for Vaughan Staggs
Adam walked into Jeff's record store, went right up to the counter where he sat cataloguing CDs and asked, "Did you hear that Leonard Gandinski died?" Jeff just stared at him as if Leonard Gandinski was an actor whose name he should recognize but couldn't put a face to and said, "Who?"
"You know, Leo, the bartender on Sunday nights."
Jeff had never known the bartender's last name. He had always called him Leo, not Leonard, just Leo to get his attention when he wanted a drink. Leo had tended bar on Sunday nights at New York, New York, the local gay bar in his neighborhood. Jeff hadn't been there on a Sunday night for over a month.
"I'm sure I'd know him to see him."
"Jesus Christ, Jeff!"
"Okay, there's Dave, Jack, Jimmy, Josh, Tom, Vince, Ted..."
"Sunday nights. Older guy. Gray hair."
"Managed a Pizza Hut, too?"
"I saw him a few weeks ago. Wasn't he just in Mexico?"
"Yeah, with me. He seemed fine the whole trip."
"He wasn't that old, mid forties, maybe. What happened?"
"He had chest pains at work, at the Pizza Hut, went to the ER, got admitted and died during the night."
"Was he on any medication?"
"None that I knew about."
Adam stood there for a minute staring at Jeff. Jeff didn't know what to say; he was more surprised than hurt. He only knew Leo as a bartender. He hadn't traveled with him like Adam had or even gone to see a movie with him but they did talk at the bar when ever they had a chance. The saying "Tomorrow is not promised," came into his head. His friend Edward always said that when somebody died. He would have to call Edward and tell him about Leo. Edward would want to know. He hoped Edward had already heard because he became anxious from the anticipation of someone's initial reaction to bad news.
"Let me know about the service or if everybody from the bar is going to send flowers," said Jeff.
"Will do," said Adam and he left the record store.
Jeff picked up his cell phone and pressed two on his speed dial.
"Edward, I know you know him."
"I'm telling you, I can't place him. You know I don't get into all that gay bar mess."
"I'm not suggesting that you do, but I've seen you talk to him, order drinks from him."
"On a Sunday night? Me? Sunday nights are your gig. I'm in bed on Sunday nights."
"Not every Sunday, the last time I saw him alive I was with you on a Sunday night at New York, New York."
"We had gone to the Holiday and then to New York, New York."
Jeff didn't know which was worse, the anxiety he felt toward someone's initial reaction to bad news or trying to convince that person they knew the deceased. The community at New York, New York was small, mostly older gay guys and college students from the neighborhoods in the eastern side of town, its own microcosm of the larger gay community of Pittsburgh. Everybody knew everybody else or had slept with each other.
"Now I remember," said Edward.
"Not him, I remember that Sunday night. We went there because you wanted to stop by on the way back to your house after the movie and after the Holiday. How I let you drag me to those places I'll never know."
"Right. Leo was tending bar that night."
"But Jeff, I don't remember him. You ordered the drinks, remember?"
"Yeah, I had to call to him like I always did. He was a great guy but a mediocre bartender."
"So, he died."
"Yeah, he died."
"What do you mean so what? Jesus Christ, the guy died."
"Was he a friend of yours?"
"Then so what? He was a bartender and a mediocre one at that, you said so yourself."
"I know, but he was a really nice guy. He wasn't part of that scene. I think that's why he worked Sundays. It was a quiet night, not a money night."
"But what does that have to do with you?"
"Nothing. It's just that he died. One day he was here and the next he wasn't."
"It's like my daddy always said, 'Tomorrow is not promised.'"
Edward's dad was a preacher and Edward often quoted the Bible or his father even though he didn't go to church anymore. The last time he'd been to church was for his father's funeral.
"Yeah, I guess it's not."
"People live, people die, Jeff. It happens every day. It's part of life. You don't seem all right. Do you want to talk about it?"
"I didn't call you to get counseled, I called you to tell you that somebody you might know has died. You don't know him, and that's that."
"Fine. There's no reason to get short with me."
"I'll talk to you later."
Jeff opened the shoe box of used CDs some kid had dropped off that morning. He had given him twenty dollars for the lot without examining them because the kid looked like he hadn't eaten in days.
