When the world changes, it changes from very odd directions and in such unexpected ways. The last time I one-eightied seemed—at least until I spiggoted Ethan for the latest with my usual Q—as usual as any other. I was at my usual table by the bar. And as usual, when Ethan came to take my order, I spiggoted him, “So, Ethe, What’s new in the universe?” I call him Ethe because— Well, I don’t know. Maybe because I am a little tardy of him in his transition from when he was Ethel.

“That goddamned so called father of hers, that piece of pure Patrimoron had the nerve to get her—for her birthday, mind you, for her birthday—a goddamned whale-shit gallon of Wild Turkey wrapped in plastic and tinsel, complete with Hallmark bullshit,” Ethan said.

Then he said, “What’ll it be?” He didn’t even bitch me about the mask, my masquerade. Usually he’ll tease, “I don’t mean to pry, Cyndi. It’s your closet. But it don’t hide a goddamned thing, just tells us all you’re queer on something. What’re you queer on, Cyndi? You never gonna do a hook-up with that costume on. ”

And I’ll back at him, “Maybe, I’m not a hooker upper,”

Then he’ll shrug and say, “What’s your poison.”

But, it was that bad, he just sewered me from the spigot and said, “What’ll it be.” Not a usual for Ethan, and maybe that should have been my wake-me. Things happen when the usuals unusual.

“O, my G,” I said, meaning I was with him one hundred percent about Patrimoron gifting Wild Turkey for anybody. Let alone his one and only (that anybody knew about) daughter.

Then I said, “Sarsaparilla, three cubes and two cloves, please.” Which is the only and last usual that happened that night.

About the masquerade. Because. . . .

The best way to explain it is creeps. After gandering below the neckline, they scan these big emeralds of my soul and see something there that isn’t. Loneliness, need, lust? I don’t know what they see. I’m not into the mindlessness of testostern perverts. I know the masquerade annoyed Ethan, one of my BFFs, who knew about closets and, had been in one, had busted down the door, and so who was always up-fronting now about everything in his life. But what could I do? He knew behind-the-mask. He knew the ‘stume wasn’t on for him. He knew.

Ethan is the behind-the-bar trans, proprietor, and shoulder-to-cry-on at Delartoe’s, an alcohol free zone on Second just off Main. Like most of us, he is an alky and expert on the foibles of just-one-for-old-time’s-sake. He is absolutely ruthless about teetotal. He’s a preacher in that regard, always on-the-housing the bar when some loser unloses himself/herself and takes the pledge. Even when they are againing.

Only an on-the-wagoner can appreciate Delartoe’s. As I do. There’s Lionel, the 60-something, Viet-vet bum Ethan met at AA who pianos and sips water and eats black olives from a dish that Ethan puts on the piano for him. The strobes aren’t frantic, frenetic, and hellish, but slow and calm. The place is usually mostly crowded with people chattering on all odds of things and sometimes doing something that passes for dancing—which is hard, since most of Lionel’s treatment of his repertoire is completely un-dance-able.

There are the on-hitters, just like in the alky bars, sidling shyly up to this mystery-me wearing a masquerade, intimating that a dance or walk in the park might be sweet. But they are sober. I just tell them I sprained my ankle phone-walking off a curb and was almost killed by a Trumpet and Strumpet on a Harley, (which impresses everyone) “which is why,” I tell them, “I ‘stume this mask and why I am not wearing heels tonight; thanks for the thought.” Which is one hundred percent bullshit, but it answers their sillies, and, as I say, they aren’t drunk and so understand ‘no’ means ‘En O, NO.’

Ethan isn’t the only bartender-server, but he is the tender, with his Virgin Strawberry Daiquiris, hot or cold Egyptian Licorice teas, and his special: Coffee Sober Ups for the weak and fallen, and with his on-the-houses for every prodigal who returns, whether againing or not.

The ‘she’  with the Wild Turkey that Ethan was speaking of is Vera, whom I have known since the clumsy days of pre- and adolescent dance recitals and school volley ball teams and who is the hot-again, cold-sometimes, love of Ethan’s life. For the record, the Vera hot-cold attitude toward Ethan was not about that he had once been Ethel and was now well into discovering the Ethan in him. Or if it was because of this Ethan/Ethel transition thing, the blame for her hot-cold was not entirely on Vera. If any real blame accrues, it is on the narcissistic, usually wasted piece of uselessness (that she still listens too–sometimes) referred to commonly by one and all (not including, of course, Vera) as ‘Patrimoron,’ who provided the sperm twenty-five years ago that made Vera. Patrimoron never married Vera’s mom, Rachel, probably because she is Crow Indian. I’m speculating on this, but given the too-much I know about him, it fits the picture. But, maybe it was Rachel not marrying him? Who knows, maybe Rachel just decided she didn’t need a uselessness screwing up her life any more than he already had?

Regardless of Rachel’s views on the matter, Patrimoron insisted on making a useless of himself in Vera’s and Rachel’s life. Of course, Rachel went after him for child support. And so, of course, he went after custody. He made the first (and as it turned out the deciding) court appearance three sheets off the wagon, shouting “Res no place to raise a kid. No go’damn place for a white girl.” Of course, this was all before either Vera or I knew bassinets from dangly toys, but it’s all on record at the courthouse for a snoop like me to dig up. Rachel awardee’ed custody and three hundred dollars a month; which, of course, he never paid a fucking. But he was always showing up at ball games and dance recitals, usually smelling like the hall outside the men’s latrine at a bar. I think he showed up as much to ogle us girls and in-your-face Rachel as appreciate pirouettes. “A goo’ dad always looks after his baabbeee,” he would coo, pat Vera on the head, sneer at Rachel, and make the rest of us girls squirm in our tutus. Rachel ignored him. Vera adored him the way any child adores a parent—without judgment.

