A Night Out of Time
by Donovan Lee
I hadn’t seen my Aunt Tess in several years before my first trip to New Orleans. My family lived way over in Tupelo, Mississippi, and she used to come see us when she could. But we’d never been to see her. I would ask Mama or Daddy about it, and they’d say something like “Maybe next summer” or “Maybe during Christmas vacation.” But something always came up, and we never made it to New Orleans.
My two older brothers and my little sister all wanted to go to New Orleans too. Mama was born there, in the very house where her mysterious and wonderful sister, my Aunt Tess, still lives. She always had toys, jewelry, or chocolate for the kids. We especially liked the chocolate coins, wrapped in foil, that she’d bring back from Mardi Gras. For Mama and Daddy, she’d bring something weird like cans of smoked oysters, or tapes of some singer that Mama liked. I can’t remember the singer’s name, but he played the accordion, which drove Daddy nuts, so Mama would only play the tapes when he wasn’t home. Other than disagreements over music, Mama and Daddy got along better than most parents.
My brothers and I didn’t share in the same family spirit. Zeb is five years older than me, and Mark John is just about seven years older than me. They got on okay with each other, but weren’t too happy about gaining a third wheel, much less gaining my little sister, Jessica, who became known as “the brat.” Like many gay boys with brothers, I was the one they called “the sissy.”
But when Aunt Tess was in town, the brat and I felt all kind of special. Aunt Tess would sit down with us on the living room floor, switch the TV off, and tell us all about her life as a traveling magazine columnist for a New Orleans magazine.
Sometimes, she told us about the city itself, and didn’t spare any details about how wild Mardi Gras and other attractions could get. Of course, we were in our teens when she started telling us those racier stories, and it was while my parents were away. To the relief of Jessica and myself, Zeb and Mark John moved out as soon as they were old enough. A little sooner than Zeb was old enough, actually, but we didn’t care.
I had always preferred playing with Jessica and her dolls over playing football or baseball with my brothers, who didn’t want me around them or their friends anyway. Even as Jessi outgrew dolls, I began to realize that I was more like my sister than like my brothers in many ways, including the fact that I was attracted to guys. We never really talked about that, but I sensed that Jessi knew and didn’t care. My parents didn’t know, and would definitely have cared, in a bad way; I gathered that much from the “queer” and “faggot” remarks they made at some of the people on the TV and the radio.
And Aunt Tess somehow knew. I mean, why else would she tell two Mississippi teenagers stuff like she did? “They asked me to cover Southern Decadence one time,” she informed us in her thick, Southern Belle voice, gesturing about with her bony hands. Gaudy rings encircled her fingers, and she was wearing one of those white dresses you see on TV, when pretty debutantes are sipping tea or champagne on the lawn of some Southern mansion. You know the kind of white dress: cut a bit low, and sleeveless, with a simple flower pattern and showing just a hint of stocking-covered knees.
I was fifteen, and Jessi was only fourteen, on that day, that last time Aunt Tess came to see us.
“What in the world is Southern Decadence?” Jessi asked, in that slightly smart-ass tone that even the nicest red-haired Mississippi girls like herself picked up around the age of fourteen and toted around for a year or two, until it got too heavy, or until they realized it scared the boys away.
Aunt Tess grinned like the dickens and touched her hands to her overly made-up face, pretending to be embarrassed. But we had long since discovered that nothing embarrassed that woman!
We were actually surprised that Mama and Daddy would let us be alone with her, but after more than twenty years of raising kids, they started getting out of the house whenever they could, and we would have just been home alone if she hadn’t shown up when she did. They were always going to Monday night bingo or square dancing or something; I think it actually was bingo that time. She told them, “Just run along. I’ll visit with y’all later on.”
They wouldn’t have gone anywhere if they had any idea just how far Aunt Tess’ stories would go that time.
Answering Jessi’s question, she said, “Well, Southern Decadence is a big gay party in New Orleans. It gets even wilder than Mardi Gras, if you can imagine that!” We couldn’t, so she told us. “Everywhere I went, there were gay men in the streets, some wearing leather, some wearing dresses, some wearing hardly nuttin’ at all. They were drunk as a skunk, and friendly as all get out! Some were getting a little too friendly, and I kept the camera put up during those times—well, for the most part. There were men showing their talliwackers to each other, kissing each other, and even sucking on each other’s things, right—“
She stopped talking and looked up at my parents, whose faces were even redder than mine felt! The last thing I wanted was for Aunt Tess’ story to stop. Before they walked in, my heart was already pounding, and I was using both hands to cover the sudden, throbbing bulge in my jeans.
