by Paul William Kruse
Synopsis: Once Removed is a documentary play for solo performance. In an effort to understand his own Queer history, playwright Paul William Kruse uncovers the story of Jeff Mayne, his mom’s cousin who was lost to AIDS in 1993. Once Removed weaves together phone calls, memories, and historical research to connect two gay men from the Upper Midwest, separated by a lost generation and a legacy of silence. The following is an excerpt.
Audio files for recorded interviews are mentioned by name in the following. All recordings can be found here: https://www.paulwkruse.com/once-removed-au.
Please listen as you read!
A Diana Ross song plays and then fades.
PAUL: The first time I said the words, “I’m gay,” out loud to another person
I was on the phone.
I was absolutely terrified.
I’m sure I actually said something more like, “I think I’m gay.”
Or “I think I might be gay.”
Or “There is a very distinct possibility that I might not be straight.”
Right now, I’m alone.
I’m wearing a pink shirt. Pink is my favorite color.
We’re in a pandemic. Hopefully, it will be over when you read this.
Lately, I’ve been feeling very lonely.
So, I’m trying to call my mom more.
We talk on the phone once or twice a week.
There is a bright orange rotary phone
in the basement of the house where I grew up.
It’s installed on a wall near a bookshelf full of photo albums.
In the back of one of these albums, there is a family of blonde Minnesotans.
Their picture was taken some time in the late seventies or early eighties.
They’re sitting on a deck next to a picnic table.
The sun is shining down on them. It looks like they just had lunch.
These are my mom’s cousins.
She likes to say all their names together, and it’s pretty clear why.
They are Jim, John, Jane, Jeff, Joe, Jerome, and Jake.
Their last name is Mayne, like the state, but with a “Y” instead of an “I.”
Jeff Mayne, the middle brother, is missing from this picture.
I’m not sure where he is.
I can’t stop thinking about him.
As far as I know,
Jeff and I are the only members of our extended family who are gay.
Jeff and I both grew up in the Upper Midwest of the United States.
Jeff was from a town called North Branch in Minnesota,
which is about an hour north of the Twin Cities, depending on traffic.
I grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin,
which is about three hours south of that on the Mississippi River.
To give you a sense of what it’s like to grow up in the in Midwest,
The other day I accidentally ran into the kitchen table
And my first instinct was to apologize to it. I still feel very resentful.
We’re working through it.
The midwest is a place where arguments happen through smiles, cheese is a food group,
and you enter most rooms with an apology.
I’m second oldest of four boys.
Not as impressive as seven siblings like Jeff, but not too bad.
As I get older, my life looks less and less like my brothers’.
They all have wives and kids. They own their homes.
I always knew my life would be different,
even before I knew I was gay.
Growing up, I was more likely to play make-believe than football,
more into the color pink than the other boys.
I had my senior pictures taken holding an actual sword.
My mom says I was sensitive.
I felt like I was never totally sure how to be in my own skin.
I still feel that way sometimes.
I wonder if Jeff felt this same way.
We never got a chance to meet.
Jeff left home in his twenties and moved to LA, where he contracted HIV.
He then moved back to live with his mother, my great aunt Dolores.
He died in her house in 1993 at the age of 31.
I wonder if my mom was thinking about Jeff, when I came out to her.
The more I learn about Jeff,
The more I want to lay my life down next to his and compare.
PAUL: I was able to get in touch with Jeff’s only sister Jane to learn more.
File name “Positive” plays, a telephone call.
PAUL: Did you and Jeff talk on the phone a lot, when he was in LA?
JANE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, in the day it was long distance, you know,
JANE: It wasn’t cell phones and——So, um, a lot? No. But ah routinely? Yes.
JANE: I do recall when he called me and told me he was HIV-positive.
PAUL: Oh yeah, what was that like?
JANE: Yeah, well, it was scary, because, at the time,
it was a death sentence.
You know, you didn’t know anything different.
I recall he, um, took the disease on as a project.
And he went to every appointment and did all kinds of research,
And, of course, this is before the internet, you know.
And he—he, you know, would bring his little briefcase and—
and tell them what, you know, what kind of cocktail he wanted to try,
and treatment he wanted to shoot for and—um—
He went over every bill with a fine-toothed comb,
because he had a cap—
I’m going to say of a million dollars
or something on his health insurance policy.
