Hugh Blanton, "Almost 2000 Years Ago"

            It was one of those weird Sunday afternoons when you're worn-out tired and should be home resting for the upcoming week, but some impulsion compels you to your favorite bar. Wendell walked into The Caliph and despite the near total darkness inside (the only lighting in the place was provided by the television screens behind the bar) left his purple tinted sunglasses on. His sable black waist-length fur coat and snow white scarf around his neck elicited the response he wanted as he stood in line at the serving station—someone at the other side of the room barking like a dog chasing a bitch in heat. A couple of weekends ago he had walked into The Caliph on karaoke night just as a singer finished up and was returning the microphone. The KJ took the mic and exclaimed in a perfect imitation of George Michael, "Ladies and gentlemen—MISTER ELTON JOHN!" and pointed at Wendell coming in through the door. Wendell took a bow as the patrons applauded his look. If you can't be pretty, at least be noticeable. Wendell liked going to The Caliph, especially the attention he always got when he was there.

            Wendell knew he shouldn't be spending all this money, he'd already had to phone his parents once to send him cash in between his monthly allowance deposits. He stayed in the dorm at UCSD so he couldn't use rent payments as an excuse for running low on money. Being a freshman, he used the excuse of unexpected textbooks, but what reason would he come up with next if he needed to? He would come up with something, but for now he needed a drink, company, and attention. Wendell ordered a cosmo, the Z-stem glass with the triangular bell filled with red liquid was the perfect drink for the flamboyant man about town. He took a seat by himself at a table in the middle of the lounge within sight of the barker across the room and crossed his legs at the knee, bouncing his suede ankle bootie, and sipped his cosmo.

            The entertainer was a bad piano player and a worse singer. Perhaps that's why he had the afternoon gig—warming up for the professionals that would be playing later that night. He certainly made it obvious why the term "lounge singer" was a pejorative. The violinist that Wendell had met on campus as she left Chamber Orchestra class was someone who had talent, real musical talent. She'd promised to meet him at the movies that morning for the early showing of The Matrix Reloaded, but he waited in the lobby of Landmark Cinema and she never showed up. Maybe it was just as well, he was terribly hungover after the party at Steadman's last night. Steadman always had the best dope, and then on top of that Carlos started mixing Patron tequila margaritas. There was a steady procession of people in and out of Steadman's apartment, they had all been introduced to Wendell, but he didn't remember any of their names. Carlos lived in Steadman's apartment as Steadman's latest boyfriend, but he'd already been there three months, an eternity in Steadman's relationships. Wendell was the last guest when Steadman tackled Carlos on the couch and stuck his hand down the front of Carlos' pants. "I'm not your boy toy!" Carlos exclaimed. Carlos seemed to be genuinely upset, at least in Wendell's extremely drunk and stoned mind, so Wendell bailed.

            "The gentleman in the corner would like to buy your next drink," the waiter said to Wendell. Oh, please. He hadn't even been in there five minutes and here comes the come-ons. At least it wasn't Barking Man. Wendell twisted in his seat to and raised his drink in thanks to the gentleman in the corner. And he did look like a gentleman. Sitting alone there in his loafers, dress slacks and dress shirt, gray hair neatly trimmed and smiling pleasantly. Tanned, too. After Wendell finished his first cosmo and the sponsored drink arrived, he again turned and lifted his glass in toast. This time the gentleman came over.

            "I hope no baby seals were sacrificed for that coat," he said.

            "No, maybe just some North American Black Bears," Wendell said.

            "Oh, so you're a bear, huh?"

            "Oh, god no."

* * *

            One hour earlier as Anthony Brinkley slowly shuffled into The Caliph he told himself he would only have one drink, listen to some live piano music, and leave. He could have left after the first half-dozen missed notes without even finishing his drink, but he was wrecked. He leaned his head back on the banquette, closed his eyes, and the images of his weekend flickered into his mind. Friday afternoon at Club San Diego bathhouse with Ronaldo. The bathhouse wasn't really Anthony's thing, but Ronaldo loved it—the hustlers, the E being passed out like candy, nude men in and around the pool, disco music blasting. Then across the street to Martinis Above 4th for happy hour; $5 martinis from 5 to 6. And even after happy hour, when the martinis went back to their regular $15, they stayed for several more rounds, nearly hooking up with another couple before begging off and leaving for a late dinner at a Greek cafe.

