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The Contender

 

A few years ago I wrote a short story, my first. Months after sending it to a literary magazine, I felt pleased and relieved to hear from its editor, who also told me the magazine would be pleased to publish it…after I looked over a few pages of editorial comments. Revisions ensued.
The story is still available in print form. It might even be accessible online, but I’m not sure. Anyhow, if you’re reading this and feel a bit bored (or else hungry for a short story and have nothing within reach), you can find it in issue #169 of The Malahat Review. Then again, you might also feel lazy; and with the thought of trudging to a library in order to secure an obscure short story, you might simply give up, reach for the remote, and watch Seinfeld in syndication or even a repeat of your favourite—and recently cancelled—show.
With your all-too-human frailty in mind, I reprint the story here for your convenience, mere centimetres below.

 

 

The Contender

“How are things going, ladies? Finished soon?” Jeffrey has positioned himself in the frame of the kitchen’s pocket door, somber mood seeping through the fine strands of his professorial woolens and neat-but-full Sigmund Freud beard. He is breathing in deeply, borrowing from the strategy of the blowfish to scare off interlopers and protect his sovereignty. I’m more imposing than you. That is the overall message of his stance, though there’s another communiqué for me alone: Our home will not become some cut-rate salon frequented by grotesque belles cut from a Steel Magnolias cloth.
“It’s mere moments before we arrive at the perfect shade of gold,” I say, quoting Oscar Wilde vaguely, “then I’ll rustle you up some dinner, Big Daddy.” As I’m speaking I can hear irony and twang and a wink in the sentence. It’s schizoid, I know, as though Greenpeace and N.R.A. conventioneers have booked the same room, and I’m the facilitator trying to keep everyone satisfied. The price paid for being an appeaser, I suppose.
Jeffrey returns to his books and closes the door.
“Someone’s in a lather, that’s what I’d say, Sandy,” Mrs. Gillespie—“Call me Dee Dee”—announces to the kitchen, nonplussed. She’s resting a coffee mug on her lap and her bounty of damp tresses is shingled with foils. Today’s accomplishment will be to eradicate brassy blond and replace it with the “elegant ash” tone promised by Clairol #116. In a whisper on the phone this morning Dee Dee told me that her husband had compared her—aloud—to a Tijuana whore at a family barbecue the night before. “It was humiliating,” she’d needlessly elaborated. Although Dee Dee possesses an abundance of smarts, it’s her irascible husband who lays down the law. Given the tense compression of her voice, “Stop by after three and we’ll fix you up in no time” had seemed reasonable.
A summer’s late afternoon in Lubbock brings to mind the incinerating wind that accompanies nuclear detonation. Locals don’t dwell on it, or even comment. For a Vancouver transplant accustomed to moist lukewarm air, not infrequent rain, thick cloud cover, and plump-with-moisture greenery throughout June, I’ve noticed that “merciless,” “Hades,” “blazing” and “stinking hot” are on heavy rotation in my daily small talk. I try not to complain. Repeatedly I’m told that I’ll get used to it in no time, but so far I’m fully unconvinced. And until that day of miraculous adjustment, I will not open the kitchen window a crack. Air conditioning is a blessing—another word I’ve adopted of late—although it doesn’t do much for the gaseous stench of the no-ammonia Clairol Dee Dee had shown up with at ten minutes before four. She’d waited at the breakfast nook until I finishing IMing my subordinates their project goals for tomorrow and switched off Old Faithful, the fussy near-obsolete PC monitor I’d insisted on carting south. Although management is also new territory to me, I’m taking to it.
“We shouldn’t rush colour processing,” I say with ersatz professionalism, “but I figure we ought to close up shop and clear you out before much longer. You know these men and their appetites.”
“Amen,” Dee Dee replies and lifts the coffee mug to her mouth.

