Henry

In Issue 77 by Bill VanPatten

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Photo by nikwaller on Adobe Stock

Henry Baker sat in his wheelchair outside the Caring Hearts assisted living facility in Mañana under the shade of a tree that he reckoned might be almost as old as him. Then again, maybe not. He was eighty-five and the home was built in the early 1950s, so unless the tree was already here, it may be only about seventy years old. He remembered when the building went up. His grandpa was moved into it after his grandma died, Henry’s parents saying they couldn’t take him in on account of space. They were, after all, a family of three living in a two-bedroom home with just one bath. He visited his grandpa often, listening to stories of “the old days” and being warned about getting on in years.

“It creeps up on you, you know? One day you’re running with the kids down the dirt road to a pond and then another day you feel the stiffness in your joints. Your eyes get weaker, and your life slows down.” He clucked his tongue to keep his dentures in place. “Yeah, it ain’t no picnic, Henry.”

In those post-war days of Eisenhower, Henry couldn’t imagine being as old as his grandpa. Now here he was, in the same facility, and as fate would have it, living in the same room his grandpa had occupied. Eisenhower was long gone, and some asshole named Trump was in the White House. Henry hadn’t voted for him. A lifelong Democrat, he kept his politics to himself in this part of the Central Valley, the farmers and locals leaning toward conservative values that he didn’t share. There was lots he didn’t share, but this was where he grew up, this was where his roots were, and while he could have moved to Los Angeles or San Francisco in his twenties, he stayed because of Sam.

He felt a presence beside him.

“How ya doing out here, Henry?” One of the caregivers, Jacob Gutierrez, smiled down at him, his wavy dark hair framing a round face.

“I’m good,” Henry said.

“Not too warm for you?”

Henry waved him away. “Nah. Cool as a cucumber.”

“Weather Channel says it’s gonna hit ninety-five today.”

“Lived here all my life,” Henry said with a snort. “Let me know when it’s gonna be a hundred and fifteen.”

Jacob chuckled. “So, you want me to read to you?”

“I’m okay. I prefer to just sit here and think.”

Jacob sat on a bench next to Henry’s wheelchair. “About what?”

“What all old people think about. The past.” He turned to Jacob. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Hmm. Young. Got a girlfriend?”

“No.” Jacob rested his elbows on his knees. “I thought I told you. I’m gay.”

Henry reflected, reached back into his memory bank, poked around. Had Jacob told him? He couldn’t remember. He eyed the young man’s earrings. Two diamond studs embedded in his lobes.

“You know,” he said, “when I was your age, we didn’t use the word gay. Guys were queer. Or homosexual.”

“Yeah. I learned that in my human sexuality class.”

Henry chuckled. “We didn’t have human sexuality classes in those days either. No one talked about sex or anything, even though people were humping right and left.”

“Well, queer is now used in the community in a positive, inclusive way.”

Henry eyed him, one eyebrow arched. “Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I don’t keep up.”

Jacob laughed. “How about you, Henry? Ever marry?”

Henry locked his gaze on Jacob’s, letting a few seconds tick off. “You see anyone visiting?”

Jacob shook his head.

“No wife. No family,” Henry said.

“You ever get lonely?”

“Lonely?” Henry stared off into the distance. After a few seconds, he turned to Jacob. “Wanna hear a story?”

“Sure. I’m all yours, at least for the next hour.”

Henry looked out onto the expanse of lawn—patchy and weed prone due to prolonged drought—and thought of the days when the grass was always green, when there was water, and there was Sam.

“I graduated from high school in 1952 . . .”

***

 It was long past the war and America was busy building itself. Mañana was a two-bit town in those days, not even four thousand people I think, surrounded by barley and cotton fields. You know almonds are a recent crop. Anyway, I wasn’t much for college. I was a good student in school, was well liked by my teachers, and I did like to read. But the idea of more education just didn’t speak to me. My dad kept asking me what my plans were, and I said I didn’t have any.

“Well, you best get yourself some,” he said as he puffed away on his pipe. Tobacco was his only vice. Didn’t like drinking much. He was a mechanic, had done his time in the war, and came back to us a man who’d seen things he hoped we’d never see. He said he could get me a job at his shop if I wanted. I told him I’d think about it.

