My mother says that he got that way after losing two quarts of blood. Most of it soaked into the bathtub, and by the time paramedics reached him, the water was clouded pink. She also says that I was found trying to pull him out. I'd called 911, then gone back to him. I don't remember any of it.
I wasn't supposed to be at home, of course. But my Little League baseball game had been called in the second inning. It was only a drizzle, but home plate was a little lower than the rest of the field and had become a puddle.
My mother never even tried to get the blood off my uniform. And we never bothered ordering another one. She was able to find work again as a saleswoman at Magnin's, and we were able to keep the house, but we really didn't have extra money for hobbies. I suppose if I'd begged... But playing shortstop for the Giants was no longer a dream.
Dahlias bloom in September in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each year, on my father's birthday, the 27th, I put some big violet ones like pompoms from my garden into a vase and sit it on my mantle. I suppose this ritual is insane, but what do you do for a father who simply got into his Rover one fine day in May and disappeared without a trace?
One of my earliest memories is of him clipping a flame-colored bud from a rosebush in the backyard of our house in the San Jose Hills and asking me to bring it inside to my mother. "Tell her I'll be in for lunch in a minute," he added.
Why do I remember that simple line and not anything whispered to me at the last minute? All my life it has seemed that I never got the secret advice or password from him which I'd need to make me a man.
After the wounds on his wrists had healed, he came home. I remember meeting him at the door, standing with one foot on each of his, then walking together into the kitchen. He had great black boats for shoes. Two days later, he was gone. No note. No clues. He left while I was at school and while my mother was shopping at Safeway.
The morning after our first night without him, my mother said, "He'll be back, don't you worry." The ash was curling at the end of her cigarette. She was sitting on her bed in her nightgown, nursing a brandy in her mouthwash cup. Years later, when I was in junior high school, I asked for a possible explanation. My mother shrugged. She said he was simply a car mechanic who liked to cultivate flowers. A normal guy. He watched Giants' games on Channel 2, bought a Rover because he'd seen Laurence Harvey driving one in some English movie. His favorite foods were pot roast and shish kebob. On Sundays, he liked to read the San Jose Mercury in bed, then take a long shower. She didn't know if he'd been unhappy. He certainly never said anything.
"Didn't you ever discuss his suicide attempt with him?" I asked.
It was then that she lost control and screamed: "Goddammit Charlie, he ordered seeds from a hundred different fucking seed catalogues!"
This must have meant something special to her, but I never found out exactly what. As a teenager, you think your parents are weird and inexplicable, even the ones who don't abandon you. Too late, I realized that you better ask questions like this while you've still got time.
My mother died four years ago this June, occupies one half of a dual plot she reserved in the Hillcrest Cemetery in Los Gatos. I suppose she still believed right up to the end that he'd come back. But I don't think that the other half of the plot is ever going to have a body. He's just not going to call and warn me that he's on his deathbed. Or make some pilgrimage home like a lost elephant to its ancestral burial ground. Even so, you'd have thought in the thirty-two years he's been gone that he'd have sent me at least a postcard saying that he was fine and working at a botanical garden in South Carolina or a tropical nursery in Maui or wherever it is that gardeners who are also car mechanics go to really get lost.
Each year, at Christmas, I send the Filipino family who bought our old house a card and remind them to forward to me any letters my mother or I might get. They must think I'm some lovelorn nut hoping to get a letter from the girl who got away.
After I read the contributor's note about innocents paralyzed by trauma, and after I thought, this poor guy must write about schmucks like me, I remembered a time several years back when Lana, my wife, and I were walking on Castro near 18th Street. It was spring, sunny. All the Victorian houses seemed to possess the proud and colorful promise of homes in a na•ve landscape. We were happy, had just bought scones at the Cheese Board and an autographed copy of "Flaubert's Parrot" at the Walt Whitman Bookstore. As we passed the Elephant Walk bar, we saw a pregnant woman panhandling under the awning. She must've been at least seven months along, looked haggard and hopeless, like one of those dirt-poor Appalachian mothers photographed during the Great Depression. My heart leapt against my chest as we passed, and I felt as if I'd swallowed poison. Tears started as soon as we got into our car. Lana got pissed. "So instead of sitting there and balling like you always do, why don't you do something!" she yelled.
