The year is 2050, and, contrary to popular belief, Judy Garland did not die in 1969. At the grand old age of 138, she’s re–embraced her real name, Frances Gumm; she’s a feminist scholar, working on her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto; and she’s writing her thesis on a little–known gay Canadian playwright and drag queen, Dash King, whose rather dismal career ended in a plethora of drugs and promiscuous sex. Obsessed with King’s antiquated notion of gay politics, Frances’s own meditations on addiction are triggered by his tragic story. Will she go back to drugs, or will she finish her thesis?
Framed in an intense communication between Frances and her Ph.D. advisor, Come Back explores a dystopian future and muses on everything from the merits and demerits of post–structuralism to the future of queer theory. Sky Gilbert’s Judy Garland is angry, profane, funny, and very, very smart.
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By Sky Gilbert, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2012 Sky Gilbert
All rights reserved.
Yes, I am aware that I should, perhaps, not go there. Even as I write, the word sentiment — or rather sentimentality — comes up like yesterday's dinner. Please believe me that there is no urge on my part to go back. It is long gone and I don't give a flying fuck. So I am slipping into my previous nomenclature. But I don't — I really don't — give a damn about any of it. Do you think I want to go back? When I think for a moment, it all returns. Like a flood, yes, but one I can control.
I see you, in my mind's eye, sitting there, smiling, looking satiric. When? When was it that I suggested something you considered very outrageous, and you said, "It seems that you have temporarily lost your mind"? And then you went on in that vein. You know, my darling, I wish you were not so ruled by your loins.
Is it that? You claim it is.
Of course, Johnny. But sometimes I think it is your heart, because that is the way we think of women — and you are one. But still. Let's just say it has nothing to do with being a woman. We both know that men too are puddles, and can dissolve even without menstruating.
Remember when you stopped menstruating? I do. You dove into bodybuilding with your usual innocent bravado — no reservations whatsoever. Then it was, "I want a period. I don't want to stop fucking menstruating. Jesus." Someday you will. Soon, actually. That is certainly a something I no longer regret. Perhaps it has to do with what I am going to tell you about. Because, Johnny, I am going to use you unabashedly as a sounding board. That's what you are best at when it comes to me, but I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for you, so I suppose you are more than that to me. You know what I mean. You are what, barely fifty? And I am ... so old, so very, very old. One cannot even imagine how old I am. And to have died so many times! When one has lived and died so often it does not seem quite so fantastical to get a little teary-eyed. It won't last. But yes, even after all these years there is a whiff. A friend of mine wrote a beautiful essay once called "A Whiff of Abandon." There's a whiff of abandon in me. It's still there, even though I cannot, or will not, act upon it. No, I have no real actual desire to climb onto one of those things, to straddle it again, or better yet to have it in my mouth. There is still the memory — but memory does not express it — the mood (it is in a way a mood) that overtakes one. But that sounds too romantic. There is a sense memory — the way actors talk about the remembrance of a smell, or a taste. Jesus, it's enough maybe to say there is still a longing for it — an appreciation of beauty that never goes away. One looks at the fall of a hand, or the turn of a head, or the veins in an arm, and one aches for it. And then I look at my own body: a too familiar tapestry of wires and scars and wrinkles. As I write this, my pacemaker dutifully ticks away the seconds. But they are not being counted — and that is a good thing too. So yes, I have the longings, always will, in this ridiculous non-body of mine. But that doesn't mean that — even if I immerse myself in all of the abandon — I will go back there.
So here it is: I want to talk about a new project of mine and, of course, I want your comments. But do remember it's only recently that I've been able to receive criticism without completely falling apart. You know where the falling apart comes from. We won't go there. So don't forget there's always sensitivity. I know you are ruthless, and that is what is so important about you. Of course, I value that. Remember that I am not just one of your students. (I am, but I'm not.)
The man I'm going to tell you about is, or was (sorry, he seems so alive on the page), estimable. By that I mean his talents can be very accurately estimated. He is typical of his time and era. That really is the reason one wants to write about anyone. He was, to some degree, the Samuel Pepys of his age, though he was not consciously chronicling anything but his own demise. On reading his work I am amazed at the pretentiousness of us all; of scholarship, certainly, but also of any other attempt to make sense of the world, give it pattern, structure. This is what they still like to call art. We know better, of course. (I sometimes wonder how long it will take the world to catch up.) He lived and died at a time when things still existed and mattered, and it was important to make choices. Of course, my musings have value only in the way that any historical reconstruction does; they will say more about me than him or anything else, for that matter, and are really being expressed only for my own amusement. So please, don't tell me they are useless.
