By Ross Dreiblatt
“A true Queen of the Valley always carries herself with the utmost grace, style and speaks clearly with the occasional well placed vulgarity.”
This phrase, the one so royally pronounced weekly to eager drag contestants every Sunday at the Queen Mary Bar in Los Angeles’s iconic San Fernando Valley, so long ago, ran through David Goldstein’s mind as he stood at his father’s grave site.
He sighed deeply, not because he missed his father, but because he missed an opportunity to come to the funeral in full Alexis Carrington black widow mode. A floppy black hat, sunglasses and high stink eye behind the sunglasses would have felt just right. The outfit might not be appropriate for the humid outdoor Florida burial site, but it would fit his mood. There weren’t more than a dozen mourners gathered around the burial site and David only knew Aunt Ruthy. She wouldn’t have cared, probably would have gotten a kick out of it.
The Rabbi officiating over the ceremony cleared his throat and asked if anyone would like to say a few words before they proceed with the burial. Aunt Ruthy nudged him in the ribs, but David just shook his head. Maybe I should throw myself in the grave and scream ‘No, take me instead!’ he thought. Ah, but he didn’t have the wardrobe to pull it off. He’d probably get a rise out of the others gathered here, his dad’s last remaining friends he supposed.
Aunt Ruthy stepped up to the Rabbi, “Yes, I’d like to say a few words.”
David rolled his eyes at her. Ruthy was a spunky little firecracker for a 75 year old woman who weighed about 80 pounds and most of that was tits and ash blond wig.
“My brother Max was a loving brother, a loving husband and…a good father.” She threw her chin up towards David.
She’s admonishing me to keep quiet, he thought. But even I have some sense of protocol. After all, I’m a true Queen of the Valley, carrying myself with the utmost grace.
“He wasn’t perfect, none of us are, but he was a good man. A man we all came to appreciate. He was a war veteran and defended his country bravely during world war 2.”
David wondered if Ruthy would get through her spiel without saying ‘fuck.’ The older she got, the less she seemed to be able to control her language. He loved that about her. He loved everything about her. She was the mother and father he wished he had.
“I remember when Irene died, god rest her soul, and he moved down here to Sunny Vistas right next door to me. He looked so sad. I realized he’d never lived alone a day in his life and he didn’t have a clue. Couldn’t even figure out the microwave. I would cook for him sometimes and then we would talk about the old days.”
The Rabbi took out his phone and began swiping at the screen.
“What are you doing there?” Ruthy stopped to squawk at the Rabbi, “Put the fucking phone down! This is a goddamned funeral! This maybe just a job for you, but this is my big brother, this is someone’s father, a little respect for chrissakes!”
The rabbi put his phone back in his pocket and apologized.
David smiled, oh how he loved Ruthy. He remembered spending a summer with her in Las Vegas when he was a teenager. She was working as the box office manager for the Silver Slipper Jubilee Topless Dancing Revue. That’s when he knew. He knew that staring at tits did nothing for him, but the costumes sure did. And God bless her, Ruthy did all she could to wake up his burgeoning inner drag queen.
“And please, come by the apartment, I have some cake and coffee. Thank you.” As Ruthy finished, she was tearing up, leaving her mascara to run into the well-worn crevices of her face. She put her arm through David’s arm, “Come, take us home.”
David inherited a one-bedroom condo from his father. So odd, he thought. He hadn’t had a real conversation with his father since his mom died. He hadn’t seen any purpose for it. After his father moved here, Ruthy had kept him apprised of his father’s failing health, always begging him to get in touch. David had told her had no interest in the idea. If his dad wanted a relationship with his only child, it was up to him. Not a word from him after that. In fact, the will bequeathing him the condo was the closest his father had come to acknowledging him. No legal terms, just a short note, ‘I want David to have this apartment and be happy here’ signed off by a lawyer.
Sunny Vistas Retirement Village and Resort in Boca Raton, Florida, would now become his home.
Maybe he would stay here. He simply had no place else to go. He was out of work, had less than a thousand dollars to his name and was living with 2 roommates in LA and they were past their expiration date. He was not involved with anyone, in fact, may never again be involved with anyone, he thought as he drove into the main gate of Sunny Vistas. He needed a change of scenery, although this wasn’t the change he was hoping for, this may have to do.
