An Empty Grave...

Chapter 7: Neighbors

Saturday morning was about the same except that the study was empty and I could hear Les snoring softly in his bedroom. I wondered whether the problem had been solved or if he was simply in a sugar coma.

Eric showed up around eleven carrying a white sack, three days worth of newspapers and a bundle of mail. "They get huffy when the mail box gets stuffed full so I thought maybe I'd better stop by and bring it up," he said, dumping it all on the patio table. "He still working?"

I said he'd either finished or had succumbed to the need for sleep. "So how'd the date go the other night? You get lucky?"

Eric's eyes lit up. "Oh, man, did I ever get lucky! All the way to Thursday. She's some lady!"

He took the mail into the house and brought out a couple of beers. "You eaten?" he asked, handing me one of the beers. Without waiting for an answer he opened the sack and took out two huge sandwiches. "I figured you hadn't, what with Les being in one of his trances, so I stopped at Jensen's. Hope it's okay, it's some of everything. You can pick out what you don't like."

Jensen's turned out to be an upscale grocery store which not only made great sandwiches but also carried an account for Les which Eric had full access to. It was the only way, he said, to be sure that Les got fed when he was in one of his "trances." "I don't know how he does it, concentrating so hard he doesn't even know if it's day or night. Sometimes I think he even forgets to pee and I know he forgets to eat. So I just bring stuff from Jensen's and put it on the desk and sooner or later he eats it."

After lunch Eric cleaned the pool and then left, saying he had a couple of yards to mow that he should have done the day before only he was too tired. I went back to dozing in the sun and Crash went back to inspecting the new flower beds.

Around six, when it started to get cool, I went in and sat at the kitchen table to watch the news and read papers. About the time the news came on Les wandered in, yawning and scratching at a three day growth of beard.

"That the morning or evening news?" he asked, pouring himself a glass of orange juice.

"Evening." I looked up at him and his eyes looked a little blank. "It's Saturday you know."

"No, actually I didn't." He stretched rather grandly for a moment and then got some ice out of the freezer. "I guess if it's evening then it's time for a cocktail. You want one?" He poured a good measure of gin into his orange juice, added ice and squeezed in half a lime.

The idea of a drink appealed to me. "Yes, I think I do. But just a little gin and a lot of ice, please. I had my juice this morning." Les poured some gin over ice and put it on the table in front of me. "Eric's been here I guess," he said, surveying the mail and papers stacked on the table."

"Late this morning. He brought you a sandwich too, but I ate it, seeing as how you were in bed asleep by that time."

He smiled. "Yeah, Eric's really good about that stuff. Thinks he has to take care of me when I'm working—or, as he says, when I'm in one of my trances. He picks up the mail and brings me food and makes sure Tux gets fed—things like that."

I took a sip of my gin. Wonderful. "He must be a pretty good gardener, too. He replanted your flower beds Friday and went off today to mow some people's yards."

"Yeah, he does that to pick up a little extra money sometimes, usually when he's got the hots for some woman and needs to impress her."

"Works, too. He evidentially spent Thursday night and Friday morning in the arms of paradise. But if this is a sidelight, what does he do for an actual living?"

"Oh, I kind of keep him on retainer. See, Eric never quite got the hang of steady work but he's as loyal as that dog over there and big hearted as anyone I ever met so I sort of help him out and he takes care of the place. And me, of course." He thought for a moment. "I guess, now that I think about it, if Eric and I were different, like you for example, well, we'd be..." he shrugged, "we'd be like you. And Rick. Only... different probably."

It took me a moment to sort that all out but I managed to get the general idea.

"Hey, you don't have to sleep with someone to love them. First rule of being gay. Well, not actually the first rule. The first rule is you don't have to love someone to sleep with them, but the other one's in there somewhere." I took another sip of my gin and wondered what had brought that on.

Les shook his head and got up. "Don't try to patent it, fella. I think it's already taken as the first rule of being a man. Shall I fix something to eat or are we just gonna drink our dinner?"

