Playing a few notes Saturday late, the wood stove roaring away, a song came to me. The words that followed are here, now, for you to ponder. It’s a short, short story, 17 pages I think, and it might take you ten minutes to read. It’s self contained, no dangling conclusions, just a tidy little smile for an ending. Hope you enjoy.
St Louis & Royal
When I think about that day I remember thunderstorms in the distance, and thinking it was very warm for December. Which, I suppose, it was – but New Orleans is New Orleans, and it is what it is: hot and humid most of the year, punctuated by a few months in winter when it gets sort of warm and humid. Christmas vacation had just started and my parents had flown me down to spend ten days with, ostensibly, them. I’d flown from the upper midwest, Wisconsin, to be somewhat more precise, from a military school not far from Milwaukee. I was fifteen, not that my age made much difference to events as they unfolded – but I could be wrong about that.
My parents had a suite on the top floor of the Royal Orleans Hotel for the duration, and they had me warehoused in a little room by the service elevator two floors below. I remember the room because it had a nice view of the street below, of Royal Street, and it’s intersection with St Louis Street. When I arrived, on a florid-orange Boeing 720 from Chicago – by way of Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Dallas – it was late morning and I was dressed for snow. I was, you see, still in uniform and looked like a Marine, albeit a fifteen year old marine, in my dress blues and white hat. My father was supposed to meet me at the gate, which was kind of the thing you did back in 1965, but I had little confidence he’d actually show up.
And, true to form, he wasn’t there.
I had one bag checked and made my way to the baggage claim and waited for my bag and, presumably, my father to arrive. Still – and again, this wasn’t a total surprise – after a few minutes I realized he was going to be a no-show – again, so I started to look for the way out to a taxi stand – when I saw her standing beside me.
“Goose?” she asked, looking me in the eye.
Now I need to step back for a moment and reinforce the nature of the sudden dilemma I found myself in. Recall, if you will, the following: me, aka, the poor, stupid kid, was locked up in a military school. I was fifteen, therefore what little mind I had was testosterone-addled and, so, due to my age I was little more than a moron. Finally, please consider the nature of the girl by my side. Blazing red hair, deepest brown eyes and skin so white you might have considered it blindingly so – were it not for the pale freckles that dappled her cheeks and nose. She reminded me of a teenaged Olivia de Havilland – you know, the doe-eyed Melanie from Gone With the Wind. She was, in other words, seriously good looking, or, as my father might have said, very easy on the eyes.
All of which does absolutely nothing to explain my response to her rather simple question.
Staring at her like, I assume, any moron might, I asked: “Are you married yet?”
She shook her head, startled, I think, by the absolute inanity of my reply, then tried again. “Goose? I can hardly recognize you… Is that really you in that silly uniform?”
“Goose. Yes. It’s me.” Let’s just ignore I was acting just like one, too, for the time being, anyway. She was smiling – at me – which I considered a lovelier experience than anything in all my previous fifteen years – if only because I knew that smile so well, and I knew what was behind the smile.
“Goodness!” she said. “You’re growing up fast! Your mom and dad are still at the country club, and he asked if I could swing by and pick you up.”
“How nice of him,” and I think I might have added, “to not abandon me at the airport.”
And she laughed, then looked at my uniform and scowled. “I hope you brought something else to wear…”
“Yes, by golly, I think I did.”
“A swimming suit, I hope?”
I shook my head, thinking of Christmas carols and mistletoe and the utter incongruity of the question. “Are you serious?”
That seemed to rattle her cage and her scowl deepened a bit more. “Well, maybe Rickie has a spare.”
“You know – little brother? You do remember him, don’t you? Or have you been hit in the head recently?”
“Yes, of course I remember him, but when did you start calling him Rickie?”
She shrugged. “He keeps talking about when you two built that model of the Titanic together.”
“How appropriate,” I said, and who knows, maybe I even smiled. “When was that, by the way?”
“Two summers ago!” she said, now acting exasperated. “Don’t you remember anything?”
And yes, clearly I did, but by this point it was too much fun yanking her chain. Still, I remembered that week two summers before very well. We were in Mexico City; we’d all flown down for one of my cousin’s wedding – and it was then that I’d seen Claire in a bathing suit for the first time. And yes, I seemed to recall building the Titanic too, and even that wedding, but the whole bathing suit thing had been, well, a primal moment.