Since he left home in Great Neck, New York to run off to Hollywood when he was 19, he’d never really had his own home, never felt like he belonged anywhere. His parent’s home had felt like his parent’s home, alien to him. He and his father had never gotten along, so he never felt welcomed there. The only place he’d ever felt at home was the stage, specifically the stage of the Queen Mary in Studio City so many years ago. That’s where Miss Nomer was born. Miss Nomer was a true Queen of The Valley. He owned that stage for a good 10 years and then it all ended so abruptly, so cruelly. No warning, just a sold sign on the front door. He tried taking his act to a few other bars, but it was never the same. Instead of being the main act, the reason for the bar, he became at best a sideshow, a filler between muscled up go go dancers.
The father who had chased him out of his own home years ago owed him a home. The circle of life is complete, he thought.
He parked in front of his new home and helped Ruthy, his new next door neighbor, up to her apartment for the funeral ‘after party.’
David looked around Ruthy’s spotless chrome and mirrored apartment. She’d decorated it years ago and now it looked like well-kept time capsule. In fact, it looked like the lounge of The Queen Mary. David’s new home looked more like a thrift shop, all of the stuff his mom had bought and never thrown out still haunting him, following him.
“Where are those little boxes you’re supposed to sit on?” He vaguely remembered the Jewish ritual from his grandmother’s funeral years ago.
“You mean for sitting shiva? Ucch.” Ruthy waved him away.” I got no patience for that anymore. What do you kids say, I have no fucks anymore? Look, this is Sunny Vistas, someone goes every week, who has the time for all that tsuris? Some coffee and cake is fine. I got Entenmanns in the fridge, help me put it out.”
David smiled. “The kids say, I have no fucks to give, Ruthy.” She still thinks of him as a kid. He was 48 and could probably pass for a retiree here at Sunny Vistas. He caught a glimpse of himself in one of Ruthy’s mirrored walls. Without his drag, he was plain. The very definition of plain, he thought. He was balding and becoming pot-bellied. He was losing his jawline to middle age. With some make up and the right wardrobe, he could still pull off a fabulous Miss Nomer, but out of drag he looked like an accounts payable clerk from the valley. Even worse, he felt like an accounts payable clerk from the valley. Maybe that’s why he was morphing into one. It had been months since he ‘donned the tiara’ and he felt like all of that wit, the fabulousness he’d cultivated was draining out of him. Miss Nomer, where have you gone?
“I have no fucks to give!” Ruthy proclaimed with a laugh. “Also can you get the white table cloth from the top shelf in the hall closet for me?”
David fetched the table cloth to cover the glass topped Dining room table. A table cloth had been Miss Nomer’s very first outfit way back when he was just a boy in Great Neck wondering what it would feel like if he had a cape and a crown. It felt good. Too good, he thought. That table cloth had ruined him, had opened up a life in him that he began to nurture and develop from that day forward. The future Miss Nomer would overpower David Goldstein and guide all of his thinking, all of his decisions until she finally pushed her way on to that stage in Studio City. And where was she now? Was she also buried with his father?
“You look so sad, hon.” Ruthy rubbed his back. “Maybe you do miss him some, huh?”
He looked at Ruthy and sighed. He wasn’t mourning his father.
“Listen, tomorrow we’ll go down to the café in the center and have a nice breakfast. They have all kinds of classes and shows, it’ll take your mind off.”
The next morning David sat with Ruthy at the Vista Café in the huge clubhouse that anchored the Sunny Vistas complex. Ruthy studied the grease stained paper menu while David passed judgement.
The place looked more like an after-thought at an airport than any kind of café, he thought. Such a far cry from Dupars, the famous Los Angeles diner that was his go to for breakfasts in the valley, just down the street from the Queen Mary. The tons of eggs and bread he must have consumed there over the course of a decade, all between 2 and 8 in the morning, while trying not to smear make up and white gloves. The Queens of the Valley all packed into their usual booth, refusing to let the night die.
“The stuffed French toast is really good here, but I can never finish it.” Ruth took off her reading glasses for a second to advise him.
David would just order an omelet. They could fill it with cheese and bacon and whatever else they had, he didn’t much care. He could not stop thinking about the past, maybe because there was no future? He would fit right in here at Sunny Vistas. Well almost. His reminiscences would undoubtedly be very different than the average Sunny Vista resident.
