"Belle of the Ball" by Rob Santana

Don wanted to come as Marlon from that biker movie ‘The Wild One’ for the costume ball. Phil praised his choice, if not his nonchalant acceptance of that gay guy who moved into their apartment complex.

      “You’ll be such a wow,” Phil said, his dark beady eyes dancing as he gazed at his hero. Phil had looked up to Don since the day Don cold-cocked the fireman. Don felt the smoke jumper’s brutal shove at Phil was total bullshit, uncalled for. And what was Phil’s crime? Trying for a quick sprint across the street as the fire truck was backing up from its Ladder’s maw; Phil ignoring the fireman’s signal to stop. And to wait.

      We’re firefighters, damn it. You wait.

      Hense the shove.

      Hense Don’s reaction to the fireman’s Gestapo tactic.

      Pow! I don’t care how many lives you saved, you don’t be hoving’ my buddy that way! Like you got the right and you’re untouchable and he’s nada!

      Phil was dead sure Don Machado would’ve slugged a cop to defend him.

      “I don’t take no shit if the shit’s unwarranted shit!” Don would blare for all to hear. He was King Kong and Godzilla. He ruled the block he shared with his designated ‘homeys.’ Six feet even, pushing thirty, Don was. Zero facial hair (a novelty!) under a thick mass of black curly hair, curved cheekbones that gave him a sinister look under the shadows of orange-tinted street lamps.

      Bad-Ass Don.

      He was the unofficial leader of the Slab-Pack. Tenants only. Don, who lived alone and ruled as the Superintendant of the tenement building that stretched across the gray Brooklyn court. His father owned the apartment building which granted Don a status he would embrace with style and vigor. If you dropped a candy wrapper on his sidewalk and Don caught you, you’d best be prepped for a verbal assault and a stern warning.

      Don ruled and his homeys were glad for it.


      Phil couldn’t stop yapping to anyone who listened about the time Don chased away some wop loiterers who cat-called Tiffany, Phil’s buxom cousin, and Anne Marie. Right there on his stoop.

      “Stay in your lane! Don’t be blocking my hallway! Don’t be harassing my tenants,” was Don’s personal anthem. Even the lone black dweller who worked out at Gold’s Gym respected Don. During hot summer nights Don would patrol the block shirtless, joking with the roomers, ogling the sexy mommies who leaned against his white bitchin’ Camaro. Pretty girls were allowed access to his car’s hood if they wanted to plunk their dainty asses against it. Not so, the boys.

      To Phil, Don was the opposite of gay, harboring a passing tolerance for men (as drinking buddies) while nursing a sweetness and affection for the opposite gender.

      Don was girl-crazy.

      The girls loved him back. They couldn’t curb their north to south appraisals of his Michelangelo physique, his hairless deep-cut chest, the thin tapered waist and broad shoulders. To them, Don was Mister Olympia.

      To Phil, he was the funnel into magical illusions, his personal avatar. At twenty-five, Phil’s size forty-two Dockers weighed down his gait. He waddled while Don strode on their way to a mechanic or a hardware store, Phil gasping for air trying to keep pace with his new best friend.

      Don offered to help him.

      “You mean that, Don? Help me lose weight?”

      “At the gym, yeah.”

      Don had embraced Phil as the ‘kid brother he never had.’ Phil always feared his adulation for Don would alienate him. Who wants to be fawned over by a guy?

      “Tell you what, lil bro,” Don said, “if you’re serious, I mean mad serious, about getting into shape, I’ll train your chubby ass at Gold’s Gym, free of charge, for three months.”

      “You’ll do that?” Phil asked, with a catch in his throat.




      “Hell yeah, dude. I can hear your Dad yelling at you from behind my wall.”

      Phil’s ground floor apartment stood next to Don’s.

      “Ain’t right,” Don continued. “No father should dress down his only son that way, callin’ you a good for nothing fat-ass. Ain’t right.”

