An unexpected event
Back at home with my father, things had taken a turn for the worse. It all started when Chuck went to the doctor for a routine physical. He was eighty-five, but he seemed to be in decent health, except for a spell of fatigue that hit him in the afternoon, which was best remedied with a nap. But routine blood tests led to the discovery that he had HIV. Father immediately got tested himself, but his tests came up negative.
“How does someone get HIV when they’re eighty-five,” asked my thirty-seven-year-old Father, shocked and devastated by the news that the love of his life was sick with a disease that then had no treatment.
“The same way they get HIV when they’re thirty-five,” said the doctor.
“At least I’ve lived a long life,” said Chuck. He was such a good sport that I didn’t even feel worried for him. I felt more worried about Father, who didn’t seem able to exist without him. He went with him everywhere, even to his proctologist or to the bathroom when he was having a bowel movement.
“You’ll live even longer. I’ll see to it that you do,” said Father.
Father was so adamant that Chuck would live, and live to the fullest, that every day he did something special for Chuck. One day he hired the entire cast of a circus to come perform in the backyard. The circus transported a bus full of clowns, a ringleader, a trapeze artist, and two contortionists, and an elephant to perform.
I stood by the cotton candy machine, which made pink and blue fluffs of cotton candy nonstop, and ate until I was gorged. I sat down in the bleachers next to Father and Chuck.
The performance had just begun, and we all had no idea to what depths the performers would sink. They must have not been used to playing in other non-circus like venues like our backyard. The trapeze artist, a miniscule woman in a sparkling red leotard, was next to perform. She took five steps forward on the trapeze, and ended up falling and getting caught in a miniature net, which Father described as “her web.” It took forty-five minutes for her to untangle herself, wherein the performance stopped, and the clowns got up into the net and helped her unravel. By the time she had conquered the net, she had rope burns all over. Another neighbor sitting in the bleachers next to us was a doctor, who examined the trapeze artist and put Bactine on her various lacerations.
Then the sprinklers came on and washed all the makeup off the clowns when they were getting out of a tiny car on our lawn. Even their red puffy noses came out in the torrent. Their red wigs were blown away in the machine-gun precision of the firing of liquid. Without their makeup and noses and wigs, they looked just like ordinary pathetic middle-aged men in polka-dot pantaloons. Their characters and spirits broken, they began to fight among themselves, hitting each other with their fists. Afterwards, the doctor applied much Bactine again, and bandages.
“That was not the greatest show on earth,” said Father. But Chuck had fallen asleep next to him despite the loud circus music.
But Father didn’t give up trying to make Chuck’s every day filled with so much bliss that he was utterly exhausted after a few weeks. Father took Chuck and I up in a hot air balloon, where we had a picnic in mid-air of caviar and Brie and champagne. San Francisco looked like a smattering of roads with tiny cars interweaving between the buildings, and the balloon drifted higher and higher until the cars and houses looked smaller. The Golden Gate Bridge looked miniature from up in the sky. The cars on the bridge were gathered together like birds pecking over seeds. Only the ocean looked big under us. Chuck became nauseous and started vomiting over the side of the balloon when it started to drift a little too quickly toward the ocean. Then Father got sick from watching Chuck vomit, and then I got sick from watching the two of them vomit. We all vomited over the edge, scattering our caviar and Brie onto the waves for the seagulls to eat.
Then Father insisted that if we jumped out of an airplane our lives would be complete.
“I am not jumping from any airplane,” said Chuck. “I’ll go up with you, but when it comes time to jumping, I won’t do it. The only one of us that will be soaring out of that airplane will be you. Because I’ll push you out.”
“We’ll see about that. Once you get up there, you’ll want to jump,” he said.
He took us both up in an airplane, but we declined to jump, pushing Father out instead to fall out through the air and land head-first in a tree, where he got stuck for an hour, waiting for us to find him.
When we got to him, he was caught by the fabric of his pant legs in the branches, hanging upside down so that the blood all rushed to his head, making his face look as purple as an eggplant. As we pulled him down from the tree, he started to complain that we had pushed him against his will, and that he really had no intention of actually jumping himself.
“I warned you that I’d push you,” said Chuck.