Jeffrey and I are residing on a dry corner lot at 16th Street and Texas Avenue in the modest rancher we bought through Yolanda for the same hopeful/foolish reason that other couples make babies or spend their precious savings on a romantic tropical vacation: to bolster our marriage. Rescue might sound too drastic, but it’s there too. Also, possibly, to forestall arrest, incarceration, court dates, lawyer fees, psychiatric evaluations, and of course the unseemly notoriety that would come with public exposure and scrutiny. Dee Dee says it often, and I have to agree: “I wash my dirty laundry in the basement behind a locked door, thank you very much.”
When asked, we tell people that we’re here for the advancement of Jeffrey’s career. The claim is accurate in its way. Naturally the truth, being truth, is considerably more complex. “The God’s truth,” as locals say, we keep to ourselves. If compelled to compose an affidavit I’m not sure that we’d ever come to agree about the details. Suffice it to say, Lubbock is both an opportunity and a necessity.
For half a decade Jeffrey had been veering between bitter and despondent as thankless contract faculty at the country’s No. 2 university, lecturing on poems, novels, and essays to kids who drive costly European cars to campus. In year six, after being informed categorically in a bulk email from the Department head’s secretary—“Dear applicant,” sent to 178 other hopefuls—that his academic credentials, while “impressive,” had been deemed so substandard in a “highly competitive field” that his name had not even been placed on the long list of eligible candidates for a position he’d warily allowed himself to yearn for, Jeffrey had “acted out” and “gone on a bender”—his words—applying for a “motley assortment of ludicrous positions” in “god awful destinations.” As benders go, it was industrious. A flurry of document packages—the standard envelope containing an “ass-kissing” curriculum vitae and elaborate statement of pedagogy, cherry-picked teaching assessments, and a painstakingly crafted letter of introduction that emphasized scholarly brilliance, ceaseless publication productivity, and intellectual staying power—had been launched with glib commentary (made to me, fellow low-totem faculty and, no doubt, postal clerks) and landed days later on desks in locales that possessed no reputation as hubs, cultural or otherwise.
They might be in backwater provinces and redneck states, but they’d all expressed keen interest. Jeffrey was flown to Red Deer, Antigonish, and Biloxi, and before each outing, while waiting at home for an airport taxi, he’d keep his jaw set with an obviously false sense of adventure, striving (and failing) to make the trip equivalent to a weekend jaunt to a storied European destination—Montenegro, say, or Transylvania—redolent of mystery and Old World atmosphere. Picturing him during fraught interviews and faculty luncheons in these obscure towns, I guessed that his smile would turn rictus-like and not be at all endearing. About that I’m man enough to admit to being wrong.