      Phil’s father was a retired Marine Captain who spawned Phil at age forty. Since then he showed nothing but contempt for his ‘overweight slob of a son.’ And where was Mom now? Sharing a bed with some handsome factory worker.

      Life with Dad was Hell and Don was the Angel Descending.

      He was Father, Big Bro and BFF wrapped into a box of chocolates.

      And Phil would cherish every moment with his peer from this day on. He imagined him and Don cruising the local dance clubs and scoring chicks. After losing all that weight, of course.


      It was Halloween. On a Friday. No work tomorrow. Phil’s gig was a major yawn: Assistant to the Assistant Manager of an accounting firm. Small wonder he’d gone flabby, sitting on that pine desk the last four years.

      Punch in. Punch out. Come home. Watch a little TV. Hang out with Don and the guys. Avoid Dad. Go to bed.  No more sloth. Sloth ends beginning Monday, Don told him. Day One at the Gym.

      “So who you comin’ as?” Don asked. “And don’t fuggin’ say Dracula. That’s for dudes with no imagination, Fuggin’ cliché, that costume.”

      “I’ll surprise you,” Phil countered, hoping he could exchange his Drac outfit for something more original at Party City. Phil had no doubt Don would win first prize for his Brando biker garb. He pictured Don blasting through the door in a motorcycle.

      Don tensed and frowned. Someone was about to enter the building. He greeted the newest tenant with an eyes-down nod. They waited out the receding footfalls.

      “That’s the new guy,” Don muttered. “Moved in last week. Ian Something.”

      Phil chuckled. “I know. I seen him. Is he, like, an Amish Quaker or a Rabbi?”

      Don lit a cigarette and let it dangle on his lips. “You mean, like, what’s with the foliage on his face?” Don already had a nickname for the newcomer: The Bearded Brit.

      Phil nodded. “Yeah, I never seen a beard that thick on such a skinny fag dude, yo.”

      “Transient from the UK,” Don said. “Keeps to himself. I talked to him maybe ten minutes and had to ask him to slow down his speech. He’s got a Cockney accent that would embarrass the Sex Pistols.”

      Phil’s laugh was a bit overripe. Anything Don said ripped him up.

      “He’s all right, though,” Don added. “Long as he pays the rent on time, he’s cool.”

      He clapped a hand on Phil’s shoulder. “Okay, so, see you tonight at the costume ball, Lil Bro.” He turned and headed back inside. Phil waited, then raced to his apartment. He had four hours to exchange costumes and the store was enormous.


      By half-past nine the Halloween Ball was not exactly in full swing. Tiffany, who helped run the event, opened the bar and adjusted her too-tight Snow White guise. She cherished Don’s approval of it, if  he ever arrived. Too early for someone like Donnie Boy to make an entrance. Her friends, though, had begun trickling in. There was Nick, in his dopey cowboy get-up. No points for him. Billy, Carlos and Steven wore the same tired Dracula outfit. How clever. Ann-Marie was no threat either, dragging herself in here with that baggy Wonder Woman mishmash. Denise De La Hoya was a total write-off. Who was she supposed to be?

      And where was Don?

      She wanted Don for herself after the party, wanted to bang that tall, delicious hunk in her bachelorette crib. The one above his. She would not hold out this time. Hotties like Don rarely granted dawdling chicks a second chance.


      Phil waited until ten p.m. before sauntering into the cavernous bar. He prayed Don would applaud his choice of wardrobe: Emperor Nero. He scanned the modest turn-out. Where was Don? He caught a glimpse of a heavily-studded leather jacket.

      It’s him! It’s Marlon!

      He walked over to Don, who was absorbing Tiffany’s babble with furrowed brows, and scowled. What a slut. So fucking obvious, her vibes. The way she gazed at him, her glass of whatever on the verge of tipping over.

      “Yo, Donnie!” he shouted, his voice drowned out by the DJ’s Disco For The Hard Of Hearing sound system. When Don whirled, Phil reared back like check me out. Don grinned.

