This is the beginning of a Novel/novella which I am trying to decide if I will continue to write or not. It’s nowhere near finished.
No one remembers exactly when the taco truck rolled into town, which is odd because normally that’s the kind of thing that kicks up quite a stir in a small town like Cape May. It was 2020 though, and as you may recall the country was in the middle of a shit storm that seemed to be pulling the country apart, and rumors were flying that murder hornets had finally reached the northern shores of Delaware. Yet somehow, in the midst of all the mayhem, everyone seemed fixated on the strange circus that had set up camp on the west edge of town. This was before the drag queens arrived and everything got crazy, but at the time, everyone was so distracted that hardly anyone bothered to notice a taco truck had set up camp on a bluff overlooking Poverty Beach.
Joe Stanhope remembered because she was there that day. Was actually the first one to meet the man who would change the course of her life and forever alter the history of the tiny coastal town in profound and mysterious ways.
Joe worked as a reporter for the local newspaper and even though she wasn’t exactly a local herself she understood the people here quite well. For one thing, she had chronicled nearly every event of any importance in town, including births, deaths, weddings and funerals, so she knew most everyone in town as well as their personal history. Ironically perhaps, almost no one knew anything about Joe. People often asked if her name was short for something, such as Jolene or Joanne, but the truth is, she was named after her father, a semi-famous professional wrestler and grifter who was born Page Joseph Falkinburg, but who went by the stage name of Diamond Dallas Page.
Joe was thankful he had named her Joe and not Page or Diamond or Dallas. Lord knows Falkinburg had been burden enough. She had married Curtis Stanhope in a chapel in Vegas when she was 16 and in the family way as they say. She married him as much as a way to escape her father and their crazy life on the road, than anything resembling a desire to be an honest women, let alone a dutiful wife. She figured Stanhope was a better name to disappear under than Falkinburg, and she skipped town several days after the ceremony. She hadn’t seen either of them in over thirty years.
When people asked about her name, she simply said it was a family name and left it at that. If they asked where she was from, she would say she was the child of circus performers and laugh, as if making a joke, and if they pressed her, she would say she was from a small town in Nevada and they would let it go. Nothing is more boring than something that sounds like the truth.
She never talked about her past and the people here were generally happy to let your past be your own. One of Joe’s gifts, a defense mechanism you might say, was that she could turn a question about herself into a question about you, and the next thing people knew, they were talking about themselves and forgot all about her. As it turned out, it was a gift with practical applications.
Joe had bounced around the country, doing a variety of odd jobs that usually involved slinging drinks. She had moved from state to state, town to town, raising her daughter Cecilia to be as normal as she could imagine was possible. Celia the only good thing to come out of her shitty life she often told herself, so when she wandered into Cape May, New Jersey, a quaint seaside town of Victorian B&B’s on the edge of New Jersey’s southern peninsula, she wondered if this might be the kind of place where the two of them could settle down and finally make a home.
Her arrival had been a lucky accident to begin with, but she had also quickly gotten a job bartending at the Shipwreck Bar & Grill on Beach Avenue. It was soon after she started, that she ended up having a rather serendipitous conversation with Barry, the publisher of the local newspaper. His lead reporter had just quit on him and left town, leaving him stranded. Joe poured him a whiskey and when he asked where she was from, she asked him about his life and a few hours later Joe felt like she knew half the people in town, just about anything she’d ever need to know about Barry, and had secured a job with the Cape May Chronicle as their newest reporter. Barry always bragged that he had an eye for talent, and who knows, maybe he did.
Joe started out covering city council meetings, high school football games, chowder competitions, births, engagements and deaths, but as she truly did have a knack for getting people to tell her things they weren’t accustomed to telling, she surprised herself to learn she was a damn fine reporter. It didn’t hurt that she had a natural gift for slightly eccentric storytelling which she figured she had come to honestly from an early life in low-rent entertainment and hustling. Before she knew it, she had become the full-time editor, rented a small two-bedroom apartment near the marina for her and Celia, and had begun to feel at home for the first time in her adult life.
Some might say it was luck or happenstance that Joe would be the first one to get the skinny on the mysterious stranger living in the taco truck by the beach. Joe had a curious mind, and a wary heart, so she was comfortable talking to strangers without ever revealing anything about herself. It was the mark of a good conman, and a skill she’d learned well from her father. She could talk to anyone, mirroring them, adopting their cadences and rhythms, even their accents at times. It was a trick people used in the hustle, but it was really effective in making people feel at ease.
If Joe thought she was going to have the upper hand with the man walking out of the ocean that day, she would soon find out that this was not to be the case. It’s hard to know exactly what destiny is going to look like when you come upon it, but it’s rarely a dripping wet surfer type wearing nothing but board shorts and long black hair walking towards you with casual grace and a wide, easy smile. At least not in Joe’s experience, where casual good looks and charm were to be feared and distrusted. She knew a con when she saw one.