“Have you unpacked your bags yet?” Daddy asked her, practically spitting with anger.
“No,” she answered, her face covered over with dread.
“Good.” He pointed at the living room door. “You take them, and you get out of here. I never want your perverted Louisiana ass in my house again!”
She looked at Mama, who just shook her head in shame. Jessi and I didn’t dare say anything. We had never seen Mama or Daddy looking like that, like they wanted to kill somebody. Aunt Tess started crying, but she got her stuff out of Zeb and Mark John’s room then headed on out the door.
After that, I knew better than to ever ask about going to see Aunt Tess. Like Mama’s Daddy, she became someone we never talked about or mentioned, someone who never existed. Mama even took her pictures of Aunt Tess off the wall in the kitchen. It was like her side of the family had disappeared completely, except for her mother and her grandparents. I guess they had died before they had a chance to piss her off and get disowned. Lucky them!
Mama and Daddy were real proud of my grades during my first year of college. They insisted that, instead of going home for spring break, I go someplace fun. That sounded good to me, but I lied about exactly where I was going. Yes, it was the coast, but not in Mississippi. I had gotten in contact with Aunt Tess and insisted on her letting me come visit. I wanted to see New Orleans for myself, and I wanted to see her.
I had been driving for hours when I finally reached New Orleans. It was dark, and late on a Sunday night, but I still ran into a lot of traffic. I also passed several bars and restaurants that appeared to be not only open but also very busy. Looking at the digital clock in my car, I couldn’t believe it was 3:30 in the morning!
Where I grew up, and even where I went to college, you were lucky if you saw a cop or a security guard in the wee hours of a Monday morning; forget about people still going out to eat or party! So, this is New Orleans, I thought.
“And that is New Orleans,” I said aloud, watching two men walking out of a bar, kissing and holding hands. Going with my new trend of bravery, I pulled over to ask them for help with finding my aunt’s house. I had gotten a little lost by then, not being used to such a big city.
The two lovers looked nervous at first, as nervous as I felt, but I guess something in my eyes made them trust me. It felt like there was some sort of connection between us. Though they unlocked their hands and glanced at each other, they listened to the address and the directions I relayed. After discussing it a little with each other, and disagreeing a little about the fastest way, they gave me directions for the few remaining miles of my trip.
Both guys were totally hot, with tanned skin and the kind of glossy, skin-tight, zip-up shirts that you only see at gay bars—shirts that revealed tight abs, well-sculpted chests, and well-toned biceps. Their nelly voices put me off a little at first, but they were friendly as could be, and gorgeous as could be, so I quickly overcame that prejudice.
They gave me easy directions, both having apparently lived in New Orleans all their lives. I wanted to ask them more, like questions about the bar, about being gay, and about their relationship. But such questions would have to wait, and I figured they wanted to get on home and be alone together; at least, I knew I would be in a hurry to get alone with either of them!
As I drove on over to my aunt’s house, I imagined those beautiful young lovers holding each other in a passionate embrace, and wondered how it felt to touch another man that way. But a street sign at a red light disrupted my fantasies.
When the light changed, I turned left, then left again at a donut shop one of gorgeous guides had mentioned. From there, I soon reached my aunt’s street. Taking advantage of the many streetlights, I watched the numbers carefully as they counted down to her address. Then I found it!
I pulled up in the drive, behind a car that I assumed to be my aunt’s. She always drove luxury cars, which is what that one looked like. I really couldn’t see very well, though, because the three nearest streetlights were burned out. I mean, it was the darkest area I’d seen since reaching New Orleans!
Not wanting to wake up my aunt so early, I thought maybe I should just take a nap in the car, or maybe even drive around a little more, until daylight. But I saw someone walk out onto the porch next door, setting a lit kerosene lamp down near the steps. I thought, Great! He probably thinks I’m a prowler.