“Oh yes,” I finally said, but I was suddenly thinking about her brother. He had been trying on girl’s shoes at the reception, walking around in them, then had asked my mother to put lipstick on his lips. As uncomfortable as the memory was, I remembered most of all going into a bathroom and finding him with a pair of woman’s panties stuffed under his nose, masturbating furiously – and yet I had no absolutely idea what he was up to – seriously, I kid you not. I was twelve, if I remember correctly, and I was, therefore, clueless about such things. Hell, I still was – at 15. Military school is not the place to send your kid if you want them to become sexually aware creatures. Military school is about repression and control, not expanding self-awareness, and I was, need I repeat myself, a moron when it came to all things human – like intuition. And yet, I suddenly wanted, and more than anything else in the world, to NOT wear that kid’s swimming suit. Maybe he was contagious…
“He’s really looking forward to seeing you again,” she said, smiling beatifically. “He’s been looking forward to your coming for weeks.”
“Ah,” I think I might have said, if a bit noncommittally – an image of him in heels floating in my mind’s eye…
“So…you only have one bag?”
I smiled, nodded in the affirmative. “Yup. I pack efficiently.” For the life of me, I have no idea why I said that.
“Well then,” she said, looking at me almost cross-eyed, “let’s go.”
Claire was then – almost – seventeen years old – going on twenty-five, if you know what I mean – and she had the type of body seen in renaissance paintings of the Madonna, which is to say that by today’s standards she was, well, plump. By 1960s standards, however, she was seriously cute, smooth curves in all the right places, and her legs reflected a potent athleticism all her own. She was New Orleans royalty, too, needless to say, and dressed like it in a white dress with big green and white magnolia blossoms printed all over the thing, white tights and little white flats – so her coppery hair literally blazed in fiery contrast.
Can you tell I was smitten? I mean – totally off the charts smitten? Of course I’m not sure it takes a whole lot to get a fifteen year old boy worked up, but she had done it, and had been doing it for years. Hell, she’d been driving me crazy all my life.
But could you even call it love – at fifteen? I thought so, but then again, I had been locked away in a military school for a year and a half – with zero contact between members of the opposite sex allowed – so that might have had something to do with the cascade of emotion I experienced walking beside her out to her car. Her car! – at sixteen, driving a silver Corvette Stingray – yet that car only made her seem more remote just then, even more inaccessible – and even more desirable.
I didn’t know the whole story back then, only bits and pieces, but her father had flown with mine during the war, and they’d come home best friends. As war receded from their lives they remained, for some reason, as close – if not closer – than ever, and as a result we traveled to New Orleans several times a year. Still, there’s was a friendship from afar, and as close as we were we only saw them a couple of times a year. Always lots of emotion, especially when we reunited, so as kids we had been primed to be close to one another.
And the Collins family owned several restaurants around New Orleans, all of them Very Big Deals, all very famous, their chefs celebrated as the best in New Orleans, so I grew up around that sort of thing – both at home and when we visited. I say at home because my mother was very impressed by all that nonsense, and she tried to incorporate an appreciation of fine dining into our lives at home – perhaps because she had grown up, barefoot I think, on a farm in dust bowl Oklahoma. She had finally made it into the big leagues, I guess, and wanted everyone to know it by the table she set. We were a military family, by the way, yet we didn’t move often. I’d spent the first few years of my life near Cape Hatteras, then we moved to California, just north of San Diego, so in my mind I was a California kid.
Ah, yes. Have you ever ridden in a seriously hot car with a gorgeous girl behind the wheel? Windows down, her skirt wafting in the slipstream, thighs so smooth and white you forgot where you were? I swear I’d never seen legs as gorgeous, and just looking at them I could feel my heart racing, my hands starting to shake. I know, it’s that whole fifteen thing, testosterone poisoning and all that, but seriously…those few moments are as vivid now as they were on that faraway day. She talked about Christmas, about the tree set up in their living room and the millions of presents all around it, and about her parents and mine playing golf out in Metairie. She asked me about school, wanted to know what it was like being locked up with several hundred boys and marching around like toy soldiers, then told me she was taking me to the hotel, and I was supposed to change clothes there – then she’d take me out to the country club.
And at one point while we were driving along she looked at me – and I guess I was still focused on those creamy white thighs – because when I looked up at her – she was looking at me with this odd expression on her face. And the look we exchanged just then? Oh…the feeling in the air between us! We had, literally, known each other all our lives, and in a way I’d considered her something almost like family – until that moment, anyway. Something changed between us just then, in that one split second. Some fundamental alteration of our orbits, some vital understanding of ourselves – a bit of knowledge you might call eternal, almost primal – had changed. She knew it, and so did I – and the next few minutes passed in silence – as we tried to come to terms with this unsteady new terrain.
She already had the key to my room and led me there after she parked on the street, then she opened the door – and put the key in her purse – as I carried my bag inside the room.
