Art by Ronald Lockett
Photos by Cary Whittier, courtesy of MARCH
On Saturday June 10, at 3:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time, please join a dozen of Bo's friends and colleagues (old and new) to celebrate Bo's birthday. He would have been sixty-four. For two hours, we'll share memories of Bo and read out loud from his work. The event is free and open to the public. Click here to join.
I left Flanagan on a wet afternoon. He had just received advance copies of his preposterous book of essays, Fleece Them! And as I headed out with my suitcase in my hand and several of Flanagan’s credit cards in my wallet, he called after me, “Wait! It’s dedicated to you!”
So, when I was eighteen or so, I lived for some months in glamorous Beverly Hills. Dick the famous actor took me in, gave me my own room—a corner room with gorgeous leaded windows that overlooked the garden—and the place had antique mahogany furniture, rose-colored wallpaper, squat brass table lamps with cloth shades. He allowed me to use one of the cars. He bought me clothes: wool sweaters in pastel colors, tailored slacks, crisp shirts, and ties and gloves and overcoats. Dick the famous actor’s real passion was shoes, though, and after some weeks I had a closet quite full of them. And then I, too, developed this love of shoes; I absorbed his delight, his fascination with them, and understood its logic: each pair demanded a different stride, a different stance. Shoes are the foundation and they define the entire attitude, the worldview. With endless choices regarding shoes, one can adopt a new, complete personality. What shall I be today? Elegant, energetic, thoughtful, needy or assured or flighty? It all depends on shoes. (At twenty, of course, my limp was not yet so pronounced. Today I can only wear plain, black, Navy oxfords.)
Dick the famous actor liked to dress me up and parade me around, but he mostly liked for me to stay at the pool, bare and greasy from suntan lotion, stretched out lazily on one of the wooden deck chairs. He brought me cocktails. He brought me magazines. He liked to serve me. Serving me was Dick the famous actor’s way of being served by me.
And then I was kept by another actor; and then I was in a few porno films; and then I had an affair with a doctor; and then I lived for a while in Berlin, then in Paris; and then I went back to Dick the famous actor, and by this time we each had a considerable heroin habit. I stole the most expensive of his shoes. I stole his car. I left town. Someone fell in love with me. Someone else fell in love with me. Is anyone listening?
(And then one night I saw a reflection of myself. It was my twenty-first birthday. I was staying with a Dutch guy in Manhattan, and as I was closing the medicine cabinet after searching it for drugs to steal, there were my eyes in the mirror. So tired and sad, like chocolate melting on the sidewalk of Asylum Street, like Mama’s hurt, resigned eyes. This vision of myself came upon me quite unexpectedly, caught me in the act—myself as thief, hustler, liar, and, somehow most bruising, myself as tireless, rushed, infinitely hungry. Except for red hair and white skin, I could see no reminder of Aunt Joy, my heroine, in my reflected image. Nothing of her in me. Once there was something of hers I wanted. Once I had sat cross-legged on the floor, she had sung to me, I had loved her. “What is the matter with you?” I asked the thin, dead face in the mirror. I almost cried but was in too much of a hurry to cry.)
It is terrifying, I guess, to be without any values. Moral direction, however it is measured, described, interpreted, makes us feel safe. So, for that to be absent is fundamentally painful. So, that I am a man who says, “No—I do not know—I do not even care—”makes me some kind of monster. A modern monster.
We are nowhere near Armageddon, despite the asinine ramblings of the bible doomsayers. We’re not even close to real decay. We’ll know it’s all over when people simply do not believe in anything anymore.
In a highway restaurant outside of Toledo, Ohio— those old days seem so long ago, and I remember them sadly, fondly—a black-and-white television, perched precariously above the counter, blared a news report of an epidemic: little old ladies were being brutally assaulted and robbed on Toledo’s streets. The newscaster—some fag with a concerned pancake-face and stiff hair—gave a sketchy description of a pair of thugs and warned elderly women citizens not to go out alone or at night.
Jed had stopped eating his cheeseburger to listen to the report. “God, that’s awful. Isn’t that awful, Holly?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, really. Beating up little old ladies?”
“It happens, Jed. All kinds of things happen.”
“But ... I know that, but, I mean, some of them are bad. That’s all I’m saying.”
