Category Archives: My Novel

>I Should Be Laughing: Renny and Wyatt Talk

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“There’s a saying old….”
Having showered and changed into a well-worn pair of Levis, faded to the color of the sky on a hot summer day, and a clean white shirt, Wyatt padded quietly in sock clad feet down the hallway. The voices, one coming from downstairs at the back of the house, the other behind Renny’s bedroom door, stopped him at the top of the stairs.
“…says that love is blind…”
Leaning against the banister, Wyatt listened to Renny croon from the tiled bath in her room, and marveled at the sweetness and light with which she sang; her voice sounded so pure and innocent.
“Still, we’re often told, seek and ye shall find…”
Unable to hold back, Wyatt joined in—“So I’m going to seek a certain lad, I’ve had, in mind…”—his rich tenor melding beautifully with the delicacy of Renny’s voice upstairs, and the low, huskiness, the sassiness, of Sarah Vaughan, downstairs. “Looking everywhere, haven’t found him yet. He’s the big affair, I cannot—”
“Wyatt?”
Immersed in the view beyond the upstairs window, distracted by the music and the sunset, which invigorated the hills along the coast with optimistic colors, Wyatt hadn’t heard the bedroom door open. The carpeted field across from the house, as well as those rising up the mountain, were dappled with rich emerald greens and luminous yellows; the leaves on the trees nearest the highway becoming a robust green almost purple, sparkling like exotic jewels. The wildflowers running unbridled in Renny’s Forever Field were a rainbow of splattered color and the sky above twinkled light satin. So much color trapped in the glass square, surrounded by the bleakness of the house. The expression on Wyatt’s face, when Renny discovered him outside her door, was reminiscent of Dorothy’s the day she stepped from her black-and-white world into the Technicolor of Oz.
“Sorry…I—.” He instantly plunged his hands in his pockets to silence his music.
“It’s okay.” Renny smiled almost as melodically as she sang. She stood against the doorjamb running a towel through her hair. “You have a nice voice.”
“Thanks…um…you, too.” Wyatt stared; in a plain white robe, her hair so wet it was a deep, rich brown, she looked more like Harry and Jimmy. Without the jewelry and the extravagant wardrobe, her face scrubbed free of make-up, she seemed years younger, more playful, if he could believe. Wyatt realized at once how beautiful she was, but she stiffened under the pressure of his gaze; he braced himself, positive about her response at another of his intrusions. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I was walking downstairs and…. I suppose I really should wear a bell.”
“I can’t believe I said that.” Renny laughed loudly, a completely unexpected though entirely welcome sound; she stepped into the hallway, gathered her billowing bathrobe in one hand, and hopped onto the banister. She shook her head as she laughed, spraying water in every direction. “I’m sorry, Wyatt. I can be such a bitch.”
“Well, you are pretty good at it,” he teased, laughing tentatively until she giggled along with him. Living with Harry, he had acquired the ability to say what was on his mind with a laugh and a smile; most times, it put people at ease. “But you should see Harry first thing in the morning. There’s a real bitch for you.”
Renny’s smile paled and he noticed that the flamboyant colors on the other side of the glass dimmed as well. “Please, Wyatt, you have to know I didn’t mean it. You took me by surprise is all. I thought I was alone. I’d forgotten how quiet this house can get.” She hopped off the banister and walked back into her bedroom, shaking her head, though with a sadness now. She kept talking, and when she disappeared into her bathroom, Wyatt slowly entered her room.
“I suppose you found the bottle.”
“Yes.”
“Did you tell—.”
“No.”
“Thanks.” Leaning back, she stared through the bathroom door at Wyatt. “I suppose I should explain—.”
“You don’t have to,” he said, but, realizing she wanted to talk, he sank onto her carefully made bed. There was still an aura of uneasiness in the room, that shadow of their morning encounter darkening the relationship somewhat, but Wyatt liked her, and wanted to know her, to understand her.
“It’s not like I have a drinking problem…” Renny began, although both she and Wyatt, unbeknownst to the other, recalled an old joke: ‘I drink. I get drunk. I fall down. No problem’; neither smiled as it played through their minds. “One of the less pleasing gifts I got from my mother is that I tend to drink in times of crisis, and—.”
“This qualifies, no doubt.”
“Wyatt,” Renny volunteered with a controlled smile, “this is the mother of all crises. It’s opened up a can of worms that I thought…” The words trailed off, and she ran a comb through her drying hair; in one fluid motion she swept it behind her ears in a sleek chignon, which she then pinned back with two ornate onyx and silver pins before going on. “I know it’s foolish, but it helps calm my nerves…sort of numbs the edges.”
“You could always talk to someone,” Wyatt said. Watching her, he couldn’t help but think that she needed her hair and makeup, jewelry and clothes to be perfect, so precise, so neat, to mask what was happening beneath the surface. “I’d be willing to listen.”
“You know something.” With a vacant look in her eyes, Renny mechanically began brushing her cheeks a dusty rose. “I can out-dress anyone…anytime…ever! I can give a party for a hundred people and make each one feel like the guest of honor…I can order off a menu in fluent French and know the perfect wine for each course. I can tell the difference between Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Bill Blass at thirty paces. I’m…I’m a genius at picking out the perfect gift and I always send thank-you notes…I can—.”
Now, holding a mascara wand to her eyelashes, she stopped rambling and her eyes welled up; her hand began to shake and the wand tumbled into the sink, streaking the porcelain with feathery black lines. Unsure of what he could, or should, do for her, Wyatt sat still until, thinking she was about to faint, he ran to the bathroom door. Renny stopped him with a wave of her hand.
“I’m okay.” The whisper kept him at bay, though he lingered in the doorway and looked at her near flawless reflection in the mirror. Not surprisingly, she was already dry-eyed and reapplying the mascara. “See…Wyatt? I can do all of those things without even thinking about them. And I can listen to friends…acquaintances, actually…for hours on end, prattling on about this or that, but I never talk about myself.” Her voice trembled like her hands. “I think it’s best to keep things hidden. It’s, I don’t know, safer.”
“Safer?”
“Sure.” Examining her eyes in the vanity, turning her face this way and that, she sniffed her approval. “Nobody asks questions I don’t wish to answer, and my secrets stay my secrets.”
“But…holding things in can’t be good for you,” Wyatt disagreed. “No one can ever get to know the real you.”
“The real me?” Her eyes filled again, but the perfectionist quickly re-emerged and she tilted her head back to stem the tide of new tears. “There is no real me anymore. I’ve told so many lies and lived too many lives to be a real person. I don’t even know who I am, which is why…being here…in this house…where…I can’t go back an be that person.”
“How do you keep people—.”
“I smile sweetly and change the subject.” She murmured almost to herself, and then, meeting Wyatt’s eyes in the looking glass, she asked, “How come Harry’s so calm about Mother’s death? He seems to be handling it all so well…coming home, I mean.”
Wyatt was bewildered. “Is this an example or are you—.”
“I’m changing the subject, Wyatt. Please.” She smiled at him while constructing her face, though Wyatt believed no amount of powder or shine could cover the hurt. “Harry’s so quiet and matter-of-fact about all of this.”
Realizing that Renny was closing herself off again, that the walls were going back up, Wyatt eventually began to speak. “It sounds sad, but Harry’s used to people dying. The first time someone he loved, someone he was close to, passed, he was pretty torn up, but over time, he’s gotten used to it.”
“Was it AIDS?” It was the first time the thought had crossed her mind—that way—about Harry. Renny had never known anyone who had the disease, much less died from it. For her, the virus was nothing more than a blurb on the evening news, a headline in Time, a red ribbon at an awards show.
“Sometimes.” Wyatt said reflectively. “Most of the time, I guess. We’ve lost a lot of our family like that.”
“Your…family? I didn’t know you—.” Once more she was struck by how little she knew about her brothers; Jimmy was married and had a son; Harry had Wyatt and…. She set her blush down on the counter and faced Wyatt. “Who?”
“Our family. Mine and Harry’s.” Wyatt explained, although he saw only chaos and a bit too much rouge on her face. Pausing a moment or two, thinking about his life, his family, Harry, Wyatt found a new way to begin.
“There’s a quote of Maya Angelou’s, ‘The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.’ Have you heard it?” Renny shook her head and he went on. “For a lot of gay people, it isn’t like that. Home isn’t a safe place. Their families don’t make them feel safe; they cannot be themselves. We get cursed at, shut out, cut out…” Wyatt fought to keep the tears from falling. “Anyway, in order to feel safe and loved as we are, gay people often create new families out of friends, old lovers and—.”
“Did your family do that to you?”
“No!” He chuckled, and, for some reason, felt embarrassed for it. “I was luckier than most. My Dad had a hard time of it, at first, no grandchildren to carry on the family name and all that. And my mother blamed herself for the things she did, or didn’t do. But they love me…and Harry, too. They treat him like a son. Harry has a family in my family.” He stopped when Renny’s smile turned to ice.
“Don’t get upset,” he finally said. “He doesn’t blame anyone, not anymore, I think, but he feels like he lost his family a long time ago. You left and he didn’t know where to find you. And Jimmy, well…he was just a kid when Harry moved away; what could he say to Jimmy about being gay?
“When people ask if he’s gay, Harry says, ‘Yeah! In every sense of the word!’ He’s learned that because of our ‘family.’ He’s discovered that he’s all right.” Wyatt laughed a bit, but then turned serious. “He wrote your mother, telling her that he was gay, trying to explain who he was, and that he was happy. He wanted to share that with her, but she never answered him. So, he gave up…he didn’t want to, but he felt it was the only way. He gave up, and started a new family to share…birthdays and holidays, anniversaries…life, even death.”
Renny nodded as she listened. “And because a lot of your family is gay, you’ve seen many of them die from AIDS?”
“Yes,” Wyatt nodded soberly, stopping to remember the friends, the lovers, the family, he no longer had in his life: Erin and Joey. Mark. Eddie and Ryan…And he told her about John, Harry’s first lover, ending by saying, “He died of pneumocystis…complications from AIDS.”
“Oh my God, Wyatt. Is he—?” The idea of Harry being sick, of him dying, hit her full force, leaving her breathless; it couldn’t happen, not after she’d found him again, but Wyatt was quick to calm her fears.
“No! No…he’s fine…he’s—we’re both fine.” He swiftly said. “Harry was lucky. He didn’t come out until after the virus was big news, and I think it scared him into monogamy and safe sex. He’s always…we’ve always…been safe.”
“This is so sad…” Holding a tube of lipstick in her hand, Renny stared at the jade green tube as though she had no idea what is was, or how to use it. She looked frozen in place, until she finally said, “I hate to think of him dying alone…like our mother.”
Stung by her inability to comprehend what he was saying, Wyatt stepped into the bathroom—essentially a tiled closet with a drain, the room was that small—and took the lipstick from her hand. This simple act appeared to thaw Renny and she looked up at him. “He isn’t alone, Renny,” Wyatt said. “I told you. Harry has a family that loves him. And he has me. I love him, Renny—I think I fell in love with him before I even knew his name—and I’ll be with him forever. We’re a family, Harry and me, but, I was thinking, there’s always room for a sister and brother.”
Crying now, out of sadness and joy, Renny hugged him. Much as Harry had done, though for entirely different reasons, Renny created a family of her own; only she dreamt up the family from her past while he created one for the future. That was the difference between them, Harry and Renny; she dwelled on the past while he looked straight ahead. Renny started to say something to Wyatt, but he was near tears, too, until she whispered something in his ear and they began to laugh.
“Oh shit. There goes my makeup.”
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>I Should Be Laughing: Harry At John’s Grave