“Why don’t you take a shower now,” I remember her saying at one point, but I consciously unpacked my bag and put everything in drawers and closets – and she watched me as I did all that, never saying a word but staring at me like I had gone mad. Then, when I was finished she said: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so obsessively neat and organized in all my life. Have you always been like this?”
“You ever been to military school?”
She shook her head, looked at me while biting her lower lip – a little coquettishly. “You going to take a shower?” she said an eternity later – though she was still grinning.
“Yup.” I took some clothes into the bathroom and shut the door, turned on the water, the cold water I feel sure, and cleaned up. After I dressed I went out, saw her standing by the room’s lone window looking down the street.
“Look,” she said, “you can see the restaurant from here.” That place was our touchstone, where our lives had first come together, where her life was grounded, I assumed.
I went and stood next to her – and I swear I felt like spontaneous combustion was a distinct possibility as I looked out that window with her by my side – then she turned to me.
“You get cuter every year,” she whispered – and the pressure in my head grew so intense I thought my eyes were about to pop out of my head.
She nodded, bit her lip again.
“You should see you the way I see you,” I whispered.
“Oh? How do you see me?”
“I’ll never love anyone the way I love you right now.”
She turned serious, nodded her head. “I think I’ve loved you since I was three years old. Your mother taught me how to diaper a baby – with you.”
And now look, I know…this is not how your usual romantic conversation usually starts, but we weren’t your typical star-crossed teenagers, either. We were, really, anything but. We were, rather, like the Titanic – steaming through the night unawares…and her brother had helped me build the damn thing!
I may have sighed, but she stepped close and kissed me before I could say anything else.
And she kissed me just once, though very softly, on the lips.
And then she turned back to the window, looked at all the people on the sidewalks below. Then she took my hand and leaned into me. We stood there for a while, looking at St Louis and Royal below, looking at the world passing us by – wondering, perhaps, when it was going to be our turn – but I turned then and kissed the top of her head. Affectionately, I think, is the word– perhaps brotherly, but that was the wrong note and she turned into me forcefully, and we looked at one another deeply for a while, and time stopped when we kissed that next time – and her kiss was not tentative, or sisterly. She broke away a few minutes later and I remember the look in her eyes: feral, animal-like, at once predator and pray, and I was at once mesmerized – and very nearly terrified. I’d never seen anything so powerful in my life, and I knew all that energy was directed at me. No, into me. I felt powerless as I floated within those eyes, dreaming impossible things, trying to breathe – and finding it harder and harder to do.
“We’d better go,” she said, and I nodded.
“Right,” I think I said, but in truth I’m not sure I was capable of speech yet.
Then the phone rang. I went and picked it up, her that voice.
“Dad?” I said to the voice on the other end of my line.
“Goose? How the Hell are you? Have a good flight? Golly, it’s sure good to hear your voice!”
“No, sir, no problems. How was the course?”
“Good. Grass is a little dry, but other than that, pretty decent. Say, we’re at the house now, so come on out when you can.”
He rang off and I turned to Claire.
She was still looking at me, her breathing very deep now, her eyes barely focused.
“I don’t want to leave yet,” she said.
“Okay.” I went back to her, into her arms, and I kissed an ear, felt glued to her.
“Have you done it yet?” she whispered, and I could tell she was shaking.
I shook my head, and maybe I was trembling a little myself.
“Good.” She walked over and sat on the edge of the bed and looked at me, then she flipped her shoes off, still looking at me as I came to her.
I think we left to drive out to her parent’s place two hours later, and we were very different people than we had been just a few hours earlier.
Her brother Rickie was, oh, how do I say this? Different than the last time I’d seen him.
He was very feminine now. Can I say that and just leave you hanging there?
Hell, when I saw him I thought a new sister had just popped-up in their family, and no one was making the even the slightest effort to editorialize his appearance. He was almost a girl now, and I found the whole thing shocking, disconcerting, and to my fifteen year old self I felt way out of my depth, not to mention being – suddenly – very confused. I’d always known Richard, or Rickie, was a little different, but we’d thrown the football for days on end, talking football all the while, and we’d spent hours and hours together building all kinds of models – from Spitfires and Messerschmitts to, yes, our very own Titanic. We were the same age so there had always been this expectation we would, and should, spend time together – so we had – and over the years we had spent enough time together to know one another well enough. In truth I thought I knew him well enough to understand some pretty important things about his life, yet I’d never seen this coming.
Or hadn’t I?
The fascination with girls? Not them, but their things? The panties in the bathroom? His mother doting all over him, his father always ignoring him.
