[FICTION] The Terrible Forgiveness of Michael Shale

It was a sunny day at the start of April, a month little-appreciated, when Michael Shale set out to have a day of forgiveness.

It had come to him late the night before, as he was taking receipt of a boot to the head from a gentleman who held strong views on Michael’s conduct and antecedents, that the holding of grudges caused a great quantity of strife in his neighbourhood. Big Sal and Galway Jimmy had, for example, vowed to slit each other’s throats over some tit-for-tat dispute all had forgotten the roots of, and while the rumpus promised to be entertaining it would doubtless draw the attentions of the short and easily-distracted arm of the law.

Whom, Michael thought in a flash of spring inspiration as he pressed a two-cent steak to his bruised face, really held the medal as first-place professional grudge-holders.

Michael was forced to postpone his Christian act as the rigours of the previous night, and Reggie Johnson, with whom he had shared many of these rigours and who was indeed best described as rigorous in all things (especially sharing), demanded his full attention.

When at last his duties to Reggie and the demands of the flesh, both pleasant and otherwise, had been discharged, Michael set about his plan to lead by example.

He left his basement room and ascended the steps with his hat almost tipped enough to hide his swollen face, and the moment his shoes touched the sidewalk, why, there was his first opportunity!

For here was Joe Jefferson, who’d stiffed him a dime last week, all haloed in the dusty light of a fine spring morning.

God moves in mysterious ways, thought Michael, much-satisfied, and he doffed his hat to Joe Jefferson and cried, “Joe! You rascal! Last week you stiffed me a dime!”

Now Joe Jefferson startled, for Michael Shale was a fine body of a man and despite his sour luck the night before and his Saturday night rouge habit, he was known to have a right hook that could swiftly introduce a fellow to the floor.

And when Joe Jefferson startled, two gossipy young things who leaned on the stairs leading up to the second floor rooms startled too.

“Yeah I did,” said Joe Jefferson, who was noted as a man whose chief route out of any hole he found himself in was to dig further, “What of it?”

“What of it?” cried Michael, as he began his walk through Harlem, “Why, I forgive you, Joe Jefferson, that’s what of it! And by God when I find the man who put the boot to my face last night, I shall forgive him too.”

Joe Jefferson received this blessing with a scowl and said to the gossipy young things at the stoop, “That kick to the head turned that fairy’s brain all right.”

But Michael Shale went on his way, ready to forgive.

***

At the General Store at the corner, where boys like to hang around and pinch and poke and shove each other (and sometimes Michael), he came across Father Abraham.

Father Abraham had a newspaper under his arm and his usual string bag of canned ham on his arm and a big broad-brimmed hat, and he was engaged in telling young Herbie Mitchell why it was unChristian to kick cats. He was unhampered by the absence of any direct repudiation of such behaviour in the scriptures, for neither he nor his unwilling audience had read them much.

“Shale,” said Father Abraham, who did not like to call a man ‘Mister’ unless he felt the fellow deserved it, “What are you about at this hour? Have you no job to go to?”

“Why Father, my work is in the evenings, over at Forty-Second Street,” said Michael, almost forgetting his original mission, “as so many of your parishioners know, coming to our theater for their Sunday instead of to your Church!”

The boys outside the General Store laughed and snickered, and none laughed harder than Herbie Mitchell, to see Father Abraham – Father Cans-of-Ham, they called him – given lip by a fairy, and a Negro, no less!

Father Abraham himself said a quite ungodly word.

“As to what I’m about,” said Michael, recalling his purpose, “On Tuesday you called me a layabout n*gger.”

“That I did, for that’s what you are,” Father Abraham said, drawing himself up like a man who is ready for a blow to the jaw, and who means to weather it with dignity. “And I see in the shade of your hat that a less kindly man than I gave you a much-deserved thrashing, you, you loitering degenerate!”

The boys outside the General Stores tittered and gasped, for Father Abraham being a man of whiter hue had turned a lobsterish red in his righteousness!

“Indeed I’ve had a rough night,” said Michael, removing his hat in belated greeting, “And indeed I am seeking the perpetrator. But I’m no layabout, Father, and first I must address these ill words you have used upon me.”

“And just what do you propose to do?” Father Abraham asked in a far littler voice than before, for Michael was near a foot taller than he and the word of the Lord has historically failed to prevent many a martyr from meeting his maker at the hands of more muscular men.