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The pines and firs high on the knoll were shadowy figures, blurred behind the swollen fog to look more like grayish aliens sent down from the heavens to stand guard on the hilltops than ancient trees. It was a cold morning, and eerily quiet because of the fog. Outside the cemetery gates Harry took it all in, the cool mist stinging his face, the winds swirling the haze around the gates, up into the trees. He actually liked the graveyard; the quiet serenity calmed him, while the manicured lawns and neatly pruned shrubs reminded him of a private garden. Peaceful; as it should be. He liked to come when it was misty and silent, early in the morning; he liked coming when no one else was around.
Harry wandered up the crooked drive that led from the street to the top of the hill. Where the roadway fractured in two, he went left, and about halfway up, he stepped from the blacktop to the green lawn. The dew splattered his shoes as he hiked among the ancient oaks, their bark damp, drops of moisture dripping from their leaves to land like tears upon his jacket sleeves. Trembling with the cold, rubbing his hands together for warmth, Harry realized he should have worn gloves; instead, he could only shove his fingers into the deep recesses of his pockets. He wore a scarf, and, in fact, had looped it around his neck a few times; and his old coat could be snapped and buttoned and zippered and velcroed against the chill. He should have remembered gloves, but his mind was elsewhere.
Mindful of where he stepped, Harry walked between the graves and pulled his hands from the luxury of his coat to run his fingers over the roughened tops of the burial markers. Those great granite stones, icy to the touch, evoked the names of those who had passed in the early years of this century; the more recent arrivals were near the top of the hill. Harry left the rows of upright headstones and strolled across a grassy meadow where the markers were flush to the ground like postage stamps. He had heard these new stones made it easier for the caretakers to simply run the large mowers right over them. Strange, Harry grimaced, even in death we need to conform, to make life easier for someone else.
Calmly and methodically, without looking where he was headed, for there was no need, Harry walked on. He instinctively knew where to go, which trees to walk around, which hedges were in flower. He knew the graves he wanted to see, the ones that would have fresh flowers, and he knew the names of those he passed along the way: Agnes Nolan, someone’s grandmother; Faye and Ben Holiday, a married couple; Erin and Joey Wilson, a mother and son; Charlie Groves, James Sanford, someone’s friend or son. Harry felt as though he was on a first name basis with these people because he had walked among them so often.
After a leisurely stroll, he stopped, and knelt down to brush away the newly cut grass from one marker in particular; his hand came away damp and covered with lawn clippings. Wiping it on his pants leg, he then proceeded to pull a few of the longer blades of grass that were growing onto, and crowding, the flattened stone. He plucked off the damp leaves and cleared away the rubbish from the chiseled name of his friend.
“My mother passed away this week, John.” Harry said, still crouched down, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together for warmth. “And I keep thinking that I should have told her about you…about us. I wonder how different life would have been if my mother had known the wonderful things you did for her son when I felt so lonely. I wonder if it might have been better for us, too, if we all hadn’t been such liars.”
Harry raised his eyes to the sky, toward the silver dollar sun hiding behind a bank of clouds. He enjoyed visiting John, even with everything that had happened between them. The beatings Harry endured. The times he’d let John move back into the house even though the locks were changed, even though he swore he wouldn’t do it. Harry believed he owed John something.
“I never thanked you,” he said softly, “for what you did for me. God,” he laughed a little. “I was so afraid when I first came to the city and you made everything okay…for a while.” Pausing, Harry remembered the good times, of which there were many to recall, enough to make him smile in spite of the chill and sadness. Dancing with John at The Stud; John, on the bar, threatening to pull his pants down, and then doing so. The parties they had on the rooftop of their apartment building, watching fireworks explode over the bay on the Fourth of July. The times they rented bikes to ride through Golden Gate Park to the beach; laughing over a comic strip in the Sunday Chronicle. Staying in bed all day on a rainy Saturday, watching “Sunset Boulevard” or “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
“Why did we lie so much, John? Neither of us would admit it, but we were ashamed of being gay. No matter how we pretended otherwise…acting as if we were so fabulous when we…. I mean, we told cab drivers and store clerks, bartenders and newspaper boys that we were gay, but we never ever told our own families. I realize now that’s why you hit me, because you didn’t like yourself very much. I know that’s why I let it happen. We didn’t think we deserved to be in love and happy…”
Reaching into his pocket, Harry retrieved a snapshot he’d come across inside the cardboard box. He looked at it again. “I brought this for you…something to remember me by, the good times.” He laid the picture on the marker, careful to slide it close to the edge where it would stay until the winds picked up, or when the big mower came by. Harry brought his fingers to his lips and then touched John’s name.
“I’m going now, John. I just came by to tell you about my mother. To tell you I miss you…and Wyatt misses you, too. He sends his love.” Rising, his knees cackling from being crouched for so long, Harry wiped his eyes and then started down the hill, knowing which way to turn without thinking, which headstones to touch. He said goodbye to the others as he passed by.
Up the hill, on John’s marker, the photograph began to stir in the breeze. And yet that snapshot stayed in place on the stone; it remained there through the weekend rains and the passage of the lawn mowers. It was a photograph taken on the beach at LaHaina in happier times: Harry, on the right, his forehead blistered and burned, Wyatt on the left in sunglasses and a straw hat. John stood in the middle, smiling, sipping a Mai Tai.

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>I Should Be Laughing: Emma

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When the rains came, as they always did, late in the day, torrents of water would surge down from the hilltops, from the stand of native pines at the crest, and surround the insignificant house on three sides. The rains would then disappear, as fast as they came, leaving muddy reminders in the yard, a clean smell in the air, and wisps of steam rising up from the blacktopped surface of Painter Road.
Waiting for the rains, Emma stood on the back stoop of her tiny, rented house. The stoop, which Beam repaired after one particularly vicious winter, sagged in the middle and leaned to one side. It left Emma feeling off-balance, that stoop, but then Emma felt out of kilter most everywhere these days. Still, she stood on that small back porch whenever she had the chance. Whenever Beam was out of the house and Lyle was down for his nap.
It was cold that morning, unseasonably cold, though it was springtime and well past noon. And while the fog had lifted midmorning, the sun had yet to scare away the clouds and warm the house. With her arms crossed, frantic to keep the heat from her body close, Emma stood quivering in bare feet, icy feet, wriggling her toes in the chill of the wormy wood. Her hair, which she tied back with one of Beam’s bandannas, now hung in loose strips of straw around her face. When she was a girl, blue-eyed and truly blond, not from a bottle, Emmaline Fraser was beautiful; these days, these last years, she had become hard and angry, lonely. As a young girl, she seemed kissed by the sun. Tan. Laughing. Alive. Nowadays the sun was afraid to shine down on her; warming Emma Seaton was too much work.
She could trace a path back through the years to the day, to the exact moment, when her life had veered out of control. It was her eighth birthday, the last time anyone threw a party for Emma Fraser. She had long since stopped acknowledging the passing of the years, though not for the sake of vanity. Birthday parties and cakes were reminders; even the cards her father sent she declined to open. There are memories too painful to numb, no matter how many years or miles pass by, so Emma put away party dresses and gifts and bows, and it had worked out fairly well. Beam never remembered her birthday; no cards or cakes or flowers; not even a hug. It’s probably why I chose him, Emma thought, and why I stay. He doesn’t remind me of that day.
Her father, on the other hand, is a constant reminder. Every phone call and letter, every time she thinks of him, she imagines how he looked that day. How she loved that man…once; and how things had changed. Father and daughter had been so happy before her eighth birthday. These days she could barely bring herself to say his name.
Walt Fraser would pick Emmaline up after school every Friday and, together, they would roam around Fort Bragg, looking in windows, browsing through the toy store on Pacheco, eating ice cream on a wooden bench in front of Swensens. Walt would even climb to the top of the jungle gym in the park and sit with his daughter. Side-by-side they would stare over the rooftops of town and gaze at the sea, a sequined pane of glass ready to swallow up the sun.
Emmaline used to dream of what was out there, on the far side of the ocean. Who was over there in China? Was anybody in Africa thinking about a little girl in California when she was wondering about him or her? Emmaline Fraser spent too much time thinking about other people and places. Up the hill and downtown. Paris, France. On the beaches halfway around the world. Rio de Janeiro. Up north, back east. Alaska. What was out there, and could she have some?
These days Emma Seaton still stares and wonders. Mostly she peers into the trees at the top of the hill behind her little house, and she wonders what waits on the other side of those trees. Whenever Beam is away and Lyle is napping, Emma is wondering and staring; tapping her foot in the spongy wood of her back porch and chain-smoking.
Plucking the cigarette from her lips, Emma flicked it at the ground, into the dirt that would change to mud when the rains came later in the day. Her eyes flew to the top of the hill, narrowing as she gazed at the woods. The muscles along her jaw tensed and twitched leaving her face almost bird-like, the sharp crease to her nose, the slight point to her chin, the rapid eye movement. Her eyes darted from tree to tree, looking for the right path that would take her away, then dropping to her feet and staring at the cigarette dying in the dirt.
Back on that day, when she was seven, about to be eight, Emma’s father had come for her after school. Walt Fraser’s orders were to keep her away from home until at least five o’clock, so he took his beautiful laughing blond baby into town so she could pick out the doll she wanted. Suzie Q; a doll, Emma told him, that she could actually feed; a doll who wet herself and had real hair, and eyes that closed when she slept. Emmaline Fraser wanted a baby she could call her own.
Little Emma’s hands stretched as far as they could go, her fingers splayed over the counter of the Toy Place, trying to grab hold of her baby girl, Suzie Q. Emma laughed that laugh as the shopkeeper drew the box down off the shelf and held it just beyond her grasp.
……..

