Like many good Catholic girls of the 1950s, my mother
saved her virginity for the right car. You mustn’t think me cold for
saying that, the manner of my conception doesn’t matter to me one way or
another. It was Mother who always made such a big deal out of the whole
affair. From my earliest awareness, I knew that I was conceived not in
love, or even mutual lust, that my very existence was purely the
by-product of Detroit engineering.
One special Saturday, the Beige Electra cruised around
the corner and up to it’s usual spot at the end of our long dirt
driveway, pulling up close to the front door so that Grandma wouldn’t
have far to walk. At first I was confused because there were two men in
the front seat, but to my relief, I quickly spotted Grandma in the back,
the sunlight catching the tiny glass beads in her hair net, sparkling
with color. I jumped up, trying to see her through the window from my
five-year-old vantage point.
I ask you, if God didn’t want us to be sexual creatures then why did he
make us so that we spend at least three years of our lives with our
faces at crotch level to everybody else?
Next to her in the back seat was an amazing conglomeration that I
really couldn’t decipher, though later I would describe it as looking
like a pile of a drag queen’s laundry. The two gentlemen got out of the
Buick and, in perfect tandem, opened the two rear doors to the vehicle.
I ran up to get my kiss from Grandma, hugging wasn’t done in our family,
any display of that kind was swiftly knocked away. Turning around after
that sweet Grandma kiss, I saw the apparition that I had gotten a
glimpse of earlier coming around the hood of the car.
Under it was a woman, an amazing vision to anyone I suppose, much less
to a five-year-old swamp child. She wore cat eye sunglasses with
rhinestones at the corners, a dark purple dress that shimmered; the
buttons had rhinestones on them too, and on her feet were gold lame
slippers. With her eyes as glued to me as mine were to her, she took a
step toward us, and right into a steaming pile left by one of the
hounds. “OH SHIT!” she spat “DOGGIE DOO-DOO!”
I felt that wonderful and warm gnarled old hand that I loved so much on
my shoulder as Grandma said, “Mikie, this is your aunt Effie.”
I was frozen, glamorized by the sparkling
Effie and yet fearful that I would be yelled at for the dog shit. Effie
seemed to be frozen too, with one hand gingerly pulling off the
offending slipper, while the other reached to shake mine.
“Mikie, now be a gentleman and help your Auntie Effie.” Grandma
whispered. I sprang into action like a frog in a frying pan to help this
glittering creature; I would have tried to carry her if Grandma told me
to. Later during the weekend, I overheard Effie telling my mother “What
a fey child you have Patricia.” I knew fey had to be a good word, it
just had to be. “He seems like he is somewhere else really, like the
angels misplaced him.” “More like they dropped him on his head,” Mother
grumbled. Amazing how little minds can capture and remember such small
exchanges isn’t it?
I spent that entire visit making a complete nuisance of myself by trying
to spend as much time with the two older women as I could. Mother always
sat with the men at these gatherings, since they talked about money and
hunting. So this meant that there were no parents around to inhibit or
censor my efforts. Anyway, I soaked up every ounce of every waking
moment during that visit, savoring the slightest glance my way, intent
on the magnificent Effie McAdoo, while at the same time making sure that
I was never too far from Grandma.
wore on her head. Peeking into my bedroom that night, where I was curled
up with three otter orphans that we were raising, she shrieked
They’s rats in the bay-id with Mikie!”
“What?” Mother yelled back from the other end of the hall.
“They is a bunch of rats in the bey-id with Mikie!” Effie repeated. “Oh,
he’ll be fine,” Mother said “they sleep with him every night.”
I can only suppose and pray that someone had the kindness of heart to
tell the poor woman that the critters were otter pups, not rats.
Later in the weekend, Effie discovered our emus, and seeing supplies for
a dozen hats on the hoof was just too much to resist, resulting in
panicked screams coming from the yard. “TOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNYYYY! Leo!
They’s a ostrich after meeeeeeeee!”