I told him to finish lunch. Later, in the car, this dialogue—which thrilled me, really, but which I pretended was only an irritation—continued.
“Holly, can’t you admit that there are wrong, bad, immoral types of things that happen?”
“No. I won’t admit that at all. There are just things that happen.”
“What about child abusers and alcoholics and racists, et cetera?”
“Don’t use the word et cetera. All right, yes, there are such people. Are you looking for someone to blame for something?”
“No, I’m just trying to say ... well, what about like creepy things like incest or whatever?”
“Yes. That exists.”
“What about if they take some man and put electrical wires on his dick and shock him and then nail his balls to a wall?”
“Well, Jed, what about that?” By now I was somewhat exasperated.
He raised his hands and slapped his thighs in desperate frustration—almost like he was trying to teach a stupid little boy the alphabet. “I mean, come on, wouldn’t you say that would be a really creepy, gross, awful thing?”
“Maybe. Maybe some men would actually like it.”
“Now you’re just playing games or something, Holly, you’re just trying to seem like you don’t care about anything.” Which I thought was quite perceptive. His beauty was absolute at that moment—the pouting lips, the black hair fallen across his brow, the eyes: green for a second, gray for a second. By Toledo, I loved Jed.
“Julius has his own unique worldview—but then, at the same time, I think it is a very obvious, predictable one. He is despicable, he is conservative, bigoted, petty, somehow not even real; and yet, because he makes no apologies, he can be incomparably entertaining.”
Oh, no. Here is Julius.
“Holly? Oh my God, it is you. May I join you, dear?”
I nod at the chair across from me and Julius settles himself into it. One has to be in just the right mood for Julius, something specific, predisposed to quick bantering and superficial observations. Julius has his own unique worldview—but then, at the same time, I think it is a very obvious, predictable one. He is despicable, he is conservative, bigoted, petty, somehow not even real; and yet, because he makes no apologies, he can be incomparably entertaining. The breadth of his ability and willingness to insult is often delightful. When I am at all fragile, though, I simply cannot handle Julius.
“Oh, I see Miss Flanagan is here with her bevy of academic types. Don’t you just hate that? So, how are you, anyway?” Julius has a canary-yellow, floral-print ascot and his hair is streaked with fake blond color. “I haven’t seen you in ages, darling. I was thinking about you just the other day because those two lesbian sisters who always give the art parties had a little dinner, and I looked around, looked around, I was asking people, “Where’s Holly?”
‘’I’ll tell you the truth,” Julius confides, “I wondered if you hadn’t gotten AIDS and dropped dead. So glad to see you’re not dead, dear.”
I smile. “No. Somehow I managed to avoid that particular virus.”
“It’s a crapshoot, sweetheart.”
“It is. It surely is.”
“Anyway,” he continues. “You know that new boyfriend Wayne has been dragging around everywhere? Well, my dear, turns out he’s a heroin addict. They haven’t had sex in months. Months. Wayne’s one of those obsessive types, he likes to take care of the poor, beautiful losers. There was that other one named Lawrence or something who sold all of Wayne’s books, you remember him. All Wayne’s priceless signed first editions, worth a fortune—I mean Burroughs, Isherwood, and all those faggot poets and everyone—just sold them. Wayne’s a mess. I told him so. I said, ‘Wayne, darling, you’re tiring out all your friends. Everyone thinks you’re a stupid cunt.”
Julius has eyes that are never fully open, the lids
linger, droop. He says I’m looking so well these days— which is certainly not true—and I return the compliment with a strained smile. All of my smiles are strained.
He sips an ominous-looking drink, a cloudy copper colored concoction. He lights a cigarette. “I guess by now you’ve heard what happened to Conway.”
“I heard he had died. In Paris, was it?”
“It was Berlin, my dear. Not a pleasant place to die. You know, Conway was a diabetic but also a vicious alcoholic. So, yes, of course, he died, yes, but have you heard the whole story?”
I do not reply.
