Title: The Mayor of Oak Street
Author: Vincent Traughber Meis
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 06/14/2021
Heat Level: 2 – Fade to Black Sex
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+, age-gap, coming-of-age, coming out, college, political, friends to lovers, period piece, reunited
In the 1960s, Midwestern boy and Boy Scout, Nathan delivers newspapers and mows lawns. Nathan uses his cover to move about yards and sneak into the homes of his neighbors, uncovering their secrets.
In high school, one of the local misfits introduces him to diet pills, which help him overcome his shyness. In an amphetamine high, he meets Cindy, who he hopes will steer him along the “morally straight” path of the Boy Scout Oath he swore to.
Nathan is infatuated with a young doctor down the street, Nicholas (Dr. B), who embodies all the things his mother would love him to be. On one of his secret forays in Dr. B’s house, he hides in a closet and witnesses his idol having sex with man while the wife is out of town. Dr. B’s affair leads to tragedy, forcing the doctor to leave town.
At college in New Orleans, Nathan meets a group of rebels and expands his drug use. Marc, a bisexual Cajun charmer becomes Nathan’s first male sexual experience, but promptly leaves town.
Nathan has a chance encounter with Dr. B, who has moved to New Orleans. Dr. B is in a relationship, but still closeted. Frustrated by Dr. B’s cool reaction, Nathan goes on a six-month binge of amphetamines and anonymous sex. On one night of debauchery, he overdoses and ends up in the emergency ward.
Nathan’s near death rallies Dr. B and Nathan’s other friends to force him into rehab. On the way home from work, Nathan witnesses the gruesome aftermath of the 1973 Up Stairs Lounge fire that devastated the gay population of New Orleans. As a result of the fire, Dr. B’s live-in boyfriend leaves town, freeing Dr. B to explore his feelings for Nathan.
The Mayor of Oak Street
Vincent Traughber Meis © 2021
All Rights Reserved
The Sangamon flows muddy and rank through the corn and soybean fields of central Illinois, giving its name to my city and the lake it fills on the south side before continuing its meander west. One of its tributaries, the even lazier and muddier Harold’s Creek, ran practically up to my back door in its own journey through the woods behind the homes on Oak Street.
The afternoon sun filtered through the tall trees, warming my shoulders as I walked along the creek, imagining building a raft like I had seen my brother and his friends do a few years before. I would ride it down the creek to the Sangamon and into the Illinois, eventually reaching the Mississippi. The Mississippi would take me to New Orleans, a city memorialized in song, literature, and film as a place of wonder. It wasn’t that I needed to run away like Huckleberry Finn. I hadn’t yet learned to hate everything the Sangamon gave its name to. It was a boy’s fantasy brought on by the heat of summer and the mesmerizingly sluggish flow of water.
I heard a branch snap deep in the woods. I often saw hobos from the nearby Wabash Line wandering in the woods, and my mother told me I needed to avoid them, but I sometimes watched them from behind a clump of bushes. My eyes darted around the area and saw nothing. I glanced at my watch. Time to go. For most kids, these were the carefree days of summer, but I had things to do. From the creek, I walked up the hill, through our backyard, and out to the street.
Mrs. Sloan’s heavy oak door hung wide open while a screen kept the swarms of late summer flies and mosquitoes at bay. I put my face to the mesh in what felt like an invasion of her privacy, causing me to tingle from the top of my head down to my big toes.
“Hello? Mrs. Sloan?” I shouted into the dim interior of the hall.
I opened the screen door haltingly and stepped inside. The door creaked shut, sounding painful in the silence of the house. I took a step, and then another. My legs shook. I peered to the right into the living room and left into the dining room. A force had taken control of me and pushed me on, my sneakers barely touching the carpet.
I went as far as the kitchen, passing two empty bedrooms on the way. Her purse sat on the yellow chrome Formica kitchen table, the keys to her Oldsmobile right next to it. Out the kitchen window, I searched for her floppy straw hat in the sunny backyard. She was neither in the garden where she often tended her vegetables nor in the lawn chair where she sometimes sat, large sunglasses on her nose and a cocktail in hand. I took note the lawn needed mowing.
Nylons hung over the bathroom shower curtain rod, hypnotically swaying in the breeze from the open window. Though we called her Mrs. Sloan, I had never heard of a Mr. Sloan. My father once complained about entering the bathroom and finding my mother’s nylons drying in plain sight. I wondered if Mrs. Sloan was sad living alone or happy she had the freedom to do what she wanted.
I should have been scared of her coming home and finding me lurking in her house, but a stronger force blocked the fear, a compelling energy moving my mind and body, making me feel impervious to danger. I continued down the hall to the living room, stopping to gaze at each of three framed needlepoint messages: “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself,” “A cheery smile makes life worthwhile,” and “You belong among the wildflowers.”
I had come to Mrs. Sloan’s door in my rounds, collecting for my paper route. She was a month behind in her payments. And I rationalized my invasion of her home out of concern for her welfare. My mother once said she wouldn’t be surprised to find her passed out drunk on the front lawn one day. My brother in high school sometimes came home from a night of drinking with his buddies and would collapse face down on his bed in our shared room without removing his clothes or shoes. One time, he ended up on the floor. Perhaps Mrs. Sloan had fallen like my brother. Perhaps she had fallen asleep in the bath and was at risk of drowning like I had seen on a television program.