Though you are so much younger than I am, you have abnegated your responsibility, refused to participate in the world. This makes sense for some, I suppose. But not, somehow, for me. I still must go out there and I am still amused at how they react, how they stare. Of course, the old don't ever go out. I still enjoy it, though — the way I once enjoyed a sequined dress. And people look at me with disapproval, annoyance, discomfort — I am not what they expected, not acting the way they would act. It's all quite pleasing. So at the very most, I hope you can take the time to respond and even disapprove. After all, there is something in your disapproval I enjoy. You get very stern and I wonder if you are as stern with the women you love — with the women who (pardon me) you toy with, but you never love.
But just indulge me, please. I have to go on a little about the Munchkins. I know you will think it a bad sign that I want to talk about them. Let's try not to think of things in terms of "bad signs." It's not useful. Also, it's something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, if you continue to think of me as a sort of case, then how will I not continue to be one? It's true that all your worry reassures me that you still you love me (because I know you worry about me; when you are stern it means you are worried). And as much as I appreciate being loved, I still must insist that being so careful with me — will I fall back again (as if I could)? — is a way of courting disaster, almost an expression of wanting it to happen (not that you do). So if I say that for a moment I would like to talk about them (the Munchkins), I hope you won't be alarmed, and I won't get an incriminating fulmination about the dangers of even mentioning them. I mean, they still come up! They do.
I received an alert about them. I stand duly chastised — I know I should not want to be alerted to references to that old ... world. A friend got me the alert function as a present and a contribution to my new "integration." (I'm sure you know more about it than I do; it's like the Google alert of old, only it goes in the chip.) He is, I'm sure you would think, a dangerous friend. Yes, he knows about me — I don't know how he figured it out, actually. I thought all traces were gone. Perhaps the clue was that I was smoking a cigarette. It was only one. I had only one — and again, it won't do any good to rail against it. After all, I know the horrible things you do, or you have given me an inkling. The worst that can come of a cigarette, I think, is that the fact that I smoke it in a certain way — at least, according to this young man — might be noticed. He is extraordinarily sycophantic; I am, to him, an idol or even a god. Don't worry, he won't tell anyone. I have sworn him to secrecy, and he does everything I say. It's a pity I'm not attracted to him — although I am. But it just seems too dangerous to nurture the sad old sense memory of — what shall we call it — sensuality? Yes, that's palatable. He is mentally unbalanced. He has admitted it, in fact. Anyway, he is responsible — his name is Allworth — for the newly installed alert function. I'm sure I should disable it — who knows what stalker could discover my location.
So be it. The alert function came up with that hoary old tale about the hanging Munchkin — the one who can be seen in one frame, apparently dangling in shadow by the yellow brick road. Well, all I have to say is, Fuck them! There was no hanging fucking Munchkin! But there sure were one or two who were well-hung.
Jesus Christ, why do people always have to turn it into a tragedy? What are we going to do now? Have a memorial service for an imaginary hanging midget and wear fucking black armbands? Jesus Christ: so they were short, so what? That means we have to feel sorry for them? They didn't fucking feel sorry for themselves. No, let me tell you, it was a party for them all the time, and I am sick and fucking tired of being demonized for saying so. Nobody understands that it was a tribute to the goddamn Munchkins for me to say that. I was the first to treat them as people — not just a bunch of dolls! And it's not my fucking fault if no one can handle it when I tell it like it is!
The Lollipop Guild guy — I can't remember his name — was such a fucking pervert! I mean that in the nicest sense; I mean it as a compliment. You think women don't go for guys like that? I guess that's all part and parcel of the "women don't really like big cocks" bullshit. Size doesn't matter? Sure it doesn't matter, in a technical sense. But there's such a thing as a fantasy. Don't underestimate the power of fantasy that a really big cock can create. I mean, just looking at one could scare you. (But that's the way I used to want to be scared.) Anyway, this little fucking Munchkin had a dick of death, even for a normal-sized male. And he really liked scaring women with it. And need I tell you how much power there is in being a little guy who can just vanquish — I mean, really vanquish — a regular-sized woman with his goddamn member?
I know all this because he showed it to me. He was bragging about it and I said, "Honey, show it to me — you know everyone wants to see it." So we went behind one of the candy-cane trees, and he hauled it out, and I burst out laughing. I mean, you've got to laugh at a thing like that, because there's nothing else to do. The Lord giveth, and he taketh away....
I laughed harder than the time Marlene played the records of her European tour for us. I told Carson this, I think. She played song after song for us — but they weren't "songs." You couldn't hear anything but applause! Now and then Marlene would go, "That's Frankfurt," or "That's Berlin." I was on the floor.
