“We lived together,” Jane says. Her voice sounds muffled through decades. “The roommate—the one I couldn’t remember. It was him.”
August knows from the look on her face what the answer is going to be, but she has to ask.
“What happened to him?”
Jane’s hand curls into a fist.
“August, he’s dead.”
* * *
Jane tells August about the UpStairs Lounge.
It was a bar on the second floor of a building at the corner of Chartres and Iberville, a jukebox and a tiny stage, bars on the windows like all the spots in the city used to have. One of the best places for blue-collar boys on the low. Augie was short-haired and square-jawed, shoulders filling out a white T-shirt, a towel over his shoulder behind the bar.
It was the summer of ’73, Jane tells her, but August already knows. She could never forget it. She’s spent years trying to picture that summer. Her mom was sure he’d left the city, but August used to wonder if he was hidden away a few neighborhoods over, if ivy climbed the wrought iron on his balcony, or power lines heavy with Mardi Gras beads dipped into the oak trees outside his window.
Her mom had theories—he got a girl pregnant and ran away, made enemies with the guys who bribed the NOPD to guard their craps games and skipped town, got lost, got married, got out of town and disappeared beyond the cypress trees.
Instead, instead, Jane tells August he was loved. She remembers him at the stove of their tiny kitchen, teaching her how to make pancakes. She tells August how he used to frown at the bathroom mirror and run a wet comb through his hair trying to tame it. He was happy, she says, even though he never talked about his family, even though she heard him through the walls sometimes, on the phone using a voice so gentle that he must have been talking to the round-faced, green-eyed little girl whose picture he kept in his wallet. He was happy because he had Jane, he had friends, he had the job at the UpStairs and guys with sweet eyes and broad shoulders who wanted to kiss him in the streetlamp light. He had hope. He liked to march, liked to help Jane make signs. He had dreams for a future and friends all over the city, tight-knit circles, hands that slapped his back when he walked into a room.
He was the guy you called if you needed to move a couch or someone to tell the guy across the hall that if he ever says that word to you again, he’ll get his ass beat. He made people laugh. He had a pair of red shorts that he loved especially well, and she has this stark memory of him wearing them, smoking a cigarette on the porch, perched on the top step, hands spread wide across the floorboards as the first drops of a summer storm started falling.
They talked about their dreams a lot, Jane says. They wanted to travel and would pass a bottle of Muscadine wine back and forth and talk about Paris, Hong Kong, Milan, New York. She told him about her hometown, San Francisco, and the sprawling woods and winding roads to the north, and he told her he’d always, always wanted to drive the Panoramic Highway, ever since he read about it in a library book. He loved books, brought home stacks and stacks from thrift stores and secondhand shops.
The day it happened was the last day of Pride. The beer was free that night, but it was the best night of the summer for tips. For the first time, he mentioned his little sister to Jane as he was shrugging on his jacket on his way out for his shift. He was going to buy her an encyclopedia set for her birthday, he said. He was worried their parents weren’t letting her read enough. The night’s tips would be just enough for it.
And then, that night at the UpStairs, gasoline and smoke. And then, the ceiling falling in. And then, fire, and bars on windows, and a door that wouldn’t open. Arson. Thirty-two men gone.
Augie didn’t come home.
There are a couple of unmarked graves, Jane explains in a low, hoarse voice. It wasn’t uncommon for there to be people like her or Augie, queer people who ran away and didn’t want to be found, who didn’t have families who could or would claim them, people who kept secrets so well nobody would even have known they were there.
And that was bad enough. The empty bedroom, the rolls of socks, the milk left in the fridge, the aftershave in the bathroom, it was all bad enough. But then there were the months that came after.
The city barely tried to investigate. The news mentioned the fire but left out that it was a gay bar. The radio hosts made jokes. Not a single politician said a goddamn word. Church after church refused to hold the funerals. The one priest who did gather a handful of people for prayers was nearly excommunicated by his congregation.
It hurt, and it hurt again, this horrible thing that had happened, this ripping, unfathomable, terrible thing, and it only hurt more, spreading like the bruises on Jane’s ribs when the cops would decide to make an example out of her.
New Orleans, Jane tells her, was the first place that convinced her to stay. It was the first place she was herself. She’d spent a year on the road before she ended up there, but she fell in love with the city and its Southern girls, and she began to think she might put down roots.
After the fire, she made it six months before she packed up her records and left. She moved out in January of ’74, nothing of her left in New Orleans but a name scratched into a couple bar tops and a kiss on a stone with no name. She lost touch with everyone. She wanted to become a ghost, like Augie.
And then she found New York. And it finished the job.
Photo from the archives of The Tulane Hullabaloo, Tulane University’s weekly student-run newspaper, dated June 23, 1973
[Photo depicts a group of young women marching down Iberville Street, carrying signs and banners as part of the third annual New Orleans Gay Pride. In the foreground, a dark-haired woman in jeans and a button-down shirt holds a poster that reads DYKES FIGHT BACK. The following day, the New Orleans gay community would be struck by the UpStairs Lounge arson attack.]
At the entrance to the Parkside Ave. Station, August’s finger hovers over the call button for the tenth time in as many hours.
There was a time when Uncle Augie loomed like Clark Kent in her childhood, this mysterious hero to be chased through squares of public record forms like comic book panels. Her mother told her stories—he was twelve years older, the heir-gone-wrong to an old New Orleans family, the little sister born in his rocky adolescence an attempt at a do-over. He had hair like August’s, like her mother’s, wild and thick and unkempt. He intimidated schoolyard bullies, snuck dessert when their mother said little girls shouldn’t eat so much, hid whiskey and a box of photographs beneath a floorboard in his room.
She told August about the big fight she overheard one night, how Augie kissed her forehead fiercely and left with a suitcase, how he wrote her every week and sometimes arranged late-night calls until the letters and calls stopped coming. She told August about a streetcar ride to the police station, an officer saying they couldn’t waste time on runaways, her parents inviting the chief for dinner when he drove her home and then taking her books away as punishment.
It makes sense now that Augie left and never came back, more than it did when it was only petty family arguments. August understands why he never told his sister he was still in the city, why her grandparents preferred to act as if he’d never existed. He was like Jane, just geographically closer.
She doesn’t know how to tell her mom. She doesn’t even know how to speak to her mom right now.