I just looked at her. I mean, what was there to do? This was 1987 in Ronald Reagan's America, and if a pregnant woman was homeless and begging, then that's the way people obviously wanted it.
Lana has large brown eyes so dark and stunning that that's all you see when you first meet her. She was staring at me with them then like I was her enemy, was making me feel impossibly heavy--like a huge boulder that won't be moved no matter what.
"I'm going to call the cops," she said. "They have an obligation to do something for her, to take her to a shelter or something."
Lana called the San Francisco Police from our house, a stucco cottage on the southern slope of the hill separating the Castro District from Noe Valley. Then she tried three shelters. When she reported back to me, she said, "The cops won't go help her and the shelters can't send anyone to pick her up. She has to present herself at one of their doors and ask for a bed." Lana was livid. "It's fucking unbelievable," she kept whispering to herself.
I was feeling kind of justified knowing that there was nothing you could do even if you tried. I patted the couch next to me, but Lana wouldn't sit. She ran her hands back and forth across her short brown hair, mussed it up into a tangle. Then she started pacing. I stayed put where I was; she's petite and lean, but you don't want to get in front of her when she's angry.
When I met Lana I didn't know anything about this rage of hers. I thought she was reserved. You only find out about people's wounds a few months after you begin sleeping with them. She had long hair back then, wore only jeans and loose-fitting sweaters, was studying for her master's degree in gerontology at U.C. Berkeley. I'd just gotten back to San Jose after four years in New York. I'd earned a bachelor's in classical guitar from the Manhattan School of Music.
Lana always had a lot of interest in elderly people because her Grandma Winky, her mother's mother, was the bright spot in her life. Winky was from Oxford, Mississippi, and when Lana was a kid she used to sit her on her lap and tell her stories embroidered with antiquated words and people. One in particular I remember was about an elegant octoroon from New Orleans who worked as a butler for cousins of William Faulkner. One day this "gentleman of impeccable manners who spoke French better than any French ambassador" just up and disappeared without a trace. The other I always remember was about an eighteen-year-old white girl named Irene "with curls in her hair like Mary Pickford" who'd had a baby out of wedlock by the first black pediatrician in Lafayette County. Irene had been sent off to live with her father's sister Harriet in Little Rock. She never saw her lover again. Her baby boy, called Isaac, was given up for adoption in Memphis. Irene's heart had been broken.
Winky told us that she and her parents left Mississippi during the Depression and found migrant labor work in the peach orchards which then covered San Jose. Only much later on did we figure out that that was a lie. Eight years ago, when she died, we found a canvas suitcase at the bottom of the linen closet of her apartment in Menlo Park, and in it was a photograph of a wrinkled old woman wearing a dark, high-collared dress. On the back was written in Winky's scrawl: Aunt Harriet, March 1933. We also found a couple dozen letters written to Winky from her parents, all with Oxford postmarks and all addressed to 722 Clarion Way in San Jose. Obviously, her family didn't move out with her to California. As for Aunt Harriet, she was undoubtedly Winky's aunt, not some relative of any Irene. In fact, there never was any Irene. Or rather, we figured that Irene was Winky, that she'd been exiled to California after having a child by a black man to whom she wasn't married. None of the letters from her parents made mention of any of this, but, of course, any "proper" Southern family would have done its best to forget that such events ever took place.
We confirmed one part of this story by checking in a 1940 San Jose phone book that had been put on microfilm by the public library. Morgan was the last name Winky had had before she married Grandpa Don, the father of Lana's mother. On the microfilm, we discovered the name Harriet Morgan. That must have been Aunt Harriet, because the address given was the same as on the letters, 722 Clarion Way. We drove down the forty miles from San Francisco to San Jose, got lost on a ghastly strip of car dealerships and gas stations, and eventually found a tiny old clapboard house with hydrangeas out front, smack dab in the center of a run-down Chicano neighborhood. It was here, and not in Little Rock, that Winky as Irene "had spent years staring out the window, always facing east, toward Oxford and the life from which she'd been severed."