The truck said Jose by The Sea: Tacos For The Soul, and from the looks of it, she was about to meet Jose. It never occurred to her in that moment, that her life would be saved by a guy named Jose, let alone a taco, but destiny has a funny way of surprising even the hardest of hearts.
The trucks, as well as the large banner fixed to two poles stuck in the ground, said Talladega Big Top, and the ringleader, a tall man who claimed to be a direct descendent of Hachaliah Bailey, of Barnum and Baily fame, introduced himself simply as Talladega Dan.
Dan was remarkably tall, but what you might generously call strangely-shaped. He wasn’t fat exactly, but he wasn’t skinny either. He was once described as looking like ten pounds of sausage squeezed into a five-pound casing. He sort of oozed out in strange places, namely his abundant stomach and womanly hips. His head was large but not his chest and his arms and legs all appeared strangely thin for his otherwise ample body, like a misshapen potato with toothpicks for limbs and an apple for a head.
But the thing that struck you most when meeting Dan was his hair—a remarkably strange combover the color of wet straw and the texture of cotton candy. It was wholly unnatural looking but also clearly not a wig. It was as if rather than allowing himself to simply go bald or give in entirely to an artificial hairpiece, Dan had constructed a hairstyle so unique and contrived that you were forced to admit, that strange though it may be, his hair must not only be real but his own. It appeared to have been sprayed on, or spun from a combination of sugar and hair spray and appeared as if it would dissolve if it came into contact with water or a child’s tongue.
Dan seemed to always be in costume, even when he wasn’t, although it was never clear what exactly he was dressed as, or what for. He was like a character that had stepped out of a novel, only it was entirely unclear what genre or age of story it might be, or where in the story he was exiting from. He was a character, that much was certain, but what story he was trying to tell was anyone’s guess. His own presumably.
To complete the affectation of being the consummate showman, Dan always wore a copious amount of makeup, no matter the hour or occasion, that had neither the effect of improving his looks or looking reasonable in any way except under the harsh glare of the spotlight. That he wore makeup as part of his act, as the ringleader in a circus, one might set this aside as an occupational necessity, but when you come across it at the fish market or the laundromat, it was both distracting and mildly upsetting. Like a dog in a negligee or a pig wearing lipstick.
Dan was not what anyone would call charming exactly, but he had such confidence that you were almost instantly put at ease since it was clear he believed everything was under control.
Dan was talking with Ernie Hand, a local farmer, as well as Arthur Napier, Dan’s lawyer, and business partner, about their upcoming arrangement. The Talladega Bit Top would set up on Mr. Hand’s property in exchange for an undisclosed amount of cash and 15% of the take. Arthur had been hashing out the details for a few weeks, but Dan was here to finalize the deal.
“Well, Mr. Hand as I told you over the phone, this is a fine property, a fine property indeed,” said Dan, “and as we will be doing the Lord’s work, providing a wholesome and rewarding experience to the good people of this town, I can’t for the life of me, imagine what your reservations may be, but by all means, let’s hear them.”
Ernie Hand hadn’t finished high school, but he was no idiot. He was unaccustomed to dealing with showbiz types and Dan made him a little nervous. He knew how to deal with the lawyer. He was just another thieving banker type that you had to watch with boy eyes and both hands. Ernie got the feeling that Napier would rob him blind if he was allowed, but they can’t take what you don’t have. This Talladega Dan on the other hand was closer to a preacher, a man who spoke with authority and a bit of showy elegance. He was fancy in a way that made Ernie’s back sweaty. He’d had teachers like that, and come across a few preachers as well. It’s why he’d left school and hadn’t set foot in a church in over 50 years.
But Ernie had a soft spot for entertainers and showmen. He’d always secretly hoped to be a part of something bigger than himself. He had no delusions of grandeur and no illusions that he would ever set foot on a stage. He didn’t even like speaking up at town council meetings, even though he was on the council. But to be the host of the biggest thing to come to Cape May County in a hundred years was simply too much to pass up.
“Look, I know this is just a small, hick town to you guys,” said Ernie. Dan started to protest, but Ernie put his hand up to silence him. “But these are good, honest folks around here. I don’t have a problem with the show. I seen it over in Carroll County when you was there, and it seems all on the up and up. But I do have some concerns about some of your—performers. Some of these fellas look a little shady and that guy you’ve got tending to the animals is a strange bird if ever there was one.” Again Dan started to speak and Ernie stared at him until he shut his mouth again. “What I want is your word, that you will keep your people in line. I don’t want any trouble, and I will not hesitate to give you the boot if you can’t be respectful.”
