Rushesby John Rechy
“A major American novelist writing at the peak of his powers.” –Richard Hall, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Once again, John Rechy takes us to an unexplored part of our world in Rushes, his first book following the controversial bestseller, The Sexual Outlaw.
The story develops during a single evening and is set in a “leather and Western” bar located near the decaying and deserted waterfront of a large American city. This is the sexual battlefield, the world of the trucks, the piers, the warehouses. And Rechy explores it with a compelling, dramatic story told in a style that is elegant, convincing, and unsparing.
Into the bar arrives a range of characters: the regular patrons in their ceaseless search for compatible love, the occasional customer hoping for a quick sexual fix, the female and transvestite hookers who work the dark streets outside, the couple seeking a voyeuristic experience, the young man venturing out for the first time.
During the course of the evening we come to know these people, their loneliness and their fears, their pride and their courage. We share with them their search and their discoveries. Rechy has distilled from these lives a human experience that is moving, painful, and revealing.
The evening culminates with one of the most shattering scenes in recent fiction. The central character, around whom most of the evenings activities have revolved, leaves the bar at closing time and goes to a sadomasochistic orgy room. This descent into the depths of a sexual underworld fulfills the ceremonial structure of this artfully conceived work. The almost religious rites of the evening end in ritual sacrifice.
“Rushes is a tour de force. It is like peering into the gates of hell.” –Los Angeles Times
“A major American novelist writing at the peak of his powers.” –Richard Hall, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Eloquent, convincing, basically unsparing.” –Herbert Gold
1 – I will go in to the altar of God.
AS OFTEN as he comes to the Rushes, Endore still feels a clash of excitement and dread in anticipation of the sights, sounds, odors he knows will assault him. The astonishing array of cowboys, motorcyclists, construction workers, policemen, lumberjacks, military-uniformed men will cluster intimately within the red darkness. Muted music will pulse into the rancid smoke: Laughter–that laughter-will crack mysteriously at the point of euphoria. The most shadowed part will churn with bodies increasingly bared as night moves deeper. Mixed with the heated odor of the congregated flesh, the rot-tinged scent of “poppers’ will hover like cummy incense.
Endore pauses on the street in the midst of violent-sex turf near the city’s abandoned waterfront. He always does in preparation for entering the Rushes, whether to prolong the expectation or to postpone the actuality.
A sexually handsome, dark-haired man in his upper 30s–he appears younger–he wears an individualized adaptation of the requisite “uniform” in the Rushes: boots, jeans, denim shirt open to reveal a triangle of tanned flesh; his chest is muscular, defined.
Behind him, the network of iron that had once been the elevated, stretches unused, a leftover prop, rusted over, scratching its outline against the distant soaring landscape. Shadows of the tangled iron network divide the street into gray and black patches. The night is dusted ashen orange by the lights from the area of the piers. Hot mist rises smokily from the coarse-paved street, moist from an early drizzle. It is the first sweaty night of spring. Summer breathes into the humid breeze.
Near the Rushes, meat trucks are abandoned for the night. During the day they haul denuded carcasses of cattle hanging on savage racks, raw flesh to be cut up later in the wholesale butcher shops across the street. At night, men invade the bloodied floors of the trucks for sex. Before the aisles of trucks, a man licking his lips is signaling with exposed genitals to a naked man at the window in the apartment building across the street.
The walls of that building have been lashed with red and black paint–angry phallic swirls and slashes like enciphered curses. Ripped tile has left gouges in its lobby, Endore knows. A few nights ago he answered the signal of a handsome man motioning from a window to the entrance. Endore walked up the squeezed aged corridor and to an open door, where the man waited. They blew each other on the floor of the desperately chic apartment.
Now beyond the scrim of dark mist, other forms wait within the maze of parked trucks. Shadows within shadows stir the darkness. Feet on discarded beer cans jangle the silence. Nearby, a youngman stands as if undecided whether to join the sexual field. Seeing Endore, he darts away along the block.
