Get one thing straight. I never had any use for homosexuals. I didn’t hate them, like my father did. Not that I’d ever known any. I had heard television preachers say that homosexuals were maladjusted and needed our prayers. Since there wasn’t anything in my experience to suggest I do otherwise, and since the position seemed more tolerant than Pop’s, I adopted it, cautiously.
Then, in 1981, right as the AIDS crisis was emerging, I did meet a homosexual.
Liberace was the only for-sure homosexual I knew of. Whenever he appeared on television, playing his piano under that big candelabra, my father took great pains to point out that he was all flair and exhibitionism, the subtext being that he lacked real talent. But watching Liberace play what seemed like these incredibly complex arpeggios and stuff, I thought he seemed pretty accomplished. Something was wrong with the picture, though. He’d talk about his mother in a weird way that seemed as if she was the woman in his life–you know, the woman.
My own mother took a more Christian view, offering allusions about what sad, unfulfilled lives “men of that persuasion” led and wrinkling her nose whenever Liberace appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
I can tell you that Milpitas–“little cornfields” in Spanish–is a far cry from San Francisco. It wasn’t until I reached the ripe old age of twenty-three, and dropped out of Ohlone College to start my own under-the-table house painting business, that I had any contact with what you would call “the gay lifestyle.”
As things turned out, it was my chosen trade and a phone call from a woman who had seen my flyer on the Safeway grocery store bulletin board that set the stage for my first exposure to a real queer.
Pulling up to Agnes Gardiner’s faux hacienda in Mission Heights in my paint-truck Pinto, I saw dollar signs. I was still splattered with white paint from the day’s work when I dropped the pewter knocker on a door with sixteen hand-carved mahogany panels. In her upscale peasant blouse and khaki pants, the lady of the house struck me as having been a sophisticated-looking beauty in her day. She still offered plenty to look at, for an older gal. I followed her compact butt around the yard, looking up at the eaves and taking notes on the clipboard leftover from my science class at Ohlone. I hadn’t done much estimating, having mostly worked for time and materials. Ten-an-hour was good money in 1981.
Mulling over the problem of the plastic patio awning, which wouldn’t take a man’s weight, I cooked up the unprecedented number of thirteen hundred dollars. I couldn’t have known that established painters were getting upwards of three grand for such houses. Mrs. Gardiner–“Please call me Agnes,” she said breathily, fingertips nearly touching my forearm before her hand drifted back to hold her other one as we continued walking–accepted my bid on the spot. By the following Monday, I was zealously scraping loose paint off the south-facing fascia.
At about noon, a car pulled up in the driveway next door, and a neighbor–a type of busybody I’d come to know well–walked up in a huff. “Did you ever think to put a drop cloth down to catch these paint chips?” she said, wincing up into the bright sun as I looked down from the ladder. There were thousands of dun-colored chips in the rhododendron bed. Sweat poured off my forehead.
“The homes in this neighborhood have old layers of lead paint,” she scolded and then headed for Agnes’s front door. I stopped scraping.
After some minutes, Agnes and the busybody came out, and the neighbor made clear that I could get in a lot of trouble with the state of California for what I’d done. I shrugged and said, “Wow, sorry.” The two women talked things over just out of earshot while I made a show of getting a drop cloth from the Pinto.
With the busybody standing by, composed now, as if the environmental integrity of all Mission San Jose had been preserved thanks to her, Agnes called me over. It was agreed that if I got to work scrupulously collecting the chips and then scraped a layer of the affected soil off with a square shovel and hauled it away, I could complete the job and wouldn’t get turned in.
After I had spent about an hour at this task, Agnes brought out a pitcher of water and a large plastic cup and set it on the patio table. Five o’clock came and went before I got a clean layer off the clay soil of the flowerbed. As the sun sank along with any prospects for making progress on the paint job that day, Agnes came out again and insisted on helping me lift the last drop cloth full of contaminated soil into the Pinto’s bed. It was a little uncomfortable, because even that early on in my career, I didn’t like the customers having to do anything.
Driving away with a three-hundred-dollar materials deposit, I already had a platonic crush on Agnes and ventured to think that she liked me, and wanted me to succeed.
The next morning I was up on the ladder getting masking paper around a window, when the garage door rumbled open. Agnes’s green Volvo turned in from the driveway, and as the car edged in, I saw someone in the passenger seat.
Agnes got out and walked around to the passenger side. My first view of the person I’d learn was Agnes’s son, Robert Gardiner, was not of his face or even of his leg stepping out from the car, but of his vomit, which splashed to the garage floor immediately after Agnes opened the door. Stepping around the mess, she practically lifted her passenger out of the seat. The man she helped was, well, nothing short of concentration-camp thin.
