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June 3, 2016 | Nonfiction

Sleuth

Alex Ebel

Sleuth photo

There’s an episode of The Outer Limits where Alyssa Milano plays a college student that eats men whole with her vagina. I was ten or eleven around the time that it aired. It was also around that time when I first started to suspect I was gay. Purely coincidental.

I must have spent half my life until that point dressed in drag. I pranced around for hours each day with my toes tucked into the fronts of my mother’s high heels, my marker-stained, worn out boy clothes covered with one of her old one-piece bathing suits. In lieu of a wig, I’d pin down an empty pillowcase to the front of my hairline with a headband and go clacking across our clay kitchen tile acting out scenes from my favorite movies. During a Madonna phase, I’d reenact scenes from Desperately Seeking Susan. It had everything my queeny little heart desired in a film: a strong female lead, murder, mystery, seduction, and most importantly, jewelry. My mother kept a bag full of orphaned gold hoops or discarded and chipped faux pearl clip-ons specifically for me to wear during movie time. In went the tape, out came the bag. I usually picked out a mismatched set. A broken enamel seashell clipped onto my right ear lobe, a beaded peacock feather or bangle hooked carefully over the cartilage of my left. My mother always laughed about that, the way I took the needle-thin wires and clasps and hung them over the tops of my soft ears like Christmas ornaments. I followed along with the tapes, rapt,  mimicking the gestures and facial expressions of each character. I was Roberta, the homely housewife, neglected by her husband, looking for adventure. I was Susan, the loose cannon with a can-do attitude and a startlingly large collection of lace gloves. Sometimes, I was just their gal pal. Together, we were the dream team, solving mysteries, being sassy, they were my mentors, and I was the gayest little detective on the scene.

When I finally came out of the closet nearly ten years later, my mother was unphased. Her only response was a tiny smirk and the comment, “You know, Derinda? At my work? Well, she’s a lesbian.” I’m almost positive that had I asked, she would have brought out the earring bag.

***

Nearly a decade later, I shuffled through plant debris that covered my friend Dorothy’s patio. With her in tow, I listened intently to the dead leaves crunch and disintegrate beneath our bare feet as we slid across the rotting wooden deck, our toes feeling for stray nail heads and acorns. We carried boxes from her kitchen to the storage shed that sat behind a pile of pulled weeds at the end of her lawn. They were the type of boxes you might typically use for blankets and featherbeds, but each of Dorothy’s full and heavy with the weight of fireworks, leftovers from her job as a saleswoman the previous summer. Bottle rockets and Roman candles, tin ovals with blades that spun and screamed and smoked, red and purple marble-shaped bombs with names like Screaming Mimi or The Scorcher. The more elaborate the packaging, the more dull-witted the corresponding names for what was inside. I side-stepped past a stack of boxes full of something labeled Scarface.

“I can see why some of these weren’t big sellers.” I said as I wove a path towards the shed.

“Most of them are the same item, they just give them different names and packaging. You’d be surprised at some of the shit they try to sell in other states, it’s all just a bunch of exploding boobs and dicks.” Dorothy stopped, then turned back to me still holding a box labeled Flirting With Greatness. “Oh my god, I forgot to tell you. There has been a blowjob,” she whispered through a clenched underbite, “that is unaccounted for.” She said it as though she were checking off of some global inventory of sexual acts, and something had been misplaced, or given to the wrong person.

“What? Is that in one of the boxes in the kitchen?”

“Shut up, I mean a real blowjob, Davis...” she set her box down on the canvas deck chair between us, pretending to check behind her as though her neighbors might be listening, “and Gay Billy.”

“No fucking way,” I dropped my box of Crop Dusters onto the deck with a thud, “you’re kidding?” We had met Davis at a dinner party two months prior, celebrating Dorothy’s return as well as the opening of a new restaurant in the Irish Channel of New Orleans. Davis had been in charge of designing and building the furniture, then wiring and installing lamps that hung from the cypress beams that spanned the length of the dining room. He was admired for his work. People loved the way the light passed through the rippled glass of the antique window panes that he had cleverly fashioned into chandelier glass. They loved the way the sheen of the waxed oak tables reflected that light, the way it seemed to warm an otherwise sparsely decorated room. They loved his calloused hands and his strong forearms. They loved his thick Alabama accent. Bearded, burly, he was the epitome of southern charm. He said sir and ma’am, he stood up from his seat when a woman entered the room. If pressed, he could probably fight a bear for you.

“Not if my sources are correct.” she smiled and bounced the tips of her fingers together with splayed hands like a cartoon villain.