"Come on, man. They're worth three times that much," the kid had said waving a cigarette. A wide leather wrist band studded with silver pyramids slid down his thin arm. A silver piercing of a talon jutted from below his lower lip, following the curvature of his chin. The kid took a hit from the cigarette and the talon raised up as if it were about to strike.
"Twenty bucks, as is," said Jeff. If I go through this box while you're here, I'll keep three at the most and then you'll get five bucks."
The kid had snatched the twenty from his hand and stormed out of the store. Jeff opened the first jewel case; it was empty. He looked at the label, Wide Spread Panic's Radio Child. He knew this game. At most there would be ten CDs in the box among thirty empty jewel cases, stolen from a house party he'd crashed and not the kind of music the kid would keep for himself.
Kids, he thought. He'd seen all kinds in the six years since he'd opened his own used record store. Some were pierced, metal-head runaways, gaunt and self-destructive, others were well-fed, squeaky clean suburban kids who bought their bubble-gum pop music downtown at his store for four dollars more than they'd pay at Target so they could feel cool. He'd seen a few of the metal-heads at night in the alley behind his store, sitting in a car with some older guy, jerking him off or letting the guy blow him. Every now and then one of the suburban boys would be getting a blow job, or giving one. The metal heads that didn't turn tricks sold drugs at Illusions, a gay bar down the street from his store. So much life, he thought, wasted. And for what? Music? Freedom? Escape? Theft and turning tricks seemed like the easy way out for him and not the cry of desperation or the result of a fucked up home life. What ever happened to just getting a job and working your way up, he wondered.
Leo had worked his way up; he didn't finish college until he was twenty-eight. His parents had cut him off when they found out he was gay so he got a job waiting tables and moved in with a friend who had graduated the year before until he finished high school. He'd waited tables and tended bar through college and then he took a management job at Pizza Hut because he'd had restaurant experience and the job paid well.
"So what about you?" Leo had asked, handing Jeff his vodka and tonic. He was the only person at the bar that particular Sunday night at New York, New York. "Why used records? Do you have a degree in music?"
"No, history, but I play keyboard and guitar. I was in a band for about ten years but we didn't get anywhere. I guess I just wanted to stay in the industry in some way, wanted to be my own boss. I sell new music, too."
Jeff sipped his vodka and tonic. Leo leaned across the bar and put his hand on Jeff's shoulder. "You know, I've always thought you were so handsome."
"No, I mean it. You always look put together, the way you dress, the way you carry yourself. Even tonight, you're just wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but your clothes fit and your hair is always nice."
"Thanks. I'm glad somebody notices."
"Oh, I'm not the only one who notices. So, why are you single?"
"I don't know. I guess that since my ex and I split, I never met anybody who had that spark. Know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I suppose. Maybe you don't need a spark; maybe you need a slow burning fire, like me."
Jeff laughed at the metaphor and sipped his drink. Leo lit a cigarette and blew a plume of smoke over Jeff's head. "You know what they say, where there's smoke..."
Jeff laughed again. The door opened and a group of students stumbled into the bar. Leo turned and looked at them and then turned back to Jeff.
"I'm so pathetic," said Leo, "the bartender is the one who is supposed to get hit on."
The students stampeded to the bar. One held out a handful of bills. "Two Long Islands, a Grey Goose and Tonic tall, an Alabama Slammer and a Rolling Rock," he called to Leo. The students all wore vintage clothes and needed haircuts. Two were speaking with British accents to each other. Probably drama students from CMU, thought Jeff.
"Got any ID?" asked Leo.
"What? We come here all the time." said the one with the bills.
"You do? So, how about those IDs so I can refresh my memory?"
"This is bullshit. The place is empty, don't you want to make any money? I'll give you a big tip."
"How about giving me those IDs?"
"Come on, let's go. We can go to Harris' down the street," yelled one of the other students in a weak British accent.
The students left. Leo followed their silhouettes as they passed the glass-block windows of New York, New York.
"The kid's got a point," said Jeff. "You're not making any money tonight."
"They're not worth the aggravation; besides, if I'd served them, I wouldn't have this chance to be alone with you. I'm sure it's the only chance I'll get, too. Another vodka and tonic?"
Jeff put up his hand.
"Just because I know how to wear jeans and a t-shirt doesn't mean that I'm worth the aggravation, either," he said, putting a ten on the bar.
