The sun is setting on the beach as we make our way down Surfside’s narrow, two-lane highway. When we pull into the sandy parking lot of Stahlman Park Recreation center, I’m relieved to see that the parking lot is fairly crowded. It helps that every third vehicle is a puffed-up Ford F150, which takes up one and a half regular parking spaces.
I release Waylon from the back of our Volkswagen. He looks adorable in his black t-shirt with Brian’s picture on the back.
“Are you ready to rock?” I ask.
“Yeah!” he yells.
“We’re going to dance and clap really loud, right?”
“Yeah, and I’m going to sing with Uncle Brian,” he assures me as we walk across the sandy parking lot.
“That’s a sweet idea,” I tell him, taking his hand. “But it’s not very likely, at least not tonight.” I know that I sound like a wet blanket. I just don’t want my baby to get hurt. Waylon breaks away and charges up the wooden ramp to the rec center. Outdoor floodlights illuminate the picture of Brian on his back. “Slow down!” I yell as he disappears through the swinging doors.
The danger of any kind of reunion is finding out that you’re just not that relevant to people’s lives. I have only heard about Rokitt from Katy, and she is Brian’s best friend. I don’t have a good sense of what Rokitt meant to other folks – until I walk into the bright, air-conditioned space of the rec center. The folding chairs are filled with old rockers and their teenage kids, chatting and eating in tidy rows of 10-foot banquet tables. I spot Waylon near the kitchen, where a team of women is setting out cookies. The buffet table is decorated like a high school prom, with plastic picture cubes that displayed Rokitt photos on all six sides.
By the time I cross the room, Waylon has a cookie in hand and is making his escape. He runs straight into his Tía Sandra, Katy’s other best friend, who catches him in a bear hug. As I make my way to where they’re standing, Sandra pretends to devour the “sugars” from Waylon’s neck, which make him laugh and squeal. When she finally hands him back to me, he is content to rest on my hip and eat his cookie.
“Sandra,” I ask, “did you know Brian when he was in Rokitt?” Sandra and I are the same age – nearly a decade younger than most of the people in the rec hall – and I’m curious to hear her perspective on the whole scene.
“I went to see them when I was in high school. Some of my rocker friends took me to their show at the KC Hall. The next day, everyone was wearing Rokitt t-shirts to class. You would have thought fuckin’ Motley Crue had come to town.”
I’ve seen pictures of Sandra from the eighties, when her black, curly hair was styled in a glorious Mexican mullet. Back then, she and Katy were both identified as “butches with hair.” Now she wears it close to her head in a crew cut. She has recently been hired as an operator at one of the plants that line the beach road. One of those big, puffy trucks in the parking lot belongs to her.
A white man with hands and neck like sunburned hams is approaching. Redneck alert! Redneck alert! I pull Waylon closer to me. As the ham man walks past, on his way to the cookie tray, he gives Sandra a subtle nod. “How you doin?” Sandra says, nodding back. I marvel at how my friend has taken her place in a world of men who work in the volatile chemical plants.
Suddenly, the band members take their places. There’s no stage, so they just walk, unceremoniously, to their instruments. A skinny guy with hair like Kenny G is speaking into the microphone. I think he’s the emcee, but the people in the audience don’t seem to notice. Brian is pacing in front of the drum kit, his movements cramped by nervousness. He’s wearing Katy’s tight black jeans and a t-shirt that says “I rock,” with a picture of an antique rocking chair. His face is deathly pale. I’m afraid he might puke before the end of the introduction. Finally, the emcee hands over the mic. The band starts to play. Brian lets out a feeble whoop. The audience stops talking.
From the back of the room, I realize that I’m holding my breath, and I force myself to breathe naturally. They sound okay. Brian’s voice is clear and tuneful. He’s still stiff, but he manages a jaunty kick at the end of the first song. I find an empty folding chair near Kathy. Waylon scoots onto my lap as the band dives into their second number, a Judas Priest cover. I sneak a peek at Kathy’s face. She looks happy and relieved and a little teary. Rokitt is loosening up now, and the crowd gives them hearty applause. In the next row, an elderly lady with white hair turns to her daughter. “Breakin’ the law, breakin’ the law,” she quotes.
Brian is looking less frightened. “I just took some Geritol, and I’m waiting for it to kick in,” he jokes between songs. I wonder if anyone under 35 has ever heard of Geritol. “Feel free to dance, if you can find some room,” he adds. “Any time.”
