My first eight years were spent on Falmouth Foresides across the harbor from Portland. Summer was for swimming in Watchic Pond and rowing dories from the dock at the end of the street. I never wanted to leave, but in 1960 my father was promoted to a Ma Bell job in Boston.
Chances for advancement.
Once school finished, the movers emptied the house on McKinley Road into a truck and we packed the station wagon for the ride south.
At the end of the street the deep blue of Portland Harbor shivered with the first kiss of summer. Lawn mowers buzzed over the green lawns and black-yellow bees zigzagged between my mother’s flowers. They wouldn’t be hers tomorrow.
“We’re done,” declared the truck driver. “All that’s left are the bare floors and walls.”
“I’ll check,” said my father and he strode into the two-storey house. Two minutes later he returned and handed me a wooden toy boat. “I found it under the tub. You should take better care of your things.”
“Yes, sir.” I had lost it a year ago and fingered the smooth surface. The wood was dry as a bone.
“So there’s nothing left in the house?” My mother motioned for me to get in the car.
“Not now.” My father shrugged that it was time to go.
My mother’s nod mixed regret with hope.
The two of them smiled at each other.
After eight years of marriage whole segments of their conversations were confined to silence. They watched the moving truck pulled out of the driveway. A thick cloud of exhaust accompanied each shift of the gears. Our things would reach our new house south of Boston tomorrow.
My father took her arm and they walked across the lawn to our station wagon. My mother was the happiest with the move. Her sister lived up the street from our new house. So did my three cousins.
Our Falmouth Foresides neighbors said good-bye and my grandmother wished us a good trip.
Edith gave each of her five grandchildren a $5 bill.
“So you remember me in Boston.”
“Thank you,” we said as one, since that generous a gift was normally reserved for birthdays or Christmas.
“I’ll take those.” My mother snatched the bills meant for my youngest sister and brother. They were four and two. My older brother stuck his money in a wallet. Frunk had saved every dollar given him.
We hugged my grandmother. Edith’s black dress was scented with lavender.
“I won’t forget you.” I fought back tears, remembering our rides in her VW Beatle, sleeping at the foot of her bed at her Westbrook house, and swimming off the dock of the camp on Watchic Pond.
“Stop that. You’re going to Boston, not the Moon. You’ll see me soon enough.” Edith soothed my brow. She had served as a nurse in France in WWI.
“But I don’t want to go.”
Life was Maine was good. The sea was part of it. Fishermen fed us with their catch.
“You’ll like Boston. It’s a big city. Say good-bye to your friend.”
My schoolmate stood on edge of the lawn. My father had mowed it this morning.
“I guess I’m going.”
“Have a good summer.” Chaney kicked a clump of cut grass with his sneaker. His jeans were torn at the knee. This summer was supposed to have been ours. A snorkel and diving mask hung in his hand. They were a gift from his grandmother.
“My father says we’ll return in July for a vacation.” The week on Watchic Pond couldn’t come soon enough.
“Don’t go swimming without me.” Chaney lowered his head. Boys weren’t supposed to cry in public.
I eyed his mask, wishing I had one.
I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out my Pete Runnel’s baseball card. The infielder was our favorite Red Sox player. I offered it to him.
“No, you keep it, but if you go to a game at Fenway Park, have him autograph it for me.” Chaney smiled with the prospective of having the .300 hitter’s signature as well as not having to hand over his mask in trade.
“Everyone in the car,” shouted my father.
“See you.” I slipped the playing card back into my shirt pocket.
“Not if I see you first.”
My father herded his five children into the sky-blue Ford Fairlane with fake wood paneling. My mother was scared that one of us might fall out of the car and my father had attached aluminum tubes across the rear windows as a safety precaution.
I lingered on the driveway.
“And I mean now,” yelled my father.
“Yes, sir.” My older brother, two younger sisters, and I crammed into the station wagon. The rear of the car was tightly packed with suitcases. Tonight we were staying in a motel close to our new home.
My parents and baby brother sat in the front.
My grandmother passed a heavy paper bag to my mother.
“You don’t know when you might have these again.”
The smell from the bag was unmistakable.
Italian sandwiches were a Maine favorite.
“I like mine without onions and green peppers.”
“I know, so I wrote down which ones are for whom. Bon voyage.”
“I’ll call from Boston.”
My father was an executive at New England Tel and Tel. We paid nothing for long-distance calls.
He backed up the car and once on the street shifted into D for drive.
Everyone on the lawn waved good-bye to 113 McKinley Road and I said nothing at the end of our street.
This silence lasted from the time my father drove out of our neighborhood down US 1 to the Maine Pike entrance, where the tollbooth collector handed over a stiff cardboard ticket.
“Can I see that?” I liked to check the mileage chart and my father passed it back to me.
“How many miles to Kittery?”
“73.” I added them in my head.
“We’ll make the distance in 60 minutes.”
Being an electrical engineer my father was good at calculations. He turned on the radio and stepped on the gas. My ears were buffeted by wind through the windows and I couldn’t hear the music or my mother humming to my baby brother.
A little more than an hour later a LEAVING MAINE sign announced our departure from the Pine Tree State.
Our station wagon crossed the Memorial Bridge into New Hampshire. The Piscataqua River lay under the cantilever structure and my father slowed down for the Portsmouth rotary. My older brother stared at the Howard Johnson’s on the wrong side of the road. Frunk loved three of their twenty-nine flavors. My favorite was black raspberry.
“Can we have an ice cream?”
My father shook his head. He was good at saying ‘no’.
“They’ll be plenty of HoJos on the South Shore. The first Howard Johnson’s ever was in Wollaston only five miles from our new house,” my mother stated with pride, for Boston was her hometown.
That HoJo was far away from Portsmouth and my father stopped at rest area next the New Hampshire tollbooth.
We got out of the car and sat at a picnic table. My mother passed out the sandwiches. I unwrapped the wax paper and bit into the soft Italian bread packed with ham, cheese, olives, tomatoes, and pickles. Only my mother and father liked them with onions and peppers.
After finishing my Italian sandwich I asked for permission to go to the bathroom.
My father discussed our schooling with my mother. My youngest brother played on her lap. Paddie was two.
“They went to public school in Maine. I don’t understand why they can’t go to one here.” My father was the product of public schools.
“Because Boston isn’t Maine.”
“Public schools are free.”
“I want my children to be good Catholics.”
“There’s nothing wrong with public school.”
“There is no God in those schools.”
“They could go to Sunday school.” My father had converted to the Old Religion from agnosticism to marry my mother.
“And become heathens?” There would be only one winner in this discussion.
I raised my hand.
“What?” My mother was exacerbated by my interruption.
“Can I go?” I couldn’t hold my water any longer. “To the washroom?”
“Make it fast,” said my father.
Having lost the argument about choice of schools, my father sought to reassert his authority and shouted to my brothers and sisters, “Finish your sandwiches and get in the car. We’re leaving in two minutes.”
When my father said ‘two minutes’ he meant 120 seconds and I ran to the men’s room.
My older brother yelled, “Don’t let the bogeyman get you.”
Frunk teased me about bogeymen, snakes under my bed, and bears in the woods, but at eight I didn’t scare as easy as I had when I was seven. I entered the unlit men’s room. It smelled bad and I stood at the low urinal. Names and telephone numbers were scrawled on the wall. I could read better than most children my age. All these men were looking for a good time.
I exited from the toilet and blinked in the bright sunlight. Our family car was not in the parking lot.
My father liked playing jokes and I expected the Ford station wagon to reappear with him smiling at the wheel. One minute became two and two became five.
A beat-up Chevy slowed down to the curb and a man with greasy glasses asked with a voice scratching the summer air with the crackle of stale popcorn, “You alone?”
“I’m waiting for my parents.” I had heard about men like this from Chaney.
“Are you sure?” His left hand hung out the window and spidery fingers beckoned me.
“Yeah, he’s sure.” A man in a uniform glared at the motorist and ordered, “Get lost.”
The Chevy sped from the parking lot and the man brought me over to toll booth.
“Where’s your family?”
He checked the parking lot, expecting to see a hysterical mother.
“I went to the washroom and when I came out they were gone.” It didn’t look like they were coming back either.
“You have brothers and sisters?” The man sat me on a stool. Another toll taker joined him. They had clearly dealt before with lost children
“Yes, there are five of us. Three boys and two girls.”
The man asked my name and address.
The first answer was easy. I gulped down doubt, as I replied to the second, “We used to live at 113 McKinley Road was on Falmouth Foresides, but we’re moving to Boston. Someplace on the South Shore.”
“Don’t worry, kid, your parents will be back. Would you like an ice cream?”
He pointed to an ice cream truck in the parking lot.
“My mother said not to accept things from strange men.”
She had never explained why.
Now having seen the strange driver I knew why.
“I’m not strange. I work for the State of New Hampshire and my name is Jim.”
Jim had a kind face and looked like my Uncle Russ. He signaled to his fellow worker that he was taking a break.We walked to an ice cream truck.
“So what’ll you have?” asked at the ice cream truck.
“Black raspberry, pleases.”
Sorry, this isn’t Hojos.”
The choices were vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.
“Vanilla, please.” I pulled $5 out of my jeans.
“Your money’s no good, kid. One vanilla coming up.”
We walked back to the tollbooth and I sat on a bench, slowly licking the ice cream, thinking that if I finished it fast, then my mother and father weren’t ever coming back and all I had in the world was $5, which bought a lot of ice cream cones and I planned on staying here, until my money was gone.
At my age I couldn’t come up with a better plan.
Fifteen minutes later a Ford station wagon sped toward the tollbooth area and dangerously veered through the oncoming traffic to the curb. The stench of an over-taxed engine and the burnt brakes overwhelmed the fragrance of vanilla.
“Thank God you’re here.” My mother dashed from the car and hugged me tight. Her eyes were red from tears.
I threw my arms around her and the ice cone fell to the ground.
Jim joined us.
