James Magruder’s collection of linked stories follows two gay cousins, Tom and Elliott, from adolescence in the 1970s to adulthood in the early ’90s. With a rueful blend of comedy and tenderness, Magruder depicts their attempts to navigate the closet and the office and the lessons they learn about libidinous coworkers, résumé boosting, Italian suffixes, and frozen condoms. As Tom and Elliot search for trusting relationships while the AIDS crisis deepens, their paths diverge, leading Tom to a new sense of what matters most. Magruder is especially adept at rendering the moments that reveal unwritten codes of behavior to his characters, who have no way of learning them except through painful experience.
Loss is sudden, the fallout portrayed with a powerful economy. In Tom and Elliott, readers come to recognize themselves, driven by the same absurd desires and unconscious impulses, subjected to the same fates.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
James Magruder is a fiction writer, playwright, and award-winning translator. He teaches dramaturgy at Swarthmore College and fiction at the University of Baltimore. He is also the author of a novel, Sugarless (2009).
Read an Excerpt
Let Me See It
By James Magruder
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2014 James Magruder
All rights reserved.
After getting an A+ for my "Western United States" salt map, eleven colored states covering three square feet of plywood, I wanted to make a historical building out of sugar cubes. But Miss Vojta said we had to work in pairs for the next project, and I was odd man out in the pack of five I ran with. Brian and Doug and Kurt and Pat didn't take social studies seriously.
I moped about this to my mother, who was making pepper steak. She wiggled the meat slugs she took from the lake of flour on the counter and leaned back when they hit the oil in the skillet. The velvet bow nesting in her upswept hair, plus the ball of black panty hose sitting in front of her purse on the telephone desk, meant she had a date. She was rushing dinner, and it was her evening purse, so I guessed it was an older man driving out from downtown Chicago. Somebody Mrs. Shestak knew, probably.
My mother reached over the stove for more flour, then, eyeing the dusty canister and her dress, hesitated. "What about Lisa Montalbano? She's no dummy."
"She's a girl," I said, appalled by her stupidity.
I moved in for the rescue. I swung a little cupful of flour in a wide arc around her back and slowly tipped it out onto the waxed paper. A trickle of watery blood from the package of meat was snaking into the flour like a bend of the Colorado River on my salt map.
My mother tilted her head toward the window over the sink, and her beads slid under the pucker of her satin collar. "Donnie Keller's in your class, isn't he?"
"What do you mean, 'you guess'? He is or he isn't, Elliott."
The Kellers lived behind us, and two houses to the left. I looked through the stained-glass mushroom ornament hanging in the kitchen window. There was a stand of old trees separating the back lots, but since it was winter, I was able to pick out the Kellers' deck through the branches. Mr. Keller hadn't brought in their barbecue kettle, and there was a car tire propped against the built-in deck bench.
My mother pushed the rotating corner cabinet with her foot and plucked off a bottle of soy sauce as it spun by. The cabinet was one of my favorite things about this house, where we had lasted almost two years.
I said I didn't like pepper steak.
"It's your brother's favorite."
My brother, Frank, was playing hockey on the subdivision pond. I wanted to hear "It's one of your father's favorites," as if saying it, plus the gingery fragrance spiraling through the vents in the lid of the electric skillet, could draw him home from his bachelor pad in Oak Brook, where he joked that the stewardesses lay thick as thieves around the indoor pool.
"Am I going to get to meet him?" I asked.
It would be too dark out to spy on her date from my bedroom window as he clicked up the flagstone steps. Frank didn't seem to care who rang the doorbell for my mother on Friday and Saturday nights. My sister, Tracy, was too little to understand the finer details of our parents' trial separation.
"Not until the third date, Elbow," she said, making dinner hiss as she added the pepper strips. "If there is one," she added.