            Saturday morning he woke up in complete misery at Ronaldo's apartment, the sun already out and trash trucks thundering in the alley. "I have the perfect cure for you," Ronaldo said. "Brunch at Hamburger Mary's!" They took a taxi over, Ronaldo's car had been left over by the bathhouse last night. Anthony was barely able to hold it down, the whole greasy food thing as a cure for hangovers is a myth perpetuated by young people with stomachs strong enough for it. Anthony had just turned 62 and the hangovers were doing their best to convince him it was time to give up partying like a young man. But he did enjoy being with Ronaldo in the scene (Ronaldo being an extroverted people-person) and the bottomless mimosas did cure the hangover. And fortified them; they had to make their Saturday afternoon visit with Jerome.

            At 80 years old and confined to a wheelchair, Jerome had emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver. He still smoked and drank, no need in quitting now. The days of all-night club hopping were long gone, now he sat in front of his television all day. He likes this new television show Queer as Folk, a much more realistic representation of queer life than Will and Grace. He leaves his front door unlocked so visitors can knock and enter. Anthony and Ronaldo walked in just past noon. "Well, there you are," Jerome said. "I thought I was going to have to make my Bloody Mary myself!" He struggled to get a cigarette out of its pack.

            "If you're going to smoke, at least take the oxygen tube off first," Ronaldo said while Anthony started mixing Bloodys in the kitchen.

            "Don't be bitchy," Jerome said as Ronaldo gently removed the tube from Jerome's nose and set it aside.

            "I'll turn off the oxygen machine so you don't blow us all to hell with your cigarette," Ronaldo said.

            "I haven't blown anything in years, my dear," Jerome said.

            "How have you been feeling lately," Anthony said, setting his Bloody on the tray next to the wheelchair and handing another to Ronaldo.

            "I feel like I look," Jerome said. "Like a shriveled up old queen waiting for her turn to die." He coughed after taking a drag on his cigarette, but recomposed himself quickly. "Listen dear," he said to Anthony. "I want you to take my entire folio home with you."

            "What in the world for?" Anthony said. "My goodness Jerome..."

            "Oh, please Anthony. Stop. I already have one foot in the grave. Frankly I can't wait to get out of here. Take care of them, find them a home." Jerome had a folio of hundreds, maybe thousands of plays he'd written since he was a teenager. Only a few had ever been produced, and only in small theaters. "You'd be perfect as a lead for a few of them, if you'd just get off that procrastination horse and get back into the theater. You think you've got an endless supply of tomorrows and then you wake up one day sitting in a wheelchair with a shawl over your shoulders." He waved to his stacks of plays in the corner of the room.

            The plays landed with a thud on top of Anthony's credenza and he laid down for a nap. He needed one after the five Bloody Marys at Jerome's. Of course, Ronaldo woke him up only a few hours later for Saturday night clubbing. That's why this Sunday he'd escaped alone to the Caliph, to take a break from Ronaldo and the scene. So why then was he buying this young man in a Liberace coat a drink?

* * *

It was like being the prettiest girl in school. All this attention he got from men. The one right here buying him a drink looked a little old, but Wendell wasn't shallow. Older men were interesting conversationalists. Philosophy. Poetry. Especially poetry. He'd taken it in high school, and now at UCSD. It made him feel smarter than everyone else. If he met someone who knew who Ovid was, he became especially excited. Wendell wanted to write poetry so scandalous it would get him banished like Ovid, but poetry was no longer considered important enough to get anyone banished. Ovid's words written 2000 years ago were still being read today and Wendell was delighted to think that if he wrote well enough someone would be reading him 2000 years from now, too.