“Ma’am, I saw him wandering around the rest area and figured someone must have forgotten him. It happens here more than you think.” The tollbooth collector brushed my crew-cut head.
“Tell that to my wife.” My father thanked the tollbooth collector. “I asked my oldest son, where this one was, and he said that we left him at the rest area. I thought he was joking, until I did a fast headcount. I didn’t know that this car could hit a 100.”
“No harm done. Have a good trip.”
Back in the car my father counted heads.
“And two makes seven.” My mother wanted a full roster, then asked, “So what happened when we were gone?”
Not much. The tollbooth collector gave me an ice cream cone. Vanilla.”
“Did he touch you?”
“No one touched me anywhere.” I didn’t mention the man in the Chevy.
“If some man does, you have to tell us.” My father directed this demand to my older brother and me. My two sisters and younger brother were asleep.
“Touch us how?” King Midas had turned his daughter into gold. That story couldn’t be true. If it was, someone had melted the poor girl into ingots centuries ago.
“You’ll know.” My mother closed the discussion and we drove into Massachusetts.
Forty minutes we crossed a high bridge into Boston. The harbor water was the same as in Maine, but the buildings were taller than those in Portland. We passed through the city and ten miles later my father exited from the highway.
A calm river snaked through a broad marsh.
“We’re almost there,” announced my father.
“We’re going to live here?” asked Frunk.
“It’s not Falmouth Foresides.”
“It’ll be home soon enough.”
My father drove past a cemetery and a private school with ivy-covered buildings.
“Is that our school?” ask Frunk.
“No, you’re going to Catholic school.”
Religious sisters were a rarity in Maine.
“Yes. The same order that taught me.”
“Oh,” my brother and I said at the same time. He was more of a believer than me, but we both knelt down to say our bedtime prayers.
“And this is our church.”
My mother pointed out a small Quonset hut across from a gas station and grocery store.
“That’s a church?” It didn’t even have a spire.
“This land used to be a military base,” explained my father. “This was the Catholic church during the War.”
He had served as a radar operator on B-25 during World War II.
“We’re almost there.”
A long straightaway led to a small stream and my father turned left into a new suburban development. Four-bedroom houses sprawled across green grass and the trim lawns ran to the edge of a thick forest. Small hills rose to the south.
“Guess which house is yours.” My father drove down the street.
“They all looked alike,” said my sister from the back.
“All except one.” I spotted the moving truck before a colorful split-level. “Our house is pink.”
“It’s not pink. It’s teaberry.” My mother painted pictures. She had a good eye for color.
My father parked the car on the street. Kids on the sidewalk watched the movers carry in the furniture. The boy on the next lawn was my size. His nose was big, but he had a friendly smile. His mother came out of their white house and greeted us to the neighborhood.
“My name is Elda Manzi. This is my son, Chuckie.” The woman wore a simple cotton dress and her hair was a bouffant imitating JFK’s stylish wife. “And this is my husband Leo.”
My father and our new shorter neighbor shook hands.
“You have a nice growth of weeds out back.”
Yes, I noticed that.”
My father wandered behind the split-level ranch house to survey the yard with Mr. Manzi. My mother turned to Mrs. Manzi and said, “I’d invite you in, but I’m certain the house is a mess.”
“You should have seen our house that first day. I have three teenage girls. Talk about chaos.” Elda grabbed my mother’s arm. “Let the movers do their thing. Come over to my house and eat. Your kids must be hungry.”
“They’re always hungry.”
“Don’t I know it.”
Mrs. Manzi treated us to lasagna. My brother and I had seconds and we swiped up the rich tomato sauce with crispy bread. Chuckie leaned over and said, “My mother doesn’t make lasagna for us. She doesn’t like it, but I do.”
After the meal my mother returned to our house. My aunt, uncle, and cousins came to visit. My father directed the movers to furniture into the appropriate rooms. My older brother and I were sharing a bedroom over the garage. Our parents’ bedroom was next-door.
We returned to the kitchen, where my mother was telling her sister how I had been left behind at the tollbooth.
“You’re luck he wasn’t kidnapped by gypsies.” My aunt was serious.
“Or bogey men,” joked my brother.
Everyone laughed, including our new neighbors, but I didn’t tell anyone about the strange man at the rest area, although everyone was surprised to see the aluminum bars on the station wagon’s rear windows.
“What are those for,” asked Mr. Manzi.
“To prevent our kids from getting out of the car.” My father proudly inspected his handiwork.
“Looks like a prison car to me.” Mr. Manzi pulled on a tube. It had no give.
“I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
My mother and Mrs. Manzi nodded in agreement.
In their eyes we could never be too safe.
That night we stayed in a motel next to the Quincy shipyard. Our family slept in two rooms. The big bed in our room smelled strange. I lay on the floor.
In the morning I woke before my father and older brother.
Across Fore River Street steel cranes swung over half-finished ships. The acetylene torches sprayed sparks over the curved steel hulls. Watching them was better than any TV this side of THE THREE STOOGES.
“Go back to sleep,” muttered my father. He liked to sleep late on the weekends.
I obeyed him without closing my eyes and after breakfast in the motel dinner our family returned to the house on Harborview Road.
Within days we settled into our new routines.
Every morning my father took the trolley from Ashmont into Boston. School didn’t start for another two months, so my cousins, the boy next door, my older brother, and I played baseball in the backyard and explored the woods behind our houses.
This paradise didn’t last long.
On a very warm July afternoon my mother put me in the Ford.
None of my brothers and sisters were in the car.
They were chucking dirt bombs in the backyard jungle of tall weeds.
“Did I do something wrong?” I fingered an aluminum tube.
“No.” She pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. “Chaney’s dead.”
“Everyone went waterskiing on the motorboat. Chaney stayed behind with his grandmother. He went out swimming with that mask and snorkel. His grandmother says that he went over his head and swallowed water. Chaney panicked and his grandmother tried to rescue him, but by the time she got to him. He wasn’t moving.”
“He wasn’t supposed to go swimming without me.” Our vacation was next week. “He should have waited.”
“It’s a long summer. You went swimming last week at Nantasket Beach.”
“I should have waited.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I know.” I agreed for her benefit.
At worse I should have forced Chaney to trade me for the mask.
“We’ll pray for him.”
Prayers solved many of her problems and my mother walked away in the station wagon. The sun dropped behind Big Blue Hill and I prayed to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but Chaney remained dead and that bad day ended with my renouncing God.
A week before Labor Day my mother brought four of her children into Boston to buy uniforms at Jordan Marsh. The department store on Washington Street owned the monopoly on the diocese’s parochial schools. There were no exceptions.
In the boy’s fitting room the bald-headed salesman called me ‘stocky’. His hands brushed against my body, as he measured my inseam, waist, chest, and neck. As he felt my thighs, he asked, “Do you like girls?”
“Yes. There’s a girl in my neighborhood.” Her name was Kyla Rolla. She had light blonde hair and liked chocolate ice cream. We were in the same grade at Our Lady of the Foothills.
“What do you like about her?” His hands drifted up my leg. They smelled of cigarettes. He looked a like the man from the parking lot.
“Nothing.” I stepped out of the fitting room.
“One day that nothing will become something.” The man smiled before waving for the next boy to enter the fitting room.
On the Tuesday after Labor Day my mother put us on the school bus. My older brother, sister, and I wore the scratchy uniforms. Mother Superior ushered us to our classes and introduced us to the teachers. My desk was two seats behind Kyla. A stack of books was piled in front of me. Two were dedicated to religion.
Chuckie sat beside me.
He smiled for an instant, as if it were a crime.
Sister Mary Goretti clapped her hands together.
All the nuns were named after saints as were most of my classmates.
Kyla was the exception.
“Our Lady of the Foothills has rules.” Sister Mary Goretti was so ageless that she could have been twenty or a thousand. “Firstly in answering nuns it’s ‘yes, sister’ or ‘no, sister. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sister.” The entire class responded in unison.
“Secondly never speak unless told to speak.”
“Next if a nun claps once, stand.”
Sister Mary Goretti clapped and the class rose to their feet, although my reaction was a second off perfection.
“Are you deaf?”
“Then we won’t have any problems?”
“If I clap twice, sit.”
Her hands clapped twice with blinding speed.
We sat with collective obedience to begin the morning lessons.
At lunch time the boys in the school filed into the auditorium. Mother Superior stood next to the white-haired pastor on the stage and the other sisters watched guard over their pupils. No one said a word, as Father Gavin stepped up to the podium.
“Good morning, boys.” His hands stroked the microphone into which he spoke with the traces of an Irish accent similar to my Nana.
“Good morning, Father.”
Mother Superior clapped her hands twice and we sat as one.
“Boys, these are difficult times for young souls. Rock and roll has infected America with the devil’s music.” Father Gavin studied us with an accusatory stare. Priests and nuns were very good at witch hunting, mostly since no one was free of sin. “And Satan has many friends, especially men preying on young boys. Does anyone know what I’m talking about?”
I stiffened remembering the man in the parking lot, but joined everyone in saying, “No, father.”
“I want you boys to be on the look-out for men with lisps, limp wrists, and less than manly attire. These men are after your soul. They are servants of evil. Their smiles are a trap. Is that clear?”
“Your body is the temple of God. You must protect it at all moments from impurity. Are there any questions?”
“No, father.” None of us had the courage to ask one. “Good, now listen up to Captain Kahill with the town police.”
The portly police officer warned, ”Weird men lurk in Blue Hills Reservation. These men will pretend to be your friends. They will offer you candy. They will ask strange questions. Do not get in a car with them. Do you understand?”
“That’s that.” Sister Mary Josef clapped her hands twice to end the assembly. Our teachers led the boys to their assigned classroom, where they spent the rest of the school day defining the differences between good and bad. Black and white were the only colors in their spectrum. We remained separate from the girls until the closing bell.
After school my classmates held a confused debate about what men might do to men.
“Probably they kiss like men kiss women,” Jimmy Lally suggested in a whisper.
“And maybe one of them has to be the girl.” Joe Tully made a face.
