“Dad’s dead” are the first words of any substance that my sister has said to me in ten years. The phone call came at 5:34 A.M. It started with “hello” and “that is you, isn’t it Jimmy?” and “don’t hang up.” But we came pretty quickly to “Dad’s dead.” Those are the words that stuck.
A few hours, several cups of coffee, and a long shower later, I’m blundering around the condo in a wrinkled pair of jeans and an unbuttoned dress shirt, certain I’m going to forget to pack something I need.
“How long will you be gone?” Erik is finally awake, sitting at the kitchen counter, observing me as I rummage through the clutter on the tables looking for my wallet.
“The funeral is tomorrow afternoon,” I tell him. “I don’t plan on staying any longer than I have to; I should be back by tomorrow night.” I speak in a measured, emotionless tone.
“You’re sure?” he asks. “I mean… If my dad died, I’d probably take a little longer than that.”
“If your dad died, so would I.”
He watches me, his eyes flitting back and forth across the room like he’s following a tennis match. He calls a timeout. “Stop packing for a minute.”
“I can’t, I’ve got a dozen things I need to do before I leave town, I need to get to the bank, stop by the office, and my black suit is at the dry cleaner, and I cannot find the power cord for my laptop…” I close the computer and shove it hard into the bag.
“James, sit down,” he insists as he pulls out another stool for me, so I do. He takes my hand. “Now are you absolutely sure that you don’t want me to come with you? I wouldn’t get in the way with your family; I can get a hotel room and wait for you.”
“No, I don’t want you to do that. I’ll be fine on my own.”
“Fine…” he repeats or responds; I don’t know which. I give him a quick kiss, and a few minutes later, I’m out the door. It was sweet of him to offer to come, but he had no idea what was waiting back home. I barely know myself.
For the entire drive, I leave the car radio off. I worm my way north into the Appalachian mountains in total silence, watching the sun disappear behind the clouds and checking my GPS more often than I really need to. When I climbed into my car and punched in my parents’ address, I was mildly surprised my hometown even showed up. Garney is the smallest incorporated village in Vermont. I still remember, in my last year at Garney Central School (K-6), a social studies project had us looking at the State Census data and making charts and graphs to show what we’d learned.
We had a population of 86 people making up 26 families spread out in 33 households – I could name them all, and I could give you directions. 24% of those people were kids under 18 – 8 of them plus me made up the entire student body at my school, and the other 12 (including my sister Sue) took the bus half an hour to attend high school in Bingham.
There was something I liked about looking at the world this way. There was a sense of objectivity and distance about it. Though a single person amounting to more than 1% of the town may seem like a lot, I had nothing to compare it to, so when I reduced them all to percentages, they seemed small. None of them seemed terribly important. That was probably the first time I thought it might be nice to live somewhere bigger, somewhere where each person was even less significant and less noticeable, including me.
I remember realizing when looking at those percentages just how easy it was put your finger on the “different” people. 4.6% of the population were veterans – that was my dad, Mr. Somerset, Mr. Willard, and Mr. Kenneth, who was missing a leg. 6% of the households in town were below the poverty line – that is, the Walcotts and the Smiths, because Molly Walcott’s father had gambled their money away and Mike Smith had cancer and the medical bills were too much. 3% of the households had a female householder with no husband present – that was Joanne Galloway. Her husband divorced her when she had her baby and the town became only 98.84% white, the newest 1.16% of the town’s population being of two or more races.
Nowhere in these statistics did it say that the town was 1.16% queer, but I had a feeling people already knew that too.
I make my approach to Garney in the afternoon, but it’s dark enough to turn my lights on, a thorough sheet of gray cloud between me and the sun. A thick fog is rolling through the hills and between the firs and spruces and sugar maples, saturating everything. The gray mist makes the place look haunted, which isn’t hard to imagine. Garney isn’t just small, it’s half empty. Make that 58% empty with its 45 abandoned houses rotting quietly in the hills. Garney may not be a ghost town, but sometimes it felt that way. Still does.
On my way into town, I pass by the only five nonresidential buildings. The general store – a grayish shack up a small hill at the end of a driveway of broken gravel. The school, of course, hardly bigger than a house. Finally, three white buildings in order of size ascending, the post office, town hall, and the United Church of Christ. I don’t see a single car on my way through town. I don’t stop until, for the first time in a full decade, I pull into the gravel driveway of my parents’ house. Correction, my mother’s house. I keep forgetting. Last night, 1.17% of the population died.
I step out of the car; the air tastes thick and cold and syrupy. The house, which has the character of a farmhouse but is built against a line of sugar maples instead of a field, looms quietly over me, the dark windows looking down over the long sloping roof, the dormer that was my bedroom jutting out curiously. I’ve gotten so accustomed to the sound of traffic that the quiet feels like a tangible presence. Here there’s only the animals in the woods and the low rumble of the wind through the hills and a subtle rain just starting. I step up to the porch and knock softly. The door opens almost immediately, and there she is.
The first thing I can tell is that Sue has been crying, and I’m sure that she’s just as rapidly aware that I haven’t. She stands at the threshold and pulls her shawl a little tighter. She’s looking at me like a ghost. And like most cases where a troubled girl conjures up a spirit:
“I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
“I told you I would.”
“Well…” she starts, looking away, “I didn’t know.” She steps aside and ushers me through the door.