“To forgive you, of course,” said Michael, replacing his hat, and his smile was bright in the morning sun. “It is the Christian thing.”

“So it is,” said Father Abraham with not much conviction and watering eyes. “So it is.”

And Michael Shale went on his way, leaving Father Abraham to let out a large breath, and Herbie Mitchell to say, “Some slap that fairy’s had, to make him talk that way!”

***

At the Subway Station, where three Italian fairies called Miss Pell, Miss Give, and Miss Take – or Angelo, Antonio, and Giovanni Cesare Claudio Pietro to their Mammas – liked to meet men who liked to meet fairies, Michael Shale stopped to buy a newspaper.

“Why Michael Shale,” said the newspaper boy, “you got yourself a real shiner right there.”

“Indeed I do,” said Michael, for indeed he did.

“Indeed she do,” sang Miss Pell, who had missed the whole fight that night and disliked it.

“Oh don’t she just,” trilled Miss Give, who’d missed the start, and was confused.

“And what a night,” called Miss Take, who’d seen the whole thing and loved it. “Hey Miss Shale, are you all right?”

“I got my mind made up,” said Michael, who did not like to be called Miss Shale when it was not a Saturday night, “to find the boot that kicked me.”

“Oooh,” said the fairies, and “oh,” said the newspaper boy, and “Get outta the goddamn road ya degenerates!” said the meat wagon man trying to pass them on a busy street.

“What’ll you do?” asked the newspaper boy.

“Yes, what’ll you do?” asked the Misses Pell, Give, and Take.

“Will you move you black behind?” cried the meat wagon man, whose sausages were starting to spoil.

“Forgive him” said Michael, serene as the sunshine, “it’s the Christian thing.”

“I’m Jewish,” said the newspaper boy.

“Even so,” said Michael Shale.

“I heard it was Leggy Tom,” said Miss Pell, who heard a lot of rumours.

“I think it was Fat Bob,” said Miss Give, and pinched her.

“It was Greasy Ray,” screeched Miss Take, making half the street stare, “what are you, goddamn blind, Miss Give? You was there.”

“Much obliged,” said Michael, and he raised his hat. “Take care now, ladies.”

“Now who does she think she’s fooling with all this ‘forgive’,” sighed Miss Pell, but Michael Shale went on his way, and the meat wagon man took his spoiling sausages on his, too.

***

When Michael Shale got to the City College, where all the smart girls walked fast in their calf-length skirts, he saw Maimie Reed, who just last month threatened to write Michael’s Momma back home and tell her what life he was leading.

Maimie Reed tossed her head – her hair was set and carefully kept and her hat by the way almost covered it all – and said, “Hello Michael, I see you took a beating. Did it set you to rights?”

“It’ll take more than a bruise to kick the fairy out of me,” said Michael Shale, and he lifted his hat so that she could see what a fine bruise it was. “Miss Reed, you have been bearing tales.”

Miss Reed hoisted her books, which had long titles in French and in Latin and in Math, which was harder, and she said, “Not yet, but if you don’t mend your ways, Michael Shale, I’ll write to my Auntie and you’ll catch H-E-L-L.”

“Now Maimie, that isn’t nice,” said Michael, and he put on his hat again. “But I forgive you.”

Maimie gave a great snort and she said, “You’ll get worse than a bruise one day soon.”

“Well perhaps,” said Michael, “but at present I’m away to find Greasy Ray and talk to him about this one he’s given to me.”

“Now don’t you go starting fights,” Maimie sighed, for she knew her cousin was a lost cause. “If you get yourself arrested again you’ll break your Momma’s heart.”

“Who said anything about fights?” cried Michael, already on the move, “I only mean to forgive him.”

“And if I believe that, I’ll believe anything,” said Maimie Reed to herself, and she hitched up her books, which were sliding.

But Michael Shale went on his way with a song in his heart and a sunbeam on his hat, ready to forgive.

***

He found Greasy Ray where Greasy Ray was always to be found; hanging around the Childs on Forty-Second Street like a bad stink, his feet on a seat and so much Brillantine in his hair that he looked like a motor oil spill.

Word travels faster than a man on foot, Michael Shale saw, for a waiter he knew in ways of which Father Abraham did not approve raised up his thin eyebrows and said, “I hear you’re in the forgiveness business now, Miss Shale.”