Emma was sick of waiting and watching. She stomped her bare foot down on the still lit cigarette lying in the dirt, stirring up clouds of dust that would mingle in the mud later in the day when the rains came. Emma, on the other hand, would be high and dry by then. Her mind made up that today was the day; she decided to ask Bessie Daggett to sit with Lyle until Beam got back from Missus Seaton’s. Most likely, he wouldn’t return until evening, having spent the day shoveling for her, groveling to her; five hours would give her a decent head start. By the time Beam realized she wasn’t home, and never would be again, she would be in a different place; another time, another time zone.
Rounding the corner of the house, headed downhill in the gullies caused by the rain that always came, Emma first saw him. Beam; running uphill; literally running. Where the hell is the car? If he trashed that thing, I’ll…Emma’s bird eyes honed in on her husband as though he were prey. Running! Beam hadn’t run since…he never ran; unless it was to the refrigerator for a beer, or away from a job. Yet, he was running today, tearing up the road as fast as he could.
His hair was soaking wet, glued to his scalp and curling around his neck, so damp it looked almost black. Inky ringlets plastered his forehead and Beam resembled some long-forgotten comic book character…the hamburger guy from Popeye, Emma thought. Wimpy! He looked Wimpy, running erratically up Painter Road. The plaid shirt he always wore was unbuttoned and trailing behind him; flames of blue and gray and green chasing him home. His undershirt, drenched with sweat, formed a second layer of skin as pasty white and flabby as the first.
Emma Fraser Seaton watched her husband claw up the hill to the house that was tacked onto a sharp curve in the road. She wanted to laugh when he tripped and fell to the gravel, but it wasn’t funny, nothing was funny anymore. When Beam stood up, quickly, and took off running the cackle stuck in her throat, becoming a cough. Wearing the face of a child in trouble, he wiped his hands on his jeans as he ran, and Emma wondered what he had done…this time. Sweat and tears flew from his face in enormous drops and a cry escaped his lips. Watching him scramble home in such terror, Emma knew she wouldn’t be able to leave; not today.
“Beam?” Emma stepped into the front yard the exact moment the rains came. As they always did.

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>I Should Be Laughing: Harry & John

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“What in the hell is this, John?” Harry ranted, his fingers gripping the piece of paper he’d found tacked to the front door. It was a Three-Day-Notice-To-Pay-Or-Quit, left by the landlord. Harry had gotten off early from work and beaten John home; he found the note.
“It’s no big deal.” Mumbling, John walked past Harry into the kitchen. He grabbed a cold Anchor Steam from the refrigerator and reached for the tequila. It was his afternoon martini, of sorts. “So what?”
“No big deal?” Harry repeated, a look of astonishment chiseled onto his face. “So what? You didn’t pay the fucking rent, John. Again! Where the hell is the money?”
Within months of their first date on Chestnut Street, right after the New Year, Harry and John moved in together. John packed his meager belongings, a futon, some compact discs and books, his clothes, and carried them up Collinwood to Harry’s apartment. Once Harry found work, he was able to move out of the one-room efficiency and into a larger apartment on the third floor. John convinced him they would be better off sharing his place; it was larger, and in a nicer building.
Harry, however, never realized that by having John move in with him, everything stayed in his name; the rent and the utilities. What Harry also failed to see was that John could never hold a job for too long, and that he always had an excuse. Not enough hours at the deli; too far away from the museum. Why should he work in a mailroom? Harry, in the meantime, held two jobs, struggling to keep the lights going and the gas on, the rent paid. He worked lunches at Bentos, south of Market, and tended bar at the Elbo Room at night. In between, he went to school.
At first, everything worked out fine. John cooked and cleaned; Harry paid the bills. Then John took the cash for the gas bill and bought a pair of jeans. Harry worked an extra shift at the bar to pay for that. John spent the money for groceries on lunch with his friends. Harry begged his boss for a few more lunches at Bentos and did the shopping himself.
This, however, was the last straw. For the second time in as many months John had taken the money for the rent and spent it on clothes and drinks, on nights out with the boys while Harry worked. Rather than get the money order for the landlord, John went dancing. Harry borrowed from his friends at work to cover the rent that first time, but this time…this time was different. He still owed his coworkers and couldn’t scrape together enough shifts at either job to cover the expenses by himself for another month. He slid deeper into debt while John went dancing, had lunch with friends, replenished his wardrobe.
“You need to get a job, John. Now. Today.” Harry said, standing firm, or at least pretending. He held the eviction notice in his hand, but now he let it fall, watching its slow descent to the floor. “I can’t pay the rent again. I don’t have the money this time. You need to get a job or you need to move out.”
“C’mon Harry. Can’t you borrow from someone at work?” John asked, calmly sipping his beer. With his bare foot, he nudged the scrap of paper on the floor and looked at Harry with those eyes, eyes that could usually convince his boyfriend but this time failed.
“No.”
“No?” John said smugly, then laughed. “No?”
Without hesitation, John threw the beer bottle at Harry, barely missing him. It smashed into the wall beside the door, into a watercolor Harry bought from a friend; the glass shattered and the frame bent. When Harry turned to look at the mess, John ran at him, tackling him and shoving him into the living room.
“No…no…no….”

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>I Should Be Laughing: Barbara

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In the spring of 1958, when newlyweds Barbara and Billy Seaton, William to his mother-in-law, never Bill, and definitely not Billy, saw Beal’s Landing for the first time, it looked almost exactly as it had in the late nineteenth century, and still does today. Nothing more than a clump of silhouetted shops and huddles cottages scattered haphazardly in a foggy field above the sea.
Seated in the back, glancing out the window with dead eyes, Barbara Pierce Seaton, new mother, newlywed, barely out of her teens, considered the fog an omen of what lie ahead for her; a life of gray, no color whatsoever. Everything was bleak; the fog, the town itself—Beal’s Landing sounded like a place in New England—and everything else, most importantly, her life. All of it was colorless; the sky above, running from horizon to hilltops, as well as the clouds that surged up from the sea below. Barbara heard the ocean berate the cliffs angrily; she understood that sense of hatred, for it was how she felt about her mother. Her sentiments, though, unlike those of the sea, went unvoiced.
Aged shingles, stinking of salt and wetness, rot and loneliness, covered all of the buildings, save the church and the gas station, and there was then, as now, a row of houses on the Beach Road above the cove. Fast houses from a time when Beal’s Landing was a logging settlement, furnishing timber for, what seemed, was an ever-burning San Francisco. Lumberjacks needed the diversions of liquor and women to keep them on the job during the damp, dull winters. Every building appeared lifeless, except one.The Methodist church wasn’t bleak and drab, nor did it reek of dankness and decay. In fact, it was as newly arrived to The Landing—which is what the townies dubbed their home—as the Seaton family. The clapboards bore a fresh coat of whitewash, which lent the building an aura of light, a halo, and the entire area smelled of sawdust and fresh oak. The congregation had erected a picket fence, standard for California coastal villages hoping to mirror their New England counterparts, around the property and virgin sod sprouted from the sandy soil.
Irene Pierce’s Buick Special, the first in recent years, as far as she was concerned, to be a decent model—no fins on the back as though it were a rocket ship destined for Mars, although the interior was red with a matching stripe outside—cruised between the pumps of the Phillips 66 on the edge of town. The attendant, dressed in a crisp beige uniform, a tie knotted securely around his neck and a cap placed properly atop his head, promptly jogged out to the black sedan.
“Fill’er up, Ma’am?”
Irene nodded through the closed window, and while the attendant pumped the gas, cleaned the windows and checked under the hood, Billy got out to have a cigarette. Flipping up the collar of his sports coat to stave off the chill, he pulled a thin gold cigarette case out of an inside pocket, then looked around at The Landing; through it, was a more accurate statement. Even then, it was only blocks from end to end, from the highway to the fields at the brink of the Pacific. Dewy grass layered the meadow, the droplets glistened crystalline in the slender rays of sunlight drizzling from the clouds. Facing the beauty of the sea, and the way the sun amused itself on the water, Billy frowned. The rolling fields gave the illusion of running on without end, and he wondered what he was doing, married to a woman he scarcely knew, and moving hundreds of miles away from everything, everyone, he ever cared about; with a baby daughter no less.
Inside the car, as the attendant wiped the windshield dry, Irene Pierce watched her son-in-law’s movements. Without taking her eyes from him, she spoke: “You must make this work, Barbara Jean.” Her reedy thin voice decreed, so full of itself. “Now that you’ve gotten yourself into this…situation…you must make it work.”
“Yes, Mother,” Barbara sighed, a declaration of defeat. Her own gaze had followed her husband from the car, and she watched the puffs of smoke spewing up and away from his mouth when he exhaled; they were as vague as her feelings for him. Although she had wanted him from the moment she saw him, that day he came to the house in a suit and tie, toting a bouquet of roses for a blind date, now that she had him, she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what to do with him, with their baby girl, with the house her mother had given them in this godforsaken town. She wanted Billy Seaton because he belonged to someone else; someone who always got what she wanted. Well, now she had him….

