Maybe if bars could still run happy-hour discounts, more people would be in Dandy’s piano bar for Donnie’s birthday. The few customers are strung out along the short length of Dandy’s white-lacquered bar, each with one arm outstretched to the glass; when one elbow bends, all the other elbows follow, as if they were attached by a towline. Donnie’s friends are grouped around the far end of the bar, near the buffet laid out on the counter in front of the silent piano. They’ve been there since six, start of the traditional happy hour, but happy hour was banned long ago.
Donnie doesn’t seem bothered, but Del’s a little down. It’s 7:30 and his pasta salad’s hardly been touched. A half-dozen limp deviled eggs with a sprinkle of Bac-os on top lie on a plate slowly turning dangerous. It’s Monday. Maybe they should have had the party on another night. Tomorrow night is karaoke night, the place really fills up. But birthdays, like death days, won’t wait.
Peter died of AIDS on Saturday. Billy hung himself on Sunday. Peter had been sick for a long time, though that didn’t stop him from having a good time. A couple of years ago he started what was probably the worst little whorehouse in Chicago. Peter, the madam, ran Creme de la Creme from his one-bedroom apartment. All the girls were guys, and they all took pains to act like well-dressed ladies, but to a man they rarely if ever scraped a razor below the Adam’s apple. Any trick nuzzling up to a plunging neckline got a faceful of chest hair and inhaled the bouquet of Brut. Despite this, or maybe because of it, the customers were always happy at Creme de la Creme, but since no one ever paid, the business was not a financial success. Peter kept his day job until he became too sick to work.
The only good thing anyone has to say is, at least Peter and Billy will never have to face another Monday. Donnie’s boyfriend Joe is at the party but they’re fighting, and Joe sits alone at a dark table all the way in the back of Dandy’s, opposite the men’s room. He won’t talk to anyone. Donnie and Joe have been together for several years. They’ve had their ups and downs, but tonight is very low. In most lovers’ quarrels, at least one lover doesn’t know when he’s hit the final ditch, but when you’ve been HIV-positive for a number of years, like Donnie and Joe, any quarrel could be the last. Though certainly the same could be said of any lovers’ quarrel. Birthdays often bring out the worst in couples.
Del has thrown birthday parties before. The Bac-os on the deviled eggs were his idea. He’s made all the calls, invited all the friends. Continually looking toward the door, he catches the eye of one of the drinkers down the bar, a younger man in a large-billed cap way too big for his small, very round head. There’s a two-day stubble on his chin, which hangs over a shallow chest thin as wicker. Del starts in right away. “Hey guy, can you play ‘Chopsticks’?”
The guy’s blue eyes light up. “Yes, I can play ‘Chopsticks.'”
“Great, I’m trying to get a round started.”
“Well, I can play ‘Chopsticks’ but I can’t stand ‘Chopsticks.'”
“Come on, guy, let’s do a round of ‘Chopsticks.'”
“No. No ‘Chopsticks.’ Absolutely not.”
Del considers this for a moment. “Well, how about ‘Heart and Soul’?”
“I can play ‘Heart and Soul.'”
“Great. You play the top and I’ll take the bottom. Come on, let’s go.” He takes a step toward the piano, beckoning for the man to follow.
“Oh,” the thin man laughs, “I’m much more accustomed to the bottom.”
“Fine then, you take the bottom. I can go either way.”
“I’m not going to play ‘Heart and Soul.’ Not here with all these people.”
A man sitting on a stool nearby has seemed oblivious, but now he swings around and looks the thin man straight in the eyes. “Go ahead,” he says. “What’s the worst thing that can happen? People won’t like you? They’ll storm the piano and rip your fingers off? Is that the worst that could happen? Go ahead. Play ‘Heart and Soul.'”
“Yeah,” Del chimes. “Come on, it’ll be fun.” But he’s prevented from saying any more by sudden, loud music from the speakers, blasting “Cherchez la Femme.”
“Saved by the jukebox,” the thin man says. The man on the stool goes back to staring at his drink, and Del’s attention is drawn to the door again, but this time a youthful-looking, well-built man with a blond flattop clutching a rolled-up copy of Gay Chicago in one hand is padding toward him. “Richard!” Del hugs him hard around the shoulders. “I’m so glad you showed up, guy!”
“Me too.” He holds the magazine up and announces, “The reviews are in.”
“I’ve got to read it. Come on, I’ll introduce the big porn star to the birthday boy.”
Richard, with a shy grin, says OK, and Del takes him by the hand to the back of the bar. “We’ve got a celebrity here, guys.” Everybody says hi. Joe, still alone at the dark table behind them, notes the new arrival with a nod.
“Big” Dick Hixson isn’t really a star, not with just two movies under his belt, but he gets a good mention in the review. Though he’s just started in the business, he’s reached an age where most porn stars are starting to look for another line of work. He still looks boyish, almost innocent, but he’s a bit slender for gay porn–even in general-audience movies, Hollywood has really gone for muscle tone in its stars for the past couple of decades. Richard’s producers told him to build up his chest and arms to get more roles. “I’m not gonna bulk up too much,” he asserts. “Really big muscles would just look too weird on me.” Besides, it’s the muscle that can’t be built up that got him his shot at the big time.
He was a dancer at the Bijou when he was discovered by one of the other dancers, named Dino, who was from California. One night after work Dino looked at Richard and said, “With a schlong like that you ought to do movies.” He wrote a Hollywood address on a piece of notepaper. Richard sent a photo there, and when no one called for a couple of months he forgot about it. Then one afternoon the phone rang. The man on the other end identified himself as a talent agent and said, “Dino gave me your name. Are you interested in doing a movie?” Richard said sure. “A production company’s going to call you in 15 minutes.” Sure enough, he got the call, and he flew west a couple days later.
“I’ve always wanted to be in movies,” he tells the party, now clustered around the magazine reading the review. Del adds, “And all he had to do was wave his magic wand.” Richard laughs graciously and admits he’s never done much acting before. Del says he’s seen the video. “Some of the scenes were embarrassing, guy, I mean, the wooden acting, just terrible.” But Big Dick differs: “I thought I did a good job, I mean, I thought I was pretty natural.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean you. You were fine. You were really natural.”
“Well, it was a natural part.”
The review says that the first glimpse of Big Dick is of his penis coming through a glory hole, and one of the guys in the party jokes that an actor can never go wrong making a big entrance. Del butts in, “He really fills the screen.”
“The camera loves him,” Donnie adds, “and I think I could too.”
“Has anyone recognized you?” Del asks Richard. “Does your family know?”
“God no,” he answers. “They finally got used to the dancing. My mother told me a few months ago that she worries more now about my sister’s weight problem.” He shrugs. “Whatever that means.
“I’m not gonna rub it in their faces,” he says genially. “Not if they don’t ask me to, anyway.”
Donnie offers to get Richard something to eat, takes two steps toward the buffet, and stops. The table where Joe had been sitting is empty. The door to the men’s room is open. He’s not in there. Joe’s gone.
Donnie doesn’t say anything to anyone, just walks over to where Joe had been sitting, takes a seat, and holds his head in his hands. Tears form in his eyes, large and dark like the pop-kitsch paintings of sad-eyed children Walter Keane did in the 60s and 70s. It’s Monday and there are two funerals planned for this week. No one else is coming to the party. Happy hour was over a long time ago. “I’ll be all right,” Donnie says, wiping his face with his sleeve. “My birthday’s on Thursday, anyway.”