“That I am,” said Michael, for that he was. And he took off his hat. “And I’ve a man in mind.”

“I’ll tell him,” said the waiter, with a smile that meant no good, for he loved a cat-fight as much as his manager hated them, though he was never in them himself. “He’s been waiting on you while I’ve been waiting on him, if you know what I mean.”

Greasy Ray was awash with sweat and his fingers drilled out a syncopation on the table top like the finest beat-man in the Cotton Club, for he’d heard Michael Shale “forgave” Joe Jefferson and he did not believe it; and he’d heard Michael Shale “forgave” Father Abraham, and he did not believe it; and he hadn’t heard that Michael Shale also forgave his cousin Maimie Reed – for she was not the kind of girl who knew the likes of Greasy Ray – but had he heard he’d have hardly believed it either.

It is fair to say that hasty-hoofed heavily-pomaded young man with the harsh opinions on Michael Shale’s conduct was now sorely rattled.

“Shale!” he cried, leaping to his feet as Michael came to his table. “What’s all this – what brings you – that is, I say – what do you want?”

Holding his hat in his hands, Michael said, “Oh, since you ask, Ray, I’d like an apology for some things you said last night.”

All the faces in the Childs on Forty-Second Street this fine spring afternoon were turned on Greasy Ray like a handful of scrubbed spotlights on a Broadway soloist, and Greasy Ray’s courage – never of much size – gave out, and Greasy Ray’s pride – somewhat larger, but manageable – got swallowed under their gaze.

“It’s yours!” cried Ray, too fast, and hot about the cheeks.

“And for messing up my hair,” said Michael, severely.

“Sure! I’m sorry,” said Ray, clearly. He’d lost track of his hands, and so wrapped them around each other like a pastor, to keep them safe from getting lost again.

“And bruising my eye,” said Michael, pointing to it.

“Right! I shouldna!” sang Ray, in a real fever of contrition.

“Very good,” said Michael, content. “Then I forgive you.”

Greasy Ray squinted, which did little to improve him. The waiter with the thin eyebrows squinted, but he didn’t need improving. The horde at Childs on Forty-Second Street squinted, and held their breath, for they were past improvement.

“Eh?” said Ray, ready to flinch. “That’s all?”

“That’s all?” complained the waiter, who’d been hoping for a fight.

“That’s all?” sighed the disappointed customers, who’d heard stories about this Childs. Most of them were true – but they happened at night.

“Sure,” said Michael, with a great big smile. “For now.”

“Listen, pal, if you’re going to slug me one, get it over with, all right,” trembled Ray in testy tremolo, braced for a swing.

Michael leaned close and raised his hand, until he cast a deep shadow over the greasy little white man, and he tapped Greasy Ray tenderly on the cheek with no more than the breath of a feather.

“No,” he said, as sunny as the day, “I shall not.”

And Michael Shale left the Childs on Forty-Second Street well-satisfied, ready to take all the rest of April in his real long stride (as only a fairy can).

THE END


The author has, as may be apparent, been combining period research on 1920s Manhattan (prices, some slang, and locations may be assumed to be therefore at least vaguely accurate) with idly reading  Vile Bodies as part of his recuperation from surgery. 

Tips may be left here if you enjoyed the story.

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When Human Nature Forces A Deerstalker On You, It’s Time To Find The Elusive Deer

Sidney Paget cemented this stupid hat in the popular memory when recalling yer man Holmes. It got into the groundwater of the consciousness via Rathbone and Brett and Cook and, well, it’s obligatory now. You aren’t allowed to deduce without one. TV producers won’t stand for it.

Hidden truths require detectives – or historians, who get rather less kudos, although they’re about the only people on TV more often than various iterations of the Great Mouse Detective – because magicians are out of vogue and get rather more gnomic results. Which is not to say that results are not largely interpretive regardless. They are, and therein lies the problem.

As a friend rather elegantly reiterated in their undergraduate thesis, sometimes things become invisible because people refuse to see them. It’s a common enough problem in Western History, where the achievements of women and people of colour (and quite often the role of white, well-off men in suppressing or stealing those achievements) are routinely wiped away by generations reshaping the historical record to look like the modern power structure they favour. History and propaganda are spelled in the same type. There has been a rather successful film recently, in fact, precisely celebrating the 20th Century victims of such revisionism which includes the word “Hidden” in the title.

