–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

An Ill-Fated Venture

by | Feb 4, 2024

“I gotta’ get out of here for the summer.” 

Gene Lemon gave one more suck on his Newport menthol, before flicking it out of the window.

“You know what I mean?”

We were sitting in Gene’s car, in the Roosevelt Field mall parking lot, after our lunch shift at Houlihan’s. It was the beginning of May, 1988.

“Like, get out to where?” The idea wasn’t well-formed enough for me to have strong feelings about it.

Gene lit another Newport. “Cape Cod.”

“Cape Cod?” I repeated.

“Cape Cod.” Gene was certain.

“What’s in Cape Cod?” I’d never been and only had a vague sense of the place.

“Beaches, seasonal restaurant trade, lobsters and clam chowder, and cooler summers than New York. And no Harvey.” Harvey was the most annoying person working at Houlihan’s. Gene had thought this through.

“So, you have a line on a job there?” I was curious whether beyond Gene’s mental activity, there was an actual plan.

Gene brushed my question aside. “We’ll just drive up and look around. All those places hire for the summer, and we’ll get there right before the season starts.”

Apparently, this venture involved me. “Isn’t it like a seven hour drive?” My enthusiasm was low. 

“Yeah, but it’ll be fun,” Gene said. “Look,” he reached over and pulled a map out of the glove compartment. Pointed to the end of Cape Cod’s long tail, which jutted out into the Atlantic. “Just think about how sweet that drive will be!”

“Provincetown.” I read the tiny print through squinted eyes. “Are there lots of restaurants and bars and stuff?”

“Tons,” Gene assured me. “It’s a major tourist destination.” Gene had this calm, almost West Coast way of talking that made him seem simultaneously relaxed and confident; a slow cadence with drawn out syllables. 

“Alright,” I said, still feeling somewhat reluctant. “When do you want to go?”

“Next Thursday,” Gene straightened himself. “I’m scheduled to work all this week, and I haven’t told Mark yet.” Mark was Houli’s General Manager. “You’ll need to do the same, if you want your job back after the summer’s over.”

“Right.” I hadn’t told Gene – or anyone else – that I wouldn’t be coming back after the summer, since I was starting graduate school. It wasn’t that I was being secretive; just that I saw no point.

“Cool.” Gene prepared to get out of the car, “I’m working a double today. Do you mind getting weed for the trip? I won’t have time.”

“Sure.” I opened the door and got out. “See you later.”

___

“So, he asked you to go with him?” It was four days later, and Christy Minnear had joined me on the weed expedition. We were in my car – well, my mother’s car – and on the Grand Central Parkway, headed west.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘asking’, but yeah.” 

Christy leaned back in the passenger seat, her long red curls spilling around her shoulders and neck. “Sounds like fun. He didn’t invite anyone else?”

“No, just me.” I kept stealing side-glances at her. Christy was a good part of the reason I didn’t want to spend the summer away. She was gorgeous and cool and sexy as hell, and this summer would be my last chance with her, before I headed off to graduate school…and much uglier, lamer people. 

The weed place was a decrepit bodega in the most decrepit part of Queens. We parked, and looking up at the hand-scrawled sign which read “Candy” above the door, I wondered whether anyone ever went there for candy or anything else un-weed-related. Leaving Christy in the car, I entered and noticed the same four, desultory cans of peas that were always on the nearly-empty shelves. Made my way over to the tiny window at the far end of the store, bought two pocketsful of dime bags, and returned to the car. Chucked one at Christy, who quickly rolled it into a joint.

Back at Houlihan’s, I pulled into a spot far from the entrance and facing the opposite direction. Rolled down the windows. Christy finished off the last of the joint and settled back in the seat, eyes closed and sighed contentedly, “Whacked.” 

“Yeah, me too.” I turned on the radio and pushed in the tape that was in the player. It was a Yes mixtape. We both loved Yes.

