OLD MICK DONALD
By Bill Konigsberg
Old Mick Donald had a gut. E-I-E-I-O.
Virgil remembers those words and a tentative smile crosses his face. Those were great days, before they were awful, anyway, and thinking of Old Mick Donald fills him with a longing for chestnuts and marmalade, a combination that was purely Old Mick.
It brings him right back to the Motels, and Old Mick sitting on his raggedy orange beach chair at Jones Beach – they were way too pedestrian for Fire Island – fingering the top of a Pabst Blue Ribbon and turning up the volume on his FM radio, explaining the philosophy of that one hit the Motels had.
“Only the lonely. Only the lonely get laid,” he sang, in his gravelly voice, which had always reminded Virgil of blueberries and Maine. Virgil wasn’t entirely sure why, but there was something he remembered about a childhood book he’d read – Blueberries for Sal, was it? – and while Virgil was pretty sure the book was about a mother and a daughter named Sal, for some reason the gravel of Old Mick’s voice always reminded him of blueberries, and a father, missing, and craving sweet, blue fruit.
“It’s true,” Old Mick said, his slight gut protruding, the light blond hairs on it sparkling in the sun. “Nobody who knows anybody has sex anymore. Ask the first ten boys you meet at the Mineshaft. They don’t know a stinkin’ soul. Nobody nothin’ nowhere. Vacuums of freakin’ existence.”
“Wow, that’s almost interesting,” Virgil said. “That’s like something Jack Kerouac would have written if he were dull, and a gay slut.”
“Dull-er,” Old Mick corrected. “And gay sluttier.”
“Oh, of course, I forgot,” Virgil said, rolling his eyes. “You’re a publishing magnate. You and Jack are probably close buddies.”
Old Mick offered a sideways smirk, something he did that made their repartee completely addictive to Virgil. That manly half-smile of Old Mick’s.
“Yes and yes,” was Old Mick’s mild answer, and so the aimless afternoons at Jones Beach would go, with comments aplenty on passers-by, more attention paid to the pretty young things by Old Mick, and more to the fairly old things by Virgil.
Old Mick and Virgil never. . . because for Virgil that would have been a mighty transgression. He realizes now, looking back, that Old Mick crossed several lines into that too close range almost immediately in their relationship, which began one May morning in 1981 at the Union Square Farmers Market. Back then, it was a much less fancy affair, Union Square being so close to the at-the-time authentically funky Lower East Side. Actual farmers showed up in overalls, and Virgil came for the melon and the promise of farmer daddies. Old Mick was there seeking organic peppers and onions.
While he was talking to a shy farmer with a wisp of gray hair covering his otherwise bald head who was making just enough eye contact to make things interesting, Virgil felt a pressure on his back, and a yank of his knapsack. His arms flailed backward, and he lost his balance and flung to the concrete, the back of his hands scraping against the gravel. The kid who stole the bag got about ten feet before he, too, was on the ground, the victim of an outstretched leg.
The leg was Old Mick’s. And Virgil watched from the ground while Old Mick recovered the bag, walked over to Virgil, and offered a hand. He lifted the shocked Virgil, who thought Old Mick was perhaps the most beautiful man he’d ever seen. Not in a television way or even a bear way. More in the wise lines that traveled across his forehead, the bright, kind blue eyes, the mustache, gold.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Mick said, his voice like gravel, and he led Virgil to a farmer’s booth where there was a hose, and Old Mick held Virgil’s hand out and hosed it off. The blood quickly washed to the ground, leaving a minor scrape and hurt feelings.
Had he just stopped the fatherly routine there, Virgil might have taken Old Mick home to the studio his mother had bought for him as an investment in the Village. At 21, he’d done more with people he’d known less, very, very often. But Old Mick took the fact that Virgil had been mugged quite seriously, and wouldn’t let the boy go off alone, which was certainly Virgil’s impulse, to forget, to numb, to skulk off and avoid the embarrassing glances of those who had seen the very public attack.
Virgil hated pity, or, more honestly, he loved pity but only in very small, controllable doses.
