“There He Is ...”
I AM five years old and standing as dramatically as a five-year-old knows how in the middle of the Rouse Family log cabin in the Missouri Ozarks. I am wearing the following handpicked items: my grandma Rouse’s red heels (her “whore” shoes, she calls them); my mom’s black-and-white polka-dot bikini (which fits surprisingly well after duct-taping it down, and it shows off my thin, tan body and blond hair); gold earrings that look like marigolds; a faux pearl necklace; a tinfoil crown embedded with glued-on red checkers; and a cardboard sash that says MISS SUGAR CREEK in red magic marker.
I am posing as regally as I know how—back razor straight, head slightly tilted, smiling brightly—while holding a tinfoil-covered Wiffleball bat I pretend is a scepter. I am breathlessly waiting for my family to come back from fishing off our beach on Sugar Creek. It is the Fourth of July, and every year on this holiday my family holds a mock Miss America pageant, complete with eveningwear, bathing suit, and talent competitions. I am always a judge but have never been allowed to be a contestant.
Until now, I have always thought it was because I am too young.
It has finally dawned on me that it’s because I’m a boy.
So while everyone is down at the beach fishing and gathering kindling for our big bonfire, I am sneaking back up and officially entering myself in the pageant.
The moment my family comes in, I wave my scepter and graciously thank them for their decision. They stare at me, blinking in slow motion, trying to act like nothing is wrong, like it is perfectly natural for me to be standing there in a bikini and heels, like a tiny boy Phyllis George.
Then they walk past me and begin putting up their fishing poles, grabbing snacks, continuing with their routines. They do not know what to do with me, so they ignore me.
“I am Miss Sugar Creek!” I scream in my best Queen’s English. “Lavish me with furs, cars, prizes, and scholarships!”
My family freezes dead in their tracks, like in a movie when the action suddenly stops and the actors are still and lifeless. Only my brother, Todd, a true country boy, moves toward me, shaking his head, grabbing the scepter from my hands and motioning with it for me to walk the length of the cabin.
“There he is, Miss Sugar Creek,” he sings off-key.
I feel so honored.
I am Miss Sugar Creek.
Nine years later, however, I will reluctantly have to relinquish my title.
On the Fourth of July holiday in 1979, just a month after I graduated from junior high, a month after Todd graduated from high school, just as I was realizing I liked boys and hated my older brother, Todd died, and I quickly buried two things—my brother deep in the ground and my sexuality deep in me—and chose to remember neither one for a very long time.
I decided, out of pain and shame, out of respect for my family, to change who I was. I would not allow my parents to mourn the loss of a second son in their lives. I decided I would be the son I should be, the son my family deserved, the son to bear them children. I would not be gay. I would be normal.
I would, however, spend years eating my way through my guilt and misery, downing food faster than I could twirl a baton (which I was going to do for the talent portion of Miss Sugar Creek). I would lie and hurt more people than I could even remember. I would eventually put a knife to my wrist and try to end my life.
But in the fog of that moment as I contemplated suicide, I remembered the summers of my youth, my grandparents, my family, those who loved me for who I really was, those who fought for me to have a better life. And I would choose to live.
And slowly, my fog would lift like the morning mist off Sugar Creek.
Growin’ Up in Granby
YOU DON’T really have a say in where you live. It is predestined. Some people get Malibu, Taos, or Aspen; I get Granby, a tiny farm town in the southwest Missouri Ozarks.
My parents grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, in little places that don’t even warrant dots on a map, places with deserted main streets and town squares, old bandstands and courthouses, and very little hope.
My family has hope. And that’s what makes it all so very hard.
My mom, Geraldine (“Geri,” for short), grew up in Granby with my grandparents, Viola and Wilbur “Web” Shipman, and my aunt Peggy. My dad, Ted, grew up in Neosho, the county seat, about eight miles from Granby, with my other grandparents, Fred and Madge, and my aunt Marilyn and uncle Roy.
Everything in Granby is white or off-white—the people, the cars, the clothes, the houses. It is like the black-and-white opening of The Wizard of Oz. When you finally see color, it’s overwhelming.
Even the food in Granby is white or off-white. When I go to dinner at friends’ houses, they eat only gray-looking meat alongside a potato. They snack on potato chips and vanilla ice cream. They drink milk or beer. “We don’t like any food with color,” a friend’s mom said to me once, when I asked if there were vegetables. “They’re weird.”
