Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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The Death of Donna-May Dean

The first time I discovered Joey Manley, the founder of Free Speech TV and the website, was when I discovered on his website a video of himself giving a speech he had written, titled "Choosing to be Queer." I've linked to that video from my website for years, so hopefully some of you reading this will have watched it before and remember what I'm talking about. Unfortunately I just discovered this evening that my hyperlink to it is now dead, and I have promptly begun the process of writing to everyone remotely connected with it and begging them to repost it. I'm not sure what Joey Manley's own current email address is though, so . . . Joey Manley, if you ever Google your name and find this entry, will you pleeeeease repost your lovely video somewhere on the Internet so I can link to it again?

In the meantime, however, those of you who never saw the video of the speech can still read a transcript of its text, posted by Joey Manley in an ancient Usenet post under the slightly different title "My Queer Life Is Not a Birth Defect."

After I first found that speech so much, I started searching for more of Joey Manley's work. Very soon I found a short story by him, called "Love Will Tear," published in the queer journal Blithe House Quarterly and still available online. This story features fantastic queer by choice content too:
Joey's mother used to tell him about collard greens. When he was a child he would say, "Yuck." His mother said, "I know, I know. But someday your tastes will change." She said that one day she had walked into the kitchen and asked her mother what that was that smelled so good. It turned out to be collard greens, which she had always thought were gross before. From that point on she loved them. The story horrified Joey's romantic sensibility. If something that fundamental could change - if he could be the kind of person who liked collard greens - what else about him might be different someday? What other person might he become? He felt the same way now about his sexuality. Sometimes he saw a woman who appealed to him, or while masturbating he accidentally thought about one. He put these thoughts away, not because he had anything against heterosexuality, but because they made him incomprehensible to himself. He also to this day did not like collards, or any greens for that matter.
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when, only very recently, I suddenly quite randomly stumbled onto a listing on for an entire novel written by . . . Joey Manley! I knew right away it was the same Joey Manley, because it was a queer novel, published in relatively recent years . . . everything fit. I had to have this novel. Rarely have I looked forward to any novel so much. Yet, at the same time, I was also very afraid of being disappointed, because it is not often that I decide to read a novel that no one has recommended to me and whose author I have only ever previously read one very short story by, plus a short speech that was not fiction at all.

But I successfully acquired this novel. It is called The Death of Donna-May Dean. And over the course of the past two days, I read it. And I was not disappointed. I love this novel.

I do not love it primarily for its queer by choice content. My appreciation of its queer by choice content was much outweighed by my appreciation of the novel for simply being impressively well-written. Still, it does indeed have queer by choice content, and in fact I only had to read up to page 7 to find the first instance of it:
I stood at the free-throw line I'd scraped myself, with a sharp rock, across the dirt. I held gravely in both hands before me somebody else's lopsided basketball. Even aloud, I said, "If I make this shot, they're right. And I am a queer the rest of my life."

They were the boys who sat in back of the school bus, cigarette behind one ear each, teeth often bared to show contempt, signs of rot, tobacco stains: rednecks in training who passed in my mind and in my dad's mind for what a boy should be.

I didn't make that shot. But I did try again, and kept on, I made it. I was glad, for the trying again, for the keeping on, for the wanting to be what I already was: the choice.

And I was glad nobody else was there to see.
But that is actually probably the most overt mention of choosing to be queer in the whole novel, with the possible exception of a brief line of dialog on page 87: "Keller says there's no such thing as a straight man," Jimmy said. "Keller says anybody can be straight if you want him to pretend to be."

This novel tells the story of a 16-year-old boy named Jamie who chooses to be queer (at the free-throw line, as described). Of course, he is not at all equally eager to be recognized as queer by other people. In fact, it is very important to him to consider himself to be a different, more elite class of queer than the dozens of male strangers whom he quickly starts having sex with at night in the local park. He typically avoids conversing with his sexual partners at all, but eventually one man at the park, a significantly older man named Keller, tries to start a conversation with Jamie:
Before long I'd established my own territory, a set of benches close enough to the bathroom building and the bushes, also close enough to my car. In case of rednecks, and baseball bats, and I had to get away. That was where I found Keller. I passed him by several times, hoping he'd be gone soon. I just couldn't bring myself to settle some other place. Finally he slid one hand across the seat beside him, an arc that ended with three imperious pats.

"Sorry I didn't have time to clean the living room," he pronounced. "We weren't expecting company."

So I sat, glad to have this chance to reject him and get him out of my way. Because he looked like a faggot. I was proud to be a dicksucker, but why look the part? What he wore: varicose veins, plaid knee-shorts, one cold-cream crescent under each eye, a yellow towel-turban.

"Do you need to piss?" he said. "Well, you look like you do. My name is Keller. You may call me Helen." He held out a mock-reluctant hand, to be kissed. I shook it instead. . . . He patted me on the knee, twice, smartly. "Talk to your mother."

That was when I looked up. I don't know what he must have seen in my face: "I mean," he said, "me."

