“I’ll need a pianist, but I have a guy.”
“And how much would it cost for you to sing a few songs?”
I took a moment to consider. It would be so much simpler if I could just ask the man on the other end of the line: “Are you rich?” but that would lift the veil of decorum without which all human negotiation would be rendered impossible. And so, more delicate questions. Would there be a bouncy castle or a face painter at this child’s birthday party? Was the restaurant chic and expensive? Would I be popping out of a cake to sing “Sweet Home Alabama” to a crowd of conservative (and suddenly horrified) millionaires? Or, in this case, how many guests would be attending his sister’s funeral?
“Can you do $400?” I heard myself say, as the business half of me took over from the starry-eyed half, who was by now picking the right dress in which to tell this weird story on Jimmy Kimmel.
“Yes, that works—thank you for doing this, my girlfriend thought it would be a great surprise… oh, and I actually have a request? Can you sing ‘That’s Life’ by Frank Sinatra? She loved Frank Sinatra.”
“Anything for Ellen.”
“Great! I’ll send over the address and time.”
“Thank you, and again, I’m so sorry for your loss.”
What does a Drag Queen wear to a funeral? Nothing too bright for an occasion of mourning. I settled on a sensible blue sequin. And ah yes, the red hair. Ginger, I like to call her. A towering pile of dark red curls, more of a helmet really, than anything one could legitimately call “hair.” Drag is all about proportions; big hair divided by wide hips equals small face. Jewels? Iridescent rhinestones, oversized; a parody of what a rich woman would own.
I’m a singer and comedian by trade; I grew up singing in musical comedies, where playing a character comes first, and singing second. But what exactly to sing, considering they’d all be gathered to acknowledge that at some point each one of us just… ceases to live, and ends up in a heap on the floor that someone has to pick up and examine and dispose of somehow according to the wishes of a small committee of relatives, who will then rent a space and gather up some crudités or small sandwiches or bagels and coffee and maybe wine or a crossdresser to sing at some point and then all stand there and sob, or at least seem appropriately disturbed. Obviously I couldn’t get too emotional—everyone would know that I’d never met Ellen. When my time comes, I thought, people should remember me by eating cake alone and watching 30 Rock.
The invitation arrived via email. “Celebration of Life.” Glancing through, I collected the little bits of Ellen I could find. A long-time administrator at a school. A big fan of Drag Brunch. A photo. She looked a bit like an extra in Grease—“school administrator,” her call sheet would read. She had large round glasses and kind eyes. I imagined her desk, neat but with little parcels of nibbled-on chocolate scattered about. No children, no spouse (like me!) Maybe Ellen loved Drag Brunch because it felt wild and reckless, a moment of delight as every dreary convention fell away; the filing cabinets at her school that neatly organized students into genders and given names, the oppressive alphabet that my people long ago blew up in an explosion of beehives and glitter, of mimosas and blush.
“A gig is a gig,” as my father would say.
Which reminded me, I would need to borrow an amp and microphone from my father. Ellen’s brother had suggested “singing a capella,” the mere thought of which sent shivers down my spine. I offered to provide my own equipment at no extra charge. All right, that was all settled. Now I just had to call Alan, the pianist, and think of some songs.
My father lives in Koreatown in a beautiful Craftsman built in 1920, my childhood home. Pulling up to the house is a pleasure. It’s painted forest green (unique, but not out of place here) and the lawn is well manicured, thanks to Father’s husband. Getting married is a hobby of my father’s. Some people take up bridge or macramé, my father gets married. First he married my mother, then a sociopath, then a librarian named Cameron. He’s thorough, so when Gay marriage became legal, he just had to try this novelty flavor out for himself.
When my father came out, I said, “Well… but that’s kind of my thing.” After all, I had come out when I was eight years old—I am committed to being queer and I put in the work. Not to be outdone, I promptly started doing drag. I turned out to be good at it and, well, there I was, borrowing an amp from my gay married father at the green Craftsman to for my drag funeral gig.
I found him hunched over a stand, thumping out an endless parade of scales. The vibrations are hypnotic, but what I most enjoy in my father’s practicing is the dull click of his acrylic nail on the neck of the instrument. He has an acrylic nail so as to not be bothered with guitar picks, and decided, upon coming out, to have it painted gold. Cameron had been mildly horrified at the eccentric color, a reaction I found a tad rude—was he unfamiliar with the agreement? Even as an infant I understood the complicated unwritten contract consigning me to a lifetime of my parents’ eccentricities and quirks.
“I’m taking you and we’re moving to Australia!” my mother declared, after Father filed for divorce.