The next jewel case was Cake's Fashion Nugget and the correct CD was in the case. He examined the CD, it looked almost new. He put it back into the case and set it with others that had to be priced and entered into the computer. The next one was Limp Bizkit's Significant Other and it looked almost new, as well. He studied the jewel case front and back; a cartoon character of a white rapper on the liner cover affirmed the title, Significant Other.
He had had a significant other once, one with spark, but he never referred to Mike as his significant other. Jeff preferred to call him his boyfriend, it was more accurate. Significant in what way and other how, he wondered. He couldn't stand PC terms like significant other. Christ, they were both gay guys. Mike was a painter and he was a musician, that was enough other for him and the fact that they were boyfriends was significant enough for him, too. They had artistic similarities, the same values. Neither denied what they were nor waved the rainbow flag. One of Mike's paintings, an 8' x 10' abstract in black and blue was hanging on the back wall of his store. Is that what he needed to find again, that kind of spark, the kind that exploded onto a canvas? Why not one that slowly takes over the canvas, starting gradually from a corner or somewhere on the stretched woven field? He'd never thought of looking for someone different than Mike until he recalled the last conversation he had with Leo. He didn't even think about it then. His mind had been made up, he knew what he wanted and Leo wasn't it. But why not somebody like Leo? Somebody like Leo, he laughed to himself. Hell, until today he didn't even know Leo's last name.
Adam came back into the store.
"Hey. I've got some information about Leo's memorial."
"There's a service tonight at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Friendship but there isn't going to be a viewing."
"No? What about his body?"
"He's being cremated tomorrow."
"You're kidding. He always seemed like the kind of guy who would have your standard funeral."
"That's what he wanted, quick and to the point. His family isn't very happy about it but he'd made the arrangements a couple of years ago, paid for it all in advance and left clear instructions in his will."
"Jeez, I wish I had that much forethought."
"He was like that, always planning ahead of time, like when we took this last trip, all I had to do was show up. I wrote him a check for my half when we got back."
"Really? Were you two dating?"
"No, just friends."
"So, what time tonight?"
"Seven o'clock." Adam turned to leave and then stopped. "Oh, I'll let you know if there will be anything at New York, New York. See you there," he said and left the store.
Natalie Merchant's Ophelia was the next CD. On the outside cover of the cardboard trifold CD jacket Natalie lounged in a black dress on a small gold sofa. He flipped open the jacket and there she was smoking a cigarette looking like an angry, young Liz Taylor; and in the following photo she was dressed as an adoring nun seated on the bed in her convent cell with her hands folded across her breast. On the night table beside the bed, lit candles surrounded a small statue of the Virgin Mary. He flipped to the next two photos which had her wearing a white uniform of sorts and medals with red, white and blue ribbons hanging from her neck. In the other photo she sat bunched up in a corner, barefoot, wearing a white hospital gown. One hand was holding her forehead, the fingertips of the other hand rested near her chin. In the next photo she wore a tweed suit, was sitting behind a desk covered with books and held an open book. The photo series ended on the back of the CD jacket with Natalie standing on a makeshift stage wearing white boots, black fishnet stockings, long red satin gloves, a red satin, one-piece bathing suit and a red satin cape with flames on the outside and lined with blue satin on the inside.
He flipped through the series of photos again. Natalie began as luxuriously glamorous and then angrily glamorous, then pious and then proud, then obviously disturbed and eventually settled with the countenance of an earned confidence and finally flamboyantly victorious, a devilish superhero. The photos depicted an odd life cycle. He wondered where the kid who dropped off the CDs was in his life cycle, which photo of Natalie fit him. He thought about it a moment and figured the kid was the angry Liz Taylor but quickly on his way to becoming the shattered Natalie cowering in the corner. Youth is very fragile and often skips the stages of a cycle, he thought. He saw himself as the studious Natalie but instead of books he had records and CDs. Adam was the proud Natalie wearing medals, and that would be where he would stay, content with his achievements. Edward was a mix of the luxurious Natalie, lounging in a gown on a sofa and the pious, adoring Natalie sitting on her bed in the convent in her black habit. In short, Edward was the embodiment of the Virgin/Whore complex. No one Jeff knew could be the victorious Natalie. No one he knew saw themselves as victorious or presented themselves that way. Leo wouldn't have considered himself victorious; at least Jeff didn't think so, but then again, he hardly knew Leo. Perhaps, Leo really was the devilish superhero. He examined the CD; it was in good condition so he slipped it back into the jacket and put it with the others.
