by Dee Gilles
Disclaimer: For entertainment only.
Benny & Ray 114
It was a hot and muggy day, as was typical for summers in Chicago, and Tommy DeBenedetto kept cool by tasking himself in the basement. As humble as it was, the dim and musty smelling basement was Tommy's favorite place in the house these days. It was the only place he felt really safe.
It was the only part of the house that the bashers hadn't touched. Sometimes, Tommy slept down here. Bruno had dragged down the stairs an old leather chaise lounge that he had picked up from an estate sale last month. And when Bruno went to work, leaving him in the house, Tommy sometimes read, and often napped down on the scuffed old chaise.
Bruno had told Tommy he was dying to do something with their basement, although he had never mentioned it before, and asked that Tommy oversee a remodel. He knew Bruno just wanted him to have something to do, something for Tommy to think about besides lying around and dwelling on the attack all day. Even though Tommy saw right through Bruno, he was grateful to him. So they talked about it and they had decided to turn the basement into a billiards room and home theater. Tommy had to admit he was excited about the project.
In preparation for the remodel, Tommy had been charged with going through his and Bruno's many boxes of personal effects and memorabilia. A small portion of the basement would remain as storage for those items, but there was a lot of junk down here to throw out or give to charity. Old furniture, old exercise equipment, bikes, bowling ball, bowling shoes.
Tommy ended up sitting on the floor and taking a stroll down Memory Lane. He'd held on to a lot of school junk, too. Things like his JV and varsity baseball trophies, his old basketball jersey, and a poem he wrote in fifth grade. He even found a class picture of his entire first grade class; Mr. Stefano had been his teacher. Mr. Stefano had been his first crush. He remembered he had told his sister Patty that he was going to marry Mr. Stefano. Patty had crushed him when she told him that boys couldn't marry boys. Tommy had to chuckle at the distant memory of his first heartbreak. He stared at the image of his seven-year-old self. He was a runt, the smallest in his class. He was nothing but arms and legs, all smiles...a perfect little face. Tommy missed that innocent and sweet-looking little kid.
It had been a long and painful recovery thus far, and Tommy still had many more surgeries to endure. His latest had been a cheek implant, to try to make the damaged left side of his face match his right, and another surgery to correct his misaligned jaw.
On the last day of his hospital stay, they had fitted him for a prosthetic eye that would be a custom color match for Tommy's own hazel one. For now he still wore his eye patch.
He still was terrified to look in a mirror. He had made Bruno take them all down, except for the necessary bathroom mirror that Bruno used to shave in the morning. When he entered the bathroom in the morning to shower, Tommy felt a little jolt of surprise before he was able to avert his eyes from the large mirror. He still couldn't believe that the one-eyed and scar-faced bearded man in the mirror was him. He felt like a monster.
Bruno had stayed home with him the first two weeks that Tommy came home from the hospital. He had gotten the house cleaned up of the crime before Tommy arrived, so he came home to a half-empty and freshly painted house, complete with a state-of-the-art alarm system with motion detectors and glass-break sensors.
Bruno had wanted to have a little `welcome home' and Memorial Day barbecue for Tommy, just a few of their inner circle, like Scotty and Justin and Gary and Larry, but Tommy wasn't yet in the mood to socialize. He'd received a handful of visitors one-on-one in the month since he'd been home, like his sister Patty and his Ma, his pals Dimitri and Ray. Bruno kept pressing him to plan a Fourth of July party, but Tommy still wasn't ready to be a social butterfly, not looking the way that he did.
He had to admit, once he got over the worst pain, that he had been angry. He had nothing to do all day but lie around and think about the episode again and again. He was bitter and depressed, and took his frustrations out on his lover sometimes. Bruno, to his credit, didn't get angry back. He let him rage. And he just listened to him and told him that he understood.
Lately though, Tommy's anger had subsided to fear, anxiety. He knew he was being irrational. Those assholes weren't going to be stupid and come after him again. The house was tight as a drum, secure. Ray came by and checked up on the house and grounds for him from time to time, came around in a cruiser and made his presence in the neighborhood known, making sure that it was known that anybody who even thought about pulling off any `copycat' crimes was going to pay a high price.
Tommy was so glad that he had Ray to talk to. He guessed he had scared him with some of his dark talk, though. He'd admitted he was thinking about dying, yeah, sure. He could tell Ray stuff like that. Ray told him about this shrink he'd seen a while back, who helped him get through some major shit. Said he'd give him the number, if he wanted somebody else to talk to when things got too heavy. Guy named Jake Jacopo. Tommy took him up on it, and he'd seen the guy a couple of times. Nice guy. Intense, yet profoundly patient. Tommy liked him a lot, and it helped to unload on him. Even so, Tommy was plagued with nightmares.
