|Tumultuous applause -- cries of "Bravo!" -- some fervent souls dabbing their eyes with Kleenex, heavy sniffling -- for Danny Isham has just concluded a reading. Preening, flushed, he turns his head this way, that, to acknowledge this intense reception and to provide photographers with what he considers his best angle, his right. Rows and rows of chairs filled with fans. Plastic bottle of mineral water on the podium. He closes the book and grins, blood rushing to his temples. One man instantly runs forward, ahead of the pack, but a security guard hauls him back. Everybody loves Rick and Dick, or so it sometimes seems, especially on a crisp winter afternoon in the early 1990s, in San Francisco, in a large bookstore on Van Ness Avenue near the Opera House. Now the air's alive with noise. Sizable piles of Wanted tower atop shelves, ladders, tables, arranged in zigzags by some demented bookstore queen who loves DNA spirals. Danny takes off his Armani glasses, folds them up, folds his hands, bows his head, lets the last dying waves of applause sink in, refreshing as a warm shower. His manager, Gina Kawani, confers with the bookstore owners hovering in a little knot by the register. She gives him the old thumbs up sign, and he winks back.|
an easel beside the sales counter, the blowup of the promotional art for the new
book -- the book he's just finished reading from -- announces to all the slightly
different direction he's taken with the Rick and Dick books. Glossy, raised letters
spelling his name, and that high-tech New Age aura font -- the font Kit calls
"Deepak Chopra." The Rick and Dick books are heartwarming, why try to
avoid that? This font addresses that head-on. The bookstore owner clears her throat
and addresses the crowd. "I don't think we have time for any questions today,
but do come up and meet the author, San Francisco's own Daniel Isham. He will
sign copies of his new novel, the book you've just heard a smidgen from -- Wanted."|
Kit sits frozen in his inconspicious chair way in the back of the mob. From this distance Danny's face looks like a bottlecap, but he knows that look and dreads it like poison. Christ! he prays, uselessly. Oh, Christ, don't let him -- he's going to --
Danny takes up the microphone again. "I'd like to thank my very special man, who's with us this afternoon. Mr. Kit Kramer."
"Are you Rick or are you Dick?" says an ugly dweeb guy who's trying to grow his first mustache. Looks like Steve Buscemi, but young -- 18? 19? Like Kit hasn't heard this question oh, about ten thousand times before. Dweeb thinks it's an original, though: look at him smirk, look at the lights glancing off his spectacles. There's always one or two of these boys, who come to each reading to sneer, like Rick and Dick aren't radical enough for them, they want Danny to be like David Wojnarowicz or someone, or or formally challenging, like, mmm, whoever. Punks who come to show off. Dweeb's probably a big star on the alt.kill.rick.and.dick. newsgroup.
"What?" Kit says, acting retarded.
"Are you Rick or Dick? You're Kit Kramer, aren't you?"
Kit reaches up slightly and takes Dweeb's big white hand. Dweeb starts nervously like a Shetland pony. Kit presses the hand down to his crotch. wraps the hand around a large protuberance. "What's the question?" he whispers.
An earnest Stephen Sondheim lookalike asks if he can shake Kit's hand. "The Rick and Dick books are so special," he says, all sad eyes and salt-and-pepper hairhe's like a sleek older terrier. "Did you know, Rick and Dick were originally to be called 'Tommy' and 'Terry'?" A little laugh -- of regret? -- escapes his lips. "And my name is Tommy Terry! Wouldn't that have been an icebreaker?"
Dweeb boy finally wriggles his hand out from around Kit's cock, his blushes mounting furiously, his earlobes bright red, like drops of blood. "Fuck you," he snarls, forgetting his cool.
"What's the question?" Kit says. Christ, how he hates these events! Sondheim is carrying a whole stack of Danny's books and he's heading for the back of the line. To get them signed. Looks like he's got them all, even the ultra-rare first volume, written way before Danny had any idea of becoming America's best loved gay male author, a book never reprinted, Rick Gives Dick HIV for Xmas. Sondheim taps its spine. "Pricey," he notes, and rolls his eyes. "Just try to find it mint!"