I feigned extreme attention to my masking as they walked toward the back door, Agnes supporting his right arm, waiting out his agonizingly slow steps. Turning away from the garage and its smell, I set to work on the garage window, masking over the sight of the vomit-splattered floor.
Even with the lead chip fiasco extending my time on the job, when Agnes paid up on the exterior, it was the most money I’d ever had in my pocket at one time–a cool grand after expenses. The house looked damn good too, with Annapolis Gray trim setting off the Gull Wing stucco. Flush with capitalist success, I drove away on my last day indulging notions about dumping the over-sprayed Pinto, a vehicle the auto industry had called a firetrap. I’d located a van broker in Oakland who’d take $750 and my Pinto for a Dodge Tradesman that in a former life had made medical deliveries.
A week later, I had just driven that van home after touching up my uncle’s San Leandro rental cottage when the phone rang. It was Agnes Gardiner. She asked if I would come and give a bid on the interior.
Previously, I’d only gotten as far into the house as the bathroom off the garage. But now Agnes was giving me the grand tour, through the grass cloth-wallpapered foyer and into a glass-walled living room with a stunning view of Mission Peak. Looking at the walls, ceiling, and trim, I kept a poker face but was elated. A job like this would cover me for a month.
We stopped at a staircase off the kitchen, the kind that usually led to a bonus room over the garage. I nodded. “Anything up there?”
Agnes changed a bit then, shrunk into herself. She wanted a bid on the stairwell, yes, including a coat of enamel on the staircase woodwork, “but no work will be done in Robert’s room.”
I handed her an estimate of $1,650, my highest bid to date, and drove back to my apartment in Milpitas. That night Agnes called. She’d talked it over with Mr. Gardiner. When could I start?
He was coughing.
Having been asked by Agnes to start in the stairwell because Robert was having some kind of treatment at the end of the week, and she wanted whatever paint odor there’d be to have a chance to dissipate, I was taping off the terracotta steps, but just as much, I was listening to her son cough. He sounded like a very old man who would not outlive his coughing.
The dingy-white stairwell walls and ceiling covered in one coat and one day–pink-tinted Manor White. Listening to that raspy cough the next morning, I put a nice coat of enamel on the staircase handrail, newel posts, and spindles. By noon,I had everything but the door at the top of the stairs done.
I found Agnes watering some new plantings in the rhody bed that I had unthinkingly contaminated. I told her I’d have to open the door at the top of the landing to paint it properly. While I waited at the bottom of the now-quiet stairwell, she went up and through the door, leaving it slightly open. I heard her murmur, a soft-edged inquiry.
The voice that answered was like a last-stage smoker’s, but clear enough. I don’t think it’s judgmental to say that a marked effeminacy came through the rattling weakness of that voice. And a dash of entitled bitchiness, like a person who’d had some kind of power in life and now didn’t. Though six hours within enamel fumes had left me less than swift on the uptake, I began to wonder.
Was Robert a homosexual, and did he have AIDS?
Through the crack in the door upstairs I caught a glimpse of a yellowed strip of wall. A woodcut depicting a windmill from antiquity was hanging there. Instinctively, I began to breathe shallowly.
No one really knew how this new disease was transmitted. This was before Rock Hudson showed up all haggard and blotchy in an airport, desperate to get to Mexico for experimental treatments. Freddie Mercury had not come out. I’d read an article in Rolling Stone and one in the San Francisco Chronicle. They didn’t know much, but what they did know was scary shit. A lot of very young men were dying. At the bottom of the Gardiner stairwell I thought, Here I am, in this house, breathing the same air as an AIDS case.
Agnes came out, closed the door behind her, and came down the stairs. She told me that the door to Robert’s room could wait.
Each morning thereafter she offered me coffee when I arrived–a powerful drip-grind brew whose aroma filled the house and whose caffeine fueled my paint roller. Mornings seemed her best time; often she’d be friendly and seem to want to talk.
“So, how hard is it to get a contractor’s license these days?”
“Well, I’m in line down at the board–that’s all I know.”
“If you ever need a referral, you can use me.”
As she trudged up and down the stairs, brow creased and head drooping, but a dogged fire in her gray eyes, I realized that Agnes was a woman whose son had come home to die.
In a battered Chronicle that I found in a fast-food joint, I read that it was time for the annual Gay Pride Parade. In Milpitas, we hated the parade, the in-your-face Dykes on Bikes, the sacrilegious fairies dressed as nuns. Worst of all was the North American Man/Boy Love Association. One of my friends had a brother who had served in Vietnam and brought back a live grenade. We openly fantasized about pulling the pin and rolling it under the boy rapists.
