The Final Acts of Carla St. Claire

 

It was almost 11:00 at night. I wanted to go home and not stand on a box next to a white hot spot light following raggedy female impersonators’ odd and poorly-choreographed  dance/lip-sync routines. It was nearing Christmas, and this was the last show at the club before the holiday the next weekend. The girls put together a special revue. Personally I thought that calling some of the female impersonators girls was pushing the definition a little farther than it could be stretched. They were mostly corn-fed country boys who thought big hair and the ability to walk in high heels made them women, or at least womanly. I was tired; it was almost time to get to the lights; and I really needed to do my algebra homework before Monday morning rolled around. Of course if I told the manager I was only 15 and not 18, I could be home in just a few minutes, but I needed the money. I was saving up for a new car so I wouldn’t have to hitch rides everywhere.

“Nine to Five” was blasting out  from the boom box on Elmer’s make up table,  Dolly Parton’s warbling vocals perfectly but silently mimicked by the fat man at the mirror. The smoke from hundreds of Newport cigarettes clung like a veil to the air and the cheap paneling of the windowless room. It used to be a large storage area when the club had been a warehouse. The day McGee’s Discotheque took over it became the green room for its motley crew of entertainers. One of the girls tacked up several pin ups from an old Blueboy gay porn magazine she found in the owner John McGregor’s office, and another draped some old pink and green scarves around the door frame and mirrors. As Elmer expertly applied the pancake (which the girls all called slap) to his densely dark shaved cheek, he looked at me backwards with his reflection. “Miss Thing, you’re pretty enough to be a real woman. You need to wax that scruffy beard and chest and put on some cha cha heels. You look like a real girl!”

I rolled my eyes and returned his reflected gaze, a sneer involuntarily pushing my lip as if I smelled something bad. He saw my expression and began to look angry. When Elmer was angry, everyone hurt so I quickly turned the sneer into a big fake sniff. “P. U. What the hell is so stanky? Is it you or Leslie Lester’s pussy?” I laughed.

The acid humor worked. “If it’s something that smells like rotten pussy, then it’s Miss Lester, honey.” Elmer took out the false eye lashes that were the sign that he was ready to go into character, ready for the change into Carla St. Claire. I liked him better when he was a she. When he was in his male character, he was a bitch anyway. At least when she became female she acted like a bitch in heels, and that was a lot more fun to say. Carla was a sport and lived up to the reputation, using the term “sport” in its loosest interpretation of course. She would cut you if she felt like it. I grew up among this troupe of drag queens. I had seen it happen.

Now when I say that I grew up, I mean that after I came out as gay (at an alarmingly early age I might add) I hung around these girls- they were my gay mamas. In Bible-thumper Land, (Columbia, South Carolina, 1983) these drags were the most visible, the most outrageous gay people I knew. They were like shiny objects to a crow for me. I was 13 when I met them, and was instantly attracted to how wild and free they seemed. No one like them went to the Cappadocia Fire Baptizing Holiness Church (Reverend Elizabeth Ray, founder) where my parents went to worship and speak in tongues. And I didn’t want to dress up, but I did like the spectacle, so I occasionally would allow Carla to glam me up a bit with slap. When I ran lights for the shows, she would give me several coats of eyeliner, mascara, and foundation and declare me precious. The makeup she had done for me earlier was already beginning to run. It was hot in the drag/solvents storage closet.

The door swung open and slammed against a wooden shelving unit packed with marabou stoles, size 16 women’s heels, and a lime green recreation of a dress seen on Dynasty. A knotty hand with a blood red homemade manicure slid slowly into the room. I could hear a voice singing, low, sexy, growling like Marlena Dietrich. “Falling in lovvvvve again, what am I supppppposed to do?” Leslie Lester, boy name ironically Butch, followed her hand and voice into the room, slithering against the wall in what I knew she thought was a seductive entrance a la Diva. I thought Leslie was as seductive as the paving tiles that she used, also ironically, in her day job.   She told everyone that she was a design consultant for a landscape architect. In truth she was a yard laborer for a local outdoor contractor. Mostly she mowed lawns.

“What do you want, bitch?” The tone didn’t sound good. Carla was jealous. She worked very hard to become the premiere drag queen at this gay club in the middle of the Deep South. It took courage and resolve to go from a hairy homely man to a plucked, tucked, and pinned female impersonator as popular with customers as she was.  That hard work began to leak away when Leslie showed up at the club one night three months prior, thinner, younger, and prettier than Carla, looking for a job as talent. It was instant angst.

