by Marie Esposito
Albert wore a silver cross in his left ear. It dangled like a hanged man. A new Eartha Kitt song, “Where Is My Man,” played over and over in his head. Albert pictured Eartha growling, wearing shiny leopard spandex and gold high heels. He took a sip of wine cooler. God, thought Albert, I wish I was Eartha Kitt.
Albert was waiting for his friend Paul at the Norseman Club downtown. Everyone thought Paul and Albert were ex lovers, but it wasn’t true. Albert had only slept with three men in his whole life. Four if you counted his cousin in the sixth grade, but Albert didn’t count him. Albert told Paul to meet him at the Norseman because he felt safe there. It was dark and gaudy and full of old queens. The bar was U shaped, the color of April mud, held together by a thousand layers of polyurethane. Most of the maroon vinyl cushions on the oversized barstools were cracked, exposing spongy, yellow guts.
A wrinkled man in a fur coat sat on the other side of the bar drinking Manhattans. He covered a glass ashtray with one dry, sallow hand, blowing smoke upward into cirrus clouds. Behind him hung a massive gold-framed painting of a one-eyed Norse god riding an eight legged horse among tiny people and tiny trees. Game show music bleated from a precarious overhanging television. The old man shouted, Ann-Margret, you idiot. The game show bleated back. God, thought Albert, I love this place.
Albert had just returned from a trip to Hawaii. His usual pale skin looked like a lightly toasted marshmallow. Ron, Albert’s lover of eight years, rushed them to Waikiki to “take their mind off things” when Albert told him he was HIV-positive. Ron had family money and bad timing. On the last night of their trip, Albert walked into the men’s room of the hotel lobby and caught Ron fucking a bellboy. Ron claimed it was stress. When they got home, Albert packed everything he could fit into his car and called Paul.
Paul hated the Norseman Club. It was dark and gaudy and full of old queens. Albert called him from there saying he’d left Ron. It’s about time, thought Paul. But now he’d have to cancel his date for the second time in a week. The first time, old Mrs. Rutgers was flown in from Florida for her wake. Paul needed to pick her up at the airport immediately. She looked like hell, and he spent hours on her hoping she’d at least resemble the picture the family gave him.
Funeral Director was never a career aspiration for Paul, but as he liked to tell people, he learned the business from the ground up. As a kid, he shoveled the sidewalk at Peabody’s Funeral Parlor, a small business three blocks from his parents. Mr. Peabody encouraged him, and he wound up in mortuary school. He excelled at his work, paying close attention to detail, staging grief like a Broadway show, wearing black beautifully.
The irony of Paul’s profession was not lost on him; his family was riddled with death. Two out of the five children had already died. The oldest boy was killed in a car accident when Paul was ten, and the youngest sister died of cancer five years ago. As the middle child, Paul sometimes felt the deaths of his siblings falling in on him like dominos. And now his friends were dying. And their friends. And more. Paul’s funeral home was becoming a “gay establishment,” the flower arrangements lavish, the music bold and eclectic, the lines at the wake like Saturday night at The Hippo, and Paul’s eyes just as haunted as the men who walked through his doors.
Getting ready to meet Albert, he thought about his sister’s wake. Albert passed around snapshots from a Halloween party, Paul and him wearing fuchsia lipstick and black minidresses. This prompted the only words his mother spoke that day. You boys have great legs. She loved Albert.
Paul was a junior in high school when he met Albert. He was popular, a member of the gymnastics team, the track team, and the student council. He had heard of Albert, a skinny freshman with a head of blond curly hair and a squeaky voice, known for taunting older boys until they beat the shit out of him. “Oooh, paisley,” he’d squeal, pointing flamboyantly towards the shirt of some enormous senior.
One day, Paul was running track and Albert yelled out to him, “Oooh, nice legs Pauly.” Paul flew on top of Albert and flattened him to the ground. The other runners cheered him on. Teach that little faggot a lesson Paul. He wrapped his legs around Albert and they rolled over and over. Albert’s yellow curls blurred against blue, then green, then blue, then green. Paul smelled Doritos and baby powder. He swung a few punches at Albert’s arm for effect. When Paul stood up he was flushed and breathing hard. Tears welled up in his eyes and he quickly wiped them into sweat.
A week later, Paul’s father went out on the front steps to get the Sunday paper and nearly fell over the curled up body of Albert. Shiny purple black bruises rose off his body like heat. A large gash of dried blood crossed his forehead, and his eyes were swollen into straight lines. “Is Paul home?” he squeaked. “I’m a friend of his from school.”
Paul’s father brought Albert into the house and after hearing what happened, called Albert’s father. They had words. Then, he woke up Paul. “Your friend Albert will be staying with us for a few days to give his tough guy father a chance to cool off.”
“My friend Albert?” said Paul.
In the kitchen Paul’s sisters were giggling with Albert. He was telling them Helen Keller jokes. When Paul walked in and saw his face, he felt a little sick. He put a strawberry Pop-Tart in the toaster like it was a perfectly ordinary morning. “What’s up?” he said.
The bartender brought Albert another wine cooler and commented on his tan. Albert was wearing a white sweatshirt to show it off. When the bartender left, he pushed one sleeve up to his elbow and studied a small magenta blotch on his forearm. He thought of all the bruises his father gave him. He hadn’t seen his parents in sixteen years.
When Albert was a kid he used to get up in the middle of the night, grab a hammer he kept under his nightstand, go to his parents’ bedroom, and stand over his sleeping father. He prayed for the strength to shatter his father’s head into a thousand splintery shards. But every night, the hammer grew heavy in his hands, his feet became numb with cold, his skin stretched taut across his fragile bones, and his prayer remained unanswered.
Albert stared at the monstrous god in the painting across from him, the tiny people, their tiny world, disappearing in swaths of smoke. Albert shivered and pulled his sleeve back down. “Please Paul,” he whispered into the dark air. “Please hurry. I want to go home.”
Marie Esposito lives in Rhode Island with her spouse, two daughters and three dogs. When not at the day job or spending time with her family, she blogs at ifyoucantwriteblog.wordpress.com and chips away at her novel.