Old Mick made sure Virgil had gotten all that he’d come for, which had included a farmer who now looked at him with an uncontrollable level of pity, which took the farmer out of the running. At first, Virgil figured this might be a pickup, and was okay with that, given how Old Mick was just his speed. But as time went on that afternoon – they went to Virgil’s place on Prince Street to drop off his produce, and then to Old Mick’s, which was on Barrow, maybe six blocks south and east– nothing happened. Not in the amorous sense in either apartment, anyway, so Virgil dropped all pretense of something quick and meaningless and fun, and let his body relax into a different realm of friendship
Virgil hated pity, or, more honestly, he loved pity but only in very small, controllable doses.
Old Mick wasn’t a clone. It was 1981, and the village was aswarm with mustached men in tight jeans. Old Mick wasn’t one of them. He seemed more straight, in a way, more willing to be his own person, and the fact that he’d ventured out of the house in khaki pants and a red and white Hawaiian shirt made that clear. His apartment was teeming with piles of books, no track lighting, no designer sheets on his single bed, and no white leather hide-a-bed sofa. He didn’t use words like “girl” nor did he overcompensate, and Virgil immediately liked that. Old Mick simply was Old Mick.
Old Mick didn’t let that many people call him that, but he did let Virgil. It began that first afternoon, when Mick admitted his full name was Mick Donald, and acted graciously as he most certainly always had to do when telling a person his name. He watched as Virgil lit up, his eyes coming to life, seeing the possibilities, and that animation made Mick smile, because he saw, maybe for the first time, the devil in Virgil, the feisty kid. Virgil was so in control, always, so unwilling to put himself out there. But there was also this part of him that loved to play, and, remembering how Mick had slapped his pot belly as they walked down 11thstreet after they’d had a standing lunch at Ray’s Pizza up on 6th Avenue, proud of his girth, his stature, saying, “Old Mick is gettin’ substantial” without any sense of remorse, Virgil sang “Old Mick Donald had a gut, E-I-E-I-O.”
That was the first time he called him Old Mick, and it was the first time he saw the full extent of Old Mick’s smile. He saw it spread across his lily white cheeks, the color forming fast and rosy, and it was cemented, that this was a new friendship of some promise.
Over time, Old Mick admitted some had wanted to call him that before, and claimed he had denied them that right. But with Virgil, he said, it felt a-okay. It sounded like a lie to Virgil, but not a particularly malignant one; there was nothing he was trying to gain by saying it. It wasn’t an admission that they were special friends –they would have had to know each other better to get to that level –but it did make Virgil feel special, and thinking back, he wonders if Old Mick had something that made all his Virgils feeling singular and special.
They were every-month-or-so friends, after that initial first weekend of fast friendship where they spent every moment together. Old Mick never acted miffed that they didn’t wind up in bed, never made it particularly clear that he even wanted Virgil in that way, although Virgil saw photos of some of the other boys in Old Mick’s repertoire, and it was eerie how close Virgil came to looking just like two of them. It was a different sort of friendship; the awkwardness of are we going to date, or aren’t we never really affected them.
He certainly heard enough stories. Old Mick worked as a senior editor at a small publishing house in the village, near Houston Street. He focused on non-fiction works that he didn’t really care about, self-help guides, the types of books the minored in spirituality and majored in shelf appeal. At lunch, sometimes Old Mick would blow off some steam, heading north and west toward the piers. It wasn’t unusual for Old Mick to blow five guys in a lunch break, or to fuck some Latino kid whose tight Levis got him excited in that way, or once in a while, to take it, hard, usually from a blond kid from Long Island whom he saw there frequently.
Virgil listened to these stories and wondered what was wrong with him for not going to the Piers. He liked sex as much as the next guy and he was hardly a prude. More than once he’d picked up men on the subway. He’d make deep eye contact on the 1 line, follow the older guy off the train and back to his place, where they’d have silent, sweaty sex, trade numbers, and never call each other again. New York was just so full of possibilities, and Virgil was one who liked to unwrap the presents more than anything else. He rarely had interest in anything more substantial, so anonymous sex was part of his routine. At the same time, the piers and the trucks and the Mineshaft all seemed unnecessarily course to him, terribly dirty. Sex was dirty enough without sordid surroundings. Virgil didn’t care for dirt, or nasty smells. They made him want to leave, so he avoided those places where the dirt and stench was most likely to be. So he never tried the Piers, and then they were torn down, and he’d hear the stories and hate himself for having never, even once, tried it.
