Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves
Not long ago, I heard a radio story about great white sharks along the coast of Cape Cod. It ended exactly as I expected: with the theme from Jaws. As those bass notes pulsed through my car speakers, I remembered the day my friend Larry and I spent hours at the beach, smearing our pasty selves with Vaseline instead of Coppertone. I could almost feel the blisters sizzling on the backs of my stupid legs.
We’re probably talking 1975. That year, Larry and I caught the premiere of Jaws. We sat in the front row of the Savannah Theater balcony, drinking huge Cokes, sharing a bucket of popcorn, singing along with “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” We booed the greedy mayor, got caught up in the Indianapolis story, spluttered with outrage and disbelief when the shark treated Robert Shaw to a gruesome death. Afterward, as we walked to the car, we jabbered about the moment Richard Dreyfuss burst to the surface in a flurry of bubbles, the moment we knew he was alive.
When I got drunk for the first time at age sixteen, then ran through backyards on Tybee Island, stealing beach towels from clotheslines, Larry was with me. When I hid in a car trunk and snuck into a drive-in theater, then tittered at a soft-porn movie about horny cheerleaders, Larry was driving the car. When I violated Southern Baptist doctrine by shaking my booty on the rainbow-lighted dance floor of a disco named Stonehenge, Larry was my dance partner, strutting his stuff in polyester gabardine.
He was, in short, the best accomplice a girl could ask for.
The photo above dates from August 30, 1980, moments after my first husband and I exchanged wedding vows in the sanctuary of the Port Wentworth First Baptist Church. In those days, I liked to describe myself as “independent” and “strong,” but I was lying. The younger version of me is holding on to her man with everything she’s got. She’s willing to give up everything for him, and she comes close to doing exactly that.
That’s Larry on my left. I gave him up. After August 30, 1980, I never saw him again.
When we were little, my sister, Ginger, and I imitated Oral Roberts, whose black-and-white sermons appeared on TV every Sunday morning. I couldn’t wait to take my turn as the faith healer so I could grab Ginger, shake her until her head flopped back and forth, and roar, “Repent! And ye shall be HEALED!!” The whole time, we giggled, our delight enhanced by the awareness that, at any moment, the Holy Spirit might move our parents to give us a righteous butt-whipping.
Larry drove his dad’s midnight-blue Buick Electra 225, which he called the “Double-Deuce-Five.”  That submarine of a car had cushy bench seats so wide that eight or ten teenagers piled in with no trouble.
Every time a song that we liked came on, the person in charge of the radio would crank up the volume, turn to the others, and parody the language we heard in church: “Hush! Be reverent!” One night, when Larry navigated the Double-Deuce-Five into a parking space at Joe’s Picnic Drive-In Restaurant, we rolled down the car windows, released clouds of meat-locker-chilled air, and worshiped with the Steve Miller Band:
… I'm a picker
I'm a grinner
I'm a lover
And I'm a sinner
I play my music in the sun…. 
Larry sometimes steered with his knees or turned completely around in the driver’s seat, abandoning the steering wheel and gesturing theatrically as he talked to the passengers in the back. He also had his own quirky method of detecting whether a train was approaching at night: while zooming toward a railroad crossing, he simply turned off the headlights. More than once, his technique worked. We could see the lone light on the train’s engine quivering in the dark distance, and we stopped at the crossing in plenty of time. As the train thundered past, the blast of wind practically lifted the Double-Deuce-Five off the ground.
Nobody in our crowd could resist the deliciously sordid ad campaign for Mark of the Devil, a horror film about the Inquisition in eighteenth-century Austria: “Rated V for Violence.”  So we lied to our parents, piled into Larry’s car, and went to the plush-velvet 1920s-era Lucas Theater in Savannah. As we bought our tickets, we were handed plastic-lined vomit bags.