“Don’t think too long,” he said. “Your momma and me expect you to pull your weight in this house. You’re a man now.”

At seventeen I was a man, I guess, mostly because I’d graduated from high school. I would turn eighteen over the summer and, legally, been a man for sure. An adult anyway. Well, I did go to work with him. Learned the trade and after a year I could just about take a car apart under its hood and put it back together. It was my second year there—I’d just turned twenty—when a guy pulled up in this car that rattled and wheezed like it was on its last leg. It was a 1940 Ford Woody. Green. Back in the day, that was the car to have. The man was a local, but I’d never met him. Well, I could tell right away from the sound it was making that the car had a belt problem. I fixed it up for him while he waited and bought himself a soda from the red Coke machine that stood just outside the garage bay.

After I finished, we got to talking and one thing led to another. Before you know it, I was drinking a beer with him at the local Lantern, a bar not much bigger than the house I’d grown up in. Cozy. Guitar players on the weekend twanging their country songs. Every once in a while one of those Mexican trios would play instead. You must know that music. I don’t speak Spanish, but I liked the nights they played. Added a bit of variety, you know? In the 1950s there weren’t that many Mexicans around, and those that were worked the fields. Not like now. Well, look at you, know what I mean?

Anyway, the man’s name was Sam Caldwell. He was ten years older than me, had just turned thirty, so that was one reason I didn’t know him. Plus, his folks had a bit of money and lived out of town on a big ranch. A thousand acres of cotton. He was one of three boys, the middle one. He’d gone to college. Majored in English, not sure what he would do with that. Maybe teach. But he loved to read. We had that in common. Unlike my folks, his didn’t worry about him bringing in any money. So, he didn’t have a steady job.

“Really? You don’t work?” I asked.

“Well, not in the traditional sense,” he said. “I help my dad with the business. Books. Correspondence. That sort of thing. I think he hopes I’ll take over the business someday.”

He was a good-looking guy, laughed a lot, and never let me pay for drinks. We took to hanging out every week. Some nights drinking. Some nights joyriding, not that there was much to see in sleepy old Mañana. One night we drove out to the pond that had formed by the river. The river always had water in it those days. Not like now. We took a couple of beers and sat near the edge, listening to frogs, hearing an occasional fish jump, the hoot of a barn owl. Out of nowhere, Sam turned to me and said, “You ever get lonely?”

“What do you mean? I live with my folks. I have a job. Hard to get lonely.”

He placed his finger on my chest, right where my heart was. “I mean in there. Is it lonely in there?”

I looked down at his finger, then back up at him. His dark eyes reflected the moon back at me, like they themselves were two little nighttime ponds. I wasn’t sure what I saw in them, but I could sense he had something to say, something to tell me. Instead, he drew his hand away, looked up at the stars, and sighed. He took a long tug on his beer.

“Just ignore me,” he said.

But that night I went to bed, thinking about what had happened. I touched my own chest and thought, Yeah . . .

***

Henry stopped, his gaze unfocused. A fly buzzed around and landed on his forehead, but he didn’t seem to notice. Jacob reached over and brushed it away, and Henry came out of his trance.

“There’s different kinds of loneliness, you know.”

Jacob shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I don’t know if I really get lonely. But sometimes, I feel alone.”

Henry drew his lips together and nodded. “Yeah. Something like that. You can be around lots of people but feel alone. Feel lonely. Sam was onto something.”

 “Sounds like you two became good friends.”

Henry chuckled. “You could say that. The best of friends.”

***

A few months went by, and harvest season came. Sam got pretty tied up helping his dad out, but we still got to see each other about once a week. We went down to the pond one night with our beers. Ha! Seemed like we did that a lot. This time Sam wanted to go swimming. He stood, took off all his clothes until he was buck naked. He had a decent build, no bulging muscles, but proportionate. He looked down at me.

“You going to join me?”

