Anthony Varisco avoided sleeping with his wife every chance he could excuse himself. A nocturnal creature, he’d drink in his armchair smoking Lucky Strike after Camel, Camel after Lucky Strike, until the boredom slipped into sleep. On other nights tedium festered into frustration, and an itchy agitation forced him from his chair and out of the house. His self-loathing was constant, but whether it sapped or spurred him depended on the day’s experiences.
On Tuesday evening, June 23, 1973, Varisco sat up brooding over the gay pride parade earlier that day. He had been on duty in a mostly observational capacity with his friend and colleague, Talos. Stiff and sweating in their uniforms, they’d walked around the French Quarter ensuring the safety of men in high heels and women with buzzed heads. Varisco hated himself for loving it. He hated himself for forgetting his position when he saw Bernard dancing up Bourbon Street wearing a purple paisley shirt. Glimmering on Bernard’s wrist was the gold bracelet Varisco had given him last year before Bernard left him. For a second as he passed in the parade, Varisco had danced with Bernard mirroring his movements across a body-width of humid air. A quick shake really, an innocent twist to match the rhythm of the marching band, but it was long enough for him to submerge in Bernard’s crystal gaze, long enough to remember that he had once loved this Black man with blue eyes.
It was also long enough for Talos to notice from across the street. “Bad enough we let this shit go on, but if you turn faggot over it, I’ll kill you.”
Stuttering in the exposure, Varisco said that he was only trying to enjoy himself like any policeman would at any other parade. Talos bloviated the rest of the day, pointing out which people he judged deserved exile and which execution. Varisco knew his bigoted colleague was physically harmless, merely a verbal abuser who would never act on his convictions. The worst, Talos told him, were the blasphemous Metropolitan Community Church gays, who found God and sodomy to be compatible. Varisco found that logic reasonable as he struggled to both save himself and rediscover his own religion.
Sunk deep in the context of that day’s memories, Varisco sat in his chair rubbing his mustache, oblivious to his wife sitting in hers. He brooded sullenly, considering his summer of discontent, seeing only Bernard’s mouth sealed to that of a blond man in golf clothes. After the parade had ended, Varisco had been walking back to the Vieux Carré station when he saw the betrayal. Stunned stiff but for facial distortions, he watched until Bernard released the embrace of the other man. The two held hands and laughed happily.
Jealous fantasies flooded Varisco’s imagination, drowning him in his armchair as he smoked Lucky Strike after Camel, Camel after Lucky Strike. Let them be together in the fires of forever, he thought. Let my demons burn with them tonight.
A chill down his spine jerked his arm, nearly spilling his glass of ice-watered tomato juice. He got up and went to the kitchen without glancing at his wife on the recliner.
“You all right?” she asked.
The glass clinked on the metal sink. “Yeah.”
“Get it together, Anthony.”
He went to the shed behind his house and found a can of kerosene he used for frog gigging lanterns and a thick twine rope he’d once hung as a swing for his daughter. It was dry-rotted and had only one use now. He poured out some kerosene to make room in the can for the rope to soak, then stowed both together in the trunk of his police car.
Since his wife was still awake, he peered inside the screen door and yelled something about his sergeant ragging him again, that he had to get back to the station. He knew that she knew the sergeant had had a bead on him ever since the Times-Pic covered his heroin ring bust last fall. Although they rarely spoke, he’d felt the need to tell her that the paper didn’t have to say Sergeant was wrong and he was right—it would have been worse if it had—because everybody else in the NOPD knew how the bust went down. He’d told her Sergeant can’t stand him, throws him out on patrol at night as a punishment unnoticed by others. It was mostly true.
The curlers in her hair didn’t budge. She just waved limply. They had never been happy, but after their daughter ran away and he had assumed the bed she’d abandoned, they ceased conversation. He’d yell and she’d wave in dismissal. She’d scream, and he’d punch the cabinet. Any time away from her was vacation, an escape to fresh air where the act of breathing was his alone, freed from her smells.