The house in Pasadena, though not especially large, was meticulously maintained; Irene Pierce made certain of that. Gardeners were hired to mow the yards and tend to the flowerbeds and, though rarely used, they also cleaned the pool, a necessary status symbol for Southern California in the forties and fifties. Although she had no live-in help—even she thought that pretentious—Irene employed a woman who came in to clean twice weekly; a woman whose husband serviced the car, kept it washed and waxed until it gleamed.
Lemon and avocado trees surrounded the house, a Greene and Greene design, which sat atop a hill on a large expanse of lawn. On the veranda, beneath a wide overhang, among the several pieces of Adirondack furniture, there were always baskets of fresh flowers from Irene’s gardens, and on top of a stout pole in the center of the lawn, an American flag was proudly unfurled every holiday. Erich Pierce, a decorated colonel, died in Germany during the last Great War, and Irene honored his memory religiously.It was to this house, this painstakingly detailed house, that Billy Seaton came to see his fiancé before she returned to Vassar. He brought a box of chocolates, red roses, and a gold locket enclosing his picture. Most of his weekly pay had been spent on the gifts, but Billy was in love with this girl and would have done anything to please her. In his dress blues—she loved to see him in uniform—Billy strode through the gate and saw her in the window.
Soft blond curls framed her face and her eyes were laughing, as always; she seemed to be every color ever named and every musical note ever played. As she waved from the second floor window he saw the diamond ring he had slipped onto her finger, once Missus Pierce had given her blessing. It was a plain ring, simple; Billy knew, even before he saw Irene Pierce’s frown, but he promised something more appropriate when he had the money.
“I’ll do anything for her, Missus Pierce,” he vowed at dinner that summer night, holding a glass of iced tea in his hands so she wouldn’t notice them trembling. “She’ll never want for a thing.”
Irene smiled at her future son-in-law, at William as she called him. He was so much like Erich, handsome and smart, with a bright military future ahead of him. Yet, hers was a dispassionate smile, even in times of sheer bliss; it was a shroud of propriety and good breeding, hiding the fact that she was never a happy woman. Pleasure was a veneer Irene Pierce wore only when deemed necessary, for joy, true joy, was an emotion for which she had no use. It was frivolous, pointless; a waste of time. She had other things to consider: standing in the community, for one, keeping up an appearance that reflected positively on her dead husband.
Still, she smiled at William, and her oldest daughter, sitting demurely at the far end of the table. She certainly was her father’s child, this girl for whom smiling was effortless, for whom laughter was ever-present. This was a girl who would much rather dance that walk, sing than talk. Irene smiled at this girl, and then turned toward her youngest daughter, brooding and angry, sitting across from William. Irene looked at her two girls, so different from one another; Barbara, dark and moody, jealous, while Patricia was prized and lively. Patricia was hope; Barbara was despair.
“Do you love this man?” Irene asked her daughter, raising her glass of champagne in toast. “Do you love him, Patricia?”

Irene tapped the horn sharply to alert William that she was ready; the harsh sound bleated through the fog like a wounded animal before dying in the mist. Billy dropped his cigarette in the sand and stubbed it out with the toe of his shoe, then, dutifully, he marched back to the somber car, to the three women waiting on him; one of whom he barely knew; one of whom he could scarcely tolerate; one of whom was an innocent. Sliding onto the red leather seat beside Irene, he pulled the door closed with a thud, suffering another one of her disapproving looks; he chose to ignore it. His eyes were lost in the fog that gathered around the black car; the windows were steaming up on the inside, drizzling with dew outside.
“So? Where’s this house?” he asked, and the car roared off through the low clouds like a black bullet through soft tissue.

“Barbara Jean?” Irene cried from the foyer, hat and gloves in hand, her pocketbook lying on a side table. “You best be getting up this instant, young lady! There is a lot to do today. BARBARA JEAN!”Upstairs, locked inside her bathroom, Barbara sat on the floor where it was cool, her back to the commode, a damp cloth pressed to her forehead. For now, the vomiting had ended, but her skin still felt clammy, her eyes pulsed, and her stomached roiled. She could not tell her mother that this would be the third time in a week she would take a sick day, and that her boss at the museum, a chopstick of a woman who wore her hair tight and her eyebrows arched, had suggested she find employment elsewhere. But Barbara couldn’t look for another job, not now. No matter how menial Mother called her job… “A museum gift shop, Barbara? This is why you left university? To be a salesgirl?”…she would not quit until she had enough money for a place of her own, something downtown or near the beach, anywhere other than Pasadena where she and Billy could be alone.
“Barbara!”
Eyes closed, she rubbed the now warm cloth over her forehead, down her nose and across her mouth. Reaching down she unbuttoned her sweater and pushed it aside. Today there were two buttons on her skirt she couldn’t fasten; last week it was one. “Please don’t let this happen,” she muttered. Then, believing she could stand, Barbara pushed herself off the floor, grabbing the lip of the sink to steady her ascent. Instantly her stomach turned over and she dropped to her knees and lowered her head over the bowl.
“Don’t let this happen to me.”

“There’s the market.” Irene tapped a honed fingernail against the driver’s window. When the car slithered past Dawson’s Market, drawing stares from shoppers, a young boy of no more than ten, Jerry Dawson they would soon learn, stood on the sidewalk, stared at them, resting his chin atop a broom handle until a voice inside yelled at him to get to work. “I’ve already checked, Barbara,” she glanced in the mirror, holding her eyes in the small glass rectangle until her daughter looked up, “and they deliver anywhere in town.
“That’s the stationary store.” Irene aimed a finger through the windshield. “And the florist, although this one doesn’t have as nice a selection as the one in Fort Bragg. This one is far too common, Bar—.”
“What are those?” Eyeing a row of tumbledown buildings at bluff’s edge, Billy interrupted Irene. The four unbalanced structures, two stories each, had balconies facing the street, though black shades covered every window.
“Fast houses.” Irene sniffed.
“Fast houses?” Billy asked, at once intrigued. He had no idea from where Irene’s vocabulary originated, she used such old-fashioned terms, but it always peaked his interest. “What’s a fast house?”
“Bars, William. Brothels. Certainly not the kinds of establishments I would expect you to frequent, not with a new wife and child—.”
“I understand that, Irene,” Billy told her, knowing that by cutting her off, and using her first name when the instructions were to call her Mother, that he was once again risking rebuke. “I was merely curious.”
Irene sniffed and stared straight ahead. The remainder of their short drive through Beal’s Landing, down the three blocks to the end of town where the road curved to meet the Shoreline Highway, as well as the ride atop the cliffs themselves, was committed in silence. Irene scowled at the hood of the car while Billy studied the dull green meadow that seemed to run on and on, full of the remnants of long-dead houses; he wouldn’t ask about those, however, he would remain quiet. Silence also spilled over the back seat, where Barbara sat watching her hands and thinking, “Please don’t let this happen.”

