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ceri eagling

New Fiction


by Ceri Eagling

      Gil lay in his boyhood bed, his ears alert for a sign his father was stirring, his eyes closed. It felt both the same and not the same as he remembered. The bed itself hadn’t changed—who else would have slept in it in the twenty years since he had, let alone stayed long enough to shape its topography? If he wanted to, he could probably trace the exact dips his body had made, palms stretched backward against the headboard, soles pressed to the end of the bed till the strain in his muscles took his mind off the strain in his head.
      Instead, he checked off the differences—the yielding touch of his own pillow under his neck and the heft of the queen-sized sheets he'd ironed himself two nights ago, their extra width now crushed between mattress and box spring of the single bed. No doubt the sheets his thrifty mother had favored, scratchy and worn transparent by the time Gil left for school, had outlived her, lurking still in the closet across the hall. He’d opened it last night just long enough to find a balding towel and to wish his last-minute linen grab before he left his apartment had included a couple of those as well.
       The sheets and pillow had shared his taxi seat from Boston to Brookline and poked from under his arm when his father answered the door. He was inside the house before Whit had time to shut his astonished mouth. A glance in the hall mirror showed him a bony forty-five-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, armed like a second-grader for a sleepover. Jesus, he thought, what am I doing here?
       The sun on his eyelids told him his phone alarm would go off soon. He’d set it early, because at eight o’clock, Janet Edmond—who had been Janet Field when they were kids—and Diana something, the assistant rector at Whit’s church would be on the doorstep to discuss What Gil Was Going To Do About His Father. They felt obliged, of course, because they had summoned him. Not “summoned”—they knew enough about Gil and his father to tread with caution. They had “alerted him to their concerns.”
       "Concerns?" he’d echoed yesterday, when Janet called.
       “Well, yes.”
       In the way that “discomfort,” he’d noticed, sometimes meant “agony” in hospital-speak, “concerns” turned out to be church parlance for “nightmare.” The long and the short of it was that Whit had lost his wits, though Janet had phrased it less facetiously than that.
      "How did you track me down?" he wondered.
      Someone at church had remembered where he used to work, and someone there remembered where he worked now. Seek and ye shall find, thought Gil. Less than twenty-four hours after Janet’s call, there he was.
      His phone, blasting a bar of “Where the Boys Are” into the stillness of the house, sent him thrashing through yards of pricey Egyptian cotton cloth to silence it. He should have switched it to vibrate after texting Liam late last night. He should have made Liam choose a different ring.
      A fidgeting sound, followed by more music: Eddie Fisher singing “Oh My Papa.” Gil sighed. One day, Liam would drag his musical references past these YouTube links to the middle of last century.
      Eddie vanished and Liam’s furious voice came on instead. “What is wrong with you?”
      “Gil, listen. ‘Oh my papa, to me he was so wonderful.’ Is that how it was with you? No, wait, ‘Oh my papa, he always understood.’ Is that what I’ve been hearing all these years? Explain, please, I don't understand. What are you doing in that place?”
      Gil took in the plaid bedspread and the dark green rug.
      "Two things! Two things, Gilbert, and then I'm done. When was your father not a jerk to you? That's number one. Number two, the guy is loaded. If he needs help, let him buy it!”
      Gil lay back and closed his eyes again. “Liam, don’t be mad. I got the news, and something—well, OK, duty, I guess I’d have to call it—pulled me back.”
      “Duty?” Liam said. “Hello?”
      It wasn’t a lie, Gil thought, but the whole truth sounded just too pitiful for words. How could he tell his closest friend, who’d listened patiently to so many bleak accounts of Whit’s offenses, that when Janet called, the immediate, the excited, thought that struck him was, My father needs me! This time everything will be all right!
      A door opened on the landing and footsteps passed his room. It was six-forty-five. “Uh, Liam?” he said, “Got to go.” His bathrobe hung in his South End closet, so for now he pulled on yesterday’s clothes and opened the door.
      All indications were that Whit was peeing in the bathroom. If basic procedures, at least, were still in place, Gil felt he could take this on. Did his father use the same no-nonsense comb-and-water treatment to slick down his hair in the morning, he wondered. The same old comb? With the monogrammed silver spine more pocked than ever—and maybe a five-year accumulation of fuzz and scalp grease gumming its teeth now that his mother, Elizabeth, wasn’t around to deal with it?
