Early Retirement

Legs are seen next to a red curtain
Timo Lenzen

Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Brontez Purnell about his writing process.

He had adopted this insane new beauty practice of rubbing Preparation H on the bags under his eyes. He was trying to scrub that puffy, confused, alcoholic look right off his face—it burned to all hell but goddamn if it didn’t work. There had to be some kind of fancy, faggy, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory something or other at a boutique in San Francisco that, like, smelled nice and blended into the skin in a less severe way. But these days he could barely make it to the corner store, much less downtown San Francisco.

The trolley cars bothered him, the European tourists giving him that What are you doing here? look on the street bothered him, effort in general bothered him—put all these factors together and what was left was a tube of hemorrhoid cream purchased at the Grocery Outlet for $1.50. He still smelled like alcohol in the morning, but at least his face didn’t look all fucked-up. The small victory would have to do.

The past couple of months he had started sleeping with his feet hanging out of his second-story window. It helped to correct his restless moving around in bed, and now he could hear the cars out on the highway in the night. He started to have dreams that he was peacefully underwater, but he knew his brain was reinterpreting the cars roaring past. From a distance, the hum of the highway sounded like waves crashing into land. In his bed, he would pull the covers over his head and imagine being in the ocean. Alone and at peace.

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The fall had been a hard stretch.

He was an actor and had gotten a job that summer as the lead of this god-awful play, some drama about a murderer in a mining town during the Gold Rush. It bored him to tears and he hit the bottle real hard one night before the show, ended up blacking out onstage and being removed from the play the next day. It was not the first time this had happened.

He relayed the story to his friend Mark over the phone.

“I got drunk and embarrassed myself in front of a bunch of prominent white neoliberals,” he offered.

“Again?!” said Mark.

“Again. The stage manager was this hippie who told me I would never work in this town again! I broke down and cried.” Real tears—he could feel them leaking through the film of the Preparation H.

Mark kept his cool. “I mean, that’s nice of her to threaten you and all, but keep in mind you never really worked there before—who gives a flying fuck?! Meet me and the boys for lunch.”

He and Mark were brothers of sorts. A decade and a half ago, the two of them had been cast in a TV show on a fledgling gay channel, about the lives of four single Black gay men in L.A. It was a big to-do—audiences loved it, and he basically played the Black version of all the white queens he hated. He had been working on some horrible avant-garde play in San Francisco when his agent called him with an offer for the part of Jonathan—muscular, 33, a nonurban Black hippie wallflower type. Easy enough. He had been having problems landing acting gigs that didn’t read as “urban”—every role called for a strong masculine Black man with confidence and all the answers, and he couldn’t fake that even for a paycheck. The role of Jonathan felt tailor-made—after all, he’d grown up in Encino.

The show was so uniquely Black (or as “Black” as white West Hollywood tastes would allow) that no one noticed the characters for what they were: really shitty muscle queens from L.A.

He hoped at first that they would mirror the Spice Girls and each have some form of distinct personhood (he wanted to be the dark-skinned “woke” one), but no such luck. Instead they were four leads who all mirrored one another like quadruplets; the running catchphrase of the show (said in unison) was “Ew! He’s fat!” (Cue laugh track.)

He’d made semi-decent money from the sitcom for the price of his soul and done what all reasonable G-list “celebrities” did: stumbled into cocaine and alcohol addiction. The show was over before the third season and he kept on drinking. He moved back to San Francisco, broken as all hell, and chased jobs in regional theater. During harvest season, he worked on the pot farms up north.

Mark had also moved to San Francisco recently—he was working as an agent now, developing talent.

I hate the idea of meeting these faggots for lunch, he thought, getting ready to do just that. He despised Mark’s habit of always dragging boys he was fucking to brunch for an awkward meet and greet. Especially today.

Still—it was time to go meet these faggots.

Upon arriving, he quickly ordered an Irish Health—Jameson whiskey and green tea on ice with simple sugar (and a splash of Baileys, if you must).

He slammed it and then ordered a double of the same, feeling better.

Mark showed up with two queens he’d had sex with the night before. One boy was a blonde and the other had a birthmark on his face. Mark was dominating, as always. He had a way of taking a conversation and boiling it down to its essentials—his stories always led back to sex and/or violence. At this particular brunch he was explaining how he had recently been robbed south of Market Street.