I made it through the scene in which the chief torturer plunged a stiletto into “the mark of the devil” – a mole – on a curvaceous young woman’s back. I made it through the scene in which he stretched another young woman on a rack … slowly, slowly … until her shoulder and hip joints couldn’t take it any more. When he clamped yet another young woman’s head into place with an elaborate iron contraption, then proceeded to pull out her tongue, I decided that I couldn’t take it any more, either. I nudged Larry, and we all got up to leave.
But then, as we paused at the back of the theater, Larry clamped my head with his hands, mimicking the action onscreen. I couldn’t turn away from the tongue-pulling-out scene, couldn’t stop watching all the dark red movie blood gushing out. It didn’t occur to me to close my eyes. Nor did it occur to me to question the pornographic woman-hating violence depicted in the movie. And it didn’t occur to me until years later that Larry’s behavior was rather sadistic itself, like something a creepy big brother would come up with. Bless his heart. 
Larry was my boss in two jobs, both at car rental agencies, both at the Savannah Airport. One day, he brought dirty magazines to his office and invited everyone at the front desk to come back and take a look. When my co-workers and I flipped to an extreme close-up of female genitalia accessorized with a tiny American flag on a toothpick, we pointed, laughed, said things like “Gross!” and “Yuck!”
I don’t know why Larry brought magazines like these to work, but I have my suspicions. This was the 1970s, in a conservative, fundamentalist, working-class community, in the Deep South. Larry, I later learned, was gay. Telling the truth would have gotten him beat to a pulp. Gawking at dehumanizing images of women? Not a problem.
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God (Deuteronomy 22:5).
At my childhood church, we had standing-room-only crowds for our annual “Womanless Wedding,” a fundraiser for foreign missionaries. While the pastor performed the wedding ceremony with mock solemnity, the Baptist deacons in drag – dressed as bride and bridesmaids – simpered, tossed their long fake locks, chattered in falsetto voices.
All those buttoned-up hetero men flaunting extravagantly padded butts and boobs: what could be funnier? To hell with Deuteronomy.
Every month, we had a genuinely solemn ritual called the Lord’s Supper. While the deacons passed silver-plated trays of Saltines and Welch’s grape juice up and down each row, the preacher channeled Jesus and said, “This is my body, take ye and eat” and “This is my blood, take ye and drink.” Those of us who were certain we were headed for Heaven ate the body and washed it down with blood, then leaned forward and clinked the communion glasses into special holders attached to the back of each pew.
After church one Sunday, Larry tucked a couple of those shiny little glasses into his jacket. They’d make cute shot glasses, he said. Oh. Not good. I laughed, but I also worried that stealing from the Lord was a lightning-worthy sin.
One New Year’s Eve, after dancing the night away at Stonehenge, Larry and I kissed each other. Although I didn’t know at the time that he was gay, I’d never before seen him as boyfriend material. He was best friend material. He hung out with me and Ginger after school, helping us cook dinner and clean the house. He came over on Saturdays and barbecued chicken with us, spraying lighter fluid onto the charcoal as enthusiastically as he pumped Freon into the Double-Deuce-Five. At Christmas, he came bearing gifts, like one of the Three Wise Men with an Izod jacket and a bad haircut.
Once, he and my boyfriend, a former high school football star, sat side-by-side on my parents’ living room sofa, sharing the album cover for Elton John’s Madman Across the Water and singing along with “Tiny Dancer.” Together, they struggled, and failed, to reach the high notes:
Hold me closer tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today.
Anyway, the kiss that Larry and I exchanged that New Year’s Eve was the real thing. Sloppy, intense, with tongues. Then we backed away from each other, laughing so hard that we staggered.
I still have the silver jacket I wore that night, with a white blouse and black high-waisted trousers. The jacket matched my senior prom dress. Both were proudly 100% synthetic, proudly handmade by my mom. In those days, in working-class families like mine, that’s how we rolled.
Here I am, wearing a snazzy pinstriped suit that Larry let me borrow for a school event called the Queen of the Crop. Check out the wig, the painted-on mustache, the dapper red-beige-and-blue oxfords.