Dee Dee utters no complaint as I rinse away her brassy misstep. When I struggle with combing through the knots and tangle, though, her eyes well with tears. “That damned man,” she exclaims. It’s plain that I’m supposed to commiserate with her feminine predicament and am tempted to say (with hands firmly planted on hips, naturally), “I hear you, girl” or some other TV-sitcom salon equivalent, but no words form. It’s quite enough that I’m residing in a Texas suburb and dyeing a woman’s hair in my kitchen so that her husband won’t call her a whore over a family meal of barbequed ribs, and had only a few hours before contributed my two cents during a lengthy telephone conversation about the rules for pairing shoes with accessories. I’d laugh if it were someone else’s tale of misadventure. It’s my life at the moment, however, and instead I’m reminded of Jeffrey’s unsubtle quotation from an essay about conformity he’d taught weeks back that had tempers flaring in this town of team-sport zealousness. “It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion as a member of a group,” he’d read it to me in the guise of a disinterested philosopher. “We also find our thinking changing because we belong to a group.” In case I’d missed the gist he’d left the essay on the kitchen counter, passage highlighted in orange. The author’s confident declaration—an opinion, actually, as I’d pointed out—was bothersome especially because it’s the kind of well-meaning “constructive criticism” I’ve heard with regularity since junior high school. But friendship webs, even the asymmetrical ones I’m building here, are a basic requirement for me. If we expect to settle permanently in Lubbock, that is. Despite Jeff’s ongoing bafflement, it’s hardly quantum physics. The lone-wolf routine and the thick wall of books, Jeff’s inclination, makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Returned from the interviews at backwoods colleges and impatient for news from afar, Jeffrey was a volatile catalogue of anxious symptoms. His mercurial choice of terms for the No. 2 university (“unscrupulous” turning to “parasitic” and “vampiric” before terminating with “monstrous soul-destroying cesspool”) and its “toxic” faculty (the less said the better), and the burgeoning fantasies that ranged from colleague-homicide-by-strangulation in an elevator to building-toppling-via-C4-explosives (ordinarily described over breakfast) were amusing at first. Admittedly, the scatological punning involving his employer’s No. 2 status—juvenile to begin with—grew tiresome in no time. Weeks later my qualified appreciation of his wit was supplanted by the implication that I was witnessing “going postal” in utero. Unlike those dumbfounded and ineffectual friends or loved ones on the news who claim in retrospect to have noticed the odd tics, glazed eyes, and strange obsessions of the teen who would eventually fix on a random assortment of classmates with his father’s semi-automatic rifle, my vision was 20-20 in the here and now. True, tweedy slouching-toward-middle-age academics are hardly renowned for homicidal rampages, but there’s always the first time to set a precedent.
“What’s the worse that could happen?” was my initial strategy, simple and classic if predictable devil’s advocacy. After all, could two semesters in Armpit, New Brunswick, or Tornadoville, Mississippi, really be worse than the ignobility of the eight-month contracts and Gastarbeiter citizenship sanctioned by No. 2 university?
“Lynching? Or worse. Let’s not forget Matthew Shepard,” Jeffrey retorted. Not for the first time his reluctance to break free from present inertia had me wondering if the man secretly liked to wallow in his ivory-tower misery.
Since lynching was the answer I would have given, I’d seen that scenario coming. “It’s a university environment, not a dive bar on a dirt road. Besides, a change of scenery would serve us well.” By “scenery” I meant “campus” and by “us” I meant “you.”
“Ah, yes, a university environment. So enlightened, so noble and civilized.”
I cleared my throat, refusing comment. Jeff’s self-indulgence preferred an audience and I wasn’t in the mood.
“It’s not all about me, you know,” he said, changing tack.
“Hey, I’m up for an adventure if you are.” We both knew adventure referred to skiing steeper runs and third-class train journeys in India, not a brick college squatting on wind-swept terrain.
In my career setting isn’t a factor. Writing travel-industry software requires no daily commute, no felt-surfaced cubicle, no khaki Dockers on casual Fridays. In Vancouver my virtual office was an IKEA desk in a tenth-floor solarium that overlooked a scabby park where the terminally underemployed bought, sold, and smoked rocks of crack cocaine and young careerists (plastic bags in hand) impatiently waited for their toy dogs to void their colons. I wore pajamas from eight till five. So long as I have access to a computer tethered to the Internet I’m capable of working anywhere and can confer with my bosses (in Atlanta, Portland, and Tucson) and those I’m now boss to (Palm Springs, Kansas City, Spokane) on the phone during business hours. A correctly positioned window in Nova Scotia or Mississippi would be almost as eventful, I predicted.
Our banter about relocation lasted for weeks, tide-like in its ebb and flow. As is often the case with banter, the surface joviality disguised real politicking and worry. The logistics and hassle were causes for concern; moving from a liberal metropolis towards who knows what had led to nights of clenched jaws and grinding teeth. Framing it as excitement was a thought, but we were too set in our ways to commit to that belief. There was the gay-and-proud thing too. As individuals and as a couple we took it for granted that being visible was a kind of mandatory political duty. To be cautious and fearful, or, worse yet, to retreat to the closet was so retrograde that it would be no different from a woman voluntarily relinquishing her right to vote. It would never happen. We settled on a tentative compromise: towns far from an acceptable location would be passed over; a small city we’d take seriously. Red Deer and Lubbock became the top contenders, albeit scrawny ones we felt reluctant to place large bets on.
The opportunity for career advancement arrived in the mail within an envelope featuring the unassuming letterhead of Texas Tech University. The offer was surprisingly generous. Jeffrey emailed his acceptance the same day, and I smiled with total sincerity, my projected news headline “Egghead Enacts C4 Extermination” rendered purely and comfortingly fantastical in an instant.

