The basement never really existed for Porpoise. When he was little, his parents told him, he took a scary tumble down the rickety stairs and ever since, the door had been locked. When he got older and perfectly capable of navigating any kind of surface, they told him that it was his dad’s “special place,” the only area in the house that he could truly call his own, and therefore off limits for everyone, including Thea.
So, when mother and son were enjoying a rare moment alone at the breakfast table and Thea dangled a well-worn key in front of his eyes, Porpoise had no idea what he was looking at. He knew it wasn’t a car key, though having a car and getting away from his obsessive father was foremost on his mind lately.
“What’s that?” he asked his mother.
“A key, silly.”
“Okay, okay, Mr. Grouchy Pants,” Thea said, placing the key in his hand. “It’s your ticket to sanity.”
Thea sat in the chair opposite her son and closed the boy’s fingers over the key. “Meaning,” she said, “that I – we, your dad and I – know things have been rough for you lately. This is the key to the basement.”
Porpoise was even more confused.
“Your dad,” Thea continued, “has, uh, found he no longer has a use for his basement retreat. So, sweetie, it’s all yours.”
A thousand thoughts tumbled through the boy’s head. The possibilities were endless. “And Dad’s okay with this?” he asked, eying the basement door.
“Oh,” Thea said, rising, “let’s just say that he’s eager to put that part of his life behind him.” She put her hands on her hips and as an afterthought, added: “You look so much like your father.”
Porpoise barely heard her; he was already wondering whether a pinball machine could get down those stairs, or a pool table … maybe, he thought, there was already one down there! He held that thought; they could hear Brian coming in from the barn. It was time for church. He’d check out the mysterious basement later that night.
When he finally descended the stairs while his parents slept, Porpoise had no idea what he would find. He wasn’t sneaking – the basement was now his, after all – but every time a step creaked, he cringed and stopped. A bare bulb at the bottom was the only illumination. Beneath its meager light, Porpoise stood still and drew in his breath.
There was nothing, or almost nothing as far as he could tell. There was a cot, neatly made; an old red and orange flowered arm chair that Porpoise remembered from his grandparents’ living room, next to which sat a combination table and lamp that he also recognized. He went to turn on the light and nearly jumped out of his sneakers when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He fumbled with the switch, then looked again.
What he saw was himself, multiplied. Mounted on one wall were various sized mirrors, some full-length, some round, some square. Ugh, he thought, not even wondering why they were there in the first place, they gotta go. He made faces at the many Porpoise’s he saw, then started scouting around.
The biggest surprise were the lockers, an entire row of numbered school-type lockers that lined the wall near the mirrors. Stacked two to a row, the lockers, Porpoise realized, were the ones that had been torn out of the middle school a few years before. He yanked one open. It was clean and empty, though he caught a whiff of perfume beneath the disinfectant – old lady perfume, not like the stuff the girls at school wore.
“Cool,” he said aloud, “I can put my Star Wars stuff in here!” He began opening and closing each one, then noticed something pink and silky caught in one of the bottom locker doors. He tugged on it, but it wouldn’t budge. The door itself seemed to be stuck. He struggled with the latch until it finally gave, sending him sprawling to the floor. On his hands and knees now, Porpoise groped inside the locker and extracted the pink thing.
“Geez, it’s a lady’s slip,” he said. “What’s it doing in here?”
He stood and held up the short, lace-trimmed slip; it was almost as wide as it was long. And it reeked of flowery perfume.
“Too big to be mom’s,” he said, thinking about how his dad could wrap his hands around her waist. He caught his reflection in the mirrors as he held the slip against his body. His mom’s words earlier that day came back to him: “You look so much like your father.” And, unbidden, a memory flashed through his head: He was small and had just learned to open doors. His greatest game was to open them, then shut them; opening and shutting and never bothering to look inside. Except the bathroom. The bathroom was mysterious and forbidden, so he had to take a peek. And when he peeked inside, he saw his dad shaving … shaving his chest while wearing a bright red strapless bra.
Porpoise got his first spanking that day and each door knob got a child-proof cover after that.
