Jere' M. Fishback
Genre: Historical romance, GLBT,
Historical,Edgy Young Adult
Publisher: Prizm Books
Date of Publication: December 30, 2014
Number of pages: 208
Word Count: 65,800
Cover Artist: Fiona Jayde
It's 1976, and Anita Bryant's homophobic "Save Our Children" crusade rages through Florida. When Andy Hunsinger, a closeted gay college student, joins in a demonstration protesting Bryant's appearance in Tallahassee, his straight boy image is shattered when he's "outed" by a TV news reporter.
In the months following, Andy discovers just what it means to be openly gay in a society that condemns love between two men.
Can Andy's friendship with Travis, a devout Christian who's fighting his own sexual urges, develop into something deeper?
On my seventh birthday, my parents gave me a Dr. Seuss book, The Cat in the Hat.
I still have it; the book rests on the shelf above my desk, along with other Seuss works I've collected. Inside The Cat in the Hat's cover, my mother wrote an inscription, using her English teacher's precise penmanship.
"Happy Birthday, Andy. As you grow older, you'll realize many truths dwell within these pages. Much love, Mom and Dad."
Mom was right, of course. She most always is.
My favorite line in The Cat in the Hat is this one:
"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
Loretta McPhail was a notorious Tallahassee slumlord. On a steamy afternoon, in August 1976, she spoke to me in her North Florida drawl: part magnolia, part crosscut saw.
"The rent's one-twenty-five. I'll need first, last, and a security deposit, no exceptions."
McPhail wore a short-sleeved shirtwaist dress, spectator pumps, and a straw hat with a green plastic windowpane sewn into the brim. Her skin was as pale as cake flour. A gray moustache grew on her winkled upper lip, and age spots peppered the backs of her hands. Her eyeglasses had lenses so thick her gaze looked buggy.
I'd heard McPhail held title to more than fifty properties in town, all of them cited multiple times for violation of local building codes. She owned rooming houses, single family homes, and small apartment buildings, mostly in neighborhoods surrounding Florida State University's campus. Like me, her tenants sought cheap rent; they didn't care if the roof leaked or the furnace didn't work.
The Franklin Street apartment I viewed with McPhail wasn't much: a living room and kitchen, divided by a three-quarter wall; a bedroom with windows looking into the rear and side yards; a bathroom with a wall-mounted sink, a shower stall and a toilet with a broken seat. In each room, the plaster ceilings bore water marks. The carpet was a leopard skin of suspicious-looking stains, and the whole place stank of mildew and cat pee.
McPhail's building was a two-storied, red brick four-plex with casement windows that opened like book covers, a Panhandle style of architecture popular in the 1950s. Shingles on the pitched roof curled at their edges. Live oaks and longleaf pines shaded the crabgrass lawn, and skeletal azaleas clung to the building's exterior.
In the kitchen, I peeked inside a rust-pitted Frigidaire. The previous tenant had left gifts: a half-empty ketchup bottle, another of pickle relish. A carton of orange juice with an expiration date three months past sat beside a tub of margarine.
Out in the stairwell, piano music tinkled -- a jazzy number I didn't recognize.
McPhail clucked her tongue and shook her head.
"I've told Fergal -- and I mean several times -- to close his door when he plays, but he never does. I'm not sure why I put up with that boy."
McPhail pulled a pack of Marlboros from a pocket in the skirt of her dress. After tapping out two cigarettes, she jammed both between her lips. She lit the Marlboros with a brushed-chrome Zippo, and then she gave me one cigarette.
I puffed and tapped a toe, letting my gaze travel about the kitchen. I studied the chipped porcelain sink, scratched Formica countertops, and drippy faucet. Blackened food caked the range's burner pans. The linoleum floor's confetti motif had long ago disappeared in high-traffic areas. Okay, the place was a dump. But the rent was cheap, and campus was less than a mile away. I could ride my bike to classes, and to my part-time job as caddy at the Capital City Country Club.