“Well, bitch. I want you to be sure to look good, because I’m gonna look better!” Leslie sashayed all the way into the room and sat on a low stool at a table across from Carla. She reached under the table and pulled up a blue Samsonite suit bag and a makeup case covered with pink flower and heart stickers. “My Gucci gown is flawless and you gonna look like the tramp you are in that Dale Evans looking rhinestone piece of shit. You gonna go back to blowing truckers at the rest stop, Miss Thing? I mean when you leave this dump in shame, of course.”

The air started vibrating around Carla. She was usually a vindictive bitch, and everyone knew it. Leslie, however, had no problem with stomping through the egg shells, uncaring if someone was upset or not. This time the atmosphere changed, the tension somehow visible like a heat wave rising from hot pavement, and Carla was ready to explode. But she wouldn’t lose her temper now. It was too close to showtime. She always told me she was a professional. “I’m not leaving this place, and who you calling Miss Thing, Miss Thang? Shut the fuck up.” Carla barely glanced over at Leslie.

This was the continuing argument they had between themselves. Leslie was always antagonistic, goading Carla into a fit of anger. They physically fought several times, Ava Gabor wigs and Lee Press-on Nails flying until John McGregor separated them. Lately the bickering seemed different, as if Carla was mellowing out, or at least saving up her fury for something larger. Leslie sat at her table stroking her new dress, unmolested by the older, heavier transvestite. “Bitch, I don’t take orders from you. I’ll say what I want.”

“Hey y’all, what songs are you doing tonight?” If they fought, the show would start late and I wouldn’t get home until today was tomorrow. I tried to distract them from being so combative by changing the subject. Both of them had an extensive show planned, or so they said. Too bad neither had rehearsed and neither had bothered to tell me what they were going to do. 

“I’ve talked to DJ Hank so all you have to do is follow my honey ass with that spot, okay darlin’?” Carla was dripping with sugary sweetness, a sure sign in the south that you are being put down.

“I’ll tell you what I’m doing, baby. I’m doing a Stevie Nicks medley I worked out with Hank.” Leslie leaned forward stroking the Gucci dress in her lap. “I’m doing ‘Edge of Seventeen’ just for you! Right? You 15 so that’s close, huh bitch?””

“You best not let Miss McGregor hear that he’s only 15, Miss Thing. We’d all get in trouble.” Carla seemed sincere although I knew it was because she wanted to be my Big Mama and dress me up like one of the girls. She could care less if I was 15 , 21, or 35. My parents, who thought I spent the night on the weekends with my best friend (who was presently out on the floor dancing as a go-go boy) would have cared deeply that a cross-dressing night club performer wanted to dress me like a giant living Ken-to-Barbie doll. What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me.

The door swung open again and John McGregor came through the door, red, puffing, and wild-eyed. “Who’s been putting up these goddamn things?” His shout echoed through the tiny room rattling the wooden shelves. In his hand was a stack of torn down flyers, bright pink and advertising “Leslie Lester’s Terror Christmas Extravaganza” in huge flowery script. “DJs, Dancing, and Debauchery” was promised in 20 point Arial Bold typeface, and there were small cartoonish portraits of Leslie in various dresses and poses decorating the edge of the papers. She had thought out a vague idea of the show being fierce and what could be more fierce than terror? In the finer points of hyperbole rampant in drag-speak, it almost made sense.

Leslie stood and walked over to John, hips swinging, shoulders thrown back in a sexy pose. The illusion would have been perfect, but Leslie had not finished with her slap or her wig. And the tube top she was wearing showed how flat her boy chest really was. “Oh sweetie, those are mine. It’s my first show as a lead girl. Is something wrong?” Her voice had a conciliatory  tone because John could fire her before she took her next breath.

“You should have asked me before you go papering the fucking parking lot with pink goddamn flyers. We rent that lot and those fucking things are flying all over it. Who you gonna get to pick them up, Mary?” John called all the drag queens “Mary” because it was easier for him than trying to remember what monicker that they had adopted and when they adopted it. “Mary” was lighter on everyone rather than him going through a roll call of performer names that he had known in the past.

Leslie scowled. “You didn’t put even a poster at the door so people will know who is doing what tonight, John. So I put them out on the cars in the lot.”

Carla looked over at the younger girl. “What the fuck? Flyers with who is doing what tonight and you don’t even put my name down , much less my picture. Why the hell do you think people come to this place? It’s for me! Me! I am the premier drag queen in this place and you have to be under me, bitch.”

“Look, Elmer,” Leslie began her defense. But she used the “E” word when Carla had already begun her transformation from Elmer. Nothing made Carla angrier, and suddenly there was a streak of red and purple sequins leaping for Leslie’s throat. 