Well, I’d done my fair share of skinny dipping in high school, and I thought why the hell not. I got out of my clothes and stood next to Sam. I was just a tad shorter than him, but a bit more muscular. Probably from all the work and lifting at the shop. We waded into the water. I don’t think the pond was more than ten feet deep in the center, but we were waist deep not too long after getting in. I remember the water was cool, not cold. Refreshing I guess you’d call it. I swam a little and then turned onto my back and floated, looking up at the thousands of stars that pinpricked the night. We didn’t have light pollution in those days, especially out where we were. Sam came up beside me, hooked his arm around mine so that we floated together, my legs pointing in one direction, his in the other.

“You think there’s life out there?” he said.

“You mean in space?”

“Yeah.”

“Can’t think why there wouldn’t be.”

We stayed like that for a few minutes, neither of us talking. Then, he said, “I like you, Henry. You make me less lonely.”

I felt something weird inside myself. Like my heart rate ticked up and my pulse got faster. I gulped just a little.

“Yeah. I’m a little less lonely around you, too,” I said.

I don’t know how much longer we floated. Enough time to see a couple of shooting stars, to hear a train in the distance, to know that something was happening I didn’t understand. Eventually, we unlocked our arms and made way for the shore. It was still warm enough that we could lie on the scrub grass and dry off without feeling cold. At one point, Sam rolled over onto his elbow and looked at me. He traced my mouth with his finger. I let him.

“I would like to kiss you,” he said.

I paused, wanting it but nervous at the same time. Finally, I said, “Well, what are you waiting for?”

He leaned over and gently brushed my lips with his. I felt a stirring in my groin. Then he pressed his mouth onto mine, and before I knew it, we were all intertwined legs and arms. It wasn’t until we heard a car coming down the dirt road that we let each other go and scrambled to get our clothes. But the car veered off down a side road, and Sam and I remained alone.

We simply looked at each other.

“Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you home.”

***

“Wow,” Jacob said. “I did not see that coming.”

“Neither did I. And I was there.”

Jacob looked at him. “So, you’re gay?”

Henry pursed his lower lip and tilted his head slightly to one side. “What? You think I had no life before this place?”

Jacob ignored the tease. “What happened? I mean, did you two become lovers?”

“We didn’t use the word ‘lovers’ back then,” Henry said. “In those days, you had a companion, a good friend. You had to be careful with your words.” He looked at Jacob squarely. “Hell, you can get married now. But back then? You lived behind closed curtains.”

***

Sam and I saw each other whenever we could. We loved going down to that pond at night, lying there, taking in the stars. I had no idea where our relationship would go. How could I? I thought I was the only one with those feelings. There was no Will & Grace, no Modern Family, no Queer Eye. We had I love Lucy and Make Room for Daddy. So, we were on our own, figuring things out as we went. We spent holidays apart, exchanging Christmas gifts the day before Christmas Eve and going to church with our own families on Easter. Even birthdays were spent with our families, and we had to celebrate with each other the day after. My daddy asked me once why I spent so much time with Sam.

“He’s a good guy,” I said. I didn’t let my nerves show. Couldn’t. I quickly added, “A man needs a best friend, don’t you think?”

My daddy eyed me up and down. “I guess. But you’re gonna be twenty-three soon. You need a woman in your life. Raise a family.”

I think my daddy was suspicious. His eyes locked on me, waiting for me to say more.

“Well, when I find the right girl, I’ll let you know.” He never brought the topic up again.

That summer, Sam’s folks were killed in a car accident on their way back from Fresno. He was devastated. I did my best to comfort him when no one was around. I attended the funeral, of course, sat away from him and his brothers in one of the pews, watched as he and his brothers took turns speaking. All of them trembling, holding back tears. Except for Sam. He broke down mid-speech. His older brother had to get up and escort him back to his seat. For the reception, I took a casserole my momma made and set it on the dining table. I watched as relatives and friends visited with Sam, offered their condolences. His face was drawn, with dark circles under his eyes. I felt a bit out of place, you know, like I belonged there because of Sam but not really because as far as everyone else was concerned, I was just a friend. Lord, I wanted to sit next to him, put my arm around him, let him cry on my shoulder in front of those people. That wasn’t possible.