Ernie indicated that he was finished and Dan smiled warmly.
“My good sir,” Dan said with a smile. “Let me assure you that while some of them may look a little rough around the gills, that is only because they come from troubled backgrounds and have not always been dealt with the love and kindness with which you are so obviously familiar. I’ll give you that young Ewell is cut from a different bit of cloth from me and you, to be sure, but he loves those animals like they were his own flesh and blood, and that’s what I pay him to do, care for the animals, not cater to the whims of man. These are my rescues, my lost little lambs. I would ask that you judge them not by their looks, but by their hearts, as each one of them, has been born again, their sins washed away by the blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and they are sinners no more.”
“Well, sure,” said Ernie. “I’m sure they are. I heard your speech about rehabilitating hard cases and all. I don’t mean to cast aspersions on your people, but this ain’t my first rodeo, if you know what I mean. I know what men are capable of, and even some of the ladies given half the chance. I want your word, as a man of God, that there won’t be any funny business. I don’t want any trouble of any kind.”
“Mr. Hand,” Dan said, “Ernie.” He put his arm around Ernie’s shoulders, turning him to see his caravan of trucks. “This is my flock and I am their shepherd. They were lost, but now they are found. They were naked and afraid and it was I who clothed them and gave them bread to eat. For who among us is without sin? Who among us dare to cast the first stone?”
He turned to look at Dan and held his gaze for a second longer than was comfortable, but Ernie did not flinch. “You have my word, that there will be no trouble.”
Ernie knew when he was being lied to, and while he didn’t know if he trusted Dan, and he certainly did not trust that bloodsucking lawyer, he believed Dan when he said he was in control of his own people.
“Ok then,” Ernie said and held out his hand. “That’s all I needed to hear.”
Dan grinned and grabbed his hand, pulling Ernie towards him in a surprising act of strength for a man with such soft hands. Ernie nearly lost his balance as he found himself nearly inches from Dan’s face. He could see the heavy makeup and smell his cologne. His teeth, so white they glistened. Suddenly Ernie had the most horrible feeling that he’d made a terrible decision. But as quickly as he had brought him in, Dan released him, turned, and whirled in a circle, making a grand gesture to the farm and his trucks and to Ernie and Arthur.
“I give you the Talladega Big Top!” He roared and his men near the trucks roared back. “Right here in West Cape May,” he added in almost a whisper, then laughed.
Nearly shaking but glad to have been released from his grip, Ernie instinctively smiled but felt a drop of sweat run down his back and he wondered, not for the last time, if he’d made a pact with the devil himself.
“Mr. Hand,” Dan said turning to Ernie and bowing. “I bid you adieu.”
Ernie raised his ball cap halfheartedly from his side, in a half gesture of goodbye and muttered, “Yeah, okay, Mr. Talla…Dan.”
“Come Arthur!” said Dan. “There is work to be done!”
Arthur opened his satchel, took out a large paper bundle and handed it to Ernie who took it almost absentmindedly. “Good day, sir,” said Arthur and tipped his hat before scurrying away to catch up with Dan who was already striding across the lawn.
Ernie looked at the bundle that he assumed held $15,000 in cash and then at the men walking across his field. He put his cap on his head and tapped the bundle to his head, turned and walked towards his home.
Arthur caught up to Dan who turned and smiled at him as they walked.
“Did he say anything?” asked Dan.
“Not a word,” said Arthur.
“I told you he’d be fine, once we talked in person,” said Dan.
“You silver tongued devil,” said Arthur who seemed genuinely amused.
“This is going to be a good town,” said Dan. “I can feel it.”
‘That’s what you said about the last town,” said Arthur. “We barely made it out of there in one piece.”
“Arthur, Arthur,” said Dan. “You worry too much. They will never catch me. I’m too clever.”
“I’m not worried about you,” said Arthur.
“Ahh,” said Dan clapping him on the back. “They will never catch you either.” Dan leaned down and whispered in his ear, “You’re far too devious.”
“You always say the nicest things,” said Arthur and Dan laughed, loud enough for Ernie to look up and watch them walking away before he shut the door, and locked it for the first time in thirty years.
“A taco truck?” Barry said reading something and not looking up. “Where?”
“Over on the bluffs by Poverty Beach,” said Joe taking off her jacket and hanging it on the back of her chair.
Barry looked up at Joe, tossed his pen on his desk and said again, “A taco truck. Here in Cape May? Well, I don’t see that happening.”
“I know,” said Joe. “I told him they would boot him as soon as word got out but he didn’t seem the least bit worried.”
“Frankly, it would be nice to have something new to eat around here,” said Barry leaning back in his chair to stretch. “I wonder if the food is any good.”
“It’s amazing,” said Joe.
