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Archive for the ‘teenagers’ Category

Old Roads

Allan twirled his beer. He watched as the bottom of the bottle followed the ring of its own sweat on the concrete tabletop. His hand had internalized the sequence—wrist back, forefinger lunge, third finger twist, thumb tug, repeat, repeat—so that the bottle would adhere to its course without his further attention. It wouldn’t err as his mind focused on our conversation.

We were just shooting the shit, as we always had. Unlike most times before, however, this shit-shooting had taken coordination, planning and some costs. We had to shed our lives to come here, to a place we could only go together. It cost him four hours of driving and a tank of gas. It cost me excuses to my parents, apologies that I was missing one night of a vacation back home, and a bedtime assurance to my boys that I would come home after they were asleep to kiss them good night once more. Added to this was, thus far, the shared cost of six beers between us. But we paid the toll, glad for the fare.

I looked up at the clear night sky. Allan grinned, watching his bottle twirl.

“What?” I asked, catching his smile with my own.

“This.” He removed his bottle from its orbit and took a pull with his lips. “This, being with you. Man, it’s like I just saw you yesterday. Have we even been in the same place since my wedding?”

“Nope.” I sucked down warm beer. “No, and really, we barely spoke then. You kind of had other priorities, as I recall.”

“Yeah, I guess I did,” he nodded. “What with the ‘getting married’ thing and all.”

“That was a really nice event,” I nodded in turn. I took another drink. “Right nice.”

“Shit, yeah, well, you set the bar high.” He raised his bottle. I raised mine to clink the reference. He drained the last of his beer.

“Cheers,” I nodded, killing my own. “Fuck, wasn’t that some party?”

He laughed, covering his nose to avoid losing good beer. “Your wedding? Shit, yeah,” he finally managed. “I’m sorry, but I was so fucked up by the end of that thing.”

“We all were,” I laughed. “My poor dad. Did I tell you this? Okay, so Dad, he doesn’t drink. He stopped when we were kids. His folks were drunks and so on, but get this. So, he has a few too many beers at my wedding. He finds me dancing with David and some of the gay boys. He comes over, rolls up his pants and asks the queers to check out his legs.”

Allan fell back on his bench, laughing silently. When his laughter entered hearing range, it was well deep and barrel rich. My toes curled in my shoes. “Oh, fuck.” He gathered his breath. “Oh fuck, that’s so good. Your dad . . .” he began to laugh again.

“No, wait,” I grabbed his arm. “It gets better. So Dad, you know, he can’t drink. And he’s dancing with the gay boys . . .” We both break up. “No, no, wait.” We caught our breath. I begin to sing, reaching for an Elton John falsetto. I banged my fingers on the table. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy and the ga-aa-aa-ays.” I break up in his laughter. I watched him wipe tears from his eyes. “No, but come on, really,” I said. “Serious story here.” We each took a breath and settled down. “Are you ready?”

Allan pushed out one last laugh, deep in his belly. He drew a breath and exhaled. “Okay, no, wait.” He reached for his empty bottle, stared at it for a moment, and sat it back. “Okay, all right.” He folded his hands in his lap. He shook the curls from his forehead.” “All right. I’m ready.” He laughed again. I looked at him askance, as if impatient to finish my story. “No, no,” he laughed. He caught his breath again, “Okay,” he smirked. “Ready.”

“Okay.” I coughed, composing myself. “So, Dad asks the gay boys to check out his legs. Everyone agrees my dad has very nice legs, which he does. So then Dad pulls me over, bends down, and rolls up my pant’s leg.”

“Oh, shit,” Allan laughed.

“Right? It’s my wedding; I’m in my suit. He’s on his knees in the grass, rolling up my pants. His bare knees!” I laughed again. “So he turns to the boys and says, ‘And what do you think of the legs of my wonderful, wonderful son?’ And the boys are all laughing and agree that my legs are nice, too.”

Allan knocked on the table, his face contorted.

“No, wait for it, wait, wait. So my friend David says, ‘The only thing that could improve his legs is if they were wrapped around my neck.’”

We fell out. He banged the table and slapped my back. His laughter infected my own, sending it soaring.

“Oh shit, man,” he finally said, coming down. “Oh shit. He said that to your dad?”

I nodded. “He said that to my dad. About his son. At his son’s wedding. Luckily, I think it went over his head.”

“Lord. I hope so.” Allan shook his head. “God damn, that’s too good. Now, wait, who’s David?”

My fingernails picked at a bottle’s edge. “Hmm? Oh, David? You met him at the wedding—tall, good looking guy.”

“Oh, I was wondering if you two guys ever . . . you know.”

I looked up from the bottle and caught his eye. “Had sex? Well, shit yeah we did.” Allan laughed again. “Before we were married, of course. Baby, I had been naked with pretty much everyone at my wedding who didn’t share a last name with me or my bride. Of course, who’s to talk? You had fucked every girl there except the one I married.”

“You are too fucking funny, man.”

“Just talking ‘bout Shaft.” I reached for his bottle and stood. “And you look too fucking thirsty. Here, I’ll get this round.”

“No, sit down,” Allan took my arm. “There’s no bar here, they come to you.” He waved for the waiter.

