This is a piece I wrote in 2007 that sat on a shelf for a while. It was subsequently entered in the 2008 OUT Short Fiction Contest.

The short story is about the relationship between a drag queen and her supportive lover the evening after a show. I particularly like the atmosphere of the piece. Originally it was a kind of character study of Avery from my novel-length manuscript Club 1692, but there are many differences, not the least of which is that Avery, a former college professor, is much more independent that Cherry, and has been through many more trials, making her much tougher than Lee press-ons.

“Sparkle has no way to get back to her hotel.” The butt of a menthol was stuck to Cherry’s dried lipstick. It jounced an ash-shedding dance as he spoke. “Can you drive her?”

“Where’s the hotel?” Jonathan asked. He knew what was coming. It was one in the morning, and he just wanted to get home.

Cherry recognized Jonathan’s tone, but, as usual, was going to get his way. He avoided Jonathan’s gaze, ostensibly examining his manicure, then reached for a makeshift Corona-bottle ashtray on the makeup table.

“Good question,” Cherry said. “Where’s your hotel?” His veiny hands snatched the cigarette to keep it from launching across the dressing room. It was held in European fashion, between red polished finger and thumb.

Cherry Sour was in drag transition. He wore his boy clothes, although his makeup was still as perfect as a Mac ad. His hair, however, was wiry and disheveled from cooking under the Jackie O’ wig on stage. It was a point of semi-dress that Jonathan could never quite get used to, despite years of knowing Cherry. It had to do with the random constellation of couture from performance to performance overalls with high heels, fishnets with a football jersey, go-go boots with matching kilt and bikini top not the unsettling nature of mis-meshed wardrobe, but the unpredictability of it.

The dressing room was the unfinished attic of the club, and, if possible, was even hotter than on stage. Although it was stuffy, Cherry wasn’t sweating possibly because he was used to the heat, dancing under the lights clad in thirty pounds of clothing; possibly because his pores were permanently clogged with pancake makeup.

Cherry, however, was feeling the heat of the August evening. His usual attention to detail had been abandoned in his rush to pack his costumes and get out of the club. He wore a wife beater, exposing his razor-burned shoulders and chest, angry with ingrown hairs and pimpled, red up to the makeup line. His jeans were torn and loose. Bare feet were jammed into pink Chuck Taylors.

“It’s the Hilton in Boston,” came the reply over a wall of spangled and beaded gowns suspended from an exposed sprinkler pipe. Sparkle’s voice was unnaturally high-pitched, in a range made possible only by female replacement hormones. It was the most recent in a line of therapies to make her a real woman. She had already received breast implants. They were perfectly round, perfectly even, and perfectly intimidating to the other queens, especially during pageants.

“Hilton Boston,” Cherry shouted over his shoulder, “Where’s that?”

”You know, at the airport.” Sparkle came from around the wardrobe wall, a wheeled carryon in tow. Her makeup was still perfect, as though she was ready for the ball.

“The airport Hilton, right. That’s not too far out of the way.”

“I guess so,” Jonathan replied.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” This was said with a backhanded wave that almost sent the cigarette flying out of his hand.

“It’s just that it’s one in the morning, and I have to get up for work in five hours as it is…”

“It’s only twenty minutes out of the way. And I wouldn’t ask, but it’s impossible to get a cab around here at this hour…

“Fine.” Jonathan was too tired to argue.

“Good. Let’s get rolling.” The cigarette was now clenched between his teeth as he fumbled four bags towards the stairs. He stopped as his jewelry case tumbled from the top. “Jesus! Do you think you could maybe help a lady out?”

Jonathan grabbed a bag, leaving the other three. “Just because I live with you doesn’t mean you can treat me like your houseboy.”

“I don’t. I treat you like my boyfriend, right.”

“You didn’t treat me like your boyfriend when I was your boyfriend.”

Cherry rolled his eyes at Jonathan. “You didn’t act like my boyfriend when you were my boyfriend.” He grappled the three remaining bags down the stairs.

They paraded through the back of the bar. Most of the audience was gone. A few regulars too drunk to notice the time were propped against the back mirror. A couple of early twenties pretty boys and some drag-wannabe groupies were collected at the bottom of the stairs waiting for the hostess in her larger-than-manageable platform shoes and pouffed Dolly double-wig. A lesbian couple were arguing loudly in the corner of the dance floor, driving the rest of the crowd off the floor. A fey bartender was unsuccessfully attempting to break up the shouting match.