“I had on a thousand-dollar watch, had all my credit cards on me, $700 in cash I owed my roommate, and an extra-large cheese pizza I’d ordered from the place on the corner. So I see this big Black muscle queen walking toward me from 12th Street. Big ole uncut dick swinging to the gods in his track pants and I’m staring him down like, Wanna fuck? He rolls up on me and the last thing I remember is him punching me in the head. Anyway, I wake up about 30 minutes later, and I know it’s 30 minutes later ’cause I still had my watch on, plus my credit cards and the cash—the only thing missing was the pizza!”

The boy with the birthmark spit up his Jack-and-soda.

The blond boy asked me what I did.

“I was an actor but I failed. Now I work in agriculture, seasonally,” I said, not looking him in the eye. “I’m in between trips.”

“You mean you grow weed?” he pressed.

“Yes.”

They all got drunker and went to Mark’s. The other men got naked on the bed, but he felt apart, too drunk and sad to achieve an erection. There came a point when the merry trio was having sex on top of him and he rolled over and pulled the covers over his head. He wanted to be underwater again.

This year, he took a new way to the farm. Just to be a troll, he’d signed up for one of those Christian free-ride groups, and it totally backfired. The Christian man he hitched a ride with was on his way to Oregon from Texas; he made it a point to pray every time they stopped to get gas or take a piss. At one prayer stop, the Holy Ghost lasted for 20 minutes and ended with the man going into full-on testimony. He sat in the passenger seat listening to the man and wished to God (ironically enough) that he could find a ride group where all he had to do was flash his dick and get to his destination in a timely manner.

The car finally made its way to Lake County. The farm was near there.

Supposedly Clear Lake was the largest lake in California, and supposedly it was the oldest lake in North America. He was told these things but never bothered to confirm them himself.

The car navigated the two-lane highway that circled the lake for miles and miles.

Post–World War II, the lake had been a popular Northern California tourist destination; he spied from the car window all the dilapidated fishing piers and run-down motor lodges with their decaying mid-century signs more or less intact.

The lake itself was fishable, yet the catch was rarely edible. The mine nearby had closed in the ’50s, but not before polluting the entire body of water with mercury. It was poison.

The car dropped him off at the gas station nearest to the farm and he waited for the farm owner to pick him up. It had once been owned by this dyke who then sold it to a Puerto Rican man from New Jersey.

He watched the new owner pull up in a huge black pickup truck, introduced himself, and got in. The owner gave him the rundown—there were 92 outdoor plants tucked out past the valley that he would attend to and dry before the seasonal trimmers came in and manicured the buds. The new owner would fly out every two weeks and give him a ride to the general store to replenish his supplies: drinking water, gas for the generators, toilet paper, all that stuff. The owner gave him two guns to keep in case feds or thieves came lurking, and left him on the property to do his work.

That was in late July, and he had now been on the mountain for a while. The exact number of days, he could not tell—time blurred so much up here. His task was repetitive, but he loved being alone. Just him, the plants, the drying room (the only built structure on the property), the hum of the gas generators, and his two guns.

His job was to kill all the boys. Even the smallest amount of a male plant’s pollen can seed a whole crop, and pot with seeds is unsellable. Some girl plants could change sex, “dropping balls” (seed sacks) and getting all the other girls pregnant. So he had to kill and dispose of all the new boys too.

Years earlier, he had worked at several random farms and trimmed for strangers, but it hadn’t lasted long. Being stuck three hours from nowhere in the California backwoods with white hippies was a particular form of hell; they all smelled bad and had Ganesh tattoos. They insisted that he “think positively.” He hated that shit. He had scored the right gig eventually, with this small private farm that he worked alone until the fall trimmers came to finish up.

A fussy creek cut through the hills, and he bathed in it in the mornings, the icy coldness of it stinging his balls. No soap could be used, for fear of polluting the river. His drinking water and all his other supplies were kept in a slender kitchen with a separate entrance on the back side of the drying room. He had to shit in a hole in the ground.

The goal was to get all the weed cut and dried before the rainy season arrived in winter. Two years before, the rain had started early and mold had grown on all the plants, which didn’t begin to cover how damn miserable he had been in the tent he had pitched. He made a pallet to sleep on in the drying room this time around.