The waiter nodded and made his way to us. “Yes? Oh hello, Allan. And my goodness, look who you’re with! How long as it been, guy?”

I smiled, not recognizing him. “Much too long,” I said warmly. “Much too long. How’ve you been?”

“Me, I’m good.” He looked at his feet, shuffling slightly. “I’ve got a new studio down near Daniel’s old place, and I’m doing some large-scale altar paintings, kind of thinking about Rothko, though, you know, more rooted in Byzantine iconography. And you? How’ve you been? How’s New York? I thought of you when the towers collapsed.”

“New York is fine,” I said. “You know, recovering. It’s been a tough year. Your paintings sound interesting in that context.”

“I’m pleased with them. You should come out to see them, if you have time. I’d really benefit from your critique.”

“Well, I’d like that,” I said. “If we can make the time.”

“He’s only here for a few days, visiting family,” Allan interjected, rescuing me. “They’re not even in town. Y’all are down on the lake, right?”

“That’s right. Tonight’s the anomaly.” I turned back to the waiter. “Maybe you could send me slides some time?”

“That would be great,” the waiter nodded. “I’ll get some paper to get your address.”

“Could you also being us two more Coronas?” Allan raised the empty bottles.

“Sure, sure.” The waiter took the empties. “Say, and why are you in town? Is your band playing?”

“Nah, I’m just here to sit for a while with my best friend in the world.” Allan patted my back in a gesture that communicated that this was a private party.

“Well, let me get your beers. And be sure I know when you’re playing, Allan. Your CD was great, just really great. Like Eddie Vedder meets Keith Richards.” The waiter grinned. Allan smiled blankly. “Well, okay, let me get your beers.”

We watched him amble past a large fern.

I leaned close to Allan. “Okay, now what’s his name?”

“Tommy. You remember him from seeing bands here.”

“Right. Tommy the Dweeb. He smoked clove cigarettes. Always did try too hard.”

Allan scowled. “I fucking hate being compared to Eddie Vedder.”

I patted his hand. “You do sound like Eddie Vedder. But you are much prettier.”

He took his hand and slapped my arm. “Fuck you, man. You know I sang the way I do before there was a damn Pearl Jam.”

“You could be bigger than Pearl Jam,” I went on. “You’ve got the voice and the face to go with it. You could front the boy band of grunge. You know, the version that’s safe for eighth-grade girls.”

“Fuck you, man,” he laughed.

Tommy the Dweeb returned with the beers. I wrote my address on the back of a paper coaster and shook his hand. Tommy refused my money, saying the beers were on him. We squeezed limes into our bottlenecks and toasted the waiter. We drank for a time, resting in our memories.

Allan twirled his beer, watching the bottle draw a new sweat ring. “I learned to sing in your car, man,” he said quietly.

I put a hand on the small of his back. “I remember.”

We talked about life, catching up on the gaps that eluded our infrequent long distance phone calls. I told him things were fine with Lucy and the new house. Lucy was there with our baby girl, actually, relieved that she had an excuse to avoid a visit with my family. The boys were still transitioning from city to suburbs, getting used to the idea that they could go outside without special permission.

He told me that he and his wife were having a rough patch. She really wanted a baby, and after years of trying, they had been to a doctor and learned that Allan was impotent. They were considering options, all of which were more complicated than they had hoped. Taking the next steps for in vitro fertilization or adoption had them questioning their commitment to one another; if they were going to redouble their efforts at becoming parents, they each needed to be sure the other was fully on board. At the moment, they were stuck at this crossroads—should they move forward together, or part company as friends?

We ordered another round and talked until eleven or so. Allan had driven over after work that day, and now had to drive two hours back home so he could get some sleep before heading to his shop by eight. I climbed in his truck and he drove me out to my parents. We sang along to George Jones.

The outside light flickered on automatically as he parked in the driveway. He got out of the truck to hug me goodbye.

“You sure you don’t want to crash here?” I asked. “I know we can get you up early. My grandmother wakes up at dawn.”

“Nah, I need to get home. It’s too late to call Alice, and I’d rather drive at night when there’s no traffic. Come here, let me get going.”

He took me into his arms. He pulled me close, squeezing my waist. “It’s been too long, man. Let’s not wait so long.”

I put my hands on his face and pulled back to look at him. His smile was so wide in his baby-faced cheeks. He still looked as he did at fifteen, but for the laugh lines around his eyes. I kissed him. He kissed me back, a warm peck, but I persisted. I caressed his lips with my tongue. He closed his mouth, surprised, but then parted his lips. His tongue met mine. I moaned softly, running my fingers through his hair.

After a while, he pulled back and grinned. “Well damn, I didn’t see that coming.” I was pleased to have taken him unaware. He put a hand on my shoulders. “Nobody else has done that. I love you, man.”

“I love you, too, Allan.” He patted my shoulder and turned to his truck. “Drive safe. Turn up the music. Stop if you need to.”

“I will, and you say hey to your folks for me.” He gave a wave as he drove off.

It was the last time I saw Allan. A few months later, his wife found him on the couch. He had died of an undiagnosed heart condition. We were all stunned to hear the news. Allan was vivacious and strong. It was inconceivable that he would simply pass.