We spend a few moments studying each other. Sue always had more of a resemblance to our father; I looked more like Mom. My sister’s a little thicker than I am, more roundness in her cheeks, more muscle in her arms, closer to that military physique, while I developed our mother’s slender, feminine figure.
“Where’s Mom?” I ask.
“Upstairs, sleeping. She had a hard night. We were at the hospital in St. Johnsbury.”
“What was it? I mean – what happened to him?”
“It was cancer,” she says. “He’s been sick for the last couple years. Longer than that, I guess, but it was about two years ago that they found it. There wasn’t much they could do.” I nod in understanding, glancing around the foyer that looks no different than it did before I left. “I’m sorry I didn’t try to get in touch with you when we found out.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” I tell her, but she continues anyway.
“I kept meaning to, but Daddy was so weak, and I thought it might just upset him, make things worse. You must hate me.”
“I don’t hate you,” I assure her, and I mean this, although there’s little affection in my tone either. “And I don’t blame you. I probably wouldn’t have called me either. There’s really no point in getting upset about it anyway; it’s done with now. How’s Mom?”
“About how you’d expect.”
“She’s upset, obviously. She’s got a lot on her mind. That’s why…”
“Before you see her, there’s something you need to remember.” Her tone shifts drastically. She’s gone from asking forgiveness to handing down orders. I await them with raised eyebrows. “When you’re in this house, you leave the gay stuff at the door,” she says. She’s rehearsed this, but it’s still coming out wrong. “You do whatever you want with your life, Jimmy, and I really do hope you’re happy, but Mom doesn’t need to deal with any of that. As long as you’re here, as far as mom is concerned, you’re... like she remembers. Understand?”
She says this as though I should have expected no different.
“Sue, I’m not planning on striking up conversations about my partner with Mom, or with you, but I also won’t be pretending I’m straight. What good would that do anyway? Mom already knows I’m gay.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Sue tells me.
“What are you talking about?”
“Dad wasn’t the only one who was sick,” she says. “Mom’s been different in the last few years. Since you left, really, but we didn’t exactly notice it for a while.”
“She forgets things, gets confused. It might be Alzheimer’s. There were times when she’d ask me how college was going and I’d have to keep reminding her I dropped out.”
“You dropped out? Why?”
Sue doesn’t answer. “She’d try to talk to Dad about trips they’d taken together when they were newlyweds that he swears they never went on. She’d ask…”
“She’d ask where you were. Like she expected you to be in the other room. She’d set a place for you at dinner. She never seemed to understand when we’d tell her that we didn’t know where you were, so we stopped telling her that.”
“So what did you tell her?”
“I’d tell her you were away at school. Then after a while, that you were at work, or with friends, or with…”
I know my sister. “With my girlfriend,” I finish. “My wife?”
“It seemed to make sense to her. It made her happy.”
I huff and shake my head. “Fuck, Sue.”
“You weren’t here,” she accuses. “You probably never planned on coming back. So what do you care what I told her?”
“You’re right,” I agree, and perhaps to remind myself, “I don’t care.”
There’s a noise upstairs; we both look. “I should see if she needs help.”
Sue lumbers up the stairs and leaves me in the mouth of the house. It’s the same, down to the earthy color of the walls, the efficient placement of the same unobtrusive furniture. I venture quietly up the carpeted steps, remembering which ones creak and strain, watching the ascending line of photographs in dusty frames hung on the wall. This house was old when I was young. It’s solidly built, with sturdy wooden beams and thick soundproof walls (which, strangely enough, is very significant to my family history). Reaching the top of the steps, I turn and wander down the dimly lit hall until my hand finds a doorknob. I open it and enter the dormer room that I once occupied. Just as I suspected. I’m still here.
Or at least something like me is still here. Someone I once was, or once pretended to be, lives here. Someone who has bits of poetry on torn pieces of paper pinned to the walls amidst paintings of lighthouses. Someone who listens to heavy metal on an expensive stereo system he’s very proud of. Someone who rollerblades, who writes (poorly) and draws (even more poorly). Someone who sleeps in a twin bed under a worn plaid comforter, cloaked in the moonlight coming in through the witch window.
A witch window is an odd thing you don’t see in other parts of the country. In some ways, it’s common – two square pieces of glass put together into a rectangle, one of which opens by sliding to layer with the other – but the whole thing is tilted. It’s slanted at 45 degrees, one eighth of a full turn, a sort of oblong diamond. I remember asking my mother about it once.
She told me that the tradition of building windows this way dated back to the times when witches flew around on broomsticks terrorizing small town folk. Apparently, no witch was quite acrobatic enough to tilt her broomstick to the side. Slanting windows kept witches from flying into your house, along with demons, evil spirits, and whatever else. It kept you safe. It also made the world look lopsided, but you got used to it.
I sit down on the bed and open the window. Just outside of it is the steeply sloping rooftop of the house. I run my fingers along the window frame as my eyes drift over the room where it seems someone still lives, to the bed where he still sleeps, to the rooftop where a few shingles are still broken from when someone else, someone new, took my first steps.
I don’t know if the witch window ever kept anyone from getting in, but it made it very easy for someone to get out.
I should call Erik to let him know I made the trip safely, but there’s no cell reception in the bedroom. I don’t know why I bother to see if there’s a signal in the hallway, on the stairs, in the foyer, on the porch – it isn’t interference, it’s that there isn’t a cell tower for miles and miles. Frustrated, I’m shoving the phone back into my jacket pocket when I look to the stairs and the other 66% of my family is coming down.