At night, when he was alone in the drying shed, the landscape outside had the dark glow of moonlight. The moon put a soul filter on everything. The hum of the gas-powered generator reminded him of the underwater sound of the highway cars he could hear from his bedroom in the city. He felt like a nature god, alone in the great expanse.

If he really thought about it, he had never wanted to be an actor. Not really. In his memory, it had happened upon him. On a whim, he had stormed the stage when he was 5: a one-man coup.

His older cousin was 8 or 9 at the time, participating in her elementary-school beauty pageant, and he was sitting in his Sunday church suit in the audience in the school gymnasium, next to his auntie. He saw all the girls in delicate dresses, lit up onstage, and noticed the applause every time they twirled about.

When one contestant departed the stage, he saw it empty and knew he should be there. He sneaked from under his auntie and ran up the side steps and placed his little body midstage. He couldn’t see the faces of the audience (perhaps an early indicator of his nearsightedness). Then came the roar of applause. He knew he had done something right because everyone was clapping for him. As soon as the shock wore off, his little face grinned—just in time for his auntie to come rip him off the stage by his hand.

“Boy, you know you know betta!” she whisper-yelled in his ear as she led him down the steps. He couldn’t even hear her. The smile on his face lasted for days.

All he’d ever wanted, he realized, was the stage lights and the applause; the acting itself was just the driver holding the carrot in front of the donkey. He figured that if society had allowed a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker to merit stage lights and applause, he would have easily been any one of those, too.

His mother had always hated his profession; she thought it was too common. She barely even congratulated him when he got on a network show. She wanted him to be a teacher, and she eventually got her wish.

He’d spent a few years teaching acting workshops at regional theaters after the TV show was canceled—there were a great many people who couldn’t act. He marveled at how all reluctant thespians shared the same complaint: “I don’t like being watched.” The statement was a cop-out. He usually cured the novice actor with one sentence. “You’re not afraid of being watched—you’re afraid of watching yourself be watched.” The student would invariably look confused, and more often than not, a series of breakthroughs ensued.

In his mind, spewing words was the easy part; the work of blocking out motions was the challenge that killed or illuminated an expression, the business of what to do with the hands or feet while trying to convince an audience that you are someone else. Movement is always the purest indication of how truthful one is being.

He had never been a good actor, just a committed one—committed like Robert Downey Jr. or Mel Gibson, to being a caricature of himself. In fact, acting had given him license to be himself. The context, mannerisms, or historical backdrop could change from play to play, but he stayed wrapped up in his typecast: a fragile yet strong (or faux brave) and always spiraling man.

In acting he attempted to put distance between himself and the audience. It was like that first night he stepped onstage when he was 5. As far as he was concerned, there was only the holy trinity of him, the stage lights, and the void. A perfect freedom. It would not be forever.

He began to notice it—small at first, but then it grew, the thing he’d warned others against but slowly failed to reconcile in himself: He noticed himself being watched. It was the beginning of the end; the death was sudden. One day, out of fucking nowhere and without warning, the audience all had faces, eyes, and expectations.

After the television show had been canceled, and after he’d gotten bored teaching workshops, he had retreated to the tepid world of Northern California live theater, all bit parts with no infrastructure for advancement. His artistic fatigue began with two celebratory shots before each stage performance, then four, then half the bottle. Before long he had been fired, for the first of many times, because he reeked of alcohol onstage. His fatigue culminated in the night he blacked out onstage for the last of his many times.

After that, he’d quit booze for a bit and even went to AA—it seemed like a start, until he descended again. The next time was harder. The second and third time you fail is always worse; there’s the voice that asks, Am I really choosing to be this person? The realization felt like death, or like being underwater, but not in a peaceful way.

Now, up north and safe after his last onstage meltdown, he stood in the general store in town looking at a bottle of whiskey for a good four minutes. He had gone out to refill the surplus gas containers for the farm’s generators. He felt an intense craving but knew he’d be on the mountain by himself. Fearing the hell he might conjure, he decided to be cautious. Whiskey was his shaman drug of choice, and he knew to avoid the spirit.

He left the medicine aisle and got some dried jerky and water instead. He paid the cashier and left. He bought an extra blanket too, just in case. It was almost October and he had another month and a half on the mountain. It would start to turn cold soon.