“Crap!” he said, flinging the slip to the floor. “That’s when they started locking the basement, too!”
In a daze, the boy backed up until he came to the cot and sat down heavily.
“Oh man. Crap. Shit. This is crazy! Oh my God! No way.” He kept shaking his head back and forth, trying to clear it. He had to be wrong. Brian McAllister is a macho guy. A manly man who scratches his butt and spits. Porpoise felt his world turning upside down. And what was worse, he had no one to talk to about it.
“Oh my God, Mom!” he said, jumping to his feet. “I can’t let her find out! Crap, crap, crap,” he said, scurrying across the room and scooping up the offensive pink article. He ran back to the cot and shoved it beneath the thin mattress, sat down, then jumped to his feet again.
“Not there, idiot, she’ll find it there!” He remembered how she had found his collection of Playboys under his own mattress.
He spun around, looking for the best place. Nothing. Nada. He had an idea. He carefully folded the garment until it was flat and square and jammed it into his back pocket. He stood sideways and looked into the full-length mirror.
“Crap!” It was obvious something was in his pocket and a bit of pink poked out. He pulled it out and slid it down the front of his pants. It felt cool and weird, but with his t-shirt pulled over it … yeah, that would work.
Porpoise barely slept that night. He shoved the slip into his pillow case, reminding himself over and over not to forget it in the morning. His hand kept returning to it over and over again, its silkiness somehow comforting. How would he be able to look his dad in the eyes again? Did this mean he was queer? What if people found out? And mom … should he tell her? Maybe he should talk to his dad, man to man. Porpoise snorted and groaned. Yeah, right, he thought. And all that churchy stuff … wasn’t this sort of thing, like, illegal to them? How long has it been going on? Who else knows?
He sat bolt upright in bed.
“Woody,” he whispered. “Woody would know.”
Uncle Woody, Brian McAllister’s own brother, was due at Grandpa and Grandma McAllister’s house the next day. Woody, as Brian was fond of saying, is “as queer as a duck in a suit.” Ha! Porpoise thought, and what does that make you? He lay back down to plan his strategy. His time with Uncle Woody would be limited, thanks to his dad. That was another strange thing. His dad and Woody always got along great, until now. And now he didn’t want him around his son. Maybe it has to do with this church stuff … or the other way around? It was too much to wrap his head around. Woody would know. Woody would help.
After first rubbing the pink fabric between his thumb and forefinger, Porpoise finally fell into an uneasy sleep.
Woody McAllister, flamboyant, naughty and outrageous, was loved by all. From the top of his flame-colored hair, to his size 6 shoes (which were just 5 ft., 4 inches from that hair), he oozed drama. In rural Wisconsin, it was practically unheard of to accept, even embrace, someone so … so … gay. His flair for the dramatic brought him fame and fortune as a Broadway producer, but he came home to Wisconsin every year for one week. “Any more than that and I’d have my gay card revoked. Or get lynched,” he deadpanned.
Woody was unpacking a suitcase in the guest room of his parents’ house when his nephew came bursting into the room holding up a pink scrap of material.
“What is this?” Porpoise cried, blowing his carefully-planned approach.
“Offhand, I’d say it’s a slip,” Woody answered, continuing his unpacking.
“It’s my dad’s!” Porpoise said, plopping down onto the bed.
“Oh, well in that case it’s probably a Freudian slip,” Woody said, making a mental note to remember that line.
“Ha, ha, very funny.”
“I try,” Woody said, then saw the pain on the boy’s face and heaved a sigh. He had hoped it would never come to this. He extracted a bottle of scotch from his bag and went to the dresser where an ice bucket and glass waited. Bless you, mom, he thought. “Okay,” he said, pouring himself a stiff one, knowing he’d need it, “spill.”
Porpoise lay back on the bed, relieved to unburden himself to his uncle. He told him everything: Brian’s sudden unyielding religiosity, the Right Reverend Truegood (Woody raised an eyebrow at the name), his memory of seeing his dad in a red bra, how he was never allowed in the basement until now, finding the slip; he even told him how he was going to hide it under the cot mattress, but knew his mother would find it because she’d found his magazine stash … by the time he was done, Porpoise was exhausted and his uncle was back at his makeshift bar, pouring himself another drink.