My mother stops when our eyes meet. She looks old, but no older than she ever did. Very thin, hair cut short and showing gray, wrinkled skin on her cheeks. I see no immediate signs of the dementia my sister described, but I don’t know what I’m looking for. Just like Sue did, Mom is scrutinizing me as I am her. She cocks her head to the side for a moment, and she squints.
“Oh, that’s my Jimmy!” she says, smiling, and I’m not sure if this is my mother who hasn’t seen me in ten years or my mom who sees me every morning at breakfast. Whoever it is, I meet her at the foot of the stairs and hug her and she hugs back.
“It’s good to see you, Mom,” I tell her as I let her go. She notices me watching her, trying to figure her out.
“What is it?” she asks.
“Nothing! You look good.”
She must recognize my expression, because she looks at me severely and says, “Jimmy, I’m not senile.”
I don’t answer, exactly. Instead I tell her, “It’s James.”
She simply says, “I know who you are.”
The three of us are sitting around the dinner table, and I’m wondering if the silence we’re sitting in has more to do with my father or with me. All I know is I’ve been back in Garney less than an hour, and in that time I’ve managed to be drafted under a Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy as the son of a potential Alzheimer’s patient.
“What time are we getting things started tomorrow?” I ask. “The wake, I mean. What time should I get here?”
“Get here?” Mom asks with a furrowed brow. “You’re here already.”
“I booked a room in Lyndonville, it’s not far,” I tell her.
Sue doesn’t object, but Mom does. “None of that, why would you stay in a hotel when you have a bedroom here?”
“I didn’t think I did.”
“Why wouldn’t you? It’s where you always sleep when you visit.”
“When I visit…” I repeat. Mom is eating her pasta casually. “Mom, how long has it been since I was last here?”
“Jimmy,” Sue cautions.
“Oh I don’t know…” she says. “I know it’s been a while… You should come more often.”
“It’s been a couple months, hasn’t it Mom?” Sue asks her. Sue gives me that look again. I’m a ghost, and though I may have been invited, I don’t belong here.
“Well, yes, I suppose that sounds about right. Well, anyway, we haven’t done anything new with your room since then, so it’s all yours.”
“Mom,” Sue says, “if Jimmy already booked a hotel room—”
“Enough of that. Your father won’t have you staying in a hotel room!” Sue and I exchange a glance. She goes first.
“You’re right. Jimmy should stay here.” But that’s not enough for me.
“Mom,” I start. “You do realize Dad won’t have any opinion on it at all, don’t you? You understand…”
“I understand perfectly,” Mom says. “I meant to say that your father wouldn’t have wanted you to stay in a hotel room.” She takes a drink. “I’m not senile.”
“I know, Mom,” I tell her. “Though I doubt he would have wanted me to stay.”
“Of course he would have,” she insists. “Your father was always so proud of you.”
My fork stops halfway to my mouth. Sue shoots me a glare warning me against disputing this. Fine. I won’t. I’ll just ask, “Mom… what was it about me that Dad was so proud of?”
My mom cocks her head to the side again, and she smiles wistfully.
“Well what’s not to be proud of?” she asks. “Most of the kids that grow up around here wind up working right out of high school if they even graduate, so how do you think he felt when you went to the university? You know you’re the first one in the family with a college degree.”
“Wow!” I say, slapping the table lightly. “I guess that’s something. Which college was that again?”
Mom tries to remember. Sue grinds her food uncomfortably for a few moments, not looking at either of us, before mumbling, “University of Vermont.”
“University of Vermont,” I say, nodding, reasonably impressed with my hypothetical self. “Well that’s not too bad at all. And I did pretty good, didn’t I?”
“Well they don’t give those scholarships for nothing,” Mom points out.
“They sure as hell don’t,” I agree.
“Watch your language,” Mom tells me.
I can’t help laughing a little. So far, I’ve gone to the college my father wanted me to go to and paid for it the way he told me I’d have to. I venture, “Sorry, Mom. I guess you just get used to cussing in the banking business.”
“Stock business,” Sue mutters.
“Right, that’s what I said.” I don’t miss a beat.
“I just wish…” My mother’s voice starts to break. “I just wish he were here to tell you.” And suddenly it’s not funny anymore. “I wish he had lived to see his grandkids. You’ll have to tell them about him.” She’s looking at me. “Have you two started thinking about getting married? Having kids?”
“Mom, Jimmy probably doesn’t want to talk about that now,” Sue says, but my mother and I both ignore her.
“Us two?” I ask. “You mean me and…”
“And Jennifer, of course.”
“Jennifer,” I say, and I try to imagine Jennifer the same way Sue imagined the rest of it. Jennifer is pretty, but not fake. She works full-time now, but she’ll probably cut down on the hours when those grandkids roll around. She’s normal and respectable. She’s someone who can talk sense into me and keep me from doing anything stupid.
“Actually, Mom,” I tell her, “Jennifer and I broke up.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Mom says. “Well, honey, she just wasn’t the one for you.”
“You are so right about that, Mom, you have no idea,” I tell her.
“But you should try to make the time to meet people. I hate to think of you being all alone in some big drafty apartment.”
“I’m not alone, Mom,” I tell her. And I don’t know why, but suddenly I can’t help myself. “Actually, I live with someone else.”