. . . I said, "I kill faggots."
Not exactly the most auspicious beginning. But Keller doesn't take it seriously, and indeed, Jamie is really not a queerbasher. Maybe a little bit of a wannabe queerbasher, at the beginning, but it doesn't take him long to grow out of that. So this conversation actually marks the beginning of a long and important friendship between Jamie and Keller, and Keller's lover Thomas.

But really I think my very favorite thing about the novel is the portrayal of Jamie's mother. His real mother, that is, not Keller - although Keller is quite interesting too! Shortly after that first meeting with Keller, Jamie's mother tells Jamie that she knows he's queer. She doesn't exactly go about it in the best way, but the rest of the book revolves in large part around her evolution from the semi-well-meaning homophobe she is at the beginning of the story into someone who is, well, very different, and more interesting. Here is the coming-out scene.
Mother grew three sizes smaller in as many months, after Dad died, and white about the eyes, white at every knuckle, uncareful of dress. All I'd grown was a cold relief, hateful to me, a cancer casting roots across the bottom of my gut: now he'll never have to know that I'm queer. At the funeral home, I'd dodged into the bathroom, more than once, to check my tears in the mirror, not to see if they were real - that wasn't important - but to make sure they weren't sissy, that they didn't give me away.

For a while after that, Mother and I were always going to the grocery store, together, barefoot. Death in the family makes a body hungry. We kept the neighborly casseroles under tight Saran Wrap in the freezer, though: to fetch food was our need, to carry it home, under our arms, in heavy ripping paper bags. Nothing is so comforting as cans, bottles, cartons, to lock away, shut behind doors, to feel (we must be strong). Carrots to see. Collards for the blood. Milk for bones, fingernails, sharp shiny teeth.

One day, we came around the corner, to the Fruits and Vegetables aisle, and there he was, in a printed nightshirt, pinching passion fruit. He looked smaller, more serious, strange and masculine, more bald than I had expected, with a fringe of tight yellow curls, like ash on the tip of a fat cigar. Thomas, behind him, managed to putter about while standing still. I didn't know Thomas then, his spats and suspenders, his black Polish cap.

Mother stopped, drew the back of her hand to my chest, as if we were in the car, I was still a baby in the front seat.

I said, "What?" But I knew.

"The town faggots," she whispered, as if there were only two.

I said, "There's more than two, Mother." I was watching my feet. She was watching me. I said, "There's lots of them."

She lifted one eyebrow, her Inspector Clouseau look, our oldest joke, "What are you trying to tell me?" . . .

Keller said, as if to himself, "I like Moon Pies. Thomas, do you like moon Pies?" He waltzed away with an unseen, leading, partner. "fuck this fruit," he said, sang, over his shoulder. "Let's get Moon Pies for dessert."

Thomas, careful, casually, made steps after him. He touched his cap to Mother, left his fingers there long enough to turn to me.

"We should wear shoes these days," Mother said. "AIDS."

"You don't get it that way."

"How," she said, "do you know?" It wasn't a question. She just nodded, didn't wait for me to answer. As if she had just proved something.

I said, "It doesn't happen here."

We pushed on down to Dairy, where the floor was gritty to bare feet, sedative, cool.

I said, "Anybody knows that."

She watched her hands push the cart, and smiled, as if she'd just stepped in something wet that wasn't supposed to be on the floor.

I said things, I don't know what. How we needed peanut butter. and look how much cheddar cheese had gone up since we were here two days ago.

Her mind had set, and her face had shut. I might have been talking to the cantaloupe in our basket, the kiwi, the kumquats, the corn. I laughed, as a child in elementary school sings the national anthem: off-key, and too loud, and without rhythm.

When we got back to the car, she fell hard onto her seat, snapped quick teeth once, a smile. "Tell me about your friends," she said. Meaning, the town faggots.

I turned away from her, to look out the window. "Who do you mean." I said, "Listen to you." I laughed. I said, "Shhh."

She scrubbed my scalp with her knuckles, to show that I was being difficult, and she didn't mind. I did - with most fierce resolve and reproach - nothing.

"AIDS is all I worry about," she said, quietly.

"How do you get it?" I said, "Do you really want to know? It's easy." I was screaming now. "You let them fuck you up the butthole, Mother. Scum you up and you're ripped and bloody." I smiled. "Easy as pie." I turned my smile in her direction. "I do it all the time."

She slapped me - tried to slap me - two fingers grazed my cheek, slammed into the dash. She looked at me with narrow eyes, widening: indulgence had always been her plan. "Jamie," she said.

That's me. That's my name. But I said, "Just go. Just drive." And I felt nothing. Blood pressure beating in my hands and feet. I said, "Let's go."

Now and then, she'd turn to look at me.

"Look," I said. "See? This is how a faggot sits in a car."

She said, "Son." Meaning, I'm sorry. Meaning, Leave me alone. Meaning, Shut up.

"Watch the faggot," I insisted. "See it blink and breathe." And all at once, for the first time in my life, I realized: I sound like a sissy. And I always have.

Home - a new and dangerous place to be, and be queer. The windows showed bright, opaque, against the black bands of carpenter's tape between them. Air conditioner smell. Refrigerator's rattling drone. And there was nothing I could do. I helped her put away the groceries.