John threw the flyers down on Leslie’s table. “Get them all picked up before closing tonight, you dumb bitch or you’re fired!” His shout reverberated on the shelves again. He turned and stalked out of the door, slamming it and knocking a pair of red heels off of the unit. The shoes nearly hit me in the head, and I tossed one at the door after him.

“Who’s gonna pick up those flyers? You gonna pick up those flyers, Miss Thing!” Leslie had set her blue-eyed sights on me.

“Fuck you. Pick them up yourself.” I wasn’t going to waste my time picking up after her. I planned on leaving right after the show so I could get home, do my homework, and go to bed. Nothing Leslie could say would make me change my mind.

“If you don’t, I’ll tell John how old you are and you’ll lose your job, bitch.”

“Go ahead. I’ll tell him you knew from the very first and you’ll lose your job too. I’d rather be home doing my fucking algebra assignment.” I waited a beat. “Bitch.”

Leslie threw a makeup brush from her table at my head. “Fuck you, bitch boy.” Her words hardly stung. Leslie was not as well-versed in the art of the put down.

Carla stood up, adjusted her girdle and panties for a more effective tuck and less of a bulge. She bent over, picked up the brush that had landed short of my head on the floor in front of my feet and put it back on Leslie’s table. “Call him bitch boy again, Miss Thing, and I will boil those bags of grits you call titties and eat them with bacon.”

“Get one of your own entourage to clean it up. Oh that’s right. Carla has an entourage and you don’t because you are a baby drag and Carla is a mama.” I could handle myself with Miss Lester.

“You got a mouth on you for someone who is only 15 and working at the queer bar, fish.” She called me “fish” which was a derogatory term for women. Actually it was a derogatory word for a female’s genital area. As much as Leslie wanted to imitate women, her words left the impression that she really didn’t like them very much.

“Jesus, you smell like tuna. P.U. is that your vagina stinking up the joint?” Carla calmly slid her big blond wig on her head and adjusted it carefully to fit the sides snugly. She looked over at Leslie, her bottled fury apparent under the glaze of semi-civility she was demonstrating by not immediately beating Leslie’s ass.

The door opened again. It was DJ Hank. “Here’s the final sets that you girls are going to be doing.” He threw two sheets of paper down on Carla’s makeup table and looked at his watch “You should be on the spot in about 10 minutes.” He handed me another sheet of paper with the order of performances on it. Although it was a Christmas show, there were few holiday numbers. Carla was famous for her Dolly Parton, and she often performed the song “Apple Jack” as part of a Parton medley homage. The crowd at the end would be chanting for an encore, and she would act thrilled to keep doing the same song time after time. But I knew it was only an act. She was tired of doing the same thing all the time, but the crowds would not let her do anything else.

“Fuck you very much, Hankie!” Carla was playful. She twittered and giggled whenever he came into a room. “I can’t wait to show you what I’ve done with ‘Apple Jack’ and the routine I developed.” She had such an obvious crush on him. He gave her a stony glance before he left the room shaking his head back and forth. She acted oblivious to his obvious rejection and continued to primp in the mirror.

“Hey Carla, Hank doesn’t have you coming on until the end of the show. Did you know that?” I pointed to the paper where her time slot was filled in. Just two songs, less than seven minutes onstage. Her shoulders tensed up, but she seemed to remain cheery, humming “I Will Always Love You” and putting the last finishing touches on her heavy makeup.

“See, Miss Thing? John is phasing your tired old ass out for younger firmer girls, bitch.” Leslie wasn’t pointing out anything that Carla herself had not expressed a hundred times before. It was almost time for the show, so the girls forgot their arguing for a while, concentrating on their transformations. A couple of other drag queens came in to check the call sheet Hank had left  and went back to the floor to waitress until it was their time to be on stage. Since Leslie and Carla were the headliners, they never had to wait tables. A few minutes later, while the headliner divas finished getting ready, I went to the floor and began preparing the spotlight. Hank started playing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to signal that the show was about to begin. Soon Leslie came out of the green room and glided up to the stage.

“Ladies and Ladies, tonight I would like to present to you the holiday extravaganza Leslie Lester’s Terror Christmas with your McGee’s stars me and the fabulous Carla St. Claire! Everyone give a big McGee’s welcome to the coolest show of Christmas!” Leslie transcended her bitch routine and was actually pretty good on stage. She never jumped around unexpectedly so I could follow her with the hot spot light. Tonight she seemed like she was ready to take the mantle of lead entertainer at McGee’s whenever Carla has ready to abdicate the throne.

