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Authors: Poppy Z. Brite

Plastic Jesus

BOOK: Plastic Jesus
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Plastic Jesus

Poppy Z. Brite

i

Seth Grealy's knees buckled and he went down like a house of cards as five bullets tore into him.

What had come out of the cold New York night to inflict this pain? He didn't know, hadn't seen it coming at all though a part of him had expected it for most of his forty-five years. He'd thought it would happen onstage, though, something well-aimed and high-caliber if he was lucky. Not right here outside his building, almost home.

He knew he'd been shot, had heard each pop separately and clearly, a long pause between the third and the final two, as he spun and hit the sidewalk. Had felt the bullets enter his back, his throat. Wasn't the body supposed to go into shock, to start churning out its own natural painkillers? Maybe he'd fucked up his system with all the artificial ones over the years, for the pain was voracious, unforgiving.

The doorman was kneeling over him now, red-coated arms spread wide, protecting him from curious passersby. Where was Peyton? He'd thought his partner was right behind him as he got out of the limo.

“Oh my God, it's Seth Grealy!” a woman screamed. “They've shot Seth Grealy!"

Seth rolled his head a little to the side, perceived the woman as a large colorful shape squatting nearby, doing something to the sidewalk—what?—soaking a scrap of paper in the spreading pool of his blood. The doorman made a grab for her, but the woman was off with her priceless souvenir.
Like Dillinger
, Seth thought dazedly, not sure if that was right.

“Mr. Grealy, Mr. Grealy, can you hear me? The ambulance is coming."

“I think it may as well take its time,” he wanted to say, but what came out was little more than a wet gasp. He felt blood gobbing from his mouth, cascading down his chin. For the first time since he'd hit the sidewalk, Seth Grealy considered the possibility that he was about to die.

Why did the thought make him feel sunlight on his face? There was no sunlight here, only the winter night, the cold wind sweeping off the park, the huge, paralyzing pain.

The ambulance cut its siren as it turned onto the block, but left its red bubbles revolving, washing the faces of the crowd, the black puddle on the sidewalk, the stone façade of the apartment building with a bloody light. The paramedics descended upon him, and Seth could have sworn he saw one of them shake her head—
This one's not gonna make it
—before they hoisted him into the back of the ambulance.

“Shot the fuck out of him, hunh?” said somebody waiting in the back.

“Shut up, man, I think he's still conscious—"

The medic who'd spoken first was fitting a plastic mask over Seth's nose and mouth. “Shit, this ain't doin' any good, the oxygen's just comin' out those holes in his throat."

The woman medic's voice rose. “I said he might still be
conscious
, Washington!"

Washington's eyes crinkled in disbelief, then sought Seth's. “Mr. Grealy? Can you hear me? Do you know who you are?"

He thought he managed a little nod, but Washington didn't get it. The big face loomed closer. “DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE?"

A philosophical approach was called for, then; had he ever? Through all the money and drugs, through all the women and men, at the heights of his art and the depths of his insane fame, even with Peyton, had he ever known who he was?

The implications of this question seemed vast, and Seth let himself drift on them until he felt the sunlight touching his face again.

ii

Peyton had done all the things required of him, save one. He'd gone to the hospital ridden down in the gleaming metal elevator to the morgue to perform the wholly unnecessary task of identifying Seth's body. Anyone in the world could have identified Seth's body, he thought, but that wasn't the point. He had to be here, and here he was, breathing the formaldehyde smell that stung his nostrils, that masked something sweeter and darker. And here, rolled out on a table of more gleaming steel, was Seth.

He went right to the edge of the table, looked down into Seth's face. The lips were drawn tightly across the teeth in a grimace of surprise or pain, or perhaps only a reflex of rigor mortis. The eyes were closed, the lids slack. Only with his eyes closed had Seth ever looked at peace. He didn't look at peace now.

“All right, old man,” said Peyton. “It'll be all right.” He touched Seth's cheek. It was cold and tacky with blood. Seth's jacket and shirt had been cut or torn off in the efforts to stop the bleeding, which must have been like trying to stem the flow of Niagara Falls. His arms hung oddly in their sockets. His chest was covered with a layer of half-dried arterial blood like red stained glass. The entry wounds made by the bullets were small, dark, not so terrible. Peyton couldn't see any of the exit wounds.

“Could I have a towel, please?” he asked one of the morgue attendants.

“Sir?"

“A towel. And some water. I want to wash the blood off of him."

“You don't have to do that, sir, we can—"

“I want to do it."

Something in his tone must have convinced the attendant he was serious, or maybe morgue people were just used to dealing with the half-crazy bereaved. At any rate, Peyton was brought a towel and a basin of warm water, and they left him alone while he washed the blood from Seth's face and chest. While he took a comb from his own pocket and combed as much of it as possible out of Seth's hair. While he stood for a long time beside the metal table, one hand gripping its edge very tightly, the other entwined in Seth's stiffening fingers.

He stayed at the hospital all night. He could not bear to go home yet, could not bear the throngs that would have gathered now outside the apartment building, carrying flowers, crying, singing Seth's songs. The very force of their sympathy might kill him. He rode the next morning in the hearse to Long Island, Seth in a plain casket in the back, and sat in the waiting salon of the crematorium for a few hours. Only then, with the white cardboard box of ashes like an eternal weight on his lap, did Peyton return to the home he had shared with Seth.