Varisco drove to the French Quarter with everything he needed in the trunk. The only place in the city where people were still awake and about, the Vieux Carré was overrun with people who were more than just outside the home. Sailors ran on solid ground. Hookers masqueraded as strippers. Tourists acted on impulses they only dreamed of at home.
A waning gibbous moon gave luster to the moist air, allowing the guilty to soak in the hypnotic belief that their sins are all okay, just a beautiful haze. Gluttony and adultery are less damnable here in the Caribbean fog, their perpetrators distracted from tomorrow’s rot. Lust feels justified framed in Spanish wrought-iron latticework, and sins shed their weight of consequence, free-floating like confectioner’s sugar for all to taste and share.
The car seemed to trap the subtropical heat like a greenhouse, even with the windows rolled down as Varisco drove slowly down Iberville. He stopped in the middle of Bourbon Street and watched people walk leisurely and talk loudly.
Drunk people danced around a brass band of high-school-aged players. Seven horns tooted and shrieked. A big drum hung on the shoulders of a boy who, with shut eyes, beat it faster than Varisco could follow. Next to him a bubble-cheeked fat boy blew the trombone, surging testosterone, roaring triumphant over the audience like a bull elephant hanging his trunk from the sky, screaming into the jungle air.
Down Bourbon Street Varisico saw two horse-cops interrogating a group of college boys standing beneath neon lights. He observed the college kids’ rosy faces beneath swooped hair and golf shirts with little alligators on them. They looked like Kennedy brothers, only scared. He saw three black women standing behind them, two in white lingerie and one in a red gown who spoke to the police with an authority earned through years of similar negotiations. None of the lacey garments were capable of containing their spilt cheeks and breasts.
Officer Varisco reached for the radio attached to the central dashboard by a woven, silky blue cord. “6 Rally 6, 6 Rally 6, do you need backup? Over.” He watched one of the men on horseback reach to his waist and pull something up to his face.
“2 Dodger 2,” said the horseman’s voice through the radio speaker. “Nah, we just teachin’ese kids here about keepin’a Negro titty bar a Negro titty bar, over.”
“10-4,” he said.
He looked back at the high school band improvising until they finished. The elephant boy lowered his brass trunk as the mixed crowd clapped and tossed coins into a bucket that his partner busked.
Nearby a woman was humming to herself. She was densely tattooed and sat cross-legged with her back against handmade bricks, strumming a guitar and singing something no one heard beyond herself and her little Chihuahua dog. Her curly sable hair reminded him of the daughter who had departed from his life.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Hey, you, little folk singer lady! Hey! Joan Baez?”
She raised up from her guitar, wide sable curls framing an open mouth.
“Hey Mary. Where’s Peter and Paul?” He laughed, then leaned further across the bench seat to leer at her.
“What?” she said slowly, crunching her eyes. She didn’t hear his words but understood from the hostile tone the intention was intimidation.
“Ya gotta get a harmonica, little darlin’—a clarinet, somethin’,” he said. “Ya hummin, see, ain’t gonna earn ya bread beside deez brass boys.”
“Jazz City indeed.”
“Hell, didn’t ya see how Dylan electrified his guitar?”
“Are you a member of the Jazz City? Of our ensemble?” she asked.
“I don’t look for symbols, lady,” he answered. “I serve and protect.”
“A city of improvisation, creation, and innovation,” she continued, not looking at the officer or anything really, just forward and smiling. “Instead of brass, I use strings to spread love—that universal oneness—another musical expression of the spirit eternal.”
Varisco scoffed. “Here we go.”
“A city that excludes anything cannot survive. It must let the people dance.”
“Where you from, Miss Universe?” he said.
“The River brought me here from the rest of North America,” she said.
“You might consider going back there.” Varisco hacked phlegm on the sidewalk beside her. “You seen Easy Rider hadn’t you? Y’all liable to get burned up around here.”
