When I saw the movie ”Beginners” about a 70-year-old widower who comes out like a bolt of rainbow-coloured chiffon to his adult son, my husband Michael turned to me and asked, “Earl?”
Earl was my 81-year-old father.
I’m Dad’s only child, James Earl Brickhouse, junior to his senior, living proof that he and my mother had sex at least once during their 44-year marriage. My mother’s death in 2009 opened the door for us to get to know each other better, deepen our relationship and maybe trade some secrets.
I had a book-full of my secrets — literally. I was under contract to write a memoir about my alcoholism and my relationship with my mother, “Mama Jean,” as I call her in the memoir. Dad was so excited, he ended almost all our phone calls, “Hurry up and finish! I want it to come out before I die!” I almost wished he would die before it came out, so he’d never read it.
The pages overflowed with colourful debauchery tales of booze and sex — the kind that he relished in the movie star biographies he devoured — told with the ribald sense of humour I inherited from him. But I was no dead movie star, I was his son. I imagined him saying, “You can’t publish this book of depravity and appalling promiscuity. Not while I’m alive and living in this town.” A devout Catholic and staunch Republican, he was a product of Beaumont, Texas, the town I fled for New York and where he’d lived since he was born in 1931. I was a product of that town too. Even though I had lived in New York for over two decades, I still worried about what Beaumont thought.
When I finally let loose of the manuscript a year before publication, he disappeared into his walnut-panelled study, the most intimate room in that fancy empty nest house Mama Jean had built for them.
The usual tableau when I visited: I sat with my club soda on the tufted leather sofa, he on his kilim-print chair with his vodka on the rocks, no longer disguised as Diet Coke since Mama Jean wasn’t around to monitor and admonish his drinking. His oil portrait silently observed us. His brother Robert who painted it didn’t go for the obvious choice and recreate Dad’s life of the party effulgence, but instead captured his pensive look, as if he’s listening intensely to what you are asking, and he may or may not answer you.
The TV blared Fox News until I asked if we could watch something else. We knew that meant TCM. We disagreed vehemently on politics but agreed passionately about old movies, especially of the Joan Crawford variety. “My God!” he loved to say, “Joan slept with half of Hollywood.”
While he read my manuscript, I sat in the living room like a bug-eyed cat on orange alert. Dad was a vocal reader. “Oh my God! That’s good. Yeah! Love it! Let’s read that again.” It sounded like he was having sex.
When he finished, he held the manuscript between the palms of his hands like it was a sacred bible. “I love it. Absolutely love it. And I love what you wrote about Mama Jean. You know, she used to say that I’m an alcoholic. But I’m not. I can quit when I need to.”
I chuckled. “Well, she also said I get my writing talent from you,” I told him. I didn’t remind him that she carped that I inherited my boozing talent from him too.
“That may be, but I could never have written anything like this,” he replied.
His career in PR jobs summoned his writing skills and he spoke of scribbling a novel. I ended up writing press releases for two decades as a book publicist, and yet he and I never discussed the fact that I landed in the same field as he.
“Damn, it’s good,” he said. “And it’s funny! It’s got to be funny. Are you happy with it?”
I looked him in the eye. “Yes.” I realised I wasn’t truly happy with it until that moment. His blessing liberated me. Once I had it, I didn’t give a damn what Beaumont or anyone else thought.
My Fire Island tales also intrigued him.
“Tell me, do y’all wear bikinis or go naked?”
“Both,” I replied.
He loved the beach and the rare chance to wear his navy blue and Kelly green bikini. Mama Jean loathed that bikini almost as much as his drinking and forbade him to wear it, saying, “Earl, nice married men from Beaumont don’t wear bikinis.”
Of all the sexual peccadillos in my book, he was most fascinated by Father John, the lapsed priest with whom I’d had a fling.
“If he knew he was gay,” Dad said, “he never should have gone into the priesthood in the first place.”
“Straight or gay,” I said, “the deal is you’re supposed to remain celibate, and he claimed he was until he took leave from the priesthood.”
Dad sat in the same pew at Mass every morning but had long stopped trying to get me to return to the Catholic church. I left it because I didn’t want to genuflect in a place that didn’t welcome my kind, at least openly. After I got sober, I told him that the meetings I attend almost every day are my church. He never asked after that.
“Hey,” I said, “Why don’t you read from my book the next time you lector at Mass?”
He barked a laugh. “I can see me at the lectern now. Forgive me, Father John, for we have sinned. Now let’s do it again and again, and again.”
“Mawmaw used to tell me she was afraid you were going to become a priest,” I said, “since Pawpaw wasn’t Catholic and he couldn’t have handled that.” (Mawmaw and Pawpaw were his parents.) “Did you ever want to be a priest?”
“No! I married your mother.”