Dee Dee has closed her eyes and there’s no sound now save the low hum from beneath the fridge. Foil-framed, her relaxed face tells me nothing at all except that it’s known cosmetics and the desert sun for decades. Anything else is conjecture; and that’s my exact temptation. I can’t help but ponder the whys of her sitting in my kitchen getting “gussied up” as she says. She’s well connected, having grown up in a tree-lined residential area a few miles south, so her motivations can’t have much in common with mine. Maybe it’s the novelty.
Even though Dee Dee hasn’t managed to utter the word homosexual yet, to all appearances she’s been at ease here from her first visit. Still. She’s taken me out to lunch and happy hour cocktails, but never invited me (never mind us) to visit her home or meet the family. The lapse in etiquette leads me wonder if ours is a covert friendship, one that demands the sort of sneaky attitude adopted toward an interesting person from the wrong side of the tracks. I can’t figure it out and, really, I ought to ask. A direct question, though, that might be received as gauche. Cousin to the stock image of the Southern lady, the Southwest version of decorum veers close to unfathomable for an outsider; and its reliance on indirectness is perplexing to someone who usually feels no qualm in asking or answering “What’s your annual income?” Here, it’s imperative to be attuned to the minuscule breezes and temperature shifts in a given conversation—how long is the pause, what is the exact tone, what has not been stated? As a social ritual it’s positively Japanese. I’m far, far from mastery.
The one day I did spy Dee Dee and kin in public, it was high noon in an expanse of parking lot at a shopping plaza. At the time I assumed she didn’t see me when I waved.
“Time up yet?” she asks, eyes steady on mine.
“Patience, woman. Colouring is an art,” I say. “Just close your eyes for a sec and think of Tijuana.”