They gave the waitress their order and sipped coffee while waiting for the food to arrive. David watched as people who struggled to walk, struggled to breath came and went inside the lobby of the building. They looked miserable, faces all hardened by age and disease, or whatever other bad news that comes with growing old.
“So, how long do you think you can stay down here?” Ruthy asked.
David snapped out of his reverie. “Maybe forever, I don’t know. I don’t have any plans, nothing going on in LA.” Maybe this inheritance was his father’s idea of a cruel punishment. ‘I want David to have this apartment and be happy here.’ Was his father laughing at him from the grave?
“No job, no shows? Not a boyfriend or anything? What about that French guy, Pierre, right?”
David finally smiled. Pierre was actually Peter, David had dubbed him Pierre during a show and it just stuck. “We broke up a while back.” Peter was in the audience of one of his shows, right before the place was sold. David decided he would badger him and charm him from the stage that night. He usually picked some random housewife or someone who looked generally clueless from the audience to pick on. Peter was handsome, the sort of unattainable handsome that had haunted David’s fantasies, but as Miss Nomer, anything was possible.
“Oh, that’s too bad, you looked like such a happy couple in the pictures you sent.”
Couple? No. It was all wrong for so many reasons. Peter fell in love with Miss Nomer. The more David tried to be David, the less Peter was interested in him. Eventually they just drifted apart. Last he had heard, Peter had married a woman and moved down to San Diego. The bottom line: Miss Nomer had game, David didn’t.
“David, you’re not even fifty yet, no? You shouldn’t stay here, although I would love to have you next door, but you should be with young people.” Ruthy leaned over the table, “This place will kill you. Between the yentas and the altacockahs and their always moaning about this and that.” She waved her hand, “Ucch.”
“Alter..what? I don’t think I’ve heard of that one.” David loved Yiddish slang, schmuck, schlong, goy all of that background noise from his youth.
“Oy vey ismere, how can you not know alter cocker? It’s an old fart who just whines all day. Are you mispocheh or what?
David laughed. Mispocheh, family. Also his favorite Jewish Queen of the Valley, Bruce Ratner aka Miss Pocheh one of the five famous Miss’s. Miss Pocheh, Miss Nomer, Miss Spoke, Miss Ah Ginny, and Miss Take. Not to mention the grande dame, who ran the show every night, the Queen herself, Ida Slaptor.
“So finally I get a smile out of you!”
“You did, I’ll give you that. It made me remember one of the old…queens from the act. A true Jewess on stage.”
“I loved your show, you were really the best. You made me laugh so much, that’s why I hate to see you so sad. But I understand, your father passed and it’s complicated. Maybe we could go see one of the drag shows down in Miami, that may cheer you up.”
The waitress stepped up to deliver their food. David was grateful for the interruption. He hoped that she’d forget about the idea. He couldn’t bring himself to see a drag show right now. It would be like water torture, reminding him that Miss Nomer is effectively dead and the huge empty space in his life.
Ruthy began cutting her French toast as she continued, “We could make a night of it, maybe stay down there. Maybe you could even see if there’s a place for you to perform?”
“Let me think about it, okay?” No way would he think about it. He couldn’t explain to her that his drag was a relic, an antique, an old vaudeville act. It’s a very different world out there now. He’d seen the change in LA over the years, with the rise in stature of the trans movement and of course, Rupaul, drag became something different, no longer the fun it once was. The young queens were dismissive of those that had pioneered the way forward for them. The attitude, so necessary for a real queen, seemed to be a cheap imitation, a Chinese knock off, not born out of experience but out of You tube. It was no longer about entertaining people who came to see you, but as a weapon to bludgeon your audience with.
And without Miss Nomer, who was he? Without an audience did he not exist?
“I know this is hard for you to believe,” Ruthy put down her fork, “But he did love you, in his own way. He would ask about you all the time. You have to realize, for someone from his generation and background it was difficult…”
“Ruthy,” David looked in her eyes. “I don’t have to realize anything anymore.” He was done trying to rationalize why a father would reject his own son. He’d spent too many years waiting for some kind of acceptance. Instead he’d gotten a condo in an old folk’s home.