I spent a few more minutes in the house before exiting through the front door into the calm and quiet on Oak Street. I continued up the block to do the rest of the collections. That night I drew a floor plan of her home, noting doors and windows. My brother called me a weirdo when the first thing I looked at in the Sunday paper was the page with the floor plan of a new house on the market while he went for the sports section, my father the news, and my mother the book reviews. I also scribbled notes about Mrs. Sloan’s house: the color and shape of her purse, the black-and-white photo of a somber older couple in the living room, the buff-colored nylons, the approximately twelve-inch cross hanging over her bed, and the needlepoint messages.
Before I entered my teenage years, I would know my way in and out of most every house on the block without being discovered. It was the Midwest. It was the ‘60s. Crime happened elsewhere. In addition to delivering papers, I mowed lawns. I could cross barriers, move within fences, and befriend dogs. Access. Getting inside the house was usually the easy part.
Everybody told me my paper route and lawn-mowing jobs would be good experience though I had no idea how much I would learn about myself, about others, about life, the good and the bad. I could assume the face of the upstanding neighborhood boy, appearing at their doors to collect subscription payments, smiling and making small talk while below the surface I was another person, motivated by desires they would never understand.
The second time I entered a home was as spontaneous as the first. It was the Pruitts’. While mowing the front lawn, I noticed Mrs. Pruitt lock the front door, take her two identically dressed little girls by the hand, jump into their Ford station wagon, and drive off. When I got around to the back of the house, I spotted the kitchen door standing open, beckoning me. I turned off the mower so I would hear if the car returned. I went into the kitchen. My mother would die rather than let our kitchen fall into such disorder; the sink filled with dirty dishes, and the kitchen table covered with open schoolbooks and scattered papers.
A half-full milk carton sat on the counter. I opened the fridge and saw a whole shelf of soda pop. I took an orange Crush and drank it as I did a quick tour of the house. Not much interesting. The rest of the house was as messy as the kitchen. I finished the soda outside, threw the bottle in the trashcan, and finished mowing the lawn. Before I went to bed that night, I drew a floor plan of their three-bedroom and put it in a folder with Mrs. Sloan’s.
I thought of these intrusions as accidents, isolated incidents that wouldn’t be repeated. But images of those escapades kept dancing through my head, enticing me to do it again. The rush of danger, the real possibility I might be caught, was like a drug. At the time I was still ignorant about drugs and addictions, but my body clearly knew sensations it wanted to revisit. I managed to stave off my urges for a few months. I turned twelve over the summer, and several of my customers who had heard it was my birthday tacked on a bit extra to their payments.
Lawn-mowing season came to an end as the weather turned cold, and we had our first snowfall. Soon after, I started receiving calls about paper holds for the Thanksgiving holidays. To me, they might as well have been invitations. I prayed it didn’t snow as the soft whiteness would show the hard dirty prints of my boots, a trail of my activities. I had to start thinking about such things: tracks I might leave, who in the neighborhood tended to snoop out their windows, or how often people left doors unlocked, windows open.
I made a point of being friendly with the dogs on my street as I knew my extracurricular activities at houses with animals could be a problem. The Jackmans had a golden retriever. I’d received notice to put their paper on hold for five days, making me guess they weren’t going to leave the dog in the house for that length of time.
When I did my collections the week before Thanksgiving, I casually mentioned to Mrs. Jackman that I had received the hold notice. People loved to give out information they didn’t have to. She revealed they were going to their lake house in Arkansas. Butch was curled up at her feet. He raised his head as she took a ten out of her wallet and gave it to me. She told me to keep the change, and I thanked her profusely while I tore off her receipt.
I reached down to pet the dog. “I guess Butch is going to get a vacation too.”
“Oh, yeah. He loves it down there.”
Bingo, I was in. After our Thanksgiving meal, Dad and my brother watched the football game on TV while Mom cleaned up. I went to my room, saying I was going to read. Nobody thought it was odd. In my family, everybody did pretty much what he or she wanted. Normally, after a Thanksgiving meal, Dad and my brother passed out in front of the TV, and Mom curled up in a chair to read after cleaning up the kitchen. They had all had a lot of wine at dinner, including David, who my parents allowed to drink though he was only sixteen, something about him learning to drink responsibly at home keeping him from being irresponsible when he went out. I wasn’t sure that was working.
What does your family think of your writing?
The short answer is that I come from a family of readers and writers, so they are very supportive and proud of my accomplishments. My parents, both deceased, were truly inspirational in my journey to becoming a writer. My father was a dentist but dabbled in writing his whole life, writing newsletters for different groups he was a member of, and in his later years, he wrote a column for a local newspaper in rhyming verse, commenting on social and everyday issues. He expressed how proud he was of the articles I had published in magazines while he was still alive, but by the time I had published my first novel, he had passed. My mother was an avid reader. I have an early memory of me walking into a room where she was sitting in a chair engrossed in a book. I’m sure I had some very important question or issue, but seeing how entranced she was, I couldn’t bring myself to speak. She had no idea of my presence just a few feet away. I backed out of the room and went on my way. I imagined what a great accomplishment it would be to capture a reader in that way. She lived to see several of my novels published and was my biggest fan. She read my books despite feeling discomfort with some of the content, e.g., depictions of gay sex, abuse, drug usage. She constantly encouraged me and expressed pride in my work. In the last year of her life when she was mostly bedridden, I read to her parts of the book I was working on.