“Did you ever think you were gay, and that’s why you didn’t become a priest?” I didn’t ask that, but when he walked through the kitchen carrying a bunch of bananas and sang, “Fruits for the fruit!” I didn’t laugh. I didn’t speak. I shot him the expression frozen in his portrait. Had he cracked open the door with that wisecrack and I missed my chance?
My suspicions about his homosexuality started to creep in when I was 15 and embracing my homosexuality. I first came out to my older half-brother Jeffrey (Mama Jean’s son from her first marriage) and told him about the time she caught me reading “Tory’s,” a gay novel he left behind after he came out and moved to Houston with his boyfriend. Mama Jean, still in shock about Jeffrey, thrust the book in Dad’s face. “Earl, did you know Jamie’s reading this?”
“Honey, know he’s reading it? I’ve never seen this book in my life!”
I said to Jeffrey, “Mom kept your book, so I never got to read it.”
He replied, “It wasn’t my book. I’ve never seen that book in my life.”
Then whose book was it?
When I came out to my parents in 1986, my freshman year in college, Mama Jean cried buckets: “God, not another one!”
Dad remained stoic when he took me to our first father-gay son lunch. “Your mother and I love you, no matter what you are. I think I saw it in you before your mother did.” After a sip of his third chardonnay, he slipped me his only advice: “Be careful, and don’t march in any of those parades.”
Even Mama Jean questioned his sexuality. Both she and he openly joked about their barren sex life, and I used to call her Mrs. Roper, the randy landlady from the sitcom ”Three’s Company” who fruitlessly connived to get her husband into bed. But Mama Jean wasn’t joking after one of their fights when she said to me, “I think your father questioned his sexuality before we married.” “Not after?” I wanted to ask. Instead, I said, “I know he loves you.” He was 34 when they married, which for his generation and era, was late in life, and there were about 2.5 girlfriends, spaced years apart, from high school to his marriage — all platonic, I later discovered.
More revealing than “Tory’s” or my parents’ moribund marriage bed were the stories he told me about himself in the last months we had together after he read my book. He often snuck out of the house when he was a teen to smoke cigarettes and watch Joan Crawford movies at the drive-in with his Aunt Doris. His girlfriends (italics mine) used Dad as their beard when they were pursuing the dangerous boys.
“Why did their parents let them out of the house with you?” I asked him. “Because,” he replied matter-of-factly, “they knew I was harmless.”
After “Beginners,” I fantasised that he’d come out to me, and Michael and I would bring him to Fire Island. Dad would parade down the boardwalk wearing nothing but a smile and that Kelly green and navy blue bikini that Mama Jean forbade him to wear. He’d raise his martini in the air, and sing, “Well, hello, boys!”
What if I had asked him? I envisioned him answering the same indignant way he answered when I asked if wanted to be a priest. “No! I loved your mother.” I would press on. “I know you loved her — that’s not what I’m asking — but were you also attracted to men?” “No. Well, maybe, but I put away those feelings a long time ago. I wanted to follow the church and have a family. And that’s what I did. Now that’s enough of this business. Change the channel to TCM. There’s an old Joan Crawford movie about to start.”
Neither of those fantasies happened. Dad died before the book came out. When I began writing about him a year later, I sat underneath the enigmatic gaze of his portrait that now hangs in my study. I pulled his death certificate. I wanted to confirm the time of death. I thought about all those times I sat in his study across from him, aching to ask him if he needed to tell me anything before it was too late. I’d open my mouth, but the words never formed. I ended up telling him all of my secrets, but he told me none of his. I felt cheated by this lopsided equation. I wanted him to make me witness to what happened to him — what his story was and who he was, because it’s part of who I am. If he had come out, if only to me, would it have liberated him in the same way his blessing of my memoir liberated me?
After confirming the time of death, I saw what I’d never seen before, the underlying cause: delirium tremens. It was misspelled “delerium tremors,” which would have made him laugh. The DTs are what heavy drinkers get from alcohol withdrawal. The last week of his life, he had bronchitis and didn’t drink. He was an alcoholic just like me, or I am, just like him.
“I can quit when I need to.”
I’d been in semi-denial about his drinking. I thought he was one of those heavy drinkers who could handle it, because he never had the dire consequences that landed me in rehab. I thought, so what if he has a few vodkas on the rocks and passes out every night in front of Fox News? Mama Jean’s death freed him to drink with impunity.
He died knowing everything about me because I opened my mouth via that manuscript. He accepted me completely, but did he never accept himself? Or did he always accept himself and choose to live his life in a way that made sense to him? I believe I am all the things Dad was but never quite became: published writer, sober alcoholic, openly gay. I, James Earl Brickhouse Jr., am the full-blown version of my father.
Jamie Brickhouse is writing his second memoir, “I Favor My Daddy: A Tale of Two Sissies,” from which this essay is adapted. He is the author of “Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze, Sex, and My Mother,” the host of “Sober Podcast,” and a TikTok sensation where he tells a true story everyday wearing high heels.