Danny put on his practiced, enigmatic smile, the one he uses for bookstore interviews. "I don't really want to talk about my father," says Danny carefully, opening wide his large blue eyes. He looks candid, like a big Faberge egg. But it's just an act. "Let me say just this: my father was a great poet, while who am I? A mere storyteller."
"It's an honorable trade," says the interviewer.
"But it's not Arcadia, is it?" replies Danny, with a wry twist of his lips.
"You dedicated your reading tonight to your father's memory. Did the two of you reconcile before his death?"
For Christ's sake, he feels like screaming, I told you no questions about my father! Instead he lowers his eyelashes and stares wistfully at her shoes, which are a bit scuffed, she's not really a pro.
The publisher's rep jumps in, about fucking time. "Danny's a great performer, isn't he? He gives and gives to an audience like no one I've seen since, hm, Robert Bly."
Interviewer (chastened): "Will PBS be making another 'Rick and Dick' sequel?"
"Gina can probably fill you in on that," says the publisher's rep, smoothly. "Gina Ezawa, Lita Talbot." He turns to Danny and whispers, "I love coming to San Francisco. Right smack dab in the middle of all these multi-markets."
"And all these men," Danny says automatically.
"How is your darling little girl?" asks Lita Talbot, pencil skidding across a pad.
"Oh," says Danny, surprised. "We don't have her any more!" To promote the last book, Needed, which dealt humorously with Rick and Dick's extended San Francisco family, Danny and Kit had brought a little girl into their house, a girl from the Army Street Projects, and actually started adoption procedures. "I'm glad we're past all those tiresome identity politics, and people are starting to realize that yes, two gay men can give an African-American child both a loving home and a working knowledge of her culture!" All that expense and those Nina Simone, Scott Joplin CDs, that nice Library of America Zora Neale Hurston. And those batiq dropcloths for the bedroom, like The Cosby Show. And rap. And then the girl's mother claims she's cured of crack and wants her daughter back, this totally Halle Berry move, and that was that, good-bye, T'neisha. "She's no longer with us," Danny says, with his tightest and saddest smile. "But I don't really want to talk about my daughter, what did you think about Wanted, Lita?" Lita looks Jewish, he decides. "Tell me, what did you think about the matzoh-making episode?" Rick and Dick in a big flour-less kitchen, tossing wisecracks back and forth and trying to make a very special Hanukkah for a recently bereaved and totally cute gay rabbinical student from Haifa. Who doesn't feel wanted.
"I could have died," Lita swears. "You go, girl!"
On Van Ness Avenue the dweeb boy stands at the bus stop, his hands pulled tightly into his pockets. Cold air is creeping from the Bay too slowly to be called "wind," but it sneaks in everywhere. Little by little Eric Avery relaxes the stolen book out from under his navy peacoat and cracks it open to its title page.
"Do you have a pen?" he asks an elderly Iranian woman, who's sitting on one of the black rubber bricks, mounted to metal, that MUNI provides as seats to its patrons. She's bundled up in what appears to be a hot pink Hefty bag, and sports ear muffs, made out of pink fur, so maybe that's why she doesn't answer. Look at her, keeping her eyes trained straight ahead, maybe she thinks the Ayatollah's still barking orders at her back in some Teheran back room. "Ma'am, a pen?" he says again, then gives up, walking stiffly back into the bookstore and buying a pen. $2.89 for this simple little pen. Outside he composes a long inscription to himself on the flyleaf of Wanted. "For Eric Avery, who has the looks and charm of a David Hockney painting," he scribbles, then draws a big heart, flower, and star. Avery lights a cigarette, proud of his work, and leans, book tucked under his arm, against the plastic bus shelter. There's a big poster of the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas there: "MTT," it reads, like some international conglomerate. Avery squints at MTT's glamorous, ascetic face. He looks awfully pleased about something.