We wrote to the Memphis police and some hospitals in the area, but we never learned what happened to Winky's baby. Maybe he wasn't given up for adoption in Memphis. Maybe his name wasn't even Isaac. But somewhere near Oxford, Lana must have a great Uncle and maybe some second cousins we'll never find.
Lana's mother and father claimed that they'd never heard anything about Winky's life before she'd married Grandpa Don. We didn't believe them, but we weren't going to press the issue.
I suppose I take these things too personally, but all these discoveries about Winky really upset me. Not, of course, because she'd had a baby out of wedlock. Or because she fell in love with a black man. It was that she had to give up both him and the baby and move clear across the country to escape her past. And I admit that I was hurt that she had lied to us about it. Lana wasn't. "You really thought all of Winky's stories were the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" she asked, so much disbelief in her voice that I didn't even bother answering.
When I first met her, Lana wasn't just studying gerontology in Berkeley, but also waitressing in San Francisco three nights a week at Paprikas Villa in Ghirardelli Square and doing stand-up comedy on Friday and Saturday nights. In May of 1977, we decided to rent the cottage together in San Francisco which we ended up buying three years later when the owner died. An incredibly busy girl, Lana was at the time. We hardly had time for lovemaking. But it was exciting, too. She opened a few times for Robin Williams at the Holy City Zoo, did improvisations with Dana Carvey at Fanny's. Later, when she realized she wasn't interested in putting in the decade of club work it took to make it to the Tonight Show, she began working on a screenplay. Then, after she got her master's, she bought a video camera and editing machine and started making videos of weddings and bar-mitzvahs. "Nobody realizes it, but I make Andy Warhol movies," she used to tell me. "Avant-garde oral histories." At first I wasn't convinced, but it's really true. Because along with the usual shots, she interviews the close relatives of the bride and groom or bar-mitzvah boy so that people watching learn something about the history of families involved. She's got an Italian grandmother singing threshing songs she learned back in the hills of Calabria; a ninety-year old Jewish tailor giving an eyewitness account of the Warsaw ghetto uprising; Irish old buggers talking about garment industry strikes in New York when they were beaten by their cousins on the police force. We've been married seventeen years now, and I'm her biggest fan. I like it most when the people in her videos talk about the events around which their lives turned. That's the information she really tries to get. I dream that someday she'll be discovered and that they'll do a retrospective of her films at the Pacific Film Archive. I've already come up with the title for it: "Personal Fulcrums: The Videos of Lana Salgueiro Sanderson."
Lana likes classical guitar music on her productions. So she records me in her editing room playing Bach suites or Villa-Lobos preludes or whatever it is she wants, then transfers the music to the videos. Other than that, all my income comes from teaching individual guitar classes at U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State. I garden on the weekends, cook Thai food at least once a week, watch the Giants on Channel 2. I love living near Castro Street and being able to sit outside at the Cafe Flore. From the wooden patio there, I watch things that are unusual elsewhere in America--gay men kissing in public, college students with pink-tipped hair sipping espresso, fog ribboning through the Twin Peaks in the late afternoon. I enjoy browsing in bookstores and walking downtown amongst the businessmen. I like looking at skyscrapers. I'm happy. In all the years Lana and I have been married, I haven't once been tempted to take a razor to my wrists or off myself some other way. So maybe we can downplay the possibility of a genetic cause for my father's suicide attempt and disappearance. Maybe he just got sick of us. Once, on the Phil Donahue Show, I heard a father who'd abandoned his wife and kids say just that. It sounds absurd, but it's got to happen sometimes.
I've been thinking about my dad and Lana and my past a lot more than I like of late not so much because of the contributor's note I read at the San Francisco Public Library, but because Lana's baby brother, Denny, was kicked out of their parents' house a week ago and disappeared for a few days. I don't think I've slept more than four hours a night since then. I get too hot under the covers, then too cold. And then the muscles in my legs begin to stiffen and ache. Pretty soon, all I'm doing is thinking about my father.