"Fix something. Definitely. I'm already getting light headed from the gin."

While Les cooked he tried to explain what he'd done to fix his client's program. I understood very little of what he said but I figured it was more of a review for himself than an explanation for me. He'd probably have done it whether I was there or not. The part I understood didn't sound much like something that would keep me living on caffeine and sugar for three days.

After dinner we each had one more gin and Les gave me a sponge bath which I desperately needed, my own efforts not withstanding. Afterward I slept like a baby.

The ringing of the phone woke me at 8:13 AM by the digital clock. At first I wasn't sure what the sound was since the only phone I'd heard since I'd been there was Les's cell phone which played Fur Elise when it rang. Shortly after, Les padded into the room and grinned at me. "You ready for that trip up to Los Angeles? I've got to go up there this morning." He looked a little grim but happy, too, like it was something he had to do but would get a lot of satisfaction out of doing it.

"Sure. Can we get hold of Eric?" I had an odd feeling in my groin and wondered what it was.

"Eric is out in the kitchen making breakfast. He'd planned to repair the shed today but I think he'll like driving you back from the city a whole lot better. You need help?"

Les reached out to me but I shook my head. I'd suddenly realized that my groin felt odd because I had an erection—the first one I'd had since... well, the first one in a long time. "No. Thanks but I think it's time for me to learn to get out of bed by myself."

Les probably understood the situation. "Okay. Yell though, if you find you do need help. Come on, Crash. Breakfast time." Crash jumped off the bed and followed Les down the hall without a backward glance. Breakfast is a word dear to her heart.

I lay back against the pillows for a moment and touched myself but there was very little pleasure to it. Oh, well, at least I knew I was still functional. I cautiously stretched and felt somehow whole again—the bandages and pain notwithstanding. I eased my feet out onto the floor and managed to hook my crutches which were leaning against the night table. I hobbled into the bathroom to pee.

A quick look in the mirror told me the bruises on my face were looking better. Well, anyway the green tinges were mostly gone and nine days worth of beard kind of blended the reds and browns together. I needed a haircut desperately but that was going to have to wait for a while I suspected. While I dabbed at my face with a wet wash cloth I tried to imagine how I'd look with a pony tail and bangs. The only word that came to mind was ridiculous.

I sat on the toilet and tried to get a pair of sweat pants on. Leaning over hurt like hell and it took some time but I managed. There was no way I was going to get the shirt on right, though. I just couldn't bend my arms into the right position.

I crutched into the kitchen carrying my shirt in my teeth. Eric was flipping pancakes at the stove under Crash's close supervision while Les set the table. "You're doing pretty well, all things considered," Les said and came to help me with the shirt. When it was finally on he waived at the table. "Now let's see if you can handle a stack of Eric's special flapjacks and sausage."

I sat down and Eric put a platter of pancakes, sausage and fried eggs in front of me, easily enough for two or three people. A similar platter went in front of Les who rolled his eyes. "This isn't a logging camp you know, Eric." Eric dismissed him with a wave of the hand and sat down to his own platter. "Eat. You need your energy," he said and tucked into his plate with obvious pleasure.

"So," Eric said when he came up for air a few minutes later, "we're going up to the city with Les? Bring your stuff back?"

"Well, not all of it but a few things I kind of miss. You sure you don't mind doing this?"

Eric dismissed me the way he had Les, with a waive of his hand. "De nada. It's a good excuse to ignore the shed for at least another day."

"You can get an early start on it tomorrow," Les said to him and then to me: "I don't think you're exactly ready to stay by yourself so Eric's going to stick around until I get back. Oh, and Susan's going to drop by around seven and check up on you."

I was suddenly overwhelmed by their kindness and it took me a moment to swallow the lump in my throat. When I trusted myself to speak all I could think of to say was "Thanks, guys."