“What sources? You don’t have any sources!”

“Promise not to tell?” Dorothy pulled her long blonde hair back and wrapped it into a knot, pulling a green Whole Foods rubber band from her wrist with her teeth and fastening her hair in place.

“You’re going to pull your hair out trying to take that out.”

“Just hush, and promise!”

“Cross my heart.”

“Get this, I heard it from Gay. Billy.” A look of satisfaction crossed Dorothy’s face, she leaned onto the chair and raised an unlit cigarette from her shirt pocket.

“You heard this from Gay BIlly? Dorothy, there’s no way that’s true, Davis isn't gay. He’s too butch.”

“Well,” Dorothy said skeptically, “he may not be totally gay. It was one of those, too drunk to drive home scenarios, supposedly they had a little sleepover.”

“Where?” I asked incredulously. “Billy’s efficiency above the bar? I’m so sure.”

 “All I know is Emma said she saw Davis the next day and he seemed like he was in a fuss. And then she ran into Billy at Parasol’s and he told her.”

“Oh well if that isn’t living proof I don’t know what is. I’m surprised she isn’t still talking to him.” I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking about how many times Dorothy, Emma and I had become trapped in hour long conversations with Billy about the most mundane topics. He once brought cookies to the bar he lived below and then rattled off the entire recipe verbatim when I asked what kind they were. “Chocolate chip” wasn’t a Gay Billy answer, you needed to know where the flour was from and how long the dough sat in the fridge.

The first time we met him was at The Golden Lantern, he came storming downstairs into the bar and demanded twenty dollars from the bartender, announcing to everyone, “I’m fixin’ to go get some weed! Anybody want some weed?” Dorothy laughed a little too loudly and he came over to introduce himself, holding out massive set of ringed fingers, clunky signets and opal. They must have been heavy, based on how severely his wrist was bent. “Charmed,” he hissed, “I’m Gay Billy.” That got a laugh out of all three of us, but eventually that’s just how we came to know him, Gay Billy: Queen of the Golden Lantern. It was a fitting title, the very ghost of Tennessee Williams himself couldn’t out-gay Gay Billy. Even as a considerably seasoned gay man myself, I couldn’t help but feel as though he had something to teach me. He was older, but not quite old. He floated, somewhere between decades and ages, a shapeshifter. One night he might be a leather daddy, other nights he’d be serving up 70’s roller rink realness, but some nights, when the mood struck him, he was something else entirely, something unnamable. He was an amalgamation of different stories and lives. He was a boy who grew up in Meridian, Mississippi. He was a drag queen with a drug problem in Atlanta. He was an eccentric barfly with a fan base and an apartment in the French Quarter.

Excavating the truth from Gay Billy was often a chore, though always a welcome one. We learned quickly of his habit of creating information for the sake of a story. The way he could make a five second list of driving directions turn into a 45 minute epic about the time Tootie from “The Facts of Life” ran over his foot with a shopping cart “in that very same grocery store.”

 “Consider the source, Dorothy. Billy’s not exactly the next Deepthroat.”

“Isn’t he?”

 “Oh, shut up! He told you Janet Jackson asked him out on a date!”

“That could have happened!” Dorothy countered, “It was the 90’s! He’s an attractive man.”

“He wears false eyelashes.”

“Well,” Dorothy flicked ashes onto the ground and dropped her cigarette into a glass of water she had brought out that morning but neglected to drink, “I guess we’ll just have to find out for ourselves at dinner tonight. Put on your detective heels, because Davis is coming over.”

***

“He did it.” Dorothy’s roommate Emma said matter-of-factly while bare-handedly mashing an unripe avocado into a bowl of salad. “That whole ‘howdy partner’ schtick has gotta be an act. He’s overcompensating.”

The three of us stood around the whitewashed island in the center of Dorothy’s kitchen, preparing for dinner guests to arrive. Dorothy squeezed limes into a measuring cup and poured the juice over Emma’s hands into the salad. “How long has he lived here again?” She asked, “Six months? And how many times has he been out on a date with a woman? With anyone? Zero. Every time we see him out at a bar he’s alone, or with John-Tyler. Fishy if you asked me” she loaded one last lime into the hand juicer.

“I just don’t know how you expect us to find anything out at this dinner. What, are you just going to ask him point blank if he’s gay? Don’t you think that’s a little invasive?” I dropped a handful of ice into my wine and listened to it crack and spin as it dissolved, “I hated it when people asked me that in high school.”

