Number Two


from the novel Iron Peter

by Charles Ortleb

Peter was dressed completely in red and black when he arrived in the overwhelming snow of Christmas, 1995. Veiled in white, Manhattan startled him. It looked like the storybook image he memorized in childhood. There were carolers in costumes from the nineteenth century on one of the street corners he passed on his way to his hotel in the West Forties.

As the dark descended and the giant snowflakes obscured their vision, strangers paused to feast on Peter's magnificence. Suddenly, with Peter's figure thrown into relief against the accumulating snow, the city was transfixed in a mysterious moment of deep eroticism. Peter's path left an aroused chain of men and women. But mostly men.

They need not have doubted the reality of what was before them. This was the most beautiful man they had seen in years. Maybe decades. This vision hurt some and left scars of envy. But it also healed and inspired and sent prodigal bodies back to the gymnasium. Some would end up in bed that night, their minds in a dither as they searched the slide show of their day for that timeless face, that knightly body and that amazing blond hair on the capless wonder.

For some of them, Peter's presence was validation of the most important decision they had made in their lives. They said to themselves, "This is why I live in Manhattan. If I ever think of leaving this city, may God strike me dead. This is the greatest city in the world."


His presence at the hotel caused quite a stir as he brushed the snow from himself and his bags. My, my, what has Santa brought, thought the hotel's manager as he passed Peter in the lobby. Some of the employees immediately suspected that he was a new soap opera star, but if so, what was he doing here? Had he had a fight with his lover or girlfriend? There were some bets, derived from a little wishful thinking, that he was in town to do underwear ads for Calvin Klein. The big question for every person who saw him was, why is he alone?

As Peter stood at the registration desk, a hush fell over the lobby as if it were the vestibule of a church. The bellhops wondered if they should offer him any help with his bath. Did he want any extra towels or condoms?


Peter had heard that the city was inundated with AIDS propaganda, but the reality and sheer density of it overwhelmed him. He found it in every kind of gay venue. No one had protected the borders of the young gay kingdom. The AIDS activists had overrun the entire realm. There were AIDS posters and AIDS flyers and AIDS newspapers in every gay health club, movie house, theater, restaurant, bar, and bathhouse. Also all over bus stops, subways and taxicabs. New York City looked like one big AIDS prevention campaign. This was not the New York of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Attila the AIDS Hun had been here.

All the signs and posters drove home the same message. HIV is the cause of AIDS. HIV is certainly the cause of AIDS. HIV is absolutely the cause of AIDS. A night didn't go by at the bars when Peter didn't hear this message peppering conversations. This truly was the virus that protested too much. No sooner had two men introduced themselves than they were pledging allegiance to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. One night, in one of his mischievous and impious experiments, Peter loudly referred to HIV as the virus that causes gas and the whole bar fell into horrified silence.

AIDS solidarity was everywhere. The solidarity of frightened, deceived and comatose souls.


The Messenger confirmed all his intuitions. That HIV was not the cause, that gay men were not the only victims, that a much bigger epidemic was being cruelly hidden from the American Public, that all of the toxic treatments that were being rushed into the bodies of AIDS patients were actually hastening their deaths. That those at the very top of the AIDS chain of command were dishonest, bigoted and incompetent. One was more homophobic than he was crooked. Another was dumber than he was homophobic. Another was more dishonest then he was stupid. In the body of nearly every AIDS researcher there seemed to be a used car salesman trying to get out. The Messenger published the words that Peter had longed to hear from a lover and friend and comrade throughout his lonely nights in college. Peter was convinced that he was living in a land of lies, and the despised Messenger made him feel like he was not alone.


Most gay men were used to leaving medical and scientific matters to techno-nerds and "experts." Gay men did the AIDS Empire's hair. They designed the Empire's clothing. They wrote the Empire's mediocre novels. But AIDS science was both beneath them and above them. They wanted nothing to do with it. It was that wretched high school course down the hall taught by the farmer who picked his teeth with a toothpick during class while going on incomprehensibly about oxygen, hydrogen, and which cheerleaders had the biggest tits. Did scientists know whether Liza Minnelli was on or off the wagon? Could scientists properly marinate a piece of lamb and match it with the right red wine? Did they have an educated thing to say about supertitles at the opera? These gay men didn't want to go back down the hallway, clasping their books to their breasts gay-style, to re-enter the dungeons of Chemistry and Biology. They had fulfilled those curriculum requirements in a state of existential dread and had gotten on with their liberal arts destinies as quickly as possible. And yet the medical "experts" who were all too willing to take their friends and lovers, one by one, in boxes to family cemetery plots, hailed from those yucky science classes down the hall.


The leaders of all the most important divisions of AIDS activism were there. Immunology, Virology, Vaccinology, Neurology, Condomology, Behavior Modification, Propaganda, and Bar-Disco Relations. They all arrived in separate rented cars accompanied by plainclothes AIDS activists.

There was an ominous, hushed tone in the rich surroundings of the penthouse as one by one they paid their respects to the Doctor of Doctors. For many of these activists, this was their first taste of great American power and wealth. They moved into a large room paneled with dark wood and they all sat at a large round table beneath a massive chandelier. The light was low and the shadows of crises fell across their faces.

"Let us begin," said the Avuncular Gay Physician in a stately manner.

Immunology spoke first.

"Doctor of Doctors, this Goldilocks is threatening the whole AIDS empire. He's full of tricks. We must not underestimate him."

"He wouldn't be getting all of this attention if he weren't so cute," said Virology.

"Thanks to him all kinds of silly queens have been going to their dictionaries and looking up the word 'genocide,'" said Condomology.

"If people start thinking that something's wrong with the HIV test, our whole international agenda could be set back decades," cried Behavior Modification.

Propaganda asked that the lights be turned off so that the Avuncular Gay Physician could see the slides.

"Turn on the projector and lets see the first slide."

"That's him talking to a gay fireman, Doctor."

"Next," said the doctor.

"There he is with a pedicurist." They were deep in conversation and the pedicurist was staring at Peter's feet.


"That's him talking to an aide to a city councilwoman. Look at how intensely the man is studying Peter, Doctor."

"Good God! Next."

The next slide showed Peter at Splash talking to a man in a clown costume.

"Who is that gay clown?" asked the Avuncular Gay Physician.

"A man from Jersey. You can see how this could spread, Doctor. Every clown in New Jersey has probably heard Peter's story."

Bar-Disco Relations stood up and hit his fist on the table. "It's that goddamned mug of his. If he looked like Ed Asner, we wouldn't be sitting here in this situation."

"But we are, Blanche, we are," said the Doctor.

Some of the AIDS activists were so overcome by the Doctor's wit that they fell out of their chairs laughing.

"Well, he doesn't have to continue looking that good," said Neurology, ominously.

"Now, now, we won't let it come to that. Is there another slide?"

Copyright ©1997 by Chuck Ortleb


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