Prince of Fortune

In Sacred & Profane by Donna Johnsonleave a COMMENT

Ian and Nicolas swept into Architectural Antics in the grand manner of those who are handsome, rich, and know it—but without the arrogance that renders such qualities distasteful and unattractive.

Ian was wearing a dark green trench coat belted at the waist over gray wool trousers and a starched white shirt open at the neck. Nicolas’ black hair was tied in a ponytail and he wore a burgundy jacket made of the softest velvet, with a blue silk scarf tied loosely round his neck that emphasized the deep brown of his eyes. Both of them were stunning, with such grace and self-possession that I felt as if in the presence of royalty.

“Hello, Asa,” they said.

I had an elusive memory of making conversations with them after drinking too much. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the things we had discussed or their names. So I faked it, returning their embrace as if they were long-lost brothers.

“Oh, hey,” I said, all joviality and warmth, while thinking: Who are these people and where do I know them from?

Clearly they were a couple, as evidenced by a lingering hand on the shoulder, the intimacy with which they looked at each other when agreeing on an object to buy, and their happy familiarity as they sauntered around the antique store off North Broadway. They took me along with them around the store as though I were a close friend or family member, and after awhile I felt as though I was. They called me Asa, a completely fictional name I created more than 20 years ago to sell a series of paintings called “Extraordinary Women.”

“Do you remember how we first met?” I finally ventured to ask. Ian scratched his head and thought for a moment.

“You know, I can’t remember,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “I think it was in Bearden. Maybe through another painter.”

“Cynthia Markert?” I asked.

“That’s it,” Ian exclaimed. “That’s how we met! You came to one of her shows. You know, we own more of Cynthia Markert’s paintings than anyone else in the world.”

“Lucky you,” I replied, for I love Markert’s flapper girls. “We have known each other for a long time, then.”

Warmed by our accidental reunion, they proceeded to buy 10-foot gargoyles, turn-of-the century tables, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and three or four bird baths.

“Who are you getting these for?” I asked.

“We have an antique business,” said Nicolas, running his slender hand over the body of a female statue as though he were feeling supple skin instead of an inanimate object. “We also have two houses, one in Sequoyah Hills and an apartment downtown.”

Ian wrote out a check to the store’s owner, Dayton, with a flourish and a nod. “We’ll have someone pick these things up later today,” he said. He might have been writing out a check for a $30 haircut instead of a check for hundreds of dollars at an exquisite store where I could barely afford a set of $20 wind chimes.

“Shall we go to Cocoa Moon for a cocktail?” Nicolas asked his partner, taking Ian’s arm.

“We shall,” said Ian, and once again I felt I was in the presence of royalty.

“Come along, Asa,” they said in unison, as they escorted me into a brand new silver Mercedes. For me it’s a treat riding in any car at all, but now, perched in the front seat of their convertible with the top down, I had become royalty myself for a few minutes.

It was over coffee and brandy at Cocoa Moon, in Market Square, that I discovered a most unusual thing—that Ian and I had more in common than I would ever have imagined. I was talking about property my family was trying to sell in Fentress County, when Ian did a double-take.

“Did you say Fentress County?” he asked.

“I did,” I replied, stirring my coffee.

He took my hand and looked me in the eye. “My dear. This is an unbelievable coincidence. Fentress County is where I come from, too. I was raised in Grimsley.”

“You’re kidding,” I replied, marveling once more at the intricacies and mysteries of a universe that brings together those who belong together at exactly the time they should meet.

I looked at this sophisticated man who might have just flown in from Rome or Paris, and tried to imagine him as a youth in Jamestown—Grimsley, no less, which was a community a few miles outside of Jamestown. It had, at most, a country store with baloney and cracker sandwiches, a country church, and a rural school. It was hard to imagine this man coming from such a place, let alone being gay there, for at that time in Jamestown and the surrounding communities it was all white Protestant—no blacks, no Jews, no Catholics, no anything different from the norm that was Fentress County and its own. If you were anything other than that, you learned early on to hide it, for judgment was harsh in Southern small towns in the ’50s.

“I knew early on that I was different from other people, but I tried to ignore and repress the stirrings that were my natural birthright,” he said. “I pretended even to myself that I was like everyone else, but when I got older and left for the city, I knew I would never go back.”

Well, I am not gay, but I had known early on that I was different, too, in ways I can’t quite put into words. For one thing, even as a small child in hot, sweaty tent revivals, with mosquitoes flying all around, I knew there was something amiss with the preacher’s sermon. As he screamed about the flames of hell devouring us for all eternity, if we did not believe in “Je—sus,” I thought to myself: What kind of egomaniac would send people to everlasting hell just because they don’t believe in Him​?

“My granny owned the Rebel drive-in restaurant,” Ian said proudly, and I remembered well driving there after Sunday night church for a corn-dog, greasy French fries, and some fried chicken in a basket. Listening to Ian talk about the Rebel drive-in, and the shirt factory I worked in for a short while that his mother managed, I suddenly felt 16 again, driving my white Mustang ’round and ’round the Rebel, looking for boys, looking for my girlfriends, sipping on a cup of root beer through a straw in a large Styrofoam cup filled with ice.

Ian and I just sat looking at one another. I wondered what it had been like for a him as a young boy, being different in a place where “different” was tantamount to a betrayal, struggling with feelings that were as natural to him as the wind blowing through the stately trees of downtown Jamestown. To express his true self would have incurred a certainty of condemnation by the congregations of Fentress County. To pretend to be other than he was in order to be accepted must have caused a cognitive dissonance within himself that was not easy to bear.

Ian and I talked long after that, as Nicolas sat and patiently listened, his hand wandering over from time to time to stroke Ian’s own hand.

As we got up to leave, we all clasped hands, like football players sharing a prayer before the game begins.

Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”

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