I’m from Austin, where there’s an unspoken thirteenth commandment: thou shalt dance when thy friend’s band plays. At the Stahlman Park Recreational Center, the folding chairs dominate all but a tiny space in the very front. People are behaving like they’re at a church social – grabbing plates of potato salad and catching up with their neighbors while the band plays. Between the chatter and the bright lights and the absence of an actual stage, the whole thing is lacking a certain intensity. I’m worried about the energy of Brian and the other guys. I just want people in this room to bear proper witness to the miracle of middle aged men making music together.
Katy’s up at the front, bouncing and head-banging, but she’s interrupted every few minutes by someone who wants to catch up on old times. Katy was elected “Howdy Queen” at her high school, an honor bestowed on the friendliest freshman girl. However, even as Howdy Queen, Katy didn’t look like a girl. I’ve seen the coronation photos, and she looks like a football player in half-hearted drag. Throughout high school, Katy’s mom outfitted her daughter with Jane Mansfield-style bras that made Katy’s boobs loom in front of her like alien orbs. Twenty-five years later, she has a surgically flattened chest and can wear her clothing of choice: jeans and a muscle shirt. Her body is still ambiguous. And her warmth and enthusiasm still have the power to charm people who would otherwise be frightened by the mystery.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s the daughter of a football coach. When Katy comes up to sing with Brian, the little old lady in the front whispers something to her daughter. I imagine it’s along the lines of “Who’s that tattooed dyke?” Her daughter answers and the lady shakes her head excitedly. “Oh, that’s Katy Koonce.” She taps her husband on the shoulder. “That’s Katy Koonce!” she yells in his ear. He shakes his head too. People here remember the days when Brazoswood High went to the state championship. Katy ran onto the field with her dad after every game.
I figure the people must have some kind of fond memories of Katy, because the crowd is cheering as Katy humps Brian’s leg through the chorus of “Talk Dirty to Me.” It’s hard to believe that the Stahlman Park Recreation Center is bearing witness to such a queer spectacle. These two old friends feed each other’s energy, and their duet shifts the mood in the room. Waylon, for one, is out of his seat and dancing. As the band makes its way through original numbers like “Sweet Sixteen” and “You Make Love Too Tough,” he bounces and bangs his head. Occasionally he throws in some Kung Fu moves and King Tut poses. Every time he gets too close to the band, I have to run up in front of the folding chairs and drag him out of the spotlight. “That’s Katy Koonce’s lesbian lover,” I imagine the old woman saying to her husband. “And their gay love child!”
After the tenth time that Waylon rushes the band, I pull him aside for a little talk.
“Mommy was singing with the band because they invited her,” I explain. “You can’t keep going up there and getting in their way. It’s Uncle Brian’s big night.”
Waylon nods obediently, and then runs away. An old friend of Katy’s stops to talk to me, but I’m distracted, trying to spot Waylon in the crowd. By the time my eyes find him, he’s already back at the front. He’s somehow managed to take apart one of the plastic picture cubes, and he’s holding a handful of old photos. As the band launches into the final song, Waylon crawls up to the microphone and carefully lays the pictures at Brian’s feet.
“You show us everything you’ve got,” Brian growls into the mic. “And baby, baby that’s quite a lot.”
Waylon is jumping up an down, elated. He knows this song! Brian leans down toward him for the chorus.
“I wanna rock and roll all night,” he growls.
He extends the microphone to Waylon. Waylon contemplates it for a beat.
“And party ev-er-y day!” he squeals in his high, four-year-old voice.
Brian leads into the chorus again, and Waylon sings his part. He’s on the beat now, and people in the room are beginning to laugh and look at one another like, “Who is that kid?” By the time the second chorus comes around, the two have fallen into an easy call and response: first phrase low and gravelly, second phrase high and squeaky.
“I wanna rock and roll all night,” Brian calls.
“And party ev-e-ry day!” Waylon answers, looking proud. Every time he hits his line, people in the crowd hoot and clap. It’s a magical moment, the kind that you wish would never end because you can’t quite believe it’s real.
Katy comes up and puts her arms around me. I can feel her tears sliding down my neck. I look around the room and see Sandra against the back wall. She’s smiling and crying big butch tears too. Sandra helped raise two nieces in this community. Now she and her girlfriend are thinking about having a baby of their own.
Brian nods to the band to play the chorus one more time. “I wanna rock and roll all night.”
“And party every day!” They sing the last line together. Then Brian hangs up his microphone and sweeps Waylon into his arms. Waylon throws his arms around Brian’s neck, and they hug for a long time. Brian turns to the audience and makes the devil horns. Waylon painstakingly folds his middle fingers down to imitate Brian’s heavy metal salute.
The crowd is shouting and clapping and calling for an encore. They’re honoring Rokitt and honoring their youth. It feels like they’re honoring our queer family, with all of its twists and unexpected turns. For the moment, I’m so glad that we decided to step into this particular unknown.