      One item did seem to have slid off his father’s regimen—no hand-washing sounds followed the toilet flush. As Gil hovered, Whit emerged from the bathroom in a head-down shuffle, fingers plucking his pajama bottoms, hair awry. At the sight of Gil, he straightened in angry recall. “The hell with this! I told you already, leave."
      “Good morning, Dad.”
      Whit walked with greater firmness into his room. “Go away,” he said, before he shut the door.
      His father had not reappeared an hour and fifteen minutes later. Twice, Gil determined to coax him to come down and eat—from the state of the kitchen and shower, it was clear that someone was buying food and cleaning the place—but each time he took a step towards the stairs, the prospect of calm when Diana and Janet arrived prevailed.
      Gil’s phone buzzed in his pocket—a truer reflection of Liam’s mood, he predicted, than “Where the Boys Are,” but it was Liam’s partner, David, who picked up the theme. “We’re worried about you, Gil. Liam’s afraid you’re opening up old wounds.”
      David’s voice carried a bass note of gravity into the kitchen, while Liam’s sounded a shrill descant in the background. “What’s the plan, Gil? What’s the plan?”
      If he had devoted all those late-night hours to soothing a friend through painful memories, Gil knew he would sound shrill too. He began to speak, but the sound of car wheels interrupted him. The women had arrived.
      He’d expected Janet to be punctual: in their Sunday school days, she’d always remembered last week’s text and whose turn it was to pass out the pencils. His mother had pegged her early as daughter-in-law material, and so she had proved, though not Elizabeth’s. Diana was new to him, and watching from the living room window as the women locked their cars, Gil speculated her promptness was an acquired virtue. Next to Janet's angular Yankee frame, she looked fruity and Mediterranean, a follower of impulse disciplined into navy-blue.
      The visitors perched side by side on Whit’s Mid-Century modern sofa, a piece that like himself, Gil thought, was all of a sudden in demand. Not that Whit ever used it, as far as he could remember, nor the matching peg-legged chair that Gil now occupied. As a wedding gift from his in-laws he’d been obliged to keep them, but for his own comfort, Whit had gone to Jordon Marsh and bought the wing chair by the fireplace.
      Janet smiled, and for a minute, Gil was afraid she might apologize for bringing him there, or allude tactfully to his estrangement from his father, or combine the two with a rueful look that said she hated to involve him, but what could she do—Whit’s only close family blah, blah, blah. He sat up straighter. He was here, OK?
      He should have realized platitudes weren’t Janet’s style. “Gil, your father has some help in place: Mrs.Rodrigues—Angelita. She has a key. She’s been coming Mondays and Thursdays since before your mother died. She cleans and does laundry, and recently she's been bringing groceries too, though that's not part of her job." Janet hesitated. "She's not sure she can keep it up, though, that's the thing. I guess Whit’s rude to her sometimes, and lately she's been having a hard time getting paid.” Janet handed Gil an index card covered with unexpectedly rococo handwriting. "Her address and number are in the house, I'm sure, but I made you a copy."
      "Thanks. I'll get right on it, call her today, work out something fresh."
      "If, by any chance, she's firm about quitting…"Whoa!” thought Gil “…the Council on Aging could help with other names." She held out a second index card. "Also, till you get things settled, the church Home Committee would be glad to deliver meals. You can contact me about that.”
      Gil pictured brisk church people showing up with leaden meatloaf of the kind his mother served. "Thanks," he said. "I've taken some personal days from work. We'll be OK." Upstairs, he could hear Whit moving around.
      "Do you know your father's doctor, Gil?"
      Diana’s tone signaled an asterisk in the conversation. It reminded Gil of a teacher at school, who would clap her hands at a certain moment and say, "Main point of lecture!" He saw that this item had really topped their agenda, but been strategically deferred: You start off with Angelita and The Council on Aging, I'll bring up the doctor. He was part of a game plan! For the first time, Gil could picture Diana running a meeting.
      “Dr. Brent, is it?" Seriously, Gil doubted if Dr. Brent was still alive.
      Janet consulted a third index card. "Dr. Price, Steven. He's here in Brookline with a second office at Beth Israel Deaconess. She handed Gil the card.
      Diana said, "We're not here to tell you what to do. It's your decision, but if I were you, I would check with Dr. Price as soon as possible. Your father's seventy-nine, I know, but we're all assuming Alzheimer's without any medical input, which may not be very smart. Even if we're right, there's medication at least to slow things down.”
