When the Chronicle’s new entertainment critic referred to Donna Tell-All as the “Dean of Drag,” Donna feared her sun on stage was setting. “I will not be respected,” Donna determined. She crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it across the dressing room she found herself sharing with younger performers, these weeks with one named Clover Fields or something like that.
Clover had brought the review to Donna’s attention. Clover had thought it a positive review even though it had failed to mention Clover by name.
“What is it, Donna,” Clover inquired.
Slumped over the vanity, Donna sobbed. “I will not be respected. I will be enjoyed as I am right now, or I will not be at all.”
It had been the critic’s first San Francisco drag show, one that should have heralded Donna’s return to the Starlight Room at the Sir Francis Drake. Donna had missed several Sunday brunch performances while recovering from a biopsy on her prostate. The biopsy had failed to reveal any cancer. But it had been and continued to be grim.
“Are you still in pain?” Clover asked then dropped her voice to a whisper. “Are you still bleeding? Through your thing?”
A dull, insistent pain had occupied Donna’s nether lands. “Just a little,” Donna said, “Just enough to ensure that I will never be reborn with those disgusting organs.”
“What happened that you’re still sore? I could tell you’ve been uncomfortable because we’re best friends.”
Donna wasn’t keen on Clover’s thinking they were best friends. Clover was a farm girl from Fresno with weight-control issues and sometimes, Donna suspected, mouth-control ones.
“Do you think the audience noticed?” Donna said.
“Absolutely not,” Clover said. “I’ve said nothing to anyone. People don’t even know you developed a prostate –”
“In an unguarded moment,” Donna inserted.
“All people think is your luxury cruise extended its run.”
“That’s why Slate, the director, gave you one of my best numbers?” Donna asked.
“I’m new to the company,” Clover sounded defensive. “I couldn’t just say no.”
“I’m not saying you should have said no. It’s a cut-throat business. People will rip the pearls from your throat and take your neck with them.” Donna touched her chest and noticed that her own long strands were missing. “My pearls!” she said in alarm.
“Your pearls,” Clover said, “You gave to me, just before your leave began.”
“I don’t remember doing that, not my pearls.”
“You were under a lot of stress,” Clover said. “I can give them back.”
“I don’t know,” Donna said. “I want the pearls, but I also want to keep my word.”
“You choose,” Clover took Donna’s hand, kissed it then looked up and said. “The song of yours that Slate gave me – someone else tried to steal it.”
Donna surged to life, “Who was it?”
“I shouldn’t have mentioned that, I’m sorry,” Clover said. “She didn’t get the song anyway.”
“I’m sure it was Dori Ann Gray.” Donna leapt from her chair, but the pain pulled her back. Then after a moment, “You’re right. She didn’t get the song anyway. All she did was reveal her fangs.”
Clover sensed that weakness from the biopsy had caused Donna to listen to reason. Maybe weakness would also overcome Donna’s reluctance to disclose details of the procedure. Clover pressed her advantage. “You have to tell someone about the biopsy or you’ll never put it behind you. Was it like any of the times you were raped?”
“It was worse,” Donna said. “But quicker.”
“What happened? How much quicker?”
“You know those fabulous incense sticks I sometimes burn to express gratitude for a successful performance, the long thick ones from India, not the short, thin ones from Japan, the ones that come 20 to a cylinder, not the ones that come 200 to a box?”
“Think about opening a cylinder and finding inside it — not long black incense sticks but long silver needles.”
“I can’t,” Clover said, “I’m already screaming! 20 needles!”
“The urologist used only 16.”
“Couldn’t you afford all 20?”
“The first two needles are for a local anesthetic, one on the left side, then one on the right.”
“Are they painful? Of course, they’re painful.”
“High C painful,” Donna said.
“I’m screaming,” Clover said. “What happened next?”
“Before the anesthetic can work –” Donna interrupted herself, “I must have a leathery prostate.”
“Jimmy Chu shoe leather?” Clover offered.
“I was thinking a tender Prada clutch.”
“Definitely Prada,” Clover rolled her eyes involuntarily.
“Before the anesthetic takes effect,” Donna shuddered, “He sticks the other fourteen needles into me.”
“All at once? From the front? From the rear?”
“All from the rear.”
“But not all at once. One at a time to take tissue samples from different parts of the prostate.”
“I didn’t know there were so many parts in the prostate. I think there are only four or five chambers in the heart. It sounds horrible.”
“The horrible part was when he inserted the third needle, and a long stream of blood spurted from my penis.”
“I’m not screaming anymore. I’m just dying. Anything more horrible than that?”
“Right after the procedure, right in the room with me, he lights an unfiltered cigarette and inhales slowly then exhales with loud, disrespectful satisfaction.”
“Only a tigress could survive that,” Clover said. “Or a tiger, I’m not sure which.”
“Maybe not even that.”
Some women Donna’s age were still bleeding every 28 days or so. But being an abandoned baby factory was one thing; being a drag queen was a totally different mission in life. A few days after the dressing room chat, Donna asked the director about the song he had given to Clover, about his possibly returning it to Donna.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “People like variety in cabaret. But I think I may ease it away from Clover and let Dori Ann try it on. She had been my first choice anyway.”
Recently retired from the practice of law, Chuck teaches English in San Francisco. His work has appeared in numerous publications. Some of his fiction has been collected in Sierra Showdown: A Triptych and in Against Slander: Three Admonitions. Both books are available on Amazon.com.