Still, I hesitated.
The past two years, I'd lived in my fraternity house with forty brothers. I took my meals there, too. If I rented McPhail's apartment, I'd have to cook for myself. What would I eat? Where would I shop for food?
Other questions flooded my brain. Where would I wash my clothes? And how did a guy open a utilities account? The apartment wasn't furnished. Where would I purchase a bed? What about a dinette and living room furniture? And how much did such things cost? It all seemed so complicated.
Still . . .
Lack of privacy at the fraternity house would pose a problem for me this year. Over summer break -- back home in Pensacola -- I'd experienced my first sexual encounter with another male, a lanky serviceman named Jeff Dellinger, age twenty-four. Jeff was a Second Lieutenant from Eglin Air Force Base. I met him at a sand volleyball game behind a Pensacola Beach hotel, and he seemed friendly. I liked his dark hair, slim physique, and ready smile, but wasn't expecting anything personal to happen between us.
After all, I was a "straight boy", right?
We bought each other beers at the Tiki bar, and then Jeff invited me up to his hotel room. Once we reached the room, Jeff prepared two vodka/tonics. My drink struck like snake venom, and then my brain fuzzed. Jeff opened a bureau drawer; he produced a lethal-looking pistol fashioned from black metal. The pistol had a matte finish and a checked grip.
"Ever seen one of these?"
I shook my head.
"It's an M1911 -- official Air Force issue. I've fired it dozens of times."
Jeff raised the gun to shoulder height. He closed one eye, focused his other on the pistol's barrel sight. "Shooting's almost... sensual," he said. Then he looked at me. "It's like sex, if you know what I mean."
I shrugged, not knowing what to say.
Jeff handed the pistol to me. It weighed more than I'd expected, between two and three pounds. I turned the pistol here and there, admiring its sleek contours. The grip felt cold against my palm and a shiver ran through me. I'd never fired a handgun, never thought to.
"Is it loaded?" I asked.
Jeff bobbed his chin. "One bullet's in the firing chamber, seven more in the magazine; it's a semi-automatic."
After I handed Jeff the gun, he returned it to his bureau's drawer while I sipped from my drink, feeling woozier by the minute. Jeff sat next to me, on the room's double bed. His knee nudged mine, our shoulders touched, and I smelled his coconut-scented sunscreen.
Jeff laid a hand on my thigh. Then he squeezed. "You don't mind, do you?"
Character Name: I'm Andy Hunsinger.
Character Bio: Twenty-two year old Andy Hunsinger is a closeted gay college student, living in conservative Tallahassee, Florida in 1976. Andy's just now coming to terms with his sexual orientation. That's Andy in the foreground on the cover of Becoming Andy Hunsinger.
Describe yourself what is your worst and best quality?
My worst quality is my desperate need to find another guy who will love me as much as I love him. I'm the type of guy who "wears his heart on his sleeve"—as they say—and during the course of this novel I make some very poor choices in my quest for love. My best quality is courage; I'm not afraid to be who I am and I don't care who knows it.
What is the one thing you wish other people knew about you?
I love singing and acting before an audience. In high school I performed in musical plays like South Pacific and Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. Performing in public gives me a rush like nothing else.
What is your biggest secret something no one knows about?
This is embarrassing … I once let a guy who was into BDSM tie me up and beat me. Then he assaulted me sexually. Those were the worst few hours of my life. Even today I shiver at the memory. How could I have been so stupid?
What are you most afraid of?
Going through life alone. I'm the kind of guy who needs love and companionship, even if I have grovel for it. I'm also scared of heights.
What do you want more than anything?
A committed relationship with another guy, someone who's sensitive and caring. Why is it so hard to find someone like that?
What is your relationship status?
"Desperately seeking boyfriend."
How would you describe your sense of fashion?