Julius leans in closer, affecting a strategy of cozy confidence. “It was a suicide. Sort of. Conway was involved in some very shady things, namely selling syringes to horrid black-market people. Selling drugs, too, and he kept riding back and forth to Europe on the Concorde, and he hooked up with this very, very wealthy Brazilian woman called Belva or something and her Jewish husband and they were just about as reckless as you can be with all the drugs and the money and everything. This was last year. I was living with Peter—who by now, you know, was never faithful to me for one day, not for one goddamn day. And he claimed to be an artist and he kept talking about his art dealers and his galleries. He was doing these huge canvases with pictures of erect penises in hideous colors, just awful, no integrity or depth.
“But the story of poor Conway. This Belva and her rich Brazilian Jewish husband hired Conway—if you can call it hiring. They convinced him to write a play for them. It was supposed to be a pornographic musical, a sadomasochistic thing, with lesbians and masturbation. You know. And all those kinds of things are so tired, but Conway was in such a state he’d do any goddamn thing for money. So, this Belva and her husband commissioned Conway to work on this play and they made big promises—it would be done for German television, a lot of money was supposed to be involved. And Conway, naturally, was all excited, just thrilled, and gloating and bragging. He’d say, ‘Oh, I have to work on my “piece.”’ He kept calling it his ‘piece.’ Isn’t that vulgar?
“Well, my dear—oh, sweetheart”—he curls a finger to flag a waiter—“let me have another of these, will you? Anyway, these crazy Brazilian Jewish monsters ended up locking Conway in a tower of a castle—and I am not kidding, a real tower in one of those insane castles in the middle of the German countryside, in the goddamn middle of nowhere. And they wouldn’t let him out. It was like a sick sort of game. They didn’t give him an ounce of food. Just orange juice and amphetamine, amphetamine and orange juice. And they forced him to write and write, this pornographic musical play. Conway worked away, worked away, and then Belva and her husband would say, ‘Oh, this isn’t right, Conway, this isn’t what we had in mind,’ and he’d write and write some more. Three weeks of this, mind you.
“It was all a big joke to Belva and her Brazilian Jew, you know. They love to torment people. They love to come up with these ideas and manipulate everyone into working on their atrocious projects. Not that Conway didn’t have his part in this whole arrangement. He wrote me one letter. From the tower of this castle. I don’t know where I’ve put that letter, but it was fascinating, just utterly fascinating. He told me how he was so loaded on the speed they kept giving him and they wouldn’t let him leave, and then he said, well, he wasn’t sure he really even wanted to leave. Things like that. He wrote that they wouldn’t allow him clothing and it was very cold, but being naked and so cold was helping him to write this play. And this Belva person would come in his little tower room, the little garret or whatever it was, to tell him that she did not like what he’d written so far, it wasn’t right. And then this brute woman would say, ‘Don’t you want to get it right, Conway?’
“Anyway, the end result of this sick, sick, sick story is that Conway slaved away, a virtual prisoner, and eventually one day he simply hopped out the tower window. Or, rather, there’s some question about whether he jumped himself or was pushed by Belva or the Brazilian Jew or both. He was naked when he was found all twisted up on a pile of rocks at the bottom of this castle. So, naturally, there are any number of revolting scenarios that run through one’s mind. But Belva told everyone, from the coroner’s office to the cocktail parties, that Conway was just terribly depressed and vitamin-deficient and had just impulsively killed himself in this fit of despair. No one knew what to believe, so the whole thing got very neatly wrapped up.
“Well, as you know, Holly, Conway was absolutely my oldest and dearest friend, so this whole episode was enormously traumatic for me. And now some German queen wants to write a book about the whole thing, like a fictionalized account of this business, and Belva was talking to Andre and some other people about how she’s considering the movie options. Movie options. Can you imagine? Have you ever heard anything so grotesque?”
I’m thinking, Oh, well, yes, yes I have.
Holly was lots of things to me in my life, but first and most he was my teacher. We went through all this stuff, the traveling and fighting, all the love we had and stuff, but some little piece of me always still did think of him as my teacher, always will.
See, what happened, by the time I reached the eighth grade, Lila had had it. That’s what she said. “I have just had it with you.” The remark didn’t sting much by that time. By thirteen years old I was pretty tough, actually.
I’d stopped faking sickness; now I just wasn’t bothering to show up to classes. I was hanging out with this weird, ugly girl named Ceil who had thick glasses and buck teeth. Her ambition was to be a prostitute. Also, she was pretty seriously into witchcraft—she read a lot about it and said these little incantations and everything. Once she put a hex on her stepfather. Ceil and I would smoke cigarettes together under the bleachers and drink wine. Ceil threw up a lot.