The youngman’s dark curly hair. The startled eyes in the beautiful, sculpted face. Where, before? Shadows, too, and–. . . Too vague to grasp, the memory slides away from Endore.
He moves toward the waterfront. Two women or transvestites sit on a truck ramp before one of the empty warehouses there. One of the female figures is black and large, the other white and small. Almost leaning on each other, both dangle their legs signaling drivers. Their sequins and colored flesh challenge the dark.
Beyond, shadows prowl the dead warehouses along the piers. Fire and vandalism have battered the abandoned buildings. A wharf juts into the gray water. Barges float dead.
The larger warehouse extends the equivalent of two blocks over the water. Endore knows the muted world beyond its oxidized gates. He has entered it often, knows its various vicissitudes of light–dawn, afternoon, dusk; and night–when even the darkness finds it own illumination, draining it from car lights floating in and from streetlights–ashen umber creating a mist like embers. All is visible, coated in gray.
Within that warehouse, haunted male figures lurk for nightsex in the burnt-out rooms, among the rubble of cinder, wood, clawing cans, broken metal pipes, tangled wires like dry veins. In recurring forays with sticks, slashed bottles, knives, guns, crowbars, packs of gaunt young marauders also prowl those areas, for “queers.” The crunch of assaulted flesh–and the filthy floors are bloodied.
Endore sees a light-haired youngman lingering before the maw of one of the warehouses. Endore begins to cross the street. But cars curving in opposing armies, their screeching compressed by the hovering iron network, impede him. He sees the youngman enter the scarred building, stooping under the ripped oxidized gate, its border like the blade of a jagged guillotine lowered midway.
Not crossing the street, Endore tells himself: It wasn’t Michael. But was it? Did I push him there! He backs away from the gutted piers, walking again toward the Rushes. He passes the luring trucks. Forms pulsate, sighs stir the muddy darkness
In the indented lowered entrance to an abandoned building, a man fucks another. The plaster of the wall pulverizes like ashes as the bodies strain.
Endore hears that laughter–and the assertive sound of booted footsteps so familiar in this area. A group of five men swaggers toward the Rushes. All of them carry rings of keys looped through thick belts, colored print handkerchiefs displayed in back pockets. Two of the men are dressed in vitreous black leather-it shines like the oil floating on the puddles of water on the street–and the others are in vaguely military, vaguely Western clothes–consistent with the posted dress code at the entrance to the Rushes. Only the macho men like them and Endore may enter it; a beard-stubbled man at the door nightly discards the ‘sissies’ and other undesirables. Recognizing him as one of their breed, the men nod slightly to Endore–and he nods back almost imperceptibly–the barest hint of a salute among them. Chas will be at the Rushes this hot sensual night, Endore feels certain.
Before they enter the Rushes, again the sound of the men’s coarsened laughter is thrust into the humid air.
That forced, toughened laughter. A laughter which recurs. It has no origin in humor. It erupts without object. Endore notices it increasingly in the arenas of the sexhunt, in all the places where the new homosexuals have fled into ghettos. Even in the daytime as they shop perhaps at flower stands, in fashionable boutiques, in chic antique shops, even then that laughter predominates, especially among the doggedly masculine breed. Endore listens for it now. He attempts to define it.
Defiance, yes, it contains that. Pride? A new pride, Endore insists. Yet the sound always pulls back, pauses, jerks toward hysteria. At the point of euphoria it stumbles as if on a raw bruise. Stabbed with despair. Or is there a lonesome hollow at its center? Is that laughter an uncertain weapon? The sound of unsure survival? A dogged pretending at happiness? Endore feels empty each time he hears it.
Only a few doors before the Rushes is one of the city’s most popular orgy rooms. No sign designates its presence next to a wholesale meat company. Beneath the iron bones of an unused fire ladder and a tattered awning, a square concrete mouth opens onto the sidewalk. Now it waits. But in a few hours, in the later evening, squads of homosexual men, most by then in black leather, will ascend the scratched passage into the Rack.
