I got the call around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning. I picked up my clothes from where I had dropped them a few hours earlier and put them on, no time for a shower. They still reeked of cigarette smoke from last night’s Halloween celebration at the bar.
All of the regulars had come out. Jimmy was a countess. Denny was Marie Antoinette, and his powdered wig looked fabulous against his porcelain skin and icicle eyes. The drag queens came as drag queens; every day is Halloween for a drag queen. Tiffany LaSalle toted her fire batons onto the dance floor and did a number in her bustier. Champagne Kisses shot daggers out of her eyes at Tiffany for upstaging her. Upstaging Michelle is tough considering her six-and-a-half feet frame sans size thirteen pumps.
Halloween is gay Christmas. We all come out to be someone we are inside rather than someone we are not. Every day is Halloween when you’re gay in rural Ohio. We learned to go underground, be someone we aren’t if we want to survive the taunts: Smear the queer. Hey, faggot. We wear ripped jeans and plaid flannel and trucker hats like the rest of the rednecks. For us, that’s the masquerade, though those nasty rags are hardly worthy of a ball. On Halloween we flaunt the real deal—the people we really are or want to be—elegant plumage.
Paul was there, holding down his corner of the bar as he did every Saturday before Doug died, tossing back rum and Diet Cokes, and working on a good buzz. He was dressed in the faded Levi cords and plaid flannel shirt he always wore. He had come with his friend Jackie, a friend he came out with a lot when she was home from school. She had worked with him and then they both went off to college together for a few years until he dropped out to move in with Doug. Steve was tending bar that night and had thrown a pink feather boa around his neck because Steve said everyone had to have a costume on Halloween. Occasionally one of the queens would drag him out under the mirror ball and you could smell them snorting the poppers that made the place smell like dirty feet between dance numbers.
Paul was cute, but it was still too soon after Doug died, so I stood at the bar and watched him dancing. I like the young stuff. Sure, half of the time I am probably kidding myself, I know they are hustling the trolls like me, but it helps to forget I could have been myself if I had gone to college and moved to San Francisco or New York, instead of getting married and trying to fit in, having kids, then running away when I realized it was the wrong life. I didn’t run far. I am still stuck in this town, less than a mile down the road from my ex-wife, and we share custody of the kids. San Francisco and New York are not so appealing anymore, anyway. Denny just got back from doing a show on the west coast. He said you could shoot a cannon through the club and not hit a soul. And the bathhouse scene closed down months ago. Everyone is spooked there.
Everyone is spooked here, too. Not quite as many people come out these days.
Doug was the first, a little more than a month ago. We didn’t have a clue. Navigator said Doug called him and said he wasn’t feeling well. He had a cold and couldn’t breathe. Navigator went over to his place and said Doug couldn’t catch his breath between coughing fits. Doug said something wasn’t right and asked Navigator to take his magazines and letters away. He told Navigator he didn’t want his parents to find them. Navigator told him not to be silly; he just had a bad cold and would be on his feet in no time. The next Saturday I walked into the bar. No DJ, no jukebox, just people talking and the sound of drinks being filled. “Who died?” I joked to Steve. He slung the newspaper across the bar to me. “Doug,” Steve said. The front page screamed the news; the headline said he was Ohio’s first recorded case. That had everyone worried.
We tried to go back to normal, but we weren’t sure that was possible. We were fighting the unknown; even the experts didn’t know what it was or what caused it. And the Moral Majority protesters and the ministers and even the president said we were anything but normal. A local doctor spoke on the radio and television shows and warned against shaking hands or kissing us. The editorial page was filled with angry letters calling us freaks. Our neighbors, people we waved to and helped to shovel their driveways or saw at the post office, wrote that we deserved to die; we’d brought it on ourselves.
“The show must go on,” Denny announced a few weeks before, tacking signs up for the party. Still, we couldn’t shake it. It wouldn’t be the same without Doug. He danced like a machine, and no one was immune to his charms. He had everyone on the floor at sometime during the night. What nobody said was that Doug also had someone in his bed at some time during the year.
At the end of the party, we were all a little buzzed when Steve got on the loudspeaker. “This is the last call…last call…last call for alcohol.” Paul’s face was red and he was slurring his words a bit. People gathered their coats slowly, reluctant to leave, huddled behind the security door that kept the thugs out. We needed to be together, talk about what was happening. We walked over to Bob Evans for breakfast in groups and loaded up on coffee and greasy eggs and recapped the night, laughing too loud and hard just to hear what laughter sounded like. The Ford workers that came in after second shift stared; I suppose maybe some had never seen a man dressed as a countess or Marie Antoinette. The food and coffee did the trick and sopped up the booze. We got up, said our goodbyes, and headed home.
There are no streetlights on the country roads. I rolled down the car windows so the cool air would hit my face and keep me alert as I watched for deer. That morning I was extra careful; a drizzle had started falling under the shroud of heavy fog, and my breath, smelling like Bud and eggs and hash browns, hung in the air in crystals. It would freeze soon. I pulled into the drive at four. The kids’ cars were gone; they were staying at their mom’s this weekend. I had been surprised at how well they took things for being teenaged boys. Inside, I was asleep within minutes. I am not young like Paul, and the late nights wear me out.
Two hours later, the sun was still hiding when the call came. I was one of four on call. The dispatcher said someone had come upon a body slumped in a car pulled off in a cornfield on the corner of Berlin Road. I’d come home that way just a few hours earlier, seen no sign of anyone. Probably a drunk spun out. Hopefully he’d just passed out or banged his head.
I drove the two miles to the fire station. Andy and Jim were waiting, Joey was always last to arrive. He had the furthest to drive since he had moved in with his mother on the other side of town. We waited in the ambulance, turned on the heat to cut the damp, not talking much at that early hour. Joey pulled in a few minutes later and we took off. Andy decided to wait until we got through town to put on the siren since nobody was on the road.
Five and a half miles later, just before the railroad tracks where someone had slapped up a pair of cheap duplexes, we came to the car. I recognized the gold Datsun right away.
“That’s odd. He hadn’t seemed that drunk,” I said aloud, to no one, not realizing.
“What?” Andy asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
Joey was the first to get to the car.
“It’s not a DUI,” he yelled back to us as we were grabbing the stretcher and our kits.
“Come again?” Andy asked.
“Not a DUI!” Joey said, and turned away from us. He ran towards the street, stumbled, and fell to his knees in a clump of weeds before he heaved up his mother’s home-cooked pot roast from the night before.
I smelled it before I saw it. The back window had been blown out. Bits of Paul’s bone and brains and all of that blood. So much blood. The shotgun he used was splayed across his lap. I tried not to look at what had been him, and opened the passenger door to grab the note on the seat, addressed “To Mom.” Stray feathers from the boa caught the cold morning’s breath and floated, their pink and the red of his blood the only color in the gloom. I didn’t have to read the note to know what it must have said. Paul had been with Doug and quite a few others.
Andy and Jim were right behind me. I told them, “Put on your surgical masks and make sure your gloves are tight. Things have changed.”