And now he was wearing clothes that seemed almost androgynous. Not quite male, yet somehow not quite female – and this at a time in my life when I had no idea there were such variations in human sexual identity. By that I simply mean I had not a clue there was such a thing as homosexuality, let alone all the other labels we now throw around so carelessly. Rickie had, therefore, gone from the realm of the comfortably known deep into a place I knew nothing about. I saw the kid I threw the football with in my mind’s eye, then with open eyes saw someone completely different.
And Claire looked at me looking at him, measuring me, I think, sizing me up. Wondering what I was going to do, perhaps, or say.
“Hey, Richard,” I said as I came into the living room. “How’re you doing, Amigo?” We’d started calling each other ‘Amigo’ down in Mexico City, and when I said that he brightened, ran into my arms and hugged me. I put my arms around him and hugged him too, and a collective sigh seemed to drift from our extended family into the evening. I went over and hugged Claire’s mother, Sarah Collins, then shook hands with her father, Dean, then went over and to hug my parents.
“Uh, we’re getting a little too old for that stuff now, Goose,” my father said as I walked up. He held out his right hand and I took it.
“Yessir,” I said, feeling almost compelled to salute.
“Goose, if you shake my hand,” my mother said, “I’ll just cry!” – and everyone laughed. Everyone, that is, but Rickie. I looked at him a moment later and he was looking at my father, and I could see he trying very hard not to cry.
We went to dinner at their restaurant at St Louis and Royal later that evening, and I sat between Claire and Rickie, my parents across from me, and their was a familiarity about the arrangement that was at once comfortable – yet surreal. The old dining room with it’s dark oak walls and deep red accents, the waiters I’d known since I was old enough to walk, even the aromas wafting about all seemed steeped in fond memory, at once latent and manifest, memory that had accompanied me all my life. Yet now I felt trapped, felt there was nowhere to go, no place to hide as contradictory impulses hovered all around me. Claire was there, as she had for a dozen Christmas Eve dinners, yet so too was Rickie, but who was he now? His proximity was unnerving, unsettling, and instead of warm and comfortable I felt on edge.
Run, I thought, or wait and see what developed. Flight or flight…it’s always the same.
Yet everywhere around me I felt Claire’s lingering presence. As she had just a few hours before – we were together now. We were the same, yet different. And I realized that’s how my world felt now: the same, yet different. Very different.
I was in love. And something was wrong with Rickie.
I was in love with Claire. And she was in love with me. Not the make-believe, pretend bullshit we talked about in the dorm back at school in the middle of the night. No, to me this felt like real love, the forever kind of love that hits hard, more like an instinctual drive at fifteen. I was gripped by this thing, and yet I knew I was the one who couldn’t let go. What the Hell was this all about?
And Rickie sat beside me, as close as he dared, trying to get a sense of what had happened between Claire and I. I think he was as unsettled by our appearance as my father was, but it was Dean Collins that interested me most. He stared at Claire from time to time, and I could tell he was lost in contradiction, and his appetite was off.
Dinner had, of course, been ordered months ahead of time, as it was every year: Oysters Bienville and lobster bisque and several whole roasted geese, truly a feast of epic proportions – as it was in the beginning, I guess – yet from time to time I felt her hand on my thigh, drawing little electric circles with fingernails, playfully getting closer than close, and once I saw Rickie looking down, and then he smiled at me. Like he understood, like he had known all about us from the beginning of time. Like he was in on an inside joke – and I wasn’t, not yet.
It was like, when he saw her doing that with her fingers, he realized all was right in his little corner of the universe. All was as it should be. Except it wasn’t. Not even close.
He tapped me on the shoulder at one point and leaned close, bid me to lean closer still, then he whispered in my ear. I remember the feeling, how he got so close his lips were tickling my ear, and then he sighed, told me he loved me more than anything in the world, and that he always would.
I’m not sure what I looked like, but a moment later my mother asked if I was feeling alright. I shook my head and excused myself, then headed aft through the labyrinth of private dining rooms to the restrooms. And a moment later I felt him coming up behind me, trying to catch up.
“Goose. Wait up,” he said, and suddenly the last place I wanted to be was alone with him in a bathroom, so I ducked into a large green dining room, one reserved for real royalty, and he followed me in, shut the door behind us. Then Claire came in, too, almost out of breath – and she locked the door behind us.
“What’s going on with you two?” she asked.
I shook my head, turned away.
“I told him how I feel about him,” her brother said.
“Oh,” she said, and I could hear it her voice. Then she looked at me, a million questions in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t know what’s going on here. And I don’t know how to feel right now.”
“I just wanted you to know, Goose,” he said, tears now forming in his eyes, “because you’ve always been my best friend, and this is, after all, Christmas.”
“Christmas?” I cried. “What has Christmas got to do with this?”
Claire nodded her head. “Oh,” she sighed. “I get it.”