      Gil spread the cards in a sparse fan: Angelita, The Council on Aging, Dr. Price. Maybe he'd propose a game of Old Maid. Pass the card you most dislike to the neighbor on your left. He closed the fan and put the cards in his pocket. He had some questions of his own.
      "Does my father still drive?"
      Gil looked at Diana. "But he shouldn't?
      "He still goes to church pretty often?"
       “Yes." This time the women answered together.
       Whit went to church very often, it turned out. Very often, as opposed to very regularly. His randomness was the clue that something was wrong. Sunday might pass without a sign of him, but more and more, on a Tuesday afternoon, or twice on a Friday, say, he would be in the church office berating the secretary for insisting there was no service. One morning, he walked into the end of a funeral, joined robustly in the closing hymn and left ahead of the coffin to let the secretary know she was mistaken—and to recommend she see a doctor about her condition.
      "At first we tried to explain that he'd confused the days." Diana went on. "His normal times were Sunday for the morning service and Wednesday evenings once a month for the Stewardship Committee. We showed him the calendar, the date on the newspaper, switched on the radio, but no. He was right and we were wrong."
      "Surely not," Gil murmured.
      Diana gave him a somber smile. "We don't do it anymore. We just say, ‘Hi Whit,’ and if he questions us about the service, we say, ‘Oh, we had to cancel it today.’ Or ‘Weird, isn't it, nobody came today?'"
      Gil heard the chagrin in her voice. She deplored the way they had taken the easy way out and connived at Whit’s conception of the world. Possibly she didn’t know that Whit had always expected others to do that.
      "Does he show up evenings too?" Gil pictured Whit interrupting Weight Watchers' meetings, Whit barging in on Eagle Scout solemnities. That's right, boys. Raise your hand if you’re anti-gay!
      "No, thank God!" Diana stopped, embarrassed by her own vehemence. How lame was that? Gil asked himself. To want to high five a stranger—an assistant rector—because she admitted Whit could be hard to take?
      Janet stepped in. "We don't think Whit goes out after dusk any more. He's not at the church, at least, we're sure of that. And we haven’t heard he's showing up anywhere else, so—” Prolonged honking cut her off.
      Whit was mad as hell. Standing next to a silver Lincoln in the open garage, he waited until the three hurrying figures got close, then reached through the window and slammed his fist down on the horn again. “These wrecks are blocking me in!"
      Janet and Diana looked at Gil. Over to him, then? Fine! "Dad, stop. You're deafening us." Calm, pragmatic—he wished Liam could see him handle this. He raised his voice above the blast of the horn. "Diana and Janet came by to say hello. Those are their cars."
      Whit took his hand off the horn. He flicked his eyes over Gil just long enough to establish his irrelevance, then addressed the women, his voice assuming the tone of surprised displeasure that Gil, growing up, had thought of as his father’s signature tune. "For heaven's sake! You girls need to get a move on. Diana, you don't have time for a visit—you’ll be late for the service.” Watered-down hair, cream linen jacket, gray pants, black shoes. Despite her steady expression, Gil saw that Janet too had noticed the lack of socks.
      Not looking at Gil, Diana said with a strained smile, "You're right, Whit. We’ll be on our way."
      Nope, Gil thought, as they drove away. Not taking that line. "Where are you headed, Dad?"
      His father brought his gaze to rest on him. "You and your friends may not respect such traditions, but it’s time for church.”
      “One of my friends, Dad, David—Harvard graduate—sings in the choir at Trinity Church every Sunday. Today’s not Sunday.”
      "You know better, of course." Whit jerked open the door of the Lincoln, but before he could back in stiffly behind the steering wheel, Gil leaned in and flipped the lock on the passenger's side. He sprinted around the back of the car in time, but if he hadn’t, it didn’t seem implausible that his father would have reversed out over him. Fasten seat belt, he thought. Bumpy whatever.

                                                                                                * * *

      A half hour later, as Whit paced behind the last row of pews in the sanctuary, Gil gazed through a window overlooking the parking lot and decided that even more than the jolting drive to the church, even more than the missing socks, the sight of the Lincoln straddling two spaces summed up the extent of Whit’s decline. When Gil or his mother had ridden in one of the Lincoln’s predecessors no one got out until those wheels stood equidistant from the lines.