Actually, it was a rather upper-class sort of world I was raised in. Everyone lived in these ranch-type houses, but not the tacky kind. The sprawling, rich-looking kind with wide, winding driveways. I thought those driveways had a rather mournful sense about them, actually. All the kids’ parents were divorced, all the kids got stoned on something or other. The kids were fucking all over the place or whatever and one time, even, a teacher at the high school got fired for fucking a girl student. It was a decadent community, I guess you’d say. Way ahead of its time.
Ceil and I pored over dirty magazines—not like those glossy kind you get in drug stores, but the really sleazy ones with she-males and ads for dildos and everything, and we’d just be stoned and laughing. One day—we were pretty stoned, because we’d taken ten or fifteen of those over-the-counter caffeine pills—I dared Ceil to take her shirt off in the cafeteria and she did. She had these white white breasts with pink ends, and she just sat there, half-naked. The other kids were pretty damn shocked and startled, I must say. I must say, I was a pretty manipulative sort of kid, I think, daring Ceil to do something like that.
Also, I was pretty much what you might call chronic as far as masturbation goes. What I was doing was masturbating in different locations; for some reason I was really fascinated with the idea of masturbating in all the rooms of the house, the backyard, the garage, the bathroom at school. When we went out anywhere— Lila took me to plays sometimes, and sometimes to restaurants, once in a while even to a dinner party of one of her friends—I’d find the bathroom and masturbate. Partly, I was fascinated with my own dick, which is kind of a weirdly embarrassing thing to admit. Every time I saw it or touched it—every time—I’d get that jabbing jolt of pleasure. Which I can’t really explain. And so then masturbating in these different places made the whole sensation stronger, more intense, dreamier, etc. I thought maybe I was a pervert, but then that idea kind of got me excited, too.
I don’t know. I think masturbating all over the place was, actually, in a weird way, comforting. To be in a new place, doing an old thing. Masturbating was comforting because it was familiar, like the only really familiar thing in my whole life. Later, when I told Holly about my perversion, he said it was like a dog marking.
So, my mother—”I have had it with you.” Not because of masturbation; she didn’t know about all that. It was too many notes home from teachers, too many phone calls from the principal and vice-principal and all those types of people, and finally they expelled me from the school, which was a snooty private middle school so they could kick you out if they wanted to.
Lila was sitting on her brand new mauve sofa, which cost five million dollars or something, swirling her martini around and sucking her cigarette and saying how disappointed in me she was. See, the principal had called her that afternoon, right in the middle of one of her board of directors things, for the art museum or whatever. “I don’t suppose it even occurred to you that I was in a very important meeting. I don’t suppose it matters to you at all.” And she went on and on about how inconsiderate I was, always had been, etc., and finally I couldn’t take it, a sense of the injustice of it all overwhelmed me. I really think kids are much more sensitive to unfairness.
I said, rather loud, “Look, do you think I like to be messing up in school? Hasn’t it ever occurred to you that maybe I’m troubled or something?” See, it was just like back in fourth grade, way back, seemed like centuries before, when I tried to ask my mother for help, to tell her the truth about me.
“Oh, you’re troubled are you?” Her legs were tucked under her bottom on the mauve sofa and she began rubbing the soles of her stockinged feet with her hand. “Troubled? Troubled? Well, we’ve all got troubles, mister. I mean, if you think you’ve got troubles now....” She was having a fit or something, she was all red. She stubbed out her cigarette, her hand was trembling, and then she closed her eyes and took a few huge breaths. She whispered to herself, with her eyes closed, “I am serene. I am serene. I am serene.” See, Lila had joined this weird group where they meditated and told themselves they were serene all the time, even though they were all practically certifiable neurotics or whatever.
“All right,” she finally said to me, when she’d opened her eyes. “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to go up to your room and clean it.”
I must have rolled my eyes or something. I mean, her solution to everything was always to clean.