“Do you?” Rickie said, looking right at me.
“Sure. We’ve spent almost every Christmas together. Since we were kids.”
“I look forward to Christmas, every year,” Richard said, nodding his head, “because that’s when we’re together, the three of us. And I love it when we’re together, I love this feeling more than anything else in the world.”
I turned and looked at him.
“That’s all I meant, Goose. Really. It just came out wrong.”
I was not convinced. No, not at all, but we went back to the table together and finished our very special dinner, but when I looked at Richard, Rickie, I could see a light had gone from his eyes, that I had done something terrible to him – and that I really didn’t understand any of it. Claire seemed sympathetic to us both, maybe my mother did too, but it was the look in my father’s eyes that unsettled me most of all. He looked at me, then Rickie, and I could see his jaw working.
Never a good sign, if you know what I mean.
And I saw Dean Collins looking at Claire as we left, and the sorrow in his eyes was the most barren landscape I’d ever seen in my life.
We rode back to the hotel together in silence, my parents and I, and the silent routine continued in the elevator. I said goodnight when my floor came, and I looked at my father as the door closed and knew this night was far from over. I walked down to my room and realized I didn’t have the key – but the door was open, the lights on inside – and despite very real misgivings I went inside.
She was waiting for me, of course.
“My father will be down here in a second,” I said, yet she didn’t move. She looked at me, love manifest in her every breath, but she just looked right into my eyes.
“I know,” was, in fact, all she said – and those two words came out as a whispered plea.
And true to form, Brigadier General Amos Wainwright, USMC, came strolling into the room a minute later.
And when he saw Claire, he came to a shuddering halt.
“What are you doing here, young lady?”
“Waiting to talk to you, sir,” she said.
There was pure electricity in the air now, pregnant expectation hanging in the air, apparent.
“Indeed,” he said. “Well, you have the floor, so fire away.”
“Your son is not a homosexual,” she said, and I could see my old man visibly relax.
“Oh? What was all that with your brother at the table? Or,” he almost sneered, “should I say – your sister.”
“What?” I cried. “What do you mean, sister?”
And then the three of us sat. We sat and talked for hours, and for the second time that day I knew my understanding of life had been altered forever. We talked about the facts of life, variations as my father understood them, then variations as Claire understood them. We came to crossroads and impossible canyons, and we worked our to an understanding. A complete understanding, I think my father hoped, but as it so often was in the beginning, he was wrong. We weren’t even close. Yet.
And before my father left us in the night, he did a very funny thing.
He called room service, had a bottle of champagne brought to my room. He tipped the waiter, opened the bottle and set it back in the ice, then looked at us and winked. “Don’t forget,” he said, “we’re opening presents at eight.” Then he left us, shut the door on his way out and I looked at Claire.
“I think he’s celebrating,” she said, “the fact that you’re not in love with Rickie.”
“I think I am too,” I managed to say.
She smiled, then looked at me for a long while. “Would you know if you were?”
“What? In love with your brother?”
“She’s not my brother anymore, remember?”
“I know, I know…it’s just going to take me time to make the switch, you know?”
“It’s taken all of us a long time.”
“That’s not what he meant, was it?” I asked. “At dinner, I mean, when he said that.”
She shook her head. “No. She loves you, just like I love you.”
I remember swallowing hard, thinking about all the implications of those words. “You know what the hardest thing was – about today?”
She shook her head, grinned.
“Well, the easiest thing was realizing that I love you, but it was the hardest thing too.”
“Oh? How so?”
“I think I’ve wanted to love you all my life. Then it just happened, all this,” I said, sweeping the room with my hands, “and now I can’t believe this day really happened. Like maybe it was all a dream.”
“I know.” She looked at me then, an odd look in her eyes. “Do you think this is really real?”
“What do you mean?”
“Today. That what we did was real. That it really happened?”
“It sure felt real.”
She nodded her head. “Good. It did to me too.”
“I’ve never had this stuff before,” I said, lifting the glass of gold bubbles to my nose. “You know, I think I know the reason why.”
She giggled. “It’s not so bad. Once you get used to it.”
We talked through the night, talked about life and what we wanted. All the things we’d never talked about before, and sometime before the sun came up we finished the bottle, then we showered again and drove out to Metairie. And I never wanted to get used to this. Never take her – or this feeling that had come to us – for granted.
There’s always been something enchanted about our Christmas mornings, something beyond all the presents and flurries of wrapping paper scattered about the floor. Something about the all-knowing gaze of our parents watching us, about that moment, I guess, when we could forget about the day-to-day grind of school for a moment and reach out with our other, more generous selves. And I think I felt that way for the very last time that Christmas morning.