Human skulls, Mastodon teeth, fossils and pirate
treasure all sat around on shelves in the room outside mine. The heads
of deer and other big game sprouted from the walls to look over the deep
freezer that held the rest of them.
One weekend I had tied Mary to a tree in her trademark outfit of white
buckle shoes and ruffled panties and was preparing to throw knives at
her like I had seen on the Ed Sullivan Show.
In a rare fit of maternal concern, Mother came running out. “What do you
think you are doing?” “I’m going to throw these knives all around Mary.”
I answered matter of factly. “Not with my good steak knives,” Mother
said, taking them from me, “they were a wedding gift.” I hadn’t intended
to hurt my little sis, and she knew that. What became apparent to both
of us were our mother’s priorities.
One by one, Julia polled the people gathered in the
great room of Williamswood Castle; “Vicki, why are you here this
“I’m here because of Michael,” Vicki replied with a grin. “Michael,
you’re just everybody’s hero here tonight,” laughed Cecilia, referring
to the fact that several other people had named me as the reason that
they were there that night.
“No, it’s not like that,” Vicki quickly interjected. “I am here because
Michael invited me to tea. I was alone and I was scared, just about to
go back on crack. But Michael invited me to tea at his house. I didn’t
want no preachin about me havin AIDS and havin to stay healthy and all
that, and I sure didn’t want nobody talking about how I never was gonna
see my baby agin if I fucked up agin. But I’d never been to somebody’s
house for tea for real, so I went.”
“Now, I have an apartment. I’m still clean, and I may be gettin my baby
back soon. So, if Michael says that I oughta be here, then I’m here.”I
turned my face down so that no one would see how red it was. This wasn’t
modesty, false or otherwise. I was terrified by Vicki’s accolades. I’d
learned the hard way that when people put you on a pedestal, it’s only a
matter of time before they start throwing rocks.
I was good with one on one, particularly if the other one was ill or in
distress. I was also pretty good when it came to speaking to a group or
even crowd, as I’d done at the college a few days before.
But we were here to form a group. The Knoxville chapter of NAPWA, the
National Association of Persons With AIDS. Groups, including those made
up of friends, or those made up of the whole of humanity, were not at
all my forte. It was in groups that all of my flaws glared most loudly,
where the fact that I was an outsider was most apparent.
Half an hour later, when it came time to pick officers for our chapter,
I quickly offered my help and support, but made it clear in no uncertain
terms that I would not hold a post of authority within the chapter.
Blessedly, my wishes were respected.
It could be argued successfully that Williamswood would be a much better
setting for Middle East peace talks than Camp David has proved to be. An
English castle in east Tennessee, it is the ongoing creation of our
hostess that evening, Julia.
I found some ladies foundation manikins behind the
local shopping center, which we soon put to use as pool floats. Always
adaptable, Mary and I fit right in when Mother started bringing in
drunken revelers after closing time, first from the country club, and
then from the Red Lion, the local gay bar.
I had been to the bar because I had been with the owner, a little trick
of the trade I had picked up back in New Orleans. After it was sold it
became a private club, where you bring your own bottle and pay for the
set ups. It wasn’t strictly legal, but then I was able to actually go
with Mother, relishing this new togetherness.
The owner of the old bar was eventually arrested for fucking a twelve
year old boy and committed suicide. I didn’t think that he deserved to
die, but I thought that he should at least be arrested for wearing black
dress socks when he fucked.
“God, the things I have seen, done and experienced in
the black desert night,” I thought as the last lights of Luxor
disappeared and the midnight train to Cairo plunged into darkness.
My arrival in Luxor was far less of a deal than my departure had been.
When it was time to board this train, Mr. Ibrihim, the owner of the
Happyland Hotel, had insisted on paying for a taxi for me, and I was met
at the station by several well wishers who were still there waving as
the train pulled out of the station. Over time, I have learned to deal
with this kind of attention, even when I am not sure quite why I am
Arriving by ferry in Kusadasi, Turkey, people yelled my name through the
chain link before I could get through customs. One friend of mine had
gotten miffed when we got off the bus in Goreme after an overnight ride
from Istanbul, and people came running across the square, again,
shouting my name.
