by Jenny Robertson
This story won 1st prize in our 2020 Summer Contest in fiction, judged by Alex Segura.
Cher Bebe was supposed to be a dentist. Or a minister. His parents couldn’t agree, so they kept both possibilities in mind as he grew older and taller, his body flowering far above them, his mouth sassier, his grades falling further each year, his pants tighter, the color of his shirts pineapple, grape, cherry, lime and orange, painted to his torso so he looked more and more like a bird. But not like Admiral, the small grey cockatiel they’d kept in a rectangle cage in the corner of the living room. So sad it pulled out its feathers, so disturbed it made love to a girl bird made from a balled up and twisted tube sock then squawked in frustration to an empty room.
Cher Bebe emerged from the dressing room at eight o’clock, ready for this week’s Sex-O-Rama. He wore his grandfather’s Mardi Gras headdress, a fifteen-pound wedding cake of linked beads, rainbow-dyed pelican feathers, and punctured cockle shells which had arrived at his Minneapolis doorstep the previous year. He wore size fifteen thigh-high lace-up black leather boots, and a loincloth sewn from Tibetan peace flags. In a shoulder holster, he carried a slim whip. Four states to the south, his father was dying.
Steve, his boss, had descended from his record-lined office, perpetually redolent of grass and tequila, and stood on the empty dance floor, shouting.
“Who was fucking responsible for cleaning last night?” Steve pressed a hairy hand into a smear of mud left over from Wednesday’s Ladies’ Wrestling and shook it in the air. “I pay you, don’t I? Don’t I? Somebody fucking fix this right now, or you’re all fired.”
Bartenders left their limes mid-prep. DJ Spinlove left his strobes. The bouncers left their mirrors, and all of First Avenue’s employees knelt on the ground with rags and wet sponges until the floor was clean. Except Cher Bebe. He didn’t kneel for anyone, not even if they paid. Not since his last year of high school, when his band director, in an effort to “harden him up,” unzipped his corduroys and presented his syllabus.
Cher Bebe stayed in the shadows until Steve huffed up the stairs to the balcony, slammed his office door, and everyone returned to their usual positions. He found Melanie behind the bar.
“Honey, set me up. Double kamikaze.”
“Go easy on the sinners tonight,” she said. “No scars.”
“Love, you know I only scar the ones who need it.” He returned the empty shot glass. “If my mother calls, flash me.”
“Something going on?”
“Just do it. Please.”
Melanie shrugged her substantial shoulders. “Fine. Purple light means call your mother.” When the club was busy, they couldn’t hear each other, so they used industrial glowsticks as signals, like airport runway marshalls guiding a plane. White meant refill toilet paper. Yellow meant mop up piss or puke. Blue was for O.D. Red for fight. The speed of the flash signaled the intensity of the problem, and the closest hands were expected to respond. The purple light was extra, for personal communications.
Melanie leaned back and yelled through cupped and hennaed hands. “Hey! My purple is for Sha tonight.” Lights flashed back in response from all directions, trippy fireflies. He’d given up on correcting their pronunciation of his chosen name. No one here could wrap their tongues around it. Cher, like, “share”, was all they could manage. He told them Sha, like “shaw”, and pictured his grandmother’s voice. Cher bebe, her mouth forming the last two syllables on the exhale, soft as an infant’s: bay bay.
The name was a mantra, a soft fall of love. Claim what you’re called and they can’t touch you. Cover yourself in a costume so bright and imposing you dazzle. Lights, action. No one can look past you, but they can’t see into you either.
At nine o’clock, the doors opened, admitting an assortment of Twin Cities freaks, addicts, and voyeurs. Busty young women who peeled off long winter coats to reveal string bikinis were let in free, served strong drinks, and directed to the hot tub onstage. Frat boys arrived in packs and were charged extra. Older, married, and antisocial people took their beers up to the balcony and those who had come to be seen—pretty boys, tough girls, and everyone in between—clogged the bars and commandeered the dance floor.
Cher Bebe waited for his cue, the opening beats of Salt-N-Pepa—ah, push it—and strode onto the stage. The hot tub girls squealed, threw their bare legs out of the water and, dripping, surrounded him. They stroked his oiled chest, rubbed against his loincloth, and pushed it every Midwestern way they knew how. After a particularly brazen nymph reached on tiptoes for his headdress, Cher Bebe showed her the whip and marched into the crowd, looking for someone who wasn’t dancing. Now wait a minute, y’all, this dance ain’t for everybody, only the sexy people.
