Mary Clemens

The Call

Dad?”

Still here.”  Eugene Ormsbee held his phone gin­ger­ly.  The recep­tion wasn’t good.  If they still said that about cell phones.

Are you there, Dad?”

Sure, Rich.  Richie.”

He remem­bered when he called his son “Richie” all the time.  He and Ellen stopped when he went to mid­dle school.  Ellen had said he’d have enough trou­ble with­out a baby nick­name. Eugene remem­bered her stand­ing in the kitchen rolling out pie dough.  She loved her kitchen.  He closed his eyes.

I – I have some­thing to tell you, Dad.”

Eugene shook him­self.

Are you there?”

Yes, Rich.  I – I have some­thing to tell you, too.”

Oh.  Well, you go first.”

Um…last night, well, this morn­ing – ”

No, Dad, no!”  Rich chuck­led.  “No sto­ries about the rac­coons and how cute they are and how they’re almost your pets.  This is more – um – impor­tant.  To me, any­way.”

Okay.  Shoot.”  Eugene’s news could wait.  He wasn’t even sure he could tell it coher­ent­ly.  A whole life­time up in smoke.  Two life­times, his and Ellen’s.

The line crack­led.  Eugene winced.  “Are you there, Rich?”

—not exact­ly a bolt from the blue.”  Rich paused.  “If you know what I mean.”

Sorry, son.” Eugene ges­tured help­less­ly.  “I couldn’t hear you.  The blue what?”

I mean this is some­thing I’ve known for a long time.  It wasn’t a bolt from the blue.”

Oh, don’t say that!”

There was a thick, opaque silence.

Don’t say – um –  what?”

Bolt!”

Bolt?  Why not?  Dad?”

Oh, there was no use wait­ing. “Rich, you have to know – ”

Dad, I want to tell you that – ”

The house burned down.”

I’m gay.”

What?”

What?”

The line crack­led again.  That storm must be some­where between them, Eugene thought, bring­ing some oth­er poor per­son his mis­ery.

Did you hear me, Dad?”

Not all of it, Rich.  You’re pay­ing some­thing?”  Eugene’s voice broke.  “The house burned down.  This morn­ing.  All gone.  All your mother’s things.  Her ash­es!  Oh, God, that’s almost fun­ny.”

He put a hand over his eyes and pressed hard.  He hadn’t meant to tell his son this way.

Dad!  How – ”

Lightning.”  Eugene wiped his nose with his sleeve.  “Storm came up out of nowhere.”

Oh.  I – ”

Come home, Richie.  Can you?”

Yes.  First train.  Stay on the line.  I’ll look it up.”

Richie.”  Eugene looked at the ground.  “Do you have any­thing of your mother’s?  Anything to remem­ber her by?”

Yes, I…oh, here it is.  Four oh five.  I’ll be in on the four oh five.  Can you come get me?”

What?”

Can you come to pick me up?  Dad, are you all right?”

Yes,” Eugene lied.  He couldn’t remem­ber if the car had burned up.  No.  Lucky.  He had parked it in the barn last night, not in the dri­ve­way.

Yes.  Four oh five.  I’ll be there.”

Dad.”

Yes?”

I want to bring my friend.  Is that okay?”

Richie nev­er had friends as a kid.

Sure, Richie.  Bring who­ev­er you want.  But I don’t know where we’ll stay.”

Maybe with Mrs. Appleton, Dad.  She knows about me.”

Knows?  Of course, she knows about you.  Richie, she’s known you since you were a baby!”

Eugene knew he was not quite under­stand­ing what his son was say­ing.  Richie’s mean­ing seemed to be leapfrog­ging away from him, always one jump ahead. Maybe his hear­ing had been affect­ed.  Those hoses, gigan­tic hoses, the water boom­ing out of them.  He closed his eyes.

Just come, Richie.  I’ll be here.”

 

Somehow they had arrived at a table for three – he, Richie and Richie’s friend, Walter.  An ear­ly din­ner, an awk­ward time.  At the train sta­tion they had all seemed to want to get through the first few min­utes with expe­di­tious dig­ni­ty.

Eugene now had a roy­al blue menu, unopened, on the table in front of him.  The wait­ress had mur­mured “So sor­ry about the fire” as she placed it there.

Shall I give you a minute or two?” She took a quick look around the table.

Eugene sat strick­en.  Richie was star­ing at the menu.  Walter smiled and said, “That would prob­a­bly be best.”

Eugene watched Richie tap the back of Walter’s hand.

