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I almost asked John Rutka if somebody had shot him in the foot. I knew plenty of people who'd have loved to, but before I could, he gave me a look of astonishment and said, "I've been shot. One of them actually shot me."
"Somebody shot you in the foot?"
"One of them tried to kill him," Eddie Sandifer said, "but they only got him in the foot."
Sandifer looked stunned too, and uncharacteristically shaky; ordinarily it was these two who inspired anger and fright, and Sandifer seemed unsure of what to make of this turn of events.
"It must have been somebody I outed," Rutka said, and looked down, appalled, at the bandaged foot. "God, they're even sicker than I thought. I knew some of them were pathetic, but this is something only a psychopath would do."
We all peered down at the foot as if it might add something on its own behalf. I'd walked over to Albany Med from Crow Street to visit yet another dying friend when I ran into Rutka and Sandifer, and we were in the parking lot outside the ER, standing in vapors rising from the tarmac after an early evening thunderstorm. Everybody looked purple under the arc lamps, spooky in the urban miasma. Ambulances coasted in and out through the mist, the Tuesday night torn and traumatized delivered as swiftly and silently as FedExed envelopes. Somebody was probably working on a way to fax them in.
Rutka's wound was to his right foot, which he lifted from the pavement a few inches, his right arm over Sandifer's shoulder for support, while he described the incident. As I listened, I tried to concentrate on the narrative and not become distracted by Rutka's wandering left eye, which, in his excitement,was now all over the place.
The loose eye was Rutka's one physical imperfection, the flaw that confirmed the beauty of his sturdy frame and curly-headed Byronic good looks. Watching Rutka was sometimes like looking at a Romantic poet as rendered by a Cubist, and you had to be careful not to let the visual spectacle get in the way of Rutka's spiel, which was forceful in its single-minded way but lacked the quirky surprises of his appearance.
Eddie Sandifer listened with eyes half closed to Rutka's recitation, nodding occasionally as Rutka backed up to clarify a point or add a detail; this was probably the third or fourth time in the past three hours that Rutka had told the story of the shooting, and aesthetic considerations were already starting to color the reportage.
From time to time, Sandifer reached up to wipe the purple sweat from his face and head; though in his early thirties, like Rutka, Sandifer was nearly bald, his dome glistening. Bathed in the weird light, the stocky, fair-skinned Sandifer looked like a big, masculine, radioactive baby. Both were wearing jeans and yellow-and-black Queer Nation T-shirts, the two of them composing a walking and talking embodiment of postmodern gay liberation ideology: We're queer and we're here to stay and you'd damn well better get used to it.
At about four thirty that afternoon, Rutka said, he had walked out of his house on Elmwood Place, a few miles up the Hudson from Albany in the town of Handbag. He crossed the front porch, started down the front steps, heard a loud crack, and suddenly found himself sprawled on the walkway leading down to the street. His breath was gone, and his foot was screaming with pain.
Rutka said he hadn't noticed anyone--Elmwood Place was a dead-end street with just nine houses along it--but he thought he heard a car driving away fast. The car sounded as if it had a defective muffler. When he caught his breath, Rutka shouted Eddie's name several times. No one else responded to Rutka's cries; apparently everyone along the street was sealed off behind closed doors and windows with air conditioners battling the Hudson Valley August heat.
A minute later Sandifer, who'd arrived home from work just moments before, came outside and found Rutka. They had planned on walking down to the Konven-You-Rama store four blocks away to pick up some ice cream sandwiches. Rutka's addiction to sweets was notorious; his dishier gay enemies predicted it was only a matter of years, or months, before Rutka began to exhibit physical defects numbers two and three--bad skin and obesity--and those enemies who were under the impression that Rutka would care one way or another welcomed the prospect. I'd once seen Rutka shrug and say he had more important things to think about than the way he looked.
"Shouldn't you be in a wheelchair or something?" I asked Rutka, who probably wasn't much of a chore for the beefier Sandifer to hold up, but it didn't seem smart to risk stepping on a gunshot wound.
"John is leaving the hospital against medical advice," Sandifer said, with a look of uncertainty. "That's how the resident phrased it. Those guys have to protect themselves, they're so afraid of lawsuits."
"It's not that I don't trust the doctors here to treat a gunshot wound," Rutka said, and hobbled several steps with Sandifer's help to lean heavily against the side of a car, an astonished-looking little Ford. "If American medicine hasn't figured out yet how to treat a gunshot wound, it hasn't learned anything. But I know there are plenty of people at Albany Med who hate my guts, and I'll feel more secure if I can recover at home. It's no big thing anyway--a superficial wound and the anklebone is chipped."
"John outed one of their board members here a couple of months ago," Sandifer said. "You probably read about it in Queerscreed. Certain people were pretty pissed."
As a deeply skeptical--and always faithful--reader of Rutka's tabloid, Queerscreed, I remembered. "Merle Glick. What'd he do, vote against extra funding for the aids unit or something?"
"He's an absolute sleazoid," Rutka said, nauseated by the man all over again. "Glick is the most famous rest-stop queen from Kingston to Glens Falls, and my source on the Albany Med board says he's the most homophobic scumbag in the hospital."
