"Old Queens" by Steven Archer

Steven Archer

Steven Archer is a queer, Haitian-Peruvian writer from Hollywood, Florida. His work has appeared in AGNI and Superstition Review. He holds an MFA from the University of Central Florida, where he was Provost Fellow in fiction, and is an alum of the 2023 Tin House Autumn Workshop. He lives in Orlando.

Old Queens

The palmist made us tea, which he stole from a client, while we waited for his apartment to shift backward in time. Most buildings did in the old part of town. He put pink tea in my hand and said, “I kept thinking, like, ‘She got all this hibiscus tea, and her skin looks like that?’ She wasn’t using it is all I’m saying.”

“Did she owe you something?” I asked.

“I don’t know, probably. I saw that tea and said—” he snatched at the air—“‘Reparationsbitch!’”

I sipped to look away from him. Probably he was kidding, but who knew. Knowing him took learning. He faked séances and cleansings for cash, and he liked it too much for me, but I lied just as low for the pennies I made, and we’d agreed not to judge one another.

The air lightened. The shift was starting.

“Here we go,” said the palmist. He reached his mug across my lap and waited, so I tapped mine to his. “To the Villa’s last homos.”

The changes began in the corner, where a blown lamp healed and lit under an amber shade. Crooked shelves straightened, making the palmist’s books on hoodoo bump around, astrology, chiromancy, divination. Water stains shrank on the popcorn ceiling. The split linoleum floor sealed with soft, plastic zips, bright again after decades of scuffing, and everything chrome in the kitchen gleamed new. The rust on the A/C vanished. When the rough coffee table shined lacquered again, the room settled.

Behind the walls, dead pests moved.

“Are you gonna pretend to get those?” the palmist asked. Always needling.

“Do you want me to?”

“I’m kidding. That’s not why I called you.”

Mug down, he floated to his room, all big shirt and house shorts, light in that way he got when his apartment turned new and he could pretend to live lavish. That happened a lot at the Villas, which was a kind of silver lining; all the ways to pin a moment in place mostly sucked. An event could be sharp or heavy. Loud would do. Put enough people’s rent out of reach and they slammed that hurt down like knives through tablecloth, handles wobbling, families filling the streets. Watch enough leases outlive their tenants and the neighbors dropped their griefs heavy in corners like ballasts. In an average place a reversal was annual, but take a city like Hollywood—Florida, I mean—with streets named for Klansmen and not enough room for the runoff out of Miami, and add a complex like Beachfront Villas, where homeless queers used to come and go like breath until the old house mother who owned it died and they all had to leave, and you had a building that time traveled to its many griefs a few times a week.

The palmist came out of his room in a flowing robe, fried, brassy hair in a scarf that hung down his chest. Eyes behind shades. “Who am I?” he said.

I couldn’t answer.

“Come on. ‘Call me now for ya free tarot readin’!’”

Some kind of island accent, poorly done. Nothing connected.

He tossed his shades against an incense holder. “You never seen Miss Cleo?”


The ginger had one TV. He didn’t watch psychics.

“I worked on her hotline before it went under.” The palmist reached into his sleeves and pulled out a pair of gold rods with bent handles. The longer arms arced like windshield wipers. “Anyway, these are the real surprise,” he said. “They’re called dowsing rods. Gold, aren’t you gagged? Just sit there while I practice. You don’t even have to talk.”


I knew of the palmist before we met. The bench outside my 7-Eleven showed his face and number. This was before I was fired for lifting snacks, the discontinued ones, on those nights when the store traveled back to its shootings in other years, other decades. Enthusiasts paid out for those. When that dried up I tried pest control, a job I lost fast for hoarding sprays and traps and leaving my personal at job sites, for when dead things woke after hours. One of these was the Villas. Senior living. The complex was a two-story square with wraparound balconies, gray-pink like gum off a shoe. Stairs at intervals. A courtyard in the middle with a pool. The front shared a street with a cemetery, which shared a chain link fence with a school. The circle of life.

I didn’t recognize the palmist the first time he called me. By then I was pouring window cleaner and hairspray into old empty bottles with company branding. Light coned from his door under the stairs before I could knock, outlining him. Bleach cooked his hair under a clear shower cap.

“I think it’s rats,” he said. “You got something for rats?”

And eventually he said, “Do people usually fall for this?” and to avoid his eyes I looked at his framed star charts and bowls of crystals, his half-burnt stump of sage. Made my memory click. His eyebrows were blond that night, but it was him. The bench psychic. I would have bought anything then—that the spirits gave me away, or he’d read lies in my aura. Instead he said, “That ‘poison’ smells just like Vavoom Extra Hold.”

I said I’d go, but he offered me dinner. I refused. If I went home full, the ginger would’ve asked whose money had fed me, where I’d put his cut.

But the palmist said he’d pay me to read my palms, which was my first lesson in not expecting him to make a lot of sense. Something about bullshitters sticking together. Something about spotting a closet case a mile away. If denying it would’ve done any good, I was too surprised to do it. He’d moved on, anyway. So I stayed.