In denying that women, people of colour, and women of colour in the West in particular, have ever done anything, and in denying any worth in “traditionally female” work, revisionist history still can’t actually wipe all evidence of these people off the record [NB: I am aware there are people who refer to actually finding evidence of the achievements and presence of these demographics who have been deliberately overlooked as “revisionist” but the original decision to ignore them was a revision of reality in the first place]. Those babies came from somewhere; a lot of documents and photos went missing all the same. Hegemony is however forced to acknowledge someone’s presence even when it’s booting them in the face, sometimes.

As I write, people who don’t exist are disappearing from the streets; and are ceasing to officially exist on the spreadsheets. And the funny thing is: I was planning to write about not existing anyway.

The Human Need to see yourself reflected. To not be alone. To know that you are possible. For much of recent history there have been aggressive attempts to tell the hideable to be hidden until they cease to be; every generation of homosexuals is told they’re some kind of modern malaise, a manifestation of failing social standards and also ouroborous-like and paradoxically their cause – a self-generating Sodom, buggering its own face. Wilde’s Uranian Love Movement (well, it belonged rather more to Carpentor and Addington Symmonds and rather interestingly links back to something later on) looked backward to Ancient Greece for validation of worth but also the existence of their sexuality (and Wilde is to later generations as Alexander was to him), and very slowly the love that dare not speak its name got tired of being muttered about in code and learned how to spell its own name: loudly, and in a full spectrum of colour.

Image result for london pride parade (C) Pride

In Catherine Arnold’s City of Sin, a young Victorian gay man describes the emotional impact of his first ever gay experience: like a curtain being drawn aside to show what he had hoped for without being able to even know what it was he was hoping for, unable to name what had felt so wrong all this time, but articulating his relief in language that resonates still: “I am not alone.”

[Sexual acts for any sexual person can have the property of confirming the actor’s reality and their value, however temporary and conditional, to another, but it’s the queer who finds themselves made possible by it; before the internet, depictions or mentions of such things were like hen’s teeth. And you had to know what it was you were looking for].

If learning of your own invisible possibility from the past as a lover of the same sex is rare in a canon determined to push any explanation barring the obvious rather than deviate from the straitjacket of compulsory heteroseuxality – from the default assumption that we must all be straight until proven, often with laughably complex criteria betraying the prejudices of the self-appointed jury, to be otherwise – then GOOD FUCKING LUCK finding hide or hair of yourself in the annuls of the past as a trans person.

We are definitively a ‘a modern malaise’. Yes, non-Western cultures have had non-cis/non-binary social roles in perpetuity but gosh darn it the West is different (I can smell your cultural imperialism from over here and it stinks). Cis historians will take therefore London’s first transgender celebrity, the magnificent, romantic, sword-fighting French Chevalier d’Eon, who in her own lifetime very publicly switched pronouns and presentation (along with a suitably brilliant cover story), and was accepted – nay, applauded! Vindicated! – as a woman – and they will look at the post-mortem showing her to have a penis and testicles, and start describing her with male pronouns. I read this with my own two wildly disappointed eyes.

They will take Dr James Miranda Barry (current Wikipedia description, just to affix it in time: “Depending on historic interpretation, Barry might be considered either the first medically qualified British woman or the first medically qualified British transgender person.” Either way: Barry practiced medicine), army surgeon and anti-corruption campaigner, performer of the first successful recorded Caesarian section on the African continent, pugnacious and irascible, beloathed of Florence Nightingale, and despite his lifelong use of male pronouns, despite a death certificate describing him as male, and the continue testimony of his friends and acquaintances post-mortem that he was indeed a man… they will look at the circumstances of his life and rumour of childbearing, and drift into using “she”. Regardless of the content of Dr Barry’s abdomen, his was a life lived under the banner of maleness; and yet even his biographers grapple with phrases like “woman disguising [herself] as a man” just as they will trot out “man in a dress” for the poor Chevalier (what does a historical trans person have to do to be allowed their correct gender in death?). Unless these historians also “disguise” themselves when they get up and put on their togs of a morning, it seems an odd way to describe getting dressed.