Her face, round and cratered as a full moon, deflated as Varisco’s intimidation finally steamed through her with sudden gravitational force. She looked as if ill-tempered men had beaten her before, cut, slapped, bruised, and raped her, too. But Varisco’s cowing only seemed to sadden her on this particular night. Perhaps she had reached the point in her life that she could sense a man’s projected hate, recognizing its origins in self-loathing. She answered him simply: “Seek peace.” Her Chihuahua echoed with a bark.
Back in the car, Officer Varisco lost interest in the weak and aggravating street girl, realizing further discussion distracted from the night’s mission. Witnessing Bernard’s betrayal was final motivation. Focus on tonight’s sacrifice, he thought. Not her pathetic excuse for a life. He spit again out the window, lit a Camel, and lurched forward down Iberville to Chartres.
Chartres Street was quiet but well lit. He parked on the sidewalk at the corner in front of the entrance to Boudreaux’s entrance, a Cajun restaurant that was already locked up at this late hour on a Tuesday. From the darkness at the corner, he stood sweating and smoking, watching nightwalkers and street-sleepers appear and disappear in the light pools of cross streets while the cathedral loomed behind.
A man in a wheelchair approached him from the Canal Street side, rolling down the middle of the street mumbling. He stalled one wheel and pivoted the other to face Varisco, then growled, “Aha! Citizen’s arrest albeit pimento cheesing—” and his words mumbled off into scrabbled fragments, gnarled as the coagulated strands of his greased beard.
Varisco felt the plastic grooves on the handle of his firearm. He hated how the man’s legs curled back under his seat like withered ferns. Sweat dripped from his sideburns.
“Citizen’s arrest, ya bastid!” the crippled man said with screwed up eyes, snarling a row of brown teeth glistening in the lamplight.
Varisco pointed the black barrel of his .40-caliber pistol directly at the wet brown mouth. “Wheel yourself outta here ‘fore I ‘rest ya for vagrancy.”
The crippled man trilled his tongue at the accuser and began rocking himself in his wheelchair.
“Hey, dead man.” Varisco held the barrel steady two inches apart from the man’s nose. Like a repeating cap gun concealed in the man’s beard, his tongue popped against the roof of his mouth as he stared cross-eyed into the wide black hole of Varisco’s gun barrel.
As if unaware of the iron shaft before his face, the crippled man now tipped himself slightly forward and back, forward and back, releasing throaty sounds to accompany the motions, “Ree-er, ree-er, ree-er.”
“Or I can blow a fucking hole in your face.” Varisco clicked back the hammer as sweat dropped from the pores of his jowls. His whole body shook from overshot adrenaline. “Your call, freak.” Though his gun arm never wavered, he had to clench his jaw to calm his rattling teeth.
The seated man ejected a guttural noise, as if he were a machine that was loudly self-correcting jammed cogs. Then, sputtering, he spun around and started back toward the cathedral. Wheeling down Chartres against nonexistent traffic, he yelled to no one, “It’s the pimento cheese man, he’s a red hot poppa and I’m the cheese and peppa! Save yourself, dress for suppa and we’ll dine foreva!”
Drunks, freaks, and whores, the lot of them, Varisco thought. I must save myself and purge their demons. A sacrifice will save my soul from eternal fire and damnation. He holstered his weapon and felt his neck swell with pulse again, hearing the blood thump on his eardrums. Covering himself in the shadows of an overhanging patio, he paused and lit a Lucky Strike.
Above Boudreaux’s the windows of Chez Jacques held frilly but drawn red curtains. Varisco strained to catch the muffled sounds of the pariahs he knew were behind them. Their gaiety was an affront to human decency, a boil on this earth. A plague that God never intended, but it’s for me to set right. I’ll cleanse myself and do it tonight. He grinned at the sight of the burglar bars spanning each window frame; the promise of their strength relieved him.
His teeth finally stilled, he lit a Camel and bathed his mouth in its smoke; blue and warm, it felt as if the nicotine nurtured his core. He tried to blow smoke rings, but he’d only ever produced one accidentally (never when he most wanted to, when he desired to feel dominant and in control). Smoke rings or not, he felt a surge of power over the muted voices above.