Porpoise got up and sat down across from him. “So, he’s, like, um, you, huh?”
“Hardly, LD,” Woody said. He never called the boy “Porpoise,” it was such an undignified moniker; he either called him Leslie or used his first and middle initials. “Your dad is huge and I’m a leprechaun.”
Porpoise blushed. “You know what I mean!” he cried. “My dad’s gay, isn’t he?”
Woody glanced down at his empty glass and cursed his self-imposed two drink limit.
“LD,” he began, “If there is any story here, it’s your dad’s story to tell, not mine.”
“No, now listen,” his uncle admonished. “I will say this, categorically: No, your dad is not gay.”
“Then … what?”
“Again, it’s his story to tell, if he wants to and if there’s anything to tell, but as an emissary from the McAllister Gay Brigade – a brigade of one, I might add – it behooves me to straighten you out (no pun intended) about certain things in the broadest, most general sense. What I’m about to say is not about your dad, okay? It’s just information, okay?”
Woody took a deep breath. “The first thing to know is that if a man likes to wear w omen’s underclothes – or any other w omen’s clothing – that doesn’t mean he’s gay.”
“No, it doesn’t. And, conversely, just because one is gay, doesn’t mean one likes to wear w omen’s things. Some do, don’t get me wrong, but there are a whole lot of us who just think it’s silly.”
Porpoise sat for the next half an hour getting a lesson on the differences between cross-dressers, transsexuals, transgendered people, drag queens, nature vs. nurture – just enough information, Woody hoped, for the boy to draw his own conclusions and, most importantly, eliminate some of the fear and confusion he was feeling.
“Wow,” Porpoise said with no irony, “we sure didn’t learn that stuff in Health class.”
Woody snorted. “Neither did I, but it sure would have helped,” he said.
“What I don’t get is this religion thing,” Porpoise said. “And he’s always so crabby! He preaches all the time. He used to be fun, you know, for a dad.”
His uncle thought for a minute before answering. He had his own ideas about that, but wanted his nephew to formulate his own. He decided not to answer the question directly and hoped that at the age of 16, the boy could make the necessary, logical connections. He stood up and returned to his suitcase to finish unpacking.
“Did your dad ever tell you about what a mean SOB I used to be?” he asked.
Understandably, Porpoise looked confused. For one thing, he couldn’t imagine his uncle being anything other than fun. “Uh, no ...”
“Well, I was, for a while. I was also very, very involved at St. Stanislaus … altar boy, choir, manning information booths at street fairs. At one point I wanted to be a missionary, or a priest.”
“You?” Porpoise tried not to laugh.
“Bit of a stretch, I know, but it’s true. I also wanted to kill myself.”
Porpoise didn’t know what to say to that; he was more than shocked at the admission.
“See, even as a young boy I knew I was ‘different,’ that I didn’t like girls like I was supposed to. And the church, the church and everyone else around me made it abundantly clear that it was wrong. A sin, something dirty and shameful.”
“Did anyone know how you felt?”
“Your dad did, but he was cool. Your grandparents, but not until later. So, I hid it, but most of all I tried to hide it from myself. I even tried dating girls for a while. I hated it. I hated myself. I used to pick fights with other guys, the bigger the better. It made me angry that everyone else could be who they were, but I couldn’t. It was like having a hole inside.”
Woody shut up then and watched his nephew’s face while he stashed away his suitcase and tidied up the room. By George, he thought, I think he’s getting it.
“Hey, kid, you coming to the party Saturday?” he asked, when he thought the time was right to change the topic. Every year at the end of his stay, Woody threw a grand party for his family, old friends and anyone else who wanted to come. At one point or another, the whole town would be there to drink free booze and sample the catered food.
“Uh … I guess so,” Porpoise said. “Unless Dad won’t let me ...”
“Not to worry, LD, you’ll be there, I promise.” He gave his nephew a much-needed hug and sent him on his way.