Finding trans men in history whose identity will satisfy the same prejudicial jury as before is further complicated by historical misogyny, as evidenced above; there are always questions to be asked as to whether someone is taking their ovaries to town in a suit and tie because they want a degree in the days before educational equality and their uterus has mysteriously denied them the right to access this learning (thanks, The Patricharhy), or whether it’s simply that Abraham’s vag doesn’t mean he is a woman. Our trans sisters, bearing the violence of misogyny on coming out, are easier to identify in this regard at least – why else would someone who has at least nominal access to The Good Life And The Privilege choose to “live as a woman” unless they were one? It takes a special level of additional obtuseness, therefore, to misgender d’Eon.

This leads clumsily into the third problem. Gender identity and sexuality are bound together in many, many cultures throughout history – for some reason one is defined by who one wants to fuck; more explicitly, one’s gender is frequently supposed to be determined by whether wants to penetrate or be penetrated. Hence a great deal of confusion around the following subjects:

  • Butch/macho cis gay men – indeed male homosexuality in many minds was exclusively the province of those being penetrated and therefore automatically obligated to be feminine if adult (or constrained to “pre-manhood”); rendering muscular, macho bottoms in gay culture stemming from Men’s Health-style magazines and Tom of Finland’s historically extremely valuable art wildly problematic for straight culture and explaining somewhat hypermasculinity fetishism which currently disgusts and annoys the generations of gay men after mine…
  • Feminine cis lesbians, particularly those who date other femme lesbians… “which of you is the man”. Neither, my dear fellow, that’s the whole point.

It becomes even more impossible for the genderandsexualityequaleachother mind, choking on biological essentialism, to grasp:

  • Trans lesbians
  • Trans gay men

[I’m leaving out bisexuals here because that, too, seems to be a hobby for historical record and heterosexual historians, and separating the tussles of historical characters with the weight and requirement of Compulsory Heterosexuality – aka “reproduce OR ELSE” from genuine bisexual interest is a job for someone more invested and patient than me].

It’s perhaps not surprising that any earlier confirmed record of trans men revolves around straight trans men (and predominantly in the 19th or 20th century) [Joseph Lobdell, Dr Alan L Hart, Reed Erickson, Billy Tipton, Robert Eads, Willmer Broadnax] or trans men whose sexuality was not known [Jack Bee Garland, Laurence Michael Dillon]; many had marriages and children.

“After all,” as one infuriatingly contemporary cis man proclaimed, “if you want to have sex with men, why not just stay a girl?” [Alright, Phil, if you want to have sex with all those cute straight men why don’t you ‘become’ a woman? You don’t want to? Gosh, it’s almost like your gender identity matters to you…] And anyway, it’s never that simple. Trust me.

In fact, the first person I can really find acknowledged as a gay trans man is Lou Sullivan. Sainted, wonderful Lou Sullivan, who died too young and made my existence possible: “largely responsible for the modern understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity as distinct, unrelated concepts.” He was, however, kind of recent.

There is a glimmering of hope for the close reader however. Dr Barry’s love life, or at least rumoured love life – such as it was, as his Newtonian character didn’t lend itself terribly well to romance any more than Sir Isaac’s – revolves exclusively (as hinted by biographer Rachel Holmes) around men, or Barry’s “close relationship” with Governor Somerset while in Cape Town.

[It is also worth noting that as Dr McKinnon’s discussion of his late patient with an interested party involved his assertion that he understood Barry to be a “hermaphrodite”, the possibility exists that he was an intersex man rather than a trans man, and I would be loath to deny this representation even under a rather insulting name; times past may have muddied the water by using the term on occasion to refer to those whose “brain and body didn’t match up” or even homosexuals. Without being able to consult Dr Barry himself – who I cannot imagine would take kindly to the intrusion – it’s unlikely I’ll ever get a solid answer].

Wiped from history, covered up by misplaced propriety, nudged to and off the margins, many of the world’s people are denied the opportunity to look ourselves in the eye, to have the experience of reaching back into the dark for a similar hand without first digging up and reassembling the puzzle in codes we are told do not exist. For the sake of all those coming after us, who have to deal with this bullshit, it’s actually important that we do just that: and live our own lives as loudly and honestly as we can, to give them someone to look back at, if necessary.

I know it would have done me a lot of good.


When not grumpily ferreting around history’s dustbins in search of marginal representation, I also write books, some of which are set in the past