When he finished eating, Eric pointed to the half sausage left on his plate. "Can she?" Crash was staring at him with her poor-neglected-me look.

"Sure," I said. "But just that; enough for a treat but not enough to live on."

"Okay, doggie, here you go." He held the sausage out to her and she carefully took a bite, never allowing her lips to touch Eric's fingers. "That's the gentlest dog I've ever known," he said, holding out the rest of the sausage. Crash took it, waited a moment to see if there was more and when none was forthcoming promptly went to sit next to Les.

"No, Crash. That's all." She gave me that wounded look and went out to the service porch where she crunched up some kibble with great sarcasm.

"Okay, men, let's get with it," Les said, looking at his watch with a bare touch of impatience. "It's damn near eight."

While Eric loaded the dishwasher Les went to shower and dress. Being useless for much else, I sat at the table and called Mrs. Freeze to let her know we were coming up and would stop in to see her. She invited us to stay for lunch but I begged off, not knowing how long any of this was going to take.

I worried a little about leaving Crash in the house but Les had said he was sure she'd be okay. She could get out to the yard through Tux's door—although she had to go through on her belly—and the fence was too high to jump even if she wanted to. Besides, we wouldn't be more than six hours or so.

When Les reappeared he was a changed man. His hair was carefully combed, his shoes—wingtips—were polished to a mirror shine and he was wearing a beautifully fitted three piece gray Italian wool suit, a starched pale yellow shirt and a darker yellow silk tie—the kind referred to as "power ties". It was the sort of outfit that would make C. Weston Hollingsworth positively green with envy. The man was, in a word, beautiful. He was also in a hurry and shooed us out to the car where he carefully laid his suit coat out in the trunk, over the small designer suitcase he'd been carrying.

Les drove fast, calculating every opening in the morning traffic and taking all but the most risky. By my watch we made it to La Presa in an hour and fifty-three minutes, surely a record of some sort. The moment Eric and I were safely out of the car in front of Mrs. Freeze's he said, "See you," and drove off.

"That man is certainly in a hurry," Eric said with a smile. He started to say something else but was interrupted by the appearance Mrs. Freeze on her small porch.

"Come in, come in," Mrs. Freeze said as Eric helped me up the stairs. I hadn't had much practice negotiating stairs on the crutches and I needed all the help I could get. When we were finally inside Mrs. Freeze stood back and looked me over critically. "Well, I must say, you certainly look better than when I last saw you." I could tell from her tone that she disapproved of the beard and hair length but was trying to make allowances.

I introduced Eric, apologized for Les and generally explained what we were about. She seemed to think it was a good idea, my staying away a bit longer or, as she put it, "until this difficult situation is resolved". She then waived us into the living room and told us to make ourselves comfortable while she got us some coffee.

Eric took an immediate shine to Mrs. Freeze and asked if he could help, perhaps carry the tray for her. She accepted his offer, something which put him in a very special category. I mean, she'd never let me help serve anything.

When the coffee was served and the pastry tree passed (four kinds: one almond, one chocolate, one apricot (my favorite) and a ginger-pistachio one I'd never had before) Mrs. Freeze settled in for some enjoyable conversation and a bit of interrogation.

First things first: What does the doctor say? I'm doing fine. How much longer on the crutches? I don't know. How does Crash like the country? She loves it. Are you eating right? Better than ever. Have you figured out what this is all about? No. Are you afraid? No. (Okay, so I lied on that one.)

With the basics out of the way we got down to the neighborhood gossip which mainly revolved around my—Rick's!—murder and the fire. It seemed that everyone on the street had a theory about what had happened including the Colliers who lived down the block and had decided it truly was a cult thing and were already talking to real estate people about selling. They were not, they told Mrs. Freeze, going to raise their children on a street where cult people ran amok.

Mr. Bennet, a middle aged bachelor who lived one door beyond my house and had refused to even acknowledge Rick and me, was of the opinion that the entire incident was proof of God's wrath towards gay men. I almost dropped my coffee cup when Mrs. Freeze actually said the words "gay men." I mean, she had always accepted Rick and me as a couple but had never acknowledged the nature of our coupling.

