Here is another excerpt from my novel-in-progress about four gender nonconforming people who try to start an LGBT charter school in DC.
Present Day, Washington, DC
Kalinda fumbles through her still-growing ring of keys, looking for the one that unlocks the personnel file. Final hiring decisions are set for later that day, and Terry had asked her to create summary sheets for the review committee. This has been one of Terry’s “cold” weeks in which he is short with everyone around him. There’s no rhyme or reason to his mood swings, but Kalinda is prescient at seeing them before they hit. She fantasizes about having a signal she can give the rest of the administration so they can brace themselves for a tirade or lecture from him.
Finally, the key slides in past the tumblers in a series of small bounces of metal against metal. Kalinda pulls out two manila folders—one marked MAYBE and one YES. She doesn’t need the NO file anymore, except for posterity and to cover the school’s ass if any of the candidates complain.
Peeking in through her doorway is Terry.
“Ready for this afternoon,” he asks, reading over her shoulder.
“Just about,” she says. She tucks a small handful of red curls behind her ear so she doesn’t have to look through her hair to see him.
“Great, great. Let me know if you need anything.” His head bobs back from the threshold and she hears him trot back down the corridor toward his office. Maybe she should have stuck with her job at the chemical plant in New Jersey. Most of her colleagues were slowly coming around to her transition, but at the time, it felt like an uncomfortable place to work. Too many eyes watching for more changes every day she walked in for work as a chemist. What woman wanted to have 300 men staring at their chest for forty hours a week? The allure of an alternative high school for LGBT kids, on the other hand, run by an intersex man, well that had been hard to turn down. And now here she is, thrilled at the possibilities for her and the students who would very soon be filling the classrooms.
If only Terry weren’t so strange.
Diamond knocks on the door frame and greeted Kalinda.
“Morning Diamond. Everything working out upstairs?”
“Yes, well, mostly. I’m having computer problems.” Diamond makes a sheepish look that Kalinda suspects pops up frequently for him.
“I think we’re all having network issues right now. Laura is working on it.”
“Oh, okay, terrific.” Diamond’s slicked back hair and vintage plaid shirt reminds Kalinda of the one time she’d seen hir perform in DC. Ze notices K’s raised eyebrow.
“Oh, nothing, I was just remembering when you did that big routine at the Black Cat—what was it, something about Fleet Week and a huge Navy ship. I bet you could still put on an act, couldn’t you?”
“Girlfriend, those days are over,” says Diamond, waving for emphasis.
“When was your last drag king act, just wondering.”
“1997, December.” Ze pretends he doesn’t feel a pang thinking back to those days.
“Seems like yesterday,” says Kalinda.
“Not to me,” says Diamond, “and I’m glad for that.”
Present Day, Washington, DC
Eve looks up when the bell over her shop door tinkles, seeing that it’s Iris. Only Iris doesn’t return her smile.
“Honey, your nails can’t be that bad,” says Eve, looking at Iris’s hands as she crosses the room to Eve.
“My nails are fine. I mean, I could use a manicure. But you, dear, you’ve been less than honest with me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh yes you do. You knew that party I was going to was for your parents, and you didn’t say anything to me.”
Eve drops her arms and exhales louder than she means to.
“I didn’t know what to say.” Still no response from Eve, so Iris tries again.
“Did you think I wouldn’t support you?”
“I don’t know. I figured it wasn’t any of your business.” She pushes at a jar of Q-Tips. “How did you find out?”
“They had a wall of photos in a corner of the room, and there were two of you, one from when you were little, and one from after you changed.”
Eve’s eyes widen.
“One of your sisters put it up,” she says, her voice softening. “I think they miss you, honey.”
“Well, they had many years to tell me that,” says Eve. She walks behind her register and fiddles with a green plastic bin holds held paper and pens.
“I talked to your parents about not having you in their lives. I mean, I didn’t tell them I knew where you were.”
“Your father told me that he realized one day that Jesus loves all his children, so he should, too.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I think you should contact them.”
“You don’t know my family. You don’t know how they’ve treated me. To them I’m a non-person. I’m less than human to them.”
“I just think regret how they handled your changes.”
“I didn’t change. I just became who I really was. They’re the ones who changed by deciding not to love me anymore.”
“I’m sorry they hurt you so much, Eve.”
“I’m sorry, too. No offense, but could you go now? I’m closing the store.”
Iris takes a moment, considering whether she should argue with Eve or not. Maybe later they can talk about this again.
Iris pulls at her jacket, bowing her head and taking small steps to the front door. She puts one hand on the glass.
“I think you’re very brave,” she says, almost at a whisper.
“I ain’t brave,” says Eve. “I’m just me.”
The door shuts and Eve locks it with all the calm she can muster. And once the bolt clicks into place, she feels the tears come.
If the books on the first floor are new releases with crisp, bright covers, the volumes upstairs mark an older epoch in LGBT literature, with the scent of old paper hovering over them. Here there are faded books with illustrations from Tom of Finland, calls to action by former leaders of the gay civil rights movement, handmade books that retell children’s fairy tales from a lesbian perspective. Alex marvels at the bygone books, surprised at how much sex they contain, and excited that they are a quarter of the price of anything in the main room.
Under his arm he collects a small stack, holding on to the shaking railing with his other hand as he makes his way back to the checkout counter. The white-haired clerk grins at the number of purchases Alex deposits between them.
