The Sunset

The Sunset 2925 1941 Norman Belanger

“You maybe want to get a cocktail?” Michael asks, his head is hanging out the bus window. We are both a bit overheated, already drunk. He’s pointing at this dive, a short, squat, square, wooden gin mill; the kind of rough old neighborhood bar we’ve never dared to go in. Over the door, on a battered sign: “Sunset Tap” is spelled out in peeling letters. A neon ad for Schiltz beer blinks sporadically.

“It’s creepy looking,” I say. “We might easily get stabbed in a place like that.”

“Or catch hepatitis.”

“Exactly.”

“Why don’t we go in for a drink?” he says. “It’s still early.”

“In there? That shit box firetrap? Probably a bunch of townies in there. We could get killed in a place like that.”

He waves a hand in my general direction. “Come on, where’s your spirit of adventure? Where’s your Gay Pride? We’ll be out and proud, in your face. Act up. Queer nation. Don’t be a chicken shit. Come on!”

“You’re crazy! I’m not going into that hole looking like this!”

We’re still wearing strands of rainbow beads from the Pride parade, where we drank way too much and danced at the block party in a sea of shirtless, sweaty guys. We must look pretty gross, with lipstick smeared on our mouths, eyeliner rubbed off, the two of us decked out in the height of early 90’s queer wear: scuffed combat boots, short-short cutoffs, tank tops in neon colors, and hair spiked up for days. He is freshly platinum blond. I’m the redhead. There is glitter all over us from the drag queen who sprinkled fairy dust from the Ram Rod float.

The bus, still stopped at the light, is about to get going with a gasping release of the brakes. He pulls the cord to signal the driver.

“Hold up!” Michael calls. “We’re getting out here!”

As usual, I follow. I never have the balls to stand up to him. He always gets his way, and I am at heart a follower, a big bottom. The boozy day, the lusty excesses of the parade, and Michael’s excitement, all conspire to make me bolder than usual, and I am almost giddy. I have no idea what to expect, but I feel like an anarchist, a Queer activist. And, I have to admit, I am curious about the place.

“Just wait ‘til they get a load of us,” he says.

Soon, we are on the blazing hot pavement in front of the building. It looks sad, in the same blighted nook as the Greek Corner and the Coin Op laundry mat, on the bustling busy avenue. Apartment blocks and businesses in shiny tall new buildings seem to crowd these little haunts that are still left, the old places that cling like survivors of a shipwreck. The day is bright, lovely early summer, but the bar is in the perpetual shadow of a city canyon.

We stumble up the crooked concrete steps to the Sunset Tap.

“Here goes,” I say, with my hand on the door, “we’re blazing new trails.”

“Such drama. Just go in already.”

“I could be another Rosa Parks.”

“A regular Nellie Armstrong. One small step for gay kind, everywhere.”

We both start to laugh, but shut up the minute we are inside.

It’s dark. It feels like the place darkness goes to get drunk and forget. The over-painted windows don’t seem to have been opened since Prohibition. It takes a few seconds to adjust to the gloom, but I make out the paneled walls covered in framed photos of JFK, and Jackie, Sonny Liston, two popes, and a long dead decorated general from some war past. There’s also a stuffed marlin, a number of plaques with sweet, pithy homilies, like: “if you don’t like it here, go the fuck home,” and faded pictures of old sports teams.

“Oh my!” whispers Michael.

“This was your smart idea,” I mumble back.

The staleness of the place cannot be overstated. It is rank.

A crowd of regulars, a dozen maybe, are already well launched into their day. Not one of them bats an eyelash as Michael and I sashay in, on a whiff of China Rain. They lean bleary eyed and listless, watching the little TV bolted to the wall. The Sox are playing.

Our grand entrance is decidedly anticlimactic.

“This must be how Al Gore feels when he walks into a room,” I say. With a shrug we sit down on two stools, our elbows on the sticky bar.

“What’ll you have, boys?” asks the bar guy, with all the weariness of someone who’s been standing there since Man crawled out of the primordial ooze. His eyes are slits, his skin has a greenish reptilian hue. He looks like he’s seen it all, and he didn’t like any of it.

“Shall we order martinis?” Michael giggles nervously, but the guy does not crack a smile, he wipes the counter with an old, dingy damp rag.

“What have you got?” I say.

The bartender nods and grunts to the bar taps, and the row of liquor bottles, indicating the selection at the Sunset.

We order two whiskeys, neat, something to drink fast so we can get out of there.

We play the toasting game, trying to outdo each other.

“Rot gut,” says Michael.

“Here’s mud in your eye.”