He found the night’s victims easily. Eggheads, a group of college kids who had showed up as a joke, to watch but not play. This type often took notes, maybe hoping to write a sociology paper: “Nocturnal Observations at Sex-O-Rama: A Case Study.”
Three boys and a girl, each pale as January. The college boys stared at the dancers, traded smart remarks and snickered, but the lone girl was collapsing upon herself like a dying star. Her posture spoke of long nights with hardcovers and hot tea. But all four sat up straight when they realized Cher Bebe was aimed at their table. “IDs,” he said. “Now.”
The bookish redhead handed hers over, moon-eyed. “They checked us at the door.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Thank you.”
The boy next to her rummaged in his khakis. “Fuck. Just a minute.”
They were a couple, Cher Bebe realized, watching her watch her helpless boyfriend, who still couldn’t find his card. Probably they had a little sex. Maybe even a lot. Probably they tried sixty-nine because they’d seen it in a book, each so intent on earning an A for effort they never felt the other’s tongue.
“Here,” Khaki Side-part said, and handed Cher Bebe his ID as though it were a well-polished curriculum vitae.
“Merci beaucoup.” Cher Bebe tucked the four fake IDs into a secret pocket in his peace flags. “Darlings,” he extended a hand to the boy and girl, “come with me.”
Cher Bebe pulled the young lovers onto the stage, which was now awash with tub water and slippery people. He brought them to the edge, in front of everyone, and pressed them together as though he were a child marrying Barbie and Ken. “Show us your moves,” he cooed into their delicate pink ears.
“I don’t know,” she said, but the boyfriend leaned in for a kiss. For a long ten seconds, they did their best. The boy tried to find his rhythm and the girl closed her eyes. People hooted and clapped, if only to honor the bravery and awkwardness on display. Then the boy shoved his hands up her shirt, popped her buttons free, and she slapped him, in tears.
When Cher Bebe saw she was going to bolt, he separated them. “Stay here,” he told her. “Watch this.”
Can’t you hear the music’s pumpin’ hard like I wish you would? Now push it.
In one quick move Cher Bebe untucked the boyfriend’s shirt from his khakis. A trio of bikini girls stepped in to finish the work. Before Salt-N-Pepa stopped spinning, the boy was in the hot tub in his plaid flannel boxers, and the girl had fled the stage.
Purple light shone from Melanie’s station. Cher Bebe whipped a clear path to the bar, turned off the strobe, and entered one of the dozen wooden phone booths which lined the back wall. They were commonly used for meetings—their swinging doors afforded some privacy and the cubicles themselves could hold two friendly people—but the phones worked too and local calls were free.
The bench inside the oiled oak booth felt almost like a church pew. At first his mother’s voice made no impact, but Cher Bebe heard her the second time she spoke his name.
“I’m here. How’s he doing?”
“Not long now. He’s comfortable.”
“He’s going to want to hear your voice.”
“You think he can hear me?”
“Call me when it’s almost over. I’ll do it then.”
“No. Not yet.”
“All right. I’ll call when it’s time.”
Though he knew his father was now a shriveled husk of his former self, lying on a hospice bed in the sitting room, Cher Bebe still pictured him full-sized, in his practice, Decoudreau Dentistry, the steel implements forever laid out on a fresh sheet of blue paper. Even with that divider, Cher Bebe could feel the potential of metal against metal, quiet, forbidding, and serious, awaiting the next sinner. He was the confessor and judge and it didn’t matter what you told him, he could see all when he asked you to say ahh. Coffee, sugar, cigarettes, junk food, alcohol, lack of brushing, lack of flossing. All your secret sins revealed, all your lapses in character. While his mother wanted him to be a supplicant to Jesus, to sing and confess and praise and, eventually, to minister, his father wanted him on the side of the archangels, the heavy hand and clear eye of judgment. Fix the fallen, curb their wanton ways, put the fear of God, in your own form, into their weak flesh. There was a narrow way, and a dentist pointed people to it.
Cher Bebe didn’t know what you said to a dying father, one you hadn’t spoken to in years.
For ten bucks a pop, Cher Bebe would paddle your backside. Fifteen without pants. Twenty for a soft whipping. A fifty got you flogged. After the phone call he made one-twenty in less than an hour upstairs, mostly regulars who couldn’t care less about tonight’s hot tub and club music, who just needed a fix. Sometimes the customers talked. Often they cried. The ones who scared him laughed, louder and more joyfully the harder he hit.
