Monday, February 16, 2015

DADDIES DON'T BREAK--PART ONE


A TALE FOR GROWNUPS ONLY





Old stories are best, they say, and this one takes us back just a few years, to when Carlo had recently moved in with us and Cosgrove was just learning to cook. There are only two ages in American life--young and invisible--but my gay family managed to secure a place between the two, and it kept us buzzing merrily about the town, looking for the next mischief to get into.

Carlo actually had a job, short-haul moving for a small firm headquartered in Brooklyn, and one day, while talking about the work, he happened to mention that his boss was bisexual, crazily attractive in an offbeat way, and a war vet "who takes command with purple eyes."

I know story material when I hear it, and, as I got my pad and Pilot Precise V5 out, to Carlo's grin, he went on about his employer. His name was Quentin, and he came from Carlo's home town, a magical place lost in the mist between Camelot and Brigadoon but generally known as Clarence, South Dakota. In their youth, Carlo and Quentin used to get smashed on Thunderbird and "fool around" (that irritatingly ambiguous term covering everything from a little bitta to the Emperor Tiberius' orgies on Capri). And their families went to the same church. And there was a scandal of some kind. And--

"Wait a minute," I put in, trying to get all this down. "Purple eyes?"

"Check," said Carlo. "And don't try wrestling him, 'cause he'll pin you flat, and then it's Loser Pays. No gym on the guy, but he's all tall and shoulders for sure. A fair boss to the help, too, and they give him respect. But he doesn't say much."

Pen flying, I asked, "Were you boy friends?" 

"Hard to be boy friends with Quentin. The unforgiving type? About everything? Check. I owe him heavy, though. He wants to know more about New York life, where everyone's suave and the play shows are full of music and starlight. I figured you could be the information dude on that."

"Okay, but I need more. What's the center of Quentin?"

Carlo did a slow smile and a fast shrug. "He's hard to place. And likes it that way."

We were to meet for lunch a block north of the East Village Tower Records--remember records?--and something very telling happened. "There he is," said Carlo, as we approached:  very formidable, clearly, but not exactly handsome or built. If I had to categorize him by physical type, I'd call it "Lean and Unforgiving." Just then he was standing there in the moment, with a toothpick working in his mouth. Carlo raised one hand in lieu of waving; Quentin nodded.

And this is what happened: a handicapped man was chugging along behind Quentin in one of those motorized wheelchairs. This guy had a  sour look on his face, and I had the uncanny feeling that he was going to crash into Quentin, though the guy was looking right at Quentin's back. In other words: how dare you be in my way? Just for that, I'm going to run you down.

And he did. Not hard enough to knock Quentin over, but enough to stagger him. Quentin turned and confronted the guy, who said nothing with more of that sour look. That was probably worse than the assault itself. Because Quentin calmly grabbed the guy, lifted him out of his wheelchair, and dropped him in the parking lane next to the curb as the chair clonked over on its side, its wheels revolving.

The two of them kind of froze like that for a second, and the weird thing was that the many passersby just kept right on going, though they couldn't have missed what happened. No one even came over to help. And Quentin turned again and walked up to meet us without uttering a word about the incident. Carlo introduced us, and as we shook hands I looked at Quentin's eyes, which were indeed purple, with a little blotch of grey in the left one. Purple eyes! Quentin then said, cryptically--but much of what he said, I eventually discovered, was cryptic--"Now it's good." And we went off to lunch.


                                                 *********************


Life in the gay sestiere is so homogenized--monolithically liberal really, with automatic policy positions right down the party line--that we forget that midwesterners like Carlo and Quentin don't share our worldview.

For example, here's Quentin on self-defense. "Way I see it," he said, "is the aggressor has no rights. Why? He's the aggressor, why. Look. Guy comes up to you with a gun. Gimme money. You want to understand where he's been and undergone, like they say nowadays? You want to sympathize with his...yeah. Plight? Hell, no. You want him dead."

He would treat me to these little lectures on the protocols of life on his visits to my place--technically to hang with Carlo, but, I think, to strive with me as a Father Confessor with an unbeliever. In fact, I saw a lot of things the way he saw them. But Quentin was not a good listener, and he didn't differentiate among New Yorkers, unless, like Carlo, you happened to come from his part of the world first. New York had a problem, thought our Quentin. It was--this is my word--"unjudgmental."

"Then why are you here?" I once asked him.

He was silent at first. Then: "Got into trouble back home. Bore it for a while, but it didn't let up." He turned his right hand over, palm up, plain as day. "Had to get somewhere's else. New York's as else as any."