“Really?” Mom asks, brightening.
“Damn it, Jimmy,” Sue snarls.
“Language!” Mom snaps before turning back to me. “So who is it?”
“His name’s Erik,” I tell her. I let it sink in. Sue looks ready to perform an exorcism. Mom, though, as I’d dared to hope, really doesn’t look surprised. Her head cocks to the side.
“Well, I’m relieved,” she says.
“You are?” Sue asks hesitantly.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you?” I ask her.
“Of course I understand!” she belts out with surprising force. “I’m tired of people asking me if I understand things, I understand everything! And yes, I’m relieved. Your father would be too. I know we may have been old-fashioned, but I never lived with your father before we were married. Your father only had men for roommates until we were married, and I only stayed with other girls. These days you see men and women moving in together all the time and you see what happens. Well I’m glad that you’ve got more sense than to do that, Jimmy, and a nice girl is going to like that too.” She starts to trail off, gathering noodles on her fork. “I’m not senile…”
I give up. Sue settles down.
“Yeah, Mom… I know.”
I have to drive out of town after dinner to get a decent signal. Once I’m gone, though, I hold off on trying the call, relieved when Garney disappears around the bends of the twisting highway. About fifteen minutes into the drive, I realize I’m halfway to Bingham. Bingham is bigger than Garney, but only in that every town in the state is. Still, you can get lost in the faces if you try hard enough. I went to high school there, until I didn’t. There was a bar that served liquor to underage kids. Maybe they serve adults too.
When I pull up, for a moment I think the place must be closed. Inside, I’m 20% of the customers. The others are sitting in the dim glow of hanging lamps in torn vinyl booths. I sit at the bar, order a drink, and make the call.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“No,” Erik says. “I was worried, I thought you’d call hours ago.”
“I couldn’t get a signal in town, and things… things got a little weird at the house.”
“What do you mean? How’s your family holding up?”
“They’re…” I search for words. “Grieving, I guess. You know, the way people grieve. At least I assume. I’m not sure there’s any way to tell.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean it could just be her acting how she knows she’s supposed to act.”
“My sister. With her… everything is just how it’s supposed to be. Even me.”
“James, you’re not really making sense to me.”
And I’m not really listening to him, either. I’m talking to myself. “It’s like she has this entire life made up for me, other schools, other jobs, other people, and my mother’s going crazy enough that not only does she believe it’s true, but she thinks I’ve been here the whole time!”
“Can you blame them, really? You never told them where you did go to school. You never told them where you really work. You never told them about me.”
“That’s right, I didn’t,” I say, remembering my conviction, “and there’s a reason I didn’t… Fuck it, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Because I love you. And I love our life, and that they don’t have anything to do with it. I slipped up tonight. I forgot about that. I don’t want to talk about them with you.”
“Really?” Erik asks me. “Because I love you too. And to me, that means that anything that you care about is something I should know.”
“Well, you can scratch my family off the list.”
“James, that’s horrible.”
“Then you love a horrible person.” I take a drink and we both pause while I rub my eyes. “Look, I’ll be back tomorrow night. And if you love me, all I want is for you not to mention my father, my family, any of this. We’ll go on as if it never happened.”
“If that’s what you want.”
“It is.” We hang up, and I drink in tiny sips, putting off the drive back.
The place is full of the smell of cigarettes and peanuts and beer, but at least it’s quiet. Just the soft murmuring from the booths, the hum of the lights. Then, I hear the door open behind me, two sets of footsteps, and a voice. I can’t make out what he’s saying, but there’s a particular hurried quality to the rhythm of his words, an unmistakable edge to his tone. I turn, and I’m right. The speaker is Freddy McCann.
Freddy was the only other student at my high school who also came from Garney. He wasn’t terribly bright, and he had somehow already managed to get a criminal record and a drug habit by the time we went to Bingham. Still, he had an uncanny ability to divert attention from his own shortcomings.
Everyone in this part of the country hears more in school about the witch hunts in Salem than we really care to. Every gay kid between the ages of eight and eighteen is aware that those hunts are re-enacted on a daily basis in the halls of every public school in the country. Now, as then, there are strange, different people in the midst of the normal ones. Accusations fly. Most of those accused are innocent, but in either case, denying the charges does very little good. The difference is, now, some small percentage of those accusations are correct. Freddy McCann was one of those high-school fag hunters, and since we’d grown up together, gone to elementary school together, he already had my scent.
He sees me when I turn to look at him. He stops walking, and so does his friend. He looks me up and down, and my expensive clothes and my expensive watch and my expensive haircut somehow don’t protect me. He’s wearing torn jeans and a stained T-shirt. His hands are dirty from work, his eyes are bloodshot, and he looks tired. Moreover, if he’s here, it means he never made it out of Garney. I made it. He didn’t. And yet, here I am feeling like a scared child all over again. Are ghosts supposed to feel haunted?
Freddy only pauses a moment. The recognition is clear, but he doesn’t acknowledge me. He neither says hello nor drags me to the bathroom to shove my face into a urinal. His friend asks him who I am, and as they move for a booth, Freddy says, “No one.”
Something Erik said comes back to me. That if the brother and son that Sue and Mom have is one that Sue invented, it’s at least in part because they don’t know who their real brother and son is. As far as my family, as far as Garney is concerned, Freddy is right. He’s put his finger on precisely who I am. And I should keep it that way.
