This is the first – and to date only – short story I’ve published. (I gotta work on that productivity thing.) It first appeared in The New Quarterly and then in 07: Best Canadian Stories. It’s a very personal story and takes me back to a time in my life that was long ago and yet, seems so recent. Funny how that works.
The Big Bang
Louie was the one with the money. His father owned a door and lock business and had groomed Louie and his younger brother to take it over. But, as Louie pointed out, “That shit was not for me.” After a few years of dealing with deadbolts and panic bars, he sold his half of Grenville Locksmiths Ltd. to his brother and went into business with Dorika. The two of them had been friends for years. On any given night, you could find Louie sitting at his table in the restaurant, his reading glasses teetering on the edge of his nose. He was a stout man with dyed black hair and slanted eyes, resembling the Eskimo dolls sold in souvenir shops. When he spoke, his words came slow and thick, as though poured.
“I fucking did it,” he liked to say after too many gin and tonics. “I took a chance and look at me now. I’m the captain of my own ship.”
“Too bad this place is the Titanic,” Glenn-with-two-ns would say. We waited tables together in the evening.
“The ship,” as Louie referred to it, was The Big Bang, a small restaurant in an old Victorian house. The building had sat vacant for a number of years. I knew this because I lived down the street in a bachelor apartment and would pass the “For Lease” sign on my way downtown. When Louie and Dorika took it over, they steam-cleaned the carpets, hung new curtains and stencilled gold stars on the table tops. One of Louie’s friends made a solar system out of Styrofoam balls which hung over the bar. The menu offered Saturn burgers, Milky Way cheesecake and Extraterrestrial Eggs Benedict for brunch.
“Am I cooking for a restaurant or an episode of Sesame Street?” Mario would ask. A recent graduate of chef school, Mario had shown up for his interview on a motorcycle and was hired on the spot. “Solar Caesar salad with asteroid croutons? It doesn’t even make sense.”
“You see these?” Louie dangled a pair of rocket-shaped salt and pepper shakers in Mario’s face. “I had to travel to fucking North Bay to get them.”
Unlike Louie, Dorika had come from a restaurant background, working as a waitress for years before The Big Bang. The first time I met her, she was doing cartwheels in the dining room.
“This isn’t a bad acid trip,” Louie said. “This is your other boss.”
“I used to be a gymnast in Hungary,” she said, walking over to me. “But then I discovered smoking. Who are you?”
Her voice carried an accent. Her hair was a strange shade of yellow and her eyelids were blue. There was a noticeable gap between her two front teeth. Over the next few weeks, I’d learn that she was divorced, that her son was killed in a car crash and that she’d poured whatever savings she had into The Big Bang.
“I’m David,” I said.
“Are you a gay, too?”
“Of course he is,” Louie said. “Look at his shoes.”
Later in the evening, she pulled me into the kitchen. “Be careful with Louie,” she whispered. “That bitch will eat you up if you get on his bad side.”
Glenn-with-two-ns felt that Louie and Dorika were naïve in their entrepreneurship and that, if the restaurant was going to survive, it needed someone more knowledgeable at the helm.
“First thing I’d do is get rid of the cheese factor,” he said, pointing at the mobile that hung above us. “Hello? Mars doesn’t have rings.”
In addition to waitering, Glenn-with-two-ns was also a stylist at Hair Apparent three days a week, operated a successful Tupperware business out his basement apartment and planned to open his own full-service men’s spa within two years.
“I barely have time for intrigue,” he sighed, twisting his blond highlights into razor-sharp spikes. I called him “Glenn-with-two-ns” (although never to his face) because that was how he introduced himself to me. He approached me one night at Serendipity, the city’s only gay bar, and said I should come see him at his salon.
“Your hair is completely schizophrenic,” he said. “You need help. My name is Glenn. With two ns.”
I took his card and called him a week later. While I was in his chair, he told me that his friend Louie was looking for a part-time waiter and did I have any experience? I emerged from Hair Apparent an hour later with the phone number for The Big Bang and the exact same haircut as Glenn-with-two-ns. It stood up straight as exclamations points.