Carlo cut in with "There's liberty here." He looked at Quentin. "Right?"

"Liberty's what you make it," said Quentin. Whatever that means.

We were dining on bacon-corn bread salad, the first dish in Cosgrove's ascendance as The Little Chef. Beside the two title ingredients, the plate took in whatever else was handy--cucumber, scallions, tomatoes, and so on. I used to prepare meals like this when I was in college; the results are called "grubl." If the fridge turned out to be a rich storehouse of eatmeats, you got "regal grubl." If you had only odds and ends to work with, it was "frugal grubl."


"Meant to tell you this," said Quentin. You never knew who "you" was when he spoke, because he didn't aim the words the way the rest of us do. He didn't fix "you" with a look. He talked as if he were a Samuel Beckett character, as if no one could hear him because everybody's an inanimate object or dead. Did he train for battle and go to war this way? What about troop cohesion? After all, isn't that the singular quality of urban gay life? Our cohesion?


What Quentin meant to say was that someone was coming to stay with him from their home town. So "you" was Carlo.


"Who wants seconds?" Cosgrove asked, and we all offered him our empty plates. While he busied himself refilling them, Quentin elaborated after helping himself to one of his supply of toothpicks while staring more or less into space.


"You remember that kid Bentley? With the single mom? Always runnin' around like a jet plane and talking nonsense?"


"Sarah Wenden's boy," said Carlo. "He's coming here?"


"Didn't like his mother's new guy. Fightin' and such. So he's movin' out. Asked if he could crash with me till he gets set up. I've got the spare room, true. Mailed a letter and his photo." Cosgrove handed him his reappointed plate, and the toothpick went on standby. "He's a cute one. Charms his way around, I guess. You know how it is with cute boys. Always think they own the place."


"How does he happen to know you, though?" I asked. Quentin didn't answer; sometimes he leaves a line blank. Instead, he announced, "It's cute boys everywhere. And the whole world wonders about them. Wants to get close and see."


"See what?" asked Cosgrove, handing me my plate.


"How'd you two guys meet?" asked Quentin, looking at the bookcase.


Cosgrove took the question. "The family let Cosgrove stay with them, and he learned the ways of gay fashion."


A little silence after that. Then Quentin observed, "It's sophisticated in the big city, when you speak your piece. Young Bentley is real pretty in his photo. He'll make me feel good, and that's my piece about it. Now it's good."


                                                ***************************


Well, Bentley was a looker, all right, with a slim, uncomplicated physique and an uptempo energy level. Every time Cosgrove mastered a new recipe, Quentin and Bentley would be summoned to test-drive it with us, though Quentin was far more interested in my DVD of the Thames Television series The World at War, with its stupendous historical footage, Laurence Olivier's High Maestro Vocal Tone narration, and the even the Shostakovich-inflected logo theme music. This documentary on World War II was not only compelling but classy: and Quentin responded to class. Some working-class men go through life reviling the arts and education when they aren't ignoring them, but Quentin was clever enough to sense that widening one's cultural background created opportunities of all kinds. Still, there was much that mystified him, not least the realization that most of the gay New Yorkers he met appeared to earn their living by invisible means.


Cosgrove, for instance: what did he do, besides enjoy himself? Once, right in the middle of the unveiling of Cosgrove's first original dish, Meat Loaf-Coconut Surprise, Quentin suddenly asked, "Are you Bud's ward? Like in novels of the old days?"


"He's asking you," I told Cosgrove, as Quentin happened to be (apparently) engrossed in the second disc of The World at War.


"I'm not the ward," Cosgrove replied. "I'm the artistic houseboy."


"What's the salary on that?" Quentin asked.


Carlo laughed. "He's a professional sweetheart, Quentin my man. So he gets his rent and chuckwagon paid for."


Now Bentley speaks up.


"I'm a sweetheart, too. But Quentin makes me pay rent and halfies on the groceries."

"And you'll say me thanks for that," Quentin warned him, as I switched off the TV. Enough apocalypse for one night. "Puttin' you up in my spare room in the big city. But who is Bentley? A runaway with no friends."


"Why can't I have what Cosgrove has?" Bentley countered. "I could cook recipes, too. There are certain chowders I have in mind."


"You couldn't cook Corn Flakes," Quentin told him.


Bentley looked at Carlo with a defeated air, and Carlo nodded sympathetically. That seemed to wrap up the scene, so I switched the TV back on.


I wonder if this is the right time to tell you that Bentley's eyes are purple, with a little grey blotch in the left one, just like Quentin's.


                                                          TO BE CONTINUED