by Peter DeMarco
The carpenter asks me if he can masturbate.
Sure, I tell him.
I sip from a Jack Daniel's bottle in the front seat of his van. The carpenter likes to drink before he goes to bars so he can save money.
We're parked on a dark road behind the church, devoid of street lamps, enclosed by woods. My house is less than a mile away, where my father is probably watching a movie on TV.
Our conversations revolve around sex. The carpenter swings with a married couple he met through a personal ad, and has been to Plato's Retreat. I tell him about my fantasies, since they're all I have.
The carpenter is in his thirties, and related to the pastor of our church. We met a year ago when I worked at the church as a part-time custodian during high school, and he was doing odd jobs.
He's having trouble reaching orgasm and attributes it to the booze. He says it might help if he could touch my hair. I respond with a cliche: he's got to stay on his side of the fence.
We finish drinking and drive over to a gay bar called Thunder's, which sits in a strip mall next to a Japanese restaurant. I'd passed the place a thousand times growing up, but never knew what the nondescript brick structure was.
In my college English class, a composition assignment required us to choose a place to write about. I had just seen the movie Cruising and asked the carpenter if that was typical of the gay lifestyle. He said he could show me.
The place looks no different from a straight bar. A jukebox, pool table, Pac-Man machine. Guys sit on bar stools, while a lesbian couple shoot pool. Donna Summer plays on the jukebox.
The carpenter lights a Raleigh and orders two gin and tonics. He introduces me to the bartender as his nephew, who then tells us it's a slow night.
I take out my pad and ask him about the odds of someone picking up a stranger and having sex. He says it can be similar to straight bars, as far as personality games go, but chances are, if someone is looking for sex, they'll find it.
The carpenter says that if a guy strikes out in a gay bar, he usually drives by a rest stop that is known for gay activity and looks to get blown by a stranger.
A guy in his late twenties named Earl complains about a married man who doesn't want to see him anymore. Earl works at Macy's, where the man asked for help in picking out a yellow tie. Earl told him that yellow was his favorite color and at moment they both knew. Earl said he was so upset when the guy broke it off that he smashed his cologne bottles together, like cymbals. One of his hands is wrapped with a cloth bandage.
I take a few more notes, and we call it a night. The carpenter drives me home and I thank him for helping me out. I'm suspicious that he's just using me, waiting for me to change my mind about having sex.
I stand on my driveway and look around the neighborhood. There had to be secrets within those houses, those families. The guys in Thunder's could be anyone's neighbor.
In the house, my father watches It's a Wonderful Life and smokes a cigar. It's the scene where George and Mary dance in the gymnasium, a sense of joy and freedom about them. The movies made it look so easy. In discos, I'd watch girls for hours, and let the sweaty guys who reeked of Pierre Cardin cologne get rejected.
Did you go to dances, I ask my father.
That's how I met your mother.
My father was president of his senior class. He had shown me his yearbook once, proud of having so many friends. They had all signed it to a swell guy. There was something wholesome about the book, everyone in suits. My yearbook had one signature. The school drug dealer had taken it off my desk and wrote, hey punk I hope your summer sucks.
Over the weekend, I cut the grass, help my father at the hardware store he owns, and work on my article. I think of the carpenter wanting to touch my hair. My mother used to say that I could be a movie star with that hair, and then everyone would love me.
I stop in a bar that's showing football on a large rear-screen projection TV. I order a beer and eat peanuts. The bartender is a girl from high school. She was in my English class.
I remember something she wrote. It was a poem about the life of a caterpillar, how they could be part of two worlds, on the ground, and in the air. I'm about to bring that up when she asks me if I was in her math class.
It was English.
I'm sorry. Mike, right?
Oh, I'm sorry again.
I liked your poem, I say, the one about the caterpillar.
Wow, you remembered that.
She says she's going to school during the day to study horticulture. I tell her that my mother kept a garden once. That's nice, she smiles. When she asks about my plan I say that I'm taking classes at the community college and might move west to be an actor.
After that I pretend to focus on the game.
I spend two days hanging around Macy's before I see Earl. He's dressed in black. His hair is feathered back with blow dryer preciseness. I approach him as he stacks sweaters. He turns and says, hey, the writer. Just a college assignment, I tell him.
I ask how he's feeling. Like shit, he says. He has trouble getting up in the morning. A cologne cloud surrounds him and it reminds me of Pig Pen from the Charlie Brown cartoon. He says he's about to take a break and wants to buy me coffee.
We sit near a fountain. Earl holds his container with both hands, as if it was a cup of hot chocolate in winter. I tell him I need a follow up interview. He says that he came here with the married man to have coffee, their first date. The guy was scared and confused. After that, they met in motels, or a beach house the guy had rented, where they'd sit on the sand and drink Pina coladas. Then he decided he couldn't continue with two lifestyles. It was Earl's first married man.
Never again, Earl says. I knew he wouldn't leave his family. I'm a self destructive asshole.
I ask him if a guy like that goes to gay bars. Earl says married men will only go to a bar that's far away from where they live. And that's even risky. It's safer for them to go to rest stops.