Outside the enormous picture window, working quietly as per her instructions, five Mexican day laborers, brought to the neighborhood each morning by truck and then carted away at nightfall, strung the house in Christmas lights and hung garland on each porch column. Irene couldn’t be bothered watching the men work though; she was far too busy glaring at the couple sitting before her. Her eyes pivoted from one to the other—Barbara, three months pregnant, and William, who had admitted to fathering the bastard child.
“Let me say again, I thank God Patricia isn’t coming home for the holidays.” The very picture of decorum, Irene Pierce perched regally in a wing chair beside the fireplace, her feet crossed properly at the ankles, never higher, and her hands folded in her lap. “What do you plan on doing about this?”
“I was going to—.” Her daughter muttered slowly.
“I am not speaking to you, Barbara Jean.” Irene lashed out, though the only muscles to move were the tiny ones encircling her mouth; the rest of her face remained utterly calm, on the off chance that one of the workmen might look inside. She could not take the risk of having them spread rumor and innuendo throughout the neighborhood, telling anyone and everyone that there was something amiss in the Pierce house; she could not tolerate that. Leveling steely blue eyes at her daughter, she snarled viciously, “Understand me when I tell you that you have no say at all in this matter, Barbara Jean.”
Giving her daughter, who sat back in the sofa as though trying to descend into the cushions, no chance to respond, Irene directed her black stare onto William Seaton. He had opted to sit far from Barbara, even though it was evident that, at one time, he’d gotten very close to her. Now, he sat in the easy chair at the far end of the sofa, facing the firing squad of Irene Pierce.
“William?”
“Well, ma’am,” he began, politely apologetic, shifting his gaze from the hat in his lap to Irene, to the fire, to Barbara, and then quickly back to the hat. “We thought Barbara might go up north to have the baby and then give it—.” Billy stopped.
“No,” Irene snorted, her ruby red lips curled in sarcasm. Turning momentarily, she motioned to one of the workers that she would like the wreaths hung higher on the porch columns, and then went back to William, the smile hardened. “You will not give this child away as though it was some unwanted piece of garbage. As sickened as I am by what the two of you have done, to Patricia, to me, this family, her father’s memory, I will not allow this child to be given away like candy on Halloween. You’ve made a mistake and you will set it right.”
“Missus Pierce,” Billy said, afraid to look directly at her. “We thought it would be best if—.”
“William,” Irene half-laughed. “The fact of the matter is that you haven’t thought at all. That has been your problem all along. If, just once, you stopped to think, then perhaps you would have kept your pants zipped and your…your hands off my daughter.”
Easing back in her chair, Irene watched the lights outside the glass flicker on and off as the workmen tested the strings. A row of poinsettias, as well as two Christmas trees, one for the foyer and a large one for the living room, were to arrive from a downtown florist later in the day. Even though she remained seated, in that wing chair, with her legs crossed stiffly at the ankles, her hands laced into her lap, planning a future for Barbara and William, while disregarding their wishes, Irene made mental notes to herself. There was a Christmas goose to order; one of the workmen had to retrieve the boxes of ornaments from the attic; invitations for her annual holiday party must be addressed and sent out.
“You will marry Barbara as soon as possible—.”
“Mother!!” Barbara wailed at the precise moment Billy shouted, “Missus Pierce!”
Irene went on as though the pair hadn’t uttered a sound. “—in a civil ceremony, of course. It wouldn’t look good at all to have you marry in the church so suddenly. Everyone would know. You will be married by Judge Corbett—I think he can do it this weekend—and then you will leave town. I’ll take care of Patricia. I’ll say that you’ve asked for a transfer, William, and left without a word.” Irene was pleased with the sense of order she was creating; everything fell into place rather easily and more quickly that she anticipated. A few phone calls, a withdrawal or two from the bank, a meeting with a realtor, and all her troubles would go away. Irene smirked, and stared at her daughter.
“As for you, Barbara. I think it best that Patricia know nothing of this…pregnancy. It would kill her to learn of your betrayal. I’ll write her that you and I have had a falling out over your refusal to finish your studies. I’ll tell her that you’ve moved away, perhaps to San Francisco. I will not have either one of you hurt Patricia, so neither of you shall see her, or speak to her, again.”
“Mother? She’s my sister! You can’t make me—.”
“I can!” Irene replied angrily. “It’s apparent you don’t care about her, given what you’ve done…you will not see her again! Am I clear?”
“Mother—.”
“Clear!”
“Missus Pierce,” Billy interrupted. “I am so sorry for what’s happened. Really. But I can’t marry….” He took his eyes and turned them toward the frail, pale, girl sitting mutely on the couch, the ashen eyes turned down, the skin moist with perspiration. “I…I’m sorry, Barbara…Missus Pierce…but I, uh…I don’t love her.”
“Of course you don’t, William. I never said that you did. Nevertheless, you put your hands on her and now you will marry her. Thanks to my late husband, I enjoy many close friendships with influential men at the air base. Think of how it would look if anyone found out about you fathering a child and then suggesting an…abortion. Think how those men might react to your running out on a girl and her baby. I doubt a dishonorable discharge is what you had in mind, William; it certainly isn’t the reputation one would care to have for the rest of one’s life.”
Now, smiling frostily, for it was the only way she knew how, Irene cocked an eyebrow at Barbara’s intended, her future son-in-law, and glanced at the brightly colored bulbs glittering along the front of her magnificent home.

Only after Irene parked the Buick near the fence, the For Sale sign still banging on the lamppost, did Barbara take her eyes from her lap and look up. The house was scarcely visible in the fog, even though it stood a short distance from the road; it was nothing more than a shapeless hulk looming grimly in the mist. A square gray box that bore a greater resemblance to the prison Mother had meant for them than a home; a punishment of solitude and distance.
Barbara was unaware he had gotten out of the car, when suddenly Billy was pulling the door open; she offered a smile, for he seemed in such pain. Her weak grin struggled to apologize for that one night when it was too hot in the valley, and they’d had too much champagne, for that one time when she stopped caring about what was expected, what was right, and had done what she wanted. Her eyes, filled with sorrow, stared at her husband, her sister’s former fiancé, but Billy only extended his hand to her, to help her from the car. For his part, however, his face and mannerisms held no recriminations; only resignation registered in Billy’s eyes, a confession of guilt, and acceptance of his punishment.
Without waiting for either one of them, Irene began her march on the house, the low heels of her shoes clacking along the stone pathway. Rising into the cold air, peering over the roof of the car—Billy had already left her side to get the baby—Barbara traced her mother’s path. At first critically visible, all blackness and angles, except for a scratch of crimson on a crooked, unsmiling mouth, Irene soon melted into a ghastly demon writhing in the foggy tendrils. Murky air swirled in the wake she left behind until she settled on the porch, opening the door slightly to reveal a large, dark, vacant house behind her. Staring into the blackness, Barbara somehow hoped the house would swallow her mother whole, so she and Billy might end this charade.
“Barbara?” Irene called with what, for her, amounted to cheerfulness, while tugging the gloves from her fingertips. She plucked the pin from her hair to remove her hat and veil. “Come inside. I know it seems dour, what with all the fog and the chill, but it truly is a magnificent home. There is nothing like it on the entire coast.”

That spring of 1958, during their first week in the house, Billy and Barbara busily accepted packages from Pasadena. Wooden crates arrived early every morning, bursting with fine china and crystal; sterling silver pieces, pots, pans, toaster and blender; stair runners and throw rugs of the finest quality, some new, some hand-me-downs from Irene’s home. A settee, an exact replica of the one at the foot of her mother’s bed, was placed in the back parlor for Barbara’s afternoon naps. A crib was set up in what Irene dubbed the “maid’s room.” Brawny deliverymen carried lamps and tables into the house, while the Post Office delivered watercolors and whatnots. Candy dishes, serving bowls, tea sets. Linens and towels; napkins and napkin rings. Cookware. Curtains, pillows, books, clocks.
Each and every carton and crate, the wooden trunks and collections of artwork, arrived at the house at the end of Skeleton Road bearing a card as though the boxes and bundles and chests were wedding gifts. Yet these treasures hadn’t been sent by friends and family to wish the newlyweds good luck; these gifts, all from Irene, were bars and chains to keep the couple in Beal’s Landing—a two-day car trip from home—and to keep them from contacting Patricia.
“Make a home for your husband, Barbara.” Irene wrote on each package and card, and Barbara did exactly that, spending the entire spring unpacking the odds-and-ends her mother had sent, tending to her baby daughter, setting up her house and trying to love her husband. Good girl.
Billy did his part, too, throwing himself into the job Irene secured for him through one of her numerous military connections. And even though he was away frequently, in Southeast Asia, for months at a time, he wrote often and brought home colorful gifts for his daughter and elegant presents for Barbara. The perfect airman, and when he was home, the ideal father. So much so, that in 1961 he received Airman of the Year honors and the base sent out a photographer to take glossy, staged and posed, eight-by-tens, of Seaton family togetherness. Each time Billy received any recognition from the base, in fact, even before he himself learned of the honor, a congratulatory package from Irene would arrive. A color television set; a reel-to-reel tape player; dolls for the baby.How Billy loved that child, and yet how he tried to forget the way she had come into his life. He just loved her, and spent all his free time with her, feeding her in the mornings while Barbara slept late, and each night, still in his brilliant orange fatigues from work, as Barbara fussed in the kitchen—the right forks, the perfect Manhattan—he headed up to the baby’s room to see his girl. It was Missus Pierce’s idea, the name Irene; a constant reminder of what Billy and Barbara had done. Irene. Irene. Irene. Straight away, Billy began calling her Renny.
Over the next few years, he and Barbara settled into their respective roles—the homemaker and the breadwinner—and every time Billy went away, be it Korea or Saigon, he returned home happy to see his daughter, and perhaps even his wife. Billy and Barbara became close; if not in love, they were close. Close enough, in fact, to have another child, with a little prodding from Irene—“What’s to stop William from leaving you, Barbara? The older Irene gets, the easier it will be for him to walk away. You must have another child.”—who visited The Landing once a month, regular as clockwork, the warden checking on the inmates. As a result of Irene’s near constant interference, Harry was born in 1965, and James came along another seven years later; an itch scratched. Barbara and Billy, never in love and never meant to be, found they had created a family, against all odds. Then, Billy retired and their lives changed forever.
After some twenty years in the service, he needed a change. Each day, driving across the mountains to the base, Billy would count the wineries that sprang up from Healdsburg to Ukiah. When a buddy of his, another Master Sergeant, Joe Baker, and his wife, urged him to join them in starting a winery of their own, Billy, sensing the growing popularity of California wines, leapt at the chance. And, of course, Irene was only too happy to help; she would do anything to keep him in Beal’s Landing with Barbara and the children.
When Billy needed money to attend a school on winemaking, Irene took an extra step; she purchased a new car so he could make the trip more easily. The only thing she hadn’t counted on was the fact that Billy would attend classes in San Luis Obispo; so far from home, and so close to…. Sitting in a motel room from Monday until Friday, he grew bored and picked up the phone….“Hello Patricia.”