Endore senses it before he sees it–a mechanical presence in the sweating night: A black, chauffeured limousine hardly moves along the street. Its windows are tinted black. The humming motor stops near the Rushes. Endore sees the barest outline of a face peering out from behind the black glass. The more definite outline of a hand presses against the window. The fingers open almost as if to reach out through the glass. The face retreats. The fingers remain, then they slide down. It’s her, Endore knows with rage. And Martin. The mechanical purring of the car resumes. The elegant black engine pauses before the trucks and then moves toward the shrouded piers. He actually brought her here, Endore thinks, but he won’t dare try to get her into the Rushes.
Almost there now, Endore sees a goodlooking shirtless youngman in his early 20s standing in posed street-toughness-legs spread, head cocked–at the corner of the street. Although this is not a hustling area, he is obviously bartering for sexmoney with an older man. When Endore has already passed them, the youngman follows him with his eyes.
Before the entrance to the Rushes, Endore stops again. Mute graffiti is scrawled on its walls, a ubiquitous wordless language.
He looks back at, and remembers, the vista he has passed through-blocks and blocks populated by men roaming or waiting, only by men, homosexual men; only men, hundreds, more, many more, most in the costumes of leather and Western ‘masculinity,” this night of ambiguous weather; men standing mutely on corners or pressed against buildings darker gray than the sky, or, others, torsos stripped, leaning out of windows, or shoved in clusters against shaded doorways along the crooked streets; men gathered in laughing groups outside tough male-crammed bars, or slouching against motorcycles or on the steps of apartment buildings; men connecting openly or waiting to connect: a vista charged with a dark sexuality which rushes from the streets into the waterfront bars, to the abandoned piers, into the dank warehouses and toward the edge of the water, the end of the land.
As Endore stands near the Rushes, a heated gust of wind shoves loose trash against the curbs, where plastic bags overflow with packed garbage. Piled to be picked up, the bags are like corpses after a deadly plague. New free-form sculptures on the landscape, Endore thinks.
They remind him of the photograph-paintings he saw at an exhibit earlier tonight. The artist had painted on huge blowups of black-and-white photographs. “He attacks violence too lovingly.” In his mind he has already written that as the opening sentence for the column he writes on random subjects, for a fashionable heterosexual magazine read by many homosexuals. The artist makes love to the spent violence, he wrote mentally; he freezes the moment after it-shards of bloodied glass like a red kaleidoscope; a lamp shattered into prisms; ripped clothes a blend of colors on a lambent white floor; amid the chaos of a raped room, a lightly hued telephone overturned, its sculpted receiver dangling disconnected, wire stretched into a slender helix. For the artist, the peace after the rush of violence seems beautiful, the aftermath of rage contains a perfect geometry. The source of violence is left undefined. Endore’s feelings about the “paintings’ continue to shape. An intrinsic ugliness was buried in the beauty. Order–. . .
Tires of a speeding car screech on the street. Frightened, the older man talking to the shirtless youngman runs away. Tight-squeezed male faces, hate-pocked, stare out of the car’s windows. Clenched fists prepare to thrust bottles. Fury knotting at the fleeting sight of the cowardly young invaders, Endore presses himself against the scrawled wall to escape the inevitable pieces of breaking glass. The youngman thrusts his body next to Endore’s.
The words are hurled out of the moving car along with a bottle, another, another. They shatter on the sidewalk.
The youngman next to him looks at Endore. Endore notices that panic has erased the hardness from the youngman’s face. The long-lashed eyes are terrified. Against the same wall, the thighs of the two men touch. The younger man does not move. Endore breaks the contact.
As if the severed touch has released his anger, the youngman runs in the direction of the car; it has already disappeared into the electric orange of the summer night. “I ain’t a fag! Motherfuckers, I ain’t a fag!” he shouts after it.