I don’t sign the guest book sitting on a podium in the vestibule of the white clapboard church where the funeral is about to commence. I just count the names and do the math; almost 60% of the town is in attendance, or at least stopped by to pay their respects in the currency of comfort food. Looking into the congregation hall, I estimate about 75% of those who signed the guest book stuck around for the ceremony. 100% of the military veterans are still here, some in dress uniforms that don’t quite fit them anymore. The rest are friends of Sue’s, friends of Mom’s, friends of Dad’s, probably in about equal portions. Then there’s me, the ghost. The blank line in the book. No one.
I straighten my tie and button my jacket as I advance down the center aisle and find Sue sitting in the second pew in a conservative black dress. I sit down next to her. “Where’s Mom?”
“Fixing her makeup. She wants to look good when she gets up to give the eulogy.”
“Mom is giving the eulogy? Is that a good idea? Suppose she forgets he’s dead halfway through it, what then?”
Sue doesn’t answer, and a few minutes later, my mother steps up to the lectern. As she looks down to her notes, her head cocks to the side a bit and she eyes the paper through her bifocals. Finally, the hall quiets and she speaks into the whining microphone.
“Thank you all for coming to honor my husband’s memory. I know Bill would have been happy to see so many of you here…”
So far so good. She knows he’s dead.
“…Bill was a more than a good father, a good husband, and a good friend. He was all of those things, and he was a good man.” She looks down at what she’s written. “Bill was one of the bravest men this town has ever seen. He proved that when he served his country in World War II. He used to say…”
“World War II?” I whisper. “Was Dad even born yet? I thought he was stationed on a base in the U.S. during Vietnam.”
“Grandpa fought in World War II,” Sue reminds me. “Mom gets that mixed up sometimes.”
“… and after we were married, he said he had to take me back to Paris with him for our honeymoon to show me around the city he liberated. He showed me a lot on that trip, and he never stopped showing me…”
“Grandpa and Grandma again?” I ask in a hushed tone.
Sue leans over and whispers back, “No, she saw something like that in a movie one afternoon, then at dinner she started telling me the story like it happened to her. It seemed to make her happy, so I still ask about it once in a while.”
“… but the most important thing in his life was his family. He showed me more love and devotion than most women will ever know, and nothing made him prouder than his children. I still remember his face when he sent his son off to college…”
I can’t quite stifle this one; I scoff. I lower and shake my head, muttering, “Bullshit.”
“Quiet,” Sue elbows me. “I want to hear.”
I don’t say anything else, but I’m not listening either. I don’t want to hear what happened the day Dad sent me off to college with a pat on the back and some gas money in my pocket. No, I remember what really happened.
And even if Mom doesn’t, I know Sue does too. She couldn’t forget that day in the middle of her Spring Break. She’d taken Mom out to town to go shopping since my father had to be at work and I had to be at school. They were supposed to be out for the whole day. That day, no one was where they were supposed to be. That day, the demons, the evil spirits, the witches all came in.
Mom had gotten sick in the mall and Sue drove her back home. When they came in, there were noises coming from upstairs, barely audible through those ancient walls. Sue told me later that night that Mom immediately exclaimed that someone had broken in. She grabbed a little marble statue, gripped it like a bat, and charged up the stairs.
Catching the scent of freshly smoked pot, she threw open my door, and there I was: shirtless, pants unzipped, sitting on the edge of my bed while my first boyfriend, Kevin (more than shirtless), was on his knees in front of me. She screamed so loud and Kevin was so startled that I’m probably lucky he didn’t bite my cock off, but nothing felt lucky right then.
I jerked back, zipping up my pants while Kevin grabbed for his clothes and my mother dropped the statue. By then Sue had come up, and she screamed too. Mom took off down the hall, desperate for shelter from what she’d seen. It had always been her habit when stress got too much; she would run into her bedroom, lock the door, and hide. I followed her down the hallway, begging her to let me explain, though I have no idea what I would have said if she had stopped. Sue was trying to stop me, but I couldn’t make out her words over the piercing wail. Then, Mom opened the door.
There, his hands gripping the far-apart ankles of a different woman screaming a different scream, was my father, thrusting and thrashing into a crotch that was not my mother’s on top of a bed that was.
Mom’s scream got louder, finally attracting my father’s attention. He turned, yelling my mother’s name, gathering sheets around himself as he came to the door and noticed me, half dressed, and Kevin emerging from my room.
Trying to describe what happened then would be like trying to describe the minute physical details of an explosive chemical reaction. It’s too fast and too chaotic. You’re better off just cataloguing what elements and compounds went into it and what came out at the end. What occurs when you mix equal parts adulterous husband, screaming wife, naked mistress, desperate daughter, gay son, and stoned boyfriend? What comes of this?
It ends with my mother collapsing unconscious, dissolved into the mixture, and Sue trying to wake her up. Furniture is broken, pictures torn down, walls punched through. Kevin and the mistress vanish, evaporate from the reaction. I’m bruised from a hard trip down the stairs; blood is pouring from my nose and a gash above my left eye that will leave a scar, and then I’m running through the woods behind my house. My father is chasing me, but he gives up.
In high school, they taught us that one difference between a physical change and a chemical one is that a physical change can be reversed, and a chemical change can’t. But some people will still try.