She lit a Marlboro and inhaled and exhaled with pleasure. Looked at me with turquoise eyes and purred, “That first cigarette after getting high…”

“…is the best.” I let myself luxuriate in everything Christy.

“So, are you prepared for the drive?” She blew a long string of smoke out of the passenger side window. “Isn’t it like ten hours?”

“It’s seven hours.” I was trying not to think about my impending trip, fixating instead on Christy’s lips as she smoked.

“Sucks that you have to drive the whole way.”

My lip fixation was shattered. “What are you talking about?”

“Gene didn’t tell you? He broke his left leg two days ago. Cast up to the knee.” 

“No, he didn’t tell me.” I hadn’t seen Gene since we’d talked about the trip – we had opposing schedules that week – and he wasn’t much for calling on the phone. When he wanted something, he’d just show up at your house.

“Well, he obviously can’t drive like that…,” Christy was messing around with the EQ on the tape deck, “So I figured it’d be on you.”

“Yeah.” I kept it cool, while my heart did a little dance. There was no way my mother would let me take her car for the three or four days the Cape Cod expedition was going to take, and Gene never let anyone else drive his car, so the trip wasn’t happening, and that meant yummy Christy was back on the menu.

“We’ll see what happens, I guess.” I snagged one of her Marlboros and lit up. We sat quietly, smoking and listening to Yes. Life was good.

___

Thursday came around, and I was lazing around in bed. I had the day off, but Christy was working that evening, so I figured I’d go to Houli’s towards the end of her shift and have a few drinks until she got off. Then, the doorbell rang.

It was Gene, with a cast on his leg, crutches under both arms, and a big smile on his face. His white Honda sat in my parents’ driveway.

“You ready, man? This is gonna’ be awesome!”

“Ahhhhh…” I was a bit stupefied, and it took me a few seconds to rally. “How are you driving with a leg in a cast?”

Gene looked confused. “Cast’s on the left leg. You drive with the right leg.”

“But there’s no room for your left leg, with the cast on.” The mental image of Christy I’d been nurturing evaporated, and I felt a rising tide of misery.

“Oh, that’s easy. Look!” Gene sort of vaulted himself to the car, using the crutches; maneuvered into the driver’s seat; closed the door; and stuck the leg with the cast through the open window.

“You’re going to drive like that?” My head was swimming.

“Yes.”

“For seven hours?”

“Yes!” Gene was buoyant. “Ready to go?”

“Just give me a few minutes.” Went back to the house as Gene lit a Newport.

I managed to explain to my parents that I was going to Cape Cod, call Harvey (I know) and get him to cover my shifts for the next few days, pack a bag, and gulp down two cups of coffee in about five minutes. When I got into the passenger seat of Gene’s car, I saw that his ingenuity extended well beyond the idea of driving while sticking his broken leg out of the window.

Using belts and neckties and the handbrake, Gene had improvised a sling which held a large bong. He demonstrated how he could drive and take hits at the same time and gestured towards a half-gallon of water he had put in the back seat which he explained could be used to “refresh” the bong when the water became “fetid.” Somewhat jarred by the sudden turn of events, I just nodded and smiled stupidly.

“And the best part…” Gene brandished a tape recorder that he’d pulled out from somewhere, “…I figured we’d tape our conversations on the trip!” 

I don’t know what it was about the idea of recording our stoned traversal of I95 that pulled me out of the haze I’d drifted into, but something suddenly occurred to me. “Aren’t you concerned about getting pulled over? You know, by the police?” I elongated the last word for effect.

Gene gave a scornful laugh. “No way, man. Cops aren’t interested in some boring Honda Civic going the speed limit in the right lane. Which is what I intend to do.” 

“Don’t you think the sight of your leg in a cast, sticking out of the driver’s side window might attract their attention?” It seemed an obvious point.

“Of course, it is a long trip…” Gene hesitated.

“Yes! Yes?!” I’d broken through.