Apparently, Denny robbed a corner grocery store. The owner didn't press charges for some reason, so he didn't have to worry about prison. But Mr. Salgueiro, Denny and Lana's father, decided he didn't want to risk any more visits from the San Jose police to his house and told his son to clear out. The boy only disappeared for a few days. The parents never called to tell Lana. When she telephoned them as she does every other Sunday, her mother explained the situation and said, "He's seventeen. We've done what we can. It's his life."
Denny returned still barred from his parents' house and began sleeping in the garage. Lana drove down to San Jose to speak to him and try to broker a compromise with her parents. When she asked him where he'd left to, her brother said, "I just went away," and wouldn't say more.
Negotiations never really got started. Mr. Salgueiro said, "I don't want that filho da puta," in my house, took himself a beer from the refrigerator, dropped down in front of the TV and that was that. He lapses into his first language, Portuguese, when he's pissed or drunk. Lana tells me that filho da puta literally means "son of a whore," but is equivalent to our "son of a bitch."
I suppose my father would also be vague about where he left to if I could find him. Though by now he might be pushing up imported tulips or antique roses in some finely-landscaped cemetery in La Jolla reserved for gardening mechanics. Apparently, such cemeteries for specific kinds of people are the new thing; the last time I was at the Gaia bookstore I saw an advertisement in American Yoga magazine for a cemetery in Orange County for New Age worshippers of the Goddess and another one in Vegetarian Lifestyles for a cemetery outside Austin, Texas reserved for people who'd been vegetarians and non-smokers. Stuff like this makes me think sometimes that things are more than a little wrong with America these days. Like we've all just snapped under the pressure. Though maybe my father is an exception, is married with three lovely children and a collie, living a Leave-it-to-Beaver life in some Midwestern town where people still leave their front doors open at night. Maybe the problem was us, after all--me and my mother, I mean. She implied that to me once. We were over at my Aunt Liz's house for dinner, and the two of them had gotten smashed on gin and tonics. I must have been about sixteen, was trying to watch a Warriors game on TV. "Before we were married, Charles was great," my mother said, talking to Aunt Liz about my father, loud enough so that I was sure to hear. "We used to bum around together. Go dancing in North Beach. Eat burritos in the Mission. He was fun. Really fun! Then we got married and suddenly I'm living with an impostor. Angry all the time. Mean. Doesn't like all the things about me he used to like. Even started saying my tits were too big! When we had Charlie, it was all over. He wouldn't touch me. It was like he realized only then that you got a kid from fucking."
One night just before she died, my mother was staying with us and came into our bedroom crying. Lana was in her editing room. I was alone with my guitar, reading through a new piece by Leo Brouwer. She stood before me, tears streaming down her cheeks. By then she had jowls, brittle gray hair which she let down at night. "I feel so cheated," she whimpered. "I was a virgin when I married your dad. Look what he did to me."
I was about to say, "You think you feel cheated..." But I shut my mouth and went to her. Lana says she can't believe I didn't tell her anything about my feelings. But what would've been the point? I mean, once my dad left, my mother couldn't see or hear me any more.
Three days ago, the night after Denny moved into to his parents' garage, Lana woke me up at two in the morning and said, "We've got to do something."
The clanging sound of the raccoons trying their best to knock over our garbage cans reached me. I got up. The back yard was real dark, but I could see the white spathes of the calla lilies sticking up from behind the lawn like so many ears listening for my response. "Those little bastards want our garbage again," I said. "There'll be coffee grinds everywhere."
"Charlie," she said, "we've got to help him."
"What can we do? He's seventeen. He lives with your parents. And we've got Caroline."
Caroline was an old friend of mine from my days as a music student in New York. She'd been staying with us for a week and would be with us for another five days. I love her dearly, but she requires a lot of attention. I didn't need one more responsibility.