On second thought, maybe I do know why I get all of that attention in
these places. Maybe I am treated like I am something special because I
made each of the people involved feel like they were special at some
point. It’s a powerful gift to give someone.
It was probably intensified by my state of mind, but Luxor had been a
series of shocks almost from the moment I arrived. There were beggars
and dirt, I was used to that. I was also somewhat immune to hawkers of
various tourist wares and services from my years in the region. This
wasn’t my first Middle Eastern rodeo.
Leaving the Happyland after checking in the first morning, I followed
the road to where it splits at the temple. This being my first time in
upper Egypt, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see the tatty
little Mosque slapped down in the middle of the lotus pillars and the
McDonald’s towering over it all. I veered left, to walk along the Nile,
and was immediately approached by the first of what would be dozens of
felucca operators wanting me to charter his craft for a trip to Banana
Island. “You want to go with me to Banana Island and see the big banana?
You want to eat some big banana?” he happily queried with a huge smile
on his handsome bronze face letting me know that the double entendre was
indeed intentional. After a few minutes of his charming sales pitch, I
managed to get away, mumbling that universal tourist copout, “Maybe
Chapter Twenty Six
It has been my observation that when someone is sick,
they quickly start dreading that catch 22 question, “How are you today?”
Knowing that this was very true with Jack, I devised a way to find out
how things were going without taking that route. Each day I would ask,
‘What would make life splendid today?’ and Jack would answer. At first,
it was a trip to Europe. Then, a splendid life meant going out to the
movies with friends. Later, it meant simply being able to pet his dog.
The definitions changed with the season’s and his decaying health, but
we all were dedicated to making each day as splendid as possible.”
Chapter Twenty Nine
Daniel had Organic Brain Syndrome, where your brain
gets eaten away kind of like a sponge. Those who suffer from this cruel
disease lose their humanness. They will forget to use their hands and
eat food right off of the plate for instance, or defecate on the floor.
It is also an extremely painful disease.
Daniel wasn’t yet too far gone when I arrived, which was a blessing to
me, I can tell you, because that meant that he was making lucid
decisions. We had agreed that if one of us found the other in a state or
position to not be able to make this decision, then the other one would.
Sometimes life is like the movies and sometimes it isn’t. Daniel had
made his decision. He had the pills, but unlike the famous movie, he had
no one to hold him. I am weeping as I write this, which is why I have
told a bit of a fib when describing my encounter with euthanasia before,
because the memory of the real version makes me break down every time.
Daniel was an incredible force of love and compassion, who had held me
back in San Francisco when the strain would almost make me collapse, and
I had done the same for him. I wasn’t just losing another incredible
friend, I was losing a role model that I had made this promise to, who
had traveled a road with me that few others would ever know myself up on
his pile of pillows. Then sweet Daniel lay down on his back between my
legs so that the back of his head rested on my heart. I had done this
quite a few times with strangers so that my whispered voice could become
anyone they wanted.
We put on Piaf and I told him all of my sillier and happier stories of
my time in Greece, leaving out the sick people of course. Daniel laughed
and asked me some intimate questions about my adventures and Greek men.
As our last conversation progressed, he became slower and more slurred.
I began to softly sing silly songs into his ear, ever so softly.
Finally, it was like the body on top of me had become a water balloon,
which is the best description I can think of for what “dead weight”
I got out from under him and then knelt by the side of the bed with both
of my hands clasping his left one. I stayed that way for an hour or so
softly singing him on his way, before kissing his forehead and leaving,
taking a bus to New Orleans and Chey’s
My lips began doing embarrassing spasms when the
Princess of Wales came into the room, her eyes glued to John, who she
greeted by name, and then turning to me said “Hello, I’m Diana.” Every
time I come across from some pissy queen or arrogant snob, I think of
that moment, when the most famous woman on earth, mother of the future
king of England, was so gracious as to introduce herself, putting us on