“Break it down if you must,” Irene directed the man from town; the man who had driven her from the small airport in Ukiah, “Break it down.”
The thickset man, Irene thought he’d said his name was Jack, although she couldn’t be bothered with remembering, asked her to step off the porch. She moved into the yard, to stand in the tall grass, stiff and brown, moist from the fog, but dead as could be, watching Jack take hold of a granite porch support, watching him raise his solid leg, then wincing as he sent it crashing into the door beside the knob. Jack gave the door three swift kicks before it cringed; another pounding and the door cracked and splintered, and burst open.
The smell of the house gushed out at them like floodwaters over a ruptured dam. Rotten food and filth, the stale air of a house closed up for many weeks. The man, Jack she thought, looked back at Irene and then began to head inside.
“NO!” She commanded and the burly hired hand instantly stopped; he turned like the obedient dog she presumed all manual laborers to be and took his place behind her in the yard. “I’ll go in alone. You can go. I’ll send a check.”
Moving guardedly toward the door, Irene recoiled as the smell grew increasingly unbearable. It had only been a matter of months since her last visit, since she delivered the new wardrobe for her granddaughter. Yet in the last weeks, every time she telephoned, the bell would ring and ring and…. Knowing that even if Barbara was… incapacitated…one of the children would pick up the receiver, Irene became alarmed.
The creaking of the hinges, loosened by Jack’s steel-toed work boots wasn’t helping her nerves; nor was the darkness and the stench, the black waves of thunderclouds rolling overhead and the surf pounding the cliff behind the house. The winds pushed her inside, the clouds overhead pummeled her, and the disgusting odor repelled her. Irene had expected the worst after Patricia’s call, but this was beyond her perceptions.

“Billy’s here, Mother,” Patricia announced, coolly and evenly. “He’s told me everything…about Barbara, the children. What you did to th—.”
“Patricia,” Irene responded in kind, her voice dignified and sedate, her mind spinning. Settling in at the desk, she took her checkbook from the drawer; this might cost her. “You need to realize what he did to you—.”
“You did it, Mother, by playing God with our lives. Pushing Barbara so hard that she had to quit the university…comparing the two of us. That’s why she hated me. That’s why I chose Vassar. It was so far away from you.” Patricia began to cry, her words growing congested and scattered, “If you…our own lives…left us alone…Billy and I might…this never would have happened!”
“Patri—.”
“Shut up Mother.” Patricia stopped weeping as she listened to Irene’s unemotional, unruffled tone. She instantly became the controlled woman her mother had shown her over the years. What Irene had done, to them, Billy, Barbara, herself…those children…sent her freefalling into anger and rage. The only way to find safety was to fight back. “For once in you life, shut up and listen!”
Setting down her pen and pushing her checkbook away, Irene leaned back in her chair; she wasn’t listening, however, she was thinking.
“Do you remember when Renny visited last summer? The day I spent with the two of you? My God, Mother! Billy’s own child and you…. I used to wonder about Barbara’s husband, about why no one ever mentioned him. I thought he…. I felt so sorry for her.”
“Patricia?”
“SHUT UP!” Patricia took a deep breath and then, strangely enough, laughed, bitterly. “Billy’s left her, Mother. He’s been staying with me for nearly a month. He told me that Barbara is out of control, that she hits the…. He’s bringing the children here—.”
“That will NEVER happen!” Irene had been silent for as long as she could stand. No one, not even her own child, would speak to her like this. Patricia was in control, but Irene would not lose this battle. “William will never take those children away from their mother. I’ll see to that. I’ll spend every dime I have to see that he loses all rights to them. Push me, Patricia, and see what I’ll do to the both of you. How dare you do this to your sister!”
Patricia still managed the last word. “How dare you do what you did to us.”

Piles of trash lay all over as Irene entered the dismal foyer; newspapers were strewn about like carpeting in a tenement, and pizza boxes and fast food containers were evidence of past meals consumed and forgotten. Irene glanced into the dining room, the light timid and shy, entering through blurry shades drawn shut. A mound of clothing, shreds actually, lay in heaps atop the dining table; narrow pieces of fabric, Irene recognized as the dresses and blouses purchased for her granddaughter, precisely shredded. There was a pyramid of sorts, crafted from empty liquor bottles, bordering the bundle of fabric. In the kitchen, the swinging door held open by a slipper shoved beneath it, the sink was filled with dishes and glasses, stacked high, filmy with dried milk and food.
A spark of light, no more than a flicker in the shadows, captured Irene’s attention and kept her from setting foot in into the kitchen. Returning to the foot of the stairs, she eyed the second floor landing, but it was all blackness and silence. The light flashed again, gray and white, alive with feeling and this time Irene realized it emanated from the back parlor. The television was on back there, although the sound was down in an effort, she assumed, to keep the silence intact. Steeling for a shock, knowing that Barbara had brought yet another black mark to the family name, Irene moved toward the black and white lights, into the back parlor.
Barbara lay curled up in an old knit bedspread, and something more disgusting than her mind could comprehend splattered the cloth; the shiny brown stains tinted the blanket an indescribable color. Barbara’s hair had neither been combed nor washed in many weeks and stood up in greasy clumps around her head. Her face, what Irene could see of it, the part that wasn’t obscured by hair and blanket, was as blank as the television screen.
“Barbara?” Irene whispered as she neared her daughter, holding her hands beneath her chin, her arms close to her sides, to avoid touching anything. The foyer had been awful, so dark and full of rubbish and those horrendous odors, but here…this room was far worse. Bottles littered the floor beside half-eaten meals; empty glasses smeared with fingerprints sat on the end tables, on top of the television. A trashcan Barbara had obviously vomited into over the course of the past weeks had tipped over, the contents vandalizing an oriental rug, pooling and hardening beneath the couch. “Barbara?”
Scarcely able to turn her head, Barbara managed to open her eyes, the lids heavy and bruised from lack of sleep. She tried to focus on the tiny rigid woman who knelt before her; her eyelids bounced, her mouth and head twitched a bit. With quivering hands, she bunched the blanket tighter under her chin and turn away from her mother.
“Barbara?” Irene said again, her tone growing louder, more severe; the panic also rising. She could not bear the thought of her daughter dying like this, alone and drunk, so filthy, her children nowhere in sight, her husband having left her for her own…. What would people think? Her fingers, reluctantly, reached for Barbara’s shoulder. “Where is Irene? Barbara?”
“Gone.” Barbara answered cleanly, picking a piece of dried food from her lip. “She ripped up the clothes you gave her yesterday…”
“No.” Irene muttered in disbelief. It had been over a month since she’d brought out the new clothes and she wondered if her granddaughter had been gone that long. “Where did she go?”
“She’s…a friend.”
“Where is Harry? Did Harry leave you alone, too?” Irene grew angry, believing her grandchildren had left Barbara by herself all this time. Irene, she could understand; that girl was stubborn and out of control, but Harry…. Irene did not understand that boy. He rarely spoke when she visited; he stayed in his room or disappeared entirely. “Where is Harry?”
“Where else?” Barbara scowled and turned her face back to the cushion. Her voice was muffled when she spoke again, “In his roo…wif a door logged.”
Careful of where she placed her feet, Irene inched closer to the sofa; she gathered up the hem of her skirt in her fingers. “James?” He was only a baby, a year old, she thought, or maybe more. Surely, Barbara wouldn’t leave him unattended. Irene pushed her face into her daughter’s. “Barbara? Where is James?”
“I don’t know.”
Yes, you do, Barbara,” Irene said firmly. She pushed the hair from her daughter’s eyes and asked again. “Where is the baby?”
“I don’t know.”
“You do know, Barbara.” Irene said stubbornly. She reached for her daughter’s face, pinched Barbara’s cheeks between her fingers and made her open her eyes. “Where is James?”
“I don’t know!” Barbara said, viciously, the words spat into her mother’s eyes. “I don’t know!” Instantly shot through with energy, Barbara sat bolt upright and tossed the vile blanket aside. “I don’t know!” Rising off the couch with a jerk, she knocked Irene to the ground, and then rushed around the room, as wobbly as a marionette gone amuck. She kicked aside the bottles and knocked over the lamps. “I don’t know!” Dropping to all fours, she peered beneath the couch, laughing. “Where is my baby?” She ran to the curtains and threw them open, the light stinging her eyes, bringing fresh tears. “Where is my baby?”
Her laughter filled the house with darkness.