Anyway, back to the Munchkin. He ended up marrying this normal-sized woman, and I would have given anything to have been in a locker room with some guys when he stripped down. So yeah, yeah, I know — please don't tell me all of this does not bode well.
There's something I've been meaning to ask you, Johnny. Since when did you become my conscience? Is that all there is to being a lover? Because I know, deep down — even though we've never done it — that somewhere, somehow, we are lesbians. In the old-fashioned sense of the word. I mean, of course you have sex with women — but I am a lesbian inside. I know I am. And even though our friendship is only, these days — how did they used to say it? — deeply epistolary, there is that element. We both know it. And if, in fact, I am now a lesbian, even though I no longer have anything much resembling a body, it would seem that we are lovers and that when we speak (even though you are not here) you have become my conscience. So can we cut that out? I know you won't, so we might as well just keep the whole conscience thing going, because that's what two people do when they are in love. Let's just come to terms with that, as they used to say in self-help books; let's be real about that, as we used to say in the sixties. Yes, yes, you are going to chastise me and that's because you love me, and because I love you too — we're lesbians in that way.
Which brings me back to the man I was telling you about — the Samuel Pepys of his age, or ... not. Okay, fine, do it: tell me I shouldn't even be thinking about, or writing about, this poor lonely guy, exploring his fucked-up psyche. Just tell me that. But if you have the right to scold, then I have the right to hear what you say but not listen. Of course I will listen, but I won't take it to heart. I still do have a heart. Which reminds me of ... But there we will not go. Because I know, in your heart, because you definitely have one, somewhere, even though you deny it ... I know in your heart you know I appreciate that you care about me even if I don't pay attention. Because I can't pay attention. And I will use my interest in this man, in his historic moment, as an excuse not to listen to your chiding — which I can already predict.
This is the first trace of him I've discovered. I found it in the archives at the University of Toronto. He was writing during the early part of the millennium when he lost his mind. Didn't we all, slowly but surely? It's pre-9/11. One of my friends — and he's a gay friend — he still archaically calls himself that (no, not the one who put me onto the alert function) — noticed that I call it "nine-one-one." But it's nine-eleven, isn't it? Well, I just think of it as one big emergency.... And we mark everything from that — the decline. Or should we not be Eurocentric, and call it "the ascendance"?
So how did I find out about this artist from the past that I wish to put before you? Well, I was searching these old theses for gay subject matter, and a very nice librarian named Kim found it for me.
There are nice librarians, as well as those who are not, as you well know. I sometimes prefer the bitter ones, because they don't talk your ear off and they're not enthusiasts. Kim is an in-between, but not tragically so: she is neither a bitter librarian nor an enthusiast, she is just someone who seems to enjoy her job — but not too much. She said, in an offhand way, "Oh, there's this Dash King stuff." I reacted immediately to the name. Dash King — now, there's a name for you. I remarked that it seemed like a theatrical moniker. She said, "Now, that is the odd thing — his name was the bane of his existence." In other words, because he was called Dash King and was involved in matters theatrical, people assumed his name was concocted for theatrical purposes. And we all know the effects of that (I won't go there) — the enormous fakery that begins (you can't remember when) and catapults you into a spasmodic nothingness and near death — at least, in my case.
"And," said Kim, with a cock of her head and very stylish glasses, "though Dash King sounds like a theatrical, made-up name, in fact it was not made up at all. It was his actual name — Dashiell King. It was typical of him," she continued, "to have a reputation for something he couldn't quite live up to."
"In other words, being a gothic liar?" I wondered, not knowing how the word gothic got in there.
Kim, good soul that she is, didn't seem to notice. "Dash King was not a name simply invented to inspire controversy, or to be put up in lights, but in reality his name." Then she went on about the fact that Dash had never actually produced a thesis because of his nervous breakdown and eventual death.
But there was this pile of papers. What a romance for those who still have the scholar in them! A pile of papers! "It's a thesis, or the beginning of a thesis and also the ending of one, because he couldn't go on," Kim said. It seemed odd to me that the university would have kept it, so I asked why. She said because of his historical value — as he was at one time a well-known director/writer/gay activist (at this my interest was piqued). And so it was archived more as the record of the demise of a minor person of minor import. Well, again, nothing excites scholars as much as the idea of papers of a minor import — papers that have been all but dismissed and read by no one.
So I have them; they are temporarily in my possession. I will dole them out deliberately, as best I can, to let you savour them. I know you will devour his sad story, if only because of your delicious misanthropy. We can look back on him now and we can have a good chuckle and think about how these things once meant something when now they mean nothing.
Excerpted from Come Back by Sky Gilbert, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2012 Sky Gilbert. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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