This is going to be my third funeral this week. I never knew I could grieve so much, but what else do you do when your friends and everyone around you seems to be dying? When I walk around the Castro district now only a few years into the ‘80s, all I feel is sadness and the fear of being the next one to die. You can almost imagine death trolling the San Francisco neighborhood looking for its next victim. Death is doing quite well for itself with an instrument better than a scythe. It now has AIDS.
Of course, the Castro clones are still out there. Still cruising in their tight t-shirts and Levi’s showing off all of the goods no matter the weather. I guess no matter what’s going on, some guys will always want to get laid. I think the guys are going to the gym more and more to make sure they look healthy. It seems that if you even sneeze these days you might become a sexual pariah.
I start getting dressed and put on the same black suit again. I had to buy it when guys started dying. I never needed it before that. I came to San Francisco after college, the year after Harvey Milk was in the news for getting elected as the first openly gay supervisor. I could have stayed in Houston with its little pocket of gay bars, but I just had to come here. I had to be a part of a city that could do something so amazing. That certainly wasn’t something that could ever happen in Houston. It’s only been a few years since Harvey was killed, and I’m afraid the exuberance of that time died with him.
I look in the mirror and adjust my tie. I brush my mustache a little and see the dark circles under my eyes from all the crying I’ve been doing this week. I run a comb through my dark brown hair and make sure the center part is perfect. I still want to look good at the funeral.
My throat hurts a little more than yesterday and I feel even achier. Probably just the flu. It is October.
Maybe I’m just tired from not sleeping much. Haven’t been to the bathhouses much. Haven’t gotten any action for a while. Too afraid and too busy going to funerals. I can’t have gotten it. Just can’t.
This is a special funeral too. It is for Miss Holly Jackson. Well, Harold, but he used to perform and host a show at The Elephant Walk bar as Holly. Sometimes her good friend Sylvester would stop by and perform some songs, except Sylvester would actually sing and not just lip-sync to Donna Summer and Ethel Merman.
When I get to the funeral home down in Colma, there is already a huge crowd waiting in the lobby outside of the chapel. Some of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are there. They’re wearing sequined nun’s habits that go to their knees, showing off their hairy legs and black combat boots. They’ve got full white make up on with little red circles of blush on their cheeks. Their beards and mustaches are trimmed neatly. They look as fabulous as ever. Seeing them brings a smile to my face on such a somber occasion.
This was not going to be an ordinary funeral. It was for Harold after all.
I look around for the deep husky voice and smile seeing Sister Florence waving her beefy arm, making her necklace with oversized plastic pearls swing around her neck.
Florence could always bring a smile to my face. Out of drag, Sister Florence was Frank, one of the first people I met after moving to San Francisco. We had slept together once, and once was enough for the both of us. We had decided we were much better friends than lovers.
“Hi!” I say. I walk over to her and give her an air kiss on both cheeks. “What are you guys doing here? Was Holly secretly a Sister?”
“She wasn’t a Sister. She always said she couldn’t handle all of our outrageous makeup.”
I laugh. “What does that mean? Her eyebrows were arched higher than your six-inch heels. And she loved all that glittery purple eyeshadow. I think being a Sister meant having only one outfit. Her closet must have had more of Holly’s clothes than Harold’s.”
Sister Florence laughs and then snorts a little. “Holly used to let us come and collect money at her shows for funerals and cremations.”
“Who paid for this funeral? Harold didn’t have very much money.”
“It was his grandmother. She’s already sitting inside.”
“I didn’t know he was in touch with his family at all. I thought they were all fundamentalist Christians who thought he was going to hell.”
“Harold was lucky to still have someone in his family who didn’t totally reject him. I haven’t spoken to my parents since I left Wyoming ten years ago. What would they say if they saw me now.”
Sister Florence raises her hands to the sides of her face and flutters her eyelashes that must have been an inch long.
“I’m sure they would think you look fabulous,” I say.
“Right. If they don’t spit on me or try to beat the gay out of me first.”
