The transformation from Miss Mocha Chocolata to Mr. Lester Lawrence was instantaneous and all about the eyes. Just one swipe of a wet towel across the face and Detroit’s plus celebré gender-bender became unbent, so to speak. The change happened last, when all that remained was the corset, the make-up and the mirror. Even then—amber wig off the head, tonight’s choice of outfit in a heap in the corner, heels kicked under the desk—you would have sworn he was a woman. And a beautiful one at that.
Perhaps it really was the eyes, only the eyes. He’d always been told he had pretty eyes—a sharp leprechaun green creating dissonance like a jazz record against his Hershey Bar skin. Everyone thought they were contacts, nowadays.
Mocha grabbed a handful of tissues from the box on the desk in front of her. Before her, the bulb of one the lamps clipped to her mirror had burned out. Her gold-tipped fingers set off icicle shadows from the remaining light. She scratched her stomach through the dingy corset, still damp and musty with sweat, and sat back, letting the hand with the tissues fall to her lap. Lester was always sad to see her go; every night a little piece of him went missing. He never quite understood what it was that made Mocha so pretty, but he sure as hell loved it. And he loved her; they all did. She pawed at her lips with the tissue, which was already tearing in her hand. Little by little, tonight’s ill-chosen hot pink gave way to a more sedate rose color. Dusty Rose. Just like what he wore on regular days, when Lester needed augmentation and Mocha needed her beauty sleep. Goodbye lips. She tossed the tissues in the trash and reached around behind her back.
Ginger Vitis had a dresser, she thought bitterly, but Ginger was in P-Town, not Detroit, and had had the guts to stay there even when things got shitty. Out there on the street like a carnival barker Ginger sold her act nightly. And for her efforts the Fates rewarded her with a real dressing room and a dresser. Now there was a queen who roared, Mocha thought as her thick fingers fumbled with the knotted corset strings. Like a lion ruling over the Provincetown jungle. No matter how much of a woman you were, a drag queen still needed balls. Mocha yanked at the knot, tied over-zealously back long ago, when the night was young.
Aside from by looking at a clock, you wouldn’t have any idea that the sun was about to rise above the earth when Mocha Chocolata left the stage to call it a night. The cramped dressing room in the back of the bar had no windows, its one opening to the world outside having been painted over in black years ago. What was left was a nappy lime green shag rug, two folding chairs—one in the corner, one at the chipped wooden desk—a mirror with two clip-on lamps on the sides propped atop the desk and a hook, hidden on the wall in the decades’ worth of creatively obscene graffiti. In 1998, after being granted sole use of the room by the bar’s owner, Lester took the liberty of writing “Home, Sweet Home” in a free space above the door.
Now, with another Saturday Night Special behind her, Mocha sat alone before the mirror, her back to the door that fought against the dying sounds of the bar. The trembling bass line still invaded the space through every opening—the keyhole, the cracks in between the floorboards, the chips in the paint, the holes in the wall that once held tacks. The pervasive thump swelled up and surged forth at every point, even at this late hour. People were still outside, there was still dancing to be done, songs to be played. And inside the small room, sitting at the desk, Mocha was reminded at every moment of all that was happening outside. The driving, steady rumble set everything off-kilter within the dark space. The lamps shook just barely, giving Mocha’s reflection a blurred and unfamiliar look; occasionally the chair in the corner would tap out the beat for a second or two before coming to a rest. The shelf on the wall beside the door also shook and the two figurines that sat on top of it had to cling to each other for stability.
Far away in another place and another time, far from the world of Mocha and the Saturday Night Special, Mrs. Plucart and Mrs. Davenrow were sitting down to afternoon tea. The Sweet Cinnamon Sticks—an experimental recipe Mrs. Plucart had attempted earlier that afternoon—rustled like crinoline as Mrs. Davenrow took a tiny bite. Somewhere in the world, Mrs. Davenrow raised the ring finger of her left hand to the corner of her mouth to catch a falling crumb before sharing an appreciative smile with her companion.
“Simply splendid,” said she.