The show ran fairly long. No one had bothered to check on the times except for Hank, and his time sheet was unrealistic. Each girl came out on stage and did her number, but each time the girl would hog the stage for as long as she could, pressing Hank for more time in the spotlight. The routines were standards,  stale and expected. Nothing about the show said “Terror Christmas” to me. A lot of lip syncing to Donna Summer and Alicia Moore did not make a holiday show. Even Leslie’s numbers were lacking and fell flat. Five year old disco songs from the 70s and a number from Evita weren’t a fresh revue.  Algebra was calling me louder and louder. High school and my career as a spot light operator for a gay bar were coming into direct conflict and all I wanted to do was leave, go back to my parents’ house, and get my homework done. I wished there was some place where I could go that people didn’t call each other bitch constantly or speak in tongues inspired by God, but that wasn’t my life, and it was a moot point thinking about it.

Forty five minutes into the show, it was time for Carla’s big entrance. The lights dimmed; the music became soft; and after some soft rustling onstage, I brought the lights up. She was standing tall and still with a Santa Claus hat perched on top of her blown out country music star hairdo and a red and white robe wrapped around her body. The music welled up and a disco version of “The Little Drummer Boy” started pounding out of the speakers. Leslie’s voice came over the music. “Ladies and Ladies, may I present to you, the fabulous Carla St. Claire!”

The applause briefly drowned out the music. Carla began gyrating with the robe tightly pulled around her, the amped up Christmas carol dictating her sways and bends. “Come they told me, parumpapumpum!” Her lips formed the words but nothing came out, no singing or sound but the song played on anyway. It was the beauty of lip syncing at its best, and Carla was the best at it. The song continued, faster louder, and at the end, when the music reached 145 beats per minute, Carla threw off her robe revealing her sequined red and purple Dolly Parton outfit. The skirt was red with crinoline petticoats making it flare out from her knees. The purple blouse was straining against the fake boobs she had fashioned out of old pantyhose and dry grits. She shook her shoulders, shimmying and stomping. The music began changing to “Apple Jack” and the crowd went to its feet as Carla began clog dancing to her signature song. Faster and faster she danced, not even bothering to mouth the words. Sweat began pouring off of her face. 

“I’m the real Dolly Parton! I’m the real Dolly Parton!” She shouted and stomped all around the stage. A large teddy bear was under the decorated Christmas tree just off of the dance floor, and she grabbed it.

“Fuck it! Fuck it!” The crowd was yelling, frothing for the climax. Carla twirled and humped the teddy bear, ripping off the arms hurling them into the audience. Hank turned on the strobe lights, and even though I was trying to follow her with the spotlight, the stop motion effect of the strobe gave everything a weird and immediate vibe, surreal actions to a surreal soundtrack.

“I’m the real Dolly Parton! I’m the real Dolly Parton!” Carla took the bear offstage and through the crowd, her blouse bursting open and stuffing from the toy spreading over the peoples’ heads like soft snow. She kept up the frenetic pace as she hit the front door and disappeared into the parking lot. I quickly turned off the spotlight and ran outside to find her.

The lot was dark and unpaved, covered with a layer of coarse gravel. I could hear Carla shouting near the back. Her mantra had not changed. “I’m the real Dolly Parton! I’m the real Dolly Parton!” In the dim light, I could see shreds of the bear like a trail. I saw Carla at the back fence bending down and I rushed over to her side.

“Carla! Miss Thing!! Are you okay? What the hell is going on?” I was shocked by her outrageous behavior but I was shocked even more by her appearance. Her clothes were torn off leaving her standing in foundation garments holding a tattered teddy bear. Her slap was smeared and running down her face. Her wig was askew on her head and one of her tits had sprung a leak, the dry grits leaving a trail behind her like Hansel and Gretel.

Leslie came trotting out of the club and over to where I was standing stunned by Carla’s rapid decline. She put her hand on my shoulder. “You know, I think you should go home and do that algebra homework. I don’t think Carla’s going to need your help. She needs mine.” She grabbed my hand and looked sincerely into my eyes.

“What are you going to do?” Carla was my friend, my confidant. She stuck up for me when the rest of those girls would throw me to the wolves.

“Well, baby. When a drag queen goes crazy, her sisters take her to the State Hospital with needle, thread, and ten pounds of feathers. She can make her crazy ass useful again making feather boas. It’s our way.”

So I got to do my homework. I ended up making a C+ in algebra before I dropped out of high school completely the next year. Carla was committed to the mental institution and stayed there for two years making those boas. On the day she finally was let out, I drove down to pick her up. She was in full bubble blonde big tit drag.

“Hey Carla. You okay?” 

“Yes Miss Thing. I’m fine, but I’m not Carla anymore. I’m the real Dolly Parton.”

“You are what you eat, I guess, huh bitch?”

And that was the end of Carla St. Claire.

 

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