“You have to go down there,” Lucy said when I told her the news. “Are you okay? God, he was like your brother.”

“Yeah, well, I’m shocked,” I told her. She hugged me. “He was only thirty-six, so young.” I thought of his mother and sobbed. Lucy cried with me.

My parents offered to meet me at the airport. I had a carry-on bag and my suit. I would be back home only for a few days, long enough to attend the funeral and check in with our friends. I wondered if it would be appropriate for me to kiss Allan one last time in his casket.

“Poor baby,” Mom cried, hugging me. “I just think of Allan’s mother. I don’t know what I would do if I lost one of mine. And he was her only baby.”

“Hi, Mom,” I mumbled, my cheek crushed by her neck. “Yes, it’s really sad.”

Dad wrapped his arms around us. “He was lucky to have you as a friend.”

“Yeah, we were both lucky,” I said, swallowing.

Dad drove us to the house as Mom filled me in on what had transpired with my nieces and nephews since my last visit a few months before. Essentially, nothing much had happened, but my mother had a gift for weaving elaborate narratives from rather banal threads. I wasn’t really listening, but I preferred the sound of her drawl to the chatter of talk radio. I stared out the window, watching the landscape whir along the new Interstate.

When we got home, I called Nora. She cried when she heard my voice. I told her I needed to see her, to be with someone else who understood. She gave me directions to her house and told me to bring wine, lots and lots of wine. My parents gave me the keys to my grandmother’s old Impala. I said I would likely stay at Nora’s if we got to drinking. Mom kissed me and told me to please be careful, as she would hate to lose me.

“Nora?” I called from her screen door. I could see strings of lights decorating her foyer. Music was playing from somewhere inside. The door was unlatched, but I didn’t want to just barge in.

“Oh my God!” Nora ran from her kitchen. “Oh my God, oh my God!” She opened the screen door and threw her arms around my neck. “Oh my God, you’re here, oh my God.” She began to cry. I lowered the bags of wine to the porch and held her. I kissed her head. She stood back, looked and me and smiled. She laughed. Tears filled her eyes as she clapped her hands. “Oh my God. Okay, you’re here. Okay.” She took my hand and pulled. “Okay, come in, come in, we’re going to the kitchen.”

“Wait, Nora.” I bent down. “I brought wine . . .”

“You did? Oh, thank God.” She bent to take two bottles, took my hand and pulled. “Come in, come in. Oh my God, you’re here!”

Nora’s husband Kevin stood in the kitchen, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation on a television placed on the top of the refrigerator. “Hey, look who’s here!” He held out a hand. I took it and pulled him into a hug. “Good to see you, man.”

“You too, you lucky sumbitch.” I let go of him and put the bottles on a table. “Now, please tell me you have a corkscrew.”

“Here, you do it,” Nora said, fishing in a drawer. “I just don’t trust my hands.” She stopped and took my face in her grip. “Thank God, you’re here.”

“I wish we didn’t have to be here under these circumstances,” I said. “We’re too young to do weddings and funerals.”

“I know, I know,” Nora smiled. “And I look terrible in black.” We laughed. She put her lips to mine, and then jumped as she covered my face in kisses. “God, I love you so much!”

I giggled. “That tickles, sugar. And you know I’ll love you, ever and always.”

Kevin watched, smiling.

I poured Merlot for the three of us, filling Nora’s deep glasses nearly to the rims. She lit some candles and we sat to talk. Her phone rang. She left the room to take the call. Kevin’s eyes drifted back to the television. “You a fan?” He pointed at the set.

I looked over my shoulder. A Vulcan was upset. “I’ve actually never seen it.”

“Never watch it, then,” Kevin shook his head. “It will suck the life right out of you.”

Nora returned and sat, the phone still in her hands. “Okay, that was Lucinda. She’s on her way over.” She slumped and looked at me. “I’m wondering if we should call Timothy and all them.”

I fingered my glass. “Yeah? I don’t know. I mean, I want to see people, but . . . that’s going to become a bunch of people, very fast. And, I don’t know . . .” I took a sip of wine.

Nora put her hand in mine. “What, honey?”

I closed my eyes and winced. “I can’t make sense of any of this. And I’m not ready to have other people mediate my grief.”

I opened my eyes. Nora was inches from my face. “I know exactly what you mean. No one should take this from us until we process it.” She grabbed my arm and pulled closer. “But you know what? We’re all doing this. We’re all hurting. We don’t have to do it alone, either.” I leaned forward to kiss her forehead. “You’re not alone, honey,” she said. “None of us is.”

She pushed her forehead to mine. “Okay, baby, make the calls.”

Lucinda was the first to arrive. She brought more wine.

Timothy arrived with beer and three cars full of people who were, in my recollection, thirteen years old. During my senior year of high school, my circle of friends was very close. We were the smart set and all of the creative kids who read or spoke well gravitated to us. Somehow, into that clique of juniors and seniors came Timothy, a pudgy philosophical seventh grader. He kept up with our banter and if he didn’t get something, he asked follow-up questions until he did. We educated him as we went along, and pretty soon, we forgot his age and treated him like a peer. Still, we made a point of telling him he couldn’t join us at weekend parties.

“There’s beer and pot,” Allan told him.

