Saturday, October 22, 2011


Here's a short story of mine that came out in Provincetown Arts last July.


Gerry lay awake in his cot looking at the Plexiglas windows and the heavy steal door in front of him. The windows were at least an inch thick and made him think of decompression and of drowning. It was three in the morning on September 30th and even if someone had been awake to call him from the other side he wouldn’t have heard them. There was no sound in his cell except for the beating of his heart.
He wanted to call his son, right then, the one who lived in Italy, and ask him if Venice was on the Adriatic or facing France, and he wanted to do this after a few beers. He was still on a manic high and his mind was racing through memories, a slipstream of images and words, and only beer could stem the flow for a minute or two.
“If I could just hear Peter speak, I’d let him know . . . .” And then Gerry remembered that later on that morning the judge was going to see him and that after five days he’d be free. They’d march him into the chamber in his orange jumpsuit with the other prisoners from the women’s correctional facility, and this was good, because he had a dinner date with the cop who’d arrested him for indecent exposure on the beach after a party in the evening where he’d seriously impressed in a black Trussardi gown and stilettos.
That was perhaps his true talent, straddling the gender divide. He could hunt like a Bushman or dress like a fashion model and he had two Florida driver licenses to prove it. One for the African and the other for the debutante, Gerry and Gloria. Born a man he’d endured his inherited ambiguity for sixty-two years, cross-dressing as a teen and then letting his hair grow long and white when he’d retired from medicine.
The sex change was actually a complicated procedure, a series of five operations spread out over six months. A kind of root canal done on his groin, creating a cavity where none had existed before. Which isn’t to say that he didn’t have second thoughts about losing the family jewels. While there were many days when being a woman, dressing like one and knowing that he had actually gone through with it, made him euphoric; there were others when he’d look at himself in a mirror and despair, blaming in equal parts his mother and his father for the clinical depression and his thoughts of suicide. It was then that he would think that he was nothing but a freak and that freaks deserved to endure whatever misfortune or psychotic moods assailed them, simply because they were freaks.
As a boy it had been easier. Things were relatively clear-cut and unobstructed. His father, Jake Morelli, had taught him how to use a rifle and a bow and they’d hunted quail, ducks, and grouse together and had tracked bighorn sheep in Montana and caribou in Alaska. Gerry was a good shot for his age and his father believed that he had inherited everything that was right and positive from the Morelli side of the family and none of what he often referred to as “the family degeneration.” The boy was lucky. Extremely bright, humorous and athletic, nothing would prevent him from becoming what the family wanted him to be. Of this his father was sure.
The peak of this enthusiasm, however, came early on. At the age of thirteen Gerry entered a national skeet-shooting contest in Cuba against adults, and won. His father was ecstatic and bragged to anyone who would listen of his son’s prowess as a hunter, saying that he was a chip off the old block, “a natural born killer.” It was the happiest that he had ever seen his old man. As if by winning the contest he’d finally put to rest any lingering, subliminal doubts that his father might have had. If he could shoot like that then obviously the confusion that Jake Morelli had fought his entire life was nothing but a fluke. The curse had been broken and to celebrate he organized a “fiesta” for Gerry at the local gun club. There were over a hundred people at the party, members of the club, Havana socialites, rich American expats and the Morellis, father and son.
It was the proverbial day when the boy becomes a man, or in his case when the boy became a trans. In retrospect, many things in his life might have been different had he not stolen that pair of nylons a week before. They belonged to his father’s girlfriend and he really couldn’t say why he’d taken them from her room, he just did, and from that time onward he was different. They filled a need and whenever he put them on he felt less alone. A psychologist would later write something about a fetish that “enabled him to negotiate moments of extreme stress,” but as a boy all he knew was that they felt good and that he’d worn them the day he’d won the contest.
“It’s simple,” said his father as they drove over the dirt road to Havana, “you were the best there, the best on this island, and probably the best in the Caribbean and in all of South America. You blew ’em away, Gerry, you blew ’em away.”
“I just did exactly what you told me to do, the way you taught me to do it, always giving the target enough of a lead.”
“Lead time is important, Gerry, but Jesus I’ve never seen anyone shoot as good as you did today.”
“Never,” he repeated, “and let me tell you why. It wasn’t just your aim or concentration. No, it’s much more than that. Do you know what I’m getting at?”
“No,” he admitted, he didn’t. And Jake Morelli said that watching him during the contest had made him think of his father and that something had been passed down and that he had been the conduit of this talent.
“You inherited it from your grandfather,” he almost whispered, “which is exactly how it should be, from one generation to the next.”
But then his father was always saying things like that, comparing him to an uncle or his grandfather or to some other relative who he’d never heard of and who was probably long since dead, and then taking it all back because he was confused or drunk and wanted to get the story right even if he knew there had never been a story. The truth was that there was no family resemblance, no inheritance to speak of. There were just the two of them, the dark side of the clan, the Morelli misfits. It had begun with his father and would end with him. Of this he was sure.
