy, his name is. He isn't around all that often. Tom won't talk about it, but apparently Tuffy has developed a prodigious case of plague necrophobia. He's a simple guy, you know, very basic, and he just doesn't get it, or anything. He is very desperately threatened."
Cosgrove heard that. I saw him whisper "He is very desperately threatened" to himself.
"What kind of man," said Dennis Savage, "has a lover named Tuffy? What's his morality, if you gay commissars will pardon me for asking?"
"Whose name is Tuffy?" asked Virgil, switching off the television. "Is he some rough boy of the streets?"
"Is he?" I asked Lionel. "He certainly puts on a hard act, as I recall. Ferocious triceps."
"Tom always liked it down and dirty, you know."
"I could be Tuffy," Virgil ventured.
"And I could be Tuffy on weekends," said Cosgrove.
"Look," said Dennis Savage with his famous weary patience. "Tuffy and his like are for people who cannot live in reality. People who go through their time on earth like a teenager at his first fuck. People who have no sense of responsibility or fairness or loyalty. Tom Driggers is the Circuit personified—drug up, dance, screw, sleep it off, and do it again. He got rich organizing service industries for other people like himself. He ran buses to the beach, he ran whores to the closeted rich, he ran discos till you drop. He had, and he had, and he had—and when the rest of us appetitive sexboys looked around and saw that our appetites could kill us and backed away, Tom Driggers went right on having. That's why he is on the verge of defunct. I'm sorry to say so, but if someone has to die of this cursed poison, it ought to be Tom Driggers. Because he took his choice, and this is his consequence."
Somewhere in all that, Dennis Savage had left Virgil and Cosgrove and had resumed addressing Lionel, not gently.
"And you can stop begging me to visit that disgusting, putrid piece of Texas redneck trash, because he's going to die with his kind around him, not with me!"
"For pity's sake—"
Dennis Savage chopped out the following words: "He has what he created!"
There was silence.
"Someone," said Virgil, finally, "is rather snarky today."
"He is very desperately threatened," Cosgrove quickly added.
"I'll quit while I'm behind," said Lionel, getting up to go. Virgil saw him to the door, where Lionel turned to Dennis Savage, regarding him mildly but holding it out into a stare.
Dennis Savage faced him down.
Virgil was watching them, and Cosgrove was watching Virgil.
"Maybe you could think about it," Virgil said suddenly to Dennis Savage, "and maybe you would change your mind."
"And maybe I won't."
Lionel nodded and left.
After closing the door, Virgil stood in thought, his back to us; Dennis Savage nudged me with a glance, indicating his lover. We all know one another so well that we sometimes operate like a mime troupe, entirely in visuals.
"Can I show my movie now?" Cosgrove asked. "It's the first videotape that I really made myself."
"I helped him," said Virgil, still at the door.
"Virgil always helps me."
"I'm not sitting through another Friday the 13th sequel," said Dennis Savage, "I'll tell you that."
"It's The Lost Boys."
"Are you undergoing a mystical out-of-life experience with that door," Dennis Savage asked Virgil, who hadn't yet moved, "or would you like to join us on the couch?"
Virgil coolly came over, sitting on the far side of the couch from Dennis Savage.
"Easy," I said.
"Well, what's he supposed to be, my eighth cousin thrice removed? Come over here, you."
"Cosgrove," said Virgil, staying put, "it's movie time."
"Were they misunderstood cuties," Cosgrove cried, jumping up to make his presentation, "or mean ghouls? A magical club, or killers on the loose?"
"Let's skip the trailer," said Dennis Savage. "Just run the film."
"This is becoming a very snarky apartment," said Virgil.
Dennis Savage leaned over me and asked Virgil, "How come I don't know what that word means?"
"Virgil and Cosgrove Productions present," Cosgrove began, with a—at any rate trying to—flourish, and onto the television screen came the credits of Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
"Sure," said Dennis Savage. "The three things I most wanted to do tonight were go to the dentist for an emergency root canal, trade fashion tips with Prince, and see Pee-wee's Big Adventure. That's one down."
"I mixed up the boxes," said Cosgrove, wrestling with his software. "We have so many now."
"And if Jerry Lewis isn't them, the Ritz Brothers are," said Dennis Savage. "An elite collection."
"We have The Fruits of Worth," said Cosgrove. "It's an art classic from the black-and-white days."
"The Grapes of Wrath, Cosgrove," said Virgil.