“And sex,” I added.

“Please?” Timothy begged. “Seriously, my mom won’t mind. I can bring her if I have to. Come on, please let me come. Please?”

The prohibition stood firm so long as I was a senior. The next year, Allan was in charge. The newly-minted eighth graders flocked to him. He was their epitome of cool, all that they aspired to be. During his freshman year of college, Allan once said, “You know, I’ll never get laid like that again.”

“You never know,” I said. “This is the South.”

Our party grew too large for Nora’s kitchen. Kevin lit a fire in a cast iron stove on their deck and we moved outside. It was after midnight. Kevin went to bed, kissing Nora good night. He kissed my head. “Good to have you back, brother,” he said. He hooked my hand and took me into a bear hug. I kissed good night to his bearded cheek.

My hometown has distinctive sounds at night. Crickets and frogs are so voluminous you need to raise your voice to be heard. The trains that bisect the town ran close to Nora’s backyard, so that we were occasionally shushed by distant whistles and clacks that signaled the imminence of a deafening rumble.

“I’m sorry about that, guys,” Nora shouted as a train tore through the night.

“I like it!” I shouted back. I wanted to rush to the tracks and scream at the passing cars, to let out this tumor of grief for a boy I had lost and the longing for a man I didn’t know well enough to love as intently as I did.

It was quiet again as we sat near the stove. It got late but the wine held out, and no one showed any sign of leaving. So many years after high school, we were able to return to our familiar comfort with one another; we had gone on to other lives and places, but here, in this group, we remained the same people who had once imagined the future together.

Timothy looked content, his arm around my former girlfriend Lauren. She caught my eye and raised an eyebrow. I grinned. He had been nursing a crush on her for twenty years. I could remember him following us through the halls at school, and watching as we made out in the parking lot. We were his first ideal of romance. In his young mind, Lauren became the very embodiment of love and desire. He had never married. Allan used to joke that he was waiting on Lauren to break up with her longtime boyfriend. Recently, she had.

Nora sat beside me. She poured me another glass, and rested her head on my shoulder. I massaged Linda’s foot in my lap. She smiled and raised her glass in response. I took a sip.

“I’ve got a question,” Linda said. “I was just thinking of Allan taking my virginity, and wondered: how many of us had sex with Allan? Come on, show of hands.”

Half the people in the circle raised hands: every woman and me. We collapsed into laughter. “Please don’t ask that question at the service tomorrow,” I begged.

“We should charter a bus,” Nora guffawed. “With a banner: ‘Allan Slept Here.’”

“You slept with Allan?” Lucinda asked me. “I had no idea. None.”

“Well, he didn’t much talk about it. He wasn’t really into guys, but you know, he and I . . .”

“He was so in love with you,” Nora interrupted.

“Yes,” Linda echoed.

“We loved each other. I mean, that was the deal. We were straight boys in love. And we were sexual. So we had sex.” I sipped my wine. The fire crackled. I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, despite its truth. I wanted to wad it up, throw it into the fire, and start over.

Nora laughed. She bent over, grabbing her sides. “What, what?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, this is so inappropriate,” she giggled. “But that got me wet!” Everyone descended into gales.

I noticed Timothy wasn’t smiling. I hiccupped a few more giggles. “Hey, are you okay, Timothy?” I asked.

He looked into the fire. “I don’t think it’s very respectful.”

“What? The sex talk?” I sat up. “Hey, I’m sorry, it’s just . . .”

Timothy picked up a wood chip and dug into the deck. “I mean . . . if it was a secret, it should stay a secret.”

“Wait, are you talking about me and Allan? You knew about that, didn’t you?”

He nodded. “He told me, but that’s not the point. If you agreed to keep it a secret, it should be a secret.”

I sat back. “I tell it because I’m drunk, I’m tired, and I miss my friend. Forgive me.”

Nora sat forward. “Timothy, Allan’s dead. He won’t mind. And anyway, we all knew. He told all of us. Well, all of us except Lucinda, evidently.” Lucinda shrugged. Nora hit me. “Wait, why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“Ask me later,” I nudged. “I’ve got a story that involves your bedroom.”

Nora covered her mouth and raised her eyebrows. “Oh, really?”

Nervous titters vibrated through the crowd. Timothy threw his wood chip into the fire. We fell quiet and watched the chip burn. Another train was heading down the line. After it passed, Lucinda spoke up. “Allan’s passing was so unexpected, so sudden. I guess it goes to show that you have to live each day like it’s your last.”

There were murmurs of assent. “I don’t know,” I said. “That seems too pessimistic. And maybe too complicated. Like, an anticipated last day might easily become a to-do list, a series of errands. Tell your mama you loved her. Write down the bank accounts. Open the good scotch. Watch the sunset. Kiss the wife and kids . . .”

“Get laid,” Lucinda added. We laughed.

“That too! But you know what I mean?” I continued. “It isn’t that any day could be your last. The point is that each day can be more fully appreciated. We spend so much time doing what we are supposed to do, and maybe we spend too little savoring the everyday things we would miss if they were gone. It’s not just about scaling Everest or whatever. It’s about tasting what you chew, listening when your children talk, laughing when . . . um . . .”

“Stop and smell the roses,” Linda nodded.