“Excellent choices,” he says, punching numbers into the register.
“Oh, could I get a rainbow sticker, too,” asks Alex, plucking one off of a short pile and putting it on his stack. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a teenager in a dirty windbreaker watching him. The kid is overly nervous, or twitchy, maybe a meth head, not so popular in these parts. He turns to face her full on.
“How’s it going,” he asks.
The teen stares back at him blankly.
“I only ask because—”
“Nobody wants to talk to you, creep,” says the kid, dropping the porn magazine she’s holding and marching out the door.
“Wait, no!” Alex stands with one foot on the sidewalk, a good four inches lower than the floor inside. “I’m not a creep!” The teen is halfway to Delancey Park, so Alex sighs and heads back to the counter.
“I’m not a creep,” he declares again.
“Too bad,” says the cashier.
“Aren’t you hilarious? Look, you know about the new queer high school? I work there.”
“Oh, that’s a great project. I really hope you guys get it off the ground.”
“What do you mean?” Alex hasn’t heard any gossip—not that he’s tried.
“Well, renovation projects always cost more than you think they will. And you know, the school board isn’t really into it. Bunch of homophobic bastards, if you ask me. That’ll be $19.53.”
Alex fishes in his wallet and pulls out twenty dollars in small bills.
“Say, does that kid come in a lot?”
“Sure, what else does she have to do? I used to chase those kids out of here, but then I figured they get into less trouble if they’re here than at that flop house.”
“What flop house?”
“There’s an abandoned building over on uh, Forest Place. Little street, one block long.” He gives Alex a long look as if he’s seeing him for the first time. “You shouldn’t go over there, you know.”
“Well, maybe we can do a bit better for her than letting her read On Our Backs every afternoon.”
“What am I, a social worker? Get out of here with your righteous ass.”
Alex waves to the old man and smiles, because he’s nailed it, after all.
And then he wonders what he’ll be walking into.
Terry turned onto the rutted dirt road that served as the farm’s driveway, and tired clouds of tan dust exploded before falling back to the ground, coating the strip of yellow-green grass that ran down the middle of the path. He popped open an orange pill bottle and tipped it toward his lips, catching one tablet and swallowing it without water. The doctors all agreed that he’d turned a corner and just needed to finish his course of medication. Great. That didn’t mean they’d cleared him to leave, but Terry insisted on signing the discharge papers. Spending four years on a hospital ward had learned him a few lessons on his patient rights.
He looked for Mary’s car but the space was empty. He had to hang onto the car door for a second until he felt steady enough to walk. Terry’s frame had shed 20 pounds since his check-in two weeks earlier. He kicked off the clods of dirt from his boots as he had all those years before moving to the big city. Familiarity didn’t spark a smile, however, and he walked through the front door without announcing himself.
Harold now had a monitor hooked up next to his bed, with blood pressure, oxygenation, and other vital signs in bold numbers and graphs blaring from the screen.
“Well, look who’s back,” said Terry’s father.
“I’m feeling better, thanks for asking.” Terry pulled a wooden chair—one from the dining room set—up to the bed. “Where’s Mary?”
Harold spit into a tissue and then inhaled.
“She went into town to get some lunch. I think she’s sick of canned tomato soup.”
How insightful of him to consider someone else’s needs, thought Terry.
“We had a fight,” said Terry, gazing at the monitor.
“It’s just as well. You should grow up and find a good woman.”
“Don’t tell me to shut up, I know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen first hand that those homosexuals are a den of sin and sickness.”
Terry stood up. “You’re just a bigot.”
He slammed the door behind him to muffle his father’s hoarse shouts.
Back in the library, his fists clenched, he looked for where he’d left off in going through his father’s titles. Several stacks were not where Terry and Joseph had left them, so he went in search of the pile of nineteenth century first editions. So many books filled the room, maybe he was just looking too quickly to notice the dull blue and gray hardbacks. After fifteen minutes he decided they weren’t in the room, period.
“Father,” he said, walking back into Harold’s room, “where is the Tom Sawyer?”
Harold pushed himself into a sitting position in his bed, still groggy from what had been a nap.
“I knew it—the books are all you care about, not me.” His skin was dry, as dusty-looking as the driveway.
“Of course I care about you. You’re the one who asked me to go through your library.”
“That was before you abandoned me.”
“I was in the hospital, Dad. I didn’t abandon you. Who told you that?”
“What where you in the hospital for?”
“That’s not what Mary said.”
Terry wiped the look of shock off of his face.
“Mary? What does Mary have to do with anything? What did she say?”
“She uh…she said you’d stormed off.”
A horrible idea clicked in Terry’s head. He sat on the side of the bed and leaned in toward his father.
“Dad, where are those books?”
“I don’t know, wherever you and Joseph left them.” To emphasize his point he waved his arms toward the general direction of the library.
“She didn’t tell you I was sick?”
“No. No, Terry. I’d tell you if she had.”
“She’s the one who tested me for tuberculosis and made the referral for me to go to the doctor in Lincoln.”
“When did she leave for town?”
Harold sighed again, the remnants of color he’d had leaving his face.
“I guess about two hours ago. You think she made off with those books?”
“Yeah Dad, I do.”
Harold looked out the window, flanked by green curtains, and Terry stared at the monitor, neither of them finding any words for each other.