The rods spun in the palmist’s fists as he sat next to me. “We’ll start with something easy,” he said. The rods stilled, parallel to each other, pointed at me. He closed his eyes. “Is this man a real exterminator?”

The rods swung apart, their ends almost touching his shoulders.

He peeked with one eye. “Hard no.” When the rods leveled out he said, “Has his bug ruse been profitable?”

They arced apart again.

The palmist gathered both rods into one hand. He reached for his tea with the free one. “I’d ask the rods, but I’ll ask you. Have you used the shit in that bag here at the Villas since I told you not to?”

I followed his eyes to the backpack slouched against the front door.


“Yet you wear that every time you visit.”

He meant my shirt. Green, collared. PEST CONTROL on the back. The one I wore clean over the rags I slept in outside, salt-stiff from wet nights on the boardwalk. “Just habit I guess.”

“Habit, or appearances?” When I shrugged, the rods went up again. “Is this man afraid what the neighbors might think?”

I smacked the rods out of touching. “You’re moving them yourself.”

“Don’t be boring,” he said. “Play along for five seconds. This is my pro wrestling.”

For the second time I thought of the ginger, which I came over not to do. The ginger taught me about kayfabe while I knelt between his sandals. The ones he wore with socks. Wrestlers fought on the screen at my back while the ginger reclined on his futon, head propped to see the TV over me. Light flickered across his face and his posters of women while he watched big men sweat on each other. He would’ve hated the palmist. Too gay. From the moment I met him the palmist dripped color—rings on his fingers, things in his ears. Lavender dye when he got tired of blond. By comparison, the palmist was right: I was boring.

We went a few more rounds. The night stretched under us like an animal getting comfortable. He asked the rods if he should go mint next with his hair or pink; if he should call his sister back; if he missed out on college. He asked if I was packing, and when I interrupted the rods again he asked them if I was always been a prude. They swung apart. He tucked his chin, brows up.

“O dowsing rods,” he said. “This man a freak?”

Their ends crossed.

“Alright, you. I want the most depraved story you got.”

My tea was cold. Bits of hibiscus sloshed in it. I knew what he wanted, but the ginger lived there. “Not tonight.”

“Beloved, give me something.”

He wasn’t going to drop it. I figured I’d let him regret asking, if that were possible.

“A guy I lived with said he only fucked brown guys,” I said. “He said his white cock was a gift.”

The palmist dropped the rods to his lap, out of character. “Now that is some maximum caucacity. Some of us don’t deserve rights.”

I couldn’t look at him. An oscillating fan thumbed his curtains like pages it wanted to turn. The scabs of rust on the rattling A/C would grow in fast-forward like fungal bloom at the end of the night, which I didn’t think I could watch. I said I needed a break and opened his patio door, expecting the screech of old metal. It slid smooth.


The fisherman upstairs, who once had a stroke, told me things about the Villas once, while I crop-dusted hairspray into the tracks of his patio door.

“Used to be a halfway house or something,” he said from under a stained boonie hat. He said some kind of witch ran it then, getting rich off her spells and putting up sick queers who came south to die.

The Villas were still situated in the present when the fisherman called me. All his zombie pests remained dead. I climbed his countertops, shirt over my nose, to spray over the cabinets, where a lizard’s skeleton stared out at me, half-buried in dust like a fossil. A trail connected its bones to other gaps in the grime, like it had moved and died a few times already. I pulled the frosted housing off the halogen tube in the fisherman’s kitchen and shook its dead roaches into the trash while school bells rang across the street.

“Imagine those kids having to see that while they walk home.” He dabbed the fallen corner of his mouth with a napkin, hand shaking. “One guy in a dress, the rest all touching each other. That kind of life has its place. This ain’t Dade. This ain’t the Manors.”

Outside, I watched the kids squeeze down the sidewalk between the graveyard and the Villas, blood fast through a tight vein.

The Villas were bleak in the sun. Cracks in the parking lot, exposed roofing tarps. Snails coating the walls like mosaic tiles. The way the fisherman made it sound, the old gay witch of the halfway house had probably stood right where I was standing, before the building looked so ruined, and I thought my kid self would have traded anything to look up and see someone like her.


Blue light from the pool filled the square courtyard in the middle of the complex. Usually the water was dark with sludge, lights dead.

Bare feet soaking, I checked the time. The reversal could end any minute. I tucked my cell in one empty shoe and leaned back on my hands, thinking about the one time I broke open around the ginger, cross-faded at a party at the house we shared. I was in my feelings about a bad cold snap in my teens, which clogged the local bay with starved, dead manatees. That bay was empty now, but once a year the smell came back, the bay cycling its rot like clockwork. The ginger sat quiet beside me, and I tried to lean on him. He shoved me away before anyone could see.

The ginger was built. Firm. His parents put him up in a house of his own, small but private. Older but paid for. He listed the empty room I moved into, and I scammed for rent while he raked money in wearing FPL grays, coding the grids that kept Hollywood lit. High school wrestling star, he still tossed guys around at a private gym. Kept his house full of weights. We got along fine when I thought he was straight. Long as I thought that, we could drink like buddies, watch TV on his futon, an empty cushion between. But high together after dark, he said Let me just show you instead of describing an old move that put him heavy on me, breath and hair. We didn’t stop what happened. We didn’t talk about it. I kept leaving in bug-man green, pulling in rent I kept wishing he’d refuse.

