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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Not So Very Queer


“Sheraton,” I say, “What I like about you isn’t that you’re queer, it’s that you’re so very queer.”  And Sheraton laughs, bats false eyelashes at me and says, “Oh honey, stop.  You’re making a girl blush.”

he  double checks the wig, adjusts the falsies worn under a black bra, and asks me to zip up the sequined gown before Sheldon takes the stage as Sheraton, a drag queen performer singing show tunes and telling old vaudeville jokes.

“He… She… It…” Sheraton says to me.  “It doesn’t matter as long as you don’t call me shit.”

I watch as Sheraton passes through the beaded curtain that leads from the dressing room to the darkened back stage.  The small clitter clatter sound of the moving beads is lost in the swell of the orchestra and Sheraton begins to sing, “Never could carry a tune, never knew where to start.
You came along when everything was wrong and put a song in my heart…”

I smile as the lights come up on the Sway Club’s stage and Sheraton is there shimmering in the light, “Dear when you smiled at me, I heard a melody. It haunted me from the start. Something inside of me started a symphony. Zing! Went the strings of my heart…”

The audience applauds and cheers, but my attention is called away by a voice behind me.

“You shouldn’t use that word.”

I turn.  It’s Barry, the nightclub’s janitor. I’ve been here dozens of times with Sheraton, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard Barry speak.  He’s an older man, keeping busy after retirement.  He nods and waves and goes about the work of sweeping floors, emptying trash cans, but rarely speaks.

“I’m sorry.  What?”

“Queer.  You shouldn’t use the word queer. “There’s a little falter in his voice as he says it the second time and the syllable is swallowed up in the music on stage.  I am about to respond when he raises a hand to stop me.

“I know it’s fashionable nowadays for the younger crowd; they think they can reclaim the word.  But …” His pause is long and heavy and the silence between us is only slightly marred by the sounds of the performance. I pull a chair away from the lighted mirrored dressing table and sit down in front of Barry. He leans on the handle of his broom.

“…but maybe some words are just too hateful and ugly to reclaim.”  There’s a glimmer of moisture in his eyes now, but he won’t cry.  He withdraws a cloth handkerchief from his pocket and dabs and the corner of eyes and blows his nose, then carefully folds the handkerchief and replaces it. 

There is something here that I have missed.  I can see it in the deep cut of the frown lines between his eyes, and hear it in the hitch in his voice. Without realizing it, I’ve just poked at old wounds, wounds forty or fifty years old, wounds that haven’t yet closed over.  

Who was it that hurled this word at him? Was it a classmate?  A family member?  Was he beaten by a police officer or a member of the clergy with this word?  “Fag!” “Fairy!”  “Homo!”

“Queer!” 

Queer. Strange. Odd. Out of alignment.  Outside the boundaries of normal human society.  Few individuals chose to live forever outside society as a stranger.  How many are forced out? How many are driven away? Was Barry cut off from his community by this word?  He has a painful story, but I don’t think he’ll tell me, not just now. 

“I’m sorry.”  My voice isn’t loud, but he hears me.


 He nods and smiles a little. Then he takes his broom and dustpan to sweep the hallway.


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