“We’ll need extra batteries for the tape recorder.” I hadn’t broken through.

“Well then!” Gene clapped his hands. “Allons y!” Apparently, Gene also spoke French. The trip certainly was off to a start.

____

Despite driving up the country’s most heavily traveled road, with Gene’s cast-encrusted leg sticking out the window and a car full of illegal drugs, we weren’t pulled over, arrested, thrown in a dingy jail in rural Connecticut, involved in a multi-car accident, or any of the other things I was certain would happen. In fact, the trip was entirely uneventful. Gene drove with apparent ease, hitting off the bong throughout, and the Northeast corridor seemed to be wholly cop-free that day. We stopped once or twice to get gas, use the bathroom and “refresh” the bong, and we recorded some six hours of conversations about everything from the Calgary Olympics to Perestroika to the jerks of Houlihan’s. The last topic morphed into the girls of Houlihan’s, which I was less enthusiastic about, as a good portion of it was devoted to itemizing all of the people in the restaurant whom Christy had slept with, a group to which I did not belong but to which – much to my dismay – Gene did.  

Once we hit the Cape, the drive became really beautiful and I found myself enjoying it, despite the fact that all the talk about Christy fucking everyone but me had soured my mood. By late afternoon, as the sun set and the sky turned various shades of orange, purple and blue, I started to think that a summer working at a restaurant in Cape Cod might be just what I needed. Sunny beaches, gentle waves, and a fresh start with a new crop of cuties. One last party before graduate school. Things were looking up.

“Alright.” Gene had pulled off the main road onto an exit, which read ‘Provincetown’. “We gotta’ pay attention now. No more bongs until we get there.” He gestured towards the glove compartment, “Get out the map.”

I navigated us through winding roads and a few tricky turns, until we were finally at our destination, the “Sea Breeze” motel, which sat perched on a small rise, overlooking the town and bay. It was spectacular.

We dumped our stuff in the room and smoked a joint, while we sat on the dunes next to the motel. The breeze was cool, the faint sound of the waves lapping down below had a soothing rhythm, and I would have been happy to chill out there and start job hunting in the morning, but Gene wanted to have a couple of drinks and get a sense of what the bar scene was like, so we got back in the car and drove into town.

A place called “The Jolly Fisherman” with a sign sporting a bushy-bearded sailor seemed an inviting place, so we went inside and ordered a few beers. It was a bar/restaurant, with a cheerful nautical décor and a lovely patio on the bay. I imagined myself working there and making out under the moonlight with various undefined girls. 

We’d been sitting and drinking quietly for about twenty minutes, when I began to notice that other than a lone, middle aged woman, who looked like a worn-out Bella Abzug, the clientele and staff seemed to consist entirely of mustachioed men, in the vein of Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck. 

“Gene, there aren’t any girls here.” I kept scanning the room, as if there might be a female patron or employee I’d missed, but there were none. 

Gene was unperturbed. “It’s a Tuesday night. Pre-season. There’s hardly anyone here.” Gene finished his beer and got up. “I’ll get us another round.” He went over to the bar, ordered, and sat chatting with the bartender, as he poured the beers.

I found myself thinking about the odds that not a single person from the fifty percent of the human population that was female had chosen to patronize the Jolly Fisherman that night (Bella Abzug aside), when Gene returned. He had an amused air.

“Well, it seems you were right.” Gene handed me a beer and took a long draught of his own.

“What was I right about?” I was still searching for the elusive female patrons. 

“The lack of girls.” Gene was grinning. “We’re in a gay bar.”

“I knew it!” I put on my most confident expression, despite the fact that I’d known nothing of the sort. Yes, I’d thought there was something weird about the dearth of females in the place, but my slow-moving brain hadn’t arrived at this obvious explanation. “So, let’s go to a non-gay bar.” It seemed very important that I see at least one babe that night.

“About that…” Gene had drifted from mirth to vagueness. 