"We still have to do something," Lana insisted.
"We could take him in."
"Oh no, this is between him and your parents. I'm not getting caught in the middle."
"In the middle of what?"
She knew what I meant by that only too well. A long time ago we decided that if her parents had been born as plants, they'd be thorny old weeds putting burrs in everything that passes. I could tell from the way her jaw was throbbing, however, that she was about to start screaming, so I said, "Look, when Caroline leaves, we'll talk about it. We'll go down and visit your parents and talk it all out like adults."
"It's just that Denny's all alone," she said.
"We'll figure something out. I promise."
But I was lying. I didn't intend to figure anything out. I figured that after a few more days, the parents would let him back in, or he'd run away or something would happen to take us off the hook. It was a mistake; Lana can always tell when I'm lying. I don't think she's got any special radar. I just think I'm no good at it. My voice must change or something. So she started yelling after all, accusing me of being a coward and not wanting to confront her parents. It's an argument we've had before. Usually I just sulk. But this time I told her the honest truth. I suppose it was my lack of sleep. "You're the one who's the coward," I said. "For the last twenty years you've been avoiding telling them what you really think."
Lana looked out the window for a long time at the calla lilies. After a while, I crept up behind her and together we listened to the raccoons jumping against the garbage cans.
The next day I woke up and found the oven top cleaned. It's aluminum. It was shining like a newly minted coin.
"I cleaned it with this solution I make out of baking soda and vinegar," Caroline explained.
"Looks great," I said.
Caroline has a lot of extra energy these days for cleaning because she's recovering from bulimia. She used to vomit as much as eight times a day and spend a good deal of the rest of her time thinking about her illness. How she managed to keep giving a full load of viola classes I'll never know. Anyway, now she's down to twice a day. And she is looking better. Goat-ribbed, she was. Now she's got some gentler contours. Though she's still got that gaunt face, those bug eyes. Her closely cropped gray hair doesn't help, seems to accent all her boney angles. The new hobbies she's taken up to fill up her spare time are knitting and pottery making. The red vest she started making for me three days ago has a front already. As for her cleaning, all the cans in our pantry have had their tops washed; our steak knives are newly sharpened; and our bathroom looks like something in a TV commercial. She even bleached the shower curtain and ironed the fluffy throw rugs on the floor. I didn't even know you could iron them. You want a hygienic house, Caroline and I decided, then hire a recovering bulimic. I've already asked her to paint the outside of the house next year. Free room and board for as long as it takes.
Lana and I are the only two people Caroline has told about her bulimia. Aside from her shrink and the members of her help group, that is. I don't remember exactly when she told me. She thought I'd be horrified, but those kind of things don't horrify me. I don't think I'm very judgmental about people. Except for my father, of course. Maybe all my judgment focused on him, and there isn't any left for anybody else. So once Caroline knew she was safe with me and Lana, details of her life started coming out. She tells us more each yearly visit she makes. First, there were stories about her abusive grandmother who raised her. Caroline's father had been killed in World War II. And her mother, I suppose she was working all day. Caroline speaks English perfectly, so I tend to forget that she's actually German, from a small town outside Bonn. She came to the United States thirty-four years ago on a scholarship when she was just twenty-one. Went to the University of Virginia of all places and did a bachelor's in history, only later started taking her viola playing seriously. I suppose because her family was German, I always picture her grandmother like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. She used to beat Caroline black and blue. With wet towels because they don't leave permanent marks. The biggest villain, though, was her stepfather. He forced her to suck his cock. That's the terminology Caroline uses. Just this year we learned that he was the town doctor, Herr Doktor, a well respected man. It was just after World War II in Germany and people were living on turnips. The family got meat and sugar through the good doctor and he got Caroline in exchange. From age twelve to nineteen, he forced her to suck his cock while the family fattened up on veal and apfel strudel. Two days ago, Caroline confessed to us that when the bastard died, she sobbed. I asked why, of course, and she said, "I guess I loved him." But she said it as if it were a question.