“Oh honey, you’ve seen Glenn, haven’t you?” a large man said to me when I came in for my interview a few days later. He was sitting at the bar with his tie draped over his shoulder. “One of my good girl friends went to see him and she walked out looking like a dyke. She was devastated.”
He said his name was Eddy and he worked the lunch shifts. While I waited for Louie to arrive, Eddy offered me a martini and said it was important that I get the “inside scoop” about The Big Bang, the most important being that Louie and Glenn were having an affair.
“It’s repulsive,” Eddy said. “The amount of preferential treatment that Glenn gets around here is insane.”
He placed my martini on the bar and leaned in close enough for me to notice the blackheads on his nose. “Watch your back at all times. You can never be too careful, especially in places like this.”
“Like this,” I came to learn, was Eddy’s way of ensuring I knew The Big Bang was beneath him. He’d worked for years at a number of finer establishments across the city but came to The Big Bang out of loyalty to Louie.
“He needed someone like me to give him the credibility. Once people found out I was working here, they would come. Moths to a flame, sunshine.”
The “moths” were Eddy’s fans, although I had yet to meet one myself. But he did have his market cornered. While he wasn’t the only drag queen working in the city, he was the only one who did Judy Garland. He also dabbled in Carol Channing and would break out into Bette Davis if someone requested it. But Judy was his speciality.
“What an explosion that little woman was! No bigger than a thimble, but a Mack Truck of talent!”
I don’t know what drew Eddy to Judy in the first place. He was more Cowardly Lion than Dorothy. At just over six feet, Eddy weighed well over two-hundred-pounds. He was in a constant struggle to keep his pants up over his stomach and love handles. A “thimble” he was not. There was nothing feminine about his features, either, in spite of the fact that he’d plucked his eyebrows into obscurity. And even though he was well into his thirties, his face was scattered with pimples. The most distinguishing thing about Eddy, though, was his teeth. It wasn’t so much the colour of them (which varied from pearl to grey to beige) but the size of them. They were small and widely spaced, as though his adult teeth had never come in. Glenn-with-two-ns referred to them as “doll teeth.” Eddy wasn’t self-conscious about them. When he laughed, he threw his mouth wide open. And when he lip-synced to a Judy Garland song (there was an endless supply of her CDs behind the bar, courtesy of his private collection), his lips peeled back with abandon. I’d come in for my shift and find him sitting on a bar stool, a cocktail in hand, lip-synching to his reflection in the mirror that ran along the back wall of the bar.
“I popped out of my mother’s pussy singing, ‘Meet Me In St. Louis,’” he told me one day. “When the doctor slapped me, I turned to him and said, ‘What? You prefer ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow?’”
The first time I saw Eddy perform was at an AIDS fundraiser. He’d been rehearsing for weeks and was unable to talk about anything else. We knew all the gory details about his dress, his wig, his all-out brawl with the Diana Ross impersonator performing on the same bill.
“I am positively fatigued,” he said, throwing his head down on the bar.
“I’m sure you’ll be great,” I said. Eddy lifted his head and placed a hand on my wrist.
“Promise me you’ll come, sunshine. I’m counting on all of my friends being there.”
I had no option but to say yes. I’d found excuses for missing his previous shows and had run out of them. Besides, I was more than a little curious to see what Eddy was like on stage. When I went to Serendipity that night, a Barbra Streisand impersonator was finishing his routine.
“If anyone wants to stick his dreidel in my bagel,” Barbra said to the half-empty bar, “I’ll be backstage.”
A red-headed M.C. emerged from the far right. “Let’s hear it for Miss Barbra Streisand!” he said. “Y’all having a good time tonight or what?”
He was the first of many Reba McIntyre drag queens I’d see in my life.
“Y’all don’t forget to check out the silent auction! Y’all could win a blender.” He cleared his throat and checked the cue cards in his hand. “And now, folks, it’s time for me to bring out one of the finest performers in this city. Y’all give it up for the one and only Miss Judy Garland!”