You see, that same year, not too long before his folks died, there was a murder in town. A guy I knew from the Texaco station. I know. There’s no Texaco station now. Used to be right there on Ryan Boulevard where the Union 76 is. It was the only gas station in town in the 50s. Our shop was two buildings away, making it convenient for people with car trouble ‘cause at the Texaco they only pumped gas, changed oil, and did light car work. Anything the Texaco couldn’t handle, we did. That’s how I knew Tommy. That was his name. Kind of a lean fellow, not real tall but not short. He was in his early forties, I think, and people around town whispered about him, talking about how he’d never married and lived alone. But he was a kind soul, never talked about anyone, took in two stray dogs.

Anyway, one day I got word at the shop he’d been found beaten to death over by where the Berenda Reservoir is now. Head smashed in, body bruised up. Looked to be like someone took a baseball bat to him. Police had no clues as to who or why. He was buried over in the cemetery, and I attended the services. Only his folks and a few family members were there. No one from town except a couple of guys who worked at the Texaco. I noticed that nobody cried. It was like they knew he would be dead someday and had always prepared for it. After they all left, I stayed behind. Then I walked up to his grave, no headstone yet, of course. I had no words to speak. I just looked at that mound of dirt and realized there was no place for people like me and Sam in public, that we’d always have to live in secret.

So, at the time of Sam’s greatest need, when he’d lost his mom and dad, when all I wanted to do was put my arms around him and hold him, I could only do that at night, when we were alone. It was all we were allowed. Otherwise, we would wind up like Tommy.

***

Jacob shuddered. “What a horrible thing. That poor guy.”

Henry simply nodded, his thoughts on Tommy. “I took his two dogs, you know.”

“You did?”

“Yeah. His folks didn’t want them. They were going to turn them loose out in the country. So, I offered to take them.”

“That was kind of you.”

“Maybe. I just couldn’t bear the thought of Tommy’s dogs being treated like garbage, something to toss out.” He turned to Jacob. “Tommy loved those dogs. They were his little boys.” Henry could feel the sadness behind his eyes trying to escape.

“So, what happened with Sam? Why didn’t you guys simply leave Mañana?”

“And go hide where? It was 1955,” Henry replied. “Besides, there was the farm.”

***

After his grieving had subsided, Sam took over his daddy’s cotton farm. His brothers had no interest. The older one had moved to Modesto with his wife two years before, and the younger one had joined the army right out of high school. He had to go back to his base in Texas. Sam was left alone with the business. I asked him why he didn’t sell it, and he said out of obligation.

“My daddy worked hard for this land. I can’t just walk away.”

I understood. People born and raised in Mañana were like that. On my days off, I helped Sam with what I could, fixing things, running errands, whatever he needed. I stayed over on those days, and when the sun went down, we’d cook a meal, sit in the living room after cleaning up and listen to something on the radio. The lights were always low, the room bathed in a soft yellow glow. He liked to stretch himself out on the sofa, his head on my lap. I toyed with his hair while we talked with the music in the background. Sometimes I’d read out loud to him. One night, I was reading from Lord of the Flies. It had come out the year before, I think, and neither of us had read it. I finished a chapter and said we should probably go to bed. Something popped into his head. He sat up and looked at me.

“What?” I said.

“Why don’t you come live here?”

I stared. “Live here?”

“Yeah. Everyone knows you work with me on your days off. I can tell people I hired you full-time, that the business is too much to run alone.”

The image of Tommy’s funeral surfaced in my mind. “I don’t know, Sam.”

“There’s plenty of room in the house.” He reached for my hands and folded them in his. “It’s a great idea. Think about it.”

That night I did. He drifted off, his gentle snoring letting me know he was deep into his dreams, and I lay there. The thought of living with the man I loved was appealing. But I knew the town would talk. And what would my folks say? I didn’t sleep much, to be honest. By the time morning rolled around, my heart had won out over my head.

“When should I move in?” I asked over eggs and pancakes.

He smiled, rushed over, and kissed me. “As soon as you can.”

And like that, I was packing up my things the next day. My daddy came to my room and stopped me, of course, asked me what I was doing.

“Sam has asked me to come on full-time,” I said. “He can’t handle the place by himself.”

“Do you need to live there?” he asked.

“Well, it’s the easiest thing.” I turned back to folding the clothes spread out on my bed.