“Oh, please,” Emma said with a grin, gripping the kale just a little more harshly, “no one had to ask you that in high school.”

She had a point. Emma and I had known eachother since the second grade, and by the time we were finishing middle school, people had pretty much stopped asking questions about me. I never fully confirmed anyone’s suspicions, but my turquoise hair and gaggle of platonic girlfriends did enough of it for me. I sort of coasted through high school. The popular girls thought I was funny, so their boyfriends were nice to me, thus making them appear sensitive. I served as a sort of liaison, and it served as my protection. I couldn’t help but wonder what growing up must have been like for Davis if he actually was gay. Where exactly do little boys find their heels in rural Alabama?

In Dorothy’s kitchen, I had to remind myself that if he was gay but wasn’t ready to admit it, that it wasn’t our place to push him out of the closet, some of us need a little more time in there, to work on dance moves and stuff. “Y’all,” I said to Emma and Dorothy as I peeled off the top of the wine box, “you know we can’t like, actually say anything to him, right?”

“Well no shit.” Emma said, delicately sprinkling white sesame seeds over the top of her salad.

“Of course not!” Dorothy massaged the last of the wine out of the clear plastic bag I had removed from its box, “What do you think this is? I’m not going to invite that sweet man over here and attack him, I’m just going to get him liquored up and see if he volunteers the information. It’s kind of exciting, mysterious,” she swung the empty wine bladder while she said it, “it’s like a Goosebumps novel, ‘The Tale of the Part-Time Gay’”

“First of all,” Emma said, “I love that you think that Goosebumps qualifies as a novel. And second of all, it’s absolutely nothing like that.”

Around sunset, the sky turned pink and Dorothy’s doorbell rang. People began to file into her kitchen, bringing with them casserole dishes and bottles of wine. Everything piled onto her counters. Dusty baguettes and cheeses brought directly from the deli, served out of foggy, webbed looking pieces of plastic wrap. Rotisserie chickens and store bought guacamole, freshly opened bags of stale tortilla chips. Dinners at Dorothy’s house we’re usually more about drinking and sharing gossip. Davis arrived in the midst of the evening, and brought with him a beautiful, quiet young woman named Stella. She had just been hired as General Manager of the restaurant Davis had built, and they had met one afternoon when he was finishing up some final touches on the building. We shared greetings upon their arrival, and Emma, Dorothy and I shared a glance, a collective disappointing confirmation, our suspicions had been incorrect, dear Gay Billy must have been having another “Janet” moment.

“Well, there you have it.” Dorothy whispered in a defeated tone. She slid up next to me on the railing of her back porch. “We didn’t need to do any detective work after all.” We faced the screen door and watched her dinner guests go back and forth from room to room, laughing and talking with one another. Emma found her way outside and sat down next to us. “I have to say,” she said, her lips and teeth tinted blue with wine, “I’m a little disappointed. This would have been the most interesting thing to happen to us in months.” We sighed in unison, it had been fun while it lasted.

Stella stepped out onto the porch and smiled at the three of us. “Dorothy, why is there a giant box under your dinner table labeled “Red, White and Boom?”

“Ooh!” Dorothy hopped up from the railing, “Those are fun ones!” She pushed past Stella and came back out holding four wooden dowels. Each one a little longer than a chopstick, wrapped in rainbow colored tissue paper. Handing one to each of us, she took out her lighter and held the flame to the ends of each stick. “This is your welcome gift,” Dorothy told Stella, “I’m sure glad Davis met a nice girl like you.” The paper burned down towards our hands and fell red and black alongside a shower of champagne colored sparks onto the concrete sidewalk. Stella blushed In the light of our sparklers. “He’s sweet, isn’t he?” She paused, listening to the crackle of our party favors, “We’ve been having a really nice time together, which is unusual, I usually have the worst taste in boys.”

“Go on.” Dorothy prodded gently with a laugh.

“Oh,” she laughed back,  “it’s just the standard stuff I guess. You could sort of say I just know how to pick ‘em. That’s why it was such a nice change to meet Davis. It’s just good to meet someone so devoted.” She paused for a moment. “Two of my ex-boyfriends turned out to be gay, can you believe it? I’m starting to think I just have that sort of personality, something about me must seem especially non-threatening.”

“Well, how about that!” Dorothy said staring straight at me, all but dropping the burning stick in her hand. “I think there’s a word for it,” said Stella, “a term for a woman who dates gay men. It’s on the tip of my tongue.”

“It’s called a beard.” A male voice called out from inside the kitchen.

image: Aaron Burch


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