By 7 a.m. it was warm, and in a few hours it would be too hot to work. He quickly began counting the marijuana plants, preparing some for a wet trim, taking others to the drying room.

He worked until his midday break, when he sat under a tree and scraped the dirt and THC crystals from his fingertips—“finger hash,” as they called it. He would smoke it later.

In his youth, he believed a lot of dumb shit, like that one time an older fag in a bar had relayed to him the origin of “Spanish hash.”

“So in Spain they send young boys running naked through the marijuana fields and then they scrape the THC from their bodies. That’s why Spanish hash is so expensive!”

This myth was soon debunked by a fellow weed trimmer.

“Naw, brother,” said Austin, this California hippie boy he sat next to in the trim room. “No naked boys. They make that shit from explosives. Butane.”

As the midday heat faded, he was back in the garden, making sure the plants hadn’t swapped sexes. He started to separate the good pot that would be trimmed and sold as flower from the lesser grade that would be consolidated and turned into hash.

Soon the chores were done and he sat drinking water under the shade of another tree. His mind always doubled down on itself at this point in the day. Whenever catching a moment’s breath, he had the same thought: Where had he gone?

The last thing he remembered before the blackout was forgetting all of his lines. He was told later that he hadn’t resorted to curse words or jittery, unexpected behavior. Rather, it had been a cool and complete dissociation onstage. He’d gone to a table upstage right and buried his face in his hands for a full 15 minutes. The 49 people in the audience got frustrated and eventually walked out. His onstage retirement party.

Mid-November, when the harvest was over, meant it was time to return to the city to pay the rent and nestle in for the wet, rainy winter ahead.

He sat at the bus stop waiting for his Greyhound to arrive. He decided the bus trip would be nice and didn’t want to risk getting another religious fanatic as a driver.

It began raining so he wrapped himself in a poncho and covered his gear in plastic. The line for the bus was long, and the unfortunate farmhands who had not shown up early enough to stand inside the shoddy bus-stop shelter were all getting soaked.

On the ground near the little bench inside the shelter, he noticed a full ziplock bag of weed. Someone had dropped it or left it behind, but he didn’t even blink. He hated marijuana at this point.

The bus rolled up and all the wet, weary farmers boarded.

Looking out the window, he was taken aback as always by the beautiful landscape of the area, and by the cultural disconnect of the California backwoods. It somehow remained redneck as all hell—he even occasionally saw Confederate flags on bumper stickers. He remembered that a few hours outside any city in America, it was business as usual.

Later rather than sooner, he arrived in Oakland. He wanted no more of the bus and got off and called a car to take him to S.F.

His apartment was as he’d left it: sparsely furnished and clean. His life as a farmer had made him want to be a nomad, and every time he came back from the mountain he got rid of more and more stuff. If only it were possible to be a part-time resident in everything.

For the first time in forever, he felt that strange and foreign emotion—a stillness and a sense of peace. He began to cry.

He showered, put on warm sweats, turned on the heater, and boiled water for tea. He finally listened to the voicemails on his phone that he’d ignored while on the mountain. Mostly the usual: one from Mark saying he was no longer hanging out with the blonde or the kid with the birthmark; others from bill collectors, student-loan officers, his mother (over and over and over again)—and one of note.

“Hello, this is Shelia Waters from the Stein Agency in Los Angeles. This message is for Antonio Johnson. We have an offer for you—the role of Jonathan is being revamped for an upcoming movie project based on Missed Connections. We hope this is still your number! We have a very handsome offer! You can reach me at 310-555-7762, extension 312. Hope to talk soon!”

He had all but stopped breathing. The news hit him in the gut, hard. Why was the show making a comeback? It seemed like an idea he should entertain, certainly. He felt the butterflies in his stomach as he did. He paced for a bit, and thought about starting a new gym routine, a new diet; going back to his acting coach; finding a place in L.A. to stay while filming. Then the kettle began to whistle, pulling him back into his mind and his apartment.

He poured the boiling water on the peppermint-tea bag in the cup and brought it to his bed. He sat down and, even though it was raining, rolled his sweats up to his knees and placed his feet out the window. As quickly as it had rushed through him, his excitement fled. He was at peace as the cars sped by on the highway again. He heard waves.

This story has been excerpted from Brontez Purnell’s forthcoming novel-in-stories, 100 Boyfriends.