Apparently, the relationship between abusers and the abused is more complicated than I ever thought. I suppose I'm pretty innocent about that sort of thing. I was spanked a few times, yelled at frequently, but never treated roughly. So I think I'm pretty naive about people's shadow lives. Like when Lana told me that her brother Denny must have had a different father than her. I was floored. Then it made sense, of course; he's twenty-one years younger than she is, and I don't believe for a moment that her parents were still having relations by then. So my mother-in-law must have had an affair when she was about forty, probably thought she could never get pregnant. Though I can't imagine who would want to touch her. When I told Lana that, she said it was probably the guy who was their mailman at the time. Apparently, she was only half joking; she says he had Denny's shade of red hair.
Lana and I didn't speak about it, but we both know that her mother's affair was the real reason Mr. Salgueiro called Denny a filho da puta when Lana went down to San Jose to try to broker a truce. What he was really saying is that he thinks his wife is indeed a puta, a whore.
Caroline told us a few days ago that before she vomits she feels like her skin is crawling with bugs. She wishes she could shed it and step out all nice and new. She meets in a group with other bulimics once a week at North Shore Hospital on Long Island. All of them want to have new skin.
I've been thinking about all this tonight because I've been unable to sleep. From about two to four in the morning I just listened to the raccoons in the backyard and lost myself in thought.
When I look over at Lana on nights like this, I realize how lucky I've been. For so many years I never thought I'd be capable of loving anyone. People always said I was a cold person. A guitar teacher I had in high school told me that I had no passion. My mother told me once she thought I was dead inside.
There have been many times when I've broken out into a cold sweat thinking that they might be right about me. That maybe I've ruined Lana's life. After all, she wanted to have kids and I never agreed. She's thirty-eight now. In another two or three years it'll be too late. She says that she has no regrets, but sometimes I'm not sure.
This sort of guilt began to invade my thoughts at about four in the morning. It must have been the power of suggestion, but I felt a little like Caroline, like my skin was too confining. So I dressed real quietly and crept downstairs. When I closed the front door behind me, it felt right. The air was fresh and cool. Castro Street was empty. I got into my Honda and started driving.
I drove down Market Street to Highway 101 and headed south. My parents' old house is just off Lafayette Street in San Jose, right near the airport. I thought I'd take a look at it, but when I reached the exit about forty-five minutes later, I just kept on going. That felt good, like I was released from a servitude I'd never really agreed to. I wondered if my father had felt like this.
All of San Jose's peach orchards are gone now, and the city has sprawled into a tangled mess of fast-food strips and residential neighborhoods--like Los Angeles without UCLA or the County Museum or the beaches to redeem it. I've absolutely refused to orient myself on the visits Lana and I make to her parents' house in one of the new "suburban dream" neighborhoods down by the Los Gatos hills. So I wandered around for an extra half hour before I found Alpendra Drive. When I parked in front of Hell House, as Lana, Denny and I call her family home, I still didn't know what I was up to. I thought I wanted to tell Mr. and Mrs. Salgueiro that they were assholes who had no right having children and then not loving them. But that wasn't it.
I found the garage door closed. I gripped the handle and lifted it up. "Who's there?" came Denny's voice, all rushed and frightened.
"Your idiot brother-in-law."
"You got another one?"
I heard the sound of feet on cloth, then the light came on. Denny was in his underwear, standing on his sleeping bag. He's a skinny kid. Too pale for California. True, he has beautiful green eyes, but he does everything he can to make himself look awkward. Like his hair; it's dyed black as can be, clipped close around the sides but left bushy on top. And he's got a quarter-sized enamel earring shaped like a garlic bulb in his right ear. Bought it last summer in Gilroy when me, Lana and him went to the Garlic Festival.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in a hushed voice.
"You can't keep sleeping in a garage."
"Whisper, you'll wake my parents," he told me.
"You think I care? I haven't slept well in a week. Why should they?"
"You mean you haven't slept well because of me?"
"Because of you and Lana. And my own past. Sometimes with me everything gets all mixed together."
