Ceremonies is a novel based on what happened in Bangor, Maine, during the weeks after Charlie Howard was murdered on July 7, 1984. An excerpt from that novel, given below, depicts a moment after a court appearance by “the boys” who committed the murder. In the crowd outside the court house there are people on both sides. Derek is the narrator. He is early thirties, an actor in Maine for summer stock.
I am trapped by Bernie’s death. There is no choice any more. What remains is how: It doesn’t much matter that I preserve a private life in the face of this public catastrophe. No private life is worth much if our communal life is being destroyed. Bernie’s death has brought the edge of the fire to my doorstep, and I can run now, or I can stay and fight, and it is unclear to me which is which. And yet if we don’t maintain a private life—the loves we bear for parents, friends, lovers, the commitments we have to our professions and jobs, to all the intimacies of our existence—the rest, what we gain on the barricades, is worthless.
Late on Friday morning, I am standing in a crowd on the pavement in front of the court house. The sky is a flawless metallic blue, there are hot, high winds and my sweat makes the back of my shirt and my armpits wet. Around me are members of the coalition, walking up and down, carrying signs: “LESBIANS DEMAND JUSTICE” and “HOMOPHOBIA HAS GOT TO GO!” Near us are boys—not the boys—who stand with their legs apart and arms folded across their chests, staring and grinning and making jokes among themselves. They spot a person carrying a sign that says, “BERNIE MALLETT WAS MURDERED BY THE PEOPLE OF MAINE!” and call out, “Faggot!” “Queer!” Coalition members yell back, “Murderers!” Men in t-shirts and jeans carry television cameras, focusing first on one group and then the other. A man and a woman, slick professionals dressed for on-camera work, write on pads of paper and sometimes speak directly into the cameras, nodding over their shoulders to the scene behind them. Police move among the crowd, making a heavy, authoritarian presence, hands on their hips or across their chests. Their eyes are covered with mirrored sunglasses, and their faces are greasy with sweat.
Beyond all these are middle-aged middle-class men and women whose bodies are soft with their own virtue, who identified themselves in the courtroom as god-fearing folk come to see justice done. The women, small ladies in summer dresses, pick at the arms of the men or try to engage the police in sharp harangues on the indecency of these people marching around in public.
The judge has delayed, again, a decision on whether the boys must stand trial as adults. There are to be psychiatric evaluations. Now we are on the street, dispersing. All of us wear pink triangles and green buttons that read, “ANOTHER FRIEND OF BERNIE MALLETT.” One of the task forces from the coalition ordered them from Boston, and they came this morning. I look for Jack. He is across the crowd talking to Suzanne, who has a sign. I make my way toward them.
Suzanne’s sign reads, “SEXISM + HOMOPHOBIA = DEATH.”
As I come up on them, a boy near Suzanne calls out to her: “Hey, chick!”
She ignores him, continuing to talk to Jack and to hold her sign high.
“Hey, chick! Wanta go somewhere with me?” He grins broadly.
She ignores him.
“Chick! Why’re you ignoring me? All you need is a good dick!”
“Fuckoff, kid.” It seems absurdly inadequate.
The boy glances at me and then laughs at Suzanne. “Cunt.”
People watch, and those who were drifting away come back. Jack is turning red, and he grips his hands by his side. He is going to explode. She tries to talk to him.
“You never been fucked?”
“Shut up, kid.”
“Little shit!” She whirls on the kid, her eyes darting around, looking for a place to drop her sign.
The cameramen turn their cameras on us, while people yell.
“You’re going to rot in Hell!”
“Yuh got AIDS,” somebody screams.
I grab at Jack, but he pulls loose and leaps on top of the boy, and then the police are here, pulling them apart.
The kid’s face is red and distorted, and he is breathing heavy, his chest going up and down. “You suck cock?” he screams at Jack.
Marybeth is coming in from my right, and over on the side, I see Deborah and Sally.
“Keep your hands off our children!” I whirl around and see a thin, blond woman my age, her face red with screaming.
“Jack, you’ll make things worse—” I see the angry faces, wet with sweat and pulled into grimaces with anger. “Suzanne—” I can finally touch her, and I grab her shoulder, pulling her back from the boy. “Don’t. Leave him alone!” I shake her shoulder. “Get hold of yourself!”
She turns on me and recognizes me. She beats on my chest. “You’re a fucking coward, Derek!” Tears cover her cheeks. “You’re a fucking coward!”
I search her face. I flush cold with fear. “Shut up, Suzanne. Grow up. This is not what we’re after!”
“What the fuck! Don’t you see where you are?” She throws her arm out to encompass the mass of angry people.
Suddenly a woman is hitting me on my back. I hear people yelling and screaming.
A policeman, grinning, blows a piercing whistle and shouts, “Little order here, little order here!”
“Shoot ’em all!”
“You’re a coward, you haven’t got the balls—”
“Hah! Fucking queers!”
“Oh, please.” It’s Deborah. She reaches out to Suzanne and then to me, and then she grasps her hands in front of her breasts. The whistle screams.
“Get out of my life!” Suzanne screams at her.
“All she needs is a good fuck from a big dick—” Laughter runs through the crowd.
“I won’t let you oppress me any longer!” She throws herself on top of the kid and carries him to the ground before the policeman can intervene.
“And you, my friend, you’re a fucking pansy!” It is a low voice speaking to me right in my ear, and it’s a familiar voice: It’s Jack!
I am not smart, slow at seeing big things. I wanted a good part with one good scene—Macduff, say, weeping for his children—and a pretty boy in my bed. And I’ve got this instead!”
Dwight Cathcart. Ceremonies. Boston: Adriana Books, 2010. Ebook available from Adriana Books.com. The excerpt is the conclusion of the Derek episode from Part 2.