Then, out of nowhere Bernard’s laughter tumbled jovially toward him from Decatur Street. It was still sonorous and deep, and immediately contagious within earshot. Varisco almost smiled, but clenched his jaw to stop himself, remembering his mission, his hate. Bernard emerged in the waning moonlight holding another man’s hand.
Suddenly images of Bernard’s long, soft hands washed over him unbidden. He remembered one dawn he had confessed they were his “sweet hotcakes,” and it needn’t be breakfast time for him to take them with butter and maple syrup. In agony he watched himself play the fool over and over in his mind, the memory of it settling like rancid meat in the pit of his stomach, spoiling into a sickening force. He hated himself for the embarrassment of it all, and ached over his sentimental utterance, a spoken gift unreturned. Only one way to take back my own pride, he thought, the only way to set things right is a fiery cleansing tonight.
Exiting the car swiftly, Officer Varisco spit out his cigarette butt. He squared his shoulders and flexed his neck in a classic bravado move before stepping into the waning moon and dim lamplight. The blonde man with Bernard—the same he’d seen earlier—noticed the police car and immediately snatched his hand from Bernard’s clutch.
The pair walked quietly, crossing the street toward Chez Jacques and Officer Varisco’s car. Bernard seemed to recognize the mustache and cop uniform in the shadows.
“Hey, Tony Baby,” he said.
Varisco shined a Kel-lite—a recently issued heavy duty combination of flash light and baton—into Bernard’s face, watching as each pupil shrank to a pin-dot within a deep blue expanse. Where the light hit the natural cappuccino color of his skin it was perverted into a pale cirrhotic white.
“Your gay parade’s been over for hours and now this—public indecency.” Heart palpitations impaired his ability to speak. “I oughtta arrest y’all Metro Church boys this long after the parade, still fagging around.”
“What you said?” Bernard asked. His perfect eyes fluttered when he was drunk and Varisco knew it.
“We wudd’n dancing, Officer!” the friend said with quivering lips. He was frightened, Varisco assumed, more of his parents learning about his Quarter nights with gay Creole men than of any police officer.
“Boy, it’s against Louisiana law for y’all to parade around that faggotry.”
“We wasn’t dancing, Tony Baby,” Bernard said squinting into the direct beam. “But if you insist, honey, let’s make upstairs and swing a little.” He shut his eyes and raised his arms and the gold bracelet flickered in the beam of the flashlight as he whirled his hips in a rhythmic circle.
Varisco whipped the Kel-lite at Bernard, hammering him hard in the shoulder and again in the ribs. Beaten but numbed to the pain from drink, he and looked at his ex-lover in wide-eyed mock-submissiveness.
“Don’t dare taunt me, B,” Varisco said, lowering the light beam over his purple paisley shirt, wet now with the day’s sultry heat.
“I’m just honest is all I ever dare to be,” Bernard replied, his tone sharp and soft at the same time. He was always bringing up honesty—how Tony should tell his wife who he really was, beneath the shell society had built around the heart of Anthony Varisco.
“Honest? I can’t honestly dance with you when I’m wearing this uniform—I’m entrusted by the public, you see. And when I go and sit at Our Lady—how can I confess?”
“Sugar, being true to yourself is the only safe harbor in our short, tragic lives—in this world of deception.”
“I can’t confess to a sickness. You infected me.” Varisco clinched his jaw. “It’s your evil I’m getting rid of.”
“Tony Baby, we’re okay because it’s who we are. God wants us to be happy in ourselves for how he made us. All we can know is what we are and be good being ourselves. Do unto others, Tony Baby. Respect that, respect yourself. We’re individuals and each of us is God’s truth. Be free, honey. Come with me.”
“Look, fine. You know what?”
“What you said, Tony Baby?” He reached for Tony’s hand but could not grasp it.