My daddy placed a hand on my shoulder and gently squeezed. “Just be careful, Son.”

He didn’t need to say anything else. Without looking at him, I said, “Does Momma know?”

“I suspect she does.”

I nodded slowly. “I love you, Daddy.”

“And we love you.”

That was that. I moved in with Sam that same day. Took the two dogs, too. He was giddy. I was all smiles. Got into our routine right away—work, chores, fun time. It was the closest thing to being married, I guess. My folks asked for us to come to Sunday dinner after a month, and that became a regular thing. Of course, they never asked about our relationship, but they treated him like he was part of the family. I think they could tell I was happy, and as long as no one in town was wagging their tongues, that was fine by them. Sam loved my mother’s fried chicken and her homemade apple pie.

“My mom was a good cook,” he said once at the dinner table, “may she rest in peace. But honestly, Mrs. Baker. I think you might have a leg up on her.”

She swatted his compliment away and blushed. “Please, call me June.” She patted the back of his hand and smiled.

Daddy always asked us how the business was going. I wondered if he really wanted to know if people were treating us all right or if maybe they’d begun to suspect we were more than friends. I told him all was good, life couldn’t have been better.

“I’m glad,” he said. “I’m truly glad.”

Sam’s brothers never questioned a thing. They didn’t come around much. Well, the younger one was in Texas anyway. Sam got the occasional letter from him, sometimes a long-distance phone call. And the older one, he had his wife and new baby up in Modesto. Sam went to the Christening, but I don’t think they came down to visit but once that first year. His brothers were probably glad he had the help, you know, a way to be let off the hook for leaving him there with his hands full. Technically, the farm had been divided equally between the three boys in their folks’ will. They made an agreement that Sam could stay and run it, keep fifty percent of the earnings and send them each twenty-five at the end of the year. It all seemed to work out.

Lord oh lord, I think the town back then invented the whole idea of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Everyone knew, but no one asked—and we didn’t tell.

***

“You’re right,” Jacob said. “Things are different now. I’ve been out since high school.”

Henry didn’t say anything. He closed his eyes, took in a deep breath. In spite of the drought and patchiness of the lawns, someone had recently cut the grass. He loved that smell. Sweet. Sharp. Yet, he’d read somewhere that the aroma humans found so pleasing was actually a distress call, a chemical shriek at being assaulted as mowers ripped grass blades to shreds. He felt Jacob’s hand on his arm.

“What are you thinking?”

Henry opened his eyes and shook his head. “Oh, nothing. Just drifting.”

“Oh.” Jacob removed his hand. “Sounds like you and Sam had an idyllic life.”

“We did.” Henry turned to face him. “The 50s came and went, then the 60s and all the turmoil of the Vietnam war. The cultural upheaval in the country. Mañana was fairly insulated, so we watched all of that from a distance. The hippies. Women’s liberation. Gay rights. The 1970s came and went, too. Sam and I sported mustaches and bell-bottom jeans. We thought that might be a dead giveaway to the folks around here, dressing like that, but then some kids in the high school as well as those in their twenties took on the same look, so we didn’t really stand out.”

“How about your relationship? Did you ever argue? Fight?”

“Oh, sure. All couples do.” Henry smoothed out some imaginary wrinkles on his trousers. He looked at his knotted fingers, the age spots populating his parchment-like hands. “Nothing serious though. Things didn’t get rough until the 1980s.”

Jacob furrowed his brow. “What happened in the 1980s?”

Henry twisted slightly in his wheelchair and looked directly into Jacob’s eyes.

“AIDS.”

***

It was 1981. I was in my late forties, Sam in his late fifties. His younger brother had died in a military mishap on his base the year before, and Sam was still grieving from that. My own folks were well into their seventies, and I wondered off and on how much time I had with them. We still saw them for Sunday dinners, and I’d swing by during the week and see if they needed anything. Otherwise, Sam and I just kept to ourselves, alone on the farm.

