"We ain't Nero fiddling while Rome burns, hon," she is saying, puffing on her fingers to quicken the seal. "We are the party here. We're setting the fire!" The other entertainers in the cramped dressing room hoot in agreement.
She is large, even by drag queen standards, and her make-up is a Technicolor explosion that makes little sense until she reaches for an enormous blond wig that dominates her dressing table. She pulls it over her head -- utterly smooth terrain that a receding hairline has laid bare -- and is transformed.
"She's baaack ..." she giggles in the mirror. "Betty Lou Overdue is back at 'cha! Missed you, girl!" She poses and vogues to herself.
"So Betty," I say, "how long has the club ... been so exclusive?"
"Oh, lemme see now ..." She grabs an eye pencil and starts to draw her face again, like one of those Victorian paintings that has one masterwork on top of another. "When was it they pretty much announced there weren't gonna be no cure? Like we didn't figure out that one on our own. Five years ago? And then, well, things just happen on their own. People figure out their place, I do believe."
A recorded overture begins outside the room. Applause erupts.
"Take a peek for me, hon?" she asks, and I step through the dressing room doorway, just backstage, and discreetly part velvet curtains. The cabaret room is a mass of men, all talking, drinking, laughing. Cigarette smoke, like London fog, hovers above their heads. They happily anticipate the end of the overture with more drink orders and dashes to the john.
And without exception, according to Ms. Overdue, every one of them is HIV positive.
"You're up or down," Gladys had told me sternly, when I had first arrived and brought up the three-lettered term, "so forget the HIV word, hon. If you managed to keep away from it, you're up. You caught it? You're down."
"But what about people who could still get it?" I had asked her. "It's not as if this is a static thing."
"Honey, it's so static my dress sticks to my panty hose. New boys getting it just aren't sticking to their own, like the nice boys here. They're all humping, no doubt, but they're carrying on with each other, you know? Hell, let 'em be."
I finished surveying the crowd and returned to the dressing room. "Packing them in, Betty," I say. "So, tell me more before the show gets going."
"Like what?" she asks. She samples feather boas from a stack in the corner.
At this, a thin black drag queen stops practicing her lip synching and leans over in my direction.
"Oh please, darlin'," she says. "I've got more latex in my cheekbones then I've seen around here in four years."
"But what about new strains? Multiple infections?" I look back and forth between them, their faces blank beneath Crayola colors. "Jesus, Betty."
Betty reaches to an intercom by her table and presses a button. "Larry? Hon, mix that overture into the long version. I need time. Gotta tinkle."
Groans can be heard among the performers. Betty Lou doesn't blink.
"Shut up girls," she says. She fixes her six inch eyelashes in my direction. "Look here, friend. You're down too, ain't that right?"
"Yeah," I respond.
"Then welcome, baby." Her expression changes and something more severe emerges. "But you cut the pissy propaganda with the 'multiple' this and 'new strains' that. You think I'm stupid?"
"But it's downright..."
"Fatalistic?" she shoots back. "Think I don't know what you wanna push on us? Maybe these men got low self esteem, how 'bout that? Or they're all freaked from their friends dyin', you think that might be it, Mr. AIDS know- it-all? Huh?"
"If they were educated about --"
"Like they don't know. You don't think they know about mixin' strains? Like they never heard of the things you're talking?" She makes an aggressive stab at her face with a powder puff and stands up. "Well baby, you are welcome to tell them that playing around might be -- could be, can't be proven but may be -- dangerous. Tell them about the viral soup they're cookin', baby. You think it's dangerous? I think it's just delicious." She leans over and wraps her boa around my neck and pulls me close. "And hon," she purrs into my face, "they can guzzle it from a Snapple bottle for all I care."
With that, Betty Lou Overdue stalks backstage. The overture ends and a tribal roar ensues at her entrance. I walk out of her room and slip into the crowd.
"Welcome, my babies!" she cries, and they respond with more cheers. "Welcome to our sick little show!" An enormous neon sign appears above her, the name of the club, blinking in a gaudy, hypnotic red. "DOWNTOWN," it says, of course. The cheers are raised another notch. Betty Lou basks in it. "We gonna get down, that right boys? Then let's get some while the gettin' is good!" A golden oldie whirls on and she launches into it, two hundred jubilant men at her feet.
I roll over and find a dry spot on the sheets, trying to sleep again, feeling haunted by a nightclub. I drift back, and the trumpet strains of an old Petula Clark song reverberate through my head, reminding me of the looking glass through which I'd fallen, inviting me to return.
Mark S. King is an AIDS educator and writer living in Atlanta. He can be reached at email@example.com.