At the party his father announced to everyone there that because of his proven shooting ability, his son was now a man and could order whatever he wanted from the bar. Most of the guests were drinking martinis or mojitos but Gerry wanted a Bloody Mary because he knew that the bartender used Tabasco sauce, black pepper, celery, and carrots. His father claimed that the vegetables made it healthy while the vodka would blur his senses and incipient panic. A band was playing popular songs from the period and many of the young socialites asked him to dance. Most of them were bigger than he was and during the slow dances when they held him close his face would brush their necks or rest with the exceptionally tall ones between their breasts. Each of these women was unique, the texture of their skin, the perfume they wore, the color of their eyes, and he found himself both wanting and identifying with his partners. After the first dance he had a hard-on and while he did his best to keep it pointing straight up and inconspicuous his penis had an agenda of its own and would fall to the left or the right and inflate the loose trousers of his suit like the center pole of a circus tent. The socialites pulled him closer when this happened and his father and the men who surrounded him would laugh and order more drinks from the bar.
As soon as he could, Gerry excused himself from the ladies and wandered away from the party in search of a men’s room. He had the pair of nylons that he’d stolen in the flask pocket of his tux and thought that if he could just find a place where he could put them on he’d solve the problem of his undisciplined dick. A white door with the word “Caballeros” seemed a good place to start and opening it he saw that there was no one inside, which was even better. There were two urinals filled with ice at the far end of the room and a sink and a mirror near the entrance with soap and towels. He quickly slipped off his black leather shoes and dropped his pants and his boxer shorts. After that he took the nylons out, carefully stretching them over his thin legs and centering as best he could his unruly member. He took a few steps towards the center of the restroom so that he could see himself in the mirror. It was then, though, that his father decided to walk in and the surprise for both of them couldn’t have been greater. They looked at each other and his father’s expression was a mixture of shock and disgust, but also of recognition. Gerry expected the worst and stood there in his black jacket and nylons waiting for whatever his father thought he deserved, but his dad just back out of the bathroom without saying anything, as if none of this had ever happened.
A few days after he’d been outted his father approached him in the late afternoon when Gerry was sitting by the pool. They were alone and it was probably as good a time as any to say what he had to say. Since the incident at the club Gerry had convinced himself that he was living on borrowed time and that sooner rather than later the hammer would fall. Whenever he tried to picture his father, even there in his cell, a man who was at the same time strong, handsome, humorous, forgiving, and potentially explosive came to mind and none of this had anything to do with Gerry’s need for nylons or the calm that he felt when he wore them. His father was the ideal that any good man could reach if he wasn’t a freak and if he lived his life courageously.
“Gerry,” said the elder Morelli, who was holding a gin and tonic and wearing nothing but a pair of stained khaki trousers and flip-flops.
“I’ve been meaning to have a word with you.”
“OK,” said Gerry and he waited for his father to take another sip from his drink. He was usually fairly plastered towards sunset, but although he had had at least five gin and tonics and a couple of beers his words were clear.
“I just wanted to say one thing,” he announced, standing there with the liquid that had slid from his glass glistening in droplets over his white beard.
“That you and I come from a very strange tribe,” he said, and Gerry was patient, fully expecting something else, something more from this man, his hero, but nothing else came. Just that one line and the knowledge that they shared a truth that no one would ever understand.
Yet, just because Jake Morelli understood his son didn’t mean that he approved of his behavior. Gerry’s cross-dressing was fine so long as he kept it under wraps. His father knew that they were similar but he didn’t want to be reminded of the fact any more than was absolutely necessary, and, for the most part, no one apart from his father and mother knew what he was up to. Gerry was discreet, using the nylons when he needed them. If he was lonely he put on a pair, and if he was nervous or feeling the beginning of a panic that might trigger a manic mood he wore them and sometimes it worked. He could take a step back from the volcano of his emotions and feel secure. But it never lasted long and what he didn’t understand was that his condition couldn’t be controlled. The only thing, in fact, that saved him from his manic depression was his youth and his ability to quickly bounce back after a crash.
His cross-dressing went public in 1951 when he was just twenty years old and taking premed courses at a community college in Van Nuys. It was a Friday evening and he’d told his wife that he had to drive downtown to meet one of his professors. It was a good excuse and he needed one because she was pregnant and close to term. He promised that he would be home by eleven and he put the bag that he’d packed with his outfit in the trunk. When he was far enough away from their house he started to look for a place where he could change. There was a Texaco station up ahead and he stopped there.
“Fill ’er up?” said the attendant. Gerry nodded and asked him where the toilet was.
“To your left. You can’t miss it.”
