Okay dears, here is a Chapter 2-ish of one of my WIP, “SEPIA FALLOWS” — for which Chapter 1 was published HERE on May 2. Enjoy, or don’t. Sharing because I have promised myself I will KEEP WRITING, and this makes me somewhat accountable. Love to all, happy holiday weekend.
SEPIA FALLOWS: Chapter 2: HUGHES
Hughes was unsurprised CW denied having gotten any glimmer from the forsythia.
After all, CW’s default setting was rejection, a much practiced, icy brush-off, the withering, dismissive repudiation of one who’d been too often dismissed or disappointed by others. Hughes recognized this as a cry for love.
Which only irritated CW more.
The Universe had assigned Hughes tougher cases than CW, who had come along nicely in the seven months since he’d arrived, clueless as to what he’d needed. He’d spent his first month at Sepia Fallows locked away in the Algonquin Suite, emerging only for the occasional meal, claiming to be busily editing the seven-hundred-page novel, queries for which he claimed had been ignored by hundreds of agents. Hughes knew this to be untrue. He also knew that while CW did daily open the novel on his laptop, rather than edit, he spent most of the day on Twitter, stalking authors, agents, editors, and publishers, wishing he was a part of that world and yet rarely engaging them in conversation. Hughes knew bringing CW back into the real world from the broken, walled off place inside himself to which he’d retreated would require patience; CW needed time to find peace, to believe again in purpose, to recover from what he called “the last fall.”
Hughes had lived in just such a place himself after Manny had passed.
Passed. No. Not passed. Died. Died a long, tortured, horrifyingly ugly, bloody, piss and shit stained death. One of many. Near the end of that particularly unhappy parade. Which had not made it any easier. By then, Hughes had been so long mourning and grieving, suffering the seemingly endless dirge of keening lamentations that had begun at 4:15a.m. on Saturday, August 15, 1981 when Larry called from Bellevue to tell them Bennett had died. Bennett, 20, fifteen years younger and twenty times more talented than Hughes and already with three Broadway credits to Hughes one-sort-of-Off-Off-Broadway showcase thing. Bennett, refugee from Childersville, population three thousand and change (though, no, never change, terrified of change) in one or another of those southern states where boys like Bennett were hung scarecrow-akimbo on fences, castrated, and declared by the jackbooted good’ol’boy deputies as having somehow drunken-driven themselves into their own crucifixions, bloodying, beating, and brain-bashing themselves in the process; southern magic tricks. Strange Fruit, as Billie had long ago called it. That’s the sort of miracle boys like Bennett got turned into in Childersville; a warning to all the other queers and niggers, or, double-death, like Bennett, queer and nigger both.
Oh Bennett, sweet, sweetly-tenored Bennett of the perfect ass and turnout, who’d escaped to Manhattan, where boys like him spent their magic dancing in the choruses of Broadway musicals and fucking in the back of parked trucks in the Meatpacking district on the way to and from the red entrance door of the Mineshaft. Bennett, who died first among them, his once elaborately celebrated, admired, and envied promiscuity giving them all – those lesser mortals who had not had the good sense to be born as beautiful as Jeff Aquilon nor as unafraid as John Rechy to find love in the kindness of strangers – reason to hope, reason, at last, to be grateful they had not tricked quite as successfully as they’d wished, and perhaps, what had once seemed a burden, a curse – the extra weight, the bad teeth, the small dick, the hairy back – perhaps, such things had saved them.
Of course, that would not turn out be true.
As with all those who are saved, who survive, there is ultimately no reason, no logic. Some of the best were taken and some left behind. As, of course, were some of the worst. But even the most repugnant among the dead were keened after; even the most unlovable deserved and required elegies.
One wanted to become benumbed to it all, the long, long years of requiem, plaint, dirge, but each death was fresh. Surprising. How could this be happening? Why was no one fixing it? Doing anything? Saying anything?
Soon enough, for Hughes and others, sorrow had given way to fury and a rage which kept the living going. Being angry distracted one from feeling survivor guilt and terror; terror not just of the disease but of the thoughts; “Thank god it wasn’t me.” And “What if I’m next?” And, even worse, “I wish it had been me.”
Hughes knew he would always remember the exact date and time of the first call, would be unable to stop hearing Larry’s monotone delivery of the three simple words that had forever changed the world, “Bennett is dead.”
But the rest of the story, its details faded. Hughes, early on, stopped counting, or, rather, never started. He tried fighting his sorrow by channeling his rage into near apoplectic marching and exasperated documentation, marshalled into a manic wartime bunkering down and battling, keeping records so as to be ready to testify and stand up to power, insist on being heard, refuse – this time – to be left out of history, footnoted, erased. But, in time, Hughes realized what he wanted most was to remember none of it. As six years passed and still people were dying, Hughes worked toward a Gaussian blur, an image without those edges that cut and bled and caused the weeping.