“Here’s to Mr. and Mrs. Bush.”

“And all the little Bushes,” I laugh.

“Here’s to Iraq.”

“Hope we don’t get drafted,” I say.

“I have a darling little dress picked out, just in case.”

“We could run away.”

“Where to?”

“We’ll always have Paris, we can live out our days like F. Scott and Zelda.”

“To the end of our days,” he says.

“The end of days,” I repeat.

“Here’s to AZT, and the miracles of science,” he says, and we both are quiet after that, we both have our reasons to be quiet. We clink our glasses and drink down our shots.

We’re mostly ignored by the others, they seem to be pretty toasted, in their own worlds, not perturbed by us in the least.

“You mind passing those nuts?” an ancient gentleman with hair the color of not very fresh snow leans over, his hot breath is enough to peel paint. There’s a bowl of desiccated pale peanuts, Michael hands them to our neighbor, who nods.

“You come here often?” Michael says, in a campy voice.

“Too often,” the old man smiles. Not one tooth is in his head. He paws at the goobers, gums a few.

“Haven’t seen you two before,” he says.

“We’re new to the neighborhood,” I say. “We go to school.”

I give Michael the raised eyebrow “Tone it Down” look. This is no time to be flamboyant.

“Lots of young people, now,” the gentleman says.

“Lots of students. The university,” the bartender says.

The old guy flashes his gums. “Not so many of us old ducks left. Used to be all families, young kids, working joes, blue collar.”

“The place sure has changed,” says our bartender, “the neighborhood’s gotten all fancy.”

“Gentrification,” says the old guy.

Michael chuckles, “Does that make us the gentry?”

“No offense, squire.”

“Oh none taken, my friend. I’ve been called much worse.”

“No kidding,” the barman says. He doesn’t smile, but the slits of his eyes squeeze a little.

“We came in to freak out the straights,” Michael says, “we thought we’d rile you up with our amazing Queerness.”

The bartender shrugs. “Live and let live,” he says. “We’re all just trying to survive. Who gives a fuck? Gay guys ain’t nothing new. As long as your money’s green, come on in.”

Another anticlimax.

“Stanny,” says our new pal, “get these two fellas a round, on me.”

We have drinks in front of us.

Michael gives me the wide eye as if to say, “See?”

After a few, we are buddies with Dave, Stanny, Andy, John, and Paulie. The patrons of the Sunset tap are really just a bunch of regular boozehounds, and we certainly find common ground there. We’re swapping stories, bemoaning the heat, we slap backs, and drink. It’s pretty convivial, actually.

Paulie and Andy get deep into an animated conversation, they’d both been in Viet Nam. It is that maudlin time of the day, late afternoon, when the shadows get darker, when the liquor stirs up the past.

“After that Hell, nothing gets me anymore,” Paulie says. “I could literally give a rat’s ass about anything. Fuck them all.”

Andy nods. “Every day, I thought my number’d come up. Survival mode. Scared to death the whole time, I was just a kid. Nineteen, twenty. Too young to think about dying.”

“No one should go through that.”

“Out there in that godless mud pile. Such a stupid war, and here we are screwing around again out in some other part of the world.”

“Some days I wished a sniper’d come and pick me off, it woulda been better than waiting, waiting.”

“The waiting was the worst part.”

“We wasn’t any older than you boys,” Paulie nods at us, “and there I was, waiting to get it, waiting to get killed, maybe even wanting it, you can’t live like that and not pray for it to end, one way, or another.”

Michael is quiet, listening. He stares into the last slug of golden booze left in his glass. I know what he’s thinking, though he tries to laugh it off.

We’re both scared. His new medication doesn’t seem to be working. We don’t talk about it, ever, but I know. We share an apartment, we share clothes, cash, drugs and the occasional man, but we don’t talk about this. We never will. We never even say out loud the name of the virus that is cancer, plague, the contagion in his blood.

Instead, we drink and laugh and tell jokes, we are sarcastic and loud. We play at being jaded, so we won’t be disappointed.

We laugh when we are scared.

“Let’s have one more for a nightcap,” he says.

 

When I remember Michael, I remember how young we were, how silly. I remember the two of us leaving the bar, drunk as Marines, hanging on to each other, waving Bye Bye to our new friends.

“See you next week!” Michael says.

Of course, we didn’t ever go back. Still, there’s the image I’ll always have, of the two of us walking, hand in hand. We sailed out of the Sunset, into the blue evening together, screaming, both of us laughing our heads off, both of us pretending not to hear the whisper of the sniper’s bullet.

Header photograph © Jason D. Ramsey.

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