Cherry stopped several times to chat up some of the regulars. Did the Sox win the away game? Who was rooming with whom at P-town the following weekend? Did he hear the newest Madonna album?

The bags didn’t quite fit in the trunk. Two were jammed into the back seat next to Sparkle. Windows were rolled down for the ride and new cigarettes lit. The car a clunker of a Caddy had seen much better days. Its white paint was scratched and weathered, its navy upholstery cracked and gouged. Yellow foam sprouted like popcorn from the arm rests. Ashtrays brimmed with lipstick-encircled butts.

The humidity compounded the near-silence as they rode along the marsh road. “Thank god that’s over with,” Cherry sniped. He bit at a fake nail, peeling it back from his finger. It came off with a snap, like a nun’s clacker in parochial school. “That Bernice was just getting to me. You think she’d shower before the show? And then she wonders why she’s not getting any tips with her talons sticking over those open-toed shoes. Right?”

“Well, the girl needs some help is all,” Sparkle offered conciliatorily.

“Yeah, some help out the door. What a mess.” This was executed in a Bette Davis manner, hand, flipped dramatically. A red nail flew out the window. Jonathan could imagine it clattering as it hit the pavement behind them.

“Y’all know she never had a drag mom.”

“Drag mom or not, she must’ve heard of a bath, right? Or deodorant? And she started drinking before we even got there. It’s a miracle she even knew what songs she was performing.”

“She had to borrow my music. Maybe she just doesn’t have the money. Some girls suffer for their art.”

“And some girls suffer for others’ art.” Another nail hit the pavement. “Did you get your music back?”

“Yeah with smears of makeup on it.”

Cherry was working hard on a nail that wouldn’t loosen. It finally let go. “Fuck. That hurt. There’s got to be a better way.”

“Well, darlin’, you could use polish remover.”

“I don’t have the patience. Do you think we have time for a quick breakfast at IHOP? We’re not that far.”

“No thanks, honey. I have a flight to catch back to Saint Pete, and I need my beauty rest. It’ll have to be a raincheck.”

Lights ahead signaled civilization at the end of the marsh road. As the car approached, the engine started pinging. Jonathan stared at the gauges. “Shit.”

“What’s wrong with you now? Did the condom break?” Cherry saw red flashing on Jonathan’s face.

“I’m out of gas.”

“Didn’t you fill up?”

“I didn’t have a chance. We were running late after your last minute shopping spree at the florist.”

“Well, the stage needed flowers, and the girls needed bouquets, right.”

The engine stopped. They coasted up to the red light.

The intersection was flanked by a convenience store, a gift shop, and a used car lot. The ocean was off to the left, the muffled sound of breaking waves punctuating the buzz from the traffic switch box.

“Where’s the nearest gas station?” Jonathan stared into the darkness.

“I don’t know.” Cherry turned away from him. “Maybe a mile and a half away.”

“Give me your gas can,” Sparkle said.

“It’s at home.” Jonathan’s knuckles whitened around the wheel.

“A fat lot of good it does you there.” Cherry shot a look over his shoulder.

Jonathan turned on him. “I unpacked it to fit all your shit in the trunk.”

“Boys, there’s no reason to fight. You’re both pretty. We’ll think of something. What’s around here?”

“Some houses over there.” Cherry’s remaining nails flashed in the glow of his cigarette. “The beach down that way.”

“Well, y’all wait here. I’ll be right back.” Sparkle got out of the car and walked around the corner of the auto lot.

“Well, we can’t just sit here,” Cherry announced. “I still have my makeup on. If anyone sees me, I’ll get the shit kicked out of me.”

“I’ve got a ski mask in the trunk.”

“Fuck you.” Cherry took a drag on his cigarette and launched it out the window. “Wait a minute. You have a ski mask but you unpacked the gas can?”

“Come on. You can fight like a sailor.”

“I learned from a sailor.”

“Well,” Jonathan said, “let’s at least move the car off the road. I’ll steer. You push.”

“Fuck you. What do I look like, triple-A?”

“No, double-D at best.”

“I’ll steer. You push. We’ll put it there in the shadow under that tree in the lot. That way I can hide my face, right?”