He looked down, considering his options. "Did she send you?" he asked.
"Nope. I take responsibility for this. So put your clothes on. I'm tired."
"I can't go with you."
"School. I've still got two months of school left."
"You can go to school in San Francisco."
"I can't transfer at this point in the year. And I'll have to repeat the year if I quit now. I won't be able to start college in the fall."
"We'll worry about that later."
"No, I can't go," he said definitively.
Mr. Salgueiro's old black Pontiac was parked in the garage. "That is one ugly car," I said to Denny. He smiled. He's got a nice smile. He's a good kid, a little lost and lonely, but who wouldn't be in his position? I realized for the first time how much I loved him. Strange how you can live for years not really knowing things like that. I said, "Listen, have you got your driver's license yet?"
"Have you got it or not?"
"Yeah, I got it."
"Good, then you can get up a bit earlier than usual and drive to your regular school from San Francisco. It'll take you less than an hour."
"Using whose car?"
"Mine or Lana's."
"How will you get to work?"
"Denny, we can stand here thinking up questions all night long. Just put on your damn clothes and come with me. Seventeen years of this is enough. I'm not saying you have to give up on your parents. But Lana's got a good heart. And she loves you. I can't say either of those things about the occupants of Hell House. Can you?"
"I think they love me," he said.
"Maybe. Maybe I don't understand love. I don't know. I don't even care. The point is, you're locked out of your house, and your father isn't going to let you back in. You want to live your life like a refugee you can. You want to come home with me now, you can do that too. Your choice."
Kids will put up with too much from their parents, and I could tell he was about to refuse my offer. So I told him to just try it with us for a week and see if it works. In the car, we talked about his robbery. Turns out, things were a lot more complicated than I thought.
He said, "You'll be the first person I've ever really told about it."
Sometimes I wonder why it is that people will open up to me. Caroline says that it's because I never show surprise on my face. When she's in one of her esoteric moods, she says I'm the reincarnation of a very old being who has seen everything. When she's like that she calls me "The Watcher." I suppose I should be flattered, but I don't particularly like it.
"Go ahead," I told Denny, "It can't be that bad."
He shook his head. "It's worse."
"So...what is it?"
"You can't tell my parents. Or even Lana." His voice was imploring.
"I won't say a thing to your parents. As for Lana, I can't promise. When we lie in bed at night I say things I..."
Before I could finish my sentence, he said, "I'm...I'm gay."
He squeezed it out of him like he expected me to slam on the breaks or start pulling out my hair. I can't say I'd ever suspected it, but on the other hand I wasn't floored. I said, "Denny, you live in the Bay Area you stop thinking that being gay or straight is any big deal."
"You're wrong. It's still a big deal in San Jose. It's not like San Francisco." Denny's hands had formed fists. "People here...it's like San Francisco's an island with pretty houses and cafˇs and bookstores and a thousand fucking Chinese restaurants. San Jose... San Jose, man, it's...it's got people who watch Monday Night Football and drink beer and just want to get through their days without having too many hassles from their kids. It's all people who would hate Lana's videos."
I knew that what Denny was saying was mostly true, but that he was talking more than anything else about his father. I said, "Just tell me what being gay has to do with you robbing a grocery store."
"It's not just a grocery store. It's got a section where people can rent videos. It's a weird little place."
"I don't know," he said. "I just did it."
"Not good enough."
"It's the new manager. He's a Turkish immigrant. Maybe thirty. I was buying cigarettes there one day..."
"You've started smoking?"
"They were for my father."
"And what happened?"
"And we started talking. It was during the day, but nobody was there. We were talking about Turkey because I noticed his accent. He said he had some photographs of Istanbul on the wall of the stock room. He locked the front door and we went back there. Then he just sort of reached down and held my cock in his hand. I mean, he felt me through my jeans."
"Well, he sort of gave me a blow job. It was the first time...the only..."
His voice was choking up. To put him at ease, I asked if it had been any good.
He laughed like people do who've been close to crying. "Not really. I was too nervous. Afterward, I figured I wasn't really gay because I didn't enjoy it."