Cosgrove had The Lost Boys cued up at last, and on it came, to his cheers. Actually, this was Cosgrove's big night in another way, for he was just two hours short of getting anything he wanted (within reason). This started when it occurred to me that it would make everyone's life easier if he had some incentive to behave himself. This would comprise, for instance, not muttering "He was touched by the ugly stick" in a voodoo accent when passing one of God's unfortunates in the street; and, when asked to prepare dinner, not presenting one's live-in with a plate of baked-bean sandwiches and potato chips. If Cosgrove could stay innocent for a month, I told him, he could choose his prize—and if nothing more than The Lost Boys happened in the next two hours, he was a shoo-in.
Early in the movie, there is a scene in an amusement park at night, where a restless montage brings together images of the seedy and the erotic. This worrisome marriage of what repels and what appeals is then epitomized in a song called "I Still Believe," performed by an oiled, shirtless bodybuilder, dancing, singing, and playing the saxophone. This is, in fact, Tim Cappello, one of Tina Turner's sidemen, a versatile musician who was also, at the time of filming, a titanic devotee of the gym. He isn't handsome, and his slicked-back ponytail hairdo strikes an alarming note. (Studies have revealed that 84 percent of men with ponytails are paint-sniffers, serial killers, or Axl Rose.) Nevertheless, as he grinds his hips and blows his horn, Cappello is a very hot package. He's magnificent. Watching his act, I kept trying to place him culturally, for he seems to fuse the self-presentational imperatives of the gay avatar with the reckless abandon of hetero trash. What is this picture telling us? I wondered. It's not familiar yet it's instantly recognizable. Or it's not likable but it's irresistible. Or it's not pretty: It's straight.
Suddenly Dennis Savage, pointing at Tim Cappello, cried, "That's Tom Driggers. I mean, that's his echelon, his kind. Am I wrong?" he asked me. "He was always pulling in these bizarrely sexy characters off the street—like that one, there—and that was—"
"So who can blame him?" I asked.
"You didn't live like that!"
"I never got the chance to. Tom Driggers had the luck to find these guys. He'd walk into a straight bar, order a scotch, and smile at the man next to him, who would almost invariably turn out to be a horny fireman in a crossover frame of mind. Wherever I went, there was Arnold Stang."
"So, ontologically speaking, the whole gay world represents a sequence of hot encounters with, if possible, the enemy. Is that it?"
"No talking in the theatre," said Virgil.
"This isn't a theatre," Dennis Savage told him. "This is an apartment where real people live. This is where dreams of infinite sexual exaltation come to die. Where things are a little dull but everyone talks sense. This isn't one big bedroom."
"He is very desperately threatened," Cosgrove whispered.
Virgil took the remote from Cosgrove and put the movie on hold.
"Are you just mad at that guy because of the way he lived?" he asked Dennis Savage. "Or did he do something to you?"
"He did something to me, and put the movie back on."
"Maybe you would talk about it. Otherwise you might seem very fanatic to us."
Dennis Savage, Napoleon on St. Helena, sighed profoundly. "I put that incident and Tom Driggers behind me long ago, and I have no intention of dealing with either again."
Virgil looked at Dennis Savage, then at me.
"Don't try this door," I told him. "I don't know the story."
"It was one of the few things I managed to keep from you," said Dennis Savage. "Thank God for something, I'm safe."
"You're never safe," I said. "It's Exorcis the storyteller, coming to get you. You can run, you can—"
"Children, put the movie on."
"All right," said Virgil. "But you're being horribly snarky tonight."
"You know what I think?" said Cosgrove.
I put my hand on his mouth. "You're on the verge of losing your reward for a month's good behavior," I warned him.
"Please be nice," he pleaded.
"Put on the movie!" Dennis Savage roared.
The rest of the screening passed in silence, a genuinely absorbed one. Virgil and Cosgrove love horror films, especially the Exorcis ones with supernatural menace in which the forces of humanity rout the forces of evil. Yes, it's coming to get you, but you can stonewall it for a time and, at the last, destroy it. The Lost Boys is conceptually bewitching—the boys themselves are punk-style vampires, which makes sexiness a metaphor for aggression. I was amused. But Dennis Savage watched with one eye, lost in recollection.
So deep in thought was he that when the movie ended our clapping startled him. He almost jumped.
"Hooray for Cosgrove," said Virgil.
"My first tape," Cosgrove preened.
"And now," Virgil went on, "Cosgrove gets to choose his prize for being a good boy."
"Oh, yes?" Cosgrove said. "Suddenly it's now, sometimes." He jumped to his feet and surveyed us all. "I want a suit. The kind with a vest and a tie."
"Done deal," I said.