I spent that morning, at least in part, watching Claire, but I watched Richard too. Fragile, resolute Richard. Rickie, my friend. The kid I threw the football with, who helped me build model airplanes. The kid who had reached out to me the night before, the kid who’d had to cover his tracks when I pushed his love away, out of sight, out of mind.
We, the kids, had never exchanged presents before, if only because our parents loaded the tree with more than enough to go around, but that morning Rickie went to the tree and pulled out a present and brought it to me.
“From me,” he said, and I looked at him for a moment.
“Thanks, Amigo,” I said, then I opened it and found a book about the Battle of Britain inside. I opened the book and found the inscription I knew he’d written, and I turned the words over carefully in my mind. ‘For all the battles yet to come,’ he’d written, then, ‘I’ll always love you, my bestest Amigo.’
Claire came over and read the inscription, then she squeezed my shoulder, nodded at a package on the carpet by my side, so I picked it up. It was from me, and oddly enough to Rickie, and when I looked up at her she smiled, nodded at her brother. I got up and walked over, handed him the package and he looked up, surprised, then tore it open.
He’d always loved art, and he had become a somewhat gifted painter over the last few years, so ‘my book’ from The Art Institute of Chicago was a hit – but then he turned to the inscription and read ‘my’ words. He dropped the book and flew into my arms, kissed me once on the cheek then ran back to his book and carried it over for Claire to look at. She of course sat by me so I could look at it while she read…
There was an old Polaroid of the three of us taped inside, taken when Rickie and I were, perhaps, three years old. We were sitting in a wading pool somewhere in Canada – at the Banff Springs Hotel, I think –and you could tell there was something special between the three of us, something special about the way we smiled, a secret kind of smile, as if only we knew what was hiding in those lips. ‘To my bestest Amigo’ was inscribed, and though I had a hard time remembering when we’d first started saying that to each other, it had been going on for a long, long time. We had always been the ‘bestest,’ hadn’t we? Joined at the heart, somewhere along the way.
A chef from one of Dean’s restaurants was whipping up something in the kitchen, so the parents went off to the living room and drank coffee while the three of us went out back and looked at all the stuff we’d just gotten our hands on. Dad had given me a couple of Perry Como records, Mom a bottle of Bay Rum cologne, the little glass bottle wrapped in straw. Dean Collins, on the other hand, had given me a fancy Italian 20 gauge over/under shotgun – and I had to (guiltily, no doubt) wonder about the prescience of his choice – or, perhaps, the word I needed was irony. It was a gorgeous thing, and he made noises about wanting to go bird hunting with me and my father some day soon, but now – sitting out on their patio with books in hand –and a shotgun across my lap – my feelings felt oddly disconnected from the moment.
Watching Claire, and her father, the night before had left me unsettled, then talking through the night about all the things I didn’t know or understand about our world had left me wandering in the dark. I was groping my way through this morning, more attuned to the people around me than was the norm, for me, anyway. And shotguns aside, there was something about Dean Collins and his smug restauranteur act that was weighing heavily on my day.
Rickie excused himself and went inside, leaving Claire and I alone on the patio, and when she came over and sat by me I reached into a pocket and pulled out a band-aid.
“Gotta cut?” she asked.
“Nope. Could I see your left hand, please.”
I unwrapped the band-aid and she gave me her hand; I put the bandage around the third finger and looked her in the eye. “I know this is stupid, and I know I’m young enough to know better, but this is all I’ve got right now. Would you marry me?”
I think she was speechless. I think she had good reason to be speechless, then she just nodded her head. “Yes,” she said, “if you’re sure that’s what you really want.”
“I know I’m sure. What about you?”
“Since I was three. Yes.”
And just then I saw my father standing in their living room, looking through a window at the two of us, and I’d never seen a smile on his face quite like the one I did just then. It was an all-knowing smile, full of worldly understanding yet almost condescending – like he’d expected no less of me than such a vapid display of immaturity. He stared at us for a minute longer, then disappeared, and Claire kissed me on the cheek. Rickie opened a window up in his bedroom just above us, then he leaned out and asked me to come up for a minute.
“Just you, okay?” he added.
I almost remembered the way to his room, and after one false start found it and went on in. There was a girl sitting on the bed, a really very pretty girl, then I saw it was Richard – my bestest Amigo Rickie. I stared open-mouthed for a moment, at his legs in stockings and garters, his high heels and makeup understated, almost classy. He looked satisfied with my reaction, too.
“Are you growing breasts?” I asked.
He nodded his head. “This is who I really am, Goose,” he said, still looking at my face, still gauging my reaction. “Just so you know.”
Speechless, I nodded my head.
“Am I as cute as Claire? To you, I mean?”