      “Ho’ shit! Yo, how many Christians did you send to the lions today?”

      Phil beamed while Tiffany glowered.

      Well, too bad, bitch. Move on. Time for some man talk.

      Don shot Phil a thumbs-up. “Crazy,” he said, in his Brando twang. Tiffany tugged at his sleeve.

       “You ain’t said dick about my costume!” she said. Phil rolled his eyes. She looked more like a desperate school girl, not a Disney icon.

      Get lost, Tiffany.

      Before Don could respond, heads swiveled towards the entrance. Phil studied Don’s reaction to the slender girl dressed as Glinda, the good witch. He spotted Ann-Marie covering her mouth, tittering, then followed Don’s unwavering gaze at Glinda. Her pink gown and brocade with petal-shaped layers glimmered under the soft lights.

      “Who’s that?” Don asked. Glinda seemed to float to the bar and ordered a cocktail.

      “Oh, umm, it’s that British guy, Ian.” Tiffany said. “I invited him.”

      Don’s slackened jaw matched Phil’s in length. Phil blocked Don’s path.

      “Yo, Big Bro, there’s an empty booth by the corner. You snag it and I’ll grab us a coupla beers.”

      Don wasn’t listening. “S’cuse me, guys.” He left Phil and Tiffany to trade quizzical glances and gravitated towards Glinda.

      “Wait-that’s the guy with the beard I saw today,” Phil yawped.

      “I felt sorry for him, him being alone, so I invited him,” Tiffany said. “I didn’t figure him for a cross-dressing faggot.”


      “I don’t smoke, luv,” Glinda murmured to Don, whose pack of Marlboros hung in mid-flight.

      “You couldn’t possibly be the same person sportin’ all that facial hair,” Don said, smiling. Glinda’s large gray eyes locked with his, his pouty lips curving into a sardonic grin.

      “Rapid Shave out-shaves them all,” he sing-songed. Glinda’s voice was Bacall-husky, which added to his allure. To Don “she” was a wandering, oh-so-soft, slinky siren. His lips were painted rouge and the finely-cut eyebrows flowed with precision. Blue nails emphasized his tapered digitals. Ignoring the coterie’s probing eyes, Don slid closer. The fragrance of mint and Red Door perfume clashed, emitting a sweet musk.

      “So, how Brando do I look?” Don asked, smoothing down his wide black lapels. Glinda cocked an eyebrow and smirked.

      “Not very, but a good try.”

      Don drew back. So Glinda wants to play hardball.

      “You know what I think, Glinda?”

      “Ian, see-voo-play.”

      “No, you’re Glinda. You should stay Glinda. Forever Glinda. Beautiful, graceful Glinda. I’d like to see you again. In private.”

      Glinda returned Don’s gaze with a flutter of his long eyelashes. “Well, I don’t know,” he whispered. “We’ll see about that, won’t we?”

      Don bowed. “What can I do for you, fair lady?”

      “You can start by lowering the rent. Marlon.”

      Don’s heart thumped like a disco beat. Marlon. She called me Marlon.

      “I’ll speak to my dad,” Don/Marlon said.

      Glinda smiled, exposing teeth that would impress a seasoned dentist, sliding his tongue across them.


      Phil emptied his third shot of whiskey. He saw that no one else dared voice their shock and dismay at Don’s infatuation with that fairy. He decided that Don had surrendered to an illusion, a trick of light. Perhaps it was Don’s idea of feminine bewitchery.

      Despite Don’s protest (ignored by all) Denise De La Hoya, who stood six feet tall, won first prize for Best Costume. Her Abe Lincoln, complete with top hat, beard, and bloodied temple, had wowed the gathering.

      Girl-crazy Don.

      Phil avoided Don that entire weekend, numb, with an undefined rage, a cocktail of sorrow and confusion shrouding his brain. He felt dismissed, betrayed. When Don knocked on his door for their Monday evening workout, Phil would not answer.

      He had some deep soul-searching to do.