A car pulls up -- Grace's battered red BMW. She's waving at him frantically, her scarves swooping up and down as though she had bats in her car. "Get in, Eric!"
When he's all settled, he waves good-bye to the impassive Iranian woman.
"That's his mother," he tells Grace.
"That old lady is the mother of Danny Thing?"
"Danny Isham," Avery says. "And yes, she's real friendly, she told me I have beautiful eyes."
The lights switch to green and Grace plows through, right down to Market. "I feel bad letting her sit there like that, it's growing dark, and it's chilly, and what on earth was she wearing?"
"She says it's Issey Miyake," says Avery. "She said her son, Danny Isham, always keeps her dressed like the models in the magazines."
"He sounds lovely," Grace murmurs. "But don't forget, I know him, and he's not lovely at all."
"Sometimes her son's generosity is a bit embarrassing for Yasmin," he continues, pulling on his cigarette. "That's her name, she's from Iran. No, she doesn't need a ride, the limo will be out in a minute."
"That is one bright pink," says Grace, looking in her rear view mirror. "I can still see her from here."
"No," he said. "Oh, Grace, I met them both! I'm in love."
Grace looks at him sideways, her beloved little brother. "You did? You met both Rick and Dick?"
"That's not their names," he whines, as she knew he would. Ever since he was little, he'd had this name fetish, and always insisted on knowing the names of even the character actors on his shows, like Young and Restless, and who could keep up? Or he'd delight in calling the pets by their whole names. "Lester Avery," he'd yell at the screen door, and a mopey-eyed mutt would lope in looking for its Ken-L Ration. And the multiple marriages of their mother only excited him, who planned to enter her in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "mother with the longest name". . . That had been so long ago, and now he's all grown, what happened? And this stupid crush on those awful Rick and Dick books, but he has to hand it to Eric, Eric Avery, he's got persistence plus ultra --
If only he could channel it into something useful, like, getting a job?
"I know what their names are," she says dourly. Grace actually knows both Isham and Kramer quite well, she should, after spending five weeks working in their house. She's a self-styled communications consultant, and she's recently finished upgrading computer and Internet setups throughout all four floors of their 1910-vintage house on California Street. She's been through the mill with those two schmucks indeed. One day when Avery announced that he wanted to meet them, she'd offered to drive him right over, but he said, no, Grace, that would be gauche. "I'll just go to the reading like everyone else." Well, he was 23, still young enough to feel democratic. "Gauche?" she said. "Me, gauche?"
"Ah, not you especially, the whole world of back-scratching. I know you so you know me. The commodification process, Duchamp calls it."
"Networking, is what I call it," she said. "Marcel Duchamp Thing made a fortune out of networking."
Grace decides to head for Twin Peaks, it's just about sunset. Maybe the whole City will look beautiful there. She's not exactly sure where Twin Peaks in, she knows she'll get lost, but traffic is light and she's always been able to get out of a jam. For sure she doesn't want to go back to Eric's apartment, which is a hideous little closet, littered with dirty towels and empty Snapple jars, on the worst block of Page Street. She suspects it's a squat but has never cared to ask.
"I kind of made a pass at Kit Kramer," he says. "And you know what? He kind of responded."
"Want to go to Twin Peaks?" Grace says. "Did you get your autograph?"
"I don't care where we go," he says, peeling off his peacoat, for the BMW's electrical system is shot and throws out wave upon wave of dry heat like an old time beauty parlor. "I'm just too happy to care, and yes, I got Danny Isham to sign my book."
"Let's see," she says.
"Grace," he says, in the needy mewling tone she knows so well. "I know I said it was gauche but do you think you could get me into their house?"
"Sure, if you like. You have to promise not to burgle the place."
"I mean really in," he says. They make a swift right turn onto Market from Octavia and she feels his reedy body press into hers. "I'd like to live there like in the Rick and Dick books, and be part of their family. Does that sound dumb?"