I opened the silverware drawer to start on the table. My father's new forks had three tines, not four. His plates and glasses were square, the kind astronauts and Love, American Style characters used. The furniture in his apartment was bright and modern, not colonial. I pictured him rolling on the shaggy sheepskin rug in the living room with stewardesses flown up from the pool. Stationed behind his leather reading chair was a tall, curving floor lamp with seven separate light bulbs on their own stems. Their hot starburst eyes pointed the way to the Age of Aquarius and away from us.
The next morning, instead of cutting through the backyards, I walked the long way around to the Kellers'. The good cartoons were still on, so the streets were deserted. The mailboxes at the ends of the driveways had dropped their tongues to wait for lunch from the postman. It was January, and the cold pinched my earlobes. I'd swiped Frank's wool Green Bay Packers hat in case Donnie cared about sports.
He opened the door. Donnie Keller was the brown of gingersnaps, because his mother was Mexican. For that same reason he didn't have friends, but he did pay attention in class. One time I'd finished a multiplication speed drill, turned over my paper, and looked up to see that Donnie had finished ahead of me.
It was easier for both of us to pretend that my visit wasn't a surprise.
"Elliott," he said, hopping on the tile in his bare feet. "Come in."
At the sight of me, his little sister, Silvia, who had lost the race to the door, hung back in an archway sucking her thumb. She had no pajama bottoms on. I heard the blur of rapid channel switching. Donnie yelled to his other sister, Regina, to change it back to Jonny Quest. He ran into the living room—the wrong place for a television—and they started arguing in Spanish. That was strange enough; even more surprising was that no parent shushed them from the top of the stairs when the knob came off the TV and Regina started screaming. The rule was, dads slept in on Saturdays, and no waking them up.
The only other piece of furniture in the living room was a bare-legged yellow sofa heaped with stacks of Hot Wheels track. Regina, halfway through a frozen waffle, had been watching TV on a green plastic bag spilling white foam peanuts. A jagged section of waffle was sticking to a comic book on the floor. My mother wouldn't have known what to tackle first.
Donnie showed me the rest of the downstairs. The Kellers' four-bedroom Ginger Creek house was as big as anybody's, but it was so empty of things, our voices echoed as we followed the dirty foot trails in the tan, wall-to-wall carpet. The windows, smeary with fingerprints, had no shades or curtains. Towels, sweaters, and pants tangled up in balls, and orphaned socks were dropped all over the house, like markers to missing chairs, tables, love seats, buffets, and credenzas. I began worrying that the Kellers slept in piles of rags or, worse, wood shavings like my hamster, Jethro. My mother was proud of her decorations, the crewel kit Liberty Bell and Flag House wall hangings, the wooden grenadiers and painted plaster drummer boys that traveled with us from house to house, but the Keller walls were empty. A pair of candlesticks and three clay pots on the den mantel were the only knickknacks on the whole first floor.
We found Mrs. Keller in the basement, grinding corn in a stone bowl. The dryer boomed behind her, keeping time with the knock of her pestle dripping with golden slush. Darker than Donnie, with thick eyebrows, she looked like a picture in my geography workbook. He introduced us, and she bent to cup my face in her hands; her shiny black hair parted around her arms like a pair of curtains. She had a firm belly, and her nipples bumped out under her T-shirt like chewed gum wads. She said something in Spanish, and Donnie said, "English, Mamá." Still smiling, she pressed her fingertips into her lips. I couldn't guess her secret, unless maybe Mr. Keller was asleep in the crawl space behind the utility sink.
Regina and Silvia were watching a girl cartoon, so we went up to Donnie's room. His bed had a racing-car spread, and there was a map of Latin America hanging over his desk. I brought up the social studies project and explained sugar cube houses. I had been leaning toward the Governor's Mansion in colonial Williamsburg, the symmetry and stateliness of which had impressed me in an issue of Smithsonian, but since it was his room, I let Donnie go first. Clapping his hands, he said that we should build the Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlán.
"Show me," I said, buzzed by the twisty sounds in the words. Donnie ran down the hall for something, and I took the opportunity to shuck my sweater. I'd noticed that their dining room thermostat stood at eighty, fourteen degrees higher than the setting at our house.
He came back with the T volume of the World Book.