“Men can’t be girls, but sissies can wear dresses like Milton Berle on TV,” replied Jimmy.
Chuckie had older sisters and said, “Maybe what they do has something to do with sticking something into your belly button.”
“That’s disgusting.” I planned on taping over my navel as soon as I got back home.
“No, it’s gross,” Chuckie shouted, because kids in Boston used ‘gross’ for disgusting. “Very gross.”
That afternoon in our basement my older brother, Chuckie, and I undressed my sisters’ Barbie Dolls. Neither Ken nor Barbie had belly buttons and we put away the dolls before my mother or sisters caught us.
The subject of sissies remained a forbidden topic throughout the school year and I concentrated on getting good grades. My older brother scored straight As, while my report card was marred by a few Bs. My mother expected better from me, but she enjoyed how our matching school uniforms enhanced my resemblance to my brother and delighted in telling other parents that we were twins.
“Irish twins,” she said, even though our birthdays were thirteen months apart. At the end of the school year my father arranged for us to deliver newspapers.
“You’re never too young to learn the value of money.” Maine Yankees extolled the value of a keen work ethic with a near-religious obsession.
The next week we woke early Monday through Saturday to deliver newspapers. The bus picked us up at 8. Classes lasted from 8:30 till 2:30 at Our Lady Of The Foothills, where the nuns educated our minds in order to save our souls.
After school my older brother and I wandered through the wooded hills surrounding our suburban neighborhood with our cousins and Chuckie Manzi.
The stone tower atop Chickatawbut Hill had been erected by the CCC in the 1930s. Empty beer cans littered the stone flooring the base. Teenagers drank here at night. The dank room smelled as vile as that men’s room on the highway and we hurried up the wooden stairs to the observatory deck. The view offered a 360 panorama of the South Shore with the skyline of Boston crowning the fierce blue harbor.
Young trees carpeted the slope below Chickatawbut. The woods ended at the edge of our neighborhood.
My brother pointed out our house.
“Ours is the teaberry one.”
“You know your house is pink.” Chuckie corrected Frunk.
“It’s not pink,” I argued.
My mother had said that it was teaberry and she was never wrong.
“It’s pink.” My cousins agreed with his color selection.
“Pink’s a queer color,” Chuckie declared with a smirk.
“Queer?” The word had one meaning for boys my age.
“You know like what the priest was talking about. Like when men kiss men. Sissies.” Chuckie tossed an empty beer can out of the tower. It struck the ground with a metallic thunk. “And the priests are weird. Don’t let them get you alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“The only reason they told us about the strange men was to save us for themselves.”
“Stop.” I felt the tape over my belly button. It was in a good position.
“Okay, okay, I was just joking.”
“It wasn’t funny.” Strange men had one face for me.
The man from the parking lot at the tollbooth.
Chuckie dropped the topic and we headed to the higher hill to the east.
From there we could see everything in our world.
After that day pink was banned from our language and none of us said the word ‘queer’, for the mention of either was cause for accusation by our schoolmates.
The next fall my mother gained weight like she was storing fat for a harsh winter. As her belly grew beyond belief I wondered if she was ever going to stop eating, since Frunk and I usually received any leftover cake.
The leaves changed color in October and in November JFK beat Richard Nixon to become the first Catholic president. The cold weather arrived in December and Pearl Harbor Day 1960 dawned with a hoary frost topping the fields south of the Neponset River.
During lunch my 3rd Grade class stared out the windows at sullen northern clouds. We ate our sandwiches in silence. The nuns believed that Jesus barely spoke during his Agony on the Cross and their students were expected to follow his example in thought and deed.
A shrill bell signaled recess and the classes boiled from the school into the sub-freezing temperature. Standing still on the icy asphalt meant frozen feet, so the girls skipped tattered ropes, while the boys kicked misshapen balls around the rear parking lot.
Right before the end of the play period our station wagon rolled down the school’s driveway and Chuckie joked, “Here comes the jail truck from Billerica Reform School.”
Having endured endless ribbing about the metal bars across the windows of the station wagon from family and friends, neither my brother nor I laughed with our classmates. Funny was for other people, but my father got out of the car with a broad smile.
Mother Superior demanded with a sense of command backed by the Church, “What are you doing here?”
In her mind a man’s place at this hour was at his job.
“I want to speak to my boys.” He waved for us to come closer.
“Impossible” Mother Superior expected obedience from adults as well as children.
“No.” My father had been brought up in Maine and he confirmed that his authority superseded the Church by telling us, “You mother had a baby boy.”
“We have a baby brother?” Frunk was confused and so was I.
“You didn’t know your mother was having a baby?”
“I thought Mom was getting fat.” Any woman would have gained weight from her recent feeding frenzy.
“She was fat with your baby brother. We’re going to see him.”
“You can’t disrupt the school day like this.” Steam fumed from Mother Superior’s dragon beak.
“They’ll make it up at Church this Sunday.”
As a convert to the faith he was immune to the nun’s wrath, but my brother asked timidly, “What about our books?”
“No one does homework on Baby Day.” My father waved to my sisters and they ran over to us.
“They’re going to the hospital to see their mother.”
“Is Mom okay?” I asked with concern.
“She’s fine. Let’s go.”
We piled in the car and he drove to Beth Israel Hospital, humming IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK ALOT LIKE CHRISTMAS.
“This is not a playground,” my father said entering the hospital. The lobby smelled cleaner than our house.
“I expect you to be on your best behavior.”
We filed one by one into the private room in Richardson House.
My mother lay on a bed with a small baby on her chest. My Nana held our now second youngest brother, Padraic. A white uniformed nurse sat on a chair reading the Record-American. We stood around the bed. Our new brother was very pink.
“He weighs seven pounds.” My father touched the small body and his little fingers squirmed like spring worms rising from the earth. We were a bigger family by one and each of us smiled with a shared happiness.
My parents named their sixth child after my grandmother’s uncle. The young priest had met the fourteen year-old girl off the boat from Ireland and placed Nana in a Salem household staff. My grandmother had danced with our grandfather at a church outing in Marblehead.
In my mother’s mind our next two generations owed their existence to Uncle Mike and she prayed that at least one of us might take up the Cloth to return the favor. I didn’t have the heart to confess my atheism.
Those first months Michael was a miracle and I rushed home from school to feed, bathe, and rock the tiny creature in a cradle from my grandmother’s house in Maine. After having six kids in eight years my mother was grateful for my assistance, however this peaceful period ended with his first bout of infantile teething.
My mother and I sang him GOLDMINE IN THE SKY a thousand times. His bawling destroyed our attempts at harmony. One day Michael fell asleep and we sat on the bed in relief. The support struts creaked under our weight and his unearthly howl filled the bedroom. He seemed shocked for a second, then smiled before drifting into a blessed slumber.
That was as bad as it got.
Michael was very special.
My baby brother walked and talked ahead of his age. My mother toilet-trained him before age two.
She had no patience for bed-wetters.
Our aunts and uncles doted on their youngest nephew. Nana cradled her grandson in her arms and whispered Gaelic in his ears. The priests declared that an angel had landed in our parish and people were always commenting that he should be a child model, otherwise he seemed a very normal baby.
The next two years passed with long winters, rainy springs, short summers, and brilliant falls.
School was separated by semesters. My grades were As and Bs. Kyla Rolla won every spelling bee, but I was better in math.
My brother and I became altar boys.
Chuckie’s mother forced him to join us.
Other kids ridiculed our wearing a cassock.
“You’re wearing a dress.”
Our classmates could joke all they wanted.
We got out of school to serve in funerals.
At weddings the father of the bride paid us $10 each to act like saints and we discovered that the pastor never locked the cabinet for the altar wine.
After weddings Chuckie and I drank the Blood of Christ. It didn’t take much for eleven year-old boys and we staggered home through the woods. Our deadened feet stammered down a corridor of the thorny brambles into a copse of hemlocks. Neither of us had been to this part of the Blue Hills and we stumbled into a clearing and stopped upon seeing that a naked man chained to a tree.
The Mafia dumped their victims throughout the Blue Hills. Chuckie and I didn’t see any blood and we cautiously approached the slumped man. A paper bag covered his head. Chuckie stepped on a twig.
The naked man lifted his head.
His muffled voice asked us to do something awful.
We fled the woods filled with the horror of now knowing that what men did to men had nothing to do with your belly button and we avoided that section of the Blue Hills for years without telling anyone why, but strange men were not only tied to trees.
When Michael was five, my mother stopped to buy milk at the store across from the church. She returned to an empty car. Neither the cashier nor the gas station attendant had seen my brother. The police searched the neighborhood without finding her baby boy. My mother grew increasingly frantic, until Father Gavin’s caretaker carried Michael into the store.
My brother couldn’t explain where he had been or with whom. Everyone was relieved to have him back and afterwards no one spoke about the episode, although my abandonment at the New Hampshire tollbooth was retold at holiday dinners to the amusement of all.
My father didn’t consider it a joke and the bars stayed on the station wagon for another year, after which the station wagon was traded for a brand-new Olds 88.
In 7th Grade I was punched out by Joe Tully and Mark Scanlon, because I could read Latin. They called me a ‘fag’ and worse. The beatings stopped, after I fought the bullies to protect Kyla Rolla from scandal. The pretty brunette regarded me as her hero and a reputation for violence followed me into high school. We started going steady.
Like the rest of us Michael attended Our Lady of the Foothills, where his artwork outshone his grades. The girls loved him and the boys thought he was funny. His mimicking GOMER PYLE was priceless and the Boy Scouts awarded him merit badges for woodcarving and painting.
My older brother taught Michael to ride a bike and I read him Classics Illustrated, however he was useless with a baseball or football. I didn’t think about it too much, since I was no Pete Runnel.
In the Spring of 1966 I won a math scholarship to Our Lord’s High School. Its enrollment was all- boys. The football team was State Champs and the coach tried to recruit me onto the freshman squad. I weighed 180 at 5-10.