But Father didn’t want Chuck feeling any sorrow whatsoever. Being that it was 1986 with no treatments then for HIV or AIDS, he had no idea how long he had left to live. He wanted Chuck to experience as much joy out of every moment as humanly possible. This caused him to hire a throng of exotic dancers one day to parade in front of Chuck at the house. The dancers arrived dressed in costumes, one as a policeman, another as a firefighter, a third as a construction worker, and a fourth in some sequined shorts outfit that looked a little like a drag costume. The policeman was the first to strip, and he told Chuck that he was going to have to arrest him because he had been a very bad boy.
Chuck laughed and told Father, at first, to send the strippers home.
But Officer Touch Me Tender said, “Oh, please let me strip for you. My sister needs an operation on her kidneys, and I could really use the money. We all could.”
“I have two children who need to be fed,” said the firefighter, his biceps flexing as he pleaded.
“I have to support my ailing mother,” said the construction worker.
“I just like dancing,” said the sequined man.
Chuck looked guilty. He didn’t want to make these poor dancers miss out on good work.
“Just let them dance,” said Father. “You’ll enjoy it.”
“I really don’t enjoy watching anyone dance but you,” said Chuck.
“Since when have I ever danced for you,” said Father.
“Well, I would rather watch you dance than these strangers,” said Chuck.
But he had too much of a soft spot to turn them away. “All right. You may dance,” he finally said. Officer Touch Me Tender turned on his music and started stripping. By the time the hunky construction worker had stripped down to a g-string and kept thrusting his crotch in Chuck’s face, Chuck’s eyes rolled back, and Chuck fell on top of him. At first Father thought that Chuck was trying to put the moves on the worker, and he tried to pull him away from him. Chuck’s hands grabbed at the g-string as if to pull them down. But when Father tried to pull him away only to have Chuck fall down, Father knew that he had died.
Father called the paramedics, and a man in a skimpy paramedics outfit did arrive just a few minutes later. But it turned out to be another stripper who’d showed up late. It was only after the real paramedics showed up after twenty minutes that they pronounced that Chuck had died of a stroke. Father was so worried that Chuck was dying of AIDS that the possibility of a stroke had never occurred to him.
“Someone should put me in jail for killing that man. He was the greatest man that ever lived, and I shocked him to death. I wanted him to live, not to die,” Father said when we arrived at the hospital.
“It wasn’t your fault that he had a stroke. You didn’t know that would happen to him,” I said. We were in the waiting room, though it was not clear to any of us what we were exactly waiting for. There was nothing anyone could do to revive Chuck. The strippers had come down to the hospital in support. The construction worker bowed his head in respect, though he was still wearing only a g-string.
“I’m sorry about your boyfriend,” said the worker. “He seemed like a very nice man.”
“He was the nicest of men,” said Father. “I didn’t deserve him.” Then Father started to cry. The crying was so loud you could hear it all through the hospital.
A doctor ran into the waiting room, his forehead lined with worry. “Is everything all right here?” he asked.
“No, my boyfriend has died. Nothing is all right,” said Father.
“But you aren’t dying,” asked the doctor.
“Unfortunately not,” said Father.
“It sounded like you yourself were dying,” said the doctor. I was half-expecting him to start stripping, but he remained clothed and stared at the strippers in the room.
“You guys should have more clothes on here. This is a hospital,” said the doctor.
The police officer blushed. The worker bowed his head even lower. The firefighter put his hands in front of his crotch to cover himself.
We all headed home in the Bentley.
Fortunately, Chuck had changed his will so that Father received his estate when he died. So we were not homeless. We just felt as if we were. Without Chuck to yell to, I didn’t know what to do. The house was so quiet. The silence was heavy. It weighed on Father and I until we moved as if we were walking through a swamp. One day Father decided to write a comedy about Chuck. It was entitled An Unexpected Event which premiered at a small theater in the area to varied reviews and a miniscule audience.
But at home, Father wasn’t laughing. He wouldn’t laugh for a long while after Chuck had died.
Sullivan’s poetry, fiction, and articles have been published in Sheila-Na-Gig, Red Wheelbarrow, and the Nob Hill Gazette. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She makes a living as a special education teacher. “An unexpected event” is the seventh chapter of Idiot Wind, a novel about growing up with a famous monologuist mother and a gay father who is also a famous playwright.