“You’ve already eaten there,” said Barry. “Christ, you don’t waste any time.”
“Figured he might not be there that long,” said Joe. “Get it while the gettin’s good.”
“Well, you’re not wrong there,” said Barry. “So it was actually that good, huh?”
“Incredible actually,” said Joe. “And remember, I actually know a good taco.”
“I might have to go down and try one for myself,” said Barry. “How long do you suppose he’s going to be there?”
“He looks like he’s planning on staying for a bit to me,” said Joe. “I asked him what he was going to do when they came to kick him out and he gave me a strange answer. He has a little patio all set up, little twinkly lights, tables and chairs. I don’t know.”
“I gotta see this,” said Barry grabbing his jacket. “What did he say?”
“What did he say about what?” said Joe.
“You said he gave you a strange answer when you told him he was going to get the boot,” said Barry.
“He said, ‘There are but two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.’”
“What they hell is that supposed to mean?” said Barry.
“I don’t know but Clifford’s going to have a cow when he sees him there, so you’d better hurry,” said Joe.
“What’d you get anyway,” said Barry. “What was so good?”
“I asked him what I should have and he told me he would make me something I would never forget,” said Joe.
“Give me a break,” said Barry. “And what was that, pray tell?”
“My heart’s desire, of course,” said Joe and smiled.
“Jesus,” said Barry.
“Jose,” said Joe.
“Ho-what?” Said Barry.
“Jose,” said Joe. “His name is Jose. Ask me the name of the truck.”
Barry had moved towards the door and he turned to look at her.
“Come on,” said Joe. “Ask me.”
“What is the name of the taco truck currently parked on the turnout by Poverty Beach?”
“Jose By The Sea,” said Joe. She waved her arm across the air with a flourish as she said it.
“The Ferguson obit needs editing,” said Barry. “We can’t print the guy’s whole life story. He didn’t do anything worth reading about and nobody liked him.”
Barry opened the door to leave and Joe smiled at him. Barry shook his head, turned and left. Joe called after him as the door shut behind him.
“Tacos For The Soul,” she yelled.
“Nobody liked him,” Barry yelled back.
Lexington, Oklahoma is about as far away from the limelight as you can get. Growing up in Lexington, Chris McClain often wished he lived across the river in Purcell where at least they had the Grand Canadian Theater. With its crystal chandeliers and 1930’s Hollywood glamour, the Grand Canadian felt like the height of sophistication and elegance to a young blond farm boy growing up in rural Oklahoma. Even when he was freshly scrubbed and wearing his Sunday best, Chris had never felt clean enough to touch anything, worried that he was carrying a little dust crowd around him like Pig Pen in the Peanuts cartoons, that would stain the red velvet seats with an imprint of his Wranglers. But Purcell wasn’t exactly any kind of big city and Lexington wasn’t even Purcell. Just 2,152 rednecks trying to scrape out a small town existence among the cattle and wheat. Before Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907, Lexington had been known as a “whiskey town” and much of its business had come from across the Canadian River from the thriving railroad town of Purcell which was located in dry Indian Territory. But after prohibition, Lexington had dried up and the people never returned.
They say the way to get to Carnegie Hall is practice, but if you live in a town with more cows than people, it’s not that easy. If you happen to live in the middle of the country, believe it or not, you are reminded that people do this everyday. All you have to do is stare up at that cloudless sky and you can see the vapor trails of people making their way east or west as they flyover the country you’re stuck in. On top of that, twice a day Chris was reminded of a more practical path to freedom, and that was the Amtrak train that came rumbling through at high speed through his grandparents cow pasture.
There was a train in Purcell that would take you to Oklahoma City where you could catch a train south to Fort Worth, Texas, and then from Forth Worth you could make the journey North again to Chicago. Once you were in Chicago, it was less than a day’s ride east, through the tunnel under the Hudson River and back up again into the heart of the city and Penn Station.
If you’re living in Oklahoma surrounded by rednecks and cows, it can be hard to dream of ever getting a job at the Grand Canadian across the river in Purcell, but Chris had dreams he just knew were just too big for Lexington, too big for Purcell or even Oklahoma for that matter. A few weeks after he graduated high school, he kissed his mother goodbye, grabbed his bags from the bed of the family truck, and walked up to the ticket window of the Purcell train station and paid $533 for a one way ticket, from Oklahoma City to New York City by way of Chicago. It was 7:30am on a sunny Thursday morning in May, and as his sat nervously on the bench and waited for the train, Chris knew he’d never be back.
The Heartland Flyer ran twice a day from Purcell into Oklahoma City and hour away. Chris planned to stay overnight at the apartment of a friend before starting on what he was already thinking of as his epic journey. He’d been to Oklahoma City before, with family and class trips. He knew it was nothing like New York, but still the sense of excitement with all the traffic, and men and women in business attire made him feel like he was already making his way into a new world.