The two women sat on the veranda, the sun gracing them with a warm and goodly light. Their white dresses glowed honey-colored and their cheeks were touched with a healthy pink gleam. It was balmy, as August will be, but not nearly hot enough to cause perspiration. Nevertheless, Mrs. Davenrow dabbed at her neck twice with an embroidered handkerchief. Mrs. Plucart, eyes shaded by a magnificent new white hat with a brim that dipped over her graceful features, breathed deeply of the fertile air and cast a smile at Mrs. Davenrow.
“I glad you like them,” Mrs. Plucart said.
“They’re marvelous,” said Mrs. Davenrow.
The ice tinkled in Mrs. Plucart’s Waterford crystal glasses as she and Mrs. Davenrow both raised them to their lips and drank of the freshly squeezed lemonade. Earlier they had been speaking of current events.
“Quite a world we’re living in,” said Mrs. Davenrow.
“I can hardly imagine a worse state of things,” said Mrs. Plucart.
“It nearly stops the heart.” Mrs. Davenrow shook her head, looking out into the distance. The place where the trees met the sky was alive with activity. Birds, birds that looked like crows were taking off and setting down at a constant pace. Their bodies sprang into the air and fell back like so many stray leaves tossed by the wind of a building summer storm. They moved with furious purpose, often alighting from one place only to take hold of a nearby branch seconds later. The trees were full of these creatures, and they were all moving. Mrs. Davenrow imagined that there must have been quite a cacophony associated with the display, but her ears heard nothing.
Somewhere in the world, on the cool metal surface of a table, atop a lace coaster, lemonade in a Waterford glass began to perspire; a bead of water rolled down the side and seeped into the cloth beneath.
Mocha untangled the knotted corset strings and pulled them loose through the holes in the back. The heavy creature expanded slightly and nestled into her lap. Air rushed in at all sides, cooling the beads of sweat that gathered in the crevices of her torso. Again she scratched her stomach. Sitting only in underwear and a corset, the pungent odor of a night’s work rose to her nostrils. The whole room smelled like sweat, and worse. The air itself was fetid. She looked around and again cursed the sealed window and the cramped space. She couldn’t even fart in there without suffocating, she thought. Shithole. At least there weren’t rodents. Thank God for small miracles. Absent-mindedly, as she scanned the floor, she ran her hand over her bare thigh, enjoying the prick of the spiky hairs that poked out from her skin. Time for a wax.
She leaned forward and scratched her back, loosening the corset and letting it fall to the side of the desk. She never felt like her breasts were gone until the corset came off, even though she took off her bra and its contents soon after her clothes. Now she felt her chest as if for the first time. Spiky hairs made their presence known here, too, appearing all over the surface of the skin sticky and salty with dried sweat. She cupped her small pectoral muscles and tried to shake them, instead just running her hands up and down her chest. Hands flush against her body, she stopped for a moment and peered down at the corset, lying open on the floor.
Three sharp raps pierced the low mumble of the beat invading from outside.
“Who is it?” She called.
Julio opened the door and stood in the doorway. With him, the flood of music came rushing in, too.
“Dammit, trick, I said ‘Who is it’ not ‘Come the fuck in!’ Close the damn door behind you.”
“It’s me,” Julio said, trying to muster a smirk through a coke haze. He stepped in, closed the door and stood, arms akimbo, beneath the shelf. He wore only boots, a do-rag and a strategically-placed spandex sock.
“Well, what do you want? I’m all naked.”
“You got a visitor,” Julio said, crossing his arms.
“Who is it?”
“Okay. What’s she want?”
“Fuck if I know.”
“Dammit, ho, what she say? What the hell good are you if can’t even take a Ms. Message.”
“Fuck you, Mocha, I ain’t your secretary. She just come in here saying she looking for you. I was on break. What do you want?”
“Fine, fine.” Mocha got up and bent over the pile of clothing on the floor. “Stop looking at my ass.”
Mocha turned from riffling through the clothes and glared at Julio, whose half-closed eyes remained resting on her lower end. “Please, trick, keep dreaming.” She turned back to the clothes and came out with a towel. With flourish she pulled it around herself at the waist and tucked it in. “Send her in, whoever the hell she is.”