After breakfast, Ruthy gave him a tour of the clubhouse, with all the amenities that were now included as an owner of a condo at Sunny Vistas. They had a gym, pools, tennis courts even bocce courts. David thought for a minute about signing up for the gym, but he felt his waist was beyond control, beyond the help of a workout. Besides he no longer had to squeeze into a gown every night, so what was the point?
As they went through each facility he was confronted by the zombie stares of his fellow residents, the dead eyed look of going through the motions just to keep their hearts beating for a little while longer. Why? Just because. This is me, this is who I am now, he thought.
As they strolled down a hallway, they heard some yelling and a voice over a microphone telling everyone to settle down coming from one of the rooms.
“Bingo” Ruthy informed him. “It gets rowdy in there sometimes. Do you play? It’s a lot of fun. I won about thirty bucks last week. Come, let me show you.”
The huge bingo room was packed. At least 20 big tables full of people. On stage, a man in an old army hat and a plaid shirt filled with medals and pins was talking into the mic.
“You have to be orderly here. When you have Bingo, just yell out and raise your hand okay? Don’t come running up to the stage with your card. A card checker will come to you. If you can’t follow the rules we have to stop the game, okay?”
“That’s Jerry,” Ruthy confided to him. “A real schmuck. He’s always holding up the game just to hear his own voice, that son of a bitch.”
“Just get on with the fucking game!” A voice from the audience.
“There’s no cursing, okay?” Jerry addressed the side of the room where the comment came from. “We got ladies here and there’s no reason for it.”
“Fuck the ladies, Jerry, just call the goddamned number already!” A woman’s voice from another part of the room.
David smiled to himself. These oldsters had a little moxie, a little life left in them. This is actually a great audience. Too bad Jerry just can’t work the room.
“Okay that’s it. I’m just going to stop until there’s some quiet. It’s up to you guys.” Jerry folded his arms across his chest.
“Oh fer chrissakes!”
“Listen,” Jerry spoke into the Mic again, “You think doing this stuff is so easy? There’s a lot going on and if you guys are screaming and cussing like maniacs I can’t keep track of everything. There’s a lot to have to do up here.”
David agreed with Ruthy, this guy was up there just to hear himself talk into the Mic. If Ida Slaptor had that mic, this crowd would never get out of here alive.
“C’mon let’s get out of here before I strangle the SOB,” Ruthy tugged on David’s arm.
David was fascinated., “Not yet, Ruthy.”
“If there’s a lot to do, then do it already!” Another voice from the peanut gallery and some mild clapping.
Touche, David thought.
“Okay would one of you like to do this up here? It’s not just reading numbers, it’s making sure cards are checked, making sure payouts add up, making sure everyone hears the numbers. If anyone thinks they can do this…”
This was a plea for help. A bright Bat Signal lighting up the sky in the middle of the night from the poor downtrodden citizens of Gotham City. David looked at Ruthy for a second and cocked his head. He raised his hand. “I can do this. I’m an expert Bingo caller, years and years of experience.”
Silence as everyone looked towards the back of the room.
Jerry stood on his toes and looked over to David. “Who are you?
“This is my nephew, David,” Ruthy yelled beaming with pride. “You know Max Goldstein? This is his son. He’s staying on at Max’s place right now.”
“Well I’m very sorry about your father, David. He was a fine man and a veteran. Now I can’t have you come up here and start calling numbers in the middle of the game though.”
“Is there a bingo game tonight?” David thought he always did better work at night anyway.
“Sign me up. And I’d like to urge everyone here to come and bring your friends.” David looked down at Ruthy. “We have some work to do.”
At 7:55 pm Ruthy opened the entrance to the Clubhouse doors so Miss Nomer could make her entrance. She was a brazen red head tonight, hair piled a good foot above her head. The make-up was a little over the top, but that would be offset by the soft lighting of the Bingo room. She had her trademark white gloves and black stilettos. The gown was…not her best, but it would work. She and Ruthy had spent hours taking out the waist of an old Dolly Parton number David had bought at an estate sale over a decade ago, and it still didn’t quite fit, but with a glittery shawl draped over the back, no one would see that it didn’t close. And if they did, so much the better. Miss Nomer would work it, no matter what.