New York was just so full of possibilities, and Virgil was one who liked to unwrap the presents more than anything else.
Virgil remembers the one Saturday at the beach, just like every other Saturday. Maybe August, the year after they’d met, the year of that Motels song, and how Virgil was lying on the burgundy blanket Old Mick had brought, looking up at his friend in the ratty orange beach chair. In a small green cooler Old Mick had carried, he had, of all things, chestnuts and marmalade. Old Mick used a plastic knife to spread the marmalade on a whole nut, then popped it in his mouth and savored the flavors.
Virgil, not much for experimenting with foods, tentatively took one. He liked both chestnuts and marmalade, but had not ever thought to put them together. Old Mick prepared one for Virgil, covering the top of the nut with enough marmalade so that Virgil could see what appeared to be a sliver of orange peel atop the nut. Old Mick handed it to him.
Virgil, always so scared. He wiped his hand clean of sand and took the nut. Then, with his other hand, he did surgery, removing the bit of orange peel. It was for flavor, his mother had explained about the role of orange peels in marmalade, when he was younger, after Virgil had noted that people generally don’t eat orange peels.
Old Mick laughed, looking deep into Virgil’s eyes. Virgil had to look away. It was as if Old Mick could see something that Virgil didn’t understand, and it unnerved him. Virgil took a bite. Orange sweet, then nut sweet, then the melding of textures. He liked it. Virgil rarely liked new things, rarely experimented. But this concoction of Old Mick’s, this he truly liked.
“I love this,” Virgil said, and Old Mick had reached over and mussed his hair.
Old Mick related some semi-amusing story about an author who had actually quoted his own wisdom to Old Mick as a reason why Old Mick ought to make sure the man’s smiling face ought to be on the cover of the book.
“People seem to buy up their own bullshit,” Old Mick said. “Me, I don’t take any of my crap too serious. I know I’m full of shit.”
Virgil nodded. “I don’t take any of your crap too serious, either.”
Old Mick blew a raspberry. “And you, you’re an angel. The embodiment of truth and goodness.”
Virgil laughed. But deep inside, he realized that there was a truth there. He did think that about himself. He saw himself as unblemished and clean on the inside, an innocent despite the lack of innocence, a beacon of truth despite the heaping of lies on his conscience.
And that’s when he saw it for the first time. The blemish.
It appeared blue at first sight. Later in his life, when he heard stories, it was always purple, but he could have sworn that first time, the spot on Old Mick’s protruding gut was blue, round like a blueberry.
“What’s that?” Virgil asked, pointing at Old Mick’s stomach.
Old Mick didn’t look down. “The outcome of too many nights sitting alone eating ice cream,” he said.
“No, really,” he said.
Old Mick looked down this time. “Eh, nothing,” he said. “I get shit like that all the time and then it goes away.”
Later in his life, when he heard stories, it was always purple, but he could have sworn that first time, the spot on Old Mick’s protruding gut was blue, round like a blueberry.
Years later, when thinking back, Virgil wonders if they both knew, then. If the hysteria was just below the surface, simmering in their little Jones Beach enclave. It was 1982, after all. Those were the years of the New York Native, and the articles about what was just becoming known as AIDS, and hysterical articles about connections to Swine Flu in Florida, and poppers, and state-by-state counts of those afflicted. Two in all of Alabama. Two hundred and fifty in New York City. They were both well read, had even discussed it once or twice, this new disease – who knew how it was passed – did either of them know anyone who had it? Not that they knew of. Old Mick had wondered a few times about this boy or that, not hearing from them for a while and knowing how promiscuous they were and how this new disease at last might be sexually transmitted. But he had no proof. And also, he seemed to forget when saying those things that he, too, was promiscuous. Earlier that summer, Virgil had seen a man on his block getting pulled into an ambulance, looking like a concentration camp survivor. He’d locked eyes with the man, who was so expressionless that Virgil had wondered if he was already dead. Virgil had pondered whether he knew the man, before he’d looked that way. He looked almost familiar, but Virgil could not place him.