And so am I. I like to wear starched pink oxfords, sweater vests, and shoes with buckles. I do not like to get my hands dirty. I did not wipe my own butt until I was in junior high.
There is not much to Granby, Missouri, a town where trailers outnumber homes and teeth. There is one gas station; one lonely, dirty little grocery store; a post office; and one restaurant—Rita’s—which rotates its “fried buffet” daily. That’s how Rita’s publicizes it: “fried buffet.” The food is deep-fried and all-you-can-eat; people wobble in—literally wobble—and eat until the steaming silver bins are empty. Monday night at Rita’s is fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cream gravy; corn with mountains of butter that slowly melt until the kernels are actually floating; green-bean casserole; and apple pie, crisp, cobbler, and ice cream. Tuesday is fried fish and hush puppies. Wednesday is fried frog legs and french fries. Thursday is breakfast-all-day (fried eggs and hash browns), and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday repeat with the chicken, fish, and frog legs. There is, of course, a salad bar, but it contains only iceberg lettuce and four dressings: ranch, Thousand Island, bleu cheese, and creamy Italian; the rest is mayonnaise-laden “salads”—macaroni and potato—sitting next to bacon bits and chopped-up ham. My family eats at Rita’s two or three times a week and always shows up for the Sunday buffet during the school year. I try to avoid the buffet—any buffet—but it is impossible in the Ozarks. When I ask for oatmeal, I am told that “oat” isn’t a “meal.”
Granby doesn’t even have a stoplight—just a flashing light in the middle of town whose only purpose is seemingly to highlight the town’s two deserted main streets. The town is so quiet that when you drive by with your windows down, day or night, you can actually hear the blinking light blink—the click, click, click of the yellow.
Granby does, however, have its own language. For instance, the word “nary,” found only once in Webster’s, actually has three distinct meanings in Granby: nary as adjective meaning “narrow” (That’s a nary bridge, or Don’t be nary-minded); nary as contraction meaning “isn’t” (Nary a motel in town); or nary as a noun meaning “contrarian” (Don’t be a nary).
Granby’s claim to fame is trumpeted proudly on its lone water tower: THE OLDEST MINING TOWN IN THE SOUTHWEST. How true that is, I never know. Granby had been—for the briefest of periods—a buzzing ore-mining town. The town had swelled to about 5,000 people at its height. There were dance halls, bars, places to eat, and more bars. Men swarmed for the work, and women followed. One of those men was my mom’s dad, Grampa Shipman.
The beauty of Granby, or of any small town, is its simplicity, its absolute nothingness, where you’re free to concentrate on nature.
I love watching summer storms roll in from the horizon; they literally unfold in front of your eyes without obstruction and take their sweet time to reach you, winds whipping the hayfields and meadows, the temperature dropping in a matter of minutes. Clouds of unimaginable grandeur fill the sky like some grand painting, blocking the sun, its rays shooting out from the edges. I can see the rain begin to fall miles away. Long before you can hear it, you can smell it. “I can smell rain,” Grandma Shipman says, sometimes before clouds had even formed—a sixth sense that always amazes me.
I love the sounds of the seasons: the crickets in the summer, red and yellow fall leaves in the woods falling heavily upon one another after a rain, the ground in spring actually talking as it comes back to life—grass growing, flowers springing forth—and the utter and complete silence that a heavy winter’s snow brings. These are country sounds, uninterrupted by any other. In the country you hear everything, even these “sighs” from the earth; there are no distractions.
And I love our cabin on Sugar Creek, which sits on the Missouri border, about an hour south of Granby, just before you fall into Arkansas or trip into Oklahoma. It is where I come alive. The room to roam in small towns is limitless. However, the psychological room to roam, especially if you are different, is suffocating; there is not enough anonymity to try new things, to be different, to actually find who you are. You are, in many ways, like a shelter dog, tagged at birth: ABANDONED; COMES FROM A BIG FAMILY, DOESN’T NEED A LOT OF ATTENTION; AGGRESSIVE—JUST NEEDS LOVE; QUIET AND A BIT DETACHED, BUT SWEET. That tag is nearly impossible to shed; once it’s latched on to your collar in your youth, you just can’t tear it off.
I am different, and I know it. My whole family does. We all knew it from the moment I wore a crown and earrings, from the second I stared at boys and told my grandmas they were cute.