“The gypsies are moving in with us!” Father announced, after my stepmother filed for divorce.
I told him about the funeral.
“A gig is a gig!” he chirped, not looking up from his bass. “How much are you getting?”
“$400. I lowballed,” I added nervously.
“Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick!”
I am quite proud of Father’s talent. He is a bassist for a popular older English rock star and had recently won a Grammy, rather unexpectedly, for their recent album in what he calls the “old people who are still making music” category. The statuette sat impassively on the mantel. Blink and you’d miss it.
I’m the only one in the family who doesn’t play an instrument—my younger brother Charlie plays the drums expertly (in fact he’s a prodigy, giving him a head start on the rich and famous race) and even my sister, a loose cannon, plays the piano beautifully. Well, I sing… but they can all sing, too. I drifted into the kitchen, where Cameron was at work at his regular human job—no small talk required, so I quietly helped myself to an espresso and a cookie before loading the amp and microphone into the car and returning home to get ready. I had a funeral to headline.
The final touch, lipstick. Red, to go with the blue sequins. Then I slid into the dress, pulled the wig back onto my head and took a glance in the bathroom mirror. Pickle smiled back at me. I have to admit, in spite of my insecurities, I am quite beautiful. That is, I’m something above average, perhaps, in terms of ordinary “handsomeness.” But in drag, I am finally exceptional. I hoisted the amp up under her arm and walked outside. A woman with a stroller was chatting with an ice cream man at his cart. Her baby stared dubiously at me, with the half enjoyment, half horror, full amazement that only a baby can pull off without seeming rude. Then Alan pulled up and I loaded up the car.
Ellen had suffered from a chronic illness, I’d learned; her death at fifty-two had been both expected, and premature.
I mingled diligently, saying hello and offering condolences cheerfully (but not too cheerfully). Spying the refreshment table, I discreetly and somberly plucked a few mini-spanakopita and bits of honeydew onto a tiny paper plate; I would return to the dressing room to munch privately after making the rounds. The guests seemed delighted by my sudden appearance amid their grieving; I was very relieved to find I hadn’t been part of some bizarre revenge plot cooked up by my client (as had once been the case, when I’d been hired to pop out of that cake for an assembly of grimacing millionaires. A gig is a gig!—and the check did clear. Those millionaire bigots paid for my botox! It had been truly empowering to take their prejudice and have someone inject it into my face, making me gayer and more powerful than before!)
“Ellen would have loved this. She was so fun,” an older woman (an aunt?) told me by the swimming pool. “She really did make the most of her life, even though it was too short.”
“It’s a special thing to share a celebration of life.”
“How did you know Ellen?”
“Oh, I didn’t.”
The woman squinted.
I excused myself and made my way over to Alan, who was absent-mindedly filling the living room with soft jazz. We were about to go on.
Ellen’s brother announced me. “Pickle is LA’s singing Drag sensation and we are thrilled to have her here to help remember my sister!” and I burst into the living room. The guests were seated before me on three couches, or standing awkwardly behind them. A space was open on one of the couches (was that reserved for Ellen?)
I heard myself saying something about being glad I could be there and then the music started and away I went.
That’s Life, that’s what all the people say— You’re ridin' high in April, shot down in May
I felt a smile, a real smile this time, creeping onto my face as I worked my way through the song. I always forget just how much I love it until it’s happening. I saw the faces, beaming and enjoying my voice (maybe it wasn’t so bad, after all!) I felt at ease with these strangers. I… forgot… the words… but that’s why we have Alan the improviser:
That’s Life, That’s Life, That’s Life
I repeated the phrase like a broken cyborg until I remembered some version of the next line. At the end, applause.
“What’s that, Ellen, another?” Laughter. I grinned and felt the lesser pieces of myself disappear behind my smile. An invisible, wide-eyed Ellen giggled and took a dollar out of her purse. I accepted it, lingering on her wrist as she slipped into other worlds.
I started the next song, “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry (“But,” I had reasoned, with a somewhat-taken-aback Alan, “it’s so slowed down that it will feel appropriate”) and locked eyes with a woman who started to cry. My Uncle Tommy once told me, “if you cry, they won’t.” I stayed with her for a verse, and felt something in my eye—a tear? Or maybe my eyelash was itching my waterline.
In the moments between the chorus and the second verse, the music carried me and I was nestled in that sweet space between all my thoughts and this group of people who trusted me, this perfect stranger, with their eyes and ears and believed for a moment that this wasn’t just any funeral, it was Ellen’s, and she would have loved it.