Joyland

The Midwest |

Variety and Illusion

by Lyndsey Ellis

Theo found Alex’s house around sunrise and pissed on the porch. He watched steam rise from his splashes on the cobblestone steps, not stopping or looking up when he heard the blinds shuffling from inside a room on the first floor.

“What the hell are you doing?!”

Alex emerged from the house’s custom-made entry doors, his slippers clacking against the concrete and his gray robe stirring behind him in the wind. He stopped inches away from the growing puddle, a cloud of horror and confusion thawing the anger on his face. The shrill voices of young children floated from the house’s open entryway.

“It’s okay, kids!” Alex yelled, and positioned his body directly in front of Theo’s to block his exposed flesh from sight. “Daddy’s just talking to a friend. Stay inside and help Mommy with breakfast.”

Theo shook himself and zipped his pants as Alex removed a cordless phone from his robe’s pocket and held it up between them.

“You have 10 seconds to get your ass off my property.”

“Or what, man?” Theo said, unmoved. “You’ll do more damage? Haven’t you done enough? I’m just here to return the favor.”

“Get the fuck out of here,” Alex growled. “I’m not going to say it again.

“Alex,” Theo said in his best whiny voice. “I thought we were friends. Boys. Homies. You’d really call the cops on me? This thing you’ve got for smearing my name is getting out of hand.”

“What are you talking about?”

Theo pulled a folded newspaper from a pocket inside his jacket. Just touching it made him nauseated. He threw the paper on the lawn beside them, hoping it would land on the right article. It did.

“Look, man,” Alex said, shaking his head. “I’ve been meaning to meet with you. That wasn’t supposed to be out yet. The book’s not even coming out for another few months.”

The book.

Something heavy landed in Theo’s stomach. Up until then, he hadn’t publicly acknowledged the claims about published material that was out there somewhere, being printed and eventually pushed out into the world. Rumors, he knew, came fast in this business. The deeper he delved into politics, the more false fires he had to extinguish, and although the evidence was there, part of him desperately hung onto the idea that this was another false scheme designed to test him. That part of him felt justified in redirecting conversations with his colleagues, hanging up on his publicist, and cursing out his assistant when she gave him the newspaper. It was the part that caused him to drink heavily last night after leaving the office, numbing the dread of having to do what he was doing at Alex’s house, to send the message that Alex’s irresponsibility wouldn’t be tolerated, nor was it impossible to outdo. Now, the admission stood between them on Alex’s porch, invisible but present, waiting for Theo to make his next move.

Theo turned up his collar and mashed a patch of dewy grass near the folded newspaper with his shoe. He felt his lips hardening in the frigid air, licked them, and quickly surveyed the area to check the neighborhood. The street was void and sleek, a frozen black stream separating the rows of brick luxury homes. Above them, the sun was still a youthful peach glow steadily climbing the sky.

“I didn’t mean for you to find out this way, man,” Alex said, tightening the belt on his robe. “Let’s discuss this on Monday. What’s your schedule look like?”

 “You can’t be serious. My ass is on the line and you’re telling me to deal with it during normal business hours.”

“Keep your voice down, okay?”

Alex looked behind him at the open door that echoed babies’ coos and dishes rattling in the kitchen.

“You know I’m suing you for character assault, right?” Theo said, raising his voice louder. “You, your image, and your goddamn gingerbread family won’t have a dime when I’m done.”

Alex came closer, his slippers inches from the puddle of piss on the ground.

“You’re making this bigger than it is. This is my story, my memoir. I didn’t name any names, and I didn’t give any clues, so what’s the issue?”

“High school basketball star? Budding black entrepreneur? City alderman?”

“So, I’ll call my publisher and have them change some things.”

Theo imagined the sweet pain of his fingers breaking as they dove into Alex’s face. He clasped his hands behind him to curb the temptation.

 “You must think I’m a dumb fuck. No way would a publisher change things this late.”

“So what if they don’t,” Alex said, his voice tinged with new anger. “Who do you think you are, man? You think anyone’s gonna give a damn about connecting dots? This is St. Louis. We’re not talking a bestseller here.”