There was some applause. Someone whistled. And then Eddy, or should I say, Judy, emerged from the shadows. He was tightly bound in a green sequined dress. A short brown wig was wedged onto his head and even from where I stood, I could see the thick layer of make-up on his face. His eyelashes were as fat as tarantula legs. I didn’t recognize the song and it seemed as though Eddy didn’t, either. He strutted from one end of the dance floor to the other, calf muscles threatening to pop out of his nylons, his mouth rarely moving in sync to the lyrics. He finished with a dramatic standstill, raising one arm to reveal a dark, wet circle.
“How utterly tragic,” I heard someone behind me say.
There was a fluttering of applause as Eddy took his bows. Reba came out again, telling us to give it up for Judy, that took a lot of work, for heck’s sake. Eddy seemed pleased with himself. He air-kissed Reba and then skipped off the stage. He was followed by Arnie, a man in a cape, who announced he was the city’s first openly gay magician.
Louie sometimes complained that even gay people had a saturation point for Judy Garland. Glenn-with-two-ns said it was sad that a grown man had to go around pretending to be a woman, let alone a dead, drug-addicted one, in order to find any self-worth. Mario wasn’t sure who Judy Garland was in the first place. I thought Eddy would’ve made a better Ethel Merman. But no one really took issue with Eddy’s obsession. Except for Dorika. Perhaps it was because she was a woman or because her European roots gave her little patience for the North American cult of celebrity. Whatever the reason, she bore into Eddy like a jackhammer.
“Why do you go around like that?” she asked him once.
“Like this.” Swinging her hips in an exaggerated fashion, Dorika pranced around the dining room, her hands dangling like dead weights from the ends of her arms.
“Women don’t walk like that,” she said “Why do the gays always think they know more about being a woman than a woman?”
“Well, you could use a few pointers, honey,” Eddy said. “Blue eye shadow? I’m sorry, but…”
“Girls, please,” Louie said. “I can’t sit here and listen to both of you get into it. Again.”
“She started it,” Eddy said, lighting up one of his Benson and Hedges menthol cigarettes. “I was minding my own business until girlfriend decides to get all Hungarian Rambo in my face.”
“Don’t you call me girlfriend! I am no girlfriend of yours! You don’t like women.”
Dorika marched out of the dining room and into the kitchen, leaving a thick trail of perfume.
“Is she taking her medication?” Eddy asked.
“She’s going to fucking kill someone one of these days,” Eddy said. He pointed a long fingernail at Louie.
“She’s harmless. I’ve known the woman for years. She’s crazy. But she’s not dangerous.”
“What kind of medication is she on?” I asked.
“You name it,” Louie said, one eye on the kitchen door. “But say nothing. She doesn’t like people to know.”
When she came out of the kitchen a few minutes later, she seemed calm. “Louie, when are we going to talk about those papers?”
“Whenever you want. Call me and we’ll set up a time.”
“Make sure you pick up the phone this time.” She grabbed her coat from the chair and without a word to the rest of us, walked out the door and got into her powder blue Chevette. We watched as her rear bumper came within an inch of hitting Louie’s Oldsmobile.
“Sweet Jesus,” Louie exhaled, as we watched her take off down the street. “She shouldn’t be driving. It was her fault, you know.”
I asked him what he meant.
“She was the one driving when her son was killed. He was seven years old. Imagine having that hang over your head for the rest of your life.”
The beginning of the end, when I look back on it, started New Year’s Eve. Louie had given Glenn-with-two-ns the night off, something that didn’t sit well with either Eddy or myself. But we were both pacified by what was sure to be a profitable night. The restaurant, for once, was fully booked. Mario prepared a special prix fixe for the evening. Louie printed off coloured sheets of paper to post at Serendipity that read “Blast off into the New Year with The Big Bang! A decadent six-course meal. $75. Includes hat.”
“Includes hat?” Mario asked.
Louie sighed. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch. I’m just trying to lure them in with the free shit.”
“As opposed to the food? This is such complete bullshit.”
Just before dinner service was set to start, Eddy came out of the bathroom, wearing his Judy wig.
“Can you think of a better way to ring in the New Year?” he asked. “What a hoot!”
Outside, a familiar car horn sounded. We looked up to see Dorika’s Chevette pull into the parking lot. She jumped out, a cigarette clamped between her teeth.
“Oh Christ,” Louie said.