Pammy greeted him at the door to her apartment with a shriek and a big hug, “Chrissy! Get your ass in here.”
She had been two years ahead of Chris in school and was attending Oklahoma City Community College in the hopes of transferring to Oklahoma University in Norman the following year. Like Chris, Pam had left Lexington the minute she could and never looked back. Chris had come often to visit her, and was accustomed to her wild energy.
Too look at him, Chris appeared to be your average all-American teen from the midwest. Tall at 6’2”, Chris was handsome with angular features and short, cropped blonde hair. He was atheltic looking, muscular in that unassuming way that comes from the many hours of hard physical labor working on a ranch. He looked like he’d just walked out of Abercrombie catalog in the 90’s. Despite his good looks, Chris was soft-spoken and generally shy. Polite but reserved. He been raised to follow the rules and not rock the boat. Pammy lived to rock the boat.
When they were kids Pammy called him Captain America, which he hated. People used to mistake them for a couple, but they’d always just been close friends. Pammy had asked Chris to the prom and of course he’d said yes. He’d always been sort of terrified of girls, but Pammy had always been different. They’d known each other since before they could walk and she was like a big sister.
She’d been the first one he told, but of course she already knew.
Pammy had been his best friend in school so they’d talked about prom before. It was just a stupid high school dance after all. But as the big night drew closer, Chris felt more and more anxiety about it and even began to worry that maybe Pammy wanted more from him that he’d thought. He loved Pammy, but not like that. Truth be told, he didn’t feel that way towards any girl and it terrified him.
They were sitting in her bedroom and Pammy was going on about some new show she’d been watching, talking a mile a minute like she did. Chris was listening halfheartedly, thumbing through a Vogue magazine. Pammy stopped talking for a second to notice that Chris was ignoring her.
“Are you even listening to me,” Pammy asked.
“I’m listening,” mumbled Chris.
“Well, you don’t seem very excited about,” she said. “I think this could be…”
“Pammy,” said Chris, interrupting her.
“What,” she said.
I’m gay,” said Chris. He said it quietly. He wasn’t even sure if it was true. It didn’t seem possible. He wasn’t even sure why he was telling her but he felt he had to tell someone. At the least he wanted to hear the words come out of his mouth. See how it felt.
“AHHHHHHHHH!” Pammy screamed. She was freaking out, but she was smiling at him.
He wasn’t sure what short of reaction he had expected, but it wasn’t this.
“Pammy,” said Chris again.
Pammy screamed again, “AHHHHHHHHHHH!
“I just didn’t want you to think…,” Chris started to say.
“We have to celebrate!” Pammy yelled at Chris who looked confused.
“What with prom and all,” Chris continued. “So, you’re not mad?”
“Mad?!” she said. “Why the fuck would I be mad?”
“You know,” he said. “Prom and all.”
Pammy fell on the bed and laughed hysterically. Chris was at a loss to understand what was going on.
“Pammy,” said Chris. “Seriously.”
Pammy stopped laughing and looked at Chris seriously. “Wait. Did you think I was waiting around for you to sweep me off my feet? Take me to bed after the big dance?”
“Well no,” said Chris. “Of course not.”
“Yes you did,” Pammy said and she began laughing again. “You did.”
“Pammy!” Chris barked and she stopped laughing.
“Chrissy,” she said flipping over on her belly to face him. “Darling. I’ve known you were gay since you were 12 years old.”
“You what?” he asked.
“Oh honey,” she said sitting up, “Straight boys don’t get a gander at these knockers and not try to put their hands on them.” She put her hands on her ample breasts and lifted them for effect. “I was just starting to wonder if you were ever going to get around to knowing it yourself.”
“Jesus,” said Chris.
“You can say that again,” she said. “We need to both get out of this town so at least one of us can get laid. There’s enough sexual tension in this room to light up the football stadium.”
Chris looked stunned.
“Oh baby,” Pammy said and jumped off the bed and straddled Chris’ lap. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. “I’m so proud of you. I know how hard that must have been. The fucking men in this town are so repressed. Half the town is probably gay and doesn’t know it.”
Pammy sat back and held Chris’ face in her hands. “But you did it! You really did it.”
“I don’t want anyone else to know,” Chris said suddenly afraid.
“Of course you don’t,” Pammy said and she jumped up. “In mixed company you will always be my Captain America.” She grabbed a dress of the bed and held it front of her. “But when we are alone, you will be Miss America.”
“Very funny,” Chris said.
“Who’s being funny,” she said. “You’re Miss Chrissy in this here bitch.”
Pammy stopped strutting and looked at Chris.