Julio opened the door again and exited, this time leaving it ajar. The mirrorball outside sprinkled a dandruff of light across the floor in the dingy room. Sitting on the desk in a towel, Mocha stared at the squares of light. It seemed as if any moment Diontay would come in with his broom and his shiny pecs to sweep up the detritus of a spent Saturday night and the sparkles would disappear with him. They seemed like magic to her, something belonging only inside those walls, to vanish at the daylight. But Diontay did not appear and the gray-white squares remained as the music poured in from outside.
“Lester?” The voice was familiar but Mocha could not trace it. In the split second between the time that she heard his name being called and when she looked up from the floor, she searched her memory but came up with only ghosts and shadows, no names. The woman stood in the doorway; her overcoat draped over one arm, a crinkled Macy’s bag on the other. She had deep dark skin and a head of silky hair that had once belonged to another woman. She wore pleated khakis and brown flats, a brown blouse and a small gold chain. She stared at Mocha with a mix of attentive concern and sickness.
“My God,” Mocha said. “Mama…”
On the shelf, the dolls clung to each other all the more tightly. The woman stepped in and closed the door as the two serious ladies above, plastic of face, polyester of dress, flaxen-haired with dainty hands, stared down at her. They had the same soft body beneath a respectable dresses, nearly identical. The only way to tell their pale skins and pink-painted lips apart was that one had a wide-brimmed white hat and one did not. Lester had lost it years ago. They wore the same white dress and the same tiny white shoes. Their faces had the same placid expression and they were the same size, though one fell against the other, giving the impression that it was smaller.
The woman at the door licked her lips, painted deep purple. She opened them, but no words came out. She grimaced and clucked her tongue. Mocha could do nothing but stare. She, too, opened her lips, but found nothing to say. The woman’s eyes drifted around the room, at Mocha’s near-naked body and the dirty towel that covered it, at the mass of clothing dumped in the corner, at the desk, and the graffiti—limericks about oral sex and phone numbers long ago changed, cancelled, reassigned. Her eyes came to rest on the vacant folding chair in the corner that didn’t hold the clothes. Mocha followed her gaze and quickly sprang from the desk. The woman clutched her coat tighter and stepped back, watching as Mocha breezed by and yanked the chair from its place. She set it down in front of the woman, turned at an odd angle, facing the wall. Mocha looked down into the woman’s eyes. The woman blinked and turned the chair slightly, taking a seat and spreading her coat across her lap. Mocha remained standing, lost in the tiny room. The smell of body odor mingled with a familiar perfume and muted traces of talcum powder. The woman removed her hand from beneath the coat and waved it in the direction of the desk. Mocha blinked and stepped back, again coming to rest on the chipped edge.
The two women spoke at the same time.
One: What are you doing here?
The other: Are you wearing lipstick?
And then there was silence.
The older woman shifted in her chair; it creaked. The ladies on the shelf, terrified by the sharp noise, tore their eyes off of each other and peered down at the events below. Mocha had brought her hand to her lips, but paused before touching them.
The older woman was the first speak: “I waited all night at your apartment. The girl told me where to go to find you. I wasn’t going to sleep… I didn’t know where.”
Mocha could do nothing but look.
“I didn’t expect to be in town, but I got here this evening. I would have called… My connecting flight was cancelled, see.” She shifted her eyes from Mocha and refocused them on the soft camel-skin that draped her lap. In the silence, the two serious ladies murmured words of comfort to each other.
“Shall we go to the store?” Mrs. Davenrow asked.
“Don’t lets go yet,” Mrs. Plucart said. “It is far too lovely a day to be inside.” Mrs. Plucart picked up her glass; it was wet to her touch and she recoiled. She tasted the liquid inside timidly, but finding it unchanged, soon drank appreciatively.
Mrs. Davenrow continued to be transfixed by the birds alighting and descending on the cluster of trees in the distance. “Do you see that, Mrs. Plucart?” she asked.
“Pray tell, what, Mrs. Davenrow?”
“In the distance, there, all the birds. Do you see them?”