He compliments my hair and says he can get me hair products. My mother used to stroke my hair, I tell him, said I could be a movie star, the new James Dean. Then I talk about her death, and how the hospital room smelled of waste because her kidneys had failed. She had a garden, I say, full of colorful vegetables, but we just let it go, my father and I, and let the ants and birds have their fill.
He asks me about the carpenter. I tell him that he's related to the pastor of our church where I used to work, and that we talk about sex.
Has he come on to you?
No, but he's made it obvious that he'd like to. He knows I like girls.
We watch the people walk by. Shopping bags and ice cream.
I like too many guys, says Earl. It's like I need a back up in case I get hurt, which is all the fucking time.
I think that's what I'm afraid of.
I walk him back to the store. Good luck with your article, he says. Come back and visit.
On the drive home I think about George and Mary from the movie, my father and mother at a dance, Earl and his lover on the beach.
At home, in my room, I take out Playboy magazine and run my finger over the paper image of a blonde. A photo of her in the woods. Underneath is a caption that says she doesn't like make-up and still enjoys board games. I take out my scissors, trim it, and place the photo behind the plastic frame in my wallet.
In class, the teacher sits cross-legged on a desk and smokes a cigarette. He wants to hear the places we've chosen to write about. We go around the room. A library. Funeral parlor. Diner. A florist. A gay bar, I say.
He tells us to work in a theme and get good quotes.
After class, I walk out with the girl who's writing about a funeral parlor. She asks me if I have an angle for my story. I tell her I haven't really thought about it. Maybe the way gay people are perceived, or how being secretive effects them. She wants to find out if people who work at a funeral parlor are less afraid of death. I wonder that myself, I tell her.
On the drive home, I stop at a florist and buy a bouquet of carnations. The smell of chilled flowers makes me think of the funeral home where my mother was laid out, how the undertakers would open the door and greet you with that moribund appearance. If they were comfortable around death you couldn't really tell, but the way I saw it was that it didn't really matter what people thought about death. Being alive was the hard part.
I leave the flowers in my car and join my father for dinner. Pork chops. He likes to cook and play his eight track tapes. Perry Como and Ray Price, always singing about heartbreak.
He shocks me by saying that he's thinking of retiring soon, and might want to relocate to Florida, where his sister lives. He says that I could transfer down there. I didn't like Florida. I wanted to watch the seasons change.
After dinner I take out my electric typewriter and type "The Gay Bar" on top of my paper. It wasn't any different from a disco. It all came down to orgasm, and love, and who you wanted to share them with. The carpenter said that he enjoyed orgasms with both sexes, but he would never settle down with a woman. The urge for sex was too strong and he wanted the freedom to choose.
People never talked about orgasm. The carpenter and I would share masturbation fantasies. But it wasn't something that could be discussed with your parents, or in group conversations. You could talk about anger and gossip and fear, but you couldn't discuss the thing that brought you the greatest physical pleasure.
I drive over to the bar where the girl from English works. I keep the flowers at my side. She smiles and says, hey, you got me thinking about that poem, so I started writing.
Then she notices the flowers. On your way to see someone special, she asks. I hesitate, not knowing if this is the right time. Then her eyes flick to something behind me, and a voice says, excuse me, and a guy leans in and kisses her on the lips. He smells of beer and cigarettes and asphalt. Overtime, he tells her.
After a beer, the guy says he's going home to shower.
I finish my drink and leave my wallet open on the bar, with the Playboy face on display.
So that's the lucky girl, she says.
It's our anniversary, I tell her. I close my wallet and say good-bye. I drive around, the windows down, the stereo loud. Jim Morrison howls at the night.
At Macy's I'm told that Earl hasn't been in for a couple of days. I wonder if he's still in bed. Then I get a bad feeling. I ask for his address. The sales manager says its against policy but I tell her that I'll fail the course if I don't finish my interview.
Earl lives in a basement apartment on a quiet street. There's no answer at his door so I knock on the front door of the house. The owner tells me that Earl committed suicide. Sleeping pills. He was buried yesterday, he says.
In the office of the cemetery I'm told where Earl's plot is. I take the dried up carnations from the back seat of my car. A few minutes later I toss them onto fresh dirt, and drive home.
In class we read our stories. I read aloud about the disco, with its swirling sparkling ball and strobe light breaking everything around me into fragments, and how I'd try to read the expression on the face of the girl I was dancing to Donna Summer with, an expression that would disappear for a moment in the blink of the strobe and then reappear, and I'd wonder if I missed an important frame from that look, a clue to how she was feeling about me.
Later she tells me that she likes to garden and play board games and drink Pina coladas on the beach, and when we come together, our orgasm becomes a giant yellow rose that folds over, and protects us.
Peter DeMarco teaches high school English and film in New York City. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Prime Number Magazine, Pindeldyboz, Hippocampus Magazine, Verbsap, SmokeLong Quarterly, Dogzplot, and Cadillac Cicatrix.