“Rickie, no one’s as cute as Claire. To anyone.”
He nodded his head. “You really do love her, don’t you?”
“Yup. I think I always have.”
“I know you have.”
“So, what’s this all about, Richard?”
“You’d better call me Rebecca from now on. It’ll be official soon enough, anyway.”
“Yes. I’ve always loved that name.”
“You really want this?”
“Not a question of wants and needs,” he sighed. “It’s just who I am.”
“Well, who’s going to build models with me now?” I asked, smiling.
“Me. You let anyone else help and you’ll need a doctor to get my foot out of your ass.” He looked at me for a minute, hesitated, then said “Claire didn’t come home last night. Was she with you?”
“She was with me and my dad. We had a long talk last night.”
“About how stupid I can be sometimes.”
“Oh. I’ve had that one with my dad, too. She told me a while ago she hoped you’d come around.”
“To see just how much she loves you.”
“You know, since we were in Mexico all I’ve wanted is for the three of us to be together.”
“Just that. I don’t think I could ever be happy unless you were both with me.”
I looked at him, wondered where he was going with this. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t you want someone of your own to love?”
“No, not really. I’ll always have the two of you, so why would I need anyone else?” And he smiled then, a smile I’ll never forget. Not an innocent smile – and almost, but not quite sinister, his was rather an all-knowing smile – like he alone was in on one of the universe’s most obscure secrets. Or jokes.
So, feeling very uncomfortable, I nodded and left his room, walked downstairs and back out on the porch – all while trying to get the image of him sitting up there out of my mind. I sat for a while, by myself, then went in and ate lunch in silence. Claire and Rickie sat across from me, and I sat between my parents. I rode back to the hotel with them after lunch, and went up to my room while Mom and Dad retreated to the comfort of golf on the television set. A few hours later I heard a knock on my door, and got up to open it, yet I checked the peephole first.
And Claire was out there, looking very lonely in the distorted, fisheye perspective of the cheap lens, and I grew lost in that moment – didn’t quite know what to do. In the end I opened the door and she darted inside, went to a chair by the window and sat – and I could tell she’d been crying – for a long time.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, though I could guess.
“What did Rickie tell you?” she said, her eyes now swirling maelstroms.
I told her. Everything he’d said when I was up in his room, then: “Why do you think he wants the two of us to himself?”
She looked away, and I knew.
“Has he done something to you?”
Again, she refused to even look at me.
“You said something yesterday, that you’d never done it before. Is that true?”
She closed her eyes, shook her head.
“Could you tell me how it happened?”
I saw just the slightest, most imperceptible shake of her head.
“Do you love me? I mean, really love me?”
“Yes,” she whispered, but she started crying. Lost, and crying in the dark…looking for someone to love.
“That’s all that matters, isn’t it?” I squeezed into the chair beside her and we held one another for the longest time – until I heard another little knock on the door. She tensed as I stood, then I walked over and looked through the peephole, saw my father standing in the fishbowl and opened the door just a bit.
“Your mother’s gone to visit Jack Daniels,” he sighed, despairing of her alcoholism one more time. “I was going to go down and walk Bourbon Street for a while, and wondered if you’d like to come along.” He tried to look into the room but didn’t force the issue, then he added: “Both of you, of course.”
I turned and looked at Claire, who nodded her head.
“Yeah, Dad. How ‘bout we meet you in the lobby – in just a minute?”
“I’ll wait by the elevators. Take your time.”
“Okay,” I said – knowing that ‘take your time’ meant ‘move it – on the double time!” so I helped Claire get her eyes back in shape and grabbed a coat, then we walked down to the elevators.
Dad took one look at her eyes and shook his head, but we rode down to the lobby in silence. Once out on Royal we found a slate gray sky and a cold mist waiting, and I took my jacket off, put it around her shoulders – and I found dad trying to do the same – but he looked at me and just nodded his approval, then we walked off together, disappeared into the jostling crowd. He led us to a small, quiet club off Jackson Square, and we went inside – drawn by the music, I suspect. Mellow jazz, dark and moody greeted us as we took a table, and a waitress came over and Dad ordered a bottle of something – and three glasses.
“Now what the devil is going on with you two?” he said.
I looked at her. She looked at me and nodded, and I told him what I knew. He shook his head here and there, wrinkled his nose in disgust when I got to the point where I laid out what I’d surmised was going on with Rickie, then he looked at her carefully.
“Claire, I need to know, right now,” he said, looking her in the eye, “is this the God’s honest truth?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, looking him in the eye.
“How long has this been going on?”
“Nope, not good enough,” he said. “I need to know the truth, the whole truth.”