Tommy had wanted to put the house back on the market, return to the haven of Boystown. But Bruno had said no. "That's what they want," he had told Tommy. "For us to go back to `the reservation.' Well, we're not going to. We're going to live wherever the hell we goddamned well please, so these paisans are just going to have to fucking deal." And that had been that. Now Bruno was talking of bringing a civil suit against the perpetrators. Any money they won would go to gay charities and causes, and Bruno would make sure that the men knew it.
He had gotten the scoop from Ben Fraser as to how the case was going. The guys had been quickly apprehended, thanks to him and his partner Stanley. Tommy was grateful for that. He didn't think he'd have been able to sleep at night knowing those guys were still out there, home security system notwithstanding. Then later, Detective Franklin had told him the guys had been beaten up, no doubt by the Karma Police. Good, was all Tommy could think. He hoped they suffered agonizing pain.
Tommy actually became quite the cause celebre among the gay community, thanks to the Windy City Times. He became the battle cry, the rallying point, against gay hatred, gay intolerance, and gay bashing. The six o'clock news even did a piece on him and Bruno too, which they would air in conjunction with this weekend's Pride Parade. Bruno used the opportunity to speak to the reporter about St. T's House, and the need for a safe house for young adults to go if they were rejected for coming out of the closet.
Bruno had surprised him a couple of nights ago with the news that he had been named Honorary Grand Co-Marshall of the Pride Parade, evidently a title they made up just for him. Bruno was renting a red convertible for him to ride in. And Bruno told him that he was taking him away after the parade; They'd forego this year's White Party to get away by themselves. He wouldn't give him any more detail than that, no matter how much Tommy pleaded.
Ray had come by this morning, and brought him some biscotti and espresso from the place down the street. Tommy had escorted Ray to the secluded back patio. They sat for a while to shoot the shit and drink their espresso. Tommy couldn't munch the hard biscotti, but he enjoyed his drink. It was so quiet that the two friends could hear birdsong as they quietly chatted. Tommy thought idly, as he sat at the table and listened to Ray, that the lawn needed to mowed, and maybe he should open the pool soon. It had gotten hot in the past week.
Ray told him that he and Ben were on the outs and that he was seeing a girl. That girl he'd brought to the hospital with him one time, on a short visit with him. What was her name again? Oh yeah. Stella. Stella for star. Tommy didn't get the attraction. She seemed so uptight, so WASPish, so fresh-faced and squeaky clean. Not Ray's type at all.
On closer examination, Tommy realized that Stella was a lot like Ben Fraser.
He had to chalk the breakup to Ray being as asshole. He loved Ray, but goddamn, he was an abrasive jerk sometimes. But Tommy would stand by his friend all the same, just like he always did. He'd stuck by Ray when he broke up with Irene Zuko, with Gloria Esposito, with Rea De Filipo, and a bunch of girls whose names he couldn't remember, and helped him get over them. And he'd stand by Ray to help him get over Ben Fraser too. Tommy felt a twinge of grief over that one.
He'd honestly thought Ben was the one for Ray, especially after having gotten to know Ben on his own. Ben and Ray had been together as long as Ray and those other women put together. Maybe Ray was just not the type of man to stay settled down. Tommy had thought he was that way, too. Until Bruno walked into his life, and changed his mind.
None of his reasons for breaking up with Ben made any sense to Tommy. The only explanation he could come up with was that Ray just wanted to cross back to the other side. Tommy really liked Ben, despite the fact that he, too, was an `uptight WASP.' There was something about Ben that Tommy wanted to comfort. Something vulnerable about him that he was drawn to.
Tommy took a break from his sorting. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and matches from his breast pocket, and lit up. Yeah, he had started smoking again as soon as he got out of the hospital. This after not touching a butt for two years. Tommy figured that if there was ever justification for starting smoking again, almost getting beaten to death was it. He puffed away with satisfaction. The nicotine shooting to his brain calmed his anxiety.
After finishing the cigarette, Tommy stood and stretched and began to pick his way through the rest of the basement. He walked carefully, still not used to navigating with one eye. He walked through the twists and turns of the basement, dragging his fingertips along the cool basement walls.
Brothers Carlito and Matteo Zuko had built the house during Prohibition, and the basement had functioned as a speak-easy. That had been the rumor growing up, and Tommy found himself pleased to know the rumor had been true, once he was shown around by the real estate agent.
The first night that they had moved into the house, Tommy came down and explored. He had found almost immediately a false wall. The front of it was a bookcase, and behind it was a three-by-three closet that Tommy assumed was used to stash the contraband.
Tommy and Bruno were still discovering hidden passages, and false walls, and cubby holes throughout the maze of a basement. They had discovered that there was an underground tunnel that connected the detached garage to the basement. It was scary and exciting. The whole thing reminded him of the old `Hardy Boys' books he used to read as a kid. The Case of the Secret Tunnel, he could just imagine.