You have to understand, I grew up in Pensacola, Florida in the 1960's and 1970's. It's a conservative place, so I tend toward traditional or preppy clothing. I wear button down, oxford cloth shirts, chinos and penny loafers. Even though it's the disco era right now and guys are wearing bell-bottom polyester slacks, you wouldn't catch me in a pair. And you wouldn't catch me dead in a Nik-Nik shirt or a pair of platform shoes. Uulike most guys my age right now, I keep my hair cut short.
How much of a rebel are you?
Not much of one, in my opinion. But then, as one character in this book says, "Living your life as an openly gay man is a political act." So, in the sense that I'm out of the closet in 1976, I guess I am a bit of a rebel. I mean, there are places in North Florida where I might get my ass kicked if guys found out I was gay. Still, I don't let that stop me from being who I am.
What do you considered to be your greatest achievement?
Living my life as an openly gay man, even if society gives me a lot of shit about it.
What is your idea of happiness?
Living with a boyfriend who loves me and who also puts up with me singing in the shower.
What is your current state of mind?
Well, to be honest I'm feeling pretty desperate. This whole business of finding a boyfriend shouldn't be so difficult, but it is. I guess that's because the society I dwell in looks down on gay men. As a result, many gay guys hide in the closet and you have no chance to meet them. Why do things have to be this way?
What is your most treasured possession?
My singing voice. I love my Chevrolet Vega too; t gets me where I need to go.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I'm totally honest, and I'm not afraid to be me. I guess I inherited those qualities from my parents, who are wonderful people. I'm so lucky to come from the family I do. They've been totally supportive of me while I deal with my sexual orientation and the "coming out" process. Even my little brother has been great, and he's a total jock.
What is it that you most dislike?
People's lack of tolerance for those who are different than them. Look, why does everyone have to be the same? Okay, I'm gay and you're straight. Does that mean we can't be friends? But when I was "outed" on TV (of all places) I got kicked out of my fraternity. Not a single brother stood up for me, which really made me angry. I thought they were all my friends, but no. In truth, they weren't.
Which living person do you most despise?
Anita Bryant. She's a smug Christian and a homophobic bully. If I ever get a chance to meet her, you'd better believe I'll give her a piece of my mind. Who the hell does she think she is?
What is your greatest regret?
That I spent the first three years of college trying to be a straight boy. I even dated girls, just to fit in with my fraternity brothers. All that time I could've led the life I was mean to lead. I might have found a boyfriend who would make me happy.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Honesty. I can't stand liars or phonies. Don't be a wimp; have the courage to be who you are. Sure, some people will scorn you if you're different, but those kind of people I couldn't care less about.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Strength. My mom's a junior high school English teacher and she's as tough as nails when she needs to be. I think that's important for a woman to stick up for herself and her values.
Who is your favorite hero in fiction?
Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. I like him because he's so different from his peers, but he doesn't let that stop him from doing what he wants to do. Plus, he's funny as hell, and he loves his little sister Phoebe to death. My favorite Holden Caulfield line was, “I was surrounded by phonies...They were coming in the goddam window.”
Which living person do you most admire?
Mick Jagger. Have you ever seen him perform live in concert? I've never seen a more magnetic person; he just fills up the arena with his energy. And I love the Rolling Stones' music, most of which Jagger co-writes with Keith Richards. What a talent.
If you could change one thing about yourself what would it be?
I'd like to be more self-confident, like my friend Biff Schultz. He was my freshman-year dormitory roommate, and he doesn't give a crap what people think of him. He's even a dedicated nudist. Me? I could never parade around in a group of people in my birthday suit. I don't have Biff's self-assurance.
What is your motto?
It appears at the beginning of Becoming Andy Hunsinger. It's a Dr. Seuss quote from The Cat in the Hat. Here it is:
"'Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don’t mind.'"
Jere' M. Fishback is a former news editor and trial lawyer. He writes Young Adult novels, short fiction, and memoirs. A Florida native, he lives on a barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico, west of Tampa/St. Petersburg. When he's not writing, Jere' enjoys cycling, surfing, lap-swimming, and watching sunsets with a glass of wine in hand.