Grace coughs, once, twice. He's not dumb, and Grace always tells herself so, especially when he'd done something dumb. He's just such a mess, he's twenty-three and still doesn't know a thing about the world. When she was 23, she knew the ropes backwards and forwards and he, her dear bro, is like a child.
"I know you're my family, Grace Sheppard," he says. "But they could be my pretend family, and that would be fine, wouldn't it?"
"You can do whatever you want to," she tells him, without thinking it out. He shoots her a glance, sighs in the back of his throat, so low only she can hear. It's a phrase their mother had used on them often, largely as an excuse to keep from doing something for them she didn't want to do. "You kids can do whatever you want to," she'd say, over breakfast, her gin topped with orange juice to give it that breakfast color, when asked if she'd come to a PTA meeting that evening. "You don't need me to succeed: this is America." When she was supposed to sign their report cards, she'd wave her lovely hands in the air, flop down in bed, and tell them to sign off themselves. "You don't need me for that!" It came to the point when both Grace and Avery had to question what they did actually need her for, and perhaps she has wanted them to be independent, a "free soul" like herself. But both her children thought, she wasn't a very good mother, though she taught them many life lessons along the way. "She was a very Anjelica Huston type mother," Avery summed her up now, like to his therapist and so forth, and to new boyfriends who asked about his family. "She wasn't really there for us."
The lack of interest has transmuted lo! down unto the next generation with mixed results. At 29 Grace had become, in Avery's mind, super- if not over-motivated, one of those driven for success types who, he said, "compensated." At 23, Avery had turned into a slacker, there was no other word for it -- or so she assumed. She knew boys his age who were millionaires down in Silicon Gulch, for heaven's sake, and Avery was on Public Assistance! In the back of her mind, however, she always found excuses for him, excuses that bore their mother's pretty, flushed face and spoke with her enchanting slurred precision. Every time she saw him, she saw her, and with a queer lurch in the upper half of her stomach she swerves the wheel savagely onto 17th Street and takes the street head on, like an action hero in some film set in San Francisco.
Where so many are set, and Grace had been introduced both to Mel Gibson and to Michelle Yeoh over the years. She pictures them in the City landscape, of improbably hills and misty, blue sunsets, and the strange sweet and sour smell that rises up from the ancient wharves. Yeoh in a big penthouse like Danny Isham's, in the middle of everything and yet, of course, strangely aloof; and Gibson out on the beach in some designer version of the Great Kahuna's shack in Gidget, hung with surfboards and college pennants so generic you can't read any writing, the shape alone is the signifier: here lives a jock. But she doesn't think Avery cares about either Mel Gibson and Michelle Yeoh. If he does she'd be totally surprised. "Do you believe in aliens," he asks her now, his big long legs crammed in the seat, knees in his face, and him twitching, picking and tapping at the sleek black buttons on the glove compartment of the BMW. "I'm thinking of creating this alien dance, at the theater, and maybe inviting Kit Kramer to come see me."
A large green sign now becomes visible in the half-dark ahead. She peers at it, in the shadows of the winding road and the bare branches of a patch of overgrown thorn bushes; she misses it. "That said something significant," she says. "No, I don't believe in aliens, why should I? Give me one reason."
He reaches for her purse and grabs into it with ungainly fingers, watch it, she wants to shriek, that's from Judith Leiber, but what good would that do. He takes out a mechanical pencil and begins to sketch out the face of the alien on a grubby piece of notebook paper, folded in half, that must have lain in his jacket pocket for a week and a half. "It's Brechtian," he declares. "All these guys in the theater, they're just there to see skin, and this alien face, glomming out at them from on top of my nude body, will produce the requisite alienation effect."
"Enough to put anyone off their feed."
"Right on, especially -- if you believed in them," Avery continues. "And maybe just maybe Kit Kramer does. At any rate he'd see I'm not just this nerdy nobody, I'm an artist."