Once inside he took off his clothes and put on the dress, the nylons and the red wig that he’d packed. He’d chosen the dress, which was white with pink roses, to go with the wig and the effect as he stood in front of the mirror was pleasing. The ruby-red stiletto shoes were perhaps too fancy for the roses, but he was sure that he’d pass.
Outside the attendant saw him coming and stared. They were about the same age and when Gerry asked him what he owed him he looked confused.
“How much?” Gerry repeated as he settled himself behind the wheel and checked his lipstick in the rearview mirror.
“That’ll be two dollars.”
Gerry took five dollars out of his purse and told him to keep the change. The attendant half-smiled and waved as Gerry drove away.
A friend had recommended The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn and that was what he was going to see. He was curious because he’d never been to Africa and thought that now he’d finally understand what the big attraction had been for his father.
He bought a ticket and took a seat in a back row of the theater. In the dark no one looked at him but during the intermission he used the ladies bathroom and it was there that a woman screamed and then the police arrived and he was arrested for indecent exposure.
Technically at twenty Gerry was still a minor, so they called his mother who had to travel down from Santa Cruz to bail him out of jail. Jennifer Smith had been visiting her sister, and while taking the train to Los Angeles and dealing with the LAPD was far from enjoyable it was a cakewalk compared to the call she had to make to Gerry’s father in Havana.
Jake Morelli immediately accused her of ruining the boy. It was entirely her fault that he’d been arrested, he said. It was three in the afternoon in Cuba and he was drunk as he usually was at that time of the day but clear enough to tell her that if something had gone wrong, fundamentally, with their son then she was to blame. He was absolutely livid and secretly embarrassed, too, because of the shared genetic degeneration, and they argued for over an hour. A long-distance shouting match, which ended with Gerry’s mother in tears. Her ex-husband’s explosive anger and insults had shaken her badly and later that night she felt ill and had to be taken to a hospital. She was hemorrhaging massively and died in the early morning at two o’clock on September 30 as surgeons frantically tried to stop the bleeding.
At the funeral Gerry couldn’t stop himself from crying, missing his mother and blaming himself for the fact that she was gone. His father blamed him, too, reminding Gerry once at a bar in Cuba that his stunt in Los Angeles had killed her. But eventually he’d found out the truth. Gerry had written to the doctors at the hospital in LA years later as a medical student in Miami and discovered that his mother had had a rare form of pituitary cancer, one that in moments of extreme stress caused her blood pressure to rise to lethal levels.
Of course, someone else with this information might have let it slide. After all there was nothing he could have done. She was dead, and finding out about her cancer wasn’t going to bring her back. But in the years that followed Gerry’s manic periods often coincided with the anniversary of his mother’s death. His feelings of guilt were like a trigger, and for him September was a dangerous month, a period when he’d do whatever he could to make up for what had happened. He joined the paratroopers in 1955 on September 30 hoping that it would convince his father that he’d finally become a man and was cured. But on his first jump he panicked and wouldn’t go near the open door. The army gave him a psychiatric discharge, and two years after that, again on September 30, he wrote to Jake threatening to kill himself while on safari in Africa.
What surprised him was how his father was always there to pick up the pieces. He’d drop whatever he was doing and come running, because there was never any question as to what his priorities were. He had to take care of his son, which meant setting him up in a good clinic, paying for the shock treatments, and then bringing him home when the doctors said he could go.
Thinking about it as he stared up at the Plexiglas, Gerry wondered how he could ever have written to his father “Vecchio bastardo, it wasn’t me who killed her but you and your fucking phone call.” In a few paragraphs he’d let his father know about the cancer and had essentially hastened Jake’s demise. According to those who were with him, when his old man first read the letter he was furious, but then he became quiet and kept to himself for the rest of the day. Obviously, there was some truth in what his son was saying and a few months later the clinical depression that would lead to his suicide set in.
Actions had consequences and when he looked at the clock on the wall he saw that it was five in the morning. In a few hours they’d take him to the judge and the judge would set him free. Rationally he realized that he couldn’t be blamed for what had happened to his family. But emotionally was another matter. Emotionally he’d locked it all away, never telling anyone, not even his son. It was a secret that had taken a heavy toll and when his heart started to beat faster at first he thought it was just nervousness, but then he couldn’t move. His legs and his arms went limp and all sensation disappeared from his hands and from his feet. His heart had gone into fibrillation, chaotically pumping blood that had better things to do or was tired of the fight. He wanted to shout out for help, wanted to say something to his son, but couldn’t speak and at exactly fifty years to the day, almost to the hour, of his mother’s death, he died.

Copyright JOHN HEMINGWAY, 2011 

1 comment:

Peter Duffield said...

I just read the article in the Gazette about you and the play.

Some time ago I wrote an article which appeared in the National Post of the time I spent with your grandfather in 1959.

If you are interested, I will email you a copy. Also in the re-edited addition of A Movable Feast. my picture of Ernest appears on the back cover.
Peter Duffield