Upstairs, at the far end of a darkened hallway, in a room that faced the sun-dappled Pacific, Harry listened through his door just as he had been listening to his mother shrieking for weeks now, in between the silences that stretched on equally as long. Now, however, he heard his grandmother down there, shrieking as well, begging Barbara to calm down, shouting something about a doctor, pleading to know where Barbara had put the baby.
Leaving the door, after first locking it, Harry went back to his bed. As the weeks had worn on, the endless hours of his mother’s rages and tranquility, long after Renny left the house, he gathered all the extra blankets and pillows he could find. The clean ones anyway, of which there were but a few. He took linen from Renny’s room, from his mother’s closet, only the clean ones, then carried them into his room and made a nest of sorts on his bed; a place where the shouting would not be heard, a quiet place to sleep. He stacked pillows and blankets and sheets and coverlets around the bed, leaving a hollow in the lushness; he used all the linens, save one pillow and one blanket. Those he set on the window seat, beneath the window that faced the sea, the cove, his one place in the world.
Harry slept on the window seat whenever he had the chance, whenever he wasn’t downstairs in the dead of night, checking on his mother to make sure she was all right, to see to it that she didn’t hurt herself. Harry hid the knives and the scissors in the crawlspace beneath the back porch; he cleaned Barbara’s medicine cabinet of the numerous pills she stored there. When Harry wasn’t checking on his mother, he was making something to eat, for himself, for her, or warming a bottle on the stove.Standing at the edge of the nest of bed linens, he peered into the deep center, at the one person who remained unaffected by the shrieking…for a while at least. A few months over a year old, Jimmy lay among the mounds of sheets and blankets, sound asleep and thankfully unaware of what lay in store for him, for Harry, for Renny. For Mother.

It cost Irene a pretty penny to turn the house around after that day. She hired women from Eureka to come down and clean it from top to bottom; she paid them extra to return to their homes and never speak of what they witnessed in the house at the end of Skeleton Road. The gossips from Beal’s Landing would never know what happened to Barbara and her family, to William; she even sent a sizeable check, with a bonus to Jack, at least she thought his name was Jack, in return for his silence.
Slapping Renny hard across the face for abandoning her mother, Irene personally dragged the girl home from that friend’s house, and she forced Harry downstairs. Making them stand before her in the front parlor, she told them that their father had run off, “To God knows where!” She informed them that William was never coming back, that he no longer wanted to be a father; he didn’t want them, didn’t love them. She spoke swiftly and sternly, avoiding eye contact, refusing to acknowledge the tears her grandchildren shed. She sat in that house and lied to Billy’s children. “Daddy doesn’t love you anymore.”
Only once did she tell the truth. Upstairs in Barbara’s room, as her daughter began to recover from her stupor, the first day her eyes weren’t dim and confused, Irene muttered the truth. Sneering, she told Barbara that William was marrying Patricia and that he was never, ever, coming back to Beal’s Landing. She told the whole truth, except for one small lie, one that came a bit too easily.
“He doesn’t want the children. He wants no contact with them at all and none from you obviously. Patricia is angry with you for what you’ve done and also refuses to speak to you.” Irene told her stories to anyone who would listen, and spread her lies to Barbara and the children. She told the story so often that she, too, began to believe it. She told lies and sent checks to anyone and everyone who would keep her secret.
It cost her plenty to set things right. She hired the finest attorneys to guarantee that Barbara retained custody of her children, lawyers to prove William an unfit parent. Bills for doctor and dentist visits for the children were sent to Pasadena and she paid Dawson’s the first of each month, only after receiving an accurate accounting of what he sent out to the Seaton house. The electric bills, the gas bill, phone, water and sewer, taxes; she paid. Irene directed that all the bills be sent to her home except one; for that bill, she sent a small envelope of cash. Barbara would pay the liquor store and the pharmacist on her own.
And her lawyers sent monthly letters, threats really, to William, to keep him away from his family, away from Beal’s Landing. She reminded him of how he had devastated Barbara with his betrayal, and how his children were far too hurt to see him again, to hear from him. William, however, felt the threats unnecessary; the longer he stayed away the less he desired to see his children, to be reminded of how many years he had wasted. He had a new life now, one Irene nearly cheated him out of living; the past was dead to him. The checks, though, he welcomed, since Irene followed through on her promise to discredit him within the Air Force. None of his former superiors would help him find work, and, of course, the schooling his mother-in-law paid for had ended. He would never return to Northern California to open a winery.
Preserving her husband’s memory, now and after she was gone, Irene paid a team of lawyers to make certain the flow of checks never diminished; she had controlled the lives of her family for decades and would do so long after she passed. And that was exactly how Irene did die, leaving one dismal world for another, on a smoggy, dusky afternoon in 1997.
Sitting in her home in Pasadena—not a large house by any means, but meticulously maintained—Irene Pierce passed away exactly one year to the day before her daughter swallowed a hundred or so pills. Irene, however, went much more quietly; sitting at her desk, pen in hand, adding another zero to another check for another lie.
What would people think?

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>I Should Be Laughing: Harry’s Best Friend

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“Look at this one.” Wyatt followed Harry’s voice to the back room and found him standing before an enormous brass sculpture; an amazingly smooth metal spiral headed for the twelve-foot ceiling. Galleries were like museums, libraries and doctor’s offices; you spoke in hushed tones. Whispering, he reached to touch the monument, but stopped short. “It’s amazing.”
Coming up behind him, Wyatt studied the piece as well. While Harry was more interested in the aesthetics of art, what it looked like, what it might feel like, Wyatt was more intrigued in the construction, the medium, the method. He counted six oversized bolts that held the substantial brass figure onto its granite base; he noted how the mass of stone seemed to spew out the sheet of brass. “What’s it called?” he asked.
“I don’t see a card anywhere.” Again, Harry roamed around the statue, looking for a nameplate or tag. He checked the wall behind the piece and then glanced about the room. “I don’t see it.”
“Did you need some help?” Someone called from the front of the gallery and Harry walked back into the larger main room to find the woman who spoke. Wyatt listened as he asked about the brass sculpture and stood back as Harry and an older woman came into the room. “What’s this one called?”
The woman, somewhere in her mid-to-late sixties, followed Harry to the sculpture and Wyatt tried to hide his delight in her appearance; she wore the standard, albeit avant-garde, art gallery uniform. A flowing pleated skirt, the fabric as soft as air, and woven with every color he could name, fell nearly to the tops of her feet, which were clad in thick gray socks and Birkenstocks. Around her neck were several beaded necklaces, all handmade, and she had three piercings in each lobe, with six distinctive silver earrings dangling there. A belt of men’s neckties circled her ample waistline, accenting the buttery muslin blouse she wore; her hair was pure white and worn long and straight, though tied back with a length of colored cording. She reminded Harry of someone, and he liked her instantly.
When the woman pulled a stool out from underneath a counter so she could sit down, Harry knew they were in for a full history of artist and artistry. Behind the sculpture, taking the view in from a new angle, Wyatt smiled at Harry and then at the woman, who began to speak in a plain, sweet tone.
“It’s one of Wilson Emory’s pieces. He lives right here in town,” she told them while settling onto the stool. “Those are his oils, too, though he prefers to work in metal and stone.” She directed Harry and Wyatt’s attention toward a series of boldly colored canvasses lining the walls of the room.
“What does he call the statue? I didn’t see a placard.” Harry asked as Wyatt walked away from the bronze sculpture to study the oils; painting was more his style, although the sculpture intrigued him.
“It’s called ‘Common Birds Do Fly’. Wil is fascinated by flight and birds, no doubt because he’s lived in this tiny town his entire life.” She said, with a whimsical, mischievous smile. “You see there?” She pointed at the six bolts along the bottom of the sculpture. “He says the bolts represent the ties that hold man to the earth…family…work…secrets; those things keep us from soaring, from living. If you look at the top, the bronze sheet flutters and begins to tear apart as it struggles to free itself from its ties. Just like man struggles to break out of the molds and cubbyholes and niches in which he often finds himself due to duty and fear, responsibility.”
“I just thought it was pretty,” Harry said meekly.
“Oh, it’s that, too.” The woman slapped her thighs and giggled. Harry joined in and stepped near the woman, who tossed off her sandals and propped her sock-clad feet on the bottom rung of the stool. “Where are you boys from?”
“San Francisco,” Harry answered, as Wyatt remained riveted to Wilson Emory’s oil paintings. He paced along the wall, studying each one, while Harry talked. “Wyatt is also a painter. He shows at several galleries in the city.”
“Fabulous! You’ll have to send us some pictures of your work and perhaps we can show you here.” She cheered loudly, giving Wyatt a thumbs up; he bashfully nodded his thanks. “What brings you boys up here in the middle of the week? Too foggy in the city?”
Harry’s face muddied, and Wyatt was instantly at his side. “Harry’s mother passed away last Friday and we’ve come back for the funeral.”
“Here in town?”
“No,” Harry mumbled softly. “Up in The Landing.”
“Honey…” She offered her condolences, holding a hand out to Harry who, without a moment’s hesitation, grasped her fingers in his palm; a small, compassionate gesture. Harry gazed into her bright green eyes. “What was you mother’s name?”
“Barbara Seaton,” Harry said quickly, feeling, somehow, that this woman had heard the horror stories about his mother. Wyatt was taken aback at how quickly death shoved everything into the past; Harry’s mother is no longer. “I’m her eldest son, Harry.”
“Oh my.” The woman held his hand tighter and he thought she might never let go. “I knew your mother, Harry. My boy went to school with you. Sean Cooper. I’m his mother, Mattie…”
A lightening strike of memories flooded the room causing Harry to flinch. He and Sean were inseparable as boys, during elementary and middle school, but once they moved up the hill to Coelho High, things changed. Each boy chose a different path of solitude and loneliness and, while they still said hello in the halls between classes, they stopped eating lunch together. They no longer rode their bikes into the hills on weekends and eventually they stopped talking. They stopped…being. Still, Harry remembered, Sean was the only person who hadn’t laughed at him in school, hadn’t pointed, kicked or shoved.
Sean was his best friend, his only friend from those days, and his mother …Mattie, I remember now…was always inviting Harry to stay for dinner or spend the night; she used to offer him ice cream after school. Living on the coast, she’d heard the stories and might have seen his mother; she knew what was in store for him at the end of Skeleton Road. His best friend and—
“How is he, Missus Cooper?”
“He passed away himself, Harry, last April Sixth, from hepatitis.” Mattie pulled his hands to her face and gave them a gentle kiss. “He moved to St. Louis after school, to work for the railroad and we didn’t see him much. But it still hurts…”
“He was my best friend,” Harry stammered, trying to hold back the tears, struggling not to cry even though Mattie Cooper was weeping.
“He would have liked that you remember him that way, Harry.”
____________________