"My first one was awful, too," I said. "I think you can still see the teeth marks on my cock if you look closely."
Denny didn't laugh this time. He asked, "Charlie, do you think I'm really weird?"
He was biting his thumbnail and staring out the windshield.
"Look," I said, "You want to make being gay a big deal, you can. I'm just glad you discovered it now and not later when..."
I was about to say, "...when you're married and have a seven-year-old kid." I surprised myself with that. But being gay suddenly seemed like a possibility for my father. Maybe he left us out of guilt. Maybe it wasn't me and my mom, after all. Maybe he thought that he was the one at fault, that he was ruining our lives, was going to make me gay if he stayed. He ordered seeds from a hundred different seed catalogues. He began to say my tits were too big. Was that my mother's crazy way of saying...? Was it possible?
"When what?" Denny asked me.
I was disoriented and didn't answer, so he said, "Why are you glad I discovered it now? I want to know."
"It's just that the sooner you understand that sort of thing the better. Cuts down on the complications."
"I'm not sure what you mean by complications," he said. "It seems pretty complicated to me."
"Doesn't matter for now. We'll talk about it later. Anyway, you went back to see the Turkish guy."
"Yeah, a few days later. And he did it again."
"And this time you liked it."
He smiled shyly. "But on the way out of the store, I don't know why, I was angry at the guy, stole some videos from the shelf. And ran. It was like I had to get back at him. He called the police to get his videos back. But he didn't press charges. I suppose he didn't want the story about us coming out."
The sun was just coming up over the Bay when we got home to San Francisco. Lana and Caroline were already at the kitchen table. Coffee had been served, was steaming out of the ceramic mugs which Caroline had made for us this year. They're tawny colored, with purple irises glazed on the outside.
Caroline was wearing her pink kimono, was stirring in a bowl the mixture of yoghurt, yeast and powdered vitamins which she eats each morning to make up for the nutrition she loses into the toilet twice a day. Lana was in her sweat pants and one of my Giants baseball shirts. When she saw Denny, she jumped up and hugged him. While she danced him around the kitchen, I told Caroline a bit of what had been happening. Then we sat around talking about Lana and Denny's parents. While I was starting on my second piece of toast, Caroline tilted her head like she does when she's about to spring a real direct question on you and said, "What made you go down now and get Denny?"
So I told them all about the contributor's note I'd read at the library. I said, "Apparently, this author writes about people like me--who cry now and then when faced with bad situations, but who don't do anything. So I finally decided to go ahead and do something."
"That's bullshit," Caroline said.
"What is?" I asked.
"Are you blind? Who do you think got a scholarship to music school, who plays like an angel, who scraped together enough money to put a down payment down a cute little house? And who made your marriage work? Your mother...? Your father...? And why do you think I'm here? Because you're some passive asshole?"
What she said upset me. I guess I never thought of myself as so responsible for the way my life had gone. I made believe I was tired in order to escape the pressure of her stare. I stood up and said, "I'm going back up to bed."
"You're not angry with me?" Caroline asked in a hesitant voice. Her shoulders were hunched, and she looked like she might cry.
I was gripped then by a really strange sensation--that I'd brought her, Lana and Denny together that morning for a reason that went far beyond Denny's trouble with his parents. It felt as if I were in need of their protection. "No, I'm not angry," I replied. "A little confused, I suppose. I guess I'll have to think about all this when I'm more awake. Maybe it'll make sense then."
Lana took my hand and led me to the stairs. We left Denny with Caroline. She was explaining about why she puts yeast in her yoghurt. Then Denny called my name. "Thanks for coming to get me--for rescuing me from San Jose," he smiled.
I didn't respond with words, just nodded. Looking back at him made me lose my voice. Because it was then that I realized that what hurt most is that my father never said anything to me about calling 911 and saving his life, never even thanked me. It was like I'd made some sort of mistake I was going to pay for for the rest of my life. And that I would pay for it by never being able to have a family of my own.
Richard Zimler lives in Portugal