She yanked open the door and marched straight for Louie. She wore dark sunglasses and bumped into two tables. “Are you trying to kill me?”
Louie rubbed his eyebrow. “Coffee, Dorika?”
“You are trying to kill me and take the restaurant!”
“Honey, it’s New Year’s Eve. Can we talk later?”
“You heard me.” Dorika leaned across the table, bringing her face within inches of Louie’s. “You think I don’t know what you’re up to? I got a letter today, Louie. From your lawyer.”
“Dorika, why don’t you go and see Mario in the kitchen? I’m sure he’d love to see you.” Louie pushed his glasses up his nose.
“You tricked me!” Dorika spat. “You told me to sign those papers.”
“I did nothing of the sort, Dorika. You’re talking nonsense.”
“I can’t believe you would do this.” There was a dead chill in her tone. “You’re not going to win.”
“That was better than an episode of Dynasty,” Eddy said as we watched the Chevette take off down the street.
“What papers did Dorika sign?” I asked him.
“Can the chicken coop keep it down over there?” Louie yelled. “We’ve got our first reservation in fifteen minutes and there’s no goddamn cutlery on the tables. Take off that fucking wig, Eddy.”
We went non-stop that evening and when midnight arrived, the restaurant erupted in a burst of confetti and whistles and squeals. Louie strolled from table to table, wearing a rubbery smile, wishing everyone the very best for the New Year.
“The pleasure is ours. I hope you come back again.”
“He’s piss-drunk and I’m not cleaning up that confetti,” Eddy said.
When the last table left shortly after one, Eddy and I sat down to sort through our bills.
“My feet are killing me,” he said. “This is the last time I wear flats. I mean it.”
Louie came out of the kitchen with a piece of paper in his hand and told us it was Mario’s resignation letter. “He spelled ‘asshole’ with a ‘w.’ Either of you know any cooks?”
Eddy said that one of his friends – a former boyfriend to be precise – had just been released and was looking for work.
“Released from what?” Louie asked.
“Not that it should matter, but jail. He didn’t kill anyone. It was just drugs.”
Louie told Eddy that he’d done some stupid things in his life but recommending a criminal to work at the restaurant was topping the list.
“I wouldn’t recommend someone I didn’t trust,” Eddy said. “He wasn’t some trick. We were very close.”
“How long did you date?”
“Two months,” Eddy said, but quickly pointed out that they were two very intense months and he kept in close touch while Claude was in prison and that counted for something.
“I’ve been here since Day One, Louie,” Eddy said. “Since Day One.”
Louie got up from the table. “I’m out of here. Does one of you have the keys to lock up?”
“What an asshole,” Eddy said once Louie had gone. “And that’s asshole with a ‘w.’”
“How about you fix us a couple of martinis?”
Eddy went to the bar. “I’ll make a Windex martini. You ever try one of those?”
I shook my head and said I’d try anything once. “So what’s going on between Dorika and Louie?”
“How should I know?”
“But you must know something. What letter was she talking about tonight?”
“Don’t get caught up in this. Trust me, it’s not worth it. She’s crazy. He’s an alcoholic. Enough said.”
He brought two martini glasses filled with blue liquid to the table. “I wonder if there’s a way I could get Claude in for an interview. That’s all he’d need to prove himself. He’s not a con. I know what you’re thinking.”
I told Eddie he was wrong, that he didn’t have the slightest clue what I was thinking. And then I asked him the question that had been on my mind from the very beginning.
“Why Judy Garland? Of all the movie stars and singers in the world you could’ve picked, why her?”
I was expecting Eddy to say that she was the one that picked him. Or that Judy was just as glamorous and far more talented than the others. Or that it was none of my business. But instead, he took a long sip of his drink and then laid his hands flat on the table between us.
“When I was sixteen, I went into my parent’s garage, shut the door and turned the car on. I laid down in the back seat of my father’s Buick, listening to the radio and waiting to die. Five minutes later, Judy came on the radio. It was ‘Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.’ And thirty seconds after that, the car was off and I was back in my room. It was years before I knew that the woman who had saved my life that night had once cut her throat with a piece of glass.” He picked up his martini glass and clinked it against my own. “That’s why I do Judy, sunshine. You know, you may want to consider drag yourself. You’ve got magnificent cheekbones.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “I don’t think I’m exactly the type.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Eddy said. “Don’t underestimate yourself. Sometimes, there’s no better bang than stepping out of your shoes and into the pumps of someone else.”