“Oh no,” Sister Florence says. “Not you too, Steve.”
“It’s nothing. I think I just have the flu.”
“Harold thought he just had the flu, and after a month he was in the hospital with pneumonia, and now we’re here.”
“I’m fine. I’m sure I’m fine.”
“I hope so. I’m not sure how many more funerals I can go to. It’s starting to seem like something I have to do every day now. I’ve gone through so many tubes of white makeup for these funerals. I’m not sure I can afford it anymore.”
I hear the murmur of the crowd around us get louder. This is the largest funeral I’d been to in quite a while. I guess that made sense since Holly Jackson had become quite a fixture of the local drag scene. It also helped that Harold was just someone that everyone wanted to be around.
“I think it’s time to go inside now,” I say.
“Steve, I worry about you. I don’t want to lose you too. It’s spreading so fast, and they don’t even know what causes it. God, they can’t even tell you you’re sick until it’s too late, and even if they can tell you, you’re still dead.”
I wrap my arms around Sister Florence and pull her tightly to me. I whisper in her ear, “Frank, you’re going to ruin your makeup.”
He pulls me a little tighter.
“I love you, Steve. Why didn’t we ever work as a couple?”
“Your dick was too small.”
We hold our embrace for another a moment. “Let’s go inside,” I say.
Sister Florence walks back to the other sisters, and I walk to the entrance of the chapel. Inside, all of the pews start to fill up. Some are in black suits like me. Some wear faded denim jackets. Pompadours and bouffant hairdos pepper the crowd. I see that some of the men had black lesions on their necks and faces.
I take a seat at the end of one of the middle pews. Other people file in and take their seats. Some nod or wave when they recognize me. Up at the front, there is a large picture of Harold smiling. His cheeks are beet red in the photo and he’s been caught mid laugh. He looks so happy. The photo was taken at his birthday party last year when he turned thirty. He had been so upset about turning thirty. He was afraid he was going to be too old to ever find a lover. But we had had a great time at his apartment that night drinking and dancing.
In the front pew on the right, there is an older woman in a dark gray jacket with a matching pillbox hat. She looks so out of place amongst all of the men in the room. In fact, she seems to be only one of a handful of women, not including any of the men dressed as women. She sits by herself in the pew. The Sisters walk in and stand along the wall on the right.
After everyone is seated, it suddenly becomes eerily quiet. The seriousness of the occasion finally takes over a room filled with drag queens in garish makeup.
The older woman stands up and walks slowly to the podium. She has a dark mahogany cane she uses for each step. Her gray hair is tied back in a chignon at the nape of her neck. She has a matching gray skirt and low-heeled black pumps. She looks so small and frail.
The woman speaks in a voice full of strength that belies her appearance.
“My name is Miriam Danvers. I know that most of you don’t know me, but I am Harold’s grandmother. Harold was born in Toledo, Ohio to my daughter and her first husband. He was such a good boy. Whenever he would come to my house when he was a little boy, he always wanted me to play my old Ethel Merman records. He just loved those old records. I couldn’t understand it then, but now standing here among all of you, I understand.”
Chuckles fill the room.
“Harold came to see me before he decided to leave for San Francisco. He was afraid of leaving everything he knew and all of his family. I told him that he had to leave and find people like him. He was never going to find happiness in Toledo. By that time, Harold’s father had died, and my daughter had married a minister who idolized Jerry Falwell.”
Hisses fill the room.
“I am of a different mind than my daughter and her husband who abandoned Harold after revealing he was a homosexual. Harold was my only grandson, and I just couldn’t leave him alone.”
She pauses for a moment, trying to fight back tears.
“Harold wrote to me after he moved to San Francisco and told me about his friends and his first job at a camera shop. When he wrote about feeling like he had made a family of his own here, I didn’t understand. I look at all of you here today, and I am so happy that Harold had all of you in his life. When I found out that Harold had died, I knew that I had to come out here and see the place and meet the people that had brought him happiness. I want to thank all of you for coming today and being there for my Harold.”