On the television news that night, I watched from the safe confines of my garden apartment a candlelight vigil in Civic Center Plaza for dead and dying AIDS victims. The usual Mardi Gras atmosphere the parade brought out was muted this year.
That week, as more Gardiner rooms fell under the glow of Manor White, I found myself thinking twice about taking Mrs. Gardiner’s morning coffee, knowing Roberts’s lips had probably been on the cup at some point. Could mere dish soap really kill his germs? For all I knew, Agnes herself was infected. And then one afternoon she offered me home-baked cookies. If I said no to the perfectly browned treat, she surely would know why, and it would hurt her feelings. Remembering my mother’s admonition to “always do the Christian thing, if possible,” I took three cookies with a glass of milk. She and I had developed a kind of silent friendship, the way you do sometimes with people whose homes you work in for a while. The awkwardness of that time she helped me lift the leaded soil into the Pinto’s paint-splattered bed gave way to reserved companionship as she puttered around me working inside her home. I saw how the garden was a comfort to her. And I saw that she was doing what mothers do for her son, what I figured my own mother would do. I wasn’t so sure about my father.
“Thanks for the cookies–they look great,” I said, setting the plate and glass on her sideboard.
She had one of her cookies in hand, and as she smiled, I got the feeling that she was imagining me as I’d be years from then, the kind of vision she couldn’t conjure for her own son, who likely wasn’t that much older than me. “I’ll be taking Robert to the hospital tomorrow for a special treatment,” she said. “So just let yourself in.”
Mistaking spending time in a customer’s house for achieving familiarity with him or her is usually a mistake, as I would learn later in my business. But Agnes seemed to have offered an invitation with her disclosure. In a tone I’d picked up from overhearing my mother’s favorite television program, Marcus Welby, MD, I asked, “Is he going to be OK?”
“Robert has AIDS,” she said, searching my eyes. She added quickly, “They don’t think people can catch it unless there’s contact with an infected person’s blood.”
I nibbled a cookie and sipped my milk, which suddenly tasted like something cultured in a lab.
For the first time on the job, I was alone in the house, and the Gardiner kitchen was all that stood between me and my biggest payday yet.
Preparing the room, I spread plastic drop cloths and removed the magnetized photos from the refrigerator door. One of them pictured Agnes, Robert, and Mr. Gardiner (I assumed) in happier times, arms slung around each other, standing in front of a place I remembered visiting fondly, Mount Rushmore. The kitchen was mostly stained oak cabinets, with very little actual wall surface to paint.The silence of the hacienda was complete as I cut the brushwork in, including the oaken light fixture on the ceiling, making quick work of it. Last thing before lunch, I pulled out the fridge so I could paint behind it.
The Volvo was back in the garage, along with a fresh splatter of barf, when I returned from Taco Bell. The house was still quiet, and at first I thought Agnes was up in Robert’s room. Instead, she was in the kitchen, had crawled in behind the fridge I’d pulled out, and was down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor. People like Agnes don’t paint their own houses, but even they still do this. It’s something all women do, rich and poor. When you roll out a big appliance, the floor, which often hasn’t been cleaned in years, calls to them.
Agnes had filled the sink with Pine-Sol and hot water, and the ammonia scent mixed with the ceramic smell of the latex semigloss. While I touched up a few spots and begin pulling tape, she continued scrubbing at the terracotta tiles. I saw her more than once stop and wipe her eyes with her sleeves. Residential contractors come up against real life in the homes where we work, and there’s a fine line between being a professional and being an unfeeling asshole. If she’d have been my mother, I would have gone right to her, given her a hug, and let her cry things out on my shoulder.
That day, the best I could do was keep working silently alongside her, letting her scrub, and cry, if that was what she was doing. Maybe it was just the pungency of the Pine-Sol. Finally, she squeezed out her rag in the sink. “I can’t believe it was so dirty back there.”
Robert called from the bonus room. Agnes pulled off her rubber gloves, wiped her eyes on her sleeve again, and went upstairs. I heard him snap, “Where did you put the goddamn–” something or other. Underneath was a kind of panicky-angry tone, as if the underlying question was “Why is this happening to me?”
I’d read in the Chronicle that many AIDS patients had been estranged from their families, rejected and forced to cope as best they could. Robert was lucky to have Agnes, although lucky was an odd word to describe him. I rolled the fridge back over the spotlessly scrubbed section of floor tile.
I was ready to submit my invoice for final payment. Thirteen hundred, less my $350 materials deposit–another killing. I had my eye on a new paint sprayer. Agnes gave me a check, thanked me, and then paused. Finally she said:
“Robert would like to meet you.”
