Stella: Nonfiction by Hank Trout

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Stella
by Hank Trout

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] first met Jim the day I tried to pick up his boyfriend at the Polk Gulch Saloon.

The Gulch was a very busy neighborhood “dive,” the least pretentious gay bar in all of San Francisco, with the oddest mix of customers. Since the Gulch was at one end of the 1000 block of Post Street and I lived at the opposite end, I spent enough time there to be known eventually as a “regular.”

It’s a warm summer Saturday afternoon in 1984 at the Gulch; I’m playing my favorite pinball machine at the far end of the long narrow bar. A tall, black-haired, bearded, burly guy in his twenties walks up beside me and, as I finish playing one ball, he puts two quarters on the pinball machine—“Let’s play!” I introduce myself; his name is Bob, his handshake is strong and firm, his smile broad and sparkly. We play a game or two. As I’m playing he stands close behind me, real close, his hands on my butt. I buy him a beer between games and we continue banging the pinball machine and flirting heavily till, finally, I ask him,“What are you up to this afternoon? Wanna go to my place and smoke a bowl or two and carry on? I live just at the end of the block.”

“I’d love to, if my boyfriend can come along!”

Oh shit!

Bob turned from the pinball machine and pointed to his boyfriend Jim sitting at the opposite end of the bar. “Let’s go ask him,” Bob said, and led the way down the bar.

“Jim, this is Hank. He wants to take us home, get us high, and fuck me senseless!”

I never said Gulch customers were subtle!

Jim leaned back on his barstool, eyed me up and down, and growled, “Which end do you want, front or back?”

Again: real subtle.

Jim stood up and offered me his hand. He and I were both in our thirties and about the same height, but he was heavier than me, stockier, with the barrel chest and gut of a powerlifter. Like mine, his hair was already thinning and he had the same yarmulke-shaped balding spot at his crown. His neat beard and mustache were even redder than his ginger hair. He was an imposing presence; I could imagine him easily intimidating the hell out of anyone who crossed him.

I regret that no physical description of Jim can make you hear his voice. Imagine Tallulah Bankhead’s voice, after a month-long orgy of bad bourbon, chili dogs and unfiltered cigarettes; now drag that voice through a toxic waste dump and put it in Jim’s throat. That was his everyday speaking voice. The man’s vocal cords were made of steel wool soaked in battery acid.

The three of us did go back to my place and we did indeed get high, but after a half hour or so, we were all three laughing and joking and carrying on and having far too much fun to ruin it with sex. We laughed our way back to the Gulch.

When we entered the bar, our eyeballs must have been glowing neon red from the pot. The bartender and the customers who knew us looked at us with knowing, smiling faces.

“That’s right!” Jim bellowed as we walked in, his hands on his hips, “We DID IT! We did it ALL! Who wants sloppy seconds?!”

That afternoon was also the first time I heard someone call Jim “Stella.” I was quite puzzled. Really?! Someone actually dared to address this rugged, burly man as “Stella”?! It just didn’t fit; it didn’t make sense. Until….

The next Saturday afternoon, I was sitting at the Gulch, when Jim came blazing through the open door. He stopped in the doorway, dropped his hands to his side, tilted back his head, and with that battery-acid voice doing the worst Marlon Brando impression ever, yelled, “Stelllaaahh! STELLLAAAHH!!” He then walked to the bar and picked up a Budweiser from the bartender who never had to ask what Jim wanted.

Now, anyone who does a Marlon Brando impression that badly and that loudly without a shred of embarrassment is A-OK by me. I knew I’d made a friend for life.

Neither Jim nor I had ever done drag in our lives. But we came close once.

One Halloween, Jim and I and another co-conspirator from the Gulch named Robert started making plans to do a group gender-fuck. The idea was for the three of us, with beards and body hair still intact, to become a three-girl punk rock band. Our costumes were to consist of torn fishnet stockings, almost illegally short gold lame mini-skirts (I leave to your imagination what Stella planned to let dangle from under hers), dangerously high platform heels, torn halter tops, neon colored wigs spiked out, and enough make-up to make Marilyn Manson look like an amateur. Our names, of course, were Stella, Roberta, and Trixie—our band: Trixie Trout and the Trailer Trash. We made up an entire back-story for the band. Our first CD was entitled “Truck Stop Women”; the second, “You Bastard! You Made Me Eat Too Much Spaghetti!” And, of course, our imaginary history included many drug arrests, $35 abortions, and getting thrown out of several countries.