A sliding door rolled open behind me. I prepared to scatter if I had to.

Crowded as the boardwalk got—often as the tourists shooed me away—the beach was better than who the ginger turned out to be. He dropped me quick, pouring what I had opened in him out for everyone else to enjoy. Left home lots of nights. Brought guys over to love them loud behind thin walls. That much didn’t hurt. I wasn’t attached. It hurt that we were all dark. It hurt to know what he got out of that. A lot can feel like relief after that.

Wind skimmed chlorine off the water. Under that, weed. I turned. The palmist was there, huffing pot down his nostrils at me.

“Tired of my company?” he asked.

I stayed quiet. More wind gasped through the courtyard and his clothes caught it, whipping like flags. The tip of his joint brightened.

“Come back up before the fisherman sees you,” he said, pointing up at the fisherman’s doors. “I figure he’s in there wondering why all the pests you sprayed for are still coming to life.”

So he did know. Like a real mind reader. “I’m sorry.”

The palmist shrugged. “You would’ve had my blessing. I didn’t live the life I lived to see a man like that move into Mother P’s old place.”

“Mother P.”

“Paloma, baby. After that club the Klan set on fire.”

Always doing that. Making me feel a step behind, talking like I was his age, like there were things I should know about gays fleeing Castro or the “citrus bitch” who got pied in the face, or every gay landmark that didn’t exist anymore from here to the Keys. Something about my blank face set him off. “You don’t know shit about shit, huh.”

“Don’t say that to me.”

“Learn something and I won’t have to.” Inhale, exhale. Smoke in the air. He squatted to my level. “You could’ve learned a lot from living here back in the day. Some of the men used to fill this pool would’ve changed your life.” He described their bodies, wall to wall, totem stacked, wet skin on wet skin. He said Paloma would stand at her balcony and watch them while the music played, swishing her fingers like she was conducting it. All love. All family. Those men hadn’t splashed there in years, but I felt like I’d just missed them. Like I caught them toweling off and I was alone in the water, calling out at their backs.

“I think Paloma would’ve liked you,” he said.

“Do you even like me?”

“I’d like you more if you stopped lying to me.”

I had to laugh. “What am I lying about now?”

“I think we both know.”

I snatched my feet out of the water and stood. “I think we both know you’re not a real psychic. You only invite me when the building changes. When you can play rich and wear your costumes. You pretended not to know about the fisherman. Now what? What else are you lying about?”

The pool greened again, algae from edges to middle.

The palmist puffed before answering. “The things I wear belonged to my friends. I feel close to them when everything looks like it used to. Before the Villas became a damn nursing home.” He looked up at me as the pool light gave up and died. “I invite you because I’ve seen you sleeping on that beach.”

The palmist groaned standing up, flicking the burnt roach into the dark.

“You’re welcome to join me, if you’ll indulge another surprise.”

“I’m done getting read,” I said.

“I’m done reading.”

He swept up the stairs, leaving me alone.


Upstairs, the apartment was empty. Everything fixed was broken, rats quiet, lamp out. Somewhere a TV whined that I didn’t know he owned. The palmist peeked out of his room and waved me in for the first time ever, rings flashing.

His room was all framed photos. Handsome men looked out of them, their ghosts still splashing downstairs. The palmist perched his butt on the foot end of a sagging four-poster, squinting at a remote in the light of the tube.

Arms spread over a phone number, the paused image on the screen had to be Miss Cleo. The resemblance was clear.

“I started taping her specials after Paloma died,” he said. “She reminds me of her. Scam though she did, Mother P took her tarot seriously. It’s the one thing I read for real.” The palmist hit play. Cleo said her catchphrase from earlier. “And just last year, she came out as a les in The Advocate. One of us after all. Even had kids with a gay man, before the virus took him.”

I picked up a frame full of bodies.

“Did they all die that way?”

The palmist smiled small. “Not all of them. Not even most. Most of the old queens scattered.”

“Not you.”

“No. Had to pay something forward here at the Villas, I felt like.” A laugh. “Always tryna be someone’s mother.”

Cleo laid tarot like solitaire, searching for futures and people’s kids’ dads. A record player sat quiet next to the screen. All the battered sleeves under it showed names I’d never heard, dead gays he’d tell me all about if I asked, so I didn’t. I was tired. With time, he’d tell me anyway. I hadn’t expected the night to end there. A man’s bed, his flickering TV, his body silhouetted against it. Too familiar. I could smell the ginger’s soap, and his sweat, and his spit. I should’ve wanted to run, but the mattress gave just right under my weight. My eyes drooped. My head fell painfully down to my chest and I started awake. The palmist noticed.

“Lie back, hon. Stay here tonight.”

I shook my head. He told me not to be stupid.

The palmist lowered the volume but left it on. I rolled over under the sound of Miss Cleo’s predictions. Here and there the palmist laughed to himself, the sounds of the callers adding voices to the room.