            Mercifully, the piano player announced he was taking a five minute break and the conversation flowed a little easier without the dinging of flubbed notes and off key singing. Anthony downed his drink and asked Wendell if he could by him another. "You twisted my arm," Wendell said. "But just one more. I have to get up early tomorrow and read Lord Byron in front of my class. I've been told I sound like an amateur doing Shakespeare when I read poetry, so I want to get up early and practice before going in." Then the atmosphere changed, the piano player finished his gig, the waiters and bartenders switched shifts, and they remained at their table, Anthony buying more cosmos for Wendell, Wendell continuing to allow his arm to be twisted. Wendell was excited to meet a real actor; Anthony had been cast in major roles in several plays, and as the night shift entertainment began to take the stage they both realized how drunk they were and how late it was, and they called it a night.

            Wendell walked up Fifth Avenue trying to remember how far up the bus stop was and if it was even running this late on a Sunday night. A silver Avalon pulled up beside him, Anthony rolled down his window and asked Wendell if he wanted a ride. Swaying, Wendell walked to the passenger side and got in.

            "How about a nightcap?" Anthony asked.

            "I'm totally wasted already," Wendell said.

            "I'll take that as a yes," Anthony said, and took a right on Robinson Avenue, away from the campus, pretty damn wasted himself.

* * *

The building was new, composed of eight two-story townhouse condominiums. The man parked his car on the steeply slanted driveway in front of the underground garage. They both stumbled on the steep driveway and the man fumbled with his key in the door lock—he must really be fucked up. He finally got it unlocked, and holding the door open, directed the boy in with "After you." It was a nice condo, impeccably clean and decorated with modern artwork. Wendell was much more tense now that he was alone with him and considered leaving right then.

            "Have you ever heard Sarah Vaughan?" the man asked, putting a CD in the tray.

            "I don't think so," Wendell said.

            "Poets should listen to jazz singers," the man said, hitting the play button and then going to the kitchen to make drinks.

            The voice was heavenly, and Wendell collapsed into a chair still contemplating leaving. The man extended a highball glass to him and he drank without even asking what it was. Whiskey and Coke, he guessed after downing nearly half of it in one gulp. He was grateful that the man took a seat on the sofa on the other side of the room. Wendell felt an earthquake underneath him, or something like an earthquake, and he sat his drink on the end table and let himself to the floor before he had a chance to pass out. Wendell let his eyes close. He was finally bombed enough to put the violinist out of his mind.

* * *

Is the kid out? Anthony Brinkley was wondering if the kid was faking, there wasn't the telltale asthmatic wheezing or snoring of a passed out drunk. He picked up the letter from Jerome on the coffee table. Here we are on the verge of a new millennium and Jerome still didn't have an internet connection or an email account. Just a one page letter from last week thanking Anthony for delivering his new oxygen tanks and taking back his empties. Something about words on paper seemed more poignant these days.

            When Anthony was 21, only a few years older than the kid lying in his floor right now, he'd auditioned for Four Winds where Jerome was casting director. Anthony did not get the part, but Jerome told him what his weaknesses were (strengths, too) and offered to coach him. That was the start of their more or less monogamous relationship that lasted until Anthony was 46, which was coincidentally around the time the AIDS epidemic was starting. Jerome, who miraculously never contracted HIV, watched as his subsequent lovers became terribly ill and died. Anthony and Jerome became even closer after that, though the romantic part of their relationship was gone. Terror and lust just don't mix.

            Anthony knelt next to the kid, still supine, eyes closed, but still not snoring. He reached down and undid the kids belt buckle and fly; Calvin Klein briefs! The boy was flaccid, but Anthony dove in anyway. However, the boy jumped up, zipped up, rebuttoned, and strode out the door. Damn.

* * *

Wendell knew the night would end up here. Hell, he made damn sure it would. So why was he walking away? Walking in the cold dark night, miles away from his dorm. It would take him hours to get home. He'd make sure to get a cell phone, just one more thing to pester his mom and dad about. He was walking away because he was not in control. Not in control of his own body, just like he wasn't in control during the writers' retreat when his English teacher Mr. Davis climbed into bed with him and Wendell felt that wet mouth under the covers then like he did tonight. But he offered no resistance then. In fact, he enjoyed going along with it, if not the "it" specifically, but the "it" of doing something sneaky and privileged. It's just that now he wanted control back. And quite honestly he didn't like his fur coat and suede ankle booties, either.