“Hey,” she said. “You want me to dress you up?”
“No!” said Chris. “Absolutely not.”
“Awwwww,” she said. “Why not?”
“I’m not that kind of…” Chris started to say but stopped. He wasn’t sure yet what he was.
“Not that kind of what? Fag?” asked Pammy. “I’m just talking about some sexy clothes. What’s the point of having a gay friend if you can’t do gay shit together? This is going to be a project I can see. Okay cowboy, we’ll do it your way. Did you have your eye on anyone in particular for this little Brokeback Mountain fantasy of yours? Maybe Fred, that little guy down at the thing?”
“Hell no,” said Chris. “That’s disgusting. Look I don’t want to do anything with anyone.”
“Well, I know that ain’t true,” she said. “But you’ll figure it out.”
Pammy crossed the room again and sat in Chris’ lap, putting her arms around him.
“You’re going to be fine,” she said. They sat there for a second, just holding onto one another. Pammy popped her back up and looked at Chris. “You want me to suck your dick just to make sure you’re gay?”
“Maybe you’re only bi.”
“Oh my god.”
“I’d do it,” she said looking him in the eyes. “But only because I love you.”
“Can you get off me now?” asked Chris.
“Okay,” she said getting off him his lap and standing with her hand on her hips. “But, you know, this offer isn’t good forever. I’m just feeling generous because you finally figured out you’re a princess and all. Plus I assume I’d be the only one who’s ever had their mouth on that hog.”
“I’m going home,” Chris said and got up to leave.
“Chris, wait,” Pammy said and skipped over to the door. They stood facing each other through the open door.
“Seriously,” she said. “I’m really happy for you.”
“I know,” he said.
“And I really would suck your dick,” she said.
“I know,” he said and smiled.
“Who’s got a better best friend than you?” She said and winked.
“Not a soul,” he said.
“Goddamn right,” she said seemed to have another thought. “You think maybe I should walk you home. Make sure you get there safely? You know, now that you’re little fairy princess?”
“I think I can manage, thanks,” said Chris and he turned to leave.
“Okay, well off with you then,” she said. “Call me later.”
“Okay, will do” he said. “Hey Pammy?”
“I know,” she said and he knew she did.
“Ok,” he said and left.
Pammy had always seemed more excited about whatever Chris was doing than he ever did and here he was moving to New York City, so naturally Pammy was beside herself. They were in her apartment in Oklahoma City, talking about his move.
“I honestly can’t believe you’re doing it,” she said.
“What kind of thing is that to say to someone,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “It took you years to realize you were gay I just figured it would be another decade before you got up the courage to leave. I’m just glad you’re going somewhere. Anywhere.”
“You sound really broken up about me leaving,” he said.
“Honey. The way I look at it, I’m going to have a place to stay when I move there myself. I just didn’t figure you’d get there first. Besides, I always pictured us in Southern California for some reason.”
“Maybe someday,” he said.
“Oh, I’m not waiting for you anymore,” she said. “That much I’ve learned. Okay. You ready to go?”
“Go?” He said. “Where are we going?”
“Out, of course!” She said. “To this little bar I know. To celebrate.”
“I’m only 19,” he said.
“Yes, dear. I’m well aware. Don’t worry about it. Momma’s got this.”
They got off the sofa and Pammy grabbed her jacket and purse, then turned to look at Chris.
“Wait, is that what you’re wearing?” She asked.
“What else would I be wearing?” He said and put his arms out. Chris was wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and white tee-shirt.
“You look like a Wrangler ad,” she said shaking her head. “Oh, come on. I can’t do everything. Some things I guess you’re going to have to figure out on your own.”
The bar Pammy took him to wasn’t like anything Chris had ever been to before. This was a bit like visiting your grandmother’s attic at night, if it were full of overstuffed chairs and antiques. It was dimly lit and chock full of nicknacks, memorabilia and art. Everywhere you looked there was something to see. It smelled of incense and cigarette smoke and the whole place looked like you were seeing it as though through a veil. People were sitting in small groups, chatting quietly while Nina Simone sang quietly. Not hushed exactly, but not boisterous either. There was a casual, comfortable vibe to it, like a clubhouse. It wasn’t immediately obvious that it was a gay bar, but then Chris had never been in a gay bar so he really didn’t have any frame of reference. There were a lot of men, but also a few women. Not much different than he would have expected to find at any bar back home. Pammy led Chris to the small bar at the end of the room and the bartender greeted Pammy.
“Hello lovely,” said the bartender. “And how are we this evening?”
He and Pammy did a sort of European air kiss where they leaned in towards one another and pretended to kiss each other on both cheeks.