Endore turns in deeper anger away from him. Before entering the Rushes, he stares at the smashed glass on the moist grimy street: beautiful, like scattered sequins on black velvet.
He walks into the Rushes.
The beard-stubbled man guarding the door of the bar nods him in.
Excitement and dread meld in Endore.
Red lights and smoke create a darkness like dim fire. Within it bodies seem at first to writhe in a dance of slow pleasure, slow pain. Smothered music crushes rancid smoke containing the clinging odor of poppers and sweat. Over it all, the recurring laughter breaks at the point of euphoria. Endore is assaulted by the raw actuality of this bar, the dazzling visual shock of the congregation of machos. Cowboys who don’t ride horses, construction workers in plastic helmets, motorcyclists who travel by cab, policemen without authority, lumberjacks who work in the concrete city, military-uniformed men who belong to no corps-they are all here. The Rushes is their headquarters.
It is the most popular of the “heavy cruising” bars that pock the decaying area. Though it is not strictly a “leather bar,” an undercurrent of rough sexuality charges through it. Along the plundered street, there are rougher bars, where all the men are in funereal black leather–handcuffs, chains, boots may dangle as decorations from the ceiling. But men who are lured by the atmosphere of ‘masculine toughness’ without willing to surrender to the total and identifying commitment expected in overt leather bars, prefer the Rushes. For some it is a ‘macho’ bar, for others a “hard-fantasy” bar, a “uniform” bar, a “leather and Western” bar; a bar for finding a masculine companion for “ordinary sex” or for “heavier to heaviest action,” without one’s mere presence identifying which. For others, it is a bar for courted discovery and expected surprises.
Many muscular, lean, goodlooking–though not all, as appear at first glance, the accumulated masculinity asserting its own collective beauty–men here seem to be in their early 20s to middle 30s. Virtually all wear boots–brown boots, black; calf-length, knee-length boots; polished or scuffed boots; boots adorned with bradded studs or decorated with chains; engineer boots, motorcycle boots, military-style boots. The “uniforms’ are often mixed, cowboy hats and silver-studded black belts, gleaming darkly, dissecting bare torsos; construction helmets and vests; military caps over plaid shirts. Like the bartenders, others are shirtless tonight–more will be later-welcoming the heat thrusting into the artificial air; dots of oil or sweat shine like beads on hairy or smooth chests.
All of the men clutch their drinks–usually beer–too tightly, as if in protection against a dreaded effeminate move. To further ward off that curse, they pose slouched against the walls, the bar, on stools, beer crates; thumbs hooked on belts; hips thrust out as if demanding obeisance from a kneeling form; one booted foot braced, another clamped to the floor as if barely to withhold a thrusting motion. Almost all the men standing alone appear at times to see no one. Hunting eyes barely move, connecting only in mysterious synapse.
The former ‘sissies’ have developed a rough, bruised beauty, as clearly homosexual as drag; contrived, studied. Unreal. Increasingly alike. Endore sees; there is a new conformity, a marked sameness among the men of this sexual army–not only in the “uniform,” the cut of the hair, the stance–not even in the strange laughter in common, no, it is in a look not yet quite etched into the faces–a new look of defiance and disdain, but aimed at their own; of hurt defiance, terrified disdain. With it there seems to be a vulnerable meanness that charges the sexual arenas with tensile hostility. In groups men remark brutally, coarsely-like buyers at an auction-about others walking by alone, coarsely if approving, brutally if not. Yet in a second an unhealed scar is brushed among them, and angered pain bleeds out.
The new masculinity is damned to bouts with the tenacious vulnerability. At recurrent moments, especially when liquor slackens control, the forced rigidity snaps like the enigmatic break in the laughter. Poised tenuously, the hard pose tilts, falls, shatters. Astonished, the mean look softens. Effeminacy captures the former masculinity. Then the liquortinged laughter becomes shrill and the break at its core lasts longer as if discovering itself.