Miriam walks back to her seat. She pulls a handkerchief from her purse and dabs at her eyes. I look around the room and see plenty of people rubbing their eyes, maybe remembering their own families. I wipe my own eyes. How I would have loved to have this woman as my grandmother. When my own grandmother found out I was gay, she told my parents that I needed to get psychiatric help. She said shock therapy would do wonders for me.
The Sisters then walk up to the front of the chapel. Sister Florence speaks: “Rather than do a prayer or sing a hymn for Harold, or as known to many of you, Holly Jackson, we are going to sing one of his favorites. I think it’s a fitting tribute to what Harold and Holly brought to our lives.”
I think for sure they are going to do Gloria Gaynor, so I am surprised even though I shouldn’t be when they start singing “You’re the Top”. Miriam looks like she is enjoying the performance, even swaying a little bit. Maybe she remembers the Ethel Merman version rather than this one sung by a bunch of burly men dressed as nuns. There is a little bit of giggling at the line “But, baby, if I’m the bottom, you’re the top.” I’m not sure Miriam gets the joke, but I’m sure everyone else in the room does, especially if they had slept with Harold or had heard stories of Harold’s exploits.
After the song is over, other people walk up and tell stories. Funny stories, heartwarming stories, but mostly stories that make me think that a really good person has been taken away from us far too soon. I feel a little warm, and I feel my forehead moisten. I wipe my brow and then walk up to the podium to take my turn.
“Hi everyone.” I stop for a moment and take a deep breath. “I met Harold working at A Different Light bookstore. His first day, he came in wearing a denim jacket with rhinestones all over the shoulders. I asked him why he had those rhinestones there, and he said in that high-pitched midwestern voice of his, ‘I love to sparkle.’ After that we became fast friends because who doesn’t love to sparkle? We had a lot of good times together, and also a lot of dramatic times because you know how Harold could be with each new boyfriend who didn’t live up to his expectations.”
I stop and lick my lips.
“Last year Harold turned thirty and at his birthday party last year, someone played a record by Madonna. Harold hadn’t heard of her before that for some reason, and the first thing he said upon hearing her was ‘Girl can’t sing. Last we’ll ever hear of her.’”
Laughter fills the room.
“I feel really sad today but also really mad because we’ll never get to hear more from Harold. I’m really mad he’ll never lip sync ‘I Will Survive’ to me again. I’m mad he’ll never make me laugh again. I’m mad that some stupid disease killed him and is killing my friends and no one seems to care but those of us dying.”
I hear a few amens and uh-huhs from the crowd. Then I start coughing for what feels like an eternity. When I finally stop, I see the crowd staring at me with fear in their eyes. Frank gives me a worried look from the back. God, I hope it’s only the flu. I’m not ready to die. I know Harold wasn’t. None of us should be dying so young.
I look down at my trembling hands and then over at Miriam who gives me a nod of approval and a smile of encouragement. Tears stream down my face as I continue.
“I hope we all remember how much Harold loved life and how much he loved bringing joy to people. None of us know how much time we’ve got, and now it really seems like we don’t know. It could be sooner than we ever imagine. I know it was for Harold.” I pause to see crying faces. “I hope that with whatever time we all have left that we live our lives with as much panache and freedom as he did.”
I wipe away my tears, put my left hand on my hip and raise my right hand to the ceiling into Holly Jackson’s favorite pose. “Like Harold always said, ‘Sparkle, darling. Sparkle.’”
Jonathan Ochoco was born in the Philippines, grew up in Houston, Texas but has called San Francisco home for over 20 years. A lawyer by training, he works as a compliance officer for a global investment management firm. He is a Pushcart nominated writer with stories published in The Arcanist’s Ghost Stories, Descansos: Words from the Wayside (Dark House Books), Gathering Storm, Ellipsis Zine: Four, and several anthologies. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA School of Law. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and two dogs and enjoys curling (the ice sport) in his free time. Follow him on Twitter @mrochoco.