He called Edward and left a message with the information, but he doubted that he would attend the service since he didn't know Leo at all. Jeff checked the time and locked the front door. He normally closed the store at six to catch customers going home from work but he decided to close at four so he could get ready for Leo's service. He turned off the lights, flipped over the open sign to closed and headed out the back door. The kid who had dropped off the CDs was in the alley talking to another kid and smoking a cigarette. Jeff got into his car, and in the rearview mirror saw money exchanged for a bag of weed. They looked at his car as he drove past and he wondered if they'd try and rob his store because the one kid was pissed that he hadn't given him the money he wanted for the CDs. He put the thought out of his mind. The store had a security system and he doubted the kid would cut off one of his few sources of cash.
The Fourth Presbyterian Church in Friendship had a pine clapboard ceiling and pine boxed beams soaring to its apex. The pews were pine, as well, and the floor was covered with faded indoor/outdoor carpeting worn threadbare. He accepted the program from the woman working the door and sat somewhere in the middle. The stained glass windows were darkened by the evening light. People entered in twos and threes. The pews creaked softly when they sat. He recognized, Bill, the owner of New York, New York and Josh and Jimmy, two of the bartenders. They nodded in acknowledgment. The other people scattered about the church appeared to be friends of Leo's parents and a few of Leo's coworkers from the Pizza Hut. His parents and close family members were sitting in the first row of pews on either side of the aisle. At the center of the altar, a simple wooden urn rested on a low table. Leo's photo, taken on the beach when his hair was darker, stood beside the urn.
So, this is what Leo wanted, simple, without pageantry, lacking the color and glamour of the Natalie Merchant photos. Maybe because Leo's photo was on an altar or perhaps it was the simplicity of the wooden beams, pews and urn, but for whatever reason, he suddenly imagined Leo as the adoring nun, an image that didn't jibe with the image he had of him as a bartender. Although, Leo did tend bar on Sunday nights.
In the silence of the anticipation for the service to begin, he wondered why Leo's family didn't approve of this kind of service or the cremation. Maybe they aren't Presbyterian, he thought, but then he imagined that accepting a faith different from their own must have been easier than accepting their son's homosexuality. Or maybe not, people are funny that way, everything must be under the umbrella of their own religion, even their son's nonconformist sexuality.
"Maybe you don't need a spark, maybe you need a slow burning fire, like me." Leo's words resounded in his head. Jeff didn't know what he needed. Leo was ash now, ash that had found its dry existence too quickly in his mind. As he recalled the entirety of their last conversation, he felt he had sounded cruel about his last remark to Leo about not being worth the aggravation. He had meant the remark to be witty given the situation at the time. Obviously, Leo had seen something in him that others had missed. He wished he could explain the remark but it was too late for that. He felt uneasy, as if he had wounded Leo. A believer would take solace knowing that all was put right at Leo's death but he wasn't a believer. Life was life and death was death. Death sucked, and sometimes so did life, all he had to do was look into the alley behind his store for confirmation. Still, he missed Leo and the compliments he had given him.
A few people at the end of his pew began to stand to make way for Adam and Edward. He nodded to them both and Edward sat beside him.
"You said you didn't know Leo," he said to Edward.
"I didn't, but I know you. You generally shrug off death like a rainy day. This one's bothering you, which either says something about you or about the deceased or both. My daddy always said that if you can count your friends on more than one hand you have too many. You don't have that many friends and it seems to me that you just lost one, whether you realize it or not."
Jeff tried to speak but Edward stopped him.
"I'm not counseling you. I just want you to know that I'm here for you."
A priest or minister, Jeff wasn't Presbyterian so he didn't know the man's official title, took up his position behind a podium and gestured to the woman near the door to close it.
Adam leaned across Edward and whispered, "Everybody is going to New York, New York after this. There's going to be food and the drinks are half price."
"Tonight's Wednesday, who's tending bar?" Jeff asked.
"Ted. He's there now setting up."
"What's his last name?"
"Williams. He's taking over Leo's Sunday nights."
The door rattled open. He, Edward and Adam turned around instinctively with the rest of the attendants. The kid from his record store, clean shaven without the talon grasping his chin and wearing slacks and a sport coat, whispered to the woman at the door, accepted a program, hurried up the aisle and sat up front with the family.
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