The cleavage pulled it all together and would pull the eyes up front instead of any of the flaws in the fit of the gown. She was a double C Cup tonight. Usually this would be great for tip money, but she had her doubts whether this crowd would be tipping. Still, she rehearsed Ruthy on how to prime the pump. “Just walk up and shove a sawbuck into my cleavage when I hit a punchline.”
“Can I see your ID, please?” The guard at the front door to the clubhouse could not take his eyes off of Miss Nomer’s flaming red hair.
Ruthy pulled her ID out of her purse. “This is my guest tonight, Miss Nomer, she’s running the bingo game.”
The guard’s eyes moved down to Miss Nomer’s chest. “Huh?”
Miss Nomer wrapped her shawl in a dramatic upsweep. “Eyes up here cupcake. I’d swear you’d never seen a bingo caller before. Come Ruthy, we don’t want to be late. Well, not too late.”
All eyes turned towards Ruthy and Miss Nomer as they crossed the clubhouse lobby. Miss Nomer ate up the attention, like a starving man at a buffet in Las Vegas. She slowed her gait down a touch to make sure everyone had a good look. As they waited for the elevator she tilted her head and gave a polite queen’s wave to the oglers.
When they were in front of the Bingo room, Ruthy pulled a cassette deck out of her shopping bag. “I don’t have my glasses on, which button is the play button?”
“The second button. Red button is stop. Watch for my signal. Ready?” Miss Nomer checked her hair and gathered her shawl.
“Ready.” Ruthy hit ‘play’ as Miss Nomer entered the room.
Bad Girls from Donna’s Summer’s 1979 album blasted out of the speakers. The room was packed and any trace of conversation stopped. Miss Nomer heard a gasp.
She sashayed up to the stage and grabbed the mic and gave Ruthy the signal to stop the music.
There were some giggles and some murmurs as Miss Nomer raised a white gloved hand. “I am Miss Nomer, Sunny Vista’s resident bad girl and this is the part where you clap, ladies and gentlemen.”
The room responded immediately with applause.
Miss Nomer exhaled. I have them, she thought. For the next two hours I will not let a single one of them go. They are mine.
There was some talking in the audience. She could not allow that, not yet.
“Hello Yentas! Keep the yenting to a minimum for the moment. And Hello Altercockers!” She looked directly at an old man sitting at the very front. “You know, no one knows more about altering their cocker than I do, so let’s begin!”
More people began filing into the room as word of mouth spread throughout the club house. Standing room only.
“Do I need to explain the rules?” Miss Nomer stood by the bingo number basket.
Jerry, in his old army hat and shirt full of medals and pins, stood up from the side of the room. “What are you wearing? This is..a crazy thing!”
Miss Nomer shot a laser stink eye straight at Jerry and moved towards him.
“Jerry? Cupcake?” Miss Nomer put her hand on his shoulder. “This is not your stage tonight, sweety.” She lifted his hat off his head and put it on top of her red hair. “Crazy thing? I suppose we all have our own drag, don’t we?”
The audience loved it. They loved her.
“Now, the rules. When I yell out a letter, like B for…bitch or I for I’m so fabulous, if you’re able to take your eyes off of me, make a mark on your card with those cheap markers on the table. By the way, I need one of those for a touch up on my eyebrows if you have an extra. If you get a Bingo, I want you to yell this out and only this, otherwise we will not hear you, ready? Fuck me, I have Bingo.”
There was a split second of silence and then the crowd erupted in laughter.
“Can we all practice now for a second? One…two…three..”
“Fuck me, I have Bingo!”
Miss Nomer saw a few people leaving, she understood. They could always come back when Jerry took over. She’d have to work out which shifts he would have with him.
Chin up David, Miss Nomer thought, this isn’t so bad is it? We’ll make our way here. Life needn’t be so grim after all. You and I will make this work.
The words from the will swirled in David’s mind again, ‘I want David to have this apartment and be happy here.’
Ruthy ran up to the stage and stuffed a dollar in her cleavage. Maybe Ruthy was right, maybe his father did love him in his own crazy way.
About the Author:
I have a background in journalism and business. The first chapter of my novel, ‘I Am Not Brad Pitt,’ was published in the August 2018 edition of The Write Launch and I had a short story appear in La Chaleur Magazine this past August.