Last month, Bruno had even discovered that the basement had a basement. He had ripped up some moldy carpet to expose the concrete floor beneath, and discovered a trap door. Beyond the trap door was a ten-by-ten hole that contained several empty oak whiskey barrels.
Tommy wandered through the soft quiet and touched the slightly sweaty walls with wonder. So many stories these walls could tell.
In a far corner, he came across a garish and amateurish oil painting that had been hanging in the place when they moved in. Tommy had supposed it had been stashed down here, hidden away, since it was so god-awful. Maybe a relative painted it, so the family didn't have the heart to throw it out.
Well, it was going now; Tommy had no such ties. He pulled the painting off the wall, stretching a long-undisturbed spider web in the process. He was surprised, yet unsurprised to see that there was a recessed doorknob behind the painting. He realized that the door opening itself had been camouflaged to look like just another seam in the paneled wall. He tossed the painting in a corner, and twisted the doorknob and forcefully yanked the old door open.
Coolness rushed out at Tommy, along with a damp moldy smell. Tommy withdrew for a moment to retrieve a flashlight from the top of the stairs and quickly returned with it.
He turned on the flashlight and was surprised by the amount of debris, ankle deep in the large room. He guessed that he was directly beneath the sunroom. Evidently there was a leak in one of the cracked tiles upstairs, because there was a lot of water. The smell was overpowering.
Tommy flicked the light around and around. There were bottles on the shelves, old spirits that had lingered there since the place had been closed up no doubt since Prohibition ended in '33. There were a couple of kegs, several old beat-up chairs and tables, and some old papers.
Excited and intrigued, Tommy left the room again, this time to find an extension cord and a Black and Decker `snake light' from his old tool storage trunk. He ran the cord to a power outlet just outside the room and turned on the lamp.
The piles of papers were newspapers and magazines. The newspapers had rotted down to one yellowed mass. Tommy could still make out the date of the paper on top, though. Dec 24, 1933. If Tommy remembered his high school history, this was just a few days after the Prohibition was repealed. Tommy plucked at the paper and it disintegrated under his fingers. He wondered about the person sitting down here all by their lonesome, reading the paper on a Christmas Eve.
The floor was littered with more magazines and papers, even some old rags. There were also some bound books in the little room, damp and moldy but still serviceable. Tommy leafed through them. Some appeared to `smut' magazines, he quickly realized. "Huh!" he said.
Tommy pulled the snake light closer and skimmed through a few more pages. Yeah, definitely smut. But it was boy-on-boy action. Oh dear! He read a few paragraphs, and had to laugh at some of the old slang terms for private parts. Ha.
He came across a black and white photo that someone had stuck between the pages. The badly disintegrated photo appeared to be of two men....in a sixty nine.
Tommy laughed out loud. Well, don't that beat all, he thought. He leafed through and found another photo, this time of a naked man stroking his hard cock, masturbating and smiling for the camera. There were more photos, stuck in more books, of a similar nature.
Behind the bookcase, previously hidden by the books, Tommy found a small sliding door, about the size of a breadbox. "Man!" He exclaimed. "This place is like a big Faberge egg!"
He reached inside and hit pay dirt. Tommy pulled out several framed-in-glass photos of men engaging in all kinds of lewd and lascivious acts. Tommy recognized the paneling in the background in a few of the photos. They'd been taken right here in this basement.
So! This hadn't been just the common garden variety speakeasy! It had been a gay speakeasy!
He wondered who was responsible for it. Carlito Zuko? No, Carlito got married and had a bunch of kids. Not that he couldn't have been gay...
He was pretty sure Matteo never married. He could have sworn he remembered Frank Zuko saying something about that once...about his uncle getting whacked in forty-two or forty-three, and that he no cousins from Matteo, unlike his other uncles.
Matteo. Matteo Zuko a fag!? Tommy DeBenedetto laughed until his sides hurt and his cracked ribs ached. Poor Matteo. Poor Matteo. Wait until he told Bruno. Wait `til he told Ray.
Tommy got one of the old rickety chairs from the corner and carefully sat. He read through some of the old books, sorted through the photographs.
Tommy sighed. It felt good to laugh. It had been a while. He sat and pondered what life for Matteo or any gay man, must have been like back then. He supposed it could have been him, had he had the misfortune of being born in the wrong time. All his love, all his lust, all his joy, all his pleasure, stuffed in a vault-like room like this. Hidden away in the dark. Yeah. Could have been him.
He lit another cigarette and puffed away contemplatively. He sat and reflected on his life, and on Matteo Zuko's, for a few minutes.
Tommy DeBenedetto reached a decision about his future. About who he was and the kind of person he wanted to be.
He wasn't going to be afraid to live his life. He just might have thatFourth of Julyparty after all. He had a great idea for a theme: The Gay Twenties.
End B&R114; Secrets by Dee Gilles
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