Once testing had become available and after he and Manny had navigated through Hughes equivocation of “What possible difference can it make now?” and Manny’s suspicion of “Despite promises of anonymity, doesn’t it seem likely test results are being logged so all the positive fags can be gulag’d?” – both of which stands infuriated the other – Manny and Hughes had tested negative. Twice. Drugs and treatments slowly appeared, slowly improved, but only very slowly, ridiculously so, and only thanks to Larry Kramer and ACT-UP warriors, those who would explode the system they were convinced meant to let them die. It had to be done; the government – headed by Mr. Morning in America two-term president who didn’t even mention the word AIDS until May of 1987, by which time thousands had already died and many hundreds of thousands around the globe had been infected – seemed at best incapable of response, and, at worst, conspiring to perpetuate the plague. Theories hypothesized the virus having been developed by the army in Fort Detrick, Maryland, a few miles from where Hughes aunt, Violet, long estranged from his mother, lived in the dilapidated home Hughes would eventually inherit and come to know as Sepia Fallows; that place where Aunt Violet and his mother, Vivian, had grown up.
Hughes never heard that theory. Hughes stopped following the news. Hughes left that part of the fight to others, those who could still raise their voices in screams of protest, carrying signs, wearing buttons and T-shirts, barricading entrances to government buildings, occupying mayors’ offices, and blocking streets by planting themselves like corpses on the asphalt. No. Hughes – whose only youthful religion had been one of selfishness and cruelty – transformed into a New Age Florence Nightingale: he held hands and emptied bedpans and visited those who had been left alone by friends or family – both biological and chosen – and he practiced a new faith of selflessness and kindness, practicing the tenets of listening, loving – no matter what – and staying quiet so that others might feel heard.
Hughes stopped auditioning when he overheard a casting agent say, “I guess we’ll have to use him. But I’ve been to at least five men’s funerals in the last year who’d’ve been better.”
Hughes wanted to win roles because he was talented, not because all the Bennetts had died. As his mother had predicted when insisting he double-major in college in case “this acting thing doesn’t work out”, his English-slash-Journalism degree was there to fall back on, or – as he’d soon tire of insisting – was there on which to fall back. He started freelance copyediting thanks to David (1950 – 1983) after which, thanks to Peter (1942 – 1985) he was hired to work in-house by Castle & Cormorant.
It was June of 1987 when Manny started with the fevers and chills, swollen lymph nodes, losing weight. His hyper-aware gay-friendly doctor assumed it to be previously undetected HIV but the test was again negative. For a few glorious weeks, it was even decided Manny was exhibiting hysterical-HIV. It took an intern at the emergency room to which Hughes had dragged Manny against his will – he preferred the option of being crazy to discovering he had some new strain of HIV they couldn’t yet identify – to figure out that this latest nosebleed, one that wouldn’t stop, one that Hughes thought would surely exsanguinate his lover, his partner, his husband goddammit, for whom someone was going to do something, was neither a new nightmare of HIV nor hysterical, but, instead, leukemia.
“Oh, thank God!” Manny said. “It’s just cancer.”
All of the unexpectedly early deaths of so many men so ridiculously young had skewed reality to the point that a diagnosis of leukemia was something about which they were excited to hear. Relieved, even. Just cancer. There’s a cure. There’s hope.
Only, for Manny, there wasn’t. His leukemia – acute myelogenous – was a wasting, opportunistic vulture of a disease, and it ate away at Manny, everything about him, until he was nothing but seizures and spasms and shits. Hughes nursed him until the moment he died, a moment Hughes had been through with too many of those men he’d stopped counting since the first, Bennett, and like Bennett and so many of the others, Manny had no biological family left.
And it was so lonely, watching Manny go; unable to reach out to those who’d cut him off. And it was so lonely, after Manny had gone; without him, Hughes felt alone in a way he’d never known, as if life were a book he’d once known well, read again and again, intimately familiar with its stories, but now when he opened its covers, the pages were blanked away, traces of eraser dust and leavings of what once had been, he could no longer see the story clearly, his memories – this man who had fought so hard to forget – were unreliable, it was all pentimento and shadows, impossible to read.
And he knew, he did not have to be this alone. So, after all those years, after all that plague, after Manny left him, after all of that was over and done: Hughes called her.
“Mother. It’s Hughes.”
It was the call Vivian had been waiting for. It was the call Vivian had been terrified would come. But, it was Hughes speaking to her, not Manny, and so, Hughes was okay. Or, okay enough to call. After having cut her off, cut her out for sins she mysteriously committed, wrongs he had refused to explain to her, here we was.
“Mother, are you there?”
Mother, he called her. Had called her since he’d turned twelve and angry, ever angrier as he aged, refusing to say “Momma” – which she‘d been since he could speak. Mother. Was she there? Where was that? This Mother to whom he was speaking, this Vivian she knew herself to be, this woman who had once been Momma and who had suffered her own losses and confronted her own blanked pages; was she there? What could she say – or not say – that was safe? What would keep him talking? What would fill their pages with a story they could both read, together, without the dust of angry editing and tearing away? What level of truth could be told?
“Hughes. Yes. I’m so – it’s – you’re…-”
“Mother – Momma – I’m sorry.”