            It was 3 AM when he made it back to the dorm. A note was taped to his door, "Sorry I was late. Where did you go? Let's try for next week. I really want to see that movie! Pop by my dorm tomorrow before class. Cheryl." Maybe the violinist hadn't stood him up after all.

* * *

What exactly happened? Oh well. Maybe the kid really did have to practice for his poetry reading tomorrow. Anthony poured another drink, lit up a cigarette and called Jerome.

            "Hello?"

            "Jerome! How are you tonight?"

            "The same as any other night at 1 in the morning, dear. Sleeping."

            "A most wonderful thing happened tonight," Anthony said.

            "That's nice dear, but I doubt it's wonderful enough to wake me up at 1 in the morning. Are you drunk again?"

            "Well, not that drunk. Look who's talking."

            "Touche."

            "Well don't you want to hear about my wonderful night?"

            "At 1 in the morning? Frankly, no my dear."

            "I picked up a boy tonight. College freshman. Drinking at The Caliph."

            "And?"

            "Well, nothing happened. He left just now."

            "So you called to tell me nothing happened. At 1 in the morning."

            "Jerome, he seemed like a nice boy, a little on the flamboyant side..."

            "No more, dear. It's late. I need my beauty sleep. Love you. Hanging up now."

            Anthony turned off the CD player and the lights. He drank and smoked alone in the dark.

* * *

Cheryl's dorm room door was open, he tapped on the frame. Even though Wendell had brushed his teeth as soon as he got up, there was still a hint of sourness in his mouth. Hopefully not enough to emit morning breath that Cheryl would notice.

            "There you are, Wendell! Where did you go yesterday? I went to the Landmark but you weren't there."

            "I left after show time, I figured you weren't coming."

            "Wait, it wasn't like a date, was it? I thought a bunch of your friends were coming."

            Wendell had made it easy for her to get that impression because he didn't want to seem like he was actually asking her out on a date when he asked her out. He shrugged.

            "Just got my espresso machine yesterday. Would you like a cup?"

            While she had her back to him he studied the photos on the wall, pictures of her at different ages playing her violin: her in a grade school orchestra, a high school orchestra, at her mom's kitchen table. Another pic in formal dress holding her violin in front of a theater, her mother beside her. Was she one of these child prodigies under immense pressure from her parents? With music, you played it and then it disappeared, unless it was recorded. But a recording of music is like a translation of poetry. It's unavoidable that something will be lost. Cheryl handed him a tiny cup of espresso.

            "Are your fingers callused?" Wendell asked her. "You know, from the violin?" He mimed fingers on a neck board.

            "Oh sure. But nothing like guitar calluses. Wanna see?" She held out her left hand.

            "Can't even see them," Wendell said.

            "Can I ask you a question?" Cheryl asked.

            "Sure."

            "It's kinda personal."

            "I don't mind. Go ahead."

            "Are you gay?"

            "No."

            "I was just wondering is all."

            "No! I wouldn't have asked you out if I was."

            "Its okay, I don't mind if you are."

            "Well, I'm not."

            "It's cool. You're kinda weird. In a good way. I like weird people. You still want to catch Matrix Reloaded? I hear it's good," Cheryl said.

            "Sure. When's good for you?"

            "The early Saturday show. And this time I'll show up on time."

            "Okay. Let's do it. Saturday it is."

            They said goodbye and went to their first classes. Wendell would be reciting Lord Byron in just a few minutes, but he hoped the poem he was composing in his head right now about a child prodigy violinist wouldn't evaporate before he could get himself to a blank page.

 

THE END

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Hugh Blanton is the author of A Home to Crouch In. He has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, The Scarlet Leaf Review, As It Ought To Be, and other places. He can be reached on Twitter @HughBlanton5