Excerpt from Dying For A Change
... The clock on the nightstand read 3:30 a.m, when the telephone rang. Rumor had it that the officials from the Irish Sweepstakes sent a telegram. Anticipating the worst, I turned over, lit a Chesterfield and took a long drag before I answered.
“What you doing sweetheart?”
It was Henrietta Wild Cherry.
The juke box blasted in the background. Little Esther Phillips and Henrietta were closing down the Kitty Kat Klub and from the way Henrietta sounded it was just another late-night call. I exhaled, relieved and annoyed.
“What do most people do this time or morning, lunatic?”
Henrietta, my best friend in the world, was the only person who had the nerve to call me at such an ungodly hour.
“Baby, this dive is absolutely void of real men. Just the same old players standing around drooling,” Henrietta sighed dramatically. “So you’ll just have to do.” Snap!
He popped his fingers so loud the sound came across the wire as if he was sitting on the bed next to me.
“I’m having my last cunttail of the evening, and then I am heading straight, as it were, deeper into the dark ghetto, where I hope you will join me at Gladys’ Soul Food Kitchen where we will partake in a fabulous breakfast. My mouth is set for smothered chicken, grits and scrambled eggs. Stella baby, might I have another Mai Tai? Are you smoking at this time of morning?”
In my mind’s eye, I pictured Henrietta sitting at the bar rail in the Kitty Kat Klub with one hand daintily caressing a frosty Mai Tai and the other on the telephone receiver, pinkie pointed upward.
“I hate to be so common, but I’m so hungry I could eat the asshole out of a rag doll,” he said, before cackling like an old hen.
Gladys’ restaurant was open twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. The drawing card was yard bird served five different ways: smothered, baked, broasted, barbequed and do not forget fried. It was the place to be when the bars closed late or when church let out early. I could taste the hot, yeasty, buttered biscuits, another thing that made Gladys famous, but I had to decline Henrietta’s invitation.
“Not this time baby. Too much to do around here,” I said, staring at the pile of laundry on the chaise lounge and the dust underneath the chest of drawers, so thick I could grow potatoes.
“Child, since you bought that old building you have gone from being the hottest stud muffin in town to being the last hausfrau in Hyde Park. How the mighty have fallen!” He changed his tone from a whisper to a scream and vise versa depending on how much drama was involved. “You used to be the kind of husband I was looking for: tall, good-looking, and butch. Of course, the plumbing would have to be revamped if we intended to bump uglies. Now, if I need some help licking those damned S&H green stamps to paste in one of those damned little paper booklets, I’ll be sure to call ya!” Snap! Snap! Snap! Maximum drama. “Get out of that old house and have a cup o’ tea with m’dear,” Henrietta begged.
Had it not been for Henrietta’s advice and connections I wouldn’t have bought the two-flat where I’m living in the first place, and Gladys was the primary reason why legendary drag queen Henrietta Wild Cherry weighed three hundred plus pounds. And if I didn’t watch myself, I’d catch up with him. Every time I went with Henrietta to one of his late-night-eat-a-thons, I had to let my belt out another notch. So far, I’m the same buck-fifty I weighed in high school. However, at thirty three, gravity and I were going toe-to-toe, and so far gravity had a slight edge. I felt a headache coming on. I sat on the side of the bed, massaged my temples, lit another fag, and sighed.
Henrietta never failed to point out the fact that my social life had dwindled to nothing. I used to be a mainstay in the bars, and now, I hadn’t made an appearance at the Kitty Kat Klub in forever. I relied on Henrietta to provide me with updates on the children.
“Look-a-here honey child, let’s put a tack in that page; you always try to sideline me and make me forget things.”
I try to sideline him?
“Speaking of tea, baby, rest your buns and let me pour you a cup of this! I knew I had something to tell you. It had something to do with something else. Let me think…oh yeah, the dish almost ran away with the spoon.”
Henrietta went on and on about who called him and who he called before he called me. Typical drag queen chatterboxing. I yawned and scratched. With Henrietta, you had to put in the commas yourself.
“Honey child, baby boom, remember that tired old queen, Miss Dove?” he began.
Most queens, at least some of the time, were, in Henrietta’s opinion, old and tired.
“Up on the north side? Miss Dove from the Duet Lounge?”
When I didn’t answer, Henrietta asked, “Baby, have you lost your mind? You must remember the divine Miss Dove?”
“Yeah, yeah, what about her? Him?” I was half asleep and had a hard time getting the pronouns together.
“Sister-woman has bitten the proverbial dust. How you say, adieu? Arrivederci?” Shalom? Bye-bye, baby bye-bye? Murdered!”
I was listening but not concentrating until he said “murdered.”
“What the hell are you flapping about? Who was murdered?” I lit another cigarette, glad that I had the good sense to tell Illinois Bell that I needed and extra long cord on the telephone that I was now
dragging into the kitchen so I could make a pot of coffee while Henrietta yakked.
Miss Dove, honey. Please try to pay attention. It will not cost you a dime. Miss Dove met her demise by assassins unknown. Unknown the two of us get ahold of him.”
“Until the two of who get ahold him?”
Sometimes Henrietta could be so dizzy. “Him who?”
He took a deep exasperated breath. “Child, if only I had the answers to all of your questions. Are you listening to me? We have to catch this dark culprit and turn him over to Johnny Law!”
“You don’t think it was a Negro do you?” I asked. It would be one for the books for a Negro man to be in the presence of a white drag queen and get close enough to kill him.
“Listen up darling, these are pearls. Using the term Negro is so low rent, déclassé, not to mention a little in the day. We, the black people, are
finally coming around to at least tolerating, if not totally accepting, the idea of being referred to as Black. Except, of course, those of us who are still stuck with colonial nomenclature such as colored and Negro. It’s a new day, and as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is so fond of saying, keep the baby, faith, or something to that effect.”
“You’ve been hip to this longer than I have, missy. Cut me a little slack will you. Give me some time,” I said half-heartedly.
“Time wounds all heels. Get a grip. Have you ever heard of Black Power? Do incorporate Black when referring to us. We will have a much easier time communicating, which is what you want to do with your best friend.”
“Cool. I’ll confess my sins of not being with it to the white collared white man sitting in the curtained booth and say an act of contrition the next time I go to church. But for now, tell me what happened.”
According to Henrietta, when Dove didn’t show up for work, Mattie, one of the owners from the Duet Lounge where Dove performed his one-woman drag show, went to his apartment to find out what was wrong. Dove never missed a show, and Mattie said she could count the times on one hand when he was late since she hired him five years ago. Dove didn’t answer the door. Mattie got suspicious. She knocked on the upstairs door. No answer. She called the cops. The bed was a bloody mess with Dove lying in it, face up, deader than a door-nail. Shot.
“Who shot him?”
“Child, do I have to take this from the top or what?”
Henrietta asked, getting exasperated.
I pulled the telephone into the bathroom.
“Do I hear water running?”
“At a time like this?”
Henrietta was getting revved up. We both needed to cool our jets before he got beside himself. After all, he was operating on no food and God know how many Mai Tais. And I could catch another forty winks and be better off too.
“Are you going to the Kat tonight?” I asked, thinking about my next move.
“Is a pig’s pussy pork?’