"Can you believe the flaming hypocrisy?" Sandifer asked. "That man is evil."
"The ER staff threw this up to you?" I asked. "They knew who you were?"
"They knew," Rutka said. "When the resident recognized my name, he gave me a look I can only call total revulsion."
This seemed a little off. It was unlikely that the emergency room nurses and medical residents, whose concerns tended to be narrow and immediate, would feel, much less exhibit, indignation over the fate of Merle Glick, a hospital director best known around Albany for enriching his insurance agency with city contracts procured through his connections with the Democratic machine. Though if Rutka said he saw a look of revulsion in his doctor's eyes, maybe he did. It was an effect Rutka often had on people.
"What did you say to the doctor?" I said. "Maybe it wasn't just your name that got a reaction."
Sandifer glanced at Rutka apprehensively, as if my remark might trigger a speech, but it got only a little half smile. "No, he knew me, that's all," Rutka said. "I suppose the Queer Nation shirt might have set something off, too. I know you've got a skeptical mind, Strachey. It's one of the things I've always liked about you, despite your refusal to always back up your words with actions."
This last referred, I guessed, to my failure the previous spring to join act up in an occupation of the state legislature. An arrest and conviction would likely have resulted in my losing my private investigator's license, my sole means of livelihood--Timothy Callahan having made it plain that if he had wanted to share a mortgage with a man with a criminal record, he'd have picked a crook with a numbered account in Zurich and not a man with a lien on his eight-year-old Mitsubishi.
Nettled by Rutka's ever superior tone--I was as uncomfortable with his personality as I was doubtful about his tactics--I said, "How do you know you were shot? Was a slug recovered? The actual bullet?" Rutka gave me his gimlet look. "Who's investigating this?" I said. "The Handbag cops? Who did you report it to?"
"What are you trying to insinuate?" Sandifer said, looking as if he might be about to put me in a category.
Rutka just stared at me, and before I could "insinuate" that the two might have staged the shooting for their own strategic purposes--Rutka had stated publicly that in the cause of "gay survival" the end always justified the means--he said calmly, "Yes, a shell was found. The cop didn't find a weapon, and they're still looking for the bullet, I think, but a slug was found by the Handbag cop who answered Eddie's call. The shell was in the gutter about fifty feet from the house, where the car was probably parked with the pig in it who shot me. The cop showed us the slug while I was being put into the ambulance. God, it was hard to believe such a tiny piece of metal was part of what hit me. It felt like getting slammed in the foot with a sledgehammer."
"There was just one shot? That's all you heard?"
"I think so," he said. "It happened so fast, I'm not sure. I guess they'll talk to other people in the neighborhood, won't they? Somebody must have seen something."
"They'll ask around. That's what they do. Even though their opinion of a man in a Queer Nation shirt is probably lower than their opinion of a nun at a school crossing who gets shot, they'll be obliged to make some inquiries."
Sandifer said, "I don't suppose there's any point in expecting the Handbag police to bust their butts going after this guy unless they're pressured into it. We'll probably have to organize something."
"Maybe," I said. "Although small-city police departments can usually be counted on to perk up when they run into an attempted murder. It's a little unusual, and it's a challenge. And your chief out there, Bub Bailey, is supposed to be a competent and decent enough guy. That's his reputation."
"My dad knew him," Rutka said gloomily. "They were in the K of C together and bowled when they were younger."
"That should help keep Bub's interest up too. The chief probably regards you as a Martian, but if you're one of the parish Martians he'll feel obliged to nudge the case along."
Rutka looked at me with one eye, and with his other at an ambulance arriving off to the left. He gave a little mirthless laugh and said, "This is queer. One of Dad's bowling buddies lending a hand to Queer Nation. It doesn't surprise me, though. Those guys stuck together even if they had a fag son. Dad would have done the same--for somebody else's son."
"He's not living?"
"No, he's dead," Rutka said. "My father died last summer and my mom a month later. They were both fifty-five. They had short lives and unhappy deaths from lung cancer. We all smoked at our house. My sister and I started when we were twelve, and I quit when Dad was diagnosed. Mom didn't give it up until they brought in the oxygen and somebody told her if she lit up she might blow up the neighborhood. It was the only time during the whole ordeal when I ever saw her cry. She wept for her lost Chesterfields."
I hadn't had a cigarette in ten years, but every time I heard one of these horror stories, I ached for one. I said, "That's when you came back to Handbag from New York? When your parents were dying?"
"Eddie and I moved into my old room. They had to have known we were boyfriends. We'd been active in act up in the city and talked about it. But they always treated Eddie as if he was a school friend I was having sleep over. This is when Eddie was thirty-one and I was thirty."
I said, "What if somebody had written a column in the Times-Union, or whatever paper your family read, about John Rutka, the homosexual? How would they have reacted? How would you have liked it?"
Without hesitation, Rutka said, "The question is academic. The T-U won't out anybody--unless, of course, they're busted by the Albany cops for sex in the park or some asinine thing like that. Now that I'm a notorious public fag, though, they'll probably write up the shooting as an attack on an 'admitted homosexual.' Since I'm not a convenience store, they won't be able to bury it as just another robbery attempt by a deranged member of Albany's poorly disciplined underclass."