“I certainly do. It appears they are coming home for the evening, or preparing to, I should say.”
“Do they do this every day?” Mrs. Davenrow asked.
“Why yes, they do,” Mrs. Plucart replied. “It is a harbinger of the dusk. They seem to know that it is coming even before we do.”
“And without the benefit of a watch,” Mrs. Davenrow said with a chuckle. She turned from the trees and looked at Mrs. Plucart, who returned her gaze.
“Would you care for another Cinnamon Stick, Mrs. Davenrow?”
Mrs. Davenrow reached across the table and touched Mrs. Plucart’s hand. “I would love nothing more.”
They began again, the two women in the small room.
“Why did you come?” Mocha asked.
“Are you wearing lipstick?” Mrs. Lawrence asked.
“I was, yes.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Mrs. Lawrence said.
“Why did you come?” Mocha asked.
“Because I love you. And I miss you… sometimes. And sometimes I don’t… I miss us.”
“You miss who you thought we were.”
Mrs. Lawrence paused. “Is that wrong?”
“You’re only fooling yourself.”
“I’m the only one I need to fool.”
“I guess you’re right,” Mocha said, eyes drifting to the two ladies on the shelf. “How long are you in town?”
“Only until tomorrow morning. Or rather, later this morning, I should say.”
“Why’d you come to the club?”
“I told you, I waited all night at the apartment. Shaina told me that you wouldn’t be back before I had to go back to the airport. I wanted to see you. I missed you.”
“Yes, you said that.” Mocha got up and walked over to the pile of clothes. She knelt down and began to search it.
“I’ve never seen the place, either. It’s quite an experience, I must admit.”
“How’d you get in?” Mocha asked without turning around.
“It was a bit of an adventure, I’ll tell you that. I had to show them a photo in my waller prove that I was your mother. Lucky the bouncer knows what you really look like. And the crowd, all those people. It’s quite a madhouse…”
Mocha grunted, not looking up.
“They tell me,” Mrs. Lawrence said, “that I just missed your show. That’s too bad.”
Mocha turned around and let out a laugh. “Right. I’ll bet.” She stood, a pair of jeans in one hand. “You mind if I put some clothes on?”
The other woman looked caught. Her mouth hung upon for a second, before she bunched her coat near her chest and turned slightly away from her son.
“Thanks,” Mocha said as she slid the jeans on beneath her towel, sucked in her stomach to fasten them and took off the towel. She dropped it on the floor beside her. “You can look now.”
Mrs. Lawrence turned back. “Don’t you want to put on a shirt?”
“Right…” Mocha reached down and picked up a small, crumpled blue t-shirt from the ground and slid it over her head.
Mrs. Lawrence shifted in her chair. Mocha moved again to the desk and leaned against it, never taking her eyes off the other woman. The music seemed to have died down outside. The thumping had stopped. Mrs. Lawrence took a breath.
“Last time I was in Detroit, what was it, 5 years ago?”
Mocha simply looked at the woman.
“It was right before your father passed, that’s how I remember.” Mrs. Lawrence continued.
“The Alzheimer’s was getting worse then. He didn’t remember much anymore.” She paused. “I didn’t think… Well, why mince words? I knew it wouldn’t be long.” Mrs. Lawrence looked up at her son. He returned her gaze, emotionless. The older woman thought for a second. “It wasn’t a terrible thing. He wasn’t suffering much, but it wasn’t a good thing either. It’s a quiet madness, Alzheimer’s. The disease. That quiet, it defined our home in those days. We lived mostly in silence. He, afraid to speak. Me, the same. Both of us struck dumb for different reasons with the same thing underneath—we didn’t know who we were anymore.”
“So you thought you’d come see me…” Mocha said.
“I thought you should know.” Mrs. Lawrence stood and placed the coat on the chair. She stood before Mocha for a second and then turned to the door. She surveyed the walls, her eyes pecking across the surface, studying the inscriptions. Rising, her gaze caught the shelf. The ladies clutched each other tighter. Mrs. Lawrence reached up and took one down.