Then Vera met Ethel, who was just on the cusp of uncloseting Ethan.

Everybody was in the bars all the time then. Our fuel was bourbon, beer, gin, and cheap tequila; the acoustic accompaniment of our lives was loud, raucous, and sentimental: “. . . drinking Mad Dog Margaritas. . .,” “If I get stoned and sing all night long. . .,” “Could have been the whiskey, might have been the gin. . .” and other waster songs. I was virgining because there was nothing around worth changing that. Vera was coming on to everything that walked on two legs that didn’t have feathers or fly, myself not excluded. If Patrimoron was around (which, being the bar scene, he was quite a bit), he butted in regardless, doing the “treat my little girl right, son” bullshit with the males, and the more direct, “are you trying to dyke this girl, bitch” to the females, myself not excluded. He was also hitting on everything that walked on two legs that didn’t have a dong, myself and Ethel not excluded. Which is when Ethel decked him (long story. No need to go into it right now—jail time, but not much.)

The next thing we know, Vera is monogamous—mostly, and Ethel is AAing, starting to ajar Ethan’s closet door, and haggling money to open her/his bar (those were confusing times). Vera, in her desultory fashion, started AA, off-wagoned, and agained a couple of times, maybe to please Ethan, maybe to piss off Patrimoron. Or get attentions. Maybe just because. With her you never know.

Without Ethel/Ethan and only occasionally Vera, and with Patrimoron and other perverts hitting on me, the bars started to lose their savor. At first I just put on the mask, a black carnival masquerade with sparkles, came up with my limp and lame excuse, and went on virgining and hopping bars and Scotching and ginning. Then Ethan opened Delartoe’s, and I cold turkeyed.

When Ethan brought my sarsaparilla, he sorried, “I’m a grumpy bastard. Not good for business, I know.”

Then he growled, “When the hell you taking that goddamned thing off?” It was not a tease.

“’Grumpy,’ is not a true word.” I said, “But you have your reasons,” I shrugged the goddamned-thing question off.

Let me be absolutely clear. If I’m queer, it’s not in a sex sense. I love Vera, but we were never, would never be, will never be lovers. The closest I came is, I think, Ethel; maybe I sensed her Ethanness? Or maybe because Ethel/Ethan has always been Ethel/Ethan, a paladin, a saint, an arm for any hurt thing to lean on. But a virgin can’t have it both ways. Anyway, that’s when we friended, which is how it remains and (Ethan/Ethel, Vera—hot or cold, sober or not, whatever) is how it will likely BFF.

As I say, when the universe realigns, it realigns from very odd directions and in such unexpected ways. I was into my second or third Ethan concoction, Sarsaparilla again, I think, when all the alarms went off. I don’t mean fire or earthquake or police raid or anything like that, I mean in me—all alarms, all the fright-flight, end-of-virgining, beginning-of-love signals on my self awareness radar went KA-ping-ping-ping-ping.

What happened was a voice behind me said, “Root beer, please.” There was the gravel of whiskey and lost in that voice, the mild cynicism that accepted despair as the modus operandi of the universe, and yet a frail innocence from some hidden corner that suggested hope that the Paladin might find the grail and drink the elixir. Most people would never know anything from a voice behind them saying “Root beer, please.” But I do. Did, that once at least. I turned, and his eyes, blue as deep water, washed through me, past the masquerade, past any hope it hid anything, into the darkest closet of my soul; and those eyes affirmed what I had heard in the “Root beer, please,” innocence, despair, a lonely hidden closet, a Paladin, a grail—hope. Explainers will probably say I was pheromoned, but I’ve had that disease, and this was more than that.

Who knows what I said or did then; certainly not me, recorder, snoop, journalist, that I am, I was instantly just a woman—raw and simple. His name is Lee—protection, shelter, meadow. He was on the Program by way of being on probation, and he asked for root beer because he was being ironic, because he was confused, because it was an honesty mistake, because he read Ethan and misread her/him and just plain because. Ultimately, there are no explainable reasons, maybe, as the religioners say, it was ordained in heaven? It just suddenly was, that’s all I understand about it.

You can’t dance to Lionel’s bluesy pianoing, but we danced. The strobes strawberried, peached, blueberried and apple greened the walls, the floor, our faces, even the air. The murmur of the other dance attempters around us was like a blue cocoon. I cannot remember a word I told him about me.

His probation was for slugging—of all people—Patrimoron, because he was hitting pretty heavily on an ID fake seventeen-year-old in one of the old haunts. I told him it was something he had in common with Ethan when he was still Ethel.

He queer looked me “?”

“Slugging Patrimoron,” I said. “You both decked His Uselessness.”

He was a painter, he said, but all he could paint is dark blues like the mountains in winter and fire like hell. He wanted to paint hearts but hadn’t found any worthy. “Till now,” he said. I ignored the corny, he didn’t ask about the mask.

Sometime in the one-eighty of my evening I saw Ethan watching us. It was a look both happy and sad. For me the happy, I understood. And I understood too, there was still Vera out there in the dark with a gallon of Wild Turkey and absolutely no disciple and about whom and which he could do absolutely nothing. So I took the masquerade off and dropped it under the scuffle-shufflle of the Lionel dance attempters. Nathan needed something. I didn’t need it any more anyway. He saddened a grin.

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