Theo rocked back on his heels, marveled at how his ex-lover could be as naïve as he was brilliant. He was once attracted to the man’s innocence. He knew it was dangerous, but Theo had a fixation for protecting Alex from his own ignorance. Since their introduction, their first drink, their first tangle in bed together, he’d loved Alex through the lens of his first male partner, Pete. 

The resentment was overwhelmingly threefold. One, it forced Theo to realize Pete’s misery which was way ahead of their high school years. Two, recognizing his own history of thoughtlessness sickened him. And now, knowing Alex was like peeling back the worst version of himself—the arrogance, the self-delusion, the exaggerated masculinity—to find, at the core, a person grappling with his denial, dismissing his bisexuality as this thing that men like them just sometimes do.

“Who are men like us?” Theo once asked him.

 “You know,” Alex said airily. “Men who need a little variety.”

Theo couldn’t be mad. Sometimes, for his own sanity, he needed to believe that, too. And, there was no room for judging since he and Alex were different shades of the same cowardice. Regardless of how different their public lives were, they both worked hard to maintain the straight-laced prestige they’d scrupulously built.

So, instead of arguing with Alex, Theo did a line on one of the Maxim magazines sprawled on the table of a hotel room they shared that weekend. Then, he watched his confidante lather his face with shaving cream in front of the mirror, the wedding band on his left hand covered by a dirty Band-Aid.

Looking back, Theo regretted putting up with Alex’s foolishness which became far more exhausting than his vindictiveness. As hurtful as it was, Theo concluded his name must’ve been on Alex’s chopping block for some time now, probably since their messy breakup, if the book was already due for release in the spring. But, he couldn’t understand how anyone would be blind enough to believe it wouldn’t leave the city, especially after last year’s eruptive events.

St. Louis, Theo knew, was deceptive, unassuming. It was small, until it wasn’t anymore. People on the outside thought it was a Midwest relic, known for its arch and not much else, while people on the inside were too busy with their lives to care about things spilling outside of city limits. Still, hearsay was hearsay, and everyone was likely connected to relatives or associates who lived in a popular Sunbelt state or coastal area. 

Theo could’ve moved after graduating from high school, like most of his classmates who were eager to leave their hometown and explore the world. It wasn’t that he didn’t consider it; he just never took the idea of inserting himself into another region seriously. He wasn’t swept away by an urge to meet new people, try different things, taste exotic foods, or any of the stuff that was supposed to make life more interesting. None of it was real to him. St. Louis was far from perfect, but it was his. He decided early on that he’d stay and make a life for himself there.

 It was why Pete loved him, and why Theo hated loving Pete. Big dreamer that Pete was, he always claimed Theo’s steadiness turned him on. Theo remembered laying on Pete’s chest for hours with his Walkman headphones on, liking the way his head bobbed in time to the music while his man flexed his pecks. He wanted to freeze frame those moments. They were enough for him, but then Pete would blab about making it big in some place like New York or Spain, either in basketball or his first love, photography. His talking almost always led to a heated argument before it led to the main thing that brought them together: libido.

“I don’t need this in my life right now, man,” Theo told Alex.

“You never need anything in your life right now.”

There it was. The heartbreak. Alex spat on the ground between them. His saliva landed in Theo’s urine. Theo examined its distorted shape and counted the number of bubbles glistening inside it, anything to avoid the torment in Alex’s eyes. 

To his advantage,—and later, his detriment—a ruined adolescence had taught Theo caution. Certain rules needed to be followed to exist underneath people’s interest. For this reason, Theo was proud he wasn’t a good-looking man, not in a charming, robust way like his father. He had Sir’s clef chin and some of his stubbornness. That was it. He was never crushed on in grade school and never had to indulge in the silliness of puppy love. In junior high, he was terrified, and secretive, of his own indifference to the pecks growing beneath the braless shirts of girls he’d grown up with, or the sweaty camel toes inside their leggings on hot, summer days.