Nightly, often from fashionable bars, stylish parties, elegant openings, expensive restaurants, chic discos, this make-believe working-class comes to the Rushes to connect for sex. They arrive in private cars, taxis, even limousines. Posted notices in the waterfront bars warn them not to walk, especially alone, through the violence-mined area ruled sporadically by tribes of homosexual-hating invaders.
Tonight, as on every other night at the Rushes, wordless promises will be made–kept or withdrawn, Endore knows; lifelong wounds exposed in one cruel moment; and anger will erupt as the hypnotic choreography of the sexhunt continues uninterrupted within the pressurized tension of exiles and the swirls of smoke, bleeding darkness, constant music, jagged conversations. All of that remains constant, as unchanging as the Ordinary of the Mass. It is only the particular connections, the particular wounds, the particular anger that will differ, he knows.
He looks into the grimy dark enclosure that is the Rushes. Already he feels its possessive power. The popper-tinged smoke encircles him; the collective sexual energy of the roiling bodies, the friction of flesh, pulls him. The dread apprehension drains away.
It is not a physically extraordinary place, this large square bar. It has been allowed to become increasingly trashy to augment the aura of toughness, a welcome to the encroaching decay from the waterfront. Plaster is gouged like the missing pieces of a concrete jigsaw puzzle, calcimined edges blurring the connective pieces. The rubble of crushed beer cans and cellophane wrappings is shoved against corners. The Rushes is divided into partitions visible to each other and defined only by wooden posts connecting the floor to the low ceiling. At the end of the evening, a layer of smoke hangs unmoving. There are few lighted areas–more are just less dark than others, and they further divide the bar into murky pools, but to initiated eyes the Rushes provides its own clear visibility even across its length. Along the posts are scarred circular counters. Black vinyl stools are scattered about the bar, their ripped tops spew dirty hardened cotton. Men sit or lean or prop booted feet on discarded beer kegs, crates. Littered sawdust patches the floor.
A long half oval, the main counter is scratched in formless traceries created by cans, bottles, glasses. A huge American flag hangs behind it and over the low shelves of bottles glazed red by the light. The flag is new. Flanking the entrance are two areas which remain relatively sparse and quiet–protected from the influx of noise–even on jammed weekends. It is there that men collect to talk or to eye and evaluate from the sidelines the sexual combatants.
Toward the back, four steps ascend to a second level; only two areas are violated by light, and even there smoke bled of its red hues extends grayly into the spill under a pool table, as well as into the dirty glow from a jukebox. An indistinct mothy light floats over the entrance to the toilet. Toward the back wall, this higher level is deeper red to the very point before it is snuffed out by darkness, but–like every other area of the Rushes–still permeable by knowing, practiced eyes. Beyond that penumbral demarcation, shadows fuse periodically in cursory motions of sex, more definite ones as the night moves.
In reverence to the naked hunt, props common to other cruising bars have been discarded. No game machines break the solemn rites with blinking lights and buzzes. Two pool tables, one dark now, are for frozen sexual display. Even the jukebox, its light tainted gray, is silent. The Rushes will not relinquish control of its sounds. In other bars and discos, rhythms blast out in crushing vibrations. At the Rushes, to augment the seriousness of the sexual rites, the same music is muted. The sounds emanate from unseen tapes. A smothered sexual growl burrows subliminally within the waves of smoke. Bass tones pant like an animal in slow heat. At times throughout the carnal hunt the Rushes seems to breathe, whisper, sigh, moan. On rare moments, either by accident or design, the music crashes through in an orgasmic rush.