There was a gun range in the basement—who knew why—another way for Steve to crazy up the place. Usually everything down there went fine. Even though all the shooters were drunk and high, they had decorum, and somehow no one got shot. The closest they got was two years ago when this kid showed up far past loaded, dressed in a camo hoodie, Carharrts and muck boots, carrying a .22. He was shaking cold and soaking wet, and he screamed over and over that he’d sinned and needed to be punished.
The gun enthusiasts didn’t want to argue with him in that state, and no one wanted to shoot him. But the police weren’t exactly welcome either, so someone ran to get Cher Bebe.
The kid stopped yelling when he entered the room. He had maybe never been that close to a six-foot-three Creole man wearing a red glitter g-string. He held his gun close to his chest and stared at Cher Bebe, crying.
“Put it down.”
The kid shook his head.
Cher Bebe drew his whip. “How can I punish you while you’re carrying that thing? What if it goes off, hurts somebody?”
That set the kid off even more. He was snotting everywhere, but he put the gun down. Two men ran in like Wimbledon ball-boys and scooped it from the floor.
“Do you need a public confession?”
“Do you want to confess your sins in front of these people?”
Without his gun, the kid was a pitiful sight. Thin and grimy, drunk and sad. He seemed unable to find the will to speak.
“Out,” Cher Bebe said. “Everybody.”
When they were alone, Cher Bebe said “Tell me everything, and I will redeem you. Take off your jacket.”
His last job upstairs was a light paddling for a couple dressed as Batman and Robin. They yelled “Pow!” and “Bam!” every time a blow landed and afterwards tipped him an extra twenty bucks.
Hands caressed him from all sides as he descended the stairs. Most were gentle, but one greedy, grabby person required a quick knock on the head. Cher Bebe slid behind Melanie’s bar and squeezed her shoulders. “You need anything?”
He scrubbed and rinsed two dozen glasses, then mixed himself another kamikaze.
“Hey Shawnee! Hey Red Lake! You Winnebago? Anishinaabe? Drinking on the job? When you gonna give me my headdress back?” The man yelling from the other side of the bar wore his usual green jacket, whose patches marked him as US Air Force, Vietnam Veteran.
“Hey beautiful abomination. I’m serious about the headdress. You can’t keep it.”
Cher Bebe laughed. “Tell that to my grandmother. She made it.”
“Nah,” George said. “My grandmother dropped it in the stream at Itasca and it floated down the Mississippi to your grandmother’s house. She hosed it off and claimed it as her own.” He shook his head. “It’s how you got all those Mardi Gras Indians, from my family. We’re the droppingest motherfuckers you ever met, lose all kinds of shit, all the time.”
“You going to dance tonight?”
“Nah, I like this seat.” George twirled his barstool back and forth. “I can see everything from here. Like that.” He pointed up to the mezzanine.
Steve had coked himself up to the point of pure madness. He was hanging upside down from the railing by his knees, like a fourth-grader ready for a cherry drop.
Though the boss preferred concert nights over moneymakers like Sex-O-Rama, he must have heard the DJ play “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and wanted to be present for the lines that mention his name. Steve’s entourage let him ride out the song in bat position, then pulled him to safety.
The shot would do a little to blunt the edges, but not enough. Steve was occupied, so Cher Bebe took a break in the Subhuman room, a dark pit hidden under a trapdoor backstage.
“Who’s that? Casey?”
“Yeah, me and Mike.” A joint appeared from a soft pile of blankets and coats.
“Thanks, sugar. Needed that.” Cher Bebe’s boots touched something soft. “Who else is in here?”
“Tony and some girl.”
“Give me a light.”
Tony Moretti, one of the set-up guys, had obviously clocked out for the night. He was fully occupied with the girl beneath him, visible only as a bare belly and a cloud of red hair.
That hair. Cher Bebe leaned in closer with the lighter. “Aw, shit.”
“Tony, get the fuck up.”
Tony untangled his tongue long enough to tell him to screw off.
Cher Bebe pushed his boot heel in Tony’s ass until he rolled over.
“You! You’re evil.” The bookish girl slurred her words and stunk of sangria.
“Yes, honey, I’m a bad man. But I’m your only hope.”
Casey and Mike held the trap door open so Cher Bebe could drag the girl from the pit. The purple light was back on.
He stuffed the girl in one phone booth and himself in another.
His mother’s breath was fast but shallow, her voice soft. “He’s close now.”
He thought he heard a catch, an almost sob, but knew she wouldn’t permit it until everything was done.