How about the chick­en sand­wich?”

I think that’s fine,” said Walter.  “But no mayo.”

No.”  Richie plunged back into the menu again.

Too many choic­es.”  Walter smiled at Eugene.

The young man’s blonde hair looked clean and he was clean-shaven.  If he even had to shave, thought Eugene.  Walter must be in his thir­ties but he looked boy­ish.  Eugene real­ized with a start that Walter was wait­ing for him to speak.

Yes.”  It was a croak and he cleared his throat.  “Sorry.”

Don’t be.  After what you’ve been through.”

Eugene looked down at his menu.  It was a roy­al blue haze.

What will you order?” Walter asked.

Eugene kept his eyes on the menu.

Shall I take a look, too?” Walter mur­mured.

Just a cheese­burg­er.”  He pushed the menu away. For a moment he’d been afraid Walter would choose for him.

He’d already had a moment with Walter at the train sta­tion.  Walter and Richie were on the plat­form scan­ning the park­ing lot, look­ing for him.  Walter placed a ten­der hand on Richie’s arm. “So Richie’s friend is gay,” Eugene thought.

Odd, he didn’t think his son was gay until some­time lat­er when they were dri­ving to the restau­rant.  Richie start­ed talk­ing about how Walter made pie crust.

So care­ful, so slow, Dad.  You’d think he was mak­ing a bomb!”

It was an inti­mate piece of knowl­edge.  Eugene felt numb.  Richie.

A cheese­burg­er appeared before him.  Walter and Richie were already eat­ing.

 

Let’s go tonight,” Richie said.

Richie had been a para­troop­er.  Went right in after a career of jump­ing off bridges all through high school.  He was a man of action.

Eugene stood with his hand on the car door han­dle, his skin as pale as its sheen. Go where tonight?

I’m not sure your father is ready,” Walter said qui­et­ly.

Oh.”  Richie hes­i­tat­ed.  “Dad?”

Odd, that.  A man of action. If Richie was gay he was no stereo­type.  Hell, that was a stereo­type, a man of action.  What the hell did that mean?  Eugene couldn’t seem to find a way to think about his son.  He opened the car door.

Sure.  You mean home?”  What they would see there was not home.  “To the farm? We can go now.”

It’s on the way to Mrs. Appleton’s.”

A man of action. Direct.  Except about this…Eugene dredged his mind for the right word:  except about this lifestyle.

In the back, Walter leaned against the door look­ing out as they left town for the farm.  The last remain­ing street­light dis­cov­ered his upturned face as Eugene glanced in the rearview mir­ror.  This was the way he and Ellen and Richie would come home after every shop­ping trip, every din­ner out.

I know this road like the back of my hand,” Eugene said.

Good, Dad.”

Walter looked serene­ly out the win­dow.

 

Rich and Walter had walked around the house twice.  Eugene stayed in the car.

The fire was long out but had left stink­ing, drip­ping canyons of char and ruin.  Some of the dry­wall in the hall was still up, the wall­pa­per inex­plic­a­bly as spot­less as the day he and Ellen had hung it.

Maybe I’ll just start there,” he said to him­self.  He had read about tiny hous­es.  Trendy, he thought at the time.  But now he thought he might take that eight foot piece of wall and build a room around it.  Live there for the rest of his life.  Never go out. He put his hand to his eyes.

The house had always been home to him.  He loved sit­ting in the pan­eled den, espe­cial­ly   in the win­ter, the wood­stove radi­at­ing warmth, Ellen paus­ing in the door­way to smile at him but teth­ered to some chore that took her away.

And Richie’s pres­ence in the house as a young­ster was so fresh, so benign, so shy, like a shoot from a trea­sured plant in the gar­den.  Their lit­tle boy.

There came a point when Richie con­tract­ed, hud­dled in his room with music rag­ing like a bon­fire.  Ellen said, “He’ll get through it.”  Eugene felt like his son was in a cave, tes­ti­fy­ing with a wild tongue.

 

So sor­ry, Eugene.”

Lucinda Appleton had her arms around him.  The last thing he remem­bered was Richie get­ting into the pas­sen­ger seat, shak­ing his head.

Oh, Dad.”

It’s hor­ri­ble,” Walter had said from the back.

Eugene pat­ted Richie’s arm but found Walter’s hand there.  All three sat back.  Eugene looked out the side win­dow.  The Addison’s corn was spring­ing up in neat rows, just like it always had.

Richie snif­fled, then blew his nose.  “Horrible,” he echoed.  He blinked.  “Dad, where will you live?”