“You’re built for running. Short powerful legs and a strong torso.” He assessed my strengths with a slaver’s eye.
“I’m here for math.”
“Brute force timing impact.” Coach Amado extolled the poetry of geometry.
“I’ll think about it.”
I ran cross-country instead, finishing fourth and fifth. I had short legs.
The MTA offered no direct bus service to my neighborhood.
After practice and meets I hitchhiked home on 128. Strange men picked me up and asked glancing at my crotch, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
At first I answered yes, but these men exploited this admission as an invitation to discuss sex.
“You look like an athlete. Do you shower with other naked boys?”
Getting a ride from the rush hour traffic on 128 was impossible and my house was a long walk through the woods, so I endured the come-ons.
Sometimes they gave me a ride home.
On the long stretch through the Blue Hills I fended off their gropes. A slap on the hand scared them. They wanted more than petting.
Exactly what was solved by Chuckie’s discovery of dirty book stash in the woods. The moldy photographs depicted depraved intercourse without anything left to the imagination and the crumbling pages of written words described unspeakable acts never confessed to priests, because of the rumors about them.
Chuckie let me pick three. My favorite was THE ITCH by Steven Hammer, who opened my body and soul to the broad spectrum of sexuality with an erudition bespeaking experience. I must have read Chapter 3 a thousand times. I started letting men do things to me. Not all of them were bad.
One day I came home to find Michael crying on his bed. “What’s wrong?”
“Someone saw me playing with Barbie dolls.”
“He called me a queer.”
“And you know what that means?”
“Who called you queer?”
“I don’t want to say.” The label of a snitch was almost as bad as being a queer.
“Who?” I wasn’t in the mood to hear no.
“Bobbie with the fat brother?”
“You stay here,” I said and ran down the street to a white ranch house. My brother’s persecutor was a thirteen year-old. Bobbie wouldn’t come outside to face me.
“No one calls my brother a queer.” I was big for my age. “Don’t do it again or else I’ll burn down your house.”
I wasn’t kidding either.
When I got back home, Michael was singing OVER THE RAINBOW to a Ken doll.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be playing with Barbie Dolls.”
“Every boy in this neighborhood plays with his sisters’ dolls. Anyone who says that they don’t is a liar.”
Michael had me dead to rights.
Later that afternoon my older brother came back from high school and asked why I had threatened Bobby.
“Because he called Michael queer.”
“Queer? You mean like Arthur?” my older brother answered too quickly for comfort.
Arthur lived across the street with his parent. The ex-football player was an Eastern Airlines steward on the Logan-Miami shuttle. Neighborhood women considered Arthur a dreamboat.
“What do you mean?” I was slow about some things. “Arthur’s queer.”
“As Liberace.” The boa-bedecked pianist was Zsa-Zsa Gabor’s best friend. His suits existed in another spectrum of color from my father’s wardrobe.
“Arthur’s no Liberace.” Our neighbor had given me a stainless steel model of an Eastern DC 6 for my 10th birthday. We swam in his pool most of the summer. His mother made us sandwiches.
“Yes, he is.” My older brother nodded his head. Our hair was getting long. Frunk liked the Beatles. I was more into the Stones.
“And his friend Joe?” Arthur’s best friend could have doubled for Tony Curtis in SPARTACUS.
“Queer too, but no one says anything or else they have to deal with Arthur’s father.”
The old man had served as a sub commander in WWII. Bill was tougher than a bent nail.
“How do you know he’s queer?” Maybe my brother was wrong about Arthur.
“I saw him kissing Joe. Like the way you kiss Kyla.”
“Oh.” I turned to my baby brother.
He held Ken close to him and the pleasure of his smile proved that my baby brother was different and now I knew how.
At least no one in my hometown touched him again, at least not unless he wanted them to touch him.
One September evening during my freshman year my parents went to dine at Joe Tecchi’s in the North End, entrusting the care of our younger siblings to my older brother and me. We bribed the four of them with chocolate and TV to turn a blind eye to the arrival of three boys and five girls.
We had the basement to ourselves.
The lights went out one by one.
My girlfriend, Kyla, had coiffed her hair like Kim Novak in VERTIGO. Her pink dress matched the shade of her lipstick pink. We made out on the couch. The record player repeated WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN for two hours. She bestowed a hickey the size of a hockey puck on my collarbone.
Kyla and our friends left at 9. My parents returned home in a good mood and I went to sleep content in our deception of the older generation.
Early the next morning my mother’s angry voice proved the error of such arrogance.
“Everyone down here.”
My brother and I were the first to arrive.
Chocolate had stained the living room rug. It shouldn’t have been there. None of us had eaten candy last night.
Only my younger brothers.
“How did it get there?” she demanded with hands on her hips.
“I don’t know.” Ignorance was a teenager’s first line of defense.
“And who was over here last night?”
“That’s not what I heard.”
Frunk and I glared at our sisters and brothers. The guilty party was obvious. Michael had snitched about our friends and our guilt of one sin convicted us of another.
My mother grounded us for a month.
I came home from high school in a fury and found Michael hiding under his bed.
“Don’t you dare call for Mom.” I dragged him out by the heels.
“I was telling the truth.” He offered no resistance.
“None of my friends came upstairs.” One punch would teach him a lesson.
“I said they were here. I never said they dropped the chocolate.”
His manipulation of the truth exhibited wisdom beyond his years.
“Don’t try it again or else I won’t protect you anymore.”
“They are people who will want to hurt you.”
“You mean like those boys who beat you up every day.”
“You know about that?” My shudder was an involuntary flinch of hidden fear.
“Everyone knows.” It was a small town and the bullying had lasted six months.
“And no one did anything.” I wanted to scare my brother. “Remember the time you disappeared from the car. Something really bad like that could happen to you again.”
“Not if you stop them.” Tears smeared his eyes.
Somebody had hurt him that day.
“No one will ever hurt you.”
I vowed that they would never steal him again and I prayed to save him from that fate of that naked man chained to the tree, however my promise to Michael was overwhelmed by the rising tide of my own teenage lust.
The priests encouraged young people to wait for marriage. Kyla and I struggled with temptation and she surrendered her body to my advances without giving up her purity. Other girls and boys got in trouble. I thought Kyla didn’t love me. I was thinking only of myself. At Easter Mass in 1970 I told her that I wasn’t going to my senior prom, thinking she would give in to my demands.
“I want you, but not until then.”
“Then meaning our wedding day?” We had plans to attend college.
“Yes.” She envisioned a white wedding in May of 1974.
“I can’t wait that long.” I was stupid to throw away her love, but a good part of being young involved being stupid.
I invited a skinny girl from my sister’s school to my prom. Pattie dressed like a hippie. On prom night we danced to the MC5 and the next day on Horseshoe Beach almost went all the way in the back of my father’s Delta 88.
My Summer of Love with Pattie ended with her falling for the guitarist of the Ramrods. They moved into a commune on the Hull peninsula.
There was no going back to Kyla.
My father noticed my moping and suggested that I coach Michael’s baseball team. I should have said no, however the league needed someone to count heads and insure the equipment wasn’t stolen.
While most of the players on Gleason Funeral Home had a fair grasp of the basics of baseball, my brother’s fielding and throwing arm exiled him to right field. The players on the other teams ridiculed his batting. Halfway through the season, he said, “I want to quit.”
“Me too.” The team hadn’t won a single game and angry parents yelled at my batting orders.
Upon getting home I informed my father about our decision. He was peeling potatoes for dinner, two for each person at the dinner table.
“Neither of you are quitting.” His voice denied any other options and I replaced him at the kitchen sink.
“We’ll never win.” Michael hated sports other than pro wrestling and his uniform shone with an unnatural whiteness. His knees had yet to touch the grass.
“Sports aren’t about winning or losing. It’s about how you play the game.”
“Not when you suck.” Michael ripped the baseball cap off his head.
“You’re finishing out the season.”
I loved my father too much to refuse his demand and the summer lengthened with each loss for Gleason Funeral Home. Constant defeat was a nasty diet for the young and our losing streak brought out the worst in adults.
The last game was against the league’s best squad and somehow we led into the last inning. My brother was the first batter and the opposing coach commented on his practice swing.
“Looks like a girl.” The pot-bellied car dealer had a reputation for cruising the Blue Hills. “Probably throws like his sister.”
I called time.
The coach had twenty years and an extra fifty pounds on me.
I picked up a baseball bat.
“Don’t.” My brother took the bat from my hands.
“What about protecting you?”
“I’ve heard worst and I can take care of myself.”
“Batter up,” the umpire shouted to resume play.
Michael stepped up to the plate and parodied the opposing coach by hitching his pants and scratching his ass.
Our team giggled with a loser’s disregard for winning. The other team recognized the uncanny mimic and soon everyone on the field was laughing at Michael’s antics.
The pitcher on the mound caught the spirit and lofted a cream puff at the plate.
My brother squibbed a hit into left field. He reached 1st and tried for 2nd. The outfielder’s toss caught him two feet from the bag.
Our opponents scored two runs in the bottom of the 6th and our season ended with a record of 0-17. I bought the team pizza from Villa Rosa and toasted my brother’s hit as a victory in the throat of defeat.
The other players would have preferred the win.
By August my hair was down to my shoulders and my older brother had long sideburns. My father wore a Fung Manchu mustache. One family photo from 1970 showed the four boys in hip suits and the two girls in mod dresses.
We looked like the doubles for the Partridge Family. My father could have been the band manager. We loved each other. Not all the time, but we obeyed my mother’s dictate of never saying anything about each other to someone outside our circle.
At summer’s end Kyla married Pal Monaghan, the high school’s quarterback. I wasn’t invited to the wedding. Michael served the Mass and her father gave him $10. He spent the money on hip-huggers.
After Labor Day my brother and I commuted to Boston College. My envy of the dorm students mounted under the regime of parental restrictions and I moved to an apartment in Brighton’s Bug Village. Driving taxi paid the rent and I spend more time behind the wheel than in the classroom. My grades suffered accordingly.