“Yeah, I’ll be truthful tonight. True to myself and to you, B, and—” he gestured with his hand at the still wary young man.
“Timothy,” Bernard said. “Meet Tony Baby,” waving gracefully in the officer’s direction. “Tony here—you’ll learn—is a high strung, low hung, kind of fellow. You know the kind.” He winked mischievously.
“That’s Officer Varisco, young man,” he corrected. “You know what, boys? I’ll tell ya the truth.” He spoke with passionate intensity, the muscles of his face and neck distorting as if his whole body felt close to the release he desired. “I’ll come up those stairs tonight and be honest. With just you all, I’ll be honest. Together we’ll exorcise an eternity of pent up demons in one night,” he said.
“You for real?” Bernard said with an equal mix of pride and skepticism.
“Shift’s nearly over. Let me drop my car and I’ll find ya up there having a good time and we’ll have it together. A good time forever in a night.” Keeping the intensity in his voice, he dropped the volume to a mere whisper. “It’s gon’ be hot now. Git ready.”
“Yeah, you right! I know you had it in you, Tony Baby.”
“I’ll be back after while. Go ‘head now.”
“You come up however early or late.” Bernard wrapped an arm around Varisco and kissed his upper lip. “An inclusive act of worship, you’ll see.”
“Yes, sir, it is,” Timothy said, taking Bernard’s hand again in his. “And I thought us Methodists were inclusive back home in Gulf Shores, letting women be deacons and all.”
Varisco refused to look at the blonde boy and had already turned away from him before he’d finished evangelizing.
“The Metropolitan Community Church, now, they let us be ourselves. You’ll love it, Officer.” With Varisco walking away, Timothy’s plea became a drunken song, “Ain’t no hiding needed. Fancy free, indeedy.”
Hands held, the pair walked on and climbed the stairs behind Boudreaux’s. Both had a slight skip in their step, either from the expectation of Varisco joining them or from having forgotten him altogether.
Officer Varisco returned to his car and drove it eight blocks to St. Louis Cathedral, parking along Pirate’s Alley. He got out and stood facing St. Anthony’s Garden behind the cathedral. It was a rare patch of quiet. Almost peaceful. Leaning against his car, he lit up a Lucky Strike. Then a Camel.
A tall palm tree swayed in the dark wind behind Christ’s statue. He slid another cigarette between his teeth to keep them from rattling. And in a few minutes another. And another. My act is a confession, an act of penance and correction. Short of breath, he sought composure in the cobblestone geometry between his feet. He counted twelve cigarette butts.
Finally steadied, he gazed up at the black cross projected on the cathedral’s wall, cast by the light on Christ. As if its shadow empowered him, Varisco repeated silently what he had said to Bernard. Forever in a night, my penance and sacrifice, an exorcism for freedom. Let them burn forever tonight. He dragged the last of his smoke and crossed himself from forehead to chest, then unlocked his trunk and extracted the rope-soaking can of kerosene.
It was eight blocks along Royal, past the old Supreme Court to Chez Jacques’ staircase on Iberville. Once there he glanced around carefully, surveying the surroundings. No one. Only pools of semi-darkness amid waning moonlight, punctuated by intermittent brass horns and drunken yowls from Bourbon Street three blocks away. All was still at the corner of Iberville and Chartres.
Varisco listened as a dampened cheer came out from behind the flounced red curtains on the second story. He swiveled his head to survey the scene once more. Nothing. Motionless, like a deserted movie set.
He pulled out the coiled rope and unrolled it in one long smooth toss up the wooden stairwell. Then swinging the bucket once backward for momentum, he launched it forth, splashing kerosene over the narrow walls and upstairs door. Breathless, he saw the walls drip kerosene, reflecting vertical shimmers of moonlight as they coursed down the wet staircase.
A shout came from behind him. Out of reflex, he flung the empty bucket in front of his face. But it was an apparitional threat, simply an echo from Bourbon Street. His hatred and guilt had worked together for so long, grinding away at his mind and gathering momentum for this incendiary moment, that paranoia had grown in him unnoticed. But he didn’t appreciate those internal fears, nor the prescience of intangible threats to the heart and mind. He jerked his head searching for a danger he could not find.