The Alesandro's, across from Mr. Bennet, had the opposite view point and theorized that the murder and fire were the actions of some repressed maniac afraid to admit to his own nature. It was understood, though never said, that they thought Mr. Bennet should be watched closely.

Then there was old Mrs. Eliot, across from Mrs. Freeze, who had said that it was a terrible shame to think that someone would want to harm anyone as kind and thoughtful as Rick and I were. In her opinion it was God's mistake to allow that person room on the earth.

The other neighborhood gossip concerned the Widow Weiss who lived directly across the street from my house. The Widow Weiss (everyone called her that, with the capital letters) seemed to have fallen on hard times and had actually taken in a boarder. Mrs. Freeze chuckled knowingly when she said, "Oh, she says the woman begged her to let her have the room but... Well, you know." I didn't but I got the implication.

"The woman's odd, too," Mrs. Freeze said, as though gossip would allow her be anything else. "She took that front bedroom, you know, the one with the view, and they say she sits there all day, just staring out the window. She even tried to get Blossom (Mrs. Freeze was perhaps the only person in the world to call the Widow Weiss by her first name) to serve her meals up there but Blossom wouldn't do it. Says it isn't natural for a person to eat where they sleep."

Conversation passed naturally from the Widow Weiss's problems to mine. The power company had been out to restore service but couldn't do it. "The man said all that water from putting out the fire has made your wires too short or something and they all should be replaced," Mrs. Freeze explained.

A couple of other men had also been seen looking the place over but they turned out to be official types. One was from the building inspector's office and the other was from my insurance company.

"Oh, and the mail. I almost forgot the mail." She started to get out of her chair but then thought better of it and turned to Eric. "Be a dear and get it for me, would you? It's in that blue bag there by the telephone alcove." To me she said, "I told that Indian man—I never can say his name—anyway, I told him that as long as he delivered half your mail here anyway, I'd take it all and see that you got it."

Mail delivery had been a problem since Mr. Ackidebu had blundered into the Post Office and become our mail carrier. For the first few months of his tenure it had become an evening ritual to gather on the sidewalk and exchange mail with each other but things had gotten somewhat better in the past couple of months. I wondered if Mr. Ackidebu knew he wasn't supposed to routinely put my mail in Mrs. Freeze's mailbox. Probably not.

Eric handed me the blue bag. I should have predicted it when she said the bag was blue: it was from Tiffany & Co. I stirred up the envelopes inside to satisfy myself they were all bills and junk mail and one caught my eye. It was obviously good stationary and addressed in a spidery hand to Mr. Richard Wallace. I cried when I read the note inside.

"What is it, dear? What..."

I shook my head and handed the stiff card to Mrs. Freeze. It was a hand written, formal, and very touching note of sympathy from Mrs. Eliot, across the street. She said she hoped Rick would find comfort in those around him and that she, too, felt some small part of his loss.

"Isn't that like her," Mrs. Freeze said when she finished reading the note. "Isn't that just like her. I must do up a few pastries and take them over to her. She's very fond of the lemon ones you know." I could see that Mrs. Freeze was touched by the note, too.

Eric was looking quizzical so I handed him the note, explaining that it was from the old lady across the street. Eric read it slowly and handed it back. "She must be a fine lady."

We sat in silence for a few moments before Mrs. Freeze rattled her coffee cup to break the mood. "Well, I expect you'll want to get on with your packing. Do you need boxes?"

"No, thank you. I'm just going to take a few clothes and things, I'm not moving out of the house." Yet, I thought to myself.

We took our leave of Mrs. Freeze and made our way next door. "Boy, she is one neat lady," Eric said when we were on the sidewalk.

"Yeah. I'm going to miss her."


Comments always appreciated and always answered.

Greg Bowden