I reached for her hand. “Oh my God. Did you make that up? That’s it!” She grinned. “Well, I’m drunk and maudlin and talking in clichés. What the fuck do I know? But if I had Allan for just ten more minutes, I would tell him how much I loved him—which was so, so much—and then I would fuck the absolute living shit out of him until the meter ran down the time.”

“Here, here!” Linda laughed over the noise of convulsions. We clinked glasses.

“To love!” Nora echoed. “Je suis la lune!” She pedaled her feet in the air and handed me another bottle to open.

I woke up the next morning with a head full of rocks. I rolled over and squinted into the sun coming through a window. I was under a quilt on a day bed in a room lined with shelves. I could make out boxes on the shelves; focusing my eyes, I saw that they were action figures, each in their original packaging. I smelled bacon.

I sat up. I swung my feet to the floor. I ran my fingers through my hair.

“Do I look as bad as I feel?” I asked, stumbling into the kitchen.

Nora raised her head from the table. Her hair fell in her face. “I’d tell you, honey, but I can’t open my eyes.”

“Y’all had some party last night, judging from the bottles left over,” Kevin said from the stove. “Sounds like you sent Allan off real good.”

I sat at the table and buried my face in my hands. “Yeah, he got a fine bon voyage.” I dropped my hands and stared at Nora’s scalp.

Kevin put two cups of coffee in front of us. “Y’all best sober up. We have to be at the service in two hours.”

I looked at the clock. “Fuck, is it really ten? I have to go back to my parents house to get in my suit.”

“No problem,” Nora muttered into the table. “It’s thirty minutes on the Interstate.” Kevin served breakfast and we gradually came around. I kissed them each goodbye and walked out to my grandmother’s Impala. It was a bright morning. I drove into the sun, regretting my sunglasses.

I referred to Nora’s directions, trying to trace my way backward to my parents’ house. Somehow, I missed the turn onto the Interstate, which had opened in the two decades since I left home. Rather than double back to get directions, I decided to drive the way I knew, on the older highways and back roads. By the time I got home, I had been driving for over an hour.

“Isn’t the service at noon?” my mother asked as I came in the door.

“Yes,” I said, rushing upstairs. “I got turned around on the way back from Nora’s.”

“It’s twenty ‘til now!” she called.

“I know!” I shouted back.

“You’ll be late to your own funeral, son,” she said, walking back to the kitchen. “Good thing Lucy didn’t come, she’d cuss you out.”

Mom wrote out directions to the chapel so that I could take the Interstate. She gave me the directions, and then went over them with me as I stood in the kitchen tying my tie. “Mom, I could drive there in the time it takes you to explain these directions,” I said impatiently. I kissed her cheek and took the paper. She hollered at me to drive safe.

The chapel was standing room only. I closed the door behind me and shuffled to one side, taking care not to block the view of anyone behind me. Allan’s band was playing one of his songs, with the guitarist filling in the vocals. I looked over the heads of the seated mourners, but I couldn’t see a casket.

The door opened behind me. Jonathan stepped in, removing his sunglasses. I stepped over to hug him.

“You’re here,” he whispered.

“Yes,” I replied. “Thank God for you. No matter how late I am, I can always count on you to be later.”

He motioned for me to move closer and brought his lips to into my ear. “Fuck you,” he growled. I nearly giggled.

The service, or what was left of it, was short. As we were already standing by the door, Jonathan and I each stood to one side to act as ushers. Allan’s widow, Alice, came down the aisle holding a ceramic vase Allan had made. His mother, Barbara, held Alice’s arm. She wore large black sunglasses. She looked so small.

Alice leaned to kiss my cheek as she passed. “My husband is so heavy,” she whispered. He had been cremated. I would never see him again.

I squeezed Barbara’s hand. She turned her face to me. “Baby, are you coming to the house?” she croaked.

I cried and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

She nodded. “Please, I need you there.”

I hugged her, trying not to cry so much. She had enough tears. She dropped her arms and turned to the door, resting a hand on Alice’s elbow. They shuffled outside. I put my hand to my mouth, suppressing my sobs. Barbara looked so drained of life.

Jonathan and I stayed in place as the mourners filed by. I recovered and folded my hands in front of my body. Following the line outside, we found our friends milling on the lawn outside the chapel. People were hugging, drying their eyes, and smoking, talking in hushed tones. Kids ran by, dressed in their Sunday school clothes. We watched as someone helped Barbara into a car.

“We should give them a good head start before we go to the house,” Jonathan said. “They’ll need to get her settled.” I nodded, reaching for his hand.

I followed Jonathan to Barbara’s place. We parked with the other cars along the side of the road and walked into the backyard. Some of the former seventh graders were seated in a circle, drinking beer and singing as the guitarist played. We nodded hellos and passed into the house. Allan’s aunts were in the kitchen. Linda helped them to bring food out to the dining room table. I took Linda to one side and hugged her. She broke down. “Stop, stop,” she said, slapping her hand to my chest. “I can’t do this, I need to help them.”

“Is she okay?” I asked. Linda shook her head, wiping her nose on a tissue. She turned and went back the kitchen. I followed the corridor to the living room.