So there was no more talk about the blue mark on Old Mick’s stomach, and the two of them frolicked in the ocean, and ate a salami stick with a knife and napkins, and drank more beer – Old Mick, mostly – than was necessary. On the train back, they settled into a comfortable silence, savoring the after-sun feeling, the glow and the exhaustion, the inimitable August feeling of heading back into the sweltering city when most of the rich folks were gone on vacation.
“I’m thinking career change,” Old Mick said.
“Model?” Virgil asked, and Old Mick flicked him under the chin.
“Architecture,” he said.
This made Virgil happy, for some reason, thinking of his friend, on the other side of 40, going back to school, starting over. So instead of sarcasm, Virgil said, “I would love to live in a house you designed.”
And they sat there, a pleasant silence enveloping the car, an easiness about life unspoken but so strongly felt. Virgil felt it, anyway, and he was pretty sure Old Mick felt it, too.
But then time and work came, and stole Virgil’s attention. He had gotten a job a law firm as a paralegal, despite the fact that he had no interest in law. He’d graduated from Columbia with a degree in English, and had no idea what to do with it. He was 23 now, a year out of school, and the possibilities were daunting and seemed either unnecessarily difficult to attain or unworthy of his effort. Often Old Mick had asked Virgil if he wanted to work as an editorial assistant at his publishing house, and Virgil had demurred. As a teenager, his mother had once told him how difficult an industry publishing was, and even though he was still considering teaching, which was just as difficult and non-lucrative, somehow he’d decided he couldn’t work in publishing, even though he loved books. Such was the way his brain worked. Rules. Things that could or couldn’t be, just like how Old Mick might have been the ideal husband for Virgil, yet Virgil had decided they couldn’t do that. He didn’t understand the rules and found it was just easier to play along with his convoluted brain than to question every little inconsistency upon which his life was built.
Virgil got involved in a research project about water rights, something to do with a reservoir near Poughkeepsie. And then there was preparation for important litigation, something that could make or break the firm, and he was sucked into weeks of unending nights at the library. He found that he liked it, being busy. Learning about things he’d not known about.
When he came up for air, he called Old Mick, to see if he’d want to try one more Saturday at Jones Beach. It was early September, a week after Labor Day, and he relished the idea of fewer people at the beach.
The phone rang and rang, and the machine didn’t pick up. The message, Old Mick stating in a flat voice, “Kindly start speaking” never came. He called several times, no answer, no machine.
That night, Virgil dreamt the ambulance was there along his street again, and the emaciated man with the expressionless eyes was Old Mick. Then Old Mick was in a hospital gown that opened in the back, his bones jutting out, the skin that used to wrap his substantial body tight now sagging like useless bags of flesh. He tried to get Old Mick to speak, say something, and it was like he was dumb, unable to use his once gravelly voice, that voice which Virgil would always miss if he’d never hear it again. He woke up sweating, heart pulsing wild, as if he’d just heard an intruder in his apartment.
Virgil went by his apartment building. He pressed the buzzer for 2B, next to the name Donald. No one answered. He waited for someone to walk into the building and followed them, hoping Old Mick was just being antisocial.
At the door, there was a pile of New York Times, maybe four or five days’ worth. Virgil knelt down. He thumbed through the stack of newspapers, as if he were a detective and touching the papers might tell him something. He leaned in and sniffed the pale, acrid air surrounding Mick’s rust-colored doormat. He closed his eyes and pictured a chestnut covered in marmalade.
He thought how funny it was that an adult man with a beer gut and no particular shame about that would have a taste for something so random, and fussy, almost. He made a mental note to zing his friend next time they saw each other. He thought how hysterical it was, this friendship. That he considered Mick a close friend yet had no real knowledge of who Mick was, who his people were, beyond the salacious stories of sex and the droll stories from his job. Virgil wondered: is Mick my closest friend? Tied with a bunch of other people I barely know?
And they sat there, a pleasant silence enveloping the car, an easiness about life unspoken but so strongly felt.
Later, when he’d tell the story to friends, usually when telling some wide-eyed non New Yorker about those early days of AIDS, he recounted running down the dark, narrow hallways, vaulting three stairs at a time down the rickety staircase, bursting into the cold, fall sunlight and catching his breath. Tearing down Barrow Street like he’d just seen a ghost, which is what he had seen, in a way. The ghost of a friendship, departed.