He ate pussy in his high school’s locker room once out of boredom after ditching detention with a girl from his shop class. She was average-looking like he was and hid her brilliance underneath her nasty girl reputation. She made herself horny bragging to Theo about her sex with Pete. Theo was hard from listening, but wouldn’t stick it in when she slid off her panties. He looked at the girl, lying there on the rickety bench, with a skirt around her waist and her legs open. She smelled tart, like old soap. The meat softened between his own legs as the wet pink of her middle stared back at him. He warned the girl they’d get caught if he humped her on the noisy bench and pulled her thighs close to his face.

In those moments, Sir always came to mind. Theo could feel his father scowling at his hesitation, pointing out what he failed to do, laughing at his clumsy manhood. It hurled him back into memories that he couldn’t outgrow, like when his father made him wear one of his mother’s wigs as punishment for not returning a girl’s kiss in their church’s basement one Easter Sunday. Or, when Theo got the air knocked out of him for trying to hold his father’s hand as they crossed the street. He must’ve been five years old then, with eyes only for jawbreakers and action figure toys. He couldn’t shake off the hostility clouding Sir’s face and the power of his disappointment spreading in Theo like serum trapped in his little veins, even as the pain in his crushed chest wore off.

Theo felt Sir’s poison resurrect itself in his body after his first kiss with Pete. The night they were caught, his father’s toxins screamed inside of him when the flashlights spilled through Pete’s car windows, bounced out of Theo’s pores as he struggled to get his clothes on in the backseat, and traced the disgusted smirks on the officers’ lips.

 “How did you really think all this was going to play out?” Theo asked.

Alex laughed, his voice cracking.

 “You can’t even say it, can you?”

“Say what?”

“Was I supposed to just go away? Pretend it never happened?”

“That was the idea. You’re the family man, right?”

“You’re a cold motherfucker, man.”

A lawn mower roaring in the distance came closer. Alex’s mouth started moving again, spewing words, and Theo was glad he couldn’t hear them. He paced to calm his nerves and to see if they were drawing attention. Then, he nodded hello to the man on the riding mower next door when they made eye contact, returned to his car, and left.



Justine answered the door after the first knock, holding a creased magazine to her chest.

“I know I taught you about coming by folks’ house unannounced,” she said, stepping aside to let Theo in. He stood there for a second, like he always did, tracing the iron swirls on the screen door with his eyes, waiting for the familiar dread clenching his stomach to loosen. He was relieved, and ashamed, when the weight dissolved from the comfort of remembering Sir was dead.

“You must’ve been hoping I wasn’t here again,” Justine mumbled, closing the door behind him.

Inside, it smelled like sweat, washing powder, and something sweet baking. Theo sat on a leg of his mother’s living room sofa, one of the only areas not covered in house junk. He scanned Justine as she placed the magazine in an uncluttered spot on the end table. She had on a floral duster, but her silver ringlets were wound into a neat bun at the top of her head, and her honey brown face seemed to pop out at him. He rose again, realizing she had on make-up. 

 “You look nice, Ma. Going out with Rita soon?”

 “Does it look like it?” Justine asked, holding her arms out at the mound of clothing, papers and knick-knacks. “She’s the last person I’m in the mood for today.”

Theo followed her into the kitchen and stood against the wall between the table and the door. From the small window over the sink, he could see inside Sir’s old bedroom next door. It looked the opposite of Justine’s house: stark and abandoned. With the exception of the drawn curtain and opened pane, everything was the way his father had left it, from the bed linen to the Old Spice bottles neatly lined against the mirror on the dresser. 

“For all her freedom fighter antics, your sister can be the biggest wimp,” Justine said when she caught Theo eyeing the space. “She barely goes in there. I walked into an oven when we donated the last of his shoes the other day and finally convinced her to let the room breathe while there’s still a nip in the air. Her broke ass can barely afford caulk for the bathroom, much less new wallpaper.”