I don’t know.”  The words ric­o­cheted around the car inte­ri­or.

You’ve had enough for one day,” said Walter.

Now they were here at Appleton’s and Lucinda had moved on to Richie.  She stood with a hand on his shoul­der while Richie intro­duced Walter.  Lucinda was smil­ing, look­ing down at Walter’s face.  She leaned for­ward to say some­thing.  They all smiled.

Oh, my God,” thought Eugene.  “Everything is dif­fer­ent.”

He came to him­self when Walter put a damp tow­el on his fore­head.  He was stretched out on the floor.  Walter lift­ed the tow­el and refold­ed it.  Eugene sat up.

What hap­pened?”  He turned to his son.  “Richie?  What hap­pened?  What–?”

Richie knelt down.  “You faint­ed.”

Lucinda took Walter aside. They dis­ap­peared into the back of the house.

Was it me?” said Eugene, still a lit­tle dazed.  He want­ed to add, was it me who made it impos­si­ble to speak hon­est­ly?  Was it me who sensed you and reject­ed you?

It took his son only a minute.

No, Dad, no.”  Richie shook his head. “It wasn’t Mom, either.  Especially not Mom.  Mom was great.  You were both great.”

Remember when I used to say you were peer­less?”

Richie laughed.  “I was.  No peers for me!”

There was some­thing in Eugene work­ing to get out, to get said or done.

But I meant it both ways, you know, no one was your equal.  No one I ever saw.”  Eugene could feel that bull­dog look on his face, scrap­py, tena­cious, ugly, bold.  “I would have kicked those kids’ butts if I’d known!”

You would have done any­thing for me.  And we both would have done any­thing for Mom.”

Ellen. Did she know?”

She knew.”

Both his dear ones had had a secret.  Together.  Without him.

Remember when I jumped off the Rock Creek Bridge?”

The police brought you home soak­ing wet.”

They put a slick­er under me so I wouldn’t get the patrol car wet.”

Your moth­er went right over to you. Opened the door. Took you out.  Didn’t have to wait to hear them say you hadn’t com­mit­ted a crime.”

Bundled me up in her coat.”

Richie was sit­ting back on his heels.  His face had soft­ened. Eugene pat­ted his son’s hand.  “I’m okay now.”

It’s talk­ing about Mom.”

Yes.” Richie helped him stand.  Then, slow­ly, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

I –  tried.”

Oh.”

I didn’t have to tell Mom.”

Ellen.  In the kitchen when Richie got home from school.

She knew.”

Your moth­er was some­thing.”

She knew why I was jump­ing.”

Eugene had a dizzy­ing vision of a young Richie bal­anced on the bridge’s handrail, the mucky creek wait­ing below.

You’re still peer­less,” Eugene said.  “To me.  To your moth­er and me. You always will be.”

He could feel his spine. Not used to lying on a hard floor.  Not bad to know he still had one.  After every­thing.

I wish I’d told you.  Back then.  I tried to today. When I called.”

Yes. Son.”

The house was very still.  Not even a clock tick­ing.

Dad, where will you live?”

Eugene thought of the tiny house.  “Mortgage is paid off.”

You’d rebuild?”

No.  That’s all gone.  Can’t get it back.”

He heard voic­es from the kitchen.  Lucinda and Walter.  Richie looked up.

We’ll set­tle it lat­er,” Eugene said.  He sat grate­ful­ly in a soft chair. “There’s a lot of acreage. Maybe build new.  A tiny house.”

But room for us?”

Yes,” said Eugene.  “Room for you.”

From the kitchen came sub­dued laugh­ter.

They’re afraid to be too loud,” Eugene thought.  The world around him seemed sud­den­ly ten­ta­tive, untried, a bunch of new shoots explor­ing air and wind and water.

Go to the kitchen, Richie.”  He waved off Richie’s protest.  “I’m fine.  I just need a lit­tle time.  Go to the kitchen.  I’ll join you.”

After Richie left, Eugene looked out through the twelve-paned win­dow, which seemed to cut the night into neat, framed pic­tures.  To see it as it real­ly was he’d have to go out on the porch.

He wait­ed a while.  He closed his eyes.  Then he hoist­ed him­self to his feet and walked to the door.

~

Mary Clemens lives on a farm in upstate New York with hors­es, cats, dogs and men. Nothing ever dis­tracts me from my writ­ing. One of my short sto­ries appeared in an anthol­o­gy pub­lished by Haworth Press. Recently, I had an essay pub­lished in Upstream.