“John,” she said. “John, I’m putting the phone to his ear now. Only he can hear you. Please say what you need to say.”
Cher Bebe worshipped his own arms, his long legs, worshipped the flat expanse of his stomach. He oiled his smooth skin, praised the light that rode his muscles’ curves. His warm hand acknowledged the perfection of the whole of him. Stayed in contact with that goodness.
His father, Dr. Decoudreau, never showed his bare torso, though it pressed hard against the fabric of his button-down shirts. He fed his body secret extra meals, second breakfasts on the way into the office he’d built in his old neighborhood, the 7th Ward, far from their home in Metairie. Long lunches in the mini-malls: crab wontons, shrimp alfredo, biscuits and white gravy, sausage and eggs. His console was stuffed with receipts from China Palace, Willie Mae’s Scotch House, Chick-fil-A. Cher Bebe used to look through them when he waited for his father to complete an errand and wondered why he didn’t throw away the evidence of his vice. Some sort of guilt? Or was it just more of his father’s need to keep track, to control by adding the numbers up, marking the dates. Raising up his desire to eat these meals from mere gluttony, lust and need into the real world of accounts.
He could tell his father he was eating well. That he was cooking his mother’s recipes. He could share memories of her dancing in the kitchen, singing along to Art Neville’s “All These Things.” Tell the good doctor he could picture her at a dance, enjoying herself, and could imagine then how the two of them, who were so different, came to be. How he came to be. His father would have been dressed in a suit and tie, he knew, slim and serious then—he’d seen the pictures—long arms and legs, no padding, though Cher Bebe knew he already had that large appetite. That never-filled feeling. How his mother must have looked to him, everything he wanted. Everything he wasn’t: relaxed in her body, confident in her movement, attuned to melody and rhythm. Sure of her place, of her right to move.
Cher Bebe pictured him a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, drawn to move one great foot after another toward her, pulled by her light, pulled by the swing of her hips. It was all destined, the matches that God ordained. He built deficiencies into each clay being: each one lacking something, each one hungry to take a little bit of what another one’s got. He pictured his monster father, his incomplete clay figure father, taking his mother into his arms, stilling those hips with his own, chilling her and warming her with his silent need. Knowing his mother, she would have been curious. She would have understood that he needed her, that she fit him, and from there, with God’s blessing, they’d make him from the clay.
He took the girl into his dressing room, said, “Love, do you want to go home?”
She shook her head no, and made a pillow out of his street clothes, which were lying on the vinyl loveseat in the corner. “I want to sleep.”
“Can you trust any of your friends?”
“Leo,” she said. “He’s not an asshole.”
“Which one’s Leo?”
“Dark hair, skinny…dances like Michael Stipe.”
“Where’ve you been?” Melanie shouted over the heads of Sex-O-Rama-crazed patrons.
“Working, honey, as always.”
“Better get your ass on stage soon. Steve’s been looking for you.”
“Stay with the action!” Cher Bebe said, in his best Steve impression.
“Never leave the action!” Melanie agreed.
After downing one Patron, for juice, Cher stopped by Spinlove, requested “Cream” and went looking for Michael Stipe. He wasn’t hard to find. Arms hanging stiff by his sides, but unhinged at the shoulders so they swung back and forth like the chains of a park swing. Attempting a little style, bangs long enough to poke him in the eye. Long serious face pointed toward the ground. Hips that didn’t know they were hips. Knees buckling, scarecrow, set the whole slim body in motion.
Not one to waste a good opportunity, Cher Bebe corralled the boy with his whip, pulled him gently to him.
“Your friend,” he whispered, “is drunk in my dressing room.”
It was Prince’s fault he was here at all. The way he straddled and fucked his guitar, his slim body poured into a velvet suit. The way he looked out from under fat lashes to smote sex into your heart. Live, at First Avenue, the TV said. His club, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He just walked in when he wanted to and said he was putting on a show. Cher Bebe bought a ticket on the City of New Orleans the day after graduation with the money the church ladies had given him, through his mother, on the sly—even though he had fallen—in perfumed envelopes, crisp twenties they’d saved from their jobs. He didn’t know how they managed to save so much for graduations, for birthdays, for the donation plate. Or maybe he did: scrimping on themselves, clothes on sale or second-hand, mending the rough-edged sheet, coupons and prayer, and work, work, work. Always work.
