My short story “The Away Team” was one of three finalists for the 2010 Fulton Prize offered by The Adirondack Review, and is now online in their Winter 2010 issue. TAR is a well-regarded online literary quarterly published by Black Lawrence Press. This story is a chapter from my novel-in-progress. Spoiler alert: a character dies. Here’s the beginning:
The Away Team
They were my friends and I hated them. Four-thirty in the morning and Tomas was drunk, draped like a crumpled dress on the back seat of the van we’d borrowed from his boyfriend’s catering business. “It’s an Irish funeral,” he’d defended himself, to which Stan returned the predictable retort that Tomas wasn’t Irish, sparing me the effort of opening my mouth and releasing whatever sharp fragments of words still remained inside me. Then I saw Frank.
“You are not—you are not wearing that,” I groaned. His ensemble was complete, from his black patent pumps, to his Mamie Eisenhower belted black dress with pinhead polka dots, to the veiled pillbox hat perched on his crow-black waves of teased hair. Miss Anna Bollocks had stepped out of the nightclub shadows and was evidently expecting applause for deigning to wait with us in this alley where the West Village restaurant owners parked their delivery trucks.
“He loved me this way,” Frank replied, in Miss Anna’s voice, which was husky as his own but with the extra echo of an actor projecting to the cheap seats.
“You’re not the widow.” All my bitterness was turned on Frank. Hesitantly he unpinned the hat from his wig, sidled up to me and placed it on my head. I knocked it off and stomped on it. Only then did I see the kindness and pain in his mascara-crusted eyes. He’d given me what he had, like a child offering his teddy bear.
“Julian.” Stan touched my arm, a mild reproach. I wondered how long I could hold out without asking him for a Valium. At the very least I’d have to wait the six interminable hours it would take to drive from Manhattan to Pittsburgh, so I could spell Stan and Peter at the wheel. Frank had put himself out of commission with this getup. A drag queen driving a bakery truck is a temptation no highway patrolman should be expected to resist. Five miles over the speed limit and we’d become the clip du jour on Fox News.
Still, I apologized. “I’m going to need a new hat,” Frank pouted, but without real resentment. I helped him reattach the veil to his stiff pompadour, using the brooch as a sort of barrette. It was all a lost cause, anyhow. My nice black suit—Brooks Brothers, nothing too fashion-forward—wouldn’t make us any more beloved. They knew who we were. That’s why we hadn’t been invited.
Peter, the last member of our delegation, pulled up alongside the van in his compact Toyota. When he stepped out, I saw his eyes were red-rimmed and tired already. He’d meant to drive down from Albany last night but his boss, rookie Assemblyman Shawn Defalque, had kept him late at a staff meeting. Peter hugged me first and I welcomed the familiar collapse into his arms, till my body sensed that for once, he wouldn’t be able to hold me up.
In better days, Peter would get on our case for being flamers. He was the kind of queer that straights liked, the kind they didn’t notice, at least till he said what was on his mind, which he usually tried to do through someone else. Now he showed zero reaction to the circus in the alley, even when he saw the soot-smudged white van with the legend “Christopher Street Treats” over a sliced-open cherry pie. All he said to Tomas was, “Is it safe to leave my car in this spot?”
Tomas pulled himself upright with a flourish. “Safe? You lived in New York all your life and you want to know if it’s safe? Nothing is safe. Parking is…like God. It is a mystery.”
“Thank you, Stephen Hawking, now move your drunk ass so Peter can take a nap,” I said. Tomas climbed into the front passenger seat. Peter stretched out on the fold-out seat at the rear while Stan and Frank huddled together in the row behind me. The height difference between them was more noticeable when Miss Anna presented herself. Eye-level with her shoulder pads, Stan could have been the henpecked husband from an old comic strip. That was the problem right there. Take a picture of us, destroyers of manhood, pie-eating clowns, speeding down the highway to your big steel-hammering city, to your church. To mourn.
There was no place inconspicuous to park a catering van next to Our Lady of Sorrows so we ditched it by a supermarket a few blocks away. Full sun on the asphalt, a blazing, dusty day in June. Frank brushed on another layer of face powder. Peter straightened the boxy jacket of his off-the-rack suit, which, like everything else he wore, didn’t fit as it should. A big guy, he overcompensated by buying a size he could get lost in. I should have helped him; at some point, when we were bleaching piss-stained sheets, when we were wrapping my lover’s shivering body in hot towels from the dryer, feeding him his meals through a straw, there must have been a moment when we could have turned to each other and said, “So, what are you wearing to Phil’s funeral?”
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