UNCLE FRANK WAS A FLAMING GAY WAITER who collected large porcelain animals and fancy dolls off the shopping channel. There was a lot of fake gold leaf, too. When he was a young man, he left the prairies with his boyfriend, changed his name and went to Californ-i-ay, before finally coming back to the west. Grandma would never call him by his new name and I often wonder why he ever came back from a place where you could pick fresh fruit anytime, oranges and grapefruits from a tree in your backyard. Sometimes I have this vague feeling that I might leave too but I would go to New York City where artists dream to go and live in abandoned warehouses and I’d sleep in a claw foot bathtub that sat in the middle of the room until I had enough money to buy the wood I’d need to build a loft bed. I’d lie in that bed and wonder why I didn’t move to a place where I could grow my own fruit trees. Nobody knows what happened to my uncle’s boyfriend, no one even knew his name, but my uncle still worked as a waiter and he could fold a white linen napkin like a swan and make you feel like a queen when you were eating at the downtown restaurant where he worked. His gay apartment was near the river and it was a ten-minute walk up or down a hill depending on the time of day. Everyone loved him except some people in the family were always threatening to kill him by accident. Like that time everyone was drinking drinks and cracking jokes on his concrete balcony imagining how far fags can fall before they turn into fairies. During these joke times I thought I could smell something bitter that left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t fully understand what I was getting
a whiff of, but I sure knew it meant danger. They let my soft ears hear what I wasn’t supposed to hear, because these stories were stay-inline stories.
We were all downstairs in my aunt Rose’s dimly lit basement that was decorated in that always-ready-for-a-party kind of way. Aunt Rose was screaming ah sugar, she wanted us kids to sing ah sugar at the party and I was feeling shy because my uncle Frank’s new girlfriend Birdie was there, but we did it anyways. We sang our loudest with the Archies, thrust our hips in and out, side to side. I could see my mom get cold and turn away and some of the adults thought it was funny and we thought it was sexy and we meant every word that we sang. I pulled up all the courage I could muster and looked over to Birdie when I belted out, I’m going to make your life so sweet, and she gave me a shimmy and a grin that made my heart sing.
There in the basement with the purple shag rug was a painting I fell in love with because you could touch it, it was a painting of Elvis on black velvet, and it was soft and hard and the white paint glowed yellowish green. And the frame, the frame was smooth and brown and it was made in Bath, Maine, and it had Eileen’s name on the back. This frame made by Eileen. There was also a steel support pole in the middle of the room and a round bench built around it. Deep purple crushed velvet. My aunt had a shrine set up for Elvis and sometimes she would put on a record of his and sit on that bench and cry and cry, don’t be cruel, ooohhhooo to a heart that’s true. But then she’d start laughing and make for a good time. Aunt Rose liked to collect clothes and when she needed to clear out her closet she’d send us large green garbage bags full of the clothes she didn’t want anymore. Tonight I am wearing canary yellow pants and a matching vest with a baby blue shiny shirt, and thanks to my aunt I feel like a million bucks.
After our performance, my cousin and I were sitting at the pressed wood mahogany bar, on the tall stools, looking at each other in the smoked glass mirrors behind the bar. There were bottles of booze and glass shelves with beer and whiskey tumblers and upside-down wine glasses in case you wanted to step up your glass of Baby Duck. The adults were all smoking and drinking and misbehaving and my uncle Frank came over to the bar with Birdie.
She was the tallest woman I had ever seen, you know really elegant like the show girls who danced in feather costumes on the stages of Las Vegas. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had some kind of sexy magic I wanted to be close to. Everything seemed right about
her. Her hair done just so, and when she laughed the air around her sparkled with a quality I couldn’t quite describe yet. My cousin and I were painting our Frankenstein figures, you know the kind of models that you put together with model glue and then you painted them and they glowed when you turned off the lights. Seemed like everything glowed in the dark that year. There were posters too, that you coloured with felt-tipped pens someone stole from Woolco. You’d stay up too late by yourself colouring at the table and no one cared because the adults were high or drunk or just checked out.
Birdie perched on the brown vinyl barstool beside me crossing her legs at the ankles. I felt like I was under a magic spell when she picked up my Frankenstein and said, Frankie, Frankie needs a drink, to my uncle Carl who was so handsome, he even had a Marilyn Monroe goddam mole that’s how handsome he was with brown skin and black hair that swooped up in a wave just like Elvis. Sometimes on Saturdays he’d take me to the city market and we’d buy fresh crab and the kinds of vegetables you couldn’t find at Safeway. The floor of the market was concrete and it smelled like fish and cool air until you walked into the produce section and then it smelled fresh and green. After my uncle bought what he needed he’d take me to this one same stall every time where a woman with a kind smile and black hair would sell us small sweet kumquat oranges in a net bag made of green plastic.
Uncle Carl looked at Birdie and said, coming right up, pouring her rum and Coke into a silver mirrored glass and stabbing a maraschino cherry with a pink plastic sword and sliding the drink toward her in one smooth motion. She plucked that sword out of the glass and held the cherry in front of my mouth and she raised her eyebrows in that special inviting way that made me feel sweet and warm between my legs. I bit off half of the cherry, careful so it wouldn’t fall off the sword and she ate the rest of the firm, red fruit, handing me a wink before she slipped away from the bar, my gay uncle following her.