Her knowing that I was queer - my knowing that she knew, that she wanted to talk about it - made me clumsy, fierce, giggly. I had always been queer, yes, but hadn't always had to think about it. Not here. I could sit on the couch, or sneak to the store for a cigarette, and not have to keep it in mind, my queerness. Now she'd always be there, to watch me, thinking, This is my son the faggot.

I slammed the English peas into place on the cabinet shelf. The peanut butter slid out, hit the floor, rolled away. "Damn!"

She touched my wrist, to hold me still.

I jerked away, stood, stepped back, and folded my arms. "Okay," I said, all hostile fluttering lids and lifted chin, "Okay, okay. What."

She smiled, to get me to. "I love you anyway?"

"Aren't you," I shot right back at her, "strong and brave?"

I stormed to my room, to sit on the bed, wait for her to follow. I watched the door, so she would knock, but she didn't.
Immediately thereafter, Jamie tells Keller and Thomas that his mother kicked him out of the house, although she didn't. Keller and Thomas let him move in with them. He doesn't tell his mother where he's gone, so she, reasonably, is worried sick. She tracks him down in a grocery store parking lot and pleads with him to come home, then shoves $10 into his hand because it's all she has with her and she fears that he must need money. He won't come with her, but she follows him back to Keller and Thomas's house in her own car, and stands around outside, casting furtive glances through the windows, knocking on the door and being let in, then taking one look and running back to her car to get out of there. Then Keller calls her and asks her to come over while Jamie's not there. Keller says he's worried about Jamie and wants to discuss with her what should be done. This is what happens when she arrives.
Keller pretended not to have been expecting her. He lowered his bifocals, blinked above them, three times. He said, "Yes?"

"I'm his mother," she said, meaning to sound stern, coming out friendly instead. She said, "Hello."

"Of course." He cleared his throat, "So am I," opened the door wide, continued the sweeping motion with his hand, to show her the way. "His mother, I mean." She didn't move until he took a half-step backwards and a bow. "Delighted to once again make your acquaintance," he whispered.

She walked toward nothing, inside, on nervous tiptoes, as if he might bite. "So this is it?" she said. . . .

What Keller told her was this: they loved me. "And yet -" He sat, allowed the second word, with a spin of his hand, to trail into unspoken possibilities.

"I never meant it, when I said we should wear shoes at the grocery store. When I said, 'AIDS.' Is that why he left me? Did he tell you about that?"

She ran a hand through her hair. Keller lifted his eyebrows. The stringy color job.

She said, "I never meant to know he was - he was -"

Keller said, "There, there. He patted her knee. "Not your fault for finding out. Mothers know. They always do."

"It was his daddy who told me."

Keller grimaced. "How improper. You must never repeat this." He said, "Shameful, even. His daddy, indeed."

Mother lit a cigarette. "Do you mind?" She said, "I mean, I think he hates me or something. I just wonder how I was supposed to act. I was trying to be nice about it. I just wanted to talk to him. I guess I'll shut up, though. I guess I sound stupid."

She waved the match, sent an arc of blue smoke sputtering before her face. It lifted. she watched it until it broke on the ceiling.

Keller tactfully slammed an ashtray from the bookshelf behind him before her.

"He told us that you kicked him out of the house."

Mother lowered her face. She said, "Hm." She laughed. "Did I?"

Keller smiled, slapped his hands on his knees, sat. "Of course you did. Because that's the story. That's what mothers always do."

She said she didn't understand.

"What's the truth?" Keller said. "The truth is what we choose to believe. Am I right? And your son" - here he stopped, to lean forward, inquire with lifted brows, to see that she followed - "our son believes that you kicked him out of the house. Or he claims to believe it, which is the same thing. Listen." Keller beamed now." "He doesn't hate you. He just wants to."

Mother, catching on, "Which is the same thing?"


She said, "I see," airily, as if she did not.

Keller clapped quick palms together, holding his fingers stiffly separated, as a child.

"But why does he want to hate me?"

Keller shrugged. "It's not even that simple," he said. "It's not even that he wants to hate you. He wants to hate himself. You're an easier target. He can't stand it, what he is. He can't stand it that you know. None of us can."

Then he smiled.

"I don't mean just faggots. But I do mean faggots in particular."

He stopped. He stood. In another tone of voice, to indicate a greater degree of honesty, "Listen. About what I just said? About not being able to stand what we are? That's a lie, an old attitude, a romantic yarn. It's just something I like to say. It sounds so tragic, don't you think?"

He took down a picture album from the bookshelf.

"I have too many stories of pathetic faggots to tell. None of them are true. Because, listen - The Boys in the Band got it wrong. There's no such thing as an unhappy homosexual. We're all just pretending."

He lifted his face, as to laugh, then he didn't.
I won't tell you the end, because I think that would risk spoiling your own potential reading experience slightly. But I will say that it was a delight to watch Jamie's mother and Jamie's other "mother," Keller, interact with each other. And lest you wonder about the title, I will also say that Donna-May Dean was a legendary drag queen who killed herself about a decade before the story takes place. Keller knew her. Jamie didn't, but Jamie is fascinated by the stories about her, and to some extent, models his own identity after the legends of hers.
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