When I returned to the house that night, my father was there. He was sitting in the living room, staring at nothing. I went straight for the bathroom, cleaned my face, then to my room to put on a shirt. When I came back down the stairs, Sue was waiting for me. She said loud enough for my father in the next room to hear, “Come to the dining room. Dinner’s ready.”
Sure enough, my mother, a wide and genuine smile across her face, had already set the table and was bringing plates of food from the kitchen. We all sat down nervously, wondering whether the meal was poisoned. My sister said grace; my father and I didn’t say anything. My mother flattened her napkin across her lap, smiled as she cocked her head to the side, and asked, “So… what did everybody do today?”
“Would you snap out of it?” Sue elbows me again. The eulogy is over. My mother has disappeared into a crowd of condolers, and in a few minutes, four men (50% military, 50% volunteers) will bear the casket to the cemetery outside. Sue and I stand up and make our way toward the aisle as I try to spot my mother.
When I do, she’s crying lightly on the shoulder of another woman. They’re in the middle of a long embrace. I can’t immediately make out who the woman is. She’s about ten years younger than my mother. Dark hair, though very likely dyed. It isn’t until they pull apart that I see who it is. Joanne Galloway.
“You have got to be kidding me.” I stop in my tracks. Sue stops with me and looks at me curiously. I point to my mother and Joanne. “What the hell is she doing here?”
“She came with Mom.”
“Last time I saw her she was coming with Dad,” I remind my sister. “I can’t believe Mom is even talking to her.”
“They talk all the time,” Sue informs me. “They have coffee. They play bridge together. She’s Mom’s best friend.”
“Then what Dad and Joanne did, what Mom saw, everything that happened—”
“Didn’t happen,” Sue finishes my sentence for me. Then she walks away and I’m left bewildered. I think to myself, Lucky us.
An hour later, the sun is in the Western sky and my father is in the ground. I’m leaning against a tree on the edge of the cemetery grounds watching my mother on the side of the road bidding farewell to those who stayed for the burial. Sue, barefoot and carrying her high heels, approaches me.
“What are your plans now?”
“I’ll see you and Mom home and then I’m heading back to Boston.”
“I want to ask you for a favor,” she begins. The only thing I expect her to ask me for is to never come back. “I want you to stay another day or two.”
“I need your help. You’ve seen how bad Mom has gotten. I can’t trust her to be on her own… I found her a seniors’ community that I think she’d be very happy in. With Dad’s life insurance and his death benefits from the army, she’ll be able to afford it for a long time.”
“You want me to convince her to go?”
She shakes her head. “No. She wouldn’t listen to you any more than she’d listen to me. And the word of one person won’t be enough for the doctors to declare anything, but if you came with me… if we both told them the state Mom is in—”
“Holy shit.” I stop her as it all comes together. I push off from the tree and pace. “You want to have Mom committed. You want me to help you have Mom committed.”
“You don’t have to say it like that.”
I burst into an exasperated laugh.
“What?” Sue raises her voice.
And so do I. “You know something, Sue, no matter how you say it, things are what they are. You can call it a ‘senior community’ or whatever the hell you want to, but if Mom doesn’t want to go, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re forcing her into a nursing home!” I’m gesturing wildly now. “And before you try to convince me it’s for her own good, you should know I think you’re about as fucked in the head as she is!”
“Oh, so you think you know anything about me, or about Mom? We didn’t get a word from you for a decade and now you’re going to step in and take charge? Fuck you, Jimmy!” she shoves me with both hands.
“Fuck you!” I shove her back.
“Watch your language, both of you!” my mother shouts as she storms up, stepping between us. “What were you two fighting about?”
“We weren’t fighting,” Sue says with a sigh.
“Don’t you lie to me! That’s it, I’ve had it up to here with both of you! No TV tonight. You think I don’t know fighting when I see it? I’m not senile!” She turns and stomps toward Sue’s car.
Sue and I wait for a few moments and settle in the wake of it all, and then we both start chuckling as we walk after her.
“Thanks a lot, you got us in trouble,” I tell her.
“You did, foul mouth.” We laugh and sigh at the same time. “Please, just stay one more night and think about it.”
“Fine,” I agree. “One more night.”
I’m sitting precisely where I was ten years ago, cross-legged on the carpet in a slanted rectangular island of moonlight in the darkness of my bedroom. I can’t sleep. I couldn’t then either.
My nose still bleeding intermittently, one eye swollen shut and throbbing, my mind still swimming with the panic of the day. What preoccupied me, though, was not the pain and terror of the discovery and the violence that followed, but that as I ran through the woods, I felt relieved. After seventeen years, I was finished pretending. No more lies, no more stretching and skewing myself to fit into the crooked boxes the world deemed appropriate for me. By the time I got back home, that relief was almost all I felt. Then, at dinner, I learned that I may have stopped pretending, but that only meant that my family was about to start.
Then I heard it, a tiny strike against the glass, a flit of shadow like an insect. Another pebble hit my window, and I stood and ventured through the darkness of the room. Kevin was standing on the lawn. He didn’t have to say anything. He wanted me to come with him. He wouldn’t pretend anymore, and neither would I.
I opened the window, upward and sideward, took one last look around my room, and became me.
As I remember it, I follow my old footsteps, and now I’m sitting on the bed, looking out the window. There’s someone on the lawn. This time, it’s my mother, standing alone and staring at the sky. This time, I leave the window closed; I take the stairs.
She’s waiting. “Mom, what are you doing out here? It’s the middle of the night, come back inside.”