      My father is always at church. It seemed so unlikely a thing to say about Whit. To Gil it conjured dark, pillared interiors, like the one he’d entered on a college trip to Spain, where Christ’s marble foot bloomed with the stain of worshipers’ kisses, and votive candles dripped wax onto scraps of paper that named the sick. Where he’d lit his own imploring little flame, in the hope that he—or the world—might change.
      Whereas Whit and this bright, well-tended building had always enjoyed what seemed like a business partnership. Whit contributed time and money—time on committees that chose how the money was spent—and the church contributed what? A bracing link to the faith of his fathers—decorum, ritual, and a sense that God approved of fiscal responsibility? Truly, Gil wished he knew.
      One December, he’d returned home from an Advent service in this sanctuary a little bedazzled by the singing and candle lighting and solemn words, and made a card for his parents from a Christmas catalogue. Gaudy colors and fulsome gestures made them flinch, so he passed over the pictures he preferred—the Virgin clasping the Child to her heart and Joseph leaning protectively over them—and chose instead a woman in whitish robes who held her baby lightly on her lap while a man glanced down at him. When he’d glued it onto construction paper and written Happy Christmas Mom and Dad from Gil inside, he felt almost sure he’d got it right. But it turned out that, in the case of Christmas cards, if you had to choose a religious theme instead of woods or a lake, you picked a recognizable scene by an Old Master, Gil, with proper colors and some movement to it, not motel art.
      He turned to watch as Whit began to strike the backs of the pews with the flat of his hand. It was time for a service, he wanted a service, he wanted it now. Gil wondered, Had it been as lonely always to be disappointed, as it had been always to disappoint?
      That did it. One final slap, harder than the rest, and Whit was off. Gil had spent a lot of his childhood running to keep up with his father, but trailing him now, he found he had to slow his pace or he’d overtake him. From the open door of the church office, he saw the secretary cringe, but Whit, with a glance over his shoulder to confirm that Gil was on his tail, seemed to change his mind about confronting her. Fingers splayed at his hips in a frenzy of spleen, he retraced his steps, but instead of returning to the sanctuary, he wheeled left into the street with Gil, panicked laughter bubbling in his throat, close on his heels like an amateur sleuth.
      As they entered the parking lot, they almost collided with Diana. Gil half-turned to acknowledge her, but couldn’t stop, because he had to reach the car when his father did. At least he’d had the sense to leave his side unlocked.
      Whit's voice trembled with fury. "Don't you have a car of your own?" Car came out as a mangled stutter, ck-ck-ck-car.
      Soothing, but firm would be best, Gil thought. Breezy, but calm. “I live in Boston, Dad. Work downtown, walk, take the T. I really don’t need a car."
      "Then go back to Boston and get the hell out of mine. I don't need you." Even as the words flecked his chin with spittle, Whit was already switching on the ignition, fiddling with the rear-view mirror, incapable, it seemed, of keeping still long enough to make his order stick. Not attempting to fasten his seat belt, he swung the car out of the parking lot, and though he used the opening marked Exit, Gil would have bet good money it was more by luck than design.
      He buckled his own belt and laid his hand flat against the passenger door. How much of Whit's excessive speed resulted from anger, and how much from faulty judgment he couldn't say, but he wouldn’t risk imminent death by protesting. He kept his mouth shut, pumped his right foot on a brake that wasn't there, and wiped the sweat off his face only when they pulled up in his father's driveway behind a blue Toyota.
      Inside the house, a short, unsmiling woman in her forties looked up from vacuuming the dining room floor. It was Thursday—Gil had forgotten that when Janet explained the schedule.
      "Mrs. Rodrigues!" His voice sounded foolishly excited.
      The woman switched off the vacuum cleaner and received Gil’s hand shake. "This my last day here.”
      Mrs.Rodrigues and Gil both turned to glare at Whit, but Whit took his time, removing his linen jacket with an arthritic awkwardness neither of them made any attempt to relieve. When it was off, he dumped it on the dining table and crossed the hall to the living room. With a flicker of self-reproach, Gil observed how the cream satin lining had worn to a rusty web at each arm hole, then turned, stricken, to look at Mrs. Rodrigues.
      “Mrs. Rodrigues, please don’t be upset. My father is tired today."
      She looked him squarely in the eye. "My last day," she repeated. "I got my bill for Mr. Palmer. I’ll give it to you. ”When Gil did not reply, she unbent a little. “Listen,” she said, as she put Whit’s jacket over her arm. “What you can do, try Council on Aging."