Right away, I noticed the man’s quiet, gentle approach; it seemed like he was worried about scaring me or waking up the neighborhood. But if he thought I was there to cause trouble, wouldn’t he want to get everyone’s attention?
That question faded as I noticed other things about the quietly approaching stranger. For one thing, he was just wearing a pair of bluish white boxers and a white, V-neck undershirt. He looked well-toned and muscular, like many of the farm boys and football players back home—guys I had ogled and fantasized about, but never dared touch. I wanted to touch this guy. A total stranger in the dark of night who probably wanted to put me on notice…and I wanted to touch him!
When he leaned into my window, I could see his busy red eyebrows and his red crew cut. Freckles darted across a wide nose and up to the most gentle, beautiful green eyes I’ve ever seen. The hint of a morning beard graced his pale, well-sculpted face, and I guessed he was around thirty, or maybe closer to thirty-five.
His cologne, unfamiliar but enticing, filled the car with its sweetness as he whispered to me. “Why are you out here?”
Stunned, I replied, “I’m sorry. My—“
He interrupted before I could explain. “Please come inside. This is our only chance.”
The expression on his beautiful face begged me to go along with his forward invitation. It seemed okay somehow and, like I said, I wanted to touch him. He whispered into my ear, “It’ll be daylight before long. Please, I need to hold you.”
Now I know that I should have been totally freaked out, and I was in a way. But I knew we both wanted the same thing, and I had all that time to kill! So why not?
While I pulled the keys from the ignition and shoved them into my pocket, trying to control the shaking in my hands, he opened the car door. I rolled up the window and got out. He pressed the lock down and gently pushed the door shut behind me.
As he led me inside his home, I started to ask his name, but he touched my lips to quiet me. I loved his touch, the feeling of his fingertip on my lips. It sent ripples of warmth through my body and felt strangely familiar. Since I had never dared act on my feelings for men before, I couldn’t think of why that touch seemed familiar, but I didn’t care. His fingers dropped from my face to the palm of my left hand.
We held hands as he led me through the darkened house, around furniture, through a hallway, and into what looked like a bedroom. Even with my eyes trying to adjust, I could barely see, and I was glad he knew his place so well.
“Can’t we turn on any lights?” I asked, as he stopped on a king-sized bed and helped me sit down on a thick, velvety blanket.
“The power isn’t working,” he replied, stroking my hair.
“You didn’t pay the bill?”
“Not for a long time. I’m not even supposed to be here anymore.”
I loved the way he caressed my hair, and my hands started exploring the rippling muscles of his hard chest through that tight undershirt of his, but he really was freaking me out at that point. “What do you mean?”
When he kissed me on the lips, all my fears and questions disappeared. I had kissed girls a bunch of times, but it never felt anything like that! His thick lips sent passion and electricity into my blood, and I felt my manhood tensing, rising.
We pushed and pulled our way out of our garments and lay down, kissing and embracing. I reached down to feel the heat of his organ, thick and fully erect. I had never touched anyone’s but my own, and it felt great, but he pulled my hand back up to his chest.
“There isn’t time,” he whispered. “I just need you to hold my naked body against yours, so I can feel alive again.”
“Why wouldn’t you feel alive?”
Again, he silenced me with a kiss, and I squeezed his hard, perfect body—letting his unusual cologne fill my nostrils, and letting our bodies melt together.
That moment slowly faded as I felt big, strong arms shaking me, but it wasn’t my aunt’s beautiful neighbor. It was a middle-aged black man, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, and a hard hat.
The hard hat made me wonder more than anything else. Then I wondered why I was lying on the floor. What had happened to the bed, and the other furniture? The house looked torn up, and long abandoned. The floors were dusty and stripped of carpeting, with just a few patches of torn carpet caught in staples here and there. The walls were barren, except for cobwebs. The morning shone through a broken pane glass window, with a wasp flying against the glass, trying to find its way back out.
The next thing I wondered about was the most obvious thing. What had happened
to the beautiful red-haired man who had invited me to the bed that was no longer
Was the black man a mover, and had he moved everything out from around me, and under me? I’m a heavy sleeper, but I would have noticed if someone pulled a bed out from under me!
“I said wake up, son,” the black man insisted. “We’re gonna bulldoze this place in about two seconds, and I damn sure don’t wanna be inside when it happens. I don’t think you should be either.”