Off-hours I smoked pot with hippie coeds from BU and drank beer at the Phoenix on Commonwealth Avenue.
The Irish bar offered twenty-five cents beer, pinball, and Mexican food. I sold mescaline to local bands for extra cash.
On the weekends I visited my parents.
The trolleys and subway trains provided a rocking study hall for the week’s lessons. My father usually picked me up at Lower Mills.
One afternoon I dialed our number from the payphone on the bridge over the Neponset River. No one answered my call and I rode the Rte. 28 bus to a seemingly empty house. Within minutes my dirty clothes were stuck in the washer and eggs were frying in the pan. Over the hum of the stove’s suction blower I heard secretive laughter upstairs and crept to my parents’ bedroom.
I pushed open the door.
Michael and his friend, Manuel, were wearing my sisters’ mini-skirts and my mother’s wigs.
His friend was clearly embarrassed.
Not my brother.
“Don’t you think I look like Peggy Lipton?” Michael posed before the full-length mirror.
“Only a little.” My crush for THE MOD SQUAD actress was almost as big as the torch that I carried for Susan Dey from THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.
“Mom says that when you were born she wanted a girl and dressed you up like one for two years.”
“Only because she thought that I was going to be a girl and Dad didn’t want to throw away the clothes.”
“Right.” He said like there were other reasons.
“That doesn’t make me a drag queen. Get out of those rags.” Lou Reed’s WALK ON THE WILD SIDE followed the Kinks’ LOLA in my brain’s jukebox.
“We were only having a little fun.” Michael changed into jeans and a tee shirt.
“Fun?” Only one group of people would have interpreted cross-dressing that way. “You’re too young to be getting into this.”
“I’m not a kid any more.”
“You’re not a teenager either and dressing like Mom is no game.” I glared at Manuel, who fled from the house.
“Are you going to tell Mom?” Michael demanded in a sudden panic.
“I’m not a snitch.”
He replaced the wig back in the box almost as if he were burying a treasure.
“This isn’t an easy road.”
Queer life was a mystery to most straights.
I knew what I knew from driving cab.
Young hustlers worked the chicken hawks on Marlborough Street near the Boston Gardens. Leather boys traipsed through the Greyhound bus station. Elegant queens strutted to the Combat Zone’s piano bars. Provincetown was a ferry ride across Massachusetts Bay. The early 70s were an exciting time for men seeking men, except my brother was a few months shy of 11.
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Michael left my parents’ bedroom.
“Wearing a dress isn’t going to make you popular at school with the boys.”
“Not all of them.” He was saying that there were more of his type than the rest of us thought. Boys bullied them, but even worse the police persecuted sword-swallowers and priests castigated their catamite behavior from the pulpit.
“You be careful.” I wanted to save him from any and all pain.
“And prepared just like a Boy Scout.”
I gave him the last word.
At least he hadn’t said ‘girl scout’.
That summer I worked in my father’s office and started seeing an older woman.
Linda was divorced and 26. She had a young daughter. We attended an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer concert on the Esplanade. We did more than kiss in the bushes along the Charles River. We lasted over a year. I thought that we were in love. In the end she confessed, “I only slept with you, because your father wouldn’t.”
Linda’s rejection led to bout of heavy drinking. My grades descended to sin laude, while the taxi fleet awarded my high bookings with a shiny Checker cab.
One night I picked up a fare outside Boston Garden. The stocky man with a manly mustache praised Bobby Orr on the ride to the Fenway, so I was surprised when he told me to stop in front of the 1270 Club.
“People like me go here.”
“It’s a gay bar.”
“And I’m gay. You want to have a beer?” he asked, as he got out of the back seat.
“I’m not queer.”
“And hippie taxi drivers arent my type. Neither are hairdressers. Come on in, we can talk about Bobby Orr.”
“I said I’m not gay.”
“I know you’re not a sissy. Come. Don’t come. Up to you. Only you’ll miss meeting some sweet fag hags.
They don’t need to know you’re not a gay boy. In fact it’s better, if they don’t. You’re not scared you might be gay, are you?” It was a challenge, which many men couldn’t ask while looking in the mirror.
THE ITCH haunted my fantasies. I had doubts.
“I’m not scared of anything.” I entered the disco and danced the night away with a ravenous blonde model with ballerina legs.
“Don’t kiss her.” He warned at the bar, as Elsa visited the ladies’ room.
“Why not?” She was as beautiful as Faye Dunaway.
“Because then she’ll know you’re straight and gay men don’t kiss women.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”<
“Tell her that you’re not sure, if you’re gay, bi, or straight. She’ll want to save you. Trust me. Now go prove me right.” He slapped my ass.
I followed his plan.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” Elsa asked, studying her reflection in the wall mirror.
“I don’t know. I’m not really into women.”
“You don’t find me sexy?” The tall blonde wore a flowing dress with no bra. I could see her nipples.
They were bigger than mine.
“You’re sexy like David Bowie.”
“He loved Ziggy.”
“Really? I have his LP. You want to come to my place for a drink. I won’t touch you. Promise.”
That evening Elsa tested my resolve at her apartment on Commonwealth Avenue. I failed with an F, but scored often, as my new friend Bruce introduced me to Boston’s gay life.
The fat hags at 1270 and the drag queens at the Other Side were more fun than sloshed coeds at Kenmore Square boozers.
Whenever the fag-hags doubted my persuasion, Bruce would proclaim my sword-swallowing talents. I danced with men as camouflage. Donnie Ward was the most handsome man in the place and the club’s best dancer.
Diana Ross’ LOVE HANGOVER was our mantra.
“Love to love you baby.”
Kissing Bruce drove a stewardess into my arms and dancing with him earned a buxom actress for a weekend, but questioning my sexuality wasn’t all a lie.
I couldn’t get Steven Hammer’s THE ITCH out of my head.
Turning thoughts into deeds required little imagination at the height of the Sexual Revolution. Bruce and I went to baseball games at Fenway. We cheered the Celtics at Boston Garden. We sat wherever we wanted and few fans overheard his muttered admiration for the athletes.
“Look at that one’s buns.” He pointed at the gaunt center.
“Hank Finkel. He has no buns.”
“But he has big feet and you know what big feet mean?”
Bruce loved sports, but warned me not to tell his friends about his sports obsession.
“They wouldn’t understand.”
“As long as you tell anyone that I’m not gay.”
Nothing was more attractive to his friends than a straight man and the boys at the bars sought my conversion to their cause.
“Leave him alone,” Bruce declared at a tea dance in Provincetown. “He’s not gay, but no man is 100% straight.”
By my graduation college in 1974 my gay friends outnumbered my straight. Bruce was my younger brother’s hero. He turned Michael onto Eartha Kitt. My mother thought that Bruce was cute.
“I can’t understand why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.”
“Can’t understand?” My father didn’t approve our friendship. “Bruce plays for the other team.”
“I don’t care if he likes the Yankees.” My mother ignored the hint at deviancy. Bruce had good manners.
Bruce bought tickets for the 2nd game of the 1975 World Series. We celebrated the Bernie Carbo’s homer in Game 6 at 1270. My friend swore that several players were in the crowd. Soon after Bruce fell in love with a jealous stockbroker. Bill had season tickets to Fenway.
“I’m settling down to be a wife.”
The scene was less fun without him and I took up with a teenage girl from Brookline family of hippie intellectuals. Her ex- and I fought over Hilde, while she was in the hospital for a blood disease. The Dorchester car thief won and I lost all claims to Hilde.
On a visit to New York I fell in love with an artist.
I quit my teaching job at South Boston High and arrived at her apartment in Brooklyn Heights on Thanksgiving. Rose left the next day for a painting scholarship in Paris.
Stranded I moved into a Park Slope brownstone with a jazz impresario whom I had met at the Riviera Cafe, which served as a meeting place between the straight and gay worlds.
Jim Spicer swept his hair back like the Silver Surfer. His tinted sunglasses were for day and night. He introduced me to Cecil Taylor and the downtown jazz scene. I couldn’t guess his age, but his claim of a one-night stand with James Dean dated him as way past thirty. His taste ran to rough trade. My residence at his apartment prevented fun from getting violent.
“You want to be a writer?” He had read my short story about breaking up with Kyla.
“Doesn’t anyone who writes?”
“Not if they can’t type and have no sense of syntax or grammar.” Jim sported a black eye from a trip to the Hudson River docks. His broken glasses had been repaired by tape.
“Is my typing that bad?” I should have attended a secretarial school instead of majoring in Math.
“A drunk cop’s typing is better, but the story is nice, if naive, but there isn’t anything wrong with being naive. Ignorance can sometimes pass for innocence.”
“Keep writing. Same as musicians keep practicing. You have to get better one day. I’ll help if it can.”
Jim’s lessons on loft jazz, robbing ATMs, and the delights of Hudson River shad roe were invaluable.
They also had a price.
One night I woke to his oiling my feet like he was Mary Magdalene.
“What are you doing?” I was no Jesus.
“Massaging your feet.” Jim was naked.
“I can see that, but why?” My feet felt like they were prepped for a fry-up.
“Because I love you.” Jim was drunk.
“Go to sleep.” His incursion into my bedroom was no big deal and we remained friends, until he stole my unemployment checks. Any thoughts about returning home to Boston were short-circuited by an unnerving visit to the South Shore.
Michael was the only child left with my parents. His girlfriend invited us for diner. Her mother and father weren’t home. Their split-level sat across from Kyla’s old house. Kyla and her husband had moved to the Cape. Their baby was about seven. My brother noticed my staring.
“You thinking how different your life would be, if you hadn’t broken up with Kyla?” At 18 his entire life was in front of him.
“Something like that.” I lit up a joint. “I can’t remember why I did it.”
“Maybe you wanted to be something more than that person.” My brother toked on a joint. The smoke went down the wrong way and he coughed like a cholera victim.
“Are you happy with Patty?” I didn’t want him to repeat my mistakes.