Other than the flag, the only ‘decoration” is a series of erotic drawings along the walls, like the undelineated panels of a black-and-white comic strip. All unattainably muscular, raunchy fantasies of impossible masculinity, some bodies naked–cocks huge and engorged, balls like ripe fruit–other bodies exposed through ripped patches of clothes, still others in leather or in unidentifiable uniforms–the large cartoon figures painted without shading or nuance are exalted exaggerations of the real men who often pose before them.
Cheap peeling paint, cracking plaster, sweating bodies rubbing against them, scrawled markings, have distorted many of the drawings, yet others remain sharp. The result is that some of the faces convey vestiges of expressions, but even those may be delusive, ecstasy transmogrified into pain by one broken line, a slice of shadow, a swirl of smoke. Other visages, square-jawed, obdurate, are blank of any interpretive emotion.
Each panel depicts figures in poses of assault or submission–but which, is often equivocal because of the melding and fading of clarity and ambiguity in the lines; a vague surrendering figure in one panel slides into a bold posture of assault in another. There is no discernible sequential order in this pornography of implied violence, but one or another rudimentary figure may recur, the same man in faint outline perhaps transmuted later into assertive delineation.
The series ends abruptly in a blank panel. The barest trace of an unfinished figure lurks there like a ghost. The remaining area once blank is carved now into an anarchy of male organs, lines, Xs, cruel scratches. There are even some clumsy inked attempts to resurrect the missing figure into an even further bloated parody.
At times Endore has made cursory inquiries about the drawings, but transitory bartenders trying to evoke past invisible owners of the Rushes have merely added to the mystery of their origin.
As Endore penetrates the Rushes farther, he feels he is shedding his past. His whole life compresses into this night. To all but himself and those who know him beyond it, like all the others here he will be what he appears to be or says he is. Lies will be true if believed. Only what is heard or felt or seen–in here–is real. The Rushes demands mysteries; secrets exposed are not necessarily revealed. People not present are phantoms in unsolved mysteries whose solutions lie in the abandoned past. Even the allowed splinters and fragments of memories–clues–are hued by the red subdued light. The past is the moment of walking into the Rushes, the future is in making out. In between are the entrances and exits of others intersecting the trajectories of constant glances.
A shirtless man, wrists bound, faces another man, in a uniform. Endore is staring at the painted panel depicting those two figures.
In the strip next to that one a leathered man is holding another’s arms–. . .
Endore’s attention is pulled from the drawn figures on the walls to a familiar form facing them. Back to him, the slender, tautly muscular body is arched. The man wears a black leather vest, no shirt, a tilted leather cap hugged by a small-linked chain. Tight black leather chaps embrace his legs. Studded leather straps encircle his biceps. His belt is formed by large, silver motorcycle-chain links. He is talking to one or more men, but forms passing now before Endore cut them from his sight. Despite the many others here similarly dressed, Endore recognizes the expertly choreographed leathered figure.
Rising simultaneously from different parts of the Rushes, laughter detonates above the voices and the moaning music. Endore listens. Is the laughter attempting to smother the cries of the enemy screaming outside for blood? he pursues its origin. But the hollow in the haunting laughter is passed.
Moving farther in, he feels the clawing eyes that reach out to whoever enters the bar. He has already become a cool, handsome, desirable–pastless–man among other cool, handsome, desirable, pastless men. Eyes connect with eyes. But it is too early for firm commitment. This is the time of messages of possibility only, like the message he exchanges with a handsome man staring at him.
The blond man wears a low white tank top to exhibit a magnificently sculpted muscular body. Endore does not move away too quickly, no, knowing that to do so may sever the possible connection irrevocably rather than extend it; and he extends it by holding the look, then just allowing his eyes to slide-not pull-away.
As always, he will wait, alone or with friends, in the ‘safety zone”–one of the, quieter enclaves near the entrance. He will collect glances, and he will send them out, careful never to extend too overtly. As successful a sexcruiser as he is, he that way thwarts possible rejection, a knife poised to stab the most beautiful as well as the ugliest. Rejection without later redemption is death in that night’s life at the Rushes.