DORIEN GREY'S "THE BUTCHER'S SON"
GLB Publishers, 2001
Did you ever have one of those years? You know: you start New Years' day with a hangover and everything just goes downhill from there? Well, it was one of those years.
I was stuck in a job I hated and Chris, my lover of five years, was getting the seven year itch two years early. We'd been together ever since shortly after we got out of college, and each of us was the other's first real relationship, so I guess you couldn't really blame him. That, plus the fact that we lived in a gay ghetto, so the candy store syndrome made it easy enough to stray for anyone so inclined, and Chris became increasingly inclined.
But we were hanging in there, putting on the good old "perfect couple" routine whenever anyone else was around and working on matching ulcers when they weren't. I was up to two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day and rising; Chris was devoting considerable time to adding to his swizzle-stick collection. All in all, a real fun time.
Chris was always a lot more into bars than I was, so it wasn't unusual for him to go out by himself, though I noted that lately he'd been going out a lot more than normal. We did hold to our Saturday-night-out-to-dinner tradition though, after which we'd stop in at the Ebony Room, a nice little neighborhood bar close to home, for a nightcap. This particular night, however, Chris suggested we go to a new bar he'd found, "Bacchus' Lair," which he said had a great drag show. I should have put "great" in quotes, since I was never much for drag, but Chris got a kick out of it, so we went.
I should also point out that this was after Stonewall, but not all that much, and the community hadn't completely gotten its act together in most cities. Blatant homophobia was the attitude of choice for most police forces, and ours was particularly noted for its
less-than-tolerant methods. It was also a solid source of income for the city—bust a gay bar, haul in 30 or 40 gays too scared or too poor to fight it, charge them with "lewd and lascivious conduct," drop the charges down to "disturbing the peace" and slap a $350 fine for a "no contest" plea. The city was happy; the police were happy; the lawyers were happy. The gays weren't happy, but who cared?
"Bacchus' Lair" was located in a former loft upstairs over a discount furniture store on the edge of skid row. A lot of gay bars were in this area, probably partly because of the lower rents, and the smaller likelihood that neighbors would complain about the clientele.
Bacchus' Lair was decorated in Early Flamboyant—tables the size of dinner plates, purple tablecloths, purple carpet, purple stage curtains, wall fixtures with dangly globs of plastic that I suppose the management thought looked like grapes. Wall niches with little
gold cherubs shouldering platters of plastic grapes. Oh, and a cover charge. And a two-watered-down-drink minimum. But you got to keep the little purple umbrellas that came with them.
There were a few people there we knew - I should say a few people I knew - Chris seemed to know a lot more. We were shown to a table - I asked for one by an exit - by lesbian in full male drag - a nice touch of equality, I thought. We ordered our drinks just as the canned music announcing the start of the show blared out across the room, making conversation impossible. The room lights dimmed, the curtains opened (revealing a stage about three feet deep), and the show began.
If you've seen one drag show, you saw this one. Not too bad, really; the usual standard numbers by the usual standard drag queens. Only one—a huge black drag named, if you could believe the M.C., Tondelaya O'Tool—did her own material and was really talented.
Intermission arrived with the inevitable, and inevitably "cute", announcement by the M.C. that "We'll be right back after a wee-wee break." The curtains closed, the lights came back up, and the waiters rushed throughout the room restocking the what-passed-for-liquor. Also as usual, some of the entertainers came down to mix with the customers.
"Well," Chris said, "what did you think? Great, huh?"
I nodded. "Great."
"Yeah," Chris said, "but wait until the second half—that's when Judy comes on. She's fantastic."
I was willing to take his word for it. "I'm surprised how crowded it is," I said.
"Do I detect a note of the famous Dick Hardesty paranoia?" Chris asked. "I notice you insisted on sitting near an exit again."
"You didn't think it was paranoia when I yanked your ass out of the Bull Pen the night the cops raided it," I said. "If we hadn't been near an exit, we'd have been hauled in like everybody else."
"Well, you don't have to worry here," Chris said, leaning back in his chair. "They've never had a raid."
"And how long have they been open?" I asked.
Chris shrugged. "I dunno. Two months, maybe."
"That long, huh? Maybe they should hang up a sign: 'A fine tradition of excellence since June.'"
Chris grinned and shook his head. "You're crazy, Hardesty."