“Patty prays for the day she can cure me.” He rolled his eyes in amusement.
“It’s not nice to play with someone’s emotion.”
“Patty knows the odds. Some breeder will be very happy with her.” Michael signaled to Patty we were coming inside. “For now she protects me from every fag-basher in Boston.”
“Have you two even had sex?”
“We’re saving it for our wedding night.” He could never tell Patty that the idea of him with a woman was a horror. “Patty goes to church every Sunday.”
“I recover from Saturday nights.”
After dinner Patty put on a record of CABARET. My brother acted out a sinister Joel Grey. He didn’t have to lip-synch the singing. He had my mother’s voice.
Manuel came over with another boy wearing a starter beard. The three of them went to an upstairs bedroom. The door locked behind them. Patty washed the dishes in the kitchen and I left for home.
They seemed like a happy family.
“Aren’t you bored with the suburbs?” My mother sat in the kitchen. My father was in the den watching TV.
“After New York it feels good being bored.”
I kissed my mother goodnight and slept in the basement rather than face the ghost of my childhood bedroom.
In the morning my parents dropped me at the 128 Amtrak train station. I had $50 from my mother and $10 in my pocket. $45 paid a week’s rent for my SRO room on East 11th Street and I hitchhiked to the Mass Pike. The trip south took four hours. None of the drivers asked me if I liked gladiator movies.
Back in New York I found a job at Serendipity 3 on East 60th Street as a busboy. The waiters were gay. Their favorite movie was MILDRED PIERCE. Each of them answered to women’s names. The kitchen staff loved to call me, ‘Pebbles’, since to them I resembled like a caveman.
The pastry cook was a dead ringer for Josef Goebbels’ nephew. Klaus sang castrati roles for opera. His name at the restaurant was Eva Braun. We toured clubs in the West Village, where men explored the most extreme edges of sex in the backrooms. These exploits would have brought tears to their mothers’ eyes and their fathers would have cursed Ken dolls, yet the boys kept pushing the boundaries of decency and it tried to push back to stem the rising tide of sexual freedom.
When Anita Bryant beseeched God to punish the sodomites, gay consumers boycotted OJ and within six months she was forced out her position as the Florida Juice Lady. The gays had power. The West Village and San Francisco were capitols of homosexuality. The Village People scored #1 with YMCA and football fans sang WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS by Queen.
Klaus frequented Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs. The two bars were my home at night. No one cared what you were as long as you were a punk. The Ramones played once a month. I bought a leather jacket. Bruce came to visit from Boston.
“You look really butch.” Bruce had broken up with his boyfriend and nothing says ‘divorce’ better than a trawl of the back rooms of the West Village with Klaus. Bruce loved it.
“New York is so not Boston.”
He was right.
During the 1977 Black-Out the boys from Serendipity and I raided Fiorucci, a disco accessory shop on East 60th Street, and I chucked a cinder block at the window in hopes of snatching a gold Elvis suit. The concrete missile bounced off the protective glass and nearly struck my head. Frank, Andy, Kurt, and I ran from the guards. It had been a funny story rendered funnier each and every time told by the boys.
They introduced me to a smart hillbilly girl, who wanted to be an actress. Alice’s eyes were brown and green. We went to CBGBs, saw the Heartbreakers, and I bought her drinks. Her limit was two.
After closing we took a taxi uptown.
She was crashing at a borrowed penthouse.
In a bedroom with the view of Central Park she called out for God, as I entered her for the thousandth time.
Once Alice graduated, we moved into the East Village. The immigrant neighborhood was as burnt out as a junkie’s vein. She loved it for not being West Virginia. I was promoted to waiter at Serendipity 3. The money was good.
My brother started college in 1978. U-Mass Amherst gathered like minds and bodies. He was in heaven.
That Christmas my girlfriend flew south to West Virginia. I headed north on the train to New England.
It was standing room only and I sat in the club car. My father met me at 128.
“You look tired.” He had good eyesight.
“I’m working nights.”<
“Waiting on tables is not a real job.” He was angry with someone. Not me and my younger sisters pleaded for my good behavior over the holidays. I wore a tie to Midnight Mass, although not kneeling tested my mother’s patience.
“I went down to the Valley of Death for you.”
“I know.” I dropped to my knees. My devotion was a lie.
Rote repetition forced my lips to speak in tongues. My brothers joined the ancient prayer. We were all ex-altar boys. My mother cried hearing the old Latin. After the final amen, she said, “I have the best boys in the world.”
Later at the 1270 I bought a dime bag of pot from Bruce. His new boyfriend was up in Ipswich. “And you didn’t go?”
“Go?” He checked out my leather jacket and torn jeans. “He’s still in the closet.”
“I like the punk look.” He faked a shiver of delight.
“Not so much a punk.”
He listened to my story about church and said, “There’s nothing wrong with being a good son.”
“I’m the best boy in the world.” He smiled pulling me onto the dance floor. The DJ put on Blondie.
Bruce passed a jar of poppers. “I live at home. I’m a real momma’s boy.
I came home early.
My younger brothers and I smoked a joint in the backyard. My older brother was straight in every way you’re supposed to be straight. I felt a little bad. Frunk was still my best friend.
We stood in the cold. The stars shone over the trees.
“You think there really was a Jesus.” Michael was focused on the constellation Orion.
“I think he existed.” IF JESUS CAME TO MY HOUSE had been his favorite bedtime book as a child. “But there is no God.”
“How can you be so sure?”
I told him about Chaney.”
“That was a along time ago.”
“I think about almost every day.”
“And you never forgave God.”
“God will forgive you for that,” said Padraic. He willingly went to church every Sunday.
Me too” Michael finished off the joint. “Jesus’ a little like me. He was never married, lived with his mother, wore a dress, and only had men friends.”
“What about Mary Magdalene?” Our other brother was borderline anti-gay. “She was a fag hag.”
“Don’t say that about her?”
“She’s not a saint. I can say whatever I want about her or Jesus.”
“I’ll tell you about Jesus. Back in 1974 my friends and I dropped acid in the White Mountains. We spoke to the rapids of the Saco River. This kid comes out of the trees. The sun was bright and he seemed to have a halo. One friend said it was Jesus. We asked him questions and thought he was Jesus. A minute later a teenager girl grabs him by the ear, telling him to stay away from hippies.”
“Jesus?” My brothers wowed and we retreated from the cold winter air for a good night’s sleep.
“No, someone like you or me.”
“With a mean sister.” Padraic finished off the roach.
“Like Cinderella.” Michael liked fairy tales. They had happy endings.
The three of us slept in our childhood beds. I read Stanley Elkin’s THE LIVING END. My mother and father descended to the Christmas tree after midnight. They were our Santa Clauses from before I could remember. I shut my book and fell asleep with dreams of tomorrow.
The next morning my mother’s scream shook my deep slumber.
I ran downstairs thinking that she had dropped the turkey. The bird was on the table, however my father raged before the Christmas tree. Michael stood by the fireplace.
“I told them I was gay.”
“Why would you do that?”
“My friends at college and I decided to come out of the closet.”
“You did it for them?”
“I thought you would understand.” His face warped with an accusation of mistrust. “You went to gay discos. You have gay friends. I heard stories about you.”
“Whatever you heard doesn’t matter, because this is about you and not me and not about your friends. If you want to tell Mom and Dad that you’re gay, then tell them, but not because your stupid friends tell you to do it.”
“You mean like to your own self be true.”
“Then why don’t you tell Mom and Dad about your drug habit?”
“Because it’s my business and not theirs. Same as your sexuality.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” He stormed out of the room. “My sexuality is me.”
He was right and I hated the thought that my long dalliance with drugs was me.
No one spoke about Michael’s revelation during dinner, but the turkey must have tasted of wood to my parents. The giving of presents sparked a little life into the holiday. Michael got everyone the perfect gift. He gave my father a bottle of gin and my mother one of Chanel #5. I received a studded leather dog collar.
Upon his return to UMass-Amherst, his friends admitted that they hadn’t ruined their holidays by coming out and my parents suggested that Michael see a psychiatrist to exorcise out his deviation from the path of righteousness. My brother seduced one headshrinker after the other. Finally my parents accepted my brother’s sexuality and he moved into an all-gay dorm with the fire of gay liberation in his heart
That January Alice organized a concert at Irving Plaza with Blondie and the B-52s. I worked security. At the end of the show I asked everyone to leave. Several rockers told me to go fuck myself. A fight broke out with the odds against me. I dropped to my knees and someone kicked in my ribs. I could barely breathe the next day and Alice explained at the kitchen table, “You started a fight with Blondie’s band.”
“I didn’t start the fight.”
“They’re playing with Klaus tonight.”
“They won’t play, if you are there. It’s you or the show.”
“I could always sue them.” A legal suit against the group for the profits from HEART OF GLASS would have earned thousands.
“You’re not serious, are you?” She was worried about this gig.
“No, I’m not that type. Have a good time tonight.”
I kissed her, but took her siding with complete strangers the wrong way.
In the Fall I was hired as security at a punk disco uptown. The job paid $100 a night and all the free drinks I could glom from the gay bartenders. I came home from Hurrah smelling of cigarettes, beer, and perfume. Alice slept on the bed. I slept on the couch.
Late one night a doctor from NYU Hospital called our apartment and reported that James Spicer was dying from pneumonia. Alice had never met Jim and she was angry that I was leaving her alone. I couldn’t blame her, mostly because I had been seeing a blonde model from Buffalo. My promise to come back soon sounded phony even to my ears.
Arriving at NYU, I discovered an empty hospital ward and that the nurses were reluctant to enter Jim’s’ room. An Italian doctor explained in the corridor, “Gay men have been dying of pneumonia. We can’t say why. The nurses call it ‘gay men’s disease’.”
This was the first I had heard of the ailment and I sat by James’ bed without any fear, as he coughed like he was giving birth to a lung.
He opened his eyes at midnight and said, “You?”
“Who were you expecting? Cecil Taylor?” The avant-garde pianist had been Jim’s friend.
