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Click the play button below to listen to Benjamin S. Grossberg read
“I Was Carrying a Velvet Wingback through the Streets of Houston.”

Who isn’t, at twenty-three, sexy? In never-been-kissed
cutoffs with buzzed hair. Did I even have a beard yet?

I looked like the virgin I was—was, at least, in all
the interesting ways. “Chicken,” they would’ve said

back then. And even sexier and more virginal since
I was covered in sweat and doing something ridiculous.

What did he see, the van driver who pulled up
beside me as I caught my breath in front of a green

wingback, in a midriff T with my belly button exposed
and a smattering of gold hair beneath it—chicken

for a chicken hawk? The passenger-side door
swung open, and the driver leaned across the seat,

down toward me. Black mustache to the sides
of his mouth, tight white T-shirt, hair so black

it could’ve been dyed, black stubble down his throat
into his shirt. He looked Village People gay.

That’s what I thought. Too gay to be sexy but
was anyway. And there’s no good way to say this,

but I was instantly afraid he had AIDS. Because
he looked so much gayer than anyone I had seen

growing up in New Jersey. Black leather
baseball cap. Black leather jacket. Studded belt.

Dark-blue dungarees under leather chaps.
A metal-studded armband around one biceps.

It seems important now to remember which arm,
what that signifies. He leaned closer as he spoke,

his voice drawn out, curving like the polished rack
of a longhorn, and said simply, You need a hand

with that? By the time he’d finished the sentence,
I was in the passenger seat, my green-velvet chair

being stowed in back. Do I remember anything about
the ride—or even about the years that followed, during

which I lived in the city—as vividly as how, for the few
miles I sat beside him, he asked powdered-sugar

questions, his voice Dallas but also Atlanta, longhorn
but also Daisy Mae: Where are you from? And

Do you like the city? And finally Are you gay, Ben?
He didn’t try to get out when we pulled up

to my apartment, didn’t say a word as I lifted
my chair from the back, and when I returned

up front to thank him, he raised a hand and said,
Just say hello when you see me out at the bars

but I never saw him. Or maybe I did and didn’t
recognize him. So many men looked and dressed

exactly like he did, white T-shirt, jeans, some article
of leather, blue-black mustache, blue-black hair,

a whole society of them, and all with Dallas
Daisy Mae voices and hairy chests. And all

seeming—I know, I know, this is a terrible
thing to say—seeming to be antigens

of the disease I was terrified of getting. I lived
in that city ten years and never said hello to any of them,

not one, not once, when I saw them out at the bars.