"And a stripper," she says. If he wasn't gay would she love him as much? It's a question, Grace realizes, right out of one of the "Rick and Dick" books. "He'll wind up totally falling for you."
"Stop biting your nails, it's unattractive. That's how you catch the Hong Kong fly."
"You think? But Grace . . . you know them! You have an advantage, you were there in that house, what's their relationship like? Is it -- alive?"
"I don't know what they do," Grace avows. "Not exactly, but one or the other of them sleeps in another bedroom most of the time. That I can tell you."
She's giving him this inside scoop, flying in the face of professional etiquette, but what good does it do? She can't tell if Avery understands the import of a revelation that to her speaks volumes. She's been married herself, twice now, and marriage tells a kind of story, but does it say anything at all to a boy like Eric? "That means," she sighs, "that one of them is restless."
"I can just imagine," Avery breathes. "I am thrilled to hear this, oh, Grace, thank you a thousand million times." Elatedly he slashes at his alien mask, giving it cross hatchings and deep, really felt intaglio work that's bending her pencil. "I want to fuck him, Kit Kramer," he says. "You know how when you and I were kids we had this dysfunctional Jerry Springer lifestyle," he adds, smoothing out the page on his knee. "I want to live inside a storybook instead. I want to compensate. The way you do. Only different.
"Oh, Grace, is going to Twin Peaks important to you? I can't be late for the house meeting. I'm in deep shit over certain food issues, and they're blaming me for these goddamn roaches. You date any scientists? I'd like some backup on how roaches don't eat peanut butter or mayonnaise. And it's not like I don't keep my jars secured tight in plastic baggies, and then they float on top of the water in the toilet tank anyhow. Keeps them fresh. But dig, any roach who could get in there would have to be Einstein! And they're going," he says scornfully, "that it's all about these stupid loaves of French bread, and I go, the only time I ever had French bread was when we were doing this French skit thing at schoolremember, I told you Grace, and I was playing Foucault? And I didn't have a fucking beret and how's the audience supposed to know I'm French? I thought the bread was like, you know, a brainstorm! And as if anyone would eat that French bread after I got fisted with it like you know, Foucault on a visit to San Francisco! Not even a roach I'm sure. And anyhow I threw it out on Chestnut Street but no, they go, you're a pig and I go, unh-unh. I'm an artist, and did they bother Marcel Duchamp with these trivialities? I don't think so, Grace."
"No," she says carefully, sure now that the sign she passed in the twilight showed the way, now lost, to Twin Peaks, the time for which is apparently over anyhow.
"No, I'm not dating any scientists and no, Twin Peaks isn't that important to me." She's dated a lot of men, and perhaps one or two of them might have been scientists, but . . . There'd been that one asshole from IBM that their mother had dated, very casually, and over the course of one long-ago summer he'd moved into their house. Joe. Joe, who had actually been the one to turn Grace onto computers way back when. Joe, with the hair in his ears. Nice guy, but too interested in helping a little girl learn laptop skills before the invention of the laptop. A genius, but too fond of telling her, "Grace," Joe would say, "you can be anything you want to be," and thank you, Joe, I've already heard that apothegm a zillion times from the woman in the next room who's lying face down in vomit on the silk sheets. So she had dated a scientist -- or been fondled by one at any rate! -- but one who wouldn't know anything about roaches, would he, outside of looking in the mirror. Men in Black. Hair in ears. Enter, shift, control, options? Cronenberg country, as if Cronenberg cared about a woman's life or whatever. "Can't help you there," she says, swinging right, coasting downhill. "Take that problem to your pretend family from the storybook of Rick and Dick Thing."
Avery looks as though he might be concerned: is she upset with him? "I'm not," she says, after a minute, and he knows without the rest of the words what she means. She's not upset with him, except about ruining her mechanical pencil which was 400 something dollars and now looks like an old Max Factor eyebrow pencil you'd throw away, good-bye, into a nest of used Kleenex at the bottom of your bathroom mirror.
It's dark out now. . . very dark out now. . .
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