Tondelaya O'Tool had come down from the stage and moved through the room like a fully laden oil tanker in heavy seas, bestowing forehead kisses, Queen of England waves, and assorted quips to the customers. Spotting Chris, she plowed her way to our table.
"How ya doin', Chris darlin'?" she asked Chris, her eyes deliberately moving back and forth between Chris and me, one eyebrow raised.
"Great, Teddy," Chris said. "Great show tonight."
Tondelaya-nee-Teddy put one hand on her more than ample hip and made a "get away with you, now" gesture with the other, a la Pearl Bailey.
"Why thank you, darlin'," she said. Then, looking at me, she gave a slow, exaggerated tongue-extended lip-lick and said "And who's this good-lookin' hunk o'man?"
Chris grinned. "This is my other half, Dick Hardesty."
Tondelaya/Teddy extended a hand. "I'll just bet he is," she said as I took it—and was surprised by an unexpectedly strong grip. "My, you two make a handsome couple, don't you now?"
"We try," I said.
"Can we buy you a drink?" Chris asked.
"I really shouldn't," she said while in one continuous movement sweeping a chair from a nearby table and motioning the waiter. "But I am parched and I do have a minute or two before I have to get back. Scotch rocks, double," she said to the waiter who disappeared as quickly as he'd come.
"So how do you like working here?" I asked for want of anything better to say.
"Oh, I love it, honey. Love it. It's a lot better than the Galaxy, that's for sure."
"Didn't that burn down a month or so ago?" I asked.
Tondelaya/Teddy reached out and tapped my arm. "That it did, chile, that it did. That's when I came over here. I was lucky, really. There's gettin' to be fewer an' fewer drag clubs around what with the raids an' the fires an' all. A lot of my friends are just plain out of work."
"So what time is Judy coming on?" Chris asked, demonstrating his usual short attention span.
Tondelaya/Teddy took the drink the waiter brought, downed it in one gulp, and shrugged. "Same as every night. You know she's always the last act. Save the best for last, that's her motto." Suddenly she put her hand to her mouth and lowered her voice. "I didn't say that," she said between her fingers. "You never heard me say that, okay?"
"Okay," Chris and I said in unison, exchanging a puzzled glance.
"Good." Tondelaya/Teddy pushed herself back from the table, nearly knocking our drinks on the floor in the process, and got up. "I gotta go get changed. You liked the first act, honeys, just wait 'til you see the second." With a broad stage grin, she moved off toward the dressing room.
"What was that last part all about?" I asked Chris.
He shrugged. "I have no idea," he said.
The waiter arrived unbidden, bringing two more drinks (unordered) just as the house lights dimmed and the second act began. It was more of the same, except for Tondelaya/Teddy, who did a really good down-and-dirty blues number I'd always associated with one of my favorite old army cadences:
"I'm not the butcher, I'm the butcher's son;
But I'll give you meat until the butcher comes."
She was followed by a marginally passable Diana Ross imitator, a slightly better Barbara Streisand imitator, and somebody who apparently thought—wrongly—he/she was Sophie Tucker.
"Judy's next," Chris leaned over to me and whispered.
The curtains closed, and the room went completely dark until a small spotlight came on, the music started, and a voice said: "Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland!" The curtains opened to...Judy Garland. Quite a bit taller and not as frail, but Judy Garland nonetheless. I realized it wasn't even the face; it was the posture, the movements, the little gestures. Perfect. Even before she opened her mouth, I was impressed. This guy was good.
The song was "The Man That Got Away" and instead of just lip-synching, she sang with the record, and it was as if Judy Garland were singing a duet with herself. Chris nudged me and gave me his "I told you so" nod, and I just nodded back.
The end of the record was greeted by tremendous applause, in which I joined wholeheartedly. Judy took a bow, then went immediately into "The Trolley Song," followed by "You Made Me Love You" When she finished, the crowd was on its feet — Chris and I included. The curtains started to close, but the crowd wouldn't have it and she waved them back open, sat on the edge of the stage, and sang, of course, "Over the Rainbow." Even I had a lump in my throat.
When she finished the song, the room went black again and when the lights came back on, she was gone. The other entertainers came out for their curtain calls but, despite chants of "Ju-dy; Ju-dy" she did not come out, and at last the applause died away and the show was over.
We finished our drinks, paid the bill, and got up to leave.
"I've got to hand it to you, Chris," I said. "That really was great."
Chris put his arm around my shoulder. "After five years you
doubted me?" he asked.
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