“Sometimes I envy your father for his ignorance. He must have known the real world, somewhere; he must have had some recollection. But as far as I could see, he was oblivious. What I wouldn’t give for that,” she said.
“How long are you… How are you doing now?”
“I’m alive. His ghost is still all over that house. It’s hard to tell the shadows from the light sometimes… Sometimes it’s like nothing ever changed.” Mrs. Lawrence looked up. She knit her brow and cocked her head. “These dolls. What was it… Mrs. P and Mrs. D? I never understood why your aunt gave them to you. Such a terrible gift to give to a little boy. Such a cruel thing to do.” She placed the doll back on the shelf. “This is a small room. I couldn’t survive in here. I’d go crazy. I really would. I just can’t be by myself, that’s what it is. I never could be.”
“Well I like it fine.” Lester paused. “I could come home, if you like. I’ll come home for a little while.”
Mrs. Lawrence turned around and caught her reflection in the mirror. It looked perverse, distorted, like something out of a funhouse. “I’m sorry,” she said. Mocha looked up sharply, a movement in her chest. “Don’t get excited,” Mrs. Lawrence continued. “I’m not done. I’m sorry you seem to be stuck in rebellion.” She moved to the chair and picked up her coat. “I’m sorry you seem to be content on going to Hell.” Again she caught herself in the mirror, now a blur, like a canvas that had been smeared over in frustration. “I’m sorry our lives turned out this way. Because you’re my son and I will always, always love you. But I can’t stand what you’ve become. This shouldn’t hurt you, Lester, because you’ve heard this all before. Maybe not from me, but from your father. And now it’s just the two of us.”
Mocha’s hands trembled as she reached down the desk, not taking an eye off of her mother. She slid open the drawer and withdrew a pack of Camel Lights and a lighter. The runners on the drawer scraped loudly in the still room. Mocha closed it again and the wood met wood with a jarring thud. Mrs. Lawrence looked at her carefully.
“If you’re coming home,” Mrs. Lawrence said, “come as our son.” She turned and touched the shelf again. She shook her head and brought her hand to her mouth. It hurt, barreling through her chest; it came screaming to the surface and nearly knocked her over. She slumped against the wall. Mocha came to her and gingerly grabbed her shoulders.
“Are you okay?” She said.
The two stood still by the wall, the son holding the mother. She turned her head and looked up into his clear, green eyes. Such wisdom, she’d said when he was born, such peace of mind in those eyes. This was the answer. He was to be the savior of them all; their future was in those green eyes. They stared back at her fearfully now. “Are you running from us?” Mrs. Lawrence searched Mocha’s face. “Is that what it is? Are you trying to get away from your father and I?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I know he wasn’t an easy man to live with, but baby he’s been dead for 5 years. Can’t you stop punishing us?”
Mocha let go of her mother’s shoulders and looked at the older woman, mouth agape. Mrs. Lawrence sighed; her chest slumped. Her eyes searched the ground for something to say. “We’re never going to have this conversation, are we?” She asked.
“Lester… Mocha.” She grimaced. “I don’t know how to… I’ve only been a mother once, and I guess I’m still making mistakes. I’m still learning how to do it. I just want to be who you want me to be. But I don’t know who that is, and… it’s eating away at me. Quietly. Like I wouldn’t even know.”
Mrs. Lawrence looked up at Mocha. Mocha returned her gaze. They stared at each other in the silent room.
Mrs. Lawrence parted her lips, but no sound came out…
A bead of sweat rolled down Mocha’s neck and she swiped at it with her fingertips.
The air around them stopped moving and fell to the ground.
Their hearts grew quiet inside their chests.
Noiselessly, they remained alive.
Even the sound of their breathing disappeared until there was nothing left.
Then, in the stillness, that which held them inhaled and broke.
Gently, one woman cleared her throat, and averted her eyes.
The two women stepped back from each other.
Mrs. Lawrence laid her coat across her arm and tossed the hair of her wig, the real hair underneath being pitifully thin and gray. She moved back to the door, placed her hand on the doorknob and opened it. No driving beat came rushing it, no sound at all, except the tinkling of glass. The woman turned back to her son and kissed him hard on the cheek. She stroked his face.
