Step by bloody step...

I'm working through the story in baby steps, really, but finding ways to make it keep moving. This section is a few chapters in, when Brendan, who's still 17, is taken to a gay bar by his cousin, who claims to be straight...but I'm beginning to wonder...only it's 1973, before sex became political, and a lot of straight guys were willing to try out something new and different. Believe me...

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Well...it wasn’t much of a pub -- or bar or disco or the like. It was a made-over two-story house off Westheimer, near Houston’s downtown, and the traffic was hell. Cars backed up for miles, going slower than it would take to walk the length of the area. Seems this was, as Scott put it, Montrose. And as for the traffic, he added, “People’re just cruisin’.”

“Cruisin’?” I was incredulous. “They’re barely movin’.”

“That’s the point.”

I just shook my head. I was now feeling weary from working all day in the heat. Scott had shown me this trick of wetting a bandana in iced water and laying it over your head then holding it in place with a cap, and it’d helped keep things from growing too horrible, but I was still knackered, and could feel I’d burned my back and legs from lazing in the pool, so I’d rather have been home asleep. Scott was having none of it.

“I’m headed back to Austin, tomorrow,” he whined. “God knows when I’ll be home, again, so let’s have some fun, here, now.”

“Bloody hell, you can go in any bar you want, now.”

“Not with a virgin.”

“Say again?”

“You’re a gay bar virgin and you can’t get in without me, and I want to be there for your first.”

“Shite, Scottie, you sure it’s that cheerleader you think of when you’re getting polished?”

“No, baby, I think of you.” And he puckered his lips at me and batted his eyes, and I shoved him out the driver’s door with a laughing snarl.

It seems the trick to it was to wait till there was a line of lads headed past the doorkeeper and mingle in with ‘em then flash him a form of ID, get your hand stamped by the next lad and head on past like you knew you belonged. Thing is, I had no ID, which shocked Scott.

“What about your passport?”

I shrugged and told him, “Aunt Mari has it.”

“Well, let’s see what happens. What can they do but say no? And there’s a few other bars around.”

He led me to the back door, which turned out to be the actual entrance, and soon as there was a rush of lads in bright clothes, we joined them. I actually got in; Scottie was stopped. Seems there was a cover charge and one older larger man had paid for a group and the doorman thought me part of it. So I kept on in then stayed by the door, listening to the pounding music -- this crap little song called Ring Ring -- as I looked around.

This was obviously a one-time house with walls torn out, a staircase in the center leading up to what I supposed were private rooms, and a bar to the right. The place was packed with men of all ages, shapes and sizes, and a few birds, as well. A ball covered with bits of mirror hung over the staircase’s lower landing and shot stars into every dark corner -- and there were a lot of those. Some booths. Some tables. All seeming dingy and second-hand, like a run-down pub on Lone Moor Road back in Derry. I shook my head as Scott finally showed, scowling.

“Five dollars!” he snapped as he shoved his wallet away.

“Well,” I said, “the money’s not for the d├ęcor, that’s for damn sure.”

“Oh, honey,” said a man’s voice to my left, and as I turned a hand came up to caress my cheek. “You should see it with the lights on.” I found myself face to face with a woman weighing a good 30 stone and perfectly made up. “It’s even worse than you can imagine.” And that’s when I noticed she was really a he, and I was put in mind of The Kinks’ song, Lola.

“Bloody hell,” I whispered, “I’m livin’ rock an’ roll.”

“No, tonight’s pop, rhythm and blues,” and he wandered off.

I turned to Scott, wary as all of it, and he laughed. “They’re havin’ a drag show!”

“A what?” was all I could squeak out, for I’d no idea what he meant, but he seemed not to hear me. He grabbed a waiter, made an order and shoved me over to a corner to get ready. A few lads gave us the once over and made just enough room for one of us to sit on a bench and I made sure it was Scott and not me, for suddenly I was feeling like a cat in a den of prowling dogs and wanted nothing to stand in the way of me and the door.

I scrunched against a post, my eyes darting about, and felt a hand curl up my leg, its arm right behind it. I jolted and looked down to find a man of maybe thirty years smirking up at me, so Scott took my other leg, leaned over and snarled, “He’s mine, bitch.”

