Saturday, January 5, 2013

THE PRESENCE OF THE GONE by Peter Nolan Smith

Boston is a four-hour bus ride from New York. My brothers and sisters lived in the southern suburbs of my old hometown. After my return from overseas in September I called several times to arrange visits, but my father’s death in 2010 disconnected our present paths from the routes of the past. We are still family and this December my younger sister asked, “Are you coming home for Christmas Eve.”

“I’m working late on the 24th.” I also had to open the safe at the diamond exchange the morning of the 26th and I apologized for my holiday no-show.

“I understand.” Pam was heading to her in-laws in New Haven for the 25th.

We wished each other ‘Merry Christmas’ with love, thinking that we might see each other until some distant date in 2013.

Happily Pam phoned from New Haven on the 26th to announce that her loving daughter and she were arriving at Grand Central Terminal that morning.

“We’re having a ladies day in the city with the various members of my husband’s family, but I could meet you for a drink at the Michael Jordan’s steakhouse after our shopping.” My sister had promised to take her daughter down to Chinatown to purchase cheap knock-off fashion bags and glasses. Sawah was an easy teenager to please.

“That sounds good to me.” My boss Manny wasn’t at work, so we could close early. “I’ll see you then.”

My co-workers were more than amenable to my suggestion of cutting out at 4:30 and we packed away the jewelry in record time. After Hlove and I double-checked the safe and security alarms, we were good to go.

Twenty minutes later I entered the Grand Central Terminal from Vanderbilt Avenue. The elegant train station was bustling with comings and goings of commuters and holiday shoppers. There was few open spaces like it in the world and I glowed in the power and beauty of New York before noticing my sister waving from a table shared with three other women and my niece, who greeted me with a kiss.

I shook hands with the older woman with a pleasant smile
“I’m Ryan’s mom.” She was married to my sister’s husband’s brother. Her son was serving his fourth tour in Afghanistan.

“I’m Ryan’s fiancee.” A pretty girl with long brown hair offered from across the table. “We met in Afghanistan.”

“She worked for intelligence,” Pam said to prevent my asking any questions. Her hair stylist had worked a miracle on her color, then again she was known as Auntie Stunning to her nieces and nephews. I was simply Uncle Bubba. “If she told you what she really did she would have to kill you.”

“I’m not a spook,” Marie protested with a laugh.

“My brother says the same thing.” My sister has joked that I have been in the CIA since graduation from college. “His last job was writer in residence to a British Embassy in Europe.”

“Unofficial position.” Madame l’Ambassador was a long-time friend.

“Definitely a spook.” Another young lady commented from the banquette. “I’m Marines too. Just back from Afghanistan.”

“Glad you could make it.” My sister hugged me with tenderness.

Whatever difficulties separated us during our youth have been buried under the hubris of time. The defense lawyer was my good friend and saved me with a timely loan after Hurricane Sandy. She knew me well and asked, “Care for a glass of wine?”

“A Mer-LOT.” I mimicked my father’s pronunciation of the wine and my sister laughed, “Glad to see that someone is keeping up the tradition.”

“Not only that, but I teach people about the milkman’s and lumberman’s handshakes.”

“Oh, no.” My sister and niece groaned in familial harmony.

My father loved to show children these handshakes on his travels with the Elder Hostel. The tour operators warmed him that parents might think that he was strange. We did the same. He ignored everyone and I demonstrated both to Ryan’s mother.

“Another Smith tradition.”

Their train was leaving in twenty minutes, so we rapidly conversed about our connections and histories. I told them about my petitioning to the Pentagon to get a pension for my anti-war protests in the 60s and my sister mentioned our entering Studio 54 with the legendary wrestler Andre the Giant.

“The greatest athlete of all time.” I liked saying that because it’s true and most people don’t realize how true it was.

“You must have lived a great life?” Marie asked with envy. She was young. Life in the 70s was nothing like today. “I read about those times. They seem like a dream. Everyone and everything was so free, especially the drag queens.”

“Really?” Her comment took me off guard. Maybe she was a spook.

“Yes, there nothing like that now.”

“There was back then.” I told her about Boston’s The Other Side, the trannies of the Meat Market and a transvestite trapeze show on 45th Street. “I think the place was called GG Barnums. I had a friend Dove. She was always trying to get me to go home with her. I refused her each time, even though she looked like a vogue model.”

“Some of them were so beautiful.” Marie cooed, while her future mother-in-law frowned with moderate disapproval. America was changing albeit step by little step.

“Dove was gorgeous and she saved my life once.” I recounted how Dove had stopped a beating at the hands of a New Jersey biker pissed that I had interfered with his roughing up a gay ballet dancer.

“Where is she now?”

“I don’t know. So many of them are gone like so many of my gay friends.” I think about them often.

“I know what you mean.” Her future sister-in-law was talking about fallen Marines.

“My brother died of AIDS. He comes to me in dreams along with my mother. They visited me at a Cape Cod cottage, then he runs out to a beach filled with all the gone like that movie LONGTIME COMPANION.” The final scene filled the empty beach with the dead and I started crying about the loss of my friends and family. I could feel the gone in the air. They were everywhere.

Pam put her arm around me as did the Marine, who said, “I know, I know.”

I stifled the tears with my palm.

The mother nodded with sympathy. Her son was halfway around the world.

“Thanks.”

“We all have these stories.” Marie grasped my hand. She shared the trauma. “Everything will be better one day.”

“I like to think that.” I wanted the troops back home and a cure for AIDS and to see my kids in Thailand soon, each a simple request complicated by hard times.

My sister signaled for the bill. She paid fast. The train departure was in four minutes. We rushed down the stairs to the platform. They caught the 7.05 to New Haven with a minute to spare. Pam hugged me with my niece joining her embrace.

It was good to be with family and I waved goodbye walking back into the terminal.

No one is really gone as long as we remember that they were here.

Not my brother, my friends, or the fallen Marines and soldiers or the Afghanis lost to decades of war.

We are all here.

Then, now, and later.

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