“No, he wouldn’t come. He’s scared of me.” His skin was drawn tight to his bones.
“Well, I’m here.”
“Yes, you’re here. Old what’s his name?” He drifted back to sleep and I whistled jazz lullabies during
the long night. As the eastern horizon offered a dark silhouette of Brooklyn, Jim asked with a startled horror, “Where am I?”
“In the hospital.”
“Am I dying?” His eyes shone with fear.
“Not right now.” It was as much the lie as it was the truth. “I’m just here to keep you company.”
“You weren’t much of a writer, but you were a good story teller. Tell me one now. Something with a happy ending.”
I recounted breaking up with Kyla, trying to make it funny. Jim laughed at the right and wrong places, his lungs hacking out bloody phlegm.
“What about the happy ending?” he asked with a rasping breath.
“Pal and Kyla had kids. They’re still married.”
“And you have me.”
“We have each other.” I patted his hand and upped his morphine drip.
At dawn his mother and father arrived from Florida. His parents were good people with a loving son unable to live in a small town. Jim smiled and nodded for me to leave them alone. He had things to tell them.
I descended to the basement cafeteria for chocolate milk and a bagel. Nothing had ever tasted so good and when I got back to the ward, Jim’s parents sat crying on plastic chairs. I was sure that Jim had passed at my moment of delight from my breakfast. I touched his cold skin and left the hospital.
It was good to be alive.
“Where have you been,” Alice asked, as I entered the apartment. She had been up for a long time.
“I told you at the hospital.” The smell of dying was on my flesh.
Three days later I attended Jim’s funeral on Washington Square. Merce Cunningham eulogized him. Cecil Taylor played a dirge. Hundreds of people showed up. No one knew the real cause of his death.
It was 1979.
The next night I stayed over with Lisa. I didn’t call Alice. She was gone by the time I returned to our apartment.
Lisa’s dreams of becoming a famous model didn’t include a nightclub punk good at pinball.
That fall she flew to Europe for catalogue work. Her phone calls ended after a week.
I treated my broken heart with drink and drugs. My brother came down to visit. He was doing badly in school and my father had threatened to pull him out of U-Mass, if his grades didn’t improve to C.
“You can always come to live with me,” I offered Michael at Julius, an old-timers’ bar in the West Village.
“Really?” New York loved him. He was new meat.
“Free rent for the first three months and I can get you a job at Serendipity.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
“I also want to talk to you about something serious.”
“There’s this disease hitting gays.”
“I know about it.” Michael wasn’t smiling. “It’s hit Boston too. Some people say it comes from snorting poppers.”
“That’s the first I’ve heard that.” I couldn’t recall Jim Spicer huffing amyl nitrate, but I had experimented with the inhalant more than once. “Please be careful.”
“I’ll play it safe.” My brother’s eyes lit up at the entrance of a heavily bearded beast hairy than a dog.
Michael left with the bear for rest of the weekend and I shuddered to think of my brother under some brute. He was no Ken doll.
My borther never called back about the move to New York. His college career ended within the year and he was hired by the Ma Bell. My mother and father tried every tactic to turn him straight. Blind dates ended with the girls becoming his friend.
In 1981 my baby brother came down to New York for the Gay Pride Parade celebrating the Stonewall Inn Riot during which drag queens fought the cops with high heels against batons. TVs were a tough crowd.
“Are you going to march with me?”
“Why not?” I believed in equality for everyone.
Thousands gathered in the West Village. Supporters shouted encouragement from the sidewalk. The few demonstrators were drowned out by the boos of marchers. Gays and lesbians weren’t retreating into abandoned closets.
“We’re one in ten,” Michael yelled to a band of tall transvestites in glittering sequin dresses.
“Twenty-seven million Americans?”
That number rivaled the population of Texas.
Later eating cheeseburgers at Julius, I asked Michael, “Do you think you might ever settled down?”
“I’m faithful to Patty, but I’m too young to be faithful. What about you?”
“My libido used to get in my way.”
I was almost thirty. Many of my old friends had families. I was living alone.
“My fondest wish is to have someone to love.”
“The same as everyone,” Michael excused himself from the table, dropping a $20 on the bar. He looked over his shoulder. A burly man eyed my brother with the appetite of a starving wolf. “But I’ll take what I can get tonight, because if there’s anything I’m good at, it’s faking love.”
“I wished I could do the same.”
“Try smiling more.”
He vanished again and caught the late train to Boston on Sunday night. My youngest brother wasn’t leaving that city. It was his home.
He organized Easter egg hunts for our nieces and nephews. His comedy routines were well received in the downtown gay bar circuit. Men sought his company. My brother gave them a night or two before moving onto another flavor.
One summer he spotted a speedboat offshore a Provincetown beach and swam out to meet the owner. Tom and he became close friends. Neither ever admitted to being lovers. My mother loved Tom. My father thought the banker was a good influence on his youngest son.
Michael stopped drugs. He wanted his body to be a weapon in his ministry of Gay Liberation and grew more radical, as AIDS reaped its harvest.
I moved to Paris for most of the 80s.
Klaus died in 1983.
In 1985 I interviewed Rock Hudson at the Deauville Film Festival. The festival committee was honoring his performance opposite James Dean in GIANT and my story angle was that Rock would have been a more gracious dinner companion than the teenage idol. Our conversation was congenial, until a British journalist joined us.
Rock had been nominated for an Oscar in GIANT. He was proud of that accomplishment and I complimented his interpretation of a Texas oilman protecting his land and family against greed.
The British reporter wouldn’t let me finish my questions.
“So tell us, Rock, what was it like to have sex with Gomer Pyle?”
“Firstly his name is Jim Nabors and we are just good friends.” Rock had been fending off any allegations about his sexual leanings since the 50s.
So that’s what they called it now?” The journalist was relentless in his attack. “Why don’t you come clean? About you and Jim and the place you shared in Hawaii?”
The reporter spat out his queries without losing a beat. His notebook was filled with them.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about?” Rock sipped white wine.
“C’mon, the young boys of our readership are dying to hear the truth.”
“You mind leaving the man alone?” I hated gay-bashers.
“I’m trying to write a story, so piss off.” The London-based reporter had a thick skin.
“More like tarring and feathering Mr. Hudson.” I held a silver knife in my hand.
Rock lifted his hand and said, “Gentlemen, no fists or knives.”
“You can’t threaten me like that.” The reporter looked into my eyes.
“I’m not warning you twice.” I was itching for a fight.
“You say that with a lisp and smile.”
“Fuck you both.” The reporter stormed out of the dining room.
“Sorry about that, but I thought he was over the line.”
“Thanks for not making a scene.” rock was a true gentleman.
“That would have given him a story for his readership.”
“I don’t think my press agent would approve.” He leaned across the table and whispered, “But I would have loved to see him get his.”
We had a lovely lunch of Atlantique Sole accompanied by a brilliant Riesling. I wished that we could have been friends like Bruce and I were friends, because Gomer Pyle and Rock Hudson don’t seem like such a good match, unless you believed the tales about Jim Nabor’s endowment.
I returned to New York in 1986.
My boys from Serendipity were dying one by one. Alice and I met at their funerals. Andy, one of our best friends bequeathed an elephant foot to me. I called it Stumpy. She and I grew closer. We were the last of our tribe.
My brother’s radio show educated the Boston gay community to the dangers. For some it was too late.
My parents, Bruce, and I celebrated the show’s first year on the air to a South End restaurant. The station manager praised Michael’s civic contribution. My brother was equally generous with his family.
Michael guided his cousin on her Broadway dream. She sang as Julie Andrew’s understudy. After her first show Tara declared that the star of VICTOR/VICTORIA had called her ‘darling’.
“That’s because she can’t remember everyone’s name,” Michael joked under his breath.
Living in a provincial city hadn’t killed his humor.
I never loved him more than at my youngest sister’s wedding at a hotel along the Charles River.
Pam and he had danced to IT’S RAINING MEN. His other three brothers had embarrassed the gathering by gatoring across the floor. Michael hated this macho family folly. I pulled him onto the dance floor. He couldn’t refuse me. My sisters joined him on the floor. After the official festivities the immediate family retired to rooms upstairs. The hotel had a whirlpool. I needed to sober up from the excesses of a long day.
“You’re not going alone?” Michael had been to several drug addiction clinics. His fellow addicts related crazy stories about near-fatal accidents. Several had been in hot tubs.
“I’ll buddy-up with you just in case.”
For a half-hour we had the facility to ourselves.
After the steam, Jacuzzi, cold showers I was almost ready for a beer, then the door to the steam room opened for a young blonde woman in a skimpy bathing suit.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
“Not at all.” My brother was always trying to act as a matchmaker. He grilled her for the essentials.
Katie came from Kentucky. Her husband had been working for Rick Pitino as an assistant basketball coach. He was undergoing treatment for a crippling illness at Mass General Hospital.
“I’m so lonely here.” Her tears mingled with sweat. “I don’t know anyone.”
“I know Boston.” Her vulnerability tempted my devil.
My brother wasn’t having any of it and drove an elbow into my ribs.
“Yes, my boyfriend and I would love to show you the sights.”
“Boyfriend?” she smiled ruefully. “Why are all you good-looking guys gay?”
“Because we’re born that way. Dress ready to dance.” Michael dragged me out of the whirlpool and thirty minutes later we met the basketball coach’s wife in the lobby. Katie wore in a short dress without a bra.
“I feel so safe with you boys.”
“Yeah, you can be free with us.” My brother led her to the taxi stand and I cursed him under my breath.
That night we toured Boston gay bars. My brother flirted with bearded men and the blonde girl drank white wine. She forgot her problems and her hand touched mine. My brother came over to viciously comment about women smelling like fish and the blonde told a joke about Eve swimming in the ocean for the first time. After we dropped her at the hotel room, he defended his cockblocking.
“I’m not asking you to be a saint, just to show a little compassion for someone in pain.”
“If you insist.”
“Consider it a favor.”