Corresponding with Yolanda Sanchez, C.R.E.A., the Certified Go-Getter I’d contacted online, Jeffrey and I were cautious and close to truthful: We were two men in search of a three-bedroom house. Simple. We didn’t claim to be roommates, nor invent biographies of wives who were waiting back home while we scouted. Neither did we proclaim that we were lovers or partners who’d been wearing marital bands for years. As a united tight-lipped front in person, we directed conversation to minutia about architecture and landscape as well as to location relative to campus and city centre. While being taxied from open house to open house—all recent constructions and to our inexperienced eyes possessing identical floor plans—we posed bland questions about the city’s history, amenities, and weather and answered similar ones about Vancouver. If there was an elephant in her pewter Lincoln Navigator, no one was eager to point it out.
Yolanda crowed that her professional success was the direct consequence of being a “Tex-Mex prophet.” “I just know it in my bones when the shoe’s a good fit,” she exclaimed, and with a hopeful grin announced “Close but no cigar” after we’d passed through yet another cookie-cutter 3 bed/2.5 bth rancher. “This is the real McCoy,” Yolanda said within a minute of her entrance of the corner lot at 16th and Texas. From the moment of that quiet announcement—for a Tex-Mex prophet Yolanda was unexpectedly free of sideshow dramatics—our final days in Canada were shaped by the tough demands of momentum. Jeff satisfied his need to burn bridges with a J’accuse bulk email—“Dear Department Head”—sent to all faculty and staff in his department. He wanted to extend it to “the media,” but I convinced him it was a highly localized issue and nobody else would care. Disgruntled white-collar workers appear on the six o’clock news only when weapons and hostages are front and centre. Everybody knows that.
Yolanda had said it was customary to christen a newly purchased home and dropped by with a case of Californian boutique vineyard wines on the afternoon we moved in. She wished us good luck.
Lubbock is small enough that we expected to bump into our affable realtor again at a shopping mall or restaurant. It was a surprise when I answered the door a few weeks later and found her holding two gowns aloft in the blazing sun. She looked bashful.
“Pardon the intrusion,” she said, “Is it a bad time?” She tilted her head in order to see past my shoulder. “It’s fine, I’ve just finished with work. C’mon in,” I assured her. “By the way, what’s with the evening wear?”
In the kitchen Yolanda revealed the cause of her unease. “Well, I was wonderin’…” she stammered comically, “You see, there’s this situation…”
Yolanda needed an opinion, but she couldn’t bring herself to say outright that my advice was being sought out because I’m a gay man and, accordingly, like Mr. Blackwell, Bob Mackie, Gianni Versace, Yves St. Laurent and Halston I am endowed by nature with impeccable and unswerving fashion sense. Her indecision related to making a good impression at an upcoming realtor’s convention in Houston. So, instead of explaining anything at all, she merely asked, as though it were humdrum and everyday to stop by a male client’s house to obtain expert guidance. As though she’d ordinarily do so with any man, but her husband just happened to be out of town and Mr. Diller across the street had his hands full with lawn work and, besides, my house was so conveniently close by.
After lifting the dry cleaner’s film and squinting as I held the fabric close to Yolanda’s face I said that while “the gauzy grey seemed a bit father of the bride,” the emerald silk jersey was “spot on.” What else was I going to do? Lowering my voice and feigning ignorance—“I dunno, they’re both okay to me”—would have been preposterous. She tittered, and then nodded in agreement.
Yolanda is “a slave” to her cell phone, a device stuffed with contacts, including Dee Dee, who apparently believe that a friend like Sandy is a mark of cosmopolitanism. It wasn’t long before I had been asked questions—sudden drop-bys all the rage once it was established as fact that I worked from home—about wedding floral arrangements and containers for houseplants. I’d also been invited out for coffee and informed about superb restaurants for luncheon—another indicator of sophistication—and asked whether there was anything special I needed from high-end shops in Dallas and Houston. Not one husband had shown up with a six-pack to chew over sports or cars. Jeffrey and I were pegged.
Dee Dee’s hair was only the latest facet of my “descent.” The word is Jeffrey’s, intoned—like cancer or income tax—without a hint of levity. I prefer to leave my new role undefined, in process. It seems premature to identify it, anyway. We’re a social species and the entire situation just fell into place organically, so what’s the problem? Though I’d never cut hair, let alone dyed it, I said “Sure” without much hesitation when Dee Dee showed up one morning with slices of her prized lemon loaf and a box of Clairol. Why turn away an opportunity? Returning from campus that day Jeffrey told me my “what the hell attitude” was cowardly. He’s entitled to his opinion. According to him, I should have refused and informed Dee Dee categorically that she was “trafficking in stereotypes.” I say—well, sometimes at least—that relying solely on the one you love as your social outlet is far worse than agreeing to be typecast.
We’d exchanged words, naturally. The setting might be fresh, but the extreme polarity dates back years—the juggernaut of outraged ideology has squabbled with the embodiment of live-and-let-live ho-humery once or twice before.
“You don’t give a damn about weddings and you’ve never coloured a hair in your life. So why now?” Jeffrey’s question was perfectly credible. He’s formidable against logical inconsistencies and muddled motivations. Especially when he’s exasperated.
“Why not?” If he was hoping for a coherent essay of justification, he wasn’t going to get one from me. He could save lectures and assignments for the classroom.
“So, what’s next? An intimate evening of wigs, eye shadow and lip-synched standards for your gal pals?” Jeffrey peppered his questions with italics to aggravate me.
To me there’s something hilarious about this “trafficking.” Jeffrey thinks otherwise, seeing it, variously, as degrading, counterproductive and politically retrograde. And “You’re complicit with your effeminization and our marginalization,” to quote. He can hatch zingers like that in his sleep. While he worries about politics, I figure there’s fifth-columnist potential for me. The ladies of Lubbock may hold dubious and outdated ideas about me now, but those will change once they pass through the pink-ghetto façade. Jeff’s so unreceptive to my point of view that I haven’t bothered to mention this thought yet.

During our house-scouting trip to Lubbock we stayed at a pricey Marriott for three nights. Online reviews of economical motels—disgruntled never-to-return guests seething about bedbug infestations, stained sheets, dirty carpets and walls, moldy shower curtains and rude or stupid front desk staff—convinced me that the region’s hospitality industry wasn’t aiming for the discerning business traveler set. We joked off and on about the adventure of staying at the noisy Comfort Inn near the airport with iron-burned carpeting and sheets too small for the bed.
Yolanda insisted that we save our money and skip the rental car: “My dears, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” Taxis were a bargain, we discovered, even though we had no cause to doubt the sincerity of Yolanda’s offer. Jeffrey figured a leg or two of our expedition free of a cheerful guide would expose us to “the life to come,” that gloomy-sounding phrase of his trotted out more often than I liked.
As for the requisite visit to the ground zero of Lubbock gay culture, we saved that for a Friday night. The only other place I’d read about, on a distant highway to boot, drew a crowd with its cheap beer specials. Near the city’s heart, Club Luxor—“Always imitated, NEVER duplicated” its ads exclaim—was in fact decorated in an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus theme and appeared to be a premiere destination for the age group Jeffery would be teaching in September. We arrived early and ordered two bottles of Shiner Blonde lager; an hour later we walked back to the hotel and took in the warm desert air as we spoke in earnest about plusses and minuses.