She looked at him, or tried to, anyway. “Right after Mexico,” she managed to say.
“Does your father know?”
And she looked away then, started crying openly. She tried to speak a minute later, but was choked up – and had nowhere left to go.
“Claire, what are you trying to tell me?”
“My father,” she gasped, then she broke down completely and he got up, went around to her and held her.
“What is it, baby,” he said. “What about your father?”
And she whispered in his ear.
And my father turned to stone. Magmatic stone, white-hot and seething. The waitress came to the table and my father poured one massive drink, then he drilled it down in one go – all this with one hand, mind you – while he cradled that girl to his breast and held on to her for dear life.
I knew the look in his eye. I pitied the Japanese that came upon him when he had that look in his eye, then the North Koreans and now, apparently, the North Vietnamese were about to get a dose of him, as well. I couldn’t even imagine what she’d told him, but she’d rattled the foundations of Hell, and I knew all Hell was about to break loose, too.
“Goose, pour yourself one. Just one. We’ve got to get this girl back to your room, then you and I have got a few things we need to tend to.”
“Darlin’? You want a snort?”
We went back out into the night and walked to the hotel in the mist, and I took her upstairs while he got a taxi, and when I came downstairs he was waiting for me. We drove in silence out to Metairie, and when we got to the Collins house he asked the Cabbie to wait, gave him a twenty then we walked up to the door.
Dean came on the second ring.
“Well, what brings you two…?”
“One question, Dean,” my father said, and Collins could see the molten fury in my father’s eyes. “Just how long have you been fucking your daughter?”
“No bullshit, Collins. I’ve been with your daughter for the past two hours, and I’ve been all ears. You tell me the truth right now and you just might live to see the dawn. Lie to me just one more time and I’m going to tear you a new ass.”
We listened as the beaten old man spoke for a minute or so, then my father turned in disgust and was about to walk away – but he turned back and let slip a left that caught Collins under the left eye. He recoiled through the closed front door – blowing the door off it’s hinges – and my father followed him inside, throwing him through doors and walls and over tables for about fifteen minutes – until the police came, anyway.
They were going to arrest my old man, until a captain showed up and listened to my father’s explanation – and looked at his DoD identification.
All the Collins family restaurants closed a few weeks later, though they reopened soon enough – with Dean Collins still in charge. Richard stayed with his mother after the divorce, though he did indeed become Rebecca somewhere along the way.
I went back to Wisconsin, of course, while my parents moved to Washington, D.C., after dad was posted to the Pentagon – something to do with running the air war in Vietnam, I think I heard once.
Claire? She moved to D.C. and lived with my parents, and a year and a half later she graduated, went to Notre Dame – where she studied chemistry, of all things, before going to medical school in San Francisco. I assumed she liked the certainties of chemical bonds over the frailties of familial ties, but I wasn’t sure. We wrote letters to one another from time to time, but we seemed destined to drift apart after that night. I think life became too painful for all of us, especially my father. She never saw her father again, of course, and didn’t go to the funeral after his suicide, and she wouldn’t see her mother if Rickie was anywhere around.
Or so I heard, once. I was, you see, completely out of the picture by that point.
I ended up in school at UC Berkeley, got there just in time to get tear-gassed a couple of times, and I studied just enough to get nowhere so joined the Navy – which pissed off my old man no end, but I made it through OCS and learned to fly – which, I think, kind of made him happy. I did my five and came home, got a job with TWA and started thinking about what might come next. Still, being a moron, I was clueless. I’d never put two and two together.
I called my dad one Sunday afternoon after I moved to Boston and asked about Claire. He gave me her number and I called. A week later I had a some time off so flew back to San Francisco, and she said she’d meet me at the gate.
It was a bluebirds day when I arrived, a pure San Francisco special. Fog out beyond the Golden Gate, air so clear over the bay it seemed you could see forever. I was flying the right seat those days, and it took a while to clean up and leave the airplane. I’d explained what was up to my captain and he smiled, wished me good luck then went to dispatch to sort out all the paperwork, leaving me to walk up the Jetway, wondering if she would show up.
I, of course, didn’t recognize her. Clueless and moron, by this point, ought to be words that come to mind.
“Goose?” she asked. “Is that you? I can barely recognize you in that silly uniform!”
And, so, I was staring at her like, I assume, any moron might, but all I could think to ask was: “Are you married yet?”
And she held up her left hand.
Around the third finger I saw a nasty old band-aid – and beyond, her smile.
“No,” she said, “not yet.”
And for just the third time in my life, I knew she had changed my course forever.
(C)2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is, of course, pure fiction. all person(s), character(s), and organization(s) portrayed are simply fictitious, and do not in any way represent any real person or organization.