Theo chuckled, more out of disgust than amusement. How ironic, he thought, that Raynah, Sir’s favorite—his Golden child—was living out her days as a washed up intellectual who couldn’t pay her bills on time. Sure, she’d given him and Justine their only surviving grandbaby, but even with that, she proved to be thoughtless and irresponsible. Save for the property she’d inherited, she had nothing going for her but her Black pride babble.

“It’s not too late to sell the house,” Theo said.

Justine wiped the table with a damp dishrag.

“You sound like Lois.”

“Is that supposed to be an insult?” asked Theo.

“It is, if you’re okay with getting rid of something your father worked hard for.”

Theo stuffed his hands in his pockets and let the back of his head bump against the wall. He knew his opinion didn’t matter when it came to Sir’s property, and he didn’t really care to have one, as long as he’d stayed away. Still, it was pitiful and exhausting to see Justine side with a dead man who’d moved out of the house they’d shared for four decades just to get away from her. Even worse, his father had moved next door to keep tabs on her and have access to familiar booty whenever it occurred to him that he was still married.

The busy spell that overtook his mother after the funeral meant nothing. It was a cover-up, like the make-up Sir once banned, now defiantly smeared all over her face. Justine could throw out every stitch the man owned and attend every elders’ support group, or wherever Rita was dragging her to these days, but she was still a black smudge under his father’s rotting thumb. Sir was very much alive, in Justine’s head, and she seemed content with being strung along.

“You run into Ms. Beth lately?” she asked him, and raised her drawn on eyebrows.

Theo shook his head, politely taking the punch. Justine was a fool, but she was no dummy. She was always good at seeing into him, and everyone else, and she wasted no time pulling off scabs when she felt she was being silently judged.

“That’s too bad,” she said. “She should hear about your father directly from you and not someone else. The girl put you through school. At least you could call her.”

“Yeah maybe I will,” Theo lied. He willed himself to look at his mother again as she smiled at him sweetly, draped the dishrag over her shoulder, and sat down at the table.

Justine never liked Beth. Theo remembered how childish she acted, covering her ears and whining to Sir about her migraine as he broke the news to them about his engagement to a woman who was 13 years his senior and happened to be a successful lawyer. Surprisingly, Sir gave his blessing, and Theo thought he’d never be happier to be on the inside of his father’s approval.

Justine, on the other hand, grew into a ball of hatred designed to destroy Beth, first, with her indifference and then, with her sharp tongue which knew no boundaries. By the day of the wedding, she’d resorted to sabotage, showing up late and drunk to the ceremony and spilling punch down the back of Beth’s dress at the reception.

Beth had her own peppery personality, but she handled Justine with sympathy and respect. To her credit, she put up with a lot of things because she loved Theo. He didn’t love her back—not in the same way—and didn’t know a man in his right mind who’d marry her in his early twenties, but he did it anyway, mostly to kill the rumors surrounding him after Pete’s death.

 By then, he’d been scared into only dating girls and liking it. Most of them were predictable and not as discreet as he would’ve preferred, but he was lonely with hormones that defied his caged heart. When Theo met Beth in passing at a construction site he was working on, he suspected she was more experienced, but never imagined she’d turn into anything more than a bed buddy.

Despite the age difference, he quickly learned they shared a lot of commonalities. Like Theo, Beth was the youngest of her siblings and a loner, addicted to CNN and pixie sticks. She was carefree, but ambitious, and wasn’t interested in playing the mind games he associated with females. She wasn’t self-conscious about her midnight skin or her lisp, and she had a mole in the middle of her chin that he liked to trace with his tongue. Just her smell—Nivea and cinnamon-flavored gum—kept his dick hard. 

Theo knew he’d ask Beth to be his wife when he woke up one morning with her name on his mouth. What he didn’t know was how impossible it was to live with someone he was waiting to love. Within three years of their marriage, Beth had enrolled Theo in business courses at night school and funded the launch of his construction business, but there was little else he enjoyed. He could never shake the disgust gripping him when she cuddled next to him on the sofa. Or, the fury of seeing tampon tubes resting in their bathroom’s trash can every month. Or, the hopelessness surrounding him when she showed him the positive pregnancy test.