“That’s right, mister. And I don’t mean straighten up or tidy up. You clean, mister. Spotless. That bed made. Every item of clothing folded or hung. The rugs shaken. The windows washed. All of it clean. Like your life depends on it, mister. Understand?” She lit another cigarette and then she took this box that was on the floor beside her, opened it fiercely, and inside was a ridiculous black hat with a wide brim and a white sash, and she put on the hat. She just put on the hat. I thought maybe she’d gone crazy, right in front of my eyes. Her kid’s got all these problems, drinking and smoking and hanging around with crazy Ceil, and then he gets expelled; and all Lila could think to do was have me clean my room while she sat alone wearing a new hat. “I am serene,” she fumed.
So, there were quite a few more messy scenes involving my mother, myself, and her fourth husband, Mr. Levine. Mr. Levine used to be a rabbi but then he invented a little gadget that increases the efficiency of Xerox machines or something. He became a millionaire. They’d have these private talks in their bedroom about what should be done with me, and then they’d call me in. Mr. Levine would stand next to the bureau, fiddling with his cuff links and whatever. He must have felt rather weird, actually. I mean, he hardly knew me, and here he was all embroiled in this adolescent stuff. Anyway, Lila did all the talking. I just sat picking at threads on her expensive chaise lounge.
Finally, Lila hit on a solution. “What we’ve decided, Jed, is to arrange a tutor for you. This person will come right here to the house and you will study privately. It seems you are too distracted at school”—she took a violent drag of her cigarette—“you’re restless. Obviously, you’re more advanced than the other students, and the teachers do not challenge you. So, Morris”— that was Mr. Levine—“and I have agreed that a tutoring situation would be appropriate for right now, for this stage of your education. We have talked it over at some length and ... Will you stop picking at that upholstery!” she barked at me, and I jumped, and Mr. Levine jumped too.
Anyway, so this is how Hollis Flood and I came to meet. That day seems like so long ago. I was standing in the kitchen with our new maid, Eliza. She was practically only a kid herself, seventeen or so. She’d just been working for us a couple of weeks. Eliza was Amish. Lila hated her and made sarcastic remarks, paid her next to nothing. Eliza was nice enough but real timid. She wore a plain gray dress and a white apron and white bonnet. I don’t really know what the Amish life is like or anything. I mean, I know they make cheese and everything. Eliza walked in on me naked in the bathroom once, and I even had half a hard-on, and she screamed, she literally screamed, she literally went running down the hallway, threw the towels she’d been carrying, and kind of pulled her apron up over her head.
Anyway, that morning, I had my ear against the kitchen door, trying to hear Lila interviewing this new tutor. They were in the living room. She’d say something too soft, he’d say something, and then she would laugh. And she kept saying, “How delightful, Mr. Flood.” “That’s most impressive, Mr. Flood.”
I never have found out exactly what tricks he used on my mother—or, actually, what tricks she used on him. But they seemed to be getting along, they seemed to have some kind of weird understanding, which is all the weirder considering how things turned out.
Eventually, I was called in to meet Holly. I marched slowly across our long rose-colored carpet, toward the two of them seated on the sofa like royalty or movie stars or something. Like I should have bowed or something.
“Well, here he is,” Lila exclaimed flashing her broad, phony grin. “Jed, this is your new tutor, Mr. Flood.”
“Good morning, Jed,” Holly said.
I said, “Hi.” I hated him.
Lila turned daintily toward Holly and wondered,
“Wouldn’t you like some more tea, or a scone, perhaps?”
Holly rose—he was so tall above me then, like a giant—and took his cane, which had been leaning against the glass and marble coffee table. “No, thank you, Mrs. Levine. I think Jed and I had better get acquainted.” Very soft spoken, direct. “Will you show me the way, Jed?”
I shrugged. “Yeah, sure, okay.” So, I did hate him when I first met him. But, you know how people always say that adolescents are always acting out, trying to get attention by being bad and everything, but what they’re really doing is crying for help? Well, I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I did want to be helped, I really did. So, some little piece of my brain or heart or guts or whatever saw Holly as the answer to a prayer. Which I didn’t even know I’d been praying. If that makes any sense.
Holly followed me up the front stairs, through the second-floor corridor, past the bedrooms and baths to the back of the house, down three steps into the room we called the solarium, a gigantic square room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a green tile floor. Lila had set it up for us to use as a schoolroom. There were a large wrought iron and glass table for studying, a few walnut bookcases, a rolltop desk for Holly, and an antique school desk for me. Also, Lila’s old hi-fi set was in there, and some scratched up classical music records. She had thrown in some other school-type stuff: a globe, a chalk board, pads of construction paper, and notebooks and pencils.