      Gil looked at the jacket, and without a sense that any such plan had entered his brain, lifted his father’s keys from the pocket. There they were, and there was Mrs. Rodrigues, nodding as if to say, You go, guy. Save the burghers of Brookline! Together, they watched his fingers force the car key through the break in the metal ring, and when the ring was in his father’s pocket again, Mrs. Rodrigues took the jacket away.
      When she had finished her jobs and gone, Whit, fresh from a snooze in the den, opened the hall closet, put on his jacket and left the house. Gil sprinted from the kitchen doorway to a fresh look-out at the living room window. He’d moved the car to let Mrs. Rodrigues out and locked it in the garage, but Whit seemed not to register the change. He found the garage key on his ring with relative ease, and heaved the door up with an effort that made Gil wince. The key to the Lincoln began to throb in the pocket of Gil’s jeans with a heat that had nothing to do with body temperature. In Sunday School “Thou shalt not steal” had been only a biblical admonition; at home, it had carried the heavier burden of unseemly conduct. Decent people don’t touch other people’s belongings! What if his dad found out?
      But instead of erupting when he couldn’t find the car key, Whit patted his pockets in mild disquiet, cast some scrutinizing looks at the ground, then lowered the garage door and returned to the house. Once he had hung his jacket in the closet again, the wish to go out seemed to drain away from him. Perhaps he thought he’d just come back from a trip. He settled in his chair with The Boston Globe while Gil, leafing through an old Smithsonian, watched him from the corner of his eye.
      After ten minutes of turning pages and staring into the empty fireplace, Whit fell asleep and Gil had a chance to reply to Liam’s latest text. Under control, he sent, as his father snored. So, you introduced an obstacle, and the pattern changed. Thank God he’d stumbled so quickly on an approach that worked.

                                                                                                * * *

      Gil rested his forehead against the inside of Whit’s front door. If a week was a long time in politics, four days with Whit was an eternity. The two fans he’d brought down from the attic to combat the heat wave cloaking Brookline barely tickled the air in the entrance hall. He couldn’t install Whit’s air conditioners by himself, nor could he leave the door ajar to let a breeze through the screen. If a breeze could get in, Whit could get out. If Whit could get out and couldn’t unlock the car, he might set off on foot again, heading for Route 9 on streets without sidewalks, leaving Gil to pant up behind him with another invented excuse to bring him back—Diana on the phone for you! She says it's important! The bolt set high on the door—which Whit had forgotten about, judging from his wrath each time he yanked the knob—had become Gil’s new best friend, since Liam, his old best friend had stopped calling him. The part of Gil that resembled Whit, the part that couldn’t admit to being wrong, had brought that about two days ago when he’d barked into the phone, “Stop bugging me, Liam. I can handle this!”
      On the other side of the door, in a separate and unequal universe, Janet Edmond, thin and kind, her cucumber soup chilling in Whit's refrigerator, gunned her car. Only a week before, Gil had had a date with a sweetly promising man he’d met at a birthday party. Today, he was trapped in a hot house with a man who would never warm to him whatever he did, while Janet Edmond roared off down the driveway, back to life and liberty. Back, for all he knew, to the pursuit of happiness. Never before had he felt the enviableness of being Janet, but now he longed acutely to steal her identity. To steer a Prius with capable, clean-nailed hands and stop outside a charming bakery in Brookline Village. To plant a pair of well-designed Clarks sandals on the hot sidewalk, pause briefly to smooth the wrinkles in a cotton, wrap-around skirt, and drop a quarter in the meter before going inside to ask for a small multigrain and oh, yes please, a couple of chocolate croissants. Who would he not change places with today?
      Janet didn’t really roar off down the driveway, Gil knew that. She covered it at the considerate rate she did everything. The roar was in his brain, but very loud. After a moment, he realized something sticky on the door had transferred itself to his forehead—jelly perhaps or, judging by the faintly orange smear on the white paint-work, marmalade. Gil was not going to wonder for one second why there was marmalade on the door. He pulled out his handkerchief and scrubbed his face.
      Whit came down the stairs in the straw hat that Gil had found in the attic and given him to wear to church the previous day, since it actually was Sunday. Big mistake! The sight of it seemed to trigger the old man's wanderlust like the bell and Pavlov’s dog. Which would take less energy? Another excursion to the church or a diversionary trick?