“Please don’t smoke,” she said. “You have such a beautiful voice.”
She released him, turned and walked away.
Somewhere in another place and another time, Mrs. Plucart and Mrs. Davenrow drank the last of their lemonade from sparkling Waterford crystal. The lace coasters lay soaked through with water. They leaked onto the table and rust began to form at the microscopic level.
“I believe we can go to the store now,” Mrs. Plucart said.
“Yes, let’s,” said Mrs. Davenrow. Both women stood, their starched dresses rustling lightly around their smooth legs. Mrs. Davenrow, who did not have a new hat, shielded her eyes with a slender hand. “The sun is magnificent today, isn’t it?” She asked.
“Indeed, it is,” said Mrs. Plucart. “So beautiful and bright. A lovely day for a walk, I’d say.”
“I agree,” said Mrs. Davenrow. “I’ve never seen anything more divine. It’s good to know that there is still beauty in the world.”
Above them the quiet fire burned, a swift and silent blaze consuming space and time. Above them, in the squalid nothingness, where there is no air, there was a low rumbling, a steady hum of darkness burning. The roar of a blazing star swallowing up everything in its path. It destroys all it comes in contact with, suffocating in its brilliant light.
Mrs. Plucart and Mrs. Davenrow descended the front staircase. In the distance, the birds in the trees had suddenly grown still. They sat breast-to-breast, shivering, awaiting the coming of the darkness. In the mad silence, Mrs. Davenrow sensed a muffled rumble rise up around her. She looked up but the birds were still. The shaking persisted. Almost like thunder, she thought. Almost like it, indeed. She raised the index finger of her left hand to a stray hair and swept it back behind her ear. It was nothing more than the wind. After all, the sun was shining.
Mocha watched the empty doorway where her mother had been long after the woman left. She could still feel the touch of her hand on her cheek. Outside, the club was empty now. Diontay was mopping the floor; Julio and the other dancers were nowhere to be seen. All the patrons had gone home, to return when the darkness crept into the streets again. Mocha looked up at the shelf, at Mrs. P and Mrs. D. They sat slumped against each other. She smiled at them and they smiled back. Mocha reached up and fixed Mrs. P’s white hat, which was slightly tilted on her head. The doll smiled graciously, grateful to be set right again. Mocha stepped back and looked at the two beautiful ladies. They would be just waking up now, she thought. The sun would spread across their pillows and they’d awake to a new day. She was tempted to whisper “Good Morning,” but hesitated, lest the ladies decide that Sunday mornings were a fine time to sleep in.
Mocha turned, picked a towel up off the hook and walked to the bar. Perhaps she was imagining it, but it seemed like her mother had grown more timid. Never a woman to shy from conversation, Mrs. Lawrence had seemed changed. Mocha had had to strain to hear her, she realized. Her thoughts turned then to Mrs. P’s porcelain face; it seemed as if a genuine affection had played across her tiny features. This was something she’d never noticed before. She ran the water over her hands and her towel in the sink at the bar. Shutting off the faucet, she shook the excess water from her long, thick fingers. She walked back to her dressing room and sat down before the mirror. Behind her reflection she could see the expanse of the small club. Someone must have propped the front door open because a jagged slash of yellow light cut across the dance floor. It blinked as someone walked by. She returned her focus to her face. The towel was hot in her hand and she brought it up to her eyes, scalding her skin. She let the cloth rest there for a second, feeling the wisps of steam seep into her pores. Then she bunched it up and wiped it down her face in one swift motion. She folded it and wiped it across again. She wiped once, twice, three times more, then laid it to rest in a pile on the desk. Mocha looked up at herself in the mirror. Lester Lawrence stared back. Sad green eyes with bags beneath them, five o’clock shadow and a gap between his two front teeth.
He stood and switched off the lamp. The chair she had sat in remained in the center of the floor. He avoided it. He blew a kiss to his two ladies, peacefully resting in each other’s arms, and left the room. The door clicked closed behind him and he headed out of the club, being consumed as he went by the light.