I also got a kick out of wearing Larry’s burgundy corduroy Levi’s because they barely hung onto my hips, because they dragged the ground, and because they belonged to a boy. A happy abomination unto the Lord, with Larry as my favorite accomplice.
Until I left home for graduate school at twenty-two years old, a copy of this painting hung above my bed. We Southern Baptists abhor idolatry, but we love our Jesus pictures.
Picture this: you’ve been out drinking and discoing with Larry and other friends. You’re wasted. Your bedroom is bucking, roiling, swirling. All you can do is hang one foot off the edge of your mattress. Pray. Promise never to do it again (although you know you will).
Through it all, Jesus is bucking and roiling and swirling, just like everything else in your world. He’s watching you. And you are going to hell.
I’m a writing teacher. “If there’s more than one person involved in your story, let’s have some dialogue,” I tell my students. “No one moves through life silently!”
Throughout our friendship, Larry and I talked and talked (and talked), but I can’t remember any specific conversations. I can’t follow my own advice.
I do, however, remember Larry’s favorite cuss word: damnshithellfuck.
In the fall of 1979, I said goodbye to Larry and my other co-workers at Hertz Car Rental and moved to Athens, Georgia, to attend graduate school. There, I met the young man who would become my first husband. Within a month, he gave me flowers and stuffed toys, invited me to visit his sister in England, and asked me to marry him.
Using her own two hands and a tatting shuttle and an antique treadle-operated sewing machine, my grandmother made a delicate white blouse for me to wear in my engagement photo, exactly like the one she made for my mom in the 1940s.
My fiancé was not pleased. The handmade lace yoke, through which my bra straps peeked, was “immodest.” He hated my dangly earrings, my wild-colored clothing, my short shorts, my red nail polish, my hometown, my family’s working-class tastes. He promised to “teach” me and to help me “outgrow” everything I knew.
Early in the marriage, he clung to me, accused me of adultery, and cut me off from my family and my friends. All of them. Late in the marriage, he spent entire weekends with his drinking buddies.
Why did I stay?
Because, according to the Bible, that’s how we womenfolks are supposed to roll.
When my parents argued, my mother often refused to back down, thus violating several Biblical dictates.
1. To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
2. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church… Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24).
3. Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet…. (1 Timothy 2:11-14).
She might as well have declared war. After a prolonged skirmish, my dad would storm outside to the carport, throw some lumber around, manhandle his power tools. My mom, in contrast, would cloister herself behind a locked bedroom door and take a vow of silence that lasted for hours.
Inside that bedroom closet, propped against the wall, there were loaded guns. I remember hovering in the hallway, trying the doorknob and begging my mom to come out. At the time, I didn’t recognize how brave she was to stand up to my dad and to defy the teachings of her church. I just knew I didn’t want her to shoot herself.
One Sunday morning, after spending the weekend with his drinking buddies, my then-husband came home and said he had run the car – our car – into a ditch. Ever the obedient wife, I hopped onto my bicycle and joined him for the long ride back to the car. When we got there, it cranked right up, and since there was room for only one bike in the trunk, I pedaled myself back home. I didn’t even have enough sense to be angry. Bless my heart.
Another time, I went with him to search for his wallet, which he’d tossed from the car window the night before. We found it on the grassy shoulder of I-16. Here and there, twenty-dollar bills fluttered like little flags marking a crime scene.
That last awful winter, we had no money to pay our bills or our mortgage, no money to make even the minimum payments on our credit cards, no money to buy propane for the one heater that worked. Then I learned that one of his alcoholic friends, a younger woman, was also his lover.
Finally, enough was more than enough. I was still a churchgoer in those days, and when I consulted the Baptist preacher, even he agreed that a divorce would not be sinful in my circumstances.
Meanwhile, Larry moved to Boston and took a managerial job at a department store. He met a guy and settled down with him. Sadly, all was not well: Larry contracted AIDS from his partner.
When he began developing symptoms, his employers took him in and cared for him. Eventually, he came back to South Georgia. I think he lived with one of his brothers for a while, and then, toward the end, he lived with Darlene, a high school friend who used to sing in the church choir, read dirty romance novels, and listen to her police-band radio so she could keep up with the illicit hijinks in town.