He took phone calls, took pills, slept a lot. He learned what he could of the killer, Ray Brinker. The man was described by the media as a fundamentalist Christian who deplored the political and social changes Seth had wrought in the world. He invoked the specter of AIDS as God's punishment upon homosexuals, and suggested that Seth had been a vector for the disease. His most-quoted public statement to date was, “I wish I could have killed him before he got this far."

Peyton allotted himself a certain amount of time to regain the poise he would need for the last thing he had to do. When he had reached that point, he called the man he believed could help him.

* * * *

Dr. Jonathan Pumphrey was the embodiment of WASPiness, if a slightly effete version thereof. His suits, always perfectly pressed, were Paul Stuart, his briefcase Mark Cross. Once, egged on by his boyfriend Rick, he had bought a black Valentine suit, but he never wore it. His blonde hair, undarkened since childhood, parted on the left and fell engagingly over his forehead. He did not mind at all that he stood only five-foot-nine in his glossy Gucci loafers, for he felt that being small and neat was infinitely preferable to being big and sloppy.

He'd always thought of Seth Grealy as big and sloppy, even though the man really hadn't been. Seth was quite tall, even rather shambling, but he always looked clean. It was his presence that was big and sloppy; it sloshed everywhere, got all over everything, made him seem larger than he was. Jonathan had heard that very famous people often had such an exaggerated presence, but until today, Seth Grealy was the only mega-celebrity he'd ever met. Now he was about to meet another: Peyton Masters, Seth's bereaved musical partner and lover, was in his waiting room.

Seth Grealy had visited Jonathan's midtown office twice a week for five years until his death a fortnight ago. Except for brief
incommunicado
periods, he never missed a session. Jonathan was Seth Grealy's psychiatrist, more commonly referred to by Seth as his head-shrinker, his witch doctor, or his little tin Freud, depending upon how bad Seth's mood was on any given day.

Jonathan often wondered whether Seth would have gone into therapy with him had the man known to what extent he had been Jonathan's teenage idol. Jonathan was ten years younger than Seth, and had seen the famous Stonewall interview with Seth and Peyton when he was still a teenager agonizing over his sexuality. Without it, without
them
, he believed he might still be living in the closet.

But Seth Grealy had had no idea that a young and confused Jonathan Pumphrey had once owned all his records, hung posters of him on the wall and occasionally even masturbated to those posters. He didn't know he had been a shaping force in Jonathan's life. He'd just wanted a therapist who wasn't “an old fart,” as he put it, and he'd been given Jonathan's number by a friendly GP who knew Jonathan was fresh out of medical school with a hungry new practice, and he'd called to set up an appointment. That was where they had begun.

Though Jonathan had counseled many patients for grief, he couldn't imagine how he would survive if Rick died. He wondered how Peyton was managing to get along without Seth. He felt he had come to know Peyton Masters vicariously through Seth's therapy, and suspected there was a core of steel in the man that could survive just about any loss. But mustn't it be different if, in addition to suddenly, brutally losing your lover, you also found yourself now only half of a world-beloved gestalt? Mustn't it cleave you too, somehow?

Jonathan thought of the picture they had presented to the world, Peyton's sweetness and Seth's studied bad-boy act. You could tie your mind in psychedelic knots with Seth's songs, then clear your head with Peyton's. To the world they were equals: equal in genius, equal in love. But Jonathan knew how dependent Seth had become on Peyton in the past decade. He felt sure that Seth could not have survived Peyton's death. He wondered whether Peyton was experiencing survivor's guilt, especially since he'd been right behind Seth when the murder took place.

The news had come shockingly to Jonathan two weeks ago, the morning after Seth was killed, Rick calling the office and saying in a shaken voice, “Turn on the news, baby, it's Seth Grealy.” Jonathan canceled his sessions, sat by the radio all day, tried to take it in. Apparently Peyton had remained in the limo during the shooting and its immediate aftermath. Seth had just unfolded his lanky frame from the car and Peyton was sliding across the seat to get out when the shots began. In a bit of quick thinking that may have saved Peyton Masters' life, the driver twisted around, grabbed a handful of his heavy winter coat, and hauled him back into the limo. By the time he fought his way out, the doorman of the building had gotten the gun away from Brinker and Seth was beyond recognizing anybody. How did one stand such a thing?

Jonathan took a peek in the mirror, smoothed his hair over his forehead, straightened his tie. He went to the door of his office, hesitated for a moment, then opened it. “Please come in, Mr. Masters."

As Peyton stood, Jonathan experienced a moment of the dissonance that is often involved when confronted with the real-life version of a famous face. Peyton had always been stereotyped as the “cutest” of the Kydds, with his charismatic curly smile, thick dark shock of hair, and liquid long-lashed eyes. Seth and Peyton had been out of the public eye for some time, so Jonathan's mental image of Peyton was several years out of date. Still, the majority of the changes appeared recent: the red-rimmed eyes; a few days' worth of beard stubble; a look of hollowness.

“First off, Dr. Pumphrey, please call me Peyton."

“Of course. Peyton, I said it when we spoke on the phone but I want to say again, I'm so sorry for what happened—"

Peyton waved it aside. The gesture seemed not so much rude as weary. “Thanks, yes, of course you are. Everyone's sorry, and they all tell me so, and oddly enough none of it helps."

Peyton had lost far more of his Leyborough accent than Seth ever had. Nothing else about Seth was working-class by the time he died, but he had kept that guttural accent, born for cursing and trained for singing.

BOOK: Plastic Jesus
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