Barbara was seated at the center of the couch, surrounded by people. “Mmph, there he is,” she said, drawing on her cigarette. “Come here, New York, and sit next to me. Y’all scoot over and make some room.” One of her sisters stood and took a glass from the coffee table. I made my way through the crowd to her side. I put my arms around her. Her head fell to my shoulder. “I buried my baby today,” she said, quietly.

I nodded, sniffling. “I know.” I held her.

“But you know what?” She sat up and waved her hand, guiding her cigarette through the air. “I’ve still got my other children. Allan’s friends. Y’all have all been so good to me, all his life. And now, even more so.”

Linda watched from the dining room. “We love you, Barbara,” she called. The words were picked up by other voices as heads nodded around the room. Linda wiped her eyes.

“Well, I love y’all,” Barbara said, her eyes raw and red. She turned to me and patted my leg. “You go call your mama and tell her you’re my son now, too.”

I sobbed. “You cruel bitch,” I wept. “Now, I think you’re purposefully trying to make me cry.”

A wry smile crossed her lips. “Honey, we’ve all been crying and we aren’t about to stop. I fully intend to sit here, get drunk, and cry myself dry.”

I laughed, kissing her cheek. I turned to Linda. “What do you have to do to get a vodka in this joint? Jesus Hosanna.”

“On its way,” Linda said, pointing over her shoulder to the kitchen. Barbara was already pretty soused, but no one was going to close her tab today. Her sister came back with a tall glass of vodka and orange juice. Barbara took a long sip. I took the glass and put if back on the table.

“You know what?” She drew on her cigarette and turned her head to exhale. “I always thought Allan would’ve been happier with you.”

I looked around. “You mean, with Linda?”

She patted my hand. “No honey, with you.” Several of us laughed. “No, now, I mean it. He loved you so much, baby, so very much. One time I asked him if he was in love with you. He shook his head and he said, “Naw, Mama. I love him, but I’m not in love with him.’ But you know what?” She lowered her voice. “I could tell he was.”

My face grew warm. “Well, Barbara, thanks for your blessing. A little late, perhaps, but . . . ”

Laughter burst from her. “Oh, baby, you made me laugh,” she said, patting her chest. “Oh heaven, thank you for that.”

I kissed her hand. “Seriously, though, I loved him, too. Still do. That’s the beautiful part. We still get to keep him with us, in our love for him.” I didn’t know where those words came from, but the sounded comforting and true, so I was grateful for them.

She squeezed my hand. “That is so right.” She reached for her vodka. “So right.”

I sat next to Barbara, talking with her and our friends, until she was good and drunk. Two of her sisters came over and helped her to the bedroom. We all wished her goodnight. The sun was starting to set.

We ate some food, sang some songs and drank some beer. We all kissed each other and said we’d get together soon, and not at a funeral. Linda’s brother Simon collected phone numbers, emails and addresses. The next day, I breakfasted with my parents and flew home to my wife and children.

A few days later, Simon sent an email to all of us, inviting us to join a Yahoo group he had created. Other friends were linked into the group, and soon, we were all catching up and carrying on in our message board.

Then, a funny thing happened. Former seventh-grader Timothy began corresponding with my former girlfriend Lauren. He had moved to New York a few years before, and she lived with her daughter in Maryland. He began to travel down to visit them on weekends. Pretty soon, he proposed. She accepted.

Twenty years after first meeting—one year after Allan’s death, two weeks into my separation—Timothy and Lauren were going to get married.

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“Dad! Hey Dad, look at this!”

I was lugging an ice chest down to the pier. Lillie was beside me in her bikini, her hair tied back, taking each of the fifty-three steps one at a time.

“I’m looking Collie. What are you doing?”

“I’m casting off! See, watch.”

I stood and watched as he swung his pole and stopped with a jerk, sending the line sailing across the water.

“Nice form, son!”

“He’s been practicing to show you,” Dad called from the shade of the docked pontoon boat, where he was slathering Jason in sunscreen. Nanny sat nearby, putting lotion on her face and hands, the only exposed parts of her body.

My children have only ever fished from this pier, and only under my Dad’s guidance. He now had Collie practicing with weights tied to his line, killing time until we took the boat out to the marina to buy gas and bait.

The afternoon’s main festivities would begin later with the arrival of Lynn, my fifteen-year-old niece.

With everyone lotioned and situated on the boat, I tied off and Dad backed the boat away of the dock. I hopped aboard.

Lillie sat next to Dad, holding the wheel. Once we cleared the slip, he picked up speed and reached down to flip on the satellite radio.

Basstrackers, bayliners and a party barge
Strung together like a floating trailer park . . .

“Party on!” he grinned.

“Let the party continue!” Lillie giggled, completing Dad’s familiar slogan.

At the marina, the kids ran inside to choose candy—Dad’s bonus on every trip was that everyone had a choice of candy—while Dad gassed the boat and chatted with the woman who ran the place.

“Howdy, howdy! Good morning!”

“Well, good morning to you, sir. Looks like a warm one.”

“We don’t care nothing about that, because we are too cool.”

She laughed. “I can see that.”

“Help me remember, before we go we need to get some bait so the kids can go after some catfish.”

“Catfish? Well, I got bait, but you know how catfish love them Catawba worms?”