 We had just sat down to dinner one night with the TV news in the background when a report came on about men dying in San Francisco and New York. We both stopped eating and turned to face the television. Tom Brokaw said a kind of cancer was killing people, all gay men. Doctors were stumped. We both got up and moved to the sofa in the living room, leaning in and listening. There really wasn’t much Brokaw reported except that the cancer was rare, seemed to come out of nowhere, and that once diagnosed, death came sooner than later. Sam and I looked at each other.

“What the hell?” he said.

“This makes no sense,” I added. “Cancers don’t target a particular group of people.”

As the months wore on, people talked about the “gay cancer,” and it was a while before information trickled in on the medical front. A virus. Men were transmitting a virus through sex, and it attacked their systems. The cancer and other illnesses were a result of compromised immunity. By then, most people in town had gotten used to me and Sam living together, neither of us married. The “two bachelors” they called us. But when the news of AIDS hit the front pages, I could feel the mood in Mañana shift. People spent less time talking to me, hurrying away with a polite excuse. Some guys I’d known for years didn’t shake my hand anymore. Mothers gently guided their children to the side when I walked by at the local supermarket. Sam’s mood shifted, too. Mostly, he didn’t talk as much, and for a while he refused to be intimate. I confronted him one evening as we lay in bed.

“What’s going on, Sam?”

I could make out his profile in the moonlight that poured through the open drapes. He swallowed.

“I—I don’t know how to tell you.”

I turned over on my elbow to look at him. “Tell me what? We’ve been together for thirty years. We tell each other everything.”

He reached up and wiped at his eye. “I’m afraid of AIDS.”

“Why? It’s just us. We’re not in a big city. There’s no gay community here.”

He swallowed again. “I had an affair.”

My eyes narrowed as I scrunched my face. “What do you mean?”

He finally turned to look at me. “Last year. A guy I met when I visited my brother in Modesto.”

I could feel heat rising in my cheeks.

“It was only a couple of times.”

I sat up, pulled my knees to my chest, and rested my head on my arms. I closed my eyes. What was I hearing? An affair? I stayed that way for a few minutes, Sam not talking, the silence as wide as the big, black universe. I breathed deeply, several times. I lifted my head and looked at him.

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It just—it just happened.”

I bit on my knuckles to keep from punching him. I don’t know if my anger sprung from the fact that he’d slept with someone else or that he could be bringing AIDS into our household. In our three decades, I’d never cheated. Not that there were many chances in Mañana. And I tended not to venture out of town except with Sam on an occasional trip to the Coast or on a business errand he needed help with.

I threw back the covers and stormed out of the room. In the kitchen, I poured myself a whiskey and plopped onto a chair. I heard Sam’s bare footsteps.

“Henry, I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t cut it,” I said. I downed the whiskey, got up and fetched some bed linens. I slept on the sofa that night—if you could call it sleep. My mind was a kaleidoscope of thoughts and emotions turning on each other over and over. I pondered moving. I couldn’t stay with Sam anymore. Those words—I had an affair­­—twisted in my gut with the force of a carving knife. But where would I go? The home was his. I didn’t have one of my own. Maybe back with my folks. They could use the help in their old age.

As these and other ideas tossed about, I heard a thud in the bedroom. I sat up, my ears pricked. Something like a gurgling sound came down the hall. I jumped up and ran, pushed on the bedroom door. He was dangling from a belt in the closet, spit running down his chin. I rushed to him, wrapped my arms around his waist and hoisted him.

“Sam! No! No!”

With all the strength I could muster, I held on to him with one arm and used my free hand to undo the belt around his neck. He dropped into my arms, and we crashed to the floor. He gasped and wheezed. I sat up and cradled his head, stroking his hair.

“Oh, Sam! What were you thinking?”

He coughed several times. “I’m so sorry.” His voice was soft, raspy. “I never wanted to hurt you.”

In the moonlit room I could see the tears in his eyes, watched as they trickled down past the contours of his deepening crow’s feet to disappear into his grayed temples.

“Shhhh,” I said as I rocked. “It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”

Then the sobs came, not from me, but him. He rolled onto his side and buried his head in my lap. I don’t know how long we stayed like that. I held him, and the sobs eventually gave way to sniffling, until finally he was quiet. Holding him like that, having pulled him down from the closet rod, I knew I did it because I couldn’t lose him. He was all I had, and I still loved him. I also knew I’d have to forgive him, that somehow we’d work through it all.