Varisco was alone. He struck a match and flicked it up the stairs. Bursting aflame, the narrow stairwell quickly became a hall of fire. He watched the blaze spread to both the ceiling and door (which functioned as the sole entry and exit); they caught like starter wood. Orange flames glistened off the sheen of sweat on his face.
He turned and ran, the empty bucket clattering at his side.
Back in Pirate’s Alley he sat in the driver’s seat grinding his teeth. “Now I can be honest with myself,” he said aloud to an empty car, feeling his pulse beat against his temples. I am a murderer. “I am not a villain!” he screamed to answer the voice inside. “I’ve purged myself and the world of Bernard’s demons.” Choking through a swollen throat, he banged his head against the steering wheel. “They burn so that I may live.”
Varisco was off duty the next day but couldn’t avoid the compulsion to visit the scene. There’d been occasional radio chatter regarding the fire, but little relative to other crimes occurring that night. It was well known by the fire marshals and NOPD that the address was a gay bar.
He approached a crowd of men in slacks and short-sleeve oxfords. Some held clipboards, others picked through street debris searching for evidence. Two men and a woman sat on their knees in a huddle across Chartres praying together, their shoulders heaving.
The night’s flames had painted the brick window- and door-frames with wide black arches that met at sharp points like painted silhouettes of mountain peaks. The wooden stairwell and door had been incinerated to ashes that lay in thick piles on the ground. As Varisco hesitated before ascending the ladder to the doorway, Talos called to him from the street: “Twenty-nine dead already. Careful up there.”
Varisco entered a scene of terror, corners smoldering still. He gasped and tasted only acrid smoke. Scattered bodies among fallen metal pipes and fans. Human forms charred to the bone, blackened, roasted down to blunt-edged, petrified remains, every last one of them desecrated. Each corpse was bent into a fetal position, as if each person had cradled himself in final attempt at self-preservation before cooking alive. This was not a scene from photos of Pompeii after the ash had taken them suddenly; these people fought hard to live even as they burned.
Nothing was left on the bodies but charred stubs and bare teeth. Varisco did his best not to breathe. There were more in the bathroom, a baker’s dozen cradled by the windows.
Dizzy, he turned to exit and noticed more blackened remains beneath the bar. Then the glint of something caught his eye. A melted gold bracelet welded to the elbow of his lover’s faceless cadaver.
He breathed in the sight, newly invigorated. There was strength in his hatred, a self-hatred that, like a cancer that attacks nearby cells, had grown powerful through projecting its venom onto others, mirroring back at himself regenerated. Varisco saw himself in Bernard’s burnt form and believed at the moment he’d saved his fate. I may be a villain to them, but I’m free. He spat on the floor and climbed down the ladder.
Lighting a Camel, he noticed the wheelchair man with the soiled beard gazing at him from across the street. The tattooed woman who had spoken of the universe the night before sat on the ground alongside, holding one of the cripple’s withered bare feet in her hands. They looked at Varisco and wept. He wondered, Do they weep for me or do they weep for the dead? Sweating, he lit a Lucky Strike, lowered his head and walked to his car. He needed to be alone.
All characters are imaginary and fictional. This story is a work of fiction based on the New Orleans UpStairs Lounge fire tragedy of June 24, 1973. Believed to be an arson attack and hate crime, until the recent Orlando shootings it was the largest killing of gay people in U.S. history and, as a closed case, remains an unsolved mystery. The three-room bar burned within 15 minutes, the only survivors escaping either before the fire engulfed the structure or by jumping from its second-story windows. Thirty-two people suffocated, charred, and burned to death reaching for escape. In 2013, forty years after the tragedy, Archbishop Gregory Aymond apologized for the Catholic Church’s refusal to allow a memorial service for the dead, and its long silence about the tragedy.