Jonathan was about to argue, but Cherry was becoming stubborn. With some effort, the vehicle slowly moved into the spot, sand crunching under the tires. Other than the hum from the traffic lights, the night was silent. Several cycles passed.

“Do you think she’s okay?” Jonathan asked. He didn’t know the area well, but if Cherry didn’t want to be seen, what could happen to Sparkle?

“I don’t know. She’s a big girl. If you’re so worried, why don’t you go down and ring the doorbells looking for her?”

Jonathan was worried. He worried a lot. Often it was something that Cherry did or said that worried him. More often it was something that Cherry didn’t do that worried him. Cherry had been getting more single-minded about drag. He saw it turning into an obsession, sucking Cherry’s pockets dry. The apartment was beginning to look like the remnants of a tornado, littered with fabrics, beads, feathers, costumes in various stages of construction. Styrofoam heads were tossed in disarray with wigs into an old refrigerator box. Makeup had replaced books on the bookshelf in the living room, looking like so many dirty smudged test tubes in a bad 1950’s B movie. And when Cherry had to make a choice between paying the cable bill or getting that perfect pair of grey pearl earrings that matched her velvet gown, the first thing he considered was how close to June and the Tony awards it was.

Sparkle wobbled around the corner and came to the driver’s window, finger to lips in a hushed manner. “Listen, I found someone who is going to get gas for us. I told him I broke down. So, I’ll be back in ten minutes with a gallon. I need y’all to lay low.” With that she disappeared around the corner again.

Cherry turned to Jonathan, and measured his face. “I guess you’re not going to sleep tonight after all.” He pulled out another cigarette and lit up, blowing the smoke out the window.

A headlight emerged from the side street behind the auto lot. The red pickup truck was badly dented and barely had a muffler. Sparkle sat next to an overweight bedraggled man at least twenty years older. She snuggled into him as they turned away from the auto lot in the direction of the gas station. The noise of the engine was swallowed by the humidity long before the tail lights disappeared.

“How do you know Sparkle?”

“Just met her tonight.”

“And you volunteered me to drive her back to the hotel?”

“She’s visiting on vacation. We girls have to stick together. You don’t want her waiting for a cab in drag in the middle of Lynn, right?” Cherry snapped the radio on and cycled through the dial, then turned it off.

Jonathan sat in angry silence, staring off into the night. He looked at the contorted expression on his reflected face, wondering what could have made that irresistible guy on the other side of the glass so upset. Then he saw Cherry over his shoulder, looking away, the red flicker of his cigarette flashing intermittently, punctuated by the crackling of fire devouring tobacco.

“Give me a cigarette.”

Cherry stared at Jonathan. “You don’t smoke.”

“I do once in a while. Let me have one.”

“It’s my last one.”

“Who paid for them?”

Cherry’s mouth was agape. It had been some time since Jonathan had smoked, even longer since he had outright confronted Cherry. Their relationship was built primarily on one thing. Drag. There had been an inkling of romance at the beginning, but that quickly died. Cherry held onto him, clawing for a grip through their mutual theaterphilia, their eye for style and design, and Jonathan was one of the few people who could design women’s gowns for men, and make them look right. It was a skill from his theatre days. And it was something that Cherry was particularly grateful for. He had won a dozen pageants because of Jonathan’s talent.

“I didn’t ask you to pay for my cigarettes.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Here,” Cherry snapped, shifting around in the front seat. A handful of wadded up ones, slicked with sweat, makeup, and liquor, were slipped from his pants pocket. “Here’s your goddamn money back. Don’t ever buy me cigarettes again.

“I don’t want your money,” Jonathan collected the crumpled bills. “All I want is a smoke. I’m stressed.”

“Well, then go over to the Sevens across the way and buy me a new pack. You can’t expect me to go in there like this, right?”

Jonathan handed the money back and left the car. “Do you want anything else while I’m in there?”

“Yeah, a lifeguard with nice pecs and a Hollywood tan.”

“If I see David Hasselhoff, I’ll send him your way.” He strolled across the empty intersection to the hum and click of the traffic light.

A single headlight came into view, sweeping the edge of the road with misty yellow. It was accompanied by a growling noise signaling the return of the truck. It pulled down the side street and went silent. A waft of heavy exhaust tainted the salt night air.