A winter storm roared through the city the following week. I watched as snow blew under my front door. I was scheduled to work and doubted anyone would be hungry enough to venture out, but I bundled up, pulled on my boots and made my way to the restaurant, keeping my head down against the wind. Eddy was sitting at the bar when I arrived, sucking back a Benson and Hedges. “The Trolley Song” was playing over the speakers. The restaurant was empty.
“Thank god you made it!” he said. “I was afraid I’d be stuck here.”
“It’s awful out there,” I said.
“Lunch was dead. I’d blame it on the weather, but I think you-know-who had more to do with it.” He wagged a finger in the direction of the kitchen. The you-know-who was Marty. Louie had hired him to replace Mario. A friend of a friend, Marty came from Sault Ste. Marie and claimed to have been the head chef at the Will O’ the Wisp, one of the city’s high-end restaurants. Eddy said there was no high-end anything in the Sault. So far, Marty’s specials had included Spaghetti with Meteor Meatballs and Lunar Liver. No one was impressed, even though Louie seemed oblivious.
I pulled off my boots and took my shoes from the shopping bag I’d carried them in. “Has Louie been around?”
“He was here this morning. Then Dorika called and he left. I haven’t heard from him since. Listen, can I tell you something? Promise you won’t tell?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
He said he was leaving. Not just the restaurant. The city, too. He couldn’t stand it anymore. Could not stand it. Everyone knew everyone. It was incestuous. “No one appreciates good drag, either. Do you have any idea what I could make in the States or even Toronto?” He had a friend in Toronto, a Dolly Parton impersonator, who said Eddy could stay with him at any time, for as long as he needed.
“What do you think Louie will say?” I asked.
“He’ll hit the roof,” Eddy said. “He knows how hard it’ll be to replace me.”
He’d stay for another month, he said. Then he’d be gone like the wind.
No one came to the restaurant that night. Marty’s dinner special, Big Bang Burritos, would end up a lunch special for the rest of the week. He came out of the kitchen at various times throughout the evening, attempting conversation, but I gave him one word answers and sat at Louie’s table, staring at the snow. The storm had eased up and the flakes fell lightly, settling on the roads and rooftops in a way that seemed thoughtful.
“Where is everyone?” Louie asked when he came back. I could smell the cold air coming from his skin and coat.
“Home,” I said. “It’s been like this for the night.” He took off his jacket and told me that Dorika had admitted herself to the hospital. For once, he said, she did the right thing.
“I went to her house to get a few of her things. There was mouse shit on the dining room table. I was just beside myself. Who wants a drink?” He went behind the bar. “Everywhere I look it’s Judy, Judy, Judy.” He held up one of Eddy’s CD cases. “What gives him the right to decide what music we play in my restaurant? That’s what’s keeping everyone away. Not the goddamn weather.” He reached for an ice pick. “I’m writing ‘Fuck You’ on this in case you’re wondering. And if you even try to pin it on me, your balls will be the next daily special.”
It was one of Eddy’s favourite CDs. Louie was callous, but I hadn’t seen this cruelty before. He finished his engraving and put the CD back in its case.
“Now,” he said, clapping his hands together as though he was ridding them of his own dirt. “Straight up or on the rocks?”
He offered me a ride home, but I declined. I watched my feet disappear into the drifts with each step I took. There were few people out at this hour. Cars snuck up behind me, their sounds swallowed up by drifts along the sides of the roads. I could hear the snow ploughs in the distance. When I got home, I stood in the centre of my living room, closed my eyes and held my arms out. I imagined my fingertips making contact with everything around me. My thrift store sofa. My stereo and my books. The vertical blinds left behind by a previous, unknown tenant. Later, while I sat on the edge of my small bed, pulling wet socks from my feet, the ploughs found their way to my street. Their pulsing blue lights bounced off my walls. I thought of strobe lights. Then, sirens.