And, of course,
with all kinds of medication and treatments that can go pretty quickly.
And I remember being at—ah—one of the places that I stayed with—
at, when I went to visit him and just the—
just the huge amount of pills—
JANE: Huge, huge, huge amount of y—of pills.
JANE: You know, various cocktails and,
you know, of things.
I didn’t sense a lot of thinking and feeling about it, no.
You know, some frustration at that end, you know,
and and emotion at the end,
just, you know, damnit,
JANE: you know. Damnit! This is—This is going to take me out—
JANE: kind of thing, not ah, not gonna—not gonna win.
And he liked to win. And he liked to be right.
File name “Moving Home” plays, a telephone call.
JANE: When he moved home from California to die, essentially,
Ah, he moved in with mom and Jerry,
and um, she was substitute teaching a little bit then,
and they stopped calling her to teach.
because, you know,
“Gal, there’s someone with AIDS living in your home
and we just don’t know what to do with—”
That wasn’t really spoken, but that was her—
her assumption of it—
JANE: Of, of why she wasn’t getting called anymore.
JANE: And my children were probably—
oh let’s see.
Bob was born in eighty-one.
So, Bob was, you know, eight or nine or ten, when Jeff came home.
JANE: And Andy was a—
Our other son was a couple years younger.
And, you know, we talked to them at length about, um, about AIDS,
and you know,
some people have ah,
you know, marry wives and are—
marry women and have—
are, you know, are are attracted to girls and some are attracted—
some people are attracted to boys.
And Jeff, you know—
Jeff is gay. And he has a—a very—you know, a very sad disease.
And he isn’t gonna live forever.
And, um, so, they got really close with Uncle Jeff.
And ah, he, of course, was doing all kinds of treatment and stuff,
while he was living with mom and—
You know, of course, losing weight and—um—
but he was just fanatical about protecting everyone else.
And—Um—Mom and Jerry had some kind of wood floors.
And um, we were—we were there and my, you know, my young kids with me, and
he’s like, “Wait! Everybody stand still.”
And he thought there was a spot of blood on the floor.
PAUL: Oh. Wow.
JANE: Um, and it it was water. It was just a wet spot,
but he wanted to be sure that everyone was,
you know, protected, and was safe and stuff.
Um, my youngest brother got married, I believe in August of ninety-one.
And Jeff died in January of, or so, of ninety-two.
PAUL: Jane later corrected this.
The wedding was actually August of ninety-two.
Jeff died in ninety-three.
Jeff singing begins in the background and grows louder throughout the next part.
JANE: So, six-ish months or so.
And, you know the, you know the Our Father song that’s sung at lots of weddings?
Who art in heaven.
PAUL: Yes. Yes. Yes,
Yeah, okay, that.
So, Jeff sang that the at the wedding of my brother
and some other songs too, but—
Um, at at one part there’s some pretty high notes and his little neck was so—
was so skinny.
And he’s just—
belted that out.
It was so awesome.
He sang the whole thing
and you could see him hanging on to the microphone stand,
so that he would,
you know, cause he was pushing all that breath out, so he wouldn’t pass out.
And fortunately, we have a horrible video of it,
because my husband was the videographer.
And a fan was blowing over the, the old VCR thing,
you know, at the time.
But, ah he did, did get video of him singing it at the rehearsal,
because he hit the high notes at the rehearsal,
and he didn’t quite hit it at the wedding.
But it was really awesome to see.
PAUL: Jane actually shared that video with me, and you’re hearing that right now—
That’s Jeff singing.
As he’s singing he’s holding on to the microphone and swaying back and forth.
His brothers Jerome and John are sitting behind him.
There’s a dark line that runs from Jeff’s cheek up the side of his nose to his eye.
At first I thought there was something wrong with the video.
And then I realized I was seeing his cheek muscle under his skin.
He’d lost so much weight by this point.
Paul William Kruse tells Queer love stories. As a playwright and media artist from Western Wisconsin, his work flows from his Catholic roots and ever-evolving experience of family. He is a founding member and resident playwright of Pittsburgh’s Hatch Arts Collective, co-founded with Adil Mansoor and Nicole Shero. Paul often writes collaboratively, drawing from his years of experience as a videographer and documentarian. He is a cohort member of Audible’s third Emerging Playwrights Fund. For more information: www.paulwkruse.com.