It felt weird walking up the staircase I’d painted six days before, now walking it as a requested visitor. It would have been wrong to refuse Agnes’s request. It would have seemed to her that for me her son didn’t exist. Or, worse, that I didn’t want to meet Robert because I was afraid of him.
I stood before a man almost whimsical looking, he was so shrunken, who sat on a couch in the nicely appointed room. He’d just turned, as if he’d been looking out the window, and his sunken eyes had captured the lazy sunshine gilding the uplands of Mission Peak. The room was ethereally quiet, the way all upstairs bedrooms rooms are in Mission San Jose at mid-afternoon. Now, after thirty years in the painting business, I should know.
“So, you’re who’s responsible for all the fumes around here,” he croaked.
I smiled awkwardly, and he laughed but then couldn’t control a cough. I thought about the air in the room as I noticed an angry blotch on the sallow flesh of his neck.
“Did my mother give you a hard time?”
“Oh no,” I assured him, stumbling upon gem of a contractor phrase I would use many times again. “She was very reasonable.”
Mother and son both laughed, and I realized how close they were. I gave sudden consideration to what Agnes might have really been thinking while I worked. I wondered if she might have hoped that I would somehow engage with Robert, maybe even start up an acquaintance, perhaps even come and visit him?
I didn’t know what to do, so I did what I did normally upon meeting someone: I reached out and shook his hand, though I was terrified. His skin felt moist in a way that was not healthy. All I could think of at the time was that he was probably a festering stew of contagion. I got the impression that he might have been a businessman of some kind, like his father, so I went to what would become my standard sign-off after finishing a job: “I want you to know that I stand behind the work.”
Two months later, Agnes called. I’ll never forget the day–I had just about blinded myself at work. I was right in the middle of a big exterior and still working the bugs out of the new airless sprayer the Gardiner job had made possible. I’d had some early problems with the seal on the spray gun and some misfires into a bucket of water. To complicate matters, the homeowner, a grumpy old workaholic bachelor was not content with the properties of the top-quality oil-base primer I used. He had insisted on two additives,which had to be manually stirred into the paint.
One was a penetrating agent, meant to keep the primer wetter longer, so it would absorb farther into the wood. The other was a potent mildewcide, which came in a cube. Mixing it was like trying to blend hard butter into cold batter. I finally got the witch’s brew into my line. I thought I’d visually noted that the gun’s inner washer was properly seated when I’d tightened the tip onto the nozzle, but it wasn’t. When I aimed toward an eave and pulled the trigger, a seriously volatile mix of paint and chemicals shot back into my eyes.
I’d taken drops of alkyd in the eyes before, but this was shockingly bad. I was blinded. I opened my eyes, and nothing. I knew I had to find the thinner can and stumbled toward the van. The pain was excruciating when I splashed some solvent on a rag and swiped it across my eyes. Crawling to where I remembered the spigot to be, I let the cold water run straight over my eyeballs.
Slowly, through wracked prisms of light, my vision returned. I made it home, checking in my rearview mirror as I drove the vein-scorch in my corneas. I was standing over my bathroom sink, grimly assessing in the mirror my dying eyelid skin, when the phone rang.
“Could you come by and give a bid on Robert’s room?” Agnes Gardiner said.
Focused on my eyes, I didn’t think about what that question really meant and just worked on establishing that we meet the next week.
Walking up to the house the following Monday, I noticed the smell of fresh exterior paint still lingered.
Agnes, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, led me into Robert’s room. She didn’t knock first. There was reason, I soon saw-he wasn’t there. His furniture was arranged in the center of the room, which would save me the trouble of moving it. The photos and art were down, including his windmill, dusted and leaning against the side of the bed. All his books, a whole bookcase full, were boxed. With everything packed, the room would practically paint itself.
“He’s not with us anymore,” she said.
I just responded with my estimate, and a day later, I was again applying Manor White.
Agnes came up, and remarked, “It’s amazing what a coat of paint will do.”
“I’m really sorry,” I said.
“He enjoyed meeting you.”
Just then, from down the stairs and in the kitchen, we both heard the ring of her oven timer. She left, saying, “I’ve just made cookies. I want you to take some.”
As I walked out to my van, the man from the fridge magnet, the one I’d guessed to be Mr. Gardiner, pulled into the driveway. He didn’t stop but waved from his Porsche as the garage door opened. He pulled past me, and I’ll be damned if there wasn’t a smile on his face.
I took one last look at the Gardiner house, a classic California hacienda now magnificently painted, imagined Agnes and her husband carrying on after Richard, and wondered for the first time why Agnes hadn’t waited till after Richard died to do the painting. Then the garage door came down.
So there it is. I did know, or at least have known, a homosexual.