I wasn’t there when Eddy discovered his defaced CD, but Marty told me the story.
“Scared the hell out of me,” he said. “I come running out here and there he is, head on the bar, wailing away. I told him he could always get another CD. They sell the old ones for pretty cheap. But it didn’t do much to fix his mood.”
Eddy gathered up the rest of his music and left without saying another word. “Only thing he left behind was a big wet mark on the bar,” Marty said.
I considered calling Eddy, but didn’t have his number. Glenn-with-two-ns picked up the lunch shifts. He had quit Hair Apparent a few days before Eddy’s departure so the timing was perfect, he said. Within a few days, however, he was complaining there was no lunch shift to cover. The restaurant grew more deserted with each passing day. Marty and his Sault Ste. Marie cooking weren’t winning fans. I hit a personal low note the night I had to tell people the special was tuna casserole. No one had even bothered to christen it with an astrological name. Louie, of course, blamed it on the weather.
“The cold,” he said. “Nothing’s worse than the cold.”
I asked Glenn-with-two-ns if he thought Eddy was bad-mouthing the restaurant. “That could be keeping people away.”
“How much clout do you think a drag queen has in this city?”
It was no real surprise when I came to work one day to find the door locked. A piece of paper was scotch-taped to the window. “Closed Until Further Notice” it read in thick, black letters. I cupped my hands to the window and looked inside. The solar system mobile was gone.
I went to Serendipity that night and ran into Glenn-with-two-ns.
“You have no idea the kind of financial shit Louie is in right now,” he said. “Suffice to say you’ve served your last Saturn burger.
“I guess Eddy’s timing couldn’t have been better,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t hear? She died the other night. Suicide. She saved up the sleeping pills the nurses were giving her.”
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around, the spikes of his hair staring me down.
After the restaurant closed, I saw Louie a few times, driving around in his Grenville Locksmiths truck. Glenn-with-two-ns claimed that the two of them were never lovers and that Eddy was a malicious gossip. In fact, Glenn-with-two-ns said it was Eddy who was in love with Louie.
“That’s the real reason he came to work there. Of course, Louie would have none of it.”
I have a picture of everyone. It was taken the week before Christmas. Glenn-with-two-ns bought a camera and he was eager to try it out. In the photo, Louie is sitting at his table, the smoke from his cigarette frozen mid-swirl. Eddy is standing behind him, wearing his Judy wig. I’m on the other side of Louie, looking awkward in my youth. My shirt collar gapes around my neck. Just off to the side is Dorika, a flash of blond hair and hoop earrings, her blue eyelids either opening or closing. She’s standing with her hand on her hip, one leg out in front of the other. This is the gymnast in her coming through. I’ve studied this photo over and over again, trying to articulate the particular expression on Dorika’s face. There’s nothing obvious. Nothing I could’ve known. But I can’t stop going back to it.
I’ve framed the photo. I don’t have it out on display. I don’t want to have to explain who these people are. So I keep the photo in my drawer next to my bed. I take it out occasionally, the times I’m feeling lonely or lost. And looking at the photo doesn’t make me feel less lost or lonely. But it does give me some sense of responsibility.
That photo is now eleven years old. I’m still waitering, now at a steak house that caters to seniors. They’re horrible tippers, but sincere. I’ve also taken on a side job. Sunday nights, I perform as Cher as Serendipity. She’s not the most original choice, I know, but I have a long black wig and Eddy was right about my cheekbones. It took some time to get comfortable with this new side of myself. But I’ve been told I’m good and I can lip-sync circles around Eddy any day. He’s still in Toronto from what I hear. I don’t know if he knows about my act. In some ways, I’d like him to see how the torch was passed along. But in other ways, I hope he never sets foot in this bar again.
It’s not the most rewarding job in the world. It was true when Eddy said that no one appreciates good drag in this city. But there are times when it seems worthwhile. It’s strange when I think about it. Any satisfaction I feel doesn’t come from the applause, but in the silent space that precedes it, just after the song ends and the first set of hands comes together. I close my blue eyelids, stretch my hands out.
Anything is about to happen.