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Richard Stevenson

Third man out

1

I almost asked John Rutka if somebody had shot him in the foot-I knew plenty of people who'd have loved to-but before I could, he gave me a look of astonishment and said, 'I've been shot. One of them actually shot me.'

'Somebody shot you in the foot?'

'One of them tried to kill him,' Eddie Sandifer said, 'but they only got him in the foot.'

Sandifer looked stunned too, and uncharacteristically shaky; ordinarily it was these two who inspired anger and fright, and Sandifer seemed unsure of what to make of this turn of events.

'It must have been somebody I outed,' Rutka said, and looked down, appalled, at the bandaged foot. 'God, they're even sicker than I thought. I knew some of them were pathetic, but this is something only a psychopath would do.'

We all peered down at the foot as if it might add something on its own behalf. I'd walked over to Albany Med from Crow Street to visit yet another dying friend when I ran into Rutka and Sandifer, and we were in the parking lot outside the E.R., standing in vapors rising from the tarmac after an early evening thunderstorm. Everybody looked purple under the arc lamps, spooky in the urban miasma. Ambulances coasted in and out through the mist, the Tuesday night torn and traumatized delivered as swiftly and silently as Fed-Exed envelopes. Somebody was probably working on a way to fax them in.

Rutka's wound was to his right foot, which he lifted from the pavement a few inches, his right arm over Sandifer's shoulder for support, while he described the incident. As I listened, I tried to concentrate on the narrative and not become distracted by Rutka's wandering left eye, which, in his excitement, was now all over the place.

The loose eye was Rutka's one physical imperfection, the flaw that confirmed the beauty of his sturdy frame and curly-headed Byronic good looks. Watching Rutka was sometimes like looking at a Romantic poet as rendered by a cubist, and you had to be careful not to let the visual spectacle get in the way of Rutka's spiel, which was forceful in its single-minded way but lacked the quirky surprises of his appearance.

Eddie Sandifer listened with eyes half closed to Rutka's recitation, nodding occasionally as Rutka backed up to clarify a point or add a detail; this was probably the third or fourth time in the past three hours that Rutka had told the story of the shooting, and esthetic considerations were already starting to color the reportage.

From time to time, Sandifer reached up to wipe the purple sweat from his face and head; though in his early thirties, like Rutka, Sandifer was nearly bald, his dome glistening. Bathed in the weird light, the stocky, fair-skinned Sandifer looked like a big, masculine, radioactive baby. Both were wearing jeans and yellow-and-black Queer Nation T-shirts, the two of them composing a walking-and-talking embodiment of postmodern gay liberation ideology: We're queer and we're here to stay and you'd damn well better get used to it.

At about four-thirty that afternoon, Rutka said, he had walked out of his house on Elmwood Place, a few miles up the Hudson from Albany in the town of Handbag. He crossed the front porch, started down the front steps, heard a loud crack, and suddenly found himself sprawled on the walkway leading down to the street. His breath was gone and his foot was screaming with pain.

Rutka said he hadn't noticed anyone-Elmwood Place was a dead-end street with just nine houses along it- but he thought he heard a car driving away fast. The car sounded as if it had a defective muffler. When he caught his breath, Rutka shouted Eddie's name several times. No one else responded to Rutka's cries; apparently everyone along the street was sealed off behind closed doors and windows with air conditioners battling the Hudson Valley August heat.

A minute later Sandifer, who'd arrived home from work just moments before, came outside and found Rutka. They had planned on walking down to the Kon-ven-You-Rama store four blocks away to pick up some ice cream sandwiches. Rutka's addiction to sweets was notorious; his dishier gay enemies predicted it was only a matter of years, or months, before Rutka began to exhibit physical defects numbers two and three-bad skin and obesity-and those enemies who were under the impression that Rutka would care one way or another welcomed the prospect. I'd once seen Rutka shrug and say he had more important things to think about than the way he looked.

'Shouldn't you be in a wheelchair or something?' I asked Rutka, who probably wasn't much of a chore for the beefier Sandifer to hold up, but it didn't seem smart to risk stepping on a gunshot wound.

'John is leaving the hospital against medical advice,' Sandifer said, with a look of uncertainty. 'That's how the resident phrased it. Those guys have to protect themselves, they're so afraid of lawsuits.'

'It's not that I don't trust the doctors here to treat a gunshot wound,' Rutka said, and hobbled several steps with Sandifer's help to lean heavily against the side of a car, an astonished-looking little Ford. 'If American medicine hasn't figured out yet how to treat a gunshot wound, it hasn't learned anything. But I know there are plenty of people at Albany Med who hate my guts, and I'll feel more secure if I can recover at home. It's no big thing anyway-a superficial wound and the ankle bone is chipped.'

'John outed one of their board members here a couple of months ago,' Sandifer said. 'You probably read about it in Queerscreed. Certain people were pretty pissed.'

As a deeply skeptical-and always faithful-reader of Rutka's tabloid, Queerscreed, I remembered. 'Merle Glick. What'd he do

— vote against extra funding for the AIDS unit or something?'

'He's an absolute sleazoid,' Rutka said, nauseated by the man all over again. 'Glick is the most famous rest-stop queen from Kingston to Glens Falls, and my source on the Albany Med board says he's the most homophobic scumbag in the hospital.'

'Can you believe the flaming hypocrisy?' Sandifer asked. 'That man is evil.'

'The E.R. staff threw this up to you?' I asked. 'They knew who you were?'

'They knew,' Rutka said. 'When the resident recognized my name, he gave me a look I can only call total revulsion.'

This seemed a little off. It was unlikely that the emergency-room nurses and medical residents, whose concerns tended to be narrow and immediate, would feel, much less exhibit, indignation over the fate of Merle Glick, a hospital director best known around Albany for enriching his insurance agency with city contracts procured through his connections with the Democratic machine. Though if Rutka said he saw a look of revulsion in his doctor's eyes, maybe he did. It was an effect Rutka often had on people.

'What did you say to the doctor?' I said. 'Maybe it wasn't just your name that got a reaction.'

Sandifer glanced at Rutka apprehensively, as if my remark might trigger a speech, but it got only a little half smile. 'No, he knew me, that's all,' Rutka said. 'I suppose the Queer Nation shirt might have set something off, too. I know you've got a skeptical mind, Strachey. It's one of the things I've always liked about you, despite your refusal to always back up your words with actions.'

This last referred, I guessed, to my failure the previous spring to join ACT-UP in an occupation of the state legislature. An arrest and conviction would likely have resulted in my losing my private investigator's license, my sole means of livelihood-Timothy Callahan having made it plain that if he had wanted to share a mortgage with a man with a criminal record, he'd have picked a crook with a numbered account in Zurich and not a man with a lien on his eight-year-old Mitsubishi.

Nettled by Rutka's ever-superior tone-I was as uncomfortable with his personality as I was doubtful about his tactics-I said,

'How do you know you were shot? Was a slug recovered? The actual bullet?' Rutka gave me his gimlet look. 'Who's investigating this?' I said. 'The Handbag cops? Who did you report it to?'

'What are you trying to insinuate?' Sandifer said, looking as if he might be about to put me in a category.

Rutka just stared at me, and before I could 'insinuate' that the two might have staged the shooting for their

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