“Sure I do.”

“Well, I got a bush that is eat up with those things. Why don’t you just take a bag full?”

“Now bless your heart, that’s just what we’ll do.”

With the boat full and the kids eating candy, we made our barefooted way across the gravel loading dock.

“This bush was full of leaves just last week,” she said. “Now look at it.”

The bush was little more than a thick cluster of sticks covered in juicy fat worms.

“This is going to make some catfish very happy,” Dad said, plucking the worms one by one and dropping each into a paper bag.

“Do the catfish really like them, Papa?” Collie asked.

“This here is catfish candy,” he smiled.

“Eww.”

Back at the pier, Dad hooked bits of Catawba worm for each of the kids.

Jason studied his line carefully, bobbing his pole to create the illusion of his worm swimming in the current.

Collie tossed his line again and again, checking frequently to be sure his bait was intact.

Lillie grew bored and rested her pole on a chair.

Yet even with these different approaches, they each did well.

Collie led the pack. He caught a catfish, two blue gills and one turtle—never mind the branch he brought up from the lake bottom. After much admiration, each was cut loose and set back.

“Just not big enough,” Dad would say as he pried the hook from the catch. “Let’s let it grow some more and catch it again next summer.”

The kids would watch as each fish swam away.

All were quiet when Collie yelped.

“I got one, Papa, I got one.”

“Take your time,” Dad said, hurrying to his side. “Bring it in and let’s see what you got.”

Collie reeled the line while Dad held it steady. Together, they pulled up a very big catfish.

“Whoa!” Jason admired.

Collie laughed, excited.

“That’s pretty big, fella!” I cheered.

“Can I keep him, Papa?” Collie asked my Dad.

Dad lowered the fish to the pier, holding it carefully in place under his sandle. He studied it for a moment.

“Tell you what,” he admitted. “That there is a keeper.”

“Yeah!” Collie shouted.

“You aren’t going to let him go?” Lillie worried.

“No ma’am. We are going to put him in his own tank.” Dad looked at me and pointed to the cooler I had brought down. “Fill that with lake water, okay, Hank?”

I jumped up and quickly transferred its contents of beer, Kool-Aid and juice boxes to a larger chest. I dropped it into the lake and hauled up about five gallons of water. Meanwhile, Dad cut out the hook.

“Yes, now I tell you,” he said as he worked. “That is the biggest catfish I have ever seen come out of this lake.”

Collie beamed. “You done good, Collie!” my grandmother added.

Dad transferred the fish to the cooler. “Y’all get a look before I close it up,” he said, calling he kids over. The fish, cramped in its new quarters, splashed us as it flopped.

“Can we name it?” Lillie asked.

“No, Lillie, we are going to eat it,” Jason said.

“Is that true?” she asked me.

“Well, it’s Collie’s catch,” I said. “We’ll see. But no, we can’t keep it as a pet. It’s wild, honey.”

“Okay, y’all stand back,” Dad said. He closed the cooler and placed another cooler on top.

Later that afternoon, he would sneak up to the kitchen to gut and clean the fish.

The catfish was still in the cooler awaiting its fate when Lynn arrived. Collie eagerly showed off his catch. “You did not catch that!” she exclaimed. “It’s just too big.”

“Yes, I did,” Collie testified. “Papa helped.” He pointed to Dad as if calling a witness.

Collie was particularly proud to have impressed Lynn, for she belongs to the most elite group he knows. Teenagers. The arbiters of cool.

Collie’s intimate knowledge of teenage culture is actually rather limited. Besides his cousin Lynn, and her brother Tracy, he is closest to his half sister, my daughter Rachel. All of them live far from his home in New York, but he refers to them all frequently.

He is keenly aware that his brother Jason is only a couple of years away from entering his teens as well. In his book, that ends childhood and begins the stage of “cool” before you become a grown up.

In this regard, Lynn’s credentials are impeccable. She looks out for her younger cousins, talking with them and offering each a turn with her on the Sea-Doo, pushing it through bucking bronco stunts, as opposed to the feeble pony rides offered by the grown ups.

She also outstrips the grown ups physically. For the past year, Lynn has been taller than me, inhabiting a grown woman’s body since age thirteen. Her stepmother bemoans, “I can’t even loan her a swimsuit. You know what it’s like, living with a Playboy centerfold?”

Both of my brother Jesse’s teenagers are sweet, cool and drop-dead gorgeous blondes.

Their beauty makes us all nervous. There are so many moths drawn to their flames.

With Lynn’s arrival, we decided to take out the boat for the rest of the day. We loaded up snacks, drinks and beer. Lynn, acting as captain, steered to the most open waters.

Mom, as usual, stayed home. She mostly watches television these days.

On the boat, Jason and I staked out long benches, taking in the sun and wind and the quiet floating above the engine’s roar. I sipped cold Miller Lite from a can. Collie told Dad how he caught the fish, once more, as Nanny listened, smiling.

Behind the wheel, Lynn flipped on the radio. She stood to dance as she sang along.

Few times I’ve been around that track
So it’s not just gonna happen like that
Because I ain’t no hollaback girl
I ain’t no hollaback girl

Ooooh ooh, this my shit, this my shit . . .

