WIP: Sepia Fallows, Chapter 2

Okay dears, here is a Chapter 2-ish of one of my WIP, “SEPIA FALLOWS” — for which Chapter 1 was published HERE on May 2Enjoy, 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?

“Mother?”

“Hughes. Yes. I’m so – it’s – you’re…-”

“Mother – Momma – I’m sorry.”

Work in progress … not much progress but …

Okay, dear ones, here it is – sort of-ish-Chapter 1 of a work in progress and I think I like it but I also need some affirmation — let me know if it makes you feel anything at all, okay?

 

SEPIA FALLOWS: CHAPTER 1: CW

“The forsythia are in bloom!”

CW jumped, dropping The Collected Dorothy Parker first edition, his attention torn from re-organization of the bookshelves to the doorway where Hughes stood, arms full of cut branches already dropping yellow blooms, a trail of which he’d no doubt left as he’d gamboled all the way from the mud-room door, up three flights to Belle Reve Suite.

“You didn’t notice; they match my outfit,” Hughes continued, sounding a trifle peevish at CW’s having turned away without comment on his nineteen-eighties, disco-shiny, lemon-canary colored coveralls-ensemble (Gallic pronunciation, if you please) du’jour to pick up Mrs. Parker and continue culling the shelves of other out of place books; those not by Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, or William Faulkner, the only authors allowed in the Southern Gothic themed Belle Reve.

“These forsythia called to me, asking to be taken to Camelot,” Hughes slowed, inserting the sort of dramatic ritard he used when announcing he’d had one of his glimmers, as he called them, “The room wants re-freshening as it will soon be occupied.” Again, CW went silently about his business, ignoring Hughes clear invitation to interrogation. Again, Hughes adopted a peevish tone. “Well, someone is on the way who belongs there. These forsythia told me so in a very powerful scintillation. You know, of course, forsythia are named for William Forsyth, Scottish botanist founder of the Royal Horticultural Society?”

“No. But I do know Dorothy Parker said, ‘You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her drink.’ Which I thought was extremely funny when I was young and then, I lived, and experience taught me that most whores don’t hesitate even a little when presented with a drink. Or, should I say; Cocktail?”

“You should not.”

“And, what does Scottish botany have to do with Camelot?”

“It’s all Great Britain. Celtic. Something to do with Aquitaine and one of the Henrys. The third or maybe the fourth one.”

“Celtic, shmeltic. My knowledge of Great Britain’s history is entirely supplied by Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, Kate Hepburn in Lion in Winter, Lerner and Lowes glorious musical – though glorious only in its original Broadway cast recording, not the abominable adaptation of a film. Did I mention that along the way in my wasted youth I saw Christine Ebersole play Guinervere to Richard Harris’s Arthur and Richard Muenz’s Lancelot?” Having thus established what he considered a clear victory in the never-ending competition with Hughes to claim superiority in the area of useless trivia, CW risked a glance and a smile. Or, smirk. “Now, I really would like to finish straightening up these shelves. I don’t understand how these books keep migrating to the wrong rooms around here. People need to be more careful. Or, should I develop a color-coding system, something to indicate in which room they belong?”

“You should not. The forsythia are in bloom, CW. Spring has sprung. You should get out of the house. Come, walk the Sepia Fallows grounds with me.”

“Grounds is an awfully highfalutin term for a couple of acres of lawn, Hughes. And I’ve a million things to do today, including, it seems, getting Camelot ready for a guest. Is this actual knowledge or just a tingle?”

“Glimmer. And glimmer is as good as a fact. What in the world is wrong with you today? Come, you need air. A walk.”

“What I could really use is a Xanax. But I’ve sworn those off as well. Now, go, I’ve no time. Anyway, I – unlike you, apparently – lost custody of all my disco costumes in one of my falls from grace, so, alas, having nothing to wear, I must decline.”

“Well, you may have cast away your disco togs, but I can see you’ve held tight to your lumpen, snit-fitting frocks. I shall leave you to smother all joy and light in them.” Hughes twirled away, torqueing dramatically, the atmosphere around him made flavescent by shedding forsythia blossoms, then stopped in a pose he thought not unworthy of Bette Davis during her heyday. “And don’t worry, I’ll clean up the flower trail. I wouldn’t want you to be able to follow it and find me, not in the mood you’re in.” And, Hughes exeunt, stage left stairway.

April. Spring. The forsythia in bloom. CW wondered if Hughes expected him to tend the grounds and mow the grass. If so, he’d insist on a mower other than the antique rotary reel model he’d seen in the Back 40 Shed while searching for a snow shovel during the January blizzard, a blizzard Hughes had christened “The Donner Debacle” in that annoying way he had of inventing sobriquet for everything from weather events to rooms in his home, sheds, and people, evidencing his addiction to florid elaboration.

How, CW wondered, had the grass been mown?

Though Hughes was remarkably, even annoyingly energetic for a fellow in his seventies, he couldn’t have tended the three acres of Sepia Fallows before CW had arrived in October. Or, maybe he could have; on second thought, CW could easily picture Hughes promenading in a safari-themed get-up even Little Edie might have considered garish. Who knew? Hughes was also annoyingly mysterious about some things, like his past, how he’d arrived at Sepia Fallows, and who had done what prior to CW’s being hired as – whatever it was he was. Although “hired” wasn’t really what he’d been. Accident-ed was closer to the truth. CW had retreated to Sepia Fallows in the autumn after the latest of his falls and in the seven months since had become embrangled in Hughes combination boarding/bed and breakfast/halfway house.