Beth wasn’t the clingy type, with a flourishing career that kept her busy, but as the youngest to make partner at her law firm, she also faced physical difficulties, being a first-time expectant mother in her mid-thirties. She wasn’t close to any of her rural Kentucky-based relatives, and Theo soon found himself alone in her web of panic and despair. Sir would’ve knocked his balls off if Theo expressed his regrets to him, and there was no use asking a spiteful Justine for support. Raynah was still trying to reinvent herself in California, and his darling Lois—the ‘little, big sister’, as he affectionately called her, the only one in his corner during their teenage years—was in her own struggle, a single mother abandoned by Pete’s baby brother and Theo’s former best friend, Tony, who’d also flocked to the west coast in search of his sanity after Pete’s death.

Everyone was unavailable at the time, so Theo dealt with Beth for a torturous four and half months, hating her and his unborn. He didn’t want a boy or a girl. He feared what the world expected of them and the horror his child would face if he or she couldn’t measure up to the standards that society felt compelled to set.

And, what if the baby turned out like him? The real him.

The question ate at him as he found it harder to bury his secret cravings, his resentment of Beth, and his anger for letting himself get caught in the snare of her fairy tale life. He began wishing her womb away every time he passed by the ultrasound photo on the fridge and confronted his failure to be the man she needed.

As his wife’s baby bump grew bigger, so did her health complications, and Theo wished harder, praying to a God he’d given up after Pete’s death. He encouraged Beth’s determination to keep working, knowing it would add pressure. He imagined a random vitamin deficiency or bacterial infection. During the day, he fantasized about the possibilities and at night, dreamed of Pete’s crushed skull on the train tracks, white bone replacing his love’s lustrous jheri curl and a hollow heart where the kingly, broad nose should’ve been. When he woke, he nearly always relieved himself by fucking Beth in the ass. And, when that was over, he faced the wall away from his wife, too exhausted by guilt to sleep.

There really was a God because the news came one day, just like that. Theo rushed to the ER when he got the call about a tumble in their garage. Sobbing, he kicked off his work boots and let Beth hold him in her tiny hospital bed. He kept one hand on her protruding stomach, not totally convinced it wasn’t a trick until the doctor assured the bulge would eventually disappear.

“We’ll try again,” he whispered, recounting where he’d hid the divorce papers in his mind, but Beth saved him the agony of having a breakup talk. She had the locks changed on Theo the following month after receiving a Happy Mother’s Day card from Justine in the mail. 

“You should,” Justine repeated with authority, her eyes blazing into Theo’s. “The last thing you need is a reason to make her more bitter.” 

“Got it, Ma. Can we drop it already? That’s not why I’m here.”

“Right,” said Justine, checking on the dish in her oven. “So, why are you here, son?”

Theo ground his teeth. He didn’t know why he was there. Maybe it was a kneejerk reaction after yesterday morning’s bullshit. Maybe he needed the rare, twisted comfort his mother and his childhood home still gave him. Or, maybe he was just putting off the humiliation of realizing he’d left the damn newspaper article at Alex’s house while on his way to the gym to go burn off steam.

Thoughts about the article dragged his heart up his throat again. What would he do, or say, when the book came out? It was unlikely that Justine would read it—the only things in print that she cared about was the newspaper’s obituary section and her magazines and coupon books—but public commentary would spread as people drew inferences. He’d re-live his shame when chatter about Pete erupted. And, like then, his mother would make things worse by never asking him about it directly and stiffening her jaw in contempt when he came around like everyone else did. Only this time, she couldn’t hide behind Sir; she’d have to own her own hatred.

“I just stopped by to say hi,” he said.

Justine hooted as she set the pound cake on top of the stove to cool.

“That’s a first,” she said. “To what do I owe this honor?”

Before Theo could respond, she stepped back and pointed to her face.

“The one time you don’t show up with your camera crew or a lover, I wear make-up. Irony’s some bastard. Have a seat.”

Theo sniggered, resisting the urge to turn down his mother. He wanted to ask about the make-up, and why today, but didn’t. She really did look pretty.