I helped him to bed, then crawled in next to him. I pulled him in and held him until he fell asleep. Eventually, I did, too.

***

Henry stared out at nothing. A few moments passed when Jacob finally spoke.

“How awful.” His voice was soft, soothing.

Henry nodded, slowly, still absent. He felt Jacob’s hand on his shoulder.

“Did it all work out?” Jacob asked. “I mean, you forgave him, right?”

Henry pulled himself up. “I did.” He looked up when he heard the buzz of a plane, a yellow crop duster that flew low over the town as it circled to make its way across the almond orchards. He took in the expanse of blue beyond the cupola of the tree they sat under. “Do you believe in God?”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“Not sure?” Henry scowled. “It’s a yes-no question. Either you do or you don’t.”

“Well, then, I guess I don’t.”

Henry reflected on this, nodding subtly. “Neither do I.”

“Where did that question come from?”

Henry shrugged. “Sooner or later we die. It’s something we can’t avoid. People need to grasp that, to really think about their beliefs.”

Jacob tilted his head. “You afraid to die?”

“I was once. Maybe.” Henry emitted a soft chuckle. “Seen enough death in my life, though. Kind of got used to it.”

There was a pause.

“So, what did you guys do?” Jacob asked. “Was Sam okay?”

“Oh, yeah. There was lots of hand wringing for a week or so before we made it to San Jose to get tested.” He reached up and removed the ballcap on his head that bore the logo of the San Francisco Giants. He stroked his thin white hair, using a trembling hand to push away sweat that had gathered before replacing the cap. “We were both negative. Sam broke down in the clinic office when we returned for the results. Tears of relief.”

“I bet.”

“But in the end, it didn’t matter.” He rubbed his nose with his finger, pushing back a sniffle. “He was gone within the year.”

***

Back then, Fresno wasn’t even half the size it is now, but it was the center of the Valley’s agricultural business. The rich guys who bought and processed raw cotton were there, housed in brick offices, sitting in leather chairs and wearing starched white shirts and ties. I only went a few times with Sam when he needed me. So, most of the time when he had business with those guys, he went alone.

In the fall of 1982, Sam made a routine trip down to Fresno. He heard that other crops were being considered for investment here in the Central Valley, and he figured he needed to talk one-on-one with some of the processors to see where the cotton industry was headed. I had stayed home to oversee the start of harvesting. We always planted in April and then picked the cotton in early October. One day I had come in from talking to one of the guys driving a baler when a police car came down the dirt road to the house, kicking up dust on its way. I stood on the front porch. Two officers got out and approached, asking me who I was.

“I’m Henry Baker,” I said.

“I’m Officer Bullard and this is Officer Dawson.”

I nodded a hello.

“Are you a relative of Mr. Sam Caldwell?” Bullard asked.

I furrowed my brow. “I’m his business partner.”

“Are any of his relatives around?”

“No.” The hairs on the back of my neck rose. “What’s this about, Officer?”

“Mr. Caldwell was killed in an accident on Highway 99 just south of Madera.”

I staggered backward, the world spinning. Dawson reached for me. “Are you okay, sir?”

I lowered myself into a chair. “Where—where is he?”

“His body is in Madera,” Bullard said, “and will be transported here to Mañana as soon as we make arrangements with the family. Are you sure there’s no one we can talk to?”

I looked up at him. I was fighting back tears. “Uh, his parents are deceased. His younger brother died a number of years ago and his older brother lives in Modesto.”

“What about a wife?” Bullard asked.

I wiped at my eyes, then stood. “I live here. I’m his companion. You can talk to me.”

Bullard’s eyes widened slightly with comprehension. “I see.” He glanced at Dawson, who said nothing. “Well, then, we need to know where to send his body.”

I told him that Weldon’s Chapel and Mortuary was the only place in Mañana. I would contact his brother and make all the arrangements.

“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. Baker.”

I took in a deep breath and then exhaled. “Thank you.”

He handed me a business card. “Here’s our information if you need to contact us.” He and Dawson shook my hand and then turned to leave.

“Officer?” I said.