“We are fabulous as always,” replied Pammy. “Charles, I want you to meet my very best friend from back home, Christopher. Chris this is Charles, the most beautiful man in Oklahoma that isn’t you.”
Charles was a dapper man in his forties, with round glasses, a handlebar mustache, and graying hair. He wore a white starched shirt and a tweed waistcoat. He looked like a man out of time.
“Please to meet you Charles,” Chris said and reached out his hand to shake it.
Charles took his hand lightly and said, “Likewise I’m sure.”
Charles seemed to take Chris in one sweep of his eyes and proclaimed, “Well aren’t you a tall drink of water in a bone dry town.”
“I know,” said Pammy. “He looks like he just stepped out of a catalog.”
“Where do I order me one?” Charles asked. “My, my, my.”
Chris pulled his hand away and laughed nervously.
“I would like my usual,” Pammy said, “And Captain America here will have, what, a Budweiser?”
“Actually,” Chris said. “Do you know how to make a Manhattan?”
Charles smiled and turned to Pammy, “Oh, he’s too much.”
“Tell me about it,” said Pammy.
Standing up straight, Charles looked at Chris and said, “Off to New York I hear? Well, of course darling. One rum and coke, and one Manhattan for the Captain, coming right up.”
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” said Chris.
“Do what honey,” said Pammy.
“Talk about me like that,” said Chris. “I’m standing right here.”
“I’m just trying to break the ice,” said Pammy. “You need to loosen up. You’re way too intense. You look like you’re ready to wrestle a steer to the ground.”
“I’m nervous,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “But these people are my friends, and you have nothing to worry about here.”
“I’m not an idiot you know,” he said.
“I know that too,” she said. “But you’ve been living in that one horse town your whole life, and a few seasons of Ru Paul’s Drag Race have not prepared you for the outside world. You’re like a wild animal that has been held in captivity your whole life and now we’re releasing you into the wild.”
“I’m going to New York City,” said Chris. “Not the jungle.”
“Honey,” she said. “If that’s not the heart of darkness, I don’t know what is. I just don’t want to see them eat you alive and spit you out country boy. You might be Captain America here, but there you’re just another dumb bumpkin fresh off the bus. Boys like you arrive every day there.”
“I know how to handle myself,” he said.
“I’m not worried about your physical safety Chrissy,” she said. “I’m worried about your soul.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
“I know you will be,” she said. “But you’ve got a lot to learn and not a lot of time to learn it. I wish you’d moved here and stayed with me for a year before you left.”
“I’m tired of waiting,” Chris said. “I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that,” she said. “Maybe you’re right. Just jump right in. Sink or swim, right?”
“I’m not afraid,” said Chris. “I’m nervous. I’m excited. But I’m not afraid.”
“You know,” she said. “That just might be your saving grace. You really aren’t are you? You aren’t your typical fairy princess that’s for sure. Straightest gay man I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Not an ounce of style. But you’re determined. I’ll give you that.”
Charles brought their drinks and placed each one on a napkin. Adding a maraschino cherry to Chris’ drink with a flourish. Charles pulled up a stool and put his head in his hands and stared at Chris.
“So, tell me about this big dream of yours,” said Charles. “Give me all the gory details. Don’t hold anything back. I’ve heard it all before.”
So for the first time in his life, Chris opened up to someone, other than Pammy about, well anything. He started slowly, but Charles kept filling his glass and Chris kept talking. Charles had been listening to gay country boys find themselves for decades and he knew how to listen without judgement. Everyone had to start somewhere, and for many people, it was right here in the Rose Tattoo with Charles in charge.
Chris told him about his dreams of becoming an actor, about his desire to become someone else and about his need to get lost in a crush of humanity. He knew he had so much more to say but had trouble getting it out. He was too self conscious, too afraid to speak his mind. He needed to go somewhere that no one knew him and become someone else entirely. Pammy and Charles listened and Chris talked, forgetting who and where he was for maybe the first time, and talking about the one person he never talked about.
“Wow,” said Pammy when he was finished. “That’s the most I’ve ever heard you say about anything, ever, and the first time I’ve ever heard you talk that much about yourself. Where did all this come from?”
“I’ve been thinking,” said Chris.
“I guess so,” said Charles.
“Well, we better put this one to bed. He’s got an early start and a long trip ahead of him,” said Pammy getting up to leave.
“What do we, uh, owe you for the drinks,” said Chris reaching for his wallet.
“Oh please,” said Charles waving him off. “That was well worth the price of admission. One day when you’re rich and famous, you’ll tell them all your got your start right here with little old me.”
Charles came around from behind the bar and and Chris once again held out his hand.
“Honey, after you’ve told me all your dark, dirty secrets, I’m not going to let you get away without giving me a proper hug. Not before I let you go galavanting across the country,” said Charles.