"That's our encyclopedia," I said, like it had flown over the trees between our yards and into his hands. "Where did you get that?"
"My parents' bedroom."
An encyclopedia in a bedroom—like a waffle on the floor. Our World Book was kept in a den cabinet, so that we could all get at it for homework.
The Aztecs had built the Templo Mayor, or Great Pyramid, of Tenochtitlán. It wasn't smooth like an Egyptian pyramid; it was a double trapezoid with jagged stairs going up like crocodile teeth, or the edge of a saw. Donnie said that it wasn't a tomb, like for the pharaohs. The Aztecs used their pyramid to get the sun to rise every morning, feeding their gods dripping human hearts in front of a miniature temple on top. They put the hearts in the Jaguar Bowl. Donnie pronounced it "Yah-gwar" until I made him spell it out.
What with the Jaguar Bowl and the tzompantli, or "skull rack," decorations on the sacrificial platform, Tenochtitlán was another A+ project for sure. We could spray paint the pyramid yellow. For the temple roof we could glue milk straws to cardboard. We could make trees out of brown pipe cleaners and Easter basket grass, and I could press my skull ring into modeling clay for the tzompantli. The first practical step would be to swipe a board from behind the construction trailer down the street. But first Donnie taught me how to pronounce "Tenochtitlán," then "Tehuantepec," "Quetzalcóatl," and "Huitzilopochtli." By the time I had to go home, we had tied sweaters around our waists for warrior skirts and had made a little dance out of the names, chanting in circles around his room with flat arm movements and profile heads.
No, his dad wasn't asleep, I explained to my mother, who was doing bills at the telephone desk. She had a thousand questions, starting with the handmade tortillas we ate for lunch. In her universe, tacos were corn shells that came in a kit with spice packets, so she didn't believe me when I insisted that Mrs. Keller's were fresh and floppy.
"Was there a car in the garage?" she asked.
"We didn't go in the garage."
"You went everywhere else."
"I hate cars."
She always forgot this. Brian and Doug and Kurt and Pat covered their notebooks with STP decals and drawings of giant mag wheels. They spent their allowances on the latest Hot Wheels and their free time building hot rod models. I stuck to monsters. Of the four essential monsters, my order of preference went: Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, the Mummy. Dracula was best because he could talk and fly. Slow and silent, with only one usable arm, the Mummy was stupid. I kept my painted Dracula model on my nightstand next to my lamp and watched his phosphorescent head and hands glow in the dark after lights-out. Donnie's favorite, he said, was the Wolf Man. That made sense, because he was brown too.
Without saying so—she didn't have to—my mother was trying to find out whether Mr. and Mrs. Keller had split up. Divorces were happening all around the Ginger Creek subdivision in 1971 and Mrs. Shestak, who wore psychedelic minidresses and frosted her hair, kept track. My father had left us eight months ago, right after my tonsils came out. The tonsils part I remember because I had woken up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and heard my mother shouting, "Go to her then, just go to her!" I sipped ginger ale on my nightstand and listened to Jethro race in his wheel. Before I fell back asleep, I had decided that "her" meant my grandmother in Pittsburgh, but that same weekend, when Frank, bawling like I'd never seen, asked my father why he was leaving us, I stared at the black hockey puck on my brother's bedspread like it was the button to push for the Name of Her.
Now my father had a mustache and a Capricorn medallion, and he came every Saturday from Oak Brook and took us out in shifts, first Tracy for a hamburger and an ice cream sundae, then Frank and me for pizza. I'd pick off the oily pepperoni discs and line them up to drain on my napkin.
"Did Donnie say what his father does for a living?"
"No," I lied, bored with the conversation. Mr. Keller was a journalist. Donnie had shown me an article about sharks in a science magazine with the name Warner Keller in cursive under the title. "I don't even know what he looks like."
"He's a good-looking man," said my mother.
That was a strange comment. "How would you know?" I asked.
"I met them at a party when they moved in." She paused to tear a check from the book. "His eyes are ice blue. He looks very white. But that's probably because she's so dark."