He was a better man than me in many ways.
In 1989 I quit the nightclubs in favor of getting to bed before 4am.
A friend hired me to sell diamonds on 47th Street. I started seeing a married woman. Ms. Carolina had money. We took ski trips in the West. The blonde huntswoman looked good for age. I figured she was only eight years my senior. In the darkness of my apartment Ms. Carolina could have been any age.
That summer Michael and I vacationed in Maine. We swam in the Saco River. He enjoyed my retelling of meeting Jesus on LSD. We had a good time and good times should have lasted us into the next century, but that was wishful thinking, for he contracted AIDS in 1994.
The doctors at Beth Israel fought the infections with a series of toxic drugs. His health fluctuated between bad and worst. My friend, Scotty, was opening a nightclub in Beverly Hills and I asked Michael,
“You mind if I go.”
“I’m dying and you want to go to Beverly Hills.” His looks suffered from the drug cocktails. His last boyfriend had been a fish truck driver from Gloucester. In my parents’ minds the boyfriend had infected their son. In truth it could have been anyone.
“You’re not dying.”
“Not yet.” AIDS was a death sentence. “What about your married mistress?”
“How you know about that?”
“Bruce told me. Funny, before this adultery wouldn’t bother me. But now I have AIDS, I think about the 10 Commandments.”
“Not all of them.”
“Seeing a married woman isn’t right.” His morality was very strict when it came to his older brother.
“Thanks for the lecture, but I’m ending it.”
“By moving to LA?”
“Yes.” It was the easy way out.
“You got that right.”
He gave me a hug. His body was getting down to skin and bones.
“You can go to Beverly Hills as long as you get Tom Selleck’s autograph.”
The star of MAGNUM PI never visited the Milk Bar, but other big names came by the club on South Canon Drive.
Scottie banned asking for autographs, so I stole their signed credit card slips.
Ms. Carolina came out twice. We drove to Death Valley and Yosemite Park. It was hard to tell someone that it was over when it had never really begun.
In the spring I flew back to see Michael. He was in the hospital for tests. The doctors were experimenting with new meds. Everyone hoped for the best.
“You’re starting to look like Orson Welles.” His gaunt frame lay on a bed not far from where he had been born as a pink squirming baby thirty-four years ago.
“It’s all the good food.” And drink.
“How do you like LA?” His world was shrinking to rooms smelling of medicine.
“Nobody has told me a story or joke in LA.”
“I guess they’re saving it for a screenplay.”
“I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re probably right.” I handed him the credit card slips and I told him about Hollywood parties, the pretty boys, and having met James Brolin.
“Did he have a beard?” Michael’s eyes lit up with hope.
“Big and bushy. A real bear.” My flight to LA left that evening.
“Nice.” He held up the autographs. “I’ll cherish these forever. And just do me one last favor.”
“Don’t let a bagpiper play DANNY BOY at my grave.”
“It’s a tradition.” The man in a kilt invariably cursed all Irish funerals in Boston. “You have something against kilts?”
“I like men in skirts. No underwear too. Hairy legs, Mmmm, but not that song.”
“If it was up to me, I’d have them play IT’S RAINING MEN, but the final choice is up to Mom.”
“At least I won’t have to listen to the bagpipes.”
“There’s always a chance you’ll get better.”
“Thanks for lying.” He squeezed my hand. “Before I came here, I visited a friend in Fort Lauderdale. I was so happy to see him, but I could tell that he was scared to be with me or even be seen with me. It’s not easy to be scary, is it?”
“No, it isn’t.” I kissed his forehead. The skin was dry as weathered parchment. “I’ll see you soon.”
“I know you will.”
In the spring of 1995 his worsening condition forced doctors to opt for a more radical treatment. 50% of the patients received a placebo. I drank heavily at the nightclub, which had lost its luster to the Hollywood crowd once the Beverly Hills PD tagged a few customers for DWI.
“You have a problem?” Scottie was concerned for my health.
“It’s your brother, isn’t it?”
“He might not make the 4th of July.” June was at the halfway mark.
“If you want to leave, go.”
“Thanks, but I’ll stick around until I have to go.” Days went by without any news from my parents.
On the weekend I glommed money from the door receipts. Tips were muscled from drug dealers. The cash went to a stash for traveling around the world. I had almost $6000 and my travel agent offered an around-the-world ticket for $1500.
That Monday the telephone rang in the afternoon.
No one ever called the guesthouse in the Valley. I knew who was on the other end before I lifted the receiver.
“Michael doesn’t have much longer.” My mother’s voice choked with tears.
“Is he still conscious?”
“He’s barely alive.” It was a terrible thing for an older brother to hear and even worse for a mother to say about her youngest child.
“I’ll be on the next plane out of LAX,” I told Scottie about my immediate departure.
He wished me luck, knowing I wasn’t coming back. LA nightlife gave everything that the TV promised the masses of America. I was a mess.
As I packed my bag, Ms. Carolina called from Raleigh.
“Can’t you stop in DC before you go to Boston? Just for one night?”
“No what?” Ms. Carolina had broken countless hearts as the ice queen of Cape Hatteras. Mine was never destined to be one of them.
“No, I can’t meet you. My brother’s dying. I want to be with him. Nothing else in the world matters.”
“What about us?”
“There is no ‘us’.” I couldn’t believe that she was thinking of ‘us’, when my brother was dying. Scottie stopped my heaving the telephone through the window. It was a rented house.
“She wants love. That’s all.”
“And that’s something I can’t give.” I wished that it wasn’t true. The phone rang during the wait for the taxi.
Scottie didn’t answer it.
Ms. Carolina was my problem.
Two hours later I was flying east.
Short films of my brother’s life played in my head every second of the six-hour flight.
Last summer we had swam in the Saco River. I had held his hand, as the water rippled over his ravaged body. The rapids could have carried him to the sea. Even knowing his fate we had been happy.
A taxi from Logan Airport drove straight to the South Shore hospice caring for my brother. My father and mother were at the foot of the bed. Machines registered feeble vital signs. An intravenous tube dripped morphine. His face clung to his skull without his eyes registering my arrival.
“Aren’t you giving him any water?” I leaned over to kiss my brother.
“No food. No water,” my father’s resolute voice announced the family decision to allow my baby brother to pass from this earth. “It’s for the best.”
It was a horrible best option and I didn’t leave Michael except for the times my family gathered to see him. We sang songs and told stories. I can’t remember which ones. I held him in my arms, praying for a recovery. My father and mother said the same prayer, instead the sickness took Michael away ounce by ounce.
Two weeks into his death vigil my other younger brother called me into the room.
The two of us hurried back to his room.
Everyone was crying.
I joined them, and then checked the machines attached to Michael. The vital signs were unchanged. Joni Mitchell’s URGE FOR GOING was on the small tape player next to the bed.
“No sad songs.” I tore out the cassette.
After everyone went home, my younger brother brought his guitar into the room and played FREEBIRD.
“Michael hates that song.”
“I know.” Patrick sniffed through misty eyes. “Nut your hearing is the last thing to go, so I know if he can hear it, he’ll think of me.”
The nurse approached us out of the earshot of the attending doctors.
“Funny, our patients never leave if a family member is in the room. The hospital encourages your being with him, because the longer you’re with him the bigger the bill.”
I told this to my father and he called the rest of the family. They came over within the hour. It was time to say our good-byes.
We each spoke to Michael for a little while. His face showed no sign of life. My mother hugged him for a long time and my father pulled her into the corridor. The doctors looked at us with suspicion that we knew what they knew.
Within the hour Michael had gone over to the angels.
Two days later my sisters and brothers eulogized him at the funeral. My grief prevented my saying a word.
Mrs. Carolina called every day. She sent flowers to the funeral home. My father said, “Speak to her.”
I was mad that my brother had died, that there hadn’t been a cure that somehow the blood of millions had been infected by a senseless killer.
Bruce came to the funeral home.
“Sometimes I feel like the last whale in the ocean.” He had lost his lover the year before.
“No matter where I am I’ll hear your call.”
“Thanks for lying.” He could still smile after all this, which meant I could too one day.
I informed my parents about my trip to Asia.
“I’m going to the holiest places on earth to help Michael’s soul pass from this world.”
“The Vatican?” My mother still prayed for my redemption.
“Tibet and swimming in the Ganges.” The water of that Mother River of India expiated all sins.
“When will you be back?” My father drove me to the airport.
“By Christmas.” I had enough money to last six months. Even longer if I tapped the American Express card, which Mrs. Carolina had given me for emergencies. She could forgive me later. Mrs. Carolina had a good heart.
It’s over twenty years since my brother’s death. Alice lost her brother, Bobby. We are friends again. My mother and father are gone. Mrs. Carolina too. I’m friends with her husband. Bruce and I meet over the holidays. We never talk about the old times, however I told him at a cafe on Boston’s Newberry Street that Michael has appeared in dreams with my mother, who passed away in the winter following his departure.
“Where are they?”
“In a Cape Cod cottage with no furniture and they don’t stay very long. My mother is happy to be with her baby boy, although I can tell Michael has places to go and she’s waiting for the rest of us to join her.” These dreams challenged my disbelief in heaven, because spending eternity wouldn’t be so bad with everyone we’ve lost over the years.
“So there is life after death?”
“In my dreams, yes.”
“Better there than nowhere.”
We emerged from the cafe. Several people looked at the blue sky. Two rainbows floated on a high snow squall and an older man said, “I can’t ever recall seeing a rainbow in the winter.”
I couldn’t either, yet I recognized the message from the other side. My brother had one time asked if I was gay. I hadn’t given him an answer.
Now I had the answer.
Being straight, gay, black, white, old, young, and all the in-betweens and outsides and insides doesn’t matter, because we are all special as that winter rainbow. It only takes a little bit of faith to see the truth and that leap can take us to the stars. They’re not as far away as you fear.
PS my brother’s name was Michael Charles Smith.
He comes to me in dreams.
Along with my other friends.
One day I’ll go see them.
But not today.