      "Hungry, Dad?" He tried to make his voice hint at culinary pleasures no one alive would want to miss. "Janet’s soup smells great.”
      Almost nose to nose with him, the hat casting a speckled shadow over his face, Whit met Gil’s hand on his arm with rock-like resistance.
      "How about ice cream?" Gil refrained from licking his lips to pantomime bliss. He reached for Whit’s hat. "Why don't we take this off now, OK? Look, I'm putting it here on the hall stand. It'll be fine. Let's go into the kitchen and see what’s in the fridge."
      Whit stared at him.
       “Orange juice? Iced tea?" Gil was turning into a flight attendant.
      In silence, Whit stretched out his arm and plucked his hat off the stand. He looked at Gil again with cool civility. "Excuse me. I don't believe I know who you are.”
      Slowly, Gil dropped the hand he’d raised to intercept the hat. His father waited—Gil was taking up his time. An explanation would be in order, his frown implied, but only if offered promptly and without rigmarole.
      Gil's body felt gelatinous, as if, without support, it might lose its shape—like marmalade. Yet even as he fought off a rush of light-headedness, he noticed again, with a renewed sense of wonder, that his father’s eyes were level with his own. All Gil’s life Whit had enjoyed a height advantage. He’d enjoyed it fifteen years ago, when Gil had promised himself he’d never set foot in this house again. And now, that crucial inch had disappeared, redeployed in the curve at the top of his father’s spine. With studied casualness he said, "Who do you think I might be?"
      The old man moved a half-step forward, jaw thrust out, lips flattened in distaste. “You look like a pansy to me. Now open this door. Got a church service to attend.”
      Gil searched his father’s eyes under the hat brim, trying to gauge if this was a genuine downturn in Whit’s condition or some kind of ruse to get out of the house. His voice neutral, stripped of the drama he’d always assumed would pulse through the air whenever he’d pictured speaking the words aloud, he said, "I'm your son, Dad.”
      Whit snorted. He threw back his head and examined the ceiling before addressing Gil again. "You ever see my son? He's a pansy too."
      Gil stared at the tobacco-colored irises in their gray rims. They seemed to him to glint with a bitter triumph, but really, was it likely that a man who didn’t always know what his socks were for, could engineer a psychologically nuanced escape?
      Whit, watching him, repeated his remark with jaunty confidence—a paranoid person might even say with glee. "Yep. He's a pansy too."
      Gil almost expected a “Yes indeedy, yes sirreeh,” to follow, but what Whit actually said, as he reached past Gil for the doorknob, was, "Always was."
      Gil leaned his back against the door with his hands behind him. His fists dug into the small of his back, but at least they were safe there, not punching his father's lights out.
      Always was? What did that mean? That Whit here had always known his son was gay? Because he’d certainly acted surprised at the big reveal. There was no “I saw this coming” or “Did you think I was blind?”—phrases Gil couldn't see him resisting if they’d been true.
      Whit seemed to register a change in Gil’s manner. He looked no friendlier, but a fraction less certain of his ground. After a moment, he shrugged away toward the living room with a twitch of contempt, his hallmark response to encounters he couldn't command. You're beneath my notice, his departing back implied.
      But without the belligerent face to focus attention, the old man’s back betrayed his frailty. That morning, when they were buying ice cream—Gil mysteriously able to open the car and drive—he’d noticed the cartoon similarity between his father and the metal shopping cart he leaned on; the high-shouldered gauntness they shared, and their penchant for going their own way. Even now, watching the skinny elbows and dangling palms that trailed behind him, the bend in his spine, Gil could see how someone with reason to love his father—that other, correct son perhaps, who had never existed, but who, if he had existed, would surely have made Whit proud—might feel a stab of sorrow.
      Gil flexed his fingers. He had to uncouple the old man in the living room from the Whit who had sat there fifteen years ago and listened grimly to Gil’s coming out address. It wasn’t easy—Whit with dementia was a lot like Whit without—he just did crazier things. Gil had watched a caregiver on TV smooth a wisp of hair off a papery temple and peer into vacant eyes. She's still in there somewhere. Whit was so much still in there, Gil wanted to wring his neck.
      Always was? That didn’t fit the facts at all. Please! Gil remembered exactly how it had been. Right in the middle of his prepared speech—The Stonewall Rebellion was twenty-seven years ago, Gay Pride is here to stay, I'm sick to death of pretending, Can’t you—his mother, pale, had risen from her chair to close the window in case the high school kid cutting the grass might hear. Understand, she wasn't protecting the boy from corruption, only their family from shame. The kid was cute, too, in a beefy kind of way, though Gil forbore to point this out.