She refuses. “I want to walk down and see your father’s grave again. Will you walk with me?”
We spend the next twenty-minutes walking the empty streets in soft starlight. We turn the corner onto the main road and before long, we’re passing Town Hall, we’re passing the Church, and a pickup truck with a rattling muffler rolls by. It’s strange to see any traffic in town at this time of night, but I forget it as we reach the cemetery. We walk to the patch of earth that covers the body of my father.
“He’s really here, isn’t he?” she asks me. “It’s all over.”
“Yeah, Mom, he’s really there.”
“I’m going to miss him,” she says softly.
I pity her more now than I have before. And what the hell, would it kill me to play along just this once? I say it. “He was a great man.”
Then she turns, looks me straight in the eye, and says, “Please, James. No he wasn’t. We both know that.” And she completes the turn and takes a few steps away.
I follow. “Mom… What did you say?”
She looks at me again, straight ahead and never more serious. “He wasn’t great. He wasn’t even good. He was an abusive drunk who cheated on me and drove away my only son.”
It almost bowls me over. “Mom… you’re…”
I blurt out something that sounds strangely like an accusation, “You are not senile!”
“Well, of course I’m not. I’ve told you that a dozen times. You don’t listen.”
I can feel a headache coming on. I wince and rub my temple. “Mom… do you realize that Sue is planning on putting you in a home, whether you want to go or not.”
“I figured as much. She was planning that even before your father got sick.”
“So what do you think is going to happen now?”
“I think that’s up to you,” she tells me. “If you know what she wants to do, it’s because she’s already asked you to help her do it. So you can either stick around and help her, or you can get in your car tonight and drive away.”
“I should help her,” I say, huffing through flared nostrils.
“You’re angry with me,” she observes.
“Of course I’m angry with you,” I tell her. “You’re doing it on purpose! At first I thought it was just Sue, but it’s you! I mean… If you were too crazy to see me for who I am, that’s one thing, but you’re deciding not to, deciding you’ll only see some made-up version of me. Do you really hate me that much?”
“James, what else have I been given to see?”
That makes me pause for a moment, but I come back pretty quickly. “You never wanted to see.”
“Maybe I didn’t, maybe I still don’t. Maybe I’m afraid to. Is that such a horrible thing, to be afraid of something I don’t understand, that might hurt me? And if all it takes to keep me safe is a little… adjustment in how I look at you, is that wrong? There are things that can hurt us. A divorce over your father’s adultery would have hurt me. Having a daughter who’s trying to swindle me out of my house would hurt me.”
“I didn’t know that’s what it was about.”
“Because it isn’t,” Mom says. “I just look at things a little differently, and those bad things don’t get into my life. Come on, James. Everyone does this.”
“I don’t,” I declare.
“Oh really?” she challenges.
“Why do you think I left? I didn’t want to live pretending I was something I wasn’t anymore, even if it might have made it easier on everyone including me. I didn’t want to go on lying to everybody, especially myself. And if that’s what it took to be part of this family, then I didn’t want to be part of it anymore.”
“Ah, so that’s why you left,” she nods. “Well then that only leaves one question. If you don’t want to be part of this family anymore, why did you come back? Why did you insist on trying to tell me about your lover last night? Why did you fight with your sister over what to do with me? Why not let it all go?”
I’ve been trying to answer that question for myself for the last twenty-four hours. All I’ve come up with is, “I don’t know.”
“I think you do.” She reaches up to put her hand on my downcast face and says tenderly, “But if pretending makes it easier for you, then that’s just fine by me.” And a few moments later, she decides, “We should be getting back.”
My head is swimming as I try to decide what I’ll do when we get back to the house. All I know is, as I look over at the old woman next to me, I don’t feel so separate, so detached, as I’ve been trying to feel. As hard as I try, I can’t see us as 2.3% of the town’s population or 66% of the remaining members of our family. I see us as two people, and each of us a village unto ourselves, populated with each other and everyone else we’ve ever loved. And for the moment, I can’t deny it: some percentage of me is her.
We’re halfway between the church and Town Hall when I look up to the sound of a third set of footsteps, and I see him approaching on the roadside. He quickens, and in the scant light it isn’t until he stops a few feet away from us, blocking our path, that I see it’s Freddy McCann. At the same moment, I see the gun.
“Stop right there and give me all the money you have on you,” he demands as my mother and I approach.
Last night, I might have thrown him my cash, my cell phone, my watch, my credit cards, whatever it took to make him go away. Something’s different now.
“Freddy, what do you think you’re doing with that?”
“I’m robbing you, rich faggot, what’s it look like?”
“It might have been smarter to rob someone who doesn’t know your name and address, or at least wear a mask,” I tell him. “You realize we’re just going to tell everyone.”
“And who’s going to believe you?” he asks as he raises the revolver at me. “Everyone knows your Mom is crazy and you’re a queer.”
“I think the police will believe me.”
“Then maybe I’d better just shoot both of you right now. Give me your wallet.”
I try to run the odds in my head. There’s a chance that Freddy might not be bluffing, or that he might be drunk or high enough to do it by accident. Is this the way it ends for me? I venture out into the big scary world, then come back to the smallest town in the state to get shot on the side of the road? Is Mom wondering the same thing? She hasn’t said anything yet. I glance to her briefly and I see a change in her face that no one else would notice.
She looks at Freddy. Her head cocks to the side, and she squints.