My oldest brother has published a few novels and several non-fiction works as a co-author or ghost writer. My sister has published two novels. My nephew and his wife have both published books. My first few novels were published under a family imprint we created called Fallen Bros. I feel extremely grateful to come from a family that appreciates and engages in reading and writing.
Tell us about the geographic location where your book takes place.
The Mayor of Oak Street follows my life chronologically and geographically, growing up in the Midwest and going to college at Tulane University in New Orleans. However, that’s pretty much where the autobiographical nature of the book stops. Nathan’s coming out story has nothing to do with mine. The geographic location of New Orleans in the early 1970s was a goldmine of images for a writer and The Big Easy has provided a rich and mysterious backdrop for a host of novels and movies. The Tulane University campus also provided a colorful and chaotic setting as hippie culture was beginning to go mainstream and political strife raged across college campuses. As Nathan is trying to decide where to go to college in the book, I wrote a fictitious description of Tulane modeled on something I read at the time in a guide to U.S. universities. “It’s hard to believe Tulane can maintain its reputation as the Harvard of the South when distractions abound. Music, debauchery, and a legal drinking age of eighteen, not to mention Mardi Gras season, make studying a challenge. Tulane must be one of the only schools in the country that gives you a four-day weekend to whoop it up before Ash Wednesday crashes upon you. The student body covers the spectrum from ROTC fanatics to pseudo-hippies with 4.0 GPAs. And with most of New Orleans below sea level, you’re constantly drenched in sweat, feeling like you might be snorkeling through the Great Barrier Reef, considering the number of colorful and possibly scary characters you encounter wherever you go, particularly in the French Quarter.”
New Orleans was also the scene of a horrendous attack on the gay community that every LGBTQ person should know about, the Up Stairs Lounge fire in 1973. In the last few chapters of the novel, the plot leans heavily on this historic disaster. Before the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the most horrific and gruesome attack on a gay establishment was this arson fire that killed 32 people, many of the victims burned beyond recognition. And if the fire itself wasn’t sufficiently grim, the callousness of the local officials and press was outrageous. Like the Stonewall Rebellion a few years earlier in New York, the fire is credited with further sparking gay awareness and a fight for our rights throughout the country.
How has your writing career changed in the past year?
About ten years ago I decided to take an early retirement from teaching to focus on writing. I had three novels in various stages of completion. Though I had a lot of life experience to my credit, I was like any young writer just beginning a career, bumbling around looking for an agent and/or a publisher, unsure how to “make myself” into a writer. As many writers can tell you, going the route of traditional publishing can be extremely frustrating. The brief heyday of mainstream publishers looking for LGBTQ content had passed. Gay publishers tended to focus on romance or other genre fiction. Admittedly, my books were hard to categorize and that’s disastrous in the publishing world. Coming to publishing later in life, I chose to self-publish and used an imprint that my brother had created to accommodate all the writers in my family. I was proud of the books I produced, but I was miserable at marketing. My fan base was largely friends and extended family. I finished a new novel in 2020 and decided to give traditional publishing one more push. I always said I just needed that one person in the right position who believed in me. An editor at NineStar responded to my submission with glowing words and the offer of a contract. I was elated. By the end of the year, I had six contracts with them for both new and previously published content. This year, I was offered one more contract for a novel that focuses on the havoc 2020 brought on a group of LGBTQ characters and their families. It is a huge psychological boost when someone recognizes and appreciates your writing vision. But in the realm of practicality, my life has also altered in many ways. I have the backup of an editing and cover artist team. I have a publisher who wants me to succeed and will help me in that effort because logically it helps them too. Yes, I still have to do a lot of my own promotion, but unless you are a well-known writer at a major publishing company, that is the reality most writers must deal with.
Meet the Author
Vincent Traughber Meis started writing plays as a child in the Midwest and cajoled his sisters to act in performing them for neighbors. In high school, one of his short stories won a local contest sponsored by the newspaper. After graduating from college, he worked on a number of short stories and began his first novel. In the 1980’s and 90’s he published a number of pieces, mostly travel articles in publications such as, The Advocate, LA Weekly, In Style, and Our World. His travels have inspired his five novels, all set at least partially in foreign countries: Eddie’s Desert Rose (2011), Tio Jorge (2012), and Down in Cuba (2013), Deluge (2016) and Four Calling Burds (2019). Tio Jorge received a Rainbow Award in the category of Bisexual Fiction in 2012. Down in Cuba received two Rainbow Awards in 2013. Recently stories have been published in three collections: WITH:New Gay Fiction, Best Gay Erotica Vol 1 and Best Gay Erotica Vol 4. He lives in San Leandro, CA with his husband.