He put the good women’s money toward a train ticket to sin. Got off the bus in Minneapolis in the middle of May, blossoms and green grass, high glass buildings and dirt on the sidewalks leading to First Avenue, just around the corner from the station. The outside of the building full of white stars painted on black brick.The names of all the people who’d played the stage, written in bold and loopy cursive. It was late in the day, last heat of sun readying to dive down and be lost for the rest of the starless northern city night. A line of cool kids stalked the avenue, their hair teased up and held with spray, the girls in leather and fishnet, fake fur and ripped t-shirt. Boys in the same. Girls in jeans. Boys in jeans. Short hair. Long hair. A winding line, cigarettes. “You want some,” a short girl with a pink fade asked Cher Bebe, extending in her hand a crushed pack of Native Spirits. He didn’t smoke, didn’t need that kind of haze in his lungs, but he said, “Sure. Yes I do.” And he stayed in line, paid ten dollars of church money to get in the door. Prince was not on stage. But Cher Bebe could see him even so, his echo loose above the worn boards, scratched but black as black. The sick high assault of a bent string, and the resulting wave, he heard just as clear as if he had been there when the artist played it.
He walked as a ghost through the building, silent in the midst of noise. He seemed to disappear. He seemed to come alive. Music low through the speakers, something about a Zamboni, in a twangy white boy voice. He heard his own voice in his ears, you’re needed here, and he almost wept.
Cher Bebe sat in his dressing room, the glitter stars faintly glowing in the half-light. Bulbs burnt out, the way he preferred it. Soft light after all the noise. Off came the crown, all fifteen pounds of it. Even the feathers were tired. They hung down listless, their colors faded. You were only supposed to wear them for one season, but Cher Bebe thought here, far from Carnival, he could use its protection. He agreed with the Chief of Chiefs, Tootie Montana, that it was better “to fight with the needle and thread,” with the prettiness of costumes, than it was to sacrifice the bodies of men. Cher Bebe didn’t know if it was alive—the crown his father’s father wore, masking Indian with the White Eagles, this tradition his father had dropped—but somehow it knew how to rejuvenate itself. By the next week, the next time he’d have occasion to wear it, it would have puffed up, air between all the layers. They would positively swirl on their mannikin head in his bedroom, waiting for him.
To roll a headdress, you need a clear surface, long and flat. Cher Bebe used a table. Remember Boy Scouts. Remember sleepovers. Remember your first lessons with a sleeping bag. Start with the head. Roll tight, but not too tight. Keep it straight. Roll down toward the feet, tucking in stray feathers as you go. When you’re done, you should have a tidy cylinder, one that will fit in an over-the-shoulder bag, the kind in which you put foldable chairs. Cher Bebe’s bag was green.
His feet ached. But he felt light in his exhaustion, as he always did after a night performing. Once his make-up was Noxema’d off, he used a witch hazel cloth, disposable, to remove the last traces. Though he left the eyeliner. A surprise for whoever might look up close. His brows brushed, his hair run through with bright-nailed fingers, Cher Bebe counted the money in his loin cloth. Not a bad evening. Respectable. Plus the tip from the drunk girl and her Stipe, a wet five dollars.
Outside the curved world of First Ave, after the good nights and settling of accounts, Cher Bebe was surprised to see a toad nestled up against the meeting of concrete and concrete, in the narrow land of dirt from which a few brave dandelions fought for light. Though not large, it was squat and fat. It had presence. An intricate set of markings covered its skin: grey diamond on his head, leaf-lines and bark-patterns down his back and limbs. In another environment, he would have blended right in. Downtown Minneapolis at three in the morning, not so much. Where was his water? His food? How did he protect his camouflaged body from the feet and tires of the city?
Cher Bebe crouched down and sang to it soft: say Mardi Gras comin’ and we ready to die, say Mama told me, ‘fore you leave home, you a little bitty boy, but you carry it on.
Jenny Robertson is a writer from Minnesota. She won second place in the Rick DeMarinis Short Story contest, and was a 2019 Halifax Ranch Fiction Prize semifinalist. Her poems and stories have appeared in Cutthroat, South Carolina Review, Hypertext Magazine, Flyway, and elsewhere. She currently serves as Assistant Nonfiction Editor for Gigantic Sequins.
Charles E. Humes, Jr. has been a professional fine artist for over forty years. He’s a recipient of multiple grants and fellowships, including the State of Florida’s Individual Artist Grant in painting, and a Smithsonian Southern Arts Federation Print-making Fellow. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited in major galleries and universities, and have received numerous awards and honors throughout the USA.