“Yes?” For some reason, I was still looking around the Jolly Fisherman, as if straight girls might spontaneously appear out of the wood paneling.

“There are no non-gay bars or restaurants,” Gene finished his beer. “Provincetown is exclusively gay.”

“What? The whole town?” I was having difficulty grasping the concept.

“Yes.” Gene lit up a Newport.

“No women, whatsoever?” I took a long drink from my own beer, which until that moment had remained untouched and was a bit lukewarm.

“Some,” Gene blew a stream of smoke up at the ceiling, “but not many. And they’re all lesbians and mostly older.” Suddenly, Bella Abzug made sense. “Still…” Gene brightened, “we can look for jobs. The bartender says the place is packed during the summer.”

“You want to get jobs in a gay town?” I wondered if Gene had lost his mind.

“Why not?” Gene sucked meditatively on his Newport.

“Because I’d like to get laid this summer… I mean, wouldn’t you?” Could Gene possibly be bi? My mind reeled at the thought.

“Eh…” Gene waved his cigarette around. “I’ve had my fill this year. A few months off won’t kill me. Besides, gay people have straight friends, and as the only straight people here we’ll have first and only dibs!” 

I wasn’t nearly as juiced as Gene over the thought of waiting for a good-looking, not old, straight female friend of a gay person to show up one day. “That seems somewhat … low percentage.” At the moment, I couldn’t think of a stronger objection.

“Eh.” Gene was being vague again. “Let’s talk to the bartender about it.” I followed him back to the bar.

“Hey man,” Gene slid into his suave-and-friendly voice. “Are you guys hiring for the summer? We both have extensive restaurant and bar experience.”

“Are we hiring for the summer? Yes.” The bartender’s expression was hard to read. “Are we hiring you for the summer? No.” He wiped a dishcloth across the railing.

“What’s wrong with us?” For some reason, I wanted to know.

The bartender gave a short laugh. “You’re straight; that’s what’s wrong with you.”

“How do you know we’re straight?” I wondered aloud. Gene’s eyes had narrowed during the exchange, as if he was plotting something.

The bartender had concentrated on a spot on the rail that he kept rubbing with his cloth. Peered at us over his glasses. “How do I know? You’re joking, right?”

Gene sprang his trap. “Is it legal to deny someone employment for being straight?” The question had a triumphant flourish to it.

“Well, I really don’t know.” The bartender pondered the question. “If we do, what are you going to do about it?” He didn’t look very worried.

Gene raised his finger, as if about to deliver the coup de grace, but I grabbed his arm, preventing him from completing the motion. “Just give us a minute.” I dragged him back to our table.

“What the hell is up with you?” I’d found my mojo.

“What they’re doing is illegal,” Gene was indignant. “They can’t deny us employment because we’re straight.” 

“They can do whatever the fuck they want, unless you’re gonna’ sue them. And I happen to know that you don’t have two dimes to rub together.” The stupidity of the entire venture was dawning on me now, and I was pissed. “Anyway, do you really want a job here so badly? You want to spend an entire summer surrounded by dicks and mustaches?”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Gene’s typically mild and vaguely distracted countenance had returned. He’d clearly dropped this plan and was already on to something else.

“Thank god.” I felt myself decompressing. “So we can head back to NY?” I was trying to remember Christy’s schedule for the week, as I intended to resume that project as soon as we returned.

Gene nodded and lit another cigarette. “Let’s go back tomorrow.” He looked at me thoughtfully. “You know what? Maybe I haven’t had my fill yet. I think I’ll have another go with Christy. She hit me up last week, but I told her we were gonna’ be in Cape Cod.” He gave a little laugh and slapped me on the shoulder. “Funny, right?”

“Yeah, hilarious.” My misery had returned.

“Bongs ahoy!” Gene raised his empty beer glass in one hand and the tape recorder in another. “So, what are we gonna’ talk about on the drive back?”

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