“Damn it!” he exclaimed, before scooping me up in his big arms and quickly dragging me outside. I managed to regain my footing as we got out the front door. “It’s clear now!” he shouted, and I saw a large bulldozer coming our way. We ran down the steps together.
As the bulldozer crashed through the “condemned” signs, into the dilapidated building, my rescuer looked me sternly in the eyes. “Look, buddy, those old abandoned houses aren’t safe. You’ve got crack dealers and all kinds of other folk that would just as soon cut your throat as look at you. Did you run away from home or something? You don’t look like you’ve been on the streets long.”
Before I could answer my muscular—and somewhat handsome—rescuer, the house collapsed from the bulldozer’s continued penetration, letting loose a clouds of dust and debris. After all of that settled, I gestured at my car. “That’s mine. Thanks for saving me, but I just got mixed up. My aunt lives right there.”
He didn’t seem to believe me, but I went and knocked on my aunt’s door. She had been making breakfast, with her favorite morning news program turned up loud enough to drown out the noise next door. After apologizing for the volume and turning it back down, she hugged me and insisted on cooking extra. Besides her hair turning white and the fact that I had never seen her in a bathrobe before, she looked about the same as I remembered.
When we sat down for the coffee, bacon, and French toast she fixed me, I asked her about the house being torn down.
“It’s probably for the best,” she told me, while spreading apple butter on her French toast. “People have been saying that house is haunted for years, and no one has lived there very long since…well, you know.”
“No I don’t.”
She dropped her knife on the table, her face stretching out in shock. “You’re a grown man, and your mother still never told you?”
“Never told me what?” This was too much! I hadn’t even caught my breath, or decided if I would tell her about my weird experience, or dream, or sleep walking, or whatever it was. And now Aunt Tess was about to spill the beans about some dark secret that my mother kept from me?
“My daddy used to go to that house all the time. He and the man who lived there were good friends. Some folks starting saying maybe they were more than friends.” She raised her eyebrows suggestively.
“You mean your daddy—my grandpa—was gay?!”
“Oh, yes, it was more than just a rumor. Daddy’s friend was named Reuben Berdeaux. He was a beautiful man, with strong arms and red hair. And he wore the nicest cologne! I wish I would have asked him what it was called and where he got it. I’ve never been able to find it. In fact, I tried to find some for my first husband.”
“Wait,” I said. She had just described the man I saw, the man I held! “What happened to them?”
“One of Reuben’s kin caught them in Reuben’s bed together, and shot them both in the head. Reuben died right away. Daddy wasn’t all there after that, and died before we were grown, just a few years before Mama passed on. Everybody knew all the sordid details. It was a big trial, and a big scandal. That’s why your mama can’t stand to see this neighborhood, or the rest of New Orleans, and why she got out as quick as she could.”
“But you and Grandma stayed?”
“Yeah. Mama had health problems, and I took care of her, just like she had to take care of Daddy during those awful final years of his. She never stopped loving Daddy, and neither did I, but your mother just couldn’t handle the thought of him being gay, or all the stuff that happened because of what Reuben’s cousin did. It was a lot for a sensitive child. I used to resent her for it, but I don’t no more, and I hope you won’t neither.”
Catching my breath, I said, “I haven’t come out to my parents.” I was glad to change the subject, even if it was another unpleasant one.
We returned to our breakfast, but then Aunt Tess warned me, “You might hold off a while on that, but you can tell me anything. Anything!” She lowered her chin and winked at me. “The more amorous, the better!”
I felt myself blushing, and tried to convince myself that Reuben’s hair color was just a coincidence. A lot of people have red hair, even a lot of dream people, and that had to be what my encounter had been. Just a dream. I kept telling myself that, but never fully convinced myself of it.
A few years later, I finally came out to my family. They reacted as badly as I feared, except of course for Jessica. But the others are starting to come around a little in their thinking, and I’ve even convinced Mama to call her sister.
I live right down the road from Aunt Tess these days. A doughnut shop replaced Reuben’s bulldozed home, and I often meet Aunt Tess there for breakfast, sometimes bringing a date along—at her insistence. But we never talk about what happened that strange night when I first went to see her.
This is the first time I’ve ever told anyone my ghost story. I’m still not sure what really happened. You can decide for yourself.
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