Charles moved towards Chris and tucked himself into his body and Chris, maybe less than instinctively but willingly hugged him back. Charles held him and then released him, but then he surprised Chris by grabbing his face.
“You are going to be divine,” said Charles a little teary-eyed. “Make us proud and don’t ever forget where you came from. Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. You be you, whoever that turns out to be. Okay?”
Then Charles kissed Chris on the mouth. Not passionate, but forceful as if he was trying to seal a promise. It was the first time Chris had ever kissed a man, or had a man kiss him. It wasn’t sexual but it was as intimate as anything Chris had ever experienced outside of his mother. Charles blushed.
Charles broke away and sighed then laughed. He turned and hugged and kissed Pammy.
“Oh my lord, but the young ones do get to me,” said Charles sounding exhausted. “Heaven help me.”
Chris finished his cigarette and dropped it into the coffee can on the fire escape. He crawled back into the window and shut it all but a few inches, so that a light spring breeze blew in along with the sounds of the city waking up. It had been a long time since he’d thought about that night back Oklahoma. He’d tried to put that person behind him so didn’t often reminisce about the good old days. It’s not that they were so bad, they just seemed like the past life of a different person. That was five years ago, he thought. Time really does fly.
Chris’ boyfriend Jonathon was in the kitchen making a smoothie. Chris grabbed his ass as he walked past and grabbed a coffee mug out of the cabinet.
“Don’t be playing with me son,” said Jonathon. “It’s much too early and I am not even awake.”
Jonathon was from Cameroon, a beautiful black West African Chris had met at the Soho Grand, a high-end hotel in Southern Manhattan, where Chris worked as a bartender and Jonathon as a doorman. While Chris was stoic and fair, Jonathon was as loud as he was dark. They joked that they were both from the wild west and this made them brothers. They were both tall and strapping and looked like some sort of Greek gods when standing together, white and black knights from some mysterious chess board. Chris, with his soft-spoken lilting drawl and Jonathon’s guttural bark made them an odd couple to be sure, but they shared a common masculine facade that hid an inner tenderness. They had sensed in each other an exotic creature so unlike themselves, and yet so similar, that they were drawn to one another. They attraction had been almost immediate and it wasn’t long before they were a couple.
They had been together two years now, but had only recently decided to move in together. They had found this place in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. The neighborhood was a little sketchy, but it was definitely an up and comer and they never could have afforded the place they found in a posher neighborhood. They were close to the subway and cemetery and there seemed that a new bar or other hipster joint was popping up every week.
Chris poured himself a cup of coffee, sat down at the kitchen table and grabbed the newspaper laying there.
“Don’t mess that ting up,” said Jonathon. “I haven’t had a chance to read it meself.”
“How am I going to mess it up,” asked Chris.
“You know how you do,” said Jonathon. “Have it all backwards and forwards, turned inside out and upside down.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Chris. “It’s a newspaper. It’s meant to be read once and thrown away.”
“Twice,” said Jonathon. “It this place, it must be read twice. I don’t want to get it like some beggar man slept on it last night.”
“Balderdash, as my grandmother used to say,” said Chris.
“No matter your grandmother’s advice. Treat the newspaper with some respect until I am done with it. Then you may treat it like your dog’s bedsheets.”
Joe had to leave to pick up Celia from school at 2:30 so she couldn’t wait to hear how Barry’s taco run went. She left the office unlocked assuming he would be right back. It was an advantage having an office above the police station that you really rarely had to lock the doors.
It didn’t look like Clifford was in his office so he must have been out on patrol. Joe figured she’d swing by Poverty on her way, see if Barry had found Jose, or his heart’s desire for that matter. She drove up Beach and turned to make her way over near the pullover when she saw Clifford’s cruiser parked next to Barry’s Mini Cooper. She rolled to a stop and saw a strange site indeed. Clifford and Barry were seated on either side of the picnic table, and Jose was telling some sort of story that seemed to involve a lot of pantomime on Jose’s part. Both men were in fits of laughter as Jose seemed deadly serious. Joe rolled down the window and yelled out to them.
“Hey,” Joe yelled and all three men turned to look at her. “I’m going to get Celia.”
Barry waved and turned back to Jose. Clifford shrugged and Jose smiled and waved.
“I left the door unlocked,” she yelled.
No one turned this time but Barry raised his hand to acknowledge this irrelevant piece of information. Clearly they were preoccupied and Jose turned back to them and continued his story.
Joe had been sure that once Clifford found Jose and his truck, he’d be booting him out of town and here she finds the police chief and the publisher of the newspaper having lunch and carrying on. This seemed like it was growing into a story.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I have to decide if I have the desire to keep going. If you like what you’ve read, leave me a note of encouragement. Maybe I’ll keep writing.