Holly looked around the place. “This will do just fine,” he said. “What do you think, Jed?”
I didn’t answer. I sat down at my desk and folded my hands.
Then Holly made this gesture, which I’ve now seen him do thousands of times, maybe millions: he puts the ring finger of his right hand onto the very outside corner of his left eye (if you can picture that; it’s the weirdest kind of motion to make). Then rubs a tiny, delicate circle and sighs softly, like he’s just exhausted. He blinks.
Holly had an unusual teaching method, his own sort of style, very vivid. He believed in concentrating on people rather than subjects. So, for example, we studied Emily Bronte, who wrote Wuthering Heights. So we read the book, of course, and then we read some stuff about Emily Bronte and her sisters and then some stuff about Victorian England and the history and all of that. And then it got extended—that’s Holly’s term; he always was saying, “Extend it, extend it, take it as far as you can.” He can be really dramatic and everything. So, for example, we were reading about Catherine and Heathcliff and the moors and the heather and all of that and Holly asked me, “Do you know what heather is? Do you know what the moors are?” So, we got these books about the English countryside and vegetation and wildflowers. And every word we came across that I didn’t know, we looked up and wrote down the definition. I remember I had never heard the word morose before, and if you’ve ever read Wuthering Heights you know there’s actually quite a lot of morose in there. Some other words I remember even until this day— hebdomadal, which means weekly, and moiety, which means portion. Also, interjacence, phlegmatic, catafalque, onus.
Anyway, Wuthering Heights led Holly to start talking about narrative, different voices telling the story, and then about literature and authors who experimented with these weird sorts of techniques and how when movies got invented it changed how people related to reading and to stories. So from this one book, I got a whole education.
That’s what happened with other people we studied, too. We listened to Duke Ellington and then read all about popular music and the recording industry and then racism and civil rights. It went on that way when we studied different painters, writers, musicians, scientists. One idea would lead to another, one book would lead to another.
There were some people Holly would not discuss. “Mark Twain is an utter bore. If you want to read Mark Twain, do it on your own time; the same with Gertrude Stein. These people are frauds.” And he didn’t know a thing about any music after about 1950 or so.
Holly had a rather complicated theory about what really matters and what really does not matter. It all seemed arbitrary to me, I never could figure his logic. Truth mattered to Holly. But also, he was so full of contradictions, and you just couldn’t argue with him. I’d get frustrated, I’d see how he wasn’t consistent, he wasn’t fair. Kids really depend on things being fair.
“But, of course. That’s the truth. People and things never are consistent, Jed. Life isn’t at all fair.” He looked at me like question marks were plastered on his wide, dark, kind of crazy eyeballs; and the question, always, was, Do you understand?
Spring / Summer 2023
Bo Huston was born in Chagrin Falls, OH, in 1959. After Hampshire College, he lived in Manhattan, where he got clean and sober and started writing. Bo moved to San Francisco in 1987 and, within a year, learned he was HIV+. Over the next too-short years, he lived and wrote and found a partner and a community of friends who loved him fiercely. He died May 24, 1993, surrounded by family and friends, at a time of his choosing. His last book, The Listener, and an essay in Thomas Avena’s collection Life Sentences were published posthumously. His novel The Dream Life was republished this year by the Fellow Travelers Series, with a new afterword by Rebecca Brown, a contemporary of Bo’s he much admired. The Bo Huston Prize is an annual award to a writer completing a novel.
Ronald Lockett (1965-1998) was slight of build and sentient to the point of grace. Lockett existed somewhat precariously in a historical crossroads between two generations, after the great mid-century social movements had ended and just before the dominance of television and urban culture. He was a unique talent, influenced equally by Thornton Dial and Bob Ross, who he watched on television. He grew up in the wilds of post-industrial Bessemer, Alabama where he lived with his mother until her death, remaining in his childhood home until his own untimely demise resulting from AIDS-related illness. He never spent more than a few weeks away from home, but was able to mine far-flung histories, both personal and shared, with deference and aplomb.