"How come I don't get a suit?" Virgil asked Dennis Savage.
"What do you want from me? You have a job. You're earning money of your own—go buy yourself a suit."
Virgil looked away. "I wouldn't know what to say."
"Virgil," said Cosgrove, "would you help me pick out my suit? I can't decide between pin-stripe and burnt umber."
"Cosgrove, we have to figure out where you will wear your suit for the first time!"
"It could be somewhere important," said Cosgrove.
"I know just the place," said Virgil, getting excited. "We could all go to A Chorus Line!"
"You've seen it seven times," said Dennis Savage.
"Cosgrove has never been there!"
"It's like this," said Dennis Savage, doing his Slow and Careful. "We have three more months till school's out. I think if I can just husband my crumbling sanity till then, I can use the summer to recover in. I say I think I can. But every little squeeze and assault that I suffer from now till then is going to threaten the equation."
(Virgil was rolling his eyes and Cosgrove was making farting noises.)
"Yes," Dennis Savage went on. "Yes, I knew I'd immediately win the sympathy of the room."
"I don't think A Chorus Line is important enough for my suit," said Cosgrove.
"How about the opera?" Dennis Savage asked me.
"All I have left is Gotterdammerung next Friday," I said. "That's a little epic for Cosgrove."
"Cosgrove is a little epic himself," Dennis Savage shot back with a grin. "They ought to get along just fine."
"Cosgrove at the opera!" Virgil breathed out, in awe.
Elated at being the center of attention, Cosgrove suddenly turned apprehensive. "They won't make me sing, will they?"
"Most of them just sit there," Virgil assured him.
"I thought you liked to sing," said Dennis Savage.
"Only my famous personal medleys."
"Look," I began.
"Can I please go to the opera with you?" Cosgrove asked me, most winningly. "I just think I need to, in my suit."
"Of course you can," I replied, already dreading it; but Cosgrove hadn't quite placed himself among us emotionally then, and he needed encouragement.
"Cosgrove meets Wagner," said Dennis Savage, as if pronouncing the title of a porn loop.
"Would you lighten up?" I said.
"Yes, as you have lightened up on me because I won't see Tom Driggers."
"Did I say a word?"
"But what are you thinking?"
"You are so mean," said Virgil.
"Don't you judge me," said Dennis Savage. "Because you don't know what happened."
Bauhaus, Virgil's pet, a Gila monster disguised (not well) as a dog, crawled out from under the couch, growling at phantoms he visualized somewhere between the television and the bookcase. He froze. He pointed. He rolled over. He went to sleep.
"And," Virgil continued, to Dennis Savage, "you're entirely snarky."
"What does that word mean?"
"It means," Cosgrove cut in, "that he says bad things about me, and makes me cry."
This was an allusion to old times, when we were still collecting and integrating our odd little family: when Dennis Savage thought Cosgrove might undermine his relationship with Virgil. When everyone we knew was still alive except our great-grandfathers. When it never occurred to us that maybe you don't have to spend the summer in the Pines.
Things are so different now that Dennis Savage and I speak of Before and After. Before was, you used up a weekend prowling for partners, no limit as to how many or what you'd do. After is, you spent a weekend ministering to your live-in, Cosgrove, because while amusing himself at a street fair he ate twelve coconut Sno-Kones in a row and came home in vast distress—in fact, diarrhetic—and had to be not only cared for but euphemized. (We settled on a diagnosis of Compulsive Bathroom Manifestation, in the style of the trendy affliction, such as your Decreased Intelligence Clarity, your Unenhanced Attention Commitment.)
You become so aware of age. I remember my epiphany, when I was playing a tape of Barbra Streisand's last night on Broadway in Funny Girl for my young friend Allan the Actor, a Funny Girl buff. "The Music That Makes Me Dance" is the key cut; he was duly blown away, and I was thrust back to my long-gone days of innocence and youthful thrill. Everything was possible then, though so little was permitted, except for Saturday matinées in New York. But theatre would lead to liberation. "Did you actually see the show?" I asked Allan. He said, "I wasn't born then."
Oh, you become so aware of age, boys and girls!
If Cosgrove was going to sit through Gotterdammerung, he'd better familiarize himself with the action; so I parked him with a German-English libretto booklet and went off to visit Tom Driggers in the hospital.
I expected to greet a pride of his hot mondo trasho monsters, but he was alone, packed in bed in a silent room. He looked like a dirty, broken thimble. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Some Men Are Lookers by Ethan Mordden. Copyright © 1997 Ethan Mordden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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