Now it was April. Now it was spring. Now the forsythia were in bloom. And according to Hughes’ good as a fact glimmer, someone would soon be arriving to occupy Camelot.

“Pray musical theatre gods that it is not Guinevere. I’m in no mood for a soprano. And, sorry forsythia and Hughes-overalls, but, I hate,” CW said to himself, “yellow.”

CW knew Hughes had been right to call him on the wearing of his snit-fit-frock. He had a bad case of the Mean Reds. Exacerbated by being so pathetic he had to borrow even descriptions of his moods and life conditions from other writers – well, actual writers – even if, in this case, it was someone as masterful as Truman Capote. And whatever CW could come up with should he ever actually sit down again to write — or, un-write — would never be as perfectly apt as; “Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.”

Although, CW maybe knew. CW maybe had a clue. CW was maybe thinking too much again. CW – no maybe about it – had a bad habit of calling himself CW over and over as if the repeated incantation of his name might conjure some enchantment to part the mists of his ditheration and magically accomplish the editing of his three-hundred-thousand-word mess of an inchoate “un-agented-first” manuscript into a two-hundred-thousand word cohesion of a “hot new debut repped by” novel. Alas, Queen Morgana he was not, and Sepia Fallows was not portal to Avalon, books about which could be found in the Camelot Suite of Sepia Fallows.

So thought CW, busying himself with anything to avoid facing his logorrheic fog, choosing instead those chores he knew (or, thought) he ought to be doing, which, in that moment, after he’d finished re-organizing the books, involved the following from Sepia Fallows’ never quite finished maintenance list: laundry, food shopping and prep, common area cleaning, and, because of the arrival of spring and its rains, the placement of ant traps illegally smuggled from Mexico, where ant-free homes were prioritized over human health concerns – as, CW thought, it should be. All of which quite necessary activities unavoidably delayed the word-cutting required by the latest helpful acquaintance who’d promised to forward CW’s magnum-magnum-opus to an agent.

On the condition that CW . . .

. . . deep breath . . .

Cut. A. Third.

Those were the instructions.

Since the ego-deflating decree – not the first time CW had been told his ramblings were rather less Proustian and more puffy, pontifical prattle. Which such alliterative thinking along with his over-comma’d, em-dashed, en-dashed mess of punctuating, he knew, would set every poor, put-upon copy editor in the world to weeping; “Why can’t he just say he talks too much? Why must he always blather to beat the band (and this cliche, C.W. knew, too, would be DELETED) and be out-Baroque-ing Balzac?” Oh dear, even in his imaginary quoting of copy editors bemoaning his periphrastic meandering, he was circumlocutory. And, abstruse. And, discursive.

CW had tried multiple methodologies to emend his bildungsroman. He’d struggled through his Luddite disability, managed to download the manuscript to his Kindle, where it sat with all the other books he’d purchased, and, just like those, remained unread. He’d then transferred it to a flash-drive and paid eighty-seven dollars and forty-nine cents to have Staples print out a double-spaced, three-hole-punched version, for which he’d purchased two large three-ring binders as there was not one large enough into which to fit the entire novel.

Cutting a third of his novel, after having cut so much of his life, was one too many too big a thing. One too many whelmings to add to the already over. One too many too much-ness. For which he was not enough, with which he could not cope, like Lady Macbeth, his bosom too full of that perilous stuff, rooted sorrows weighing upon his brain and heart, the razing out of which he’d meant to do by taking on this position at Sepia Fallows. Here, where being combination caretaker-custodian-concierge-librarian – and possibly gardener – was meant to distract him from the dichotomy of having once been considered one of the most brilliant, agile minds of his cohort who, somehow, now had left all his half-careers, whole ambitions, and fractional loves behind, to spend his life mostly alone, in bed by 8:30, surrounded by stacks of to-be-reads and the secret of having spent the earlier part of that afternoon under a married, muscular thirty-five year old “straight” man who grunted imprecations of, “Don’t move, bitch. You want me to seed you, don’t you? I’m trying so hard not to cum, right now. Tell me you want it. Tell me you fucking want it. That’s why you came right? You want my big, fat straight cock-seed. Oh fuck. I’m cumming. I can’t hold it. Oh God.”

CW didn’t believe in god. Or marriage. Or “straight”. Or love.

Which was why a thirty-five year old with a wife was fine.

Sometimes a person needed sex. And, anyway, he was better than the twenty-five year old who smelled of stale smoke and cheap beer and wanted only car play, parked in spots where discovery was always a danger. Part of the rush. And, anyway anyway, while CW did not use a pen name, he did use a pen(is) name: Brendan.

When he was tricking he was not CW.

When he was CW he was not tricking.

Half. Whole. Fractional. One, the other, all, some part illusion. Illusion: a trick of the light.

No, CW much preferred the dark, rarely looked at his unclothed self.

Brendan, though, was brazen, unbridled in his willingness to be naked.

CW insisted to himself that Brendan was the freedom CW had never had. That Brendan solved the problem of CW having never wanted long-term companions other than his books.

CW was beginning to suspect that the gap between CW and Brendan was filling up with something that required editing as difficult as the novel-cutting he was avoiding.

CW: “Nature abhors a vacuum. Some Greek said that first, hadn’t they?”

Brendan: “A hole. Fill it. I don’t care what race.”

CW. Brendan. Gap. Mean reds.

Clean Camelot.