The Grey Whale Bar, inside the MacCallum House Inn, was bustling with an afternoon crowd sipping wine and Bloody Marys, the house specialty, when Wyatt and Harry slipped into a small table in the corner. Flames snapped and popped in the rock fireplace, warming the paneled room on this cool afternoon and when the waitress coasted by, Wyatt asked for a couple of snifters of warm Courvoisier.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked once he and Harry were alone; it felt as if he’d been asking that question a lot lately. The day started out so wrong, with Renny in the kitchen and then in the attic, yet, while the time on Harry’s rock had been perfect, the two of them holding hands and talking about nothing, back in the house, the conversation with Harry turned chilly and distant, then angry. Making their escape from Skeleton Road, the short drive to Mendocino was nice, but after talking to Mattie Cooper at the gallery, Harry disappeared inside himself again.
“I keep thinking about Sean.” Harry nodded to the waitress who left their drinks and quietly strolled away. Pulling the snifter over the shellacked surface of the table, he stared at the liquid twisting and dancing inside the glass. “We were best friends, Wyatt. We did everything together, through grade school and junior high…. But when we got to high school it all turned—.”
“People change, Harry, especially at that age. I grew my hair to my shoulders and almost never came out of my room. All I did was paint and listen to the Sex Pistols.” He chuckled. “I can’t believe my parents didn’t disown me. I tried all sorts of new things, I made new friends.”
“It was different for us, Wyatt. We didn’t make new friends!” Harry said firmly; he jerked the cognac to his lips, sipped forcefully, then instantly apologized. “I’m sorry. I’m really giving it to you today.”
Wyatt merely smiled and he continued.
“Sean and I were loners in high school. I remember seeing him in the lunch room, sitting alone by the door like he might need to get out quickly…I took the last table in the corner, hoping no one would see me and I could eat in peace. Why didn’t we sit together?” Harry raised his glass, almost in a toast, and gazed through the amber liquid at Wyatt; he drained it and signaled the waitress for another round. Wyatt refused the offer and, instead, asked for a pot of tea.
“I haven’t thought about him a lot…not since high school,” Harry explained, taking hold of his second cognac, “not in years.”
“But,” Wyatt stirred a small jar of honey into his tea, “seeing his mother today…?”
“Yeah,” Harry answered before Wyatt could finish his thought. “It makes me wonder what happened to him. I can’t help but think he was gay, too. And maybe that’s why he was my friend, you know? Because we knew…” Harry’s eyes closed; a small tear stained his cheek, and the saddest, sweetest smile crossed his lips. “We would ride our bikes from his house in town all the way up into the trees. We’d sit under the branches in the rain and talk about what we wanted to do with our lives. I told him I wanted to write great stories, and he wanted to be a musician. We shared all out secrets but one.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It was…until…for no reason…we stopped being friends…and I can’t remember why. All I know is that one day we didn’t say hello, and then he ate by himself…and we just…” Harry fell silent, shaking his head as though trying to jar the memories loose; he absentmindedly ran his finger around the lip of the snifter, causing it to moan. Then, all of the sudden, his face lit up with a fresh thought. “What if we were so afraid to admit to each other that we were gay…What if we ended our friendship so people wouldn’t talk about those two,” he lowered his voice a notch, “fags. I mean, how sad is that?”
“I know…” Holding the dainty teacup in his hands for warmth, Wyatt couldn’t say another word. He, too, had a ‘Sean’ in school; a great friend who disappeared from his life, who may…or may not…have been gay; just another painful memory from those days of shame for being different. Even as he thought back on his friend, Wyatt felt it best to let Harry sort out what happened with Sean.
“I never even knew he left town until today. He moved to St. Louis after graduation, while I was still here, and I didn’t even know. I lived…feet from him and didn’t know. We were the same. I ran away to San Francisco to avoid my family…to keep from telling them I was gay…and he disappeared into the Midwest.”
“So he moved away?”
“But he never married—.”
“Whoa,” Wyatt disagreed. “There are a lot of straight people who don’t get married.”
“Mattie said he died of Hepatitis C.”
“Lots of people do Harry.” Wyatt was growing exasperated. “Stop reading between the lines here. Straight people get Hep C, too, and not just from unsafe sex. He may have been gay, but you don’t know—.”
“Okay then, what about his friend…the one Mattie said came back here with the body? His friend? Jesus, Wyatt we all know what that means!”
“Maybe it means that Sean had a good friend who was nice enough to bring him back to The Landing so he could be buried at home. I’m not saying he wasn’t gay…. He might have been, but don’t take a bunch of unrelated facts and hints and turn them into this story of…of two gay boys who drifted apart. This isn’t a Showtime movie.” Wyatt smiled at Harry’s naiveté while reaching across to hold his hand. “You kill me! You truly think everyone is gay until you find out otherwise. Well, sad to say, my friend, but there are straight people all over the place.”
“Don’t I know it! They’re like the Visa card…they’re everywhere e you want to be!” Harry loved that joke.
“FINALLY!” Wyatt shouted, raising his hands over his head and eliciting stares from the small crowd at the bar. “I was wondering where your sense of humor had gone.” He had finished his tea, and began pulling some money from his wallet; he set two tens on the table, stood up and stretched. “Let’s go home, Harry. I saw a sign for fresh swordfish in the market on the corner. I say we buy some and take it home to make dinner for the family.

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>I Should Be Laughing: Cafeteria Boys

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Chewing on his lip while he read, Harry was amazed. He had never read anything like the Anne Rice novel, and he could not put it down.

‘The old man begged to be told what we were saying. He called out,
‘Son, son,’ and Lestat danced like a maddened Rumpelstiltskin about
to put his foot through the floor. I went to the lace curtains.’
Whenever he read, which was most of the time, for books were a sort of refuge, Harry became lost in his novels, far away from everyone and everything. Whether in his room with the door locked, or at the dinner table eating in silence while Mother sipped this or that and Jimmy fiddled with his baseball cards, whether walking up Hesser to school or on the long walk home through Renny’s Forever Fields, Harry read, preoccupied.

As usual, his thumbnail was in his mouth as Harry hunched over the cafeteria table, the book, Interview With The Vampire, splayed out across his knees, his neck stretched beyond belief as he read, unaware. His mouth formed the words silently…

‘I could see and hear the slaves surrounding the house of Pointe
du Lac, forms woven in the shadows, drawing near…’

…and he was oblivious to the growing swarm around him, whispering and plotting.

Suddenly, a burst of white light unfurled before his eyes. Lightening that instantly became a hand, clipping the edge of his book and sending it sailing down the linoleum floor. Lurching into a trashcan, it stopped beneath a wadded up burrito wrapper and a cardboard cup of cold fries, sliding into a mound of almost, but not quite, dried catsup.

“That what faggots do at lunch, Seaton? Read?”

Harry stared up into the faces that imprisoned him, most of them laughing, all of them smiling. Kyle Greggs stood behind him; his hand had sent the book away. Kyle had always been the one; the one who shoved Harry in the hallways, knocking his head into lockers, muttering ‘queer’ under his breath if Harry spoke in class, an exceedingly rare occurrence since Harry didn’t want to hear that word every time he answered a question.

Kyle was always the one. Throwing balls at Harry on the playing field–basketballs, baseballs, footballs, soccer balls. He coined the nickname ‘Harry The Fairy’ the day Harry tried, and failed, to climb the rope in gym class. Yet another time he tried to fit in, to go unnoticed, and failed. Kyle was always the one, but he wasn’t the only one. Dan Mahoney, Russ Lindale, Dave King helped Kyle; their girlfriends, too, had tortured Harry at one time or another. It was a lifetime of punishment when you considered they attended the same schools for ten years. Everyone did his or her fair share of pushing Harry, physically and emotionally. A kick in the hallway was as good as a snide word in math class; as good as a look or a pointed finger in the cafeteria.

….

While they kicked his book around the cold filthy cafeteria floor like a hockey puck, Harry made a fool of himself trying to get it back. Dropping to his knees, he tried to grab it as it sailed by; running insanely across the room, he screamed at them, “Stop it!” But they didn’t stop; instead they began to mimic him, lisping, “Thtop it!” The more he chased, the more they laughed, but he wouldn’t give up. That book was his, the one thing he cared for, and he would not let them destroy it.

Kyle, Dan, Russ and Linda, Connie, even some of the teachers, laughed as Harry began to cry. His face turned all shades of red and his eyes went wild with tears, but still they snickered and pointed. Then, just before they tired of the game, before lunch was over and it was back to class, Dan Mahoney slipped, on a French fry or something, and Harry was able to scrape the book off the floor. He grabbed it and began to run.

It would be okay now, he told himself, flying toward the exit, but everyone was still laughing. Then the name-calling started. Harry The Fairy. Fag. Queer. Harry looked at them through eyes so filled with tears that he could only see distorted shapes of plaid shirts and cheerleader outfits. He ran for the door, slipping on the linoleum, wiping his eyes on his sleeves, clutching the book. Out of control, sprinting like mad, he saw the other boy, at a table near the exit, bundled up in a soiled brown corduroy coat. He was the only one in the room who wasn’t laughing at Harry, who wasn’t calling him names.

Sean Cooper ate lunch by himself, too.

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