Facing nothing except a wooden fence and the yellow stucco side wall of the neighbour’s house, my office at 16th and Texas has not turned out to be eventful in the least. During the days when Jeff is on campus and there are passing cars, phone calls and coding goals to keep me occupied, I catch myself pining for the lively crack economy view of my former office. Even though I sat in a glass cube ten floors above the covert nods and illicit exchanges and had no actual interest in heading outside and trading hard luck stories with the bedraggled park capitalists, I felt connected, a part of an intimate bustling hive-like community. That was illusory, I suppose, just a rose-coloured fiction since my intimacy had no rational basis and the men and women below were completely unaware I existed. It’s absurd, nostalgia for a fantasy. That’s what Jeff would tell me, I’m sure. And I know that if I confided to him he’d connect Dee Dee and Yolanda to my state of mind and at that point it’d be all wrapped up for him, an erratic behavioral issue solved, all the pieces of a mental-health puzzle ordered neatly. He’d be wrong, at least about the erratic part; I’ve met teenagers with greater empathy.

Admiring the refreshed blonde in the hallway mirror Dee Dee places an index finger to her blouse and makes a sizzling sound. She thanks me with a promise of lunch at Harrigan’s early next week. No doubt she’ll be longing to share the details of her hydra-headed revenge for John Sr.’s insult.
“Ta ta,” she says.
Jeffrey opens his study door and I can see the bristling mood hasn’t drifted away completely. He walks toward me. “I just need to rinse out my equipment,” I explain, on guard and momentarily relishing the word’s baggage—it sounds solid and heavy, belonging to a thick-necked auto mechanic rather than a flighty stylist.
The air conditioner has sent the dye’s ammoniac odour out toward the Gulf of Mexico and now the remaining whir of air is cool and pleasantly chemical, only faint emanations from shiny appliances and fresh paint. The room’s surfaces are pristine. With the gourmet’s food prepping island and abundant square footage of countertop, this kitchen is a colossus compared to the slivers of granite that are affordable anywhere in the vicinity of downtown Vancouver. Alongside the desert suburb surroundings, the kitchen’s unavoidable there-ness has thrown our daily routine off course. By the smallest of increments, mind you; the workday appears the same but isn’t, not quite, like the pod-grown body snatchers of a sci-fi movie. We’re slowly adjusting.
“How was work?” I ask.
“Fine. Well, actually I’m stalled, so I flipped through a few books for direction.” Jeff stands next to me at the sink and bumps his hip into mine.
“You two sounded like you were having fun,” he says, “I’m glad.”
The kitchen looks onto the wide road. In between there’s our yard, a stretch of rust Texas dirt, the landscaping of which has not been a priority.
“She’s alright, all things considered,” I hazard cautiously, “She’s funny, too. You wouldn’t want to piss her off, though.”
Jeff continues to stare out onto the scorched earth.
“It’s getting to be that time, I guess. What do you want for dinner?”
“Quiche,” Jeff answers. There’s no trace of sarcasm in his voice.
“Quiche? Isn’t it a tad hot for that?” I check thermometer secured outside the kitchen window: 92 degrees. That’s lower than I would have predicted.
“Why not? It’ll be perfect. We don’t have to eat outside.” Like our neighbours, we’ve taken to barbequed meals served at a picnic table.
“Don’t you think that’s kind of stereotypical?” It’s not like I want an argument, but I can’t resist.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Jeff says, making a c’est-la-vie gesture with his hands, “That doesn’t make it any less tasty.”
“Okay, you’re the boss. Quiche it’ll be.” I store the last of the equipment under the sink and walk to the fridge. “We’re going to need eggs, so want to take a walk?”
“In this heat? Nah, let’s drive.” Jeff checks his pockets for the car keys.
“Sure,” I say. I’ll be glad to leave before the phone rings.

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