“I could handle you both,” was the reply he got.

“Some other night,” Scott smiled back, not missing a beat.

The man’s hand drifted away; Scott’s stayed where it was. Even when our drinks came -- two plastic cups of bloody Coors; you can’t get away from that fuckin’ shite beer -- I let him keep hold of me, like an anchor. For in truth, if he hadn’t I’d have been out the door that second, I was so sure this was a massive mistake.

But Scott...he was fully enjoying himself, chatting up the lad next to him, letting hands rest on his knees and arms drift over his shoulders. He seemed not to care a whit, and no one tried to go where it’d be too familiar. It was as if this were some sort of dance and he knew the steps to keep it moving to a quick beat and not into slow-mode. A couple lads come up to me, asking my name or if I’d like a drink, but the man who’d first put his hand on my leg warned them off with a gentle, “Still too fresh.” Then he’d wink at me and I’d jolt my eyes away. This was becoming far too worrisome for me.

Then The Happening started up and a woman -- no, a man dressed as a woman in a long red dress covered with sparkles, his hair done to perfection, his face so much like a girl’s it was disorienting, slowly descended the stairs and said, “Hi, boys,” in what had to be a baritone.

The crowd roared Hello back and the man began singing that bloody song, dancing about the landing and giving it his all...and damn if he didn’t sound just like Diana Ross, which I mentioned to Scott and he roared with laughter.

The man to my other side leaned over to ask, “What’d he say?”

“He thinks he’s really singing,” Scott answered, still laughing.

He wasn’t? Sure looked it.

The man nodded and patted my hand and said, “Don’t worry, sweetie, there’s a first time for everything.”

The show kept up for over an hour as one man after another, all dressed to perfection, came down the steps and sang songs by Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick and Ertha Kitt and Tina turner and Peggy Lee and Karen bloody Carpenter and the like. It was all very impressive, I had to admit. And as the night wore on and I saw I wasn’t about to be dragged into some dark corner, I relaxed and got to talking with the man next to me.

His name was Everett Casterson and he worked in the advertising department of a grocery store in the city, as a graphic designer.

“Meaning finding new and interesting ways to sell cabbage, croissants and Coke,” he said. “The drink.”

“And what else would I think it was?” I asked, not really joking, but he laughed.

“How old are you?”

“What’s this?” I asked. “I’m a used car, am I?”

He glanced me over, nodding. “No, I’d say you’re fresh off the assembly line. A seventy-four model.”

I rolled my eyes then figured, Fuck it, and leaned in close. “I had to sneak in.”

“With your friend?” And he tossed a glance at Scott.

“Cousin. And he’s of age. You gonna have us tossed?”

“I couldn’t if I wanted to. You’re too cute. Both in looks and that brogue...that’s what sells you.”

“Christ, dunno if I should say thanks or smack your face.”

He smiled at me and his eyes took on a hint of sadness. “Why’d you come here?”

“What d’you mean?”

“You’re straight, aren’t you?”

“Straight?”

“Likes girls.”

I nodded. “I’ve never been around so many poofs, before.”

“Oh, you have; you just didn’t know it.”

“How do you mean?”

“No one at my job knows I am. They’d fire me, if they did. And the things gay men like to do with each other -- it’s illegal, even for married couples.”

“That’s what Scott’s tellin’ me,” I said. “You serious?” He nodded. I frowned. “But what business is it of anyone’s but yours?”

“We live in a theocracy, Brendan. Like in Ireland, where the Catholic Church determines the laws; here, it’s the bastard Baptists with the tacit assistance of the Catholic hierarchy.”

I said nothing, since in Derry it was the Proddies who ran things, and Paisley was a branch of their religion referred to as Presbyterian, though they all come across the same to me. And since I’d heard that view from others about the church in the South -- folk sick of the self-righteous priests and lying hearts of the nuns -- and considering Fathers Devil and Jack, and what they’d done about Danny, I could easily see their point.

“So why’d you come?” he asked, again.

I shrugged, because I had no real answer. The fact is, it was stupid of me to do it. Had I been caught by a copper, drinking underage and with no papers -- Christ, it was fuckin’ stupid, and it was finally hitting me.

“I shouldn’t of,” I finally said.

Everett smiled. “That’s reason enough.”

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