Sparkle came around the corner in her stiletto heels, a woman with a purpose. She held a red gas can at arm’s length. She handed it to Cherry.

“You ready?” he asked.

“Here. Get the car started quick. I gotta go back. As soon as I get back here we have to leave, pronto.” She was gone faster than she had returned.

Cherry stared at the can. “Shit.” He had never owned a vehicle in his life. He didn’t even know where the gas cap was. He stared at his watch. Jonathan still wasn’t back. The traffic relays clicked the lamp to yellow, then red.

Cherry got out of the car. He would find the gas cap. He walked around to the back. His father had an old Mustang. The cap was under the license plate, but not on the Cadillac. The plate didn’t budge. The passenger side was smooth. There was a door on the driver side. He stuck his pinky nail into the seam, but the door was latched. Maybe he could pry it open with a bobby pin. He pulled out his cosmetics case from the back seat and began hunting for a random hair pin. One was in his brush bag. The pin quickly bent in the door.

“What are you doing, getting ready for your date with David?”

“No asshole. How do you open this fucking gas cap?”

Jonathan handed Cherry the cigarettes. “Here. Put the makeup away. I’ll take care of it.”

By the time Cherry had the car repacked, Jonathan had filled the Caddy. He began cranking at the engine, but it wouldn’t turn over.

“Shit! Come on… Let me prime it again.” He stopped, frustrated.

Cherry lit the last cigarette from the old pack. He handed it to Jonathan a peace offering. “Here. Sorry I snapped earlier.”

“I expect it. It was a performance worthy of Joan Crawford.”

“It doesn’t matter if you expect it or not. I shouldn’t have done it.” Cherry opened the new pack. Fresh cigarette in mouth, he kissed its tip to the glowing end of Jonathan’s and sucked it to life. “How do you put up with me?”

“It’s easy. You’re an artist. Once you’ve worked in theater, you know how artists can be … especially the divas. Besides, what would art be without them? Damn boring.”

The sound of gravel scattering from around the corner startled Cherry. Sparkle was running in torn pantyhose on the side of the road, stilettos in hand. “Jesus!” came her falsetto, “Didn’t you get it started?”

The door slammed after Sparkle. She jammed at the window switch, trying to close it against an unseen pursuer.

The engine turned over.

Miles passed in silence along the road. The smell of sweat, musk, and patchouli hung languorously about her. Sparkle once again opened her window.

“Everything okay?” Cherry offered, half turning in his seat.

“Yeah. Just a little close.”

“Well what happened?”

“I offered to give him a blow job for a gallon of gas. Then he couldn’t keep it up because he was too drunk. Not my problem, I told him.”

“Honey, you didn’t have to do that. I have tips. I could have paid for the gas.”

“It’s okay. He deserved it, cheating on his wife. She was upstairs sleeping.”

Cherry gasped, almost inhaling his cigarette. He grabbed Sparkles hand in his. “You could have been killed!”

“It’s okay. He thought I was a woman. My breasts are real.”

“Still. It was dangerous.”

“That kind they don’t question beyond their experience. It’s bred into them.”

Cherry turned back to the front. He resumed picking the plastic nails off his fingers. They snapped loudly. “You know, we should keep in touch.”

“Well, you’re both more than welcome to visit me in Saint Pete. In fact, there’s a pageant I’m hosting in October. The weather will be cooling down.”

“What pageant is it?”

“Miss Gay Pinellas County. Maybe you could enter.”

“There’s an idea, right? What do you think Jonathan? I could do a greige palm leave panama hat with a cute number in alligator embossed leather. Red…cut to here.” He pointed to mid-thigh while the cigarette perched between his fingers, illuminating the seat in its faint orange glow. “Oh! The jumbo pearl teardrop earrings would be perfect…”

“We’ll see,” Jonathan replied.

“Y’all really should,” Sparkle encouraged. “We need judges.”

“We could even drive there! Make it a road trip, right?” Cherry pouted and fluttered his eyes.

“And you can bring your Isadora Duncan scarf,” Jonathan smiled.

“Don’t be an ass,” Cherry replied with a final snap, removing the last nail. “Fine, we’ll fly.”

The Caddy disappeared over the rise, a brattle of plastic confetti littering the night.

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