This didn't answer my question or address at all Rutka's apparent double standard on the question of involuntarily dragging gay people out of the closet into a homophobic glare. But with him leaning awkwardly against a car, supported by one foot and a sweating man with a glistening lavender dome, it didn't seem like the time or place to pursue it.
I asked Sandifer to give me his version of the shooting incident, and he gave me a look of frustrated befuddlement. "I'm just not sure what happened," he said. "The thing is, I was in taking a whiz and I must have flushed just when it happened. I knew I heard something--or thought I did. And then I went out and found John on the front walk. At first I thought he fell down the porch steps--they're getting kind of rickety. And then I saw the blood and John's sneaker torn up. But I don't really know what I heard. I wasn't listening for anything."
Sandifer glanced at Rutka, as if looking for a cue to add more or open up another area of discussion, but Rutka was busy watching me watching Sandifer. I asked Rutka if he had received any physical threats from people he'd outed in his controversial journalistic career during the past year, or from anyone else.
"Too many for me to count," he said with a snort, "and almost all of them anonymous. Nine were from people I could identify. I keep a file."
"You're quite an accountant."
"Not an accountant, a nurse. Nurses spend half their lives doing reports and not leaving anything out and not making mistakes. Keeping records is as natural to me as breathing."
"Were these threats written, or oral, or what?"
"They were all verbal. Who's going to be stupid enough to put a death threat in writing? Two were face to face, in the presence of other people. Seven were on the phone, people calling me, usually late at night, and of those seven, four identified themselves and three didn't, but I recognized their voices. I've got notes on all the threats in my files."
Rutka's files. These alone seemed enough to get a person shot in the foot. I had never seen them--no one had, that I knew of--and that only made them all the more tantalizing, and for a lot of people inflammatory.
Since Rutka and Sandifer had moved back to the Albany area a year earlier, Rutka--who'd been active with assorted radical gay groups in New York and had been arrested and fined twice for demonstrations inside St. Patrick's Cathedral--had become Albany's own "morally correct J. Edgar Hoover," as he'd once phrased it to a local TV newswoman.
Rutka had compiled files on hundreds of Hudson Valley "known homosexuals," as he called them. He seemed to love taking this menacing term from the 1950s and by throwing it around airily, ironically, defusing it.
Except, for a lot of closeted and semicloseted gays, Rutka might as well have been Hoover or McCarthy. He began by using his column in the alternative weekly Cityscape to out some of the city's most notoriously, and dangerously, homophobic gay men and lesbians: an eager aide to a state senator who led the fight to kill an anti-gay-bashing bill; an editorial writer at the sneeringly reactionary Albany Times-Union; and an antigay Albany city councilman. These revelations, which caused countless dinner party shouting matches over the ethics of uncloseting any gay person against his or her will, were minor compared to what came next.
Rutka began outing gay men and women who were not necessarily wicked and dangerous, but merely prominent: several business owners; a local TV weatherman; pols of all stations and creeds; the inevitable slew of Episcopalian clergy; a miscellany of others.
Since there is nothing wrong with being gay, and since heterosexuals' dating and mating habits were described all the time, well known people had to expect this, Rutka said. His column, called "The Society Pages," was Rutka's way of helping "normalize" being gay and removing its stigma for future generations.
When, on right-to-privacy grounds, Cityscape finally rejected Rutka's arguments and dropped his column, he began putting out his own tabloid, Queerscreed, which was printed at the Kopy King franchise where Sandifer was assistant manager and then passed out on the streets by Albany's tiny Queer Nation membership. Rutka's column became even nastier in tone and closer to out-and-out hysteria in Queerscreed--"You are worse than aids, worse than gay bashing, you kill us with your hypocrisy!" he often screamed in print at his subjects. This disturbed Albany's more sedate gay pols and organizers who'd made gains in recent years using more conventional means, and who feared a backlash.
But Rutka was undeterred. He continued to build his files and to make enemies. One of whom apparently had now tried to rid closeted gay Albany forever of what a middle-aged, previously closeted gay mortuary owner had recently called "this McCarthy in sheep's clothing."
When I asked Rutka if he planned on turning over his files to the Handbag police for use in their investigation, he said gravely, "You can't be serious," and looked at me in amazement, as if I were the one going around opening up gay people's lives to the scrutiny of the public and the state.
"John, if there's been an attempt on your life," I said mildly, "it's only logical that an important part of any intelligent police investigation will be the questioning of people who felt threatened by your campaign. You said yourself that that's who you thought took a shot at you, somebody you'd outed. Or were planning to out, you might have added."
"No," Rutka said, with a little shake of his head, "I really think I have to be the judge of what use my files are put to. If the cops ever got hold of my unpublished material, who knows what they might do to people."
This was said with not the least trace of irony. And although I could see that Rutka had a point, if somebody had insisted to me that within twenty-four hours it was going to become my point too--obsession even--I'd have said I didn't think so.