He’d wonder out loud during these monologues about why he never called the cops, why he didn’t find the landlord to go to see whether Old Mick was in the apartment, dead. He’d say he never understood why he didn’t call hospitals, St. Vincent’s where he’d probably have been taken, had he needed to go to the hospital. Perhaps, he’d query, it was part of keeping the hope alive, that he didn’t want to know the answer.
The truth: he’d stared at the newspapers, pondered the various possibilities, and straightened the pile. He stared at the door but did not ring the bell. He did not shed a tear. He imagined himself in a film, and Mick in the audience, and he pasted a smile on his face, knowing that Mick liked him best when he was laughing, worst when he was maudlin.
The truth is it didn’t occur to him to call the cops or 9-1-1 right away. Things rarely occurred to Virgil until it was too late, and until it would be almost insulting for him to act. How do you tell a friend that you waited two weeks to call 9-1-1, or the hospital? And that wasn’t reflective of Virgil’s feelings for Mick. It was far more reflective of his abilities.
He did keep calling the number. A few times a week, then less. He got a little bit hopeful each time he dialed. No one ever picked up again. Finally in October, he got the recording. The line had been disconnected.
He could have called the publishing house. He didn’t. He was quite sure wherever Mick was, he’d totally get that calling the publishing house wasn’t a thing Virgil would do. Mick, he was sure, upon watching the film, would honor that non-decision.
In November, Virgil went by Old Mick’s apartment again. The chill of the fall had crept in to New York, yellow leaves caking the chilly, wet sidewalks. When he arrived at the apartment building, he looked at the buzzer.
No new name. But no old one, either. Donald had been removed, and all that sat there, now, was an empty space where the white strip of paper with the typed name had once been.
Virgil stood and stared for a time. He wondered what an adult would do in this situation.
That was something Virgil couldn’t contemplate for more than a second, so he walked away from the building for the last time, the building he would purposefully avoid for the rest of his life, so that he didn’t have to think of Old Mick, sweet Old Mick. And he went to the St. Mark’s Baths, a place he’d only been to twice before, and allowed the guy at the window to flirt with him and give him the student rate, even though he was no longer a student. And once inside, once naked except for a towel, Virgil wandered the hallways, looking for something he knew he wouldn’t be able to find, because it was un-findable.
You couldn’t order up experiences in life. You couldn’t just say, “I want an afternoon at the beach with my friend,” or “I want chestnuts with marmalade with someone who gets me.”
Guys who said, “Careful with my nipples and balls,” or, “You can fuck me but only until I say stop” at the baths? They tended to be less popular. They tended to walk the hallways alone, hungry, needs un-met.
Which is what he did that day. He wandered, trying to smile, looking at the ghosts walking around him, the vacant eyes.
Years later, he wondered how many of those people that day made it. To 1990. To 2000. Not many, probably.
But he did. And all the while, as he was crossing into 2000, and then 2010, he wondered if people got it. Why he was still here, and they weren’t. That the cosmic joke of the universe—late-twentieth century, gay-male version—was that only the closed and broken survived.
Only the lonely could play. And he pictured Old Mick Donald, somewhere, possibly above, more likely way down below, chuckling at the irony, and taking another long, deep sip of his Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Author's Commentary: I'm drawn to writing young voices, so perhaps it's not surprising that in stepping away from my young adult fiction background and exploring adult literary fiction, the first voice I tried on was that of an emotionally stunted 21-year-old gay man. What could that possibly say about me? Hmm. For Old Mick Donald, I wanted to go back to the New York City of the early 1980s. I was born in 1970 and grew up there, and when the early days of AIDS hit, I was just hitting puberty. I wasn't gay yet; I didn't really understand what gay was, and I certainly didn't understand what was going on. Sometimes it haunts me to know that I was there and not there at the very beginning of the epidemic that killed so many men just like me. This story is my attempt to imagine just how frightening it would have been to be born ten years before I was.
Bill Konigsberg is the award-winning author of four young adult novels, including The Porcupine of Truth (Stonewall Book Award, PEN Center USA Literary Award), Out of the Pocket (Lambda Literary Award), and Openly Straight (Sid Fleischman Award for Humor). He received an MFA in fiction from Arizona State University and he lives in Chandler, Arizona, with his husband and two Labradoodles.