Darlene says he knocked on her front door and asked her to come outside. He said to her, “I’ve got something to tell you, but I’m afraid you won’t love me any more.” She said to him, “Larry, nothing you could do would make me stop loving you.”
Back then, for everyone who wasn’t Magic Johnson, AIDS was a synonym for death. Even Oral Roberts and his repent-and-ye-shall-be-saved incantations were useless.
I picture Larry on a foldout couch in Darlene’s living room or on a bed in a back room. I picture Darlene as she talked to him, gave him sugary iced tea, tried to talk him into eating some of her heavy home-cooked Southern food. I picture him trembling with weakness, his green eyes and sharp nose becoming ever more prominent as his weight dropped.
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them (Leviticus 20:13).
I’m told that Larry was “saved” before he died. A key step in the process of salvation is repentance, a noun meaning “remorse, contrition, or self-reproach for what one has done or failed to do.” In its verb form, “to repent” means “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's life,” “to feel regret or contrition,” “to change one's mind.” In biology, “repent,” an adjective, means “Creeping along the ground; prostrate.”
If I were forced to choose between reliving my teen years and having my tongue pulled out, I’d almost stick out my tongue and say, “Here. Take it.” But there is one moment that I’d relive in a heartbeat.
Larry and I are in the living room at my family’s old house, and we’ve got Cher on the stereo, belting out “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”:
They'd call us gypsies, tramps and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down….
Larry’s wearing boots that I’ve always liked: slender, pecan-brown, ankle-high, with curved seams and zippers. He’s spinning in circles, snapping his fingers, raising his arms above his head. He’s singing along with Cher. He isn’t hitting a single one of the notes, but it’s okay.
No. It’s better than that. He’s gay, and he’s crazy-happy, and he’s my friend.
I rarely drink nowadays, but if I could see Larry again, I’d make an exception. We’d drive to Tybee Island. We’d spread out a couple of stolen beach towels. We’d put Cher on the stereo. We’d take gallons of that prim Southern Baptist grape juice and mix it in a galvanized bucket with oranges and strawberries and bananas and pineapple. We’d splash in rum, vodka, tequila, whatever. We’d stir all that shit together and call it Purple Jesus, like we did in the old days. We’d get up and dance and sing and spin in circles.
Hallelujah. Praise the Lord. Bless our hearts. And pass the Purple Jesus.
 The Buick Electra 225 was also known as a “Deuce & a Quarter.”
 Steve Miller Band, “The Joker.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmVusVh4TRQ. Lyrics found on this website: http://www.metrolyrics.com/the-joker-lyrics-steve-miller-band.html.
 Mark of the Devil, dir. Adrian Hoven and Michael Armstrong. 1969.
 “Bless your heart” is an expression often used in the South before or after a dismissive, judgmental, or even downright cruel comment. It is also used in an affectionate way.
 Elton John and Bernie Taupin, “Tiny Dancer.” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eltonjohn/tinydancer.html.
 I don’t remember the Queen of the Crop event, but a look back at my yearbook tells me that it was a dance. One thing’s for sure: these small-town Southerners were strangely fond of cross-dressing, from “womanless weddings” to all-male “beauty pageants.”
 These definitions come from the Free Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/repent. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/repent.
 “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOSZwEwl_1Q. Lyrics found on this website: http://www.lyricsfreak.com/c/cher/gypsies+tramps+thieves_20029746.html.
About the author:
Theresa Malphrus Welford grew up in a small industrial town near her birthplace of Savannah, Georgia. In addition to publishing poetry, creative nonfiction, book chapters, and academic articles, she has edited two collections of poetry: The Paradelle: An Anthology and The Cento: A Collection of Collage Poems (both published by Red Hen Press). She is currently writing several books for children and co-authoring two textbooks. Theresa and her husband, Mark Welford, happily share their home with countless rescued animals (cats and dogs).