It’s Saturday afternoon, two weeks before Halloween; Stella and Trixie sit waiting at the Gulch for Roberta to show up to finalize plans for the Trailer Trash’s debut. But Roberta doesn’t show up. Roberta doesn’t come to the Gulch on Sunday, either. The following Saturday and Sunday, still no Roberta. The next time Stella and Trixie see Roberta at the Gulch is the day before Halloween. Roberta tells them that she has just been diagnosed with HIV. Instead of making plans for the Trailer Trash, Trixie, Stella, and Roberta go off to Roberta’s apartment to make other plans, plans they’ve all helped far too many other guys make before.

When Roberta dies a few months later, the Trailer Trash disband forever.

When Jim was diagnosed with HIV several months later, the biggest shock was that neither of us was surprised. In fact, a friend’s negative HIV test result usually surprised us more than the positive ones. It seemed some times that those of us who remained negative were the odd-men-out. We thought we were prepared emotionally for anyone’s positive diagnosis.

We were wrong. Nothing had prepared me for Jim’s news; nothing could soften that blow. The only thing that prevented my complete breakdown was Jim’s courage and determination. He swore that he would be the exception to the death sentence that a positive diagnosis was at the time; he vowed that no stupid fucking virus was going to put him down. “I won’t just be here for the cure, honey,” he used to proclaim; “I AM THE CURE!” And for a long time, he did hold off what seemed to be inevitable. He continued working and escaped most of the opportunistic infections and diseases that struck most of our positive friends. Even as his T cells vanished and his viral load spiraled out of control, he remained determined that Stella was going to live forever!

We promised each other that we would keep his diagnosis to ourselves, that we would go on terrorizing the Earthlings as if nothing was wrong.

It’s another sunny summer Saturday, this time in 1989. I’m sitting on the stoop at the front of the duplex I’ve rented on the north side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I’ve moved temporarily to be closer to my ailing parents. The phone rings; I answer.

“STELLLAAAHH!!” That battery-acid voice, strong, loud, and oh! so very welcome after not hearing from him for a month or more.

“Jim! How are you?! How’s San Francisco?!”

“Well, I’m calling from Florida.”

Florida? Gawd! What the hell are you doing in Florida?!”

“I’m from here, silly! You know that! [I did.] I’ve moved back here. I’m living with my mom.”

“Really?! Damn! I can’t imagine you not living in San Francisco! What brought that on?”

“Hank… I came home to die. I don’t want to die in San Francisco.”

The details of the rest of that conversation are gone for me. I know we talked for a long time. I hope I found something comforting to say; I hope he found something comforting to say; I hope Jim didn’t hear the sobbing in my gut that my mouth tried to disguise. I remember only a few things from the call. Mostly,…

“Wait! Let me go get a pen and paper—I want your new address and phone number.”

“No.”

What?! Whattya mean, ‘no’?!”

“I’m not giving you my address and phone number. And don’t try to ‘star-69’ me either—I’m calling from a pay phone at the hospital. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving San Francisco, and don’t you tell them either! I’m tired of it, Hank. I’m just so tired. I’m tired of the dying and the hospitals and the funerals, and I’m tired of my friends hurting. Let them be mad at me and wonder where I am. Do NOT tell them I’m dying!”

“Stella! No! You’ve got to stay in touch with me! Please! I promise I won’t tell a soul, I swear, but you’ve got to stay in touch with me! Please!”

“No, Hank. This is goodbye. I love you, you crazy fucker. I’ll always love you. Just remember—we’ll always be Trailer Trash!”

Click.

To this day, twenty-seven years later, I know nothing more about Jim—I don’t know how long he held on, or how or when he died, nothing.

I moved back to San Francisco on July 1, 1991, exactly two and a half years after leaving—turned out, my parents didn’t need me nearly as much as I needed to be with my Tribe.

The first time I went back to the Polk Gulch, there was no one there whom I recognized, no one I knew. The bartenders were all new; the customers, unfamiliar. I bought a bottle of Budweiser and set it down on the bar at the corner where I first met Jim. “This one’s for you, Stella,” I said. I turned and walked out of the Polk Gulch for the last time.


 

Hank Trout edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. His published writing has ranged from gay “smut” (his term!) to literary criticism of William Blake. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. He read two of his pieces at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco in June of last year.