Lillie jumped into the seat next to Lynn.

“What’s a ‘hollow back girrrrrrrrrl?’” she asked her cousin. “Am I one?”

That night, I fried Collie’s catfish, serving it with grouper and shrimp—store bought, of course—buttered corn and Nanny’s green beans. As we ate, Lynn’s brother Tracy arrived with his best friend, Will.

I got up to hug their necks. Had to. Tracy’s my boy. Tracy and I have been particularly close for the past several years, mostly keeping in touch via instant message and emails.

He and Will have a band for which Tracy supplies the lyrics. He sends me poetry fueled with teenage angst. I comment and do what I can to steer him to better reading material—“Have you ever read Frank O’Hara, Tracy?”—curtailing my prejudice against “emo” as I listen for his writer’s voice.

Last year, he and Will came up to New York to visit and see bands. We banged heads at CBGBs and concurred that The Used just suck in the worst way. I sent them home with a New York Dolls CD.

That night, with the grown ups in bed and my kids asleep, I poured a bourbon and joined the teens on the pier. I noticed red embers glowing in the dark. “Evening y’all.”

“Oh shit,” Tracy jumped. “Uncle Hank, you scared me to death.”

Lynn hid a cigarette behind her back. Will took out a pack. “You want a smoke?”

“No, I don’t smoke, thanks. Nasty habit.” I sat and sipped my bourbon.

“We were just talking about our last rehearsal,” Tracy began, flicking an ash. “We’re playing with this new bass player now, and she is awesome, man.”

“Hell yeah she is,” Will concurred. “We’re gonna get a CD on this one.”

Tracy jammed his cigarette in his mouth and took up an air bass. “Blam, buh be buh BLAM bluh BLAM. Fuck she rocks.”

“Well, great! You still working on that song about, what was it, the trash talk song?”

Lynn was quiet as the boys went on about their as-yet-unnamed band. She had been on the phone since her shower after the boat excursion. In an extended conversation, she and her boyfriend had broken up.

“You okay?” I asked her.

“Um? Yeah, I’m okay. Whatever.”

“Sucks.”

“It does.”

My relationships with my niece and nephew, like my long-distance relationship with my daughter Rachel, are something of a rehearsal for raising the three future teenagers I have at home.

I am a responsible adult in the lives of these teens. Like other adults, I inevitably offer a role model. On the other hand, I am not like their parents. I don’t set down rules or dispense consequences. The challenge is that I am not interested in being the “cool uncle,” in the sense of bring an adult reliving his own adolescence through theirs. I want to be there to offer an alternative to the adults they need to deal with. I try to be there as an adult they want to deal with.

Tracy and I found an easy connection in music and poetry. He sees me as someone who got out and made a life about art. No one else he knows seems to have done that. Like Rachel, he knows that I won’t freak out about the real-life stuff. Like her, he told me when he lost his virginity. He told me when he smoked pot. He told me about sneaking drinks with Will.

He also tells me what it was like to grow up with divorced parents. Divorce is so rare in my family. I benefit from his insights.

I listen to these stories. And while I offer proper advice—“seriously, use condoms, even with birth control pills”—I also share their excitement about these rites of passage.

I have to earn their trust, even as I have to trust them to make the right choices.

I am also aware that there are limits to my influence. I am influential only to the extent that they share with me. If I bust them to their folks, they would clam up and that would be that.

I have to accept my role as an adult who listens while listening for anything of serious concern. I try to appreciate what is unique about this, wondering how it will translate to the next decade of parenting, as my kids go through their teens.

I know the divorce will have long-lasting effects.

Lucy and I are each good parents. We will do fine, I trust.

But I am dismayed by her stubbornness and reticence. We will not have the parenting relationship I anticipated. We will not lay in bed each night discussing Jason’s mood that day, worrying about Collie’s new friend, or wondering about Lillie’s PSAT.

Unless Lucy changes in some dramatic way, she will continue to formulate edicts to be followed by myself and the children. These edicts will continue to be delivered to me as curt orders, with no desire for my input or respect for my opinions.

If I contest or adapt these edicts, or establish my own, she will be furious and refuse to speak with me.

Which is a sad thing. Sad for her, primarily, because that just doesn’t fly.

I am not the cool uncle of my children. I am their father. I am a great collaborator, but the bottom line is, I don’t work for their mother. We work for them.

After a while, I stood and stretched. “Well, thanks for talking with me,” I said. “I better turn in. I’m beat, and anyway, I know y’all will be up all night. I have to look chipper at breakfast.”

“All right Uncle Hank,” Tracy gripped my hand and pulled me into a hug. “See you in the morning.”

“Or as close as you manage. Good night, Will.” He rapped his knuckles to mine. I leaned over to hug Lynn.

“Night sweet. Thanks for being such a cool cuz to the kids.”

“I had fun,” she said. “Night. I love you.”

“Love you too, sugar.”

“Yeah, love you Uncle Hank.”

“I love you Tracy.”

“Well, shit, I love you, too,” Will added. Tracy and Lynn laughed.

“Baby, your shit is bananas,” I said, knocking his head.

I walked up the steps, leaving them to do what they do.

You catch them, and they are yours for a short time.

Eventually, you have to cut them loose.

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