They both turned.

“You said the accident was south of Madera?”

He nodded. “Correct.”

“Where?”

“At Avenue 9.”

Oh, I thought. It would have to be Avenue 9. That’s where his parents had their accident when they died thirty years before.

“Again, our condolences,” Bullard said.

I watched as they climbed into their vehicle and headed out. I went inside and poured myself a drink, then sat at the kitchen table. The house was quiet save for the tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the hallway. I’m not sure how long I sat there before I cracked. I moaned and then dropped from the chair onto the floor and curled up into a ball. The tears came, and came, and came. Eventually, they stopped. Exhaustion overtook me, and I fell asleep on the kitchen floor. I woke up just as the sun approached the horizon, hurling orange fury in all directions. I stood, my drink still on the table. I downed it, then picked up the phone on the wall and dialed Sam’s older brother.

We buried Sam later that week in a plot next to his parents’ graves. Lots of folks attended the ceremony. I sat in the front pew with Sam’s brother and sister-in-law. My parents sat behind me. I was asked to give the eulogy. I stood at the podium, Sam’s casket ladened with flowers to my right, and looked out at the people there. I had already cried so much, I had no tears left for the ceremony. Calmly, I spoke.

“It’s so nice to see so many people here to honor Sam. Many of you know me as Sam’s business partner. His best friend. And he . . . he was my best friend. But he was more than that.” I paused, breathed deeply, and then said, “He was the love of my life. And I stand here before you to say I could never have picked a better person to spend my life with.”

Of course, I went on. But that was the first time either of us made a public declaration about our relationship. It was time. It was appropriate. He couldn’t do it anymore, so I did. I’m sure a few people suppressed a gasp. Most simply listened. His brother closed his eyes and nodded. I ended my eulogy by saying, “I don’t know where Sam is right now. Maybe with his mom and dad. But I will always picture him down by the pond where we fell in love, gazing up at the stars, holding hands. I will remember how he said to me that I made him feel less lonely. Sam, you filled my heart, and I was never lonely. I will carry you with me always. I will not be lonely.”

***

Tears had gathered in Jacob’s eyes. He pulled a tissue from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes.

“You okay?” Henry asked.

“Yeah.” Jacob sniffed a little. “I’m okay. That was such a beautiful story.”

Henry patted Jacob’s knee.

“Did you—did you ever . . .?” But Jacob couldn’t finish his question.

“What? Did I ever find someone else?”

Jacob nodded.

“No. Never had any inclination. Maybe I never completely got over my grief. Or maybe it’s true what some people say that you get one true love in your life. Sam was mine and always will be. No one could ever take his place.”

“So, all this time you’ve been alone?”

“Pretty much so.”

Henry smacked his lips, dried and chapped. Jacob reached for the water bottle. “Here.” He placed the straw against Henry’s mouth. Henry took several sips.

“Thank you,” he said. “Where was I? Oh yes. We sold the ranch. I wasn’t on any paperwork officially, so Sam’s brother said it was the best thing to do. He split the proceeds with me fifty-fifty though, which was pretty generous considering I had no legal rights. I moved back with my parents to help take care of them. Then they passed in the early 90s, one right after the other. First my momma, then my daddy.”

Jacob stretched out his arm and put it around Henry’s shoulder. “You’re an amazing old man, Henry Baker.”

Henry harumphed. “Amazing? For just living?” He turned to Jacob. “I want you to remember something. The worst thing that can happen is to outlive all the people you love. Will you remember that?”

Jacob nodded. “Sure.” He stood. “My hour is up out here. Let’s say I take you in where it’s cooler.”

Henry looked up at the cloudless sky, said nothing, and then let Jacob wheel him back inside. He closed his eyes and pictured the pond, the stars, the coolness of the earth beneath him, and Sam’s hand in his.

About the Author

Bill VanPatten

Bill VanPatten is an award-winning author of four novels and three collections of short stories. As an #ownvoices writer, gay and Latino characters tend to populate his stories. He left a successful career in academia to return to his native California and write full time. On occasion, he still performs standup comedy. He is currently working on his fifth novel as well as additional short stories.

Read more work by Bill VanPatten .