I remembered the tiny, feathered hairs edging the sides of Mrs. Keller's forehead. She'd put her elbows on the table and eaten four soft tacos with us.
"She's not black, Mom. She's just Mexican." I stomped off toward my room.
"I know perfectly well what she is, Elbow."
"Don't call me that." The short version of my grandmother's nickname for me, Elliott le Beau, the Handsome Prince of Somewhere French, was Elbow. We called my brother Legs, because of all the sports he played. He and I didn't get along one bit.
"And take something from the steps if you're going up."
This she said ten times a day. Flush to the staircase spokes was an endless inventory of school papers, doll clothes, crayons, clean laundry, and bathroom supplies. Just like I did with my father's stewardess jokes, I ignored my mother when she said she wanted a rancher for her next house. If he didn't come back—they were only separated—we'd have to move again, this time to someplace so small I'd have to share a bedroom with Frank, which would be a disaster. Ginger Creek was an expensive subdivision, and divorced kids disappeared every summer.
From the hallway I remembered to ask about her date. I heard a rubber band snap around a stack of envelopes. "Older than Moses," she said.
I jumped to the fourth step on the stairs. I loved that she told me things like this. Sometimes she called me "my little listener." I liked that better than Elbow.
"What's his name?"
"Davis. He owns a catamaran," she said.
I asked her what that was.
"Look it up," she said, knowing I would.
Young and mod in white lace-up boots and midi skirts, and Swedish like the tanning secret, Miss Vojta was the best fifth grade teacher to have at Bel Air Elementary. In conference at her desk, she suggested an easier sugar cube project, but Donnie's excitement, his suave repetitions of "Tenochtitlán," won her over, too. I nodded whenever she looked my way; I think she was counting on me to make it happen. From the corner of my eye, I saw Pat smirking with Doug.
My good grades made my spot in the pecking order shaky, but I couldn't just ignore Donnie in the coatroom after the bell rang for morning recess. He timed his question about where to buy glue so we'd still be talking as we approached the four-square court.
Pat, in A square, was mashing the ball against his hip. Donnie got in front of me in line without being invited to play. He had nothing to lose, even if I did; Pat, oddly, didn't make a federal case out of it, just stamped a heel on the asphalt and pulverized the squiggles of dried mud that fell from his treads.
Working together, Pat and Doug knocked Kurt out of B square. Donnie stepped into D. He turned out to be good and eliminated Doug and Brian almost immediately. Our white hands turned red and purple in the cold, but Donnie's, weaving at the end of windbreaker sleeves short in the wrists, were brown and limber. He was excellent at fake-outs. Some girls, noticing the change in the lineup, even came to watch.
Donnie avoided knocking Pat out until the glory of A square got too hard to resist. It made sense that Pat, when he lost, would decide to bounce the ball off Donnie's head and start the Frito Bandito song. By the time Mr. Arnold pulled them apart, Donnie had a split lip and Pat had pushed things further by calling him a Mexican, making it sound dirtier than any swear word.
My turn came at lunch. My mother had packed egg salad that day, easy to jump on. Pat made fun of its fart smell and made me throw it in the trash. It would be a tough climb out of the hole, and Pat, by keeping silent himself, let Kurt and Brian and Doug know that laughing at my television commercial imitations, at my "I vant to suck your blood" routine, and all the other methods I'd devised to make and keep friends in all the schools I'd passed through since kindergarten, was out of the question.
I stared at the folded paper triangle passing from Doug to Kurt, their index fingers and pinkies spread at the edge of the table as goalposts. Leaving the table before the bell rang could mean permanent expulsion, and even though I was runt of the litter, I'd worked hard for my spot.
Excerpted from Let Me See It by James Magruder. Copyright © 2014 James Magruder. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Use Your Head 23
Treasure Help 39
Elliott Biddler's Vie Bohème 51
Hoorchie Mamas 67
You've Really Learned How 87
Mistress of the Revels 111
Elbow and Legs 149
Let Me See It 165