“Freddy McCann, what have you got there?” she says with a smile.
“It’s a gun, don’t tell me you’re that crazy,” Freddy says.
“Did your daddy buy that for you?”
Freddy’s face floods with confusion. “Just give me the money!”
“I saw you staring at that for ten full minutes in the general store yesterday, and I said to myself—”
“This is not a toy, it’s real!”
“I know!” she stretches out her vowels. She’s humoring a seven-year-old.
He gives up on her and sticks the gun right in my face. I can smell the metal.
“Mom, this is not the fucking time for—”
And then my mother slaps me hard across the face, stinging my cheek which brushes against the barrel of the revolver as my head moves out of its sights.
“Young man, I have warned you about that language!” she yells.
Even Freddy is surprised enough by this that he steps back. I’ve barely regained my wits when my mother’s fingers clamp around my ear and drag my head downward.
“Now, Freddy, I’m sorry but Jimmy knows perfectly well not to use words like that.” She’s walking, still gripping my ear, the rest of me hunched over in tow. “Now he’s not going to be able to play outside today, so you’ll just have to finish your game after school tomorrow.”
Freddy is so shocked by this display that he doesn’t do anything when my mother walks away from him. She doesn’t let go of my ear until we’re halfway home and well out of sight.
“That really hurt,” I tell her. I’m holding the side of my head as we step onto the front lawn of the house.
“Then maybe you’ll learn,” she tells me. We stop and look at each other. “Now what?”
“Now… I’m going to get in my car and drive home, home to my partner, Erik, and I’m not coming back. And it isn’t because I want to keep Sue from swindling you. It’s because I still don’t want anything to do with this place and all the bull… all the lies. I just don’t care about any of it.”
My mom smiles and gives me the same look she gave Freddy when he insisted the gun was real. She reaches up to put both hands on my cheeks, pulls me down to kiss my forehead, and tells me, “Good for you.”
I leave Garney for good – again. As I make the three-hour drive, I think back to the first time I left home forever.
We didn’t have a car, Kevin and I. We moved on foot. I didn’t care where as long as we didn’t stop moving. I couldn’t help feeling that Garney was following us, always just around the last bend of the road, looking to drag me back like some creature from the deep. Days of movement didn’t alleviate the feeling, and even having to scrounge for food and wash ourselves in streams didn’t make the prospect of being taken back home any more appealing. I think if we’d had the chance, we would have walked clear across the country, hit the beaches somewhere in Oregon, and started swimming.
We didn’t make it that far, but we did get clear across the state. Finally, coming into a small town in the middle of the night, we stopped to rest in a park. My feet and my stomach were aching and I could hardly keep my eyes open. We found a comfortable patch of grass. Kevin lay down and I lay down next to him and he held me while I fell asleep.
Sometime later, while it was still dark, I woke to Kevin shaking me, and the first thing I saw was the spinning squad car light. Two policemen were exiting their vehicle. Kevin was already running. I took off after him and the police came after me. They yelled for us to stop, that they weren’t going to hurt us, but I had been dreaming about a monster with eighty-five tentacles reaching for me out of the darkness. They followed me.
We reached a tall fence at the edge of the park. Kevin scrambled up it and I went after him, but he was faster than me. I was still cutting my fingers on the cold chain link when the tentacles took hold and dragged me to the ground. Kevin landed on the other side, and he kept running. I never saw him again.
The police took me to the station and sat me down to ask me questions. How old was I? Was I on any drugs? Why was I running? I answered them all, and I told the truth.
Then, I suppose when they realized they wouldn’t be charging me with anything, they finally got around to asking: “Where do you live?” Without thinking, I told them I didn’t have a home. Then they asked how they could get in touch with my parents, and I knew there was only one way to answer:
“I don’t have any parents,” I said, and the officer looked at me curiously. I told him, “I’m an orphan,” which was true, in a sense, if you decided to look at things a certain way.
They let me spend the night in the shelter of an empty jail cell and gave me a meal in the morning. Then they gave me the addresses of soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Burlington, which wasn’t far.
And here I am again, back where there’s traffic in the middle of the night, and I’m going to do it all over again, just how I did it before. Only this time, I have my mother’s blessing. And why not? I’m following in her footsteps.
I enter my darkened condo and shut the door quietly so that Erik doesn’t wake up. For his part, Erik will do as I asked, even if he doesn’t understand why. He won’t force me to talk about Garney, about my father or mother or sister. Tomorrow, life will go back to normal. I, parentless, will continue on, and we will never speak of this again.
In the living room, I drop my bags and walk to the east end, and without knowing why, I drag the broad heavy curtains all the way to the edge and reveal the full window wall. With nothing between me and the world now, I look out a shadowy geometric mess of rooftops and fire escapes and streets and parallel parked cars until a glow appears on the horizon, and something starts to happen.
I feel weak. I lean my head into the glass, and before I can catch myself, I’m crying. I kneel down, tears streaming down my cheeks, heaving breath, wincing as my eyes sting and my nose fills up and I’m gasping for air. A voice keeps telling me that this is ridiculous, that I don’t care, but I can hardly hear it over my own sobbing. I don’t notice that Erik is awake until I realize he’s kneeling at my side and putting his arms around me.
“Erik,” I cry. “My dad is dead.”
And he holds me and I hold him and we talk as the room fills from floor to ceiling with the gentle morning light.