      For a full minute after Elizabeth sat down, Whit had stayed immobile before getting up without a word and leaving the room. Leaving the house, in fact, through this very door. Where did a man like Whit go to recover his poise? Brooks Brothers? The Harvard Club? Gil had no idea, but when the sound of the car had died away, his mother had turned to him and said, "Oh Gil, when you said you had something to tell us, I thought you were finally bringing a girl home. Your father was thirty when he introduced me to his people.”
      Gil had dined out on that story for years, hands clasped on one knee, voice querulous to convey his mother’s bewildered pique. Now the scene came back to him, not buffed for public consumption, but with the chop of despair Elizabeth’s words had actually provoked. Because her surprise, at least, had been bruisingly genuine. Poor Elizabeth! Bruising for her too, it occurred to him now. His lack of clichéd “gayness,” shrouded for good measure in anxious layers of secrecy, had left her clueless. One minute she had been viewing Gil as the harmless dud of a son he’d always been, the next she was hearing there’d be no more Palmers on the family tree. And if Whit had known the truth all along, why had he connived at her ignorance?
      Gil pictured his father scanning The Boston Globe after church one Sunday, while his wife put lunch together in the kitchen. Looking up from his wing chair, Whit observes his young son reading quietly on the sofa—his young son who is always reading quietly on the sofa—and comes to his decision. Neither sofa nor boy is what he had ordered, not at all, but they are there, and for similar reasons of diplomacy and social politeness and domestic calm, both must be tolerated. End of story. Don’t ask, and certainly don’t tell. That is the way a gentleman proceeds.
      Gil thought that if he knew for sure his father had let him go through all that desperate teenage anguish on his own, he might literally die. He didn’t want to die, and so he had to put the old man’s words out of his mind. They’d get through today; tomorrow they had their appointment with Dr. Price, and they’d go from there. First one step, and then the next. He’d get the soup out now, and maybe Whit would eat.
      The living room was empty, which meant his father had slipped through the adjoining den and into the kitchen. In the kitchen, a fly that had squeezed through a hole in the screen door buzzed the news: Whit, who yesterday had put his dirty dishes in the oven, had somehow found an extra back door key and escaped again.
      “Liam?” Gil’s voice cracked on the phone. “Help!”

                                                                                                * * *

      Liam sliced a baguette to go with the salad, while Gil got out four bowls for the cucumber soup.
      “Make Janet give me this recipe!” Liam said.
      “I wish I’d collapsed sooner,” Gil said. “But you might have been too mad with me to come.”
      “If you’d only mentioned I’d be reclining on Mid-Century Modern furniture, I’d have bummed a ride here with you in the cab.”
      They grinned, agreeing to forget their meeting a couple of hours ago, when Gil, just back with Whit from the pharmacy he’d wandered into in his search for the church, had stumbled, incoherent, into Liam’s arms.
      Liam got on with his cutting. “You’re not even thinking of making this permanent, Gil, right?”
      “He’s my father,” Gil said. “He taught me how a decent man behaves.” Liam pointed the bread knife at him. “Which means I’ll find a place to take good care of him and get on with my life.”
      In the living room, Diana, who had received the call from the pharmacy and then called Gil, was speaking quietly with Liam’s partner, David, about church funds and the need to preserve a vibrant music ministry. Whit, soothed it seemed, by talk of budgets and perhaps by the faded Harvard sweatshirt David had worn to reassure him, sat in his chair and listened.
      “Dinner’s ready,” Gil said.
      “I must be off,” said Diana. “Nice to meet you both.”
      Whit touched her arm. “Who did you say they were?”
      “Liam and David,” David said. “We’re staying here with you tonight and the next few nights as well.”
      They went en masse to see Diana out, and when she had left, the younger men closed in a little convoy around Whit and propelled him gently but insistently toward the dining room.
      “Who did you say you were?” he said to David.
      “My friends,” Gil said. “Liam and David. They’re my friends, Dad. I brought them home.”

Ceri Eagling grew up in Wales, has lived in the US for many years, on the East Coast and in California, and also spent six years in France. Her writing draws on each experience. She has been published in “The Writer” and in “LIT.”

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